Tess Slesinger’s stunning collection of short stories, On Being Told That Her Second Husband Has Taken His First Lover and Other Stories, is a neglected classic. These witty stories form crystalline windows into her characters’ minds. In her deft interweavings of comedy, lyricism, and stream-of-consciousness, Slesinger channels Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and Dawn Powell.
Slesinger, who died of cancer at age 39 in 1945, wrote only two books, a novel, The Unpossessed (1934), and the story collection, On Being Told That Her Second Husband Has Taken His First Lover and Other Stories (1935). Born in New York and a graduate of Swarthmore College and the Columbia School of Journalism, she married Herbert Solow, a political journalist, and moved in Jewish intellectual circles. After her divorce in 1932, her career took off: she published one of her most important stories, “Missis Flinders,” about the effect of an abortion on a failing marriage, which became the final chapter of her novel. After her second marriage to producer and screenwriter Frank Davis in L.A., she wrote screenplays for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Good Earth, but very little fiction. (Another writer ruined by Hollywood?) I do wish she had written more fiction.
Slesinger has an astonishing range: she ambidextrously adopts different styles for different subjects. The powerful title story takes the form of an ironic Dorothy Parker-esque monologue. Written in the second person, it portrays a wife’s brittle attempt to minimize the pain of her second husband’s confession of infidelity. As she says, you cannot feel it as deeply as your first.
Oh, you could talk about the thing, in Proustian vein, forever. Show him where he was weak, analyze his emotions for him, tear him to pieces like a female lion. Time was, with Jimsie, (ah, that pain can still come, and it was not that Jimsie ever was to you more than Dill is now, it is because Jimsie was the first, and that pain was the first, his news was a blow the heart will never recover from–never) time was when you brilliantly talked, explaining away everything, for two whole days, while Jimsie stayed home from work to listen and neither of you so much as dressed or saw another person but the boy from the delicatessen bringing sandwiches and cigarettes at intervals, and at last vichy-water when you fell to drinking.
In the comical story, “After the Party,” Mrs. Colborne, whose socialist ex-husband gave away all his money (fortunately Mrs. Colborne had her own money), takes her analyst’s advice and finds a hobby. He suggested writing, but she decides instead to give parties for writers. She and her secretary skim reviews and gossip columns to figure out who the next big thing will be. Their constant networking with publicists and publishers, their organizing “A” and “B” guest lists, is both realistic and ridiculous. When a writer makes fun of Mrs. Colborne, she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t actually read the books: she just gets them autographed. And her obliviousness makes it all somehow more poignant.
“Mother to Dinner” is my favorite story in the collection. There is a hint of Mrs. Dalloway in Slesinger’s masterly stream-of-consciousness, as she portrays the heroine, Katherine Benjamin, “who had been Katherine Jastrow for something less than a year,” shopping for dinner and then feeling isolated in her apartment. Her husband won’t listen to her stories; she and her mother shared every little detail. When she says Goodafternoon instead of goodbye to the grocer, she can hear her mother saying the same thing.
And now Katherine, no longer in middies and broad sailor hats or accompanied by her mother but modestly wearing a ring on her left hand, heard herself kindly bidding Mr. Papenmeyer Goodafternoon, and feeling, as she said it, very close to her mother, feeling almost, as she said it, that she was her mother. (Gerald predicted with scorn that it would not be long before Katherine would speak of Mr. Papenmeyer as “my Mr. Papenmeyer,” and he suspected that she would even add, in time, ‘he never disappoints’; but she was not to suppose, he said, that he would glance benignly over his Saturday Evening Post, as her father did, and listen.)
Kaatherine longs to telephone her mother, but knows Gerald disapproves. She loves Gerald, but despairingly realizes he doesn’t really know her; they have known each other two years and been married less than one. It is her mother with whom she has most in common, but there is a barrier as she imagines the tension she will experience tonight when they entertain her parents for dinner.
“Jobs in the Sky” is a political story. On Christmas Eve, the employees in t he book department of a department store prepare for the rush when the store opens at 9. It is the Depression, and Joey, who is in charge of the biography section, used to be homeless and sleep in the park. They have been told that five people will be let go at the end of the day. They suspect that Miss Paley, a retired teacher who reads Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale in her spare time, will be one of them. But the others? We get to know the clerks’ strengths and weaknesses through Joey’s eyes. He is so grateful to have a job.
The Answer on the Magnolia Tree is a stunning novella, set in a girls’ boarding school, and Slesinger has an obvious first-hand familiarity with such schools. She sketches the class differences between the rich students and the scholarship students; the condescension of the young teacher with a date to the older teachers who have lived too long alone in dorm rooms.
The plot revolves delicately around a popular girl Linda’s transgression: she stayed out all night on the golf course with a boy after a dance. She would be expelled if she were not an alumna’s daughter, but that never occurs to her; instead, she admires the magnolia trees.
Linda is unaware that her wealth and manners are responsible for the scholarship student Natalie’s ratting on her. Natalie is smart enough to understand that if her own date had gone well (he didn’t fit in with the Harvard men) she wouldn’t have told on Linda. We meet some of the other girls as they give the wrong answer in class, play sports, or giggle at lunch. There are also Lindas and Natalies among the teachers: when a young teacher prepares for a date, the other s help her get dressed, but lend her all the wrong accessories, which she kindly accepts, planning to hide them later in her bag. Miss Engles, the socialist, despairs when a student dismisses the lower classes in her paper. What does she have to do to get the girls to think? And the principal tells Linda, who is looking out the window at the magnolias, ‘You are not going to find the answer on that magnolia tree.” But perhaps, as Slesinger hints, she is.
Slesinger is less successful when she delves into working-class lives: in “The Mouse-trap,” a secretary from Topeka has a crush on her boss and approves his exploitation of his employees until the end; and in “The Friedmans’ Maid,” a German maid’s devotion to a manipulative mistress drives away her fiance. Both stories are beautifully-written, but lack her usual subtlety and liveliness.
These stories from the thirties could just as easily have been written today: they take on issues like abortion, race quotas, the formation of a union, and the problem homelessness.
This is a great book, and astonishingly it is still in print! I loved, loved, loved it!