Somewhere on the threshold of a novel and a prose poem, we have The Shutter of Snow (1930). When the book starts, we are told of loud voices mingled with sobs, gushes of wind, and snow. We don’t know where these voices come from, as much as we don’t know who is telling us this story: the third-person narration makes heavy use of the stream of consciousness technique, and occasionally is overridden by a first-person narrator that comes from nowhere and soon disappears.
The only thing we know is that we are locked in a madhouse: maybe the narrator is one of its inhabitants, talking about our protagonist, Marthe Gail; or, maybe, it is Marthe herself, suffering from some kind of disassociation and talking about herself in the third person. Gradually, we gather that, after giving birth to her son, our protagonist has had some kind of mental breakdown, and was committed to a mental hospital. She seems to be hearing voices and having visual hallucinations – and she firmly believes that she is Jesus Christ, who has retuned to the world as a woman.
As we follow Marthe’s struggle with postpartum psychosis and with the seemingly irrational institutional environment that surrounds her, crossed though by never ending staircases, the novel reads like an amalgamation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) and Mary Jane Ward’s The Snake Pit (1946), interspersed with a strange, disturbing sense of humour.
The book centres on our protagonist’s everyday life, as she tries to make her way up in the hospital division between the more and less restrictive wards, in an attempt to make herself heard and to regain a sense of self, however fragile that might be. Gradually, through her hallucinating mind, we are made to see the hospital routines as irrational and the authority figures in her life – nurses, doctors, her father and her husband – as domineering and even authoritarian, in the same way she would have perceived them under her state of mind.
As Marthe goes through psychotic episodes throughout the story, we are made to have the unsettling feeling of entrapment: our protagonist is as trapped in the hospital as she is inside her mind; and, by a trick of voice and perspective, we are made to feel trapped along with her, as she tries, time and again, to persuade others – and us – that she is healthy (and, more often than not, that she is Jesus, ready to save us, if we take the leap and choose to believe her…).
There are recurrent motifs of corpses, of being buried alive, and of snow. The title reminds me of a camera with an automatic shutter, and that’s more or less the feeling we get as we read: as if the camera had gotten out of control, and we were looking at blurred snapshots. The title also makes me think of window shades made of snow: as if Marthe had been snowed in, lost in the dark, unable to open the windows.
Often, poetic and violent images blend to create a disturbing effect: “She had to say it all and when it was said and when every word had been sealed into the night wind’s casket, she would stop. She had been a foetus and had knitted herself together in the bed. Then she had come noiselessly forth and they had fed her. The sunny morning and Hazel feeding her out of a bowl. Clean cheeks and a little river in her teeth. Pine needles dripping in the Caucausus.”
Locked in Marthe’s mind, we have a non-linear, fragmented sense of time. She does not remember clearly what brought her to the hospital, and her recent and old memories are mixed, so that past and present seem to be one thing: she seems to feel at once as her own son, as herself as an infant long ago, and as his mother; as God, as Jesus, and as another kind of Jesus. Our protagonist seems to be grappling in the dark, guided forward by the vaguest feelings. She longs for being able to speak her mind, but people keep telling her that she will only be released, if she stays silent and quiet. More often than not, our protagonist gets all clumsy with words – particularly, when she has to convince her doctors of her sanity…
Sometimes, the writing assumes a nightmarish quality, as Marthe makes no clear separation between reality, memory, dreams, fears, and imagination. “She had swung about the room from the ceiling and it was a swinging from the cross. There had been the burial. She was lying quietly in the bed and being covered over her face. She was carried quietly out and put in the casket. Down, down she went in the rectangle that had been made for her. Down and the dirt fell in above. Down and the worms began to tremble in and out. Always she had kept telling of it, not one word of it must be forgotten. It must all be recorded in sound and after that she could sleep.”
Along with Marthe, we seem to be drifting between shifting perspectives and mixed time-frames. How real is too real? Our protagonist seems to be perpetually crossing a thick layer of fog – and, like her, we feel trapped in the present continuous of a mind run wild.
“Alone in her room at night she stood and pressed her face against the window. It was the end of March and turned cold again. And all the thumbs of ice began to whirl in shaking circles, keeping with the wind. I shall have snow on my glassy fingers, and a shutter of snow on my grave tonight.” – The Shutter of Snow, Emily Holmes Coleman
“There was no light in the room. Only a dull red ligth in the hall. Someone was walking back and forth back and forth passing her door a captive. The voice on the other side of the wall was shouting for someone. It never stopped all night. It became entangled in the blankets and whistled the ice prongs on the wind. The rest of the voices were not so distinct. It was very still out in the hall when the voices stopped.” – The Shutter of Snow, Emily Holmes Coleman