Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
Memory, especially as one grows older, can do strange and disquieting things. Though we would like to live without regrets, and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, this is not really possible, if only because we are mortal. When more time stretches behind than stretches before one, some assessments, however reluctantly and incompletely, begin to be made. Between what one wished to become and what one has become there is a momentous gap, which will now never be closed. And this gap seems to operate as one’s final margin, one’s last opportunity, for creation. And between the self as it is and the self as one sees it, there is also a distance, even harder to gauge. Some of us are compelled, around the middle of our lives, to make a study of this baffling geography, less in the hope of conquering these distances than in the determination that the distances shall not become any greater. Chasms are necessary, but they can also, notoriously, be fatal. At this point, one is attempting nothing less than the recreation of oneself out of the rubble which has become one’s life: and this is the situation with which Elia Kazan presents us in his first novel, The Arrangement.
I am far from certain that anyone can deal with so bleak a situation either to his own, or anybody else’s satisfaction; and any such attempt is certain to leave one open to the charge of awkwardness. Kazan’s book has a certain raw gracelessness which I have not often encountered, and which I find difficult to describe. It is a terribly naked book—not blatantly so, but uncomfortably direct. He does not seem to have invented anything, though, obviously, he must have, and he seems not so much to have drawn his characters as to have yanked them, bleeding, dismembered, and still in a state of shock, from the scene of their hideous accident. No more than Job’s messengers give the impression that they were hoping to become radio announcers, does Kazan give the impression that he was trying to write a novel. He is talking. He is trying to tell us something, and not only for his sake—for, then, The Arrangement would be nothing more than an unexpected and arresting tour de force from an eminent man of the theater—but also for ours. The tone of the book is extremely striking, for it really does not seem to depend on anything that we think of as a literary tradition, but on something older than that: the tale being told by a member of the tribe to the tribe. It has the urgency of a confession and the stammering authority of a plea. “I still haven’t figured out my accident,” the narrator begins, and, in fact, he never does explain it. He doesn’t need to. Some accidents can only happen here.
EDDIE, EVANS, Evangelos—“whatever your name is”—is a big wheel at the advertising firm of Williams and McElroy, where he is known as Indispensable Eddie. He is, he tells us, “solvent, set for life,” with a beautiful Beverly Hills house, a swimming pool, “the goddamnedest lawn in that whole area,” three cars, a hi-fi, two original Picasso drawings, and a “deep freeze that held thirty-six cubic feet of food.” He has been married for twenty-one years to a remarkable woman, named Florence, and they have a daughter, Ellen, of college age. He is indispensable to Williams and McElroy because he is an expert at persuading people to buy trash they don’t need and can’t use and can’t live with. The rewards for this specialty are high indeed in this society—this consumer economy, in which the consumer is both the menace and the prey—and Eddie is very proud of his eminence, his affluence, his skills; which also operate, of course, to get him any girl he wants. His arrangement is all but perfect. But all arrangements depend on the harmony of the elements which make up the arrangement. If any element ceases to function, or begins to function differently, the arrangement is finished. In Eddie’s case, the arrangement is menaced and finally destroyed by two elements, one overt and one dormant. The overt element is his relationship to a girl named Gwen, a girl who is a challenge to him, and whom he has really grown to care about. The symptom of his love for her is his need for her respect. But she does not consider him to be better than any of the other whores, in spite of the devastating think-pieces he does from time to time for respected intellectual magazines. This, too, is an arrangement; the honesty, or at least the ferocity, of his think-pieces is intended to nullify his advertising copy. But Gwen sees this arrangement for exactly what it is, and refuses to be impressed by it, and this brings Eddie’s long-buried uneasiness concerning his life, and the manner of his life, to the surface of his troubled mind.
But it is another element altogether which is really responsible for the ruin of all of Eddie’s arrangements, an element so long dormant that it would not seem to be part of any arrangement at all. Yet, as Eddie’s situation becomes more painful and more grotesque, and as his blind, outrageous, and dangerous decisions multiply, it begins to be clear, both to him and to us, that this element has always contained the germ of the disaster which has so nearly destroyed him. This element is his relationship to his father, his relationship to his past. Seraphaim, his father, is dying. He is dying very loudly, gracelessly, and horribly, disputing death with every stratagem, no matter how base, which cunning and despair can devise.
Seraphaim is a Greek who left Turkey at the end of the century, and somehow managed to bring his entire family to America—where, for a while, they prospered. Eddie—“Evangeleh” to his father—made his father bitter by refusing to go into the family rug business: and it has not helped their relationship that the business subsequently failed, and the family lost all its money in the crash of 1929. Now black sheep Eddie-Evangeleh, once mockingly called “Shakespeare,” is the only big shot in the family, and Seraphaim’s only hope. For Seraphaim’s brothers simply failed to survive the 1929 cataclysm, they literally do not know what hit them, and exist in a carefully cultivated state of semi-idiocy; while all the other members of the family are aggressively respectable and respectably eviscerated. Whatever Eddie is, he is not like these people, who simply wish, at bottom, for Seraphaim to die as quietly and comfortably as possible. But he will not be quiet, and their ideas concerning his comfort strike him—quite rightly, though the poor people have scarcely any other choice—as galling, even dishonest, condescension. On the other hand, there is no possibility whatever that Seraphaim can do what he feverishly demands that Evangeleh help him do: he wants Evangeleh to take him out of the hospital and set him up in business again.
That Seraphaim’s intransigence is mad is so clear to everyone that no one listens to him—which increases his madness, of course; only Evangeleh understands, out of his own trouble, that his father is pleading for the chance to live his life again. But Seraphaim would live the same life, only this time more successfully, this time he would not be cheated, this time he would not be ruined. He is completely unable to bear the suspicion that the ruin of his life was caused by factors yet more inexorable than those which brought about the stock market crash. This inability is revealed in the usual way, by the most insanely cruel suspicions of everyone around him, particularly that person he most thoroughly betrayed, his wife. Both Seraphaim and Evangeleh wish to live again: but Eddie-Evangeleh is sickened by the life he has led and has embarked on a semiconscious effort to destroy it, in order to be born again.
THE RELATIONSHIP between Seraphaim and Eddie-Evangeleh is amazing in its candor and honesty, and very moving. In an odd, and most un-American way, it is the source of Evangeleh’s strength. It is not based on anything so thin and cerebral as give-and-take, or mutual understanding—which, in practice, nearly always means mutual indifference—it is remote from tolerance, and all the psychoanalytical categories are completely irrelevant to it. This is bloody, brutal, no-holds-barred, father and son, mercilessly slugging it out and inflicting real damage on each other. It is not modern, and it is not enlightened, and it is more than a little terrifying: but it is finally affirmative, because the truth of their love for each other, the depth of their involvement with each other, though loudly, theatrically, and endlessly bewailed, is never for an instant denied. It is a relationship so foreign to American life—we imagine ourselves to have gone far beyond it, whereas, in truth, we have merely fallen far short of it—that it has become nearly impossible to disentangle it from the insane jargon about sado-masochism and Oedipal complexes and penis envy in which it appears now to be breathing its last; but the father-son relationship is one of the most crucial and dangerous on earth, and to pretend that it can be otherwise really amounts to an exceedingly dangerous heresy. There is a terrible fight between Evangeleh and his father after Evangeleh has kidnapped the old man from the hospital, a fight about the past, about their life with each other, about the way the father betrayed the son, about the way the son betrayed the father. It degenerates into the really shattering pettiness of all such quarrels: “…you get your brains from me!” Seraphaim thunders, and the middle-aged Eddie-Evangeleh, shaking like a boy, insists, like a boy, “I became someone in spite of you—I’m not like you, you corrupt and hateful and vicious….” And, afterwards, he says, with wonder and remorse, “I thought I’d got over all that.” It is to be doubted that any of us ever do, and I think we do ourselves a disservice when we pretend that we have, and substitute the lie of our indifference for the truth of our pain. The truth of our pain is all we have, it is the key to who we are.
BUT THIS APPREHENSION is absolutely antithetical to Florence’s sense of reality. (I think it is worth noting that Kazan’s portrait of the wife is really amazing in that it is so free of that hostility which we have come to take for granted whenever an American woman appears in the pages of American fiction.) Florence’s limits are subtle and deadly, but they are the limits of her time and place: her qualities are rare, and her love for her husband is real. She does everything in her power to understand him; she does everything in her power not to parade her suffering, not to whimper, not to cheat, not to lie. Until the very end, she wants Eddie to come back to her, and she never pretends that she wants anything else. She is a really honorable and gallant woman, a lady Henry James’s Isabel Archer would certainly have recognized; indeed, if Isabel were living in America now, she would probably, alas, be very much like Florence. No one can possibly blame Florence for being baffled and terrified by the unreadable series of metamorphoses taking place in her husband, who is the center of her life. On the contrary, she is to be saluted for attempting to confront them at all. No one can blame her for being unable to do what none of us can do: to accept the fact that one’s lover loves another, and that, even though you are lying side by side in bed, he is far away and will never come back. (“Don’t love her,” says Florence. “Love me.”) The nature of Florence’s limits are directly attributable to the culture which produced her: “…as a woman, and your wife, I’m awfully glad you have the job you have at Williams and McElroy, that you’re so good at it we can afford a nice home and the help to keep it up, and that I can buy the best books, and when the Broadway shows come to the Biltmore, sit in the best seats, and that Ellen can go to Radcliffe, and feel free to give consideration to other assets in her husband-to-be than whether or not he has a substantial bank account.” This is a very honest statement, on its face, and her saying it is not meant to reveal her as the all-American, predatory bitch. She is saying it as a wife and mother, and saying no more than what all wives and mothers have said throughout the ages.
Unless one supposes that it is somehow wrong for women to consider that the safety and security of the nest are paramount, one cannot even quarrel with her assumptions. It is very hard to blame her for the fact that the life she lives is, in brutal truth, a hopeless series of non sequiturs. She is a modern, emancipated woman, but she is appalled by the fact that Eddie sends their daughter out to buy a diaphragm. She is devoted to civil rights, but exhibits a restrained distress when she learns that their daughter is having an affair with a Negro, and is relieved when the affair ends. (“It turned out that Ralph is not the best balanced person in the world. Well, how could you expect him to be?”) She believes in the life of the mind and the adventure of the spirit, but is wretchedly dependent on her psychiatrist. She is the book’s principal victim, and Kazan never allows us to take any easy attitude toward her. We are confronted with her suffering, in the face of which all judgment is valueless; and, furthermore, she is so placed that, however we judge her, we are, exactly as Eddie is, forced to judge ourselves. She is the book’s principal victim because she is one of the principal victims of the way we live now: what, indeed, given the options chosen by men, are her options? If Eddie, in the autumn of his life, realizes that he has been a whore, and begins to despise the life he’s led and resolves to change it, she is not to be blamed for her panic and pain. He became a whore, she did not make him one, and the life his whoring made for her is the only life she knows. Furthermore, Eddie’s options, in the land of the free, were not so very great, either, as he discovers when he decides, in effect, like Huck Finn, to “light out for the territory.”
AS HIS FATHER lies dying, Eddie-Evangeleh goes to the house where his family had lived for thirty years. In all that great mountain of heirlooms, mementoes of past wealth, photographs of weddings, children, uncles, aunts, cousins, old bills of sale, relics, relics, relics, only one thing seems truly to reflect his father, one thing only, Eddie-Evangeleh concludes, had his father loved: a photograph of the Anatolian mountain in the shadow of which he was born, and to which, now that he is dying, he longs to return. Eddie-Evangeleh thinks:
The mountain represented in that photograph seemed to be demanding some judgment of me, some verdict. What do you think, it seemed to say, what do you really think? And if I had been forced to answer and give a verdict at that moment, I would have had to say that I thought the whole passage of my family to this country had been a failure, not the country’s fault perhaps, but the inevitable result of the time, and the spirit in the air in those days. The symbols of affluence gained had been empty even by the standards of the market place. The money they had acquired wasn’t worth much; they had found that out in 1929. As for the other acquisitions—the homes, the furniture, the cars, the pianos, the decorations, the clothes, the land—they had meant nothing. These men who had cried, America, America! as the century died had come here looking for freedom and the other human things, and all they had found was the freedom to make as much money as possible… They had left that country with its running water, and its orchards of fruit, and all, all that my grandmother never stopped talking about; they had left that to find a better place to live and all they found was a better place to make money.
This is not the official version of American history, but that it very nearly sums it up can scarcely be doubted by anyone with the courage to look into the faces one encounters all over this land; who listens to the voices, hearing incessantly the buried uneasiness, the bewilderment, the unadmitted despair, hearing the arrogant, jaunty, fathomless, utterly astounding ignorance; a cultivated ignorance of all things public, and a terrified ignorance of all things private; translating itself, visibly, hourly, into a hatred of all that is strange or vivid—and what is vivid is always strange; into a hatred, at last, of life. I don’t like my life. So thinks Eddie-Evangeleh. How have I become what I’ve become?
This is the question, beating, like a muffled drum, through all the American streets, which has become, in this most sinister and preposterous of Edens, of all questions the most forbidden, the most intolerable. Fire and flood! thinks Eddie-Evangeleh, while struggling with this question, and he burns down the unloved, loveless, uninhabitable house.