Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters

Last month I read two memorable novels about the fraught relationship between parents and children. The first, Ioanna Karystiani’s Back to Delphi (transl. Konstantine Matsoukas), is about mothers and sons trying (and mostly failing) to understand and forgive each other. The second, Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman is at least partly about the damage forceful fathers can wreak on their daughters (although it is also about college cliques and not quite fitting in).

Back to Delphi is the more poetic title in English, but the Greek original is actually ‘Sacks’ and refers to the mental baggage we all carry with us. It is the story of Viv Koleva ‘fifty two years of weariness and seventy-eight kilos of sadness’, who is desperate to reconnect with her son Linus, who is on a brief furlough from prison, where he is serving a life sentence for rape and murder. She takes him on a trip to Delphi, out of a misguided conviction that seeing the beauty of Ancient Greek sculptures and architecture will give him a reason to live, somehow turn him into a better person.

– Archaeology requires and provides knowledge, imagination, inspiration, adventure, it obliges a mind to take a reprieve from reality, to not go moldy inside four walls, she said with zest…

Flashbacks show us Viv’s life as a young woman, how she abandoned her medical studies when she met Linus’ father and got pregnant, how she single-handedly started a successful retail business, while her husband sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism and feelings of inadequacy. When her husband dies prematurely, we understand how she pinned all her expectations on her son, how she wanted to offer him the best possible life. After her son’s crimes are discovered and he is sentenced, she is shunned by neigbours, friends and even family, because ‘in every crime, along with the accused, society also tried the mother.’ She has to move several times, pretend to be someone else, change her job. We start to sympathise with her and feel that the son’s monosyllabic utterances and sulking as they walk around Delphi are a bit exaggerated.

However, about halfway through the book, we are suddenly plunged into the son’s point of view, and at first it feels like a violent shock to the system. However, if you can read past the first few paragraphs, you start to understand how Linus grew up the way he did, how his parents always wanted him to be quiet, never really listened to him or responded to his needs. They were too self-absorbed in their business, their difficult relationship, their hard lives. His godmother, supposedly his mother’s best friend, filled him with fear and loathing. He felt abandoned, orphaned in every sense of the word. In his teens, he is awash with self-loathing and depression, and recognises some of those impulses in his mother, although that doesn’t make him understand or forgive her.

Linus was certain that from time to time, Viv was stewing in the same dark juice, turning her back on opportunities, organizing defeats, practicing her talent for frustration and long-term despondency. Mother and son filled with energy for misery. If only he had one… two… three siblings to help carry the heavy nothingness and the abundant loneliness, more kids should mean smaller portions of orphanhood for each.

The crimes Linus commits are horrific and it is painful to watch how torn his mother is between disgust and guilt as she starts to suspect he is the one committing them. Yet, as we move back to Delphi in the present-day, you cannot help but wish, as a reader, that the two of them will somehow be able to communicate with each other for the first time. However, this is not a Hollywood movie and the journey there is extremely bumpy, with no certainty of arrival. The recognition of past mistakes is a very painful, though necessary first step, but it’s only a small step to rebuilding trust, finding the ability to love and forgive.

… she reconsidered the spoiled part. The truth was her hands didn’t often touch her child, not when he was young and not when he grew up and her lips didn’t kiss his hair much and her eyes didn’t enfold him tenderly and her voice didn’t come out in stories and gentle words. The spoiling was done via her wallet and the deep fryer, a generous allowance and lots of french fries, till he finished high school the deep fryer was working overtime.

This was an extremely difficult book to read as a mother in general, and as a mother of boys in particular, because no matter how well you think you are communicating, no matter how close you think you are, there is still something about the young man in front of you that remains unknowable and slightly frightening. And you know that society places the onus far more on you than on any father figure for the way you raised your child. Any of their flaws and inexplicable impulses are a reflection on you; psychoanalysts and the press, as well as public opinion, will put you on trial. Aside from the particular circumstances between this mother and son couple, the novel also shows the ways in which completely honesty, transparency and understanding is impossible even between those we consider closest – and that perhaps it is even undesirable or unbearable to share every single thought.

Every story has blanks, some are common to all the participants in its plot. Each one, though, has a few that only he has noticed, that don’t add up for him alone no matter how he tries, if he does, which he probably doesn’t. In certain cases, some are well served by such blanks, gray zones which they guard by tooth and claw, terrifed at the possibility that, if they were to be filled, the truth might be intolerable.

Ultimately, perhaps it’s these lies of omission, and the spaces they allow for our own interpretation of events, that enable us to survive and thrive in relationships at all.

Hangsaman proves to be an unexpected companion piece to the troubled male Greek teenager. It is the story of a female American teenager, Natalie Waite, who at first sight seems to be the bright, obedient daughter who mostly humours but frequently despises her stay-at-home, downtrodden mother with her anxious impulses, while simultaneously admiring and sparring intellectually with her demanding writer father. When she goes to college, she proves herself to be too independent of thought and behaviour to really fit in, she is repelled by the hypocrisy she finds at every step, and descends into a deep well of darkness, loneliness and despair.

Such is the elegance and wit of Shirley Jackson’s style that the readers understand long before Natalie realises herself that her father is a manipulative, dictatorial man who takes out his fears of his own mediocrity on his daughter. The letters he writes to her in college are both funny and infuriating. Every scene between father and daughter is filled with real menace – this is deliberate misunderstanding rather than unconscious one. When she finally admits to him that things are not going well, that she needs help, this is his response:

‘I should hate to deprive you prematurely of the glories of the suicidal frame of mind, since I am fairly certain that depriving yourself of the ability to feel this way would be more cruel than any sort of physical torture you might inflict upon yourself, so that I can use “suicidal” as a descriptive adjective without really feeling that it implies any action.’

‘You’re trying to make me say that I want to kill myself,’ Natalie said.

‘You need hardly say anything quite so meaningless… and I would vastly prefer that you confine your statements to pure descriptions of fact. I think better of your vanity, Natalie, than to believe that two months out of seventeen years could destroy you.

Unsurprisingly, Natalie returns to college even more unsure of herself, feeling her identity and her grip on reality slowly slipping away. She does make one friend, Tony, who proves to be as much of an outsider as herself, a sort of alter ego (and quite possibly an imaginary friend, Jackson never likes to make things too clearcut in her writing). Tony has an almost hypnotic effect on Natalie and dares her to go beyond what she ever imagined possible:

…they want to pull us back, and start us all over again just like them and doing the things they want to do and acting the way they want to act and saying and thinking and wanting all the things they live with every day. And… I know a place where we can go and no one can trouble us.

The crimes that take place in Hangsaman are, unlike the ones in Back to Delphi, more crimes of the mind. We are never really sure if they take place or not, but the sense of rising danger is more frightening than anything I read in the more explicit Greek novel. I found myself almost forgetting to breathe for whole scenes at a time. There is, in particular, one passage in which Natalie describes how she might pick up and pull apart the neat little houses she sees scattered around the college campus which sounds like it could have provided the backdrop or inspiration for the lyrics of Blondie’s Rapture. I remain constantly stunned by how much Shirley Jackson was ‘of her time’, describing the claustrophobic environment for housewives and the limited possibilities for women in the 1950s, and yet how utterly contemporary she still feels in style, at once sly and sinister, detached yet capable of getting fully under your skin and never quite letting you go.

P.S. I think the new Penguin Modern Classics covers for Shirley Jackson’s books are little bit bland, but some of the earlier covers were very pulpy. Simon at Stuck in a Book has written a whole blog post about Shirley Jackson covers, which I highly recommend.

11 thoughts on “Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters”

  1. I really want to read Hangsaman at some point. Your description of Jackson’s style as sly and sinister is spot on. There is something very unsettling about her writing and yet it’s remarkably compelling too.

    Have you seen Josephine Decker’s recent film, Shirley, a sort of fictionalised look at Jackson’s life around the time that she was writing this novel? I found it somewhat disappointing in spite of a richly imagined performance from Elisabeth Moss in the lead role – she is always immensely watchable. For me, the film fell between two stools, neither conventional enough to be a straight biopic nor wild enough to capture the tone and feel of a Jackson story (which seems to have been the director’s stated aim).

  2. Mother/son and father/daughter relationships are always complicated, Marina Sofia, even when the family is functional. And it’s interesting that these books explore the dynamics of those relationships. It’s almost always more complex than just the way parents impact their children, if that makes sense.

  3. It’s almost painful to admit how much the review of the Shirley Jackson affected me. I was a transfer student into Smith College. Coming from a small and backward town, and on a lot of financial aid, I found the situation terrifying. My parents were as supportive as any could be, but I lived in terror of opening the novel The Bell Jar, by another student there…

  4. Both novels sound intriguing. I’ve somehow never got round to reading SJ, and really must do so. The Greek one also appeals – thanks for bringing both to my attention

  5. Both of these sound fascinating, if difficult reading in places. Larkin was right about parents, I think… Of the two I’d probably be more drawn to the Jackson. Nothing can be as bad as The Lottery, right?????

    1. The Lottery is very controlled in its prose, while this one is a lot… more feverish. The best comparisons I can think of are The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer and Elizabeth Hardwick (in general).

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