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The Demons Are Out : THE FURIES, By Janet Hobhouse (Doubleday; $22.50; 293 pp.)

April 25, 1993|Daphne Merkin | Merkin is a free-lance writer living in New York

Janet Hobhouse, who died in 1991 at age 41, managed to cram a whole lot of living into her foreshortened existence. The impression one gathers upon reading "The Furies," her posthumous memoir-cum-novel, is that she led the sort of epic life that should have made for great fiction. By dint of intelligence and drive, Hobhouse willed herself upward from a disheveled childhood and a depressive mother into the wider spheres of an Oxford education and a cosmopolitan lifestyle, which included beautifully decorated apartments, literary attainments, love affairs with famous men, and devoted friends. She wrote a biography of Gertrude Stein before she was out of her '20s and was the author of three novels--the last of which, "Dancing in the Dark," earned her a cult following. Although her lush, almost rococo prose style and elegant sensibility earned her somewhat overblown comparisons with Henry James and Virginia Woolf, among others, none of her novels has anywhere near the power of this unmistakably autobiographical work.

"The Furies" is a stunning heartbreaker of a book, shot through with a pellucid sadness. It is the same sadness that cuts through Hobhouse's novels, underneath their sparkling surface. But perhaps, after all, unmitigated unhappiness is not a condition that easily lends itself to the inventive energy necessary for the writing of great fiction. One senses always in this writer's fiction--as if to ward off that very unhappiness--the brittle resolve to entertain: "I need a new place to write," she remarks late in "The Furies," "to finish my new novel, about 'gaiety' and 'ruthlessness.' " It is as though, ever the avid student, Hobhouse took the old Wordsworthian precept of "experience recollected in tranquillity" too literally to her artistic heart, and tried to keep her demons at bay through sheer good-hostess charm. What resulted were novels that are well-observed but nonetheless strangely uncompelling: they are, all three of them, too relentlessly decorative in tone and too contrived plot-wise to be considered genuinely important. But with this, her least "invented" book, the demons are out in full force, clamoring to be heard from the very first page. Gone are mere "gaiety" and mere "ruthlessness"--abstractions to be plopped into a novel, as arbitrary as a character's name or the decision to set a book in California. In their place is a stirring lack of artifice and the sure movement of tragedy, "all the rage and blackness that being in the world produces."

It is unfortunate but true that catastrophe in life can sometimes move a person's art forward, jolt it out of its stale preconceptions. This is certainly the case, I think, with Hobhouse's work. The monstrous detachment--not simply a technical device but a "dangerous skill," as she herself calls it in "The Furies," "a ready access to dissociation," which worked to her disadvantage in the novels--gives this hurt-filled memoir a kind of poignant stoicism. Shadowed by cancer, (a publisher's note alerts us that the book was left unfinished at her death) Hobhouse is free to write from the heart without first swooping down upon the reader, elegantly dressed, brandishing coy literary canapes. With death looming, there is nothing to be gained anymore from good manners.

Which isn't to suggest that the author's prose has suddenly turned Carver-laconic or Hemingway-spare. In "The Furies," the sentences go on forever, threatening to curve back in on themselves, delighting in the loops and zigzags of language. And "show, don't tell" is still a writing-class proviso that Hobhouse has never bothered to heed; there is the same preference for conveying narrative through interior mulling rather than dialogue or action that is to be found in her earlier work. But perhaps because this story of "Helen" (the first-person protagonist, transparently the author) and her attempt to break away from a destructive matriarchal legacy is charged with the knowledge we have of the untimely death of its creator, the balance of style and content subtly changes, tips in favor of Hobhouse's luxuriating manner from the first unfettered sentence: "For a long time my mother and I lived such a solitary life, city-trapped and economically precarious, so isolated from anything resembling family or stability, so utterly dependent on one another to provide a lovable human universe, that the existence of forebears, documented in hundreds of photographs--brown as leaves and dog eared, but vivid, stylized, ornate, above all theatrical--seems to me even now a kind of fairytale. . . ."

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