There is a precision and a poise to Muriel Spark’s prose which suggest that we are in good hands. “The poplars,” we read on the first page of The Abbess of Crewe, “cast their shadows in the autumn afternoon’s end, and the shadows lie in regular still file across the pathway like a congregation of prostrate nuns of the Old Order.” Later, we inspect this careful scene: “The self-controlled English sun makes leafy shadows fall on this polished table and across the floor. A bee importunes at the window pane. The parlor is cool and fresh.” This is a quiet, straight-faced world in which wry, comic slips and falls are about to take place. As in the following speech by the future abbess of Crewe, addressing a pair of visiting Jesuits:
“Fathers, there are vast populations in the world which are dying or doomed to die through famine, undernourishment and disease; people continue to make war, and will not stop, but rather prefer to send their young children into battle to be maimed or to die; political fanatics terrorize indiscriminately; tyrannous states are overthrown and replaced by worse tyrannies; the human race is possessed of a universal dementia; and it is at such a moment as this, Fathers, that your brother-Jesuit Thomas has taken to screwing our Sister Felicity by night under the poplars….”
The timing could hardly be better, and a lot of the jokes in the book are of this quality. Two Jesuits break into the abbey, and the abbess pretends to have forgotten what they are called. “Those boys—what are their dreadful names?” “Gregory and Ambrose.” The abbess prefers English poetry to Roman liturgy, murmurs Marvell and Pound and Auden in place of more orthodox responses, and was once heard to say, “To hell with St. Francis of Assisi. I prefer Sextus Propertius who belongs also to Assisi, a contemporary of Jesus and a spiritual forerunner of Hamlet, Werther, Rousseau and Kierkegaard.” When things get sticky at the abbey, she has a subordinate sign a confession (“Which confession?” “Oh, the usual form of confession”) which simply is confession (“I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”). The subordinate, somewhat bewildered, murmurs, “I don’t really like to commit myself so far,” but is reminded that even the Pope “offers the very same damaging testimony every morning of his life.”
Throughout the book, traveling Sister Gertrude checks in by telephone from time to time, as she dashes from the Andes to Tibet by way of Iceland—“Gertrude, where are you speaking from?” “It’s unpronounceable and they’re changing the name of the town tomorrow to something equally unpronounceable”—and there are interesting transactions taking a disguised Jesuit to the ladies’ lavatory at Selfridge’s and a disguised nun to the men’s lavatory at the British Museum.
This last touch is a bit heavy, perhaps, and several jokes about dog and cat food being served up in the refectory of the abbey seem both coarse and weary, but such moments could be seen as the temporary wobbles of an otherwise brilliant balance. They could, that is, if the whole book were not conceived with a degree of coarseness and weariness which makes the poise and precision of the writing seem some kind of anomaly, an aristocratic style slumming in a parvenu’s plot. For the story of The Abbess of Crewe concerns an election (the outcome of which is not really in doubt, although the polls do give Sister Felicity 42 percent of the vote at one point), a break-in, a cover-up, a bugged abbey, and a lot of tapes. For the slower-witted among us who may not quite catch the allusion, Miss Spark adds this cute little dab of irony: “Such a scandal could never arise in the United States of America. They have a sense of proportion and they understand Human Nature over there; it’s the secret of their success.”
The subtitle of the book is “a modern morality tale” and Miss Spark, I assume, is trying both to use the Watergate fiasco and to comment on it in some way. In fact, all the borrowed story does for her is prolong and reiterate her simple, central joke. When the abbess says, “I don’t see that scenario,” a stately representative of the past leaps into the seedy jargon of the present, and the effect is the kind of laugh that used to be elicited by the sight (or the thought) of a nun on a motorbike. The ancient and the modern, the sacred and the technical, the rule of St. Benedict and the principles of electronics—these are what meet up at the abbey of Crewe, and the morality tale never really moves, morally, much beyond its second page, where we learn that the poplars casting such elegant and pious shadows on the first page have been bugged. The nun on the motorbike has become the nun with the tapes, and the thin gag staggers on as best it can, propped up by its side effects rather than by anything we can make it mean.
Of course thin gags are better than no gags at all. What writers are supposed to do is write, and one can’t come up with War and Peace (or even Memento Mori) every time. Still, there is a telling discrepancy between Miss Spark’s topical plot and her real subject, which has been topical for the last few hundred years. The subject is class. The election of the new abbess is a contest between aristocratic Alexandra (“She is forty-two in her own age with fourteen generations of pale and ruling ancestors of England, and ten before them of France”) and middle-class Felicity (“The late Hildegarde tolerated Felicity only because she considered her to be a common little thing, and it befitted a Christian to tolerate”), and Alexandra swings the election, after the break-in, by an appeal to the snobbery of her flock-to-be:
A Lady has style; but a Bourgeoise does things under the poplars and in the orchard….
A Lady may or may not commit the Cardinal Sins; but a Bourgeoise dabbles in low crimes and safe demeanours….
A Lady may secretly believe in nothing; but a Bourgeoise invariably proclaims her belief, and believes in the wrong things….
None of this is very powerful or very funny, but in the desire of the nuns to be ladies there is an emblem of all kinds of tangled and helpless and genuine English desires. In the Watergate-impelled plot there is only a distant, poorly understood American shadow, and a shadow which has nothing to do with the business of being ladies at that. Miss Spark has looked for reality in the newspapers and has found it, or a few scattered pieces of it at least, somewhere else; wherever novelists find such things.
But she looked in the newspapers first, which suggests a familiar contemporary diffidence, fiction feeling sheepish in the face of history. Evan S. Connell, Jr., doesn’t, at first sight, appear to share such diffidence, and The Connoisseur is certainly a better book than The Abbess of Crewe. Even so, in this skillfully told story of an insurance man who becomes a collector of pre-Columbian art, who starts with a small Mayan statue which costs him thirty dollars, buys a (fake) Olmec mask for ninety dollars, and ends up with an obsession and another Mayan statue which costs him nine hundred dollars, there is a curious retreat from some of the old territories of the novel.
A certain kind of novel has always reported on reality for us, told us things we didn’t know; has let us into feelings and places we haven’t had and haven’t seen; and it is probably the current scarcity or ineptitude of this kind of novel which is driving us to biographies for a sense of how other people live (or used to live) their daily lives. The Connoisseur admits us into a man’s mind, persuasively evokes the beginnings of a mild mania, takes us to Taos, brings us back to New York, propels us through a party, a museum, an art gallery, and a Mexican restaurant. But its major movement is an extended description of an auction held in a motel in Queens, conducted by one John Wesley Piglett, and providing an amazing assortment of objects and arcane vocabularies: rugs, drums, pistols, saddlebags, arrowheads, leg irons, a stuffed badger, a rusty harpoon, snowshoes, Zuñi fetishes, Arapaho blankets, San Ildefonso black ware, a half-twist overlay Yurok basket.
The effect is not that of a documentary, but it is that of a novel: an unfamiliar world is made present, real enough for us to feel that our experience of life has been extended by our reading. It doesn’t matter whether Connell invented the auction or transcribed an actual event more or less faithfully. It is the business of many novels to make such distinctions seem trivial, and those novels that worry most about such distinctions (enlarging them or masking them) are the ones that are the most diffident about history, the most apologetic about being, as Jane Austen said long ago, “only novels.” One can fly from history in fiction, although as in life one can’t fly all that far. One can fake it, and one can submit to it—write a variety of history instead of fiction. But a lot of novels, large and small, major and minor, have competed with history, in Balzac’s phrase, and it is this competition which has come to seem such a difficult, daunting affair.
The most impressive reality shown to us in The Connoisseur is the world of pre-Columbian art itself, a sort of secondary Mexico whose provinces are archaeological sites like Jaina, La Venta, Tres Zapotes and El Tajin. Connell thus leans on the artistic past in the same way that Muriel Spark leans on the political present, and the effect in both cases is to make the main novelistic business of these novels seem displaced, almost marginal, parasitic on large historical facts (Mayan culture, Watergate) which escape and dwarf the fiction. Admittedly Connell’s history, unlike Miss Spark’s, is closely linked to the theme of his book, where an interest in a statue which may or may not be authentic becomes a passion for authenticity in certain statues. But it still makes the private, human activity in the novel—the protagonist’s thinking, the people he meets, the lessons he learns, the questions he asks—seem small, a footnote to a more general, more absorbing life to be found outside the book; and what’s worse, to be found, probably, in another sort of book, in a work of ethnology or archaeology, not a novel at all.
Connell’s writing confirms a lot of this. It is discreet, efficient, sometimes flat, quite often verging on cliché. This is partly a matter of getting things naturalistically right, of not having an insurance man sound too sophisticated about art, so that Muhlbach, the connoisseur, thinks, “How profoundly endowed with a knowledge of humanity” the creator of his first Mayan statue must have been, and says to himself, “But finally what matters is whether or not you identify with the spirit of a work,” and “No, I can’t relate to it.” But it is also a matter of the settled, unchallenging, “literary” quality of Connell’s language:
The snow drops straight down with threatening insistence, stops for a few minutes and then swirls in lazy cross currents while Mulhbach marches through Columbus Circle reflecting on the past couple of months. So many fresh perceptions have developed from such an insignificant seed—perceptions which could have flowered years ago, or never, depending on some accidental circumstances. How odd. And what will happen next?
This is convincing enough, but entirely without energy—the last sentence seems merely to tie up a neat paragraph rather than to ask a question that anyone cares about. And this lack of urgency is an expression, at the level of language, of the faint sense of triviality which lurks in this attractive book. The Connoisseur seems to be asking whether this kind of fiction—the imaginative exploration of a moment of change in a none too representative life—has any future. It feels like a short story when it ought to feel like a novel (I don’t mean it’s too long). But then that also reminds us, once again, how uncertain many novels have become about the size of the claims they can make on our harried attention.
Berry Morgan’s The Mystic Adventures of Roxie Stoner is a collection of sixteen stories written over the past ten years or so, all but one of which have appeared in The New Yorker. The stories are told from the point of view of Roxie herself, and in a tactful and unobtrusive simulation of her language:
His life had creased him so deep that nobody could do anything but listen kind and respectful to what he had to tell. I think I used to be something like that myself, things were so plain to me, but since I got to the nerve hospital and heard all these bewilderments, my life has faded some.
Roxie is a poor Southern black woman, quite young in the early stories, quite old in the later ones (“I was either seventy or ninety depending on whether Mama married should be added or taken away”), who is seen by most people as somewhat backward but whose backwardness, viewed from the inside, seems like a quiet replay of the motivations of Prince Myshkin or Mr. Pickwick. Roxie can’t really believe ill of anyone, and is very active in believing good of those around her, like the disreputable Mr. Dock who wants to build his mother a house she doesn’t want (“Right away I saw what this gentleman was. A bad man trying his best to veer around to good”), or like the young inmate of the “nerve hospital” who wants to get out and kill the man from the finance company. She escapes with the boy so that he can “go on home and get his business straight and raise himself a family like he ought to,” although she doesn’t mean to let him kill anyone, of course.
She can’t believe that the man from the finance company won’t listen to reason, and she can’t believe that the murderous boy won’t change his mind about killing him (“It looked to me like he was partly catching on”). Yet she is not, in the strict sense, naïve. It’s not that she doesn’t hesitate and deliberate about these things, it’s just that she firmly expects the world to live up to her hopes. Thinking about her escape with the boy, she says, “It got to sitting on my mind that we were up to a mighty unusual thing, but the base of it was right if we could hold the rest.” The boy is picked up by the sheriff, and Roxie goes back to the hospital.
In what is perhaps the best of these stories, “The Flower Gully,” Roxie is told that all she has to do to convince people she has good sense is to start acting mean, but this advice comes from an old woman who “takes in” killing and does away with unwanted dogs and cats at a dollar a time. Miss Sweet, as the old woman is called, with an overdose of irony, kills a dog over Roxie’s protestations and over her offers to take the dog home, and then has Roxie heave it into the gully, where it falls through the butterflies and disappears among the flowers: “The wild hydrangea blooms closed across each other and you couldn’t see a thing.” Soon after, Roxie goes home, “down the gully edge, the same way I had come, with all the flowers blooming.” It sounds as if the flowers were blooming when she came, but aren’t now, which is how she feels; but the flowers are blooming now too, which is how things are.
The same division between Roxie’s perceptions and the world’s ordinary behavior is precisely what gets her certified and sent to the nerve hospital. Even the world’s extraordinary behavior defeats her at times, as when she tries to adopt the haunted, “roadminded” Miss Idella. “It had begun to seem to me she might be like Jesus’s lost sheep and I could steady tend her until after a while we would be like sisters.” Roxie takes Miss Idella home and manages to get her to stay for a couple of nights. But then she slips off, driven by a memory or a nightmare of a man who once threatened to kill her. Roxie, however, knows how to make the best of this: “She left her bunch of violets and that made me believe she was coming, that she wanted to, if she could ever lose her likeness of the man.”
Roxie’s backwardness or madness is her persistent project to rewrite the world in the light of its best possibilities, and she thus becomes a reflection not so much on the South as on the general moral poverty of what we call the real world. To be sure, there is a sense of a historical moment, of the replacement of a community which could tolerate and support Roxie by a community which can only confine her—and again, one thinks of Dickens, and mad Mr. Dick in David Copperfield, left at large not because he was sane but because he was harmless. But this shift seems less important than the enduring conflict between Roxie’s view of things and the world’s, than the continuing confrontation between an ingenious, reckless kindness and a secure and suspicious normality.
There are moments of excessive cuteness in these stories—the occasion when Roxie thought she was married but she wasn’t—and touches of the apparently obligatory gothic. Perhaps there’s a rule in the South that you can’t be a writer unless somewhere in your fiction you have someone die a nasty and unlikely death in a crumbling old house. But mostly Berry Morgan writes with a skill more than equal to that of Muriel Spark and Evan S. Connell, and with exactly that confidence in her medium which is lacking or wavering in those other works.
The confidence helps a lot, of course. We are inclined to believe in a text that believes in itself. But even here there is the same indistinct worry about the reach and the meaning of more or less realistic fiction, however well executed. Berry Morgan, like Connell, tells us things we don’t know, and above all, as Connell does, presents us with those things in the form of an experience. Such fiction offers us the feel of life, to use a worn phrase, rather than facts or outlines or diagnoses of life; the inside story, as they say, the human interest. Yet the enemy of this kind of fiction is not, as those journalistic tags imply, the new journalism, which purports to offer the same things in jazzy modern colors, but our own apparent reluctance to invest our imaginations in the density of an invented existence.
Fiction serves to complicate the world—like a character in Julio Cortázar, it understands by complicating—and perhaps we should distinguish between cultures which still need to understand their world in that way and cultures which have had all the complication, and perhaps even all the understanding, in some senses, they can take. Thus the old novel is alive and well in India and Latin America (or was when last heard from) while it totters toward anemia in North America and England. I don’t think this tottering is solely a question of literature being edged out by history and sociology. It is a question of a major withdrawal of our imaginations from the historical world. Proust speaks somewhere of the faith that is needed for the creation of reality. We should ask, perhaps, about the faith that is needed for the creation of realistic fiction.
November 28, 1974