Yglesias, Helen (Vol. 22)
Helen Yglesias 1915–
American novelist and nonfiction writer.
Yglesias began writing fiction at age 54 after giving up her job as literary editor for The Nation. Critics praise her skill in depicting the interaction of individuals and her sensitive rendering of human emotions.
(See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40.)
It's easy to say "It's never too late." But Helen Yglesias not only said it, she also proved it by sitting down at the age of 54 and writing the novel "How She Died," which she had been promising herself she would write ever since she was an adolescent. Moreover, in her third book and first work of nonfiction ["Starting: Early, Anew, Over, and Late"] she goes several steps further. She tries to figure out what made it so difficult for her to do what she had always wanted to do. And she tries to wrest from her difficulties universal meaning….
She would first write a fragment of an autobiography….
In the telling of this story, she would discover many of the obstacles that stand in the way of anyone's self-fulfillment—such obstacles as parental disapproval, the pressures of having to earn a living or raise a family, the handicap of being a woman (or a man) in a semipatriarchal society, the mediation of natural catastrophe. Having discovered all this and told her story, she would then turn to the experiences of others … and produce out of them an anthology of self-definition, an inspirational guide to realizing one's dreams.
It is a good idea, and to a degree it is well executed. The "Autobiographical Fragment" is superb. Without a jot of self-pity and without putting the blame on anyone outside of herself, Mrs. Yglesias manages to draw an evocative picture of the self, first retreating in the...
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Rather than a collection of stories about late starters, ["Starting: Early, Anew, Over, and Late"] is an assemblage of oral histories based on a self-evident premise, that "there are as many different aspects to starting as there are manifestations of being." This obviously being so, the book nonetheless lacks a clear thesis, because everyone who manages to stay alive for any length of time starts something, late or early, or starts again in midlife or later. There are, of course, some who never start at all, who drift through life without achieving what is now fatuously called "self-realization"—the expression, through a choice made sometime in life, of the inner self. But they are the only exceptions to the all-inclusive category of starters described here.
Though the whole is not clearly defined, some of the parts make very good reading, particularly Mrs. Yglesias' autobiographical fragments….
[The book is] a curious mélange of unfocused purpose, well-written and intrinsically interesting autobiographies cum comment.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the book is the portrait that emerges of the author of "How She Died" and "Family Feeling," Helen Yglesias: a good listener with an understanding ear and a compassionate intelligence toward her subjects.
Doris Grumbach, "New Beginnings," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The...
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Helen Yglesias waited until the age of 54 to make a start on the career she had always wanted for herself…. In the autobiographical essay which opens Starting … she recalls this moment in her life: "I wanted to be on my way as a storyteller. Even though it was very late, I wanted to make a start on what I had always wanted to do."
She proves herself as that storyteller in Family Feeling, her second novel, and now [in Starting] as the voice which organizes and relates the tales of other real people who, like herself, are articulate on the subject of starting—"early, anew, over, and late," as the book's subtitle describes Yglesias's quest….
The book's strength lies in Yglesias's ability to tell stories. Its weakness derives from her insistence, at the beginning and end of the individual vignettes, that the stories are closely related. She makes general statements about the lives of women and men in our society that have become commonplaces. "Most women," she writes, "endure a series of clashing, parallel lives which interrupt, attack, and sometimes demolish one another." And "Whatever the difficulties embedded in the hard ground of becoming one's own man, it doesn't usually necessitate remaking a core of being."…
[Still] anyone dreaming of beginning a new life will take courage from the stories in this book. Anyone looking back on an earlier decision to start anew will...
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["Sweetsir"] is a stirring novel about a woman who, in self-defense, murders her husband…. In arresting and sensitive detail Yglesias tells Sally's story, from her working-class childhood and her first marriage at 16, all the way through the conclusion of her trial. Yglesias explores Sally's and Sweets's marriage, which begins with passion and camaraderie—emotional, philosophical and sexual—and disintegrates in turbulence and violence. Every character, every line rings true. This is an altogether stunning novel….
"Fiction: 'Sweetsir'," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the March 6, 1981, issue of Publishers Weekly by permission, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1981 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 219, No. 10, March 6, 1981, p. 88.
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Sally Sweetsir, the extremely likable heroine of this instructive novel [Sweetsir], is a survivor. Victimized by most of the everyday ills of society—the deadening poverty of the working class, a meaningless and humiliating education, the brutality of unimaginative men—she nevertheless manages to preserve an impressive self-possession. She also murders her husband.
Though bizarre in summary, Sally's story becomes an utterly plausible one, and in exploring its snarled threads Yglesias exposes the kind of systematic degradation that drives ordinary people to violence….
Clearly a feminist tale, in that its protagonist's downfall lies in her relationship with men, Sweetsir avoids slipping into tracthood. The book's concerns are always for the specific and the personal, which are conveyed with a wonderfully gritty dialogue and the humor of self-deprecation.
Elizabeth Duvall, "Short Reviews: 'Sweetsir'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1981, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 247, No. 5, May, 1981, p. 83.
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A. V. Kish
Obviously there was intentional irony in the author's choice of a title for [Sweetsir], for Morgan Beauchamp Sweetsir is anything but the gentleman his name implies. Instead, he is a heavy drinking, tattooed, macho-type with a penchant for kinky sex. His fatal stabbing by his wife in the very first chapter becomes more and more justifiable as the novel flashes back to bring the reader up to the killing and beyond to the trial of Sally Sweetsir….
The novel is not just another oh-so-typical condemnation of wife abuse. It questions the peculiar mentality of those women whose stubborn devotion to romantic fantasies makes them vulnerable to such abuse. In spite of her lawyer's attempts to link her to every woman with a hint of a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God theory, Sally Sweetsir is hardly the heroine with whom any woman would or should identify.
Long before their marriage, Sally has been warned again and again about Sweets' abusiveness. Unlike the romance-saturated Emma Bovary, Sally's native intelligence plus a certain experience-bred toughness in her character make it seem incomprehensible that she would still look for "that glorious whole man she knew [was] hidden behind his most shattering rages," that she would insist that "the important thing was to keep love from spoiling."
If this were a first novel, we might view it as promising but lacking in depth. However, Ms. Yglesias … has...
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Helen Yglesias is a talented writer. Her prose is alive and buoyant; her language both yields and demands, forming by its deceptive ease a shape that holds the reader's inner eye. Yet Sweetsir is not compelling; it seems uprooted and lacking in context. It feels as though it is floating in literary space. Panels of prose are simply laid out side by side—The Early Life of Sally Stark, The Life of Sally and Sweets, The Death of Sweets, The Trial of Sally Sweetsir—each panel given equal weight as though, equally and together, the curiously stitched sections will tell the story—and indeed, they do tell a story, but not the story.
The metaphoric subject of this book is the psychic history of two human beings who come together, thrash wildly about in an attempt to reduce their mutual isolation, fail miserably and are punished brutally for their failure. That history—the benumbed inner life of these two—is the novel's story, the one that should have been mined richly and repetitively, stubbornly, obsessively. We should feel, with a power that accumulates across 300 pages, the rhythm of doomed inarticulateness into which Sweets's death, when it comes, should be laden with the fearfulness of the inevitable. It is that fearfulness—achieved not through the recital of event but the creation of texture—that is unaccountably missing from Sweetsir. Yglesias's intelligence provides sophisticated insights that...
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