Heroines is a text that flares furiously: willfully ignoring Woolf’s fretting in A Room of One's Own over female authors whose work is driven by “thHeroines is a text that flares furiously: willfully ignoring Woolf’s fretting in A Room of One's Own over female authors whose work is driven by “the red light of emotion,” Zambreno instead throws in with the red-haired speaker of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” who rises exultantly “out of the ash” to remorselessly chomp upon “men like air.” A showcase for Zambreno’s deep and wide-ranging study into the lives and experiences of a number of women of the modernist era, she also dares write herself and her experiences directly into Heroines, ingeniously undermining traditional distinctions between literary scholarship and personal memoir.
And I feel the need to stipulate right off: this is not my text. It is not mine in the sense that I am not a woman, let alone have experienced the kinds of mental illness or crippling insecurities disclosed throughout these pages. I feel it’s important to honor that reality, as scanning through the current Goodreads ratings and reviews it appears Heroines resonates much more with readers who identify as female than with the several males who have so far logged responses (with inevitable exceptions, of course) Considering how central the idea of creating a sense of community among women is central to many of Zambreno’s ideas, I respect and admire its attempt to record and actively construct a space of visibility and support.
On the other hand, this is very much my text; when she writes “I feel compelled to act as the literary executor of the dead and erased” I immediately recognized an impulse nearly identical to my own personal literary and academic project of Queer Modernisms, my blog on marginalized and forgotten queer figures of the modernist era. As someone also strangely compelled to spend so much time and effort to research and reclaim the life stories and artistic work of the historically erased (and outside of the typical orbit of academia), there were so many moments where I found myself muttering “yes, yes—that’s exactly it.” Reading Heroines in many ways felt like crossing paths with a fellow pilgrim while wandering in the wilderness—our trajectories or intended destinations aren’t the same, but the underlying motivation is.
Vivianne Eliot (married to T.S. “Tom”) and Zelda Fitzgerald (married to F. Scott) quickly emerge as the patron saints and great tragic figures of Heroines, with much space accorded to the explication of their heartbreaking life stories which eerily echo each other. A kaleidoscopic array of individuals also appear and disappear throughout the pages of Heroines, including Woolf, Plath, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, Djuna Barnes, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Anaïs Nin, Elizabeth Hardwicke, Mary McCarthy, Anna Kavan, Laure (Colette Peignot), and countless others (though I will say this is a disappointingly white project: I was eagerly anticipating the appearance of Nina Simone as she appears on the collage on the original Semiotexte cover, but she only warrants one passing mention like a bit of trivia. But that’s still one more mention than afforded Josephine Baker, also glimpsed on the cover. This odd and unexpected myopia is my primary critique of the book—really, not even one allusion to the women of the Harlem Renaissance?).
Over the course of nearly 300 pages the fragmented paragraphs of Heroines twist and blur into many different forms as it blends familiar modes of literary analysis, autobiography, hagiography, confession, apologia, scholarship, criticism, reportage, and even the more informal, impassioned style of internet writing (the book is indeed rooted in Zambreno’s blog), a multitude of shapes that add up to something that often feels somewhat singular. If there are stretches that seem to lead to dead ends, it is always sustained by its energy and its passion. And as much as a Herculean effort of reclamation, Heroines also seems to me to function as a site of possibility, opening up spaces, paths, and avenues of expression and inquiry yet to be taken. It’s a thrilling thing to experience.
"So much of modernism is myth-making–who gets to be remembered? Whose writing is preserved and whose is not?" ...more
Over the years I've come to realize that my first encounter with "Babylon Revisited" is a crucial reason why I've developed a tendency toward preemptiOver the years I've come to realize that my first encounter with "Babylon Revisited" is a crucial reason why I've developed a tendency toward preemptive nostalgia. Even at the moments I'm most blissfully content there's a part of my mind always already mourning the fact any present happiness is destined to quickly slip into the past tense. This line in particular has emblazoned itself into my memory, and still makes me shiver: "I didn't realize it, but the days came along one after another, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone." What's to ever guarantee that more good times are ahead?
I actually first read Fitzgerald's celebrated short story during one of the most sustained stretches of happiness I've ever experienced. I was an American student studying in London, my first time away from home for an extended period of time, and I was relishing every minute of it. This story was assigned for a class on expatriate American writers I was taking, and I distinctly remember a startling sensation of imagining myself returning at some point in the future to the large, warmly sunlit sitting room I often and was at that moment reading in, and ruefully recalling how truly wonderful that exact moment was, and how was it possible I didn't manage to recognize it at the time? "Babylon Revisited" haunted the rest of my semester—in a good, productive way, I should note—and, really, ever since.
At his best Fitzgerald composed prose that sparkles like so many diamonds upon the page. But here the crystalline phrasing not only glitters—it lacerates too.
Virginia Woolf’s posthumously published diaries are often—and rightly—considered among the major achievements of the form, with her biographer and nepVirginia Woolf’s posthumously published diaries are often—and rightly—considered among the major achievements of the form, with her biographer and nephew Quentin Bell unabashedly declaring them “one of the great diaries of the world.” But those now-classic examples of life writing, covering the years 1915 until 1941, are actually not what Lounsberry is concerned with in this study; instead she turns her attention to the diaries the young Woolf kept beginning in 1897 when she was merely fourteen years old. There are twelve early diaries in all, and beyond their obvious biographical interest, Lounsberry discovers within them a complex self-portrait of restless young talent eager to experiment and hone her craft as an aspiring author—first a reviewer and essayist, eventually as a writer of fiction as well.
This study considers the early diaries in strict chronological order, always keeping a keen eye on not just what they record, but how. Lounsberry very persuasively demonstrates that from the very beginning Woolf was fascinated by the diary as a form of literary expression, keenly attuned to the possibilities they provided to experiment in private. Very quickly the young writer came to regard her diary writing as a self-described “compost heap,” providing rich, raw material through which to cultivate work intended for publication and public consumption. Judiciously selected excerpts from the various diaries demonstrate that in many ways the “stream of consciousness” style for which she would go on to pioneer was beginning to take form in these pages as Woolf strains to capture and record the rapid movements of her restless, mercurial mind. It’s dazzling to witness, even via secondary analysis.
The other aspect of Lounsberry’s stated project—a consideration of how Woolf was influenced by the diaries she herself read and studied—was what elevated this study from the interesting to the invaluable; indeed, Lounsberry goes so far as to make the staggering claim that “Woolf was more steeped in diary literature than any other well-known diarist before her—and likely even since.” It can be confirmed that she read at least 66 of them, though she undoubtedly read many, many more. Lounsberry carefully traces how aspects of these many other texts made their way into Woolf’s own diary keeping, sometimes deliberately, other times in much more covert, unexpected ways.
As someone who has kept private journals since a young age and loves to read published examples of the form, Lounsberry’s study was from the get-go of specific interest to me. Beyond convincing me to return to Woolf’s own diaries, I now have a whole list of other diaries I’m now eager to explore, ranging from the perennial classics by Samuel Pepys, Samuel Johnson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to the celebrated life writing by the Goncourts and Fanny Burney, and on down to more obscure entries by Stopford Brooke, William Allingham, and the dictated journals of Lady Hester Stanhope. In other words, while I found the analysis and description of Woolf’s diaries and a glimpse into her development as a writer more than engrossing in and of themselves, perhaps more importantly I also managed to discover a dimension of my favorite author’s work and artistic practice that deeply synchronizes with my own, providing more avenues to explore my own development as a writer and diary keeper. ...more
"...he had taken the title from Lincoln Kirstein. Kirstein liked to tell a story of a how he picked up a Marine one night and offered to take the man someplace fancy for breakfast. The only fancy place the Marine knew in New York was Tiffany's" (64).
I've seen the film multiple times over the years, and for me it's one of those films that lingers cheerfully in the memory but is startlingly mediocre in the process of actually watching (Hepburn's electric, iconic vivacity the unexpected trump card that manages to carry everything through long rough stretches). Bram isn't very enthusiastic about the novella either—musing that "it became a classic and it's hard to say why"—but I was sufficiently intrigued with his hypothesis that "much of its charm comes from something left half-said: it's the story of a romantic friendship between a straight woman and a gay man," and that "since their affection cannot end in sex or marriage, the two must explore other, less obvious ways to be intimate" (of course this is excised in the film, with Peppard's character instead played as a hunky—and strappingly heterosexual—kept man. Pat Neal's arch-eyebrowed amusement is the sole compensation for such a dull modification).
Long story short, by turning to Capote what I was hoping to access a queer foundation that could begin clarifying this most celebrated fairy tale (pun intended, of course), and if lucky discover in the process the first Great Depiction of the archetypal straight gal/gay male BFF relationship. Alas, I didn't really find anything of the sort: the dynamic is undeniably is there, but despite Bram's assessment it's not only not meaningfully explored on any level—it's just not really touched upon at all. And so I was inevitably disappointed, though I fully realize that it's not really fair to judge the text by my outside expectations.
As such, I suspect I'll find myself wanting to return at some point, much like the film, with vague but pleasant memories overriding initial misgivings. Hoping for better luck next time.