Friday, March 18, 2011

The Middlebrow Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale and a Classic by Heinrich Böll

Spring Break:  My Idea of Hell
Spring break is traditionally a time to loll on the beach or golf, but I have never spent spring break at a beach or a golf resort.  Beachcombers and Golfers belong to Another Genus of Humankind.  Aside from my junket to Des Moines's Sculpture Park, I've been preparing for our Porch Madness Scrabble Tournament and reading a wide range of middlebrow novels and classics.  I've enjoyed the middlebrow doorstop of a novel, Nancy Hale's The Prodigal Women, and Nobel winner Heinrich Böll's masterpiece, The Clown.

First, let me say The Prodigal Women is a very good read, along the lines of Dreiser's An American Tragedy mixed with Jacquelyn Susann's Valley of the Dolls and Mary McCarthy's The Group. In other words, it is a fascinating mishmash, well-written, occasionally tawdy, and very dark.   Published in 1940, and reissued as a Plume American Women Writers book in 1988, it is a tripartite bildungsroman about three friends who grow up in the 1920s and '30s and live male-oriented, often tragic lives. Leda March is the intellectual daughter of a monied Boston family, who grows up victimized by the other girls at Country Day School in Hampton, a small town/suburb, and later at an exclusive girls' school in Boston. She is too serious, loves poetry, walks in the woods, and cannot make small talk.  But she desperately wants to be a debutante like her chief tormentor, a girl named Adele.  Then Betsy Jekyll, a Southerner, moves to Hampton and becomes Leda's bosom friend.  They talk about boys and do typical teenage things, like making up their faces and buying costume jewelry.  Leda finally fits in: she loves Betsy's arty family, her brilliant mother, Minnie May, and the beautiful older sister, Maizie.  

But things start to go wrong very soon.  Maizie falls in love with an artist who mistreats her.  She gets pregnant so he'll marry her, and, since he is unforgiving and sadistic on her honeymoon, she has an abortion while they are in South America.  She never recovers from the abortion.  She loses her looks and health, moves back in with her family, and runs back to the horrible Lambert whenever he calls.  Lambert admits to Leda he has ruined Maizie's life, that he wants to kick her like a dog when she is down, and he is like poison to her.
Nancy Hale
Worse, Leda has an affair with him.  Leda, who has grown up to be a beauty and a talented poet, has dumped Betsy and befriended a wealthy debutante, Nicola, who Does All the Right Things. When they meet Lambert through her chief tormentor, Adele, Leda has to have him.  Leda and Nicola think there's nothing wrong with Leda's crush, since Maizie has become a frump.   Leda and Lambert are both self-centered and cruel: they're two of a kind.  But Leda is very cold:  she does not want to have sex with him.

Leda cannot bear to be different, so when Adele accuses her of adultery she leaves Lambert and marries her kind cousin, James, a doctor, so she can be the conventional post-deb she wants to be.  Leda's coldness and sheer determination are horrifying.  She insists that they move to New York. 

Betsy, a warm, sweet girl, is not a deb, but is having a good time with Harvard men.  She has just met the love of her life, and I have a feeling it is going to go wrong.

I needed a break from all this tragedy, so I read Heinrich Böll's sad, comic novel, The Clown, one of the best books I've read this year.  

The brilliant Heinrich Böll won the Nobel Prize in 1972, and I read some of his novels when I was growing up.   Though most of his books are still in print in the U.S., I don't hear much about himanymore. German graduate departments are being cut across the nation, and fewer German novels seem to be translated.  Am I imagining that?

The Clown, published in 1963, is a comical, sad, post-war soliloquy and critique of Germany, both Catholic and anti-Catholic, and an analysis of the socioeconomic problems.  It is narrated by Hans Schneir, a down-and-out comedian-clown-pierrot, who returns to his apartment in Bonn, shattered because his girlfriend, Marie, a devout Catholic who has lived with him for many years, has left him to marry Zupfner, another Catholic. Hans is out of a job, with a hurt knee, and no money.  He telephones everyone he knows to ask for money.

Money is just one of the problems Hans faces.  Catholicism is another, or at least the face of the problem.  Hans, in his late 20s, is obsessed with social hypocrisy.  The Catholic group meetings Marie attended struck him as the essence of hypocrisy.  Hans attacks each of the vain, empty men in the group.  To Marie, they have been her life's blood.

Among the most horrifying men in Hans's past is a Nazi who brags about his history, pretends to be reformed, and enjoys a lot of attention from women. 

Hans does not marry Marie because it strikes him as the height of hypocrisy  to do paperwork for a civil as well as a Catholic ceremony and sign contracts about bringing up their children Catholic.  He believes the Catholic marriage will be less moral than their living together.  Marie is more complicated than the other Catholics, but she is torn and cannot agree with his point of view. 

Hans grew up in a rich, miserly Protestant household, where his mother starved her family, because she was always dieting.  His sister Henrietta tragically died during their childhood; his brother Leo converted to Catholicism to become a priest. His mother worked first against the Jews during the war, then for reconciliation after the war. His father saves two women from the Nazis, the only really good deed Hans thinks he has done. 

Now Hans is alone, desperate for money, and when his father comes to visit him, he will not give Hans money unless Hans agrees to take "clowning" lessons.  He does not understand that Hans has destroyed his career through drinking and missing Marie.

"What was it that made this kind man, my father, so hard and so strong, why did he talk on the TV screen about social obligations, about national consciousness, about Germany, about Christianity even, which he admitted he didn't believe in, and, what was more, in such a way that you were forced to believe him?  It could only be money, not the concrete kind you use to buy milk and take a taxi, keep a mistress and go to the movies--but money in the abstract.  I was afraid of him, and he was afraid of me:  we both knew we were not realists, and we both despised those who talked about "Realpolitik."  There was much more to it than those idiots would ever understand.  I read it in his eyes:  he couldn't give his money to a clown who would do only one thing with it...spend it, the very opposite of what you were supposed to do with money."
It's a fascinating novel, and I'd like to read it again, and read some history, to understand it fully.  It has been such a pleasure to read this wonderful, fast-paced, intellectual novel. 

No comments: