Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Life in the Crystal Palace – Alan Harrington
This is a study of a corporation. An ideal corporation, but, for Harrington (who worked in Public Relations), not a good fit; he was by nature a rebel caught in a labyrinth of benevolent conformity. So he’s critical of the Crystal Palace, though not in an angry, spiteful way. His approach is analytical, and it’s complete – he leaves no stone unturned. Which made for slow going. I was often uninterested, detached. Maybe, when I first read the book, I was employed in a big corporation, or had recently left one. So the book had relevance. Now it lacks that, and is basically a sociological study, so it does not belong on a list of Most Meaningful Books. 2 (delete)

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore
This is an angry book, and Moore goes on attack in a brutal fashion. No subtleties or niceties here; even the prose is as blunt as a club. He doesn’t spare poor Judith Hearne, the spinster of meager means who, on the first page, moves into a new boarding house. She isn’t portrayed with much sympathy: she’s not very intelligent or insightful and has many minor faults (such as an unwarranted snobbishness). Yet she’s a desperate soul – desperate for love or friendship; she feels herself at the dead end of a life of emotional deprivation, and can’t accept it. Most of those around her are specimens of humanity at its worst – meanness and cruelty and greed are prevalent. The plot centers on Judith’s hopes for a relationship with a man; not the man of her dreams – far from it – but a man anyway, someone who will care for her, care about her. This dream is, of course, shattered. Then, halfway through the book, Judith’s severe drinking problem is introduced. I didn’t quite buy this, especially since we never see her in her wild intoxicated state; I think Moore was using the alcoholism as a means to hurry his character to her end – an end in which she loses even her religious beliefs. Yet, I must say, at that end, on the last page, when Judy (she liked to be called Judy) is in a nursing home (where she will stay), and she begins to gather the few of her precious life possessions around her, I was truly moved. Yes, we try to carry on. Moore’s anger is at the injustice of life, though he also shows his deep enmity for the Catholic religion and the city of Belfast, which is portrayed as a woefully dismal place. A few notes: The original title was simply Judith Hearne, and the book was turned down by ten (some sources say twelve) publishers before it found a home. 4

Mrs. Bridge – Evan S. Connell
The novel is composed of what I’ll call “snapshots” (117 of them).They are often less then a page long, seldom over two, and all have titles (Good-by Alice, Tea Leaves). These snapshots present scenes – of a quiet nature – that cover the life of Mrs. Bridge from early marriage to elderly widowhood. She has all the things that Judith Hearne desired: a husband, three children, a beautiful house (the Bridges are part of the affluent Country Club set in Kansas City). Yet the husband is a workaholic who’s at his office most of the time, and when he’s home there seems to be no relationship between them; he’s tired, taciturn by nature, and is not the type to discuss feelings. As for the children, two of them turn away from her at a very young age. Why? She loves them and is a dutiful mother. Perhaps there’s one thing about her that they rebel against: her beliefs are conventional; she gently disapproves of anything they do that falls outside of propriety. This is, in fact, the one characteristic about Mrs. Bridge that stands out. Propriety rules her life: she never deviates in her thinking from anything that is not “proper.” She also has too much empty time on her hands, with a live-in cook/waitress/maid and a weekly laundress. Though she sometimes thinks of expanding her horizons – reading a good book or attending a class – all these ideas quickly die on the vine. But Connell has not written a harsh portrayal of a woman who is, as he’s stated, based on his own mother. She doesn’t deserve harshness: she hasn’t a mean bone in her body. And, as time goes by, a fleeting darkness begins to pervade her thinking. She considers her life in which each empty day proceeded like the one before. But she cannot change; that same life moves on and on, and there comes a time when moments of depression and even panic set in, a feeling that she is unloved and unwanted. All is not well in her tidy little world. I felt, despite Mrs. Bridge’s limitations, that the people around her – husband and children – failed her. What came across for me in this portrait was a sense of guilt and regret – embedded there by the author. For the son in the novel is one of those who failed her. This is a fine novel, highly readable and artfully done. 5

Mr. Bridge – Evan S. Connell
Strange. In all my other re-reads I recognized that I had been there before. Often I could remember the endings (in the case of Judith Hearne I knew her shoes would appear on the last page “with the little buttons, winking up at her”). But with Mr. Bridge I recognized nothing. Yet I had it listed as one of my Most Meaningful Books, and I had it in my bookcase. My conclusion is that either it never made any impression or, more likely, I had never read it – it’s on the list solely as a companion piece to Mrs. I plowed my way though most of it before calling it quits. It uses the same format as the preceding book, but is much longer. The snapshots are repetitive in presenting character; we keep getting slight variations on the man’s feelings, words and actions (all ultra-conservative). To be fair, it’s a thorough portrait of Mr. Bridge. But I found him to be a bore, nor did I like him. And whereas Mrs. was artfully done, this was a plodding piece of writing (which is, actually, in keeping with the character’s personality). In it Mrs. is merely an insipid presence and the obnoxious son is given far too much attention. Connell wrote this book ten years after Mrs. (which was his first novel). Maybe he felt he needed to complete the family portrait. Maybe he was searching for something to write. But the creative spark wasn’t there – a sad decline by a writer who always had a struggle producing fiction. And sad too because it serves to detract from its predecessor. 2 (delete)


Phillip Routh said...

North Point Press reissued the Bridge books as a matching pair, and the cover of Mr. shows a living room with a table on which sit two books, and on the side we see part of a big bookcase. As if Mr. Bridge (or anyone in the family) was a reader – which they definitely were not. There were no bookcases in the Bridge house, and no cultural activities of any kind went on. Did anyone at North Point read the book?

Anonymous said...

Interesting point about the cover of Mr. and the story of Mr. itself. Glad you now know you likely did NOT read it.