Why I rewrite others’ stories
Sometimes I play a game with myself in which I take stories with male protagonists – famous stories that I like a lot – and ask myself: if the protagonist were a woman, would it work just as well? Could Melville’s Bartleby, for example, be female? Or Stevenson’s Jekyll? Italo Svevo’s Zeno? Calvino’s Baron In The Trees?
For many years, the game has revolved mainly around Wakefield, a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Wakefield is a man who lives in crowded 19th-century London. One morning, he says goodbye to his wife and goes out. He’s supposed to be away for a few days; he doesn’t leave the city, but instead, for no reason, with no plan, he goes to live near his own house, and for 20 years – until, in the same impulsive way, he returns to his wife – confines himself to observing his own absence. The story is well known and much studied.
What if Wakefield were a woman instead of a man, a wife instead of a husband? Once, I even tried to maul poor Hawthorne by rewriting the story that way, but I quickly got stuck: something wasn’t working. I’m not sure I understood what the problem was. There are plenty of stories, true or invented, about women who all of a sudden leave home, abandoning everything; evidently the issue isn’t that. And it doesn’t seem to be in the return home, either – although, in my experience, a woman who decides to give it all up rarely turns back, while men generally, at a certain point, need their Ithaca. (I know numerous couples who have got back together after one or even two decades, and he is the one who proposes it – especially when old age peeks in, along with the fear of illness and death.) A female Wakefield falters, I’m afraid, right at the heart of things, at its darkest, most mysterious and hence finest moment.
When you have to imagine a woman who, for no reason, abandons everything and for 20 years lives near her family, meets them on the street, sees them suffer, observes them as they change physically, yet doesn’t go back, the story flounders. The Wakefield who is present and absent like an idle divinity, simply watching, without intervening, seems to me inevitably male.
And yet the situation that Hawthorne developed still attracts me – the impassive surveillance, the indifferent proximity. Sometimes, I think that it’s only cliches about the feminine that make us consider certain behaviours essentially masculine. Today, a female Wakefield might go further than the male Wakefield. Maybe, emphasising the absurdity of being absent and at the same time present, she would dig more deeply into a contradiction that is well known to her: the need for the other – and the necessity of separating from him