The Merciless Ladies – Winston Graham
Two flesh and blood ladies in Paul Stafford’s life are merciless, but Success (or his pursuit of it) can be seen as another. All make unreasonable demands. In the end he winds up a winner; he gets the woman he loves and he achieves lasting importance as an artist. The person who tells Paul’s story is Bill Grant, a friend from boyhood. This character sacrifices much in the interests of Paul (even, possibly, in the up-in-the-air ending, his freedom). He also has feelings for both of the women Paul marries. There’s a hint of something incestuous (though not in a sexual way) in Bill’s dedication – a dedication of which Paul is oblivious. In stiff upper lip fashion Bill withholds his feelings, so we never understand what motivates him. Other than that odd undercurrent, Ladies is a solid, well-constructed, intelligent novel. But I read it because I liked Graham’s The Walking Stick so much, and Ladies isn’t nearly as good. It’s more worldly – there’s an ocean voyage, courtroom scenes, a variety of locales, from posh London clubs to an isolated cottage on the moors – but the intimacy with a character is missing. Nor does the prose have the flow of the earlier work. This book seems the product of a good writer dutifully plying his trade. Deborah in Walking Stick obviously meant more to Graham than anybody in Ladies. With one exception: Paul’s second wife is similar to Deborah in a number of ways. Most striking is that both have a limp caused by a youthful tubercular condition. One of Paul’s merciless ladies – his ex-wife Olive – refers to Holly as a “one-legged, bespectacled creature.” But she has an inherent goodness. Paul was fortunate to get her before Bill does. Some people have all the breaks. And don’t you, deep down, hate them?
Dark Bridwell – Vardis Fisher
Idaho in the late 1800s – a primitive world populated by primitive people. In telling his tale, Fisher’s prose is primitive; if you want sophistication, this is not the book for you. Charley Bridwell takes his wife and their two young boys to live in the most remote plot of land he can find. He believes that civilization (the mining camps he knew all too well) are festering holes of corruption. Charley is a study in contrasts. He’s gives expression to an exceedingly brutish side of his nature in acts of cruelty to animals, and he subjects his sons to vicious beatings. But for his wife he shows unerring devotion; toward her he’s always thoughtful, tender, kind. And though he delights in cheating people, he can show great generosity to those in need. Charley has a carefully worked out philosophy of life; he doesn’t believe in work, in striving to get ahead; he embraces irresponsibility. As time goes by, Lela grows increasingly discontent. She’s oppressed by their isolation: the mountains surrounding them, the roaring river that plummets near their cabin. She was fifteen when Charley married her; he was more than twice her age, and she respected and looked up to him. But when their sons leave home in their mid-teens – out of hatred for their father – she falls into a deep depression. When she rouses herself she goes onto a full-scale rebellion against Charley. She will work, try to get ahead and make a better life for the two children who were born in the cabin; they won’t become savages like Jed and Thiel. For Charley Lela feels two strong emotions simultaneously: love and hate. The most laudatory thing I can say about this novel is that Fisher makes her conflict into a tragedy. At the end all the principals disappear, moving in directions that will never converge. We know what lies in wait for them: Charley will wallow and die in the degradation he despised, Lela will be haunted by her abandonment of a man who loved and needed her.
The Paradise Below the Stairs – Andre Brincourt (French)
Thirteen-year-old Francoise is manipulative and deceitful; he can also be unrepentantly malicious. In his search for a role in life he decides on being a tough guy. But he’s still a boy, and, as events reveal, he’s not ready to become involved in sex. Though authors have explored this issue with girls, in this case the girl is the experienced instigator; at age fourteen Myriam wields the power of her sexuality. The hidden cellar the boys discover at their school would have been a sort of club, but when Myriam becomes its “savage queen” it takes on a perverse purpose. She begins to have two boys enter the room where her bed is. Though Francoise resists Myriam’s efforts to get him to go all the way, he claims to the other boys that he does; he even gets Myriam to promise that she will never tell anyone that they do not “make love.” Basson, older and experienced – he considers himself a man – is the other person who shares Myriam, and he does go all the way with her. The outcome is pregnancy, then a crude attempt at an abortion. The griminess of all this is distasteful, partly because none of the young people elicit sympathy. If Brincourt was trying to portray the illogical turmoil of adolescence, he undermines that purpose by the luridness of his plot. Francoise’s “paradise” is actually a hellish place.