Oct 11, 2020
Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle against Free Love by Miriam Karpilove, translated and with an introduction by Jessica Kirzane (Syracuse University Press, 2020). 344 pages. $19.95
“I’ve read so many books in my life, and I read myself into each heroine, so that now I don’t even know who I am.” (Diary of a Lonely Girl)
To read queerly is to allow heteronormative texts to speak queer truths regardless of the writer’s intention. Irritated with the aggressive straightness of Miriam Karpilove’s Diary of a Lonely Girl, I asked myself: is it possible to approach this novel queerly? Can I reframe our unnamed narrator and her dreary trek through unappealing courtship rituals as a story that affirms other modes, other mores, and a rich diversity of sexual being? Fifty pages in, I turned back to the beginning and started reading with this question in mind: how does this story reveal transgressive gender or sexual nonconformity? What cracks and fissures are opened up in the narrative to create space for queerness?
The story of Diary of a Lonely Girl is simple: in New York, in the 1910s, in the immigrant Jewish quarter, the narrator is searching for a life partner. She begins by telling us of A., whom she really and sincerely loves, but who does not love her back. Rather than carrying on an affair that would be, for him, purely physical, she turns him away. He cheerfully moves on to other women, while the narrator allows herself to be amused and distracted by A.’s friend B., a married man and notorious womanizer. The narrator has no intention of giving in to B.’s amorous advances, but enjoys the thought that her apparent affair with him might reach the ears of A., and give rise to a satisfying jealousy. Ultimately, the narrator turns B. away too, to the relief of her friend Rae, who is in love with B. herself.
You can probably guess what happens next: the narrator meets C.
Before we get too much further, I should probably explain one aspect of Karpilove’s art. The narrator’s succession of partially named men is a series of types. They are not full characters as the narrator and Rae are. Even many passing characters (a succession of landladies, for example) are more fully realized than the male suitors. The alphabeticalization of these men is a particularly deft touch. They are not identical, yet somehow each is just one letter different from the last. Knowing I needed to keep track of them for this review, I made myself a cheat sheet:
A: guy she’s in love with (why???)
B: married man
D: Rae’s new guy (possible swap?)
E: Daytshmerish dude
Although I’ve keyed C. as the “mansplainer” here, it’s important to note that they are all mansplainers. They also talk about themselves a lot. The character of D., who moves between Rae and the narrator without either of them caring much, is symbolic of the men’s interchangeability. Rae even suggests a swap, “like a horse trader.” The male characters are, at heart, flat and predictable. The women are intense and full. (How true, I whispered in lesbian sympathy to Karpilove, how very true.) In subverting the imperative of male centrality, completeness, and complexity, Karpilove queers the game. These men are barely interesting: they are only reflections of the narrator’s unmet needs and desires.
Yet the men in Karpilove’s story believe intrinsically in their right to women’s time and attention. They are undeterred by the narrator’s quiet coldness, and even her frequent outright rudeness to them. Once a man has set his sights on her, a woman’s autonomy is already bounded and confined. His desire overrules her independence. Karpilove faces this paradox squarely near the end of the book, when the narrator tells a suitor, “If free is what you want, don’t force me.” None of these smooth operators seem to get that the “free” part of free love could also devolve onto women.
“When a good man is good, he’s just doing what comes naturally and doesn’t deserve to be thanked. But when a bad man is good, when he forces himself to be good for someone else’s sake, then he deserves praise.” (Diary of a Lonely Girl)
Of the male characters, we spend the most time with C. He must have been fun to write. His self-importance is amusingly conveyed. So well does he believe in himself, he even rents a hall to lecture on free love (he’s in favor). The narrator has frequent opportunity to take him down a peg or three. She lets off zingers in almost every chapter, which bounce off C.: he’s not listening to her. There are many chapters (short ones: the novel was originally serialized in a newspaper) where the narrator and C. debate free love, he for, she against. It would be possible to read this conflict straightforwardly as a vote for traditional, normative marriage, and the book’s subtitle, The Battle Against Free Love, would encourage you to do so. Newspaper editors may have been cautious about seeming to endorse unconventional family arrangements. But if you look carefully, the narrator seems to position free love and marriage as not opposite: they are more like enemies entwined in each other against their wills.
In one of her many unhappy living situations, the landlord, landlady, and their adolescent daughter comment constantly on the narrator’s singleness, making pronouncements about the importance of marriage and traditional roles for women. The narrator, though ostensibly in agreement, hates these people, who bray out their banalities with the energy and censure of true believers. The landlord keeps trying to teach her things; the daughter’s boyfriend wants her to expend more energy on her appearance, and to be animated around men. She is happy he doesn’t like her enough to want to be around her. Later, when proposed to by the priggish E. (Daytshmerish dude), she turns him down out of hand (again, in spite of the hundreds of pages leading up to this event insisting on her desire for marriage). The older woman who introduced the narrator to E. is astonished: E. has excellent teeth! What else could the narrator be looking for? Then there is the episode where, looking for a new room to rent, she answers an advertisement only to find the woman of the house will not rent to her, or to any unmarried women, lest her husband (a doctor) be tempted to stray. The narrator affirms that it is just as well: “Living under the same roof as a man whose own wife recommends him so highly would certainly be unpleasant.”
Our narrator never gets over her love for A. She mentions him frequently. But the reader is never given any reason to think A. is any better than B., C., D., E., F., the landlord, the daughter’s boyfriend, the unseen doctor, or anybody else. Instead of yearning for marriage and respectability, our narrator seems to yearn for something else, something taboo, something unobtainable: a love of equals. How could this kind of love be achieved? Think hard.
“ ‘And you really do want to be like other women.’
‘Which other women?’” (Diary of a Lonely Girl)
Women seem to imagine themselves as men an awful lot in this book. The narrator imagines herself as B., giving up his wandering ways, coming home to his wife and reassuring her that she is beautiful, and is loved. One of the landladies, upbraiding C. for pretending to be the narrator’s fiancé when he is clearly just leading her on, tells him, “She’s as much your bride as she is my bride!” Really, Mrs. Kotik? I think there’s an opening for you. And then there is Rae. Rae spends more and more time with the narrator as the book goes on, often staying overnight in her room. Sometimes this is a dodge: if Rae is staying over, no male suitor is able to stay too late and try his luck. Both the narrator and Rae use this strategy to avoid being alone with men who are intent on coercing “free” love out of them. This is not as straightforward as it seems, though. One morning “my landlord’s family looked at us very strangely. It seemed like they were puzzling out whether Rae had only just appeared to take someone else’s place. Maybe they thought that she was a man dressed as a woman. It all felt so insulting, and I didn’t know how I was supposed to take it.”
What are we to make of the narrator’s purported coldness? Throughout the story we hear, from both herself and her suitors, that she is prickly, unfeeling, full of ennui. C. gives her a Latin lesson, touching different parts of her face to teach her the names. Then he comes to the heart. “It’s much lower. Right down here. This is where it beats.” Yes, reader. He is feeling her up under the guise of a Latin lesson. But she feels nothing. “He told me that I wasn’t missing anything except for a bit more passion.”
There is less coldness when it comes to Rae. The narrator, I note, would rather sleep with Rae than with any of her suitors. And there is no coldness in the thoughts and feelings expressed in her diary. In fact, she is positively corruscating with emotion. But it is pointing in a different direction. Out on the town with Rae and their then-suitors, C. and D., they each walk with the other’s beau for a while. The narrator hears C. tell Rae that she talks too much (honestly, dudes). The narrator quickly leaves D. to walk with Rae, leaving the men to each other. There follows what I can only describe as a lover’s tiff:
“You’re walking with me but you’re still thinking about one of those men,” she accused.
“When I was walking with them, with one of them, I was thinking about you!” I responded.
The narrator spends time thinking about women. She watches through facing windows as a neighbour puts her husband through college (a not-unusual arrangement that comes up many times in the novel). She knows the husband will leave her once he’s graduated. She reads in the newspaper about unmarried women who are seen as prostitutes at the slightest hint of an irregular sex life. When they are thrown in jail, they are easily recruited for actual prostitution. Thus the cycle of misogyny reproduces the sexual deviance it claims to be trying to stamp out. Deviance is never far from the surface of the novel. Running out of her room to avoid being alone with C., the narrator sees a policeman eying her up. On a different evening, lonely in her room, Rae proposes they go out together, unescorted. “Can’t we act like people too, even though we’re girls?” she says, preceding Simone de Beauvoir by thirty years.
Rae is frequently the sounding board for the narrator’s thoughts about women. They argue over women’s position in society, what equality is, and whether it is attainable. Karpilove sees the paradox at the heart of liberation movements: that you must retain a clarity of vision in seeing all the impediments to equality, and at the same time maintain the audacity of continuing to demand it.
“I learned that I, and women like me, were created for more choices, for more freedom than free love offers.” (Diary of a Lonely Girl)
The novels’ genre is another point of divergence from the norm. Karpilove uses many of the conventions of the romance (or, in more recent years, rom-com), and cheekily points to this genre in a few places. “Be like the heroine of a modern romance: free and uninhibited,” F. tells the narrator. Certain conventions of the genre are adhered to. The narrator is far from home and family (she is once referred to as an orphan). She is alone and unprotected. She also works and is remarked to be a “good earner,” thus allowing her the luxury of renting a room by herself. We never hear about this work or what it entails; we hear of her coming home from work, but never going to it. C. becomes used to “forgetting his wallet” so that he must borrow money from the narrator. She lends it with no expectation of getting it back. On the one hand, having a pro-forma job, ignored in order to focus on the more interesting question of love, is entirely in keeping with genre conventions. On the other hand, it is an absence that becomes ever more pointed as the story progresses. What is the mysterious “job” she has that allows her to live better than many other girls, even those with families nearby? Could it be that she really is a prostitute? Could the entire story be a metaphor, actually proposing freedom to pursue sex as work, rather than the constraints of romantic love? I will have to read the book again, this time… I sure wish there were a term for reading as a sex worker.
The lack of family is explored only a touch more. In one chapter she remembers shabes in the old country: it is a shabes of poverty and fear, the peace of the day only foreboding the certainty of danger in the week ahead, and death in the end. Near the end of the book, the narrator tells E. she is Orthodox—presumably a lie, perhaps to fend off any advances from him, or simply because it best suits her to hold onto something from her past, or maybe because there is no other way to express her sexual mores. E. responds to this by complimenting the narrator’s grandfather for instilling such fine values in her. “It is because of my grandmother, my bobe,” she corrects him. The lineage of women gives her the strength to be who she is: to be a person, even though she is a girl.
“I get lost in myself. My God, how long will I have to keep trying to find myself?”
(Diary of a Lonely Girl)
In all, Karpilove is a writer of great interest but with many quirks. The translator, Jessica Kirzane (full disclosure: In geveb’s current editor-in-chief), has admirably navigated various pitfalls. The language feels wonderfully close to its era, while also feeling free and expressive. Throughout this completely first-person novel, the narrator’s voice remains recognizable. Kirzane’s choices around language (from the use of the word girl to the ways she signals English and German words in dialogue that is understood to be taking place in Yiddish) feel spot-on. Her clarity in these translation choices creates a seamless reading experience that does not ignore the Yiddish nature of the text.
The length of the narrator’s involvement with C. is a problem with no resolution, though. It is here we feel this story’s genesis as a serialized novel. Each installment was likely amusing enough to stand on its own. Together, they are repetitive, and drag the momentum down. There are certainly moments I wouldn’t want to have missed: C.’s voluble delight in himself is beautifully hideous. I am reminded of Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins (another C.!). But Mr. Collins did not own 150 pages of Pride and Prejudice, and I wish C. didn’t either.
I wondered if Diary of a Lonely Girl would pass the Bechdel test. The answer is, maybe. No spoilers, but the final chapter might technically qualify. But then a more interesting question occurred to me. Would it pass a reverse-Bechdel test? There are definitely two or more male characters, but they barely interact with each other. In the few instances they speak directly together, they are discussing women. Their thoughts, actions, and speechifying all circle around women (like vultures. But nevertheless). Women are, in Karpilove’s vision, at the centre.
Dedicated and indebted to Zohar Weiman-Kelman