“IS THIS THE TEXT OF AN AUTHOR or a mad woman?” Kate Zambreno asks in Heroines, a critical memoir about reading texts by and about the women she calls “The Mad Wives of Modernism”: Vivien(ne) Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald, and others. Modernist couples, mostly men and their muse-wives — the Hemingways, the Bowleses, the Millers, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas — make appearances braided into an account of Zambreno’s own marriage. It’s a messy and fragmentary text where essays on, say, June and Henry Miller, or Paul and Jane Bowles, are punctuated by the names for shades of lip gloss, or trips into town for glittery eyeshadow. Zambreno gorges on history, on artifacts made by writing down what happened (and, in a few instances, what didn’t, but could have). Heroines reads like a notebook suffused with scraps, or maybe a novel written in a fevered haste.
Or like a blog. Zambreno’s own, Frances Farmer is My Sister, begun in 2009, has provided if not precisely the impetus, then certainly a sort of playground for Heroines. She makes a handful of references throughout Heroines to the communities she has found through her online writing. The final section of the book is a manifesto, of sorts, for the women who write as digital diarists:
So the decision to write the private in public, it is a political one. It is a counterattack against this [historically sexist] censorship. To tell our narratives, the truth of our experiences […] Why write one’s diary in public? To counter this shaming and guilt project. To refuse to swallow. To refuse to scratch ourselves out. To refuse to be censored, to be silent.
Zambreno praises the personal, the frivolous, the feminine as it is being written into the interlinked publics of LiveJournal, Blogger, and Tumblr. Frances Farmer Is My Sister affords her a community of women to celebrate and celebrate with: a community peopled with women who have become long distance intimates. These other women writing their own public diaries, or publishing books on small presses, bolster each other; they form a support network that both cheers on and mirrors Zambreno’s marginalized writing and radfemme politics. “I am outside,” Zambreno says, “writing in the margins, for my fellow illegitimate sisters.”
Both in her book and on her blog, Zambreno proposes a radical poetics of female writing in which texts can be composed in “bulimic” or “anorexic” modes. The bulimic mode is messy, vomitous, spilling ink manically all over the page; as she wrote in 2010 on FFIMS, it incorporates an “aesthetic of purging, privileging the verbal.” By contrast, the anorexic mode is overly careful, restrained. As she wrote just last month, anorexic texts “are abbreviated, full of punctuations and silences.”
Heroines is written in the “bulimic” mode, and so speaks in the voice of a very feminine mania, which Zambreno links to the modernist and surrealist practices of automatic writing. Given her interest in depathologizing her so-called Mad Wives, it makes a horrible sort of sense that Zambreno would create an aesthetics from our current era’s so frequently gendered maladies — perhaps in a reclamation of madness, or an attempt to radicalize the diagnosed, to bestow on them some of their own discursive power. (Zambreno, paraphrasing biographers of Zelda Fitzgerald: “Her efforts to be an artist were part of her ‘obsessional illness.’”)
Perhaps the best way to respond to this text would be to attempt to mimic how it was written: to include all the fragments and details of my reading experience, as Zambreno does hers. At one point she writes a list in her notebook of what she was wearing while sitting in the library of Chicago’s Art Institute:
soft grey jacket with the high collar that is almost backless
black cloche hat
soft stretchy black pants (semi-harem) tucked into black boots
old old dark grey Hussein Chalayan cardigan which has permanent pit stains
As a reviewer, then, should I vomit up all the particulars of what I wore and who I talked to and what I felt and feared and thought in the company of this book? Should I dredge up other lives — from novels and commentaries and histories — and piece them together in response, in order to make this all mimic something somehow disassembled?
But I can’t. Bulimia is not my malady, and I certainly won’t presume to make it my metaphor, even though my thoughts feel like a mess. What does it mean to reject the psychopathology offered by Zambreno — as a reader, as a writer, as a woman? To disinvest myself of disorder in my response to this text? To reject hysteria and mania, to refuse the glamor of the broken woman writer?
There’s something terrible about the way Zambreno describes the fashionable outfit that Vivien(ne) Eliot wears in one of her final encounters with her husband, who, despite an abrupt and total break in casual contact, still controls her finances:
In 1935 she was carrying their terrier under her arm and wearing her black-shirts costume of the British Union of Fascists (the uniform a big marketing tool for women, it was actually quite fetching, in its sleek beret and white skirt, black shirt and tie, with high heels). She asked him when he was coming home. “How do you do, I cannot talk now,” he replied.
(A feminist friend emails me about Heroines, after I publicly praise Zambreno’s second novel, Green Girl: “I inherently distrust the kind of woman who is obsessed with glamour, to me a bit of an empty suit.”)
The clothes and makeup are integral to Heroines, to how the text is constructed and to what it seems to mean. Zambreno (or is it her narrator? Does a “critical memoir” demand some distance between narrator, character, and author?) chooses her clothing based on the theme of her reading. “I am beginning to style myself like a modernist,” she tells her reader, “I already wear the weird hats and cloche hats and spit curls.” She visits a high-end makeup store, seeking an eyeshadow that will match the nail polish on Sally Bowles’s fingertips, as described by Christopher Isherwood. She buys “a glittery silver toenail polish from OPI’s Swiss collection,” and, seemingly without irony, describes this act as “an homage to [Zelda Fizgerald’s] time in the Swiss asylum.”
Esther Greenwood, Sylvia Plath’s existentially deranged/destroyed/destructive pretty young thing in The Bell Jar, throws her expensive clothes down into the ruinous streets of New York. Zambreno stands her next to Zelda Fitzgerald burning her clothes in the bath tub. She catalogues her own clothes, and her husband’s: “And John and I dressed up — overdressed in a way — there is something wonderful about the experience of being overdressed. I wore my new striped dress with the bustle in back, and John wore a striped blazer and tie.”
Reading Heroines the first time, I grow angry. I spend two days stewing in the book, in the bath and on my couch. I have a visceral reaction. My annotations are, on account of my impassioned reading, frequently illegible. Reading it a second time, I discover that I am offended equally by the histories Zambreno investigates (by the suppression of work and the policing and pathologizing of bodies) and by the author herself, by her method. She sets herself among the dead, channels them, digs them up, and tries on their clothes. But even in Zambreno’s treatment of the past, the women under discussion remain underground, forgotten, maligned, pushed even further into the margins. I just wish that these women, already perceived as historical accessories, hadn’t then been turned into Zambreno’s outfits.
Gustave Flaubert wrote Emma Bovary into being, but she belongs to all of us now. Can the same be said for Zelda Fitzgerald, for Vivien(ne) Eliot, for all the real-life mad wives of American Modernism? Do they belong to us? Has Zambreno brought them back to us? Does this kind of recognition extend toward a more ethical or just world?
In the end, Emma Bovary kills herself. The Madame of Madame Bovary authored a plot without a happy ending, a faulty copy of the romances she’s read, over and over; her heart is a fist pumped in recognition. Flaubert famously wrote: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” He was what he had made, though the novel was written out of contempt, in a fit of rage. But there’s still that echo reverberating through these past 200 years of literary history: c’est moi, c’est moi, c’est moi.
But what about the muse who wants out of that trap, who desires to make her own art rather than being preserved forever in somebody else’s? “Perhaps Madame Bovary’s disease,” writes Zambreno, “is not boredom. It’s being trapped as the character in someone else’s novel.” Fiction is a double myth: it’s not real, but we so often find our real selves there. Perhaps it’s unethical, exploitative, to feel such a strong connection with a fictional character based on a real person: Louise Colet, Flaubert’s lover, famously provided much in way of inspiration for Emma Bovary, and the contributions of Zelda’s rapid wit — and her diaries — to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s art is obvious too. Then, of course, it gets even more complicated. The fact of it, of the fictions in Heroines, in The Great Gatsby and Save Me the Waltz, is that the conditions for the creation of these works required so many thefts, so many tragedies, so many inappropriate appropriations. They add up.
I worry that Zambreno further commits her heroines to the marginal position of the muse. Is it ethical for Zambreno herself to — however knowingly, however intentionally — Bovarize the real horrors of Vivien(ne) Eliot, abandoned and institutionalized? The infamous sadness of Sylvia Plath? More or less ethical than that jolt of knowing feeling that strikes me when Esther Greenwood, depressed as hell, bickers with her mother? Or when Zambreno’s Ruth feels dismay, in Green Girl, about the way her American accent announces her as foreign, as an outsider, to her London coworkers? How is my imaginary posturing, that instance of c’est moi!, in the moment of reading any different from Zambreno’s channeling? Does recognition limit or expand our capacity for empathy? Are we empowered to change history, to recast it in the interest of a brighter, more inclusive future? At what point does recognizing feminine likeness turn into an erasure, a return to obliterating sameness?
Zambreno has a tendency, throughout Heroines, to erase the specificity of each of her mad wives, even as she is fiercely possessive of them. She calls up their situations as if from a catalogue of gendered slights, generic female oppressions. T.S. Eliot keeps a record of his wife’s bowel troubles and digestive difficulties (he digests her malady, dissects it). Leonard Woolf regulates the number of hours his wife spends writing in collusion with her doctors, who have taken on the responsibility of managing her health. The men take ownership of whatever work the women are able to produce (sometimes after their deaths, as in the case of Ted Hughes with Sylvia Plath). F. Scott Fitzgerald suppresses Zelda’s diaries, their marriage and shared life being his proprietary material. Zambreno masculinizes Gertrude Stein — “I mean, Gertrude Stein was basically a patriarch, right?” — and, to a lesser extent, Anaïs Nin, presumably because they managed to produce more work than her beloved mad wives. Or perhaps, because of what we would today identify as their queerness, their femininity appears less reducible; they are not games Zambreno can play in the context of her own, straight marriage.
The couples, the marriages, the modernists, are divided along gender lines in Heroines. They become simply “him” and “her”: “ANXIETY: when she experiences it, it’s pathological. When he does, it’s existential.” This collapse into gendered pronouns riles me; there’s not enough space to breathe or think in such a strict schema. That Zambreno aligns herself with the feminine, with all of these women writers who’ve been suppressed, is one thing. That she makes them all into one entity (her) is quite another. Why should we clump Vivien(ne) Eliot together with Virginia Woolf, why Jane Bowles with Sylvia Plath? Placing these histories, these women, beside each other under the guise of their shared womanhood threatens to hollow out their work and, perhaps more crucially, their lives.
At one point, Zambreno wonders why Zelda Fitzgerald and Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, never developed a friendship — “they could have used it,” she determines. She feels similarly about Woolf and Eliot, though she also answers her own question by painting Woolf as somewhat cruel: “I think of Viv as the mad double Virginia both identifies with and wants to dissociate herself from […] [s]he participated gleefully and fully in Viv’s eventual exclusion and ostracism from the Bloomsbury pack.” From Zambreno’s characterization of the relationship between these women, Woolf appears to be holding Eliot at arms’ length, out of fear of contagion of a feminized madness. In her own life, Zambreno is stuck in a small Midwestern college town, craving female companionship. She buys makeup so that she can talk to the woman who works in the shop. But they don’t become friends. It rarely works that way.
Earlier this year I met, for the first time, a certain writer I admire. She’s about my age, and we live in the same city, and I was excited to meet her. After we were introduced, she complimented me on my coat, on my dress. We talked about where we like to shop. As it turned out, we have similar tastes in clothes.
I was depressed for a week. I felt that there must have been something much more vital — and much more fun — to discuss between the two of us.