Anne Roiphe Essay - Roiphe, Anne (Vol. 9)

Roiphe, Anne (Vol. 9)

Roiphe, Anne 1935–

Roiphe is an American novelist whose work reflects her concern with women in contemporary society. Her characters are human and believable, and her prose is witty and refreshing. (See also CLC, Vol. 3.)

Anne Roiphe's new book, Torch Song, crucifies an already much tortured form—the confessional novel. The format here is basically the same as the one used by magazines like True Romance…. The stock heroine confesses her past voluntary or unwitting debauches, describing in vivid detail her descent into hell and the various punishments justly or unjustly awarded there. It is all told in the past tense from the perspective of the currently well-adjusted and happily married normal woman. The heroine fails to explain just how she gets from the white-slave market to Larchmont, but we are assured that what has passed is past. At 12 I used to find such tales, with their accompanying ultratacky photographs, both exciting and corny. Torch Song is not exciting, but it is definitely corny….

Torch Song is a perfectly dreadful novel, lacking even pornographic value. The erotic high point is Marjorie's memory of a brutal enema administered by her German nurse. Roiphe probably intended this scene to account for Marjorie's masochism, but it is muddled and fragmented, like everything else in the novel. Whatever the causes of her self-loathing, it is impossible to care one whit about what happens to Marjorie. She is such a passive, complacent, and stupid person that she arouses a kind of sympathy for the sadist burdened with the task of humiliating her.

Torch Song is a prodigy of imprecise and banal writing. Jim's hair, for example, switches several times from blond to black for no apparent reason and seemingly without the writer's awareness. The novel is peppered throughout with bizarre similies, like: "My nipples stood straight up, like nervous nannies." There are mixed metaphors like this, about Marjorie's father: "the most assimilated, handsomest of melted Jewry—who floated in his Sulka ties, his white monogrammed handkerchiefs, and his black silk socks in the American soup, like the upper crust he wanted to be."

Jim is reputed to be a brilliant and captivating conversationalist. But feeble as his sexual emissions are, they are superior to his verbal ones in not being compounded by poor grammar….

The women's movement created a considerable fiction market. But whether or not the writers who supply this market were lured by feminist doctrine to earn a living by the pen, their works are by no means all feminist in nature. A good number of the novels heralded as having issued from the "new feminist consciousness" are in fact exploitative and undermining of the movement that unwittingly supports them.

Up the Sandbox, for example, the 1970 book that made Anne Roiphe famous, is a sentimental, self-serving piece of ephemera in the school of Little Women, with few of the charms of Alcott's book…. Up the Sandbox has leaped out of the pages of The Feminine Mystique [as the paperback cover states], all right, but as problem, not solution. It is a novel that affirms over and over that the rewards of caring full-time for children, and for a husband who behaves like a spoiled child, are real and fulfilling, and that, although fascinating, the "liberated life" is a doomed one for women, fraught with disappointment and disaster, and sensibly avoided.

The commercial and celebrity success of Roiphe's books, and of a number of other commonplace, sentimental, and safe novels, would not matter very much if it did not often obscure from readers' view truly innovative and excellent novels written by women. It is unfortunately the case that in the minds of many people, the women's fiction market is composed almost entirely of books about discontented upper-West-Side housewives and masochistic East-Side analysands.

Laurie Stone, "Singing the Black and Blues," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), January 3, 1977, p. 57.

In contemporary writing we seem to be enduring a period when everything is coming out but nothing much is being faced or deeply understood. Everything gets told, especially the unspeakable, but the task of locating meaning is bungled, fudged or simply ignored….

"Torch Song" … is about an awful marriage that lasted at least six years, producing a single child (out of virtually no sexual embraces), and an immense amount of misery and misbehavior. The young man is sexually sick; he is also a sadist, a drunkard and a thief. The young woman, who tells the story, is relatively more decent, but she too is a liar and a thief and is, I think, fundamentally dishonest in explaining why she got and how she stayed married until the day the man walked out. The reader is put in a peculiar position: He is like an analyst to whom someone comes to complain about the inadequacies of a spouse and who must begin probing and questioning the symptoms of the complainer….

[Readers] ought not be placed in that position…. I would … prefer some guidance on these matters from the author herself. The reader wants to be sure, and he is not sure, that Anne Roiphe has gotten to the bottom of her own fictional character. Otherwise, the reading—and perhaps the writing—of fictional memoirs becomes a mug's game. (p. 8)

Julian Moynahan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 9, 1977.

Torch Song is a confessional novel about a woman's first love who turns, in more ways than one, into an abandoned husband. Marjorie Weiss is made captive by her feeling for a gifted young writer and philosopher, a loitering bel homme sans merci by the name of Jim Morrison, and finds herself ministering to his abnormal sexual habits…. Jim is an outcast who has become an outlaw. He is a waif or stray who is also a cross between Lords Byron and Russell, and who can impersonate the Prince of Darkness. This is the multiple identity displayed in certain Gothic novels, where poverty is raised to the peerage and misery consoled, where the forsaken is forgiven his outrages. (p. 39)

[Jim] urges her to read Mann's story Tonio Kröger in order to discover what she means to him. Both works are concerned with the price paid for art: the artist is excluded from normal life and from normal sexuality. Tonio resembles a modern artist when he states that he must keep his feelings separate from his art, and produces an art that is dry, painful, fastidious. There are whispers of Eliot in the tale: Eliot's essays require the exclusion of biography from art, and the mention by Mann of spring's cruel effect upon the feelings, and of going south, might seem to anticipate The Waste Land's opening passage.

At the same time, Tonio is like a romantic artist, and like Jim Morrison, in being an outcast, with secrets. There's a romantic morbidity—of a kind that might possibly be taken to anticipate one of the moods of Nazi Germany—in Tonio's final confession of love for blond, blue-eyed, normal Nordic life: this love is described as wholesome and redemptive, a tonic for the sick, sensual artist, but it is also described as a secret soft spot, such as men might have for the normal Nordic male. Tonio is confident that these feelings will pass into his art—exempt from theoretical challenge, presumably—and will transform it.

In Torch Song, as in Tonio Kröger, normality triumphs…. The relationship breaks up, and the book ends by the sea, as does Mann's story, in a jolly, healthy atmosphere of children, fishing, and suntans, with Marjorie married happily ever after to a kind, potent pediatrician…. The narrator is sarcastic about Jim's subsequent career: "perhaps he gets alimony" from his society wives, "the reviews of his books have not all been good." Normality's revenge.

With its accounts of Jim's strange habits and of a worthy woman's subjection to these, this book is bound to do business. It is written with a good deal of journalistic force, moreover, and holds in check any tendency it may have to serve as a fresh installment of women's complaints, of the sort publishers like. But its conception of normality seems very unappealing. "We were married in a legal sense but not in the real sense—the kind that makes babies," Marjorie points out. Not everyone will believe that the only real unions are the kind that makes babies. An impulse to belittle and burlesque the narrator's relations with Jim is yielded to, though it is also resisted, and reading parts of the book is like witnessing [severe] punishment…. Marjorie was very interested in Jim, and stayed with him voluntarily for years, tending his wounds. She needed him, and his price. And now she is interesting readers with her confessions, which would be a lot less interesting if Jim, beneath the brilliance, were unreal—no more than a nursable nasty wreck. Even readers who are repelled by his snobbery and contempt may be unwilling to believe the book when it maintains that this was a relationship for the birds. (pp. 39-40)

Karl Miller, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), February 3, 1977.