Wednesday, April 17, 2024

'As Sensitive As Anyone Else'

“In common with James Jones, Gina Berriault knows that ill-educated or inarticulate people are as sensitive as anyone else. She renders their speech with a fine and subtle ear for the shy or strident inaccuracies, for the bewilderment of missed points and for the dim, sad rhythms of clichés; but when she takes us into the silence of their minds, their thoughts and feelings come out in prose as graceful, as venturesome and precise as she can make it.” 

That’s Richard Yates (1926-92), author of the novels Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade, in “The Achievement of Gina Berriault,” published in Ploughshares in 1979. Yates was a pitiless anatomist of human fallibility. The revival of interest in his novels and stories, thanks in part to the 2008 film version of Revolutionary Road, seems to have faded. Berriault (1926-99), who was especially gifted at writing short stories, seems to have faded even more.


Yates’ point is an interesting one. When portraying poorly educated, lower-class or simply inarticulate characters, writers will often treat them condescendingly and even make fun of them (as do others, of course). This seems not only unfair but a lazy indulgence in clichés. I’m reminded of the author’s note to McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943), in which Joseph Mitchell, the nonfiction writer for The New Yorker, complains about journalists referring to “the little people”: “I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are.”


Consider Ryabovitch, a young officer in Chekhov’s story “The Kiss” (1887) who must attend a party hosted by his commander, a lieutenant-general. He is self-conscious and uncomfortable: “While some of his comrades assumed a serious expression, while others wore forced smiles, his face, his lynx-like whiskers, and spectacles seemed to say: ‘I am the shyest, most modest, and most undistinguished officer in the whole brigade!’  who attends a party.” Instead of joining a dance, he invites two other officers to play billiards. In modern terms, Ryabovitch is a hopelessly backward nerd.


Unexpectedly, a woman embraces Ryabovitch and kisses him. She realizes she has mistaken him for someone else and both shriek. “He quite forgot,” Chekhov writes, “that he was round-shouldered and uninteresting, that he had lynx-like whiskers and an ‘undistinguished appearance’ (that was how his appearance had been described by some ladies whose conversation he had accidentally overheard). When [General] Von Rabbek’s wife happened to pass by him, he gave her such a broad and friendly smile that she stood still and looked at him inquiringly.


“‘I like your house immensely!’ he said, setting his spectacles straight.”


There’s humor here, as usual in Chekhov’s depictions of even the saddest of human beings, but Ryabovitch is not turned into an easy punching bag. We’re amused, in part, because we understand his social incompetence. It’s possible he has never before been kissed by a woman. He remains obsessed with the memory, and the following day, while mildly drunk, works up the courage to share his experience with several other officers. They seem uninterested. Near the end of the story, Chekhov writes:


“And the whole world, the whole of life, seemed to Ryabovitch an unintelligible, aimless jest. . . . And turning his eyes from the water and looking at the sky, he remembered again how fate in the person of an unknown woman had by chance caressed him, he remembered his summer dreams and fancies, and his life struck him as extraordinarily meagre, poverty-stricken, and colourless. . . .”


Sadly mild comedy, characteristically Chekhovian. Other writers treat dim, inarticulate characters differently. Yates suggests James Jones, whose enlisted men in From Here to Eternity are often unable to express their bafflement with the world. So too in the fiction of Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and James T. Farrell, among others. Continuing his description of Berriault’s treatment of inarticulate characters, Yates writes:


“That’s a rare ability, and reflects a rare degree of insight. It may well be one of the most valuable skills a writer can learn -- which makes it disappointing to discover, time and again, how few of the most celebrated novelists have bothered to learn it at all.”


[The Constance Garnett translation of “The Kiss” is collected in The Party and Other Stories (1917); Ecco Press, 1984.]


Jack said...

This is terrific. A story I was not familiar with. I will find it.

Thomas Parker said...

I'm always happy to see any nod to James Jones. From Here to Eternity is still the best depiction of military life ever written by an American.