Introduction

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.)