I knew I had the right house. None of the other brownstones lining West 11th Street, a quiet dash of a street hyphenating Greenwich Village's Fifth and Sixth Avenues, boasts two buzzers. But this single-family residence did. The top one read: Schneider, the bottom once: No-No. I had come to talk with No-No.
No-No is Nina Schneider, author of the highly praised "The Woman Who Lived in a Prologue" (Boston: Houghton Mifflin. $13.95. New York: Popular Library. $2. 75), a first novel that garnered its author national attention.
The novel is the first-person narrative of Ariadne Arkady, a plucky matriarch in the process of writing her autobiography. Like her namesake, Ariadne searches for the thread that will guide her through a maze of memories. Her life, not unlike memory itself, is riddled with fragments. At 73 she is "ankle deep in false starts." Mired in a perpetual prologue of good intentions, she probes her past for explanation.Life, she soon realizes, has always loitered in the possessive singular; in its stubborn conjugation: daughter of, wife of, mother of, grandmother of. She has always been someone else's beginning.
If her life has followed the fate common to most women, her ambition for its later years is tartly atypical. Shattering the stereotypes that menace old age, she resist all form of retirement. "I'm not ready for my semi-tropical exit," she snaps. Indeed, Ariadne positively bristles with beginnings. Rueful, resourceful, rich with indignation, she slices through the thicket of social obligation and expectation that continues to detain and deflect her energies. Improvising her way through solitude, fumbling for the skills and confidence a second career requires, she slowly plots her way out of the prologue.
Part of the novel's immense power is not only the seriousness of its questions -- love and vocation, love asm vocation -- but the fierce wit with which Ariadne addresses them. Coaxing conceits and puns and epigrams with ease, she shines with a quirky domestic genius: Shakespeare amid the saucepans. Like most women, Ariadne must sort out the Large Questions along with the laundry. Her ongoing meditations on family, confidence, selfhood, second beginnings are, like the narrative itself, poetic, tough, literate, sharp with social observation.
Toward the novel's end, circumstances force Ariadne to ask, "Can I venture another beginning?" For her creator, the question is less rhetorical than imperative. For Nina schneider what is past is indeed prologue. No ordinary first novelist, she began her book at 60, published it at 65. Like all women seriously embarked on a second career, Nina Schneider firmly believes that ripeness ism all.
Unlike most women, though, success never eluded her. Together with her husband, Herman Schneider, she created what is now a classic textbook series, the Schneider Science Series (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath & Co.), a successively geared science program for children. Begun in the early 1950s, the project involved eight years of painstaking research and writing, which, together with the rearing of four children, occupied Mrs. schneider full time.
While proud of the series, for her such success was "merely honorable." Her lifelong ambition was creative writing. She published some poetry in the Nation , but it wasn't until her children and the series were fully grown that she turned to writing fiction full time, a work process she admits having to learn afresh. Over a difficult if patient ten-year period, she wrote sketches, spinning them into short stories and, in time, into the novel itself.
Judging from the letters that avalanche daily through her letter box, what she learned and passed along from that solitary period has benefited many besides herself. While the novel's social context is singular -- Jewish urban emigres -- its larger emphasis on personal transfiguration, the continued use and deepening of one's energies, sparks universal recognition among readers, particularly older ones grateful that a novel has given their concerns a serious forum.
The majority of mail, though, comes from women. Late bloomers in particular, thwarted from second or even first careers by financial or familial reasons, respond to Ariadne's self-Challenge: after years of nurturing others, how does a woman learn to nurture herself? Similarly, younger women, hardened in the enameled self-concerns of the "Me" decade, recognize the novel's challenge to nurture outside oneself. For the novel takes an unequivocal stand on the life importance of work andm love, career and family. While the novel doesn't solve these questions, readers at least feel richer for having had them stated so well.
In person, Nina Schneider possesses many of her heroine's finest qualities: the same tough wisdom, the trenchant wit, the intelligence etched with acid charm. Sitting in her living room, a long book-lined room accented with antiques and prints, Nina Schneider listens quietly to your questions, occasionally fixing those level brown eyes on you.It's a gaze so steady as to unnerve. But it's immediately softened by the sly smile, the rueful laugh, the spirited one-liner reply that collapses any distance around her. Surely one of Nina Schneider's most delightful qualities is making one feel like a seasoned coconspirator.
Hers is a most practical conspiracy: How can we best use the time and gifts given us?* "No one ever told me, not even her," she says, pointing to an oil canvas suspended over my head. The canvas, bursting with an exuberant naive charm -- Grandma Moses meets Marc Chagall -- is by her mother, a woman who began painting at 70 and was besieged by serious collectors soon thereafter.
"Today we have three times the adult working life of Byron or Shelly or Keats. Life makes everyonem a late bloomer today," she says, adding, "Deeper, though, we all have this need to testify that we've grappled. Each of us is endowed with this desire to translate or transform our perceptions. To be alive is to have the capacity to modify ourselves, our situations, by our own actions. So, granted that life is to be used, to be transfigured, how then do we do it?"
Reflecting over her own second career, she says, "First, you have to make a very conscious decision, be very clear and firm about what you want to do. And then sear into your consciousness that no one is going to do it for you. No one." Equally important, she says, is validating the experience one already has. Women in general, she feels, tend to underestimate their experience by denigrating it as "commonplace." "We all makem lives," she observes, "No matter how constricted those nurturing years have been, one has acquired a certain amount of unique experience."
For women like herself, intent on creative projects, those years don't necessarily prepare them for the rigorous solitude and self- discipline such projects require. "A woman's necessary and praiseworthy abilities, these talents, this bustling, accomodating, pleasing, dashing about, being flexible, make for bad habits in art." For her the hardest part was "turning around those qualities of femininity that have served you and make them work form you by putting some iron in them, something that will help you respect and fight for your work."
If there's much a late bloomer must learn, there's even more she must unlearn. Foremost is not acquiescing to what Virginia Woolf called "the angel around the house," that hectoring inner voice urging you to finish the dishes rather than the sentence you're in the middle of. "By working on their own," Mrs. Schneider notes, "women feel they're taking something awaym from the world. It's the most seductive self-undermining." This, together with women's deep conditioning to please, fragments systematic work efforts.
"For a woman to work seriously," she says, "is to risk not being loved; to risk solitude; to risk disapprobation. It means giving up the placations, the mechanisms of glibness and sentimentality, the thought that will please." Pressed to elaborate, she adds, "When you get into the habit of saying what's expected of you, it's not anything you've discovered. And what are second careers all about but the process and rewards of discovery. It's very hard. We have a lifetime of bad habits. Spider webs and glue. Learning how to say no may be a woman's hardest task."
But even the most stalwart get sabotaged. "People are positively creative in their excuses for interrupting 'Mommy's hobby,'" she says. (Hence the caustic No-No on her study buzzer.) "Often it's those closest to you, friends or family, which makes you feel guilty if you say no. but if you're guilty, you can't work well." To shut the door, she admits, takes great courage. "Then it takes solitude, patience, self-criticism, a large waste basket and time not marked by others' needs. The whole point is to focus and concentrate on what you've focused on. That means relinquishing the quick result, the quick reinforcement, the desire to persuade others."
Today's culture, she concedes, conspires to press for "the quick result, the instant success," thus frustrating and discouraging the would-be effort. "Nothing makes me more furious than hearing I 'dashed off' a novel.
"I never dashed off anything in my life. [In earlier years] I got up at 5 a.m. when the children were asleep and wrote for three hours before breakfast. Later, I wrote alone for years. The novel was earned line by line."
While doubt continually wormed its way through her efforts, by "sticking to it, being faithful to it as I had been to my family," she earned the self-confidence she needed. As for many women, her late project became a process toward selfhood, an exercise in deepened resourcefulness. She learned, in George Eliot's words, "the reward of one duty is the power to fulfill another." And with that Nina Schneider learned that she wasn't the exception among women, but the rule that stood up for itself.