Invisible woman: Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William! (Viking, 2021)

Not the most inspiring of titles. Its novelist narrator, who we met in My Name is Lucy Barton (links below to other posts on ES novels), tells us more about the events in that earlier novel. For example, that her hospital stay in New York was for a real – and serious – condition, and her estranged, damaged mother really did visit her. She might also have loved her equally damaged daughter, Lucy. Just couldn’t say or show it. Or act upon it.

Elizabeth Strout Oh William! cover There’s more of that kind of thing in Oh William! Here the slender plot has to do with Lucy’s ex-husband, the hapless William, who was (still is) a serial adulterer. Most of his actions cause Lucy to utter the exclamation in the (silly) title. Usually out of exasperation, sometimes pity (maybe even love).

She exclaims in similar ways about others, including herself. Life exasperates her. The cruel, deprived upbringing she told about in Lucy Barton is alluded to in order to account for her present diffidence, her sense of not belonging in the world, and lack of self worth – even as she nears William’s age, 70. She says several times she feels ‘invisible’. ‘What a strange thing life is.’

Strout is able to pull off these banal expressions as Lucy’s only available means of articulating her profound, turbulent emotions. The narrative is told from her viewpoint, and it’s colloquial and idiomatic like that all the time (she’s very fond – overfond – of ‘is what I mean’ after an attempt to explain something). But that’s not to say it lacks complexity or depth. She’s more George Herbert (without the spirituality) than John Donne.

After her various scrapes with William as he tries to find out the truth of his own troubled past in rural Maine, she feels close to him, even sad they divorced, but validated that they did. More to the point, she learns a bit more about herself and her dislocated sensibility. On almost the final page she repeats ‘Oh William!’, then goes on:

don’t I mean Oh Lucy! Too? Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!

Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.

Other posts here at T Days on ES novels:

My Name is Lucy Barton HERE

 Amy & Isabelle HERE

Olive Kitteridge HERE

 

After the worst there’s still more: Cynthia Ozick, Rosa

Cynthia Ozick, Rosa (1983)

Rosa Lublin, a madwoman and a scavenger, gave up her store – she smashed it up herself – and moved to Miami. It was a mad thing to do. In Florida she became a dependent. Her niece in New York sent her money and she lived among the elderly, in a dark hole, a single room in a ‘hotel’.

This is the opening to Cynthia Ozick’s story Rosa. It’s the fourth in my sequence of posts on some of the stories selected by Richard Ford for his collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Not much happens, because Rosa’s awful experiences in the Nazi death camps have left her haunted and ‘mad’, we’d probably call it PTSD, incapable of functioning in the world thirty-five years later. She hates the climate, the jaded, complacent elderly people around her, and her pain shuts out all capacity for human interaction. She feels ‘the whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret.’ Real life had been left behind by these ‘scarecrow’ old folk. Does she realise she’s one of them?

Her only solace is found in writing long, lyrical letters to her dead daughter, Magda, ‘in the most excellent literary Polish.’ To the niece, Stella, in Queens, NYC, she writes in jerkier, alien English:

‘Golden and beautiful Stella…Where I put myself is in hell. Once I thought the worst was the worst, after that nothing could be the worst. But now I see, even after the worst there’s still more…a devil climbs into you and ties up your soul and you don’t even know it.’

But Stella is part of that hell she’s not out of. She calls her Angel ‘for the sake of peace’, but ‘Stella was cold. She had no heart. Stella, already nearly fifty years old, the Angel of Death.’

This vitriol we discover is largely justified. A terrible event in the camps led to the death of baby Magda, and Rosa blames Stella for it. Yet the niece accuses her aunt of refusing to accept that Magda is dead, of making the baby’s shawl, which Rosa has asked her to post to her, into a ‘fetish’, an ‘idol’: ‘you’ll kiss it like a crazy person.’ It’s time, Stella says harshly, ‘to have a life.’

When Rosa meets a flirty old man, another Warsaw Jewish survivor ‘refugee’ of the Nazis’ murderous camps, in a laundromat – he cheerfully admits he’s there to meet women – she tries to shut him out, rather than to have some kind of life as Stella urged (guilt?). ‘My Warsaw isn’t your Warsaw,’ she snaps at him repeatedly as he tries to break down her barriers.

Further confirmation that, as Rosa believes, the world is ‘diseased’ comes in the form of a jargon-filled letter from a professor of ‘clinical social pathology’ at Iowa University. His ‘specialty’ is to analyse what he calls ‘survivor data’ with which to test the theory of ‘Repressed Animation’ in the ‘Humanitarian Context’ (he uses the pompous upper case initials). Rosa rejects this insensitive pseudo-academic nonsense with justified rage. He’s reduced her to the status of ‘survivor’, and doesn’t want to say ‘human being.’ Her hellish memories are just ‘data’ to him.

Stella is also part of the ‘disease’. ‘Stella Columbus’ Rosa calls her in another long letter to Magda. ‘She thinks there’s such a thing as the New World.’ Ozick is a very different writer from Roth, but here there’s an element of congruence in their view of America; but Neil Klugman’s response to the ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ song he hears in the story of that title is less intensely felt, more ironic, less visceral than Rosa’s, and reveals Roth’s critical authorial stance to be more like immature intellectual snobbery. Ozick, on the other hand, is probing into what Conrad calls the heart of darkness.

This might all sound a little bleak and depressing, and it is, but there’s a flickering light of humanity and hope deep inside this beautifully written story (it’s only forty pages long, but packs in a lifetime of Ozick’s central character’s tragic experience). There’s no neat epiphany or conversion for Rosa, but there is a sense that out of her crazy sadness can come some kind of redemption.

Like Philip Roth, whose story I wrote about last time, Ozick is a Jewish American writer, born five years before him, in 1928 – and, I’m pleased to say, still alive (Roth died in 2018). Her stories are also said (this is the first of hers I’ve read) often to feature Jewish American characters and communities, but as I’ve already noted she openly confronts and exposes their memories and scars of the horrors of the Holocaust.

It seems that Rosa is a partner story to the more famous ‘The Shawl’, published three years earlier in The New Yorker. From what I’ve read online the terrible events that are hinted at in Rosa are described there explicitly.