Aimée Beekmani „Valikuvõimalus“: ühe omanäolise romaani vastuvõtu dünaamikast. Option to Choose by Aimée Beekman: On the dynamics of the reception of an unconventional novel

Johanna Ross

Abstract


Valikuvõimalus (Option to Choose) is a 1978 novel by the prolific Estonian writer Aimée Beekman. The novel tells the story of Regina, a schoolteacher approaching her thirtieth birthday who feels the need to start a family. Not able to find a suitable husband, she marries the village drunkard but, to ensure her children will be healthy, she decides to procreate with other men, alpha-males with clean medical records. This article tries to map the tumultuous dynamics of the reception of the novel and to explain it in terms of the rhetorical ethics developed by James Phelan. The first part of the article, “A story of a freakish unwoman”, describes the first wave of reception. Reviewers were almost unanimously hostile and the novel was declared a failure. This can be explained by the unavoidable intertwining of the ethical and aesthetic aspects of any given literary work. Largely due to the social conventions in Estonia in the 1970s, the scheming protagonist was considered cold and almost inhuman. Thus the outraged reviewers were more inclined to judge the entire book negatively. This is contrasted by the more open-minded German reception (the translation was published in 1983), where Regina was often described as a pleasant and adventurous young woman. The second part of the article, “A model novel full of spirit”, describes a change in the reception. At the end of the decade, a boom in “everyday novels” emerged in Estonia. Due to thematic similarities, Option to Choose was often compared to them: many of these books featured young women who faced problems with weak, uneducated men, often alcoholics, and tried different strategies to deal with the situation. However, the everyday novels were generally considered simplistic and vulgar. Against that background, the model-like, conceptual nature of Option to Choose became evident and appreciated. Using Phelan’s terms, the novel was now rightly perceived as a didactic rather than mimetic piece of work; the contrast highlighted the different – and strong – ethical implications. The new basis of comparison worked in favour of the book. The third part, “A feminist manifesto (?)”, describes how Beekman's novel has lately been included in textbooks and literary histories. In a way, the understanding of the book has now been turned upside down: the feminist or emancipatory aspect is highlighted and glorified. However, this is a problematic notion since it is doubtful whether Regina is either an emancipated woman or a positive character. The novel’s relation to the emancipation discourse is complicated and ambivalent; the (implied) author’s ethical stance is difficult to pin down. According to Phelan, this is a big risk for the author: the reader expects to be able to detect an authorial position; otherwise, the message will be unclear and the work might be considered a failure. At the same time, the author shouldn’t be too judgemental or pedagogical because this, too, will discourage readers. Paradoxically, from the perspective of the current reader, Beekman seems to have made both mistakes at the same time: her style is moralistic, but the moral itself is unclear. The story of Option to Choose and its reception thus vividly illustrate the interaction of ethics and aesthetics in the reception of a literary work. Different social and literary situations produce fundamentally different readings and also fundamentally different opinions on the quality of a book. An unclear authorial stance only enhances the variety of differences.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.7592/methis.v6i8.553

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