“I’d be way more content if I didn’t always have to take myself with me wherever I go. I’m walking around in a fog, with my hands out, feeling blindly. I stand outside of the action, watching, all alone. I am alone.”
That’s Morris in David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris, but I could imagine Hope in The Age of Hope saying it too. Though not at first.
When readers first meet Hope, they’re more likely to imagine her hands striking out rather than feeling blindly, making deliberate gestures, searching not wandering.
For instance, when Arnold Dick sat next to her at a bonfire party held by the Mennonite Breathren young people, and he announced his plans to go to Africa and that God had indicated Hope should be his wife, Hope knew what to say.
“’That’s ridiculous, Arnold. God hasn’t talked to me about this and until he does, I’ll be making other plans. I’m sorry. But thank you for thinking of me.’”
Hope is forthright (though polite), and she is attending nursing school. She has plans. She is going places.
But soon Hope is feeling as blindly as Morris. “She wondered if Liz had seen the breakdown coming. Was it like a train on a track, far in the distance, and it just kept coming, slowly and implacably, until at some moment it arrived?”
In the novel, of course David Bergen sees Hope’s story far in the distance, and he has divided it into five acts: Age of Innocence, Age of Despair, Age of Profit, Age of Longing, and, of course, Age of Hope.
Hope, however, is in the middle of it, living it, feeling blindly. She hears what Linda says, at the Friendship Circle: “Take control of your own life. Make smart decisions. Realize that this is it, this is all you have, this life, in this little place, on this planet, in this corner of the world.” But it’s not easy.
She knows that her best friend, Emily, has been reading Betty Friedan, and is seeking her own corner of the world. And she reads the books that Emily recommends (like James Michener’s The Drifters, which she tears into three parts, because it’s such a large volume).
“At Emily’s suggestion, she was reading Madame Bovary, and though the story was compelling, she found Emma to be insipid and weak and wanting. All this desire for things and love, running off with young men, ignoring her child.”
(One of the women in The Matter of Morris finds Emma Bovary very unsympathetic as well. “Anyways, Emma traps herself.”)
Hope finds other writers on her own, like Fowles and Didion. “Both of these writers took her to places far from her life in Eden.” (Perhaps Hope, too, trapped herself, but in an un-Emma-like way.)
But despite the advice and encouragement she receives and discovers, she struggles to reconcile her experience of the worlds that she reads about (the inner and outer worlds) with her own life.
“Even now, after many years of marriage, she still loved him, though she wondered sometimes if she didn’t simply admire him because he had so few flaws.”
She also struggles to understand her husband and the different ways (it seems) that men and women approach (or deny) the problems they face.
Had she not seen her husband as such an admirable man, had she felt that she could discuss some of her struggle, things might have been different.
But Hope believed that, for him, the “failure of a marriage or a business, or the failure of a child, was a symptom of some deeper personal collapse”. And such things were not discussed.
And it seems as though he was just as reluctant to discuss such things with Hope, too, perhaps believing that he was more flawed than she.
“’Your problem, Hope, is that you think everyone is as full of effort as you are. They aren’t.’
She wondered what that meant. That she tried too hard? Trusted too much? That she was too forgiving? So be it. She wasn’t going to change now.”
And, so, Hope is, like Morris, standing outside of the action, all alone.
“There’s Grief of Want
and Grief of Cold,—
A sort they call ‘Despair….”
She finds some consolation in Emily Dickinson, but it is a lonely sort of recognition.
“Hope wondered if in death you were finally able to run away from yourself. This might be death’s gift. She knew that the thought wasn’t terribly profound, but she was moved by the notion of completion and of escape.”
These two novels (The Matter with Morris and The Age of Hope) feel like parentheses around the idea of acceptance, both Morris and Hope dealing with loss and disappointment, loneliness and despair.
David Bergen’s prose is spare and functional, and the reader is removed from the plot by the simple fact that all of this is told from somewhere ages hence.
And, yet, the pace of this novel is steady and sure, pulling the reader through the ages of Hope’s life.
(By the fourth act of this novel, I admitted to myself that I was going to miss Hope when I was finished reading; I would miss her company. I know, that’s kind of strange, especially since Hope wouldn’t have considered herself very good company at all, but it’s what I thought.)
One might say that it is a novel about innocence, despair, profit, longing, hope, grief, want, cold but, ultimately, it is about Hope. Taking herself with her wherever she goes.