A. ALVAREZ's new book Life After Marriage: Love in an Age of Divorce is not about life after marriage or love in an age of divorce. Like a growing number of nonfiction works, this book ultimately tells us more about its author and the society in which he lives than about his stated subject. In the case of A. Alvarez, this is bound to be interesting. The author was born into a middle-class Jewish family, raised and educated in England. In 1956, after graduating from Oxford and accepting a fellowship in the United States, he married for the first time, a marriage made very much in the spirit of the times and under the particular spell of D.H. Lawrence. Alvarez, who has worked as an editor, poet, critic, novelist and academic, was then a highly serious student of the Great Tradition. "For an ambitious literary-critical young man like myself," Alvarez writes, "marriage was not just a way of settling down and legitimizing my sex life, it was something meaningful and heroic, a career, a vocation, a vindication of my values."
His book begins with an examination--"Myself When Young"--of the person he was when he entered marriage, and from the outset we are grounded as much in literature as in "real life." Fresh out of Oxford, his head filled with literary criticism, Alvarez headed for Taos, New Mexico, looking for D.H. Lawrence in the way young Americans of his generation went to Paris looking for Hemingway. "It was literary infatuation expanded into the realm of dementia," he writes, explaining that the whole of English literary society was similarly unhinged and inspired by the fact that Lawrence had eloped with Frieda Weekley, wife, mother of three children, daughter of the Baron von Richthofen in a real life English version of Anna Karenina.
Alvarez rented a cabin in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, wrote six hours each day and waited for Frieda to return from a vacation in Mexico so that he could interview her for a critical article on Lawrence. Caustic, yet gentle in his recreation of the experience, Alvarez writes vividly of catching himself "in long, intricate conversations" with his shadow and of becoming so absorbed in the trials of Tristan and Iseult that he became insensible to the New Mexico sun. Skillfully, he sets the stage for his impending marriage: "I was used to the monastic but peopled loneliness of boarding school and university; despite a few affairs, I had never lived with a woman, regularly and day to day. But the loneliness I experienced up in that cabin in New Mexico was different: literal, physical, and augmented by the vast indifference of the desert landscape. Underneath, I suppose, it scared me, though I never would have admitted this."
Frieda returned from Mexico, Alvarez met her daughter, and a few months later he entered marriage as well as the Great Tradition by becoming the husband of Frieda's granddaughter. Although he found himself "astonished to be so unhappy" as early as the morning after, their marriage lasted four years and produced a child. It was only when his psychonanalyst asked "Why don't you leave your wife?" that Alvarez began to think about divorce.
Exactly why Alvarez is still reflecting on it 20 years later is never made clear in his book. Like The Savage God: A Study of Suicide , which Alvarez published in 1971, Life After Marriage is "an attempt to find out why these things happen," by recreating personal experience and analyzing it in a context of social history, philosophy and literature. Like the first book, the second is comprised of discrete parts--profiles, chapters on history and theory, an explanatory preface--with Alvarez appearing as protagonist, narrator, and commentator. But where The Savage God had the emotional impact of a good novel, Life After Marriage left me dissatisfied, feeling that a writer of Alvarez's intelligence, skill and enormous literary resources had not gotten to the heart of the matter.
The writer addresses the problem early on. In Alvarez's own life, suicide and divorce were "closely linked"; his attempt at the former was followed by the latter. But while the subject of suicide, he says "seemed to reach out continually toward the imagination and a whole world of literature," divorce seemed "above all a matter of theological and legal argument."
That is simply not true. In Alvarez's own chapter on the history of divorce, he presents plenty of material that "reaches toward the imagination" and it is only because he chooses to define divorce in the narrowest legal sense that he rules out the possibility of examining all the failed marriages, runaway husbands and wives and compensatory extra-marital arrangements in literature. This is a pity because in so doing, he denies himself the opportunity to do what he is best at: writing what he calls a kind of "critical meditation" which draws on examples from literature as well as life. In The Savage God, Alvarez drew a compelling portrait of the American poet Sylvia Plath and her suicide, intercut with quotes from her poetry; one wonders how he might have treated Colette or John Updike.
Instead, Alvarez protests that he is not a journalist and then attempts a difficult, in-depth piece of journalism. He interviews a number of people who have undergone divorce (why he chooses these particular people, and how well he knows them are questions that go unexplained), creates composite characters and winds up with a set of profiles that are flat and unconvincing. There is a descendant of a proper Bostonian family, a woman who has chosen to live alone on the Upper East Side of New >York; a languid upper-class Englishman who claims to feel none of the jealousy that Alvarez believes is inherent in a marital situation; a Long Island matron whose surgeon husband has run off with a young (female) ski instructor. But none of the people come alive and their remarks are relatively banal.
"Were things easier after you left?" Alvarez asks a young Swede.
"Not at all. I was stupid to find a house so close. He kept dropping in, telephoning, always wanting to know if I had someone there."
"Never . . . "
Perhaps because his characters are composites, they all talk in the same way; and because Alvarez is constantly interposing himself between the reader and the interviews we never get a clear sense of what a person really means to say. Few of them get across the wrenching pain of divorce as we have seen it portrayed in the theater, at the movies, in contemporary novels, on TV or even in the newspaper. And most elicit from the author a kind of smug contempt rather than the compassion he displayed toward the people who had struggled with suicide rather than divorce.
Alvarez does far better summarizing the history of divorce. His short chapter on the subject moves quickly from Biblical conceptions of marriage to the Romans, through the early Christian fathers to modern European and North American legal procedures for bringing marriages to an end. But this is a book where the pieces--however good they are--do not cohere. Life After Marriage is a disappointing book by an author who can do far better.