S & P 500

Michael Dirda reviews “Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell” and “Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography”

As former Kansas City Star editor Steve Paul reminds us in his superb Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell, the versatile Connell consistently exceeded expectations. Just a few years after portraying the genteel Mrs. Bridge, he released ‘A Rapist’s Diary’ (1966), which takes the reader chillingly into the pathetic world and warped psychology of a monster. It really is an amazing book. Paul compares it to Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”, both in its unsettling subject matter and brilliant artistry.

Evan Connell (1924-2013) grew up in a family similar to Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, was a handsome movie star and regularly wore a bomber jacket. He never married and always lived simply, even ascetically (one suit, two pairs of shoes). Introspective, publicity shy, and unable to chat over dinner, he enjoyed drinking in bars, playing chess, studying pre-Columbian antiquities, and spending time with women. His most earnest girlfriend, Gale Garnett, won a Grammy for her short-lived romance anthem, “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine.”

While based in the San Francisco area, Connell traveled extensively not only in reality — a few years in Paris, trips to Mexico, the Near East and Asia — but also in his books. His one true bestseller, “Son of the Morning Star,” is a digressive, fact-rich meditation on General George Armstrong Custer and the forces in American history that led to the Little Bighorn Massacre. Yet Connell also produced terrific short stories, mosaic-like poetic assemblages (“Notes from a Bottle Found on Carmel Beach”), novels about alchemists and crusaders, a score of essays exploring the paths romantics of history (grouped under the title “The Aztec Treasure House”) and even an idiosyncratic short life of painter Francisco Goya.

Following Connell’s career, “Literary Alchemist” tangentially documents his association with California literary magazine Contact and several publishing legends (George Plimpton, Robert Gottlieb, Jack Shoemaker), devotes fascinating pages to how the jury – which included Connell and was led by former Post critic Jonathan Yardley, chose the 1973 National Book Award in the fiction category and detailed the screenplay and production of the film “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” and the television adaptation of “Son of the Morning Star”.

As Paul points out, Connell often struggled with this double-edged compliment of being “a writer’s writer.” The same could be said of Robert Aickman (1914-1981), whose “strange tales” are elegantly written, more or less surreal and, depending on the point of view, frustrating, inconclusive or haunting. Only occasionally ‘ghost stories’, they might more aptly be termed Kafkaesque nightmares, usually with a sexual undercurrent. At the end of “The Hospice”, “The Trains” or “Bind Your Hair”, the reader remains angry and wonders: what happened?

Nobody knows more about this author of beautifully composed and mind-blowing short fiction than RB Russell. “Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography” – the subtitle echoes Aickman’s memoir, “The Attempted Rescue” – reveals a man, both charming and fiercely opinionated, who seems to have polarized everyone he has met.

Aickman grew up in privileged circumstances – his father worked as an architect, a grandfather, Richard Marsh, wrote the transgressive Victorian thriller “The Beetle” – and his own worldview could be summed up as conservative and elitist: “I believe that magnificence, elegance and charm are the things that matter most in everyday life. Aickman viewed our machine-dominated society as an abomination, the product of a Mephistophelian bargain in which Western civilization sold its soul for technological power. It’s no surprise, then, that he found solace in theatre, opera, books and female companionship (notably the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard). Given her rigid beliefs and prickly personality, as well as her polished prose, Aickman is frequently remembered as Evelyn Waugh, albeit without Catholicism. In its place, he believed in the paranormal and in the existence of a “world elsewhere”.

By all accounts, Aickman’s scintillating conversation – Oscar Wilde was one of his heroes – could turn a weekend trip, on foot, by car or boat, into something magical. As co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association, he devoted much time and energy to his campaign to restore England’s canals. (Russell recounts these activities in perhaps excessive detail for American readers.) It was not until he approached 40 that he began to write the 48 disturbing stories that place him in Arthur’s company. Machen, Henry James, Algernon Blackwood and Walter de la Jument. In recent years, Aickman champions RB Russell and Tartarus Press have produced a YouTube movie about the writer, a multi-volume edition of his complete works, and now this highly anticipated biography.

Readers new to Aickman might well start with Faber’s paperback “Dark Entries” or the out-of-print “Painted Devils,” both of which include his famous, relatively simple story, “Ringing the Changes.” Yet almost all of his “tales of love and death”, as he titled a collection, linger in the memory like poetry, recalling Sacheverell Sitwell’s observation: “In the end it is the enduring mystery, not the explanation. In truth, however, Aickman always deepens the mystery by skipping any explanation.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell

University of Missouri. 412 pages. $45

Tartarus Press. 245 pages. £45