Sept/Oct/Nov 2017

A Spouse Divided

Richard Stern and divorce in the American novel

Christian Lorentzen


Other Men's Daughters

by Richard Stern

NYRB Classics

$15.95 List Price

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In a 1966 essay for the New York Review of Books on divorce in America, the sociologist Christopher Lasch remarked: “Divorce is a depressing subject from almost any point of view. For participants, it is not likely to be an ennobling experience; nor does it have the compensatory virtue, like other forms of suffering, of lending itself to literary uses.” Because divorce tended to throw dignity out the window, it was beneath the tragic mode, and the subject simply put off writers with comic talents. “Grim earnestness” or “sensationalism” seemed to be the two modes available to writers treating the subject, and so it had rarely attracted serious novelists: “a dreary business, not very conducive to flights of the imagination,” Lasch concluded. His larger point was that Americans were vexed by divorce because the modern family was “founded on the cult of domesticity” and “the idea of the family as something set apart from the rest of society, a sanctuary from the world”: concepts that were barely more than a century old but had entrenched themselves in the national consciousness.

Lasch was writing before the flood, before divorce became a pervasive condition that was impossible for American writers to avoid, either as a matter of direct portrayal, as in the stories of Alice Munro and John Updike, or as commonplace backstory, as in Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter or Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Cathartic divorce memoirs (Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love) are now de rigueur, and rare is the divorce book greeted as a scandal (Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath). And obviously the audience for American fiction has come to include the divorced and their children, with a widely observed side effect: the deflation of the novel of adultery. Stories of the erotic adventures of wayward spouses don’t hold the same appeal as they did in the 1960s. What hasn’t gone away is the notion of the sanctity of the domestic, and so any anthology of American short fiction is bound to include a few stories about missing children, a theme that once in a while rises to the occasion of novelization, as in Maile Meloy’s recent Do Not Become Alarmed, in which a few kids are kidnapped during a Central American vacation. These days that’s an off-the-shelf American horror story.

I came across Lasch’s essay on divorce because it originally appeared in the New York Review alongside a report from the 1965 MLA Convention in Chicago by Richard Stern, whose 1973 Other Men’s Daughters, a novel of adultery and divorce, has just been reissued by NYRB Classics. That year in Chicago the main event was a forum featuring John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, and Norman Mailer. Cheever, in Stern’s account, “machine-gunned a ‘parable of the diligent novelist’ quitting a seminary, holing up in a slum, raping, knifing, buggering, becoming a spy, living, dying, writing on the roller-coaster of experience; an undebateable swipe at the novel as document, the novelist as seared survivor.” Ellison spoke of the “statistical distortions” of sociologists and the “ready-made anguish” some writers substituted for the “actual contours of their lives.” Mailer, in a talk collected in Cannibals and Christians, lamented that after Theodore Dreiser“the task of explaining America was taken over by Luce magazines” and paid some backhanded compliments to Saul
Bellow. After their talks, Stern reported, Cheever, Ellison, and Mailer dined at the Playboy Mansion and went for a swim in Hugh Hefner’s pool.

To judge Other Men’s Daughters by the criteria put forth that night in Chicago, we can see Stern attempting to “explain the country” not through the sort of panorama Mailer was calling for but within the contours of a few lives that have inconveniently intersected. There’s neither a “roller-coaster of experience” nor “ready-made anguish” on display but rather a collision of generations narrated with meticulous slowness, considerable charm, and a sense of inevitability. What’s lost along the way is a domestic life that affords four children a comfortable home and their parents an emotionally barren marriage. The shadow of the permissive culture that paid for Hefner’s mansion looms over the proceedings.

Other Men’s Daughters was greeted as a bad idea when it was first published, but also as a book that redeemed the “destructive folly” (in the phrase of James R. Frakes in the New York Times Book Review) of its premise through “almost flawless technique and nearly impeccable taste.” The premise: A forty-year-old Harvard physiology professor and part-time medical doctor, Robert Merriwether, has an affair with a twenty-year-old summer-school student, Cynthia Ryder. They remain undercover for a year, until they wind up together as bystanders in a Newsweek report about another scientist who committed arson outside a conference on the French Riviera. The unwinding of Merriwether’s two-decade marriage to Sarah—with whom he has four children, the eldest two near in age to his lover—ensues. A lawyer is called, the family splits, the house is sold. The novel’s last pages find Merriwether and Cynthia (as the omniscient narration refers to them) still together in a Rocky Mountain idyll.

The new edition of Other Men’s Daughters comes with an introduction by Stern’s friend Philip Roth, adapted from a eulogy delivered in 2013, when Stern died at age eighty-four—and an afterword by Stern’s University of Chicago colleague Wendy Doniger. Roth quotes from his blurb for the first edition: “It is as if Chekhov had written Lolita.” This effective bit of marketing copy is salient in pointing up that Chekhov would never have written Lolita. Consider Nabokov’s description of a typical Chekhov character in Lectures on Russian Literature: “Chekhov’s intellectual was a man who combined the deepest human decency of which man is capable with an almost ridiculous inability to put his ideals and principles into action.” This is the inverse of Humbert Humbert, who’s all too effective in his
indecent endeavors. (Doniger, who refers to Humbert’s sins as “child’s play” in the era after the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the age of ubiquitous online pornography, seems to forget that his crimes include child rape, kidnapping, and murder.)

Click to enlarge

Laura Letinsky, Untitled #2, 2008, ink-jet print, 31 3/4 40". From the series “The Dog and the Wolf,” 2008–2009. Laura Letinsky, courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York.

As for Merriwether, he’s a decent enough man, caught in a marriage that’s been sexless for six years. His wife, Sarah, is no longer a “stocky little dynamo” who recites poetry in a “Dietrich voice.” She’s put on weight, acquired a “wrinkling belly” and “veins showing through the flesh,” and adopted the political views of Bill Buckley. She was ill-prepared for marriage by writing, in her past life as a student of Romance languages, a master’s thesis on courtly love. As a physiologist, her husband follows a different set of imperatives. As a doctor, he knows the “buried axiom was, ‘Don’t foul your professional nest.’” But during a perfunctory appointment to get a scrip, Cynthia, unprompted, pulls her canary yellow dress over her head. When she leaves, Merriwether looks in the mirror and sees a face “younger than its years” and wonders if his body might be granted “a second human trial.” Cynthia hangs out on the corners where she knows her physician will pass by, walks him home (the wife and kids are away for the summer), and comes in for a drink. They go out on the town in Boston, she comes over for cider, they dance to an LP she’s bought him (the Youngbloods’ 1969 album Elephant Mountain, which he’s surprised to enjoy) and lie down chastely for the night (in his daughter’s bed). In the morning he wakes up to “find her naked, drawing his pajama pants off around the matutinal erection. ‘Oh Jesus.’ And they became, biologically and legally, lovers.”

Cynthia and Dolores Haze are both cast as seducers, but from here Other Men’s Daughters loses any resemblance to Lolita; still, the appeal of a novel being marketed as a tamed Lolita was stronger in 1973 when the book was still something of a scandal and not a respectable entry in the canon. Stern balances Merriwether’s sense that he’s doing wrong by his family and at risk of becoming a pariah in his constricted Cambridge social circle with a swelling feeling not only that he can get away with it but that he must. He worries aloud that if he were to break things off Cynthia might harm herself. He makes the rounds, consulting various male confidants, one of whom warns him about getting involved with younger women:

They want, they want, and it’s we not-quite-graybeards who give them the most the quickest. We teach them, we spend on them, we show them off, we tell them what everything means. We’re their Graduate School. Which means they’re closer to graduation through us. And that means there can be lots of tears when Graduation Day rolls around.

Roth similarly casts Merriwether as “a perfect target for the wise and witty Cambridge student-beauty of the Sixties, coutured in jeans and armed with the Pill.”

But neither Merriwether nor Cynthia nor even Sarah turns out to be the victim in this novel. Though his attention and sympathies are mostly with Merriwether (not to mention his stylistic efforts: The book is shot through with the language of biology; the hero is a specialist in the science of thirst), Stern briefly takes up both Cynthia’s and Sarah’s points of view. Cynthia is tired of unsophisticated young men with their constant erections and unceasing sexual demands (the boyfriend she dispatches before hunting Merriwether is a gas-station attendant). When her father, a Southern lawyer who’s pulled himself up from humble origins, meets Merriwether, he finds not an abusive lech but a man with “the marks of privilege he himself lacked”: “Talking with this intelligent man was unusually pleasant.” Sarah no longer feels that way about her husband, having been subjected to decades of his pedantic “clarifications” and made to feel like a “human vacuum cleaner” in their “dust-magnet of a house (in which he’d embalmed her for twenty years without a glimmer of feeling for her feeling about—and without one single attention to—its headlong disintegration).”

The real casualty in Other Men’s Daughters is Merriwether’s house, which we learn in the novel’s first line has been in his family for “most of its ninety years.” More than separation from his wife, from whom he’s glad to part, and his children, who will still love him, he’s sure, it’s exile from the house and its loss to new owners that break Merriwether’s heart. But it’s a heartbreak he can shrug off, thinking of the house and the domesticity it sheltered as “decomposed states,” husks that he and his children, survivors, have left behind: “The way of human beings. Self-catalytic forms, fed by errors, and so perpetuated.” The loss of home and family, loss of the domestic, is a liberation. And as a footnote to the story, Stern encodes a mark of a changing America. The new owner of the Merriwether house, previously home to generations of New England wasps, is a recently hired Radcliffe dean, who happens to be a black woman.

Christian Lorentzen is the book columnist for New York magazine and film critic for the New Republic.

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