Re-reading Brian Morton
12 April 2017
This will be brief, because I’ve just written a letter to Brian Morton, mostly about his novel, A Window Across the River. Kathleen loved this book so much that I thought I might read it again myself. Brian Morton had been on my mind anyway, since Patricia Bosworth’s recent memoir stirred up memories of Bronxville. Morton, with whom I’ve enjoyed the exchange of a couple of notes, is on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence, which Bosworth attended long before his time — before his birth, in fact — but I wonder if the profile of the Sarah Lawrence girl, always painted for me in lurid colors by my mother, who regarded it as a seminary for dissolute women (a view that nothing in Bosworth’s book would contradict), has changed much over the years. Now that dissoluteness is so mainstream and all.
A Window Across the River is about two creative people — a writer and a photographer — who try to revive an old affair. They drifted apart after the writer had an abortion; what kept the writer away was her terrible gift for writing devastating short stories about the people she loves. She can’t write any other kind of fiction, and once this is established, and the old friendship is resumed, we hold our breath waiting to find out how Isaac, the photographer, will respond to Nora’s inevitable story about him. (Our hopes that Nora might find a way to write a nice story about Isaac, who really is her favorite person in the world, are stifled at every turn.) Along the way, Nora and Isaac are distracted by the epiphenomena of art — the shows, the readings, the dinners, the panels, and, for Isaac, the alluring but more gifted students — that litter creative lives but make for entertaining reading. Here is Nora’s recollection of the literary life in college:
Kafka once said that a writer should cling to his desk as if to a life raft. Nora felt like she knew what he meant. And maybe, she thought, a woman writer has to cling to it with a special ferocity. Swarthmore had had a busy creative writing program, and every semester three or four visiting writers came in to give readings, lead daylong seminars, and be picturesquely literary in the coffee bar and the cafeteria. Nora tried to observe them closely. All of the successful male writers, she’d observed, were carried through their lives by a sort of rapture of egotism. Most of them were married, or had been — most had burned quickly through several wives — and many of them had children, but she got the feeling that none of them had ever let anything come between them and their work. The women were different. Most of them seemed nicer that the men — more modest, more approachable — but less obsessed. Nora found it easy to believe that their devotion to writing had always had to compete with the many varieties of caregiving with which women fill their lives. Some of the older women had long gaps in their writing lives, ten-year periods in which they’d published nothing. The single women were the only ones who seemed as fantastically devoted to writing as the men. “The lady poets must not marry, pal,” wrote John Berryman in one of his Dream Songs; more than forty years later, it still seemed to be true. (138-9)
I copied it out for two reasons. Not only is “rapture of egotism” so rich (rapture/raptor; the jet d’eau of the vowels; the insensibility brought on by the virtual-reality device of egotism), but its counterweight, “the many varieties of caregiving with which women fill their lives,” is so decidedly unmagical. Also, a more feminist statement might be, “with which women’s lives are filled,” because so many women feel that they don’t have a choice. But for Nora it is a choice. She accepts her womanliness as is; what bothers her is her poisoned pen.
When his rage cools down, Isaac’s understanding of Nora’s achievement expands.
She’d always said that her stories had no compassion, but that wasn’t quite accurate. Her portrait of him was a perfect rendering of the person he was afraid he might be. She’d intuited some of his worst fears about himself and written a story based on the premise that they were true. To write about him with such damning finality, as if he would never rise above his limitations — that, it was true, could be called cruel. But to go so deeply into his inner life that she could unearth his most intimate fears about himself — that was a large act of sympathetic imagination. (286)
All we can do is what Nora does: hope for the best.