The Woman Who Lived in a Prologue
Now, when so many women’s novels about women follow a predictable pattern—proper marriage and children, disenchantment, a raised consciousness, departure from home, discovery of a new self—Nina Schneider’s The Woman Who Lived in a Prologue has significant and refreshing differences. To a point she follows the formula: there is the marriage, there are the children, there is disenchantment. Here the similarity stops. One difference is that Ariadne, the narrator and protagonist, remains wife and devoted mother. The real distinction, however, is that Ariadne’s quest is not for liberation from what she has experienced in her roles as daughter, wife, mother, lover, but for an understanding of that life, with its vicissitudes, its moments of glory, its hours of pain, its days of humdrum activity.
In the course of the novel, this central character quotes from Virginia Woolf certain lines that one might imagine challenged Schneider to create this compelling book: “A painstaking woman who wishes to treat life as she finds it, and to give voice to some of the perplexities of her sex, in plain English, has no chance at all.” Ariadne’s is a story, painstakingly told, of life as she has found it, and her perplexities are its substance. If many of these perplexities remain unresolved or ambiguously resolved, this is not for lack of effort on her part: it is expressly to assess her life, to understand its winding course, to seek order in its seeming chaos, that she writes.
Her impulse to write her story dates back, as she recalls, to her twenty-ninth year, when by chance she found in a New York Times Book Review these words: “In each of us there exists one novel.” An efficient housewife, a notable hostess, and four times a mother then, Ariadne looked into herself and, ironically, found nothing for a book: “A novel in me? There wasn’t enough for a Mother’s Day postcard.” This is ironic since literature—as will be shown later—gives her, life-long, her main points of reference for her own experience. As her life has progressed and become more complex, she has made several false starts on her book; but only in her seventies, the present time of the novel, is she able to devote herself to the task, free now of the old demands and obligations.
When she begins this search for herself, Ariadne ponders:My problem is, I’ve been pottering about with my egg basket for so many years that I have a suspicion I have become the actions I’ve scratched out. Chicken! And what does an old hen, one that’s done with laying, have to talk about except eggs lost in cabbage patches, chicks, mash, and the pecking order?
Her urgency, however, is to discover the answer to “Where do I begin?” so she can “chart my existence from then.” Nor is she ready to accept what the actuarial charts tell her; however old, she yet wakes “every morning to the sensation that my real life is waiting, immanent.”
Her aim is to find out who she is, whether there is order to be found in her personal chaos, what her relations really have been with the people in her life, where and why she has failed to connect, what if any have been her successes. The result is a portrait of a fully credible woman who, from the perspective of wisdom earned through her vicissitudes, discerns her past as she could not while immersed in its events.
From her account of her earlier years, Ariadne’s life on the surface has been conventional and calm, troubled only by common hardships and sorrows: the struggle of a young couple through the Depression, the deaths of a war hero son, her parents and other relatives, the disappearance of her eldest child, Absalom. Otherwise, most people’s perception of her would be that of a woman well married, a marvelously efficient Jewish housewife, mother and helpmate. By contrast, the character whom the reader comes to know has suffered through the abortion of her first baby at her unemployed husband Adam’s insistence; an immediate second pregnancy and Adam’s subsequent disaffection; a total loss of self-esteem; a tormenting although exhilarating love affair with Paul, an artist and Lothario, that ends with another pregnancy, a second abortion and the consequent loss of her dear friend Dr. Starobin’s sympathy; wracking self-questioning about her guilt in relation to Absalom’s disappearance; and the problem of dealing with her daughter Ariel’s firstborn, a Down’s syndrome baby.
In large part, the tension between these public and private selves shapes the consciousness that is Ariadne as she writes her book. Much of her effort is devoted to trying to understand how these disparate parts of her life can be said to make up a whole and integral person. Old now, she can see how inchoate, how innocent, how ignorant, have been her motives and impulses and drives. She can wonder how much of her has been governed by choice, how much by chance, how much by pressures which she had no means to combat.
There are many directions in which one could go in discussing Schneider’s novel. For example, is it, like many first novels, autobiographical? There seems no occasion to think so. Apparently, Schneider and her heroine have in common chiefly their being immigrants from Europe, their knowledge of Jewish life, their early attraction to Sir Thomas Malory and their life-long love of poetry. Very unlike Ariadne, Nina Schneider is a magna cum laude graduate of Brooklyn College, twice married, mother of two, prolific author (with her second husband) of juvenile books on scientific and technical subjects with titles such as Let’s Find Out About Electricity and How Your Body Works, contributor of poems to several journals, and university teacher. Further, although Ariadne has died before her book is published, one is able to hope that The Woman Who Lived in a Prologue is not the “one novel” that Schneider will find in herself.
Then there is the matter of narrative technique. Probably the most important device shaping the novel is its point of view. Schneider’s art seems artless to the extent that the reader never questions whether this is “really” the protagonist’s work being read. Ariadne writes in first person almost entirely, the several exceptions being when, to distance herself from a humiliating scene, she adopts the third person. As becomes clear in the first pages, Ariadne as narrator is a woman of wit, intelligence, high literacy and high verbal ability.
In this character, Schneider has created a very conscious artist, one who divides her novel into three books and fifteen chapters, in addition to a Prologue and an Epilogue, each of these having titles and epigraphs that serve to tie together her only roughly chronological account of the memories that she relives as vividly as the days during which she writes. The titles and epigraphs are—to adopt the required “willing suspension of disbelief”—not Schneider’s addition but Ariadne’s; the...
(The entire section is 2874 words.)