One of Cheever’s dreadfully tragic stories of eternal loss in the chase for fortune, set out in one of his gems of an opening:
Ralph and Laura Whittemore never get their pot of gold. There is, as in “Torch Song,” that enumeration of cases, of failed ventures, of dashed hopes, building up to the final one shortly after a party where Laura was face to face with Alice, another woman who’s known 15 years of failures and of living in hotels. Laura at that point is still under the illusion of a coming break, though the man who was going to make her and her husband rich will have a stroke, and the deal will be off. Alice can’t believe Laura’s luck. It’s a Cheeverian set-up, the more to hammer the latest downfall. Ralph “was such a prisoner of his schemes and expectations,” and he was sentenced to life in that prison.
Oddly, the story is set in post-war American and makes a reference to the wealth all around. But not enough for Ralph and Laura to know how to tap into.
A story, more like a novel, of nouveau poor. We’re in Seville. Formerly rich and currently widowed, bigoted and still extravagant Mrs. Lance, who sleeps with a revolver under her pillow–and once shot her husband, mistaking him for a burglar, wounding him in the hand– and her pretty daughter Crystal, 20, who speakhttps://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/18/upshot/cities-across-america-question-single-family-zoning.html?searchResultPosition=5s the way she scrawls. They’re waiting for a letter and money from Crystal’s uncle after “a disaster.” “They were at the most expensive hotel in Seville merely because they were afraid of going anywhere else. She stayed there because she had always stayed at expensive hotels and would continue to do so, money or no money. A lifetime’s habit of wealthiness had become, now that she was in fact poor, almost a superstition. In the old days the money had come naturally from her husband; now he was dead, it might well descend from heaven, and she began to look upon everyone as possible intermediaries of the divine will.”
Mrs. Lance: “Her voice had an affected drawl that was calculating rather than tired. She was frank, bitter, snobbish and courageous. She controlled a jealous temper and adopted towards her daughter an attitude of affectionate contempt. She liked making enemies.” And Crystal? Crystal who, well ahead of her time, ends most of her sentences with a question mark? Crystal who secretly wants to be an actress? “She seemed to be unhuman; not a fairy from wild and delicate hills, but an artificial creature stepping out of the Cinderella coach in a pantomime. Her presence was a glitter of light that threw shadows of grotesqueness upon all other people.” In contrast with her mother, “She went about with a pretty, determined air, humming like a bee in a timeless world of her own with an idle belief in the goodness and happiness of everyone.”
Alec Ferguson An Englishman in Seville with an engineering company who “gave the impression of thickness and heat” is following them, interested in Crystal, but Mrs Lance neutralizes him, treating him like a son, using him to ultimately tap his money to her needs. the Marquès de Palominas, owner of vines and olive groves, “shrewd, affable, and obstinate and easily excited,” a lazy sensualist. His wife: “She was slightly taller than he, as pale as flour. She dressed in black. She was large and black and white and swollen, and though she sighed a great deal of air out of her body, she did not get smaller. She spoke very formally in a very high voice that shook her chins as if they were a toppling pile of saucers. She was very devout and came to Seville every Easter to see the religious ceremonies, and she did not like foreigners because they were usually not Roman Catholics. Although she seemed drowsy and obese she was nervous and suspicious, and her small black eyes were very observant.”
Marquès unabashedly flirts with Crystal as he takes her to an appointment with Alec at some woman’s house . But he thinks Crystal is making advances as she muses out loud about her need for money. They’re both scheming. He can’t figure out if she’s leading him on for herself or to hitch him with her mother. “Had he won the mother or the daughter, or both? It was so difficult to know about these foreign customs.” Meanwhile, she forgets her bag in the Marquès’ carriage.
Next, it’s Marques and Mrs Lance who flirt. She hopes he’ll pay her hotel bill. “The dirty little dago would pay the bill.” She schemes: “And then her face brightened with the inspiration of revenge. His word ‘ruthlessness’ put her on her mettle. What an excellent plan it would be to make him pay the bill by pretending to promise to meet him, and then quietly slip away with Crystal by the night train!” But Crystal reveals his advances on her, and her mother is now jealous, too, and wishes she hadn’t sold her gun.
Marques’ wife is incensed at the letter found in the carriage, something about asking a certain Madame Mathieu to give back money “he” lent. He protests, says it’s Lance’s, asking Mathieu for money. And decides to stop Lance’s scheming to get her bill paid. They both agree the English are “barbarous.”
Bigotry is a central theme. Hypocritical Mrs Lance, incensed at Crystal being flirted with but hiding her own flirtations with the same man: “I always knew that these people were beasts, but I did not know they were swine.” “The little monkey-like night clerk with his big yellow ears and cropped hair.” (The theme vanishes in later sections.)
The religious procession. And then a twist: It’s poor deluded Alec, the one true gentleman who doesn’t think himself a gentleman, who pays Lance’s hotel bill. “He whistled at the amount a bit, but she would repay him. Mrs. Lance was a lady; he himself was not perhaps by her standards quite a gentleman, but he could not put her in the position of asking him for aid.” That should kick off a tragi-comedy of errors. Alec senses he’s been played by Lance, “but he pushed the unworthy thought away.”
They return to London. Lance had extracted revenge: she’d left a glove in Marques’ room. Reality bites: “her husband had avenged himself upon her by leaving her a paltry £ 100 a year. The grand buccaneering days were over.” “She could not admit the fact that she had ever ceased to be wealthy. Her talk was again an increasing pageant of rich islands and continents in which she had luxuriously lived, galloped horses, won absurd wagers, and despised everybody.” She repeats the scheme she pulled off through Alec, using Crystal’s friends to get at their money, pimping her daughter, using her “as bait,” as Dufaux later puts it: “Mrs. Lance almost unconsciously put her daughter to that usage into which she had stealthily and amusedly slipped in Seville; Crystal made friends and brought them to the house where her mother, unknown to her, would borrow money from them. Crystal’s beauty was becoming her mother’s capital.”
Mr. Adolphe Trellis, architect, father of two boys Lance is coaching. Prospective trick to Lancers designs: marry him to Crystal, even though he’s married. Meanwhile for Crystal, “the vague hostility she felt towards her mother was growing into a determined anger.” She realizes her mother is receiving her, not passing along calls and deals that would land her stage jobs.
She discovers being pimped, and Pritchett is a bit heavy handed making her voice the self-revelation: “She has always been interfering with me ever since I can remember, and she doesn’t care what she does. Always talking about her money! She only wants it for herself. She can never forget how rich she has been. And she is so relentless that she even uses me. Everything is money, money, dreadful money. And that is why I have failed. Now I can see it. Everyone, as Mr. Geelong says, is suspicious. It is shameful.”
But she gets a big part in a play. It’s her break–her break into theater, her break from her mother. She must deal with that new world’s cesspools of politics and jealousies, embodied in the rippling Miss O’Malley (see her described below). And she has a new interest: Fontenoy Dufaux, yet another (unhappily) married man, seeking a divorce for four years. “She felt she was chained to him by her mother’s act, and as she walked about the Rows of the town she would be surprised to see only one reflection of herself in the shop windows, when, in her mind, she was one of three enemies: her mother, Dufaux and herself. Her fear of them had made both Dufaux and her mother intimate and silent inhabitants of her body, and she loved them both and submitted to them.” But then Crystal realizes he despises P’Malley, so “they could be united on enemy ground: her mother and Miss O’Malley.” The story is all about competing hatreds, dueling one-uppmanship, feared and actual deceptions.
But the story is losing its stride here, getting weedy with stage talk and plottish tatters that are taking us away from the more absorbing narrative of the earlier pages.
Crystal and Dufaux take a long walk together, she defends her mother against his accusation and feels she now has the upper hand, no longer fearing Dufaux. But what glimmer of romance was between them–“some profound dark sighing behind them”–vanished. Or was Pritchett refereeing to the malaise between them created by her mother’s pimping? The latter: “Having forced herself in her own devious way from her bondage, she became coquettish and awakened him to pursuit. A score of meetings in his rooms or hers, in restaurants, dance halls, walks, a glittering and fascinating net of talk drew them apart from the rest of the company. For weeks it dragged round from one town to another, creaking, wheezing, declaiming, quarrelling, united by the common fear of extinction. Dufaux wooed her not openly first, but by indulging in long tirades of self-condemnation.”
The theater company tours, in full page after page as “Her love for Dufaux was a heavy and ever-warming wine in her limbs, filling her with power, making her unreal to herself.” But jealous O’Malley snitches on them to Crystal’s mother, who rushes in to crash their party. Crystal has a breakdown. The couple splits. She is out of the theater. She broods. Dufaux doesn’t answer letters. Her spirit for life is gone. “The world had lost its flame, had extinguished and become unreal and meaningless, because she had no meaning to give it.” Mr. Geelong tries to get her back on stage, as her agent. And whatever happened to Alec? Just disappeared? At least we’re back to Mrs. Lance borrowing money to survive. The two women quarrel. Geelong proposes marriage, she refuses. Then changes her mind. A bit ridiculous. They marry. “They were married at a registry office one morning, went to a cinema in the afternoon and dined together in the evening.” Obviously, Pritchett has lost interest in this story, lost its threads long ago. Yet she still lives with her mother. “It was a strange situation; for it never entered Crystal’s head that her mother was Mr. Trellis’ mistress; and Mrs. Lance, confused in the dream of her own life, could never have imagined that Crystal would marry Mr. Geelong, whatever else she might do.”
A strange, unsatisfying ending, after all this. I started and finished this story today. I was fascinated, then bored and disappointed. He must not have known what to do with it.
He can overwrites http://a.co/eDv1GaH
Pritchett similes: “The whiteness of the houses was the rough whiteness of an Arab’s robes;”
“And then the highest of her toppling pile of chins surprisingly toppled over into a loud yawn.”
“this peacock tail of talk.”
“The whole of Miss O’Malley smiled and gleamed. An almost visible wave of pleasure passed in a rich and fleshy eddy from her bosom, across her stomach and forked in two satiny streams down her thighs. And then the tide curled back and arriving at her face, there resolved itself into a scowl.”
“… the cruelty of the crucifixion—not because of the crucifixion itself, but for the grotesque way it makes people feel cruel toward their neighbors: “And then, mounted on a platform, were the voluptuous images of the Crucifixion gleaming in the light of candles as with the sweat of a grotesque agony. The candles tinkled in their vases. A murmur passed over the heads of the people. At the sight of such pain frozen in sculpture, their eyes were satisfied. This was the summit of cruelty. One hated his neighbour. This put passion into the heart. If one could be for the flash of a second as cruel as that!”