Fairly disastrous individuals: Javier Marías, Written Lives

Javier Marías, Written Lives. Penguin Modern Classics, 2016. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. First published in Spain as Vidas escritas, 2000; US, New Directions, 2006

‘Writers are monsters’, said Hilary Mantel in her introduction to Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel (the VMC edition) – which I made the title of my post about that novel. Many of the 26 writers that Javier Marías includes in this idiosyncratic collection would readily fall into that category.

Mostly it’s best to read Written Lives as a collection of short stories – as the author hints we should in his characteristically witty Prologue to this PMC edition (and his regular translator, Margaret Jull Costa, deserves immense credit for her deft, elegant translation):

The idea, then, was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, singling out interesting ‘snippets’ from their lives; this may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.

All of his subjects, he points out, were ‘fairly disastrous individuals’. His brief portraits – most are about five pages long – are a willed rejection, that is, of the usual solemn ‘hagiography’ usually found in full-length biographies, he suggests. He approaches his subjects with ‘a mixture of affection and humour.’

Marías Written Lives

Isak Dinesen subsisted on oysters and champagne, as this cover photo shows 

And that’s the key to reading this collection. Marías warns us of the ‘lack of seriousness’ in his texts. This is not intended to be an objective work of scholarship.

For example, that Henry James never forgave Flaubert for receiving the Master and Turgenev in his dressing gown – an outrage for which James never forgave him – is probably taken from Ford Madox Ford’s unreliable testimony, as Philip Hensher pointed out in his review of the 2006 edition of this book (see the end of this post).

Nothing in these sketches has been ‘invented’, Marías disingenuously claims in the Prologue, but it’s in ‘what is included and what omitted that the possible accuracy or inaccuracy of these pieces partly lies.’ And although nothing is ‘fictitious’, some ‘episodes and anecdotes’ have been ‘embellished’.

In case we miss the sly wink behind these words, he goes on to advise the ‘suspicous reader who wants to check some fact’ that he appends an impressively lengthy bibliography as a (surely ironic) attempt to provide an aura of academic authenticity to the portraits – that are transparently cobbled together from a range of such sources, but with more of an eye for entertaining anecdotes than for factual veracity. It’s really a work of fiction – and as such, hugely entertaining.

Largely because of the sly humour. To Malcolm Lowry Marías awards the dubious accolade of

the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature, which is no mean feat, given the intense competition in the field.

Animals don’t fare too well. The paranoid drunk Lowry, we’re told, once took exception to a horse pulling a cart as he passed by because it gave what he took to be a ‘derisive snort’ – even the beasts were conspiring against him. His response was ‘to punch the horse so hard below the ear that the horse quivered and sank to its knees’ – the horse recovered, but Lowry suffered acute remorse for weeks afterwards.

As he did when, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men (is that where he got the story?), he inadvertently broke the neck of a pet rabbit that he was stroking on his lap, watched by the owner and owner’s mother. Like all the best comic writers, Marías is able to risk an outrageous step further after such a moment; he adds

For two days, he wandered the streets of London carrying the corpse, not knowing what to do with it and consumed by self-loathing, until…the waiter in a bar agreed to provide what promised to be a funeral as ordained by the God of all animals.

There are countless such moments of deliciously nasty insights into these…well, semi-fictitious portraits. Like Conrad, who ‘lived in a permanent state of extreme tension’; such was his uncontrollable ‘irritability’ that whenever he dropped his pen, instead of simply picking it up and carrying on writing,

he would spend several minutes exasperatedly drumming his fingers on the desk as if bemoaning what had occurred.

Conan Doyle, when he was about to become a practising doctor, once thrashed a bully who’d kicked a woman – he was an accomplished boxer, and prone to getting into brawls. The next day the man showed up at his surgery, his first patient. Fortunately he didn’t recognise his doctor.

This is what Marías says about Rilke:

It is not known what he liked, as regards food or other things, apart from the letter “y” – which he wrote whenever he could – as well, of course, as travelling and women.

This post is already becoming too long, but I must mention a trait of Marías’ inimitable style and approach that I’ve discussed in previous posts about his novels, and is also present to comic effect in Written Lives: his habit of judiciously, wryly moving from a detailed particular into a generalising aphorism of spurious portentousness: of Isak Dinesen he says that her philandering husband was the twin brother of the man she had loved from girlhood,

and bonds formed through a third party are perhaps the most difficult to break.

RL Stevenson was

undoubtedly chivalrous, but not excessively so, or rather, he was simply chivalrous enough, for every true gentleman has behaved like a scoundrel at least once in his life.

This volume includes a section of even briefer accounts of notable women (not all of them writers). Like Lowry, the quick-tempered Emily Bronte is said to have punched an animal that had caused her disgruntlement, with similarly dolorous effect (for the dog).

A final section gives Marías’ interpration of photo portraits of writers. These again are surely not intended to be read as serious, but are prompts for some good jokes – for example, he says that in his picture, Nietzsche wears an overcoat ‘that looks as if it had been lent to him by some much burlier relative.’

Philip Hensher’s review of the 2006 edition finds the book inaccurate, rather pointless and embarrassing; he’s also po-facedly critical of the wayward observations Marías offers in that final section, and offers this one of his own about the dustjacket photo of Marías in that edition; it’s just as good as those by the King of Redonda:

Given all of this, it is almost more than you could ask of a reviewer not to comment on the portrait of Marías himself on the dustjacket. Well, he has narrowed his eyes in a way which conventionally indicates sceptical intelligence; his hair could do with some attention (impossible genius); he is holding a burnt-down cigarette like a prop or a trophy, like a non-smoking actress in a revival of Hay Fever. He looks, slightly appallingly, like an author having his photograph taken.

 

An ebon stick: Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson

Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson. Penguin Modern Classics paperback, 1961 (before they started the grey covers; this one has a cover design by George Him). First published 1911

Beerbohm (1872-1956) wrote in a preliminary Note to this edition, with characteristically arch indignation, that responses to the novel on first publication wrongly took it to be:

intended as a satire on such things as the herd instinct, as feminine coquetry, as snobbishness, even as legerdemain; whereas I myself had supposed it was just a fantasy; and as such, I think, it should be regarded by others.

It’s never safe to trust such authorial protestations, especially from ‘the incomparable Max’ (as Shaw called him; ‘Compare me, compare me’, Max responded – one of his better witticisms). And he goes on to say that all fantasy should ‘have a solid basis in reality’. Zuleika Dobson portrays Edwardian Oxford University life with what I take to be an accurate eye (Beerbohm was at Merton, but never completed his degree: he’s not a great completer, which is maybe why he never produced the great full-length literary work his contemporaries expected and longed for from him).

Zuleika DobsonAlthough published in 1911, this novel was several years in the writing, and reflects Max’s early period obsessions: the Aesthetic Movement – he wrote for the Yellow Book, working with the likes of Wilde and Beardsley. – and the Classics; the novel is full of portentous quotations from and allusions to Greek and Latin literature and myth. This gives it part of the ostentatious, pompous tone that I found, frankly, repellent (and I won’t get started on the mass suicide plot). A recurring choral note referring to the ‘grim busts of the Roman Emperors’ staring down on the drama unfolding below them is another jarring note for me.

Here’s an example of that florid, overwritten ‘poetic’ style, which starts on page 1, and carries on relentlessly throughout; this is from the second paragraph of the novel. The scene is Oxford railway station, where the train bearing the eponymous heroine is just arriving:

At the door of the first-class waiting-room, aloof and venerable, stood the Warden of Judas [ie Merton]. An ebon pillar of tradition seemed he, in his garb of old-fashioned cleric.

I’ll stop there; the prose is so purple I can only take it in small doses. Max, in this narrative dandy persona, adores inverted syntactical structures, preferring to use fronted adverbials, delayed verbs, and miniature inversions embedded in these larger ones (‘stood he’; why not ‘he stood’?!).

Then there’s the overwrought vocabulary, that arcane, aureate diction; Max is striving too hard for comic-poetic exuberance: ‘an ebon pillar’. OK, it’s meant to be funny. It isn’t. ‘Garb’ isn’t funnier or cleverer than the plainer alternative.

The paragraph goes on in similar inflated style:

Aloft, between the wide brim of his silk hat and the white extent of his shirt-front, appeared those eyes which hawks, that nose which eagles, had often envied.

This is the tortuous, self-consciously rhetorical style suitable for a Roman orator, not a comic novel – that it was published in 1911 doesn’t excuse it. This is the style that was to influence early Evelyn Waugh, probably Wodehouse, maybe others (early Huxley, perhaps). So he has a lot to answer for. At least they saw the light and went on to better things (perhaps not PGW, who found his niche and stuck in it, sensibly).

The description goes on:

He supported his years on an ebon stick. He alone was worthy of the background.

Ah, that’s why he’s an ‘ebon pillar’. Still not funny. But that last sentence is good – and funny. But even then it manages to turn the scene into a painting. It’s intended to be ironic, this juxtaposition of the foppish ‘aesthetic’ with the mundane reality of an old man on a station platform, meeting his granddaughter. I don’t see the point.

And that’s Max. Ninety per cent overblown, aesthetic posturing, then a killer line in demotic, plain, brilliant English.

The next paragraph carries on in the same style:

Came a whistle from the distance.

What’s wrong with S-V-O?

Then comes the first of dozens of uses of the poetic-archaic ‘ere’ (not ‘before’), sometimes preceded by dud effulgences like ‘insomuch that’. Paragraph four includes ‘cynosure’ (well, here it is appropriate), and ‘Him espying, the nymph darted in his direction’. That is, Zuleika walks towards her grandfather.

Robert McCrum placed this novel at no. 40 in his list of 100 Best Novels in the Guardian in 2014. He gives a summary of the plot there, saying that it is

a brilliant Edwardian satire on Oxford life by one of English literature’s most glittering wits that now reads as something much darker and more compelling. Readers new to Max Beerbohm’s masterpiece, which is subtitled An Oxford Love Story, will find a diaphanous novel possessed of a delayed explosive charge that detonates today with surprising power.

Yes, Max writes what reviewers tend to call ‘lapidary’ prose, but as I hope my brief examination demonstrates, it’s not to my taste, over embellished. I read in another review, I forget where, that readers tend to either love or hate Max’s work. I’m in the latter group.

Oh, yes, and he’s beastly about the Americans.

One very funny passage, just to redress the balance. This Edwardian Kardashian, Zuleika, is passing the Front Quadrangle of the college, where there are some chained-up dogs:

Zuleika, of course, did not care for dogs. One has never known a good man to whom dogs were not dear; but many of the best women have no such fondness. You will find that the woman who is really kind to dogs is always one who has failed to inspire sympathy in men. For the attractive woman, dogs are mere dumb and restless brutes – possibly dangerous, certainly soulless.

She stoops down to pet this unfortunate dog as an act of coquetry, not genuine affection, to awaken envy in her male companion:

Alas, her pretty act was a failure. The bulldog cowered away from her, horrifically grimacing. This was strange. Like the majority of his breed, Corker…had been wistful to be noticed by anyone…No beggar, burglar, had ever been rebuffed by this catholic beast. But he drew the line at Zuleika.

See what Max can do when he stops the posturing? This is genuinely funny, and the first part of my quotation has an aphoristic quality worthy of Oscar. But he still can’t resist calling the dog a ‘catholic beast’; old habits die hard. That’s the kind of 18C grandiloquence that Wordsworth (at least in his younger days) tried to reform, a century before Max.

As I was in Portugal when reading this, and it was the last book I had with me, I was stuck with it. Mass suicide played for laughs, written mostly (there are a few worthy exceptions, as I’ve indicated) in a style that makes Pater look like Hemingway – no. Fortunately, there were Chekhov’s stories on my Kindle.

Let’s end with a few more pictures of the Fuzeta scenery of E. Algarve. At least it’s natural – which is impossible to say of Zuleika Dobson.

Fish market at Olhão

Fish market at Olhão

I didn’t choose my holiday reading at all successfully.

Apologies for another negative post.

 

 

 

 

Armona island

Armona island

Fuzeta lagoon, sunset

Fuzeta lagoon, sunset

Curious creatures. Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool

Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool. Penguin Modern Classics, 1963; first published 1936

Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool This early PMC edition has one of those lovely two-tone covers (this one drawn by R.A. Glendening) and the number on the spine (1891), with the distinctive grey bands of the early Modern Classics series.

Unfortunately the novel (the only one Connolly wrote; he produced a large body of journalism, literary reviews, memoirs, etc.) doesn’t live up to the design. It has some pleasing linguistic flourishes, but ultimately it disappoints.

As Connolly says in a letter/foreword addressed to Peter Quennell (a contemporary at Balliol),

I have been asked why I chose such unpleasant, unimportant and hopeless people to write about…I don’t know.

He thinks he has created ‘a young man as futile as any’ (this is true – but it isn’t as interesting as that sounds), who represents ‘a certain set of English qualities, the last gasp, perhaps, of rentier exhaustion.’

Edgar Naylor is spending the summer on the south coast of France, taking a sabbatical from his jobs – one as ‘a kind of apprentice-partner in a firm of stockbrokers’, the other ‘as self-appointed biographer of Samuel Rogers, the banker-bard of St James’s Place.’

He doesn’t have a great deal of money, the narrator blandly insists, ‘just under a thousand pounds a year over which a trustee mounted guard like a dragon’. Poor chap – almost destitute. Later he’s said to have ‘enough money to avoid the general discipline of the professions, and not enough to buy more than indifferent consideration.’ How vulgar, to work for a living.

He decides to become ‘an observer, a naturalist’, an ‘entomologist’, his subject the teeming rock-pool life of the bohemian expats who haunted ‘Trou-sur-Mer’ – Hole on the Sea. Not patronising, then. The first pen portrait of him doesn’t enhance this unbecoming impression:

Naylor was neither very intelligent nor especially likeable, and certainly not very successful, and from the image of looking down knowingly into his Rock Pool, poking it and observing the curious creatures he might stir up, he would derive a pleasant sense of power.

It comes as no surprise that every soi-disant ‘artist’ or eccentric he meets fleeces him or cheats him barefacedly, cutting him dead as soon as they lose interest in him or his money runs out. He finds his money can’t even buy him love or friends.

The outcome is inevitable: from this starting point as ‘specimen’ collector and observer, he falls into the pool he intended anatomising, like Hylas with the Hamadryads (mentioned in the epigraph and foreword) and is doomed.

Hylas and the Naiads, by John William Waterhouse, 1896

Hylas and the Naiads, by John William Waterhouse, 1896

 

Unfortunately I didn’t care what happened to him, and cared even less about the cast of scoundrels and drifters he felt he could lord it over. He’s naive enough to find them initially exciting and attractive, then as they reveal themselves to be even more shallow and morally deficient than he is, his disillusionment intensifies his predilection for self-pity.

As I said there are touches of fine, often amusing prose. Here’s the description early on of his first encounter with Varna, the English co-owner of the Bastion bar, which becomes his drinking den:

She had something expectant and glistening about her, like a penguin waiting for a fish.

Initially finding her stimulating, Naylor came to realise ‘she was middle-class and, worse, was assuming that he was.’

He decided that she was profoundly antipathetic – that voice like a medium’s, those clairvoyant eyes, and that sturdy little body in inappropriate sailor trousers!

His inability to read people’s true characters is meant, perhaps, to be endearing; instead it’s simply another aspect of his irritating self-absorption and emotional sterility. And he’s a terrible snob, as that last extract indicates.

I raced through the final third of this mercifully short novel for all the wrong reasons: I couldn’t wait for it to end.

There’s some interest in the decadence of this seedy set Naylor falsely believes he’s accepted into: the bacchanalian evenings he participates in are attended by a range of sexually ambivalent types. These scenes caused Connolly to find it difficult to find a publisher initially on the grounds that the book was indecent. One of the first such gatherings led Naylor to conclude it ‘didn’t provide much evidence of human progress’, and reminded him he ‘was on the wrong side of Eden.’  It isn’t indecent. It’s just rather flashily tedious.

Blaise Cendrars does this kind of thing with much more panache, wit and weird charm.

The spider in the corner: André Breton, Nadja

André Breton, Nadja. Translated by Richard Howard for the American Grove Press edition of 1960, and by Penguin when they added this title to their Modern Classics series in 1999.

I’ve found this a particularly difficult post to write. Magnolias and daffodils are blooming and spring is on the way. More important than troublesome books, perhaps.

Nadja has some fine passages that make rewarding reading. But it’s a morally bankrupt book, I feel. I know I should be assessing it from an objectively literary or artistic perspective. But there it is: it’s beyond my control. This is a blog, not an academic journal.

André Breton, 'Nadja': PMC cover Nadja’s opening paragraphs set the tone of strangeness and authority that resonate through much of the book (I can’t call it a novel or romance – a generic problem which the Breton biographer Mark Polizzotti discusses in his informative Introduction). If anything it’s an unreliable autobiography. The narrator bears AB’s name and many of his views, though of course it would be naïve to take this at face value: he’s a literary construct.

He begins with an attempt to set out the answer to the question with which the narrative begins: ‘Who am I?’ His first response is to suggest he is whom he ‘haunts’. He plays a ‘ghostly part, evidently referring to what I have ceased to be in order to be who I am.’ He goes on:

Hardly distorted in this sense, the word suggests that what I regard as the objective, more or less deliberate manifestations of my existence are merely the premises, within the limits of this existence, of an activity whose true extent is quite unknown to me. My image of the “ghost”, including everything conventional about its appearance as well as its blind submission to certain contingencies of time and place, is particularly significant for me as the finite representation of a torment that may be eternal.

These looping, intricate sentences have a poetic-philosophical potency that is both weird and elusive while at the same time existentially dramatic. That final phrase is tremendous. Artful.

He goes on to suggest he is ‘doomed’ to try and learn just a fragment of what he has forgotten –

an idea of irreparable loss, of punishment, of a fall whose lack of moral basis is, as I see it, indisputable…I strive, in relation to other men, to discover the nature, if not the necessity, of my difference from them.

This is typical of the plaintive quest for truth and identity that the book presents – but I’ve quoted them at length because, for me, these extracts also show where I have a problem with it. It’s all about HIM. And ‘men’. Women play a secondary role in the surrealist world Breton constructs.

Perhaps I’m reading this wrongly; it’s not an easy text to understand. Breton is surely trying hard not to be coherent, comprehensible or to create a conventional, linear narrative. As he says later on, the psychological novel with its empiricist basis is, for him, dead. He has no interest in the nature of bourgeois reality; his focus is on himself and his own experience.

This is all very interesting, for a while. But I found it palled – and there are 60 pages of it before Nadja herself appears. 60 pages full of the dropping of names of his important avant-garde friends, from Aragon to Picasso. The influence of Huysmans is acknowledged (not a good sign).

When Nadja does appear the narrator clearly suspects she might be a prostitute. Only French male intellectuals can be flâneurs in Paris (as Lauren Elkin has recently demonstrated in her challenge to this assumption, Flâneuse, reviewed in the Guardian HERE.)

 

He immediately invites her for a drink in a café, the first of many assignations (bizarre trysts) over a ten-day period. He’s clearly infatuated, fascinated by ‘the soul in limbo’ as she describes herself, this proto-beatnik with the kohl-rimmed, fern-coloured eyes and the sultry (inauthentic) Russian name, who clings on to existence by smuggling cocaine, and possibly selling herself.

He clearly tells her he’s a writer, for she makes him promise to bring her some of his books when they arrange to meet next day. He urges her not to read them:

Life is other than what one writes.

She leaves him glowing with self-satisfaction, for she confides that the quality about him that touched her most was his ‘simplicity’ (his italics). Really?! All this is transparently disingenuous and pompous of him.

As their strange liaison develops she reveals disturbing details about her past, and is evidently a troubled soul. She speaks in sphinx-like aphorisms and paradoxical, portentous riddles (‘I am the thought on the bath in the room without mirrors’): the very essence of surrealism. Breton is beside himself: she’s his dream woman, for she symbolises…him and all his beliefs.

But as her frail hold on sanity becomes more apparent, and her haunted eccentricity becomes increasingly extreme, he realises he’s mistaken incipient insanity for the embodiment of a surrealist’s rejection of rationality. Even her surrealist drawings, reproduced in this text in blotchy monochrome (a technique Sebald was to make more interesting use of), he chooses to see as preternatural signs of her role for him as Muse. Freud would no doubt interpret them differently.

It’s at this point that Breton finally lost me. Even by their second meeting he’s writing ‘it is apparent that she is at my mercy’. Yes, he loves that she seems ‘so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares for so little, but so marvellously, for life’. She’s a ‘Melusina’ spirit, in his eyes. That’s how he chooses to see her at first, rather than as the psychologically vulnerable young woman (she was 24; Nadja is based on a real-life person) he comes to recognise. Which is when he rejects her.

This renunciation comes as no surprise. Soon after meeting her he writes:

How does she regard me, how does she judge me? It is unforgivable of me to go on seeing her if I do not love her. Don’t I love her? When I am near her I am nearer things which are near her.

His egotism excuses for him every exploitative moment he spends with her. He discusses her with his wife and friends. Nadja is not autobiography, but I find the way he portrays his callous treatment of this damaged young woman inexcusable (‘unforgivable’). Not a particularly valid literary response, but one I can’t avoid.

He took her to be ‘a free genius, something like one of those spirits of the air, which certain magical practices momentarily permit us to entertain but which we can never overcome.’ Ominous that he doesn’t say ‘love’, but ‘overcome’. She’s important to him only as long as she inspires him, and ‘takes [him] for a god’, ‘thinks of [him] as the sun’, her ‘master’. Being adored by a gorgeous, abandoned waif is a tremendous aphrodisiac, and he gorges on it.

Towards the end his guard drops, and guilt begins to show:

perhaps I have not been adequate to what she offered me.

 

What did she offer? ‘Only love in the sense I understand it – mysterious, improbable, unique, bewildering…’ Soon after this adolescent self-analysis he declares baldly:

I was told, several months ago, that Nadja was mad.

So all of this has been written retrospectively, in the knowledge that she was becoming insane. What pushed her over the edge? It’s hard to resist the conclusion that it was his inability to return her love. He used her, and when she gave him her essence he took it and then rejected her. It’s all very well spend much of the last 30-odd pages of the book fulminating against the profession of psychiatry (Breton had medical-psychiatric training), denouncing the kinds of sanitarium to which Nadja has been committed (and where he never visited her, though his friends did); this doesn’t exculpate him. This is his heartless response to news of her incarceration:

…I do not suppose there can be much difference for Nadja between the inside of a sanitarium and the outside.

He’s making a cheap surrealist jibe against the relative madness of bourgeois society: Nadja has become nothing more than a convenient tool to facilitate the construction of his private aesthetic-political manifesto.

His denial of Nadja was the ultimate expression of this smug and callous character. I just hope it wasn’t the real André Breton, and he chose to create this monster for some kind of surreal literary exercise.

This is the same character who earlier wrote about writing Nadja in the Manoir d’Ango as he liked, ‘where I was able to hunt owls as well.’ When I first read this I thought it a surreal joke (there’s an equally good one about ‘the spider in the corner’). When I got to the book’s end that sentence took on a different significance; he’s using Nadja’s mental implosion as another aspect of inspiration, pulling fragments of her shattered psyche out of the wreckage and making them into beautiful literary objects. I can’t countenance that, no matter how beautiful they are.

But I’m willing to acknowledge that all of this might be a wilful misreading of a surreal text as if it were written by one of those empiricists Breton hated – you know, charlatans like Flaubert.

In America bluff is everything. William Carlos Williams

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

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

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

1921 passport photo of Williams

1921 passport photo of Williams

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

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

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

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

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

Never, said he.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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