Mojtabai, A(nn) G(race) (Vol. 29)
A(nn) G(race) Mojtabai 1938–
Mojtabai's two most critically successful novels, Mundome (1974) and Autumn (1982), are narratives which take place almost completely within the mind of a character. They reflect her attempt to deal with "a state of mind, a voice" rather than with action or plot. Mundome, about a man caring for his mentally disturbed sister and worrying about his loss of sanity, was especially well received by critics. Margaret Atwood called it "a gem of a book: small, brilliant, cut with lapidary precision, and static. It is a novel in which little happens but much is said, and it is said remarkably well." Autumn was uniformly praised for its unsentimental treatment of a man growing old after the loss of his wife.
Mojtabai's other two novels have more conventional plots. The 400 Eels of Sigmund Freud (1976) is the story of a group of high school students confined to a mansion as part of a scientific experiment. A Stopping Place (1979), set in Pakistan where Mojtabai has lived, is both a story of foreign intrigue and also of the cultural differences between East and West. Her style, which some critics have described as pure, simple, and clear, and others as bleak, bloodless, and stark, is perhaps not so well suited to these more traditional novels and they have received mixed reviews.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 9, 15 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
["Autumn"] speaks with force and clarity to the [unease of loneliness]…. A short, quiet-voiced tale, it describes a few days in the life of a recently widowed 66-year-old accountant named Will Ross—a man under pressure to move out of the Maine seacoast cottage he and his wife had imagined, during 20 years of summer vacations, as their probable retirement home. The key to the book's value lies in its alertness to the varieties of feeling awakened in those newly alone.
At one moment—during an outbreak of intense sexual heat—Mrs. Mojtabai's widowed hero has a sudden, fresh comprehension of what it means to be utterly free and experiences aloneness as thrilling independence. At other moments, talking aloud to his departed mate in her garden shed or in the kitchen, or asking if by chance she heard the weather on television, Ross is hazy about where his mind stops and his wife's begins, incapable of grasping that he is actually by himself. The novelist moves with the feeling, wherever it leads, stands inside it catching its weather, making one sense the currents, the back eddies of loneliness. It seemed to me at times, reading "Autumn," that no one I had previously read had been as patient or keen or unsentimental as Mrs. Mojtabai about the matter of loss.The pressures endured by the widower in this book are perfectly ordinary. Ross has a married son in his mid-30's who lives in Texas, believes that his father can't possibly survive a winter by himself on the coast of Maine and calls up every Sunday after the rate change to hound the old man out of his house. In addition, there is an amorous widow who's attracted to Ross, believes that he will shortly forget his wife as she has forgotten her dead husband and presses Ross to skip south with her to Florida sun and fun.
Ross handles these pressures well, in my view. He is rude to his son and daughter-in-law, mocking, for instance, their self-congratulating decision against having children...
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[Autumn is] a remarkable novel: brief, luminous, intense, unexpectedly humorous. Without a trace of sentimentality, employing no false epiphanies, [Mojtabai] moves Will from a state of despair to an acceptance, even if a limited one, of his lot. With admirable restraint, she leaves him at the end suspended between the earth he is not ready to depart and the heaven that is his ultimate destination; when she brings a teenaged boy into his little world, it is not to set up a facile reconciliation between Youth and Age, but to allow Will to recapture, if only for a moment, his lost sense of wonder. Autumn is a novel of rare subtlety and psychological depth.
It is also an exceptional depiction of old age, a subject only rarely touched upon in American fiction. Though the novel contains only a few events—a visit to the doctor, an encounter with a lonely widow, a tense telephone conversation with Will's grown son, a storm, the discovery of the teenaged boy in Will's son's old treehouse—it ranges across a wide variety of experiences and emotions that old people encounter….
[Mojtabai] manages to capture the patronizing rhetoric with which we attempt to pacify the "elderly" on the one hand and, on the other, Will's fierce, proud rejection of it. He is a man of limited education and horizons, but he is plenty smart enough to understand that society is trying to shunt him off in a corner. In the world of the...
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Autumn is essentially an interior monologue—Ross's impressions recorded as they are felt over the course of several days. On occasion Ross seems poised to become too curmudgeonly dear. However, Mojtabai never allows him to become cute; this slightly cantankerous side helps to keep self-pity at bay.
As Ross goes through the motions of the day-to-day, his responses are often conditioned by a survivor's guilt—worry that he will forget what his wife looked like. His recessiveness is challenged: by his doctor in Bangor who tells him he ought to get out more; by a neighborly widow who takes him to bed; and by the appearance of a young drifter who falls asleep in the tree house that Ross built long ago. The presence of the youth revitalizes him in a way that the diversions offered by the forthright widow cannot. Watching the sleeping form on the floor of the tree house, he remembers himself at that age.
In the end, Ross finds himself, both literally and figuratively, up a tree. Marvelling at the light of an overcast sky, he remarks: "I see with uncommon keenness, like you do when you're looking over a place you haven't really noticed in some time, a place so familiar it's grown blurred. It's the light." The same holds true for this book. The terrain may be familiar but the voice has a freshness and resonance. Ross's ruminations on age and mortality cast their own gentle light.
John Lownsbrough, "The Trials of Surviving," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1982 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 95, No. 36, September 6, 1982, p. 50.
In Autumn, Will Ross tells his own story in the first-person ramble of a widower making up for lost words…. He wants, without wholly understanding why, to stay where he and his dead wife Helen always planned to live. His decision is vindicated in the end. Light sharpens, time quickens. "I'm here," he thinks….
What restores his feeling of belonging in the world is not an act of imagination or memory but an intuitive response to what destiny offers. After a storm at sea, he finds a runaway boy asleep in the tree house on his property. Will allows him to shelter there, watches over him, and then bids him set off before Will must turn him in to authorities like the telephone company repairman who keeps trying to tell Will what to do. His farewell to the boy is a gesture he couldn't perform when his wife died, and perhaps didn't recognize in his own father's dying salute. Will rejoins the living by accepting that life consists of separate journeys and parallel freedoms.
The narrative mode is the story: the old man shakily confirms his existence by speaking his thoughts, registering his sensations, filling the vacancy in his life by continual observation. He talks "to say it all, all the never-saids, [I] wanted to make up for all the blank times. First time in my life I ever was a talker, when it was no use." His words couldn't reach his comatose wife on her deathbed, or his son Davey with whom he...
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Autumn is a shy novel, its brevity a sign that it does not wish to call itself too insistently to our attention. Its shortness is also an indication of Miss Mojtabai's style—the use of suggestion to create overtones, things "divined by the ear but not heard by it": Willa Cather's novel démeublé. Of all styles open to the writer, it is the riskiest to use. To heighten our sense of the inexplicable but abiding mystery and charm of the real by suggestion alone remains the most arduous style to achieve. I cannot say that Miss Mojtabai has been altogether successful, but I am willing to applaud the risks she has taken and to commend her work.
One of her most tantalizing risks is the use...
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