Some people think that when a woman takes her husband’s last name it is necessarily an act of submission or even self-erasure. Joni Mitchell retaining Chuck’s last name for decades after their divorce has always struck me as a defiant, deliciously cruel act of revenge. In the 50 years since, she spread her wings and took that surname to heights and places it never would have reached had it been ball-and-chained to a husband: the hills of Laurel Canyon, The Dick Cavett Show, a window overlooking a newly paved Hawaiian parking lot, the Grammys, Miles Davis’s apartment, Charles Mingus’s deathbed, Matala, MTV, the Rolling Thunder Revue, and the top of a recent NPR list of greatest albums ever made by women. Over a singular career that has spanned many different cultural eras, she explored—in public, to an almost unprecedented degree—exactly what it meant to be female and free, in full acknowledgement of all its injustice and joy.
When I was a younger woman, back in the days when I longed to call myself a “writer,” but knew that I had not yet established any kind of writerly authority to claim the mantle, I remember reading an interview with Graham Greene. He explained how he was able to write one novel per year: he told his interlocutor that he held himself to a standard of 500 words per day—no more, no less—and that, in the course of a year, that would produce a novel.
At about that same time, I was struggling to be a writer, an ambition that took a direct hit after being sexually harassed by my writing professor—although at the time, I thought it was my fault—I had even fantasized that if my life’s ambitions were to come true, some day I would live in a cottage by the sea, and I would support myself by writing.
It’s funny to think I just stumbled on this book by chance. I must have been escaping from something much more heavy—I love the turgid pace of an academic book, if it’s a topic I really care about, about once a year. I think I probably escaped to Jean Stafford from something like that, and I didn’t expect much of her. I thought, Oh, this is just good old-fashioned fiction, I’ll try that for a change. So often you’re just reacting to the last book you read, and you want something that’s a little bit of an antidote to that. I’ve found that if I live a more programmatic life where I’m reading the books that I’m supposed to read—if I’m accomplishing all my little chores of reading what everybody else is reading—I stop having time to read in a way that’s rich and multiple.
Certainly, the London of Sherlock Holmes would be a lot less mysterious without that obscuring fog. Impressionist painter Claude Monet, who famously depicted the Houses of Parliament shrouded in mist, said that: "Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It is the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth."
Monet was talking about an added dimension to the city; but "breath," as in human breath, was precisely what the fog stole from London in the terrible winter of 1952.