The libraries are closed after a giddy month of opening “an express” for limited browsing (you got a ticket for 30 minutes, and then if you were too fond of books the security guard evicted you). Of course I did not actually go to the library, but I liked knowing it was open.
So here’s the thing: I haven’t seen a person in months (except in my bubble), and when I’m shopping I have so much difficulty talking through a mask that no one knows what I’m saying, and vice versa. “I’m here to pick up an item.” “What?” And then I repeat myself and hand over my piece of paper. “Is your last name Mirabelle?” “That’s my email.” I point to my name on the form. Then he/she gets my item (a throw, or a pair of warm pajamas) and we wish each other well. As I leave, I hear the next muffled transaction. “What?” “Who?”
And so the masked life continues.
AND SO I’M DISCOVERING OLD BOOKS AFTER ACQUIRING A PAIR OF WARM “READING” PAJAMAS, I.E., REGULAR PAJAMAS.
One of the most stunning books I’ve read recently is Elizabeth Berridge’s novella, The Story of Stanley Brent, which was first published in 1945. This exquisitely- crafted novel, about a quiet man whose life is soured by an ambitious wife, is realistic and very moving, with a breath of hope.
Berridge’s prose is so spare that we do not at first notice her great skill as portraitist. No, her writing quietly takes us over. The characterization is so deft and unflinching that we are reminded of people we know.
Of course Stanley is our favorite character. We first meet him when he is in his twenties, happy and energetic, on the day he proposes to pretty Ada. He is laid-back, but Ada is ambitious and rigid. This telling sentence on page nine describes their relationship:
…marriage was first of all engagement, though the time went quickly enough. Ada saved quietly and fiercely for a good home, Stanley lived in the moment and hoped for some stroke of luck, content with the right to kiss his fiancee and hold her hand, to sit out dances with her. She was promised to him, that was enough.
Their life is ordinary, but their relationship is choppy. Stanley, a partner in a land and estates firm in London, is content with his job. And Ada likes their suburban neighborhood, but she wants to impress people and insists on private school for the children. Eventually, the economy falters, business is slow, and they have to cut back. Ada nags him to start his own business in the suburbs, but Stanley goes his way, trusting things will get better.
Parts of the novel are told from Ada’s point-of-view. It is not that she is unintelligent or mean: she simply isn’t suited to Stanley’s buoyancy. In another time, she might have put that nagging energy into her own business. But perhaps not. It is easier to talk than work.
Stanley survives and regains his contentment . I loved this book, and I also wept a bit over the sad parts..
I have long been a fan of Elizabeth Berridge, though her books are hard to find in the U.S. The Story of Stanley Brent is published by Zephyr Books, an imprint by Michael Walmer. Faber Finds has published a few of her novels, and Persephone has published one of her collections of short stories.
This is one of my favorite books of 2020.