Women Without Men

The title of Kate Walbert’s new novel, A Short History of Women, appears briefly in one of its chapters as the title of a pre-suffrage work of sociology, which was written, it will come as no surprise, by a man. It is a sly little jab, and belongs to the same armory of lucid, unhysteric provocation as the concluding line of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, in which we learn what a colonial administrator, whose actions have brought about the novel’s final tragic sequence, plans to call his book about Africa: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

In that spirit, then, Walbert’s novel is about the history that isn’t written. Cleverly, it takes as its structure a series of short episodes, shuttling across decades, in the lives of five generations of women from the same family; the newest members of that family, whom we meet as late as 2007, frequently have only a partial or confused understanding of the legacy of their forebears. That legacy includes the woman at the top of the family tree: Dorothy Trevor Townsend, an Englishwoman who, in 1914, starved herself to death for the cause of suffrage. Her great-great-granddaughter, a freshman at Yale, appears only as her Facebook page – a device that could easily have felt needless and cheap, had it not so ruthlessly condensed easy comedy into a core of fierce sadness, as we watch the ambiguity and terror of the great-great-grandmother’s sacrifice squandered with a privileged teenager’s casual pith: ‘Color me revolutionary.’

Any novel called A Short History of Women implies a parallel history of men, if only by exclusion. Hemingway called one of his story collections Men Without Women in part because there is no such thing; the irony is built-in. The men in Walbert’s novel are, indeed, pushed to the periphery, even if its central female characters are highly and painfully conscious that their stories – complete, poignant, complicated – are occurring at the periphery of what’s usually called history. With the exception of one chapter, men flit into view and then flit out again. They only partially shade the novel’s action, which charts English and American life from the end of the nineteenth century to the opening years of the twenty-first; yet the novel shapes itself around the major human event from which women have traditionally been excluded: war.

Male life in the book is nearly synonymous with military activity. Men, and even many women, asperse Dorothy Townsend’s effort to starve herself in the name of women’s suffrage, because that effort happens to coincide with World War I. The men dying in French fields know a far greater sacrifice, say her critics; their suffering makes a cartoon of hers. Later, we see Dorothy’s daughter, Elizabeth, now an adult, on V-J Day, moving in a kind of dream through a wildly celebrating Manhattan. Elizabeth is at one point with her friend Helen, and, when a man appears suddenly and kisses Helen, it leaves her in a daze.

Somewhere in the Forties, Helen is wrenched into a kiss and afterward takes my hand and holds it tightly, her glasses lost, one lens crunched by a heel before they’re retrieved. It’s an interesting perspective, she’s shouting. ‘I’m left-sighted,’ she’s shouting. ‘My father’s going to kill me.’

The moment, into which Helen is ‘wrenched’ – nothing romantic about that – casts a new light on the famous Life Magazine photograph of a white-hatted (and, one is meant to assume, heroic) sailor dipping a woman in Times Square at war’s end. It is not even specified whether the man who kisses Helen is a soldier himself or simply someone benefiting from what soldiers have done; in fact, Walbert’s subtle use of the passive voice means that the agent of the kiss – the man – goes unmentioned. It is as if Zeus, the original avatar of men’s rough claims on women, had descended invisibly to do the kissing.

V-J Day marked the victory of men over men, in a contest invented by men. Later episodes entrench this theme. A kaffeeklatsch of country club wives whose opposition to the Vietnam War blends with a discussion of the hegemony of male culture generally. An aging woman with three adult children and a failing marriage engaged in a protest of uncertain merit against the Iraq War, photographing soldiers at a military base in Delaware. Walbert applies her themes deliberately, like coats of paint.

In François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, Jules, who like his friend Jim has just returned from the trenches of World War I, says the tragedy of war is that it deprives a man of his own ‘personal battle.’ It does nothing to diminish the strengths of A Short History of Women to point out that this is, at least partly, true; war is a contest invented by men, but there are limits to its use as a proxy for male life generally. Men in war would prefer, in most cases, to be anywhere else. It is interesting to read A Short History of Women alongside The Suicide Run, a forthcoming posthumous collection by William Styron, whose stories comprise an examination of war through the eyes of young men – many of whom are substitutes for Styron himself, an active-duty Marine at the end of World War II and later during the Korean War – who have not yet experienced it, and who, if they are honest with themselves, would really rather not.

Styron’s characters, in their callow youth, are anything but pacifists. They feel a fierce, deep lack as men, simply because they have not yet seen battle. Since Homer, since the Vikings, men have proved themselves as men in mortal struggle; not even the full library of war’s horror has totally erased the belief that honor is bound up in lethal adventure.

The men in Walbert’s novel indeed exist as an almost unvaried atmosphere of violence, of unseen battle on foreign shores. Which is why Styron serves as a useful counterpoint. ‘My Father’s House,’ which was to be part of a novel but in The Suicide Run appears as a long story, is told by Paul Whitehurst, who awaits orders for his company to engage the Japanese in the waning days of World War II. His comrades itch for battle: ‘Jesus, I hope this is it’; ‘I hope the fuck it’s soon.’

Whitehurst, inwardly ashamed, feels none of the same bravado:

Oh, Jesus, I thought. I hope the fuck it’s never. I couldn’t even work up a falsely brave remark, and I felt twisted with envy at their breezy offhandedness.

Homer and Tolstoy wrote of war with great complexity, but with an air of reverent inevitability; war had a necessary part to play in the course of human events, and was consequently a necessary part of masculine life. In Tolstoy’s ferocious late novel Hadji Murád, the eponymous hero, a Chechen rebel leader turned to the Russian side, is depicted as almost unvaryingly noble; and war is portrayed not without a degree of sentimentality. His wife and family, whom he loses his life trying to save, are ciphers: they could be any wife and family. Martial literature has never stinted on the tragedy at the heart of war – the deaths of good men – but only a later addition to this literary tradition, emerging from writers like Styron, Mailer, James Salter, Tobias Wolff, and Tim O’Brien, who have themselves served in the military, employs a different set of scales to measure the worth of the men who fight. (One might think also of a recent film, The Hurt Locker, which offers an ambiguous portrayal of the relationship between men and war, and which was directed, not incidentally, by a woman.)

What makes Walbert’s book effective literary counternarrative is its tangible awareness of the narrative it seeks to counter. In other words, it keeps men in the picture, even as it lodges them at the edge of the frame. Another nice touch is the presence of Florence Nightingale, who acts as a presiding spirit in A Short History of Women: she was a woman who individually made enormous strides for all womankind while serving as a nurse to men wounded in battle; who suffused traditionally feminine work with nominally unfeminine toughness, and who did so deep within the masculine arena of warfare.

But I don’t want to overstate the politics of A Short History of Women; that would give too thin an impression of it. What makes it a good novel, what makes any novel good, is that under its skin of ideas is a body of living muscle, working organs, a beating heart. People converse, yearn, suffer, take joy. Walbert knows what Tolstoy knew: men with women – or women with men – is, for all the trouble it has caused us, our basic universal experience.

[Note: I will be reading with Kate Walbert this Sunday, October 4th, at KGB Bar, in the East Village.]

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~ by mackenz on September 29, 2009.

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