The essays in Barbara Lazear Ascher's first collection are pungent, witty, evocative and touching. Taken together, they comprise an update on what it's like to be a writer, a wife and a mother living through the feminist revolution and the batterings of daily urban living.
Ascher was 17 when President Kennedy's assassination numbed her entire generation: "We were 'cool' all right, and determined to keep a distance between the deliberations of our minds and the beats of our hearts, to shut off imagination lest it dwell on those we had lost." Her personal solution was to study and practice law, that bastion of precedent and orderly argument.
After two years, she knew that a career doesn't guarantee "an end to dependency and vulnerability . . . matters of the heart that shy away from reason's persistent grasp." She gave up her practice to write essays that confront the confusing encounters between mind and emotion.
The first essay, "Infidelity," is actually a hymn to sexual fidelity. She writes, "Well, I can tell you what I'd do if I discovered that my husband was having a love affair. I'd go get a gun. None of the pertinent information would filter through the buzzing sound that fills the brain when the heart is hurt. I would forget the facts. . . . " Like a good lawyer, she marshals case precedents, which wouldn't, however, overcome her passion if her heart were betrayed.
The feminist revolution has given rise to new occasions for trying to keep jealousy under the control of reason, because men and women now spend long days working and traveling together as equal colleagues with other people's husbands, wives and lovers. One wife said, " 'She is the one we all worked to bring along, she is living up to the feminist ideal. And I resent and fear her.' " And the emotion is as strong from the other side. If a husband "breathes, he worries. If he worries, he joins the rest of us out there on the lunatic fringe." When we love, we give up our images of ourselves as rational, logical people, as "cool" and self-possessed.
When we love, someone else possesses us, and there is a blurring of boundaries. For herself, however, Ascher draws the line in "What Happened to Cynthia Koestler?" at committing suicide to die with a loved one. (Cynthia was in her 50s when she died along with her husband, writer Arthur Koestler, 77, in a suicide pact in 1983.) Part of the poignancy and passion of adult living comes, Ascher says, from being willing "to march up and down the heart's cutting edge" by facing the possibility of separation inherent in every moment of togetherness.
The most touching section of "Playing After Dark" is about being the mother of a daughter preparing to leave home. Loving a child, like any other kind of being in love, imbues even a seedy coffeeshop with the magic of the child's personality; it enhances an ordinary occasion or a sentimental song: "But unlike being in love with a lover, you know from the start that this love object is a fledgling, here to learn how to leave." She may know this in the cool logic of her mind, but her heart forgets and is wrenched by the impending finality presaged by the fledgling's stressful interview with a college admissions officer.
Two essays describe literary pilgrimages Ascher made to Keats' grave and Faulkner's house, only to decide that the secrets she was looking for are actually to be found in the works of those authors. More satisfying to Ascher is her marvelously described visit with Eudora Welty, a generous, amusing mentor to younger writers. From Welty, she learns that an artist makes you see something that "was everywhere and had been there all the while."
Ascher herself fits this definition of the artist. She makes us see the entanglements of mind and emotion, of logic and love and impending loss, that have been everywhere unnoticed until she focused them for us with her subtle art.