Sunday, 27 May 2012

The Novels That Got Away: Part 1 'The Lost Week' and 'Mrs Harold Husted'

November 25, 1979

The Novels That Got Away
Somewhere on these premises in Paris--along with boxes of old Christmas decorations--or in a trunk in Maine there must be the vestiges of two novels I started and abandoned decades ago. It will be no great loss if they are not exhumed. The first, titled "The Lost Week," was inspired by the descent on Truro, on Cape Cod, by Charlie Jackson, the novelist, in the summer of 1945. Spurred on by friends (the subject was "made for me," they thought), I began it there and then in the first heat of amusement. A satire, it was to be, on the literary life and the thirst for fame, just as dangerous to self-respect as the thirst for alcohol; the protagonist was called Herbert Harper. That is about all I remember, though the manuscript ran to 80 or 90 typed pages.
Better than the manuscript I remember the circumstances of taking it and my typewriter at the very end of that summer by a series of trains and a ferry to Yarmouth in Nova Scotia, where I planned to work for a week without interruption in what I pictured as the Evangeline country. I would put up at an inn or a fisherman's shingled cottage and take solitary walks along the beat to freshen my invention. The reality was different. My last view of the sea was from the ferry that took me to Digby. Yarmouth proved to be a desolating commercial town containing banks, insurance companies and a movie house.

 I stayed at the traveling salesmen's hotel (the hotel accommodation, I think) and rode up in the elevator and down three times a day to the dining room, where I was eyed without much curiosity by the salesmen with their cases of samples at nearby tables. I spoke to nobody, and nobody spoke to me. After a single frightening foray into the businesslike streets in search of the harbor, which I never found, I stayed all day long in my room like a prisoner sentenced to the typewriter. The room was made up while I was below, eating; the waiter brought me my food with scarcely a look or a word. My sole terse exchanges were with the bank clerk who changed my money and a the postal employee who took my telegram when I nerved myself to go out a second time in order to plot my escape.
By a turn of poetic justice, this became my own lost week.

Uninspiring Yarmouth

 On my return, no one, I discovered, believed that I had gone all that way to Nova Scotia to get ahead with a novel: My friends were convinced that there had been a romantic episode, a secret tryst. And I had nothing, finally, to show for it, despite the unusual activity of my typewriter, which had been steadily yielding about 10 pages a day at the command of my weakening will. As I packed them into the suitcase, I already "guessed." I had run out of steam. The novel had ground to a halt, petering out in the middle of a sentence, for all I know. I have never looked to see.

Six or seven years later, in Portsmouth, R.I. (having published "The Oasis" and "The Groves of Academe"), I made another false start. This time the action is laid in New York. The heroine is a young married woman known only as Mrs. Harold Husted--no given name. The tone of the writing is brisk; she is a brisk small person with sandy hair. The story opens in midtown on a fine city morning; she is a brisk small person with sandy hair. The story opens in midtown on a fine city morning; she is on the street early, perhaps having taken a child to the school bus. There is a description of early morning sights and sounds-- the giant iceman emerging from his cellar, the bakery truck delivering, the milkman. Her crisp little nature loves being out among these other early birds, pioneers of the day--birds ofher feather, she feels them to be. I can recall only one phrase: "weaving a ribbon of newness through the garment (?) of the day."
But almost at once a disagreeable duty imposes itself. She must find an open drugstore and shut herself up in a phone booth to call her lover. He will still be in bed, of course, soggy with sleep, eyelids gummy, voice rheumy and thick. "Honey," he wheedles, sounding plaintive but nonetheless appeasing. She is repelled, as she is every morning when she has to wake him. But if she does not call him now, it will be too late. She cannot do it from her apartment; her husband is there. She has only this quarter of an hour. Often, as today, she is tempted to forgo letting him know when she will be free; she can put her nickel back into her coin purse and go home. But generally she exerts her will, forcing herself to drop the coin and not to be irritated when he answers. If only he could be up one morning, just to please her. He knows the burden is on her because he must not call her at home.
Yet why does she go through with this chore? It is a mystery to her. Maybe because it is a chore, like cleaning the oven, and she feels duty-bound, as a good person, to conquer her aversion. When she is with him, across a lunch table or in his (still) unmade bed, after a while it wears off. But why must she have a lover at all? He is her first, and yet he has become chronic, like a habit.
The manuscript breaks off in the phone book, that is, at the familiar lowest moment of Mrs. Harold Husted's day: no more ribbon of newness. Looking back, I think I see why I could not go on. This pitiful cramped version of the eternal triangle is too abstract, too neoclassical, to make a novel. We do not need to know more about the lover or about Mr. Harold Husted, the husband who for some plausible or implausible reason will still be at home at 9 o'clock in the morning. All we need to know has already been told. Actually this is a short story that should have ended (where it did) in the phone booth. If a student gave me the manuscript, I would tell her that. But I also see something that a teacher of writing would not have been able to guess. Clearly, this fragment is a foreshadowing of "The Group." Though little Mrs. Husted's story does not appear there, her anxious but game spirit has carried over.
Bette Davies Reconstructs