The prose inventions of Caroline Blackwood have the beguiling and ominous quality of fireside tales told at a very louche and drunken summer camp for morticians. Blackwood's eye zooms in on the ghastly and mawkish in any situation. One hears in her voice the simple, childlike cadences that are most effective for developing absolutely grotesque narratives. Her rhythms draw us close, in assurance that the reader has the upper hand. In fact, we feel at first rather more savvy and cognizant than the writer. This impression is quickly quashed.
Born in 1931 into an aristocratic Anglo˝Irish family, Lady Caroline Blackwood came late to fiction, in her thirties, after some forays in journalism that were not uniformly impressive. During a stay in Hollywood she had an affair with producer Ivan Moffatt; she was introduced to Cary Grant, who was undergoing LSD psychotherapy and persuaded her to do the same. Psychedelics pushed open the stuck door of Blackwood's creativity. She had been married to Lucien Freud, composer Israel Citkowitz, and later to Robert Lowell and was rather typecast as a "muse to genius" (indeed, her sole biography has the unfortunate title Dangerous Muse). As a Guinness heiress she was expected to marry well and learn good horsemanship. She was, however, a staunch woman of considerable mental prowess and a wide reputation as an accomplished mimic, raconteur, and collector of stories, something owed perhaps to her Irish background. She was an immensely charming yet troubled woman. Until her death in 1996, she was still renowned for her wit, her sly gamesmanship in her personal relations, and her stoicism in the face of deadly disease. I would argue that she was equally the artist to any of her paramours and husbands.
Blackwood's dry humor, the note of bemused astonishment she strikes in the recounting of human foibles, serves as a kind of party mask for dire and unbearable truths. She presents us something raw in the guise of something cooked. She is the master of the dubious qualifier, the droll double take, the ludicrously shifted point of view from dire to antic. Aunt Lavinia, in the 1977 novel Great Granny Webster, after recounting at hilarious length her near rape in a mental ward by her appointed psychiatrist, puts the finishing touches on her nails and muses to her niece:
"In one sense he was rather a character, that Dr. Kronin," she said reflectively. "By no means an enjoyable character. . . . But in his peculiar way the amazing thing is that I think he really viewed himself as a romantic. So that with his incomprehensible mentality one has to admit there was something quite individual about the little pig all the same."
A frequent triggering event in Blackwood's prose is the sly disclosure of contradictions that emerge in those testing moments thought to define "character." Her people seldom mak a positive resolve to act, yet they often experience moments of inner revelation, realizations of the truth of the state of things. Blackwood's characters are often people who fall short of themselves, transgress their own convictions, fail to meet life's occasions with a full deck. Inadequacy, haplessness, passivity, and lethal self˝absorption are typical traits of her creatures, though they may also be monstrously consistent with themselves, aggressively engaged in a futile argument with the world.
On one hand, there are short stories like "Matron," in the collection Good Night, Sweet Ladies, published in 1983. Matron is a dutiful workhorse and tyrant of a head nurse, ruling over her hospital wards with an unbendable set of regulations and an almost nuclear response to anyone who disregards them. Yet she has a moment of weakness, a disastrous spark of human feeling, when she sees that a dying patient's wife is virtually starving herself in order to never leave her husband's bedside. Matron orders the woman to eat and breaks one of her strictest rules by giving her hospital food. This almost microscopic violation of Matron's seamless martial armor destroys her very idea of herself and results in her total collapse.
On the other hand, many of Blackwood's characters refuse to crumble or to give an inch. Other people's sensitivities cut no ice with them. Among such stolid gargoyles as the eponymous Great Granny Webster or the Duchess of Windsor's forbidding lawyer Maţtre Blum in The Last of the Duchess (1995), the habit of being always staunchly, inflexibly oneself is shown to wreak as much self˝defeating damage as spinelessness and indecisiveness.
[Maţtre Blum] kept glaring at me with the utmost hostility. She answered my questions with ill˝mannered abruptness. Her slanting, unblinking eyes had a snakelike malevolence. She was perverse. If she wanted favorable articles written about the Duchess, she seemed reckless in the way she deliberately tried to antagonize her interviewers.
Blackwood's writing is subtly gothic, and exaggerated in a manner designed to reveal the shocking apathy or terrifying forwardness of her subjects. The accretion of lowering detail in her 1976 novel The Stepdaughter is characteristic. The epistolary narrator, J., has been abandoned by her husband, Arnold, and subtly blackmailed by him into caring for her unwanted stepdaughter, Renata, in the luxury apartment Arnold continues to maintain for them.
Renata is a ghastly, lumpish, sullenly withdrawn girl who leaves great quantities of unflushed paper in the toilet and feeds exclusively on rocklike muffins she constantly bakes from a packaged mix. J., a frustrated painter, highly educated, articulate, observant, and powerfully bitter about her victimization by Arnold, gradually persuades us to detest and dehumanize the unbearable Renata, whose baleful presence is a constant reminder that J. is trapped and stultified by her feckless, estranged spouse.
We are cleverly led to overlook the obvious fact that J.'s prison is an enviable address where she lives without financial worries and that her own idleness and obsessive feelings of betrayal cause her to magnify Renata's unpleasantness into almost criminal proportions. Indeed, one character who remarks on the beauty and privilege of J.'s surroundings is depicted as an insensitive oaf. And then, with an excruciatingly deft turn of the screw, we realize that we have been drawn into complicity with the destruction of a thirteen˝year˝old child, through our identification with J.'s self˝conscious and seemingly self˝critical lamentations.
This kind of reversal is one of Blackwood's most accomplished effects, typically, though not exclusively, achieved via use of self˝deluded or solipsistically limited narrators, such as the hypocritical, misogynistic, emotionally constipated husband whose side we reflexively take, in ever greater exasperation with the people around him, for at least two˝thirds of The Fate of Mary Rose (1974). The agonizing pleasure of this novel lies somewhere in our half˝registered sense that the person we're listening to is revealing himself as a loathsome fool; yet the extremity of the situation he describes, with what eventually proves to be wildly biased single˝mindedness, deflects close scrutiny of his own outrageous behavior.
Blackwood's earliest stories exhibit a richly nuanced appreciation of the monstrosity of ordinary life. The indifference and callousness of one person toward another tend to level any form of suffering to triviality, and the world goes on in its casually murderous way. The most horrific example, because its reverberations on the victimizer are shown to be so very tiny, occurs in the short story "Who Needs It?" (from the 1973 collection For All That I Found There), in which the proprietor of a hair salon finds it necessary to fire her Saturday helper when the woman's concentration˝camp tattoo sours the giddy atmosphere the customers insist on.
Angeline waved her plump little dye˝stained hands as she pleaded with her husband. "Lookˇuse your nut, Herb. If you had seen that woman's armˇyou wouldn't be so mad at me. . . . You should have seen the size of her numbers. They were like something you see on the backsides of a bunch of cattle. . . . I mean Christ, Herb! You could get a customer and she just wants to relax and have her hair shampooedˇand she might take a look at that arm and it would really turn her stomach. And, well, she might just figure likeˇwho really needs it?"
Blackwood loves monsters. No character in modern literature is more obdurately monstrous than Great Granny Webster. An Edwardian relic, this utterly pleasureless, stingy, censorious, ossified banshee, forever ensconced in her painfully stiff chair before a fireplace laid but never lit, is the stuffed and essentially powerless dragon of a musty castle, the remnant of hidebound and pointless traditional values, someone who has never in her life given anyone a reason to like her. Compared with the child narrator's descriptions of her ebullient, hard˝drinking, promiscuously fun˝loving Aunt Lavinia, Great Granny Webster is a black hole, swallowing and extinguishing any mote of liveliness that flashes into her ken.
It seemed to be her heart that Great Granny Webster really lived for. Her own heart was all she cared about. She had produced three generations of descendants and lived to know that none of them could have the slightest importance to her, any more than all the leaves that have flown yearly from its branches can have much importance to an aged oak.
Yet we cannot get enough of this horrible woman. Blackwood's macabre descriptions of Great Granny Webster's fanatical parsimonyˇ"her stingy and minute portions of rubbery, unseasoned canned spaghetti"ˇinspire a ghoulish appetite to learn what accounts for such an inflexible and pathetic human being. The real magic trick Blackwood pulls off is to keep us wondering what buried primal trauma or tragic life event froze this character into a charmless fortress of withholding even after we realize there isn't one, or just one.
For what transpires throughout Great Granny Webster while Blackwood seems to be mainly relating something else is a miraculously terse family history so appallingly mad and dangerous that Great Granny Webster's stiff˝mouthed silence and infuriating immobility could almost be considered a dignified withdrawal from decades of psychic mayhem.
One might say Blackwood practices a bullfighter's feint. The author waves a red cape at us, knowing we will charge at the wrong target. The best example of this approach is Corrigan. This 1984 novel is Blackwood's loveliest and most craftily assembled work of fiction and, strange to say, her sunniest, though the sunshine arrives late in the day and in an extremely perverse yet logical manner. A lonely widow repining for the past while enduring the boisterous attentions of her clumsy Irish housekeeper encounters a cripple collecting money for an invalid hospital. The eponymous Corrigan is a compellingly handsome and eloquent man, alarmingly uninhibited in his chair˝bound lucubrations, whose company has an enervating and eventually transformative effect on the listless and mournful Mrs. Blunt.
The jacket of the new edition of Corrigan tactfully describes its charismatic protagonist as an "arch manipulator." There is a surprise lurking in its pages that overturns our understanding of what we've read about for a hundred pages or so, an enriching surprise that has been basking more or less in plain sight, but perhaps even more striking is the uncharacteristically wily optimism of Corrigan. For the book insists on the salubriousness of deceptions that cut rather deep into the foundations of mutual understanding. To put it another way, we may need to tell one another and ourselves major whoppers, and not just little white lies, to replenish our interest in life.
This notion, developed so ingeniously in Corrigan, is a vital ingredient in Blackwood's work. On the far from simple level of its own abundant jouissance, the glory of her prose is its artful and marvelously apposite quality of exaggeration. Corrigan's characters seem credible and alive precisely because the habits that define them are so theatrically overdrawn. The telltale squeak and rumble of Corrigan's wheelchair and Mrs. Murphy's outlandish method of washing a floor become daft and freighted signs of something oversize and ludicrous about to spill into the narrative. In Corrigan, Blackwood gives us a sense of ordinary life becoming a breathless adventure, through the catalytic effect of Corrigan, who has the grandiose dimensions of sham and poetry we associate with theatrical illusion.
Blackwood is every bit as antically hyperbolic in ostensible nonfiction as in her novels and stories. What she imagines going on in other people's minds is perhaps more true to their character than what really might be found there. Blackwood rarely wrote journalism, but her forays into nonfiction display an acute sense of the foibles and tics that define the briefly encountered, the verbiage that delineates a mentality and sensibility, the sartorial and other quiddities that give us a character whole. And she is, of course, broadly satirical in doing so. She takes enormous liberties with hunters and their animal˝loving opponents in In the Pink (1987), her book on fox hunting, and with the boorish ratepayers opposing the Greenham Common antinuclear women in On the Perimeter (1984), and in a truly monumentalizing way with Maţtre Suzanne Blum, the French lawyer who virtually imprisoned the Duchess of Windsor in the latter's Paris mansion during the last years of the duchess's life. Blackwood has a genius for zeroing in on the most resonant and defining absurdities the people she encounters cling to as cherished "ideas" and fervently held "principles." Her tone is both incredulous and searching, in the manner of an especially lingering documentary camera that simply keeps running while its subjects hang themselves.
The flavor of Maţtre Blum's portrait, in The Last of the Duchess, reflects the idea of art as a lie that reveals the truth. Maţtre Blum must surely have been a detestable woman in every way, yet Blackwood's speculative projections of Blum's inner life are both bizarre and truer˝sounding than her account of their actual meetings. "It was impossible to visualize her lying throbbing with unabashed passion and pleasure in the arms of her husband, the General," Blackwood writes. "Her whole personality was too essentially unyielding. It seemed almost obscene to try to picture her in the nude let alone in some subjugated erotic position."
Maţtre Blum was an actual person, but in Blackwood's treatment she joins a garish array of fictional relatives. Blackwood developed variations on a set of stock characters throughout her career, including the stout or overweight, pestiferous, and sometimes hoggish female "sidekick" to the central figures. Renata with her cakes, the mother˝in˝law in the short story "Please Baby Don't Cry" with her sausages and waffle syrup, the obscenely breasty Miss Renny in "The Baby Nurse" are endlessly masticating, insatiably appetitive obstacles to someone else's happiness. They are lumps in the landscape who are half Greek chorus, half Minotaur. More rounded versions of this stolid figure appear in "Matron," in "Taft's Wife" (in the figure of the otiose, obnoxiously flirtatious Mrs. Ripstone), and most sympathetically as the clamorous Mrs. Murphy in Corrigan. The most sinister version is no doubt Maţtre Blum, the servant virtually become the master, no longer content at gobbling up any food in the vicinity or asserting her riotous presence everywhere, but actually gaining vitality and vividness in direct proportion to her employer's corporeal shrinkage.
In contrast to these girthy ladies, other Blackwood women are wraiths and ambulating phantoms, eaten up by anxieties and rage. J., in The Stepmother, never touches food; the wretched Cressida in The Fate of Mary Rose is so consumed with worry about a child killer on the loose that she shrinks away to a stick figure; Olga, in her eponymously titled story, is one of many faded women of the world, often retired actresses, whom Blackwood depicts as rudderless, weary, haunted vestiges of dubious former glory.
Her simple, even naive˝sounding sentences lure us into assuming these wan, preoccupied, abrasively self˝obsessed women will prove bloodlessly one˝dimensional, but they quickly acquire bewildering complexity and painfully acute verisimilitude. They are burdened by children who consider them burdensome, used and discarded or kept and untreasured by men whose attentions are elsewhere. At the same time, Blackwood resists striking any plangent notes on their behalf. Life has deformed them into the shape of their own nightmares. One could fall in love with what they were, but it's quite impossible to even like what they've become.
Blackwood's portraits of men are hilarious and frightening. In the highly defective families and affairs in which we find them, they are wretchedly dependent on a shifting maternal magma rather than any clearly apprehended partner. The narrator of The Fate of Mary Rose is a kind of Blackwood everyman. His girlfriend is a shrew. His estranged wife is a veritable witch. He finds fault with everything and everyone. Frustrated by one woman's oppressive idiosyncrasies, he instantly seeks sympathy and comfort from another, even if it's the blustery lush he despises who lives next door. Any reminder of his responsibilities sends him into a panicked flight. He even manipulates his secretary into staying with his deranged wife, rather than deal with a crisis that endangers his daughter.
I didn't want to lie to Fay Wisherton but I feared that if I gave her my truthful impression of what Cressida was like at the moment, she would refuse to come down to the cottage. I therefore made a dithering attempt to describe Cressida in phrases which were not strictly dishonest although they gave no accurate picture of her personality. I said she was country˝loving. Although this was true, it was not quite as healthy and normal as it sounded. She was country˝loving but only in a negative sense because of her phobia that Mary Rose would come to harm in any city.
If the women in Blackwood's books all have a skewed relationship to food, the men have a similarly disturbing relationship to women. If they have sex at all, it tends to be quick and unpleasant. In "Who Needs It?", the hairdresser's loser husband tells her he wants to come in her hair, perhaps the only carnally enthusiastic statement ever uttered by a male Blackwood character. Men are breadwinning absentee sperm donors who beget impossibly awful children. They have jobs that command every drop of what little passion they have.
In the centerˇone could say the vacant centerˇof the reverse magnetic field that Blackwood's men and women create between them is an abstraction called "the family." While the tenor of friendships and the flavor of social life are trenchantly telegraphed in Blackwood's fiction, virtually all of it is an appalled meditation on the destructive, warping potential of family intimacy and blood bonds. One of the most curious moments in The Stepdaughter comes when Renata reveals to J. that she is not, in fact, Arnold's daughter. J. tells her it was "very cruel of Arnold to tell you all this." Renata replies, "I don't think it was cruel of him. . . . He said that I would have to understand that as he had nothing to do with me he would never be able to love me. I think he wanted to stop me ever feeling hurt and disappointed about him." And, she adds, she stopped feeling disappointed by him on the spot. The mere verbal removal of the blood tie erases an entire universe of unreal expectation and letdown.
Blackwood's writing contains remarkably little fat. There is, in fact, nothing to spare, which is strange considering how freely she employs her manic imagination. Like certain other writers associated with the famously iconoclastic avant˝garde literary journal Bananas in the '70sˇEmma Tennant, J.G. Ballard, Angela CarterˇBlackwood approaches fiction as a site of fantasy and speculation where the norms of realism need be only sketchily deployed. This kind of writing acknowledges the filtered quality of all perception and the status of all narrative as fiction. Its ideal form is the fairy tale, a container of myth related in the simplest language. Blackwood's books have a kinship with fables and conjuring acts and a sly understanding of their compact with the reader. They move along the same spectrum of extremity as modern life itself. Their sensibility is one of stoical fortitude. Their modes are those of the cautionary or improving tale, like the picaresques of the eighteenth century.
At one end of Blackwood's spectrum is The Stepdaughter. Here are the harsh rewards of solipsism, self˝pity, and emotional dependency. At the other is Corrigan. Corrigan does not suggest that anything can truly end well; everything ends in death, an ending that is neither happy nor unhappy but merely final. But it does recommend that pretending life is what you make it can be better for your health than knowing all is futile and that everything we do is an inane but solid argument for our own extinction. Blackwood's writing revels in pessimism, but its calm, surefooted sentences, its grace and humor, and its gleeful eye for human absurdity gently nudge us toward the pretense.
Gary Indiana's most recent novel, Do Everything in the Dark, was published this summer by St. Martins Press.