Writer split in two: On Keogh’s My Name is Rose

A few weeks ago, I arrived, breathless, to meet Terry for a quick brunch at Rice before a (disappointing) matinee performance of The Black Watch.

For once I wasn’t winded due to lateness. I’d just finished reading Theodora Keogh’s (at right) marvelous My Name is Rose* on the train, and I was ready to wax rhapsodic.
 

The novel is (mostly) narrated by a woman who was raised by artist parents to think of herself as a writer. Rather than focusing on her own art, though, she has married a man who aspires to be a novelist but is actually employed as a cultural critic and is attuned and loyal to nothing apart from the way the wind is blowing.

As Rose’s journal opens, she’s realized that the husband isn’t actually much of a writer, and she’s striving to make sense of her two selves: the dutiful wife who fetches hubby drinks and only has sex under the covers with the lights off, and the one who’s launched into a torrid and pointless affair with another man. It becomes clear to the reader very quickly that Rose, and not her husband, is the one with talent.
 

So fervent yet incomprehensible was my praise for the book that Terry seized it and placed it in his bag. No telling when he’ll have time to read it — he has an opera to finish, and proofs to, er, proof — or what he’ll think if he does. Crossing my fingers that we’ll find out in good time.

Meanwhile, in the interest of doing some small part to foster the appetite for Keogh reissues, here’s a little bit from the opening of the novel:

Journal

My name is Rose. It doesn’t really suit me. I’m not the Rose type of girl; but I like it anyway. A rose — fresh as a rose — the flower of morning dew with the drops on its petals as clear as crystal, pure and immaculate as a rose — Rosamund, rose of the world.

Roses can wither, of course; their petals can grow black and sear. In this case one puts them in a bowl and they give out a musty fragrance that recalls grandmothers in country houses — or what one has read about them, anyway.

Did I say I was a girl? It seems to me I did. I get confused. I’m not a girl, you know (and by the way, who is you? Perhaps I’ll have to go into that later on); I’m a woman. I’m nearing thirty already and I’ve been married seven years. The number seven always sounds magic, doesn’t it? — like those stories in which children are turned into slaves by witches. They give the children a brew which tastes suave and transforms them into ugly shapes that there they are for seven years When they get back home no one knows they’ve been away because living dolls have been put in their places.

There is a doll in this house, a bewitched doll who eats and talks and lies beside my husband in his bed. Sometimes he makes love to it and dolls don’t like that. They aren’t made for it, you see.

Again that “you”! But who are you? Are you my father, dying away slowly on the Mediterranean shore? I think not. No, really, poor old man, setting up his final canvases and trying once again to pit himself against God. God? Well, perhaps that’s who you are — or should it be “thou”?

I’m tired already and I haven’t even mentioned the bugler. How his face quivered in the market place that day and how long ago it was! It’s fall now, but it was spring that day.

No, I must tell you about myself first: thy servant Rose. Do you know what I look like? So-so; not pretty and not ugly either. Or rather that’s the way I was last spring. Do you remember? I had the same hair: short, black, girl’s hair, with a barrette on one side the way I’ve always had since the age of one and a half. But my eyes were blue then, not purple-black the way they sometimes are now, and my skin was sallow, ivory if you like. It’s not sallow any more, as you can see, with that staining flush on the cheekbone; a dull sort of flush that looks like badly put on rouge.

Anyway I live in Paris at 28 Rue des Grands Augustins and my father is American; an expatriate, as some people call them. That’s why I’m writing in English, which nobody else around here can read. My mother was a concert singer; a Jewess with eyes the color of mine. But she was beautiful, beautiful! Her long, black hair came to her haunches, to her full haunches, which swayed as she walked. I’ve not inherited her figure. My own is (was?) slight and muscular and I’m small and compact. That’s all, I believe, except that I married Pierre Flamand seven years ago when I got out of music school. He’s a journalist and I ought to say a writer, too. Should I tell about him or does it feel too uncomfortable? Perhaps I could skip him for the moment and go on about the bugler. You see, I have to tell about him because when I saw him I was still one person — there was no doll or anything — and it’s only by using him as a sort of landmark that I can see behind him to that united Rose Flamand.
 

Rose ceased writing and rubbed her forehead fretfully. As she sat thus with a lined tablet in front of her, she looked more like a schoolgirl than the woman she claimed to be. Her flexible hand (her hands and feet were the most limber parts of her body) held the pen roundly and there was a homewashed sheen on her bent head. Rose led a double life. Sometimes the strain of it was like a rift in her brain and at other times she forgot about it altogether and simply lived whatever life she was in at the moment. It was only lately that these forgetful times had begun to make her afraid….

* I should mention that I own My Name is Rose because out-of-print guru Robert Nedelkoff sent me his extra copy back in April. The back cover is adorned with a breathtaking hot-pink-and-black photo of the author and her infamous margay, a wildcat that once bit off part of her ear when she was drunk. In case you missed the obituaries earlier this year, Keogh, born Theodora Roosevelt, granddaughter and namesake of Teddy, was a controversial 1950s novelist who died in obscurity on a North Carolina farm after abandoning writing.

Photo taken from the Telegraph obit. Prior Keogh posts are here, here, and here.


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