Tuesday, 2 June 2020

More than just a lesbian love story

“Shameless” and “unpublishable”—this was the reaction of her publishers when the Dutch writer Dola de Jong first submitted her novel The Tree and the Vine (De Thuiswacht) in 1950. Four years later, it made it into print, thanks in large part to the backing of prominent literary figures such as the Dutch poet Leo Vroman and the Belgian writer Marnix Gijsen, both European exiles living in America (as was de Jong by this point in her life). She also had the support of renowned New York editor Maxwell Perkins, the man who’d discovered both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and who’d published de Jong’s And the Field is the World (1945), the story of a young Jewish couple who flee the Netherlands for Morocco on the eve of the Second World War.

What made The Tree and the Vine so shocking was its candid depiction of queer desire. It follows two young women in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in the late thirties: Erica, a rash and impatient fledgling journalist who doesn’t live by anyone else’s rules, and the much more guarded, inhibited Bea, the narrator of the tale. De Jong’s publisher’s concerns were predictable. A bold and groundbreaking work, The Tree and the Vine caused a stir, both in Holland when it was first published, and then later again when it was translated, by Ilona Kinzer, into English and American editions, in 1961 and 1963 respectively. Though it clearly struck a chord with many readers—de Jong, it was said, received piles of fan mail from married women who questioned their life choices after reading it—its nuances were lost on many. As Lillian Faderman explains in her afterword to the Feminist Press’s 1996 reprint, a reviewer writing in The Statesman and Nation (May 12, 1961) was “unable to appreciate the book’s subtleties and larger meanings.” A new translation, by Kristen Gehrman, published this month by Transit Books, hopes to appeal to a broader readership today. As Gehrman argues, it’s a novel that deserves to be appreciated as something more than just a tale of war, or a lesbian romance.

Though the Statesman and Nation’s reviewer describes the novel as a portrait of “exotic vice,” “compulsive sin,” and “sexual pervert[s],” by today’s standards, de Jong’s depiction of lesbian love really couldn’t be any tamer. This is not a book that titillates; its emphasis instead is on the pain and damage caused by repressed desire. Although they have their more theatrical moments, on the whole Erica and Bea are far from histrionic. As Faderman reminds us, though, the reviewer is using “cliché terms […] characteristic of cover copy for the lesbian pulps of the era.”

Which is not to say that de Jong was unaware of that genre. Faderman continues by explaining that although the “quality and seriousness” of The Tree and the Vine far transcends its pulpier cousins, this doesn’t mean it’s immune to the broader influences of the period. Certain elements of the novel capture the flavor of those more sensationalist volumes. De Jong depicts the darker, dangerous side of the world of same-sex desire, and the way it’s a source of torment—physical and psychological—for those who exist within it. 

It is also a potent source of self-hatred, and de Jong pathologizes Erica’s lesbianism with the suggestion that it can be traced back to the problematic relationship she has with her mother. Reading the novel made me think of Yelena Moskovich’s description in her 2018 essay for the Daily, “Hunting for a Lesbian Canon,” of the first lesbian pulp “accidental best seller”: Tereska Torrès’s Women’s Barracks (1950), “a fictionalized autobiographical account of [Torrès’s] wartime service in London for the women’s division of the Free French forces, where we follow a barracks full of young women navigating identity, love, and politics amid their French Resistance duties.” Erica—who in the early days of the Nazi occupation joins the Dutch resistance, as courageous in her politics as she is in her love life—wouldn’t be out of place amongst Torrès’s protagonists.

Bea and Erica meet in 1938, and the events of the novel play out in parallel to the storm clouds of war amassing across Europe. The terrible specificity of the historical context is, however, much more than circumstantial. The menacing backdrop to the psychosexual drama has an important hand in shaping Bea’s character development, transforming her from a rather unlikeable, mousey wallflower into a woman of action, one prepared to do anything she can to try to save the life of the woman she loves, even while she refuses to admit to herself what’s driving her. This is where the true brilliance of the novel lies: in de Jong’s impressive and nimble rendering of Bea’s inner conflicts and complexities.

*

Bea first meets Erica at the home of a mutual acquaintance. She’s instantly attracted to this captivating young woman who looks “like a boy in need of a haircut.” Only a month later, the two women move in together. They rent an apartment on the Prinsengracht, one of Amsterdam’s three main canals. It is not a romantic arrangement; they’re just roommates. They have separate bedrooms, and a mutual understanding that they “each lead their own lives.” All the same, their relationship quickly slips into one of jittery codependence. Bea—who has few friends compared to the much more boisterous and sociable Erica—takes on the role of the other woman’s “benefactor.” Erica, for example, brings no bed with her, claiming she can just as comfortably sleep on a pile of blankets on the floor. Bea is shocked, so she buys her friend a bed for her birthday, an act of generosity that sets a dangerous precedent, not least because Erica is a spendthrift while Bea is much more prudent with her earnings.

We, along with Bea, come to experience Erica’s mood swings: how she fluctuates from one minute to the next between intensity and apathy, outbursts of passion and activity followed by periods of introspection and lethargy. Shades of the wild, destructive Robin Vote from Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) abound. Although Bea initially struggles to understand the source of her friend’s restlessness, she at least comprehends that it is “something deeper inside” Erica than ordinary, everyday frustrations, “something to do with her actual being.”

When the two take a summer holiday together in Paris, Erica is revealed at her best and her worst. Initially, she’s in her element, carefree and without responsibilities, soaking up every last detail of Parisian life:

During those four days in Paris, she threw ballast overboard and sounded the foghorn for the first time. She cut the anchor and cruised through Paris like a young pirate, the wind in her sails.

The two women’s idyll is shattered, however, when they meet Judy, a loud and uninhibited American with whom Erica becomes instantly “fascinated.” Bea unhappily finds herself relegated to a third wheel, but the speedy intimacy between the other two is tense. Erica and Judy behave “like two little girls—one minute they were hitting and scratching each other and the next they were wrapped in each other’s arms and sharing their deepest secrets, promising to be friends forever.”

Bea claims to not understand what couldn’t be any more glaringly obvious to the reader—as Faderman suggests, Bea’s lack of self-knowledge “forces the reader into the interesting role of analyst,” and with this, our focus shifts from Erica to Bea. The fierce heat of her anger at being frozen out suggests that her jealousy is more than that of just a friend. She’s like Martha Dobie in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1934), willing her feelings toward her friend to be nothing more than platonic in a desperate attempt to fool herself.

The narration is given in retrospect, Bea looking back on her and Erica’s entanglement a decade and a half after the fact (the date given for Bea’s manuscript is 1954), and yet, in relating the events as they played out at the time, Bea presents herself as a gloriously unreliable narrator. She’s not only slow to pick up on Erica’s sexual attraction to women (herself included) but slower still to admit to the taboo desire this unleashes within her. It isn’t hindsight alone that allows her to reassess the past. “For a long time,” she writes at the beginning of the novel, “I saw myself as an innocent bystander, but now I know that I changed my course for Erica. Whether my life would’ve been better or happier without her—who knows. I certainly don’t.” There’s a hefty dose of self-deception thrown in here, too. 

Yet like anyone in denial, she can’t help but give herself away, especially when describing her awkwardness with her then boyfriend, how torn she was between him and Erica. “In my life, men have always been like shadows waiting in the wings. There was never room for them on stage because Erica held the spotlight,” she can only now confess.

When, eventually, the tension between the two women reaches a crescendo, culminating in a desperate explosion from Erica, “of anger, hate, and disappointment,” the supposedly naive Bea protests her ignorance. “She accused me of misleading her, of driving her to confess, of letting her have her way and then humiliating her with my rejection. There was nothing for me to say. 

How innocent, no, how blind and stupid I’d been.” This episode, which occurs about two-thirds through the novel, marks a sharp shift in perspective. With Erica’s true identity out in the open, and with it her feelings for Bea, it becomes apparent that, however unpredictable her behavior has been, it’s actually Bea’s obsession with Erica that’s the more unruly force at work. Erica, at least, acknowledges who she is—“She resigned herself to a nature that couldn’t be changed, accepted the consequences and enjoyed her life”—whereas Bea, tightly trussed up in the societal norms of the era, is too ashamed to do the same. “I didn’t dare disturb the dark craters of my soul,” she confesses retrospectively. “I’d simply bought myself peace of mind by ignoring who I was.”

Reconciled, albeit uneasily so, as Hitler’s troops march ever closer, Bea becomes increasingly afraid for Erica’s safety. Erica’s birth father, whom Erica never knew, is revealed to Erica to have been Jewish, which means that under the Nazi classifications, she’d be labeled “bastard Jew I” and thus “would likely suffer the same fate as the ‘real’ Jews.” In unexpectedly thrusting Jewishness upon Erica—“It’s crazy, Bea! Now I’m suddenly a Jewess,” she exclaims, shaking her head “in disbelief and half-amused despair”—de Jong cleverly draws parallels between sexual and racial identities. Both are revealed to be arbitrary, and yet horrifyingly all-determining. Despite Bea’s best efforts to save her, in tandem with so very many of the country’s Jewish citizens, Erica rushes headlong toward tragedy.

*

The Tree and the Vine is not autobiographical, but de Jong did draw on her own lived experience when it came to the accumulating fear, the “anxiety and doubt” that plagued Amsterdam’s Jewish residents as they learned about “the misery of the Jews under the Nazi regime” elsewhere in Europe. Attuned, as Bea is, to this danger, de Jong fled the Netherlands for the safety of North Africa in 1940, only weeks before the Nazi invasion. Although she tried to convince her father, her stepmother and her brother to accompany her, they refused to leave. They were murdered by the Nazis not long after.

In Tangier, de Jong married the Dutch artist Jan Hoowij, and supported herself teaching children ballet—she’d studied dance in both the Netherlands and England, and had performed for eight years with the Royal Dutch Ballet. The couple emigrated to America in 1941, and became U.S. citizens six years later. After she and Hoowij divorced, she made a second marriage to the American writer Robert H. Joseph.

In America, she wrote and published books in both Dutch and English, earning particular acclaim as a mystery writer—she won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for her 1964 novel The Whirligig of Time. She also worked as a reader of Dutch literature for New York publishers, and was responsible for the English edition of The Diary of Anne Frank, among other well-known Dutch titles in translation.

The prominent readers and writers who admired The Tree and the Vine from the get-go were able to see beyond its then-provocative subject matter to the virtuosity of the novel itself. Gijsen, for example, described it as “an important and remarkable book—and not because it addresses a delicate problem with so much understanding, that’s just the starting point. I’m more in awe of the finesse with which Dola de Jong sketches her two main characters.” 

This was praise echoed by V. S. Naipaul, who astutely recognized that Bea was the beating heart of the novel. “De Jong makes her narrator a real person,” he wrote in his review of the first English translation in The Listener, “the plain woman over thirty, who does not want to recognize her nature and has brief, dutiful, joyless affairs with men. Therefore, she is always lonely; her little affections and pleasures will never change that. She is not aware of the barrenness of her existence. This silence, this refusal to see, is very touching, and is delicately rendered.” As Gehrman argues today, in the translator’s note at the end of the recent reissue, The Tree and the Vine is a story that’s also “reflective of the broader female experience,” a rich and poignant tale that she hopes will move every reader and “push them to think about their own inner worlds and those of the women they love.”

(Source: The Paris Review)

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