Category: Notebook

On Updike

Where does Updike stand in relation to this statement by Welty, from a December 1964 public lecture at Millsaps: “What matters is that a writer is committed to his own moral principles. If he is, when we read him we cannot help but be aware of what these are. Certainly the characters of his novel and the plot they move in are their ultimate reflections. But these convictions are implicit; they are deep down; they are the rock on which the whole structure of more than the novel rests.”

William Trevor, “Access to the Children”

Malcolmson is divorced, has two girls, 7 and 5. He picks them up every Sunday, and every Sunday it’s the zoo or 101 Dalmatians. Playing in the park, a woman, seeing him unshaven and playing with the girls, calls a cop, takin* him for a pedophile. The cop apologizes. “A year and a half ago Malcolmson’s wife, Elizabeth, had said he must choose between her and Diana. For weeks they had talked about it; she knowing that he was in love with Diana and was having some kind of an affair with her, he caught between the two of them, attempting the impossible in his effort not to hurt anyone. She had given him a chance to get over Diana, as she put it, but she couldn’t go on for ever giving him a chance, no woman could. In the end, after the shock and the tears and the period of reasonableness, she became bitter. He didn’t blame her: they’d been in the middle of a happy marriage, nothing was wrong, nothing was lacking.”

But Malcolmson fucked up in classic fashion. “He had loved her more than Elizabeth, and in his madness he had spoilt everything.” He’d met Diana on a train, wouldn’t let go. Until he couldn’t stand the memory of her when he wanted Elizabeth back, after Diana had dumped him. “In her bitterness Elizabeth said he was stupidly infatuated: he was behaving like a murderer: there was neither dignity nor humanity left in him. Diana she described as a flat-chested American nymphomaniac and predator, the worst type of woman in the world.” Of course Diana dumps him after they live together for a while. He longs for Elizabeth, realizes what he’s lost. Also, he’s fired: he’d let the situation affect his work. His 7 year old Susie is obsessed with death. Elizabeth hitched up with Richard. He imagines them enslaved, rueful. With the girls, they watch tv, he drinks, and drinks. They take a taxi back to Elizabeth’s. He stops at a pub, ostensibly to buy cigarettes, drinks two more whiskeys. Back at Elizabeth’s, he asks to come in. Richard is there. But Malcomson is very drunk. (He’s become the sort of drunk who falls asleep with cigarettes in his fingers, burn8ng his clothes: those Trevorian details of a man’s self-degradation.) He pleads, pitifully. Tells his ex to have her six-month affair then marry him again. He’s not hearing her: she’s marrying a Richard by Christmas. She’s incensed. She wants him out. “They were his children, but she wasn’t his wife: he’d destroyed her as a wife, he’d insulted her, he’d left her to bleed and she had called him a murderer.”

Then her coup de grâce, graceless but true: “‘You’ve gone to seed,’ she said, hating herself for saying that, unable to prevent herself. ‘You’ve gone to seed because you’ve lost your self-respect. I’ve watched you, week by week. The woman you met on a train took her toll of you and now in your seediness you want to creep back. Don’t you know you’re not the man I married?’”

He leaves, deludes himself into thinking he’s planted a seed in Elizabeth’s mind, that she’ll come around. He ends the day as he always does, in a bar, drinking with a bar maid to the day when all will be right again.

Hemingway, “Indian Camp” (1924)

Hemingway’s passport photo, a year before the publication of ‘Indian Camp.’ (Wikimedia Commons)

In “The Hartleys” and “River” tradition of shocking endings, the dead one in this case not being a child, but the father of a child being born: a very small difference, as the man’s suicide, so willfully orphaning the child, is a form of murder.

Nick and his father board a boat that an Indian rows to an Indian camp, with Nick’s Uncle George on board as well. A woman is in a difficult labor. Nick’s father will perform a cesarean. On the way to camp, Nick’s father has his arm around the boy. Nick admires his father, deifies him, though his father will shatter his ability to withstand so much admiration when the gore of the operation overtakes the scene. The father of the baby is in a bunk above the scene, turning to face the wall. The woman has been screaming. His quiet is telling. The doctor celebrates the birth:

As they row out, Nick asks his daddy if dying is hard. “”No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.” And that final, searingly beautiful image in spite and still: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” The arm stretched around him at the beginning of the story.

The Indian’s terror may have been Hemingway’s: his wife Hadley went into labor with their first child while he was away. He was terrorized at the thought of anything going wrong and of getting there too late. He transferred the fear, and took it beyond its human limits: a literary leap that serves other purposes in the story but that still seems, in and of itself, a touch gratuitous. But then, in light of Hemingway’s suicide, was it not merely premature projection? “He couldn’t stand things, I guess.” The woman meanwhile has no name, no face, no presence but those screams.

 

Paris

“… the love of Paris is an insidious disease, breaking out when its victim least looks for it.” I love this line from Edith Wharton’s “The Lamp of Psyche.” Especially as I sit in this very early post July-4 morning, in the reading room’s alleged quiet, breezed by the new fan, only to be clobbered by the beep-beep-beep of a backing-up tractor, a chain saw, an undetermined clanking, as the lot across the street rebecomes a work zone.

Double Fatality

An evening first marred by the jeering, angry Flagler Beach mob opposing a massive but fairly dense (rather than sprawly) development along wannabe posh John Anderson highway, capped by a double fatality on A1A, exactly where the previous double fatality took place three years ago in similar circumstances. In this case the head-on collusion was two motorcyclists. Just like that. You could blame one for stupidly trying to pass two cars. But the other? Total innocence. Dead. Murdered, really. His murderer dead.

Edith Wharton, “Mrs. Mantsey’s View”

Mrs. Mantsey is an aging, stuck-in-her-ways woman whose only pleasure in life seems to be the views of the city from her boardinghouse in New York. Mrs. Black plans to build an extension of the building in front of Mantsey’s view, which would be blocked. Matsey panics, offers $1,000 to Black not to build. Black had offered her a room in the extension, which would have fixed the problem. But Mantsey doesn’t want to move. Black takes Mantsey for nuts. She’s right. Mantsey next sets fire to the construction’s wares after the first day. But she catches pneumonia and dies–happy, because she was able to look at her view one last time. (Compare to Carver’s “The Idea.” Why do we assume that looking out from a greater distance is OK, but looking from a nearer distance is voyeurism, at least when one is within one’s own home?)

The story reminded me of this recent item in The Times: “That Noise? The Rich Neighbors Digging a Basement Pool in Their $100 Million Brownstone: The extremely loud and incredibly expensive renovations that have shattered a formerly quiet residential block in Manhattan.” (See the picture above.)