Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz - What I wanted now was the adventure of being happy in the ordinary way

Disturbances in the Field (1983) by Lynne Sharon Schwartz.  Rohan Maitzen recommended the novel to me because of its unusual use of the Pre-Socratic philosophers.  This is a domestic novel, a fine example of, borrowing from Trollope, the way we live now (or, to me, the way they lived then), smart, dense, and insightful.  And also full of a surprising amount of Heraclitus and Thales and Parmenides.

The “they” is mostly the narrator Lydia, the New York City pianist and mother of four, her family, and her close group of college friends (Barnard College, Class of ’61).  I do not remember reading a similar novel where the college experience is so thoughtfully integrated into the characters’ lives.  The friends bond while taking a year-long introduction to philosophy from a professor who overindulges in the Pre-Socratics, squeezing down Plato and Aristotle, because they are so much fun.  Just what I have found.

The way up and the way down are one and the same, Heraclitus said, endless and, above all, reversible.  (“The Middle of the Way,” 370)

That is from the next to last page of the novel.  Thales appears on the last page.

The first half of the novel is about, roughly speaking, ordinary life and the passage of time.  How do Lydia’s, and her friends’, choices, match up with their youthful ideals?  How do those ideals change?  What is a good life?  Philosophical but also novelistic questions.

Her liberal education served her well. (“Wedlock,” 125)

Schwartz argues, I think, that the liberal arts education of the characters makes their lives richer.  Not happier, oh no no, but deeper.  The good life is full of books:

The long wall in the living room, where we gather, is lined with bookshelves.  The center, most accessible, shelves hold her thick science books.  Below, books of philosophy, politics, sociology.  Above, novels (Nina is an insomniac; Epictetus does not always work) and poetry: Frost, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams – she enjoys the sanctification of the ordinary.  (“The Philosophy Study Group,” 142)

Although our narrator Lydia is more interested in the desanctification of the ordinary.  A musician, she perhaps reserves holiness for the Trout Quinter – this is also a terrific music novel, with a number of insightful passages about music performance.  But in her life, with her family:

What I wanted now was the adventure of being happy in the ordinary way.  (“The Philosophy Study Group,” 160-1)

Disturbances takes a terrible turn exactly halfway through, when the ordinariness of life is destroyed by a tragedy that becomes the subject of the rest of the book.  I wondered if now Schwartz would invoke the consolations of philosophy, but she is more hard-headed than that.  Philosophy does not console, nor does music, nor does anything, really.  This half of the novel is rough going, emotionally.  A chapter entitled “Bed,” two scenes in which Lydia and her husband work on their grief in their new king-sized bed, was especially brutal.  Disturbances in the Field and its narrator are the products of second wave feminism – Jill Clayburgh would have been perfect in a film of the novel – where sex is discussed without prurience or sentimentality but with an honesty that is, in this chapter, almost hard to read.

This land of ours, coarsened by blight, cannot endure.  It’s only a matter of time.  (241, “Bed”)

Rohan, thanks so much for the recommendation. I wonder what Schwartz’s other books are like.


  1. I'm so glad you read it and found it worthwhile. It has been a favorite of mine for decades, although at the moment I can barely contemplate rereading it because of that central tragedy, which hits much too close to home now. Still, as you say, though it is rough, it takes the project of living an examined life seriously to the very end, and I respect that. Yes, it is one of the best novels about music I know.

    I have read her other novels. For me, this is the best of them, but Leaving Brooklyn is also very good, of quite a different kind.

  2. And again I have accidentally been anonymous, although I'm sure you could tell who it was! I wrote about Leaving Brooklyn on my blog and about her later novel Two-Part Inventions at OLM (https://www.openlettersmonthlyarchive.com/olm/performance-anxiety)

  3. Yes, I could tell. I remember your OLM piece. I will try Leaving Brooklyn sometime.

    It was curious looking at Schwartz's bibliography. She has edited a volume of Sebald essays!

  4. I second everything Rohan said; I'm thrilled you read the book, loved it, and wrote so eloquently about it! I would really like to reread it (it's been a long time), but that second half... well, I'm gonna have to be in good shape to revisit it.

  5. Thanks. Yes, it is not a book to revisit casually.