by Eleanor Bader
One word comes to mind after a few minutes in the company of Jane Lazarre: Intense. She speaks slowly, weighing each thought carefully before giving voice to the ideas that inform her writing, her life. Forty-seven, married and the mother of two sons, she is the director of the writing program at the Eugene Lang College of the New School for Social Research in New York City. Her most recent novel, Worlds Beyond My Control, has been called “sublime,” “a literary adventure,” and “wise, brave and enthralling.”
Since her first book, The Mother Knot, was published in 1976, Lazarre has been writing about the relationship between motherhood and society. “Of course, mothers are generally obsessed with their children since they are completely responsible for their welfare,” she says. “Finally, there’s a developing literature onthis:SarahRuddick’sMateraa/27im&ing and novels like Beloved. There’s so much to pull apart. What it means to be so completely responsible for the life of another. How it’s affected by the lack of social support and the dominant discourse on motherhood that makes us feel even more responsible than we are.”
In Worlds Beyond My Control, Julia, the protagonist, is obsessed with being a good mother to her children. “She’s obsessed with how to bridge gender and racial differences [Julia is white, Jewish; her sons are Black] while still feeling more connected to these people than to anyone else in the world. She is obsessed with writing and not writing, what it means to have a family and a home in the face of so much homelessness.”
Anxious, obsessed, sad — all are emotions Lazarre acknowledges both in the novel and in her life. “The problem is that obsession in relation to women is often used as an insult. Most writers are obsessive. Julia is a writer.”
So who is Julia? Who is Jane? Where does one begin and the other end? Or does it matter?
“I’ve written and worked in autobiography all my working and writing life,” she says. In Worlds Beyond My Control, “I was working with my own life very clearly. There is no attempt to disguise the fact that Julia is me, yet, I was trying to write about the relationship between autobiography and fiction in women writers’ work, and this Julia — an imaginary character — can never be completely me.
“The novel is about a woman and her writing, a mother and her children, and the ways in which these two experiences are integrated in her. They are usually polarized in literature and in life. There is the tension of women working and women mothering, the tremendous struggle to learn and be able to say ‘I have no control over this. I cannot manage this.’ There is a tremendous demand on women to manage so much in the face of an often hostile world, to make a home for others, to find work which is creative and self-expressive. This demand takes a tremendous toll. Many women are doing brilliantly, yet we all fall apart at times or are paying a terrible internal price for it,” she says.
The conflicts leave women, Lazarre believes, feeling like outsiders. ‘That sense of being an outsider has permeated women’s fiction for hundreds of years. I think that’s why women writers have always been involved with autobiography”
Lazarre suddenly stops speaking. Then, just as abruptly, she smiles and paraphrases poet Muriel Rukeyser: What would happen if women told the truth about their lives? The world would split open.
“I have been a passionate reader all my life. I’ve always read for meaning in my life. But when I became a mother, I realized no one had prepared me emotionally. I was almost in love with my baby, but I was also lonely, confused and isolated.”
Then several things happened. The women’s movement began very intensely at the time of my first child’s birth, in 1969. I started a group with five new mothers in New Haven, where I was living in married-student housing while my husband went to Yale. None of the women who were early feminists were mothers. There was an anti-mother critique, but I felt supported, enabled by feminism and the whole analysis of women’s lives, sexually, in terms of work. It was extremely important, definitive in my life. Feminism was the core of my intellectual life. It still is. My relationship to writing has grown out of my love for women’s literature. I’ve learned about writing from women writers. I never went to school for writing, but I’ve studied Doris Lessing, Tillie Olsen, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Bronte. These five are enormous influences. I teach students about these women. But there was no voice for what we now call the ‘subjectivity of the mother.’ Eventually, I found that voice in Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley. They had tremendous impact on me. I realized my experience of motherhood had been felt before and that the experience of motherhood could be a literary theme.”
When Lazarre, her husband and son moved back to their city of origin, New York, in 1971, she became a freelance writer. One article, coauthored with Rachel Cowan and published in the Village Voice, argued that motherhood and feminism were compatible, essentially related. “Out of that I got a few letters,” Lazarre recalls, “telling me that I should write a book about this. I wrote a few chapters, a memoir on motherhood, which became The Mother Knot.” It was critically acclaimed and widely read.
This effort was followed by two other works, a collection of autobiographical essays, On Loving Men, and a novel, Some Kind of Innocence.
“In The Mother Knot, I wanted to tell people about the experience of motherhood, to write what it was really like. Later, I wanted to explore sexuality, the relationship made conscious by the women’s movement between autonomy and sexuality. On Loving Men was vilified, that a woman would write about sexuality so openly. Men reviewed it and read it only as a woman writing about her sex life, whereas I was trying to explore the relationship between sexuality and autonomy in a woman. I was very hurt. It was my first experience with negative, contemptuous reviews, and it took me a longtime to publish again. Partly, I wasn’t ready to take the risk, but at the same time the industry changed. It was the late 1970s and the conglomerates were beginning to form and a lot of women writers were finding it very hard to publish. There was a tremendous backlash towards women, especially feminist women writers.”
This confluence of factors led Lazarre into the classroom, first as an adjunct professor at Yale and City College, then later at the New School.
While adjuncting, Lazarre started writing The Powers of Charlotte. “It was a rebirth for me, a book not bound by the facts of my life, but about my life in a way I’d never written before, a real story in the sense that I wasn’t trying to bring autobiography and fiction together, something which had obsessed me and still does. The characters are not really my family, even though it comes out of my life, my growing up in the left, a child of a father in the Communist Party.”
But there is one area of the book in which truth and fiction merged. Charlotte, like Jane, lost her mother when she was a very young child, and spent much of her childhood, adolescence and teen years longing for a relationship she could not know. “I was seven when my mother died. Emily, my sister, was four. My mother was sick for many years. We watched her die. It took me at least four books to write that out of my system. I spent my entire adulthood longing for a mother. There were aunts, a stepmother, but it was not the same. No one could replace her. I was given a lot. I got a lot of attention, but my life has been defined by this central loneliness. My own dedication to my children comes out of this loss.”
Lazarre’s experience — as a mother who has never been a mother’s daughter — frames her life, her personality. But Lazarre is not one to get caught up in exclusively personal concerns. “At the heart of my life, at the heart of my teaching, is the idea that literary voices are inherently political. I agree with the writer, Chinua Achebe, that it is the responsibility of the artist to teach and articulate politics clearly. But I also agree with Camus that the artist must be free from ideological pressures. I try to write out of my politics. There’s a politics to motherhood that I try to write about, as Sarah Ruddick puts it, the politics of remembering.”
WORLDS BEYOND MY CONTROL by Jane Lazarre (E.P. Dutton, NY; $ 18.95 hardcover)
“I wanted to control the world with my words, to affect history with a sentence perfectly framed. If I wrote well enough, I thought, the world would see me, hear my meaning; my dead parents might hear me and know me perfectly at last.”
Julia, the Jewish protagonist of Worlds Beyond My Control is, like Jane Lazarre herself, a teacher, a mother and a writer. Her agony and anguish — in the face of racism, warmaking, poverty and personal frailty — forms the core of this exceptionally moving, if at times obsessive, novel.
While words are Julia’s stock-in-trade, she has for the moment, ceased to write. Troubled by the impending loss of her oldest son to a faraway college, she is slowly scrutinizing the many aspects of her life. Her marriage, her friendships, her sexual longings, her upbringing and career goals, all are studied in meticulous detail. So, too, are her dreams for the two Black sons she has nurtured into manhood.
Dual needs, dual impulses — to cling or let go, to dominate or ignore, to silence or urge boys-now-men to screams at the tops of their lungs — rage within Julia. Can she be a good mother? Can she be a devoted, loyal friend? Can she be honest with others and true to herself? Can she be politically progressive without relinquishing her toehold on comfort and security? Or must she lapse into overwhelming sadness, unable to climb the rungs of emotional self-possession and safety?
The honesty with which Lazarre grapples with these dilemmas and potential dilemmas is haunting, born of Christa Wolf’s injunction to “break the silence about difficult things.”
And this is a difficult, painful novel. While Lazarre’s language is precise and often beautiful, her angst and incessant worry make the book tough going for those of us with similar concerns. Like a spark flung into a pile of dry rubble, it is sure to ignite a range of feelings, many of them uncomfortable.
But this is also the book’s strength, for in holding a looking glass to persistent conflicts, it opens our eyes and hearts to new possibilities. In the end, there is only one rational conclusion: Should Julia triumph, we too can hope to soar. —EJB