Perhaps we are drawn, in part at least, to the stories of ordinary people slowly drowning in their own meaninglessness, not because we find relief in being different, but in the relief to read that there are others; that we are not alone in our struggle to attach significance to our lives, not alone in our petty victories nor indeed in our pathetic humiliations. And out of such identification comes a kind of aesthetic in shared failure, a tragic beauty in the absurdity of being.
Such a connection may well be made to the quietly devastating prose of Evan S Connell in his novel, Mrs Bridge, remarkable for its uncanny ability to sink to discomforting depths whilst appearing to glide along the surface of things. Indeed, in an unsettling reversal of Blake’s universe in a grain of sand, Connell seems to set adrift the particulars of Mrs Bridge’s life, like so much smoke drifting aimlessly into the night, leaving the reader feeling ‘like those people in the Grimm fairy Tale – the ones who were all hollowed out in the back’.
This beautifully understated story deals with the interminable ennui of a 1930s upper middleclass woman. She is married to a husband, a remote and inscrutable character who spends most of his time working, and is mother to three children each coming with his or her own particular disappointments. That is not to suggest that this is s novel of suburban miserablist cliché rather a novel that even whilst recording life’s moments of joy manages to do so whilst hollowing it out at the same time. Take her visit to the Louvre. As an American, from Kansas City, she and her husband are on a trip of a lifetime to Europe. For Mrs Bridge, ‘The Louvre was a symbol…as Timbuktu meant the ends of the earth, so did the Louvre have meaning.’ Quite what that meaning is, as she ‘meditates’ in the taxicab, never becomes apparent to Mrs Bridge. The husband leaves after an hour, leaving her wandering around alone taking some pleasure in recognising the Mona Lisa which, ‘looked exactly like the reproductions’. And in a wonderful escalating sense of anticipation where she’s searching for The Winged Victory of Samothrace because it ‘must have been in one of her earliest school books,’ collapses into bathos as she beholds the ‘great statue,’ which was the ‘very image of Lois Montgomery in a nightgown’. Lois is an old friend from Kansas.
Whilst written in the third person Connell focalises the story through Mrs Bridge’s eyes and is able to play a dextrous line between satire and empathy, if we do laugh at Mrs Bridges, it is with sympathy as we follow her life through the early days of marriage, child rearing and old age. The episodic structure is interesting; some chapters are no longer than a short paragraph others run to a couple of pages. The effect is to provide continuity whilst admitting randomness and a sense of discontinuity, an apt form to use – one which reinforces the aimlessness and simultaneously the constraints that characterises her life.
Modern ‘Creative Writing’ classes would no doubt frown at Connell’s reliance on the narrator to ‘tell’ the reader what’s going on – the form necessitates this approach, however, as chapter by chapter we move to different contexts in Mrs Bridge’s life. Occasionally a storyline runs on over consecutive chapter, sometimes it doesn’t, but Connell is succinct and precise in evoking a scene or in recounting states of affairs and as so often the narrator’s voice adopts the inflections and vocabulary of Mrs Bridge, we are in no doubt it is Mrs Bridge’s views we are being served. In Chapter 16 for example which is titled, ‘A matter of taste’ Connell describes what happens as ‘Christmas Times’ it’s not a specific christmas which allows Connell to reveal Mrs Bridge’s preoccupation with social decorum in ‘striking the proper note’ between being ‘festive’ and ‘ostentatious’. The chapter is without dialogue until the very last line when after driving past a house with a Santa on the roof and six reindeers in the front yard she says: ‘My word how extreme…Some Italians must live there.’
Besides frequenting the country club, the plaza or volunteering down at the charity-centre, her children occupy her thoughts and concerns. Her son, the youngest, is distant and a mystery to her. And in an arresting scene Connell shows just how limited her understanding of the world is. One day she discovers a porn magazine in her son’s shirt drawer. ‘She ‘sank to the edge of the bed and gazed dismally at the wall, the unopened magazine in her hands…She closed her eyes and shook her head in disbelief. The last thing on earth she wanted to do was to look into this magazine, but it had to be done.’ Where had she ‘failed’ she asks herself. She goes on to reveal inadvertently to the reader why – she had avoided ‘threatening subjects’ with the children and had ‘without having had to say so’ taught them that ‘there were two kinds of people in the world, and this was true,’ because her parents had said so.
She fares no better with her eldest daughter, Ruth, whose early interest in sex creates lack of understanding on Mrs Bridge’s part and hostility on Ruth’s. She moves to NY as soon as she is able. It is with her middle child, Carolyn that she seems to have a more intimate relationship with. ‘The two were apt to sit on Carolyn’s bed… their arms half-entwined, talking and giggling,’ but, of course, things change.
World War Two erupts like a muffled clap of thunder too far away to threaten, Connell managing to suggest something of the isolation not only of Mrs Bridge but of the Midwest American sensibility. And there are other major events that just happen, that startle then slip away as life rolls on. The children grow and leave and Mrs Bridge begins to drown in time. One night she is applying cream to her face and feels she is ‘disappearing into the white, sweetly scented anonymity.’ But she’s no quitter, ‘there’s nothing to do but proceed,’ she says. Which, indeed, she does despite the ever increasing purposelessness to her life captured by Connell in language reminiscent of James Joyce’s The Dead: ‘The snow fell all night. It fell without a sound and covered the frozen ground, and the dead leaves beneath the maple tree, and bowed the limbs of the evergreens, and sifted out of the high, pearl-blue clouds hour after hour. Mrs Bridge was awakened by the immense silence as she lay in her bed listening.’
Such pathos as is summoned up here by Connell is conflated in the final image we have of Mrs Bridge some thirty pages later: exactly what with, I must refrain from saying, other than the observation that Connell offers a beautifully unsentimental conclusion to what is a tender novel that captures the private pains and joys of a life – a life that is full of purpose and fine intentions and yet, so bewilderingly futile.
’Mrs Bridge, a novel in its own right, was followed by Mr Bridge. The two can be bought as a single edition as the one I read pictured above, unfortunately, sporting an image taken from the film. I’ll be coming back to Mr Bridge later…