A novel about a man in pre-WWII Europe and America who, while bedridden at his Quaker aunt’s house, reflects on his first marriage and the dissolution of his second. 1954.
I found it while browsing my local library’s shelves: a bright red cover, in that plasticky, woven texture, with a big blue flower symbol filling up one corner. It was hardly the kind of cover that gives away much about the book, except perhaps its age.
All the same, it’s books like these—old, well-handled hardcover editions, long since missing their dust jackets—that are my new favorites. Somehow, I’ve found that the lack of external clues draws me deeper into the text itself. The reading experience becomes so much more personal.
Then I took it home and saw that on Goodreads less than 200 people have rated it. Why, it’s practically a secret!
Though largely overlooked, this book does not disappoint. I was hooked from the very first scene, where Stephen and his second wife are at a party in California and he acquires proof of her long-suspected infidelity. From there, he flees to the Pennsylvania house of his honorary aunt, who raised him and now is involved in many charitable endeavors. It’s at this point—a favorite home, a favorite aunt, and an injury that will keep him bedridden for weeks—that Stephen’s story truly starts to flesh itself out.
Looking back on the book as a whole, I see now that it’s the kind of story that picks up the middle and jumps around in time. Isherwood, however, is much too clever to make its structure completely transparent.
I also liked Stephen from the start, which is unusual, since male narrators tend to put me off a little. Even more remarkably, as female characters began to enter the story—Stephen’s Quaker aunt, her German refugee guest, his novelist first wife—the women felt just as real and engrossing. I especially enjoyed the German refugee, Gerda, who is funny, strong, and highly-quotable in her commentary on life. For instance:
There are some people, they are like countries. When you are with them, that is your country and you speak its language. And then it does not matter where you are together, you are at home.
Another confession: I don’t like epistolary novels. I also tend to skim though letters when they’re inserted into regular novels. They just seem so boring! It’s like reading a stilted, one-sided conversation, and it’s usually a reiteration of events that we’ve already witnessed, but cast in a different “voice.”
In The World in the Evening, there are lots of letters, as Stephen passes ten bedridden weeks re-reading his late first wife’s correspondence. In this case, though, the letters worked for me. They were eloquent, for one thing. Also, I was looking for clues into his late wife’s life, death, and feelings–just as, incidentally, Stephen was clue-hunting as well.
The most brilliant part of the book, though, only hit me at the very end, as I turned that final page. I don’t want to give too much away, but I was amazed by how completely I sympathized with Stephen at the beginning of the story (nasty second wife! good riddance!)…but, as it turned out, that was only because Stephen was feeling that way.
By the end, though, I had acquired a much more balanced, sympathetic view of the characters, especially that dreaded second wife. I find that’s so true to life: it’s easy to be biased when you’re only seeing part of the picture.
Reminded me of:
- Hollywood movies from the ’30s and ’40s
- Virginia Woolf (Orlando)
- Francoise Sagan (Bonjour Tristesse)