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Putting Up With an Old Lady : NELLY'S VERSION by Eva Figes (Pantheon Books: $8.95, paper; 218 pp.; 0-679-72035-9) : GHOSTS by Eva Figes (Pantheon Books: $16.95; 150 pp.; 0-394-57159-2)

January 22, 1989|Kirsten Grimstad | Grimstad was, for three years, executive editor of Chrysalis, a Magazine of Women's Culture. and

In England, Eva Figes is regarded as a literary descendant of Virginia Woolf for her insistance on the inner world as the special province of the novel and for her ability to render that world in precisely calibrated and luminous lyrical imagery. The author of eight novels, she is arguably best known for her nonfiction work, "Patriarchal Attitudes," published in 1970, a vintage feminist classic in which she re-examined the ideas of major Western thinkers to expose their underlying view of woman as the projection of men's fears and desires. She concluded, "It is to this mirror image that woman has had to comply."

What is a woman's identity apart from these projections? This question lies at the heart of "Nelly's Version," a novel originally published in Britain in 1977, now reissued in tandem with "Ghosts," the author's new novel. The central character is a middle-aged woman suffering from amnesia. As the story begins, she finds herself checking into a strange hotel in a strange town under an assumed name with a suitcase full of bank notes. She imagines herself to be an accomplice in some sort of secret plot; she awaits a cue that will reveal her role in the unfolding of a thriller.

The first sight of herself in a mirror is a shock. At first she thinks a stranger is in the room with her. Then it dawns. "I'll have to put up with you, won't I? Somehow." The image in the mirror does not reply. "I suspected her of being one of those women who had quietly put up with many things without answering back, so that it had become a lifelong habit."

Although she avoids mirrors from that point on, at the hair- dresser she is again forced to confront "the stranger, this alien and unlikely female" that is her self. There, watching the alien self silently submit to unwelcome preening and grooming, she feels contempt. "I would never grow to like her. But we were stuck with each other now, like two inseparable sisters. One timid, the other hard and rebellious." Eventually strangers in the form of husband and son--both of them obnoxious and uncaring--lay claim to the timid sister while the hard rebellious sister turns incendiary.

The author's attempt to weave a solipsistic fictional world into the warp of the mind of a profoundly alienated amnesiac is daring and skilled. Here a spark of consciousness of what we must assume to be the narrator's true self forms in the vacuum of a mind cut off from all memory, personal ties, and feeling. Nothing is sacred as savagely funny scenes unfold between the narrator and those claming to be her nearest of kin, for whom she has not a single shred of feeling. The question of the narrator's real identity haunts the narrative from beginning to end, where we are left wondering whether her amnesia was willed unconsciously as a device to liberate her true, hard, rebellious self from the mirror image of the compliant alien other self.

"Ghosts" is a fitting companion for the earlier novel because it, too, experiments with the frontiers of fiction in addressing the theme of the obliteration of the past. The narrator, also middle-aged and female, meditates on the passage of time, her own transit into old age, and the loss of everything caught up in the maelstrom of disintegration and renewal. While the mood of "Nelly's Vision" was wicked, here it is melancholy.

The four seasons provide the structural divisions and backdrop for her thoughts and memories of her own childhood and youth, her children's childhood now past, her deceased father and mentally vacant mother, her dying friend and the secret love she once shared with that friend's husband. Saturated images of nature vividly convey our relentlessly changing world where life flows absently away along with the spring rain washing through the gutters. In these images of flowing water we sense the ghost of Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who articulated this modernist sensibility of ceaseless change a mere 2,500 years ago in his famous maxim: "You cannot step twice into the same river."

Modern forces of development are now accelerating the pace set by nature. The flow of traffic, the movement of people in the train station underscore the fleetingness of the moment. Streets are widened and billboards posted where once a row of shops used to stand. An old woman loses her flower shop and now wanders, homeless, with plastic bags wrapped around her feet, her tracks fading with the falling snow just as her memory too will be effaced with time.

The patterns of continuity do not offer comfort to the narrator. In the typical way that her son twists his foot, she sees the ghost of her lost father, not the ongoing presence of his spirit. In archetypally recurring events, there is also no comfort. While others are absorbed in the annual celebration of the Christmas pageant, the narrator has her eyes on the exit, almost in the manner of a Holocaust survivor for whom the experiences of loss and escape are inextricably united.

The only force opposing the suction of time and change seems to reside in the created work itself, in the carefully measured prose and in poetic images that capture and evoke the passing moment, the individual, the feeling. In this prose poem of a novel, the beautiful cadence and imagery of the language itself seem to reverse the rush to oblivion pictured in its words.

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