In Peter Taylor's Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Summons to Memphis, it's the vagaries of memory that is explored so brilliantly. What makes this, for me, not just a good story but a great story is how Phillip Carver comes to terms with his past, how over the course of the story he not only begins to understand but also accepts the events of his childhood and youth and how they shaped him and his two older sisters. And there's not just just acceptance of the past but forgiveness of those he has all his life perceived as being the source of his (and his sisters') unhappiness. The telling of this tale makes me think of a kaleidoscope. With each turn the shapes shift to create a new pattern out of the old one.
"The courtship and remarriage of an old widower is always made more difficult when middle-aged children are involved--especially when there are unmarried daughters. This seemed particularly true in the landlocked, backwater city of Memphis some forty-odd years ago. At least it is a certainty that remarriage was more difficult for old widowers in Memphis than it was over in Nashville, say, or Knoxville--or even Chattanooga, for that matter. One needs to know those other cities only slightly to be absolutely sure of this. Yet one cannot say with equal certainty just why the difficulty was so peculiar to Memphis, unless it is that Memphis , unlike other Tennessee cities, remains to this day a 'land-oriented' place. Nearly everybody there who is anybody is apt to own some land. He owns it in Arkansas or West Tennessee or in the Mississippi Delta. And it may be that whenever or wherever land gets involved, any family matter is bound to become more complex, less reasonable, more desperate."
It all begins with a phone call. Two calls actually. Phillip Carver is an antiquarian bookseller living in New York City when his older sisters Betsy and Josephine call with the news that his widowed father is remarrying a younger woman. When their father first began socializing after the death of his wife, a woman he was dedicated to, it was looked upon indulgently by his daughters, even encouraged. But when the choice of women becomes younger and things become serious, the two step in and try and put an end to things. And Phillip is summoned to Memphis to help.
It's over this framework that Phillip Carver relates his story. His recollections of people and place are often presented from varying angles, with each successive telling a little more detail is added to the picture created out of these memories until a fuller and more complete picture is presented. In 1931 the Carver family moved from Nashville to Memphis after scandalous dealings with a business partner leave the Carvers broke. Phillip's father, a distinguished and well respected lawyer, genteel but very formidable, decides to reinvent himself in a new place after the humiliation wrought upon him by his friend and business partner.
His decision, however, has repercussions for each member of the family. Phillip's mother has always lived in Nashville. After a brief flourishing in her new town she succumbs to illness and is ever after bedridden. George, Phillip's brother, is something of a black sheep and continues down his own lonely and self-destructive path which will end on the battlefields of Europe in the 40s. At the time of the family's move to Memphis Betsy is practically engaged and it's all but assumed that she will soon enough return to Nashville as a bride, Jo to eventually follow in her footsteps. And for Phillip, just a boy still, his sense of importance and burgeoning independence as well as his feelings of contentedness are dashed when his father picks up stakes for a new city.
While Mr. Carver thrives in Memphis, not so very far from where he grew up, each of his children's hopes and desires seems to come to nought, helped along by Mr. Carver himself it would seem. He has a hand in each child's life and promise for happiness, breaking up relationships that he sees as being unworthy or below the family name. None of the three go on to marry, and while Betsy and Jo appear dedicated to their father, having remained close to home while aiding Phillip in his escape to New York, it's apparent as the story rolls out that at the heart of their later manipulations are long-standing grudges. They place the blame for their failed relationships firmly on the shoulders of their father and see that any hope for happiness with second wife are destroyed.
This is such a wonderfully rich story. I love this kind of storytelling. There truly is a story to tell, pieced together but done so vividly. Each character is fully formed, almost as though they are really flesh and blood and filled with emotions that are palpable. And with flaws that feel very real and believable. In those opening lines Phillip talks of that so important land.
". . . one cannot say with equal certainty just why the difficulty was so peculiar to Memphis, unless it is that Memphis , unlike other Tennessee cities, remains to this day a 'land-oriented' place. Nearly everybody there who is anybody is apt to own some land."
Is there a fear between Betsy and Jo that a lifetime spent unmarried and taking care of their father will be rewarded by their inheritance being frittered away instead on this new, young wife? Or is there some deeper animosity at play? The summons to Memphis, such an ordinary reaction by grown children in just such a situation, gives Phillip fodder for his memories and a reason to analyze them finally after forty years spent away from his childhood home.
It was William McPherson's exceptional Testing the Current which pointed me in the direction of Peter Taylor (adding him to my lists of 'great new finds' and author's whose work I must explore further). The two are similar in that they have a nostalgic feel to them, and tell stories of a certain class of people at a certain time in America. Now I must go back and see which other books were referenced in the afterword in the McPherson novel. Peter Taylor has been compared to Eudora Welty, James Agee and Walker Percy, so I'll be looking up their work next. I can very enthusiastically recommend A Summons to Memphis to you!