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A Garden of Prose

Don't call it satire: Francine Prose's novels are just smart and funny.

September-October 2010

Francine  Prose

Francine Prose

Courtesy of Francine Prose

Anne Frank, The book, the Life, the Afterlife

Anne Frank, The book, the Life, the Afterlife

A Changed Man

A Changed Man

Blue Angel

Blue Angel

The 2,000-square-foot vegetable plot—planted with fava beans, peas, arugula, raspberries, even artichokes—that author Francine Prose ’68, A.M. ’69, cultivates at her upstate New York home has become, she says, “an obsession. Sometimes I think I write for a few hours a day so I don’t have to feel guilty about working in the garden.” 

After more than 30 books, the first published when she was 26, Prose’s guilt should be nicely quelled. Her novels include Blue Angel (2000), a finalist for the National Book Award, and Household Saints (1981), which was adapted into a film. She’s written short stories, young-adult and children’s books, and nonfiction works including the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer (2006) and, most recently, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife (2009; appearing in softcover this fall). Prose writes everything except, well, poetry.

“Francine is one of the great writers of her generation,” says James Atlas ’71, president of the publishing imprint Atlas & Co., a friend since their college days. (Prose’s 2005 Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles is part of the firm’s Eminent Lives series.) Comparing her to Virginia Woolf, Atlas describes Prose as “a versatile woman of letters in the old-fashioned sense,” and novelist Larry McMurtry, in his review of Prose’s Bigfoot Dreams (1986), called her “one of our finest writers.”

Magical realism influenced her early books, but “things took a radical turn in the late ’80s, early ’90s, the Reagan-Bush years,” she says. “I was horrified by what was happening around me. My work got a lot more contemporary, a lot more political.” Her novels took on a more acerbic tone, introducing readers to complex if not always likable characters such as Vera, who concocts fictitious stories for a tabloid in Bigfoot Dreams, and the smug Hudson Valley socialites in Primitive People (1992), as viewed by a Haitian au pair.

During this period, reviewers began calling Prose’s fiction satirical, a label she deplores. “I’m not satirizing,” she says. “I’m reporting. I’m describing the world I see.” Consider this portrayal in Blue Angel of parents on a college campus during visiting weekend: “How uncomfortable they are in the presence of their children! …These hulking boys and gum-chewing girls could be visiting dignitaries or important business contacts, that’s how obsequiously the grown-ups trot behind them, keeping up their interrogations—how’s the food? your roommate? your math professor?—questions their children ignore, walking farther ahead….”

“Yes, sometimes it’s funny,” Prose continues, “but my aim isn’t to satirize. My principal aim is to create characters, to get inside their consciousnesses.”

The range of those characters is remarkable. Her narrators include a tattooed neo-Nazi seeking redemption (A Changed Man), a 13-year-old mourning her sister (Goldengrove), and a college professor tempted by an unlikely student (Blue Angel). “The joy of trying to see the world through the eyes of someone as different from yourself as possible is hugely liberating,” Prose says. “Regardless of who they are, their views of the world must be as nuanced and layered as mine and my friends’ are.”

The central element in accomplishing this is language. “It’s about hearing the language they speak inside their heads,” she explains. Listen to what’s going on inside Vincent Nolan’s head on a crowded Manhattan street early in A Changed Man: “He’s never seen it this bad. A giant mosh pit with cars. Just walking demands concentration, like driving in heavy traffic. He remembers the old Times Square on those righteous long-ago weekends when he and his high school friends took the bus into the city to get hammered and eyeball the hookers.”

Validating Prose’s own stance, Andrew O’Hehir writes in his review of A Changed Man that her “desire to capture contemporary Americans, with all their internal contradictions, solipsism and general screwed-upness, is guided more by the spirit of compassion than by that of mockery.”

A tall woman with porcelain skin, Prose and her husband, the artist Howard Michels, moved upstate to raise their sons, now 31 and 27; they divide their time between the town of Olivebridge and their Manhattan apartment. Her time at Harvard, which included a summa cum laude degree and a couple of years as a graduate student, provided “all the tools you need as a writer. Language, narrative, dialogue, voice—it was all there,” she says. “No one sat me down and said, ‘This is what you’re learning,’ but I was.”

Having recently completed two new novels (one is due out next summer, the other, a young-adult novel, after that), Prose is working on a third, based on the life of Violette Morris, one of the women in the Brassaï’s photograph “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle.” The book began as a nonfiction study of Morris, a French professional athlete recruited by the Nazis as a spy. But the work bogged down until Prose recast it as fiction. “Suddenly the idea of seeing the Berlin Olympics from the perspective of a furious lesbian athlete became fascinating,” she says.

Each project follows a similar trajectory that she claims doesn’t get easier. “First drafts are really hard,” she says. “It’s different from book to book, but they’re always a slog, and I never feel I’ve learned anything from one to the next. And there are moments of great despair.”

Like Blue Angel’s protagonist, Prose has taught creative writing. Since 2000, she has been visiting professor of literature and Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College. She has received Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships and in May was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the 112-year-old institution composed of 250 architects, composers, artists, and writers. “It was such a validation,” Prose says. “The people making those selections are not critics; they have nothing to do with the commercial world. They are us. It feels really good.”

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