A cruel mistress

Jennifer R. Bernstein

August 24, 2015

As an object, Hausfrau is unprepossessing. It eschews visual hallmarks of literary seriousness, by which I mostly mean, it looks girly. The dust jacket invites one to wrinkle her nose at its ingratiating spray of pink and purple roses floating atop a metallic plane, which, combined with the title, suggest the novel might be slumming it in the genre ghetto known as Female Complaint. And at a measly 300-ish pages, it lacks the heft of, say, the Victorians, whose prolixity goes some way with a species of modern reader toward atoning for their trivial concerns.

But as a work of literature, Hausfrau, the first novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum, fits neatly into no category. It is, let’s say, adjacent to family tragedy — for it details, with great pathos and dramatic tension, the widening cracks in a household unit.

Our protagonist, an American expatriate named Anna Benz, lives in a picture-book suburb of Zurich with her frosty Swiss banker husband and their three children. Anna’s defining attribute is her total and unrelenting malaise. She does not work but seems, rather, to make a full-time occupation of sleeping with men she is not married to and for whom she harbors no special affection. Other than these dalliances, Anna’s energies are directed largely toward fraught therapy sessions of dubious salubrity, and German language classes, many of which she misses in favor of (hold on to your chair) sex with a fellow student.

What has this upper-class, suburban, white lady got to be so bent out of shape over?

Though much of the novel’s plot takes Anna afield from her household, its members haunt her gettings-away; indeed, nothing seems to make her think of her family so much as the act of betraying them. Anna’s mind tends to stray, mid-thrust, to self-recrimination, a refocusing of the narrative toward the catastrophe waiting in the threadbare veil between her two lives.

But Essbaum has not written an instruction in the moral dangers of adultery, or the narcissistic impulse from which it springs. An abundance of lovingly-phrased characterizations of Anna’s suffering and justifications of her liaisons kneecaps our ability to condemn Anna with any conviction.

This is a good thing I am doing, Anna said inside herself, though “good” was hardly the right word. Anna knew this. What she meant was expedient. What she meant was convenient. What she meant was wrong in nearly every way but justifiable as it makes me feel better, and for so long I have felt so very, very bad.

Anna just wants to feel better. Don’t we all? It is easy, for a little while, to sympathize with a subject as intelligent and compunctious as she, even if her self-awareness fails to elevate her above her drives. It doesn’t hurt that Essbaum’s writing is, at its best, beautiful, evocative, distinct. As the passage above makes plain, the novel features a critical mass of the kind of psychological insight and availability for projective identification that mark the 19th century realist novel, and a bummed-out (anti)heroine who bears certain superficial resemblances to the two-timing ladies of Tolstoy and Flaubert. But therein their commonalities begin and end.

For soon enough, one tires of Anna, finds her not kindred but alienating, more like Hamlet in her terminal passivity than Emma B. or Anna K. Unlike Hamlet, Anna acts, but she acts in a direction orthogonal to her depression. Anna’s affairs do not make her happy, not even on a fleeting basis. They merely satisfy a repetition compulsion and press her harder against the wall of her agony.

Readers may be inclined to dismiss Anna’s melancholy as an unjustified psychic excess, a kind of black hole in the narrative. After all, what has this upper-class, suburban, white lady got to be so bent out of shape over?

The sum total of what we know about Anna is paltry for concrete detail. In one memorable scene, Anna’s therapist asks Anna where she grew up.

“Does it matter?” Anna replies.

Anna’s doctor is doing what she, as an analyst, is trained to do to her patients, and what we, as readers, are trained to do to our characters: to peel away layers until we find at their center that skeleton key commonly called motivation.

But here, there isn’t one. Essbaum has divorced sensation from underlying psychology. In this way the novel is remarkably un-modern, if a signature delusion of modernity is the belief that the cure for what ails us is hiding in some nook or cranny of our personal history. We are told of a three-month affair some years back with a man who quickly tired of Anna, but with whom she believes she is still “in love.” As an explanation for Anna’s prolonged devastation, this is pretty clearly a red herring. The brevity and shallowness of the encounter do not add up to Anna’s years of “metastasized wistfulness.”

Essbaum gives us further clues that we are in a space beyond the purview of naturalistic reportage. Much of the novel’s dialogue, internal and external, rings non-mimetic, axiomatic rather than conversational. Events occur not due to the domino-fall of ordinary cause and effect but according to a(n il)logic of the symbolic and mystical (to name the obvious example would spoil a major plot point). And Anna, a 21st century woman in a first world country, has neither a bank account nor a driver’s license.

What matters in Hausfrau is not why things are the way they are, but that they are. And what they are is dire. Essbaum’s fictional universe is thick with the fog of psychic pain; its subjects are linked mainly by vectors of suffering inflicted by nearly everyone on nearly everyone else. Anna, on her husband, and her son, whom she upbraids when he catches her kissing one of her paramours. Anna’s husband, on Anna, whom he neglects in favor of work and his Swiss friends. Anna on herself, in her refusal to pull herself out of the murk. The novel, on the reader, whose every hope for catharsis is thwarted. And the frustrated reader, potentially on any of the characters, the novel, and its author.

If Hausfrau is a novel of cruelty, then we might look to other art works with similar centers of gravity for clues to its purpose. The Art of Cruelty, the critic Maggie Nelson’s book of essays on liminal aesthetic spaces, offers a fertile exploration of pieces that concern themselves with the redolences of cruelty. Nelson’s texts include, among many others: the unsettling performance art of Marina Abramovic; Mike Kelley’s short film “Family Tyranny,” which features inanimate objects subject to unsubtle stand-in degradations; Francis Bacon’s images of violence, abuse, and brutality. Though these works dwell much deeper than Hausfrau into the province of the avant-garde, Nelson’s meditations on their forms and functions go a long way toward illuminating Essbaum’s gloomy aesthetic.

In dissecting this body of art, Nelson invokes the playwright Antonin Artaud, who considers “the riotous reclamation of evil something of a necessary pit stop on the way to dancing with cosmic forces which have no truck with normative, especially religious, conceptions of morality.” For artists at the edge, there is virtue in staging a frank staring contest with — and in some cases, celebration of — primordial currents that roil under the surface of everyday life: desire, sex, narcissism, destruction. Art that wishes to take these forces seriously must deal in cruelty, for cruelty is stitched into their very fabric.

This emphasis on domains not easily segregated into right/wrong, good/evil, or sick/healthy goes to the essence of why anyone bothers to make art at all. The artist — in our case, the novelist — who defies readerly expectations, who asks us to spend time rubbing against the prickly underbelly of human consciousness, expands our sense of what is possible, both in literature and in the world to which it bears a relation more oblique than one-to-one reflection. The author who refuses to choreograph our responses to her novel by way of traditional narrative signposts frees us to spread out in unexpected directions, to react in ways that surprise us, to hear “the irregular, transitory, and sometimes unwanted news of how it is to be another human being.”

Take, for instance, the novel’s structure, which relies not on suspense for its drama, but rather repetition, circularity, and a sense of the inescapable — touchstones of what you might call a narrative logic of cruelty. Anna founders in an extended darkness that refuses the entry of light. Her griefs do not heal. They multiply, and worsen. No forward motion for her; no redemption or epiphany. Essbaum suspends Anna in the haze of an all-consuming mood by way of hypnotic prose that lulls us into following Anna into her captivity.

This seduction of both character and reader offers one answer to the inquiry: What does the novel do? And more broadly, need a novel do more than this? (If we want to know what Nelson thinks, we might look to her 2009 hybrid memoir/poem/personal essay Bluets, which seldom ventures into the territory of plot, action, or character.)

This theory of narrative stasis may be applied, in parallel, to the ethical realm. Just as the story frustrates by its failure to go someplace, Anna maddens the doing-obsessed modern subject because she doesn’t do anything with her suffering—doesn’t convert it into art or labor or self-improvement. She merely submits to her sadness and allows it, like a steamroller, to flatten the life from her. In a culture that exalts dynamism, progress, and the exercise of one’s will upon the world, Anna’s stuckness contains heretical potential: a model of living that, if not exactly joyful, mitigates the (capitalist) imperative to go, do, make.

Essbaum’s depictions of cruelty, because they run aground of pat moral lessons, also grant us opportunities to uproot received ideas about what is or is not cruel. “Who defines harm? On whose behalf?” asks Nelson. For instance, might Anna’s destructiveness serve as an antidote to the commandment that women create, grow, help others grow? Ought woman, per the urging of Valentine de Saint-Point via Nelson, “find once more her cruelty and her violence”?

These questions are most intriguing when they offend conventional feminist wisdom. Towards the end of the book, Anna’s husband Bruno makes his first explicit acknowledgement of Anna’s infidelities. He beats Anna to unconsciousness — no more, he says, than minor recompense for her crimes. When she awakes later, he bathes her and puts her to bed. She submits without protest.

What do we make of this episode? The novel makes clear that Bruno is not of an essentially violent nature, but that he is responding to the irreparable damage Anna has done to him and their family. In the absence of any hint that she should have responded differently, Anna’s acceptance of Bruno’s outburst defies our ingrained sensibilities about what it means for men to strike women. Bruno is not a monster; Anna is not (or not only) a victim. Perhaps Essbaum’s framing of these scenes constitutes, in Nelson’s words, “its own form of disobedience in a world obsessed with the big-deal-ness of female defilement.”

Insofar as Anna chafes under ill treatment, it comes less at the hands of her husband than forces greater and more diffuse.

We might, in fact, deem the intensity of Anna’s misery exactly proportional with the lashes inflicted upon her, and upon most women, by imposing social structures — and by extension, upon all of us by civilization. Are not the institutions of compulsory heterosexuality and child-rearing adequate to explain a degree of insanity in their participants? If so, we must find Hausfrau deserving of the epithet “girly” — for its engagement with systemic policing of thought and behavior, by and against which women, people of color, and other marked populations have long been defined. This is a female complaint, but also a human one. Surely we can most of us, across the range of social identities, relate to the occasional (or frequent) sensation of living an airless, tightly-bordered life in which we do and say what we ought and almost never make room for the strange, sometimes antisocial passions that pulse just beneath the skin.

Anna, at least, allows these powers their due, even if she cannot reconcile them to the version of herself she would like to be. Anna is unhappy; she broods. Anna wants a man; she has him. It would be false to paint her as some kind of fully-realized, Nietzschean antihero: self-doubt and moral misgivings dog her to the end. But she may be a flailing victim of the same totalistic cruelty under which we all labor to take a breath—to express a desire that flies in the face of quaint Enlightenment faith in reason, sweetness, and light.

Out of an impulse steeped in equal parts generosity and annoyance, we long to enter the world of the book and scold Anna, to take her by the shoulders and demand she choose a direction for her life, for we cannot bear nor understand her shiftless floating atop the realities of her existence. But we would do well, in our righteous pique, to remember that not all art is aimed at engendering identification with a character, or increasing our self-knowledge. Some art — in Nelson’s view, the most interesting art — “shifts the focus from making us more intelligible to ourselves to helping us become more curious about how strange we really are.” Strange, yes, that Anna surrenders to her prison of circumstance, decorates her cell as though it were one she had chosen for herself. Strange, indeed, that we all do.

Books in this review:
  • Hausfrau
    by Jill Alexander Essbaum

    March 16, 2015
    336 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • The Art of Cruelty
    by Maggie Nelson

    July 10, 2011
    304 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Jennifer is a Seattle-based writer and co-founder of The New Inquiry.

Follow Jennifer R. Bernstein on Twitter: @jennifermoonka

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