Thursday, May 05, 2011

Margaret Drabble's A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman

Margaret Drabble is one of my favorite writers.  I was delighted to learn a collection of her short stories would be published this month.  I tracked down an uncorrected proof of A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman:  Complete Short Stories some months ago. Then I promptly put it aside--typical--and didn't read it until it was released this month. 

Some people get Drabble; some people don't. I'm a Drabble addict and regularly reread her novels, or reread parts of the ones I know too well.

In her early light novels, charming comedies, she writes about young women of the 1960s.  A university student gets pregnant after having sex once, confident bachelor girls learn that they can run with an arty crowd even when stuck in humdrum jobs, and young married women have doomed affairs.   Although these are not Drabble's best, I am fond of them.  I was surprised when a good friend, and a great reader, said she thought Drabble was sexist, and that her heroines underplayed their intelligence for the sake of the men. I don't read them that way at all.

Drabble's work became more serious in the '70s and '80s.  Six of her best books, The Realms of Gold, The Ice Age, and The Radiant Way trilogy, are elaborate novels of social realism, interweaving the stories of successful women  with flashbacks about their class origins, the relationship of place (London) to success and revisitings of hometowns, their messy marriages, faithful love affairs, and jobs.  There is no ideology that defines them; the characters are mostly liberals, but Drabble is not writing to proselytize. She records the the times, analyzing the economic , political, and sociological trends that define them.

In the '90s her novels became shorter, but equally intense.  My favorite of the shorter novels is The Seven Sisters, about a divorced woman who moves to London (London is always freer), takes a Virgil class, and frees herself through Virgil's Aeneid and a trip retracing his steps (which I wrote about here).

Drabble's new book, A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman:  Complete Short Stories, is surprisingly effective.  I think of her as a slow, fastidious developer of long narratives, but she pares these down and they are powerful.  The themes are love, travel, loneliness, voyeurism, marriage, adultery, and work.  In "A Voyage to Cythera," a young woman who loves to travel cannot connect closely with anyone. She lives for the next hill, or the next town.  Then a man on a train asks her to address an envelope and mail a letter to a woman. She realizes that much is at stake, that he is in love, and that he does not want the woman to recognize his handwriting.  She wonders about his strange passion.   Later, she walks to the house, where she sees through the window two happy women talking and preparing a meal for their children.  The everyday scene is the most enchanting she has ever seen, and has an epiphany.  

 In "A Success Story," a famous playwright has a chance to meet her favorite writer, a playwright she has idolized since she was 16. She is nervous beforehand.  At the party he is drunk and flirts with her; they leave together, though she makes it clear that nothing will happen.  This is the kind of Drabble situation we know and like so well.  What happens is not what we expect.

In my favorite story, "Faithful Love," the beautiful, unhappy, but practical heroine runs into her old lover at a cafe. There is romance, and there is suspense.  What will they say to each other?   But what I enjoy most are the heroine's everyday.  musings.

"She had done enough walking, she thought--from the Old Street tube station to the place where they had made her new tooth.  She ran her tongue over the new front tooth, reassuringly, and was slightly ashamed by the immense relief that she felt at being once more presentable, no longer disfigured by that mutilating gap.  She had always made much of caring little for her beauty, and was always disturbed by the accidents that brought her face to face with her own vanity--by the inconvenient pimple, by the unperceived smudge on the cheek, by the heavy cold."


Ellen said...

Thank you for this one. I like Drabble very much and like to hear about her latest book. I loved The Seven Sisters; also from her early career Waterfall and Through a Needle's Eye.


Frisbee said...

The stories are very worthwhile reading. I wish there were more of them.

Buried In Print said...

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I finished The Garrick Year a few weeks back and was reminded how much I loved the other works that I've read (although, strangely enough, I seem to have a habit of leaving them unfinished, which makes me seem a rather disloyal Drabble reader, despite my claims that she is a favourite of mine). I must track this one down and add it to the stack of neglected ones!

Frisbee said...

They're very good. I, too, like to reread her. There's something essayish going on behind the scenes of her fiction that makes it easy to reread parts and then not quite get to the end. And I mean that in a good way. There's a lot to think about in her books.