The Keepers of the House
My Heart Is Broken
Shirley Ann Grau is a Southern woman writer who has neither the limitations nor the gifts of the great ones of an earlier generation. Her time scale in this ambitious novel (a hundred and fifty years) and her theme (race relations) burst the limits of the narrowly observed domestic moment where women writers are conventionally at ease; what she lacks is their close emotional focus. The family history related by The Keepers of the House covers familiar ground, establishing the progenitor in a fertile rural district of the deep South early in the last century. The head of the family in the fourth generation, William Howland (born toward the end of the century), takes a Negro mistress after the death of his wife, so that the fifth and sixth generations comprise both black and white members—one more play on the old tragedy of the South. The difference in Miss Grau’s story—and the cunning plot depends on it—is that Howland has legitimized his Negro children by marrying their mother.
The narrative is ostensibly presented from three points of view (though the author adheres waveringly to this device) that of Howland, his Negro mistress, and his granddaughter by his first (white) wife. A minatory prologue is spoken by the granddaughter: she is alone at night, surrounded by enemies; one of them (in the end we learn he is her Negro half-uncle) she wishes dead. The rest of the book—a rambling old-fashioned narrative loaded with Negro folk wisdom, local nature lore, legends of past violence, child-births, deathbeds,—glides over blurred decades, building up an explanation of how the granddaughter got where the prologue finds her trapped in the fall-out of a destructive encounter between the black and white branches of the Howland family.
It is an encounter triggered by the political ambitions of the granddaughter’s husband, a plausibly decent office-seeker playing white supremacy for what it’s worth. Though privately willing like any Southern gent to put up with a grand-father-in-law’s black by-blows, he is undone by the discovery that his wife’s Negro half-uncle is just as legitimate a Howland as she. The campaign for the governorship of the state, the advantageous marriage, indeed the very history of the Howland family are devastated. A novel as conventional in tone and technique as this dangles anticipation of a hopeful resolution, but far from it: everyone is diminished by a situation unripe for reconciliation. The absence of wishful thinking about the real matter of this book is very good.
The author conducts a brisk narrative toward the end, and she is delicately responsive to the country she writes about and the texture of rural life from day to day. But the characters are seen, not felt, in spite of the “subjective” points of view. There they are—rowing boats, sewing, hunting, making love, giving birth—but the urgency of their encounters with one another remains as distant and illegible as glimpses through lighted windows at night. Where did all that violence come from that fires up in the end? Out of history? But the book has done little, for all its sober ambition, to take one inside the history of the South or even into this little enclave. In spite of a brave, well-documented attempt to deal largely with the American tragedy—in spite of dexadrines, diaphragms, and Thunder-birds—this somehow seems an old-fashioned gentlewoman’s novel. Comparison with Baldwin’s youthful Go Tell It on the Mountain may be capricious but it is telling. In a chapter or two about the Southern childhood of the man who years later is a vindictive, maddened preacher and father in Harlem, Baldwin shows more about what it is to be involved in history than Miss Grau’s conscientious book begins to do; compared to him, she seems an outsider. She is fair and he sometimes is not; but he tells the truth.
Hortense Calisher’s Extreme Magic, a novella and a number of short stories, is a collection remarkable for uneven achievement. The sensibility is extremely feminine—in the faintly pejorative sense—and the talent diaphanous, but two stories, anyway, are limpid and moving. Others are depressingly glib and secondhand—surely the possibilities of the struggle with a foreign language, the refugee professor stranded on a mid-American campus, the disintegration of a suburban marriage, the ghastly middle-aged woman afloat in Europe, etc. have been exhausted by now. The writing is sometimes skilfully evocative, the nuances suggestive, the imagery just; but then there are ornaments (many of them) as trashy as “the river gave a little shantung wrinkle” or passages as hysterically baffling as: “No, it was the girl, leaning back, away, now stealthily rising. For a moment the figure stayed, a series of soft, dark ellipses lapsing to that poised, no longer tentative shoe. Then it ran. On the promenade it halted; then the wind, or a gesture of its own, tossed back the free-swinging hair and it was gone.” People write like that when they are afraid of running out of gas; it happens too often in this collection. But there are two stories, “The Rabbi’s Daughter” and “The Gulf Between,” that are harmoniously true and moving—even substantial—because they rise from authentic experience: in this case cultivated, haute-bourgeois, upper-West-Side Jewish life, a little down on its uppers. Miss Calisher has a real sense of a past; unlike Miss Grau, she can show where things come from; what people really are; how they feel; how they affect one another; why what happens happens. Each of these stories covers no more than twenty-four hours, but in each, individuals, a family, a culture are realized with almost abashing intimacy.
After stories of such quiet purity, the novella “Extreme Magic”—a mixed-up effort to construct a plausible armature for an omnium gatherum of fancy and fanciful details—is incomprehensible. The protagonist is a small-town husband who has lost his family in a fire—potentially interesting: but what does she make of it? After a spell in a plush sanatorium, he turns up as a cultivated, queerish antique dealer in Dutchess County. Characters make emphatic appearances, then disappear for good after a few pages; others come, go, come back, go—but why? Finally a pair to whom one had hitherto paid only routine attention involve the antique dealer in a charnel-house finale and the ambulance wails out of the night to carry away another toppled mind. The story is full of solemn nods toward symbols that never give up their mysteries; the writing is forced and pretentiously Jamesian. It is sad that the author of stories as civilized and scrupulous as the best in this book should allow herself such posturings.
My Heart is Broken is a title to end all feminine book titles, but the author who has given it to her new collection of short stories and a short novel is Mavis Gallant, a resourceful contributor to The New Yorker (whom, like John Cheever, one always bothers to read). The cri de coeur could not be more astringently ironic, coming as it does—in the brief story to which it also gives a name—from the lips of a hare-brained waif married to a construction engineer in a Canadian wilderness, who out of witless boredom gets herself laid in the woods by one of her husband’s work mates. The decent husband must give up his job and move on with her, not for the first time. But all she can mourn is the man in the woods: “He wasn’t even friendly. It’s the first time in my life somebody hasn’t even liked me…My heart is just broken.”
But hearts are not broken in Mavis Gallant’s stories. The people she writes about, all of them transplanted from somewhere else, have been taught “to go blank in the presence of worry and pain, and…that it was foolish to weep.” Their roots are cut, and her subject is the nature of the life that is left when the roots are not fed. Whether they are Australians in Paris, Canadians in Geneva, South Africans or Englishmen in Paris or on the Riviera, they could all vouch for this: “Flowering in us was the dark bloom of the Old Country—the mistrust of pity, the contempt for weakness, the fear of the open heart.” So while her Commonwealth expatriates nurture a fevered awareness of origins and family connections, their personal relations are pantomimes of involvement. A most expert and chilling story, “The Cost of Living,” describes two Australian sisters, dimly resident in a Paris pension, making extravagant yet half-hearted attempts to enjoy friendship with an unsuitable young French pair: a feral, stage-struck girl and her casual lover, an actor. The older sister, who cooks marvelously self-deceiving accounts (“She charged herself an imaginary thousand francs for a sandwich and two thousand for a bunch of winter daisies, and inflated the cost of living until the cost of the necklace had disappeared”), tries to buy her way into their flimsy lives, but her folly is unredeemed by real passion. The French girl finally turns on her voracious benefactor: “Why didn’t you leave us alone? Why didn’t you just leave us with our weakness and our mistakes? You do so much, and you’re so kind and good, and you get in the way, and no one dares hurt you.” The sisters are decent people, and as someone comments in another story, “Bad things don’t happen to decent people.” But Mavis Gallant is well-versed in the kinds of things that do happen to decent people, and knows how inadequate decency is. The younger sister in this story, who is the narrator, keeps remarking, “It had nothing to do with me.” Which is what’s wrong with all these self-exculpating next-door neighbors. The unkind legacy of a Presbyterian upbringing is a heart proof against breakage.
Mavis Gallant writes with admirably feminine discretion, tact, humor, self-confidence, and kindness. Her characters—especially the women—are real people with moral volume. But her discretion often wanders on into an ostentatious withholding of judgment that begs the question: why then write the story? She sorts out “the truth” scrupulously, but to what end? When she says, “I’d better explain about that bicycle. It was heavy and old, a boy’s bike left by a cousin killed in the war…” one wonders why she need explain. The bicycle in fact doesn’t really matter. This characteristic, unnecessary, irrelevant over-explaining suggests that something else, something important, is being passed over. What is it? Why aren’t the stories painfully moving, though the people are so recognizably decent, so stoic in their disappointment, in their lonely plights so jauntily sad? Because none of them wants to take the risk of getting involved, even the author really. She is a wonderful observer of the ordinary grotesqueries of human encounter that leave hearts bruised and obscurely aching. But not broken—nothing is really changed by these encounters; nothing is added to the sum of life.