Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell

I’ve just finished reading Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell and before that, I read its companion novel, Mr. Bridge. I realize now that this was out of order, since the former was published in 1959 and the latter a full ten years later in 1969. I don’t think it matters. They complement each other but can be read independently. Each is a domestic novel, set in the time between the great World Wars and concerning itself with the Bridge family—Mr. and Mrs., obviously—but also their three children and everyone else in their circle in Kansas City, past and present. Connell’s narrative style is straightforward and usually, emotionless; often, observations and remarks made by the supporting players shed light on the Bridges' character. The novels are separated into numbered, titled chapters. Each section offers a scene, really, a brief glimpse into the life of either the Mr. or Mrs., and these scenes build and build in support of what is basically a detailed character sketch. Here’s an example of a very short chapter from Mrs. Bridge, which gives a flavor of Connell’s style and also telling clues about the personalities of the Bridges. Also, it shows how we are made to see them through the lenses of others.
79 Psst!
Wherever they went they were promptly identified as American tourists. From every side street some young man would come gliding, a hand in his coat pocket, murmuring in broken English that he had a diamond ring for sale, a fountain pen, a Swiss watch.
“Psst! Hey, mister,” he would begin.
                “How on earth do they always know we’re Americans?” Mrs. Bridge inquired.
                It was not mysterious to Mr. Bridge, who, however, chose to reply bitterly, for the trip was costing twice what he had estimated, “Europeans can smell a dollar a mile away.”

This is one of the shorter chapters, but the longest is perhaps only three or four pages. Mr. Bridge’s temperament and prejudices, Mrs. Bridge’s naïveté, even a mental picture of the two making their way across Europe—so much condensed in so few words. Connell builds a book with these mental images, adding and adding until we are able to see the Bridges in full relief. They are wonderfully done. It reminded me of the portraits of Chuck Close, pixelated into tiny paintings. These novels are what would happen if you could watch Close’s process, adding one perfect image to another until the entire person comes into focus.
Evan S. Connell's writing career spanned fifty years and included work in several genres. His best-selling biography of Custer, Son of the Morning Star, earned critical acclaim and was adapted into a television miniseries in 1991. The Bridge novels were also the inspiration for the 1990 film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge starring Paul Newman. Connell passed away in January of this year; more biographical information can be found here.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka