Eva Figes A. Alvarez - Essay

A. Alvarez

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 of rhapsody of the self: the narrator describes herself and her changes in detail—eyes, hair, mouth, coloring, body—and no one else is even given a name. Her primary responses to the world are distaste and, at every stage except the last, resentment.

She is presented as a woman diminished by intimacy, for whom everyone is an intruder….

Her only relief from this evenhanded, relentless narcissism is when the world out there suddenly shifts and seems beautiful: the early light slides across the floor, a curtain moves in the breeze, the birds start up their hesitant dawn chorus. Miss Figes is moved by the world without people and writes of it tenderly, delicately….

She is also strong on her narrator's manifold resentments: her sullen husband, the blind labor of motherhood, her own adolescent contempt for her parents' flabby bodies, her adolescent son's equal contempt for hers.

But there are moments—particularly in the opening monologues—when both her rhapsodies and her rage run on too slackly for a book so condensed and so apparently controlled…. If Miss Figes had been as ruthless with her adjectives and adverbs as her narrator is with her family, Waking would have been even shorter than it already is, but fiercer and more pure. (p. 23)

A. Alvarez, "Flushed with Ideas," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXIX, No. 8, May 13, 1982, pp. 22-3.∗