Silence & Storytelling

Alice Mattison | February 2009

Alice Mattison


Stories shortened, events left out, stories told indirectly: I may seem to be complaining about the elliptical style. I'm not-but I'm arguing against the use of the elliptical style when such a style isn't appropriate to the piece in hand; when it conceals rather than revealing.

Defining the Problem

When I was a child, my grandmother occasionally asked me to write a letter for her. I'd bring my lined paper with pictures of puppies or bunnies, and she'd dictate a message to one of her sisters. She seemed comfortable communicating this way, and I didn't wonder why she was illiterate; for all I knew, grandmothers generally couldn't read or write. I know now that she hadn't been taught as a girl in eastern Europe, and when her children tried to teach her, it was somehow too late.

The memory of my grandmother's illiteracy breaks my heart, and perhaps because of her, writing-especially by women-seems blessed, lucky. It exists despite obstacles and efforts to prevent it. One way writing is prevented-in addition to the obvious ones, like enforced illiteracy, government censorship, and informal censorship by acquaintances and relatives-is self-censorship. I'll argue here (unscientifically) that women often censor their own writing, sometimes by not writing at all and sometimes by adopting methods that could be effective if chosen for good reasons, but when adopted out of fear squeeze life out of their work. I will also look at some poems, a story, and two novels-all by women-in which characters are prevented from speaking or writing, and I'll examine some of the authors' stylistic choices.

Though writing by men (especially men who belong to groups that have traditionally been silenced) must overcome obstacles as well, I suspect that stories and poems primarily about writing and speaking-and not writing and not speaking-have more often been written by and about women. But I'm writing about women mostly because the majority of my students-in a master's program in writing and literature, and at writers' conferences-are women, and the thoughts I record here came in response to their work.

The women I teach are literate, of course, and often have been encouraged to write. Whatever their circumstances, they have found the time and money to attend the program in which we meet. Yet-and here is where they differ from most men I've taught, and instead resemble my grandmother-they sometimes don't seem to believe they ought to write, as if writing were self-indulgent. It seems to me that when a female writer's mother gets sick, the woman thinks she should stop writing and go look after her mother. When a male writer's mother gets sick, he thinks he should work harder than ever, sell a story to the New Yorker, and earn money to buy medicine for his mother.

As I've met more and more students who have trouble allowing themselves to write, I've also noticed certain problems in the writing they produce. For a long time I didn't connect the feeling about writing to the problems in the writing. Then I began to wonder. Time and again, I came upon problems that at first seemed minor, technical, peculiar to one person, or easily fixed; but they proved hard to fix-as if they arose out of something deep within the writer. And when they were solved, a weak writer sometimes surprised me by becoming remarkably good.

Here is what I noticed: first, stories that were somehow untold, in which nothing much happened, that were as brief as could be, and that arrived, finally, only at a feeling-a character's feeling when something was over. And I don't mean stories like the best short short stories in which some brief action is described so powerfully that the work is stronger than its longer counterpart. I mean stories with their hearts left out, so when I asked a student, "How did these people know each other in the first place? What really took place on that day they disagree about?" five page stories about somebody's mood suddenly turned into twenty-page stories about a series of events-apparently events the author had had in mind all along.

I came upon stories that were not told, and also stories that seemed to be told reluctantly: narrated so mysteriously, with so few stated facts, that I didn't know what was going on. A story might begin, "Classico looked at Yarley and wondered what to do" and I'd be on page three before I discovered that Yarley was a dog.

And I came upon stories that were told indirectly for no purpose I could determine. Indirection may be worth explaining, since I didn't know what an editor meant when he said I was telling my stories indirectly (I am aware of these lessons because I had to learn them). Direct writing implicitly acknowledges that the narrator has a story to tell, and briskly informs the reader what's going on. Indirect writing implies that we're somehow overhearing what's going on, figuring out from clues what is happening. A narrator telling a story directly may begin, "I saw a horse." An indirect story may begin, "I saw the horse," as if this is a horse we already know about, as if there's a story that started before we came along, and the horse was in it. Here is an indirect opening:

She watched him open the box-which he'd brought such a distance, and after such a visit-and wondered what she'd do with what was inside.

It's mysterious, and mystery is sometimes good, but what is the source of the mystery here? Isn't it that we don't know who "he" and "she" are, how they are connected, what sort of box this is, or where these people are-in what country or state or century? What is the benefit of withholding this information, of revealing it slowly, as one might reveal a secret? This particular opening is situated so deep inside the character's consciousness that the author isn't allowing herself to tell us anything that the character is not actively thinking. Since the character knows who brought the box and what's in it, we can't learn who he is and what he's brought her unless the author can figure out an excuse for the character to think about what she wants us to know, in which case we get something like:

She watched him open the box-which he'd brought such a distance, and after such a visit-and, remembering earlier gifts from her brother and how much she disliked them, wondered what she'd do with what was inside, recalling a time when she'd eaten a whole grapefruit as a child and had vowed never to touch one again.

Ah, her brother! grapefruit!

Here is a direct opening for the same story:

Classico watched her brother Ungartino open a wooden crate of pink grapefruit he'd bought for her in Orlando, where he'd spent a difficult week visiting their sister Katchenary. Classico, in her tiny New York apartment, had no room for so many grapefruits, and not much interest in eating them.

This isn't great literature, but at least it doesn't rely on withholding information to get the reader interested. After all, Classico knows what sort of box this is, Ungartino knows-why shouldn't the reader know? Isn't it, finally, a cheap trick to create mystery about something that would be obvious to anyone present in the room? And if readers don't know what's going on in the plain old physical world, how can they pay attention to the legitimate mysteries of literature: how people and dogs love and hate, why they do as they do, or whodunit?

Stories shortened, events left out, stories told indirectly: I may seem to be complaining about the elliptical style. I'm not-but I'm arguing against the use of the elliptical style when such a style isn't appropriate to the piece in hand; when it conceals rather than revealing. Elliptical style, used well, contributes to the power of some of our best writing. It's the style that tells by not telling: narrative technique that tells the story by pretending not to tell it, or that tells the story by pretending to tell it reluctantly. The elliptical author pretends she doesn't want to tell the story, but she most definitely wants to tell it. She pretends she's just barely hinting, but she's writing something that is clear-though the revelatory statement may be in a subordinate clause, just barely there-and will stun you. Elliptical style-used for good or ill-omits rather than includes, going further than simply using no unnecessary words, always a good practice. Elliptical poems or stories may be extremely short, or frequently interrupted by white space: speech is punctuated by silence. When elliptical stories are long, they are still, in some way, not quite told. The narrator may hint at something that's never fully explained, or postpone revealing something she knows all along. Or she may tell a story indirectly, taking advantage of the reader's pleasure in entering a scene unobtrusively, almost by accident. But she shrewdly includes precisely what is needed for the overheard, indirect narration to be clear.

After considering many stories that were written elliptically for no reason I could detect, I began to wonder whether writers-especially women writers-use the elliptical style at times when it doesn't work not because they lack skill, but because they fear telling the story. The self-censoring author really does tell it reluctantly, and she leaves out essential information because she thinks that if she takes too much of your time, or tells you ordinary facts, you will be bored. She tells the story indirectly, so it is about the workings of the characters' minds rather than about humdrum events. She may have thought of a plot but is afraid it is melodramatic, and when you ask her what she means by "melodramatic" it turns out she means anything dramatic at all-anything with action-so she begins the story after the events are all over, and writes about a quiet person remembering events and having a wistful feeling about them. If she simply must relate dramatic events, she tells the story in reverse chronological order, beginning with the ending, so as to do away with any possible suspense. Writers whose elliptical work is incomplete, flat, or confusing have not chosen this method as a tool shaped to the purpose, to be wielded with confidence and pleasure. They may have adopted the style out of fear, possibly because they can't bring themselves to tell the whole story, or to tell it in a style that requires them-in a manner of speaking-to look the reader in the eye and take responsibility, to say, "Yarley was a yellow labrador retriever" or "Ungartino was Classico's brother."

I love Alice Munro's lucid use, in this story, of elliptical style. At first glance she seems like a strikingly outspoken writer. ...But she uses indirection just enough to establish an intimate tone, as if the reader is a friend of hers, without writing so indirectly that the reader is lost.

Would a writer who was really censored-censored by a government-use the elliptical style? I began to wonder, so I turned to the poet Anna Akhmatova. For many years it was illegal to publish her work in Russia, where she lived all her life. She was never imprisoned but her son spent many years in prison, and many writers she knew were imprisoned and executed-including Akhmatova's first husband.

Akhmatova, who was born in 1889, was also informally censored by family members. When she was seventeen, her father threatened to disown her because she wanted to be a poet, and she took the name Akhmatova-her maternal grandmother's maiden name-rather than use his. As a young woman she wrote and published, was widely read and praised, and was part of a vital literary community. She married several times and also had several lovers. But her second husband forbade her to write, and starting in 1917-when the revolution began and a newly published book of hers couldn't be shipped in the resulting chaos-her life was difficult and sometimes almost unbearable. In 1925, a decree stated that "in a class society there is and can be no neutral art" and later that year it was forbidden to publish Akhmatova's work. She stopped writing for many years. Between 1940 and 1953, when Stalin died, she did write, and some of her work was published, but it was censored and sometimes banned or destroyed after it was in print. Her son was repeatedly imprisoned. After Stalin died she was allowed to travel and to publish, always cautiously. She died in 1966; some of her poems were never published in Russia in her lifetime.

Akhmatova deliberately chose an elliptical style during the later decades of her life: it would have been foolhardy to write straightforwardly. Her early poems were written at a time when it was possible to publish and are about love and emotional life, but even in them, the style is indirect. The indirection is effective: it brings reader and writer closer together. As Nancy Anderson writes in her book of translations and commentary, The Word That Causes Death's Defeat, "Akhmatova's lyrics plunge into the narrative without pausing to supply background..., thus creating an effect of unexpected intimacy, as if the reader had accidentally overheard a personal conversation or come across a page from the diary of a stranger." She's writing about a poem beginning "Under the dark veil..."

Under the dark veil my hands tensed and clutched:
"You're white as a sheet-what's happened to you?"
I poured grief for him and he drank it up
Until he got drunk on that bitter brew.

I'll never forget the twist of his mouth,
How, as he left, he could hardly walk straight.
I didn't touch the railing as I ran out,
I ran after him as far as the gate.

I gasped as I shouted: "It was a joke,
All of it. Don't leave me, please, or I'll die!"
He had such a calm cruel smile as he spoke:
"It's windy out here. Go on back inside."1

It's impossible to quarrel with the use of the elliptical style here, to imagine that we'd be better off as readers if we knew what the supposed joke was, whether these lovers are married or not, how long they've known each other. The reticence is under control. We know they are lovers. We don't wonder if they are boss and employee or brother and sister. And exact details give the poem immediacy and particularity. Ellipsis, here, is used in just the right way; the only objection I'd make is that this style would work less well if the characters weren't lovers. A short story writer I met who'd worked with a teacher who encouraged the elliptical style said it was a revelation to discover later that fiction could be made of other life situations besides romantic love. Love, of course, is a good subject. But there are other subjects. What if you did want to write about employer and employee, or brother and sister? You'd need to state some facts.

Later in life, Akhmatova had no choice but to make her poems elliptical or even cryptic. "Poem Without A Hero," the great work of the last decades of her life, is essentially in code, obscure on purpose. When it appeared in print, she omitted several stanzas, including only a note that read "in imitation of Pushkin." As Anderson explains, to those who knew Pushkin's career, it was clear what Akhmatova meant: he too had suppressed stanzas that were politically dangerous. It's a difficult poem, and apparently her contemporaries couldn't understand it either. Akhmatova rewrote and added to the poem over many years, and in a later section she claims that her editor objected to the first part, saying

The reader gets lost-it's still not clear,
When all is done, who are the lovers,

Who did what with whom, and when, and why,
Who got killed, and who remained alive...2

She refuses to explain; obscurity had been forced upon her, but she has made it her own.

In a stanza that was omitted altogether for many years, she writes about being silenced, about a poem of hers whose "mouth is crammed full of dry earth."

The next stanza-also omitted for years-reads:

They tortured: "Spill it, tell us what you know!"
But not a single word or cry or moan
Gave her enemy anything to use.
Years add up to decades-and each brings
Torments, prison, deaths-for me to sing
Amid such horrors-that I cannot do.3

"Requiem"-another late poem-is not obscure, though I was grateful for Anderson's explanation and interpretation. It would be unintelligible without a note that didn't exist in the first published versions and was added later. The poem commemorates the hundreds of hours the poet spent waiting on line at a prison, a parcel in her arms for her son. If the parcel was accepted, it meant the prisoner was still alive and was still at that particular prison-there was no other way to find out. In her note, Akhmatova says that once, on the line, she was recognized, and a woman asked, "Can you describe this?" She said, "I can." She does describe what happened-the poem is oblique, but it's comprehensible and moving.

We can't know how Akhmatova would have written if she'd been encouraged to write all her life by her family and her government. Surely the practical necessity for a compressed, reticent style shaped her poetic choices as much as her innate sense of rhythm or language. In addition, as Anderson points out, practical necessity became emotional necessity. Any writer, censored over and over, must finally begin to wonder whether the censors might be right.

When Akhmatova wrote "Requiem," it couldn't be published or even written down. Akhmatova memorized the poem and taught it to friends who also memorized it. Her friend Lidia Chukovskaya wrote about this process:

Anna Andreevna, when visiting me, recited parts of "Requiem" also in a whisper, but at home in Fontanny House did not even dare to whisper it; suddenly, in mid-conversation, she would fall silent and, signalling to me with her eyes at the ceiling and walls, she would get a scrap of paper and a pencil; then she would loudly say something very mundane: "Would you like some tea?" or "You're very tanned," then she would cover the scrap in hurried handwriting and pass it to me. I would read the poems and, having memorized them, would hand them back to her in silence. "How early autumn came this year," Anna Andreevna would say loudly and, striking a match, would burn the paper over an ashtray. 4

A good writer who is not in danger for writing will write elliptically when that works, more straightforwardly when that's more effective, and the combination can make even a story without much action exciting. Eudora Welty's short novel The Optimist's Daughter was published in 1972. At the start of the book, a distinguished, elderly Mississippi judge-the optimist-has traveled to New Orleans to consult an eye specialist, who diagnoses a slipped retina and performs surgery. The judge is accompanied by his second wife; they are joined by his daughter, who works as a fabric designer in Chicago. The doctor is their former next-door neighbor. The surgery seems successful but the judge, who must lie quietly for weeks, blindfolded-vision is central to this book-gradually becomes somnolent and then dies. His funeral takes place back home in Mississippi, and afterward his wife, Fay, goes away for a few days, while the daughter, Laurel, remains in the house, which has been left to Fay. Fay comes back, and Laurel leaves for Chicago.

That's the whole action of the book. Its life is in talk and silence, expressions of feeling and thwarted feeling. Fay-who married the judge only recently; Laurel barely knows her-always has something to say, and everything she says is stupid, selfish, and suspicious of the motives of others. "What's he acting so polite about?" she asks, about the deeply respectful young doctor. "I bet when the bill comes in he won't charge so polite." She is invariably excruciating.

Laurel never replies to her stepmother's nasty comments. One night she finds Fay-who is tired of the judge's illness-trying to pull him out of his hospital bed. Whether or not his death is caused by her rough treatment, this is when the judge dies. Even during the emergency, Laurel says only, "Fay, it can't be much more serious. The doctor's closed in with Father now" and "I believe he's dying." After the death, when the doctor tries to tell Laurel how the judge helped him as a young man, Laurel replies, "Some things don't bear going into." Fay screams abuse at the doctor; he and Laurel ignore her.

The reader gradually realizes how the optimist and his daughter are alike: they do not know their own feelings and do not speak of them. In contrast, Laurel's dead mother, Becky-seen and heard only in recollection-is passionate, intemperate, enraged, and the repository in the novel of truth and wisdom. "Why did I marry a coward?" Becky once said of her husband: he couldn't face the truth, which was that (as we gradually learn) an apparently minor problem with Becky's eye turned out to be a tumor that first blinded, then silenced, and eventually killed her.

Elliptical writing can be exciting and dramatic, but that doesn't mean a direct, long story can't work, or that a story full of events will necessarily be cheap and obvious.

Part of the tragedy is that Becky was a reader and a writer: reading and writing are everywhere in this book, from the moment Laurel finds a copy of Nicholas Nickleby and reads it to her father. Later we learn that she made a mistake: he'd have preferred Gibbon. It was her mother who loved Dickens; Laurel remembers the voices of her parents reading to each other in the evenings as she fell asleep. Near the end of the book, alone in the house where Fay and her father have lived, Laurel discovers that Fay has destroyed the contents of her father's desk but left her mother's letters and diaries alone. She wonders why, then answers her own question: "to Fay, they would have been only what somebody wrote-and anybody reduced to the need to write, Fay would think already beaten as a rival."

It's only after reading and crying over her mother's words that Laurel can finally recognize and grieve for the tragedy in her own life: her young husband was killed in the Second World War, and she has never let herself know fully how she felt about this loss.

Books and writing, in The Optimist's Daughter, are endangered and essential: they are necessary for emotional salvation and for truthful speech. People who scorn books in this story never speak truthfully or observe the world accurately, and people whose feelings are thwarted need to hold books and writing in their hands, to honor them, in order to save themselves by speaking honestly to themselves and others. The message isn't that writing is self-expression, but that without literature real self-expression is impossible. After spending a night alone in her childhood home with her mother's letters, Laurel can tell herself the truth, and when Fay unexpectedly shows up, she tells her the truth as well. Laurel sees that "Fay was without any powers of passion or imagination in herself and had no way to see it or reach it in the other person." She says, "I believe you underestimate everybody on earth." But when Laurel speaks of the past, Fay says, "The past isn't a thing to me. I belong to the future, didn't you know that?"

And how is this story told? The first sentence of The Optimist's Daughter is indirect: "A nurse held the door open for them." The pronoun "them" has no antecedent, and for a moment we don't know who is passing through the door. Still, "a nurse" tells us something. She's not called "a young woman in a uniform" to add mystery. And the second sentence tells us straightforwardly who and where the characters are: "Judge McKelva going first, then his daughter Laurel, then his wife Fay, they walked into the windowless room where the doctor would make his examination."
In the next paragraphs, though the narrative stays in the scene-concentrating on how everybody looks, what they say and do-we are unobtrusively given some facts: Laurel is "in her middle forties." "New Orleans was out-of-town for all of them." That's such an important sentence-otherwise, of course, we'd assume at least one of them lived here. As it is, we wait patiently until we're told why they've come to a place where none of them lives. We don't know, but we're not confused; we don't make wrong assumptions.

And so the novel proceeds, letting us see, telling us what we need to know-except on one subject. On page four is the first reference to "Becky" and a paragraph later the narrative tells us, "Becky was Laurel's mother." After that, when we hear of Becky, we hear of her indirectly, and often we don't understand what we're reading until later.

After the Judge's death, Laurel examines the books in his library:

There was the Dickens all in a set, a shelf and a half full, old crimson bindings scorched and frayed and hanging in strips. Nicholas Nickleby was the volume without any back at all. It was the Gibbon below it, that had not been through fire, whose backs had come to be the color of ashes.5

Here, we don't know what fire she refers to; much later we learn that the set of Dickens belonged to Becky's dead father, that their house burned, and that Becky rushed back into the fire to rescue them. Becky is always associated with passion and with reading-and because Laurel, in whose consciousness we reside, cannot think freely about her (or about Laurel's own dead husband) until the end of the book, we aren't told Becky's story straightforwardly until then. But everything else is straightforward. Only Becky is mysterious, and so the device lends suspense rather than confusing us.

In Alice Munro's story "Cortes Island," from her 1998 collection The Love of a Good Woman, a character similar to Fay-a bitter woman who turns on another woman-keeps another woman from living honestly, speaking out, and, in this story, becoming a writer. The unnamed narrator recounts some months at the beginning of a long-ago marriage when she and her husband lived in a basement apartment in Vancouver. The time is the fifties, and upstairs live Mr. and Mrs. Gorrie; Mrs. Gorrie is the landlord's mother. The narrator pretends to look for a job, but she doesn't want to find one. She is writing-she tells people she's writing letters, but she's writing stories, which are failures: she writes the same thing over and over again, tears the pages out of a notebook, and stuffs them into the trash. When no pages are left she buys a new notebook. Eventually it turns out that Mrs. Gorrie has come into the apartment while the narrator was out and read the trash: when she's angry with the narrator for other reasons, she mocks these attempted stories and says the narrator is crazy.

It's when we start making the choice to be elliptical because we are afraid to be straightforward that we should become suspicious of our motives.

Mrs. Gorrie advocates femininity: dressing up, wearing makeup, and especially looking after a husband and house by means of obsessive baking and cleaning. Her baked goods are inedible but she is always forcing the narrator, who would rather be reading or writing, to come up and eat them. As the story proceeds, there are hints that the narrator's husband, Chess, also values housekeeping and material objects; they have married because sex was impossible otherwise, but now their goal becomes material advancement. When the narrator finally gets a job, in the library, they move to a bigger apartment: with two salaries they can afford it. The narrator is willing. She is glad to have escaped from the failure-ridden inner life she was leading, haunted by the dreadful Mrs. Gorrie and her husband, an invalid who had a stroke and cannot speak-as the narrator is symbolically prevented from speaking. Only faintly does the story hint that she's making the wrong choice, that she is wrong to give up writing stories to become "the girl in the library": someone with a clear function that everyone understands and believes in. She is shelving and checking out books instead of reading and writing them.

Having moved away, the narrator forgets about Mrs. Gorrie, but for years she has strange erotic dreams about Mr. Gorrie. We're allowed to understand that eventually she left the marriage, and since what we're reading is a story, we conclude that she returned to writing stories-and, perhaps, became some version of Alice Munro. For the present, however, her dreams about her silenced neighbor are the only proof of remaining life. The character, censored by others, has censored herself, and the writing has ceased.

I love Alice Munro's lucid use, in this story, of elliptical style. At first glance she seems like a strikingly outspoken writer. In her stories we usually know just where we are, and who's who, and they are longer than most people's short stories. But she uses indirection just enough to establish an intimate tone, as if the reader is a friend of hers, without writing so indirectly that the reader is lost. Here's the opening of "Cortes Island":

Little bride. I was twenty years old, five feet seven inches tall, weighing between a hundred and thirty-five and a hundred and forty pounds, but some people-Chess's boss's wife, and the older secretary in his office, and Mrs. Gorrie upstairs, referred to me as a little bride. Our little bride, sometimes. Chess and I made a joke of it, but his public reaction was a look fond and cherishing. Mine was a pouty smile-bashful, acquiescent.6

She doesn't say, "Chess was my husband" or "Chess worked in an office" and those additions might affect the tone of the story, might make it a little more formal, as if she were addressing a stranger and not a friend. The reader is a friend who knows without being told not just that Chess is the narrator's husband, but that the narrator regrets her acquiescence. Regret for the past, in which this narrator eventually gave up writing, is never stated, but it suffuses the story.

The most interesting ellipsis in this story is a hidden story, the real plot of the piece and the reason for the title "Cortes Island." Ostensibly, as I've said, the story is about a newly married young woman who writes stories, tries to deal with the bossy woman upstairs, and then gets a job in the library. But there's more. It's the most dramatic part of the story-the main plot-but it's never stated. I know of three or four Alice Munro stories in which this happens: the big event is only implied. For a time, the narrator takes care of the disabled Mr. Gorrie upstairs, while his wife is out. Through gestures, Mr. Gorrie directs the narrator to look through some scrapbooks, and the newspaper articles he wants her to see are about the death of a man in a house in the woods, on Cortes Island, a wild area north of Vancouver. The man died in a fire; the fire might have been set. A young son was found in the woods, unharmed. The man's wife was away, on a boat with a friend. In one article the friend is unidentified, but in a second one he's named: it's Mr. Gorrie. So the dead man's wife was the present Mrs. Gorrie of the inedible cookies, and indeed she has told the narrator that she once lived in the wilds. She does have a son-he's the landlord. And later the narrator hears Mrs. Gorrie say on the phone that she, the narrator, tells lies about her and her husband. That's all-but we know as if it were stated that Mr. and Mrs. Gorrie were adulterous lovers who killed Mrs. Gorrie's first husband or drove him to kill himself-and got away with it, except that now Mrs. Gorrie leads not a romantic life of love and dramatic deeds but a boring domestic one, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and caring for an invalid.

This kind of reticence is thrilling, and if it arises out of the kind of constraint that people like the narrator of "Cortes Island" feel, so much the better: maybe some things are unspeakable. The hidden story is powerful, and partly I think it's because we as readers, who have not had it told to us, feel as if we with our dirty minds have invented it-we become complicit.

As we write, I believe we should recognize that we probably are being censored, if not by a government, then perhaps by publishers who impose standards that may not always be conducive to the making of art, often-especially if we are women-by people who are close to us, and most of all by ourselves.

A book Alice Munro's narrator reads, when she does read, is Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen's novel about a sixteen-year-old orphan, Portia. Bowen, an Anglo-Irish writer who lived from 1899 to 1973, was essentially orphaned, raised by relatives from the age of thirteen, after her mother died and her father was institutionalized. Bowen's novels include many orphans, especially girls, and in one way or another they are silenced. Portia lives with her half-brother and his wife, who constantly misunderstand her. As the book opens, her brother's wife, Anna, querulously tells a friend of hers-a writer-that she's read Portia's diary, which she found when she was snooping in the girl's room. The friend, whose name is St. Quentin, is curious about the diary as a piece of writing; he tries to work out why it has upset Anna. Was it "unkind"? Was it "mawkish"? Anna says it was "distorted and distorting." Apparently, Portia has described her life in Anna's household. St. Quentin continues to protest, "You've got to allow for style, though. Nothing arrives on paper as it started, and so much arrives that never started at all."

Anna says, "But this was not a bit like your beautiful books. In fact, it was not like writing at all." Then she says, "She was so odd about me."
St. Quentin can't help thinking of writing as writing. He asks Anna if she remembers the first sentence, and it turns out to be, "So I am with them, in London."

St. Quentin-such a satisfactory man-says, "With a comma after the 'them'?... The comma is good; that's style.... I should like to have seen it, I must say." The reading of the diary-and the trivializing of feeling, as the novel proceeds, by almost everyone the young girl knows-eventually lead to the disillusionment that justifies the book's title.

Elizabeth Bowen writes indirectly at times, and I'm not sure that it's always the best choice. The opening of The Death of the Heart introduces the story obliquely. One of Bowen's habits is to begin a book by describing the characters as someone would see them who didn't know them and didn't know their concerns, and I admit there is something wonderful about zooming in from a distance upon characters we'll come to know. The first paragraph of The Death of the Heart describes the setting, a London park on a cold winter day. The second paragraph reads:

On a footbridge between an island and the mainland a man and woman stood talking, leaning on the rail. In the intense cold, which made everyone hurry, they had chosen to make this long summerlike pause. Their oblivious stillness made them look like lovers-actually, their elbows were some inches apart: they were riveted not to each other but to what she said. Their thick coats made their figures sexless and stiff as chessmen: they were well-to-do, inside bulwarks of fur and cloth their bodies generated a steady warmth; they could only see the cold-or, if they felt it, they only felt it at their extremities. Now and then he stamped on the bridge, or she brought her muff up to her face. Ice pushed down the channel under the bridge, so that while they talked their reflections were constantly broken up.
He said: "You were mad ever to touch the thing."7

It takes pages for us to figure it out: "the thing" is the diary, the people on the bridge are the girl's half-brother's wife and the wife's friend. I love the writing, I don't stay confused for long, and the book-along with many of Bowen's novels (The House In Paris, The Heat of the Day, The Last September) is completely engrossing, wonderful-but I don't see how it benefits from our mystification about who these people are and what the woman touched. Bowen's characters are often forced to be silent, especially her orphan girls, and in several novels, when someone finally blurts out the truth, a death results. I can't help wondering whether Bowen's occasional murkiness (especially in her confusing though powerful novel Eva Trout) is a kind of silencing she is imposing on herself. In most instances her work is clear and devastating; the mysteries are under control.

Elliptical writing can be exciting and dramatic, but that doesn't mean a direct, long story can't work, or that a story full of events will necessarily be cheap and obvious. It's when we start making the choice to be elliptical because we are afraid to be straightforward that we should become suspicious of our motives. Often writers are afraid: writing is hard, and publishing difficult and uncertain. We may have anxieties we can't dispel, but we don't have to allow them to determine our aesthetic choices.

As we write, I believe we should recognize that we probably are being censored, if not by a government, then perhaps by publishers who impose standards that may not always be conducive to the making of art, often-especially if we are women-by people who are close to us, and most of all by ourselves. Governments would not be able to persecute writers if people did not censor one another and themselves in private life, just as officially sanctioned racism, sexism, or homophobia depends on the existence of private fear and hatred. The lesson for us, living in easier times than Anna Akhmatova, is clear. If, at some time in our lives, telling a story puts us in danger of prison or death, we should join PEN and the ACLU, fight for our right to speak-and, meanwhile, consider not telling the story, or telling it so obliquely that nobody can prove what we meant. If pretending not to tell the story-by telling it indirectly or hinting at it or leaving parts of it out-will make the story more dazzling and affecting-then we should pretend not to tell the story. In all other circumstances, we should try to ignore censoring voices around us and inside us, and take on the authority of the person we call the author, the person in charge. We should tell the story.


Alice Mattison's new novel, Nothing Is Quite Forgotten In Brooklyn, was published in 2008. She's the author of eight other books of fiction, including The Book Borrower and In Case We're Separated: Connected Stories. She teaches in the MFA program at Bennington College.


  1. Anna Akhmatova, The Word That Causes Death's Defeat: Poems of Memory. Trans. and with an introductory biography, critical essays, and commentary by Nancy K. Anderson. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 11.

  2. Ibid., 169.
  3. Ibid., 171.
  4. Ibid., 82.
  5. Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter. (New York: Vintage Books. 1972).
  6. Alice Munro, "Cortes Island," from The Love of a Good Woman. (Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, Inc. 1998).
  7. Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart. (New York: Vintage Books. 1938).

Thanks to Nina Mattison for the names Classico, Ungartino, Katchenary, and Yarley. This essay (based on a lecture delivered at the Bennington Writing Seminars in January, 2007) is dedicated to the memory of Liam Rector.

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