Sunday, May 6, 2018

Long After Summer by Robert Nathan

Robert Nathan’s prose is at times eloquent, always thoughtful, and infused with a sense of wonder at life. Long After Summer is one of my favorites, alongside Portrait of Jennie and Stonecliff. Nathan wrote stories that might be described as magical realism today; with a touch of the supernatural, but only a touch. His tales also sometimes employ Christian themes and imagery, and large tracts of philosophy. His armchair philosophizing is handled intelligently, and he never forces the topic. I find Robert Nathan’s novels refreshing, all of these decades after he published them, and I often spend too much money in my travels when I find a first edition hardcover with the dust jacket intact, or some paperback reprint uncovered on a dusty shelf in some remote bookstore. Long After Summer was first published in 1948 in the long, productive rush of success following The Bishop’s Wife (1928) and Portrait of Jennie (1940), his best known novels. Long After Summer is a wonderful novel that tells a heartbreaking story but manages to leave the reader filled with a sense of hope. Nathan’s descriptive powers, complemented by his astute understanding of human nature, produced lines and paragraphs of unswerving power. For example, his description in chapter 3 of a young girl giving a dog a childish hug is particularly moving: “ was passionate and hungry and ashamed – like a child without Christmas presents, in front of a shop window.” All of Nathan’s novels are filled with such insightful moments. Nathan was also a prolific poet, and his measured prose, clarity of thought, and sharp mind all combined to create stories of lost love, ghosts and spirits, and analogies equal to that of any great philosopher. With the release of e-books for Kindle, there’s an opportunity for a new generation of readers to discover Robert Nathan. Long After Summer is about a lonely middle-age bachelor living on Cape Cod and who hires a new girl in town to look after him when he’s recovering from an illness. Her name is Johanna, and she was an orphan come to live with distant relatives. Told in the first-person by the bachelor, about whom we know little, he watches and mentors Johanna throughout the summer. The first half of the book is a character study of Johanna, but of the bachelor, too. He watches her as she experiences the first blush of early teenage love when she meets Jot, a local boy; and the bachelor grieves with her when an unspeakable tragedy occurs. The second half of the book recounts Johanna’s reaction to Jot’s death, which is extreme, and Nathan’s prose hints at magical realism, or fabulism as it would have been known when this novel was published in 1948. There is less of a supernatural element here than in Portrait of Jennie (1940) where the supernatural element was blatant. Nathan handles all of this with extraordinary skill, and I consider Long After Summer among his best work. The ending leaves some issues unresolved, but the bachelor’s love for Johanna is no secret, and what will happen between them later is left for readers to decide. There is a strong Christian element here as well, but Nathan is never pious. Long After Summer is available to down load as an e-book. I also own the first edition hardcover and the 1974 paperback reprint.

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