The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Evan S. Connell and Robert Aickman may not be household names, but their work deserves notice

Two new biographies shed light on the rich lives and work of these little-known authors

(Tartarus Press; University of Missouri Press)
Placeholder while article actions load

A novel, according to poet and critic Randall Jarrell, is “a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” Who could argue with that? Still, Evan S. Connell’s “Mrs. Bridge” (1959) somehow fails that definition: It’s pretty near perfect. Anyone familiar with this pointillistic portrait of a conventional, middle-class woman in 1930s and ’40s Kansas City will know what I mean. In scenes from the life of Mrs. Bridge and her family, Connell mixes empathy, humor and pathos with just the right period details. How, for example, might you delicately describe a new wife’s reactions to the sexual eagerness of her young husband? Connell writes: “For a while after their marriage she was in such demand that it was not unpleasant when he fell asleep.” A wonderful sentence, but Connell isn’t done: “Presently, however, he began sleeping all night, and it was then she awoke more frequently, and looked into the darkness, wondering about the nature of men.”

Michael Dirda's desert island books

As Steve Paul — former book editor of the Kansas City Star — reminds us in his superb “Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell,” the versatile Connell constantly upended expectations. Just a few years after depicting the genteel Mrs. Bridge, he brought out “The Diary of a Rapist” (1966), which chillingly takes the reader into the pathetic world and warped psychology of a monster. It’s truly an amazing book. Paul likens it to Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” both in its troubling subject matter and brilliant artistry.

Evan Connell (1924-2013) grew up in a family much like that of Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, was film-star handsome and regularly sported a raffish bomber jacket. He never married and always lived simply, even ascetically (one suit, two pairs of shoes). Introspective, publicity-shy and incapable of dinner-party chatter, he enjoyed drinking in bars, playing chess, studying pre-Columbian antiquities and spending time with women. His most serious girlfriend, Gale Garnett, earned a Grammy for her anthem to short-term romance, “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine.”

While based in the San Francisco area, Connell traveled widely not only in reality — a couple of years in Paris, trips to Mexico, the Near East and Asia — but in his books as well. His one real bestseller, “Son of the Morning Star,” is a digressive, fact-rich meditation on Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the forces in American history that led to the massacre at the Little Bighorn. Yet Connell also turned out terrific short stories, poetic, mosaic-like assemblages (”Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel”), novels about alchemists and Crusaders, a score of essays exploring the romantic byways of history (collected as “The Aztec Treasure House”) and even an idiosyncratic short life of the painter Francisco Goya.

How do you choose a book? Book lists by other writers are a great place to start

In tracking Connell’s career, “Literary Alchemist” tangentially documents his association with the California literary magazine Contact and several publishing legends (George Plimpton, Robert Gottlieb, Jack Shoemaker), devotes some fascinating pages to how the judging panel — which included Connell and was headed by The Post’s former critic Jonathan Yardley — chose the 1973 National Book Award in fiction, and lays out in considerable detail the scripting and production of both the film “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” and the TV adaptation of “Son of the Morning Star.”

As Paul emphasizes, Connell has frequently been saddled with that double-edged compliment of being “a writer’s writer.” Something similar could be said about Robert Aickman (1914-1981), whose “strange tales” are elegantly written, more or less surreal, and — depending on one’s viewpoint — frustratingly inconclusive or hauntingly open-ended. Only occasionally “ghost stories,” they might be more aptly characterized as Kafkaesque nightmares, usually with a sexual undercurrent. At the end of “The Hospice,” “The Trains” or “Bind Your Hair,” the reader is left unnerved and wondering: What just happened?

Nobody knows more about this author of beautifully composed, hallucinatory short fiction than R.B. Russell. “Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography” — the subtitle echoes Aickman’s memoir, “The Attempted Rescue” — reveals a man, both charming and rabidly opinionated, who seems to have polarized everyone he met.

Aickman grew up in privileged circumstances — his father worked as an architect, one grandfather, Richard Marsh, wrote the transgressive Victorian thriller, “The Beetle” — and his own outlook on the world could be summed up as conservative and elitist: “I believe that magnificence, elegance, and charm are the things that matter most in daily life.” Aickman regarded our machine-dominated society as an abomination, the product of a Mephistophelean bargain in which Western civilization sold its soul for technological power. Not surprisingly, then, he found solace in theater, opera, books and female companionship (most notably the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard). Given his rigidly held convictions and prickly personality, as well as his polished prose, Aickman frequently recalls Evelyn Waugh, albeit without the Catholicism. In its stead, he believed in the paranormal and the existence of “a world elsewhere.”

By all accounts, Aickman’s scintillating conversation — Oscar Wilde was one of his heroes — could transform a weekend excursion, whether on foot, in a car or by boat, into something magical. As a co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association, he expended vast amounts of time and energy in its campaign for the restoration of England’s canals. (Russell relates these activities in what may be excessive detail for American readers.) Not till he was approaching 40 did he begin to write the 48 unsettling stories that place him in the company of Arthur Machen, Henry James, Algernon Blackwood and Walter de la Mare. In more recent years, Aickman’s champions R.B. Russell and Tartarus Press have produced a YouTube film about the writer, a multivolume edition of his complete works and now this eagerly awaited biography.

Readers new to Aickman might well start with the Faber paperback “Dark Entries” or the out-of-print “Painted Devils,” both of which include his famous, relatively straightforward story, “Ringing the Changes.” Still, nearly all his “tales of love and death,” as he titled one collection, linger in the memory like poetry, bringing to mind Sacheverell Sitwell’s observation: “In the end it is the mystery that lasts, and not the explanation.” In truth, though, Aickman always deepens the mystery by skipping any explanation whatsoever.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

Literary Alchemist

The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell

By Steve Paul

University of Missouri. 412 pp. $45

Robert Aickman

An Attempted Biography

By R.B. Russell.

Tartarus Press. 245 pp. £45

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Loading...