One of the complaints I've read about Anne Roiphe is that she's written mostly (too many?) memoirs. Since I've not read any of them, Art and Madness was all new territory for me. Like Patti Smith's Just Kids, Art and Madness deftly captures New York at a certain time, for a certain set. Though unlike Smith, Roiphe's cohort is privileged, though no less creative for that. It has been written, as well, that there's some feminist content in Art and Madness, but I don't quite agree. While Roiphe is a known feminist, her actions in this book are anything but. She willfully rejects some of the constraints her society insists she fit into...
It really is true what they said about the fifties. You really were supposed to behave.[...]Don't ever let a boy see menstrual blood. Don't ever let him get to second base. Don't ever admit you need money, love, a lawyer. Don't ever be seen carrying a bottle of liquor.[...]And all of this was to keep life at bay, life like the big waves at the shore, to be rushed into, to be ridden up and down, life that tasted of salt and could pull you out over your head head, that kind of life was to be avoided at all costs and that was just the life I was seeking....however, her life is still lived for men, her actions and drive all in service of men. Likely it's her examination of this time that raises her feminist consciousness in later years, but as I say, I haven't read any other works. Art and Madness does note and examine the roadblocks for women, but this is hindsight. Mid-century Roiphe is too young and too excited about breaking free of one set of societal chains to realise she's playing the same script as the middle-class housewives, just in swinging downtown Manhattan instead of a suburb.
He was an artist and she would bear his children and wash his clothes and care for him because there lay her own immortality, there lay her own contribution to the great effort to speak the truth, to shape the words, to write the novel that by existing would justify her human endeavor so clearly in need of justification. I know this because I felt it too, all of it.
In pursuit of this life-less-ordinary, Roiphe begins to haunt City bars, driving in from her safe and secluded college campus. It is at one of these bars, she meets Jack Richardson. Though they must have been intimate, as they produce a daughter, Roiphe writes more of her loneliness, and her sacrifice in dedication to his art. She pays for his booze, she drives him home, she takes him to Europe so he can work, and in a move that my 19-year-old self understands, falls in love and marries him, without any acknowledgment (physical or otherwise) that he cares for her. All this in service of his art.
The now-famous scene in Art and Madness is no less shocking and sad for being quoted and talked about. Roiphe is carrying a typewriter home for Jack, and she goes into labour, in the middle of a blizzard which makes transit impossible, and taxis scarce.
Suddenly I feel a wetness down my leg. The water has broken. I need to go to the hospital. I rest the typewriter on a car fender and consider what to do. I struggle on. I make it several blocks. I stop at a pay phone. Jack is sleeping and he doesn't wake up. I walk on to the hospital. It's another twenty blocks. I will not leave the typewrite behind. I am afraid I will give birth in the snow. I do not. From the hospital pay phone, I call my mother
What one is left with, is that Roiphe is desperately lonely. At a time when she's expected to "behave," her soul simply can't conform. Because she is not allowed, for myriad reasons, to acknowledge the artist she wants to be (and it's interesting that she makes note of what she's reading at each point in the book), she is willing to spend her money (rather, her parents' money), her time, her youth, and her life, hitching herself to a man that is attractive mostly for his writerly potential. She's in love with the art, not the man. This is "madness": she does not yet know the option exists to be the artist herself.
Full confession: I did not read the foreword by Katie Roiphe, because Katie Roiphe is an asshole.