Saturday, September 13, 2014

More on John O’Hara: a critique from someone or other and my response to it

Tonight I was just about to sit down with the end of a bottle of Pernod (a great drink if you like aniseed and don’t believe all the guff that it has to be drunk in sunshine. It doesn’t, and you can get as pissed or not as you like depending upon the amount of water you add. As I get older, I find myself adding more and more) and finish off my second reading of the novel. As it happened I set down the full glass next to the sofa and as I went to put away my guitar, I kicked it over. Damn.

So instead I have decided to post my response to a critique of the novel by one Henry Gonshak who is, apparently ‘the Rose and Anna Busch Endowed Professor of English at Montana Tech’. I found it when I was looking up websites to do with the novel. You can read what Mr Gonshak had to say here. I wanted to leave a comment on the blog, but for some reason I couldn’t so I have emailed it to him. But, after kicking over my glass of Pernod, I decided - what the hell - to post my response here, too. Since emailing it and then deciding to post it here, I have slightly rewritten and expanded it, although not a lot.

I recently finished Appointment In Samara - and I can’t remember how I came across the novel and then bought it - and was so impressed, I bought a collection of John O’Hara’s New York short stories and Butterfield 8. The name of that second novel was familiar to me, because I’d heard about the Elizabeth Taylor film years ago and remembered that it was in some way ‘shocking’. But I only saw it recently and, at the time, I rather liked it.

Last week, I read the Butterfield 8 the novel, and once I had finished it, I immediately, as has sometimes become my habit with books which impress me, began again. That others don’t do so, or at least I’ve never heard of others doing so, baffles me a little. We will listen to recordings of music and watch films again, often very soon after we have just heard or read them, but no one seems to grant a novel the same respect.

I’ve done the same with films (watched on DVD or the internet) and all I can say is that the practice of reading a novel (or watching a film) like that pays off in spades. I have to say I disagree with you almost completely on your evaluation of the novel Butterfield 8, and must agree with you about the film. Having now read the novel my estimation of the Taylor film has plummeted.

It is, at the end of the day, just another piece of Hollywood melodrama, and although there are, as in most things, degrees of worth or otherwise - there can be ‘good’, well-made melodrama and there can be total crap - it was nonetheless nothing more than a piece of melodramatic schlock which might have done good business at the box office and garnered Taylor her Oscar, but in no way whatsover approached the subtlety of O’Hara’s novel.

In that sense it has nothing to do with the novel except sharing a title and vaguely, ever so vaguely, echoing its story. The novel is much, much, much more, and I can understand why when it was first published, and coming soon after Appointment In Samara, it made O’Hara’s name. But

John O'Hara

you [Henry Gonshak, the guy whose take on the novel I am responding to] don’t seem to rate it highly at all. And that, too, baffles me.

You supply the quote, quite possibly well-known, from (Wright State University English professor) Martin Kirch that ‘O’Hara’s achievements have been so long and thoroughly denigrated that he is now considered a novelist of the second, or even the third, rank’, and on the face of it that would seem game, set and match: it seems to say ‘O’Hara was once good, but not that good and certainly no longer as good as other novelists’. You say something similar (’In our era O’Hara comes across as a dated and minor writer who should not be classed with such brilliant’). But read Professor Kirch’s quote again: he says the ‘achievements’ have been ‘denigrated’.

Now that is an odd word to use if he means ‘re-evaluated’. But he doesn’t say ‘re-evaluated’: he uses the word ‘denigrated’, and when someone is ‘denigrated’, the implication is that he has been unfairly treated. And that’s how I read Kirch’s judgment: that O’Hara is still as good as he was, but taste has moved on to such an extent that he is seen as no longer cutting the artistic mustard. And so although you say you agree with Kirch, he does not seem to be saying what you are saying.

In your evaluation of the novel you make several factual errors, and I think these are important: you say Gloria Wandrous was 18 when the novel takes place. She wasn’t, she was 22. You also say the Weston Liggett, the man who picked her up - or was picked up by her - was divorced. He wasn’t: once he had confessed to taking Gloria to bed in the family home, he fully expected his wife Emily to divorce him, and offered to make it easy for her. But he wasn’t divorced - how could he be if the essential story at the centre of the novel takes place between a Friday night and the following Wednesday?

There is also more than a suspicion that, with Gloria now dead - and Liggett’s reaction being pretty callous in that all he thinks about in the aftermath of her death is retrieving the mink coat to avoid being implicated in any way - he will not be divorced and that he and Emily will evntually continue in their conventional, by now dull, marriage and both will continue to enjoy the life of an ‘upper-class’ wealthy American as before (possible recriminations notwithstanding - after all she is well-aware that he has had several affairs).

It is these two errors, and your judgment of Gloria as just another ‘spoiled rich girl, pampered by her indulgent parents’ make me suspect that you simply haven’t understood the novel and, pertinently, its endless subtleties. (Another error: Gloria didn’t have parents, she had a mother and William Vandamm, her uncle, though undoubtedly they did indulge her pitilessly and she was pretty spoiled.)

You don’t seem to take on board that Gloria was not just another good-time girl out for what she could get, and that the key to the tragedy of her life and death - if tragedy is, under the circumstances not a tad hi’falutin - and her unbridled promiscuity and virtually alcoholic drinking is most probably because she was sexually assaulted at the age of 11 by Major Boam and, crucially, felt she was unable to tell anyone. She did not feel able to tell the black maid who was in the house at the time, partly because of the casual and rampant racism abroad at the time of which she was equally as guilty as her peers.

When she did bring herself to tell her mother and uncle, her mother dismissed the story out of hand and, although, he didn’t react as his sister did, Vandamm also let Gloria down. Far more seriously, she was later thoroughly corrupted at the age of 15 by Reddington, a man who was ostensibly a pillar of his community (a detail which he brutally used to brush off similar incidents with a young girl in his hometown).

Now, however, already disillusioned by the disbelief she encountered when she was first violated, she seems to enjoy the sex, the drinking, the sniffing ether and the year-long abuse by Reddington. But, of course, deep down she didn’t, and it was the cause of the despair to which she woke up every morning. She seems to have lost all hope and decided just to go for it. It’s as though if she doesn’t feel valued, she can see no reason to value the world.

O’Hara - in my view - doesn’t create as you put it ‘a stick figure, and a rather tedious one at that’. Quite the contrary: Gloria is intelligent, sensitive, alert, on the ball and witty and, even at 22, no one’s fool. And she is an appealing figure, although you don’t think so. You seem not to have been on her side. I was. She is far more attractive than the gallery of shallow, boozy young men who use her and who are her daily companions. And she is very aware that her life is going nowhere. At the end of the novel she has some kind of epiphany and realises life doesn’t have to be like the life she is leading, and O’Hara suggests that she might, just might, be turning a corner.

Yes, she is still young and immature and believes she ‘loves’ Liggett. But, I suggest, even she, deep down, knows that is nonsense and that the affair - if it can even be called an affair, consisting as it does of two nights of sex and a lot of drinking - will go nowhere. Her death is wholly ambiguous: was it an accident or did she jump off the boat?

The encounter on that boat with Liggett in his cramped cabin is nothing but a sordid and embarrasing interlude, and she knows it. All he wants is sex with her, despite his middle-aged fantasy about being in love with her. She, after the pleasant afternoon she had spent with her mother and her surprising realisation that a marriage and love can, perhaps, be good after all, wants more. She doesn’t sleep with Liggett. She leaves him. And when they are due to meet upstairs, she comes towards him, but then ‘turns’ away and runs off. Did she trip over the low railing? Or had she decided to end it all. The ending is by no means ‘shaky’ or one intended to add spice to an otherwise ‘meandering’ novel.

There is nothing ‘meandering’ about the novel. O’Hara was rigidly disciplined in his build-up, from the scenes in speakeasies where Gloria’s crowd are nothing but a bunch of well-off, but stupid and vacuous halfwits, to the portrayals of the empty relationships of the Liggett’s, the Farleys - the wife casually decides she wants an affair with the actor, but can’t even be resolute enough to go through with it - Jimmy Malloy and Isabel’s on-off relationship, and that between Eddie Brunner and Norma Day, where Eddie reconciles himself to marriage to a ‘safe’ woman for all the wrong reasons, are all small pieces of a jigsaw which O’Hara quietly but deftly puts in place to give the overall picture of what choices a girl like Gloria - a girl with a history of being demeaned and abused - thinks she has.

Perhaps the back stories of the characters make the reader - you, perhaps - think that the novel meanders, but in truth nothing O’Hara writes is superfluous however it might at first seem. And, again I have to say, in my view, the final sentence in the novel is perfect and sums up the whole corrupted, perverted morality of the time and age he is describing: ‘The Reddingtons always went to a hotel where the women guests were not permitted so smoke.’ So as long as the trivial niceties of ‘good’ society are observed - for example that women guests were not permitted to smoke - everyone can pretend all is well in the world even though it damn well most certainly is not and they damn well know it.

At first blush O’Hara’s portrayal of a small part of New York society on just six days in 1930 would seem to be something of a miniature. But it isn’t. What he writes about - hypocrisy and a selfish, callous disregard for others - is universal and most certainly not restricted by being ‘of its time’. And that hypocrisy is just as shocking now was it was then. And that is why O’Hara’s novel is a great novel.

I understand Butterfield 8, only his second novel, was the high-water mark of his writing career and although her wrote several more novels, none was quiet as good and reached its class. Well, as I haven’t read any other them (but I intend to do so) I can’t comment. But I do know that O’Hara is a great writer - his turn of phrase, his dialogue, his insight, his seemingly casual way of writing, the looseness of it, his ability to portray depth when none is apparent - prove it for me.

So, I disagree with you. Completely.

No comments:

Post a Comment