Eva Figes 1932–
(Born Eva Unger) German-born English novelist, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, editor, translator, author of books for children, and scriptwriter.
Figes is known both as an experimental novelist and as the author of the nonfiction work Patriarchal Attitudes (1970), a classic feminist text which traces the historical basis for male domination of society. Often compared with Virginia Woolf for her interest in female identity, Figes focuses in her works on psychological rather than social concerns. Fragmented in structure and often nightmarish in tone, these works are noted for their intense, lyrical precision of language. Throughout Figes's writings, alienation recurs as a prominent theme. Her experiences as a German-Jewish refugee in England during World War II are described in the autobiographical Little Eden: A Child at War (1978), and her struggle to come to terms with the Holocaust and with human cruelty is central to the novel Konek Landing (1969).
Figes employs a variety of experimental techniques in her novels. Her protagonists are often "fallible narrators" whose perceptions are abnormal in some way. Figes has stated that she was inspired to use this device by William Faulkner, who used a mentally retarded narrator in The Sound and the Fury. Thus, in Winter Journey (1968), her narrator is an ignorant, elderly deaf man, and Nelly's Version (1977) is told from the viewpoint of an amnesiac woman. The latter book explores confusion of identity, a theme which also appears in B (1972), an intricate metafictional work in which a writer and his character become intertwined, and in Days (1974), where the invalid narrator is a composite of three generations of women. Figes focuses on the issue of female identity again in Waking (1981), a short novel which relates seven morning awakenings in a woman's life from childhood through old age. In Konek Landing, Figes manipulates language to create a sound-texture rich in vowels with notable stylistic density. Figes has said of this book: "I'd adopted a style such that five hundred pages became two hundred pages with the same content." The central character, Konek, is a homeless refugee; this novel is Figes's most direct treatment of the sense of alienation engendered in Jews by the Holocaust.
Figes considers Konek Landing her most important novel, but critics generally found it overly difficult and pretentious. To a lesser degree, this charge has also been directed at many of her other experimental works, including B and Days. While critics respected the intelligence and inventiveness of these novels, many expressed frustration with the obscurity created by her experimental techniques. Edwin Morgan has said of B that the reader "may suspect that the pleasures of manipulation have outrun the idea of relevance to a theme," and Jonathan Raban has commented that Konek's "difficult surface seems unjustified by any fundamental complexity of conception." Figes's recent novel Light (1983) fictionally recreates a day in the life of the Impressionist painter Claude Monet and is one of her most highly praised works.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14.)
The opening of Equinox—'Air like mountain air, like mountain water which hardly seems to be there when you turn the tap on, soap lathering on a caress'—daunts. But after this first froth of ad-copy it becomes a remarkably fine novel. Microscopically introspective, a thirty-ish wife tirelessly prods the dying nerve of her marriage. Her scientist husband is a smart-alecky vulgarian whose boredom flares into occasional irritated antagonism or sexual rough-stuff. Liz, hurt by neglect, wavers between vicious resentment and craven fear of the void ahead. Difficult to tell how conscious she is of speeding the break-up by her frigidity and peevishness, but this is revealed with an unblinking accuracy that gives the impact of truth. (p. 114)
Kenneth Allsop, "Cockroaches and Kools," in The Spectator, Vol. 216, No. 7179, January 28, 1966, pp. 113-14.∗
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B. A. Young
[Equinox] probes into the mind of a mature woman with an emotional problem—a marriage wearing out, a faiblesse for another man—but [Figes] writes so affectedly it's hard to follow the story. Tiny pointilliste paragraphs proliferate, often with the names replaced by personal pronouns so that you have to re-read them to make sure who they refer to. There is a plethora of interior monologue. Behind all the camp is a rather sensitive story, but it's hardly worth the labour of digging it out.
B. A. Young, "First Novels," in Punch, Vol. 250, No. 6546, February 23, 1966, p. 289.∗
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One of the more important jobs a novelist does—often to the useful discomfort of his readers—is surely to create the moment from inside, vividly, patiently, admitting every ounce of its current ambiguity, so that his sentences read like heart beats. Such a richness of life going on, actually being lived from one word to another, is well approached in "Winter Journey." This is Eva Figes's second novel; I missed the first, "Equinox," but on the strength and sensitivity of her latest work I'd place her immediately as a writer to be watched. She goes beyond gesture to fix the most fugitive movements of existence in a pattern true to themselves. She allows nothing, in a very short book, to distract her attention from what she perceives to be essential. She is a real realist—and offers much that seems threatening to one's necessarily limited experience of "reality."
"Winter Journey" takes shape in the mind of an old man, Janus, living out the last days of his life in a London house. Janus is ignorant and bitter: "a dull head among windy spaces." Eliot's "Gerontion" makes a pertinent point of reference, as does that empathy for the impotence of extreme age found in some of Beckett's finest writing. Miss Figes gives us a man who has unearthed no peace in the accumulation of experience; his thoughts are stupid, his feelings flow in a cloudy stream of images inspired by needs he has never satisfied…. [All] the odds and sods of Janus's...
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Charles D. Pipes
[Winter Journey, an] "hors d'oeuvre" of a novel, may tempt those readers who prefer to feast on stream-of-consciousness or experimental works instead of on more conventional fare. Eva Figes chooses to create moods and thought processes rather than concise pictures; this is a confusing game for the reader and often leaves him stumbling over the pebbles of poetic prose scattered along a somewhat arid plot…. Gradually, the author conveys the feeling of hopelessness and frustration which is so often a part of being old. The main character is a believable old man lost in a callous, uncaring environment. Unfortunately, the reader wearies of the whole thing by the end…. Brief as it is, Winter Journey is tough sledding.
Charles D. Pipes, in a review of "Winter Journey," in Library Journal, Vol. 93, No. 5, March 1, 1968, p. 1019.
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Eva Figes, Konek Landing, intense and clever, sparing with articles, pronouns, connectives: prefers deep visionary murmur, hard delphic spasms, very painful. Also archetypes: waves, pools, seeds, cupboard/womb, bonfire/orgasm, amputation, rats in the cellarage (yours and mine).
Konek, oppressed everyman, crawls ashore out of stinking sea-sludge. Then memories of persecuted childhood, twisted spine, escape from reformatory, retreat into various holes in ground, scribbles on the walls…. Crosses borders, escaping, seeking. Seeking? Ah, identity….
Part Two, at sea again, visionary note stepped up, syntax shakier. Alas, your reviewer flags, loses track, recognises only familiar wastelandmarks. Then TRANSCENDENCE! swims ashore to tropic isle, drums throb, gourds of sweet drug, becomes a god. Anthropology ex machina. Floats off tranced on raft with white bird: ah, soul.
What can poor lifebound critic say, only that imagination pretty active here, in a protozoic way, but reductive style dissolves all separate things, moments, griefs to one glutinous gloomy mishmash. Seems private where not borrowed. Extreme jumps from hell to paradise leave out old middle-earth altogether. Suffers from overdose of modernismo: French-Irish-Czech. Settles the old scores, scratches the old sores. Daunts, bores.
Kenneth Graham, "Wastelandmarks," in The...
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Konek Landing is a political novel …, a dun-coloured, 'serious', semi-experimental fiction which happens in an unnamed country, a Europe of frontier guards and barbed wire, of cheap boarding houses, police visits, borrowed clothes—a grim, rain-washed, industrial landscape. Stefan Konek, a stateless citizen and an orphan to boot, wanders through this world of Kafka crossed with Beckett in an endless series of interior monologues, fragmentary encounters and gloomy nightmares. I found it monotonous and often incomprehensible, a novel whose difficult surface seems unjustified by any fundamental complexity of conception. Even the language of the book appears to have died of undernourishment in this European wasteland.
Jonathan Raban, "Family Scrapbook," in New Statesman, Vol. 78, No. 2008, September 5, 1969, p. 315.∗
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Patriarchal Attitudes] is an enlightening, entertaining and sensible historical survey of male supremacy. Eva Figes discusses both the real conditions of women through the ages, and also the ideologies (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Romanticism, Puritanism, Freudianism) that justified those conditions. It is a convincing description of how all kinds of widely differing economic and social systems have been carefully organized by men to preserve their power over women.
The book is full of very interesting observations. She shows, for example, how taboos and social customs have largely replaced physical force in controlling women….
Miss Figes shows also that men, recognizing sex as the main area in which they are vulnerable to women (that is, sex is the main leverage a woman has with a man) have created all sorts of rules designed to protect themselves…. She argues that the whole notion of sex in our culture as something unclean or base is an effort on the part of men to lessen the power of women in an area where men really need them.
My main criticism of the book is that the end does not live up to the rest. She ends up talking about the bad "habits" that the institution of marriage supports, but throughout she has always accepted that the relations between men and women are determined by the power of men and the powerlessness of women. She'd have done better to conclude by admitting that she...
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[B] is in many ways compelling and distinctive, yet it manipulates the reader's uncertainties to the point where he may suspect that the pleasures of manipulation have outrun the idea of relevance to a theme. Not that the theme invites anything simplistic. A successful but unhappy and increasingly alienated writer called Beard is writing a book about an unsuccessful writer called B. whom he has apparently (though not certainly) known and who is now dead. The reader's initial suspicion is that B. is a projection or alter ego of Beard, and the book does not dismiss this suspicion, making Beard say indeed at one point: 'I seemed to be acquiring a remarkable resemblance to my own character, B.' Although B. is fictionalised as having his own way of life, quite different from that of Beard, and although they meet and talk together as separate persons, the reader's difficulty is that the evidence is presented by Beard himself. Furthermore, he is going through a nervous crisis—his first wife dies, his second wife leaves him, his son has no contact with him, and although he cannot stop writing he admits his 'vision had shrunk'—so that reality and fantasy, past and present, are shown as overlapping and sometimes mixing, and episodes are repeated in slightly different form as they might do in dream or nightmare.
Edwin Morgan, "Empty-Hearted Labyrinths," in The Listener, Vol. 87, No. 2243, March 23, 1972, p....
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Eva Figes already has a distinguished reputation. She extends her range again with B in which she assaults that most elusive of themes, the creative process itself: the relationship between experience and the art which it triggers. While admiring her intent and her talent, I have to confess to finding the book more bleakly schematic and less palatable than, for instance, her earlier brilliant Winter Journey, which was a major triumph of sustained imaginative writing….
The new work is far more intellectually ambitious, relying on intricacy of structure, a complicated sequence of trick mirrors, takes and retakes of scene and incident, more than on sustained imagery or verbal felicity…. The naked, stripped style sometimes hints of some lack of grip on the structure: invention and imagination are somehow not quite in tune. But the uncompromising intelligence of the whole is admirable.
Mary Borg, "Art of Money," in New Statesman, Vol. 84, No. 2140, March 24, 1972, p. 398.∗
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Eva Figes in Patriarchal Attitudes … is concerned to demolish the false assumptions of the past which have made … [the drive for equality between the sexes] seem so necessary…. Only the last chapter of her book is devoted to the present, and here I think Eva Figes rather skimps the case for the future set up by her excellent historical swipe. I am all for equal pay, abolition of marriage (and therefore divorce and illegitimacy), love without economic strings, and more nursery schools. But if we are to introduce these changes we must also have a better understanding of what men and women in general really want and need in a free situation. (p. 501)
Paddy Kitchen, "How We Live," in New Statesman, Vol. 84, No. 2143, April 14, 1972, pp. 500-01.∗
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[The day I spent reading Eva Figes's Days] passed extremely slowly. But this was probably in unconscious sympathy with the heroine of the novel, who spends what little life she has in the private ward of a large hospital. Her meanderings, which set the pace let alone the content of the narrative, are couched in Beckett's perpetual present—deriving as they do from the I of a needle: "I merely think this. In actual fact I can only conjecture about what lies beyond the walls of this room. And in the last analysis it does not matter. I no longer allow it to concern me." Luckily for her, but not for us as she roams over her attenuated past like a fly over cold soup….
It is only, of course, in the ruined choirs of Romanticism that a monologue can be found appealing. This happy fallacy has never stirred my particular stumps and a stream-of-consciousness retains its interest only for a very short time. It is also the case that a frayed or neurotic vision is that much less interesting than an average or healthy one. This offends against the canons of the School of Suicide and Worldly Despair, but it agrees with those of good taste. The masks and reminiscences of a "knot of nerve-ends," as the heroine engagingly calls herself, are not likely to amuse or convince unless they connect with something other than themselves. This is rarely the case in Days….
I do not mean to be entirely condemnatory; the writing...
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Discreetly under-pinned as it was by a wholly unexceptionable feminism, I felt a bit of a lout for disliking Eva Figes's Days as much as I did. For 113 leaden pages her narrator, an unnamed woman, lies sick in a hospital room commenting grumpily on her surroundings and reminiscing obscurely about the world outside. Her supremely trite reflections are pretentiously arranged in little paragraphs widely spaced. This sort of bashful mental lint-picking can't be remotely cathartic for the author nor is it kind to the reader. If Miss Figes wished to convey the texture of hospital monotony as rebarbatively as possible she has succeeded, but surely the point is to transform the experience imaginatively. One feels special exasperation because Miss Figes is capable of more. It takes discipline to force yourself to write as drably as this, but there are more efficacious courses of self-improvement. 'It is nice lying here. It is warm. I am being fed, I am being washed. The nurses are kind.' Miss Figes's spare, runic style was perfectly suited to B, her riddling thriller about character and creativity, but she ought to diversify the style and intelligence she is so perversely concealing.
Timothy Mo, "Sick Fantasy," in New Statesman, Vol. 87, No. 2235, January 18, 1974, p. 86.∗
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[Eva Figes] dwells on the plight of a woman, but Days bids over-ambitiously to embrace the plight of all women, and its sympathies become rapidly too diffuse. A woman lies in a hospital bed, with memories of her own life, and thoughts about the men and women in it, sludging about in her mind. Her dribble—it's certainly less than a stream—of consciousness is least muddied when she focusses on the worthy females labouring about her…. [The] intrusive polemical moments are just condonable, I suppose, but a curiosity the novel fails to overcome is the merging of the first woman's thoughts with her daughter's. No warning is given of the switches back and forth and, confounding the confusion, the patterns of the two lives are identical…. We're intended to perceive an inextricable knitting of all womankind into a net of like dilemmas: instead, we're perplexed as to exactly what happens to any one woman…. But the strongest impression Days leaves is of unflagging rancour for the men who always win the prizes and the goodies, and who can't even spot what's wrong with the women. 'I hate men,' one of the women thinks. 'It was like a thought coming out of one's own head,' the other concurs.
Valentine Cunningham, "Woodman's Widow," in The Listener, Vol. 91, No. 2339, January 24, 1974, p. 120.∗
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Eva Figes does not pad out her slender book [Tragedy and Social Evolution] with extensive quotations, but this is because she only gives brief references to back up her own statements, some of which are quite astounding. (p. 20)
It must be conceded that the book is easy reading. Ms Figes writes fluently and in the earlier part, where she is reflecting upon some studies she has made in anthropology, particularly in the work of two writers on tribes of cannibals, she makes remarks which are worth considering. She draws attention, for instance, to the undoubted fact that what is called 'the moral order' in a society is really a network of beliefs and superstitions, images and associations: she suggests that the powers and functions of the god or gods in traditionally religious cultures have been taken over, in modern times, by police forces and the other apparatus of 'justice'; and she seems to think that the crime for which Oedipus suffered was not what we should call incest, but taking a wife from within his own tribe instead of an outsider. Her first chapter and the two which follow it, on 'Kingship' and 'The Dead', are also interesting; and one might well explore further the idea that the strength of the Tudor monarchy derived partly from the need the people of England felt to find a substitute for the father-figure of the Pope whom Henry VIII had dethroned…. She, like all her kin, puts a great deal of weight on...
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Moral ambiguity … is usually set within a precise social context: you know where you are physically and historically, however much the characters' ethical bearings may fluctuate. With Nelly's Version the ambiguity is total. Nelly herself does not know who she is, where she is, or why, and nor do we. She signs a hotel register with an apparently false name, discovers with surprise that her suitcase is stuffed with banknotes, and makes forays into the strange town which turns out to have unidentifiably familiar undertones. Eva Figes has long been involved with developing the relevance and potential of contemporary fiction, just as I have long been described by my closest friends as one of nature's philistines, so my appreciation of her work (which early on was extremely enthusiastic) has tended to deflate as she advances and I get more entrenched.
What I feel about her and several other exploratory writers is that the evidence of their journeys is so wilfully arbitrary. The information imparted in their books seems to have no central intuitive, passionate motivation. It is like those visual art exhibits that profess either to be evidence, or not to be evidence, of travels which the artist may, or may not, have taken according to whichever viewpoint the spectator chooses to adopt.
As far as I can tell, Nelly is a middle-aged, gone-to-seed woman, out of touch with society's concept of sanity…. What some regard...
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Nelly's Version, is, luckily, not feminine fiction. It may not even be female fiction. In fact, it's hardly fiction at all; its major purpose is to erase all of the properties of the male-dominated and bourgeois novel in an effort to be 'liberated' and modern. (p. 22)
[Nelly] evades all of the responsibilities of the male world—she is simply a recording device which details everything that happens to her, without any specific male or female identity. The heroine does not know who she is, where she is, or why she is. Neither do we. For the heroine this is some sort of advantage: to be a woman without female identity, it seems, is to know neither grief nor pain. For the reader there is a great deal of both.
Of course the narrative could be seen as an elaborate and partially successful analogy for the new liberated woman: Nelly has abandoned all of the social codes which had been foisted upon her but hasn't yet found a permanent substitute of her own. But there is nothing particularly novel about this condition: nineteenth century novelists used mad people for exactly the same effects. And, again, Eva Figes's bland and indefinite prose, which perfectly matches her bland and indefinite heroine, has been culled from very similar French novels which were actually all about men.
It's often said that the women's movement, like any political cause, can only produce rhetoric and not literature; in its...
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[Figes's] artistic roots, like her personal ones, are Continental, and the influence of Expressionism is evident in her work, but it is also possible that she is one of the few English writers to have learned from the nouveau roman. Nelly's Version is an easier novel than [many of this type] … because it possesses a more coherent narrative structure, but by describing everything from the position of a middle-aged woman who is almost completely cut off from her own past and who is therefore without memories, Eva Figes sometimes renders her narrator's observation of the world with a cinematic objectivity not unlike that of the nouveau roman. In the two Notebooks that constitute the novel, the narrator, who calls herself Nelly Dean …, records scenes and events, including apparently insignificant details, with unusual precision, and the effect of this technique is to strip perceived reality of its habitual and conventional associations so as to make it alien and even menacing. Yet if there are affinities with the nouveau roman, there are more with Expressionism, as the quality of menace suggests. There is something decidedly Kafkaesque about this story of a woman who has apparently liberated herself from her previous life only to find that the past reasserts itself and that instead of escaping from it she remains trapped within it. At first only a few bubbles rise to the surface from her supposedly obliterated memory, but...
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[For Eva Figes, author of Little Eden: A Child at War], the garden of Eden was Cirencester in 1940 where, after escaping first from Berlin and then from the London bombs, she spent an idyllic year at a boarding school run by two eccentric spinster sisters. These enthusiastic and industrious ladies awakened in her an absorbed and eclectic interest in her surroundings and a nascent desire to be a writer. Her book is essentially a tribute to them.
Her own rather hazy memories of the period include the moment when her best friend told her that she could not pray because she was a Jew, the full implications of which she only grasped later, on being sent to see a newsreel film of Belsen. From back numbers of the local paper she pieces together a picture of wartime Cirencester very far removed from those horrors….
Ms Figes provides in addition fascinating glimpses of the history of Cirencester, for centuries a rotten borough…. She deplores the paternalistic hauteur of the local gentry as much as she despairs of the latter-day development of the town, but the picture she paints of it is nevertheless redolent of the magical, silent-movie memories of childhood in a place where her mother's continental method was enough to startle the knitting circle, and where, for a time, she could be unashamedly happy.
"Paradise Renamed," in The Economist, Vol. 267, No. 7033, June 17,...
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Like a primrose which you must hold very near to find a frail, obstinate scent, this little autobiography [Little Eden: A Child at War] repays close reading. Without attention, you might miss its pale tearful charm altogether. After a start of phenomenal confusion, the author reveals that she spent 15 months in Cirencester, evacuated with her family to escape the blitz….
[With the] delicate, gooseflesh misgiving which pervades the prose, the personal narrative has been bulked out by war-time data dug from the local papers. The intrusion is often laughable. War Weapons Week, Knitting for Victory, even Double Summer Time and the Gloucestershire Farmers' Union protest threat—all meander among budding nipples and anguish in the basement lavatory….
Further padding is provided by local history….
True feeling returns in 1941, when Eva became a boarder at Arkenside. Exuding the scent of lime flower and Victorian mildew, this diminutive prep school delighted her…. [The] predictably English prep school squalor did not seem to trouble the fastidious little refugee. Only when her best friend charged her with being a Jew, misery began….
For the Unger parents, totally assimilated, being Jewish was merely the hated reason for exile. They kept it a shameful secret. So that although the grandparents left behind in Berlin, had been "deported," Eva still did not know what that...
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Tragedy in the theatre is the sad story of a central protagonist, who, either deliberately or by accident, offends against the most fundamental laws of his society, those laws which are so basic as to be considered divine.
Eva Figes uses this definition of tragedy in her book Tragedy and Social Evolution, where she takes a new approach to the much-vexed problems of the nature of tragic drama and of the relationship between such cultural phenomena and the society which produced them. Working on the basic assumption that specific historical and social conditions give rise to certain forms of artistic production, Ms. Figes looks at the way in which tragedy, in the past, has functioned as a ritual process through which societies ceremonially reaffirm their apparently universal values. In the times of the Greek tragedians and of Shakespeare, deeply-rooted beliefs about the hierarchy and order of society—for example, the status and role of the king or of woman—had to be upheld in order to prevent the disintegration of the social fabric. (p. 97)
Figes' description of the way in which tragic drama operates is based on the work of social anthropologists' studies of the totemic rituals of primitive tribes. She sees Greek and Shakespearean tragedy as a similar collective celebration of society's beliefs about the relationships between the living and the dead, the king and the...
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Eva Figes demonstrates her intimacy with the dual promise and torment of time on nearly every page of her ambitious and unsettling new novel, "Waking."…
Given the novel's brevity and the unavoidable limitations of its innovative framework, it is amazing that we learn so much about the narrator. Though Miss Figes's prose occasionally sinks into sticky poeticism, her attention to detail never falters. She remembers how a child builds a secret house by drawing the bedclothes over her head and arching her spine….
Even when the heat of a midlife affair dulls the narrator's usual cynicism, her litany of detail lets us see the lurking bitterness that she herself ignores….
The ineluctability of time eventually devastates the narrator. The passing years and the thousands of awakenings to which we are not privy mark her, and she becomes sour. She yearns for the respect and privacy that her family denies her. She rails against the heaviness of pregnancy. She wills her aging body to move. Seconds seemed an eternity to her as a young girl; by her adulthood, years float by without notice.
The novel is not without false notes. When the narrator remarks, "I sleep so badly now," we suspect her of lying. How can we believe that this intensely depressed person has ever slept soundly? In fact, the book's title is a cheat, for Miss Figes has written a novel not about waking as most of us...
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D. M. Thomas
A work of fiction defines a world of its own by excluding almost all of the real world. The writer sets limits to what he will deal with, as a painter decides the size of his canvas. Tolstoy gives us the illusion that the world of "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina" is coextensive with the world we live in; in Jane Austen we are conscious of looking at a cameo, and much of our pleasure arises from our appreciation of her exquisite judgment in staking out the boundaries of her art. What a fictional work leaves out is as important as what it takes in.
In "Waking" Eva Figes has chosen to examine the life of a woman by revealing her thoughts in the quiet time between sleeping and waking, at different stages of her life….
The exclusions imposed by the structure of this novel are formidable. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the author to create any living, interesting characters other than the woman herself. Action, the dramatic interplay of people, their squabbles, loving exchanges, humor, can be conveyed only by memories and reflections…. The exclusions necessary in the approach Miss Figes takes clear the way for the excitement of strict form. But she has narrowed the field more than she need have done. The woman, who is not named, gives no names to anyone in her life either…. I long to be told that her (perhaps understandably) withdrawn husband is called Fred.
The almost inevitable...
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Waking is a life distilled into a series of brief monologues … a kind of seven ages of woman. But the speaker is a woman who sleeps badly and finds relationships both difficult and unrewarding, so perhaps seven ages of loneliness is a more accurate description….
The monologues are written in poetic prose: no plot to speak of, all mood and sensibility, a style Beckett brings off time and again, perhaps because even his most murmuring, far-off voices have a cranky individuality and wit that keep the whole tricky performance healthily objective. Miss Figes, however, is not much interested in wit and there seems little distance between her and her narrator. Instead, the monologues form a kind of rhapsody of the self: the narrator describes herself and her changes in detail—eyes, hair, mouth, coloring, body—and no one else is even given a name. Her primary responses to the world are distaste and, at every stage except the last, resentment.
She is presented as a woman diminished by intimacy, for whom everyone is an intruder….
Her only relief from this evenhanded, relentless narcissism is when the world out there suddenly shifts and seems beautiful: the early light slides across the floor, a curtain moves in the breeze, the birds start up their hesitant dawn chorus. Miss Figes is moved by the world without people and writes of it tenderly, delicately….
She is also strong...
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[Sex and Subterfuge: Women Novelists to 1850] is a book of fashion rather than of substance;… it is difficult to sympathise with its vague pioneering spirit and lack of critical direction. Ms Figes provides a roughly chronological survey of the novel written by and about women during a particularly fertile period of seventy or so years up to 1850, and she begins with a strong assertion: 'If there is such a thing as the classical novel in English literature, and I think there is, then women were responsible for defining and refining it'…. But when she comes to defend this bold thesis the thinness of her research is at once obvious, and her critical framework degenerates into a series of unhelpful and naive remarks. (p. 90)
These are not fresh ideas, and Ms Figes is content to follow them along well-trodden paths. There is no consideration of the many lesser known and forgotten women novelists whose works poured off the presses in the last thirty years of the eighteenth century…. Ms Figes is most assured in dealing with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Her readings of Jane Austen, particularly Mansfield Park, are humourless and overschematised. Some large and potentially interesting statements are made … but, in the absence of a substantial context and rigorous specific analyses, they remain rather stale generalisations. The book in no way fulfils its ambitious claims. (p. 91)
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Light, Eva Figes's new novel, is her best piece of work yet….
The idea behind the book is simple. The beauty is in its leisurely pacing and the harmony of its composition. Everything about it is orderly and reposeful. The author has married her language so closely to her subject as to leave the reader with the feeling that he has been present at the creation of one of the vast shimmering canvases to which Monet dedicated the last part of his life, and that the experience has been a remarkable one. (p. 24)
Miranda Seymour, "Shimmering," in The Spectator, Vol. 251, No. 8098, September 24, 1983, pp. 23-4.∗
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Joyce Carol Oates
Eva Figes's luminous prose poem of a novel, "Light," like her earlier "Waking," is clearly descended from [Virginia] Woolf's great experimental novels. Technique is all or nearly all in this fastidiously wrought narrative of a day in the life of Claude Monet in the summer of 1900. The reader is a witness to a remarkable variety of modulations of light—sunlight—beginning in the darkness preceding dawn and ending in night….
"Light" is a stronger, more vivid and far more interesting work of fiction than "Waking," which presented seven mornings in the life of an extraordinarily self-absorbed woman, whose musings on her experience as daughter, wife, lover, mother and elderly dying woman are resolutely impersonal, as if the species and not an individual were speaking. "Waking" was, in fact, very much about light, sunlight and darkness and a human being's all but unconscious passage through it. (p. 11)
While "Light" does not tell a story in any conventional style, it alludes to dramatic events beyond the immediate frame of the narrative itself. (p. 30)
Monet himself, however, is the novella's center, its focus of consciousness. He moves like a demigod through the human world, not precisely a tyrant but fully in control of his household and his art. Behind the shimmering surface of Monet's Impressionism is a clear, coherent, ambitious stratagem: Waterlilies, pond, bridge, trees, reflections, light...
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[As] regards Monet, I have … just had my eyes opened a bit wider by a little novel, a mere 91-page novel, called Light…. Nothing could be simpler than the form of this book, which begins before dawn on what is to be an idyllic summer's day in 1900, and follows the artist, Claude Monet, through the hours of work, of eating and drinking with his family and guests, and into the evening, the late evening, when the world is once again dark.
There is no plot or story, in fact; one might call this little novel "impressionistic," although it doesn't resemble certain novels that could carry that description once upon a time. Instead, Light is what its title tells us: it represents Monet as a cunning hunter of light itself,… who has made his house and garden into a vast and intricate trap for light, which can be caught, or which he hopes to catch, moment by moment as it changes, from 4:00 a.m. through the blinding noon, and the warm, ever-changing shifting, slanting angles of heat and color through the long, calm day. The discipline of this painter … is offered by the writer as a study in what it means to be such an artist as Monet was. Not the least of its intensely-beautiful power is its calm and clear language, which is used to show us what we have looked at for 80 years when we looked at Monet's paintings. I am sure the author could have done nothing without the paintings themselves to show her what she puts into words,...
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Since writers of fiction are creators themselves one would think that they could easily invent convincing portraits of artists. Yet this is hardly the case. Too frequently the writers, composers and painters depicted in fiction seem oddly removed from their work. Though they may spring to life as people and though their work may take on a certain reality, their actual involvement in the process of creation rarely comes across. (p. 706)
Eva Figes's short, carefully measured novel Light records one day in the life of Claude Monet at his beloved Giverny, and one of its chief virtues is that it makes believable the artist's immersion in his art. Here there is no question of distance; from the beginning of the book the artist and his cause are bound together…. During the course of the book Figes only briefly describes Monet in the actual process of painting. In fact, though his presence is always felt, Monet himself appears only intermittently. Much of the novel focuses on his family and friends, gently exploring their characters and moods and differing responses to their cloistered little world and its strange, revealing, almost oppressive light…. Although Monet is often offstage, Figes so firmly establishes his impressionistic, light-filled world, constantly and inventively noting the effects of light on rooms and objects, on the painter's precious gardens and lily pond, that we become party to his obsession: his subject is...
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[Light] is a likeable small book, but the spirit of [Virginia Woolf's] To The Lighthouse broods over it like a dark cloud, flattening the surfaces. Good heavens, we have the famous tyrannical pater familias, the dinner-table scene (great care taken with the food), the visitors (atheist and village priest), the unspoken passion, and so forth. But we do not have Mrs. Ramsay or anything like the tension of Virginia Woolf's prose, those paragraphs that find their own shape bravely, independently, and loop right into the whole cloth of the narrative. Nor does this story, though it takes place on the eve of the Great War, have the off-stage threat of war—that tragic slash across the canvas of comic village life—that Woolf makes a presence in Between the Acts. True, the French landscape is disturbed by a train, and Octave, the clever writer who has come to lunch, drives an amusing yellow motorcar. But this is too miniature, too softly lit. In an earlier work, Waking,… Figes has written about a woman waking up from youth to age—her Jacob's Room. She is like a copyist with her easel set up in the museum, and the work is remarkable in just that way. (pp. ix, xii)
Maureen Howard, in a review of "Light," in The Yale Review, Vol. 73, No. 2, January, 1984, pp. ix, xii.
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