July 22, 2012
This is Peter Cameron’s sixth novel, and it is my first to read among his books, including his short-story collections. At the end of Coral Glynn, I was so taken with the meticulously crafted narrative and Cameron’s understanding of human behavior that I wanted to read his other books. I mention that because, of anything, wanting to keep reading an author’s work testifies to the presence of excellence. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, his previous novel, is where I’m headed.
Coral Glynn takes its title from the name of the novel’s private nurse who arrives at Hart House in the English countryside to care for the dying old Mrs. Hart. She meets the judgmental Mrs. Prence, the housekeeper, and the son Major Clement Hart, injured with severe burns and damaged legs during WWII. It is the 1950s. The atmosphere in the house is careful and subdued. Mrs. Hart dies sooner than Coral expected — only four weeks after her arrival. The following morning, Clement proposes marriage to her.
They hardly know each other, but Clement fears he will “go all bitter and dead inside like my mother” if left alone in the house. He acknowledges there is no love (“I’m not asking for love”) and that his proposal may seem absurd, rash and thoughtless. But neither of them have family, and Coral has nowhere to go. She responds to the proposal with confusion and says she will give an answer by evening. During a walk in the woods that day, this passive, awkward young woman stumbles upon a boy and girl playing a shockingly violent game called “Prisoner.” She scolds them and leaves. That night, she agrees to marry Clement, and wedding plans swiftly ensue.
There is a moment in the proposal scene when Clement assures Coral he’s a good person. He says he sees the same goodness in her, but Coral replies, “I am less sure of myself.” Readers will scoot past this innocuous reply, but it is here the story begins to turn, with Cameron signaling there is more to Coral than her awkward loneliness. Clement protests in her defense, and again, Cameron, with his masterful subtlety and firm grasp of human behavior, sends a signal with Coral’s silence. And then, just after, there’s that game of “Prisoner” Coral stumbles upon in the woods, casting an ominous shadow and, possibly, intended comment on a marital commitment without love. The story glides forward as if everything is all right, and yet there is this uneasiness developing, cleverly fueling our curiosity.
From this point forward, I won’t reveal the sequence of events to preserve the story’s surprising plot twists — you won’t see them coming — and random missteps. I will say, though, the game in the woods creates consequences for Coral and Clement. Also, their impetuous union, founded in part on Clement’s assumption that Coral is no more than what he sees before him, opens a door to uncomfortable deceptions. Herein lies a significant theme, clarified when Coral, late in the novel, assumes an old woman is nothing more than her simple days with her cat on her lap. When she learns the woman was a famous opera singer during her younger years, Coral thinks, “How was it ever possible to know who, or what, people really were? They were all like coins, with two sides, or dice, with six.” It is this very truth that makes Coral Glynn deeply satisfying on many levels, that creates its quiet, powerful intensity.
I found an interesting YouTube video — “Meet Peter Cameron” – in which the author talks about his writing. He says, “I don’t write autobiographically in terms of the content of the book, but I am aware that all my books come from who I am as a person, and therefore I want to make them narratively and geographically as different from one another as possible.” Something else in the video: the author talks about his efforts in the book arts. An online search led me to Wallflower Press, offering Mr. Cameron’s hand-crafted, limited-edition books. I was thrilled that one of them is “Bunny Says It’s the Death Watch,” a long-time favorite short story I read in 1987 in American Wives: Thirty Short Stories by Women, now out of print. And so, with these attractive handmade books, there is an additional, compelling reason to follow the work of Peter Cameron.
July 12, 2012
“The Hippy Hippy Shake” came to mind after I finished Lauren Groff’s novel, Arcadia, set in a hippie commune during the 1960s and 1970s. The song has nothing to do with the countercultural youth of those decades — it’s all about “shake it to the left, shake it to the right” — but the melody defiantly looped through my head. No reference in the lyrics to the Age of Aquarius long-hairs espousing peace and love. No anti-government cries or LSD hallucinations, either. Clearly, it was the word “hippie” now lodged in my head, after reading this memorable novel, that generated the wrongly associated mental soundtrack. It also cut loose many memories from growing up during the decade that hosted the Summer of Love and Woodstock.
Lauren Groff sheds an intimate and meaningful light on the hippie culture — less of a label, you could say — with her seven dozen hippies living on a large area of land they call Arcadia in upstate New York. Here, in her fictional commune, they live in trucks, buses and lean-tos and collectively manage the community’s sanitation, baking, canning, gardening and other living requirements. In the beginning of the story, the commune’s charismatic guru, Handy, leaves the community on a music tour to spread the word of Arcadia. While he’s gone, the remaining Free People rehab a deteriorated mansion on their land, a long-delayed project that will bring them all together under one roof.
Groff is an extraordinary fiction writer, rendering life’s most ordinary detail into beautiful images with lyric, colorful phrasing. She sees magic and miracles in those details, such as “the faces of sleeping babies that live in Hannah’s knees.” That is what Bit sees, Hannah and Abe’s son, “the littlest bit of a hippie ever made,” and the protagonist of this dreamy novel that infatuated me. We experience Arcadian life through his trusting eyes, and these early years, when he’s six years old, wrap him in happiness and enchant him with discovery. He is not without worry, however, for the harsh realities of poverty and hunger drive Bit’s mother into a deep depression that frightens him.
After the mansion is completed, Groff leaps ahead to when Bit is 14 years old. Now, Arcadia swells with hundreds of cynical newbies “diluting the pure beliefs of the Old Arcadians.” This gross invasion and Handy’s self-interest become the ruin of the commune. Old and new hippies leave in droves. Groff leaps again. Bit, a middle-aged professor of photography, lives in New York City, but his soul remains rooted in Arcadia. Although dispersed, the founding hippies stay connected, drifting in an out of each others’ lives as Groff takes us into the world of 2018, burdened with a viral epidemic and devastating consequences of global warming.
She does this so successfully – all this leaping – pulling us into and through Bit’s life so we understand the depth and grace of his beginning years determining his adult years, when Bit’s ambitions are not in sync with his purposeful surroundings. Instead, Bit is content with the happiness that comes from being satisfied with life’s basic needs, “a life of enough food and shelter and money.” He’s an authentic, believable result of Arcadia’s good heart and Handy’s idealistic vision. Someone we come to care about. A person who sees beauty despite the world’s tragedies.
When Abe dies, Bit returns to his childhood home for his father’s funeral, bringing his teenage daughter with him. The two remain in Arcadia to take care of Hannah, who reveals she’s been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. An Amish woman, Glory, is among Hannah’s many visitors.
Groff describes the Amish as the Oldest Utopians. The juxtaposition is significant – the Amish have lived successful community life for hundreds of years, and Glory speaks wisely about freedom, community and the reasons Arcadia failed. Her insight brings the hippie utopian vision down to earth, removing the rose-colored glasses — and yet, because of Bit, what he tells us about peace and “the hushed spaces in life” in the book’s last two paragraphs, we know Arcadia mattered and made a difference. “Pay attention, he thinks. Not to the grand gesture, but to the passing breath.”
July 3, 2012
December 1990, I spent 14 days in Paris. It was a solo adventure with the goal to experience the real Paris, that is, the Paris of the Parisians, what French-American author Julian Green calls “a secret city.” In his book about the City of Light, where he was born in 1900 of American parents and spent most of his literary career, Green writes: “Anyone can get hold of a guide and tick off all the monuments, but within the very confines of Paris there is another city as difficult of access as Timbuktu once was.”
That was the Paris I wanted to see, what Green says “defies analysis but enables you to say without any hesitation: ‘That is Paris’…” Had I read Green’s collection of essays before I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, I would’ve known I would not succeed because this secret city within Paris is available only to those who stroll without purpose, waste time and even suffer a bit in the places that contain its soul, according to Green. Such is not the venue for an American spending a limited number of days in the city for the first time. I had a list of what I wanted to see. Granted, it consisted of places and things not usually visited or encountered by tourists, but I was trying too hard.
I ventured into Le salon d’honneur of La Bibliothèque nationale de France, where I stood before a statue of Voltaire that contains the philosopher’s heart in its pedestal. I toured the Counterfeit Museum and the Cemetery of Père-Lachaise, where I discovered this wonderful epitaph (translated from the French): They were astonished at the marvelous journey that lead them to the end of life.
In my organized days, with my list of the unusual, I missed those ordinary things that tell the intimate, real story of Paris, the hidden stairways, winding streets, ancient pillars and old windows with lace curtains framing a bunch of flowers. Green writes invitingly, with a nostalgic, seductive tone, about these ordinary places and things, as well as about the gusts of rainstorms, thick fog and sparkling night lights spanning the Seine. He creates memorable images of Paris’s medieval days, such as in the church of Saint Julian the Poor on the Left Bank “when a priory adjoined it and fifty monks filled its vaults with the sound of their chanting.”
Paris is a small book of 19 essays, some only two pages long, yet no matter the length, each is equally powerful due to Green’s ability to create a captivating atmosphere with his words. Even though it is not today’s Paris (the essays were written over four decades, starting in the 1940s), Green takes us into the Paris that does not seem to age, or disappear. Or so it would seem. Green worries over modernizations of the city (“fortress-like blocks of flats”), especially the destruction of trees to make room for buildings and concrete, as well as the renovation of the Café de la Paix near the Opera House. “I tremble at what that implies,” he writes.
Julian Green’s book gave me the gift of escaping to Paris in the footsteps of someone who knows it intimately yet from the rocking chair on my front porch these hot summer nights. This bilingual edition, with French and English translations on opposing pages, is illustrated with Green’s personal black and white photographs that include a view from his apartment window in 1929 and another from 1974.
According to The New York Times, all but two of Julian Green’s 18 novels, 5 plays, 14 volumes of diaries, 4 books of autobiography, 6 collections of essays and 2 history books were written in French. Several, along with Paris, are available in English, including the novel The Distant Lands, the autobiography The Green Paradise and the essay collection, The Apprentice Writer. Julian Green died in 1998.