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.