Evan S. Connell, Jr. Connell, Evan S(helby), Jr. (Vol. 6) - Essay

Connell, Evan S(helby), Jr. (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Connell, Evan S(helby), Jr. 1924–

Connell is an American novelist, poet, short story writer, and editor. All his books have impressed critics, although not similarly. Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel was treated as a novel, an epic poem, and "a loose prose poem"; both that and Points for a Compass Rose were called (at least once) masterpieces. Writing of The Connoisseur, unequivocally a novel, Guy Davenport termed Connell "a connoisseur of the inner contradictions of Western capitalist civilization." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Evan Connell [in The Connoisseur] has written a parable of a man being consumed by ancient art. He touches on the arguments for and against archaeological one-worldism, whereby a country's history goes to the highest bidder. But he passes no judgments, choosing instead to dissect the anatomy of lust—in this case for pre-Columbian art. In the name of quasi-scientific objectivity he presents it as an addiction, to which we are invited to react, romantically, with empathy….

I doubt this book could have been written about any art save that of the past, particularly pre-Columbian, whose partial destruction is recent enough still to reverberate painfully. Ancient European and Asiatic masterpieces have, by comparison, less mystery; above all, they have no associations with the Noble Savage, and for all his detachment, the writer himself seems to respond to these nuances. Like his earlier fiction, The Connoisseur is a case history, but the task of describing inanimate objects has, ironically, released in Connell a charge that enlivens both art and people. Except for [the protagonist] Muhlbach, who is a lay figure manipulated toward didactic and philosophical ends, the characters are most vivid….

I hardly know how to recommend this book, since connoisseurs could dismiss it as unsophisticated and laymen always dread having to struggle with aesthetic technicalities. (Incidentally, the writer says the Olmecs used steel drills, a startling fact of which I have, so far, found no authoritative confirmation.) To me, the reconciliation of art with reality is the only approach, however naive, to either subject, and Connell's slightly pedagogical style is strangely suited to the job. Despite its weak ending, I found The Connoisseur gripping.

Vivien Raynor, "Who Loved Not Wisely But Too Well," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 1, 1974, p. 2.

In the past, Connell has explored—and refined—two different kinds of narratives. Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969) spun out a series of vignettes in the Midwestern lives of their protagonists; the accretions were devastating catalogues of anomie. In Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel (1963) and Points for a Compass Rose (1973), Connell shored fragments of history and reflection against our ruin, casting them in prose lines that rang with poetry.

The Connoisseur is both more conventional and less informative than its predecessors; in it, Connell has emphasized clarity at the expense of resonance. But to hold him to his own standard is to tell the negative half of the story. Connell's style is a model of economy; it reveals the care of an artisan whose works should be collected.

Paul Gray, "Getting and Spending," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), September 2, 1974, p. 82.

["The Connoisseur" is a] clever, impeccably constructed book about a man who becomes hopelessly, inexplicably obsessed with pre-Columbian figurines. The man, Muhlback, is a widowed New York insurance agent and father of two teen-age children. His impulsive purchase of a small, elegant clay statue in New Mexico rapidly transforms his life. Mr. Connell lets us see the world entirely through Muhlback's eyes: first as a rather humdrum place that is immeasurably beautified by the figurine, then as a backdrop to his growing fascination with anything and everything related to it, and finally as merely a feeding station, where he consents to alight only because his body, like his passion, requires regular fuelling. With Muhlback, we read more and more articles about his obsession, we visit museums, galleries, and auctions, and we watch his work, his family, and all semblance of his private life recede into the background.

The book has the charm and suspense of a good detective novel, although it doesn't have much depth; one frequently wishes one were being told more about Muhlback and less about pre-Columbian art. (pp. 199-200)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 14, 1974.

A certain kind of novel has always reported on reality for us, told us things we didn't know; has let us into feelings and places we haven't had and haven't seen; and it is probably the current scarcity or ineptitude of this kind of novel which is driving us to biographies for a sense of how other people live (or used to live) their daily lives. The Connoisseur admits us into a man's mind, persuasively evokes the beginnings of a mild mania, takes us to Taos, brings us back to New York, propels us through a party, a museum, an art gallery, and a Mexican restaurant. But its major movement is an extended description of an auction held in a motel in Queens, conducted by one John Wesley Piglett, and providing an amazing assortment of objects and arcane vocabularies: rugs, drums, pistols, saddlebags, arrowheads, leg irons, a stuffed badger, a rusty harpoon, snowshoes, Zuñi fetishes, Arapaho blankets, San Ildefonso black ware, a half-twist overlay Yurok basket.

The effect is not that of a documentary, but it is that of a novel: an unfamiliar world is made present, real enough for us to feel that our experience of life has been extended by our reading. It doesn't matter whether Connell invented the auction or transcribed an actual event more or less faithfully. (pp. 29-30)

The most impressive reality shown to us in The Connoisseur is the world of pre-Columbian art itself, a sort of secondary Mexico whose provinces are archaeological sites like Jaina, La Venta, Tres Zapotes and El Tajín. Connell thus leans on the artistic past … [and] makes the private, human activity in the novel—the protagonist's thinking, the people he meets, the lessons he learns, the questions he asks—seem small, a footnote to a more general, more absorbing life to be found outside the book; and what's worse, to be found, probably, in another sort of book, in a work of ethnology or archaeology, not a novel at all.

Connell's writing confirms a lot of this. It is discreet, efficient, sometimes flat, quite often verging on cliché. This is partly a matter of getting things naturalistically right, of not having an insurance man sound too sophisticated about art…. But it is also a matter of the settled, unchallenging, "literary" quality of Connell's language … entirely without energy…. And this lack of urgency is an expression, at the level of language, of the faint sense of triviality which lurks in this attractive book. The Connoisseur seems to be asking whether this kind of fiction—the imaginative exploration of a moment of change in a none too representative life—has any future. It feels like a short story when it ought to feel like a novel (I don't mean it's too long). But then that also reminds us, once again, how uncertain many novels have become about the size of the claims they can make on our harried attention. (p. 30)

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), November 28, 1974.

Sounds presumptuous saying it, but The Connoisseur must have been a cinch to write. Which all means: wish I'd thought of it first. Evan S. Connell Jr. doesn't mind appropriating, with due acknowledgment, maybe 25 pages of text from archaeological mavens to pad out his own less than two hundred large print pages. Formally or informally the absorbing data on Pre-Columbian forgeries, smuggling strategy, auctions, must have been researched: that adds up to another fifty pages, could be more. Work, but journalistic work. Indeed, The Connoisseur, which eschews quotation marks of any kind, might have been bracketed in just two big ones. It fascinates, it has authority, and it is at heart a nonfiction article with some fictional premises porched on—in fact, it's one of those occupational faction books like Airport or Hotel, but much refined. Connell stands to Arthur Hailey as a Tikal bowl stands to a c. 1960–1970 Hilton bellhop. The Connoisseur has considerable magic, but a lot of it is on loan from private collections….

A novel of this kind does that, wheedles some half-panicked input from its reader. Because A) Connell writes with such sophistication, simplicity, discipline and B) Connell is a most pedestrian, uninventive, perfunctory novelist. These two authors coexist. The B) Connell specializes in Muhlbach's personal life. Son, daughter, German housekeeper, girlfriend, not to mention the not much mentioned dead or divorced wife: characters each as original as the statue you find on top of a bowling trophy. That's another reason the book was a breeze. Readers hesitate to judge. These characters might be Xerox copies because a) Muhlbach couldn't care less for them, compared to his new Pre-Columbian passion or b) Connell is the B) Connell. After all, the A) Connell gets a big assist from his engrossing subject matter. A reader likes liking the book: it's fun. So he tries helping it along, to Venice if necessary.

Connell's novel is significant, ultimately, for the questions it has posed. Why do we collect? Today people accumulate and prize old bottles, metal tractor seats, comic books, you name it. For an investment? Because a collection can be made whole, given sufficient industry, as no human life can be made whole? Because, in an age when professionals harass us, to know all that's knowable about tractor seats is like membership in the AMA? To share the thing's strength, its age, its creator's talent, as cannibals collect brave human hearts? All of the above. Muhlbach sees his own tracks in the snow and is glad to perceive that they will remain at least until another snowfall. There are no answers. Indeed, The Connoisseur ends with fierce, vain questions. "Tell me everything I need to know." This, asked of a mute, stone hunchback.

And the big question: aesthetics or authenticity? Can a masterly 1970 copy be as pleasing as an 1100 original? Can it be more pleasing? We make snide remarks about people who frame a print of the Mona Lisa. Why? Because they can't afford the original? Who could? Is the Thinker on Columbia College campus any more original than Rodin's five or six other casts? Was Rodin forging Rodins? Soon—to preserve priceless statuary from weather—exact 3D laser images will be beamed onto blank pedestals. With proper equipment, could anyone have a Michelangelo or a Moore or a Noguchi in his backyard next to the barbecue? Will sculptors get residuals as TV commercial spokesmen now do?

Muhlbach learns from this: that gallery owners are scrupulous. If enough frauds were passed off on the public, well, the public might come to like frauds. Pre-Columbian artifacts tell us about a dead people, but they do so largely because they were commonplace at the time. Very few pieces add important insights. Every profession wants a closed shop. Every profession is threatened: How to Avoid Probate, ads for do-it-yourself coffins that can serve as hassocks until you do yourself in. Authenticity and the snob pressure attached are essential. Me, I'm not ashamed of the Hobbema print on my bedroom wall.

The Connoisseur is rather like a Tiahuanaco puma ceramic. Primitive, functional, stylized, and not realistic, in places unfinished or showing damage, yet powerful. And just as illustrative of its culture. (pp. 233-34)

D. Keith Mano, "Collector's Item," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), February 28, 1975, pp. 233-34.