Tag Archives: American Literature

How Always Alone: Nothing but the Night by John Williams

Published in 1948, Nothing but the Night is John Williams’s, little known about, first novel.  It takes place over the course of a single day in the life of twenty-three year old Arthur Maxley who has suffered a very traumatic experience in his childhood.  When we first meet Arthur, he is alone in his apartment—he is most often alone—and after a night of solitary drinking and reading is just waking up from a dream.  The story is intense and suspenseful from the very beginning as Williams slowly reveals the tragedy Arthur has suffered in his early life.  By slowing down time in his narrative, we are given a realistic glimpse into Arthur’s fractured and damaged mind.  For instance, Arthur forces himself to get out of bed and take a walk in the park, but never actually makes it to the park because he goes into at a seedy diner.  The vivid and startling description of his breakfast is a clue that Arthur is truly suffering:

From the chipped blue plate, the egg stared up at him like a knowing, evil eye.  At first, he was amused by the fancy; but as he stared longer and as the yellow eye glared back at him, he became acutely uncomfortable.  He blinked rapidly.

And still the yellow pupil stared senselessly at him from its greasy white orb.  He reached for the bottle of Tabasco sauce and poured a bit of the fiery red liquid on the eye.  As if it were suddenly irritated beyond all endurance, the white surrounding matter became alarmingly bloodshot and developed a network of liquidly shifting veins, changing the vacant expression into something almost frightening.  It looked up at him reproachfully, as if in great agony.

With an effort, he tore his gaze away and forced his lids down to cover his own eyes and he shook his head vigorously from side to side.  He tried to laugh at himself.  These fancies…Why did he allow them to take hold of him?  It was only and egg, a simple thing, and for a moment his imagination (it was only his imagination) had made him think that…

Throughout the course of his ordinary day, Arthur is on edge and easily startled by what appear to be the simplest things.  Two events in particular, though, trigger flashbacks to that fateful day in Arthur’s childhood—a letter and a visit from his father.  Williams slowly builds up to revealing Arthur’s tragic memory at the very end of the book which, I thought, was rather unexpected.  The dramatic suspense and Williams’s depiction of the loneliness of mental illness are the strengths of this book.  No one can truly understand Arthur’s suffering, even if he were able to put it into words.  A brief distraction with a lovely woman at a nightclub only highlights Arthur’s abiding sense of being alone.  He thinks he is happy for a fleeting moment, but then his intrusive thoughts come flooding back to him:

And again the desire to convey to her his utter contentment overwhelmed him.  But there was the barrier, always the barrier of words; and that which he now felt was beyond words, deeper and more meaningful.  He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, and said nothing.

For at the moment he realized that this understanding which he so desired was a thing that must come from between them, inviolate and alone, unasked and unacknowledged.  And he thought for a moment that he had discovered the secret.

This was the thing that drew men and women together: not the meeting of minds nor of spirits, not the conjunction of bodies in the dark insanity of copulation—none of these.  It was the tenuous need to create a bond, a tie more fragile than the laciest ribbon.  It was for this that they strived together, ceaselessly and always really alone; it was for this that they loved and hated, gathered and threw away. For only the little thread which they could never test for the fear of its destruction, for only the delicate thread which they could never secure for fear of breaking it in two.

How alone we are, he thought. How always alone.

The three books of Williams’s that I have read—Stoner, Augustus, and Nothing but the Night—are all very different stories.  I would advise not to go into this short novel expecting any of the narrative elements that are in his other two books.  What is similar, however, in all three novels is the author’s brilliant and mesmerizing way he uses language; there is something about Williams’s style of writing that completely absorbs me and draws me into these different worlds he creates.

(I read the Vintage edition published in the U.K., but NYRB Classics is also reissuing this book later this year.)

 

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A Certain Amount of Daring: Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to read my first Jane Bowles story, there was a rather strong, positive reaction to her writing.  But the comments I received about Two Serious Ladies still did not prepare me for reading this story.  This short novel, in fact her only one, is enigmatic, humorous, surprising, even shocking and sad all at the same time.  Truman Capote’s description of the story, I think, sums it up best:

Voyaging for the first time into Two Serious Ladies, I was immediately disoriented.  I did not know what to make of this object at all.  There was no discernible narrative strategy.  There was no way of explaining or analyzing the processes at work.  Interpretation was useless.  The vistas were dispiriting, the food foul, the wind always howling.  Her people were mournful, impulsive, and as erratic in their peculiar journeys’ flights as bats.  They were often drunk.  They thought continuously, obsessively, but had no thoughts exactly, no helpful method of perceiving the world or their positions in it.

Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield, the two serious ladies, spend very little time together as they are casual acquaintances.  Each has her own distinct story, but what fascinated me about both of them is their attempt to live on their own terms and find their own versions of happiness.  I found them a bit crazy but also rather brave.  Mrs. Copperfield is dragged to Central America by her adventurous husband; we get the feeling that she stays with him out of a sense of duty, even fondness or nostalgia, but she would much prefer to be off on her own.  And that’s exactly what she does.  In Colon she stays at a seedy hotel, makes friends with a prostitute, and drinks way more gin than she ought to.  At the end of the story she tells Miss Goering, “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years.  I know I’m as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.”

Miss Goering is horrified by Mrs. Copperfield’s new outlook on life, but perhaps she is frightened by those qualities which she recognizes in herself.  When the story begins she is a spinster living alone on her family’s home in upstate New York but she slowly gathers a rather strange entourage of people around her.  I found Miss Goering’s narrative to be the most surprising.  What oftentimes begins as a humorous description of her adventures quickly turns melancholy; twice she is invited by men back to their apartments and on both occasions nothing turns out as one would expect.  She is different from Mrs. Copperfield in that she seems to be on a mission to save herself and the strange men she meets from some sort of sin.  Her last words in the novel are mysterious and disconcerting: “‘Certainly I am nearer to becoming a saint,’ reflected Miss Goering, ‘but it is possible that a part of me hidden from my sight is piling sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield?’ This latter possibility Miss Goering thought to be of considerable interest but of no great importance.”

I am very eager to read Bowles’s letters which I am impatiently awaiting to arrive in the mail.  I suspect, from what little I know about her life and from reading this book, that I will find among them humor, sadness, loneliness and a lot of drinking.

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When is the Right Time to Let Go?: Other Men’s Daughters by Richard Stern

The plot of Stern’s novel in which an older man who has a love affair with a younger woman and divorces his wife, could have easily turned into the typical, hackneyed plot that such a book often veers towards.  Stern’s intelligent writing delves into the nuances and complications of marriage, middle age, physical attraction and love.  The story astutely and sensitively makes us aware of the sacrifices and heartache that each party in this complicated, all-to-human situation suffer.  “Love,” Stern writes, “Famous, frozen word concealing how many thousand feelings, the origin of so much story and disorder.”

Dr. Robert Merriwether is a profession of biology and physiology at Harvard in the late 1960s.  He also practices medicine in his free time during the summer and that is when he meets Cynthia, a young college student who has made an appointment to get a prescription for birth control.  When Cynthia starts running into him around Cambridge and eventually admits her attraction to Robert, he realizes how badly he was in denial about the state of his lifeless marriage.  His wife had begun to withhold affections years ago, yet they remained married and functioned as a family for the sake of their four children.  I felt genuine sympathy for this man who, up until he meets Cynthia, has just been going through the motions in his daily routine and in his relationships.  After a weekend spent in the company of Cynthia he has a difficult time settling back into his normal life: “Sunday was difficult for Merriwether. Tomorrow he’d be back in his own rectangle: home-class-lab-club. The boxed life. Though not an empty box.”  Because of Cynthia he starts giving lectures in other cities in the northeast so that he can have getaways with her for the weekend.  He also spends a summer in France with her, another trip and experience that allows to have different adventures that he wouldn’t have previously considered: “They became easier and easier with each other. Her intelligence and wit delighted him.  So many years he had been uncomfortable, sometimes miserable at Sarah’s incomprehension.  Partly, it was that Sarah played the fool.”

As for Sarah, Robert’s wife, we also get her side of the story and the sacrifices which she has made for the marriage and for their family.  She has given up having a career of her own to stay home and take care of the four Merriweather children and to tend to the creaky, old New England house passed down through Robert’s family.:

And he blamed her.  As if her body could be purchased by three daily meals, and this leaky hutch which she alone kept up.  (He couldn’t hammer a nail.) As if he really cared to make love to her.  Frigid? No, no more than any woman with a husband who saw her as an interior broom. By no means frigid.

Contrary to Robert’s interests, Sarah had studied humanities and her Master’s thesis was on Courtly Love.  The impending divorce has caused her to take some classes towards a Master of Arts in Teaching.  She could support herself from the profit of the sale of their house and by teaching French and Spanish in local schools.  She learns of Robert’s affair in a very public way, which is a particular embarrassment in their conservative, New England community.  I especially felt sorry for Sarah because of the physical anguish this causes her.  But she understands that her marriage had been a source of angst for years and the best decision for her is to separate from Robert.  They live in their house together, in separate bedrooms, with their children for a year while the divorce is being finalized and the property is being sold.  During this time they become so bitter and angry towards one another that they can only communicate with terse notes.  The Merriwethers think that by staying together as long as possible that they are doing the best thing for their children, but the tension and fighting that their living situation causes seems to do more harm than good for the family.  Stern’s narrative forces us to contemplate some difficult questions to which there are no easy answers: Why do we stay in a relationship?  When is the right time to let go?

The final person in this triangle is Cynthia who is not the typical seductress that one would expect in such a story.  It is obvious when Stern introduces her into the plot that she has every intention of seducing Robert and these scenes are cringe worthy.  But as the story progresses we learn that Cynthia is a very intelligent young woman who is bored with men her own age; she works hard at her studies and also challenges Robert in ways that his wife never could.  They have interesting discussions, they read together and they encourage one another’s interests.  Cynthia’s relationship with Robert also causes her a great deal of stress and anxiety.  She eventually transfers from Swathmore and moves to Cambridge so that she can be closer to Robert and she spends many hours alone while she waits for Robert to visit when he has free time.  Stern’s makes his story stronger by showing that Cynthia and Robert’s relationship is not perfect, that no relationship is perfect.  Cynthia suffers from bouts of depression and anxiety because of the pressure she puts on herself to achieve academic success and she and Robert often argue over this topic and many others.  Stern surprisingly ends his novel on a positive note—Cynthia and Robert have enough love and kindness and respect for one another to stay together for a while.  But will they know when it will be the right time to let go?

Trevor has also written about this title and has an interesting view of the book:  http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/31/richard-stern-other-mens-daughters/

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