Friday, November 27, 2009

NYRB Challenge Book #11: The Furies. . .

Not every NYRB Classic is decades or centuries old - they also rescue great contemporary literature that, for whatever reason, among the mountains of new books that are published every year, got buried in the landslide and subsequently went out of print. Such is the case with Janet Hobhouse's The Furies, originally published posthumously in 1993.

This is the highly autobiographical, but fictional, story of three generations of women; strong, artistic, rebellious, frustrated, funny - indomitable and endearing in the craziest of ways, and lonely and sad in the most heartfelt ones. It is in some ways a feminist story of the American Dream gone awry in the twentieth century, as Hobhouse alludes to on the first page:

the speed of American life in this century . . can not only provide a solitary immigrant with the means to create, in a matter of decades, a secure and well-populated dynasty, but can also, and at the same rate, take all these steps in reverse, reducing, as in our case, a huge, prosperous, civically active and internationally connected clan to a mere handful of desperate solitaries, operating like loose ball bearings in outer space.
The novel chronicles Helen's complicated love-hate relationship with her beautiful but mentally unstable mother Bett - from her feelings of abandonment in a boarding school as a young child, her guilty yet empowering flight to Oxford, trying to re-establish a meaningful adult relationship years later, to finally coming to terms with her mother's eventual suicide. Along the way Helen falls in love, gets married, divorced and has several affairs (including one apparently based on the author's own affair with Philip Roth), all the while trying to battle her two interior instincts - her cravings for human connection and love, and her duelling need to be alone. She is also geographically and culturally torn - between an elegant, sophisticated British lifestyle and the excitement and creativity of her native New York - so tied up with the painful memories of her mother and childhood.

Part of the joy of reading this novel is Hobhouse's prose, always introspective and questioning, and frequently cynical, but nevertheless zinging with a narrative and poetic energy and rhythm:

I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life or whether I was going to live it with someone . . . These two questions of what you did and how many of you you were were very much connected, only I had no idea of that then. You say I should have; all decent girls in the early seventies knew these things were the same. But I wasn't taking part in history, I was my own zeit, geisted by the shark life of survival and chomping, as I say, fresh from Oxford with its cockaded hats and champagne corks, about as much a part of history as a window of chocolate squirrels. . .
This was an incredibly beautiful and moving novel to read. In its portrayal of the very fractured relationships between women, it reminded me of Jonathan Coe's The Rain Before it Falls. The younger voice of Helen at times recalled Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Fans of the novels of Mary McCarthy would also enjoy this as Hobhouse's female characters suffer similar frustrations and difficult choices. It covers some tough topics - suicide, depression, poverty and a potentially terminal illness - and yet there's such honesty and even humour on display, that hope doesn't seem very far behind. There is literally a light at the end of the tunnel by the novel's end. Not, alas, for Hobhouse herself, who died of ovarian cancer at the age of forty-two. I highly recommend this novel - it would be great for bookclubs as well.

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