I didn't think I'd have much to say about Victorine, by Maude Hutchins. I picked it up months ago, remaindered, because I loved the cover and figured, on the basis of it being published by New York Review Books Classics, that it must be fine literature of some worth, but quite honestly, it sounded like some run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story, exactly the type of thing I don't generally go in for, and a quick scan of the opening pages didn't disconfirm that opinion, but I bought it anyway.
So I finished reading Victorine days ago, and I decided I would say a few things about it after all, (and happily I realized that by the time I would have time to get around it, it would coincide with the start of NYRB reading week,) for two reasons: 1. It turns out that I loved this book — it just goes to show that books have their own time, they must be read at the right time. Well, I guess it doesn't show any such thing, but I do firmly believe that if you read a book at the wrong time, you're bound to miss out on a lot, and if you read a book at the right time, you're very lucky indeed, but really, there's no way of knowing often until it's too late. The early November chill was exactly the right time for me for this book. And 2. When I finally read the introduction, it made me angry, and I thought Terry Castle (whoever she is) really didn't get this book at all, and I need somehow to rectify this.
This book makes me want to be 14 again, which given any objective thought isn't a very reasonable wish. Hutchins knows this, Victorine knows this. "Had she been aware of her childish happiness when it was present, or only now, when it was gone, did it look pretty? [...] Childhood was a myth!" I think Hutchins gives a similar tint to adolescence. The novel is pleasantly erotically charged with anticipation, but that works for me, as an adult, only because I know what potential delights it's in anticipation of.
There's not much plot to speak of: Victorine has a few odd encounters (the priest or maybe even Jesus depending how you look at it, her childhood imaginary friend, a hobo riding the rails, the village idiot, the lady who isn't really a lady — she married beyond her station — all of which sounds much odder when listed out this way than it really is), and her older brother, Costello, has some too (with his father's mistress, and the glamorous divorcée who flies through town one summer). It's a kind of sexual awakening, for more than just Victorine, and what actually happens is less important than how it's told, how it's remembered, how it makes you feel.
No one knows why Victorine's father's mother, not talkative or given to reminiscing in her old age as some old people are, named him Homer, but she did and it stayed with him and he rather liked it, and it did somehow become him. She, bookish and shy as some remembered her when she was a young woman, may have hoped to produce a poet, who might just possibly say the thing that, tongue-tied and frightened, she dared not pronounce. Her almost total silence as an old lady, lately passed on, may or may not have been the result of her disappointment. In any even and be that as it may, Flora, or Victorine's paternal grandma, had given birth and surprisingly easily to five successful businessmen one after the other, the youngest of whom is that Homer who is Victorine's father, whose adventures and illicit meanderings he never put paper or set to music. As if she recognized in his crib, in spite of his ambitious nom de plume, just one more average man, Flora had given up, and on the advice of her doctor, some years later, submitted to the removal of those battered and bruised internal organs which were of no more use to her. All, it seemed, that the five boys inherited from their mother was speechlessness, hers. But not for the same reason. Flora had not spoken because the overwhelming beauty of her visions frightened her. The boys were fearless, uninhibited and ambitious and would have certainly learned to talk if it had been to their advantage. But even as little boys they found that at dead pan and silence gave them a prestige among the barbarous little chatterers who often found themselves in trouble because they were just that, and later, strong silent men, they were an asset in Wall Street and highly respected along Beacon Street and Worth and found themselves listed in Dun and Bradstreet without having opened their mouths. Women, too, with the exception of their wives, hung on their lips, as it were, and imagined how sweet it must be — what they didn't say — to be unutterable; and they were handsome and tolerable lovers, devoted husbands. It follows that not one of them was ever sued for breach of promise, no vulgar publicity ever followed a change of heart. No love letters would ever be found in any trunk in any attic. In truth, the only literate papers left behind by the five L'Hommedieu brothers would be, we figure, stock transfers and contracts, leases and seven years of cheque stubs in neat brown envelops, and even on these the signatures indecipherable. A hundred years from now the five will appear never to have existed, possibly because, unlike Caesar, they scorned the use of code as well, and no no oak and no tortoise will be found even the initials of the L'Hommedieu boys. No one ever guessed that they did not speak because they might have had nothing to say.
There's something pretty breathless about the prose (maybe not so much in the excerpt above, but that still gives you an idea of the convoluted syntax), which makes me want to put it in a class with Roberto Bolaño (but not so wild or savage) and Patrick Hamilton (at a different level of wit and without the cynicism).
I'm not sure what pissed me off so much about Terry Castle's introduction. Everything, for her, has to do with Hutchins's biography, and aside from that I don't know a thing about Maude Hutchins except for what Castle has chosen to tell me, and that I don't much go in for that kind of criticism, I came away with the sense that Victorine bored her, and that she doesn't have much respect for or understanding of how Hutchins lived her life.
Castle seems to be calling Victorine's mother oblivious, to her marital catastrophe as well as her children. I think that goes too far. Allison is a bottomless well. I think she takes in more than she lets on; simply it fails to make an impression on her. Allison just wants to feel.
The novel's as simple as adolescence itself: a yearning for an ideal love, a deep-seated need in the soul for poetry.
But how few people achieve what they anticipate so strongly. Victorine's grandmother had "longed for just one poet and would have gladly castrated the lot of them for one line that scanned." Costello too: "It wasn't a letter he wanted to write, it was just some words — a line that scanned? [...] did Flora sigh in her grave?" Hutchins is kind enough to throw away a line to let us know that Victorine's younger brother would become a famous poet.
Here's one of my favourite sentences, for how it blends the wonder of childhood with some other surreptitiously burgeoning awareness: "The cadmium-yellow forsythia branched out in every front yard like fireworks, and the lawns, protected by snow all winter, were covered with succulent tender tiny leaves of grass, the kind that is slippery and makes a vivid stain on your sneakers."
NYRB Reading Week is on at Coffeespoons and The Literary Stew.