MARIANNE HAUSER: THE TALKING ROOM
UPDATE: Since writing this review I’ve started a Marianne Hauser website. There you will find more detailed biographical information, an evolving bibliography, some of her out of print reviews, letters, articles about her, and many, many photographs.
In 1976 Marianne Hauser published one of the most astonishing novels I have ever read, The Talking Room. She was 66 years old and had been writing and publishing since the 30’s, first in German, later (starting in 1947) in English. The talking room is about a pregnant 13 year old being raised by lesbian parents. Narrated by the girl the story takes place in New York City, during the years of blight and neglect. The smell of urine and polluted water pulses through its pages. This is not a novel celebrating queer life. It has no agenda. It is vulgar, hilarious and brilliant. Her prose is precise and concrete, full of sensual detail, such that I felt like I was living and breathing the air of its rooms and walking down the streets.
The characters are mostly identified by a single initial, and Hauser uses this device in a most Joycean manner. B, the narrator, lives with her Aunt V, and her biological mother (there is some suggestion early on that she might be a test tube baby), J. The father of her unborn child is O. There are also Uncle D and another named lesbian couple, Q and T. Flo, the African American housekeeper of the V household, is the other observer in the book.
V and J, and their unending marital warfare, dominate the narrative. B lies in bed listening to her transistor radio and the raging fights, discussions, tantrums, and fucking of V and J in the room below hers. Half heard phrases float through her mind, mingling with dreams, memories, reveries and fantasies. B is one obstreperous, horny, mean young woman. She is in full revolt against her parents and her vitriol is especially reserved for Aunt V. Aunt V is the voice of authority, of the normative adulthood sneered at by its characters. She is a successful business woman, buying and renovating brownstones and very proper. She is obsessed with J, a promiscuous, bisexual alcoholic who despises V but is totally dependent on her.
V wants a child and cannot have one, so she pesters J into getting pregnant. Much of the first part of the novel is taken up with their struggle to either get in vitro fertilization (a technology that existed but had not been successful when the novel was published, the first test tube baby was born in 1978), the traditional turkey baster, or the old fashioned way: pick up sailors in dives and fuck them in alleyways. J prefers option 3, and V in desperate fits of jealousy and rage roams sailor bars in search of her lost lover. These encounters are described by B in the most wonderful, filthy detail. All of the sex in the book is like this. Hauser is an exuberant defiler. To call B and this novel ‘transgressive’ is to rob if of its pungency. It is a dick in the eye, an assault, with humor, on propriety and lies of every kind. Writing like this by a man would be celebrated. But this novel, one of the few Hauser titles in print, is utterly lost and forgotten. It puts to shame other books, in method, in prose style, in attitude. Most books with this level of linguistic hedonism, unbridled hostility and desire, are not written well. The difference between Hauser and say Kathy Acker is immense. That distance can’t even be calculated, as Hauser is a true artist in total control of her materials. One of the most enjoyable, ironic, and resonant battles in the book is that waged by Aunt V against B’s weight: B is fat, and likes being fat. She wants to eat, a lot. She is furious that V is trying to control her diet. Her weight conveniently covers up her pregnancy, but that is not why she is heavy, no. She likes to eat as much as she likes to fuck. And she is certain she will be forced to have an abortion.
J is an explosion of invective and violence. She gets drunk, blacks out, smashes furniture, spews curses, beats V up. She is virtually indifferent to B. Like Robin in Nightwood, J is uncontrollable, and given to alcoholic wandering. She disappears towards the end of the book, and the last chapters are devoted to V’s pathetic search for her. At one point she brings in another J, but this J, also a drunk, promiscuous bisexual, is loquacious, and non-violent. V is reduced to begging her to hit her but she won’t. It isn’t nice. In a rage V kicks her out.
This is foremost a novel of voice and consciousness. B sees more than a single narrator can see, or hears more, as her narrative drifts through time. There is a strong surreal dimension to the work, but it is overwhelmingly realistic in feel, as genuine realism must include the irrational, beyond time and space dimensions of reality, the subjective experience of a mind and body in the world. That a woman in her 60’s should choose a 13 year old for narrator, and set a book entirely within the subculture of gay NY in the 70’s is just amazing. And outrageous. I am dying to uncover the critical response to this book at the time. Of course, it was published by Fiction Collective, a publishing collective started by a group of experimental writers spread out across the country. Hauser was a professor at Queens College, and very much a part of the NY underground literary scene, but she was of an older generation. Her true contemporaries are Djuna Barnes and Mina Loy, who also did not give a shit about what a woman was supposed to behave like, or a lesbian. And Hauser was not a lesbian. She slept with men and women. I doubt she would have considered herself a feminist, at least, she was not a feminist writer, or a lesbian writer, or a woman writer. And for that she has been doubly punished with obscurity. I have read that she knew Barnes. Hauser lived into her 90’s. She wasn’t as prickly as Barnes, and she published a lot more, but she has not been recognized. I pray, PRAY that this changes. I pray, PRAY that Hauser will be discovered, as Dawn Powell was in the 90’s. Her obscurity is not so much an insult to Hauser as to intelligent readers of fiction.
Here is a link for an appreciation by her former Sun and Moon Press publisher: American Cultural Treasure