Confessional writing has been a fixture of the literary scene for so long now that we may forget how fraught with dangers the form can be, at least in its modern incarnation. A writer, even when striving to be unstintingly honest, can tip easily into bathos, or be so committed to "telling all" that he or she can begin revealing any number of unnecessary things, thereby letting the tone of the work — and even its prose — resemble those teary talk-show interviews so common in this era of reality TV.
Some writers are masters of the form, while a string of lesser writers, envying their betters, have mimicked such devices, but just haven't the panache, the sheer bravado to pull off such a difficult feat. One thing's for sure: In this particular realm, you can't let them see you sweat.
I thought of these points when I picked up Anne Roiphe's newest book, a memoir titled Epilogue, published by Harper. Over the last 40 years, she's been an immensely prolific and undeniably gifted writer. And she's used confessional methods with frequency, whether in fiction or elsewhere, with varying degrees of success.
When Roiphe's been good, as in her spirited debut novel Up the Sandbox!, she's been entertaining and enlightening like few others (no matter what, she always manages to be funny despite the quality of any single work). And in her memoir 1185 Park Avenue, she wrote one of the most forceful and moving studies of that overworked commodity, the dysfunctional Jewish family. One could point to other of her novels and nonfiction as considerable successes, among them Lovingkindness and Married.
But I have to say that Epilogue is a mixed bag, with lots to admire, though she's stumbled into some of those pitfalls I mentioned earlier. Just before she turned 70, Roiphe lost her husband of nearly 40 years, quite swiftly and wholly unexpectedly. Widowhood — the strains and disappointments of getting used to it — make up a good deal of what this new book is about.
There's nothing wrong with this per se; it's just that whenever Roiphe's "I" takes center stage and she's confessing nonstop, the prose loses its way and her vaunted sense of humor flies right out the window. Listen to me, the book seems to be saying for long stretches, grabbing the reader by the lapels forcefully. I'm the only one who knows about suffering, loneliness and fear. Look at me in all my wretchedness. I hate this, and I don't know why I've been asked to suffer so.
Laughter and Tears
But that's not all there is to Epilogue, thank goodness. Whenever Roiphe turns away from her inner turmoil — and she does, with equal frequency — the book's pace quickens.
She says in the early pages of the book that grief comes in two parts. "The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life. This book is about the second. Although the division between the two parts is not a line, a wall or a chasm. Think of grief as a river that finally runs into the ocean where it is absorbed but not dissolved, pebbles, moss, fish, twigs from the smallest upland stream run with it and finally float in the salt sea from which life emerged.
"I am now a single woman. There is no one at home to call when I am away. Self-pity is never useful. It tends to distort like a fun-house mirror. Nevertheless I indulge myself — heavy helpings of self-pity. Then I stop."
These two paragraphs provide an accurate depiction of both halves of the book as I've tried to describe them — and both sides of the prose style that runs through it.
But then Roiphe tells us that she plans to go out on a date with a stranger — a man — and it's because her grown daughters placed an ad for her in The New York Review of Books. Things distinctly liven up for Roiphe and the reader.
The NYRB letter "said that I was a writer. It said that I was attractive. They think so or else they were lying. They said that I loved the ocean and books. That was true. I didn't read the ad. I was embarrassed. But I was pleased they placed it. Why not? Who knows what waits for me out there among the throngs of divorced and wifeless hordes who might be willing to meet me over the hill? Once I had read in an Edmund Wilson essay of his dislike of women past menopause. He said they were like dried fruits, withered on the vine. The juice was gone. I understood what he meant. Although the words stabbed my heart even then, before I was 40. What about your juice? I had written in the margins of the book. But I knew that crones were female and old men were kings, stallions and producers of heirs. Saul Bellow had a baby at the age of 83. He didn't live long enough after that for her to play Cordelia to his Lear."
Most of that passage is just about perfect, but Roiphe's writerly instincts really come to the fore in the depiction of her date. She sets it all up beautifully. During their first phone call, the man she calls P.J. — he's divorced and admits to being 69, and wanted to be a writer but went into public relations instead — speaks with a hoarse, faint voice. He tells Roiphe that he'd "reached up to a shelf in his closet for a suitcase that was filled with old books and it had fallen on his throat. I thought about beloved books stored in a suitcase. I agreed to a Sunday lunch."
They meet in a bistro around the corner from Roiphe's Manhattan apartment.
"I saw him approach. He was short and thin and he had a white mustache. He had a gait that was something like a trot. Like a pony, he moved steadily toward me. We ate our salads and talked. His hands were very veined and age-spotted. I didn't mind, but he didn't seem to be 69 and a lie is like a broken step on the stairway to heaven. His voice was so weak that I had to lean into his space in order to hear his words. He told me he loved Proust and Stendhal and Thomas Mann. He had been divorced 10 years. He didn't want to tell me why. His hands shook and trembled. Did he have a disease or was he nervous? He never had any children. He wanted to retire to the Caribbean. He told me that customs had changed since I was a girl and asked me if I understood what was expected in today's dating world. His hand was on my knee. His other hand was stroking my arm up and down as if it were a horse's nose. We had known each other exactly 25 minutes. How does a suitcase on a closet shelf fall on a throat? I tried to imagine it."
This kind of wonderful comedy marks Roiphe's forays into the dating scene. Yet there's too much self-pity mixed in along the way, and it wears the reader down. It's not that I want to make light of the plight of widows or widowers or the terrible loneliness that can afflict people. I just wonder where her sense of humor went about herself (or at least a touch of irony). Perhaps she should have let this material cook a little longer before she started setting it down.
There are also some recurring motifs — the discussions of the moon's phases, for example — that come off as pretentious.
But let me also say that I'll never forget the cast of characters she encountered once she decided to re-engage with the world. These passages contain some of the sharpest prose in the book, especially when they deal with certain absurdities of the male species. I laughed out loud more than once — and am always grateful for the chance to do that these days.