Gail Godwin


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The Female Apprentice Novel: Is This Young Woman Worth Writing About or Should She Get Over Herself?

By Gail Godwin

But why shouldn’t Emma be interested in Emma? If she’s not, who will be?
—Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

Finally, after 150 years and more of the novel’s evolution in the U.S., we have a book that more than fills the role of a moving bildungsroman about a female writer in her formative years, something along the lines of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
—Alan Cheuse, The Chicago Tribune review of Queen of the Underworld.

USA TODAY headline for Queen of the Underworld review.

Once upon a time, I found myself on the verge of being thirty, with not much to show for having lived to that symbolic age. I had traveled and worked abroad, plunged into many adventures, committed my share of wince-worthy mistakes, and chalked up some memorable failures. And now it was 1967 and I was back in the USA, working in Manhattan as a fact checker at the Saturday Evening Post. All around me were writers, but my humble job was only to check their facts, even in their fictions. If a cow in a short story had six udders, I had to phone the Farmers’ Federation and make sure that number was correct.

Then an uncle in Texas died and left me a small legacy, just enough to pay for tuition and expenses at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (if I could get in), and I had sense enough to see this gift for what it was: a “soon or never” push to be the writer I’d wanted to be since age five. I was accepted by the Workshop, on the basis of a story written in London several years earlier about a vicar who stumbles upon God on a rainy day, writes a book about it, goes on a transatlantic book tour, and loses his vision.

Off I flew to Iowa City, landing in a snowstorm. The airline lost my luggage: symbols abounding here. Then there I was, in Kurt Vonnegut’s workshop—he had agreed to teach two sections in the spring of 1967, because so many people wanted to study with him. Under his benign tutelage I wrote the first draft of what would become my first published novel, The Perfectionists (1970). The Chilean novelist Jose Donoso was a visiting lecturer in the Workshop that spring, and I signed up for his Apprentice-Novel Seminar (also bulging at the seams to accommodate all those who wanted in.) Multi-lingual, passionate about literature, and with a sweeping knowledge of the history of the novel and its possibilities, Jose (or “Pepe,” as his intimates called him) gave us a book list as rich as it was daunting. All were apprentice novels about artists: what literary handbooks call künstlerromans, or “artist-novels.”)

In artist-novels, the protagonists are struggling toward an understanding of how they will fulfill their creative missions. Donoso was particularly attracted to this topic because he himself had just written an apprentice novel, Este Domingo, or This Sunday.

Here is Donoso’s reading list (in English translations, where necessary):

Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795): the original apprentice novel, chronicles Wilhelm’s progress from a naive, excitable youth to responsible manhood. He dreams of becoming a playwright and actor, but gradually comes to accept a more modest view of himself. (In a second novel, which we did not read, Wilhelm Meister travels, thinks, and ultimately becomes a surgeon.)

Robert Musil’s Young Törless (1906): an adolescent enclave of boys at a Bohemian military boarding school: a mystic, a future writer, a victim, and a bully. Torless, the future writer, searches for a bridge between rational, disciplined activity and destructive, forbidden impulses.

Ranier Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; translated into English in 1930): written as a collection of diary entries by a budding young Danish poet, living alone in Paris.

James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, (1916): revolves around experiences crucial to Stephen’s growing awareness of his writer-vocation and his estrangement from his family, country, and religion.

Andre Gide’s The Counterfeiters (1926): the novelist Edouard keeps a journal of events in order to write a novel about the nature of reality; It’s called The Counterfeiters and features two adolescent boys, Bernard and Olivier, who leave home to find their true selves. They encounter many varieties of hypocrisy, wickedness, and self-deception. (The Counterfeiters and Malte remain perennial favorites of mine.)

Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929): Eugene Gant grows up in Altamount, North Carolina, goes to the state University and to Harvard, and at last sets out for Europe to fulfil his destiny as a writer.

Donoso’s seminar on the apprentice artist-novel was one of the high points of my novelist’s education. How many ways you could present a single theme! I loved listening to Jose’s insights about the characters in the novels and into the whole process of creating fiction. When I finally, some thirty-eight years later, wrote my own apprentice artist-novel, I gave his debonair cadences to Don Waldo Navarro, the Spanish man of letters, in Queen of the Underworld.

That there was not a single novel about a woman becoming an artist on our reading list did not occur to me back in 1967. My failure to notice this wasn’t really so amazing After all, what “portrait of the artist as a young woman” was out there at the time? Canada’s Margaret Laurence would not publish The Diviners, a complex, wide-ranging novel about a woman writer in Manitoba approaching middle age and trying to come to terms with past selves, until 1974. And it would be 1989 before her countrywoman Margaret Atwood published Cat’s Eye, about Elaine Riseley, a controversial painter who has a retrospective in her old home town of Toronto and recalls the viciousness of the little-girl friendships which were to influence the style and subject matter of her paintings. 1981 gave us Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent, Fleur Talbot’s memoir of her young self as an apprentice-writer, who turns her secretarial job into novel material, only to have the real people begin to act out scenes from her manuscript.

The most helpful account of what it was like to be a writing woman was Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, 1954, edited by Leonard Woolf, who had selected entries dealing with his late wife’s writing process from the personal diaries she had kept between 1918 and 1941. I remember lying on the Iowa River bank outside the English Building, reading it like sacred text, underlining things like: “The test of a book (to a writer) is if it makes a space in which, quite naturally, you can say what you want to say. As this morning I could say what Rhoda said.” Or this: “I am now in the thick of the mad scene in Regent’s Park. I find I write it by clinging as tight to fact as I can, and write perhaps 50 words a morning...I feel I can use up everything I’ve ever thought.”

But where, in 1967, was a novel whose central focus was on a young woman feeling her way toward her writing vocation, while struggling with the usual woes and follies that accompany human development?

That I might write such a novel myself also did not occur to me, back then. There were so many traps my protagonists were waiting in line to escape: the trap of family and society’s expectations, of schools and workplaces, of loneliness and outsider-hood, of wrong marriages and wrong jobs, the traps of being born in a certain place and time and all the limits and restraints that go with that place and time—the traps that go with being born female.

My fourth novel, Violet Clay, (1978) was about a painter, in her “soon or never” period. She’s 33, living in New York, illustrating gothic romance novels and wondering why she hasn’t become a real painter. I suppose Violet Clay could qualify for an apprentice novel reading list, though its main focus is on the ghosts that keep her from risking her potential: her dead parents, her own “gothic” upbringing in Charleston, South Carolina, and, finally, the suicide of her beloved uncle, Ambrose Clay, who published one novel and never completed another.

When I was writing Queen of the Underworld, I wanted to be totally inside the life of my 22-year old protagonist as she lived it during her first ten days as a newspaper reporter in the Miami of 1959, sharing a hotel with the new Cuban exiles, who believed, as she did with them, that Castro would soon lay an egg and they would go home again.

I named her Emma Gant—the Gant after Thomas Wolfe’s voraciously ambitious Eugene Gant; the Emma after Jane Austen’s eponymous heroine, about whom Austen told a friend when beginning the novel: “I am going to take a heroine whom nobody but myself will much like.”

Like Emma Woodhouse, my Emma Gant gets a crash course which takes her from self-delusion toward self-recognition. Notice I say “toward,” not “to. Her self-discovery is only beginning at the novel’s close, when she finds herself exiled, practically overnight, to the Broward Bureau. Both heroines also share a spunky self-regard which often leads them to trample on the rights of others. However Emma Woodhouse has a corrective mentor (and a future husband) in Mr. Knightley, while Emma Gant has neither.

I decided not to practice 20-20 hindsight by having a later, wiser Emma looking back on her apprenticeship. I also decided against distancing myself from her foibles with authorial irony. Whatever my Emma thought and did, I would write, without smoothing over or prettifying. I let her be her complete, eager, resentful, vainglorious young self, determined to prevail as a writer. (Product Warning: If you would rather not remember your own youthful follies and overweening ambitions, this book may not entertain you.)

I also wanted to show Emma’s emerging creative methods, what people and stories attracted her so much she couldn’t stop spinning them forward in scenes of her own. And, conversely, how she recognized when a story idea was “not for her.”

And I wanted to give her, even in her low moments, the certainty that I so love in young unpublished Fleur Talbot, the heroine of Spark’s Loitering With Intent: “The thought came to me in a most articulate way: ‘How wonderful it feels to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century.’ That I was a woman and living in the twentieth century were plain facts. That I was an artist was a conviction so strong that I never thought of doubting it then or since; and so, as I stood on the pathway in Hyde Park in that September of 1949, there were as good as three facts converging quite miraculously upon myself and I went on my way rejoicing.”

Queen of the Underworld also has some elements of the picaresque novel, the autobiographical narrative of a roguish character, usually young, moving through adventures and associating with people of all types who serve as models or warnings, stepping stones or hindrances. The picaresque novel always rises out of a specific time and place and depicts a society and an era in realistic detail. The first picaresque novel, The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and his Fortunes and Adversities, published anonymously in 1554, was a mordant, satirical tale narrated by an orphan boy determined not to starve in scheming, church-haunted, poverty-ridden, mid-sixteenth century Spain. He learns from, but is not defeated by, each of his mentors, or mentor/obstacles, from the shrewd blind man to the miserly priest to the proud but hungry squire to the mendicant friar to the greedy seller of indulgences. Lazarillo survives with his natural candor intact. He ends his career as Toledo’s town crier (an early form of journalism!)

Though Emma Gant probably wouldn’t classify herself as a rogue, she readily admits to her hard-earned stash of self-advancing “weaponry.” After the dashing Major Erna Marjac, an Army recruiter, proudly confides to Emma on the train to Miami that “Weaponry is opening up to women in an unprecedented way,” Emma privately inventories her own “arsenal” to date, the weapons she resorts to under duress: “guile, subterfuge, goal-oriented politeness, teeth-gritting staying power, and the ability, when necessary, to shut down my heart. Forces had been mobilizing inside me for the past eleven years to do battle with anything or anybody who might try to usurp me for their purposes again.”

She also owns up to her inordinate ambition, which is not just about gaining her share of success, but avoiding the “usurpations” which would prevent her from taking full possession of her powers. She delights in the adventures of another picaroon, Felix Krull in Thomas Mann’s The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years, written when Mann was in his late seventies. Emma finds similarities in their stories(both Felix and Emma know how to beguile, and both begin their careers by waiting tables) and she is crushed when she learns that Mann died before he could complete Part Two of Felix.

Some Questions & Topics for Discussion about Queen of the Underworld.
(Suggested by the Author)

1. On page 117 (of the hardcover), Emma thinks it is “utterly spellbinding” that she is actually standing by the gurney of this former madam, “the Queen of the Underworld” she has been dying to meet. “How thankful I was that I’d headed straight for the hospital after the tornado. In a way, I realized, this amazing scene had been my creation.”

What does Emma mean by this? Can you cite other examples in the novel of Emma’s resourcefulness?

2. This story takes place in 1959. That’s forty-seven years ago. Does the novel feel “historical” to you? How so? How not? How has the world changed since then?

3. Imagine Emma’s story if it were unfolding today. How would this different era affect her chances to realize her ambitions? Would she have the same chances? Better? Worse?

4. On page 59 (of the hardcover), when Emma is in the newspaper morgue, reading the news clips about Ginevra Snow, she thinks “In some strange way I felt she offered an alternative version of myself. To follow her story would be to glimpse what I might have done had I been trapped in Waycross in her circumstances.” Now go to page 335: Emma thinks of the Queen of the Underworld: “She was the worthy subject I had been waiting for, the opposite of the old maid who had died in her flyblown hamlet as my train passed without ever setting off on her own adventure[...] She was my sister adventurer, another unique and untransferable self who had been places I hadn’t and who had returned with just the sort of details I craved to imagine further.”

What are some “alternative versions” of yourself? Are there figures in your life, people you have glimpsed—or known---who embody some aspect of what you DON’T want to become (Like Emma’s imagined old maid)? And what about people who make you question what you would be like if you had been brought up in their history? And what about people who “have been places” you haven’t and who “have returned with just the sort of details” you crave to imagine further?

5. Queen of the Underworld is dedicated “to the exiles, wherever you are now.” Do you think the author refers to the Cuban exiles Emma meets in the summer of 1959, or does she mean it in a broader sense? Have you ever been an exile? From your home land? From a life you felt was rightfully yours? How did your specific form of exile change your life?

6. The word “usurp,” Emma tells us, has become her adversarial banner. (Page 9 of the hardcover). She goes on to elaborate: “And the more I meditated on it, the more the usurp word compounded in personal meanings. Not just kingdoms and crowns got usurped. A person’s unique and untransferable self could, at any time, be diminished, annexed, or altogether extinguished by alien forces.” What are your definitions of “usurpation”? What forms of it have you experienced?

7. Do you believe a person has a unique and untransferable self? Or not?

Discuss how Emma’s “story so far” might have been different if she had not believed in her unique and untransferable self.

8. Queen of the Underworld is a very POPULATED book. How many of the characters can you recall? Which were your favorites? Which reminded you of someone you know—or of yourself?

Which ones did you dislike? Which ones did you feel could have been left out? Which ones would you have liked to know more about?

9. Were there things about Emma that you disapproved of? If she had been a male character, would you have felt the same?

10. Were you surprised or disappointed by Ginevra’s choices at the end of the book?

Do you think Emma will ever write her novel inspired by “the Queen of the Underworld”? How might that novel be different from Ginevra Brown’s story?