Thursday, August 06, 2009

Letty Fox: A Divider, Not a Uniter

For the first time in I guess 110-odd books, the Mr. and Mrs.Buce readaloud club has found a book on which they emphatically disagree. Needless to say, we screen in advance, so we pick books we figure we both will like. And several times we have abandoned a book midway because neither one of us liked it. But we've finally come to a parting of the ways over Letty Fox: Her Luck.

You may remember Letty (and cf. link). She's the hopeful, hapless, inspired, energetic and often clueless heroine of the second-most-famous novel by Christina Stead--Stead who gained whatever acclaim she enjoys mostly through hereauthorship of The Man Who Loved Children. Letty is young--the story runs from her childhood through to her mid-twenties. No one can deny that she is full of life--together with an unstoppable enthusiasm for (or obsession with) men, the mere thought of whom seems to drive most any other thought out of her mind.

Channeled through her author, she carries it all off with energy, enthusiasm, and an near titanic fluency that stumbles and tumbles over pages for a single idea. Whatever you might think of her schemes and aspirations,still her stark vivacity is (I should have thought) something that you couldn't help but find engaging.

On perhaps a darker note, she is also, I think, a pretty good introduction to what life might have been like not that-all many years back when women had achieved a kind of independence but still weren't really on their own. Granted, you could hold a job, live alone, ride a bicycle, maybe even drive a car and (yes--at least in Greenwich Village) sleep with just about anybody you chose.

But the stark fact was, no matter how much you might try to wiggle out of it, your fate was always bound up with some man, if you couldn't fine one and entangle yourself with him, you were stuck with, well, with trying to find one so you could entangle himself with him. This fact goes a long way towards explaining the presence of, along with the brio, an irreducible sense of insecurity, and a kind of desperate infantilism that sullies over even the most attractive characters in the (rather large) cast.

What we have here, then, is a marriage of Saul Bellow and Jean Rhys--a bidungsroman without a lot of bildung, a tale of pathos without the pathetic. Stuff like this:
I thought with longing of an old-fashioned life. Perhaps I was tired of struggling so hard, without knowing it? I recognized how easy it would be to slip into the old way and become a squaw with a papoose. ... For the woman looking for love is like a little boat meeting waters[pout after waterspout. She is tired of steering, rowing, looking for land, hanging up old shirts for sails and the rest of it. But the pirates, they are not tired at all. They don't care if they don't make a landfall once in three years; they live off little craft. I went home, and felt depressed. ...

--Christina Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck 451
(NYRB Paperback ed. 2001)
And so it goes, page after page and chapter after chapter. Fairness requires me to report that Mrs. Buce thought it appalling: she never came to terms with the shallowness, the self-absorption, the infantile romanticism the--as she put it, the Us Magazine atmosphere of the whole thing. She is correct on every point. But the brio, the brio.

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