MARK OPPENHEIMER

AN ERA OF AWKWARD REPRESSION

EVAN CONNELL’S WASPS, SPENT AND REPRESSED, OFFER THE TRUEST VIEW OF AMERICAN ALIENATION.

DISCUSSED: Dense Moments Of Awkwardness, Mayan Art, Perfectly Composed Boredeom, The Hidden Hand, Effete Miniaturism, Urban Anomie, Wasp Heritage, A Ribald Inner Life, Carefully Suppressed Politics, Failing To Live Through The Heart, Soldiers Of Desire Doing A Little Business In The Night, Repression And Self-alienation, Picaresque Wanderings, Obsessive Interests, Graphomania
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

In his 1968 essay “On Not Being a Jew,” the novelist Edward Hoagland noted with a touch of resignation that for a writer coming of age in the 1950s, being a well-connected, Deerfield- and Harvard-educated Protestant had not exactly been an advantage, not at a time when Jews were the rage. On the one hand, the Jews were great: Bellow was the best American author since Faulkner; Malamud, “slightly less gifted, pulled even with him in certain short masterpieces”; and there was Philip Roth, of course. But a fair-haired boy could feel ambivalent about the philo-Semitic climate. “In my own case,” Hoagland writes, “my first novel came out about the same month as Sam Astrakhan’s An End to Dying, which was about immigrant family life, shifting from the Ukraine to the garment center. Both were pretty fair books, he was a friend of many of my friends, and I remember being startled and disconcerted by how completely they gave their immediate attention to him.”

Hoagland bore up pretty well under the indignities of being overlooked, save one fact, one slight he could not forgive: “This was being told in print and occasionally in person that I and my heritage lacked vitality, that except perhaps for a residual arrogance the vitality had long ago been squeezed dry—if in fact it had ever existed in thin blood like mine. I was a museum piece, like some State of Mainer, because I could field no ancestor who had hawked copper pots in a Polish shtetl.”

I have always been charmed by this essay, especially by the cheeky suggestion that Hoagland’s treatment was some sort of bellwether for the status of Wasp writers. In general, it seems, the Wasps made out OK. Updike is, along with Roth and Bellow, one of our preeminent men of letters. Pynchon and Barth have decent followings, about as large as they deserve. Richard Yates is back, honored by handsome new editions of his work and a careful new biography. As a prep school alumnus, I have a soft spot for Louis Auchincloss; I wish he had more readers, and I remain convinced that The Rector of Justin will someday be recognized as a classic. Hoagland himself has fared well—well enough to take his revenge on Sam Astrakhan, wherever he is.

In fact, I would be tempted to say that posterity has weighed the Wasp novelists of the 1950s and 1960s more than fairly, were it not for one exception, a writer whose work accepts the premise that Hoagland finds so offensive—that the Wasp heritage lacks vitality, “had long ago been squeezed dry”—yet insists that good literature can still be made of that desiccated condition.

*

Born in 1924, now in the Indian summer of his career, Evan Connell is still writing. I imagine that he is financially secure, which may be a Pyrrhic victory. Son of the Morning Star, his study of General Custer at Little Bighorn, was a surprising hit in 1984, his best seller in eighteen books; it was filmed for television, fueling paperback sales and earning Connell the love of Western history buffs everywhere, ensuring that he will live forever on bookshelves with Louis L’Amour for company. His more recent books, exercises in narrative history with slight liberties taken, Truman Capote–style, have hardly been reviewed and have sold poorly; I doubt you know a soul who has read Francisco Goya: A Life, published last year, or Connell’s 2000 work, Deus Lo Volt!—Chronicle of the Crusades.

That is not the proper fate for the author of three classics of Wasp repression, the first of which, Mrs. Bridge (1959), Dorothy Parker called the work of “a writer of fine style and amazing variety.” Ismail Merchant and James Ivory adapted Mrs. Bridge and its 1969 sequel, Mr. Bridge, as the very fine 1990 film Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

The Bridge novels are hard to describe, because nothing happens. Not in the sense that nothing happens on Seinfeld, or in Raymond Carver stories, because things do happen there, things little but memorable: Kramer adopts a stretch of highway, the blind man helps the seeing man draw a cathedral. I have read Mrs. Bridge three times, and a week after a reading I can hardly remember a single bit of plot. Here is chapter six of Mrs. Bridge, titled “Dummy in the Attic” and featuring the pre-war Kansas City housewife, India Bridge, and her son, Douglas:

On a winter morning not long after one of these excursions Mrs. Bridge happened to come upon Douglas in the sewing room; he was standing quietly with his hands clasped behind his back and his head bent slightly to one side. So adult did he look in the depth of his meditation that she could not resist smiling. Then she saw that he was staring at the dummy of her figure. She had kept the dummy there near the sewing machine for a long time and had supposed that no one in the family paid any attention to it, but after this particular day—unless she was using it to make herself a dress—the dummy stood behind an up-ended trunk in the attic.

That’s it, one of the 117 chapters, somewhat shorter than average, but not much. Each of them is like this, a brief, dense moment of awkwardness among two or three characters: Mrs. Bridge trying not to seem bigoted even as she endeavors to keep her daughter from becoming too friendly with a black gardener’s daughter; trying not to seem superior even as she hints that the German laundress should sit in the back seat of the car, rather than next to Mrs. Bridge on the front bench; explaining to her louche daughter Ruth why one must wear stockings; hiding her mortification on discovering that a mirror faces the hotel bed in which she and her husband Walter have just had sex. These moments are often erotic, but seldom does anything sexual actually happen. The essential trait of every bit of plot seems to be that if a neighbor happened to see or hear the action, he would notice nothing at all unusual.

It’s a few hundred words here, a few hundred there: Connell’s basic unit of composition is not really the chapter but the chapterlet. Some chapterlets are devastatingly sad, others are funny, some are sexy. Many are quiet instantiations of the boredom that is the Bridges’ condition. All are perfectly composed. None wastes a word. By the end of the book we have only a portrait, one of the truest in modern literature. India Bridge is a decent woman, hopefully naïve, willfully unliberated, cursed with a brain she is afraid to use and time that she cannot manage to fill.

Ten years later, in 1969, Connell published Mr. Bridge, which tells the story of the Bridges’ marriage from Walter’s point of view. It’s an even finer book, as though living through the sixties without seeing the defeat of middle-class Rotarian mores drove Connell to greater, angrier knowledge of his powers. Here is chapter eleven, “Forgive us our debts,” in which Mr. Bridge, a prominent attorney, is reminded of money owed him by a local politician:

On his way home a few days later, reasonably content with his life, as he drove past the Congregational Church he glanced at the sign on the lawn and there he saw spelled out in white block letters for the benefit of anybody who got within a hundred yards of the church the title of Dr. Foster’s next sermon: FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS.

He continued driving but he was no longer so content. The sign had reminded him of Horton Bailey. He could not understand how a man could go through life year after year pretending that a debt did not exist. He thought he would not mind so much if Bailey at least had the decency to allude to it; but the senator, on those occasions when they happened to meet, slapped him on the shoulder and pumped his hand and said not a word about the five hundred dollars.

The longer Mr. Bridge thought about Horton Bailey the angrier he got. He considered sending a letter requesting payment, perhaps demanding payment. Yet he knew he was not going to do this, he could not do it unless the money was absolutely necessary; and the realization of this made him all the angrier so that by the time he reached home he had ruined his appetite.

In the first sixty-three words, Connell has already conveyed that Mr. Bridge’s measurement of life is “contentment” (rather than, say, joy), that he has little use for church, and that he is the kind of burgher who resents ostentatious signage. The long, almost run-on paragraph, no comma after the first thirteen words, effects a subtle stream-of-consciousness, not too Joycean or obvious, that perfectly mimics the thoughts one actually has while driving and absent-mindedly looking about. The sermon’s title anticipates Mr. Bridge’s blindness to its meaning, and it is positioned, like an enjambed, cliff-hanging line of poetry, to keep us wondering, Just what debts will Mr. Bridge forgive—or not forgive? The sight of the church evokes not beatitude but sin, as if evil hearts beat beneath priestly vestments.

The Bridge novels are full of such tensions. Connell’s scenes are constantly written against type, as they say in musicology, like gospel lyrics set to a burlesque melody (Mahalia Jackson’s “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About” is a good example). The sentences are plain and declarative, nary a metaphor to spice things up—but beneath the veneer of this prose and these lives are thoughts of sex and adultery, of incest and miscegenation and homosexuality.

*

Bellow, Updike, and Roth (and Henry Roth, too) deploy these risqué themes as protesting yawps against conformity. The difference is that Connell’s characters usually lack the guts to act on their urges. Walter Bridge, a man who desperately needs a good old-fashioned affair, is too proper to accept his secretary’s advances. India Bridge almost decides to go into analysis, which seems both Jewish and worrisomely intellectual, but then Walter makes fun of her, and she loses heart. Only the criminals have any gumption: Earl Summerfield, the protagonist of Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist (1966), spends months thinking about raping a woman, and it seems that he actually does it, but guilt or angst eventually drives him to suicide, or so it seems. Mostly, Connell’s characters flirt with action, think about it, glance at it, then paper over the naughty thoughts with cocktail napkins and engraved stationery.

Because of the ethnic provenance of his characters, there is a temptation to lump Connell in with those other Wasps, the Updikes and Cheevers, or more recent types like Richard Ford. In truth, Connell could not be more different. In Updike, Rabbit Angstrom shtups a prostitute, and characters generally take to adultery like jailbirds to buggery—in John Cheever’s Falconer, they nearly are jailbirds to buggery. In Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, Frank Wheeler has an office affair, and his wife dies of a botched abortion. Louis Auchincloss’s oeuvre is just one deceitful Wasp after another, cuckolding their best friends as they bilk them of their inherited wealth.

These are not tales of repression, but of repression overcome. When you consider that Roth and Bellow were also writing in the 1950s and 1960s, we might fairly describe the literature of the era, Jewish and goyish alike, as defined by its lack of inhibition. If so, Connell was severely out of step.

Many writers struggled against the era’s compulsive reserve not just with racy subject matter but also with compulsive prolixity. To me, Updike and Bellow are more alike than different, because I have a hard time finishing 400 pages of either of them. But Connell was less interested in defeating the era than in representing it, and so his terseness is entirely appropriate. As with Wasps, so with his books: everything is in the gaps, the hidden hand. In this regard, Connell has a contemporary feel, akin to the catatonic bleakness of Douglas Coupland or Bret Easton Ellis, or to Walker Percy’s avant-garde The Moviegoer, published in 1961, two years after Mrs. Bridge, a year after Rabbit, Run, and the same year as Revolutionary Road.

To me, Connell feels even closer to Kazuo Ishiguro. Stevens, the butler in The Remains of the Day, does not seem to know that he is crying until an embarrassed interlocutor offers him a handkerchief. Ishiguro’s characters can be so alienated from themselves, so ignorant of their own psyches, that others have to tell them what they feel. Which is not unlike how India Bridge learns that she is sad—the mirror tells her—or how Walter Bridge learns that he is sometimes kind—a friend tells him that he’s not always the cold fish he tries to be (and he is irked to hear it).

It could be that nothing is sadder than not knowing that one is sad, nothing happier than self-knowledge. Which is why the compulsively introspective Alexander Portnoy, though ostensibly miserable, actually seems to relish life—and why the Bridges, so apparently content, could not be more lost.

If the only pleasure in reading Connell were admiring his skill, the books would begin to seem a bit precious after a while. But Connell is saved from delicate, effete miniaturism by the fact that his characters are repressing some serious stuff. Mr. Bridge is one twisted bastard. And in some pretty complex ways, too. He is an anti-Semite, once overheard by his son Douglas telling a Mr. and Mrs. Arlen that he “hoped the British didn’t stop Hitler too soon.” Not that he doesn’t know some fine Jews, of course—in fact, like a true Old World anti-Semite, he is less hateful of Jews than obsessed by them. Their swarthiness, for one, is too suggestive, of what he is not sure, a fact that may have something to do with his erotic feelings for his eldest daughter, Ruth, whose siblings, Carolyn and Doug, have Christian names that are more, well, Christian.

One day, in a fit of horniness, Walter finds himself visiting local jeweler Isaac Glatz, in hopes of ogling Glatz’s daughter Bernice. Bernice is there, but she does not offer the satisfaction Walter had hoped for. “As he walked toward the garage it occurred to him that he was not attracted to the girl as he had supposed he was. It was not Bernice Glatz he wanted. Desire for his own daughter had surged from the depths where it must be concealed.”

The ten years between the two Bridge novels were a period of experimentation during which Connell published two inferior books and began indulging some bad habits that have lived on. In The Diary of a Rapist (1966), he turns the chapterlet from an elegant instrument into a hammer, pounding out scenes from inside a warped mind. A. M. Homes, in her introduction to the New York Review of Books Classics’ recent reissue of Diary, locates the book “somewhere between Nabokov’s Lolita and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.” I think that in this matter Connell is closer to the latter. It takes a particular genius to portray obsession convincingly; most authors have a genius for one thing at most, and while Nabokov could do nearly anything, Ellis and Connell are both cool writers who can sound shrill when in their obsessive modes. Many writers are terrified by the Diary, but it strikes me as just crude verisimilitude—the reader gets a fine sense of what a rapist tells his diary, for what that’s worth. Still, Connell deserves credit for finding another way to cast urban anomie in literature; the rapist, Earl Summerfield, is every bit as desperate and alone as Walter Bridge. He’s just a good bit crazier and less inhibited.

In the genre-defying, prose-poem-ish Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel (1962) and Points for a Compass Rose (1973), the obsessive mind now appears to be Connell’s own. Here are two stanzas from Points for a Compass Rose:

In his Consilium Aegyptiacum the philosopher
Leibniz suggested to King Louis Quatorze
that France undertake the colonization of Egypt
as a link with the opulent lands of the Orient.
Instead, Louis decided to attack the Low Countries
—a scheme as stupidly brutal and useless
as any that sucked the brain of Johnson or Nixon.

Socrates, incidentally, disapproved of the democratic concept
of popular elections. If we reflect that Congress allocates
$23,000 annually for the purchase of paintings and sculpture
and $78,000,000,000 for weapons—well, in France they say
Chacun à son goût.

Here is Connell in his other mode, one common to his prose poetry and later works (which include a biography and more fiction). Gone is the delicacy, replaced by antique knowledge, occasionally in service to trite political arguments. His word choice remains splendid, his command of the language enviable. Some of his later works, like the travel essays collected in A Long Desire (1976) and The White Lantern (1980), reflect a kind of awesome commitment—how could one man have read so much about so little?

In his lesser books, hobbies of evident interest to him, like alchemy, left-wing politics, and early explorers, are honored with hundreds of pages into which Connell pours all his accumulated jottings, the detritus that writers have to let go.

*

None of it should obscure the greatness of Connell’s earlier works, and some later ones, too. Mrs. Bridge exploded the feminine mystique four years before Betty Friedan invented the term. It is a great feminist novel that retains its power precisely because its first commitment is to the novel, not to feminism. It’s lovely to see how carefully submerged are the politics of Connell’s early work—not just the Bridge books, but also The Patriot, an utterly forgotten 1960 novel about a World War II conscript who just can’t get the hang of this rabid patriotism thing, and Double Honeymoon, published in 1976 but an encore for one of Connell’s earliest characters, Karl Muhlbach, an outwardly bland insurance salesman whose ribald inner life finally breaks free.

In 1965, Eve Auchincloss wrote in the New York Review of Books that Connell “is certainly not unaware of the cost of failing to live through the heart; but he dwells on the alternative with so ruthless and cool a sense of consequence that it is hard to tell which side he is on.” That’s a fair reaction to the Bridge novels and the early Muhlbach stories. But having posed the problem of heart failure, a problem the Bridges never solve, Connell decided on a solution, one worked out in the later Muhlbach works, Double Honeymoon and The Connoisseur (1974). In these books, Connell is writing about an obsessive without writing as an obsessive, and the distinction makes for a higher level of art. In obsession—or fandom, or connoisseurship—Muhlbach finds a remedy for an illness the Bridges hardly know they have.

My favorite of Connell’s several recurring characters, Muhlbach first appears in the 1965 story collection At the Crossroads, where he is a better-humored, slightly brighter Walter Bridge. In the later novels, however, this widowed father of two, a dutiful middle-management employee, yields to some fiery passions, including one that leads him into a very convincingly described obsession with Mayan art that takes him from New Mexico dealers to New York auction houses to an eagerly sought membership in a bizarre subculture of collectors. (A friend who curates Precolumbian art assures me that Connell really did his research, that he has perfectly described this kind of obsessive character, well-known to people in the field.) In Double Honeymoon, Muhlbach embarks on a rather stupid affair with an unstable young woman, a talentless artist with only her exquisite looks to rely on, perhaps not a prostitute but definitely looking for a sugar daddy.

Muhlbach and Bridge have much in common. They are of similar station and are both indifferent fathers. One lacks a wife, the other lacks a wife he can talk to. As if to draw the parallel, Connell has Bridge dining at the Muehlebach Hotel. But Muhlbach is who Bridge would be if he had not allowed all his vitality to dissipate. When Walter was courting India, he spoke to her one night of Ruskin (she was impressed), but by middle age he reads only mystery novels, “as soporifics.” Muhlbach has kept up his intellectual life, still reads Hazlitt and Joyce, appreciates Miró. Untethered to a wife, his mind still somewhat active, he can indulge his bohemian streak, taking as his distraction either a consuming hobby or a consuming woman. Both are nearly his undoing, but both are better, it is clear, than what Walter Bridge has.

The politics of these books are unspecific, but just as Mrs. Bridge nudges us toward a general sympathy for woman’s condition, Double Honeymoon and The Connoisseur softly sell a countercultural bohemianism. Feeling stifled? Maybe you need to consider art, take a stroll in Greenwich Village, have some improper sex. Homosexuals, too, can be a cure for what ails you. Bridge’s daughter Ruth (the swarthy one), on her own in New York City, reassures her father that the man who answered the phone was not her lover, but rather her homosexual friend Bobby. Her father replies, “Your mother and I did our best. Apparently our best was not good enough.” By contrast, Muhlbach actually bumps elbows (or more) with queers. His loony mistress, Lambeth, seems to have had a lesbian affair. After losing her fiancé in a plane crash, but before meeting Muhlbach, she “met this older woman and started living with her,” and we’re free to interpret what that means (an interpretation aided by the volume of Radclyffe Hall on her bookshelf). Spend time with these characters, Connell is saying, and you might avoid the fate of Mr. Bridge, reading Erle Stanley Gardner and lusting after his own daughter.

It is both poignant and terrifically fun watching Muhlbach navigate the world of art mavens, chess-playing downtown denizens, adulterers, and homosexuals; and it is slyly affecting to discover, as one reads The Patriot, that young Melvin Isaacs, whom we initially take for a German-American from the Midwest, is at least half-Jewish—his mother is Jewish, we slowly realize, but Melvin himself seems unsure if his father, who blathers on about being of old, American stock, is actually of old Jewish-American stock. As Melvin reinvents himself as a quasi-pacifist, then beatnik abstract painter, then contented blue-collar worker, his father Jacob seems most bothered by the potential loss of hard-earned family status.

These bits are, like The Well of Loneliness on Lambeth’s shelf, slipped in unobtrusively, or glancingly hinted at, and the cumulative effect of all these touches is to expand the reader’s world, broaden his thinking, introduce him to (in the words of art critic Dave Hickey, writing in another context) “queers and women and a bunch of old Jews,” those “soldiers of desire doing a little business in the night.” Walter Bridge is repulsed by them, and as he keeps his distance, so must we; with Muhlbach and Isaacs, we are invited along. After years of loving the quietist writing of the Bridge books, I was surprised also to love the more overtly political, or at least politically engaged, style of the Muhlbach books.

The characters Walter and India Bridge perfectly describe a problem—repression and self-alienation—to which the characters Melvin Isaacs and Karl Muhlbach, with their picaresque wanderings and obsessive interests, offer a solution. That dialectic yielded some of the most quietly profound novels of last century.

How could one writer be so memorable and, elsewhere, so forgettable? Natural unevenness, for sure. Graphomania, the inability not to write. Editors perhaps reluctant to curb the enthusiasms of a man with a precocious classic on his résumé. But there is something else, something essential to the mind that produced the perfect Mr. Bridge, the superb The Connoisseur, and the less successful Points for a Compass Rose. Evan Connell, I think, has too much to say—but when he is writing well, he knows not to say it.

Mark Oppenheimer is the editor of the New Haven Advocate and the author of Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America, to be published in May by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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