OWhen American poet Louise Glück was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2020, the Swedish Academy hailed her “voice which, with austere beauty, makes individual existence universal”. They might have added that she makes the individual female experience universal, joining her to the canon of male mythology in a way that even her titles make clear. The Seven Ages, from 2001 – a stunning reflection on human destiny – was preceded by both The Triumph of Achilles (1985) and Ararat (1990), for example, and followed by Averno (2005), named after the traditional site of entry into hell. While his early works explore family psychodrama, these books depict the emotional abuse of midlife. In 13 collections of poetry and two volumes of essays, Glück’s emotional intelligence never yields to comfortable solace, but the writing remains exquisitely beautiful.
None of this changed in his first published fiction. Marigold and Rose can be devoured in one sitting, and that’s probably the best way to enter her tonal world, which is oddly hypnotic, partly because the mood never swings to violent intensity, and partly because of the ordered rhythms of Glück’s prose. Ten short chapters tell us – though not in exact chronological order – the first year of the lives of twin girls, the eponymous Marigold and Rose. During this period, their grandmother dies, their mother experiences returning to work, and they are “distracted, like all babies, by feelings of triumph. First crawl, then walk and climb, then talk.
The book may seem limited or even, given its subject matter, twee. To be Glück, it is not so. Instead, like his poetry, it draws its strength from acute observation. In the final chapter, for example, as the protagonists attend a celebration for their first birthday, “Marigold…watched the party grimly from her high chair. Chaos and vagueness, she thought. Grown-ups were busy…Meanwhile, people they didn’t know were touching them and calling them lambs and chickens when it was perfectly obvious that they were human babies. Aging human babies, Marigold thought.
Which is funny, in an ironically gothic way. But humor is not the purpose of this book. Readers familiar with Glück’s writing will recall the poetic reserve diction she developed in her groundbreaking second collection, The House on Marshland (1975), with its polished accounts of family life. As if to emphasize the resemblance to his verses, each chapter of Marigold and Rose is divided not into paragraphs passing discursively from one to another, but into linked blocks of text separated by what we would elsewhere in his work call stanza breaks. And indeed, these blocks of text work much like the discrete stanzas of a poem. Each acts as a kind of choreographed freeze frame in the story: juxtaposed, they look like a frieze.
This writing brilliantly evokes the timelessness of infancy, even early childhood, even before the child has adapted to his own circadian rhythms. There is this feeling of suspension, of living without a past or a future, which is the superpower of childhood: “Outside the park, there was day and night. What did they add? Time was what they totaled… On the other end of time, your official life began, which meant it would end one day.
All this creates a subversive vision in which adults are imprisoned by time, but also by language. And it’s here that the author is most transgressive, dressing babies’ nuanced reactions in sophisticated language — while acknowledging that they have no such words. Indeed, only Rose learned to speak at the end of the book: “Since she began to speak, Rose felt that she was turning into a tyrant. And Marigold was quieter than ever…studying the alphabet for clues. Realistic readers may find this strategy irritating, but it’s a way to explore a child’s prelinguistic life without reducing it to incoherence. And, after all, clothing the hidden inner life of others with words is what all fiction does.
We learn, bit by bit, that Marigold is the smaller and more fragile twin, as well as the second-born, and that the couple started life in an incubator. There are reflections on unity and individuation: as a play on words, on their first birthday, the monozygotic twins wonder how they can “turn a year old” when they had already “been there”, Marigold knew it. A long time ago, when they were an egg. Rose is a gregarious extrovert, while “next to Marigold’s name were a lot of need-enhancement boxes ticked”. But the book is not hooked on the occult nature of twinship. Instead, her identical twins are more like a way to imagine two simultaneous versions of the (female) self.
The twins observe each other’s vulnerabilities and triumphs with the protection of allies. Rose worries about Marigold’s non-worldliness. “And then, because she was like her name, firm and true, she united with her sister, as if it were a single story of which Mother and Father were only witnesses.” This short story offers a tender examination of alternative paths in life as a young girl, one of which is to be a writer. “Marigold was writing a book. That she couldn’t read was an obstacle. Nevertheless, the book was forming in his head. The words would come later. A portrait of the artist as childish twins? I think so. And for this consummate dive into the multiple possibilities of selfhood, we should be grateful.