Thursday, July 28, 2011

Come Back to Sorrento, by Dawn Powell

Dawn Powell’s 1932 novel Come Back to Sorrento is a poignant and subtly funny story about a group of sensitive souls who try to balance their artistic self-delusions against the pressing realities of the small town world they inhabit. The novel shows the dark side of the imagination, and how an ungoverned fantasy life can work like a disease, slowly sapping one’s very life force.

Dawn Powell (1896-1965), an American writer of plays, novels, short stories and an extensive keeper of diaries from 1931 until her death, struggled to achieve literary fame during her lifetime. Many of her works she published with high hopes of success, only to be crushed by public and critical neglect. Depressed and disillusioned after the failure of her 1930 novel, Dance Night (Powell described it as a ‘rocket that sizzled’), she started work on Come Back to Sorrento in early 1931.

The process of writing this novel Powell described as being effortless, yet she was soon disappointed with the finished product. Her publishers, Farrar & Rinehart, rejected the original title and instead published it as The Tenth Moon, taken from the Shelley quote that opens the novel. Powell’s ill opinion of Come Back to Sorrento would continue until she re-read it in 1943. “The best writing I ever did and technically flawless,” was her revised opinion, which she confided to her diary.

In recent years Powell’s reputation has continued to rise, helped along by Gore Vidal’s appreciative 1980’s essay. In 1997 the Steerforth Press re-published the novel under its original title, with an introduction by Powell champion Tim Page.

Dream Lives that Lead to Impotence and Sickness

Come Back to Sorrento is a poignant and mildly comic study of a group of sensitive, small town individuals who teeter between fantasy and reality. The novel’s pathos comes from its examination of how daydreams and unrealistic ambitions of fame can crowd out reality. The characters in Come Back to Sorrento, however, don’t let their elaborate, imagined selves lead them into the darkness of tragedy, although one gets the impression that if circumstances had allowed they would have leapt at the chance. Powell instead describes a group of people subject to deep, immobilising fantasies of greatness, which lead them to slowly withdraw from life’s realities. These characters still function in society – barely holding down jobs and performing life’s basic necessities – but as real people in public space they retreat and become less effectual. Great plans are always being dreamt up that will ensure glory and fame, yet the courage and daring required to follow through is always absent. Consolation is taken in a mild form of self-pity and self-delusion.

The novel centres on the friendship between Connie Benjamin and Blaine Decker, a new music teacher who comes to the Ohio town of Dell River. Connie once had a brush with fame, and was feted by ‘the great Morini’ as destined to become a great opera singer. She also had a lover at the time, Tony, a performing artist and dare devil at a circus. Great love and great art were hence supposed to mix to create a magical destiny of fame, fortune and endless bliss for the two. Yet tragedy instead followed. Connie’s grandfather refused to pay for her singing tuition, and Connie was left pregnant by Tony, a coward who ran out on her. In these dreadfully reduced circumstances, Connie was ‘saved’ by Gus, a cobbler of German origins who was simply in the market for a wife at the time. Connie may have been rescued from abject poverty and disgrace, but the marriage she contracted with Gus the cobbler turned out to an entirely practical union, devoid of any romance or finer feelings. When Connie plays the hostess in her house and entertains her more artistic crowd, she finds Gus more of an embarrassment than anything, and simply wants him out of the way so she can delude herself that she’s running some sort of salon.

Blaine Decker’s claim to fame is to have studied music in Europe. We also know that he was ‘friends’ with the novelist Starr Donnell, and more likely than not the two had a homosexual relationship that ended unhappily. Blaine, it’s made plainly clear from his swishy gait and expressive hand movements, along with his pretensions to being an aesthete of elevated feeling, is gay. This is one of the remarkable features of Come Back to Sorrento: Powell simply plonks this gay character in the centre of her novel without making too much fuss about it.

The friendship between Blaine and Connie can only really develop into a kind of spiritual sickness, as they are both so consumed with unfulfilled longing. They both reinforce their own self-delusions, making up a whole host of reasons why artistic fame was snatched from them, rather than taking responsibility for their own failings. Powell doesn’t overplay this theme into a grand moral lesson about reality and illusion. She keeps the narrative so personal and intimate that you feel like you are gingerly stepping around the delicate psyches of her main characters. This restraint and delicacy also makes it easier to identify with the failings of Powell’s characters – they are pitiful human beings, not monster like egomaniacs.

The physical sickness that so enervates Connie during the second half of the novel, until it finally devours her, has its beginnings in a piece of ludicrous – almost comic – fantasy that she indulges in with her younger daughter, Mimi. She decides to try some type of pagan magic to make herself beautiful.

“If you bathed your face in sunrise dew on May Day you became beautiful; this was an old saying and every May Mimi meant to do it but no matter how firm her desire the dew was always long gone when she opened her eyes.”

Mimi had previously extracted a promise from her elder sister Helen to go out one morning to bathe her face in dew, but Helen is hard as nails and no keeper of promises. Instead Connie says she will accompany her younger daughter on such a frolic. The scene is almost like something out of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night's Dream, where everything is happily surreal and dream like.

“Connie knelt too and there did seem magic in the tingle of the icy drops on her cheeks for when she lifted her head she felt divinely happy.”

Ironically enough, this moment of divine happiness is when Connie catches a chill on her lungs that will make her weaker and weaker until she simply fades away.

Come Back to Sorrento is a small gem of a novel that deserves a place in the canon of American literature. It proves to be a subtle, sympathetic exploration of the disjunction between our inner image of ourselves, contrasted against the hard reality of our position in the world. Dawn Powell has a great power of describing the delicate states of mind that teeter precariously between fantasy and reality. While Powell herself knew how important imagination and self-belief were to creative work, in Come Back to Sorrento she shows the darker, more painful side of human imagination and the creative process. Powell turns this heady mix of disappointment and fantasy into a finely balanced story that is both poignant and darkly comic.

Come Back to Sorrento, by Dawn Powell. Published by Steerforth Press. ISBN: 1-883642-26-4

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