by Hilda Doolittle (H.D.)
New Directions, 288 pages
reviewed by Aalia Jagwani
When I started reading HERmione, I knew nothing about Hilda Doolittle, the American modernist poet better known as H.D. But although intensely personal and grounded in an endlessly fascinating life, HERmione’s slow unravelling of H.D.’s psychology is arguably all the more enticing in when approached unknowingly.
Reading HERmione did not feel effortless—this is not a book that propels you forward. It instead holds you back, grappling in the realm of ambiguity that the protagonist inhabits. It is an exercise in restraint — from tending instinctively toward the straightforward, from attempting to categorize people and relationships that resist boundaries. Reading it felt like playing a game with myself — to piece together HER consciousness, I had to allow my own to dissolve.
It is precisely this dissolution of the self that H.D. details in HERmione. She adopts an alter-ego, Hermione or “Her” Gart, who is in her early twenties, having just dropped out of Bryn Mawr college after failing a class. She finds herself completely lost, suddenly defined by her inadequacy: “I am Hermione Gart, a failure” she proclaims at the very beginning of the novel.
With a feeble hold on her personal identity, Hermione finds herself entering a bisexual love triangle with George Lowndes, based on H.D.’s ex-fiancé Ezra Pound, and Fayne Rabb, based on Frances Gregg, the woman she found herself falling in love with while Pound was in Europe.
In the novel, too, she finds herself engaged to the former and undeniably attracted to the latter. Where she hoped to find sure footing, then, her self becomes even more shaky. Fayne ultimately finds herself falling for Lowndes too, completing the triangle.
For all the formal prowess of this novel, it is in this triangle of desire that its pulse lies — in H.D.’s portrayal of the intensity of desire, especially when it is borne out of a loss of self. In the absence of a definite shape and boundary, the self is opened up to a new dimension of attachment and conflation: “Fayne being me, I was her. Fayne being Her I was Fayne. Fayne being Her was HER so that Her saw Fayne.”
There is something heart-wrenchingly beautiful about watching these people grasp for each other, in desperation and passion — consolidated by the recurring, visceral images of hands reaching out throughout the novel.
Although the homoeroticism transcends traditional expectations and structures in a feminist narrative, H.D. resists all linear narratives — desire is more complicated than that, and she does not glaze over the potency of both women’s desire and need for George Lowndes as well.
Perhaps as an embodiment of this conflation and split in identity caused by her two loves, H.D. inserts the narrative “I” at certain points in the novel in addition to her alter ego referred to as “Her.” This is only one of the many ways the narrative complexity of this novel adeptly mirrors the multifacetedness of Hermione’s psychology.
If this is a book of triangles, it is also a book of concentric circles, of “parallelograms” that suddenly “come straight” — all patterns of Hermione’s thought, which is infinitely associative: “Sometimes when gull wings beat across the counterpane, I knew she loved me,” she says.
Hermione’s associative brain makes for an acute, fascinating observer — I found myself paying attention as much to her line of attention as her words and actions. “Do birds make a certain mechanical flight toward autumn?” she asks once, in the middle of an entirely unrelated conversation.
But with this associativeness there is also a strangely contrasting disassociation from her self. She imagines that “the back of her head prompt[s] the front of her head,” as though they are separate entities—“like amoeba giving birth by separation to amoeba.”
This is how we get to know HERmione—through connections that our own brains would not have made, and disjunctions that it would have been just as difficult to conceive. Any effort at linearity would have made this a less dazzlingly authentic portrayal of interiority than it is.
I was, admittedly, confused as I started to make my way through the novel, waiting for my confusion to be dispelled—this never happened. Instead, there came a moment when I stopped trying to resist the confusion altogether, and started to read inside of it. It felt transformative.
It is precisely in this lack of concern with legibility, then, that H.D. succeeds most in taking us through her hallucinatory retrospective daze—that she manages to create something wholly enticing even in this space of obscurity is nothing short of remarkable.
It makes sense, ultimately, that we do not get the luxury of decisive answers—neither does Hermione. She has no illuminating epiphanies at the end of the book; instead she accepts what is, by this point, self-evident to readers: “I have been wandering, she thought, too long in some intermediate world.”
“Oh I–I plod along,” she says a few pages later when asked what she is doing. “I mean I was—I was engaged,” she stutters. “I mean I had a—a friend.” She still scrambles for direction, grasping for an identity in her two loves, both of whom ultimately remain shrouded in uncertainty.
So, Hermione is left as directionless as she was at the start of the novel—the difference, however, is that she is no longer stagnant. She finds herself propelled forward toward home, where Fayne Robb happens to be awaiting her arrival.
HERmione not only transcends boundaries in historical terms, through its feminist exploration of queerness and desire, but also in a manner that is itself timeless, effectively pushing against conventions of literature and psychology to paint this profound, honest portrait of a lost woman.
Aalia Jagwani is a third-year student of English and Literary Arts at Brown University. She is a Section Editor for Arts & Culture at the Brown Daily Herald and an emerging writer of literary fiction. She is based in Rhode Island and is originally from Bombay, India.