The Women Reading Upstairs

When I lived in New York, I (think) I came up with an expression: The difference between being lonely and being alone is a good book. I had spent a lot of time lonely but not alone and alone but not lonely and the distinction seemed arbitrary. I was trying to find out how to flip the switch when a friend recommended Atlas Shrugged which I greedily devoured over the next month or so. What I realized was that it had a lot to do with how I felt I was being perceived by others. I felt loneliest when I felt the pity of others. When engrossed in a good book it didn’t matter what others were thinking about me. Recently I read Claire Messud’s the Woman Upstairs which reminded me of Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. The women of Messud and Heller are alone with books. Their worldviews are shaped not just because they were alone, but because of society’s perceptions of their loneliness as women.

Messud and Heller have both been criticized for these characters. Messud gave an interview in Publisher’s Weekly where the interviewer criticized her character’s likeability, a decidedly gendered attack. Heller’s book is on the Wikipedia list for ‘unreliable narrator.’ While I acknowledge that the women had boughts of anger and bitterness, I completely empathized with both of these characters. In fact in response to Messud’s interviewer, I would want to be friends with Nora and Barbara, they’re both whip-smart and well read, I’d love to see Nora’s art or compare biting cultural criticism with Barbara.

I see these women as potential friends but also as cautionary tales. The criticism of the books belies the scorn I would experience from society if I became a woman upstairs. Society only teaches us to measure us in the mirrors of others. Both stories deal with betrayal, but the moral of both of these stories is one of the narcissism of solitude. Of the distortion of individualism that we experience without others:

People like Sheba think that they know what it’s like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Or the week they spent in Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen pal and discovering that her handwriting was the best thing about her. But about the drip, drip of the long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don’t know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night because you can’t bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters. Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, “goodness, you’re a quick reader!” when you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out…About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.

I kept thinking, as I was telling Didi, that somehow what was in my head—in my memory, in my thoughts—was not being translated fully into the world. I felt as thought three-dimensional people and events were becoming two-dimensional in the telling, and as though they were smaller as well as flatter. that they were just less for being spoken. What was missing was the intense emotion that I felt, which, like water or youth itself, buoyed these small insignificant encounters into all that they meant to me. There they were, shrinking before my eyes; shrinking into words. Anything that can be said, can be said clearly. Anything that cannot be said clearly, cannot be said.

Claire Messud’s the Woman Upstairs

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