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The Boringest Woman in the World (Austen, Ginzberg)

The Boringest Woman in the World (Austen, Ginzberg)

Ginzberg, Natalia. Voices in the Evening. Trans. D.M. Low. New Directions 2015. 

The post’s title comes from a dimly remembered article about Britney Spears (I think – it might have been a different starlet) that I read ages ago. I probably wouldn’t have clicked it open, except for that the word “boringest.” I don’t remember anything I read in the article now except the word “boringest.”

Jane Austen’s Emma and Natalia Ginzberg’s Voices in the Evening each have a woman protagonist who must choose whether or not to tolerate the boringness of a profoundly boring woman. For both the eponymous Emma and Ginzberg’s Elsa, saying yes to the boring woman entails a lifelong commitment; the boring woman is going to speak at length whenever opportunity avails until either she or her interlocutor dies. In both novels, the decision regarding the boring woman becomes the moral test which will define the course of the protagonist’s life after the end of the book.

I’m going to restrict what I say here to avoid plot spoilers. Sometimes the plot of a novel doesn't really matter much, but for these two the plot matters, so I’ll try not to give too much away.

In Emma, we read of Miss Bates: 

Miss Bates [...] had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman [...] She loved every body, was interested in every body’s happiness, quicksighted to every body’s merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother, and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing.

Miss Bates is a sweetheart; she is also “a great talker upon little matters.” What follows is a sample of Miss Bates talking which I will excerpt in a continuous chunk because it is (and it is no accident that it is) difficult to decide what would be the salient part of this speech I would pull for a quote. Miss Bates is searching for a letter from her niece, and, upon finding it, explains:

“Oh! here it is. I was sure it could not be far off; but I had put my huswife upon it, you see, without being aware, and so it was quite hid, but I had it in my hand so very lately that I was almost sure it must be on the table. I was reading it to Mrs. Cole, and since she went away, I was reading it again to my mother, for it is such a pleasure to her—a letter from Jane—that she can never hear it often enough; so I knew it could not be far off, and here it is, only just under my huswife—and since you are so kind as to wish to hear what she says;—but, first of all, I really must, in justice to Jane, apologise for her writing so short a letter—only two pages you see—hardly two—and in general she fills the whole paper and crosses half. My mother often wonders that I can make it out so well. She often says, when the letter is first opened, ‘Well, Hetty, now I think you will be put to it to make out all that checker-work’—don’t you, ma’am?—And then I tell her, I am sure she would contrive to make it out herself, if she had nobody to do it for her—every word of it—I am sure she would pore over it till she had made out every word. And, indeed, though my mother’s eyes are not so good as they were, she can see amazingly well still, thank God! with the help of spectacles. It is such a blessing! My mother’s are really very good indeed. Jane often says, when she is here, ‘I am sure, grandmama, you must have had very strong eyes to see as you do—and so much fine work as you have done too!—I only wish my eyes may last me as well.’”

Duration, intensity: at least for me as a reader, Miss Bates’s speeches have some of the emotional effect of the better examples of fiendishly repetitive music. Listening to Miss Bates talk of little matters takes stamina; I feel riveted and yet somehow also claustrophobic, desperate for escape; and when Miss Bates finishes talking, a sense of let down alongside the relief. I don’t know if some sound artist out there has already made the Miss Bates LP with one speech dovetailed into the next (or Miss Bates re-interpreted, or some other form of homage) but I would certainly listen to this.

Anyway. Miss Bates tries Emma’s patience. No wonder: Emma is young and clever. But I will say no more of this for spoilers' sake…

In Ginzberg the boring woman is the mother. Elsa’s mother is not a sweetheart like Miss Bates, but she is nearly as boring. Voices in the Evening begins with Elsa and her mother walking together after the mother’s medical appointment. It took me half of the first page to figure out what Ginzberg (and/or her translator) was doing with the line breaks, and boy did I like it once I got it:

My mother said, “I feel like I have a kind of lump in my throat. It hurts if I swallow.”

She said, “Good evening, General.”

General Sartorio had passed us, raising his hat above his silvery waved hair, a monocle in his eye, and a dog on a lead.

My mother said, “What a fine head of hair he has, at that age!”

She said, “Did you notice how ugly the dog has become?

“I have a vinegary taste in my mouth now, and that lump hurts me all the time.

“However did he discover that I have high blood pressure? It has always been low with me, always.”

The mother continues dialoguing with herself and remarking judgmentally upon her surroundings. Overleaf, she demands of a silent Elsa “Couldn’t we sometimes have the miracle of a word from you?” Two pages into the book, it’s already easy to understand why Elsa rarely replies and to respect Elsa for rarely replying. 

Elsa is unmarried, so she lives with this mother in the family home. What compromises would or wouldn’t Elsa make to avoid remaining there? I can’t say without giving too much away. However, if you’ve already read it, check out the stylistic reprise near the end (“they said” on page 120; etc) 

A couple last provisional notes about boring women in case someone else can do something with them:

  • One difference between Emma and Elsa in respect of the boring woman is that Emma has to decide whether or not she will live up to her community’s standard of moral rectitude while Elsa must decide if she will compromise her personal standards. 

  • Elsa knows that her decision about the boring woman will determine the course of her life; Emma does not know what the outcome of her decision will be when she makes her choice. 

  • Why is it such an accomplishment to capture the one-of-a-kind boringness of a one-of-a-kind boring person as Austen and Ginsberg do? You’d think it would be easy, but you don't see it done this well very often. A common adjunct of boring – stupid – is also hard to get just right.

  • Are these boring women the boringest? Are there other boring women or people of literature who could vie with them?

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