Memento Mori — January 14, 2013, 4:30 pm

Remembering Evan S. Connell (1924–2013)

On the life-drawings of an American literary master

Self-portrait, from the October 1976 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Last Thursday — January 10, 2013 — news came that one of the most singular careers in American letters had reached its last full stop. Evan S. Connell was found in his Santa Fe apartment, dead at the age of 88. He died alone, attended, one presumes, by the “cracked Old Mexican pots and mutilated statuettes” he collected — which is also how he lived and how he wrote: apart from his contemporaries, in the company of antiquities, as if he did not entirely belong to his time.

He twice traveled solo around the globe. In his writing, he roamed across continents but also across centuries. Time — its obliterating passage — was his great subject. It’s there at the very beginning, in the title story of the first book, The Anatomy Lesson and Other Stories, published in 1957, when Connell was thirty-three. The art professor who delivers the eponymous anatomy lesson shows his students a Rembrandt portrait of a young woman: “He told them that some afternoon they would glance up by chance and see her; then they would know the meaning of Time — what it could destroy, what it could not.” We hear that note again in Connell’s debut novel, Mrs. Bridge, published in 1959. In chapter forty-nine, titled “The Clock,” the novel’s heroine seeks refuge in a stasis she mistakes for permanence: “Time did not move. The home, the city, the nation, life itself was eternal; still she had a foreboding that one day, without warning and without pity, all the dear, important things would be destroyed.” We hear the note again four decades later, in the epigraph of Deus lo Volt!, Connell’s chronicle of the Crusades, published in 2000: “?‘?The stream of Time, inexorable, constant,’ wrote the Byzantine princess Anna Comnena, ‘removes from our sight all things that are born, and carries into the night deeds of little account, deeds worthy of notice.’?”

Read part of an upcoming Paris Review interview of Connell, by former Harper’s senior editor Gemma Sieff.

Although Connell innovated audaciously with prose forms, he did so in order to renew rather than resist the realist tradition. He remained devoted to Rembrandt, and in all of his wildly various books, he practiced a kind of life-drawing. Witness Mrs. Bridge. Asked about the novel’s unconventional, mosaic structure, he once said: “I had tried a traditional narrative, but found that this story, as is true with most of our lives, had no dramatic climax. Mrs. Bridge’s life was one incident after another. There was not one great, explosive event, so I had to break it down into smaller moments.” These moments are related to one another, but not, as the events in a narrative usually are, by cause and effect, and unlike most heroines, Mrs. Bridge does not develop as a character. Instead, what changes — deepens, complicates, accumulates pathos and meaning — is Connell’s portrait of her.

Connell could be a merciless social critic, though he preferred the X-Acto knife of the ironist to the well-ground axe, and in his best work he combines irony with pity, often swerving without warning between the two. Early in Mrs. Bridge, many of the miniature chapters end with a punch line at the heroine’s expense. As time passes, however, the jokes become less comic, more tragic; satire gives way to quiet desperation, which exhausts itself into elegy. In the penultimate chapter, ironically titled “Remembrance of Things Past,” with Mr. Bridge dead and the children gone, what Mrs. Bridge forebode has come to pass. The “dear, important things” have been lost, and she searches and searches for them in vain in the family photo album, which presents a kind of counter-narrative to the album of moments Connell has assembled. (Kodak moments are not Rembrandt moments.) Snapshots of family vacations and birthday parties offer her a vision of a vanished past — a vision wishful and unreal.

Midway through his career, Connell turned from fiction to fact. Out of details he’d scavenged in archives, he did for historical figures — explorers, alchemists, pilgrims, crusaders — what he’d done for Mrs. Bridge. In the title piece of The Aztec Treasure House, his collected essays, he describes an Olmec statuette. I quoted that description in a review I wrote for the December 2001 issue of Harper’s. I’ll quote it again here. “There can be no doubt that this was a person,” he writes,

not a symbol of humanity but a representative of it who lived in the area at that time, who sat cross-legged in the shade of a tree or in some thatched-roof hut while one of his neighbors manipulated the dark clay with a little stick, paused to stare, and tried again and then again in order to get the mouth just right, and the thrust of the nose, and the contour of the cheek, all for the sake of true expression.

The Aztec Treasure House is a cabinet of wonders, but Connell’s nonfiction masterpiece, the book that along with Mrs. Bridge is likeliest to last, is Son of the Morning Star, an epic narrative history of the Battle of Little Bighorn. It’s hard to imagine a character who would have less in common with the cavalry officers and Sioux warriors whose portraits Connell draws in Son of the Morning Star than Mrs. Bridge. And yet both books are time capsules of sorts, narratives that rescue “deeds of little account” and “deeds worthy of notice” from the wreck of time. 

Connell’s least classifiable books, written as he was making the transition from fiction to fact, take the form of notes collected by a prophetic, time-traveling wanderer. There are two of them, published a decade apart, Notes from a Bottle Found at the Beach at Carmel and Points for a Compass Rose. Annie Dillard reviewed them both in one of the first pieces she published in Harper’s. “The poetry of fact” is how Dillard describes them. What she says of Connell’s time-traveling note-taker applies equally well to Connell himself. “The speaker’s ultimate role — his mission and his penance,” Dillard says, “is to exalt the suffering fragments of time and submit them to the healing glance of eternity.”

One last quote, from one of the lesser-known novels, The Connoisseur. The book’s protagonist, an insurance salesman named Muhlbach who lives in Westchester, is a recurring character in Connell’s work and something of an authorial alter ego. Like his creator, Mulbach is a collector — a connoisseur — of pre-Columbian artifacts. His connoisseurship begins on a business trip to New Mexico, when he visits an antiquarian’s shop in Taos and discovers there a little terra-cotta chieftain carved by some Mayan sculptor centuries ago. The mutilated statuette casts a strange spell.

“How would it feel to be an artist,” Muhlbach wonders, “to spend one’s life observing the earth and the things that grow on it and attempting to communicate those observations? Take that little clay personage — how skillfully executed, how sensitive. How profoundly endowed with a knowledge of humanity its creator must have been.” 

Share
Single Page
is a former senior editor of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Donovan Hohn:

Appreciation March 19, 2014, 6:11 pm

Matt Power: Headlamp a Must

Commentary September 21, 2010, 6:14 pm

Talking with Tom Bissell

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2019

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Article
Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Post
Poem for Harm·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Article
Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Article
Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.
—Chaucer

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today