5 Women Writers Who Capture the Messy Truth About Men
What makes a great man tick? Novelists, trained for old-fashioned love stories and revenge, often forget the obvious: survival, not in battle or sword fights, but the survival of those without a gun or a throne. Wolf Hall doesn't begin with Henry VIII; it begins with Thomas Cromwell as a boy, in poverty, being beaten by his father. Only from this shame and resentment can we understand the man we come across, pages later, arriving to meet his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, and who later becomes an adviser to King Henry VIII. Because Cromwell fought for his education and worked his way up out of the muck, he outlasts Wolsey; he outlasts Catherine of Aragon; he outlasts Anne Boleyn.
His scenes with these women, in fact, are my favorites. The women are not wicked or conniving; they are people with very few options—like Cromwell—trying to survive (they don't). After one such meeting, Cromwell returns home to his wife, who expresses pity for Catherine of Aragon for having no sons. Cromwell is shocked: "Possibly it's something women do," he considers, "spend time imagining what it's like to be each other." His nature is revealed in his next thought: "One can learn from that." On one hand, it's fascinating how Mantel can imagine a man imagining a woman imagining another woman. On the other hand, it recognizes what we men often forget to explain: We pay attention when the women in our lives show us a wiser, more generous way to think—and keep our heads.
There are two unforgettable moments in Wharton's novel of a man trapped by 19th-century New York society. Or at least they are unforgettable for me. My Southern heritage is of unspoken words and smothered emotions, especially among the men (both of my grandfathers, I learned later in life, had great passions in their lives that they had to relinquish, and never spoke of them, not even to their wives). Wharton has seen inside of men like them. There is, first of all, the scene where Newland Archer, having forsaken his budding love to Ellen Olenska and married his fiancée, May, is informed at a summer party that Ellen is there. He walks alone down toward the bay and sees her silhouette against the water, watching the sailboats. But he does not go to her. Instead, he plays a boyish little game in his head: "If she doesn't turn before that sail crosses the Lime Rock light I'll go back." He waits and watches the boat; she does not turn. So, he returns to the house without ever speaking to her.
The second scene comes years later, at the end of the novel, when his son brings him to her apartment in Paris—knowing full well what this woman means to him. Archer decides to sit in the park below as his son goes upstairs; he will come up in a moment. Again, he waits for a sign. When I read that final scene the first time, I was overcome by grief. By how many men I knew who had never really let themselves reveal the mysteries inside their hearts.
Okay, I admit this is cheating: I'm basically just putting in one of my favorite books. A Wizard of Earthsea is about a boy with magical powers, and, as a boy, every time I read it, I pretended it was about me. This is 30 years before Harry Potter. It never once occurred to me that it made any difference in the world that a woman had written it. All I knew was that I instantly felt attached to the young Ged as he yearns for abilities as a wizard beyond those he is being taught, and even at age 10 or 11, his pride and shame mirrored my own (they still do). "The truth is," his teacher tells him when he is an adolescent, "that as a man's real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do."
Wanting to show off his gifts, Ged unleashes an evil shadow, and through all his adventures, it is the shadow that haunts the story. It returns when he tries to raise the dead; a dragon tempts him with its name, and eventually he pursues it across the known world. To destroy it, he must say its true name. In the end, of course, he discovers that name is his own. There is so much wisdom here about the life of a young man—of any young person, in fact, coming to know themselves: the testing of one's own strength and limits, the terror of reaching those limits, the lessons of humility. Even now, it seems like a lesson for me.
The flaws of The Goldfinch are the kind you rage against and forgive in any long relationship—it is 800 pages—but its joys are many, among them the protagonist, Theo Decker, who is caught in a bomb blast as a boy while visiting a museum, and almost in a haze, removes a valuable painting from the rubble. What follows is a Dickensian tale of his moving from home to home, being used by adults and befriending the "bad kid" in town, Boris.
Here's where Tartt really nails young men. Their friendship is situational, as most male friendships are: They just happen to be near each other. They never really talk; they do things together, sneak out together, do drugs and screw up their young lives together, and they are more important to each other than their girls. When Boris returns late in the novel with revelations and yet another terrible plan, I felt such wrenching recognition: A long-lost friend returns, the one who knew you when, and can reveal you, not to other people, but to yourself. Somehow, there's no turning that friend away, recognizing as we do the worst part of ourselves in another man: our friend, whom we despise and also love.
There is a scene, near the end of Cheri, that is (to me) one of the cruelest in literature: 25-year-old rake Freddy Peloux (known as Cheri), having fled his wife to return to his much-older lover, Lea, awakens in the morning and, pretending to be asleep, spies on Lea at her dressing table: "Not yet powdered, a meagre twist of hair at the back of her head, double chin and raddled neck, she was exposing herself rashly to the unseen observer." He experiences "the vague uncomfortable feeling of having done something reprehensible." He puts it out of his mind, dresses and goes downstairs. But it is the moment of doubt that begins to unravel his confidence.
Colette sees deep into the heart of male vanity: First he spies on his lover, and judges her, and then he forgets what he has done. And, later, when a simple conversation of whether to have another piece of toast begins to spin out of control, he reduces her to tears; he looks upon her once more: "Cheri found intact amidst this wreckage of beauty the lovely commanding nose and the eyes as blue as a blue flower." He tells her that after months of misery, he comes back and...but he is too frightened of his own thoughts. Lea is not; calmly, she finishes his sentence: "You come back here, and find an old woman." It is the truth he is unwilling to admit to himself. And, once this is admitted, she handles the rest of the scene with grace and dignity. For Colette is not showing us the tragedy of old women, the devastation of a once-beautiful lady, that all-too-common source of pity. She is showing us the tragedy of young men. As we discover in The Last of Cheri, he is a fool to have left her, to have doubted her or judged her. And yet he cannot help himself; he cannot stay. Incredibly, our pity ends up going to roguish Cheri. Lea makes it through; it is young Freddy who is marked for life.