January 26, 2012

Evan S. Connell: Mr Bridge

Posted in Connell Evan S. at 8:00 am by John Self

Blog time is faster than real time. How else to explain that it’s approaching two years since I read and raved over Evan S. Connell’s novel Mrs Bridge? It feels like I just finished it. Back then, in the innocent days of April 2010, I asked “Classics imprints, where are you?” The answer was: here all along, because even then (quite independently of my plea) Penguin Modern Classics slowly and surely drew their plans to do the decent thing. Mrs Bridge, then, will be reissued in July 2012, with Mr Bridge to follow in 2013. I couldn’t wait until then to read the second volume, of course, and now that I’ve read it, have to get it out of my head and onto the screen right now.

With Mr Bridge, published in 1968, nine years after Mrs, Connell faces the task of making a book both familiar and new, and with all the internal consistencies that a companion volume requires. Frankly to comment on that, I would need to have read Mrs Bridge more recently (rather than just thinking I had). Anyway, Connell has given himself a minor get-out by the very character that Walter Bridge takes. He is a lawyer, a man who sees language clearly but whose vision of humanity is myopic. Words can be interpreted, nailed into place – that is his job – whereas people remain fuzzy and hard to pin down. He has no real idea how his own household operates, and is in awe at the wonders his wife works with it. “The idea of life without her caused him to move restlessly.” So, if his story doesn’t quite chime with Mrs Bridge, we can pretend it’s because he doesn’t notice what she does, says or thinks anyway. This difficulty in his vision is put comically in one of the earliest chapters, as Mr Bridge contemplates his posthumous bequests:

Often he read to himself particular passages from the will, imagining the delight and surprise with which it would be heard for the first time by his wife and children, not merely for the precision of the language but because they had no idea of the value of the investments.

The danger here is that he could be presented as a fool, with no requirement for the reader to get close to him. And certainly, Connell gives Mr Bridge some distancing views, though ones perhaps not unknown in the southern states of the USA in the 1930s. When a photograph is published in the local newspaper of a lynching, his outward response is to ask his wife, “What was this fellow doing that he shouldn’t have been doing?” His unspoken reaction is more interesting: “The photograph evoked a sense of the South: he could nearly feel the oppressive heat and hear the hoots of laughter and the jokes and shouts and lewd suggestions as the lash went whistling through the air and exploded against the Negro’s skin, the cheers and the clapping, the barking dogs, and the guns popping wildly in the pine forest.”

Like its predecessor, Mr Bridge tells a life not as one story but as many: the short episodes are discrete – there are 141 scenes in 360 pages – although people and themes recur. This ‘highlights’ technique makes the book something like, to paraphrase Geoff Dyer on Jack Robinson, a novel with all the dull bits cut out. Except that that is not quite right: rather, to begin with Mr Bridge is like a novel with only the dull bits left in. Mr Bridge’s life, like his wife’s, is not always distinguished by incident, and some of the more beautifully boring passages read like precursors to the anti-humour of Scott Dikkers’ Jim’s Journal or Sylvia Smith’s Misadventures. In these scenes, Connell resists the temptation to make them interesting: as a result of which they become absolutely fascinating. One scene, ‘No Oil’, sets up potential conflict when Mr Bridge’s garage carries out more work on his car than he asked them to; but the risk is spiked when the owner agrees to cover the cost himself. “And that was how it ended.”

Featuring the most humdrum scenes at the beginning sets up the reader for understanding that this is the undercurrent of Mr Bridge’s life (and that he is not unusual in that). This makes some of the later, surprising, chapters stand taller still. Into particular focus comes Mr Bridge’s troubled relationship with eldest child Ruth, who is growing away from him and makes him feel all the poignancy of the unrequited love parents have for their children. It brings out certain responses. In the scene quoted below, much of the force comes from its completeness as a chapter in itself, with space before and after, a floating island of intense feeling. The reader careers off the end, like Wile E Coyote, almost as soon as the drama strikes.

Ruth asked to borrow two hundred and fifty dollars. She would not say why she wanted the money. He refused to consider giving it to her without first knowing why she wanted it. At last she said one of her girl friends was flying to Tijuana and needed company. He said he would not let her have the money. Then he inquired, jokingly, why her girl friend wished to go to Tijuana, and Ruth answered that her friend was going to have an abortion. Before he knew what he was about to do he jumped up from behind the desk and slapped her across the mouth; then he sat down again as though nothing had happened, and Ruth walked out of the study. He noticed with astonishment that the hand which had slapped her was dancing around on the desk as if it was attached to a string. He seized it with his other hand and bowed his head. He could not believe he had struck her. His fingers burned at the memory. When she was a baby he had held her in his arms while she was falling asleep. There were nights when nothing more than the knowledge of her existence had been enough to waken him so that he had gotten out of bed and gone to the crib to watch over her.

This is a lovely thing: the word ‘memory’ triggering a vertiginous drop as the reader follows Mr Bridge from the present to the past; Mr Bridge wondering what went wrong while the reader has similar thoughts from another direction. Most of all, it slices open and exposes the fact that, while delivering great certainty to his children, wife and friends, Mr Bridge in truth hardly knows his own feelings. When they come forward, they do so with a force that shocks him: here his relationship with his daughter Ruth is central, in several ways.

Throughout the story, Connell gives us no shortage of reasons to dislike Mr Bridge: his racism, anti-semitism, sexism and other -isms that are so last century that they don’t even have a name any more. He could be a Blimpish caricature, but in his personal relationships, as stifled as they are, Mr Bridge develops added dimensions. His stunted affection for his wife comprises equal parts protectiveness and pity for her naivety, as when she eats the paper in a fortune cookie, never having seen one before. He realises that “he himself was responsible. He had taken her from the home where she had been sheltered as a child and substituted himself for her father, so she knew nothing she had not been permitted to know.” Their limited lives are the product of a perfect storm of personality types and the times they live in. Late in his life, late in the book, Mr Bridge recognises that “there were many things he had not done because for one reason or another they seemed unsafe – too many, perhaps.”

With his caution and his wife’s innocence, their life together is defined by fear of the unknown. Connell, however, keeps the reader who is expecting a descent into downright drama on the edge of satiety. (Mrs Bridge, written earlier but ending later, covers that need nicely.) Nonetheless there is a feeling of melancholy as the book gets nearer to its end. This is partly the heavier weight of Mr Bridge’s vulnerabilities being allowed to show, and his recognition of the only end of age – no longer contemplating his will with satisfaction, but observing the increasing decrepitude of his contemporaries (“Ultimately they were all going to go”). Finally, however, the regret comes from the naturally ambivalent feeling of completion at the end of any book, particularly one as satisfying as this.

April 28, 2010

Evan S. Connell: Mrs Bridge

Posted in Connell Evan S. at 3:18 pm by John Self

Evan S. Connell’s ‘most famous’ novel is, on the surface, less turbulent than The Diary of a Rapist, which I wrote about a couple of years ago.  It’s hard to see why this book is out of print in the UK, being a portrait of quiet desperation almost as accomplished as the sort of thing people fete Richard Yates for.  (Or William Trevor, come to that.)  Classics imprints, where are you?

Mrs Bridge (1959) was Connell’s first novel. It is a sort of pointillist portrait of a woman, told in over one hundred brief and discrete (but broadly chronological) sketches, most only a page or two long.  (There’s a later, longer, companion novel, Mr Bridge.)

Throughout the book she is ‘Mrs Bridge’. “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. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter?” So, Mrs Bridge it is, and this is as good a shorthand as any to sum up her personality and life: timid, stunted, any explorations into thought and unconventional behaviour quickly snuffed out by fear, or a sense of propriety, at least to begin with. “Appearances were an abiding concern of Mrs Bridge.”

But tentative struggles away from her own limited life do occur.  Indeed, they are the key to the book, and are generally inspired by Mrs Bridge’s friend Grace Barron. “India, I’ve never been anywhere or done anything or seen anything. I don’t know how other people live, or think, even how they believe. Are we right? Do we believe the right things?” Mrs Bridge might be wary of pursuing such questions far herself, given the unhappiness such introspection brings Grace. “Have you ever felt like those people in the Grimm fairy tales – the ones who were all hollowed out in the back?”

Mrs Bridge has her husband – ‘Mr Bridge’ – and her three children, Ruth, Carolyn and Douglas. Her children threaten Mrs Bridge’s equilibrium, as in the extraordinary scenes where Douglas, like Jocelin in Golding’s The Spire, begins to build an enormous tower from scrap in the family garden: a metaphor for the everyday tragedy of children growing away from their parents’ reach. As Ruth grows away from her – as children must – Mrs Bridge wonders, “Are you mine? Is my daughter mine?”

She is scandalised but fascinated by a production of Tobacco Road, and a visit to Europe becomes a highlight of her life, to which she still refers many years later. It is during the trip that one vignette seems to sum up one aspect of her character neatly, so I reproduce it here in full:

Before leaving on the trip she had checked over the luggage in the attic and concluded they did not have enough, so she had gone downtown and bought three elegant, darkly burnished leather suitcases. They were so beautiful that she was easily persuaded by the salesman to buy a set of canvas covers to protect the leather. These covers, to be sure, were ugly – as coarse as Boy Scout pup tents – but she bought them and had them fitted onto the suitcases. The covers remained on the suitcases while they were aboard ship, and as they had been in each city only a few days she had not bothered to remove them, but now she decided to see if the leather was being protected. She unfastened one of the canvas jackets, peeled it halfway off, and there – as beautiful as though still on display – the leather gleamed. Well pleased, she buttoned the cover.

The difficulty with this sort of portrait is that it’s all too easy for the author to appear to be mocking his subject. Connell avoids this by giving Mrs Bridge increasing self-awareness, and urgings to spread her wings, as the book proceeds. Seeds are planted for some kind of breakdown – when returning from her trip and sharing the platitude that “there’s no place like home”, Mrs Bridge is “troubled and for a moment … almost engulfed by a nameless panic.”

Mrs Bridge is a depiction of a person whose subsumed desires, hopes and yearnings are rendered hopeless by her upbringing, her social position, and her personality. The miniature scenes are perfectly rendered, and so neat that the reader has to work to see the thrashing life beneath the surface. The ending is memorable though, and at times the book and the life seem so closely twined that it’s hard to tell them apart.

They had started off together to explore something that promised to be wonderful, and, of course, there had been wonderful times. And yet, thought Mrs Bridge, why is that we haven’t — that nothing has — that whatever we — ?

December 5, 2007

Evan S. Connell: The Diary of a Rapist

Posted in Connell Evan S., NYRB Classics at 1:25 pm by John Self

Now here is a title to conjure with. What’s a nice guy like me doing with a book like this? Well, I came across Evan S. Connell on Literature Map, when I was looking for authors similar to Richard Yates. His was the most prominent name I didn’t know, so I promptly investigated and found that he is the author of the books Mr Bridge and Mrs Bridge, made into a joint film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward – imaginatively titled Mr & Mrs Bridge. But The Diary of a Rapist was more readily available, and had the added bonus of being published by NYRB Classics, my latest literary fetish.

The Diary of a Rapist

Here then is a book which inspires strong feelings – visceral as much as intellectual – not only when you’re reading it, but even when your eye snags on the title as it’s sitting there innocently closed. (Mrs Self has already decreed that it will not be displayed on the bookshelves once finished with.) To give it such a bold title, Connell has taken a risk – it catches the eye all right, but the fascination it evokes is ghoulish, and more will surely be put off, or uncomfortable picking it up, than will be drawn into reading. And once over the barrier and into the story, by calling it The Diary of a Rapist Connell has removed any tension or mystery, just as Bret Easton Ellis did with American Psycho. In fact that book, and Joseph Heller’s masterpiece Something Happened, were constantly in my mind as I read, though Diary predates both.

Connell’s narrator, Earl Summerfield, like Bob Slocum in Something Happened, doesn’t believe in easing us into his world gently, and gives it to us with both barrels from the start. He pities and despises his co-workers, but not as much as he hates his wife Bianca:

If it wasn’t for Bianca I’d have been able to make something out of myself by this time. She’s ruined everything. There’s no limit to what I might have done by now. She knows it too. I guess it gives her some sort of pleasure.

That’s on page 2. By page 7 Summerfield is already considering that “I think it’s certain mannerisms of women that makes us want to kill them.” He quickly warms to his theme, when he’s watching two schoolgirls that his wife tutors on a Saturday:

Don’t know why I despise them. They act so innocent but then something turns up in the papers like last week when one of these little innocents was “taken into protective custody” because police discovered she was earning about a thousand dollars a week between the time she got out of school and the time she came home from supper. … The little pig was rolling on her back squealing with pleasure every afternoon in somebody’s apartment or hotel room, earning more in five minutes than I make by working all day. Yes, but if you’d see her at school you’d assume she was a sweet little girl. Same as those two Bianca tutors. They’re probably up to the same tricks. Well, if I had them here right now in this room I’d teach them something they’ll never learn from B.

This is pretty hard to read, partly because it’s rare we encounter such undiluted misogyny in a character, and also because we are shocked by Summerfield’s apparently wilful interpretation of victim as offender. In his eyes, the only victim is Earl Summerfield (“I’ve decided she made use of me”), and it’s a moment’s work for him to twist this around into self-aggrandisement and revenge fantasy (“I’m going to be somebody one of these days, which means I already am somebody”).

He fixates on a beauty queen, Mara St John (“she looked to me like one of those professional sluts from Hollywood”), whom he first sees on Washington’s birthday. His obsession with her reaches its climax in a silent diary entry on Independence Day, where the reader is left to work out what Summerfield has done that is so bad even he can’t bring himself to write about it. But then, we already know from the title.

The holiday dates are significant, because Summerfield’s other obsession is the decline in America, and as his deteriorating mental state (“My head’s as full of light as a shower of meteors … Yes, I become more meaningful at night, my brain alert and flickering with bright perceptions”) is mirrored by reports in the news of beatings, murders and death row executions: he professes disgust at them while lapping them up. The introduction to the book tells us that Connell wrote the book after reading about a beauty queen who had been raped twice by the same man: and the second time he had driven her home to make sure she got there safely. Connell believes the rapist truly believed

that if she truly understood him, when she realized that he was a nice man, they could become properly acquainted, have lunch together, visit the zoo together, get married, and live happily ever after. I suspect that only in America could anyone be so deluded. Only in America, addled by the Puritan legacy.

If The Diary of a Rapist then is also a record of the failure of the American dream (“See American white with maggots, red with blood, blue with hypocrisy”), it is one which presents its case in full flood and with not much subtlety. On the one hand almost every line is quotable and in its right place; on the other hand they all seem very much the same and (again as with Patrick Bateman or Bob Slocum) there is not much that one would call character development. I can imagine many readers finding the whole conceit so repellent that they would abandon the book quickly. We do however get the occasional flicker of sympathy when we see Summerfield struggling to attain normality:

Decent life waiting for me twenty minutes from here. It’s that close! It’s that close to me and I can’t get to it.

Normality is impossible for him however, as I realized when wondering why Connell had decided to make Summerfield just 26 years old when his voice is that of a much older, worn-down and weary man. This must be so that we can’t presume he is an otherwise normal man who has been beaten by life once too often. At 26, he hasn’t experienced enough life to justify one percent of the bitterness and hatred he expresses. To verify this, Connell gives us a couple of flashbacks to Summerfield’s childhood, where he was exhibiting a taste for sexual violence even then. So we are to conclude that he must ‘simply’ by unbalanced. If that is a tenuously optimistic thing to take from it, then grab it with both hands and run with it: it’s the only optimism you’re going to get around here.

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