Monday, 12 November 2012

The Outward Room - Millen Brand


photo source

A long, long time ago (I can still remember) I was sent Millen Brand's The Outward Room (1937) to review - in fact, I had asked for it - and it has taken me absurdly long to read it, and a couple months longer to get around to reviewing it.  But it is really very good indeed, and worth the wait.

The reason I asked for this NYRB edition was (apart from the fact that all NYRB editions are beautiful and belong on my bookshelf) that I remembered The Outward Room being mentioned once in a Persephone Quarterly - and it fixed in my mind.

The Outward Room starts with Harriet Demuth's life in some sort of mental hospital, having suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of a family tragedy.  Estranged from her parents and frustrated by her doctor's blinkered obsession with Freudian analysis, Harriet's life has been sucked dry of anything but routine and confusion.  Her ability to articulate her personality and self have been stifled by illness and by the unsympathetic institution which came as a consequence to it.  Brand writes this section very well, but it is necessarily claustrophobic and begins to stifle the reader.

But Harriet escapes.

She makes her way to New York, pawns her brother's ring, and lives hand-to-mouth for some time.  The Great Depression has given the city a desperate air, and she struggles to find the means of supporting herself - her first 'job interview' is for a single day's work, and consists of standing in a long row with many other women, and not being pointed at.  There are some poignant scenes where Harriet first rents, and then must leave, a tiny apartment.

After about 100 pages, Harriet is sitting in a late-night cafe, unable to afford a cup of coffee, when a stranger approaches and offers to buy her the drink.  John (for this is his name) invites her back to his house for food and shelter and - desperate, and a little naive perhaps - she goes.  At this point I expected awful things to happen to her, or for John's apparent kindness to (at least) be revealed as covering ulterior motives.  What I wasn't prepared for was a gentle, gradual, and quite beautiful love story.  Through simple, ordinary scenes of everyday life and undramatic conversations, Harriet and John fall in love and become necessary to one another.  We see some of Harriet at work, and the friend she makes Anna; we see a neighbour or two - but the beauty of The Outward Room is the quiet unfolding of a believable, unassuming relationship.

I don't normally just give all the plot in a series of paragraphs like that - I usually try to break it up with some of my thoughts about the author's approach, etc. - but it seemed important to lay out the  structure of The Outward Room and the direction the novel takes before addressing the issue of style.  They are so interrelated.  At the beginning, Brand opts for quite a lot of the disjointed and fragmentary prose that is often used to represent mental disharmony or any kind of mental illness.  Personally, I find it very easy to overuse this style.  Stream of consciousness has of course often been used to portray thoughts, especially of a disturbed mind - but I think it has to be done exceptionally well (we're talking Woolf-standards well) to work, otherwise it can simply seem sloppy.  These were the sections of The Outward Room which I found least convincing.

However, when Brand didn't concentrate this effect into single chapters, he used a more successful variant on it - by simply omitting verbs and pronouns.  It's a bold way to start a paragraph, giving a sense of both immediacy and uncertainty, and it think it works well within a sparser descriptive mode:
Dark, the smell of stairs.  She began to notice the stairs as she had not the day before.  She leaned and looked down the dark stairwell.  These stairs were not solid; their treads sagged, the staircase was pegged to the walls with iron rods at each landing.  The house was old.  She went down and when she came into the light of the lower open house door, she looked around her.  She saw only a bare hallway; on one side was a large metal barrel with a warped cover, on the other a table on which were several letters - evidently this was where mail was left for those in the house.  Except for this, the hall was vacant; scribbled on the plaster were a few names - "DIDOMENICO 2nd" "LICORA" --
Brand moves between this fairly straightforward narrative and a fluid, more consciously beautiful prose.  And that is the result (and the cause) of the relationship between John and Harriet.  Which comes first?  I don't know - the gentle unfolding of their love is both mirrored and created by the gentle unfolding of touching imagery and emotional explorations.  This paragraph was picked more or less at random, but hopefully it gives you a sense of what I mean:
Breathing the air deeply, she looked down at the courtyard.  Hardly changed, a little dirtier from melted snow, the tinge of winter.  Frost had made new cracks in the cement, in the so-called paving.  Yet the evidences of winter were small only to be seen, like the signs of spring, by the heart that feels small changes.  The room too had its changes from winter, but because of her need of its permanence they too were small, only what had been absolutely necessary.
It is incredibly difficult to write about this sort of novel, because it is of the variety which can only be appreciated once one is reading them.  Perhaps that is true of any book, but it seems especially so of The Outward Room.  And that being said, it is especially impressive that Peter Cameron writes such a good afterword in the NYRB edition.  Good afterwords and introductions are hard to find, aren't they?  One thing Cameron writes will strike home with many of us:
It's somewhat frightening to learn that good books - even books heralded in their time - can disappear so quickly and completely.  We like to think that things of enduring quality and worth are separated from the dross and permanently enshrined, but we know that this is not true.  Beautiful things are more likely to disappear than to endure.  The Outward Room is such a beautiful thing.  
None of us are surprised when we find that wonderful, beautiful books have fallen by the wayside - we all know too many examples.  Despite having an initial print run of 140,000 copies (wow!), The Outward Room has fallen victim to this disappearing act - its peculiar qualities are those which can so easily be overlooked.  Thank you NYRB for bringing it back - the novel definitely deserves it, and I hope you give it a chance too.

9 comments:

  1. Published on the same day as They Came LIke Swallows. Which I much preferred, as I share your reservations about the disjointed prose. I'm sure Nicola Beauman said that she was planning to publish this, but maybe NYRB
    beat her to it.

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    1. I also love They Came Like Swallows, probably more than I love this, but what a day for publishing it was!

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  2. Sounds very interesting. Thanks.

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    1. This could very definitely be up your street, Harriet.

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  3. This haunting book is one of NYRB's many gems. I didn't mind the style as it seemed perfect for the story. Also really liked Maxwell's book, although I became annoyed later, reading through his other novels, to find he used the young boy-mother dies theme again.

    It's interesting how one finds authors like Maxwell. Several years ago I bought "Salon.com's Guide to Contemporary Authors" for new suggestions, but found I didn't really enjoy most contemporary fiction. Maxwell and several other older writers appeared in sidebars in the book.

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    1. Lovely comment, thanks Donald.
      Retreating away from contemporary authors has brought so much joy and so many gems to my life!

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  4. I have to say that my first reaction to a book that features a mental hospital or a character that has been in one is to run far, far away. But this sounds very, very intriguing.

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    1. I always think I'm going to be fascinating by novels involving mental illness of any variety, but so often they disappoint. This one was definitely an exception.

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  5. This sounds like a wonderful book, Simon. I've never heard of Brand before and like you, I am grateful to NYRB for bringing non-mainstream authors to our attention and in such a lovely form.

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