Thursday, June 27, 2013

"You Should Read Some Jean Stafford": The Mountain Lion

Once, long ago, in my ancient MFA student life, someone said to me, “You should read some Jean Stafford stories.”  So, dutifully, I did, and I liked them enough—I remember some sharp social satire; many were published in The New Yorker, and her Collected Stories won the Pulitzer in 1970.  Her first novel, The Boston Adventure, was a best-seller.  These should seem like lifetime achievements of note, but unfortunately, what she seems most remembered for these days is her personal life.  She was married (complicatedly) to poet Robert Lowell, who wrecked up her face in a car accident in which he was driving; both of them were raging alcoholics.  Then she had a brief marriage to Oliver Jensen, an editor at Life, and finally to A.J. Liebling, also a New Yorker writer.  Apparently, this marriage was happy, but he died after fiveish years, and Jean Stafford stopped writing fiction (though she wrote non-fiction and reviews).  She died in 1979 and left her estate to her cleaning woman.

All this to say that when I was recently browsing remainders at Politics & Prose bookstore, a tiny bell dinged in my head when I saw an attractive New York Review of Books “Classics” edition of The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford (originally published in 1947).  That voice:  You should read some Jean Stafford.

The description on the back of the book was intriguing: 

“Eight-year-old Molly and her ten-year-old brother Ralph are inseparable, in league with each other against the stodgy and stupid routines of school and daily life; against their prim mother and prissy older sisters; against the world of authority and perhaps the world itself.  One summer they are sent from the genteel Los Angeles suburb that is their home to backcountry Colorado, where their uncle Claude has a ranch. There the children encounter an enchanting new world—savage, direct, beautiful, untamed—to which, over the next few years, they will return regularly, enjoying a delicious double life….” 

I bought the book, thinking it might be something interesting to read as I shape my next project in my head, which has to do a bit with double lives.  Of course, I buy lots of books and don’t always read them…but this one, in this elegant edition, with its old-fashioned font, called to me, and I jumped into it almost immediately.

It’s an amazing book!  Sharp and smart; vivid and complicated major characters; minor characters as well-drawn as anyone in the pages of Dickens; ominous and compelling landscape, both in California and in Colorado; a relentless writer unafraid to do truly awful things to her characters (one scene—and trust me, you’ll know the one I mean—made me shriek and cover my eyes); a well-managed structure that leads to the surprising yet inevitable ending; inventive language and observations; a plot that feels ominously meandering yet laser-like in its focus …I could go on and on.

And I admired the audacious choices the writer made…for example, in this edition there’s an Author’s Note (from 1971) and an Afterword.  Well, any reader knows not to read the Afterword first unless you want to find out what happens, but who would worry about reading an Author’s Note?  It’s only five paragraphs long, for goodness sake!  Within those five paragraphs, Jean Stafford tells us—directly—what happens to her beloved main character.  I was shocked!  At first I was quite irritated, but I had to think that this was the author’s intention:  so I read the book differently, knowing the outcome.  And—damn it!—I believe that made for a better book.  (But if you decide to read the book and DON’T want to know, definitely skip that Author’s Note, even though it starts out so sweetly with an anecdote about a carpenter building a new desk for Stafford.)

She also moves through a lot of time for a book that’s only about 200 pages long, getting through six or so years effortlessly and tidily.  And the point of view shifts and moves—sometimes within the paragraph—and that, too, feels effortless. 

My main point is this:  Oh, fickle cruel world….HOW CAN THIS BOOK HAVE BEEN FORGOTTEN?  As I was reading, without even trying, I thought of at least five students I’ve taught in the Converse MFA program whose work would have benefited from reading this book.  I’m putting it on my Favorite Books Bookshelf.  Thank goodness for that tiny voice from the past, giving me that nudge in the bookstore.  Thank goodness for a bookstore where I could browse, not knowing what I wanted until I saw it.

I’m not the only one who feels so passionately about The Mountain Lion, it turns out.  Here’s Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, in his series about books that are woefully neglected in modern times:

“…Autobiographical elements are always strong in Stafford's fiction, and there can be no question that Molly is herself, in essence if not all details. Certainly Stafford writes from the heart when she describes the feelings that Molly and Ralph have for their self-indulgent mother, for the pompous minister Mr. Follansbee (with his "cruel, smug face, his pince-nez on a black ribbon, the effeminate white piping of his vest") and for their mother's adored father, Grandfather Bonney, in whose portrait Ralph "read into his face vacuity and self-pride; he saw the plump hands as indolent and useless and believed that in a handclasp they would be flaccid."

“I can't remember when I first read "The Mountain Lion," though it was at least four decades ago, and I'll leave it to you to discover the story behind the title. It's a terrific book, witty and smart as Stafford always was, and kind in its treatment of these two strangely irresistible children….”

And here’s writer Sigrid Nunez on NPR, talking about The Mountain Lion for a segment called “You Must Read This”:

“Stafford drew much from her own early life for The Mountain Lion. Surely some of the novel's power comes from the fact that she wrote it — in just nine months — not long after her brother, Dick, was killed in an accident. As children they had been as close as Molly and Ralph.”

There’s an excerpt from the beginning of the book at this link.

This is the edition that beguiled me and now won’t let go.  I was in the used bookstore in Alexandria yesterday and ended up with a biography of Jean Stafford and a copy of The Boston Adventure.  Not that I’m obsessive or anything….


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.