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A Lost World

New York Mosaic: Do I Wake or Sleep, The Christmas Tree, Many Mansions

three novels by Isabel Bolton, with an introduction by Doris Grumbach
Steerforth Press, 401 pp., $35.00

By 1946 I had spent three years in the army where the name of the daily New York Times book reviewer, Orville Prescott, struck not a bell, while, to the few who were literary-minded, Edmund Wilson meant everything. Wilson was The American Critic whose praise—or even attention—in The New Yorker meant earthly glory for a writer. When my first novel was published, I realized that he no longer bothered much with current novels or new writers. Although politely loyal to commercialite friends like Charles Jackson and Edwin O’Connor, he was now working up large subjects—most lately the suppurating wound of Philoctetes, the necessary archer. Also, he was known to have a not-so-secret passion for beautiful young women who wrote beautiful young prose that he might nurture with his generous praise and gentle advice (“‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c,’ dearest.”) and, indeed, if he could hack it, actual presence in their lives should the dice so fall. Even so, one still hoped. In my case, in vain—snake eyes.

It was the prissy Orville Prescott who praised me while Mr. Wilson astonished everyone that season with a Pythian ode to a beautiful young woman called Isabel Bolton, whose first book, Do I Wake or Sleep, he hailed as “school of Henry James… the device of the sensitive observer who stands at the center of the action and through the filter of whose consciousness alone the happenings of the story reach us…a voice that combines, in a peculiar way, the lyric with the dry; and is exquisitely perfect in accent; every syllable falls as it should….” A star was born.

A comic legend was also born. Wilson, ravished by the beauty of Bolton’s prose, hoped that its creator was equally beautiful and so…. Well, Wilson was very much school of Montaigne. Like Montaigne, he was not exactly misogynistic but he felt that the challenge of another male mind was the highest sort of human exchange while possession of a beautiful woman was also of intense importance to him. Could the two ever be combined—the ultimate soulmate? Montaigne thought that if women endured the same education and general experience as men they would probably be no different and so intellectual equality might be achieved. But he gave no examples. By Wilson’s time, many women had been similarly educated and luminous feminine minds—chock-a-block with pensées—were very much out there. But what about…well, to be blunt, Beauty? Could Mind as well as Beauty be found in one person?

Wilson’s lifelong quest led him into some strange culs-de-sac. The strangest of all must have been when he discovered that Isabel Bolton—name deliberately reminiscent of Isabel Archer?—was, in reality, a majestic granddame of sixty-three, born Mary Britton Miller in 1883 at New London, Connecticut.

Only five minutes, so legend goes, after my sister. This participation in identical twinship is the most valuable experience of my life…. Both of my parents died of pneumonia and within an hour of each other in the fourth year of my life…. In my fourteenth year my twin sister was drowned. After this there seems to be a kind of blotting out of life—everything became dim, unreal, artificial.

Perfunctory attendance at a boarding school. A well-off family made travels in Europe possible. “Three years in Italy were of profound importance. In 1911 New York became my permanent home.”

As Miller, she published a half-dozen unmemorable works. Then, in 1946, she recreated herself under another name; and entered her kingdom. Wilson’s was the first fanfare for a woman who was to write a half-dozen more novels of which two are as distinguished as her “first” (the three are now collected in New York Mosaic). Bolton died in 1979 at ninety-two, productive almost to the end. As practically nothing is now known of her, editor Doris Grumbach does her best with the odd facts: Bolton came from a “good” family; had two close lady friends; lived in pre-1914 Europe and then Manhattan. Attended the Writers’ Colony at Yaddo. Died in Greenwich Village at 81 Barrow Street, not far from where Wilson’s jolliest muse, Dawn Powell, lived. The rest is, so far, silence, secret—Sapphic?

So little is known of Bolton that one does not know if she and Wilson ever met. But I am fairly certain he saw to it that they did. A meeting only the prose of Henry James could have risen to, unlike the equally great Edith Wharton, who might have fallen upon it with terrible rending eagle’s swoop:

There had been—one wondered not so idly why—no photograph or other rendering of likeness or, even, dis-likeness, on the homely paper “jacket” that embraced the ever, to Wilson, with each passing day, more precious volume, the distilled essence of all feminine beauty and sensibility, quite overpowering in its effect upon his perhaps too febrile adhesive system for which the names so boldly yet, by some magical art, demurely printed on this very same “jacket” convey to him the physical beauty of the divine girl who had “cut to roundness and smoothed to convexity a little crystal of literary form that concentrates the light like a burning glass”—his very own words in his devoir for The New Yorker, written with so much pounding of the heart as, to put it in a plain and vulgar fashion, a cry from that never not susceptible heart—in short, a love letter to the unknown girl—surely, a girl of genius rather than a woman like his handsome, brilliant, but—well, incendiary (literally) wife, Mary McCarthy, who had recently, when he had withdrawn to his study and locked the door, slipped under that same door a single sheet of paper deliberately set aflame in order to smoke him, as it were, from his lair, all the while shouting in a powerful voice, not so much golden as a reverberating cymbal of purest brass, “Fuck you.” The plangent voice resounded even now, unpleasantly, in his mind, as he rang the doorbell to a Greenwich Village residence set in a quarter not too—nor less than—fashionable.

The door opened. “Mr. Wilson.” The voice was neither golden nor bronze but of another quality and substance entirely—honey from Hymettus, collected from blue and white Attic flowers—perhaps those very same asphodels which adorn the hill at Marathon that looks upon the sea, wine-dark sea like the eyes of Isabel Bolton into which he now so intensely gazed that he let fall the cluster of white violets he was holding and they scattered, as offering, at her shapely feet encased in crimson velvet with the sort of high instep that caused his heart to beat even more wildly than before. “Do forgive me,” he said, collecting the fallen blossoms as the divine girl, all willowy with golden hair—no sign of chemical artifice in those massed curls—and the small exquisite poitrine like—what was it? gazelles? He must really get around to learning Hebrew one day.

Wilson’s praise of the perfect book came in bursts of sound between articulated wheezes of emotion as he drank the perfectly made martini—plainly, there was to be no end to her genius—and his heart, that metaphor as well as vulnerable organ, rattled in his bosom like the unfortunate occupant in the fabled ferrous mask. Here, at last, she was. So entirely there, so real—man-brain in girl-shape. She was tantalizingly silent. So must Moira—Fate for the ancient Greeks—have appeared upon first encounter with a mere mortal.

An inner door of the tastefully decorated—all Englishy and yet impeccable—chamber opened, revealing a tall woman, old but majestic, with the creased brow of Juno beneath white hair parted in the middle. As the ancient Norn strode into the room, Wilson rose from his chair, saying to the perfect girl, “This then is your mother?” The powerful old lady smiled and held out her hand.

No, Mr. Wilson. I am the Isabel Bolton you have lately written so amiably of in the popular press. This…” she indicated the girl of what had been his best dream, ever, “is my ward, Cherry.” With that, Bolton shook Wilson’s hand while her other arm enfolded lovingly, possessively, the narrow waist of the perfect girl.

As Wilson made his all too slow, it seemed to him, descent to the—yes, entirely clear at last, figure in the Persian carpet, he heard, from far-off, Bolton’s voice—could it have been one of brass like Mary’s? “I fear that Mr. Wilson has fainted. But then he is very stout. It is not uncommon at our age. Bring smelling salts.” The last thing he saw were the heavy leather boots of the old lady, with their—what else? fallen insteps.

Needless to say, I have invented Cherry, yet there is often a Sapphic glow to Bolton’s exchanges between women. In Do I Wake or Sleep the relationship between the exquisite Bridget (for whom Wilson fell as Bolton’s surrogate) and the rough-hewn Millicent is loverlike in the teasing French manner rather than today’s klutzy American style where each would have had to wear an auctorial label and, if sympathetic, behave correctly according to rules laid down by the heirs and heiresses of Cotton Mather. Happily, for Bolton, the amatory simply is; and, in general, gaiety (old meaning) rules and no one is assigned a label much less sold off in midseason to a team. In this, she is as alien to us as Ovid, and I suspect only a very few rare spirits ever took to her even when the books first came out in post-Hitler days, a time of stern Julius Caesar rather than her own Midsummer Night’s Dream.

To read Bolton’s three novels in sequence is to relive the three major moments of the American half century as observed by an unusual writer located aboard what Dawn Powell called “the happy island,” Manhattan. The first novel takes place in 1939. War is wending its way toward the United States and the protagonist, the enchanting Bridget St. Dennis, is lunching blithely in the French Pavilion at Flushing Meadow’s World’s Fair. Although the chef, Henri Soulé, would later open what was regarded for many years as New York’s best restaurant, it is a part of Bolton’s magic that not only do you get quite a few good meals in her books but you get subtle distinctions as well. She shared everyone’s delight in Le Pavillon’s transfer from Flushing to Manhattan. But Bolton herself opts for the magical Chambord in Third Avenue where, as the cartoon used to say, the elite meet to eat or, as someone said to an ancient bon viveur who was recently extolling the long-vanished Chambord, “You are living in the past,” to which the old man replied, “Where else can you get a decent meal?”

Bolton belongs to the James-Wharton school of trans-Atlantic fiction or, perhaps, a new category should be invented—of mid-Atlantic literature that flourished, to put arbitrary dates like bookends to its history, from Hawthorne’s Our Old Home (1863) to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, published in 1943. It was a long and lively run and brought out the best in two literatures never destined to be one but each able to complement the other while even those professionally committed to the American side, like Twain and Howells, touched base regularly with their common old home. For a writer born in 1883, with sufficient family money but no Jamesian fortune, Europe would be as much a part of her life as Brookline, Massachusetts, where the last of Bolton’s protagonists hails from: a world of numerous servants, of courses at dinner, of changes of clothes, presumably to give the servants more than enough to do in the pre-1914 world when Bolton was already a grown woman. As it turned out, pre-1914 continued well into the modern age of cocktails and movie stars—one of Edith Wharton’s least-known novels, Twilight Sleep, deals with a Hollywood movie star in a way that must make the Collins sisters, the Bel-Air Brontës, quite nervous at how well the stately Mrs. Wharton depicts the life of one who lives on the screen everywhere on earth but nowhere at all in the flesh at home. Then, with Depression and Second War, the old world expired. Good riddance, the modern thought. Bolton is of two minds. She is conscious of the douceur de la vie of the old time; also of the narrow callow brazen world that that time was rendering all gold, or trying to.

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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