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Clark, Eleanor 1913–

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Clark is an American novelist, short story writer, memoirist, translator, essayist, author of children's books, and travel writer. Her ability to capture settings and people with precise, clear detail has served her well in her fiction as well as her travel sketches. The Oysters of Locmariaquer won the National Book Award in 1965. She is married to Robert Penn Warren. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

John Hay

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"The Bitter Box" is a very talented first novel, as you might expect it to be from Miss Clark's short stories. She has a gift of sophistication and gaiety. Landscapes, dialogue and characters are at her finger tips and she has little difficulty in moving them to her purposes….

[Her] method is abstract as the movies are abstract. There is a kind of elfin detachment about Mr. Temple. People and events change his words and his actions but have no physical connection with him. He and his city flit elusively as though they were on a screen.

Of course there is a perfectly good tradition behind these abstractions and the absence of naming things. Miss Clark has done some effective borrowing for her style. But where Kafka, say, uses the abstract theater of a dream with its illogicalities, his novels are in a sense very rigid morality plays. "The Bitter Box," with all its effectiveness, is still as detached as its method. You become too conscious of tricks and whimsicalities. You begin to think the author is being at once ironical and indulgent toward her characters, and leaving them to prove their own purposes. The book has the petals of a flower without its corolla, the rays of a light without its center.

The failure is a failure of identity, which goes deeper perhaps than the problem of whether Mr. Temple exists and whom he symbolizes.

John Hay, "Books of the Week: 'The Bitter Box'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1946 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XLIV, No. 4, May 10, 1946, p. 99.

Richard Plant

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Miss Clark is [a most polished and audacious] writer…. For in The Bitter Box … she has set herself an enormous task—to compose a modern parable: the awakening of an ordinary bank cashier, his sudden plunge into a life that is incomprehensible to him, his final fall and—faintly visible—redemption. With admirable forthrightness, Miss Clark sets out to create an ambiguous world, seemingly real and yet nothing but a perpetual nightmare….

This is a task which only a genius like Kafka could solve and over which many talented writers have stumbled. Miss Clark has Kafka's ironic detachment, his carefully studied dryness; she even manages to illuminate an ordinary place like a cafeteria with that fearful brilliance with which he transforms the drab judicial hallways of The Trial into corridors of strict and unconditional fear. But her world is never so complete, her parable doesn't embrace the cosmos, as Kafka does, and thus her symbols often appear arbitrary.

What makes Miss Clark's book outstanding are her X-ray descriptions of the implements of modern civilization, of escalators, undressed manikins, subways, skyscrapers and party offices. She relentlessly pursues these institutions, and after she has dissected them, they seem to reassemble themselves and reappear, like surrealist settings for a ballet whose deeper significance can only vaguely be grasped. The dancers in this ballet of life are being moved by invisible, menacing strings and the symbolism of their costumes can be variously interpreted. I wonder how many readers will find the key to The Bitter Box.

Richard Plant, "Three First Novels," in The New Republic (© 1946 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 115, No. 2, July 15, 1946, pp. 50-1.∗

P. M. Pasinetti

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In its unique [journal form, Rome and a Villa] almost ostentatiously avoids the mannerisms of the travelogue; the writer does not arrive or depart, nor does she record moving panoramas; she seems to have been an indefinite length of time on the various spots with which her wonderfully subtle prose is dealing. She is possibly the only American writer I know who can call the piazza dell'Esedra in Rome "the Turin phase of the city" and do so with a parenthetic naturalness that disguises the wealth of social-aesthetic history behind such a remark. Here, in other words, we are far beyond the informative and descriptive stage…. [Even] certain notations in guidebook style (dates, measurements, etc.) seem to perform an artistic rather than a statistic function; for this is not so much a guide to Rome, however special, as a work of literature, of art, in its own right, for which the fountains of Rome, Hadrian's villa, and a score of other themes have been the "occasions." (pp. 118-19)

P. M. Pasinetti, "The Mediterranean Spectacle," in The Yale Review (© 1952 by Yale University; copyright renewed © 1980 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XLII, No. 1, September, 1952, pp. 118-20.

John Wain

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Put baldly, the plan of [The Oysters of Locmariaquer] is a disquisition on the oysters of this region, the people who cultivate them, the people who used to cultivate them, the beliefs and customs of the place, the whole suffering and joy of Locmariaquer whether above or below the surface of the tidal waters. (p. 23)

One reads on, page after page, never quite sure what will come next. An occasional slight irritation at Miss Clark's manner of writing, which too frequently descends into the coy and the cosy, is allayed by a sense of confidence in the shape of the whole thing. (Miss Clark isn't, for my money, a reliably good writer sentence by sentence—though she often strikes out admirably evocative phrases—but chapter by chapter her gift of construction is unfailing.) And always, there at the bottom of it, is the oyster…. Yes, The Oysters of Locmariaquer is interesting and agreeable if one simply takes it on the simplest level, as a good read with plenty of information and some excellent anecdotes studded in at well-planned intervals. But it has an added (and, to me, more urgent) interest if we view it in the perspective of literature. (pp. 23-4)

Starting with the subject matter of a Balzacian realistic novel, and never wholly moving out of range of the Balzacian effort—to comprehend, to control, to contain—[Miss Clark] has made a book in which the novelist's gifts of identification has merged with the essayist's delight in selection of detail, the traveller's roots and relationships. In the end, [her characters] … all flow together in the one unity, that ungraspable unity of life which we can't put a finger on, but which we miss immediately if it is not there, and which is the difference between art and non-art…. I have talked about this book in terms of the novel because it could not have been written by anyone who wasn't, potentially or actually, a fine novelist, with the novelist's instinct for "the flavor of life itself." (p. 24)

John Wain, "Oysters and a Novelist's Art," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1964 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 151, Nos. 6 & 7, August 8, 1964, pp. 23-4.

Robert M. Adams

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At first glance, and for several glances thereafter, "Baldur's Gate" appears to be simply a New England village novel….

As a native of Jordan,… our storyteller has ample access to the historic events, architectural marvels,… and general social idiosyncrasies of the community; and in pushing forward her slow-paced, wide-beamed narrative, she sows the details before us with a lavish hand. But she is a quirky narrator as well; there is a disaster in the background of her family that she alludes to rather ostentatiously, but declines, with equal ostentation, to explain. More surprisingly, there are occasions when, in the middle of an ostensibly dramatic scene, she turns private in her language or omits—archly, perversely? in any case, deliberately—some crucial element of the story.

Still, these qualities are all well within the range of the traditional village novel; and "Baldur's Gate" is also playing a traditional game in setting off the authentic values of the local folk…. At the same time, Miss Clark reserves a vein of slightly ambiguous satire for the "quaint little old New England village" people…. (p. 4)

"Baldur's Gate" generates a quantity of emotional energy and a variety of verbal power quite different from anything the first pages have prepared us for….

Corrosive subterranean passions, after the manner, say, of Faulkner, are Miss Clark's strong fictional suit; readers who survive the novel's first stages will find their reward in these later parts. But that suggests an odd balance of values in the novel as a whole. Looked back at from a bit of distance, it has some trouble holding together, tonally as well as psychologically. Nobody ever really knows anybody else in the book—the wife her husband, the father his son (and vice versa), lovers each other. Thus the characters don't so much behave, develop or relate, as perform. The strongest theme is one that the chosen narrator has greatest difficulty articulating, and it corrodes most cruelly the textures of the village novel to which "Baldur's Gate" as first seemed to have committed so much of its energy. (p. 22)

Robert M. Adams, "'Baldur's Gate'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 28, 1970, pp. 4, 22.

Paul Edward Gray

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Baldur's Gate effectively creates a felt world. The village of Jordan, its people, houses, and landscape, is masterfully drawn. (p. 106)

The separate strands of [the narrator's] story, which coil like creepers around the trellis of her mind, lead, at times, to considerable excitement, but her narrative mannerisms are occasionally capricious and distracting. She has a habit of alluding to past events without describing or explaining them; the scene in which her mother publicly brought disgrace on the family, for instance, constantly hovers around the fringes of Eva's narration but is not fully presented until the final pages of the novel. Since Eva is elsewhere all too willing to digress, often within digressions, her selective reticence seems more obfuscatory than esthetic. Other lapses, including a long passage of what may be the least plausible teenage dialogue ever written and a wholly improbable account of a television crew's visit to Jordan, require great patience, but Baldur's Gate is a serious novel that ultimately rewards such patience. (pp. 106-07)

Paul Edward Gray, "New Fiction in Review: 'Baldur's Gate'," in The Yale Review (© 1970 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LX, No. 1, October, 1970, pp. 106-07.

Walter Sullivan

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[There] have been few enough among us during the last couple of centuries who could … make a unity out of theme and structure, and give the reader a true sense of life being lived. But it does seem that the job is harder now, for the modern world, which is the modern novelist's world, is fragmented and fraught with absurdities, chary of hopes and vitiated with compromises as it has perhaps never been before. The trick, which not many writers accomplish, is to make the disruptions work toward a unity, to create an artistic wholeness by telling the truth about our civilization's shattered pieces. Eleanor Clark does this—or something very close to it—in Baldur's Gate….

One is tempted to say that the burden of this novel is the necessity for the present to redeem the past, for the living to expiate the dead, but this formulation would oversimplify. The now and the quick also stand in need of redemption.

The complexities of this long book are kept under control by Baldur's gate, which comes as close as any image could to encompassing all the public and private confrontations of the story. Baldur Blake enters the narrative drunk and departs it in the same state, his sculptures destroyed by unruly children, his offers of love rejected, his dream of creating housing projects of beauty confounded by the vagaries of high finance. In his sober interim, his gate, or at least his notion of one, has been an effort to answer our needs for identity and purpose and security…. Baldur's gate is meant to hang in the sky in symbolic defiance of the bomb and the comedy hour and the six o'clock news. (p. 635)

But more than this, the gate is indicative of modern man's nomadic existence; it is meant to be his comfort against the moves he must make from one part of the country to another, and the planned obsolescence of the houses he lives in and clothes that he wears. Or let me put it another way: the gate that once protected us from the barbarian without, must defend us now from an equally vicious but more subtle foe. Most of Miss Clark's characters have to make their accommodations with the past…. If I read the novel correctly, the point is that there is no way to avoid the responsibility of the past, nor to shirk the demands of the present. But there is a way out, and the way is love. (p. 636)

As readers of her other books know, Miss Clark writes with great skill. Here, she goes her own pace, maintaining absolute control over a mass of material, and she builds a complicated structure. But more important still is her gift for character and—if I may use this overworked word—her sensibility. She is able in a paragraph to bring a person alive and able through the length of her book to keep her main figures developing. This is the true fictional artistry. Through her perceptions into the ways of man, she shows us what it means to be human. (pp. 636-37)

Walter Sullivan, "The Unbuilt Gate: Eleanor Clark's View of the Human Condition," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1971 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXIX, No. 4, Autumn, 1971, pp. 634-37.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz

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Eyes, Etc., a first-person narrative about the author's loss of vision, is striking above all for its tough-mindedness. The very quality that saves Eleanor Clark, however, makes for problems in a book otherwise rich in observation, analysis, and wit. Its theme is how one chooses to handle suffering that is random, incomprehensible, and infuriating….

Clark seems unsuited to the "confessional" mode. Eyes, Etc., shows an unsettling tension between the desire to reveal depths of anguish and the contrary urge to uphold dignity and put on a brave face. The opening sections, though railing against self-indulgence, are indulgent, testy, and weak. Then about a third of the way through, shortly after a storm has gutted her beloved Vermont landscape, bearing away houses and bridges, the tone changes, the hinges joining disparate anecdotes tighten, and Clark settles down, as it were, to serious writing in a dense, energetic prose.

From here on, Eyes, Etc., grows more powerful and moving, drawing on the author's greatest strength, a brilliant idiosyncratic lucidity. Certainly the change has to do with an evolving acceptance of near-blindness, and as such reflects "truth." (p. 38)

Partly because she can no longer read, and partly for pure pleasure, evenings, the family and assorted friends read aloud from the Iliad and the Odyssey. The interweaving of these epics into her own sad private journey adds resonance. It also gives Clark the opportunity both to luxuriate in the classical virtues of nobility, honor, largesse of spirit, and splendor of language, and to deplore their disappearance. She has scant tolerance for much of modern corporate society…. The portraits of those she dislikes are drawn with acid—delightful if one shares her venom….

Her favorite characters are the flinty Vermont townspeople, reticent and wise in the ways of nature, and old friends, generous in love and bred in righteousness.

For a woman who moves about a lot, houses are important. Clark is at her best giving the emotional potency of familiar possessions and places—where one lives, in the deepest sense….

[Blindness] is an unwelcome guest the author loathes but must somehow accommodate. Like any intruder, its presence breeds painful distortion, deprivation, and, at times, shame—those moments are among the truest and most memorable in the book. (p. 39)

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, "Skip the Pep Talks and False Cheer," in Ms. (© 1977 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. VI, No. 5, November, 1977, pp. 38-9.

Philip French

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[The] book that comes first to mind while reading Miss Clark's memoir [Eyes, Etc.] is Birds of America. Like Mary McCarthy's novel, it is a meditation on social, cultural and ethical change of a kind familiar in New England literature…. Miss McCarthy reflects in her novel on the transformation of Maine by the nouveaux riches and the holiday industry, and the corruption of Europe by American tourists. Miss Clark draws large inferences from the insensitive behaviour of weekend second-homemakers in Connecticut and ski-resort patrons in Vermont, and the corrosive effect American hippies have had on traditional hospitality in Crete….

What Miss Clark mostly notices around her is decline, decay and despair…. The bill of indictment is long and forcefully drawn. But it is only part of her book, and occasioned by a larger personal inquiry brought about by her initially partial and now near total blindness. (p. 52)

The book is no straightforward diary, and some readers are likely to find its ellipses and omissions irritating. The economic cost of going blind in America isn't even mentioned, nor the emotional costs for those around her. She cuts back and forth in time, frequently concealing where she is. (pp. 52-3)

Underpinning this investigation into human suffering, its meaning and how it should be borne, is a reading aloud of the blind Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, conducted through the year by the author, her family and friends…. [It's] the part of a generally rewarding book that seems least satisfactory. It is less the pretentiousness, which one rapidly gets over, than the way the device tends to lower the quality of Miss Clark's ideas and prose. When she starts putting New World glosses on Old World legends, the sharp voice of the shrewd, unpatronising stoic sometimes gives way to the folksy drawl of the cracker-barrel philosopher, sitting in a Norman Rockwell version of one of those simple country stores the passing of which Miss Clark so much regrets. (p. 53)

Philip French, "Lost Time," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 95, No. 2443, January 13, 1978, pp. 52-3.

BENJAMIN DeMOTT

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"Gloria Mundi" stands a cut below [Miss Clark's] best work. One problem is that the author holds herself at too great a remove from the feelings experienced by [the] characters…. Another is that the effort to establish significant links between Trotsky in Mexico and an unknown, undefined couple slain in Vermont seems all too arbitrary. Finally, there is a slackness in the narrative itself.

It is undeniable that the act of random violence at the beginning of the book has consequences for many persons in the tale…. But the links are, without exception, tangential and uncharged. And because we never meet the murder victims, and glimpse their assailant only at the end, the murder trail with which "Gloria Mundi" ends is without interest or impact and hardly serves as the narrative crisis it is meant to be.

Miss Clark is a shrewd, often comic observer who knows her chosen turf well—this sad New England state in which "practically everybody [is] looking for something."… But the story she runs through such observation has no vital binding power from page to page, and the result is that well before the end "Gloria Mundi" dims out.

Benjamin DeMott, "Culture Shock in Vermont," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 16, 1979, p. 12.

Ann Hulbert

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Eleanor Clark watches the future come to Boonton, Vermont in Gloria Mundi, and she doesn't think it works…. [The] real estate boom tears up the Green Mountain countryside and disrupts a contented rural community of loyal neighbors, extended families, and hippy-ish hangers-on…. In Gloria Mundi's wilder setting, commercialism makes more sinister, violent inroads. Modern, man-made evil stalks the woods in the form of a berserk murderer, a rapacious motorcycle gang, and a deluded hypocrite—all of whom make the shady developer who arrives in Boonton before them look like a pale fiend. (pp. 38-9)

But this really isn't a grisly thriller. It's a village novel in which the characters, not the sensational scenes of ruin, are in the foreground. Clark sees to it that Boonton includes a representative array of contemporary rural types…. This is the kind of community Clark has known long and well … and she often treats her characters as old neighbors rather than as her own literary creations in need of irony, judgment, and insight. A little too fondly and flatly, she presents people who clearly mean more to her than they do to us. Even Clark herself never fully figures out the strangers who descend on Boonton … and so again neither do we.

Nostalgia may blur and idealize Clark's sense of a community and a way of life, but it clarifies her vision of her New England setting. Clark makes us know Boonton in our mind's eye and in our nerves. She has seen glory among these hills, and she records the terror that replaces it—the bestial horror of human devastation in mountains and dense woods. At first Clark still catches a glimpse of peace in the solid hills…. But Clark isn't guardedly optimistic or ambivalent for long. The glory doesn't pass away gradually, trailing a glimmer of hope in the promise of change. It is just snuffed out, and Clark keeps on groping after her dark, winding plot. (pp. 39-40)

Ann Hulbert, "Brief Reviews: 'Gloria Mundi'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 15, October 13, 1979, pp. 38-40.

Stephen Goodwin

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Gloria Mundi is a jeremiad. The title comes from the phrase Sic transit gloria mundi—So passes away the glory of this world—but Eleanor Clark's new novel is less a lamentation than a denunciation. Be prepared, when you open this book, for wrath and vitriol….

She has always recoiled from hypocrisy, corruption and turpitude, and from all the excuses—how she loathes the rhetoric of self-fulfillment!—trotted out to dignify baseness. Words like "fate," "justice," "noble" and "excellence" are still part of her active vocabulary, and the tone of her anger has always been Olympian. She doesn't want to waste thunderbolts on flies—and that's the trouble with Gloria Mundi. Unable to find in this inglorious world an object worthy of her wrath, she grows ill-tempered and uses her powers as Zeus used his, capriciously and wantonly….

[A brutally pointless] murder is merely one element in an intricate plot that brings together all sorts of deplorable characters…. The plot has a Dickensian richness of circumstance and coincidence—but to Clark circumstance is arbitrary, and coincidence is a poor, piddling, puny substitute for fate.

Eleanor Clark's contempt for plot shows in her treatment of dramatic scenes—she avoids them whenever possible—and in the murkiness of her narrative. The reader is hardly more aware of the gruesome forces at work than the characters in the novel. Things happen—that's all that can be said, but what an awful thing to have to say. Things happen—what could be more stupid and horrifying?

So this plot is a plot after all, a plot in the sense of a conspiracy. If the conspirators were individuals acting with design, destinies might have meaning; but in a world without order, when the only conspirators are events, it is our wretched fate to be cheated of meaning.

The language in this novel is calculated to strip away those fatuous pretexts that usually pass for meaning. Clark is not much interested in the niceties of observation that are usually called "insight," still less in the attitude praised as "compassion."…

Some readers of Gloria Mundi will no doubt complain that these characters are not likable, that the plot is hard to follow, that Clark's wrath invades every perception. This is all true, but it shouldn't prevent you from giving this novel a chance….

Eleanor Clark, I'm glad to say, is a failure of evolution. She has not shed her moral tail, nor forgotten how to thrash it. Like some fierce and splendid dragon, she reminds us that our own world might yet contain glories. She makes us know that we are craven if we settle for anything less.

Stephen Goodwin, "Thrashing Her Moral Tail," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), October 28, 1979, p. 4.

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Clark, Eleanor (Vol. 5)