'Landslide' Probes A Mother-Daughter Bond In Spare, Careful Prose

Sep 19, 2017

Back in 2006, Minna Zallman Proctor was hit by a landslide of woes that left her reeling. Heavily pregnant with her first child, she was going through a divorce from the child's father while her own mother was dying after 15 years of fighting various cancers. What made matters more painful was that some of her troubles were of her own making: She'd had an affair with another man, and had chosen to leave her husband for him. (That's the short, simplified version.) Proctor, a child of divorce who "just desperately wanted an intact family," was left wracked by shame for what she calls her "betrayal of the self, and the most painful disappointment I've ever endured."

In Landslide, a series of interconnected personal essays, she strives to regain her footing. Digging for meaning, she keeps unearthing examples of the similarities between her life and her mother's, "how tightly our ways were aligned." Only as an adult did she learn that her mother had not one but two failed marriages behind her: Before Proctor's father, there was an early marriage which had been annulled — to her lasting regret — after she had an affair.

Proctor probes their parallels and differences in spare, careful prose, while also examining the very act of telling stories. "In therapy or out of it, creating a narrative is a process," she writes. Fragmented, loosely linked essays have become an increasingly popular form of personal narrative, exemplified in the work of Rachel Cusk and Sarah Manguso, among others. The opposite of gushing, the form can be exquisite but also a bit precious.

Proctor's essays fold time in on itself in order to explore the ways in which past and present overlap and merge. The non-linear form is particularly well-suited to her explorations of sensitive subjects like broken bonds and self-sabotage, which are more comfortably approached gingerly, from multiple angles. But her heavily redacted narrative, however artful, sometimes feels evasive. While expressive of her self-declared commitment issues in a way that a tightly straitjacketed chronological memoir would not be, readers may wonder about what's been elided.

Proctor's portrait of her mother, Arlene Zallman — a composer and music professor who returned regularly to Tuscany, where she'd spent a Fulbright scholarship after studying at Juilliard — occasions some of the most beautiful writing in the book. "I can repeat my mother's stories to my children but they will never know how she spoke so quietly as she told them," she writes. "The way she smelled, like water and pencil shavings. How proud she was, how vain, how beautiful, how quiet, how difficult."

Their relationship wasn't easy. "She was aesthetic to a fault and I was tyrannically pragmatic," Proctor writes. "Her love was demanding, sometimes contractual, almost unbearably consuming." Quite young, Proctor sought the help of therapists — and, later, to her therapist's disdain, an astrologist — in her search for enlightenment. "Why are you convinced you have to live your mother's life?" her therapist asks repeatedly.

Her mother isn't her only focus. She returns to the subject of her first book, an exploration of faith as a source of stability and comfort, partly in the context of her Catholic-born father's late-life calling as an Episcopalian minister. She writes of her two children, both endearingly and with an occasional edge that recalls Rachel Cusk. She writes of her happiness in Italian, "a costume I'd hide in for months at a time," and her work as a translator of Italian literature.

Proctor, editor-in-chief of The Literary Review, occasionally marshals literature to illuminate her life. In the chapter titled "Author of Her Destiny," she considers Muriel Spark's autobiographical novel, Loitering With Intent, with its "massive swatches of fiction embroidered over real life," which helps Proctor understand "the impossibility of a true portrait or self-portrait."

She invokes Waiting For Godot in a story about searching for a blood lab in midtown Manhattan to test for a cancer marker — convinced she's inherited that, too, from her mother. After finally managing to get her blood drawn, she observes how "Classic dramatic storytelling structure would have a reckoning here ... an epiphany." But, as in Beckett's play, her story offers no resolution. Her remarks about the ending of Godot offer a wry commentary on the state of Minna Proctor in her darker moments: "The characters are left staggering off the stage, alive to wait another day. It's a sad journey without a grail."

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