Posts Tagged ‘Robert Nathan’

the sea-gull cry robert nathan 001The Sea-Gull Cry by Robert Nathan ~ 1942. This edition: Knopf, 1942. Softcover, with French flaps. First edition. 214 pages.

My rating: 3/10

A short, lightweight novella by the onetime-popular Robert Nathan. I confess that I have in the past read and quite enjoyed his most famous publication, 1940’s Portrait of Jennie (see condensed spoiler-laden précis here), but The Sea-Gull Cry is infinitely more sentimental, and, to be brutally honest, not particularly memorable, either in plot or in execution.

Nineteen-year-old Louisa and her seven-year-old brother Jeri are refugees newly in America, from war-torn Poland via England. Children of an English mother and a Polish nobleman, they are in reality a countess and count, but the family castle has been bombed, leaving their mother interned forever in its rubble, while Papa has perished defending his country against the evil German invaders.

Louisa and Jeri are bravely making a new sort of life for themselves. Desiring to get out of the crowded American city they arrived at some short time ago, they have taken their refugee relief money and are looking for a place to live along the seaside for the summer. They make it to Cape Cod, where they fall in with a gruff-mannered but hearts-of-gold older couple, the Baghots, who rent them an abandoned scow beached on an isolated stretch of sand.

Onto this strip of sand precipitously arrives one “Smith”, a jaded, middle-aged history teacher, (and a not very experienced sailor), who has just purchased an old sloop with the view to cruising up and down the coast for the summer, to escape from the stress of his unsatisfying job and the pervasive gloom of the situation in Europe. (The story is set just before American entry into World War II.)

Smith is caught up in a squall and violently beaches his boat, putting an end to his summer plans. But when he meets lovely Louisa he is immediately smitten; even more so when she pops out of her faded blue overalls to swim in a teeny tiny homemade bikini. Smith feels that maybe life isn’t so dull after all…but wait…why would Louisa look at a man old enough to be her father…?

Maybe because she is seeking something of a father-substitute, a romantically-older man?

It takes them a few chapters to get it all worked out, chapters in which small Jeri provides a side plot as he fights with the local children, makes friends with the Baghots’ young niece Meg, and has a brush with death as he sets out to sea with Meg on an old raft, seeking to sail back to Europe to rescue “the children” from the conflict.

Aw, how sweet.

Sure.

A little of that goes a very long way, and luckily this was a lightning fast read, being presented by the publisher with a large font, immense margins, and thick paper. It clocks in at 214 pages, but could probably quite happily fit onto 50 or so. (One speculates therefore that this was before any sort of wartime paper restrictions hit the American publishing market.)

That’s it; that’s the story; well whitewashed with slosh.

I don’t quite get Robert Nathan’s obvious popularity in his time, because this was pretty sub-par stuff in the great scheme of literature-of-the time, unless it was as a writer of escape-lit-light for the stressed-out housewives of the 1940s and 50s. The Sea-Gull’s Cry seems the sort of thing that would be found serialized in the Good Housekeeping type of magazine of the day.

A contemporary review by Rose Feld of The New York Times had this to say:

‘The Sea-Gull Cry’ tells a tale that will hold you until the last page is turned. It will hold you because of Nathan’s rare art of drawing you into his own mood of tender contemplation of human beings and because you cannot let them go until you know what happens to them… And you will decide that this is more than a tender little love story exquisitely written; that it is a tale of exile and valor and spiritual rebellion that has more than surface significance.

I suspect I am myself a bit too jaded and cynical to really appreciate this sort of fiction; I find myself lifting an eyebrow when I read these other quotes by the author himself regarding his authorial motivation:

What I really want is to give comfort to people in this wilderness of death and trouble. And to myself, too. So, when I can, I take the poison and hate out of my books; but I hate, just the same. I hate violence, and tyranny, and vulgarity. I hate despair and destruction, and the writers who insist that that is all there is, there isn’t anything else.

and

It seems to me that I have always wanted to say the same things in my books: that life is one, that mystery is all around us, that yesterday, today and tomorrow are all spread out in the pattern of eternity, together, and that although love may wear many faces in the incomprehensible panorama of time, in the heart that loves it is always the same.

Fair enough; Nathan’s readers obviously responded to his style.

As you can see from my brutal rating, I didn’t.

 

 

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