Any time a novelist borrows a protagonist – from history or from the fiction of others – he balances the uncertain task of creating a new path while matching his footsteps to those previously trod. He risks putting off readers through over-exuberant bursts of creative license or boring them by sticking prudently to established canon. In either error, the writer renders a cardboard facsimile rather than a live character. Thankfully, in The More I Owe You, Michael Sledge displays an acute sense of balance as his novel explores the life and complex relationships of poet Elizabeth Bishop. The color and depth of Sledge’s prose paint a Bishop who is flawed, vulnerable, insecure, adventurous, selfish, and loving – fully human.
Sledge may be assisted in his efforts by his choice of protagonists. While most students of literature can claim a passing familiarity with Bishop’s poetry, her work is less widely known than that of her contemporary and friend Robert Lowell. Nor has her life captured the popular mind to the extent common to the subjects of the mainstream biographical novel. However, given Sledge’s deft writing and the, at times uncomfortable, intimacy that he gives the reader with Bishop, I suspect that he could have pulled off a novel about Elizabeth I or Eleanor Roosevelt with equal insight.
The More I Owe You opens with Bishop aboard a ship bound for Brazil.
Here is a coast; here is a harbor;
here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery:
impractically shaped and – who knows? – self-pitying mountains,
sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,
with a little church on top of one. And warehouses, some of them painted a feeble pink, or blue,
and some tall, uncertain palms. Oh tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you
and your immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately,
after eighteen days of suspension?
Finish your breakfast.
As the lines of the factual Bishop’s poem “Arrival at Santos” suggest, the shipboard Elizabeth Bishop manifests as a seething mixture of insecurity, intellectual snobbery, self-loathing, and desire for adventure. Sledge’s characterization of Bishop is bold and often searing in its realism. Time and again he risks alienating the reader from this complex and difficult woman, yet through some deft stroke always brings Bishop back from the shadows into the light of sympathy. The opening lines of the novel depict a woman so deeply alone, that we are predisposed to forgive her almost any transgression if it will relieve her isolation.
The ship crossed the equator sometime in the night. Elizabeth sat on the deck among the crates of cargo bound for South America, taking shelter from the damp wind. The sky was vast, with half a moon and masses of soft, oily-looking stars.
She was middle aged. It was her first trip to the Southern Hemisphere.
Simple phrases, yet powerful evocations. Sledge seems to intuit that, for a woman, no phrase depicts greater loneliness than “middle aged.” Everything that follows — Bishop’s battles with alcoholism, the destruction of the relationship of her future lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, with a mutual friend, the wild fluctuations from passion to vitriol in her own affair with Lota – is explained in this first passage.
Sledge peoples his novel with a vibrant cast of female characters. It may be naively sexist to laud or even remark upon a male writer’s grasp of the female psyche; however, in his use of the intimate details that highlight the women of his novel, Sledge proves himself an adept in the craft of character-development. While the male characters of The More I Owe You are interesting and roundly developed, they are virtually emasculated in their role as catalysts. The power and the sexuality of the novel lies with the feminine. The women are the builders: of relationships, of drama, even of physical structures.
When Elizabeth first arrives in Brazil, she has planned a visit to the mountain retreat of her acquaintances Mary and Lota. Vibrant, volatile, and sexy, Lota de Macedo Soares reflects as much as she refutes her aristocratic upbringing. Though she embraces the bohemian world of the arts, her relationship with the world of art and artist is that of connoisseur and patron rather than participant. Many of her conflicts with Elizabeth center around not only Elizabeth’s drinking but around Lota’s perception of her lover’s failure to fully devote herself to her poetry. As much as Lota presents herself as a free spirit, she is tied to her achievement-oriented upbringing and remains haunted by her failure to please her father. Lota is less artist than developer. Her obsessive need for success drives the construction of her “revolutionary” glass house and later of a municipal park whose construction she supervises as a means of connecting with her friend Carlos, a revolutionary politician.
Lota’s connections to class and country are as conflicted as her interpersonal relationships. Though she deeply wants to participate in the nation-building of a new, democratic Brazil, her scorn for her homeland runs equally deep.
“Those aren’t flowers,” Lota cried. “Those are the jewels of Brazil! If they didn’t keep grabbing their balls, they’d forget they were men. That’s the problem with this country: The men have to keep reminding themselves they are men, and the women are even worse. They have no balls, either!”
Despite her democratic ideals, Lota approaches life from the privileged standpoint of a member of the upper classes. She seems almost confused that any problem should exist as she throws over Mary, her long-time partner, for Elizabeth. She is equally offended and bemused by the obstruction and dissent she encounters during the development of the park. Tragically, all of Lota’s audacity and entitlement overlay an indelible insecurity.
In the end, it is Elizabeth, the socially-awkward, physically-infirm, alcoholic poet who proves to be the resilient one. In his depiction of the tangled, tumultuous love of these women, Sledge reveals the uncomfortable, intimate, naked truth of humanity: that nothing is one thing. Love, desire, personality – all are created from shifting, overlapping layers.