Archive for February, 2013

The Pilgrimage, by John Broderick

February 26, 2013

Gift from Kimbofo at Reading Matters

Gift from Kimbofo at Reading Matters

Michael Glynn is the richest man in an Irish village not far from Dublin — he made his money in the construction boom that followed World War II. Now however, he suffers from crippling arthritis which confines him to his bed; each Thursday, his nephew Jim, a doctor based in Dublin, visits to renew his prescription. The local priest, Father Victor, joins Michael and Julia Glynn and Dr. Jim for the weekly “visit”. Stephen, the Glynn’s manservant, valet, masseur and general helper, is outside Michael’s bedroom, eavesdropping as Father Victor proposes the pilgrimage to Lourdes that supplies both the central driving image and the title of the novel.

Let’s allow author John Broderick to set the plot of The Pilgrimage in motion in his own words:

Stephen’s hand, knuckles poised, moved a fraction of an inch towards the door. There was nothing more to be heard. And then with an instinctive gesture he stopped himself. Mrs Glynn had not yet spoken. She was not usually so silent when her nephew was present. Father Victor, his voice squeaky with enthusiasm, began to speak again of the perfection of the arrangements for the pilgrimage which his Order was organizing to Lourdes. Suddenly, during a pause in a breathless description of the atmosphere of the Grotto at night, Mrs Glynn cut in. Stephen, holding the tray carefully away from his chest, leaned his head near the door. The voice was low, but clear and vibrant. Stephen could imagine her leaning forward, her full lips parted, her eyes sweeping from one to the other, husband, nephew, priest, contriving to give all of them her undivided interest.

‘Why don’t you come, Jim?’ she asked. ‘Don’t you think that would be a good idea, Father? Michael, ask him to come. I know those foreign doctors are wonderful, but Michael has got used to you, Jim, and so have I.’

The Pilgrimage was banned by the Irish Censorship Board when it appeared in 1961 and caused a scandal in England. Broderick takes precious few pages to supply evidence why.

Sin number one would be his portrayal of the men of the Church, characterized by Father Victor, and the hypocritical respect they are given by community “leaders”:

Stephen put down the silver tray carrying the whisky and water on the table at the end of the bed. After nodding pleasantly in his direction Father Victor continued to talk about Lourdes. There was a polite fiction maintained that he did not see the arrival of the whisky, and refused to recognize its existence until it was handed to him in a glass with just the right amount of water added. This was done by Mrs Glynn when Stephen withdrew; her husband did not think it was edifying for servants to see priests displaying the appetites of ordinary men.

Father Victor always has three whiskys before Stephen drives him back to the Monastery but, from the Censorship Board’s point of view, that worldly indulgence is only an “apertif” to the greater sins that will dominate the book. They will centre on Julia:

There was always the necessity for haste. At first Julia had found this exciting: the brutal directness of such lovemaking had something of the anonymity of elemental sensuality. It was enough merely to hold that great body, never more than half undressed, in her arms on the bed, or more often simply standing against the locked door of the darkened room. And there had been the additional excitement of careful preparation. It was intoxicating to know, that underneath her thick woollen dress so correct, so respectable, she was naked.

The “great body” belongs to Dr. Jim; he and Julia alway end the weekly ritual with a quick bout of sex — Stephen is not only absent from the house driving Father Victor home but also, in a recent burst of innovation, Julia has added the Thursday shopping to his chore list to keep him away longer. The metaphor of the nakedness underneath the “thick woollen dress so correct, so respectable” is soon expanded and extended.

Julia and Jim’s affair actually predates her marriage to Michael. While Julia had a conventional upbringing, her adult adventures began when she started work at age 20 as a receptionist at “a large and garish sea-side hotel” outside Dublin, “a meeting-place for those who wanted casual adventures”:

At one time it had been a rendezvous for homosexuals, because of a beach near by where men could bathe in the nude; later that shifting population migrated to a newer and more garish bar farther along the coast: but this had taken place before Julia’s time. All the staff were members of a religious sodality for hotel workers run by Jesuit priests; and the owners were notable supporters of Catholic charities. Apart from its vulgar and ostentatious furnishings, which Julia only grew to hate during her last year there, it was a comfortable place, and the work was light.

The homosexuals may have moved on, but there is still a lot of convenient sex taking place at the hotel. Yet Julia “never felt the slightest urge to mock the hypocritical climate in which she lived” — until in her fourth year there, she met a divorced American, Howard Kurtz, started an affair and fell in love for the first time (yes, I do think Broderick was paying homage to Heart of Darkness when he chose the name). The affair was torrid while it lasted but ended suddenly when Kurtz was recalled to Washington — Julia wasn’t asked along and his letters arrived increasingly less frequently until a year later Julia read in a society magazine of his engagement to the daughter of a South American millionaire.

Julia soon moved on to Dr Jim Glynn (“quiet reserved manner”, “undemanding”) but she is anything but in love with him. She did not realize that through Kurtz “she had been educated in a very old tradition: that of the sensitive courtesan to whom the luxury of idle days is the very breath of life.” The affair with Jim is put on hold when he brings his forty-five year old bachelor uncle, Michael, to the hotel. Michael begins coming more often, takes Julia out and “at last, in an offhand but business-like manner” proposes to her.

Julia begins to realize her marriage is really one of false convenience on the couple’s honeymoon when the Glynns strike up a friendship with a young German, Helmut, whom Michael continues to correspond with after their return. She discovers the true nature of that relationship when she finds one of Helmut’s letters in a suit of Michael’s that she is sending to the cleaners: “Helmut could no longer write since he had gone to live with his great friend Kurt, who was insanely jealous, etc.” Michael consoles himself by taking up with a young engineer in his employ; Julia responds by renewing her relationship with Jim.

This comfortable, if twisted, arrangement risks becoming spectacularly unglued when “the first letter” arrives:

At first she did not entirely grasp its contents: it was like reading a foreign language one has not spoken for a long time. She looked at the end. It was unsigned. It was a complete and detailed account of her affair with Jim; or rather how they made love together. It made no comment as to the time or place at which these acts took place: it simply described them crudely and clinically, and without any threats or demands. It was like a passage copied from a badly written pornographic novel, except that, as Julia realized with a thrill of horror, she was one of the characters.

It is hard to summarize what The Pilgrimage is about (and I have only supplied the tip of the degenerate iceberg here) without making it seem like a soap opera of the first order: trust me when I say that it is anything but. I have included more excerpts than I usually do in this review because I wanted to supply examples of the icy absence of emotion in Broderick’s prose. The terror that his characters feel — and the fierceness of his attack on the hypocrisy of Irish respectability — is made even more concrete by the deliberate flatness that he uses in developing it.

The result is a compelling, engrossing short novel (only 191 pages in the Lilliput Press edition that I read). I referenced my fondness for Irish authors in my last post (of Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto) and I am delighted to add John Broderick to my personal list (with special thanks to my Irish “reading guide”, Kimbofo at Reading Matters who not only drew him to my attention but also sent me a copy of The Pilgrimage). Unlike McCabe, who leans heavily on the comically absurd to make his point, Broderick is relentlessly realistic in his portrayal of what he sees as the falseness of conventional Irish society — in that sense, he is much more like another KfC Irish favorite, John McGahern. The Pilgrimage was his first novel and he went on to write 11 more. I look forward to further exploration of his work; nobody does “dark” the way the Irish do and this novel alone convinces me that he stands in the first rank.

(The Pilgrimage is out of print in North America but clicking on the cover at the top of the review will take you to the Book Depository listing for the book, with free shipping included.)

Breakfast on Pluto, by Patrick McCabe

February 20, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Patrick McCabe has a special place on the KfC blog. It was just over four years ago, after reading his new novel, that I signed up with WordPress and penned the first book review I had written in some decades, thinking I would reread it the next day and decide whether or not to enter the book-blogging world. Completely unaware that I had created links to some blogs where I was a regular visitor, that hesitant review of The Holy City by the next morning had produced some instant comments from book bloggers around the world — like it or not, KfC had inadvertently joined the blogging world. 428 posts later, it is a happenstance that I have never regretted.

I have a fondness for Irish authors — there is no doubt John McGahern is a personal favorite and I will be introducing yet another, John Broderick, in the next post here — but McCabe will always occupy a privileged position in that select company. His Ireland and his story-telling are characterized by off-the-wall plots and even stranger characters but he uses them to extraordinary effect in portraying the land and people that he obviously loves.

Breakfast on Pluto, published in 1998, comes from McCabe’s mid-career (novel six of 12 published to date as far as I can tell) and is an excellent example of his distinctiveness. The Troubles that plagued Ireland throughout the 20th century have apparently come to an end and in the conclusion to a short prelude the author states his intention for this novel:

The war over, now perhaps we too can take — however tentatively — those first few steps which may end unease and see us there; home, belonging and at peace.

In one sense, all four of the McCabe novels that I have read (WinterWood and The Stray Sod Country are the other two) are “historical” tales of the impact of Ireland’s troubles. In another, however, all are better viewed as black fantasies where McCabe leans on the absurd to sketch his version of that history.

The conceit of Breakfast on Pluto is that it is a series of exercises written by the hero, Patrick Braden, at the direction of one Dr. Terence, a psychiatrist who is treating him, apparently under court order. These too are introduced by a prelude, “I Was a High-Class Escort Girl”, which opens:

Although I am afraid I don’t get too many clients these days! I can just imagine the reaction of my old acquaintances if they saw me now, sitting here in my silly old coat and headscarf — off out that door and down London’s Kilburn High Road with the lot of them, no doubt! Still, no point in complaining — after all, every beauty has to lose her looks sometime and if the gold-digging days of poor old darling poo poo puss are gone for ever, well then so be it. I ain’t gonna let it bother me, girls! Just give me Vic Damone, South Pacific, plus a yummy stack of magazines and I’ll be happy, as once more I go leafing through the pages of New Faces of the Fifties, Picturegoer, Screen Parade, gaily mingling with the stars of long ago.

Patrick prefers to be known as Paddy Pussy, his trade name as a transvestite prostitute. How did this Irish lad, born in Tyreelin in 1955, come to this end?

Well, for starters, Paddy is a bastard, the son of the local priest, Father Bernard McIvor:

When asked why he no longer sang in the church on Christmas morning, his eyes would appear to glaze over and he would regard his inquistor with an expression of mystification almost as if the reasons were far beyond him too. Which they weren’t of course, for as many of his parishoners knew, despite rarely giving voice to it in public, the what might be termed: Change in Father Bernard dated back to a single 1950s morning and to no other — the morning he inserted his excitable pee pee into the vagina of a woman who was so beautiful she looked not unlike Mitzi Gaynor the well-known film star. And then arranged for her to go to London so that there would be no dreadful scandal. ‘Dear, dear. I wonder what is wrong with Father Bernard,’ his parishoners would say, adding: ‘He’s not the man he was at all.’

The defiled mother may have been sent to London, but baby Patrick is parked for care and upbringing with Mrs. “Whiskers” Braden who in a drunken state blabs about the clerical parentage to an adolescent Patrick. His voyage into transvestism begins shortly afterwards when he begins experimenting with Whiskers’ comestics and clothes.

Certainly, a critical picture of the repressive nature of the Roman Catholic Church is a frequent element of Irish fiction, but I hope that sketchy outline gives an indication of the distinctly off-kilter point of view that McCabe brings to the story in general. Paddy Pussy’s trade as a transvestite prostitute provides the grounds for introducing a number of hypocritical men of stature who employ and fawn over “her”. Eventually, he/she will head to England in search of her birth mother — that occurs during the late 1970s when the IRA bombings were at their peak, so readers get an equally distorted view of that particularly violent aspect of the story.

As all these absurdities pile up, it is hard not to come the conclusion that author McCabe finds this era in Irish history simply too horrendous to approach in anything resembling “normal” terms — so he has created his own in which to frame the story.

That’s a convenient device which could all too easily become an escapist cliche. McCabe avoids that trap: from start to finish, Paddy is an engaging, often sympathetic character, doing his best to deal with (escape?) the circumstances surrounding him. These are truly absurd, so why not react with a fantasy response to the same thing? And employing the device of recounting all this through memories written down by a “recovering” Paddy at the direction of a psychiatrist supplies an appropriate bridge between the two.

Breakfast on Pluto has its weaknesses but succeeds as a worthwhile novel. For this reader at least, it is best viewed (as are the other McCabes that I have read) in contrast to McGahern’s portraits from the same era. While most of McGahern’s novels are brutally realistic in their portrayal of that Ireland, McCabe’s skewed view produces a reality of its own. As he says in the opening prelude, it is a way, “however tentatively”, of taking “those first few steps which may end unease and see us there; home, belonging and at peace.”

KfC’s 2013 Project: The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields

February 15, 2013
All she’s trying to do is keep things straight in her head. To keep the weight of her memories evenly distributed. To hold the chapters of her life in order. She feels a new tenderness growing for certain moments; they’re like beads on a string, and the string is wearing out. At the same time she knows that what lies ahead of her must be concluded by the efforts of her imagination and not by the straight-faced recital of a thottled and unlit history. Words are more and more required. And the question arises: what is the story of a life? A chronicle of fact or a skillfully wrought impression? The bringing together of what she fears? Or the adding up of what has been off-handedly revealed, those tiny allotted increments of knowledge? She needs a quiet place in which to think about this immensity. And she needs someone — anyone — to listen.

Personal first edition

Personal first edition

That excerpt comes almost at the conclusion of The Stone Diaries, towards the end of chapter nine of ten, as 80-year-old Daisy Flett begins organizing what she knows will be her final thoughts and collected memories of a life lived. For the reader, who is all too reluctantly aware that only a few pages remain in the novel, it is a timely synopsis of the story so far — this is not only a life lived, it is a life well-lived. And we have been privileged to be the “listeners” who were there to share the story.

Before we get to Daisy Flett’s story, let me supply some context. I have said it before, but it bears repeating: The Stone Diaries has a unique fiction prize history that may never be repeated. Carol Shields was born in 1935 in Illinois and spent her childhood and student years in the U.S. — she met and married Donald Shields in Scotland in 1955 and they returned to his home in Canada, where she took out Canadian citizenship. That dual citizenship made this 1993 novel eligible for the Pulitzer Prize in the U.S., the Governor-General’s Award in Canada and the Booker Prize in the U.K. — The Stone Diaries won the first two (along with the non-citizenship-restricted National Book Critics’ Award in the U.S.) and was shortlisted for the Booker won by Roddy Doyle for Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha. Curses to the Booker jury for denying Shields a triple that I am sure will not be approached in the future (Australians with dual U.S. citizenship are allowed to replace the Governor-General award with the Miles Franklin if they want to take on the challenge).

The Stone Diaries is book two in KfC’s 2013 project of rereading a dozen Canadian books that influenced me as a youthful reader, so permit me to add some more background. Shields was born only four years after Alice Munro but is far less well known to international readers because of her untimely death in 2003. When this novel appeared, it is safe to say that her literary reputation in Canada rivalled that of Munro’s (and that of Margaret Atwood, born in 1939, as well). An accomplished short story writer as well as novelist, she deserves to be ranked on every count with those two highly-regarded authors.

The last book reviewed here (The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder) was a “novel-in-stories” which provoked some interesting comments on the technique. The Stone Diaries is very much a novel but if you are looking for an example of the form, it is a classic “novel in stories” — with the additional cachet that Shields chooses to employ some widely varying aspects of her considerable short story writing ability as the story unfolds.

The novel’s 10 chapters start with Daisy’s birth in 1905 and end with her death in 199- (that’s all the author gives us, although we can presume from the date of publication it is early in the decade). While it is Daisy Goodwill-Flett’s story throughout and is in chronological order, the chapters come at almost evenly-spaced 10 year points in her life — with every chapter, the reader is left to speculate on much of what has happened in the intervening years. The device not only makes Daisy’s story richer it adds considerable depth to The Stone Diaries — this novel is not only a life lived, it is very much an examination of a 20th century North American life.

Here’s the opening of chapter one, “Birth, 1905″. It offers a flavor of the voice and approach that will appear in a number of the novel’s “stopping points” as the author chronicles Daisy’s life:

My mother’s name was Mercy Stone Goodwill. She was only thirty years old when she took sick, a boiling hot day, standing there in her back kitchen, making a Malvern pudding for her husband’s supper. A cookery book lay open on the table: “Take some slices of stale bread,” the recipe said, “and one pint of currants; half a pint of raspberries; four ounces of sugar; some sweet cream if available.” Of course she’s divided the recipe in half, there being just the two of them, and what with the scarcity of currents, and Cuyler (my father) being a dainty eater. A pick-and-nibble fellow she calls him, able to take his food or leave it.

The setting is Tyndall, Manitoba: “a dusty, landlocked Manitoba village (half a dozen unpaved streets, a store, a hotel, a Methodist Church, the Canadian Pacific Railway Station, and a boarding house on the corner of Bishop Road for the unmarried men)”. Cuyler Goodwill works as a stone mason in Garson, two miles up the road — his trade introduces a metaphor that will re-appear periodically as the novel progresses (as well as influencing the title).

“Birth, 1905″ is very much like a Munro story in that beneath its gloss of the quotidien it includes its share of surprises which serve to define the parameters of the novel. I am about to engage in spoilers which are necessary for that context, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you can’t stand spoilers. Mercy Goodwill has been unwell, but doesn’t know she is pregnant when she collapses in that Manitoba kitchen. Her cries of pain are heard by a travelling pedlar, known as “the old Jew” in the town, who runs to the house of a neighbor, Mrs. Clarentine Flett, who arrives in time for the birth: “Everyone in the tiny, crowded, hot and evil-smelling kitchen — Mrs. Flett, the old Jew, Dr. Spears, Cuyler Goodwill — has been invited to participate in a moment of history.” Mercy Goodwill dies giving birth and Clarentine Flett will take over raising the young Daisy (and have an even greater extended impact, since she becomes Daisy Flett — but I’ll leave it for prospective readers to discover how that comes about).

On the surface, Daisy Goodwill-Flett’s long life is a mundane one — the beauty of Shields’ novel is how she makes it an extraordinary one. I’ve spoiled enough already so let’s just say that the setting for succeeding chapters will range from Bloomington, Indiana to Ottawa, Ontario to Sarasota, Florida — that geographic range illustrates the “20th century” aspect of the book. It is worth noting that at each of her “stopping points”, the author also supplies a wealth of contemporary detail similar to that recipe for Malvern pudding that opens the book — Daisy’s life may be ordinary but the author is always careful to include details and extended digressions to illustrate what is happening around it.

I have now read The Stone Diaries during three different decades of my own life and have to say that I came away more impressed with the novel with each reading, influenced by the way that Shields has captured not just Daisy’s life but the times and communities of which she is part at each stage where the author has chosen to pause to look into her life. My first reading when the book appeared 20 years ago focused on the wonderful character whose story is being told. My second, roughly a decade ago, added the element of appreciating how well Shields had captured aspects of the century, at least from a well-travelled Canadian point of view.

Both those strengths remained in this reading, but I’ll admit yet another element came to the fore this time around: what a tour-de-force The Stone Diaries is in displaying the breadth and depth of an exceptional writer’s craft. Some chapters (like the first) are told in the first person, looking back in time. Others have a conventional omniscient narrator. One consists entirely of letters sent to Daisy as she recovers from the death of her husband and begins a new life — we know her well enough by then that there is no reason to include her responses. Yet another features first-person perspectives from several different family members and friends on what is happening to Daisy at that stage.

I suspect that that authorly virtuosity had a positive influence on those Prize juries back in 1993 — this is not only a successful novel, it achieves its success through a format that has no comparison in the challenges the author chose to set for herself. Every chapter would stand complete as a short story — taken together, they invite the kind of re-reading again and again that supplies a whole new level of appreciation each time (again, comparisons with Munro at her best come to mind).

In conclusion, my third reading of The Stone Diaries not only showed that it has withstood the test of time, its impact on me has continued to grow. I can’t wait until the time comes around for a fourth exploration of this exceptional novel — I am certain there is yet still more for me to discover.

Book three in KfC’s 2013 project is Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler. It is not his most popular title — that would be The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, already reviewed on this site (and by far the most popularly-searched post thanks to its presence on school and university reading lists). Still, Solomon Gursky is well worth the effort. Do join me in the reading (or re-reading) — the review and discussion will be open in mid-March.

The Juliet Stories, by Carrie Snyder

February 10, 2013

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

I don’t often feel sympathy for those individuals who write cover blurbs for fiction books, but the person who was assigned the task for The Juliet Stories has my full attention. The title seems to promise a short story collection — and that’s where the volume got filed on my shelf for the first few months after arrival. When I took it down one day as a possibility in my continuing short story reading program, the promo text caught my eye: “a stunning new novel-in-stories”. I’m never quite certain how blurb writers (or their marketing comrades) decide between “linked short stories” or “novel-in-stories” but I tend to be a fan, whichever description is chosen — and this book is definitely more novel than story collection.

The Juliet Stories carries this challenge further, however: not only is it a novel-in-stories, it is a two-for-one. Part One, Amulets, consists of nine chapters chronicling the Friesen family experience in Nicaragua in the mid-1980s. Part two, Disruption, features a further nine stories involving the same family, extended for some decades following their return to Canada from Nicaragua.

And, just to keep the structural intrigue going, if I was author Carrie Snyder’s editor, I would have said “we have a more than good novel in Amulets, so let’s publish it now — and that will give you more time to see if Disruption can be brought up to scratch.”

Juliet Friesen has the lead role in almost all the stories — she is a 10-year-old, the eldest of three Friesen children when the family arrives in Managua in the opening story; eighteen stories later, she is a middle-aged mother of two.

One of the reasons that Part One works is that it is much more than Juliet’s story and also benefits from a much more contained time frame (just over a year as opposed to a number of decades). Snyder introduces the family as they arrive on a flight from Texas; their luggage has gone missing, a significant loss given that they plan to stay for some months. Bram Friesen is a staff member for Roots of Justice, a protest group that coordinates the activities of youthful North American volunteers who confront the American-supported Contras who are trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime.

For this reader, Snyder established her independent political credentials (and healthy skepticism) early in the first story as the baggageless Friesens head off to begin this new adventure:

It is dusk when they arrive at Simon and Renate’s house. The gate swings shut and Renate shows them to the room in which the Friesen family will temporarily camp: Renate’s office.

Renate is a missionary from Canada, and so is her husband.

Juliet knows all about missionaries; that is what Grandma Grace and Grandpa Harold used to be. Two days ago they kissed goodbye outside Washington’s National Airport; the wind blew jagged sparks of snow into hair and eyelashes. Grandma Grace said to Gloria, her daughter, keep your purse strap wrapped around your wrist; there are bound to be pickpockets. To Juliet she said, don’t forget to say your prayers. Jesus Christ, I don’t even have a purse, Gloria said to Bram, laughing, as they waved through the closing glass doors and Grandpa Harold helped Grandma Grace into the front seat of his Cadillac: American built with American pride. Nobody cried, not then. The crying part was over, and the questioning, and the lectures.

Missionaries tell other people what to do.

Anti-imperialist peace protest may have replaced religious conversion as the name of the game, but it still means extending North American values into Latin American society. And, like their missionary parents before them, Bram and Gloria Friesen are long on idealism, but still rather short on life experience. It is a shortcoming that will be shared by the arriving volunteers who are the reason-to-be for the Roots of Justice. And, given the era and the age and politics of the characters, it gives nothing away to say that a central element of the “short on life experience” part of the story is figuring out just who can sleep with whom.

Throughout the first half of the novel, Snyder balances those tensions very well. The global politics are always present, but never treated sentimentally. Bram and Gloria have their own idealism-based tension (he’s political, she’s musical) to go with the continuing life-learning one. And Juliet and her siblings, Keith and Baby Emmanuel, are useful lenses to explore what it is like to move into a society where your share neither the language nor culture — not to mention, that young Juliet provides a convenient viewpoint from which to examine “adult” conflicts through the eyes and thoughts of maturing childhood innocence.

Snyder’s primary interest is her notion of family, so the predictable drama of Nicaraguan politics never is allowed to dominate the story. Bram, Gloria and Juliet all become well-drawn characters — it is inevitable that the Nicaraguan part of their lives must come to an end, but by the time it does the reader is engaged in the family portrait.

Unfortunately, that portrait loses focus in Part Two of The Juliet Stories. Juliet’s brother Keith has cancer, which is the reason for their departure. The illness and his death, coupled with the Friesen’s return home, further exposes the contradictions between Bram and Gloria — there is little surprise when they split. By that point, the author has become principally concerned with Juliet’s story but there is simply not enough there to maintain the balance of tension as was done effectively in the opening half of the book. Indeed, Juliet becomes progressively less interesting as the book moves on; rather than being a novel-in-stories, Part Two is more nine stories in development.

In her acknowledgements, author Snyder says “it took a village to raise this book” and, for this reader at least, that offers a powerful hint to the root of the problem. In the home-cooked buffet parties that feature in the gatherings of Roots of Justice members in the first part of the book, young Juliet finds that there are simply too many dishes on offer for her to discover what really is good. Alas, I can’t help but think that too many of Snyder’s pre-publication readers offered “add more to this dish” advice rather than the maxim that is perhaps more important to all young writers: “Less often means much, much more.”

Mrs. Bridge, by Evan Connell

February 1, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

For as long as I have been reading, there has always been a small group of American “writers’ writers” somewhere on my radar. While authors like Salinger, Cheever, Updike and Roth were frequently written about in mainstream media, these writers came to my notice through occasional forays into literary journals or, more frequently, on the recommendation of other avid readers. Some, like Wallace Stegner, have been favorites for a long while. Others, like John Williams or James Salter, were more recent discoveries — although still pre-blog, so no reviews here until I reread them, which I promise to do eventually.

Evan Connell fits the description perfectly and, at least in my case, illustrates a recent development of how “writers’ writers” have become more accessible to readers. As little as a decade ago, finding their works in brick-and-mortar bookstores was often a chore since they just didn’t sell enough to rate stocking — the online retailing world now means acquiring a copy is just a few key strokes away. More importantly, book bloggers have become a valuable source in bringing their names back to front of mind, as was the case with Connell when John Self’s review of Mrs. Bridge reminded me that it was long past time that I got to the book. It has been on my shelf for some months but moved to the top of the reading agenda a few weeks back when Connell passed away at age 88. (I’ll note that I am not alone in that motivation: of the 19 lists of current reading on the Palimpsest forum, three others reveal readers who are currently exploring Connell.)

First published in 1959, Mrs. Bridge has been in print ever since — the 50th anniversary edition that I read features an afterword from James Salter himself, which illustrates my point about “writers’ writers”. And in many ways, the character of Mrs. Bridge herself is a surrogate for author Connell: the novel is set in Kansas, where the author was born and raised, in the 1930s and 1940s, the same period when he was coming to maturity. And, just as Connell did not have the “flash” of some of his contemporaries, the title character is a cautious, caring, conservative housewife doing her best to fit into mid-Western society as a comfortable lawyer’s wife and attract as little direct attention as possible.

Connell sketches that reticent character in his opening:

Her first name was India — she was never able to get used to it It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.

The author underlines her passive nature (and begins to hint at its consequences) in the very next paragraph. To the distress of her parents, India has grown into maturity thinking “she could get along very nicely without a husband” but that notion changes one night when she is sitting on the porch of her parents’ home with Warren Bridge, a young lawyer:

She had known him for several years without finding him remarkable in any way, but on this summer evening, on the front porch of her parents’ home, she toyed with a sprig of mint and looked at him attentively while pretending to listen to what he said. He was telling her that he intended to become rich and successful, and that one day he would take his wife — “whenever I finally decide to marry” he said, for he was not yet ready to commit himself — one day he would take his wife on a tour of Europe. He spoke of Ruskin and of Robert Ingersoll, and he read to her that evening on the porch, later, some verses from The Rubáiyát while her parents were preparing for bed, and the locusts sang in the elm trees all around.

A few months later, after her father has died, India has become Mrs. Bridge and moved to Kansas City where her husband has established a law practice. Mrs. Bridge does not chose what happens to her (rather, she struggles to cope with the inevitable choices that are effectively made for her) and even at this early stage that produces unease:

She was not certain what she wanted from life, or what to expect from it, for she had seen so little of it, but she was sure that in some way — because she willed it to be so — her wants and expectations were the same.

Within five years, the Bridges have three children, Ruth, Carolyn and Douglas, neatly spaced at two year intervals. Mrs. Bridge is 33 when Douglas is born and her future is now set — as a wife and mother, life will happen in the backwater of Kansas City and she will respond as best she can. Given she is inherently a conflict and risk avoider, that often proves to be a challenge.

Connell has chosen an unsual — but ideal — structure to capture this story. Mrs. Bridge is not a long book (240 pages in my edition) but it features 117 chapters. India Bridge’s life does not have a lot of unpredictable “major” moments (that promised trip to Europe, when it finally comes to pass, will prove to be one of the few) but it is filled with a host of mundane ones that threaten to grow into crises if she does not “manage” them in her own, often clumsy, way.

Let me offer just one example, from midway through the book. By way of background, Mrs. Bridge has previously enrolled in some community art classes — while she showed some talent, other things took precedence and she eventually stopped going (starting “worthwhile” initiatives and then getting distracted by normal life is one of her traits). The “threat” comes when there is a knock on the door and Harriet, the Bridges’ servant (in her own way, also an ongoing “threat” for Mrs. Bridge), returns with the observation that the visitor is “suspicious”:

Everyone looked suspicious to Harriet. Mrs. Bridge, after a moment of thought, got up and walked through the kitchen to the back door. It was snowing outside, and on the back step was a stoop-shouldered little man with a woeful expression who was shivering uncontrollably and stamping his feet. On seeing her he attempted a smile and his mouth formed the word “Hello”. Mrs. Bridge could not think where she had seen him; then she remembered the art instructor in whose evening class she had done some painting. Opening the door, but leaving the glass storm door locked, she said, “Why it’s Mr. Gadbury!” For some reason he did look suspicious, and more lost and defeated than in his studio. He was attempting to speak; his words were inaudible through the storm door. Mrs. Bridge, conscious of Harriet’s premonition, despite the familiarity of it, was therefore reluctant to let him in.

She does let him in eventually and discovers that Mr. Gadbury has been reduced to selling subscriptions to a monthly magazine, The Doberman. Well, trying to sell would be more accurate — in two months he hasn’t sold a single one. The Bridges not only don’t have a Doberman, they don’t have a dog of any kind. Still, Mrs. Bridge buys a subscription. Crisis averted.

Most of the incidents that arise to confront Mrs. Bridge are more day-to-day ones than that, however. To maintain a comfortable life (the Bridges are part of the Kansas City country club set), Warren spends most evenings working late — that produces a whole set of child-rearing challenges as her three offspring grow into very different, highly indepedent, characters. And keeping the waters smooth in her section of country club society brings a whole different set of worries for the risk-averse Mrs. Bridge. As the novel unfolds, she just keeps moving from one to the next.

According to Salter’s afterword, Mrs. Bridge, before finally finding a home (and an impressive initial press run of 7,000) at Viking Press, was turned down by at least nine publishers “citing its unconventional form, characters that seemed unsympathetic, and a lack of drama, all weaknesses that paradoxically are in part responsible for its continuing popularity and stature”. I wholeheartedly second that capsule appraisal so let me borrow Salter’s explanation of why the novel succeeds (warning: there are some potential spoiler phrases here, but you would probably guess them anyway):

India Bridge, her husband, children, friends and others around them are depicted without any trace of sentimentality in prose that is exact and scrupulously honest. At the same time, for reasons that confound, it is prose that is irrestible. Though she may wonder helplessing in the end — her husband dead, two of her children virtually estranged and the third in a disastrous marriage — What have I done or failed to do? what is also implicit and just as moving because it is unstated is India Bridge meekly thinking about her life, What have I missed?

But Connell does not sit in judgment, that is left to the reader who may not even sense that a judgment is to be rendered, so sympathetically even the least of the characters are shown. It is from this, a profound and forgiving generosity, that the unexpected warmth of the book comes.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 461 other followers