Commentary Magazine


On Being Told That Her Second Husband Has Taken His First Lover and Other Stories, by Tess Slesinger

Character Revealed

On Being Told That Her Second Husband Has Taken His First Lover and Other Stories.
by Tess Slesinger.
Quadrangle. 396 pp. $6.95.

The room (she looked round it) was very shabby. There was no beauty anywhere. She forbore to look at Mr. Tansley. Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her. Again she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men, for if she did not do it nobody would do it, and so, giving herself the little shake that one gives a watch that has stopped, the old familiar pulse began beating, as the watch begins ticking—one, two, three, one, two, three. And so on and so on, she repeated, listening to it, sheltering and fostering the still feeble pulse as one might guard a weak flame with a newspaper.

This tick of domestic conscience, the blank reassurance, the falling back into routine, belongs to Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. Most of Tess Slesinger’s people feel the same kind of pull from the mundane, and the recording voice, too, is remarkably similar. Yet between this author and Virginia Woolf there is a difference worth noting. Miss Slesinger, one realizes quite soon, is writing about a world without generosity, without the redemptive sign. It is Mr. Ramsay singing “Each alone, we perish all,” but where his wife comforts herself with “We are in the hands of the Lord,” Miss Slesinger prefers to let it go in silence. Each alone, we perish all. Her characters go on through the persistent ugliness of the everyday, with their private neuroses and their small, monotonous failures.

In The Unpossessed, writing a farcical counterpoint to Dostoevsky, Miss Slesinger found the style most appropriate to the minute psychological tremors she wished to register. She had learned the modernist tricks without being overwhelmed by them, so that her own version of the interior monologue showed an effortless brilliance and speed. Of course, the interior monologue is in part a satirical tool: characters can be “exposed” from within. The technique fails when the meanness of the exposure, and the fuss of rigging it, seem plainly disproportionate to the object at hand. But one felt this only rarely in Miss Slesinger’s novel, and in the stories written under the same impulse—with a single exception, “Mother to Dinner”—one doesn’t feel it at all. The characteristic stories in this volume are monologues, in one form or another. And in the best of them (“A Life in the Day of a Writer,” “Missis Flinders,” “On Being Told”) the recording voice offers no resistance to the recorded; character is not exposed but revealed.

The effect, it should be added, is never quite satirical. Short stories have no time for background, for the thick social ambience of satire—and without this, incidents which might have a satirical point become small tragedies. In “Missis Flinders,” a radical couple drive home from the hospital with a consolatory basket of fruit instead of a baby, having decided on abortion as the only right course in a world of starving millions. “Three days I spent in a hospital, in a Maternity Home, and I produced, with the help of my husband, one basket of fruit (tied with a ribbon, pink—for boys).” As the final chapter of The Unpossessed this had its bitter joke; when you read it separately, only the bitterness remains. The title story begins with a comical situation—mutual duplicity: husband concealing his affair, wife concealing her knowledge of it—but in the end there is mutual terror, and pain.

B plus for that one, little sister, you tell yourself, wearily, as you stand there hearing the door slam, and you wait there a minute but he doesn’t come back, he isn’t coming back, and if he were going to telephone you from the corner drug store he would have done it by now, and you walk back past the laden table and you do not sweep the cups and saucers off the table, nor do you scream nor do you turn on the gas nor do you telephone the boy that used to take you dancing (though you think of all these things), nor do you fall in a heap sobbing on the empty bed (though that is what you thought you wanted to do)—you merely stand at the kitchen sink letting the hot water run to grow hotter, and you say to the cold walls reproachfully, “Oh Dill, Dill . . . oh Jimsie, Jimsie . . .” and when the doorbell rings at last you know that it is not Dill and not Jimsie but merely the man collecting last week’s laundry.

The terror springs from those ghosts of meaning, what didn’t get said or done coming back to haunt what did.

Certain of the pieces have an interest, partly non-literary, as samples of “atmosphere” from the 1930’s. The author herself does not much care for historical local color, but she is intrigued by the peculiar nervousness in the air, how strangely people suddenly behave. And it is always funny, in some grim way, as with the caddish chief of an advertising firm, cozening his unruly workers into submission:

“Strike,” said Peter Bender, dilating his handsome nostrils as though he had come across a hair in his soup. “Strike!” he said, turning it gracefully into a rather graceless joke. “Strike!” he said, almost baby-talking it, kidding it, turning it round in his mouth like a teething ring and sticking it between his teeth to show he didn’t fear it.

The observation comes from “The Mouse-Trap,” an exemplary story. There is the feminine point of view, which makes Miss Slesinger’s gaze more exact, her manner more exacting; and there is the triumphantly unlovely tale of a girl from Kansas, a young secretary full of high ambition, who idolizes the boss, gets laid by the boss, and then leaves his service to become another of the unruly “mice.” In “Jobs in the Sky” one finds something in a similar vein about a young man, unsuccessful because it lapses out of focus and grows rather tired by the end.

Miss Slesinger is admirable, throughout her book, in rejecting the prettiness which forms the first real temptation of a short-story writer. This temptation means, of course, “creating a mood,” writing a shorthand novel in which the content is all gentle implication and muzziness. But Miss Slesinger would rather get down to business, flinging her readers straight to the middle of the action. A flexible prose measures every fact, selecting the right detail from the harsh, resistant world Miss Slesinger inhabits. And that world finally turns coherent, with characters nodding to each other across stories. This is, in quite another sense, an extremely crowded sort of fiction. Inanimate objects telegraph messages to people, as when the novelist in “A Life in the Day of a Writer” hears his typewriter laughing at him. The story reaches a pitch of elation—the manic reverse of depression, which is the only happy ending Miss Slesinger allows—when the novelist turns into one of his own characters as he walks down the street.

If the straightforward monologues represent the most distinctive (that is, the most personal) fiction of their author, two of the remaining stories seem to be entirely uncharacteristic. With “White on Black” it is easy to say why. This is a slight piece, describing the rise and fall in the popularity of two token Negroes at a mildly integrated school, and one suspects (and the date confirms) that it was written before Miss Slesinger had seen her way around the hardest problem of fiction: conventionality. “The Answer on the Magnolia Tree” is, on the other hand, the longest thing in the book—also the most ambitious, and an exception to whatever one might care to remark about Miss Slesinger. Several points of view, separate melodies, have been orchestrated through the events of a single day: a method that works far better here than it did, over a longer time and distance, in The Unpossessed. Indeed, from a technical standpoint, the story could hardly have been matched by Miss Slesinger’s contemporaries.

The characters are variously students, teachers, administrators, and groundskeepers at a rich girls’ school, where the girls are suffused with the magnolia scent of spring and the women who instruct them, sans homme one and all, feel their own autumn descending. Although a speck of irony drifts in now and then, the prevailing mood is idyllic. One of the girls, Linda, has stayed out too late with her beau, but all is forgiven since her parents are after all important donors. Quoting Longfellow, the headmistress warns Linda that she is standing at the crossroads of life, “with reluctant feet, where the brook and river meet.” Linda repeats this to her friends, and a girl perks up from the bathroom, “I’m where the brook and river meet!” The tone is wonderfully sustained, and never slick, though it often reminds one of other schoolgirl fiction: two parts amused, one part bemused. The final note is lingeringly bittersweet, but the bitterness here does not protest; the story deserves a wide and appreciative audience of the kind that Miss Slesinger’s fiction, on the whole, does not seem likely to get.

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The stories collected in this volume span the period 1929-35, during which the author did all of her “serious” writing. Miss Slesinger lived in Hollywood from 1935 until her death ten years later, and though she would have been just right for the acerbic comedies of that time, her talent seems to have been employed in other directions: The Good Earth and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are listed as among her screen credits. The publisher knows it is customary, at this point, to say something about the sadness of promise unfulfilled. But, really, there is nothing unfulfilled in this work, nothing promised that is not performed. About half these stories are as fully achieved as short fiction can be, and the volume itself has lost none of the particular sharpness of touch that must have suggested its title thirty-five years ago, Time: The Present.

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