Monday, December 29, 2008


Francine Prose, Goldengrove (New York: Harper Collins, 2008). 275 pp. $24.95.

It has been a good year for Gerard Manley Hopkins. First came Ron Hansen’s Exiles, which braided together the December 1875 shipwreck of the SS Deutschland off England’s coast with the story of how a 31-year-old Jesuit priest studying in Wales came to write one of the greatest English poems on the theme. Now Francine Prose has taken the inspiration for her twelfth novel from Hopkins’s next best poem, the famous twisting octosyllabic sonnet-plus-one “Spring and Fall.” She likes it so well that she quotes it, twice, in full—once as the epigraph to the novel, another time in a pivotal scene smack in the middle of the book.

Hansen is interested in reconstructing the past and filling the gaps in the historical record with a novelist’s sympathetic imagination. To read Exiles is to meet Hopkins as he might have been. And that involves getting to know Hopkins’s own sympathetic imagination. A Catholic novelist whose Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) convincingly penetrates the experience of religious passion, Hansen thus seeks to bring back to life not only the young priest-poet but also the five Franciscan nuns from Westphalia who died in the wreck of the Deutschland.

Prose is less interested in the resurrection of the dead—by art or other means—than in the reliable longing to surpass the limits of human life. A Jewish novelist who began her career with Judah the Pious (1973), the tale of a wonder-working eighteenth-century rabbi, she has always been drawn to men and women who seek freedom from ordinary reason, familiar ties, and even the constraints of physical reality. She has been equally attuned to their defeat by necessity.

Hopkins’s spirit does not animate Prose’s novel as it does Hansen’s. In plain fact, only the opening and concluding lines of “Spring and Fall” are directly relevant: “Margaret, are you grieving Over Goldengrove unleaving?” No, indeed not; as it turns out: “It is Margaret you mourn for.” Margaret is the name of the older sister in Goldengrove, a wry, stylish, and smoky seventeen-year-old who gives her school a “collective orgasm” by singing Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” at a year-end talent show. A few weeks later she is dead; she drowns in Mirror Lake, on the shore of which she lives with her parents and thirteen-year-old sister Nico. They spend the rest of the novel mourning her.

Her father retreats into the book he is writing “about how people in different cultures and eras imagined the end of the world. He planned to call it Eschatology for Dummies.” Her mother takes refuge in prescription painkillers, which she extorts from the family pediatrician by threatening to sue him for failing to diagnose Margaret’s heart condition. Nico does little more than lie on the couch and sigh until her parents suggest that she clerk in Goldengrove, her father’s bookstore. “Here’s the choice,” her mother says. “Bookstore or we medicate you.” “Medicate me, please,” Nico says. “Turn me into a zombie.” “That’s it,” her mother says. “The new choice is bookstore or bookstore.”

Nico sits at the front counter while her father writes in the back room. Waiting for customers, she trawls books for information—about heart disease, surviving loss, the dead, sex—until one day she happens upon a thick anthology of poems from around the world. On a hunch, she looks up “Margaret” in the index of first lines and finds Hopkins’s poem. It infuriates her. Maybe her parents had “caused her death by naming her Margaret.” The effort of getting rid of the thought, and putting the book back on the shelf, floors her. Her father finds her passed out in the poetry section. “So are going to change the name of the store now, or what?” she asks her parents at dinner.

The name stays Goldengrove, and Nico stays at the front counter. Everything else changes the next day when Margaret’s boyfriend Aaron enters the store. Looking wasted by grief, but more attractive than when his girlfriend was still alive, Aaron proposes that Nico and he try doing things together they can no longer do alone: “Things we used to do with Margaret. We could do it together. An experiment.” Nico likes the “idea of experimenting with our grief and fears.” And soon she finds herself spending afternoons with her sister’s boyfriend, eating ice cream, watching old movies, visiting old haunts.

What follows is something like Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer or Lolita, told from the other side. As Nico puts it, she falls in love with Aaron, who tries to bring Margaret back to life by turning Nico into her. “God, Nico,” says an older friend. “You’ve be Judy-ed.” When Nico fails to understand, she explains that she is alluding to Vertigo and what Jimmy Stewart does to Kim Novak after Madeleine’s death. The incident ends the family’s mourning period. Her parents whisk Nico off to Italy, and all that remains is a one-chapter epilogue.

More than most novels, Goldengrove when summarized seems something it is not. By and large reviewers missed the point. They made two mistakes. First, they assumed the novel is about coping with grief. Some of them recalled Judith Guest’s 1976 bestseller Ordinary People, and one was even reminded of Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones. In the New York Times Book Review, Leah Hager Cohen was typical of the critical error, and accordingly disappointed: “By weaving Hopkins’s poem so prominently into the fabric of her story, Prose raises the expectation that she’ll approach the subject of grief in a way that might move us, or at least move her characters.” What if grief is not her subject, however?

The second mistake was that Goldengrove was somehow a departure from the “satirical fiction such as A Changed Man” (as Harper Barnes phrased it in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) that Prose usually writes—a “gentler” book, as Janet Maslin said in the New York Times. Consequently, some reviewers worried whether it were a Young Adult novel. Prose has written two earlier YA novels. The difference in prose style is immediately apparent. Where the first-person male narrators of After (2003) and Bullyville (2007) are abrupt and slangy as a revolt against the official adult language, Nico is able to linger over her sentences and indulge occasional verbal exactitude, despite her reputation as Miss One-Thing-After-the-Next. She is not estranged from the world of grownups, but from the world altogether. “Fans of Francine Prose’s satire will need a few moments to reorient themselves,” Ron Charles warned in the Washington Post. If satire is Prose’s usual mode then Goldengrove represents a break. But satire is not Prose’s usual mode.

The critical error points to the worst possible misreading. It not only gets Prose’s intention wrong; it places her in the wrong literary company. (Judith Guest? Alice Sebold?) Take her earlier Blue Angel (2000), for example. Greeted and praised as a satire on political correctness, the novel is not that. It is a tale of thralldom to art. Prose does not write “message-driven literature,” because she does not write satire, the message-driven genre. Critics would do well to memorize a famous distinction: “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.”[1]

Prose does not write parody either, at least not in its sense of a grotesque imitation, but she does arrange literary games. Reviewers overlooked the fact that the novel’s title refers not merely to a poem but also to a bookstore whose owner is hell-bent on transforming into a scriptorium. Goldengrove is a literary dimension, a world made of books, where it is not the trees whose “unleaving” is the occasion for grief. Prose successfully dissembles what she is up to by making her narrator a thirteen-year-old girl who has never heard of Hopkins, has never watched Vertigo, and is more absorbed with global warming than art. When she was a kid, her favorite reading was C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, because she “longed to enter another dimension through a wardrobe or a snow globe.” After her sister’s death, she pretty much gets her wish. Nico’s emotions are thoroughly mediated by art—songs, films, her mother’s piano pieces, Giovanni di Paolo’s Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Saving a Shipwreck, which she finds in a “volume on Sienese painting so large that I had to spread it across the counter.” And of course she becomes her sister’s boyfriend’s Galatea. The name of Mirror Lake in which Margaret drowns, and to which Nico returns every time she returns home, is appropriate. Human experience mirrors books, which mirror other books, which mirror other books, which mirror other books. . . . There is no original experience “out there”—not adolescent grief, not first love, not being Judy-ed—which the novel sets out to capture with perfect fidelity. There is only the illusion, the images, of experience and fidelity.

Consider the source of Prose’s title. Hopkins first drafted “Spring and Fall” in September 1880 while out walking. The irony is that the poem was not, unlike Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane,” inspired by the death of a young girl or any other real incident. Hopkins was responding instead to The Mill on the Floss, which he had recently read and couldn’t stop thinking about, and Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver becomes his Margaret. Prose makes it evident that she knows the historical background to Hopkins’s poem, because she places an overt allusion to The Mill on the Floss at the center of her novel.

One morning, a few days before Nico is to start working at Goldengrove, her mother recommends a haircut. Margaret had always cut her hair, dancing around her in a bathing suit, but with her sister dead and buried Nico no longer cares if she is dragged to the “butcher” at the mall. “Don’t make it too short,” she pleads, but naturally she is ignored. The hairdresser lops off sheets of hair, sprays on a coat of shellac, and hardens it under a dryer. When he is finished, he steps back to admire his miracle. “Bellissima, no?”

Bellissima,” I said, fighting tears. I told myself, It’s only hair. It grows back. But I didn’t believe it. Because like everything else in those days, my hair was itself and something else. The bad haircut didn’t bother me half so much as the feeling that Margaret had withdrawn her protection.Prose alludes here to the famous hair-cutting scene in chapter seven of The Mill on the Floss, when Tom withdraws his protection from Maggie for the first time in their lives:One delicious grinding snip, and then another and another, and the hinder-locks fell heavily on the floor, and Maggie stood cropped in a jagged, uneven manner, but with a sense of clearness and freedom, as if she had emerged from a wood into the open plain. . . . She had thought beforehand chiefly at her own deliverance from her teasing hair and teasing remarks about it, and something also of the triumph she should have over her mother and her aunts by this very decided course of action; she didn't want her hair to look pretty—that was out of the question—she only wanted people to think her a clever little girl, and not to find fault with her.When Tom laughs at her, everything changes. Maggie takes one look at herself in the mirror and bursts into tears. Everyone will laugh at her, she reflects, wishing she could do things over again. The foolish impulse to cut off her hair so as not to think about it any more means that she will have to think about it more than ever. Those who are tempted to dismiss such sorrows as trivial in comparison with the real troubles in life are merely strangers to childhood, Eliot writes:Is there any one who can recover the experience of his childhood, not merely with a memory of what he did and what happened to him, of what he liked and disliked when he was in frock and trousers, but with an intimate penetration, a revived consciousness of what he felt then, when it was so long from one Midsummer to another. . . ? Surely if we could recall that early bitterness, and the dim guesses, the strangely perspectiveless conception of life, that gave the bitterness its intensity, we should not pooh-pooh the griefs of our children.[2]At first glance it may appear that Prose is alluding to Eliot because, like her, she aspires to write a masterpiece in which childhood is recovered. The truth, however, is that childhood is never recovered; it is created. We learn what we were like as children from such books as The Mill on the Floss, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, and Goldengrove. Behind Prose’s Margaret stands Hopkins’s, and behind her stands Maggie Tulliver, and behind her (as a British scholar has recently shown) is an even earlier fictional character in an even earlier novel until there is no “ultimate real child.”[3] There is only a literary original, which is probably indebted to a previous book.

Francine Prose belongs in the company of Borges, Nabokov, Calvino, and the far less talented practitioners of “self-conscious” fiction. With this significant difference. In the best of them, the effect is defamiliarization, a chagrined awareness that even the least literary of worlds are made of words. The intention is freedom—freedom from the crushing reality of death and loss. In Prose, intention and effect are the opposite. Her worlds are made of words, but we are persuaded that they are utterly real. The intention to serve as a reminder of necessity—the necessity that, although other dimensions do exist, they will eventually pass. That in her nimble hands necessity is more alluring than most novelists’ freedom proves the case that Francine Prose is an illusionist with few peers.

[1] Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill), p. 75. Originally published in Alfred Appel Jr., “An Interview with Vladimir Nabokov,” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 8 (Spring 1967): 138.

[2] The Mill on the Floss (1860), ch. VII, “Enter the Aunts and Uncles.”

[3] Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, “Holiday House: Grist to The Mill on the Floss, or Childhood as Text,” Yearbook of English Studies 32 (2002): 77–94.


Lee said...

This is a fascinating post, and I plan to read Goldengrove very soon. It's been on my 'buy list' for a while now, but your piece has bumped it up to the very top.

However, I'm not quite sure why you feel the intertextuality with regard to The Mill on the Floss establishes that Prose's intent is to show childhood not as recovered but created. Though this is likely true about most aspects of episodic memory, including those of childhood, I don't follow your reasoning as regards the text. It seems to me Prose could just as easily be referring to other thematic aspects of Eliot's novel. Perhaps you might elaborate. And once I've read Goldengrove, I hope to be able to agree/disagree more cogently!

Lee said...

Now that I'm reading Prose's novel, I can't agree that 'grief is not her subject', rather that it not her only subject (though it would not be my choice to use 'subject' with regard to fiction). She gives us a very clear indication of one of her concerns on the very first page by writing about memory:

'That was how Margaret would have though. My sister was the poet.

I was Miss One-Thing-After-the-Next. Which is how I remember what happened.

But that's not how it happened at all.'

It seems to me that Prose is exploring the ways in which the past is created, art however being only one of them.