Jane Smiley, Private Life

Back when I was doing my survey of ‘books about books,’ one of the best I read was Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which I admired for its balance of elegance and erudition. My relationship with her fiction, however, has been both limited and not so happy. I read A Thousand Acres and remember finding it compelling, but that was in the dark days before blogging, so I have only vague memories and nothing to consult to remind me why, or how far, it worked for me. I picked up Moo at Doull’s more recently (but still not recently enough to have blogged it, it turns out), and though it sounded like something I would enjoy, I ended up putting it aside unfinished. It’s not that it wasn’t well told, but that (as I recall) it turned out to be arch, and that became irritating. I don’t mind funny, or ironic, or wry, but I like my humor underwritten with sincerity, and so arch is not for me. When I came across Private Life while browsing in a bookstore last weekend, I’m not sure what instinct prompted me to take a closer look. I think I read at least one review of it, when it was freshly out, that suggested it was more my kind of book than Moo and that had stuck somewhere in the musty bookshelves of my mind. Anyway, I did examine it, it did look good, and so I bought it, and I finished it this morning very glad I had given it a chance, because it’s excellent.

Private Life is formally unassuming, even old-fashioned: it proceeds by direct,  methodical exposition, without even much extended dialogue. We are just given one sentence after another as we follow our group of characters across a span of history marked with major public, “world-historical” events including the Great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, the First World War, and then, as the book concludes, the Second World War. Our perspective is almost exclusively that of Margaret Mayfield, a bookish girl from Missouri who grows into what looks like certain spinsterhood until she attracts the notice of Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, an eccentric astronomer. They marry and move to California, where Andrew tends to a small observatory at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. In their marriage, he is very much the larger force, which only gradually comes to seem not just unnatural but unjust and insupportable to Margaret. It’s not a novel of rebellion and liberation, however, but a patient account of Margaret’s experiences, particularly as her wifely allegiance to Andrew is tested against his mania for scientific theorizing and his incessant demands that she serve as amanuensis, secretary, and chauffeur. Margaret is naturally self-effacing, to the point of often feeling herself a spectator at events in her own life. That and her learned expectation that a wife subordinates her interests and time to her husband’s make her disillusionment a slow process, but also an especially painful one, as despite her eventual realization that she is married to an absurdity, she cannot, or will not, repudiate him, even though one consequence of his near-delusional thinking is that he accuses Japanese friends of hers of spying, leading to their arrest and internment.

At one level the novel is just what the title suggests: a story of private life. But it also artfully evokes the complex interplay between that individual experience and the broader narrative of history. It tells an alternative history of America from 1883 to 1942 that makes everyday life and, more particularly, women’s lives central and thus renders more traditional historical subjects peripheral. Thus Smiley contributes to the history of those who “rest in unvisited tombs,” who get through every day and do nothing spectacular, nothing that gets reported or documented – who do nothing except live as best they can in the circumstances they meet. One theme of the novel is that “just living” is not as easy as it sounds, something we all know, in our own ways. Margaret’s sister-in-law Dora, whose life as a reporter involves her much more directly in the turbulence of the public world, eventually writes a column called “My Life Didn’t Prepare Me For This,” a title that resonates with Margaret: “Dora was writing about the mysteries of the Khan el-Khalili bazaar. Margaret was thinking about everything in the whole world.”

The “private life” of the title also refers more specifically to Margaret’s experience: though we know she develops a circle of superficial friends through her knitting circles and card playing afternoons and charity work, she does not share her intimate life – her thoughts, her dreams, her emotions – with any of them. Even through the agonizing and beautifully told death of her only child, her grief is controlled and internalized; much later, when she finally speaks about it to a friend who becomes, briefly, her lover, she breaks down and weeps, relieving us, too, of some pent-up emotion. The novel’s impact depends on the strength of these reserved feelings, on our awareness that Margaret is capable of much more than she is saying or doing. “There are so many things I should have dared before this,” she says bitterly at the novel’s end.

Smiley sets Margaret’s intensely personal experience of life up against her husband’s preoccupation with the universe in general. One exemplary (and also quietly profound) sequence focuses on Margaret’s discovery of a family of coots on a nearby pond. Margaret returns again and again to the pond to watch the chicks growing under the watchful eyes of their parents. Finding beauty and tranquility in this tiny piece of nature, she brings her friend Mr Kimura to the pond to paint them (the resulting scroll painting becomes an important symbol for her of what she actually loves and values, and also of what she is unable save or achieve in the world). Returning from one of her visits, overwraught with her realization that the chicks are being preyed on, their numbers slowly diminishing, she finds Andrew obsessing as usual over “larger” issues. “It seemed to her that if he said the word ‘universe,’ she really would scream,” she reflects. “The universe, of course, was the very thing that circled around those chicks, vast and senseless.” Margaret feels the largeness of things as oppressive. Andrew, in contrast, believes passionately in the theory that the universe, far from being empty, is filled entirely with “ether.” In fact (as Margaret sees by this point) what fills it, or at least fills his consciousness of it, is his own ego: Andrew’s “life force” is endless, ceaseless, overpowering; it crowds Margaret so that she always happy when he leaves the house. His supreme self-confidence makes him a poor scientist, more determined to prove himself right than to pursue the truth. There is perhaps something too neat in the way Smiley divides up her fictional universe between the hyper-masculine, monomaniacal, ultimately delusional, but also pathetic Andrew and the passive, inward-looking, domesticated Margaret: they are emblems of a gendered division of attention that reflects a historical division of education and labour but also repeats a version of the ‘separate spheres’ myth reflected throughout so many 19th-century texts – and rejected so eloquently in, say, Aurora Leigh. I longed for Margaret to fling off her opressive but also just plain annoying husband with Aurora’s cry, “I too have my vocation, work to do!” But there’s more Dorothea than Aurora in Margaret (and plenty of Mr Casaubon in Andrew, though in a louder, more clanging register), absent the moral yearning that makes Dorothea’s mistakes heroic, but with the same moral paralysis inflicted by an essential generosity that makes it near impossible to admit, to her friends and family much less to Andrew, that she knows perfectly well he is a fool. Smiley’s answer to the problem of such essentializing views of gender and gender roles is not to defy them by creating a modern heroine to satisfy us, but to guide us towards recognizing the heroism in surviving Margaret’s life.

What matters more, public life or private? Private Life builds towards the commonplace but still uneasy idea that the two are never truly distinct. History happens to the people in the novel in the form of cataclysms and catastrophes  – earthquakes, fires, assassinations, bombings. But at the same time the people in the novel are the ones making history. Smiley’s novel works in the tradition of social historians and women’s historians, blurring the boundaries between public and private or around the definition of “event.” What is the San Francisco earthquake, after all, as a historical event, but the accumulation of stories of people who lived through it, suffered during it, or died from it? What is the “event” we call “Japanese-American internment” but the actions of all those who conceived of, contributed to, and carried out this shameful policy, as Andrew contributes to it by writing paranoid letters that lead to the arrest and internment of the Kimuras? Private Life proceeds quietly, but it pulses between these levels of engagement and lets Margaret, so quiet herself that it is an effort for her to speak, be fully herself and yet much more than just a woman in private.

6 Comments to Jane Smiley, Private Life

  1. August 8, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    This sounds good! I have somehow managed to acquire several books by Smiley but have not yet gotten around to reading any of them. I’ve heard her Greenlanders is quite good. Have you read that one?

  2. August 9, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read Greenlanders, but maybe now I’ll take a look. I really do think this is a good novel. I’ve been wishing I could have anticipated that in time to recommend it for my local book club, as for some reason I have a feeling we would have done better with this than we did with Elizabeth Bowen!

  3. August 14, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    I’ve had the same sort of on-off relationship with Smiley’s fiction but I really enjoyed this as well. I only got part way through the one before (the title of which I’ve completely forgotten) so I hesitated about ‘Private Life’ as well, but it was more than worth taking a chance on.

    You must have been having second thoughts about the conference in Birmingham after this week’s troubles, but don’t worry, the University Security could take on anything! If you’re still on for dinner, so am I.

  4. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    August 14, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Annie, I’m still on, for sure! I’m glad to hear you are OK, too. I expect to take an afternoon train from London on August 31. I’ll be in touch by email and we can work out our plans! I’m very excited about the whole trip and only sorry I can’t spend more time on things besides the conference, which looks like being a pretty full three days of sessions.

  5. Keshet's Gravatar Keshet
    August 17, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this thoughtful review! I too think the novel is excellent and am frustrated with the overwhelmingly shallow and bumbling responses to Private Life that I have read so far. One of my favorite things about this book is the way we get to experience Margaret’s naivete along with her – not realizing what we should about either Andrew or her until well into the book, well into her life.

  6. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    August 18, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Keshet. I haven’t really looked around for reviews of the novel since I read it–sounds like I don’t need to. I agree more or less about going along with Margaret’s naivete, though I thought there was something a little off about Andrew from pretty early on!

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
In progress: Dunnett, Niccolo Rising

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
In progress: Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't

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