"Quando leggemmo il disiato riso
esser basciato da cotanto amante,
questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,
la bocca ma bascio tutta tremante.
Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse:
quel giorno piu non vi leggemmo avante."
Inferno, V, 120-125
"That day we read no more." Never will I forget my Dante professor in graduate school reading these lines, and those that follow--Dante, upon hearing the tale of the eternal torment of Paolo and Francesca, swoons ("con corpo morto") at Virgil's feet, so deeply does he feel the story of the young lovers. This Canto also contains one of Dante's most unforgettable images: "As winter starlings riding on their wings/form crowded flocks, so spirits dip and veer/Foundering in the wind's rough buffetings/Upward of downward, driven here and there/With never ease from pain nor hope of rest." (V, 36ff. trans. Robert Pinsky). Thus are the lustful souls of the Second Circle driven hither and yon by the winds of passion. William Blake placed the spirits in a kind of diaphanous digestive tube, generic flesh whirling eternally; Dante lies at the Leader's feet, and, in the background, a nimbus shining with, perhaps, "those two who move along together, so lightly."
I was eager to read Clare Messud's new novel, The Woman Upstairs, since I so enjoyed The Emperor's Children, her story of New York just before September 11, 2001. The Woman Upstairs, multilayered with literary references ("the madwoman in the attic"), also merges two fairy tale themes: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Nora Eldridge is an unhappy teacher of third graders in Cambridge, Massachusetts--a frustrated artist who creates Joseph Cornell-style boxes, dioramas, or who once did, but who has surrendered her dreams for a more mundane life. She mourns her beloved mother, yearns some of the time for love--she's single, childless, empty, and a part-time or perhaps incoherent feminist--and seems resigned to sadness. Then she meets the extraordinary (too-good-to-be-true if you don't live on Brattle Street in Cambridge) family of Reza Shahid. Reza is Nora's eight-year-old pupil, his mother Sirena is an Italian artist, and his father, Skandar, is a Lebanese-born, French-educated philosopher of history (vaguely looking for morality in the past--rather like looking for wisdom in Congress) who is teaching for a year at Harvard. Nora falls in love, one by one, with each member of the family--first with the precocious little boy with the beautiful eyes and the soul of the Buddha, then with the eccentric but brilliant Sirena who is deeply engaged in a Judy Chicago-like installation called "Wonderland"--yes, the metaphors are piled on thickly, and Ms. Messud, so deft at subtle characterizations, escalates the emotional pitch--Nora's anger, Nora's yearning--by creating a kind of whirlwind of escalating emotion, a series of set encounters (Nora with Skandar, Nora with Sirena, Nora with her gay friend Didi) without a moment of calm reflection and with no sense that Nora's self-awareness increases as she is buffeted about by the winds of her passion.
"Wonderland" will be installed in Paris, and will be a kind of feminist "We are the world," and since Nora is smitten to her mousey core by the scarf-wearing, frizzy-haired, chain-smoking Sirena (with her charming accent; this business of accents was rather embarrassing), she becomes the older woman's confidant. And, of course, eventually, reluctantly, that and more to the husband, who comes across as an out-of-focus Edward Said: cosmopolitan, charming, a sort-of intellectual, but utterly incredible as the lover of Nora. And Nora herself? Her back story is hastily assembled, as if her life was lived in one of tiny boxes she makes to satisfy some dark yearning of her soul. Messud invokes Emily Dickinson and Andy Warhol's Edie Sedgwick in Nora's portrait, and that seems about right: Nora is both cloistered madwoman and modern wild woman, Emily and Edie; prim schoolteacher, overworked Cinderella, but, around the Shahid's, her inhibitions vanish, and her deep yearning for meaning, for love, blows her about like a starling in the wind. I pictured Nora as Edie--see above--with a look of perpetual surprise, or perhaps of ingenuousness, on her face as she slipped into and out of the lives of Reza, Sirena, and Skandar. That Nora will be betrayed is a foregone conclusion. How could she not be? Everything about the Shahid's feels shallow--but it's worse than that--they're evil in the way of all narcissists and self-seekers. Reza's affection for his teacher is genuine, but what is it exactly that the parents want from this attractive, vivacious, but self-pitying woman? Messud puts the reader in a difficult position: she needs Nora to be vulnerable and therefore open to the overtures from this glamorous academic family; but in making Nora vulnerable, she also makes her weak, a victim awaiting attractive predators. I happened to be reading an essay of Karen Horney's as I was reading The Woman Upstairs. Horney's remarks on "Inhibited Femininity" seemed almost a gloss on Nora Eldridge's character: so willing was she to surrender to "stronger" types, so eager to find fault with herself and to childishly place her faith in those who appear to have life figured out.
Or perhaps she is Francesca da Rimini, blown about by desire--not sexual desire, but a desire for life. As Nora says of herself, she is "ravenous" for living, she "wants it all," and in her eagerness to live fully and deeply, she places her life in the hands of those who cannot value it. The Woman Upstairs seemed to me above all a novel about social class, a Jamesian meditation on the innocence of Americans when confronted by the decadence of Europeans (the French!). Harvard elites and elementary school teachers, lions and lambs, upstairs and downstairs. Poor Nora! Like Ibsen's Nora Helmer, she's crushed by her family, even if it isn't hers.
George Ovitt (7/28/14)