"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Elizabeth Bishop Re-imagined: a novel approach

Recently, a friend gave me a copy of Liza Wieland’s new novel, Paris 7 A.M. (Simon & Schuster, June 2019), her re-imagining of Elizabeth Bishop’s life during a sojourn in France in the mid-1930s. 
Wieland’s is not the first fictionalized rendering of an important time and place in Bishop’s life. Michael Sledge’s The More I Owe You (Counterpoint), his version of Bishop’s life in Brazil and relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares, was published in 2010.
Sledge’s novel is by and large a linear narrative with flashbacks, its 328 pages span Bishop’s Brazil years in a comprehensive manner, offering his take on the personal intimacies and political intrigues of this transformative time in her life. It has been years since I read it and I can’t in all honesty remember much of it, that is, remember Sledge’s version of the events, personalities, relationships. What I do remember is that early on he lost my willingness to accept his fiction, on page 49 with the following (a moment when Bishop remembers something about her mother): “How many evening meals had they endured with forced cheer while Gertrude lay on the couch emitting little squeaks and gurgles, one arm over her eyes while the other dangled to the floor, the fingers of her white hand moving as slowly as the claws of a dying crab.” “Squeaks and gurgles”; “the claws of a dying crab”? Really?
I have spent many years encouraging artists of all disciplines to read and respond to Bishop (filmmakers, photographers, painters, musicians and, yes, poets and novelists). These artists needed little prodding. Bishop is one of those gifted creators who quickly gets under one’s skin and almost compels a response. She often gets incorporated obliquely or directly into the art created in that response. In principle, I am all for artists offering their versions of Bishop, or their response to something Bishop has written. Indeed, as a biographer of Bishop, I have my own version of her too. And Bishop has influenced some of my own poems.
After the above quotation in Sledge’s book, a substantial narrative unfolds, rendering not only a view of Bishop and the people in her life, but also ample invisibles: emotions, ideas, memories, dreams. Should I judge this substantial effort by one unfortunate description? I’m afraid that I did and even after all these years, I can’t quite get past it.
Sledge is, however, in good company. Many Bishop scholars and biographers have taken the easy and/or sensational path where her mother and their relationship are concerned. I have written about these liberties on this blog and elsewhere. It is not that I believe I know better, but any careful reading of Bishop’s work (all of it: poems, memoir stories, letters, journals) reveals that Bishop’s understanding of her mother’s life and its impact on her daughter was nothing if not complex and shouldn’t be summed up in the one word that attracts so many scholars: “mad.”
Wieland’s novel is a different kettle of fish. Its focus is a very specific, finite period in Bishop’s life: a couple of years during her early adulthood, when she ventured forth into the world for the first time. Wieland’s style is also markedly different. Her novel is comprised of many short chapters, vignette-like glimpses or “tableaux” (a term that appears at one point). The word that kept coming to me was “impressionistic,” not relentlessly narrative, as Sledge’s story. There is a forward trajectory, a plot; but the novel is not rigidly anchored to it. Moreover, Wieland leaves as much out as she puts in (unlike Sledge who packs in as much as possible). It strikes me that this modus operandi bespeaks a brave novelist.
When I opened the book for the first time, I was not inclined to like it, just on principle. But I found myself intrigued immediately because the prose is deeply poetic (the right approach, it seems to me, for the subject: a profound poet). Indeed, I might argue that each of the chapters is a prose poem: elegant, precise, densely associative, self-contained.
Wieland weaves many allusions from Bishop’s work carefully, cleverly and often seamlessly into the lines. One thing I began to do instantly was identify from which poems and stories the allusions came.
Being a Bishop biographer, however, makes it difficult for me to read Wieland’s novel as fiction. That is, I resist reading it as fiction, which isn’t fair, I suppose, to the writer. The biggest fiction in this novel is a dangerous adventure the young Bishop gets caught up in: helping an older woman, who echoes her mother in many ways, to save two Jewish infants from the looming wave of Nazi oppression and violence overtaking Europe in 1936‒1937, an effort to which she is sworn to secrecy. In the midst of all this intrigue, Bishop has a brief affair with a German woman, who is also fleeing this intensifying, expanding oppression. If you are going to create events in Bishop’s life, these two are certainly interesting and have a logic about them.
These two fictions take place amid actual events: for example, the suicide of Robert Seaver (though that happened before Bishop’s first trip to Europe) and the car accident that resulted in Margaret Miller losing her arm, both profoundly traumatic events for all concerned. It seems to me Wieland handles these tragedies well and the thoughts she gives to Bishop (some of which come from journals and letters) feel authentic.
Overall, I actually enjoyed reading this novel, primarily because of Wieland’s style and form, her often exquisite language. You had better be adept at metaphor and turn of phrase if you want to write artistically about Bishop, and Wieland clearly has a gift.
All this said, I still come back to “mother” — I can’t help myself.
Gertrude Bulmer Bishop appears in this novel entirely as memory; her life and illness torqued out of its factual trajectory. Wieland did a lot of research for this book, but clearly, she didn’t read a lengthy manuscript about her mother (which later got compressed and transformed into “In the Village”) that Bishop worked on in the early 1930s. While Gertrude does have some substance as an actual person in these pages, Wieland does what nearly everyone else writing about this relationship does, reduces Gertrude to a caricature. How sensational it is to latch onto (and repeat, p. 14, 56) something Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell: that she was told her mother had wanted to kill her, something Bishop knew was not true. In the end, Wieland, can’t help but bring in that word all scholars believe so thoroughly applies to Gertrude: mad. She concentrates “that truth” on page 219, writing it five time, equating this madness with Clara, the most important character in the novel besides Bishop. I thought this paragraph was a hammer, a tool Wieland rarely uses to craft her refined prose. Even in her early 20s, Bishop knew that things with her mother were more complex than they seemed. Bishop was working through a great deal at this time of her life, exploring the shadows in her dreams, journals, poems and stories. The open-endedness Wieland affords the mysterious fictional characters and relationships seems denied to Gertrude and Elizabeth.
I have thought more than once of trying to write a novel about Gertrude. I won’t, however, because I have tried to explain things in biography, a limited enough genre, for sure. Still, the urge to reclaim Bishop’s mother (someone the poet endeavoured to understand her whole life) is strong.
Being a biographer, I suppose it is clear that I find fact more interesting than fiction. The truism that fact is stranger than fiction does have validity. All this said, I somehow felt I could overlook this same-old characterisation in Wieland’s novel because it is so well written. At least I tried to. But I do wish Americans would stop calling Halifax Harbour a “bay” (page 13)! And, sadly, no passenger train would have passed “one hundred yards to the north of the psychiatric hospital in Dartmouth” (p. 13; a provincial institution, not a “state” facility). And if there was ever a “pier” at Economy Point, it would have been a wharf and existed in the Age of Sail (19th century), not during Bishop’s childhood. Such infelicities (and there are others) made me smile and sigh.
Then, Wieland incorporates Bishop’s poem “A Drunkard,” which describes her memory of the Great Salem Fire in 1914 after which Gertrude reprimands her three-year-old daughter for wanting to pick up a piece of detritus on the beach. Wieland transports this fire to Nova Scotia: “There is a fire in Great Village. Many people have lost their homes.” Bishop described a fire in Great Village in “In the Village,” but all that burned was a barn. I think Great Village would remember a conflagration as severe as that which claimed Salem, Massachusetts. Would Bishop, even a fictional Bishop, make or mix up such events? Wieland’s Great Village fire is evoked a couple of times (pp. 253, 258) and allows Wieland to intensify Gertrude’s sinister quality, describing her “scolding voice” as “cruel” and “vicious and desperate,” strong adjectives given the wider context of Europe in 1936 — Gertrude as Nazi. She turns Gertrude into a “wounded animal,” to explain Bishop’s state of mind and choices made.
I had to keep repeating: this is fiction. But the fact is, more people will learn about Elizabeth Bishop by reading this novel than those who read the literary criticism and biography, which continues to be published. People will take this fiction to be fact because the novel is about a real person in a historical context and contains many real people as characters.
And to be really nit-picking, I found a few typos: “paying” for playing (p. 139); “though” for through (pp. 145, 222); one too many “a”s (p. 266). I did wonder why Wieland chose “1953” as a chapter title describing an encounter Bishop had with her old friend Clara at Grand Central Station in New York City. Bishop was living in Brazil at that time. Her visits to NYC happened in 1952, 1957 and 1961. Why not just write: “1952” instead? Finally (I have made my point), I wondered about the following: “I’m jealous of how peaceful she looks. Here they’d say she was comfortable in her skin. In Canada, you would say she was in her skirt.” Never in my life have I heard that latter phrase, but perhaps it is an Upper Canadian saying?
Wieland’s penultimate chapter/vignette/prose poem is, appropriately enough, a list of losses (echoing “One Art,” of course, the poem that has become Bishop’s signature, a sort of anthem for our age). The things Wieland states that Bishop has lost have inner logic for the novel, but it struck me as a rather sad conclusion. Bishop surely suffered many losses, but she persevered and wrote poetry and stories that haunt people forty years after her death, so much so that novelists write novels about her. The final chapter, entitled “1979,” the year Bishop died, is another list of things that remain in Bishop’s final home, Lewis Wharf in Boston. This list is also logical and poignant, yet it left me at a loss. Where was the literary legacy of this young woman involved in serious events in Europe in the 1930s, during the lead up to war? Well, Bishop did believe objects were sentient, so perhaps I’m being too demanding in my expectations. And perhaps Wieland intends her compressed, quiet list, the form itself, to be the answer to my question. Bishop’s death was sudden, unexpected, a great loss for all who loved and knew her. So perhaps in the end what is left of her, of any of us, is this kind of list of small objects, with all their secrets and silences.

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