By Tess Slesinger, introduction by Elizabeth HardwickNew York Review Books, 328 pages, $14.95
By Margaret DrabbleHarcourt, 320 pages, $25.00
Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories
edited by Sandra M. Gilbert
Library of America, 1000 pages, $35.00
Kate Chopin's late-nineteenth-century "local color" short stories, set largely within the Creole society of Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana (which remains to this day perhaps the most intensely exotic place in the United States), are distinguished by a detached and skeptical authorial voice and an elegant and efficient use of dialogue. But even the best of them feel constrained, largely because the editorial policies of the magazines for which she wrote (including this one) hampered her exploration of the subjects she was increasingly drawn to—particularly female sexuality.
Her first novel, At Fault, is a wooden melodrama. She destroyed the manuscript of her second. Her third, The Awakening (1899), which depicts the adulterous experiments of a married woman, Edna Pontellier, was rejected almost unanimously by critics. The accompanying storm of scandal silenced Chopin, and she died five years later, brokenhearted. But the novel is a minor masterpiece—and it was the most important work of fiction in America to date about a woman's erotic life. Marked by an almost Gallic clarity of style and moral coolness (Chopin greatly admired Maupassant and Madame de Staël, whom she read in the original), the book is far more complex than many of its champions—who insist that it be read as a proto-feminist tract—would have it: Chopin sees "awakened" sexuality itself as more destructive than life-affirming. And although the novel takes for granted that the bond between a mother and her children is the most profound love a woman can feel, Chopin also, strikingly, depicts that bond—not husbands, lovers, or the dictates of society—as the most profound obstacle to female self-fulfillment. (Before Edna drowns herself, Chopin writes, "[Her] children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them.")
Certainly this novel and a good number of Chopin's short stories—"In Sabine," "Désirée's Baby," "Athénaïse," "The Story of an Hour," "A Night in Acadie," and the posthumously published "The Storm" among them—are stunning, but they are already available in several inexpensive editions and collections. The question is, does Chopin's oeuvre merit the Library of America canonization? Do her complete works, which include the execrable At Fault and her many second-rate short stories, deserve to be put on the same shelf with the complete Melville, Hawthorne, and Nabokov? (Then again, a single volume devoted to Chopin is far more defensible than another of the publisher's fall titles—a two-volume edition of Paul Bowles's works.) —Benjamin Schwarz
The Seven Sisters
by Margaret Drabble
Harcourt, 320 pages, $25.00
This book begins very well. Candida Wilton, a woman of late middle age, recently betrayed by her husband, divorced, and estranged from her three grown daughters, buys a flat in a menacing section of central London and begins a diary, hoping to make something of what she perceives as the nothingness of her days. Her tartness is delectable as she discusses her ex-husband—"He is good, good, good. I have come to hate him"—and a friend she dislikes and yet cannot drop. And the friendships she begins to form with other women are a promising and fresh subject for a novel. Without half trying, Drabble can conjure a more vivid character than most other writers can, but the book reads like a sketch for a more considered work to come. Partway through she switches to the third person, as Candida and six female friends (the seven sisters of the title) retrace a portion of Aeneas's journey, but though the style here is tighter and more polished than in the first-person segments, it doesn't quite compensate for the loss of Candida's sharp observations; and Drabble dips too shallowly into all these characters to pique the reader's interest in any one. Their journey makes for merely pleasant reading; one feels cheated, suspecting that the author is just covering miles and pages. The motive behind still another shift in the narration is intriguing, but the eventual revelation that this section is meant to be clumsy and hollow doesn't mitigate the trial of reading it. An accomplished writer's readers have relentlessly high expectations, and this novel doesn't meet them. —Christina Schwarz
Aldous Huxley: Complete Essays Volume VI
edited by Robert S. Baker and James Sexton
Ivan R. Dee, 476 pages, $35.00
The sixth and final volume of Aldous Huxley's complete essays closes an important and admirable publishing venture. Huxley wrote that the essay is "a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything," and these exceptionally edited and organized books, with lengthy, detailed, and astute introductions, display a wide-ranging intellect unmatched among twentieth-century men of letters. In "Literature and Science," reprinted in this volume, Huxley contrasted Matthew Arnold, who advocated humanistic learning, with T. H. Huxley, who advocated a scientific education. Aldous, the great-nephew of the former and the grandson of the latter, synthesized their visions. With an ironic mind and an assured and lucid style, he probed in these essays philosophy, religion, history, architecture, painting, music, literature, technology, and the social, natural, and physical sciences. (Despite his interest in Eastern mysticism and the fact that his The Doors of Perception would become a bible for the pseudo-intellectual strain of the 1960s drug culture, Huxley's aesthetic preference was for the classically restrained, and he concentrated on structural and formal questions in his music and art criticism.) Inevitably, the essays in a complete assemblage will vary in quality, and this last volume, which covers the final years of Huxley's life, is, not surprisingly, the weakest (he wrote in this period more than I want to know about such topics as ESP and mescaline). Still, Huxley's peculiar combination of the playful and the trenchant characterizes the best writing here, and taken together these books present a coherent cultural and intellectual history of the past century. (And a history of that century's periodical essay: Huxley began his career as a journalist writing for Britain's elegantly learned Athenaeum, and he ended it writing largely for Esquire, from which many of the pieces in this volume have been reprinted. His essay "Back Numbers" contains probably the first and last reference to James Fitzjames Stephen to appear in that magazine.) —Benjamin Schwarz
The Unpossessed: A Novel of the Thirties
by Tess Slesinger, introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick
New York Review Books, 328 pages, $14.95
Novels of the Depression typically promise noble, wronged proletarians; greedy, malicious bosses and bankers; the occasional impassioned slogan delivered out of the righteous, in-flamed imagination of the all-too-obtruding writer. You won't find much of that in Tess Slesinger's The Unpossessed—except, that is, as fodder for savagely precise satire. New York Review Books's reissue marks at least the third incarnation of this novel since it was first published, in 1934. Unlike so many other thirties novels, The Unpossessed treats the "topical" themes of its age as subsets of a much larger, more abiding theme in literature: the folly of all human (and particularly of pompous intellectual) endeavor that aims at imposing a rational direction on something as incorrigibly messy as history. Slesinger's note-perfect depiction of this folly gives The Unpossessed its irresistible narrative energy. Three former college left-wingers are out to found a magazine. In the process, many of their elaborate political and editorial presumptions come crashing down, revealing individual agendas behind the ideology. Politics is chiefly the lit fuse that brightly illuminates the characters' personal foibles and miseries even as it guarantees their most public combustion. And Slesinger depicts that politics as the exclusive, self-dramatizing sport of men who are all too often terrified of more basic aspects of living—intimacy with women chief among them. The elemental domestic longings of Margaret, the wife of one of the magazine's founders, stand out in sharp contrast to the tormented public-intellectual career of her husband, who persuades her with political rationalizations to get an abortion. "We'd go soft," he announces in the moment of decision, "... we'd go bourgeois." Margaret relents, thinking, "Yes, they would go soft, they might slump and start liking people, they might weaken and forgive stupidity, they might yawn and forget to hate." For all its antic wit, The Unpossessed is a tremendously sober and bleak meditation on modern politics and modern life alike. —Chris Lehmann
Recent books by Atlantic authors:
Interviews: "Inside the Ruins" (June 17, 2002)
William Langewiesche, the author of "American Ground," on life at the World Trade Center site after the towers fell.
Finders Keepers: The Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million, by Mark Bowden. Atlantic Monthly Press. Bowden's story on the air war in Afghanistan, "The Kabul-ki Dance," appears in this issue.
All Is Vanity, by Christina Schwarz. Doubleday. Schwarz has been a regular contributor to The Atlantic since 1996.
American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, by William Langewiesche. North Point Press/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. This book originated as a series of three articles—"The Inner World," "The Rush to Recover," and "The Dance of the Dinosaurs"—commissioned by The Atlantic for the July/August, September, and October issues.