Francine Prose and the Great Tradition

­Originally published as “In Praise of Prose” in Commentary 129 (May 2010): 51–55.

Few serious critics today would single out Francine Prose as the leading American novelist to have appeared since the Seventies—since the glory days of Bellow, Cheever, and Percy—if only because there are few serious critics today, and even fewer who read novels for enjoyment and news about the human mystery. In a generation dominated by absurdists, genre-benders, hysterical realists, and post­modern transgressives, Prose quietly goes about her business within the great tradition of the novel. Every other year or so, she comes out with a new book which tries to unravel human complexities by telling an interesting story. She is less critically celebrated than other such “boomer” novelists as Marilynne Robinson, Richard Ford, Paul Auster, Jane Smiley, Richard Russo, Edward P. Jones, Jay McInerney, Richard Powers, Elizabeth Strout, Jonathan Fran­zen, and Michael Chabon. In a career that has spanned eighteen works of fiction in thirty-seven years, she has never received the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, or even the Orange Prize for fiction by a woman. Nevertheless, her unassuming novels continue to find new readers who are invariably chagrined at having snubbed Prose, for so many years, in favor of bigger reputations and duller books.

Perhaps the problem is that her novels are as unassuming as her last name. “It could be Verse,” her brother suggested. To be honest, you don’t read Prose for the prose—not, at least, if what you want are sharp-elbowed observations or melt-in-the-mouth phrases. Although she is capable of it, she rarely resorts to what Rebecca West calls the “flash of phrase.” Her writing is carefully worked, but not labored. And it is placed entirely at the service of narrative: it draws attention, not to herself and how clever and quotable she is, but to her people.

Here, for example, is the first conversation between Swenson, a writing professor, and his student Angelo Argo in Blue Angel, Prose’s best book. Angela, who will lead the professor to destruction, like Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film of the same title, is no Marlene Dietrich. A “leather-jacketed toothpick” with green-and-orange streaked hair, she is sitting in the hallway outside his office, grasping a copy of Jane Eyre “with talons lacquered eggplant purple, curling from fingerless black leather gloves studded with silver grommets.” Swenson asks:

       “How do you like Jane Eyre?”
       “It’s practically my favorite novel. I’ve read it seven times.”
       Swenson should have known. Under all that crusty leather beats the tender heart of a governess pining for Mr. Rochester.
       “What I like,” says Angela, “is how pissed off Jane Eyre is. She’s in a rage for the whole novel, and the payoff is she gets to marry the blind guy who’s toasted his wife in the attic.”
       “Come in,” says Swenson. “Sit down.”
       As Swenson unlocks his office, Angela’s still talking. “The trouble is, I’m reading it for Lauren Healy’s class? Text Studies in Gender Warfare? And everything we read turns out to be the same story, you know, the dominant male patriarchy sticking it to women. Which I guess is sort of true, I mean, I understand how you could say that, except that everything isn’t the same.
All of Prose’s best qualities find accommodation in this short passage—her remarkably sensitive ear for current speech and especially its cant, her fondness for non-joiners and irreverent native skeptics, the surprising vehemence of her feelings for literature. As a character says in Hunters and Gatherers, literature is her “idea of heaven”—a refuge from the scrimmage of appetite. At a feminist retreat in the Arizona desert, enjoying a break from group activities, one woman reclines on her bed in a room without a telephone, reading Middlemarch. She tells her room­mate:
“Forget the happy hunting ground. This is like a cruise or mountain vacation or being sick as a kid. There’s nowhere I can go, nowhere I have to be, no way anyone can reach me, nothing to do besides stay in this room and read this terrific novel.”

Prose’s own novels, written very much in the spirit of George Eliot, appeal to the same longing for worlds that are abundant with character and incident, in the company of people whose conscience is nearly as fierce as their pas­sions.

Francine Prose was born in Brooklyn in 1947. Her father, Philip H. Prose, was a professor of path­o­logy at the New York University Medical Center; her mother, Jessie Rubin, was a dermatologist. Growing up in an upper middle-class secularized Jewish milieu, she attended the Brooklyn Friends School and then went on to Radcliffe. While still an undergraduate, she married Larry Gonick, a young mathematician who later made a name for himself with a Cartoon History of the Universe. After graduation she and her “child-bride husband” traveled to Bombay on a foundation grant. While he attended a mathematics institute, Prose spent the day in the Bombay Public Library, gorging herself on Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, Joshua Trachtenberg’s Jewish Magic and Superstition, and Isak Dinesen’s Gothic tales.

She was awakened to a realm of experience that a Radcliffe education had taught her to deny. Since her teens she had been reading tarot cards, “more out of curiosity than any occult calling,” eventually becoming adept enough to earn $200 a week from it. Now, in India, Prose set aside the autobiographical novel at which she’d been pecking away and discovered, she said, a “narrative gift that didn’t relate at all to my life.” The result was Judah the Pious (1973), a story-within-a-story told by a Hasidic rebbe to charm a seventeenth-century Polish king into lifting a ban on Jewish burial customs. It won the 1973 Jewish Book Council Award. She was twenty-six.

For the next five years, Prose built upon the early success of Judah the Pious, writing a series of novels which set out to revive the medieval tradition of storytelling as described by Walter Benjamin, combining “the lore of faraway places, such as a much-traveled man brings home, with the lore of the past, as it best reveals itself to natives of a place.” Merely to glance over her next three novels is to suggest Prose’s sympathy with lives as far as possible from her own. In The Glorious Ones (1974), the main character is an orphan who recounts the tales of sixteenth-century comici dell’arte; in Marie Laveau (1977), a “voodoo queen” in nineteenth-century New Orleans; in Animal Magnetism (1978), a New England apostle of mesmer­ism.

Several years later, contrasting Chaucer to her contemporaries’ fiction, Prose wondered “why the pilgrims’ oath to tell tales full of wisdom and comfort and the power to make one another merry should, like so many other oaths—the Hippocratic, for example—have fallen on such hard times.” Her ambition to restore the pilgrims’ oath to its earlier status was a welcome dissent from the self-conscious non-referential fiction that dominated the critical conversation in the mid-Seventies, and far more appealing than the earn­est “moral fiction” urged by John Gardner at about the same time. Prose was not suffici­ently accomplished, however, to realize her ambition. As an early reviewer commented, she was not yet a novelist, although she gave some evidence that she might become one. The trouble was that she confused the lore of the past and faraway places with magic and miraculous events, the ancient dream of exemption from ordinary reason and even the constraints of physical reality.

Household Saints (1981) was her first mature novel. By then Prose had divorced her first husband and married a sculptor named Howie Michaels, with whom she raised two sons in a farm­house in the woods across the Ashokan Reservoir from the arts colony of Woodstock in upstate New York. Perhaps not coincidentally, her fifth novel is about a marriage that deepens into lasting happiness after an unlikely start: “It happened by the grace of God that Joseph Santangelo won his wife in a card game.”

Set in Little Italy after the Second World War, the novel is populated by second-generation immi­grant Catholics whose religion is interwoven with folkloric superstition—tutelary ghosts, good and bad omens, the Evil Eye. Jesus appears in a vision, along with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and miracles occur. Familiar territory for Prose, but something is different. The supernatural element is introduced, not to shrink reality’s claims upon storytelling, but to define the manners of her characters. As the novelist Pietro di Donato once said in an interview, “We Italians are really essentially pagans and realists.” Prose captures that extraordinary synthesis in full and exacting detail.

All the detail in the world, however, could not conceal the fact that she was an outsider to the evanescent social context that she was describing. In her next two novels, Prose returned to Jewish manners and sources. Hungry Hearts (1983) follows a troupe of Yiddish actors from lower Manhattan to Uruguay as they stage a production of S. Ansky’s famous 1914 play The Dybbuk, while Bigfoot Dreams (1986) features a staff writer for a sensationalist checkout-line tabloid who iden­tifies with Kafka (“MAN BECOMES GIANT COCKROACH would be good for maybe nine hundred words”). More important than their Jewish background, though, is the atmosphere of general well-being and happenstance that suffuses the novels. There are no rages, no violence, no irreplaceable loss, no unremitting pain, no suicidal despair. Any misery suffered by Prose’s heroines is the result of forces outside their control, not persistence in their own folly.

In Hungry Hearts, Dinah Rap­po­port is possessed by a dybbuk when she agrees to keep her marriage secret; in Bigfoot Dreams, Vera Perl is sued when her story about two Brooklyn kids’ miracle-cure lemon­ade comes true. All’s well that ends well: Dinah’s evil spirit is exorcised by a Hasidic rabbi in Monte­video who suggests a public wedding in a kosher meatpacking plant (“don’t you think it’s high time you got married before God?”). Vera nearly encounters Bigfoot, is frightened into admitting that she has not been serious about “learning a better way to live,” and experiences grace at a cryptobiologists’ conference at the Grand Canyon. The writing is increasingly shrewd and funny; the characters, sympathetic and believable. But the novels as a whole, though tremendously enjoyable, are about as nourishing as chocolate.

Having taken magic and superstition as far as she could, Prose had reached an impasse. Her father died the same year Bigfoot Dreams was published, and she did not write another novel for six years. In 1988 she released a collection of short stories. She contributed journalism and book reviews to the New York Times, wrote its “Hers” column for a stretch, and collaborated on translating the Holocaust writer Ida Fink from the Polish. When she finally returned to the longer form, her fiction was more vinegary and scourging. Her characters found themselves living in the present, swamped by ordinary life, subject to physical law and moral fashion. In her earlier novels, she had been “work­ing toward a sense of redemption,” she said. “I don’t see why I have to do that any more.”

What followed was her best work. The human settings of her next five novels suggest just how profound a mid-career shift Prose had navigated. In Primitive People (1992), she descended into the cruel and gloating post-divorce lives of Hudson Valley well-to-do; in Hunters and Gatherers (1995), a circle of snappish New York City feminists concocting a woman-centered religion; in Blue Angel (2000), a New England liberal-arts college in the throes of abandoning the liberal arts; in A Changed Man (2005), a human-rights NGO headed by a famous Holocaust survivor and joined by a former neo-Nazi; and in Goldengrove (2008), a small-town middle-class family in the Taconics unstrung by the elder daughter’s death.

The topical subject-matter and contemporary habitats misled many critics, who stumbled into the error of describing Prose’s later fiction as satirical. Michiko Kakutani started the habit of getting her wrong, remarking in the New York Times that Primitive People “veers sharply between sentiment and satire,” although she was quick to add that Prose is “equally adept at writing in both modes.” A decade and a half later, the critical barbarism had become so commonplace that when Ron Charles reviewed Goldengrove for the Washington Post, he began by saying that “Fans of Francine Prose’s satire will need a few moments to reorient themselves.”

Little in Prose, though, is the stuff of satire, and there is even less sentiment. In Primitive People, George and Maisie’s mother learns that her best friend is having an affair with her ex-husband and has promised the children they will all be together next Christmas. “Not all of us,” says eight-year-old George. “Not Mom.” She locks herself in the bathroom and ineffectually slits her wrists, spilling blood on the children’s towels and toothbrushes. In Blue Angel, Ted Swenson wrecks his marriage, family, and career by bedding a student. Not that he is attracted to her; he is seduced by the novel she is writing for his seminar. A lifetime in creative writ­ing classrooms has left him defenseless against literary art. In A Changed Man, Vincent Nolan is stalked by a white supre­macist who parks in the drive­way of the Rockland County house where he is staying, bares swastika tattoos to the teenaged son of the Jewish woman who is sheltering him, places menacing calls to her at work, and threatens violence before Vincent beats him bloody.

Satire takes its incitement from the vices of society, while Prose is excited by literature. All of her novels since 1992 are adaptations and reworkings of great titles by her literary predecessors. She had begun the practice in her earlier novels, drawing upon Kafka, The Dybbuk, and Saint Thérèse’s spiritual autobiography The Story of a Soul for thematic material. But it was not until she began to find inspiration in the English tradition that Prose discovered a narrative gift that related surprisingly to her own life. Like Joyce or Nabokov, she mines past literature to emphasize its connections to the present. But with each new book she also achieves a significant revision of the tradition—not merely by adding something new and eye-catching, but by subtly altering the received opinion of her percursors’ books.

In Primitive People, for example, she rewrites What Maisie Knew, a novel of Henry James’s late period. Prose is quite open about what she is up to. Rosemary Porter explains why she and her husband named their second child Maisie:We knew there was a Henry James novel about a little girl named Maisie. We both thought we’d read the novel—mistakenly, as it turned out. How were we supposed to know that that Maisie was an unfortunate waiflike victim of ugly, selfish adult divorce?Where James’s novel tells how a percocious young girl is educated to know her own mind by silently watching her parents’ efforts to destroy each other, however, Prose suggests that the outcome is far more tragic. Ugly, selfish adult divorce, in her novel, becomes child abuse.

Prose always makes a point of alluding to her source at a pivotal moment. When the women of Hunters and Gatherers fall to bickering, their priestess is upset. “What is this?” she asks. “The feminist Goddess-worshipping Lord of the Flies?” Pretty much: although perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her novel belongs to the same tradition as William Golding’s, a tradition that originates with Gulliver’s Travels and passes through Heart of Darkness. Prose takes women modeled upon George Eliot’s heroines Dinah Morris, Maggie Tulliver, Esther Lyon, Dorothea Brooke, and Gwendolen Harleth—women like Eliot herself, for that matter, who thirsted after a new religion to replace Christianity—and plops them down in an exotic hostile landscape, where their civilized habits and spiritual airs prove inadequate to the test of interpersonal savagery.

Eliot is the novelist who has influenced Prose most deeply. It is part of her unique talent, in fact, to have recognized how directly Eliot speaks to post-Cold War uncertainty. Her two most recent novels transplant Eliot’s studies of 19th-century English provincial life to 21st-century suburban America. A Changed Man recasts Middlemarch as a romance between an ex-skinhead and a fortyish Jewish divorcée (“With her admirable but hopeless desire to be good, to do good,” she is explicilty compared to Dorothea Brooke), who must accept that doing good in the abstract is a bone-chilling pedantry. Golden­grove reverses the progress of The Mill on the Floss, starting from Maggie’s death instead of ending with it, implying that the aftermath of tragedy—its effects upon the survivors, their vulnerability to false consolation—may be the more threatening story.

Prose’s basic subject is the same as Eliot’s. Both novelists explore the relation between individual morality and social conditioning. By setting her novels not only in a familiar social reality, though, but also in a liter­ary dimension—a world of words, in which fiction refers to fiction, and readers are sent back to books they may have read before, and not just to their slighted obligations—Prose is able to do something that none of her contemporaries has done. She has wedded the postmodern novel, with the consciousness of its own fictionality, to the moral intention of her greatest predecessors in the English-language novel.

Indeed, after nearly four decades as a profes­sional novelist—and almost as long as a professor of creative writing—Prose has emerged as the foremost public advocate of contemporary literature’s return to literary history with its unashamed moral component. In 2006 she published Reading Like a Writer to plead for the close study of literary masterpieces as a “companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop.” Great writers, she said, “are the teachers to whom I go, the authorities I consult, the models that still help to inspire me the energy and courage it takes to sit down at a desk each day and resume the process of learn­ing, anew, to write.”

Prose’s frankly conservative respect for the literary past is arresting for many reasons, not least of which is that, in her political stances, Prose is as reliably leftist as any other literary intellectual of her generation—believing Anita Hill, not believing George W. Bush. And yet, in each of her last five novels, Prose has set out to demolish cherished leftist beliefs. Whatever she might say in public, she is deeply suspicious of ideological solutions to human prob­lems, and especially the institutions that are set up to administer them.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Blue Angel. Provoked by the case of her friend Stephen Dobyns, a poet and novelist who was suspended from his job at Syracuse University after remarking upon a gra­duate student’s breasts, Prose creates a hero who is guilty of some­thing worse (sleeping with an under­graduate), but is victimized nevertheless by a climate of repressive opinion. Given the chance to apologize, “to make his Dostoyevskian confession of sin,” Swenson finds that he can­not. He is sorry for wrecking his marriage and career, and for hurting his daughter:But, as it happens, he is not particularly sorry for having broken the rules of Euston College, which is what he is supposed to say. The committee couldn’t care less about the rest. But he can’t possibly tell them the painful details, nor would they want to hear them. Which brings up something else that he is sorry about. He is extremely sorry for having spent twenty years of his one and only life, twenty years he will never get back, among people he can’t talk to, men and women to whom he can’t even tell the simple truth.In her preference for the painful details and the simple truth, for people to talk to instead of attitudes to strike or experiments to conduct, Francine Prose is very different from most American novelists now writing. Perhaps she is not yet to be counted among the country’s greatest novelists, but (along with Marilynne Robinson) she is the best of her generation—a novelist who still believes in the moral authority of the novel, and whose own novels wear that authority lightly.