One Perfect Summer Day in Virginia Woolf, Saul Bellow and Others
The seasons are changing, but let’s linger for a moment on those books that capture one summer day, from Bellow to Woolf.
Summer is slipping from our grasp, but before turning our back on those lazy, reading-filled hours, we should take one last, elegiac look at those radiant works structured around summer’s essence: the long, seemingly unending day. That summer’s lease hath all too short a date is all the more reason to memorialize its incomparable days.
One such memorial is The Infinities, John Banville’s playful take on Greek myth and multiverse theory. “God…is there anything duller than a summer afternoon?” says the beautiful actress Helen. Granted, any afternoon would seem dull after her rather remarkable morning, in which Zeus himself, in the guise of her husband, visits her bed. Moreover, the novel takes place over the course of one very long summer day—as Hermes has twice interfered with the “diurnal springs” of the world to stop the sun in its tracks. And yet despite the afternoon’s longeurs, Helen will “always remember this day, for as long, that is, as a mortal may remember anything.” Such are the particular enchantments of summer’s “soft air and vapory light.”
The following literary and cinematic daytrips to the French coast, the English countryside, and New York City are free of meddling deities but full of these estival enchantments. They are exemplary Aristotelian chronicles that confine their action to “a single revolution of the sun,” and a blazing one at that. And despite their tight, 24-hour timeframe, they feel expansive and imaginatively unconstrained. Each work is a pithy marvel that captures the languorous excitement (and sometimes the radiant gloom) of a summer day to remember.
By Glenway Wescott
The Pilgrim Hawk is a crystalline novella in which domestic disasters are narrowly averted amidst a series of love triangles (real or imagined) under the alternately watchful, indifferent eye of a predatory bird. Narrated by a young American a young writer named Arlyn Tower, the novel is set on an estate in the South of France during the 1920’s. Tower is staying with his lover, fellow American Alexandra Henry. On the summer day in question, she is visited by an eccentric, bickering couple from the petty Irish nobility, the Cullens, and, more importantly, their exotic pet: Lucy, a hooded falcon, or pilgrim hawk, which we are told experiences the most intense form of hunger in the animal kingdom. How the hawk’s hunger translates to the sexual, romantic, spiritual, and artistic hungers of the human characters, and how each of those hungers is intimately related to submission, shame and independence (the “only thing that is human about hawks,” per Mr. Cullen) are the novella’s central questions.
Vacillating between the tragic and the absurd, slapstick and melodrama, irony and earnestness, the novella dramatizes Tower’s artistic coming-of-age through his changing perceptions of the day’s events and peculiarly demonic love stories. That the “long-sighted” Tower misreads people with the gusto of an Austen heroine complicates his difficult task of making sense of the endlessly suggestive events. His “vengeful, inexact lyricism” make him a particularly unreliable narrator in an unreliable work about the doomed “effort to compress the excessive details of the afternoon into an abstraction or two, a formula or a moral…” It is almost as if without the firm Aristotelian foundation ballasting it, the novel would be too vague to cohere. (To wit: I would confidently wager that sentence for sentence, the novella, set in “1928 or 1929,” deploys the hedging conjunction “or” as frequently as any other work in English.)
While the humans are entertaining enough in this Provencal matinee, the bird is the star. Unlike its Maltese cousin, Lucy entirely bears the work’s symbolic weight. Lucy is at once an embodiment of nature’s inherent violence lurking in even the plushest of drawing rooms; a forever “wild” lover of freedom; an absurd pet in bondage to an even more absurd master; a cathected object of sexual thralldom; a figure of the artist as exploited plaything of the rich; an impassive deity; and an ideal narrator, preferring as it does to “perch as high as possible, so she can look down upon everything around her.”
By Mollie Panter-Downes
The one fine day in question takes place in Wealding, a “perfect village in aspic” whose picturesque views are dotted by evidence of recent trauma: coils of barbed wire, sandbags, and bomb damage from the Second World War. Stephen Marshall returns from battle to find his wife Laura (“Penelope grown boring, commonplace, grey”) struggling to maintain their rural home and somewhat resentful that circumstances have reduced her to the role of “an unpaid family servant.” The house seems to have accepted “shabbiness and defeat,” and the monstrous vitality of the garden is described in conspicuously militaristic terms as a “vegetable war to the death” and as an “awful, incredible battle.” That is, the effect of the war continues on in the domestic sphere and saps the Marshalls of some of their vitality: “But suddenly there was no more fun.”
During the day, Stephen commutes to London, their daughter Victoria attends school, and Laura completes a series of unremarkable errands which nonetheless compose a nuanced, often witty portrait of a postwar British town. (Of her charwoman: “Her gigantic varicose-veined legs straddled the centuries, her skirts blew in the air of a larger, dirtier, merrier yesterday.”) But the main thrust of the narrative concerns Laura’s quiet revolt against her “feeble woman’s day, following a domestic chalk line, bound to the tyranny of [her] house” as she abandons herself to the beauty of a summer afternoon that “calls for us to live like gods.”
On a whim, Laura hikes up to Barrow Down, a local landmark with a commanding view of the sea and country whose gorgeousness unlocks some scarcely communicable realization about nature’s splendor that she feels she must pass on to her husband and daughter: “The land had sung, she remembered that.” The dispersed family members don’t see each other at day’s and novel’s end, which makes their respective epiphanies about their love for and responsibilities toward one another all the more ephemeral. Tomorrow, after all, is another day, and as Laura repeatedly, and ominously, notes, the weather could break.
By Virginia Woolf
Woolf’s posthumously published novel most self-consciously plays with the dramatic tradition of the three unities. It takes place at a country house on one day in June 1939, though it actually begins with a brief scene from the night before in which the characters discuss a cesspool: “What a subject to talk about on a night like this!” remarks one woman. That image of the cesspool lingers as we witness the various rivalries, jealousies, and small acts of cruelty that take place before, after, and between the acts of a summer pageant dramatizing various periods of English history.
The summer pageant is attended by folks from the neighborhood and beyond, and its theme, relevant given the impending war, is unity and discord. “Dispersed are we; who have come together. But…let us retain whatever made that harmony” asserts the Greek choral-like gramophone. The play-within-a-novel is a send-up of the modernist project, forging momentary unity among the distractible audience and then retreating back into the fragmentary—“‘Scraps, orts and fragments! Surely, we should unite?’”—and relying heavily on pastiche and Brechtian experimentation.
However, unfolding in the background of the clumsily conceived and performed pageant is Woolf’s real drama, which consists simply of “Love. Hate. Peace. Three emotions made the ply of human life.” Throughout the day, the spectators pair off and enjoy fleeting moments of understanding as fellow “conspirators” seeking respite from their exhausting psychodramas. And Woolf, consummate show-woman that she is, saves the most extraordinary scene for last with a warring married couple settling in at day’s end to do battle in a drawing room:
Alone, enmity was bared; also love. Before they slept, they must fight; after they had fought, they would embrace…But first they must fight, as the dog fox fights with the vixen, in the heart of darkness, in the field of night…The window was all sky without colour. The house had lost its shelter. It was night before roads were made, or houses. It was the night that dwellers in caves had watched from some high place among rocks. Then the curtain rose. They spoke.
The magnificent scene is firmly rooted in time and place and yet timeless, placeless; destructive yet generative; and tantalizingly on- and off-stage.
By Saul Bellow
Seize the Day takes place on the day before Yom Kippur—so early fall rather than summer—but given how desperately its “fair-haired hippopotamus” protagonist craves sympathy, I couldn’t bear to leave him or this masterful novella out.
Tommy Wilhelm, an unemployed salesman, begins Seize the Day travelling down the elevator of his Upper West Side building. Given that he will soon speculate his remaining money on the commodities market, this downward trajectory does not bode well. Bellow’s Aristotelian drama cleverly makes use of the stock market, that engine of tragedy in which fortunes can be lost in one day: “You have to act fast—buy it and sell it; sell it and buy in again. But quick! Get to the window and have them wire Chicago at just the right second. Strike and strike again! Then get out the same day,” informs Dr. Tamkin, the mountebank who lures Tommy into the scheme and claims to have read Aristotle in Greek (perhaps it was The Poetics?).
There is a fated aspect to the day’s events, indeed to Tommy’s entire life: “After much thought and hesitation and debate he invariably took the course he had rejected innumerable times. Ten such decisions made up the history of his life.” This particular decision and day, however, seem particularly transformative. Money is at the novella’s core, but Tommy is more preoccupied with his dogged pursuit of paternal love, which culminates in a catharsis both farcical and affecting: sobbing at the funeral of a complete stranger. Tommy’s concluding sob, the “consummation of his heart’s ultimate need,” contrasts surprisingly with the muscular imperative of the title. To seize the day could be construed as a stoic, moral or hedonistic call, though not usually a sentimental one. But Tommy’s day of reckoning produces a primal emotion that leads this “childish mind” to a place “deeper than sorrow.”
Like the other characters we’ve seen confronted with the alternately vivifying, monstrous intensity of their familial and amorous bonds, he’s had a long day.