“Asleep a King” —
Eleanor Clark, whose elegant and satirical story, “Hurry, Hurry” was published by Partisan Review, Vol. IV, NO. 2 1938, also contributed a story to Vol. IV, No. 6, May, 1938, “Asleep a King.” I am reprinting here my blog post about Eleanor Clark , “Hurry Hurry” that I posted on 17 January, 2017. I am hoping you will read or re-read it, to remind you of her earlier story and of her place in the Partisan Review and the Vassar Girl scenes in the 1930s: Then I go on to write about “Asleep A King.”
Mary McCarthy wasn’t the only Vassar girl from the graduating classes of the early 1930s who got involved with Partisan Review. You may recall that Philip Rahv married Nathalie Swan — Some said that Rahv married Swan on the rebound from McCarthy, when she left him for Edmund Wilson. Swan was one of the literary crowd on the Vassar campus, and became an architect, having spent time studying at the Bauhaus. Later she (or some aspects of her) appeared in the sophisticated lesbian, Lakey, at the end of The Group, returning to New York from her Europeanisation. Elizabeth Bishop, another Vassar girl involved in the literary coterie that included McCarthy, was published by Partisan Review, and the story “Hurry, Hurry,” that follows Morris’s “Art Chronicle” on Arp, was written by a witty Vassar Left Intellectual and writer, Eleanor Clark. When McCarthy became part of the posh-girl group that lived in the South Tower on the Vassar Campus, she was also becoming involved with the Clark sisters.
Eleanor and her sister,Eunice, were active in politics at Vassar, before McCarthy had found herself a leftist Trotskyist, and just about the time that McCarthy first knew of Trotsky, Eleanor had gone with Trotsky’s entourage into exile in Mexico in 1937 after he had been expelled from Norway in 1936, during the first set of the Moscow show trials. She married Jan Frankel,Trotsky’s secretary, to help confirm his immigration status.
The Clark girls had worked together on a ‘rebel’ College magazine, ‘Con Spirito,’ suggesting both their brio and their clandestine atmospheric. In Mccarthy’s The Group, Norine, who may have been modelled on the Clark sisters, says of McCarthy’s South Tower crowd: “You people were the aesthetes. We were the politicals. Your crowd was sterile. But God, I used to envy you. Poise, Social Savy. Looks. We called you the Ivory Tower Group. Aloof from the battle.” That at least is what McCarthy figured (or hoped) the Clarks might have thought of her.
But years later, Eleanor Clark told the biographer Frances Kiernan: “I didn’t like Mary. I never liked her. My sister Eunice knew her a lot better, and for her pains and I must say in some cases extraordinary generosity, she got kicked in the teeth. In The Group she got pilloried along with everyone else.
I don’t know when Eleanor Clark wrote the story, “Hurry, Hurry.” But it is a marvellous combination of the absurd and the surreal, written with the wit and metropolitan confidence characteristic of a Dorothy Parker story in The New Yorker.
At the same time, it is a fable of the hollowness of bourgeois society — its cultural conformity, pomposity, self importance, and the voice is that of one of the younger generation. It is a girl’s voice that is both satirical and embarrassed by her complicity in the world of her mother.
The narrative is a sang-froid description of ‘A BEAUTIFUL JUNE DAY’ — the day the narrator’s mother’s house falls down. Thrust immediately into the fact of the fallen house, we learn that the household dog, a French poodle named ‘de Maupassant,’ hadn’t noticed anything in advance. The mother adores the dog — “SHE LOVED THE ARISTOCRACY OF HIM, THE WAY HE TOSSED HIS LUXURIOUS BLACK MANE….” But the mother had spoiled the poodle: “IN THE END HE WAS INCAPABLE OF SERIOUS THOUGHT AND MUST HAVE PLAYED OR SLEPT THROUGH THE ENTIRE CATASTROPHE.” The falling down house is ignored by the narrator herself. “I WAS NOT INTERESTED. INSTEAD, “I SPENT THE ENTIRE TIME — TWO OR THREE HOURS IT MUST HAVE BEEN — UNDER A MAPLE TREE, AND RESCUED NOTHING BUT ONE SILVER-BACKED HAND MIRROR. As the building falls in this slow motion ruination, neighbours gather on the lawn now strewn with the contents of the house,drink cocktails and offer comments and useless advice.
In one area, “BEAMS COULD BE HEARD FALLING, AND ALREADY A WIDE CRACK WAS BEGINNING TO OPEN DIAGONALLY ACROSS THE FRONT OF THE LIVING-ROOM WALL, EXPOSING THE DUST-COVERED LEAVES OF BOOKS, FIRST THE HISTORICAL WORKS AND LATER THE VELLUM-BOUND EDITIONS OF DANTE, BAUDELAIRE AND RACINE. IT WAS THIS, I THINK, THAT FIRST AWOKE MY MOTHER TO A REAL AWARENESS OF WHAT WAS HAPPENING. IT WAS NOT ONLY THAT THE BOOKS WERE THREATENED WITH DESTRUCTION: IT WAS ALSO OBVIOUS TO EVERYONE THAT THEIR PAGES HAD NOT BEEN CUT.”
The narrator’s insouciance becomes even more extreme as her mother becomes more brittlely hysterical. What makes the story work is the way Clark turns the humour of the surrealized fall of the house inside out like a mobius strip as it becomes a scorching scene of human horror. The mother sends a maimed servant, Myrtle, into the house to bring out a family heirloom, in the course of which impossible task, Myrtle is beaten with wood switches, breaks her back while carrying the monstrous ‘highboy’ she was sent to bring out, while all the neighborhood ladies are shouting, “HURRY UP MYRTLE, HURRY UP, HURRY UP” until she can only be seen between windows as a wall crashes into her — and “SHE FELL WITH HER TORN-OFF WRISTS LIFTED UP IN PRAYER.”
The poodle makes its way up to the mother’s bedroom, and she cries out to him, “MOPPY! MOPPY!”, MY MOTHER CRIED, ‘DID YOU THINK YOUR MOTHER HAD FORGOTTEN YOU? OH MOPPY YOU DID!?
The two — mother and poodle — do jump from the remaining wall, “MY MOTHER IN A NEW FLOWERED PRINT AND A PICTURE HAT, HOLDING UP HER ARMS WITH AN EXPRESSION OF LOVE, ALMOST — I THOUGHT AT THAT MOMENT BUT I AM NOT SURE OW — ALMOST A LOOK OF FULFILMENT IN HER FACE, WHICH AT TIMES MADE ONE THINK OF A MADONNA THOUGH THE PROFILE WAS TOO SHARP. AND THEN THE LAST OF THE HOUSE FELL AND BURIED THEM.”
I wonder what Dwight McDonald thought about the story — was it too slick for him? Or did it conform too much to his ideas of New Yorker ideology? Anyone reading this know?
Here is the link to read the story itself on the BU onlinePartisan Review site: p.35ff. click here Hurry Hurry
Eleanor Clark later wrote well- received travel books, one of which won the National Book Award — The Oysters of Locmariaquer (1964),a study of a French community of Oyster farmers — and she married the poet Robert Penn Warren. She remained a beautiful and witty woman all her life:
Eleanor Clark’s later beauty.
So now — ‘Asleep a King’– Clark’s second contribution to PR is a companionable fiction to Max Brod’s discussion of Franz Kafka. The Brod piece brings European anxieties and fears into the more stable milieu of Partisan Review; Clark’s story domesticates that disquiet: a working class family somewhere in America – certainly not in New York – where the mother takes in laundry in order to support her two luckless sons, and a set of futures that won’t pan out. Mrs. Bradley’s frustration and her endless toil on other people’s sheets and pillow cases casts a pale white shadow over all their lives. One son, David, was meant to be a musician but gave it up and instead returned home to live, fecklessly, off his mother’s earnings. The other son, Mark, has been wounded or fallen ill, and has been tended to by an angel of mercy sweet nurse, and they fall in love.
But we understand right from the first paragraph that Mark is in a shadowland himself, and he floats above the facts and duties that constitute his daily life now, a year on from his time in the hospital. He is about to marry his nurse, Joan, who will be the new Mrs. Bradley, superceding Mark’s mother, and the couple will live in a small white house. “He was going to move his life across the road.” And his being in the pale shadows shuts him out from the colours of spring, of life: “June was too much for him. Everything heaving into flower; girls swinging along the state road hand in hand; women dragging their bright colours out of trunks and rushing somewhere, anywhere, to meet.. . Everyone but Mark, it seemed, had some secret understanding with the month of June.”
The story feels like it is going down the path of the New Masses, or trailing Dos Passos, with the ennui of the Depression and the mystery of personal identity drowning its central character. Mark is a sleepwalker, and Joan, his nurse-bride is swathed in illusions of married life — she is as detached from what is happening as he is –by way of her focus on this thing about to happen – – this marriage. She is surrounded by the objects bought to turn the small white house into a place to be alive. Unlike Mark, “She was not tired, had not trouble being alive, had never hidden a pistol in her bureau drawer. She had brought armfuls of packages from Millboro and in sole rapture was pulling their broken paper off, like a child. And when all her toys were hung up around her that would be her house, to live in, as if it could never be torn down.”
They each have their secrets: his is the crisis of being; her’s is that she is not a virgin. He leaves the house, drives away, and shoots himself. She breaks out of her inarticulacy for a few moments: “Love this is my true self, my arms, my voice. Be silent, listen to my voice, believe in me. This is our own country, here. Here! Reaches his deep-shadowed arms, rising, singing of crickets in the June night, and now blood, look! streams down the sky. We have been betrayed.”
But in the morning she awoke to new sounds, rose and went out from their home, slowly, into the sun.
Its a good story and redolent with the sense of disturbance and anticipation that characterises a lot of the writings in PR in that long year of 1937-1938.
Here is the link so you can read it.: