Some years ago I came across a poem by Elaine Feinstein, ‘Getting Older,’ that I very much liked. When more recently I read a review of her memoir, I thought it was a book I’d enjoy. And I did. Feinstein is a distinguished poet, novelist, biographer, and translator of Russian women poets. She got married early to Arnold Feinstein, a gifted but troubled molecular biologist, and had three sons.
It was the story of this marriage and her struggle to reconcile her role as a wife and mother with her writing that for me was the most interesting part of the book. In the prelude she writes that her sons did not come out of it too badly, but she was not so sure about her marriage. ‘My desire to to make poems and stories was as intense as any adultery and the demand to put that ambition first is not easily forgiven in a woman.’ She is of the generation before mine and I wonder how far women still feel this.
The reference to adultery is apposite. In ‘Growing Older’ she writes of the things that didn’t happen to her: ‘I didn’t die young, for instance. Or lose / my only love.’ It was a close-run thing. At one time she found her husband in bed with the au pair, at another he lived for some months with a woman who had had his baby. She writes as if he is almost justified: ‘if Arnold began to feel at the periphery of my emotional life as poetry began to occupy so much of the centre I could not blame him.’
The book ends with a coda. Feinstein is invited by the British Council to give a talk in Jerusalem and it was attended by a man to whom she was once engaged, now married to someone else. He asks her, ‘Didn’t they all have unhappy lives, those Russian women poets that you admire so much?’ She understands that he wants to remind her of the joys of an ordinary life. ‘So I nodded. “It goes with the territory,” I said.’
I do so hope that’s not true.