William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows

William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows. Vintage Classics, London, 2008. First published 1937

Bunny (nickname of Peter) is a timid boy aged eight, who cries easily, is bullied by the local lads, and is wary of his bossy big brother, Robert, who’s thirteen. He’s sent on an errand to the local shop:

Mrs Lolly was middle-aged and sagging, like her porch. She kept a yellow pencil in the knot at the back of her hair…[She] added up figures on a paper bag. When she stopped and looked at him blindly, Bunny saw that her eyes were full of arithmetic.

William Maxwell, cover of They Came Like SwallowsMaxwell’s short novel is all written as well as that. This first section is narrated from Bunny’s point of view, reflecting his devotion to his mother, love-hate relationship with Robert (an age gap of five years is a lot at that age), and his father’s severe aloofness.

It’s set in Illinois in 1918, and the post-war Spanish flu is spreading. Bunny falls seriously ill with it. As the novel progresses, with a second section narrated from his big brother’s viewpoint, and a final section focusing on the father, others fall sick, and the serenity of the family is shattered.

It’s a beautifully observed, deeply moving account of the dynamics of this small family. The other significant member is the beautiful aunt Irene, bohemian and exotic, adored by Bunny. Her marriage is on the rocks, and she’s torn between letting her feckless husband have another chance, and doing the sensible thing.

This is the third Maxwell novel I’ve read; two of them brilliantly portray the inner lives of boys – this one and So Long, See You Tomorrow – link to my post HERE. The other, The Château (link HERE) was less compelling: I found it a little over-written. Maxwell is at his best when he keeps the prose low-key, as he does in Swallows, while developing scenes with some unbearably powerful emotion in play.

The title is from Yeats’s poem ‘Coole Park, 1929’, a stanza of which serves as the novel’s epigraph. One line describes ‘a woman’s powerful character’ – Bunny and Robert’s mother, the keystone of this fraught family, would fit that description.

 

Being a mother: Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle. Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2016. First published in the USA, 1998

Elizabeth Strout’s first novel, Amy & Isabelle, anticipates relationships and themes she was to revisit in the two later novels of hers that I’ve posted on here (links at the end). She presents parent – child relations in particular as sclerotic.

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle coverShirley Falls is a dull town, dominated by the mill on the filthy river. Isabelle is PA to one of its office managers – a dull, bald and overweitht married man with whom she’s secretly half in love, and who hardly notices her.

Isabelle is a snob. Although she never graduated from college, she’s created an image of herself as a cultivated, sophisticated woman who’s superior to the other women in the office. She disdains their petty bickering and factions and discourages intimacy. She’s like Strout’s later protagonists, Olive and Lucy: lonely, distressed and unhappy, longing for love and too acerbic and aloof to invite it.

Mother-daughter relationships and their tribulations feature centrally in Strout’s fiction. Part of Isabelle’s false persona results from a deeply shameful secret that she only reveals late in the novel. By then it’s too late to repair the damage she’s caused to her teenage daughter Amy’s view of her.

I’ve known mothers and daughters like this (and fathers and sons). They long for the other to love them, yet behave so hurtfully they become bitter and estranged.

It’s a more sprawling, less tightly structured novel than Olive or Lucy, but it has much of their pungency and raw emotion. Women can be supportive and loving towards each other, but it’s often adversity (usually caused by their menfolks’ unreliability and errancy) that brings out the best in them.

Isabelle had been emotionally scarred by events in her youth, and the ensuing emotional rigidity, shame and guilt led her to recreate herself in a way that prevents others, including Amy, from establishing intimacy and trust with her.

This changes a little towards the end and Isabelle finds that confronting and telling the truth can be therapeutic. But for Amy it’s maybe too late for that.

Strout’s prose shows signs of the precision and incisiveness that developed so well in the later novels. Here’s a random example. The crisis that has damaged Amy’s relationship with her mother has happened, and its fragility has not stood up to the stress:

[Isabelle is watching through her window as Amy approaches the house] The sight of her pained Isabelle. It pained her terribly to see her, but why?

Because she looked unhappy, her shoulders slumped like that, her neck thrust forward, walking slowly, just about dragging her feet. This was Isabelle’s daughter; this was Isabelle’s fault. She hadn’t done it right, being a mother, and this youthful desolation walking up the driveway was exactly proof of that.

The free indirect style gives us insight into the turmoil and guilt in Isabelle’s mind. She has a flash of perception, realising she has turned her daughter into a version of her own unhappy, unfulfilled self. But then the paragraph shifts gear:

But then Amy straightened up, glancing toward the house with a wary squint, and she seemed transformed to Isabelle, suddenly a presence to be reckoned with. Her limbs were long and even, her breasts beneath her T-shirt seemed round and right, neither large or small, only part of some pleasing symmetry; her face looked intelligent and shrewd. Isabelle, sitting motionless in her chair, felt intimidated.

This is so well done. The narrative subtly reveals that Isabelle has misread the signs – Amy’s ‘wary squint’ sets off this new line of thought and tone.

It introduces the duplicity of Isabelle’s sadness and sense of failure; when Amy ‘straightens up’ – the image is also carefully chosen – Isabelle has a painful epiphany. Amy has transcended the neediness her mother has instilled in her. She has the confidence – sexual and personal – that Isabelle had suppressed. And she envies it – envies her daughter’s intelligence and shrewdness, her confident independence. No wonder she feels ‘intimidated’.

Isabelle isn’t a monster. Parents are supposed to want their children to outgrow their need for them – to rejoice when they fledge and leave the nest. But Strout has the honesty to show that they also harbour a selfish desire for their offspring to keep on needing them. Their independence makes the mother redundant, and reinforces her sense of her own shortcomings – her futility. The lessons and painful growth take place on both sides; the difference is that Amy will continue to grow.

This might sound a bit gloomy – Strout is too astute to leave it there. She gives signs that Isabelle is also learning about herself, and is maybe capable of an honesty with herself that she’d hitherto smothered – and it was this dishonesty that had kept her from living fully.

It takes a writer of great maturity and sensitivity to succeed in conveying all this without coming across as preaching or apportioning blame.

My previous Elizabeth Strout posts: Olive Kitteridge HERE

My Name is Lucy Barton HERE

 

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend. Virago paperback, 2019. First published in the US 2018

This is a lovely novel.

I read it in a single day while recuperating from a medical procedure, so didn’t feel up to a demanding read. This is an easy read, but it’s not facile or trite: in fact it’s very profound, and very moving.

Sigrid Nunez The Friend coverThe unnamed narrator closely resembles the author: she’s a writer, university teacher of English and creative writing, and resident of New York City. When a former lover and lifelong friend unexpectedly commits suicide, she inherits his harlequin great Dane. Reluctantly, for she’s a cat person, and dogs aren’t allowed in her apartment building.

The central thread of the narrative is about the grief she and the gentle giant of a dog share for their lost friend. At first the dog is bereft and distant, barely tolerating her. Gradually they find themselves consoling and supporting each other – she’d say they fall in love.

That might not sound too compelling a summary, but believe me, there’s so much more in this novel. The narrator refracts her thoughts and experience through the lens of literature: Virginia Woolf and many other writers on writing, promiscuity (her late friend was a thrice-married womaniser, but charismatic and brilliant, so gets away with most of his dubious philandering), being a flâneur, and life itself. And all of those simultaneously.

Writing, for example, involves ‘self-doubt, shame, self-loathing’, and leads to embarrassment for the author. An epigraph quotes Natalia Ginzburg: ‘You cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing.’ This novel perhaps disproves that notion.

She often reflects on JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (on which I posted HERE). She adopts an intimate, conversational voice with the reader, aware early on that we’ll be worrying that ‘something bad happens to the dog’. Of course it does: Danes don’t live long. But she spares us the worst, and ends on an idyllic note, spending a happy time at a Long Island beach house with the elderly, ailing dog.

It’s an unusual form of autofiction. She often reflects, metafictionally, on the nature of her narrative, and of ‘fiction as autobiography, autobiography as fiction.’ And she’s not averse to poking fun at this kind of solipsism. A late chapter shifts dimensions and posits an alternative narrative, closer perhaps to ‘reality’, and upsets the living character on whom she’s based the dead friend and dog owner. He thinks she’s been presumptuous in purloining his story and disguising it slightly as fiction.

Maybe he had it coming.

‘It is curious,’ she suggests on this topic, ‘how the act of writing  leads to confession. Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.’

I like that demotic element in her style. She can talk like this while citing authors like Proust, Christa Wolf or Rilke. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace features quite largely. She’s skilful and intelligent enough to make it all cohere and entertain.

This literary allusion never became intrusive or ostentatious. She’s a literature professor, after all. Another American woman writer her fragmentary narrative approach reminds me of is Renata Adler – one of the most interesting I’ve read in recent years (my post on Speedboat is HERE.)

 

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt. Tinder Press, 2020. First published in the USA 2019

NemesiaBefore I write about this novel, I’d just like to mention some flowers that are blooming happily in our front garden. They have pretty little pink and white petals, but it’s their scent that’s most notable. It’s a cross between vanilla and coconut. The fragrance wafts over us when we sit outside: like being next to an ice-cream factory.

My sister-in-law passed American Dirt on to Mrs TD, who recommended it to me when she’d finished it. I found it almost painful to read, as the subject is so harrowing, but it’s compelling.

It begins with a massacre in Acapulco, Mexico – sixteen members of the Pérez family who’d gathered for a birthday party are murdered by cartel gangsters. It’s a reprisal for the newspaper articles about the enigmatic cartel jefe written by Lydia Pérez’s journalist husband. He’s one of the few who hasn’t been bribed or threatened into complicity with the cartel’s vicious hold on the city.

Cummins American Dirt coverLydia and her eight-year-old son are the only survivors. She knows the killers will come after them, so she has to take off. She and young Luca join the hordes of migrantes heading north from all parts of central America for the USA and comparative safety. They are fleeing from the murderous cartels and poverty.

The novel traces Lydia and Luca’s perilous journey across Mexico: much of the time they walk, but they also have to learn how to leap aboard the Bestia – the freight train that heads north.

Along the way they witness some terrible things. They also encounter the kindness of strangers, and the bonds of love that survive even during the most hellish of experiences. If it weren’t for these humane moments the novel would be unbearable.

I heard the author interviewed on a radio book programme recently. She was asked about the criticism that had been levelled against her for a kind of cultural appropriation; she’s not of Mexican heritage. In a note at the end of the novel she explains why she felt it incumbent on her to research this migrant crisis and write about it.

In 2017, when she was finishing the novel, a migrant died on the US-Mexican border every twenty-one hours. Many more simply disappear. There were forty thousand people reported missing across Mexico at the time of writing, and mass graves are regularly found. ‘Mexico was the deadliest country in the world to be a journalist’. No wonder so many ordinary people like Lydia and her little boy risk their lives to get away from such an awful situation.

Of course I’d heard news stories about the migrants, and felt sympathy for them. Then came the punitive, vindictive policies of the current US president and his crazed obsession with his infamous Wall.

One of the most moving moments in the narrative comes when Lydia recalls listening to those same reports on the radio as she cooked the family’s evening meal. As we all do, she pauses and thinks how terrible it is that human beings have to endure such hardship and suffering; Lydia then realises she’s out of garlic, and her sympathy is forgotten as she wonders how to cope with this minor domestic crisis.

As we fret about Covid, it’s sobering to read this searing story about the cruelty humans are capable of displaying, and heartening to be reminded that even in the worst possible environments, we’re also capable of generosity and loving kindness.

Every one of those migrants has a heartbreaking story like Lydia’s. They’re not the rapists, murderers and drug dealers that they’re depicted as by this heartless president. I think Jeanine Cummins has done us all a service in telling this story.

Surface and substance: Edith Wharton, The Reef

Edith Wharton, The Reef. Everyman’s Library, hardback, 1996. First published 1912

Anna Summers is a product of the convention-bound world of Old New York:

In the well-regulated, well-fed Summers world the unusual was regarded as either immoral or ill-bred, and people with emotions were not visited.

She’s aware of feelings and romantic aspirations deep inside her somewhere, but as a young woman under the influence of her parents and their prim social set, such stirrings would be considered improper. She has learned to regard ‘the substance of life’ as:

A mere canvas for the embroideries of poet and painter, and its little swept and fenced and tended surface as its actual substance. It was in the visioned region of action and emotion that her fullest hours were spent; but it hardly occurred to her that they might be translated into experience, or connected with anything likely to happen to a young lady living in West Fifty-fifth Street.

 Only love, she believes, could release her from ‘this spell of unreality,’ and construct ‘the magic bridge between West Fifty-fifth Street and life. George Darrow seems the ideal candidate: she feels an impulse of passion for him – but she’s incapable of indulging it, or to abandon the social poise and self-effacing tact so prized in her world. Darrow wants to kiss her, but she wants to talk to him about books and art. He turns to shallower, more compliant young women for dalliance, leaving Anna to berate herself for being so ‘cold’, such a ‘prude’. Being considered by envious mothers of such unbridled young women in her social set as a ‘model of lady-like repression’ is little consolation.

It’s difficult to say much about the subsequent plot without spoilers. On the rebound from Darrow, Anna marries another American, a dull, conventional bore called Leath. He takes her to live in a dismal French chateau that’s a ‘symbol of narrowness and monotony’. His widowed mother lives there with them, a representative of ‘the forces of order and tradition.’ Anna has chosen badly if she expected a fulfilled life. One set of desiccated conventions is replaced by another, older one.

Her trapped existence worsens: she’s desperately lonely and emotionally trammelled, even after the birth of her daughter. When her husband dies, Darrow re-enters her life after a twelve-year gap, and their romance seems set to resume – except this time she’s steeling herself to act more spontaneously, kindle her repressed sexuality, and not drive him away again with her unresponsiveness. Then all kinds of complications set in.

The title of the novel reveals that their love will not sail smoothly. The opening words indicate another kind of reef: ‘Unexpected obstacle.’ Anna has sent him a telegram just as he sets off by train from London to visit her in France. He’s frustrated and angry at yet another apparent snub from her. When a pretty young ingénue crosses his path, history repeats itself, and he turns (with rather cynical and calculated selfishness) to this natural, vibrant spirit, who acts with all the spontaneity, sensuality and joy of living that Anna so palpably fails to access or unleash in herself.

What follows is a slow-burning modern tragedy. Can love flourish when it hits the reef of distrust and infidelity? The more Darrow ducks and dives to avoid wrecking the fragile, sinking relationship with Anna, the more his lies and evasions smash her faith in him – and in love.

The Reef was much admired by Wharton’s friend Henry James, and it’s been described as her most Jamesian novel. It is, in the sense that there’s almost no surface ‘action’; the narrative consists largely of dialogue which the reader has to fathom delicately. Hardly anyone speaks their mind. True feeling is largely unspoken. All is (as Darrow himself puts it at one point), nuance. What lies beneath this apparently calm, sophisticated surface turns out to be the reef.

The first part of the novel is focalised on Darrow, and it’s his urbane world view that positions Anna as difficult and repressed. Then Anna’s consciousness takes centre stage (the novel has been filmed, though I haven’t seen it; it would lend itself, I’d have thought, to dramatization). I found myself sympathising increasingly with her as she struggled to overcome her inhibitions, to go with her instincts instead of her will for once, and to forgive Darrow his ‘moment of folly’, a ‘flash of madness’ with the young woman he’d met on his thwarted trip to visit Anna at the start of the novel.

She recoils from his glib self-justifications when he finally confesses. His masculine excuses are ‘a vision of debasing familiarity: it seemed to her that her thoughts would never again be pure.’

She wondered at his composure, his competence, at his knowing so exactly what to say. No doubt men often had to make such explanations: they had the formulas by heart… A leaden lassitude descended on her. She passed from flame and torment into a colourless cold world where everything surrounding her seemed equally indifferent and remote. For a moment she simply ceased to feel.

 Poor Anna. Just as she’d let go and started to allow herself to feel, he accuses her of being ‘too hard’ and ‘too fine’. The imminent wreck of their romance is all her fault, then. But the novel doesn’t end there.

I’ve just started reading Rosamond Lehmann’s 1953 novel The Echoing Grove; it looks set to chart similar reefs in the seas of sexual relations.

I’ve posted about nine other works of fiction by Edith Wharton: link HERE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crawdads, house martins and a Bentley

Another book recommendation from Mrs TD was Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (Corsair paperback, 2019; first published in the US in 2018). I was sceptical when I started reading, thinking it was turning into a fictional misery-memoir/romantic murder mystery (not a particularly digestible mixture). Mrs TD said to persevere.

I did, and found myself enjoying it. The murder mystery is quite tightly plotted, and there’s a colourful depiction of Kya, the young protagonist whose abusive father drives all her siblings and even her loving mother away from their squalid shack in the middle of a North Carolina coastal swamp. When the father abandons her too, when she’s only about ten years old, she learns to fend for herself and develops a fierce independence, tempered by a fear of being taken in by the authorities. Their success in getting her briefly into a school teaches her only that she was right to be wary of ‘civilisation’.

The romantic part of the novel is a bit contrived, I thought. Kya is a sort of Little Mermaid figure, out of her element in the world of ordinary people, as they are in her world. They call her disparagingly ‘The Marsh Girl’, and spread rumours that she’s feral and dirty.

But she still falls in love with one of the young men from the nearby town, and he with her. As with the mermaid, their story is fraught with danger and difficulties. The complication involves another relationship that veers badly out of control for her.

The strongest aspect of the novel is the vivid realisation of the natural world Kya is so at ease in. Owens has previously published non-fiction in her role as a wildlife scientist in Africa – this is her first novel. Her naturalist’s expertise is well deployed without becoming too intrusive. She’s able to make the reader see and hear the birds, insects and other animal and vegetable life in the teeming, lush swamp.

Kya also reminds me of Mowgli, more at home among the wildlife than with humans. The gulls are her closest friends. The herons watch her with curiosity and fearlessness. The swamp creatures copulate with and eat each other with heedless abandon. Some of this (a little crudely) points up what’s going on in the human story.

I suppose it was an ideal escapist read for these trying times. I’m still struggling to engage with more demanding reading; this novel provided an insight into a completely different and unknown world.

The language often had me turning to Google: local terms like ‘hush puppies’ (not the uncool shoes), ‘po’boys’ and ‘crawdads’. These are crayfish, and the expression in the title about where they sing is a local saying for something like ‘over the rainbow’ or ‘back of beyond’, because of course crayfish don’t sing. I don’t think they do.

View from the country towards the cityJust to finish here’s a picture from my walk early this morning. The recent sunny weather has been replaced by grey and cloudy skies mostly for several days here in Cornwall. This is the view towards the city from a field a half mile or so from my house. You might just be able to see through the haze the spire of the cathedral, piercing the horizon in the middle of the picture. The Carvedras viaduct that I wrote about here recently is also just about visible towards the right.

Yesterday we made a rare trip to the supermarket to buy provisions for ourselves and an isolated neighbour. Only one person per household allowed in at a time, so I prowled the carpark while Mrs TD did the food shopping (we take it in turns). The timing was good: I saw the first house martins of the spring, two of them slicing the sky over the rooftops in scimitar swoops.

Also spotted in the carpark: a middle-aged man in rock-star shades parked an enormous blue Bentley. A few minutes later the young security guard who’d been supervising the socially-distanced queue walked up to the car, opened its doors with the keyfob remote, and started taking pictures with his phone camera. He told me he’d praised the car to the owner as he entered the store, and the guy handed over the keys and told him to go take a closer look. “Really?” the young man asked. “Sure,” said the man. “It’s only a car.”

This young man was so excited he FaceTimed a friend and filmed himself in front of the car, and sitting in its opulent leather seats. “It’s like driving your lounge,” he beamed at me. He couldn’t believe the owner could be so offhand about handing him the keys to this expensive car the size of a battleship. It made his day – and (with the house martins even more so) mine.

An odd couple: John O’Hara and Donna Leon

John O’Hara, New York Stories (Vintage paperback, 2018). Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice (Arrow paperback, 2004; first published 1992)

Recently I’ve found it hard to concentrate on reading. This is strange, given that we now find ourselves with unusual amounts of unconstrained time on our hands. Maybe it’s because I’m so preoccupied with the anxieties and stress caused by the pandemic. People I know have been infected. Our daughter works in the NHS. Yesterday I went to the local hospital for an MRI scan, and it felt like entering a war zone: security guards at the entrances, no visitors, face masks compulsory, staff hidden behind PPE.

Before the limits on travel were introduced nearly a month ago I’d started reading John O’Hara’s New York Stories. I thought the short form would be less demanding in terms of concentration required. I was wrong.

Front covers of O'Hara, New York Stories, and Leon, Death at La FeniceThere are 32 stories in the collection, with publication dates ranging from the early 1930s to after O’Hara’s death in 1970 (he was born in 1905). They range widely in length, too, from what might now be called flash fiction – vignettes of just a couple of pages or so, which are often very well done – to a 58-page novella ‘We’re Friends Again’. They’re not arranged chronologically or thematically, but alphabetically by title. Steven Goldleaf in the Introduction believes this was to enable the stories to stand on their own merits – the consistency of which O’Hara was said to be very proud of.

I found them pretty uneven, and mostly unsavoury. There’s some good stuff here, but also a seediness that swerves into nastiness. Perhaps it’s the gritty competitiveness of metropolitan life that he explores, but the stories weren’t to my taste. They lack humour, too. Some are quite funny, but that’s another thing. Businessmen play cruel tricks on each other, or bicker viciously. Showbiz types scratch and grumble. Society ladies and guys who frequent swish clubs display a mix of snobbery and ennui, duplicity and venom. Married couples spar and dissimulate. There’s a lot of cheating – in the trickery and sexual senses.

Many have puzzling qualities, with some enigmatic endings. This elliptical approach to short fiction became a hallmark of The New Yorker magazine, where most of these stories first appeared (according to Goldleaf, again). I ended many of them with a ‘so what’ feeling.

I gave Mrs TD a copy of Donna Leon’s first Commissario Brunetti crime novel, Death at La Fenice, for her birthday. She enjoyed it, and recommended it to me. It was a good choice for a lockdown – in my restless mood I found it pleasantly diverting.

I chose it largely because we visited Venice – where all of this series of crime novels is set – around this time last year, and we loved it. Leon is very good at capturing the beauty and squalor of this city. The plot concerns the demise of a world-famous conductor at the eponymous Venetian opera house during a performance, and Brunetti’s quest to find out how and why he died.

As with most fiction of this genre, a group of prime suspects (and red herrings) is produced, and the clever Brunetti has to use all his skill to figure how the unpleasant German conductor came to die of poisoning. In this respect it’s a fairly undistinguished narrative. Much of the pleasure in reading it comes from the pungently evoked city setting I mentioned earlier (although there was sometimes just a bit too much map-reading detail of the ‘he turned left up the Zattere and crossed bridge so-and-so into campo X’ type), and the range of quirky, sympathetically drawn characters, some of whom provide warm humour. Most of the characters are convincingly flawed and human.

Brunetti’s family, for example, is vividly portrayed: his smart, resourceful teacher wife Paola and two teenage kids – a feisty girl and sulky, rebellious boy. There are some terrific scenes in which Brunetti visits an arthritic, suspicious old woman, now living in squalor, but a famous opera singer in her youth. Her back story is tragic, and crucial in Brunetti’s unravelling of the mystery. It brings out the horrors and shame of the Nazi era, and Italy’s subsequent history of corruption and graft beneath a veneer of sophistication and culture.

I also liked the way Leon depicts the ineptitude and vanity of the officers who work for Brunetti, and his preening, manipulative and ultimately useless boss. This is why he has to rely solely on his own intuitions and eye for detail to solve the crime. He’s not a deductive genius like Holmes, or puzzle-solver like Morse, or even a psychologist like Poirot (I hope I’ve got all that right: I’m not well versed in crime fiction). Instead he’s just an intelligent, observant and hard-working man with a good set of instincts and deep sympathy for suffering humanity.

There are over twenty titles in this sequence of Brunetti stories. I may well try another if my inability to focus on anything more demanding continues.

Patricia Highsmith and death in Venice

Patricia Highsmith, Those Who Walk Away (Virago Modern Classics, 2014; first published 1967)

Texas-born Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) moved to a country cottage in Suffolk in England in 1964, apparently to be nearer the Englishwoman she’d fallen in love with. She wrote three novels there, including A Suspension of Mercy (1965), the only one of the three to be set in East Anglia, about which I posted HERE, and Those Who Walk Away, which is set mostly in Venice.

Patricia Highsmith Those who walk away coverAs Joan Schenkar says in the introduction to this VMC paperback edition, it’s a classic Highsmith exploration of her favourite fictional territory, the ‘infinite progression of the trapped and the hunted.’ Ray’s wife Peggy had recently committed suicide, and her father Ed’s grief twists him into a murderously vengeful monomaniac. Ray becomes ‘fair game’ to him. Ed blames Ray for his daughter’s death, and spends much of the novel trying to kill him. After all, he tells himself laconically, with unintentional irony, ‘he’s asking for it.’

After Ed’s first botched attempt to shoot him dead, Ray follows him to Venice, where a sinister game of competitive mutual stalking ensues. Lines blur between hunter and hunted. Ray seems to be set on a quest for his own oblivion, a liberation from his own identity. ‘Obsessions are the only things that matter. Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness.’ This Highsmith quotation in the introduction (no provenance is given) sums up perfectly the cheerfully dark, disturbing tone and plot of Those Who Walk Away.

Venice canal

A typical canal scene in Venice taken by me last March

I wish I’d taken this with me to read on holiday in Venice last spring. Highsmith evokes the beauty and history of the lagoon island with great aplomb. But she also shows the seedier side of the city, the menacing alleys and murky apartments where the poorer folk live. It’s there that Ray finds sanctuary, and the famous tourist honey-pot sites are where he’s most in danger.

The famous Gritti Palace hotel features, for example, a key location in another Venice novel  with an American protagonist that I’ve posted about here, Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees (1950). Thomas Mann’s novella seems to have cast a shadow over novelists who set their stories there, for Hemingway’s slightly sleazy account of an older military man’s love affair with a much younger Venetian woman is also haunted by the imminence of death. Hemingway’s American officer is also a keen hunter – of ducks, not hapless sons-in-law.

I’ve not read Highsmith’s famous debut novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), but have seen the 1951 Hitchcock film version, so can recognise the common device: two men with unstable identities, locked in a mutually destructive dance-macabre embrace.

Edith Wharton: New Year’s Day

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. New Year’s Day (pp. 227-306). The 1870s

Before I discuss this last of the four novellas in Old New York, here are some thoughts about the collection as a whole. Although each story stands alone, there are links and connections that cohere across the volume.

All of them deal with an infraction against the social laws/code/traditions of upper-class New York society, which is exposed as deeply hypocritical and cruelly rigid and judgemental in its reaction to it; even some of the participants in the infraction share some of these views.

In False Dawn it’s young Lewis’s presumption in buying artworks in Europe that don’t conform to his philistine father’s idea of heirlooms for his gallery that other wealthy, aesthetically challenged socialites will recognise as works by the Old Masters.

In The Old Maid it’s the giving birth to an illegitimate child, and then pretending it’s a foundling so that the mother can help raise it incognito. In The Spark it’s the deceived husband’s thrashing his wife’s lover in public; society accepts concealed adultery that obeys the rules of appearances, but not openly exposing them to cause a scandal it can’t ignore.

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘The Reception’ by James Tissot (also known as ‘L’Ambitieuse’ or ‘Political Woman’, from a series done 1883-85, ‘La Femme à Paris’

New Year’s Day is a little different; more about that in a moment.

All four have a complicated, syncopated time-frame. Each story has a dramatic set-up at the start, then in the second part, usually some time later, a revelation is made about the secret or issue that was the topic of the first part; this serves as ironic commentary on that topic that causes it to be seen in a new light.

There’s a common narrator in three of the stories: the young Harvard graduate also features in New Year’s Day. Only The Old Maid is narrated by a woman.

The attitude to art and literature, noted above in connection with False Dawn, serves as another index of society’s snobbery, philistinism, moral atrophy and obsession with going along with received opinions. Again, the participants in the action are often guilty of such narrow-mindedness and insensitivity to the arts.

Now for New Year’s Day. It’s difficult to say much about this novella without spoilers. I’ll focus on its slippery narrative structure and themes. As it’s focalised on the young man mentioned above, we are given only his partial account. It has the usual dramatic opening, in which his mother is remembered condemning Mrs Charles Hazeldean (Lizzie) as ‘bad’, an adulteress who used to meet her lover in The Fifth Avenue Hotel. Lizzie is seen, when the narrator is a child of twelve, leaving the hotel, which is across the street from the house he’s visiting for the titular family gathering, with her lover. They were fleeing a fire in the hotel.

Later, as a callow graduate of twenty-one, he becomes infatuated with the disgraced Lizzie, now a widow. She’s been ostracised by society, which was as usual outraged that she’d had the bad taste to let her affair become public knowledge – not for having the affair. That would have been fine if she’d played by the hypocritical rules of marital infidelity.

What follows is the young man’s breathless recounting of the story Lizzie tells him about that affair. Her version, which he swallows unquestioningly, is that she was using her lover to bankroll the medication, care and travel to warmer climates her sick husband needed. Although he suffers from a heart condition, his symptoms also resemble TB, the symbolic significance of which I discussed in The Old Maid post. (There’s another of those references seen in the earlier novellas to people being ‘shipped off to die in Italy’.)

She portrays herself as a saintly, loving wife who sacrifices her virtue and reputation in the eyes of the venomous, narrow-minded hypocrites of society to save her dying husband, like a New York Nora Helmer. She’s heroically prepared to pay the price for this sacrifice, and spends her later years, during which the narrator becomes a doting confidant, isolated as a social pariah, a tainted woman whom no other woman will call on; what’s venomously known as ‘a professional’ (ie a courtesan). This version is revealed through a complicated sequence of flashbacks over a period of time, as in the other three novellas.

The narrator repeatedly stresses how naïve and innocent he was, ‘an overgrown boy’, and how desperate to believe this glamorous, faded beauty’s melodramatic “confession”. He’s also at pains to tell us how skilful she’d always been at winding men round her little finger, using her beauty and charm as a weapon in the gender and social war; her husband Charles was her first major conquest.

Again we see how unequal the struggle is in this society for a woman born without fortune or vocation, only ‘put in the world to please’ (men); her only asset is her ability to look pretty and prosperous, provided she can find a husband to fund the look. It’s a struggle that’s been a central theme not just in much of Wharton’s writings, but in Victorian and later fiction (George Gissing’s The Odd Women, for example).

Like Delane in The Spark, she’s depicted as animated, independent and uncaring about what society thinks of her, with her own egregious moral code. Also like him she’s incapable of loving books as her husband had. This literary blind spot is perhaps another indication of her disingenuous story about her fall from social grace. She may not read fiction, but she can certainly ‘read hearts’, and this enables her to manipulate the gullible, sexually predatory men around her. The price she pays, the ‘cold celibacy’ of her widowhood, is probably genuine.

The final message is one seen throughout this collection: New York society affects not to find wealth important, ‘but regarded poverty as so distasteful that it simply took no account of it.’

 

 

 

Edith Wharton, The Spark

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. The Spark (pp. 173-226) (1860s)

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

This third in Edith Wharton’s collection of novellas, Old New York, each of which is largely set in successive decades of the mid-century, 40s-70s, deals centrally with the effects of the Civil War (1861-65) on some of its ageing veterans in the upper echelons of New York society.

My father was an artilleryman in WWII. He endured much of the war as a POW. Not surprisingly he was traumatised by his experience, and rarely spoke about it. I was poignantly reminded of him in Wharton’s portrayal of Hayley Delane in this novella – another ‘shut-up fellow’ who ‘wouldn’t talk about the war.’

The Spark depicts him through the eyes of the young Harvard graduate who narrates three of the four novellas. He’s attracted to Delane by his standing morally aloof from the shallow, ethically bankrupt society of ‘well-to-do and indolent New Yorkers’ in ‘the archaic nineties’, yet being more than content to engage with them in their senseless social activities.

Our narrator is curious to discover what is the ‘hidden spark’ that motivates mild, ‘soft-hearted’ Delane to behave with such undemonstrative moral probity, while turning a blind eye to his wife’s heartless treatment of him, and seeming content to conform to the shallow pleasures of his social world. Furthermore, he seems once to have been a keen reader of poetry, and yet now shows no interest in literary matters. There’s a puzzling dichotomy in the man that he’s determined to get to the bottom of.

Delane’s wife Leila is a trivial, frivolous, flirtatious woman, fifteen years younger than her husband, who is besotted with her. The narrator is intrigued to see how ‘it was she who ruled and he who bent the neck’. She treats him with undisguised contempt in public, while making no attempt to conceal her serial flirtations – or perhaps affairs.

A crisis comes when Delane thrashes Leila’s most recent conquest for mistreating his polo pony. Delane is forced by his hypocritical friends to apologise to his rival; they assume it was a jealous outburst. The narrator is more inclined to believe Delane’s quietly insistent explanation: ‘”It’s the cruelty. I hate the cruelty”’.

Furthermore, having heard the wronged husband talk eloquently and knowledgeably about literature, he can’t believe ‘it was his marriage which had checked Delane’s interest in books.’ His ‘limited stock’ of quotations and allusions indicates his literary interests ceased long before he’d met Leila.

After showing an early interest in reading, especially of poetry, ‘when his mind had been receptive’, it had:

snapped shut on what it possessed, like a replete crustacean never reached by another high tide.’

When he discovers that Delane ‘ran away from school to volunteer’ to fight in the Civil War (hence this story’s billing as ‘the sixties’) and was wounded, he begins to understand what now sparks Delane’s soul into being. He’d ‘stopped living’, in a sense, aged about nineteen, at a date roughly coinciding with the end of the war, when he’d returned ‘to the common-place existence from which he had never since deviated’ – the vacuous, unthinking life he clearly now enjoyed, like the ‘merest fribble’: polo, cards, hunting and social gatherings in which his unfaithful wife could shine:

Those four years had apparently filled to the brim every crevice of his being.

The war had made him different – in a way not seen by most other veterans in his circle who bragged about their war experiences. Although indistinguishable in most ways from the rest of his narrow-minded social set, with their empty libraries and obsession with sensual pleasures, ‘it was only morally that he had gone on growing.’

Hence his calm defence of his unfaithful wife, of the cruelly abused horse, and of unfashionable moral principles and causes, ‘careless of public opinion’ in ‘important matters’ – even at the expense of his own reputation: ‘To Delane, only the movement itself counted’; he wasn’t interested in the social standing of those who supported it, or what society thought of him.

Fresco at Siena of GuidoriccioDaFogliano

The fresco at Siena, attributed to Simone Martini. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1046283

There are parallels here with the depiction in other Wharton fictional works of the roles and shortcomings of parents and children. The narrator of The Spark looks up to Delane with the devotion of a son to his father. This New York banker ‘of excessive weight’, mounted ‘heavily yet mightily’ on his polo pony in a ‘gaudy polo-shirt’, contrasted unbecomingly with the young rival for his wife’s affection, as Leila heartlessly points out. Yet he’s intrigued by some quality in this unusual man, and he senses depths beneath ‘his lazy, torpid’ ways, that would justify his love for the man. He ‘whimsically’ perceives him as an image of the 14C condottiero Guidoriccio da Foliagno, ‘the famous mercenary, riding at a slow powerful pace across the fortressed fresco of the Town Hall of Siena’ on ‘his armoured war-horse.’

Given what he discovers about Delane’s wartime experiences, this apparently incongruous image takes on greater significance. Despite his trauma, which atrophied much of his personal development, Delane has matured morally in ways that most of his peers can never match, and which the loving narrator instinctively perceives.

This develops in interesting ways the theme found in other works of fiction by Wharton, in which parents and surrogate parents vie for the devotion of their children, as in A Son at the Front, published in 1923, around the time of the first appearance of these four novellas in magazine form.

There’s another twist at the end, when we finally learn the identity of the person who was the catalyst for this ‘spark’ in Delane: it was the gentle, humane influence of Walt Whitman, who nursed him when he’d been wounded early in the war, at Bull Run. It’s well known that Wharton greatly admired Whitman’s poetry. The final irony of this strange story is that Delane blithely admits to his young friend that he considers his poetry ‘rubbish’.