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Helen Yglesias Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Helen Bassine in New York City, 1915. Career: Literary editor, the Nation, New York, 1965-69; Visiting Professor, Columbia University School of the Arts, New York, 1973, and University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Iowa City, 1980. Awards: Houghton Mifflin Literary fellowship, 1972. LHD: University of Maine, 1996.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

How She Died. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1972; London, Heinemann, 1973.

Family Feeling. New York, Dial Press, 1976; London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1977.

Sweetsir. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.

The Saviors. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

The Girls. Harrison, New York, Delphinium Books, 1999.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Semi-Private," in New Yorker, 5 February 1972.

"Kaddish and Other Matters," in New Yorker, 6 May 1974.

"Liar, Liar," in Seventeen (New York), February 1976.

Other

Starting: Early, Anew, Over, and Late. New York, Rawson Wade, 1978.

Isabel Bishop. New York, Rizzoli, 1989.

* * *

The novels of Helen Yglesias were written from her 54th year onwards. As she notes in her book of meditations, Starting: Early, Anew, Over, and Late, she had already had an active career of book reviewing and editorial work; she was for a time the literary editor of the Nation. Yglesias's account of her career and of the careers of other men and women in Starting shows that a recurrent pattern in her novels is an expression of her own sense of what a proper career for a person is. Each person has, as the many conversations with others in Starting shows, the opportunity to discover his or her "true self" and initiate actions that allow that self to unfold. Or, alternately, to turn aside and spend the years in conformity to the expectations of a group and thus court defeat and stultification. As Yglesias asks in the Introduction to Starting: "Is there 'a true self'? Does it indeed exist and does its existence matter? Is there measurable damage in human and social terms when an impostor inhabits the corner of space and time reserved for a unique self—whatever that is? To do what one has always wanted to do—to be what one has always wanted to be—what does that mean?"

In the body of her book Yglesias devotes space to her own life as a young Jewish intellectual bucking the waves of indifference she met in the 1930s; it is a story that is repeated in her second novel, Family Feeling. She also relates the "starting" of her son, the novelist Rafael Yglesias, who, in his mid-teens, withdrew from society to realize his artistic destiny. And Yglesias moves on to many others whose diverse destinies are marked by the urgent questioning she directed at her own life. With a sort of modesty she remarks of herself: "I admit to a vast general ignorance of things physical, technological, mythical, religious, and political-social." Such remarks indicate the drive behind the novels, and they also suggest the areas that are left for other novelists to handle. The Yglesias novels are tales of struggle: chiefly female struggle in a society that imposes on such struggle a terminology invented by males. Yglesias is a connoisseur of the successes and failures that women like her heroines—and one supposes, herself—meet. These struggles are often well realized and convince not so much by their general truth as by the mass of detail that is clustering at center-stage. This gives the novels an effect of conviction that cannot be overlooked. Occasionally Yglesias abandons this area for theoretical speculation; she endows a heroine with her own former or present political loyalties and her own esthetic preferences, and the novels become temporarily less vivid. But the textures that are impelling are soon re-established.

Family Feeling is the novel that is a rough equivalent (and a successful one) to the story Yglesias tells in the opening section of Starting. Sweetsir is a negative version of the successful struggles in Family Feeling; the efforts of the heroine of Sweetsir commence and recommence but never move very far from the point where the repeated departures take place: the heroine's desire to be something, to realize in the relations of love some amorphous inner power that the heroine senses but cannot express. In contrast, the heroine of Family Feeling has an abundance of words to apply to each twist and turn of her journey. Yglesias's first novel, How She Died, is an account of a woman whose "starting" and its consequences lie somewhere between the distinct success and the grim failures related in the other two novels. The heroine of How She Died, Jean, devotes herself to a dying woman, has a love-affair with the woman's husband, neglects her own children, and realizes that her political ardor has brought her little reason for pride.

The other two novels, as suggested, are more decisive in their impact. Family Feeling reproduces the complex history of an immigrant Jewish family: a family that starts in poverty and that ends—for some of the members at least—in considerable prosperity and personal satisfaction. Barry Goddard is a son who ends as the owner of vast enterprises and an apartment that overlooks Central Park. Anne, whose intelligence is usually (but not always) the center of the story, follows a different course, one which leads her through social protest, literary projects that occasionally distract the reader, and finally to several years of a happy marriage with a WASP magazine editor who finds the Jewishness of Anne's family a constant diversion. The main concern of the moving narrative is not the social and personal goods that various characters grasp; it is the panorama of endless struggle—of "starting" and then achieving a continuation that is sometimes wasteful and sometimes admirable.

Such continuations do not appear in Sweetsir. This long and minutely executed novel, in which many pages are devoted to the details of legal procedures, begins with a domestic battle between Sally and Morgan Sweetsir, a battle that ends when Sally pushes a knife into the body of her brutal husband. Attention thus engages, the reader is conducted through the considerable number of years that brought Sally Sweetsir to her fatal confrontation. If one chooses to wonder why Sally's many "startings" go nowhere in particular, answers arise again and again. Sally comes from a lower-class milieu where there is no such tradition of struggle and survival as that which gave strength to Anne Goddard in Family Feeling. Sally has almost no words to put to her desires, the desires that take her through two marriages and into the law courts. And she lacks the intelligence to direct the sexuality and the ambition that come and go in her. And quite beyond her control are the crudity and insensitivity of the two males in her life. It is no surprise that in Sally's "world" (as assembled by Yglesias) Sally does not have to pay a social penalty for her "crime." Her long list of failures to "start" constitutes a sufficient punishment.

Yglesias describes her novel writing as "a happiness I could only liken to the happiness of love." Such happiness is open to the reader in long stretches of Family Feeling. And its absence is keenly felt elsewhere in the work of Yglesias.

—Harold H. Watts

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