A couple of months ago, the encyclopedically knowledgeable Robert Nedelkoff emailed:
I want to bring a novel by a woman – an extremely and undeservedly neglected novel if there ever was one – to your attention: Life Signs, by Johanna Davis, nee Mankiewicz, published by Atheneum in 1973 and by Dell in paperback the next year, just after she died when she was struck by a taxicab outside her Greenwich Village apartment building at the age of 38.
You can find a reminiscence of her and a short discussion of her one book, written by Gilbert Rogin’s niece, Katie, on the Literary Mothers blog (link). It mentions she came from a “Hollywood family” of writers, but doesn’t specify that she was the daughter of the man who wrote Citizen Kane; the niece of the man who gave us All About Eve; and the aunt of TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz. [Nor that her brother Frank ran George McGovern’s presidential campaign and her brother Don won the Harper Prize for his novel, Trial.
I took Robert’s suggestion and ordered a copy of Life Signs. Its opening gives a good clue to the book’s subject and Davis’ wise-cracking tone:
The way Camilla Ryder saw it: somewhere, tucked off in a back cranny of her brain, lived a tiny old lady, retired from active duty as a postal inspector but still interested in keeping her hand in. To this end, she ran a merciless, night and day operation over Camilla’s thoughts, zeroing in on any that seemed even slightly uninhibited with a furious red ink stamp. RETURN TO SENDER. The notion was improbably, if pleasing (Our Lady of the Medulla would wear Supp-Hose and an Orlon sweater set, tint her hair blue and eat off a tray), much like the explanation furnished by Camilla’s older brother for other mysteries of life; it took high school physics to finally rid her of Daniel’s persuasive visions of Lilliputian men striking and extinguishing microscopic matches inside of light bulbs, marching in and out of radios to give their news and spin records.
Camilla lives with her film-maker husband and a baby boy in a Greenwich Village apartment. She is eight months pregnant and her synapses are firing in overdrive. She regularly wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, leading her husband to suggest she see a therapist.
Despite his many affectations of sophistication, the psychiatrist’s advice is basically sound, but Camilla’s brain is in control of a particularly demonic set of little men. Another mom at the local playground sets her up with a beginner supply of amphetamines. Soon, she is having an absurd conversation with her son:
Jacob reached for her hair, making pigeon sounds. “Goo-goo,” he said. “No,” Camilla was firm. “Goo-goo is how babies go. Mommies go cuckoo.” She tucked him into clean rubber pants, and sat him up, and happy golden Kewpie doll she had won without trying. “Koo-koo,” he said. “Mommy koo-koo.” “Right,” said Camilla, unprecedented love coming at her like a flash flood as the pill hit. “Your first sentence, you smart thing. Have a zwieback.”
The novel follows Camilla through four days, until her water breaks and she delivers after a frantic taxi ride to the hospital. Though she promises her husband there will be “No more crazy salad,” within a week, she’s sleepwalking.
There are more than a few parallels between Camilla’s situation and Davis’ own. Married to a film-maker herself, she had had her own breakdown of sorts when her second child was born. Years after her death, her friend Brooke Hayward told People magazine, in an article about Davis’ husband, that “Peter literally took over the role of mother for the children.” “It was Peter who would bathe them, Peter who would pick up the groceries and Peter who often would cook. He’s a family man, and he never was anything but.”
Daughter of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, niece of director Joseph, Davis was known as Josie growing up in Hollywood. As a teenager, her closest friends were Hayward, daughter of producer Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan, Jane Fonda, and Jill Schary, daughter of MGM head of production Dore Schary. If the literary output of this group is any indication, Davis had plenty of the ingredients for a crazy salad of her own: Jill Schary, writing as Jill Robinson, published Bedtime Story, a memoir of drug addiction, alcoholism, and self-destructive behavior; Hayward’s own memoir, Haywire, described how she wrestled with the question, “How do you cope with the fact that your parents were unfit for parenting?” Let us not forget that Fonda’s mother Frances committed suicide in a New York sanatarium when Jane was 12, and, as Jonathan Yardley put it in his review of Fonda’s autobiography, for both Jane and her brother Peter, “yearning for their father’s love has been a lifetime’s preoccupation.” And, as her cousin, producer Tom Mankiewicz, revealed in his memoir, My Life as a Mankiewicz, it was Josie who discovered the body of her aunt, actress Rose Stradner, after Stradner committed suicide in 1958. At the time, Josie was 19.
Davis seems to have had the same kind of manic energy, wit, and intelligence as her heroine. In a memorial piece for The New York Times, Richard P. Brickner wrote, “She was the most literary person imaginable, in the sense that she was a natural story-teller and a natural story. She was all alertness, all poised eye, ear, and tongue. She invented incessantly, she read people incessantly, and she narrated incessantly in conversation.” In the People piece on Peter Davis, Anne Rogin, Katie’s mother and Johanna’s roommate at Wellesley College, recalled that, “Josie took stage center when she was in the room or in your life. She was a star, and when you have someone like that, people tend to see you as a satellite.”
In her Times article, Nora Johnson wrote that Camilla and similar women in such novels as Lois Gould’s Such Good Friends (1970), Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), Alix Kate Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973), “Have been driven mad not by men, but by the social principles of the patriarchy, so familiar as to be almost invisible. We dwell uncomfortably with those softer, more humanistic principles so hard to tease out and explain or understand, which are historically women’s. These are, besides, unpopular, unworkable, even ridiculous.”
I wouldn’t say that Camilla finds a workable resolution for her own situation. Her story ends before we have the chance to find out. Davis herself may have achieved some resolve by writing Life Signs. Unfortunately, her own story ended too soon, too. She was killed on 25 July 1974 near her apartment in Greenwich Village when two taxis collided in an intersection and one careened onto the sidewalk where she was walking with her 11 year old son, Timothy. Timothy was uninjured but the cab struck Davis and threw her into a mailbox, causing a fatal blow to her head. Davis was survived by Timothy, Nicholas, then 9, and her husband.
Life Signs, by Johanna Davis
New York: Atheneum, 1973
In his foreword to The Letters of Ruth Draper: A Self-Portrait of a Great Actress (1920-1956), Sir John Gielgud writes, “I have always felt that Ruth Draper was (with Martha Graham) the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us.” Yet, despite the fact that her career spanned the eras of sound recordings, radio, films, and television, virtually no trace of her performances now remains aside from a few recordings she made — with some reluctance — in 1954, less than two years before she died. These recordings have recently been remastered and are available at www.drapermonologues.com. Their release led Michael Feingold, writing on TheaterMania.com, to call Draper “America’s Greatest Woman Playwright (Maybe)” and inspired Annette Benning to recreate four of them in a 2014 show at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
One of her performances, before a 1954 meeting of the Community Service Society, is available online at the WNYC Archives. In “Three Generations From the Court of Domestic Relations,” which she first performed in 1919, Draper appears as the 79 year old Anna Abrahams, then as Anna’s daughter, Sadie Greenman (47), and finally, as Rosie Greenman (19), Sadie’s daughter. The three women are speaking with a judge, and it gradually emerges that Rosie is trying to convince the judge to direct that her mother and grandmother be put in a home for elderly women so she and her boyfriend can leave for some small town out West where he’s been promised a job. All we hear is Draper’s voice, of course, but from that alone — her changing accents, diction, vocabulary, emotional tenor — that she transforms completely in the course of a 20-minute performance.
She explained her inspiration in an early — and rare – interview with a Boston reporter in 1925:
I used to know a City Magistrate who presided in the Domestic Relations Court, and he told me I could come and sit with him when I wanted to and see what was going on. That’s where I saw the old Jewish woman. In real life, though, the situation was not the same as it is in the stage sketch. The old woman’s daughter and her granddaughter wanted to have her sent away. I thought that was less interesting than placing the stress on the attitude of the youngest generation, so I built the sketch around the young woman, instead of the old one.
Despite the fact that she played poor women in many of her monologues, Draper was accustomed from birth to the society of the wealthy and famous. Her father was a successful surgeon in New York City and her mother was the daughter of Charles A. Dana, editor and part owner of The New York Sun. She attended an exclusive girls’ school, came out as a debutante in 1902, and was active in the Junior League. She would later use her insider knowledge of society women to devastating effect in such pieces as “The Italian Lesson,” “A Debutante at a Dance,” and “A Cocktail Party.”
But she had shown a flair for performance from a young age, and a family friend, the great Polish pianist Paderewski, encouraged her to pursue her passion: “You must do this professionally,” he told her in 1910. “You must make the decision. It must come from you, from inside.” She began by performing short one-person skits of her own creation at private functions at the homes of society friends around New York, and quickly gained a reputation as something of a phenomenon. Henry Adams saw her perform in Washington, D.C. in 1911 and wrote thereafter, “She is a little genius and quite fascinates me.”
In 1913, she traveled to England, where she appeared at parties hosted by society dames and ladies of the nobility. Her audiences included, on different occasions, King George V and Queen Mary and Prime Minister Henry Asquith. While in London, she became friends with Henry James, who once remarked to her, “My dear young friend, you have woven yourself a magic carpet — stand on it!” James even wrote a sketch for her, though Draper never attempted to perform it. The artist John Singer Sargent made several sketches of her, including the one featured on the cover of The Letters of Ruth Draper, which shows her in costume for the sketch, The Scottish Immigrant at Ellis Island.
She returned home to America just before World War One broke out, and her mother died a few weeks after her arrival. She toured the country performing on behalf of War Relief Benefits, and, for the only time in her career, acted as a member of a full cast in a Cyril Harcourt play, A Lady’s Name. The experience quickly convinced her that she should only perform solo, and in works she had written and conceived herself. In October 1918, she returned to England and then, on the day after Armistice, crossed to France.
For the next eight months, she toured American Army camps, entertaining the troops. She returned to England and resumed making the rounds of private homes, but her experience of performing before the soldiers had given her confidence that her art could appeal to more than just the wealthy and privileged. In January 1920, she booked Aeolian Hall in London for a single performance, and the reviews encouraged her to book it for five more in May 1920. This run rocketed her to success. “She is a hit of the season,” wrote The Observer, and The Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer proclaimed:
The art of Miss Draper stands alone…. To hold an audience enthralled for nearly two hours with this brand of dramatic art, without the aid of properties, music or scenery, is indeed a triumph. There is no doubt that her listeners would cheerfully have allowed Mis Draper to continue indefinitely.
The letters in The Letters of Ruth Draper begin at this point and continue over the course of the next 36 years, up to just two weeks before her death, at the age of 72, in 1956. Throughout these decades, she travelled all over the world, performing constantly. As Morton Dauwen Zabel writes in the memoir that introduces The Art of Ruth Draper: Her Dramas and Characters (1960), which can be found in electronic form on the Internet Archive (link):
She performed wherever her travels took her — in theatres, in halls, in drawing-rooms, in college auditoriums, in a country store in New Mexico, in a ship’s salon. She carried none of the enormous equipment of scenery, lights, costumes, managers, impresarios, and paraphernalia the great Frenchwoman [Sarah Bernhardt] required. She travelled through six continents and over thousands of miles by land, sea, and air without retinue, staff, or company, carrying all the equipment she needed in a few dress-cases or hat-boxes and the most rudimentary of make-up kits.
When the French actor and producer, Lugné-Poe, who assisted Draper in arranging her tours over the next twenty years, first approached her about appearing at his theater, he asked her how many assistants and other cast members she would need. “Non, oh non,” she answered. “Je suis seule. Je n’ai besoin de personne. Seule, moi. Un rideau [curtain], seul.” The simplicity of her needs is demonstrated by a sample of the stage requirements listed in an appendix to The Art of Ruth Draper:
A Class in Greek Poise:
A plain straight chair, and a small plain table.
Christmas Eve on the Embankment at Night:
A plain low wooden bench, if possible of weathered appearance.
A Cocktail Party:
A drawing-room chair with or without arms, and a low coffee-table.
A Dalmatian Peasant in the Hall of a New York Hospital:
A plain straight office chair.
A Debutante at a Dance:
A large roomy upholstered or overstuffed armchair.
Doctors and Diets:
A small rectangular table to serve as a restaurant table, and a straight restaurant chair.
She could … arrive at the theatre twenty to thirty minutes before curtain time. She would glance at her mail, ask her stage manager which “sketches” were on her program for that performance, and then, with the help of her dresser, slip out of her dress or suit, and don her pinkish kimono while she supllemented — really only strengthened — her makeup: a little blue eye-shadow, the minimum of mascara and brown eye pencil and rouge — very little — dark lipstick shaped on with her fingertip, powder with a rabbit’s foot or soft brush. She simply wore her own face — her primary tool of expression. Dark brown wavy hair, large brown eyes compelling, expressive, and all-seeing, skin clear with a tone slightly — very slightly — tawny.
Then into her stage dress: brown or beige lace, a dark brown velvet, always sleeveless, basic, unobtrusive, to which could be added shawls or bits of costume for her characterizations. A final glance in the mirror and she walked quickly out to the wing where her dresser had laid out on a table the “costumes” and props for that performance, put on the necessary items; the curtain rose, and with a final word to whomever she was chatting with, she walked into the stage lights — a different character and personality. No more than that, no rehearsal, no moment of reflection or of gathering herself together.
Despite the fact that she was among the best-paid and most in-demand actresses of her day, Draper was little interested in publicity. The playwright Russel Crouse, who worked as her first press agent, once wrote that, “It was a strange association for she did not want any publicity, refused to see me half the time, and every thing I did to help her sell out, which she did, I did in spite of her.” She would do her part by performing, Warren writes, “but personal interviews, details of her off-stage self, most definitely not!” She once called publicity “only a sham sort of literature, pre-digested by someone else for ‘ready reading.'”
In part, the simple pace of her career kept the scope of her private life limited. Of the hundreds of letters published in The Letters of Ruth Draper, the majority are to a few of her close friends and relatives. But when she did have a great romance, it turned out more dramatic than any of her pieces. In early 1928, while appearing in Rome (among Draper’s talents was an ability to perform with equal facility in English, Italian, French, and German), she met Lauro de Bosis, a poet, scientist, and classical scholar. She was 43, he 26, but they were immediately drawn to each other. De Bosis pursued her in earnest, but Draper was filled with self-doubts. After some weeks together, she returned to the U.S., in some confusion. “My great object is to stop thinking — stop worrying — rejoice in the fact that I am loved — in the wonder of my life with its richness and beauty. I seemingly have everything — yet I can’t grasp it — that’s my trouble.
De Bosis followed her a few months later, taking a post with the Italy-America Society in New York City. He and Draper spent many days together, and when she boarded a ship for a tour of Europe the next spring, de Bosis travelled with her. By late 1929, they were considering marriage, but events intruded on their plans. A passionate anti-Fascist, de Bosis abruptly decided in June 1930 to give up his post and returned to Italy, where he began organizing a resistance group, Alleanza Nazionale. It soon attracted the attention of Mussolini’s police, and while de Bosis was away in New York settling his affairs, they arrested two of his associates, searched his mother’s house, and, upon finding incriminating letters, arrested her, too.
Signora de Bosis was released after she signed a letter to Mussolini denying any sympathies for the anti-Fascist cause, but the situation made it impossible for de Bosis to return to Italy. Instead, he moved to Paris, taking a job as a concierge to survive and working with other exiles to organize support against the regime. Inspired by a bold daylight flight by a fellow radical, Giovanni Bassanesi, during which he scattered anti-Mussolini leaflets over Milan, de Bosis began taking flying lessons and bought himself a small airplane. On 3 October 1931, he took off from Marseilles with less than a full tank of fuel, having told the ground crew that he was headed for Barcelona. Instead, he headed for Rome, where he dropped leaflets and circled the city for half an hour before heading out to sea. He was never seen again.
His fate was unknown for some time. Two weeks after his departure, Draper wondered to a friend “if Lauro should call me up perhaps from Spain, or South America, or Egypt.” By early November, howerver, it was clear that he had crashed somewhere at sea, most likely having run out of fuel somewhere between Italy and Corsica. Though she grieved for the loss, she committed to carry on: “O well, I must grit my teeth and know one can’t recall the past, and have a second chance — with all my weaknessses and failures he loved me — and regretted nothing — that I know. By early January 1932, she was touring again, appearing in a series of twelve one-week engagements throughout Great Britain.
And tour she continued to do, despite the travel restrictions of a world war, for the rest of her life. In the last twelve months before her death, she performed in Chicago, Boston, New York City, Scotland, London, The Hague, Vienna, Italy, and Paris. When she couldn’t cross the Atlantic two or three times a year, as had been her habit, she settled for crossing the U.S. by train, appearing everywhere from Jacksonville, Florida to Seattle, Washington. A few weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack, she wrote enthusiastically to Corinne Robinson (mother of columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop) from Minot, North Dakota:
We go to such funny places, and now and then to a friend and luxury and comfort, and in spite of the bad hot air I do like trains! I have superb audiences everywhere, and the response is terrific. New people, young people, alert and keen and warm, and it’s very gratifying…. No worry about advertising, no risk, and assured packed house everything with the “best people” in town and, what I love, the youth! The high school and civic auditoriums I simply hate, but that’s where concerts are held, so I have to bear it, but the audiences seem wild with delight, and it’s a wonderful satisfaction.
By the early 1950s, her place in the world of the arts was so respected that she was awarded a CBE in 1951 and invited to give a private performance at a gala dinner at Windsor Castle. As she ended her last piece, The Scottish Immigrant, she slipped and fell flat on her back. “I managed to get up rather gracefully considering the shock,” she wrote her niece, “and the first persons who came forward were the Queen and both Princesses.”
Such exalted recognition did not lessen her appeal, however, as a young Kenneth Tynan wrote in one of his Observer reviews:
I want to declare Miss Draper open to the new generation of playgoers, and to trample on their suspicions, which I once shared, that she might turn out to be a museum-piece, ripe for the dust-sheet and oblivion. She is, on the contrary, about as old-fashioned and mummified as spring, and as I watched her perform her thronging monologues the other night, I could only conclude that this was the best and most modern group acting I had ever seen….
I have an idea that, at the back of her mind, Miss Draper is hoping still to find a company of actors skillful enough to stand up to comparison with the accuracy, tact, and wisdom of her technique. She is actually doing her
contemporaries a great kindness by not exposing them to such a hazard.
The Scottish Immigrant, which Draper first performed in 1912, was also her very last monologue. On December 29, 1956, the fifth night of what was intended to be a four-week season at the Playhouse Theatre, just off Broadway, she complained to her assistant at one point that, “I just went blank — and kept on talking. I never did that before.” She closed the show with her piece about the girl from the Highlands arriving at Ellis Island to join her fiance, rushing off stage at the end, calling out, “Sandy, my Sandy — I’m here!” Afterward, she asked to be driven to see the Christmas lights in the city, then went home for supper. Her maid found her in bed the next morning, dead from a heart attack.
While her work has inspired several generations of performers, including Lily Tomlin, Spaulding Gray, and Julia Sweeney, and continues to be celebrated, her decision to devote herself strictly to live performances has ensured that Ruth Draper will forever be something of a neglected genius. As David Benson remarked in connection with a 2002 BBC Radio 4 tribute to her work:
If you want to be immortal you must be in films – the best theatre dies with its audience and the best telly and even radio disappears after a while. But movies are forever. Ruth Draper made no films, apart from a few experimental tests with Alexander Korda which were never used. It is a great shame, as the audio recordings, brilliant though they are, only give us half the magic of her work. We miss seeing what she did.
The Letters of Ruth Draper: A Self-Portrait of a Great Actress (1920-1956), edited by Neilla Warren
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979
Walk on over the leaf-patterned carpet, under the gas lamps, and there is Pickwick and Sam Weller in a huge gilt frame. It hangs above the piano. This is a busy room. There is a “dado” of landscapes near the ceiling. And pictures of landscapes on either side of the great Pickwick. I have a recent yearning for pictorial pictures again. To stand and look far back to distant mountains, to which tiny boats are heading, and on the shore tiny people picnic, while near at hand a family group of peasants — or of wealthy sightseers — gesticulate, smiling or sad, dangling long ribboned hats. patting long-haired, carefully painted dogs. The storytelling picture, the romantic painting — but at least doing something. Not blobs of color.
There are tall vases on the mantel, a shiny black bust of Beethoven on the piano. The chairs have carved legs, flowered seats, curved rockers; antlers sprout from the walls; flowers sprout from flowered vases. The Mexican vase is there. The bookcases have glass doors. Parlors, hallways, living rooms all seem to flow every which way, kept in order by massive sliding doors with square carved panels. There is so much going on in silence!
Josephine Johnson wrote Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places when she was in her sixties, and it’s a memoir constructed around the unusual framework of the seven houses in which she had spent most of her life to that point. The daughter and granddaughter of prosperous St. Louis merchants, she grew up in a household full of sisters and aunts but dominated by strong male figures. She took early to writing, but was astonished to learn she’d won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel, Now in November, in 1935.
And despite this success, as she writes in Seven Houses, “I seemed to be waiting to begin to live, and not all the beauty, all the intensity of the words on paper … all the desperate search for reform and change, the bitterness of the depression years, not the love for my sisters nor the tortuous refining of personal philosophy, seemed to be the reality of living that I wanted to find.” Despite establishing herself as a successful writer and growing up around strong women, her outlook was still dominated by the need for a strong male figure: “And then I met Grant Cannon and the waiting to live was over and the real life began.”
Seven Housess was written not long after Johnson published The Inland Island (1969), a book that some have compared to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — a book very much about the impact of landscape on the writer’s life and perceptions. And, ironically, despite its title, Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places is as much about the landscapes and seasons outside as it is about the things that went on inside. “But there was too much house, too little land,” she writes of a house she shared with Cannon and their children for over ten years. At times, Johnson seems to be struggling to understand where she wants to go with her memoir, but even in its occasional disorientation, Seven Houses is a unique and often moving reflection on life in all its elements.
Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places, by Josephine W. Johnson
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1973
Negative Entropy or
The Third Law of Thermodynamics or
How It is We Keep Alive
We feed on crystals, feast on minerals,
Batten, upon the moon, consume the stars
And through the channels of our love drain off
The sun’s heat and the whole world’s energy.
The crocus and the oak, the elephant,
The long-tailed tit, the taxidermist’s owl,
Our eyes, our hair, our nails, all, all the same
Millions of indistinguishable atoms
Chaos in single numbers, order in milliards.
Only the passionate indestructible pattern
Of the all-but-eternal molecule, carries the key.
Locked in its heart lies the secret
To grow from the acorn the oak,
From the corm the year’s yellow crocus,
From the fertilised cell the elephant,
From the egg the tit or the owl,
From eyes our children’s eyes, from hair their hair
And from our nails their same peculiar nails.
Each greedy of life resists death,
Sucks sustenance from the desert;
Devours the rock and the ruby.
Until we cool to our end
And dying provide new fires
For love and fresh generation.
from The Lightning Struck Tower, by Sheila Shannon
London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1947
Errol was exceptionally tidy in his personal habits. Sometimes he shaved twice a day and) he took constant showers. But one day Beverly said to me: “Mama, isn’t it strange? He doesn’t use anything under his arms. You’d think a man who’s been around as much as Errol would know about a little thing like that, wouldn’t you?”
I certainly agreed. He Wasn’t offensive—far from it. But it proved to me once again that those women he’d run around with for years—all those top sex charmers—were a bunch of dummies in some departments. You’d think one of them might have gotten around to giving Errol the message. But not one of them knew how to tell him.
With Beverly herself it was simply no problem. She was such a sweet person she didn’t need an underarm deodorant, but she used one just to be safe. One night when she and Errol were preparing to go somewhere in New York, she suddenly brought up the subject. It was always her way to be quite frank with him.
“Errol,” she said, “why don’t you use Mennen’s under the arms, or something like that?”
He took it as quite an insult. He had been shaving, and he turned away from the washbowl and gave her a hurt look.
“Well,” he said, sarcastically, “I’ve always considered myself a fairly clean man.”
“But why not use one? ” said Beverly. Her persistence made him a little angry.
“Damn it,” he said. “Who uses that stuff anyway? Besides, how come you know so much about what men are supposed to put on?” He looked at her half-suspiciously, half-jokingly. “I thought you were supposed to be a virgin before you met me. So how come you know all about this? Who told you?”
“My father!” snapped Beverly. “That’s who! He’s the cleanest man that ever was. He always asks me to give him Mennen toilet water for Christmas!”
Errol laughed and finished shaving. He didn’t say anything more about it then, but not long after that he started using a deodorant.
FromThe Big Love, by Mrs. Florence Aadland (as told to Tedd Thomey)
New York: Lancer Books, 1960
“There’s one thing I want to make clear right off: my baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn.”
The world can be divided into two groups: those who gag at that line and those who glory in it.
I have to confess that I belong to the second group. To me, this is one of the great opening lines in American writing, right up there with “Call me Ishmael.” It’s proud, shameless, sleazy, and sycophantic–all at the same time. Whatever else you might say about ghostwriter Tedd Thomey, you can’t deny that he masterfully conveyed Florence Aadland’s unique voice to the printed page.
I am not the first to recognize The Big Love. It’s pretty well known about those who celebrate great celebrity trash writing such as Mommie Dearest and Mother Goddam, and pops up twice on this site (named in Writer’s Choice by William Styron and W. H. Auden and in Tin House magazine by John Marr). Which helps to explain why this book sells for 55 bucks and up, if you can find a copy. I had the great luck to find a copy for $1, which goes to show that God does want us to browse the shelves of the “Religion” section of used bookstores: you never know what you might find misplaced there.
The facts of the story have been hashed, re-hashed, and even filmed, so I will be brief. In October 1957, one-time dashing and successful actor Errol Flynn spotted Beverly Aadland among the extras on a studio set, took her out to dinner, and raped her. Well, in those days, he would have said he seduced her, but by Florence’s account, she tried to fight him off.
She was then 15 years old.
Looking old for her age, Beverly was passing as 21 to get studio and nightclub work, and Flynn probably did not know the truth (though he’d already been charged several times with having sex with underage girls and was, in the words of his FBI file, “a man perverted in his sexual desires, and who ultimately will cause Warner Brothers a considerable amount of difficulty if he doesn’t kill himself in the process”).
But Flynn found himself intensely attracted to Beverly, and despite the rape, she agreed to meet him again. The relationship developed, with frequent dates and visits to Flynn’s house. Flynn invited her mother, Florence, on several occasions. Florence was bowled over by Flynn’s looks, charm, and glamor, and enjoyed the lavish meals that featured “caviar, pate de foie gras, and other swank items.”
A few months later, Flynn flew daughter and mother to join him in New York. On the plane there, Beverley told her mother the truth about the rape. Stunned and furious at first, Florence was somehow persuaded by Beverly that she and Flynn were truly in love. Quickly, Florence saw what needed to be done: “I decided I was going to put up one hell of a fight to see it it that he married my daughter.”
The stay in New York mostly involved Flynn painting the town and spending long hours at the Park Lane Hotel with Beverly while Florence cooled her heels in another (cheaper) hotel. She only saw Flynn a few times, and when she did, “I never did get a chance to tell Errol off. Whenever the opportunity arrived, it was gone in a flash.” The problem, it turns out, was that, “He was such a lively character, so flip, so quick to turn a person’s thoughts onto a new subject.”
Who knew that sparkling personality was a form of mind control? Imagine if Flynn had turned his superpower to the cause of good?
Well, Flynn’s charm managed to keep Beverley close at hand and Florence at bay for over a year and a half. Beverly traveled with him to Africa, on tour with a flop play, and back to Hollywood. She joined him in Cuba and appeared in a bit part in his last movie, Cuban Rebel Girls, which Wikipedia describes, oxymoronically, as a “semi-dramatic documentary B movie.” Then, in October 1959, while the pair were in Vancouver, Canada, trying to sell Flynn’s yacht to fund his divorce from Patricia Wymore, his third wife, Flynn collapsed suddenly and died. The cause was ruled heart attack and cirrhosis of the liver.
Despite Florence’s hopes and an unsigned will leaving much of his estate to Beverley, the pair were soon back where they started, rich in nothing but notoriety. Which compounded about a year later when Beverly’s then-boyfriend shot himself in her bedroom and Florence was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Beverly was made the ward of a Baptist minister and his wife, and Florence went in search of a book deal.
But Beverly’s affair with Errol Flynn is, in the end, not the real reason people take such delight in The Big Love. Instead, it is the sublimely unwitting and adorned crassness of Florence. She is blissfully unashamed that her main location throughout the affair was offstage, usually far offstage. That, while Beverly and Flynn were off in Africa or Jamaica or Cuba, she was working as a coffee shop waitress or manicurist, aware of what was going on through what were clearly very occasional phone calls.
Instead, she celebrates the miracle that saved her from death when she went into shock from uremic poisoning after Beverly’s birth: was her doctors yelling at her, “Come on, you silly little dumb bitch! Fight! Fight!” No wonder she later found that she and Flynn “could speak the same language together”: “There were times when we traded four-letter words, and I know he respected my ability to use such language when the occasion demanded.”
Indeed, we learn that Florence had finer side–was something of an intellectual, if you will. We are told that, after joining the Rosicrucians, she “made a detailed study of life and the universe” and “learned as much about the human nervous system as a doctor does.” When Beverly was still quite young, Florence “read Shakespeare to her and he was always one of her favorites.” No wonder that later, when they were visiting Flynn in New York, he and Beverly “spent hours watching the United Nations sessions on television, following the complicated events day after day, trading opinions, offering detailed judgments.”
Florence also raised Beverly to be refined in her sensibilities. Although Flynn “shaved twice a day and took constant showers,” Beverly was put off by the fact that he didn’t use deodorant. She felt he could not meet the standard upheld by her father: “He’s the cleanest man that ever was. He always asks me to give him Mennen toilet water for Christmas!”
Though Flynn and Beverly were never to marry, Florence had no regrets about their affair: “Have no difficulty finding an answer to the question my friends often ask me. ‘Flo,’ they’ll say, ‘if you had to do it over again, would you make the same decision?'” To which her answer is always the same: “Of course I would. And I mean it from the heart.”
And as for those who would condemn them, as for those who cannot appreciate the qualities of The Big Love, we can share Florence’s sentiment that, “They are the ones who will never, never try to understand what kind of a man Errol Flynn was and what kind of person my daughter Beverly is.” And take comfort in the knowledge that “people like that don’t count with us anyway.” Or with us–am I right?
The Big Love, by Florence Aadland as told to Ted Thomey
New York: Lancer Books, 1961
Anyone with romantic fantasies about the life of a popular writer need only read Margaret Campbell’s autobiography The Debate Continues to get over them. Under such pseudonyms as Marjorie Bowen, Robert Paye, George R. Preedy, Joseph Shearing, and John Winch, she published over 150 books, many of them best-sellers in both the U.K. and U.S.. She tended to specialize in highly authentic but melodramatic historical novels such as The Viper of Milan (1906), which she wrote at the age of 16. Indeed, the popularity of The Viper of Milan, which was a best-seller of its time, was such that her publishers put relentless pressure on Campbell to write more like it. And the extravagant demands of her family–first her mother and then her ailing first husband–on her income, as she was typically the only bread-winner, kept her writing book after book in a genre and style she considered beneath her true abilities.
Margaret’s parents separated a few years after she was born, and she spent most of her early years moving from one cheap apartment to another as her mother, Mrs. Vere Campbell, an aspiring but utterly unsuccessful playwright, outran collection agents and leaned upon the charity of her friends. Her mother made it clear that Margaret, whom she considered thin, unattractive, and stupid, was by far the least favored of her three daughters. It made for a pretty grim childhood: “The great object of my days,” she wrote, “was to escape blame or punishment, for active pleasure or amusement was beyond hope.” Her grandmother, who was part of this wandering band, was little better: “Nana, too, would always remain as she was—slovenly, slack, with a sly, malicious tongue, untrained in everything save the shifts of poverty and the intrigues of cheap lodging-houses and tenth-rate flats.”
As what little money her mother could spend on schooling she reserved for her other daughters, Margaret largely taught herself, painstakingly working out the meaning of words in the rare book that might be lying around one of their apartments. By her early teens, however, she was spending many of her days at the British Museum, reading about history, art, and culture. She picked up a few small jobs as a fact-checker and ghost-writer, and was soon the one reliable source of income for the family. Not that this did anything to improve her standing in her mother’s eyes. Her mother was, variously, dismissive, discouraging, or bitterly envious.
Margaret’s first attempt at writing a novel was, by her own account, highly amateurish and relied heavily on guidebooks for its settings. Passed around from publisher to publisher for several years–most of them simply refusing to accept that a young girl could have written it–it was finally accepted in 1906 by Gilbert and Sullivan’s publisher, Alston Rivers. A moderate success in the U.K., The Viper of Milan became a best-seller when published by McClure in the U.S.. Quickly, the demands of both her publishers and her family turned Margaret into a full-time production machine. Although she held no great opinion of her work, Margaret did scruple to stick with subjects that required at least some knowledge and craftsmanship on her part:
… I liked historical work. It never could be as slap-dash and careless as light, modern stuff. A good deal of effort, research and painstaking, and a severe self-discipline were necessary for the writing of these books in which history was to be transformed into fiction and men and women of the past given some kind of life. The harder the work involved in the preparation of a book the better I liked it. I seemed to be giving something solid in return for the money I earned; too much money for what I gave, I always privately thought. And at least there was a certain dignity about this kind of fiction that there would not have been about ephemeral love or adventure stories of the life about me.
She also found, ironically, some relief in her tendency to favor stories of revenge, murder, and Gothic horror: “I found that, by writing of dark and gloomy subjects, I, in a way, rid my mind of them.”
“Margaret Campbell thus ended her account of her childhood and youth.” With this odd statement, Campbell opens the second half of her book and abruptly shifts from first person to third person. The transition also marks the start of her life as a married woman. In 1912, she met a Sicilian man at a party hosted by one of her mother’s friends, and more as an escape than out of love, married him soon after. Within a few weeks, they were on their way to Italy, and soon after that, Margaret found she was pregnant with their first child. Her account of the child’s delivery at the hands of a local Sicilian mid-wife, “who had every appearance of being a witch and whose knowledge of superstitions, of incantations, of good and bad omens was only equalled by her complete ignorance of medicine and hygiene” is as terrifying as anything she wrote as fiction.
Her husband then had the inspiration to rent the palace of some German prince along the Ligurian coast between La Spezia and Pisa in the off-season. There was truly nothing to be recommended in this plan: the place was gloomy, impossible to heat, sitting near stagnant water, and with little in the way of food. Margaret’s husband, who was never very healthy, quickly fell ill and began to waste away. He hung on for over a year, with Margaret all the while struggling to care for him, search for food, haggle with the local pharmacist over patent medicines, find wood for the stoves … and, in her spare time, keep writing. “There were times,” she wrote, “when she wished she could have been treated as they treated stray dogs, given some warmth, food, and quietly exterminated.”
Margaret’s husband hung on for over a year. In his last few months, she finally found a reliable doctor to care for him. Long anticipated by her maid, who spoke of the man’s legendary care-giving abilities, “The Professor” came over to the house early one summer evening. She was utterly unprepared for what happened next:
She supposed that she had read or heard of such an experience as was now hers, but she had scarcely believed in it. What had happened was that the focus of her existence had altered; she had been absorbed, to the point of obsession, with her husband, with his illness, with his approaching death. For months she had thought of nothing else, save intermittently of the child in England. Only a few stray unbidden dreams and visions had interrupted the intense concentration on this one subject.
Now, in one moment of time, the moment in which she had met this stranger on the threshold of her alien home, everything had altered. It was no longer her husband who was her chief concern, but the man who was now shut up with him, the man who had been so incongruously and absurdly termed “the Professor.”
Margaret’s feelings were fully reciprocated by the Professor, an elegant Venetian in his late sixties. As he left their villa a few days later, he spoke to her: “Before he left her he said he would come again in the morning early. Then he added, in a voice that was suddenly changed by emotion, that he loved her and would do so for the rest of his life.”
Their romance was one of the most proper to be found in literature. What few minutes they could share away from the dying man allowed time for nothing more than a short walk around the villa. And when, after the funeral, they were able to spend a few days together, concern for appearances kept things from going beyond an occasional holding of hands. Yet so convinced were they of their love that Margaret promised to marry the Professor when she returned from England with her son, who had been living with Nana.
But it was not to be. While in England, Margaret received a letter from him saying that his health was too poor to ever allow them to marry. In the space of three or four pages, she sweeps past her second marriage and two more children to arrive at the present. And switches back again to the first person: “It seems to me that it would have been simple for me to make a harmony of my own life, but it has always been cut across by the discords of other people’s lives.”
One has to respect Margaret Campbell’s dedication to her work as an income-earning writer, and in retrospect, she is certainly considered among the better genre novelists of her time. However, one is also tempted to play amateur psychoanalyst in reading her autobiography: why the shift from “I” to “Margaret” and back to “I”? And is it selflessness or resentment that lies behind this statement: “I think I should have known how to live simply, pleasantly, and gaily myself, but no life can be entirely self-contained and my designs have been overborne by those of other people”? Even without the analysis, though, The Debate Continues is an absorbing and fast-moving story that will leave you in awe of this woman’s energy.
Ethel Mannin wrote. A lot. By her own declaration, Sunset over Dartmoor (1977), the final chapter of her autobiography, was her 95th. She wrote so many books that even though the “By the Same Author” page in Dartmoor lists 41 novels, along with many other titles on “Politics and Ethics,” “Short Stories,” “Travels and Memoirs,” and “Child Education,” the list still ends with “Etc.” (there were at least four more after Free Pass to Nowhere (1970)).
She got an early start. Before marrying at 19 and having a daughter (her only child) a few months later, she had already begun to produce serialized romantic novels at the price of one guinea for every 1,000 words. (These books are on top of the other 95.) And by the age of 30, she’d had enough practice to feel quite comfortable publishing an autobiography, Confessions and Impressions (1930).
Confessions was one of her most successful and popular books, going into multiple printings and being reissued a few years later as an early Penguin paperback. Its success owed much to the novelty of Mannin’s scandalous confessions, such as falling in love with one of her female teachers, enduring the abuse of another (psychopathic) teacher who refused to let her pupils use the toilet and kept them hostage until they wet themselves and were duly punished, and having several affairs, including one with an unnamed man so distraught over their break-up that he committed suicide. Heady stuff for its time.
But, at the same time, Confessions and Impressions offers an early clue to the secret of Ethel Mannin’s success as a word producer and failure as a writer. For the “Confessions” section of the book amounts to about 40% of its content, while the “Impressions”–a collection of somewhat shallow and gossipy sketches of various writers and celebrities she was acquainted with. Noel Coward she thinks “the most electric person I had ever met;” Rebecca West is “small and provocative, rather like a lovely naughty child;” Radcliffe Hall, then notorious for her novel of lesbian love, The Well of Loneliness, is “the definitely masculine type of woman, but not by any means in that tiresome and unattractive sense suggestive of police-women or tomboyish daughters of county families.” She shares confidences about William Gerhardie told to her at one of Rebecca West’s cocktail parties: “Oh, did he offer to seduce you? He did me. He said it would make me a better writer.” At the time, English readers must have lapped this up, but it all seems pretty silly and musty today, as do her pontifications on Freud and her declaration that (remember, she’s only thirty), “I have lived richly and fully because out of abundant vitality, physical, mental, emotional, I have never been afraid to give myself to life.”
And she went on to prove herself right by packing in enough experiences that, less than ten years later, she produced a second volume of autobiography, Privileged Spectator (1939). During the Thirties, she wrote another couple dozen books, including the pretentiously (and, in truth, just barely) experimental Ragged Banners: A Novel with an Index (1931) (yes, it did have an index); another, Linda Shawn, based on A. S. Neill’s pioneering work at his Summerhill boarding school; a highly critical account of life in the Soviet Union, South to Samarkand (1936); Common-sense and the Adolescent (1937) an advice book calling for greater liberality in the treatment of teenagers and their struggles with sexuality and identity. She said good-bye to the carefree, bohemian lifestyle of the Twenties after spending the pring of 1932 on Majorca, which she found “infested by every kind of foreign undesirable, durg addicts, dipsomaniacs, crooks, idle rich, and every kind of parasite.” She also found time to become active in the Labour Party–and then, when disillusioned with that, the Independent Labour Party. She raised funds for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War alongside Emma Goldman and married Reginald Reynolds, a Quaker, writer of political tracts and satirical poems, and one of Gandhi’s primary representatives in the U. K.. She also bought a house, Oak Cottage, outside London, where she hosted figures ranging from Goldman in the Thirties to Iraqi dissidents in the Sixties.
Although her travels were more restricted during the Second World War, her writings were not, and her production carried on unimpeded by Blitz, blackouts, or rationing. As a pacifist, Reynolds was less than popular with the authorities, and he spent a few weeks in Exeter prison for the felony of riding a bicycle without a headlight (in the middle of the morning) as well as several rounds in hospital for his weak lungs and heart.
Always on the side of the underdog, Mannin’s principles occasionally landed her in a awkward position. In 1944, a prison inmate–a German national and fervent supporter of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF)–wrote to ask for a few of her books, having devoured all he could find in the prison library. She wrote a few letters in support of his case, but was startled when the man appeared, paroled, at Oak Cottage and insisted that he be hired to serve as her secretary. Mannin didn’t really need a secretary but was reluctant not to help the man out on his new path. So she found herself hosting a still-rabid Fascist with few secretarial skills, who still liked to wear his BUF uniform shirts around the house, who sulked for days after Mannin said she didn’t care for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and who couldn’t even be trusted to write a simple letter correctly. She would hand him a letter from some group inviting her to speak, saying, “Just say I am very busty and have no time.” He would then “type a very neat letter–using all his fingers, very correctly–to say that Miss Mannin had better things to do that waste her time speaking to a lot of nincompoops at a literary society, and if anyone was interested in Miss Mannin’s ideas they could jolly well read her books. Yours faithfully.” When asked to rewrite it, he stormed off. “He was extremely temperamental,” she notes. To her great relief, the man announced one day that he needed to move on “to better himself.” In later years, she had another mixed experience with a charity case when she and her husband “adopted” Frank Stanley, who had broken into their house and been sent up on a charge of burglary. He also turned out to be well-meaning but proved to have an unfortunate residual interest in violence, criminal intrigues, and rough trade.
Brief Voices (1959) covers the longest period of all her autobiographies, from the outbreak of war in 1939 to Reynolds’ sudden death, while on a speaking tour in Australia, in 1958. It set a pattern for all her remaining memoirs, providing a relatively superficial and stand-offish account of personal matters (her daughter, for example, is mentioned only a few times per book and usually not by name), synopses of her travels and the books they produced, and assorted chapters of reflections on then-current events and the decline of manners, morals, politics and art. All of which, she takes for granted, will be of interest to her readers. After all, as she concluded in the introduction to Brief Voices, “A writer’s life should have a special quality of interest because of the intense awareness brought to it.” ‘Nuff said.
After the war, Mannin seems to have latched onto a formula guaranteed to keep her production rate high. She would travel to a country, usually as a guest of the government or some cultural organization, often being led around to see schools, hospitals, museums, great civil construction works, sometimes giving talks herself. From this experience, she could easily produce at least one travel book and, with the local color she’d absorbed, at least one novel. In a few cases, she doubled her output. And so, after a trip to Burma in 1955, she wrote Land of the Crested Lion (1955) about her travels and then the novel, The Living Lotus (1956), about a current case of a white girl taken in by a Burmese family and raised as a Muslim, and the contest when her parents attempted to repatriate her.
In the 1960s, she became greatly interested in the Middle East. A long trip through Iraq and Kuwait in 1963 produced A Lance for the Arabs (1963) and the novel, The Road to Beersheba (1963), which she saw as a pro-Palestinian counter to Leon Uris’ huge pro-Israeli best-seller, Exodus. She returned to Jordan in 1965, producing The Lovely Land (1965) (travelogue) and The Burning Bush (1965), also favoring the Palestinian cause.
She entangled herself in the messy politics of the Middle East. Gaining a very favorable view of General Abd al-Karim Qasim, who–though an autocrat–did more to advance democratic and social welfare issues while Prime Minister in Iraq until he was violently overthrown in a Ba’athist-led coup during Ramadan in 1963. Afterward, Mannin was a sympathetic support of Iraqi liberals, and developed a close friendship with Khalid Ahmed Zaki, head of the Iraqi student movement in Britain, who was later killed while leading a guerrilla group in the marshes outside Basra. And her pro-Palestinian stance often placed on the unpopular side of a public argument, particularly after the Palestine Liberation Organization began to adopt more violent tactics to advance their cause.
As with her wayward charity cases, so does Mannin’s unrelentingly earnest pursuit of what she believes right sometimes puts her into an unwittingly comic light. In Stories from My Life (1973), she devotes a whole chapter, “Young Man in Parma Violet Shirt,” to an account of an “astonishing young man” she observes on an evening train from Leeds to London:
He was astonishing because he was incredibly handsome and different. What on earth was he doing amongst all those business executives, paunchy and middle-aged for the most part, short-back-and-sides, brief cases, dark lounge suits, the lot? The young man with his thick, dark longish hair, he dark-skinned Latin good looks, his splendid parma violet silk shirt freely displayed across his broad shoulders, his jacket above him in the rack; this young man with the Ivor Novello profile and high forehead and sensitive intelligent face, totally absorbed in a book.
Never have I seen anyone so totally absorbed in a book. He sipped his gin-and-tonic, and later his soup, without ever taking his eyes from the page….
It was a big book, a fat book, and I wondered, inevitably, always interested in what people are reading….
I wondered what he had to do with Leeds; there was a repertory theatre, so perhaps he was an actor; there was a university, so perhaps he taught….
… not since General Abd al-Karim Qasim of Iraq had I seen a man possessed of so much charisma. He wore no wedding ring and I wondered if he was married, or had a mistress; he did not suggest homosexuality….
I had two hours and forty minutes in which to study him and speculate about him, and since he never once looked up from his book I could do it unremittingly as he read.
But he left the train and strode away, and I did not accost him, and I crossed the dreary concourse of King’s Cross and went down into the tube, and I felt stricken; you could almost say bereaved….
… That book … I was so sure was the key to his personality.
Finally, she asks a librarian friend to look up the title and send her a copy of the book she’d seen the man reading with such fascination, and she has the chance to discover for herself:
I began to read, to review-read, rapidly; and within the first few pages was pulled up short by a passage of what was to me a quite startling degree of pornography. I skimmed on for a bit, but it seemed only an interminable series of the most explicitly detailed sexual episodes. I sent it back by return of post, telling myself bleakly, that, well, anyhow now I knew.
And she took time to fill in what she must have considered the gaps between Confessions and Impressions and Privileged Spectator with Young in the Twenties (1971). Though she freely admits that, in the Twenties, she was “young and uppity” and foolish and light-hearted in a way no longer possible: “We were gay; not a doubt of it. We laughed a lot, we danced a lot, we told each other risqué stories–there are no such stories nowadays, for when all is permitted how be risqué?” Considering how liberal, radical, and uncompromising Mannin’s politics were, she does manage, as the years go on, to do a remarkable good imitation of a Tory old fogey: “We who were young in the Twenties are intensely aware of the Seventies’s scene because we have no part in it–nor want any.”
In 1974, Mannin packed up and sold Oak Cottage, moving to a smaller house in Teignmouth in Devon in southwestern England to be nearer to her daughter. She managed two write two more novels (Kildoon (1974) and The Late Miss Guthrie (1976)) before starting on her “final chapter of autobiography” and last book, Sunset over Dartmoor.
In structure, Sunset over Dartmoor stays true to Mannin’s long-worked formula. Part I, “Farewell to Oak Cottage,” takes us through the process of selling Oak Cottage and settling into her bungalow in Teignmouth. It is some of the least interesting writing I have ever read:
Then there was a young-middled-aged couple, pleasant enough, but I recorded in my journal, “but I don’t think they are serious.”
… then a couple came with a name that I wondered about–was it perhaps Italian? It could even be Arab. It proved to be Egyptian ….
Then there was a tall bearded man, an architect, and his wife; they admired the garden, but what they felt about the house I have no idea.
… Then a Swede offered thirty-seven thousand cash for the house without seeing the inside!
Then a doctor and his wife, who thought the garden “fantastic.” They rang back in the evening to ask if they could come again at the weekend with her mother. They were young-middle-aged; trendy.
With writing this trivial, could anyone care about the potential buyers who came to look at her old house? Oh, but then there is the move. Or not: “The Big Move wasn’t the ordeal I had expected it to be….” By page 37, she has completely lost any pretense of having something interesting to say about her experience. And so we move on to Part II, “Devon: The Local Scene,” which is nothing more than six chapters of local color and history unrelieved by any character, fine observation or humor. I skimmed through it to get to the final part, “Sunset Reflections.”
Now, one would think–certainly I assumed–that after ninety-five books, world-wide travels, two marriages, numerous affairs, and over seven decades of experience, Ethel Mannin would have packed as much depth and perspective into these final chapters as she could. She does at least start out big, which a chapter on, “An inquiry into belief in ‘God.'” Given that she was, for most of her life, an avowed skeptic who felt affinity to some tenets of Buddhism but refused to embrace any religion–even though she wrote several novels with strong religious stories–you might think this would be an opportunity to offer insight into her own beliefs and how she came to understand them. Instead, it really is nothing more than a survey of how various religions and religious thinkers she has known have tried to define the word, “God.”
Not surprisingly, she stays with this theme with her next chapter, “A reflection on some misused terms,” which include everything from “race” and “anti-Semitism” to “have a nice day” and “at this moment in time.” It’s the stuff of a bored editorial writer on a slow news day. Later, we get to share in “Some reflections on the contemporary scene,” where we are informed that, “We live in an age of dehumanized sex, and of violence at all levels, social, political, sexual, personal.” “For the young it may be challenging and exciting,” she acknowledges, “but for the old it is depressing and alarming.”
On the final page of this, her final book, Mannin concludes that, “… without the material and psychological relaxation of this retirement I might not have felt moved to set them [these reflections] down. Whether it has been a good thing to have done this is for the reader to decide.” I regret to say that for this reader, it was not a good thing.
There’s a saying on the Internet to the effect that, “Content is King.” Sadly, by the time she reached the end of a staggering quantity of books, one has to say that Ethel Mannin couldn’t tell the difference between content and material. Sunset over Dartmoor could have been the summing up of a remarkable career and life. Instead, it was the last lap of a writer who’d already run too long and was just going through the motions she’d drilled into her muscle memory through sheer repetition.
Confessions and Impressions, by Ethel Mannin
London: Jarrold Publishers, 1930
Privileged Spectator, by Ethel Mannin
London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1939
Brief Voices, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1959
Young in the Twenties, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1971
Stories from My Life, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1973
Sunset Over Dartmoor, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1977
“When a woman asks to be alone,” Jessamyn West wrote in Hide and Seek, “… alone, alone, truly alone … a woman feels wicked, unloving, defying God and man alike.” If this is true, then Alice Koller could be considered America’s wickedest woman. Since the day in October 1962 when she packed her few belongings and a German Shepherd puppy named Logos into her car and set out for Nantucket Island, she has pursued, nurtured, relished, contemplated, and celebrated solitude to an extent no writer of our time could match.
An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery is her account of the three months she spent in a rented summer house out by the shore, walking along the beach, reflecting on her life, and trying to achieve some understanding of the most fundamental questions any human can ask of herself: Who am I? What am I here for? What do I want from my life?
At the time she decided to take the few hundred dollars she had in the world and head someplace remote, isolated (and cheap), Koller had already been struggling to exist for almost twenty years. After finishing high school in Ohio, she accepted a chance to act and study as part of the acting company based at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. She soon grew disenchanted with acting, though, and began attending the University of Chicago. At a time when few women were going into graduate schools, she determined to carry on with her studies. Relying on countless low-paying clerical jobs, she eventually worked her way through to earning a Ph.D. in philosophy at Radcliffe (now merged into Harvard) in 1959, at the age of 34.
She quickly discovered, however, that her doctorate meant little in an academic world still overwhelmingly dominated by men. When she asked one of her professors for advice on getting a job, he dismissed her with a curt reply: “You’re too late,” which likely referred more to her age than the time in the academic year. And so, after thirteen years of study, she found herself taking the same kind of low-paid work as she had as an undergrad. To add to her woes, she’d watched her second long-term serious romantic relationship end with the man abruptly leaving to marry another woman.
“I don’t have a life,” she concludes, looking at herself in the mirror. “I don’t live anywhere. I perch.” “It has to stop,” she decides. “Can’t I just stop, right now, and try to figure out what I’m doing? What I should be doing?” And so, after a little hunting, she finds a house outside Siasconset on Nantucket Island she can afford to rent for at least three months (due to the off-season). She also decides she needs a dog “To warn me about strangers,” and buys a puppy she names Logos in tribute to the philosophy she has spent the last decade studying: “Logos: the rational principle of the universe, the Word, reasoned discourse.”
On her very first day in the house on Nantucket, her search for answers begins with a very practical question (albeit a question few men in the same situation would ever ask): “What will I look like now that no one I know will see me?” And yet her answer (“Color will matter”) starts Koller on her way. “It’s my first clear judgment, my judgment. A very tiny step I take. How will knowing that I trust my eye for color take me to knowing how I want to live my life? The chasm stretches beneath me.”
It would be easy to dismiss An Unknown Woman as the epitome of navel-gazing. A week into her stay, she writes:
Wanting. What have I wanted? No. What have I wanted? Not right yet. What have I wanted?
When I read this, I immediately thought of the Beyond the Fringe sketch parodying the recollections of Bertrand Russell and the absurdity of logic as a philosophical discipline. Russell recounts a visit to his fellow philosopher, G. E. Moore:
… there was Moore seated by the fire with a basket upon his knees.
“Moore,” I said, “do you have any apples in that basket?”
“No,” he replied, and smiled seraphically, as was his wont.
I decided to try a different logical tack. “Moore,” I said, “do you then have some apples in that basket?”
“No,” he replied, leaving me in a logical cleft stick from which I had but one way out.
“Moore,” I said, “do you then have apples in that basket?”
“Yes,” he replied. And from that day forth, we remained the very closest of friends.
All jesting aside, though, there is a great difference between playing with semantics about a basket of apples and digging into the root of your own identity. Koller calls the thinking she is doing “a kind of fighting”: “I’m defending, and laying siege, all at once.” “I’m even the prize,” she jokes, “But I’m also the only one who’d want it.”
Inevitably (perhaps), excavation of one’s identity reaches the strata of one’s family and childhood. In Koller’s case, it leads to the realization that what she has been pursuing for much of her life is the approval of a mother who gave her little attention and even less love growing up: “She’s been an obstacle to be gotten around in everything I do, everything I’ve ever done.”
From this discovery, she begins to assemble a sense of self owing to no one else’s choices but her own. She starts a list of moments in recent memory that have given her as much of a “sense of fullness” as sitting with Logos’ head in her lap, scratching behind his ears, and eliciting a low moan of satisfaction. In four hours, she comes up with thirty moments. And from this list, she develops an understanding of what she truly seeks from life: “What I’ll want to do will have to have this same quality of … what? Fitting me.”
And so she sets out for her new life. After three months, she is not broke, thanks to a bit of work she landed analyzing a technical report for some research firm in Connecticut, but close to it. She has no firm job prospect and will have to camp out once again in some friend’s house. “And yet I know some few things,” she concludes. “I love Logos. I must have him with me.” And “This ocean matters to me.” With these things and “the idea that other things may join with these,” she heads back to the mainland. “They are all the self I have. But they are mine.”
It would be pleasant to think that this new foundation enabled Koller to launch herself into great personal and professional success, but the truth is that it more likely condemned her to a life on the margins of society. She turned the journal she had kept on the island into a book, but it was rejected by thirty different publishers over the course of thirteen years, most often for being “too personal,” until it found a receptive editor at Holt, Rinehart and Winston. The book became something of a grass-roots best-seller, racking up sales of over 500,000 copies, mostly in its Bantam paperback edition, over the next five years.
In 1991, Koller followed up with The Stations of Solitude (1990), which reviewed her experience on Nantucket in light of her life and thoughts since leaving the island. She had a brief stint teaching at the University of California Santa Barbara, but no long-term teaching jobs. As Diane M. Quilty Litchfield put it in her Masters thesis on Koller’s work, “One Woman’s Construction of Self and Meaning: A qualitative study of the life of Alice Koller” (link), “Indeed, her employment was so sporadic that she often lived through the generosity of her friends or on welfare.” Or, as Koller herself wrote, “During … twenty-five years, I have moved sixteen times … I forage for my living where the food supply is.”
And yet, Koller resolutely embraces and champions her choice to pursue a life driven more by introspection than material comforts: “I essay to write my thinking. I am a philosopher studying my own mind. And when I look outward at the natural world, I essay to write my seeing and hearing and touching.”
In 2008, at the age of 83, Alice Koller bought her own domain name and set up her own website, alicekoller.com, on which she solicits “patrons” for a work in progress titled “Meditation on Being a Philosopher.” It appears that she’s been renewing her domain name registration annually since then. It’s up for renewal again in a few weeks, so I’ll have to check if she’s still keeping it going … a few months short of her 90th birthday.
Whether “Meditations” gets finished or not, Alice Koller has been our closest counterpart to Henry David Thoreau — indeed, has devoted more years to the principle that only an examined life truly matters than Thoreau drew breath. And for that, in my view, she deserves to be celebrated as an American original.
An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery, by Alice Koller
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981
The next two books I’m featuring here — Jessamyn West’s Hide and Seek and Alice Koller’s An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery — are set a continent apart but share a strong common bond with that American classic, Thoreau’s Walden. In all three, the writer sets aside time and chooses a location with the conscious intent to do nothing else but be alone and think — but in each, where she starts and where she finishes are markedly different.
In Hide and Seek West, a novelist, poet and short-story writer with a number of best-selling and highly acclaimed books — the best known being The Friendly Persuasion (1945), which was made into a successful film starring Gary Cooper in 1956 — picked a bluff high above the Colorado River and a two-room trailer as her spot, bidding farewell to her husband Max in the opening scene and retiring to the trailer to spend three months alone. “Alone, alone!” she exults. “For those who relish it, a word sweeter than muscatel to a wino.”
“Solitude has always excited me,” West writes, and her three months out in the Arizona desert gave her plenty of time to reflect. Ironically, for someone seeking time alone, she managed to fill many of her thoughts with memories of other people. Her family, in particular. Her parents moved with their three children from Indiana to Whittier, California, to join a group of Quakers settled there when Jessamyn was six. (Her mother was a Milhous, so West was related to Richard Nixon. His father, Frank, was one of her Sunday school teachers, but West has little good to say for her cousin’s politics.)
Though her father held down a steady job with a railroad and made a success of the stake he took in a small farm outside Yorba Linda, West’s parents were fairly non-conformist for their time. Her father would burst into hymns, singing out at full volume while doing chores, and her mother placed little value on things like curtains and cleaning up around the house. They had a laissez-faire attitude towards certain conventions: “As children we were permitted to do pretty much as we liked in the matter of keeping the dirt down.” They loved camping and made a bold cross-country trip back to visit family in Indiana in their Paige automobile in 1920, when such travel usually involved paying a farmer or two to get hauled out of some mudhole.
Yet as much as she loved her family, West always knew that, deep down, she was a solitary. At the age of four, she commanded a great big washtub as her private domain, and when her father bought a piano, she turned the crate it came in into a sanctuary: “At that age I did not know that I got into the box or the tub or later the room or the trailer in search of box bliss.”
In a family, in society, being a solitary has something of a stigma, particular if you’re female: “When a woman asks to be alone, not alone like Garbo, who asked only for a little privacy out of sight of her fans, but alone, alone, truly alone, separated from mother and father, husband and children, a woman feels wicked, unloving, defying God and man alike.” So, when she was 18, enjoying her first experience of work and living on her own, she had to feign illness to get out of going along on another family camping trip.
Coming to understand her own identity was the great revelation of West’s girlhood. Walking home from the Yorba Linda library one autumn evening, she said out loud to herself, “You are M. J. West”:
This is how I thought of myself in those days, for my name is Mary Jessamyn, and I was in love with what was spare and cut to the bone. It was as if I had told myself a great piece of news. When I said those words, then I noticed the heavy clotting of the Milky Way, and the brow of the hill, a dark curve against the starlit sky. M. J. West noticed them. Who had been noticing them before, because I hadn’t lived starless until the age of thirteen or fourteen, I don’t know; but on that night I knew who was doing the seeing: M. J. West.
She recognizes that this identity came at a cost, the cost of some of the connections that bound her to other people in her life. In a moving passage of reflection, she writes,
I have sometimes thought that I would like not to be young but to see myself, my parents, brothers, and sister when we were all young together. I have thought that I would; but given the chance, I’m not sure I would take it. The sight might drive me crazy with sorrow or self-pity. What would it be like to see that girl (knowing, as I would, how soon some of us would vanish from sight) choosing time after time to be with Mary J. Holmes’ English Orphans or Tarzan or David Copperfield rather than with them? What if I saw myself bullying my little sister? Sowing the seeds that made her say before she died, “I have resented you all my life.” What if I recognized the reason it was impossible for me to say even once in my life to my father, “Papa, I love you.”
I’ve focused on West’s memories of her family, but there is much, much more to Hide and Seek: celebrations of the Western landscape; appreciations and clear-eyed criticisms of her model, Thoreau; memories of the teachers who influenced her, a lovely and funny recollection of a trip to the Indiana settings of The Friendly Persuasion in 1944; and descriptions of the lost and stray characters she meets while seeking solitude out in the desert. West achieves a fine balance of poetry and plain speaking that makes her a most enjoyable narrator: “The grass never looks greener to me on the other side of the fence. It often is, of course. The name for the person with this kind of eyesight is ‘stick-in-the-mud.'”
I have to thank Tillie Olsen, who recommended in one of her reading lists reprinted in later editions of her classic meditation on the woman writer, Silences.
Hide and Seek: A Continuing Journey, by Jessamyn West
New York City: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973
Though one of the most acclaimed of contemporary American novelists when she was writing in the 1930s, Josephine Herbst published just two books after 1941, and her last book, New Green World, a biography of early American naturalist John Bartram, in 1954, fifteen years before she died at the age of 76.
By the time she had turned 60, she was already struggling to survive. Her marriage to novelist John Herrmann ended in 1940 after he discovered that Herbst was in love with another woman. Her work during World War Two for the Office of the Coordinator of Information on a precursor to the Voice of America came to an end when the couple’s involvement with the Communist Party in the 1930s was investigated. (Herrmann was later shown to be not just a public Communist but a covert Soviet agent, but Herbst’s politics were never anything but open and stubbornly self-determined.) What little money she had went for essentials and she often relied on the kindness of friends to get by. And she turned to the bottle for relief more than did her good.
When Saul Bellow and his friends Jack Ludwig and Keith Botsford decided to launch their own literary magazine, The Noble Savage, Bellow reached out to Herbst and offered her some money for a piece recalling her experiences in Madrid and around the Republican front lines during the Spanish Civil War. The resulting essay, “The Starched Blue Sky of Spain,” was long — forty pages — and resolutely unromantic about a conflict that had long been romanticized, thanks to the work of Hemingway and others. Hemingway himself was shown in all his glory and selfishness: “he wanted to be the war writer of his age, and he knew it and went toward it,” but also took advantages of the services a master go-fer, Sid Franklin, who managed to keep his suite at the Hotel Florida stocked with eggs, butter, champagne, and even partridge. (For more on Hemingway’s residence at the hotel, see Amanda Vaill’s recent book, Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War.)
A second essay, “A Year of Disgrace,” appeared in The Noble Savage issue 2, and recalled how she met and fell in love with Herrmann in Paris in 1924, moved back to the U.S., where they lived for a while in an old farmhouse in Connecticut, then moved to Greenwich Village. In its own way, it was a skeptical look back at a time that had itself become romanticized (by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others). She and Herrmann welcomed many friends to the sparse hospitality of their farmhouse, but Herbst was less than thrilled about the many nights the men spent tipping back jugs of applejack in the barn into the wee hours. At the same time, she still felt a rush of emotion when thinking of the lively talks and the celebrations of art that she was able to share with fellow writers and neighbors such as John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, Allen Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon, poet Genevieve Taggard, and Catholic activist Dorothy Day:
But it was a mark of the time and the place that a first encounter might last all night, overflowing from the speakeasy to the street, from the street to someone’s room, to pitch you finally into a dawn exhilarated, oddly at peace, for wasn’t it of engagements like this, long talks and walks, that you had dreamed in the midwest town before the war when the sky had pressed above your head like a burnished brass bowl and the long secretive dark express trains zipped into the horizon? You had dreamed of it as surely as you had dreamed of love.
Herbst went another eight years before publishing another article. In 1968, “Yesterday’s Road,” a melancholy memoir of her investigation as a Communist sympathizer — and of her disillusionment with the Party based on her experiences in Spain and as a guest of the Soviet government at a writers’ congress in Moscow in 1930, appeared in the third issue of Theodore Solotaroff’s remarkable literary magazine in popular paperback form, the New American Review. Less than a year later, she was dead of lung cancer.
Over twenty years later, these three pieces, along with an unpublished essay on her memories of growing up in Iowa and of an unforgettable family expedition to the Oregon coast in 1901, “The Magicians and Their Apprentices,” was collected as The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs by HarperCollins, with an introduction by the novelist Diane Johnson. In Johnson’s words, “it was only in her sixties that in turning to this life as a subject, she found her real tone”:
Where most of us revise the past as we move forward through the present, Josephine Herbst retains something like total recall for the visual details of what her circle wore and ate and did….
… in her last essays, things had begun to come into perspective, and hers was a remarkable perspective, honed in remarkable times.
And, indeed, in commenting elsewhere on the then-contemporary fiction of the 1950s, Herbst would write, “What seems to be missing is a sense of the world. The world around us.”
Of the four essays, the first in order and chronology, “The Magicians and Their Apprentices,” is, in my opinion, by far the best of a very, very good lot — really, something of a masterpiece. I have a habit of dog-earing pages with passages I want to remember or quote, and there are so many in this piece that I could, without a little self-control, easy find myself reprinting nearly the entire piece. It has so many different facets: the simple pleasures of life in Sioux City, Iowa at the turn of the century and the disparate feelings of isolation and small-mindedness; the contrast between her father, the failed businessman, and her uncle, a highly successful pharmacist, businessman and Rotarian — and, at the same time, her uncle’s own sense of being haunted by the ghost of the father who died in the Civil War before his child was born; the excitement of discovering the world of books and writing and the mystifying experience of developing sexuality (“My body was speaking a language I was too ignorant to interpret”). As a work of lyrical yet honest autobiography, I think it ranks with one of my favorite books, James McConkey’s stunningly beautiful Court of Memory.
The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs is, sadly, itself long out of print since it was reissued by the Northeastern University Press in 1999. Herbst’s only work currently in print, according to Amazon, is Pity Is Not Enough (1933), the first of three novels (the others are The Executioner Waits (1934) and Rope of Gold (1939)) about the rise and decline of an Iowa family, the Trexlers. And you can find her very rare novella based on the life of Nathanael West, “Hunter of Doves,” in e-book formats in this recent piece on this site. I also recommend reading Hilton Kramer’s fine memoir, “Who was Josephin Herbst?” from the New Criterion (Link).
The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs, by Josephine Herbst
New York City: HarperCollins, 1991
I learned of Jane Mayhall’s first and only novel, Cousin to Human (1960) from its inclusion in Tillie Olsen’s lists of recommended titles by women writers included in the back of her book, Silences. Olsen provided no description of it and no explanation for its mention.
Cousin to Human seems to have vanished from notice after receiving a few reviews. While the reviewer for Kirkus was not enthusiastic (“This is a baffling sort of book, which seems to head out for the Catcher in the Rye market–femininely slanted, but fails to pull the threads together into an integrated whole”), those for The New York Times and Saturday Review were favorable. There was no paperback release, however, and the book has never been reprinted or reissued.
Perhaps one reason was its similarities with another book that dominated best-seller lists and critical awards around the same time–Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Set in roughly the same time, both books had young girls as their protagonists and related their narratives as perceived by them.
Unlike Scout Finch, however, 15 year-old Lacy Cole is not at the center of the most dramatic moments in Cousin to Human. When her best friend dies in a drunk driving accident, she learns of it the next day through a neighbor, and though Lacy spends hours at the bedside of her mother as she suffers the terminal stages of stomach cancer, we learn of her mother’s death after the fact, when Lacy’s attention is taken up by other things–her sister-in-law’s efforts to take over the family house and her own infatuation with her music teacher.
Mayhall’s approach and style is far more indirect and poetic–she was, after all, primarily a poet–than Harper Lee’s, and her subject more mundane. Set in Louisville, Kentucky, in the mid-1930s, it portrays a year in the life of Lacy Cole and her family. Her father, Norman, works in a post office and her mother, Cleanth, is a hard-working housewife who loves her children but is neither sanctimonious nor forgiving in her judgments. The Coles make enough to keep a house and feel some security but not enough to afford the brand-new Chevrolet Norman buys at Christmas out of a mix of envy, frustration and grand-standing.
Reviewing the novel for The New York Times, Florence Crowther wrote that, “Miss Mayhall is a wise author–she has Lacy keep her mouth shut and yet be understood.” Lacy is neither a character with a capital “C” nor a cipher, but a completely believable young woman trying to make sense of the many messages being thrown at her from her family, neighborhood, school, movies, radio, the various strata of Louisville society she encounters, and her own instincts. I’d revise Crowther’s line to say that Mayhall “has Lacy keep her mouth shut and yet tries to understand.”
This book, in fact, is most marked by the effort its author and protagonist make to understand. Mayhall takes the following couplet by William Blake as her epigraph: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way/Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Cousin to Human is the work of an author remarkably alert to the sights and smells and, particularly, sounds of the world around her. Mayhall herself grew up in Louisville and would have been roughly Lacy’s age, so many of the observations probably come from direct memory even if the story itself is not autobiographical.
Take the following passage, which occurs early in the book as Lacy rides with her mother and Aunt Dinna to visit relatives in a town outside Louisville:
Aunt Dinna flopped back in her seat, ready for more talking.
“You remember, Clee. How Aunt Milly used to play?”
“Can’t never forget it.”
Lacy knew the beginning of this conversation. Due to the mention of music, it was the occasion to speak of Great-aunt Milly who played the violin, and lost her heart to a rascal named Jeff at the Clayville Feed Store. Sometimes it was Cleanth who told Dinna the story. And then the situation reversed and Aunt Dinna had to remind Cleanth.It had always gone one, ever since Lacy could remember the way they talked. So she could listen or not, and still know where the ending came.
She put her head against the seat, smelling the sun-warmed leather. The click-clack of the wheels and the sound of Dinna’s voice reached her dreamily. Lacy knew all of her ancient relatives by heart, as if she had been born remembering the way they lived and died.
This reminds me so much of endless Sunday afternoons spent visiting relatives and listening to the adults swap family stories, and Mayhall has a wonderful ear for dialogue and eye for family dynamics. The scene in which Cleanth, Dinna, and their cousin Sarah debate what to do with their grandfather, an enfeebled old drunk who’d been mostly harmless and completely useless for as long as they could remember, manages to weave economic, practical, emotional, ethical, and psychological threads into a conversation that takes little more than a couple of pages, and won my attention for whatever was to follow.
Mayhall certainly had a poet’s sensibility–Lacy frequently notes the color of the sky at sunset–but her approach was solidly novelistic. While the dramas are only those of small, working-class family life, her story moves forward with consistent momentum even as she takes time to develop nuanced characterizations and note telling observations. And these accumulate, one by one, into Lacy’s own awareness of herself and her world. When Lacy meets a local professor, a well-regarded (particularly by himself) expert on Appalachian folklore, she senses a resemblance to someone she had previously encountered:
Dr. Sprichett pressed her hand, like they knew some kind of secret. It was as if it was strictly between them. Lacy shrank from this contact again. Who was it like? The fingers were possessive, warm-clinging. A tiny cunning shot through her mind.
It was quickly coming on, the sense of what she felt. And it was like–she nearly knew. It was like that time, that night–the picture was coming back. At the baking-company auditorium. It reached her in a flash, the very same sensation. It was like the man who had taken her ticket and tried to grab her hand. Valeda going on ahead–and it was like when the man tried to grab her. Nearly, almost the same. She felt a sharp elation. She was relieved, extravagant, and certain. That was what Dr. Sprichett was, no matter what he said. He was just like the other man. And thinking he knew her all the time.
I am almost in awe of this passage. It’s such a remarkable blend of specific, tangible observation, thought-in-process, and awareness that comes upon us in just such instants.
Mayhall drew her title from the following passage, which appears late in the book: “Even dogs bark in their sleep and cats hiss. By this we know they are cousin to human.” And throughout the book, she gives us glimpses into her character’s dreams and demons. With Terence, she shares the philosophy that “humani nihil a me alienum puto” (“Nothing that is human is alien to me”).
At the same time, Cousin to Human is full of larger set-piece scenes that are rich in color, action, and context, such as a talent show in which Lacy and Valeda compete as “The Twinkle Twins,” the rhapsody of American consumerism that sweeps up Norman when he buys the Chevrolet, or indeed the full story of Great-Aunt Milly and the rascal Jeff.
I took Cousin to Human along with me on my most recent flight back to the U.S.. I usually choose books that demand a little extra effort and attention on these trips so I can take advantage of a solid 7-9 hours with few distractions. In this case, it only took about a dozen pages to fall in love with Jane Mayhall’s vision and voice, and I can easily say that this was my most satisfying read this year so far. I plan to feature at least a couple of longer passages in the Excerpts section over the next few weeks.
Jane Mayhall was born in Louisville in 1918, and studied music at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. She met Leslie George Katz, a fellow student, and they moved together to Greenwich Village and married in the early 1940s. Katz founded and ran the Eakins Press, a small press specializing in poetry, graphics and short stories and whose publications were “notable for their meticulous, elegant design,” according to The New York Times. Eakins published two collections of poems by Mayhall. Following Katz’s death, Mayhall struggled with grief and wrote a special collection devoted to considerations of death and loss that was published in 2006 as Sleeping Late on Judgment Day. She died in 2009 at the age of ninety-one.
Cousin to Human, by Jane Mayhall
New York: Harcout, Brace and Company, 1960
“For understanding what it was like to live to the full the turbulent American literary life of the 1920’s and 30’s as it moved from bohemianism to radicalism, there could be no more revealing figure than Josephine Herbst,” wrote Robert Gorham Davis in his review of Elinor Langer’s 1984 biography of Herbst, Josephine Herbst: The Story She Could Never Tell. “She knew everyone and was in all the right places at the right historic moments – Greenwich Village, the Left Bank, Russia, Germany, Cuba and Spain.”
I won’t attempt to synopsize Herbst’s life and career here. Hilton Kramer did a far better job of that thirty years ago in his New Criterion article, “Who was Josephine Herbst?,” available online and well worth the read (link). What matters for this piece are two times in her life: the first, beginning in 1928, when she and her husband, the novelist John Herrmann, rented a small, rustic house in the Bucks County countryside near Erwinna, Pennsylvania; and the second, twenty-some years later, when she was living there alone, shunned by most of the literary establishment for her politics and struggling to write anything more than the marvelous, fulsome letters for which she was always held in awe by her correspondents and a few snippets of memoirs of her life in the 1920s and 1930s.
While living in Erwinna, Herbst and Herrmann made the acquaintance of Nathanael West, who was still working as the night manager of the Hotel Kenmore Hall in Manhattan and revising The Dream Life of Balso Snell, his absurdist novel set in the entrails of the Trojan Horse. They invited West out to Bucks County, and he immediately fell in love with the area. Throughout his life, West pretended to the style and manners of the rich and landed American gentry, and he loved to hike around the Pennsylvania woods with a shotgun slung in one arm, very much the gentleman hunter.
West quit the hotel job, having decided to make his name as a writer, and worked on finishing his second novel, the black comedy Miss Lonelyhearts. He bought a farm near Herbst and Herrmann and spent many hours with them. Herrmann and West often went out to hunt pheasant, quail, and West’s favorite, doves, although both were terrible shots. However, envious of the money that his friend and brother-in-law, S. J. Perelman (Perelman had married West’s sister Laura), was making writing for the Marx Brothers and others, he accepted a contract to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. While West’s experience in Hollywood wasn’t a financial success, it did contribute to his greatest artistic success, the novel The Day of the Locust. Only a few months after marrying the vivacious Eileen McKenney, the title character in her sister Ruth McKenney’s smash comedy play, “My Sister Eileen,” West and McKenney were killed in a car crash in California.
West’s novels, which had never been best-sellers, quickly fell out of print, but in the aftermath of World War Two, a new generation of critics, such Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin, began to discover and appreciate the bleak and absurdist tone of his work. A number of academics and critics became interested in his life, and their researches led a number of them to Josephine Herbst’s doorstep.
She soon grew aggravated by their inclination to view West’s life and work through a postwar prism that exaggerated his foresight and ignored the good and bad points of his character. And so, sometime in 1953, she set aside the book she had been working on–a dual biography of the early American naturalists John and William Bartram (a book published in 1954 as New Green World), and wrote “Hunter of Doves,” a short novel based on her memories of West.
Although she gave her characters fictional names, “Hunter of Doves” deviates from fact in unimportant ways. Herbst’s own character, Mrs. Heath, is a painter rather than a writer. Timothy Comfort, the would-be biographer, is a stand-in for a handful of real-life researchers. And, as Elinor Langer revealed in her biography, the faint suggestion of a triangle involving West, Herbst, and Herrmann was actually taken from the passion Herbst had developed for the artist, Marion Greenwood.
What was true, however, was Herbst’s desire to have West seen truthfully. “Nothing is reliable except the work,” Mrs. Heath tells Comfort. “People either want to read or they don’t. You can find Noel Bartram, perhaps more than you like, right there, in his novels, if you take the trouble. Or have the sense. The intuitive sense.” Herbst was also true in depicting how the night manager job at the Hotel Kenmore Hall–a job that came his way through his family’s connections in real estate and took at his mother’s insistence–was both his prison and his inspiration:
Whether the mother intended the hotel as her son’s sole future, Mrs. Heath could not say, but it represented security, that shackling iron which simply meant one is freed from necessity to become enslaved….
But the truth was that the hotel and all its occupants surrounded him with the felt mat of a persistent presence. If he were alone in his privacy, the phone might ring, calling him below. One had no idea, he had pleaded, pleading for himself, the nature of the interruptions. He was the guardian of the hotel, its keeper, its jailor. A hotel like this was jam-packed with broken hearts, broken pocketbooks, too, and as the hotel was a genteel one, with a gilding upon it, one could imagine the pride of the victims who, finding themselves slowly drained of their substance, tried to keep up a front, sallied past the door, hummed, pretended light-hearted gaiety, delay of checks from rich uncles, alimony, or the imaginary sale of imaginary real estate that would put them on easy street.
“Hunter of Doves” was published in 1954 in Botteghe Oscure, an acclaimed international literary magazine published in Rome by Marguerite Caetani. It was quickly recognized as Herbst’s finest work since the 1930s, and did lead to a more nuanced view of West.
It did not, however, lead to either a rediscovery of Herbst’s work or a break-through of her own artistic roadblocks. Over the next fifteen years, she only managed to produce three autobiographical pieces–“The Starched Blue Sky of Spain” (The Noble Savage, Number 1, 1960); “A Year of Disgrace” (The Noble Savage, Number 3, 1961); and “Yesterday’s Road” (New American Review, Number 3, 1968). These, along with a fourth piece, “The Magicians and Their Apprentices,” about her girlhood in Sioux City, Iowa, were published posthumously in The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, and Other Memoirs
Given the fact that “Hunter of Doves” has never been reprinted and can be found only in the rare academic libraries holding back issues of Botteghe Oscure, I am taking here a unilateral and perhaps improper step of making the text freely available online.
First, let’s start with the facts, since these are not this book’s strong suit.
Sometime in 1929, Arthur Waley, who was working as Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum and who had began to be known as a translator and popularizer of Asian literature with his publication of A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, met Alison Grant, a young woman recently emigrated to London from New Zealand. She fell headlong in love with him and he was at least strongly attracted to her. Soon after, he took her back to his flat and they spent the night lying together, fully clothed, in his bed. As he led her to the street the next day, he tells her, “You must never come here again.” Why? Because “There is a lady in Fez….”
The lady in Fez was Beryl de Zoete, a dancer, writer, and researcher into exotic dance forms, with whom Waley had begun living in 1918. Although Beryl was “in Fez”–with three male admirers in tow–Waley implied that her return was imminent and that their ambiguous relationship had to take precedence over whatever he might like to start up with Alison. And so they parted, only to catch glimpses and exchange a few words while passing in and out of the British Museum. Alison married, bore a son, and carried on–the whole time still carrying a torch for Arthur.
Then, sometime in 1943, they met again in the midst of the Blitz and decided to resume the affair. Alison’s husband walked in on the pair–again lying together fully-clothed–and left her. Arthur, however, stayed firmly embedded with Beryl. And even more firmly embedded to the life of the solitary scholar. A man who spent his life studying and translating the literature of Asia, he never actually traveled more than a few hundred miles from London and was never able to converse in Chinese or Japanese. By all accounts other than Alison’s, he was at his happiest alone with his books and papers.
Nearly twenty years passed. Ten years older than Arthur, Beryl began to suffer the effects of Huntington’s chorea and was eventually confined to a bed in their Bloomsbury flat, where she died in 1962 at the age of 82. Alison swooped in and began to arrange for a life together with Arthur. Arthur appeared somewhat less enthusiastic at the prospect–in fact, he went and rented a studio flat–but after injured in an automobile accident while Alison was driving and, in its aftermath, diagnosed with cancer of the spine, he agreed to spend his few remaining months with her. Weeks before his death, they are wed at the local registry office. Arthur died in 1966 at the age of 76; Alison lived on to the next millennium, dying at the age of 100 in 2001.
Now, to the book.
In some ways, I’m tempted to call this the greatest of all English romances.
I say that because A Half of Two Lives features some of the most passionate love scenes, some of the most operatically intense raptures, some of the most uncontrolled and unashamed outbursts of desire to be found in any pages of English prose. Although she had to wait until the age of 82 to publish her love story, Alison Grant Robinson Waley managed to channel all the energy and focus of her inner teenager into its telling.
And I say that because, at the same time, this is a very English romance. Whether Arthur and Alison or Arthur and Beryl ever did actually have sex remains in doubt. Some writers suggest that Arthur was actually a tightly closeted homosexual, and among the weirder passages in this book are recollections of his distaste and dismissal of gays (“No party without buggers,” he sighed when reviewing a list of guests prepared by Alison). Although Arthur assures Alison at the very onset, “I love you. Every sort of way. Even physically,” it becomes clear that “even physically” is defined as holding hands, snuggling, and, in very special moments, kissing. By the time Arthur and Alison are living together, he is paralyzed from the chest down. There was a rumor, back in 2008, that the Hungarian director Istvan Szabo was planning to make a film based A Half of Two Lives. Had he stayed faithful (no pun intended) to the book, the film would been lucky to earn a “PG” rating.
What no one–other than Alison Waley–questions, though, is that this is not a work of nonfiction. Reviewing it for the New York Times, Humphrey Carpenter wrote, “There are many kinds of biography, and this is none of them.” He preferred to call it “a kind of mad, splendid poem.” Marina Warner, in The Sunday Times politely demurred that “it does not resemble a conventional biography,” while Hermione Lee was–by TLS standards–blunt in calling it “a fervent, fragmentary, and extremely odd narrative.” Even Hilary Spurling, in her well-modulated introduction to the book, advised that, “Some of the stranger episodes … do not tally with other people’s recollections any more than the anguished and tormented Arthur of this book matches previously published reminiscences of the great sinologist.”
Writing in the London Review of Books, Penelope Fitzgerald was characteristically insightful and deft: “Alison Waley, although she is a poet, has been too close to what she calls ‘every tear, every pain, every certainty’ to record them with precision. Sincerity should be the same thing as clarify, but isn’t.” And even between her own lines, Alison Waley occasionally betrays herself. At one gathering of the Bloomsbury elite, Arthur refused to introduce her, remarking, “One doesn’t introduce a child.” A further clue to Waley’s reservations can be found in this note from a 2011 auction of a collection of his letters and postcards to Beryl and Alison: “Waley’s correspondence with his future wife, Alison Grant Robinson, chiefly comprises the briefest notes, suggesting an elusive and apologetic relationship: ‘I shall be delighted to see you, on condition you don’t say nasty things about Beryl’; ‘I hate to cause you pain & disappointment’; ‘Will you obey me or not?'”
In a 1986 article in the Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries, Marian Ury quotes Edith Sitwell, writing to William Plomer after a visit from Alison: “[She] thinks one has to be screwed up to the pitch at which one writes, the whole time–otherwise one isn’t a writer.” And that, finally, defines what makes A Half of Two Lives simultaneously horrifying and wonderful. “Time must have a stop,” Alison quotes at several points in this book, but it’s obvious she never felt that applied to her passions, which she could still let blast full-bore in her ninth decade.
Even at a distance of over twenty years, for example, she cannot mute the tone of romantic madness in her last encounter with Beryl:
Beryl–propped with a dozen pillow–regards me with wavering glance.
I take her wildly jerking hands in mine and they are suddenly still. Looking only into her eyes, now fixed on mine and strangely glowing, I say: “Hullo, Beryl …” I lean forward and kiss her brow–sweat-soaked, dark and strange under its flying wisps of white. I sit back on my heels and lay my bare arms along her own–no more than withered sticks: but our eyes hold. And in that long moment we are known to one another so that nothing stands between. In some no-place, in some mid-heaven, a truce is called: all is as it might have been. I feel only a surge of love and joy that from that grotesque mask the eyes–oh, but unbelievably–are smiling into mine.
The next time an English composer is in need of a good libretto, he should take a careful look at A Half of Two Lives. If the book’s not the basis for the Great English Opera, there’s no question that Alison Waley is certainly a perfect candidate for the Great English Operatic Heroine with her motto, “Keep Hysterically Passionate and Carry On.”
A Half of Two Lives, by Alison Waley
London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1982
New York: McGraw Hill, 1983
This is one of the most frustrating books I’ve read in a long time.
Marya Mannes was a woman who got around with a capital “A.” Her parents, David Mannes and Clara Damrosch Mannes, were among the most popular and respected classical musicians of the early 20th century, and through their New York apartment flowed a constant stream of talents such as Pablo Casals, Alfred Cortot, and Arthur Schnabel, as well as Clara’s brothers Frank and Walter. Her brother Leopold was a celebrated concert pianist, married one of George Gershwin’s sisters, and, along with fellow musician, Leopold Godowsky, Jr., invented the process behind Kodachrome color film.
When she was 19, she travelled alone to England, where she studied with sculptor Frank Dobson and socialized with various members of the Bloomsbury set before heading off to Paris and the Riviera, where she partied with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Murphys. Returning to the U. S., she wrote a play that was produced (unsuccessfully) on Broadway, married Jo Mielziner (“the most successful set designer of the Golden era of Broadway,” according to Wikipedia), and wrote and modelled for Vogue. She left Mielziner to live with Francisco Duran-Reynals, a pioneering researcher into cancer virology, then travelled back to Europe, where she married the wealthy American artist, Richard Blow. She and Blow enjoyed life in their palatial villa in the hills outside Florence until they fled to the U. S. just a few days before the Germans invaded Poland in 1939.
Her gift for languages and wide network of contacts came to the attention of the Office of War Information and, later, the OSS, which sent her to Portugal and Spain–where she also managed to write a series of “Letters” for The New Yorker. Then it was back again to the U. S., where she brought along Paul Cavaillez–a French aviator later convicted as a Nazi spy–to one of the first public showings of film from the concentration camps at Belsen and Buchenwald. Then back to Europe, this time working for Vogue, and on to Egypt and Palestine, where she watched the arrival of one of the first ships carrying Holocaust survivors to their new homeland. After that, she published as best-selling novel, Message from a Stranger and married husband #3, former R. A. F. pilot and British aviation executive Christopher Clarkson.
When she and Clarkson moved back to New York City after his assignment as air attache in Washington, D. C., Mannes started writing regularly for The Reporter and became one of the earliest critics of television–and then, one of the earliest critics to appear on television, in the early days of The Huntley-Brinkley Report. And, ironically, managed to get some early and strong pro-feminist pieces into the pages of such magazines as Vogue, Redbook, and McCalls. By the late 1960s, her face and name was so widely recognized that T. V. Guide could feature her in an advertisement as a foil to Ed Sullivan.
And in and amongst all this, she carried on a series of affairs, for which she offers no regrets or apologies:
I did not then–and do not now–understand the term “promiscuous”: used pejoratively, of course, and only of women. What was wong with giving and receiving warmth, pleasure, affection, and release even if these could no qualify as love? If it was not wrong for men (Oh yes, philanderer, rake, swordsman, what have you–all implicitly more flattering than diminishing) why was it wrong for women? One at a time, to be sure. For one night, or ten, or two years. But how could you know a man you liked without knowing his body?
Of course you accepted the consequences of these acts. You accepted uncertainty, disappointment, pain, loneliness, and insecurity. But you lived as full as you could, and often as deeply.
So why my frustration?
I think there’s a subtle clue in the passage above. Note that in the space of one paragraph, she shifts from first to second person. Now, it’s not uncommon for a memoirist to address her younger self as “you,” but in this case, the “you” seems less the younger Marya than an ambiguous other person that could be herself but might just as easily be the reader or women of her generation or … well, you can make your own guess. Although Mannes quotes from her own diaries, letters, articles and unpublished works throughout the book, there is always an odd sense of the impersonal in her tone.
Take, for example, how she relates her experience of early motherhood:
There–really there–a child. And I was a mother.
In love, yes, but not in nuture. A nurse was already waiting at home. There would always be nurses. What did I know about taking care of a child, free soul over thirty, always in other worlds? No more prepared to be a mother than his sire a father?
… But once maternal demands began to impinge, I began to retreat. Like most men who have successfully dodged for millennia the actual nuture of child and home (owed equally with their women) I wanted to pull free of the basic hourly, daily matters of care. I loved to hold my child but not diaper him.
While I give Marya Mannes full marks for her honesty, I can’t read the above without thinking it was written more as an editorial commentary than a felt memory. “His sire?” Who used “sire” outside of animal husbandry in the last hundred years? A few diaper changes might have provided something missing in much of Out Of My Time: sensations.
This book is full of thoughts and reflections but largely empty of the things that make one person’s memories real to another–the specific details of touch, taste, sight, smell and sound. When she does try to convey them, the result is unconvincing. Here, she describes going out to meet a ship bringing Jewish refugees into Haifa harbor: “Alongside the hull, the smell from the black portholes just above our heads was overpoweringly foul: the breath of a thousand latrines and a hundred hours of sweat.” Maybe it’s just me, but this clunky prose seems like a second-hand memory rather than something still vivid and felt twenty-some years later.
Too much of Out Of My Time is life in the abstract rather than the immediate. Although Mannes dedicates the book “To my son, with love and respect,” he goes unnamed and is mentioned, glancingly, less than five times after he’s born (e.g., “The adventurer in me would often continue to prevail, at a child’s expense, over the parent”). “A child”? His name was David Jeremy Blow, for the record. Neither do her three husbands get names. I had to rely on her New York Timeobituary for theirs.
And this is what makes Out Of My Time such a frustrating book. Marya lived a remarkable, diverse, creative, original, and significant life. Her autobiography ought to be fascinating, a page-turner, full of anecdotes and insights. Instead, too much of the time it reads like War and Peace–specifically, the Second Epilogue, where dancing Natasha and dithering Pierre are replaced by Tolstoy the would-be philospher of history (“What force moves nations?”). Had Tolstoy not preceded the Second Epilogue with a thousand pages of rich, vivid, intensely felt fiction, no one would read War and Peace today. Just as almost no one reads Out Of My Time now.
Out of My Time, Marya Mannes
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
The works of Helen Bevington–poet, memoirist, and long-time professor of English at Duke University–remain one of the most delightful discoveries of my years of exploring in the realm of neglected books. I started out 2013 with her trilogy of memoirs–Charley Smith’s Girl (1965); A Book and a Love Affair (1968); and The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm (1971)–and since then, have added most of her other books to my collection. So I thought a dip into her oeuvre would be a nice start to this year of reading the works of women writers.
Bevington, whose comic verse was often featured in The New Yorker and New York Times Book Review, began writing a memoir in the early 1960s. The book, which became Charley Smith’s Girl, was as much a portrait of her parents, Charley and Lizzie, whose divorce, when Helen was still a very young girl, was considered quite scandalous at the time. Not long before it was published, Bevington’s husband, Merle, also an English professor at Duke, died suddenly of a brain tumor at the age of 64.
To honor Merle’s memory, she wrote A Book and a Love Affair, which recounted their meeting while students at Columbia University in the 1920s and the early years of their marriage. She followed this with The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, which covered their move to North Carolina and the experience of raising their two sons, Phillip and David, both of whom became distinguished professors–Phillip of physics and David of English. This book concluded with Phillip’s recovery from a near-fatal car accident that left him a paraplegic.
Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960’s, published five years later, contains excerpts from the journal she had been keeping for many years. Most entries are less than a page long and undated aside from being collected by month and year. Often she reprints the poems she had written at the time, many of them inspired by her reading or the passing seasons.
Lost in the night, my love,
Are those who could never tell
The perishable world from the imperishable.
So they lived everafter, rich
In fairytales and in general–
Till along came the witch.
The inevitable, though always unexpected, appearance of evil and pain is a recurrent theme throughout this journal. In the first few years, she lost her mother and husband, both to diseases that were long-diagnosed but late, abrupt, and harsh in their effects. And throughout the decade, she saw violence and conflict erupting in the world: the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King; the start of the Vietnam War; civil rights protests and political and race riots; demonstrations and even tear gas on her own campus. For Bevington, the 1960s were her anni horribili.
Yet these pages are also filled with beauty, comedy, and love. She was as quick to take note of a new bird around her house or the quirks of her neighbors as the headlines on the TV news. She delighted in observing her young grandchildren coming to their individual perceptions of the world and ways of expressing themselves. She relished a good anecdote, like her hairdresser’s flipping and wrecking a brand new car just to avoid running over a grey squirrel, and the unique language of her house cleaner: “When things go wrong in Rosa’s life and her head is blouzed up with trouble (as when her car was stolen last Saturday night), she takes some jolt medicine.” “Rosa has a got-rights cat. It has got rights the same as everybody.”
Each semester, she approaches each new class and group of students with a mix of trepidation, dismay, and wonder. While she notes petulance and hair lengths increase over the years, she still manages to find a remarkable appetite for learning to love and understand poetry. Bevington was one of the most beloved and respected teachers at Duke, and her joy in this work belies her anxiety about being up to the task. As one of the few faculty members without a PhD, she felt a certain amount of inferiority to her peers, and one of the bright spots in the decade was her acceptance as a full professor in 1970.
Her love of poetry and literature lights up these pages as well. A voracious reader, she is constantly reflecting on what she’s reading, and the depth and richness of her memory of what she’s read is remarkable. Like Isabel Paterson, she seems to have read everything and remembered everything, especially snatches of poetry and conversations. I dog-eared a couple dozen pages just to remind myself to check out the books she mentions.
The central theme of the book, however, is her struggle with learning to live alone. She was in her late fifties when Merle died, and she would live over 35 years as a widow, almost a long as the two were married. In writing of her parents, she concluded that neither offered her a way of living that she could accept for herself: “My mother and my father–one was strong and brave and indomitable, and one withdrew in utter despair. Neither of them ever discovered how to be happy. There must be a third way. I am not sure, but I think there must be a third way.”
She struggled to come to an understanding of this third way throughout the rest of her life. Her last book, in fact, was titled, The Third and Only Way: Reflections on Staying Alive (1996). About a year after Merle’s death, she did come to realize something about how she would have to move forward:
As I drove to the University this morning, thinking about Richard Wilbur whose poetry we would read in class, saying over a line of his, “It is by words and the defeat of words–” I made a sudden resolution, at the stoplight of Broad and Club Boulevard, to unlearn my words.
I will stop using the word lonely. I will change it to independent or alone. Aloneness is not the same thing as loneliness. I will live an independent life, fraught with freedom. I will stop explaining my plight to myself, using charged words like fear, like grief. It is not only cowardly but Byronic. (Byron: “I learned to love despair”). By the defeat of words I grieve. It is myself I mourn for.
Sweet Adversity is easily one of the most ambitious American novels of the last fifty years.
And if you weren’t reading new American fiction back in the late 1970s, you’ve probably never heard of it.
The only edition of Sweet Adversity ever released came out as an Avon paperback in 1978. Avon editor Robert Wyatt and author Donald Newlove agreed that Newlove would edit his two separate novels, Leo & Theodore (1972) and The Drunks (1974), into a single volume for this paperback release, recognizing, as Newlove wrote in his “Author’s Note,” that “The story loses scope and focus when halved into two books.” Newlove went so far as to say that he considered the original texts “now forever CANCELLED.” And Wyatt deserves special credit for convincing Avon to go to the additional expense of having new type set for Sweet Adversity rather than simply photographing the hardback texts.
But, as, effectively, a paperback original in a time when that was publishing’s equivalent of a “direct-to-disc” movie, it meant that no major paper or magazine reviewed Sweet Adversity.
And so what is already a heart-breaking book itself became something of a tragedy as it quietly vanished from the bookshelves with scarcely a notice.
And one might just leave it at that. It’s not the only good book to get forgotten, as this site continues to demonstrate.
But this book, for me, is something of a special case. For in writing Leo & Theodore and The Drunks, and then revising them into Sweet Adversity, Newlove achieved not only a remarkable artistic feat, but also an act of great personal strength, part of his recovery from decades of alcohol abuse.
In a Riply bar he shows them a magic trick. He dips a lighted kitchen match into whiskey and lifts the blue flame out of the shot-glass unquenched. Marvel at the blue-dancing spirit on the glass!
Alcohol makes its appearance on the first page of Sweet Adversity and, from that point on, it is the dominant presence in the story. Dominant, that is, with the exception of Newlove’s protagonists, Leo and Theodore.
Leo and Theodore are Siamese twins, joined at the waist by a short band of flesh, blood, and nerve tissues.
Now, for many would-be readers, a 600-plus page novel about Siamese twins–particularly one coming out at a time when Tom Robbins, Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut were among the hottest names in new fiction–must have seemed like some kind of over-the-top fabulist work, full of exaggerated characters and absurd situations.
Instead, this is one of the most realistic books you’ll ever read. Almost too realistic, at points. “Nowhere has the green or red bile of hangover, piss, bleeding assholes, and d.t.’s been so carefully catalogued,” according to the Kirkus Review’s assessment of The Drunks.
Although Leo and Theodore are Siamese twins, almost no one in the book treats them as freaks–not Newlove and most certainly not their mother, Stella. Newlove notes, in a hundred different passages, subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which their connectedness affects how they live and perceive the world, but it is never his focus.
The narrative arc of Sweet Adversity very much follows that of the two original novels. In the first half, Leo and Theodore grow up in and around Cleveland during World War Two, discover girls and sex, learn to play instruments and fall in love with jazz, and witness the lovely and horrifying effects of drinking on people around them. And in the second half, they come hurtling down through all the ravages of alcoholism–the black-outs, vomit, unexplained bruises, lost jobs, seedy rooms, and shakes–until they hit bottom and begin to lift themselves back up with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The first part of the book is a giddy celebration of the fine and destructive aspects of mid-West, mid-century American life. The boys work as soda jerks, take midnight swims, learn to smoke, make out with girls in the back of cars, sneak into movie theaters, fantasize about fighting Nazis, and watch their mother get punched by their alcoholic step-father. The raw energy of the time bursts through in Newlove’s prose, as in this portrait of a busy night at the soda parlor:
Racing with the moon! the juekbox boomscratches. Fulmer’s splits with smoke after King James cracks tiny Lakewood on the Friday night gridiron. Car herds roar Third. Fevered twins set up orders, spirits pitchforked. White-eyed Helene and Joyce wait table in a blue burn of uniforms. Wayne yawns in the back kitchen, roasting peanuts, steps out into the squeeze for tables, cries in the jukeblare, “Swill, you swine!” and goes back to his roasting oil.
Newlove’s style draws heavily upon James Joyce’s word-fusing (“the snotgreen … scrotumtightening sea”), and there are times throughout the book when the frenzy of the prose becomes close to unbearable. When I call this one of the most ambitious American novels, I don’t mean to suggest that the author’s technique always kept pace with his ambition. The worst comes somewhere in the second helf, when Teddy loses a tooth in the second half, and Newlove subjects us to page after page of lisped dialogue (“There’s thill a double order of chop thuey in that roach.”). It might be realistic but it isn’t interesting reading.
For all the over-sexed, over-adrenalined dumb teenager things Newlove has Leo and Theodore do in the first half of the book, there is never anything else than endearing and touching about the boys. Which is why reading the second half is such a heart-breaking experience. As he describes in Those Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers, Newlove knew intimately the humiliations and illusions of a hard-core, long-term alcoholic, and the twins are not spared many of these. The New Yorker’s reviewer was not alone in considering this novel “probably the most clear-eyed and moving—and certainly one of the most honest—books ever written about alcoholics.”
Even with the editing Newlove did for Sweet Adversity, the book suffers from the intensity of the prose. Those Drinking Days, Newlove writes that, “The published volume was light-filled to bursting, enormously lively,” but adds, “and, for most readers unreadable without great attention to every syllable.” And perhaps this is one of the reasons why Sweet Adversity has been forgotten.
If so, it’s a lousy reason. An occasional word-glutted passage might deserve having a few points shaved off Newlove’s score, but given the unbelievable energy, passion and power of Sweet Adversity, there’s no good reason for this book to have been dismissed as a failure, and certainly not to have been so unfairly neglected. Donald Newlove and his twins are among the great fiery phoenixes in American literature.
Sweet Adversity: Embodying the author’s final revisions for Leo & Theodore and The Drunks, by Donald Newlove
New York: Avon Books, 1978
“Art is no place for snobs,” Leo Stein wrote in his foreword to Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose, a marvelous little guide to opening one’s eyes and ears. Written about a year before his death in 1947 from stomach cancer–the same disease that killed his sister, Gertrude, in 1946–Appreciation is a book for anyone who’s ever felt themselves incapable of understanding or appreciating great literature or art.
On the surface, Leo Stein had every right to hold his opinions about art above those of the crowd. Although overshadowed by his sister through much of his life–and after–he was the trailblazer in their discovery of the Post-Impressionists painters and the work of French writers such as Rimbaud and Paul Valery. He was one of the first Americans to buy paintings by Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso, and the house they shared at 27 rue de Fleurus became a center of the artistic community in Paris. Both Matisse and Picasso made portraits of Leo, who was respected for his sensitivity and perception as much or more for his influence on other collectors.
Few brothers and sisters could have been more different in temperament than Leo and Gertrude. In her foreword to Journey into the Self, a collection of Leo’s letters and diaries edited by Edmund Fuller and published in 1950, their friend Mabel Weeks wrote:
Gertrude successfully integrated her character around her limitations. Leo could not accept his limitations. Gertrude, whatever her neuroses, made herself a life with few frustrations; Leo had thousands of frustrations, and only the by most rigorous self-discipline got rid of some of them. Gertrude’s personality was magnetic; she had a laugh from the middle of her, and a sort of warmth and zest and enjoyment which gave her a tremendous appeal, particularly to young people. Leo was very withdrawn, and didn’t win people. She insisted that everyone meet her on her own terms. Leo, in a way, couldn’t meet anyone except on his own terms. But he wasn’t a bully. Gertrude bullied everyone.
Through much of his life, Leo struggled against what Weeks calls “his tendency to burrow within,” and while this severely limited his output compared his prolific sister’s (his only other book was a collection of essays titled, The A-B-C of Aesthetics (1927)), it also means that what one finds in Appreciation is the result of long consideration.
Leo Stein described Appreciation, with characteristic modesty, as “a little debauch in the realm of ideas,” but this does the book a great injustice. There is nothing of the abstract or esoteric here. Instead, this is a most democratic view of great art.
“It is, I believe, a good thing to recognize the continuity of the usual and the unusual, and if we are to be reverent it is better to be widely and not narrowly reverent.” The muscles in Stein’s arm, for example, “are not essentially different from those of Joe Louis.” The only difference is that “His have more punch in them.”
Bridging the gulf between us and the work of genius, in Stein’s view, starts with the understanding that in each of us there lies some measure of creative power. “Every personal letter one writes, every personal statement one makes, may be creative writing if one’s interest is to make it such.” And while something like this blog entry doesn’t remotely approach the same level as, say, Hamlet, the two works exist on a continuum of human creations. To Stein, “continuity illuminates”: “The value of the great things is made more valuable when they are known as exceptional, not in their kind but in their degree.”
Stein’s own appreciation of the art of painting, for example, only really came into full bloom when he asked himself, “How does a painter see when he paints?” To answer that, he set himself a little experiment:
I put on the table a plate of the kind common in Italy, an earthenware plate with a simple pattern in color, and this I looked at every day for minutes or for hours. I had in mind to see it as a picture, and waited for it to become one. In time it did. The change came suddenly when the plate as an inventorial object, one made up of parts that could be separately listed, a certain shape, certain colors applied to it, and so on, went over into a composition to which all these elements were merely contributory. The painted composition on the plate ceased to be on it but became a part of a larger composition which was the plate as a whole. I had made a beginning to seeing pictorially.
This experiment well illustrates a key principle in Stein’s approach to appreciation: namely, that serious appreciation takes time and effort. “Pleasure in clear hard thinking is not so common as it ought to be,” he remarks at one point, and one of the pleasures of Appreciation is Stein’s candor in describing his own trials in coming to an understanding of certain poets and painters. In the case of Picasso, he confesses that his efforts ultimately failed. (Their differences over the value of Picasso’s work was one of the reasons Leo and Gertrude went their separate ways in 1914 and never again spoke to each other.)
Stein was entirely a pragmatist. The whole message of Appreciation is one of bringing art into the context of one’s life. He may not have read E. M Forster’s Howards End, but I’m sure he would have agreed with Margaret Schlegel’s adage, “Only connect the prose and the passion.” “Wisdom that is worth having must be brought down to earth,” he writes at the close of the book, even if, “on solid earth a snail’s pace is the measure of its progress.” And in this respect, Appreciation embodies the remarkable progress made by a snail named Leo Stein.
“Almighty God, who hast created man in thine own image, it so happened in April that our Saab had to be serviced at a garage a few miles west of Carlisle.” This combination of the sacred and the mundane with which David Hughes opens The Lent Jewels immediately establishes the split personality of this book, certainly the most engaging I’ve read this year.
Killing time in Carlisle while waiting for his car to be fixed, Hughes wanders into the Deanery–the residence of the Anglican dean of Carlisle. There he finds a showcase that tells, with bits of paper and a few old photographs, of the death of five daughters of the Dean of Carlisle, Archibald Tait, and his wife, Catharine, over scarlet fever, in the space of one month in 1856:
The five-year-old Chatty, short for Charlotte, was the first to pass over; she died on 6 March.
Her almost two-year-old sister Susan was next to be called home; she died five days later.
Frances breathed her last on 20 March; she died at not quite three years old.
The next, just ten, named after her mother Catharine but called Catty, gave up the ghost on 25 March: the eldest to die.
Her sister May passed on a fortnight later aged nearly nine; she died on 8 April.
Intrigued to understand how two people of faith dealt with such a devastating tragedy, Hughes locates a thick, two-volume biography of Tait, who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury from 1868 to 1882. One short chapter treats of the deaths, mentioning a record written by Catharine some months later as “known and reverenced in every land.” It also quotes Tait’s own diary, an entry written a month after Mary’s death: “Thou hast re-claimed the lent jewels. Yet, O Lord, shall I not thank Thee now? I will thank Thee not only for the children Thou hast left to me [a son and an infant daughter], but for those Thou hast re-claimed…. I thank Thee for the bright hopes of a happy reunion, when we shall meet to part no more.”
The Lent Jewels is the story of Hughes’ attempt, as a non-believing man, a rationalist of the late 20th century, to see life through the eyes of a man and woman whose faith was so profound, so fundamental to their being, that even the loss of five daughters at a stroke could not shake their trust in the wisdom of God.
“What gap was I trying to bridge?” Hughes asks himself:
The time gap was not long, the culture gap subtle, the gap of faith between then and now huge–what else? I wanted to communicate with someone who was in theory better than myself in all human respects: to get in touch with a god, indeed God, who was prepared with good grace to descend an airmile or two, to link the empyrean with the quotidian. It was the gap between what lay within me and what lay beyond.
Perhaps I found The Lent Jewels so engaging because I’ve often looked across the same gap myself. I know people today who seem to hold in their hearts a faith like that of the Taits, who can speak comfortably of the eternity of the soul, of being reunited with their loved ones, and have wondered, like Hughes, just what inspires such belief.
As the book progresses, Hughes traces the lives of the Taits, starting with their residences in London–London House and Lambeth Palace. London House, he remarks, sits not far from the haunts of one of their contemporaries, “Walter,” the anonymous author of the mammoth erotic memoir, My Secret Life, and from this point forward, Hughes repeatedly draws parallels and contrasts between the spiritual life of the Taits and the sensual life of Walter. Despite Hughes’ efforts to obtain some significance from this contrast, it seemed to me unconvincing and distracting.
His pursuit of the Taits evokes in Hughes other thoughts and memories. His visits to the various churches and cathedrals where Tait served reminds him of his time as a member of a boy’s choir while an evacuee from the London Blitz. During this time, Hughes fell under the sway of the assistant organmaster, an elusive character who enticed him into secret corners of the church and masturbated against the boy’s thighs and buttocks.
These experiences, on top of the overwhelmingly secular nature of his everyday life, might have been enough justification for a loss of belief in other men, but Hughes never makes an explicit connection between them. Instead, he wonders repeatedly whether dreams offered the only glimpses we could expect of a spiritual world. “Dreams had an air of permanence, an authority,” he writes at one point, and at another, he says that dreams have a special value because they are “beyond sharing.”
He also seeks to understand the Taits by reaching for a current point of comparison–Geneviève Jurgensen’s book, The Disappearance: A Primer of Loss, which describes the death of her two daughters in a random traffic accident on the autoroute in France in 1980 and Jurgensen’s struggle to cope in its aftermath. “I realised that time numbed but did not heal,” he writes, “time being an anaesthetic applied to the incurable”–a statement I’ve heard echoed in other words by friends who’ve lost children.
While Hughes is following the steps of the Taits, his own life is being taken up with endless details. He and his wife are in the process of selling their farmhouse in Wales, which involves meetings with estate agents, trips back and forth from London, and the long hours and minutiae of moving day. Stretching up to try to peak into the next world, he is constantly being pulled back down to deal with the business of this one.
Hughes’ investigation leads him to locate Hallsteads, the house along the shores of Ullswater, in the Lake District, where Catharine Tait wrote her account of the death of her daughters as a means to recovery in the first few following months. He admits that, by this point, his interest in Catharine had developed into something of an infatuation: “I saw her as a tenderly human guide to the manners–purity, prayer, propriety, sheer goodness–now lost in me, a language I could only stutter.”
In the end, Hughes cannot bridge the gap: “The thinnest of membranes, if an opaque one, divided me from the reality of belief, but at least I knew it was real.” And if his search did not end in any great revelation or break-through, he takes some consolation in the fact that “Not a step fo the way had been attended by angst or hollowed by tedium or taken for granted.” A careful, precise writer, Hughes never rushes to a conclusion or overstates his case, and that precision and delicacy make The Lent Jewels a book one reads carefully, making sure to stay close in step with its writer. Although at no point does Hughes pretend to posses the spirituality of the Taits, in the end, he managed to produce a profound meditation on life in a time when the connection between spirituality and eternity is not taken as a matter of faith.
The Lent Jewels, by David Hughes
London: Hutchinson, 2002
Reading Willard Bain’s 1967 meta-fiction, Informed Sources: Day East Received, was for me such a time-trip that I can’t imagine getting half as much pleasure if I’d read it forty years ago.
First, we have to take care of the matter of technology. The entire text of Informed Sources: Day East Received is in upper-case Courier. This is because, as we’re told around the book’s half-way point,
THE SKELETON OF THE BOOK IS MODELLED, SIGNIFICANTLY, ON THE AP REPORT FOR THE THREE DAYS FOLLOWING PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S ASSASSINATION
Back in the day–the day being pretty much any time between the late 1930s and the mid-1980s–the Associated Press, Reuters, etc. were known as wire services. That’s because they distributed their headline news and news reports to newspapers and radio and TV stations over teletype networks. In fact, the text also helpfully tells us that "DAY EAST RECEIVED" ACTUALLY APPEARS ON THE COVER OF THE ASSOCIATED PRESS "A"A WIRE REPORT WHICH IS BOUND UP IN THE SAN FRANCISCO BUREAU AT THE END OF EACH MORNING.
In each one of these clients’ offices sat something that looked like an industrial-strength typewriter. These were usually Teletype Corporation Model 15s (you can see one in action in this YouTube clip).
I saw one of these in action back in the early 1970s, when my dad detoured to visit a microwave relay site while we were driving down the Al-Can Highway. The site also housed a local radio station, and my brother and I read the news on the wire service machine while Dad talked to the microwave guys. Ten years later, I ran into teletypes again (Model 28s, this time) on my first job, running an Air Force communications center. In both cases, the machines ran on 7-bit code, which meant that EVERYTHING WAS IN UPPER CASE, the SHIFT key requiring that not-yet-state-of-the-art 8th bit.
OK, enough of my geek nostalgia.
Informed Sources: Day East Received is also a trip back to a very specific time, place, vocabulary, and world-view: San Francisco in 1967, the Summer of Love, when Hashbury was the unofficial capitol of Flower Power and an explosion of cultural, musical and political energy.
You need to know that to dig where Willard Bain was coming from, man:
FIVE MINDS WERE BLOWN TODAY, FOUR OF THEM SERIOUSLY
IT WILL BE COOL WITH A CHANCE OF SCATTERED CHAOS
The book even provides at one point a quick guide to some frequently-encountered Hippie (or was it Hippy?) terms:
EDITORS: A NUMBER OF GUIDES HAVE BEEN ISSUED USING THE FOLLOWING TERMS RECENTLY:
Informed Sources is both the book’s title and the name of the AP-like new service over which the transmissions captured in the book are sent. In this case, the story–so-to-speak–centers on a cultural rather than political assassination. Robin the Cock, a supposedly legendary figure in the “Peripheral Underground” is reported to have been killed, and in the flurry of rumors, contradictions, and reactions to his death, several fringe movements rise up and threaten the Establishment.
One bombs the Golden Gate Bridge. Several infiltrate the wire services:
THERE ARE INDICATIONS NON-STAFFERS ARE MANNING ONE OR MORE BUREAUS
Among these are Solomon and Sarah Hershey, who seem to be Merry Pranksters of the wires. They post a story describing themselves as A PAIR OF FAR-OUT VOLCANIC ISLANDS that DECLARED THEIR INDEPENDENCE IN 1963 AND NOW RECOGNIZE NO COLONIAL AUTHORITY WHATEVER. Later, they are joined–or contested–by another group known as the Green dream.
As these revolutionaries introduce more and more of their information into the system, the Informed Sources service keeps trying to push through a story that embodies the worst fears of the Establishment:
SAN ANTONIO, NOW (IS) -- A COMMUNIST BEATNIK DOPE FIEND KILLED AND MUTILATED A 3-YEAR-OLD BOY TODAY AS THE LAD WAS KNEELING IN PRAYER IN A JUST-DEDICATED METHODIST CHURCH.
It’s a losing, battle, however, and the infiltrators manage to subvert an attempt to push out a “Support Your Police” message:
Before the whole thing goes spiralling out of control, the movement celebrates its triumphs:
WASHINGTON, NOW (IS) --THE STATUS OF MAJOR LEGISLATIVE PROPOSALS THIS SESSION:
REDUCE LAW ENFORCEMENT TO OPERA BOUFFE . . . . . . ENACTED
The first publication of Informed Sources was itself a counter-culture act. Printed by mimeograph and stapled together by the Communications Company, run by Chester Anderson and Claude Hayward as the publication arm of the Diggers an improvisational theater/community anarchist group, the first few hundred copies were taken to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore and given away free. (Today, the few copies to be found fetch the price $400 on Amazon.)
On its first appearance, the book was considered a sign of great days a-coming. Writing in the L. A. Free Press, Lawrence Lipton proclaimed,
What is being escalated today, among other things, is the dying of the sick & dying society. A day to day chronicling of the deathbed scene. The author, whoever he is, is the master arsonist of ideas, A light-bringer as well as a fire-bringer. This book may turn out to be the first major work of the hip era in writing.
The book’s reputation eventually made its way to the editors of Doubleday, who published it as a trade paperback in 1969. At that time, reviewing the book in the New York Times, novelist R. V. Cassill advised readers not to get distracted by the font and focus on Bain’s message. In doing so, however, he chose a comparison that now makes him seem even more dated that the teletype: “In its quality as political manifesto and in its subordination of eccentric technique to satire and affront, I find it more in a class with the play ‘Macbird!‘”
Now, of course, we know that the Summer of Love had far less political than cultural impact in the long run.
THE BIRCHERS WERE RIGHT AFTER ALL WE ARE INDEED THAT DANGEROUS one member of the movement declares with pride, rather in the manner celebrated by the title of Nicholas von Hoffman’s account of the San Francisco counter-culture: We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against. Ironically, the Establishment’s assessment proved more accurate in the end: A COUP WOULD BE UNNOTICED AND IRRELEVANT writes one Informed Sources die-hard. The revolution was televised, but in the end it went the way of “Laugh-In.”
Willard Bain and his wife moved to Marin County a couple of years after he first published Informed Sources. They opened a bookstore in Corte Madera and raised five children. He died in 2000.
Informed Sources: Day East Received, by Willard S. Bain
San Francisco: The Communications Company, 1967
New York: Doubleday, 1969
London: Faber & Faber, 1969
Subtitled “A Factual Novel,” Breaking Point is a chilling account of life in a Nazi transit camp, an official limbo from which the only exit is on the weekly train to Auschwitz. Yet its author, the Dutch historian and secular Jew, Jacques Presser (who was referred to as Jacob Presser in English language editions), never set foot inside a transit camp and spent several years of the war in hiding.
“The one thing I want to repeat for the tenth, for the hundredth time is that all this is true, that it was thus and not otherwise,” writes Presser’s alter ego and narrator, Jacques Suasso Henriques, a Dutch Jew of Portugese descent. Asserting the truth of a work of fiction so forcefully demonstrates remarkable self-confidence in the author, although there was certainly less scrutiny of Holocaust survivor credentials at the time the book was first published in the late 1950s.
Breaking Point is the title given the English language translation by Barrows Mussey. The original Dutch title was De Nacht der Girondijnen, which literally means “The Night of the Girondists.” The reference is to the arrest, trial and execution of the Girondists, a loose political faction that opposed the most extreme measures of the Jacobins and, in the end, fell victim to the very same themselves. (Through much of the war, Presser worked on a biography of Napoleon, Napoleon: Historie en Legende, which was published in 1946.)
Jacques Henriques is a teacher in a secondary school, living in tenuous security due to his family’s “Portugese papers,” in the book’s opening scenes. From time to time, he notes the absence of one or more of his students as the Nazis put increasing pressure on the dwindling Jewish population, but he feels relatively insulated from this terror. Then, one day, while quizzing his students on the “approved” Dutch history textbook, one of them tells him that her mother had been taken the day before:
“And she’d had herself sterilized, because they said …” Then she was crying. This is true; I could repeat it at the Last Judgment: this is what a thirteen-year-old girl said, those very words, in Class 2A of the so-called Jewish High School.
What next? I put down my book, and let the children “work individually for the rest of the period,” the classic phrase of teachers who don’t feel like keeping going.
With that, he walks out of the school without a word and decides to hide himself from the terror in the place he’s least likely to be taken. One of his students puts him in contact with Siegfried Israel Cohn, who runs the Disposition Service at the Westerbork transit camp. The DS, also known as the Jewish SS, polices the inmates of the camp and organizes the selection and loading of the weekly shipments to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. “We, a few intellectuals, office clerks, workmen, traveling salesmen, and peddlers, were to the others undoubtedly the most loathsome scum that God had ever created,” Henriques writes, but they were also effectively immune to selection themselves as they played an essential role in the process.
Henriques enters the camp and joins the DS with a reference from Cohn’s son, and attempts to appreciate the safety of his situation and numbing himself to reality by becoming as cynical as Cohn himself. He even admits to enjoying his position as Cohn’s adjutant: “I did not find it unpleasant. Sure enough, it gave me a pleasing tingle. Plainly I was already beginning to be a man.”
Soon, however, he finds it impossible not to see the camp as a version of hell:
This hell exists today alone. There is no past and no future; everyone knows that in his heart. The past is dead; the future is death. Between the two lies the narrow watershed, life. And that life consists of pursuing a shoelace, of quarreling over a seat by the stove, of fleeting encounters with a woman on the barter system, of intolerable loneliness in intolerable crowds. Each week it rises anew to the fiercest, the unspeakably grisly horror of the one night, the night before the departure; the apocalyptic plunge, forever new, of hundreds of human beings into destruction and death.
Henriques’ cloak of cynicism quickly wears thin, and, in the end, he finds it impossible to keep his anger and fear under wraps. The smallest event–Cohn knocking a book from the hand of a man waiting to board the train–proves his breaking point.
Despite the fact that Presser never experienced the camps at first hand, Breaking Point is a thoroughly convincing account. So convincing, in fact, that one of the most renown survivors and writers on the Holocaust, Primo Levi, was moved to translate the book into Italian in 1974 (as La notte dei Girondini).
Presser had ample evidence to draw upon. In 1943, his own wife, Debora, was arrested for holding forged papers as sent to Westerbork. Although she later died in the Sobibor camp, her life in the two camps was conveyed to him by her surviving fellow inmates. In 1950, he was contracted by the Dutch government to write a history of the experience of Dutch Jews during the War, a book published in English (and still in print) as Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry. In his research for that book, he came across the diary of a Polish Jew who was a member of the FK [Fliegende Kolonne, or Flying Column], which dealt with the victims’ luggage. Although it did not mention Presser’s wife, it covered in detail the week she spent there.
And here is an indication of why Presser, before he could begin Ashes in the Wind, first had to write this story about Westerbork: compelled by his sense of personal co-responsibility and in despair over the loss of his first wife, he had searched in this historical material for the place where his wife had last been before all traces of her were lost: that was Westerbork. It was for this reason that Presser knew so much about this subject, even though he had survived the war by going into hiding and had never set foot in Westerbork.
Presser himself saw a link between the two books that was not solely due to their subject. Although meticulous in documenting his sources and a critic of the hagiographic style found in most biographies of Napoleon prior to his own and that of his countryman and contemporary, Piet Geyl, Presser was nonetheless ready to note that both fiction and history were forms of story-telling:
Just over 80 pages long, Breaking Point is barely more than a long short story, and written in an unadorned, frank confessional style. Yet it’s also a remarkably nuanced work that raises themes that extend far beyond its brief scope. I have to look back to Levi’s own last book, The Drowned and the Saved, to offer a comparable text.
Breaking Point, by Jacob Presser
Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1958
John T. McIntyre was 65 and had been working full-time as a writer for over 50 years when he published Steps Going Down in 1936. Thanks to a little creative public relations work by his publisher, Farrar, Rinehart and some help from Warner Brothers, which was considering it for filming, it was selected as the American entry for something called the All-Nations Novel Prize–an international competition organized by a consortium of publishers, mainly in the U.S. and Europe. It didn’t win the competition, but the selection came with an award of $4,000, which was probably more than what McIntyre had earned in the preceding five years.
For a few months, McIntyre garnered more publicity than he had in his entire career as a writer. The New Yorker praised him and he was positioned by some critics as a grandfather of what Edmund Wilson would refer to a few years later as “The Boys in the Back-Room”–hard-boiled writers like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and John O’Hara, whose works were full of rough characters, tough talk, and hard drinking. But though his next two books–Ferment (1937) and Signing Off (1938) took on suitably tough subjects–union corruption and Italian-American gangsters–they failed to win either popular or critical praise, and soon McIntyre was back to pitching stories about detectives and dime-store romances at newspapers and magazines. Eventually, even these didn’t sell and he was forced to sell off most of his belongings and rely on the charity of his friends. Suffering from alcoholism and cancer, he died in 1951 with barely a penny to his name.
Aside from some of his early crime novels featuring a scientifically-minded detective named Ashton-Kirk, McIntyre’s work has effectively vanished since his death. About ten years ago, Prof. Ron Ebest published an in-depth look back at McIntyre’s life and on Steps Going Down in particular, in the New Hibernia Review. In “Uncanny Realist: John T. McIntyre and Steps Going Down” (link), Ebest called the book “a minor classic of modern Irish-American writing” and praised McIntyre’s “talent for dialogue and his gift for presenting the grittier sides of urban life in realistic fiction.” I learned of Steps Going Down after reading about the All-Nations prize. (The winner for the 1936 competition, by the way, was The Street of the Fishing Cat, a novel about Hungarian emigrants in Paris by Jolán Földes).
Having taken the better part of three weeks to get through Steps Going Down, I struggle now to decide whether it was a waste of my time. By anyone’s standard of what makes a good novel, this one is a failure. Had McIntyre not thrown in a quick and implausible deus ex machina ending, it would have amounted to a five-hundred page equivalent of “Waiting for Godot.” Reviewing the book in The New Masses, Albert Halper wrote, “The story goes round and round and doesn’t come out anywhere,” and that’s a pretty accurate assessment. The anonymous reviewer on Kirkus Reviews said “It’s not strictly a novel,” but “a relentless turning inside out of a way of living –brothels, drug haunts, bars, shady dives, crooks, gangsters in miniature, lodging house keepers.”
Steps Going Down is about a guy named Pete, who has, at various times in the past, been a journalist and vaudeville dancer, and who goes on the lam when he suspects he might be accused of being involved in some crime at the bank where he’s been working. Pete got the job through a friend named Slavin, and he thinks Slavin is trying to pin the blame on Pete. And, as Halper puts it, “for the rest of the book the reader cracks his brains trying to find out (1) why Slavin got Pete the job,(2) who Slavin really is, (3) who Pete really is, (4) what crime Slavin has (or has not) committed, (5) how Thelma, Pete’s current girl friend, always knows where to reach Pete by phone even though Pete may be in hiding or in any of the city’s thousand drug stores, beer joints, or merely passing a public telephone booth.”
Well, I read the book, and I can’t answer any of those questions. I’d say that easily 80% of the book consists of nothing but Pete sitting around in some boarding house, oyster house, chop house, flop house, or bar and drinking and talking. Most often it’s with another character named Gill, who’s an alcoholic, Skid Row philosopher, part-time ink salesman, and black sheep son of a family that made its fortune selling patent medicines now running afoul of the new food and drug safety laws. Despite the fact that Pete spends at least two to three months moving from place to place to avoid being found by the police, district attorney, or Slavin, he somehow continues to have enough cash to buy another drink–even after he gets robbed.
And then another drink. And another. There is a lot of drinking in this book. As Ebest puts it, “Not to put too fine a point on it, essentially everybody in the book is hammered from page one on.” McIntyre himself had a drinking problem, and as you’re reading Steps Going Down, you often get the same kind of blurry sense of what’s happening that comes about three drinks after the stopping point.
And yet, there are some wonderful things in this book. Most of the action in the book takes place in once-respectable neighborhoods now gone to seed:
The Potsdam was a decayed establishment; it had a big lobby on the first floor that had once been a bar; a German bar with sanded floor, and with waterfalls, and old castles and folk in peasant costumes painted on the walls. There was a high, arched ceiling, now dusty and neglected. The Kegelbahn had been in the basement, and the wooden balls had rolled thunderously at night; a brass band once had its headquarters in the second floor front, and German marches and waltzes had poured out from the windows upon a contented neighborhood. German societies had met there; there was a singing of songs, emptying of seidels, the aroma of sausage and cheese; the gabble of all the dialects of the Fatherland. But those days were over; the people who now huddled under the Potsdam’s roof were broken and anxious; they were people whose days slipped by with no flavor of promise in them.
“No flavor of promise in them”–what a superb phrase with which to end a superb paragraph.
There are fine characters who come briefly into focus and then fade off. Like Cork, a small-time, unlucky gambler: “Cork was in the habit of talking about money; in sporting matters he mentioned large sums; the intake of stuss games interested him; the profits in drab houses, the chances of turning over sums by various underhand practices, had a slimy sort of glamour for him.” Or Finney, who spent his whole life dreaming of the time when he could be completely idle: “He used to watch the old men; they had been street sweepers, or cart drivers, or pavers, or weavers; old men that had worked at many trades and were now past their time, and were resting. Finney used to envy them. They could sit down somewhere contentedly, and no word was said against them. It was what was expected of them.”
There are places where you could imagine Oliver Twist hanging around if Dickens had time-travelled to 1930s Philadelphia: “The neighborhood of Shandy’s was one of small rackets; groups gathered at curbs, at newsstands, at corners, around shoeblacks’ chairs; smirking youths in smart overcoats and narrow rimmed hats talked with policemen.” The cheap hotels where Gill and Pete find rooms for a night or two: “Badly lighted, with greasy wallpaper, shabby floor coverings, brass cuspidors. Dejected men in soiled shirt collars sat forever reading newspapers; others wrote long, bitter letters at the little tables…. havens for uneasy men who had separated from their wives.”
The book opens with one of its strongest chapters–certainly the stuff I kept looking for more of–which puts us in the mind of Mrs. Salz, owner of the boarding house Pete lights out from, as she moves around, cleaning her sitting room. Each item she cleans reminds her of someone from her past–the gilt mirror from her brother Albert’s barbershop; Freddie the canary from her childhood now stuffed but still hanging in his gilded cage; the heavy armchair her father bought from a minister, in which her sister Cassy would sit “after her trouble”:
She worked for three or four dressmakers; every time she left a place it was for higher pay. And it was one of their husbands that was the cause of her trouble.
It was an awful shock to her mother; and her father used to curse terrible; and everybody in the neighborhood talked and said things they shouldn’t have said. Uncle Victor wanted the case taken into court; he said Cassy ought to get damages. But she wouldn’t let it be done. After the child died, she came home again, but she was awful changed. You’d scarcely ever hear her speak a word. She didn’t seem to be fit for anything at all. She’d just sit in the chair at the window and look out and think.
Taken together, these bursts of fine description and characterization probably add up to 150 or more pages out of the total 500, which is not such a bad ratio, but for many readers, it’s asking a lot to demand the persistence required for that kind of sifting. And so Steps Going Down will most likely remain out of print and unknown.
Yet, if Steps Going Down is a failure, it’s a noble failure. It’s like a fine old Victorian house, abandoned and neglected for years, shut up behind a tall fence. As you pass by, you catch a glimpse of some intricate, carefully-crafted feature or decoration, a room you can imagine was once dark, warm and welcoming. But no one will ever knock down the fence and put in the hard work to restore it and put it into working order. And so it’s just a lost promise. It reminds me very much of something Zadie Smith wrote in her essay, “Fail Better”: “The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment.” In Steps Going Down, there are such lovely shards–but it will never be a monument of fulfillment.
Steps Going Down, by John T. McIntyre
New York City: Farrar, Rinehart, Incorporated, 1936
Despite all the exhortations to stop and smell the roses, that what matters is the journey, not the destination, I tend to read in something of a rush, mindful of the ever-growing stack of books that still beg to be read and rediscovered. It takes an exceptional writer to subdue this inclination and take a work at his or her own pace.
I took John Guest’s Broken Images: A Journal (1949) along on a recent trans-Atlantic flight, figuring I’d have time not only to finish it (it’s just 220 pages long) but to get through some work-related reading as well. Instead, I spent the entire flight, along with the next leg of my trip, to read it–not because it was a struggle but because Guest’s writing is so superb I wanted to enjoy every sentence.
At the time that World War Two broke out, John Guest was in his late twenties, working in a publishing house and wandering rather aimlessly into his future. He didn’t rush to enlist, but was inducted into the Royal Artillery in May 1940. Broken Images opens with a journal entry written–quite against regulations–on his second day in the Army, and continues until his separation five years later, in October 1945. Many of the entries were sent to the poet and lyricist Christopher Vernon Hassall, with whom Guest served on an anti-aircraft battery stationed near the London dockyards.
When Broken Images was first published, the Spectator’s reviewer wrote of it that, “It will be surprising if the last war produces a more rewarding set of personal impressions than the journal of Mr. John Guest.” What’s remarkable, though, is that I would never think of recommending it as a great war book. True, it is all about Guest’s experiences during the time he served in the Army, and he did experience combat first-hand in North Africa and Italy–where some of the most hard-fought battles of the war took place.
But its finest characteristic is that of a sensibility to life that never, despite all the drudgery and monotony of Army life and all the strains and fatigue of combat, seems anything less than fresh and alert. Here, for example, is an early observation from his first month in uniform:
But doing guard also has its pleasures. It is the only time when one is really alone. It is lovely, too, on warm starlit nights. Another pleasure, relatively new to me, is to see the dawn and hear the birds’ chorus; shortly after the sky has paled, one bird emits a sleepy note–do you remember that magical verse in “Tears, idle tears”:
Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half awaken’d birds …
–and within two minutes every bird in creation is singing wildly.
Guest loved poetry and nature. He notes the flowers, bushes and trees wherever he is, knows the names of most of them, and often remembers a line or two of verse they inspired.
While he wasn’t a model soldier, he was no slacker, and was selected for officer training during his first year. Although he’d never had any association with the Army and felt no regret when he left it behind, he early on came to understand that his time in the uniform represented a personal transformation: “Something is between me and everything now. We seem to be breaking apart, diverging, but reality is on my side–vivid reality–while everything I used to be and do belongs elsewhere, connected to me only in memory, not it fact.”
Throughout much of the book, “the war” seems to be a show playing on another stage. Guest does not deploy to a combat theater until he’s been in the Army for nearly three years. He spends far more time training, taking part in exercises, and waiting, and even when he is in within eye sight of the enemy, the fighting is more often incidental than intense. He apologies, in fact, in one entry,
This is just to set your mind at ease in case you thought I was in the big attack. If you have been imagining me in the thick of battle, you would have laughed to see me this afternoon (or indeed most afternoons and evenings) sitting in a canvas chair at the edge of our olive grove–sleeves rolled up, dark sun-glasses, a book on my knee; listening to the birds and swatting flies with a grass switch. In front, the bank falls steeply away through a wood full of cyclamen, genista and honeysuckle, to a green valley below, and from where I site I can hear the stream that runs through it. But, apart from the occasional bang of guns, one wouldn’t know there was a war on.
Being far enough away from the front lines does not equate to enjoying the pleasures of peace, however. “You do not know what a country which has been fought over looks like,” he is careful to caution Hassall:
Everywhere the signs are unmistakable–one knows without thinking about the evidence. It is rather like one of those abandoned industrial areas at home; but here they are not abandoned; people are still living in them. Even if the houses are not in ruins, everything has a tired, disused look. Gates and hedges are broken. Rusting skeletons of vehicles lie in the ditches. Windows are broken. Roads in bad repair. The fields untended. Ground under trees or by the roadside all chawed up and rutted. Empty food tins. Trees cut down or splintered. Charred remains of fires. Human excreta. Broken drains, pools and floods–all the million and one things which should be mended, tidied, tended, buried or otherwise seen to, are left undone.
Guest never takes himself to be anything but a small cog in a big machine, and he often notes the tendency of the Army to grind everything down to an anonymous uniformity. Indeed, as he queues for one in the many steps involved in being processed out of the Army, he muses, “It was really a huge machine which had been churning away at top speed for six years…. All you had to mind was that you didn’t get nipped in the works.”
If there was one thing that most certainly didn’t happen to Guest, though, it was the sacrifice his individual sensibility. His eye was always alert to nuances of landscape, the life going on in the margins, and the endless human comedy. On leave in Rome, for example, he delights in the band playing in the lounge of an English officers’ hotel:
This consisted of three middle-aged Italians–two male and one female. One man played a huge sort of guitar-cum-zither which he held like a banjo and plucked. To the end of our stay I was absolutely convinced that it made no noise whatsoever, and that upon closer inspection it would transpire that the strings were made of elastic or wool. For all that, his gnarled right hand plucked and flipped with all the merriment in the world, and his left hand scrambled deftly up and down the wires.
I’ve already overindulged in the temptation to quote at length from Broken Images. It really is a deliciously well-written book that I have left riddled with dog-eared pages marking particularly fine passages.
As someone who just turned fifty-six, I take comfort in the example of late bloomers, and it was a delight to note that Anne Goodwin Winslow was 68 when she published her first book, The Dwelling Place, in 1943. Now, that’s not strictly true–she did publish a collection of her poetry, The Long Gallery, in 1925, at the age of fifty. But in the space of six years between 68 and 75, she managed to publish a body of work that compares well with what some others take a lifetime to produce.
Born on her family’s estate outside Memphis, Tennessee, she and her sisters were educated by their attorney father in a rather laissez-faire manner. He gave them the run of his library and encouraged them to spend long hours reading and thinking and talking about what they read. Then, when she was still a teenager, Eben Eveleth Winslow, a West Point graduate and captain in the Corps of Engineers, asked for her hand and off she went into the itinerant life of an Army wife. Their tours included Oahu, where Winslow oversaw the construction of Fort DeReussy and other fortifications, and Panama, where he built bases to protect the new canal. He became the Army’s expert on coastal fortifications, and his 1920 book, Notes on Seacoast Fortification Construction, can be found on the Internet Archive (link). Over a thirty year career, he rose to be the acting Chief of Engineers when the U. S. entered World War One in 1917 and led the enormous expansion of the Army’s ranks and facilities over the next two years.
When General Winslow retired in 1922, he and Anne headed back to Anne’s family home outside Memphis. There they oversaw the raising of cotton, fruit and nuts, pigs and cattle, and she began to write and publish her poetry. Winslow died in 1928. With both her children grown and out of the house, Anne settled into the graceful life of a dowager, with a steady stream of visitors to keep things interesting.
Her poetry was quickly accepted by such journals as the Atlantic and the North American Review, and she developed friendships with a number of literary figures, including Vachel Lindsay and William Alexander Percy. Allen Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon, became particular friends, and the aging Ford Madox Ford came along for a visit while on his extended stay with the Tates as their house guest. In one of his very last books, Great Trade Route (1937), Ford described the Winslow home as antebellum menagerie, very relaxed, where, “… peacocks wandered nonchalantly in and out of the room, and it was quiet, and profuse, and hospitable.” Life there seemed “to run on wheels in a deep shade.”
The Dwelling Place is Anne Goodwin Winslow’s amused, affectionate, and poetic tribute to her home. Despite her many years away with the Army–“the antithesis of permanence”–it remained at the center of her emotional life: “I do not see how anyone can get along without at least one thing in his life that he can think of as being both intimate and permanent.”
Starting with a chapter on solitude, she portrays the house, the land, its people, animals, plants and visitors (living and spectral) over the course of a year through a series of loosely-connected sketches. Although absolutely at home in a way of life–with a grand mansion, a large garden full of magnolia trees and wisteria-laden trellises, and a cook, maid, groundskeeper and handyman–that was near its end, she was also a sophisticated woman, widely-traveled and read. She wrote one of the first articles about Rilke’s poetry to appear in an American journal and was comfortable reading and translating both French and German. When she reaches for a classical allusion or a line from Keats, it’s always at her fingertips.
As a result, there is an elegance and grace throughout The Dwelling Place that makes one wish for the opportunity to have spent some time as Anne Goodwin Winslow’s guest.
She herself wondered, however, why people came to her home seeking a “quiet” week in the country:
How did the idea ever get abroad that nature is given to tranquility? A certain amount of self-restraint is necessary for tranquility, and nature has none. She is all out and total about everything, and noisy besides, and peace, I should say, is about the last thing on the list of her requirements–or solitude. Nothing in nature wants to be alone for one breathing instant, and everything that has a voice is perpetually lifting it up in desire or bereavement, with overtones of threat or challenge, and whinnyings for help–our own unrest made audible. I have grown so suspicious of nature’s motives as expressed in sound that only the accidental, frictional noises–wind rustling the leaves or water slipping over stones–gives me a feeling of repose. I made up my mind long ago that nobody who has had much sorrow, or even too much happiness, should ever go to the country to forget about it.
Writing during America’s first full year in the Second World War, she is quick to acknowledge that, compared to hers, “life has been so shot up to pieces for so many people that I would hesitate to speak again of any bombs that fell on mine.” She doesn’t claim that what she has created is a good book, one that will offer “present help in trouble,” but she credits the effort for its therapeutic value: “… maybe only those who write have learned the saving power that lay in many a poor one.”
She also questions her ability to venture into the realm of fiction: “I doubt very much if I could write a novel, but I would be willing to try for the sake of all the dear people who like to worry over me.” Ironically, the act of writing The Dwelling Place must have released hitherto-unrecognized creative energies, for over the course of the next five years, Anne Goodwin Winslow was to publish five books of fiction: A Winter in Geneva and Other Stories (1945); Cloudy Trophies (1946); A Quiet Neighborhood (1947); Springs (1949); and It Was Like This (1949).
The pace of her writing slowed down considerably after that and her published works were limited to a few short stories and poems. She died in late 1959 at the age of eight-four, and was buried with her husband in Arlington National Cemetery. You can find their grave records here. Her family home, known as Goodwinslow, still stands (see coordinates in Google Map) and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (see entry).
The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943
Artistic failures are often more interesting than masterpieces–or more accessible, at least. Hayden Carruth’s first and only novel, Appendix A (1963), is a good example of this. “I did the novel in the first place because that was the only way I could get my first book of poems published,” he admitted years later, in an interview published in American Poetry Review.
“I had already written a long story, which I didn’t know what to do with, about a kid in France during World War II, who had been orphaned and adopted as a sort of a mascot by a German unit,” he told the interviewer, Anthony Robbins. “So when Emile [Emile Capouya, his editor at Macmillan] said he had to have a novel, I said I’ll expand the story into a novel, and basically that’s what I did. I added three other sections to the book, making it cover a longer period.”
This ad hoc structure is quite evident in the book. Carruth incorporated the story of the French orphan by transporting him to post-war Chicago, giving him the American nickname Charley, and making him the cuckold of an affair between the narrator, known only as E., and Charley’s wife, Alex. The first section shows the affair in midstream, centered around a sweltering July weekend. The second half is set about a month or so later, as Alex decides to leave E.–and Charley–over the course of long and boozy day and night. Framing these three parts is one set ten years later, as E. reflects back on the experience from an asylum somewhere in upstate New York.
It’s an awkward collage. The Charley/Gaston story is a crude graft, a pointless excursion from the main thread of the novel. And Carruth never provides a convincing explanation of what drove E. to isolate himself in a cottage in the Connecticut woods to write his account of the affair ten years later, or how this led to his being sent to the asylum.
Yet Appendix A remains an intriguing book, particularly when you know a little about Carruth’s life. E. is very much based on Carruth. Like Carruth, he served with the U. S. Army in Italy during the war. Like Carruth, he becomes the youngest editor of a prestigious and amply-endowed literary journal (E.’s Pegasus is Carruth’s Poetry). Whether Carruth had an affair similar to E.’s, he certainly did spend a time in an asylum, and spent some time after that in the care of a psychiatrist (Peter Laderman, to whom the novel is dedicated). The book’s second half revolves around a comical account of a reception, attended by the “poetocracy” and a set of ridiculous donors, for an English poet whom Carruth later identified in Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays as a fictional version of Stephen Spender: “… [B]ut I remember almost nothing of it now. I was no doubt drunk.”
As Carruth told Anthony Robbins, “It was a very anxious experience for me because I didn’t really think I knew anything about writing novels. In fact I didn’t.” Inexperience led him into a fair amount of experimentation in the book. A publisher’s note at the beginning states that the book is “part of a subdepartmental dossier in the files of a state bureau of public health.” One chapter is simply a dialogue between E. and Charley about an M. G. sportscar they co-own. Another contains a series of excerpts from such disparate sources as John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, the censure of Samuel Gorton, an early Colonial dissenter, and The Voyage of the Rattletrap, a comic Midwest novel written by an earlier Hayden Carruth. He omits Chapter 26 entirely: “if I left it in it would give the whole show away.” E. even refers to the book as a “levon”: “a feeble invention, but let it pass.”
Carruth considered the book “over-written in places.” And there are some pretty awful sentences, such as: “We are the principles of love, Linda and I, and so you need not remember us; indeed, you cannot — you can discover us only within yourselves, in which event we shall have different names and faces.” But there is something about a book being set in Chicago that guarantees an occasional punch of muscular prose:
Traffic thickened as we left St. Joseph, and would continue to thicken all the way to Chicago as more and more people heading home from points along the Indiana shore joined the stream. The concrete highway was a steady rolling formation of cars, like a railroad train a hundred miles long. At first the pace was quick, but then it slowed, cars jammed up, sometimes there would be a crescendo of aphonic squeals as drivers, one after another, jumped on their brakes; for a mile ahead in the late afternoon light you could see red glowing taillights, and the air would turn blue and acrid with exhaust fumes from idling motors.
I had almost forgotten what it was like to come back into town on a hot Sunday afternoon back in the days before freeways, but reading this sent me right back to the rear seat of my father’s Rambler, stuck with sweat to the vinyl as we inched past mile after mile of drugstores and used car lots.
And there are wonderful observations: “the momentary shame men feel upon seeing their own nakedness exposed before the elegance and subtlety of a woman.” “Chicagoans are as well schooled as most people and have studied their geography lessons in childhood, yet in their hearts they don’t know what lies beyond: space, distance, the incredible vectors and tangents of the nebulae themselves.” And this priceless comment on what we can never experience:
Instantly four poems came to my mind, four celebrations of that tender arrangement of loved flesh, four poems that should have been written by Skelton, Wyatt, Ben Jonson, and perhaps Sackville or Waller; but they didn’t write them, and neither did I. People who complain — with some justice — about the number of poems that are published, should think of the number, including some superb examples, that are never written.
None of which argues that anyone should rush to reissue Appendix A and proclaim it a lost masterpiece. Carruth may not have known much about how to write a novel, but that didn’t stop a fair amount of good writing, combined with astute and sometimes acerbic insights, from shining through the awkward seams and sometimes unchecked verbosity.
Fortunately, there is no need for a reissue, anyway: you can find electronic versions, for free, on the Internet Archive (link).
Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth
New York City: Macmillan, 1963
“This book tells of the experiences of a German civilian interned in England,” wrote Paul Cohen-Portheim in the preface to Time Stood Still: My Internment in England 1914-1918, “and it is the author’s aim to describe nothing except what he actually saw and experienced.”
This understatement is both typical of Cohen-Portheim’s remarkable humility and an utterly inadequate synopsis of this remarkable book, for Time Stood Still is, in its way, a monument of humanism–the cosmopolitan, cultured, enlightened humanism exemplified by Stefan Zweig, Jules Romains, Thomas Mann and others–that flourished in Europe until exiled or exterminated by fascism. Countless times while reading this book I was awed by the depth and character of the author’s perspective.
Born in Berlin of Austrian parents, Paul Cohen-Portheim was educated in Geneva, took up painting, and was living in Paris when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in June 1914. Despite the increasing rumors of war, he carried on with his life and traveled to England to spend a few weeks with friends in Devonshire. When England declared war on August 4th, 1914, he found himself stranded: “My flat and my belongings were in France, my relations in Austria and Germany, I myself with summer clothes, painting materials, and £10 in an England one could not leave.” The next day, he discovered he was now an “enemy alien.”
For the next ten months, he lived in a sort of limbo, unable to leave England, unable to move from one location to another without official permission, unable to hold a job legally. He joined with other expatriates to form a makeshift opera company and busied himself with sets and costumes until, on May 24th, 1915, he received notice to report to the local police station the next morning to be interned.
“What shall I pack?,” he asked the policeman. “I would pack as if you were going for a holiday,” the man replied. And so Cohen-Portheim loaded his luggage with “white flannels, bathing things, evening dress, etc..”
He and several hundred other German and Austro-Hungarian men between the ages of 18 and 65 were loaded into railway cars and then ferried to the Isle of Man, where they were interned at Knockaloe, which was the largest camp set up in England during World War One. A few months later, however, he and about sixty other inmates, considered by the British to be “gentlmen” were transported to a new camp in Lofthouse Park, near Wakefield in West Yorkshire. Here he was to remain until mid-1918, when he was sent to the Netherlands to await the end of the war in another form of limbo.
To the authorities responsible for setting up Lofthouse Park, “a gentleman was a man prepared to pay ten shillings a week to them for the privilege of being there.” Cohen-Portheim had been able to contact his mother in Vienna and set up a weekly allotment while at Knockaloe, so, like the other inmates of the camp, he was able to order books and art supplies and to pay for sundries at the camp store. He was able to obtain more suitable clothing, and, as this picture from the Wakefield libraries collection shows, to dress in a manner befitting a gentleman. Other than being confined to the camp, served tasteless but adequate food, and mustered multiple times a day to be counted, he was largely left alone by the authorities and guards.
“Were you treated well?” friends asked him after the war. Cohen-Portheim’s response was carefully qualified: “I am not prepared to say what British treatment of prisoners of war or of interned civilians was–fair, correct, brutal, inhuman, indifferent–I can only speak of my own experience,” and that was that the treatment was “standardized.” He understood that internment was politically motivated, moderated entirely by public perceptions of the treatment of British internees in Germany, and bureaucratically administered.
This was the first war in which there was large-scale confinement of enemy civilians, and the lot of those in England was far better than that of their counterparts in France (as recorded in Aladar Kuncz’s 1934 book, Black Monastery). But, in Cohen-Portheim’s analysis, it was still a brutal and cruel system. Its inhumanity was not based on physical abuse or deliberate psychological mistreatment, but on a more fundamental truth: this was not how humans are meant to live.
Take, for example, the factor of time. Cohen-Portheim chose his title carefully: “One must remember that there was absolutely no limit to be foreseen to the duration of the war and of my imprisonment, not could one know to what one would then return, if one lived to return to anything.” The inmates were well aware of the events going on outside the camp, the progress and set-backs of each side in combat, but they were frozen in time. “The past was dead, the future, if there should be a future, was a blank, there was nothing left but the present, and my present was the life of a prisoner.” This condition was, in his view, unnatural: “where there is no aim, no object, no sense, there is no time.”
Yet it was not the fact of being imprisoned that made the experience horrible. “What was horrible was that one had ceased to be an individual and had become a number.” Any decisions made about the conditions in the camp were made based on an abstract concept of the enemy alien prisoner, and not on any aspect of his individual actions or nature. Cohen-Portheim saw this as a fundamental effect of war: it creates “an abnormal state in which no one can be honestly considered responsible for his actions.”
The obliteration of personal responsibility “undoes what education has built up in years of struggle, or rather in many centuries of effort.” This observation illustrates the particular perspective evident throughout the book. Cohen-Portheim upheld the humanist ideal of man as a rational being with a free will moderated by morality and empathy. And the fundamental crime of internment is that it is inhuman. The fact that the camp population was of such a narrow demographic–male, upper class, German or Austrian, adult, with no women, no children, no other nationalities or classes–by itself made the situation inherently abnormal.
But there was also, “no privacy, no possibility of being alone, no possibility of finding quietude.” The men were cooped up together 24 hours a day, day in and day out, with no end in sight. Because of this, “The worst tortures of camp life were due to the small failings of one’s fellow creatures everlastingly in evidence, and to unimportant little tricks endlessly repeated”:
It is not the men of bad character or morals you begin to hate, but the men who draw their soup through their teeth, clean their ears with their fingers at dinner, hiccough unavoidably when they get up from their meal (a moment awaited with trembling fury by the others), the men with dirty hands, the man who will invariably make the same remark (every day, year after year) as he sits down–and who is quite an inoffensive good-natured soft of creature otherwise–the man who lisps, the man who brags,, the man who has no matter what small defect or habit you happen to object to. You go on objecting quietly, for one does not quarrel about such silly trifles, and the thing gets on your nerves, becomes unbearable by the simple process of endless repetition, until you hate the cause of your torture with a deadly hatred.
“Such an atmosphere is thoroughly poisoned,” he concluded.
What is most impressive about Cohen-Portheim’s account of his experience, however, is that despite all of these wrongs, he could write, “I cannot honestly say that it has harmed me.” Indeed, his time at Lofthouse Park turned his passion from painting to writing, and one of his books, The Message of Asia (1934), was based on material began in the camp. He saw himself as an exception case, though, and was careful to caution in his preface that this must not “induce my readers to think that I call good what in itself is evil.”
After the war, he became a journalist and travel writer, and published such books as England, the Unknown Isle, The Spirit of France, and The Discovery of Europe. Time Stood Still was published in 1931, and like W. V. Tilsley’s outstanding novel, Other Ranks, published the same year, suffered from critical and popular weariness over war memoirs. The Saturday Review’s reviewer dismissed the book as “a ‘document’–by which I mean a piece of writing what has not quite succeeded in becoming literature.” Looking back on Time Stood Still from a distance of eighty years, however, I would place it on a shelf with some of the finest pieces of writing about life behind barbed wire.
Like many of the books I’ve written about on this site, I discovered A Cargo of Parrots serendipitously–that is, in the course of looking for something else. In this case, it was through reading about the career and works of Wallace Stegner, who, after some years of underappreciation, if not neglect, has come to be recognized as one of the major American novelists of the 20th Century.
When I learned that Stegner’s first novel, Remembering Laughter, was selected as the winner of a short novel contest run by Little, Brown in 1937 and was one of the five titles selected for publication out of the 1,340 works submitted, I immediately began wondering about the other four. Thanks to a Saturday Review item written by Howard Mumford Jones, “Hope for the Novelette”, it didn’t take long to identify them as:
Jones’ review agreed with Little, Brown’s assessment that Remembering Laughter was clearly the superior work of the five, but I was most intrigued by his comment that A Cargo of Parrots was “an almost perfect realization of the form” (that is, the novelette or short novel). That was enough to spur me to locate and buy a used copy.
But the cover illustration, of a Moorish, faintly pirate-ish (the man does have a parrot on his shoulder) with a sailing ship was enough to lead me to shelve it far away, to be read at some long distant time. Despite the fact that I’ve featured a fair number of nautical books over the years, I actually don’t care much for the subject and it’s only really good writing that can get me over that prejudice. So it sat there for a couple of years, until I picked it, almost at random, to read on a flight back to the U.S. this week.
Well, as I said, it takes really good writing to keep me reading a nautical book, and there is some exceptionally good writing in A Cargo of Parrots. And by that I mean not just that the prose is fine–balanced, fluid, subtle–but that the author’s perspective is quite remarkably open and sensitive. I started liking it within the first ten pages, and by the time I finished it a couple of hours later, I loved it.
It’s the story of a man named Ramazani, a native of one of the islands off the coast of what is now Tanzania. Kidnapped onto an Arab dhow as a child, he has passed through a series of masters until, somewhere in middle age, he is bound to an ailing German naturalist who survives by trapping exotic birds for zoos in northern Europe. When his bwana dies in a town on the Congo coast, Ramazani is left with the task to escort the parrots they have collected back to England and Germany.
This lands Ramazani and his birds on a hard-luck American steamer with a bitter, racist first mate, and from the moment the two men meet, it is clear that the story will have a violent end. Not that Ramazani is a violent man. If anything, as the author conveys within the first few pages of the book, he is quiet and perceptive, even if he interprets the actions and manners of Western men through a different lens. Indeed, it’s the civility of his manners that provokes the mate:
Had he been able to express his feelings he might have said to himself that no nigger should ever be given the advantage of such dignified clothing: the long and snowy-white coatlike garment coming to the feet; a spotless white cotton fex, delicately embroidered. The ancient garb of kanzu and kofia, which sets off so admirably the natural dignity of the East African Arab, roused in Mr. Jacob almost rage. Niggers should wear the cast-off garments of the white man, shouldn’t they?
When, a day or two later, the first confrontation takes place, it is not a clash of cultures but something primeval: they find themselves “staring at each other like two wild animals, hereditary enemies who have met by chance on a highway, man-made, between two sides of a forest.”
This last quote captures one of the remarkable aspects of A Cargo of Parrots, which is the sophistication of the author’s perceptions, in being able to accept and communicate the validity not only of what we would now call a Third World perspective, but also of an ecological sensibility. Ramazani holds deep respect for the German naturalist, in part because he reacts to African wildlife in a way that no other white men, to his knowledge, do:
It revolted him to see the enforced public intimacies of the mating season; the wonderful display–in Nature’s setting–of individual song and dance and gesture; of coquetry, of joy, rage, jealousy, revenge and even murder, taking place in the dark spaces and glades of the forest, in the solitary trees and the open grass of the African uplands, in the faces of ancient lichenous rocks and the newer, raw escarpment hanging over a two-thousand-mile valley which holds its bed, like pools left in the rocks after rain, lakes as big as England; or on the lily-patterned surface of forest lakes remote and small whose source springs hot from volcanic fires…. It wrung his heart to see some wretched substitute for the age-old routine of the nest–that miraculous inherited uniqueness and precision of form and material and site–the plaintive cries, the thwarted efforts of the parent birds to hide their eggs, to feed their young without the arduous and joyous duties of the hunt and without the food proper to the species; to see the swift decline and death, after a million of years, of instinct–like the blowing out of a sacred lamp, no less that the sudden stoppage of an elaborate system more exact than any man-made machine; to see the dullness of eye and feather that follows such outrage to body and spirit….
The word “ecosystem” hadn’t been coined when this was written, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying that this passage might have been written by an environmental activist today.
While I can’t fully support Jones’ assessment of A Cargo of Parrots as “almost perfect” (there is a disproportional amount of material whose only purpose is to provide Jacobs, the first mate, with a back story), it is a moving and powerful story. As the ship steams further north, and Ramazani and the parrots encounter the cold and storms of the North Atlantic, their sufferings becomes almost unbearable for the reader. This was not at all the story I expected from the book’s cover, and it has been to my considerable pleasure and appreciation to have looked past that.
A Cargo of Parrots, by R. Hernekin Baptist (pseudonym of Ethelreda Lewis)
Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1937
Joseph McElroy’s 1977 novel, Plus, is, without a doubt, my most neglected neglected book. I actually bought the Knopf paperback edition (one of the earliest examples of a simultaneous release in hardback and trade paperback) when I saw it on the shelves of the University Bookstore in Seattle back in early 1977. I had finished a wonderful English course during which our professor took the class through Ulysses, giving us just enough in the way of reading tools that I felt ready to take on the most daunting of texts. I was also just discovering experimental fiction, reveling in Queneau and Steve Katz and Harry Mathews, and I was sure that Plus was going to be of the same ilk.
And then I started to read it:
He found it all around. It opened and was close. He felt it was himself, but felt it was more.
It nipped open from outside in and from inside out. Imp Plus found it all around. He was Imp Plus, and this was not the start.
I struggled for several pages, then gave up. I felt like I was trying to scale El Capitan with my bare hands.
I set Ulysses aside, and there it has stayed for thirty-five years and a dozen moves.
When I started this site seven years ago, I always knew that I would have to return to the challenge. Facing a long flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis a few weeks ago, I saw the opportunity to hunker down and make amends for my neglect.
Joseph McElroy is, perhaps and simultaneously, America’s most neglected and highly regarded living novelist. Neglected based on the simple fact that, as Scott Bryan Wilson writes on the Constant Conversation, “there’s probably never been a time in his career when all of his books have been in print [at] once.” You will not find one of his books at Barnes & Noble. One in a hundred people who know the names of Philip Roth, Don DeLillo or Toni Morrison will recognize McElroy’s or be able to name any of his books.
Why the neglect? I think the reason is very simple: he writes difficult prose. As one Amazon reviewer of Women and Men wrote, “If you haven’t read McElroy, don’t jump into this unless you consider yourself the boldest and bravest of readers.” McElroy writes for grown-ups. By that I mean, he does not take the reader by the hand and guide him through the story like a crossing guard assisting a group of school kids. He expects the reader to discover the story–and more than that, the narrative perspective–by having the guts to take a deep breath and dive into the writing.
I like the way Mike Heppner describes it in his article, “The Courage of Joseph McElroy,” in the Golden Handcuffs Review (link):
It takes courage to write a sentence like the one quoted above [from Women and Men]; to risk ugliness, arrhythmia, tonal irregularities: those moments of dissonance and rubato that cause us to doubt our own ears. (Or, as Carl Ruggles defended Charles Ives to a quivering concertgoer who’d come expecting Brahms: “Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?”)
To be pedantic, the quote was by Ives, at a concert of his music and Ruggles (“When you hear strong masculine music like this, sit up and USE YOUR EARS LIKE A MAN!”). I’ve long thought this quote, despite its latent chauvinism, should apply to encounters with challenging art in any form.
And so I summoned my readerly courage and dove into Plus once I’d settled into my seat.
The actual story in Plus is explained right on the cover:
Plus is the meditation–the experience–of a disembodied human brain, once the brain of an individual with a wife and a child, but now orbiting the Earth in a capsule.
The brain’s function, as part of a solar energy project, is to observe growth inside the capsule and to transmit information along the Concentration Loop to the scientists on Earth, whom it knows only by sound: the Good Voice, and Acrid Voice.
The capsule is IMP: the Interplanetary Monitoring Platform. Imp Plus is the brain, the CPU of the IMP satellite–or at least, of one of its key payloads.
But the story is not really the point of Plus. Instead, what McElroy undertakes is something that makes all previous attempts at the stream of consciousness seem child’s play. The real drama in Plus is that of a consciousness constructing its own means of understanding.
In this case, the consciousness has the added challenge of working without any of its senses. Imp Plus is a brain in a jar, so to speak, and the jar is in orbit around the Earth. While it carries out its various monitoring tasks, it grapples to establish an awareness of its new world through an extremely limited set of inputs. It has no skin to feel with, no tongue to taste with, no ears to hear with. Although the inputs from Ground Control are referred to as voices, I see them more as command line messages: “IMP PLUS WE READ NO DROP IN POWER FROM ACCUMULATOR.”
In another article from the Golden Handcuffs Review, “Sensation in Joseph McElroy’s Plus” (link) Yves Abrioux argues that McElroy “regularly deploys synesthesia … to insist on both perception and cellular biology as sensation.” I think this is illustrated by the way in which Imp Plus associates the command line transmissions with voices:
Between which the dim echo now must come transmitting correct velocities. But were they correct? And Imp Plus did not know if the transmission was to Ground or him. He seemed to be transmitting within himself. DIM ECHO. ACRID VOICE. GOOD VOICE.
He must heed the cavings-in, he must heed the cavings-out, and the shapes around whether they heeded him or not.
There was more all around, and the more all around was joining itself to Imp Plus.
He approaches sight in much the same way:
Imp Plus knew he had no eyes. Yet Imp Plus saw. Or persisted in seeing.
With sprouts, maybe.
But there is another input which Imp Plus cannot associate with a sense, even if it comprises a collection of sensations: memory. As the cover blurb says, Imp Plus was a man with a wife and child before his brain was taken out and transferred into its capsule. Early on in the book, the brain is aware that not all of its consciousness is tied to its spacecraft inputs:
What came to Imp Plus amid the brightness was that some of him was left.
So some of the gradients were Imp Plus.
There are not many remnants of his past life. One he returns to frequently relates to a camping trip taken to a Mexican beach not long before the operation. The man seems to have had some terminal illness. He may have been associated with the space program, or at least to have agreed to allow his brain to be used in the capsule. There are fragments of conversations.
From these limited resources, along with the growth of biological matter–the narration refers to chlorella–in the capsule, Imp Plus assembles its understanding. The picture develops piece by piece, like a jigsaw puzzle, but without the top of the box to guide it. So the pieces don’t always seem to relate to a coherent whole. Only over time, over the course of the book, can one finally–along with Imp Plus–gain the sense of a complete self.
To do so requires considerable patience from the reader, but enormous forethought and restraint on McElroy’s part. It would have been so easy to skip over a difficult step in the construction of Imp Plus’ consciousness with a fast bit of simple explanatory prose, as software programmers call external routines or scripts as shortcuts. But the task he sets himself in Plus is profoundly daunting. As David Auerbach wrote recently in an excellent piece on his site, waggish.org, “McElroy’s ambition is to take the language used by embodied creatures and try to show how it might be applied in a situation where one’s interface with the world has completely broken down and been wholly altered: senses removed and replaced by new kinds of neural inputs.”
To help isolate myself while reading Plus, I put in my earphone and listened–several times–to Philip Glass’ epic four-hour work, “Music in Twleve Parts”. I think there is a certain commonality between the two works, in that each uses elements that are, in themselves, simple, but then creates, through repetition and subtle variations and aggregations, a new type of complexity and beauty.
Of course, Philip Glass’ music is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nor is Joseph McElroy’s fiction. But after finishing Plus and thinking about it over the last two weeks, I found myself contemplating an assault on his magnum opus, Women and Men. Weighing in at 1.5 times the length of War and Peace and rated by the book editors of The Millions as one of the world’s “top 10 most difficult books,” it’s truly an El Capitan assault of reading. But then I found a copy for $15–it’s out of print and goes for three times that–at Shakespeare and Company in Missoula, so I think the Fates have spoken.
Plus, by Joseph McElroy
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977
Stilgoe is not advocating an escape back to a simpler form of life or a time before electronics. Instead, Outside Lies Magic is a call for us to step outside … and pay attention. In particular, to pay attention to all the aspects of our environment that we quickly learn to take for granted, that thereby become invisible, particularly if we are accustomed to travel through this environment inside the cocoon of a car.
Stilgoe calls it “a straightforward guidebook to exploring.” By exploring, he means venturing into our ordinary landscapes at a slower pace–by foot or bicycle–and taking the time to notice: “to widen his or her angle of vision, to ste sideways and look at something seemingly familiar, to walk a few paces and see something utterly new.”
Stilgoe, a professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard, is not exactly a neglected figure. His classes are among the most popular and best-regarded at Harvard, and he was the subject of a story on CBS’s “60 Minutes” back in 2009. Outside Lies Magic is still available in Kindle format, but it’s been out of print in paper form for the last decade.
Landscape–whether natural or man-made–is not meant to be interpreted, Stilgoe points out. It’s meant, in most cases, simply to serve some purpose, whether obvious or obscure. And since most of our voyages through our landscape are also purposeful, we tend to neglect anything not directly related to our purposes.
Exploring, for Stilgoe, starts with abandoning purpose. “Ordinary exploration begins in casual indirection, in the juiciest sort of indecision….” This is not aimless wandering, however. Although the term doesn’t appear in the book, Outside Lies Magic is about mindfulness applied to the everyday world around us.
Stilgoe leads the reader through this world along a variety of paths, starting with “Lines”–literally, the electric, telephone and cable lines strung over our heads or lying buried beneath our streets and sidewalks. From these physical networks he then takes us into the virtual network of the U.S. mail system, tracing its evolution from post offices run out of general stores to the age of railroad post offices, during which service among major cities probably exceeded that of today, to the introduction of Rural Free Delivery (R.F.D.). He goes on to reveal the past, present and possible future of railroad routes, many of which still run through our neighborhoods, whether active, abandoned, or transformed into bike and walking paths.
Outside Lies Magic is not a formal guidebook, however. Although Stilgoe does stick to a set theme in each chapter, he deliberately avoids becoming too purposeful in this guide to purposeless discovery. This is not a book you’d take in hand to help you navigate and interpret what you might encounter.
More than anything, it’s a prose poem. By that, I don’t mean that Stilgoe’s is a particularly poetic prose style. Instead, it’s full of passages that use patterns and rhythms akin to the poetic. Take, for example, this little ode to what lies beneath a freeway overpass:
Beneath the elevated interstate highway lie the lots to which dented tow trucks tow illegally parked cars, lots filled with piles of sand, great stacks of concrete lane barriers, heaps upon heaps of shattered asphalt and concrete and rusted reinforcing rod surrounded by derelict construction machines. Beneath the elevated highway stand disused construction-site trailers, long-parked trailer-truck trailers, dozens of buses with every window long smashed. Beneath the elevated highway march the four-foot-high piles of dirt and litter emptied in perfect rows from three-wheeled street-sweeping machines, piles awaiting pickup by loaders and dump trucks that seem never to arrive. Everywhere beneath elevated highways blossom makeshift dumps, great clutches of abandoned cars and burned-out cars, the former often occupied as homes by the homeless, the latter serving as unofficial Dumpsters and toilets. Beneath the elevated highway the exploring bicyclist finds the homes never visited by the United States Census, the clusters of cardboard cartons, sheet-metal boxes, construction-timber lean-tos, and automobile hoods that comprise the turn-of-the-millennium American jungle.
This could easily be re-formatted into a five-line work of free verse.
Stilgoe can find poetry even in such mundane things as a Motel 6 at night:
Out on the bypass, out by the interstate highway, the motel owns the night, its many lights shining down over both its parking lots, its handful of old-fashioned outdoor post and wall lanterns sparkling by its main entrance, its dozens or hundreds of smaller, single-bulb lights flicked on, one beside each room door.
Outside Lies Magic is also a small work of practical philosophy. Stilgoe argues passionately for the need for unstructured time, unstructured thoughts, unstructured experiences as a means to keep ourselves fully engaged with our world. Speaking with Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes,” he observed of his Harvard students, “I think they’ve missed a kind of self-guided, non-organized activity, non-sports activity growing up. Wandering around, getting into things. And the assumption seems to be nowadays is if a child isn’t in an organized activity, the child is a criminal.”
“But as far as I can understand,” he continued, “most of my colleagues I work with seem to have found their careers by being slightly disorganized. Lucking into something, you know.” His observation reminds me of something that appears in Jacques Hadamard’s The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (republished as The Mathematician’s Mind): “A problem . . . reveals itself suddenly when it is no longer investigated, probably because it is no longer investigated and when one only expects, for a short time, to rest and relax….”
“A person is more than separated mind and body,” Stilgoe writes at the conclusion of Outside Lies Magic,
… and the body exists as much to carry the mind as the mind exists to direct the body. Outdoors, away from things experts have already explained, the slightly thoughtful person willing to look around carefully for a few minutes, to scrutinize things about which he or she knows nothing in particular, begins to be aware, to notice, to explore. And almost always, that person starts to understand, to see great cultural and social and economic and political patterns unnoticed by journalists and other experts.
Exploring, finally, is a way of reclaiming one’s senses and encountering the world in a different way. “Whoever owns the real estate and its constituents,” Stilgoe writes, “the explorer owns the landscape.”
So what’s keeping you? Get out now.
Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, by John R. Stilgoe
New York: Walker and Company, 1998
Felix Riesenberg’s 1928 novel, Red Horses, is extremely rare in two ways. There are only two copies list for sale on the Internet–one at $100, the other (signed) at $300, and there are only about twenty copies listed in Worldcat.org. I was only able to read it via my son’s access to the University of California’s superb library system.
But it’s also the only case I know (admittedly, there may be others I don’t) of a novel that’s been rewritten and published by its author with a different title. In a brief note at the start of the book, Riesenberg wrote:
The basis of the present story is my novel P.A.L issued by Robert M. McBride & Company in 1925. I have rewritten my earlier novel and the job has given me considerable amusement. I offer the result without apology or prayer.
P.A.L, which I wrote about back in August 2012, is an acerbic account of the career of an over-the-top entrepeneur and huckster, P. A. L. Tangerman, who shills everything from baldness cures and health tonics to chocolate, cigars and self-improvement books and, finally, to a scheme to produce gold from desert sand. Riesenberg was 44 when he published the book. He came late to writing, having worked as a merchant marine officer, Arctic explorer, civil engineer, and building inspector.
Riesenberg’s view of American capitalism in P.A.L is bitterly satiric, full of an angry that Riesenberg later gave full vent to in his Depression novel, Passing Strangers. He relates the story of Tangerman’s rise and fall through the eyes of Marakoff, a Russian merchant seaman, shipwrecked off the coast of Washington State and tossed into the feverish boosterism of Tangerman’s Seattle. Rather like Gulliver in the land of the Brobdingnag, Riesenberg’s narrator finds a sort of monstrous energy at play:
Power! light! heat! These were everywhere in evidence. As I walked up from the wharf, the sensation of coming again into a highly charged community caused my finger tips to tingle…. Lean, earnest-faced men shouted revolution, others spoke rapidly of religion, and still others, great, full-mouthed orators, extolled the virtues of special medicines. A band of uniformed musicians chanted loud praises of the Lord. Over all was the constant blink of great electric signs.
Later, when the scene shifts to Chicago, the narrator’s sense of a diseased society becomes literal:
Such thoughts came to me of an evening, looking out on the avenue and marveling at the curious folk who walked by. What was going on about me so far exceeded even these fancies that I judged the world throughicurious eyes. At times I felt we were in a great hospital full of patients, all sick, some seriously, some slightly, but getting worse. I even pictured this great hospital managed by a peculiar staff of somber, public doctors. It seemed to me the great hospital of humanity was for a time in charge of the world’s undertakers, men prospering mightily through the general debility.
The intensity of Riesenberg’s reaction to the fervor of the 1920s is muted only slightly in his rewrite of the book three years later. Although I haven’t done a line-by-line comparison of texts between P.A.L and Red Horses, I think I can safely say that Riesenberg’s major change was to pare away whatever he considerable inessential.
P.A.L was structured in four parts, preceded by a prologue describing the voyage and shipwreck of Marakoff’s ship. In Red Horses, Riesenberg dispenses with the prologue completely. He also dispenses with a considerable amount of editorial commentary. The prologue to P.A.L begins,
Of course there is an explanation for everything. Even a state of mind may be explored, and some have attempted to explain the favor of a woman. Chance and time play upon us constantly. Love and murder may be answers to the same demand; Who can see everything and know all, in a universe growing more complex with time?
In Red Horses, Riesenberg wisely dropped this exordium and jumped straight into the story:
I was a sailor, ashore and out of work. I had no money, no friends, no business or profession upon which I might rely.
The cut of the prologue is the largest single change in the text, and there is no equivalent change in the story itself. Marakoff, whose name is taken down as Markham by his rescuers, is given an introduction to P. A. L. Tangerman, who is launching the Cudahy Dome, a contraption intended to cure baldness by applying a vacuum to the scalp, as his first great venture. Tangerman spins off dozens of other enterprises and eventually moves to Chicago with Markham in tow. He continues to surf from one deal to another, relying in most cases more on momentum and hype than real capital, until one of his many paramours shoots him dead. Markham returns to Washington State and settles down happily ever after with Madeleine, Tangerman’s first wife, whom Markham has loved from afar for years.
In fact, it would probably be more accurate to describe Red Horses as an edit of P.A.L than a rewrite. Riesenberg did make other structural alterations beside dropping the prologue, but these consist only of changes in how the text is broken up. What are called “Parts” in P.A.L become “Books” in Red Horses, and instead of “Chapters,” Riesenberg divides these into numbered sections, using nearly twice as many in Books Two and Three–the Chicago books.
Aside from these changes, which make little difference in the reading experience, what is most noticeable between P.A.L and Red Horses is what is missing. As the following excerpts demonstrate, the primary skill Riesenberg developed between the two versions is the use of his blue pencil.
P. A. L.
Now began an adventure that defied analysis. I could neither pull it apart, nor could I find the materials out of which it might be logically built. It was an existence, a state of being, or a condition. But the effect upon me was one of bewilderment. My past life had always known its departments or classes. One was an officer, an aristocrat, or one was not. Throughout, this simple relationship had held. Always the patrician and the plebeian. We had a convenient set of bins into which one might throw the facts of life, and forget them.
But, of a sudden, I became engulfed in the democracy of America, without doubt the greatest and most amazing state men have yet achieved. In England I had known the old order modified, the aristocracy backing down, hanging on to their caste while slowly dropping their cash and unearned privileges; but here I found people in a continuous waltz, taking on importance and losing it with remarkable swiftness and facility. The greatest in the land were those most skilled in the art of extracting money from their fellows.
Of a sudden, I became engulfed in the democracy of America, without doubt the greatest and most amazing state men have yet achieved. In England I had seen the old order modified, the aristocracy backing down, hanging to their caste while slowly dropping their cash and unearned privileges; but here I found people in a continuous waltz, taking on importance and losing it with remarkable swiftness. The greatest were those most skilled in extracting money from their fellows.
In the light of retrospection, in cold letters, the adventure that follows comes to me like a nightmare, remembered in the dawn. In a land where the Keeley Motor was given to science, where Turtle Serum was welcomed by an enthusiastic multitude of doctors, where the Cardiff Giant once astonished paleontologists, where Ponzi bewildered financiers, and where Dr. Cook split the millions into contending camps, resting his claims upon the broad back of the King of Denmark, in such a land almost anything may happen, and almost anything may be absolutely true. It is a grand land, a mighty land, and in the very middle of it lies the teeming city of Chicago, the heart and lungs and life of it, free, thank Heaven, from pernicious, outside, foreign interference.
In a land where the Keeley Motor was given to science, where Turtle Serum was welcomed by an enthusiastic multitude of doctors, where the Cardiff Giant once astonished paleontologists, where Ponzi bewildered financiers, and where Dr. Cook split the millions into contending camps, resting his claims upon the broad back of the King of Denmark, in such a land almost anything may happen, and almost anything may be absolutely true. And in the very middle of it lies the teeming city of Chicago.
My state of mind in the summer days that followed the death of Tangerman was that of some nascent atom, forcibly released from a powerful combination in which it had long played a dependent part. The city went on just the same, much to my surprise, for it seemed at times that everything should stop, as my own life had stopped amid the jumble of Pal’s affairs.
On the morning of his burial, arranged in its details by the fimeral directors, a great many people met at the church where services were held. Small wreaths were placed on his coffin by humble mourners who walked back and sat through the service. A eulogy was rendered by a solemn speaker who had never laid eyes on Pal in his life. He spoke in hollow monotone, stringing platitudes for a fee-—a paraphrast mumbling behind the awful shadow of death. I positively marveled at the audacity of the man. Better, by far, to have honored Pal by an interval of the human quiet he had never known.
On the morning of Pal’s burial, arranged in its details by the funeral directors, a great many people met at the church where services were held. Small wreaths were placed on his coffin by humble mourners who walked back and sat through the service. A eulogy was rendered by a solemn speaker who had never laid eyes on Pal in his life. He spoke in hollow monotone, stringing platitudes for a fee—-a paraphrast mumbling behind the awful shadow of death. Better, by far, to have honored Pal by an interval of the human quiet he had never known.
In the end, Riesenberg very likely got more amusement than critical or financial reward out of rewriting P.A.L as Red Horses. P.A.L garnered a handful of reviews; Red Horses even fewer. Neither was ever reprinted. Perhaps thanks to my earlier piece, there appear to be exactly as many copies of P.A.L for sale as Red Horses: two. Aside from a couple of surveys of fiction set in Chicago, neither has been remembered in print anywhere outside this site since Riesenberg’s death. I suspect Riesenberg’s work might have fared between if he’d lived in Nebraska or Georgia or Texas, where he might at least have earned some recognition as a regional novelist. Although I wouldn’t claim masterpiece status for either version of Tangerman’s tale, I do think it deserves an honorable mention in the history of American literature and I suspect some industrious graduate student could provide an interesting textual analysis of the two books. Until then, however, we’ll keep a candle burning here in Riesenberg’s memory.
Red Horses, by Felix Riesenberg
New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1928
Greave earned a place in the home while hiding away in a room in a decrepit boarding house in Calcutta, an experience he describes in The Seventh Gate. An unexpected windfall from his father allowed him to book a passage to England on a merchant freighter. For Greave, leaving India and gaining a hope of proper treatment was his first miracle. The second, he hoped, would be for him to walk out of the clinic cured, a healthy man.
The book opens with his long ride in the back of a cab from a Liverpool dockside to the home. His nerves worn raw from eight years of painful and lonely existence in India, he finds himself contemplating suicide even as the cab nears his destination:
I was in a state not far removed from insanity; it would not have been correct to describe me as a youngish [he was 38 when he arrived at the hospital in 1947] man who was sick. I was sick, but I was more than that; I was a perambulating mass of fear. Because of my fate I felt that I had lost the status of human being, that I stood outside the bounds of human pity; and the fear of something unimaginably horrible happening to me, once my condition was known, had become part of my mental make-up. And yet in a way this fear was my own choice; I had deliberately accepted it as the price of freedom. For eight years I had clung to the outskirts of life; crouching in my corner I had feasted my eyes on its radiance and gaiety; and though it had meant hiding like a criminal I had managed to retain my identity.
I dreaded beyond words the possibility of being shut away, of becoming a number in a hospital ward, of forfeiting even the nominal rights of a human being. To be shut up was a death sentence, and yet it was worse than that; it was a sentence of life without any of the ingredients that make life bearable.
It takes Greave some weeks to adapt to his new circumstances and begin to feel safe. The physical comforts–a room of his own, a comfortable chair to sit in, a soft bed to sleep in, windows from which to look out to the surrounding fields, three warm, nourishing meals a day–break down his resistance first. Then the genuine concern of the sisters and physicians for his care, and the companionship of his fellow patients helped him lose his sense of isolation. And after suffering years of painful and pointless injections into his scars, his disease began to respond to treatments with the new drug, dapsone.
The most difficult part of his recovery, though, is spiritual. In the time that he hid away from the world in his room in Calcutta, Greave had come to see his disease as a mark of “the guilt of a thousand generations of twisted minds, and of bodies thirsting for decay.” At the home, among other sufferers, he felt a release–“one of the the main ingredients in that shining peace I had prized so much.” With the successful treatment of his leprosy, “… all this was to be taken from me. I was to be flung back into the world of ordinary men, my body healed but bearing the taint of my guilt-haunted mind.” “I stood like a diver on a high springboard,” he writes, “looking down into the dark, greedy waters into which I soon must plunge, and knew that I was terrified.”
In the end, it is the Sisters who guide him to the cure for his soul as well as his disease. In a moving closing scene, in which he watches three of the novices he’s come to know take their voes and prepare themselves to leave on their missions to Africa, he finds a way to let go of his fears and entrust his fate to God.
The dust jacket copy sets up The Second Miracle as a story of Christian redemption, but there are few direct religious references or scenes in the book. What there are, instead, are many passages of beautifully written, closely observed, and sympathetic prose. This is some of the best writing I’ve come across, and I will be excerpting a least a couple of passages in succeeding posts. Here is a short one, recalling the last days of one of the elderly patients:
But although the gap left by that massive, bent figure with the wheezing chuckle and shoulders draped in a faded green shawl was a real one, it was surprising how quickly he seemed to slip out of the general mind. For a day or two there were comments on his absence and inquiries as to his progress, and then he appeared to be lost sight of in the space of gossip and small personal spites and ambitions. It struck me as extraordinary that a man could so rapidly drop out of the circle and be forgotten by the rest, vanish and be as though he had never existed; but it struck me that perhaps this apparent callousness was due not so much to heartlessness as to an unconscious instinct for self-preservation. It was necessary for us to forget, to put out of our minds and utterly discard, anything that could remind us of the tenuous uncertainty of our hold on life. We all knew, though probably we scarcely admitted the thought even to ourselves, that we were little more than a hair’s breadth away from a similar defeat, and consequently we focused all our powers upon the struggle for survival, without a backward glance for those who were unable to keep their foothold upon the uneasy tightrope of existence.
While staying at the home, Greave began to write and publish for the first time, and for this we all owe the sisters a debt of gratitude. After leaving the home, he married and was able to make a living as a writer. He published articles in various magazines, wrote The Second Miracle and several novels–all out of print–and a further memoir, The Seventh Gate, in 1976. He died in 1977 at the age of 68.
The Second Miracle, by Peter Greave
New York: Henry Holt, 1955
I stumbled onto the works of Helen Bevington about two months ago and was immediately captivated by the charm and intelligence of her writing. It was a honor and pleasure to feature three of her books over the last few weeks. I wasn’t prepared, however, for the power of Charley Smith’s Girl. Subtitled “A Memoir,” it’s much more than that–it’s a profoundly moving attempt by a child to understand her parents and a book full of such deep sadness that it brought tears to my eyes near the end–something I don’t think has happened to me since Charlotte’s Web.
Helen Smith was born in 1906 in her grandfather’s parsonage. Her parents were living there because a few months earlier, her father Charley had been forced out of his own Methodist parsonage after his affair with a married woman in his congregation became public. Helen’s mother, Lizzie, had lied to defend her husband, but she refused to do it a second time when he was caught in another adulterous relationship, in another congregation, when Helen was about two years old. Lizzie insisted on getting a divorce–a rare and shocking act at the time–and Charley was sent packing.
Although the lot of a single mother was a tough one in 1908, Lizzie Smith managed to provide a home for herself and Helen by teaching music and piano. There was no day-care in those days, aside from the kindness of a few neighbors, and Helen learned to keep herself amused as she trailed along with Lizzie to lessons or, after a few years, to stay quietly in their house by herself.
Despite the scandal of the divorce, Lizzie Smith earned the respect of her community in Worcester, New York, through her unbending reserve and propriety. She maintained a rigid air of personal dignity and refused to convey vulnerability to anyone–including her daughter:
My mother chose to deal with the matter in her own brisk disciplinary way. She often boasted afterwards how well she succeeded, how she calmed my terrors and made me unafraid–as she herself has been fearless all her life–by taking me in hand before it was too late. Her method was spartan. To teach me courage she sent me night after night into the dark: on an errand to the black cellar for jelly, to the unlighted parlor for a book, across the deep-shadowed road to the Prestons’ with a message. Sometimes she slipped out of the house without a word, leaving me alone with the one kerosene lamp lit, and I would lean against the door and wair sobbing, shaken with fear, till she returned. The only flaw in her method was that it never worked. I kept on being afraid, and I am afraid still.
This grim regime was multiplied in its severity when, after a few years, Lizzie decided to move to Hornell, New York, and live with two dowager relatives, Aunt Net and Aunt Lydia. Like Lizzie, they were strong-minded women “of the same blood and temperament as my mother,” but “stronger-willed and even more durable than she.” Together, Net, Lydia and Lizzie provided for Helen’s material needs–food, clothing, shelter, and the security of a home. “Yet, as I know now what was lacking in that composed and stoical household,” Bevington writes, “I know the single omission was too great. The old ladies withheld the one needful thing–love.”
Although a position as a choir mistress in a Methodist church had drawn Lizzie to Hornell, her stubborness soon brought her into conflict with her choir members and the church leadership, and she was fired after less than a year. She enrolled in a few courses in the local business school and soon found work as a clerk for the Erie Railroad. She stayed there for thirty-five years until she was retired at the age of seventy-six. “The work was dull, from monotonous to deadly.” Yet she stuck with it. “It was,” Helen writes, “the unhappy solution to her life.”
Lizzie Smith died of cancer while Helen was writing this book. Helen “stopped short in the middle of a page” and returned to Hornell to care for her mother, who passed little more than a month later. Lizzie never gave in to the disease but fought for life until the very end. The nurses at the hospital told Helen that she resembled her mother, but she disagrees. “I am not a fighter like her, not unafraid, not able or willing to live without love. She kept her solitude–a lifetime of solitary days and lonely nights. She was somehow completely alone.” “And now,” she realizes, “I am the only person alive who remembers her story and mine….”
As is the case in many marriages, successful and unsuccessful, Lizzie Smith’s husband, Charley, was her polar opposite. A boisterous man with a fine baritone voice he delighted in exercising at full volume, he was the life of many a party–which inevitably ran counter to his responsibilities as a minister. After the divorce, he left the church for good and switched to a more compatible line of work as a traveling salesman.
Unfortunately, he was still too much of a ladies’ man and was soon spending more time flirting with a pretty secretary in his company’s Chicago office than out on the road selling. A couple of years after the divorce, the secretary, Addie, turned up on Lizzie’s doorstep to say that she and Charley were getting married.
Charley lost his job but he and Addie were able to move into an apartment over her father’s Czech grocery store. One summer, Helen spent a few weeks there with them. Addie continued to work as a secretary and helped out in the store every evening, while Charley … well, Charley continued to enjoy life. One Saturday night the three of them venture out to a lively party of Czech immigrants, but only Helen and Addie return home. “I learned that summer,” she writes, “when I was eight, how you can tell when someone beside you in bed is weeping in the dark. Addie breathed unevenly, holding her breath and letting it out a little at a time, in quick uneven gasps that made almost no sound.”
Charley’s turbulent spirit and Helen’s independence brought the two into inevitable conflict. He disapproves of her choice to attend the University of Chicago, her choice to study English, her choice of friends and living arrangements, and they finally part ways with angry words.
Twenty-two years later, Helen receives a call from Boyce, her half-brother, the son Charley had with Addie. Despite his wandering ways, over the years Charley grew more and more dependent upon Addie, and when she died, he suffered an unbearable despair. “Finally,” Boyce tells her, “he just stayed in the house–he lived with Marian and me, you know–sat all day in the apartment staring into space, twisting his ring around his finger and clenching it into his fist. One morning he didn’t get out of bed. He turned his face to the wall, never spoke, never got up again–”
“I see, much too late,” Helen writes, “that I lacked the one quality most needed for this simple tale–compassion. Any child can feel resentment, and any child can find a reason to rebel. It was compassion I took so desparately long to learn….”
The compassion Helen Bevington reveals in every line of Charley Smith’s Girl lifts this book from the level of a simple, open-eyed memoir to a masterpiece, a transformative meditation on the lessons a child can learn from her parent: “My mother and my father–one was strong and brave and indomitable, and one withdrew in utter despair,” she writes in the final lines of the book. “Neither of them ever discovered how to be happy. There must be a third way. I am not sure, but I think there must be a third way.” As readers of A Book and A Love Affair, House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, and her journals will discover, throughout her adult life, Helen Bevington pursued that third way.
Charley Smith’s Girl: A Memoir, by Helen Bevington
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1965
House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, published in 1971, was Helen’s third volume of memoirs, covering the period from 1942 to 1956. It picks up where the preceding book, A Book and a Love Affair, ended: with the arrival of the Bevingtons at Duke University, where Helen’s husband Merle was joining the English faculty.
Helen, too, was soon recruited into teaching, and she was to remain with the department for over thirty years. Part of House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm–and one of the more interesting parts it is–relates her experiences in teaching poetry to several generations of undergraduates. She quickly realized that “The great and abiding danger, without doubt, lay in talking too much.” More than a few teachers never learn that lesson.
Among her first students were former servicemen enjoying the benefits of the G. I. Bill, and she had mixed success in getting these veterans to appreciate Wordsworth and Cummings. Of one in particular, she admits she fell short: “I wanted to make sense, teach without hypocrisy or rectitude. But what did I in this cloistered world insulated from war know of Iwo Jima?”
She also witnessed how quickly poetry underwent a transformation from which it has yet to fully recover:
In past centuries, from Chaucer to Thomas Hardy, the poet seldom would be caught teaching. I suppose it didn’t occur to him as his vocation, or that he had words to spare or anything pedantic to say. Now his audience consisted of a row of college students plus a few loyal professors. Like most poets on the lecture platform (Auden, Lowell, Wilbur, Eberhart, Jarrell, Roethke, Shapiro, Dickey), he was pretty sure to be a professor himself, or a librarian like Philip Larkin, a frightening state of affairs. Poetry was being written by teachers and taught by poets. It had become, of all things, academic.
She herself struggled and had, perhaps, greater success in managing to be a poet herself. She published three collections–Doctor Johnson’s Waterfall and Other Poems (1946); Nineteen Million Elephants (1950); and A Change of Sky, and other poems (1956)–during this period, and saw dozens of her verses published in The New Yorker. She decided to follow a middle path between “the Mrs. Roosevelt complex–the urge to rush out and mill around twenty-four hours by the clock fulfilling oneself in the marketplace” and that of one of her favorite writers, Montaigne, retired to his tower. “My solution,” she writes, “was to live three lives: the domestic, the professional, and in an (insubstantial) tower the private.
Now after a quarter of a century, fully aware of the vanity and overweening of tripling oneself in a multiple choice of existence, I can highly recommend it to anybody who wants it. The only rule is to remember it won’t work, not with scandalous serenity. Each separate life constantly demands its rights in the matter. Each self cries out, “Pity me.”
This passage demonstrates one of the things I love about Helen Bevington’s perspective: her wonderful balance of romantic idealism and working-mother practicality. She would never have accepted the pablum advice to “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow.” As she tells in Charley Smith’s Girl, her account of growing up the child of divorce in a time when such things were not spoken of, she had early on come to see how hard such simple things as a roof over the head and food on the table can be to come by and never took them for granted–at least not after she had children of her own. You can have it all, she might say–but not with “scandalous serenity.”
House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm is an account of her middle age. During this time, her sons went off to college, married, and starting teaching careers of their own. She and her husband (still known just as B.) had the chance to travel and enjoy each other’s company. She taught and wrote and enjoyed friendships. And she went through a soul-shaking crisis after a malignant lump is removed from under her shoulder and her doctor advises further surgery. Fearing a bleak end of pain and invalidism, she considers taking her own life.
Books, however, ultimately come to her rescue: “For bolstering the hours I read books as sustainers: Montaigne, who said we are all novices at this business of death. ‘My art and my profession is to live.’ They were curative words, written unfortunately by a dead man.” And, sharing the inspiration for the book’s title, she read “Wallace Stevens, who had died six months before”:
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm.
The house and the world were the same thing. And they were not quiet after all, and they were not really calm. It was only that they had to be.
I’m grateful for Helen Bevington’s decision, as she stuck around for another forty-some years, during which she gave us this and her other memoirs and journals, all of which display her remarkable insight, wit and wisdom.
The House was Quiet and the World was Calm, by Helen Bevington
New York City: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971
One rarely comes across a book that has both guts and charm, but this one has: When Found, Make a Verse of. The people who discovered it then loved it, and those who never saw it missed a lot. Its dust jacket, vermillion red with a black spine, simple white lettering at the very top, and in the upper corner a small medallion, is seductive to the eye, enticing to further exploration. Once open, each piece in the book is short enough to lead quickly to the next piece without strain, and the contents are varied and jolly enough, or dramatic enough, to keep you reading on–and then one–turning pages and still reading when you ought to put out the light and go to sleep.
The critic Gilbert Highet described When Found, Make a Verse of as “the commonplace book of a poet,” but that’s a little misleading. Most commonplace books are collections of excerpts and passages from various sources, and while there are plenty of excerpts here, they’re generally brief and serve mainly to inspire an observation or poem–and sometimes both. I think Hughes provided a better synopsis: “It is rather a collection of the liveliest and oddest and most exciting chosen items from memory and memoirs that you can possible imagine, and about them Helen Bevington sometimes makes verses.”
A verse is a verse. Mine were only a kind of notation. The habit of notetaking, an old and private one with me, went back to college days at the University of Chicago when, like Hudibras, I learned to take note, “Transcribe, collect, translate and quote.” I began copying down powerful and enlightened words whenever I found them, calling the first notebook “Chiefly about Life.” It was the beginning of my education.
“When found, make a note of,” said Captain Cuttle in Dombey and Son. “Overhaul the wollume, and there find it. . . . When found, turn the leaf down.”
… Writing a verse meant taking a note and shaping it a little for safekeeping. If the verse turned out ill, the quotation it sprang from was too good to leave around gathering dust. I felt obliged to rescue personally from oblivion such immortal words, to act as it were their advocate–for example, Aunt Mary Emerson’s imperious command: “Be still, I want to hear the men talk.” Or Thoreau saying, “Do what you love. Pursue your life.” Or, Fontenelle: “Quelque fois j’ai dit ha ha.” Or Cummings:
Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it’s there and sitting down
Bevington’s verse is, with few exceptions, light verse. She quotes another master, Morris Bishop, who defined three principles for light verse: “strictness of form, incongruity, and logic.” That suggests a product whose lightness belies the effort involved in its creation, and a number of times in her memoirs Bevington refers to rewriting a piece a hundred times or more.
A clue to this perspective can be found in a wonderful story about the artist Clare Leighton:
One afternoon while she was living in Durham we talked of her woodcuts, and she brought out her recent work, spreading it widely over the floor of her living room. It was but a single woodcut, in many versions, of an old Carolina woman in a rocking chair. Clare arranged these prints in progression, dozens of them, all so nearly alike that no one but her could have guessed the proper order. Yet between the first and the last was a beautiful and telling difference. With each revision, she had changed perhaps a single line in the wooden block, seeking always the right tone and texture. Thus the impressions of light and shade became more delicate, the old woman gained slowly in character. That, I realized, was the way to create: to seek clarity over and over and over again.
You can see an example of Bevington’s own search for clarity in the following two passages. The first appears in A Book and a Love Affair, just after the above excerpt on note-taking:
… Yeats said, “People do not invent. They remember.” And as everyone knows, memory deceives. Yet without the power of invention or the imagination of a poet, I would not fabricate or invent: I would remember. I would be a note-taker and remember the notes. Moreover I would remember only what I wanted to, without sadness in it, and not be a preserver of grief. Who would want a memory without a compartment for forgetting?
I say that I believe Yeats was right about it when he said, “People do not invent. They remember.” Ideas, light as goose feathers, are everywhere, requiring only good eyesight and good hearing to detect them. The only difficulty is that one is, most of the time, forgetful or asleep. What I wish for most, I think, is a talent for experience and a long memory. I grieve for the light and shining events that all my life I must have overlooked and forgotten.
If Bevington had worked a hundred more variations upon this theme, I would happily read them.
I can’t close this piece without quoting at least one of Bevington’s verses, a lovely bit of form, incongruity and logic:
What John Skelton said
Maybe John Skelton knew,
And the devil is dead.–Is dead?
Maybe Max Beerbohm knew
What happiness? when he said
That it’s a four-post bed
In a field of poppies and
Mandragora. Some do
Give the answers, as if they knew
Much virtue in as if.
Such a delicious and wise punch line.
Just as Langston Hughes pulled me into this book, I’ll let him offer those who still need it one last tug of the shirtsleeve: “It is a going-back-to-book to open almost anywhere for sheer pleasure and read something over again–vivid vignettes and sparkling comments in clean clear type with air between the lines on very good paper–a pleasure to both mind and eye, yes. Really a lovable book.”
When Found, Make a Verse of, by Helen Bevington
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961
I’ve been working on this site for almost seven years and following neglected books for nearly thirty years before that, and still I manage to miss marvelous things that seem to be sitting right in plain sight. Take the works of Helen Bevington. Searching for information on someone else, I came across a review of her 1961 book, When Found, Make a Verse of, by Langston Hughes. I’ll quote at greater length from the piece when I feature When Found in a few weeks, but the opening line sold me instantly: “One rarely comes across a book that has both guts and charm, but this one has.”
Who was Helen Bevington, I wondered? The Internet produced immediate answers, of course: that she was an “American poet, prose author, and educator” (Wikipedia); that “Her memoir Charley Smith’s Girl was banned by the library in Worcester, N.Y., where she grew up” (NY Times obit); and that “She was one of the great teachers. Her course in 20th century poetry was … a tremendously influential course in my own development,” according to the novelist Reynolds Price (Duke Today).
I also learned that she wrote a series of autobiographical books, starting with Charley Smith’s Girl, in addition to several collections of her own verse. A Book & A Love Affair, published in 1968, is the second in chronological order but the first one to arrive in the mail, so it’s the first–but not the last–to be mentioned here.
And in some ways, it may deserve first mention, anyway. “I sat down in the seat beside him one morning in Professor Hunter Wright’s class in Romanticism. And that was how my life began,” opens A Book & A Love Affair. He is Merle Bevington, a fellow graduate student in English at Columbia University, referred to throughout the book as “B.” Although B. had shown no interest in Helen until that moment, she had been eyeing him since the start of the semester, waiting for her opportunity.
She clearly knew what she was looking for. They move seamlessly from class to the streets to the 125th Street ferry, on which they spend the night, going back and forth to Fort Lee, New Jersey and talking endlessly. Within days, they marry–despite the fact that Helen first turns him down because she had made up her mind permanently against marriage (with some reason, as we learn in Charley Smith’s Girl).
A Book & A Love Affair covers the first sixteen years of their marriage, until they moved to Duke University in North Carolina, where B. and later, Helen, became members of the faculty. (B. taught until his death in 1964; Helen until her retirement in 1976). It isn’t a particularly memorable autobiography in terms of events–they traveled around the world in third class in 1929; they had two sons; they managed to get through the Depression with a variety of teaching and secretarial jobs; they lived in a series of apartments in Manhattan and the Bronx.
What makes the book–and, I suspect, all of its successors–enjoyable is the pleasure of Bevington’s company. She and B. are tremendous readers, rarely without a book in hand or a quote for the occasion, but they’re not snobs. Helen can fetch up a line from Donne or Keats, but she’ll also reprint a note passed between her boys as they sit around the dinner table:
I do not think that bilding houses is worth it. Becase when you bild mother always comes and busts it down.
If you think its wroth it answer.
Sincerely yours Philip.
She earns her graduate degree from Columbia and does research on the subject of sentimental novels of 18th century England, but she’s also a working mom whose experiences–though seventy-some years old now–will ring true for today’s parents:
Under the heading of light entertainment I led my children forth to be diverted by fear, managing very early to harrow up their souls. David would ask, hopeful as we set out on one of these excursions, “Will it be funny?,” but we seldom had such luck. In March, 1938, we attended in their innocence and mind the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and for a while David laughed himself sick at the antics of the Walt Disney clowns. Pip echoed him. Then along came the witch. As always happens, along came the witch.
She threw David into a panic. Tense and frowning, he began to squirm, covering his eyes, peering out in the dark to see if she was still there. Next he crawled hastily from his seat and crouched on the floor, making no sound but shuddering all over like a whipped animal. I felt like a dog. Philip turned to his father, fortunately on hand to protect us, and grabbing his arm quavered, “You said it was a movie, didn’t you, Dad?”
After that we rested on our oars until The Wizard of Oz came along and scared the pants off them.
And although Helen and B. remain somewhat protected from the hazards of the time–they always had a paycheck when one was needed and a roof over their heads–she eloquently conveys the sense they had that terror was never too far from their door:
He wrote every night till the eleven o’clock news, then we listened to the radio and Edward R. Murrow saying, ‘This is London’–or, as holding my breath I waited to hear, ‘This is London no more.’ Each night we learned the new words: Luftwaffe, Messerschmitt, Stuka, dive bomber, balloon barrage, flak, incendiaries, Spitfires, antiaircraft guns. And the old words: burning, burning, burning.
Although the Bevingtons leave the noise and crowds of New York City for the relative calm of Durham in August 1942, the book ends on a hesitant note. Writing in the late 1960s, Helen was still living in a world where nuclear warfare lurked in the wings as a threat, and you can tell that she struggled to maintain a sense of hope that sanity would prevail: “The idea of a book against the dark is no doubt absurd …. Still, a word’s eye view is not to my mind such a bad idea. To me there is in fact only the one view, whether of life or death. It is simple and eternally the same–a book and a love affair, that is all one needs.”
The next in the sequence of Helen Bevington’s autobiographical books, published in 1971, has what I think may be my favorite title of all time: House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm. I look forward to sharing it.
A Book and A Love Affair, by Helen Bevington
New York City: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
One of the drawbacks to running this website is that I rarely read books that are still in print. Browsing in new book stores is always frustrating. I find things I’d love to read, but then struggle to justify the time that would take away from reading books I should cover on this site.
Last week, however, I couldn’t resist buying a new book. We were at the Istanbul airport waiting for our flight back to Brussels and my wife and I were killing time browsing in the D&R store in the international terminal. There was a small section of English translations of Turkish literature, and in it, a copy of Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country, published by Persea Books in 2009. I thumbed through it and saw that it was a long poem (Hikmet’s subtitle is “An Epic Novel in Verse”), which would usually constitute strike two for me. I have to confess that I do not read as much poetry as I should.
But I soon found myself five pages into the book, almost inhaling the text like air. Although writing (mostly) in blank verse, Hikmet’s style is transparent and effortless to read. Unlike the only other verse novel I’ve read (Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, which I did enjoy and do admire greatly), Human Landscapes from My Country could be published as prose with little effect on the meaning–though certainly not the form–of the text. I decided to buy it, and read over 150 pages in the course of our flight back. I went on to devour its over-450 pages in the course of a few days.
The poem opens on the steps of the Haydarpa?a train station, one of the landmarks of the shoreline of the Asian side of Istanbul, in the spring of 1941. Hikmet takes us into the thoughts of Master Galip, an unemployed man in his fifties: “When will I die?/Will I have a bed to die in?” Then Hikmet’s focus shifts to a homeless boy, then to a middle-aged woman originally from the Caucasus, then to Corporal Ahmet, a veteran of the wars (Balkan, Great and Greek). In these first few pages, we are introduced to a cross-section of Turkish society, including Halil, a political prisoner who serves as something of a fictional persona for Hikmet. Some of them are about to depart on the 3:45 PM train for Ankara and points east. Others will travel in style on the Anatolia Express. Through the rest of Book One of the novel, we will follow the 3:45–the cheap, slow train–and its passengers. Then, in Book Two, we ride with the businessmen, fonctionaires and bourgeoisie on the Express, a modern and comfortable sleeper.
Book Three is set in an Anatolian prison and a hospital where Halil is taken to treat his growing blindness. Again, we meet a variety of characters representing different aspects of Turkish society. Hikmet’s vision is broad and all-embracing, as he deal with peasants still firmly rooted in feudal and tribal ways, intellectuals at various points along the political spectrum, government spies, crooks, and women (who are almost universally viewed as property, work animals, or sex objects). He shows an intimate understanding of the effect of imprisonment on both the prisoners and their loved ones:
A woman whose husband’s in prison always looks
in the mirror, always.
More than other women,
she fears getting old.
She wants the man she loves to like her still when he gets out,
if it’s thirty years later.
The centerpiece of Book Four is a series of dealings in grain sales in which the old ways come into conflict with the rigid, control-oriented mindset of the government and lead to a riot. And in Book Five, Hikmet places Turkey into the context of the world war going on all around it. This section contains the weakest part of the novel, a passage depicting the heroic defense of Moscow in December 1941 by a small band of Russian soldiers. It’s the sort of hackneyed drivel that belonged in some piece of Soviet propaganda and is completely out of place in this book. But maybe it helped Hikmet earn a roof over his head later on.
It’s a brief lapse, in any case, and the novel closes with a moving sequence in which Hikmet takes us to a small town along the Mediterranean coast and introduces us to a few characters killing time in a seaside cafe. They then watch as two boatloads of Greek men, women and children, trying to escape from German occupation, slowly come into the harbor. The Turks take up a collection to buy them food, but soon the police come along and force the boats to cast off, ignoring the Greek’s uncertain fate. Turkey managed to stay out of the fighting in World War Two, but, as Hikmet shows, it came at the cost of constant moral compromises. In that way, Human Landscapes from My Country reminds me of the first book I read in 2012, Maxence van der Meersch’s Invasion.
Hikmet’s technique of rapid cuts works well in creating a collage of “human landscapes.” Here, for example, is part of the cross-section he builds from one moment during the night of September 3rd, 1941:
rose from the table
The others stood up, too.
“If you don’t mind, I’m going to bed–
please don’t get up.”
Tahsin (the doctor-Representative)
“Intelligence goes to sleep this early?”
Monsieur Duval talked with Jazibe Hanum:
“I like your peasants–
they’re patient and don’t make demands.
Your merchants aren’t bad, either,
and your government men are harmless.
Above all, you need to develop your agriculture.
And you need to get rid of statism . . .”
Emin Ulvi Achikalin, the Izmir merchant, sat with his head full of figures
for about a hundred thousand in currants, raisins, and figs.
Kasim Ahmedoff belched
and the lips of the girl sweet as a mandarin orange
On the Anatolia Express
two women sat talking in a second-class section
They were fifty,
and both showed
their fifty years.
Nimet Hanum sat in the same section.
A young woman,
she works at a ministry.
She isn’t beautiful,
but she has something else–
a certain warmth.
Hikmet, who is considered by many to be the greatest Turkish poet of the 20th century, wrote Human Landscapes while serving a sentence of twenty-eight years in a prison near Bursa. He had been convicted by the ?nönü government for being a member of the Turkish Communist Party, which has been banned since the early 1920s. Hikmet’s sentence was cut short in 1950 after he staged a hunger strike that gained national attention and led to organized protests. He was forced into exile soon after and spent most of the rest of his life in the Soviet Union. The book was banned in Turkey for many years.
Human Landscapes was translated into English by Randy Blasing, a poet himself, and his Turkish wife, Mutlu Konuk. A shorter version was published–also by Persea Books–in 1983. I can’t speak for the faithfulness of the translation, although a Turkish colleague of mine confirmed that she went through the book like lightning when she first read it. And I certainly feel no need to justify the time I took away from my stack of out-of-print books to read Human Landscapes from My Country. It’s a terrific book that will, I hope, forever remain in print as a classic piece of 20th century literature.
Human Landscapes from My Country, by Nazim Hikmet, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, with a foreword by Edward Hirsch
New York City: Persea Books, 2009
I’ve stocked my nightstand with a selection of books by Felix Riesenberg, whose first novel, P. A. L., I wrote about several months ago. Riesenberg was a professional merchant seaman and civil engineer who took up writing somewhere in his thirties and went on to publish about a half dozen novels and an equal number of non-fiction books before his death in 1939. One might compare him to Joseph Conrad, who also switched from sea captain to writer, but Riesenberg is certainly not in Conrad’s class when it comes to fiction.
Still, I’m intrigued by what drove Riesenberg to make such a dramatic shift in occupations in middle age, and particularly by the fact that, as P. A. L. demonstrates, he took considerable risks in his choice of subjects and approach. Although the majority of his books deal with life and work at sea, none of them seems to follow a predictable path. Riesenberg have not have had the mastery to be fully successful in his artistic ambitions, but he certainly didn’t lack the courage to take risks.
As Riesenberg’s 1937 autobiography, Living Again: An Autobiography, shows, risk taking was ingrained in his character. While still a teenager, he signed into merchant marine service, sailing around Cape Horn in a six-master and working his way up through the ranks, attaining his chief mate license and, later, his chief engineer and master licenses.
Riesenberg served on a wide variety of ships, from schooners to freighters to first-class Atlantic liners. His travels took him from the Far East to the Mediterranean and all over the Atlantic. But even these experiences weren’t enough for him, and in 1905, at the age of 26, he read an article about an expedition being organized by an American journalist, Walter Wellman, to reach the North Pole by dirigible. “The scheme was crazy enough to seem workable,” Riesenberg writes. He paid a call on Wellman, who happened to be in Chicago at the same time as Riesenberg was taking leave at home, and a few days later, received a telegram telling him to report to Tromso, Norway to join the expedition as its navigator.
The expedition’s equipment loaded down four schooners, which sailed to Dane’s Island, near Spitsbergen. A base camp was built, including a massive hangar for the dirigible, but things fell behind schedule, the airship’s engines failed spectacularly when tested, and Riesenberg and two other men were left to spend the winter alone while the rest of the team returned to Norway. The next summer, the dirigible was finally completed and Wellman, Riesenberg and another man set off for the North Pole.
Within a few hours, though, they encountered powerful head winds and soon had to make an emergency landing on a glacier. A rescue party located them the next day. Riesenberg departed not long after they made it back to the base camp. “I returned, not a hero, not a bit the wiser–for it took years of contemplation before I was able to even bear the thought of setting down the circumstances of my disappointment.”
Back in New York, he enrolled in the civil engineering program at Columbia University after an uncle offered to help with tuition. He married soon after graduating, and the adventurer soon found himself scraping to stay afloat: “After marriage, things happened to me. I tried to save but could not manage it. Unexpected jobs, royalties and windfalls came to me often in the final minutes before the crack of disaster.” He worked on the construction of massive pipelines bringing water to the city. He worked for the Parks department until kicked out of the job with a change of administrations. He worked as a building inspector, which proved one of his more educational jobs:
Violations, reported by neighbors, policemen, and what not, consisted of fire escapes that were rusting apart, of fire doors unhinged and inoperative, or air shafts too small, of drains leaking, of the many things that can be wrong with any ramshackle structure. The job took me into places nothing else could have opened; no novelist could find a better entree to the steaming and often stinking heart of the bloated, untidy, but exciting city.
Then, in 1917, the sea called him again, and he was asked to take command of the U. S. S. Newport, the floating campus of the New York Nautical School. Riesenberg was both ship captain and college dean. He reveled in the glories of the ship, a sparkling white three-master, one of the last sailing ships built for the U. S. Navy. While the war was going on, the ship was confined to Long Island Sound, but after the Armistice, he was able to take it on a long cruise down to the Caribbean.
Riesenberg left the command in 1919, but returned four years later for another cruise. This time, he took the students on a voyage of thousands of miles, all the way from England to the Canary Islands and the Bahamas. Along the way, they encountered a massive storm that nearly capsized the ship. You can read an account of the cruise by one of the students, A. A. Bombe, online at http://www.sunymaritime.edu/stephenblucelibrary/pdfs/1923%20cruise%20uss%20newport.pdf.
In between and after, he kept moving from job to job–a year as chief engineer for the construction of the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital; somewhat longer editing the Bulletin of the American Bureau of Shipping; and, increasingly, stories and articles for the likes of The Saturday Evening Post. Riesenberg spares little space for his own writing. One novel he dismisses in a sentence as “a rotal flop, a complete and thorough failure.” His 1927 novel, East Side, West Side, though, was a hit and made into a film, one of the last big-budget silents, which earned him a time in Hollywood as a studio writer.
“Felix, why don’t you write a book about your life?” one of his editors asked him in 1935. So Riesenberg packed up his journals and diaries and headed to a small house on the beach near Pensacola. “After seven months on the edge of a warm and reminiscent sea,” however, “the truth came upon me with a feeling of dread–I was a stranger to myself.” Though he managed to set down the account that appears in this book, he confesses at the start that, “I look upon these things as strange occurrences, common, no doubt, to all of us.”
Despite the many colorful episodes and Riesenberg’s strong and direct prose style, however, that odd sense of detachment prevades Living Again and leaves it, in the end, a less than satisfying autobiography. The reader cannot help but get the sense that Riesenberg’s most intense experiences occurred during his early years at sea, and that most of what happened thereafter seemed anticlimactic.
Still, I will carry on with my navigation through Riesenberg’s novels. I just started Endless River, which Robert Leavitt described as, “a torrent that pours through a book—the torrent of Mr. Riesenberg’s thought and comment on life…. It swirls and eddies, formlessly; it gnaws at its restraining backs; it throws up a spray that gleams, now and then, with an unholy phosphorescence. And it tumbles along a burden of flotsam that is the most curiously assorted ever a river bore.” Clearly another example of Felix Riesenberg’s willingness to take risks.
Living Again: An Autobiography, by Felix Riesenberg
Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1937
Forty-some years before Ian Dury recorded his shopping-list song, “Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3,”, listing fifty-some sources of everyday delights–from “some of Buddy Holly” to “saying ‘Okey-dokey'”–Rose Macaulay came up with her own list. Roughly equal in number, but a little longer (well, at 395 pages, quite a bit longer) in explication, Personal Pleasures is, like Dury’s tune, a wonderful reason to be cheerful on its own.
Just a glance at the table of contents will prove it: “Arm-Chair” is the third entry, followed two later by “Bakery in the Night,” and two more by “Bed,” which is further broken down into “1. Getting into it” and “2. Not getting out of it.”
Now this is a woman who had her priorities straight.
“The great and recurrent question about Abroad is, is it worth the trouble of getting there?” she observes at the start of the first piece in the book. “Do tickets, passports, money, traveller’s cheques, packing, reservations, boat trains, inns, crouch and snarl before you like those surly dragons that guard enchanted lands?” To which today’s traveler can add, “Security checks, airline seats, airline food, and featherweight plastic cups instead of proper glasses in the hotel bathroom.”
Of course, Macaulay answers. All it take, she–a fine product of a Victorian childhood–advises, is “A little firmness, a nice mingling of industry, negligence and guile.”
Some of the pleasures are very much of a particular time and place. “Candlemas” and “Turtles in Hyde Park” may be a bit too dated to register with today’s readers. And will anyone ever again list “Flying” as a pleasure? Well, to be fair, Macaulay’s flying was as the passenger in a Klemm two-seater, helmeted and goggled against the elements in an open cockpit, which is something few of us will have a chance to experience but most would agree would have been a thrill. “Driving a Car” was also more of an adventure in the days before freeways and traffic lights.
Most of her choices, however, are timeless. If there comes a day when there is nothing to enjoy about “Eating and Drinking,” “Hot Bath,” “Listening In,” or”Taking Umbrage,” then I suspect it’ll be because books like Personal Pleasures are being hauled off the shelves and tossed onto bonfires again.
One could almost argue that Personal Pleasures is almost a textbook on how to enjoy life. Who knew that “Departure of Visitors” hid within itself a little goldmine of delight?
The easy chair spreads wide arms of welcome; the sofa stretches, guest-free; the books gleam, brown and golden, buff and blue and maroon, from their shelves; they may strew the floor, the chairs, the couch, once more, lying ready to the hand. “I am afraid the room is rather littered….” The echo of the foolish words lingers on the air, is brushed away, dies forgotten, the air closes behind it. A heavy volume is heaved from its shelf to the sofa. Silence drops like falling blossoms over the recovered kingdom from which pretenders have taken their leave.
Personal Pleasures has been in and out of print several times over the decades. It is currently out of print, but Bloomsbury Publishing will be releasing a Kindle edition this month. And it’s certainly one book worth having just the touch of a button away, as you’re more likely to dip into it from time to time than to read it straight from cover to cover–which would be a bit like eating nothing but cake for a week.
And as a good child of Victoria, Macaulay is quick to caution that all pleasures exist only when there is something against which they can be measured:
But how true it is that every pleasure has also its reverse side, in brief, its pain. Or, if not wholly true, how nearly so. Therefore, I have added to most of my pleasures the little flavour of bitterness, the flaw in their perfection, the canker in the damask, the worm at the root, the fear of loss, or of satiety, the fearful risks involved in their very existence, which tang their sweetness, and mind us of their mortality and of our own, and that nothing in this world is perfect.
Or, to paraphrase Mary Poppins: a spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down.
Macaulay wrote most of these essays as she was assembling The Minor Pleasures of Life, a compilation of poems, essays, and assorted bits of prose by other writers on many of the same pleasures and more. Quite a bit more, in fact, over 300 pages more. Most of the pieces are less than a page long, which makes Minor Pleasures a perfect bathroom book, if such things have any appeal for you. And no matter where you happen to keep your copy, it’s nice to know you can dip into it and find little gems like Henry More’s remarks on the pleasure of having “A Coach to One’s Self”:
I hired a whole Coache to my selfe which cost me, but it was the best bestowed money . . . that ever I layd out, for the ayre being cool and fresh, and the coach to be opened before as well as on the sydes, I quaff’ d off whole coachfulls of fresh ayr, without the pollution or the interruption of the talk of any person.
Although Franz Schoenberner was a man of letters for his entire adult life, aside from a short time of service in the German Army at the end of World War One, he was over fifity before he wrote his first book. Throughout the 1920s and up to Hitler’s taking power as Chancellor of Germany in early 1933, Schoenberner was a journalist and editor–most notably of the satirical (and anti-Nazi) weekly, Simplicissimus. As such, he was an archetypal European intellectual of the golden days of transnational humanism–the world of Stefan Zweig, Jules Romains, and André Gide. Not surprisingly, then, when he did come to write his first book–a clear-eyed and self-deprecating account of that period–he titled it, Confessions of a European Intellectual.
When the Nazis began cracking down on all forms of political opposition following the Reichstag fire in February 1927, however, Schoenberner quickly realized that the only options available to him were exile or imprisonment. Taking a few belongings and a little money in a backpack, he crossed into Switzerland in March 1933 and began life as a refugee. The Inside Story of an Outsider, his second book, published in 1949, is his account of eight years of living as an outsider.
From the time they set foot in Switzerland until their acceptance as long-term residents of the United States in 1941, Schoenberner and his wife, the novelist Ellie Nerac, existed in a political and economic limbo. For most of this time, their passports were in the hands of the local police. They could not leave without visas and sufficient funds to gain entry to another country, and they could not return to Germany without risking certain imprisonment or death in a concentration camp. Their status did not allow them to hold down regular jobs, and no one in Switzerland or France needed an editor of a liberal German-language magazine. Nazi laws had made it almost impossible to get any of their funds out of their German bank accounts or to sell their remaining property, and what small royalties they could get out of selling an occasional article in a Swiss or French magazine often took months to make it through a complex chain of bank transfers.
Even so, Schoenberner and Nerac were able to get by, living in cheap apartments in the south of France and devising countless ways to economize. These he recalls in a charming chapter titled, “How to Live Without Money.” “Having lived so many years almost exclusively by miracles, I feel obliged to relate for the personal benefit and encouragement of my readers some of these experiences and even some of the practical techniques which, as I have found, are likely to create the practical and psychological preconditions for such miracles to happen.”
Schoenberner is the first to admit that what he and his wife experienced–even the months of internment with thousands of refugees in filthy camps run with gross incompetence by the Vichy French–hardly compared with the fate of millions of other victims of the Second World War. Even among his fellow internees, some found their situation too much to bear. Schoenberner recounts the fate of his friend, the poet Walter Hasenclever, in the Camps des Milles, outside Aix-en-Provence:
Only when, getting up at dawn, I suddenly heard that Hasenclever could not be awakened, I knew that his good night had been a last good-by. He was still breathing when two stretcher bearers brought him to the infirmary. But a last look at his face–so deadly pale and deadly quiet–made me feel sure that any attempt to save him would be in vain. An empty tube of veronal had been found in the straw of his sleeping place. He probably had taken all the twenty tablets shortly after going to bed, and I knew enough of medicine to be certain that after eight hours the stomach pump could not remove the poison from his body. … If he reused to take this chance, it was because his will to live, as well as to create, was exhausted, and the new struggle seemed no longer worth while to him. If all he wanted was peace, life should not be forced upon him. In our times more than ever, life would always mean the opposite of peace, and everyone had to make his choice, Since he had decided for peace, it should not be disturbed.
Schoenberner had the advantage of a tremendous internal resilience–and of just enough recognition outside Germany–based largely on the reputation of Simplicissimus–to win an occasional favor with a French official–such as a release from a internment camp outside Bayonne just a day or so ahead of its being taken over by German forces.
He and Nerac also benefitted from the support of their friend, the German novelist Hermann Kesten, who was active on the Emergency Rescue Committee in the U.S.. Eventually, with the help of Varian Fry, the committee’s representative in Marseilles, who was responsible for the release of thousands of refugees from Vichy France, they were able to pull together the necessary paperwork and enough funds to gain passage to New York via Lisbon.
Having made it to the safety of the United States did not, however, mean that all their worries were over. They still faced the challenge of adapting to a new language and culture and finding a way to make a living. Fortunately, standing alone and stranded with their few suitcases in a customs shed on Staten Island, they sought out the help of woman wearing a Red Cross uniform.
This woman turned out to be a member of the local Unitarian Church, and her generosity in taking them in, offering room and board for weeks, helping them find a place to stay in Manhattan, setting them up with connections for work, and simply offering much-needed compassion and support to two very tired and uncertain people, makes you wish that all refugees coming to this country could experience the same kind of welcome.
As do many writers trying to tell a story with a happy ending, Schoenberner struggles a bit in the final chapters of The Inside Story of an Outsider. He throws in a tribute to the work of Thomas Wolfe that has little to do with the rest of the book–particularly given that Schoenberner never met or knew Wolfe personally. Although he is able to gain a position with the Office of War
Information and is persuaded to write Confessions of a European Intellectual, which wins very favorable reviews, he does not believe that the peace achieved at the end of the war represents anything but an ugly compromise. Schoenberner is unwilling to attribute any special meaning to his experiences or his choice to record them aside from the imperative for a writer to be “an incorruptible witness.”
I hope I’m not being too rude when I say, however, that, for a German intellectual, Schoenberner’s style and outlook are surprisingly light and optimistic. One might say he possesses an almost Gallic charm. And it is the pleasure of spending some hours in the company of a remarkable narrator–intelligent, compassionate, humorous and self-effacing–that makes The Inside Story of an Outsider a book worth seeking out. Over the last few days, I’ve always enjoyed picking it up, even if just for a few minutes, and regretted setting it down. Considering the book’s subject, that’s quite a recommendation.
The Inside Story of an Outsider, by Franz Schoenberner
New York City: The Macmillan Company, 1949
I. A. R. Wylie subtitled her book, My Life with George, “An Unconventional Autobiography,” and the adjective was appropriate in more than one way. George, she tells us in an opening paragraph, is that “factotum … known to the general public as our subconscious.” Given the Gay Old Nineties illustration on the book’s dust jacket and the sly reference to Clarence Day’s then-recent best-seller, Life With Father, it appears that Wylie and/or her publisher were playing a little joke on buyers, who probably assumed George was some character from the author’s past.
But Wylie’s title is also appropriate because her life itself was unconventional, particularly by the standards of the America and England of 1940. Aside from a few years in a boarding school in Brussels, she was largely self-educated, and she was certainly largely independent from an early age. She pedalled her way back to London from a family holiday at the seaside when she was just ten years old, spending a night along the way.
This trip was, in fact, her father’s suggestion, and he was the first reason her life was so unusual. Alec Wylie was, if his daughter’s account is accurate, a volatile and manic personality, who managed to flout Victorian conventions by a combination of charm, luck, and the kindness of strangers:
From the day of his birth to the hour of his death he never had a penny that he could legitimately call his own. If by some strange chance he had earned it, he already owed it several times over, and it was only an additional reason for borrowing more. Quite often he didn’t have a penny of any sort, and there were days in our large absurd house in London when there was no food for anyone except the bailiff occupying our one completely furnished room. But in the nick of time Father would run into some fine fellow who understood his situation perfectly, and we would be in funds again. The bailiff would be wined and dined and sent on his way rejoicing and proud to know us, and the furniture vans would begin to arrive with expensive, unpaid-for furniture–quite awful stuff because Alec’s taste was Victorian in its last most ponderous convulsions.
Ida–named quite literally after her parents, Ida Ross and Alec Wylie–was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1885, the first child of Wylie’s second marriage. Having married, and fathered two children, he divorced his wife and fled England with creditors at his heels, pausing only to propose to his ex-wife’s sister Christine on the way to the docks. He sweet-talked his way into a marriage with Ida Ross, the sad and plain daughter of a wealthy businessman, but quickly grew bored in Australia. On the pretext of pursuing a law case in England involving his father-in-law’s firm, he cashed in the return tickets for luxury-class one-way fares and took his wife and newborn daughter back to London.
Alec resumed his erratic affairs in London and his wife soon wasted away and died, knowing she would never see Australia again. Fortunately for young Ida, though, not before striking up a deep friendship with Christine, the woman Alec had once tried to marry. In an extraordinary example of loyalty, Christine took on the primary responsibility for making sure that Ida was clothed, fed and cared for, despite the vagaries of Alec’s fortunes, until the girl was in her late teens. Christine was just the first of a line of women who proved far stronger and more reliable than any man in Ida’s life.
This life was also unconventional for its time because Wylie’s precocious independence didn’t stop with solo bicycle rides. Having spent many hours playing by herself and filling the time by making up her own stories, she took easily to writing fiction, and, at the age of 19, sold the first short story she sent off to a magazine editor. From that point on, she was able to support herself–and eventually, Christine as well–as a writer.
She did it, in part, because she was always driven by a pragmatism that may have been a reaction to her father’s fantastic behavior. Rooming with another young English woman who had been raised in colonial India, she wrote and sold several stories based her roommate’s recollections: “At the end of my first year Esme rejoined her parents in India but she left behind her enough sahibs, memsahibs, Bo-trees, ayahs and compounds to furnish me with all the necessary ingredients for an Anglo-Indian novel which I wrote when I was twenty-one.” She went on to write at least five books based in India–The Native Born, or, The Rajah’s People (1910); The Daughter of Brahma (1913); Tristram Sahib (1915); The Temple of Dawn (1915); and The Hermit Doctor of Gaya (1916).
Along with her tales of faux India, Wylie also had considerable success with a series of books based on her experiences of living in Germany in her early twenties: My German Year (1910); Rambles in the Black Forest (1911); and The Germans (1911). Although she returned to England in 1911, she kept in touch with German friends and tried to offer a more balanced view of the German people against the jingoism of British propaganda during World War One. Her novel, Towards Morning (1918), was perhaps the first in English to suggest that not all Germans were evil imperialists (one character is shot for cowardice after refusing to take part in a particularly vicious attack).
In England, Wylie continued to go against the tides of convention by joining the Suffragette movement and providing a safe house where women who had been released from prison to recover from their hunger strikes were smuggled away from police surveillance. As she tells in the book, one of her allies in this effort was another young Englishwoman named Rachel.
After the war, Wylie and Rachel travel to the U.S., where Wylie’s books and stories have enjoyed commercial success. Despite having no driving experience, they buy a car and spend over a year travelling all over the country, from New York City to San Francisco and southern California. Wylie has her first encounter with Hollywood, which had already begun to mine her catalog for stories. Unfortunately, she was hired as a color consultant for “Stronger Than Death”, based on her Anglo-Indian novel, The Hermit Doctor of Gaya, and had to confess that she’d never actually been to India.
That didn’t keep the studios from continuing to hire Wylie. Over thirty movies made between 1915 and 1953 were based on her works, including “Torch Song” and “Phone Call from a Stranger”, which feature great scenery-chewing performances by Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, respectively. Her story, “Grandmother Bernle Learns Her Letters,” published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1926, was filmed twice–by John Ford in 1928 and by Archie Mayo in 1940, both times for Fox. Ford called “Grandma Bernie,” which portrays the four sonds of a German family divided between sides in the First World War, “first really good story” he ever filmed. The best-known film made from her work is probably “Keeper of the Flame” (1942), which is usually remembered as the one non-comedy that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together.
Anyone reading My Life with George today will have no trouble identifying one unconventional aspect of Wylie’s life: her sexuality. She mentions a number of women with whom she spends time and shares homes, although she never even remotely suggests any physical aspect of these relationships. She does, however, admit,
I have always liked women better than men. I am more at ease with them and more amused by them. I too am rather bored by a conventional relationship which seems to involve either my playing up to someone or playing down to someone. Here and there and especially in my latter years when there should be no further danger of my trying to ensnare one of them I have established some real friendships with men in which we meet and like each other on equal terms as human beings. But fortunately, I have never wanted to marry any of them, nor with the exception of that one misguided German Grenadier, have any of them wanted to marry me.
She also acknowledges that many of her women friends refer to her as “Uncle,” and her choice of being credited as “I. A. R. Wylie” instead of Ida Wylie was certainly an attempt to downplay her gender in publications.
When Baker retired in the mid-1930s, she, Wylie, and another pioneering female physician, Dr. Louise Pearce, bought Trevenna Farm, outside Skillman, New Jersey, and lived there together. Baker died in 1945; Pearce and Wylie in 1959. The farm, coincidentally, went up for sale again recently.
The literary merit of My Life with George diminishes as the book goes on, though. With all the events of her young life and her own ironic commentary, the first two thirds is terrific. It’s fast, funny and vibrant demonstration of how resilient some children can be in the face of staggering adult neglect.
After her first circuit of the U.S. with Rachel, however, Wylie loses focus. Editorial opinions are poor substitutes for first-hand observations even when fresh–and they don’t stay fresh long: “I would wise with all my heart that in the coming struggle between Good and Evil–for me it amounts to that–America would stand full-armed, shoulder to shoulder with nations who for all their shortcomings are the defenders of civilization against barbarism.” The last book staggers through its last 50-60 pages loaded down with such baggage.
Aside from direct-to-print copies of her works now in public domain and a couple of library reissues, Wylie has not had a book in print since the early 1960s. Her last novel, Claire Serrat, was published in 1959, as was praised by one reviewer as “the book of the month.” Interestingly, Ben Brady used a scenario based on Claire Serrat as the centerpiece for his 1994 book, Principles of Adaptation for Film and Television.
This slim book–just 119 pages–contains some of the simplest and most powerful writing I’ve come across in a long time. And at the same time, it’s something of a mystery.
Born and raised in a house just up the street from the Liverpool waterfront, Frank Laskier ran away to sea when just fifteen. Shifting from ship to ship–many of them tramp steamers whose conditions resembled those of B. Traven’s The Death Ship–he spent most of the next dozen years as a merchant seamen. Aside from a short stint when he tried life ashore and ended up in jail for burglary, he spent much of the time filthy and miserable at sea or drunk and violent in port.
Then, sometime in late 1940, his ship, Eurylochus, was attacked and sunk by an merchant raider, the Komoran, off the coast of West Africa. Laskier’s foot was blown off by a shell, and he and the other thirteen survivors spent three days adrift in a life raft before being rescued by a Spanish trawler. He was eventually repatriated to the UK, where he idled away his days in a pub until a young BBC radio producer overheard him regaling some friends with a story. The producer thought him a natural radio personality and convinced Laskier to record an account of the attack and his rescue.
The piece proved immensely popular with wartime listeners and Laskier went on to write and broadcast more talks over the next year. These were collected as My Name is Frank. Of the book, a reviewer in the Spectator wrote:
Frank Laskier’s broadcasts had the stuff of greatness; put into print they lose nothing in the reading. By a natural genius this seaman has found an expression and a rhythm which the poets and artists of the modern world have been striving after for generations.
Although a genuine article, Laskier did allow himself to be used for maximum propaganda effect. In The Merchant Seamen’s War, Tony Lane refers to him as a Stakhanov–the Russian coal miner made a worker’s hero by Soviet propagandists. Laskier appeared in several films, encouraging others to join the Merchant Marine. You can see a preview of one at the British Pathé website.
A year or so later, Laskier published Log Book. The book is clearly an autobiography, as the story follows his own exactly. But, for some unexplained reason, Laskier chose to call himself Jack in the book, and to treat the story as fiction, avoiding most references to specific times and places.
The book suffers not at all by this choice–indeed, it may gain in power, as it thereby allows the writing to stand on its own.
And what writing it is. Reviewing the book in the New York Herald Tribune. Lincoln Colcord called it, “a work of art so simple and acute, that one often pauses to wonder. Here, for example, is Laskier’s description of the return from liberty of a hand who had watched his own brother fall and smash his skull on the deck a few days before:
Outside, beyond the pool of light over the gangway, the stand-by man and Jack could hear a man stumlbing along. He seemed to be having an hysterical argument with somebody. It was the donkey-man–still in his engine-room clothes–as he had gone down the gangway for a quick one. His face, as he came under the light, looked blotched, and red and swollen. He stopped at the quayside and looked up at the ship; a big, grimy figure, gazing up the gangway to the faces of the man and boy–then passing to the outlines of the ship. “You dirty, hungry, lousy bastard! You stinking, bloody old death trap.” His voice rose to a scream: “You … you death ship! Hey, boy, call the bosun–and tell him to come ashore and meet the bloody Madam.” He stood there swaying, and they could see the sweat slowly trickle down his face. Or was it tears–dead bosun was his brother. The stand-by man stood at the tope of the ladder. “Come aboard,” he said, “come up now mate and get some kip.” The donkey-man looked up at him, then he slowly started to crawl up the ladder. Up and up, dragging one foot after the other. his gnarled hands gripping the rail. Up and up, away from the land, away from the whores, and away from himself. He was all the Jims, all the sailors. Leaving all the sordidness and filth of the land–leaving that land–crossing that silent, inviting strip of water–stepping into a new world. One board, the ghost of his brother waited to lead him gently to his bunk. His footsteps rang hollowly as he slumped along the darkness of the deck and vanished into the fo’castle.
There are dozens of such passages throughout the book. I counted over twenty pages I’d dog-eared while reading it.
Laskier was thirty years old when he wrote Log Book, but his voice and perspective are those of a man of long and hard experience. After years of whoring, drinking and fighting, a year in Borstal and another in Nottingham prison, he finally experiences an epiphany one night when he takes a break to go on deck as his ship steams through the Bay of Biscay:
His old friends the porpoises came out and did their set of lancers in front of the bows. He could hear the rustle and swish of their bodies as they surfaced. And the gentle plop as they submerged. The sea, the sky, the moon and the stars–in unison–told him of the glorious heritage of beauty that belongs to the sailor. They would forgive him all, so long as he was worthy of them and could feel their beauty.
His personal peace is short-lived, those, as the Second World War breaks out shortly after he reaches port. He signs on with another ship and is soon convoying a load of Britsh children to Canada. On the return voyage, the old freighter’s engines fail to keep speed and the ship is forced to fall out and make its way back to Liverpool alone–a nervous week of scanning the surrounding waters for signs of U-boats.
The ship’s end comes, however, not in the bitter, rough North Atlantic but on a calm evening, as “Phosphorus gleamed in the wake of the ship, pale green; long, beautiful streaks of cold fire.” The attack comes abruptly, with great noise, fire, explosions, and is over in just two pages, as Jack throws himself into the water, not realizing his foot is gone. He and the few survivors endure three days, exposed, with no water and sharks constantly circling and scraping against their raft.
They have the good fortune to be rescued by a passing trawler and, later, by a Royal Navy ship, and Laskier and his shipmates are evacuated to a hospital ship anchored in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The book ends with Jack back in the UK, and, like Laskier, discovered by the BBC and speaking for the first time on the radio.
Despite the enthusiastic critical reception of Log Book and My Name is Frank, Laskier was quickly forgotten when his propaganda value had faded. He moved to the US and tried to get the movie studios interested in his stories. His first genuine novel, Unseen Harbor, was published in 1947, but received little notice. He died less than a year later, the victim of an automobile accident.
Log Book, by Frank Laskier
London: George Allen & Unwin, 1942
New York City: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943
I sat down to read a few pages to get a sense of the book. An hour later, I was on page 50 and committed to finish it.
Invasion (originally titled Invasion 14 in French) would not, at first glance, seem the sort of book that can pull you in and make you want to stay. Set in Roubaix, a French industrial town just a few miles from the border with Belgium, Invasion is the record of over four years’ occupation by the German army as experienced by dozens of the local inhabitants. Even on a good day, Roubaix is a pretty grim place: a town of mills and mines, full of streets of grey shuttered houses, much of the year under a grey a dreary sky. Trapped behind German lines, the people of the town had no choice but to remain, but today’s reader is free to leave their story gathering dust on the shelf.
However, Van der Meersch’s style (in translation, at least) is simple and immediately accessible, like Tolstoy’s, and like the great master, he has a viewpoint that seems able to get inside the head and heart of any character. In the course of the novel, Van der Meersch follows dozens of the town’s residents, from wealthy mill owners to shopkeepers and farmers to petty criminals and little children. As with a Russian novel, there are times when one gets lost in the flurry of names (I kept confusing the Fontcroix with the Laubigiers).
Yet despite the bleakness of the novel’s setting and subject and the constant shifting from character to character, Van der Meersch maintains a remarkable level of narrative tension. Put any group of people in an extreme situation and their responses will vary widely. This has been a basic formula of story-tellers for millenia. But in this case, the strain seems to increase relentlessly. No one–not even the Germans–expects the occupation to wear on for months and then years. The faint, muffled sound of shelling–the front is never more than twenty miles away–goes on and on, and the sense of hopelessness grinds away at even the strongest.
The Laubigiers, an ordinary working class family, for example, offer shelter to three French soldiers separated from their unit in the first retreat. It’s a simple gesture of charity in response to a request from the local priest. Civilian clothes and forged papers are arranged to aid their escape. But then the time wears on:
For the first few weeks an atmosphere of mutual toleration prevailed, but then a certain amount of friction began to develop. The men were bound to the Laubigiers by no real ties, and became irritable under pressure of forced seclusion. Their minds turned to their own people, and the necessity of learning new trades in order to keep themselves occupied and to earn enough to pay for their keep, of becoming cobblers, harness-makers, and chair-menders, began to get on their nerves. Quarrels started. Disputes arose over the sharing of coal and food. The carelessness and messiness of her three lodgers did violence to Félicie’s naturally tidy nature.
“Seen in its stark reality,” van der Meersch concludes, “the situation was one in which a group of people remained bound together by necessity, while all the time they grew daily to hate one another more and more violently.”
One reason I was interested in Invasion is that I wanted to explore the effects of a prolonged occupation on a people. Twice in the course of thirty years, the people of Belgium, where I live now, and parts of France, lived for years under the rule of an occupying power. This is an experience unknown in American history, and I have a theory that this is one reason why people in this part of Europe view good and evil as lying along a spectrum of infinitely subtle gradations and no clear-cut distinctions.
In the first months of the occupation, a few in the town display true heroism. A priest and a local schoolteacher manage to produce a newsheet telling about local incidents of German brutality and calling for resistance. A mill owner rallies his workers to refuse to make cloth for German uniforms. But they are all soon rounded up and shot, imprisoned or sent off to forced labor. Even the rich find their possessions confiscated and their savings eaten away by black market prices.
Some collaborate quickly and with little sense of guilt. Others give in only when their means or willpower have been exhausted. Some develop genuine friendships, as the Laubigiers do for a German cook billeted with them, that inevitably come with complications that verge or veer into collaboration.
By the time the severe winter of 1917-18 comes around, the hardships have worn away almost all sense of hope and dignity. The extent to which the experience leads inevitably to self-destruction is symbolized by peoples’ pillaging of their own homes:
Gradually, and rather fearfully, folk began to remove the banisters from staircases, trap-doors from lofts, everything that was of no immediate, or only of secondary, use. Boards were taken from the backs of cupboards, shelves for keeping food fresh in the cellars, doors and woodwork from lavatories, the seats themselves, the roofs. A futher step involved the shutters of windows, rabbit hutches, tool-sheds, coal boxes. After a further week or two the doors of the rooms had to go, attic floors, gutters, and drain pips. Finally, life came to be lived in the strangest apologies for houses, bare walls open to the air, with a mattress of the ground and a fire in one corner.
The occupation does end, however. Two hours after the last German leaves, the English arrive, and the retribution begins almost as soon as the celebrations. “Realizing that life in France would be impossible for them,” women who have taken German lovers “made up their minds to see whether they could not start afresh in Germany.” When they catch up with retreating troops, though, they are sent back to be branded and beaten.
The men, on the other hand, soon reach “a sort of tacit agreement to cease fire…. It was very much better to form a mutual admiration society than to rake up uncomfortable truths and start hitting blindly at the expense of all and sundry.” “Those who stumbled on the truth,” writes van der Meersch, “took fright and avoided it like poison.”
A native of Roubaix, van der Meersch was just seven years old when the German occupation began, but his novel is informed by a rich network of friends, relatives and neighbors and years of hearing their recollections. Trained as a lawyer, his advice was often sought out even though he never actually practiced. The historian Richard Cobb, who met van der Meersch when he was evacuated to Roubaix as an internee during the German occupation of 1940-44, described the novelist as “the magician who had pulled the front off so many corons [villages], to introduce me, de plein pied, into the kitchen and the smell of coffee and boiling potatoes.”
In an essay in his book, Paris and Elsewhere–reissued as a New York Review Classic–Cobb calls van der Meersch “a regionalist who had written almost exclusively about Roubaix and who had brought honour to the town by winning the Prix Goncourt. He was, in fact, a clumsy stylist, a Christian-Socialist Zola, who wrote off an accumulated stock of fiches [files].” Invasion does, at times, give the sense of being an accumulation of fiches–primarily because no single character dominates the narrative.
Van der Meersch wrote around a dozen novels, all of them set in and around Roubaix, in the space of about as many years. He was 27 when Invasion was published, and two years later he won the Prix Goncourt for L’Empreinte du dieu, translated into English as Hath Not the Potter. By the time Cobb met him, “He was tubercular and had fallen under the influence of a medical eccentric who preached under-nourishment as a cure for tuberculosis; his most recent novel [Corps et âmes, translated as Bodies and Souls] was an attack on orthodox medicine.” He died of the disease in 1951 at the age of 43. Although several of his novels are still in print in France, as well as Spain and Germany (not Invasion, understandably), his work has largely been forgotten by English readers.
Invasion, by Maxence van der Meersch, translated by Gerard Hopkins
New York: Viking Press, 1937
Although I’ve had Fortunata and Jacinta on my list of books to feature from the first day I started working on this site, I’ve put it off for years. In part, I wasn’t sure I could do it justice without creating an enormous post that would scare off all but the most dedicated readers. But I was also intimidated by the investment in time the book demands. Although the Gullón translation runs to just over 800 pages, these are dense pages with long lines and small print. In truth, Fortunata and Jacinta is about as long as War and Peace less the essay at the end. And unlike War and Peace, which moves quickly, Fortunata moves at a more relaxed pace. It’s very much a book of Spain, where the day is interrupted by siesta, everyone comes out to stroll the streets after dusk, and suppertime starts at around 10PM. Do not start this novel if you’re not willing to spend at least a few weeks on it.
Writing about Fortunata in the PEN blog, contemporary Spanish novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina captures the commitment the book demands:
You live in it. You move into it. You inhabit it. You get accustomed to it. It becomes part of the daily setting of your life, like your coffee mug or your computer or your dog. You scrape some extra minute to get back to it. You stay awake longer than you should to reach the end of a chapter. You walk the same streets the characters walk, overhear their conversations, visit the same cafés and street markets and bourgeois mansions and working-class slums and taverns.
If you make this commitment, though, you will be rewarded with one of the richest reading experiences of your life. Galdós ranks with Henry Fielding as the most amiable of all the great novelists, yet with a power of observation and description that can astonish.
He is an excellent story-teller, he loves the inventiveness of life itself. It is extraordinary to find a novel written in the 1880s that documents the changes in the cloth trade, the rise and fall of certain kinds of café, the habits of usurers, politicians and Catholic charities but also probes the fantasies and dreams of the characters and follows their inner thoughts.
Indeed, Galdós has a gift for creating interior monologues and exterior conversations that shows he was a veteran of many hours of listening in on the talks of others.
One of the words you will learn in the course of reading this book is tertulia. A tertulia is conversation elevated to the level of an art form or ritual. “Spaniards are the most talkative creatures on earth,” Galdós observes. My wife and I once visited a Spanish family for coffee after their Sunday lunch. At one point, my wife’s friend had her daughter model a new dress for the grandparents, aunts and uncles. For the next forty-five minutes, at least, the entire family discussed, analyzed, deconstructed, and assayed the little girl’s dress from every conceivable angle. It was a scene that would have fit easily into Fortunata and Jacinta.
Early on in the novel, Galdós remarks, “Clothes, ah! Is there anyone who doesn’t see in them one of the main sources of the energy of our times, perhaps even a generative cause of movement and life?” Clothes and fabric have a particular importance as they are the source of the wealth of the Santa Cruz family, whose son Juan’s dalliance with the working girl Fortunata sets off the central drama of the book.
Juan is “a completely idle man.” His parents, having achieved a comfortable fortune through owning a successful store selling fabrics, shawls and fancy Chinese fans, indulge their only child’s lack of ambition. His father, Galdós writes, “delighted in his son’s indolence just as an artist delights in his work; the more the hands that made it grow pained and tired, the more he admires it.”
His mother intends to maintain their fortune and standing, however, and arranges for Juan to marry Jacinta, the daughter of a rival mercantiler. Before the pair marries, Juan encounters Fortunata, an orphan living with an aunt who runs an egg and poultry shop in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, and quickly seduces her. Easily bored, he abandons the girl–but not before getting her pregnant. Juan and Jacinta marry and head off for a honeymoon visiting sites throughout Spain, taking advantage of the novel convenience of train travel. The child dies soon after birth.
The tertulias are highly effective modes of communication, and Jacinta soon hears rumors of Juan’s affair. While on the honeymoon, she attempts to get thr truth out of Juan, but he manages to acknowledge as little as possible. He is an altogether shallow, self-centered and manipulative character: “Santa Cruz denied some of the facts, and others, the bitterest, he sweetened and glossed over admirably well to make them pass.”
Jacinta continues to harbor suspicions, and as years of childless marriage pass, broods upon the idea of Fortunata’s having had a child with Juan. In the meantime, having been picked up and abandoned by a string of other men, Fortunata allows herself to be taken in by Maximiliano Rubin, a pharmacy student living with his aunt, Doña Lupe, who embark on a mission to reform her.
Although she willingly enters a convent for a course of time and weds Rubin, Fortunata soon falls back into an affair with Juan, who is attracted again by the novelty of seducing a married woman. Throughout much of the book, Fortunata tries to go along with the efforts of others to change her, but is ultimately resigned to be what she is: “I was born pueblo and I’ll stay pueblo,” she says.
The two women meet only a few times in the course of the book, but they come to have a relationship that is far more powerful than either experiences with Juan. Fortunata develops “a burning desire to look like Jacinta, to be like her, to have her air–that particular kind of sweetness and composure.” And, at the end, Jacinta comes to accept Juan’s second child born to Fortunata as her own as the poor woman lays dying in her squalid apartment. Of this scene, Pritchett wrote,
The last time I wept over a novel was in reading Tess when I was 18. Fifty years later Fortunata had made me weep again. Not simply because of her death but because Galdós had portrayed a woman whole in all her moods. In our own 19th century novels this situation would be melodramatic and morally overweighted–see George Eliot’s treatment of Hetty Sorrel–but in Galdós there is no such excess.
As you might expect from a thousand-page novel, in and around the central story of Fortunata and Jacinta are woven dozens of other narratives and a cast of minor characters often as interesting as the protagonists. The women are particularly strong–Doña Lupe, for example, whose “motto was: we should always start with reality and sacrifice what seems best to what is good, and what is good to what is possible.” Or Doña Guillermina, the “saint” whose energy in wrenching donations of money, services and building materials out of everyone she encounters would put today’s best fundraisers to shame.
And there are countless descriptions of a large and complex city in the midst of social and political changes. Amadeo abdicates in favor of the first Spanish republic, which falls in turn with the restoration of Alfonso XII. The republicans push many of the Church’s enterprises out from the center of Madrid, sparking a wave of new construction: “Every day the growing mass of bricks covered up another thin layer of the landscape. With every row that was laid, it seemed as if the builders were erasing rather than adding.”
And there is all the drama one could wish for in a rich 19th century novel. At least three death scenes. Two weddings and two funerals. A fist fight between Rubin and Juan, a nails-bared fight between Fortunata and Juan’s latest lover. Several mad scenes. Feasts and starving orphans.
And there is conversation:
In our cafés, anything under the sun is fair game for conversation. Gross banalities as well as ingenious, discreet, and pertinent ideas may be heard in these palces, for they are frequented not only by rakes and swearers; enlightened people with good habits go to cafés, too. There are tertulias made up of military men, of engineers; most often, there are tertulias made up of employees and students; and whatever room they leave is filled up by out-of-towners. In a café one hears the stupidest and also the most sublime things.
Galdós wrote Fortunata and Jacinta in the space of about a year, publishing it in 1887. By then, he’d been writing novels and plays for nearly twenty years, and he carried on for over twenty more. In total, he wrote over thirty conventional novels, plus an additional forty-six that he called Episodios nacionales, which depicted episodes from 19th century Spanish history, starting with Trafalgar and culminating in Cánovas, written in 1912 and set around the time of Fortunata.
Of these seventy-some novels, roughly twenty have been translated into English in the course of the last 120 years. Of these, setting aside direct-to-print copies of very old translations, less than five are still in print–meaning, still for sale new from Amazon. The last new edition of an English translation of a work by Galdós appears to have been Juan Martín el Empecinado, one of his Episodios nacionales, translated by Alva Cellini and published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2003. It sells for $109.95–and is out of stock. Used copies of Fortunata and Jacinta are available from Amazon starting at $3.99 and going up to $150. I recommend the Gullón translation, which is a masterpiece–fresh, lively and worked with considerable care.
Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women, by Benito Pérez Galdó
Translated by Lester Clark and published by Penguin, 1973
Translated by Agnes Moncy Gullon and published by the University of Georgia Press, 1986 and Penguin, 1988
After forty-plus years of nosing through the stacks of book stores, it’s hard to surprise me. When I came across a Modern Library edition of Human Being by Christopher Morley while browsing in the Harvest Book Company store in Philadelphia, it was a double punch: not just a Modern Library title I’d never seen before, but a Christopher Morley novel that I couldn’t recall.
I know most of the Modern Library list by heart–even the early oddities like Artzibashev’s Sanine and Kuprin’s Yama (The Pit). I should devote a post, in fact, to the curiosities that can be found in the full Modern Library backlist. And, of course, I’ve seen hundreds of copies of Morley’s best-known books, particular his two bibliophile novels, Parnassus on Wheels (1917) (a Modern Library title from 1930 till the early 1950s) and The Haunted Bookshop (1919), and his biggest best-seller, Kitty Foyle (1939). And I must have come across Human Being before, as it went into at least six printings when it first came out in 1934. If I had, though, the memory has gone with the wind.
For a solid three-plus decades, between the late 1910s and early 1950s, Christopher Morley was one of the best-known literary figures in America. A prolific essayist, reviewer, and writer of every type of literature, from plays and poetry to short stories and novels. He was one of the founders of the Saturday Review magazine and one of the first members of the Book of the Month Club review board. He did not aspire to creating great art, although he has an enthusiastic proponent of bringing literature to the masses–editing, for example, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets for the popular audience.
Yet, at the same time, he appears to have been happy to follow his whims wherever they led, taking it for granted that enough readers to pay his mortgage would want to come along. And anyone who would read Human Being needs to be ready to follow Morley’s meanderings, as he happily takes many a detour from the narrative.
Starting with the narrator himself. The core of Human Being is based around the attempt by Lawrence Hubbard, a semi-retired accountant, to construct a biography of Richard Roe–a man he meets just once, over lunch with some other acquaintances, a few weeks before Roe’s death. But from the very beginning, another voice, clearly that of Morley, takes over, and reaches over Hubbard’s shoulder to grab the pen whenever the spirit moves him. “This is not the biography of Richard Roe,” he interjects at the start of Chapter Three, “but a biography of that biography.” And, where needed to move things along, an omniscient narrator steps in to let us into the minds of Roe, his wife, his mother-in-law, and even his Pekinese dog.
In giving his protagonist the name Richard Roe, Morley makes it pretty obvious that he wants to tell an Everyman story. Which requires, of course, a character with few distinguishing traits. Recalling Roe from their one lunch together, Hubbard remarks, in fact, that Roe “had a talent for not being noticeable.” He does, however, remember one thing Roe said: “Not long ago, I went up Riverside Drive at night on a bus. Suddenly an electric sign across the river flashed on in the dark, caught me right in the eyeball. It said THE TIME IS NOW 7:59. You know that damned thing frightened me.”
A short while after the lunch, Hubbard finds a short notice in the paper:
Richard Roe of 50 West 81st Street, manufacturer of stationery novelties with an office in the Flatiron Building, was taken ill on a Lackawanna Railroad ferryboat last night and died before the boat reached Hoboken. A heart attack was said to be the cause.
This leads Hubbard to decide to write a biography of Roe. Partly because “He had reached that period–it usually comes somewhere in the fifth decade–when a man decides that if he is ever going to do anything worth while he had better get started.” And partly because, as an accountant, “He was a great believer in the only law that is unerringly enforced, the law of averages.” Who better, then, to study, than an essentially unknown human being, to answer the question: “What was the basic alloy involved in being human?”
Richard Roe’s story is simple: he gets a start as a go-fer in a touring theatre company and works his way up to house manager. He switches to publishing when offered a job and works his way up to a regional salesman. Then, on a suggestion and a little financing from one of his customers, he starts his own company, making and selling things like ink stands and deskpads. It fares well, even into the start of the Depression. And then he dies.
Morley tries to build a great tragedy upon this slight foundation. Roe marries the box-office manager, Lucille, while they are both working for the theatre company, but she turns out to be a shrew. Years later, he meets Minnie Hutzler, who manages the book section in a Chicago department store. The two are attracted to each other. Minnie inspires Roe to form his own business and comes to New York to help him run it. They eventually have an affair–a very tentative one–but Roe finds himself trapped. Morley would have us believe that Roe dies not of a heart attack but of a heart broken for a love he can never fully express and enjoy. It helps, of course, that Lucille is a bitter, jealous, and relentless harridan, while Minnie is what Alice Kahn called a “gal”: sympathetic, supportive, but also as wily and worldwise as an Eve Arden or Thelma Ritter character.
In truth, what makes Human Being a rich and wonderful book is not the story but the detours. For although Roe’s life “cuts a narrow groove along the canyons of Manhattan,” as Morley puts it at one point, it’s full of intersections that lead down fascinating side streets.
So Roe’s time in show business leads Morley into a three-page meander into the classified ads in Variety. His office supply company gives Morley an excuse for a soliloquoy about inkstands and universal desk calendars. His time as a travelling salesman leads him to wander for seven pages through The Official Guide of the Railways and Steam Navigation Lines of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Cuba:
The Railway Guide became Richard’s Outline of History, his Story of Philosophy. There was the Toledo, Peoria & Western (“The Peoria Road”) which doesn’t seem to go near Toledo at all on its own rails, but begins at Effner, Indiana. He found himself in imagination on a Mixed Train (“passenger service connections uncertain”) passing a long night on the way to Keokuk. Number 3 leaves Effner at 8:30 p.m. It arrives Peoria Yard at 5:20 a.m. There must be a chance for coffee and sinkers at the Peoria Yard? And he would go out on Number 103 (good old Number 103!) at 7:45, arrive at Keokuk 2:30 p.m.–“Is there a bookstore in Keokuk?” he asked Miss Mac.
And there are endless wanderings into the diverse pleasures of mid-20th century Manhattan itself: the Flatiron Building, where Roe moves his offices; the L, which Roe takes to and from work each day; the Museum of Natural History, one of his favorite haunts. And the seasons:
New York is never so lovely as in early summer. In Richard’s familiar region of Central Park West awnings burst out on apartment windows; asphalt streets feel soft under the point of a walking stick. Drug stores are draughty with electric fans, which blow out the gasoline cigar-lighter every time you snap it into flame. In the inner airshaft of apartments housewives indignantly observe little flocks of fuzz that come drifting over the sill from dustpans higher up.
In an essay on Human Being published in The American Scholar magazine back in 2003 (another reason I should have remembered the book), James McConkey described it as “more essayistic than fictional in nature.” “Within the personal essay,” McConkey writes, “subject is inseparable from authorial presence.” If the fictional framework of Human Being is slight, what does that matter in the end, if all its display windows are packed with goodies to delight the eye of the streetside passers-by?
Usually, in the interest of having material to post on a regular basis, I tend to read books quickly. With Human Being, I took my time, happy to get dragged down another side street by such an enthusiastic and amiable tour guide as Christopher Morley.
Human Being, by Christopher Morley
New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1934
After enjoying Seumas O’Brien’s daft collection of fables, The Whale and the Grasshopper, I realized that I should take a moment to acknowledge the small (naturally) collection of fables by other modern writers that I have been assembling over the last few years.
A fable is a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse, that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized (given human qualities), and that illustrates a moral lesson (a “moral”), which may at the end be expressed explicitly in a pithy maxim.
A fable differs from a parable in that the latter excludes animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as actors that assume speech and other powers of humankind.
Not every writer who’s called his little pieces fables has observed this distinction. Marvin Cohen’s fables, for example, always take place in the world of men and their imaginations, with rarely if ever a critter to be found in them. The greatest of all modern fabulists, George Ade, never thought to disguise his small tales of man’s pretensions and predicaments by cloaking his characters in animal costumes. And though most do keep their fables within the 3-4 pages or less that’s considered the limits of the form, some stretch out to as many as twenty or more.
The one thing modern fabulists do seem to share is the sense that the didactic purpose of fables should always be taken with a grain of salt. It might be that a life could be bettered by their lessons, but it’s more likely that people will keep on making the same mistakes–for which the fabulist ought to be grateful, as it ensures a steady of new material. And few modern writers imagine that readers will take their words as seriously as did Aesop. Instead, they recognize that pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes doesn’t mean that the rest of the crowd won’t happily go on pretending he does.
If a fable is a “succinct fictional story,” then the fables of the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso are easily the most succinct examples to be found. Monterroso is said to have written the world’s shortest short story: “And when he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” In his fables, he stretches out a bit more–but not much. Here, for instance, is the complete text of “The Imperfect Paradise”:
“It’s true,” the man said with a melancholy air, his gaze fixed on the flames dancing in the fireplace that winter night; “in Paradise there are friends, music, some books. The only bad thing about going to Heaven is that from there you can’t look up.”
Monterroso switches back and forth from man to animals in his stories. It’s fitting that he takes as the epigraph to this collection a quote from one K’nyo Mobutu: “So much are animals like man that at times it is impossible to distinguish between them.” And it’s fitting that when you look into the index, the entry for Mobutu contains the parenthetical note, “Anthropophagite.” Cannibal. So the joke is on us–he’s not referring to how we behave: he’s referring to how we taste.
Monterroso’s love of jest seems all the more remarkable when you learn that he was jailed as a member of the opposition and spent most of his adult life in exile. While his tales are often satirical, there is never any bitterness in his tone. Indeed, his response to oppression is to note the same flaws it shares with every other human endeavor. It’s hard for me to believe that the following wasn’t meant as a reflection on the CIA’s interference in Guatemalan politics:
Once upon a time there was a Lightning Bolt which struck twice in the same place; but it discovered that it had done enough damage the first time, and that it was no longer needed, and it became very depressed.
Blechman, whose stable of fans is much smaller but no less fervid than that of his fellow New Yorker illustrator, William Steig, published this slim collection of cartoon fables back in 1964, but most of his topics (e.g., “Gluttony”) are timeless.
Although none of Spencer Holst’s various story collections had the word “fable” in their titles, he’s still inarguably the leading American fabulist of the late 20th century. Luckily, his tales have been collected from a half-dozen out of print books and are available in paperback from Barrytown Limited (part of Station Hill Press). And a number can be found online, including “The Language of Cats,”“The Zebra Storyteller,” and “On Demons”. And here you can read his shortest and loveliest fable, “Mona Lisa Meets Buddha”:
Up in heaven the curtains fluttered, the curtains fluttered, and the Mona Lisa entered at one end of a small hall, which was hung with many veils. Up in heaven the curtains fluttered, fluttered, fluttered, and the Buddha entered the hall at the other end. They smiled.
Holst and his wife, Beate Wheeler, were painters and benefited greatly from a rare example of civic generosity towards artists: the Westbeth housing complex for artists in west Greenwich Village in Manhattan. He often appeared in city clubs and galleries to tell his stories, which he also–to our fortune–took the time to write down. There is, at times, a slight flavor of Roald Dahl in Holst’s tales, such as the one about the man who takes a woman in a bat mask home from a costume party … only to discover that, um … it’s not a mask. But Holst has none of Dahl’s cutting cynicism–if his princess refuses to marry the frog because he turns out to be a junkie–well, could anyone who’d lived in the Village for forty-some years have blamed her?
“When I learned to read ‘good books,'” Jean Dutourd writes in the foreword to this collection–also from 1964–“I was constantly and badly deceived. I read charming stories with happy endings.” The problem, of course, is that real life is nothing like these pleasant stories: “Everyone knows that the world of children is a universe of ferocious beasts, where naked force and cowardice flourish.”
So Dutourd’s response was to create a set of fables that reflect “how things really take place in this world where financiers are generally happier than cobblers….” He leads off, appropriately, with “Poverty Does Not Make Happiness,” in which a cobbler gains a little cash windfall that eases the worst of his worries and his wife is wise enough to advise him not to try to repay it. In Dutourd’s version of Cinderella, the prince is not the least bit charming: “fifty-three years old, wore eyeglasses, and had very set habits.” And, as Cinderella learns after the wedding, the whole affair was designed by the husband to get a free governess for his three kids so he would have more time to spend with his mistress of many years.
Some of Dutourd’s fables are so cold-blooded as to verge on the cruel. In “Two Amputated Legs,” Georges, whose legs are blown off by an enemy hand grenade, learns “that the fate of man is to lose, successively, legs, eyes, arms, love, years, memories, and never to find them again.” On the other hand, he has a certain cynical faith in the future. In “Pearls Before Swine,” a man literally tosses handfuls of pearls into a pen full of pigs. “But all that treasure gone to waste!” cries an observer. “Bah,” the man replies. “Nothing is altogether wasted…. The dung heap is full of them…. And when I am dead, there will be a rich harvest.”
No less a figure than Thomas Merton, however, once said, “Marvin Cohen’s wacky humor, has something of Thurber, something of Steinberg, Buster Keaton, the Surrealists, the French pataphysicians.” Another reviewer has called him a surrealist puppeteer, and it’s an accurate description, as Cohen’s characters are more like puppets he moves through absurd situations than full-fleshed people.
I don’t know if Cohen is still alive, but I recommend checking out any of his books if you enjoy seeing logic and language at play in the hands of a master juggler.
William March’s work was nothing if not variable. His first novel, Company K, now considered a classic work about World War One, was a collection of sketches of all the men in a single company of Marines. Nearly 20 years later, he published perhaps the greatest novel about l’enfant terrible, The Bad Seed. And in between he wrote over a hundred fables, which he edited down to 99 shortly before his death. Collected and edited by William T. Going, it was first published by the University of Alabama Press in 1960. Although it fell out of print for some years, it was reissued earlier this year by the University press as part of its “Library of Alabama Classics.”
Of all the modern fabulists, March held closest to the model of Aesop. The majority of his tales take place in the animal world–“The Insulted Rabbit,” “The Escaped Elephant,” “The Wild Horses,” and “The Kissless Lovebird,” for example. But he also delves into the human situation directly, even making Aesop a lead character in several fables. And of all the writers discussed here, March is certainly the bitterest in his outlook, as might be expected of a man who spent most of his working life being referred to as a neglected writer.
By the way, if your taste does run to parables rather than fables, I highly recommend locating Howard Schwartz’s anthology, Imperial Messages, first published in 1976 and reissued in 1991, which collects 100 parables from writers ranging from Dostoyevsky and Borges to Kobo Abe and Marvin Cohen.
A few days ago, President Obama stopped in the town of Chatfield, Minnesota while on a bus tour of the Midwest. He visited a kids’ summer camp and posed for some photos with them.
By pure coincidence, I just finished reading a book about Chatfield and had started this post when the President’s stop brought this small town into the spotlight for an hour or so. Margaret Snyder’s 1948 book, The Chosen Valley describes how a quiet spot, a small valley where a creek joins the Root River, a tributary of the Missippi, was settled and grew for its first fifty or so years.
Most Americans have a general notion about how we got from the days of the American Revolution to today–about hunters and trappers exploring ever westward, followed by settlers who set up small farms, then small towns, the railroads, industrialization, wars big and small, and somehow, to now. How many, though, have any notion of the step-by-step changes that took us from wilderness to land claims to towns to sewer systems, electic lights, and school districts? The Chosen Valley does just that for Chatfield, population (2010) 2,779, and it’s a story that deserves to be far better known than either Chatfield or Snyder’s book are today.
Chatfield got its start in 1853, when one Thomas Twiford, who was essentially a would-be land developer, scouted out an area along the banks of the Root River, a small tributary of the Mississippi in the far southeast corner of Minnesota. He hurried back to the nearest town of any size and managed to get several other men interested enough to pack family and chattel into wagons and head to the place they decided to name Chatfield after a prominent judge of the new Minnesota Territory. As Snyder shows, through careful tracing of what at times were often intricate arrangements of ownership and financing–particularly during the rush of land speculation surrounding the mapping out of possible railroad routes–money, politics, and wheeling and dealing was far more often at the heart of development than anything we might nostalgically call the “pioneer spirit.”
Not that there weren’t plenty of hardships:
When January let loose its fury the hills were no shelter against the blizzards that blotted the world in a frenzy of snow, or the sly cold that crept into bed with the sleepers. John Luark’s wife died in the depths of that winter’s cold, despite the care of two doctors. Every man in town took his turn in the sad labor of chipping out a burial place in ground flint-hard with frost. They made her grave on the slope between the little house she lived in and the road that wound up the side of Winona Hill The townsfolk stood silent about the grave that January of 1855 as the first of their dead was buried.
The first few dozen settlers were followed by others the next spring. Within another year, the town had a flour mill, several general stores, regular church services if not a church building, a one-room school (private at first), and a land office. The last was set up by one Jason Easton, an ambitious young man from New York state who had arranged through a family friend in Washington, D. C., to win the job of opening a land office for the partitioning and sale of properties throughout the area of southeast Minnesota around Chatfield.
“The biggest thing going in Western business was undoubtedly land and the lending of money for the purchase of land,” Snyder observes. And here we begin to learn that, contrary to the myth of how the West was won, the transfer of land from its uncharted, undeveloped state to small farmers and businessmen–orchestrated through government land offices and countless political arrangements large and small–was the single most important factor in the transformation of the Midwest.
Jason Easton embodied the zeal for deal-making that was an essential survival skill for an effective entrepreneur in the growing Midwest. He cajoled banks in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia to get loans or attractive rates on his deposits. He fired off volleys of letters asking for patience when money was tight and delighted in managing to foist off a lot of dried peaches that “were wholly worthless but brought 5 cents per pound.”
For Chatfield and its surrounding counties, Easton was at the center of what was perhaps, for the Midwest, its most controversial and significant development: the routing and building of its first railroads. Chatfield had significant competition with nearby towns in the decision of where lines linking St. Paul and other growing cities and towns to Chicago. It failed to win a spot along the main line, but Easton was able to convince the Southern Minnesota Railway Company to run a spur to Chatfield from Winnebago, and to get himself appointed as president of the Southern Minnesota Railway Extension Company. He founded the town’s bank, bought up large plots of property around the town that he hired out to tenant farmers, and organized and invested in dozens of enterprises, more of which succeeded than not.
Easton apparently found it difficult to shift his attention from his latest batch of deals. Snyder recounts that, “there was one direful passage when Easton, deep in a cut-throat fight for the wheat markets of the state, refused to go to his mother, who had begged him to come in her serious illness. His letter to his brother, who had written for the mother, said: ‘. . . the demands of my business are just now so great that it is impossible for me to leave. My comfort must be in knowing that you are giving our mother every care.’ He enclosed ten dollars and urged his brother to ‘call on me freely if anything more is required.'”
In terms of wealth, Easton was an exception in Chatfield. One man did make a small fortune with a dry goods store, but he then moved his family to Minneapolis. Most of the people in and around the town were poor. Some, like the man who set up the town’s first mill, fared better. Everyone had no choice but to work hard. As a result, Snyder notes, there is no evidence of any art or literature, beyond amateur poems for ceremonial occasions, being created in the town.
Most of the first decade’s settlers were Americans–some first generation, some with American roots going back over 200 years. All but three states were represented in the 1860. Nearly a third of these came from New York, where poor families had a harder time getting enough land for a working farm or were moving west as Irish, Poles, and other immigrants began taking jobs for lower pay.
In 1860, one in four Chatfield residents was foreign born. Snyder traces the paths some of these followed to come to the town. Norwegians were spurred by the revolution of 1830. Germans by the revolution of 1848. One man snuck across the border from Bohemia into German one night to escape an abusive miller he was indentured to. The miller, James Marsar Cussons, “son and grandson of millers and with uncles and cousins beyond number in the trade,” came from England to have an opportunity to run his own mill. Ireland accounted for the greatest number by far–in large part due to the great potato famine of 1845-1852. As the figures from the census show, none of them came from southern Europe.
Perhaps as much as a third or more of the new settlers moved on after a year or more. There were enough failed farms and stores to keep anyone from getting too complacent. The soil in the valley was excellent. Wheat was probably the most common crop, but almost everything one could plant was tried by someone at least once. Apples, plums, hops, sugar beets, potatoes, pumpkins, cabbages, and most other plants familiar from northern Europe did well. Most farms had some cows and hogs, but only the latter were raised for meat. Milk was too valuable to let a cow get killed for.
Dairy farming grew to be one of the town’s biggest businesses. In 1889, a few of the dairy farmers formed the Cooperative Creamery, which became a model for much of the country and one of the few employers to meet its payroll throughout the Great Depression.
By the late 1880s, Chatfield was no longer a frontier town but a well-established, prosperous, and stable. Which meant that opportunities were no longer so easy to find. “When the Dakota country opened up,” Snyder writes, “considerable numbers of the younger Chatfield men, some of them with wives and children, turned to that West to seek their fortunes.” Others moved on thanks to the educations their parents’ hard work and success had allowed them. When the local paper surveyed a group of young men who had left the town’s school a decade earlier, it found that over half worked “in business” rather than on the farm and most of these no longer lived in the town.
The town’s social values began to set like concrete, too. “As the population became relatively stable, and the excitement of change and conquest was lost, new ways were found for satisfying the individual’s sense of his own worth,” Snyder writes. It’s hard to believe that sentence wasn’t written with tongue in cheek, though, because the “new ways” she then describes are the Masonic Lodge, the Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Columbus.
The town’s infrastructure also matured. The common well dug in 1854 led to a simple system of distribution through hollowed-out logs and continued to grow until a full system with a pumping station, sewers, and drains was built. The groves of trees that greeted the first settlers were wiped out within a decade to build houses and make fence posts. The telegraph arrived within a few years. Electricity, which made it possible to gather in the evenings for more than a sing-along or a dance, arrived in the 1880s and the telephone not long after.
What I most enjoyed about The Chosen Valley was that Snyder describes almost all these developments by telling us who took the first steps–which were usually to a neighbor’s door to try to stir up interest and support. Three men decide the town needs a cemetery, and arrange to have a plot of land on the ridge behind the town set aside for it. The town’s first Catholic residents bring a priest over from nearby Winona to say the first mass in 1854. By 1874, they had their own church, paid for entirely from their own contributions. An amateur bucket brigade becomes the Fire Company and eventually the town fire department. Through all these stories, The Chosen Valley makes it crystal clear that the pioneer spirit was as much about interdependence as it was about independence.
If the book has any significant weakness, it is Snyder’s limitations as a writer. There is little romance in the story of the settlement and development of Chatfield, but that didn’t prevent her from inserting lyrical little passages that read like bad high school literary club prose. And as she brings the town’s story up to her present day, she seems to have run out of ideas completely. Instead of any stock-taking or long view of the ninety years she has covered, the book ends with a description of the start of World War Two and its effect on the town that is one of the worst pieces of writing I’ve come across in quite a while: “For the future, in its turn, would become the present, and no present can wholly escape the effects of its past. Where should the people begin the task of understanding the things-that-are, if always they set it aside for the headier wine of things-to-come?” Just typing that out was painful.
The Chosen Valley appears to have been the only book Margaret Snyder ever published. Aside from the few and brief passages of purple prose, it is well worth reading if you have any interest in American history with a small h. Through the small example of Chatfield, Minnesota, you can learn a great deal about a patch of land with trees and a little river running through it became a microcosm of America (at least up to the middle of the 20th century).
“It seems to me,” F. L. Lucas writes in the introduction to The Search for Good Sense, “mere common sense never to undertake a piece of work, or read a book, without asking, ‘Is it worth the amount of life it will cost?’ … ‘Will it make life more vivid, more intelligent, more complete, more real?'”
To which, in this case, I can answer, most heartily, Yes!
On the rare occasions when the name of F(rank) L(aurence) Lucas comes up these days, it’s in connection with his masterpiece, Style, which is one of the best things ever written about writing prose and, sadly, scarcer than hens’ teeth. Lucas wrote dozens of books–novels, poetry, drama, essays, history, political pieces, great swaths of historical literary criticism, and numerous compilations of the works of writers major and minor. Of the last, T. S. Eliot once wrote that Lucas was “the perfect annotator.” Pretty much none of it is in print today.
The Search for Good Sense deals with four masters of eighteenth-century English literature–Samuel Johnson, Lord Chesterfield, James Boswell, and Oliver Goldsmith. Its companion volume, The Art of Living, covers four more: Hume, Burke, Franklin, and Horace Walpole. “It would have been easier,” Lucas acknowledges, “to combine both in a single volume; but in this age of growing bustle and mounting prices there is, more often than ever, truth in the adage of Callimachus, librarian of Alexandria–‘a big book is a big evil.'” And this is a perfect example of the pleasures that come with taking an excursion into some past lives with such a profoundly well-read and yet profoundly pragmatic guide. Hardly a page goes by without a delicious quote that begs to be repeated.
Each of Lucas’ biographical essays is between 60 and 120 pages long. He “attempts to omit nothing that is really vital, and to include nothing that is not….” Yet he manages to include more than a few detours that no one would choose to delete for the sake of a page or two. Though Lucas is a passionate defender of the essential importance of the main principle of the Age of Reason–namely, that civilization depends upon our ability to master our emotions through the application of reason–he acknowledges that, “Part of the composure of the educated in the eighteenth century came, I suspect, from their power still to digest what was known….”
In fact, as he later shows in his essay on Goldsmith, even in the eighteenth century, working writers sometimes had to venture well beyond what was known–at least to them. “If he can distinguish a cow from a horse, that, I believe, may be the extent of his knowledge of natural history,” Dr. Johnson once said of Goldsmith. That didn’t prevent Goldsmith from writing an entire book–and a big one–on the subject, one which included gems such as the account of the tragic squirrel flotillas excerpted here recently.
Dr. Johnson is, of course, the grandest figure of the four men covered in The Search for Good Sense. “We treasure his memory partly because he was often wise and good, but partly–let us own it–because he could also resemble an intoxicated hippopotamus.” Although Lucas gives credit to the merits of Johnson’s own works, he is clear-eyed enough to admit that much of it embodies the worst of eighteenth-century English prose: verbose, oratorical, and inclined never to take the shortest path between two points. Yet “few men seem to me to have struggled more against the constant human temptation to say and believe, or pretend to believe, what is comfortable, conventional, lazy, or pleasant.” For Lucas, who had survived gassing and shelling on the Western Front, witnessed the devastation caused by Fascism and Communism, and railed against the evils of groupthink long before Orwell gave it a name, this was no small accomplishment.
In contrast to Johnson and his war with conventions Lucas then offers the example Lord Chesterfield, who held good manners above all other values. “I am very sure,” chesterfield wrote in one of his once-highly-regarded instructional letters to his son, “that any man of common understanding may, by proper culture, care, attention, and labour make himself whatever he pleases.” To which Lucas responds, “In what world, one wonders, do people live who can imagine such nonsense?” Having watched his own children grow up, Lucas rates “inborn nature definitely more important than upbringing.” As a father of twins, I put myself squarely on his side: most of what they are or ever will be comes with them out of the womb. “All the pages ever penned in defence of Chesterfield’s paternal preachments do not seem to me worth four words of honest old Augustine Birrell–‘Ugh, what a father!'”
Lucas is not one to kick a man when he’s down, though:
After all, it is fair to remember that we have one unfair advantage over him–he is dead, and we live later. Let us not abuse it. If we find much to critize in him, he would have found much to disdain in us–in our follies and vulgarities, in our press and our advertisements, in our literature, our art, and our society.
From stuffy old Lord Chesterfield, Lucas then launches into messy, earthy, pushy, self-obsessed James Boswell: “The central dissension over James Boswell turns on the question–ass or genius?” Lucas had the benefit of writing after the discovery and publication of Boswell’s journals. The journals helped set Boswell’s Life of Johnson into their proper context–that of an extract from Boswell’s magnum opus: “part of the far vaster, journalized autobiography of Boswell himself. The Life of Johnson is really only an outwork of a far huger Life of Boswell. Still, he rates Boswell’s obsession with recording events in his journal “an attitude to me as fantastic as the ancient Egyptian feeling that what happened to one’s body living mattered less than having it properly pickled for eternity.”
All the same, despite Boswell’s constant indulgences of his appetites, Lucas most definitely positions himself on the side of those who consider Boswell a genius:
In this aspect Boswell was a kind of grotesque anthropologist–a species of scientist. But he was also an artist. Biography, like history, remains art as well as science. Its paramount duty is truth. But though it should tell nothing but the truth, it cannot possibly tell the whole truth. It must select, or die of its own unwieldly corpulence. The thoughts of a single day might burst a whole volume of autobiography; sufficient research might swell the life of a single man to the size of an encyclopedia in thirty volumes. But it would leave the man’s personality, which is the central theme of biography as of portrait-painting, swamped and blurred. To read it would be as tedious and impractical as a walking tour of Siberia.
Boswell’s genius, in Lucas’ estimation, was in two crucial choices: to choose Johnson, of all the contemporaries he could have taken up with; and to have “the further good sense to select Johnson’s talk as the main feature of that subject.” If he had erred in either decision, the Life would have been no better remembered today than any dozen other biographies published the same year.
Lucas rounds out his quartet with a sketch of the life and works of Oliver Goldsmith. The Vicar of Wakefield is no longer the staple work of 18th century literature it was in my father’s and grandfather’s day (my sons and probably most of their contemporaries read Candide instead), but for Lucas, he earns his place through the quality of his character and humanity as much as through the quality of his pen: “Goldsmith remains an example of what goodness, good sense, grace, gaiety, and simplicity can do, even in a harsh world preoccupied with many meaner things.”
I dog-eared so many pages while reading The Search for Good Sense that even if I quoted from just one in four, this post would have to run on for another thousand-plus words. But out of respect for Lucas, who once wrote that “Brevity is first of all a form of courtesy,” I must confine myself to just one final aphorism from the many gems that lie waiting in this book:
In lovers’ quarrels, only the lovers know all the facts, but cannot judge them dispassionately; while those who might judge them dispassionately, cannot possibly know all the facts.
The Search for Good Sense, by F. L. Lucas
London: Cassell and Company, 1958
Our twin sons will be heading off to college in a few months, and it occurred to me recently to look into the subject of neglected books about twins. Despite the fact that twins are not, statistically, all that uncommon, there are relatively few books on the topic, aside from parenting guides. Probably the best known these days in Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel and Oprah’s Book Club selection, I Know This Much Is True, about an identical twin’s coming to grips with his highly disfunctional family and his place in the world.
At the other end of the commercial success spectrum from Lamb’s best-seller are two diametrically different books about twins. Donald Newlove’s Sweet Adversity his 1978 integration of two earlier novels, Leo & Theodore (1973) and The Drunks (1974), a 600-plus page whirlwind about siamese twins, their rough-and-tumble childhood, and their descent into alcoholism. Newlove’s prose is robust, full of great riffs, swinging between euphoria and nihilism. It’s a fantastic book that at times will reach into your chest, rip out your heart, and leave it in tatters. I first read it twenty-some years ago, and I kick myself for having utterly forgotten it until I went on this search.
It would be tough to find a book less like Sweet Adversity than Under Gemini Isabel Bolton’s slender, elegaic 1966 memoir of her early life with her identical twin sister, Grace. It’s short, poetically succinct, and restrained. Yet it has an emotional power greater even than that of Newlove’s tour de force.
Two tragedies punctual the decade or so spanned by story in Under Gemini. In 1887, just two weeks after the girls’ fourth birthday, their mother and father died of pneumonia on the same day. Then, ten summers later, as she watched, helplessly, Bolton’s sister drowned when their rowboat was carried away from them in the currents of Long Island Sound.
In between, the two girls–Mary (Bolton’s real name was Mary Britton Miller) and Grace–and their two older brothers and older sister were looked after in a fairly haphazard way. Their aging grandmother showed the greatest concern for them, offering as much comfort and protection as her diminishing strength could muster:
The double weight of sensibility, the impact of living moments–the smell of bread rising from the kitchen, of gingerbread just taken from the oven, the sound of squirrels surrying on the veranda roof, shadows of leaves on the bedroom wall, flames in the open fireplaces, the all-pervading smell of burning logs, the sense of unseen presences–all combined to make use feel so safe, so sheltered in this comfortable home our grandmother had given us.
Sadly, though, she died less than a year after the parents. Their custody was left to their Uncle James (James A. Rumrill, a railroad executive) and Aunt Anna, who saw to their material needs in a begrudging manner, hiring a spinster in her sixties to run their home and raise them.
As Bolton portrays her, Miss Rogers had the best of intentions and cared deeply for the children, but she was utterly unequipped to take charge of herself, let alone five willful children, each dealing less rather than more ably with the loss of their parents and grandmother. Philip, one of the boys, threw a glass of water in her face. She brought in a hired man to help with the house and yard. He clearly adored Miss Rogers, but he also clearly spent much of his time half drunk or half asleep. Each Sunday Aunt Anna and Uncle James came to inspect the situation and each week they left unsatisfied. Eventually, Miss Rogers is let go and arrangements are made for the children to be farmed out to boarding schools for much of the year. Grace drowns not long before she and Mary are to be packed off. “My darling Mary, how I love you” are her last words to her twin sister.
Although she published a number of books of poetry under her own name, Miller came to the novel very late, publishing In the Days of Thy Youth in 1943, at the age of sixty, and then, as Isabel Bolton, the three novels for which she has achieved lasting critical recognition: Do I Wake or Sleep (1946); The Christmas Tree (1949); and Many Mansions (1952). These were reissued in 1997 as one volume, New York Mosaic, with an introduction by Doris Grumbach. At the time of their first publications, the books received the highest possible acclaim. Edmund Wilson judged her style “exquisitely perfect in accent.” Diana Trilling called her “The most important new novelist in the English language to appear in years.” Wilson is reputed to have fallen in love with his vision of Bolton as a bright and beautiful young thing, only to have find she was actually an elderly woman of upper class manners and discretion.
She came even later to dealing with her own experience. One reviewer wrote that Under Gemini reflected enormous strength of character in the moderation and perspective with which Bolton describes what must have been a near-over-whelming experience. “That business in which we are all perpetually engaged–the making of an individual soul–is an enterprise of memory,” she writes at the end of the book. “In our case it was a joint and not a single venture.”
What most distinguishes Under Gemini is how effectively Bolton conveys the unique sensation of encountering the world as two:
When I evoke those hours of childhood to live in them once more, it is not myself I see before me–it is she, the living image of myself, and there I stand revealed in all the sharp intensity of what the moment brought of pain or joy or curiosity or wonder or decision. I see my own face, my own dark eyes and hair, I hear my voice, my intonations and tricks of speech. The words that issue from her tongue are mine. Her expressions mantle, as I remember it, my countenance. Attuned to the same vibrations, with nerves that responded to the same dissonances and harmonies, we were one in body and in soul. What happened to one of use happened at the same instant to the other and both of us recognized exactly how each experience had registered in the other’s heart and mind.
It was never I but always we. It was never you or I but both of us. Never mine or yours but always ours. We were seldom referred to by those we lived among as Mary or as Grace but as the twins–I was Mary, she was Grace. This may be so.
Bolton was 83 when she published Under Gemini. Though she had abundant family connections with New York society, she lived most of her life in Greenwich Village, volunteering as a social worker and writing an occasional book of light poetry. She never married and lived on her own for nearly eight decades after losing Grace. That she was able to achieve at least critical success as a novelist so late in life is remarkable, but I suspect that what’s more telling is the fact that, at the age of 83, she could still summon so easily the sense of life as part of a larger being that was the two sisters together–and perhaps that she was never able to find another to replace the void left by Grace’s death.
Charles Ives has been one of my heroes ever since I read about his reaction to a man who started hissing at a performance of Carl Ruggles’ piece, “Men and Mountains,” in the early 1930s. Ives turned around and hissed back, “When you hear strong masculine music like this, sit up and USE YOUR EARS LIKE A MAN!”
It’s good advice for anyone who wants to open themselves up to new forms and styles of music. And applied to other senses, it’s good advice for learning to appreciate any form of art or experience that doesn’t wrap itself up in a gentle blanket of pleasantness.
David Wooldridge’s From the Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives (first published in the U.K. under the title, Charles Ives: A Portrait) appeared in 1974, marking the centenary of Ives’ birth. Although Ives had by then won a sure place in musical history as the first important, and perhaps greatest, American composer, his work hadn’t–and may never–gain the level of popular recognition and appreciation as that of Copland, Gershwin, or Bernstein. A hundred years after he wrote most of it, his music still requires most listeners to sit up and put some effort into their listening.
Wooldridge’s own approach to Ives pretty much guaranteed that his book would receive the same scant acceptance that Ives’ music did with its first listeners. Although the U.K. edition of the book appears from its sedate cover to be a conventional biography, it’s hardly the sort of account that would sit well with the average fan of classical music.
A clue to Wooldridge’s literary inspirations comes from the book’s prologue, which opens with a quote from Charles Olson’sCall Me Ishmael, his influential 1947 celebration of the work of Herman Melville. “Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.”
“Ives mounted,” Wooldridge writes. “His music rides on such space. The man, his life, the whole pattern of his thinking are witness to it. A sense of space, a use of space, an understanding of space that transcended metered time.” Like Melville–using Olson’s words, Ives had “a comprehension of PAST, his marriage of spirit to source”–and “a confirmation of FUTURE.”
Ives’ past, as Wooldridge shows, went back almost as far back in American history as any white man’s could. Captain William Ives landed in Massachussetts in 1635, and his family lines crossed paths with the Puritans, George Washington, Emerson, and Thoreau. His father George once helped a drunken Stephen Foster home from a Manhattan bar and led the band of the First Connecticut Heavy Artillery that paraded past Lincoln and Grant after the surrender of Richmond.
George passed along to Charles a unique mixture of popular American and classical European music. He led bands that played at camp meetings and holiday celebrations in Charles’ home town of Danbury, Connecticut. He also encouraged his son to study the piano and organ and shared what formal training he’d had in composition. By the age of 18, Charles was working for pay as the organist of St. Thomas’ Church in New Haven, where he later attended Yale University.
At Yale, his primary teacher was a stalwart figure of the American musical establishment, one Horatio William Parker. As his Wikipedia entry puts it, “During his lifetime he was considered to be the finest composer in the United States, a superior craftsman writing in the most advanced style.” He didn’t think much of Ives’ student work and couldn’t even remember him years later, in a letter to Wooldridge’s father. Although Wooldridge acknowledges, “Who all remembers the names of the great composers’ teachers?,” he can’t resist the chance to give Parker his posthumous come-uppance:
Why pick on Parker?
FOR ONE REASON ONLY. Parker was a fluent, competent, intelligent musician who ought to have been able to recognize a NEW VOICE when he heard it. No one asked him to acknowledge Ives as America’s musical Messiah–though he’d have enjoyed that privilege. He didn’t have to like what he heard. He even could have hated it. And he didn’t. He wasn’t even listening.
And I mean REALLY listening–not just letting the ears lie back on a bubble-bath of agreeable, ready-made sound. Musicians, precisely the fluent ones, make the poorest listeners, because they get bemused by the sound of their own voices–singers, players, composers–cannot understand there is anything more to it than fluency of sound, accuracy of sound, opulence of sound, refinement of sound. And sound has so little to do with music–nice, agreeable, chromium-plate sound.
This passage provides ample evidence of Wooldridge at his most idiosyncratic and iconoclastic. Elsewhere in the book he launches into a rant about THE SYSTEM that brings one right back to the spirit of 1960s student protests. I imagine Wooldridge saw himself “sticking it to the Man” in writing this book.
Which was certainly one reason the book dropped into obscurity moments after being published. I doubt this kind of writing held much appeal for many of Wooldridge’s most likely buyers. Nor does it age well. Fortunately, such passages are rare.
The more striking and interesting aspect of From the Steeples and Mountains is Wooldridge’s approach to the narrative of Ives’ life and work. I may be going too far out on a limb with this, but I think there’s an important clue behind his use of the Charles Olson quote about Melville, and that clue leads to the work of Paul Metcalf–Melville’s great-grandson and a student of Olson’s.
As his Wikipedia entry puts it, Metcalf’s “work generally defies classification.” Best known–for those who knew his work at all–for his 1965 novel, Genoa, Metcalf relies extensively on the use of original texts, weaving slender threads of his own narration to create a unifying theme. As with Metcalf’s books, there is barely a page in From the Steeples and Mountains comprised solely of Wooldridge’s own words. And like Metcalf, Wooldridge uses quoted text for visual as well as narrative effect. He tosses in snatches and bursts of texts from letters, newspaper articles, songs, poems, concert programs and advertisement like Ives tosses musical quotations into his own pieces, very deliberately creating the semblance–but only the semblance–of a “slam-bang racket.”
Metcalf’s work is very much a meditation upon history, particularly American history, and particularly American history of the 19th century. And like Metcalf, Wooldridge is constantly drawing links between Ives and figures such as Melville, Emerson and Thoreau, highlighting the uniquely American nature of their voices and world views. He draws heavily on Ives’ own writing, including Essays Before a Sonata (1921) and the extensive marginalia in Ives’ compositions, which include such gems as the following, from a score-sketch of The Fourth of July:
Mr. Price: Please don’t try to make things nice! All the wrong notes are right. Just copy as I have–I want it that way …
As Wooldridge tells the story, Ives’ creative energies were worn down by a combination of ill-health and distress at the development of American politics and the entry into World War One. A prolonged recovery after a series of heart attacks in 1918 led to his eventual abandonment of composing entirely. His wife found him in his studio one morning in 1925 “with tears in his eyes, saying he couldn’t seem to compose any more–nothing went well–nothing sounded right.”
Ives’ failure, to Wooldridge, is America’s failure:
. . . . . Ives the composer remains, still in largely silent reproach of a nation’s music-making, its way of life, the way of life of music-making as a whole. Still largely silent, because few have ventured his music to be properly heard, or, being properly heard, accorded proper attention. But the world cannot wait while America gets it together, and now the sound, impatient, is gone out into other lands. Charles Ives is the FERMATA. Full stop/half circle. End and beginning.
I’m not sure David Wooldridge succeeded in accomplishing what he set out to do in writing From the Steeples and Mountains. If he intended to use the story of Charles Ives to send a message to America about the need to look past the “establishment sop we use to salve our consciences in, 99%, lip service,” America clearly took less note of Wooldridge’s message than it did of Ives’ own work.
In the process, however, he did create a portrait that does a remarkably effective job of setting Ives’ life and work into a cultural context and in conveying a sense of his character and his musical sensibility that irresistibly leads the reader to becoming the listener. I defy anyone to read From the Steeples and Mountains and not find oneself soon downloading and enjoying Ives’ music. And I also expect to dig out my copies of Paul Metcalf’s books and immerse myself again into the sounds of another uniquely American voice.
From the Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives, by David Wooldridge
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974
About a dozen years before James Joyce invented Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, Ada Blom wrote her own soliloquy and published it herself under the odd title, The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub. She offered her 100-some page booklet for sale: “This book will be sent by mail, postpaid, to any address upon receipt of 25 cents in silver.” And she put her proud and somewhat defiant portrait on the front page.
“I was born in Sweden, of Swedish parents,” she begins. It is about the last straight-forward sentence in the book. Ada was quite obviously a self-taught writer as well as publisher, but her voice and outlook have a brilliant daftness and honesty:
When I start in to criticise a person I always begin at the lower, and, firstly, he wore commonplace, soft-leather shoes. I find these new styles abominable. It is something radically wrong about the man who wore them. I’ll climb a little. Then there comes an evening shirt, stiff and stately. Then there is the head to describe, and I commence with the ears. The ears were deceiving, though. I’ll tell you that some other time. Blonde, curly hair, having the latest style of tint. The forehead was innocent and humorous — eyes with a sad longing in them like some little children have when they are out for mischief. A beauty mole on the right cheek, a good nose, a teasing-looking mustache of the right kind and a chin which said: “I am going to have it, but if 1 don’t get it I don’t care.” That was the look of the Echo from the Swedish mountains.
She is born and raised in a small town and taught strict Lutheran morality. When she asks her father, innocently, why God must be so angry and vengeful, he beats her with a rod, and by the time she is fifteen or so, she runs away from home to escape his abuse and harsh Christianity.
A string of jobs gets her first to Denmark, then Germany, where she gets a job singing in a music hall. A series of men try to woo her and she eventually falls for a diamond merchant from Amsterdam. After many rounds of promises and disappointments, she tracks him down in Wiesbaden and discovers that he is both married and confidence man. So she buys a cheap passage to America, landing in New York.
Ada was nothing if not industrious. Though her fortunes rise and fall more than a few times in the course of the story, she always manages to pick herself up, dust herself off, and start all over again. She manages to save enough money to buy own townhouse and set herself up as a landlord. Then she loses it, winds up back on the street, gets a job as a hotel scrub–a situation that lasts all of about two pages, despite the title–and then as a waitress, then as a singer again, and then returns into real estate. There are several rounds of this before the book’s abrupt end.
Her problem, in a nutshell, is a weakness for the wrong type of man. The confidence man is Wiesbaden proves the rule, not the exception. Her first husband, one John Shea, turns out to be a drunk, a thief, and an adulterer who tries to rob and then murder her. She falls for the concertmaster in one of the New York music halls, an affair she recalls in a rambling revery that can’t help but bring Molly Bloom’s to mind:
J–Jealousy. Yes, that is the course of my lady. I was jealous, and maybe I had no reason to be jealous; but K–kalsomine. Not at all. I don’t paint and powder any more. For whom should I bother? L–lament. Yes, but not here in the in park. M–money; money. Yes, the little I have left. What can I do with it alone and in a sore dilemma, sick and sorrowful? N–name and nobody he called me. No one and nobody. That was our last word of parting. Am I nothing at all? No, I suppose not. Well, O—-ordained. Am I ordained to this continued suffering? Yes, I suppose I am. P–Paradise. Yes there is a Paradise at least; that is if one can eat substantial food and drink plenty of water only; then you can work with brain or body and you’ll get tired and youll sleep—-sleep. If I only could sleep. No, I only slumber now and then, and then I am plagued with the nightmare and see hideous sights before my face. Q–yes, that is the question. Where will I go to? R-R-R–R–reminds me of something. R–what was it? I hear a violin around me and I see a sweet severe face, the chin resting on a white silk handkerchief, and both caress the violin through his glasses. I can see two noble, brown eyes watching me on the stage. With his right arm he holds the violin bow and caressingly and very carefully he strokes the violin until he has let me find my B, moll, tune and then we both join in together and tell each other through wonderful music how good, how true, what a happy life we could live together. But no; we both drank beer–could not afford to buy good beer, but had the tin can filled with cheap stuff, and then didn’t we both smoke cigarettes? Yes, we had enjoyed a cigarette before our acquaintance, which is no harm whatsoever, but we overdid it. Between every kiss we had to take a puff–a kiss and a puff, and a kiss and a puff. Then the kiss was too long and the cigarette went out, and striking a match we took no time to let the sulphur burn off and sucked the poison from the burning match into our system. Heavens!
When I spotted The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub on the Internet Archive, I assumed it was the sort of cheap, salacious literature sold in ads in the back of blood-and-guts rags around the turn of the century. And if anyone did send 25 cents in silver to Ada, it was probably in hope of just such lurid accounts of lust and lechery in the bedrooms of New York hotels.
They would have been pretty disappointed. Although there’s plenty of situations that would have caused Ada’s father to reach for his rod, the closest things get to the risque is when Ada finds a welching tenant drunk on his soft with a half-dressed woman asleep next to him.
But for a reader a hundred years later, the attraction of The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub is not the story but the storyteller. Could anyone but Joyce or Beckett have come up with such raw, unfiltered native craziness:
What was in that beer I drank? One good swallow–: only I took to quench my thirst, but anyhow I was paralyzed. I could not move. I produced money and sent for clam juice. The clam juice didn’t come. I produced money and sent for Dr. O’Brian. Dr. O’Brian didn’t come. I sent for the ambulance. The ambulance came and I was haled to the Harlem Dispensary, and there I was received as a helpless drunkard and imbecile and cigarette fiend. What happened to me there I shall cut out, but not long after that I was haled to Bellevue on Twenty-second Street, or Twenty-sixth, and there I was laid on the floor among a heap of misfortunates with empty stomachs, and I suffered the tortures of hell until the following day at about two o’clock in the afternoon, when the doctor came to look after our welfare.
To quote the one and only Ada Blom, Swedish runaway, tenament landlady and precursor to the fictional Molly: “Howl L. Lulua!”
I’ll start 2011 with a post on the funniest book I’ve read in at least the last ten years.
I don’t recall how I first came across Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians while browsing through the Internet Archive. I downloaded the text at least two years ago and kept meaning to read it, but it was only when I bought a Nook that I finally did. I have to say that the experience did strain my marriage for a few weeks as my wife had to put up with me bursting out laughing each night as I clicked through the book in bed beside her.
Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is an account of two visits by one Paul Pry, a gentleman resident of London, to the town of Little Pedlington, population 2,972, somewhere around 1835. Pry, who has “been everywhere, seen everything, heard everything, and tasted of everything,” has been wondering where to escape from London’s “unendurable” summer when a parcel of books arrives from his bookseller. Sorting through it, he lays aside “Denham’s Travels in Africa,” Humboldt’s in South America, and ” Parry’s Voyages” to peruse a slender just-published volume, “The Stranger’s Guide through Little Pedlington,” by Felix Hoppy, Esq., M.C..
Although he acknowledges that such guides can be found be every provincial crossroads in England, the hyperbole of Hoppy’s book (“Hail, Pedlingtonia! Hail, thou favoured spot!/What’s good is found in thee; what’s not, is not.”) overwhelms Pry and convinces him that the town must be a “very Paradise.” So off he sets for Little Pedlington.
Or at least he tries to. It turns out there is no direct coach from London, and only a chance of finding a connection by way of Squashmire Gate. But even Squashmire Gate proves inaccessible, as the coachman drops him at an isolated hamlet called Poppleton End. “Poppleton End?” he exclaims. “Yes, sir, and has been since time out of mind,” replies the coachman with a snicker. Stuck there in a poor excuse for an inn, Pry attempts to make the best of things, but he soon finds nothing even remotely passable in the place. The locals argue over how far it is to Squashmire Gate–“thirteen good mile” … but that way is blocked, so it’s seventeen-and-a-half if you go by way of Lob’s Farm. And the only transport available is a one-horse cart–“but our horse died Friday-week, and my good man hasn’t yet been able to suit himself with another.”
Finally, he resigns himself to wait until something better comes along and asks the maid for dinner. What follows is arguably the lost template for Monty Python’s famous spam skit:
“What would you like, sir ?”
“A boiled chicken”
“We have never a chicken, sir, but would you like some eggs and bacon?”
“No. Can I have a lamb-chop?”
“No, sir, but our eggs and bacon is very nice.”
“Or a cutlet — or a steak?”
“No, sir; but we are remarkable here for our eggs and bacon.”
“Have you anything cold in your larder?”
“Not exactly, sir, but I’m sure you will admire our eggs and bacon.”
“Then what have you got?”
“Why, sir, we have got nothing but eggs and bacon.”
“Then have the goodness to give me some eggs and bacon.”
“I was sure you’d choose eggs and bacon, sir. We are so famous for it.”
Despite these obstacles, though, Pry is set on his mission of visiting Little Pedlington, particularly after hearing the maid’s endorsement: “Sir,” she said, ” all the world can’t be Lippleton; if it was, it would be much too fine a place, and too good for us poor sinners to live in.” Eventually, after hours of riding on a rickety coach through drizzle, mud, and detours, he arrives late in the evening at “Scorewell’s hotel, the Green Dragon, in High Street. Forgetting all my bygone troubles, I exultingly exclaimed, ‘And here I am in Little Pedlington!'”
Though he resolves to keep a faithful journal of his visit, within the first minutes of his first morning in town, it becomes apparent that Pry’s expectations are not going to bend to the mediocre reality that is life in Little Pedlington–at least not until he has the chance to look back with some perspective upon his return to London. He has a fine breakfast at Scorewell’s. Excepting the over-cooked egg, which is replaced with an under-cooked one; the “Nanking-coloured” coffee (“One quarter ounce per quart,” the waiter proudly informs him); and the fact that the only London paper–three weeks old–is in the hands of preferred customers (“the family with the fly”). Just before setting out for his first stroll around the town, he arranges for his dinner–which becomes the forerunner of another, lesser-known Python sketch, “The Cheese Shop.”:
“Well, Mr. Scorewell, that will do for the present. I will now, guide-book in hand, pay a visit to the town; at five o’clock I will return; and since (as I perceive by the book) you have a well-supplied market …”
“The best in the whole universe, sir.”
“Well, then, you will let me have a nice little dinner; some flsh and …”
“Fish! To-day is Monday, you know, sir, and Wednesdays and Saturdays are our fish-days. Couldn’t get fish to-day in Lippleton for love or money. But I’ll tell you what, sir ; if Joe Higgins should bring any gudgeons in to-morrow, I’ll take care of ’em for you—unless, indeed, the family with the fly should want ’em.”
“A veal cutlet then, and …”
“Veal! We only kill veal in Lippleton, sir, once a week, and that’s o’ Tuesdays, But if you’d please to leave it to my cook, sir, she’ll send you up as nice a little dinner as you’d wish to sit down to.”
In the course of the next week or so, Pry meets all the illuminati of Little Pedlington. His self-appointed guide is one Jack Hobbleday, a gossiping cheapskate busybody windbag bore–although Poore manages to make this clear without ever putting it into such direct terms:
Obligingly communicated to me the fact, that he took three thick slices of bread-and-butter, one egg, and two cups of tea; adding to the interest of the information, by a minute detail of the price he paid for the several commodities, the quantities of tea and sugar he used, the time he allowed his egg to boil, and his tea to draw; and also, bv a particular description of the form and size of his teapot. Though early in the day, I experienced sensation of drowsiness, for which (having slept well at night) I could not account.
It turns out that most of the inhabitants of Little Pedlington share the same affliction. There is Major Boreall, “who, for instance, is a longer time in telling you of his ordering a dinner than it would take you to eat it.” Or Rummins, the town antiquarian, whose “pro-nun-ci-a-ti-on precise accurate even to inaccuracy, and so distinct as to be almost unintelligible — at least, to one accustomed, as I had hitherto been, to the conversation of ordinary people, who utter their words in an everyday sort of manner.” Or Colonel Dominant (an escapee from Bob and Ray’s “Webley Webster Playhouse”), who screams, “D__n your arrogance!” at virtually every syllable his meek companion Mr. Truckle utters.
Little Pedlingtonians find virtue in the utter lack of privacy in their town. When Pry informs Yawkins, the town bookseller, that London is such a big and anonymous place that half the city’s residents wouldn’t even take notice if the other half decided to shave the hair off all the dogs in town, Yawkins replies, “Then blessed be Little Pedlington!–where everybody is acquainted with everybody else’s affairs, at least as well as with his own!”
The highlight of Pry’s first visit is a soiree hosted by Rummins, during which each of the town’s intellectual elite shows off his or her best talents. The evening culminates in a song recital by Miss Cripps, Little Pedlington’s resident coloratura, Pry records in careful detail one of her songs:
Thanks to the lady’s method of singing-— a method which, I am informed, is commonly taught in Little Pedlington — I can answer for it that the following copy of her “exact and exquisite little effusion” is literally correct:
“Se turn sn en sm se,
Me o sn tarn se oo.
To nm te a te me
Pe tam ta o te poo.”
And these words, running through five verses, she articulated with as much distinctness as if she had been regularly educated as a singer for the English Opera.
If this review is beginning to seem like a bit too much of a good thing, you’ll have caught on to what is the one big drawback to Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians. The book was first published in 1836 as Paul Pry’s Journal of a Residence at Little Pedlington. Poole then reissued the book in 1839 as Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians, expanding its length from just over 200 pages to over 500. The second half describes a second and last visit and includes a scene-by-scene account of the theatrical spectacle, “The Hatchet of Horror, or The Massacred Milkmaid,” as well as lengthy excerpts from the “Life and Letters of Captain Nix,” a recently-deceased resident. These include such fascinating items from Nix’s diary as:
Sept. 26.— Rose at 8— shaved— 9, brekd.” [For breakfasted.] 3, Biled beaf for dinr. and carets hot. [It adds considerably to the interest of the work that, in all cases where Nix’s MS. are consulted, his own system of orthography is adhered to. The same may be said of his peculiar mode of pronunciation whenever he is made to appear as the narrator or interlocutor. Of these the dramatic effect is thereby considerably heightened.] 6, Walkd. to Vale of Health — 10, Supper. Welsh rabbet, gin and water, then to bed.
Sept. 27.— Rose 8— -shaved— 9, brekd.— 3, biled beaf for dinr., cold — 6, walkd. to V. of H. — 10, supp., Welsh r., gin and water — 11, bed.
During his life, John Poole was best known as a comic dramatist–experience that certainly informs his account of “The Hatchet of Horror.” Although Little Pedlington was well known enough in its time to earn an entry (“The village of quackery and cant, humbug, and egotism, wherever that locality is.”) in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Poole himself fell on hard times in his later years, and was supported financially by Charles Dickens, who considered him an inspiration.
As I poke around the less-frequented aisles of the Internet Archive, I continue to stumble across long-forgotten gems. Certainly the loveliest so far came as just the kind of happy accident that encourages me to keep on digging. I had been impressed by the quality of Clara Bell’s translations from the Spanish of several works by Benito Perez-Galdos–himself a neglected giant of the 19th century novel–and decided to see if the archive held any other examples of her work.
One of the dozen or so titles I found was the opaquely titled Our Own Set by one Ossip Schubin. I did a quick Google search on the title and author and found very little listed, so I downloaded it to my Nook and started the book a few days later.
Our Own Set takes place in Rome in 1870. The set of the title is a group of Austrian nobles living in the city on long-term holidays, escaping the provincialism of Viennese society–only to create their own form of it. The harmony of the scene is disrupted when the secretary of the Austrian embassy–not much of a diplomat, but a fine waltzer–is sent off to London and replaced by Cecil Sterzl.
The set instantly takes a dislike to Sterzl, who fails to play its game:
He could never be brought to understand that the flattery and subterfuge usual in company were merely a degenerate form of love for your neighbor; that the uncompromising truthfulness that he required must result in universal warfare; that the limit-line between sincerity and rudeness, between deference and hypocrisy, have never been rigidly defined; that the naked truth is as much out of place in a drawing-room as a man in his shirt-sleeves; and that, considering the defects and deformities of our souls, we cannot be too thankful that custom prohibits their being displayed without a decent amount of clothing.
His situation is not aided by his seating on a relatively low rung on the ladder of Austrian nobility, earned only by virtue of his mother’s slim claim to title:
Baroness Sterzl was a typical specimen of a class of nobility peculiar to Austria, and called there, Heaven knows why, “the onion nobility” (zweibelnoblesse). It is a circle that may be described as a branch concern of the best society; a half-blood relation; a mixture of the elements that have been sifted out of the upper aristocracy and of the parvenus from below, who find that they can be reciprocally useful; a circle in which almost every man is a baron, and every woman, without exception, is a baroness. Its members are for the most part poor, but refined beyond expression. The mothers scold their children in bad French and talk to their friends in fashionable slang; they give parties, at which there is nothing to eat–but the family plate is displayed, and where the company always consists of the same old bachelors who dye their hair and know the Almanack de Gotha by heart.
And, to top it off, he comes to Rome not only in the company of his “onion” baroness mother, but also that of his sister Zenaide–Zinka for short–a stunningly beautiful but naive girl. Soon after their arrival, the charming Count Sempaly, Sterzl’s bureaucratic subordinate but social superior, dashes off a mocking sketch of Sterzl as an auctioneer, holding up a beautiful doll–Zinka–before a crowd of crowned heads: “Mademoiselle Sterzl, going–going–gone–!” Sempaly’s caricature delights his salon, but when he meets Zinka in person, he quickly discovers she is no social climber but a genuine innocent, tender and lovely.
Sempaly becomes entranced by Zinka and soon he is paying call upon her and accompanying her on carriage rides. She, in turn, falls completely for his charms.
There is, of course, a big problem with all this. For Sempaly to marry Zinka would be to stoop far below his standing. Nor is her innocence sufficient to overcome the resistance of the rest of the Austrian set–particularly after the arrival of his well-placed cousins, the Jatinsky sisters, who consider Zinka little more than a rube. And there is the matter of Sempaly’s massive gambling debts, which only his very conservative brother can pay.
Still, he continues to pay court. The truth is that he is genuinely attracted to Zinka–but he is also utterly captive to the perceptions of his social peers and betters. Schubin takes critical weight of his character:
His behavior to her was that of a man who is perfectly clear as to his own intentions but who for some reason is not immediately free to sue for the hand of a girl whom in his heart of hearts he already regards as his own. What did he mean by all this? What was he thinking? I believe absolutely nothing. He went with the tide. There are many men like him, selfish, luxurious natures who swim with the stream of life and never attempt to steer; they have for the most part happy tempers, they are content with any harbor so long as they reach it without effort or damage, and if in their passive course they run down any one else they exclaim with their usual amiable politeness: “Oh, I beg your pardon!” and are quite satisfied that the mishap was due to fate and not to any fault of theirs.
Finally, one warm evening at a cotillion, he takes Zinka for a walk in the garden and tries to have his cake and eat it, too. He proposes to her–but demands her promise to keep it a secret until his debts are repaid and his older brother departed. Unfortunately, someone else sees them depart the ballroom and places a suggestive item in a local society column: Will Mademoiselle S___l “earn her reward in the form of a coronet?” The column, Schubin observes was “abused and condemned by everybody, covertly maintained by several, and read by most.”
Sterzl is infuriated, especially when Sempaly fails to register any outrage or acknowledge any responsibility for his actions–indeed, fails even to see Zinka for several days afterward. Sempaly uses his brother’s visit as an excuse: “He was utterly miserable, but this did not prevent him from allowing his good-natured senior to pay his enormous debts, nor–in order to propitiate him–from paying specious attention to his cousins.”
In defense of his sister’s honor, Sterzl challenges Sempaly to a duel. He only learns afterward of the engagement, but in keeping with his character, cannot reverse course and call things off. In swords as in society, sophistication tops earnestness every time, and Sterzl is carried off with a fatal wound.
True love does win out in the end–but in Zinka’s case the winner is Count Truyn, the quiet, distinguished widower who has remained loyal to Sterzl and Zinka throughout. And Sempaly drifts ever higher in the estimation of Austrian society, wistfully recalling his courtship.
I am no expert on Jane Austen, but Our Own Set struck me as a work very much in the spirit of her work: wise, comic, hyper-attuned to the subtleties of social hierarchies, and full of the business of love and courtship. Particularly given that Ossip Schubin was the pen-name of one Aloisia Kirschner, a woman of Austrian-Slovak origins. Her father was an Austrian noble and she was raised in Prague and in a castle in the Bohemian countryside. The marriage ended, however, in circumstances that are not clear, and Kirschner, her mother, and sister began a nomadic life among the expatriate Austrian societies in Rome, Paris, Geneva, and Brussels.
Early on in their exile, Kirschner began writing fiction, and her mother sent off a piece of hers to an Austrian publisher, who responded enthusiastically, demanding more. She quickly pulled some material into a novel, Ehre, which was published in 1882, when Kirschner was 28. She took Ossip Schubin as a pen-name–Ossip being the Slovak form of Joseph and Schubin from Helena, a lesser-known novel by Turgenev, whom she had met in Paris. A reviewer wrote authoritatively, “Whoever Ossip Schubin may be–we are sure that he can no longer be a young man!” The book sold well and her mother pressed her to write more.
Our Own Set, published in 1884, was her third novel. It was the first to be translated into English and gain attention with English readers. One reviewer offered a somewhat left-handed compliment in assessing the book as “rather more dainty in touch than is usual in German fiction,” while another rated Clara Bell’s translation as “one of the best” of contemporary European writing of the time. An anonymous reviewer in The Critic wrote,
Its interest lies hardly in the story, though the story contains a little plot not unsuccessfully put together and told, but in the character-drawing, and in the author’s terse, bright epigrams, which have the pleasant keenness of one whose gentle and transparent cynicism is not his least attractive quality…. There is not a page that does not hold one with a keen sense of enjoyment, and a certain delicacy running through all the brilliancy justifies one in a pleasure not exhausted by a single reading.
Kirschner went on to publish at least seventeen more novels as Ossip Schubin between 1884 and 1910, but her production appears to have fallen off after that, and her popular and critical recognition–in Germany and Austria as well as abroad–soon followed. Her entry in the German-language version of Wikipedia suggests this had to do with her being Jewish and the influence of National Socialism on literary historians of the 1920s and 1930s. Certainly her English-language readership suffered somewhat as a consequence of the First World War. In the academic world, Schubin’s work has been forgotten for the most part. She has a short entry in the Oxford Companion to German Literature, but nothing in Women Writers of Germany, Austria and Switzerland (Frederiksen), Women Writers of German-Speaking Countries (Frederiksen and Amestsbichler), or The Encyclopedia of German literature (Konzett), and only a passing mention in The Feminist Encyclopedia of German Literature (Eigler and Kord).
One of the few texts I’ve been able to locate with any substantive material on Kirschner/Schubin, Wilma Iggers’ Women of Prague, includes a recollection by the poet Hedda Sauer that suggests another reason:
Ossip, led by an intelligent, but presumably autocratic mother, remained … somewhat of an enfant terrible all her life … Her human greatness lay in the fact that she easily made her peace with the vicissitudes of her material life. When the prosperity of her parental home broke down, Ossip and her sister Marie–in a life of hard work–again created an existence for themselves which seemed pleasant to them … in hotels and in rented little castles, with coachmen and servants.
Over-production may have much to do with it. As early as 1893, one English reviewer commented on “the inferiority of Ossip Schubin’s later tales, written as it would seem too hastily, under the pressure of a sudden popularity…. It is unfortunate that a novelist of such marked ability should yield to the temptation to strain and hackney emotional effects.”
Kirschner survived for over twenty years after the last of her books was published, dying in 1934 at the age of eighty. Iggers quotes a sad letter from late in her life that gives a sense of how dependent she had become on the wealth and fame she had gained from her writing:
Having outlived one’s time is a miserable state … Where is the Ossip Schubin whom everybody wanted to know, beginning with Austrian archduchesses and Russian Grand Princesses? … like many has-beens I have been sent from the ‘belle étage’ to the attic … sometimes when I lie down for my afternoon nap, I think it would be nice not to wake up. At other times I would like to throw myself at the inkwell and put down the many things which still bubble inside of me. Then I laugh at myself. In the present jazzy belles lettres there is no room for me any more.”
Around a dozen of Ossip Schubin’s novels are available free online through Google or the Internet Archive. Perhaps not all are truly worthy of rediscovery, but I can highly recommend Our Own Set and intended to check out Gloria Victis, which is something of a sequel, taking up with Count Truyn and Zinka in Paris after their marriage. Asbeïn, from the life of a virtuoso and its sequel, Boris Lensky, which deal with the career of a composer and musical virtuoso, were also considered–at the time, at least–as two of her better works.
Our Own Set, by Ossip Schubin (pen name of Aloisia Kirschner), translated by Clara Bell
New York City: W. S. Gottsberger, 1884
A book of aphorisms is among the most perishable of publications. It’s too small to command any attention on the bookshelf, too atomic in composition to be considered as a complete work, too light to carry any critical weight. The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook, published in 1981, collects McLaughlin’s 1963 book and its 1966 successor, The Second Neurotic’s Notebook, in one volume–of average size because the text is in large print–yet of the three books I can locate just 25 used copies in total available for sale online. Leaves pressed into books survive better than that.
Each notebook is divided into ten identical chapters, each collecting roughly 50 to 60 statements related to topics such as “Love and Marriage,” “Men and Women,” “Getting and Spending,” “God and the Devil,” and my favorite, “The General Orneriness of Things.” Although both put together amount to no more words than Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I doubt anyone could consume them in one sitting if even one in ten statements is given serious consideration. Yet I wouldn’t class it as a good bathroom read, because the truth in more than a few of these aphorisms is pretty grim: “Don’t look for God where He is needed most; if you didn’t bring Him there, He isn’t there.”
Despite the titles, the tone of the books, if one can say a collection of sayings has a tone, is not particularly neurotic. McLaughlin had worked as the managing editor of Glamour magazine, had co-written a Broadway play, Gayden, with her husband, the novelist Robert McLaughlin, and was the mother of two teen-age boys at the time the books were published. There is a strong air of experience and authority, not neurosis, in many of them. Time’s review of the first notebook was titled, “With Dash & Bitters,” and observed that, “McLaughlin’s brand of bitterness is more Angostura than Angst.” Even “bitterness” seems to me off the mark. Her outlook is hardly rosy, but neither is it yellowed with the acidic cynicism of Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary.
More than a few even sound a little like they were first said to McLaughlin’s own sons:
Don’t be yourself–be someone a little nicer.
If it came true, it wasn’t much of a dream.
A car is useless in New York, essential everywhere else. The same with good manners.
It is always safe to tell people that they’re looking wonderful.
Cash is the one gift everyone despises and no one turns down.
It’s easy enough to get along with a loved and loving child–at least till you try to get him to do something.
I suppose one of the reasons that such little books of little sayings get such little respect in a critical sense is that there isn’t much you can say about them. There is no such thing as plot, characterization, structure, themes or symbolism. There are just these sayings, and what can one do but repeat the ones that seem most penetrating, apt or funny. Such as,
Women are good listeners, but it’s a waste of time telling your troubles to a man unless there’s something specific you want him to do.
It does not undo harm to acknowledge that we have done it; but it undoes us not to acknowledge it.
Every group feels strong once it has found a scapegoat.
Everybody can write; writers can’t do anything else.
The only courage that matters is the kind that gets you from one moment to the next.
When threatened, the first thing a democracy gives up is democracy.
If the second marriage really succeeds, the first one didn’t really fail.
It’s not surprising a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times wrote of McLaughlin’s aphorisms, “… you have the feeling they eliminate the need for all five feet of Dr. Harvard’s shelf of books.”
McLaughlin and her husband retired to Florida in the 1970s, where she died in 1983, just a year or so after The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook was published. Copies of the book now command as much as $350, but you can find a number of collected sayings from the book online:
“This book is an attempt to fill a gap,” John Baynes writes in his introduction to Morale, his classic study of the 2nd Scottish Rifles in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. “In all the mass of histories, studies, memoirs, biographies and novels which have been published about the First World War little has been done to investigate the most interesting field of all–the morale of the front-line soldier.”
Had Baynes attempted a sweeping study of morale in general, or even morale in combat, or even of morale in combat on the Western Front, I doubt that anyone would remember his book. But Baynes recognized early on that “the subject is too big”:
I decided that I would rather stick to something small and try to get near the truth, and being a Regular serving officer in the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) I naturally chose to study my own Regiment. I decided to look at one battalion in one battle–the 2nd Battalion at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, 9 to 15 March 1915. This battalion, which always referred to itself as the 2nd Scottish Rifles and did not normally use the name Cameronians, started the battle about nine hundred strong on 9 March. Six days later it came out of action. By this time the hundred and fifty men left were commanded by the sole surviving officer, a 2nd Lieutenant.
In approaching his subject, Baynes is guided by Edmund Blunden’s admonition in his poem, “Victorians”: “… read first, and fully shape/The diagram of life which governed them.” The officers and other ranks of the 2nd Scottish Rifles, as he carefully pieces together the “diagram” of their life, are particular, not representative men. He begins by introducing us to the battalion as it stood, garrisoned on Malta, at the start of the war. It numbered about a thousand officers and men–large enough a unit to be self-sufficient by the standards of the day, small enough for there to be a strong level of familiarity among the members–fewer than thirty in total–of the officers’ mess, among the NCOs–roughly fifty–and among the men in each of the four companies.
The battalion was somewhat exception in that it came late for a Regular Army unit to the front, having spent some years in the relative isolation of Malta. The men averaged over five years’ service. The routines of garrison life–the day in, day out grind of inspection, drill, and firing practice–was certainly monotonous and unwelcoming to the imagination, but as Baynes shows, it was remarkably effective in reinforcing the men’s “bloody-mindedness”:
When using the term I do not mean a surly refusal to do what is ordered but a refusal to give way to conditions which might be expected to make a man sour. It has an element of rebellion in it, of course, but the rebelling is not so much against authority as against difficult circumstances. As things get worse the man with this quality becomes more determined to stick them out.
The battalion’s six days in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle put its bloody mindedness to an exceptional test. After marching up to the front trenches through the night of 9-10 March, it stood, waiting, for over two hours, until the artillery fell silent and the attack began. It was a classic example of the disastrous tactic of sending hundreds of men clambering over the top:
Almost at the same moment came another noise: the whip and crack of the enemy machine-guns opening up with deadly effect. From the intensity of their fire, and its accuracy, it was clear that the shelling had not been as effective as expected. Worse than its lack of effect on the enemy was the fact that it had scarcely touched the wire. Instead of being broken up, the wire and the thick hedge looked just the same as they had before the bombardment.
The attack began at 8:05 AM. By 9:30 AM, all but two officers were dead or wounded, and over thirty of the NCOs. Three hundred fifty or so of the other ranks were killed or wounded. They had managed to advance about a three hundred meters.
Further assaults during the day were able to secure the German’s front line of trenches, but progress stopped after that. By the afternoon of 12 March, General Haig, then commanding the First Army, issued orders to “push through regardless of loss, using reserves if required.” Unfortunately, the 2nd Scottish Rifles had no reserves by then, and as Baynes remarks, “From here the story of the battle becomes a sorry tale, except for the courage, willingness, and effort of the soldiers who tried to do the impossible.” On the night of 14-15 March, 2nd Lieutenant Somervail and one senior NCO led one hundred forty-three men back to their billets.
Baynes completes his account of the battle and his assessment of its significance (he calls it “a failure but not a waste” in that it demonstrated the combat integrity of the British forces in the first major offensive action after the stalemate of the previous fall) by page 91 of the book. Then the most interesting material begins.
Over the next seven chapters, he focuses on the battalion and the various factors that reinforced–or undermined–its ability to remain intact, on duty, and engaged in the battle for over four days after losing over three-fourths of its men. He describes the officers, who sat roughly half-way up the social and economic hierarchy of the Regular Army. They came from upper middle class families and good schools but not great wealth. They believed in sport and maintaining existing values and social distinctions. They were not bullies or martinets, however, and the worst thing one could say of a fellow officer was that he didn’t take care of his men.
The NCOs and other ranks came from poor working class areas in Glasgow and the surrounding Lanarkshire. The Army was generally considered a step up in the world:
One could almost say that for them the whole of their lives had been a conditioning for the trenches. As children they had learnt to live happily with so many of the things that made life at the front unbearable for those reared in gentler surrounding. Cold, ragged clothes, dirt, lice and fleas, bad food, hard beds, overcrowding, rats, ugly surroundings; these were nothing new to someone whose boyhood had been passed in a Glasgow slum.
Duty in the Army brought order and cleanliness to his life, a healthier diet, and regular exercise. The Army–particularly in the person of his Sergeant–was interested in him: “people cared whether he wore his uniform correctly, whether he progressed in his training, and whether he was a credit to the Regiment.” The Regiment, in fact, was, according to Baynes, “the quintessence of the morale of the pre-1914 Army.”
Discipline and drill were also significant factors. Maintaining a marksman’s rating was one of the few ways in which a private could make a little more money, and hours were spent every week in “pokey drill”–loading and unloading dummy rounds to increase firing speed. Many British Army regulars achieved such a rate of fire that the Germans believed their battalions were equipped with dozens of machine guns (they averaged two guns per battalion, in fact).
The strength of the class system prior to the war was another factor. The officers and men of the 2nd Scottish Rifles came from a world in which class structure and the inherent right of the more privileged to command those in the lower classes was accepted. Many writers have argued that the experience of combat on the Western Front, particularly the relentless years of futile “over the top” attacks, ultimately undermined this acceptance, leading to strikes and the rise of the Labour Party afterwards. But in the early days, when the battalion marched into its first battle, class was, Baynes argues, a greater factor in morale than religion, morals, or patriotism.
Since its first publication in 1967, Morale has come to be recognized as an essential text on its subject. Although only reprinted once, in 1987, you can find it cited in numerous articles in British, American, Canadian, French, and even Israeli military journals. To use it as a guide for dealing with the morale of combat troops in other situations, though, is, I think, a mistake. One could never–should never–attempt to reproduce the factors that enabled the 2nd Scottish Rifles to remain intact through devastating losses.
What makes Morale a book worth rediscovering is not its value as a source of instruction but its high merit as an attempt by one author to deeply understand his subject. Although examining the battalion’s morale provided Baynes with the motivation to undertake this book, I would argue that its greatest value is in offering an exceptional example of reconstructing, in Blunden’s words, “the diagram of life” which governed a particular group of men in a particular time and a particular situation. This is the kind of history that helps remind us that, as David McCullough puts it, people in that past “didn’t live in the past”: “They lived in the present. It is their present, not our present, and they don’t know how it’s going to come out. They weren’t just like we are because they lived in that very different time. You can’t understand them if you don’t understand how they perceived reality and you don’t understand that unless you understand the culture.” And for understanding the culture of the Regular British Army at the start of the First World War, I can recommend no book more highly than John Baynes’ Morale.
This is, quite simply, a terrific piece of work. Cynthia tells the story of the courtship, marriage, separation, and eventual reconciliation of Cynthia Walford, the daughter of a prosperous goods broker of, and Humphrey Kent, a struggling writer. But much of the book focuses instead on Humphrey’s situation as a working writer and his difficulties in achieving financial stability, artistic aspirations, and personal integrity at the same time. And it is a mark of Merrick’s skill at what William Dean Howells called “shapeliness”–the effective use of form–how subtly and indirectly it becomes apparent to the reader that the book is really about two people coming into a mature relationship with each other.
When the two meet at a resort in Dieppe, Kent has just published his first novel to fine critical acclaim. His legacy and the hundred pounds from the sale have taken him the first step into the upper middle class. Cynthia is something of a bourgeois princess and the Walfords quite smug about already occupying a solid place, with a house called “The Hawthorns” in Streatham, servants, and the luxury of taking resort vacations in France. Humphrey is smitten with Cynthia’s beauty and grace, and Cynthia responds to his undivided attention. But engagement is impossible without her parents’ approval. After Cynthia’s father grills him about his prospects and Mrs. Walford begins to fantasize about having a “renowned” author in their family, though, the match is soon made, and the couple move into a house near The Hawthorns, complete with servant, and Humphrey starts in on his second novel.
The bloom quickly comes off the rose. “Companionship, and not worship, was required now, and neither found the other quite so companionable as had been expected,” Merrick writes. Humphrey finds Cynthia’s interests materialistic, superficial, and mundane: “… her manner was as dull as her topics.” He longs to share his daily labors with her, to discuss narrative development and emerging characters, but spends his evenings talking about furniture or enduring visits to the Walfords. And she is more than a little disappointed to have become so marginal in his time and thoughts.
The momentum of the narrative picks up rapidly as their first year together ends. A son–named Humphrey at Cynthia’s insistence–is born. Humphrey manages to finish the novel–a few months behind his self-imposed schedule but much to his artistic satisfaction, and posts it off to his publisher. Two hundred pounds, he thinks, should be a fair price. After all, the household expenses are growing and have consumed much of his inheritance.
Unfortunately, the novel comes back from the publishers a few weeks later with a short note: “The faults seem inherent to the story, and irremediable, and we are therefore returning the MS. to you to-day, with
our compliments and thanks.” He tries a second. Then a third. Then others, as time and what little money he has left slip away. He begins applying for positions, but London has nothing to offer. As a last resort, he accepts an editorial post with an English magazine from expatriates based in Paris.
Humphrey and Cynthia hastily pack up baby, nurse, and a few trunks and head off to Paris. The magazine proves a second-rate affair, mostly full of loosely plagiarized material. Its owner, an English baron with gambling debts and an expensive French mistress, has founded it as a lark and neglects tedious details such as paying his staff. Humphrey and Cynthia are forced to move to cheaper, dingier digs. Soon, they are avoiding the landlady, taking small loans from a sympathetic maid, and pawning bits of jewelry. Humphrey spends more and more time trying to chase down his employer for the week’s pay. As soon as the baron’s own funds start drying up, he pulls the plug, leaving them stranded. At the very last minute, just hours ahead of being tossed on the street with nothing but the clothes on their backs, they manage to arrange for the money to get themselves back to London.
I found the whole Paris sequence as gripping as a thriller. You know their situation is doomed from the start but you can’t look away for fear of missing a single development.
At this point, Humphrey is outright in panic. He faces the reality of losing everything: his family, his right to a place in a respectable class, his right to consider himself a serious artist. He agrees to ghost-write a novel for a highly successful and prolific woman writer. He takes it as a one-time job, but the woman adroitly manipulates his emotions and his financial straints and the arrangement turns into a full-time production line. Humphrey endures the insult of seeing the hack work raised high and his own refused: “There were not in London five papers making a feature of fiction, which did not repeatedly reject the man’s best work, signed by himself, and accept his worst, signed by somebody else.”
Meanwhile, Cynthia has taken the boy and moved to a small cottage in the country to improve her health. Humphrey resolves to visit, but feels he has betrayed her and well as himself and keeps putting it off.
Just as everything about the couple is about to dissolve, the fifteenth or twentieth publisher to review Humphrey’s novel offers him a contract, and the book comes out to glittering reviews. He walks away from his ghost-writing work and heads to the country to celebrate with Cynthia. But now, he finds, the dynamic of their marriage has profoundly changed. Cynthia, he comes to recognize, has grown in perspective and character–has surpassed him, in fact:
The alteration in her impressed him still more strongly now that he had opportunities for studying it ; and the gradual result of three years, presenting itself to him as the fruit of ten months, was startling. His wife had become a woman—in her tone, in her bearing, in her comments, which often had a pungency, though they might not be brilliant. She was a woman in the composure with which she ignored their anomalous
relations—a very fascinating woman withal, whose composure, while it won his admiration, disturbed him too, as the weeks went by. It was in moments difficult to identify her new personality with the girl’s whose love for him had been so constantly evident.
The two have reached a point where they are, effectively, friends living under the same roof, and Humphrey holds himself most to blame. His obsession with his career and work has blinded him to the strength of his feelings for Cynthia, feelings developed as they have weathered the hardships and disappointments. But as Merrick has been showing us–just in touches here and there throughout the second half of the book–there is more going on with Cynthia than she shows, and in the very last few lines, we learn that hope for their love remains.
There is so much going on in Cynthia beside the story of Humphrey and Cynthia. There are some wonderful characterisations, deft observations on the business of writing and the conventions of middle-class life in late Victorian England, and bits of fine comedy, such as this description of a recital by Caesar, Cynthia’s brother, a fat, pompous pretender who’s been led to believe himself a talented basso:
It was a prodigious roar. No one could dispute that he possessed a voice of phenomenal power, if it were once conceded to be a voice, in the musical sense, at all. It seemed as if he must burst his corsets, and shift the furniture — that the ceiling itself must split with the noise that he hurled up. Perspiration broke out on him, and rolled down his face, as he writhed at the gas-globes. His large body was contorted with exertion. But he never faltered. Bellow upon bellow he produced, to the welcome end — till Cynthia struck the final chord and he bowed.
“A performance?” asked Walford, swollen with pride.
Kent said indeed it was.
My admiration for Leonard Merrick’s talents continues to grow and I will head further into his oeuvre in search of more such delights.
When Sigrid de Lima’s fourth novel, Praise a Fine Day was first published in 1959, it received mixed reviews. Edmund Fuller, writing in the Chicago Sunday Tribune proclaimed de Lima “one of our most deft, accomplished stylists among our younger writers,” and Granville Hicks, in Saturday Review found her “feeling for subtleties and ambiguities sharp, and she has a delicate style that matches her insights.” Time’s reviewer, on the other hand, thought the book offered “more tricks than treats,” and The New Yorker felt the narrative “contains more innuendo than fact, so that the reader, tantalized and interested to begin with, grows tired and finally impatient.” The book was also published in hardback by Chatto & Windus in the U. K., received no paperback release, and would have completely been lost from memory if not recalled and celebrated as a “small masterpiece” in the Independent by Christopher Hawtree in 1999. It is, he wrote, “Everything that Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers is not, it is long overdue a reissue.”
Unfortunately, Hawtree was writing in de Lima’s obituary, and no publisher has, to date, shared his assessment.
Praise a Fine Day is narrated, mostly in flashbacks, by a nameless young American painter living in New York City sometime in the 1950s. The focus of the book is the artist’s recollection of how, while living in Rome several years earlier, he entered into an arrangement to marry the Polish mistress of Isaak, a wealthy Egyptian Jew. The woman, Mara, is officially stateless, having fled Poland during the war, and the couple want to guarantee American citizenship for the unborn child she is bearing. “Sometimes when I am asleep I dream that the police are knocking at the door. They have come to send me away. But when I was little I never had that dream and I don’t want my child to have that dream.”
At first, the artist rejects their offer to pay him thousands of dollars for his participation on ethical grounds, despite being near-penniless, living in a cheap rented room and existing off occasional sales to American tourists. De Lima was the 1953 winner of the Prix de Rome for literature and spent a year studying at the American Academy in Rome, where she met her husband, the American abstract painter, Stephen Greene, and some of the best writing in the book are her characterizations of Roman personalities and habits. One can hear the original Italian in this recollection of his landlady’s abuse:
“Ah, you are a fool. Cosi iddio mi aiuti, to have harbored under my roof all this time a complete imbecile, idiot, moron, stalk of fennel, a simpleton, a barbarian, a goose, a snake, a communist [Everyone of these epithets would have a rich history for a Roman.–Ed.].” And many things more besides, for Signora Donati was gifted along these lines. When she stopped for breath all I could think of was to tell her to calm herself, which started up a new blaze of fury in which I learned that I was an ungrateful monster and a dishonest wretch who owed her for seven months’ rent, and where was I going to get it, would I tell her that. There was an interlude while she described in moving and pathetic terms the difficulties of a poor Italian landlady whose tenants only take advantage of her goodness and the warmness of her motherly heart, for isn’t she a mother herself, a valiant mother who raised six children all by herself and has seen five of them happily settled and married, so out of the incredible warmness and kindness of her motherly heart she waits for the rent from her tenant though heaven knows she can’t afford it and the bill collectors are knocking at her door, and when she turns up a perfectly respectable way of earning a little money at no cost to anyone and doing a good act besides for an innocent, unborn child, what thanks does she get, the kind of thanks that a cobra gives the hand that feeds it, that’s the kind of gratitude, ingratitude and double-dealing and perjury.
The couple persist, and he gradually succumbs to their charm and generosity. He also finds himself falling in love with Mara, however, which further complicates his feelings about the arrangement. When he finally agrees, it is by convincing himself that he will be even more duplicitous than Isaak and Mara, and will take their money and flee to the U. S. without fulfilling his end of the deal.
In the end, their allure overcomes his will and he goes along. He marries Mara in an official Italian state ceremony: “Ah, you will say, was ever a man more confused–to enter into a fraudulent marriage with the full intention of compounding fraud on fraud and yet to claim that in his heart he swore to love and cherish.” The trio head off on a long honeymoon in southern France. At each stop along the way, he and Mara perform as newlyweds to convince a suitable number of witnesses. All the while, the artist falls more deeply in love with her. The whole affair comes to a climax I will leave to other readers to discover, but in its aftermath, the narrator finds himself wondering just what about the whole situation was real and how much a sham played upon him by Isaak and Mara. He returns to New York, meets and marries an American woman, and suddenly achieves a critical and financial breakthrough in the art world. As the book ends, he wonders if Mara is alive, half wishing and half dreading what will happen if she were to turn up.
I suspect that Time magazine’s reviewer was voicing what I might call a stereotypical American response to a very European situation. I thought de Lima did a marvelous job of insinuating her narrator into a situation rich with moral, emotional, cultural, and even legal complexities and ambiguities. He is astute enough to know there is more going on than he can hope to understand: he refers at one point to the “two thousand years of trading in the market place, the shrill shouting of prices, bitter bargaining, the play-acting rage over each item, the shrewd offer put insultingly low against the proudly inflated demand” that characterizes any negotiation in Rome. But his American upbringing, which its simple and clear-cut morals and straight-forward materialistic values (“No one needs a painting,” his father tells him), puts him rather in the position of a two-dimensional figure trying to comprehend a three-dimensional world.
She also manages to pull off the very difficult trick of writing a whole book in the voice and mindset of another gender. I read this immediately after finishing Wilfrid Sheed’s People Will Always Be Kind, and I found myself stopping at several times to glance at de Lima’s photo on the dust jacket and remind myself that this wasn’t another book written by a man.
De Lima’s three previous novels also received mixed reviews, but there was, by the time of Praise a Fine Day, a rough consensus that she was a writer to be considered with the best of her age–a view reflected by the three columns devoted to her in the 1958 edition of Current Biography: “The critics have judged her work as uneven–imaginative, forceful, at times brilliant, but also at times overly precocious and undisciplined. On one point, however, they are in agreement: she is a serious novelist with a very considerable talent.”
A space of ten years separated the publication of Praise a Fine Day and de Lima’s fifth novel, Oriane. Oriane received few reviews, none of them particularly enthusiastic. In his Independent obituary, Hawtree says the experience devastated de Lima and caused her to abandon writing completely: “It broke her heart,” he quotes Greene.
She died of a stroke in 1999 at the age of seventy-seven. Stephen Greene died less than two months later.
Praise a Fine Day, by Sigrid de Lima
New York: Random House, 1959
In last month’s post on Graham Greene’s “The Century Library” series, I noted that George Orwell was unsuccessful in his attempt to have Leonard Merrick’s novel, The Position of Peggy Harper, included in the series. Patrick Murtha commented that, “The collected ‘Works of Leonard Merrick’ were issued in a 15 volume set with introductions by some very big names (such as J.M. Barrie).” Now, however, “Merrick doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry; someone ought to remedy that [Someone has! A short entry was tossed one up right after this post appeared.–Ed.]. He is the very model of The Neglected Novelist.”
William Baker and Jeannettes Robert Shumaker, authors of the 2009 biography, Leonard Merrick: A Forgotten Novelist’s Novelist, would certainly agree. As would William Dean Howells, who as early as 1907 wrote enthusiastically, in The North American Review, “I can think of no recent fictionist of his nation who can quite match with Mr. Merrick in that excellence [of “shapeliness” or form in the novel]. This will seem great praise, possibly too great, to the few who have a sense of such excellence; but it will probably be without real meaning to most, though our public might well enjoy form if it could once be made to imagine it.”
Several leading English and American publishers shared this high regard, which led to the release of a 15-volume series, “The Works of Leonard Merrick,” in both the U. S. and the U. K. between 1918 and 1922. Each title in the series was selected by one of a number of well-known writers, including H. G. Wells, James M. Barrie, G. K. Chesterton, and Howells, as well as now less-recognized names such as Maurice Hewlett and Sir Arthur Pinero, and featured a preface written by them.
Writing in Publisher’s Weekly in 1920, as “The Works of Leonard Merrick” series was in the midst of being released, Frederick Taber Copper noted the double-edged effect of Merrick’s typical choice of subject. When J. M. Barrie “assures us, as quite rightly, that ‘Mr. Merrick’s fellow writers are agreed that he is one of the flowers of their calling,’ and has long been ‘the novelist’s novelist,’ he has inadvertently drawn attention to the fact that the distinctive atmosphere of Mr. Merrick’s books is that of the literary, artistic and dramatic circles of London–and, other things being equal, the literary and journalistic setting is a recognized handicap.” Still, he acknowledged that, “one of the most delicate artists of his age, one of the most finished and resourceful craftsmen of his art, a past master of the elusive and the unexpected is at last coming tardily into what is so justly his own.” Yet even this series did not succeed in fixing Merrick’s place in the canon of the English novel. Less than ten years after the first volumes of “The Works of Leonard Merrick” appeared, another writer noted that though Merrick’s work “… [P]ossesses artistry, charm, gaiety, humor, power, narrative inventiveness and fluency…”, “still his position is not what its merits deserve to make it.”
I decided to give one of Merrick’s novels a try. Having experimented with a number of eReaders in the last few months, I also wanted to try out my current choice, the Barnes & Noble Nook wifi. I’m not much interested in B&N’s eBook offerings but wanted to start tapping into the ever-growing library of free books available online, particularly through the Internet Archive. All volumes of “The Works of Leonard Merrick” are available in a variety of formats, including PDF, HTML, ASCII text, Kindle, and EPUB, although, as seems to characterize Google’s haphazard book-scanning, the titles and other metadata are entered inconsistently and defy easy searching. This search link–“The Works of Leonard Merrick” in the Internet Archive–brings up about three different entries for each volume, but it’s a starting point.
I chose, for no particular reason, One Man’s View, first published in 1897, and this edition from the New York Public Library because their standard of scanning and entry seems a little higher and more consistent than others. The EPUB version of the file was relatively free of OCR errors and read easily on the Nook.
The story of One Man’s View would have been controversial at the time Merrick was writing. George Heriot, a rising solicitor, younger brother to Sir Francis Heriot, fantasizes about a pretty young woman he sees on the promenade in Eastbourne. By coincidence, she turns out to be the daughter of a long-lost friend, Dick Cheriton. Cheriton had been a promising artist, but he burned his canvases and took off to America to seek his fortune. His fortune proved to be running a hotel in Duluth, Minnesota, and he has returned to England to foster his daughter Mamie’s aspirations for a career on the stage.
Heriot agrees to help Mamie as much as he can, lacking any acquaintances in the theatre world. For the next year, Mamie makes the rounds of agencies and stage doors, hoping first for a speaking role, then anything–even an extra’s part–that would get her on stage. Merrick–writing from personal experience–is coldly realistic about the possibility of breaking into the theatre at the time:
The Stage is generally supposed to be the easiest of all callings to enter. The girl who is unhappy at home, the boy who has been plucked for the army, the woman whose husband has failed on the Stock Exchange, all speak of ” going on the stage ” as calmly as if it were only necessary to take a stroll to get there. As a matter of fact, unless an extra-ordinary piece of fortune befall her, it is almost as difficult for a girl without influence, or a good deal of money, to become an actress as it is for her to marry a duke. She may be in earnest, but there are thousands who are in earnest ; she may be pretty, but there are hundreds of pretty actresses struggling and unrecognised ; she may be a genius, but she has no opportunity to display her gift until the engagement is obtained…. To succeed on the stage requires indomitable energy, callousness to rebuffs, tact, luck, talent, and facilities for living six or nine months out of the year without earning a shilling. To get on to the stage requires valuable introductions or considerable means. If a woman has neither, the chances are in favour of her seeking a commencement vainly all her life. And as to a young man so situated who seeks it, he is endeavouring to pass through a brick wall.
When Mamie’s stamina finally wears down and she decides to return to Duluth, Heriot confesses his love and begs her to marry him. Mamie agrees–not out of love but merely in hope of finding a more palatable future than life in Duluth or with her aunt in equally dreary Wandsworth. The first few years pass amicably, but eventually Mamie meets and falls madly in love with a rising young playwright, Lucas Field. She leaves Heriot and the two take off for Paris, where passions quickly cool. This is no Anna Karenina, though. Merrick is unashamedly terse about the affair: “If a woman sins, and the chronicler of her sin desires to excuse the woman, her throes and her struggles, her pangs and her prayers always occupy at least three chapters. If one does not
seek to excuse her, the fact of her fall may as well be stated in the fewest possible words.” He’s also coldly realistic about their long-term prospects. “Romance,” he writes, “does not wear any better because the Marriage Service is omitted. A lover is no less liable to be common-place than a husband when the laundress knocks the buttons off his shirts.”
Fields sneaks back to London, where he contracts a fever and dies before having to admit that he has abandoned Mamie. Heriot obtains a divorce and seeks to put it into the past. Mamie seeks refuge with her aunt, insisting only that they move to Balham to avoid confronting any acquaintances, and she resigns herself to a life of quiet desparation: “She lived in Balham; she saw the curate, and she heard about the range in the neighbour’s kitchen. One year merged into another; and if she lived for forty more, the neighbour and the curate would be her All.”
Some years later, having risen to the post of Solicitor General, Heriot decides it would be fit to take a wife again. He convinces himself that his best prospect is the step-daughter of an American billionaire, and he follows her to New York City, trying to decide to propose. In the end, he lacks the motivation and sails back to England. By coincidence–once again–he encounters Mamie, returning from her father’s funeral, and the two end up remarrying.
Overall, the mood of One Man’s View is that of one utterly familiar with the ways of the world high and low, skeptical of miracles, wise to shams, yet still capable of a certain amount of empathy, compassion, and hope. The world, in Merrick’s view, will not give you a break, but a helping hand can be found on occasion.
I think C. Lewis Hinds provides an accurate assessment of Merrick’s work in his 1921 book, Authors and I: “I have read all the prefaces, such capering, delightful Merrick idolatry, and I have read six of the volumes. It was no hard task; each story was a grave pleasure. Leonard Merrick is an artist, not a great artist like Turgenev, not a master of insight like Meredith. He works in the temperate zone; he is never wrong but he never soars. His subtlety is equable; his finesse is exquisite, but I find it difficult to remember the plots and characters of the six Merricks I have just read.”
Subtlety and finesse may be the qualities Howells was trying to capture in writing of Merrick’s excellence in “shapeliness.” He is, without a doubt, a grown-up writer. He holds himself no better or worse than his characters or his readers, and in that regard, he continues to be a rare creature among novelists. There is little of the mustiness of much of the prose found in novels of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and I found his writing splendidly accessible. I plan on reading and posting on other of his works.
A mad stone is a stone-like mass–a hairball, really–taken from the stomach of a deer and reputed to have a magical power of curing rabies and snake bites. Although an actual mad stone plays a minor role in Lorna Beers’ novel, the Minnesota (or Dakota–Beers does not identify specific locations) countryside serves as the symbolic cure for the “poisoned” souls of her protagonists.
Louis and Ollie are a mismatched pair. Louis is a penniless would-be visionary whose utter failure to provide for his family in the great metropolis (Chicago? Minneapolis?) has finally led Mattie, his wife, to drag him and their three children back to her father’s farm. Ollie is the wife of Vandiver Hackett, a tycoon of some sort, sent off to Hackett’s family home as punishment for a real or imagined adultery. They meet on the train out to the country and quickly recognize the one thing they share in common: an inability to go with the flow of prevailing values and habits.
At some point in the past, Louis was an aspiring preacher, a young man whose fervent sermons drew crowds from all over the area. But he was also fascinated with mathematics, science, and the movement toward a historical view of Jesus popularized by Ernest Renan. He heads off to the city to pursue a self-crafted course of studies, and spends hours scribbling away in endless notebooks while Mattie struggles to feed and clothe their children. When homelessness looms, she forces Louis to return to the country, where at least she has some assurance that their hungry mouths will be fed.
Beers subjects us to many passages of Louis’ passionate monologues about science, religion, and the follies of man, but a small sample should suffice to demonstrate what a windblown pedant he is:
Oh, wandering Jew, doomed to change your essence from age to age, to mirror the vanity of the current custom. Now knight-errant, now Eastern king, now Greek athlete with delectable flesh that felt no pain lifted sensuously from the cross: now a showman exposing the stigmata on your hands and feet … drop your coins into the wicker tray, brethren! Now you have been taken arm-in-arm with scholarship, and you walk about the philosophical peripatetic paths saying “I am the word!”
Louis is hell-bound not to go gentle into his good night. “Never will I bow my spirit to the originator and the torturer of our sentience. Never will I sit and purr on the lap of God!” he exclaims at one point.
Ollie, on the other hand, is sophisticate–well-dressed, well-read, well-traveled, and utterly bored with everything. She enjoys taunting Molly, the Hackett’s cook, about the contradictions of her Catholic faith:
“‘Molly, why aren’t you eating the mince pie?’ ‘Mrs. Vand,’ I told her, ‘this day is sacred with us. I don’t eat flesh of any kind,’ I told her. ‘Flesh?’ she said. ‘Suet, Miss. There is suet in mince pie.’ “Oh, suet,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘What is suet, Molly?’ ‘Fat of beef,’ I tell her, since she knew so little. ‘Oh, it’s fat of beef, is it?’ she said. ‘Your God doesn’t like fat of cows?’ And she reached down and nipped off a bit of the crust of my custard pie and looked at it very sharply, turning it this way and that. ‘Molly,’ she said ‘will you ask something of your Prayste for me? Why your Lord likes fat of pigs and doesn’t like fat of cows. Lard and suet, well, well,’ she said, ‘I had never imagined to find Him so particular.’ Before I could say a word she had her impudent face out of the door.”
Soon after their arrival, Beers manages to bring the two together on long nighttime walks and other escapes from the confines of small town and farm routines. Most of their time together consists of impassioned monologues by Louis and sly cross-examinations by Ollie. Neither manages to notice the richness of life and nature that surrounds them, and Beers’ many lyrical descriptions of the countryside draw stark counterpoint to her protagonists’ arid intellectuality. Ollie literally hates nature: “It was malignant. Malignant. It was only in the marts of men that she felt safe, where their chatter, their irrational habits made her feel secure in her own intelligence.”
Beers also contrasts the two mind-bound lovers (and I use this word very loosely, as there is never a suggestion that there is anything physical in their relationship) with the two other principal characters in the novel, Vand Hackett’s sister Nanda and Louis’ wife Mattie. While Louis and Ollie are off on their fools’ errands, Nanda and Mattie are, at the same time, bound in by conventions and in close touch with Mother Earth:
Mattie leaned over, watching the ants rebuild their houses under the upraised heel of God. And she became aware of a stalk of wild teasel standing in the sod just outside the cultivated soil. She looked at it as she might study the features of one rendered unique by being the object of her sudden falling in love. She looked at its base as it rose above the wild grass. The stalk was thick and ribbed, its irregular hollow circumference grown over with green hairs and spines, a natural armor against sudden closing fingers. Pairs of spear-like leaves were set at intervals up the stem, and like the oval knob of a sceptre, there was borne upon each stalk an oblong head. Several of these cones were green and immature, but upon tow of them were set clusters about the middle of pale lavender flowers.
She sat looking at the weed, wondering about the nature of its existence, of how the sap flowed through its stems, of how it flowered and shook its leaves in isolated being, subject to momentary uprooting by the sharp blade of her hoe.
As The Mad Stone goes on, Louis and Ollie grow more reckless, doing little to hide their meetings. Chaste though they may remain, theirs was a time when just the appearance of impropriety was enough to earn a community’s disapproval. It seems clear that, in one way or another, they are headed on a path to self-destruction.
Yet just before everything spins out of control, Louis pulls himself up by the bootstraps and decides to head back to the city–this time committed to becoming a science teacher and earning an honest living. Ollie also returns to town, kept from crashing by the more obvious restraint of a telegram from her husband calling her back. Mattie stays to help her father and watch her children continue to grow ever more rosy-cheeked on the fresh air and fresh produce of the farm.
This late turn-around in the narrative seems as miraculous and implausible as the mad stone’s cure of rabies. It’s clear that Beers was, at heart, uncomfortable with a world where people crash and burn. Her loyalty lay with the regenerative powers of nature, not the self-destructive powers of man.
According to her Wikipedia biography, Beers’ career was derailed by the need to care for her husband’s crippling emotional problems. She wrote and published several books for younger readers and, decades later (1966), Wild Apples and North Wind, a memoir of life on a Vermont farm.
Wild Apples is said to have been one of Annie Dillard’s inspirations, and the gorgeous writing about nature one finds throughout The Mad Stone is by far the best part of the book. One sticks with the novel not for the tiresome tragedy of Louis and Ollie but for the lovely epiphanies of Mattie and Nanda as they drink in the energy, beauty, and complexity of the wild and cultivated life all around them.
Published accounts of Winslow’s life are often contradictory. The authoritative work is a doctoral dissertation by Richard C. Winegard, who established Winslow’s biography from published records, Winslow’s own statements, and many interviews with informants in Fort Smith and elsewhere. He wrote, “She was restless, witty, independent, shrewd, kind, utterly mendacious, and sometimes completely dishonorable, and yet she is remembered most for her charm.”
The newspaper article offers equally contrasting views:
In New York Thyra Samter Winslow was part of the glamorous, sophisticated set other writers dubbed the “talk of the town.”
In Fort Smith, the “talk” she inspired often began with phrases like “that horrible woman.”
It also claims that one Fort Smith woman told Winegard, “indignantly,” “that he shouldn’t ‘write a dissertation about that horrible woman.'”
With recommendations like that, who wouldn’t want to know more?
From the opening words of “Little Emma,” the first story in Picture Frames, Winslow’s first collection of short stories, published by Knopf in 1923, I knew I liked this woman’s work:
When little Emma Hooper, from Black Plains, Iowa, came to Chicago to carve out her fortune, she did not leave behind her a sorrowing family who wondered about the fate of their dear child in the city. Neither did she sneak away from a cruel step-mother who had made life hard, unbearable. Emma’s family was quite glad to see her go.
Emma’s father was a member of the Knights of Pythias and worked in an overall factory. Her mother, a lazy, whiny woman, kept house, assisted unwillingly and incompetently by such daughters of the house as happened to be out of work. There were three of these daughters besides Emma and they all worked when jobs were not too difficult to get or keep. They spent their spare time trying to get married. There was one son. He was next in age to Emma, who was the second youngest. He smoked cheap cigars and hung around the livery stable and garage. His name was Ralph.
No room for nostalgia in this tough cookie’s heart. Little Emma, we learn, is a cute, conniving, ambitious young woman out to scramble as high up the social ladder as she could. She’s not pass romancing the town banker’s son purely for the financial benefit. After whispers start circulating when the lad and Emma are seen at the ice cream parlour, the father makes Emma a proposition: “If Miss Hooper would leave town, over the winter, say, a check for five hundred dollars would belong to her.” Emma takes the money and hightails to Chicago with no regrets. “She didn’t like Clarence much, anyhow. he was a silly, conceited thing, who told long tales about himself, and hadn’t changed much, in fact, since his sniffy boyhood days.”
Like Little Emma, Winslow escaped the claustrophic life of a small town–Fort Smith, Arkansas in her case–for the bright lights of Chicago. She worked at a vaudeville theater, then a newspaper. She married a writer, John Winslow, and soon began placing stories in various magazines. Her breakthrough came when H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan chose her story, “In the Case of Lou Terry,” to appear in the November, 1914 issue of Smart Set, the first issue the pair jointly edited. Mencken and Nathan were attracted by the forceful and unapologetic feminism of Winslow, which opened with the sentence, “The sexes seem to have changed places since the days of the first man.”
In “Corinna and Her Man,” the last story in Picture Frames, Winslow shares the thoughts of one of her sharp young women: “In spite of her mother, she realized that men weren’t superior people, after all. They were rather more stupid than women, on the whole, a bit heavy, with a thick sense of humor. Men were ashamed to show emotions, easy victims of flattery.” This outlook allows characters such as Mamie Carpenter, the subject of another Winslow story, to work her way from the wrong side town into a mansion on Maple Road solely by manipulating the emotions of Marlin Embury, heir to one of the town’s few fortunes.
Winslow’s characters live in of “sets.” The desirable set, of course, is the “society set,” because all others are considered outcast, uninteresting, or shameful. One suspects the fact that Winslow’s family was Jewish and her father a shopkeeper put her at a permanent disadvantage in Fort Smith’s hierarchy of sets. Not that places like Fort Smith or Millersville, Mamie Carpenter’s town, had been around long enough to claim any real roots to their sets:
Mamie scorned Millersville’s social pretentions. She knew that in some cities, London and New York, maybe, there was society, real people with generations of good blood back of them, and money and breeding. People like that Mamie could look up to. But she knew Millersville. In Millersville, what did society amount to? A joke, that’s what it was. No one really came to anything, did anything.
The Elwood Simpsons, the leaders of Millersville society–look at them! There was a little grave in Oakdale Cemetery that Mamie knew all about–and it was closely connected with the girlhood of Mrs. Elwood Simpson–and there were other babies who did not die but who arrived at equally inopportune times. The Coakleys were one of Millersville’s oldest and best families–and Frank Coakley’s half-brother spend most of his time in jail, and his other half-brother, Bill, was half-witted, went around with his tongue hanging out and saying silly things. The Binghams–ugh–they had to get their servants out of town, and sometimes at the last minute had to break engagements because some one in their third floor would cry and scream–their oldest daughter, some said it was.
Passages like think make Picture Frames seem a bit like Winesburg, Ohio writ by Dorothy Parker: it’s a hard world, but one where cynicism goes a long way as insulation against the bitterest blows. Winslow’s sensibility also shares much with that of Balzac: the selfish always end up on top, the soft-hearted get used and forgotten, and everyone is keeping score.
Not that escape from small towns is any panacea. A number of the stories in Picture Frames focus on the realities of city life.
In “A Cycle of Manhattan,” the longest and weakest story in the collection, Winslow takes a family of Lithuanian Jews, the Rosenheimers, from the day they step off the boat onto Ellis Island to a time, some thirty years later, when “Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln Ross, well-dressed, commanding, in their fifties” come to visit the Greenwich Village studio of their son, Manning Cuyler Ross (nee Emmanuel Rosenheimer). Step by step, the family moves up the economic and social ladder. With each step, something of their roots is shed. Rosenheimer becomes Rosenheim, which in turns becomes Rosen and, finally, the ethnically-blank Ross. The father shaves his beard and forelocks, the mother abandons her shawl. By the time the story ends, the family has left so much of their original selves behind that only the father recognizes Manning’s studio as the same tenement apartment in which they started their life in Manhattan. “This is the way to live! None of your middle-class fripperies. Plain living–this is the life!” proclaims Manning.
In “City Folks,” in fact, the story pivots around the choice facing Joe and Mattie, a couple living in a small apartment in Manhattan. Joe’s father is ailing and wants them to return to Burton Center and take over the family store. “Burton Center will look awfully good–folks take an interest in you, there,” Joe muses. But in the course of the day, they both get caught up in–well, not much more than the mere pace of city life. Despite the fact that they stare out of their window “across to the factory-like, monotonous row of apartment houses opposite, where innumerable lights twinkled from other little caves, where other little families lived humdrum, unmarked, inconsequential, grey,” they place more importance on such coincidences as seeing James Montgomery Flagg at a Liberty Bond rally or Billie Burke getting out of a limousine. “We’re city folks!” they conclude.
Picture Frames received an enthusiastic critical welcome when it was published. Edna Ferber, one of the most successful novelists of the time, led the applause: “These short stories are character studies, penetrating, keen, pitiless. No one in this country is doing this sort of thing as well as Thyra Winslow.” She did, however, regret Winslow’s lean style, referring to it as, “Hard, tough, common, little Anglo-Saxon words about hard, tough, common little American people.” Burton Rascoe, reviewing for the New York Tribune, called the stories “hard, metallic”–but also described Winslow’s work as “distinctly original, the method of presentation new, the point of view fresh, challenging and distinctive.”
Although not one of the legendary Algonquin Round Table set, Winslow was an active and well-known member of the New York literary scene through the 1920s and 1930s. Several of her stories were made into movies and she worked at times as a writer for studios. As the rage for magazine fiction began to fade in the 1940s, she was forced to take jobs writing diet books and place stories with less mainstream magazines such as Amazing Science Fiction. Although she returned to Fort Smith on occasion, townspeople were unwilling to allow her picture to hung in the town library.
I look forward to reading more of her “hard, metallic” stories. After all, one could use these words to describe most fine jewelry.
Earlier this year, the Daily Telegraph published a piece by Charles Moore on Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, or, as the author referred to it, “The Writing on the Wall.” Over the course of the last ten years, mostly through word-of-mouth recommendations, these three novels–They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided–originally published in Hungary between 1934 and 1940, have become recognized by a small but enthusiastic band of readers as one of the finest works of the 20th century.
Banffy, or, to use his full title, Count Miklos Banffy de Losoncz, was a member of the Hungarian nobility and a liberal politician, influential in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and an early foreign minister of Hungary after the ouster of Bela Kun’s communist regime in 1920. After retiring from that office over differences with the Regent, Miklos Horthy and the ruling conservatives, Banffy retired to his ancestral home, Bontida Banffy Castle, in Transylvania–in an area now part of Romania.
Not only did Banffy’s politics run counter to most of the Hungarian establishment, but soon after his trilogy was first published, his country had the misfortune of falling under the control of the Nazis and then the Soviets. That Banffy’s last venture into diplomacy was an attempt to persuade Romania and Hungary to break with Germany and take sides with the Allies did not help. As reader Malcolm G. Hill wrote in a fascinating comment on Moore’s piece in the Telegraph,
About a year after having read them I travelled by motorhome through all the areas in Transylvania mentioned in the trilogy, now part of Romania, with the aid of a map giving the original Transylvanian names of the towns and villages which had been changed into Romanian. The saddest place to visit of all locations directly connected with the book was the Banffy Castle at Bonchida, Bontida in Romanian, some 30k to the north of Kolozsvár(now Cluj Napoca) the one-time home of the Banffy dynasty and which doubles as Balint’s country estate home of Denestornya in the trilogy. The ruination of this once gorgeous country house which Banffy never tires of lovingly describing in so many parts of his epic novel is a terrible tragedy, brought about solely due to its wanton and deliberate destruction as an act of spiteful vengeance by the retreating German forces in WWII owing to Banffy’s part in negotiating Hungary’s withdrawal of support for Germany towards the end of the war. The Germans not only left the castle a smoking ruin but destroyed all its furniture and paintings as well as Banffy’s priceless library and family archives. The present Romanian government is endeavouring to restore some parts of the castle complex that were least damaged but it seems a forlorn task to me.
Even within his own country, his books were viewed unfavorably by both regimes and fell out of print for over thirty years. It was not until 1982 that the books returned to print. Patrick Thursfield first brought the work to the attention of English-speaking readers in the Contemporary Review in 1995. As he summarized the story then, “The three books of the trilogy cover ten years in the life of one Count Balint Abady, like the author, a Transylvanian aristocrat, landowner and high-profile politician and, parallel to his story, the sad tale of the wasted life and degradation of Abady’s first cousin, the talented but hopeless Count Laszlo Gyeroffy.”
Banffy took his titles from God’s condemnation of Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon. As written in the Book of Daniel,
But thou hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified: Then was the part of the hand sent from him; and this writing was written.
And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.
As the New Statesman review of They Were Counted put it, “The ‘they’ in question is Hungary’s ruling class, who drink, dance, quarrel and gamble their way into the disasters of this century as unprepared as Belshazzar himself.” Or, as Banffy himself wrote in They Were Counted,
As far as most of the upper classes were concerned, politics were of little importance, for there were plenty of other things that interested them more. There were, for instance, the spring racing season, partridge shooting in the late summer, deer-culling in September and pheasant shoots as winter approached. It was, of course, necessary to know when Parliament was to assemble, when important party meetings were to take place or which day had been set aside for the annual general meeting of the Casino, for these days would not be available for such essential events as race-meetings or grand social receptions.
Thursfield located Banffy’s daughter, Katalin Banffy-Jelen, and together they worked for several years in the late 1990s to translate the mammoth work–over 1500 pages long–into English. The books were then published by a small U. K. publisher, Arcadia Books, between 1999 and 2001.
Thursfield and Banffy-Jelen worked hard to convey the intricacies of Hungarian politics and culture to an audience separated by decades and a general ignorance of Banffy’s settings aside from paprika and Dracula. Their effort was remarkably successful, earning them the 2002 Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for translation.
Each of the books received highly positive reviews in the major U. K. newspapers. Ruth Pavey wrote in the Independent: “This is the sort of book that is hard to finish: not in the sense of getting through because, despite its length, that’s easy. Rather, it’s because The Transylvanian Trilogy is so successful in recreating its lost world – a world which after turning the last page, the reader, too, must leave behind.” The Scotsman’s reviewer exulted,
[Th]is is a novel of great events and the private lives of a huge cast of characters told with gusto and amplitude…. If it is the Romantic elements that make the novel so enjoyable, so irresistible, it is the author’s keen political intelligence and refusal to indulge in self-deception which give it an unusual distinction. It’s a novel that, read at the gallop for sheer enjoyment, is likely to carry you along. But many will want to return to it for a second, slower reading, to savour its subtleties and relish the author’s intelligence.
Jan Morris named They Were Found Wanting as one of her books of the year for 2000 and Caroline Moor wrote in another year-end wrap-up, “My great find of the year is a reprint of the magnificent trilogy, set in pre-war Transylvania by Miklos Banffy–which stands comparison with the great Russian and French masters. Banffy vies with Tolstoy for sweep, Pasternak for romance and Turgenev for evocation of nature; his fiction is packed with irresistible social detail and crammed with superb characters: it is gloriously, addictively, compulsively readable.” More recently, the playwright John Guare called the work, “… revelatory … the fastest 1,700 pages you’ll ever read.”
Despite the praise, however, the books remained difficult to locate and it appears that Arcadia did not reprint them after their initial runs. Thursfield died in Tangier on 22 August 2003, a few months short of his 80th birthday. A few readers managed to find copies, though, and keep the grapevine pulsing in the work’s favor. In 2007, Michael Henderson proclaimed it “A masterpiece in any language” in the Telegraph: “… please give this civilised Hungarian a go. Ignore the tyranny of approved lists, and those breathless claims made on behalf of novelists said to be ‘at the height of their powers.’ Plunge instead into the cleansing waters of a rediscovered masterpiece, because The Writing on the Wall is certainly a masterpiece, in any language. And if, having read it, you feel let down, I shall provide reimbursement.”
Luckily, Arcadia began bringing The Writing on the Wall back to print in 2009. They Were Counted and They Were Found Wanting are available now (at least in the U. K.) with new covers a slightly more likely to attract readers, and They Were Divided will be re-released in October 2010. The original Arcadia covers, by the way, featured a drawing of the entrance to Bontida Banffy Castle from the mid-19th century. Blogger Andrew Cusack celebrated their resurrection earlier this year, writing of the novels, “Three volumes of nearly one-and-a-half thousand pages put together, they make for deeply, deeply rewarding reading, transporting you to the world that ended with the crack of an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo, 1914.” And Charles Moore, as mentioned at the start of this piece, acclaimed in the Telegraph: “This growing acclaim is deserved. Banffy’s trilogy is just about as good as any fiction I have ever read…. Although they are very funny, they are deeply serious. They are like Anna Karenina and War and Peace rolled into one. Love, sex, town, country, money, power, beauty, and the pathos of a society which cannot prevent its own destruction–all are here.”
H. T. Webster was probably the best-known cartoonist in mid-20th century America.
Who, many of you are asking?
H. T. Webster.
His picture made the cover of Time magazine in 1945:
Webster published over 15,000 panels over the course of 40-plus years as a newspaper cartoonist. A memorial collection of his cartoons, The Best of H. T. Webster, published in 1953, a year after his death, featured an introduction by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Robert E. Sherwood, and made the best seller lists. In his introduction, Sherwood wrote,
On April 4, 1953, the last new drawing by H. T. Webster was published in the New York Herald Tribune and a hundred and twenty-five other papers, and for many of us timid souls, this day marked as one of life’s darkest moments. There will be other fine artist-cartoonist-critics to inspire use with joy or indignation from day to day, but never another to span the years and the range of human emotions in the same extraordinary way that Webby did.
Webster based many of his one-panel cartoons on a number of recurring themes, and Sherwood managed to work two of them into his statement above.
“Life’s Darkest Moments” were, like many of his pieces, wonderfully succinct takes on the ways in which life consistently pokes a pin into the bubbles of our fantasies of self-importance.
Life’s Darkest Moments
I had this happen to me the first time I flew home in my shining second lieutenant bars. While waiting at the baggage carousel, a woman walked up to me and asked if I was the driver and where my bus was parked.
But Webster also had a gentle sympathy for the big role that little things often play in establishing our sense of self, as illustrated in his cartoons titled, “The Thrill That Comes Once in a Lifetime.”
The Thrill That Comes Once in a Lifetime
Another of Webster’s series was titled, alternately, “How to Torture Your Husband” and “How to Torture Your Wife.” These illustrated the remarkable capacity husbands and wives have for obliterating each other’s self-esteem with the most well-intentioned remarks:
How to Torture Your Wife
Some of his features, particularly those dealing with bridge, may not have aged as well as others. Many of these collected in The Best of H. T. Webster depend on more of a familiarity with terminology of the game than most people have today. Yet even some of the bridge cartoons work with no explanation at all:
But by far the best-known of all Webster’s series was “The Timid Soul,” which introduced a character whose name has outlived that of his creator: Caspar Milquetoast. “Millions of Americans,” wrote the uncredited author of Time’s cover story, “know Caspar Milquetoast as well as they know Tom Sawyer and Andrew Jackson, better than they know George F. Babbitt, and any amount better than they know such world figures as Mr. Micawber and Don Quixote. They know him, in fact, almost as well as they know their own weaknesses.”
As Michael Quinion writes on his World Wide Words site, “The name is just a Frenchified respelling of the old American English term milk toast, an uninspiring, bland dish which was created from slices of buttered toast laid in a dish of milk, usually considered to be food for invalids.” Like the dish, Milquetoast is uninspired, bland, and utterly lacking the ability to stand up for himself. He takes all forms of authority at face value:
The Timid Soul
Webster himself described Milquetoast as, “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” Although at times he clearly understood that not speaking at all was the best way to avoid the big stick:
The Timid Soul
As Time’s writer noted, “In all Webster’s years of preoccupation with the psychology of timidity he seldom points up, even gently, the littleness, meanness and guile which timidity so often develops, and almost never touches on the propensity for bullying.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons Webster’s work has been so largely forgotten: at heart, Webster was too kind towards his subjects. As he so often showed in “The Timid Soul,” life has a way of bulldozing over the gentle and kind.
But that’s also why it’s refreshing to page through The Best of H. T. Webster Philo Calhoun, one of Webster’s close friends, who wrote the biographical sketch for the book, sums up his approach to his subject by quoting another writer’s description of the 18th century essayist and playwright, Joseph Addison: “His tone is never that of a clown or of a cynic. It is that of a gentleman, in whom the quickest sense of the ridiculous is constantly tempered by good nature ….”
The Best of H. T. Webster: A Memorial Collection
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953
A while ago, The Denver Bibliophile wondered why I didn’t cover more neglected thrillers. The simple answer is that I’ve never been a big fan of thrillers, perhaps out of a long-standing aversion to best-sellers in general.
But his comment did get me thinking that there might just be something worth finding if I could look past this prejudice. So while I was rooting through the stacks of the wonderful Montana Valley Book Store in little Alberton, Montana, about a half hour west of Missoula–probably America’s best book store located in the middle of nowhere–I decided to pull a few lurid titles from the terrific stash of old paperbacks in the basement.
I couldn’t resist starting in with the most ridiculous title in the bunch: They’ve Shot the Presidents Daughter!, by Edward Stewart. “A Super-Bombshell of a Thriller that Surpasses the Best of Fletcher Knebel and Allen Drury!” proclaims the cover. At the time, this meant something to potential buyers. Thirty-plus years later, those names either mean nothing or (in Drury’s case) great lumps of pedestrian prose.
But within the first couple of pages, it became quite clear that this was something other than a typical thriller. It opens with the President, the First Lady, and a nameless general riding in a limousine out to Andrews Air Force Base for a trip on Air Force One. Stewart describes the scene through the eyes of the First Lady, and her perspective is hardly what you might expect from the usual stereotypes that populate such books:
And as happened from time to time lately, when she sat in a closed space near her husband, she could neither slide away from him nor summon any thought of her own strong enough to war off the even-edged blade of his voice. And it seemed to her, no disrespect intended, that these litanies of problems and crises and billions (of dollars, she supposed), there proposals and rejections that were whispered at her elbow, these schemes and tragedies and intrigues that fell from his lips in ever so slightly mocking a monotone were–though enough–for him only mantras, aids in meditation, ways of getting his mind off petty aches and woes that would have submerged him if he had ever tried to cope.
They’ve Shot the Presidents Daughter! takes place in a post-Nixon America (at one point the Vice President is seen reading Nixon’s memoirs), but an America dealing with most of the same problems: race riots, student protests, and a dirty war (this time in Costa Rica). President “Lucky Bill” Luckinbill–tall, steely-jawed, with blue eyes and greying temples–comes straight from Central Casting, but seems mostly ineffectual. Kissinger is gone, but one Nahum Bismarck has taken his place at the President’s right hand. J. Edgar Hoover is gone, too, along with the F. B. I., but in their place are now one Woodrow Judd (whose Watergate apartment features paintings of his favorite poodles) and the Federal Security Agency. John and Martha Mitchell have been replaced by Vice President Howard Tyson and his talkative and media-struck wife, Maggie (who’s also more conniving and ambitious than the worst Republican stereotype of Hillary Clinton).
And political assassinations involving ex-C. I. A. men are still the stuff of the best conspiracy theories. The trip the First Couple are taking is to the President’s home town of Whitefalls, South Dakota, where he will lay a wreath on the grave of his mother. While the President is offering some token remarks, a lone gunman in a nearby church steeple shoots his daughter Lexie, sitting on the dais.
There is some panic and a rush to the nearest hospital, but Lexie proves to be only slightly wounded. The gunman disappears without a trace. The President seems unable to respond and the incident soon becomes a source of satiric attacks on the Administration.
At this point, Stewart takes a long and seemingly tangential detour in the narrative. He introduces Frank Borodin, a burned-out agent in the Federal Security Agency, who is assigned to read through hundreds of letters intercepted in the Whitefalls post office in search of clues about the gunman. We read along with Borodin through letter after letter of utterly mundane material, most of it from one Darcy Sybert, a sad young woman who’s recently disappeared from the town:
I’ve just discovered casseroles and the meat grinder, which means that not much gets thrown out in the way of food–there are so many different ways of serving leftovers, things that even Mom didn’t discover! Sometimes in the kitchen I feel like Christopher Columbus–I guess Dad and Bobby do too when I bring out the dinner. Last night we had “supreme de supreme” (my own name for it), soft of a cauliflower and pork hash thing in jellied chicken soup.
Gradually, though, Borodin picks up a thread that leads him from Darcie to Hiram Judd, another F. S. A. postal inspector, who’s also disappeared, and eventually follows it back to Washington and some high-level people in the Administration. At this point, Stewart starts switching the reader rapidly through a variety of perspectives–the First Lady spinning into ever-higher reaches of paranoia; Maggie Tyson–the Second Lady–fomenting right-wing fury on television; several Senators pushing through a gun control bill with a rider giving Congress the right to suspend the Bill of Rights; Lexie Luckinbill falling in love with one of her Secret Service men.
This last brings out some priceless bad popular novel prose from Stewart:
And then they snapped together like two ropes yanked into a knot. The breath was crushed from her lungs and her heart hammered at her ribs as though to break an opening and fly out. Her eyes half shut and she stared into his, seeing herself bent and reflected as in the lens of a camera, and silently, with fierce, entreating telepathy, she dared him, begged him, commanded him.
The mechanical integrity of Stewart’s narrative also leaves a lot to be desired. At a certain point, he begins slapping on pieces like a roofer before a thunderstorm, more interested in finishing the job than in getting the shingles well placed. For most of the book, I was willing to tolerate the slipshod construction because of the regular and bizarre excursions into the First Lady’s mind:
The First Lady had spent her married life mired in the type of syllogism the senator was trying to force on her now. The reasoning seemed logical, it seemed right even, but if you looked closely you saw that terms kept shifting their meaning and premises were as shaky as condemned buildings; and now that she had crawled out, she had no intention of crawling back and letting the beams fall on her head. She did not care much for logic when the conclusion of every argument was do my bidding. War must end–do my bidding. Taxes are high: the poor are rebelling; your daughter may die–do my bidding.
They’ve Shot the Presidents Daughter! ends with a grand operatic scene in the Senate chamber that’s inept, implausible, and unconvincing, but Stewart loses control of his own book well before this point. As thrillers go, it’s average at best, and for much of the book, the narrative tension is slack. If I’d been reading for the story, I’d have given up soon after Frank Borodin starts wading through Darcie Sybert’s letters (“Guess what–I passed biology!”).
To me, the interest–the fascination, almost–of the novel was in the interior monologues of Monica Luckinbill and a few other characters. Borodin, for example, remembering how his marriage fell apart:
He had begun noticing small things, dust building up on the window ledges, smudges on the panes that seemed to indicate a face had been pressed against them. He had once found a half-finished letter in the typewriter, left there perhaps for him to find; and because it was part of his work and he was training to read other people’s mail he read it, even though his sense of self-preservation told him not to; and the letter said, I spend most of my time moping, but at least I have a decent stereo.
There are wonderful little passages like this through much of the book, things that could almost have come out of a Raymond Carver story. It’s as if Stewart wanted to write something very odd, dark, and ironic, but felt bound to slap together something the reading public might take for a political thriller. It’s easy to tell where his heart was in his work and where it wasn’t.
Being selected for the Pulitzer Prize is no guarantee of that anyone will remember your work–at least not more than ten years afterward. Take Stephen Bonsal. Unfinished Business, his diaries and reminiscences from the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference, where he sat between President Woodrow Wilson and Wilson’s assistant, Colonel Edward House, translating the speeches and remarks of the other attendees, won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for History. Sixty years later, the book is as obscure as, say, Forgotten First Citizen: John Bigelow by Margaret Clapp–the 1948 winner, by the way.
That fact alone is no great crime. There are plenty of award winners that soon lose whatever aura of excellence they might have held. And there are some, we must admit, that won only because advocates were divided over better works, opening a crack through which they slipped as dark horses of lesser merit.
When it was selected in 1945, the primary significance of Unfinished Business was probably seen in light of the impending end of World War Two and the creation of the United Nations. All parties involved in the establishment of the United Nations recognized that they had an obligation to learn from the mistakes of the past, and of the Peace Conference in particular.
The legendary version of the Peace Conference was that the idealism and altruism of the American, Wilson, was undermined by the self-interest and small-mindedness of Old Europe–of France and Italy, who insisted on reparations that gave Hitler fuel for his rise to power a dozen years later. The reality, as recalled with remarkable candor and dispassion by Bonsal, was much more mundane.
Wilson was long on ideas and brittle in character, lacking the leather-assed patience required of an effective diplomat. Small words in little clauses consumed hours of talk over fine points, and much of the time big issues pivoted on the most trivial matters:
Last night M. Larnaude [Ferdinand Larnaude, a French delegate to the Conference] again drooled along for hours in criticism or rather in misrepresentation of the Monroe Doctrine reservation, and many of his hearers feared that a filibuster was under way, but such was not the case. Suddenly pulling out his watch with an expression of alarm that was comical to behold, the learned dean muttered, “Ciel! I have only twelve minutes to catch my train, but I warn you, M. le President, that I shall resume the statement of my objections at the next Plenary Session.”
The older I get, the more I come to view politics and diplomacy as the most difficult of all arts. Bonsal’s diaries and reminiscences of the Peace Conference vividly illustrate the obstacles that lie in the path of any forward movement of mankind when it operates in a political setting. Self-interest is only the simplest and most obvious one. Personalities, temperaments, quirks, habits, and eccentricities are minefields that lurk beneath the skins of every individual at the table. Differences in working hours–Clemenceau, like Churchill, was one for naps and late hours; Wilson preferred a predictable day-time routine–toss grit in the machinery. Language, language, language: even with the finest translators (and Bonsal provided a simultaneous translation at every session Wilson attended), words and phrases are misinterpreted and misunderstood. And technology always gets in the way:
Hughes of Australia, indeed, made several outrageous attacks on the President, which, however, Wilson did not take up at one or even later because, as on the Australian secretaries explained to all present, Hughes did not understand the President’s point of view owing to the fact that, as so often before, his electrical hearing apparatus had failed to function.
Bonsal’s book opens on the eve of the Armistice and ends a little over a year later, with the Senate’s rejection of the Treaty. He worked alongside House, and later Wilson, through the preparations and initial sessions of the Conference. A veteran foreign correspondent fluent in a number of European tongues, he acted as an emissary to many of the other delegations and as a personal advisor to House and Wilson. He remained at the negotiating tables throughout most of the Conference, taking only a break of a few weeks to accompany South African General Jan Christian Smuts on a mission to Austria, Hungary, and Serbia in March and April 1919.
This trip, along with a later journey to Berlin after the Conference, provide the most memorable sections of the book. Bonsal had lived in Vienna for a number of years and reported on the Balkan wars in the years leading up to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. He notes everywhere how quickly the structures of the Hapsburg Empire crumbled away after Emperor Charles I relinquished the throne in 1918:
I visited Francis Joseph’s apartment. I saw that, as the tradition had it, there was no water laid on. I scrutinized his Gummi portable bathtub and saw that now it was full of holes. The starving mice that had formerly lived on the fat tidbits that fell from the imperial table, reduced to starving rations like all living things in the Danube capital, were gnawing on it.
Later, after the Conference, he traveled to Berlin, where he’d first met House in 1915. Bonsal found the Kaiser’s former capital in disarray, with well-meaning but overwhelmed socialists attempting to reconstruct a government while Unter den Linden was filled with wounded veterans from the war: “crouched against the cold, damp walls as though ashamed for the stranger to see their distorted leg and arm stumps, their dead eyes, or their faces scarred almost beyond recognition.”
Arriving in Paris late at night, he watched the train’s passengers depart the station and head back to their homes:
The train hobbled into Paris about midnight. After standing in the crowded corridor with my heavy pack for eight hours, I found I could hardly walk. I leaned against an iron pillar and watched and watched and waited. Slowly the silent mob of the lame, the halt and the blind, the crape-draped widows, and the pale-faced, sad-eyed orphans of some of the four hundred thousand gallant soldiers who died defending the great fortress against the onrush of the invading Germans, dissolved. For me the pomp and pageantry of war had vanished for a long time, perhaps forever, and what remained was misery and tears, loneliness and squalor. It was hours before the last of the war widows, carrying children who would never see their fathers, disappeared into the darkness of the city where victory perched. But I shall see them always?always.
Neglected though it may be, Unfinished Business is an exceptional book worth rediscovering by anyone interested in history and politics. There are not many writers who can cover the posturing and manoeuvring of the greatest men of the time and, a few pages later, describe the sorrows and woes of the lowest in society–and in neither case losing his sense of perspective. As Time magazine’s reviewer wrote, “”no one else has presented the plight of the plain people of Europe, in relation to the strained secrecy of the Conference, and few have written of their agony as does Colonel Bonsal in terms so hardheaded and so poignant.” I hope one of these days to catch up with his 1937 memoir of his years as a foreign correspondent, Heyday In A Vanished World.
I’m not a big sports fan. I stopped watching baseball after the 1975 World Series. I used to leave college football games in the fourth quarter when I worked them as an usher. My sons and I followed the San Antonio Spurs to their NBA championship in 1999, but that had a lot to do with living in the city and having access to cheap tickets. And I’ve attended hundreds of practices, games, and competitions our kids have participated in over the last dozen years. But years will go by before I even glance at a sports page or a game on TV.
I think it was in the long-gone Filippi’s Books in Seattle that I came across the The Fireside Book of Baseball, a collection edited by Charles Einstein first published in 1956. It’s a big magazine-sized volume with nearly 400 pages of prose, poetry, photos and illustrations from the first 100 years of American baseball, and it’s a goldmine for any fan of good writing on baseball.
Most of the good pieces of fiction and nonfiction writing on baseball published up to that time can be found between its covers–Ring Lardner, Red Smith, Branch Rickey, John Tunis, Heywood Broun, Zane Grey (yes, he wrote more than westerns), Bob Considine, Arnold Hano, and of course, Ernest Thayer. Some of the pieces were reprints; others were originals. In between the articles and stories are wonderful photos of plays and players, artifacts, mementos, and other hits of baseball lore. At the very least the pieces are all good, most of them vivid and lively, and some great. As Einstein later recalled,
It got enormous reviews. I mean, not just in terms of acclaim, but also in terms of where the reviews appeared: John Chamberlain with a full column in the Wall Street Journal; Charles Poore, the entire daily review of the New York Times; the Sunday book review section of the New York Times; so forth and so on.
Baseball even paid an unintended tribute to the book: its publication date, 8 October 1956, was also the day that Don Larsen pitched the one and only perfect game in a World Series (to date). The response from readers was also good, far exceeding Simon and Schuster’s expectations, and they hired Einstein to put together The Second Fireside Book of Baseball two years later. It included one of the best demonstrations of respect from the players themselves–an introduction by Ted Williams, still taking the field back then.
Ten years later, Einstein compiled The Third Fireside Book of Baseball. This might be the best of the three, since it had the advantage of pulling from both the classics and a new generation of sports writers, which included Roger Angell, Jimmy Breslin, William Price Fox, George Plimpton, and even John Updike.
Nearly twenty years after that, Simon and Schuster released the last of the series, confusingly titled The Fireside Book of Baseball, Fourth Edition. Whoever came up with that bright idea would probably have argued that Colonel Sanders should call his restaurants Hot Dead Chicken. Einstein himself considered it the best of the four in terms of content:
… I think the fourth Fireside Book of Baseball is the best of the four, I really do … certainly in terms of the fiction and poetry. Each book as a strength, and in the fourth I think the fiction is just stunning. Because there had been 19 years since the third book and there’d been an accumulation of great stuff: Chaim Potok’s chapter from The Chosen on that softball game; and that long section from Will Kennedy’s Inronweed on the guy who played third base for the Senators; and that ballgame in the insane asylum from Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel. You read this stuff and your mouth just drops open. And Robert Coover and Irwin Shaw and on and on, one great piece after another.
The packaging, on the other hand, Einstein compared to “a Crazy Eddie catalog.”
I flew back to Seattle this week to help settle my father’s affairs. Sorting through his books I kept an eye out for anything out of the ordinary but didn’t find much. When I was a kid, the mainstays of the living room bookshelves were titles from the Book of the Month Club. There were a few exceptions, most notably several Grove Press hardback editions of Henry Miller–the Tropics and Black Spring, which were probably considered hot stuff and discussed with arched eyebrows in the mess.
Then I happened to glance up at the cookbooks over the fridge and spotted the distinctive metallic gold spines of Herter’s Bull Cook books and knew I’d struck gold (pardon the pun).
My dad went through a big huntin’ and fishin’ period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and one thing you could always find in the reading basket next to his chair was a copy of the latest Herter’s catalog.Herter’s was a big mail-order hunting and fishing goods store in Minnesota, and every single item in the catalog had some hyperbolic write-up. There was something of a formula to these things. First there would be some dismissive mention of popular assumptions (“Carborundum is widely believed to be the finest material for sharpening the blade of a knife”). Then this notion would be tossed aside as poppycock in favor of some alternate theory that was far-fetched on average and downright absurd on occasion (“In truth, you will find no sharper edge than can be obtained from vigorous application of duck fat”). I’m making these examples up, but I’m really not far off the mark. Finally, there would be the pitch to convince you that buying an 8 oz. tin of Herter’s rendered duck fat was not merely the smartest choice you could make but the least that could be expected to demonstrate your fitness to remain walking the streets instead of bouncing off the walls of some rubber room.
These were not at all like my mom’s cookbooks. These were cookbooks written for men by a guy without a shred of doubt about his studliness. What cookbook written by a woman would put “Meat” at the front, on the very first page? And lead off with, “How to Make Real Corned Venison, Antelope, Moose, Bear and Beef”? The last is just a concession to the little ladies, I’m sure. The author, George Leonard Herter, provides a short preface explaining the public service he is about to perform:
I am putting down some of these recipes that you will not find in cook books plus many other historical recipes. Each recipe here is a real cooking secret. I am also publishing for the first time authentic historical recipes of great importance.
For your convenience, I will start with meats, fish, eggs, soup and sauces, sandwiches, vegetables, the art of French frying, desserts, how to dress game, how to properly sharpen a knife, how to make wines and beer, what to do in case of hydrogen or cobalt bomb attack. Keeping as much in alphabetical order as possible.
I know I for one am relieved that someone finally thought to include nuclear attack survival tips just after the recipes for Prunes Maxim’s and “How to Make Puff Pastry or Flaky Pastry Dough.”
For the record, the first tip for surviving an attack is to “Get in any kind of cave, ditch, or valley as far away from buildings as you can and lie on the ground face down.” In case you missed the point, Herter adds, “If at all possible get in a cave.” Staying in your house means “the water pipes will burst and flood the basement drowning you like rats in a trap.” So find that cave–got it?
Helpfully, two pages before the list of H-bomb tips is a short article on the “Norwegian Method of Getting Rid of Rats.” The recipe? Simple and lethal–plain white bread, spread with lye, then topped with syrup. Just make sure the kids know not to confuse it with French toast. Serves 4-6.
A few readers will recognize this oddball classic, a genuine “pure product of America,” as Fitzgerald would put it. Among the cognoscenti, George Leonard Herter is treasured as one of the great American nutcases of all time, a man who never let nonsense like facts or objective sources tarnish the immaculate lunacy of his notions.
And who managed to turn his ravings into a fairly profitable business, at least for a couple of decades or more. Herter’s catalog copy went from three-ring binders passed from hand to hand in the early 1960s to editions of 3-400,000 copies by the time my dad got into them. And the Bull Cook went through something like fifteen editions between 1960 and 1970. The little business George Herter started in 1937 was on a par with L. L. Bean (which also, somewhere back in the dark ages, was mostly a supplier for hunters and fishermen) before the whole thing went bust in 1981 and Herter was forced to file for bankruptcy.
Recall that Herter promised to keep things in these cookbooks “as much in alphabetical order as possible.” It doesn’t take more than a few pages of the Bull Cook to make it clear that Herter’s sense of order is on a par with Joyce’s ability to tell a story in straightforward manner. Had Herter lived about 200 years earlier, he might have produced Tristram Shandy ahead of Sterne.
By the way, to pop back to nuclear holocaust for a sec, make sure to note the item on page 337 explaining that, “Red Pepper Good for Radiation and Upset Stomach.”
The “fumes given off as the briquets burn are extremely toxic.” The right answer: hard coal. “The use of hard coal instead of charcoal in Minnesota for broiling has always been the accepted practice.” Which is why, of course, Minnesota ranks #1 among the states for fine restaurants.
• A real old buck past the sexual urge stage makes the best eating venison
However, Herter does admit that, “I have never known an Indian who would not trade ten times the weight in deer meat for either beef or pork or for that matter, although this may seem strange to you, dog meat, which is also good meat.” And you thought they were pets. Bonehead!
• Avonnaise–“the only new sauce invented since mayonnaise was invented”
You take mayonnaise and mash it up with an avocado. You should use it on “fruit salads, lettuce salads, and on baked potatoes instead of sour cream sauce, on roast beef instead of gracy or Bernaise sauce, on hamburgers use lettuce, pickles, and avonnaise.” It “was invented by famed Belgian cook, Berthe E. Gramme.” “Once you have tried this sauce you will be using it often.” You may now invent your excuses for not knowing this.
• The Swedish Method of Preparing Rutabagas is “the only correct way ever invented to prepare them”
Mash two thirds boiled rutabagas with one third boiled potatoes. “Served in this manner they are one of the finest vegetables you can serve with any meal.” And how have you been fixing them? In shoestring fries, I suppose. Sad.
If one volume of Herter’s ramblings on food is not enough, you need to locate volume two, which weighs in at over 750 pages and includes meditations on restaurants throughout the world and anecdotes of world history I’ll bet you’ll never find in any textbook. Herter sticks to his proven formula. The first page is, of course, “Meats.” This time, however, he adds a half-page grayscale of the Toulouse-Lautrec painting, “Two Friends”.
Herter misnames the painting as “Friendship,” then adds a sly comment that, “The name of this painting is probably one of the greatest understatements ever made.”
You fellas all get it, right?
This to introduce “Toulouse Lautrec Chicken,” which Herter claims was something ol’ Henri often pined for. I won’t bother to summarize it: the fact that it involves a chicken breast cooked for one and a half hours, one quarter pound hamburger, and six strips of bacon is enough to suggest that we’re not exactly in Eric Ripert territory.
Paul Collins brought Herter’s work back into the spotlight in late 2008 with a fond tribute to “The Oddball Know-It-All” in the New York Times. But don’t settle for second-hand Herter. Get the pure product in all its insanity, uncut and unashamed:
IF YOU TAKE TRANQUILIZERS OR SEDATIVES BE CAREFUL OF THE KINDS OF CHEESE THAT YOU EAT. THE WRONG KIND OF CHEESE CAN KILL YOU. Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, volume two, page 733
You’ll thank me when the Big One drops.
Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, by George Leonard Herter and Berthe E. Herter
Waseca, Minnesota: Herter’s, 1960
The story takes us through the day in the minds of the residents of a rooming house in the Greenwich Village – Lower Fifth Avenue area of Manhattan. Mr. Kittredge–we never learn his first name–is a depressed, dyspeptic, world-weary World War One veteran who plans to commit suicide that night. Betty Carson is a young girl from Cape Cod, now working at Macy’s. Betty has discovered that she’s pregnant, by a man named Joe Henderson who left a month ago and hasn’t contacted her since. Having given up hope of seeing him again, Betty has decided to visit an abortionist after work.
Hans Metzger is a German Jew, a refugee stuck in limbo–unable to return home, unable to join his surviving sisters in South America. Minnie Cadgersmith, a widow in her seventies, suffers from a variety of ailments and has determined that she will die in her sleep that night after paying a visit to her three grandchildren. And Flora Fanjoy takes pride in having saved her pennies over the years and managed to rise from serving girl to own her own humble but upstanding rooming house.
As might be expected of any story set on Christmas Eve, each of Lewis’ main characters experiences a revelation of one sort or another in the course of the day. Soon after her tenants leave, Flora is struck on the head by a falling can of cleanser and falls down her basement stairs, landing paralyzed and unable to speak. Her only witness, her cat Flossie, soon abandons her to roam the neighborhood, and Flora gradually becomes aware that she will, in all likelihood, die before anyone comes to look for her. Lewis provides a fine passage describing how Flora learns “that there were tones and shades of blackness”:
It was nighttime, Mrs. Fanjoy realized. When first she opened her eyes the blackness had been gray, so that she had been able to discern dimly above and ahead of her the flight of stairs leading to the first floor hallway. The eyes of Flossie her cat had shone milkily opalescent in this gray blackness, she remembered. But after a while Flossie had gone away, and Mrs. Fanjoy, straining her eyes at the stairs, had watched their color and the color around them change imperceptibly to brown black, so strikingly brown black that it seeme she was lying in the center of a chocolate world. She had watched the brown black then, watched it fearfully a long time, until without warning it had vanished in the surrounding gloom, and a new color, a majestic, funereal color, had appeared to take its place. This was purple black, a blackness of such incredibly pure purple that it made each stair on the staircase stand out solemnly and distinctly from the others. And Mrs. Fanjoy had looked at the purple black, looked at it and dissected it and mentally run her fingers through its rich thickness, for a timeless time of endless minutes and hours, until, at last, she had seen it start to fade. She had watched it fade, watched it thicken and solidify and drop down into the well of darkness around her, until the last hard fleck of it was no more, and then, all of a sudden, it was black black, and Mrs. Fanjoy knew what time it was.
This quote may offer a hint of a prevailing feature of Season’s Greetings. Coming it at just over 400 pages, it’s over twice as long as Lewis’ three other books. In writing of Gentleman Overboard, I remarked that, “It’s been said that a true artist knows when to stop–and does. By this criterion alone, Herbert Clyde Lewis proves himself a true artist….”
Well, by the same criterion, Season’s Greetings proves something less than a work of art. There are plenty of places where a healthy application of blue pencil would have enabled Lewis to make his points with the kind of subtlety and grace one finds throughout Gentleman Overboard.
On the other hand, one of the great pleasures of the novel is the space it can offer the writer, the space to stretch out and explore alleys and sideways that run off the course of the main narrative–detours that can’t be afforded in a more economical form like a short story. And Lewis constantly goes wandering off into the maze of streets and lives one finds in Manhattan. He devotes a whole chapter to the thoughts of Mrs. Fanjoy’s cat, Flossie, as she leaves her owner’s side, looks around the house for food, then heads out to the tiny, barren backyard–her kingdom. Metzger befriends a bum who relates much of his life’s story, full of travel to seaports around the world and violent struggles in the early days of labor.
And he spins out many prose poems to Manhattan itself:
Very slowly the city came to life on this morning of the day before Christmas. The sun rose out of the ocean, out of Queens, out of Brooklyn, and shone listlessly through the heavy black clouds upon the slush-covered rooftops, the dirty windows, the grimy east sides of buildings, the sooty smokestacks, chimneys and air vents. Slowly the noises of the city came to life, autos shifting gears, horns honking, doors slamming shut, trains rumbling underground, machines chugging and whirling, feet tramping, babies wailing, children shouting, peddlers calling their wares. Slowly the smells of the city came to life, coffee brewing, bacon frying, garbage stewing, chemicals churling in cauldrons. And men who had a talent for putting one stone on top of another built towers into the sky so they could look down upon all this.
Needless to say, a book set in Manhattan leaves its author with no shortage of excuses to indulge in such descriptive flurries, and you’ll find them here by the dozens. Perhaps a few too many for some readers, but I was usually happy to follow along whenever Lewis strayed from his course.
Lewis had devoted much his first two books–Gentleman Overboard and Spring Offensive–to coldly watching his protagonists die alone. And even though Season’s Greetings is a Christmas story and most of his characters reach the end of the day at least a little happier than they started, Lewis retains a bit of his trademark dispassion. As most of the other characters come together in the rooming house, Mr. Kittredge calmly walks to Washington Square, finds a secluded park bench, and blows a hole through his chest.
No one heard the loud report or saw Mr. Kittredge half rise from the bench and topple over onto the snow. A motorist driving under the arch on Fifth Avenue thought for a moment he had heard a shot, but decided it was only an auto backfiring. Around the whole windswept park, in all the apartment houses and brownstone mansions and college buildings, not a single window opened and not a single person looked out.
Lewis’ theme is, as one character puts it, “the problem of loneliness in a city of eight million people.” While Hans and Mrs. Cadgersmith find its solution in the company of others and Betty Carson is reunited with Joe Henderson instead of left alone to recover from an abortion, Lewis is too much of a realist–he was at one point a crime reporter for the New York Herald Tribune–to let Christmas miracles fix everyone’s problems. Frank Capra would undoubtedly left Mr. Kittredge out if he’d filmed Season’s Greetings.
Ironically, Liberty Films acquired the rights to another Christmas story by Lewis, “It Happened on Fifth Avenue,” intending it to be directed by Capra. Although Capra opted for “It’s a Wonderful Life” instead, a film version of Lewis’ story was released in 1947. Starring one of the best character actors of the 1940s, Victor Moore, “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” is something of a neglected film classic and earned Lewis an Oscar nomination for his original story. Lewis worked in Hollywood for about six years in the mid-forties, becoming friends with Humphrey Bogart and others, but he returned to New York City around 1948 and joined the editorial staff of Life magazine. He died of a heart attack in 1950, leaving behind a wife and two children. Some years later, somewhat inexplicably, a fourth novel, The Silver Dark was published as a paperback. All his work has been out of print for over 50 years now, and Season’s Greetings is so scarce that Amazon.com doesn’t even list it.
Here’s hoping a Christmas miracle might come to one of Herbert Clyde Lewis’ books soon.
To finish a new novel by an unknown author with a sense of complete satisfaction is rare. To come across one that compels instant second and even third readings is far rarer. The Sun’s Attendant suggests itself as something more than a fresh and accomplished work of fiction. It arouses the kind of puzzled excitement that can sometimes mark the entrance of an outstanding writer. At the very least, Mr. Haldeman has a most original mind and a set of unusual gifts.
Such praise raises questions: If true, how is it that The Sun’s Attendant has vanished from any critical account of 1960s American fiction, gone unnoticed after its initial release? Or did the reviewer simply get it wrong?
The Sun’s Attendant is nothing if not ambitious. Although it’s just over 300 pages long, it’s dense with difficult, challenging writing. Joyce, Gide, and, I suspect, Günter Grass, are noticeable influences. There is little conventional narrative that runs for more than a few pages.
It is an enormous collage of fragments: isolated jokes, apothegms, parables, riddles, letters, notebook entries, newspaper articles, fairytales; a journal introduction, written in a clever pastiche of the high-collar rhetoric by which French intellectuals (even Camus) find it too easy to convince themselves of their sincerity (“My only hope is that in laying these strange pages in the hands of others, I shall perhaps have begun to reopen some long-closed windows in myself”); lengthy passages of interior monoloque; passages of stage-dialogue: each of the fragments headed by a title barely indicative, helpfully informative, or cryptically sardonic; abrupt dislocations from one character or milieu to another.
Haldeman also chose an overt and apparently symbolic structure. Subtitled, “A Diptych,” the book has two main sections–Left Panel and Right Panel, with a short linking section called Hinges. Each panel is divided into three sections named after positions of a planet as it orbits the sun: Summer Solstice; Aphelion; Autumn Equinox, etc..
All this deliberate artifice is meant to give weight and depth to the story of Stefan Brückmann, a half-German, half-Gypsy boy who is caught up in the turbulent history of Germany from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. Born to an itinerant Roma family, he loses his parents when their wagon falls through the ice while crossing a river somewhere in Central Europe. Taken in by his German uncle, he rebels against Nazi conventions and spends his time with other Roma and outcasts on the margins of Berlin.
Swept up in a late round-up of unwanted non-Aryans in 1943, he is sent to Auschwitz. On his sixteenth birthday, as he is about to resign himself to being sent to the gas chambers, he is yanked out of the huts thanks to his German bloodline and sent to be an attendant in one of the camp’s SS barracks. Stefan refers to the SS men as “the priests.” There, he is befriended by Hannes, a slender, blonde homosexual a few years older, who is also working in the barracks.
As the Russians approach, Stefan and Hannes are moved, along with other inmates, towards the West. They manage to escape when an Allied plane attacks their train, causing it to derail, but Hannes is wounded and soon dies. Stefan is interned again, this time by the Americans, as a displaced person. An American G.I., a Southerner named Moon (more symbolism), takes a liking to Stefan and eventually adopts him. After a brief spell in South Carolina, full of atmosphere straight out of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Stefan returns to Europe.
In Paris, he meets up with a French intellectual, Immanuel de Bris, who ends up taking him along on a lecture trip to Heidelberg. There, de Bris introduces him to Barbara Speer, recently widowed by the suicide of her husband, a promising young poet and critic. The twists and turns of Stefan and Barbara’s relationship, as they come together, wring hangs over their respective losses, encounter various artists and intellectuals in postwar Germany, part, and, finally, come to some kind of reconciliation, fills the second half of the book (Right Panel).
I stuck with Haldeman to the very end of The Sun’s Attendant out of simple faith in his artistic aims. He did not set himself an easy task. He clearly wanted to take on profound questions about life and death, playing out his story against a backdrop where death is everywhere and on a large scale. And he lacked no courage when it came to embracing absurdity. Great personalities come to ridiculous ends in his story. And the reader regularly gets exposed to short bursts of what I can only suppose is meant to be purely absurdist prose:
Merchants are no longer sure of Canada: its puppet strings were snipped by Vichy scissors. Spectacles, hats and rings went down with boots.
Only the blank uncounted Sunday flies fill their ears like inedible puddings.
Swollen prunes and spilt milk mingle with the natal flow and the honey of Canaan.
As well as great clumps of weighty thoughts:
But just as life, as a wound, depends on death, as a body, for its sustenance, Man himself could not begin to realize himself until his fall had wounded Eden. Man will return at once to his original home, which has never ceased to exist, in the very moment that his wound becomes irreversible–that is, when life is no longer healable by death.
There’s a little of everything here: Brechtian dialogues, rabbinical , dry analyses auf die Akademie, pensees worthy of Satre’s review, Les Temps modernes, Gypsy folktales, even snatches straight out of Kerouac:
I began to wander, from town to town, always farther inland. I reached the Rockies and, repelled by them, turned southward and back. Two years I drifted, sometimes working, mostly not. I avoided trains and seldom hitchhiked; usually I took buses, with endless accordion tickets, go off in unlikely places, stayed an hour or a day and go back on, in and out of a kind of sleep-read-sleep-talk-stop-start-sleep, on and on through the slow transitions, the wastes, the geographical paradoxes, the dry primitivity, through the inexplicable familiarity, freak electricity and sudden clarity, the named placelessness of the American continent, transported by an absurd, fluid, heart-breaking dream of distance.
Do all these fragments amount to something as significant and serious Haldeman seems to have intended it to be? Serious–yes. As Stanley Kauffmann wrote in his review for the New York Times, “We are always conscious of the author’s utter seriousness of purpose, that he is less engaged in display than in the fulfillment of his themes.”
Significant, though? Sadly, The Sun’s Attendant suffers from the tendency of many inexperienced writers to mistake serious for profound. Giving Stefan Brückmann an interesting story does not make him an interesting character. The book’s end comes as a relief, not a revelation.
As Kauffmann put it, “[W]hat we are left with is the work of a young writer … who is able and attractively ambitious but who has attempted subjects not yet within his grasp.” Mudrick reached much the same conclusion: “The energy of the novel dissipates itself in local effects–comments, technical surprises, aphorisms, short-lived intellectual fireworks of impressive diversity and inventiveness–and nothing is left for the long run.”
After finishing The Sun’s Attendant,I picked up another of Eric Hatch’s novels, Road Show, and the contrast reminded of Coleridge’s line about Fielding (“To take him up after Richardson, is like emerging from a sick room heated by stoves, into an open lawn, on a breezy day in May”). I can’t imagine turning back, like the TLS critic, for a second and third read of Haldeman’s book. But then the TLS’s man may have been a better reader than I, Gunga Din.
I will not, however, give up my faith in Mr. Haldeman. I have ordered his last novel, Teagarden’s Gang, which, according to his brother Richard, “was unable to find an American publisher because a main character was too closely identified with J. Edgar Hoover, still powerful and living.” Written ten years after The Sun’s Attendant, it may just deliver on his promising ambitions.
In the 1951 reference book, American Novelists of Today, it says of Eric Hatch, “He writes entertaining popular novels which are enlivened by a pleasant vein of humor and by light, satirical characterizations.” This is a polite academic way of saying, “Eric Hatch writes screwball comedies.”
Screwball comedies such as “Bringing Up Baby” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” were staples of Hollywood film-making in the 1930s and 1940s and a few are now considered among the finest examples of the art. The situations of screwball comedies were usually ridiculous–mistaken identities, cross-dressing, assumed crimes (the same sort of things that worked for Aristophanes and Shakespeare)–but there is one constant: silly idle rich people.
Well, this is exactly the same raw material Eric Hatch mined in nearly 20 novels written between 1928 and the early 1970s–most of them in the first twenty years of that time. It’s no coincidence that the one novel for which Hatch is likely to be remembered today–My Man Godfrey–was made into one of the greatest of all Hollywood screwball comedies. Five Days (later retitled Five Nights when issued as a Bantam paperback in 1948, mainly to play up the sex angle) is a perfect example.
As the book opens, Beadleston Preece, known in the papers as the “Millionaire Sportsman”, sits dejected on the terrace of his Long Island mansion as night falls. The auctioneers’ men haved just hauled off all his belongings. For reasons he little comprehends, his fortune, so his broker tells him, has evaporated in the stock market and he is now penniless. He begins to think his only recourse is to go up to his bedroom and hang himself when he turns to find a man holding a gun on him.
He turns out to be a burglar all set to rob the house. Preece breaks the bad news to him and soon Swazey (Lionel Stander, if Hollywood had gotten around to filming this) is commiserating alongside. “Say,” Swazey interjects, “did you beat up dis guy what lost your chink for you?” And soon, thanks to Swazey’s immoral leadership, the two are sneaking onto the stock broker’s estate and stealing his fifty-foot yacht.
Over the course of the next five days (or nights, depending on which edition you’re reading), Preece and Swazey manage to accumulate a small band of fellow runaways, including an Episcopalian bishop, a debutante, a girl from the Jersey waterfront, and the unhappy husband of patent-medicine heiress. Their ramblings around Long Island and New York City waters takes them to such fixtures of East Coast society as the Harvard-Yale Regatta and a lavish dinner dance in Newport. And there a few more crimes, such as a break-in at a fancy Newport dress shop, all pulled off with the lightest of excuses and consciences, and lots of hot and cold running booze.
As I read Five Days, I kept picturing the unmade film version. Preece would have to be played by someone with the right touch of naivete–Joel McCrea, probably. Mary from Jersey would have to be young and a bit street-smart–Ginger Roger would be too old, Betty Hutton too young. Bishop Hartley would have to someone with a nice balance of propriety and mischief–Edward Everett Horton, maybe. Lewis Stone, probably not–not mischievous enough.
“Move over, Wodehouse! Make room for Eric Hatch,” wrote a reviewer of one of Eric Hatch’s early novels, and there’s a lot of truth in that statement. P. G. Wodehouse’s reputation is now well-fixed in the literary firmament, despite the utterly frivolous nature of all his work and that bit of unpleasantness during his time in Nazi-occupied France. Yet one can easily argue that much of Hatch’s work shares the same characteristics that have enabled Wodehouse’s work to survive the test of time. The classic Wodehouse novel sits somewhere in the ambiguous zone between the end of the Great War and the start of the Great Depression. Hatch’s period sites about a decade or so later, between the end of Prohibition and the introduction of television. Both build on a solid bedrock of silly, idle, but fundamentally good-natured and tolerant rich people and working class characters with rough exteriors and hearts of gold.
Hatch’s characters aren’t quite as prim as Wodehouse’s. They drink and smoke and break a law or two along the way. And I can’t imagine a Wodehouse woman muttering “Itch-bay” to a shrewish wife, as one of Hatch’s does. But Hatch’s novels have the same sense of being fixed in a particular period while managing to seem timeless, and I have to say I did actually find myself chuckling at a number of points throughout the book. If things in the world were just, which they aren’t, we would see Five Days, Road Show, and Little Darling sitting a few feet down the shelves from The Inimitable Jeeves. But if the rest of the world can’t manage to figure this out, that won’t keep me from giving a few more of Eric Hatch’s novels a try.
Five Days, by Eric Hatch
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1933
Spring Offensive takes place during the first twenty-four hours of the German attack against French and British forces along the Maginot Line in April 1940.
Of course, the Germans didn’t attack the French and British in April 1940, but two months later, in June, and when they did, they wisely bypassed the Maginot Line in favor of a blitzkrieg through the Ardennes and the Lowlands. This is a major reason why Herbert Clyde Lewis’ second novel, Spring Offensive, quickly flew from the new release stacks to obscurity. While the Phoney War dragged on, there was still an opportunity for a writer like Lewis to fantasize about what might happen when the shooting started. When it did start for real, events moved too fast for anyone to have time for fiction.
Peter Winston, Lewis’ protagonist, is a young American from outside Indianapolis serving with a British Expeditionary Force unit encamped in a small French town along the Maginot Line. He’d joined out of mixed motives–a bit of anti-Nazi fervor and a bit of self-pity. His girl had dumped him, he’d lost his job as a newspaper reporter, and his best friend had begun to avoid him as a hopeless loser. Readily accepted into the British Army, he now finds himself killing time in the most meaningless military drills.
One night, he decides to sneak out of the barracks and commit a small act of eco-vandalism. Taking a packet of flower seeds he’d obtained from a villager, he quietly slips into the barbed wire and anti-tank obstacles of the No Man’s Land between the Allied and German lines and spends the night planting seeds.
As dawn breaks the next morning, however, the sky is suddenly filled with the shriek of incoming German artillery shells. Winston injures his ankle in trying to run back to his unit. He takes a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder and winds up pinned down in a shell hole. Over the next few hours, he watches as the fearsome blood-letting of First World War battles like the Somme are re-enacted with faster-firing machine guns and deadlier explosives. Late in the afternoon, a young, frightened German soldier rushing forward in another futile charge bayonets him in the gut, leaving him to die in his muddy crater.
In many ways, Spring Offensive reworks the situation of Lewis’ first novel, Gentleman Overboard, which I covered here several months ago. Instead of a stockbroker slowly drowning in the Pacific, we have a young soldier dying in No Man’s Land. In each book, Lewis switches between the present and flashbacks to his protagonist’s past and between the mind of his unlucky hero and the thoughts of other people in his life. And in both, Lewis is quite effective in conveying the wavering emotions and wandering thoughts of a man consciously moving closer and closer to death.
Unlike in Gentleman Overboard, however, a rather abstract situation is replaced by one very much within the reality of his contemporary readers. In early 1940, the American public was torn between support for the Allies and the isolationist views of the “America First” movement. Some of the thoughts that run through Winston’s mind as he lays in his shell hole touch directly on that debate:
And he was wondering why he had come all the way across the ocean to fight when he might have stayed at home, right in Indianapolis, and fought there. There was a war to be fought in America, he thought, and what a war it was! He was not proud of having been a private in the B. E. F., but he would be proud to be a general in that other army. And millions of men would volunteer, brave young men with hard brave faces, men from the fields and the factories and city streets and country roads, men marching west and shaking their fists at the setting sun. Winston moaned softly and moved his head from side to side. He didn’t want to die; he wanted to live and go home and fight in America’s war, in the war to make American a Land of Promise once again.
Now it could be that this is only meant to be a last thought of a dying man, no more or less significant than his memory of slipping his hand around the waist of his old girlfriend. But it’s hard for me to separate this passage–which, by the way, goes on with yet more Hollywood-ish populist cliches (Lewis did go on to work for the studios)–from the general premise of the book: the young man going out to plant flowers and being caught in the crossfire of a vast, bloody, and largely pointless battle. Perhaps Lewis truly did not intend to take a stand against anything but war itself, abstracted from the context of Nazism, Antisemitism, and Fascism, and was not casting a vote with the America Firsters. He did, after all, demonstrate an ability to view the most desparate situation–a man drowning alone at sea–with remarkable objectivity in Gentleman Overboard.
If he did, then Spring Offensive must rank with one of the great examples in literature of bad timing. Within weeks of its publication, the statis of the Phoney War was replaced by images of Panzer tanks rolling across France and the Nazi flag flying under the Arc de Triomphe. And within a few years, the abstract image of anonymous young German soldiers was replaced by that of S. S. troops carrying out mass executions. Whatever Lewis’ intention, it’s impossible now to view this book outside the context of its time.
In the very last lines of Spring Offensive, a German shell lands directly on top of Winston. “… [A]nd when the smoke cleared away, he wasn’t there any more.” History appears to have had the same effect on Spring Offensive.
Reading Isa Glenn’s novel, Transport, I kept thinking of the refrain from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo. Only in the case of Transport, it’s round and round the women go, talking of every other soul trapped on a hot, slow steamer from San Francisco to Manila.
Transport is about a group of Army wives and children, along with a sprinkling of officers and enlisted men, traveling to posts in the Philippines some time in the 1920s. This was familiar territory for Glenn. The daughter of an Atlanta mayor, she married Brigadier General Samuel Bayard Schindel in 1903, when he was in his forties and she in her twenties. Glenn accompanied her husband on assignments to Philippines, China, Hawaii, and Panama, and learned well the hothouse atmosphere of rank, manners, and bottled-up ambitions and jealousies of these isolated Army posts.
After her husband died in 1921, Glenn began turning her nearly twenty years’ worth of observations into literature. Encouraged by Carl Van Vechten, she wrote her first novel, Heat, which was published by Knopf in 1926. Heat, which portrayed the failed romance of a young Army officer and an idealistic American teacher caught up in the exotic world of Manila, drew heavily upon her overseas postings with General Schindel, as did its successor, Little Pitchers (1927).
Transport was the last of her novels taken directly from her time as an Army wife. She and Schindel probably took much the same voyage when they were posted to the Philippines. It’s something of a tour de force, in that Glenn set herself a considerable technical challenge in setting the whole of the story within the confines of the promenade deck, dining saloon, library, and cabins and passageways of the transport ship and managing a cast of over twenty distinctly sketched characters. Her ability to weave their movements, conversations, and bondings and partings around her set is on a par with a ballet master’s.
And her talent for tracing the intricate fabric of Army society has something of the touch of Henry James in his later years. It’s a fine, taut, and airless weave that makes one glad to be far removed from it. Take the seemingly simple matter of selecting chairs on the promenade:
For only upon the deck of an army transport do humans act the splendid lie that all men are born free and equal. Passengers have their official assignments to staterooms, and to seatings in the dining saloon, strictly according to the Army List; but there there glorious prerogatives of rank cease. Upon the small deck there is waged a daily battle for the right to the shade, the right to the breezy side, the right to any space that any moral could conceivably wish to occupy. Silent pressure is put upon the wary and the unwary. The wife of a high ranking officer may come to a halt squarely in front of the chair that you have risen betimes to snatch. Under her cold eye, you cast about in your mind the chances that one day her husband may be in a position to do your husband–or your brother, or your son, or yourself if you happen to be of the right sex from the military standpoint–dirt, or the reverse; and with this thought uppermost, you then do the graceful thing of arising and respectfully seating the lady in the desirable place wherefrom you had been lazily contemplating the day ahead.
However, as John Bradbury notes in Renaissance in the South: A Critical History of the Literature, 1920-1960, while Glenn’s themes, organization, and technique are “astonishingly Jamesian”, her style “is distinctly her own, sharp, pungent, often barbed with wit and satire.” While she understands the logic of Army life, she doesn’t for a second forget that it’s an artificial set of rules and rituals.
As might be expected with any volatile mix of ingredients that is bottled up and shaken about for three weeks straight, this tightly-wound little society eventually explodes. Worn down by the effort of putting up a stolid front, a passed-over major goes momentarily mad and reveals a horrifying secret he and his family have been keeping under wraps for years. The dancers retreat, regroup, and reinforce the pretences that keep this society running smoothly. By the time the ship pulls into Manila Bay, everything is back in order.
Glenn published a total of eight novels in the space of nine years. Two–Southern Charm