In a literary age dominated by absurdists, genre benders, hysterical realists, and post-modern transgressives, Francine Prose quietly goes about her business within the great tradition of the novel, coming out every year or so with a new book that unravels human complexities by telling an interesting story about them. Although she has received far less critical attention and praise than other novelists of her generation (Marilynne Robinson, Richard Ford, Jane Smiley, or Richard Russo), and though she has never received the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, or even the Orange Prize for fiction by a woman, Francine Prose has produced a body of work that, taken as a whole, is without peer in contemporary American fiction.

Perhaps the problem is that her novels are as unassuming as her surname. Prose rarely resorts to what Rebecca West calls the “flash of phrase.” Her writing is exacting but not labored. And it is placed entirely at the service of narrative: it draws attention not to herself and how clever and quotable she can be but rather to her people. Here, for example, is the first conversation between Swenson, a writing professor, and his student Angela Argo in Blue Angel (2000), arguably Prose’s best book. Angela, who will lead the professor to destruction, like Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film The Blue Angel, is no Marlene Dietrich. A “leather-jacketed toothpick” with green-and-orange-streaked hair, she is sitting in the hallway outside his office, grasping a copy of Jane Eyre “with talons lacquered eggplant purple, curling from fingerless black leather gloves studded with silver grommets.” Swenson asks:

“How do you like Jane Eyre?”

“It’s practically my favorite novel. I’ve read it seven times.”

Swenson should have known. Under all that crusty leather beats the tender heart of a governess pining for Mr. Rochester.

“What I like,” says Angela, “is how pissed off Jane Eyre is. She’s in a rage for the whole novel, and the payoff is she gets to marry the blind guy who’s toasted his wife in the attic.”

“Come in,” says Swenson. “Sit down.”

As Swenson unlocks his office, Angela’s still talking. “The trouble is, I’m reading it for Lauren Healy’s class? Text Studies in Gender Warfare? And everything we read turns out to be the same story, you know, the dominant male patriarchy sticking it to women. Which I guess is sort of true, I mean, I understand how you could say that, except that everything isn’t the same.”

All of Prose’s best qualities find accommodation in this short passage—her remarkably sensitive ear for current speech and its cant, her fondness for non-joiners and irreverent native skeptics, the surprising vehemence of her feelings for literature. As a character says in Hunters and Gatherers (1995), literature is her “idea of heaven”—a refuge from the battle of ugly appetites. At a feminist retreat in the Arizona desert, enjoying a break from group activities, one woman reclines on her bed in a room without a telephone, reading Middlemarch. She tells her room-mate: “Forget the happy hunting ground. This is like a cruise or mountain vacation or being sick as a kid. There’s nowhere I can go, nowhere I have to be, no way anyone can reach me, nothing to do besides stay in this room and read this terrific novel.” Prose’s own novels, written very much in the spirit of George Eliot, appeal to the same longing for worlds that are abundant with character and incident, in the company of people whose conscience is nearly as fierce as their passions.

She was born the daughter of two Jewish doctors in Brooklyn in 1947. After graduating from Radcliffe, Prose traveled to India with her first husband and spent her days in the Bombay Public Library, gorging herself on Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, Joshua Trachtenberg’s Jewish Magic and Superstition, and Isak Dinesen’s Gothic stories. Awakened to a realm of experience that a Radcliffe education had taught her to deny, she set aside the autobiographical novel at which she had been pecking away and discovered, she said, a “narrative gift that didn’t relate at all to my life.” The result was Judah the Pious (1973), a story-within-a-story told by a Hasidic rebbe to charm a 17th-century Polish king into lifting a ban on Jewish burial customs. It won the Jewish Book Council Award. She was 26.

For the next five years, Prose built upon the early success of Judah the Pious with a series of novels that set out to revive the medieval tradition of storytelling as described by Walter Benjamin, combining “the lore of faraway places, such as a much-traveled man brings home, with the lore of the past, as it best reveals itself to natives of a place.” In The Glorious Ones (1974), the main character is an orphan who recounts the tales of 16th-century comici dell’arte; in Marie Laveau (1977), a “voodoo queen” in 19th-century New Orleans; in Animal Magnetism (1978), a New England apostle of mesmerism.

Several years later, in an essay contrasting Chaucer with the fiction of her contemporaries, Prose wondered “why the pilgrims’ oath to tell tales full of wisdom and comfort and the power to make one another merry should, like so many other oaths—the Hippocratic, for example—have fallen on such hard times.” Her ambition to restore the pilgrims’ oath to its earlier high status was a welcome dissent from the self-conscious nonreferential fiction that dominated the critical conversation in the mid-1970s. Prose was not sufficiently accomplished, however, to realize her ambition. In her early work, she confused the lore of the past and faraway places with magic and miraculous events, the ancient dream of exemption from ordinary reason and even the constraints of physical reality.

Household Saints, which appeared in 1981, was her first mature work. By then Prose had divorced her first husband and married a sculptor with whom she would raise two sons. Perhaps not coincidentally, her fifth novel is about a marriage that deepens into lasting happiness after an unlikely start: “It happened by the grace of God that Joseph Santangelo won his wife in a card game.” Set in New York’s Little Italy after the Second World War, Household Saints is populated by second-generation immigrant Catholics whose religion is interwoven with folkloric superstition—tutelary ghosts, good and bad omens, the Evil Eye. Jesus appears in a vision, along with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and miracles occur. This was familiar territory for Prose, but Household Saints is different. The supernatural element is introduced not to shrink reality’s claims on storytelling but rather to itemize the social customs that define the lives of her characters.

But all the realistic detail in the world could not conceal the fact that Prose was an outsider to the world she had chosen to portray in Household Saints. In her next two novels, Prose returned to Jewish customs and sources, with which she was more intimate. Hungry Hearts (1983) follows a troupe of Yiddish actors in the 1920s from lower Manhattan to Uruguay as they stage a production of S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk, while Bigfoot Dreams (1986) features a staff writer for a sensationalist checkout-line tabloid who identifies with Kafka (“MAN BECOMES GIANT COCKROACH would be good for maybe nine hundred words”). More important than the Jewish background, though, is the atmosphere of general well-being that suffuses the novels. There are no rages, no violence, no irreplaceable loss, no unremitting pain, no suicidal despair. Any misery suffered by Prose’s heroines is the result of forces outside their control, not because they persist in self-destructive folly. And since they have little at stake, their triumphs are hopeful rather than life-changing.

In Hungry Hearts, for example, Dinah Rappoport is possessed by a dybbuk when she agrees to keep her marriage secret; and in Bigfoot Dreams, Vera Perl is sued when her cock-and-bull story about a miracle cure at two Brooklyn kids’ sidewalk stand comes true. All’s well that ends well. Dinah’s evil spirit is exorcised by a Hasidic rabbi in Monte-video who suggests a public wedding in a kosher meatpacking plant. Vera nearly encounters Bigfoot, is frightened into admitting that she has not been serious about “learning a better way to live,” and experiences grace at a cryptobiologists’ conference at the Grand Canyon. Perhaps, she thinks, those who are fascinated with the paranormal—miracle cures, contact with the dead, UFO sightings, alien abductions, legendary monsters—are merely, like Vera herself, looking for some reason to believe:

Anything’s possible. Miracles happen when one least expects them, most often when one has stopped looking. Perhaps all this talk of the unexpected is merely a product of the same magical thinking that keeps young girls from saying their boyfriends’ names and businessmen from mentioning their big deals. Talk about it and it won’t happen. Don’t expect it—and there it’ll be.

The writing is shrewd and funny; the characters, sympathetic and believable. But though they are tremendously enjoyable, Hungry Hearts and Bigfoot Dreams are about as nourishing as chocolate.

Having taken magic and superstition as far as she could, Prose had reached an impasse and did not publish another novel for six years. When she finally returned to the longer form after a stint as the “Hers” columnist for the New York Times, her fiction was more vinegary and scourging. Her characters began living in the present, swamped by ordinary life, subject to physical law and moral fashion. Primitive People (1992) takes on the cruel and gloating post–divorce lives of the Hudson Valley well-to-do. In Hunters and Gatherers (1995), a circle of snappish New York City feminists concocts a woman-centered religion. A New England liberal-arts college in the throes of abandoning the liberal arts is the setting of Blue Angel. A Changed Man (2005) infiltrates a human-rights NGO headed by a famous Holocaust survivor that is joined by a former neo-Nazi. And in Goldengrove (2008), a small-town middle-class family in upstate New York is unstrung by its elder daughter’s death.

Each of these books reworks a great title by a literary predecessor. Prose had begun the practice in her earlier novels, drawing upon Kafka, The Dybbuk, and Saint Thérèse’s spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul, for thematic material. But it was not until she began to find inspiration in the English tradition that Prose discovered a narrative gift that relates, surprisingly, to her own life. In the manner of Joyce or Nabokov, she mines past literature to emphasize its connections to the work of her own day. But with each new book she also achieves a significant revision of the tradition—not merely by adding something new and eye-catching but also by subtly altering the received opinion of the works of her precursors.

In Primitive People, she recasts What Maisie Knew, a novel of Henry James’s late period, and is quite open about what she is up to. Rosemary Porter explains why she and her husband named their second child Maisie:

We knew there was a Henry James novel about a little girl named Maisie. We both thought we’d read the novel—mistakenly, as it turned out. How were we supposed to know that that Maisie was an unfortunate waiflike victim of ugly, selfish adult divorce?

A waiflike victim of divorce is exactly what Prose’s Maisie will become, and to far worse effect. Where James’s novel tells how a precocious young girl is educated to know her own mind by silently watching her parents’ efforts to destroy each other, the outcome is different for the new Maisie. What was “ugly, selfish adult divorce” in What Maisie Knew becomes child abuse in Primitive People.

The topical subject matter and contemporary habitats of Prose’s later work have confused many critics, who continually stumble into the error of describing it as “satirical.” Michiko Kakutani started the habit of getting it wrong, remarking in the New York Times that Primitive People “veers sharply between sentiment and satire.” Little in Prose, though, is the stuff of satire, and there is even less sentiment. In Primitive People, Maisie’s mother learns that her best friend is having an affair with her ex-husband and that the best friend promised the children they will all be together next Christmas. “Not all of us,” says Maisie’s brother. “Not Mom.” Mom locks herself in the bathroom and ineffectually slits her wrists, spilling blood on the children’s towels and toothbrushes. In Blue Angel, Ted Swenson wrecks his marriage, family, and career by bedding a student. Not that he is attracted to her; rather, he is seduced by the novel she is writing for his seminar; a lifetime spent in creative-writing classrooms reading mediocre work has left him defenseless against the power of genuine literary art. In A Changed Man, Vincent Nolan is stalked by a white supremacist who parks in the drive-way of the home where Vincent is staying, bares swastika tattoos to the teenaged son of the Jewish woman who is sheltering Vincent, places menacing calls to her at work, and threatens violence before Vincent at last beats the supremacist bloody.

Prose always makes a point of alluding to her literary source at a pivotal moment. When the women of Hunters and Gatherers fall to bickering, their priestess is upset. “What is this?” she asks. “The feminist Goddess-worshipping Lord of the Flies?” Pretty much: although perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her novel belongs to the same tradition as William Golding’s, a tradition that originates with Gulliver’s Travels and passes through Heart of Darkness. But it is George Eliot who has influenced Prose most deeply. She takes characters modeled on Eliot heroines—women like Eliot herself, for that matter, who thirsted after a new religion to replace Christianity—and plops them down in an exotic, hostile landscape where their civilized habits and spiritual airs prove inadequate to the test of interpersonal savagery.

A Changed Man recasts Middlemarch as a romance between an ex-skinhead and a fortyish Jewish divorcée (“With her admirable but hopeless desire to be good, to do good,” she is explicitly compared to the heroine of that novel, Dorothea Brooke) who must accept that an ex-skinhead might be a better man than a saintly survivor, and that marriage to the one, rather than an international human-rights campaign with the other, might be her best chance for doing good, for being good. Goldengrove reverses the progress of The Mill on the Floss, starting from the death of Eliot’s adolescent heroine Maggie rather than ending with it. The aftermath of tragedy, Prose implies—its effects upon those who are left with grief, their vulnerability to false consolation—may be the more painful story.

By setting her novels not only in a familiar social reality but also in a literary dimension—a world of words, in which fiction refers to fiction, and readers are sent back to books they may have read before—Prose is able to do something that none of her contemporaries has done. She has wedded the postmodern novel, with the consciousness of its own existence as fiction, to the explicitly moral intention of novelists like Eliot.
Indeed, after nearly four decades as a professional novelist—and almost as long as a professor of creative writing—Prose has emerged as the foremost public advocate of contemporary literature’s return to literary tradition. In 2006 she published a manifesto called Reading Like a Writer to plead for the close study of literary masterpieces as a “companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop.” Great writers, she said, “are the teachers to whom I go, the authorities I consult, the models that still help to inspire me with the energy and courage it takes to sit down at a desk each day and resume the process of learning, anew, to write.”

Prose’s frankly conservative respect for the literary past is arresting for many reasons, not least of which is that, in her political stances, Prose is as reliably leftist as any other literary intellectual of her generation—believing Anita Hill, not believing George W. Bush. And yet, in each of her last five novels, Prose has set out to demolish leftist pieties. She is deeply suspicious of ideological solutions to human problems, and especially the institutions that are set up to administer them.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Blue Angel. Provoked by the case of her friend Stephen Dobyns, a poet and novelist who was suspended from his job at Syracuse University after remarking upon a graduate student’s breasts, Prose created a hero who is guilty of something worse (sleeping with an undergraduate) but is victimized nevertheless by a collective sanctimony. Given the chance to apologize, “to make his Dostoyevskian confession of sin,” Swenson finds that he cannot. He is sorry for wrecking his marriage and career, and for hurting his daughter, and yet,

as it happens, he is not particularly sorry for having broken the rules of Euston College, which is what he is supposed to say. The committee couldn’t care less about the rest. But he can’t possibly tell them the painful details, nor would they want to hear them. Which brings up something else that he is sorry about. He is extremely sorry for having spent twenty years of his one and only life, twenty years he will never get back, among people he can’t talk to, men and women to whom he can’t even tell the simple truth.

In her preference for the painful details and the simple truth, for people to talk to instead of attitudes to strike or experiments to conduct, Francine Prose is very different from most American novelists now writing, and in a manner that elevates her far above them. She still believes in the moral authority of the novel, and in her own novels, she wears that authority lightly but fittingly.

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