A rare intellect in interesting times
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.