Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Monsters of selfishness

I am currently in the middle of Edna O'Brien's Penguin Lives biography of James Joyce.

I read both Brenda Maddox's biography of Nora Joyce and Noel Riley Fitch's of Sylvia Beach years ago, but don't recall either well. In fact, I owned them, until one awful day in grad school when Hockeyman and I, desperate for funds, sold seven shelves worth of books. We received seventy dollars, which we immediately spent at Safeway. But there are books I miss to this day, Maddox's and Fitch's being only two of them.

But back to James. I confess I've never been a fan. I limped my way through Portrait, picking up Finnegan's Wake and Ulysses only to put them down immediately. Wordplay, as I have oft said, is not my thing. But Joyce and Nora were seminal figures, indeed larger than life types, so at least I can extend myself by reading about them.

I understand the man was brilliant, and though Nora was uneducated, she wasn't stupid. But my God--James was a monster. Were he and his brother Stanlislaus alive today, poor Stan would be seeking therapy for codependency, the Joyce family would stage an intervention on James' boozy proclivities, and poor Lucia would receive the lithuim she desperately needed as Giorgio heads off to a nice, calm prep school.

But Finnegan would never be written! No Ulysses! No Dubliners!

Nope, probably not. Some folks thrive in twelve step, but I can't see Joyce, with his hatred of the Church, giving it up to a higher power while Stanislaus heads off to a woodland yoga retreat.

But. But. Joyce is one in a long line of genius writers who are selfish monsters. Hemingway. Colette. Kerouac. Anais Nin. Fitzgerald was not, but Zelda was, and she, along with booze, finished the job. Woolf was monstrous in her way: capable of cruelty to those she thought dull, violent during her sieges of illness. It is said Andre Dubus Sr. spent all of his time writing, neglecting three marriages and six children. Simone de Beauvior and Jean-Paul Sartre were, by their own admission, terrible users of others.

The question, then, is how to be a writer without being a monster. The monstrousness can stem from either a sense of greatness or paralyzing self-doubt; in some cases it is a demand for time, accompanied by the certainty that one's writing is worthy of such demand. I am thinking here of Anais Nin, who dressed herself in velvets and fucked around while husband Hugh sacrified his own dreams working in a bank. Nin's maid, Emilia, not only cleaned out the tub but helped conceal her mistress' countless infidelities. Colette, freed of her early marriage to Willy, ignored her dying mother's pleas to be visited and treated her one daughter atrociously, excoriating her for lesbianism, conveniently overlooking her own long liasion with Missy, the Marquise de Belboeuf. (Thanks here to Judith Thurman's magnificant biography of Colette for Missy's full title.)

Among current writers we have interviews, hearsay, and our own nosy opinions. Marge Piercy, poet and novelist, comes across in her memoir, Sleeping with Cats, as a nasty, self-centered woman quite assured of her genius. Kate Atkinson is damned good. Just ask her. Jonathan Franzen excels at foot-in-mouth while Chuck Palahniuk is all over the map. Even poor Alice Munro is subject to daughter Sheila's interpretation of life with a Great Writer.

Where, then, is balance? Is there balance? Jane Smiley comes across as unfailingly nice, even as she blasts the current Administration. Margaret Atwood, she of the acid tongue, is the epitome of Canadian graciousness. Kent Haruf is amazed and gratified by his recognition. Carol Shields managed to raise five children and run a household, writing all the while. Joyce Carol Oates des not have children, but is long-married and a committed professor. (As in she actually teaches courses, unlike many of the luminaries on certain university payrolls.) Joan Didion is polite to the point of self-effacement. Somehow these writers have found something approximating balance, or, barring that, a means of juggling competing demands.

I am not a genius. I am not always a nice person (thought I try to be) , but nor am I a selfish monster. If I were, I'd get a lot more writing done. This much is certain. I would also get a lot more writing done if I were willing to live in a dirty house, avoid the laundry, exist on take-out. Oh, and ignore my husband while expecting him keep me as I pen my way toward greatness.

I am unwilling. And so my writing suffers.

I struggle with this: maybe my obsession with housekeeping is indicative of deeper lack. Geniuses care not about dust.

Annie Dillard writes:

"During that time (she was writing the second half of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) I let all the houseplants die. After the book was finished I noticed them; the plants hung completely black-dead in thier pots by the bay window...

'I understand you're married,' a man said to me at a formal lunch in New York my publisher had arranged. 'How do you have time to write a book?'


'Well, ' he said, 'you have to have a garden, for instance. You have to entertain.' And I thought he was foolish, this man in his seventies, who had no idea what you must do. But the fanaticism of my twenties shocks me now. As I feared it would." (37)

There is comfort in this, and comfort in not being the sort of person who "touches" others for money, as Joyce did. In not ignoring a homesick mate caring for two small children in appalling conditions. In not expecting a sibling to do all the heavy lifting while I feed my brilliance.

Likely then I am condemned never to have a Penguin Lives written about me. I will not be remembered as a genius. But nobody will ever read about me--or you, bogged down in holiday preparations--and think: what a selfish monster.

Annie Dillard: The Writing Life. New York: Harper and Row. 1989.


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