By Carolyn Kellogg
March 21, 2010
Never Breathe a Word
The Collected Stories
Counterpoint: 366 pp., $26
It is clear that we read for pleasure; what is less obvious are the varieties of pleasures we experience. Pleasing isn't always pleasant. Take Caroline Blackwood's stories -- they are rare in their brutal exposure and are deeply troubling to read. Yet "Never Breathe a Word" is nothing less than a marvelous slide into an emotional abyss.
In Blackwood's stories, women -- almost always women -- have quietly slipped outside their conventional roles. An aging actress feels "fierce and defeated and futureless." While we're ready to accept that such a woman might have no future or feel defeated, is she allowed to be fierce? What kind of damage might she wreak, driven by a powerful anger and with nothing to lose?
Most of Blackwood's characters come from such places: They inhabit danger zones of keen intelligence, amused manipulation and something else -- self-indulgence, or maybe self-importance. They are sometimes funny, unwittingly revealing and rarely nice. At the core, they're out of sync with underlying societal assumptions, women who are unselfconsciously and dominantly at the center of their worlds.
Blackwood, who died at 64 of cancer in New York in 1996, was at the center of many. Officially known as Lady Caroline, she was an heir to the Guinness fortune who grew from round-faced debutante to beautiful, wild bohemian. She married a broke and unknown painter, Lucian Freud, whom fortune smiled upon; composer Israel Citkowitz, whose fame remained modest; and lured poet Robert Lowell away from his wife into a marriage that proved toxic to them both. Lowell finally left Blackwood -- on that day, he was on his way to his New York apartment when he died of a heart attack; he was found in his taxi, clutching the Freud portrait of Blackwood that appears on the cover of this book.
"Never Breathe a Word" closes with Blackwood's earliest writing, seven journalism pieces, by turns light and agonizing. Writing about 1964 Beat culture in Venice Beach, she scornfully peppers the article, Zagat-like, with beat lingo. "Beatific talk is the very soul of brevity, if not wit. It is deliberately functional, for the hipster rejects euphemism. He 'sets a scene' when he tells, 'wigs' when he's worried, 'gigs' when he works, 'bugs' when he's annoyed, 'wails' when he functions, 'floats' when he's drunk, 'grazes' when he's content, 'bends' when he's tired, 'scenes' when he arrives, 'splits' when he goes." From witty distance, she moves in close: She writes, with stunted emotion, of the dehumanizing experience in a high-tech burn ward that was treating her young daughter. The title piece is a memoir: In it, she builds slow and horrible tension of her youthful experience with a malevolent horseman. Always seeded with cold wit, Blackwood's nonfiction reveals remarkable, ungentle insight.
But Blackwood left nonfiction behind for fiction. "You can't really get the truth about anybody from an interview," she demurred to the New York Times in 1995. "It's all fiction in a way."
She enacts this tension -- between the expectation of self-revelation and a subject's unwillingness to perform appropriately -- in the collection's opening story, "The Interview." Written almost completely in dialogue, a young male journalist brings a painter's widow to a bar. They've just been to a documentary screening of a film featuring her dead husband; at first the widow seems frail, vulnerable, about to spill more than she should over whiskey.
She drops salacious details -- her unfaithful husband was a lover "about as soft and green as asparagus!" -- and makes half-serious, predatory overtures, even as she shares serious ideas. "I fear that film can be a little too factual -- and its effects can be rather fatal. One should only ever be linked to the past through one's memory," she says. "Luckily memory is the most miserable, and unreliable, old muscle." Her candor is calculated, devised to both pull the interviewer close and push him away; as the story moves toward its conclusion, his voice literally disappears from the page.
There are a few male voices: a husband, oblivious to his wife's postpartum depression, feels victimized by their cheerful nanny and rationalizes his way to a tryst. A sensitive, handsome social worker, employed to connect abandoned children with their birth mothers, finds solace in one-night stands, and may well be leaving his own fatherless babies behind.
The women are not much more likable, but they are more intricately layered. A strict nun bends her rules for the wife of a dying man. Is she going soft? Is she feeling new generosity? Why does her small kindness feel like a sin? What desire does she not see?
Blackwood is a master of minutely examined choices that lead around, rather than into; her characters are prone to dissimulation and avoidance. A mother ravages her daughter's stocking on Christmas Eve because she can. The retired actress, recently dumped by a young lover, rediscovers her footing in a cold graveyard. Blackwood's characters are wicked and wise, cruel and funny and weak. They are liars. They are like many of us.
In moving to fiction, Blackwood found a way to rarely revealed truths. Her stories are essential for those who won't be frightened off by the futureless and the fierce.
Kellogg is lead blogger for Jacket Copy, the Times' book blog.
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