The first thing brought to mind by this short, harrowing tour de force is a point made long ago by Snoopy in the "Peanuts" comic strip: "Life is a series of rude awakenings." As presented in this book, life is a half-dozen awakenings, scattered through the long lifespan of its nameless, solo central character as she pulls herself together to confront another new day. These six scenes are crowned by an epilogue which is the end of awakenings: a half-awake nightmare or the stirrings of a mind in its final coma, ending with a glimpse of the mother who once gave her life, coming now to escort her into death.
It is a sad book, beautifully written in places and moderately experimental in its techniques. Inevitably, it calls to mind the monologue-books of Samuel Beckett--for example, "Not I," in which a woman designated only as "Mouth" reviews her life in some anguish. Like Beckett, Figes develops much of her leverage from the balance between the reader's attraction to and alienation from the central character. Figes is more orderly and coherent than Beckett; she presents a universe more recognizable in its mundane details. And in doing so she loses some of his allusive richness, his direct, compelling contact with the irrational element that lurks in every human soul. In a sense, her book represents a solid step toward mass acceptance of the Beckett Weltanschauung and techniques, and it should be welcomed as such.
Beyond the story of a single life, as sampled at these intervals in its span, the book's underlying subject seems to be the plight of women in contemporary society. The problem is the practical nonexistence of that society in "Waking," except as reflected in the woman's thoughts and memories. The book focuses on the woman alone in bed at a time when (like anyone emerging from sleep) she is totally wrapped up in herself. We are given only a hazy, self-centered view of what has happened to her and why, much less harrowing and specific than the social processes implicit in the carefully selected details of a Beckett monologue. And the picture of her that emerges is not so appealing as to evoke, by itself, the desired response.
Born in 1939, Eva Figes has yet to experience the disintegration that occupies the final segments of "Waking," and her imagination here is less compelling than in the earlier sections where she can call on memory for details of childhood, puberty, pregnancy and the special servitude endured by a mother of small children. But even when she is projecting the future, her vision is often vivid, her style taut.
"Waking" adds up to a mosaic portrait: fleeting, distorted glimpses of a woman and some of the things that have happened to her, above all, her emotional reaction to the random assaults of life: children who absorb her time and energy and reduce her world to little things; a man who first beguiles her into marriage and then divorces her; a grown son who wants her to die so that he can have her house; a body that she has never quite understood now slipping slowly out of her control; the sight of an old friend on her deathbed and the inevitable projection of her own death. Not all of the awakenings are rude, but the cumulative effect is depressing.
As a young girl, the narrator lies awake in a bedroom flooded with light, reflecting on how bored she is to have to stay in bed until her parents are up and about. Because she is small and fast-moving, life seems to go very slowly: "Time is larger than me. The whole day which now stretches ahead is an inconceivable mass, heavy as clouds." Next, as a schoolgirl just past puberty, she awakens to erotic fantasy: "Now it is a white horse and rider moving through the forest . . . He lifts me up onto the front of his horse . . ." But she does not really know how to bring this fantasy to its conclusion, and the screen goes blank. She fills the void with reflections on "those stupid, chattering adults . . ." in "this stuffy little house which is like a prison," her strange, new power over men and the thought, horrible partly because it is accurate, that "some day I will be old, a woman like mother."
Analyzing the thoughts of that child, it is not difficult to tell what will happen next--and sure enough, in the next episode, she awakens pregnant with her second child, "pinned down by the weight in my distended belly," and married to the man who will ultimately leave her, reflecting on the curious tricks that God (or something) has played on her, wondering about her husband's aloofness. Her first child has become the focus of her existence, and she reflects wryly that "my blood is now running into a second who will hold me hostage to fortune if the first could not do it." This chapter is the best in the book, perhaps because like the book's "I," the author has borne a son and daughter and the situation in the chapter is one crucial to the course of a life and shared by many others. But the author's identity with her subject should not be overemphasized. There is nothing in the book to indicate that "I" could have written it, though she experienced it, and on the whole she is not an attractive person. Her chief talent seems to be for suffering, and most of her suffering seems self-induced.
What Eva Figes has produced is an interesting book about an uninteresting woman.