Breaking Up, by W. H. Manville

July 30th, 2012

Cover of first U. S. edition of "Breaking Up," by W. H. Manville

I was tempted to tag this post Justly Neglected?, as Breaking Up, W. H. Manville’s 1962 bizarre novel of obsessively apathetic love is really quite bad. But out of respect for the fine work of graphic arts legend, Tony Palladino, who also designed the cover for Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, I’m listed this under “Covers.”

For Breaking Up, Palladino came up with a simple, striking image: an upside-down aerial shot of midtown Manhattan. It worked its magic with me, as it was the cover rather than the jacket blurb that led me to buy and read the book. Well, that and the setting: I’m always a sucker for books set in Manhattan, particularly when the protagonist works on Madison Avenue. And one could imagine Bill, the husband whose wife leaves him in the opening chapter, working alongside Don Draper–although it’s clear he lacks any real talent as an ad man, sculptor, or lover. His creative director sums up his character succinctly:

You want to be the American Rembrandt of the sculpture guys, you want to succeed in this business–you’ll wake up to the fact you want the dough as much as anyone one of these days–you want to have the greatest love story of all time with your wife, you want to be the guy who can beat the system, who can do all the other things, too. All without working at any of them. You want all that. Result: you get paralyzed.

Which reminds me of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s wonderful assessment of one of his acquaintances, Barry Pink: “Pink wants to sit on six stools at once, but he only has one arse.”

For a good two-thirds of the book, the reader has to follow Bill around as he wrestles with that timeless question: does he, or doesn’t he? His eyes are eventually opened to the anguish his wife has suffered trying to reconcile herself to the fact that her husband is an apathetic lump (he helps her pack when she moves out). He comes across her diary from the months before the break-up:

He is teaching me sculpture. It is hard for him to do and I pretend not to be too eager. He feels it is his own and as if he is giving part of himself away to me. And he is–at last.

Bill, I’ve been starving for you.

He finds in it a refuge. Sometimes I’m glad he has something in which he is not locked up and incoherent, but it frightens me in him. So remote.

Thus the angst of the remote Bill, seeking an outlet in his art, is channeled and magnified by his wife. My own feeling about Bill can be summed up by a quote from Tom Lehrer: “I feel that if a person has problems communicating, the very least he can do is to shut up.”

Somehow the revelations of the diary trigger a burst of action from the clod, and in the final chapters, in the course of one frenetic night, he tries to win her back, tries to destroy the tubercular male model she’s hooked up with, tries to orchestrate a con by which his agency’s key account can be saved, and tries to win a big account on which he and the above creative director can set up a new agency of their own. It’s not only completely unbelievable but technically inept: it’s not too entertaining when the juggler is running around the stage chasing after dropped balls.

It’s a good thing I read this on board a transatlantic flight: it forced me to withstand the temptation to toss the book out the window. Breaking Up is one book that deserves to sleep with the fishes.


Breaking Up, by W. H. Manville
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962

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