Beatrice is a book about death, life, aging, loneliness. A learning to live again after a spouse died—is it to find a new love interest, a guide out of grief, or to deal with it in solitude. For this, reviewers have compared the protagonist of the novella, Beatrice Hagen, to the most famous in literature, Beatrice Portinari—the woman whom Dante has only met twice but has inspired The New Life and The Divine Comedy. She has guided him through purgatory and heaven, and likewise, Beatrice Hagen might lead Philip Seidel, a retiring professor and writer, out of his mourning for his wife—an afterlife, for the one still living. Stephen Dixon is a prolific writer of thirty-four books, twice nominee for the National Book Awards (Frog, ’91, Interstate, ’95), among other fellowships and prizes.
There are two stories running parallel in the novella, in a similar way two Beatrices are in one character. In the first, a man misses his wife, he wants to keep her alive in his memories. Abigail Berman, or Abby, and Philip have shared many years together, she could not be replaced, throughout the text Philip recalls his times with her fondly. The story of Beatrice Hagen is one of substitute. Philip wonders if she could be a new love interest to replace Abby. In a sense she is constructed in a passive way by Dixon, not given a life of her own but an instrument for the author to express himself, whether as company to Philip or for the author’s release of his thoughts and pain through a woman. Beatrice is someone from his past, an ex-student. From the beginning there is a power relationship between them, he is twenty-five years older, and he is a well-known writer. She is aware too that Philip treats her as a shadow of Abby—a manifestation of grief. The allusion of Beatrice to Dante’s heroine arises the tendency to see women as flawless, angelic, motherly—a beatific vision, salvation. Beatrice arrives one day at Philip’s house, like fresh air, while he was at work, writing. Ever since the passing of Abby he has kept to himself, eschewing social gatherings. Beatrice heard of the death and came to offer her condolences. They have a pleasant conversation—by now she is a professor of German literature, mother of three, divorced. It is good to see Beatrice: Her visit took him away from his grief for a moment.
A relationship develops between them. Over a period of three months they met frequently for lunch at a quiet restaurant. But as the novel progresses, Philip begins to judge her. From a vision of Beatrice as a dreamlike, angelic presence, we descend into realism; he measures by her appearances, his sexual urges, compares her personality to Abby’s, puts down the poems she shows him. He has only wanted to see her from afar, an idyllic picture, not up close, as happens often with men who objectify women. There is nothing wrong with Beatrice, an objective reader will find. She is in many ways considerate, empathetic, shares anecdotes with Philip to distract him from his grief, although she is most likely not happy with her life, her children and academic writing. Philip, however, sees her through the lenses of grief and lust and vulnerabilities.
The novella reads like a monologue. Dixon is more sympathetic to the character Philip and writes mostly from his point view. His paragraphs are long, often extending for pages, sometimes used as indicators for passing time, and he combines narration, description and dialogue in an undifferentiated way. He uses simple prose and diction, but there is an abstract, philosophical quality to his words that leaves the reader hanging. He is a considerate writer and does not tax the reader’s mind or interrupt the narration, most of the transitions and digressions are smoothly woven into the expositions of the characters’ habits, preferences, past, actions and speech. Dixon also has a mastery of the novella’s span of time, able to visit and revisit moments at will. There is a sense that his writing grows organically, a natural unfolding of events like how real life is observed and lived. A reader also wonders if the novella is partly autobiographical, for Philip, a writer like Dixon, talks about books, plays, poetry, publishing, so that the novella sometimes reads like a guide for writers.
The work is provocative for its discussion of sex. As Philip and Beatrice grow intimate, the problem of male urges, money (he’d not let her pay for any of the lunches even though she’s able to, in a manner that asserts his authority as her ex-professor) comes into the relationship. Both begin to wonder if they could be each other’s love interest. A scene at the restaurant, flirtatious and sexual, when Beatrice has given him an envelope of her poems but decides to take it back for fear of harsh criticisms, she reaches to where he has placed them on a chair and sits on the envelope—a gesture that devalues herself and her writing. A light-hearted argument ensues, a persuasion, Philip asks for her poems, and she lifts her buttocks for him to take the envelope beneath. When he goes to the bathroom after that, he finds that he has ejaculated.
Philip wonders why he reacts this way to Beatrice. He thinks about his desires, is that also hers? Philip judges himself, his appearances, age, deficiencies (liver spots, paunch, lesions on his scalp)—a meditation about aging and male virility. Honestly, he explores his relationship to sex, his deprivation and objectively, as a curiosity, compares marriage sex versus lust, the differences between his love for Abby and Beatrice, and judges Beatrice as vulgar, crude—Abby would not do this. And the narration shifts towards his moments with Abby, their intimacies, whether in exchanges of writing or bed, and gives us a scene of them at a theater, how they have confessed their love for each other. All in all, he finds Beatrice unsuitable for him as a partner. His derision for Beatrice becomes more obvious; he compares his desire for sex with food—the coffee she keeps warm for him while he is the bathroom, and when he returns, offers him a slice of pumpkin pie: “[Beatrice] could have got whipped cream for the pie but it was from a can. Would he have wanted it? It’s no trouble for her to go back and get it squirted on. No, he feels the same way she does about stuff like that when it’s fake.”
From here their relationship goes wrong. There is a great difference between his lifestyle and Beatrice’s. Philip and Abby belong to the intellectual circles, and while Beatrice is a scholar too, she is portrayed as crude—she reveals a time in her life when she is betrayed by men and her love affairs in the academics. Dixon describes a sex scene between her and a lover, as though to humiliate Beatrice, prove that she is not a worthy person. It is set that the novella will end with betrayal, the final time they meet as friends is at Philip’s house, where he has invited her to meet his daughters. When they part, Philip kisses her forcefully, despite his judgement of her, and of course, all along Beatrice knows how he sees her, that he has devalued her, and rejects him. Philip feels insulted. The novella ends with them seeing each other by chance at a reading, exchanging light greetings, and his wish that Abby is still alive.
On the whole, this is good reading—an analysis of the differences between men and women, an attempt to understand and process the experience of life, loss, old age. Dixon’s conclusion, it seems, is that there is no other way than to bear loneliness, after a loved one is gone. There is no one there for him, no Beatrice, for he is unable to be less demanding and fair to other women, forgo his attachment to Abby. Some readers might find Beatrice patriarchal, for its perspective is based on the traditional model of males born to an earlier age, while others might find Dixon’s writing a solace.
Meiko Ko’s works have been accepted by the Blue Lyra Review, the Hayden’s Ferry Review, the AAWW, The Margins, The Literary Review, Columbia Journal, Epiphany, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities, Litro Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, and is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review. She was long listed for the Home is Elsewhere Anthology 2017 Berlin Writing Prize. She lives with her husband and child in New York.