By JONATHAN YARDLEY
Tuesday, March 8, 2005
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
It took an inexcusably long time to happen, but a decade ago I made my first visit to New Orleans, after years of knowing it only through novels, plays and movies. My elder son was living in an apartment on the fringes of the Garden District, which I soon set out to explore. Taking my time -- nobody does anything fast in New Orleans -- I rambled along the quiet, beautiful streets, admiring the old houses, somehow elegant and funky at the same time, with their wrought-iron porch railings and their bright gardens and their palpable sense of laid-back exclusivity. Then a street sign stopped me cold: Coliseum St., it said, and right away I knew exactly where I was.
Looking at the houses along the street, I knew that one had to be the house on Coliseum Street. Just about any one of them could have fit the description:
"Like all the others on that street the house was narrow and three stories tall, white painted and black shuttered. The first two floors had porches straight across the front, narrow porches edged and ornamented with light lacy ironwork. A slender delicate house of the sort that had been popular in the 1840s. In front was a tiny lawn divided exactly in two by a brick walk and edged by the scrolls and feathers of a low iron fence. In one of those smooth tiny patches of grass, misplaced and hideous, was a fountain, a bubbling fountain."
Lovers of "The House on Coliseum Street," by Shirley Ann Grau, will know at once that this is where the family of Aurelie Caillet lives: Aurelie herself, now middle-aged; her present husband, Herbert Norton; her 20-year-old daughter, Joan Claire Mitchell, by a previous marriage; and her younger daughter, Doris, by yet another husband. Grau is now best known for "The Keepers of the House," for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1965, and is perhaps most highly regarded by literary critics for her splendid short stories, many of which are collected in "Selected Stories" (2003), but "The House on Coliseum Street," published in 1961, remains the book of hers of which I am most fond.
No doubt this has something to do with its setting, as I have revisited New Orleans many times and, like uncountable others, fallen permanently in love with it, in particular the Garden District and the adjacent Uptown clustered around Magazine Street, along which Ignatius J. Reilly rides in John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces." But "The House on Coliseum Street" has much more to it than atmosphere. It is an understated but powerful study of a young woman whose sheltered, modestly fortunate life is interrupted by an event that takes on traumatic dimensions and leaves her struggling between her instinct for convention and her deep longing to break away.
When I first read Grau's novel in 1969, among the many things that interested me was that it didn't seem particularly "Southern." Yes, it was set in New Orleans, and strongly tied to that particular place as well as to Louisiana's Gulf Coast, but it didn't seem tied to the South the way William Faulkner's fiction is, or Flannery O'Connor's, or Elizabeth Spencer's.
The reason, it turns out, is that Grau doesn't think of herself as a "Southern writer" and dislikes being pigeonholed as one. Now in her mid-seventies, living comfortably in the plush New Orleans suburb of Metairie, she still takes offense at it. When an Associated Press reporter asked her about it in December 2003, he wrote that "she sneers and rolls her eyes at the phrase." It is one that critics frequently apply to her, but then she says (and who's to argue with her?), "Logic is not the strong point of critics." Forty years ago, in another interview, she addressed the question in a less heated way:
It "seems to me that the whole definition of regional novel is quite misleading. No novel is really a regional novel . A novel has to be set somewhere. A Southern writer has a harder time because everybody says immediately 'Southern regionalist.' They have finally stopped saying this about Faulkner, but only after the Nobel Prize. This term is misleading and it is impossible, because a good novel isn't a regional study and it isn't sociology. . . . It's fiction; it's a thing in itself. This confusion leads people very far astray. You will find reviewers saying, 'This is exactly the way things are.' Well, of course they aren't! It is an imaginary picture of some people who happen to live here in the South. I would love to get away from the Southern label. I would like once in my life to have something I write taken as fiction, not as Southern sociology."
Consider it done. "The House on Coliseum Street" could take place anywhere. Its location is specific and lends it a certain New Orleans flavor, but what happens to Joan Mitchell could happen anywhere. In her low-key but forceful way, Grau writes about themes that transcend time and place, but then so did Faulkner and O'Connor and Welty and all the others with whom she resists comparison. It should be said, though, that much of Grau's fiction is deeply informed by Southern history and experience, especially as to questions of race. It is just about impossible to imagine a writer from elsewhere writing "The Keepers of the House" or the short stories of "The Black Prince" (1955), works that treat race in various ways, though certainly not didactically. Grau may just be a little more "Southern" than she wants us to believe.
Indeed if the only person you met in the pages of "The House on Coliseum Street" was Aurelie Caillet, you might think you'd somehow wandered into a Tennessee Williams play. She is a classic New Orleans eccentric who looks in the mirror and recoils at the age lines she sees -- "To cheer herself up, she made a series of appointments at the very best beauty salon" -- and who is horrified when Joan buys a secondhand black Pontiac: "My dear," she says, "you're not going to leave it parked out front?" There's a funny scene in which, back from a visit with her cousins in Tennessee, all of them gardeners, Aurelie decides that "it was part of a lady's life, this gardening; and it was a part she was missing." So she orders "a set of copper gardening tools from Hammacher Schlemmer" and eventually halfheartedly uses them. "Such pretty tools," Joan tells her, "seems a shame to get them dirty," to which Aurelie replies: "Just hold them under the faucet, and they will be good as new."
That moment occurs shortly after Joan learns that she is pregnant, not by her dull, decent steady, Fred Aleman, but by Michael Kern, a teacher at the university where she works in the library. She is worried but happy: "This is how you tell, she thought. It's a feeling after all. Heavy and lazy and smug and full." Out there in the garden she tells Aurelie, "I've got to do something, and I don't know what to do." When she tells Aurelie that "I'm pregnant" and that the father is not good old reliable Fred, Aurelie marches her inside and announces that she will go to the coast to visit her aunt -- "it can be done easier" there -- and Joan sadly realizes: "It's all decided for me . . . . I knew it would be."
The pregnancy is terminated, leaving Joan feeling "crispy and brittle." Aurelie, her aunt tells Joan, has explained her trip to the beach to Fred: "She told him the truth, of course -- that you were very tired and nervous and a bit overwrought. A common complaint of young females." With a rush of anger and horror, Joan realizes that "they were all going to pretend that it hadn't happened, that nothing had happened. But it had. Of course it had." She is appalled; the most important thing ever to happen to her is going to be treated as if it never occurred. She drifts into a state of suspension. She misses three meetings at her sorority and is asked to resign. "I was a founding member," Aurelie says. "They can't do this." Joan thinks:
"Aurelie can fix it up. . . . Daughters of founding members don't get thrown out, no matter what they do. Aurelie will have it all fixed by tomorrow. And everybody will forget it. Aurelie knows so many people. Fix up anything. And what do they do with the little shrimp child? Red and stringy. What do they do? Do they bury it? But you couldn't do that. It isn't a person. The grave of a shrimp, the grave of a seaweed. What to put on the marker? And that would be silly."
Joan is sad, hurt, bewildered, empty. She feels a "quivering shaking uncertainty." She thinks: "the hurt will stop when I'm pregnant. When all that empty space is filled up. . . . I want to be great and round, she thought. And rest my hands on my belly. Folded hands resting and waiting. Feeling your body grow great and large and expand and fill the world. Filling the world with your seed." She resumes dating Fred and sometimes finds herself happy with him, which surprises her "because she knew he wasn't the right man at all." She wants Michael, even though she knows quite well that he's a cad, but he's dating her sister Doris. So she decides upon an act of retribution that will ruin his life as surely as he has ruined hers.
Her life changes, and Michael's changes, but the house goes on: "The house had a definite smell, she thought. And all the cleaning in the world would never get it out. Because it wasn't a smell of dirt. It wasn't a smell of cooking. Or of anything in particular. It was the smell of everything. Of everything that had gone on in the house for the past hundred and twenty years. It was the smell of the people and the things. Of the living that had gone on between the walls." Joan "wanted none of the things that have happened" but is powerless to stop them. Life goes on, and "will go on happening when I'm dead." And "instead of being frightened, she felt comforted."
No, there's nothing "Southern" about that at all, except that it happens in the South and is told by a writer who happens to be Southern. It is a tiny human drama that in one form or another could be visited upon anyone, anywhere, and in Grau's telling it achieves genuine universality. Reading "The House on Coliseum Street" for the second time, I am struck far more than I was the first time by its maturity, wisdom and psychological acuity. It, like its outspoken author, has aged very well indeed.
"The House on Coliseum Street" is available in a Louisiana State University press paperback ($17.95).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I would like once in my life," Shirley Ann Grau said, "to have something I write taken as fiction, not as Southern sociology." The location of her 1961 novel lends it a certain flavor, but what happens in it could happen anywhere.