BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 5, 2010
The Rags of Time
By Maureen Howard
(Viking, 238 pp., $26.95)
If we are moved to tears by B movies instead of operas, have we missed anything? The question nags Maureen Howard in the first installment of her great sequence-novel in four parts, of which The Rags of Time is the last, because in her universe the point of ambitious art—which her series is—is not at all a given. One character settles into an old age of embroidery and television, another takes Moby-Dick out of the library. About the artistic supremacy of the latter there can be no doubt, but what about the value of the lives that include the one and not the other? In the first novel of Howard’s series, A Lover’s Almanac, a pubescent girl gorges on opera, a precocious, tearful vigil by the radio, until she discovers “a notorious bad boy with a Bogart lisp,” and then the movies: “I found that the matinees ... is what I yearned for, a projection of my lust seen exactly in dark mirrors, brooding shadows.” It is the “exactly” that bothers Howard, and it pinpoints for her the appealing trait, the crucial flaw, of bad art: we see a reflection of ourselves within it too easily
Louise Moffett, an artist in her mid-thirties whose story opens the first novel and then weaves throughout the series, flips through a self-help book and “in shame she finds herself on every page, so rampant is the disease of ... what to call it? Emptiness, the human predicament so general anyone might discover their nature, their need.” Real art does not heighten the familiar, but disorients it. Thus, in the second novel, an old woman named Bel Murphy reads Moby-Dick, and “at times a passage was so odd she lay the book aside, looked out at an even tempered bay shimmering in cold sunlight, Bel Murphy cast away in the comforts of the living room, clinging for dear life to the worn arm of her chair.” The stakes, for Howard, in reading and in living, are still that high.
Many novelists today are bold and noisy in language, voice, or plot, but without a thought as to how to defend the necessity of the novel itself—the means of connecting form and feeling to grand effect, once literature’s bread and butter, now a maddening puzzle. Maureen Howard is the opposite: stringent, subtle, unsure, ironic, acutely reflective about means as well as ends, and yet stunningly determined to take on the mantle of tradition and press forward toward the large questions in both old and new ways. In an article in 1982 on why she writes, Howard explained the challenge: “there is the ghost of modernism, which hovers over every serious writer, the now faint voice of Pound exhorting us to ‘make it new.’ It’s a dangerous act, a tightrope for the novelist. There is either the safety net below of dull, old-fashioned narrative or a race across the wire in a bravura display to the stale avant-garde.” Howard’s solution is to get off the high wire and out of the circus ring, the four novels loosely connected to the seasons, one for each, and inspired in form by the Farmer’s Almanac, that folksy amalgam of fact and fiction. The series is a beautifully integrated whole, to the extent that it is hard to grasp any of the individual books in isolation.
A Lover’s Almanac, published in 1998, starts on the morning of the millennium in New York. We meet Louise Moffett, an artist, estranged from her boyfriend (later, husband) Artie Freeman, a mathematician, in the wake of a disastrous New Year’s Eve party. The story then spirals out to the lives of a large cast of characters connected by love or blood or circumstance to these two, spanning back four generations, interspersed with quotations, images, and vignettes of historical figures.Big as Life, the second installment, published in 2001, is three novellas, the stories of a young female American history professor, then Artie’s maternal grandmother as a young girl, then Audubon’s life as an artist, hunting and painting birds. The Silver Screen, the third novel, published in 2004, centers on Bel Murphy, Artie’s paternal grandmother whom he never knows, a former silent-film star now old.
The abrupt jumps in time and space—from, say, Artie’s grandfather Cyril reading Notes on the State of Virginia in his New York apartment to two paragraphs of Jefferson bemoaning the loss of his library in a fire—are never jarring, for the mind that is most present to the reader is always Howard’s own. “Time bends,” Howard writes, several times, in The Rags of Time, and the experience of her novels, as they leap about time and space, is an accumulation of moments, all in the present, upon which the unrecoverable past weighs heavily. The effect is similar to what Faulkner once wrote of his own work: “Time is a ﬂuid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as was—only is. If was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow.” That is, though her series is set in the present—from the millennium to 2010—for Howard the past is not a “flashback,” it is a present moment that is not our own.
Howard herself appeared here and there in the first three novels, but The Rags of Time—the fall season, with its decay and looming death—centers fully on the character called MH, an old female novelist who lives on the Upper West Side, working on what she believes will be her last novel, with the characters we by now know well in supporting roles. MH is confined by a weak heart to her cluttered work room, deciding with her husband what to make for dinner, and to small ventures into Central Park, though even these worry her spouse; but if her physical range has narrowed, her spiritual range has not. In this final book she pulls back the curtain on the entirety of her life as a writer. Much of The Rags of Time is addressed to her husband, to whom she tries to justify her life as an artist as that life nears its end. (This is mirrored by sections in which Artie writes a letter to Louise that attempts to explain his failure as a mathematician.) The Rags of Time casts a shadow back on its three predecessors, and reveals that the real subject of the whole series has been the artistic endeavor itself. This extraordinary book is a last reckoning, a reflection on the success—or, just as possibly for Howard, the failure—of a gamble already made.
In Howard’s series there are the stories of an artist, a mathematician, an art photographer, a historian, a silent-film star, among others. Like Howard, these characters wonder about their chosen means of interpreting the world, these tools that at their height can make particular observation endure as universal truth. In the second novel, Louise Moffett—if not a proxy for Howard, then a kin—starts working on a sculpture of an owl, when her son’s babysitter “says it’s like, you know, the one in a story, which book she’s forgotten. Yes, the owl is ... charming as an illustration in a child’s book. Louise smashes the bird into a mass of wet clay.” The missing figure is of course the novelist, who is Howard, and her characters are a dare to her own form of interpreting the world: what can the novel explain about life that these other forms cannot?
Howard has been writing acclaimed novels since the 1960s, but has never quite caught on as the literary treasure that she is. A critic in 2001 wondered why Howard is not cherished more. The answer is obvious: she offers no escapes and is devilishly subtle. To begin with, Howard refuses the very aspects of the novel that readers have long cherished most. We cannot nestle in the comforting coherence of a story: for Howard, stories are too happenstance for that. In Big as Life, Howard writes of Audubon meeting his wife: “History placed Audubon and Lucy across a valley from each other in Pennsylvania, but that is a love story in which a girl with serious green eyes looks up from her sewing.” Nor, in Howard’s universe, is there such a thing as an inevitable or universal plot: “It is merely history of the personal sort that in a moment of grave indecision he gave up both his passions.” Nor are her characters set on a moral scale. No one here is good or evil; everyone is interesting and maybe lovable, but only circumstantially, in that they are just getting by. For these reasons Howard can sound unsentimental, even cold. But we are looking for warmth in the wrong place: her deep humanity emerges slowly but unmistakably, in the interstices of her tale.
With the ascendancy of film and photography, the novel must aspire to more than to render only the visible. In A Lover’s Almanac, Howard quotes Antonioni: “the sort of film I have always wanted to make and have never been able to, a mechanism not of facts but of moments that recount the hidden tensions of those facts, as blossoms reveal the tension of a tree.” Howard seems to suggest that the great director failed because this is the novelist’s, not the filmmaker’s, purview. In The Rags of Time, Howard explicates how she makes writing tolerable for herself, that is, honest: MH picks up one of her previous novels, the acclaimed Liebestraum, but cannot now bear what she calls her “fraudulent war novel,” a World War II love story between an American captain and a German soprano. Later she gets out of bed in the middle of the night and rewrites a few paragraphs. The autumnal work of self-revision has begun.
In MH’s early novel, a boy lies dying in the mud, “shattered hand to his throat where the dog tag covers his Star of David. Against regulations.... He had lied himself into the army by a half year he never lived.” The captain finds the boy’s body—“near impossible,” MH notes caustically from the sidelines—and sends his ID chain back to the boy’s father. The captain himself sustains only superficial wounds—just enough for the desk job that the plot requires, so that the curtain may then rise on a beautiful Wagnerian soprano. The power of the book, which was quickly optioned for Hollywood, is in its contrived and melodramatic plot—the half-year lost, the battlefield death, the romance across enemy lines.
But now, sitting in the lamplight with a yellow legal pad, MH sinks the action beneath the surface. The captain is an old man. He sits at night in the basement playroom of his suburban house, his grown son asleep upstairs. He puts Das Rheingold on the record player, as he has for years, listens to the maidens laughing, over and over, sure that he can hear the voice of his old lover. He remembers his seat in the second tier of the opera house and finding the right record on a business trip to New York. He remembers his wife, now dead, who witnessed this commemorative ritual, again and again, and never thought twice about its meaning: “When matters cultural were on the table ... she confessed her addiction to museums, reported with an indulgent smile, ‘My husband is devoted to Wagner, from his student days, you know.’ Apparently she found his emotion reasonable, never questioned why only Das Rheingold in the playroom.” The wife who never got it, the son upstairs who will never know his father as a young man: Howard has switched from the device of an event to the device of the interpretation of an event. The experience of memory, the activity in a still moment—this is where film falters and Howard thrives.
The series is filled with words that are insufficient, misunderstood, left unsaid, lost, truly unspeakable. Artie, in A Lover’s Almanac, desperate to get back in Louise’s good graces, races to his computer, sure that he has the necessary lines: “My Dearest Louise, If you can find it in your heart ... And again, Dear One, I do not know who Iam ...And yet again, I’m a bastard, Lou, no kidding. Words ... fail him.” But he is a mathematician, so he draws a Venn diagram instead. Artie’s grandfather, Cyril, as a young man just back from war, tells his fiancée that “he did not know what he was going to do. Mae took it to mean what he would work at. He had meant what he was going to do with the rest of his life.” And so a passionless marriage begins. Sylvie—Cyril’s end-of-life love—was raped by a soldier as a girl in Austria, and “it is the work of her life to suppress the scream ... not to repeat the humiliating words, never to tell the end of the story.” Cyril, as an old man, writes a letter to Artie, the grandson he raised, not noticing, in his near-blindness, that he is writing over pages already written, sometimes off the page entirely.
Howard’s characters, too, constantly rely on roles. In banal conversation, as when Sylvie listens to her fellow passenger on a plane, “pert with an encouraging smile, yes, the fairy godmother with a halo of white hair.” In life, as a young woman, a recent immigrant to New York from Austria, Sylvie tries to adjust, “one scene to another, one life to another, a matter of speaking your part, surviving a role, let’s say of little princess of the Villa, of bookish Cinderella, of Shabbas Goy switching on the electric lights.” Even in posterity, as Cyril, reading Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, finds that Franklin has fashioned in it a “Young Ben with three Puffy Rolls under his arm walking up from the docks in Philadelphia.” Of course, the role is a sham and a crutch, and Howard sidesteps this flattening by presenting the histories of the navigations, the various roles her characters alternately embrace, fail to live up to, cope with, discard, outgrow. In A Lover’s Almanac, Mae Boyle—to her husband, Cyril, and her grandson, Artie—is the dutiful and bland caretaker. Artie looks at her apartment and “is sorry for her beige wall-to-wall, for the bland fare of his grandmother’s table ... Harmless Mae, her touch of the ordinary on everything.” Not until the next novel do we see Mae as a young girl building wild altars to the Virgin Mary, lopping off the heads of her family in a newspaper society photo, fleeting moments of excess before she settles into a life that only aims to please.
Scale is a tool of art—Louise Moffett’s first successful paintings are tissue-level close ups of leaves, the whole tree painted in a tiny insert—and Howard neatly captures our own predilection for sizing, as a means of making the past manageable. Artie’s mother, Fiona, a flower child, died when he was a young boy: how to resist the impulse to make her “a comfortable rebel in a theatrical revolution given its few pages in Wonderlust connecting drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, 2001: A Space Odyssey”? Or, for our larger historical figures, such as Audubon, how happily we trade the idea of an actual life lived for the requisite documentary grandiosity, quiet score of birds chirping, intoning voice-over. The title of Howard’s spring novel, Big as Life, is a reference to Audubon’s life-sized depictions of the birds of America, and the challenge she faces: what is the scale for a life not passed but in the midst of passing? Howard succeeds, again, merely by rendering myriad individual relationships to scale, with its appeal and its artifice: when Franklin was crowned with laurel in Paris, Howard wonders if at the time he carried “the Quakerish hat to make a point when it is replaced by the herbal tribute intended for emperors and gods?” From the inside, the scale of life fluctuates: when the rain leaks through the roof during a storm, Louise and Artie mistake incident for disaster; Cyril watches an eclipse with a small group gathered on a hill, and later writes to Artie, “Being one with the universe during the eclipse, I suppose we were less than a pebble in the drive, more than a vaporous breath in the cold air.”
The Rags of Time is in large part a study of Central Park and its history. MH feels an affinity with Frederick Law Olmsted, the park’s great designer, and in the last few pages of the novel she writes, addressing her husband, “You see, you must see, this was not an escapist journey.... What struck me when I found a place to rest, was the reality of the landscapers’ contrivance, not the contrivance of reality.” Often we do not register such contrivances: we see the man-made as untouched by human hands, as tourists do at the Reservoir as MH walks by, or the man who sits by his ornamental pond, a structure of cement, but “natural, by design so natural.” What strikes Howard about the park, and what strikes us about her novels, is not the artist’s manipulations, but the reality that these manipulations are at the heart of the experience of being human.
The reality of the contrivance: it is a fine and deeply moving thought. Howard brings it wrenchingly to life in the final paragraphs of Big as Life. The section is called “Myself,” and Howard writes it for her nephew and granddaughter.
If they will come with me to the stacks and look at the volumes of Birds of America which are still there in the dust, still beautiful though damaged ... if they will patiently turn the pages they will see that Audubon’s drawings will never be surpassed by the digital camera, because it’s art, I will say, somewhat flustered....
I will never forget my first view of the big birds. I was moved to tears. Let them laugh, I will say it—tears: I had been so long denied this pleasure. It was an exhibit, you see, of the hand-colored plates from LaForest’s original elephant portfolio—the turkey in his American splendor, the eagle poised on his rock for the kill.... The trumpeter swan must swivel and dip its head, the pelican squat to fit the page, but they are exact—that is, big as life, exactly as the artist knew they must be.
Sitting now at the library table with the children, we will only have our three books with the small illustrations which Audubon’s son ... reduced to normal page size, thus making Birds of America affordable and an instant best-seller. He had a head for business, but you—you must never be a trimmer....
We will close the books, send them back to the dark. Then we will go home and, with our sharp pencils, crayons and Magic Markers, begin to draw.
Today in the Berkshires: This morning a chipping sparrow walked across the lawn with me. We went a fair way together and I began to wonder whether he would fly off to his life. Midday a wild turkey strutted out of our woods with her chicks, gobbling as though the place was hers. Imagine that.
What precedes the last two words is strong enough: the case for guiding the young toward the intuition of art; the deadening effect of business on art; the darkness in which a book sits until we call for it, and to which we return it; the magic marker drawings that will go on the fridge and then into the trash. But the real punch is the final sentence—Howard’s challenge to the imagination. We are enjoined to learn to imagine nothing more than the witness of a particular moment at a particular time that actually happened. The commonplace is both transfigured and untransfigured. There is no Proustian mysticism here; but still how extraordinary it is that we, unlike the birds, should need such a thing to add up to so much. The impact is similar to that which Louise’s art dealer feels while looking at her latest work, her lover’s head atop a Zodiac man. He dismisses it at first, and then: “Portrait of a Youth, Giorgione. Dealer is reminded of that young man looking out at the world with a self-incriminating smirk—we are all of us in it, are we not?” This leads to a reverie about a boy he once loved who left him sitting alone in a banquette in Paris. Yes, we are all of us in it.
George Eliot, not long before the art of narrative began to buckle under the strain of modernity, made a strikingly similar case for “the reality of the contrivance,” in a famous passage in Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” So there are two actualities: silence, the non-living, on one side, and the chaotic roar of life on the other. Taking a stand between the two—organizing, editing, interpreting the chaos—may be inconclusive, but it is a human necessity. What separates us from Howard and her art of perception is that we do not do a very good job, “well wadded with stupidity” as we are, while she, the novelist, must try to stand clear-eyed in the middle. Howard demands patience and diligence from her reader, but she demands a thousandfold more from herself.
Sophia Lear is the assistant literary editor of The New Republic.