There is a prize in this grab bag of fiction: Niccolo Tucci’s Unfinished Funeral. This will be no surprise to readers who admired Tucci’s large novel about his forebears, Before My Time (1962), nor to those who have followed his stories in The New Yorker. But this beautifully wry new book is the best proof yet of a unique and masterful talent.
Tucci is an Italian (his mother was Russian) who has lived in America since the early Thirties. His two novels are written in English—not in the pyrotechnic English of Conrad and Nabokov, but in a style of perfectly relaxed irony. He is very much the aristocratic raconteur, poised at an agreeable distance from his listeners and yet willing to speak the truth with shameless and indifferent simplicity. The truth he tells is easy to misunderstand, however; Time declared his first book inferior to Peter Rabbit in emotional content. Only those who appreciate, say, Sterne and Svevo are likely to appreciate Tucci. Like them, he draws most of his power from whimsical self-examination, from private knowledge of the stubbornness and deviousness of human feeling. If very little happens in his books, that is because he is concerned to show how reluctant men are to break away from their earliest loves and vices. Like Tristram Shandy, like La Coscienza di Zeno, Tucci’s novels are patient and witty studies of incapacity.
A word about Before My Time, which is far more ambitious in scope than the present book, may be in order. What seems at first to be a work of snobbish nostalgia for the turn-of-the-century haut monde turns out instead to be an unsparing picture of a mother’s ruinous dominance over all her children. Their efforts to achieve a measure of freedom—through disobedience, through perfect obedience, through direct flight and dissipation—amount to nothing: without her their lives have no meaning. When she finally dies after 600 pages of steady tyranny, they are more bound to her influence than ever, and the novel ends on a note of grief, of memorial, and above all of revealed identity: the children now are the mother. And these children, well trained in the snuffing out of independence, correspond to Tucci’s own parents and elder relations. As he says with disarming simplicity in the opening pages, “I was born a good child. Had I lost both of my parents at the age of three or four, six at the most, I still might have become a good man.” Stated so bluntly, the point is not maudlin but comic, precisely in the way Tristram Shandy is comic; and the entire novel sustains this air of droll detachment from a story that is inherently confessional and accusatory.
In a note prefaced to Before My Time Tucci intimated that further novels in the same mode would be forthcoming. Unfinished Funeral, however, is a radically different book, even though its theme is the same. The exaggeration that creeps into family legends, streamlining the motives and heightening the eccentricity of the characters involved, here becomes the governing principle of narration. Unfinished Funeral is a matriarchal fantasy—a work of ridiculous, yet somehow touching, buffoonery.
The heroine of Unfinished Funeral is the Duchess Ermelinda, who has contrived to avert the fate of Spanish wives of all classes—desertion, betrayal, resignation—by making herself an object of pity and awe to her husband and children. This she accomplishes through mortification of the flesh: she boasts thirty-six major operations without anaesthesia, none of them at all necessary. This would seem to be a high price to pay for becoming the first Spanish lady to keep a husband faithful, but in fact Ermelinda’s operations are the sign of a bounteous vigor that cannot be expended in any other way, given the aristocratic code of female propriety. That her antics drive her husband to suicide and her children to despair is trifling when set next to her great victory: she has circumvented the peculiarly Spanish form of unhappiness.
Unfinished Funeral gets a bizarre power from the impossibility of distinguishing loyalty from fixation in the family of Combon de Triton:
A great fatherly, brotherly, sisterly, motherly, conjugal, extraconjugal love tied them together in a constant, unspoken conspiracy. Hate and love came like roses and thorns, in the same bunch. Someone was always sparing someone else to knife him more efficiently tomorrow…. Thus the love of their day was devoured with rage, but it left them yet avid for more. A savage lust was the result—and reciprocal funerals, all held in secret, or in dreams, which are secret anyway, and then whispered in confession and atoned for with great hissing of prayers and polishing of beads between tense fingertips.
Ermelinda’s funeral procession, which she herself summons to the gate whenever a new heart attack is needed to promote family unity, never collects its corpse; at the end it is the hearse itself which gets accidentally destroyed, while Ermelinda, the principle of motherhood incarnate, is busy manufacturing a new attack to repay her daughter for a slighting remark.
The joke of Tucci’s plot is an orthodox Freudian one. Ermelinda’s profligate son, because he is a son, can do no wrong in his mother’s eyes, while the faithful and long-suffering daughter is seen only as a rival. All the love affairs in the book are versions of incest or liaisons so degrading—the son gets engaged to “a retired chorus girl of his mother’s generation, twice divorced, half Jewish and half cannibal”—that they enable the image of maternal and sisterly purity to be preserved intact. In one of Tucci’s bolder whimsies, Freud himself enters the plot at a certain point to misinterpret Ermelinda’s case. Yet despite such foolery, Tucci’s characters involve our sympathy to an extraordinary degree. In its persistent caricature of the great clichés of emotional life, Unfinished Funeral becomes not simply funny but uncannily moving.
James Purdy, too, is a comic writer, a much-praised one; and yet he seems precious and pretentious next to Tucci. His true vein, as exemplified in 63: Dream Palace and Malcolm, is that of self discovering fantasy—the vein of “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” Purdy is effective so long as he sustains the atmosphere of dream; he has the estimable gift of giving psychological weight to a rapid series of bizarre events, so that in the end we feel that some inarticulate quality of experience has been brought almost to the surface of consciousness. This is much, but it does not satisfy Purdy’s ambition. When he tries his hand at backyard realism, as in The Nephew, or at polemical satire, as in the present novel, a certain brittleness becomes apparent. The facts of human nature seem to nauseate him, and he mistakes his nausea for social criticism.
The corollary of nausea is sentimental self-pity. One is not surprised to find this trait running through much of Purdy’s non-fantastic fiction, particularly through his stories about children who are maltreated by their parents. Cabot Wright Begins, however, appears at first to avoid sentimentality by being perfectly insincere. It is written in the latest pop-art, comicstrip mode, in which characters with no discernible minds establish instantaneous intimacy with one another, trade clever remarks, undergo numerous funny coincidences, and finally arrive nowhere. The question of the plot is why Cabot Wright, a decent young fellow in the investment business, has committed 300 rapes on 300 oddly compliant women. No direct answer is given, but it is made sufficiently clear that Cabot stands for a whole nation that is overcompensating for its sexual anaesthesia. At times the novel ventures into pointed satire of the heterosexual ideal—as, for example, when we hear the intoning of a quack sex-doctor’s therapeutic chant:
I will marry, marry marry & will play safe and obey, we’ll be Mister and Mrs. O. K. O.K. Thanks to that institution that makes me go and society hum….heterosex fount of progress and fun!….
But it is often difficult to tell whether Purdy is blaming “Business America” for making normal love impossible or for making it too blatantly available. In either case he is careful, until the closing chapters, never to give the impression of taking his own themes seriously. To borrow a line from one of his previous books, his latest characters act as if “the whole of life must be a silly trifling thing to them, which bored them, and which they wanted to end, a movie they felt was too long and overacted.”
Yet before it is finished, Cabot Wright Begins has become all too sincere in its way. It is largely turned over to diatribes against the intolerable vulgarity of America, polemical jokes against critics and other novelists, maudlin laments over the meaninglessness of life, and an increasingly grotesque imagery of sexual disgust. The book explodes in a truly spectacular display of random aggression. And Purdy sets up his argument so that this debacle appears as a noble gesture of refutation. For Cabot Wright Begins has a Faux-Monnayeurs subplot about turning the hero’s story into a novel, and this is finally declared impossible “in a place and time like the present.” I only wish this had been stated in the first sentence of the book instead of the last.
Jean Stafford’s latest collection of stories is distinguished by a good-natured, low-keyed humanity that Purdy would regard as anachronistic. There is, indeed, something deliberately old-fashioned about this book. Several of the stories are about childhood days in Colorado, and the narrator-heroine, Emily Vanderpool, is a kind of Tom Sawyer whose innate goodness is meant to shine through all her pranks and perversities. (In one story, in fact, Emily’s problem is to find a spot where she can read Tom Sawyer Abroad in peace.) The irony of narration—“I had a bad character, I know that”—is meant to be shallow and obvious; these tales are not devoted to a statement of some ultimate truth but to reproducing the moral innocence of a child who is known to have handsomely survived her trifling vicissitudes.
The question, however, is whether such anecdotal fiction is too relaxed to be deeply engaging. We might say that Miss Stafford knows the limits of her talent too well; neither in the Emily stories nor in any of the others does she burden her prose with a sense of personal urgency, of compulsion to speak. The stories mean just what they seem at first glance to mean; the plot itself is the meaning. Thus in one story we witness a beautiful lady’s wasted career, and the only matter for reflection is that her career was indeed wasted. In another we see a retired professor disembarras himself of a sycophantic disciple, and we experience relief: that’s over with. Similarly, we share the sense of achieved freedom experienced by a young woman who deserts her provincial guardians in Colorado, and of two lovers who foil a pack of busybodies. If there is a recurrent idea in this book it is the idea of sheer escape, stripped of intellectual content. Some of Miss Stafford’s characters escape and some don’t: too bad for them. In her most famous and ambitious story, “A Winter’s Tale,” she misses a fine opportunity to probe the feelings of an American girl who realizes that she has fallen in love with a Nazi officer. Instead, the emphasis falls on an intrinsically melodramatic circumstance; the officer is a Jew, and if he deserts his aging mistress he will be betrayed and killed. When this finally happens the reader feels no involvement beyond the usual recognition that Miss Stafford’s characters tend to suffer from hard luck. It is somehow not enough, and one is especially disappointed because the author writes so consistently well and seems so genuinely humane.
Emotional shallowness is elevated to a kind of moral ideal in the narrative method of C. P. Snow. Plausibly believing that men of action tend to be out of touch with their inner experience. Snow chooses to chronicle important deeds at the expense of nuances of feeling. His latest contribution to the Strangers and Brothers series is all about Britain’s “independent nuclear deterrent.” The personal affairs and quirks of the men involved in making policy are of interest only insofar as they alter the balance of political power. The narrator, colorless and familiar Lewis Eliot, speaks of his own emotional life merely as something that might be “dangerous for me,” and he tells of adultery in high places with a chilly and distant broadmindedness. Snow’s idea of a daring breach of sang-froid is to have Eliot confess to a feeling “which one cannot hide from oneself, and yet which is so unrespectable that one wants to deny it”—namely, a feeling of affection for London. In the crisis of the plot, when the beleaguered hero is forced to resign his ministry but is thereby enabled to divorce his wife and marry his mistress, we are not given the remotest idea of how any of them feels. They are all such good sports that it scarcely seems to matter.
This is to suggest that Corridors of Power is less a novel than an adventure story, a bedtime yarn which gets its interest from suspense about the ending and from simple identification with the mighty. The book is pervaded with a contagious admiration for power itself, and with a correspondingly patronizing view of “the knockabout poot the lumpen proletariat,” who need not make the great decisions and can therefore go on stupidly “voting for another gorilla” to oppose the Tories. For a few hours at least, the reader can luxuriate in this exclusiveness, and when it wears off he may not realize that the thematic question of the plot—“Who had “the power?”—has been almost wholly evaded. It is probable that Snow honestly considers the question unanswerable. He patiently introduces us to cabinet ministers, to renowned scientists, to munitions directors, but no one can give a clear account of why and how the cause of disarmament and the hero’s career are being sabotaged. There is an air of historical realism about this, and Snow leaves us with the satisfying idea that we have witnessed a little British history in the making. Witnessed it, yes, but understood it not at all.
November 5, 1964