“Her first name was India. She was never able to get used to it.” So begins Evan S Connell’s Mrs Bridge, the story of an unremarkable upper middle-class housewife in the Kansas City of the 1930’s. India Bridge has three children, a comfortable home, a kindly, if distant, lawyer husband and spends her time shopping, going to bridge parties and bringing her children up to be pleasant and to have nice manners. She has expensive hand towels which she puts out when visitors come and secretly hopes they won’t use, and she has never met a socialist. Her world is delightfully and sensitively observed, and Mrs Bridge – and its companion piece, Mr Bridge – are novels of great skill in which nothing and yet everything happens. Shortly before he died, Mariella Fostrup interviewed Connell for Open Book to ask him about the unexpected success of his most famous novel:
I was just trying to represent the people as I knew them…. It was rejected by many publishers…they said that people never read anything like that, and this was not meant entirely as a compliment; there was no dramatic climax, [they said] there was no climax in the life of this woman, that it was made up of minutiae. I think it was Chekhov who said once upon a time that people do not go to the North Pole, they eat cabbage soup and fall off step ladders and that is what her [Mrs Bridge] life was all about. I think [the publisher] was surprised when they sold out the entire first edition.
Lionel Shriver and I discussed Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge at her Books That Built Me and I asked her what Connell meant to her as an author. It’s partly the structure of the two novels, the sense in which Mr and Mrs Bridge occupy parallel universes, that couples always live their lives along parallel lines, that has impressed her – she employs the same structure in her eighth novel, The Post-Birthday World, but above all, it’s a sense of an author who has mastered the fugitive skill of being able to take himself out of his own work. As she said;
I admire the author in this. I’m not always that good about this [taking oneself out of the novel] – after all my new novel has not only the intrusion of authorial opinion but the author herself walks the page as an old lady and a pain in the ass…but there’s a lot of discipline to writing a book where the author is not present, so that you are only with the character. There’s a purity to it, that you don’t sense the author on the page at all, and there’s a self-effacement and a modesty to that kind of writing that I really admire and therefore what happens is the reader isn’t aware of the author at all and sees through the prose – sees through the novel in fact -straight to the character. That kind of clear-sightedness, that not getting in the way, of not saying ‘look at me, isn’t that a great sentence?’ I really admire that.