An Unfinished Woman, by Lillian Hellman
Experience as Drama
An Unfinished Woman.
by Lillian Hellman.
Little-Brown. 280 pp. $7.50.
Not the least important thing about a memoir is who has written it. Some lives are just more naturally transformed into material for drama than are others; some are dramatic in the merest recording of facts. While nothing of the drama of Miss Hellman's memoir has to do with mere recording—her narrative style is absolutely compelling—one is directed to note the intrinsic interest of the facts: she has written twelve plays (a matter she passes over lightly in the memoir, a throw-away in favor of the personal); her friends are interesting, if not notorious (Dorothy Parker, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eisenstein, Dashiell Hammett). She reports from two wars: she is in Spain, wandering around in the bombardments of Valencia and Madrid; toward the end of World War II, on a cultural mission to Moscow, she ends up (the only journalist permitted) at the Russian front, in the bunkers with General Chernov's White Russian Divisions as they prepare to move on to the liberation of Poland. She has seen Maidanek newly liberated, and she is present at the interrogation of the first SS officer to desert from the German army. These are scenes built on the emotional facts of our recent history. Maidanek is short, retching, dreamlike. The interrogation of the SS by the Russians is built, unutterably tense in the exchange of plain information which is not style, but words and movements torn flat from the diary of a war whose plainest day could not be ordinary.
One is tempted to note the intrinsic drama of Miss Hellman's experience as a means of explaining the distinguished nature of this memoir. There is history here, an intimate recording of facts significant beyond the personal. This is not to say that the personal, which accounts for so much of Miss Hellman's material, is not in itself deeply interesting; it is that the combination of both is rarely ever found in the record of an ordinary life, as we know ordinary. I want to make this distinction to offer some standard for judging a work of this kind. Teaching in a university some years ago, I remember giving my students an assignment to write about an experience that mattered, one they wanted to tell about. One, an Israeli exchange student, wrote, in laconic key, the details of his parachute drop during the Sinai invasion—his first day of combat. Another wrote about learning to drive a car and the day he passed his driver's test. One is asked to believe in these times of psychological inflation that the profounder experience of the two is now defined by the quality of the sensibility writing; one experience is as good as another. Perhaps, but I have not found it so. I knew even then, as Miss Hellman might say, that life was unfair to people who needed grades. Experience mattered, and it was not altogether an accident of history and geography that determined who was where.
Life has not been unfair to Miss Hellman that way. The quality of her experience has been extraordinary and that is no accident. It is an inevitability of spirit, that which creates experience. It is that which creates her language, too. Her speech is not poetic; it is stark and abrupt, but the force of its observation makes this conscientiously plain-speaking sensibility move as it does. Her lines on Dashiell Hammett:
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, . . .
All of her lines on Hammett, virtually, have the vital, funny cutting edge of recall. But it is more than style: it is the deepest of feeling, coming plain and meant to be that, enlarged nonetheless by its clarity and infectious in its precision.
An Unfinished Woman is a record of personal discovery, most of which does not approach the fine emotional nerve of Miss Hellman's conclusions on Hammett. The record takes up her childhood, girlhood, and womanhood. Some of the details are ordinary, some are not: the feel of all of it is intensity bordering on the exorbitant. That is because Miss Hellman's dramaturgical instincts permit no conversation, no word, no twitch of a face, no walk across a room which does not create a scene. No silence is permitted which does not make a speech, no gesture which does not add to the creation; the scenes come with a striking power that for me, at least, never was there in Miss Hellman's plays. Thus: in Valencia, food is scarce. Miss Hellman shares a hotel dining table with a German couple and an English doctor who has come to supervise medical supplies sent by British organizations. The diary records that Miss Hellman, about to leave for Barcelona, brings her own provisions to the table:
Tonight I took the peaches, two cans of anchovies, a box of crackers to the dinner table. I asked the handshaking German to open them, but he put his hands in his lap and smiled. I passed them to the young man from the Press Office, but he shook his head.
No one will take anything. The doctor instructs her that they are shy about taking other people's food. They are persuaded, finally, when they are told that this is a farewell party they must share.
I liked him very much as he rose and served each person one anchovy and a cracker. Everybody ate very slowly, and there was no talk. I served the peaches and they stared at their plates. . . . There were still a few anchovies. . . . There wasn't any for the doctor or for me. . . . The German immediately put his anchovy on my plate and the German lady leaned over to give hers to the doctor.
Both the doctor and Miss Hellman refuse their share, asserting that they dislike anchovies.
. . . when the oil of the can was passed around, I heard the German lady make a sound of pleasure. I didn't want a peach, but there was such disbelief when I said so that I ate part of one. . . . At the door, I turned to speak to somebody and saw that the German lady was wrapping my half peach in a piece of paper. She handed it to her husband. He shook his head and gave it back and she gave it back to him and this time he took it and kissed the hand that gave it to him. The doctor had waited at the door for me and had seen what I had seen. In the hall, he said, “My God. Hunger is awful.”
When events are not of themselves dramatic, Miss Hellman's disposition intercedes to make them so. A disposition like hers is best described in her own terms. Throughout An Unfinished Woman, she is concerned with her early intimations of—quaint but good word yet—her nature. Those intimations are the creatures that flit through the memoir, remembering her to herself. She had always known that she was something, fit or not fit for this or that, so that no experience, as recorded, comes quite unapprehended. No experience, no fact of the self, comes raw with adult discovery—it has all been prepared for long ago, whatever the self does. She writes, for instance, of trying to decide whether or not to accept the dangerous, if enviable, invitation proffered by General Chernov, to move with his division to the liberation of War saw:
. . . I will not sleep tonight, whatever I decide . . . and after that will come, as it always has, a hatred for the side of me that either falls into action or avoids it . . . giving in and over to people or places. . . . But it was not like that.
In the end, she thanks the General and refuses,, “not in fear for my life, but in fear of my nature. . . .” One could have wished for a less historic moment for that knowledge. But the pattern of recognition is the triumph of the memoir over life, a triumph not easy to avoid if one wants to (and one should want to). There is just too much here of, “I-had-found-very-early” and I-had-always-known-that” and “knowing-even-then, I-think” and that sort of imposed monotony of self-knowledge which is the memoir's landscaping. For life, it would seem unbearable.
There is another difficulty, too—of a tone so composed around the self and its two units of feeling (irritability and love) that it makes no distinctions among experiences or among objects. Thus, during the march on Washington, she can grow irritated with Martin Luther King, impatient with his dream, as she says, because he reminds her of too many Southern preachers of her childhood. If she cannot love him, she must be irritated with him: he has that place assigned by childhood memory and there is nothing to be said beyond that—that, and the fact that he is a kind man, as she says—and she wanders off to look for something to eat. It is that kind of sensibility: one is either here or there, right or not, irritating or loved.
There are people who confuse irritability with intellect, and I suspect Miss Hellman may be one of them. She admired in Hammett his refined hauteur, his willingness to snub people who were wrong or who bored him. The charm of it is clear: “He took a strong and lasting dislike to a man who insisted mackerel were related to herring. . . .” It is a quality which charmed Miss Hellman, one which is indeed charming in Hammett as he is rendered throughout, a fact-loving irritable intellect who knew how to be rude to people as Miss Hellman did not. But there is often a confusion between irritability and mind, and the confusion of irritability with anything but what it is, has its dangers. And Miss Hellman can assume an irascibility of her own, which too often takes the place of all the other emotions one may have about things one does not happen to love. There are many things Miss Hellman does not love, and she is merely, and monotonously, irritable about all of them.
But there is nothing finally monotonous about An Unfiinshed Woman, if only because Miss Hellman is so faithfully enigmatic in her observation when she might merely have been interesting. Apparently, a nature like Miss Hellman's is bent on the enigmatic on all occasions, even while it is explaining things. The more she explains, irascibly insistent on clearing things up, opening psychic doors, the more enigma sidles through, going comfortably home to its own true voice and bringing all its friends too. That is the true voice of the book. Time and again, we are left with reportage on awkward encounters, moments of genuine, high drama, interred with: “but we were never to speak of that again.” During one of their arguments, Hammett slowly grinds a burning cigarette into his cheek. They never speak of that again. Miss Hellman explains, in her fashion, but it is the silence which lasts.
Miss Hellman nails her dramatic scenes so often with that silence that it becomes a leitmotif, a reassuring thud that persuades the reader that no more ever happened, which means everything. No one misses anything, the event is totally given. That is Miss Hellman, the dramatist,, who works superbly well at this. The other result of that frequent interment, “we were never to speak of that again” and all its variations, is the suggestion of enormous psychic controls developed around all the relationships described. And it is the constant suggestion of putting things away between people, the small, shared secrets, that render the slightest relationships successfully intimate. A little girl in a squirrel coat and a woman in an English nanny costume appear briefly and disappear down the rubble of a Russian street. A young Captain K. arrives for the purpose of visiting Miss Hellman. While she waits, he reads a magazine in her sitting room before uttering a word. No one of these relationships is uninteresting, but it is not a matter of dramatistic skill alone which makes them move. It is Miss Hellman's idiosyncratic sympathies. She likes these people, and it is her sympathies which compel attention to the last detail of her subject. “I like people who refuse to speak until they are ready to speak,” she directs us to Captain K.
Compelling also is the insistence of her graphic style: she is nine; there is a heavy fig tree in which she whiles away truant afternoons. She says she was convinced the tree missed her in her absence. One obediently wishes to understand exactly where the tree was in relation to the corner of the house. That is the kind of description of which Miss Hellman is capable at her best: to make one insist on seeing what she has seen, physically, geographically, anatomically—the twitch on which side of the face?—and the insistence is at her direction. It comes from her deep sympathy for the thing observed; that, or her utter distaste all in that tone of enigma-honesty, which is a triumph of persistence.