Table of Contents
Lines from “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost, copyright 1916 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston and renewed 1944 by Robert Frost. Reprinted from
The Poetry of Robert Frost
, edited by Edward Connery Lathem, by permission of Henry Holt and Company, Inc. Lines from “ What Is This Gypsy Passion for Separation?” by Marina Tsvetayeva, from
Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva
, translated by Elaine Feinstein, copyright Â© 1971, 1981 by Elaine Feinstein. Reprinted by permission of the publsiher, E.P. Dutton, a division of NAL Penguin Inc.
LYNNE SHARON SCHWARTZ:
Disturbances in the Field
Acquainted with the Night
We are Talking about Homes: A Great
University Against Its Neighbors
The Melting Pot
The Four Questions
Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books
In the Family Way
Face to Face: A Reader in the World
The Writing on the Wall
I HAVE ADMIRED LYNNE SHARON SCHWARTZ'S WORK ever since I read her gorgeous and unsettling novel
Disturbances in the Field
(1983). In the winter of 1986, I added that novel to my reading list for my seminar in women's literature, and in 1988 I invited Lynne to Eastern Washington University for a reading. As she spoke to my students about writing, it became evident that the fierce intelligence, the generosity, and the wisdom in Lynne's writing also define her as an individual.
That was the year that Lynne began work on
, an evocative and lyrical novel about the complexities of vision and desire.
In the years since, Lynne and I have talked often about writing and about our lives as writers, and we've become friends. She told me that
first came to her as an essay “in a mood of despair, thinking I had nothing more to write about. I was looking in the mirror and noticed my eyeâthe description of the eye in the book is indeed autobiographicalâand I thought, well, if I have nothing else, I have myself. And this odd eye.”
This odd and splendid eye veers off toward truth, toward passion, toward outrage against compliance. It follows “its desires. Light and air stroked it.”
, Lynne gives the intricacy of that gaze to her protagonist, Audrey, a young girl who grows up in postwar Brooklyn during the McCarthy era and whose right eye, legally blind, gives her secret images behind the “skin of the visible world.”
For Audrey, a thinker and a dreamer, Brooklyn is confining, Manhattan mythic and brilliant. Her desire to escape Brooklyn leads her to the words of Euclid and Socrates and Wordsworth. She imagines herself studying at the Sorbonne. She despises Abraham for his obedience to a God who would order him to kill his son Isaac: “Abraham would have been a better person if he refusedâ¦ Some parent.' Abraham is a failure.
And so is McCarthy. Audrey has fantasies of being accused by McCarthy and fixing her right eye on him, demolishing him with her articulate outrage. “You have exceeded the boundaries of civil behavior. Moreover, you're nothing but a pig.”
However, she is aware of the boundary between dream and reality: “I was a dreamer with a dream life. Despite what people think, dreamers are very clear about what it fantasy and what is realityâthey have to be.”
Audrey discovers a certain power and joy in her way of seeing: “I had to peel whatever I saw.” But her parents consider her eye a flaw and take her to an eye doctor, who fits Audrey for a lens, a “hard, clear plastic disk with about the diameter of a half dollarâ¦ molded like a human eyeâ¦and, in the swift sneaky manner of doctors, [he] spread my upper and lower lids with his fingers and slipped it in. I wanted to howl in protest.”
Painful and irritating, this stiff lens warps what has been precious and freeing to Audrey: “With its confinement, a freedom seemed to have been taken from me.” In her protest against this violation of self, Audrey flushes the lens.
The treatment of time in
is complex in its fluidity, in its graceful passage from present to future to past. The point of view is equally complex. Readers are within the perspective of the very young Audrey one moment and the next moment in the perspective of Audrey as an adult wondering about her younger self, doubting, evaluating. It's a brilliant form for telling a story, sophisticated and inventive.
Audrey's first childhood crush is on Bobby, whose mother is the local chicken flicker. For a while, he is the focus of Audrey's
strong imaginary life, of daydreams, of long conversations: “In my mind, as always, I told him how things truly were and felt.” Bobby's mother has a cleft palate and speaks in jumbled sounds, but she is accomplished at pulling “feathers from the chicken, her fingers so swift that they dissolved in a blurâ¦ tossed up by the energy in her fingers â¦while the chicken flicker sat in the midst of them, large, solid, and draped, a Madonna assumed into a cloud.”
Lynne juxtaposes the sensuous immediacy of the young Audrey's experiencesâexternal and internalâwith the reflective voice of the adult Audrey as she evaluates her experiences, challenges her memories, and separates what happened from what might have happened, sometimes even adjusting the story: “I am confused about who I was: why else would I need to tell this story of my eye? The confusion is that I seem to have grown up into someone who could not have been me as a child. Yet, in the telling the girl grows to sound more and more like the woman I became.”
I find this border between memoir and fiction mesmerizing, and I trust the voice of the adult Audrey even as she doubts herself: “Even as I recall it, record it, I suspect I really didn't do such an outrageous thing and memory is falsifying, inventing what I wish I could have done or imagining it from what I have since become capable of doing.”
Lynne has told me that it was her intention to have this novel “read as a memoirâ¦ an autobiographical account, when in truth it is highly fictionalized.” Audrey's visionâintuitive, daringâmirrors Lynne's way of writing: going beyond what is apparent; challenging the mysterious border between imagination and memory; rejecting the stiff lens of conformity.
Some writers, I believe, are born with that odd and magical way of seeing, and Lynne is certainly one of them. For writers, there is no other way of seeing: they're drawn toward the beauty found in distortion and celebrate the gift and the persistence of this odd vision.
Stones from the River
He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.
THIS IS THE STORY OF AN EYE, and how it came into its own.
“You were perfect, when you first came out,” my mother insisted. But between the moment of my birth and her next inspection I suffered an injury to my right eye. How it occurred is a mystery. Some blunder made in handling was all she would murmurâdrops, doctors, nurses, vagueness: “These things happen.”
My mother probably didn't know the details of the eye injuryâif it was an injuryâfor it would have been sacrilege for her to have questioned a doctor at that time and in that place, Brooklyn on the eve of war, a locus of customs and mythologies as arbitrary and rooted as in the Trobriand Islands or the great Aztec city of TeotihuacÃ¡n where ritual sacrifices were performed monthly, the victims' blood coursing down the steps of the great Pyramid of the Sun. In comparison, my damage was minor.
Her vagueness still puzzled me, though, because her favorite retort, when she suspected me of lying, was “To thine own self be true.” As it happened, lying was not my style; I leaned more towards omission. But she was canny; she knew when something was missing or out of kilter. So did I, and so I found her phrase suspicious. “To thine own self be true,” on her lips, meant that though I might persist in lying to her, I had better be honest with myself. Yet she used it to pry out the truth, the whole truth.
Shouldn't she have investigated the matter of the eye, likewise, to be true to herself?
. Don't call her she,” I can already hear my father interrupting, not understanding that the “she” is a form of war - like intimacy, referring to someone so close she doesn't require a noun, someone on the embattled ground between first and third person, self and other. “Call her your mother.” Very well, my mother.)
Only much later did I find that those words referred to quite a different sort of fidelity, to not bending your identity out of shape to fit the fashion. But by that time I was light years out of Brooklyn. I was becoming an actress. I was playing Polonius's daughter.
I never broached the subject with my father, such matters not being, as he might put it, in his “department.” Also, he needed to be right in everything he undertook, and bristled at any hint of error or bungling. His department covered money and cars and going to work. I knew about the money part, for as far back as I could remember he would sit down after dinner at his small desk in the dining room, a desk that looked almost too small for him to fit his knees under, and I would stand beside him, jiggling the metal handles on the drawers, wordless but beseeching, till he pulled me up onto his lap. With arms reaching around me, he would go through mail, tear open envelopes, leaf through papers, and write. What was he doing?
He explained what bills were. “You should pay a bill the same day you receive it. Why wait?”
He would write out a check in his gallant, illegible writingâso that forever after I considered illegible writing a sign of masculinity and sophisticationâput it in a small white envelope, dart his tongue across the wide V of the flap, pound it shut on the desk with his fistâthe vibrations thumped excitedly through my bodyâand affix a stamp. Then he would tear up the remaining bits of paper littering the desk. Once in a while he even tore up an envelope unopened. He tore it across, then tore two or three
more times with fierce gusts of energy, and threw the scraps in the wastebasket under the desk.
“Why do you have to tear it up?”
“I know, but why do you have to tear it up? Why can't you just throw it away?”
He looked at me in startled, confused pleasure, as if I had cunningly put my finger on one of the profound and inexplicable contradictions at the heart of things, as if I had asked why is there suffering in the world or why do men constantly make war if they say they want peace. He tousled my hair and had no answer, which surprised me because he usually did.