The Mosaicist, by Gemma Sieff

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January 2022 Issue [Reviews]

The Mosaicist

On Evan S. Connell

Photograph by Thomas Allen

[Reviews]

The Mosaicist

On Evan S. Connell
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Discussed in this essay:

Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell, by Steve Paul.
University of Missouri Press. 416 pages. $45.

Typically I’m not much of a rereader; if I really love a book I tend to feel a certain superstition around it, and worry that revisiting it will tarnish the pure, ecstatic lambency of the first encounter. Mrs. Bridge, a 1959 novel by Evan S. Connell, has been the exception. I read it for the first time in my mid-twenties and felt immediately that it was my favorite novel. Since then I have read it a handful of times, and with each read the intensity of my admiration has only increased. Well received at the time of its publication (“How it is done I only wish I knew,” wrote Dorothy Parker in a squib of a review for Esquire), it never gained the traction of some of its splashier contemporaries, such as Lolita, Dr. Zhivago, and Catch-22. Still it has enjoyed an illustrious afterlife, and has been praised by writers as various as Joshua Ferris, Jonathan Franzen, James Patterson, Zadie Smith, Wallace Stegner, William Styron, John Updike, and Meg Wolitzer. It’s a quiet masterpiece, and something of an inside-baseball American classic.

Mrs. Bridge was formally innovative for its time: 117 drolly titled microchapters ranging in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages, discrete incidents that form a portrait of subtle psychological depth. “Viking was scared to death of Mrs. Bridge,” Connell said in 2011. “You weren’t supposed to write a novel like that.” He was referring to its structure, but also, perhaps, to its consistent understatement; it is a novel of oblique angles. “Nothing intense, nothing desperate, ever happened,” Mrs. Bridge reflects about her own life, and Connell said something similar. “I believe it was Chekhov who observed that people do not go to the North Pole, or whatever; they eat cabbage soup and fall off stepladders,” he once told an interviewer. “I think he was right, which is why there is no extraordinary event in the life of Mrs. Bridge.” But this is not exactly true. There is weird and dramatic incident aplenty in the book, all of it filtered through a hidebound mindset. The novel’s setting is a well-to-do Kansas City suburb, and its events transpire from the mid-Twenties to the early Forties. Its opening lines crisply, delicately set the tone:

Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.

Anything unconventional or exotic is discomfiting, maybe unseemly, confusing, and (most crucially) unmentionable. Mrs. Bridge lives with her husband, Walter—a lawyer, a workaholic, all rectitude—and their three children. Ruth, the eldest, is moody, beautiful, indolent, and mysterious; Carolyn, nicknamed Corky, is a square striver and a good golfer; Douglas, Connell’s alter ego, is indelible as one of the most authentic specimens of boyhood in American fiction. He bedevils Mrs. Bridge by entering the house via the back door (the servants’ entrance), befriending the garbagemen so he can tag along on their route and collect cereal box tops, building a tower in a vacant lot so sturdy it takes the fire department a full day to dismantle it, and soiling the Marghab towels, which are decorative rather than functional (everyone else intuits that when the guest towels are on display, you dry your hands with a tissue). Douglas, Mrs. Bridge thinks,

never actually appeared to be attempting to make trouble; it was just that somehow he was trouble. Invariably there was something about him that needed to be corrected or attended to, though he himself was totally oblivious to this fact, or if he was aware of it, was unconcerned. Whenever she encountered him he was either hungry, or dirty, or late, or needed a haircut, or had outgrown something, or had a nosebleed, or had just cut himself, or had lost something, or was just generally ragged and grimy looking.

External trouble—ugly and chaotic aspects of the world beyond the Bridges’ proverbial picket fence—impinges, but only in glimpses that are subsequently tamped down, whitewashed, laundered, and soft-pedaled. When one of her best friends overdoses on sleeping pills, Mrs. Bridge tells her children that she died from eating contaminated tuna salad. When a cousin’s shotgun wedding is followed by a baby three months hence, Mrs. Bridge tells her children that babies are so often born premature these days. When the Bridges’ European vacation is cut short by the Nazi invasion of Poland, one of her friends says, “I’ve been trying to talk Ralph into a trip somewhere, but now with this Polish thing I suppose it’ll have to be postponed.” When a party attended by most of the Bridges’ social set is interrupted by thieves with guns who make off with cash, jewelry, and a car, Mrs. Bridge is mildly scandalized to learn that one man’s wallet contained just $2.14, and one woman’s diamonds were actually zircon. When a boy Douglas tangled with as a child moves away and murders his mother and father in their bed, the Bridges concur that the parents had it coming; after all, they allowed (even encouraged) the boy to call them by their first names. The book is a brilliant evocation of the way the manners and mores of plush American suburbia willfully miss the point, how people avert their eyes to preserve an ersatz status quo. Corky plays happily with Alice Jones, the black gardener’s daughter, until Mrs. Bridge determines the girls have reached an age when such a friendship is unfeasible, then she locks the screen door to signal that Alice is unwelcome. A short while later, the girls want to know what’s for lunch. Corky, Mrs. Bridge says, will be having spinach and creamed tuna on toast.

Alice observed that she herself didn’t care for spinach because it was made of old tea bags. “I believe you’re supposed to have lunch with your Daddy, aren’t you?” Alice heard a note in her voice which Carolyn did not; she glanced up at Mrs. Bridge with another of those queer, bright looks and after a moment of thought she said, “Yes’m.”

Again and again, Connell whets the text’s understatement into something almost painfully precise.

Mrs. Bridge alone would have been enough to establish Connell as one of the great novelists of the twentieth century, enshrining him alongside Richard Yates, John Cheever, John Updike, and other figurers of quiet desperation. But, as Steve Paul notes in Literary Alchemist, the first full-length biography of Connell and “a reclamation project for . . . his literary legacy,” one of the defining features of Connell’s work is the degree to which he was restless in subject and form. He went on to write nearly twenty other books, all uncommonly heterogeneous and demanding. In addition to Mrs. Bridge and a sequel of sorts, Mr. Bridge, his books include a novel closely based on his experience as a Naval aviator in the Second World War; two gnomic, abstruse vatic-philosophical book-length poems; a novel inspired by a 1955 rape case in Garden Grove, California; a pair of novels in which a repressed widower fixates on pre-Columbian figurines and has a disastrous fling with a glamorous and self-destructive borderline case; and two essay collections about long-dead adventurers (“maniacal conquistadores jacking around in the jungle, and Prester John, and Henry Hudson, and the Etruscans . . . All in pursuit of something, no matter how insane.”)

His best work of non-fiction and biggest commercial success was Son of the Morning Star, a sprawling account of General George Armstrong Custer’s hubris at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (it was adapted into a miniseries for ABC). This he followed with The Alchymist’s Journal, in which he ventriloquized the sixteenth-century Swiss physician and philosopher Paracelsus (among other “chymists”) and meditated on the mysteries of science in antique, ornate prose. He then wrote Deus lo Volt!, another historical doorstopper, which took fictive liberties with the perspective of Jean de Joinville to soak in the medieval bloodbath of the Crusades; and Francisco Goya, a wonky, digressive story of the painter’s life and work, a biography told aslant.

Literary Alchemist, Paul writes, is in part a response to a challenge he found in a letter to Connell from the critic Webster Schott, that someone would “eventually try to figure out how to reconcile the author of Mrs. Bridge with the one who wrote Deus lo Volt!” This, he knows, is a somewhat quixotic undertaking, but he goes about it sensibly and energetically. While Connell, who died in 2013 at the age of eighty-eight, had an ambivalent relationship with fame, he would doubtless have respected Paul’s approach, in which superlative research and a sensitive appraisal of Connell’s writing accrue to form a subtly vivid portrait of an “introverted rebel” wholly devoted to the “quaint mania” of the craft—or as Connell’s good friend Max Steele once described him, “a strange, silent, extremely lonesome person who can write like no one else.”

Connell was preternaturally independent, determined, and allergic to conformity for conformity’s sake from the first. Born in 1924, he rarely smiled in childhood photographs. Connell’s mother, Elton, was a bridge-playing housewife who was active in charitable circles. His father, Evan Sr., was a prominent ear, nose, and throat surgeon who had been a first lieutenant in the Army, treating gas-attack casualties in France during the First World War. Connell had one younger sister, Barbara, nicknamed Bobbie. He was expected to follow his father (and his father’s father, also a physician) into the family business, and enrolled at Dartmouth in 1941, where he took premed courses and flunked chemistry. After two years there (and almost a year after Pearl Harbor), he joined the Naval Air Corps. He wanted to fly a Corsair. (That he never did, he considered a major betrayal by Navy recruiters.)

Connell mined his experiences in the Navy for The Patriot, a novel he worked on alongside Mrs. Bridge. In it, Connell’s alter ego is the rather feckless Melvin Isaacs, obviously unsuited to the military’s rigidity. Melvin washes out, whereas Connell would become an ensign and train new recruits in New Orleans. He was bitterly disappointed not to see combat in the South Pacific, and seemed to subscribe to the adage that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Connell said he feared what would happen to his output were he to become a creative-writing teacher like his friends and mentors Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Max Steele, Wallace Stegner, and Ray B. West.

Connell finished up his undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas in 1947, studying drawing, writing, and English. On the GI Bill, he studied writing at Columbia and Stanford, where he was an early Stegner fellow. In 1952, he moved to Paris to write, network, and loiter. (“I was enjoying life on the Left Bank so much that I felt obligated to leave,” Connell wrote. “Those nurtured in the Protestant midwest of America will understand this, otherwise it cannot possibly be explained because it makes no sense.”) He got depressed in Barcelona. By 1954, he had settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he would remain until he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1989. He lived one of the purest versions of the writing life. When money got low, he read gas meters, worked the overnight shift at the post office, and screened applicants for unemployment benefits. (He also had a small trust fund.) With his friends Kenneth Lamott and Calvin Kentfield, he edited Contact, a San Francisco journal dedicated to finding new voices west of the Rocky Mountains. He played chess, took life-drawing classes, went running, and hung out at the No Name Bar in Sausalito, where he met Gale Zoë Garnett, a much younger folk singer and actress who became his girlfriend and lifelong friend. He traveled widely when and where the urge took him.

All these things occurred around the edges, however: what he mostly did was write. The Bridge books and Son of the Morning Star sold well, and found wider audiences via screen adaptations (Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman starred in the Merchant Ivory vehicle Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, and ads for Son of the Morning Star, hugely expensive to make because of its massive cast and finicky costumes, aired during the 1991 Super Bowl); his other books caused fewer ripples. He didn’t own property until he was sixty-four. There is austerity, romance, and courage to the life of the artist as Connell lived it. He was in his sixties and recovering from double pneumonia alone in a motel room somewhere when he told the journalist Barry Siegel:

Sure I get lonely. You get accustomed to yourself as you go on, though. You don’t feel that piercing loneliness as you did when young. I couldn’t marry because then I’d have to support a wife and family, and I never wanted to take a job I hated. I always feared that. Sure, you miss something. Sure, you give up stuff. But I don’t like things hanging around my neck.

In 2011, I visited Connell at the Ponce de Leon assisted-living facility in Santa Fe, where he’d resided for the past two years. I was there to conduct an interview for The Paris Review, which had launched Connell’s career in the mid-Fifties by publishing some of his early short stories as well as excerpts from Mrs. Bridge. I came in bristling with bluestocking questions, but Connell was not what you would call a cooperative interviewee. Discussing his own work seemed to embarrass him, as if it were navel-gazing or self-indulgent. His attitude seemed to be Take it or leave it, it speaks for itself. Our conversation, which took place over four days, was pocked with hours of silence. As an “Art of Fiction” entry, the interview was a bit of a dud. But I swooned for the man. He was shy, taciturn, elegant, genuine, and impeccably turned out in a dark suede jacket and checked scarf. Using a wheelchair or stiffly steering his walker through the Ponce de Leon’s long, carpeted halls on our way to dinner at something like 4 pm, his affect reminded me of a silent-movie star. He showed me his Boy Scout ribbons, his Navy wings, and a pre-Columbian bowl he cherished for its simplicity. He reminisced about friends from Paris and Sausalito, and described the glacial politesse and suffocating hypocrisies of his suburban childhood and adolescence. He recommended the writers A. E. Coppard, Janet Lewis, V. S. Pritchett, and David Derek Stacton. We watched TV with the sound off. He asked me to read to him, though I could not locate the Hemingway story he requested (“Black Ass at the Cross Roads”). He liked that story because it “seems so believable. All my work, I just tried to make it believable.” He told me he received few visitors because he was a lousy conversationalist. This I took to mean that he did not suffer fools or small talk (some of Connell’s fellow residents at the Ponce de Leon initially presumed he was mute). “He was enigmatic, not easy to approach, not a glad-handing, little friend of all the world,” said the former Harper’s Magazine editor Lewis Lapham, who loved Son of the Morning Star and credited Connell as an inspiration for Lapham’s Quarterly. “It was the same kind of quality I came to regard in Thelonious Monk, one of my other heroes.”

Connell had a mind like a wide, fine sieve; he was a mosaicist whose details sparkled. He “would eventually, in his books of history and travel, put on the cloak of a scholar though not the airs. He took his history generally without theory,” Paul writes at one point, and the same could be said of the biographer’s method in Literary Alchemist. In Connellian fashion, Paul has trawled through every available resource—correspondence, newspaper archives, genealogies, papers housed at Stanford, James Ivory’s notebook for the film adaptation Mr. and Mrs. Bridge—to spotlight the most surprising and humanizing details about a self-effacing person. Connell never owned a computer or made use of the internet; when he wanted to watch an early cut of Son of the Morning Star, he told a friend he wasn’t sure how to “access something called a ‘vee-cee-arr.’ ” He was pleased to find, on a trip to Albuquerque, “the right typewriter ribbons for his fifty-year-old Olympia, and bought enough to last the rest of his life.” Connell and Garnett may have broken up because she got too wild in the bedroom, biting his lip and drawing blood. (“She was into it; he was not.”) A young Connell took the heat when a Navy buddy, Blossom Williams, buzzed a Kansas football stadium at low altitude. And perhaps my favorite detail in the book: Connell’s elaborate patent for a bicycle-mounted toy machine gun. Tangential details like these lend Literary Alchemist its lovely texture.

What to make of the irregular shape of Connell’s disparate works, their breadth and depth and roving innovation? If Mrs. Bridge is a pointillist miniature in watercolor, then Son of the Morning Star is a tapestry of concentric tableaux and dendritic loose threads. It is not a linear forward march but a switchbacking collage composed of irresistible minutiae: that, according to an old Cheyenne man, the Battle of the Little Bighorn “took about as long as it took the sun to travel the width of a lodge pole” (fifteen or twenty minutes); that a year after the rout, a cavalry officer returned for Custer’s remains and, thinking the corpse had been torn apart by wolves, sent what he claimed was a lock of Custer’s hair to his widow, who in years past had fashioned wigs for herself from the general’s “golden curls”; that in the years following the battle, Colonel Benteen, one of Custer’s surviving officers, was found drunk on multiple occasions threatening passersby (“I’ll make the Star-Spangled Banner float over all your heads before I get through with you”); that, according to an oral history related in sign language by a woman named Kate Bighead, two Southern Cheyenne women punctured Custer’s eardrums with a sewing awl after the battle because seven years earlier he had been told—but apparently was unable to hear—that if he violated a truce with the Cheyenne he would surely be killed.

If we were to (forgive me) think of his books as the legacy he left in lieu of children, they are a motley crew: not the paper dolls of a neat nuclear family, but the issue of many different Muses. Paul’s attempt at a unifying theory—that Connell was a “literary alchemist” who was “testing the transformation of matter and soul”—is interesting but somewhat abstract. Does he mean that each of Connell’s works was somehow more than the sum of its parts, that by woolgathering in his distinctive mode Connell transmuted the quotidian into the sublime? The truth is, there is no tidy way to encapsulate the work overall, or to situate this writer alongside his contemporaries. He was singular, a little weird, uneven, and a risk-taker. Early on, Paul draws our attention to the concept of the long desire, “in which explorers and seekers follow their instincts to see what unknown discoveries might appear around the next bend.”

The long desire, it seems to me, describes the arc of Connell’s career, its twists and turns and occasional dead ends. He almost never wrote under contract, and he resisted writing Mr. Bridge for a while because he didn’t want to “perform like a puppet” and deliver to his adoring public what he knew they wanted: a Mrs. Bridge sequel. (In fact, he refused to call Mr. Bridge a sequel, referring to it as a companion novel.)

It’s this uncompromising independence, the inability to rest on his laurels, that gives Connell such an aura of integrity, even incorruptibility. He was a strikingly self-reliant writer, a strong, silent type unswayed by peer pressure (he never fell in with the Beats) and seemingly immune to the pressures of the marketplace. His books are frequently both excellent and unsalable. He was on his own tip, marching to the beat of a tune he could hear only distantly, and that he chased to the exclusion of many a creature comfort. “He was not a social animal,” Paul writes. “In essence he lived to write.”

Mr. Bridge, by contrast, supports and is supported by three women: his wife, his legal secretary Julia, and Harriet the maid. Mr. Bridge perceives these women “growing around him like strands of ivy, but the feeling of entanglement was not disturbing; it seemed to him that these persistent female tendrils were supporting and assisting him.” And yet, for this conventional breadwinner, the strands of his life are profoundly separate:

He knew that he did want to confide in the family. Now they were asking. Why had he rejected the chance? He felt that he was close to understanding; then something intervened like a shade drawn down. After all, they could not possibly care about the testimony of a streetcar conductor involved in a traffic accident on the eighteenth of September of last year. The exchange with Judge Hibler made little sense out of context. Or Julia’s observation about the mechanic with the infected tattoo. None of this would make sense at the dinner table. They might listen, but it would be a strain.

No. No, he thought, as he peered into his glass, there is almost nothing I can say to them. My life is cut in half.

Connell wanted neither the tendrils of entanglement nor this cleaved self. He wrote to reveal his interests to the world, to show his work, as it were, to anyone who cared to see it. There is daring in the sorts of things he thought to do: detouring from prose to something like poetry, detouring from fiction to something like history, veering from the prim and proper consciousness of a midcentury housewife to the bitter, claustrophobic consciousness of a rapist to the lofty consciousness of a time-traveling sage surveying the annals of human folly. He is an acquired taste. Even his best books will never appeal, as he put it, to a “great treacle-eating public,” but I think Connell was untroubled by that. Audible in the very timbre of his speech was a certain stoicism. His voice on the page was companionable, with a sly sense of humor and an erudition he wore lightly. When I visited him in Santa Fe, I asked him if he thought that when you die, you just die and that’s it, or if he believed there was some great beyond. “I don’t anticipate anything,” he said. “I don’t worry about the afterlife.”