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A Lost World

Wilson gets quite right Bolton’s “Jamesian technique in Do I Wake or Sleep: the single consciousness that observes all.” I missed it in the first chapter which is all Bridget, lovingly observed, I thought, by author-god. Then, gradually, one realizes that it is the other woman at the table whose mind we’ve entered.

Plot: Do I Wake or Sleep. Bridget is having lunch at the French Pavilion with a besotted (by her) popular novelist, Percy Jones, equally besotted by martinis, and one Millicent, “a writer of witty articles and famous tales—beloved of Hollywood.” A character perhaps influenced by Dorothy Parker and from whose point of view the story is told.

Bridget enchants at lunch; and her creator convinces us that she does so by what she says, not often quoted, and by the way that she includes everyone in a kind of vital intimacy. But she is unexpectedly evasive on the subject of her child, Beatrice. We learn that Bridget was born Rosenbaum; married Eric von Mandestadt, “an Aryan (she’d used the ridiculous word as though it had been incorporated into all the European tongues).” Percy is very much on the case: Beatrice is in Vienna with her paternal grandmother; the Nazis are there, too. Percy feels that it is urgent that the child be got out but Bridget ignores the subject. The first chapter is a very special example of the storyteller’s art. It seems to be told in standard third person. But, gradually, with an aside here, a parenthesis there, one realizes that the consciousness taking all this in is the near-silent Millicent who, in the next chapter, takes shape and autonomy. It is an elegant trick of narrative.

At lunch, Millicent observes and records Bridget as she hovers like a bright blur-winged hummingbird over many subjects. Wilson and Grumbach find much of James, Woolf, and the Elizabeth Bowen of The Death of the Heart in the prose but Bridget herself finesses that essential trio:

She had been in her brief existence two distinctly different beings, and one of these was the creature she was before and the other she had become after reading the works of Marcel Proust. No, really, she wasn’t joking. From the experience she’d emerged with all manner of extensions, reinforcements, renewals of her entire nervous system—indeed, she might say that she’d been endowed with a perfectly new apparatus for apprehending the vibration of other people’s souls…. We were forced to take about with us wherever we went this extraordinary apparatus, recording accurately a thousand little matters of which we had not formerly been aware, and whether she was glad or sorry to be in possession of so delicate and precise an instrument, she had never been able to determine.

There is something to be said for putting off one’s official first novel until the age of sixty-three. Certainly Bolton is not in the least diffident when it comes to putting the home-grown American product in its place, which is way out yonder in those amber fields of grain:

Did [Percy] really believe that American novelists were ready to accept, to celebrate the same creature, the same human heart? It seemed to her that they were always trying to reshape, to remold the creature according to some pattern they desperately yearned to have it conform to—…would he agree with her that American novels seldom went deep into the realities of character—weren’t they dealing more with circumstances, places—epochs, environments? They came boiling up out of the decades—out of the twenties, out of the thirties—out of Pittsburgh….

Poor novelist Percy is reeling by now. Yes, he is inclined to agree with her that American novelists are moralists but…Henry James, he makes the great name toll over the guinea hen. Bridget counterattacks—Dostoyevsky. “Who could really call Henry James in comparison a good psychologist?… matchless brilliance and probity…innocent, indignant and upright response to the vulgar, the brutal, the material aspects of society…. But if you tried to compare him with Dostoyevsky, he was a child, a holy innocent. [Dostoyevsky] was the traveler in the desert of the soul.”

Fast forward, another restaurant: “I believe,” said the head waiter, benignly, “this is Mr. Michael Korda’s table. There’s been some mistake. I do apologize. He is with,” a conspiratorial whisper, “Mr. Stephen King.”

Yes, to this day, the Four Seasons still echoes with that never-ending literary debate as the waiter shows them to their table in a shallow pool of water. “Mr. Kissinger’s favorite table. But as it’s Tuesday, he’s lunching in Beijing.”

The plot is simply the next day. Lunch again with Percy and Millicent. Percy obsessed by the child as putative victim of the Nazis. Bridget evasive. They meet at the Algonquin. Go on to Chambord. Dover sole newly arrived in brine aboard the Normandie. Later, to a cocktail party—the New York cocktail party of the Forties where the currently celebrated and fashionable mill about, grist for Millicent’s eye and ear ever grinding them all up, finer and finer. Percy, drunk, misbehaves: gets knocked out. Doctor comes. No, he is not dead. The party ends—the denouement is that the child is somehow defective—the word “cretin” is used rather than “challenged” as they now say at the Four Seasons: in fact, a sort of monster. Then we learn that Bridget’s evasiveness is due to the fact that she is currently penniless; even so, she will bring the child home.

What strikes one most is Millicent’s deep-seated passion for America in general and for New York City in particular, understandable in the case of a provincial like Thomas Wolfe come wide-eyed to the web and the rock but odd in a partly Europeanized woman of her age. There has been a definite shift in mood since the generation before her: Mrs. Wharton shuddered at the sound of American voices and Henry James gave a murderously deadpan description of “American City” somewhere or other out there in the flat empty regions where the states are simply drawn on the national map with a ruler, and the buffalo roam.

Millicent contrasts New York with European cities: “Here you walked in a vacuum. There were no echoes, no reverberations.” She looks at the Empire State Building.

It was one of the wonders of the world. Nevertheless she didn’t (and how many people she wondered did) even know the name of its architect. It rose above you, innocent of fame or fable…. What a strange, what a fantastic city: and yet, and yet; there was something here that one experienced nowhere else on earth. Something one loved intensely. What was it? Crossing the streets—standing on the street corners with the crowds: what was it that induced this special climate of the nerves?… There was something—a peculiar sense of intimacy, friendliness, being here with all these people and in this strange place…. They touched your heart with tenderness and you felt yourself a part of the real flight and flutter-searching their faces, speculating about their dooms and destinies.

She has a sudden vision of Apocalypse. War. Towers crashing yet “an unchallenged faith and love and generosity, which…still lay deep-rooted in the American psyche to deliver us from death—remembering the Fair at the Flushing Meadow, the Futurama (sponsored by General Motors and displaying with such naive assurance the chart and prospect of these United States).” There is a kind of patrician Whitman at work here and one wonders does anyone now, nearly sixty years later, feel so intimately about Manhattan, the American fact?

In The Christmas Tree, Bolton has moved on to 1945. Mrs. Danforth wants her six-year-old grandson, Henry, to have a proper old-fashioned Christmas tree while all that he wants is to play with his bomber and fighter planes. She lives in a skyscraper overlooking the East River but a part of her is still anchored in the brownstone world of her youth, “the days when people really believed in their wealth and special privilege…the days of elegance, of arrogance, of ignorance and what a rashly planned security.” Today Christmas is vast and mass-produced on every side unlike the days of her youth. She broods on her son Larry, father to Henry. He lives now in Washington with a male lover while Anne, his ex-wife, is en route to New York for Christmas, accompanied by her new husband, Captain Fletcher, an Army Air Force wing-commander. (Bolton errs on this one: he would have been at least a full colonel if not brigadier general.) Mrs. Danforth admires Anne’s resilience; the coolness with which she accepts the fact that she is often drawn to “the invert, the schizophrene, the artist. Men like that were never normal sexually.”

Mrs. Danforth is sufficiently in the grip of the Freudians of the Forties—never again, happily, to be so ubiquitous or so serenely off-base—to wonder if she had loved her son too much when they lived in Paris and it was quite clear to her that, at fifteen, he was having an affair with a French boy a year or two older. “She’d felt no censure of the boys, she had no inclination to reproach them. She’d only felt an immense love, an overwhelming pity for them. And oh, she questioned passionately, how much could she herself be held responsible for Larry’s inclinations? How much had she been implicated?” This was the era of the Oedipus Complex (something Oedipus himself did not suffer from since he didn’t know that it was Mom he had married after killing what he hadn’t known was Dad); also, of the era of popular books with titles like Generation of Vipers—denouncing the American Mom for castrating her sons. Although Proust must have taught Bolton a lot more than Mrs. Danforth would ever learn, it is probably true to the time that mother would blame herself for her son’s unorthodox sexual appetites.

Grumbach likes this the best of Bolton’s novels. It is certainly the most tightly plotted; it would make a solid old-fashioned drawing-room comedy with a melodramatic twist. Unfortunately, Bolton’s scenes between Larry and his lover are not quite all there on the page and what is there doesn’t have the reverberation that a memory, say, of Mrs. Danforth’s youth sets off in other pages. Bolton also makes the narrative more difficult for herself by shifting points of “view.” Mrs. Danforth gives way to Larry, preparing to break up with a lover while brooding upon his Parisian past; finally, should he join his ex-wife Anne and her new husband beneath his mother’s Christmas tree? We next shift to Anne on her way from Reno with her American husband; she is nostalgic for Larry,

an exceptional human being, she sometimes suspected that he’d given very little to anyone and that, as a matter of fact, he’d taken from others even less. It was in his enormous concern for the general human plight that his affections were the most implicated; his love of humanity in the large impersonal sense was profound…. He was at the mercy of certain tricks and habits of bad behavior—nervous reflexes which apparently he could not control….

There the fatal flaw is named and prepares us for what is to come.

Anne and her manly Captain make up the family scene with the child and Mrs. Danforth. Larry’s presence is a dissonant note made worse by the arrival of his lover. Despite good manners all around, the collision between Larry and the Captain takes place over the child, who tells Larry that he hates him. The child prefers the war hero who has brought him numerous toy planes. The Captain then launches what is currently known as a “homophobic” rage at Larry, who tells him to get out. But instead they go out onto the terrace, sixteen stories above the street. The ladies hear loud voices, terrible epithets; silence. Larry comes back into the room, alone. He says that he has killed the Captain; pushed him over the railing. No, it was not an accident.

The others are willing to perjure themselves to save Larry. But he will not allow it; he rings the police; he confesses. “Au revoir, Maman,” he says, when they come to take him away. Mother and son have now reverted to their earlier happier selves….

With what pride, with what great pride she had watched him go!

There was a flickering, a brightness, somewhere in the room. She turned; she lifted her eyes. The light was smiting the silver angel on top of Henry’s Christmas tree, poised and trembling, with its wings and herald trumpet shining brightly, there it hung above the guttered candles and the general disarray.

Pardon us our iniquities, forgive us our transgressions—have mercy on the world,” she prayed.

The Christmas Tree was published one year after the Kinsey Report furrowed a peasant nation’s brow. The melodramatic ending meant that Bolton was responding, as so many of us did, to the fierce Zeitgeist. But her general coolness in dealing with the taboo probably accounts for the almost instant obscurity of her work amongst the apple-knockers.

Many Mansions was published when Bolton was close to seventy. She writes of Miss Sylvester who is recreating her own past by reading a memoir-like novel she had written years earlier. It is February 1, 1950, her birthday: she is eighty-four and Harry Truman’s birthday present for her is to give the order to build the hydrogen bomb.

She broods upon her great age:

The life of the aged was a constant maneuvering to appease and assuage the poor decrepit body. Why, most of the time she was nothing more than a nurse attending to its every need. As for the greater part of the night one’s position was positively disreputable, all alone and clothed in ugly withering flesh—fully conscious of the ugliness, the ignominy—having to wait upon oneself with such menial devotion—here now, if you think you’ve got to get up mind you don’t fall, put on the slippers, don’t trip on the rug.

The body is now a perpetual sly nemesis, waiting to strike its mortal blow.

Meanwhile, Miss Sylvester has taken to pursuing lost time, that long ago time when the body was a partner in a grand exercise known as life. She also frets about money. Has she enough if she should live to be ninety? Should she die soon, what about leaving her small fortune to the young Adam Stone whom “she had picked up in a restaurant…the only person in her life for whom she felt genuine concern”? Adam had been in the Second War; emerged bitter; devoured books “ravenously”; was at work upon a novel: “He had cast off his family. He had cast off one girl after another, or very likely one girl after another had cast him off.” Miss Sylvester had spoken to him in an Armenian restaurant on Fourth Avenue. “I see you’re reading Dante,” was her opening gambit. She knows Italian and he does not; this proves to be an icebreaker though hardly a matchmaker.

Now she turns to her long abandoned manuscript. Two families. Great houses. And the old century was still a splendid all-golden present for the rich. Seasons now come back to her. “Summer was that high field on the high shelf above the ocean…the surf strong, the waves breaking. Something pretty terrible about it—getting, in one fell swoop, the fury of the breakers carried back to crack and echo in the dunes…the wild cold smell of the salt spray inducing mania excitement.” One suspects that Bolton is actually writing of her fourteen-year-old twin who drowned but Miss Sylvester, her present alter ego, is single and singular and in wild nature more natural.

As an adolescent she lives among numerous grand relatives; but always set apart. Her father was an “Italian musician,” a “Dago organ-grinder,” she comes to believe, as the subject is unmentionable. Then, on a memorable Sunday Easter dinner, her grandfather makes a toast, “Let us drink to the burial of the feud.” The organ-grinder, her father, Sylvester, is dead in southern Italy. He had been paid by the family to go away, leaving behind his daughter as a sort of boarder in their great houses.

Then, almost idly, she falls in love with a married relative; becomes pregnant. The resourceful family assigns yet another relative to her, Cecilia, who takes her to Europe, to fateful Italy where she is treated as a respectable married woman in an interesting condition. The child, a boy, is born in Fiesole; but she never sees him; her positively Napoleonic family has promptly passed him on to an elegant childless New York couple who whisk him away to a new life, under a name that she will never learn. Cecilia raves about the anonymous couple’s charm; their wealth; the guaranteed happiness of the boy’s life. Grimly, the mother murmurs the phrase “‘tabula rasa,’…as though she’d coined it.” She would now begin again as if nothing had ever happened.

The old lady finished her reading: “If her book should fall into the hands of others addicted as she was to the habitual reading of novels, what exactly would their feelings be?” One wonders—is there such a thing now as a habitual reader of novels? Even the ambitious, the ravenously literary young Adam seems to have a suspicion that he may have got himself into the stained-glass-window trade.

With a sufficient income, Miss Sylvester moves to New York. She becomes involved with another young woman, Mary (they live in a gentle ladies’ pension near Fifth Avenue, presided over by yet another of the multitudinous cousins). “How passionately Mary loved the world and with what eagerness she dedicated herself to reforming it….” The two young women study to be opera singers; but they have no talent. Then Mary involves them in settlement work and organizing women workers—it is the era of the young Eleanor Roosevelt, and Miss Sylvester realizes in old age that “with all the central founts of love—sexual passion and maternity—so disastrously cut off, had not this deep, this steadfast friendship for Mary been the one human relationship where love had never failed to nourish and replenish her?” But she loses Mary to marriage; then to death, which also claims, at Okinawa, Mary’s son.

Miss Sylvester has a long relationship with a Jewish intellectual, Felix; but feels she is too old to marry him; then he announces that he is to marry his secretary, who has been his mistress for ten years: Miss Sylvester’s decade of intimacy. They part fondly, for good.

She takes in, as a boarder, a young novelist. Son of a fashionable boring couple she once knew. Bolton is too elegant a novelist to reveal him as the old lady’s son but sufficiently mischievous to find him, despite great charm, of indifferent character, even flawed.

The book concludes with Miss Sylvester in her flat, collecting some much needed cash for Adam, who is waiting for her at the Armenian restaurant. But even as he is telephoning, she is felled by a stroke. Angrily, Adam leaves the telephone booth “to go back in the dining-room to wait for his old lady, under the impression that she is on her way.”

What then was the figure in the carpet that my highly imagined Edmund Wilson made out on his stately way to the floor? As I emerge from Bolton’s world, I am sure that what he saw was the fourteen-year-old twin sister brought back from full-fathom five—with pearls for eyes—by a great act of will and considerable art to replace the mediocre Mary Britton Miller with a magically alive writer whom she chose to call Isabel Bolton, for our delight.

Letters

The Shock of Recognition April 9, 1998

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