Kathrin Perutz Biography
Kathrin Perutz comments:
Pseudonym: Johanna Kingsley. Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1939. Education: Barnard College, New York, B.A. 1960; New York University, M.A. 1966. Career: Lived in London, 1960-64.
The Garden. London, Heinemann, and New York, Atheneum, 1962.
A House on the Sound. London, Heinemann, 1964; New York, Coward McCann, 1965.
The Ghosts. London, Heinemann, 1966.
Mother Is a Country: A Popular Fantasy. New York, Harcourt Brace, and London, Heinemann, 1968.
Scents (as Johanna Kingsley). New York, Bantam, and London, Corgi, 1985.
Faces (as Johanna Kingsley, in collaboration). New York, Bantam, and London, Corgi, 1987.
Uncollected Short Story
"An American Success," in Voices 2, edited by Michael Ratcliffe. London, Joseph, 1965.
Beyond the Looking Glass: America's Beauty Culture. New York, Morrow, 1970; as Beyond the Looking Glass: Life in the Beauty Culture, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1970.
Marriage Is Hell: It's Better to Burn Than to Marry. New York, Morrow, 1972; as The Marriage Fallacy: It's Better to Burn Than to Marry, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1972; as Liberated Marriage, New York, Pyramid, 1973.
Polly's Principles, with Polly Bergen. New York, Wyden, 1974.
I'd Love To, But What'll I Wear?, with Polly Bergen. New York, Wyden, 1977.
Reigning Passions: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the Hapsburg Empire. Philadelphia, Lippincott, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.
Writing for Love and Money. Fayetteville, University of ArkansasPress, 1991.
Don't Never Forget by Brigid Brophy, London, Cape, 1966, New York, Holt Rinehart, 1967; "The Truth about Fiction" by George P. Elliott, in Holiday (New York), March 1966.
(1972) The only general theme (or background) of my books is America. Mother Is a Country is a direct parody of certain American dreams (the acquisition of power and the desire to become a commodity); A House on the Sound charts the distance from reality to where rich liberals have their camp. Beyond the Looking Glass, a nonfiction book often fictionalized, examines preoccupation with appearance in America, where people have the hope of seeming what they have not yet become, and where self-knowledge is replaced by concern over minutiae of deception.
My first three novels also concern sub-rosa relationships, the area of self that is undeveloped or suppressed. The Garden presents a love affair between two girls, not lesbian (both girls are young and boy-crazy), but of an essential intensity to contradict fears of not existing. A House on the Sound shows different manifestations of embryonic love—homosexuality, incest, masochism—never acknowledged by the characters. The two main characters of The Ghosts have not reconciled themselves to the sexual roles, male and female, they are supposed to play, and often parody or pervert these roles.
But mainly, each book has been my attempt to learn more of the craft. The first was a simple diary; the second tried, in six hours, to cut through time past and present, more similar to movie techniques than traditional flashbacks. The third book tried to give a sense of development, over the space of a year. The fourth, a satire, was deliberately "surface," a board game played over true but generalized emotions. My fifth book presented problems of journalism, in organization of material, tone, pace, and the creation of a personal, but abstracted, narrator.
(1976) My last book, Marriage Is Hell, is an essay on the institution of marriage as it exists today in the West, particularly in America. It deals with the anachronism of marriage, its false expectations, its imprisonment of personality and distortion of both privacy and personal liberty. The book, which is strongly opinionated, attacks marriage from many perspectives—legal, historical, anthropological, sexual—and then goes on to suggest reform and finally a turning that will make marriage possible again. I consciously tried to keep the style loose and colloquial, the better to let readers argue with me, and literary experiment is superseded in this book by political, or pragmatic, aims.
* * *
Kathrin Perutz has a baroque spider-web sensibility; it is as exquisite as it is tough, and permits her to explore such matters as incest, sadomasochism, homosexuality, suicide, and murder with the delicacy of an appropriate dinner wine. It is the most pervasive force in her novels and the one that diminishes the importance of whatever flaws may appear in them as a consequence of her experimentation with form and theme.
The first novel, The Garden, is a straightforward first-person narrative of life at a small women's college in Massachusetts. Its treatment of the urge to put aside the burden of virginity becomes tedious, and the book is marked with jejune expressions ("O.K., Pats, shoot") that may be true to dormitory life but are vexatious in a novel. Perutz handles the garden symbolism of the novel well, however; describes a memorably tender, vivacious relationship between Kath and the Blossom, the two principal characters; and, with perfect briskness of pace and lightness of tone, captures the banal essence of a party weekend at an American men's college probably better than any other writer has.
The Ghosts, Perutz's third novel, walks the maze of a love affair in which the participants—or combatants—Luke, an excessively cerebral writer, and Judith, an undercerebral but sensitive hairdresser, are haunted chiefly by Luke's dead father and an assortment of cast-off lovers. The deficiency of the volume is that there is no one with whom an audience would much care to identify. Luke is insatiably clinical toward the involvement, and he and Panda, a deep platonic love of his who befriends Judith, are sometimes mouthpieces discussing their actions and Judith's, and examining one of the immediate themes of the novel, abortion, and, of more general metaphysical interest, the nature of human action. The conception of the characters is acute; their mechanism, however, is too much exposed and not enough is left for the reader to infer. They are often pieces of an essay rather than people in a work of fiction. Judith is too pliable, too much prop for Luke, until the end, when she takes control of herself and Luke becomes more human. But that occurs too late to place the novel in balance.
Mother Is a Country is a satiric fantasy that strikes at the mass-produced, antiseptic, Saran-wrapped materialism in American life. That quality accounts for the death of the three main characters, and the most palpable reaction in the cosmically unfeeling nation is that "a mother eagle in her nest flapped powerful wings and laid another egg." Though the book has been criticized for its superficiality of characterization, it can be argued that since superficial consumerism is primarily what the satire is about, John Scudely (a hero with much of the feeling of a Bellow character, but without the profundity) and the other characters are properly shallow. Reigning Passions, Perutz's fifth novel, has done nothing to enhance her reputation. It is a fictionalized account of the complex man who gave his name to masochism, and so flat are the nuances of his life made to seem that to get through the book it helps to have a fair dose of the affliction.
It was Perutz's second novel, A House on the Sound, that proved her excellence. She paints a dinner party of sham liberals on a small canvas with precise detail, probing through the word, the facial expression, the gesture, the nuance of conversation the variety of characters present and their secret relationships. In this and in her control of time through brief, illuminating flashbacks and staging of the moments of her characters, there is the clear echo—but just the echo—of Virginia Woolf.
Alan R. Shucard
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