Thursday, January 25, 2018

"A Country Love Story" (1950)

Story by Jean Stafford not available online.

Jean Stafford's story bears the familiar theme in postwar US of the tragedy of divorce. I use the word "tragedy" a little mockingly because it's so much more common and expected now. But it wasn't then, and if the implied alarms about societal breakdowns now seem overdone, the sadness and bewilderment of divorce is often effectively captured here. But there's also a sense that Stafford is leaning conveniently into the perception of tragedy, at least a little. At least in the biting title. The countryside is where this marriage goes to die, hand in hand with husband Daniel's illness, which first puts him in a sanitarium for a year and then, on doctor's orders (for the good air), to the place in the country he buys with his wife May, an old farmhouse in New England. It sounds like Daniel has tuberculosis, which I admit puts me in mind of The Magic Mountain, though that's probably me. Anyway, setting aside the amazing privilege so taken for granted in their lives, it seems like a good relationship, or has been for five years. It's now being tested by the intrusion of this disease and/or aging into another phase. At first things go well, "like a second honeymoon, for they had moved to a part of the North where they had never been and explored it together." As the first summer ends, however, Daniel turns to a writing project, and soon May feels isolated and abandoned. The relationship breaks down—we know enough to guess a few credible theories for why, but the story is not about explaining it, only charting it. They bicker. They can't make decisions. They talk less and less. The point of view is May's, and she is in pain but apparently helpless to do anything to make it better. This is very familiar to us, nearly 70 years on (a lifetime), though as I say it may have been more of a novelty then. The original source, which is common to so many of the stories in this collection, is the New Yorker. I know Stafford's name but haven't read much of her. This story is nicely put together—the characters are interesting, the language a pleasure. But it seems more of a type (early midcentury divorce American style), at least at this distance. There could well be many more good stories by her.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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