This was quite a lucky find. I decided to scan the bookcase of ‘vintage’ Penguins in my local Oxfam bookshop for titles that looked as if they might have been first published in 1947, and pulled this from the middle of a shelf; the relevant date is given on the back cover. My edition is a Penguin Modern Classic from 1977, but the title also exists as an NYRB Classic.
Trilling was a celebrated critic, and this was his only novel. I think I can see why that is so; unfortunately I don’t think that The Middle of the Journey is very good. It took me quite a long time to read, while not being so bad that I decided to leave it unfinished.
The main character is John Laskell, a middle aged American man who, in order to recuperate from a bout of scarlet fever, travels to the country to stay with friends, Arthur and Nancy Croom. He travels some of the way by train with a friend, Gifford Maxim, who is known to have recently betrayed his Party (which it is later made clear is indeed the Communist party.) Laskell found it uncomfortable to travel with Maxim, who:
…had chosen the last car for them, and then the last seat in this last car, because he wanted – it was part of his delusion – to lessen the chance of being approached and attacked from behind.
And this precipitates Laskell’s own anxieties:
No, the car would not be cut off, it went through to Hartford and beyond. Laskell was reassured not only by the answer but by the conductor’s friendliness and by his seeming to think that the question was a perfectly reasonable one. After all, cars were sometimes cut off.
Perhaps his own significant social privilege underlines the ease with which he receives reassurance from officials:
…he appeared to be surely a person for whom the world was a place to be familiarly at home in, for whom trains were run and timetables kept accurate, for whom illness was not usual but who, having once been ill, recovered as fast and as simply as possible, and then, as a most natural thing, travelled to spend a month in the country with friends.
Although Laskell has travelled to visit the Crooms, and his greeting by them is described with unpretentious realism, it is not them, the ‘summer people’, with whom he is staying; he is to rent a room from the Folgers, permanent residents who live nearby. This room seems to have almost hospital-like cleanliness and brightness:
The room was large and light. On one side it faced into a full spreading tree and on the other side towards the fields and hills. The furniture was the old commonplace yellow of forty or fifty years before, giving off a smell of wood and varnish. There was a washstand with a pitcher and bowl and slop jar, and there was a dresser and a table, both covered with clean white linen tidies edged with tatting. The big bed was of brass.
Mrs Folger is definitely an intriguing character:
She appeared to consider herself at a disadvantage with these three people, city people[….] but she controlled these emotions and made herself a pleasant hostess under difficulties. She made a good deal of verbal fuss about her being in an apron to receive them, and about the flour that had got into the cracks of her hands and under her nails. But at the same time she was aware that these were things that gave her standing with her visitors.
While he is accustoming himself to the Folgers’ house, Laskell ruminates on something that has already caused conflict between himself and the Crooms – that they are visibly uneasy with the notion of death, so much so that they cannot bring themselves to discuss the fact that Laskell could have died from his recent illness, or the earlier death of an intimate friend of his.
I think that the novel started to fall apart for me as early as Chapter 2: it consists of an account of Laskell’s recent past, for the most part an account of his illness. Perhaps it is a sign of his privilege that Laskell has hired two nurses to attend him in a (his own?) private apartment during the illness; one during the day, and one during the night.
The night nurse is a Miss Paine, who introduces herself to Laskell by punning on her own name, and who is kindly and ‘craggy, […] thin and angular and vaguely middle-aged, and her meagre dull hair was a little disordered in the grey, growing light.’
The day nurse is a Miss Debry, who ‘as Laskell began to understand, was beautiful. The understanding was late in coming. Much before it came had come the understanding that Miss Debry was unendurable.’ Of washing him at the end of her shift, ‘She always wanted Laskell to declare his assent to every detail of the routine. He had no wish to assent, but he knew that she would insist.’ Does this indicate a dislike of female authority on the part of Laskell or the author?
It seems to me that these two women are ciphers rather than characters. Their personalities and appearances are too perfectly opposed, and since nursing is a stereotypically female occupation. I wonder if these two characters were intended to stand for two aspects of Woman rather than to represent two actual women; thus the realism starts to fail.
I must say that on flicking through this book to try to pick out quotes, that I have missed or misremembered several things and probably need to read it again in order to critique it properly.
However, I think there is one major failure of storytelling: the climax of the novel is tragic, but the condition making that tragedy possible is revealed to the reader so soon before the event that I, who rarely find stories to be predictable, was able to tell what was going to happen several pages before it did. Though some of Laskell’s actions do contribute to the way in which that event came about in an unforeseen way, and it is something for which he bears a considerable sense of guilt.
Gifford Maxim (who is awkwardly named; I was as likely to think he was called Maxim Gifford) eventually visits the Crooms. I think one needs to read closely to see the relevance of many of his utterances to the nature of communism, and probably more closely than I did, but I think this speech, made while visiting Kermit Simpson, a mutual friend and Maxim’s editor (and who is very rich and very congenial), captures the essence of his position:
‘Is it not strange,’ he said, ‘do you not find it strange that as we become more sensitive to the sufferings of mankind, we become more and more cruel? The more we think of the human body and the human mind as being able to suffer, and the sorrier we feel for that, and the more we plan to prevent suffering, the more we are drawn to inflict suffering. The more tortures we think up. The more people we believe deserve to be tortured. The more we think that people can be ruled by fear of suffering. We have become our brother’s keeper – and we will keep him in fear, we will keep him in concentration camps, we will keep him in the grave.’
This novel contains nearly faultless prose and discusses many ideas (that I didn’t cover here), but in addition to poor storytelling, I realised a few days after I finished reading that few of the characters had made any significant impression on me.