Transatlantic Blues

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Monty né Pendrid) Chatworth, half-English and half-American, is a man with a compulsion to confess, and there are good reasons for his ailment. He has suffered from feelings of guilt ever since, in 1940 at the age of nine, he left England with his parents and his older sister to live in the United States. It seemed to him then that the Chatworths were deserting their country when it was fighting a war for its survival. Why did his father not suffer shame at having fled his homeland in order to fight merely for profits in a mysteriously vague import-export business on the safe side of the Atlantic Ocean? (It was not until later that he discovered the elder Chatworth was in reality serving England, inspecting cargo ships for espionage; by then, though, the harm caused by young Pendrid’s mistaken belief had already been done.)

Chatworth—the name is both symbolic and ironic—is now a famous and outwardly very successful television reporter, commentator, and interviewer whose show has received several Emmies for excellence. Five? Or is it six? he wonders. His voice is the instrument with which he has carved out his fame and earned a great deal of money. “Imagine David Frost and Norman Mailer put together,” he says, trying to describe the voice, “and you still haven’t got it.” Yet he feels that he is a fraud who has used his famous voice to hide from the public the frightened and guilt-ridden real Pendrid Chatworth. A lapsed Catholic, he has known since childhood what confession is and how the Church has regarded it as necessary for the cleansing of the soul and spirit. In fact, he used to confess to priests. Then, having lost his belief in the Church, he tried confessing to women and to phychiatrists. Now, with neither priest nor woman nor shrink to tell his sins to, he uses the modern electronic substitute, a Sony tape recorder. Aboard a jetliner speeding across the ocean toward America after a weekend of taping television shows in London, he begins to sing his transatlantic blues.

He tells no well-ordered story. One could scarcely expect him to, considering the condition of his mind and his nerves. Although there is a general progression from 1939 until some time in the late 1960’s, there are many interruptions and many shifts back and forth in chronology. Also, the narrative technique frequently switches. Transatlantic Blues opens with a chapter narrated by the author and presenting a drunken Monty Chatworth desperately seeking a fellow plane passenger to confess to. With the second chapter the long confession begins to the Sony (Father Sony, he calls it, “Born of Know-how out of Trade Agreement”), and Monty is still confessing at the end of the novel; but although the narrator is usually “I,” he often calls himself Chatworth, as though he were telling his story about someone else. As he says, “I am, up to a point, Monty Chatworth myself, but that does not mean I am always available for comment.” At times, when he sees himself as a liar or distorter of facts, he can blurt in disgust, “Stop bleating, Chatworth,” as when he finds himself creating out of whole cloth firsthand memories of World War II, when bombs were falling on England and he was a mere schoolboy far away in America. He can remark sarcastically, “Chatworth can take it,” as he prepares to put on a performance as a knowledgeable American addressing an Oxford Union meeting, a performance which becomes a fiasco when he is appalled to hear his voice that is “like every voice I’ve ever encountered: Philadelphia and Jersey Irish and county English, and East End whore, like a thousand mimics screaming into one tube.”

Other types of shift in narrative technique are used in Wilfrid Sheed’s novel. Chatworth may drop the past tense in narrating an event and move into the present tense for increased dramatic effect, or he may comment on the action or the characters like an essayist, or frequently on Chatworth himself if he were an amateur psychiatrist interpreting or explaining Chatworth’s emotions or motivations. Other types of shift are from exterior to interior speech or the reverse, and from novelistic dialogue to an approximation of the dialogue in a play, as in the schizoid conversations between the two symbolic sides of Chatworth’s character: Plunkett the gentleman and Snead the crude, cynical lout.

While the war continues, the Chatworths remain in the United States, and Pendrid (or Pen; he will not become Monty until years later) is sent to St. Boniface, a Catholic boys’ school with mainly Irish priests and students. Predictably, he must endure a considerable amount of mockery and bullying because of his English manner of speaking and his feeling that he is intellectually superior to his schoolmates. He learns early that he must develop a defense of some kind: he will simply talk...

(The entire section is 1979 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Hudson Review. XXXI, Summer, 1978, p. 345.

Virginia Quarterly Review. XLIV, Summer, 1978, p. 93.