Obituary: Barbara Raskin
Monday 02 August 1999
The menopausal symptom in its title also refers to its characters' sudden, recurrent memories of several decades:
More and more frequently nowadays, my hot flashes have begun to feel like urgent communiques from the interior of a vast, dark continent - fast-breaking news items from my heart of darkness. Sometimes hot flashes trigger sudden insights into previously obscure experiences. Other times, in reverse fashion, a rush of revelations will release the heat like thunder after a flash of lightning. Either way, I have come to trust the wired insights that hot flashes produce.
All this is borne in upon the group of middle-aged female friends further with the sudden death of one of them, Sukie - which is now all the more poignant, for Raskin herself was not old when she died from cancer. It sounds a quintessentially self-referential American product but is is done with a bravura which does not eschew vulgarity (and references to The Big Chill); and, at times, it well-nigh guys those novels whose preoccupation is, well, guys - whose current, lamented absence never blinds these women to sedulous recollection of their shortcomings.
This narrator is Diana Sargeant, a professor of anthropology at Columbia, and the novel moves at a pell-mall rate that is not hindered by too many asides, something which also characterises the journal left by the dead woman and, quite probably, the unpublished novel which her ex-husband, certain that he is traduced therein, sweats to retrieve from the publisher. The style is catching. It all makes for an uncommonly fervid few days before the funeral and the more conventional eulogies one hot Washington summer.
Married in the Fifties, childbearing in the Sixties, divorced in the Seventies and only finding themselves in the Eighties, Diana's friends cannot help but feel they were born five years too early, but, hey, what the hell, it doesn't matter: "we are all old enough now to appreciate Impressionism once again. This reversal occurred about the same time we rediscovered an affection for African violets."
Barbara Raskin has an eye for pretension and the contemporary scene, as in Sukie's collections of books: "the only catalogue system she ever used was gossip. Pure unadulterated - and adulterated - gossip. See how she's got The Mandarins in between Nausea and A Walk On The Wild Side?" And, as Sukie notes in the journal, "I think it a very peculiar historical period if women carry newspaper photos of their lovers instead of snapshots."
It is fair to say that there is much of Barbara Raskin herself in the novel, and she was able to draw upon her political experience for her next one, Washington-set and punningly titled Current Affairs (1990).
She was born Barbara Bellman in Minneapolis, sold her first story at the age of 12 to Seventeen magazine, and after graduating from the University of Minnesota, went to Chicago to study for a masters degree - an intellectual odyssey funded by part-time work as a stewardess for Delta Airlines (it is surely not mere reading of Erica Jong's Fear of Flying that inspired her the notion of flying imagery when a couple find themselves unsatisfactorily bedbound).
In the late Fifties she married Marcus Raskin, who became part of the JFK administration at the Institute for Policy Studies. She herself taught at Georgetown University in Washington, wrote Senate speeches and diversified into journalism, but she and her husband's lives underwent a sea-change with the Vietnam War, to which they were opposed. Active in the protest movement, Marcus Raskin was one of those, with, among others, Benjamin Spock and Mitchell Goodman, who were tried for conspiracy as the "Boston Five".
There was an Alice in Wonderland-like quality to the proceedings - not least because the attorney who was defending the five on this weird charge of conspiracy found that the first thing he had to do was to introduce them to one another. The paranoid attitude of a government which had brought the shabby trial for "conspiracy" was on display during the following weeks in a courtroom under the 85-year-old, somewhat deaf judge, Francis Ford.
As Jessica Mitford noted in her account of the trial, the very notion of conspiracy is absurd: "one can visualise a vast Bruegheleseque canvas peopled with those who have in varying degrees aided and abetted the conspiracy". In Mitford's eyes, Ford, seated in a castor-wheeled swivel chair, resembled "a very old, very cross toddler manoeuvering about in his stroller".
Under Ford's notorious direction, the jury, which had been well-nigh fixed, brought in verdicts of guilty upon all but Raskin; two-year gaol sentences were handed out, duly overturned but with the proviso that some could be re-tried. Naturally, they were not, for the case had already been a catalyst to protest but, as another defendant, Michael Ferber, said, "there are thousands of unknown and unsung in the courts and prisons".
This experience of what America could do to its inhabitants, as well as her break with Marcus Raskin, galvanised Barbara Raskin's belated career as a novelist, with three novels - none published here - before the success of Hot Flashes. One hopes that next year's movie of the book will bring her work back into circulation, for, it is an entertaining anticipation of Chrissie Hynde's recent assertion that "fifty is the new thirty".
Barbara Bellman, novelist and journalist: born Minneapolis, Minnesota 1936; married 1957 Marcus Raskin (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1980), 1984 Anatole Shub (marriage dissolved); died Baltimore, Maryland 23 July 1999.
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