wanting it both ways

She remarked wonderingly on his ability to work until midnight or later, after a day at work. When she came home from her cash register at the supermarket, she was so tired that once dinner was eaten she could scarcely keep awake. He explained, in a way she could understand, that while the work she did was repetitive, requiring little mental or physical effort, and therefore unrewarding, his work was his greatest interest; it taxed his mental capacities to their limit, exercised all his concentration, and rewarded him constantly, as much with the excitement of a problem presented as with the satisfaction of a problem solved. Later, putting away his papers, speaking out a silence, he said, “Have you done other kinds of work?” She said, “I was in a clothing factory before. Sportbeau Shirts — you know? But the pay’s better in the shop.” 

Of course. Being a conscientious newspaper reader, he was aware that it was only recently that the retail trade here had been allowed to employ Coloreds as shop assistants; even punching a cash register represented advancement. With the continuing shortage of semi-skilled whites, a girl like this might be able to edge a little further into the white-collar category. He began to teach her to type.

I listened to Tessa Hadley read Gordimer’s “City Lovers” at 3 a.m. this morning, when I couldn’t sleep — and beyond the fact that I’d listen to Hadley read anything, even her palliative voice couldn’t stop me from seething at this moment. Hadley’s voice is so melodious that it only made an expression of Dr. Leinsdorf’s explanation about work that “taxed his mental capacities to their limit, exercised all his concentration, and rewarded him constantly” all the more terrible to hear.

There’s projection here, but I seethed, even while understanding that the narrator means to show how unwittingly cruel Dr. Leinsdorf is (and how the nameless girl, unwitting herself, glorifies his work even more than he does). Without Gordimer’s sliding omniscience, this moment is nearly too painful, and it certainly threw me out of any kind of sympathy with either character. I wonder how I’d feel if the omniscience were more cold — Hadley almost romanticizes the connection between them that defies (but of course thrives on) power differences, but the hierarchy is so clearly coded (and especially for New Yorker readers) that I can’t read it as Hadley does, without frameworks, and without a much greater loss on one side, and not just for this single girl. (The best case scenario is that the reader feels outraged at a passage about the prevalent valorization of male genius — finding it an easy place to recognize their own society — and so feels implicated.) To isolate the passage is to take away from the piece, but this masculine intellectual euphoria remains so real, and so destructive — I want no other literature that tries to ameliorate the sad fact of his genius through her wonder.