Eva Figes Essay - Critical Essays

Figes, Eva


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.)

Kenneth Allsop

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.∗

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.∗

Robert Nye

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.

Kenneth Graham

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...

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Jonathan Raban

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...

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Kathy Mulherin

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...

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Edwin Morgan

[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...

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Mary Borg

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...

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Paddy Kitchen

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,...

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Peter Ackroyd

[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...

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Timothy Mo

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...

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Valentine Cunningham

[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...

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Margaret Cole

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...

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Paddy Kitchen

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,...

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Peter Ackroyd

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...

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Peter Lewis

[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...

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The Economist

[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...

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Gerda Cohen

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...

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Louise Barnden

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...

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Susan Bolotin

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….


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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...

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A. Alvarez

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...

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Kathryn Sutherland

[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...

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Miranda Seymour

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...

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Jascha Kessler

[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...

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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...

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Maureen Howard

[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...

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