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  • Sweet Agony
  • Written by Nancy Huston
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780375713668
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Sweet Agony

A Novel

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

On a snowy New England evening in a small college town, Sean Farrell–a hard-drinking, libidinous poet and professor–hosts a Thanksgiving dinner. The eleven guests include two fellow professors (one a novelist, the other also a poet), two of Sean’s former lovers, his lawyer, his housepainter, and his baker. What none of them knows is that Sean is dying. This dinner could be his grand finale.

As food and drink flow, secrets are exposed, tragedies bared, and truths uncovered. “Never could we have dreamed how rough adult life would be,” one character thinks. Yet there is wit and laughter too, in a novel about mortality that is also a celebration of life. With each new book, it becomes increasingly clear that Nancy Huston is a writer of exceptional gifts. Sweet Agony is another impressive performance from a writer whose eye is as sharp as her insight into the human condition is wise.

Excerpt

i

prologue in heaven

When I meet with the creators of other universes, I always make an effort to be modest. Rather than boasting about my work, I compliment them on the beauty and complexity of theirs. But privately, I can't help feeling mine's superior, for I'm the only one to have come up with something as unpredictable as mankind.

What a species! As I watch them living out their destinies upon the Earth, I often get carried away almost to the point of believing in them. Yes, they give me the uncanny impression of being endowed with autonomy, freedom of choice, a will of their own. I know it's merely an illusion, a preposterous notion. I'm the only one who's free! Every twist and turn of their fates has been decided on in advance; I alone know where they're headed and what paths they'll take to get there; I alone know their secret hopes and fears, their genetic makeups, the innermost workings of their hearts . . . And yet, and yet . . . they never cease to amaze me.

Ah, my sweet humans. It so tickles me to watch them flail and flounder. Blind, blind . . . perpetually hoping and groping, striving to believe in my goodness, make sense of their destinies, understand my plans. They simply can't help hankering after meaning. All I need do is give them a brush with birth or death and they think they've caught a whiff of it. Bowled over every time. Shaken to the core.

Take this gathering of men and women, come together at the home of Sean Farrell. Nothing unusual about them, though all consider themselves (this is one hilarious specificity of the human race) to be the center of the universe. They're not especially nice or strange or crazy. Most of them are white, most are no longer young, most are Jews and Christians oscillating between agnosticism and atheism. Though a number of them were born elsewhere on the planet, they have gathered for the evening near the eastern limit of the splotch of land that, for the finger snap of a couple of hundred years or so, has called itself the United States of America.

Why this particular story? Why these people, why this place and time? The fact that I've read my own work backward and forward an incalculable number of times by no means implies I don't have my prized moments, my favorite episodes in the history of mankind. The Hundred Years' War, for example. The Death of Cleopatra. Thanksgiving dinner at Sean Farrell's, circa 2000 . . . There's no point looking for reasons. All I can say is that a multitude of minor coincidences and unexpected undercurrents in the conversation made this dinner party into a poem. Suddenly beauty. Suddenly drama. Flames of fury, gales of laughter.

So here they are and, rather than plunging in medias res into a group of perfect strangers, allow me to provide a list of who is who to assist with orientation at the outset.

First of all, Sean Farrell. Born 1953, County Cork, Ireland. A poet, and a professor of poetry at the university.

The inner circle is made up of people who know and love Sean. Two are fellow professors - Hal Hetherington, a novelist, b. 1945 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Charles Jackson, a poet and polemicist, b. 1960 in Chicago, Illinois. Two are Sean's former lovers - Patrizia Mendino, a secretary, b. 1965 in South Boston, and Rachel, a philosophy professor b. 1955 in New York City. Three had business dealings with Sean that evolved into friendships of varying intensity - his lawyer Brian, b. 1953 in Los Angeles, California, his housepainter Leonid Korotkov, b. 1933 in Shudiany, Belarus, and his baker Aron Zabotinsky, b. 1914 in Odessa, Ukraine.

The remainder of the guests, those who make up the outer circle, have come to Sean's place for Thanksgiving mainly because their partners were invited. These are Leonid's wife Katie, b. 1948 in Pennsylvania (who runs a crafts shop); Rachel's husband Derek, b. 1954 in Metuchen, New Jersey (who also teaches philosophy); Brian's wife Beth Raymondson, b. 1957 in Hammondsville, Alabama (a medical doctor); Hal's new wife Chloe, b. 1977 in Vancouver (whose profession I'll reveal in all good time), and their son aged eleven months, Hal Junior.

So here they are, brought together in a story a novelist would tell the way human beings like stories to be told - with protagonists and antagonists, a climax and a denouement, a happy or a tragic ending. But from where I stand, nothing ever "happens," there's only a sort of swirling, a vibrating, infinitely intricate chaos of causes and effects. For obvious reasons, storytelling isn't in my nature. I'm not the least bit gifted at drawing out the action, revealing this, withholding that, building up suspense. Since time was my invention, all moments in time are simultaneously present to me and I can skim-read from one end of eternity to the other in the twinkling of an eye. Moreover, it's a terrible strain on me to adapt to human sequentiality - it implies slowing down, brakes screeching, and squeezing out one word after the other. A devilish clumsy tool, language . . .

Still, I'd like to try.

Okay . . . .

Let's have some light, please.

Mehr licht!

Fiat lux!

ii

Dinner Preparations

The odor like an ache throughout the house - it's always been this way, thinks Sean, hurtful, the smell of good food cooking, worse since Jody left but it's always been this way, in every house I've known, the meat especially, Gran's beef stews up in Galway, Ma's chicken soups in Somerville, Jody's exquisite osso bucos, the smell of meat cooking an acute pain, a stab of nostalgia, it's all right to walk into a house and eat a meal of meat but to be forced to smell it cooking hours in advance is torture, not because of hunger no but because of the idea, constantly conveyed and reconveyed to the gut, of the turkey slowly browning in its juices in the oven - insinuating, tantalizing, perversely promising warmth, goodness, happiness, simple family pleasures, all the things one can never have, has never had, not even as a child . . .

Been so long since anyone cooked here. What you could call cooking. The smell, the smell again, the smell. How to concentrate on anything, Jaysus, two o'clock, four hours to go, the bird's a big one, twenty-six pounds, "Big as a three-year-old child!" Patrizia had said as she whumped it proudly onto the table and spread its thighs and thrust fistfuls of stuffing into it. Katie and Patrizia are looking after the food part of the evening and Sean is jittery, jittery, hadn't planned on this lengthy limbo in the excruciating heavenly fragrance of the turkey cooking as they wait for night to fall.

Must get back to the mellowness somehow. Right, dose it just right. No counting, no more counting ever, but keep it at the right level, mellow, all the time. A finger, a couple, three, there we are. Golden liquid calm. Good harsh cigarette. Good. A sigh. A cough. A riffle through The New Yorker. One of the cartoons makes him laugh out loud, and Patchouli pads over to nuzzle up to his knee and be scratched behind the ear. Once Sean had thought to send in a joke of his own to the magazine, about people having a weenie roast: "they ate their meal with frank relish" was the joke - but Jody had talked him out of it, saying there was no way of illustrating such a silly pun. This was near the end; during their first months together she would never have used the word silly about him or anything he wrote, conceived, whispered, in the day or in the night. Also toward the end, he'd punched her in the eye for calling his mother a professional masochist, then wept at her feet in remorse (this image comes to him unbidden and makes him cringe with shame - only time he'd ever raised his hand against a woman, or anyone; calamitous effect). Gone, five years gone. Now he's got no idea which continent she's on.

Nothing left in the glass; he sets it down and stares out the window at the steel-gray sky, a sky no poet in history ever attempted to approach with verse, nor any filmmaker with camera, a sky that defies definition, mocks metaphor, confounds hope, a nasty November sky so blank it turns the trees and fence and shed to dun. When all is shed and dun, thinks Sean and laughs again, but silently, wondering if this might perhaps become part of a poem. Null, null, was all the sky kept saying, and no one seemed prepared to argue with it. Black will be an improvement, thinks Sean. Black is a known quantity. You can do things with black. When you switch the lamps on and it's black outside, it makes a difference. A cozy, homey . . . The odor is bothering him again.

Take the bull by the horns. He ambles towards the kitchen, thinking "horns of the dilemma," used to know where that came from, don't anymore, hello Alzheimer nice to meet you, oh you say we've met before? Hm, guess that slipped my mind, haha! Slippery ground this mind of mine is getting to be, now why should a dilemma have horns? Is it some sort of mythological beast, a chimera, di-lemma, double llama, bull of the Cretan labyrinth, gaily tossing Ariadne upon its sharp, pointed excrescences? Surely not. Oh, it matters not, Ma. I won't have time to beat your forgetting record.

He finds Patrizia alone in the kitchen with her back to him, the white ribbons of her apron looped in a bow around her tight little Italian waist, her long black hair twisted up in a bun to keep it from falling in the food, her tight black mini skirt with the other buns distinctly perceptible underneath, Katie must have gone off to the bathroom, how serendipitous to come upon Patrizia alone like this, Sean's sex stirs in his trousers, he moves up to her and slides his hands, both free, over her pelvic bones and onto her abdomen, he's always considered that Patrizia had the most wonderful pelvic bones in the history of womankind, they jut out gently through the black material of her skirt. ("Love your breasts too, don't get me wrong," he'd told her once when they were lovers, he knew that women who'd nursed could be sensitive on the subject of breasts and Patrizia had had her two kids by then, both boys, whereas no boys were Sean's, nor any girls, nor would be, Jody having killed . . . "Your breasts are lovely but your pelvic bones are unique, a gift from God.")

She moves against him to feel him harden a bit more and he, nibbling the nape of her neck where the hairs are moist from the steam of her cooking, leans over her shoulder to see what's in the saucepan. Cranberries with grated orange rind. The berries are just beginning to pop. Like popcorn only softly, wetly, redly, all but inaudibly. When the popping ends (Sean recalls Jody having told him once, when she still hoped he might learn to cook), you stop heating the sauce and start cooling it. Then, for some unfathomable reason, it jells.

"Smells good," he breathes, his lips grazing the fuzzy lobe of Patrizia's left ear.

"Secret d'un vieux livre," says Patrizia. "A new French perfume I'm trying. You like the name?"

"I meant the food," says Sean. "The food smells good."

"Oh!" says Patrizia, feigning vexation and stamping gently on his foot with one of her spike heels. In heels she's just his height - not a gloriously tall height for a man - and barefoot she comes up to his eyebrows. He likes her lacy blouses and tight skirts, her old-fashioned femininity, American women don't dress that way anymore. Hearing Katie flush the toilet down the hallway he draws away slightly, politely, from Patrizia's body, which is still young and firm (though not as young and firm, naturally, as seven or eight years ago when she was first hired as a secretary by the Romance Languages Department and he'd gone sauntering past the doorway of her office and halted abruptly in the hallway and taken three steps in reverse and turned to train his irresistible sad brown gaze upon her; she was still married at the time, he wasn't yet, now she's divorced and so is he, to say the least) - and, caressing her buttocks lingeringly as he draws away, he admonishes his sad peter to go back to sleep, even slipping a hand into his pocket to push it over to one side with a peremptory pat.

"Everything's under control," says Katie, tucking in her exaggeratedly purple shirt as she enters the room, and grinning, her face beneath her white hair as ruddy and crinkled as an old leather cushion. "Stuffing's in the turkey, turkey's in the oven, oven's in the house, house is in the forest . . . And now" - with a flourish she draws a rather shriveled jack-o'-lantern from a paper shopping bag (dead, thinks Sean, odd how everything seems dead to me these days) "for the pumpkin pie!"

"You sure that guy's still edible?" Hands on shapely hips, Patrizia leans over the ridgy orange globe and sniffs at it.

"Course he is! He was my granddaughter's masterpiece, just look at that evil grin, look at the scar on his temple, isn't he gorgeous?"

"Gorgeous is one thing, edible's another," says Patrizia, not unkindly.

"I've kept him in cold storage since Hallowe'en," says Katie. "He should be fine. All I've got to do is scrape the candle wax off the inside, then I'll boil him and peel him and mash him and cook him and stir him and sweeten him into a dessert. Talk about witchcraft. Like kissing toads. My poor Leo. I've been kissing him for thirty years and he still hasn't turned into a handsome prince!"

Sean and Patrizia laugh, though not so loudly as to make Katie think it might be the first time they've heard this joke. Is this the sort of evening it will be? wonders Sean, instantly feeling the need for a glass in his hand, the golden burn at the back of his throat, the warm cloud rising in his brain.

"Oh, wow! Did you see Patrizia's cranberry sauce, Sean?" asks Katie.

"Yeh," says Sean. "As a matter of fact I was admiring Patrizia's everything in general and her cranberry sauce in particular when you walked in."

"Patrizia, I'm going to write an ode to your cranberry sauce," says Katie.

"Is that a promise or a threat?" says Patrizia.

"Look at it!" says Katie. "Did you ever see anything so beautiful in your life? Poured into glass molds, flecked with glints of orange, the thousand liquid rubies trembling in the light, dubious jewels of a blood-earned crown. O, the deep red of Persephone's pomegranate, so much more sinlike than the pale apple of poor Eve! How'm I doing, Sean?"
Nancy Huston

About Nancy Huston

Nancy Huston - Sweet Agony

Photo © Adine Sagalyn/ Opale

A native of Calgary and of New Hampshire, Nancy Huston now lives in Paris; she writes in both French and English. The author of nine novels and numerous works of nonfiction, she has won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéen, the Prix du Livre-Inter, the Prix Elle, and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in French.
Praise

Praise

“An elegant and nimble writer.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Nancy Huston writes with grace and power, and a wisdom that can only come from the heart.” –Chris Bohjalian, author of Midwives

“Insightful and stylish….An audacious conceit distinguishes Huston’s tale.” –Kirkus Reviews

  • Sweet Agony by Nancy Huston
  • January 07, 2003
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9780375713668

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