[Criticism] "If Only I Could Begin Again!", By Vivian Gornick | Harper's Magazine

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[Criticism]

“If Only I Could Begin Again!”

The mystery of a writer’s métier

A portrait of Storm Jameson by Elliott & Fry © National Portrait Gallery, London

[Criticism]

“If Only I Could Begin Again!”

The mystery of a writer’s métier
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My mother, a high school graduate with no recourse to a critical vocabulary, was a romantic reader, mainly of novels. Whenever I asked her how she was liking the book in her hand, she’d narrow her eyes, look steadily at me, and say, “Powerful. Really powerful.” Or, conversely, “Not powerful, not at all powerful.” One day I gave her Journey from the North, a two-volume autobiography written by Storm Jameson, a prolific English novelist at work throughout the first half of the twentieth century. A week later I walked into her apartment and there she was, lying on the couch, reading the first volume. I said, “How are you liking that book, Ma?” She sat up, swung her legs over the side of the couch, and narrowed her eyes, as always, but this time she said, “I feel as though she’s just in the room with me.” And then she said, “I’m going to be lonely when I finish this book.” I remember thinking, What more could any writer ask of a reader?

Ten days after she had finished Journey from the North, I gave my mother one of Jameson’s many (forty-five, to be exact) novels to read. Her eyes lit up and she accepted the book eagerly. But a week later, I saw that it had been tucked into a small shelf above the telephone table and I had the distinct impression that it had been laid aside. Yes, my mother confirmed, it had been. “I don’t know why,” she said, “but this book is nothing like that other one.” And then she said, “Not powerful, not at all powerful.”

I nodded my head at her. You’re not alone, Ma, I thought. Over the years, a few thousand other readers have been faced with the same discrepant feelings about Jameson’s autobiography on the one hand, and her fiction on the other. For that matter, they have felt the same when puzzling over other writers of fiction or poetry whose significant work turns out to reside in a memoir. There is Edmund Gosse, for instance, a mediocre Victorian poet who secured a place in English letters only with the publication, in late middle age, of his masterly memoir, Father and Son; then there is the colorful journalist Thomas De Quincey, whose fame rests entirely on the unforgettable Confessions of an English Opium-Eater; and, of course, our own James Baldwin, who wrote novels, plays, and poems but will be remembered chiefly for the sublime personal essays that are, in effect, his memoir.

I myself have something of a vested interest in this mysterious matter of a writer’s natural métier. When I was young, everyone under the sun was writing a novel because the novel was the form of imaginative writing respected by high- and low-minded alike. Only through the novel, it was felt, could one achieve a work of literary art. So I, of course, like every other young person who dreamed of becoming a writer, labored intensively from earliest youth at writing one. By the time I was in my late twenties, I had to face the fact that while I was forever telling stories to friends, colleagues, relatives, nearly all of whom would crow at me, “That’s a novel, write it down!”—and here I was, writing it down, somehow, within the framework of a fiction—“it” refused to come to life.

It slowly dawned on me that I could tell stories effectively only when I was composing them in my own storytelling voice, out of my own lived experience, not in the voice of an invented narrator settled in a made-up situation. I was well into my thirties before I understood that I was born for the memoir. One can only wonder what Storm Jameson would have produced had she come earlier to the genre in which she wrote most naturally.

Margaret Ethel Jameson was born in 1891 in the northern English port town of Whitby. The family included a number of sea captains—one of whom was Margaret’s father—and they had lived there for generations on both sides. They were a people of ingrown endurance, pragmatic to the bone, and possessed of the brusque, no-nonsense speech laced with sardonic irony for which Yorkshire men and women are still famous. In Jameson’s time especially, a dread of emotional exposure seemed to haunt the entire population. To be seen caring about anyone or anything in Whitby was to put yourself at risk; you were made to feel vulnerable in a world that, once your guard was down, would show no mercy. Thus, an isolated, weather-beaten town carved into an irregularity on a rugged coast bred, as Jameson wrote in her autobiography, “a crop of eccentrics, harmless fools, misers, house devils, despots, male and some female, who behaved toward their families with a severity” that the normally socialized rarely allowed themselves.

Childhood for the Jamesons was an extremity of delight (unearned) and punishment (undeserved). On the delight side, there was Whitby itself and the sea, a world of natural beauty in which to experience the sheer bliss of being alive:

Endless days on the shore in summer, from nine in the morning until six or seven at night . . . three children on the edge of an infinity of sand and water—enclosed in a boundless blue world, steeped in light, in a radiance of sun and salt.

On the punishment side, they had a father who was away at sea for months at a time and very nearly mute when at home, and a hot-tempered mother, a shockingly bored romantic who hated her husband, beat her children, and lashed out regularly at the bitter disappointment of life. This mother—whose thwarted spirit made Jameson’s heart ache—became dramatically imprinted on an impressionable young psyche, and was responsible for locking the girl into a personality as angry, defensive, and yearning as her own. Not a single person in Jameson’s long, eventful life was ever to supplant her mother’s emotional influence; nor was any other place in the world to eclipse the memory of Whitby’s piercing loveliness as she experienced it in her youth.

In all probability, Jameson would have married a Whitby man, had half a dozen children, and lived out her mother’s life if, in 1908, she had not won a scholarship to the newly created University of Leeds. The school, at that time, was filled with the children of northern England’s working class—people like herself whose eyes were being opened to the excitement and promise of a life they could not have previously imagined. It was there that Jameson began to see herself as a woman with a literary gift and as a person stigmatized by a class system that placed her very close to the bottom. She found both discoveries exhilarating; in no time she was writing stories and had become a red-hot socialist determined on a political as well as a literary life.

The heady self-assurance that Jameson and her university friends felt while still at school became both a shield and a sword. “In those early years,” she wrote,

I had no consciousness of being shabby, I thought I could go anywhere, into any company. . . . We emerged from our three starveling years with a lighthearted confidence that we were conquerors.

But a few years out of school and the corrections of worldly judgment caused a penetrating self-doubt to set in. At university, Jameson had been considered a brain and a talent and nobody noticed what she wore. In London, she learned that she was seen as an intellectual provincial and that she dressed badly: “It was only later that I began to covet an elegance I had discovered I lacked.” There and then, the alternating influences of incredible brashness and equally incredible insecurity stamped her personality for good and all.

The affliction of urban sophistication, however, was hardly Jameson’s first experience beyond student life to reveal itself as formative. While still in school, she had fallen desperately in love with a ne’er-do-well, slept with him, and in 1913, at the age of twenty-one, was forced to marry. Then, before she knew where on earth she was, she had a baby—not they had a baby, she had a baby—and that, as it was with most women, might have been that, except that Margaret Jameson wasn’t most women.

For a good five years, she and her husband, imagining themselves free spirits in a new world, lived marginally, wandering from pillar to post, always up north (Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds), vaguely seeking and finding jobs that led nowhere. She didn’t mind this gypsy existence, but as time wore on she came to realize that she was unhappy with her husband, that she loved the baby but hadn’t bonded with him, and that she hated, hated, hated domestic life. Within herself she began to drift and soon thought she would die if she didn’t get out of the house. It was only then,

at a time when I was tempted to knock my own head against the wall, [that I understood] the fits of rage in which [my mother] jerked the venetian blinds in her room up and down, up and down, for the relief of hearing the crash.

She had to find a real job, she said; had to make a living, she said; had to help save the marriage, she also said. So in 1918 she stashed the baby in Whitby, said a “temporary” goodbye to the husband, and fled to London, where, with remarkable speed, she found work as a journalist by day and began writing a novel at night.

Two important things now happened: she adopted Storm Jameson as her professional name, and she established a style of life that came to resemble permanent vagabondage. From those first London years on, Jameson proved incapable of making a conventional home either for herself alone, or with the child she said she adored, or with the second husband (the historian Guy Chapman) whom she did indeed love dearly. For pretty much the rest of her life, she moved continually from one house or flat or squat to another, usually but not always in or around London, and later in life, when she had some money, found happiness only when wandering about in foreign places.

It was writing and political activism that grounded her. Throughout the Sturm und Drang produced by her lifelong compulsion to get up and go, Jameson wrote at least one novel a year, plus stories, essays, articles, and political journalism by the yard. At the same time—no matter where she was or what other responsibilities she had—she worked tirelessly as an activist, first campaigning for women’s suffrage, then promoting social justice for the working class (otherwise known as naked hatred of capitalism), and then, in the Thirties and Forties, out of an impassioned opposition to fascism, becoming active in refugee rescue operations. By the beginning of the Second World War, she was president of the English branch of the writers’ organization PEN (she served between 1938 and 1944) and in a position to work herself sick on behalf of the many European writers, artists, and intellectuals she helped escape the Nazis.

Jameson saw herself neither as a bohemian nor as an artist, only as an industrious scribbler driven by a restlessness whose origins she herself could not easily grasp. All she knew was that each time she pulled up stakes, she felt as though she was beginning anew; throughout her life she was hungry to begin anew. Whatever that concept meant to her, it inevitably included what she described as the “forbidden” thrill of starting a novel. Within the first thirty pages of Journey from the North, she writes that in beginning a novel she always felt “the indescribable excitement a woman is said to feel when her unborn child moves for the first time.” “Forbidden” and “said to feel”: she could use these words descriptively but never insightfully; and at that, she used them only when she was close to eighty. Until then she spoke repeatedly—in her sardonic Yorkshire voice—of writing novels because they put food on the table and a roof over her head. This was the lifelong disclaimer with which she defended herself against the feared charge that, as she strongly suspected, she was only delivering a heap of middlebrow problem novels, easily consumed, easily forgotten. And she was right to fear this charge. If, at the age of seventy, Jameson had not sat down to write Journey from the North, she would surely have gone down into literary oblivion.

A photograph of Whitby Harbour by Francis Meadow Sutcliffe, circa 1880. Courtesy the Corcoran Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Sharon Keim

A reader’s report on her first novel declares: “It is loosely constructed; starts nowhere; ends nowhere; characters many and ill-defined. They do not live; they are vehicles for the author’s theories and the expounding of his theme.” Nevertheless, the reader concludes (never imagining that Storm could be a woman’s name), “the man can write and is worth watching.”

Between the Twenties and the Sixties, Jameson achieved a more than respectable reputation as what, then as now, would be called a midlist writer of prodigious output. Her books sold well, she had many fans, publication was always assured, and in London she knew “everyone.” Yet nearly all of Jameson’s novels might well have come in for much the same assessment of that early reader’s report—that they are primarily devoted to creating characters who are set in motion for the sake of exploring a social or political thesis: modern marriage seen from a woman’s disadvantaged perspective, the postwar experience of an embittered generation in the Twenties, liberalism in crisis during the Thirties, fascism at home in the Forties, and, of course, tale after tale of murderously indifferent industrialists with a boot on the neck of disempowered workers, observed or interfered with by various progressive types.

The rise of fascism was especially compelling and, like many other writers on the left, Jameson justified the kind of writing she felt driven to produce in the run-up to the Second World War:

The impulse that turned so many of us into pamphleteers and amateur politicians was neither mean nor trivial. I doubt whether any of us believed that books would be burned in England [or people] tortured and then killed in concentration camps. But all these things were happening abroad and intellectuals who refused to protest were in effect blacklegs. [That is, scabs.]

It wasn’t that she couldn’t write well—she could and did—but, forever in thrall to a thesis, her characters, in the main, not only fail to come alive on the page but hector the reader as well. In Company Parade—a novel based on the experience of the young Storm Jameson in interwar London—the protagonist, a self-styled socialist thrilled to have just published a popular novel, is chastised by another character, a full-blown radical: “Don’t you know you haven’t any right to write novels unless you put in” the city’s slums, capitalism’s treachery, society’s ruthless indifference? “Whether you know it or not, you’re being used. . . . You’re persuading [people] that all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Imagine this kind of writing sprinkled through or even dominating the narrative of some thirty or forty novels!

Jameson knew her shortcomings. She understood very well what it meant to dig deep into the inner life of a character, and did not cry foul when, halfway through her career, a friend told her bluntly,

You know far too much about human nature and too little about making what you know palatable. You don’t give your imagination room to breathe, you dissect, and you write too many books too quickly.

However, here she stood and she could do no other.

But it hurt just the same. It hurt that she was refused literary recognition by the people who mattered: high-end modernists like the Bloomsberries. It hurt that they saw her only as a decent writer of the middle level; it hurt that, as a result of such ranking, she began, from the Fifties on, to grow morbidly insecure—“The fingers of one hand would be too many to count the times when I have looked forward to the publication of a novel, seeing too clearly the width of the gap between it and the great novels”—and became vulnerable to a “profound sense of failure . . . that seizes me when I think about my novels . . . a tormenting sense of dryness, accidie, futility.” Late in life she felt compelled to destroy reviews, articles, and personal documents because, as she said, she wished she could “sink without a trace,” as the trace she was leaving was of such inconsequence.

Once, deeply unhappy about the progress of the novel at hand, she came close to blaming the commands of commerce for her situation, even though she knew better. The following two paragraphs, here reprinted exactly as they appear in Journey from the North, tell that story:

What is it that drives us to turn out our novel a year like articulate robots, to be praised or damned by critics as unfit as ourselves to talk about novels.

If only I could begin again!

And then, miraculously, she did.

Storm Jameson’s writing desk at her home in Whitby. Courtesy Morphets Fine Arts Auctioneers and Valuers, Harrogate, England

Storm Jameson’s writing desk at her home in Whitby. Courtesy Morphets Fine Arts Auctioneers and Valuers, Harrogate, England

Near the beginning of Journey from the North, Jameson announces her plan to concentrate for once on the inner life of her protagonist:

How far can I hope to give a true account of an animal I know only from the inside? Nothing would have been easier for me than to write one of those charming poetic memoirs which offend no one and leave a pleasant impression of the author. I am trying to do something entirely different. Trying, in short, to eat away a double illusion: the face I show other people, and the illusion I have of myself—by which I live. Can I?

And with that announcement, some unexpected alchemy begins to exert its influence on the pages flying out of Jameson’s typewriter (nearly eight hundred before she’s done). The raw material of the memoir is remarkably similar to that of the novels—nearly all of which originated in Jameson’s own experience—but the writer’s agenda is not the same. It was the altered agenda that was responsible for one genre being abandoned in favor of another; and it was the changed genre that, quite magically, released an imprisoned imagination that betrayed a depth of understanding Jameson had never before felt free to let loose on her readers. Class, sex, social policies—all are to be relegated not to the background but to a supporting role in a developing point of view that is psychologically oriented from the start.

Journey from the North is a generous record of Jameson’s life from earliest childhood up to the moment in advanced age at which she is writing—Whitby; early family life; university; marriage and motherhood; the London years in their various incarnations; every cause she was ever attached to; every town, city, or countryside she wandered about in; every person of note, talent, or fame she was ever thrown together with. What is important about this rather extraordinary recital is not the information it provides, but the impression it leaves that, beneath the surface of the somewhat overstuffed prose, a writerly concern is at work, directing the narrative and keeping it on track. The speaking voice, throughout the entire performance, has been described in reviews and biographical essays as ruthlessly honest; by which it is meant not that Jameson delivers a tell-all confessional, but rather that the reader can sense her grappling with something recalcitrant in the material that nonetheless draws her on. She realizes, just as we do, that there is much she does not know about this something. But we have no doubt that she is intent on telling us—really telling us—as much as she does know, and that intent is what counts.

Sartre once said that freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you. Journey from the North is a glorious example of the gripping tale that can be fashioned out of the moment when a good writer feels compelled to examine that prophetic piece of wisdom.

In one of her novels, Jameson says of her fictional stand-in: “Her mother was at the centre of her life. She rebelled against her . . . but she was bound to her by a love in which bitter and hurting things were drowned.” True and not true. Jameson’s mother certainly was at the center of her life, and she did rebel against her but was yet bound to her by an emotion that, if one wishes, could be called love; however, no bitter and hurting thing ever drowned.

It’s the mother who is the figure in Jameson’s carpet; the mother—now brilliantly present, now dimly sighted, now putting in a surprise appearance—who embodies the pull of haunted memory threading itself through the memoir; the mother whose raw need seeps through Jameson’s blood, mingling with her own, creating the kind of psychological embroilment that can not only shape the life of a child who identifies disastrously with a parent of the same sex, but endow it with mythic dimension.

Imagine a mother whose voice is daily filled with what Jameson in another novel describes as “the shrewd, half-sneering, half-envious spite of the North”; a mother who, when a child says she has a headache, replies coldly, “Nonsense, children don’t have head-aches”; a mother who rages about the house when depressed and, out of pity for herself, inflicts the injustice of arbitrary beatings. Who could survive such acts of terror without first going numb and dumb inside, and then growing self-protective almost to the point of anomie? Jameson did both:

Beginning young, I have had a great deal of practice not only in hiding my feelings but in hiding from them. . . . Insincerity was one of the lessons I learned early and thoroughly, very early, very thoroughly.

(Ah, how I came to love the rhetoric embedded in “early and thoroughly, very early, very thoroughly”; here’s another of its numerous iterations: “It would not be true to say that the grief which tore its way through my body was for him [i.e., her first husband]; it was for the past, for what he had been to me; for the failure I, I, had made of our marriage.” That “I, I”!)

The problem was that she could not leave her mother because she had become her mother. In the way of this kind of early damage, as Jameson could not leave behind that which had been done to her, she joined with it. Her mother’s boredom became her boredom, as did the easy scorn, the blind resistance to authority, the deadly fear of emotional openness (a broken friendship is described as “another failure of warmth”), beneath which lay her own ransomed life. The worst of it was her failure to take in the reality of her own child, just as her mother had failed to take in hers. (“Even now, I cannot explain why I was never at ease with the idea that I had a child who was my own, not simply handed to me to cherish and bring up.”) Throughout her years she wept for the unlived life of her mother, only occasionally aware that she was weeping for her own:

I cannot remember a time when I was not aware, and with what helpless pity, that her life had disappointed her . . .

My terrible anxiety [was always] for her to be happy . . .

I would have cut my hand off to give her another life.

These sentences, and many more like them running through Journey from the North, are alive to the touch; they color everything the narrative lights on; make vivid the hold that domestic tragedy had on Jameson: “Those seeds of guilt and responsibility, sown in me at the beginning, were not able to strangle [my involuntary egotism] but they have given it an atrociously uneasy life.”

Jameson understood well enough that while she saw clearly the how of things, she could not adequately penetrate the why of them. No matter. This was one time she wanted to give the reader the feel of things—the state of affairs one grasps not with the intellect but through the nerve endings—and toward this end she did what she should have been doing with all those novels behind her: she stretched her imagination to the limit.

In Journey from the North, as nowhere else in her work, Jameson’s writing has the very thing she was always faulted for not achieving: the richness of texture necessary to bring a work of literature to fruition. The interesting question is why, when she was ready to dive deep, did Jameson not sit down to write the redemptive novel of her life? Why was it the memoir to which she turned? What was it about writing in her own naked voice that allowed her to make something indelible out of the lived experience that her novels had been exploiting, but not doing justice, all those years?

These questions, of course, are rhetorical. Perhaps the match between the appropriate genre and the release of the writer’s imagination is something akin to the situation of a safecracker listening for just the right sound in the tumblers to make the door of the vault swing open. Clearly (that is, mysteriously), when Storm Jameson set out to write a memoir, the door of her safe opened wide, and she found literary gold in it. If she had died before she was ready to try that safe, she would never have composed the one book that admits her to the company of Gosse, De Quincey, and Baldwin—and I would never have written this appreciation.