The Bitter Season, Robert M. Coates’ 1946 novel is, according to its dust jacket blurb, a story of “the civilian in wartime; the men a little too old, or a little too frail, to be warriors.” Like many such blurbs, it’s a poor attempt to make something of a book that it is not.
Tom, Coates’ protagonist and narrator, is “a little too old” to run the risk of being drafted, but certainly not too frail, given his many walks around Manhattan in the course of the book. And World War Two, particularly the impending invasion of France, looms large in his thoughts and life. But he is hardly an everyman and Coates never suggests that his is anything but an individual and unique perspective on his situation.
Tom is a writer, and as the book opens he has separated from his wife, Laura, a nightclub singer, after a dozen or so years of marriage. Over the course of the five months covered by the superficial narrative, he reflects upon their relationship, begins to build a life on his own, dates several women, and falls in love with one of them–Valerie, a Dutch refugee. As far as this slight and generally uninteresting story goes, the book might jokingly be summed up as “They also serve who only sit and mope.”
Personally, I think Coates could have dispensed with plot entirely, although it served at least as a skeleton upon which to hang his thoughts and observations, and probably also as an artifice by which to give his publisher a genre to categorize it with. Writing in Saturday Review, reviewer Donald Hough asked, with some frustration, whether The Bitter Season could even be labelled as fiction: “But what about something that in both form and content is nothing other than an outline of personal reactions to a given scene, of a point of view, and which by the device of naming a protagonist is called a novel?” Tom’s story is the weakest and most forgettable aspect of the book, and detracts from what is good in it.
The New Masses took a more lenient view, describing the book as “an experimental mixture of narrative, diary or journal, prose poem, and philosophic disquisition,” and pointing out that such things could be found in fiction as far back as Fielding and Sterne. Even so, it’s only the prose poems and philosophic disquisitions that offer the book’s lasting values.
As I noted, Tom spends a good deal of time wandering around the streets of Manhattan, which allows Coates to paint some memorable scenes of the city:
I walked up to Fiftieth or Fifty-first Street, and then zig-zagged back down through the quiet cross streets to Rockefeller Center. It was April, I think, and the night was warm, but there was still ice-skating at the rink there. The music was playing, and the glare from the floodlights, reflected from the cloudy surface of the ice, poured up like the glow of some mechanical aurora borealis upon the quiet darkness above. I stopped for a while to look down from the railing on Forty-ninth Street at the skaters circling to the music’s rhythm in the sunken rectangle below. They looked small, even at that little distance, and intent on their glides and their maneuvers–they seemed oddly disassociated from the life that went on above them; as I leaned on the rail there, watching, it was like looking down at the creatures in some air aquarium, darting this way and that in response to motives and impulses that were largely incomprehensible to me.
Tom’s wanderings also bring him into contact with men whose attitudes and opinions add a disquieting note to the relentlessly upbeat stream of bond-selling, war-boosting propaganda. A cab driver blames a fire in an office building on “the Jews” eager to collect the insurance. A man at a bar likens European refugees to vermin that have infested the city. Another says “the niggers” have been given too much freedom by Roosevelt and need to be brought back under control when the war is over. Coates notes a subtle parallel between the violence of the far-off battlefronts and the violence implicit in such views.
Coates’ is an existential perspective. Living on his own, cut off from friends who know him only as half of Tom-and-Laura, Tom is deeply lonely:
Loneliness, I’ve discovered–I discovered then–is a hard-to-define emotion. It’s the product of unfulfillment, a factor of frustration, and as such it is largely an emotion of negatives; it arises most often not from something that has, but from something that has not happened–a letter that has failed to arrive, a telephone that refuses to ring–and its worst feature is that its causes and its control are not governed by anything that you can do or can hope to do, but depend on the actions of some other. Thus it is that it has nothing to do with setting or with circumstance; it can descend on you anywhere, anytime, and as reasonlessly and as abruptly as a cloud can blot out the summer sun.
Coates describes what people were experiencing at this time as “a sort of global loneliness.” It was “the feeling that whatever was happening or was going to happen would occur despite anything you could do to aid or prevent it.” Despite the constant barrage of headlines, newsreels and radio reports, “the storm never touched us directly; all we felt was the heat and the omninousness and the tension.”
Although the great event looming offstage throughout the book is the D-Day invasion, when it finally arrives, there is no real sense of relief. The headlines of combat and casualties continue on. In a sense, The Bitter Season is less a book about life on the homefront during World War Two than an anticipation of life during the Cold War, when the threat against individual life became greater in scale even as it became more remote and beyond any individual’s control.
Ultimately, though, Coates’ choice to wrap his meditations around the frame of a plot undermines the book. Hough’s review for The Saturday Review wasn’t too far wrong in observing that Coates “… is a good workman at the typewriter end of his craft and he leads you on, paragraph by paragraph, through sheer competence in writing, and a dangling hope that something is going to happen, until finally he seems tired of chasing his tale and steps nimbly aside to let you read on into the dust-jacket flap.” Without the plot, The Bitter Season would probably have become a forgotten little book of “prose poem and philosophic disquisition.” With it, it just became a forgotten little novel.