Shirley Ann Grau Grau, Shirley Ann (Vol. 4) - Essay

Grau, Shirley Ann (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Grau, Shirley Ann 1929–

Ms Grau is a Southern American regional novelist and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

As was demonstrated by several of the stories in her first book, The Black Prince, published when she was in her early twenties, Shirley Ann Grau has a gift for dealing with nature and the kind of people who live close to nature. Her second book and first novel, The Hard Blue Sky … made good use of this talent, telling a story of a community of fishermen living on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. In The House on Coliseum Street … she showed that she is by no means limited to this sort of material, but in The Keepers of the House … she has returned to it and I think she is happy to do so, as I am happy to have her….

It is a novel of considerable dramatic force. Miss Grau makes her point—the absurdities as well as the cruelties to which prejudice leads—sharply enough, but this is a story, not a tract. The characters are striking, Margaret as well as William, and vigorously portrayed. The manner of telling the story, partly in the first person and partly in the third, permits Miss Grau to achieve both perspective and immediacy. And always there is the sense of the land and the seasons….

All the virtues of Miss Grau's earlier books are here, together with a new power. I think it is her best novel, and I shall be surprised if it is not her most popular one.

Granville Hicks, "Only the Countryside Was Serene," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1964 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 21, 1964, pp. 33, 51.

The violent history of a Southern family from the early 19th century to the present; miscegenation and its effects on the children it produces; the politics of racial hatred in the modern Deep South; an eruption of vengeance and counter vengeance between victims and victimizers, all bound together in the consequences of slaveholding days—these are the themes of ["The Keepers of the House"]…. They are, of course, the same old Southern Gothic themes, and the reader of this review will be forgiven if he groans at seeing them dredged up after so many neo-Yoknapatawphans have sunk them into cliché. For most of us one Faulkner is quite enough, and if we are morally engaged by what is happening in the South today, we still reserve the right to be bored by seeing it reworked once again in fiction.

I say this, however, only to preface a defense of "The Keepers of the House" as an excellent novel. It is not Miss Grau's fault that her world overlaps with Faulkner's. She is obviously writing about the South she knows at first hand. Readers who have followed her career through "The Black Prince and Other Stories" (1955), "The Hard Blue Sky" (1958) and "The House on Coliseum Street" (1961) will not need to be told that she is a gifted storyteller. Her [work is characterized by] lucidity,… narrative directness, [and] … reliance on the bare details of her plot instead of on ponderous philosophizing….

Ultimately "The Keepers of the House" succeeds, not as a political novel or a tale of violence, but as an exercise in imaginative sympathy.

Frederick C. Crews, "Unto the Third Generation," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 22, 1964, pp. 4-5.

If a good many Southern novels lean rather more heavily on incident than on character, show more concern for parochial details than for general truth, and have a greater respect for dialect than for dialogue, it is partly because the Southern ethos is so firmly established as a literary convention that only the boldest imagination dares challenge it. The novelist's task of expressing his own conception of life through the representation of an environment so familiar becomes formidable.

It is a task that Miss Grau, in her third novel, does not quite accomplish, although she comes as near to it as any living Southern novelist. While the psychological realities of "The Keepers of the House" are undeniable, toward the end the story itself threatens to render them meaningless and even fraudulent. This is not because the events of the story lack credibility. It is because the events are not amenable to the symbolic interpretation that the epigraph from the Book of Ecclesiastes suggests. And obviously Miss Grau intended them to be. Obviously she meant her novel to have a moral center of gravity.

From the moment Abigail Tolliver appears, bringing into the inhospitable present the pride of blood, the independence of mind and the eccentricities of character, as well as the legends of her family's history, we come face to face with the operation of psychic forces, commonly described as Southern, in a series of incidents of the kind that generations of novelists and the gossips of history have persuaded us can occur only in the South. Here are the dateless legends of white men back from the wars, of murderous Indians, of loyal, inscrutable blacks. Here are blood and bitterness, lust and glut, love and the absence of love….

[The ending] is the unexpected climax to a story that might have ended sooner and to more purpose. It is before this point is reached that Miss Grau begins to slight literary artistry and resorts to a kind of literary mechanics, which she employs with great skill, but at the expense of truth.

Saunders Redding, "Enough of a Drawl to be Distracting," in Chicago Tribune Book Week, March 22, 1964, p. 4.

Plot aside, [The Keepers of the House] is a Southern novel alright, and one often beautifully written….

Shirley Ann Grau has been demonstrating her gifts as a sensitive observer of human development and growth for some time now. With a few words she can establish a mood, mixing man's emotions with appropriate reflections of them in landscape. She knows her heavy, low Southern moon, her Southern turtles and snakes and herb gardens. She knows the old houses with their long windows and the nodding breezes which come upon thankful, clammy skin. She knows the people, knows the ambiguities of race relations, the devices, pretenses, ironies, absurdities, and incredible frustrations, all of them constant reminders of the mind's capacity for illusion, rationalization and even delusion under an irrational but powerfully coercive social and economic system….

Most significantly, she writes at a time when she can know some answers, too. For this is a novel which in its own sudden and firm way has a statement to make…. The author does not shirk the complicated nature of the problem. Her segregationist is no demon, but any region's ambitious, aggressive politician….

It is said that people are tired of the South and the Southern novel. Yet, I wonder where else in this country past history and present social conflict conspire to bring forth so much of the evil in people, so much of the dignity possible in people, so much of the "pity and terror" in the human condition. Looking at people living elsewhere, in bureaucratized passivity and efficiency, in faceless bustle, in cliché-riddled "progressive" comfort or sophisticated but paralysed bewilderment, we can turn to the South in horror and fascination, and on those counts alone, in some hope.

Robert Coles, "Mood and Revelation in the South," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1964 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), April 18, 1964, pp. 17-19.

Shirley Ann Grau's treatment of the psychoanalytic theory that ties obsession with money to the flight from death—a sublimation of repressed body consciousness—goes further than simply to repeat the conventional, reductive view of the moneygrubber as Puritan or ascetic. The most interesting aspect of [A Condor Passes] is its implicit argument for Dionysian man. She has centered her narrative on the deformations of sexuality, reflecting the split between body and mind, that are a particular disease of our acquisitive, repressive culture. From an inability to accept death—that is, to live freely in the body—there follows the paradoxical consequence of death in life. The money drive, Grau seems to be saying, is a morbid surrender of the body's creativity to the waste it must become, and we literally cannot "come to our senses" until we acknowledge its neurotic impulse….

Shirley Ann Grau willingly embraces the risk of tedium that lurks today in the nineteenth-century novel form, and doesn't escape it. In technique, A Condor Passes duplicates her previous novel The Keepers of the House, and with less control: the same agglomeration of theatrical anecdote and sociological observation, the dependence on "life history" to keep the wheels going round; there are even small stylistic echoes of the earlier work. The underlying concerns of the present novel have more amplitude, as I have indicated. Still, they don't save it from running downhill or sounding too frequently like an overwrought journalistic report on characters that are little more than a typology: The Old Man, the Passive Woman, the Aggressive Female, the Male Weakling. These people are not tragic because they remain unaware of their condition. In one passage Miss Grau describes the Old Man's vision of a furry animal inside his mind which he caressed and quieted: "… when the body fell apart at last … then the animal inside him would find endless doors opening on echoing corridors … it would be gone running around the world … hiding and running, free, sunlight and dark." Could the Oliver we are permitted to know dream like this? It is the author speaking in his name, the old "literary" voice interposing itself, summarizing "experience" whose texture has not been reproduced.

Muriel Haynes, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 18, 1971, pp. 44-5.

A compendium of fact and fable woven into a family chronicle, "The Condor Passes" resumes the theme that informed her earlier books; birth, and death….

Shirley Ann Grau's strength (it is somewhat out of fashion) is her ability to write from multiple views. She inhabits, with equal ease, a child in a nursery, a girl on her wedding day, a Cajun on a binge, and the Old Man lying in bed, dying…. Despite her novel's tenacity of detail (want to know how to pole a pirogue through a swamp?) it is basically symbolic….

Her novel is a splendid combination of intensely relaxed detail and overarching metaphor. It is not a perfect book, but its faults are minor. If it sometimes seems to wade in trivia,… mostly, it soars.

Annette Grant, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 19, 1971, p. 47.

I cannot say Miss Grau is a second-rate novelist, but The Condor Passes is certainly the kind of shoddy novel that sticks to the New Orleans formula;… it is poor and predictable. It is tricked out with the embellishments that readers have come to associate with fictional New Orleans—its perverse tycoons, its sexual precocities, fallen-away Catholics, and shabby pseudo-Frenchmen who pass for the aristocracy….

The publisher describes the novel as "huge." It is long but not very deep, and its sprawl is achieved by Miss Grau's meandering through the histories of each character in turn, not dramatizing their experiences but stating that at this point the character is poor, and now he is rich, and now he is on a ship, and so forth. The reader must take her word for it; there is certainly no internal evidence for their wisdom, wealth, or the sensitivities she credits them with.

Paul Theroux, in Book World (© The Washington Post), October 10, 1971, p. 12.

Shirley Ann Grau has kept herself as far out of [The Condor Passes] as is consistent with writing it. Feeling and interpretation are just as lively in her as in … any other good writer, but she holds them in abeyance, their time will come but not yet. Each incident is given with as much fullness as its participants deserve, but it is surrounded by silence; either it justifies itself or it does not. If the acts and events are not as opulent as they would be in Utopia, so much the worse, they must do the best they can, the novelist is not going to pretend that they are more than they are.

The theme is given in the title….

I can't see that the symbol does anything for the book, and Miss Grau comes back to it at the end for no good reason….

Miss Grau's policy is clear. She is determined to give her characters free range, subject only to the limitations implicit in the nature of things. As for their own natures, they are welcome to do what they like with what they own. So the novel hovers upon questions of property, possession, rights, duties, needs, license. Miss Grau attends to her art with a corresponding sense of law and limitation. She does whatever she can manage with characters, she invents new characters when she feels in need of them. If there is something that her characters cannot reasonably see or feel, her novel must do without it: that she, the novelist, can see or feel it is not enough reason for including it. In short, whatever cannot be achieved by attending to a large family of characters had better be left alone.

Miss Grau works by concentrating on one thing, one character, at a time, and her art is exhilarating in its precision. But she is not exceptionally good when it is a question of latitude…. Every episode is vividly illuminated, but there is very little sense of a world and a time between the lights. The public world does not press upon Miss Grau's private people, and we could be forgiven for thinking that it has gone away. The characters have lively relations to one another, and equally lively relations to themselves, but they do not bump against strangers, they are rarely aware of a world going about its alien business, indifferent to the Olivers.

Miss Grau tells us, in each case, what she thinks we ought to know, and nothing more. Her tact is blessed. But she virtually conceals from us, while the novel lasts, the fact that other forms of reality are present, even if we do not see them. She nearly prevents us from knowing those forms of reality which James called "the things we cannot possibly not know, sooner or later, in one way or another." In a richer novel we would hear noises which we would not interpret, except in the ordinary way as the buzz of things. The Condor Passes is all foreground, very little background, everything is presented in the same degree of lucidity, that is, a high degree. But after a while the lucidity begins to oppress, and I think we would believe more if we were shown less, or if a little public confusion were to assert itself against the private gleam.

Denis Donoghue, "Life Sentence," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), December 2, 1971, pp. 28-9.

Women's isolation emerges more sharply as the focus of Shirley Ann Grau's new book of stories, The Wind Shifting West, than of her first collection The Black Prince (1955). Although few of the 18 stories expand in one's memory with the yeast of excellence, the volume as a whole is satisfying because it consistently and without fanfare delivers her vision of stoical endurance….

Grau seldom strikes a self-pitying note. She's interested in displaying not the sensitivity of her characters, but their strong defenses against despair. She's not fashionable: when she writes a story whose characters are modishly nameless, it seems silly. As a storyteller tracing the shape of loneliness she's quite different from Joy Williams or Joan Didion, whose females can whine with self-destructive masochism, and from Joyce Carol Oates, whose "scenes of passion and despair" erupt with violence. Grau's women are not grotesque in their isolation, but human for coping with it.

The main limitation of the stories, however, also lies in the choice of theme. The characters' dissatisfactions are revealed economically in the opening paragraphs: a tart reply, oppressive heat (many of the stories are set around New Orleans), a man drifting out of sight. The characters themselves seem to understand these details, just as Caroline interprets the wet anchor or the woman driver the acorn. But their frustrations never issue in violence, hardly even in action. No action can take the death out of loneliness. Even revelations are underplayed. Hence the stories are static…. Most of the individual stories are very accomplished, but so exiguous, so reduced in expectation, that one feels something's missing. Stories like "No Other Way" are exceptions because they at least suggest the alternatives to endurance.

This diminishment seems quite deliberately chosen, as if Grau were willing to pay its price, for the few stories that try for surprises seem gimmicky or cute—the neat parable of ecological disaster "The Last Gas Station" or "The Lovely April" which, relying on character changes, is too long and ill-proportioned. By the time one puts the volume down, however, one sees the strength that's gone into the rejection of passion and despair. For Grau's characters it's more important to cope with life than to fight against its conditions. Stoic endurance is a conventional female response, but Grau's best stories dramatize why it is better than emotionalism, passivity, or self-destruction.

Joan Joffe Hall, "Lives Alone," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), November 24, 1973, pp. 30-1.