02.22.13

The Nonfiction ‘Middlesex’: Alexander Stille’s ‘The Force of Things’

A sweeping memoir serves as a reminder of how incredibly vast and varied are the influences of those who stand on American soil today.

How to create the perfect perspective on the 20th-century American experience? Take one Midwestern WASP, Ivy-League educated, artistically progressive, and marry her to a European Jewish intellectual, the product of two successive political evacuations and naturalized through fighting for America during WWII. Let that marriage produce a child, and allow that child to grow up in a household where the Old World was in constant conflict with the New. Finally, grant that child the journalistic curiosity and clear-eyed self-examination of Alexander Stille.

In The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace, Stille, who has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times, sets out to record that which for most of us exists only in conflicting accounts and hazy memories: the story of his family. Using well-archived letters and candid deathbed interviews, Stille paints a portrait that is as expansive as it is attentive to detail. It has been said the personal is the political, and both are fully represented here, from the rise of ethos dictating the fate of nations to the every-day neuroses, like the hoarding of old newspapers, that strain a family to the breaking point.

Stille uses the marriage of his parents, the alluring and well-bred Elizabeth Bogart and the prolific journalist Ugo Stille, born Mikhail Kamenetzki, to encapsulate many of America’s idiosyncrasies. But it’s not until nearly the third act that the two even meet, at a party thrown for a young Truman Capote.

First, Stille diligently goes back to establish the full weight of the causal factors behind each of his parents, not only their wildly different cultural contexts but also the minor details of their lives, the failed romances and business and ambitions that would plant the seeds of later bitterness.

By the time Ugo came to America with his family in his early 20s, he had been tempered in an upbringing of almost constant displacement and flight, first from political upheaval in Russia at the end of WWI, and then from Mussolini’s racial policies against Jews in Italy at the dawn of WWII. As a result, he was as attached to the motivating power of ideas as he was to the fear of instability. “[He] was the product of that Eastern European Jewish civilization that Hitler succeeded in effectively destroying,” Stille writes. “Books and learning held a sacred place in this culture, where everything else in life could (and probably would) be taken from you.”

Compare this background to that of his mother’s: the carefree daughter of a successful academic in the unassailable hinterland of America, writing home to her parents about her many boyfriends at Cornell. When fate finally brings them together, with Elizabeth still with her first husband, the union is passionate. But with the clarity of retrospect, it already showed signs of the possessiveness and jealousy that would follow years later. As she wrote to him in one of their many letters while she was in the Virgin Islands obtaining a quickie divorce from her first husband: “I love all of you with all of me and I want so much to get so deep into you that you’ll never get me out.”

Along the way, the narrative occasionally wraps around itself, revisiting the same incidents in the familiar kaleidoscopic fashion of family lore. Notable episodes include Elizabeth’s skirmishes with the “Society for Sanity in Art” while employed at a modern art gallery, Ugo sneaking into the Italian consulate to demand an interview from the napping prime minister (which he received), and members of the family coming together to reclaim the apartment of an aunt who had hoarded decades worth of trash.

The book feels much like a nonfiction version of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex—it serves as a reminder of how incredibly vast and varied are the influences of those who stand on American soil today, and it attempts to look back at how they got here. Stille shows how his family, like all families, is beholden to elements both large and small. For every dictator or diaspora that brought people to this country, there is a quotidian bit of fate to draw them together as a family.