An Unfortunate Woman, Richard Brautigan

Richard Brautigan (1935-84) is one of those authors I would automatically pick up if I saw his works second hand – increasingly unlikely as he gets further out of date and all the second hand stores anywhere near me close, leaving only op shops – though this seems to be the only work of his I own at the moment.

In my twenties, I read Watermelon Sugar (1968), Trout Fishing in America (1967), and gave to the Young Bride The Abortion: An Historical Romance (1971). I was aware of his first novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964) but can’t recall now if I ever read it. I loved his work and if I ever wrote, Brautigan would be my model.

Brautigan, an alcoholic and depressive, married and separated a number of times, died by his own hand in 1984. An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey (2000) was published posthumously, first in France, as Cahier d’un Retour de Troie [“Diary of a Return from Troy”] and only later in English.

An Unfortunate Woman is written as the narrator R reflecting on his wanderings over a few months in 1982 – which it would be cliched to see as an odyssey, though the author probably means us to – circling a number of times through the house of a woman in San Francisco, who had hanged herself some time previously, before ending up back home in Montana

maybe part of what I’m trying to say is … I wonder how old the woman was who hanged herself. Have I been working obliquely, almost secretly to this end.
I think she was in her early forties, but I do not know her exact age and probably never will. I guess it wouldn’t make that much difference in the long run. She’s very dead.

With writers like Brautigan (and Helen Garner) their lives and their fiction intersect so closely that it is impossible to know where one ends and the other begins. Brautigan begins this novel with, as a sort of prologue, a letter to a friend, N (Nikki Arai), who has just died, aged thirty eight, of cancer. The letter is dated Pine Creek, Montana, July 13, 1982. The novel chronicles the days from Jan 30 to Jun 28, 1982, so before N’s death, ending with R alone on his Montana ranch, on the hills above a tributary of the Yellowstone River.

R begins his ‘odyssey’ with an empty notebook and the intention of writing every day until it is filled. He doesn’t of course, and is frequently sidetracked.

With this auspicious beginning [a single abandoned shoe], I’ll continue describing one person’s journey, a sort of free-fall calendar map, that starts out what seems like years ago, but has actually been just a few months in physical time.

In those few months prior to Jan 30, 1982 R went from Montana to San Francisco, then to Buffalo, a week in Canada, back to San Francisco for a few weeks, up to Alaska, where he got drunk with a young politician, spent some time in Hawaii, and now, at the beginning of this record, he is back living in Berkley, in the house already mentioned. Having listed where has been, R takes us backwards and forwards between descriptions of ‘now’, accounts of those initial travels, and bouts of pure speculation.

My trip to Canada was wasted. At that time in my life I probably should have gone to any other place in the world but Canada…

Toronto will always be like the flipside of a dream for me. I called heads but Toronto came up tails. [R goes looking for a Chinese movie theatre, but the only one he finds is showing American movies]

What else did I do in Toronto? I had a very bitter affair with a Canadian woman, who was really a nice person. It ended abruptly and badly, which was totally my fault.

The novel, novella really, is not getting written as quickly as it was meant to. R has been to Chicago and is now back in that house again in Berkeley where he is awakened each morning by the sounds of a woman in a neighbouring house making love. He makes another visit to Chicago and …

… suddenly it’s March 1: What happened to the last 14 days of this book, which is now obviously chronologically mischievous and grows more and more to follow the way life works out?

There’s a gap, he’s home, has taught a semester at the local university – presumably Montana State University in Bozeman (which I struggle to believe is a real place) – goes on a blind date which works out better than a previous blind date where he got into an argument about the woman’s masters dissertation on Italian architecture in Henry James; advises a young student to write about herself because when you’re young that’s all you know; does some other stuff; takes a call from his daughter whom he won’t see because he doesn’t like the guy she married; and, finally, thinks a little about his dying friend, sends her a telegram, calls her, talks to her

My friend continues to die of cancer, even as I write now shardlike cells grow inside of her, never stopping until I talk about her only in the past tense.

R has nearly reached the end of his notebook. What about all the things I’ve left out he worries. He goes for a walk across the creek to his neighbours’. Leaves the last line empty.

“Iphigenia, your daddy’s home from Troy”.

.

Richard Brautigan, An Unfortunate Woman, Canongate, Edinburgh, 2000. 110pp.

see also:
Emma/Book Around the Corner’s review of Trout Fishing in America (here)

27 thoughts on “An Unfortunate Woman, Richard Brautigan

  1. I love when you add more of your thoughts as you go along in a post, such as not believing the place in Montana is real, or your relationship with the author’s previous works. Why? Because you have a great personality. I hope you add even more in future posts.

    This sounds like quite a travel novel, which now has me wondering if you’re a fan of other travel novels, such as On the Road by Jack Kerouac, or a more feminist, humorous book like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins.

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    • Thank you Melanie, nice of you to say so. I think you see far too much of me already for a book reviewer, but maybe I’m just one of those old fashioned bloggers who writes about himself and for some reason people read it.

      You and I have discussed Kerouac before. I think he’s great. I’ve been slack about reading Robbins but I loved the movie. Is An Unfortunate Woman a travel novel? Not in the way that On the Road is, there’s no description of travelling, just scenes in different places, and no destination either, as in the Odyssey. But maybe by the way the story is framed Brautigan means us to think more about that.

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      • You’re interesting, so I’m always more interested when you add more of your thoughts into your blog posts. That may be a result of me living in the U.S., though. If you share fewer of your own thoughts and the book is very Australian, I lose focus a little bit because I don’t know much about the scenery, culture, history, etc.

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      • I can see it’s going to be a struggle to get you to follow Sue and me at the Australian Women Writers site, though I live in hope that you will find something interesting in the mix of reviews, essays and stories (short stories previously published in newspapers).

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      • I love Tom Robbins too but my favourite is Jitterbug Perfume: it’s got an unforgettable love story. But I wonder if you’d find his wordplay annoying, especially as it might not come across quite so handily on audio.

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  2. This sounds like quite a complex book, but i love how you have loved the author through your life – after my discovery that Anne Tyler isn’t perhaps one of my all-time favourites, this kind of thing is fascinating me more and more. Why do we stick with some authors and not others?

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    • Tyler is a story teller and Brautigan is a writer, and I think that makes us see them differently. Different stories resonate at different times in our lives. I’ve never thought a lot about any story Brautigan was telling/trying to get across, just how he wrote it.

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      • That is an interesting distinction. I can’t work out why I have gone off Tyler a bit but still love Iris Murdoch (last time I looked) as both create stories within their own recognisable world, although Murdoch, too, is a writer. Now I’m worrying about Larry McMurtry, but I’ll find out soon!

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      • Good luck with McMurtry! I’ll have to see if I can find at least one (later in the year). I haven’t read a lot of Murdoch, but my impression is that she tends to be more writerly than Tyler – anyway, it’s just a theory.

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  3. I confess that I have never heard of RB, but like Liz I am fascinated by those authors we all have who have stayed with us all our lives.

    The sentence you included about his dying friend is incredibly moving. Switching to past tense after someone we love has died is a difficult transition indeed.

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    • My father and grandparents all died at the ‘right’ time and I have never thought much about losing them, and in fact mostly death was a release. Of course it would have been for N too, but far too young.

      As for authors staying with me, many do and I am grateful for the joy they gave me in my teens and twenties, but I’m not sure they bear re-reading. Edgar Allan Poe doesn’t (for me), but I suspect Dostoyevsky for instance might – I intend finding out later this year.

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  4. OK, so back in my late teens/early 20s in the 1970s, I had a little book into which I wrote and pasted quotes (or other little pieces) that meant something to me. Here is one:

    “I’ve decided to live in a world where books are changed into thousands of gardens with children playing in the gardens and learning the general ways of green growing things”. From R. Brautigan’s Please plant this book. I didn’t read the book but came across this quote from who knows were, and I’d never heard of Brautigan. I still haven’t, but his name for some reason, out of the many I hadn’t heard of stuck in my mind. Is it too late to try to read him (if, perchance, I could actually make time?)

    Another quote which will make you say, why am I not surprised, is “you won’t develop eyestrain from looking on the bright side”! Like grandmother, like granddaughter, I was and am.

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    • Perhaps the quotes came from Hippies: A Beginner’s Guide. (Please Plant this Book is a poetry collection from 1968). Brautigan was an important part of all that 1960s stuff in San Francisco and he would have been being talked about and quoted when you went up to uni.
      I hope you read him. From memory all his books are novellas. Though if I was your tutor, in charge of what you read next, I would almost certainly set you some womens SF (as I am reading now for a review shortly).

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  5. PS, that said other quotes are decidedly darker because I did have that side too, like “I, a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made” (Houseman) or “the order of the world is shaped by death” (Camus).

    And, because I also liked a laugh:

    Everyone said that it couldn’t be done
    But he gritted his teeth and set to it –
    And he tackled the job that couldn’t be done,
    And he couldn’t do it.
    – Icarus

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  6. Great post that surely reflects one’s reading experience with Brautigan.
    Do you think it means something that R was a teacher in Bozeman and not in Missoula where the writers were?
    I loved Trout Fishing in America and I’m very very tempted by this one. Do thanks for bringing my attention to it.

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  7. I don’t think I’d heard of Brautigan before but like other commenters I’m interested to hear how he has stayed with you for many years. Although I have a few favourite individual books that have stuck with me and bear rereading as an adult, I didn’t encounter a lot of my current favourite authors until the past few years, so I don’t yet know how they will hold up in the long-term – I will be interested to see who sticks.

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    • It’s a bit like pop songs that hear as a teenager and can still sing (ok hum/mumble) half a century later. With me those books that were influential when I was young, say in my late teens and early twenties, have stuck with me. Literally. The ones that my kids haven’t run off with are still on my shelves. Of course I have added authors to my ‘favourites’ as I became aware of them, but I have never given up on the early ones, though I can’t say I’m consistent in re-reading them, there’s just so much else to read.

      You’ve made me wonder what authors have I read every decade since the sixties? Off the top of my head: Jane Austen, Ursula Le Guin, Georgette Heyer and George Simenon (Maigret). But there are quite a few others I read back then and still read now, Conrad and Orwell in particular. And plenty of others just waiting for me to pick them up – DH Lawrence, WIlliam Burroughs, JM Ballard, all that 60s and 70s SF

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  8. Brautigan is another gap in my reading and unfortunately I only have his stuff in ebook (with a single non-canonical exception in a skinny little pocketbook) too, collected before I understood how much of an issue my vision would come to be. Will have to look out for some other paperbacks then!

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