Books: It is of a Windiness: Lillian Hellman |
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It is of a Windiness : Lillian Hellman

Much praised in the United States, Pentimento deals mainly with people other than its author, but there is still a good deal of Lillian Hellman in it — possibly more than she intended — and it’s hard not to think of the book as finishing off An Unfinished Woman, a memoir which was inundated with laurels but left at least one reader doubting its widely proclaimed first rateness. Meaty details about Dorothy Parker, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Dashiell Hammett were not quite compensation enough for a garrulous pseudo-taciturnity — distinction of style, it seemed to me, was precisely the quality An Unfinished Woman had not a particle of. The very first time Hammett’s drinking was referred to as ‘the drinking’ you knew you were in for a solid course of bastardized Hemingwayese. The drinking got at least a score more mentions. There were also pronounced tendencies towards that brand of aggressive humility, or claimed innocence, which finds itself helpless to explain the world at the very moment when the reader is well justified in requiring that a writer should give an apprehensible outline of what he deems to be going on. Miss Hellman was with the Russian forces when Maidaneck was liberated. It struck me, as I read, that her account of her feelings, though graphic, was oddly circumscribed. She had vomited, but in recounting the fact had apparently failed to realize that no physical reaction, however violent, is quite adequate to such a stimulus. What we needed to hear about was what she thought, and it appeared that what she thought was, as usual, a sophisticated version, decked out with Hem-Dash dialogue, of ‘I don’t understand these things’.

On a larger scale, the same applied — and I think still applies — to her reasoning on the subject of Soviet Russia. She comes over in these two books — implicitly, since her political views have mainly to be pieced together from more or less revealing hints — as an unreconstructed and unrepentant Stalinist. There is no gainsaying her consistency and strength in such matters, even if those qualities are founded in some primal injury to the imaginative faculty. She was brave during the McCarthy era and has a right to be proud of never having turned her coat. Nevertheless it is impossible to grant much more than a token admiration to a professional clerical who can go on being ‘realistic’ about Russia in the sense (by now, surely, utterly discredited) of believing that the Terror was simply an aberration disturbing an otherwise constructive historical movement. The ‘I don’t understand these things’ syndrome came in depressingly handy whenever she wandered on to the scene of an event about which she might have been obliged to say something analytical if she had. She was well-regarded in Russia, was even there during the war, and met a lot of people. Her reporting of character and incident couldn’t help but be interesting. Nevertheless, one felt, she missed out on the fundamentals. On the day she was due to meet Stalin, she was told he was busy. Shortly after which, she recorded, Warsaw fell. The implication being that Warsaw was what he was busy with. But for some reason it just doesn’t cross her mind to give an opinion on the fundamental question — which remains a contentious issue to this day — of whether Stalin was busy liberating it or not liberating it: whether, that is, his first aim was to liberate the city or else to delay liberation until the insurrectionists of the ideologically unacceptable Uprising had been wiped out by the Germans.

Lillian Hellman was an early and impressive example of the independent woman, but she never completely forsakes feather-headed femininity as a ploy, and her continuing ability not to comprehend what was going on in Russia is a glaring demonstration. In a section of An Unfinished Woman dealing with a later trip to Russia, she finds herself tongue-tied in the presence of a Russian friend. We are asked to believe that her own feelings about the McCarthy period were welling up to block her speech, just as the Russian friend’s experience of the recent past had blocked hers. The two communed in silence. That this equation was presented as a profundity seemed to me at the time to prove that Lillian Hallman, whatever her stature in the theatre, possessed, as an essayist, an attitudinizing mind of which her mannered prose was the logically consequent expression. One doesn’t underrate the virulence of McCarthyism for a minute, and it may well be that such goonery is as fundamental to America’s history as terror is to Russia’s. But the two things are so different in nature, and so disparate in scale, that a mind which equates them loses the ability to describe either. For all its Proustian pernicketiness of recollected detail, An Unfinished Woman was a very vague book.

Still, it shimmered with stars. Parker and Hammett, especially, shone brightly in its pages. There are some additional facts about them scattered through Pentimento (Hammett’s name is omnipresent, as you might expect) and in a section on the theatre and related performing arts we hear about Edmund Wilson, Theodore Roethke, Tyrone Guthrie, Samuel Goldwyn and Tallulah Bankhead. Just as she was good on Parker’s decline, she is good on Bankhead’s: Hellman’s grandes dames go down to defeat in a flurry of misapplied talcum. Roethke features as the falling-down drunk he undoubtedly was most of the time. Lowell gets a mention. It’s all good gossip, and all helps.

The bulk of the volume, however, is devoted to memoirs of non-famous characters from Miss Hellman’s past. The transatlantic reviewers seem to have convinced themselves that this material is pretty quintessential stuff. We learn from Richard Poirier, quoted on the blurb, that it ‘provides one of those rare instances when the moral value of a book is wholly inextricable from its immense literary worth, where the excitations, the pacing, and the intensifications offered by the style manage to create in us perceptions about human character that have all but disappeared from contemporary writing.’ I certainly agree that the perceptiveness, such as it is, is closely linked to the style. What I can’t see for a moment is how trained literati can imagine that the style is anything less than frantically mannered and anything more than painfully derivative.

‘The drinking’ has not reappeared, but ‘the joking’ is there to make up for it. We hear of an historical period called ‘the time of Hitler’. ‘It is of a windiness’, says someone in a German train, and although this might just conjecturably sound like half-translated German, what it can’t help sounding like is Hemingway’s half-translated Spanish. Out-takes from The Old Man and the Sea abound:

You are good in boats not alone from knowledge, but because water is a part of you, you are easy on it, fear it and like it in such equal parts that you work well in a boat without thinking about it and may be even safer because you don’t need to think too much. That is what we mean by instinct and there is no way to explain an instinct for the theatre, although those who have it recognize each other and a bond is formed between them.

Such passages read like E. B. White’s classic parody Across the Street and into the Grill, in which White established once and for all that Hemingway’s diction could not be copied, not even by Hemingway. Nor are these echoes mere lapses: her whole approach to moral-drawing is Hemingway’s — the excitations, the pacing and the intensifications, if I may borrow Richard Poirier’s terminology.

That is what I thought about Aunt Lily until I made the turn and the turn was as sharp as only the young can make when they realize their values have been shoddy.

Or try this:

There are many ways of falling in love and one seldom is more interesting or valid than another unless, of course, one of them lasts so long that it becomes something else, like your arm or leg about which you neither judge nor protest.

Her approach to anecdote is Hemingway’s as well. Not just in the dialogue, which is American Vernacular to the last degree (‘You are fine ladies’, I said after a while, ‘the best’), but in the withholding of information — the tip-of-the-iceberg effect. On occasions this works. She is good at showing how children get hold of the wrong end of the stick, giving their loyalties passionately to the wrong people. The first chapter, set in her childhood New Orleans and dealing with a girl called Bethe, shows us the young Lillian failing to understand that Bethe is a hoodlum’s girlfriend. We are supplied with this information so grudgingly ourselves that it is easy to identify with the young Lillian’s confusion. In other chapters, dealing with characters who entered her life much later on, we are already equipped with knowledge of our own about the relevant period and tend to find the by now less young Lillian’s slowness to comprehend a bit of a strain, especially when the period in question is the Time of Hitler.

For action, the chapter about a girl called Julia is the best thing in the book. A childhood friend who went back to Europe, Julia was in the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna when the Austrian government troops (abetted by the local Nazis) bombarded it. She lost a leg, but kept on with the fight against Fascism. Apparently Miss Hellman, passing through Germany on her way to Russia, smuggled 50,000 dollars to Julia in her hat. The money was used to spring 500 prisoners. Miss Hellman was in no small danger when engaged on this enterprise and the results unquestionably constituted a more impressive political effectiveness than most of us ever accomplish. She still revels in the nitty-grittiness of it all: she liked thirties radicalism a lot better than twenties ‘rebellion’ — the twenties were all style and she is properly contemptuous of style in that vitiated sense.

But with all that said, we are still left with key questions unanswered. Miss Hellman says that she has changed Julia’s name because she is ‘not sure that even now the Germans like their premature anti-Nazis’. Since they like them well enough to have made one of them Chancellor of West Germany, it’s permissible to assume that Miss Hellman means something more interesting, and that Julia was a member of the Communist Party. If she was, it’s difficult to see why Miss Hellman can’t come straight out and say so. If she fears that we might think the less of the young Julia for it, she surely overestimates the long-term impact of McCarthyism on her readership. Or is she just compelled to be vague?

For the truth is that the Julia chapter, like all the others, happens in a dream. Despite the meticulously recollected minutiae, the story reads like a spy-sketch by Nichols and May, even down to the bewilderingly complicated instructions (‘You have two hours, but we haven’t that long together because you have to be followed to the station and the ones who follow you must have time to find the man who will be with you on the train until Warsaw in the morning’) Julia breathes to Lillian under the noses of the lurking Gestapo.

To have been there, to have seen it, and yet still be able to write it down so that it rings false — it takes a special kind of talent. But there are stretches of her writing which somehow manage to sound true, even through the blanket of her supposedly transparent prose. She liked Samuel Goldwyn and has the guts to say so. Whether or not it took bravery to like him, it still takes bravery to admit it. She is, of course, perfectly right to admire Goldwyn above Irving Thalberg. Here again her suspicion of Style led her to the truth. Scott Fitzgerald, infinitely more sensitive but over-endowed with reverence, fell for Thalberg full length.

Less prominent this time but still compulsively invoked, the true hero of Pentimento is Dashiell Hammett. Theirs, I think, will be remembered as a great love. The only thing that could possibly delay the legend would be Miss Hellman’s indefatigable determination to feed its flames. In this volume the Nick-and-Nora-Charles dialogue reads as much like a screenplay as it did in the previous one.

I phoned the Beverly Hills house from the restaurant. I said to Hammett, ‘I’m in New Orleans. I’m not coming back to Hollywood for a while and I didn’t want you to worry.’
‘How are you?’ he said.
‘O.K. and you?’
‘I’m O.K. I miss you.’
‘I miss you, too. Is there a lady in my bedroom?’
He laughed. ‘I don’t think so, but they come and go. Except you. You just go.’
‘I had good reason,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you did.’

I like it now and my mother liked it then, when William Powell and Myrna Loy rattled it off to each other in the thirties. The Thin Man movies, with their unquestioned assumption that man and wife were equal partners, played a vital part in raising the expectations of women everywhere. Such are the unappraised impulses of modern history — when the fuss dies down it turns out that turns of speech and tones of voice mattered just as much as battles.

On Broadway Lillian Hellman took her chances among the men, a pioneer women’s liberationist. Her plays were bold efforts, indicative social documents which are unlikely to be neglected by students, although as pieces for the theatre they will probably date: they are problem plays whose problems are no longer secrets, for which in some measure we have her to thank. She is a tough woman who has almost certainly not been relishing the patronizing critical practice — more common in America than here, and let’s keep it that way — of belatedly indicating gratitude for strong early work by shouting unbridled hosannahs for pale, late stuff that has a certain documentary value but not much more. She says at one point in Pentimento that in her time on Broadway she was always denied the benefits of the kind of criticism which would take her properly to task.

(The New Review, May 1974)