CYNTHIA PROPPER SETON'S eighth novel is an apologia for the new chastity and for the cultivation of the "Private Life" of the title. The author calls herself a "soft feminist," and A Private Life will infuriate some women and delight others. The women's movement these days has many mansions, arranged in wildly contrasting styles -like the rooms in the strange French boarding-house that is at the center of this book.
Fanny Foote, an aspiring writer from an upper-class liberal Boston background, works on a fashionable New York magazine. Disillusioned iwth men, she and her best friend opt to be "born-again virgins," and forswear sex. For a number of years Fanny has noticed "a shortage of fine people"; she keeps a list of her own finest people, which starts with Keats annd Marcus Aurelius and ends with Pavarotti.
Fanny's mysterious Aunt Carrie ran off many years before with a Mrs. Tavernier to keep a pension in Albi in southwest France. Fanny's editor dispatches her to Albi to get a story, excited by the idea of these prototypeical old feminists -lesbians, of course. So begins Fanny's love affair not with a person but with France. This traditional situation of the American's first encounter with Europe gives the author the opportunity for some pleasantly lyrical descriptive travelogue. "The old rosy pink city of Albi extends above both sides of the escarped Tarn and is so deep in color that it seems to tint the clouds."
The dialogue, in contrast, is made urgent by spatterings of italics to convey intonation and emphasis. It gives the novel a restless air, but then Fanny is restless. It is talk, rather than action, that fuels the narrative. The author mistrusts her characters' ability to play out their own roles; she tells us, for example, that Fanny's introduction into the penson of artists and writers "affected its ecology," and that she was "by accident a catalytic factor." It is not for the novelist to spell out these things. Her job, her art, is to show them happening.
The two elderly ladies whom Fanny has come out to interview -to get the dirt -have a lot to say, though Fanny abandons the idea of writing the piece. Her aunt and her friend are described in terms that suggest worldly nuns or saints; they are selfcontained and have found how to live in a way that suits them. They are "fine people." And they are "not" lesbians, as Aunt Carrie explains:
"I have to say the secual bullying, the intimidation and blackmailing is the nastiest excrescence of the feminist movement. . .I can't tell you how companionable it is to live with a woman because there is so little sexual tension. Surely many women through the ages have recognized this pleasant fate. It really seems spiteful, this rewriting of history."
"This pleasant fate" of frmale companionship is not, howver, for Fanny. The pension is full of interested males. Among them is Titus, a fellow Bostonian -Jewish, nervous, sexually shy, full of reasonableness and book-learning. For this is a very literary novel in more ways than one.
It's no coincidence that the pension is called The Printing House, or that the building itself was established as such before 1500. A long tradition of literary culture informs this book, as it conditions its heroine. The following authors or their works are mentioned in these pages: Darwin, Lewis Carroll, Eliot, Baudelaire, Chaucer, Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, Emerson, Dostoevski, Bishop Berkeley, Falubert, Byron, Rilke, Proust, Frederic Mistral, Mandelstam, Herzen, Peguy, Arendt, Braudel, Brodsky. . .(This is not a complete list.)
Altogether it's quite a seminar. Even the imagery is literary: Fanny longs for her own story to have a "theme." She is afraid of the chaotic and the episodic and says she wants her life to be like a novel, not a collection of short stories. She was not given the name Fanny, she chose it -was she thinking of her beloved Keats' beloved Fanny Brawne? Titus, who loves her, thinks "she might make a Colette"; and her best friend in New York just happened to be called Missy, which was the nickname of one of Colette's butch protectors. People better-read than I will be able to play this game with Cynthia Propper Seton's text till the cows come home.
Books can and do breed more books, as organic life breeds new life. LIving art comes from a cross-fertilization between the two sorts of cultures. The new chastity will render its discoples sterile in more ways than one if they don't take their noses out of other people's books and other writers' lives. There's a real fear of flying here, much more hampering than the other sort.
Titus and Fanny, back in Boston, discover that they love one another, without fireworks; "a worthwhile love" at last.
"'Do you suppose we could get married first, and then make love?'
"It was unorthodox, but they meant ot go through with it anyway."
A straw in the wind, or a new orthodoxy? Wipe your eyes, Erica Jong.