The Salutation - Sylvia Townsend Warner Full Disclosure: The edition I read is bundled with the edition of Mr. Fortune's Maggot published by the NYRB.


I have to read this novella again. It's a sequel to Mr. Fortune's Maggot but you don't have to have read that book to follow what's going on. In fact, as the protagonist is never identified as Timothy Fortune, only someone who had read that novel would recognize him. It's been 12 years since Timothy left the island of Fanua and his closest friend, Lueli, voluntarily giving up "happiness" because he recognized that remaining with his friend would destroy it in the end. Now we find him wandering into the Argentine pampas, looking to find "sorrow." Physically and mentally exhausted, he collapses at the gates of The House of the Salutation and is taken in by its mistress, Angustias Bailey, the Spanish widow of an Englishman. He slowly recovers and becomes Angustias' companion, though not in a sexual way. Warner here doesn't want to explore sexual relationships but rather where can you go when you've given up everything that had meaning in your life.

And I think - mind you, I think - the answer is "nowhere."

Which isn't necessarily as bleak as it sounds. At The Salutation, Timothy finds a measure of quietude and contentment that makes life bearable if not happy.

Into this situation comes Angustias' grandson (and heir), Alfredo. Timothy instantly recognizes the boy's hostility and anger and prepares to leave. Before he can, however, Angustias has a confrontation with her servants and Alfredo (who resent the Englishman's presence and, in Alfredo's case, his possible usurpation of his inheritance). She dismisses the servants, and (the house being empty for the moment) takes her grandson and Timothy to town to stay in a hotel. On the ride into town, there's an accident...and that's when it appears that everything (at least from Alfredo's first appearance) has been a dream.

The story ends when Timothy comes down from his bedroom and Angustias tells him that her grandson is coming to visit, but his dream is gone and "as a bubble...utters a little being ended, he felt, exhaling from him, a sigh of thankfulness that a responsibility was lifted from the uneasy soul, dismissed again for a while into its limitations of flesh and blood" (p. 227 of the NYRB edition).

As usual, Warner's prose is rich, powerful, slyly humorous and almost effortlessly carries you along to the end. And while I grapple with what this story means to me, I'll leave you with a few examples that caught my eye:

"All around the house, for miles and miles and miles, though there was no ear to hear it, a continuous small sound existed - the crackle of the ripened sunflower seeds breaking from their envelopes. On all sides the land travelled smoothly to the sky-line. To the eastward it was a pale silvery gold, to the westward, dun. The vegetation was so close and even that it had the appearance of turf - ony where the road ran did the eye relinquish the hallucination, realising the height of the summer growth. Moving slowly through that growth the backs of the cattle appeared as porpoises lolling on the ocean surface.

"...and Angustias had always been a good sleeper. She practised sleep, indeed, with such mastery that she had a repertory of different slumbers which she could command at will, slumbers ranging from the slight gauze of inattention suitable for sermons and too prolonged explanations to the quilted oblivion fit for a winter's night.

"It is only for a week or two that a broken chair or a door off its hinges is recognised for such. Soon, imperceptibly, it changes its character, and becomes the chair which is always left in the corner, the door which does not shut. A pin, fastening a torn valence, rusts itself into the texture of the stuff, is irremovable; the cracked dessert plate and the stewpan with a hole in it, set aside until the man who rivets and solders should chance to come that way, become part of the dresser, are taken down and dusted and put back; and when the man arrives no one remembers them as things in need of repair. Five large keys rest inside the best soup-tureen, scrupulously preserved though no one knows what it was they once opened; and the pastry-cutter is there too, little missed, for the teacup without a handle has taken its place. For a few days the current of household life checks at obstacles such as these, but soon it hollows itself another channel, and flows around them unperturbed.


"For this sorrow that he had brought with him like some splendid garment closed and crumpled in a chest became, in that moment of wearing, more than a garment. It became alive, as though he had been given to wear some vast trailing-winged butterfly whose wings, still crumpled and discoloured from the chrysalis in which they had slept, were only just beginning to quiver and expand. Here, then, he must sit, mute, anonymous, dwindled to a speck, to a shrivelled cradle, while perched on him his sorrow might sun itself, quiver and expand and deepen the sombre magnificence of its colours."