Obituary: Sigrid de Lima

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The Independent Culture
ANYBODY WHO had read only the first three novels by Sigrid de Lima, published between 1950 and 1954, could not have anticipated the fourth, a masterpiece - Praise a Fine Day (1960). It makes one more than regret what was lost when American reaction to her fifth, Oriane (1968), led this writer, as sensitive as the Virginia Woolf she much admired, to stop writing.

Where her earlier work tended towards the ruminative, the pared-down first-person male narrative of Praise a Fine Day finds events largely transplanted to Rome and the 150 pages take in all manner of manipulation, evil, passion and illicit congress: it could surely have been the basis for one of the era's great movies, something perfect for the baroque realism of Visconti's Ossessione - and perhaps found a cameo role for one of her striking looks were she not so quiet a spirit.

Her mother, an author who specialised in the social history of childhood, had encouraged her to read and write from the start. A first novel, Captain's Beach (1950), published in her twenties, was the result of study at Hiram Hadyn's workshop at the New York School for Social Research; not that anybody would have guessed that from the lyrical opening which, shot through with echoes of Virginia Woolf ("those who compose our bones do so for all eternity"), takes place on a beach where a paralysed child describes being "carried about laboriously like a bucket of ocean water that, cast off from the sea, has lost the power of motion".

All of which little prepares one for a shift in time and place to New York and the occupants of a dingy rooming house, and a budding romance, if that is what it is, between two younger residents. The narrative is hindered by such descriptions as this, about a door whose

aged wood in the upright stiles, long since sprung by the uneven action of dampness and temperature, reversed its former aboreal habit of cellular accretion, diminishing now, ever widening the gap to the jamb. Contrarily, the hanging stile had swelled so that the lintel above and the sill below were scarred and grooved with matched arcs; the unused doorknob, functionless, had slipped its gears, spun at a touch loosely in either direction.

One might reasonably dismiss that as the work of somebody who, simultaneously, can write and yet can't. It is not exactly bad in itself but the effect - with none of Woolf's panache - is of something from the grimmer stretches of Dorothy Richardson.

The drama of The Swift Cloud (1952), in which a man is arrested for murder after the natural death of his retarded son, bodes well but, again, slumps into unsustained elaboration, while Carnival by the Sea (1954) springs, in part, from the fate of a woman who "was of the age and sex that marries for love and does not look deeply into what she loves", but nothing in it is as fine as the observation about "the poor rooking the poor with meagre profits".

Such pithiness animates the small masterpiece that is Praise a Fine Day. The events are a far cry from anything in de Lima's own life and emerged from a time in Rome, where she had won a fellowship at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in the early Fifties and there met and married the artist Stephen Greene, who had been told of her imminent arrival by another Rome resident, William Styron, with whom she had been involved: he wrote much of his first novel, Lie Down In Darkness, in the house, 30 miles from Manhattan, which had belonged to her mother: an old inn, it is said to be one of the few at which the peregrinating George Washington took one look and decided to press on to the next.

Her romance with Greene led to marriage one Christmas Eve ("It's the one day I'm not teaching," he told her. "I'll be home"). Their honeymoon in Tunisia was a notable influence upon his work and it is reasonable to infer that it gave her the fresh spirit so evident in Praise a Fine Day.

In the novel, an artist in his early thirties tells of his move to a coolly observed Rome after inheriting a little money upon the death of his respectably suburban father in Lively, Pennsylvania. The artist had long been regarded as a family black sheep, and small wonder, for, in teenage years, there was something between him and a sister which

even I realised was love. It was not innocent and that was discovered too and I was sent away to school. Minnie was sent away too, presently to marry and grow tame.

In Rome, having moved through a succession of ever-cheaper lodging houses, he becomes involved, after a fashion, with Mara and makes the observation, worthy of Proust, that "it was merely fondness, of course, but in a sense that tepid emotion is more viable than passion". Mara is, it seems, smitten with Isaak, by whom she is expecting a child, and the narrator finds himself agreeing to help them, for a welcome fee: he marries Mara, or so it seems - a ploy to circumvent Nasser's anti-Semitic laws, and a situation which he plots to turn to his own advantage after a bizarre honeymoon on which bride and groom take one hire-car and her true love another to each of the tourist spots:

Ah, you will say, was ever a man more confused - to enter into a fraudulent marriage with the full intention of compounding fraud upon fraud and yet to claim that in his heart he is sure to love and cherish. And yet that is the way it was, and also when the ceremony was done, so did I kiss my bride, loving her and passionately desiring her and feeling then for a long time afterward . . . the sweet sense of those soft, full lips pressed against my own, like some marvelous rose, both hot and cool in the sun and moist and velvety dry.

To say any more about the continual twists and relentless ambiguity of this elegant novel would be unfair, except that the title derives from the proverb "Only praise a fine day at night". Everything that Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers is not, it is long overdue a reissue. It was her last novel to be published in England but she wrote one more, Oriane, which had the disappointing reaction which caused her to stop writing. "It broke her heart," says Greene.

As her own mother had done, Sigrid de Lima now devoted time to her daughter, Alison, who had been born in 1957. She is now Director of Twentieth-Century Art at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, and soon publishes a history of the state's effect upon American artists.

Christopher Hawtree

Sigrid de Lima, novelist: born New York 4 December 1921; married 1955 Stephen Greene (one daughter); died Nyack, New York 19 September 1999.