A few years ago, The Guardian ran an article titled “How did we miss these?” Here, “50 celebrated writers” chose one book that was a lost literary treasure. (I have been happy to see a few from this list come out from NYRB Classics in the past few years). Colm Tóibín picked a book by a fellow Irish author. According to Tóibín, K. Arnold Price was 84 when she published her debut, The New Perspective (1980). I don’t think I saw this article until a few years later, and when I did I didn’t run out and find the elusive book. William Rycroft did, though, and loved it (his review is here). Loved it so much, in fact, that he lent me his copy, hoping this book finds another admiring reader. It did.
I had read Will’s thoughts onThe New Perspective, but I couldn’t remember what it was about, and that cover didn’t help. So I just dug in, without even reading the jacket cover. I was a bit surprised at how quickly the book’s tone settled on me and I felt I knew the two main characters, Cormac and Pattie, husband and wife. Butnotknowing these characters is part of the point.
For much of the book, Pattie is a first-person narrator, and here she is as she and Cormac drive home from her son’s wedding:
At any rate the unflagging movement of the car is satisfying. We are driving away from — yesterday we were driving to. The thing is done, accomplished, not brilliantly, not even with the excitement that might be expected on such an occasion, but at least carried through and settled — as far as any human contract can be said to be settled.
Price puts Pattie’s mood on page perfectly. She herself is rather unassuming for herself but also for other people. It’s as if she doesn’t expect much from them and they never fail to meet that expectation. On this occasion, though, she feels she might should feel something:
Later, lying on our backs in bed in a room faintly lighted from a street lamp, I confess my guilty feelings to Cormac.
I couldn’t feel any proper sentiments! Everything seemed absurd — I couldn’t get up any interest in Valerie. She is a dull girl, Cormac!
M’m . . . dull to you, perhaps. She suits Bob. It’ll last, I think.
And I couldn’t stop criticising. Did you notice Valerie’s mother? I thought she looked grotesque, poor thing! I felt we were taking part in some elaborate clowning — and not even well done . . .
A wedding, says Cormac, yawning, is a survival. It’s archaic, a Feast of Unreason.
That’s what it is. Nothing was real.
Don’t worry, says Cormac. It’s the last. There won’t be any more in this family.
When this last son has left the house, Pattie and Cormac have been married for 26 years. They are the quiet type. They have no real interest in society, and Pattie finally feels like they can now phase into their private life together, a private life in which she has the utmost confidence. Pattie feels secure that she and Cormac have weathered whatever storms would come their way, and she doesn’t want to be with anyone besides this man who may not communicate much vocally but “whose power of physical communion I must call perfection.” He is obviously kind to her, expects her to do as she pleases.
To start off their new life together, they move to a new home, one they can make their own, stripped of the obligations of their past lives. Pattie is excited to set it up with Cormac. One day Cormac comes home and simply tells Pattie that he’s purchased a violin. And then, the stranger, proceeds to play it. Pattie had no idea he had ever touched one. He hasn’t since a few years before they were married. He had other priorities that needed taken care of, so he put it aside and never mentioned it.
Over and over again I hear our voices in question and answer:
Didn’t you miss it?
When has Cormac ever admitted to missing anything? To being disappointed? Depressed? Frustrated?
And yet a silent renunciation for thirty years.
Nearly all those years he was with me.
This is what shakes me.
I don’t know him. I don’t know my husband.
This is still fairly early in this short (84 pages) book, and what follows is a one-sided unravelling of years of comforting assumptions. The central premise reminded me of one of my favorite devastating passages in literature, in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” when Gretta Conroy tells her husband Gabriel about a young boy who a long time ago loved her and died. A failure to even know about a spouse’s passion is a terrible thing, and we see Pattie’s certainty wash away and then become restored into something darker. Price’s controlled, layers prose opens this new, dark space nicely — I’m overstating a bit to say she reminded me of Cynthia Ozick, but only a bit.
This is a fine book, a lost treasure indeed (something NYRB Classics specializes in, ahem).