The Partisan Review” or the “New Yorker” – these were style-defining magazines in the 1940s and 1950s. Many later famous authors took their first steps there and wrote texts, were given space and freedom to try things out and to develop their writing styles further.
Jean Stafford had published her second novel, The Mountain Lioness, in 1947 at the age of 32 and found acclaim in the literary circles of the time. While her private life was increasingly slipping away – her first marriage to the poet Robert Lowell was about to end, her alcohol consumption assumed critical, dangerous proportions and her financial situation was precarious – many doors were to suddenly open to her as a writer.
The narrative, in which she was able to explore new situations much more concisely and precisely, and allow psychologically extreme characters to appear, became her own form. Her texts appeared primarily in the New Yorker, but also in the Partisan Review and a number of other literary magazines.
And they really are a discovery: “Life is not an abyss” is the rather euphemistic title of this compilation. Because her characters look into just such abysses again and again. “So absolute and stubborn was the immobility of her body, as if the room and the ice-frozen landscape were extensions of herself. Her persistent calm and reluctance to speak, each of which seemed to result from the other, resembled, in the nurses’ opinion, a terminal coma. And they remarked with pitying indignation that for what little interest she had in life, she might as well be dead.”
“The inner castle”, as this story is entitled, tells of Pansy, who after a car accident, disfigured and mentally exhausted, has to spend many weeks in the hospital. The young woman builds a wall around herself; she takes thieving pleasure in misleading the staff and creating a place where no one can penetrate. She withdraws into her brain, and yet she perceives the outside world, the operating room, the things that happen to her, with extreme sharpness and cool precision.
One could speak of over-sensitivity, of synaesthetic experiences. Pansy wanders through the pain, which doesn’t seem to be just physical, or rather: the pain runs through her.
By the way, you don’t have to know that Jean Stafford’s husband Robert Lowell crashed his car in a drunken state with her as a passenger against a wall and that the young author had to endure several surgeries in order to feel the depth of experience of this bitter tale. Jean Stafford has an incredible ability to observe inner processes, as well as an ironic tone that breaks the ridiculousness of seemingly unreal situations.
Many of the stories by the author, who is unjustly almost forgotten today, were admired and celebrated at the time, by colleagues and readers alike. “In the zoo” is one of them. Two sisters are reminded of their childhood when they visit a zoo. Looking back at the horrible time with a foster mother, the present is also shrouded in darkness.
In the end, you don’t know whether the two sisters parted in resigned forlornness or with a sarcastic will to survive. “Two hours later we’re standing next to my train, hugging each other tightly like drowning people. We should go to the nearest police officer and say, ‘We are women of unsound mind. They have to take care of us because we can’t take care of ourselves.’ But gradually the storm of excitement subsides.”
memories that pop up suddenly; the imperceptible transition from an innocent state of consciousness into the unpredictability of life; hesitant approaches of love-weary; drifting apart into their own loneliness; the subtle, helpless and sometimes mean games of grown-up intellectuals: these are the themes of the writer Jean Stafford, and her view of them is completely uncorrupted.
She doesn’t give her characters easy escape routes, but still preserves their dignity because they manage to see through what’s going on around them.
This is perhaps most evident in the very last of these eleven stories. It is called “A Rush of Poets” and deals with betrayal, deceit, failure and a most strange apathy: “That terrible summer! Every poet in America came to us and stayed. It was the first summer after the war and people had gas again and could drive where they wanted and all these poets came to our house in Maine and stayed for weeks (…).”
In the epilogue, Jürgen Dormagen points out that the role models of the protagonists who appear can be easily identified – Jean Stafford was part of the literary scene at the time. But it’s not a disclosure story, it’s one of disillusionment. The way Stafford describes this makes one think of a self-assessment by the author, who died in 1979. She writes, Jean Stafford once said, with the “voice of an undertaker” – unexcited, quiet, but incorruptible and ruthless. With the best will in the world, an undertaker cannot sugarcoat what he is doing.