Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tess Slesinger's "The Unpossessed"

An unexpected, but fortuitous, discovery for me as I research the 1930s was the novel The Unpossessed, by Tess Slesinger (get it on sale at Powell's or the NYRB site). Slesinger was born in 1905, went to Swarthmore and the Columbia School of Journalism, became a "New York Intellectual," wrote this one novel, went to Hollywood and worked on screenplays including The Good Earth and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and died of cancer at the age of 39.

The back-cover blurb says: "The Unpossessed details the ins and outs and ups and downs of left-wing New York intellectual life and features a cast of litterateurs, layabouts, lotharios, academic activists, and fur-clad patrons of protest and the arts.... Cutting comedy about hard times, bad jobs, lousy marriages, little magazines, high principles, and the morning after." After reading it, I can tell you it's definitely more "cutting" than "comic": Slesinger wickedly satirizes her characters and their world. She knew the left-wing intellectual scene very well--she was friends with Lionel Trilling, among others--but she doesn't stint at describing its blind spots, its hypocrisies, its flaws. I admire how she observes and analyzes and thinks critically, instead of apologizing for herself and her circle.

The Unpossessed does not have a strong narrative; it's more a collection of portraits of representative 1930s types. (Oh yeah-- Slesinger subtitled it A Novel of the Thirties. She knew she was capturing the Zeitgeist.) The central characters are three men born circa 1900 who decide to found a left-wing magazine: Jeffrey, a Don Juan of a novelist (his surefire way to seduce women is to say "I am something of a lone wolf"); Miles, a tough-minded New Englander whose puritanical upbringing still shows in him; and Bruno, a Jewish- American professor, outwardly congenial but inwardly self-loathing. Then there are the women: Jeffrey's oblivious, placid wife Norah; Miles' wife Margaret, more intelligent than Norah but with the same deep need to care for her husband; and Bruno's cousin Elizabeth, living in the fast lane and also loathing herself for it. Then there are the rich people who get a vicarious thrill from supporting left-wing causes, and the (Columbia?) university students flaming with radical passion... Part III of the novel brings everyone together for a huge party to raise funds for the new magazine. Slesinger is at her most satirical here: the rich people discuss horses and have no idea what cause they are supporting; the intellectuals snipe and backbite among themselves; romantic complications ensue for all.

Slesinger writes a dense, descriptive prose that commands your full attention. Sometimes she'll simply observe and record her characters: the dialogue scenes always have multiple conversations weaving in and out. Other times, she's more introspective, getting inside the characters' heads. I loved her chapters about Elizabeth, written in an almost musical stream-of-consciousness:
Steward a drink for the lady--the lady is lost, the lady has boarded the fast express, all aboard ladies and gay modern gents, try an art colony first, all aboard, no stops no halts no brooding there, all aboard the twentieth century unlimited, hell-bent for nowhere, the only nonstop through express, try and get off it kid once you're on board, no peace for the young, no rest for the restless, the rollicking jittery cocktail expresss, nothing can matter so wear down, you nerves, no brakes, no goal, no love, on we go glittering jittering twittering, try and get off it kid once you're on board, it'll rattle you shatter you, if you jump out you're lost, stick with it girl, where's all your masculine guts? (115)
This passage also gets at what surprised me the most about The Unpossessed: its modernity. We're often taught that women weren't "liberated" until the 1960s, and didn't regret or question the idea of free love for another few decades, but Elizabeth is a free-loving woman realizing that her jazzy modern ideals only lead to empty hedonism. Margaret also considers herself economically and sexually liberated, though wonders what she has really gained: "O Economic- Independence Votes-For-Women Sex-Equality! you've relieved us of our screens and our embroidery hoops, our babies and our vertigo; and given us--a cigarette, a pencil in our hair" (82). The Unpossessed is also the oldest book I can remember reading that has an explicitly gay character in it: 20-year-old Emmett Middleton, who has a crush on Bruno. Bruno is thus caught in a quasi-love-triangle with his female cousin and his male student: would you expect that from something published in 1934? And the book's concluding sense of futility--that the world will go on, in all its awfulness, as the intellectuals talk themselves into a state of paralysis--is also very, very modern.

I enjoyed this foray into the 1934 leftist-intellectual mindset and am going to continue in this era for a bit longer: my next read is Vassar girl Mary McCarthy's The Group!

7 comments:

rootlesscosmo said...

I just learned of Slesinger from Morris Dickstein's "Dancing in the Dark," about Depression cultural life; he devotes most of a chapter to her, mostly to The Unpossessed. I haven't got to that yet but I'm reading her story collection On Being Told That Her First Husband Had Taken His First Lover. I agree with you about the startling modernity, though the term "Second Wave" refers at least obliquely to an earlier one; I think Slesinger and her contemporaries in the 30's saw Suffragism as played out, and also saw feminism as inadequate to the issues raised by the economic crisis. But the title story in this collection is very frank, though never explicit. I told the friend who loaned me the book, and whose Mom knew Slesinger in Hollywood, that she reminds me a little of Dorothy Parker, but with a longer attention span. (I did a Google blog search on Tess Slesinger and found this site.)

Marissa said...

Thanks for visiting/commenting! I hadn't heard of Slesinger's story collection, but will have to check it out--that's a great title! I love your description of Slesinger as "Dorothy Parker with a longer attention span"--I'm a big Parker fan, too, mainly because of her great ear for dialogue--but Slesinger was definitely working with a bigger canvas.

rootlesscosmo said...

Thanks. Another difference is that Slesinger takes account of the politics of the period: a prosperous middle-class man, afflicted by guilt, becomes a Communist; a young Austrian woman whose husband has been killed in the Vienna battles of 1934 (government forces actually used artillery against workers' housing) takes refuge in the US. As I recall, Parker has a piece about Spanish Civil War volunteers, but that's it, at least in the Viking Portable edition of her stuff. Dickstein says Slesinger joined the CP after she went to Hollywood. (I recommend his book, by the way; I disagree with him about Frank Capra but I found his comments on Nathanael West and on West's brother-in-law, the humorist S.J. Perelman, very persuasive.

Marissa said...

Yes, I heard of the Dickstein book too when it came out--always thought I should pick it up as I am kind of a '30s junkie!

rootlesscosmo said...

I see you mentioned Dawn Powell at some point. Several years ago Peggy and I saw her early play "Walking Down Broadway" at the Mint Theater in New York. It's a good (not great IMO) piece, and the production and cast were good--one actor in particular made something memorable out of her very small part. The Mint does a lot of neglected stuff--another time we saw a play by St. John Ervine which I think will probably remain a curiosity, an Irish 20's play that venerates the Church and despises the Republic.

I'm finding On Being Told uneven--a couple of terrific stories, a couple so-so, and (so far) one dud. She was only 24 when the earliest story in this collection was published, which makes the best pieces even more impressive and the dud more forgivable.

Marissa said...

Hmm, I don't know where I would have mentioned Dawn Powell, I've never read any of her work (but have heard good things about it). I guess she is primarily known as a novelist, but of course I'd be interested to check out her playwriting as well! Oh so many good things I ought to read.

rootlesscosmo said...

Might have been a commenter. I liked her "autobiographical novel" (her term), My Home is Far Away, a lot.