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Authors: Doris Grumbach

Fifty Days of Solitude

Fifty Days of Solitude

A Memoir

Doris Grumbach

For Sybil
, without whose absence

this book would not have come about

We live, as we dream—alone.

—Joseph Conrad,

Heart of Darkness

Fifty Days of Solitude

I
N A LETTER
sent to me from Hereford, England, the writer D. M. Thomas explained why he had left his academic appointment at American University in Washington, D.C., so precipitously: “It was a dreadful thing to do—my flight—but I had a sense of being in peril, as a person and as a writer (the same thing).… I knew that if I spent three months being ‘the successful author of
The White Hotel
' I would quite likely become that and that only. I have to be the unsuccessful writer of the blank page before me.”

Every ounce of acknowledgment of one's worth, however little, by the outside world, each endorsement of what I have become (no matter how insignificant), puts me in danger. In order to move forward in my work and deeper into the chambered nautilus of the mind that produces it, I need to retreat from praise from the world, from the arena of critical recognition. I must become, over and over again, Thomas's unsuccessful writer, searching desperately for ideas, furiously digging for words and images, laboring to form good sentences to fill the blank page. In any other frame of mind, if I try to write from the exhilaration of the heights instead of the despair of the depths, I am deluded about what I am doing by the falsely elevated view of what I have done.

I had been granted fifty days in the hard winter of 1993 in which to attempt a trial return to the core of myself, staying entirely alone. My companion, Sybil, had gone away to the city to search for books for her store. A strong wind had disconnected the antenna to the television set. I silenced one telephone; the other was left with instructions to the caller to leave a message but with no promise that I would return the call. I was now alone with music, books, an unpopulated cove (the ducks and gulls sensed my desire to be alone and seemed to have gone off to some other protected water farther south), and with that frighteningly reflexive pronoun, myself.

At first I found I missed another voice, not so much a voice responsive to my unexpressed thoughts as an independent one speaking its own words. On occasion, I spoke aloud, only to surprise myself. My voice sounded low, toneless, and coarse. I thought: it would be agreeable to be answered in another, more pleasing tone, even to be contradicted, gently.

There was a reward for this deprivation. The absence of other voices compelled me to listen more intently to the inner one. I became aware that the interior voice, so often before stifled or stilled entirely by what I thought others wanted to hear, or what I considered to be socially acceptable, grew gratifyingly louder, more insistent.

It was not that it spoke great truths or made important observations. No. It simply reminded me that it was present, saying what I had not heard it say in quite this way before. It began to point out the significance of the inconsequential, of what I had overlooked in my hunger for what I had always before considered to be the important, the Big Things. The noise of the world suddenly shrank to what this new voice told me, and I became aware that, with nothing to interrupt it, it now commanded my entire attention. I listened hard to it, more intently than I had to the talk of my friends in the world.

In this way, living alone in quiet, with no vocal contributions from others, no sounds (except music) from beyond my own ear, I was apt to hear news of an inner terrain, an endolithic self, resembling the condition of lichens embedded in rock.

My intention was to discover what was in there, no matter how deeply hidden, a process not unlike uncovering the treasure that accompanied the body of a Mayan king, hidden in a secret room in a tomb within a pyramid. I thought that if everything beyond myself was cut off, the outside turned inside, if I dug into the pile of protective rock and mortar I had erected around me in seventy-five years, perhaps I would be able to see if something was still living in there. Was I all
outside
? Was there enough inside that was vital, that would sustain and interest me in my self-enforced solitude? A treasure of fresh insight? A hoard (in the Wagnerian sense) of perceptions that had accumulated, unknown and unnoticed by me, in the black hole of the psyche?

I
DID
not cut myself off from the written words of others, figuring that there would be no interruption to an interior search if I heard only the unspoken (but unfortunately not
unheard
) voices in books. For some reason I cannot fathom I would sometimes pick up a book to read—
Moon Palace
by Paul Auster, for example—and come upon a reference to the hermetic life. In the middle of that excellent book, the painter Effing (an assumed joke-of-a-name for one of the heroes) is lost in a western canyon, finds the cave of a murdered hermit, disposes of the dead man, moves into his cave, and assumes his life.

At first he is happy:

Then, very suddenly, this sense of calm abandoned him, and he entered a period of almost unbearable loneliness. The horror of the past months engulfed him, and for the next week or two he came dangerously close to killing himself. His mind swarmed with delusions and fears, and more than once he imagined that he was already dead, that he had died the moment he had entered the cave and was now the prisoner of some demonic afterlife.… After two weeks, he slowly began to return to himself, eventually subsiding into something that resembled peace of mind. It couldn't go on forever, he told himself, and that alone was a comfort, a thought that gave him the courage to continue.

There was much in that paragraph to consider, although Effing's situation differed from mine: he was hiding out from those who would surely come looking for him. But for the rest, I wondered how long I could live a completely eremitic life without losing track of reality, another way of saying that I became mad. Would limiting my social contacts to animals, as Dian Fossey did to her beloved mountain gorillas, save me from obsession and madness or perhaps, as in her case, drive me further into it?

I wondered how long it would be before the wonderful calm that commanded my mind at the start of isolation turned into unbearable loneliness. I knew what Effing learned (and Helen Yglesias reminded me of in the correspondence we carried on during my fifty days, she in Florida, I in Sargentville), that being assured of an end to the period of solitude made it possible to bear it with composure, even pleasure.

One of Effing's accomplishments in his year in the cave was to realize he had to devise a disciplined life. For two and a half months he painted, all day, every day, the magnificent landscape beyond his mountain. For the first time in his professional life he stopped worrying about results, “and as a consequence the terms ‘success' and ‘failure' had suddenly lost their meaning for him. The true purpose of art was not to create beautiful objects, he discovered. It was a method of understanding, a way of penetrating the world and finding one's place in it, and whatever aesthetic qualities an individual canvas might have were almost an incidental by-product of the effort to engage oneself in this struggle, to enter into the thick of things.… He was no longer afraid of the emptiness around him.”

O
RDER
,
sequence
, is a secret of being alone. Rising at the same time every day, making and eating breakfast while reading Morning Prayer, showering and dressing, making the bed and straightening all the rooms in which I was going to live during the day and evening. For me (but surely not for most people) this was essential: if the porch was disordered I could not start to work. This absurd obsession reminded me that one of my daughters is much like me in this respect. She needs always to have the
mudroom
in her country house clean.

Early in the morning it was cold in my study. I spent time building a fire in the woodstove, clearing my desk of bills and correspondence. Then I worked on the novel I was about half way through. The rest of the day was equally ordered: lunch, rest, work, music, reading, preparing and eating dinner, listening to the news occasionally, more reading, bed. What was inexorable about all this was the sequence of events, not to be changed or interrupted. Because if it was I was thrown back into a kind of silent, miserable chaos which nothing could dispel except to start over again at some point.

About work: Effing was right. For the first time in my writing life I gave no thought to whether I was succeeding or failing, whether what I was putting down “worked” or did not. I found I was content to examine what I was doing, in the same way that I was being taught something about the silent life. D. M. Thomas, Effing, and I were using the time to understand, to face the blank page or canvas, for instruction in ourselves, unconcerned with the judgments of others or indeed, their existence.

T
HE
New Yorker
contained an obituary of Peter Fleischmann. It described him as “a quiet publisher,” who retired when the magazine was purchased by Advance Publications (surely in this case an ironic title), and “did not talk about his separation from his beloved magazine; he simply became even quieter.” Seven years later, he died. “The quietness ended in silence.”

In that last sentence quietness is a mortal quality, silence the trait of death. Both existed in my isolation and solitude, so perhaps they were part of the training, as a night's fine, uninterrupted sleep is a foretaste, a trial run, for what is to come: the pleasure of death.

A
CCORDING
to Edmond Hoyle there are twenty-three different kinds of solitaire, more than all other card games together. Sometimes solitaire is called Patience, seemingly a characteristic of playing alone and not a necessary one for games requiring more than one person.

When I was too tired to read, I played solitaire. I knew only three varieties, two of which were not described in Hoyle. I played against the bank, as I conceived my opponent to be, a solid, institutional-sounding conceit, or against the luck of the shuffle or the “tableau,” the word Hoyle used for the way the cards are laid out at the start, some in rows, some in columns. Sometimes I addressed this invisible antagonist as Lady Luck. Hoyle allowed me any personification I chose to play against. He suggested Beelzebub.

I liked the idea of pitting myself against the devil (second in command after Satan in
Paradise Lost
) and decided, in line with my need for order and completeness, to try
all
the one-person games described by Hoyle. I chose them in order of my liking for their names: Accordion. Canfield. The Four Seasons. Scorpion. Fortress. A few required two packs of cards (Napoleon at St. Helena, also called Forty Thieves or Big Forty, and Spider and Tournament); they had to be ruled out because I had only one. There was something suitable about playing solitaire with a single deck of cards.

I found myself keeping a record of the games I “solved,” or won or made or broke, all terms used by Hoyle. As it happened, the devil broke my game far more often than I did his. I went to bed telling him, aloud I think, that I would get back at him next time we played.

In this way, my solitude was buttressed by games named for it (the Latin
solitarius
, alone), accompanied only by invisible, powerful Satan against whom I could never successfully compete.

F
OR
a time, sad news ripped the tapestry of my solitude. In the mail came a long obituary of my friend, the novelist and poet Kay Boyle, dead at the age of ninety. At once, the empty house seemed populated by her. Her beautiful, heavily lined face, weary, hooded eyes and omnipresent white earrings were everywhere I looked. I found her in my bedroom, seated beside me at my desk, at the kitchen table. Nothing could dispel her person. But oddly, I could not hear her voice.

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