065: Desperation? Revenge? Or?
Sharon Hogan; Elizabeth Hardwick vs Robert Lowell; Ernest Hemingway; Muriel Spark; and ex-husbands + a tweet from Lucy Fishwife & a photo from Amsterdam
I got lost last night on the way home from an island in Amsterdam and not the fun, sight-seeing way kind of lost.
I had gone across the wrong bridge and ended up in a half-finished office park/condo development that in the burnt-amber glow of streetlights reflecting off low-hanging-clouds felt like the scene just before the murder-rape in the Netherlands version of a Norwegian crime drama. There were no other people around, except a lone security guard, assiduously looking at his phone, as seen through the floor-to-ceiling windows in one of the more finished buildings. It was late. I may or may not have had a few Dutch beers with higher-than-American alcohol content. It was all very sketch.
And the worst of it is that I did actually have enough battery to pull up the map, but to do that I would have had to put on my reading glasses.
Which brings me to the “writing at 51” part of today’s dispatch: though I have made a fun game about how I like being lost in a city, the underlying truth is that I am extremely reluctant to use reading glasses to see the map on my phone (or a menu, or to type a remotely readable text) in public. It’s a lot like how I refused to push a baby stroller when I was 20: back then I didn’t want to be typed as “a mom” and these days I don’t want to typed as “middle-aged.”
My logic last night was something like: it is better to be murdered and dumped in a canal in such a way that when my body is found it will not be wearing reading glasses, than to put them on, find my way home, and live a long, happy life.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I really do have to start being ok about my age and not only because I keep getting lost in European cities and accidentally having to eat superweird things in restaurants. (You can only get away with not being able to read a menu so many times by saying “surprise me” to the server.)
This particular genre of self-reflection is a bit to do with how the Irish writer/comedian/show-runner Sharon Horgan has been out and about giving interviews to promote her new show, “Bad Sisters.” I loved her character in “Catastrophe” and her character in “This Way Up,” and she has her own production company, and is smart as hell. Also, she is 52 and completely hot, so obviously a very realistic role model. Journalists keep asking her what’s next, and she keeps giving a version of this answer:
Well, it’s not fully formed yet, but I am in a sort of an interesting situation in that I’m in my fifties now, I’m out of a long-term marriage, and I have teenage kids and elderly parents, and I just think it just feels so fertile. I’m interested in people sort of starting again and what that means, and the mistakes that you make at this age and the impact they have and the frustration of having your choices limited and the panic that comes with having to not die alone. So I just feel like there’s dark and good and funny potential there. (source)
Reading this is a) intriguing—I am definitely looking forward to seeing what she’s up to and b) kind of thrilling because it is explicit encouragement to speak to the exhausting, thrilling, vertiginousness of being being a woman in her 50s. It’s a bit like how Phoebe Waller-Bridge spoke to the miserable, glorious, sexed-up confusion of being a woman in her late 20s in “Fleabag” and how Noah Baumbach spoke to the disappointed, awkward, stubborn idealism of being a man in his late 30s in “Greenberg.“ There’s a new story here—about being in one’s early 50s—and the more awkward, dark and hilariously out of step it is, the better—is what I’m taking from this.
Thank goodness, because I’ve never not been slightly awkward, dark, and hilariously out of step—but in a good way. For most of my life I felt like I was too young to be doing whatever I was doing: being a mom, being a corporate wife, being divorced, filling out FAFSA forms, or whatever it was. Now, it feels like I’m too old to be doing whatever it is that I’m doing: being single, writing a Substack, meeting new people in various and assorted cities, listening to podcasts made by leftist millennials. Or, whatever it is I’m not doing, like not being Director or VP at work like the other people my age who entered the workforce right after college instead of when they were 32.
There is so much dark and good and funny potential for storytelling—omg, just the dating stories alone are next level: so awkward, so sweet, and . . . completely fucked-up.
The reason the Sharon Horgan model is essential, is that without the insane humor that she and Rob Delaney and the people who work with them bring, anything about being middle age is going to be one of two things: cringe or tragic. Of course it’s going to be about break-ups and thwarted ambition and the weirdness of having your kids being able to eviscerate you with whip-smart, Tik-Tok honed wit. Of course it’s going to be about the absolute weirdness of being on the same emotional ride as when you were young—from lonely and horny, to confident and full of joy, to blissfully content and grateful and back again—but without the hue and sparkle of youth to make it all seem very cool, and romantic. You better have some humor, or you’re in trouble, so to help, here are three case studies:
In his essay for The New Yorker, Darryl Pinckney quotes the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick as telling him and his class-mates in her creative writing class at Barnard that there are “really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge.”
Given that Hardwick’s ex-husband, the poet Robert Lowell, wrote a long, epistolary, book-length series of poems in which he used whole quotes and paraphrases from Hardwick’s own letters, you can see why she might say this. “The Dolphin”—AKA Lowell’s poem-as-revenge-porn opus—is a substantive, deft, and frankly wicked piece of poetic rationalization and revisionism founded on the letters Hardwick wrote during the break up of their twenty-year marriage. His appropriation of her words was especially egregious given that Hardwick was also a writer; it was a personal betrayal and a twisted kind of literary theft. Even Elizabeth Bishop, who was Lowell’s stalwart friend and fellow writer, wrote to him, in italics no less, that “Art just isn’t worth that much,” when she read drafts of the poems. “The Dolphin,” for me, is a blemish on an otherwise really great career, reflective of period of self-indulgent, petty, and, not unsurprisingly, bad writing. (source, source and one more source)
Second, cringe, but also funny:
Hemingway’s published take-down of F. Scott Fitzgerald, using Fitzgerald’s well-documented umm . . . troubles . . . with his wife, Zelda, in A Moveable Feast is both as old as time and a 20th century Freudian original:
"Finally when we were eating the cherry tart and had a last carafe of wine he said, 'You know I never slept with anyone except Zelda.'
'No, I didn't.'
'I thought I'd told you.'
'No. You told me a lot of things but not that.'
'That is what I want to ask you about.'
'Good. Go on.'
'Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements. I have never felt the same since she said that and I have to know truly.'
'Come out to the office,' I said.
'Where is the office?'
'Le water," [the men's room] I said.
We came back into the room and sat down at the table.
'You're perfectly fine,' I said. 'You are O.K. There's nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues and then go home and look at yourself in the mirror in profile.'
'Those statues may not be accurate.'
'They are pretty good. Most people would settle for them.'
'But why would she say it?'
'To put you out of business.
I mean, it is a demonstrably douchey thing to do to publish an anecdote about another writer (whose work is arguably better than your own) that centers on that writer’s anxiety about his penis size. Also, it’s very funny.
Third, Sharon Horgan for Bad Sisters level comedic:
Muriel Spark based the villain in A Far Cry from Kensington on a needy, clinging, manipulative fellow writer who, by her own description in her letters and memoirs, had more ego than talent. The narrator of the book describes the monstrous Hector Bartlett thusly:
a face [that] was round with a second fat chin. He had a small but full baby-mouth as if forever asking to suck a dummy tit.
As if that’s not enough, she talks about how he wears a green tie with a yellow shirt and a jacket with, wait for it, elbow patches. And, not only that, he’s the worst writer in the history of writing:
Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it. . . . His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words.
It’s a literary beat-down. Hector Bartlett is inept, dangerous, disgusting, and a pisseur de copie, and the detailing of his grossness goes on forth most of the book. All credit to Spark’s skill of writing. She got her revenge, and she’s still making people wince and laugh seventy years later. We can all aspire.
Lowell, Hemingway and Spark are three of about a 100 examples of some version of desperate or revenge writing that I can think of. Even Jane Austen probably did it, although we won’t ever know for sure because her sister Cassandra burned many of her letters, likely to avoid a scandal. So it wasn’t a surprise to come upon some interesting writing by my ex-husband, the writer Brian Collins on the interwebs a couple of weeks ago.
At first I met his oh-so familiar writing voice with a mix of recognition and the old delight. He’s an absolutely beautiful writer, steeped in Joyce, Heaney, Beckett, and a dozen of Western Civ’s most talented philosopher-rhetoricians (Twain, Marx, Hegel, Jameson, just to name a few.) And it’s not just mimicry either, Collins has absorbed two centuries of literary syntax, scansion and vocabulary and made it his own. Stuff like this excerpt from “The Italian Novel” is part of why I fell in love with him.
What happened next lies without question in that zone of ambiguity between right and wrong. Indeed, for two people with less science than he and M, it might have never occurred. But as hard as it is to reconcile such things with our everyday thinking, there is both up and down spin, a quantum can at the same time be here and there, Schrödinger’s cat is both dead and alive. This stuff is always more complicated, but who among us does not sometimes want to have it both ways?
I love his ability to describe the most exquisite interactions by abstracting them to something in Physics, as well as the perfect rhythm that accompanies almost any sentence he writes. Reading this made me want to look at again at his first novel, The Rath and maybe even the very beautiful love letters he used to write to me.
But, alas, I kept reading, and came upon this—
September 8th, 2022
There was also a kind of stuck in her writing itself, a condition not entirely attributable after so many years to having had so little time for it. Her one interest was memoir, the story of her own life—her formation as the daughter of small town fundamentalists, her intellectual awakening as a student, her first marriage to a soldier—but she had now been working on the thing for almost twenty years, writing and rewriting, casting and recasting, dozens of sketches snipped from life, evocative, she thought, each compelling in its own way, but despite her best efforts never finally adding up to anything more than a laundry basket of disparate scenes, affective color, and social rumination
—which was sadly all-too recognizable, as well. And which, I suppose, is partly to do with why he’s my ex-husband.
Collins has always had gift for cutting sarcasm, a way of adding a poisonous amount of bite: “a condition not entirely attributable after so many years to having had so little time for it“ is a masterwork of a phrase, just perfectly wrought, able to disingenuously acknowledge a remote possibility and instantly undermine it. It’s a little on the nose with the explicit reference to fundamentalists and a marriage to a soldier, but even that I could explain away as probably somehow related to the plot of whatever is the novel he is writing.
But then, I came upon this—
Her Big Bang
September 12th, 2022
Paolo called it her cosmic microwave background, and it seemed not so off the mark. It was the end of her first year at Dartmouth; she got pregnant. After a few weeks of heart-wrenching decision-thinking, she terminated it, an act as irreconcilable with her Christian upbringing as having had pre-marital sex in the first place.
The cosmic microwave background, as best she understood, was what the universe looked like just after the Big Bang–looked and still looks like, because of course one can even now look up and across billions of light years to that time. Light travels fast but not fast enough. So if you look far enough you can see it still, the shape of things just after the Big Bang, this and the pattern of everything following that first universe of superheated plasma–the dense sectors, the diffuse ones.
As it was in the Beginning: getting knocked up freshman year was her Big Bang.
—which was puzzlingly specific. There’s really no accounting for the detail: that reference to Dartmouth and “getting knocked up”—not even with the quick, deft abstraction that follows it.
It was quite odd to see this reference that is so demonstrably based on something that happened to me now rearranged as a counterfactual for a character in a novel set in Italy. Does he know about the beer pong and neo-Con connotations that come with any mention of Dartmouth? What Italian or American ex-pat woman would have an abortion back story as syntactically evangelical as this one? And that phrase, pre-marital sex? The only people that I know who use it are evangelicals or escaped evangelicals who use it in quotation marks. It’s almost accidentally comedic.
Desperation or revenge . . . I can only assume it’s both?
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In the opening scene of the television series that I wish I could write, there is an almost entirely fictional scene preceding the one in which the main character does not get murdered and dumped in a canal.
It’s set in a room in a hipster hotel that is part corporate social responsibility and part innovative industrial reclamation project. The protagonist—the one who won’t put on her reading glasses to get herself out of the pre-European-fuel-crisis-of-2022-era Amsterdam construction site—is sitting in a window seat, overlooking a harbor, watching a storm-squall shot through with late afternoon sunlight. She is alternatively texting on her phone and writing in a notebook.
Her texts type themselves across the scene, unfolding her backstory in the now-ubiquitous way. One thread is nakedly suggestive, clearly a back and forth from a recent hook-up. One thread is affectionate and silly, a mix of complaining about work and memes based on 90’s pop culture. A third is that of a parent and a young adult child: a photo of a new apartment, an exchange about how to set up wifi.
Eventually, our hero closes the notebook, climbs out of the window, and frowns at herself in a mirror. She changes her top, then frowns again and takes it off, then changes her bra and puts the top back on. She opens the hook-up thread and starts to send another text, then stops. She scrolls down to a different thread and taps play on a voice text and makes yet another wardrobe change as she listens to the sound of a laughter-filled, female voice.
Whatshisname is SUCH a disgusting man. Trying to erase your experience in all the ways he can think of. I already forgot what his name is, that’s how boring he is. Also I love that you defended that lady’s right to a seat. Also, you killed it this week. Women are strong as fuck. I love you.
The protagonist dumps a wallet in a backpack and pops in some earbuds, which cues a song. As the music rises, she steps back toward the window seat, reaching for a pair of glasses and pockets them before leaving the room.
Walking Around Eastern Amsterdam on a Saturday Night
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