Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Party in Miami Beach” (1976)

Miami Beach. (Janie Coffey)

Miami Beach. (Janie Coffey)

The story starts off worrisomely as another one of those meandering character sketches, the writer-protagonist meeting an unusual, eccentric so and so, the eccentric’s monologue going on and on and on, with a few philosophical asides along the way, a few reflections denoting the writer’s detachment, a touch of discomfort, bemusement or distaste on his part, and then scene. Singer developed the formula to excess. Gets old fast. The eccentric in this case is a rich old man in Miami Beach, Max Flederbush. The story has all the trappings of the Singer formula, but it comes alive, ironically, as Flederbush describes the funereal atmosphere of his aged and dying set, dying in a sea of luxuries. There’s a lot here that echoes William Trevor’s “The General’s Day,” a story taking on  greater significance the more stories I read. “If man is formed in God’s image, I don’t envy God.” “It’s scary to think the human species will last so long.” Getting old is torture. It is an invitation to cynicism.

Forverts, February and March 1976

Pritchett, “The Corsican Inn” (1932)

the corsican inn v.s. pritchett

Corsica. (Jeffrey Barry)

Another story that has Pritchett in draft mode, a story that, like Updike’s Morocco but without the bigotry, is more of a travelogue’s meal, in the highlands of Corsica, than a story. An unruly man in an inn, the innkeeper’s glares, the exclamations, the tempers, that sort of thing. A bit stereotypical: Corsicans and their tempers. That Pritchett overwriting that you never see even in young William Trevor: “Everything seemed to stand in isolation as though there were no audible communication between one thing and another, not even a thin intermediary wind.” But I liked his imagery of mountains as cathedrals, if also overdone for a story, but not for a journalistic travel piece:

Now I was mounting not only from ridge to ridge, wondering how it was possible for mortal road to go higher, but from silence to silence too: just as, when one walks in a cathedral, dead anthems of deepening stillness seem to come down from the walls to numb body and mind. These mountains were like cathedrals. At first they had seemed tumultuous in their confusion: then, as the road disposed valley and massif on either side, the summits were established with the majesty of towers. There were naves and aisles of granite and a transept of fine magnitude appeared upon which gleamed windows of rain. There were buttresses of out-flying spurs, and round green hills were put at their feet like chapels. Then I entered the silence of a dark moonless night.

The passage in the first paragraph has no connection to the story that follows, its characters, its thin intermediary outbursts. “Everything seemed to stand in isolation.”

Hawthorne, “Roger Malvin’s Burial” (1832)

Rock face at Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan, below the Cloisters. (© The Notebooks)

Rock face at Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan, below the Cloisters. (© The Notebooks)

That Hawthorne style: baroque, limpid, erotic, here in the service of a tragic, vaguely oedipal story. Roger Malvin and Reuben are returning from Lovell’s fight, or the 1725 Battle of Pequawket. They’re both wounded, Malvin fatally so. They’ve walked for three days. Malvin can’t go on. He tells Reuben to leave him die and take care of his daughter. Reuben is to marry Malvin’s daughter. He tells him to go on home then return and bury hi, and tell his future wife of the way he died, and what he, Malvin, told Reuben to do. Reuben obeys that much, but once home he turns cowardly. He lies to Docras, tells her her after died overnight after the third day, not that he left him to die. He never returns to bury him. He sinks into depression, though they do marry (“but the bridegroom’s face was pale”). “He regretted, deeply and bitterly, the moral cowardice that had restrained his words.” He never repairs the damage. The farm Docras had brought to the marriage is in disrepair. He has become slothful. He decides to take the family and move. On the trip away, the family sets up camp. The strong, handsome 15-year-old boy they have goes hunting. So does Reuben. Reuben thinks he sees a prey. He shoots. He kills his son. He does so unaware until later that he is at the very spot where he had left Malvin. I did not like the Flannery O’Connor-like ending: “Then Reuben’s heart was stricken, and the tears gushed out like water from a rock. The vow that the wounded youth had made, the blighted man had come to redeem. His sin was expiated, the curse was gone from him; and, in the hour, when he had shed blood dearer to him than his own, a prayer, the first for years, went up to Heaven from the lips of Reuben Bourne.” Ruined an otherwise fine but terribly cruel story, underscoring its cruelty far more than its redemption.

William Maxwell, “The Value of Money” (1964)

 

william maxwell value of money

Naperville. (Eli Hodapp)

Edward Ferrers, or Ned, is visiting his father, always referred to as Mr. Ferrers, as he does only once every three years. The town is Draperville, Illinois, Maxwell’s fictional town rhyming with Naperville. Mer. Ferrers is a hard man, moderate in all things except his fanatical Republican convictions and his fanaticism about money. He wants his son to be responsible with money. He is a widower, remarried. The story is built on the father-son dualism, the tension between the revenant and the patriarch, the discomfort with small-town boosterism reflected in the father’s small-town obsessions, though as the visit progresses, tension loosens between father and son, so that when the son repays the father for a brief loan, the father tears up the check, a gesture never imagined before.

The New Yorker, June 6, 1964

William Trevor, “The Table” (1967)

A table at the ostentatious Biltmore. (© The Notebooks)

Imaginary lives. “I don’t know where my father, William Trevor, came up with his stories but over the years,” Patrick Cox wrote, “certain patterns emerged. There was nothing he relished more than to eavesdrop in public places. Corner tables in restaurants and cafés were his favorite listening posts. My guess is that’s how the wheels for “Making Conversation” were set in motion.” The eavesdropper in “The Table” is a Jewish (why Jewish? Trevor makes him out to be a money-grubber, underscroring a tinge of anti-Semitism) is the antique dealer who deals, double deals and triple deals a table, all the while making assumptions about the people he is dealing with. A Mrs. Hammond sells the table to Mr. Jeffs, who then sells it to Mrs. Galbally, but at Mr. Hammond’s urgin (and with Mr. Hammond’s checque). Jeffs delivers the table to Mrs. Galbally’s flat, a love nest he assumes is Galbally’s and Mr. Hammond’s. Then Mrs. Hammond wants the table back because of its sentimental value. She didn’t realize how much it meant to her. It was a gift from her grandmother. But for all his attempts to get the table back for her–and continue to make inordinate amounts of money on each transaction–Jeffs explodes:

‘Your grandmother is dead and buried,’ said Mr Jeffs to his amazement. ‘It is Mrs Galbally who is alive. She takes her clothes off, Mrs Hammond, and in comes your husband and takes off his. And the table sees. The table you have always known. Your childhood table sees it all and you cannot bear it. Why not be honest, Mrs Hammond? Why not say straight out to me: “Jew man, bargain with this Mrs Galbally and let me have my childhood table back.” I understand you, Mrs Hammond. I understand all that. I will trade anything on God’s earth, Mrs Hammond, but I understand that.’

Mrs. Hammond of course knew none of that. Jeffs has shattered her peace. He returns to his miserable, lonely life after ruining that of others by making lives up for them. The comic undercurrents of the story are also shattered by the last images.

Chekhov, “Le Tragédien” (1883)

A high functionary’s daughter loves the theater. She has her father invite the troupe home. She runs off with the “tragédien.” They marry. He loses interest. She becomes a girl Friday. He beats her. She begs her father to send money. It is Chekhov distilled to Chekhov’s essence.

 

Les éclats, 1883

Peter Taylor, “A Spinster’s Tale” (1938)

Peter Taylor and his wife Eleanor in 1946. (Wikimedia Commons)

Peter Taylor and his wife Eleanor in 1946. (Wikimedia Commons)

As poorly read as I am I had not heard of Peter Taylor, or at least could not remember him, until the Library of America dropped the first of his two volumes of collected stories at the door this week. I must have read some of his stories in the New Yorker in the 80s and 90s, but none stand out clipped in memory. “A Spinster’s Tale” begins when the girl telling the story is 13 years old. Like William Trevor’s Mr. Jeffs she has too vivid an imagination but is not as cruel. She sees Old Mister Speed the drunkard hobble by below her window regularly, “persistent yet, withal, seemingly without destination,” building up anxieties about him in her mind. He is a threat to her. Entirely imaginary, but consequential. She ends up calling the cops on him when he seeks the house’s shelter from a storm. Along the way there are psychologically tantalizing parallels between Mr. Speed and the girl’s older, often drunk brother (“my desire form him to strike me and my delight in his natural odor”) and with the girl’s father: “I knew that it was more than a taste for whiskey they had in common.” The girl grows up a little, asserts herself, asserts herself too much: “I felt I had acted wrongly, with courage but without wisdom.” And then the call to the cops: “I was frightened by the thought of the cruelty which I found I was capable of, a cruelty which seemed inextricably mixed with what I had called courage. I looked at him lying out there in the rain and despised and pitied him at the same time, and I was afraid to go minister to the helpless old Mr. Speed.”

The Southern Review, Autumn 1940

Updike, “Morocco” (1979)

To Updike, predators everywhere in Morocco. (Heather Cowper)

I’m sure I’ve read a more repulsive Updike story. Right now I can’t recall one more repulsive than “Morocco.” Repulsive for its overt orientalism, its equally overt indulgence of racist tropes and travel writing’s laziest stereotypes.

The New Yorker rejected “Morocco” when he sent it in at the end of November 1978. He revised it, resubmitted it two months later, the New Yorker rejected it again. The Atlantic ran it in the November 1979 issue. He couldn’t bring himself to collect it in his next short story books, finally including it–as the very first story–in “My Father’s Tears” in 2009, three years after his Arabophobe “Terrorist.” Of course it’s not a story. It’s a travelogue of the trip he took with his wife and four children to Morocco in 1969. “A two-part Easter holiday began in Morocco, where they made an exhausting five-hundred-mile dash in a rented car from Tangier to Agadir,” Adam Begley writes in his biography; “they then flew to Paris for two days, but were too weary of living out of suitcases to enjoy it much.” Begley doesn’t mention the “story” that came out of it. I was looking around the web to see if I was reading something that wasn’t there. The story isn’t anthologized or referred to much, but I happened by a Maghrebi writer’s identical reaction.

Made up fears start in the first lines. Updike (let’s not pretend it’s a fictional dad) is afraid to stop his car anywhere. “What were we afraid of? A trap. Bandits.” It devolves from there. Nothing he sees, nothing he smells or feels elevates. Somehow, in one of the more sublime parts of the world, every mile, every sight is “the bleak plazas, the boarded up arcades” (though I could have been reading about Daytona Beach). One of his daughters, apparently blond, “attracted stares from native men everywhere.” The predatory Arab man trope appears on the second page of the story, as if the very same girl would not attract stares from Updike’s country clubs everywhere back home, as if Updike’s own predatory stares after nubile girls (how many times does the word “nubile” appear in Updike works?) doesn’t heave through his pages. He tries to add a comic element here and there (“Allah be praised”) but it falls flat. On a beach in Agadir, another predator: a man not far from the family is masturbating. They escape, go to a hotel and its private pool “where all the Europeans were swimming and tanning safe from the surrounding culture.” Could the bigotry be more explicit? He’s reveling in it now, in the superiority of it, writing like a supremacist colonialist of the 1800s. They don’t leave Agadir. They “escaped.” He blows through a red light and doesn’t stop when a cop hails: more western contempt for Arab laws. And again, “We had escaped.”

When Updike is more objectively reassessed for the distastefulness of morals and judgments behind the gilded style, this “story” will figure prominently.

Porter, “He”

Mrs. Whipple and her nameless son, referred to only as “He” and “Him,” emphasizing his paradoxical nature at the center of his mother’s life and at the margins of it: she loves him and endangers him, she dotes on him and blames him, she is most of all concerned with how the family looks in other people’s eyes, and how his simple-mindedness is affecting her family’s standing. I don’t know what it is about Porter stories that don’t grab me by the throat, or by any other parts. Her stories so far have been a struggle to read, like poorly written legal briefs even though there’s nothing wrong with Porter’s style.

Wharton, “The Long Run” (1912)

The rage of conformity: Halston Merrick falls in love with a married woman but for the life of him can’t bring himself to diverge from conforming norms even as he sees his cowardice for what it is. The story is told from an unnamed first-person man long after the events of the tale, by which time “Merrick had grown conventional and dull.” The most he could do with the woman he loved was “take a night and not a life,” the closest allusion to a one-night stand you’ll see in Wharton. That line, “the rage of conformity,” occurs toward the end of the story, summing up Wharton’s indictment of her character. I’m afraid Merrick’s dullness contaminates the story.

The Atlantic, February 1912

John O’Hara, “Too Young” (1939)

A sketch about a 15-year-old boy, Bud, infatuated with Kathy, 19, girlfriend to a boorish man called Martin, who calls her names, orders her around and brutalizes her just a bit. Bud is powerless. “The god-damn awful part was that there was nothing, nothing, nothing to do but what he was doing now.” Which was nothing. A slice of bitterness.

The New Yorker, September 9, 1939

Faulkner, “Hair” (1931)

william faulkner hair

Barber James Carter closes shop for deer hunting season in Umatilla, Florida, 1967. (Florida Memory)

Faulkner’s sentimental streak. Henry Stribling is a barber in Jefferson who disappears for two weeks every April, nobody knows where or why. People call him Hawkshaw, slang for detective, and they play detective, trying to figure out why he disappears, why he takes after a young orphan girl called Susan, inventing all sorts of salacious implications about him though there’s only evidence of propriety on his part. The narrator is a salesman who crosses paths with Henry’s many paths. He’s been a barber elsewhere and quit his job, but not in Jefferson. “Susan,” writes the Digital Yoknapatawpha Project, “clearly belongs in the gallery of promiscuous female characters – Joan Heppleworth, Caddy Compson, Temple Drake, Addie and Dewey Dell Bundren, and so on – whose sexuality occupies, even preoccupies a good part of the text.” The mystery is explained: Henry had pledged to take care of the house of a woman even after she died, paying off the mortgage, maintaining the upkeep every April. He eventually marries Susan and moves there.

American Mercury, May 1931, These Thirteen, 1931. 

Kafka, “The Metamorphosis” (1915)

The game to play as theorists have been playing it since 1915 is to decide the meaning of George Samsa’s insectile character (as J. Robert Lennon would describe him). I’m partial to that interpretation: it’s an insectile character, which makes the physical look and whether George is “in fact” a n insect or not irrelevant. Kafka didn’t want Samsa illustrated for a reason. He’s imprisoned in a state of mind. Don’t imprison him in a physical depiction. The first line has been translated in many different ways: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” An insect, a vermin, nothing more specific. vermin and insects feed on the dead. This is a story of decomposition before our eyes–the decomposition of an ill and mentally and physically disfigured Samsa, the decomposition of a family, the decomposition of what had once been a loving relationship between Samsa and Grete, who becomes Samsa’s killer: “she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure,” the opposite of her brother’s decomposition. Gregor’s father, as in every Kafka story so far, doesn’t elicit sympathy either. But there’s nothing sentimental about the story. Kafka isn;t pulling at strings to get the reader all in knots over Gregor’s condition. It becomes more uncomfortably familiar than imaginary as the story wears on–as Gregor decomposes. A sick, leprous person has the characteristics of an insect. Doesn;t have to look like one to feel like one. It is a story of illness, decline, of being discarded.

Ann Glaviano, “Come On, Silver” (2017)

Come On, Silver Gay, Roxane. The Best American Short Stories 2018 (The Best American Series ®) (p. 127). HMH Books. Kindle Edition. ann glaviano

Camp. (Flickr)

This is where the future handmaids of The Handmaid’s Tale go when they’re 12 to 14 years old, where they’re required to learn how to be a woman, to write letters to their future husband and learn all the ways of being with him (no gender traitors allowed), or when they’re caught playing X-rated versions of Barbie and Ken, as Josephine, or Fin, the narrator, was. A camp where girls are sent home for faking their periods. There are even “ceremonies,” as in handmaid, but not quite involving penetrative inseminations. Close enough though: “We had to put on our camp whites for the ceremony, and before we went into the lodge the female counselors told us stories about menstruating girls who were inhabited by demons. The demons could make the polish on our nails turn rotten. The smell of blood could bring snakes slithering into our cabins.”

“Everything here is a competition. Tampons versus sanitary napkins. Bras versus undershirts. On the first night, the Beav divided everyone into two teams: the Cubs versus the Colts. (I am, fortunately, a Colt.) Also, older girls versus younger girls, even though everyone at this camp achieved menarche in the past year. No one talks about the menstruation requirement. I only know because I found the brochure on Mother’s desk. The older girls are called Evening Primroses. The younger girls are called Morning Glories. (The camp is called Camp Moonflower. I am a Morning Glory.) The camp motto is Dignae et provisae iucundae, which we are made to chant three times at the beginning of each meal.” The latin translated: “Worthy and provided enjoyable.” There’s a great deal of competition between the girls. There’s meanness. There’s Fin’s crush on counselor Andrew, who takes her on a nighttime horseride intended to get her to orgasm, as it does him, though Fin seems oblivious both to the intention and to Andrew’s orgasm behind her. “My butt hurts,” is all she tells the disappointed, glassy-eyed Andrew. In the end Fin is made to swim a large distance in the lake in some form of representative ceremony, she representing Woman. She swims in the wrong direction.

Tim House, 2017

Flannery O’Connor, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” (1954)

flannery o'connor a temple of the holy ghost

‘Sleeping Venus/Hermaphrodite’ at the Liverpool Museum. See details.

A 12-year-old girl’s caustic, aggravating, proud, funny observations about her two 14-year-old girl cousins visiting from Mount St. Scholastica, a convent school. The title is taken from Corinthians 6:19 (“Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself) and anticipates in remote ways The Handmaid’s Tale. The younger girl, who takes to the notion that she could be a temple of the holy ghost and becoming a saint but for the tortures she might have to endure, makes fun of the older, seemingly more simple-minded girls. The older girls go to a fair and see a hermaphrodite. The hermaphrodite shows them his genitals and says repeatedly, “God made me thisaway… and I ain’t disputing His way.” O’Connor would like us to think that he represents the acceptance of god’s will. Of course that implies that there’s something wrong with the hermaphrodite–a prejudicial, a priori judgment by O’Connor necessary as a premise for the story to “work.” The judgment is a distasteful construct. This being O’Connor, the girl has an epiphany at the end, accepting grace, letting go of her pride, embracing Catholicism. Drench the ending in sun all you like, it’s a preachy, flimsy story saved by its humor and the girl’s curious insights. But it’s no “Keela.”

Harper’s Bazaar, May 1954

Karen Russell, “The Bad Graft” (2014)

joshua trees karen russell bad graft

(Dan Eckert)

Karen Russell can so convince you that the soul of a Joshua tree can jump into a human being, body-snatcher-like, and become a thinking, acting part of her that she can have you on the verge of Googling the possibilities. Angie is “three years sober and still struggling to find her mooring on dry land.” Andy is a “reader” with the words ever unfixed, from Melville, tattooed on his arm. They’ve eloped but aren’t married. “They’re in the Mojave desert. The Mojave “was a good place to launch into exile together.” Near Warren Peak, where the Joshua trees are, “the bad graft occurs.” The tree invades Angie. “For the rest of her life, she will be driven to return to the park, searching for the origin of the feeling that chooses this day to invade her and make its home under her skin,” a “ghostly leap” from the “pulsating” joshua. “The change is metaphysical: the tree’s spirit is absorbed into the migrating consciousness, where it lives on, intertwined with its host.” Kind of like this:

It’s neo-magical realism, a style The New Yorker seems to be fond of (Lennon’s “Loop” is too similar), that Russell excels at, but that has the same sort of limitations, the same convenience, as faith-based narratives: once you cross that threshold anything goes after all. It’s too facile. It depends a great deal on the writer’s imaginative capabilities. Russell’s are endless. You read Russell for those leaps, the luminousness of her prose, the tendrils of insights it allows: “This insoluble spirit, this refugee from the Joshua tree, understands itself to have leapt into Hell. The wrong place, the wrong vessel. It pulses outward in a fuzzy frenzy of investigation, flares greener, sends out feelers. Compared with the warm and expansive desert soil, the human body is a cul-de-sac.”

A lot of threads are left dangling: the girl’s previous addiction, the boy’s poorly realized character, their ability to live month after month in that desert no land. The end is purposefully ambiguous. We never know whether she actually emerges from the last encounter with the trees, though that earlier line suggests the unspoken future: “For the rest of her life, she will be driven to return to the park…”

London, “The Priestly Prerogative” (1900)

priestly prerogative jack london

The Yukon River (Philip Grondin)

Here’s how it opens: “This is the story of a man who did not appreciate his wife; also, of a woman who did him too great an honor when she gave herself to him. Incidentally, it concerns a Jesuit priest who had never been known to lie. He was an appurtenance, and a very necessary one, to the Yukon country; but the presence of the other two was merely accidental. They were specimens of the many strange waifs which ride the breast of a gold rush or come tailing along behind.”

The couple is Edwin Bentham and Grace Bentham. Edwin is a loser. Grace is a noble soul who makes her husband shine, though he doesn’t deserve it. Grace falls for a man called Wharton. They prepare to elope. The Jesuit priest who cannot lie warns her not to, evoking the prospect of her giving birth to a bastard son. She changes her mind. Just then her husband shows up at Wharton’s door. The priest lies to protect her hiding place. She goes back to him. It’s a strange story, the focus being more on the lie of the priest allegedly to protect her than on the lies he makes up to claim that she’d ruin her life if she runs off. Or are we meant to see both lies? Either way, the priest is all about oppressing women. He’d be an Eye in The Handmaid’s Tale.

 

 

See: Jack London’s Allegorical Landscapes: “The God of His Fathers, ” “The Priestly Prerogative, ” by Donna Campbell.

Carver, “60 Acres” (1969)

raymond carver 60 acrs

“Not a Gentleman Farmer.” (Neil Moralee, 2017)

A Hemingwayesque story in style, theme and development, if with a more defined plot. Lee Waite, 32, owns 60 acres on a reservation. A neighbor tells him people are hunting illegally on it. Again. He loads his rifle and goes. He is as apprehensive as his scared prey, two young people, when he catches them. Both his brothers have been killed, one by stabbing, the other not clear how. It’s clear that violence runs in the family. It intrudes, as it often does in Carver stories, out of nowhere. His characters are aware of their vulnerability to it. Sometimes they control the violence. Sometimes they don’t. They’re all like Zola’s Maquarts. Waite wants to control it. Waite did not like it when his sons asked him, as he was loading the rifle, if he was going to kill the hunters this time. He lets the hunters go, taking their hunting prizes. “He had put them off the land. That was all that mattered. Yet he could not understand why he felt something crucial had happened, a failure.” Back home, with his wife, his ageing, glum mother, his two children, he talks about leasing the land so it can make some money and be off his back. His legs shake from under him as he thinks of the $1,000 he speculates he could get from leasing. It’s not clear whether they shake to the point of having him sit from anticipation of money or from giving away the land.

Discourse, Winter 1969

O’Henry, “Cupid’s Exile Number Two” (1904)

cabbages and kings o'henry

(Dr. Warner)

One of the lesser stories, about the arrival of “consular timber” John Atwood to the island, described at one point, in anticipation of the book’s more famous phrase, as ” this grocery and fruit stand that they call a country.” Banana republic is a few stories further. “I didn’t take this job with any intention of working,” the young Atwood says. One night the Andador is spotted offshore, with a sloop going to it with a certain H.P. Mellinger, leaving the island for New York. Atwood is speaking with Keough, who tells him of Mellinger’s phonograph, and graft. Atwood wants to hear more. It’s in the next story.

Poe, “Epimanes: Four Beasts In One” (1850)

four beasts in one poe

Antioch.

A story of Antioch set in a distant future, a way to mirror the beastliness of monarchs. Difficult to read, difficult to follow, with a hint of Orientalism burrowing in there.

Maupassant, “Histoire d’une fille de ferme” (1881)

ƒhistoire d'une fille de ferme maupassantMaupassant likes his stories spiked with brutality. The domestic violence of “Le Noyé” gets gratuitous. So it does in “Histoire d’une fille de ferme,” which culminates with the farmer brutalizing Rose, the farmhand, because she won’t get pregnant. (“All boys are thus,” London writes in the Priestly Prerogative.”) That’s after he invites himself to her bed and essentially rapes her to take possession of her. Six years before Rose had a fling with another farmhand and got pregnant. She went away to be with her dying mother at the convenient time when she gave birth far from her village, so she could leave her son with others to raise and return to the farm, where she becomes very skilled at making money for her farmer in hopes of getting a raise. She doesn’t get a raise, but a marriage proposal from the farmer, which she rebuffs, because of her unspoken son, until he takes her. It goes well at first, then sours. He beats her up. She finally tells him why she’s not having another child, since she has one already (it’s a flaw in the story: what would keep her from getting pregnant again, since she’s obviously fertile?) The farmer becomes all soft and happy to adopt her son. And so it’s a happy ending.

As always in Maupassant stories, there are genial asides, like this: “Au milieu d’elles, le coq, superbe, se dressait. À chaque instant il en choisissait une et tournait autour avec un petit gloussement d’appel. La poule se levait nonchalamment et le recevait d’un air tranquille, pliant les pattes et le supportant sur ses ailes ; puis elle secouait ses plumes d’où sortait de la poussière et s’étendait de nouveau sur le fumier, tandis que lui chantait, comptant ses triomphes ; et dans toutes les cours tous les coqs lui répondaient, comme si, d’une ferme à l’autre, ils se fussent envoyé des défis amoureux.”

But there are also awfully prejudiced lines that accent Maupassant’s limitations: “Elle ne consentait pas, pour sûr, mais elle résistaitnonchalamment, luttant elle-même contre l’instinct toujours plus puissant chez les natures simples, et mal protégée par la volonté indécise de ces races inertes et molles.” The story’s shallow presumptions about Rose frame its soft-porn paternalism, the paternalism only amplified by the happy ending, which does not resolve the hell Rose had to go through, hiding, pretending, denying, and submitting to such denigration and violence before the farmer’s epiphany–not for Rose’s sake, but because he finally could have a son he could adopt and call his own. Rose remains a vessel, abused and stepped on, to the end.

La revue politique et litteraire, 26 mars 1881

Henry James, “Poor Richard” (1867)

poor richard henry james

Where’s Poor Richard?

A study of condescension, manipulation, Machiavellian scheming in a love quadrangle. The rich Gertrude plays with poor Richard and almost-as poor Severn, the latter a wounded veteran of the civil war still ongoing. One of the questions neither posed nor answered is why Richard isn’t at the war. He joins it only at the end, out of a need for redemption. No telling what he was doing meanwhile other than drinking whisky and tending his farm. No “Lamp of Psyche” here, no wondering or questioning why, though he’s 24 years old, Richard did not go to war. He loves Gertrude. She claims not to, but she wants to fix him. “I propose, with your consent, to appoint myself your counsellor.” He is insecure enough to accept: “He wished that he might incontinently lay bare all his shortcomings to her delicious reproof.” She hooks him up with Severn. It doesn’t go well when both men realize they’re competing for Gertrude, while Gertrude is playing the game, playing with “her long blockaded ports.”

And so it goes for poor Richard: “He was good enough to be better; he was good enough not to sit by the hour soaking his limited understanding in whiskey. And at the very least, if he was not worthy to possess Gertrude, he was yet worthy to strive to obtain her, and to live for evermore upon the glory of there having been such a question between himself and the great Miss Whittaker. He would raise himself then to that level from which he could address her as an equal, from which he would have the right to insist on something.”

A stroll in the country with Severn and a fourth wheel doesn’t go well. Richard is upset. Before long the fourth wheel is the Machiavellian Major James Lutterel, scheming to bag himself Gertrude, pretending to be Poor Richard’s friend. Richard falls ill, Severn and his broken heart go back to war where he gets killed, Gertrude briefly considers marrying Luttrell, then not. She marries no one. The story picks up intricacies and interest as it wears along its 60 pages, one of James’s longest, but in the end the circling around Gertrude is shallow, and Gertrude herself is uninteresting. It’s too much plodding for too little payoff.

The Atlantic, June, July-August 1867

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Mentor” (1968)

the mentor isaac singer

One of Singer’s monologuish stories. Freidle the monologuist is a free-spirited woman, a physician hedonist who claims to believe in nothing, who cheated on her husband on her honeymoon and sleeps with everything that moves, but whose free spirit crumbles the moment it’s about her 16-year-old daughter, who despises her. Her life is a double-standard. The daughter is living with Tobias, the husband, who, according to Feidle, is making a whore of the girl to spite Freidle. (“There is one sphere in which everyone is a genius, and that is in being spiteful.”) It’s a thin story that wears thinner as you read. Som of the better lines:

Forward, September 13, 14 ad 20, 1968

Chekhov, “Le gros et le maigre” (“Fat and Thin,” 1883)

chekhov thin fat man

A sketch of a childhood friendship that curdles into obsequiousness when the thin one discovers that the fat one, whom he hasn’t seen in years, is a highly decorated functionary.

Les eclats, 1 Octobre 1883