Every so often literary history convulses, then settles down into a different shape. New tastes and new politics cast a lurid light on the judgments of forty, fifty, sixty years ago: some established names take a tumble and some forgotten names rise, mostly after the deaths of the authors concerned. New-old writers are good for publishers, but this literary resurrection is genuinely, too, a kind of justice for the forgotten, and a necessary remapping of the past. The last few years have seen the republication of some American women writers of the mid-to-late 20th century, among them Elizabeth Hardwick, Jean Stafford (these two had been better known as Robert Lowell’s wives) and Lucia Berlin, whose luminous short stories seem to me as good as anyone’s.
Now Picador have published Blue in Chicago, a collection of stories by Bette Howland, born in 1937, a Jewish writer from a working-class neighbourhood in Chicago. She married and divorced Howard Howland, a Wasp whose family came over on the Mayflower, leaving her a single mother to two boys; she was taken up by Saul Bellow, who became her mentor and sometime lover. Her first story came out in his magazine Noble Savage (alongside one by Berlin). Howland was fraught, trying to make a living from low-paid shifts as a librarian and freelance editorial work for the University of Chicago Press; Bellow encouraged her to harness her troubles in the service of her writing. ‘As for writing (your writing) I think you ought to write, in bed, and make use of your unhappiness. I do it. Many do. One should cook and eat one’s misery. Chain it like a dog. Harness it like Niagara falls to generate light and supply voltage for electric chairs.’ In 1968, staying in Bellow’s apartment while he was abroad, Howland swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. Her first published book, W-3 (1974), was a memoir of her time in a psychiatric ward. She had followed Bellow’s prescription to the letter.
Howland had some recognition in her thirties and forties, publishing two collections of stories after W-3: Blue in Chicago (1978) and Things to Come and Go (1983). She was awarded a Guggenheim in 1978; a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a MacArthur ‘genius’ fellowship followed in 1981 and 1984. The success proved fatal: Howland never published another book. A novella, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, came out in TriQuarterly in the 1990s, and is included at the end of the Picador volume. By the time Brigid Hughes, editor of the Brooklyn literary magazine A Public Space, came across a copy of W-3 marked down to a dollar on a cart of second-hand books, Howland was elderly and suffering from MS and dementia. She died in 2017.
Howland’s son Jacob said that the MacArthur fellowship ‘sapped her confidence’: ‘People expect great things from a writer who has won the MacArthur.’ There’s always the danger that a prize – especially if it comes early in a career – may distort a writer’s delicate negotiation of voice and audience, like amplifying it through a public address system. You learn to write by adjusting sentences for an imagined listening ear, with responsibilities in many directions (to see clearly and exactly, not to be tiresome, not to lay anything on too thick, not to be too ingeniously clever or too stupidly obvious and so on). That adjustment needs to happen in a secret space, with the ego, self-loving or self-hating, tied up safely elsewhere. Trying to write like a Genius, any writer might feel an awful fraud.
Howland’s thwarted career is our loss: at her best she is very good. Most of the stories in the first half of this collection read like extended fragments of fictionalised memoir. The same elements and characters crop up in different stories; the narrator, Bette, is a single parent with two boys (sometimes the boys are living with their father). She’s still involved in the rituals of her working-class family – weddings, funerals, family fallings-out – but trying to free herself as an intellectual. She’s a graduate student, but stubbornly insists on living on Chicago’s south side, ‘with its high crime rate and race warfare’, to the dismay of her family who are clawing their way, through each generation, out of Uptown to somewhere more respectable. (Bette is clawing her way up too, of course, only differently.) Uptown is the Chicago neighbourhood where the old matriarch, a tiny grandmother in rhinestone-framed glasses, insists on staying – she’s stubborn too – although her children want her to move in with them. These days, Bette thinks, Uptown’s like a DP camp: ‘home of the displaced, the disinherited, the uprooted … Appalachians, American Indians – aching with homesickness; the poor, the elderly, the halfway houses’. But the suburbs are too dull for her grandmother; she likes to sit in the plate-glass window of the A&P, resting her shopping bags, watching the world along with the other old ladies. ‘It was April; the wind was blowing fresh tender soot, swirling papers fancifully in the gutters.’
Howland’s portrait of Chicago reminds us of how collapsed and violent inner-city life could feel in the 1970s. (Paula Fox’s 1970s New York novels are striking in the same way.) The title story opens with Bette listening to the radio, hearing news of yet another Chicago graduate student shot and killed, this time in a hold-up. One friend of hers has had her car stolen on three separate occasions, has been raped and burgled. Bette’s family, for all their upward mobility, are living through a period of worsening social cohesion. (In our time, fifty years after Howland was writing, these cities are in the aftermath of her aftermath, everything having changed again.) Race is always an element in Bette’s conscientious anxiety, and she knows that if there was once a better time, it was never better for black Americans; the fact that race is fairly peripheral in her stories – its pain generalised rather than particularised – is significant in itself. White communities mix. Lots of Jews marry lots of goys, but black and white lives are conducted separately. In the days after Martin Luther King’s assassination, ‘the odour of smoke and cinders [is] blowing over the city.’ When Bette first began to take the bus north from the south side, she hadn’t noticed that she was the only white girl – ‘blacks had not yet pressed the issue.’ Now, in the new politics, she can’t help but pay attention. ‘And it must be said right off that the fact that I didn’t notice, that it didn’t matter to me, did not improve the situation in any way.’
The forms of an American civic ideal persist, but are degraded. ‘Twenty-Sixth and California’ is an impressionistic account of a day in a criminal courtroom, the perfunctory processing of the downtrodden and oppressed (most of them black). ‘Court is above all a family affair. The benches are full of children, like 18th-century jails.’ ‘Public Facilities’ conjures up long, dull days spent in an Uptown branch library. The place is full of books and employs an enviably large staff, though its primary function is to give the aimless and homeless somewhere to keep warm and pretend to be busy. The financial pages are ‘in brisk demand’. One nicely-spoken old lady wears a fur coat pinned with diaper pins and gym shoes with no laces.
The social history of Howland’s stories is focused on several generations of a single Jewish family. A long-dead great-grandmother from Romania wore gypsy scarves and earrings and read the tea leaves; Bette never talked to her, couldn’t speak any of her languages. The grandmother’s girlhood was spent in Kentucky, of all places, but she raised her family in Chicago; when her husband presided over family Passover seder – ‘there was something hasty and droning about the whole business’ – she didn’t sit down to eat with them. At her funeral, in one of the later stories, her sons don’t know how to say Kaddish.
The young people go off to university, and to Europe, despite the economic slump of the 1970s and the collapse of the job market. (‘Europe?’ says their grandmother. ‘I’ve been there.’) It’s the wartime generation, the ‘parents – the printers, the plumbers – the same class who’ve borne the brunt of things all along, who are still worrying about the future’. These middle-aged fathers all have injuries from the war; these mothers have been clerking or waiting tables for years, to put their children through college. Every remark they make to these children sounds like a reproach. Bette’s father wrote to her at summer camp when she was a girl: Be a Good Girl. Apply Yourself. Obey Your Mother. Don’t Disappoint. ‘What had I done wrong? What was I going to do? How did he know about it?’
‘Aren’t you going to put on any make-up?’ my mother asked as soon as I walked in the door. ‘Look how thin she’s getting,’ my grandmother said, catching her lip between her teeth. ‘She’s putting on weight,’ said my mother.
These stories aren’t just social anthropology, and anyhow when they’re at their best the social anthropology is humane and funny. Bette is drawn to her uncle Rudy, a policeman: six foot four, 250 pounds, crew-cut, bullet-headed, honest because he can’t imagine being anything else. Rudy wants to show her the requisite manly workshop he’s built in his basement: ‘But I don’t know how to do nothing, so I don’t use it.’ Driving his womenfolk to a family wedding, he expresses his refusal of their conspiring, feuding femininity by going in the wrong direction – any way but the route they’re shouting from the back of the car.
Rudy is unhappily married to Roxanne, a Southern girl with a ‘discontented mountain drawl’, and she isn’t pleased with her new hairdo. ‘I tolt her beige blont and she dit it silver blont instet.’ Every summer Roxanne takes her daughters back to Kentucky. She’s brilliant with a needle, it’s her heritage: she grew up in a gas station, and now she and Rudy live in a shabby apartment, but her quilts are things of beauty. When Rudy eventually gets his passengers to the wedding, there are mutterings from both sides of the church: Cousin Gregg is marrying an Irish girl. ‘Do you think she’s Catholic? No one told us she was Catholic.’ Then: ‘Jewish? You really think he’s a Jew?’ Bette’s mother says it ‘just doesn’t work out. It’s much better when two people have the same background,’ although no one in her family has married a Jew for thirty years. Across several stories Howland replays her fascination with an improbable hybrid of Jewish tradition and the folk-world of the South, with its poverty, its prejudice and its music: ‘The American mishmash; bedrock Southern fundamentalism, pie-eyed immigrant dreams.’
Bette’s relationship with her mother and grandmother is at the heart of these family stories. Her mother is handsome: not smart and expensive, but one of those ‘working-class wives who get their hair done every other week’ and like their clothes in bright colours, ‘pinks, purples, yellows, oranges, greens, preferably all at once’. She’s impossibly anxious, controlling and tactless, scolding and offending everyone, but indefatigable with the new-found energy of middle age, discovering, belatedly, that life is for having a good time. ‘I can’t live within ten miles of her,’ Bette thinks; but ‘I dread the distance there must one day be between us.’
The grandmother holds out heroically in her apartment in Uptown, watching the world, swapping stories with her goy neighbours, on guard against any encroachment on her independence.
If you go to the store for her, right away out comes the ‘pocket-book’, her fingers prizing the clasp. ‘How much? Huh? How much?’ Her big feet push her slippers across the floor, her hands drag the backs of chairs. Her mouth is tight, as if she has suddenly thought of something she has forgotten to do. And her voice is getting rough; I find myself raising my own voice more and more. She peers round at the sound, turning her whole self stiffly sideways; an old white porcupine heavy with quills. She seems to be using all her senses at once, trying to make out a strange noise in the dark. Do you think she could be getting a little deaf in her old age?
But then someone spills a bottle of oil in the A&P store, and she slips and breaks her hip, and sits on a crate for three hours, waiting for an ambulance. But she couldn’t have sat, not with that hip, the doctor says, in disbelief. ‘You don’t know my mother,’ Bette’s mother says. ‘This was what stood out in her mind. They didn’t know my mother.’ The grandmother goes to live with Rudy and Roxanne and takes a year to die. Rudy was always her favourite, her baby: it’s ‘not just a preference, it’s rapture; the undemonstrative old woman’s joy in life’. But now she’s changed, she’s helpless and mostly silent (‘What’s there to say?’), and she calls Rudy the narr, the fool.
She seemed to have aged a hundred years. It wasn’t any of the things I had been afraid of. No wrinkles, no trembling, no coarse threads on her chin. No munching lips … She just seemed covered with frost, like ice on a window. You could sense that her nerves took a dazzled concentration. All her movements were solemn and premeditated.
Bette moves to New York, and it’s there her mother rings up with news of her grandmother’s death and details of the funeral:
‘No one expects you. You don’t need to come.’ Hard to tell what this meant; after all these years I still don’t speak her language. ‘You have your memories,’ she said. I do?
It’s a familiar paradox: in order to save herself, the writer needs to get away from her family; and yet when she sits down to write, the lost world of family is her best material – all those same phrases and jokes and nuances of feeling that used to drive her mad, the same details of clothes and furniture, the trivia and the secrets, the worn-out small change of resentment and belief.
Iread Howland’s stories alongside Saul Bellow’s Chicago novel, Humboldt’s Gift, to see how his influence might have played out in her. There is, unsurprisingly, a huge gulf in their achievement. His writing surges forward with ambition and confidence; next to it, Howland’s can feel clotted and dense on the page, devoid of momentum and unresolved into the ripe whole of a story. She doesn’t quite know what she wants to do with what she sees. Through Bellow’s words, we see voraciously. (There are uses for ego in writing after all.)
I took Humboldt on the El to the stockyards. He saw the Loop. We went to the lakeshore and listened to the foghorns. They bawled melancholy over the limp silk fresh lilac drowning water. But Humboldt responded mostly to the old neighbourhood. The silvered boiler rivets and the blazing Polish geraniums got him. He listened pale and moved to the buzzing of roller-skate wheels on the brittle cement. I too am sentimental about urban ugliness.
And yet, as spectacular as the view is, reading Bellow can feel like looking at everything through bright glass. I can’t find anything in him that quite registers the painful inwardness of another life – as in that passage above, say, where Howland attends to her grandmother’s separate being. We feel the old woman resisting her assimilation into writing, whereas everything is fuel for Bellow’s virtuosity. Alice Munro – more or less her contemporary – might have been a more useful model for Howland. Munro makes her style and form out of her authorial hesitation, incorporating into her sentences her doubt over her right to use her own past or the lives of others, piecing together her stories out of contradictory fragments without resolving them.
The stories in the second half of Blue in Chicago seem to me less good than the fragments of family memoir. They reach for greater significance and hold forth more – less like Munro and more like Bellow. In Humboldt’s Gift we’re meant to feel some irony at the expense of the narrator’s high-flownness, but not too much. The passage I quoted above runs on: ‘In the modern spirit of ransoming the commonplace, all this junk and wretchedness, through art and poetry, by the superior power of the soul.’ Bellow’s book is exuberantly in love with its own ideas, its own cleverness and vast cultural reference. Its theme is a contest between male geniuses: Humboldt the poet against his heir and rival Charlie Citrine, the two writers locked in love-hate struggle, old bull against young buck – each vying to be the pinnacle of intellectual life in America. In an era of rivalrous displays of masculine literary brilliance, Howland must have felt under pressure to produce significance of a different order to the painstaking notation of a particular family history.
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, the novella published in 1999, is all about a genius, although Victor Lazarus isn’t meant to be Bellow: he seems to have been based loosely on a philosophy professor with whom Howland fell in love. Victor is dead at the beginning of Calm Sea, and the story is an extended lament, addressed rhetorically in the second person to the dead man, and narrated by his grieving lover.
They wouldn’t have known you, either. Did I? Victor Lazarus. The long list of honours, distinctions after your name in, as you called it, who zoo; and in your obituary. You didn’t have much to show for it, did you? Your zillion books, your umpteen languages, your reputation, so they say, the world over. A flat in a student barracks, a mattress on the floor, second-hand furniture, a second-hand car. Not to mention your second-hand body. Rivets in your ribs. Staples in your lungs. Man-made oesophagus, stitched-up stomach.
There are interesting things in this novella: some black comedy, for instance, in the efforts to find an orthodox rabbi for the funeral – he won’t officiate because Victor is (another) product of a marriage between a Jew and a Southerner (his grandmother was Sadie McDade, baptised in the Tombigbee River). In life and death he is haunted by his manic and dreadful first wife, child-survivor of a horrific Holocaust experience, refusing to accept her divorce from him, telephoning hysterically at all hours, turning up to pound on his door ‘in bathrobe and slippers, beating down [the] door with her tiny bare fists, her tiny bare feet’.
But despite lengthy accounts of his various surgeries, Victor Lazarus doesn’t come back to life on the page. We have to take the narrator’s word for his brilliance and beauty and ironic wit and the power of his intellectual work to redeem everything humdrum and disappointing in daily life. His work actually sounds more like circus tricks. Six weeks after he starts learning Italian, ‘he’s writing a paper on the Commedia and medieval Islamic philosophy – one version in Arabic, the other in Italian.’ And the more our narrator insists on his brilliance, the more Howland’s prose falls into sententiousness and repetitive staccato: ‘That’s what attracted me. Your learning. Victor Lazarus. Potentially the Best Philosopher of Your Generation. That doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? But you knew better, Lover of Wisdom, Lover of Women. That’s what attracted everyone – the ardour that was in you. The ardour that was you.’ Calm Sea can’t get beyond the idea of the genius, but can’t quite convince us of Victor’s geniusness either. It’s constructed around a hollow centre, an absence, so different from the vivid life of family in Howland’s early work.