Sunday, January 13, 2013

Evan S Connell: R.I.P.

The American novelist and poet Evan S. Connell died the other day.

From the beginning, Connell viewed the dolorous aspects of modern life with a mordant glee that’s more European than American in temper. Yet his touch was usually humane—more Chekovian that Kafkaesque. For example, his depiction of the bourgeois milieu of post-war Kansas City in Mrs. Bridge is pitiless, but also affectionate; and his Pulitzer Prize winning study of Custer, Son of the Morning Star, maintains a literary standard we seldom meet up with in books about the West. 

I'm not sure about his novel Diary of a Rapist, which I haven't read, but Connell’s early essays, recently reprinted in the volume The Aztec Treasure House, exhibit a boyish fascination with the arcana of lost cultures, death-defying exploration, and other slightly Gee-Whiz! subjects. Meanwhile, his book-length poem Points for a Compass Rose, (which appeared during the Vietnam War) makes use of similar material to weave a subtle critique of the vanity and fruitlessness of imperialist braggadoggio. 

Connell had a few misfires (The Alchymist’s Journal), but the quality of his work was almost invariably high, and because he attended not only to the content, but also to the cadence of his sentences, the musicality of his prose kept readers moving ahead during those patches when the references were truly obscure.

The works mentioned above would provide any reader with a few months of engaging reading. Also noteworthy among Connell’s early work is short novel The Connoisseur, which describes in the simplest terms how a casual interest in Mexican antiquities can become a sanity-threatening obsession. 

In the recent short biography Francisco Goya (2005), Connell once again chose a subject well-suited to his mordant worldview. We might take a closer look at it, as a means of teasing out his style and temperament.

Of peasant stock and vaguely liberal ideals, Goya rose within the ranks of painters, and eventually distinguished himself to a degree that brought him to the attention of the Spanish court. By early middle age, Goya was the most famous painter in Spain, receiving generous commissions from wealthy patrons and ecclesiastics while also serving the King’s family. Yet Goya depicted the superstition and violence of the times no less effectively than the fragile beauty of its gilded upper crust—often within the scope of a single canvas. His renderings of the irrationality and fanaticism of the masses have never been surpassed. His shaky position in the art pantheon—a few critics of every age have found his technique shoddy and his subject-matter disgusting—further enhances his appeal as an object of the kind of extended meditation at which Connell was adept. 

Yet Connell’s brief biography isn’t a book for everyone. In the first place, it lacks illustrations. Readers without an appropriate coffee-table book near at hand may, at times, find Connell’s descriptions of the paintings and lithographs more frustrating than insightful. Then again, the economy of Connell’s prose, and the obvious pleasure he takes in unanswered questions, may leave some readers with the unpleasant sense that he’s failed to bring the “real” Goya fully to life. To those who are familiar with his style, on the other hand, the book offers all the pleasures we’ve come to expect from the master story-teller and literary high-priest of history’s curiosities and conundrums.

Connell begins with characteristic obliqueness, introducing us on the first page to the vastly wealthy and irresistibly beautiful Duchess of Alba, whom Goya not only painted several times, but lived with for seven months. Connell doesn’t describe the duchess, however, so much as he relates what others have said about her, and we’ve read no more than a page before we come upon the following passage:
As good students of female nature may have guessed by now, the Duchess was cruel, an essential trait of mankillers rich or poor. Certain biographers assert the opposite, that she was kindness itself. No doubt this could be just as true; after all, a woman isn’t a bolt of cloth, identical in texture from thread to thread.
Connell relishes such evident contradictions, and he’s clearly fascinated by this woman who possesses them. In the space of a few pages he passes that interest on to us, establishing an emotional anchor for the unconventional story that follows.

In the course of tracing the trajectory of Goya’s own life, Connell examines the man’s paintings, discusses his friends and court appointments, speculates on the sources and significance of his imagery, and analyses his correspondence. He also sifts through the comments of other biographers and art-historians, weighing opinion against opinion, while only occasionally offering one himself. “One critic thinks the composition stilted, satirical, family members anemic...Another critic thinks it an affectionate family portrait.” What does Connell think? He doesn’t say.

Connell recognizes that in order to provide an effective portrait of the artist who executed The Caprichos, The Disasters of War, the famously equivocal portrait of King Charles and his family, and "The Third of May," he’ll have to make the historical background comprehensible to those of us who know little of Spanish history. It’s not an easy task. The protagonists in that story are mediocre and the moral valences are anything but clear. Napoleon, his brother Joseph, the Duke of Wellington, and various other foreigners offer striking personalities, and they’re all liberal in one way or another…but they’re intruders. Meanwhile Charles III, Charles IV, Godoy, and Queen Maria Teresa are distinguished largely by their venality, lack of vision, superstitious religiosity, and vice. Connell’s story-telling skills come fully into play here, and his rendering of the times is vivid. In fact, Goya drops from sight repeatedly as we follow one or another thread of the Peninsular campaigns, only to reappear a few pages later, moving in lofty social circles or in service to the king.

Although Connell has steeped himself in his subject, his tone remains light rather than scholarly throughout, and he doesn’t hesitate to get personal from time to time. He compares Goya’s wife, who seemed to care about nothing but frilly clothes, to the housekeeper Connell’s family had when he was a child; and in his efforts to explain why many Spaniards seem so sympathetic to authoritarian institutions, he offers an affectionate portrait of some members of the Guardia Civil with whom he travelled on a train during his student days, their machine-guns stacked casually on the seats beside them.

In his analysis of the return of repression to Spain following the downfall of the Napoleonic regime, Connell relates matter-of-factly:
I remember one afternoon in a Barcelona cafe talking to a Canadian who said that on a narrow street of the Gothic quarter he had been robbed. He reported this to the police and the next day he got his wallet back. Secret police were everywhere and just about everywhere you looked there stood the Guardia Civil with those guns. Barcelona during the early 1950s was not contaminated by error, law and order prevailed; from which you may conclude that a fascism government is best. Some people think so. It’s a matter of opinion. It depends on your values. You might conclude that Ferdinand acted on behalf of Spain in the name of national security when he restored the Inquisition. The garotte, he quite rightly thought, was an effect way to stifle dissent. He announced that every heretic would have his tongue bored through with a red hot iron.
“Some people think so...It depends on your values.”  Well, it’s pretty obvious Connell doesn’t. All the same, he’s intrigued by the fanaticism of those dark times, and he admires Goya’s ability to enter into it and convey its force. Yet he’s chosen Goya as a subject because Goya’s depiction of that fanaticism is also a rejection of its cruelty and blindness. In the pages of this marvelous book Connell too has summoned such forces and given them their due. He’s given us the opportunity to look squarely at the irrationality and violence—a grim reality of those times, and of our own—while also convincing us that from the midst of such a mire, both then and now, works of great beauty and significance do occasionally emerge.

I met Connell once. I ran into him in the plaza in Santa Fe one morning at dawn, and though he was polite, he seemed very eager to be off. At the time he was hard at work on a book about the Crusades, or so he told me. This would be Deus Lo Volt!, which stares down on me to this day from the top shelf of the bookcase. I’ve never read it.

I was hoping Connell would invite us over for coffee that morning. Clearly, he had better things to do. He did agree to sign a postcard I’d bought a few minutes earlier in the lobby of La Fonda, and when I went back to buy another one, I said, “Hey! I just ran into Evan S. Connell in the plaza!”

The elderly lady behind the counter replied, in a purring voice, “He comes in here quite often. Isn’t he a nice man.”

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