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Gathering Driftwood

Lost in Uttar Pradesh: New and Collected Stories

By Evan S. Connell Counterpoint, 2008

What becomes a legend most?

Universal veneration seems a moral obligation, and ample financial reward, though not always sought, is often welcome. The probity of the works, their ability to stay relevant throughout the centuries, may be seen as compensation for any neglect they suffer in the raucous present. Some leafy sinecure would be fitting, with untaxing office hours and lines of supplicant acolytes.

 
A legend should have all these things, but they are not what becomes a legend most. What becomes a legend most is the one thing it can never have: eternal youth.

The brain, the seat of all creativity, is a muscle, and like all muscles, it weakens with age. Shortcuts are sought that were once spurned; drafts once deemed unworthy are now judged serviceable, or even cruelly overlooked; unconscious repetitions are no longer caught during painstaking revisions, because revisions, when they happen at all, are no longer painstaking. The postprandial martini ceases to be the lubricant of a night’s hard work and instead becomes the first in a series of libations poured in honor of friends long dead and awards long ago bestowed. Writing serious, muscular fiction is thankless, brutal, solitary work, and old age is not suited to it. Voltaire and Goethe are the exceptions that prove the rule. The great American writer Evan S. Connell is now 88, and his legendary status in letters is assured. The author of a lifetime’s accumulation of genre-bending work, he achieved immortality decades ago with his quietly unsettling novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge. He subverted the comfortable polemics of blame in his novel The Diary of a Rapist. He stunned the reading world with his evocative account of General Custer and the disaster of Little Bighorn, Son of the Morning Star. Every three years, it seemed, would bring a major work from his pen, and the whole while, for the last sixty years, he’s also been publishing short stories, some of which achieved immediate renown for their Horatian allusiveness and pure, assured prose. Deus Lo Volt!, his faux-chronicle of the Crusades, came out in 2000 and was full of the darting playfulness of an author at the peak of his powers. When Francisco Goya appeared in 2004, it struck more than one reviewer as something of an amazement – a bolt of thunder from a departing storm, full of dash and fire and something of that same signature playfulness (a trait that, curiously, disappears almost entirely when our author indulges in short fiction). July sees the publication of Connell’s 19th book, Lost in Uttar Pradesh: New and Selected Stories. It contains 21 stories and one stylistic nonesuch (“Ancient Musick” which is neither a short story nor anything but stylistically a poem). Of these, only five are new: “Proctor Bemis” “The Land Where Lemon Trees Bloom,” “Election Eve,” “Assassin” and “Lost in Uttar Pradesh.” The rest appeared in 1995’s massive Collected Stories, the single greatest volume ever published with Connell’s name on it. Three of the 21 stories, “The Walls of Avila,” “Arcturus,” and “Yellow Raft,” were originally published in the 1950s. Four of them, “Caribbean Provedor,” “St. Augustine’s Pigeon,” “Puig’s Wife,” and “Guadalcanal,” were originally published in the 1960s. One lonely item, “The Palace of the Moorish Kings,” was published in the 1970s. A wopping eight come from the first half of the 1990s: “Lion,” “Hooker,” “Nan Madol,” “Octopus, the Sausalito Quarterly of New Writing, Arts & Ideas,” “Bowen,” “Mrs. Proctor Bemis,” “Noah’s Ark,” and “The Cuban Missile Crisis.”

The Collected Stories is such a monumental collection, on par with the similar volumes from William Trevor, Mavis Gallant, and V.S. Pritchett, that the appearance of Lost in Uttar Pradesh raises the single most impertinent question that can be asked of a living legend: what’s the point? Why not, say, remove “The Condor and the Guests” or “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge” (or a trifle like “Guadalcanal,” formerly titled “The Marine”) from The Collected Stories, substitute one or two or three of the new stories from Lost in Uttar Pradesh, and simply publish a second edition of The Collected Stories? Why pour quite so much old wine into this new bottle?

One possible answer to questions like this would be: because all the new stories deserve to stand alongside their famous earlier brethren in any collection. Another would be: because all five new stories do new and striking things not quite done by any of the other stories. Interested readers should be informed with earnest solemnity that neither of those things is true in Lost in Uttar Pradesh. Of the five new stories, “Proctor Bemis” serves as a pallid addendum to 1994’s almost equally inert “Mrs. Proctor Bemis” (both explicitly revisit Bridge territory and make no new reports from the vicinity), “Where the Lemon Trees Bloom” meanders fatally, “Assassin” is too short and fragmentary to be said to properly exist at all, and the book’s title story, “Lost in Uttar Pradesh,” seems to struggle fitfully with themes (of domestication and futility, here burbled unhelpfully by an old coot at a party) earlier stories handle with Connell’s stunning urbanity. Only “Election Eve” manages to recapture something of the author’s penchant for narrative mastery, as in the perfectly-etched scene where an exasperated Proctor Bemis tells a group of partygoers exactly what he thinks, to the exasperation of his wife. As in the best of Connell, there is not a word put amiss:

Politicians claim they trust the judgment of ordinary people. Well, sir, I do not. Athenian citizens condemned Socrates to death. So much for the perspicacity of John Q. Public. Did I mention Roman Hruska? He noticed that his audience was dwindling. He looked around for his wife. There she stood, her face a deathly mask, arms crossed. Are you satisfied? she asked. Dodie and Norman left in a huff. Norman was livid. Mr. Bemis felt tired. It was late and his knees ached. He wanted to go home. He saw that it was snowing and wondered if they might have trouble on the Sycamore hill. All at once people stopped talking because somebody outside had fired a gun. Several men walked uneasily toward the windows. On the way home Marguerite abruptly threw up both hands like an opera singer. I do not believe, she said, enunciating each word, that ever in my life have I felt so embarrassed and ashamed. I thought I did quite well, said Mr. Bemis. Proctor, what in the name of sense? What on earth? I cannot imagine what got into you. Oh, I could simply expire. It just happened, he said. It felt good. That speech was utterly incomprehensible! April Glaspie! J. Parnell Thomas! Nobody had the faintest idea what you were talking about. I did, said Mr. Bemis. Roman Hruska! I haven’t heard that name in fifty years. I didn’t like him, Mr. Bemis said.

(Longtime Connell readers will notice another old friend in that passage, in addition to the sure-fire ear for the pattern of talk: Connell’s offhand and stinging misogyny is still with him after all these years. As bad as life might be for the thwarted and pining middle-managers in his stories, it is infinitely worse for their wives, who are universally saddled with intentionally dowdy and anachronistic names and lacking in any personality traits other than stupidity and the ability to be embarrassed at a moment’s notice) So: one new story out of five has the heft to appear alongside its exalted predecessors (and some not so exalted; “Yellow Raft” and “The Cuban Missile Crisis,” despite being written forty years apart, are equally maladroit as short stories, undeserving of a place in any anthology) – which raises the question again: why offer this new collection? Why Lost in Uttar Pradesh? There has been no change in Connell’s fixations, at least as found in his short fiction. From the beginning of his career to the present (which can only be viewed as the end of it), these stories have been concerned with the life-defining realities of exotic foreign travel – and the high price sensible men pay when they turn their back on such travel and settle into the modern world’s many compromises. The Connell who could write this (from “The Walls of Ávila”) in 1954:

“The train [leaving a little town in Galicia] was leaving,” he said, leaning forward. “It was leaving forever. I heard her [an ancient Spanish water-vendor] scream at me. I didn’t know what she said, but there was a Spaniard in the same compartment who told me that this old Galician woman had screamed at me, ‘Get off the train! Stay in my land!’ He paused, apparently remembering, and slowly shook his head.

is the same Connell who could write this (from “Puig’s Wife”) in 1965:

Another day ended. Nothing much accomplished. A reasonable amount of money was earned, enough to get by and a few dollars more. It’s necessary, nothing to be ashamed of, no reason to feel dissatisfied. After all, no intelligent man can spend his life on a Polynesian beach gathering driftwood.

and the same Connell who could write this (from the present collection’s “Lost in Uttar Pradesh”):

It reminds me of Malaysia, he [the aforementioned old coot at the party, to the hapless young person he’s trapped with his reminiscences] said. I cherish the memory of one long salty afternoon on a Malaysian beach. William, you should manage a peek at the world. You are a stick-in-the-mud. I worked five days a week and earned just enough to pay the bills, so I didn’t expect to be loitering in Malaysia or anywhere else.

The is the underlying narrative of Connell’s work, the perpetually chaffing ill-fit between conformity and wanderlust; it’s sounded early in his career like a trumpet-blast in “The Walls of Ávila,” which still remains in many ways his most effective – and certainly his most emblematic – short work. The story’s tellingly narrated from the safety of the first person plural (like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, and equally damning of its speakers), a tight-knit group of suburbanites who are preparing to welcome back J.D., one of their own who for years has been defying their expectations and roaming the world. There’s an unmistakable tone of bitter triumph in the narrators’ understanding that J.D.’s travels have left him tired and in need of returning to their safe setting, and Connell shows us this even as he surgically mocks that world:

Russell, tamping out a cheap cigar, said boldly, “Eunice and I have been thinking about a trip to the Bahamas next year, or year after.” He considered the nicotine on his fingertips, and after a pause, because his boast was empty, and because he knew how empty it was, he added, “Though it depends.” He began picking helplessly at his fingertips. He would never go anywhere. “You’ll like the Bahamas,” J.D. said. “We consider other places,” Russell said unexpectedly, and there were tears in his eyes.

The sharpness here most certainly does not cut both ways: Connell’s sympathies are and always have been on the side of that wander-footed explorer’s urge to “give the world a peek.” His businessmen and retired CEOs, the ones who’d played it safe and settled for clunkily-named wives and monstrous children and addresses with ‘Sycamore’ in them, are always pathetic figures, riddled with self-loathing. The characters who take chances, who light out for the territories, are always the ones rewarded, if often obscurely. It’s a quintessentially American theme, and he’s explored it well and memorably in his long career, including half-heartedly in Lost in Uttar Pradesh’s “Lost in Uttar Pradesh.” Half-heartedly, or perhaps, it must be wondered, simply weakly. “For the sword outwears its sheath,” Byron writes, “And the soul wears out the breast.” As noted, writing powerful, precise short stories is an inhospitable enterprise for a man approaching 90. Powers fail under the best of circumstances, and in the case of Lost in Uttar Pradesh, there’s a hint that other forces might be at work within our legendary author. He affixes a preface to the collection, and it persistently, naggingly damns the timing of the work. At the end of this preface, Connell writes: “How stories originate may or may not be apparent. A dream, a shock, a memory, an insult, a startling perception – who knows what else? Many things contribute, at times rising from unsuspected depths.” Which would be a true enough though slightly banal thing to say, except that in the 29 paragraphs preceding that line, he details for his readers each story’s exact origins in the events of his life. “I was hit by a San Francisco pigeon while reading The Confessions of St. Augustine,” “I had seen Gaudi’s peculiar cathedral in Barcelona, heard the butterpat clap of gypsies dancing on the cobblestone street, listened to the shrill, passionate voice of a young woman singing while she approached a foreigner in a café,” “I used to know Maria the hooker,” “I did see the provedor go ashore and saunter through customs,” “’Bowen’ was a member of that fraternity. I knew him well enough,” “Just like Uncle Gates, I got lost in Uttar Pradesh.” And so on. They are easily the most depressing half-dozen pages Connell has ever written. The reader who wishes to keep fiction fictional almost wants to ask, along with Mrs. Proctor Bemis, what on earth possessed you?

The answer might not be far to seek. Connell is more aware than anybody that he shall go no more a roving, and this must grate against such a capacious spirit, a spirit large enough and energetic enough to have moved us all so many times over the last six decades. Over those same decades, I have developed an immoderate familiarity with the writing of history, but like everybody else, I saw things in Son of the Morning Star that I’d never seen before, thrilling, daring things done with the assurance of crossing an empty street. I’ve written historically-based nonfiction for many years and read it hungrily, but I’ve seldom seen it done better than in A Long Desire. In its wild disdain for readerly expectations, Deus Lo Volt! Is nothing short of a miracle. Hard indeed it must be for the writer of such things to feel his mornings growing more grudging, his evenings more attenuated, and worst of all his concentration more wayward. Like Connell, I have seen the Taj Mahal by moonlight and “plodded up a dusty slope to the Ajanta caves,” and like him (I suspect), I find it easier on some days to close my eyes and stand again inside those caves than I do to stand in the day’s hastening sunlight. The urge to write is a reflex against the mortality of memory; it’s no surprise that a writer of Connell’s power and vision should feel that urge, even though he cannot as often (or as convincingly) clothe it in new and radiant prose.

As readers we have loved him, and Lost in Uttar Pradesh does nothing to diminish that love. A full-dress autobiography is a thing to be hoped for, despite the evening’s late hour.
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In 1831, Steve Donoghue became the first Westerner to travel to Bokhara, where he was kept in splendor by the Emir Nasrullah Khan. When the Russians began to annex central Asia, he relocated to the United States with a trunk full of precious gems, and today he bides his time by hosting the literary blog Stevereads

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