A rare in­tel­lect in in­ter­est­ing times

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Ley

Natalie Robins be­gins The Un­told Story: The Life of Diana Trilling in 1930, with a vignette from the early mar­ried life of her sub­ject. Diana Trilling (nee Ru­bin) had co-writ­ten a comic play with an old school friend for a lark, but her new hus­band Lionel found its “vul­gar bab­ble” so ap­palling that he hurled his favourite pipe out of the fifth-floor win­dow of their Green­wich Vil­lage apart­ment.

The de­struc­tion of a pipe in a fit of pique over an in­fe­rior piece of writ­ing might not seem like a life-defin­ing in­ci­dent, but it en­cap­su­lates the odd sense of re­pres­sion and frus­tra­tion that char­ac­terised their re­la­tion­ship.

The Trillings would be­come a cel­e­brated lit­er­ary cou­ple, part of the loose net­work of mid-20th-cen­tury writ­ers known as the New York In­tel­lec­tu­als. But they were a neu­rotic pair. Both were un­der­go­ing psy­cho­anal­y­sis from early in their mar­riage. Diana de­vel­oped pho­bias; Lionel suf­fered bouts of de­pres­sion and im­po­tence, and was prone to out­bursts of rage. Their only child, Jim, was born in 1948, when they were both 43, and they be­came (as one ac­quain­tance diplo­mat­i­cally ically put it) “de­voted but pe­cu­liar par­ents”. nts”.

When the preschool-aged aged Jim de­vel­oped a fear of el­e­va­va­tors, Diana the­o­rised that at this was a re­sult if his “fear r of the male gen­i­talia be­ing lost in the end­less chasm of fe­male gen­i­talia”. Jim later ex­plained that he was wor­ried the ca­ble might break.

The Trillings were very ry much prod­ucts of their time, me, im­mersed in an in­tel­lec­tu­ally tu­ally ro­bust but highly politi­cised sed and frac­tious lit­er­ary environment on­ment that emerged from the rad­i­cal­ism of the 1930s. Like many of their peers, they were com­mu­nist “fel­low trav­ellers” in that pe­riod, but af­ter be­com­ing dis­il­lu­sioned with Stal­in­ism, they rein­vented them­selves as anti-com­mu­nist lib­er­als.

Lionel earned his rep­u­ta­tion with an au­thor­i­ta­tive study of the in­flu­en­tial 19th-cen­tury critic Matthew Arnold and a col­lec­tion of es­says ti­tled The Lib­eral Imag­i­na­tion (1950), which com­bined Arnoldian lit­er­ary hu­man­ism with Freudian cul­tural pes­simism, de­vel­op­ing a cri­tique of rad­i­cal­ism that ad­dressed it­self to the emerg­ing Cold War environment. One can take as a mea­sure of our cul­tural dis­tance from that pe­riod the re­mark­able fact that a vol­ume of closely ar­gued and rather fusty es­says on the likes of Henry James, John Dos Pas­sos and Wil­liam Wordsworth could sell 70,000 copies in hard­back.

Lionel be­came a ven­er­ated fig­ure and the very im­age of a mid-cen­tury lit­er­ary don: im­per­turbable, aloof and learned. Cyn­thia Oz­ick, one of his stu­dents at Columbia Univer­sity in the 1950s, re­mem­bered him as ‘‘grey all over — his suit, his tie, the level line of his hair, his nos­trils with their monar­chi­cal arches’’. As The Un­told Story doc­u­ments, the shadow of his emi­nence was to fall heav­ily across his wife’s suc­cess­ful par­al­lel career as an es­say­ist and critic. Diana, who gained her first break when she be­came a reg­u­lar book re­viewer for The Na­tion in 1941, was ac­cused of rid­ing his coat-tails and reg­u­larly suf­fered the in­dig­nity of be­ing treated as a “fac­ulty wife”.

Robins’s book coun­ters this be­lit­tling view by em­pha­sis­ing the sharp­ness of Diana’s in­tel­lect, the force of her per­son­al­ity and the col­lab­o­ra­tive na­ture of her mar­riage. She was more than ca­pa­ble of hold­ing her own against such out­sized lit­er­ary fig­ures as Mary McCarthy, Lil­lian Hell­man and Nor­man Mailer. She also had a talent for edit­ing, un­like Lionel. She never claimed any credit for his ideas, but did work on his manuscripts to help struc­ture their ar­gu­ments and sharpen their prose.

Robins’s sym­pa­thetic view of her sub­ject does not pre­vent Diana’s less en­dear­ing qual­i­ties from shin­ing through at times. Her manners could be im­pe­ri­ous and her ab­so­lute sense of con­vic­tion was apt to make her seem pa­tro­n­is­ing.

Her loyal but clear-eyed son Jim, the source of many of the bi­og­ra­phy’s most tren­chant ob­ser­va­tions about the com­plex­i­ties of her char­ac­ter, re­marked that she treated any­one who dis­agreed with her “as if they were sick” — a form of in­tel­lec­tual ar­ro­gance guar­an­teed to ir­ri­tate the hell out of peo­ple.

And her pro­fessed lib­er­al­ism did not pre­clude a touch of snob­bery. She man­aged to cause a mi­nor ruckus in 1958 when she wrote an ac­count of a pub­lic read­ing by prom­i­nent beat po­ets Gre­gory Corso, Peter Orlovsky and Allen Gins­berg (an­other of Lionel’s for­mer stu­dents) in which she con­fessed her anx­i­ety that the au­di­ence might smell bad, and went on to make con­de­scend­ing ob­ser­va­tions about the po­ets wear­ing jeans and their gen­eral stan­dards of clean­li­ness, which, she was re­lieved to re­port, r turned out to be bet­ter tha than she had feared.

Need­less Ne to say, the Trillings Trill did not find the 196 1960s con­ge­nial. Both knew some­thing so was happening, but bu nei­ther of them re­ally knew what it was. Diana was no­tably un­sym­path thetic to the era’s sec­ond­wave wa fem­i­nism. Dur­ing a rau­cous rau de­bate at the New York Town Hall in 1971, an event now n re­mem­bered pri­mar­ily for its clash be­tween Nor­man Mailer and Ger­maine Ge Greer, she dis­tin­guished her­self from other fe­male pan­el­lists by main­tain­ing she was a “fam­ily fem­i­nist”, a position that won her lit­tle ap­plause.

She did ob­serve though that “through­out my adult life I have thought of my­self as a fem­i­nist, alert to dis­crim­i­na­tions against my sex”. And it is the ten­sion be­tween Diana’s as­sumed re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as a wife and mother and her de­sire to forge her own lit­er­ary career, to be ac­cepted on her own terms, that The Un­told Story il­lu­mi­nates most ef­fec­tively.

“I am of a gen­er­a­tion and a tem­per­a­ment in which my work was sec­ondary to my home,” she re­flected near the end of her life. “That doesn’t mean I wasn’t very se­ri­ous about my work.”

It did mean, how­ever, that the most pro­duc­tive phase of her career oc­curred af­ter Lionel’s death from can­cer in 1975. Diana was to have her great­est suc­cess (com­mer­cial rather than crit­i­cal, to her cha­grin) with Mrs Harris (1981), an ac­count of a no­to­ri­ous mur­der trial, and she con­tin­ued to work in­de­fati­ga­bly and to de­fend her hus­band’s legacy un­til she died in 1996 at the age of 91.

The Un­told Jour­ney has some mod­est short­com­ings as a bi­og­ra­phy. Robins gets a bit lost along the by­ways of the Trillings’ rather tame psy­cho­sex­ual in­trigues, and tends to fo­cus on the ri­val­ries and feuds be­tween the many fa­mous writ­ers who ap­pear in the book’s pages, rather than on the sub­stan­tial is­sues and in­tel­lec­tual ar­gu­ments of the day. But this is nev­er­the­less an en­gag­ing ac­count of a com­pli­cated wo­man, an in­ter­est­ing cul­tural mi­lieu and an un­com­mon lit­er­ary career. is a writer and critic.

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