Edith Wharton, Summer. First published 1917. Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1993.
There are only two major works of Edith Wharton’s that aren’t set in her own world – high society, affluent New York and Europe. Last time I wrote about the winter-set Ethan Frome. Summer, published six years later, is its counterpart, her ‘hot Ethan’ she called it. Gone is the bleak iciness of the earlier story – this short novel begins with scenes full of the warmth of this season. Until later, when autumn comes and events take a darker, chillier turn.
Now that’s a better cover: from a painting also called ‘Summer’ by Thomas Wilmer Dewing
It opens with a seventeen-year-old girl emerging from lawyer Royall’s house in North Dormer, Massachussetts (again it’s set in the area similar to the Berkshires where the author had built a house and got to know the locality and its dour rural inhabitants), and the lyrical description sets the tone for the first part of the novel:
The springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village, and on the pastures and larchwoods surrounding it. A little wind moved among the round white clouds on the shoulder of the hills…
She shrinks away from the figure of a young man in the street, a stranger with a ‘holiday face’, and looks critically at her ‘swarthy face’ in the hall mirror, wishing she had blue eyes like Annabel Balch – a society girl who sometimes visits.
“How I hate everything!” she murmured.
She repeats this statement more than once in this opening chapter: clearly she is discontented. We soon find out why:
North Dormer is at all times an empty place, and at three o’clock on a June afternoon its few able-bodied men are off in the fields or woods, and the women indoors, engaged in languid household drudgery.
So there’s her reason: drudgery is her lot, and all she has to look forward to in this torpid, desolate, repressed place. There’s more:
There it lay, a weather-beaten, sunburnt village of the hills, abandoned of men, left apart by railway, trolley, telegraph, and the forces that link life to life in modern communities. It had no shops, no theatres, no lectures, no “business block”; only a church that was opened every other Sunday if the state of the roads permitted, and a library for which no new books had been bought for twenty years, and where the old ones mouldered undisturbed on the damp shelves.
Soon we learn that this is Charity Royall, adopted daughter of the burnt-out, hard-drinking lawyer who’d “brought her down from the Mountain” – a wild, lawless region nearby where no respectable person ever goes. Her ‘tainted origin’ adds to her sense of estrangement; ‘she was the child of a drunken convict and of a mother who wasn’t “half human” and was glad to have her go.’
She knew that, compared to the place she had come from, North Dormer represented all the blessings of the most refined civilization.
The young man she’d glimpsed in that opening page turns out to be Lucius Harney, a rare sight in this village, for he’s from the city, educated and artistic. He’s an architect who while visiting his cousin is researching and sketching the old houses in the area; these were once grand and imposing, but were not valued by the locals, and have fallen into disrepair or been abandoned. This is the moral and cultural void which has inspired in Charity such dismal feelings of ennui and longing for escape – a theme prevalent also in Ethan Frome.
All seems set for a romance that will enable her to find fulfilment and escape to a fuller life, one with love and prospects. Sadly, as in Ethan Frome, dreams shatter, love brings pain and humiliation.
So what’s its significance? Elizabeth Ammons in her introduction sets out in detail the historical and biographical context: Wharton had been working with refugees in war-torn France as she wrote the novel, hence perhaps some of the key motifs and situations in it. She’d found passionate love at last after an arid marriage – which would explain the passionate sexual and emotional awakening that Charity experiences – and the misery that tends to accompany such cataclysmic changes when the loved one is fickle or flawed.
But is it, as Ammons suggests, a sort of allegory for the colonial oppression and racism of the white European nations blowing themselves apart in WWI? Or of the shameful racism and xenophobia of early 20C America in its dealings with former slaves and later with the huge numbers of immigrants? Both are plausible readings.
How then to interpret the Mountain? The ‘savage misery of the Mountain farmers’ which made the impoverished crudity of North Dormer’s villagers seem comparatively affluent and desirable? Near the end of the novel the girl travels there, vaguely in search of her mother and some new connection, and experiences instead a ‘tragic initiation’:
Charity vainly tried to think herself into the life about her. But she could not even make out what relationship these people bore to each other, or to her…mother; they seemed to be herded together in a sort of passive promiscuity in which their common misery was the strongest link. [my ellipsis to avoid spoilers]
She tries to picture what her life would have been if she’d stayed in this purgatorial place, ‘turning into a fierce bewildered creature’ like the wild girl she’d encountered on arrival – yet she feels a weird ‘secret affinity’ with that girl – who may even be a relative of hers.
Wharton seems also to be appraising the ahistorical, amoral underbelly of rural America at that time, the capacity of the uneducated, alienated, indifferent villagers like those of “dormant” North Dormer, to be surpassed in their primitivism and state of socio-cultural atrophy by these inbred hillbilly close cousins. The theme of incest that Ammons discusses is clearly a feature in this Mountain world. It’s as if the rural poor that Wharton had seen in the Berkshires and discussed as she passed such places with Henry James in her large car had impressed her with the bleakness and animality of their lives.
Is this snobbish elitism? In some ways, yes. But the richness and empathetic warmth of Wharton’s portrayal of Charity, and the growth and changes she undergoes, the exploration of life’s constraints and barriers for most women at the time it was written, lifts the novel into a higher artistic realm, where we learn what it is to be fully human, even when all around us humanity (and sexual and marital relations in a dysfunctional patriarchal world) seems absent, selfish, cruel, even obscene.
It lacks the visceral punch of Ethan Frome, but is still a powerful, moving depiction of a strange but recognisable, dying world.
Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (first published 1911; OUP paperback, with Summer, 1982, reprinted 1989) (with companion text, Summer)
These two short novels are counterparts, Ethan Frome being set in a bleak, snowy New England winter (the story’s title is Hiver in the French translation), while Summer’s title indicates its contrasting atmosphere.
Unlike the majority of Edith Wharton’s best-known works (links at the end to those I’ve written about in previous posts) neither is set in the high society worlds of New York and Europe that the author, a wealthy woman, and close friend of Henry James, knew so well. Their setting is the remote, impoverished rural villages and small towns of Massachusetts: Starkfield (aptly named), and North Dormer respectively.
Edith had a large house (The Mount) built at Lenox in the Berkshires in 1901 as a place where she and her incompatible husband Teddy might reconstruct their marriage. The attempt failed, but it brought her into contact with the austere country settings and stoical, inarticulate people who populate these two stories. There’s maybe something of their dysfunctional relationship in the two novels under discussion here.
What an awful cover. It depicts the pickle dish that’s broken by the cat, an accident that’s important in the plotting – but this image does the subtlety of the narrative no favours
Both tell of tragically thwarted love affairs. Ethan, a dirt-poor farmer and failing sawmill owner, inept at expressing himself or his feelings – to himself or to others – is married to the whining, needy Zeena (Zenobia – an ironic name, for the third century queen and empire builder was both regal and cultured – qualities which Zeena palpably lacks). Once married, she’s lapsed into self-obsessed hypochondria and constant complaining and fault-finding.
When she leaves to consult yet another quack doctor in a neighbouring town, she leaves Ethan and Mattie – Zeena’s orphan cousin who has lived with them for a year as an unpaid skivvy – alone together overnight for the first time. Their unstated, furtive love for each other leads to tragic conclusions.
It’s interesting to see the patrician, urban socialite Wharton portraying lives of these taciturn characters, as dour as the granite outcrops of the landscape, like those in Wuthering Heights. But she does it with aplomb.
Here’s a passage where the neurosis and perverse passions that seethe beneath the bland surface of this remote, backward region are anatomised; it narrates how Zeena responded to her move to Ethan’s house:
She chose to look down on Starkfield, but she could not have lived in a place which looked down on her…And within a year of their marriage she developed the “sickliness” which had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances. When she came to take care of his mother she had seemed to Ethan like the very genius of health, but he soon saw that her skill as a nurse had been acquired by the absorbed observation of her own symptoms.
There’s a little trace of the potentially patronising scrutiny of the sociologist or entomologist here, but the power of the portrayal carries the reader through such qualms, and it’s impossible not to read on in fascinated horror as the story plays out to its inevitably painful conclusion – one almost as heartbreaking and cathartic as great tragedy.
The evocation of the landscape and climate of the New England winter is done with exceptional skill; key images recur – blackness, whiteness, ice – all of which play a crucial part in the terrifying, gruesome climax. And this is followed by a less dramatic but even more gut-wrenching conclusion, a generation later, mediated through the poised, interpreting voice of the frame narrator. Like the one in Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, which I wrote about last time, he’s engaged in constructing and reconstructing this story out of fragments and narratives of others – a pleasing effect again reminiscent of Emily Bronte.
I’ll turn next to the companion text, Summer.
As noted above, here are links to previous posts here on Edith Wharton:
The House of Mirth
The Age of Innocence
Denis Johnson (1949-2017), The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Jonathan Cape, 2018. 207 pp.
It’s evident in this posthumously published final collection of stories by Denis Johnson that he was aware of his nearing demise; there are frequent references to mutability, mortality and waning strength:
This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life – the distance I’ve travelled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms – that I almost crashed the car.
A little later this narrator reveals he suffers from back trouble, a pinched nerve in his spine that incapacitates him, causing ‘a dull, sort of muffled torment, or else a shapeless, confusing pain.’ That’s the startling imagery and confident, lyrical voice so typical of Johnson, taking up where he left off in his astonishing, pyrotechnic first story collection, Jesus’ Son (1992). The best of these new stories is up there with them – and that’s among the best American short fiction of the last hundred years. Most of these new stories consist of loosely tacked-together vignettes or fragmentary anecdotes that gradually cohere, illuminating what’s gone before and foreshadowing what’s to come.
The passage I just quoted is from the first and best in the book, the title story, in which an ageing ad man called Bill Whitman, ‘just shy of 63’, reflects on his successful but not entirely satisfactory life in advertising and the people who have inhabited his spaces.
In the first vignette, guests at Bill’s dinner party swap stories about ‘the loudest sounds [they’d] ever heard’. Young Chris changes the theme to silences; the most silent thing he’d known was the moment when a land mine blew off his leg on his tour of duty in Afghanistan. Deirde asks to see it:
“No, ma’am,” Chris said. “I don’t carry land mines around on my person.”
She rides his joke and repeats her request – to see the part of his leg that’s left. “I’ll show you,” he said, “if you kiss it.” She bends to do so then starts to cry; everyone feels awkward, so someone changes the subject, and the moment passes. The vignette ends with the announcement that six months later Chris and Deirdre were married ‘by a magistrate’:
Yes, they’re husband and wife. You and I know what’s going on.
This strange, deceptively colloquial direct address buttonholes the reader and tightens the already gripping hold that assertive narrative voice has established, and it’s a device that’s repeated throughout the collection with timely grace.
Later sections of this opening story become ever more disconcerting; at another dinner party the host takes a priceless painting from the wall and throws it on the fire. A chiropractor is dressed as an elf (well, it is Hallowe’en). Bill gets a call from his first wife Ginny; they’d married ‘long ago, in our early twenties’, but ‘put a stop to it after three crazy years.’ She’s called to tell him she’s dying, and to try to forgive him the hurt he’d caused her. They talk, forty years on, ‘about the many other ways I’d stolen her right to the truth.’ Then he realises he’s not sure if he’s talking to Ginny or his second wife, Jenny, so he doesn’t know ‘which set of crimes’ he’s apologising for. It’s another supreme moment of fuddled embarrassment that Johnson carries off with aplomb.
There are many more such moments in this story and in later ones. In ‘The Starlight on Idaho’ a young man in rehab writes letters in fizzing demotic prose to the people with ‘hooks in his heart’ – most of them dysfunctional losers, like him; one of them is Satan. Near the end he reflects on his life after jail in what sounds like the lyrics to an early Tom Waits song:
Just to sketch out the last four years – broke, lost, detox, homeless in Texas, shot in the ribs by a thirty-eight, mooching off the charity of dad in Ukiah, detox again, run over (I think, I’m pretty sure, I can’t remember) then shot again, and detox right now one more time again.
The title of the story ‘Strangler Bob’ is the name of one of a weird collection of prison inmates surrounding the protagonist, an eighteen-year-old serving a sentence for stealing and crashing a car. It’s the 60s, so we’re in similar territory to Jesus’ Son. All his cellmates are as outlandish as him: addicts, murderers and psychos. Hallucinatory drugs are smuggled in and ingested. Strangler Bob tells how he had a meal with his wife ‘and then I sort of killed her a little bit.’ The heroin addiction the narrator endures later in the dark part of his life is also reminiscent of Johnson’s beaten-up junky protagonist Fuckhead in that first collection.
In ‘Triumph Over the Grave’ the narrator, presumably with the insouciance of irony, reflects how easy it is to write fiction. There are several deaths, then he’s told he too is dying:
It doesn’t matter. The world keeps turning. It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.
Yet in addition to the Beat/Hippy/Junky aspects, these haunting, elegiac stories are redolent of the powerful Christian faith of their author, who’d kicked his various addictions by the early 80s. That other Johnson obsession, Elvis, is the subject of the strange final tale in which conspiracy theories about the singer’s stillborn twin not having died, but lived on to replace the real, murdered Elvis, are counterpointed with other doppelganger/poltergeist stories involving the English professor narrator, who may or may not also have a ghost twin existence in his life, his talented poet student (who comes up with the murdered/haunting Elvis theories), and the Twin Towers.
Summarising them doesn’t do these stories justice. They are to be experienced rather than read. I wrote a valedictory piece on Johnson back in May last year, in which I discussed Jesus’ Son, Train Dreams and Tree of Smoke.
Nicole Krauss, Man Walks Into a Room: first published in 2002. I read the Anchor Books paperback, published 2003.
This was Nicole Krauss’s debut; as such it’s impressively confident and accomplished – if a little over-dependant on its high-concept central plot feature. Samson Greene, an English professor in his thirties at Columbia University, New York, is found one day wandering dazed and confused in the Nevada desert. A brain tumour has impaired his cognitive functions. It’s successfully removed, but he’s left with no memory after the age of twelve. What happened in the ensuing twenty-four years is a blank.
The narrative focuses on how this impacts upon his sense of self, his identity. In particular, he finds himself married to a beautiful woman, Anna, but with no emotional or historical connection with her. He’s devastated by the frequent ‘discoveries’ about his past, such as the death of his mother five years earlier.
He finds some kind of companionship and solace with a freewheeling student of his, who’s so laid-back she simply accepts that he has no recollection of who she is. A romantic liaison seems imminent, but comes to nothing.
Then the plot veers off into speculative territory that seriously threatens the credibility of the already so-so plot. Out of the blue Samson receives a call from a scientist who wants him to participate in what turns out to be a highly dodgy project in a sinister desert facility involving memory: how to capture people’s memories from a sort of brain photocopier and transfer them into someone else. As Samson’s brain is more or less a tabula rasa, he’s the ideal guinea-pig as a memory-receiver.
Not surprisingly all doesn’t go well. His fellow volunteer at the facility, a man who becomes his friend, has a memory captured and transferred to Samson’s brain that is so traumatic he freaks out and sets off on a quixotic quest – effectively to in some way find himself and tie up the loose ends of his past – those few that he can remember from his childhood, and the rest that he’d been told about.
It was a good read while I was recovering from illness in bed. Any other time I’d have probably not finished it, for the reasons I think I’ve hinted at above. I’ve maybe been a little over-critical; Krauss writes well, and when she’s inside Samson’s damaged consciousness has some interesting ways of exploring how his brain trauma manifests itself in terms of his behaviour, feelings and fractured, fragmented relationships.
There’s a good portrayal of his dog, Frank, too, who sadly drops out of the story when it lurches off into sub-sci fi territory. Frank accepts Samson for how he is, memory or not, for dogs don’t really care about memory. Here’s a typical canine aside, after Samson has been reaching out to his student friend on the phone, but failing to connect with her:
In the far corner of the room the dog moved his feet in his sleep, as if he were treading water.
There’s a touching moment when Samson is trying to explain to Anna what it’s like to be him with his adult memory gone: “Like an astronaut”, he says. They agree he should move out. He’s packed and about to leave:
“Isn’t there something else?” she asked, the dog crouched between them like a small country…[He says No, then catches sight of a camera on a shelf] Anna took it down and handed it to him. “Take it.” He lifted it to his eye and found her through the lens. She stood patiently, like someone whose face is being felt by the blind, but when he pressed the shutter she flinched. “To remember me by,” she said, and smiled grimly. The dog rolled over as if he were dead.
The first half of this novel has some good images and poised writing of that kind. It lost its way, in my view, when it rode off into the desert on a horse with no name.
John Cheever (1912-82), Bullet Park. First published 1967. Vintage paperback 2010.
This is a startlingly strange book, full of narrative elisions and unsettling shifts, a linguistically pyrotechnic display of insidious intent.
Its subject is that old American existential dilemma, from Hawthorne and Melville to Updike and Stephen King: the paradoxically simultaneous impulse towards the untamed forest of Sabbats, ocean as pratum spirituale, and the ironically deadening pull of the suburbs.
Bullet Park is a ‘precinct of disinfected acoustics’, where everyone knows the price of everyone else’s property, where men paint their houses obsessively then go out into the garden and shoot themselves, unable to ‘stand it any longer’. These people numb their neuroses with cocktail parties and pills, gossip, mowing the lawn or taking the chainsaw to a diseased elm or soul.
In a typically weird and lyrical outburst early on the narrator imagines ‘some zealous and vengeful adolescent’ who might rail like Lear in the storm against such a deadening place, with its
legion of wife-swapping, Jew-baiting, booze-fighting spiritual bankrupts. Oh, damn them all…Damn their hypocrisy, damn their cant, damn their credit cards, damn their discounting the wilderness of the human spirit, damn their immaculateness, damn their lechery and damn them above all for having leached from life that strength, malodorousness, color and zeal that give it meaning. Howl, howl, howl.
Tony Nailles is such an adolescent, but his resistance takes the form of neurosis: he takes to his bed and, like Oblomov or Bartleby the Scrivener, prefers to stay there. His father, the uxorious Eliot, a chemist who helps make a mouthwash called Spang and hates himself for his bourgeois uselessness, has to drug himself to endure the daily commute by train into the city of New York, for a cold shower
had no calming effect on his image of the 7:46 as a portable abyss.
Part I ends with a mysterious Caribbean swami curing Tony with a mix of magic and prayer. Then it all gets much weirder.
Paul Hammer, who with his bitchy wife Marietta has just moved into Bullet Park at the start of the novel (shown his new home by a realtor named Hazzard), takes over the narrative; his monomaniacal first-person voice gives us his lengthy dysfunctional back-story. It’s hardly surprising he’s so deranged; from his exiled mother, crazy as a badger herself, he picks up the idea of crucifying a denizen of suburban respectability and excellence: the collocational congruence of names and pure chance (hazard) of contiguity provide the perfect candidate: Nailles. Or even better, his angsty teenage son.
The purpose of this symbolic crucifixion is ‘to awaken the world’, Hammer believes, with the certitude of the terminally lost. Nailles represents ‘a good example of a life lived without any genuine emotion or value’, he decides – this from Hammer, a man who falls in love with a woman because of a white thread on her shoulder, and who kills because of a piece of string or a much-coveted yellow room.
Nailles’s excellence is shown by such gestures as dutifully to turn on his windshield wipers, whatever the weather he’s driving through, to convey the ‘nomadic signals’ of his church’s somnolent belief in ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’ In their white-painted house (like all the other Bullet Park houses) the Nailles family ‘seemed to have less dimension than a comic strip.’ It’s the Dick van Dyke show scripted by Mephistopheles: this is hell, nor am I out of it.
I’ve written here before about Cheever’s deftly crafted short stories; this novel in some ways is a loosely linked collection of such units. This weakens the flow a little, but interest is sustained by that barely-contained sense of mayhem in the lawned pacific real estate, and by the dazzling language that often reaches levels of poetic delirium that’s akin to a spell. An example: Tony has a spat with his astrologically obsessed, seriously neurotic French teacher, blessed with the lewdly inappropriate name Miss Hoe:
She lived alone, of course, but we will grant her enough privacy not to pry into the clinical facts of her virginity…As a lonely and defenseless spinster she was prey to the legitimate anxieties of her condition…She had read somewhere that anxiety was a manifestation of sexual guilt and she could see, sensibly, that her aloneness and her virginity would expose her to guilt and repression. However, the burden of guilt must, she felt, be somewise divided between her destiny and the news in the evening paper.
‘Sensibly’ is just so well placed in that wicked profile.
How Nailles is impelled to thwart Hammer’s demented plan to immolate Tony in the chancel of the local church is the nearest this strange novel gets to a regular plot. It works, just about, as a sequence of disturbingly ironic, magical-surreal vignettes of a civilisation whose barbarity and existential vacuity is barely concealed, or tolerated. In one such scene Nailles wakes his wife by blazing away with his shotgun on his lawn in his underpants at a century-old snapper turtle that’s emerged from the local bog:
In this pure and subtle light the undressed man and the prehistoric turtle seemed engaged in some primordial and comical battle.
That battle takes many forms in this extraordinary novel, where one feels it’s turtles all the way down in an infinite regress to nothingness.
Photo: By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44665615
With Christmas visits and trips about to happen this will be my last post probably this year. I’d like to write more attentively about Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 novel Olive Kitteredge, Pulitzer Prize winner in 2009, but as time is pressing this will be an impressionistic piece.
My Scribner’s paperback edition, published 2016, still with the charity shop price tag stuck indelibly on the front
It’s a fragmentary novel in the form of thirteen linked short stories, each self-contained, usually about a different set of characters in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, but Olive and her pharmacist husband Henry appear in all of them, sometimes as peripheral characters, in others their story – their fitful, troubled relationship with each other and their son Christopher – develops.
Olive is a difficult, irascible, moody woman, but gifted with surprising empathy. The opening story, ‘Pharmacy’, is a microcosm of the whole novel. It begins with the Kitteredges in their prime, some time in the sixties when ‘the hippie business was beginning’, and ends near the present day when Henry has retired. Henry at the story’s start employs a new assistant, Denise, in his pharmacy, and falls passionately, platonically in love with her. Olive, meanwhile, is subject to fits of emotional ‘darkness’ that distances her husband and surly teenage son. We learn that Henry finds his workplace a safe haven, like ‘a healthy, autonomic nervous system, in a workable, quiet state’, away from ‘any unpleasantness that may have occurred back in his home, any uneasiness at the way his wife often left their bed to wander through their house in the night’s dark hours’. Olive is clearly deeply troubled.
Henry is a long-suffering character it’s easy to warm to, with his perennially ‘cheerful’ nature, and his desire to make everyone happy – even his spiteful wife. Adolescent Christopher has some of his mother’s genes, for he snarls ‘angrily’ at his father near the story’s end:
“Why do you need everyone married?…Why can’t you just leave people alone?” He doesn’t want people alone.
The free indirect style throughout unobtrusively allows us into the main characters’ minds, as here with Henry’s. He can’t bear to see Denise or anyone else ‘helpless’; he wants to help. He needs help – and Olive provides it beautifully but, tragically, too late for him.
The story reveals that Olive’s waspish mouth and misanthropic impatience with people is partly the result of her own unrequited passion for a fellow teacher at her school. The couple never speak about their sorrows or pain, for in their own way they love and need each other. Christopher’s angst, as the other stories unfold, is also explained by his frustration with his mother and her stifling love.
I’d like to say much more about the other stories – maybe I’ll return to them in the new year. All I have time for here, then, is this: a unifying motif or theme is the damaging effect that mothers have on their children. In ‘Pharmacy’ we learn that Henry’s mother had two ‘nervous breakdowns’ and had otherwise cared for him ‘with stridency’ – a word that suits Olive’s maternal style; Henry has to restrain her from giving Christopher too hard a time, and at one point she admits she used to hit him – not smack, hit. Yet her love for her only son almost overwhelms her, and she’s devastated when he moves away from New England with his first wife to live in California; it’s pretty obvious that Olive’s antipathy towards her daughter-in-law is reciprocated, and that Suzanne insisted on leaving. Christopher would not have resisted; when they divorce, he stays out west, and rarely even visits his parents. Tough love hasn’t worked for him.
When pharmacy assistant Denise’s husband dies, Henry cares tenderly for her. Olive is scathing in her dismissal of ‘mousy’ Denise – largely because she’s aware that her transparent husband has feelings for her. Olive acidly observes that at first she couldn’t see why Denise’s husband (also Henry) had married her, until she saw young Henry’s mother at his funeral.
“…he married his mother. Men do.” After a pause. “Except for you.”
It’s typical of the subtlety and psychological insight into her complex characters that Elizabeth Strout reveals in this way how the dynamics of relationships both reveal and conceal truths. Olive is no doubt right about Denise, her husband and his mother; but does she realise that her Henry, too, has married a neurotic, volatile, potentially suicidal woman like his mother? Such self-awareness eludes her, or she swerves away from it, despite her frequent, surprisingly warm empathy for and insight into other people.
In ‘Security’, late in the novel, Olive visits Christopher and his second wife, Ann, in New York City, where they’d followed their therapist (he’d needed one after living first with Olive, then with Suzanne; he’d married his mother that time; Ann is the opposite: vapid, colourless, but damaged in her own way; he’d learned his lesson). The visit is a disaster. Olive detests Ann, and says on the phone to Henry:
“They’re ok, but she’s dumb, just like I thought. They’re in therapy. She hesitated, looked around. “You’re not to worry about that, Henry. In therapy they go straight after the mother. You come out smelling like a rose, I’m sure.”
As before, she shows a startling flash of insight here, while at the same time seeming in denial about the devastating impact she’d had on both her son and her husband. The rueful self-deprecation morphs in typical Olive fashion into an attack on Henry’s benign nature, the opposite of hers.
This quiet, becalmed coastal town of Crosby, Maine (Strout herself was born and raised in Portland, Maine) is the kind that Stephen King might set up for horrific, supernatural mayhem to unleash itself on. Elizabeth Strout prefers a quieter, more insidious kind of hell – the hell of a woman’s seeing her husband suffer a stroke, be emptied of his humanity, and ultimately die. A mother’s realising that the son she adores has been so alienated and intimidated by her acerbity that he dislikes her.
There are many other broken, suffering characters in this novel, and suicide is often not far from their minds, but it usually manages to avoid becoming depressing. There is redemption for most of them, often in surprising places and people. In ‘Incoming Tide’, for example, Olive manages to quell a former student’s suicidal thoughts by revealing with sympathy that she knew his mother killed herself, as her own father did. When he rescues a former classmate of his from drowning in the ocean, we realise she had probably jumped, for she too had tragedy in her life: she’d been unable to become a mother. Their salvation is mutual, reciprocal, and the prose that reveals all this is meticulous and satisfyingly understated.
I’ve only scratched the surface of this multi-faceted, carefully crafted novel. I recommend it – but it’s a bumpy ride.
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. Faber: 1963.
Sylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932, which made her 31 when her only novel was published, shortly before her suicide. According to Ted Hughes she began writing it in 1961. As a consequence of the similarities between the story of her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, and her own, it’s tempting to see it as at least semi-autobiographical. Let’s avoid that temptation.
This novel has been so widely written about – it’s often featured on the syllabus of schools and universities, and is seen as a seminal work of feminist fiction – that I shan’t give a detailed plot summary. Instead I’ll pick out a few points that interested and pleased me.
Its opening lines have become a famous example of the intriguing ‘hook’:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions.
The candid, tortured first-person narrative voice is distinctively Esther’s – the seemingly casual ‘and’ tellingly links as grammatically equivalent two events of otherwise striking difference; the syntax shows that for the narrator they’re not. That reference to the execution of the couple convicted of spying for the Soviet Union on America’s nuclear capacity (a charge still contested by many) dates the narrative 1953. It also sets up one element of the novel: the tensions and bigotry in America at that time. (Later, one of Esther’s colleagues called Hilda displays a chillingly dismissive attitude towards this execution: ‘It’s awful such people should be alive,’ she says with casual disdain. ‘I’m so glad they’re going to die.’ Esther’s own views, characteristically, aren’t explicitly given, but it’s clear she finds such views symptomatic of her fellow Americans. She refers to Hilda as speaking here with the cavernous voice of a ‘dybbuk’ – a malicious mythological spirit.)
My Faber paperback edition of the novel
That impersonal structure – ‘they electrocuted’ -shows her sense of detachment from the events, however; she doesn’t share the paranoia, it registers less strongly, as the structure of that opening sentence reveals, than her personal sense of dislocation. This is a compelling, often terrifying narrative of an intelligent, diligently academic young woman’s decline into a depression that almost destroys her.
That second quoted sentence sounds like the callow bravado of Holden Caulfield – and there’s more than a touch of his equally distraught sense of hopelessness and disorientation in this narrative. Some early critics dismissed it as ‘girlish’, perhaps (patronisingly) misreading that naïve style, laced at times with contemporary teen slang, and the gushing, breathless ingenuousness, especially in the early, pre-institutionalised section of the novel; here’s and example, chosen at random, from p. 48. Esther has been set up with a date with a Russian interpreter at the UN called Constantin:
I collected men with interesting names. I already knew a Socrates. He was tall and ugly and intellectual and the son of some big Greek movie producer in Hollywood, but also a Catholic, which ruined it for both of us.
But this faux-naïve style is essential for the establishment of Esther as a 19-year-old trying to locate her identity and place herself meaningfully in the heedless world she’s discovering for the first time. She flirts with all kinds of personae, even considering becoming a nun at one point.
Her other equally compelling dilemma is that of losing her virginity in a world where all the men she meets are insensitively arrogant, like Buddy, the harmless but vapid student from her home town whom she considers herself engaged to, or the Peruvian thug Marco, who tries to rape her. Esther isn’t so naïve; she pegs him from the start as ‘a woman-hater’, and steals his diamond ‘stickpin’. Esther still has spirit at this point. She can even see why some women might be attracted to such misogynistic predators:
Women-haters were like gods; invulnerable and chock-full of power. They descended, and then they disappeared. You could never catch one.
This might sound ‘girlish’, but it’s perceptive and, in a sense that still resonates today, realistic. Although it maybe shows an aspect of Esther’s dwindling self-esteem, it’s also redolent of her core values. The Marcos of this world, she realises, are the same ‘they’ who executed the Rosenbergs.
In the first part of the novel we witness the cause of Esther’s problem: she doesn’t know why she’s there in the city in the coveted role as intern at a women’s fashion magazine that has pretensions of literariness. Though she can’t quite articulate it in this part of the narrative, she hates the shallow pointlessness of the work she’s obliged to engage in and the people she works with. Her ambition to write serious literature is stifled so effectively by those around her, including her mother, so ambitious (like everyone else) to mould her daughter into the Stepford Wife form she considers desirable, to realise she’s missing the signs of Esther’s distress, that she simply switches off her consciousness, loses agency. Eventually she comes to feel she’s suffocating under a bell jar, like a scientist’s specimen, and attempts suicide.
Esther avoids the company of the ‘Pollyanna’ faction in the girls’ hostel she lives in during the novel’s first section; she longs to be a rebel like her friend Doreen. But she also realises that Doreen’s idea of a good time ends with her serving as a drink-sedated groupie for a sleazy DJ. All of her female contemporaries are happily speeding into spirit-destroying patriarchal dead ends. There seems no route open for someone with her gifts and sensibility.
The second section is harrowing, the language full of images of death, fear and disintegration. Here the narrative reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Esther is subjected to a terrifying ‘treatment’ of ECT by her first psychiatrist. Later she’s moved, thanks to her scholarship benefactress, to a more humane institution where a more enlightened woman doctor finds a way of leading Esther back into her true self. Along the way we’re given frightening glimpses into Esther’s abyss:
I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.
Esther’s truly is a descent into hell. Narrated not ‘girlishly’, but with a poet’s ear and eye, as that last quotation demonstrates with its numbed, rhythmic repetitions and deceptive simplicity of structure. The reiterations and grimly cumulative ‘and’ clauses and phrases show how dangerously alluring and ubiquitous the deadening abyss appears to a lost soul like Esther – it’s everywhere she looks. This passage is similar in its barely suppressed hysteria and atrophied bleakness of tone to the desolate insight articulated in Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, ‘Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow.’
[Of the Professor v. Felix:] The difference between them, after all, was that the Professor truly believed he was the first mortal to set foot in the mind, and like every true colonial assumed that mere priority allowed him to name it and submit it to his laws.
Like Sterne’s protagonist, Newman’s (Iulus) talks endlessly about his father, Felix (Protestant ‘Marxisant’ and advocate of ‘hands-on mysticism’, who ‘liked it out there on the edge…where one could write in order to stop thinking, and lose the shame of being an author’); here’s some of his advice to the boy:
1. Neither marry nor wander, you are not strong enough for either. 2. Never believe any confession, voluntary or otherwise. And most importantly, 3. [In Latin first, then in English:] Everyone has a cleverer dog than their neighbor; that is the only undisputed fact.
An illustration from Psalmanazar’s phoney account of the people of Formosa – as fantastic a fake memoir as those of Felix and Iulus. Picture via Wikimedia Commons
Then there are the Pynchonian names of the central characters: Felix Aufidius Pzalmanazar, the ‘Hauptzuchtwart [dog-breeder] Supreme’ and ‘historian of the Astingi’ – a fictitious tribe of the central European plains, in the country of Cannonia (where at dusk ‘everything is the colour of a runaway dog’!), loosely equivalent to Hungary – alludes to the French impostor or con-man, Georges Psalmanazar (1679-1763), who became a brief sensation in Augustan England with his exotic traveller’s tales of ‘Formosa’ and his fake memoirs – a prototype Felix (or Newman).
Much of the novel consists of long, Socratic ‘savage debates’, a ‘battle of the polymaths’, a ‘rhetorical onslaught’, between the sceptic-stoic Felix (who claims, in a typical paradox, that ‘Dialectics do not interest me, though like ballsports, I am good at them’) and his soulmate-antagonist, the Professor, ‘the master speculator’ as Felix provocatively calls him, a thinly disguised Sigmund Freud, who brings a series of disturbed dogs to be analysed and trained by the renowned dog-trainer/breeder – a clear dig at the failings of psychoanalysis, for the Professor can’t cure (or even understand) his own neurotic dogs (see the quotation at the head of this post, which sums up the philosophical difference between them):
“You’re no Jew, Berganza,” he often giggled, “just a Calvinist with a sense of irony.”
Another of those literary allusions with multiple levels of significance is Felix and the Professor being likened for these endless Socratic disputes by Felix’s wife, Ainoha (possibly a name derived from a Basque place-name known for its image of the Virgin Mary, and girl’s name, Ainhoa; or is it just a pun on ‘I know her’?) to Scipio and Berganza: these are the two dogs whose satiric colloquy, with its rhetorical-polemical format based on Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, forms one of the Novelas ejemplares of Cervantes (1613).
I could say so much more about this novel, with its multiple layers and highly charged prose, and wide-ranging, esoteric-comic material, such as the Astingi people’s culture and religion – ‘savage and disconcerted’, Felix calls them), or aphorisms like ‘You can get away with murder in America, but only in Europe can you be really bad’. But it’s more than just a clever puzzle or palindrome of wordplay (though there’s nothing wrong with that) – there’s some interesting insight into Newman’s views on the writing (and reading) process, with which I’ll end (having touched on it briefly in my previous post).
In a chapter called ‘Ex Libris’ Newman gives Felix’s son Iulus’ account of Felix’s huge literary project: to write a history of the Astingi disguised as a Traveler’s Guide ‘in order to make a market for it’ – which sounds like a dig at American publishers. His description could serve as a heartfelt insight into Newman’s own obsessive, meticulous, never-ending collector’s writing methods and technique:
Working at top speed, he usually produced about one hundred and twenty sentences of impossible terseness per night.
He goes on with what looks like a self-portrait, and a grim discussion of what In Partial Disgrace cost to write:
Writers are people who have exhausted themselves; only the dregs of them still exist. Writing is so real it makes the writer unreal; a nothing. And if one resists being a nothing, one will have the greatest difficulty in finishing anything.
Nor did I know that in his hyperfastidious, shamelessly private mind, he was envisioning a nonexistent genre. For no one ever writes the book he imagines; the book becomes the death mask of creation, it has its own future and survives like a chicken dancing with its head cut off. And the spy knows this better than anyone; to write anything down is to take colossal risk. In life you can mask your actions, but once on paper, nothing can hide your mediocrity.
Later, when shadowy CIA spook Rufus is reflecting on his (triple) agent Iulus’ reports, this is his conclusion:
Of course, there will be those who will ask how far can we trust such a narrator? This is rather like asking the question: can one trust a sonata?
Perhaps Rufus has come to see, after his time in the ‘inchoate’, counterintuitive province of Cannonia, that the usual modes of perception, representation and philosophy don’t apply. And that goes for the ways we interpret written texts: genre and verisimilitude are irrelevant, delusions. Here he considers how the Cannonians and ‘their Astingi comrades’ love ‘puzzles and the darkest riddling’:
…for thinking in their view is not real thinking unless it simultaneously arouses and misleads one’s expectations of symmetry. But their love of riddles has a moral dimension which is easily missed; games for them are also always ethical tests.
When Iulus hears the final colloquy of the Professor and Felix, in which his father, whose life’s literary work has blown away on the wind, fiercely denounces conventional historians (and warrior-thinkers like Marcus Aurelius), he (Iulus) is deeply impressed:
Thus ended my aristocratic education. I had learned everything I needed to know for my career. For life with friends and lovers is essentially this: that we assist each other in recovering and rewriting the book which is always blowing away, when the words don’t mean what you say.
An equally apt summary of the novel and novelist is given with Rufus’ verdict on Iulus and his writings, who he knows to be more than just ‘turncoat, nor a cipher, cryptographer…dissembler, or counterfeit’; he’s reflecting, as most of this novel does, on the nature of narrative:
How I would miss his profound but smiling pessimism, his nacreous intelligence, this fideist to the school of gliding. He was one of those strange people who, having rectitude, didn’t need freedom. Even now, rereading his scattered cantos, it is as if he is sitting in the room talking personally with me, the secret of all great writing.
Charles Newman, In Partial Disgrace. Dalkey Archive Press, 2013. Paperback.
The best I could do was to put real people into situations that probably did not exist, which after all is what history is all about.
This is an extraordinary novel, and will need more than one post. This one will be a sort of introduction.
Charles Newman (1938-2006) had produced several novels by the time he started In Partial Disgrace [IPD], late in the 1980s. As Joshua Cohen explains in his introduction to the Dalkey Archives edition, he excelled as a young man at sport, later at sexual promiscuity, drinking, breeding hunting dogs, and writing (characteristics found in his character Felix, his alter egotist, about whom more shortly).
After university (Yale, Oxford) and military service he reluctantly entered upon an academic career, turning the standard Northwestern campus magazine TriQuarterly into a stellar fixture in American literary life, championing such writers as Borges, Barth, Coover, Gass and Márquez. Their experimentalism (postmodernist, perhaps) was to inflect his own writing.
He visited Hungary frequently, and riskily translated and published there. The setting of IPD is the invented, economically struggling province of Cannonia in the kingdom of Klavierland (more on that later, too), a fantastic land of swampy plains and forests, bounded by a meandering river like the Danube, a setting very like Hungary – but also like a Viennese piano. It’s that kind of novel.
Photo of Newman: attribution – By Harold Doomsduck – vacation, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Newman may have been able to travel so freely behind the Iron Curtain because of murky connections with agencies of espionage – another central theme in this novel, as we shall see.
He spent decades revising and expanding this wayward novel. His nephew, Ben Ryder Howe, tells us in an editor’s foreword of Uncle Charlie’s chaotic, obsessive methods. Slips of paper, many containing just single words, short phrases or ‘mystically oblique’ sentences, were taped into notebooks or tacked on the walls. This collection of papers expanded as his magnum opus, part Cold-War spy-thriller, part fake memoir/history/philosophical-rhetorical tract, reflected the fact that Newman was becoming bogged down in research (a trait familiar to anyone who’s ever written anything) – arcane diaries, memoirs, letters, folktales, histories… All turn up in various guises in IPD.
Eight years after his uncle’s death Howe found in Newman’s New York office another vast jumble of papers and obscure source texts. The MS was stuffed in boxes, envelopes and elsewhere, innumerable, jumbled drafts. Howe had somehow to rearrange and edit this deluge of papers into some kind of coherent order. (I’m reminded of the task facing the editors of the various redactions of Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, which IPD resembles slightly in tone, fragmentary structure and elegant literary style.)
Newman’s original ambitious plan was for a massive sequence of maybe nine novels divided into three volumes. The first was to contain the story of Felix, the bankrupt Cannonian aristocratic owner of an abandoned, decaying former royal hunting estate called Semper Vero (a typical Newman joke: “eternal truth” is not a highly valued principle with Felix). He’d turned to being a ‘breaker of crazy dogs and vicious horses’ (hence his title of Hauptzuchtwart Supreme) to try to offset his debts. Vol. 1 was to feature his fractious friendship with the Professor, a psychoanalyst clearly based on Freud. It is set around the time of the close of WWII and the years of Cold War that followed. This is what was to become IPD.
Volume two would continue the story a decade later in Russia, relating Felix’s relationship with Pavlov, followed in volume three by his emigration to America. Newman became hopelessly enmired in a huge, rambling introduction to this vast work. All was description of setting and background; very little happened, and characters were hazily deployed. Rufus, the CIA agent, opens the novel in Howe’s recension by parachuting into this ‘hermit kingdom’ on a spying mission (America has declared war on Cannonia, and Felix’s son Iulus, a double or maybe triple agent, is his contact) — then he disappears for long periods.
He is the putative ‘editor’ and translator of the various narratives in the text, and tries (like Newman’s nephew – life imitates art) to summarise Felix’s 10,000-page MS, alongside the papers of Iulus, another redactor of his father’s work, which is the quixotic basis of IPD:
A memoir without hindsight? A meditation on the inherent wildness of history? A novel for people who hate novels?
This vast opus of Felix was thinly disguised by him as a ‘Traveler’s Guide to Cannonia’ – clearly a doppelganger of IPD, consisting as it does as a massive stash of random papers which at a key point are dispersed by the wind, many to be lost, those retrieved proving impossible to reassemble coherently. Felix himself, with characteristic, paradoxical disdain, describes it as an attempt to rescue Nietzsche from being “so damned Nietzschean”, a history of ‘the only people without a history’.
Howe has done a fine job in trying to create some kind of narrative order and logical structure from this disparate, enigmatic raw material – but the key weakness of the novel he’s reconstructed is its erratic or absent plot (although that’s also, arguably, its main strength: it’s about itself). That lack of action and tension noted earlier is mitigated, but there are still sections that come across as self-indulgent and inert – although even these are never completely tedious. Newman has a tendency to indulge his passion for elaborate Borgesian catalogues of imaginary, bizarre or everyday objects or concepts, or for eccentric zoological taxonomies like the anti-Darwinian ‘Scale of Being’ and ‘Tree of Life’ (in which dogs tend to appear at the top, not surprisingly in a canicentric novel).
IPD is then one of those novels which appear to conform to the conventions of prose fiction, in that they are not ostensibly ‘difficult’, but which are nevertheless cryptic or elusive, or which have surreal or non-realistic or fantastic/postmodern elements; Kafka and most of the novels of Pynchon fall among these categories, or the later works of Calvino (Invisible Cities). Gerald Murnane (another who feels an affinity for the plains of Hungary) comes to mind. And there are many more.
But the seminal work of this kind, and surely an influence on IPD, is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67), also highly innovative, non-linear/fragmentary, eccentrically digressive (it takes three volumes for its protagonist to be born) and unconventional, yet heavily dependant on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621, subsequently revised). Anatomy, as its name suggests, is another playfully earnest text of compilation, classification and erudite assimilation, not a coherent ‘narrative’. It, in turn, was influenced by the sprawling, endlessly accreting, fragmentary and digressive narratives of Rabelais and Cervantes.
Like Sterne’s protagonist, Newman’s character Iulus talks endlessly about his father, Felix (whose name in Latin signifies the opposite to the ‘sadness’ implicit in Tristram’s name).
IPD owes much of its style and method to such texts, and also to Newman’s idiosyncratic methods – hence its meandering structure, digressions, puns and paradoxes (time, like the Cannonian border river Mze, runs both ways, unpredictably), playful learned allusions (Marcus Aurelius and Heraclitus pop up regularly, wittily), disquisitions on all kinds of arcane and mundane topics, from venery (in both senses) to dog-training theory, psychotherapy to topography and military history), and so on.
So far, if you’ve stayed with me, you might be thinking this sounds terribly cerebral and obscure – but it isn’t, at least, not in a bad way.
Take it in small chunks, don’t binge. It doesn’t lend itself to rapid consumption; each rich phrase has to be weighed, sampled, savoured. Take for example the frequent aphorisms that adorn the text with little intention of making conventional sense or advancing the narrative, but which contribute to the novel’s own uniquely rewarding ambience, adding a kind of self-referential commentary on what the reader is engaged in reading, and the writer, writing:
I neither write a system nor promise a system, nor do I subscribe or ascribe anything to a system.
For a landscape to have grandeur, it must have a bit of nonsense.
History is driven by failed artists.
A man is nothing but a handful of irrational enthusiasms, and nothing in this world can be understood apart from them.
Next time I hope to examine characters, setting and style more closely.