Monday, February 9, 2015

Megan Mayhew Bergman's Almost Famous Women

by Joan

Megan Mayhew Bergman
“I’m interested in anyone’s particular sense of control and autonomy — control over their own life. Traditionally and across many cultures women’s desires and careers often take a back seat to the men in their lives and I’m fascinated by cultures or particular women where this isn’t the case. I respect the difficulty and complexity in stepping outside of those lives. Especially when we’re talking a hundred years ago.” Megan Mayhew Bergman, in an interview with L.A. Review of Books  

Bergman’s Almost Famous Women has earned a starred Kirkus review, impressive reviews from NPR and the New York Times Book Review, and made several "books we're looking forward to" lists.

I pre-ordered Almost Famous Women from Battenkill Books and so received my signed copy on January 7th. Although I wanted to devour the collection in one long sitting, instead I savored the stories over a few weeks. I knew from reading Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise, that to rush over her words would be akin to dashing through the Met in ten minutes. I’d snatch glimpses of brilliant color and style, but would miss the elegant narrative, subtext and symbolism crafted into each masterpiece. 
Bergman’s fascination with these women began at an Oxford summer program when she came across a book by Natalie Barney, an American author who held a literary salon in Paris, was a great patron of women’s art and happened to be romantically involved with some of these women. The stories formed in Bergman’s mind over the next ten years of reading and researching.

Inside the lyrical cover are stories “born of a fascination with real women whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes.” These women hail from different social classes, races and continents, but they have a few things in common: tragic lives, fierce spirits, and a desire to be seen; though most would greet you with a punch, not a slap, for pitying them.

Many of the stories are narrated by close bystanders: a lover, a caretaker, a friend. This construct prohibits us from understanding the almost famous one’s motivations, but lets us view the tornado in progress—and its inevitable destruction.

In “Romaine’s Remains,” an aged, suffering artist spends her final days under the care of an Italian mama’s boy named Mario. Romaine Brooks is an enigma; she sleeps with her “body curled like a prawn, her head lolled to the side,” and yet she “tries to control the afternoon sun by slapping a yardstick against the blinds.” Romaine is bitter and bedridden. She calls Mario a brute, even though he’s gentle and kind with her, bathing her and carrying her down a flight of stairs on her whim. 

He half wishes she’d die, but then worries he’d have to return to busing tables. Romaine, now nearly blind, has led a daring bohemian life, painting “androgynous women in various brave poses or nude recline,” drinking wine, and living with her lover Natalie in a Tuscan Villa. This last bit Mario learns from snooping at her letters, and he is struck by the idea that he “has never been explicitly himself.” When Romaine confides in him details from her tragic childhood, he imagines she will set him up with an annuity. But she is fickle and “more stubborn than blindness itself.”

“The Autobiography of Allegra Byron” gutted me. Lord Byron’s three-year-old illegitimate, unwanted daughter is sent away to an Italian convent of Capuchin nuns. Despite her tragic circumstances, Allegra is not an easy child to love. She throws tantrums, is spiteful and difficult. A peasant woman who sought refuge in the convent after her own child and husband died of typhus, is the only one who can calm Allegra down. “It had always been my intention at the convent to be nobody, to go unnoticed, to punish myself until I could no longer feel the weight of my dead child in my arms.” When she becomes too close, the grieving woman is warned: “When the children you’ve taught go home, they will hate you as if you’re the one who kept them here.” 

During one of Allegra’s particularly wild tantrums, one nun threatens to call for an exorcism. But Allegra’s new guardian coaxes her into the bath and offers to help her write letters to papa Byron. Both of these lost souls need affection, to be held and soothed. But we learn early, “The convent was not a place of peace.” 

In “A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch,” Beryl Markham is broke and alone, “hungry to feel something every day,” even if it’s fear of riding a wild stallion, the “one who’d killed a man with his hooves and teeth in the corner of a stall in Nairobi.” To make her money back, she will ride him. “I will have you, she thought, locking eyes with the regal horse.” When she says, “You will respect me,” it is all of the women in these pages speaking.

In a Rutland Herald interview, Bergman shares what she hopes her daughters will learn from reading this book: "I do hope they have the courage and intellectual curiosity to live a satisfying, full life. … I want my girls to have the option. I don’t want them to feel like a traditional domestic existence is a foregone conclusion. I want them to feel that the world is wide open, that gender roles are fluid and they can chase passions and dreams and professions and they can really be the hero of their own life story."

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