“I was wondering what role such forces must have played in my life. It always feels depleting to make these self-discoveries.” While it may seem paradoxical for prose to be at once stark and ornamentally lyrical, Bette Howland (1937-2017) was not a writer to shy away from such a challenge of contrasts, and the eleven stories collected in Blue In Chicago – by turns autobiographical and surreal, introspective and profoundly political – are a powerful, riveting, destabilising testament to her skill.
Until this month, Bette Howland had not been published in the UK. The narrative is simple, if not somewhat baffling: Howland published three books in the US, including a memoir and a book of three novellas; was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984; and continued to write but never published again, almost lost to obscurity until a portfolio of her work was featured in A Public Space magazine in 2015, leading to the 2019 republication in the US of her short stories, and subsequently her first ever UK publication, Blue In Chicago. Howland did not live to see the full extent of the resurgence in her work, but it is easy to imagine a writer so prescient foreseeing a late, mostly posthumous success from day one – so great is Howland’s insight, so acute her sense of life and its ways.
In many ways, Blue In Chicago is a book about “mothers and daughters”, many of the stories repeating that refrain and circling over these matrilineal and matriarchal dynamics and relationships in a keen frenzy, always trying to understand the mother better, the distance between them. And this is only one path through which the primary concern of these eleven stories emerges: the unsaid, the dark chasm between what can and what must be said.
The jarring, unreal opener ‘A Visit’ is less about a singular visitation and more about the act of visiting, the loose transience of time and place; it is a purgatorial vision, briefly obsessing over death and loss, and what gets left behind in life. And yet the story, obscure as it is, seems insistent upon hope and brightness, perfectly setting the tone for the following stories: “The light went out. Through the dark I came up. I was looking for you, I went looking for you. My arm was still aching.” Aching, as Howland’s prose does, feeling the extent of the human condition, searching in dimness, darkness – catastrophe uncertain and quick.
Meanwhile, the titular story is almost frustratingly slow and sprawling, a wedding and the journeys to and from it, the oppressive ennui and familial angst of the palpably autobiographical(ish) narrator. This is a narrator who recurs throughout these stories (such as in ‘Golden Age’ and ‘How We Got The Old Woman To Go’), surrounded by the same cast of eccentric aunts and uncles and overbearing mothers, stories as concerned with the intensely personal as with Jewishness, womanhood, Chicago, America. Howland seems at times to lay her life bare – or an imaginative approximation of it – so that she can gain some ground on the societal structures she is entrenched in, view it from above, critically and openly. (Howland herself had brilliant insight into the difference between “invention” and “imagination” in the question of how fictional or not her writing was – Honor Moore’s afterword to this edition elucidates it brilliantly.)
‘Twenty-Sixth and California’ is an ingeniously choral vision of a city courtroom, and ‘Public Facilities’ brings to strange vibrant life an overused and underfunded public library; with greater directness, ‘German Lessons’ explores the indirect, rumour and suggestion and unarticulated fear, while in ‘Aronesti’ the (rare) male protagonist feels “a swarming emptiness, a stray grief”, haunted by the lost Ada, unable to fully immerse himself in life: “Death was a dark world, and she was wandering through it.” Each story is densely decorous and somehow shockingly sparse, bony, sharp.
The final story of the collection is its lynchpin, one of the finest pieces of writing and irrefutable proof that Howland was – and remains – a paramount, singular voice in American literature. ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’ is the longest story in the collection, comprising just over a quarter of the total book; its narrator restlessly grieves the late Victor Lazarus, regretting unasked questions and losses impossible to quantify. Victor Lazarus was her lover, but such a description feels cheap, an injustice to the person constantly asking herself – and asked by others – “what am I to you?” The clearest answer is also the most ambiguous: “Just say I’m the witness. The witness at the scene.” Staggering back and forth over a handful of days in June 1995, the story of the protracted self-inflicted death of a Great Man (who “had it all and blew it all, that’s his story”) is punctuated with deep grief, yes, elaborate yet earnest, but also with such irony and acerbic wit, such punchy verve, that Lazarus appears resurrected at every turn of his dying and every drawn-out moment of his funeral. She is bearing witness; she is trying to decode a life and death that were not hers but which are part of her accumulated living nonetheless; she is left with “The old words, the good words, the words I don’t know, the words everyone knows.”
Howland has these words too, is obsessed with them, and with laying them out in such a way that those who need them can pick them up and run with them. It’s as if they were fruit hanging from the trees described at the end of ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’, the penultimate paragraph of this glittering, shimmering collection: “They’re burnished with sound, you can all but see it. I don’t know what they’re saying, but it seems urgent.” The unsaid, loud and clear.
Blue In Chicago, by Bette Howland was first published in the UK on 9 July 2020 by Picador (and edited by Brigid Hughes). Picador will publish Howland’s memoir W-3 in 2021, and her trio of novellas Things to Come and Go in 2022.
Juliano Zaffino is a writer and reader, and runs the online literary community YourShelf, including The YourShelf Podcast and The YourShelf Press. His debut poetry collection, All Those Bodies And They’re Moving, was published 31 January 2020. Currently, he is studying for his PhD in ‘Cutting Shakespeare’, with the Shakespeare Institute and the Royal Shakespeare Company. You can find Jay on both Instagram and Twitter as @jayzaff and @_yourshelf_.