Eleanor Clark Clark, Eleanor (Vol. 5) - Essay

Clark, Eleanor (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Clark, Eleanor 1913–

Miss Clark, an American, writes novels, short stories, and nonfiction. She is married to Robert Penn Warren. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Although [the stories in Dr. Heart: A Novella and Other Stories] range over a period of 37 years, they are related thematically and stylistically. Eleanor Clark is an obsessive writer, despite her cool awareness of human frailties, and she returns again and again to "the scene of the crime."

She is interested in the "heartlessness" we all possess. She does not locate the sources for such lack of responsibility—to use one of her favorite words—but she sees it brutally dividing generations, cultures and lovers….

Her natural descriptions—she is, after all, one of our best travel writers—demonstrate her abiding concerns. She gives us so many fighting insects, goats and flies that we accept them as symbols of our inner violence. (pp. 30)

I do not want to reveal the ending of ["The Fish"], or to belabor its juxtapositions of age, consciousness and manners, but I think that it underlines Clark's preoccupations. It is superficially "routine"—what could be more routine than a shopping expedition in the supermarket?—but it is also terrifying as it suggests, along with all the other stories, that life is full of unpredictable, often heartless, violence. It ends appropriately with tears; sympathy triumphs briefly. Knowing the conclusion of other stories, we sense that such reconciliation will soon disappear and the cycle begin again. (pp. 30-1)

Irving Malin, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 4 & 11, 1975.

Eleanor Clark is at her most original when she is being imitative. This is because she is imitative out of love or admiration: the love and admiration originate with her and so, finally, does the result. Thus, in her excellent new novella, "Dr. Heart," her knowledgeable involvement with Stendhal naturally turns her main character into a profoundly Stendhalian hero; in "Rome and a Villa," being reissued … after almost 25 years, her immersion in the figurative waters of Rome naturally led her to write in a style effectively approximating the baroque atmosphere of that city of fountains, replete with elaborate ingenious imagery and richly-laden sentences laced with dashes, studded with colons and semi-colons….

Miss Clark's cultivation … is an integral element in her art, an art which invites if it does not require a reciprocal cultivation on the part of her reader….

Her sense of past-present as a constantly deliquescing one-ness is an obsessive theme with Miss Clark (as water is an obsessive source of imagery), one which makes Rome an eminently suitable subject for her….

Miss Clark on Rome is ultimately autobiographical, as are Izaak Walton on fishing, C. M. Doughty on Arabia, Henry Adams on Mont-St.-Michel and Chartres, Stendhal on Love. But cryptically so. It has to do with the relationship between cruelty and charity, a relationship running through history, creating awesome things while people die. Like the Romans of all these different ages which she describes, she is not outraged by cruelty, she does not find charity where it's been carefully put, and beauty is really important to her. It is an attitude reminiscent of the English poet Crashaw, who fled Puritanism and Right Things to Catholic Baroque Rome. (p. 7)

Peter Sourian, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 12, 1975.

"It is all one voice, mine—and I don't disown it," Eleanor Clark says about Dr. Heart, a collection of her short fiction of four decades. But that's a good question. Is it one voice? Is it any? A writer's voice is more than style, it is subject; the thing that must be said. It is necessity.

These are vague terms. That's a good reason to talk about them. And what better occasion? For along with Clark's story collection comes Rome and a Villa, her nonfiction classic, in a new edition in time for Holy Year. Rome and a Villa is a travel book in the most glorious sense: your mind travels. So why does the fiction seem so dreary?

Drearier still, the earliest stories are best. They are like forks in the road….

An odd thing about the rest—they are unpleasant. I mean unpleasant. Like an exterminator who goes around strangling birds and eventually people; an academic housewife caught robbing another's pocketbook at a party; a bunch of hippies practicing human sacrifice on tombstones. Etc. What is disturbing is that this unpleasantness does not seem to be Eleanor Clark's "voice" either—one could accept that—so much as some notion of what short stories are supposed to be about. In other words, they are "ideas" for short stories; they jab you like hatpins. And when all is said and done, they are still "ideas." It is the difference between pretext and necessity.

You don't need a pretext to write about Rome. Its statues and monuments, its relics of Renaissance and antiquity, its abundance of impressions, provide their own necessity. There they all are, waiting to be described. And here it all is: Rome and a Villa is an idea and an actuality. Clark manages to convey a Rome that is almost catastrophically alive, that threatens to overwhelm the visitor with past and present, and to select, make it her own. There is no question: this is her subject.

Bette Howland, "Eternal City, Ephemeral Fiction," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), January 26, 1975, p. 3.

Change in Italy and the reader has in no way dulled the flamboyant brilliance of [Miss Clark's] Roman archeology of the mind and eye, and very few works of contemporary fiction can safely withstand comparison with [Rome and a Villa (1952),] her remarkable exploration of the Eternal City and the Emperor Hadrian's villa in Tivoli. Neither, unhappily, can her own fiction in Dr. Heart.

What exhilarating and youthful audacity there was in the very conception of Rome and a Villa! To attempt nothing less than a wholly personal yet flawlessly knowledgeable account of Rome—as a 20th-century metropolis, as a crowded landscape of history, as the gold-and-marble pageant of pagan mortality and Christian triumph. Rarely has the love affair between a modern sensibility and an ancient locale—consummated in every glance, with every step—been more exuberantly recorded. The breadth of Miss Clark's vision is extraordinary—from the grandiloquent splendor of St. Peter's to the humble room where Keats died on the Piazza di Spagna; from Hadrian's calculated hyperbole of stone and yearning in Tivoli to the purring colony of cats in the Piazza Vittorio; from a recapturing of Julius Caesar in the Forum to a recollection of Pope Paul VI on television.

In bringing the volume up to date, Miss Clark has wisely left the main body of her original text unchanged; it was never meant to be a guidebook, it was a response to the idea of a city that, through the centuries, has survived everything. (p. 16)

Sadly, neither the novella nor any of the stories in Dr. Heart begins to approach this grandeur of mind, reach and spirit. The shorter pieces are either flatly predictable or so insubstantial that they dissolve as you read them like sugar in tea….

The most ambitious and most recent narrative of this collection is the novella, Dr. Heart, in which Miss Clark attempts the supremely difficult and self-defeating task of writing a contemporary tale that is also a cunning literary game about Stendhal. Unfortunately, in the course of constructing her elaborate network of allusions and borrowings, whose effect depends on a familiarity with The Red and the Black as great as the author's, she somehow loses her fictional point. Even more curious is the idea of writing a Stendhalian story that is totally unconcerned with politics. Stendhal was obsessed with the political and social aftermath of the French Revolution and Napoleon. His despairing contempt for the Bourbon monarchy restored in 1815 is inseparable from his complex, ironic iconography of corruption, romance, heroism, farce, and the precarious survival of the pure in heart.

In place of Stendhal's fiery passion for political intrigue, Miss Clark lamely substitutes present-day academic and literary infighting….

Moreover, Miss Clark's mockery of the French new novelists is too broad to be witty and too parochial to succeed as farce.

Ultimately, though, the novella fails because it goes perversely against the grain of Miss Clark's talent, which is above all, and gloriously, visual. The power of Rome and a Villa derives from the fine art of seeing, of sight as the root of insight. In disappointing contrast, Dr. Heart comes to life only in the rare moments when she is describing the mountains that ring Grenoble; it is thus not a sensed experience, but merely a static contrivance. (p. 17)

Pearl K. Bell, "The Art of Seeing," in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), February 17, 1975, pp. 16-17.

Clark is something of an ironist; that tone governs most of the stories [in Dr. Heart: A Novella and Other Stories]. She can be a skillful ironist, but too often her irony seems easy, even lazy-minded. And, incredibly for a writer whose eye seeks the unexpected detail, Clark's characters become stereotypes.

Consider Miss Hinckley, the focal character of the book's first story, "Call Me Comrade."… Miss Hinckley is a fussy, spinsterly little woman … who hardly knows why she's demonstrating and whose life is so lonely and reduced that she seizes with pathetic desperation on the momentary camaraderie and sense of importance to be had from the demonstrators' adventure.

If what I've just described sounds condescending, it is. Miss Hinckley, who might have been a poignant, even haunting, character, is made out finally to be little more than a pathetic fool. She's a stereotype—the lonely, skimpy-haired spinster—and yet the detail with which Clark observes her … is so real that you keep waiting for the stereotype to break, keep waiting for the irony that holds Miss Hinckley at a comfortable distance to give way, so that her pain reaches you. Desperate loneliness is more than pathetic; it's awful, in every sense of the word. It's also universal. When a writer doesn't understand this sort of thing, she seems stupid, or, in the case of a writer of Clark's intelligence, smug.

This tendency to adopt a superior stance toward her characters afflicts Clark, and it badly mars Dr. Heart, the newest work in the collection and the most important. The protagonist is Tom Bestwick, a 27-year-old American graduate student, recently divorced and at loose ends…. [This] is essentially a novel of the mind (or, as the title implies, the heart), the story of Tom's discovery of some sense of self he can live with.

For a story of this kind to be compelling, the protagonist must be credible, so that one can come to care about him. But Clark is so damn busy mocking Tom that she makes mishmash of him. Half the time, he sounds and acts like a television teen-ager, a dopey refugee from "Leave It to Beaver." The other half, he thinks subtle thoughts, is sensitive to the point of temporary madness, and is imaginatively passionate about Stendhal. The result of this peculiar mixture is that Tom never takes on a fictional life of his own; he remains a puppet in the author's hands, and a disjointed one at that. (pp. 83-4)

Reading Dr. Heart, I kept looking for something to latch onto besides the occasional well-turned phrase or provocative perception that cropped up along the way. I wanted to be drawn into the world of the novel…. But Clark's facile irony made that impossible. It made Tom seem trivial, finally, and so his world seemed trivial, and I kept wondering why Clark was wasting her time and mine shooting fish in a barrel when she was obviously capable of doing something altogether more difficult, dangerous, and genuinely engaging. (p. 85)

Karen Durbin, "Cheated by the Dozen," in Ms. (© 1975 Ms. Magazine Corp.), June, 1975, pp. 46, 83-5.