Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Evan S. Connell, 1924–2013

One by one, the writers who came of literary age between the Second World War and the Sexual Revolution—the Glossy Age of American fiction, as I have called it elsewhere—are dying off. Evan S. Connell Jr. was found dead in Santa Fe last Thursday, January 10. He was 88.

Nearly every obituary led off the requisite survey of his career with Mrs. Bridge (1959), a close-up study of the pointless existence led by a rich and successful lawyer’s wife in Connell’s native Kansas City (“she wondered if she was about to lose control of herself. Where are we going? she thought. Why are we here?”). The quiet desperation of life in the suburbs was a tiresome little theme of postwar fiction, even though Connell’s novel was set before the war. He may have been among the first to fasten onto the subject, but his book was distinguished, not by its insight into American social mores, but by its form: 117 short chapters, some fewer than a hundred words, which carried Mrs. Bridge from marriage to widowhood.

Mr. Bridge, his first novel’s “twin,” as the obituaries misleadingly called it, was published exactly ten years later. Connell perfected a flat objective tone, flawless in delivery, unblemished by sympathy or satire, which was ill-suited to his narrative strategy. The casual bigotry displayed by the Bridges and their neighbors, the hyperconsciousness of good manners and good shoes, the adroit avoidance of “threatening subjects,” including intellectual curiosity in any shape, the regular evocation of “nameless panic” and “wild, wild desire” (never acted upon) as a counterpoint to the “white, sweetly scented anonymity” into which they sink—a counterpoint that eventually becomes as uneventful as their lives: the Bridges are steadily reduced to cultural clichés.

Connell’s message is that superficial lives are superficial not by accident but by intention, by the firm and consistent application of the principle that every depth must be left unexplored (“if super-celestial ideas were accompanied by subterranean behavior,” Mrs. Bridge reflects, “it might be better to forego them both”). But because he has confined himself to the undisturbed surfaces, where his characters choose to dwell, he is at a loss how to suggest what lies beneath. He must resort to tricks. Mrs. Bridge’s reflection on high ideas and low behavior, for example, is provoked by “a line from Montaigne,” which comes to her out of nowhere, exactly and inexplicably quoted. The distinction between ideas and behavior is located in the realm of ideas, to which Mrs. Bridge has recourse in order to forego ideas. Connell is able to establish the superficiality of upper-class WASP lives only by admitting the depths that explode the superficiality.

Connell also became famous for Son of the Morning Star (1985), his exciting account of Little Big Horn. It success gave him some economic freedom at last, in his sixties. He was rare in his generation—the first generation of writers to take refuge in American universities—by declining to teach. “A teacher has to do an horrendous amount of talking,” his friend George P. Elliott explained; “a writer who (like Evan Connell) does not talk a lot should not teach (as Connell does not).” He never married, had no children. His life was devoted to writing.

Connell published nineteen books during his lifetime, but for my money his best are The Connoisseur (1974) and Double Honeymoon (1976), the last two novels he wrote before largely abandoning fiction for historical essays (he wrote a few more short stories). Both of these novels are about Karl Muhlbach, “the most respectable of men,” who had made his first appearance in three stories in At the Crossroads (1965). “I have violated nothing,” Muhlbach declares. “All my life I have represented civilization, now I am threatened.” An insurance executive, he too is a well-to-do WASP. The tone is the same, but the difference is that Muhlbach, unlike the Bridges, is vulnerable to the unexpected.

In The Connoisseur, Muhlbach is astonished when he happens upon a terra cota figurine from the Mayan period—a squat magistrate with his arms folded—in a curio shop in Taos. “I want this arrogant little personage, he thinks with sudden passion,” although he cannot say why. His life is transformed; he becomes a collector, “obsessed by pre-Columbian thoughts.” Connell takes his motto from Aquinas: id quod visum placet. Muhlbach is not an intellectual, although he becomes an expert in Mayan art. His is not the realm of ideas, but of beauty. He is changed because he allows himself the pleasure of looking.

Double Honeymoon is the expansion of a story written a decade earlier and published originally in At the Crossroads. Its events occur before Muhlbach’s conversion by beauty, and serve as a ten-years-earlier “prequel.” At a Christmas party, the 45-year-old Muhlbach meets a lovely 20-year-old with ambitions to become a “high fashion model.” She is much too beautiful “for her own good.” Her name is Lambeth Brent. She is the kind of girl he would have lost when he himself was 20—she would have found him dull, “dull and a trifle cold, [his] spine too rigid when [they] went dancing, [his] interests too academic.” Older now, a widower, Muhlbach pursues Lambeth. She is “buggy,” as he puts it later—erratic, unreliable, emotionally unavailable, a liar and a thief, perhaps bisexual (perhaps not), lousy at everything she has ever tried, a lost and troubled soul. Muhlbach does not learn any of this until much later, after he is already hooked on her. He wants to marry her and have children with her, even though Lambeth says that she wants children like she wants leprosy. He believes (against all evidence) that he can bring her “around to some kind of normalcy, enough so that she could keep going.” He tries vainly to get her to take some responsibility for her own life:Nothing marvelous and unexpected is about to happen. The telegram saying you won the sweepstakes will never arrive. And the reason it won’t is because I’ve never gotten it and I don’t know anybody else who has.Lambeth refuses to believe him. She is not interested in taking lessons in domesticity and respectability. Muhlbach chugs ahead:All I meant to say, Lambeth, was that I’ve been toting the barge and lifting the bale or whatever it is long enough to realize that my life will never change. I’ll do what I do as long as I live. I’ll never touch the rainbow. And I don’t think you will either. I’d love to, and I hope you do. I doubt if we will. This isn’t good news, I admit. I’d rearrange the situation if I could, nearer to the heart’s desire. In fact, as somebody said, though I can’t remember who: “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.”It was Gauguin who said that. Muhlbach’s own experience proves him wrong. Almost the exact opposite is Connell’s vision of human life: being what it is, one dreams of the rainbow. Whether very many people have the courage to “rearrange the situation” is a different question. “We live in the final tepid rays of the Christian era,” Connell wrote in his long philosophical prose poem, Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel (1963). Transcendence has just about flickered out, and literature (as Connell’s generation discovered to its dismay) cannot fully replace it. But there are glimpses, here and there, of what it might mean to live with what pleases merely by being seen—and some of those glimpses can be found in the fiction of the late Evan Connell.

5 comments:

Heri said...

Evan S. Connell you will always be missed by your big family.

R.T. said...

I very much enjoyed Connell's Custer book when it came out. It was much more about Custer than about Little Big Horn--well, at least to the extent that the person can be separated from the disastrous encounter in Montana. I never connected the dots between the nonfiction and the fiction--I had, I think, simply thought they were written by different fellows with the same name. Thank you for making the connection for me.

Steve Paschold said...

One of our faculty members was starting to teach Mrs. Bridge when this news arrived. Yes, very sad, especially as Connell seemed to be rather forlorn at the end.

Anonymous said...

Glad to read of your preference for the Muhlbach novels. Little-known fact: Lambeth Brent is partially spun out of a couple of weeks that Connell kept company with Raymond Carver's sister-in-law, Amy Burk.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear Mr. Connell passed. I have read Son of the Morning Star a couple of times, and found it interesting and at the same time somewhat puzzling. It's non-fiction, but written with much more of a novelist's touch than is typical for narrative history. I found that fascinating, but at the same time was always curious why the author wrote the book the way he did. It's obviously not in the vein of "standard" history--it's a book about Custer, and he doesn't get mentioned for almost a hundred pages at the start of the book.

I have read a lot of stuff on the Little Bighorn, and once wrote a magazine article on the subject. When I did, I think I read "Son of the Morning Star" last, more for its literary content than for any sort of historical information. It's almost as if Connell didn't want to convey any actual knowledge, but instead was trying to recreate the era, as he saw it.