Envy

January 11, 2011

I did not mention in my last blog post that Nicole Krauss happens to be married to Jonathan Safran Foer, the enormously successful author who completed his first novel, Everything is Illuminated, when he was just 25 years old (and has since gone on to write Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Eating Animals, and, just out in 2010, Tree of Codes).

I have never read an article about one of Krauss’s books that resists the temptation to drop Foer’s name; some have even used it as a headline. Krauss politely refuses to answer questions about her husband’s work in interviews, and for good reason. Her books are valuable in themselves, and hardly in need of endorsement: her first book, Man Walks Into a Room, was the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, and Great House is a National Book Award Finalist.

Krauss has never expressed bitterness in regards to her husband’s successes, which may have contributed to my former naïvely romantic notions of writer couples (I also blame Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida)—notions that were rightfully startled after reading Kathryn Chetkovich’s essay “Envy.”

Seven and a half years ago, Chetkovich wrote an essay about the gnawing jealously she felt towards “the man” in her life, a man who whose book had just been published with excellent reviews. One can safely assume she was talking about her then-boyfriend Jonathan Franzen, who had just completed The Corrections. Seven years after Chetkovich, a struggling, little-known writer, wrote her essay, Franzen became the first author to appear on the cover of Time magazine in a decade: it seems her jealousy was warranted.

“Envy” is a well-written piece, and Chetkovich’s honesty and vulnerability are deeply admirable. She opens by describing “the stabs of dread familiar to all writers”: that is, reading the work of someone you know, and not only admiring it, but wishing you could claim it as your own. Oh yes. She then goes on to explain how she intentionally distanced herself to get back at Franzen, one of her methods of dealing with his rave reviews:

“As long as he wanted and didn’t quite have me, the logic went, we would be even, and I could stop feeling so outdone by what he had that I wanted.”

Surely Chetkovich’s oversimplification is intentional, emphasizing that this envy of hers is basic to her humanity. And her way of coping with jealousy, like mine so often, resembles  a preschooler’s reaction to a coveted toy spotted in the arms of a classmate. But Chetkovich gives another explanation for her jealousy, one seemingly unique to artists:

“My friends, trying to be helpful, had this to say: ‘I could never do that, be involved with a writer who was that much more successful than I was.’ But really: why not? Partly, I suppose, because a fellow writer’s success makes it that much harder to console oneself with thoughts of what Virginia Woolf called ‘the world’s notorious indifference’. The world, Woolf said, ‘does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them’…So when the man was merely gifted but not particularly rewarded I was comfortable; we were in it together, comrades in a world that didn’t care what we had to tell it.”

Chetkovich’s feelings, then, are not just envious; she is also mourning the loss of the special comradery that comes with shared failure.

I have not yet felt the ache of rejection (only because I have not given myself enough opportunity to), but I undoubtedly will someday soon, and I undoubtedly will have friends who succeed. So how does one deal with envy, that ugly ugly friend we thought we said goodbye to back in middle school?

Chetkovich’s answer is simple and somewhat disheartening:

I have met the circumstances that are larger than my capacity to be gracious, it turns out. I have come up against the limits of my goodness: someone I love has what I want, and he probably always will.

She goes on to share that she no longer bear to look at the covers of her boyfriend’s books, and she accepts her condition as inevitable. Is it?

I don’t want to live in a world where my capacity to be gracious remains stagnant, or where I can ease my troubled heart by calling my failure to love well (which happens every day) the “limits of my goodness.”

Chetkovich’s essay reminds me again of my desperate dependence upon this mysterious and precious promise, my hope in the face of recurring envy:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” – The Apostle Paul, Galatians 2:20

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