Thursday, June 6, 2013

Orpheus Told Mnemosyne: Stories of Memory and Loss

I picked out two novels from the new book shelf at the library this past week with similar themes. The first one, The Last Summer (by Judith Kinghorn), is an English romance set before, during, and after the first World War. This territory has been notably trod by Downton Abbey, Atonement, and other works of fiction and offers ripe ground for meditation on love, endurance, privation, courage, the horrors of war, and the loss of innocence, among other subjects.

The second book, The Obituary Writer (by Ann Hood), tells two stories, one of a love affair interrupted by the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the other of a suburban housewife and mother who experiences an unexpected awakening after the disappearance of a neighborhood boy in 1961. In this book, the two stories are linked not only by themes of memory and loss but also by a character who appears in both.

Having recently seen the film The Great Gatsby (another period drama dealing with some of the same concerns), I think I was curious to see how other writers might treat the vast theme of love and disaster. With Gatsby's tragedy fresh in my mind, I'm pretty sure I was hoping for a happier ending. Did I get one? Well, yes and no.

The Last Summer tells a coming of age story as a loss of paradise, and this sense of looking back and longing for what once was permeates the novel. Clarissa has grown up in an idyllic country home with very little to trouble her until, on the eve of World War I, she falls in love with the housekeeper's son. The novel unfolds over a period of some years as Clarissa and Tom pledge their devotion, are separated by war and the disapproval of Clarissa's mother, come back together for brief intervals, and drift apart.

In tandem with the loss of her young man is the loss of Clarissa's home, which is sold due to the family's change of fortunes during the war. Deyning is pictured as an Edenic place of gardens, roses, and expansive lawns, and although, as a reverse snob, I shouldn't have had much sympathy for Clarissa's fall from grace (she's still well off), the image of that paradise lost resonated so mythically that I felt it, too. It was less clear to me why it took Clarissa and Tom so long to get back together when they were obviously so unhappy apart, but that's the way the story developed.

The novel dwells a great deal on privations that can't be undone, but after many troubles, the two lovers reunite, and even Deyning is not as lost as it appeared to be. The story seems linear until the end, when the author circles back to the world that was lost, and we're told that "Moments can and do come back to us." I was more struck by that line than any other in the book, as it implied a sort of mythic eternal return that, while a bit out of line with the plot up to that point, was a relief after all the hardship preceding it.

The Obituary Writer takes a different approach to loss. Vivien Lowe, unable to discover the fate of her lover after the devastation of the 1906 earthquake, has left San Francisco but never accepted her loss. She's a sort of female Orpheus, always looking back, and hope kept alive acts for her as a kind of barrier to living in the present (although I was unable to see that she was missing anything, quite frankly). When she does move on, it's not in a way that's satisfying for her, and decades later she's a cautionary tale for her daughter-in-law, who is paralyzed in a stifling marriage.

Vivien's suffering is understandable because the fate of her lover was never clear. To me, it seems reasonable that she would continue to look for him and try to learn his fate. Her thirteen years of searching are presented as if they are a lifetime wasted. And yet her friend Lotte, who follows a sensible path of marriage and motherhood and constantly urges Vivien to move on, sees her own life fall apart in an instant. In such an unpredictable world, who's to say which path is better?

So, one novel has a happy ending that seems a little contrived, and another has a somber message about loss. In The Obituary Writer, the only hope for happiness lies with Claire, the daughter-in-law, whose future at the end is still unknown. But what about Vivien? Should she, when young, have tried to swallow her grief and gone back to San Francisco to pick up her life? Would finding out the truth sooner have mattered? That was the only solution I could see. Should Clarissa and Tom, in The Last Summer, have stopped dithering a little sooner? Maybe so, though it still wouldn't have made up for the loss of their friends and loved ones.

I keep going back to Jay Gatsby, whose intransigence started this whole train of thought, I now realize. I keep envisioning a happier ending for him in my version of "dreaming the myth onwards." (Oddly enough, I find that this quote comes from Jung's The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, which I spent several hours reading this very afternoon.)

So to Gatsby I say, with all the conviction I can muster, forget about that green light. It's a siren, a phantasm, that will lure you to the rocks. You've been to college (even if it was only one semester, it was still Oxford), so you should know the light is only a metaphor for Daisy, a lovely girl but an altogether flighty one. Just because she's a famous literary character doesn't mean she has street cred.

Take your fortune and reinvest in something safer. Move away from godforsaken West Egg and all those snobs and their old money. Why not try . . . California? Go west, young man. This could work. Who needs a castle, anyway?