The Little Hotel
The Surface of Earth
Many people, perhaps, will not be happy until their parents are no longer alive, no longer able to do them down or do them harm; and many of those people will perhaps even then not be able to be happy. In the words of a recent poem by Philip Larkin:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
I don’t see what Richard Murphy meant when he said (The New York Review, May 15) that those first two lines “are pawns thrown away to give the reader confidence to go on with the game”; if you must have a chess metaphor, the poem’s pounce had better be “fools mate.” Here are three powerful novels about such havoc. Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel has at its heart an aging couple, in Switzerland just after the war, who pretend to be cousins and can’t marry because the man won’t won’t, because of the malign potency of that most important of previous marriages, the one which had given him birth:
“I wish we could get married here, Robert. I see no sense in our remaining this way. It is absurd a man your age being tied to an old mother and three sisters, maiden ladies in their fifties and sixties. Why, you scarcely knew them. And you don’t like them. I send them Christmas cards; you don’t. And they know all about us but they pretend not to. Your family is full of hypocrisy.”
“I promised my mother not to marry during her lifetime; and I won’t.”
“But, Robert, she is blind, deaf and partly paralysed. She has lost her memory. And you don’t believe in a personal God.”
“Just the same, she does; and I swore on her Bible; and she is still alive.”
And when she is dead, that mother, will she not still be alive, to such intents and purposes?
Reynolds Price’s The Surface of Earth tells of a curse which—as perhaps in a Greek tragedy—falls on and on, upon parents and children, through generation after generation (1903-1905, 1921-1929, 1944), and which eventually may issue faintly—as in one of Shakespeare’s last plays—in “partial amends,” which is the title of the book’s last third. The woman who loves one of the all-but-doomed men writes in a letter to a friend: “That’s what we talked about finally, his life. He thinks it has been poor; it sounds good to me—a father that left them when he was a baby, a mother who watched him as little as possible.” It is either (on one reading, which would be my reading) a lapse into sentimentality, or the opposite (a resistance to the sentimentality of dooming), when Mr. Price finally falls back upon—or rises to—italics to express his sense that we …