Saturday, September 17, 2011

Douglas Messerli | A War Against Death (on the works of Marianne Hauser)

by Douglas Messerli

Marianne Hauser Dark Dominion (New York: Random House, 1947)
Marianne Hauser The Choir Invisible (New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1958)
Marianne Hauser Prince Ishmael (New York: Stein and Day, 1963); reprinted by (Los Angeles:
Sun & Moon Press, 1989)
Marianne Hauser A Lesson in Music (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964)
Marianne Hauser The Talking Room (New York: The Fiction Collective, 1976)
Marianne Hauser The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986)
Marianne Hauser Me & My Mom (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1993)
Marianne Hauser Shootout with Father (Normal, Illinois/Tallahassee, Florida: Fiction Collective 2, 2002)
Marianne Hauser The Collected Short Fiction (Normal, Illinois/Tallahassee, Florida: Fiction Collective 2, 2004)

All year long I’d promising myself to read Marianne Hauser’s Collected Short Fiction, and here it was nearly the end of June and I’d still not picked up the book. I loved Hauser’s writing as much the woman herself, and anticipated the reading as a pleasurable experience; but other more pressing commitments kept me from attending to the 2004 collection. I had hoped when I finished the book and had written something about it, to send it to Marianne as a kind of apologia—my Sun & Moon Press had published three of her fictions, The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley (1986), Prince Ishmael (originally published by Stein and Day in 1963, and reprinted by Sun & Moon in 1989), and Me & My Mom (1993), books, except for the latter, now out of print on account of the press’s demise—and a simultaneous testament to her literary contributions. I knew she was aging, and her silence haunted me, but when I’d last seen her in her late 80s she was spryer than a 60-year-old—which I will become in another year—with an athletically wiry body that promised to house her comfortably for decades to come.

What a shock, accordingly, to receive an e-mail from Marianne’s son, Michael Kirchberger, about her death at the age of 96 on June 21. “We knew she was quite ill,” Michael wrote, “but we thought she was recovering and doing well.” Even her family, apparently, had been misled by Marianne’s seeming robustness.

I remember her sitting upon her couch in her tiny New York apartment (apartments that at one time at least were—and perhaps still are—leased primarily to faculty and staff at New York University), dressed entirely in black, long before it became fashionable to dress that way, both legs hiked up under her buttocks like a new kind of Buddha, lithe and, with those glittering eyes (were they green?), ready to spring up, panther-like and embrace any new task.

Ray Federman recalls her smoking pot—I am sure he is correct, although she never did so in front of me—her joints stashed away in “an antique silver cigarette box.” I have never seen such a box, nor can I imagine Marianne owning the object. For she was stunningly sleek, all moderne, in the old meaning of that word, a kind of ur-beatnik (whose mirror-opposite was the slim, well-groomed early 1960s executive, epitomized by young president Kennedy) dressed in a turtle-neck sweater and leotards. Later she might wear a brown or white silk blouse, but her taste in dress could never have diminished into the garish colors, loopy beads, and granny gowns of the hippies or the later shoulder-padded blazers that characterize the costumes worn by powerful women like Hilary Clinton today. I believe she was a vegetarian—although I can’t swear to that fact; in any case she clearly ate healthfully.

Federman also calls her an “outrageous lesbian,” but I was somehow oblivious to that possibility. She had after all been married to the great German-born pianist and music teacher, Frederic Kirchberger, whose books, including Let Them Sing in English! (a compilation of “over 200 German Lieder with singable English translations”) is still advertised on the internet. Truman State University in Missouri notes with pride, moreover, the Kirchberger scholarship for the study of piano “established by Dr. Frederic Kirchberger and friends” in 1983, the year of his retirement from the institution where he had come in 1951. I knew only that she had long ago divorced him—understandable, I felt, given the restrictions that must have been placed upon her as a faculty wife (who, not to mention, was a sophisticated Alsatian who had traveled to Egypt, India and China as a journalist before settling in 1937 in the United States) ensconced in the small, Midwestern town of Kirksville, a community brilliantly and often satirically portrayed in her 1958 novel, The Choir Invisible. I also knew that she had some years before been part of a circle centered around Anais Nin and that she had met, if I remember correctly, Djuna Barnes—although, given Barnes’s hatred of Nin, it would have had to have been apart from that circle of friends. By the time I met Marianne, she had already written four English-language novels and one collection of stories. The fact that one of them, The Talking Room, had been a work about lesbian life seemed to me beside the point. Her major characters were always outsiders battling the dominant culture, class values, and sexual mores. These, indeed, were the major issues of most great European fiction, to which, despite her intimate understanding of contemporary American life, Hauser would throughout life have close ties. The first book of Hauser’s I published, The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley, moreover, was written from the viewpoint of a married, New England man, a closet homosexual, whose relationship with an American-Hispanic hustler is shockingly revealed to his family and friends with his sudden death. Despite the distance in manner and time from own experiences with gay life (I was the first of generation of new gay openness), I found the work totally believable. Marianne was clearly a writer who wrote less from experience than from her brilliant imagination.

I might rather have called Marianne “omnisexual,” particularly given her statements in the introduction to her stories, where she describes her new lover as a vibrator. “Touch is the key. When I make love and come to the perfect climax, it may well be the key to paradise. Now in my nineties, arthritic joints easily hurt, I feel safest to be my own lover, alone in bed. The paradisiacal orgasms have become rarer. But they still happen. And when they do, their intensity and beauty are beyond words.” Marianne glorified “eros,” and that included not only the enjoyment of every part of body, but of being itself. She was in love with life!

Her Collected Stories, accordingly, meant far more to me than just another book. Sun & Moon was to have published that collection, along with her other recent title, Shootout with Father, both scuttled in the closing of the press. Nine of these stories appeared in her 1964 collection, A Lesson in Music, a book I remember from my high school days sitting for several months on the “New Books” shelves of the Marion (Iowa) City Carnegie Public Library, my home away from home for much of my young life. Its dark blue cover beckoned to me for months—although I never read it nor Prince Ishmael, which also temporarily appeared upon those shelves. In those days, I loved books but seldom read them; I was in awe of them, I suspect, for the potential experiences that awaited me between their covers. It was not until my senior year in Norway that I began to read with any regularity and only in college did I begin reading in way that would come to define my daily life. Now, once more, I was faced with that childhood potential, the older collection interleaved with newer tales by the same author. With Marianne’s death that potential joy seemed to come crashing down upon me, representing a failure on my part; I had missed my opportunity to return a favor, to send Marianne a personal response in return for the great imaginative journeys she had provided me throughout my life.

These stories, like her novels, witness a life lived at war with ignorance, complacency, stupidity. One didn’t need to have a long afternoon conversation with Marianne—as I had—to know that she was impatient with many of society’s most beloved values. “A Lesson in Music,” like the novel The Choir Invisible recounts a frightening encounter with death. But the story’s young heroine is not as aware or as expressive as the young wife of the novel. This story’s narrator tells of her piano lessons with an elderly spinster, Miss Stoltz; as time progresses, and the young girl’s abilities regress, the teacher becomes more and more distressed. The student arrives early each week, listening to the near-perfect renditions by a young boy, Manfred, before her inadequate performances. The girl practices arduously, but without being able to convey any improvement. One day, in a near hysterical frenzy of laughter, the girl admits that her behavior is in response, in part, to the way Miss Stoltz nods in time to the music, the result, probably, as Manfred later perceives, of “nerves” or what today we might describe as Parkinson’s Disease. The lesson is cancelled, and on her way home, her young pianist friend reveals that Miss Stolz will soon stop teaching, that she is too old to go on with the lessons. This surprising and now painful information helps the young girl to pinpoint the real problem of her piano playing, that what most troubled her was not the nods but what those nods perhaps symbolized.

There was the whistle of the evening train. A red glare hit the clouds
and vanished. “Maybe she’s too sick to go on teaching. Or maybe she’s
just too old,” he said in his clear, untroubled voice.
His footfall resounded evenly from the wet pavement. I did not dare
touch his hand. “Old,” I said. “Yes, very old.” And unthinkingly, as though
some other person whom I had never seen was making me say the words,
I added, “She reminds me of death.”

While “A Lesson in Music” shares the psychological intensity of stories by Eudora Welty, other psychologically framed works in this volume such as “Allons Enfants” and “My Uncle’s Magic Machine”—works that recount childhood experiences during World War I (Marianne was just six years of age by the end of the war)—seem, understandably, much more embedded in European literature, with slight nods to Mann, Gide, Céline, and particularly the European-aligned American writer Henry James.

In some senses, it is difficult to reconcile the Hauser of these psychological portrayals—her greatest effort in that direction being the remarkably epic-like story of Casper Hauser (the young boy who mysteriously appeared at the gates of Nuremberg in the early part of the 19th century) presented in Prince Ishmael—with her more postmodern fiction (what I’d prefer to call “nonmodern,” if by “modern” one means the kind of psychological realism practiced by James, Conrad, Woolf, Proust, Faulkner, and the early Joyce) particularly given her jabs at Freudian psychoanalytical studies in Dark Dominion, wherein the characters are hilariously forced each morning to recount over breakfast their night-time dreams. As early as “The Sheep” of 1945, Hauser had shifted her concerns from psychological perceptions to social and class interactions that betray the absurdity of situations and characters. “The Sheep” of the title are a mother and her daughters caught up in the courting of the eldest, Elizabeth, by a charmingly intelligent, knowledgeable, and solicitous Greek named Alcibiades. The imperiously bourgeois mother is horrified by the intrusion of this exotic outsider into her waspishly organized home, but his conversations prove so amusing and his manners so polite that he charms all three women—against the increasing objections and resulting ostracism of the father. When the Greek suddenly disappears for an entire season, the women become as despondent as if the couple had been married and divorced, and the mother gives up her artful reorganization of her furniture and careful tending of her house. Like Odysseus, this Greek one day returns, but is now rejected; soon after the mother discovers that he is married with children, merely an everyday shopkeeper living in the nearby town.

“The Cruel Brother” of the same year has important psychological implications, but is more evocative and absurd in its assumptions. A respectable salesman refuses to pick up a woman hitchhiker, observing that the car behind him has taken her in. The car soon passes him, the girl waving in apparent spite. Several miles later, however, the woman reappears sitting on her suitcase in the middle of the highway. The other man apparently made a pass, and she is determined to catch a new ride. Once again on the road, she begins to endlessly chatter about anything and everything that crosses her mind. The salesman suffers her until they reach a small town, where the two have a long and increasingly drunken lunch, while she flirtatiously praises his silent sensitivity, perceiving he must have a mean older brother. Returning to their journey, she has no perception that they are traveling in the direction from which they have just come. Stopping before a small, decaying corncrib he had previously spotted, he points out the hut which she willingly enters as he pulls the fragile walls down over her body. He turns the car around and speeds off in the original direction of his voyage. The cruel brother is, obviously, himself.

The New Jersey housewife of “The Other Side of the River” (1948) is happily married with a child, while secretly in love with an adventurer named Brooks, whose photographs and stories recounted in a travel magazine have been her solace for years. In her youth she had known the world-renowned traveler and temporarily lived a bohemian life with him, before leaving for a more conventional and safer existence. Now that he is returning to New York, she is determined to cross the river into Manhattan and regain the link to the world of adventures she had regretfully forsaken. Terrified, she travels into the city to reencounter the life she has left behind, only to discover that her Brooks is not the same as the one in the magazine, but is a photographer of babies, living for all these years in a squalid home in Greenwich Village. As in the previous two stories, Hauser suggests that these women are deluded not so much by their men as by their own romanticized desires. The comedy—and nearly all of her tales are ironic comedies—is primarily a social one, not a tale centered upon psychological insights.

“Peter Plazke, Poet,” originally published in 1955, is a hilarious study in cultural pretension. A petty pickpocket seeking to outrun the police joins a group of people filing into an Manhattan apartment; once inside he discovers himself among a strange, incoherent party of individuals who, after scooping up drinks and appetizers, gather into groups speaking a language he can hardly comprehend. A somewhat elderly but beautiful woman explains that they are all writers and this is a weekly salon where they gather to steal each other's plots for new stories and subjects for poems. The thief is described by the woman as a poet, and given his disinterest in and naiveté of the scene around him, he quickly becomes the subject of deep gossip in several conversations. Itching to find out how much money the wallet he has stolen contains, he retreats to the bathroom, after which he is ready to return to the party and accept their adulation. The party-goers, however, have all suddenly disappeared, taking his legendary status with them. He has no choice, if he wishes to regain his new-found identity, but to return the next Thursday, when, presumably, he will shift his activities from stealing wallets to stealing ideas.

The dominating mother of “The Dreaming Poseidan” of 1961 somewhat foretells the mother-daughter relationship of Hauser’s 1993 novella, Me & My Mom. Only in the short story the daughter speaks through a letter that infuriates the nouveau riche mother, whose offspring is determined to remarry, this time to an “underpaid research professor” from Missouri. Despite her wealth and pretensions, we gradually discover the course and nefarious background of the mother who has used men sexually before suing them through her lawyer/now lover.

The father appears to be at the center of Hauser’s story, “The Island,” in which Homan Waterlow Hatchetson Boman the Fifth has inherited a booming construction business to which he now is slave. As in Hauser’s 2002 novella Shootout with Father, the father is both hated and beloved. In the story, however, the mother’s love for her son and their time away from the father in summer vacations on a remote island far outweigh the son’s relationship with his father. Upon the mother’s death, he determines to place her ashes on their beloved retreat, only to discover that it, like the city from which has escaped, has been transformed by his business’s cheap constructions, and, that despite his futile attempts to destroy the new cottages and break his ties with his father and company, his efforts will be futile. He is too weak to control his own destiny, because, Hauser hints, corporate worlds control even those seemingly in charge.

In the most recent of Hauser’s stories, such as “The Seeksucker Suit,” first collected in the 1986 Fiction Collective anthology, American Made, Hauser has nearly abandoned any psychological realist conventions. Caught up in a clearly abusive and criminal life with a man identified as R, his wife suffers his fits of temper, beatings, and long disappearances, feeling herself blessed by the gift of a fur stole, which quickly transforms into a dog dressed in a seersucker suit, whom she suddenly recognizes as her son, Karl. Entertained by the “talking dog,” she attempts to raise money for herself, R, and their new son by offering the scientific wonder to the local university, which at first dismisses the tongue-tied animal, but then takes him away for further studies. Days later—and only after her insistent entreaties—the laboratory delivers up his dead body. Here the satire, cloaked in the guise of an absurd fable, is broad, aimed at once at various institutions—marriage, the subservience of women, and the university. But in its absurd, Ionesco-like transformations of human and beast, is one of Hauser’s best short works.

Each of these stories, in retrospect, presents us with individuals wounded, if not yet destroyed, by their own inability to relinquish absurd social conventions as well as by the corrupt society at large. Almost all of Hauser’s characters, in both her short fictions and longer works, are trapped by dominating figures and their own ready subservience. Nowhere is that more apparent, in fact, than in “Conflict of Legalities,” wherein a lawyer—formerly a grammar-school student of his client—attempts to engage his former teacher in her own defense against a murder by poisoning to which she has admitted. After years of rape and other abuses by a local farmer to whom she consigned her life in return for financial protection, the teacher is just “too dead tired” to go on, and placidly slathers a dose of rat poison on the ham sandwiches she prepares for his picnic lunch. The woman, however, refuses to participate in her own defense, knowing that she has been a victim, but perceiving that in the murder she has freed herself from further victimization. She conceives of her imprisonment not as punishment, but as a strange reward—for she now has a room (however humble) and sufficient food without having to serve as a slave to a cruel master. Now, she can peaceably sleep.

The characters of “Heartlands Beat” cannot comprehend why their son, lover, friend Johnny Upjohn, Jr. has, on the night of the prom, committed suicide. But through their revealed conversations, diary entries, and letters we quickly discern that not only is the small town in which he lived without any cultural or social diversions, but that his life has already been determined by the various battles between his unexpressive, insensitive father and his near-incestuously doting mother. In his death, he has finally escaped a more horrifying living death the others keep within themselves:

What can I say? It’s been a bad, bad trip….Yes, I could use a shot.
But first scoot over, willya, honey? I’m so godawful dead inside. Hold

(Mary-Sue May [Johnny’s girlfriend] tells it “like it is” to Eddy,
chance acquaintance, instant confidant & psych major at
Munich U.)

If the young girl of “A Lesson in Music” is terrified in her subconscious realization that, despite the transformative power of art, death ultimately rules, by the end of Marianne Hauser’s writing career, her characters have come to comprehend that life itself is a war against that death we all carry within ourselves. Hauser herself demonstrated that tenacious will, not only to survive, but to prevail (as Faulkner put it) against all the enemies of living life to its fullest, whether those forces come from within or outside of oneself.

If Hauser has a grave—I presume, however, like the dead narrator of her The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley she willed herself to the fire*—the words upon Casper Hauser’s tombstone, the hero of her great Prince Ishmael, might equally serve her:

You call me what you will, angel or liar, I may yet live forever,
mark my word.

*Hauser’s body, I was later told by her son, was cremated.

Los Angeles, August 13, 2006
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, IV, no. 2 (April 2007).

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