Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

The Catherine Wheel by Jean Stafford

This is a bit I wrote for The Bohemian Aesthetic.  Almost completely forgotten today, Stafford was an elegant, powerful novelist and story writer.  Her whirlwind, tumultuous life was chronicled in biographies by Ann Hulbert and David Roberts and also in the book PARTISANS by David Laskin.  I haven't studied her work as closely as I would like - another project on the endless pile.

      The Catherine Wheel; Jean Stafford, 1952



Sometimes in chess a situation arises known as zuzgwang.  This means that you have no good moves available to you – anything you do merely serves to benefit your opponent and make your own position worse.  In my brief research on Jean Stafford’s third and last novel I was more than a little surprised to discover that many commentators were of the opinion that Stafford herein had written herself into a kind of literary zuzgwang.  The impeccably crafted texture of the story, so it seemed, its beautiful composition and slow, pent up variations on the motif of tension and release, was so nearly perfectly done that any finish th author might come up with would seem artificial and contrived.  As one of Stafford’s several biographers, David Roberts, wrote: “No possible denouement can live up to the richness that the plot promises.”  I’m not so sure.  I think I can find five stories a week in New York newspapers that are equally bizarre and surreal, yet they will be real, actual happenings and not the superficially constructed ending of a fiction.  However, even if we were to grant that the criticism is accurate the novel has so many other outstanding features and benefits to offer the reader that it almost wouldn’t matter.


Every summer young Andrew Shipley and his twin sisters Honor and Harriet come to Congreve House in Hawthorne, a quiet New England town to be with their elegantly beautiful cousin Katherine while their parents John and Maeve Shipley vacation mightily in Europe.  Andrew always looks forward to these summers because he spends the lion’s share of his time with his very best friend in the world, Victor Smithwick.  The two get involved in all manner of mischievous summer adventures; for Andrew this is the active creation of the memories of a lifetime.  This particular year, though, there is a disruption.  Victor’s older brother Charles, a sailor, has come home to recover from a grave illness and occupies the great majority of his brother’s time, leaving Victor no time at all to hang out with Andrew.  For a young boy of Andrew’s age this is nothing less than a catastrophe.  He simply is not psychologically equipped for it.  The prospect of going through the eternity of the summer months without Victor’s guidance and companionship is terrifying – so terrifying, in fact, that he begins to secretly wish for Charles Smithwick’s death.  (“Charles Smithwick die, oh Charles, get well, oh, big fat nitwit, Charley Smithy, go to hell for leather.”  “He began to have dreams of Charles Smithwick from which he awoke in a guilty sweat…”  “But the small star would have to do for he could see no other and he wished that Charles would die.”)  The accuracy with which Stafford portrays how this relatively inconsequential series of events becomes an all consuming passion in the mind of a small boy is phenomenal, a truly remarkable achievement.  As the story moves along the voices in Andrew’s head escalate from a whisper to a roar.  The sensibility is, again, extraordinary.  It’s fascinating to watch how other characters in the story are baffled by his often inexplicable outward behavior while we, the readers, know and understand his motivations.  For Andrew never reveals this secret or talks about the cause of his depression, although as events progress he begins to fear that Katherine is somehow able to read his thoughts and thus can see the malice in his heart.
In the meantime we learn that Katherine herself has a deep, dark, hidden secret of her own – she’s having an affair with John, Andrew’s father.  John has promised to decide between leaving Maeve for Katherine or staying with her for the sake of the children by summer’s end.  Stafford manipulates the plot so that Katherine has plausible reason to believe that Andrew may have gained knowledge of the forbidden love, and thus we arrive at the fascinating situation: the two cousins, each with a terrible secret, exist and suffer with the mortal apprehension that each knows what the other is concealing.  (IN reality neither one knows anything and neither ever will.)  The chapters go back and forth between the two points of view.  The relationship between the cousins resembles that of parent and child at some points (he’s twelve, she’s in her forties) and that of pals at other points. 

As the story hums along both of them almost begin to crack under the strain of psychological torment.  Andrew can hardly stand the command that Charles die constantly ringing in his head like the bell in the tower of a basilica, and as the tragedy slowly grinds down to its inexorable end Katherine slips further and further into the grip of worry:
“She knew it was only a question of time before the signature of her distress would be written on her face.  The sleeplessness would show, straining the eye sockets, loosening the flesh from the cheekbones, and the headaches would assert themselves in lines, and the dragging weakness in her arms as if all the strata of her flesh were starving except the live, thrashing nerves.”
So the inner psychological state creates the matching outward physical appearance; what’s inside will eventually be what’s outside; as in the microcosm, so in the macrocosm.  The unified person, body and soul, is like a hologram.
In the closing pages two details that the reader has been aware of for most of the story converge together in a way that is quite surprising.  Katherine has ordered a tombstone for herself, first; and she has an affinity with and affection for Catherine Wheels, the spinning racks of fire often used at Fourth of July celebrations, second.  When the tombstone comes it depicts Katherine with a Catherine Wheel above her head.  And here, finally, comes the information we need to know.  The saint, Catherine of Alexandria, a martyr of the Church, was crucified by having her body tied to a spinning rack of fire.  Thus the name of the wheel.  Now you might say that it’s heavy handed and obvious of Stafford to have her heroine so blatantly identify herself with a martyr in this fashion , but keep in mind that Katherine has kept absolutely silent about her secret – only she and John know the truth.  Her suffering has not been publicized; her ‘martyrdom’ is entirely internal. 

And so we come to the devastating conclusion, which should not be given away here.  What are we to make of it all?  Probably in many ways Stafford was trying to work out the complexities of her own life in her fiction.  In David Laskin’s book Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among The New York Intellectuals an early lover of Stafford’s, Robert Hightower, is quoted as saying “She was always trouble.  Wherever she was, things happened.”  Her disastrous marriage to Robert Lowell appears to be something Stafford never got over.  Consider the descriptive passage above about Katherine’s face in light of the fac that Lowell once crashed his car into a wall, perhaps trying to kill both himself and Stafford (she was in the passenger’s seat) and that Stafford’s face was permanently disfigured in the accident, and what I mean can be seen right off.  Biographies of Stafford have subtitles like The Savage Heart and The Interior CastleThere is even a literary study entitled Disfigurement in the Fiction of Jean Stafford.  Her novels, as well as her exquisite, powerful short stories, may be said to be morose in theme and subject matter – certainly The Catherine Wheel evidences a deep pessimism – but, like the question of the plausibility of the climax, I don’t particularly see that as detrimental to enjoyment.  Much literature from around the midpoint of the last century is like this, with the height of the shadow of the Cold War lurking in the background – in addition to all the writer’s own private demons.
Another source of enjoyment in reading Stafford is that she’s a complete and total master of the English language and writes gorgeous prose.  Some of her sentences glisten in the mind like finely individuated snowflakes, like single icicles dangling in winter sunlight off a windowsill, like the last tow or three glowing embers of an extinguished bonfire:
“The sound made him lonely the way the sound of a night train could do or the look of a dog staring through a window.”
“John was in his forties grappling with his twenties.” 
“The young are not as young as we used to be.”
“He waited, in the larger chambers of his being, for the world to right itself…”
“As she stared at the small, heavy-headed boy, the wheel began, in the dark vault of her heart, slowly to revolve.”
This novel is a worthy project for anyone interested in mid twentieth century American fiction.  It’s thought provoking, psychologically penetrating, exacting in its observation of characters both major and minor, beautifully written, evidences a highly developed aesthetic sense, and is tuned in to certain definite channels of emotional experience.










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