SUFFER THE CHILDREN (Monthly Book Report: 6/16 and 7/16)

NOTE: I didn’t finish any books in June, hence the combo…Upon receiving a sensible reader recommendation I’m making a small change to the usual formula and will henceforth be listing the books reviewed at the top of the post. I’m also going to include snapshots of the authors when they are available. It’s all part of my  learning curve.

Reviewed this month: Virginia Hamilton’s The House of Dies Drear; Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes; Charles Portis’s True Grit. A so-so ghost story with some interesting sociological elements and two of the best post-war novels written in the English language. Common theme: Youth observed or remembered.

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The House of Dies Drear (Virginia Hamilton, 1968)

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This one has a fine premise: a black professor moves his southern family to a mysterious, possibly haunted, Ohio farmhouse that was once a key station on the Underground Railroad. The story is told in plain-speak, mostly from the perspective of the professor’s teenage son, Thomas Small.

Unfortunately, it’s far too languid in tone and pedestrian in style to work as either a crime novel (it won the Edgar’s juvenile award for its year) or a ghost story. The requisite tension simply never ratchets.

What it does do well is catch the rhythm of bourgeoisie black family life in a period of massive upheaval. The period goes unmentioned anywhere except the copyright page but some of the tension of the age creeps into the atmosphere anyway, especially in the first third. That the denouement of the actual ghost story which makes up the book’s final third turns out to consist of mundane plotting told at a lumbering pace is therefore all the more disappointing.

Miss Pym Disposes (Josephine Tey, 1948)

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“But do you have to know the human structure in such detail?” asked Lucy.

“On Tuesday morning we do,” said the Thomas who slept. “After that we can forget it for the rest of our lives.”

Middle-aged spinster and lady authoress, Lucy Pym, comes to visit an English girls’ school at the invitation of its devoted headmistress, who once did Lucy a kindness in their own school days. What could be more English than that?

It starts as a comedy of manners in the classic style and ends as a lacerating psychological horror story, as if tracing a long arc from Jane Austen to the yet-to-be-published Patricia Highsmith. Even on a re-read it’s hard to catch Tey devising this nightmare, as opposed to observing it. The final horror feels close, almost unbearably claustrophobic, much like Conrad’s achievement in Under Western Eyes or Nabokov’s in Bend Sinister.

But those were novels about the long reach of terror states, and, if anything, Miss Pym Disposes is rendered more devastating by its bucolic setting and miniaturist’s attention to detail.

There isn’t even a dead body until very near the end. By the time it arrives, off-hand observations like “The use of a book so tiny that a mapping pen had been necessary in order to make the entries legible could have only one explanation.” have accumulated subtly and thoroughly enough to build a mountain of dread, which grows, word-by-word, until, with the last page, it falls on both the reader and the world Tey has so delicately constructed with horrific, shattering force.

Not simply one of the finest crime novels ever written, but as good a post-war English language novel as I’ve read. So good it’s even a match for…

True Grit (Charles Portis, 1968)

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The only novels I’ve re-read more than a time or two in adulthood are the crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and this one. That covers a fair range of concerns if not style–if anything links them it’s a tendency to elide everything that isn’t necessary.

As I’ve grown older, I find I appreciate this quality in more than fiction. Time grows short.

The basic story of True Grit is now familiar to millions of people who have seen either of the two good movies made from it. (I wrote about some of the reasons film-goers who haven’t read the book might be missing something here.)

In the Arkansas of the late 1920s, an aging spinster named Mattie Ross, sets out an account of the great adventure of her youth: a trip by her fourteen-year-old self into Indian Territory (present day Eastern Oklahoma), in the company of U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, and a Texas Ranger named Labeouf, to avenge her father’s murder.

Many have noted the book’s miracles of economy and tone. I second those notations. It manages to make the plain, realistic voice of a tight-fisted Presbyterian old maid sing in every line, including first and last sentences unlikely to ever be bettered.

Many have also suggested Mattie herself bears some resemblance to both Huck Finn (through age and geography) and Captain Ahab (through temperament).

I’ll let others hash that out and just say that Mattie would probably have had little use for either and would have understood that neither character’s creator was likely any more enamored of her than she of them.

Like all truly great fictional characters, she stands alone.

That doesn’t mean Portis wasn’t drawing on deep wells.

He said in later years that Mattie’s voice came from his time as a stringer on Little Rock’s principal paper. As the youngster in the building he was put in charge of editing the reports sent in by various rural county representatives who were invariably older women of something near Mattie’s vintage with their own ideas about what ought to be in a newspaper. He was repeatedly forced, by “journalistic standards,” to cut out all the good stuff. But he retained the memory of their clear styles and no doubt prickly insights. Mattie was his homage.

The mastery of that voice alone might have secured the book a high place. But it stands even taller because, beneath the voice, Portis sensed a previously concealed connection between two sturdy American archetypes: The Spitfire and The Frontier Spinster.

The former had been granted a long, proud tradition by the time True Grit was being written. The nineteenth century’s models, Judith Hutter and Jo March, had given way to Scarlet O’Hara and Scout Finch in the twentieth.

The latter had been routinely ridiculed (as spinsters have been everywhere through most of human history) and never been treated with anything like the dignity or force Portis discovered in Mattie (let us not say “created”–in life, she had always had it).

There were reasons why

If the crit-illuminati have had a far more complicated relationship with Mattie Ross than with Huck or Ahab or pretty much anyone else, it’s because her stinging, arch-conservative, Christian voice can’t help reminding them (or us) which character represents the rock upon which civilizations are built. Seen from this side of the great cultural divide (a divide that was opening wide even as Portis was writing), it can get very confusing trying to decide whether we should be laughing with her or at her.

And by the time you get around to deciding, she might have broken your heart.

You might have realized in that split-second delay, that, having granted her this one moment in fiction, we’ve cast her, and her memory, aside in the world, having sold ourselves on the notion that it is no longer necessary to produce people who will ride into the Choctaw Nation in the dead of winter to kill the bad men.

More’s the pity?

We’ll find out soon enough.

MEET THE NEW ATTICUS, ALMOST THE SAME AS THE OLD ATTICUS…UNLESS IT’S THE OTHER WAY AROUND (WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS BUT WILL NEVER GET, DUTIFULLY UPDATED)

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The initial cycle of anticipation-publication-reaction to Harper Lee’s long lost first novel Go Set a Watchman now being effectively completed, we can safely take stock of what we know about the three nagging questions surrounding its release.

The first is whether Lee, now in her late eighties, more or less inaccessible to the public for half a century, long ensconced in an assisted living facility and, for the first time in her career, without the oversight of her longtime literary executor and recently deceased older sister, was in any position to properly approve the book’s release.

The answer to that one is likely to remain elusive, in part because the other two questions–is the book worth reading and is it any good (given the unique circumstances, these two questions are, for once, not the same)–don’t have clear answers either.

Despite the awkward patches one would expect from an unedited draft by a young, first-time novelist with no previous publishing history (having now read the book, I don’t find any reason to question the public story of its provenance, though mysteries will likely remain about the separate legal and ethical questions surrounding its sudden “rediscovery”), it is also what one would expect from Harper Lee, even as she seems, more than ever, to exist separate and apart from Atticus and Scout Finch.

And what should we expect?

Well, a skilled, though yet unpolished, popular novelist, who had rejected modernism but was quite aware she couldn’t write like her pre-modern heroes (Austen, Twain and Hawthorne, whose “Young Goodman Brown” Lee likely plumbed for Watchman‘s structure and overall tone, though how consciously we’ll never know) and expect to be published in the 1950s.

To wit (and purely at open-to-a-page-and-point random):

Alexandra’s voice cut through her ruminations: “Jean Louise, did you come down on the train Like That?”

Caught offside, it took a moment for her to ascertain what her aunt meant by Like That.

Bang, bang. Crisp as you please. Maybe not so original now, when we have seven thousand young-woman-goes-home-and-deals-with-the-changes-in-herself-and-others novels and scripts floating around. But not bad for the fifties.

And, besides, that’s four sentences and two jokes in Twain, a full paragraph in Austen and half-a-page in Hawthorne, with a strong likelihood that nothing would be as nicely judged as that “offside” for a girl brought up in the region where football is a religion.

It’s also everything you need to know about Aunt Alexandra and her relationship to Jean Louise Finch.

There’s plenty of that throughout the book. Certainly enough to keep the pages nicely turning if the pleasures of literary economy are on your smile list.

Not surprisingly, there are also a fair share of passages that are nowhere near as succinct or as good, especially toward the end, when the homilies Lee would later be criticized for in TKAM itself, fall thick and heavy, more like bludgeons than To Kill a Mockingbird‘s gentle life lessons.

That said, there’s nothing standing between this and a really first rate novel that a good editor couldn’t have fixed.

Even as it stands, it’s perfectly respectable.

It’s as good or better than, for instance, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Watch and Ward or This Side of Paradise, to name the first published novels of three men, Twain, Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, rightly considered masters of English prose, all of whom presumably had the benefit of an editor (and all of whom, like Lee herself, lest we forget, went on to much greater things).

I haven’t read Hawthorne’s first novel, Fanshawe, but since he later made a serious effort to have every existing copy burned (he missed one, which is why we still have it), it’s probably safe to assume it wasn’t a masterwork either.

There are also plenty of first novels that are better than Watchman, some considerably better. But, on the whole, taken even as a rough draft, it falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Which leads to the one question I’ve found really interesting in all this.

What does Watchman tell us about the career Lee might have had, if Mockingbird‘s other-worldly success hadn’t set off a chain reaction so fierce it finally burned off her previously considerable ambition?

It’s all speculation, but I think we can make some logical assumptions:

Assume TKAM had been a strong but not iconic bestseller.

Assume that a movie was made but managed to cut no deeper than the perfectly fine version of All the King’s Men based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel (which won an Oscar for Broderick Crawford as Mockingbird did for Gregory Peck but otherwise left no mark).

Assume that Harper Lee’s spirit survived the visits to Death Row at the Kansas State Penitentiary. (That’s my own best, entirely unproveable theory for why both Lee and Truman Capote shut down for good. If you think it’s far-fetched, try imagining Jane Austen, just after she wrote Sense and Sensibility, deciding to spend long hours in gaol, confronting the perpetrators of a shocking, grisly murder. Then ask yourself if we’d have all those other fine novels had she done so? Food for thought, perhaps. Especially if, like me, you spent a few minutes here and there in the politest part of some prison yards with your missionary father and so know just a tiny bit about what the air is like in there.)

Assume Harper Lee could then have gone on writing and publishing, having some sort of normal career.

Then what?

I think it’s likely she would have fallen in with the Sane Southerners (Eudora Welty, her friend Horton Foote, perhaps the Agrarians) and been at literary, if not personal, odds with the Crazies (Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Capote himself, with whom she did eventaully fall out ….If you’re wondering about Faulkner, he straddled both camps, which is one of the reasons he’s Faulkner).

Given that Lee’s wit was as sharp and caustic as any of the rest, we’d have certainly had more gossip and an additional literary feud or two.

We probably would have had a series of well-written novels that gave us some nice insight into the life and times of Southern Alabama mid-century and later.

We would also have been certainly quite a different country, one that didn’t need To Kill a Mockingbird quite the way we do.

Since we’re the country we are, as opposed to the one most sane people wish we were, I’m just as glad things worked out the way they did.

The one thing that would have been missing from Go Set a Watchman if it had been published in its own time in anything like its present form, is a sense of why Jean Louise Finch, so cruelly betrayed here, felt as strongly about her past and her home–not just Atticus–as she did.

When Harper Lee’s editor suggested she explore Jean Louise’s autobiographical childhood flashbacks, I suspect that was really the question she was after answering.

If it wasn’t her question, it pretty obviously became Lee’s by some other means during the writing of TKAM.

Because for all the scant attention paid it in the current sturm und drang, the salient fact is that Watchman was written first.

To Kill a Mockingbird was an attempt to reconcile the Atticus and the Maycomb that Scout Finch/Harper Lee remembered from  her childhood with the air of fear and loathing that dominated the 1950s. Not the other way around.

I’m sure at least some reviewers have made this point. I’ve only read twenty or so and that’s a drop in the bucket. But I think I’ve read enough to say it hasn’t exactly been a common theme. Even those who insist, fairly enough, that the Atticus of Watchman is a logical extension of the Atticus of Mockingbird, don’t seem to quite grasp that the Atticus of Watchman is the one Harper Lee wrote about first.

For the shock Jean Louise feels at being Young Goodman Brown-ed in her own Alabama town to really register, you have to know that other, earlier Atticus.

Whatever its literary merits or lack thereof, Watchman is valuable at least this far: It clarifies that Atticus was/is a man of conscience. Not a saint or a Christ figure.

That, oddly enough, was the kind of English Major symbolism Lee left to the Crazies who are now beloved by the people they set out to please.

Yes, the Atticus Finch of Watchman is a segregationist. The scenes where Jean Louise actually confronts him on this aren’t handled particularly well, either as to placement in the plot (too late in the action) or exposition (way too talky and, dare I say, legalistic, even for a lawyer and his daughter). But, as the foundation, not extension, of Atticus Finch’s character, they’re neither contradictory, as some have claimed, nor perfectly consistent, as the usual suspects among the Sub-Texters insist.

As drama, the scenes don’t work very well. As exposition, they’re overwrought.

As an insight into how polite white southern families attempted to deal with the issue of the century among themselves and the impact such attempts were likely to have in the communities they were trying to preserve at all costs, they’re right enough.

There is nothing about the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird that says he would have let go of his world easily. Whatever else Harper Lee made of that fictional character based on her father, and the town where he raised both her fictional stand-in and herself, she didn’t play them false.

And, despite a hundred crit-illuminati claims to the contrary, she didn’t take the easy way out.

If Watchman does nothing else, it at least makes what should have been obvious all along, clearer still.

Not that I expect everyone to finally get it.

Too much of a leap after all. Atticus Finch has been an Official Liberal Hero for half a century. Gregory Peck played him in a movie for God’s Sake.

Let’s just all hope that the rumored third manuscript doesn’t contain the scenes where Atticus, who, in Watchman, holds the exact position on segregation in the mid-fifties that Lyndon Johnson did, explains to Scout why he’s changed his mind ten years later.

You know.

Like that too cussedly inconsistent and imperfect for fiction character Lyndon Johnson actually did.

Damn Southerners.

You can’t tell what they’ll do.

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