'Voice' on Literature

Reviews of the last 50 years

In the production of In the Summer House staged by JoAnne Akalaitas at Lincoln Center last summer, Dianne Wiest's Gertrude was so mesmerizing, so strong, and the young actress who played Molly so lumplike (I can't even remember her name), that Gertrude's view of Molly didn't seem distorted—which, of course, it is. Molly and Gertrude are equally complex and implicated in each other's fates. Their perspectives cannot be disentangled. This production, I thought, was directed from Gertrude's point of view, although the play is written from Molly's, from inside the summer house. Or maybe it would be more correct to say that it's written from both points of view at the same time. A monstrous motherliness is echoed by an equally monstrous daughterliness, a daughterliness that kills, and the perspective of the play hovers somewhere in the middle, undecided. "The double heart," Bowles wrote in her journal while revising the play. "Not a drama, but both families....Is it writing I'm putting off, or was it always something else—a religious sacrifice? The only time I wrote well, when I passed through the inner door, I felt guilt."

All of Bowles's work—the play, the novel, a handful of stories, and whatever else has yet to be unearthed in her journals and letters—seems to take place in the chambers of the guilty double heart, not entirely in the summer house, but on the threshold. It is the stumbling passage through the inner door, the pictures projected on the wall of the summer house. Her expressionistic, idiosyncratic voice seems not the singular edifice of modernism nor the multiple, tattered voice of postmodernism, but a response, a call, a challenge to a voice that looms outside, talking and talking and talking. The voice outside always speaks haphazardly and at length. The voice inside, the voice of the daughter, answers back—slowly, hesitantly, in riddles. This internal, aphasic, bitter, murderous daughter's voice has a question for every question. It cannot sit down anywhere. Bowles's work is the work of Persephone, the work (to borrow a line from Eavan Boland) of the daughter in hell. That it is hot and strange there and that the people walking above look flat and strange should come as no surprise. [return to top]

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