Monday, January 24

Jane Smiley: “Most marriage novels are a fraud”


Jane Smiley dissects the end of love and family balance in ‘The Best Will’, a novel about the life of urbanites in the country

Writer Jane Smiley.
Writer Jane Smiley.Pako Mera / Alamy Stock PhotoWORLD

By now most readers of Jane Smiley (Los Angeles, 1949) will know that it is an expert in narrating marital unhappiness. She herself usually tells without squeamishness that has been married four times and dedicated his most ambitious work (a trilogy entitled The Last Hundred Years which is not translated into Spanish) to all his exes, with whom he boasts of getting along wonderfully. Sixth Floor is recovering the short novels he wrote in the late 1980s: The age of grief, an ordinary love and now Best will, with translation by Inga Pellisa. All three are a brief and lucid treatise on decomposition familyr without drama or too many emotional roller coasters: the end of love simmers, muted, without great scenes.

Best will It is about a family that lives proudly isolated on a farm, oblivious to the outside world. The son only goes out to go to school and the parents work hard to survive without money: they build their own furniture, weave sweaters, they milk their sheep, they grow food. A paradise built especially for the father, who aspires to be independent. Eden is interrupted in the first pages by a reporter who visits them to write a book about their particular way of life.

When I wrote these novels I just separated from my first husbandSmiley recalls via videoconference from his home in Monterey, California. We got married very young. We hitchhiked through Europe for a year, then went to college. When we were two and a half years old, we looked at each other and said: Okay, we’ve already learned everything we should together, See you around! It was liberating, quite a lesson.

For centuries marriage was an economic and social issue. What we know about love we began to know thanks to Jane Austensays Smiley. The way most novels have told us about marriage is a fraud, which is why I am so interested in writing about it. When the divorce was legal, everything got complicated. The possibility of separating changed things and we are learning to deal with it, he adds. Sometimes breakups are a practical thing. Other times they are sad, tragic, or a relief. Keep in mind that you don’t know what it’s going to be like to be married to someone until you get married. That person may turn into something else.

More than 30 years have passed since the 1989 publication of Best will, but in full wave of neo-naturalism caused by the pandemic, the subject is back on the agenda. In the book, Smiley dismantles the myth of humility, goodness and, in general, moral superiority that is presupposed to anyone who decides to leave everything to embrace nature. In the United States there are also many people leaving the cities and those in the countryside criticize that the new construction is ruining everything. We’ll see how long they last, he predicts.

In the novel there are many factors that break the family balance. Some have to do with religion, others with a racism that is barely palpable, underground. Above all this is child psychology, the complicated task of how to raise children and the idea that being a parent is basically playing a role all the time. My mother was divorced and working, so I grew up with my grandmother, who never loses her composure and transmits the feeling of having everything under control. My mother was more nervous. And that made me nervous too. When I was a mother, I tried to be more like my grandmother. Being a father is acting all the time, showing that you understand how the world works, confesses Smiley, mother of five children, three biological and two stepchildren.

I had young children when I wrote the novel and I know how complicated they can be. In perspective, I would say that almost everything we care about doesn’t really matter. In the end, children end up getting ahead, they become people and it is important to accept them as they are. As a child I lived in the country and when a tornado approached there were two types of parents: those who panicked and those who stared out the window and said: the breeze is here. Panic is never good for a child. How we behave around children is another inheritance.

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