Edith Wharton, Madame de Treymes

Edith Wharton, Madame de Treymes. VMC 1984

 Madame de Treymes is in fact the third of three novellas or long short stories in this handsome VMC edition that I found in a second-hand bookshop recently. There’s a strong theme connecting all four stories: a difficult moral choice that a character makes that can – and does – change not only their own life, but those of others they’re connected with.

Wharton Mme de Treymes cover

The cover shows a detail of a typically lovely ‘Portrait’ by James Tissot

In The Touchstone (1900) a hard-up, not very bright young man needs to find cash quickly if he’s to be able to marry the woman he loves. The only asset he has will require him to sully the reputation of a famous woman novelist who once loved him. Can he sell his soul, by publishing this famous woman’s most intimate letters to him, in order to achieve his romantic dream? And if he does, how does he salve his conscience and explain his guilty caddishness to his new, now enriched, wife?

A similar dilemma faces the young woman protagonist of Sanctuary (1903). She’s unthinkingly content with the prospect of marriage to her wealthy fiancé – a man who’s inherited his family wealth after the untimely death of his profligate elder brother. She’s forced to start taking life seriously and to snap out of her trance of unreflecting complacency when he tells her how his brother besmirched the family honour and they covered it (and hushed it) up. Should she break off the engagement – her first instinct – or take on this morally compromised man and ensure that any child of theirs has her more ethically sound guidance? And if that child grows up in the morally flawed image of his father, how should she deal with him?

The title story, Madame de Treymes (1907) has a very Henry James ambience. A wealthy, somewhat innocent American, John Durham, is in Paris and wants to marry the woman he’s long been in love with since they were friends years ago back home, but he’d lost her when she married a (stereotypically decadent) French aristocrat. She’s now almost free again: her errant husband’s affairs became too obvious and she’s obtained a legal separation. It’s apparent that she regrets this degrading episode in her life, and reciprocates her former friend’s feelings.

But there’s a problem: her aristocratic in-laws are dead against divorce; it’s against their religion (they’re Catholic) and, more importantly, their centuries-old class traditions. If she wants to marry her American she’ll have to give up her eight-year-old son to his corrupt father. Their only hope is for Durham to solicit the aid of the only one of her husband’s relatives who’s ever shown sympathy and affection for her: the Mme de Treymes of the story’s title.

She’s very much in the mould of some of HJ’s more nefariously complicated, morally compromised European women aristocrats in abrasive contact with ingenuous Americans. She seems to offer friendship and a way out of the dilemma, but then changes tack and manipulatively poses an even more horrible dilemma for Durham.

Bunner Sisters (published 1916, written 1896) is different from the other three stories in that it deals with the straitened lives of two women who barely scratch out a living in a shabby part of New York, running a tiny shop that sells tawdry items they’ve made themselves. They live in a tiny room behind the shop. Life is passing them by.

Then a chance encounter brings a man into their lives. Ann Eliza, the older, more staid sister, bought a clock from him as a gift for her sister, and he seems as lonely as the two sisters. They establish a kind of friendship. Self-centred Evelina, the younger, more superficially attractive sister, seems to be the object of his growing affection. Things don’t turn out so neatly, though. This man isn’t all that he seems. Self-sacrifice doesn’t necessarily bring the rewards expected.

As in the other stories, heart-breaking moral dilemmas beset these two helpless, inexperienced women, clinging on to their meagre livelihood by their fingernails, desperate for love and hopelessly vulnerable.

There’s a certain formulaic structure to the stories, and some stock situations and characters (self-sacrifice; moral dilemmas), which perhaps my brief outlines above have indicated. Edith Wharton is always a deeply satisfying author, however, and even with less exalted fiction like this there are rich rewards for the reader.

Here’s an example, chosen at random, of the archly satirical narrative voice that’s so adept at skewering hypocrisy and pomposity. In The Touchstone we’re told about the woman novelist who’d loved the protagonist (Glennard), who went on to betray her by publishing her letters to him.

When they met she had just published her first novel, and Glennard, who afterward had an ambitious man’s impatience of distinguished women, was young enough to be dazzled by the semi-publicity it gave her. It was the kind of book that makes elderly ladies lower their voices and call each other “my dear” when they furtively discuss it…

I found the final story, about the two sisters, the most affecting and original, the most deeply felt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Invisible woman: Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William! (Viking, 2021)

Not the most inspiring of titles. Its novelist narrator, who we met in My Name is Lucy Barton (links below to other posts on ES novels), tells us more about the events in that earlier novel. For example, that her hospital stay in New York was for a real – and serious – condition, and her estranged, damaged mother really did visit her. She might also have loved her equally damaged daughter, Lucy. Just couldn’t say or show it. Or act upon it.

Elizabeth Strout Oh William! cover There’s more of that kind of thing in Oh William! Here the slender plot has to do with Lucy’s ex-husband, the hapless William, who was (still is) a serial adulterer. Most of his actions cause Lucy to utter the exclamation in the (silly) title. Usually out of exasperation, sometimes pity (maybe even love).

She exclaims in similar ways about others, including herself. Life exasperates her. The cruel, deprived upbringing she told about in Lucy Barton is alluded to in order to account for her present diffidence, her sense of not belonging in the world, and lack of self worth – even as she nears William’s age, 70. She says several times she feels ‘invisible’. ‘What a strange thing life is.’

Strout is able to pull off these banal expressions as Lucy’s only available means of articulating her profound, turbulent emotions. The narrative is told from her viewpoint, and it’s colloquial and idiomatic like that all the time (she’s very fond – overfond – of ‘is what I mean’ after an attempt to explain something). But that’s not to say it lacks complexity or depth. She’s more George Herbert (without the spirituality) than John Donne.

After her various scrapes with William as he tries to find out the truth of his own troubled past in rural Maine, she feels close to him, even sad they divorced, but validated that they did. More to the point, she learns a bit more about herself and her dislocated sensibility. On almost the final page she repeats ‘Oh William!’, then goes on:

don’t I mean Oh Lucy! Too? Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!

Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.

Other posts here at T Days on ES novels:

My Name is Lucy Barton HERE

 Amy & Isabelle HERE

Olive Kitteridge HERE

 

Occupied San Francisco, atom bombs and lost words

It’s been a while since my last post – busy with work. So this will be a catch-up on recent things.

First crocus

This was the first crocus to appear in a pot in our garden, taken on 28 Jan

 Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle. PMC, 2001; first published 1962. I bought this during the presidency of the last incumbent, now just a nightmare memory (or will he return?). It looked for a while like he was going to make this counterfactual story come true. The plot involves a post-WWII America in which the Nazi – Japanese axis powers won the war. The Japanese occupy the ‘Pacific States’ zone, the Germans hold the eastern zone, with a buffer zone in the mid-west.

I’ve read very little sci-fi/fantasy, but I suppose this falls more into the category of speculative fiction – like Len Deighton’s SS GB, or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America – both of which I found entertaining but not entirely satisfactory. As with most good sci-fi the genre lends itself to some fierce critical insights into the ‘real’ world of our time.

The title refers to a weirdly postmodern novel-within-the novel which tells an alternative counterfactual history of the war: this time the allies defeated the Nazis, but what followed isn’t in line with what ‘really’ happened. I rather liked this head-spinning reflexiveness. The author, rather like the Wizard of Oz, turns out to be much less than his grandiose ‘high castle’ solitude and anonymity would suggest.

I’d seen a couple of episodes of the TV series on Amazon, but gave up on it. It’s similar to but different from the novel, and much less interesting.

Daffodils and blossom

These daffodils and early blossom have appeared in a local park, taken two days ago

 Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows. Bloomsbury, 2009. Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 novel Home Fire was one of my favourite books of last year (brief post about it here). This one came even more highly recommended, but I found it slightly less impressive. It still packs a powerful emotional punch.

It begins in Nagasaki, 1945. A young Japanese woman survives the bomb, and the rest of the novel traces her subsequent life. She travels to India, then to Istanbul and post-partition Pakistan. Much of the central plot involves her teenage son’s reckless flirtation with some of the forces of violence in this turbulent part of the world. Oddly enough, given this dramatic subject matter, I found the central part of the novel flagged rather, though it picked up in the last part, and developed a tension almost as unbearable as that in Home Fires.

Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words cover Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words. I just returned this to the library, so don’t have publication details to hand. It’s similar in some ways to Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary (brief mention of this one at the same link as above). Both novels involve words that didn’t make it into a major dictionary.

In this one the central character is Esme. As a little girl she likes to hide and play under the table at which the eminent scholar-lexicographers edit the ‘slips’ – small pieces of paper on which the words and entries about them are written and then filed in the pigeon-holes ready for collation and publication in the Oxford English Dictionary. There are colourful depictions of the famous editor, James Murray, his family, and many of those involved in the making of the dictionary, and of the long struggle to get to the end of the project that took nearly fifty years to finish. In a way it never did. It was first mooted in 1857, work began a few years later, and the last fascicle was published in 1928. Supplements and updates have been appearing since. I use the online edition all the time, and have referred to it often in this blog.

The ‘lost words’ collected by Esme begin (significantly, given its meaning) with the slip for ‘bondmaid’, which she finds under the table, dropped by one of the editors. She hides it away in a secret trunk, and over the following years builds up a large collection of her own. This becomes a sort of feminist alternative to the venerable (and patriarchal) OED. Esme’s words are culled from her visits to the covered market in Oxford: the taboo words, slang and vernacular of the women who were denied a place at high table, even if they did eventually get admitted to the universities.

This feminist angle is the strongest part of the novel. It culminates in the grand dinner held in 1928 to celebrate its completion. Several women, including Esme and two of Murray’s daughters, had been key members of the editorial team; many of the public who contributed words and citations – including Esme’s beloved aunt Ditte – were also women. None of them were allowed to attend this august, all-male event. A few were allowed in the gallery to look down at the men eating and drinking.

Not surprisingly the novel includes forays into the suffragist movement, and shows Esme’s awakening to the cause of rights for women – and the working classes who were also excluded from the privileges of the male elite. There’s a rather tedious romantic sub-plot, and some tragedy.

The research intruded too much into the narrative for my taste. The issues, despite their worthiness, dominated the characterisation. I’d have been better off reading a non-fiction account. I’d recommend Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998), about one of the more unusual contributors to the OED, and The Meaning of Everything (2003) by the same author.

Laurel berries

According to my plant identifier app these are Japanese laurel berries. Wonderful colours and texture.

As I write this we’re being battered here in Cornwall by storm Eunice. I had to take down my new bird feeder pole, fearing it would be torn up and become a flying spear. The birds are gathering, confused, in our magnolia tree and keep looking reproachfully and hungrily up at our windows.

I’ll place throughout this post a few pictures taken recently showing the first stirrings of spring in the area.

 

 

 

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer, Corsair paperback, 2016. First published in the USA, 2015

This is the harrowing story of the fall of Vietnam to the communist forces, and what followed. The ignominious evacuation of Saigon – a corrupt regime propped up by equally dodgy American military and covert forces fled in scenes realised dramatically here – was mirrored this summer in Kabul. Only those influential or rich enough to bribe their way onto the last planes to leave the airport made it – and not all of them survived.

Nguyen Sympathizer cover The narrative is in the form of a confession to his captors by a self-confessed ‘mole’, a communist spy embedded at the highest level of the Vietnamese military as it struggled to delay the inevitable collapse of the former colonial government. At the onset he emphasises his dual or split nature – an image that looms very significantly at the novel’s end.

He can sympathize with both sides of the conflict: his mother was Vietnamese, his father a French priest. He’s therefore seen with suspicion by the natives of the country he was born and brought up in, but equally by the Americans (he was educated in an American university and speaks perfect English) and Europeans.

The narrator’s final epiphany is breathtaking. The Sympathizer was a worthy winner of the Pulitzer in 2016. It was perhaps a little too long for my taste, and some of the scenes of violence, torture and rape are unpleasant, and I’m not sure they needed to be quite so graphically detailed. The novel packs a serious punch – but I can’t really say that ultimately I enjoyed it. Admired, perhaps.

On reflection I think it was partly the narrative voice that put me off, as well as the content, and excessive length (just short of 500 pp). There’s a whiff of the hard-bitten noir style of the Chandler school. This is in keeping with the covert nature of the mole’s life, his task to pose as something he’s not, which has the effect of creating for him an existential dilemma. Like a tough, embittered Chandler hero, he inhabits a nasty world in which nobody can be trusted or taken at face value, and he’s haunted by the victims of his duplicity.

The satiric section of the novel depicting the narrator’s role in the making of Coppola’s epic Vietnam film ‘Apocalypse Now’ was one of the best parts of the novel. He tries (and fails) to persuade the ‘auteur’ director to portray the Vietnamese characters as something more than ciphers – and pays a heavy price for his efforts.

I’ve started reading a Hardy novel – The Trumpet Major – in an attempt to break this run of unsuccessful reading experiences.

 

Smiley, Oates, Hannah, Dandicat: the last four Granta American long stories

Smiley, Hannah, Dandicat: the last Granta American long stories

Granta Book of the American Long Story coverMy fifth and final post about Richard Ford’s collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story will be a quick note on the remaining four stories. Very quick, in one case.

Jane Smiley, The Age of Grief (1987). I don’t recall a story about a married pair of dentists before. This is one of the better stories in the collection, a touching account told from the husband’s viewpoint. His wife is having an affair, but he’s not a man who likes talking about their relationship – or about anything much – so he avoids confronting her about it. If she doesn’t confess, he can somehow cope. Smiley creates an engaging, affecting picture of this family and each character in it – there are three little girls as well – and I found myself wanting them to come through this crisis. It’s one of the least grim or depressing stories in the collection, despite this rather painful storyline.

Joyce Carol Oates, I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990). This is probably the best in the book. Although it also deals with some emotionally fraught themes, it’s told with quiet authority. The central character, who calls herself Calla (like the lily), has the given name Edith Honeystone. She’s from a family of farmers in the Chautauqua river valley, Colorado.

The feckless father has lost most of his land, and finally absconds. Mother dies, too. Calla has always been mutinous, ‘a difficult child’, wilful, solitary, self-contained, intractable. She’s possibly ‘touched in the head’, whisper the locals – or maybe she’s of ‘unusual intelligence and sensitivity.’ When the scary schoolteacher in the tough country school attempts to whip her with her willow branch, Calla deftly seizes it from her – something even the tall, strong farm boys hadn’t dared or been able to do – and strikes her ‘full in the face’ with it.

Aged only 17 she accepts the offer of marriage from an ugly, earnest little ‘gnomish’ 39-year-old German farmer called George – ‘but with character, distinction’. She doesn’t love him, so why does she agree to marry him? To escape from her relatives’ house, or because of over-confidence and exultation in her sexual power over him?

This question is posed by the narrator, Calla’s granddaughter, who’s telling the story of her wild grandmother’s youth (Calla was born in 1890), wondering if her ‘mad’ blood courses through her own veins.

At first Calla refuses to let George touch her, then a change takes place and she has three children. She still frequently takes herself off alone into the wild country, and sleeps goodness knows where, coming back dishevelled and filthy, something she’d done since she was a child. She’s not unhappy, but retreats into her ‘aloneness’. Never once does she reveal her personal, secret name to her husband.

George’s disapproving mother, who lives with them, thinks Calla is ‘feral’, a disgrace, a bad mother and wife. She’s not wrong, but can’t begin to understand this complex, shameless young woman.

There’s a crisis, of course, and Calla’s disgrace is worsened considerably in the eyes of her husband, his family, and the community. What follows comes close to being both tragic and epic.

Barry Hannah, Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, My Face? (1993) This strange sentence never figures in the story. I didn’t enjoy it. A troubled father-son relationship that I cared nothing about.

Edwidge Dandicat, Caroline’s Wedding (1995). This was much better, the second-best story in the collection. A charming, heart-warming portrayal (by an author of Haitian heritage) of the loving family of Haitian Americans in Brooklyn: sisters Grace, who’s excited to have just been given her US passport; her younger sister Caroline, who is a US citizen, having been born there; and their mother, still at heart a Haitian, who finds American life brash and alien. She’s still more comfortable speaking Creole than English, unlike her assimilated daughters.

The mother disapproves of Caroline’s fiancé, a Bahamian. Why can’t she find a nice Haitian boy? The story traces the days through the wedding preparations, the ceremony itself in a registry office (to mother’s consternation), and the wedding meal afterwards.

Mother’s solution to all problems is to make soup out of cows’ bones. She and the girls are still close enough to their roots to believe that the spirits of the dead, including that of the late husband and father, return to importune the living. As a sort of apotropaic defence, mother insists the girls, still at school at the time of his death, wore red pants, because ghosts don’t like the colour of blood. Secretly, the girls wear black ones, because they miss their father and would quite like him to communicate with them.

The sisters are American, but still play the word games their father taught them from his Haitian heritage. The same with their exchanges of proverbs, folklore and the everyday interpenetration of the natural and supernatural worlds.

Each character comes fully to life on the page. Their relationships are loving but spiky, and the clashes or tensions between the girls’ generation and new culture and their mother’s are dramatized with insight and deep sympathy. At last a story that’s not grim or depressing, but neither is it sentimental.

After the worst there’s still more: Cynthia Ozick, Rosa

Cynthia Ozick, Rosa (1983)

Rosa Lublin, a madwoman and a scavenger, gave up her store – she smashed it up herself – and moved to Miami. It was a mad thing to do. In Florida she became a dependent. Her niece in New York sent her money and she lived among the elderly, in a dark hole, a single room in a ‘hotel’.

This is the opening to Cynthia Ozick’s story Rosa. It’s the fourth in my sequence of posts on some of the stories selected by Richard Ford for his collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Not much happens, because Rosa’s awful experiences in the Nazi death camps have left her haunted and ‘mad’, we’d probably call it PTSD, incapable of functioning in the world thirty-five years later. She hates the climate, the jaded, complacent elderly people around her, and her pain shuts out all capacity for human interaction. She feels ‘the whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret.’ Real life had been left behind by these ‘scarecrow’ old folk. Does she realise she’s one of them?

Her only solace is found in writing long, lyrical letters to her dead daughter, Magda, ‘in the most excellent literary Polish.’ To the niece, Stella, in Queens, NYC, she writes in jerkier, alien English:

‘Golden and beautiful Stella…Where I put myself is in hell. Once I thought the worst was the worst, after that nothing could be the worst. But now I see, even after the worst there’s still more…a devil climbs into you and ties up your soul and you don’t even know it.’

But Stella is part of that hell she’s not out of. She calls her Angel ‘for the sake of peace’, but ‘Stella was cold. She had no heart. Stella, already nearly fifty years old, the Angel of Death.’

This vitriol we discover is largely justified. A terrible event in the camps led to the death of baby Magda, and Rosa blames Stella for it. Yet the niece accuses her aunt of refusing to accept that Magda is dead, of making the baby’s shawl, which Rosa has asked her to post to her, into a ‘fetish’, an ‘idol’: ‘you’ll kiss it like a crazy person.’ It’s time, Stella says harshly, ‘to have a life.’

When Rosa meets a flirty old man, another Warsaw Jewish survivor ‘refugee’ of the Nazis’ murderous camps, in a laundromat – he cheerfully admits he’s there to meet women – she tries to shut him out, rather than to have some kind of life as Stella urged (guilt?). ‘My Warsaw isn’t your Warsaw,’ she snaps at him repeatedly as he tries to break down her barriers.

Further confirmation that, as Rosa believes, the world is ‘diseased’ comes in the form of a jargon-filled letter from a professor of ‘clinical social pathology’ at Iowa University. His ‘specialty’ is to analyse what he calls ‘survivor data’ with which to test the theory of ‘Repressed Animation’ in the ‘Humanitarian Context’ (he uses the pompous upper case initials). Rosa rejects this insensitive pseudo-academic nonsense with justified rage. He’s reduced her to the status of ‘survivor’, and doesn’t want to say ‘human being.’ Her hellish memories are just ‘data’ to him.

Stella is also part of the ‘disease’. ‘Stella Columbus’ Rosa calls her in another long letter to Magda. ‘She thinks there’s such a thing as the New World.’ Ozick is a very different writer from Roth, but here there’s an element of congruence in their view of America; but Neil Klugman’s response to the ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ song he hears in the story of that title is less intensely felt, more ironic, less visceral than Rosa’s, and reveals Roth’s critical authorial stance to be more like immature intellectual snobbery. Ozick, on the other hand, is probing into what Conrad calls the heart of darkness.

This might all sound a little bleak and depressing, and it is, but there’s a flickering light of humanity and hope deep inside this beautifully written story (it’s only forty pages long, but packs in a lifetime of Ozick’s central character’s tragic experience). There’s no neat epiphany or conversion for Rosa, but there is a sense that out of her crazy sadness can come some kind of redemption.

Like Philip Roth, whose story I wrote about last time, Ozick is a Jewish American writer, born five years before him, in 1928 – and, I’m pleased to say, still alive (Roth died in 2018). Her stories are also said (this is the first of hers I’ve read) often to feature Jewish American characters and communities, but as I’ve already noted she openly confronts and exposes their memories and scars of the horrors of the Holocaust.

It seems that Rosa is a partner story to the more famous ‘The Shawl’, published three years earlier in The New Yorker. From what I’ve read online the terrible events that are hinted at in Rosa are described there explicitly.

 

 

 

Aversions and aspirations: Philip Roth, Goodbye Columbus

Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus. Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford, pp. 129-234

Among the comments to my previous post on this collection of stories was a query about the authors included in it. Here’s a list (apart from Eudora Welty and William Styron, posted about already, and the subject of today’s post, Philip Roth):

Ernest N. Gaines, A Long Day in November (1963). I couldn’t finish this: too depressing. A feckless husband treats his wife badly; the narration from his young son was too painful for me to read during these already distressing times.

Stanley Elkin, The Making of Ashenden (1973). A surreal story in the vein of Donald Barthelme or Robert Coover, but without the wit or charm. It ends with a graphic, four-letter-word account of the protagonist having messy sex with a she-bear…

Peter Taylor, The Old Forest (1979). This was better. A young man, engaged to be marry, is involved in a car crash. His passenger flees the scene – she’s not the fiancée. Will the wedding be called off when the news hits the papers? An interesting, low-key story set in Memphis, 1937 explores themes of class, sex and the struggles of women then to exert any kind of power in a man’s world.

Cynthia Ozick’s and Jane Smiley’s stories will be the subjects of later posts. I haven’t yet read the remaining three, by Joyce Carol Oates, Barry Hannah and Edwidge Dandicat. If I like them I’ll post about them, too.

Now on with today’s story.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (1933-2018) is one of those ‘long stories’ discussed by Richard Ford in his introduction (see my post about this HERE) that was originally described as a novella when it appeared in the Paris Review in 1959. One of several in this collection to deal with the lives of Jewish people in America, it was written when Roth was only 26 – and this is reflected in the story’s central character: an intelligent young man who doesn’t yet know what to do with his life.

Neil Klugman lives in an unfashionable part of Newark, NJ (Roth’s native city), favoured by Jewish families of his social class, with his aunt and uncle. After graduating from Rutgers and serving in the military he’s drifted into a tedious job in the city’s public library. He falls for Brenda, a girl from the posh suburbs; her family are nouveau riche – they too lived once in Newark, but her father’s plumbing business is thriving and they now live a very different life from Neil’s. It’s all swimming at the country club, tennis and sports. Only a vestige of their humble origins survives in the shabby furniture and detritus hidden in an obscure attic of their present swanky home.

The narrative is driven by Neil’s conflicting emotions about Brenda. She’s about to return to prestigious Radcliffe in Boston (formerly a separate women’s college, now fully integrated with Harvard). He finds himself in love with her, and they have a lot of sex, but he can’t suppress feelings of irritation with her lifestyle and capricious, complacent manner.

Things reach a crisis point when she returns to Radcliffe and invites him to stay with her in a hotel nearby during the Jewish holiday. She makes a disclosure that causes him to question her love and commitment to him. She’s a spoilt young woman and he maybe realises her defects aren’t just his class prejudice or inverted snobbery.

The prose is remarkably assured for such a young writer at the start of his career. There are some lively exchanges written with verve, seen especially in the contorted syntax and (maybe a little too stereotypically ‘middle-aged Jewish woman’) world view of his aunt Gladys.

Some of Neil’s dialogue with Brenda is also witty and sharp, but also reveals character and tensions. When she asks him if he intends making a career at the library – trying to goad him into taking a more socially acceptable, stimulating (and lucrative) direction – he retorts that he’s ‘not planning anything’, and hasn’t done for the three years since he left the army. He’s ‘not a planner’:

After all the truth I’d suddenly given her, I shouldn’t have ruined it for myself with that final lie. I added, ‘I’m a liver.’

‘I’m a pancreas,’ she said.

‘I’m a –’

And she kissed the absurd game away; she wanted to be serious.

These signs early in the relationship that they aren’t entirely compatible are signified with some subtlety throughout. For example, Brenda’s attempts to control Neil reappear when she insists they go to a school sports track so she can run – and wants Neil to run as well. When they arrive, she points out that he looks like her – ‘only bigger’ – because they’re dressed in similar preppy sports clothes:

…but I had the feeling that Brenda was not talking about the accidents of our dress – if they were accidents. She meant, I was sure, that I was somehow beginning to look the way she wanted me to. Like herself.

In a preface to the thirtieth anniversary edition of Goodbye, Columbus wrote that it was about:

…the rites and taboos of his clan…their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their embarrassments and ideas of success.

The title refers to the graduation song played on a record by Brenda’s brother, who’d just left Ohio University at Columbus, but also less directly to the Columbus who was the first European to discover America. Neil lives as an insider in his community, but is also an outsider in the world inhabited by the likes of Brenda and her family. He’s slowly accreting experience and maturity through abrasive contacts like those with this precocious, selfish young woman, coming to realise which world he wants to belong to and what role he could play in it.

A final note about language. In an early flirtatious meeting with Brenda at the country club she’s ‘treading’ water with him in the swimming pool. ‘I treaded unobtrusively as I could’, the narrator says. ‘Treaded’ as past tense of ‘tread’ (water)? I suppose ‘trod’ sounds odd in this context. (What’s the plural of computer mouse?!)

 

 

Futile gestures: William Styron, The Long March

William Styron, The Long March. The Granta Book of the American Long Story, ed. Richard Ford (1999), pp. 71-128. First published 1952

William Styron (1925-2006) is probably best known for his controversial 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice, and Darkness Visible: a memoir of madness (1990), about his descent into clinical depression, and subsequent recovery. Like Eudora Welty, whose story June Recital opens this anthology of stories (I posted on it here yesterday), Styron was born in the south, and is said to have favoured a ‘southern Gothic’ style in his fiction. There’s certainly an element of it in The Long March.

Granta Book of the American Long Story coverThe Long March is the second story in Ford’s anthology of ‘long stories’ (I also discussed his choice of that term in yesterday’s post), and one of the shorter ones at just over fifty pages. I had mixed feelings about it. I wonder if the title is intended to echo the name usually given to the series of strategic retreats undertaken by the Chinese communist forces (under the rising influence of Mao) to escape the pursuit of the then dominant forces of their enemy nationalist army.

It’s a grim story about a martinet colonel who subjects his unit of marine reservists, most of them unfit and untrained, to a brutal thirty-mile overnight march in the swampy countryside of Carolina. Far from strategic and, as with the Red Army, militarily justifiable and ultimately successful, it’s what Peter Cook described in his famous, darkly satirical sketch with Jonathan Miller about posh, ‘stiff upper lip’ WWII officers (YouTube clip HERE) from the seminal ‘Beyond the Fringe’ comedy review, as a ‘futile gesture’.

The story opens with an account of an accidental ‘friendly fire’ incident in which a group of young reservists has been shelled by their own artillery as they queued for dinner. It’s told from the viewpoint of Lieutenant Culver, a veteran of WWII called back into service because he never removed himself from the reserve list – a decision he now bitterly regrets as he witnesses the pointless cruelty, stupidity and ineptitude (like the friendly fire incident) of the military regime he finds himself back in. He misses his wife and post-war peacetime life, and despairs as the world lurches back into yet more wars and conflicts in distant lands.

His fellow officers are appalled by the colonel’s gung-ho, macho manner and uncompromising orders. Most notably rebellious is Captain Mannix: he hates the strutting colonel, and his behaviour with him borders on open insubordination. When he begins leading his group of physically unfit men on the pointlessly barbaric, horribly long march, however, he’s determined that they – and he – will complete it, depriving the colonel of the satisfaction of confirming that they’re ‘soft’. It’s a matter of honour for him.

What follows is sometimes almost unbearably grim, but there’s a kind of redemption and softening at the very end in a scene when the march has ended. As the men try to recover from the ordeal, ‘one of the Negro maids employed in the unit’ shows human kindness when she sees the half-crippled Mannix swaying giddily as he limps towards the showers:

Culver would remember this: the two of them communicating across that chasm one unspoken moment of sympathy and understanding…

It’s a moment that almost makes the previous fifty gruelling pages worth enduring.

 

 

Novella or long story? Richard Ford’s anthology, and Eudora Welty

The Granta Book of the American Long Story, ed. Richard Ford (paperback, Granta Books, 1999; first published 1998). Post 1

Why this unwieldy title? Ford’s introduction ‘Why not a novella?’ explains why he’s preferred the generic term ‘long story’. After discussing some of the genre conventions and theories in fiction (novel, novella, short story), he gives a historical account of the novella form, tracing it back to Boccaccio through to Goethe and later (Henry James, for example). He points out that novellas were particularly popular in Germany through the 19C, and they generated a great deal of earnest theoretical-generic analysis, much of it providing inconclusive or contradictory definitions of what exactly a novella was.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Ford canvassed fellow American writers to assess what they, as ‘practitioners’, believed a novella to be. No consensus emerged, but there was a great deal of disagreement when Ford compiled this anthology in 1998.

He finally opted to go with ‘long story’ as a ‘possibly less historically-infuriating and ultimately freeing expression’. His purpose was to ‘address readers and writers who relish long stories…free[ing] its audience to write and relish as suits its wishes, undistracted by offstage wranglings over nomenclature.’

Despite his best efforts to come up with a ‘spanking’ definition himself, he could ascertain nothing to ‘discern anything other than length to distinguish these stories as a uniform genre, or to distinguish them consistently from their seemingly better-defined narrative cousins’.

So that’s sorted that out.

The stories Ford selected for this anthology were all written between the end of WWII and the time when he was compiling it. They vary in length – which, as he’d argued, ‘is just another arbitrarily chosen attribute’. Some were called ‘novellas’ when first published, but he’s decided he just doesn’t know what that term means – and neither is there any agreement generally – so why not consign ‘a worn out literary term into retirement.’

His main criterion for selection was subjective: he chose stories that he considered ‘excellent’, but concedes that some readers will disagree with his choices (I’m one of those: more in a later post.)

American writers since the end of the war haven’t tended to write long stories compared with their output of novels and short stories; perhaps this is because of the exigencies of ‘magazine space and publishing economies’. Maybe that’s the reason ‘novellas’ proliferated: it was expedient for the outlets in which they were published, and the contemporary taste and reading habits of their intended audience.

I’ll finish with a note about the first story in the collection (pp. 1–70); I hope to post about some of the others later on:

Eudora Welty (1909-2001), June Recital (from the collection The Golden Apples, 1949)

 This is a strange, hallucinatory story set in the fictional Morgana, Mississippi, told initially from the point of view of Loch Morrison, a small boy of about ten, in bed with a fever. He spies, ‘Rear Window’ style, through his bedroom window, and later from a tree outside it, on the goings-on in the house next door.

It’s now unoccupied. Loch observes a young couple sneaking into the house and disappear upstairs – it’s obviously a place where they can have sex, but of course the boy is too young to realise this.

His big sister Cassie’s voice then takes over. Some years earlier she used to have piano lessons in the house; her teacher was an old woman called Miss Eckhart, the impoverished lodger there. She was very stern with her pupils, except for a flighty girl called Virgie – the same girl Loch saw sneaking into the house with her sailor boyfriend. Only Virgie could get away with challenging the teacher, because she had a genuine gift for music, and wasn’t frightened by her strictness. On the contrary, she bullied the old lady.

The story ends with a bizarre sequence of events (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to summarise them here). An old lady enters the former teacher’s room and starts setting fire to the dilapidated piano, still standing there, and to the rest of the room. It’s the room where Miss Eckhart used to host an annual June recital. Two neighbours spot the smoke, alert the house’s watchman, and confront the ‘fire bug’. The half-dressed lovers walk flagrantly out of the house while this altercation is going on, Virgie with a characteristic swagger.

In a poetic, elegiac coda, Loch reflects on these developments, and so does his sister. It’s a story full of steamy, sultry atmosphere, a sort of muted southern Gothic (Welty lived much of her life in Jackson, Mississippi). Miss Eckhart is sympathetically portrayed: a sad German emigrée, she longs to be accepted in the local community and to find love, but is always treated as a person with an alien, outsider’s culture. Her passion for music isn’t appreciated (or even wanted) – even the talented pianist Virgie is unimpressed by her, and treats her contemptuously and cruelly.

People like the spirited, rebellious Virgie and lonely, despised Miss Eckhart have no connection – with each other, or anyone else. They’re ‘deliberately terrible’:

…roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them – human beings, roaming, like lost beasts.

 

 

 

The Internet meant death: Jonathan Franzen, Purity

Jonathan Franzen, Purity. Fourth Estate, London (2015). Hardback, 563 pp.

Jonathan Franzen Purity cover Near the end of this novel one of the main characters, Pip:

…was thinking about how terrible the world was, what an eternal struggle for power. Being needed was power. Power, power, power: how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and oppressive in the having of it? ( p.539)

 [Her mentor and possible love interest Andreas is becoming increasing paranoid about his past’s secrets coming out, so takes to researching his own history online] He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to seem realer than his physical self…Private thoughts didn’t exist in the retrievable, disseminable and readable way that data did…The Internet meant death

The aim of the Internet and its associated technologies was to “liberate” humanity from the tasks – making things, learning things, remembering things – that had previously given meaning to life and thus had constituted life. Now it seemed as if the only task that meant anything was search-engine optimization.

Dystopian novels have always tended to be more or less veiled critiques of the abuse of power by those in authority, and of the need to halt their dangerous manipulation of the people over whom they wielded that power, usually by controlling the way they thought about the society they lived in, using, among other methods, the media of mass communication.

Early in the 21C a new theme emerged in this type of fiction to reflect the rise of technology and the ever-increasingly intrusive role of the internet and social media. In 2013 Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle, later made into a rather poor film, highlighted the corrosive effects on society of the ubiquity of self-presentation online, especially in social media, resulting in the end of ‘reality’, privacy and secrecy.

In popular culture the TV series by Charlie Brooker and others, ‘Black Mirror’, first screened on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2011-14, then by Netflix 2016-19, worked on similar themes. Its title refers to the screens of high-tech devices like smartphones, and the storylines involved dystopian depictions of incursions by corporations and governments on data privacy, increasing surveillance, VR, and so on. These sinister developments for the purposes of corporations gaining greater power and profits resulted in the alienation of the mass users of the tech. The cynical use of people’s desire to use tech to achieve happier, more successful and fulfilling lives was a means of  furthering these organisations’ own nefarious schemes.

Jonathan Franzen’s Purity has a complicated plot based on the attempts of young American Purity Tyler, known as Pip, to find a niche in the world, pay off her student debt, and find the identity of her father, whom she never knew, and about whom her eccentric, tech-averse and antisocial mother – who dotes on her only child – refuses to divulge any information.

Pip’s quest, like her namesake’s in Great Expectations, leads her into making many poor judgements about people’s intentions and integrity. The plot takes us into the grubby, state-controlled world of East Berlin before and shortly after the fall of the Wall, as we follow the career of Andreas Wolf from anti-communist youth worker, with a taste for bedding the troubled young girls he’s supposed to be helping, to an internationally famous and charismatic online whistle-blower and exposer of secrets – a sort of Robin Hood version of Julian Assange.

Pip gets drawn into devious schemes to spy on people she becomes fond of, and whose existence she begins to realise have an important role in her own murky history. Her gradual uncovering of the complex web of secrets and lies that have obscured her origins make for an engrossing read.

On the other hand there’s a void at the heart of this novel. The targets of Franzen’s criticism, seen in those quotations from the novel at the top of this post, are just too cartoonishly portrayed. Yes, this is a wicked world, and we place far too much trust in those who control social media and the internet’s capabilities for not always humanitarian ends. But I’m not sure this critique, wrapped up in an unwieldy and over-long plot with a large cast of not always well differentiated or sympathetic characters, merits nearly 600 pages of prose.

Franzen writes well, and I don’t mean to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy this novel. Its shifting viewpoints and long view of history and culture are handled skilfully, and there’s an assured poise in the use of language (despite a really dud musical metaphor about the ‘rock-and-roll’ effect of sunshine on a bay area fog).

Franzen is at his best when writing about families, their relationships and sex lives, and the intricate ways in which people attract, desire and repel each other. The dystopian IT chicanery seems comparatively contrived. There’s a good dog, but he doesn’t appear until near the end.