Ella Leffland Leffland, Ella - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leffland, Ella 1931–

Leffland is an American novelist and short story writer. While the subject of her fiction has varied from a Gothic revenge tale in Mrs. Munck to a quiet rendering of a young girl's maturing social consciousness in Rumours of Peace, all of Leffland's fiction centers on the essential isolation of the individual. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[When] casually sampling a half-dozen or so first novels, I was suddenly caught up in the extraordinary atmosphere of Ella Leffland's "Mrs. Munck." And what does "Mrs. Munck" turn out to be but a powerful dramatization of an oppressed woman's plight and revenges—a novel straight out of the tradition of the Brontës and Thomas Hardy….

I was caught up because Miss Leffland manages to create in her Prologue a mood and situation interesting enough to sustain one's curiosity through several novels….

[The plot] sounds wooden, quaint and melodramatic in the summing up…. But Miss Leffland—whether by design or happy accident I can't really tell—has hit upon the right character to tell her story and just the right prose style for her character.

So the cumulative force and the pure suspense of "Mrs. Munck" is considerable. The device of turning the tables and making the old man completely dependent on Rose—of making him in turn the victim of a society that refuses to take its women and its old people seriously—works perfectly. And anyone with the smallest spark of indignation over the second-class status of women in modern society is going to read Miss Leffland's novel with eyes blazing, adrenalin flowing and heart pounding.

I should add that "Mrs. Munck" is not simply a gimmick or a novel written only for angry women. Its characters are alive and three-dimensional, particularly Patrick Leary, whom one becomes nearly fond of by the ironic end. I should also add that the book has its excessively wooden moments; it is, for instance, hard to believe that Mrs. Munck's baby exists except in the author's plot outline.

But Ella Leffland is young, and for once the publisher's jacket copy seems accurate: "This is her first book and one can be fully prepared for an audience eagerly inquiring for her next."

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "A Woman Wronged and Avenged," in The New York Times (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 10, 1970, p. 27.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The key to Ella Leffland's fiction appears to be the case—probably her own or that of someone close to her—of the daughter of dirt poor farmers who strives to break with her past and to fashion something new of her life….

Clearly, it is a rich imaginative vein for Miss Leffland—this case of impoverished childhood, changed identity, upward striving and disappointed hopes. Doubtless, she is far from done with mining it. But while in "Mrs. Munck" it yielded a story so intense and moody that one thought one was back in the presence of a Brontë, in "Love Out of Season" it has produced more slag than metal. The final splitting of the lovers that occurs on Page 373 is predictable on Page 2….

The background of San Francisco, though painted in engaging detail and peopled with diverting characters, has really very little connection to the failure of the affair. In a way, Miss Leffland has outsmarted herself: she has portrayed her lovers with such psychological accuracy that one comes to believe that their fate would have been the same against any background; thus the particular background she has drawn here is rendered extrinsic.

What happened, one can't help feeling, is this: Having allowed her imagination to run riotously free in "Mrs. Munck" (and having identified as the cause of her heroine's disappointed hopes, a single overpowering villain), Miss Leffland undertook in "Love Out of Season" to chain her imagination to specifics (and identify real life as the villain). It hasn't worked; the specifics have produced trivialities; in this case real life is to be lived, not rendered. And so, one looks forward in Miss Leffland's future work to accommodations between real life and her imagination.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Mad Bulls and Bad Lovers," in The New York Times (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 5, 1974, p. 35.∗

Daphne Merkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The experience of reading Ella Leffland's engaging, minutely observed novel of growing up in small-town America during World War II ["Rumors of Peace"] is like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting. One catches a glimpse of a long-ago, homespun idyll—hazy summer afternoons by the creek and after-dinner family gatherings around the radio. The pervasive feeling is of detailed coziness, the resolute unsophistication of what was once known as "the American way of life," scrubbed children, nylons, Thanksgiving, crewcuts and pledging allegiance. But more emphatically than Rockwell allowed himself to, Miss Leffland shades the nostalgia of her evocation with dusky, anxious touches—a brother gone off to war, the unwitting cruelty of adolescence—that emphasize the imperiled nature of even this most snug of worlds.

"Rumors of Peace" is narrated by Suse Hansen, an 11-year-old tomboy….

By the book's close, peace is no longer a rumor and Suse has shed her innocence forever, gaining in the process an understanding of a world that is less reliable and more ambiguous than the one she had imagined late at night in her bed….

"Rumors of Peace" is written with the sure grasp of living detail that one has come to expect from Ella Leffland, whose earlier novels, "Mrs. Munck" and "Love Out of Season," although radically different in subject, were filled with the profusion of senses that is so evident here. Miss Leffland is a real storyteller; her canvas is expansive, and she has an unfaltering eye. "Rumors of Peace" is one of those deceptively guileless novels, like "A Member of the Wedding" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," that sees more than it lets on. (p. 10)

Daphne Merkin, "Growing Up and Working Out," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 22, 1979, pp. 10-11.∗

Linda B. Osborne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In this beautiful, lively novel of a child growing up in California during World War II [Rumors of Peace], Ella Leffland demonstrates how adolescent characters have a flair for dramatic discovery that benefits a story. Self-conscious, uncompromising, painfully intent on creating a mode for survival, they can be passionate about "life and death" issues that tired adults have learned to ignore. The adult reader might view them with sympathy, amusement or condescension and be caught unawares as the character matures. Tolerance for youth's excesses, hope in its vigor and flexibility can foster responsiveness to the same moral lessons the character is learning.

Suse Hansen, 10 years old when Rumors of Peace begins in 1941, brings to life Leffland's concern with the nature of moral growth. The bombing of Pearl Harbor interrupts her innocence, provoking a child's simple, absolute response—she fears invasion and hates the Japanese. But there are facts that do not fit into this primitive conception: her liking for the Japanese-American Mr. Nagai, the forced departure of her best friend from town because his mother is Italian-born. As the war continues, Suse struggles to make sense of the seemingly contradictory world around her. She feels relief when she realizes that her home will not be bombed and then suddenly remembers the dead she has read about, feels a connection with them….

[Eventually] Suse evolves...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Keith Monley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ms. Leffland's novels are, one and all, tales of redemption. In each, the female protagonist is infected by a malignant obsession: in the first (Mrs. Munck), revenge; in the second (Love Out of Season), dependence on a self-destructive relationship; in the third (Rumors of Peace), jingoism…. The writing in all three is vivid, in the first, most incandescent, in the last, most consistent. All of the protagonists survive their obsessions.

Hardly the case in her short stories. It could even be argued that in "Last Courtesies" … the protagonists's "obsession" proves terminal, but in any event, the protagonist is certainly not redeemed. Similarly, in much of her other short fiction, fate, if you will, is a more ominous and equivocal presence than it ever is in the novels. So? So the novels have in common a motive different from that of the short fiction, and possibly a different source; at least two of the novels have that quality of autobiography. And the problematic impetus behind much autobiographically inspired fiction is the desire to explain the world to one's self; yet in so doing, the world is too often explained to the reader. And the reader doesn't want the world explained! A world too thoroughly explained may clear the path to redemption but at the same time it leaves little room for the reader's imagination. (pp. 492-93)

Keith Monley, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Reflections on Recent Short Fiction," in New England Review (copyright © 1980 by Kenyon Hill Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission of New England Review), Vol. II, No. 3, Spring, 1980, pp. 483-94.∗

Katha Pollitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Last Courtesies and Other Stories] Leffland's versatility as a stylist and as a storyteller is impressive; no less so is her singleness of vision. What interests her in all her stories is the loneliness at the heart of human relations, connections missed and broken. It is impossible to read these stories without admiring the ingenuity and tautness with which they are constructed. At their best they resist the obvious endings toward which they seem to be moving, and reverse our expectations in a way that deepens our understanding. Last Courtesies is a strong and varied book by a first-rate writer, a book that should be not only read but reread. (pp. 70-1)

Katha Pollitt, "Book Briefs: 'Last Courtesies and Other Stories'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 13, September, 1980, pp. 70-1.

John Romano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At the center of Ella Leffland's fine, sad tales ["Last Courtesies and Other Stories"], there is most often a character who is profoundly alone, suffers, and cannot make himself or herself understood.

But it does not strike you, at first, in what harrowing extremes of loneliness her characters dwell. Perhaps this is because the narrator is always there with them. Miss Leffland's authorial presence is distinctly caring. She lends great authority of feeling to the people whom, through the act of fiction, she befriends. In her work, imagination is always bound up with sympathy….

One need not underline the risks the writer takes [in scenes such as the one where Jeppe observes his...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Stephen Goodwin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ella Leffland is an elusive writer. The stories in Last Courtesies are enormously varied….

They are all written in a prose style that is formal to the point of severity. Leffland, the author of Rumors of Peace, is able to create sympathetic characters, but with very few exceptions the characters in these 14 stories are treated with a detachment that is the only bulwark against disgust.

One type of character recurs in many of the stories. He or she is usually poor, fierce, truculent and intransigent. The keepers of a Viennese pension—she is "gross-featured" and he is a "premature ruin"; their children "looked curiously prosperous, but not quite human … very close to some thriving vegetable matter"—are representatives of the type. They produce a guilty sickness in a young woman who stays in one of their rooms, a room that gives off "a smell of sweat, urine, canned food, and cheap cigarettes." The young woman lets herself become filthy, and to tempt her keepers, who have not acknowledged the tips she leaves under her plate, she changes her money and builds fantastic castles of coins in her room.

The severity of Leffland's style makes the strangeness and horror of this story seem perfectly inevitable. Its themes and techniques are repeated in other stories—the guilt of the traveler, the fascination with the Other, a narrative detachment that forces the reader to make his own anxious judgments about the events placed before him. The stories in Last Courtesies have the dread power of nightmares. (p. 5)

Stephen Goodwin, "Symbols, Spiels and Strangeness," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), October 19, 1980, pp. 4-5.∗

Dorothy Wickenden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

All of Ella Leffland's protagonists in Last Courtesies and Other Stories are beset by … loneliness and the heightened self-consciousness that accompanies it.

Leffland is concerned about the ways in which people become trapped in isolation. She knows well the perverse workings of the imagination and describes how we invest people and places with our fantasies and blame them for our failed expectations. She shows how self-perceptions grow gnarled during hours of private brooding.

Remarkably, despite her unhappy themes, Leffland does not cast a pall over these stories. Her choice of imagery is precise, her observation of physical details and character traits shrewd, her tone measured and often ironic. The old man in "The Linden Tree," panic-stricken at the prospect of his friend's death, strokes Giulio's hand and finds it "thin and waxy as a sliver of soap."… The morose, feeble-minded housekeeper in "Conclusion" manifests her self-hatred in masochistic fantasies about a German silent-film star. The Burkes fondly think of Helene as their "project," fascinated that she seems to "wage an inner war with her dimness," but never guessing at her despair…. (p. 39)

These characters, with their tenuous grip upon their lives, are sympathetic figures. But Leffland's compassion is matched by an insistence that to see oneself as the victim rather than the agent of one's fate can be a dangerous form of self-indulgence. Vladimir, the crazed piano-tuner of "Last Courtesies," is one character who insists along with her. He curses, spits, gesticulates wildly, and remains undaunted by circumstance. The advice of this "weird little Russian" goes unheeded by a prim, aging widow who lives in a lost world of social graces, but Vladimir's bristling figure and heartfelt admonitions leave one feeling oddly cheered:

You want to lead a decent life. Lillian, you give them hell! They sell you a bad cut of meat, throw it in the butcher's face! You get short-changed, make a stink!… Give them the finger, Lillian!

                                            (p. 40)

Dorothy Wickenden, "Brief Review: 'Last Courtesies and Other Stories'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, No. 24, December 13, 1980, pp. 39-40.