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Afterword to Corrigan, by Caroline Blackwood

Corrigan, by Caroline Blackwood (New York Review of Books, 2012)

About halfway through Corrigan, the reader begins to catch on to the author’s little ploy: Corrigan is a fake. Soon enough, we realize that he is not in fact a cripple; that Rupert Sinclair, his long-suffering best friend, doesn’t exist; and that there is no St. Crispins home — but we continue to feel the suspense, which hinges on what is going to happen when the characters in the book catch up with our own knowledge. We wait, as in a murder mystery, for all the confusion to be resolved into tidiness and for the author to acknowledge what she has let us guess. We feel a certain sense of conspiracy with her and a slight superiority to her characters. But unbeknownst to us, the central characters — Mrs. Blunt and Mrs. Murphy — are two steps ahead of us. We suppose that the drama is Corrigan’s putative fraudulence and their failure to penetrate it, but in fact his fraudulence is at least as obvious to them as to us.

The principal drama, as it turns out, is how everyone — ourselves included — has responded to his deception. The author is not on our side at all. She has given us the red herring of Corrigan’s con game to keep us from the real story. We think that the book is all about outsmarting Mrs. Blunt (and, to a lesser degree, Mrs. Murphy), and have no idea until we are nearly at the end that it is all about outsmarting Corrigan. While we get excited and indignant about how Corrigan is fooling a perfect innocent, from whose eyes the scales must ultimately and painfully fall, the real story is of how this savvy innocent is exploiting her supposed tormentor and life source. The dramatic scene of revelation toward which the book has seemed to be building never comes (except in a rather watered-down way when Mrs. Blunt’s only daughter, Nadine, goes off to see St. Crispins). We, like Corrigan himself, have been duped. The last laugh is on us. We’ve been following entirely the wrong plot for the first three quarters of the book. The novel is wonderfully self-reflexive: we find ourselves the objects of the very stupidity we have supposed to exist among the characters, fooled as Corrigan was by their veneer of simplicity.

I had the pleasure of knowing Caroline Blackwood in the teatime of her own life, and can attest that this is a tactic typical both of her writing and of her person. She liked duping people, and she liked it best when she could do it as Mrs. Blunt does it — with every appearance of innocence, quietly withholding through to the end. Corrigan is written in a childlike, repetitive style, which often seems absurd in its insistent drumming on certain details — Mrs. Murphy’s loudness, Mrs. Blunt’s quiescence, Corrigan’s aggressiveness. This gives the illusion that Blackwood’s constructions are simple, which they are not. How can Mrs. Blunt be so meek and gullible a victim, we wonder through the whole first part of the book. The flatness of description occurs because Blackwood tells us about her characters just as they seem to be; and it’s a shame if we’re too dense to guess that that’s not who they are. The author takes a slightly malign pleasure in giving us at the end not only the true plot but also the true depth of characterization. She trumps us not only with information — who knew what — but also with her wit in abruptly turning her own flat figures into fully realized, complicated people. Just when one had settled into the murder-mystery structure of the book, one suddenly feels a great deal more engaged with its inhabitants, and a great deal more concerned about their fate, than one could have anticipated.

What strikes me most about Corrigan is how much it reflects Blackwood’s basic attitudes toward and experiences of the world; it rings with her authentic views. She believed that love came from strange places and took strange forms. She did not believe that love had to be characterized by honesty or that it precluded manipulation. For her, love was always not only profound but also a game, and one had a better time with love if one learned to master that game and its pretenses and postures. It is no accident then that everyone in this book is pretending and that everyone profits from the arrangement. Mrs. Blunt affects to be nothing more than an extension of her husband — has done so for years — and it takes Corrigan to reveal her for the dynamic woman she really is. Part of Corrigan’s work (and part of Blackwood’s) is to make Mrs. Blunt into something interesting and pleasure-inducing. He rises heroically to that challenge — more than he realizes.

Corrigan, on the other hand, pretends to be much more than he is. Even as we suspect his game, we are impressed by the lengths to which he is willing to carry it. His narratives are so intense and so fervent, so well-suited to the context, that one is left wondering why he doesn’t apply his skills to bigger and more profitable cons or to more honest work (a question rather dimly and inadequately addressed by Nadine’s friend Sabrina at the very end of the book). It’s one thing to come around with some little white flags trying to raise money for a nonexistent hospital, and quite another to act the role of the invalid for months on end. Corrigan’s behavior seems to require such inordinate effort! While the material luxury and the existence of a real home must be rather thrilling for him, it seems hardly adequate compensation for the discomfort of being stuck in a wheelchair all day long. His reward, as it turns out, is affection and companionship. And more than this, Mrs. Blunt helps him to live out the reality he has made up and gives him some of the nobility to which he has pretended. In the instance of her death, he acts with a tenderness and integrity that are almost shocking, conceding to her wishes though he might have profited more by keeping her alive. Mrs. Blunt turns the charlatan into a knight.

Indeed, Corrigan is the sort of man Caroline Blackwood loved: passionate, sparkling, charismatic, handsome, destructive, somewhat dishonest, and ultimately really very kind. One is bemused by how Mrs. Blunt puts up with Corrigan’s fictions and even participates in them, but this whole process reminds me of how Blackwood described her marriage to Robert Lowell during his descent into madness. I remember her narrative of a Christmas when he began chipping away at the walls because he maintained there was something inside them that he needed to excavate. He was tortured and overwrought about it. She felt she had no choice but to go along with his delusions when she could not reason him out of them, and she offered comfort by doing a bit of chiseling herself.

Good Mrs. Murphy also pretends. She and Mrs. Blunt, who seem to be so wildly different, are in fact rather well-suited to each other, co-conspirators in a great game that they never acknowledge. While Mrs. Blunt is being tricked by Corrigan, she is also being flattered by him. Mrs. Murphy, on the other hand, is being abused by him all along, and it is simply her devotion to Mrs. Blunt that causes her to accede in deceptions that are evident to her. She has what Blackwood would have called an Irish wisdom, not to trouble trouble, to let things follow their course. Born into an Anglo-Irish aristocracy that was historically somewhat at odds with the rough-and-tumble who served it, Blackwood loved the Irish. For most of the story, Mrs. Murphy strikes one as a bit of bad news, with her greasy cooking and criminal sons. We are quite startled to find that she is capable of containing in her single mind both reality and the apparent reality within which she is supposed to be living. She is also a creature of almost divine forbearance, essentially untroubled by Corrigan’s reality, not desperate to parade her knowledge.

To the reader Mrs. Murphy probably appears somewhat ridiculous in her love for Mrs. Blunt and ridiculous again in her grief. What is she doing sitting around with the blinds drawn? What weird convention of her own is it that insists on dramatizing the death of this most understated woman? Caroline Blackwood thrilled to this kind of bizarre activity, completely outside the bounds of good taste but completely authentic in itself. It is part of Mrs. Murphy’s very Irishness that she can observe the ways of sophistication without ever thinking to take them on, and Blackwood always saw women of this Irish sort — knowing but blindly devoted — as somehow more real than the rest of us, and more wonderful.

Sabrina, a rather unique fictional creation, also fits with Caroline Blackwood’s real-life experience. I don’t know of another novel where the most consistently penetrating intelligence, the most unalloyed kindness, and the most forgiving prescience are all attached to a high-fashion model. When we first meet her and hear of her looks and glamour, we can hardly believe that she is Nadine’s best and only true friend. This is not the fairy-tale habit of describing a certain character as good and beautiful; it is, rather, both a clue that none of these people is what he or she appears to be, and a sign of Blackwood’s affection for clever women who happen to be lovely. Blackwood was a great beauty herself, and she used to call herself a “lookist.” She insisted that one had to start with physical comeliness, and that beautiful people were always more interesting than ugly ones. For her, beauty was not something that predisposed a girl to egotism; it was something that gave her self-respect.

Finally, there is something evocative about Nadine’s horror of her mother. Blackwood reviled her own mother, who had been unusually awful to her. When Blackwood was on her deathbed — a nicely appointed piece of furniture on which she stayed for about six weeks, entertaining grandly — her mother announced that she was coming over from London to New York to say good-bye (and, as it turned out, to do a bit of shopping). Blackwood was apoplectic. I remember asking whether it wouldn’t be a good idea for someone to tell the old woman that her visit was only going to distress someone already in great pain. Blackwood replied, “My mother would not be prevented from coming over, now that she’s fixated on the idea, by the news that her doing so would result in the total destruction of the city of New York.”

Blackwood’s biography was published recently under the title Dangerous Muse. The book recites many facts about her but misses her very real charm and the complexity of her intelligence. It is true that she was a beautiful seductress, that she could be mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and that she was at times a dysfunctional alcoholic who brought havoc into the lives around her. But she was also wise, affectionate, and fun, and she was capable of great generosity. She loved extremely selectively, but she loved very deeply where she loved. She had a way of making one feel chosen whenever one was with her, and she was a curiously cozy person when she felt like it. She was of course a great wit. Like Mrs. Blunt, she knew what she was doing, and she did it the more gleefully when it was disguised behind an air of pathos. Many people thought that by the end of her life she was nothing more than a disheveled old drunk, and of course she was a rather unkempt woman, aging, and knocking back her vodka at a truly extraordinary rate. But the image suggests a helplessness that she didn’t have. It was a camouflage behind which she could hide her continuing ability to control the people around her. I was appalled by the great losses she had suffered (two husbands and a daughter dead before her, for starters), but in the end I never felt sorry for her. Like Mrs. Blunt, she somehow kept things ordered in a way that worked for her, no matter how peculiar the arrangements might have seemed to the rest of the world. I admired and respected her for that; and I learned from it.