Modernism. Women. City. These were the three keywords I had in mind, and repeatedly typed into databases, when I rummaged through libraries during my undergraduate days. The words themselves should bring up prominent names in the canon but my lazy and much wearied mind preferred the search engines, and sure enough, I was saved from the humdrum of computer work by an unexpected title: Spleen, by Olive Moore.
Back then, I had a parochial view of literature and employed a very rigid approach, one much like a Venn diagram, to connect ideas. Essentially, I was looking for a novel set in the modernist period, written by a female author, which had to be about the city; I wanted a supporting text that told tales of the modern polis, of adventures about independent women skirting the streets and triumphing over the patriarchally-carved out city.
“Spleen is the antithesis of metropolitan sprightliness”
Spleen is, quite frankly, the antithesis of metropolitan sprightliness. For starters, there is not an iota of city-talk in the novel for it is set predominantly in an elusive island off the shores of Italy. And then there is the glaring problem of the alliance between the female protagonist and the countryside—she prefers the good earth! For these reasons, it wasn’t quite the book I was expecting. Instead, the novel tells of a woman of the city, Ruth, who, having imbibed its traditions and ways, gives all up for an Italian rurality to contemplate and relearn what it means to exist outside the very city and its ideologies that made her.
The city is almost nonexistent but then again, what use would its presence be when Ruth is practically the living embodiment of the city? And not just any city—she bears the marks of the city of the Enlightenment, specifically its hegemonic governance that prefixes formulaic lives for its citizens.
The superficial migration from city to countryside merely overlays the deeper existential crisis of Ruth who struggles to reconcile what she is with who she is. Finding herself suddenly pregnant with a child she is obligated to love, and with the question of abortion out the window, Ruth embarks on a frenetic search for meaning—something that would make her want this bun in the oven. If she has to be “nature’s oven for nature’s bun” (24), then she is going to create something “new and unexpected” (41). As it turns out, nine months later, the creature she envisions is indeed different—a baby boy with formless feet bound for a life of immobility. What follows is a lifelong plague of self-reproach and isolation that stems not quite from guilt, as most are inclined to believe, but rather from being entrapped by walls of impossibilities where any glimmer of possibility is merely another false hope.
This depressing and tumultuous predicament hangs over the novel and is the background against which questions of what it means to be a woman are revisited. Ruth’s plight is reminiscent of some of the situations in Simone de Beauvoir’s fine-grained analysis on women in The Second Sex. This is, of course, no coincidence for Moore herself was frustrated with women: “They seem able to do everything but think. Yet they get away with it” (qtd. in Moore 130). It is thus not surprising that in Spleen we get a woman consumed with thoughts, obsessed with thinking about her existence. Ruth represents the coalescence of women’s situations—flashes of childhood, marriage, childbirth, abortion, elopement, escape and love—and possibilities of what if and if only… that stand against the horrifying monolithic fact that one is born a woman.
“Her language has the uncanny effect of pulling together disparate images that are visceral and evocative”
Then as if coming to terms with the waves of questions posed in the narrative was not overwhelming enough, Moore’s eccentric imagery brutally confronted me; I was stuck in the mire of her prose. Her language, terse and trenchant at the same time, has the uncanny effect of pulling together disparate images that are visceral and evocative. There is something bold and reckless about the descriptions and diction that jolts the reader. One stops bobbing along to the lyric flow of the prose and is taken aback by random flotsams of images that force one to relook at what one has just read. I’ll try to explain: there is a moment in the novel when women’s complicity in the oppression of their kind is likened to an “emotional maternal substance which women ooze as a form of adhesive plaster by which mankind is held together” (42). An “adhesive plaster” is common, quite insipid, but “ooze” as a verb is clever. It alludes to both the exudate, the wound beneath the plaster, and the glue that seals it in. Such overlapping texturizes the imagery and adds a depth that keeps the curious reader anxious. We become jittery, waiting for the next puzzle, just as Ruth is restless, waiting for answers.
It is now six years since I chanced upon Spleen. I don’t remember how many times I’ve gone through it but still, at the end of my most recent reading, the novel remains in a globule of waiting and seeking. The language, like the narrative, is at times circuitous and deliberately prevaricates despite its efforts to interrogate and constantly probe for alternative answers. I can only conclude that there is a relentless pursuit of a certain freedom that frees not—a freedom simply gratified by active enduring and persistent inquiring. It is a “one step forward, two steps” back sort of progression that is no way closer to subverting gender norms and essentialist dualisms or attaining any form of transcendence, for that matter. It is as though we are waiting for a final punch, for the bun in the oven to bake, so to speak, but this hope is almost a hopeless one…
Lest we frown on such nihilist sentiments, let’s rewind a bit and return to the inspiration behind Spleen—one that comes from the series of poetry “Spleen et Idéal” in Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) by Charles Baudelaire. One stanza writes:
When the world seems a dungeon, damp and small,
Where hope flies like a bat, in circles reeling,
Beating his timid wings against the wall
And dashing out his brains against the ceiling; (“Spleen 4”)
The same paradox of hope diffuses through the verses; hope goes on “reeling,” “beating” and “dashing” despite the futility of its actions. Although juxtaposed against the dungeon and its towering walls, hope carries on in the active continuous tense. The finality does not deter attempts and answers do not resolve problems, just as the new creation could not satisfy Ruth. Yet Spleen, like the poem, continues to perpetuate this hope.
If you do read the novel, when you arrive at the end I trust you will feel as I do—that Spleen never gives up but isn’t hell-bent on answers. This, however, does not frustrate but in fact, makes you and I want to return to the very beginning of the novel and let Ruth walk us through the same questions over and over again.
Baudelaire, Charles. “Spleen.” Poems of Baudelaire. Trans. Roy Campbell. New York: Pantheon Books, 1952.
Moore, Olive. Spleen. Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1996.