A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, by Joyce Carol Oates, Fourth Estate, RRP£20, 450 pages
When Joyce Carol Oates’s husband, Ray, developed pneumonia he went into hospital largely at her urging. Seven days later, confident he was recovering and would soon be home, she left him earlier than usual. She was woken by a phone call from the hospital summoning her to return. A secondary infection made his condition critical. Ray was dead by the time she reached him.
The shock is overpowering. Their marriage of 50 years had been particularly close. They were used to working in the same Princeton house, sometimes in the same room. They shared a passion for literature, Joyce as a distinguished novelist, Ray as the editor of the literary journal The Ontario Review. So Joyce is bereft, and frequently overwhelmed by guilt, as she reflects that he might have fared better treated at home.
Even in her bewilderment, she observes her paradoxical reactions as shrewdly as if she were describing a character in one of her own novels. She notes the way a widow thinks of home. While she is in it, her husband’s absence is peculiarly painful. When she is out of it, she craves only to return, as if to safety; an illusion, since suicidal thoughts mean a need to be alone is dangerous. Even good news – for instance, when two of her books are nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award – feels blank since there is no one to share it.
Not that she lacks friends. E-mails from Philip Roth, John Updike and Edmund White, among others, sustain her. But some of her acquaintances have so little grasp of the pain she is suffering they imagine she is already writing another novel. In fact, she has been reduced to stasis. One of the most prolific writers of her generation, she cannot write so much as a shopping list; nor can she read the New York Times, which piles up daily until she cancels it. She reflects: “Yes, it is true that I used to be a writer … but I am not anything now … I am a widow, beyond that I am not sure I exist.”
So writing cannot save her, though stepping into her public persona – Joyce Carol Oates rather than Mrs Ray Smith – seemingly can. This candid admission of an unsuspected resource is discovered by accident. She had agreed to introduce a well-known figure to her creative writing class but when she rings her department at Princeton expecting to cancel, she finds herself instead agreeing calmly to take it on, since she has already written the speech. Soon she rings to say she will continue to teach her workshops. She feels most normal there. Pain, insomnia, drug dependence, helplessness in dealing with the documents Ray once handled, continue nonetheless to sap her vitality.
All this is handled without hysteria. The reader is mesmerised. I cannot pinpoint exactly when a troubling thought begins to intrude: how is it we know so very little about Ray himself other than as a loving husband? He is a distinguished editor, living alongside one of the most successful novelists of the age. Was there no envy, no resentment, only that affectionate greeting – honey – which they both use? Did she really know what went inside him?
As we begin to wonder along these lines, Oates begins to ponder the very same question. She tells us something about Ray’s Catholic childhood and the devout father who sent him to a Jesuit school, intending him to become a priest. Ever since she has known him, Ray has been a lapsed Catholic. With seeming irrelevance, she also shares a memory of Ray intuiting another person’s mental problems; he recognises the danger posed by a student who attaches himself to Joyce although he is not in her class. He notes the boy’s loneliness, his estrangement from his parents, and his obsession with religion. His anxiety is vindicated when the boy goes on to commit murder and suicide.
She knows Ray has a large unfinished novel, begun before their marriage, which she has somehow never brought herself to read. Now, on the cusp of recovery, she determines to do so and is startled to enter a life which centres on a Jesuit priest’s rejection of a girl, perhaps modelled on Sylvia Plath, but in some ways resembling Joyce herself. The years of obsessive planning and rewriting trouble her, along with her own refusal to look into the manuscript earlier.
Joyce Carol Oates writes like a force of nature, and a story emerges, as if organically, from the physicality of her grief. There are few secrets and no lies, only insights into the inner world of her partner of 50 years.
Elaine Feinstein is author of ‘Cities’ (Carcanet)