Sunday, 19 October 2014

My Sister Eileen - Ruth McKenney

There aren't enough unashamedly lovely books around. Too many modern books (it seems) feel they have to be either trivial or miserable, as though the only way to be literary was to be grim. There is a market for uplifting books, but these tend to be insultingly light reads (pastel-coloured romances) or forgettable books you buy from the pile by the till. Comedy, meanwhile, is apparently represented by arch or melancholic writers whose novels strike me as either entirely unamusing (I'm looking at you, Howard Jacobson) or tragedy decorated with jokes.

This is a broadbrush and uninformed portrait of modern literature, of course, but my sense is that we are experiencing a good decade for literary and experimental fiction with its serious face on, but missing out on well written joie de vivre. The exception that comes to mind might be David Sedaris' non-fiction, which is very funny, but even this is decidedly melancholic.

So, what am I suggesting as an antidote? It's every bit as lovely as Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages and Herbert Jenkins' Patricia Brent, Spinster - it's Ruth McKenney's My Sister Eileen (1938). You might have guessed that from the title of this blog post.

I bought it a little while ago, after seeing it fleetingly mentioned in a review of Joanna Rakoff's excellent My Salinger Year, and I was excited when a beautiful copy arrived. Still, it felt like an indulgence to be saved, and I didn't dive straight in. My recent holiday felt like a very good opportunity to treat myself. As I expected, it's lovely and funny and good.

It's non-fiction - of the elaborated and exaggerated variety, I imagine - and is mostly about Ruth and Eileen's childhood, although there are also some chapters devoted to their time living in an extremely dingy New York basement (and it is this section, I believe, that is used in the film version - which I have bought but not yet watched).

Their childhood is certainly played for laughs - it is very amusing. I wasn't especially sold on the first chapter, which is about crying at the cinema (and the sisters' demand that a story should be entirely tragic, or it barely counted as a story at all). But from the second chapter onwards I was completely sold. The second chapter ('Hun-gah') details the sisters' attempts at amateur performances.

Eileen's only 'bit' was playing a 1920s song called 'Chloe' (Eileen is 'absolutely tone-deaf and has never been able to carry a tune, even the simplest one, in her whole life. She solved the difficulty by simply pounding so hard in the bass that she drowned herself out.') The infant Ruth, on the other hand, had a foray into acting - via an experimental drama teacher who allotted her the part of 'Hunger' (which, incidentally, was also her only line - to be repeated). There is a wonderful climax in a scene where the sisters have been asked to amalgamate their performances into one for their assembled relatives:

Eileen played and sang first. Just as the final notes of her bass monotone chant, "I GOT-TUH go wheah yew ARE," and the final rumble of the piano died away, I burst dramatically through the door, shouting "Hun-gah! Hun-gah!" and shaking my matted and snarled locks at my assembled relatives. My grandmother Farrel, who always takes everything seriously, let out a piercing scream.

Glorious.  And so the tales go on. We hear how Ruth was almost drowned by a Red Cross Lifesaving Examiner, how the sisters' father was obsessed with experimental washing machines, how they enlivened a camp bird-watching, etc. When they move to New York, these adventures turn to the complexities of a basement window that drunks would yell through, a cheating landlord, and (the story that inspires the cover), the time when Ruth - then a reporter - was followed for a day by the Brazilian Navy. It's so wonderfully silly and delightfully told. If it were not true (or at least based in truth) it might be criticised for being all over the place - but truth is not neatly arranged in logical or probable order, of course.

The Eileen of the title, incidentally, has another claim to notoriety - she married Nathanael West, and also died in the car crash that ended his life. This was actually two years after My Sister Eileen was published, so naturally it is not mentioned - but it lends a certain poignancy to the collection (and may influence the two sequels - one of which I now have, the other of which seems ungettable in the UK).

That moment of pathos aside, I think any lover of the Provincial Lady et al would also delight in this book - I certainly did, and was very glad to have found it.


10 comments:

  1. I absolutely agree with this post, and I'll be looking for this book. I've seen the film with Rosalind Russell a couple of times - I think there's a later version as well?

    Now I'm trying to think of more books I'd label "unashamedly lovely."

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    1. Please, send any suggestions my way! I think you'd this book, btw. I'll report back on the film I have (the musical version) at some point. I think there were a few...

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  2. We had this book when I was a kid! I don't know why, but the memory of her elocution lessons and bellowing "HUN-GAH!" has stuck with me always.

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    1. That is certainly a bit that will stick with me for a long time! So funny.

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  3. Another wonderful-sounding find Simon - I shall definitely look out for it!

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    1. Hope you stumble across a copy, Karen!

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  4. Read this and saw the movie as a kid, but had no idea until this moment that Eileen was married to Nathanael West, and was killed in the car accident with him. She was 26. The play My Sister Eileen opened four days after her death, and later was turned into the musical Wonderful Town. Wow.

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    1. I know! You couldn't make it up. I didn't realise until afterwards, which I'm glad about - because I could enjoy what a livewire Eileen was, without thinking about that hanging over her legacy.

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  5. I've just added this to my TBR list. Always good to get a non-fiction recommendation.

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  6. Coming in late to the conversation - have been offline lately due to internet changeovers and plain old busy life - but just wanted to chime in that I read My Sister Eileen last year and found it extremely amusing. (And very poignant, in retrospect, after learning of Eileen's tragic death.) So glad you found it and so greatly enjoyed it, Simon!

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