"Understanding Passion and Passionate Understanding: A Book Review"
Anne Finger has written an enthralling and deeply meaningful story with her novel, A Woman, in Bed. Set in France, it tells the story of Simone Clermont (Vidal before the story starts and Melville later in it) from her days as a young mother during World War I, through her life as a middle-aged woman in World War II, and ends with her an aging woman coping with a disabling illness in the 1960s. Finger has set her novel during what is arguably one of the most tumultuous, fast-changing periods in the history of humanity and she has given characters and situations both concreteness and believability. The book paints a dramatically detailed panorama and brings it to vibrant life.
The main thread throughout this richly textured tale is Simone's courageous exploration of the physical and emotional permutations of her sexuality. Married to Luc Clermont when the story opens, Simone finds the man who will be most prominent in her life when she meets Jacques Melville. The couple enjoys a long on-again, off-again affair before finally marrying. However, as astutely observed on the novel's back cover, A Woman, In Bed is "A lifelong love story not between two lovers but between a woman and her body." Simone is committed to Jacques but not faithful to him, even as she knows he has side affairs. She heeds the yearnings of her body for both lust and love.
A Woman, In Bed is not "about" disability but disability figures strongly throughout the story. Indeed, the book is reminiscent of the strengths Finger finds in the fiction of another writer when she told interviewer Josh Lukin, "In Toni Morrison's work I appreciate the fact that disability is often not foregrounded, that it's part of a complex identity without becoming the defining characteristic."
An accomplished writer of both fiction and creative non-fiction, Finger possesses extensive experience with the disability community, being herself disabled due to a childhood bout with polio. She has been Society for Disability Studies President, Board President of AXIS Dance Company (an institution started by disabled people), has contributed to many disability conferences and anthologies, and been published in the Disability Studies Quarterly. She has also been published in venues that are not specifically disability-focused such as The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and The Southern Review. She was active in the effort to get America out of the Vietnam War and has participated in the Occupy movement.
In an interview with Josh Lukin, Finger recalled writing about disabled characters in college creative writing classes and having her work criticized as sentimental. However, it did not lead her to stop trying to write realistic stories with disabled characters and their specific problems. Her first published book was the 1988 short story collection Basic Skills that included disability related work.
In 1990, she published Past Due: A Story of Disability, Pregnancy, and Birth, a memoir relating her experiences as a mother-to-be whose pregnancy was complicated by her polio-related disability and as a new mother whose newborn spent time in intensive care. Lukin comments, "In the process it explores the impact of sexist and ableist oppressions on her life and mind and dramatizes her struggles with them." Finger published a second short story collection, Call Me Ahab, in 1994. That collection won the Prairie Schooner Award.
Finger's lush command of the English language, her finely tuned appreciation for sensual experience, and her eye for telling detail leads her to write powerfully poetic descriptions of even the most mundane experience. Her work is informed by a fierce realism about human frailties and a gold-star honesty in describing them.
"Hunger" is the simple title of the first chapter of A Woman, In Bed. Simone stands in her mother's house, having just breastfed her now sleeping baby, Marcel. The young woman is so hungry, "She wanted to leap up and pull the ham down from its ceiling hook, gnaw hunks free with her incisors: eat and eat and eat until billows of flesh hung from her. Nature, that old hag, wanted to have her way with Simone."
Simone's mother appears and Finger bluntly and believably illuminates the aging woman's attitude toward the younger. "Her mother regarded her daughters broad rump with satisfaction. Simone was no longer a slim-hipped wraith floating through life. Her thickened hips were ballast, weighing her down, steadying her passage."
In another section, Finger aptly captures the confused and confusing feelings a breastfeeding woman can experience: "My cunt throbs when Marcel nurses, while my mind is filled with unwholesome fantasies. I have come close to stimulating myself for relief while nursing. I am becoming a monster."
In a later incident, she is again nursing, "The tug of his mouth on her breast made her cunt throb, sexual hunger as sharp as hunger in the belly." The sexual stimulation Simone experiences when her baby sucks at her breast is perfectly natural and normal, but the juxtaposition of an infant's innocence and erotic stimulation easily gives rise to a sense of the monstrous. The combination of sexual arousal and revulsion at this arousal leads her to yearn ever more sharply for the comfort of her husband, Luc, who is away from home doing his soldierly duty for France in WWI.
After introducing the lush heroine, the author turns our attention to the erstwhile hero, Jacques Melville, telling us he "was a few years too old to be traipsing about France, carrying a knapsack." He has a wife and infant son back in Paris. His wife, Sala, is the daughter of Russians who fled the Russian Revolution, having "narrowly escaped the hangman's noose." Jacques and Sala have a marriage boasting little evidence of passion in which the spouses seemed yoked by sullen resentfulness. Nevertheless, like Simone, Sala is no sexually repressed harpy. Like her own mother, Sala is an advocate of free love. Her mother raised her to be forceful and independent. Sala's mother, Mme. Prusak moved in with daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild, ostensibly to "run the household while they each pursued their vocations." However, Finger indicates her true purpose was to prevent squabbles from escalating to full-blown rows.
Not too long after becoming a lodger in the house Simone shares with her mother, Jacques makes advances to Simone -- to which she is eagerly receptive, although we are told he is the first man other than her husband with whom she enjoys sexual relations.
Finger introduces disability into the relationship, and the novel, when she depicts Simone confiding in Jacques about a World War I romance in a chapter with the simple but telling title "Stump." Simone says that neighbor Robert returned home from the front minus a leg. Despite food scarcity at the time, she brought food to the soldier who had paid such a physical price for serving his country. When he gratefully raved over a scarf she knitted for him, she figured Robert was falling in love with her. She also recalls, "He still wasn't completely recovered: there was a suppurating wound on his flesh." Simone's mother seemed to accept the idea of a disabled son-in-law, saying, "Better a one-legged husband than no husband at all."
There is more than a touch of shame when Simone tells Jacques that she had been frightened of Robert's wound, that fear having a particularly embarrassing root as she was afraid of the smell of the wound and the way it seemed to mix with "the smell of his masculinity" as if "the smell of the trenches could never be washed completely away from him."
She continues that she began to be preoccupied by Robert's absent leg and wondered, "How could I think so much about something that wasn't there?" She started wondering about the fate of the lost limb. Had it been buried, tossed in a landfill, or burned?
Simone's admission of an apparently odd obsession reminds Jacques of his experience with people in Madagascar. Jacques believed the colonial subjects who were glibly dismissed by Europeans of the time as primitive and superstitious had a special way of comprehending the world which Westerners tend to call irrational, but which might be better called non-rational. He suggests, "A Malagasy might believe that the hacked-off limb was walking about on his own, seeking to be reunited with its former body, that it haunted your mind because it saw you as a pathway to Robert's flesh."
For Jacques, as for a multitude of real-life men, the Great War led to a near-miss with disability. Wounded in a leg, it put him in the hospital for a time and, ironically, kept him safe from greater harm. When sent to a rehabilitative facility, Jacques found himself oddly alienated from the men who actually were disabled by combat. "The men who had lost limbs, noses, portions of jaws, the men whose lungs had been seared by mustard gas regarded Jacques with a mix of envy and contempt: he who would be left with nothing more than a scar, a preternaturally smooth and hairless expanse of skin."
Despite her deep liberal sympathies -- or perhaps because of them -- Finger sometimes pokes fun at leftist dogmatism. The stories in A Woman, In Bed include both flashbacks and flash forwards. In one of the latter an elderly Jacques is again in the hospital. The year is 1968. Long before, Jacques had published memoir-type pieces on his time in Madagascar. Simone will impishly let him know how he is "denounced in one of those hundreds of hastily printed leftist newspapers which are being hawked on every street corner" as the voice of a colonialism that exploits the oppressed. Simone is happy to read this to Jacques because she knows he will be amused and flattered by this condemnation since it means "at least he is still worth damning."
Finger clearly understands how humans often turn to sex for comfort in times of tragedy. A devastated Jacques phones Simone to tell her his wife Sala has been in an accident. "I need you," he tells her. Simone rushes to the hospital and the adulterous couple go to a hotel room. The scene is soaked in both irony and poignancy as the unfaithful husband, upset because his wife has been injured, finds relief in a quick tryst -- then bursts into sobs.
Contrary to Simone's assumption that Sala died in the accident, Jacques explains that she has had to have her leg amputated. Thus, the novel's plot dramatically echoes itself as both Simone and Jacques struggle with a partner's loss of a leg. However, Sala does not remain Jacques' partner for long after the amputation. Finger realistically depicts an all-too-common disability phobia and its consequences. "It was a given that she could not continue to be a doctor and equally impossible that she could chain Jacques to a peg-legged wife: she at last granted him a divorce. He settled enough money on her to allow her to open a bookstore, where she perched on a stool behind the counter and deftly made her way down the aisles with a pair of crutches."
Another chapter entitled "Stump" relates how Sala's situation haunts Simone. "… she'd start to ruminate on Sala's missing leg. Was it made of wood, painted a yellowish-grey color meant to suggest human [Caucasian] flesh? Or did she go about in trousers, with one leg pinned up, like the mutilated soldiers one saw hiking along on crutches …?" Finger tells us that Simone would think obsessively about Sala's stump for many years. Simone would also wonder, "How could the image of something she had never seen be so vivid?"
Married now to Simone, Jacques occasionally enjoys trysts with his ex-wife who is now primarily lesbian. Finger tells us that many years later, Sala dies and Simone must comfort her dear husband through a "strange, shapeless mourning."
Not too long after Simone transfers from mistress to wife, the couple is caught up in the political upheavals of World War II. Finger writes, "France had fallen. Simone understood how it was possible for an individual to trip, lose balance, slip, tumble: but how was it possible for a nation to do so?" As was probably typical of French people, Simone looks on Hitler with contempt, seeing newspaper photographs of Hitler touring Paris and thinking he resembled a "grumpy pater familias" who, "loathe to admit how small he is, buys clothing a size too large."
Simone and Jacques are French to the core, so they do not hesitate to risk their lives in the Resistance. Knowing the horrors that could await them at Nazi hands if their work in the French Resistance should be discovered, they begin carrying cyanide capsules. Finger writes about this in her trademark manner that is at once colorful and forthright. "Yet another of those clichés of the war years, jackboots on the stairs, the knock on the door, the clandestine radio. And like all those other things, the reality so much messier than the image."
Finger's extraordinary literary power, her compassion, attention to detail, and honest understanding of the human condition are nowhere on fuller display than in the section about the suffering of Simone’s son Marcel and her dedication to his recovery. She tells us that Marcel "slumped his body against hers" and muttered "Ma" repeatedly "into her hair, the nape of her neck" while she repeated only "Oh, oh," in response. Describing the sick youth, Finger writes, "The stench of the grave came from him."
Simone calls Jacques and he sends over a physician. The way the doctor first inspects Marcel reminds Simone of "boys prodding the carcass of a dead animal with a stick." The doctor tells Simone that her son has a fever, but it is not high enough to put him in danger of death. He also urges her to start cleaning Marcel. The doctor is himself disconcerted at this odd patient who seems to have "stumbled into Paris from the pages of a cheap horror book: a zombie, belonging to both the world of the living and the dead."
The stark honesty of this novel is once again seen when Finger tells us that Simone carefully gave her son a sponge bath and "reaching his genitals, she washed them tenderly, as she had hundreds of times when he was an infant. That rosebud had turned into a man's penis, a tangle of dark above it. With her fingernails, she removed the lice nits clinging to the shafts of his pubic hair. His penis stiffened." Simone is disconcerted but continues on as her primary concern is with her son's health.
With the lice infestation resisting the strength of the kerosene, it is decided that the young man's head must be shaved. "It hurts, it hurts," he wails but Simone perseveres until Marcel is bald.
The above initial scene is followed by a long period in which Simone devotes herself to her son's -- eventually successful -- recovery. As he gets better, Simone finds herself having inexplicable bouts of trembling. Finger aptly writes, "So began the quest for a diagnosis, which, like any good quest, could not be accomplished in a straight-forward fashion. One must wander in the forest, stand before a fork in the path and go left or right, find oneself held captive, navigate past treacherous rocks." Simone has found herself on a "journey into the land of the ill." In Finger's powerful prose, she has "embarked on a medical pilgrimage, where the rituals involved being stuck with needles, peeing into cups -- a messy task at the best of times, made more so when she got the shakes.... In the place of prayer cards, she clutched her X-rays and medical records."
Finally, a definite diagnosis is made. Simone has Parkinson's. The rest of her life will be lived in the "parallel universe of the ill.” That universe is never completely comfortable. When she must make a long walk, she resists the offer of a wheelchair as it is "no small thing to leave behind the world of the bipedal."
Finger understands the way the culture can invest disability with moral overtones and Simone "daydreamed that her will would save her, that her illness would burnish her -- she would be cleansed of her pettiness and made wise."
In keeping with the novel's title, the author does not flinch at describing the effects of Simone's new situation on her erotic life, nor does Finger portray Parkinson's as leading this sensuous woman to asceticism. There is loss in Jacques and Simone's intimacy as "their lovemaking was no longer preceded by flirtation, a leisurely dinner, glasses of wine, a rousing argument, a fantasy spun out loud between the two of them." Instead, they "would rut, grunting and panting like animals" until they reached orgasms that possessed "less quick intensity" than those of the past "but were deeper and slower, like rolling thunder in the distance." Although Simone is well-aware of her husband's infidelities, she finds comfort knowing that he shared this kind of intimacy with no other woman and that while other women enjoyed with Jacques "the trappings of romance and sweet words and coyness," only Simone had with him "this primal union."
A Woman, In Bed is not a book for every reader. Finger's frank descriptions of sexuality make it clearly unsuitable for children, at least pre-teens. Those descriptions may also lead some adults to wish to avoid it. However, for most people, this is a novel that will immediately catch and hold interest. It can be savored for its powerfully poetic prose and richly colorful situations as well as its subtle understanding of personality. For disabled people and those interested in disability, the novel will be especially appreciated for Finger's non-saccharine, ‘non-inspiring’, but wonderfully realistic and honest understanding. A Woman, In Bed is a solid literary achievement.
A Woman, In Bed by Anne Finger
Cinco Puntos Press. El Paso, TX. 2018.
As well as dealing with multiple disabilities, Denise Noe had a bout with cancer and a bladder problem. She was recently homeless for over two months. On the plus side of the ledger, she has published an ebook entitled "Suffer Little Children" about true crimes against young people, and a "regular" book entitled "The Complete Married with Children Book" about the TV sitcom "Married... with Children."