[Paleopsych] Sunday Times: Married to a Genius by Jeffrey Meyers

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Jul 2 15:24:45 UTC 2005

Married to a Genius by Jeffrey Meyers


     by Jeffrey Meyers
     Southbank Publishing £9.99 pp256

     Geniuses are traditionally difficult to live with. It is part of their
     mystique. Disregard for other people is vital for their art, or so
     they claim. According to D. H. Lawrence, you must have "something
     vicious in you" to be a writer. Graham Greene said you needed a
     splinter of ice in your heart. Jeffrey Meyers's sharp-witted book
     tests these beliefs by examining the marital relationships of nine
     writers -- Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, James
     Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Ernest
     Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. Each study is brilliant and arresting,
     and they reflect fascinatingly on one another. Meyers has an intricate
     grasp of modern literature, and has already written full-scale
     biographies of five of his subjects. Above all, he reveals how subtly
     writers' lives infiltrate their fiction -- the hardest trick in
     literary biography.

     Most judges would choose Tolstoy as the greatest genius of the bunch,
     and he was by a fair margin the most repellent human being. After a
     youth of drinking, whoring and gambling, he fell madly in love, at 34,
     with 18-year-old Sofya Behrs. She seemed "a mere child, a lovely
     thing", but turned out to be just as pig-headed as he was, and foolish
     with it. She thought his devotion to the peasantry absurd, while he
     concluded, from daily observation of her, that there was something
     wrong with her whole sex -- "Woman is generally stupid." There were
     furious rows, hysterical fits and suicide attempts. She almost died
     giving birth to her fifth child, but Tolstoy was offended when she
     expressed fears about further pregnancies, so breeding continued.
     Ashamed of his brutal appetites, he maligned the female body
     ("ugliness, slovenliness, odours") and advocated chastity in his
     misogynistic Kreutzer Sonata, just as Sofya was giving birth to their

     By comparison, George Bernard Shaw's marital arrangements seem almost
     ideal. A passionless philanderer, frightened of women, he took as his
     bride the equally frigid Charlotte Payne-Townshend. She was, he said,
     physically and emotionally like a muffin, but her great attractions
     were £4,000 a year, a mighty sum at the time, and a determination
     never to consummate the marriage -- the last thing Shaw wanted. They
     managed pretty well for 45 years, and her militant chastity went into
     the making of St Joan, a subject she suggested and researched.

     Admittedly, the Shaws' solution would not suit all married couples.
     Joseph Conrad's was more usual, since he married a substitute mother.
     Jessie, a former typist, was intellectually undeveloped but excellent
     at domestic chores. She treated Conrad as a son, calling him "Boy",
     and nursing him through his shattering depressions. When a real son
     arrived, Conrad naturally felt displaced, and this led to a strange
     incident when, on a train with Jessie and their child, he suddenly
     threw the their bundle of baby clothes out of the window.
     Tight-lipped, Jessie remarked that when the clothes were found there
     would be a search for the baby's corpse. Meyers ingeniously deciphers
     this moment of murderous jealousy as the germ of Conrad's novel The
     Secret Agent, in which the shady and incompetent Verloc kills his
     "stepson" Stevie who is the sole object of his wife's love.

     The happiest marriage in the book, and also the unlikeliest, is James
     Joyce's to Nora Barnacle. She was a raw, uneducated girl from the west
     of Ireland, with so little understanding of literature that she
     thought her husband's writing idiotic, calling him affectionately
     "simple-minded Jim". Seemingly there was some writerly instinct in
     Joyce that picked her out as his salvation. An icy, inhibited
     intellectual, who once described adult sex as "brief, brutal,
     irresistible and devilish", he needed a woman who could arouse his
     passion and unlock his guilty store of obscene fantasies. Nora was
     surprised by the literary outcome. Reading Molly Bloom's reveries at
     the end of Ulysses she commented, "I guess the man's a genius, but
     what a dirty mind he has, hasn't he?" Joyce seems to have been an
     extreme case of what Freud identified as the commonest sexual malady
     among modern males -- the inability to feel intellectual respect and
     sexual passion for the same woman. With D. H. Lawrence, though, it was
     just the opposite. Frieda von Richthofen attracted him because, in
     addition to her aristocratic lineage, she was aflame with intellectual
     vivacity and emancipated modern theories that excited his shrinking,
     puritanical nature. As Meyers shows, her ideas and character appear
     everywhere in his work.

     Because they were such opposites, violent hatred complicated their
     love. They would go at each other hammer-and-tongs in public, pulling
     hair, punching, screaming abuse, to the embarrassment of their
     friends. Meyers thinks there was an element of slapstick and
     self-parody in these set-tos, and for Lawrence they were also a kind
     of therapy. He would have been bored with a submissive mate. "I must
     have opposition, something to fight on, or I shall go under," he
     admitted. Seemingly cruel and outrageous behaviour on Frieda's part,
     of which there was plenty, may have stemmed from a subliminal
     realisation of this need. Of course, with Frieda there is also the
     chance that it was just cruel and outrageous.

     Woolf and Mansfield were both invalids, as well as geniuses, and
     needed faithful nursing. Only Woolf got it. Her husband, Leonard, had
     been a colonial administrator in Ceylon ("ruled India, hung black men,
     shot tigers", as Virginia airily put it) and Meyers thinks the
     imperial ethic of duty and self-sacrifice helped him cope with his
     wife's descents into madness. Their attempts at sexual relations had
     been "a terrible failure", and were soon abandoned. But he supported
     her gallantly to the end. Not so Mansfield's husband, John Middleton
     Murry, who was of a lower class than Leonard Woolf, and appears weak
     and insecure by comparison. His wife's tuberculosis frightened him,
     and he stayed in London while she went south, vainly seeking a cure.
     Meyers judges him harshly, but Mansfield's poor-little-rich-girl
     bohemianism must have been hard for a well-brought-up, penny-pinching
     boy to handle, and Murry was probably jealous of her talent, as
     Leonard was not of Woolf's.

     The two Americans also make a contrasting pair, Hemingway brutal and
     exploitative, Fitzgerald feeble, but faithful to his maniacally
     egotistic wife Zelda. Hemingway's was the simpler case. He tried to
     force women into the role of passive, devoted creatures, as men had
     done since the stone age. The Fitzgeralds, by comparison, were
     disastrously modern -- drunk on fame and money, flaunting their style
     and beauty as if conforming to some tabloid image of how celebrities
     should behave, and spiralling into alcoholism and madness. From a
     literary angle, though, they triumphed. Zelda's tragedy gave
     Fitzgerald the inspiration for his last great novel, Tender Is the
     Night, whereas Hemingway's aggressive maleness wrecked his four
     marriages and his art. Meyers's analyses are always, as here,
     beautifully clear-cut, but they never lose sight of a truth that H  G
     Wells voiced about the Lawrences' marriage: "The mysteries of human
     relationships are impenetrably obscure."

     Available at the Books First price of £8.49 plus 99p p&p on 0870 165
     8585 and [74]www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

More information about the paleopsych mailing list