Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 834
The essential plot is a memoir of events recalled by the narrator in the year 1952. The narrator indicates in the initial paragraph that he wants to dedicate the following autobiographical account “to the memory” of his “ribald” stepfather, the late “Bobby” Agadganian, who married his mother after her divorce from his father in 1920.
After the Wall Street crash, Agadganian ceased being a stockbroker and took up a new occupation as agent-appraiser for a group of independent American art galleries. This necessitated, in 1930, a family move to Paris. Thus, the narrator had lived for more than nine years in Paris when he moved back to New York with his stepfather in the spring of 1939.
The cultural and social feelings of dislocation are considerable for this bright, bilingual nineteen-year-old boy as he attempts to come to terms with rude bus conductors, New York crowds, and art instruction at a school that he “loathes.” In his spare time, he draws countless self-portraits in oils. The rapport between the narrator and his stepfather begins to deteriorate as they are “both in love with the same deceased woman” and both living in the cramped space of the same New York hotel room.
The narrator, after enduring life with Bobby for ten months in the Ritz Hotel, answers an ad in a Montreal paper for an instructor at a correspondence art school. Bilingual instructors are apparently being hired to coincide with the opening of the June summer session.
“Instantly, feeling almost unsupportably qualified,” the young aspirant applies, enclosing examples of both academic and commercial art work (“lean, erect, super-chic couples” in evening clothes and “laughing, high-breasted girls”). He falsifies most of the biographical information in his personal and career resume, pretending to be related to the French painter Honore Daumier and feigning a close friendship with Pablo Picasso. His application accepted, “De Daumier-Smith” prepares to entrain for Montreal and informs Bobby and Bobby’s girlfriend at dinner in the hotel dining room. De Daumier-Smith imagines that Bobby’s companion is attempting to seduce him; actually she seems intent only on piercing his almost impenetrable egoism.
Self-consciously overdressed (gabardine suit, navy-blue shirt and yellow tie, brown-and-white shoes), De Daumier-Smith arrives in Montreal and is met by school director Yoshoto, whom he describes as “inscrutable.” The school itself occupies the second floor of a run-down building in the slums of Montreal.
The rest of De Daumier-Smith’s account relates the events of 1939 at the art school, Les Amis Des Vieux Maitres, in the succeeding months.
The narrator chronicles his problems with the director and his wife, Madame Yoshoto, who apparently is the only other instructor. He cannot find an ashtray; he is kept awake by the moaning of the sleeping Yoshotos; he is unaccustomed to the Japanese cooking, which disagrees with him, as does the banality of his duties, which are for the most part merely routine translation.
Finally, he is assigned three students, but two of them appear to be without much talent. Only the third student is promising and inspires De Daumier-Smith to initiate an animated correspondence. His excitement over the work of Sister Irma, a talented nun who lives in a convent near Toronto, prompts him to write to her, suggesting a possible visit. He also writes letters to the others, discouraging them from continuing to pursue a career as artists. Unfortunately, the mother superior writes that Sister Irma can no longer continue the course, and De Daumier-Smith, crushed, goes to a fashionable restaurant for a solitary meal to assuage his depressed thoughts.
Returning toward the school on foot and at twilight, De Daumier-Smith notices a light in the display window of the orthopedic appliances shop on the ground floor. Earlier, he described himself as doomed to live his life as “a visitor in a garden of enamel urinals and bedpans with a sightless wooden dummy deity standing by in a marked-down rupture truss.” There is a well-built girl among the surgical hardware, changing the window display. Her confusion at the sight of De Daumier-Smith in his dinner jacket, watching her, causes her to fall as he tries to reach through the glass window to avert her fall. These actions, in turn, trigger a mystical experience, and the narrator is conscious of a brilliant light traveling toward him and the transformation of the surgical display into a field of “shimmering . . . exquisite, twice-blessed enamel flowers.”
Liberated by his experience (“a borderline case of genuine mysticism”), De Daumier-Smith walks back to his room, rests, and then writes letters to the students he has dismissed, reinstating them.
In a postscript, De Daumier-Smith reveals that the school survived only a week more and that he joined his father briefly in Rhode Island before returning to art school. In a whimsical final statement, he reveals that he had no further correspondence with Sister Irma but that another student, Bambi Kramer, had later turned her talents to designing her own Christmas cards. (“They’ll be something to see, if she hasn’t lost her touch.”)
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