A Tragedy of Manners

In a Yellow Wood – Gore Vidal

The most sorrowful tragedies are true ones, are always pulled from an experience a human had to endure. Depending how closely you are prepared to look, the most sorrowful tragedies are being endured, right now, under the masks one stares at everyday across the office and the mask one stares at in the mirror. If one can develop enough skill – and Vidal’s agony-ridden protagonist, Robert Holton, is just such a fellow – then the tragedy of one’s situation can be filtered through a sanitising intellectual process and changed into a decision made instead of an imposition born of fear.

Holton is a low-level worker in a New York brokerage and the last word in playing it straight. World War II is a recent memory – but Holton has managed to forget most of the “virility of war” and has set his meter running in the chilly-blue instead of the hot-red which consumed him while abroad and in uniform. When he was in uniform, boy, he really lived. Now he must conform, knuckle down, and be incredibly grateful for any “opportunity” to climb the corporate ladder. Vidal shows us Holton’s attitude to work and his past as quickly as page four, as Holton dresses to face the day ahead:

He searched through the bureau drawers for a shirt. He found a white one and put it on. Before the war he had worn coloured shirts but now plain white ones seemed more sound. And then it was a good idea not to be too vivid when you worked for a brokerage house.

This is not a change of taste being described, but a rewritten character being shown. One wonders what the war did to this man that he had the colour drained from him. His future is decided and can not be altered, no matter the price:

Robert Holton, though he had never been much of an athlete, had a good build. Sitting at desks, however, would ruin it sooner or later and the thought made him sad. There was nothing he could do, of course, for he would always sit at desks.

As Holton dresses and ponders his figure the morning light glows “yellowly through the window shade.” Those diverging paths are fast approaching Robert Holton. He has no idea of the choice to come his way before the day is over; has no idea the twisting kaleidoscope which moves us all in turn is about to take its turn with him. Though he remains unaware as he prepares for work, this morning he has woken in his yellow wood.

The path which leads to the brokerage house takes him past his breakfast stop, a small diner where he is served by the same waitress each morning. Marjorie Ventusa, the waitress in question, is in love with Robert Holton. They know each other enough to engage in a little flirty banter, but they never dare to step outside the cells they have made for themselves; they offer just enough to polish the surface of the other’s mask. As Holton begins to tuck into his breakfast, he asks:

   “When you going to go out dancing with me?” Robert Holton asked, sawing a piece of bacon in half with a blunt knife.

   “I’m pretty busy,” she said; she always said that when he asked her that question. He would say it because he thought it was funny and she would answer him as though she thought it was funny too. She wished that he meant it now.

Does he ask her because he thinks it’s funny? No, he asks her because she always answers the way she does, there is no danger, and she answers the way she does because he asks her only because she thinks he thinks it’s funny. That is a mistake on her part; Holton asking her to go dancing has nothing whatsoever to do with humour. The reasons are heartbreaking. We are beginning to get a sense of the tragedy of manners that can evolve when somebody believes they are not worthy of being sincerely asked to go dancing, and the ripple affect it can have across the psyches of many others. One wonders, also, why Vidal chose to tell us the knife was blunt.

Holton is joined for breakfast by a female co-worker, Caroline Lawton. She is similar to Marjorie but the differences are the point. Caroline has the same fears as Marjorie, but Vidal injects her with an icy – yet almost comical – narcissism. Marjorie asks this woman, who is clearly a rival, for her order:

   “I’ll have grapefruit juice. That’s all I want. I’m reducing,” she said to Robert Holton and she patted her slim waist.

   “What on earth are you reducing for?”

   “You think I look all right this way? She asked, pretending surprise.

Her comments are not put into context until three pages later when, sitting at her desk, Caroline goes digging in her desk drawer:

Here were several compacts in various stages of use. A slightly crushed box of pale green Kleenex, a carton of cigarettes, and a box of fairly expensive candy. The lid of the candy box was off and Caroline Lawton decided that, since her breakfast had been small, a little candy wouldn’t hurt her.

Can this novel have been published in 1947? It all seems so modern. I know women like her. Her character is on display throughout the paragraph: from the candy being expensive, to the lid being off, to her deciding she deserved it because her breakfast had been small. Here we have an eyelash fluttering air-head narcissist in action; she flops from one self-centred moment to the next without bothering to remember the previous one. I really do know women like her.

Caroline and Holton toil under the stewardship of Mr Murphy, the head of Statistical Section; Caroline is Mr Murphy’s secretary, Holton an entry-level clerk. There are others who share the joys of the office and whose surface politeness is a delicately constructed sham, but Caroline is the master, or so she often tells herself.

There is a psychological cocktail of boredom, compromise, denial, dissatisfaction and loneliness swirling behind the eyes of these characters. They are pitifully aware of their wounds, yet have developed the greatest skill in hiding from others any sense those wounds exist. Their effort is spent convincing others of their happiness, cleverness and their all-round contentedness with life. There is comedy here, but it tastes sour. That sourness comes from the truth.

But Holton is the main course. Here is a quiet man, a simple man whose boat rocking days are long behind him. “I suppose if it were easier to take a job than refuse it I’d take the job. I’m easy to please” he tells the lovely Caroline, hiding the point (from her but, more importantly, himself) that this is not an example of being easy to please by claiming it is. He lived a life during the war. He spent his time in Europe knowing a great many women and tasting the pleasures life offers; but now, back on home soil, the decision has been made to live an existence of muted and desolate obedience. In more ways than one his shirts are now not simply white; they are – as we have seen – plain white.

After lunch, Holton is visited at the office by Jim Trebling, his best pal from his military days and the man with whom he broke many European hearts. Soon, the banter between old comrades turns to the fairer sex:

   “Do you remember Carla?” asked Jim suddenly, his mind adjusting to the present.

   “The girl in Florence? Sure, I remember her. What was her name…Carla?”

   “That’s right.”

   “She was very nice looking, wasn’t she?”

   “Yes.”

   “Sure, I remember her.”

   “I thought you liked her quite a bit,” said Trebling, not looking at Holton.

   “I suppose I did. We ran into a lot of people, though. There were so many people.”

   Trebling agreed that there had been a number of people in Europe, people they had known.

This is a passage worth getting into for a moment. Holton appears absurd by attempting to relegate Carla to a vague memory. “What was her name..?” he asks, just after being told it. How he would love to waive his hand and consider her a woman of no importance, but he cannot do this convincingly. Trebling, with manners more delicate than would be found today, offers a cold “that’s right.” This is exquisite. He could press the point, demand to know what on earth his friend was talking about because they both knew how taken with her he was, but this would force his friend into a corner he clearly has no wish to be in, so he allows Holton the space to be comfortable by accepting the basic facts. Holton, noticing this piece of good manners, makes another grab for acceptable fantasy. “She was good looking, wasn’t she?” I do beg your pardon. Wasn’t she? I think they both know she was a little more than good looking, but Trebling, now sensing his friend does not want to “go there” must look away before deciding to push just a little. He covers a statement of fact in the blanket of assumption, smoothing the edges: “I thought you liked her quite a bit,” he tells Holton, one step down from stating a fact. Holton must accept his feelings for Carla, but rushes off the point straightaway after. “I suppose I did. We ran into a lot of people, though.” Trebling, coldly accepting the mathematical truth, agrees there had been a lot of people in Europe and they had known some of them. This is of it’s time. These days, all Trebling would have to say is “Man, what the fuck?” but Trebling is a man with a sense of mood and some delicacy. Whoever she was, Carla made a significant impression on Holton, but he is suffering from the strangest denial of his feelings for her. What can it hurt to admit to his comrade how this woman moved him? After all, she was left behind in Europe after the war and there is no chance of them seeing each other again. Is there? The pathway in the yellow wood is leading somewhere. Trebling is the kaleidoscope’s warning. Start thinking certain thoughts, Mr Holton, because a choice is rushing toward you.

Holton’s day takes what is not necessarily a turn for the better when he attends a cocktail party after the office closes. He walks back to his hotel to change for this engagement and notices, as a nurse with a baby carriage passes by, that the horror of the design for life affects not just those who are trapped in wage-slavery:

It was late, probably much too late for her to be out with the baby. As she passed him he caught a glimpse of the child and saw that it was staring vacantly ahead, concentrating on growth.

Is this the last word in horrific cynicism? It suggests all kinds of tube-fed dystopia. One wonders how many writers owe their careers to this small aside. Back at his hotel, Holton ponders the conversations with Trebling:

In Europe there had been many women. He often was surprised now when he thought of how many he had known. There were periods when he had never been satisfied. Both Trebling and he had gone about it like hunters.

Okay, now we’re beginning to get the point. The second and third sentences are the ones to consider. This is significant because of the word “surprised” and because of those periods when he had never been “satisfied”. I mean to say, all those women and no satisfaction; my dear fellow, why ever not?

He arrives at the cocktail party; the hostess, Mrs Helena Stevanson, belongs in a Wildean drawing room where the sweet and pretty air and etiquette keep the resentment under control. A typical exchange between a guest breaking away from her hostess:

   “It’s been lovely seeing you, Helena darling. I’ve got to join my escort now. I came with Clyde.”

   Beatrice said this triumphantly but gained no victory.

   “You came with Clyde. How wonderful! I’m dining with him tomorrow.”

There is a wonderful low-high-low rhythm to Helena’s line, but is something missing here? Would the tone of the politeness be better served with a question mark after Helena Stevanson’s rather flat statement “You came with Clyde”? It would lift the tone of voice to match the exchange, but without it one wonders if Helena, dining tomorrow with Clyde, will hear a tale or two about Beatrice’s sexual habits?

Helena flits between guests, spending a snatched moment offering air-kisses and exaggerated good manners, and even manages to torture our friend, Robert Holton. This after just bringing up the subject of Holton’s mother:

The was an awkward silence. Robert Holton never found it easy to talk about his mother and Mrs Stevanson had decided, obviously, that it was the only thing she could discuss with him.

To move from the awkward silence Holton is pushed toward some guests who are slightly more exotic because they are foreigners. They exchange handshakes and Holton pays not much attention until he shakes hands with Mrs Bankton:

   “How do you do,” said Robert Holton.

“How do you do,” said Mrs Bankton. Her voice startled him. It was deep and foreign and she had said the “you” as if she had really meant him.

Holton stumbles for a moment, then presses on, fascinated:

  

   He stammered, “I know you. I know you but…”

   “But who am I?” She laughed and gestured with her long white hands.

   “Yes, who are you?”

   “Carla.”

Trebling was the warning that something was afoot. The universe usually gives us a warning before making us pay close attention and Holton’s attention is now tightly focussed. They talk, they reminisce about the colourful time they spent in Florence during the war years but are joined by a writer – another terribly earnest chap – who insists on taking Holton and Carla to dinner at a little place he knows. Holton accepts, and Carla is forced to because she has plans for Holton, and they depend on their being close. They take a cab to their dinner destination, are given a good table and listen to the music while they watch the people on the stage before their dinner arrives:

The music was becoming soft and sentimental. Full round chords gushed around them and people danced on the stage. Men danced with women and women with men for there was not really much courage among these people.

You get a sense of their surroundings, I think. Carla is happy to be there because she is married to a man who uses her as camouflage for his taste for more earnest encounters than she is equipped to offer. She wants Holton to understand her position – and does indeed tell him – hoping he will be moved by her predicament. There is a deep irony here. Poor Carla seeks out the man with whom she shared her first breathless, gasping moments, hoping to rekindle the passions they shared as an antidote to the sterile state of her marriage; but she does not suspect that Holton has buried similar tendencies to her husband’s, and her mission is doomed. She will not save her situation.

Soon, the headline act takes to the stage and the three of them watch:

More dancers appeared. This time they were real women and the men who came out with them were dressed as men. They did a serious near-ballet but, because they didn’t know how to dance very well and because they didn’t particularly care, the dance was funny and Holton laughed. Lewis and Carla didn’t laugh: for different reasons.

Could Lewis’s lack of laughter be due to surprise and Carla’s due to fear? I do wonder. Perhaps here the first vague sense that her mission is going to be an unsuccessful one percolates up into Carla’s conscious mind? After much talk, and the third man’s excusing himself for a back-stage meeting, Holton and Carla leave together. Carla has but one thing on her mind.

Holton is still playing it straight; the choice to be conventional seeps out of every pore:

   “How cool it is!” said Carla, as they walked along the street. “I couldn’t breathe in there.”

   “It was a crazy place,” said Holton, looking straight ahead as he walked, following the traffic lights. Carla occasionally drew him off the curb and into the street but he always managed to obey the green lights.

She is taking him to her hotel where she hopes to convince him to leave this life behind and go with her to live in Italy; back, perhaps, to Florence where they shared their tender moments. While they walk, they talk – talk of Carla’s husband – and Carla’s pesky subconscious digs her in the ribs. She, like most in one form or another of denial, has a conscious mind which is lightning-quick in offering logical comfort:

   “I’d like to meet him.”

   “He’d like to meet you, too.” She laughed. “I might lose you to him.” She stopped herself quickly. She shouldn’t have said “lose” because they were supposed to be just casual friends; at least that was the basis he seemed to want. She mustn’t frighten him.

Oh yes, of course. That was what she meant when she said “lose”, wasn’t it? Vidal – and it shows throughout this novel –has a remarkable nose for the psychological, for just how the mind works and how the conscious mind, the critical faculty, is for self-defence as much as reasoning. Of course, more sour truth is forced down the throat of the reader.

Their walk toward the hotel, for part of it anyway, is observed by a character from earlier in the day. The waitress who serves him his breakfast, Marjorie Ventusa – and is in love with Holton, remember – is out and about in the city and spots him from a safe distance.

Marjorie was about to go into the movie when she saw Robert Holton crossing a street on the other side of the square. She had a sudden impulse to call to him, to make herself heard over the hundreds of people. Then she saw that he was not alone. She saw that he was with a dark pretty girl: a woman from the world where he lived.

A shame she thinks they live in different worlds. If only she could just say it. Perhaps she’ll mention something at breakfast, tomorrow? Perhaps he will. For now, Holton is heading for Carla’s hotel, and doesn’t spot the waitress of whom he asked that morning “when you going to go out dancing with me?”

At the hotel she plays the card she has been waiting to play all evening; indeed, she plays the card she came to New York to snap down on the table. They talk, post coitus, of her less than satisfying marriage, and talk turns to specifics:

   “I can leave him.”

   He shook his head. “I couldn’t marry you.”

She was lost. She was falling now. It seemed as if the room had become cold and foreign and she had come to a hostile country. There was no longer an answer to make: the answer had been made. She tried not to let her face show what she felt.

   “Why couldn’t you marry me?”

   “I haven’t any money.”

   “I wouldn’t want that. You wouldn’t want to be married to a broker and live in New York.”

   “Why do you have to be a broker?”

And that’s the rub, right there. Why must he be a broker? Why are there no other choices which come to mind? His answer is coming from a restricted, pre-decided pool of possibilities. With his answer one understands that Carla’s campaign was doomed to failure.

As they lie, naked, Carla accepts there is no hope and Vidal gives us an image of the heat draining from their encounter as the last hope she had for Holton drips out of her:

She was defeated at that moment. The dream she had been fashioning disappeared and there were no traces of it left, only a lingering sadness and an open wound.

An open wound? Well, that’s one way of describing it. Carla wants Holton to leave America and go with her to Italy. Holton, because Carla is everywhere at this moment, manages to get as far as considering it:

   “It’s a temptation,” said Holton suddenly.

   “What is?” They separated.

   “To go to Europe with you, to live with you.”

   “It could be done.”

   “Maybe…No, it wouldn’t work.”

   “Why?”

   “It just wouldn’t be practical.”

   No, she thought, it wouldn’t be practical.

It would not be practical and that is the point. It would be vibrant and full of joy; it would be dangerous and crazy; it would be intense and tender; and it would be a step toward living for love, art and whatever brings joy. But Holton has a point. It would not be practical.

So that is that. We joined Holton as he wakes and gets dressed for work; we join him at breakfast as he flirts – as much as is safe – with the waitress. We follow him to a cocktail party where he meets the woman – trapped in an emotionless, and almost certainly sexless, marriage – for whom he was the first man. He rejects the colourful offer of living a life of passion and freedom in Italy because to do so would not be practical, and then he leaves her to return to his rooms. He has to be at work in the morning, after all.

He dreams of Carla and Trebling – Trebling, by the way, takes Caroline out for the evening and they, too, stroll across Times Square at the same time as Holton, Carla and Marjorie, but that is another essay – and eventually falls into sleep, happy with his choice because he has decided to be happy with it.

Carla is not so much there to represent the choice between a life of conformity – making money, keeping your head down, obeying the boss and so on; and their opposites which are living for love, for fun and for freedom, as she is the possibility his nature is not what he feels it is. His feelings for her complicate his private equation; they offer factors he has no wish to calculate. To give this possibility a face and a name and a heartbeat simply offers more tragedy. Her tragedy. Vidal is ruthless. And he isn’t finished yet. Holton still has to go for breakfast the next morning and have Marjorie serve him.

So, at breakfast, then:

“Got anything good for breakfast? I feel pretty worn out today.”

   “I guess you were out last night.”

   He nodded. She couldn’t stop asking him now; she couldn’t stop thinking about Robert Holton and the dark haired girl.

   “Probably one of those big parties, I guess.”

   He nodded and said, “Sure, one of those big parties.”

   She was not sorry that he lied.

She was not sorry because his lie allows Marjorie to construct a pitiful glimmer of hope:

She had to look serious even though she was happy. He had at least not wanted to tell her that he was out with another girl.

Oh my word, the agony. That such a little thing could make her happy; that such a thing could stimulate the desire to remain professional! Who is easy to please, here? Marjorie has the last word in intricately constructed self-denial. Her ego uses logic to fashion hope at the expense of emotional sincerity. How Vidal knows these fragile humans! The man is merciless.

Marjorie serves the breakfast and Holton eats it, but – he knows her a little, remember – he still finds time for the obligatory flirting, that flirting which offers just enough to polish the other’s mask:

He ate and then she put the dirty dishes on her tray. Then he said, “When’re you going to Italy with me?”

That is why his asking her to go dancing has nothing to do with humour.

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