Underground Reading: His Own Man by Martha Gellhorn
Thursday, March 31, 2011
His Own Man (expressively written as His OWN Man on the cover) is a 1962 novel set in beautiful, cosmopolitan Paris. Billed as a "hilarious" comedy, this is actually one of the more depressing novels I've read recently - a short tale of ruthless comeuppance disguised as a sex farce.
American Ben Eckhardt is determined not to leave Paris. He's in his early 30s and, despite being completely broke, he's having the time of his life. Ben's getting his graduate degree in Sinology, a process he's managed to drag out for years and years - doing just well enough to keep his scholarship, but avoiding anything that might lead to completing his work. He spends his days wandering around the museums, his weekends exploring the parks and his nights mooching beer and wine from parties. Ben has two traits that make this life possible: he's astoundingly easy-going and he's extraordinarily handsome. Everyone loves a pleasant hottie.
Ben's routine is disrupted by a hot cup of coffee. Jessica de Camberges is a willowy blonde who gets over her guilt of being born (filthy) rich by spending every waking hour volunteering at a charity for refugees. Her parents are continually baffled by her, but accept that she's just a little insane. An early marriage (and subsequent divorce) has made Jessica especially awkward around men. However, when she spills Ben's coffee, Jessica is wracked by a sort of liberal guilt that overpowers even her reclusive nature. He's poor, she's rich - she owes him for the cup of coffee and he won't take her money.
What follows is a sort of semi-benign stalking, as Jessica follows Ben around meekly trying to please him. He's initially a little annoyed by her, but Jessica's relentless and they wind up becoming friends... and later, lovers. Oddly, they never really like one another. Jessica is dazzled that someone is paying attention to her and Ben is satisfied with having an undemanding weekend companion.
Everything changes when Jessica introduces Ben to high society. She's convinced that her easy-going, financially-uptight American friend will rebel against the snooty twits of the upper class, but he doesn't - he loves it. Despite his callous treatment of Jessica, Ben's got a strange sense of honor. He's open about his poverty and refuses to take a thing (except for caviar and champagne, he loads up on that at the parties). The snooty twits respect that - and love his corn-fed Wisconsin good looks - and Ben is a hit. Jessica is initially delighted, but the plan backfires as Ben now spends his weekends with the international expat twits rather than in her welcome embrace.
Image from Paris 1962, photography by Tom Palumbo.
At this point, Liz enters the scene. Liz is an outgoing, rich, energetic Englishwoman. She's known for repeatedly falling head-over-heels for the wrong man and Ben fits the bill perfectly. Unfortunately, she's not beautiful (at least not to Jessica's quality), but she is earthy and fun, so Ben's happy to spend time with her. Ben (charmingly) refuses to take her money, so Liz spends most of her time conniving strange plans to give Ben things without him knowing - in a way that doesn't upset his strange moral code. She can't stand his dated clothes, so gets her male friends to pass new ones to him, pretending that they're second-hand. He refuses, so they "sell" them to him instead. Ben has no idea what the value of posh clothing is, so winds up buying new, designer apparel for pennies on the dollar (franc). These little deceits keep the relationship going.
Eventually, this too leads to some lusty romping. While Jessica pines away in the discreet pied-à-terre that she bought for her own Ben-romping, Ben is roving around France (and the Mediterranean) with his new friends and lover. Jessica's not well-connected socially, but her mother is, and between the two of them, they figure out what Ben's up to. Jessica loses it and becomes more of a shut-in than ever.
When Liz goes back to England for a season, Ben gets bored and decides to look up Jessica. To his surprise, she welcomes him back passionately and, after a few lusty nights, is happy to see him off again. She even gets him a monogrammed suitcase as a farewell present - a clear indication that she knows she's been shacking up with Liz. Ben's a little irritated at this "shabby" treatment from a girl he was taking for granted, but forgets his dismay as soon as he's back with Liz.
Image from Paris 1962, photography by Tom Palumbo.
In a few months, it all becomes clear. Jessica is pregnant. She hides her pregnancy for long enough that it can't be discreetly "taken care of", and her parents exile her to Switzerland until they can figure out what to do with her. Ben learns when Jessica's father tries to bribe him into marrying her. Ben's strange code of honor kicks in - he explodes at the confused dad then goes home and sulks. He confesses to Liz, who throws him out, then quickly recants and takes him back.
Ben becomes increasingly fraught - his easy-going nature is now completely shattered now that he feels responsible for someone else. Liz tries to buoy him, but it doesn't work and he skips off to Switzerland to propose to Jessica. He leaves Liz a note explaining everything: he doesn't love Jessica, he's just giving the child a "name" and will return immediately at the divorce to resume romping ad hinjinks. When Ben gets to Switzerland, Jessica laughs in his face. When Ben gets back to Paris, Liz is gone.
The book closes with everyone getting, in some weird way, their just desserts. Ben has spent the book clinging to a weirdly irrational code of honour that disguises his purely selfish nature. He closes the book with the ill-timed realization that he, for once, cares about another human being. Two of them, in fact. He wants to meet his daughter - and never will. And he wants Liz - who will never see him again. The easy-going American has crumbled.
Liz has spent the entire book chasing after someone inappropriate and bringing out the best in him. In turn, she's been cruelly betrayed. However, the year isn't a complete loss for her - her own friends have rallied around her closer than ever, and a few of Ben's better traits (a respect for intellectual excellence, his work ethic and his relaxed nature) have all rubbed off on her. When the book closes, Liz is off on a long trip to Bali - she's had the epiphany that Ben is no good for her, and is off to spend however long it takes to get over him.
Jessica spends the majority of the book as its most pathetic character. She was ill-treated in her first marriage and her relationship with Ben was little better. When they first met, she lived her life for those few weekend hours when he would deign to meet her (and take advantage of her). She ends the book with someone she can truly love (and will, presumably love her). Jessica also ends the book as an expat. Always miserable in Paris, Jessica rides her newfound determination all the way to Trieste. As her parents comment at the end of the book, they'd never seen her so happy as when she was getting on the plane.
His Own Man? Not a "hilarious comedy". If anything, this book veers towards the tragic. Ms. Gellhorn proves to be an exceptional storyteller. She shares the more trivial motivations and thoughts of each character, but leaves their overarching drives and long-term strategies open to interpretation. For example, it is impossible to tell when Jessica falls out of love or when Ben falls into it. Ben never actually sets out to hurt anyone, but his philosophy of total self-absorption causes casualties wherever he goes. Ben's vaunted code of conduct is hypocritical, but he doesn't know that - and, to some degree, deserves some respect for the effort.
That ambiguity - the lack of any real villainy - is what prevents His Own Man from being funny. There are pratfalls and deceits a-plenty, but there's no one to cheer against. The book is filled with moderately awful things happening to moderately decent people, and, no matter how wittily -composed it is, that's a hard thing to enjoy.
However, Ms. Gellhorn is consistently ambiguous - down to the ending. Any sort of neat, traditional conclusion (e.g. Ben & Jessica fall madly in love and marry or Jessica does a Malcourt and kills herself, leaving it open for Ben & Liz) would've been blatant hypocrisy. In Ms. Gellhorn's hands, His Own Man was never going to end with smug tidiness and its open-ended, karmic neutrality is the only fitting conclusion.