Election Section

Books: Two Novels in Support of the Artist’s Right to Privacy By DOROTHY BRYANT Special to the Planet

Tuesday August 30, 2005

A few years ago I attended a performance of a new opera The Aspern Papers, after the Henry James novella. The composer had, of course, taken liberties with the story, juggling generations of time, changing some names, changing the dead poet to a dead composer, changing the setting from Venice to Lake Como so that the poet-cum-composer could drown while taking a midnight swim home from his lady-love’s villa (if you tried to swim down a Venice canal, you’d probably get a nasty case of dysentery, but you couldn’t drown). I accepted these changes, but I became uneasy when private letters were changed to the only copy of a lost opera. And when the finale featured Tina as a woman scorned, burning this manuscript of the last opera by the great composer, I left the hall sputtering condemnations to my bemused companions, who shrugged, “Guess he wanted to make it more dramatic, more operatic.” 

“By destroying the point!?” 

“What point?” 

“Simple. They were letters, private letters! Not a work of art. Tina burns his lost opera, she’s a monster. Tina burns private letters, she’s a hero!”  

Another shrug. My friends saw no difference, and that bothered me even more. 

In Henry James’ The Aspern Papers, Miss Tina Bordereux lives in a couple of rooms of a “dilapidated palazzo on an out-of-the-way canal,” caring for her ancient, reclusive aunt who 80 years before was the lover of the famous poet Jeffrey Aspern, and is rumored to possess old love letters from him. Avid to get these letters, a critic/biographer worms his way into the household and romances the lonely, middle-aged spinster. Tina is so vulnerable that he slowly brings her to the point of breaking her promise to her aunt to burn the letters at her death. But when Tina says she will bring them to him as her dowry, the critic/biographer suddenly backs off in revulsion at the success of his courting. Still determined to get the letters, he sneaks into the aunt’s bedroom. The old lady struggles up from bed, catches him going through her bureau drawers, rasps, “You publishing scoundrel,” and drops dead. He flees, but returns after the funeral is over, for one more try at getting “my goods” as he refers to the letters. He is amazed to see Tina looking—well, almost attractive, glowing with a certain “force of soul.” Maybe he could marry her after all! But he is too late. Bouncing back from rock-bottom humiliation and now free to choose, she has burned the letters. “Goodbye. I shall not see you again. I don’t want to.” 

A couple of years later, a new young writer, Edith Wharton, published her first novel. The Touchstone is also about letters from a writer, Margaret Aubyn, now famous after her early death. The recipient of the letters, Stephen, had never read a thing by Margaret and had quickly tired of their discreet romance; nevertheless, he had strung her along for quite a while—and had kept hundreds of abject, devoted, pleading love letters from her. Suddenly the letters are worth a lot of money, money that will enable him to marry the beautiful woman he can’t afford. He sells the letters to a publisher friend on the condition that he not be identified as the recipient. 

The book comes out shortly after his marriage, and it takes off, an instant best seller. Everyone is reading and discussing it, including his wife: “It is like listening at a keyhole. I wish I hadn’t read it! It’s horrible, it’s degrading almost, to read the secrets of a woman one might have known. Stephen did know her once, I think, didn’t you, Stephen?” Does she suspect? Stephen is tortured by this question, and by their friends’ unending, inescapable discussions of the anonymous cad who published the letters from the weak, pathetic female genius they continue to leave unread, while licking their lips over her humiliation. The letters that financed Stephen’s marriage now begin to poison it. 

What these two novellas have in common is respect for the right of the artist to keep his or her private life apart from his or her work, not only for the sake of the artist but for the sake of literature. (Remember, I’m talking about works of fiction and poetry — not memoirs by politicians or media stars, or texts by “authorities” in their field — like Bruno Bettelheim, who might have done a lot less harm if some dirt-digging biographer had exposed him as the phony he was). There is no doubt in either of these novellas that those who want to profit by violating the artists’ privacy have crossed the line between serving art and smearing mud all over it. They are the bad guys who get the punishment they deserve, one by losing the prize he wanted, the other by winning it.  

I think both of these novellas were protest novels, against a trend already under way a century ago, when mass media key-hole peeking had not quite arrived, but was clearly on the horizon. Their protest failed, of course, big-time. These days, the line drawn between probing a work of art and probing the common, messy dross of everyday life, is not only frequently crossed, it is almost erased. The first question I am invariably asked after I give a reading is, “Is this book autobiographical?” My stern answer (just what you’d expect from the school teacher I used to be) is, “What matters in reading my novel is not what you learn about my life, but what you learn about your own.”  

I’m sorry to say that not all writers are as grumpy as I am on this issue; some of them pander to the appetite for private whining, which is profoundly anti-art. The poet Denise Levertov called these writers perverters of the 1960s slogan, “let it all hang out,” which meant being totally truthful, but became an lazy excuse for publishing “raw, unmediated, unshaped, self-pitying journal entries and calling them poetry.”  

Of course, many of today’s biographers (like old Ms. Bourdereux’s “publishing scoundrel”) defend keyhole peeking as necessary to understanding the work of artists. They practice what Julian Barnes calls “biographical sourcery, as if the novelist’s imagination works like a paint mixing machine, with pinches and dabs of actual experience or people mixed up.” On the contrary, Barnes insists, “Fiction is about transforming life rather than disguising autobiography.” 

Or, as Tobias Wolff says, through the protagonist of his novel Old School, “The life that produces writing can’t be written about. It is a life carried on without the knowledge even of the writer, below the mind’s business and noise, in deep unlit shafts where phantom messengers struggle toward us, killing one another along the way—” 

A bit of gossip from Edith Wharton’s life is worth introducing here only because it supports Wolff’s statement. A few years after the publication of The Touchstone, Wharton fell for a smooth operator named Morton Fullerton, who strung her along, borrowed money, used her influence, and, when she finally got free of him, refused to return her letters. In the 1980s these letters were found in a second-hand shop where, evidently, Fullerton had—yes—sold them. They are, like Margaret Aubyn’s letters—loving, confused, humiliated—but different in two crucial elements: there weren’t that many of them, and the final ones kissed off Fullerton graciously, crediting him, delicately, with giving Wharton good sex.  

That Wharton’s novel foretold the future is nothing new—as any fiction writer can tell you; it happens all the time (more usually foretelling the future of a person who was one of the models for a fictional character.) The important thing about the Fullerton affair is this: you can read everything Wharton wrote after Fullerton entered her life, and you will find no sign of enhanced or impaired creativity directly traceable to anything Fullerton did, or any character who directly resembles him. He got under her skin, but never sank in deep enough to enter those mysterious “unlit shafts where phantom messengers struggle toward us.” He is a minor, ordinary, irrelevant blip like those in all our lives, sometimes useable in small, altered, mixed bits. He is not a shaper of the work that “transforms life.” 

The one thing that the real stuff, transformative fiction, needs—must have—from outside, is creative readers, those who are uninterested in prying into everyday details of an artist’s life, who demand nothing less than the (sometimes painful) joy of illumination. Creative readers are willing to maintain “silence, some form of isolation, and sustained concentration in the presence of an enigmatic thing,” wrote Phillip Roth. But then he added “a habit of mind that has disappeared.” 

I hope he’s wrong. If you’ve read this far, I know he is.