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Thursday, 14 March 2013

GINA BERRIAULT The Son (1966)

Counterpoint Press, 1998



On the way to her room, at midnight, she entered her son's room.  The window was up a few inches and a cold wind was stirring the curtains.  Out on the bay the foghorns were sounding, expectantly repetitive, like a deep-spoken word.  She sat on the edge of the bed, shivering in her neglige, watching him, his face plump with sleep, his arms flung above his headWas the only love that was not a delusion her love for her son?


The NovelVivian Carpentier is a young woman who appears to have everything that a woman living in 1930s San Francisco could possibly desire.  The daughter of a well-known doctor –– with the necessary wealth and beauty to match her unassailable social position – Vivian impetuously marries a good looking Italian-American waiter named Paul who plans to break into the movies, only to find herself becoming pregnant by him almost immediately.  Before the child is born, however, Paul flees to Chicago, advising his wife via telegram to return to her parents' house and stay there while he travels alone to New York to look for a job on Broadway.  Vivian heeds this advice, returning to her parents' house where, for a time, she does a fairly convincing job of pretending that everything is fine, telling herself that she'll rejoin her husband as soon as he's landed himself a plum role in an important new play.  

But Vivian's composure, like so much else about her life, proves to be a lie.  Paul's unexpected decision to abandon her triggers a minor nervous breakdown and she gives birth to their child, a boy named David, four days later.  Paul never returns, causing her to transfer all her affection from him to their newborn son.

Life is not exactly bad for Vivian as a guest in her parents' luxurious Nob Hill home.  There are servants to care for David while she tours the local nitespots with her sister-in-law – who also happens to be her father's mistress –– and in time she even finds herself a job as a lounge singer, entertaining a wealthy, sophisticated and predominantly male clientele, one of whom quickly becomes infatuated with her.  Vivian goes to his apartment and sleeps with him, telling herself that 'He was notthe one who would mean more than her husband meant, the one to rid her of the desire for others, but he was the one to break the link, her body's link, with her child.'  Realizing, shortly after this enjoyable but meaningless sexual encounter, that Paul isn't coming back to her, she files for divorce and begins to enjoy her newfound status as a minor San Francisco celebrity –– a lifestyle abruptly curtailed by her meeting a doctor named George Gustafsen, a hospital colleague of her brother's, and hastily agreeing to marry him.  She quits her job and they move to a home located not far from that of her parents, where she, George and David quickly settle in to what appears to be a life of cosy if somewhat banal domesticity. 

All goes well until George begins to display signs of jealousy, illogically vilifying her for having slept with other men in addition to Paul before their marriage.  Rankling at this – and at the unfair restrictions she feels his accusations place upon her femininity –– Vivian invents stories about these phantom lovers which she avidly repeats to her new husband, learning in the process that his jealousy grants her a hitherto unsuspected power over him.  They argue and George flees their bed, only to crawl back hours later seeking the same kind of sympathetic maternal comfort she so freely and generously offers her son.  This pattern of mutually destructive behavior continues until the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War Two –– momentous events which put their marital problems into perspective and make them, for a time, all but inseparable.  When George is drafted and sent overseas to fight, Vivian can only grin and bear it, enduring their enforced separation by re-devoting herself to the task of caring for her child.  

Bored and lonely, Vivian takes a job as a salesgirl in a dress store and volunteers to work as a hostess at her local USO canteen.  Yet unlike her promiscuous cousin, who finds herself socially and sexually liberated by the war, Vivian spurns the idea of sleeping with the servicemen she meets through the USO, knowing that to do so would be to take 'a first step into that freedom which she preferred to titillate herself with rather than experience.'  This becomes a moot point when she receives word from France that George has died in combat.  With her husband dead, his obsessive jealousy now becomes a virtue, his loving way –– or so his heartbroken widow loyally tells herself – of helping her to identify and battle against 'her other self, the heedless, all-desirous self.'  A few months later Vivian surrenders to this 'other self' again, sleeping with an Air Corps Captain in order to get what she calls her required period of 'grieving under blankets' out of the way.  She also resumes her job as a lounge singer, performing in clubs patronized mostly by rich businessmen whose canny war investments have made them even richer, their devotion as gratifying to her as the attention she receives from David each time he snuggles up to her in bed or enters her room to watch her dress for work.  

The war ends and Vivian meets another man named Leland Talley.  An attractive and successful manufacturer, Talley is also married and often travels overseas on business, leaving her to lust after him between his irregularly-spaced visits like an oversexed schoolgirl.  Unlike her previous affairs, the affair with Talley endures several years, ending only when they find themselves accidentally surprised in the act of making love by a horrified David.  Although Talley laughs off the incident, he too chooses to abandon Vivian, causing her to experience genuine feelings of resentment towards her son for the first time since his birth.  Yet she quickly forgives the boy, knowing that the unconditional love he offers her is the only love she can ever fully depend on not to cause her emotional pain of some kind or another. 

But David is growing up –– a fact brought home to Vivian during a weekend trip to the woods they take with her father and two of his friends, the movie actor Max Laurie and real estate developer and future nightclub owner Russell Maddux.  David sits up with the adults at night, drinking cocoa as he tries to share and understand their jokes, yet is still young enough to need to be undressed and lovingly put to bed by his mother after tiring himself out.  Maddux becomes smitten with Vivian during the trip and they soon begin a relationship which, in time, leads to a third proposal of marriage and the creation of what –– with the occasional addition of Maddux's daughter from his previous marriage –– appears to be the ideal post-war family. 

Maddux and his sexy new wife ski, have their photographs printed in magazines and entertain on a sometimes lavish scale, Vivian becoming precisely the type of fashionable society hostess her privileged upbringing has trained her to become.  In the meantime, David enters his teenage years and begins, as teenagers do, to avoid her –– a habit he temporarily abandons at another adult party when she persuades him to get up and dance with her, only to have several of her rich and garrulous female friends pushily cut in on them.  Vivian feels strangely threatened by the predatory behavior of these women, prompting her to visit David's room before retiring for the night, where she warns him not to get a swelled head about his supposed attractiveness.  'You want to know what it is?' she asks him as they sit quietly chatting on his bed.  'It's your youthYou look at them as if you're seeing women for the first time, and what it does is make them feel they're being seen for the first time by any man.'  The implication is that she, his mother, is immune to this unrecognized and still unutilized power he possesses, yet when she returns to her own room she finds herself revolted by the sight of her husband, sitting in the dark on the end of their bed smoking a cigarette.  'It seemed to her that Russell and the others in the house and herself were all to be left behind by her son, their lives nothing compared to what his life was to be, that this man, castigating her with darkness, sat in a cul-de-sac of a life.'  Maddux seems to realize that his wife's attitude to him has changed and shames her into pitying him, marking a shift in their relationship which, over time, drives a permanent wedge between them, culminating in a physical assault which has become his only means of releasing his pent-up frustrations.  Scared and angry, Vivian takes David to Monterey where they check into a motel, planning to hide out together like runaways until Maddux calms down and she feels it safe to return to the house.

New American Library first US edition, 1966
The combination of crisis and distance allows Vivian to recover her lost closeness with her son.  They swim and take long leisurely walks together, seem to everyone they meet to be a beautiful young mother and her equally dazzling child.  Spotting David talking to a girl slightly older than himself out by the hotel pool one day, Vivian finds herself succumbing to jealousy again, realizing she can never compete with what the future holds in store for him because mothers, like memories, are 'always part of the past and never of the future.'  She mourns the inevitable loss of her own youth as much as she mourns what she realizes is the impending loss of David's youth.  

When they return to the city a few days later, they find the house unlocked and Maddux and all his belongings gone.  Finding herself alone and without a lover again, Vivian attempts to fill the void by volunteering to care for Max Laurie –– her father's actor friend who is dying of cancer.  She brings Laurie to stay in the house with her and David, willingly offering him sex whenever he feels strong enough to manage it as a form of voluntary penance, intended to atone for what she realizes has been a life of uninterrupted and largely unrepentant selfishness.  Her behavior baffles her father and, in time, comes to disturb and even disgust the dying Laurie.  'It's obscene when it's not the right time,' he tells her when she attempts to offer herself to him one night, 'and the time's not right anymore for me.'  Vivian stops sleeping with him, re-casting herself in the unglamourous role of his full-time nurse, determined to discover in the act of self-sacrifice what she's never found in the physical act of love – namely, what it is to care, truly and unconditionally, for another human being.

Yet when Laurie suddenly becomes too sick to be cared for at home anymore and is taken to the hospital her interest in him wanes.  She views herself as a victim –– of his illness, of her own despair –– and is treated as such by David when he returns home late that night to find her curled up on the sofa, scared and alone.  David attempts to comfort her, unaware that the only comfort she wants from him is of a very different variety to that which he's seeking to offer her.  Vivian takes him by the hands and leads him upstairs, 'guiding his body onto her body, at last obliterating the holy separateness she had given him at birth.'  With this one irrevocable act, she succeeds in driving away the one man she's ever truly loved and succeeded in being genuinely loved by in return.  

David flees the house early the following morning, eventually mailing her a letter from his father's house in Las Vegas in which he expresses the antagonistic hope that Vivian will die so that he 'won't have to.'  Alone again, Vivian returns to her mother's house, where she's pampered and prodded into resuming something resembling a normal social life, taking a trip to Hawaii that succeeds in blotting out the memory of what she did to her son –– a memory further obliterated by his decision to join the army and the new relationship she begins with a man named Joe Duggan, one of Maddux's friends whose intoxicated wife was one of the women who cut in on her and David at that drunken lakeside party so many years before.  Duggan continues to see her for a while, glad to finally have access to the body he lusted after in secret while she was married to his friend, then abruptly stops calling her one day, leaving Vivian to wait 'for one of the remote ones to return and lie down beside her.'

Are our lives the sum of our relationships or merely the continuously evolving product of them?  Do we have the right to expect happiness if we choose to locate the source of that happiness exclusively in the way we're perceived and treated by the opposite sex?  At what point does love transform itself into obsession, into something that, instead of ennobling and enriching us, can only damage and destroy us?  These are just a few of the difficult but compelling questions Gina Berriault raises in The Son.  In Vivian Carpentier she creates a woman so blind to her true nature that she can't even be said to be guilty of self-deception.  To accuse someone of self-deception implies that the person being accused is willfully denying some preexisting, deliberately avoided knowledge of themselves.  Vivian's perceptions of herself, on the other hand, are governed exclusively by the men in her life –– men who, unlike the son whose love she craves, receives and then unthinkingly betrays, either view her as a trophy, a shrew, an intolerable burden or, in some cases, all three simultaneously.  She sleeps with David because the pattern of her life has taught her that sex is the only way she can gain and ever hope to retain a man's love –– meaning, in her case, any man.  But Vivian is not a monster.  She's the product of a warped value system which has taught her that her only value resides in being perceived by men as a sex object, a decorative unthinking doll who exists only to make her partners feel attractive and good about themselves, regardless of who becomes hurt, alienated or emotionally crippled in the process.

 

GINA BERRIAULT, c. 1960
The Writer:  In a 1979 essay titled The Achievement of Gina Berriault, her friend, teaching colleague and fellow 'writer's writer' Richard Yates said this of her and her work: 'In common with James Jones, [she]knows that ill-educated and inarticulate people are as sensitive as anyone else.  She renders their speech with a fine and subtle ear for the shy or strident inaccuracies, for the bewilderment of missed points and the dim, sad rhythms of clichés; but when she takes us into the silence of their minds, their thoughts and feelings come out in prose as graceful, as venturesome and precise as she can make it.  That's a rare ability, and reflects a rare degree of insight. 

An incredibly gifted and painstaking writer –– one, it's been suggested, who had so much respect for the craft of writing that she frequently felt herself incapable of practicing it –– Berriault had to wait many years to receive her rightful due as one of America's finest-ever short story writers, acclaim which arrived only when her 1996 collection Women In Their Beds: New and Selected Stories won the 1997 PEN/Faulkner Award and National Book Critics Circle Award.  While her winning of these prizes failed to make her a household name, it at least made her a recognizable, no longer ignorable figure in the perpetually overcrowded (and excessively male dominated) landscape of modern American literature

Gina Berriault was born Arline Shandling in Long Beach, California on 1 January 1926.  Her Jewish parents had emigrated from Russia and it was her father, who worked as stonecutter before taking up a second career as a freelance writer for various trade journals and magazines, who would be the earliest influence on her writing in the sense that the first things she ever attempted to write were laboriously tapped out on his battered old typewriter.  She also referred to him as 'the mentor of my spirit,' a role undiminished by the disastrous financial setbacks he and his never-prosperous family suffered throughout the Depression.

Her father died when Berriault was in her late teens, forcing her to fill his shoes as a freelance journalist and take on the task of editing a small jewellery magazine in order to support herself, her mother and her younger brother.  Things were not made easier by the fact that her mother had begun to go blind when Berriault was fourteen, placing an even greater burden of responsibility on her already over-burdened shoulders.  Berriault would later suggest that her career as a writer had been motivated to some extent by watching her mother lose her sight at such a young age –– her way of 'hoping,' as she so poignantly expressed it, 'to bring forth some light out of the dark.'  Following her mother's death, she moved to Los Angeles where, in addition to her work as a writer and editor, she also worked as a clerk, a waitress and a newspaper reporter.

She met and married John Berriault in the early 1950s and the couple soon moved to San Francisco, the city where their daughter Julie would eventually be born and which would later provide the setting for so many of Berriault's finest and most evocative short stories, seven of which were published by Scribner's in its 1958 omnibus collection Story 1.  Her work, both fiction and non-fiction, appeared in national magazines like Esquire and Redbook throughout the 1960s.  Her first novel The Descent, a satire on Cold War politics set in a not-too-distant future which depicts the struggle of an idealistic politician appointed to the newly-created cabinet post of Secretary of Humanity to convince people his job actually matters, was published by the Atheneum Press in 1960 and was followed five years later by The Mistress and Other Stories, her debut collection of short fiction.  

Although she would go on to publish three more novels –– A Conference of Victims (1962, revised and republished as Afterwards in 1998), The Son (1966) and The Lights of Earth (1984) – it would be her short fiction that would establish Berriault's reputation as one of America's best, if unread, writers and earn her a fellowship from Centro Mexicano de Escritores and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  In addition to these honors, she was also the recipient of several important literary prizes including a Commonwealth Gold Medal for Literature, the Aga Khan Prize, the Pushcart Prize, several O'Henry Story Awards and the 1996 Rea Award for the Short Story.  These in turn helped her to gain teaching posts at San Francisco State University, the Iowa Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa (a position she was recommended for by Richard Yates, who also named his youngest daughter after her) and an appointment as visiting scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study.

An obsessively private person, Berriault shunned publicity and rarely drew upon the details of her own life to serve as inspiration for her work.  She possessed an uncanny ability to create an intensely-felt sense of her character's lives using the fewest possible words – a skill which prompted some short-sighted critics to dismiss her as a miniaturist or, worse, as a 'water colorist' criticisms she responded to in her usual modest way by publicly wondering 'if those labels were a way of diminishing a woman's writingI hope my stories reveal some strengths and some depths,' she added, 'but if those virtues are not to be found in my work, then at least the intentions and the effort ought to call up comparison with a 12' x 12' acrylic.'  In 1984 she wrote the screenplay for The Stone Boy, a film based on one of her most famous and frequently anthologized stories.  Anyone who doubts it only has to read this story –– about a young boy who accidentally kills his elder brother on a hunting trip –– to realize that anyone who dismissed her as a 'water colorist' was doing her and her work a grave disservice.

GINA BERRIAULT, c. 1997
She was working on a new novel she planned to call The Blue Lit Stage – about an impressionable would-be actress who meets and falls in love with a powerful Washington politician despite their diametrically opposed social positions and political differences – when she died, at the age of seventy-three, on 15 July 1999.  She was survived by her daughter Julie and her companion, the (similarly neglected) novelist Leonard Gardner, who provided an illuminating introduction for the 2003 volume The Tea Ceremony: The Uncollected Writings of Gina Berriault and personally chose the stories anthologized in its 2011 companion volume Stolen Pleasures: Selected Stories of Gina Berriault.   

Berriault's final book, published by the Counterpoint Press nearly a year after her death in May 2000, was a ninety-six page, self-illustrated fable titled The Great Petrowski –– the story of a talented parrot (the title character, who also happens to be a gifted opera singer) and his interrelated quests to find self-fulfillment and ecological harmony.  It seems a fitting epitaph for a writer who once said of herself:  'I found my sustenance in the outward, the wealth of humankind everywhere, and do not wish to be thought of as a Jewish writer or a feminist writer or a California writer or as a leftwing writer or categorized by an interpretation.  I found it liberating to roam wherever my heart and mind guided me, each story I've ever written.'



Click HERE to read free online versions of The Infinite Passion of Expectation and Around The Dear Ruin, two excellent short stories by GINA BERRIAULT.  Some of her novels and her more recent short fiction collections –– including The Son and Stolen Pleasures: Selected Stories of Gina Berriault – are still available from the Counterpoint Press and can be purchased via your local bookstore or favorite online retailer.

The 1984 film adaptation of The Stone Boy, directed by CHRISTOPHER CAIN and starring ROBERT DUVALL, GLENN CLOSE and JASON PRESSON, is still available as a Region 1/US DVD.  Click HERE to read some audience reviews of the film


You might also enjoy:
WRITERS ON WRITING #26: Gina Berriault
WRITERS ON WRITING #19: Nelson Algren
ELIZABETH HARROWER The Watch Tower (1966)

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