Thursday, September 03, 2009

Long Distance: Penelope Mortimer Appreciation

Penelope Mortimer considered Long Distance, which was originally published in The New Yorker, her best novel. Certainly it is an unusual, difficult book - a departure from her realistic novels about witty, bemused wives and mothers who struggle to hang onto their identities or forge complicated new identities.

Long Distance goes over the edge into feminist science fiction/allegory. The anonymous amnesiac narrator “runs away” from "you" to live in a kind of shadowy institution/sanitarium that is reminiscent of the imaginations of Anna Kavan and Kafka.

The writing is stark, the pseudo-everywoman narrator’s observations painful and funny, if perhaps vague and general, in a style that seems to belong to the ‘60s and ‘70s (the novel was published in 1974). She blends surreal scenes with stream-of-consciousness analysis of freedom, women's place, politics, motherhood, etc.

The narrator recovers from her forgotten vague past in different phases - enforced leisure spent swimming in the pool (an activity suggested by Mrs. April, the strange adminstrator who shows up every time there is a change in her life); relearning language; survival of the gardener's (Lady Chatterley's Lover?) attempted rape; curiosity about the politics of the administration, fueled by vague rumors of embezzling and spying; abreakdown after watching a play about motherhood; being moved hastily into a messy house where she recovers by playing the role of mother and raises several children; a stay in a mental hospital; and she finally splits into two people.

Life is, in effect, one continual breakdown.

Near the beginning, she explains:

I was, and still am, running away from the person to whom (in a sealed envelope, a bulky carton, a gift-wrapped package) I had addressed my life. The name on the address is simply “you,” partly because I still can’t bear to name you specifically, and partly because I am beginning to suspect that you are not an individual at all but a composite of many individuals;... that your characteristics, unlike your thumbprint, are not unique to you but are those of an ethic, a way of oblivion, what Mann calls “an unconscious type,” which I must either escape from or pledge myself to destroy.

Interestingly, parts of this are autobiographical. Like the narrator, Mortimer was raised by a minister, raised many children, and suffered depression.

Is Long Distance her best book? it's a tough call for those who first read her masterpiece, The Pumpkin Eater, in which a woman with too many children continues to have them as a kind of despairing rebellion and defiance of the institution of marriage and a husband who, though tired of his domestic life, long ago shut her in “a pumpkin shell.” (This, by the way, was made into a perfect film starring Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch, and James Mason, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.) In Daddy Goes a-Hunting, recently reissued by Persephone Books, the theme is similar. Long Distance does not hold up as well as her other work, yet at the same time I intend to read it again because there's so much in it. I feel the same way about Anna Kavan's Ice, a 1968 novel which survived oblivion by immediately being labeled science fiction.

I would recommend starting with her other books - then coming to this after becoming a Mortimer fan.

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