“‘You know what you sound like? A person who has just gotten a divorce and is telling himself that his whole married life had been nothing but torment.’ Otto sighed. ‘I suppose so.’” – from Desperate Characters, Paula Fox
There are strange parallels in Desperate Characters and the life I have observed in other middle-aged (and older) people. The malaise of long relationships – the kind that have occupied and eaten up the entirety of one’s adult life. The kind that are easy to take for granted, despite everything you have been through. You go have affairs or behave badly in some other way or you clam up because communication becomes the most difficult thing you could do with this partner-cum-stranger. You imagine the other person is out to get you; you kind of sleepwalk, focus on your own things, take up residence in separate bedrooms but still go away together to the country home or on holiday. Every couple copes in its own way. Often the status quo is the easiest and most comforting choice.
Descriptions of Desperate Characters refer to the central relationship as “loveless”, but I felt like it was truer to say that the tale chronicles a mundane marriage. Two people who have lived together for so long that they are immune to each other, are no longer paying close attention to each other. Yet coexistence is still comforting, if grating, and this keeps them together. Even when one or the other does something to potentially rupture the whole relationship forever, it’s still easier to return to the marriage. It is easier to try to ease the slow, dull ache of it than to do something dramatic. In the opening pages of the book, the heroine, Sophie, feeds and is bitten by a stray cat. This injury, and its radiating pain, potential infection and other consequences, represents the uncertain way her marriage to Otto festers. That is, the marriage might be much worse under the surface, like the cat bite, than even she realizes. She might be going along trying to convince herself that the marriage, and the bite, will be fine. (It’s not entirely coincidental that my mom’s cat recently bit her, and it got slightly infected; somehow it too could be an edgy expression of her own marital unhappiness.)
I’m giving this a lot of thought because I don’t relate – I cannot understand any of this from experience. I have never really been the one in a long, disintegrating relationship – together but lonely and feeling emotionally abandoned. I could intellectually relate to some bits, and could relate to the idea that sometimes you stumble into an affair, but as the “other party” who walks into the situation, you don’t know what is on the other side. Like the protagonist/narrator, Isadora, of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying throwing caution to the wind, leaving her husband behind to go on the road with spontaneous, flamboyant Brit Adrian, her ultimate “zipless fuck”, who constantly chided and prodded her about not being free enough – only to discover that he had had all along a schedule and a plan to meet his wife and family on a certain date, at a certain time, which struck her as the most ridiculously hypocritical turn of events. Sophie in Desperate Characters has an affair that seems to peter out as the guy starts to cancel plans, recede into mentioning his supposed ex-wife more and more. Suddenly in these acts, hostile or not, you don’t know if you were just a diversion from this whole other, full life. Just a little break in the monotony of their “real life”.
“Only a few weeks after their affair had begun, she suffered powerful interludes of scorn in which she saw herself to be a fool, the fool. Her shifting judgments on herself revealed to her how her involvement with Francis had shoved her back violently into herself. In allowing himself to be loved by her, he had shown her human loneliness.”
“That they should be sitting across from each other in the same way they had sat for so many years and that the habitual intimacy between them could have suffered so wrenching a violation without there being evidence of it, was harrowing to Sophie. If, all these months, she had so ardently lived a life apart from Otto without his sensing something, it meant that their marriage had run down long before she had met Francis; either that, or worse—once she had stepped outside rules, definitions, there were none. Constructions had no true life. Ticking away inside the carapace of ordinary life and its sketchy agreements was anarchy. She knew where she had been, she thought.” -from Desperate Characters
Worse yet, of course, even Sophie, who had only had the one affair and wondered whether she would have the strength to have left her husband for this man had the option been open (but that was the point – she had no choice, and the option was not open – which is something to which I do relate), snaps in harsh judgment of her eternally single friend who drifts from one affair to another, exploding with:
““Why don’t you make a retreat for six months!” Sophie interrupted, shouting. “Don’t you know how dumb you are? You think because somebody’s husband sticks it in you, that you’ve won! You poor dumb old collapsed bag! Who are you kidding!” God, had she killed her dead? There wasn’t a sound at the other end of the telephone, not a whisper of breath. Sophie was trembling, her hands wet. Then she heard a kind of hiss that became words, spilling liquidly, like broken teeth from a hurt mouth. “You…filthy…cunt!”” (And then silence.)
In any case, I don’t have the answers because I just don’t have the experience. But I don’t buy that the love is dead between these characters. It disappears at times, absent, but not dead. There was a fluid lack of connection between the two, but it struck me as disconnection in the normal way people grow apart and continue to do so if they don’t acknowledge and address it together. In this case, the woman has had an affair. But ultimately the two remain married.
Some analysis on the book posits that the two are trapped. But are they? Perhaps trapped by the ease of just carrying on in the same way? Trapped by the safety of it but also trapped by the time spent – would you have the courage to leave if other options had worked? You end up trapped by the possibilities (and your inability to seize them) as much as you are by the routine, trappings of the relationship that defines you and your daily life.