Over the past few months, I’ve become a true Richard Yates addict and read all of his books (apart from Revolutionary Road and A Good School, which I’d read several years ago). I can definitely say that he has become one of my favourite authors ever. My favourites of his works are The Easter Parade and a book of short stories called Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, but none of his books are anything less than brilliant, and if you read one and enjoy it, you will probably have to devour them all, like I did.
A Special Providence is the last Yates book I read, and the plot is a little different from the others, in that it is set in wartime and a large proportion of the book is about the experiences of a young solider, Bobby. The other part of the novel is the story of Bobby’s mother, Alice, back when Bobby was a child, describing their unstable and disaster-prone life together mainly from Alice’s point of view.
The prologue sets up the complicated relationship between the mother and son by describing a fraught meeting between them when Bobby is on leave from the army, before he is sent overseas. Because Bobby is an only child and has grown up without any contact with his father, he and his mother are very close. To anyone who’s read many Yates novels, it is very noticeable that all the mothers have similar characters, and Alice seems to fit straight away into the usual mould: self-dramatising, unable to stop talking about herself, prone to hysteria. The typical Yates-style mother has artistic ambitions and longs for a more glamorous life, spent with other artistic and ‘interesting’ people she considers worthy of her. This usually leads to endless attempts at social climbing, as well as vast extravagance and money problems. Anyway, it is immediately clear that Alice is of this type, and that Bobby feels a massive resentment towards her and is very critical of her delusions about herself. Nevertheless, it’s not that simple, because they both depend on each other, and there is part of Bobby that genuinely admires how his mother has battled through life and how during her very ordinary childhood, she ‘somehow developed a passion for art, and for elegance, and for the great distant world of New York’. Even though their meeting is not a success, he reflects that:
…it couldn’t be denied that he’d come to New York of his own free will, and even with a certain heartfelt eagerness. He had come for sanctuary in the very comfort of her “lies” – her groundless optimism, her insistent belief that a special providence would always shine on brave Alice Prentice and her Bobby, her conviction, held against all possible odds, that both of them were somehow unique and important and could never die.
Alice is certainly not the utterly terrible mother figure that so often appears in Richard Yates’ books; she has a few more sympathetic character traits, such as her determination and her commitment to her artwork. I did find myself feeling sympathy for her at times and feeling hope in her occasional moments of success, while knowing (because obviously this is a Richard Yates novel!) that they couldn’t last very long and there would be disappointment round the corner. I very much enjoyed the parts of the book dealing with Bobby’s childhood. I was drawn in by Alice’s relationship with her boyfriend, and her disastrous move, encouraged by an artistic and ‘interesting’ couple she meets, to a decadent country estate like something by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like most Richard Yates books, summarising the plot doesn’t show what is fascinating about his books: the characters, their relationships and conflicts, and his observations of their inner lives and interactions with eachother.
Bobby begins life in the army as an awkward, nervous eighteen-year-old and enters battle confused about what he is meant to be doing and desperate for acceptance, social status and the chance to act heroically. He is sent to France and Germany, and spends most of his time trying to survive battles set among the deserted houses of occupied villages. I felt as if, even in these dangerous situations, this novel was very much about self-consciousness, and the way in which people imagine they are perceived by others. The behaviour of Bobby and some of the other soldiers is influenced by war movies and their ideals of how a heroic soldier should behave. As Bobby grows up though, he starts to hate this fraudulence. Alice also shows this kind of self-consciousness; for example, when she goes on a romantic date at a sidewalk cafe, ‘she kept hoping someone she knew would walk past and see them there: she even hoped for strangers to notice them and to wonder, enviously, who they were’. One thing I really like about Richard Yates’ novels is how his characters are always projecting themselves into the future, imagining themselves behaving well in front of someone they wish to impress or delivering a perfectly withering speech to someone who has made them angry, which I always find quite funny and believable! I think his novels are concerned with daydreamers and people who want their lives to have some kind of beauty or elegance. Things never work out exactly as they hope, and in the moments when people realise they have been fantasising or deluding themselves, they feel embarrassed and ashamed. I think the contrast between ideal and reality is part of what drives his novels.
(Just as a warning, this paragraph contains a slight plot reveal…) The idea of providence becomes quite ironic in the midst of a chaotic battle in which any soldier can die, by chance or because of someone else’s pointless mistake. I found it very sad when one character died, both because he was a very likeable character and because his death could have been avoided in several different ways. I really felt Bobby’s guilt over his death and his desire to atone in some way. Somewhat connected to the influence of chance and luck in the book, there is the epigraph from W.H. Auden: ‘We are lived by powers we pretend to understand’. I can see how this relates to the story of soldiers taking part in a war that’s beyond their control, but it also reminds me of other Yates characters, especially Emily from The Easter Parade and her words near the end of the novel, ‘I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life’. In another way, unrelated to Richard Yates’ books, I actually find the Auden quotation quite inspiring. Although I can see how it is expressing something disturbing, I find it so interesting the way there are many mysteries in life that are impossible to analyse away, and that we often don’t know why we behave or feel a certain way until long afterwards, if ever. I think this sense of mystery in life is something I am constantly drawn to in books and films.
There is a biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty by Blake Bailey, which I now really want to read. It’s a shame there are no more Yates novels out there for me to feed my addiction with, but I know I will always remember and return to his books.