'Evenings at Five' -- fleeing despair

April 06, 2003|By Tess Lewis | Tess Lewis,Special to the Sun

Evenings at Five, by Gail Godwin. Ballantine Books. 128 pages. $14.95.

In the 30 years since she published the first of her 10 novels, Gail Godwin has become a familiar fixture on the best seller lists. Her graceful, if wordy, fiction has examined the ways in which her characters' intimate relationships with family, friends or lovers shape their identities. At her best, she is an astute chronicler of the destructive and creative tensions in marriage, and her strongest books, The Odd Woman (1974), The Good Husband (1994), and Evensong (1999) are those that focus on the hidden dramas of domestic intimacy rather than the development of individual characters.

Intimacy is inevitably shadowed by its counterpart, absence, whether through death or estrangement. While death and its repercussions has been one of Godwin's central themes, in none of her books has the pain and confusion brought on by a loved one's death been presented with such raw immediacy as in her latest novella, Evenings at Five. In this highly autobiographical story, Christina, a successful writer, is still reeling seven months after the death of Rudy, her companion of three decades.

Rudy, like Godwin's companion of many years, Robert Starer, was a Jewish musician and composer who left Vienna as a teen-ager just after Hitler's Anschluss. (Starer, for whom Godwin wrote librettos and lyrics, died in 2001.) On what would be Rudy's last night, Christina leaves the hospital early and goes home to read a novel, confident she would see him in the morning. She can not forgive herself for leaving him to die alone.

The silence that fills Christina's house is a constant reminder of how often she neglected to listen to his music or to him. Occasionally that silence is broken by Rudy's voice on the answering machine, a consolation as painful as it is comforting. Memories of his idiosyncrasies come unbidden.

Rudy's candor in social situations, once so mortifying, now seems endearing. Familiarity does not always breed contempt, but sometimes a precarious balance between antipathy and attraction. Christina finds that death has only exacerbated that tension. "The full force of his presence was often too much for her ... But now the absence of that force she could never quite modify or control had left an excavation in her life that cried out to be filled with his most awful moments."

Christina preserves their ritual of a "soul-to-soul cocktail hour," a ritual they had observed even on days when they were barely speaking to each other. At first, Christina follows the ritual reverently but increasingly desperately and compulsively until she begins to drink herself into a stupor.

With difficulty and the help of friends, Christina emerges from her despair. Once she is able to open herself up to hope again, she has a vision of Rudy and asks him what exactly he saw, sitting across from her every evening. "I saw you, my love," he answers. "In your varied manifestations. In your married manifestations."

In Evenings at Five, however, this variety is missing. Although this account of loss and reconciliation is a poignant one, its characters and the intricacies of their relationship are too sketchy. In the past, Godwin has tended to overload her narratives with details. This novella's spareness is tonic, but limiting.

Tess Lewis has published translations from French and German and writes essays for The Hudson Review and The New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes scholar.

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