Recitatif: The Shifting Sands of Historical Memory

Recitatif,” the late Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s only short story, is explicitly concerned with race. When this new edition appeared on my Kindle yesterday, I thought, what a fortuitous time for the rerelease of this story. So far this week we’ve had a firestorm over the president’s commitment to nominating a Black woman to the Supreme Court and a slightly smaller firestorm over a Black actress saying that the Holocaust wasn’t about race, and it’s only Wednesday. But this is an illusion. I live in the United States. Name a week in the last fifty years when a short story about race wouldn’t have seemed eerily topical.

In “Recitatif,” Twyla and Roberta meet as children, two little girls shunted into St. Bonny’s, a children’s home. Alone among the children, these girls have living mothers. Twyla’s is irresponsible; Roberta’s is sick. Because these girls have living parents, because they are abandoned rather than simply unlucky, they occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder at the home. Well, not quite the lowest rung — they are a step ahead of Maggie, a mute kitchen worker who is bullied by the older girls:

Maggie fell down there once. . . . And the big girls laughed at her. We should have helped her up, I know, but we were scared of those girls with lipstick and eyebrow pencil. Maggie couldn’t talk. The kids said she had her tongue cut out, but I think she was just born that way: mute. She was old and sandy colored and she worked in the kitchen. I don’t know if she was nice or not. I just remember her legs like parentheses and how she rocked when she walked.

The girls share a room for a few weeks, and then they go home. They meet up a few times in future years. They occupy different social strata as adults and, perhaps for that reason, they remember parts of their time at the children’s home very differently. In particular, they cannot agree on their interactions with Maggie.

Morrison’s story has a trap at its center: we know that Twyla and Roberta are of different races. But Morrison never tells us who’s who. You can guess, but to guess is to fall into Morrison’s trap. Every guess you make reveals something about yourself and your perceptions of race and class, perceptions that you may not have been aware that you had. I’m not sure whether it’s possible to finish it without feeling at least a little uneasy about your own unexamined prejudices. “When she called ‘Recitatif’ an ‘experiment’ she meant it,” writes Zadie Smith in an excellent, thoughtful introduction. “The subject of the experiment is the reader.” (Smith seems to believe that Twyla, the viewpoint character, is probably Black; I very tentatively thought she was White.)

“Recitatif,” then, offers two interconnected questions without easy answers: what happened the day that Maggie fell down? And are Twyla and Roberta Black and White, or White and Black? Once you reflect on these questions for a little while, you realize there is a third: Does your perception of the race of these girls affect how you think about Maggie and the day that she fell? And even a fourth: Does the story hit different if you switch the races of the girls in your mind? The more you read the story, the more you feel that you are standing on shifting sand. All I can say for certain is that one girl ended up rich and the other ended up poor, but neither of them ever really left the children’s home behind. Two girls, with different pasts and different futures, both destined to be haunted forever by their experiences in the home. Experiences that they shared, but cannot even agree on.

It struck me as I typed the last paragraph that maybe this is what all of our fights about race boil down to: history that we share but can’t agree on. History that we keep trying to rearrange in our minds, because the rearrangement will allow us to believe we live in a world that is mostly good and just. That’s over now, we say. It was a long time ago and it doesn’t matter today. We tell ourselves the biggest lie of all: It was a different time, people didn’t understand.

But although the reader can’t be certain of the truth about what happened at St. Bonny’s, it is possible to know the truth of history, if we’re only willing to look at it. Maybe it comforts you to think that your Confederate ancestor just believed in states’ rights really fervently. Maybe you find it easier to make a passionate argument against affirmative action if you pretend centuries of chattel slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and redlining didn’t happen. Maybe you feel less unsettled if you think of the Holocaust as a crime perpetrated by a small but uniquely evil group of men rather than a race-based genocide that most of the population colluded in. But the comfort you take in those beliefs can’t make them true.

What we keep learning over and over again is that the past finds you and won’t let you rest no matter how hard you try to hide from it. This is the reality that Roberta and Twyla face in their last meeting, a meeting that ends with Roberta wiping away confused tears. And it’s the reality we face as a nation, every time another firestorm over race erupts and we’re faced with another piece of history we can’t bear to look at head-on.

On Blake Bailey and Philip Roth

One morning in April, I was a quarter of the way through the new Philip Roth biography, contemplating Blake Bailey’s take on Roth’s first marriage. I had been a huge fan of Bailey’s work for years — I’d read all his previous biographies, I’d read Richard Yates’s novels largely because he had been Bailey’s subject, and I’d long believed that that Bailey’s life of John Cheever was one of the four or five best biographies I’d ever read. But the Roth book was beginning to unsettle me. As best I can tell, neither Roth nor his first wife covered themselves in glory during this marriage. Still, I was beginning to be a little annoyed that Bailey seemed to not quite understand how unkind and self-centered Roth’s behavior toward his wife was. He seemed much more forgiving of Roth’s excesses than his wife’s. The perils of an authorized biography, I thought. But I was beginning to actively dread the Claire Bloom section.

Then–that very morning–this news broke. Credible accusations against Blake Bailey — that he’d groomed his middle-school students, that he’d harassed and assaulted them when they were older, that he’d raped two women. I felt sick. But the news explained so much! More than that, it cast an entirely different light on Bailey’s depiction of Roth’s first wife, and it made me question the portrayal of all the other women in all the other biographies. I found myself in the perverse position of wishing to reread and reevaluate all of Bailey’s books, and yet also not wanting to read another word by him.

I’ve seen some people argue that Bailey’s sins have nothing to do with the book he wrote. A stranger posted a grumpy Oscar Wilde quote on my GoodReads commentary on Roth and Bailey: “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” That may be true as far as it goes, but when you are looking for someone to offer an analysis of an author’s life — and especially when that author has had, let’s say, contentious relationships with women — surely his own attitudes toward women are relevant. How can you look at the very plausible accusations against Bailey, and think, yeah, this is the guy I want to declare that Philip Roth is not misogynistic? How can you trust Bailey when he assures you that Roth’s first wife was an unreasonable shrew?

W. W. Norton dropped the Roth book within days of the accusations. But Bailey’s found a new publisher: Skyhorse Publishing, the house that has also brought you the memoirs of Woody Allen and Roger Stone. One wonders what Bailey thinks of being among such illustrious company–certainly being published by Skyhorse won’t do much to burnish Bailey’s destroyed reputation among the literary elite; all hope of a Pulitzer seems to be gone, and it’s unclear whether Bailey will ever again have the opportunity to write another of his magisterial biographies.

For myself, I haven’t read a word of the Roth bio since that morning in April. But I think it should be read, though not right now, and perhaps I will even finish it myself one day. Roth was, despite his many faults, an important writer of the twentieth century, and Bailey did have access to sources that no one may ever see again, or at least not for a very long time. Still, Bailey’s take on Roth can never again be thought of as definitive, and in the future it should be read with an eye toward what we are willing to forgive of men we consider geniuses, and how we determine who these geniuses are in the first place. Because it seems to be the case that the gatekeepers who anoint our brilliant writers are often themselves men who treat women very badly indeed. It is just possible that this clouds their judgment when they come to consider misogynists who happen to construct sentences well.

The Politics of Dilettantism: Diana Mosley and Ivanka Trump

ivanka-and-dianaFifty years from now, some interviewer will sit down with an elderly Ivanka Trump. What will she say?

“I can’t regret it,” maybe. “It was so interesting.”

Was her father anti-Semitic? “He really wasn’t, you now. He didn’t know a Jew from a Gentile. But he was attacked so much by Jews that he picked up the challenge.”

What was her relationship with him like? “He was obviously an interesting figure. It was fascinating for me, to sit and talk with him, to ask him questions and get answers, even if they weren’t true ones. No torture on earth would get me to say anything different.”

Those aren’t Ivanka quotes, of course. Not yet. No, those are Diana Mosley quotes, and she was talking about Adolf Hitler.

Diana Mosley, you may remember, was one of the Mitford girls — six upper-crusty sisters who grew up in 1920s Britain and went on to lead, to greater or lesser degrees,  splashy, dramatic lives. Diana’s sister Unity was even more enamored with Hitler, to the point that she attempted suicide at the beginning of World War II, surviving but effectively reduced to a childlike state for the rest of her life. Jessica was a communist and muckraker; Nancy wrote novels; Deborah became the Duchess of Devonshire. (Pamela is the one you have to think about for a moment before saying, “Oh, yes, and Pamela.”)

But Diana was a fascist, wed to a fascist in Goebbels’s drawing room, having tea and crumpets with Hitler. She and her husband were both imprisoned in Britain during World War II, and they continued to help finance the British Union of Fascists long after the war ended. And just as I was reading about her fascination with Hitler in Laura Thompson’s Take Six Girls (which I can’t recommend; read Mary Lovell’s The Sisters instead) Ivanka Trump was making news for telling Fox News, “I don’t think most Americans, in their heart, want to be given something. . . . People want to work for what they get.”

Ivanka has since been dragged in a thousand editorials for her lack of self-awareness and stunning hypocrisy, but I could not stop thinking of Diana Mosley. Ivanka and Diana remind me of each other, not so much because each was or is in the sway of a particularly terrible world leader, but because of their dilettantish approach to politics. Hitler ran roughshod over Europe while Diana exulted over how exciting it all was for her and gushed over Der Fuhrer’s blue eyes and charming manner. Ivanka posts Instagram photos of herself snuggling with her two-year-old the same weekend that children are being violently separated from their parents and chit-chats with a long-suffering Angela Merkel, attending foreign policy meetings in her father’s stead while bringing no expertise or experience to the table.

This is a problem in nations afflicted by ever-widening income inequality: the wealthy can afford to approach politics as a diversion, congratulating themselves on having interesting life experiences and wielding influence (and in Ivanka’s case, actual political power) while secure in the knowledge that they will be forever protected from the consequences of the policies they tacitly or explicitly approve. It’s not so much a lack of self-awareness as a hyperawareness that nothing truly terrible will ever happen to them.

And yet perhaps they are not always entirely right about that. Sometimes the stakes are so high that their wealth and privilege cannot quite protect them from their actions. Diana Mosley and her husband spent three years in prison during World War II (Laura Thompson regards this as cruel, but neglects to mention that Diana told her interrogators that “she would like to see the German system of government in England because of all it had achieved in Germany”). It remains to be seen what will happen to Ivanka. Will she be charged and convicted by the state of New York, or by the federal government’s Southern District of New York? (Rumors abound that she and her brothers have already been saved from prosecution once, years before her father’s presidency.) Will her father agree to resign to spare her prison? Will he pardon her? Or has she skirted closely enough to the edge of the law to prevent culpability?

But then again when all is said and done, when the prison doors have opened and they have returned to high society with wealth and status largely intact, maybe even prison is just another life experience. When this era is behind us, in the twilight of her life, what will Ivanka say? Will the scales ever fall from her eyes? “It can’t regret it, it was so interesting.” It’s not hard to imagine an eighty-year-old Ivanka reflecting. “No torture on earth would get me to say anything different.”