Alana's Reviews > An Unfinished Woman

An Unfinished Woman by Lillian Hellman
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May 03, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 2010_04_april, reviewed
Read from April 29 to 30, 2010

An Unfinished Woman is one of several autobiographical works penned by the American playwright, Lillian Hellman. It was published in 1969 and two others followed it: Pentimento in 1973 and Scoundrel Time in 1976. If you're wondering why there were multiple memoirs, I can't quite answer that (having not read the other two), but isn't it lovely to think that our lives require multiple volumes? It's not that they're first, second, and third acts, but rather, I imagine they each have a different focus, a particular gaze through a different lens so each might see an alternate perspective, and perhaps all together they come up with something disjointed but real. If nothing else, I do hope that the other two fill in the gaps on a few events that were not touched upon in this volume. There's no doubting that Hellman is, indeed, a hell of a writer, but she was quite selective in describing events within this memoir. She knows it and has no problem letting you know that, too, but it still doesn't mean she's giving you a complete picture. Ultimately, though, An Unfinished Woman is a unique work by one of America's great female playwrights whose life spanned remarkable events and the things she does have to say are quite fascinating in their telling... and, of course, beyond the events you have a perfect blend of wit, cynicism, and straight-forward observation that characterizes both her work and her own self.


I'll admit that prior to picking up this volume, my knowledge of Dashiell Hammett was greater than that of Lillian Hellman. My mother would send me care packages at college, but occasionally forget that she'd sent me something and I would wind up with doubles or triples of an item; the worst case included no fewer than six copies of the DVD Charade. (During break, I carted them home and lined them all up to impress upon her that we owned it -- stop buying it already.) Another such item that snuck into my care packages multiple times was Lillian Hellman's An Unfinished Woman. This particularly happened around the time that I took a month-long course on hardboiled crime fiction and so Hammett featured in heavily. Unsurprisingly, books that were not on my reading lists often went unread. I attempted to start it a few times (as evidenced by some occasional underlining and margin notes in the first few chapters), but a few days ago, I saw this on the shelves at my parents' home and decided it was time.


In An Unfinished Woman, Hellman selectively relates parts of her life and then closes with three chapters each focused on a separate person. These surprised me when I reached them, though ultimately I was pleased as I felt that at least two of these people had been short-changed by their limited presence in the rest of her narrative versus the impact even I knew they had on her life. Hellman begins her memoir right at the beginning: her parents, her family, and her childhood in the south. (This is perhaps the only part of the narrative that feels linear, but don't worry, she'll bounce back to it later on, too.) While she did spend time in both New York and Louisiana during her childhood (often bouncing between the two), she preferred her Louisiana upbringing and so it absorbs the majority of her focus. Bouncing between schools left her off balance, succeeding wildly in one and struggling to catch up in another. Despite that, though, she had a great love of reading and came to understand the benefits and trials of an only child. Having grown up in the south under the guidance of a strong black woman, it's no surprise that questions of race play an interesting role in her perspective. (Indeed, one of the three people she talks about at the end of the book is Helen, her black housekeeper who was a friend of a sort, but the relationship of employer/employee made things complicated.) Hellman's description of her first job in publishing is interesting for the fact that she paints a picture of a rather inept young woman, ultimately keeping her job as a result of sympathy from the men in charge after she has an abortion (which each of those men in charge speculate belonged to one of them, even though it actually belonged to the man Hellman would eventually marry a year later). Her first (and only) marriage is rather glazed over, but then, it seems as though the experience really just made her bored and she'd rather save her ink for other topics. She traveled, of course, but her motives for that travel were surprising, both for the lack of focus to start and then the actual focus that continued:

"I wandered around Europe in a jumble of passivity and wild impatience. I believed I was not doing or living the way I had planned. I had planned nothing, of course. I was bewildered: if I really felt there were a million years ahead of me, why then did I feel so impatient? So restless?"


This youthful lack of direction is common, but seems strange coming from a woman whose writing seemed to truly convey the imperative need of the present as the world became an increasingly unstable place. "I watched other people go to a war I needed to be part of," she wrote, and then finally got her chance in the form of a "cultural mission" to Russia. She nearly died from the journey but went on to Moscow and joined the Russian army at the front. She wrote about the Spanish Civil War from various locations in Spain. Hellman uses excerpts from her journal in both of these locations to paint a very vivid picture of what it is to live in war beyond the heat of battles. She talks about the hunger, the struggle of each long day, and the people frightened to think about a future. "That's the way I remembered many nights during the way, somebody reciting Pushkin, long, long, long." I was repeatedly surprised by her front-row seat to such events... and by her way of talking about them, which cast her in the role of a rather unlikely spectator who didn't seem to much want to be in either location at the time. She traveled back to Russia twenty years later and had a very different experience, particularly dwelling on her age.

"Twenty-two years later, the same week in October when I had arrived during the war, the plane lowered for the Moscow airport. I put out my cigarette, took off my glasses, closed my book and was shocked to find that I was crying. All women say they do not cry very much, but I don't because I learned long ago that I do it at the wrong time and in front of the wrong people. The two young English commercial travelers opposite me stared and then turned their heads away, but the German in the next seat made no secret of his interest, and a Russian across the aisle shook his head at me. I shut my eyes on all of them. What fragment at the bottom of the pot was the kettle-spoon scraping that it had not reached before?
"I told myself that maybe I was worried about seeing my old friend Raya: it is not easy to see an old friend after so many years, and certainly not women because they change more than men. But I knew the tears were not for Raya: they were for me who had, twenty-two years before, been able to fly across Siberia for fourteen days in an unheated plane, lying in a sleeping bag on top of crates, knowing the plane had few instruments even for those days, starting to be sick in Yakutsk, unable to explain in a language I didn't know, not caring, thinking that whatever happened the trip was worth it, although when the pneumonia did come, I changed my mind about that. The tears had to do with age and the woman who could survive hardships then and knew she couldn't anymore. I was sorry I had come back to Moscow."


My understanding of her work focused primarily on her playwright status as opposed to any journalistic contributions. And as far as the writerly set is concerned, it would seem like name dropping if she hadn't really lived in an age and within a group where she got rides to parties from F. Scott Fitzgerald, spent time in Spain with Hemingway, fell asleep while Faulkner was talking, was the dear friend of Dorothy Parker, and spent thirty years together with Dashiell Hammett (who she still referred to as her "dear friend" in much of the book). I feared that we might lose Hellman to the stories of these others, but I shouldn't have worried -- even when focused on someone else, the reader is distinctly aware that this view is through Hellman's eyes and while she's content to let someone else have the spotlight, she never lets herself get pushed aside.

Hellman rarely tackles a topic in a conventional way, which is interesting as she still manages to see straightforward in her eventual discussion of things. One has to get used to her sidling up to a story and then being very direct. She's particularly like this when it comes to a discussion of emotions and people that she loves. Seeing Dorothy Parker through her eyes is quite fascinating, for such a legendary wit can gather an image that loses its humanity. Hellman presents "Dottie" as wonderfully human and flawed, the way a girlfriend can. Second to her wit, Dorothy Parker was known for her love affairs, and Hellman does not ignore this: "She had been loved by several remarkable men, but she only loved the ones who did not love her, and they were the shabby ones." Their friendship was uncommon and perhaps the more precious for that.

"I enjoyed her more than I have ever enjoyed any other woman. She was modest--this wasn't all virtue, she liked to think that she was not worth much--her view of people was original and sharp, her elaborate, overdelicate manners made her a pleasure to live with, she liked books and was generous about writers, and the wit, of course, was so wonderful that neither age nor illness ever dried up the spring from which it came fresh each day. No remembrance of her can exclude it."



While time is spent on Parker, it's Hammett that naturally trumps all. Lillian Hellman certainly is not a woman "made" by her relationship with a man, but she does know that he had a remarkable influence on her, even as she maintained her individuality. She speaks a little about their political differences and how she could never quite reach Hammett's degree, which pained them both for the facts of their commitments to a cause and if it could influence their commitment to each other:

"For Hammett, as he was to prove years later, Socialist belief had become a way of life and, although he was highly critical of many Marxist doctrines and their past and present practitioners, he shrugged them off. I was trying, without knowing it, to crack his faith, sensed I couldn't do it, and was, all at one time, respectful, envious, and angry. He was patient, evidently in the hope I would come his way, amused as he always was by my pseudo-rages, cold to any influence. I do not mean there were unpleasant words between us. None, that is, except once, in 1953, after he had been in jail and gone back to teaching at the Jefferson School. I was frightened that his official connection with the school would send him back to jail and was saying that as we walked down 52nd Street. When we were a few steps from Sixth Avenue, he stopped as said, 'Lilly, when we reach the corner you are going to have to make up your mind that I must go my way. You've been more than, more than, well, more than something-or-other good to me, but now I'm trouble and a nuisance to you. I won't ever blame you if you say goodbye to me now. But if you don't, then we must never have this conversation again.' When we got to the corner, I began to cry and he looked as if he might. I was not able to speak, so he touched my shoulder and turned downtown. I stood on the corner until I couldn't see him anymore and then I began to run. When I caught up with him, he said, 'I haven't thought about a drink in years. But I'd like one. Anyway, let's go buy one for you.'"


Hammett seems to have brought out the best in her, despite some lost years of parties that may have ruined them both and, indeed, Hammett didn't really recover. Perhaps the lasting tribute to these years of wit and booze is The Thin Man, which Hammett wrote using himself and Hellman as the models for Nick and Nora Charles. Hellman wrote, "It was nice to be Nora, married to Nick Charles, maybe one of the few marriages in modern literature where the man and woman like each other and have a fine time together. But I was soon put back in place--Hammett said I was also the silly girl in the book and the villainess. I don't know now if he was joking, but in those days it worried me: I was very anxious that he think well of me." But he was clearly the love of her life, even if she uses terms like "dear friend."

"Even now as I write this, I am still angry and amused that he always had to have things on his own terms: a few minutes ago I got up from the typewriter and railed against him for it, as if he could still hear me. I know as little about the nature of romantic love as I knew when I was eighteen, but I do know about the deep pleasure of continuing interest, the excitement of wanting to know what somebody else thinks, will do, will not do, the tricks played and unplayed, the short cord that the years make into rope and, in my case, is there, hanging loose, long after death. I am not sure what Hammett would feel about the rest of these notes about him, but I am sure that he would be pleased that I am angry with him today."


While Hellman does not in any way become explicit about her relationship with Hammett, what is obvious is the love they shared, despite what might have seemed an unconventional arrangement in a time when marriage was the norm. Her description of Hammett's declining years is terribly sad, and this is where Hellman ends her narrative, even if she's insistent about life continuing on.


While the memoir is wonderful, I would feel remiss if I didn't also admit to a feeling of surprise when Hellman left out certain things. She never talks about the writing experience much, the general experience of being a playwright as it directly contributed to her work. Sure, Hellman talks about how she didn't much like the theater even though it was her livelihood and every now and then she mentions working, but she never really specifically goes into her work... the inspirations, the writing of each, the initial reception (though once or twice she does give credit where credit is due, in citing the origin of a line that someone said to her and she then used). She occasionally uses the names of her plays as touchstones, such as an event taking place after The Little Foxes, but a description of opening night or debut performance is not to be found. The second (and perhaps even more surprising) gap was of everything surrounding the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthy. It's enough to make you think that you must have skipped some pages the way this period of time is so absent from her memoir. In one of the only places where she makes mention of that time, she is discussing the selling of her farm in Pleasantville.

"I stopped there to look at the hundred French lilac trees in the nursery, the rosebushes waiting for the transplant place they would never get, the two extravagant acres of blanches asparagus, and standing there by the road that May afternoon of 1952, I finally realized that I would never have any of this beautiful, hardscrabble land again. Now, in the Moscow room, I was glad it was gone, but sorry that the days of Joseph McCarthy, the persecution of Hammett, my own appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Hollywood blacklist, had caused it to be gone. There could never be any place like it again because I could never again be that woman who worked from seven in the morning until two or three the next morning and woke rested and hungry for each new day."


Perhaps she wished that it never happened, but Hellman is not one to ever shy away from unpleasant things. Certainly, it would have been hard to write about, so perhaps other works deal with her experience here in a more comprehensive way, but it left me with the sense that things were incomplete.


Hellman's tone suggests that if you're reading this, then you must have some knowledge of the things that passed. There's no real implication that this will be read by those who might not be familiar with these figures and events, and thus, she has no need to explain about anyone or anything beyond herself. Her whole life, indeed, seemed to be lived with this same focus on the present -- the future was undetermined and likely to be snatched away at any moment, so it was the present that deserved her attention. Indeed, the book's last lines speak to this need to live in the present:

"But I am not yet old enough to like the past better than the present, although there are nights when I have a passing sadness for the unnecessary pains, the self-made foolishness that was, is, and will be. I do regret that I have spent too much of my life trying to find what I called the 'truth,' trying to find what I called 'sense.' I never knew what I meant by truth, never made the sense I hoped for. All I mean is that I left too much of me unfinished because I wasted too much time. However."



I underlined the hell out of my copy and I don't usually underline things in books anymore. Her turn of phrase and crystal-clear vision yields some fascinating observations about others and herself. If you have any interest in Lillian Hellman, then I suggest reading this very short memoir to gain some insight on a rather remarkable woman... and if you're only vaguely familiar with her, then it might be a great introduction. Either way, I don't think you can lose spending some time with the inspiration for Nora Charles. Her dry wit and cynical smirk are apparent on every page and while those might be the initial appeal, it's the heart and mind behind it all that prove to be the more engrossing elements.
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