Imagine a writer who has suffered a series of setbacks: neglect, cultural isolation, poor sales, all the usual complaints writers have to contend with plus a few extra, such as tuberculosis. He is not by nature a cheerful type but decides to gather together certain of his stories as a coming-of-age potboiler in which his youth is presented as a series of comic trials whose hero is a sort of American Candide. He has a gift for constructing comic scenes, a gift that includes the perfect timing that such scenes require. The author presents his younger self in a charming manner: small-town boy makes good despite his many mistakes. This same author also serves as an amusing guide to his times—the era of Prohibition—and to his subject, the portrait of the artist as a young man in the Midwest. The book that he writes, A Frieze of Girls, he subtitles “memoirs as fiction,” an ambiguous phrase with a faintly sinister overtone. It can mean that he is telling his story as if the narration followed the form of a novel. But perhaps it means that he is lying about his past, either the subject matter or the tone he brings to it. In either case the reader has been warned. Following its publication, the book briefly becomes a best-seller.
In one of those ironies of which life is so fond, A Frieze of Girls turns out to be the last book written by its author to be published during his lifetime. In its tone, it is unlike almost everything else he wrote.
I first read Allan Seager’s memoir several years ago when a friend recommended it, cautioning me first that I would have to search for a copy, since it was out of print. Also, she said, the book had a series of emotional and stylistic “hairpin turns,” a description she didn’t bother to explain to me, although I felt I knew what she meant. In any case, I found a copy in the public library, and as I read it, I almost fell out of my chair with surprise and happiness. I loved the seemingly effortless and self-deprecating wit, the sentences built for speed, the retrospective wryness that permitted the narrator to comment on his younger self. Seager is a charmer. But I also thought—and every one of my rereadings of A Frieze of Girls confirms this—that the author was being somewhat duplicitous in the service of his art. The comedy falls into a particular subgenre, that of inadvertent stoicism covered over by modesty. It is a very, very rare tone to strike in American writing, and the model for it, distantly, might have been Stendhal, whom Seager had translated—_Memoirs d’un touriste_. The narrator of this memoir is a tourist himself, and never more so than when he is squarely at home.
It is worth mentioning this to first-time readers of A Frieze of Girls because the charm and the wit in this book are so obvious that its depths might not be immediately apparent. One notable characteristic of many Midwestern writers is that they sometimes disavow complexity and then hide it where it won’t show. Seager, a native of Michigan and a nearly lifelong resident of that state, practiced this sleight-of-hand assiduously in his memoir. We can all laugh at the foolishness of our youth, and if we live long enough we are usually expected to forgive ourselves for that foolishness. But sometimes we don’t laugh, ever. Sometimes the lapses in behavior continue to feel dire. Sometimes the forgiveness comes hard, or with a conversion, as in Augustine. There is no conversion in A Frieze of Girls, but its author has become a writer, almost without anyone else, including himself, knowing how he managed it. The story he has given us at the surface would seem inevitably to lead to another conclusion entirely: how the autobiographer became a plain ordinary guy, maybe a car salesman. But he didn’t become that guy. He became the person who wrote this book, along with five novels, a volume of stories, a translation of Stendhal, and a biography of Theodore Roethke. It is as if we have been led by a charming and witty tour guide into a room that is not listed on the floor plan.
What A Frieze of Girls actually seems to be about is the familiar comedy of adolescent suffering. This is a high-wire act, and at times the comedy falls away, most notably in the third story, about a murder, and the central story, “The Old Man,” about the narrator’s grandfather, an abusive, cruel, and willful pioneer of sorts who fought at Gettysburg and cleared his land, raised his family, and died unloved and unmourned by everybody. It is a stunning portrait, starting with the old man’s recollections of Gettysburg and moving down to the small detail of the scars left on the hands of the narrator’s father, Arch, by the grandfather’s whip, administered when the boy happened to plow uneven rows. This story is close to one that Seager subsequently tells about himself and the particular day he showed the manuscript of his first novel to his father (the man who was once whipped). His father’s first words were, “What do you make it so thick for? Nobody will read it.” Allan Seager did not complain. “But I said nothing,” he tells us, because “by that time I knew what kind of people we were, I guess.”
That hapless dismissal of pain in the shrug-of-the-shoulders, that heartbreakingly American “I guess,” marks Seager’s narrative as a painful set of disclaimers. Sometimes it hurts to watch, and that pain mixed with comedy is what gives A Frieze of Girls its distinction and, finally, its liberation from the category of a mere crowd-pleaser. In this book, Allan Seager was writing better than he knew. As a result, many of its scenes and individual sentences stick to the memory as if glued there.
Allan Seager was born in Adrian, Michigan, in 1906 and died a few miles away in Tecumseh in 1968. (Here I am relying on the excellent book-length study of Seager’s work by Professor Stephen E. Connelly.) As the reader of A Frieze of Girls will discover, Seager spent part of his youth in Memphis before going on to the University of Michigan and then to Oriel College as a Rhodes Scholar. While in England, he contracted tuberculosis and was sent to Trudeau Sanitarium in Saranac Lake, New York. After his recovery and another year at Oxford, he returned to the University of Michigan, where he taught for most of his adult life. He wrote stories, biographies, and novels, of which Amos Berry, published in 1953, is probably his best, the tale of a poet and his businessman father. Most of Seager’s fiction has a somber cast, though it has flashes of pitch-dark wit—in this, it sometimes resembles the fiction of Wright Morris. Nevertheless, Seager had bad luck with sales—he seems to have had little or no instinct for self-promotion—and as he aged his view of the literary world and of lives in the Midwest grew progressively darker. A Frieze of Girls was conceived of during a bleak time, which probably gives its tone a peculiar nervous resonance.
The plot is as follows: Seager’s protagonist, himself, is determined to become a man, as that role is defined by his particular era. Various complications ensue. In the America of Prohibition, manhood meant finding or making liquor of various kinds and then drinking it. A man would be able to hold his alcohol; in this respect, the young Seager is a champ. Such a man would also be able to charm and seduce those mysterious beings, women. Time and again, Seager tells the story of his baffled attempts to charm these elusive characters, all of whom insist on surprising him by becoming, under his inspection, real persons, complex human beings. The beautiful Marta van der Puyl is first seen wearing a red garter and last seen reading The Decline of the West. Another actress, Margaret Anglin, shows the narrator a thing or two about worldliness: in response to an earnest Midwestern fraternity brother who tells her, “You wouldn’t want to run into a nude young man,” she replies, with some asperity, “Why not?”
Then there is the drinking. The stories of drinking are funny but I persist in seeing a darkness around the edges of these accounts, as if, in being initiated into this mystery, the cast of characters is being ruined without quite realizing it. Perhaps we are all conscious now of certain features of alcoholism that Seager’s generation chose to ignore. In any case, the reader notices how little enjoyment the drinker seems to have in his drinking—how much it seems like an ordeal to which the power of will must be deployed in order to lose control and to keep the appearance of control at the same time. The spectacle is a bit like that of Washington Irving’s little men spied by Rip Van Winkle in the Hudson Valley before his long sleep: they bowl for sport, but they never smile. And so it is here.
There is also the comedy of the American and British clash of styles (my favorite moment coming near the end when Seager tries out some American rah-rah fight-talk on his British teammates), and the comedy of the American provincial arriving in Britain, a subject that had not lost much of its force from the time of Henry James. (It still hasn’t; as I write, Americans are still barging into parts of the planet where they know little or nothing of the native culture. Complications still ensue.)
In bringing this wonderful book back into print, I believe the University of Michigan Press is doing the general reader a great service. Allan Seager was a writer of great gifts; Hugh Kenner thought so, as did Malcolm Cowley and Robert Penn Warren and Sherwood Anderson and Donald Hall and many others. This may be Seager’s easiest book, though, as I have suggested, any reader can sound its depths because, like one of Henry James’s true artists, Seager could not write a potboiler without also creating a work of art. Certainly, of all Seager’s books, it is the one that gives the most immediate pleasure. As a memoir, it gives a glimpse of an entire generation of American men whose struggles for dignity and maturity were, as often as not, both comical and dangerous simultaneously, as if they were on a road whose hairpin turns would force the driver to change direction in an instant. You hold your breath; you laugh; you see the embankment over which the car could plunge; and you are grateful that there is a virtuoso driver at the wheel.