His antihero Mrs Bridge immortalizes Evan Connell

Author of two classic literary jewels leaves us

But Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge will live forever

Sad news today (Fri Jan 11 2013) that Evan Connell, author of two of the greatest small classics of American literature, has died.

Here is the obituary in today’s Times:

Evan Connell, Novelist of Many Genres, Is Dead at 88
Evan S. Connell, a versatile writer praised for his spare portrayal of the frost and repression within a fictional upper-class Midwestern family as well as for his account of the very real and bloody battle that was Custer’s Last Stand, was found dead early Thursday in an assisted-living facility in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 88.

Mike Waller, a nephew by marriage, confirmed the death.

Mr. Connell, the only son of a physician, grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and moved West as a young man. His interests also traveled.

His acclaimed and best-selling first novel, “Mrs. Bridge,” published in 1959, captured the emotional remoteness of a Kansas City family that was much like the one in which Mr. Connell had been raised.

The novel tells of a young woman named India — “it seemed to her her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her” — who marries a young lawyer named Walter Bridge, who is “very tall and dignified” and “rather stoop-shouldered so that even when he stood erect his coat hung lower in the front than in the back.”

Not long after their marriage, after they are settled into their routines and he has begun sleeping through the night, she frequently awakes and looks at him and “wonders about the nature of men, doubtful of the future,” until “at last there came a night when she shook her husband awake and spoke of her own desire.”

“Affably he placed one of his long white arms around her waist; she turned to him then, contentedly, expectantly, and secure. However nothing else occurred, and in a few minutes he had gone back to sleep.

“This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.”

A decade later Mr. Connell wrote a sequel, “Mr. Bridge,” and the two united many years later in “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” the 1990 Merchant Ivory film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

By the time his Kansas City made it to the screen, Mr. Connell had long since become a Westerner. He spent many years in the San Francisco area, where he started writing an essay about Gen. George Armstrong Custer and could not stop. Soon he had a book, or what he thought should be one. It was called “Son of the Morning Star,” and initially no publisher would take it. One, North Point Press, which had published “Mrs. Bridge,” eventually did, releasing it in 1984, and the book became a surprise best seller.

ABC made a television movie based on the book in 1991.

In 2010, in a review of another author’s book on Custer’s Last Stand, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times recalled “Son of the Morning Star” as having “lasting visceral resonance” and described it as a “masterpiece.”

In 1985, as “Son of the Morning Star” was having a long ride on the best-seller list, Mr. Connell told The Times: “‘ There are two explanations for writing the book. Just about all the kids in this country grew up on cowboys and Indians. Maybe now it’s ‘Star Wars,’ but when I grew up in Kansas City, you could send in box tops — from Quaker Oats, I think — and get something like a color picture of Sitting Bull.

“As far as this project goes,” he continued, “a few years ago I was sitting in a saloon wondering what to write next. I didn’t have any ideas for a novel, and for years whenever I couldn’t manufacture something successful, I simply worked on a subject that interested me. And the Old West came to mind.”

The subjects that interested him ranged widely, frequently consumed him and rarely rewarded him financially. Until the success of “Morning Star” when he was 60, he lived modestly, working at whatever job he could find — reading meters, delivering packages, accepting résumés at an unemployment office — so that he could devote himself to writing. He never married and had no children. He spent nearly every day writing or researching his often dense subjects.

He wrote at least 18 books, including collections of poetry and short stories. In “The Patriot,” a novel published in 1960, he wrote about a naval aviation student’s fears of failure — including fear of failing his father. Forty years later, in his novel “Deus Lo Volt!” he wrote about the brutality of the Christian crusades in the Middle East. Four years after that, in 2004, he published a biography of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya.

Some supporters said the diversity of Mr. Connell’s work attested to his skill. Others said his refusal to hew to a few themes or formats — or perhaps master them — suggested an incomplete talent.

Reviewing Mr. Connell’s last book, the story collection “Lost in Uttar Pradesh,” published in 2008, David L. Ulin wrote in The Los Angeles Times that it offered “an unsettled glimpse of its author, with whom we can’t quite come to terms.”

“Brilliant in places, frustrating in others, enigmatic in both content and conception,” he added, “it’s a vivid metaphor for Connell’s career.”

Evan Shelby Connell was born on Aug. 17, 1924, in Kansas City. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1947. He is survived by a sister, Barbara Zimmerman, two nieces and a nephew.

Asked about his writing in various genres, he told The Kansas City Star in 2010: “If I find a subject that interests me, then I try to decide how best to write about it. Some things seem better suited for nonfiction, and others seem to be fiction in content or nature. A friend of mine once asked me how I could switch from one to another. I don’t regard it as switching; it’s just whatever subject happens to interest me, and then I decide how I can best tell the story.”

Exquisite, loving satire

As you can tell by taste testing the morsels above, Mrs Bridge is a perfect literary production, encapsulating with humorous but poignant irony the limited existence of a good soldier in the female battalions that marched to the drum of conformity in the upper middle class Protestant suburbs of Kansas City in the nineteen thirties.

With his deadpan description of a hidebound, shallow life with all its petty concerns and buried frustrations Connell depicts a human being caught in a snare of unquestioning subscription to superficial social regulation and it is both a comedy of manners and a muted human tragedy, where the daylight of fulfillment peeps only fitfully through cracks in what is essentially a well furnished but windowless room.

Those rays of enlightenment shine briefly courtesy of Mrs Bridge’s children, whose taming Mrs Bridge patiently insists upon even though they tend to escape her wishes as they grow, and even though she dimly senses that perhaps they deserve to live in a world of freedom and fullfilment she barely understands.

Ultimately this is a perfect study of the human condition, which achieves its effect with deadpan mimicry of the mentality it describes, and with small unexpected twists in the fine fabric of the story as it rolls otherwise smoothly from Connell’s expert loom. As he weaves this placid tale of suburban conformity, it is these provocative and telling turns that we savor. He has a superb capacity to make us as content with Mrs Bridge’s life as she is herself, and yet feel his sympathetic love of her as the prisoner of she knows not what.

As the publishers and reviewers of the two books have rushed to quote, it is Schopenhauer who said that the real business of the novelist is to make the small interesting, rather than write up great events. Connell achieves this in a minor miracle of story telling.

Mrs Bridge’s children, of course, are her major worry, given that they don’t seem to have inherited her placid temperament:

She brought up her children very much as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of it would be in connection with their nice manners, their pleasant dispositions, and their cleanliness, for these were qualities she valued above all others.

With Ruth and later with Carolyn, because they were girls, she felt sure of her guidance; but with the boy she was at times obliged to guess and to hope, and as it turned out not only with Douglas but with his two sisters what she stressed was not at all what they remembered as they grew older.

What Ruth was to recall most vividly about childhood was
an incident which Mrs. Bridge had virtually forgotten an
hour after it occurred. One summer afternoon the entire
family, with the exception of Mr, Bridge who was working,
had gone to the neighborhood swimming pool; Douglas lay
on a rubber sheet in the shade of an umbrella, kicking his thin bowed legs and gurgling, and Carolyn was splashing around in the wading pool. The day was exceptionally hot. Ruth took off her bathing suit and began walking across the terrace. This much she could hardly remember, but she was never to forget what happened next. Mrs. Bridge, having suddenly discovered Ruth was naked, snatched up the bathing suit and hurried after her. Ruth began to run, and being wet and slippery she squirmed out of the arms that reached for her from every direction. She thought it was a new game. Then she noticed the expression on her mother’s face. Ruth became bewildered and then alarmed, and when she was finally caught she was screaming hysterically.

All in all a perfect comedy of manners, and a comedy of universal human failings (on the middle class level):

Spanish was a subject she had long meant to study, and quite often she remarked to her friends that she wished she had studied it in school. The children had heard her say this, so for her birthday that year they gave her an album of phonograph records consisting of a lethargic dialogue between Senor Carreno of Madrid and an American visitor named Senora Brown. Along with the records came an attractive booklet of instructions and suggestions. Mrs. Bridge was delighted with the gift and made a joke about how she intended to begin her lessons the first thing “manana.”

As it turned out, however, she was busy the following day, and the day after because of a PTA meeting at the school, and the day after. Somehow or other more than a month passed before she found time to begin, but there came a morning when she resolved to get at it, and so, after helping Harriet with the breakfast dishes, she found her reading glasses and sat down in the living room with the instruction booklet. The course did not sound at all difficult, and the more pages she read the more engrossing it became. The instructions were clear enough: she was simply to listen to each line of dialogue and then, in the pause that followed, to repeat the part of Sefiora Brown.

She put the first record on the phonograph, turning it low enough so that the mailman or any delivery boys would not overhear and think she had gone out of her mind. Seated on the sofa directly opposite the machine she waited, holding onto the booklet in case there should be an emergency.

“Buenas dias, Senora Brown,” the record began, appro-
priately enough. “C6mo esta usted?”

“Buenas dias, Senor Carreno/’ Senora Brown answered.
“Muy bien, gracias. Yusted?”

The record waited for Mrs. Bridge who, however, was afraid it would begin before she had a chance to speak, and in consequence only leaned forward with her lips parted. She got up, walked across to the phonograph, and lifted the needle back to the beginning.

“Buenas dias, Senora Brown. Como esti usted?”

“Buenas dias, Senor Carreno/* replied Senora Brown all
over again. “Muy bien, gracias. Yusted?”

“Buenas dias, Senor Carreno,” said Mrs. Bridge with in-
creasing confidence. “Muy bien, gracias. Yusted?”

“Muy bien,’ said Senor Carreno.

Just then Harriet appeared to say that Mrs. Arlen was on the telephone. Mrs. Bridge put the booklet on the sofa and went into the breakfast room, where the telephone was.

‘Hello, Madge. I’ve been meaning to phone you about the
Auxiliary luncheon next Friday. They’ve changed the time
from twelve-thirty to one. Honestly, I wish they’d make up their minds.”

“Charlotte told me yesterday. You knew Grace Barron was
ill with flu, didn’t you?”

“Oh, not really! She has the worst luck.”

“If it isn’t one thing, it’s another. She’s been down since day before yesterday. I’m running by with some lemonade and thought you might like to come along. I can only stay a split second. I’m due at the hairdresser at eleven.’

“Well, I’m in slacks. Are you going right away?”

“The instant the laundress gets here. That girl! She should have been here hours ago. Honestly, I’m at the end of my rope.”

“Don’t tell me you’re having that same trouble! I sometimes think they do it deliberately just to put people out. We’re trying a new one and she does do nice work, but she’s so independent.”

“Oh,” said Madge Arlen, as if her head were turned away
from the phone, “here she comes. Lord, what next?”

“Well, I’ll dash right upstairs and change,” said Mrs.
Bridge. “I suppose the garden can wait till tomorrow.” And after telling Harriet that she would be at Mrs. Barren’s if anyone called, she started toward the stairs.

“Que tal, Senora Brown?” inquired the record.

Mrs. Bridge hurried into the living room, snapped off the
phonograph, and went upstairs.

There are, of course, myriad other social obstacles and dangers Mrs Bridge must negotiate; in fact, the narrative is an obstacle course of barbed wire and landmines in this respect:

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge were giving a party, not because they
wanted to, but because it was time. Like dinner with the Van Metres, once you accepted an invitation you were obligated to reciprocate, or, as Mr. Bridge had once expressed it, retaliate.

Altogether some eighty people showed up in the course of
the evening. They stood around and wandered around, eating, drinking, talking, and smoking. Grace and Virgil Barron were there Grace sunburned, freckled, and petite, and looking rather pensive; the Arlens arrived in a new Chrysler; the Heywood Duncans were there; and Wilhelm and Susan Van Metre, both seeming withered, sober, and at the wrong party; Lois and Stuart Montgomery; Noel Johnson, huge and alone, wearing a paper cap; Mabel Ong trying to begin serious discussions; and, among others, the Beckerle sisters in beaded gowns which must have been twenty years old, both sisters looking as though they had not for an instant forgotten the morning Mrs. Bridge entertained them In anklets. Even Dr. Foster, smiling tolerantly, with a red nose, stopped by for a cigarette and a whisky sour and chided a number of the men about Sunday golf.

There was also an automobile salesman named Beachy
Marsh who had arrived very early in a double-breasted pinstripe business suit, and, being ill at ease, sensing that he did not belong, did everything he could think of to be amusing.

He was not a close friend but It had been necessary to Invite him along with several others,

Mrs. Bridge rustled about her large, elegant, and brilliantly lighted home, checking steadily to see that everything was as it should be. She glanced into the bathrooms every few minutes and found that the guest towels, like pastel handkerchiefs, were still immaculately overlapping one another at evening’s end only two had been disturbed, a fact which would
have given Douglas, had he known, a morose satisfaction
and she entered the kitchen once to recommend that the extra servant girl, hired to assist Harriet, pin shut the gap in the breast of her starched uniform.

Around and around went Mrs. Bridge, graciously smiling,
pausing here and there to chat for a moment, but forever alert, checking the turkey sandwiches, the crackers, the barbecued sausages, quietly opening windows to let out the smoke, discreetly removing wet glasses from mahogany table tops, slip ping away now and then to empty the solid Swedish crystal ashtrays.

And Beachy Marsh got drunk. He slapped people on the
shoulder, told jokes, laughed uproariously, and also went
around emptying the ashtrays of their cherry-colored stubs, all the while attempting to control the tips of his shirt collar, which had become damp from perspiration and were rolling up into the air like horns.

Following Mrs. Bridge halfway up the carpeted stairs he said hopefully, “There was a young maid from Madras, who had a magnificent ass; not rounded and pink, as you probably think it was gray, had long ears, and ate grass.”

“Oh, my word!” replied Mrs. Bridge, looking over her
shoulder with a polite smile but continuing up the stairs, while the auto salesman plucked miserably at his collar.

Such a magnificent limerick may well have been written by Evan Connell himself. If so, we thank him for that too.

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