Ruskin and Effie: Harvey’s ‘The Subject of a Portrait’

In my previous post John Harvey wrote about his recent novel ‘Subject of a Portrait’, and the questions he tried to address in giving fictional life to the tangled love triangle of its central characters: John Ruskin, his wife Effie, and the artist Millais. He speculated how Emma Thompson might address these questions in her forthcoming film, ‘Effie Gray’, released here in the UK on 10 October. My own review of his novel was posted here in June.

Today my guest writer is Michael Flay, author of the novels The Watchers (2009) and The Lord (2012), and The Persian Wedding (forthcoming), all published by Polar Books (Cheltenham). Dr Flay is senior lecturer in SEN (Special Educational Needs) at a Midlands university.

The Subject of a PortraitChild abuse is an important problem in the U.K. and elsewhere. John Harvey’s recent novel ‘The Subject of a Portrait’, well contributes to understanding aspects of abuse. Perpetrators and victims have individual features and here Harvey presents one example of the former. What kind of person abuses a child? A version of Ruskin reveals the art critic as only able to relate to the female in the shape of pre-adolescent girls. His marriage to an adult woman is annulled because it was never consummated. Adult women disgust him except in terms of spiritual interchange. He sees their bodies as deformed. The novel is courageous in approaching such psychological areas with imaginative insight and detailed psychological investigation.

 

However, a scholarly commentator on Ruskin, Christopher Newall, is cited recently in ‘The Times’ (he is commenting on the forthcoming film about Ruskin) as disagreeing with the idea of Ruskin as sexually disordered. Newall’s view is that Ruskin ‘was perfectly easy’ with his wife ‘physically’ and to suggest otherwise is to contribute to a false myth or negative ‘legend’. Ruskin’s character is a subject for controversy, with several versions available. Newall prefers a purified view.

Harvey’s version is valuable in terms of the vivid fictional light cast on complex psychiatric matters that also exist in factual shape outside imaginative narrative. The Ruskin-version character is seen to encourage visits on fabricated pretexts from a young girl, a ’little maid’—‘that is the age where beauty dwells, we spoil as we grow big’. His encouragement could be referred to as ”grooming“, in current vocabulary.

Pre-adolescent girls are his preference, partly because they have no breasts (the novel suggests this) and, in his view, other sexual features are less obvious. The Ruskin figure, in the novel, has a secret collection of pictures, early photographs, of part clothed or naked, breastless young girls and other views of female children. Some of these shots were taken of children in a hotel he stays at by a clandestine, shady photographer he is in collusion with.

A disturbing, revelatory sequence in the novel comes when Ruskin gets out the pictures in order to assist in a masturbatory event. He stimulates himself also via repeated words, ‘Oh little neat dress with petit point lace’ and by pulling ‘a little girl face in the mirror’ as he watches and listens to himself. After his climax he is full of self praise, ‘John, John—was there ever potency like to yours? You are the King of the Golden River.’ His mood then switches to self disgust as he glimpses a remnant of his own semen on his body, a wish for the Lord to ‘scald my weakness’.

In a later attempt to have sex with his wife Ruskin is presented as calling up this past experience in an attempt to gain arousal, repeating words he finds erotic, ‘ Oh little pert nose and tiny waist’, and telling his wife ‘Be like twelve again’. After the failed encounter he lapses into baby language, ‘Don leave me all on my owny’.

A strength of Harvey’s narrative is that these vivid and revealing sexual crises are presented in a context of Ruskin’s other, but related, behaviours. Such behaviours include mood and attitude instabilities, revulsions towards the physical and exalted views on art and beauty. At times he seems spitefully to collude with his wife’s attraction to Millais, combining this with absolute rejection of her physically. When she attempts to have sex with him he tells her she is physically ‘misformed’ and ‘the hand of nature’ has ‘erred’ in her case. He manipulates Millais by referring to Effie as ‘my own clever monkey’, both praising and insulting her at once, possibly to get Millais to react.

An attraction to sexuality with young girls and a recoil from that kind of relation with older women is a Ruskin characteristic. The episode in which Ruskin takes the ‘little maid’ from the hotel for an outing in the wood is disturbing. Ruskin is ‘suave’ and plausible, getting the girl’s mother to give permission. Then, in the wood, come kissing games, incidents in which the girl lies on him in various postures. The episode concludes with the open comment ‘he led her beneath low branches’. It is left non-explicit, speculative, what follows, maybe nothing, more, or worse? Ruskin reflects early on in the jaunt, that such girls are ‘the art of God. He imagined her tiny shoulder blades sliding within her dress’. The later masturbation sequence reveals that Ruskin’s interest in the girls has a physical aspect and is not just a case of visual appreciation. After Ruskin’s wife has obtained her divorce from him, Ruskin continues to look out for such young girls—he notices one near the National Gallery, ‘nearly a woman but slender as string’. He considers she has an eating disorder, but ‘such’…’I could love with a grown man’s love’. His attractions have a repetitive, part obsessional aspect.

Harvey presents Ruskin’s disorder, reveals it as an individualized psychiatric case in the sense that it issues in symptomatic, cumulative ways. Here is a valuable consideration of aspects of child abuse, embedded in the context too of a specific, stressed marriage. Fiction here performs a useful function of contributing to the understanding of a non-fictional condition that exists in ‘fact’, demonstrating an abuse perpetrator in a complex web of contexts and characteristics. Beyond the theme of the abuser the Ruskin character is also representative of a man who is entirely disunified in a psychological sense. He has therefore no creative relation with anyone in the novel and is alone. At the same time he is an eminent art critic and social reformer. A suggestion here is disturbingly implicit in the narrative that an expert in any field may simultaneously be pathological in a psychiatric sense. This theme too is current in actual society. Mental disorder can occur anywhere, in the prominent and obscure alike. However, the prominent may have more options for concealment or for conveying disorder as talent, likewise for decision making or opinion forming that has its basis in defect or neurosis,

For some Ruskin’s characteristics as seen in Harvey’s novel may seem a psychological area they are reluctant to consider. The presentations of sexual behaviours and thoughts may be challenging. This is all to the good. Lawrence has commented that ‘a condition of freedom’ is that ‘in the understanding I fear nothing’. The ‘abhorrent’ and disturbing need their own attention, both fictionally and otherwise. Writing in ‘The Reality of Peace’ he continues to emphasise that the horrific or pathological needs imaginative presentation, an aim being to ‘see what it is’, to admit it  to ‘understanding’ with no elision of consciousness. Harvey’s writing fits this context, enacting Lawrence’s aim , keeping company as he does so with a minority of fiction writers who do the same, such as Pynchon and DeLillo.

 

 

‘The Subject of a Portrait’, ‘Effie Gray’ & the Ruskin Marriage

John Harvey, author of The Subject of a Portrait, a review of which I posted HERE in June, is my guest for this post. He writes about his novel exploring the tangled relationships between Millais, the subject of his portrait, Ruskin, and Mrs Ruskin, Effie, in the light of the forthcoming film about this troubled triangle of characters.

It’s a curious thing to find yourself telling the same story as someone else, and at the same time — like overhearing a person, in the next room, saying the same thing that you’re saying. For my novel The Subject of a Portrait, about the marriage of John Ruskin and ‘Effie’ (Euphemia) Gray, came out this July, and in August there was a screening of Emma Thompson’s new film on this subject, Effie Gray, which is scheduled for release on 10 October. Since I have not yet seen the film I cannot comment directly, but — following my own engagement with the Ruskins — I am interested to see how Emma Thompsons’s script handles some key questions, and I thought I should record these questions before I do see, or read reviews of, Effie Gray. These are questions raised by the original historic events. They matter for anyone retelling this story, and are I believe interesting in themselves.

Both Effie Gray, and The Subject of a Portrait, feature the trip to the Highlands which Ruskin and Effie made in 1853 together with the young PreRaphaelite painter John Everett Millais — when Millais was to paint a portrait of Ruskin, and when Millais and Effie fell in love. The Ruskin marriage was still, after five years, unconsummated. But no one knows exactly ‘what happened in the Highlands’. Queen Victoria, when she heard the story, thought that everything had happened there.

One question is: what was happening inside John Ruskin? For the Ruskins did not travel to Scotland with only a handsome young artist for company — that would have looked odd to the Victorians and perhaps to anyone. Millais’ brother William came with them. But once they had settled, Ruskin let William stay in their hotel, and rented a tiny cottage where there was just room for him to sleep on the sofa while Millais and Effie slept in tiny bedrooms to either side of him. Ruskin loved this arrangement though Millais and Effie were not delighted. Effie wondered whether Ruskin wanted to get her ‘in a scrape’.

Ruskin treated his wife both oddly and badly. To a contemporary eye what may be most interesting is the monomania in Ruskin’s passion for the body of a child: he had fallen in love with Effie when she was twelve and it seems he could not bear the fact that by the time they married, she had a woman’s body. Not that Ruskin ever explained exactly why he disliked her ‘person’. He did invite her to believe she was wrongly ‘formed’, so that his sexual failure was in some sense her fault. When she protested he decided she was mad — and wrote to tell her father that his daughter was insane. And he insisted they pretend to live like a normal married couple.

The Subject of a PortraitActually there was nothing wrong with Effie’s body, as the physicians found when they examined her during the annulment of the marriage. The deformity — and deformity of mind — was in Ruskin. But why and how did Ruskin come to be so? Because it was not just a matter of high-Victorian puritanism. The pathology of Ruskin was more particular. Contrary to the verdict of the court of annulment, it does not seem that Ruskin suffered from ‘incurable impotency’. He protested at this suggestion, and let it be known that he practised ‘the vice of Rousseau’ — masturbation — and that he had some vigour in that department. Certainly he did not desire his wife, or any other grown woman, so far as we know. He was attracted to very young girls, and in one letter he advises a friend as to the wiles he might use to win a kiss from a tiny girl. But I don’t think one should think of him as a Victorian Rolf Harris. The case is different. He liked to write letters to some of his friends in baby talk, so one could wonder — is the true ‘tiny girl’ inside Ruskin himself? In our time the performance artist Grayson Perry dresses up and performs a little girl called Claire, who he says is his alter ego. And psychologists say it is possible for a person to suffer arrest, emotionally, at a very early stage where the infant psyche is neither boy nor girl. But it was hard, in the nineteenth century, to face such things openly.

I should not simplify the human mystery of Ruskin’s make-up. He was also capable of playing the authoritarian husband: he told Effie once that he would ‘beat her with a common stick’. Clearly he had his contradictions: he called himself both ‘a Tory of the old school’ and ‘a red-hot Communist’. He also is, and by a large margin, the greatest critic of art this country has produced — and he does write very wonderfully about art. It is obviously not easy to get to the root of such a person, you have to guess and imagine, and that is why I am interested to see how Emma Thompson — and her husband Greg Wise, who plays Ruskin — read his character.

There is again a question about Effie. What did she think about her marital situation? This is a real question, because although it was possible for a young Victorian wife to be extremely innocent and ignorant about intimacy, it is odd if Effie was so totally innocent since her best friend in London was Lady Eastlake — that is, the wife of Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, the Director of the National Gallery. Lady Eastlake was an intellectual figure in her own right, a traveller and an author — and she was both the daughter, and the sister, of ladies’ doctors, of obstetric physicians. In The Subject of a Portrait, at one point, Effie asks Lady Eastlake to examine her. And it is the part of Lady Eastlake that Emma Thompson has chosen to play, herself, in Effie Gray, so I am interested to see at what stage Emma Thompson advises Effie about obstetrics.

There are further questions as to Effie. If she and Millais fell in love in the Highlands, why did she go back with Ruskin to London — only to run away later? She did not need to hurry back, because her parents lived in Perth, and she could very well have said, I shall stay with mama and papa and come home later. She visited them easily enough at other times. The fact that she did go home with Ruskin, only to take off later, raises two questions: how much did happen in the Highlands? And what happened later, in London? Was there communication — were there secret meetings — between the lovers? Or were they wholly cut off, knowing nothing of what each other felt, so Effie had to take her decision blind, in the dark? As the story proceeds, Effie does develop a remarkable independence, and an ability to survive, and to grow.

And the PreRaphaelite prodigy, John Everett Millais? For reasons of time, Millais could paint only the background of his portrait in Scotland — for actually, though this now-famous painting is a portrait of Ruskin, Millais painted Ruskin in later, in his studio in Gower Street in London. There were regular sittings. But what on earth did Ruskin and Millais say to each other then? Did Millais give signals, did Ruskin know, that the artist loved his wife? It is clear also that Ruskin liked Millais quite tenderly, but with an ambivalence, so you wonder, was he more attracted to the artist’s brilliant talent or to his youthful glamour? After the annulment he wanted Millais and himself to go on meeting and collaborating, regardless of the fact that his ex-wife was now Mrs Millais. Those sessions in the studio must have been extraordinarily charged, like chapters in Dostoevsky where momentous intensities hang over the quiet talk of two people in a room. I am not Dostoevsky, but still one has space in a novel to imagine such talk, and I have tried to do that. Of course a film must have a different economy, and obviously has many fewer words than a novel. In any event, I am interested to see how Emma Thompson and Greg Wise manage the relation, not only of Effie with Millais, but of Millais with Ruskin, because Ruskin was a hugely important figure for any young painter, whether or not the painter loved Ruskin’s wife. And Millais was, by a large margin, the most talented young artist whom Ruskin, as an art lover and art critic, was ever to meet.

I have said that Effie Gray, and The Subject of a Portait, tell the same story. But it cannot be quite the same story. Even if the narrative is based on real life, still the people in it have to come alive, and sound like living people, in a film or in a novel. And if they are to come alive, they have to have some freedom to go their own way. Also, if you have an idea for a character in a film or a novel, then I think you must be free to pursue that idea as far as it can lead you. What’s the use of half-measures, in a work of imagination? But if you do push your idea as far as it will go, your picture may be more extreme than the reality actually was. I don’t know what Emma Thompson does with John Ruskin, but there have been some critical rumblings in Ruskinian circles. And it may be some admirers of Ruskin will also be dismayed by my portrayal of him — though I am an admirer too, and simply think one must try to understand his pathology. Because ‘pathology’ is the word.

The main point is that the relation between a historical figure and the fictional portrayal of a historical figure cannot be ‘identity’. Maybe their relation can be like that of siblings. Emma Thompson’s Ruskin, and my Ruskin, cannot be Ruskin, the real Ruskin, but perhaps they can be as it were like Ruskin’s brother — or like his bad brother. In science fiction people speak of ‘parallel universes’, and a historical film or a historical novel can only at best be a ‘parallel universe’, it cannot be the actual historical universe. Emma Thompson’s Victorian universe, and my Victorian universe, may or may not be quite parallel to history — or to each other. And this is why I am so interested to see how she tells the story in her film. For every retelling of an event that really happened — however fictitious — may still shed light on the original event. In this case, on the history of a famous wife’s unhappiness, and her search for happiness, in one marriage — or another.

John Harvey

The Subject of a Portrait is published by Polar Books, Cheltenham 2014

 

The Humbert Humbert of Kansas City: Mr Bridge, pt 2

Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge was the subject of my previous post; today I intend completing this assessment of his 1969 novel about an emotionally repressed Kansas City lawyer (with his mantra ‘there is nothing to discuss’) and his family, who along with everyone he encounters largely cause him to feel exasperated, angry, bewildered or embarrassed.

I ended last time like with reference to Mr Bridge’s unsettling relationships with his children, especially Ruth, and in his inconsistent – even hypocritical – attitudes to sexuality. This will be the theme of this post.

We see a far more rebellious side to his children in Mr Bridge than we do in the earlier novel. Mrs Bridge showed his son Douglas’s stubbornness, and this reappears in different ways here, causing Mr Bridge to reflect that the boy’s ‘despotic obstinacy’ is a trait they share. Carolyn, the younger daughter, is in many ways similar. Ruth’s insubordination is therefore more shattering for him. When she provokes him in ch. 72 by asking for a loan to help a friend obtain an abortion he slaps her ‘across the mouth’. Afterwards he’s appalled:

He could not believe he had struck her…When she was a baby he had held her in his arms while she was falling asleep. There were nights when nothing more than the knowledge of her existence had been enough to waken him so that he had gotten out of bed and gone to the crib to watch over her.

After such a tender memory, it’s perhaps more shocking and truthful when his barely suppressed illicit sexual impulses are revealed. In ch. 59 the almost effaced narrator that Connell employs presents us with a disconcerting scene when Mr Bridge voyeuristically ‘watched attentively’ as Ruth sunbathed in the back yard in her bathing suit, oiling her skin.

But his behaviour afterwards is even more troubling. Mrs Bridge enters the bedroom from where he’s watching and he kisses her violently; she pulls away, but he forces her towards the bed ‘while she murmured doubtfully’. As usual there is no narrative mediation or comment on this event (almost rape?), which makes it all the more shocking – a technique that I’ve shown to be effective in different ways at other points in both the novels.

When Ruth later defies his anti-swearing rule in the house he’s disturbed by her again: ‘She had never been more beautiful’, the narrative ingenuously informs us:

He was shaken by the sight of her, and he knew he loved her in a way he could not ever love the other children, perhaps because she was the first, or because of the strange darkness in her which he could feel also within himself.

This scene shows yet another example of his failure to confront or reflect on his own feelings; they tend to come refracted through the prism of his family.

But it’s Ruth’s own increasingly defiant sexual activity that causes the most severe crises in Mr Bridge’s psyche. In ch. 84 he catches her having sex in the lounge at four in the morning. She’s unmoved by his outrage, and her defiance takes him aback: he realises ‘he was attempting to cry’ for the first time since he was a child, but can only manage to cough. ‘Things are different now,’ she announces calmly. He disagrees:

‘Love, respect and human decency – these never change. Your mother and I have these things.’

 

‘Good for you’.

Ruth challenges him again when she announces she wants to leave Kansas City:

She wanted more out of life than raising children in the suburbs…while her husband climbed the ladder.

He knows he can’t stop her, and is heartbroken, but the narrator as always refrains from telling us this. We perceive it instead when he shows Mr Bridge’s disappointment when Ruth writes home from New York in letters clearly directed at her mother, not at him. His feeling of elation when she does write to him alone at his office address disappears when it’s apparent that she’s simply to tapping him for money. And he knows, for once, that ‘buying her love’ won’t do.

Another Humbert Humbert moment arises in ch. 98 when he sees an acquaintance’s daughter resembling Ruth:

Desire for his own daughter had surged from the depths where it must be concealed.

This echoes the scene I wrote about last time when he argued with Grace Barron. There too the almost-absent narrator told us ‘He did not like the feeling that swept through him…’ as she challenged his views. In this way Connell presents Mr Bridge as almost a victim of his passions; it’s not that he’s incapable of powerful, even illicit emotions, but that they come unbidden and surge out of control through him. Similar incidents occur when he takes his wife on holiday to Europe.

It shouldn’t spoil the ending if I finish with an examination of it here: the novel has no linear plot to speak of, just an accumulation of contiguous, revealing vignettes. In the final chapter, as Mr Bridge detaches himself from a church service, he reflects on the words of the hymn they’re singing, ‘Joy to the World’:

Evidently he had experienced joy. He asked himself if he had ever known it. If so, he could not remember. But he thought he must have known it…but it must have been a long time ago. Satisfaction, yes, and pleasure of several sorts, and pride, and possibly a feeling which might be called ‘rejoicing’ after some serious worry or problem had been resolved. There were many such feelings, but none of them should be called ‘joy’. He remembered enthusiasm, hope, and a kind of jubilation or exultation. Cheerfulness, yes, and joviality, and the brief gratification of sex. Gladness, too, fullness of heart, appreciation, and many other emotions. But not joy. No, that belonged to simpler minds.

With these partly verbless, truncated lines the narrative ends with a final stream of our protagonist’s free indirect thought. As always Connell refrains from commenting on the scene. What makes the two novels so compelling is that we are required to scrutinise what we’re presented with by the narrator, whose reticence resembles Mr Bridge’s own. Mr Bridge’s self-congratulatory sense of superiority is paradoxically blended with intermittent thoughts that he has somehow been cheated by life. Maybe he’s a little like Emma Bovary, too: like his wife, he has fleeting near-epiphanies in which he senses that there must be something else, something more.

 

The Mr Bennett of Kansas City: Evan S. Connell’s ‘Mr Bridge’, pt 1

(There’s so much to say about Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge that I’m going to break this post up into two parts.)

Last month I wrote about Connell’s 1959 novel Mrs Bridge (link here), which relates in 117 short chapters the quietly despondent, unreflecting but unfulfilled life of its bourgeoise protagonist, who I likened to Mme Bovary. Her husband is barely present. Now I turn my attention to Mr Bridge, published a decade later, in which her husband fills every chapter. In a novel that’s at times redolent of bleak existential despair, it’s also shot through with wit and humour.

Walter Bridge is a workaholic, a successful Kansas City lawyer. In her introduction to the 2012 PMC edition Lionel Shriver aptly describes him as a ‘stiff, upright, undemonstrative family man’ who is ‘staid’ and ‘outwardly wholesome’. Beneath this veneer of soap opera stereotypical American fatherhood – the respectable, wise and inspirational paterfamilias – is a complex, layered character as ‘insidiously bleak’ and ultimately lonely as his desperate housewife spouse. He reminds Shriver of her grandfather; I’m reminded of my father, a man of similarly deluded rectitude. And of Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice: a wry patriarch with a wife whose silliness he’s largely responsible for (reflecting gender roles of the times), offspring whose behaviour confounds and challenges his complacency, and who has a distorted, inflated opinion of his own superiority.

Like his wife Mr Bridge drifts through life in myopic bafflement, constrained as she is by resolute belief in conventional values (domestic, social, sexual and cultural) of middle-class conformity. Furthermore he has a strong conviction that he’s irrefutably right about such things:

He wished to impress upon his son three things which he felt he had himself achieved: financial security, independence, and self-respect. In his mind these were of supreme importance.

This is a longer novel than Mrs Bridge, and is similar in approach: in 141 vignettes a collage or fragmented narrative is constructed of disparate scenes in Walter’s life which individually are mostly superficially trivial, but which collectively represent a nuanced, tragi-comical portrait of a conflicted, flawed man often seen to be as anxious and unfulfilled as his wife. I found it less successful than the earlier book, and felt that it could have been improved with some editing.

Many chapters revisit scenes and themes from Mrs Bridge: the rapid passage of time, and a commensurate sense of wasted life, for example:

The years were falling over like ducks in a shooting gallery, and it seemed to Mr Bridge that he had scarcely taken aim at one when it disappeared. Now another year was all but gone. However, it had been a good year. He was not dissatisfied. He had worked hard, harder than most men…He was acquiring more than he needed, quite a lot more. And yet most important was the happiness he sensed around him. He believed that his wife was happy and the children also, and because of this he felt their happiness within himself. [ch. 25]

This typifies Connell’s method in both novels. In something approaching free indirect style we seem to hear Mr Bridge’s voice or thoughts here, mediated through an almost effaced narrator. The opening sentence there is perhaps free indirect thought: it’s Mr Bridge’s syntax and idiom, with the clichéd image reflecting his limited cognitive/emotional range. He demonstrates his sadly deluded belief that material comfort equates with emotional fulfilment.  In the final sentence of this extract the narrator’s perspective shifts: no doubt Mr Bridge did complacently believe in his wife’s happiness, but the syntax now reflects his doubts about this conviction, and there’s the ironic gap between his own view and that of the reader that we noted in Mrs Bridge. That closing sentence demonstrates his inability to feel deeply or express the feelings he does have: his happiness is vicarious. This is his problem throughout the novel.

The opening chapter primes us for this paradox. On one level he genuinely loves his wife:

Often he thought: My life did not begin until I knew her. She would like to hear this, he was sure, but he did not know how to tell her…he could think of nothing appropriate.

 

So the years passed…and eventually Mr Bridge decided that his wife should expect nothing more of him. After all, he was an attorney rather than a poet; he could never pretend to be what he was not.

Once again Connell’s narrative focus here is on Mr Bridge’s thoughts, and his reluctance to understand or transcend his emotional torpor. When his wife has one of her periodic, and to him, inexplicable meltdowns, in a chapter called ‘You don’t love me’, she insists out of the blue on a divorce. ‘My life has been spent waiting on you and the children. None of you has been aware of me, but that’s all right. I realize you’ve written me off.’

The chapter closes with another visit inside Mr Bridge’s mind:

She never explained what he had done wrong, and after thinking quite a lot about this incomprehensible fit of hysteria he decided the best procedure was to ignore it.

This is his default response to life’s puzzles. Ironically this scene takes place immediately after an often-quoted chapter in which he contemplates his family chattering in the warm spring evening on the porch:

As he listened to their voices and to the seasonal music of the insects the problems which had troubled him during the day did not seem important, and he reflected that he had practically everything he ever wanted.

His wife’s ‘hysterical’ outburst indicates his failure to empathise with that family. He’s deluded himself that by providing for them materially he’s done his job. This suffices for him, and he’s incapable of comprehending why that isn’t sufficient for them. His birthday presents to them of stocks and dividends is his way of showing his love, and he doesn’t understand that this is perceived by them as unreflecting coldness in him. On the occasions like this when his complacency is challenged, he quietly dismisses the moment and evades emotional commitment. In ch. 60 when his wife demands to know if he loves her, his response is ‘bewildered’, and he finds the conversation ‘embarrassing’.

Numerous chapters indicate his bigotry, racism, homophobia and snobbery, his rigid belief in bourgeois values and conservative politics. So he refuses to give alms to beggars, and hates people who get into debt (he’s often angry about such ‘deadbeats’). ‘He disliked weakness’, is his ‘disgusted’ reaction to the children’s pet rabbit dying of terror when attacked by a dog. He is frequently portrayed as ‘exasperated’ or annoyed by what he perceives as the inability of others to conform to his own strict codes of conduct. He ‘hates’ a ‘bawdy story’ or swearing, but shows barely concealed admiration for Hitler and the rising Nazi powers in Europe. He thinks modern art is ‘junk’, and modern writers peddle filth. He feels ‘provoked’ by such subversions of convention.

He’s full of contradictions, though, and this capacity to show something other than bigotry enables us to find sympathy for his otherwise unattractive nature. Several chapters display his undeniably racist views, yet he scolds his daughter for being high-handed with their black housekeeper. He’s clearly anti-semitic, yet is horrified when his elder daughter Ruth accuses him of being prejudiced (‘you’re so hard and so cold and so humorless’, she complains). Then he writes her a long letter outlining how he’s helped Jewish friends. Her response is the same bafflement he experiences when his family behave unaccountably: ‘Then you do a thing like this. And for a Jew.’ He can’t understand what she means, especially when she goes on to tell him he’s treated his family ‘like strangers’: ‘Dr Sauer said you were a consummate Puritan’, she says, but he doesn’t ‘understand’. Instead we’re told ‘He was embarrassed and puzzled.’ He’s like this too when he contemplates his inability to ‘share’ himself with his family by telling them about his work. There’s ‘nothing to discuss’, he concludes, preferring his hermetically sealed solitude.

And when he writes the letter to try to explain to Ruth that he was shocked that she thought him prejudiced, he’s as incapable of expressing what he really feels to her as he was in the opening chapter about his love for his wife. The nearest he can get to expressing this love is to tell her the ‘good news’ about her stocks increasing in value; he takes his usual position of substituting material wealth for emotional investment:

It was not all he wished to say, but he felt he had clarified his position…He thought she would understand.

I shall round off this first post on Mr Bridge by examining two crucial scenes which could not have featured in Mrs Bridge, but which shed light on Connell’s method and narrative acuity. It’s a counterpart to the chapter in the earlier novel where Mrs Bridge’s unconventional, unhappy friend Grace Barron (‘barren’?) expresses her despair and boredom in ways that Mrs Bridge finds both familiar but also frightening. Both scenes present Mr Bridge’s awkward responses to his wife’s friend and her challenging ways.

In ch. 99 he is unable to avoid Grace and joins her at her coffee-shop table. She shows him the jade pig she’d just bought at auction. He’s pompous and sanctimonious about her being ‘stung’ and can’t understand (yet again!) why anyone would want it. He just hopes it’s worth it.

‘You’re not as cold as you pretend to be,’ she said. ‘I think your doors open in different places, that’s all. Most people just don’t know how to get in to you. They knock and they knock where the door is supposed to be, but it’s a blank wall. But you’re there. I’ve watched you. I’ve seen you do some awfully cold things warmly and some warm things coldly. Or does that make sense?’

 

‘I’d have to think about it,’ he smiled, and picked up the menu…

The subject, for him, is thereby closed, for he clearly does not intend thinking about it; we’ve seen how he habitually avoids considering troublesome topics like this. Yet she’s just provided one of the few instances in the novel where we’re told exactly what Mr Bridge is. It’s to Connell’s credit that he always makes his readers work out what could be the significance of each chapter’s vignette; this time he skilfully uses the dialogue of a perceptive but damaged outsider to provide a rare insight.

She goes on to call him ‘a nineteenth-century figure’; she means he’s paralysed by his sense of propriety. As ever, Connell takes us into Mr Bridge’s mind:

This was the sort of remark she made [free indirect thought again], affectionate and yet insulting. He did not like it…She was a lost, unhappy little woman. He thought he should feel a sense of pity, but he did not. She jeered at too many things.

That Mr Bridge should think in this dismissively patronising way is indicative of his usual conflation of sympathy (he recognises her grudging affection for him) and self-righteous indignation. As a jeerer at everything he disapproves of, the irony and hypocrisy he emanates here are palpable.

When Grace goes on to goad him about his political views he’s stung into declaring a preference for Nazism to Communism, then refuses to engage further. She becomes upset, and complains that her banker husband won’t talk to her either:

‘He says I’m a woman and women have no grasp of politics. Nobody wants to talk to me. I feel like I’m living on an island.’

 

‘What sort of talk is that,’ he said with a deprecatory expression, and crooked a finger at the waitress…

She’s beginning to sound like his wife, and his instinctive response is to ignore or dismiss such talk. As the chapter closes she annoys him by suggesting that a Jewish financier he dislikes might become his neighbour; this

enraged him, but he was careful to hide his anger…He did not like the feeling that swept through him, or the urge to say aloud that he approved of the pogrom in Germany.

 

‘You really are, aren’t you,’ she said as though she could read his mind. ‘I always suspected it.’ And she began to cry.

It’s one of the most powerfully enigmatic and moving moments in the novel.

And it’s followed by another near the novel’s end, when Mr Bridge hears Grace has killed herself.

The idea of suicide exasperated him. Now her children must suffer…She had shown her children how little they meant…He knew he had been correct to feel nothing at the news of her death. What she had done was cowardly. What such a woman deserved was scorn and contempt.

This is surely Mr Bridge’s most despicable stream of thought in the novel. But we don’t have to like a character to admire the text, and what Connell is doing here is brilliantly realised. Just as Grace seemed to have briefly penetrated his stalwart emotional defences and his smug sense of superiority, enabling him to release his gentler inner self, she closes the metaphorical door she’d mentioned, leaving him secure in his self-satisfaction. He’s monstrous, but as vulnerable in his own immutable, emotionally stunted way as his wife. In that sense he’s possibly a more tragic figure.

Where Mr Bridge differs most interestingly from Mrs Bridge is in its protagonist’s unsettling relationships with his children, especially Ruth, and in his attitudes to sexuality. I shall focus on these (potentially controversial) aspects of the novel next time.

Spam lit revisited again, chastened

Another departure this time. Usually I draft quite carefully (though this may not be apparent to readers who’ve been here before) what I post. This one is coming out on a Friday night after my first full week back teaching, and a bottle of wine shared over dinner. Undrafted. (The post, not the wine.)

Since posting my last piece about spam lit I’ve realised I recently read this piece in the Paris Review by Dan Piepenbring on the very same topic: the potential for ‘automated comments’ generated by spammers’ algorithms to try to circumvent blogsite spam filters to be transformed into literary texts. I just looked back through my email inbox and saw the link: how can it be that I could write a whole post, having forgotten this article read only a few days before? Worrying.

Dan P calls such texts mostly ‘nauseous goulash’ at worst. He calls what I said previously about intervening with the original spam text to create something new ‘curating’ the spam. I like that.

He likens them also to high modernism: William Gaddis, William Carlos Williams: texts that look somehow…jumbled, incoherent, lacking in the usual semantic connections associated with everyday discourse. They have more in common with the tangential, illogical or contiguous associations of dreams or streams of consciousness. Let’s face it, as we move through our days perceiving the outer world, an inner monologue persists, collaging fragments from all over the place, splicing them with others to create a continuous multifarious, multistranded… this metaphor is becoming too mixed, but I hope the point is being made. We don’t usually move through our days with a single-thread thought-stream. As we talk we think of something else.

As we listen to someone talk, we think of something else: what to have for tea, did I walk the dog, should I grout the bathroom, am I happy…NLP is big on this.

George Eliot said that if we took into account all the data accessible to us at any one moment we’d be deafened by the squirrel’s heartbeat; so we partially filter out incoming data, and censor what comes out of our mouths or pens (or keyboards).

So spam lit can be a way of tapping into the fortuitous and pleasing combinations of language in a manner that isn’t possible through normal discourse channels.

I leave you today then with the chastened realisation that Dan P wrote far more cogently on the topic of spam lit than I did. Cheers.

 

The Literature Machine revisited: spam lit, Calvino, OULIPO and conceptual literature

I posted in August last year about Spam Poetry, and used some examples from my own WordPress spam repository as the basis for some ‘found poetry’. In my previous post I offered another example of my own, ‘Update: an excavated fragment’, based on the dialogue between a computer user and the machine’s interface.

I have become aware, since that post last year, that the phenomenon of ‘spam poetry’ is quite well attested – I didn’t invent it after all, though at the time I misguidedly thought I might have done. The rest of this post will provide more context.

 

In July of this year I posted about VOLVELLES: mechanical devices that might be called early ‘paper computers’, primitive expert systems or thinking machines, usually employed for calculating or generating information or texts. These can be traced back to the ancient east, but in the west to Ramon Lull (the Ars combinatoria), and later, Leibniz, Kircher, and so on.

Swift in Gulliver’s Travels may have been satirising Leibniz in his ‘permutational machine’ at the Academy of Lagado. Centos, bibliomancy and later literary techniques like cutup and permutational poetry can also trace their origins to such ‘literary machines’.

This is the title of the book of essays by Italo Calvino, about which I also posted in July this year, with a focus on ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’. In this essay Calvino considers the difference between the ‘random text generator’ and what might be called the Literary Machine: the procedure which bypasses individual human inspiration by using ‘combinatorial play’ to generate texts through the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions. French avant-garde groups like OULIPO have experimented with such methods for decades now, harking back to the Surrealists with their use of self-imposed constraints in the production of literary texts.

Which brings me back to my own ‘spam poems’ cited earlier. A little judicious searching online will readily take you to more detailed information on the following (Wikipedia, for example, has much more on this, with examples and links):

SPAM POETRY: here the involvement of an author in the production of literature, as Calvino speculated, has become discretionary. It works on similar principles to automatic writing (Yeats was an aficionado of this, with its mystical/supernatural overtones), which was also favoured by Freud and the Surrealists as a means of tapping spontaneously into the unconscious to produce ‘psychography’. Aleatoric writing is a related concept: writing produced on the principle of accidental or chance language choices.

A key concept in such text generation is what OULIPO called ‘clinamen’ (and a near-translation, ‘swerve’): an arcane term for the classical notion of ‘primordial anti-constraint’. Creation (of a text) is rendered possible, in an ordered, logical, rational universe, by the introduction of chance. Harry Mathews’ algorithm applied to Queneau’s cutup sonnet sequence would be an example of ‘coercing’ the potentiality of texts into existence. Language is exploited through the use of matrices, and computers make this process millions times quicker and more productive than old-style cut-and-paste.

Spam is usually created by computer programs which randomly copy extracts from internet texts (Burroughs and his predecessor, Brion Gysin, called this ‘paratext’), reassemble them and use them to try to smuggle marketing or other unsolicited messages through the filters of blogs and other websites. They try to trick the spam filters into thinking that the ‘text’ thus generated has been created by human hands, for the filters usually lack the sophistication to distinguish gibberish from texts which have semantic coherence.

In brief, I’d suggest, if you’re interested in pursuing this ‘mechanical literature’, you research similar ‘genres’:

FLARF: text produced by the anonymised and reshuffled errancies of various machine protocols (Wikipedia)

SPAM LIT: the site called UbuWeb (‘an anthology of conceptual writing’) has a wealth of useful examples, articles and links.

See also:

SPOETRY, WORD SALAD, GOOGLISM, INFORMATIONIST POETRY, THE L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E POETS (most in various ways use the detritus of the internet as a source for material for recombining or regenerating texts).

I’d have to conclude, however, that the literary results are decidedly uneven. There are occasional felicitous juxtapositions created through the use of these techniques (and I’d like to think there were some among the examples I produced myself, in which I intervened and selected from the morass of verbiage to create something rather more…orderly and, I hope, interesting). But much of it is doggerel.

Update: an excavated fragment

Today’s brief post is a departure from the usual literary criticism/book review I’ve found myself writing this year. I realise I had stopped posting the occasional ‘random’ piece, to use a term favoured by my students, and which I’d usually gleaned from old notebooks.

I recently read on Jonathan Gibbs’s excellent Tiny Camels blog a post he called an ‘excavated fragment’. While searching for something among the files on his computer he came across a piece called ‘Sex and Death’, dated 2003. He had no idea what it was intended for. I liked his conclusion:

Memory is obsessive-selective self-narration. The rest is work for archaeologists.

In a similar spirit, then, here’s a piece – sort of a found poem, I suppose – that I came across in an old notebook that I keep by what I believe is called in the US my nightstand. It’s dated Feb. 2013.

I have no recollection of writing it, but quite like the notion of a dialogue with one’s computer. There’s the strangled syntax and dismaying jargon of the disembodied. It was written before I’d read reviews of a recent Spike Jonze film in which the protagonist falls in love with the Siri-type operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) of his computer. This excavated fragment of mine (maybe I should call it a ‘random gleaning’) appears to represent a more fractious relationship. Here it is.

Update

An update is available to your software.

                Continue?

[What happens if I don’t?]

The update will resolve some contradictions

in the social system

and reduce battery usage.

                [Continue]

Here are 2 pp of T&C.

                [Accept]

Well done. Your social system will update

within 24 hours.

Your software is updating

and will take 3 minutes.

You will need to restart.

Restart now?

[What happens if I don’t? Had I stopped?]

You will be held responsible

for all the contradictions in your system.

                [Restart]

Anything else today?

                [Return]

John Cheever, ‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’.

In Cheever’s story ‘O City…’, about which I wrote last time, the protagonists are not his usual cocktail party circuit suburbanites, but working class. The story showed his ability to blend light humour with a darker moral purpose: Evarts comes to the big city not just to try to become a successful playwright, but really to make his fortune – without necessarily doing much to merit it. This is a theme found in other Cheever stories. We saw that Evarts’s story was a sort of inverted Country Mouse fable.

This time I’d like to respond to Michael Pucci’s recent post on The Mookse and the Gripes website on Cheever’s story ‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’.  He really nails what the story is doing, and how the themes are conveyed. So not much to add on that score. I’d just like to offer here a few extra thoughts, but would strongly recommend you check out his post: it’s first rate.

As Michael and those who comment on his post point out, this is a story, first published in the Christmas 1949 edition of The New Yorker, that takes Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and other sentimental stories like it (‘Miracle on 34th Street’, perhaps), and subverts it, just as Cheever did with Aesop’s fable in ‘O City…’

There are frequent echoes of the Dickens content and style. This is Dickens:

Mr Fezziwig's ball: 1843 illustration by John Leech. Wikimedia Commons

Mr Fezziwig’s ball: 1843 illustration by John Leech. Wikimedia Commons

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled…etc. (Fezziwig’s ball, Christmas past)

There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts… There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions…There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes…[this goes on for some time] (Christmas present)

And here’s Cheever’s description of Charlie’s haul from his tenants:

There were goose, turkey, chicken, pheasant, grouse, and pigeon. There were trout and salmon, creamed scallops and oysters, lobster, crab meat, whitebait and clams. There were plum puddings, mince pies…etc.

The stylistic similarity is clear; so is the intent. When it comes to the booze Charlie is plied with, there are ‘Martinis, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds’…etc.

It’s a cornucopia of food, drink and gifts. Unlike Scrooge, however, Charlie is the recipient of this anxious generosity; he’s given his wealthy tenants a sob-story and they’ve salved their consciences by showering him with gifts.

The plot and circumstantial detail are carefully presented in Michael’s post, so I won’t repeat them here. I’ll look instead mostly at style.

The theme is the problem of charity: how do the comparatively rich deal with the problem of the ‘worthy poor’, and what leads them to show liberality and benevolence? Conversely, what’s to stop the poor from tapping the rich meretriciously, and if they do who’s to say they’re to blame in a capitalist world of inequality?  Cheever uses the brilliant phrase ‘licentious benevolence’ for the murky impulse to be selflessly charitable on just one day of the year. Does the upper-class person with wealth and a conscience pass by the beggar on the street without taking pity and putting money in their cup on the patronising grounds that they’ll probably spend it on booze or drugs? But what if they have, like Bob Cratchit, a hungry, disabled child at home who relies on them to bring food to the table? It’s an enduring dilemma.

Both stories belie Cheever’s reputation as the Chekhov of the suburbs, and deal with the working-class poor; in both cases their straitened circumstances are highlighted by contrast with the immoderate wealth of the rich, who live in opulent luxury. I’m not sure he fully understands them.

The imagery throughout the story places heavy emphasis on the opposing binary fields of dark and light: ‘the sky outside his window was black’ appears in the first paragraph. In paragraph two there’s this:

…the only lights burning were lights that had been forgotten…The neighbourhood was dark…[there’s a]wall of black windows.

On the next page, as Charlie starts work, we read that the heating system didn’t

lighten his loneliness or his petulance. The black air outside the glass doors had begun to turn blue, but the blue light seemed to have no source…It was a tearful light, and as it picked out the empty street, he wanted to cry.

We’ve previously noted how Cheever isn’t shy of using pathetic fallacy – maybe too heavy-handedly. Here ‘a tearful light’ strikes me as a little forced – though it links neatly with Charlie’s desire to cry.

Like ‘O City’ this is a parable, a fable, a fairy tale. It’s also, again, very humorous, despite its darkness and sombre undertones.

There are some typically fine turns of phrase that stand out in their lyricism in relief against Cheever’s otherwise characteristically unshowy style. As early as the second paragraph – he does like to start and end his stories with panache – there’s a terrific description of Charlie’s grumpy, grudging, misanthropic journey to work on Christmas morning:

Millions and millions were sleeping, and this general loss of consciousness generated an impression of abandonment, as if this were the fall of the city, the end of time.

Ignorance and want, same illustrator, A Christmas Carol. Wikimedia Commons

Ignorance and want, same illustrator, A Christmas Carol. Wikimedia Commons

I’ve noticed Cheever’s predilection for images introduced by ‘as if’; this is one of several in the story, and he makes frequent use of the device elsewhere. Here the language in the simile soars daringly, and the author shows a preparedness to reach for magniloquent, lofty philosophical , even spiritual heights (and depths) that complicate the otherwise jocular narrative. Like Dickens, Cheever isn’t afraid of taking risks with such juxtapositions, of flirting with sententiousness; both writers at times therefore fire duds, or lapse into sentimental or overcooked prose, but when they get it right, as here, they’re breathtaking.

What I find interesting as well here is the way Cheever’s narrative voice shifts in and out of the protagonist’s consciousness: whose ‘impression’ is this? Surely not Charlie’s, who’s too full of self-pity at this point, and lacking in introspection and vocabulary, to entertain such thoughts. Although he’s sorry for himself, he doesn’t come across as the type to have notions of eschatology like this.

So: I intended keeping this post shorter, and find I’ve rattled on at length yet again. There are other outstanding features in this story I’d like to explore, like the wonderful thumbnail sketches of the varied tenants Charlie taps for gifts. I can’t resist one: Mrs Hewing, who Charlie ‘happened to know, was kind of immoral’ – note the comical use of Charlie’s own idiom within the narrative there, that modernist technique Genette calls focalisation (but Jane Austen also uses it with aplomb)– and when he first takes her down in his elevator ‘hadn’t been to bed yet’; later she calls him to her floor to give him his gift and appears

Standing in the hall, in a kind of negligee…She had been crying and drinking.

There’s a whole novel compressed there.

And there I’d better stop.

In his Journals Cheever expressed a desire ‘to disguise nothing, to conceal nothing, to write about those things that are closest to our pain, our happiness’. That polarity – pain and happiness – I’d like to have shown more clearly in my previous post. It’s central in this story.

Beneath the veneer of sly humour this is a grim, furious fable again, like ‘O City’, about the potential for inhumanity in people, of our capacity for selfishness and hypocrisy, and for convincing ourselves that taking a course of action that serves our own purposes, even if it costs others, is justifiable.

Occluded lives: John Cheever, ‘O City of Broken Dreams’

This post will be a response to Michael Pucci’s thorough and thoughtful account of the plot, themes and merits of  ‘O City of Broken Dreams’ at the Mookse and Gripes site earlier this year.

The New Yorker published the majority of Cheever’s stories: 121 appeared there between 1935 and 1981. This one was published in the Jan. 24, 1948 issue. It’s the fourth in the Collected Stories, first published in the US in 1978; I’m using the Vintage paperback edition published in the UK in 2010.

Michael contrasts the relatively healthy nature of the marriage of Evarts and Alice Malloy as portrayed in this story  with that of the Hollises in ‘The Summer Farmer’, his (and my) previous Cheever topic; I’d also contrast it with the rancorous relationship of the Westcotts in the story I wrote about last time, ‘The Enormous Radio’.

Cheever, whose struggles with alcoholism and his sexuality are well known, was a connoisseur of fakery. His stories often explore and expose the surfaces his characters assemble to present to the world, and the contrasting, occluded reality underneath. This duality or complexity is apparent in ‘O City’, as it is in many others: there is no single ‘true’ reading.

The Malloys’ marriage, it seems to me, is what this story presents, through the fable of the pursuit of the American dream in New York. But despite its apparent wholesomeness, there are fissures in this marriage.

At first it’s Alice who’s the sensible one; back home in Wentworth, Indiana she had been known as ‘the practical member of the family’; Evarts ‘would have misplaced his head if it hadn’t been for Alice’, it ‘was often said’. She ‘studied the timetable’ and told her husband not to take the luggage down from the rack too soon as their train approached New York. She’s the one who’d pressured the big-shot New York producer giving a talk in Wentworth into reading Evarts’s script, and it’s her ‘businesslike strain’ that causes her to urge Evarts to work on his script once they are installed in the delightfully named, seriously dingy Hotel Mentone. She ‘forbade’ Evarts from asking directions once they’d arrived at the big city, and had studied the map so that she knew where to go: ‘”If they find out we’re green, they’ll fleece us.”’

Evarts demonstrates how ‘green’ he is when he fails to tell the elevator operator what floor he wants when he visits the Hauser agency skyscraper, and is sneered at by him as a consequence. A butler at the superficially grand house of the producer Sam Farley reveals the sham nature of the place’s grandeur, yet Evarts only guesses he’s a butler because he wears ‘striped pants’. (By the way, it’s worth pointing out here that this story is often, as here, painfully  funny. I’m aware that I’m not showing this emphatically enough.)

Yet Alice is not very bright, as her ‘rind/Rhine’ malaproprism indicates. She fancifully considered the ‘frosty glitter’ of the paving in the station as they arrived at Grand Central station, and wondered naively if ‘diamonds had been ground into the concrete.’ She’s maybe more of a dreamer than Evarts.

By bringing his family on the long journey away from their dull mid-Western town to the big city, Evarts Malloy has rashly exposed them not only to its surface glamour and potential for the luxurious life, but also to its dangers and capacity to chew up innocents like them.

As Betsy Pelz perceptively suggests in a comment on Michael’s analysis, there are two

Arthur Rackham illustration to a 1912 edition of the Aesop fable

Arthur Rackham illustration to a 1912 edition of the Aesop fable (Wikimedia Commons)

stories co-existing in the narrative: one  –  the more obvious — is the Country Mouse and the Town Mouse fable: the ‘very green young man’ who has burnt his bridges, ‘takes on Manhattan and almost survives a string of adventures’, and who shows every sign, after being deceived by the people he meets, who all try to exploit his naiveté, from the hotel bellboy to the agents and producers, of dusting himself off and maybe even heading for Hollywood and fame.

The other is more interesting: the Indiana night-bus driver with ‘callused hands’, but who’s an artist and has written the first act of a play, but who’s ‘bogged down’ by a wife who lacks imagination, common sense and intelligence. He is evidently susceptible to more alluring and glamorous feminine prospects. There’s the beautiful actress who feigns interest in starring in his play, which he dimly perceives she can’t even have had time to have read when she professes to admire it: ‘he was too confused by her beauty to worry or to speak…he felt as though he had fallen in love.’

I think this is a more satisfying reading: it’s true that there’s a hint at a possibly upbeat ending: on the train as it leaves New York Evarts tells his wife he’ll wait till they reach Chicago before deciding whether to take the line home, to return to their ‘dismal town’, and the safe but dull, artistically numb life there, or to head for Hollywood and chase his dream.

Michael is clearly rooting for Evarts to become the hick who hits the big time; the narrator hints at this as being the option that’s ‘easier to imagine.’ I’m not so sure: Evarts has only written the first act of his play, and fails to write a word while in Manhattan; he yearns for the smells and sounds of Indiana to inspire him: in New York he’s blocked – though admittedly he’s in a state of turmoil because of what’s happening to them; he and Alice are full of awe at the novelty and modernity of the city. Is he really capable of writing more? Is he even any good? Would Hollywood care?

Michael also shows that the narrator, who is usually consistently omniscient and largely shows an ironically knowing tone in portraying the ways in which this innocent couple is repeatedly cheated, perplexed and exploited by the decadent, rapacious inhabitants of the metropolis (‘many innocents had been there before them’, the narrator tells us early on; there’s Cheever’s characteristically pointed use of pathetic fallacy to set the tone: ‘they could see the pitiless winter afterglow beyond the Hudson River’). But the narrator noticeably relinquishes all knowledge and prescience in the final paragraphs, and prefers to use the low modality of the auxiliary verbs ‘may have’.

This is a technique he uses in other stories, in order to give the ending the enigmatic quality that leaves interpretation open. I’ve discussed this in previous posts on Cheever. In ‘O City’ he similarly refrains from providing an authoritative, conclusive ending. As Henry James might have agreed, in life, in relationships, there are no endings: all the artist can do is ‘draw the circle in which they appear to do so’.

To conclude, I find this story too long. It has all the virtues of the typically well crafted New Yorker story, but also some of the formulaic qualities of the O. Henry sort of plot (as I’ve suggested in previous posts about Cheever stories). You can see the workings. There are too many sequences with rascally conmen keen to exploit Evarts.

It’s clear to see, as Michael insists, that it’s a kind of ‘fable’ or ‘parable’. I take him to mean by this that a moral lesson is adumbrated. Because of the story’s ambiguities and its open ending, however, this lesson is clouded.

Aesop’s moral is clear: ‘better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear’. Better the poverty, hardship, simplicity and peace of the country than the luxury, plenty, sophistication, privilege and nerve-shredding dangers of the shark-infested city. When they arrive the Malloys are described as ‘the hard-working children of an industrious generation’, but as they leave the Grand Central station the weather as always is an index of the mood, and the narrator reminds us of Alice’s naïve perception when she arrived:

It was a rainy night, and the dark, wet paving, deep in the station, did not glitter, but it was still Alice’s belief that diamonds had been ground into it, and that was the way she would tell the story.

The symmetry here – the repetition of her belief in diamonds in the paving – seems to me too pat, a bit contrived. But it does serve to show that Alice is maybe not so sensible and has learnt nothing (apart from the superficial ‘lessons’ of travelling arrangements: ‘they arranged themselves adroitly over several seats.’)

Evarts, however, has possibly changed as a result of his abrasive contact with urban slickers, and may well have developed the capacity to adapt and reinvent himself. Does this suggest, however, that achieving the promise of the American dream involves becoming tainted in the process? Evarts seems to have lost his innocence by the story’s end. When Alice performs her melodramatic swoon at the end of her party piece song in the over-long middle of the story, the sophisticates at the party cruelly laugh at her. She’s mortified, and Evarts comforts her – but she’s shown him up, too, and embarrassed them both. This epiphany reveals to him the perception he’d previously been unaware of: Alice is a liability. If he’s to hit the big time her small-town limitations and unsophisticated ingenuousness will possibly hold him back.

Robert Henryson’s moralitas to his Middle Scots version of Aesop has this serene message:

Quha hes eneuch, of na mair hes he need…

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s is:

And use it well that is to thee allotted,

Then seek no more out of thyself to find

The thing that thou hast sought so long before…

This Zen-like message, with its binary opposites, is: be content with what you have, seek inside yourself for the answer to your prayers (and dreams), don’t quest needlessly far afield for it . Cheever gives this reassuring but constraining, ‘be content with the limited life you lead/home is where the heart is’ message a cynical spin: that mysterious, deliberately open ending refuses to conform to the fabulist’s black-and-white morality tale strictures.

Maybe Evarts has learnt a different lesson: to succeed it’s necessary to emulate the sharks.

Chris Power’s illuminating survey in the Guardian newspaper of The Short Story includes Cheever at no. 45 here.

 

Mme Bovary of Kansas City: Evan S. Connell, ‘Mrs Bridge’.

Evan S. Connell (1924-2013), Mrs Bridge. Penguin Modern Classics, 2012. US first published 1959, UK 1983.

Reviews of Murakami’s new novel Colorless Tsukuru have commented on the dangers of making the protagonist a dull character: this can lead to a fitful narrative. As I was reading Mrs Bridge, Connell’s debut novel, first published in the US in 1959 (but which began life as a short story published in The Paris Review in 1955), I wondered whether he was avoiding a similar fate.

He does. Largely as a result of the novel’s inventive form, style and structure, and the brilliant use of language.

It consists of 117 short chapters, each with a title, often enigmatically tangential to the content; for example, ch. 102 is called ‘Joseph Conrad’, but the novel Mrs Bridge reads in this 2-paragraph segment is never identified. It’s highly significant that she becomes absorbed by this novel, and she broods over a particularly pertinent passage, which states that

some people go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain.

She ‘brooded’ over this and thought deeply about it; then someone called her, she put it down, and never picked it up again. This is the story of her life in a sentence. I don’t recognise this passage: perhaps someone can identify it in Conrad’s work? It sounds more like Joyce to me (Gabriel’s internal monologue at the end of ‘The Dead’).

This oblique, deeply suggestive and sophisticated approach to the subject of the eponymous upper-middle-class matron’s colourless, quietly despondent life in Kansas City (where Connell was born) in the decades leading up to the start of World War II is idiosyncratic and engaging.

In a review written at the Asylum blog in 2010 the always astute John Self considers the novel as accomplished as anything by Richard Yates or William Trevor. Revolutionary Road, published just two years after Mrs Bridge, relates the frustrations and yearnings of a suburban couple in America in the fifties. But Mrs Bridge is a far quieter novel: neither partner has an affair, or yearns to write a great novel in Paris. It’s closer in theme to Ira Levin’s 1972 satire The Stepford Wives in its depiction of stultified, unreflecting conformity to the American bourgeois way of life and obsession with keeping up appearances unquestioningly:

She brought up her children very much as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of it would be in connection with their nice manners, their pleasant dispositions, and their cleanliness, for these were qualities she valued above all others. (p.3)

Mrs Bridge said that she judged people by their shoes and by their manners at the table. (p. 13)

That her children rebel against her and drift away from her in their various ways is another of her life’s puzzling catastrophes; the irony of her name is that she is unable to bridge the gap that opens up between her and her family’s members. She is desperately lonely and bored, as the children grow up, become independent, and the maid runs the house:

She spent a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by the sense that she was waiting. But waiting for what? She did not know…Nothing intense, nothing desperate, ever happened. Time did not move…So it was that her thoughts now and then turned deviously deeper, spiraling down and down in search of the final recess, of life more immutable than the life she had bequeathed in the birth of her children. (p. 74)

This is from a chapter called The Clock (time seems often to stand still for Mrs Bridge, while as we shall see it also races past). It ends with her bovine husband asking if the clock had struck; in fact there had been a symbolic flash of lightning – which illuminated something inderminate for her – and when she answers that it hadn’t, he resumes reading his paper:

She never forgot this moment when she had almost apprehended the very meaning of life, and of the stars and planets, yes, and the flight of the earth.

This rare lyrical flight captures the essence of this sad, bemused, unfulfilled woman’s life: she ‘almost’ apprehends its meaning, but ultimately doesn’t. (That free indirect thought, ‘yes’ is reminiscent again of Joyce: Molly Bloom this time.) Yet she is aware there is or could be something else to it. She often asks herself ‘What should she do…?’ How fill her day? She shops for useless items, plays bridge, gossips, avoids conflict or expressing opinions with conviction, picks up then drops faddish hobbies and atrophies spiritually.

Mrs Bridge coverThe protagonist has more in common with Emma Bovary than with April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road. But unlike Mme Bovary, Mrs Bridge never acts on her desires for something to happen in her life. Hers is a stunted life, and she lives in perpetual dread of acting or even thinking in an unconventional way, but gradually becomes dissatisfied with the rapidity and sterility with which it passes away in time; this is from as early as p. 4:

All seemed well. The days passed, and the weeks, and the months, more swiftly than in childhood, and she felt no trepidation, except for certain moments in the depth of the night, when, as she and her new husband lay drowsily clutching each other for reassurance, anticipating the dawn, the day, and another night which might prove them both immortal, Mrs Bridge found herself wide awake. During these moments, resting in her husband’s arms, she would stare at the ceiling, or at his face, which sleep robbed of strength, with an uneasy expression, as though she saw or heard some intimation of the great years ahead.

That paragraph sums up the novel. Like Mme Bovary, she feels ‘intimations’ that there must be something else, something better; ironically ‘the great years’ never come.  Compare this near the novel’s end, ch. 109:

The snow fell all night. It fell without a sound and covered the frozen ground, and the dead leaves beneath the maple tree, and bowed the limbs of the evergreens…Mrs Bridge was awakened by the immense silence and she lay in her bed listening…She had a feeling that all was not well and she waited in deep expectancy for some further intimation, listening intently, but all she heard before falling asleep was the familiar chiming of the clock.

This is typical of Connell’s beautifully modulated, understated prose. There’s a touch of the ending of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ (again) there; indeed, Connell makes constant reference to the mid-western weather to reflect the emptiness or discomfort of Mrs Bridge’s existence. Every adjective here falls like a blow: ‘frozen’, ‘dead’, ‘immense’; the temporal significance of the ‘familiar’, relentlessly ticking and chiming clock is a motif through the novel, as we’ve seen; the nouns are equally telling: ‘silence’, ‘expectancy’, ‘intimation’ (again, but strikingly, heartbreakingly different from the vague optimism recorded at the start of the narrative and quoted just now). Mrs Bridge often seems on the brink of an epiphany, about to experience some revelation that will free her from her unexamined despair – but always she falls short of realising it: she falls asleep, redeemed by oblivion, or puts the book aside, or fails to pick up the phone to complain about the bizarre, possibly perverted junior school teacher who calls upon the children in her class – including Mrs Bridge’s young daughter – to comb her lank, greasy hair.

Joshua Ferris, in a spirited introduction to the PMC edition, likens her to iconic existential anti-heroes like Meursault, Molloy and Dr Rieulx. That Connell is able to invite such comparisons, which are valid, attests to the stature of this novel and the brilliance of his achievement.

It would be easy to dismiss the novel because of the unpleasant nature of the central married couple. They are bigoted, racist, and show little interest in culture or politics (Mrs Bridge flirts with the exciting idea of choosing her own candidate to vote for in an election, inspired by her rebellious friend, but as always she chickens out at the last minute and votes Republican as her husband tells her to).

In fact Mrs Bridge has always obeyed her husband. When a tornado approaches the Country Club where they are dining, he insists on remaining stoically (and stolidly) at table to finish his steak, despite the pleas of staff to join the other diners in the safety of the basement:

She wished he would not be so obstinate; she wished he would behave like everyone else, but she was not particularly frightened. For nearly a quarter of a century she had done as he had told her, and what he had said would happen had indeed come to pass, and what he had said would not occur had not occurred. Why, then, should she not believe him now?…The tornado, whether impressed by his intransigence or touched by her devotion, had drawn itself up into the sky and was never seen or heard of again.

There’s a pleasing symmetry in the syntax here: the clauses are elegantly balanced, but the point of view is clearly that of the unreflecting Mrs Bridge. The quiet, subversive humour is something of which she would be completely unaware, and it is this ironic gap between her own state of constant bewilderment and confusion and that of the more knowing reader that provides much of the substance and reward of the narrative. I particularly like the weird personification of the tornado at the end of that extract.

But Connell refrains from judging or mocking his characters or their shortcomings; like Cheever he trusts his reader to find a way of accommodating to them. They are rarely likeable, but entirely credible.

Ferris highlights the humour in the novel, which often ‘swerves’ into absurdity or non sequiturs. A random example: the Bridges throw a party, not because they want to, but because it’s time for them to ‘retaliate’.

The humour is contrapuntal to the darkness, angst and despair that Mrs Bridge catches increasingly frequent, semi-comprehending glimpses of as the novel progresses. One of the most interesting secondary characters is the startlingly unconventional Grace Barron, a prototype hippy or beatnik of later decades, who dresses like a boy, plays ball in the street, espouses socialism and picks political fights at cocktails parties when she’s drunk – and is more miserably unhappy than Mrs Bridge. She startles, even frightens Mrs Bridge by talking about profound matters with passion, while commenting on the bleakness of their fate as bourgeois women. This is poignantly, elliptically conveyed when they see in a shop some ‘tiny bells’ that revolved around a candlestick:

‘I feel like those bells’, said Grace. ‘Why are they turning around, India? Why? Because the candle has been lighted. What I want to say is – oh, I don’t know. It’s just that the orbit is so small.’

There chapter 19 ends, but we know that Mrs Bridge will be both puzzled and disturbed by this fractured but more articulate metaphorical insight than any she is capable of – yet she will feel a shock of recognition.

One of the the most frequently quoted passages in the novel comes when Grace desperately asks her friend if she ever feels ‘hollowed out’ in the back like the characters in the Grimm tale; soon after that she commits suicide – an act which Mrs Bridge is never seen to contemplate, but she never convinces that she has no reason to refrain from doing so.

There’s so much more to say about this novel, but there I’d better stop. I’ve said nothing about Mrs Bridge’s three very different children from whom she becomes estranged as they grow up, or her dull lawyer workaholic husband (ten years on Connell wrote a sequel from his point of view: Mr Bridge. The two novels formed the basis for a 1990 film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, ‘Mr and Mrs Bridge’. I must read this to see if we gain more insight into his character; here he’s a cipher). I must just mention ch. 6, a typically strange vignette – this is far from a conventional narrative structure or style — just one paragraph long, in which Mrs Bridge encounters her son Douglas, as a little boy, standing contemplating the dressmaker’s dummy of her ‘figure’. Her smile fades, and she subsequently stows the dummy away out of sight. This is like a beautifully compressed novel in itself. One could write a whole blog piece just on its haunting, unsettling significance.

I don’t think Mr Ferris exaggerated when he said in a BBC interview in 2012 (which also featured what must have been one of the last interviews broadcast with Connell himself) that this novel is an ‘enduring masterpiece’.