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.

 

Hemingway, ‘Cat in the Rain’: a correction

I’ve received a comment from John Beall pointing out an error in my post of Oct. 7 2013 on the Ernest Hemingway story ‘Cat in the Rain’. I wrote there originally that it was first published in Paris in a collection called in our time in 1924, and subsequently in New York the following year. Had I read the Wikipedia entries on Hemingway, the story and its publication history more attentively I’d have avoided this mistake; ‘Cat’ did not appear in the Paris edition. Here’s the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on the story collection (I’ve removed hyperlinks and footnotes, and amended the wording slightly):

In Our Time is the first collection of short stories written by Ernest Hemingway, published by Boni & Liveright in New York in 1925. A[n] earlier edition titled in our time (without capitals), had been published a year earlier in Paris, in 1924. The Parisian edition consisted of only 32 pages, printed in a small print-run of 170 copies, [and] contained vignettes that Hemingway would use as interchapters for the expanded 1925 New York edition of In Our Time. He rewrote two of the earlier vignettes, “A Very Short Story” and “The Revolutionist, into short stories for the New York collection.

The entry goes on (I’ve amended and abridged it slightly, as indicated):

Publication history

Bill Bird’s Parisian high-end printing company, Three Mountains Press, founded in the early 1920s, employed Pound as editor who sought to “keep the series strictly modern”.Their aim was to publish well-produced limited private editions by a handful of modern authors, including Pound himself, and Joyce, in small print-runs. Hemingway, who was unpublished, gave Bird the manuscript of vignettes that Hemingway titled Blank, which he later titled in our time from the Book of Common Prayer. When American editors queried him about the lower-case title, Hemingway said it was “silly and affected”.

 

The book was first published in Paris in 1924…in a 38-page volume. A printing mistake ruined many of the copies so only 170 of the 300 printed were released for sale…The volume included 18 vignettes written the year before, presented as untitled chapters. Because the pieces were meant to convey a sense of journalism or news, Bird designed a distinctive dust-jacket showing a collage of newspaper articles…

 

The American edition of In Our Time was to include a collection of short stories as well as the vignettes printed in the Parisian edition. Most of the stories were written in 1924. Sixteen of the vignettes from the earlier Parisian edition were kept as numbered interchapter sketches; two had been published in his first book “Three Stories and 10 poems”; two were from in our time; six had been published in literary magazines. Four had never been published before… Boni & Liveright published the book in 1925, with a print-run of 1335 copies, costing $2 each…

 

The volume as originally published began with two stories linked thematically, set in Michigan, introducing young Nick Adams: “Indian Camp” and “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife”. “The End of Something” is a story about Nick as a teenager breaking up with a girl; the next story, “Three-Day Blow”, has Nick and a friend Bill spending three days at a lake, drinking and talking. In “The Battler”, as he returns home from WWI, Nick meets a prize-fighter. This is followed by “A Very Short Story”, a WWI love story set in Italy; “Soldier’s Home” is set in Kansas; and “The Revolutionist” again is set in Italy. Three marriage stories follow: “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot”, “Cat in the Rain” and “Out of Season”…

My thanks to John for pointing out this inaccuracy. I shall amend the original post and remove the error.

Henry James, ‘Daisy Miller: A Study’

The donnée for ‘Daisy Miller’ was an anecdote told to Henry James (1843-1916) by his friend Alice Bartlett in Italy a year or so before its first publication in 1878. James transformed this wisp of narrative into a vividly realised comedy of social manners which ends with a delicately sketched scene of pathos and loss. He subtly evoked the tourist haunts of Vevey in Switzerland, where the story opens one June, and Rome, where it ends the following January, having spent several years of his life in these places that were so fashionable with the new waves of moneyed Americans dutifully following their Baedeker guides to the tourist honeypots of old Europe.

John Singer Sargent's portrait of James (1913), National Portrait Gallery website

John Singer Sargent’s portrait of James (1913), National Portrait Gallery website

James knew that recently-appeared type: the ‘American girl’ from Schenectady (home of the newly self-made rich, not of those with ‘old money’) disembarking from her transatlantic liner full of brash confidence, in the ‘tournure of a princess’. With their air of regal independence such ‘stylish young girls’ are ‘not the least embarrassed’ to find themselves unchaperoned in the company of strange young men. When Daisy encounters the story’s protagonist, the wealthy Frederick Winterbourne, a twenty-seven year old dilettante, on the terrace of the Trois Couronnes hotel, noted for its air of ‘luxury and of maturity’, on the shores of Lake Geneva, ‘she was evidently neither offended nor fluttered’ to be engaged with in familiar conversation by this suave stranger to whom she had not been formally introduced, and without the protection of her unvigilant mother.

Winterbourne is visiting his formidably proper aunt, Mrs Costello. He is said to be ‘studying’ in Geneva, that ‘little metropolis of Calvinism’, though it is apparent he expends very little effort on academic pursuits: he is in reality ‘extremely devoted to a lady who lived there – a foreign lady – a person older than himself’, about whom ‘some singular stories’ were told. Our omniscient narrator hints that he is having some kind of illicit dalliance, distinctly at odds with Calvinistic puritanism. Therefore when he is clearly attracted to this ‘beautiful young lady’ on the terrace, the description of her as ‘strikingly, admirably pretty’ is evidently filtered through his consciousness:

‘How pretty they are!’ thought Winterbourne…

He is thinking approvingly of the ‘type’ just noted. Her name is Annie P. Miller – a pointedly artisanal surname – but is known as Daisy. If Winterbourne’s name is redolent of his frigidly Europeanised nature (though he is not averse to clandestine affairs), then hers signifies her spring-like, blooming freshness.

In buttoned-up Geneva, he reflects, ‘a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely-occurring conditions’. But here at Vevey the ‘pretty American girl’ shows no signs of constraint. On the contrary, her glance towards him is ‘direct and unshrinking’, though ‘not immodest’ – her eyes, he notes admiringly, are ‘singularly honest and fresh’, and ‘wonderfully pretty’; the word ‘pretty’ is used a remarkable 38 times in the story, most of them with reference to Daisy or her ‘type’ (she is described as ‘beautiful’ three times).

Winterbourne is ‘addicted to observing and analysing’ feminine beauty: that is to be his problem. Like so many of James’s detached, observing male protagonists, he is incapable of committed action or decision-making. He is from the start enchanted but also puzzled by the liberties taken by this young charmer. Like Eveline in the Dubliners story which I wrote about here recently, it’s indecision and inability to discriminate morally and emotionally that’s at the heart of this story.

He notes, on this first encounter, with candidly critical perspicuity, that her face is ‘not exactly expressive’, with ‘a want of finish’. She showed bland ignorance of the culture and history of the place, and he thinks it very possible she is a ‘coquette’. Although she is coltishly spirited, he also observes, with another telling string of derogatory adjectives and negatives, that ‘in her bright, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony.’

Her equally precocious little brother Randolph tells him their father is a rich businessman from Schenectady. She ‘chattered’ expansively and unselfconsciously. He ‘found it very pleasant’, but our taciturn narrator conveys a simultaneous sense that she is hardly articulate and certainly uneducated, with her frequent low idioms (as the fastidious Jamesian narrator would say) such as ‘I guess’ and ‘ever so many’.

The narrative voice is then distinctively Jamesian: detached and ironic, it notes at this point Winterbourne’s mixed reaction to all this superficial flirtatiousness: he ‘was amused, perplexed, and decidedly charmed,’ but had never seen anything like this without sensing ‘laxity of deportment’.

He goes on to wonder whether he had spent so long in Europe he had become ‘dishabituated to the American tone’: maybe it would be wrong to accuse Daisy of what passed in Geneva as ‘actual or potential inconduite’. In a revealing passage of narrated thought he weighs up the possibility that ‘they were all like that’, the pretty girls of New York: or ‘was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person?’ His ‘instinct’, along with his ‘reason’, had deserted him (as Eveline’s were to). She ‘looked extremely innocent’, and he’d heard both that ‘American girls were exceedingly innocent’, and that they were not. ‘Innocent’ appears twelve times in the story, nine times in relation to Daisy (twice, interestingly, to Winterbourne himself; he is perhaps the truly innocent party in this tale, in the sense that he doesn’t fully know himself as Daisy does herself); ‘innocence’ appears in relation to Daisy six times.

He was inclined to think that she was just ‘a pretty American flirt,’an ‘unsophisticated’ girl: ‘she was only a pretty American flirt.’ His repetitive, looping, inconclusive internal monologue over, he wonders (ungallantly) how far he can proceed with this new, ingenous kind of coquette.

His flirtation is not approved of by his aunt; she held great social ‘sway’ in New York, and admitted that she was ‘very exclusive’ (another recurring term in the story, one that Daisy predictably scorns). Mrs Costello was, to Winterbourne’s mind, almost ‘oppressively’ adept at negotiating the ‘minutely hierarchical constitution’ of that city’s society. He realises that she adheres to similar proprieties in the expatriate community in Europe. Her view of Daisy was that her ‘place in the social scale was low.’ One does not ‘accept’ such ‘common’ girls, she advises him, no matter how pretty or charming, or how perfectly they dress: ‘I can’t think where they get their taste’, she remarks acerbically. She disapproves of Daisy’s democratic familiarity with the family’s courier, and her mother is no more socially discerning or proper, and she lets her children do as they please. They lack the discrimination, taste or social awareness to be able to distinguish an outward appearance of gentlemanliness from that of the real thing. Winterbourne later realises Daisy and her mother lacked the ‘culture’ to rise to the idea of ‘catching’ an aristocratic husband for her; they were ‘intellectually incapable of that conception.’

She thinks Daisy is not respectable; her nephew agrees that she is ‘rather wild’ and ‘uncultivated’ – but ‘wonderfully pretty.’

 ‘What a dreadful girl! [Mrs Costello exclaims:] You had better not meddle with little American girls that are uncultivated…You have lived too long out of the country. You will be sure to make some great mistake. You are too innocent.’

When he denies this, she retorts with delicious paradoxical wit: ‘You are too guilty, then!’

She’s not just being snobbishly malicious: he’s revealing himself, she means, with shrewd insight, as hypocritical: attracted to Daisy, while aware of her genuinely vulnerable, bourgeois innocence.

The stage is set. If Daisy exceeded even the ‘liberal licence’ of his aunt’s granddaughters then ‘anything might be expected of her’. Unaware of the unflattering sexual ambiguity of such a notion, he realises he is impatient to see her again, and yet, more to his credit, ‘vexed with himself that, by instinct, he should not appreciate her justly.’ This is the lesson he is to learn by the end.

I have given this detailed outline of the story’s early expositional stage to indicate that it is really as much a narrative of Winterbourne’s slow-growing awareness as of Daisy’s, who hardly changes. A typically ambivalent James protagonist, he feels attracted to this beautiful figure with her ‘delicate grace’, but simultaneously repelled by what he perceives as her ‘commonness’, vulgarity and duplicity. This renders him emotionally, culpably impotent. She’s the ‘unprotected daughter’ of a wilfully indulgent mother and absentee father, and this makes him painfully aware of being tempted by what could be perceived as cynically selfish exploitation of her ‘habitual sense of freedom’. She simply doesn’t realise that ‘nice girls’ don’t flirt with their couriers, imperiously demand unquestioning devotion and attention from every new man they meet with ‘frank persiflage’ and coquettish chaffing, or flaunt their innocent conquests in public.

The denouement shows Daisy’s subsequent, inevitable disgrace in Rome. Winterbourne’s glacially sophisticated American friend there, Mrs Walker, tells him with horrified disapproval that Daisy had been ‘going about’ alone with foreigners and had ‘picked up half-a-dozen of the regular Roman fortune-hunters’.  She and her mother were ‘dreadful people’ for behaving with such ill-mannered licence (Mrs Miller is equally reprehensible for failing to control her daughter, in the eyes of this morally corrupt world where being seen to do the ‘right thing’ is more important than actually behaving with moral probity). Winterbourne feebly defends them, calling them ‘very ignorant – very innocent only’, but Mrs Walker is unforgiving in her condemnation: ‘They are hopelessly vulgar’, she insists.

When Daisy insists on introducing her ‘lovely’ avvocato with the charming manner and beautiful moustache to her compatriots’ salons she refuses to accept that she is violating not only European codes, but also those of upper-class Americans who lived there. She delights in having handsome Romans dance attendance on her; Giovanelli (whose name signifies the generic young man he represents) for his part can’t believe his luck, failing initially to understand her flirtatious nature.

Her outrageously licentious behaviour, in the eyes of American-Roman society, culminates in her unchaperoned walk in the Pincio gardens with Giovanelli. Mrs Walker’s attempt to rescue Daisy from public scandal fails:

‘I never heard anything so stiff! [a favourite expression of Daisy’s; she laughs at Winterbourne for being ‘stiff as an umbrella’] If this is improper, Mrs Walker,’ she pursued, ‘then I am all improper, and you must give me up.’

Mrs Walker duly snubs the girl when she turns up later at her salon, writing her off as ‘naturally indelicate’. Daisy is undaunted, and continues to disport herself as she pleases with the foppish young gold-digger.

In a scene that echoes his interview with the disapproving aunt, he defends Daisy as just ‘very innocent’ when Mrs Walker expresses how appalled she is that Daisy has been recklessly exposing herself to all the world with her beau and ‘running absolutely wild’. ‘She’s very crazy!’ is her riposte. She warns him to cease flirting with Daisy, and to stop her making a ‘scandal’, but he persists, confused and besotted.

Yet Daisy had defiantly rebutted Winterbourne’s earlier polite attempt to stop her flouting convention by having a public assignation with her Italian:

‘I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do.’

He sees this as lacking ‘standards’ or a moral code because she has never been given or taught any, but it’s also the typical American girl’s expression of uninhibited independence, the spirit of Huck Finn, arising from a dangerously permissive upbringing as James saw it of the newly rising, over-indulged generations. When snubbed by Mrs Walker Daisy can’t understand why she should behave differently in Rome from how she was accustomed to in New York; ‘I don’t see why I should change my habits for them’, she cries when Winterbourne remonstrates with her about her display in the Pincio, and how it offends ‘the custom of the place’. They are ‘those of a flirt’, he points out.

Of course they are,’ she cried, giving him her little smiling stare again. ‘I’m a fearful, frightful flirt! Did you ever hear of a nice girl that was not? But I suppose you will tell me now that I am not a nice girl.’

He cannot decide, when she talks so brazenly, whether she is innocently honest or depraved and spoilt; our narrator presents this with repeated, self-cancelling negativity once again – she lacks ‘indispensable delicacy’, she’s ‘childish’, ‘too provincial’, has ‘an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence’ or ‘puerility’ – ‘inscrutable’ here signifying his inability to scrutinise with clear perception. These ‘little American flirts were the queerest creatures in the world’, he concludes, his ability to see clouded again. Yet he also wonders whether she has ‘in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced,’ and whether her ‘defiance came from the consciousness of innocence’ or from her sense of belonging to ‘the reckless class.’ Too late he begins to realise hers is a rebellion against class prejudice, and we realise this is not just another ‘international’ James tale of the familiar collision of naive American democracy with corrupt European decadence. It’s more nuanced than that.

We saw earlier that Winterbourne had engaged in amorous liaisons with high-class older local women. Our narrator points out towards the end of the story that he is nevertheless ‘literally afraid’ of such women; ‘He had a pleasant sense that he should never be afraid of Daisy Miller.’

Colosseum: photo by Dillif, Wikimedia Commons

Colosseum: photo by Dillif, Wikimedia Commons

Winterbourne’s eyes are unsealed too late. Her demise, dying of the ‘Roman fever’ – malaria – by exposing herself to the miasma of the evening air in the Colosseum in one of her flightily dangerous romantic excursions, would be seen by society as just desserts. He has not treated her judiciously, he finally discerns.

He’s chastened when the Italian dandy, at Daisy’s graveside, pronounces her truly ‘innocent’ – he ultimately knew she had no intention of marrying him. Sadly Winterbourne tells his aunt that he had done Daisy an injustice. From her deathbed she had sent him a message saying that she ‘would have appreciated [his] esteem’. But he was ‘booked to make a mistake’, as his aunt had warned him. But not in the way she meant: ‘I have lived too long in foreign parts,’ he adds, acknowledging perhaps that it was he who had been tainted by class and European notions of propriety, and had failed to appreciate Daisy for the free spirit she was. When the narrator concludes by telling us drily that he had returned to Geneva and to was ‘studying hard’ and ‘was very much interested in a clever foreign lady’, the ambiguity is poignant.

Has he learnt a lesson, or has he simply reverted to ‘the custom of the country’? Is he sadder and wiser? Or counting himself lucky at a narrow escape from commitment to Daisy’s recklessly independent individuality? The conflicted responses of his protagonist here raise this story above the apparent ‘flatness’ that caused James to add the phrase ‘a study’ to this story that was immensely popular with a reading public which perhaps relished the superficial charms of Miss Daisy more than it divined the darker impulses in her ambivalent, superficially more cultivated admirer.

Henry James, ‘Daisy Miller: A Study’. From Collected Stories, vol. 1 (1866-91), selected and edited by John Bayley, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, Toronto) no. 244, 1999, pp. 305-64. First published in Cornhill magazine, London, 1878.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘Good for you’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a whole novel compressed there.

And there I’d better stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur Rackham illustration to a 1912 edition of the Aesop fable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quha hes eneuch, of na mair hes he need…

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s is:

And use it well that is to thee allotted,

Then seek no more out of thyself to find

The thing that thou hast sought so long before…

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

John Cheever, ‘The Enormous Radio’.

After posting yesterday about John Cheever’s story ‘The Summer Farmer’, I thought I’d post briefly today about the first of Michael Pucci’s choices in his series of reviews at The Mookse and the Gripes site: ‘The Enormous Radio’. I’d also recommend this beautifully written review from New Republic in 1991 by John Updike of the then recently-published edited Journals of Cheever; he found their ’emotional nakedness’ disconcerting and painful to read.

First published in the May 17, 1947 issue of The New Yorker, this story is one of Cheever The Complete StoriesCheever’s earliest in the Collected Stories (I’m using the Vintage paperback edition published in the UK in 2010).

Pucci quotes the opening sentences as indicative of Cheever’s deceptively deadpan style and detached point of view, and of his astonishing ability to capture and summarise character concisely. The plot is one of his most ‘fantastical’, but is narrated in a surreally unfantastical way: Jim and Irene Westcott live in a city apartment on the twelfth floor. It’s near ‘Sutton Place’, where other Cheever stories are located. They are ordinary, even humdrum people with very little money (though they can afford a maid). When their radio breaks Jim splashes out on a big new one, even though they can’t really afford it. So far this is very O. Henry.

Then it starts to get strange: they listen to music stations, but also begin to pick up conversations conducted by their apartment block neighbours. At first these are routine domestic exchanges, but gradually Irene becomes addicted to the increasingly intimate, often sordid talk emanating from the radio, and invades the privacy of the other tenants on ‘carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith, and despair’ – language typical of Cheever: large abstract nouns, as we saw in my previous post. This radio clearly has a ‘sensitivity to discord’, and Irene loves eavesdropping on the increasingly disquieting revelations it broadcasts, such as a cocktail party that ‘had overshot its mark’ – alcohol features prominently in Cheever’s stories as it did, ruinously, in his life (Irene has two Martinis at lunch, but leaves childcare and domestic chores to the maid).

‘Isn’t this too divine?’ she coos, in her faux ‘classy’ idiom.

As in the marriage of the Hollises in ‘The Summer Farmer’, all is not well in this relationship. Soon Jim explodes at his prurient wife’s hypocrisy, hurling at her all the peccadilloes of which she has been guilty, but about which they have never previously spoken. The list of sins escalates in seriousness, and ends with a shocking revelation that leaves Irene feeling ‘disgraced and sickened.’

Although it’s an early, rather formulaic example of Cheever’s stories, it shows many of the signs that he will fine-tune in later work: a dysfunctional couple in the ‘bitter mystery’ of their marriage in all its ‘carnal anarchy’ (Kureishi’s Introduction). As in the Hollis marriage the couple fail to express their true feelings, or to communicate. When Jim’s patience finally expires his outburst is savage in its ferocity, whereas the Hollises, one feels, will meander on through their arid lives, avoiding confronting unpleasant truths.

They are even more obsessed with status and appearances than the Hollises (who vacationed in their ‘summer farm’): Irene listens to classical music, and conceals the ugly radio cabinet behind a sofa. She goes out on ‘luncheon’ dates and wears a hat and ‘furs’. They aspire to live in Westchester.

Some of the overheard discourse is beautifully rendered: banal , fragmentary but indicating the same fault-lines in the tenants’ lives that are eventually revealed in the Westcotts’:

‘Are you all right, darling?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ a woman said wearily. ‘Yes, I’m alright I guess,’ and then she added with great feeling, ‘But, you know, Charlie, I don’t feel like myself any more. Sometimes there are about fifteen or twenty minutes in the week when I feel like myself. I don’t like to go to another doctor, because the doctor’s bills are so awful already, but I just don’t feel like myself, Charlie. I just never feel like myself.’

This is brilliant ventriloquism: the fractured delivery, repetitions of clichés and evasions, inability of the woman to express herself in a meaningfully accurate or coherent way, and lack of connection between the two– it reminds me of passages of bleak lower-class life in T.S. Eliot’s early poetry. It’s in these fragments of domestic tragedy and their concise revelations of despair and disconnectedness that the full power of the story resides, rather than in the unlikely plot device of the eavesdropping radio.

John Cheever, ‘The Summer Farmer’: one of the Hollow Men

John Cheever, ‘The Summer Farmer’, in Collected Stories (Vintage, London; first published in Great Britain – 1979; this edition with Introduction by Hanif Kureishi – 2010)

For a change I shall begin by recommending another review of John Cheever’s ‘The Summer Farmer’: it’s in a series of pieces on the stories of Cheever over at the excellent The Mookse and the Gripes site. Michael Pucci gives a detailed assessment there of this story about a city dweller, Paul Hollis, and his competitive spat with the ‘bitter’ and ‘discontented’ hired man, the Russian-born communist Kasiak, who is contemptuous of Hollis’s comparatively indolent work ethic and the lax morals and ‘disorderly’, bourgeois  nature of Hollis’s family (the adults all drink excessively, and they give their animals names, which Kasiak thinks is sentimental).

Pucci judges it not one of Cheever’s best stories, feeling it has an over-obvious twist at the end which makes too ‘convenient a point’. I intend exploring this evaluation with an examination of the language and style of this story, and a closer scrutiny of what that convenient ‘point’ might be; I think this conclusion is a little too dismissive and imprecise.

Cheever The Complete StoriesIn his Introduction to this English edition Hanif Kureishi astutely identifies several key themes in Cheever stories. First there’s what Cheever himself calls ‘the bitter mystery of marriage’, with its ‘carnal anarchy’. As the eponymous ‘farmer’ Hollis drives from the station junction in rural New Hampshire, having travelled there on his weekly commute from New York City – his family is spending the summer at the farm he inherited from his parents, and which he visits every weekend in the summer – the conversation he has with his ‘gentle wife’ Virginia (the adjective sounds ironic) hints at the central evasions of his life; their talk

was confined to the modest properties and affections they shared; more than this, it seemed to aim at a deliberate inconsequence, as if to mention the checking balance or the wars might ruin the spell of a mild morning and an open car.

Once in the house, in the room that had been his parents’, he and Virginia talk about family. Cheever’s use of abstract nouns here and in the rest of the story is particularly telling – I shall allude to this several times. The syntax is subtle and ambiguous; they taste the ‘astringency’ of their contentment in marriage – it’s clearly not unalloyed happiness – and their ‘worthiness’ (is this also ‘astringent’?), an abstract noun that seems to suggest a positive but which is in fact freighted with negative connotations: their life, it suggests, is a sham. Why else does Hollis have to anaesthetise himself with whisky in the train’s club car on his journey to the country? Yes, to wash away the polluting air of ‘the hot city’ and his job there, but also surely to indicate to the reader that there’s something awry with his life as a whole.

This is reinforced by the fact that, as they drive from the station to the farm, they pass through the ‘vitiated New Hampshire landscape, with its omnipresence of ruin’.

An ambivalent atmosphere is sustained once he reaches the farm; Hollis feels a ‘violent’ sense of ‘homecoming ’, of ‘returning to a place where he had summered all his life’,  and of overwhelming love for his children, but this is counterpointed by the description of his stern lecture to them about caring for their new pet rabbits, which ‘reduced him to a fatuity that he was conscious of himself.’

There’s a socio-political context lightly sketched in that adds to the richness of the story. His ‘coveralls’ still bear the dimly stencilled marks of his military ‘name, rank and serial number.’ This hints that he’d found some kind of real purpose and identity, perhaps, during his military war service which he tries to reassume by clothing himself in it symbolically at the farm, but that purpose has ‘faded’ into insignificance during the subsequent cold-war years –  a theme that recurs in Cheever’s  stories of this era (I hope to show this in future posts).

The story was published in 1948 in The New Yorker, when, as Betsy Pelz points out in a comment on Pucci’s article, the alliance with the Soviet Union had broken down and the House Un-American Activities Committee had been set up for three years, though McCarthy wasn’t to chair hearings until some years later. It’s a ‘charade of equality’ between Hollis and his malcontent hired man; this is one of Hollis’s ‘principle illusions’. In reality they’re engaged in a ‘puerile race’ – like the arms race to come in the near future? Near the end of the story Hollis fears that Kasiak is plotting a revolution of the ‘diligent and the reliable to seize power from the hands of those who drank Martinis’.

‘Dangerous seduction’ (Pelz) is a theme of the story in this threatening, unsettled climate: Hollis tried to appease Kasiak’s revolutionary anger and disapproval of his own bourgeois family life by showing ‘reasonableness’ (another of those revealing abstract nouns), and he was accommodating towards his lush of a sister and languid, disengaged wife. He strove for ‘contentment’ by taking a non-committal or supine position in relation to these problems in his life, and as a consequence he’s taken advantage of, discontented and has made decisions which worsened an already mediocre life.

There is a serpent in this rural Eden of his (his father had called the highest pasture ‘Elysian’ because of ‘its unearthly stillness’); is this the story’s central message? Hollis represents middle America, and has lost his bearings, is a hollow man, oscillating between a meaningless city job he hates, and a rural, hereditary idyll (he’s a ‘vacationist’, not a real farmer, one of what Kasiak dismisses as the ‘useless people’) that is tainted and failing; it’s a lie. Frequent references to brooding weather –  shadows, clouds  (some of them ‘clouds of filth’), rain, thunderstorms and so on – convey this atmosphere of impending doom in the story in a kind of recurring pathetic fallacy:

While they had been working, clouds had blackened the sky from the horizon to above his head, so he was given the illusion of a country divided evenly between the lights of catastrophe and repose.

The lyrical, elegiac final paragraphs (a Cheever trademark), quoted at length by Pucci, bring out these contradictions, with their accusatory abstract nouns: ‘the self-importance, diffidence or sadness with which we settle ourselves’ – the switch to the first person plural signifies the inclusivity of the message; we are all implicated in this futile attempt to live an idyllic or precariously balanced life. Hollis is broken; his right hand has ‘a tremor’, revealing his ‘mortality’; his ‘confused frown’ indicates his ‘obsoleteness’, and his ‘lame shoulders’ – the odd collocation highlights this dysfunctional description – are a consequence of ‘some recent loss of principle.’ Appeasement, striving for the apparently reasonable, quiet life, is destined to fail.

As Kureishi says it’s ‘status, self-respect and work, rather than sexual passion, which drives us’ in Cheever’s world. Hollis is forced to confront the fact that he has attained or succeeded in none of these. Hollis’s sister, sitting at the dinner table ‘high in her firmament of gin’, serves to illustrate the brokenness of this family’s life:

For with any proximity the constellations of some families generate among themselves an asperity that nothing can sweeten.

The style is grandiose here, but the abstract noun ‘asperity’ is a close cousin to the ‘astringency’ tasted in Hollis’s marriage, noted earlier, and the repetition of a sense-perception image subtly underlines the story’s purpose:

There was something wrong, some half-known evil in her worship of the bucolic scene – some measure of her inadequacy, and, he supposed, of his.

I’ve tried to show that Pucci’s assessment of this story is probably correct: it’s not one of Cheever’s best. Nevertheless, I believe it shows flashes of almost Chekhovian insights into ‘significant moments in ordinary lives’ (this is Kureishi again), with almost ‘every sentence weighed and balanced until it says the right thing’, uniting the personal with the political. His characters’ hopes for post-war American prosperity and peace (‘the bucolic scene’) are undermined by fears that they are false hopes and everything will be taken away from them some time in the uncertain future, and their lives shattered. Even if Hollis proves Kasiak’s derisive prediction wrong and does return in future summers, his life is depicted as shattered, or at least, disastrously cracked, and he will never feel content again on his summer farm.