Helen Yglesias Yglesias, Helen (Vol. 7) - Essay

Yglesias, Helen (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yglesias, Helen 1915–

Helen Yglesias is an American novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40.)

How She Died assails away like mad, understating nothing in its treatment of those two towering fears of twentieth-century man: death by cancer and death by politics.

Mary Moody Schwartz, young, politically active, daughter of Isabelle Vance Moody whose imprisonment for spying made her a cause célèbre in the 1930s, and wife to the cowardly and faithless Matt, is dying of cancer. As if that doesn't seem enough to be going on with, she very soon begins to exhibit schizoid tendencies—at about the same time, in fact, that her husband begins an affair with her best friend, Jean. Mary is allowed a little of the narrative, but as soon as her distraction begins to turn to destruction, Jean takes over, dividing her attention—and of course ours—between the slow process of her friend's death and her own troubled relationships with her three (understandably) neurotic children, her estranged husband, Mary's doctor, and the fickle Matt.

Almost all Mary's friends are members of a committee originally formed to agitate for her mother's release…. The committee members … serve as convenient vehicles for those stunning insights into human nature which Helen Yglesias has been saving for us. They interrogate themselves and each other, search their respective souls, bear up, crack under stress and reveal parts (often private) of themselves formerly unguessed at, with all the fervour of masochists at confession. As we leave the moribund Mary with queue upon queue of dour, radical pilgrims filing past her hospital bed, we can only hope that she will find better company where she's going than she endured while she was here. (p. 85)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 26, 1973.

[How She Died] is a profound, painful, moving and superbly written novel. Rarely, in my experience, does a writer expose the nerve-endings of people, probe their interpersonal relationships and isolate the tensions operating upon them with such simplicity and directness. I am tempted to suggest that Mrs Yglesias uses a nonselective technique, but this might be misunderstood. Of course, she selects and governs her material. But the book is narrated in the first person and embraces all the minutiae of that individual's life and life-style, so the effect is of living and breathing with that person. One relates entirely with things in their own proportion….

It is a dense novel, packed with people, events and much hard-hitting examination of the position of women in the fairly well-heeled urban society. Jean finds herself used and abused—by Matt, by Bob, by her ex-husband, by her own kids. Until, of course, she must make up her own mind, face certain facts about herself. The book can be read on several levels: as a bleeding chunk of life; as an affecting study of how an individual faces death; as an illustration of the way in which the best wills in the world can make an unutterable mess of things.

There are some memorable individual scenes, some brilliant evocation of time and place (New York under snow, a visit to a prison-like mental hospital where Mary is kept for a while); characters live vividly on the page and in the memory—doctors, workmates, bosses and—clever touch—the unseen Quaker girl that Jean's ex-husband plans to marry: never met but whose presence is detectable. The writing is excellent, the use of imagery deft and understated. (p. 104)

Roger Baker, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Roger Baker 1973; reprinted with permission), May, 1973.

To my mind, ["Family Feeling"] is an example of one kind of first-rate fiction: the reification and artful shaping of the obvious and overlooked. For in all her incarnations—school-girl daughter, dance-instructor, sister, political radical, wife, divorcée, magazine editor, mother, aspiring intellectual, grandmother, widow, and finally novelist—Anne Goddard is defined and self-defined against the matrix of blood and other kin, exists chiefly as a member of the family, and this, I venture, however much we may sometimes war with the process, is one of the profounder ways in which we see ourselves….

Sometimes [the story] comes at you in the third person, sometimes in Anne's own voice, almost always in the historical present, and in that series of flashbacks and flash-forwards which seem to defy ordinary notions of real or narrative time. Yet the book is not "experimental" (a despairing catchword, nowadays, for lack of craft or lack of substance), since the coexistence of past, present and future in the inside of our skulls is yet another truism, one which mysticism on the one hand and physics on the other have lately been helping to articulate. Her seeming arbitrariness is Helen Yglesias's art. She commands, as well, a style of deceptive simplicity, a language pared of all frills and distractions, and as fine an ear for the speech rhythms of her scores of complex characters as I've lately encountered. (p. 6)

Ivan Gold, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 1, 1976.

The puzzle of this book [Family Feeling] so rich in detail—its flaw if you will—is that much of it is unmoving. The living and dying are distant, uninvolving. Anne is consistently uncertain about the inner workings of the people among whom she moves, and we suffer a similar journey among the shadows.

Perhaps that is what Yglesias is striving for. Her characters are cameos who remain strangers to her as well; it is a device that can become a stylistic tour de force; but here it does not. There is no plot in the classic sense. There are a series of nonsequential beginnings, middles, and ends, but devoid of the connective tissue so vital to this kind of emotional exploration.

Jewish language, culture, immigrant experience, and first-generation travail dominate the work, inevitably forcing it into the "Jewish novel" genre. But even among the Bellow-Malamud-Roth superstars of contemporary American (Jewish) novelists, the Jewish experience is only a springboard to more universal themes. They endow the particular with catholic significance. I think Yglesias's inability to do this stems from her never being able to get away from her personae. She seems so much of the time self-conscious, as though less is invention than she would like us to believe.

Irma P. Feldman, "Is Guilt Enough?" in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), March 15, 1976, p. 47.

If Mama Goddard's history seems stilted to her daughter, the novel which results from Anne's gaze at her second-generation Jewish immigrant past [Family Feeling] can only be described as stunning. Yglesias creates her family of Goddards, Mama and Papa and seven brothers and sisters, with intricacy and care, as if she were placing jewels in a necklace or planning a city park….

Family Feeling is convincing evidence that neither the novel nor the family is dead…. [The] family sampler is transformed into an American landscape. (p. 536)

The apparent contradictions in Anne's life, between her Bronx childhood and her Upper East Side luxurious middle age, between her Jewish heritage and the WASP landscape gardener whom she adopts as her grandfather, between her young womanhood as a Communist demonstrator and her constant affection for her corporate executive brother, all find resolution in Helen Yglesias's choice of title. "Family feeling" yokes the two elements of a contemporary paradox: family negates feeling at the same time that feeling creates family. [The brother] comments shrewdly on the way the Chinese use extended families to run their factories—"a beautiful idea, but it can't work." It can't work because, for [him], family ties only serve to build spheres of influence. Anne herself, who labors throughout the novel to reinforce these ties, ends by rejecting most of them. She lives within her own paradox—that "feeling" is simply a metaphor for adopting and embracing and recognizing those forces which connect every New Yorker with Central Park and every American with her past. (p. 538)

Marjorie Pryse, "'The Real American Thing'," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 1, 1976, pp. 536, 538.

Helen Yglesias writes narrative as if she had been doing it well all her life…. Her subject [in Family Feeling] is the growth and dispersal of seven children born in Brooklyn of poor immigrant Jewish parents…. Now much of this is familiar material, especially the all-forgiving mama and the difficult papa, a born loser; and its development follows a well-known course. The aggressive older brother, Barry, makes good, and gradually—it could only happen in America—everyone's rags are exchanged for relative riches. Yglesias masters this story by her relentless, almost Jamesian concentration on the issue of her title: the continuing power of family feeling to unite and divide, aggravate and bless, its members. The novel lucidly shows how family feeling disintegrates and then magically—or terribly?—renews itself. (pp. 270-71)

Dean Flower, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Summer, 1976.