by Molly Haskell
There’s a lot to like about this memoir. A chronicle of Haskell’s marriage to fellow film critic Andrew Sarris—and, most important, of a mystifying disease, probably cytomegalovirus-associated encephalitis, that incapacitated him for more than a year—it is full of love, insight and humor. That it also manages to be a thoughtful and almost embarrassingly honest examination of the ambivalences of both feminism and marriage is even more laudable.
That said, you may come away from the book feeling that you’ve learned more than you needed to know about people you might never have cared to know that well at all.
As writers go, Sarris and Haskell are semifamous New Yorkers with semiglamorous lives full of screenings and film festivals. They live in a world that is populated by movies, books and smart, witty writer friends, many of whom are mentioned in the book and offer praise for it in its dust-jacket blurbs.
As critics, the couple are expected to be analytical, but here, at least, Haskell is prone to too much Freudian navel-gazing. Is her “too close” relationship with Sarris a re-creation of her love for her father, who died before Molly had analyzed that relationship to death? Did their different personalities develop because her mother is proper and withholding, while his is a near-stereotype of ethnic maternal love? (It’s shocking that a member of the liberal elite would say her husband’s doctor was “play-[ing] the inscrutable Oriental” and that a Japanese social worker behaved with “dragon-lady impassivity.”)
Granted, the near-death of a spouse can bring out the introspection in anyone. And this is hardly the first time a writer turned a critical eye on the meaning of illness and death. But Haskell, as erudite as she is, is no match for Susan Sontag, whose Illness as Metaphor lifted the specific—a cancer diagnosis—into the realm of philosophical masterpiece.
Perhaps such generalizing isn’t what Haskell intended. “The book in itself was an act of secession,” she writes, indicating that while she remains happily married to Sarris, he was not wholly in favor of her writing it. “I was better able to accept our separateness.” Maybe those who know Sarris and Haskell and/ or those who have had a relationship subjected to this type of stress will find that reason enough to read this book. Others may not. (Morrow, $18.95)