Kay Boyle (1902-1992), a brilliant American modernist, wrote 49 novels, short story collections, collections of poetry, and non-fiction. She was associated with the Lost Generation: she lived in Paris in the 1920s and knew Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Ezra Pound, Ernest Walsh, Hemingway, Joyce, and William Carlos Williams. She wrote a book about this period with Robert McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930.
But she lived till 1992, and her writing spanned almost a century. She won two Guggenheims and two O. Henry Awards. She wrote novels and stories about Americans in Europe, love affairs, marriage, art, families, lying governesses, travel, the persecution of Jews, the Occupation of France, the McCarthy era, and the protests of the ’60s.
Edmund Wilson called her books “feminized Hemingway.” And I, of course, think this is a good thing. She is a serious, remarkable literary writer.
I am reading her ’30s novels and short stories.
Her first novel, Plagued by the Nightingale, is considerably softer than her second, Year Before Last (which I wrote about yesterday.) And there’s a reason for this. The publisher asked her to rewrite it with a romantic interest for the heroine’s three sisters-in-law.
Boyle writes in the preface to the Virago edition that it is autobiographical, except for the added romantic interest. She says:
“Did the young author recoil from such a desecration of the novel she had slaved over for years? Did she proudly disdain this outrageous compromise? Not for a moment.”
The prose of Year Before Last, a romance on the run, is crystal-cutting-clear, sometimes harsh, and less accessible than that of her absorbing first novel, Plagued by the Nightingale, but they share a lyricism and are told from the 3rd-person point-of-view of a young woman outsider willing to sacrifice everything for men. The heroines are sometimes annoyingly passive, but Boyle says in her preface that this passivity is sometimes a way of victimizing others.
Plagued is the story of a good marriage threatened by a neurotic family. The American heroine, Bridget, and her French husband, Nicolas, return to France to live with his family, because they have no money and no prospects. Nicolas is ill with a bone ailment and rare type of paralysis that attack only the men in his family.
The family is claustrophobically close. Maman and Papa live with their three adult daughters, Annick, Marthe, and Julie. Annick longs to become a nun, but Papa forbids it. Marthe and Julie are in love with their brother’s doctor colleague, Luc, and they quarrel over who is to marry him. The daughter who has gotten away, Charlotte, lives next door with her husband, Jean, a first cousin.
Nicolas hopes to borrow money from his wealthy family so he and Bridget can live in Paris and find work. But his father holds the purse strings tightly because he wants Nicolas and Bridget to stay.
Bridget is reasonably content with the close family, but Nicolas is angry. His father says he will give them 50,000 francs only if he and Bridget have a baby. Nicolas’s crippled uncle will give money to Annick, who wants to be a nun, if she will marry, but no money to Nicolas. This is the perverse mentality of the family. Money will be given to the sister who does not want it, while the family members who do are rendered helpless and dependent.
In a particularly horrible scene, Oncle Robert trashes the whole family to Nicolas and Bridget, while at the same time pretending to praise their independence and self-reliance, so he won’t have to give them money. He jabs at Nicolas by teasing that Bridget should marry Luc, the doctor, the prospective husband of the three sisters.
“What a husband for any woman!” he exclaimed. “Too bad you can’t marry him, Bridget,” said Oncle Robert playfully, “for you would really be a charming pair.” He laughed lightly and with the greatest agility turned the conversation back to Jean. “But as for Jean,” he said, “of course he should be burned alive for being a dullard, and Charlotte should be put on the rack, if she isn’t already there, poor thing, for having married a nitwit.”
Then he goes on to say how charming and competent Bridget and Nicolas are.
And what the family will go through to keep Charlotte with them is unnerving, shocking. She wants to be with her family, but needs a hospitalization.
There is also a twist with Luc.
In the end the stasis of the family relationships is such that Bridget has to make a decision.
Boyle unflinchingly relates the crippling choices of a domineering older generation of men, who will sacrifice individuals for the sake of controlling the close family unit.
The nightingales have not come this year, so Bridget buys a caged nightingale for Charlotte.
The title and epigraph come from Marianne Moore’s poem, “Marriage.”
“Plagued by the nightingale
in the new leaves,
with its silence –
not its silence but its silences”