p u l p i t pat r i c i a d u n c k e r

What happens to works that find their first audiences long after they were written? Writing in English is filled with Sleeping Beauties awakened hundreds of years after their creation to roars of eulogy. A century after her death, Emily Dickinson emerged as a heroine of queer studies, her ambiguous sexuality and radical texts treasured, admired and deciphered. Would Dickinson have been regarded as queer in her own circles? Was it perfectly acceptable in the 1860s to express excessive, passionate sentiments for another woman? And to send her flowers, accompanied by suggestive poems? Dickinson represented a radical intellectual challenge to conventional literary tastes in her lifetime; her writing waited for other readers, who read her work through the prism of their own concerns. Lost writing may sometimes disappear because the writers, or the language they use, do not fit the template of their age; and sometimes the literary works vanish because they were too much of their time to last into the future.

Sleeping Beauties clichés about a country under occupation. The publication in France came at a time in which people had begun to look back to Pétain’s puppet government and the deportation of the Jews. A popular television series, Un Village français (first broadcast in 2009 and now filming its sixth season), is a complex portrait of a small provincial community under Nazi occupation. Suite Française addressed contemporary interests.

A more unusual example is John Williams’s unexpected slowburning bestseller Stoner, first published in America in 1965 and in the UK in 1973, the year in which Williams became joint winner of the National Book Award for his novel Augustus. Stoner was republished in the UK in 2003 and again in 2012, to excited acclaim. Julian Barnes, whose two-page paean of praise for Stoner appeared in The Guardian, noted one reason why the novel has never been appreciated in the USA: it is a story of failure.

Is there an observable pattern to the kinds of books that are hailed as masterpieces long after they are written? Consider some recent examples. Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was quite literally dug out of a suitcase by her surviving daughter and published to great acclaim in France in 2004, some sixty years after it was composed. Sandra Smith’s excellent English translation followed in 2006. Némirovsky was a popular writer in the 1930s, a Jewish Russian émigré whose first novel, David Golder (1929), brought her recognition and success. Following the fall of France in 1940, Némirovsky, her husband and two daughters sought refuge in Issy-l’Evêque. The writer was deported to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus in August 1942. She had completed two parts of her ambitious project of recording contemporary history. The book was first published with the author’s minute handwriting reproduced on the inner flyleaf and, in the back of the book, the entries from her journal recording her writing plans and her views on French collaboration with the Nazis. Thus, the author’s identity and her terrible fate were used to market the book and authenticate its argument.

Suite Française, extravagantly over-praised on publication, slid into the canon of modern literature. All her other novels were republished; one of my own students who took her bac in France studied it at school. The book arrived in Britain at a time when fiction with Second World War settings littered the review pages, from Sebastian Faulks’s Charlotte Gray (1999) to Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) through Melvyn Bragg’s The Soldier’s Return (2000), with its various sequels. There were some, however, who didn’t value Suite Française as a masterpiece. Gabriel Josipovici, in What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010), describes it as ‘run-of-the-mill middlebrow narrative’, and points out the logic underpinning its reception: ‘the events it describes were terrible and dramatic, the author’s fate was tragic, the fate of the manuscript miraculous, so it must be a great book’. But of course, it isn’t. Némirovsky’s unfinished book is politically fascinating, but her literary style is comfortable, accessible and very undemanding. Solely in terms of its content, the first part, ‘Storm in June’, is one of the most unsettling descriptions of the breakdown of civil society I have ever read. But the second part, ‘Dolce’, replicates the usual

Stoner is a campus novel set in the early part of the 20th century and, unlike most other books that fill this genre, it is anything but funny. Stoner, a son of the soil who discovers the intellectual world and becomes a university teacher, has a disaster of a life. Lomax, his antagonist at the university, destroys his career, while his wife, Edith, turns out to be deranged. He knows that his marriage is a failure when he discovers that she doesn’t enjoy having sex with him. Edith is presented as trivial, selfish and talentless, a woman abused by daddy. When we get to the noble self-sacrificing postgraduate lover with whom Stoner has an affair, we really are mired in a middle-aged heterosexual don’s fantasy.

Stoner is a conventional realist novel, beautifully written, the story of a good man whose life is destroyed by a malicious, predatory, damaged woman. Edith is not just a victim; she is spiteful and vicious as well. The narrative voice treats her with compassionate contempt. She is created by what Betty Friedan, writing in 1963, called the ‘problem that has no name’. We now give it many names: misogyny, sexism, woman-hating. The women’s liberation movement and the demand for sexual liberty began in the mid-1960s, when Williams was writing Stoner. If the novel did not suit that mood of revolt and dissent back then, what agenda does it address now? Could the recent success of Stoner be due in part to the way it suits the contemporary backlash against feminism? I enjoyed the prose but despised the sexual politics.

Republishing lost women’s writing was always part of the modern feminist project; this meant bringing the good, the bad and the ugly back into the daylight. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), which I first read in 1978, described one woman’s doomed sexual dash for freedom. The novel was attacked as ‘unwholesome’ and even as ‘poison’ by its first reviewers – the heroine, Edna Pontellier, awakens from the ennui of being a wife and mother and asserts her own desires. Despite cautious praise from other quarters, Chopin never published another novel and her voice sank into silence. Sometimes bold, fearless writing really does have to wait for ‘someone in some future time’, for readers yet to come. Sleeping Beauties, once awakened, will always serve a contemporary agenda. But Chopin’s The Awakening is now justly regarded as an American classic and read with passion and delight. r j u l y 2 0 1 4 | Literary Review 1