Penelope Mortimer Essay - Critical Essays

Mortimer, Penelope

Mortimer, Penelope 1918–

Ms Mortimer, an English novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, and critic, is best known for her novel The Pumpkin Eater. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60.)

A distinctive image which recurs in Mrs. Mortimer's novels is the mirror into which you look, fearfully, to find some confirmation of your own identity—and there is none. The Pumpkin Eater might be described as a novel about a woman who has clung so long to her illusion of identity (by endless childbearing and by sheltering in strong, protective male arms) that the glimpse of herself, alone, afraid, and free, causes a breakdown. It remains Mrs. Mortimer's best book.

Some men—since many of them will no doubt find [My Friend Says It's Bullet-Proof] very much "a woman's book" too—might dismiss as characteristic feminine masochism, or even vanity, the way in which, once again, her heroine has this desperate need to be "corroborated" by the men in her life, to face the painful and frightening knowledge that she is alone, and to have the courage and generosity to accept reality, however much it hurts….

My Friend Says It's Bullet-Proof is, as we now expect from Mrs. Mortimer, brilliantly planned, taut, intelligent, unobtrusively skilful in tangling and disentangling the past and present crises in her characters' lives. Muriel's confrontation, first with the illusory horrors of her blind father's existence, and then with the fact that her own damaged life has similarly distorted the outside world, is beautifully patterned. There are some waspish little comic scenes—though perhaps American PR and energetic matrons are too crude a target for Mrs. Mortimer's talent—and the despair behind some of the snatches of dialogue (non-communication, barriers impossible to bridge) sketches in some of the minor characters with fine melancholy wit.

"She Alone," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1967; reproduced by permission), October 12, 1967, p. 953.

There is still a fashion among lady writers for being paranoia strip tease babies, blackmailing the sensitive reader with titillating ennui and fashionable anxiety…. Long Distance, as a connoisseur of novel titles might suspect, is set in a place and in a mood which will be familiar to those accustomed to the nouveau Italian cinema: a well-appointed mansion which is both grandiose and eerie, a heroine who does not know whether she is coming or going but remains solemn on all occasions, and absolutely no plot at all.

A sensitive and mysterious "I" inhabits this book with a proprietorial air which events do not actually justify, and it, or she, or what I will call from now on Miss X, is escaping from an equally mysterious and oppressive "you." Without the benefit of first-name terms, it becomes all too easy to get the characters completely confused and to leave the novel feeling that you have been banging on closed doors in vain. This, of course, may well be the point. Long Distance is couched relentlessly in the present tense, and becomes an intelligent woman's guide to phenomenological method, and it is written in what in more enlightened times was known as a 'feminine style.' Miss X is tremulous with self-conscious reactions, and Miss Mortimer allows her heroine to spread her sensations somewhat thinly in all directions at once. It is not as if she were the only nut on the beach; somewhere a play is being performed which Miss X finds melancholy, Miss X now has children and plays the part of a disturbed and vulnerable little goose so dear to the hearts of modern novelists, Miss X has an affair with someone or something, and Miss X ends up by transcribing some dubious tapes. The whole business is so resolutely mysterious that there must be an allegory somewhere.

But I cannot believe in mystery which is so easily created: a positive fog of meaning and intention is imposed upon the narrative from the beginning…. Is the mansion a mental hospital? Are the characters real? Are they figments of a past life? Is Miss X here or there? Am I still reading this book or have I fallen asleep? None of these questions is satisfactorily answered. (pp. 710-11)

[In] Long Distance … there is something precious about the endless self-reflection and self-analysis which make up the soft belly of the book. This is not to say that the book is altogether too conventional to be rewarding: Miss Mortimer's prose has a plangency and a sonority which occasionally hit the high note of an authentic Anglo-Saxon misery: "The tea, the biscuits, the joint, the pudding, the sleep." This list is an appropriate litany for the little world of the selfhood, but programme music is not enough. I found the manner of the book too easily achieved to be valuable. (p. 711)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), June 8, 1974.

There is no anchor of reality [in Long Distance]. The landscapes are created by the self, and are liable to sudden, treacherous change. The reader, swung from memory to mirage to urgent reporting, must make up his or her mind how the pieces are meant to be put together, and what they ultimately mean.

The trouble … lies in the mishandling of fantasy…. A fantastic landscape needs to be as convincing as a recognisable, realistic one. (pp. 808-09)

[What] does stand out is the difference in the writing between the 'real' scenes (when magically transported, for instance, to a dirty house with plates to be washed up and a horde of demanding children to be cared for) and the fantastic ones. In the former, all Ms Mortimer's talent for detail and desperation is in evidence. In the latter … she lacks conviction: she is not sufficiently interested in fairy tales herself to make a fairy tale interesting. (p. 809)

Emma Tennant, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Emma Tennant), June 20, 1974.

["Long Distance"] is an ambitious modern novel in that there is not much going on in it, and such action as there is has been nicely obscured beneath a very slick surface. Roughly: a woman in her middle years enters some sort of institution…. The woman narrates and she is anonymous too. In the dim mood of the story one picks out Kafka, then something more stagy and clinical, perhaps Pinter, until at last one reaches the happy lulled state known as indifference.

Penelope Mortimer has really not done a great deal to make it matter….

"Long Distance" [is] … not only bizarre but also impossible…. But a mode of allegory that is at once facile and opaque seems to be a great temptation in our time, and Miss Mortimer, a realistic writer of modest gifts, has yielded to its thrall….

At her best, Miss Mortimer recalls another New Yorker, Penelope (Gilliatt), and her small truthful observations are worth a thousand planted allegorical ones. Her commonplace assets are a decorous style, a good ear for talk and an approach to every crisis—consciously brave, tender, and blessed with a native toughness—which it would be hard to find unsympathetic. Correspondingly, she has the drawbacks of a lyrically fluent "femininity." The quotation marks are necessary: this is indeed the hothouse [of feminine] sensibility….

But in any event it is not the author who needs scolding; she was simply too weak to ignore trendy bad habits; no, "Kafkaesque" itself is to blame, a poor, arch and silly thing, most unworthy of its master. Vague allegory of this order should be given a decent burial. One would dub it a two-legged monster, undecided between realism and fantasy, except that it has a third limb to confound reality and fantasy, and so it stands neatly as any tripod, ready for action and firmly supporting nothing in particular. (p. 3)

David Bromwich, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 22, 1974.

Long Distance is an original, distinguished, often puzzling novel. Unwittingly I was absorbed into it as surely as I remember being into Franz Kafka's The Trial and The Castle, and for the same reasons. My whole attention was captured by its first paragraph, and I was engrossed by its complex ambiguities, wandering without will through the endless fictional maze, watching every signpost for clues. Ultimately the novel goes nowhere, but instead settles its heroine into her endless future: "I live at a long distance from everything I knew, seeing it clearly." And throughout the long-distance journey to nowhere I was impressed by Mortimer's subtle, inventive mind and her lucid prose; impressed, captivated, entertained in the classic sense of being "held," bound, yes enthralled.

If you know The Pumpkin Eater (1963) or some of her later fiction like My Friend Says it's Bulletproof (1967) you will remember Penelope Mortimer's interest in time and timelessness, in the heights (and depths) of ordinary household maternal and sexual experience…. Both novels are short and pointed; both achieve extraordinary density for their length because the prose is terse, direct and because of her use of auxiliary devices to give the narrative depth—journals, dreams, psychiatric interviews. They have a rich, split-level texture; in Mortimer's fictional houses there are many rooms, vertically arranged and furnished with the precisely placed, elegant furniture of her style.

To me Long Distance is the culmination of her eight books or at least as many of them as I have read. I have rarely read a more intriguing novel. It is a great puzzle, a Chinese box of a story inhabited by an unnamed woman. Where is she? Far from us, from anyone she has ever known (in one sense), unvisited, in a great white mansion. In a mental institution …? Perhaps….

In the White House itself? Perhaps….

The level I incline to is eschatological. The theological word itself parallels the title of the novel, deriving from the Greek eschatos, ex, furthest out. The mansion is the house of death, after death, located in heaven or hell, it makes no difference, clearly there is no distinction made here. (p. 23)

Much … happens, or seems to happen, too full, too significant in detail and symbol to spoil by exploring completely. But the addition of it all, in mood and tone and meaning, persuades me that we are in a House of the Dead in which she yearns for direct physical contact but is allowed only sterile, interminable reruns. At the end of the novel, the first stage of her stay being over, her immortality begins. She is resigned to her room ("where I hope to live forever") and to the mindless continuity of eternity: "I have accepted the fact that I'm simple and live through old songs … I now believe the purpose of this place is to repeat experience until it is remembered." Life after death, in dreams, in memory, is destined to be relived, at a long distance from itself, in a house with a reflecting pool by a woman who has lived a woman's life, and in eternity still does. What a marvelous book! Am I entirely right in this reading of its locus? Perhaps. (p. 24)

Doris Grumbach, "Hail to a Distinguished Novel," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 28, 1974, pp. 23-4.

Of England's practicing long-distance novelists—those of middle years who have written ten books or so—few are as intelligent as Penelope Mortimer…. For Mortimer the construction of an intricate metaphor may become so absorbing that such joy as her fable affords is reduced to symbol hunting, the identification of an allegory. (pp. 101-02)

Peter S. Prescott, "Mates and Inmates," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), September 30, 1974, pp. 101-02.

A woman, who is never named [in Long Distance] arrives at a kind of rest home or therapeutic community—never defined—isolated on a large estate, somewhere, some time not in the past, separated from someone she has either known or longed for. She meets the other inmates, notably a man with the odd name of Gondzik, who becomes her lover, as he may have been in another time; he also becomes a tyrant, a bully, an advisor, a lover of other women. All along, it is at length revealed, he has been a spy for the ever-looming Administration. If he is all men, then the anonymous narrator is all women, the Administration is society, and Basil Gondzik's surname may be taken as a way of saying that life, love, and what-all have Gone Sick.

One might also suggest, more reluctantly, that the novel itself, in this most polished and serious manifestation, has lost something of its rude vigor, confined not to an oppressive country estate that mirrors the unsatisfactory world, but to the author's comments on reality. A novel must be reality….

In Long Distance,… Miss Mortimer has made a valiant attempt to find a new way of commenting in a general sense on the very specific evolution of a woman. The narration seems to be very subjective; the source of the incidents matters only and perhaps not at all to the author (depending on the length of her distance from them)….

Long Distance is an honest book, one that shows an intent familiarity not only with psychoanalysis and Watergate but with the private struggle for self. One cannot help but wonder if the book is an unusual form of autobiography, a journal of a mind's struggle to keep itself together through all the problems of womanhood. It is knotty with insights: we must, for one, repeat experience until it is remembered. If we are honest, we trap ourselves; but if we accept our prison it proves to have more doors and more possibilities of decor than we had thought. A woman who has raised six children and written nine books may feel the most important things about herself must be said indirectly; but discretion stifles the demons of art. Ironically, more people would be drawn to this book if it were not so diligently written.

Mary Richie, "Dial 'N' for Novel," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 6, 1974, p. 3.