Wednesday, January 11, 2012

False fronts on depression-era Main Street (Books - As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross)

Although Canadian author Sinclair Ross had to drop out of high school to work, he demonstrates a deep understanding of the human heart and writes in spare, unequivocal prose about life on the prairie during the depression in his first novel, As For Me and My House (1941). In this story of eroded communication between the Bentleys, a preacher and his wife, Ross's first person narrative takes the point of view of Mrs. Bentley through a diary she keeps in their twelfth year of a tense and childless marriage as they assume the parish of a dusty town called Horizon.

And as usual he's been drawing again. I turned over the top sheet, and sure enough on the back of it there was a little Main Street sketched. It's like all the rest, a single row of smug, false-fronted stores, a loiterer or two, in the distance the prairie again. And like all the rest there's something about it that hurts. False fronts ought to be laughed at, never understood or pitied. They're such outlandish things, the front of a store built up to look like a second storey. They ought always to be seen that way, pretentious, ridiculous, never as Philip sees them, stricken with a look of self-awareness and futility.
False fronts might, in fact, be considered the theme of this story. Philip is a passionate artist and non-believer who ends up hiding behind the front of the ministry in order to support himself and his wife. Mrs. Bentley is an accomplished pianist. I learned from reading a little about Keath Fraser's biography of Ross that he also hid behind a front, having been homosexual while growing up on the Canadian prairie in the 1920s. Neither of the Bentley's can talk to the other about the feelings of disappointment and entrapment they feel as sensitive souls who are unable to live from the heart.
Something has happened to his drawing this last year or two. There used to be feeling and humanity in it. It was warm and positive and forthright; but now everything is distorted, intensified, alive with thin, cold, bitter life. Yesterday he sketched a congregation as he sees it from the pulpit. Seven faces in the first row - ugly, wretched faces, big-mouthed, mean-eyed - alike yet each with a sharp, aggressive individuality - the caricature of a pew, and the likenesses of seven people.
You get the feeling from the sheer claustrophobia of their marriage that if either of these two were to give voice to their real feelings, a flood would be unleashed and there would be no stopping it. This diary records its unnamed narrator's growing awareness of how far off track their lives have veered. These two souls have so obliterated themselves, that our narrator doesn't even have a name. Ross's talent for writing about disappointment in small town life brings to mind Dawn Powell's terrific Come Back to Sorrento, though while in her work, you see the subdued sparkle that was the dream, in As For Me and My House you see mostly the cracked facade that cannot hide the the loss. The writing is beautiful and the story not only heart-rending but insightful. Great recommendation, Thomas, thanks!


Gavin said...

This is one of my husband's favorites and I have never read it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Ted said...

Hi Gavin - Your welcome. It's a very involving read, I can see why your husband likes it.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I am so glad you liked it. I always get nervous when I rave so much about a book that others won't like it. And your review is much better written than my own.

Ted said...

Thomas - I was a great recommendation! Have you read his other stuff or the biography of him?