Faber Editions is putting out some excellent titles. Earlier this year, I read the wonderful Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, and now it’s Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, which at barely 114 pages is an absolute gem of a novella.
First released in the US in 1953, Maud Martha is the only novel published by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet. It’s a striking and evocative portrayal of black womanhood in 1940s Chicago told with poetic grace and intensity.
Composed of 34 vignettes, sometimes bite-sized, sometimes running into not more than four pages, these mini-portraits build up to depict the ordinary life of an indomitable, black woman and her people – dreams and desires, dashed hopes and disappointments and yet finding meaning in the simple pleasures of life.
What she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the wet sky, so altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch: and dandelions.
Thus begins the first description that we get of Maud Martha, a dreamy, young woman, who would have liked either a lotus, or China asters or meadow lilies, but is fascinated instead by dandelions (“yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her back yard”). Considering herself plain-looking in sharp contrast to her lovely sister Helen, to Maud the dandelions epitomize an accurate depiction of herself (“it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower.)”
Maud Martha’s family comprises her parents, sister Helen and brother Harry and they have a home they can truly call their own, although for a short period they are faced with the danger of losing it due to financial troubles. Maud mostly has blissful memories of her childhood – a warm family life even if she’s not the apple of her parents’ eye, traditional Christmas celebrations and the camaraderie with her schoolmates. Even as a child, her perceptive quality shines through – when she notices her parents embracing, she is glad that they have ended their quarrel and patched up, and the death of her grandmother frightens and saddens Martha as she ponders, “I never saw anybody die before. But I’m seeing somebody die now.”
As the years roll on by, Maud Martha will go on to have a couple of boyfriends, meet Paul Phillips, marry him and settle down, have a house of her own, give birth to a daughter Paulette and enmesh with her community.
Maud Martha beautifully conveys not only the experiences and dreams of the titular character but also the broader aspirations of her community and the difficulty in attaining them due to class and race barriers. The piece on New York is vibrant with colourful images – Maud has visions of herself in New York with its splendid tapestry of well-heeled, sophisticated people, delectable food, expensive wines, posh luxurious restaurants and hotels, the art and culture scene. In another piece, one of her boyfriends, her second beau, who “belonged to the world of the university”, covets the finer things in life – well-furnished apartment with bookcases, records, symphonies, a dog; things that are a hallmark of the well-bred, upper class set. But what chance does he have of achieving this kind of status given his poorer roots, he laments.
What chance did he have, he mused, what chance was there for anybody coming out of a set of conditions that never allowed for the prevalence of sensitive, and intellectual, yet almost frivolous, dinner-table discussions of Parrington across four-year-old heads?
We are also given a glimpse of the working class community that Maud Martha is part of, exemplified by her neighbours in the building where she resides. Named “Kitchenette Folks”, it is the longest chapter in the book that wonderfully depicts the building inhabitants and their wide-ranging personalities, expectations and circumstances. There’s Oberto, who adores his wife Marie, often criticized by the women who gossip about her poor housekeeping skills, but Oberto considers himself blessed because he would rather have a wife who invests her time in caring for her looks. There’s the little boy Clement Lewy, whose mother has lost the will to carry on after being deserted by her husband. But Clement is a spirited boy, revels in the orderly, sameness of his life, and is always joyful when he greets his mother coming back home after a hard day’s work. There’s the strange youth of twenty who one day barges into Maud’s apartment, and the Whitestripes (“the happiest couple Maud Martha had ever met”), whose close bonding and affection Maud knows she will never have with Paul. There’s Richard, the truck driver, whose weekly earnings barely support his family of five, and the daily stress becomes so hard to bear that one day he just doesn’t come home.
It’s also an astute depiction of marriage and the tempering of expectations that come with it witnessed through the lens of Maud’s relationship with Paul. Maud has no illusions about her marriage. She knows Paul will marry her because she is sweet and good (“He is thinking that I am all right. That I am really all right. That I will do.”), although a part of her wonders whether he is beset with thoughts of finding someone better. As a couple, they are often mismatched as far as interests go – Maud loves theatre, art and culture which Paul does not much care for. He has an affinity for a dazzling social life filled with glamorous beautiful people, and being recognized in exclusive clubs. With the birth of their daughter Paulette, Paul is often overwhelmed with the dreariness of his existence (“she knew that he was tired of his wife, tired of his living quarters, tired of working at Sam’s, tired of his two suits”), and yet she is fiercely protective of her world when her mother comments that they could do better (“I have a husband, a nice little girl, and a clean home of my own”).
She watched the little dreams of smoke as they spiraled about his hand, and she thought about happenings. She was afraid to suggest to him that, to most people, nothing at all “happens.” That most people merely live from day to day until they die. That, after he had been dead a year, doubtless fewer than five people would think of him oftener than once a year. That there might even come a year when no one on earth would think of him at all.
There are undercurrents of darkness that lace the novella, the racial slurs and insults that slip through the holes in the fabric of Maud Martha’s life; the bigotry and condescending attitude of the whites that she and her family can’t always escape. When visiting a movie hall, Maud and Paul worry about getting “suspicious looks” because they are the only black couple in the theatre, while in a heartbreaking scene, a department store Santa Claus looks through Maud and her daughter Paulette when the latter lists the gifts she wishes Santa to bring her for Christmas.
Like an exquisitely carved doll-house of extraordinary workmanship with each compartment having a unique story to tell, these perfectly crafted miniature stories are complete by themselves, and yet unique in the way they reveal various facets of Maud Martha’s personality. She is a child saddened and bewildered by her grandmother’s death. She is a self-aware teenager who envies the prettiness of her sister Helen. She loves books, boasts of a rich inner world and a lively imagination. She becomes a wife and a mother and manages the highs and lows with aplomb – the happiness, challenges and inevitable frustrations that these roles entail. All the while reminded that she is a black woman who will not be considered an equal to her white counterparts but she handles their oblique insults with dignity, although internally rebelling against them. She is a woman who loves tradition, festivities that made her childhood such a jovial place. But more importantly, she is a woman who despite life not having panned out exactly the way she wanted, still manages to find gladness and beauty all around her.
Maud Martha learns to make best use of the raw materials that life has accorded her and fashion it into something memorable. She would have loved a stately home and a lavish lifestyle but she takes pride in decorating her little kitchenette. She would have loved Paul to be more compatible with her, but does not harbour resentment when that does not happen. She bears no ill-will towards her father who clearly panders to her sister Helen’s every whim. There is a wide gap between her imagined life and the hardcore reality but she does not slide into unhappiness and despondency.
What’s also great about Maud Martha is the magical prose awash with lush and vivid imagery and descriptions – the “shafts and pools of light, the tree, the graceful iron” that form an intrinsic part of her family home; New York which “glittered in front of her like the silver in the shops on Michigan Boulevard” as she stood before theatres “of the thousand lights”, the snow as “finest bits of white powder coming down with an almost comical little ethereal hauteur.”
The episodic structure of Maud Martha is reminiscent of Evan S. Connell’s fabulous novel Mrs Bridge – the miniature scenes are perfectly rendered, much nuanced and subtle, sumptuous language with a poetic touch. However, as a character, Maud Martha is very unlike Mrs Bridge; she is definitely not a helpless woman by any stretch of the imagination, even if her life has not always evolved as per her wishes.
Then she thought of her life. Decent childhood, happy Christmases; some shreds of romance, a marriage, a pregnancy and the giving birth, her growing child, her experiments in sewing, her books, her conversations with her friends and enemies.
“It hasn’t been bad,” she thought.
Maud Martha, then, is a gorgeous depiction of ordinary life, where Brooks through sheer poetry and wisdom conveys the beauty of the everyday – the hopes, ambitions, pitfalls, joys and sorrows. Through Maud’s personality and the environment she grows up in, Brooks explores broader themes of racial and class differences, family life, marriage and community. Maud Martha lives life on her own terms, and refuses to let regrets, disillusionments and the cruelty of racism bog her down. It’s her refusal to let ways of society always dictate her actions that is testament to her spirit and individuality and gives the novella its power.
To create – a role, a poem, picture, music, a rapture in stone: great. But not for her.
What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other.
She would polish and hone that.