On “A Year of Grace,” short story from Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn by Harvey Swados

Does every reader have the compulsion to seek out authors on the hopes that you’ll find traces of your long-favorite authors in their work? Say, you’ll swear by Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, by the short fiction of Raymond Carver, of Elizabeth Hardwick—that you’ll willingly flirt with F. Scott Fitzgerald, with Anne Tyler, or the calmer moments of Jonathan Franzen? That you’d run a hand through the spines of your shelves, notice that some were acquired to fulfill some theme you’ve always sworn by? That even if you discover there are incomparables in literature, you can always find an author that will allow you to approximate that first brush with Yes, these are my books and, at the same time, appreciate those fine-tuned [and unconscious to the authors involved, of course] differences—differences that are inevitable, but still gives way to the familiar?

I approached Harvey Swados’ collected short stories, Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn, with the above as the primary agenda. I’m beginning to suspect that this atmosphere of domestic dissatisfaction—the insular ennui I’m so giddy about—is partly a product of time, of history. The post-WW2 restlessness of Yates appears in Swados’ stories—not to mention Hardwick’s endless fascination with New York; here, in the opening paragraph of the title story:

There was a time when New York was everything to me: my mother, my mistress, my Mecca, when I could no more have wanted to live any place else than I could have conceived of myself as a daddy, disciplining my boy and dandling my daughter.

Today, however, we’ll focus on one story, my favorite—partly because of the reasons above: its echoes of Richard Yates’ concerns. But, like all good stories, it transcends my expectations, even my agenda.

A Year of Grace” is a quiet story—objectively, not the most ambitious of the lot, perhaps not even representative of Swados’ range as a writer. But it is my favorite—it was the first story in the collection that I sat up and said, Yes, this, the only story I actually reread just days after.

Burton Retter, small-town boy fresh from a stint in Korea, marries the small-town girl manning her father’s pharmacy, Victoria Merz. It’s a marriage of, well, fondness—there are no high passions here, but amiable companionship, if a certain levelheadedness. It’s also a novel of ambitions—Burt’s: Off they go to France for a year’s Fulbright, and Victoria’s unease gives way soon enough.

She is his wife, she tells herself. She must adapt: “because of the way she had been brought up she greeted the prospect of any alteration not eagerly but with anxiety (or was that basically the way women were, the unadventurous sex?); but that didn’t mean that she was slack about going out and doing things when it became necessary—more efficiently, in fact, than someone like Burton himself. This wasn’t something she could put into words, any more than Burton could say bluntly just why he wasn’t ready to become a father, but this was what husbands and wives should be able, she thought, to understand about each other.

I suppose what I like most about the story is Victoria’s gradual but solid disillusionment. Or, to be more accurate, Victoria’s gradual awareness of this dissatisfaction, awareness of the differences between her and her husband.

The first sign to her, perhaps, was when Burt’s version of rejoicing his Fulbright is to look forward to how it would look in his résumé after the year has passed. This comes with subtle hints of his given superiority over her, his wife: someone has to look ahead and secure their futures, you know.

Victoria found it difficult to conceal the consternation which overcame her when he would say, “Once this monograph appears in the journal, I’ll be a made man.” Made for whom and what? she wanted to ask, but dared not, feeling guilty for even allowing the questions to spring to her mind. After all, she was his wife, and she had committed herself.

She discovers more about her husband, and “partly in self-defense, partly from boredom,” reads up on his studies:

The suspicion gradually hardened into certainty that her husband was devoting his professional life to the exploration of what was at best a minor tributary in the broad stream of Western art. But why was he so immersed in a field that was of minimal interest even to cultured people?

The impulse was irresistible to attribute his ambition not to disinterested speculation, but to a shrewd calculation of his chances in a relatively uncrowded field. If only she could be convinced that Burton was mad about his work—how much more fun it would be to be married to a happy, dedicated crank!

True, Victoria’s so-called journey of self-discovery within this story largely occurs with her distancing from Burt’s hold, how she’d matter-of-factly put Burt on a pedestal, her being his wife. It was necessary to separate herself, to see not just Burt’s faults but how at odds his very self was with her. It made a reader wince, too.

While Burt’s being his old stuffed-shirt self, touring museums, writing papers, Victoria immerses herself in the landscape, mingles with the French—soon she’s speaking the language better than Burt’s ever had: she who knew not one whit when they first got there. A vegetable lady comments on this, and this comment—this praise upon Vic, the public acknowledging that the wife was better than the husband in just one way—that set off Burt, highlighted his arrogance once again, saying he had no need for the flattery of fishmongers and fruit peddlers. “I’ve had a few more important things to do this year than cover their praise, you know.” Sige, ikaw na lagi, leche ka.

This. This was the last straw. It speeds up the disintegration of what fondness Victoria had for Burt, even her desire to stay with Burt. It lets Victoria know that she’s sick of his pompous ass, how senseless it would be to stay—they do not suit. More importantly, goodness, she doesn’t even like him! Oh, the calm that came over her then:

He was not infuriating, he was simply comical, sitting there hunched over the wheel in his shorts that he insisted on wearing a little too long and waiting to be reassured that he was right and the vegetable lady was wrong. There was no need for her to lose control, no need to answer him in kind; in fact, if she really wanted to hurt him she had only to ignore his implied request for support, or to turn it down. But she had no desire to hurt him, she discovered, nor even the wish to assert herself or to explain herself to him. She was simply not interested any longer in Burton, in his work, or in what he thought of her. This in itself was such a shocking realization that it made her feel weak and a little dizzy, and, in the moments that it took for them to reach the wind-scudded seacoast, happier and more lightheaded than she had ever been. So this, she thought, is why I’ve been working so hard all those long weeks on my French. And it struck her that just as a woman’s body will prepare her almost magically to experience the great physical and emotional events of her life, so her mind, deviously, almost furtively, will adjust and retrain itself—if it has any vitality at all and is more than an inert lump of matter—to prepare for new contingencies and unexpected vicissitudes.

I was in awe of Swados’ restraint and how he parceled it out—how painful it was to see Burt brought low in Victoria’s eyes, but how satisfying; the progression of Victoria’s awakening and her impending independence. It all leads to her freedom—and not just from being a stuffed shirt’s wife, not from Burt, but from the given convenience of small-town boy returning home from the way to marry pliant small-town girl—freedom from chaining herself to a life with someone she finally realizes she can’t care about, and don’t even like. It’s Swados’ slow but sure method of letting Victoria and the readers know of her dissatisfaction, of her resolve against it, of her desire for independence—that was what wowed me, that was what had me reading this deliciously lethal-gazed story. And being with Victoria, witnessing her steeliness—no, she’s not exactly a Yatesian character, and I am really really glad for that.

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2 comments

  1. I love this review, and I especially love the first paragraph. I seek for hints of Tove Jansson, or of Barbara Comyns, through many writers – not wanting copies, but wanting to be able to sit the books next to each other and hope they find affinities.

    I also want every single NYRB Classic ever printed…. they’re so beautiful.

  2. [...] Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn, by Harvey Swados. [...]

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