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Staring Down the Barrel

Susan McCallum-Smith

The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, Virago, 320 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1844087310

In Barbara Pym’s memorable 1952 novel Excellent Women, staid bachelor Everard Bone remarks to shrewd spinster Mildred Lathbury that he’s considering marrying “an excellent woman” ‑ one of those plain ladies of a certain age who inspire admiration not lust, the trustworthy volunteers and tea-dispensers, the capable backbones of Church socials, school jumble sales and every legible filing system. Mildred thinks he’s making a mistake. “Poor things,” he says, “Aren’t they allowed to have the normal feelings, then?” To which she replies, “Oh, yes, but nothing can be done about them.”

The protagonist of Claire Messud’s latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, knows she is considered an excellent woman, or as she would say, “a good girl”. Nora Eldridge is a forty-two-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and when the book opens in 2009, she is “self-immolating” with rage. In an unflinching appraisal of her life, she declares fate has condemned her, along with many others of her gender, to be a “woman upstairs”, to be ignored for being middle-aged, single, and childless, “to cede and swerve and step aside, unacknowledged and unadmired and unthanked”, condemned to spend her weekends with “Sex and the City reruns and the Garnet Hill catalogue”, dutifully visiting her widowed father in his nursing home, after tending her sick mother, who took too heartbreakingly long to die.

The fuse behind her fury was lit five years before, during her “time of reckoning”, when at age thirty-seven she abandoned her artistic aspirations and stood aghast as mortality barrelled toward her. Enter the exotic Shahid family: an encounter that upends her life of quiet desperation. It’s eight-year old Reza she sees first, in a supermarket accompanied by a nanny who “watched the shop as if it were television”. When Reza reappears as a pupil in her class, she meets his Italian mother, Sirena, a video and installation artist, and finally his Lebanese father, Skandar, a visiting scholar. Nora is bewitched: “If they were a meal, I would have eaten all the courses with equal relish.”

The Shahids are no more or less selfish than anyone else. They seem to like Nora and she is, unarguably, convenient. With a child’s astute perception, Reza knows a gifted teacher when he sees one; Skandar needs a sounding board and acolyte whenever his wife is wrapped up in her art; and Sirena needs a studio buddy, gofer, and babysitter. Nora obliges them all without recognising the pragmatic nature of their bargain. Alluding to Chekhov’s story “The Black Monk” (1894) about a delusional scholar, she says that each Shahid was, “in his or her own way, my Black Monk…[granting] some aspect of my most dearly held, most fiercely hidden, heart desires: life, art, motherhood, love, and the great seductive promise that I wasn’t nothing”. Mad with inspiration, crazy-happy, she rushes to the studio she shares with Sirena, her “veins fizzing”, her dormant creativity rekindled. Bedazzled, she shares details of her new way of life with her friend Didi, who reinterprets and summarises: “So you’re in love with Sirena, and you want to fuck her husband and steal her child. Have I got it right?” Dear reader, you know it’s not going to end well.

A minor kerfuffle broke out in the American press following the release of The Woman Upstairs after an interviewer remarked to Messud that she “wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora”. Messud responded by asking if the interviewer would want to be friends with other literary protagonists ‑ say Hamlet, Humbert, Raskolnikov? Apart from the nonsensical assumption that a writer’s job is to create likeable characters, Messud must have been struck by the irony of the question, given that her novel’s premise is an examination of societal expectations of women’s behaviour.

“Don’t you think it’s nice of me, to do as you wish?” asks Nora Helmer of her husband Torvald, in Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (1879), another touchstone text underpinning The Woman Upstairs. Torvald is the kind of man who addresses his wife using sugary endearments and believes it’s more becoming for a woman to “embroider rather than knit”. Like Ibsen’s Nora, Messud’s Nora had perfected the art of obliging, of living as if: “As if she enjoyed things she didn’t enjoy. As if she were happy.” Girls are groomed to preen from childhood, she contends, and infected with the disease to please. The one thing Nora does enjoy is art. Art provides her with an exit, an escape from the burden and duty of being a woman, of being a human being.

Nora experiences her first heady taste of validation at secondary school when her coolest teacher, Dominic Crace, a sort of Indiana Jones of the art department, singles out her papier-mâché sculpture with a rousing “Well done, Nora Eldridge … Well done, you.” Her mother ‑ impractical, flighty, boxed in by domesticity ‑ half-hinders Nora in pursuing an art career by insisting she secure independence above all. The years pass. Nora remains outwardly capable. As her mother’s health deteriorates, however, her flamboyant creativity tamps down and diminishes, and when her mother finally dies of Lou Gehrig’s disease, she’s crafting miniature dioramas of women artists’ rooms that are a physical manifestation of her grief. She is felled by the death of her mother, who had once, in turn, been felled by a fortune cookie: “It is what you haven’t done that will torment you.” Now, however, Sirena and Skandar are in Nora’s life – oh, glory! “I could have the dream that I was an artist, it could be real.” Somehow they will give her a sign that they “get” her, that she is, once again, validated, no longer invisible. Yet the only time Skandar remarks on Nora’s work he says it “is very small” and lacks joy. The only work that matters to Sirena is her own.

Kovrin, the delusional hero of Chekhov’s story, believes genius is akin to madness. He is perplexed, therefore, as to how another character, Yegor, whom he considers one of “the common herd”, could have cultivated an extraordinary garden. “The whole secret of its success lies in it not being a garden,” Yegor tells him, “but in the fact that I love the work.” Doing work one loves, he implies, is sufficient reward. Neither Sirena nor Nora really believes this; Nora wants to be “got”, whereas Sirena wants to be seen, to be successful. Sirena’s Black Monk, to whom she looks for signs, may be Artforum, a New York dealer, or the Venice Biennale. If doing the work alone is not enough, however, the question for the artist becomes: what do I do when I discover that I’m actually not very good at it? That I am, at best, so-so? Do I give up or keep going? “The point was to be good at it – at art – and not to care,” thinks Nora, “It wasn’t clear which of these was the more important, or simply in caring one fell at a crucial hurdle.” Although Sirena cares that the world should see her art, she doesn’t care how she produces it, whereas Nora fears that by being a decent human being, by being “a good girl”, she condemns herself to mediocrity. She fears she lacks the necessary “myopia”. Of course if you take this assumption to its natural conclusion ‑ everyone so busily desperate to be seen that nobody has the time nor the willingness to look ‑ we are in danger of creating a sort of collective myopia (a Facebook-itis), a world struck blind.

Regardless, there is no doubt that myopia (a necessary trait to some degree for art to exist at all) still appears more forgivable in men than in women, as I was reminded when I read James Lasdun’s recent review (in the Guardian) of Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir. Lasdun argues that its author, Greg Bellow, who feels slighted by his father’s indifference, had failed to “examine the extreme nature of the demands art makes on a serious artist, or to consider that these demands might necessarily come first”, and I compared this to some of the obituaries I read following the death of Muriel Spark that paid due deference to her achievements but only after berating her, first and foremost, for being an indifferent mother. So yes, Nora, it seems we do have some way to go.

When catastrophe (or reality) strikes the lonely spinster Judith Hearne, in Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (which I read just before reading The Woman Upstairs), she tears at the chapel tabernacle for a sign of God’s existence. After Nora’s fall, her fury, too, is “prodigious … a colossus”, and she’s driven to the same harsh conclusion, though she takes greater solace in expletives than whisky: “Who is he who walks always beside you? No fucking-body, thank you very much. I walk alone.” Like other friends, lovers or siblings of artists down through the centuries, who find themselves exploited and exposed, “famous at last … hanging on a wall in Paris”, it is not the betrayal that stings Nora the most, it is the accuracy of the portrait. Great artists unmask us, they see what sad little fuckers we really are, and “Sirena, fuck her, was good.” Rather than succeeding where her mother had failed, Nora had become, in turn, a “beloved embarrassment”. Whether artists have the right to do anything, exploit anyone, for art, is fodder for another review.

A Woman Upstairs is Messud’s fifth book, and although she is widely known for The Emperor’s Children (2006), I believe this is her best since her novella collection, The Hunters, from 2001. Sometimes she lapses into her characteristic, meandering, Jamesian clauses, (a tic to which, I, too, seem prone …), but overall her language is more fluid, less precious, the sentences taut with menace ‑ especially when Nora lets rip in full-throttle harpy mode. The Woman Upstairs is a psychological study, a classic bildingsroman, rather than a plot-boiler, so the reader will guess the twist early on; the power of her prose and her articulate empathy more than compensate. I’m becoming convinced that if a child is named Lili, they must be a Chinese adoptee, and Sirena sures picks up English fast despite beginning the book apologetic about her fluency. The nods to Chekhov and Ibsen, though earned, weigh a little heavily, and while reading I wondered when other members of the literary sisterhood known for their spinsters would be referenced and, sure enough, there on page 284 is Muriel Spark, and on 286 Jean Rhys.

Nevertheless, Messud is smart enough to serve up her allusions aslant. Nora is not Ibsen’s Nora, nor is she Jean Brodie, Marya Zelli, Judith Hearne or Mildred Lathbury. Even though it may feel at times as if little has changed for women since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we have inched forward a little. Nora is financially independent. She has no husband nor partner to kowtow to, no children to trip over on her way to her studio (and she had opportunities for it to be otherwise), she votes, drives and lives in a democracy (more or less). Although she imagines herself to be stuck in a doll’s house, it is a house she has built (at least partially) by herself; fate may still be a jailer for many women but in Nora’s case she has cemented the bricks, miniaturised her own life. “I’d like to blame the world for what I’ve failed to do,” she concedes, “but the failure – the failure that sometimes washes over me as anger … is all mine, in the end.”

Therefore to label (and celebrate) The Woman Upstairs as a feminist rebel yell alone is too restrictive and threatens to limit its audience. This book is not a rant; it’s a tragedy, the tragedy of a woman coming to terms with her own myopia and realising she is repeating her mother’s psychological imprisonment. Being unable to make the person in our head match the person we are in the world ‑ being stuck upstairs ‑ is not a feminist condition but a human one. Most of us, regardless of our gender, enter our middle years in a state of shocked realisation that our dreams will not come true ‑ fated to spend the rest of our lives tormented because it had “seemed worse to try and fail, than not to try”. We are, eventually, forced to stare down the barrel of our mediocrity. Then we must decide whether to get angry or keep gardening, do neither or both.

Perhaps I would have had a less visceral reaction to The Woman Upstairs if I were not at the wrong end of my forties, with young children, struggling to maintain a creative life, coming to terms with my own ordinariness. Or if I had not had a mother like Nora’s, born too late to benefit from the sexual revolution but young enough to understand, acutely, what she had missed. Or if I were not, like many women, sometimes burdened by the weight of history, stymied by a combination of guilt and responsibility that I have not been more, done more, enacted a greater measure of retribution for all those women who came before me who were denied my opportunities. Reviews are subjective, despite our blustering denials.

Nora’s rage I found terribly satisfying. It felt as though one of Anita Brookner’s heroines, excellent women all, had suddenly climbed onto the stage, in her twin-set and tweeds, during a production of Ibsen’s masterpiece and stuck her knitting needles up Torvald Helmer’s arse. Nora Eldridge will not go gently into that good night, will not twiddle about with her papier-mâché and balsa wood for life, as it were, and I realise that admiring her for this may make me not very nice too. Perhaps this novel will help restart a conversation about the whole damn mother lode, make invisibility burn.

So well done, Claire Messud, well done, you.

June 17th, 2013

Susan McCallum-Smith is the author of Slipping the Moorings (2009), and her essays and reviews have appeared in The Scottish Review of Books, AGNI, The Southern Review and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Originally from Scotland, she currently lives in Ireland.

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