Monday, February 13, 2012

Youth's a stuff will not endure

Edmund Wilson, writing on Proust, said that the narrator of In Search of Lost Time
has proved the fatal impossibility of ever finding our happiness in another individual. A woman will not, and cannot, live in the world in which we would have her--that is, the world in which we live, which we ourselves imagine; and what we love in her is merely the product of our own imagination: we have supplied her with it ourself.
Proust's view is far gloomier than mine, but he does describe as well as anyone the sense of falling in love, not with a person, but with your projection of them. Young love is particularly susceptible to that mistake: we've simply not had the experience, in the years of our first, fumbling adulthood, to know better. In The Unquiet Grave Cyril Connolly writes,
Life is a maze in which we take the wrong turning before we have learned to walk.
And in those years when we first take that wrong turning, we do so with such brash confidence, such certainty, that we wouldn't have consulted a map even if we'd had one.

That's what kept coming to mind as I read John Cotter's novel of misplaced love, vague artistic ambition, aimlessness, and drunken nonsense, Under the Small Lights (2010) in one long, absorbed sitting on Saturday. Jack, a twenty-year-old college student, spends a summer drinking and drugging with a pair of recently eloped friends, wasting away the warm days being tempted and teased by the wife of the couple. They skinny-dip in her parents' pool; they kiss in the kitchen when the party's in the den; she snuggles up to him in bed when her husband's away. He spends the summer convincing himself simultaneously that she wants to sleep with him as badly as he wants to sleep with her, that he's going to sleep with her, and that somehow they're also not going to do that because her husband is his best friend. Parties come and go; other girls offer alternatives; the relationship remains painful and impossible.

Cotter dresses the story in prose that matches the haze of drunken dreams with the precision of young memory. Listen to the consonance and assonance in this description of some ill-advised firing of bottle rockets:
I re-lit them and ran back, priding myself on how well my drunk legs hopped the trail. Back together, we saw them flare up then turn on us. Burning, they sent a blue streak straight our way. They hadn't been crooked wrong in the rock but the flare-up on take-off sent them looping, burning blue over gold. As we turned and streaked away I could hear Paul and Corinna panting in my ears. Then I was concentrating on my own running. By the time the flares went bang behind us, Corinna was ahead by twenty yards. I'd drifted off to the side of one of the warehouses. I knew all of our hearts must be pounding a fury but I could only feel my own.
The prose is particularly well-suited to what Cotter is trying to capture: that moment when youth teeters into adulthood, when the languorous pace and lifelong friendships of childhood begin to give way to the fast-flicker rush of adult life, with its consequences and regrets, and new, more subtle forms of monotony and change. The summer is one long deferral of responsibility and consequence, peopled with characters who are starting for the first time to see themselves plain, and really wonder whether who they are is who they want to be. Jack watches his friend Star:
Much of the Star I knew was composed of parts of Corinna she'd caught or memorized. Still, I felt at a loss to watch her change into someone more like Mara. I recognized her low threshold for imitation. Seeing how Bill paused a little before answering any question in a way that centered the action on his answer, I'd started doing it myself. Recently I'd noticed myself unconsciously copying the way Paul ran the tip of a cigarette around the inside rim of an ashtray, never tapping it. But to see Star taking on what I was convinced were Mara's tics (who else?)--the way she tossed her head to move the hair from her eyes, or wearing the same shirt three or four days in a row--made me feel unsteady.
None of this is new territory, of course--I found myself thinking of Edmund Wilson's portrait of dissolute, confused Bohemian New York, I Thought of Daisy, while a funny running scene of drunken artistic collaboration on the shores of Walden in winter called to mind Withnail and I--but Cotter makes it fresh and engaging, with characters whose mistakes make us ache.

Elsewhere in The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly writes,
Art is memory: memory is re-enacted desire.
Under the Small Lights convincingly takes us back to those years when all we were was an inchoate bundle of desire, and our every action was an attempt to figure out the forms we wanted it to take.


  1. Thanks for this. I just discovered your blog because I will click on almost anything about Anthony Powell. I've been enjoying it very much!

  2. Thanks, Heather. I'm always glad to hear that other Anthony Powell fans are finding their way here!