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A spirit preserved in 'Amber'

June 15, 2003|John Rechy | John Rechy is the author of numerous novels, including "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens," which will be published this fall.

On May 26, a frail woman of 83, once famous, died in New York City, a virtual recluse. News of her death appeared sporadically. I called one newspaper about an obituary. An editor asked, "Kathleen who?"

Kathleen Winsor had died, the author of seven novels, including, in 1944, "Forever Amber," which in its first week of publication sold 100,000 copies and went on to sell millions. Enthusiastically bawdy, the novel was set in Restoration London, then rebounding roisterously from the somber rule of Oliver Cromwell.

Obituaries were largely dismissive, derisive. As if that was all she should be remembered for, even eight-line obituaries evoked the Massachusetts attorney general who brought charges of obscenity by numbering its sexual passages; an adding machine was needed, he said. Since there is no graphic sex in "Forever Amber," he must have distractedly counted ellipses.

Slightly longer obituaries cited the judge who, dismissing obscenity charges -- the book was banned in 14 states and abused by reviewers as vulgar and trivial -- claimed that the novel had put him to sleep. Counting sexual liaisons, not sheep?

In the interim following, several novels aroused censors, none as notoriously as "Forever Amber." Although four years later Norman Mailer had to coin the word "fug" to ease "The Naked and the Dead" past censors, he and other writers -- some of D.H. Lawrence's and Henry Miller's novels were not yet legal here -- benefited from Winsor's contribution to the fight. Aside from all that, "Forever Amber" is a grand literary creation.

I heard of it at age 13 when, with other congregants in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in El Paso, I stood to repeat a decreed vow that I would never read the sinful book. Grateful to God for the introduction, I rushed to read it.

Preternaturally precocious then, and as modest as I am now, I read several long books simultaneously. So it was that while I followed Winsor's glamorous Amber St. Clare from a staid country household to the profligate Court of King Charles II, I also roamed with Molly Bloom through lush memories of fragrant tosses in flower-strewn fields; and I traversed Swann's way to encounter the scandalous Odette; and every now and then I would cast Molly as Amber, and then Odette was Amber and Amber would turn into Molly. Eventually, stubborn Amber refused to become Ma Joad.

Informed by years of research, Winsor, age 25, drew so exuberant a picture of London during the Restoration -- "stinking, dirty, noisy, brawling" -- that it is difficult to believe she had not been there. She evokes the heat, the advancing flames of the Great Fire. She creates a surreal city during the Great Plague. Predators pillage near-corpses. "Bring out your dead!" echoes along plundered streets.

We sit among raucous theater audiences. In the opulent court of Charles II, we mingle in golden-mirrored halls, all as Amber climbs to the heights as mistress of Charles II. With wry humor, Winsor follows that ascent closely. To upstage everyone else, Amber attends the royal court with breasts exposed. " 'Swounds, madame, this is the greatest display since I was weaned," leers a lord -- and I quote from usually reliable memory.

In her sumptuous characterizations, Winsor is in the tradition of Dickens. Mother Red Cap, Black Jack Mallard, Mrs. Maggot -- her cast ranges from bawds and pirates to embroidered courtiers and courtesans. Historical figures come to life as vividly as fictive characters. Charles II, cynical, bored, wanders luxuriant gardens with his pampered dogs. Winsor imbues her star-crossed romance with a sense of fateful irony. Amber's love for the haughty Lord Bruce Carlton is impossible because she is lowly born. Only the reader knows that her mother was an aristocrat.

Virtually every one of the Winsor obituaries relegates her work to the realm of "women's fiction." Even Elaine Showalter in an admiring appreciation in the Guardian limits the author's scope by identifying readers implicitly only among women. Other writers mention Jacqueline Susann and Grace Metalious as her literary sisters. It is not to demean those significant ladies to uphold that "Forever Amber" belongs with Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," Defoe's "Moll Flanders," Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" -- and with Fielding's famous picaresque novel; Amber is somewhat of a female Tom Jones.

Not only women admired the book. Ring Lardner did; so did Otto Preminger. So did my brother Yvan. Returning from the invasion of Normandy, Yvan, 21 then, snatched away my copy. He had started reading it on the ship back to the States but couldn't keep it long enough from other returnees to finish it. When I was in the 101st Airborne Infantry Division in Germany soon after the Korean War, I read it again. It had lost none of its power.

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