Tuesday, April 14, 2015

See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid

This memoir/novel is one long loud lament, an agonized and agonizing recall of the dissolution of Kincaid’s marriage to Allen Shawn, son of the famed New Yorker editor, William Shawn, who gave Kincaid her first big break to a career as writer. Every woman, every person wishes someone would love them for who they are, beautiful or not, talented or not, admirable in all things or not. For what is love if there is no flaw…”a flaw being necessary in perfection and in love too.”

Kincaid expresses her own love, and sadness, and regret in this memoir: love she thought she showed to her husband, to her children, and to herself; sadness that her children, though they loved her as one loves the hand that feeds them, were still embarrassed by her otherness; and regret that she could not relieve herself of the weighty burden of her upbringing, her first family, her otherness.

Children were born before Kincaid married, the name Persephone standing in for her firstborn, a daughter, after which she experienced severe post-partum depression. Her husband-to-be, called Mr. Sweet in this fictional memoir, carried the “beautiful” Persephone in the pocket of his coat on walks they took together, bonding. Kincaid mentioned her son Heracles, born three years and nine months after Persephone, so often and so warmly in the opening pages of this short memoir that I felt for the ignored and discarded daughter. But I came to see that Kincaid felt her daughter’s ire and contempt (“which is a benign form of hatred”) and it pained her. Having myself been the object of contempt (who hasn’t?), I cannot judge her reaction—writing a book about her pain—in the way some men who have reviewed her have done, calling her work “half sĂ©ance-half ambush” (Dwight Garner writing for the New York Times). Writing is what Kincaid does, and does very well indeed. She made me feel that pain as though it were mine.

This being said, some things Garner says in the review are true: many sentences either read like a child’s book, a phrase repeated with one element changed or added, or run on to such length and convoluted meaning that one must backtrack and refocus. Not such a bad thing since one wants to be done with this horror of a breakup so we try to skim but the backing up forces one to internalize those sentences until we realize that every marriage has these things: “love is accompanied by hatred and contempt, too.” One has to decide if one is worth the other. It sounds like Kincaid came down on the side of wishing it weren’t so, though the pain—she has to realize it was felt on both sides—mayn’t have been worth it.

Kincaid is a kind of force as a writer who has shown us time and again that she has long-held feelings about relationships that she examines in their essential truths again and again. Her decision to marry Shawn was not a path that many of us need to walk: her non-renewable visa was coming up for review and in her pack of New York sophisticate friends one suggested “one of us will have to marry Jamaica.” Shawn, presumably as her longtime paramour and father to her children, stepped up.

Kincaid was adrift and striving when she arrived in the United States “on a banana boat” from Antigua when she was still a teen in 1966. She was first published, writing for magazines, in 1971, and became a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1976. She was untethered and maybe a little wild, anxious for every experience and every expression of love.

Kincaid tells us she loved her husband, and we are inclined to believe her. She is eloquent in the ways he did not love her, and each addition to the list hurts us as though it were being said about us. She was not lovely with her naturally black hair coarse as ropes, and her torso like a very old tree, her skin like a piece of old, worn-out fabric, her thick lips “like night mixed up with day”. Kincaid seems almost to relish the bloodthirsty ways her husband loathed her: the sound of her voice “made him want to kill her, take an ax…and chop off her head and then the rest of her body into little pieces” and the sound of her chewing—the sound of “delicately cooked tender flesh parts of cow trapped inside her jaws”—enraged him.

We never hear the ways Kincaid loved her husband, though claims she did. She cooked and cleaned, the chores of loving (and not so loving) housewives. She expressed admiration and delight for his ability to play other people’s music. Mr. Sweet himself created music which “nobody liked,” “no one wanted to hear.” Kincaid was far more popular and financially productive, it is suggested, than he. “Old and the size of a mole” Mr. Sweet had found a younger someone who liked his music, and who coincidentally had the potential to become “the next extraordinary piano genius of the century.” His chance to jump to the next food wagon, it is implied, had come and he grabbed it, tossing insults like firebombs into the wreck of his marriage.

How much of this comes from the battered psyche of a woman scorned? Perhaps all, but while we know that, we know the ways the psyche cannot bear another blow before it needs to lay it down, get it out, scream the house down. And Ms. Kincaid is perfectly able to defend herself in that way. She admits to faults: obsessing over the insults of her youth, endless knitting and purling clothes no one wanted nor could wear, lavishing attention on her large but messy garden, her hundreds of beautiful bulbs eaten close to bloom by the fatted deer. Killed, murdered, eaten at ripeness.

Kincaid mentions several times John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Books I & II, which she had to copy over twice (!) when she was young and misbehaving in school. Milton was nearing 60 years old when Paradise Lost finally published and according to John Leonard, editor and writer of the Introduction to the Penguin edition, that work “is, among other things, a poem about a civil war.” The Fall of Adam and Eve is preordained—a certainty but not necessitated by divine decree. This point has been argued through the ages since the work was published (how could it be both?), and Leonard writes that Milton himself was arguably confused about this point. The Fall was permitted but not forced upon Adam and Eve.

The parallels with Mr. and Mrs. Sweet choosing to destroy themselves in the garden in New England by the River Paran are clear. Mr. Sweet loved Mrs. Sweet’s innocence in the beginning. He taught her things, though Mrs. Sweet often did things with the knowledge he shared that he did not understand. While Mrs. Sweet does not offer an apple to Mr. Sweet, she offers a crab soufflĂ©, which gives her a kind of knowledge that love was gone already.
what if God hath seen,
And death ensue? Then I shall be no more,
And Adam wedded to another Eve,
Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct. (Paradise Lost, ix, 826-9)

The end is not the end in this book, but the promise of a new beginning. The Sweets are no more but the garden remains, and springs forth again each season with new growth.


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