by Arnold Goldman

The events in Imperturbe  A Novel of Peace Without Victory parallel Paul’s own post-school experiences to a greater extent than do those in his first two novels. Imperturbe begins with Lester Davis’s departing his unnamed suburban Boston town for Glendive, Montana, and he moves (as did Paul) from the Yellowstone to the University of Maine to Louisville. Lester’s initiation into sex by the motherly Big Lil at Nell Taylor’s Louisville brothel has a steadying influence, but in Lil’s absence he becomes "more or less promiscuous in his relations with the girls at the various resorts," with the result that he had been graphically warned about at college. A victim of venereal disease, Lester looks about him "objectively, with consequent impersonal disdain," and he begins to fake his figures at work. Louisville has become the symbol of a constraining existence. Exquisitely sensitive to the coming of Spring, Lester is equally subject to panic and depression. His doctor upbraids him: "your damned brain will not rest. Stop worrying, I tell you." When "early in the summer his hair began to fall out a little," Lester becomes despairingly defiant. By Autumn, he becomes fascinated by Liszt’s transcription of the "Erl King" and by the "gruesome tales" of Edgar Allan Poe, "another kindred soul... driven out of the realm of Christian Endeavour and bank balances":

No more sitting and looking at the clock....
  In his excitement there were no difficulties. He would tell Scott his health was failing. he would write his mother that he had a better job.... There were no little children among the foothills, to hold up their faces to be kissed. Only the coyote and the sage and the rattlesnake.1

With his severance pay, and an extra supply of mercury pills, Lester lights out. He takes a ticket on the north-western route to Pocatello, Idaho, the first one mentioned by the station clerk:

His mind could not grasp, all at once, that he had escaped. It seemed too simple a solution of his complexities, merely stepping into this haven of green plush and sitting tight while busy wheels and drivers rolled him out of reach of the past. That in all this host of cities Louisville was not lurking to waylay him again, with bill-collectors, solicitous friends, drug-laden white-enamel offices, grey and hopeless mornings, and sheaves of neglected work, - he could not be sure, as yet.
  When there came a flash of green by the windows, with a rich mosaic of ploughed fields and sprouting grain, whenever the sunset glowed behind the sky-line of the cities, in that hour when all ugliness may relax for the time, Lester responded ecstatically, breathing in the spring fragrance until his eyes were filled with tears.

He fights against the "[d]eliberation and distrust of sudden impulse" which his mother and elder brother had "instilled into his mind." He leaves the train alone in Pocatello with just enough money for two meals. (Compare Paul’s memoir Desperate Scenery, where Elliot makes a clutch of friends on the train.) Immediately, however, the Norwegian vagabond Oscar Nelsen introduces himself, and "Lester felt strangely at ease with him, hesitating not a moment to speak freely.... Instantly the two were friends and comrades." The comrades discover that they are musical, borrow a violin and practice together in the hotel, Lester on the "one piano within a radius of five hundred miles." They attract an immediate audience of cowpunchers and railroad men and are asked to play for the next night’s dance.2

Lester’s elation does not outlive the night, and he begins to agonize over past, present and future in his hotel room, "a 14 by 16 pink wallpaper Gethsemane." Nelsen is Lester’s tonic, a drifter without anxieties. At the dance, Lester is taken out of himself by the music and the crowd’s response, and earns enough to put his mind at rest. Hearing that "the Government was opening up a job outside of Ashton," they decide to try it: "‘If we don’t like it we can blow,’ said Oscar." It is not the attitude Lester has been bred to, and it suddenly releases him:

Lester remembered, long afterward, how casually Oscar had uttered those words. What tremendous significance they contain in relation to human life. They spell the difference between a capon and an eagle, a viking and a galley slave, a body and a mind. There are people, truly, who if they don’t like it can blow. Gipsies, minstrels, vagabonds. Common pipers and fiddlers. Poets and fools.... What must a man do to earn the right to pronounce that sentence?

The work turns out to be seventy-five miles from Ashton, at a dam-site near Moran, Wyoming, and they sign on as carpenter’s helpers, working first a few days in the warehouse to load transport vehicles. What Lester mainly feels at Moran, is "remoteness... peaceful detachment from the world beyond... eternal protection from the horizontal sweep of elements." It is not the weather he feels protected against, but the world of ordinary activity - at college, in Louisville - to whose apparent requirements he could not conform. In the world, he is perturbable, where the mountains, "head and shoulders over all, the substance of all, immobile" are (in Walt Whitman’s term) "imperturbe." Responsively, Oscar and Lester play "Ein feste Burg is unser Gott" on violin and guitar. Will he take on this character, or is it an unfulfillable dream?3

The physical change is at any rate pronounced:

It was scarcely the same Lester Davis, in appearance, who a few months before had huddled into the green cushions and shuddered as the spires and chimneys of Louisville faded back out of sight. His face, hands and arms were tanned by the sun and wind, his flannel shirt was open at the throat, his muscles were lithe and responsive and his eyes quite clear....
  ...Day by day he had grown more self-reliant, physically, eating like a wolf, and sleeping to soundly for the intrusion of troublesome dreams. The routine of his day, regular meals, eight hours in the open air, and the feeling of security afforded by the mountains and the comforting distance back to "civilization," had quieted his nerves.

Lester’s experience of all sorts of men takes him out of himself and gives him respect and even love for others. He comes to believe that beneath their differences "there was a common denominator" of humanity. When he is told that everyone there has run away from something - though it hardly seems applicable to the job-hungry "Bohunks" - he can associate himself with them. For the first time, he is not lonely:

Always he had been restless and inattentive at school, on the Yellowstone he had suffered from that persistence of petty habit which is mistakenly called home-sickness, at Maine he had been utterly dissatisfied and Louisville had been such a nightmare that he actually could not remember it at all definitely. But here in the Wyoming mountains, ...cut off from contact with relatives and former friends, he did not feel the slightest twinge of uneasiness nor have the difficulty in filling every moment with interesting experience. No longer was he afraid to be alone.

In March, however, the first mails get through, bringing Lester letters from his mother and brother: "Lester put them in his shirt with a sinking feeling.... His sanctuary had been invaded. Ties, duties, obligations and neglects had sought him out and found him at last. There was no real hiding-place." Charles chews him out for "snap-judgements": "Life is too short for false starts and steps." He must make things up to his long-suffering mother. Full of foreboding at "Charles’ disappointment and his mother’s worry," Lester leaves Moran with the restless Nelsen by the first bob-sled stage.4

Back in Pocatello, one of his Wyoming illusions is shattered: the Bulgarian workers are returning home to fight the Turks. What price the common denominator of mankind? He drinks to dull his apprehensions, and falls back into the Louisville pattern, avoiding the touch of others. He keeps away from women, but becomes obsessed by the goings on in "the stockade across the tracks" (the whorehouse), where he gets as far as the piano and drunk. He wakes up on a train to find himself heading east: "After all, now that he was headed that way, there was no reason he should not go home."He rationalizes what he had previously feared, and not faced down. The earlier experience of Yellowstone had not sufficed for him to live in a college or a city, and the question is whether

experience in the Tetons has provided him with what he still needs to survive in ordinary society.5

When Lester returns East,

The first few days he had been content to lie on the veranda, almost enjoying the nervous exhaustion which followed his trip [east] and the events preceding it. His mother was so glad to see him and read so much in his face of which he was not aware that her questions were not many nor difficult to dispose of.... She prepared his meals with solicitous care and after the long period of camp cooking and small-town hotels, her New England skill made the three daily visits to the table occasions to look forward to and back upon. Before he had recovered sufficiently to be annoyed, she established herself as guardian of his socks and shirts, kept his collar buttons in a handy little box and reminded him to brush his coat and to have his shoes shined.
  Her timid maternal joy puzzled Lester in the beginning. He had almost forgotten her, as a person. For seven years he had been seeing, hearing, learning, discarding, suffering and recovering so rapidly that it seemed he had lived two or three lives....
  ...Often, after dinner, while he sat with his pipe (which she even now but grudgingly approved) Lester would describe the badlands, the Maine rivers and pines, or, perhaps the sage brush flats or the trees of Cherokee Road and, feeling her sympathetic response, would talk more freely than usually was possible for him.

He knuckles under to his mother’s pressure and grudgingly attends church, "shamefacedly... disputing silently with the minister at every point in his discussion, frowning at the back of the organist" at every musical infelicity. He finds work as a secretary at a firm of consulting engineers on Beacon Street, but works only to live outside the job. The culture of Boston, however, begins to draw him into a new phase of his old pattern. His reaction to the Boston Symphony Orchestra - and its audience’s "queer patchwork of grey-white coiffures, sleek black hair and bald Brancusi egg-heads" - draws out his inner tensions. It "bewildered" and "troubled" him. At the other end of the social scale, the pattern is the same. On occasional saloon-crawls, Lester keeps to himself, "strangely shy of making acquaintances,"

feeling that he did not know the rules governing human intercourse in Boston... He had nothing in common with his former schoolmates and avoided them.... All the girls he had known were either married or constantly occupied with that long test of endurance comprising a New England suburban courtship....
  ...He could never be sure that a girl actually was a prostitute and his confusion added to his natural timidity. Sometimes he would sit for hours in the Revere House, the Woodcock or the Dreyfus watching hungrily the couples go in and out, drinking more than was good for him....6

Lester’s "slumbering wanderlust" is stirred by the coming of the European war in his second year at work, and he offers his services to the Red Cross. His letter receives no reply, and he carries on working. He is possessed of the desire to break the boundaries he sees around him, and he fastens on symbols of that conflict. His "musical horizon" broadens to include "[t]he cacophony of Richard Strauss [and] the vague wizardry of Debussy," but,

[a]lmost always Lester’s first reaction to anything strange or new was that of anger and revulsion. He often left the concert hall in a fury, abusing the artist or the conductor for the selection of the program, only to find in a few weeks that he had been too hasty and that what had puzzled him in the beginning was perfectly clear after all. It became easier for him to change his mind and he grew more reluctant to establish arbitrary limits, to build wire fences around his little homestead on the broad plains of art and forbid sounds to overstep them. Berlioz, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky.

Moved by Teresa Careño’s performance of Beethoven’s "Appassionata" Sonata at Symphony Hall, Lester hungrily kisses the young woman he had taken there, Ruth Walker, "the one thing he had been dinning into his mind for nine long years he must not do." (To him, she was "only a child.") He leaves abruptly, feeling "the gnawing hunger for love and the sickening aversion to physical contact, irreconcilable, unquenchable, inescapable," and as the events of his past are recalled to him, he decides to escape his impasse by enlistment.7

Imperturbe moves immediately to 11 November 1918. Lester is at the end of his endurance; if the rumors of armistice prove false, he feels that he will collapse. If he hears another gun, he will go crazy. He feels numb, and cannot recall his life before the war: "His memory had been swept clean of faces. Would they return?" He recalls a leave in Paris, where he was "utterly happy and disregardful of consequences," and took a Belgian girl to his hotel, "breaking the chains of a ten years’ fear." As he waits for confirmation, all times pass before him, "[a] dream of the ages ending in nightmare, the nightmare fading away," and he returns to consciousness, seeing headlights, "[s]treamers of light, frank, clean, unafraid," the proof of armistice. Ecstasy instantly supplants lethargy. The armistice is

his resurrection, too. No longer was he unclean. Somewhere in the midst of this great horror he had been purged of his own smaller one. For ten years he had been ostracized, all the more severely because it was self-imposed and realized alone by himself. No more. He was entitled to happiness, now. He had earned it bitterly. His body had stood every test....
  After all the years of pain and longing and misunderstanding, he was at ease in nature,- - -he stood aplomb in the midst of irrational things. He was not subordinate. He had reached the portals of the temple erected for me by Walt Whitman....
  And then he uttered aloud the prayer which even the poet expressed as a hope, impossible of realization, more impossible of relinquishment.
  "O to be self-balanced for contingencies...." O to be imperturbe.

For the first time in years he does not shrink from the touch of others. He takes pencil and paper and "wrote of his love and his hopes" to Ruth Walker, perhaps proposing marriage. "Tears ran down his cheeks as the words poured from him like grains of corn from an open sack. He buried his arms in heaps of syllables, spilling them through his fingers, brushing them away to make room for more." In what the author calls a "rhapsodic flight," Lester takes a comprehensive view of nature and mankind, imagining their history in eons, and he contemplates Ruth, his mother and his brother with equanimity.8

So great and frequent have been Lester’s shifts of mood throughout Imperturbe, and so sensitive is he to the character of his surroundings, that we cannot believe he has suddenly transcended them. In his last two thoughts in the novel, we see him imagining rejecting the commitment he has just made to Ruth with Oscar’s "If I don’t like it I can blow," and his immediate embarrassment at the thought: "Poor little girl. I ought not to say that." Lester’s dream of imperturbability is the dream of one only too conscious of shifts, and unable to live with the recurrent human pattern of "seeing, hearing, learning, discarding, suffering and recovering." His syphilis is not the cause of his personal conflict but provides an excuse to bury himself deeper into it. With greater resources than Irwin Atwood in Impromptu, Lester Davis has not gone under through his experience of the war, but we are not left to imagine that he has "come through" to some new plateau of emotional security. Both characters display personalities oscillating and insecure, depressive, tormented, and elated - Stephen Crane’s Henry Fleming without the release of a "red badge of courage." If Samuel Graydon, Irwin Atwood and Lester Davis are Paul’s disaggregated externalisations of a self-evaluation, however extrapolated, he had now come to a point of definition, as far as dramatisation goes. It was as though, after a three-book late apprenticeship, he had come to the end of one line of character exploration..9


1 Imperturbe  A Novel of Peace Without Victory (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924), 143, 165, 169, 175, 177, 185.
2 Ibid., 192, 196-97, 198.
3 Ibid., 201, 206, 207, 207, 218, 219.
4 Ibid., 223, 224-25; 227, 238, 241-42, 243, 250.
5 Ibid., 258.
6 Ibid., 265-66, 267, 273, 275, 275-76.
7 The coming of the European war: in the novel, Paul elides two years from Summer 1912 to Summer 1914, and 1915-1917 are greatly abridged. Ibid., 286-87, 287, 294, 289, 294-95.
8 Ibid., 302, 303, 305, 306, 307, 308, 312.
9 Ibid., 313.

This analysis of Imerturbe is taken from Arnold Goldman's biography-in-progress of Elliot Paul. ©Arnold Goldman 2001.

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