Monday, April 8

‘I couldn’t face the resentment and rage’: can artistic couples have successful relationships? | Books

Why would anyone be interested in authors? It’s not as if they’re a charismatic, or even good-looking, breed. I mean that lovingly. Having spent my life in books, publishing, editing, reviewing, teaching and writing them, I can exclusively reveal that most of the writers I’ve met are exactly as you’d expect; formerly Indoor Children, socially awkward little weirdos who, with diligence and too much time alone, become thin-skinned pasty show-offs, prone to backache, voracious for praise. If we’d been attractive, confident teenagers, we’d have spent our free time taking drugs and snogging, not fancying Keats and reading Orwell at lunch.

OK, that was me. But creative types do attract curiosity. We want to know not only how and where they work (Book Event Question no 1: “Do you write with a pen?”), but what they’re like as parents, lovers, friends: writers behaving badly. Marriages, too, are fascinating to the nosy. There is little more gripping than a really molecular insight into how a relationship works, or fails; the public flirtations, the discreet acts of cruelty. So what could be more delicious than the secrets of one artist married to another?

Think of the famous author couples of the past: Ted and Sylvia, Simone and Jean-Paul, Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard; Colette and Willy; Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald. Now consider the still-together living couples. What do you notice? Isn’t it an amazing coincidence that we know of so many unhappy dead writer pairs, when almost all the living ones claim to exist in joyous idylls of fruitful kindness and support: plot-chat at breakfast, gouache-y passion, personalised erotic sonnets?

My new novel, The Exhibitionist, describes the escalating domestic tension between a pair of visual artists: a female sculptor and a male painter. They are totally fictional; although I read extensively about artist couples – Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz – it’s not remotely biography. Nor is it memoir: I was married to a writer, but it isn’t our story. Yet the marriage of the Hanrahans, stars of my novel, came from somewhere: my discovery, as I’ve travelled through this world observing other creative couples, of how much competitiveness, egotism and envy can seethe beneath the surface. And I’ve tried to discover what makes for happiness, instead.

Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe in 1942. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

We’ve all gobbled up articles in which married artists insist: “She’s my first reader”; “He has been enormously supportive”. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster have always claimed a lack of rivalry; Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon emphasise their devotion. When Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn each won in their individual category – biography and fiction, respectively – for the 2003 Whitbread prize, so were in direct competition for the overall award, they joked about throwing bread rolls during the ceremony, and insisted on their mutual pride (Tomalin won). At least one interviewer found it “startling” that people might assume they’d feel anything else.

But, based on the confessions I’ve heard, isn’t the opposite more likely? As B, an artist friend, once admitted: “I used to think that if, in an imaginary world, I was phoned up and offered the Turner, I’d turn it down for the sake of my marriage. I just couldn’t face the thought of all her resentment and rage.”

Whether the tension arises from the assumption that the woman, usually, will do all the emotional and domestic labour, while still finding time to create, or there’s one partner who, behind closed doors, is the brain-sucker, the coercive controller, these power dynamics undermine so many artists’ domestic worlds, particularly when the junior partner, or protege, begins to catch up.

Of course, even the messiest creative relationships start with mutual support: contacts shared, manuscripts strengthened, thrilling dates among the famous. When Lucian Freud, 55, took his lover Celia Paul, 19, to dinner with Frank Auerbach and “a woman”, neither girlfriend spoke, as Paul writes in her memoir: “Two dynamic scintillating men and two silent bewildered and embarrassed women sitting eating olives. It is thought mundane if you do not talk about art or literature or a well-known person.” The Hanrahans’ fictional marriage also begins well, full of sex and encouragement. Lucia, the younger disciple, feels privileged to clean her famous artist lover’s brushes. But, when she starts having small successes of her own, Ray Hanrahan, now her husband, is consumed by envy, monitoring the plaster dust under her fingernails, accusing her of flirting for advancement, until Lucia’s main task is shoring up his ego, dodging acquaintances who might praise her in his earshot, sabotaging professional opportunities of her own. Ray, like many competitive spouses, annexes possible subjects: “mothers, sons, sex, nature, time”. Even if Lucia could dodge the forbidden themes, her fear of being good, even overshadowing him, makes work impossible.

So often there is one spouse who hoovers up ideas while refusing to do any actual, well, Hoovering (Book Event Question no 2: “Where do you get your ideas?”). Creativity requires peace: to let one’s mind roam, make connections, dredge specks of gold from the slurry. Few couples admit to an unfair division of emotional and domestic labour; why should artists be any different? For Lucia, the early days of motherhood are a creative wasteland of optician’s appointments and school books, buying Ray’s godchildren presents, chopping carrots. He trots off to his studio; she tries to do a bit of sculpting at the kitchen table.

Similarly, my friend P, a nonfiction star, was expected to host huge weekend parties for her novelist partner’s pals. “I’ll just pop off,” he’d announce, “and do a couple of hours’ work.”

“How,” she asks now, “could he shut out everything and concentrate? I couldn’t, and, whenever I did have time, his tap-tap-tapping would drive me insane.”

Lockdown has intensified this, like everything else. It’s bad enough for Lucia, who can hear Ray yelling “Lunchtime!” through their studio wall, but what about when two artists have to share space? Picture Elaine de Kooning, trying to shut out the histrionic rage of Bill, whistling and swearing while they painted in the same room; do you imagine that, once they had separate studios, the noise in her head stopped?

‘Jealousy is the enemy of freedom.’ Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris, 1940.
‘Jealousy is the enemy of freedom.’ Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris, 1940. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

Sexual jealousy, too, can cramp one’s style. Simone de Beauvoir managed to avoid domesticity by living with Sartre in a hotel, while Jean-Paul, who was definitely Not Safe in Taxis, explained that jealousy is the enemy of freedom. The central image of Paula Rego’s The Dance, originally conceived as women jumping in the air, could be seen as her husband Victor dancing with an unknown woman, while Rego dances alone.

We’ll never know how many potential artists prioritised their genius spouse. In the short story Material, Alice Munro describes writer husbands as “such talented incapable men, who must be looked after for the sake of the words that will come out of them”. What works of genius might have been lost because Véra Nabokov was cutting up Vlad’s food and folding his umbrella?

Sometimes, one partner accepts their role as handmaiden, midwife to the star; like my friend R who once begged her own editor to publish her partner, whose book had been turned down. As Annie Leibovitz said of her lover Susan Sontag: “I felt like a person who is taking care of a great monument.” Sheila Girling, artist wife of Anthony Caro, said: “I had to give all my creativity to Tony … I thought one of us has got to get there, so it had better be Tony.” In Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel describes how both Krasner and Pollock believed in him, saw his career as their joint project, but Krasner’s only champion was herself.

Might this explain the success of those intriguing couples where one is much more famous? Margaret Atwood’s late husband was referred to as “the writer Graeme Gibson”. Dave Eggers and Chabon are married to talented novelists, Vendela Vida and Waldman, respectively, but whereas the menfolk are treated like rock star cult heroes, their wives are praised more modestly. Stephen King’s wife Tabitha and Jonathan Franzen’s first wife, Valerie Cornell, are also writers. In her essay, “Envy”, Franzen’s now partner, Kathryn Chetkovich, notoriously describes her obsession with his unbearable success and self-belief, yet they are still together.

Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis in 1978.
‘Accusations, resentment and plain dislike …’
Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis in 1978.
Photograph: Martyn Goddard/Rex/Shutterstock

Domestic chores intrude on creative reverie; what is far more destructive is fretting about the fragile ego sitting upstairs, suspicious of one’s motives, paranoid about being overlooked. Once half of a couple reaches that stage, every day will bring drama and accusations. As Howard wrote in her radically frank memoir Slipstream, her marriage to Amis was corroded by his “accusation, resentment and plain dislike … conciliation makes the conciliated more aware of the effectiveness of their bad behaviour, so consequently they increase it.”

Onlookers always make allowances. Aren’t artists meant to misbehave? Until recently, men were expected to find professional imbalance unbearable, to feel emasculated by dusting. In same-sex couples, bullying and coercion is even more taboo; no one wants to sound homophobic or unsophisticated by asking: “Is that … OK?” But, eventually, people start to comment. Sontag, 16 years Leibowitz’s senior, became so abusively narcissistic that friends avoided them. Like Pollock, Ray causes havoc at his wife’s private views; when my friend K was shortlisted for an award, his partner refused to enter the hall with him, so distressed was he never to have been shortlisted for it himself.

Eventually, what choice did Krasner, or Howard, or B or P or K, have? They left.

As Elizabeth Strout writes in My Name Is Lucy Barton, “if I stayed in my marriage I would not write another book, not the kind I wanted to … I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go!”

Imagine the money I’d make doing that tattoo backstage at the Edinburgh festival.

Midlife is a time of change, doubt, crisis. For some, the desire for a life, and career, beyond marriage also revives. What Toni Morrison called “the wonderful liberation of being divorced” can be, despite the gothic chaos involved, transformative for the formerly squashed. As Deborah Levy wrote, “partners become resentful, angry and depressed … [the writer] receives the fatal message that she must conceal her talents and abilities in order to be loved.” When Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer split up, Krauss wrote Forest Dark, a novel about a New York writer called Nicole with a failing marriage.

Never divorce a writer. (Book Event Question no 3: “This is more a comment than a question …”) However demonstrably badly one party has behaved, if they are left their response can be savage, and public. Interestingly, although in fiction we’re used to the idea of the Unreliable Narrator, in real life we’re amazingly willing to believe one side and dismiss the other, swallowing the most grisly lies. When writer Elizabeth Dewberry (b1962) left Robert Olen Butler (b1945) for Ted Turner (b1938 – oh, Elizabeth), Butler sent his contact list a famously deranged email, confiding that she couldn’t “step out of the shadow” of his Pulitzer, although “everyone has heard me proclaim my sincere high regard for her as an artist”. It ends, sadly all too soon, with “I will keep my house … I will keep virtually everything.”

Claire Bloom’s post-Roth memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House, revealed his lists of her perceived crimes, his infidelity, manipulation and financial vengefulness; Zoë Heller called it “a lighthouse to stage-struck girls”. But the impressed and naive often head straight for the rocks, then are punished by those who should know better. When Joyce Maynard wrote about her affair with JD Salinger, begun when she was 18 and he 53, she was pilloried. The New York Times called her “indefatigably exhibitionistic”; at a literary festival, “an entire row of writers I respected greatly rose from their seats … and, as I took the stage, departed the room”.

Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn.
They have found a way to negotiate the stress … Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

Yet there are exceptions. Tomalin won, and remains with Frayn; clearly they have found a way to negotiate the stress. Katie Kitamura dedicated A Separation to her writer husband, Hari Kunzru. My two closest author friends are married to other writers, successfully – one straight, one gay; one with children, one without. Another pair, T and H, have survived her much greater musical success, I think, because he’s quieter and adores his strong breadwinning wife, while she praises and loves his child-rearing and manly forays into plumbing and housebuilding. I suspect, although selfishly they won’t tell me, that a vigorous sex life also helps. And there are very many happy artist/non-artist combinations; an acquaintance confided that her lawyer husband was happy for her to “be the peacock”; she also mentioned that they’d had sex therapy, but let’s gloss over that. And there’s always the option of career-combining, where a man becomes his writer-wife’s agent or manager, although I should warn you that, among my publishing friends and colleagues, almost nothing was more dreaded than this news.

What happens to the Hanrahans? If I tell you it centres on Ray’s long-awaited exhibition, together with Lucia’s own secrets, queer desire and forbidden inspiration, you can leap to your own conclusions.

Then double them; it gets messy.

Should artists, in any combination, be avoided then? Only if every other marriage you know is happy, sane and wholesome, and chances are … The truth is that, for every disastrous artist couple, there are many non-creative horrors – but we don’t hear about them. People with sensible jobs are rarely interviewed about their marriages. If only they were.

So what is the secret of romantic success, whether you work in exactly the same creative field, or in different ones, or one of you has no artistic ambitions? I think it’s security. However much older or more established your love might be, if they feel threatened by your career they will probably also put you down in public/private, think you’re too friendly/unfriendly to others, undermine. Lonely, sensitive children don’t shed neuroses as they age, but those who try are keepers. Another outlet – gardening, music, screen-printing – seems to help. Perhaps the answer is finding someone who doesn’t see “success” as a pie, to be divided. In every lasting creative union I know, the strength of the relationship seems to rest on the overshadowed partner being sufficiently secure not to take out their issues on the other; feeling valued for their other, domestic, work. Or, to put it another way, being confident enough to say to their impossible partner the magic words: “You’re horrible today, here’s a biscuit.”

Perhaps it’s better to look on us as rescue pets, a little trickier than one might wish, like those dogs with “EASILY STARTLED” on their harnesses. We may be easily spooked, likely to snap or drool, but, with gentleness, firm boundaries and no loud noises, we can make lovely companions. Just think carefully before introducing another into the household.

The Exhibitionist is published by Pan Macmillan on Thursday. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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