A Divorce Novel: Edith Wharton, The Children (1928)

‘The incurable simplicity of the corrupt’: Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The Children

Edith Wharton’s nineteenth novel The Children, published in 1928, is less impressive than the others by her that I’ve posted about here recently: The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. It’s still interesting, and highly unusual in its central theme – the attraction an older man feels for a girl who at the time they meet is not yet fifteen.

Martin Boyne is a globe-trotting engineer who takes on projects in exotic places.
Wharton carefully presents him from the start as a ‘critical, cautious man… whom nobody could possibly associate with the romantic or the unexpected.’

This complacent timidity is about to be sorely tested when a troupe of seven children with their nanny boards his ship and he first sees the eldest child, Judith, who acts as surrogate mother to her siblings and ‘steps’, as the offspring of her feckless parents’ numerous other marriages and acquired stepchildren are known.

“Jove – if a fellow was younger!”
Men of forty-six do not gasp as frequently at the sight of a charming face as they did at twenty; but when the sight strikes them it hits harder…it rather disturbed [Boyne] to be put off his quest by anything so out of his present way as excessive youth and a rather pathetic grace.

My Virago Modern Classics edition

My Virago Modern Classics edition

Wharton is often unfavourably compared to her friend and mentor, Henry James, and at times she did indeed imitate his sophisticated psychological probings of his characters’ subtly described thoughts and actions, and he too was to explore the girl-woman type in a corrupt adult world in stories like ‘What Maisie Knew’. As the above extract shows, however, she writes here in a plain, even colloquial style, and makes little attempt to explore her male protagonist’s musings; they are simply presented to us as free indirect discourse, with no narrative comment. Neither does she enter into Judith’s mind: we’re simply told frequently how ‘charming’ she is, and are given her animated, precocious but often immature dialogue.

This sets up the central feature of the novel: Boyne’s vacillating motives and impulses are largely a mystery even to himself, and it is this that gives the novel its most compelling aspect.

Boyne quickly learns that these are the children of Cliffe Wheater and his wife, whom he remembers as ‘rather aimlessly abundant’ – an apt description, we later learn – both of whom he had known at Harvard and subsequently in ‘the old social dance of New York’. Wheater had since become ‘one of the showiest of New York millionaires’ whose only interests since his marriage had been in ‘Ritz Hotels and powerful motor-cars’ – and a ‘steam-yacht’.

It’s the depiction of this egregiously selfish, idle and shallow rich set that’s another of the most interesting and successful features of this uneven novel. They pass their time trying to stave off boredom by following each other from one fashionable Mediterranean watering hole to another, indulging in ‘wasteful luxury’ on the quest for pleasure, while flirting, divorcing and sleeping with each other and neglecting their children. This is very much a Divorce Novel, dealing with ‘the compromises and promiscuities of modern life.’

Their children are allowed to run wild, largely untutored. Judith, we learn, is barely literate, and one of her closest friends had killed herself while her drug-addled mother and Judith’s were ‘heaven knows where’.

Boyne is shocked to learn, early on, that one of the Wheater children, Blanca, had been engaged ‘to the lift-boy at Biarritz’ when at the time of meeting her she’s ‘barely eleven’. Judith blithely points out that she’d been engaged to ‘a page at a skating-rink’ at about the same age. The guidance that their corrupt parents should have provided is non-existent, and they have become superficially sophisticated, but profoundly morally adrift – like their parents.

Not surprisingly the Wheater children and their antics dominate the novel. The trouble is I didn’t find them at all amusing or charming. There is some distasteful national stereotyping about the two who have an Italian parent – they are lazily presented therefore as volatile and passionate (‘”don’t be foreign”’, their nurse admonishes one of them at one point – I don’t find this as funny as Wharton seems to expect me to). The ones with circus-performer parents are forever engaging in acrobatics. They are consistently depicted with just their one identifying characteristic. Blanca is obsessed with ‘chic’ couture dresses; her twin, Terry, is studious and sickly. Zinnie, whose mother is a glamorous movie-star, is vain, sly and selfish.

Their dialogue is set out with toe-curling whimsy: the first example of many occurs when Martin offers the children oranges as an incentive to visit a cultural site and this exchange ensues:

“An’masses of zoranges?” Zinnie stipulated, with a calculating air…and Bun…turn[ed] handsprings on the deck, [and] shrieked out: “Noranges! Noranges! NORANGES!”

Although like Martin we feel sympathy for their plight, left to fend for themselves as their fickle and crassly materialistic parents pursue their hedonistic and amorous adventures – they are aptly called ‘hotel children’ – their histrionic antics become tediously repetitive, their attitude importunate, manipulative and greedy, as cartoonish as their parents’ .

The plot is driven by Judith’s fierce maternal devotion to her little brood, and her passionate attempts to keep them together, while their various parents change partners and threaten to take back the offspring who originally belonged to them.

When Judith and her wild bunch of siblings burst into Boyne’s tranquil, adult world, he loses all sense of decorum and judgement, and takes on the role of guardian, apparently unaware of the probable true motive for his doing so: his sexual desire for adolescent Judith. Here he is as early as p. 35, when his attempt to cultivate in her a love of art and culture by visiting an Italian cathedral has ended in failure – she’s both bored and bemused by it:

…he was disappointed, for he was already busy at the masculine task of endowing the woman of the moment with every quality which made life interesting to himself.

“Woman – but she’s not a woman! She’s a child.” His thinking of her as anything else was the crowning absurdity of the whole business.

Here Wharton’s narrator offers a rare incisive comment on Boyne’s moral confusion, though even here it can be seen as his own self-castigating thoughts.

Even Rose points out to him that he’s in love with Judith, but he refuses to entertain the possibility. The portrayal of this pretty but vacuous girl is troubling: she’s too naïve and ingenuous to convince us that Boyne is attracted to her mind; she’s innocently childish and ignorant, despite her premature exposure to corrupt, amoral adult behaviour and decadence. Neither is she a Gigi type who will blossom under his tutelage. She has a certain impulsive charm, but Boyne’s real motive is clouded in his own mind.

One of the most peculiar scenes, which arouses in me a certain disquiet, is the one in which Judith turns to Boyne in a crisis and he plies her with two cocktails and a cigarette, and then realises this may have been ill-advised. What was he thinking?

Even worse is when Rose’s 60-year-old lawyer visits and Boyne watches him watching Judith as she sleeps during a country picnic, projecting his own desire jealously on to the slightly older man. The narrative as usual gives us his thoughts, which begin with his reflection that the girl ‘looks almost grown up – she looks kissable’. Then he turns his gaze on lawyer Dobree, the other man:

…it was manifest that Dobree’s thoughts were racing; and Boyne knew they were the same thoughts as his own. The discovery shocked him indescribably.

This duplicity is compounded when, that evening, Boyne tells Rose his suspicions:

“Dobree looks at her like a dog licking his jaws over a bone.”
“Martin — !”
“Sorry. I never could stand your elderly men who look at little girls.”

After this adolescent outburst Boyne goes on to ask sarcastically why Dobree doesn’t ask Judith to marry him if he’s so ‘dotty’ about the girl. He’s dumbfounded when Rose tells him Dobree has just proposed to her. The ‘tumult of his own veins’ turns to confusion at this announcement, and he laughs:

[but] his laugh had simply mocked his own power of self-deception, and uttered his relief at finding himself so deceived.

Rose goes on to tell him that Dobree said to her that he thought Boyne was in love with Judith; Boyne is furious:

“Shows what kind of a mind he must have. Thinking that way about a child – a mere child – and about any man, and decent man…as if I might take advantage of my opportunities to – to fall in love with a child in the schoolroom!”

Even Boyne at this point realises he’s protesting too much, as that little hesitation so tellingly indicates, and he sinks into a chair, ‘hot, angry, ashamed’.

Although the hedonistic selfishness of the parents’ circle is portrayed with venomous narrative power, none of the characters is rounded or fully convincing – they are types, not individuals. Only Boyne, who focalises the story throughout, comes across with any kind of complexity. But ultimately his self-evasions, emotional timidity and sexual murkiness are more annoying than sympathy-evoking.

That this worldly, middle-aged man should ditch a sophisticated and beautiful woman his own age, with whom we are often told he’s been in love most of his adult life, in favour of a callow child with a mildly pretty face and no depth of character, is a situation that’s presented with inconsistent success, as I hope my quotations reveal. Judith is no Maisie.

There is some excellent writing, however, and the novel is worth reading. For example when Judith escapes with her brood in search of Boyne’s protection, he and Rose are incredulous at the circumstances the girl describes that led her to adopt such an extreme course; she sums these up with the precocious perception of which she’s capable when examining the amorality of her parents’ circle:

“If children don’t look after each other, who’s going to do it for them? You can’t expect parents to, when they don’t know how to look after themselves.”

There’s poignancy in this child’s premature wisdom, expressed with such heartbreaking lucidity.

I’ll finish with one passage that is worthy of the earlier, more satisfying novels of Wharton’s that I’ve read. Here is Boyne about to meet Rose in the flesh after the interval of five years during which he’d travelled and worked, and she’d been widowed:

He could never think of her [Rose] as having been really young, immaturely young, like this girl about whom they were exchanging humorous letters, and who, in certain other ways, had a precocity of experience so far beyond Mrs. Sellars’s. But the question of a woman’s age was almost always beside the point. When a man loved a woman she was always the age he wanted her to be; when he had ceased to, she was either too old for witchery or too young for technique.

That aphorism with its symmetrically patterned syntax is a rare moment of an omniscient, observing narrative voice commenting with almost Wildean wit on Boyne’s psycho-sexual ambivalence, and it shrewdly shows him as both clever and perceptive while blind to his own defects of character: he goes on to admit to ‘a faint return of the apprehension he always felt when he thought of his next meeting with Mrs. Sellars.’ Maybe he was never really going to commit to her, and the dalliance with pert, pretty little Judith was more of an excuse to run away, and to resume his melancholy, solitary existence far away from messy human entanglements.

These are my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear if any of you had a different reaction.

Others to write about this novel include heavenali here, and Tom’s blog Wuthering Expectations discusses Wharton’s short stories in several perceptive posts here.

He had missed the flower of life: Edith Wharton, ‘The Age of Innocence’

The names of the characters aren’t exactly subtle in this vitriolic portrait of upper-class New York City society in the 1870s (though the novel, Edith Wharton’s twelfth, was first published in 1920): the protagonist’s is the doubly Jamesian Newland Archer, while his pretty but vacuous fiancée is May Welland (may well land) – tellingly described as a ‘young girl who knew nothing and expected everything’.

Virago Modern Classics edition

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics paperback edition

The plot is equally straightforward: the upright (almost smugly so) Archer, from one of that small, intermarrying set of wealthy socialite families to which May also belongs, has his complacently mapped-out life upset when the beautiful, troubled Countess Olenska comes back into his circle. He had known her before her marriage to a dashing but morally corrupt Polish count collapsed, amid stories of her husband’s brutality and serial infidelity. She escaped back to the city of her birth, where she believed her family and former friends would support her. Instead they treat her as a pariah, as if she is the guilty one; in their world it is not done for wives to desert their philandering husbands – they’re supposed to endure everything with a sweet smile and pretend all is well.

It’s a more plot-driven novel than The House of Mirth, about which I wrote recently. The style is less aphoristic and adorned, too; this makes its tone of moral outrage more powerful. Ultimately, however, I found the heroic stoicism and indomitable sense of honour of Newland Archer a little hard to take. He professes to be disgusted by the hypocrisy of his male peers, and therefore finds it impossible to compromise the honour of the woman he truly loves, or his own sense of duty. Here’s an early narrative comment about him that hints at this thinly concealed arrogance:

In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility…Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together they represented “New York”, and the habit of masculine solidarity made him accept their doctrine in all the issues called moral.

That he continues to live in this corrupt world of venal indulgence makes his honourable stance seem less noble. It’s not so much that he can’t act as immorally as everyone else – he seems almost to lack any kind of truly moral agency.

It’s an interesting and largely rewarding read, however. There are still some wonderfully witty and penetrating comments on American mores and society, like this on the very first page; the privileged rich are leaving the opera house, which they frequent largely to see what the rest of their set are up to, and to be seen and gossip about the latest peccadillos. The narrator points out that it’s better to catch a ‘Brown coupé’ after the performance than to wait for one’s own coachman –

It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

Newland is swayed by generous thoughts about the lack of freedom enjoyed by women in his social circle, but

Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.

 He can readily foresee that his marriage would become

What most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

 And so it turns out: his and May’s marital existence is one of ‘deadly monotony’, in which appearance was everything, and Newland is unable to break free from what’s expected of him –

It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free…

It’s a mad world they live in, and there seems no impulse to do anything to change it:

In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…

 More echoes of the Master there (also, weirdly, of Saussure). Maybe Edith Wharton was too angry with that dull group of the tediously wealthy in which she’d moved (until she could stand it no more and decamped to France for the latter part of her life, ditching her good-for-nothing husband on the way) to come closer to emulating the penetrating gaze and measured psychological insight of her friend Henry James.

The ending is shocking, and aptly rounds off this withering indictment of the New York social set that would soon be even more tellingly portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.

 

Edith Wharton, ‘The House of Mirth’

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The House of Mirth (1905): Virago Modern Classics edition

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecclesiastes, 7:4)

House of M coverIt’s fitting that I sit down to start writing this piece on the anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth – Jan. 24, 1862. She was born into that ‘aristocracy of wealth and tradition’ that Leon Edel describes in his Life of Henry James, whose influence on Wharton’s writing was immense (they first met in 1903, when she was in her fortieth year and he was 60; he found her refined but ‘a little dry’). She never needed to work for a living, having inherited a large fortune. But her circumscribed world of wealthy cosmopolitan socialites was beginning to succumb to the arrivistes who are represented in this novel by the sinister entrepreneur Rosedale – a Jewish stockbroker/speculator whose depiction as a social climber is tainted by the anti-Semitism considered acceptable at the time.

The privileged, luxurious Manhattan world – ‘this crowded, selfish world of pleasure’– was imbued with a hypocritical sense of traditional decencies, strict social codes based on superficial appearances and good manners whilst murkily compromised deeper down.

At the time of their first meeting in 1903, James was working on The Golden Bowl, his intense and complex psychological portrait of a flawed aristocratic marriage, and its impact on a naïve young woman who learns and grows in maturity as a consequence of her husband’s venality. It’s interesting that Wharton’s House of Mirth, published a year after James’s novel, though set in New York, not England (where James had settled, and where his novel was set), has a plot and themes in some ways similar, but different in important ways. Even her title derives from the same book of the Old Testament.

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

As I have written in earlier posts, James was interested in the restricted, frustratingly limited prospects of the ‘American girl’ in a society that demanded of her little more than ornamental charms with which she would be expected to snare a wealthy husband, and which deplored any kind of independence of spirit – this would have been considered subversive. The ‘flatness and futility’ of fashionable New York was what Edith Wharton knew intimately; she, like James, opted for the woman’s view of it, but with a unique insight that he could only imagine. She had struggled for moral and artistic independence in a society in which women were more at the mercy of convention than men; she was able to depict a woman who was born to be an ‘artistic object’:

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart (quoted by Nina Bawden, in the Introduction to the VMC edition).

The novel opens when Lily is 29 and still unmarried. Her father had foolishly lost his fortune and both he and her mother are dead. She lives with her unloving aunt in New York, who distributes to her niece sufficient to get by, but which is never enough for extravagant Lily, who had been spoiled as a girl, and who naturally assumed that her beauty deserved luxury and indulgence. As a consequence she is ‘horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money’, as she confesses to Lawrence Selden in the opening chapter. She was ‘not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty’, and has a ‘naturally lively taste for splendour’, she reflects later. Selden is the novel’s cowardly hero, and Lily makes the fatal error of believing that his self-satisfied, sanctimonious lectures on the vulgarity and venality of the society they both circulate arise from his truly virtuous moral rigour. What she fails to perceive is that this supercilious attitude is a pose; at heart he hypocritically enjoys the social life he outwardly scorns. They share a mutual attraction, but she considers him unsuitable marriage material because he works for a living (as a lawyer), and isn’t rich enough for her needs. When she needs him most he lets her down cravenly.

She confides in him, in this early and ill-advised tête-à-tête (to visit a bachelor unchaperoned in his rooms, smoke his cigarettes and chat intimately like this would be considered ill-bred, ‘fast’ and morally compromising) that her only hope, as her financial situation reaches crisis-point – she has amassed huge gambling debts on top of her usual extravagances with jewellery and clothing – is to ‘calculate and contrive’ to marry a rich man. But her looks are beginning to fade, and her plight is becoming desperate.

That she has failed to catch a rich husband so far is a result of her impetuous nature and naïve habit of pursuing immediate gratification, over-confident that something better will always turn up. Consequently she has let go several big, wealthy fish at the last minute in order to indulge a fleetingly more enticing whim. This childish recklessness is tempered by an intermittent but genuine moral sense of the ‘great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at’, with its ‘vacuous routine’ of trivial parties and rancid gossip. Lily would love to have that freedom which Seldon calls ‘the republic of the spirit’, but as a woman this is not accessible to her.

There are several estimable reviews of this novel online (links at the end), which summarise plot and characters thoroughly. I shall restrict my remarks now to the style of the writing, which in my view is the novel’s strength. The plot, skilfully constructed and pacy, with dramatic reversals and a colourful cast of wealthy, leering men and scheming, treacherous women, is perhaps at times a little contrived and strained: poor Lily’s ‘hateful fate’ is made clear from the start. As Jonathan Franzen suggests in his piece (see below), we read on largely because we sympathise with her, despite her often exasperating selfishness and childish impetuosity, her contradictory blend of an ingenuous naturalness (‘sylvan freedom’, Selden considers it) and shimmering artificiality. There’s a lot of Becky Sharp about her: she uses her charm and beauty to attract a rich man, but lacks the ruthlessness of the other women in her social circle which would provide her with the security she craves. Even in extremity there’s a courageous spirit in her:

Misfortune had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.

 Even though she has the means with which to blackmail her way out of her ultimate crisis, she refuses to stoop to such behaviour – her own destruction is the outcome. When she’s betrayed and cruelly shunned by society, and staring into the abyss, Lily shows a heroic, noble spirit, even when confronting ‘the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations’ of the poverty she has no resources to cope with. As one of her circle, Mrs Fisher, says of Lily’s fluctuating fortunes:

‘Sometimes…I think it’s just flightiness – and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for.’

I’d like to finish with a look at some of the  barbed, epigrammatic narrative comments. This is an early description of Lily about to stalk her prey – a shy wealthy dullard called Percy Gryce:

She had the art of giving self-confidence to the embarrassed, but she was not equally sure of being able to embarrass the self-confident.

Such parallel structures can seem trite, but the chiasmus here is wittily shrewd.

Character portraits are often Wildean in their acerbity: this is the socialite Mrs George Dorset:

…she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room.

 Finally, a passage which caustically reveals the moral lesson Lily begins to learn at the novel’s midway stage, as her plans go awry and her reputation suffers:

She was realising for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.

 

There are numerous reviews online; I’d recommend Trevor Berrett’s post at the Mookse and Gripes website, and Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article. I’ve just read JacquiWine’s post and find I’ve quoted several of the same passages! Hers is a judicious reading of this classic novel.

 

 

 

 

 

In America bluff is everything. William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), White Mule. Penguin Modern Classics1971

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) is probably best known for his pared-down, brief poems like The Red Wheelbarrow and This is Just to Say (I have eaten/the plums/that were in/the icebox…), or urban poetic epics like Paterson (he lived most of his life in New Jersey). After an early flirtation with the Imagists – his second volume of poems was published in 1912 with the support of Ezra Pound, whom he’d met at university in Pennsylvania – Williams’ writing style was to change direction towards a more radical modernism; he rejected the highly allusive and multilingual intellectual European style of Eliot, adopting instead a voice that was distinctively American vernacular, with his mantra ‘no ideas but in things’.

Williams also wrote prose fiction and non-fiction; one of my tutors at Bristol University, Charles Tomlinson (a British poet who died in August of this year) introduced me to modern American writing, and in particular that of Williams and Wallace Stevens, two poets he admired. He in his turn had an enormous influence on my own literary interests; he’s much missed – a genuinely kind and sensitive teacher.

1921 passport photo of Williams

1921 passport photo of Williams

I was interested in following up my reading of another American poet’s prose work, E.E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room, about which I wrote here last week, with that of Williams: what sort of novel would this paediatrician-poet create? Published in 1937, White Mule was the first in a trilogy of novels about the immigrant Stecher family’s struggle to assimilate in New York City. Its title derives, according to something I read online, but I don’t recall seeing it in the novel, from the baby, Flossie, whose fierce kick is likened to that of White Mule whiskey.

The plot is minimal: the novel opens with the birth of Gurlie and Joe Stecher’s second child:

She entered, as Venus from the sea, dripping. The air enclosed her, she felt it all over her, touching, waking her.

The baby is sickly and cantankerous, and her mother’s response on learning her sex is at first callous and negligent: ‘Another girl. Agh. I don’t want girls. Take it away and let me rest.’ She takes out her annoyance on Joe, telling him he’ll now have to earn more. And here one of the novel’s central themes emerges: Gurlie wants to live the American Dream, and as a woman is incapable of achieving her ambition on her own; she urges Joe to be more assertive:

You are too careful, you have no daring, you must bluff!

Never, said he.

You must. In America bluff is everything…be a better bluff than they are…But you are too timid. I could do it. But now is the time. You have two daughters now and I am not going to sit down and be a hausfrau. I am going to live and see the world and I must have money. And you are going to make it for me…If you think I’m going to stay here and have babies one after the other and nothing else you fool yourself. You tell those people you want more money or quit. If you don’t, I quit.

 The style is akin to that of Williams’s poetry: spare, idiomatic, concrete, almost monosyllabic. There’s minimal punctuation and no quotation marks for speech, or paragraphing to differentiate speakers’ utterances. Free indirect discourse abounds, as when Joe muses that outburst of Gurlie’s:

Watching her eyes flash, the very insensibility of her fire somehow excited him in spite of himself. It was something he did not understand but there it was. Foolish or reasonable, but there it was. He could understand that all right…It was his own wife. She had the brains of a chicken – but that was his hard luck. He had married her, hadn’t he? That wasn’t her fault…What did he care? He felt admiration – a borrowed resentment against the world momentarily possessed him. Yes, she was right. He was abler than the rest…

Notice how the stream of Joe’s untutored, barely articulate thoughts is complemented by the narrator’s higher-register observations. He and Gurlie make a formidable team. Go out and fight them, she tells him: ‘It is a free country. If you don’t fight for it you get nothing – but to be called a fool. You owe it to me to fight.’

Joe, a printer, was once a firebrand union member, but at the time the novel opens he’s turned gamekeeper, having become disillusioned with the corruption of union officials: as foreman in his printing works he does the owner’s bidding in pushing the workforce to ever greater output with minimal financial reward, taking great pride in his own technical printing skill. The printers eventually call a strike, which Joe resolutely defies and fights, even risking his own life as the hostility grows. But his ungrateful boss fails to recognise his loyalty, and doesn’t even give him a raise when the strike ends. Gurlie is disgusted with him.

This is really Flossie’s novel. Much of the book relates her precarious infancy as a succession of youthful, inept nursemaids take unprofessional care of her; her mother finds her a chore. Williams’s clinical expertise as a pediatrician is apparent in his wonderful descriptions of the infant’s development:

For a fact the baby liked it immensely in that hot room, if actions mean anything, for it lay completely relaxed on its back, its head moving slowly about as if it were viewing the room though its eyes didn’t seem to focus on anything…The baby was playing up to the girl’s gentle voice and easy manner to perfection. With half closed eyes, it moved first a finger then an arm as if talking some mysterious sign language.

When malnutrition, neglect and infections weaken Flossie dangerously, her mother is advised to take her into the country for a healthier environment. Taking her other daughter with her (she’s five when Flossie is born), Gurlie lodges with a frugal, elderly Norwegian couple at their farm in upstate New York. Flossie thrives in the regime there, and Gurlie loves rural life, having been raised on a farm in Norway – she feels ‘cooped and tormented by city exigencies.’

By the novel’s end Joe appears to have made a deal with another printer-entrepreneur to start up his own company, a development which will please his driven wife.

Mule cover This is an artistically more ambitious and skilfully realised work than The Enormous Room, with a more artful structure and rounded portrayal of character and relationships. At first I found the abrupt shift of scene from the city to the country farm odd and felt it unbalanced the novel, and the open ending, with an apparently inconsequential rural event, unsatisfactory. On reflection, however, I’ve come to see that it points forward to the next novel in the sequence, and I find I do want to stay with the account of this abrasive, dysfunctional family, which manages simultaneously somehow to persuade me that they’re more than just a force to reckon with – they become a symbol of America’s thrusting, upwardly mobile immigrant-founded citizenry: they’re people who, despite their unattractive selfishness and truculent ambition are credible as flawed, striving human beings.

The novel closes with a description of Flossie and other children watching the menfolk (some are from Boston) shoot their rifles:

The children were standing back in a fascinated circle, the baby’s face smeared with berry juice, her hands sooty: quite part of it all.

 She has survived the ordeal of her first year in America and has become ‘part of it all.’ An American. But the cost to Joe has been high as he struggles to maintain his integrity in the face of corrupt unions on the one hand and greedy, corrupt employers – whose number he is about to join in order to get ‘In the Money’ – on the other.

We are all, in our diverse ways, immigrants, craving integration and assimilation while maintaining our independence and hoping for our families to flourish. Would Flossie thrive today, I wonder?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Short post about Cheever’s Christmas story

BBC Radio 4 has a recording of John Cheever’s excellent story ‘Christmas is a Sad Season For the Poor’, read by Martin Freeman – so charming in the Sherlock BBC TV dramas – and available to listen to for almost a month. Highly recommended. Link HERE.

220px-JohncheeverYou might also want to look up my 2014 review of this story HERE. Bittersweet, like Dickens’ more famous seasonal story.

Have read several books recently that I’m hoping to write about here soon: E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Barbara Comyns among others. Once the holiday guests and visits are departed/completed I might find time to compose some posts. In the meantime I hope you’ve had an enjoyable holiday – if you had one – and have a peaceful, fulfilling 2016.

I’m not a big fan of ‘best books of the year’ posts, so won’t be doing one here. But do read through my archive if you’re interested in what I had to say about this year’s reading. I recently bought some bargain bundles from The Book People: Hemingway, Wharton, the Barbara Comyns that I mentioned, Barbara Pym, Edna O’Brien’s country girls trilogy (which my wife is currently enjoying; she doesn’t always like my recommendations!)…So plenty of reading to keep me going. Bulgakov, Franzen’s ‘Purity’ and Pound’s complete Cantos for Christmas, too (not to mention Clarice Lispector’s complete stories still languishing accusingly on the shelves from my birthday wish list). A desert retreat would be good so I could just binge on them all…

 

The soonness of the train: E.E. Cummings

People, says Cummings in his 1932 Introduction to the 1971 Penguin Modern Classics edition of this autobiographical novel first published in 1922, had wanted a war book but were disappointed; in The Enormous Room he ‘uses war: to explore an inconceivable vastness which is so unbelievably far away that it appears microscopic’. Something ‘more unimaginably huge than the most prodigious of all universes – …The individual.’ This is an account of an individual’s struggle against a callous wartime system.

Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massechussetts in 1894, the son of a Harvard professor who later became a Unitarian minister in Boston. With family friends like Henry James’s philosopher brother William, it was unsurprising that he graduated from Harvard in 1915. In 1917 he enlisted in the Norton-Harjes ambulance corps in France (Hemingway also drove ambulances in WWI). With his friends John Dos Passos and William Slater Brown (known as ‘B’ in this book) he became deeply Francophile, hostile to the bigoted, bellicose attitudes of his superiors, and all three volunteers, especially Brown, expressed in their letters and conversation anti-war sentiments which exhibited a lack of animosity towards the Germans which the military censors considered seditiously suspicious. He and Brown were arrested, cursorily arraigned, and committed to a ‘dépôt de triage’ – a sort of interim jail – at La Ferté-Macé in Normandy for over three months.

Paul Klee adorns the cover of my PMC edition

Paul Klee adorns the cover of my PMC edition

Here they were incarcerated in the huge cell which gave the book its title. More of a bitter-humorous memoir or journal than novel, The Enormous Room simply relates the events leading up to Cummings’ arrest and imprisonment, and then profiles the brutal, unhygienic regime he endured, with portraits of dozens of the varied inmates with whom he shared this ordeal. Most of them were there simply because they were foreign; in the eyes of the French government, depicted in the book as blinkered by bureaucratic xenophobia and systemic stupidity, this was sufficient grounds to consider them spies.

 

In many ways the book resembles Solzhenitsyn’s blistering account of a Soviet gulag in Ivan Denisovitch, but Cummings imbues his narrative with the irreverent wit of a young American non-conformist adrift in the France he loved for its culture but which was governed and administered by thuggish buffoons – according to this account.

A surprising factor is that there are only intermittent signs of the experimental style of his later poetry, with its typographic unorthodoxy and syntactic fluidity; his prose style is curiously stately, even Victorian/Edwardian in its ornateness. At times, in fact, it’s rather too stuffy and decoratively literary, with frequent allusions to Pilgrim’s Progress that clog its workings awkwardly.

But there are also modified quotations from Pound, and hints of the high modernism to come. Some excellent images, too: on the march to prison he describes the scene –

The road was absolutely deserted; the night hung loosely around it, here and there tattered by attempting moonbeams…and the delicious silence of the night (in which our words rattled queerly like tin soldiers in a plush-lined box) boosted me…

Installed in La Ferté he describes the disgusting coffee and bread:

Between gulps I smelled the bread furtively. It smelled rather much like an old attic in which kites and other toys gradually are forgotten in a gentle darkness.

 There are a few unfortunate casual racist terms that can probably be ascribed to the intolerant attitudes of the times. Otherwise it’s a deeply humane story of the principled resistance by a young man of deep moral rectitude to the inane and unimaginative prejudices of a corrupt and hopelessly narrow-minded system that was rendered even more stupidly corrupt by war. The need to oppose the enemy encouraged an attitude of self-righteously venomous racism that would be unimaginable today, except it’s still too (sadly) evident.

Most of the portraits of Cummings’ colourful cell-mates are intriguing, affectionate and entertaining, but the catalogue does at times seem too long and detailed. The style, already mentioned, can also cloy the narrative:

The door by which we exited with the water-wagon to the street outside was at least eight feet high, adorned with several large locks…We waited until told to proceed; then yanked and shoved the reeling vehicle up the street…[a water source] operating by means of a stubby lever which, when pressed down, yielded grudgingly a spout of whiteness. The contrivance was placed in sufficiently close proximity to a low wall…the man in the shafts leaning back with all his might to offset a certain velocity promoted by the down-grade…

 And so on; I find that too polysyllabic and filled with stodgy ‘elegant variation’. But these are minor defects. The Enormous Room was much admired by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it’s worth reading as a testament to the indomitable human spirit in the face of institutional cruelty, intolerance and hostility to people who dare to flout convention and refuse to conform to the tenets of mediocrity.

I’d rather end on a more positive note. Here’s a glimpse of the innovative poetry to come:

Rain did, from time to time, not fall: from time to time a sort of unhealthy almost-light leaked from the large uncrisp corpse of the sky, returning for a moment to our view the ruined landscape. From time to time the eye…stopped upon the incredible nearness of the desolate without-motion autumn.

On being released he muses:

I will get upon the soonness of the train and ride into the now of Paris.

 

 

A little colder, a little lonelier

Alfred Hayes’ 1958 novel My Face for the World to See was reissued in 2013 by the always reliable NYRB imprint.

Only 130 pages long, it packs a punch way above its weight. As Nicholas Lezard said in this review, its content suggests it might be a ‘grim read’ but it isn’t: it’s ‘unsettling’ but the ‘beauty of its precision is what carries you through.’

The unnamed narrator, a writer of film screenplays, watches from a plush beach-house balcony (he’s at a tediously boozy Hollywood party, seeking to escape the ‘smiles which pinned you against the piano’) as a long-legged pretty girl in ‘a jaunty cap’ woozily enters the ocean, martini glass in hand. When she gets into difficulty (under ‘the indifferent sky’ – a Camus allusion perhaps, certainly one of Hayes’ frequent nods to European existential bleakness) he intervenes and rescues her.

Intrigued and troubled by this event he later phones her and they start an affair – he’s married, but his wife is on the other side of the continent in New York, and their marriage is in an unhealthy state – but then his whole life is. His work disgusts him. This affair is also toxic, and reveals some ugly things about the girl and the narrator.

That’s it as far as plot goes. It’s the measured, cautious narrative voice that is the most compelling feature of the novel, though. Apart from the bleakly anonymous, smoke-filled Californian bars, restaurants and parties that so weary him, the narrator’s ennui and self-disgust are redolent in almost every line; here’s a random example, from the opening of ch. 4:

I took a hot shower and went to bed. Occasionally, a car went by in the street; occasionally, there was the sound of a bird in a tree. I did not feel, in the darkness, lost or in despair or even unhappy. My throat burned a little, but that was because I smoked too much: it seemed somewhat ironic to have only that as a concern lying there in the darkness. I’d been coming here now, to this place, off and on for about five years. I’d work for a few months at one of the studios and then I’d go back to New York. It was not a disadvantageous arrangement. I did not feel, or at least I did not think I felt, superior to the things which concerned these people here.

 I’ve quoted at length to demonstrate the meticulous style. There’s a surface simplicity and lucidity reminiscent of Hemingway (that fondness for ‘and/’and then’ structures, the monosyllabic vocabulary), but this is counterpointed by a disturbing and contrasting complexity. Hayes carefully fragments his syntax with those awkward incidental details (the fronted, repeated adverb ‘occasionally’, ‘in the darkness’ and ‘to this place, off and on’).

The simpler elements (the opening sentences of that extract) create a rhythmic fluency, enhanced by the symmetrical repetitions (he’s fond of tripled structures); but look again at their negativity: ‘I did not feel’ when repeated suggests our narrator is being less than candid with himself. He acknowledges this when he goes on to concede that ‘at least’ he did not think he felt these things. Even the birds are denied agency: they don’t sing in the tree, there’s just their sound, passively registered by this fretful insomniac, lying there in indifferent ‘darkness’ (also tellingly repeated), who is, surely, despite his denials, irredeemably ‘lost’, ‘in despair’ and ‘unhappy’.

The denials are hollow, hence that unconvincing double negative in ‘not disadvantageous’ – this lapse into the kind of clichéd structure deplored by language purists like Orwell is deliberately fatuous and discordant in comparison with the mellifluous, fastidious syntax the narrator usually deploys. The emptiness of his soul is conveyed with deeper resonance here because of the hollowness of this note.

Alfred Hayes, My Face for the World to SeeThis is a narrator who’s in existential crisis. Like a bird caught in a hunter’s net, the more he struggles to free himself, the more entangled he becomes. All he can do is to explore these futile attempts and try to survive them. That’s why, when asked later by the girl about his work, he says sardonically that he’s not writing but ‘writhing’.

The narrator’s portrayal of the girl tends to be superficial and callous. We never know much about her except that she has a pretty face – that’s what caused her doomed decision to try to make her fortune in the ‘rhinestone’ fakeness of Hollywood and become a star (the town at night is marvellously described as ‘looking as hell might with a good electrician’). She’s failed, and she knows it, and measures out her lonely, dwindling days in a ‘bleak apartment’. The narrator says this about her at the start of ch. 9:

I found she struck the nerve of pathos, somehow; there was an air about her of a somewhat touching injury. It was possibly accentuated by the fact that she was pretty.

Here again is Hayes’ characteristic hedging: ‘somehow’, ‘somewhat’, ‘possibly’. Every thought or experience is held up and examined as potential mitigating evidence in his defence. For although he can’t admit or confront it, that’s what this narrative is: he’s on trial for the betrayal or abandonment of his moral, spiritual and emotional integrity. He knows his conduct is indefensible; this is, in a way, his confession. Probably that’s why the girl’s role is so tenuous: he’s responsible for his own actions, including his cowardly behaviour towards her, and his own tenuous grip on reality. The superficiality of the narrative towards her is part of his indictment of himself. That’s why we get passages like this a few sentences later, as he scrutinises the evidence:

Looking at her, it struck me that among the things wrong with her was that she had neither humor nor, really, charm. The eyes were fine and quite beautiful, and she was undeniably a very pretty girl, but there was no charm in that somewhat rigid face, in the manner so constantly tensed. She hadn’t all evening said anything I could recall as either charming or witty. What she did have, apparently, was a sort of desperateness, which compelled another, and different sort, of appeal.

 The stuttering style accentuates the narrator’s disingenuousness; if there’s so much ‘wrong with her’ and she’s so humourless, desperate and ‘rigid’ why is he pursuing her? If her beauty is just superficially there in her ‘face for the world to see’, why is he attracted to her? The answer isn’t ‘apparent’ to him, because he’s rejecting the possibility that what he sees in her is a mirror image. He’s attracted to a kindred spirit whose damage is more overt and ‘apparent’ than his own. He can’t acknowledge this without condemning himself, but the language here reveals the true cause of her ‘appeal’ to him, perhaps. He can’t spell it out any more clearly (as always the prose if full of hedges and evasions like ‘somewhat’ – again – and that awkwardly positioned ‘really’) than to say it’s of a ‘different sort’. Later, thinking he’d even prefer not to be with the girl, he admits there’s nothing else ‘out there’ without her: it’s ‘a little colder, a little lonelier’ out there:

…at least here, together, even unhappily together, there was a semblance of warmth, there was a kind of light, there was a habitation of a sort.

That ‘habitation’ is just right in its unexpectedness, pointed up by the habitual use of tripling in ‘a semblance’, ‘a kind’, ‘of a sort’. But now I’m straying into cod psychology, and had better stop. Without giving too much away, I’d warn that things don’t turn out too well in the end. From what I’ve shown so far this should come as no surprise.

Why are intelligent men like this drawn to equally damaged, wilfully destructive women? Why are such women attracted by emotionally evasive men like him? Like all the best literature, this novel doesn’t try to answer such questions — but it asks them in fascinating, beautifully written ways.

 

 

 

The tenacity of disreputable avenues

The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick (NYRB Classics, paperback, 2010)

It’s a new academic term and I’m teaching several new courses. They all need researching and preparation, so my time for blogging is even more constrained than usual. My posts will probably be sporadic for a while. But I’d like to keep some sort of record going of highlights of what I’ve been reading and doing now that autumn is here.

I mentioned recently that I’d not enjoyed Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter as much as other things of his that I’ve read. Then I had a negative experience with William Gerhardie’s Of Mortal Love.

Since then I’ve whizzed rapidly through the new William Boyd novel, Sweet Caress, but considered it, like the Gale, too plot-centred and episodic. Like Any Human Heart it traces the whole life experience of its central character – a photographer named Amory Clay, but unlike the story of Logan Mountstuart (who is said to have been based on Gerhardie) this novel failed to engage me. The reviewer in the Guardian was much more impressed: link here.

E Hardwick NY StoriesNext I read The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, a typically handsome edition by the reliable NYRB Classics people. In Feb. last year I wrote about her autobiographical novel, Sleepless Nights, a fragmentary, structurally audacious work that was both challenging and rewarding (they reminded me of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, published just three years earlier). These stories are also well written: the quality and style is varied, but on the whole I enjoyed them immensely.

There’s an informative and interesting Introduction by Darryl Pinckney, who points out that Hardwick (1916-2007) struggled to produce long forms of fiction, and published very few shorter works – partly because of her obsessive perfectionism in her language (the Flaubertian insistence on the ‘mot juste’), and a tendency to feel that she was better suited to non-fiction. The stories originally appeared in prestigious publications like The New Yorker and Partisan Review.

The earliest stories, dating from 1946-56, reflect the themes of exile and flight from her small-town Kentucky youth from which she came to feel alienated (she writes of ‘the family demons’ and the brutal ‘hostilities’ of the familial in the story ‘Evenings At Home’), and of escape to the big city – where I sense she also never felt fully at ease or at home. Nevertheless she is intrigued by the buzz and dynamic energy of metropolitan life, and portrays it in shrewdly observant, often sensuously textured prose that is poetic in its cadences, but tends towards a detachment that can sometimes chill.

Later stories begin to show the avant-garde style and narrative fluidity that I posted about in my piece on Sleepless Nights. They often concern women whose lives’ central concerns were the men with whom they became romantically involved, and who generally disappointed them or caused as much emotional turmoil as fulfilment. Maybe this is at least partially a consequence of her turbulent marriage (1949-72) to the mercurial Robert Lowell. There’s this wonderfully witty aphorism in the story ‘Yes And No’:

Nothing so easily unbalances the sense of proportion in a woman of artistic ambitions as the dazed love and respect of an ordinary man.

At the story’s end she reflects caustically on the man who is eternally ‘not quite good enough’.

Later pieces become more impressionistic and start to adopt a skewed first-person narrative voice, offering verbal portraits of people in the urban setting that she inhabits and shares with them, but which she anatomises at times with clinical scrupulousness and curiosity, but with with an artist’s perception. There are frequent flashes of deceptively unflashy wit and weird obliqueness that are reminiscent of some of Robert Walser’s work (like his sketches in Berlin Stories, also published by NYRB).

Let me try to give a flavour of Hardwick through some quotations from across the collection: I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts were if you’ve read it.

There are some deftly Jamesian touches, for example, in ‘The Classless Society’: the character called Dodo had hunted for an aristocratic English husband in Florence, where she’d lived ‘in an inexpensive pensione’ for several years without finding a suitable candidate, or even ‘an attractive, penniless Italian of noble birth.’ As the literary-academic characters around her vie with each other to appear witty and intellectual, Dodo struggles:

“Who are you?” Dodo suddenly said to [Clarence]. “Are you terribly brilliant, and all that?”

 “Yes, I must confess I am,” Clarence replied, with an elaborate flourish of self-mockery. “I am very frightening with my great brilliance.”

 Dodo did not laugh. She was as free of irony as a doll. A mind like that, Clarence thought giddily, lives by sheer superstition.

 I like the subtle shifts of register and viewpoint here: it’s a technique (focalization) handled almost as skilfully here as anything in Austen. There’s the omniscient narrator’s presentation for us of the slightly dim, ingenuous Dodo, but it’s the cruel arrogance of Clarence that Hardwick is more interested in, hence the shift to free indirect thought, but all is tempered by the narrator’s deft insertion of the stiletto-like adverb ‘giddily’.

That passage also has a characteristically acerbic simile that reveals and dissects the character; here are two more – one slightly cliched, the other working harder, in ‘The Purchase’: Frazier is a young Turk ‘action’ painter, trying to goad an older, more conservative but also more established artist called Palmer, whose star is fading, into buying one of his canvases.

“So?” Thomas Frazier said, with a negligent, burly composure that neither assented nor disagreed. A profound and bullying impudence emanated from Frazier, like steam escaping from a hot valve…Whatever the merit of the two men’s work, they faced each other in a condition of tribal hostility, like the appropriate antagonism of the Army and Navy teams on the football field.

These extracts so far indicate the largely conventional narrative technique in Hardwick’s stories. Here are some examples of the later, more innovative style.

This, from ‘The Bookseller’, is what I’d call transitional – the first person narrator shows an inclination to veer off into omniscient mode, and stranger imagery:

Roger does not drink, but he eats quite a lot of apples, pizzas, and hamburgers, and makes many cups of coffee in his electric pot…He is one of those brought up by well-to-do parents sent to good schools, to France for a summer – who, on their own, show no more memory of physical comforts than a prairie dog.

Soon after there’s this about Roger the bookseller:

No matter – the patrician in him is not entirely erased and lingers on in an amiable displacement, remaining in his contentment to keep pace with just where he is…

Shades again, perhaps, of mid-to-late period Henry James (as well, perhaps, as a hint once more of Austen’s ironically percipient narrators; ‘an amiable displacement’ is perfect).

‘Back Issues’ is one of the later, more impressionistic pieces; here’s a delightful and typically multifaceted passage from it (which loses much of its impact by being detached from the equally well crafted sentences that precede and follow it):

And the cafeterias with chopped liver, tuna fish and egg salad brought in at dawn from some sinister kitchen? Yes, the tenacity of disreputable avenues; and yet all is possible and the necessary conditions may arrive and bottles and pencils, hats and condoms will go to their grave.

 Here can be seen Hardwick’s audacious, polyphonic blending of ostensibly mundane lists of concrete things which are transformed into something transcendent by that mysterious interrogative punctuation and gear-shift from concrete noun monosyllables to polysyllabic abstraction. Like jazz improvisation, it startles and delights with those jarring juxtapositions and contrasts of register (‘the tenacity of disreputable avenues’ is beautifully highlighted by the brash banality of the inventory either side of it). That rising, confident, poetic tone of finality and stately certainty is brilliantly counterpointed by the expression of the theme of mutability (the bathetic ‘hats and condoms’) at the close. This is prose as densely packed and meticulously modulated as an Imagist or pre-1923 TS Eliot poem (what exactly might those ‘necessary conditions’ be, and why is there uncertainty about their ‘arrival’?)

And there I’d better stop.

 

 

Henry James, ‘The Pension Beaurepas’

This is a version of the piece to be posted next week on the Mookse and Gripes website

‘The Pension Beaurepas’ was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1879. In this story, James satirises two types of American abroad in the guise of two families staying at the Geneva pension run by the redoubtable Mme Beaurepas: the Ruck family from New York City, who represent the rich, uncultivated ‘new money’ families like Daisy Miller’s (Trevor Berrett wrote about her story at the Mookse and Gripes website here) – who show little enthusiasm for the history, culture or scenery of Europe, while demonstrating the principles of liberty, innocence and democracy. The other family are polar opposites to the Rucks: the Europeanised American Mrs Church and her daughter Aurora (and, incidentally, our narrator). Mrs Church had brought Aurora to Europe from their American home sixteen years earlier when the girl was only five.

The young, unnamed American narrator of the story explains at the start why he has come to stay at this pension:

I was not rich – on the contrary; and I had been told the Pension Beaurepas was cheap. I had, moreover, been told that a boarding-house is a capital place for the study of human nature. I had a fancy for a literary career.

Already we can see the subtle presentation of the familiarly ambiguous James narrator: an ingenuous, studious, slightly pompous young man very like himself, with his own literary-cultural hypersensitivity, and a propensity for close observation of his fellows, while at the same time demonstrating a reluctance to engage fully in the life he so attentively observes – a timidity seen in Winterbourne, the disengaged narrator of ‘Daisy Miller’ — and which culminates in a singularly unflattering (to him) episode at the end of this story to which I’ll return shortly.

The first strand in the plot reworks the King Lear theme in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot: Sophy and Mrs Ruck relentlessly spend Mr Ruck’s money, unaware that he has become bankrupt. In ‘An International Episode’, about which I wrote in the Mookse and Gripes last time here, also posted on this blog here Kitty Westgate, whose husband (a work-obsessed counterpart to “tragic” Mr Ruck) hardly appears in the narrative, so busy is he in his lucrative law business, says this:

An American woman who respects herself must buy something every day of her life. If she cannot do it herself, she must send out some member of her family for the purpose.

The narrator says of Mrs Ruck and Sophy, near the story’s end:

“Between them they are bleeding him to death.”

I shall focus here though on the second theme in the story: that of the American Girl. In ‘Daisy Miller’ she’s portrayed, through Daisy, as a charming mix of frankness and spontaneity,  brashness and vulgarity, but essentially, like all American girls, according to Winterbourne, “exceedingly innocent”, even when at her most coquettish and immodest.

Sophy is representative of the Daisy Miller type of feisty American girl. She is “a lively brunette” is the narrator’s initial impression, and “very pretty”, “decisive” and opinionated (like Daisy). When she learns that Aurora is “dying to go to America” but “her mother won’t let her”, she says indignantly:

“If I were you my mother would have to take me.”

The narrator is clearly more attracted to Aurora, who is a less dauntingly assertive, more retiring version of the American girl. She and her mother are described by a fellow guest as having “a tournure de princesse”, and it is as a kind of democratic princess that James usually portrays young American women.

Aurora has never been out of the house alone, and sadly describes herself as having been in Europe, with its social constraints for young women, “always”. She is desperately homesick and frustrated by her imperious mother’s control:

“American girls are so wonderfully frank. I can’t be frank, like that. I am always afraid.”

Our narrator perceives, as Sophy does, however, that her native spirit hasn’t been entirely quashed. She tells him, for example, with ingenuous “coquetry”, that her “figure was admired” in France –

But I was an innocent youth, and I only looked back at her, wondering. She was a great deal nicer than Miss Ruck, and yet Miss Ruck would not have said that.

The perceptive Mme Beaurepas tells the narrator that Mrs Church’s restless migration across Europe via its cheap boarding houses is because “She is trying to marry her daughter.” Whereas Daisy Miller and her family lacked the “culture” to catch an aristocratic and wealthy European husband and were “intellectually incapable of that conception”, Aurora simply lacks a “dot”, as she calls her dowry. What adds poignancy to Aurora’s position is that all she really longs for is the freedom she believes her compatriots enjoy. As the narrator says to her mother:

“…in America young girls have an easier lot. They have much more liberty.”

Mrs Church is not convinced that this is a desirable condition:

“We are very crude,” she softly observed…”There are two classes of minds, you know—those that hold back, and those that push forward. My daughter and I are not pushers, we move with little steps. We like the old, trodden paths; we like the old, old world…we like Europe, we prefer it.”

She calls upon Aurora to endorse her “point of view” – a phrase which was to become a key concept in James’s fiction, as we shall see – and the girl dutifully does so —

with a sort of inscrutable submissiveness. I wondered at it; it offered so strange a contrast to the mocking freedom of her tone the night before…

Geneva, Jardin Anglais wikiThis conflict of views comes to a crisis when Aurora and Sophy walk alone in the English Garden in Geneva. The narrator and a fellow boarder encounter them there, and are shocked to see them so “insufficiently chaperoned”.  Aurora’s rebellious spirit flashes out, in a speech very like Daisy’s when found in a similarly compromising situation with her Italian admirer:

“Which is most improper – to walk alone or to walk with gentlemen? I wish to do what is most improper.”

She explains that she is in a “false position”, and here is where she becomes less ingenuous than Daisy:

“I have to pretend to be a jeune fille. I am not a jeune fille; no American girl is a jeune fille; an American girl is an intelligent, responsible creature. I have to pretend to be very innocent, but I am not very innocent.”

“You don’t pretend to be very innocent; you pretend to be – what shall I call it? – very wise.

“That’s no pretence. I am wise.”

“You are not an American girl,” I ventured to observe…

“There’s my false position. I want to be an American girl, and I’m not.”

“Do you want me to tell you?” I went on. “An American girl wouldn’t talk as you are talking now…She wouldn’t reason out her conduct…”

“I see. She would be simpler. To do very simple things that are not at all simple – that is the American girl!”

She tells the young man she anticipates having “the most lovely time” in New York if the Rucks invite her there – because there at last she would have “absolute liberty”. Her mother adores “European society”, and Aurora knows she’ll be punished for the liberties she is taking at that moment with him – and her mother duly arrives and whisks her away in a closed cab.

Later Mrs Church tells the narrator that she disapproves of the Rucks and their uncultivated vulgarity. She intends to remove Aurora from the “pernicious influence” of “this deplorable family”.

The story ends with her doing just that. Before she fulfils her promise, however, Aurora has one final, revealing conversation with the narrator, to tell him that she and her mother leave for Dresden the next day. He suspects she has sought him out in the pension’s garden that evening to break this news, and he feels very sorry for her, and finds her “interesting” and “charming”. He realises this “insidiously mutinous, young creature was looking for a preserver.” For a moment this is a heroic role he finds tempting to play; he tells her he knows she desires the “liberty” taken for granted by other American girls. Her mother, she replies

“…has so perverted my mind that when I try to be natural I am necessarily immodest.”

She has said her piece, and now waits to see what he will do. As she turns to leave he has a momentary impulse to leave with “this yearning, straining young creature” and pass into “mysterious felicity”. But it doesn’t happen:

If I were only a hero of romance, I would offer, myself, to take her to America.

Like Winterbourne, however, he is unwilling to act decisively when faced with the prospect of a romantic relationship.

The story is, then, more of an example of what James later called “portraiture” – a sketch rather than a developed, textured story. But it is an interesting example of his developing portrayal of the consequences of the innocence of the American girl coming into contact with the decadence and hierarchical social rigidities and atrophied morality and customs of the Old World. He shows how both worlds have their attractions and charms, but both are flawed in their own ways.

We meet Aurora again in a story published soon after this one. Its title is the term employed crucially by Mrs Church in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, as noted earlier: it’s called ‘The Point of View’.

 

Richard Ford, ‘Let Me Be Frank With You’

Richard Ford is one of my favourite writers. I loved the three previous Frank Bascombe novels: The Sportswriter (1986 ), Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006). It was generally felt that Ford had done with this character, but he has now brought him back from retirement in another terrific novel. It isn’t quite up to the standard of the best – the middle one of the trilogy – or the other two, but it’s still damn good.

Richard_Ford_at_Göteborg_Book_Fair_2013_01In four loosely connected novellas Frank, now 68 and that paltry thing, an aged man —  not quite Yeats’s ‘tattered coat upon a stick’, but still fearful of falling and breaking his hip as a consequence of the giddy spells he suffers. These are caused by a problem in his neck bones, as he frequently tells us with the clinical relish of a chronic sufferer. He worries about his declining physical state a lot: Alzheimer’s, heart disease;  he notes the deterioration in his contemporaries – ex-wife Ann has moved to an expensive NJ care facility, suffering from Parkinson’s, near enough for him to feel obliged to visit regularly (one such visit is the subject of section 3). Frank is full of intimations of mortality now. He calls himself a ‘prostate “survivor’. Things are falling apart. He’s fond of quoting from a range of writers – Yeats, Richard Hugo, Roethke, and especially Emerson: ‘an infinite remoteness underlies us all’.

There are plenty of reviews out there which will provide more plot detail, so I’ll concentrate here on the distinctive Ford style, thereby I hope indicating what it is that makes this worth reading (it took me just three sittings: the font is quite large and the lines are wide-spaced).

The opening story begins with an evocative description of the devastating aftermath of hurricane Sandy on the Jersey Shore, where Frank used to live:

Strange fragrances ride the fragrant, twitchy wintry air at the Shore this morning…Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea stir expectancy in the unwary.

It is, of course, the bouquet of large-scale home repair and re-hab. Fresh-cut lumber, clean, white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits. The starchy zest of Tyvek mingled with the ocean’s sulphurous weft and Barnegat Bay’s landward stink.

Much of this reads like prose poetry: there are beautiful sound patterns, symmetries (the alliteration and near-rhymes like ‘strange fragrances’); the deftly chosen adjectives (‘twitchy wintry air’) surprise and delight (it had to be ‘wintry’, not ‘winter’; not sure why). He’s good on weather effects: he talks elsewhere of NJ’s ‘discordant skies’. There’s a pleasing mix of registers, from the lyrical, literary ‘Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea’ to the American-demotic/informal list of DIY materials in the second paragraph.

The loping first-person present-tense narrative voice takes us right into Frank’s head as he contemplates impermanence, transgressions and loss, ‘the bruise of defeat’. It usually has that mesmerising blend of relaxed vernacular and pungent philosophising. And the style has become sparer, more stripped-down, compared with the earlier trilogy; Frank has begun an ‘inventory’ of ‘polluted words’ that should ‘no longer be usable – in speech or any form’. Among his pet hates are the clichés ‘no worries’ and a well-wisher being ‘here for me’.

Often accompanying the American cultural references is Frank’s love of (multiple) compound expressions: ‘the plump-pastie Ishpeming girl’. In the Sandy-devastated shopping area of the Shore is a Home Depot ‘Kremlin-like, but enigmatically-still-your-friend-in-spite-of-all’… These add to the novel’s distinctive vernacular, colloquial style, counterpointed by the high register abstractions and polysyllabic obscurities (alongside ‘copacetic’ he’ll have ‘She knows what it’s all about – not as great as it’s cracked up to be’ – he’s talking about masculinity, having met a transgender person.)

Set just before another holiday period, like the other three Bascombe novels, this time Christmas, each section deals with an emotionally bruising meeting with someone who causes Frank to reflect ruefully on his life, and life in general: ‘life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end.’   These produce the novel’s main feature: Frank’s ongoing internal monologue. Mostly he ponders life with that sort of resigned, cagy stoicism. They are intercalated between the colloquial stream of Frank’s thoughts and observations, creating that curious hybrid style I’ve mentioned. Here are some typical examples:

…life’s a matter of gradual subtraction, aimed at a solider, more-nearly-perfect essence, after which all mentation goes and we head off to our own virtual Chillicothes…When you grow old, as I am, you pretty much live in the accumulations of life anyway.

This English reader often finds these American references obscure: I’d welcome an explanation of that Chilicothe allusion; all I know is it’s a town in Ohio?

He sees himself, after the various stages of existence he’d identified in the previous trilogy, as having moved on, at 68, to ‘the Next Level of life’ – ie retirement –

conceivably the last: a member of the clean-desk demographic, freed to do unalloyed good in the world, should I choose to…

The world gets smaller and more focused the longer we stay on it.

Sally, his second wife (they’ve remarried)

views life as one thing leading naturally, intriguingly on to another, whereas I look at life in terms of failures survived, leaving the horizon gratifyingly –  but briefly – clear of obstructions.

Frank’s reached a stage where he’s started trying to ‘jettison’ as many friends as he can as a means of achieving ‘well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity’, before ‘the-curtain-sways-shut-and-all-becomes-darkness’. He tries to present to the world what he calls his ‘Default Self’, which represents ‘bedrock truth’ at last. Mostly he succeeds, but being Frank, he’s self-deprecating about it – and is often very funny; at one point he’s not sure if he’s thinking or actually talking, when he says the Default Self allows questions, ‘but only ones for which you want an answer – the opposite of lawyers.’ He tries to eschew cynicism, and suspects he might, after all, have a ‘mass and a character peeping reluctantly out from behind the arras like Cupid – which is not a bad outcome at all.’ And then there’s love:

Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts.

001Despite this slightly weary, ruminating, introspective narrative voice, Frank is always palpably engaged in the lives of others, and the prose often soars to heights of beauty, as I hope some of my quotations demonstrate. The material world, shattered by the destructive forces of nature, mirrors his own existential state, but he comes through, more-or-less cheerfully. But the startling revelation he experiences at the end gives him pause: ‘A wound you don’t feel is not a wound.’

I sincerely hope this is not the last we hear from this battered but indomitable New Jersey survivor.

 

Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book.

Bloomsbury, 2014. 238 pp.