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On Sale: March 09, 2011
Pages: 688 | ISBN: 978-0-307-55521-2
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Synopsis

Following the widely celebrated Collected Poems, this second volume in the series of James Merrill’s works brings us Merrill as novelist and playwright. Just as in his poems we come upon prose pieces, dramatic dialogue, and even a short play in verse, in his novels and plays we find the rhythms of his poetry reflected and given new form.

Merrill’s first novel, The Seraglio, is a daring roman à clef derived in large part from his early life as the cosmopolitan son of Charles Merrill, one of America’s most famous twentieth-century financiers. Written in a highly refined prose that owes something to Henry James, the book is a compelling portrait of the luxury and treachery swirling around the Southampton beach house of an irrepressible family patriarch, with his many mistresses and ex-mistresses in attendance, told from the point of view of his lively but troubled son. At the other end of the narrative spectrum we find The (Diblos) Notebook, an experimental novel in which a young American’s adventures on a Greek island are deconstructed and assembled into a tentative fiction before our eyes. Merrill’s plays, including the one-act comedy of manners The Bait and the Chekhovian The Immortal Husband—a reinvention of the myth of Tithonus, who was granted eternal life but not eternal youth—are also fresh turns on his characteristic themes: home and travel, reality and artifice, simplicity and complication. And, for the first time in print, here is Merrill’s short play The Birthday, a fledgling effort written in 1947 and a fascinating window onto the concern with spiritual communication and the otherwordly that would later blossom into his great epic, The Changing Light at Sandover.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

from The Seraglio

Part One

1. Exactly a year later Francis learned the truth about the slashed portrait-by then, of course, restored with expert care. The gash running from the outer corner of his sister's eye to her Adam's apple had been patched, sewn, smoothed, painted over, until he really had to hunt for the scar. Enid was posed against a cultivated landscape. Her face, formal above velvet, discouraged even Francis from filling in the details of the crime. No doubt he could have. The intervening year had left him with a key to such matters. Besides, he knew the scene by heart. It was not, despite lawns, flowerbeds, terraces, the scene in the painting. Over the dunes a whitish haze trembled, thinning upwards, to the thunder of waves. Windows facing the sea were usually frosted by the salt air. All this could give you a feeling of loneliness, of being the one real person in a ghostly world. He guessed how the scene must have worked upon the little murderess; its effect upon his own first ten summers, if it came to that-but here again the portrait stopped him. As with Enid herself, where appearances so handsomely denied offense, it no longer seemed fair to probe.

The facts, however, were these:

Enid's children had moved out to Long Island with their nurse. From her window, Lily, the oldest, caught a familiar sparkling. The entire summer awaited her, tomorrow was her tenth birthday, and she had been misbehaving all morning. Nobody knew what had come over her. Worse yet, her mother and Alice and the cook reacted as if the little girl-Lily kept telling herself, "I'm still only a little girl"-was disobedient out of choice, as if she had enjoyed torturing the twins, or screaming in the kitchen till a bowl of icing slipped from the cook's lap. Far from it. Her unhappiness mounted with every naughtiness. Finally she had been sent up to her room.

She leaned now on the windowsill, deliberately letting the last of her lunch slide off its plate into the boxwood below. Somewhere nearby Lily's pet snail would still be lying, stunned from having been flung there by her mother, who had seen it early that morning, slithering blandly-unbearably-across the drowsing child's naked stomach. Oh please, sweetie! a dirty old snail!-and as in a dream both it and Mummy disappeared, one out the window, one down the stairs, a loose robe of blue chiffon trailing behind. A new baby was coming-from the Stork, said her parents; from God the Father, said Irish Alice. Lily had sat then until the feelings of crossness and loneliness grew keener, and the tears began.

The morning of her punishment passed. She had listened to her mother on the steps with Alice, describing in a soft sweet voice the day ahead: the hairdresser's, the hospital, the Cottage . . . Had Michele gone over there already? He mustn't forget to meet Mr. Buchanan's train. As for the twins, why didn't Alice take them to the beach after their nap? Be good now! And the door slammed, the car started, with not a word of reprieve for Lily, and nothing of the little girl's usual privilege-to be shown which dress her mother had on, which hat and gloves, which jewels. Lily had stood back against the wall while the car drove off, so that anybody who hoped she would run to the window to see would be disappointed. But her dull satisfaction did not last. She had had to pity herself in the mirror till Alice came up with her tray.

She poured a half-glass of milk into the shrubbery. It landed with the sound of cloth ripping. The rest of it she drank. She then set her tray in the hall. The twins put to bed, Alice and the cook would be eating now. Lily locked her door and, pocketing the key, went downstairs on tiptoe.

The cool fragrant rooms, rose and green, glimmered off on either side of the entrance hall. Their house wasn't (her father had once explained) a showplace like the Cottage. "Money's not the question," he had said, cracking his kuckles. "We have as much to spend each year as Grandpa does, considering what we save on taxes and alimony. But your mother and I want our home to be simple and comfortable, with a few nice things. Now your grandfather's house, though not much larger, is on a different scale entirely." A different scale . . . The words, coming upon Lily's two years of piano lessons, called up a Cottage augmented, chromatic, a far cry from the plain triad of their own house-whose "simplicity," on the other hand, was news to the little girl. Next to her friends' houses it seemed embarrassingly splendid. Much of the furniture had been brought back from her parents' tours. Lily could have led you about, reciting: "These white-and-green chairs are from Venice; the chandelier, too. The tiles on the floor are Spanish. Where they're scuffed shows how antique they are. That painting's a Renoir. They bought it in New York, but it's French really. We're getting new drapes next month, yellow with tiny purple and white daisies. Here's Mummy's collection of Battersea boxes-that one's new." But the more polite way, her mother said, was just to let people notice things. With each addition a less perfect piece would be turned over to the Rummage Sale or crowded into the attic, where on wet days Lily and a friend climbed up on tables that didn't totter or chip, then flopped onto great rectangular sofas, rebounding high into the dusty air. Now that was simplicity and comfort! Downstairs she copied her mother's decorum, even today in full revolt against it. The hall mirrors made much of silver bowls filled with roses. Tiptoeing out, Lily crept from tree to shrub until she came to the road.

Not quite a half-mile separated the Buchanans' house from the Cottage, which Lily approached by way of the beach. Promptly the grotesque brick chimneys swung into view then the roof, whose steep angle recalled roofs in fairy-tales. She reached the bulkhead at last, and leaned against it, panting.

A sign nailed there read: Trespassers will be Prosecuted. It brought to mind first the Lord's Prayer, then, for she personally imagined the prayer addressed to an old man with white hair, her grandfather. Some years ago, as a very little girl, she had heard him call Uncle Francis his only begotten son, and upon her asking that night, "Is Grandpa God?" her mother had laughed and laughed and told the story to everybody, even to Grandpa himself. Lily was beyond all that now. Alice had given her a long shocked sermon, also a little silvery medal of Mary, to be kissed those nights her mother wasn't home to tuck her in. Today sand had drifted high enough to let Lily scale the bulkhead without using the wooden steps.

The door opened easily into the ocean room, huge and high-the Cottage had no upstairs. All the furniture had been massed together under stone-colored canvas, making the room look like a drained lake. Through the far windows workmen could be seen eating lunch, and beyond, on the sunken lawn, the rose-arbor in bloom. The whole house smelled of fresh paint and wax. All the paper had been ripped from Fern's bedroom walls. Grandpa used to call them his two flowers, once even trying to put Lily into his buttonhole. How she had shrieked! Now Fern and Grandpa were divorced. On the threshold she found a note in her mother's handwriting: "Walls, pale green or blue, something restful. Twin beds. A pretty chintz?" Lily moved on, feeling lonely.

In Grandpa's room, face down on the bureau, were photographs in leather or silver frames. She turned them over, one by one: Mummy; the twins; Uncle Francis when he was ten, grinning and holding a big black snake-not poisonous, Grandpa had assured her, and blind anyhow; finally some individual likenesses of smiling ladies. She recognized among them Cousin Irene Cheek, in appearance certainly not the tramp she was said to be. But no picture of Fern, or of her real grandmother. And no picture of Lily! Only bottles of medicine in the top drawer, a few handkerchiefs, a silver paper-knife. This last she picked up, and aimed at her breast. "Farewell, cruel world!" Lily sighed, then crumpled to the floor. She performed the act a second time before catching sight of the painting.

It was set face to the wall next to Grandpa's oxygen tank. Turning it around, she exclaimed in what she felt must be the voice of a particularly nice little girl, "Oh, I'd forgotten this was here!" It showed her mother wearing a blue velvet gown with bare shoulders, and diamonds in her hair. She was smiling the gently bewildered smile of somebody soon to be scolded or punished. Poor Mummy, thought Lily. All her resentment melted. With the tip of the silver knife she caressed, as with a wand, her mother's features, traced the curve of the lips, the eyebrows and cheek. The faint grating gave her gooseflesh. Resting the point against the surface at a certain angle, she saw how the blade reflected the whole face dully, in miniature distortion. She moved it this way and that; her mother vanished, reappeared. Before long a puzzlement came over her, to see that a speck of paint, no bigger than a gnat's wing, had chipped away, leaving a tiny patch of paler color beneath. How? When? Just at the corner of her mother's eye, in which a streak of white created an uncanny liveliness. Lily's heart began to pound. She wouldn't have dreamed this face could be so fragile. Experimentally she touched the point of the knife to the same spot; a second, larger flake of paint fell off, exposing the dead white canvas. She had now a sense of fatigue. It was becoming such a slow, complicated process, not like the shattering of an ornament. And beyond repair. That fragment of a face could no more be put back than could the daisy petal pulled to see whether you were loved or not. The child knelt spellbound at her task.

A door slammed. The knife with a will of its own pierced the canvas and tore briskly downwards five or six inches before she succeeded in letting go. She closed her eyes. She knew that she was going to die.

A burst of Italian song came from down the hall-Michele, her parents' gardener. His footsteps grew louder, stopped with the song, then evenly faded. Another door slammed. Ten minutes later Lily was back in her room.

Alice hadn't even taken the tray downstairs.

She lay on her bed exhausted. "You don't understand," she said aloud once, "I loved you."

Then Lily fell asleep, and it was nearly six when Alice came in and told her, in a pleasant everyday voice, that her mother had said to go downstairs now.

They were talking about it.

"I don't know what got into me. I just sat down and began to cry. Honestly, I couldn't stop. I kept thinking, this is so silly!"

"It's not one damn bit silly!"

"Michele and the painters thought I'd been hurt-can you imagine? 'No, no, my little friends,' I had to say, 'it's only the picture!'"

"It's a damn lot more than only the picture, Enid."

"Well, it wasn't the moment-oh sweetie!" she cried as Lily appeared, steeling herself in the doorway. "Forgive your witless old lady! I meant for you to come down right after lunch. Go and kiss Daddy!"

"Your mother's just had a miserable experience, Lily," he said, looking flushed and furious. "That portrait over at the Cottage, the one we gave Grandpa, remember? Well, someone took a knife today and slashed your Mummy's face to ribbons!"

"Let's not get carried away! Only one little slash, if you please!"

"Oh Mummy!"

"We're sitting around just so relieved that whoever it was got the old portrait instead of poor little me," she went on in lilting tones, patting the sofa. Lily sat down automatically. Her mother could transform the most disagreeable event into a kind of fairy-tale. Neither her voice nor her face had ever betrayed anything but sweetness, gaiety, at worst the soft disappointment with which she had sent Lily upstairs that morning-no, one other thing her face did express; she had terrible headaches the specialists couldn't seem to help. But how little showed! Only, as now, a dimple would quiver above one eye. Her light-brown hair shone from brushing, her lipstick and powder were freshly applied. A scent of lilac started tears in the little girl's wide eyes.

"I think we're lucky to have such a sweet sympathetic daughter," said Lily's father as if he meant it. "Look at her face, she's so pale, it might've happened to her. She's thinking how you feel."

"And that, my pearl," said her mother with a squeeze and a smile, "is why people like to have babies. Because they grow up into such lovely dependable friends."

Lily stared back flabbergasted. They didn't know!

"What about Fern?" her father asked. "Did she have a key to the Cottage."

"She wouldn't have needed one. The doors were wide open."

"And the workmen saw nobody?"

"Mummy," Lily put in, "I thought Fern and Grandpa were-"

"Divorced." Her father glared. He was very high-strung.

"But Fern has rented a house for the summer," explained her mother. "She hasn't moved out yet, Larry. It's too early in the season. I saw her on the street last weekend, but I heard she'd gone back to New York Monday."

"That's something we'll want to find out. Did she speak to you?"

"On the street? Goodness, no!" She actually giggled.

"Mummy, will we see Fern?"

"God forbid!" said her father.

"Then why has she rented a house?"

"She has lots of little friends, sweetie, who come here every summer."

"She's doing it out of spite, Lily. She hates your grandfather, she hates your mother, she hates me. She's renting a house for the sole purpose of making everybody uncomfortable." He lit a cigar. Almost an inch was missing from his little finger.

"She doesn't hate me," corrected Lily.

"That's true, Larry. Fern was always very sweet to Lily."

"You see how remarkable your mother is. If ever there's a good word to say for anybody, she says it. People who don't even know her call her an angel. No," he went on, rapid clouds of smoke pouring from his mouth, "Fern's good and bitter. She'd be capable of a thing like this."

Her mother gave a tinkling laugh. "Mercy me! I'm married to Mr. Scotland Yard!"

"What about fingerprints?" asked Lily tonelessly.

Her mother laughed all the more. "My dear, if you could have seen the weapon, after five souls had examined it!"


From the Hardcover edition.
James Merrill

About James Merrill

James Merrill - Collected Novels and Plays

Photo © New London Day

James Merrill was born on March 3, 1926, in New York City and died on February 6, 1995. From the mid-1950s on, he lived in Stonington, Connecticut, and for extended periods he also had houses in Athens and Key West. From The Black Swan (1946) through A Scattering of Salts (1995), he wrote twelve books of poems, ten of them published in trade editions, as well as The Changing Light at Sandover (1982). He also published two plays, The Immortal Husband (1956) and The Bait (1960); two novels, The Seraglio (1957, reissued 1987) and The (Diblos) Notebook (1965, reissued 1994); a book of essays, interviews, and reviews, Recitative (1986); and a memoir, A Different Person (1993). Over the years, he was the winner of numerous awards for his poetry, including two National Book Awards, the Bollingen Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress. He was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser are James Merrill’s literary executors. J. D. McClatchy has published six volumes of poetry and two collections of essays. He teaches at Yale and is the editor of The Yale Review. Stephen Yenser has written three books of criticism (one about Merrill) and a volume of poems. He is a professor of English and the director of Creative Writing at UCLA.

James Merrill’s Collected Poems is available in Knopf paperback. The Voice of the Poet: James Merrill is available from Random House Audio.

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