by Kaulie Lewis
This month’s Bloomers At Large begins with some good news and some bad news. As usual, the bad first: P.D. James, who Jill Kronstadt profiled for Bloom earlier this year, has passed away. An obituary published by the BBC acknowledges James as “the Queen of crime fiction” and praises her resistance to the argument that “crime novels were not proper literature.” The same article also outlines James’s life, including her early years, when she was forced by economic necessity to quit school and start working at 16, and her realization in her mid-30s that “there was never going to be a convenient time to start that first novel. If I didn’t make time, find the motivation, I would be a failed writer and that would be absolutely appalling for me.” How many Bloomers have made that same realization!
Though Toni Morrison doesn’t quite qualify as a Bloomer—she published her first novel at 39—we’re sufficiently excited by her good news to include it here: Morrison’s latest novel, God Help the Child, will be released in April. The book is being billed as “a searing tale about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult,” a theme Morrison’s work has touched on before. If three months seems like a long time to wait, we can always content ourselves with revisiting the Nobel Prize winner’s other 14 novels.
This has also been a month for biographies and revealing biography reviews. The Spectator reported on a new Tove Jansson biography that looks at the writer and comic-strip author’s troubled relationship with her father, her deep love for her mother, and the development of her “tyrant-baiting” cartooning style during World War II. Also mentioned: her desire to emigrate to Tonga, and the uncanny resemblance her animated Moomin creatures called the Hattifatteners bear to “a wandering flock of penises or condoms.” The piece pairs well with our own Sonya Chung’s look at Jansson’s writing for both children and adults and her consideration of a belief, reflected throughout all Jansson’s works, that “the world is a dangerous, beautiful, terribly alive place.”
That the world is indeed dangerous, beautiful, and terribly alive is also reflected in the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder—writings that, like Jansson’s, were originally meant for children. Indeed, Alison Gazarek’s essay on Wilder for Bloom concentrates on the power the Little House books held for her in childhood. But a darker side of Wilder’s semi-autobiographical children’s series is revealed in the new version of her first work, Pioneer Girl, edited and annotated by Pamela Smith Hill. This restored autobiography includes details and stories judged too adult for the Little House books: “financial woes, affairs, divorces, drunks, domestic violence.” It also raises some question about the level of involvement Wilder’s daughter, the then popular author Rose Wilder Lane, had in the final Little House stories; the writing style of the later works is drastically improved from the occasionally clumsy and episodic Pioneer Girl. While it’s now impossible to decipher what of the Little House writings is Lane’s and what is Wilder’s, their story is undeniably one of “an intense and entwined relationship, and writing mentorship, between daughter and mother,” as Bich Minh Nguyen writes in his review for the LA Times. It’s also the story of a Bloomer whose work rapidly improved and matured, with or without help—after all, Wilder was in her early 60s when Pioneer Girl was drafted, and Little House in the Big Woods was published only two years later.
A review of Bloomer H.G. Adler’s The Wall also considers what happens when autobiography is fictionalized and explores the gaps between the two lives: the “real” and the written. “Lasting works hardly require us to be acquainted with the lives of the masters who bore them—they have pulsing hearts of their own,” Cynthia Ozick writes for The New York Times. “Still, on occasion there emerges a tale that refuses to let go of its teller, that is unwilling, even in the name of art, to break free; or cannot.” She offers The Wall as a powerful example of this—the novel is essentially a fictionalized version of Adler’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and an exile from his native Czechoslovakia—but continues to wonder: what happens when work heavily connected to the author’s biography is later separated from historical setting and context?
The answer to that question is both simple—meaning is lost—and frustratingly imprecise. But the reverse effect, the restoration of context to a writer’s work and the subsequent improvement in understanding, is evidenced in the reaction to Hermione Lee’s most recent biography. Last month we directed Bloom readers to The New Yorker’s review of her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. This month we recommend Bridget Read’s take on the same work for the Paris Review, which argues that “Lee’s book rightly recharacterizes Fitzgerald’s success as deferred rather than late blooming—deferred, that is, by her relative poverty, a difficult marriage, and those prejudices that threatened her sense of ability—an important distinction.” While it’s difficult to know what exactly the “important distinction” is, that idea is followed by this powerful statement: “It is vital to emphasize that Fitzgerald’s novels were not achieved in spite of her domestic life; they were borne directly out of it. Her work is radical in that it suggests that, in fact, a feminine experience, a liminal experience, might be better equipped than a male one to address the contradictions of human existence taken up by the greatest literature.” Amen to that.