Evan S. Connell, Jr. Connell, Evan S(helby), Jr. (Vol. 4) - Essay

Connell, Evan S(helby), Jr. (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Connell, Evan S(helby), Jr. 1924–

Connell is an American novelist and epic poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Evan S. Connell, Jr.'s "Points For a Compass Rose" contains no] plot, no consistent retinue of characters, no delimited venue, but [is] actually a semidramatized commonplace book in which mind-boggling saliences from every field of knowledge swirl around as if in some epistemological spiral galaxy, and all the rest—rumors, guesses, ruminations, asides, riddles, cries, jokes, recipes, prayers, chess moves and map coordinates—is gas clouds, the shapelessness of things to come….

I think Connell intended a ventriloquial roll call during a drum roll, or some such effect: an American Express Tiresias who's both magus and Ancient Mariner, both mouthpiece and voices off, a Mister Everybody forever striking out in front of a mirror. As it is, his protagonist's patently a man of conscience, a disciple too of Paracelsus, Sir Thomas Browne, and Borges, an admirer of the cosmos who'd rather be a liker of humans (as distinct from their artifacts). But, as we go, we have to reconcile successive informations. The narrator is Pope Gregory VII, but also Dom Helder Camara (Archbishop of Recife), Lully, Kepler, Newton, a plowman of Bohemia, and many others. Formerly in the army, he has his portrait in the Louvre, has had two sons, has never had any children or been married, is married to Margaret, has an awkward hippo of a daughter, is neither Goya nor Henry the Navigator, though he resembles both. It's like waiting for the human race to jell back into Adam, the Many into the One. And the absurd thing is: he fails to add up only a little bit more than he doesn't.

On the one hand, I welcome this summary, synoptic, anachronistic mode of fiction, which more ambitiously resumes the method of Connell's novel of 10 years ago, "Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel." The anthropological novel (what Cortázar calls the anthropophanic) is overdue, and it's good to find someone promenading homo sapiens, with grade C branded on that creature's brow, through the House of Knowledge. On the other hand, I think Connell has missed exploiting some opportunities of his own making: over the book's length the data mode might have shrunk while the synthesized hero swelled (a matter of proportional plasticity); and, instead of being delivered undifferentiated, the verse paragraphs might have reached crescendo or whimper (a matter of transforming thematic materials, of not leaving them intact).

The book works, and I'd rather read it than "straight" fiction, but I'd like to have seen it moving a good deal farther from the diffident-personalized scrapbook, or the cloth sampler allowed to ripple in the Zeitgeist's draught.

Paul West, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 29, 1973, pp. 7-8.

Evan S. Connell, Jr., is the author of Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, both of which explored the claustrophobia of modern domestic life. Points for a Compass Rose is a more ambitious book, a meditation on the horrors of public experience in the twentieth century, a record of how present shock drives the mind back into history, only to find little solace there. For Connell mere prose is scarcely up to such a task, and he resorts to what is at least typographically verse, in which high and low styles consort together, sometimes nervously….

The book sounds pretty much like that throughout, as if some crazed, tone-deaf antiquarian—with Sir Thomas Browne, Theophrastus, Sir John Mandeville, and Albertus Magnus much in his mind, perhaps because he is drawing on them—were lecturing to us interminably on the curious beliefs of past and present, worrying all the while lest we miss the "relevance" of (for example) the odd dietary customs in Teber and elsewhere….

But the pedantry is deliberate, not to say insistent. Connell's persona, "sick of old devices," can only try to convey his disgust about Vietnam and the Nazi death camps through a kind of imitative form, in which some 8,000 lines of flat, repetitious verse create in the conscientious reader something like the numbed stupefaction that human history merits. Probably few readers will be sufficiently conscientious; but, having had no other choice than to read on, I found myself sometimes, grudgingly, moved by the very anger that must have made Connell write such a book….

But Points for a Compass Rose, however admirable and moving its motives, finally seems wasteful itself in its treatment of the waste of history. "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" was a good question when Eliot asked it fifty years ago, and it still is; but I'm afraid that, like other urgent questions, it loses its force when asked too insistently and for too long. Connell's version of cultural nightmare will perhaps impress those who have grown up not knowing Gerontion and the Pisan Cantos, but those who do know them will find themselves thinking, however unfairly, that they have been here before.

Thomas R. Edwards, "Surprise, Surprise," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), May 17, 1973, pp. 35-7.

[Points for a Compass Rose] isn't a novel. [Connell] has carefully disconnected section from section and item from item so that there is no logical or even chronological progression from one to the next; and of course there is nothing even remotely like a story. Still, there are characters of a sort, and events, and the author himself speaks in many voices—identifying himself alternately as Geoffrey Chaucer, a medieval knight named John Mandeville, most often as a Jewish historian named Simon Dubnow who was a prisoner of the Nazis—and so on. In fact, this little game of shifting identities becomes almost an obsession with Connell as the book goes on. He keeps riddling us with his "who am I?"—dropping hints, then skipping cutely away….

It is a book—plainly and simply that, gracefully written in fine ironic style expressing very well the moral tensions of the inner man who is the author. The work most like it, of course, is Connell's earlier Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel, for both of these must have found their origin in his journals. But Points for a Compass Rose also calls to mind J. G. Ballard's collection of grotesqueries, The Atrocity Exhibition, and William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch.

His purpose is didactic—and now beware, for we are into the meaning of it all. Connell seems constantly to be adjuring us to "look" or "listen," or challenging us, "Do you understand?" Clearly, he wants us to understand, for this work which he calls "a gnomic book about America" has been written to show us what we have become. "Of what value is life," he asks, "if it's not woven on history's loom into other lives?" Well, in Points for a Compass Rose, Evan S. Connell Jr. attempts to do just that. Our civilization, our culture, our lives are on his loom here. We may not like the pattern of moral disaster that emerges, but there is no denying a certain cruel accuracy in the lineaments of his design.

Bruce Cook, "Prose by Any Other Name …," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 27, 1973, p. 10.

Evan S. Connell Jr. … finds any and all points relevant for inspection in his excursion through the galaxies of knowledge. Man's consciousness/historicity is the subject of [Points for a Compass Rose]. The verse, however, is pure prose and this is not a failing. I am sure the author intended the simple prose style while setting the page in versets as a smooth vehicle. He succeeded; for the visual aspect is rather atmospheric, e.g., like skimming through old Merlin's scrapbook, and the cut line also offers the best method of scanning the short cosmic blurbs. This mural is painted with sketches of ancient ritual, little known quotes, special (I suppose) latitudes & longitudes, fairy-tale-like gossip, recipes, jokes, riddles, and obviously anything else Connell's mind can conjure. But, does it work?

If the author plans to weave some sort of tapestry, unifying sense or spiral direction into a portrait of man by use of confused past, then it fails. The movement of the book is repetitious and the end result is a massive picture so tacked by endless footnotes that the face becomes indistinguishable. But, if the work, contrary to the cover jacket's presumptions, weaves no mystical web, no plot, no saucy message, then I recommend it for the absurd fun of it all. The only criticism is that the work should funnel into some concrete focus so that the cosmological catalogues might gain more credence. The author's many voices are only a hindrance to the movement and give the reader [neither] insight nor centralized position.

James Fahey, in Best Sellers, June 15, 1973, pp. 136-37.

When I first heard that Evan S. Connell, Jr. had brought out another epic-length poem, I was exhilarated for days. We have here on the planet with us a man of such courage and strength of spirit that he has not lost what Alfred Adler calls "the nerve for excellence." He has kept it despite the burden of an awareness not only of the enormity of his project and of the limitations of his own human understanding, but also of the abject ignorance and indifference of his audience.

Viking published a long poem, Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel, in 1963. The world shrugged. Later, with the publication of The Diary of a Rapist and Mister Bridge (the latter a companion to the best-selling Mrs. Bridge), critics paid some attention to Connell's fiction; they mentioned the poem only as a curiosity, or ignored it altogether. Now, with the Knopf publication of a second long poem, Points for a Compass Rose, it is time—past time—to approach Connell's poetry seriously, with meek heart and due reverence.

Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel is a poem 243 pages—or 40 yards—long. It takes the form of a spiritual journey "towards penance and redemption," a journey through all the fabulous and fiery cruelties of history that purge the spirit's basest dross and purify it to gold. On the page it is a dazzling series of disparate chunks. These are the "notes from a bottle" written in increasingly apocalyptic haste by the poem's speaker, or "note-taker," who is, among other things, a man at sea.

The note-taker, like the Wandering Jew, ranges over centuries of Western civilization, witnessing marvels and abominations. "I gather, preserve, collate, and set down." His notes, presumably shaken together in their bottle by Providence, the roiling sea against which he is constantly "hammering" and to which he finally yields, are "a juxtaposition of all things." Any bit of the lore is fascinating…. The notes cover all history with a careful emphasis on those rapacious centuries that followed—or precipitated—the shattering of medieval faith. The annihilation of South American cultures at the hands of the Conquistadores is here, as well as, pointedly, the flight of the Enola Gay. Cruelty is Connell's theme, especially cruelty in the name of Christ, and ignorance, courage, dissimulation, miracle, murder, credulity, and the decay of vital cultures. The tone is merciless and meticulous; the alien landscapes are spare. Between the snippets of church Latin, between the confounding parables, latitude and longitude coordinates, cris de coeur, and fragments of fantastic narration, the blank spaces of mystery, mute, weave the intricate weft of the poem….

The note-taker's very submission to this journey into the soul's dark night is itself a kind of penance for the sins of the whole world. He is in this way both the Wandering Jew, who harried Christ, and Christ himself. In a final note he also drops an allusion to himself as Job's servant, that anguished witness who alone has escaped to detail for us disaster after disaster, the reduction of everything to nothing. But Job's fortunes are restored; earth's may be also, if not to this civilization, then to the next: "Thus the mighty cycle of the ages shall begin again."

I cannot begin to suggest the intricate tensions of the poem's complexity. After you have read it once, you can get lost on any page….

Somehow, Connell makes you care. Many modern poets demand a good deal of work; Connell excites it. Sometimes the note-taker's tone is hectoring, even belligerent; if you have any competitive spirit at all, you seize a thread—any thread—follow it, and, lo, it traces a pattern. He did it. "I am Magus. Trust in me." And you understand at last that these notes are not tentative explorations, and far less are they "expressions": they are instead the magnificent artifices of a giant intellect….

[The poetry] is powerful stuff. It is not the done thing; neither is this choleric spluttering the language of poetry to which we have become accustomed. But Connell always knows what he is doing. The speaker of Points for a Compass Rose has of himself made a living sacrifice: he risks our disgust, and all but destroys his own spirit, in order to sustain his hatred, lest we forget. It is astonishing what he cares about. He drags out the ecclesiastical repression of scientific advances, the folly of the Crusades, the rapaciousness of the Conquistadores, the insanity of witch trials, and so forth, with an innocent and fresh rage. It all happened yesterday, and nobody gives a tinker's damn; and so it is all happening today.

Any despot, ecclesiastic or secular, requires not only the meekness but especially the gullibility of the society he would rule. And we are not one whit less gullible, credulous, or superstitious than any people of the past. The genius of this poem, and its play, lies in Connell's treatment of this matter of fact and fraud, of credulity and belief….

These poems [Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel and Points for a Compass Rose] are masterpieces. You could bend a lifetime of energy to their study, and have lived well. The fabric of their meaning is seamless, inexhaustible. I have not even mentioned, for instance, the staggering possibilities for a poetry of fact that Connell unfurls by using, without apology or explanation, the language of technical prose. It is almost as though, had his note-taker and speaker no recourse to these dry and cadenced prose measures, they would both lapse into glossolalia, into ecstatic tongues and fatidic howls.

Instead, their language is steely and bladelike; from both of its surfaces flickering lights gleam. Each page sheds insight on every other page; understanding snaps back and forth, tacking like a sloop up the long fjord of mystery. Thinking about these poems, one at a time or both together, is a sweet and lasting pleasure to the mind.

Annie Dillard, "Winter Melons," in Harper's (copyright © 1974, by Harper's Magazine, Inc.; reprinted from the January, 1974 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of Annie Dillard), January, 1974, pp. 87, 88-9.

In Evan S. Connell's novels the characters, prudent and cautious folk with healthy talents for survival, walk into traps so interesting of prospect and so cleverly disguised that they seemed before they snapped shut to be the very plan of a successful life….

In "The Connoisseur" a well-to-do New York insurance man knows that he is moving toward a trap. He has the native wit to elude 40 traps; naturally by the last page of this novel he is inextricably inside the trap he assiduously avoided. The plot is as delicious as that of a folktale or a detective story.

The trap is pre-Columbian Art [collected by] Muhlbach, our hero….

Mr. Connell, himself a connoisseur of the inner contradictions of Western capitalist civilization ("Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel" and "Points for a Compass Rose," two scrapbooks of learned indictment which for all their diligence are not nearly as powerful in meaning as his novels), is fascinated by (and fascinates us with) the encounter of an intelligent man, his imaginary nobody Muhlbach, with the shards of a civilization which European man once obliterated with fanatic thoroughness and is now interested in as so many knicknacks to squirrel away in a museum or private collection….

This is a deceptively short novel. Evan Connell has perfected a style that is all onwardness, losing no richness of detail to the fastness of his pace. Everything contributes to the total effect. The real hero of the novel is an idea. We watch it enter a man's mind and after much discomfort and hesitation root itself like a stubborn weed….

There is much more to this novel than I've been able to suggest. The wonderful problem of the relation of fake to original is a theme (and clue to the meaning of the book)…. In Mayan art there are probably more forgeries to admire with awe than real objects. Will it occur to Muhlbach in his trap that nothing, nothing at all, is what it seems?

Guy Davenport, "The Connoisseur," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 1, 1974, p. 4.