Thursday, August 23, 2007

"People Make Compromises And Keep Going": The Precarious Life Of Joyce Carol Oates

In the epilogue of The Gravedigger’s Daughter – the epic story of a woman’s life of violence, misery and survival – Joyce Carol Oates abruptly changes course to make a few points about autobiography. Her character, Freyda Morgenstern, a professor who has written a blockbusting memoir of her flight from the Holocaust, confesses that the story which has made her famous is not strictly true. “It was a text I composed of words chosen for ‘effect’.”
At this point, Oates seems to be writing to herself. Because although The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a work of fiction, it is dedicated to the author’s grandmother Blanche Morgenstern, whose father was a gravedigger, and whose life runs parallel to that of her heroine, Rebecca (who later changes her name to Hazel Jones).
Oates’s grandmother was a vital figure in her life. It was Blanche who gifted young Joyce her first serious book, Alice in Wonderland, followed – when Joyce was 14 – by a typewriter. If Oates was writing her life story for Hollywood, the symbolism of this moment would need no elaboration. It was the point at which her childish introversion, and her love of literature, turned into something more serious.
From tapping out those early stories about the animals on the family farm in upstate New York, Oates became one of the pre-eminent writers in the US, winning the National Book Award in 1970 for them, which chronicled a family on the fringes of the 1967 Detroit riots: Oates and her husband, book editor Raymond Smith, lived two blocks from the burning buildings in Detroit. (At this point in the biopic, the camera might fade from the awards ceremony to a sepia image of a waif-child pulling paper from her typewriter, and reading it to her smiling grandma).
Having achieved literary pre-eminence, Oates didn’t relax. At 69, she remains astonishingly prolific, while also working as a professor of humanities at Princeton University. In 1996, her short stories were recognised with the PEN/Malamud lifetime achievement award, and she continues to balance a literary sensibility with mainstream popularity, brilliantly re-imagining the interior life Marilyn Monroe in Blonde in 2000, and plunging deep into the mainstream in 2001, when We Were The Mulvaneys was patronised by Oprah Winfrey’s book club.
Oates has a habit, on completing a manuscript, of filing it away to see how it matures. The Gravedigger’s Daughter stayed in the drawer for longer than usual. “It’s so much personal material,” she says. “And it seemed very important to me and very close to my heart. It’s an ambivalent thing, because when you write you do want people to read it eventually. But you do feel very vulnerable, and almost reluctant to publish it. This is not the case usually.”
Looking back at her grandmother’s life, Oates realised she didn’t know her. “I knew her as someone like Hazel Jones, who is very warm and gracious and generous, but who seemed to have no personal life, no history. She never talked about herself.”
At this point, her voice begins to crack.
“It’s just very hard to talk about. I think I wrote the novel to try to give her the life that I imagined she must have had. And how she dealt with it, and how strong she was. Really determined to survive and take care of my father.”
In the novel, Rebecca/Hazel’s son becomes a concert pianist. Oates’s father was a violinist. “My grandmother’s parents came from Germany. They were German Jews and they settled in upstate New York in the 1890s. Her father was a gravedigger. They were very poor. It seemed so sad and ironic when I found out that they had been Jewish, that my great-grandfather was working in a Christian cemetery. But there all kinds of ironies in life – people make these compromises, and they keep going.”
In the book, the grandfather turns a shotgun on himself. “My great grandfather did commit suicide, in exactly that way. But my grandmother did keep going.
“I don’t want to suggest that the book is about my grandmother,” she says suddenly. “It’s basically a novel with much fiction in it.”
I ask her to think about what traits she inherited from her grandmother and she stays silent for a while. “That’s a good question. I think that we always would try to make the best of something. Everything could have gone so badly and yet it didn’t. My grandmother did come home from school and her father was there, literally with a shotgun, and he didn’t kill her. She was trying to open the front door, and…”
She pauses again. “I don’t know what happened, but he didn’t kill her, he killed himself. If he had killed her, of course, I wouldn’t be born. It was like a shake of the dice, and so you may as well try to be grateful and happy.”
Oates says she is “haunted” by the lives of past generations. “I look at their photographs and I feel they lived in a time that was much more difficult and treacherous than our own time. In the United States at least, there was no social welfare protection; if a person didn’t make money to live, the person would not live. If you couldn’t walk a couple of miles to a school, you couldn’t go to a school.” days.”
The Oates family farm was seven miles outside Lockport in upstate New York. “It was not a prosperous farm; it was just barely getting along. I used to do a lot of walking, just looking around. I wouldn’t say that I was lonely exactly because I was alone.” She agrees that she was self-contained. “Yes, and there wasn’t the emphasis that we have today on girls being very confident in school. None of the things that make life so difficult for adolescents today was operating then. You had family tasks; you had household and farm work to do. People didn’t hang around after school. There was nothing there. There were no extra-curricular activities and there weren’t any sports. All the things that bedevil young people today, and make them very competitive, didn’t exist.”
Oates was able to escape from this world by winning a college scholarship but she looks back “with fascination and a kind of nostalgia, though I would not want to live in that world.”
Her parents survived the Depression, apparently without complaint. “I’m fascinated that my parents did so well, and kept going. They both had to quit school when they were only about 12 years old, and they were so proud of me when I went to college. They were very grateful that they had what they had.
“We live in an era now where people are forced to be resentful and envious, because they can see through television and other media how relatively obscure they are. But decades ago there wasn’t any television. You might listen to the radio, and newspapers were not very international, so you could be quite poor, and not even know it. That’s the world that I came from. We were actually better off than our neighbours; we never knew, on some grand scale that the Carnegies and the Rockefellers were way up at the top, and we were way near the bottom.”
Oates is, by any standards, a peculiar kind of optimist. For, though The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a celebration of resilience and reinvention, and the achievements of her heroine are mirrored by the author’s own successes, Oates’s writing is characterised by self-consciousness and a swirling sense of dread; never more so than in Black Water, her brilliant take on Ted Kennedy’s car crash at Chappaquiddick, viewed from inside the mind of a drowning girl. She concedes that she does have a sense of trepidation, even when things appear to be going well, something she attributes to the hardness of her parents’ upbringing. “Even though one leaves that world, and many decades have gone by, I think one does have a sense that life is more precarious, perhaps, than it would appear.”
Of course, Black Water is also an allegory for the ruthless pragmatism of contemporary politicians. The book viewed Kennedy’s accident through the lens of the Reagan era, and was far from enamoured, but Oates feels politics has deteriorated further since then.
She laughs at her own cynicism. “You wonder how things could go downhill. Things just seem to always be going downhill. I don’t know whether the country’s in the throes of disintegration or deep cynicism. We scarcely have a democracy here anymore. It seems to be controlled by lobbyists. By bribe takers and bribe givers. Every day there is an expose of some corruption which suggests that much more corruption will not be exposed. I’m not even sure that electing a new president is going to make that much difference in terms of the loss of idealism.”
She sounds genuinely bereft at the thought of it. I hesitate to mention the name of the president. She sighs deeply. “I have no comment on Bush. There are some things that are so unspeakable that it might be better to pass by in silence. Wittgenstein says ‘of that which we cannot speak we must be silent’, and that’s the only situation in all of history where George W Bush and Wittgenstein will be in the same sentence.”
She has scant enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton either. “She’s a pragmatic and practical politician. She certainly knows where the bodies are buried. It was the same with [Bill] Clinton. What can one say about these people? They are the people that have the stamina. I don’t know how they do it. I would be exhausted after two hours of giving speeches. Days, weeks, months, years, they’re out there. Who else is going to do that?
“It always used to be said about boxers, by people who don’t know boxing, that the boxers are vicious and mean and they want to hurt people. And I thought, well, who else is going to be a boxer? Jack Dempsey was very vicious in the ring, and so was Muhammad Ali. He was a very nasty opponent to get into the ring with. You’re not going to get a sterling, Christ-like character to be a boxer. So too with politicians.”
She notes, with faint hope, that her students are idealistic about their ability to change the world. “It might be so.”
I suggest that perhaps older generations always feel the world has deteriorated. “Because it has,” she says. “It’s hard to think of an American presidency that will come anywhere near this one. The whole world has sat back in wonderment. It’s like a Shakespearian tragedy that turned into a farce. Except for the fact that people are dying in Iraq and elsewhere and being maimed and crippled. All that’s very real.”
And so she sits, in her office in Princeton, with a photograph of her grandmother by her side, dreaming of harder, better times.