Friday, 23 December 2011

DAWN POWELL Come Back to Sorrento (1932)

Steerforth Press USA, c 2000

The pity welling in his bright compassionate eyes was so much that it frightened Connie. She had never wanted pity, she only wished to explain. Pity? Surely she was too fortunate a woman to warrant that, she was not lost, and pity was for lost souls. She was so unprepared for the understanding in his eyes that her own eyes blurred unexpectedly and there was an ominous tingling in her head as if old thoughts long stored in the attic were being creakily dragged out for this season's use.


The Novel: Connie Benjamin, a middle-aged dreamer married to an unromantic German-born shoemaker in the dull Ohio town of Dell River, attempts to escape the banal realities of her humdrum existence by continually reliving her girlhood –– a time when she ‘sang for Morini’ and was praised by everyone who heard her as being the possessor of 'a golden throat.'  

Enter Blaine Decker, the town’s new music teacher –– vain, conceited and equally deluded when it comes to admitting that his opportunities to make a name for himself as a serious composer have long since passed him by.  Decker and Connie soon become, along with the frustrated poet Louisa Murrell, a kind of tripartite support group, fueling and encouraging each other’s illusions in a way that’s both pitiable and dangerous.

When Connie becomes sick, it suddenly robs Louisa and the condescending Decker of the one thing that, up till then, has given their emotionally stunted lives their only sense of meaning.  Being denied daily access to Connie also means being denied access to the one thing they need to maintain their falsely conceived image of themselves as uniquely gifted if unfairly overlooked artists.  Decker eventually returns to Europe as the paid traveling companion of Dell River’s resident female neurotic, but is left pining for his lost intimacy with Connie and the refuge it offered him from his loneliness and the world’s ongoing indifference to his rapidly vanishing talent. 

Come Back to Sorrento was Powell’s fifth novel. It did not sell well when originally published in 1932 (the height of the Depression) or make her popular with the critics, perhaps because her publishers inexplicably insisted on altering its title to The Tenth Moon –– a title Powell herself loathed and described as being ‘empty, silly, pointless’ in her diaries.  But the book has a kind of quiet, poetic dignity that raises the interwoven stories of Connie and Decker from the level of mundane prairie soap opera to that of memorable modern tragedy.  As Powell herself expressed it, the book is ‘the tragedy of people who once were glamorous, now trying in mediocre situations to modestly refer to their past…

The Writer:  Dawn Powell was born in Ohio in 1896 and was part of the same generation of American writers which included Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.  She was the friend (and Greenwich Village drinking companion) of Hemingway (they shared an editor for a time in the legendary Maxwell Perkins), EE Cummings, Edmund Wilson and Malcolm Lowry and enjoyed a particularly close friendship with the novelist John Dos Passos, helping to care for him after the 1947 car accident which cost him his left eye and killed his first wife.  She married the poet, critic and future advertising executive Joseph Gousha in 1920 and gave birth to their only child, a son, the following year.  The boy, nicknamed Jojo by his parents, was probably an undiagnosed idiot savant whose violent outbursts required him to be institutionalized for much of his adult life.

Powell’s work falls into two distinct categories. The first consists of bittersweet novels focusing on smalltown life (Dance Night, Come Back to Sorrento and The Locusts Have No King) that were closely modeled on her own childhood and youth in Ohio as the eldest motherless daughter of a frequently absent traveling salesman father. The second, which began in 1936 with the publication of the witty and moving Turn, Magic Wheel, consists of novels set in the trashy, flashy, often seedy world of contemporary New York (particularly in and around her beloved Greenwich Village). It may have been this refusal on her part to limit herself to writing one kind of novel in one kind of style that explains why her books never sold as well in America as they did in England, where her mixture of compassion, naturalism and screwball-inspired satire consistently seemed to find a more appreciative audience.  In addition to her sixteen published novels, she also wrote dozens of pieces for magazines, newspapers and radio as well as nine stage plays and one teleplay before dying of stomach cancer in 1965.

Gore Vidal, another friend and admirer of Powell's, once described her as ‘our best comic novelist.’  She probably was, but she was also something far more important than that –– a writer who believed in showing emotionally damaged people as they really were without needing to ridicule, judge or condemn them for clinging to their illusions or indulging their sometimes ludicrous eccentricities.  Her characters are flawed, she wanted to remind us, because being flawed is also an intrinsic part of what it means to be human.

David Mamet is allegedly writing a screenplay based on Come Back to Sorrento which is scheduled to go into production some time in 2012.  The part of Connie will probably be played by Mamet's wife, singer and actress Rebecca Pidgeon. 

Click HERE to visit the Library of America website where you can read more about Dawn Powell: Novels 1930-1942 and its companion volume Dawn Powell: Novels 1944-1962. 

You might also enjoy: 
SINCLAIR LEWIS Babbitt (1922)
JOHN O'HARA Appointment in Samarra (1934)

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