The New Yorker, November 11, 2019
Another presumptuously tedious if a touch affecting étude of the Darwinian dynamics between young and old, Nick Adams and a washed up and now deranged pugilist–deranged from all the poundings he took. He unpredictably goes from courteous to angry and violent. He knows it. “I’m not quite right,” he says. Nick Adams is thrown out of a train he’d been hoboeing on. The pugilist and his black companion (why black?) are by a campfire. They see what happened to Nick. They invite him over. All’s well until the pugilist misinterprets something Nick says as an offense to the black man called Bugs, and whom Hemingway at least twice refers to as “the nigger.” Why? The pugilist turns violent. Bugs knocks him out and tells Nick to leave, for his safety, giving hims something toe at for the road. He leaves “The little man whom Nick knew by name as a former champion fighter.”
In Our Time, 1925
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” takes its title from the Jonathan Edwards Great Awakening sermon published in 1741, and that mentions hell about 50 times. It’s only an allusion in the Joyce Carol Oates story, but it’s echoed in the context her characters are contending with, and in the actual wildfire hellfire that demolishes half their neighborhood, but not the house of the protagonist, Luce, who wears a mask to protect herself against pollution. The story is thick with the topicality of global warming and a dying planet, but through the eyes of Luce and her husband, a late middle-aged couple surrounded by late middle-aged men and women, friends, who are dying one by one, or getting terribly diseased, as if the planet’s ills are corroding them: “Their friends and neighbors are collapsing all around them—in mimicry of the collapsing roads of Vedders Hill.”
It’s Andrew’s (half-serious) opinion that, in the twenty-first century, damnation is a matter not of Hell but of inadequate medical insurance.
“We are spiders dangled by fate over the fires of Hell, and the slightest slip will plunge us into an eternity of misery—kept alive by machines, for which we may have to pay ‘out of pocket.’ ”
Andrew’s listeners laugh, uneasily. He may be joking—or half joking—but this is the nightmare that everyone in America dreads.
The couple, who have their own issues–he’s distant, a bit ridiculing of her “catastrophizing”–decide to have a party for their remaining friends, and Luce decides to revive the strong quartet she used to have, and perform Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, the 14th, “Death and the Maiden.” The pages on the performance of the quartet are among those rare performances in themselves of a writer conveying the art of music in words, so much better than Burgess did in his awful Mozart book, all wrapped up in Luce’s contradictory emotions and anguish: “The terror of beauty, Luce thinks. Like the terror of mortality, it is what links us.”
The New Yorker, Oct. 7, 2019
A two-page story about the cleverness of a man presumed to be more simple-minded than he was: the postmaster’s beautiful wife had just died. All assumed she had been cheating on him. He assures everyone she never had. They doubt him. He proves it, saying he maintained her fidelity by spreading rumors that she was the mistress of the chief of police, whom no one would dare cross. And so no one touched her. Et voilà.
Les éclats, 1883
Again: that feeling of having sinned for decades for not having read Alice Munro sooner. “The Shining Houses” begins with Mary visiting Mrs. Fullerton’s messy homestead to buy some overpriced eggs before she heads to a birthday party with her young child. So we see Mrs. Fullerton’s eccentricities and how in her house “what was haphazard time had made final. The place had become fixed, impregnable, all its accumulations necessary…” But a yuppy subdivision called, ironically, Garden Place, grew up around Mrs. Fullerton’s home, and now the new neighbors want her gone. She blights their sense of “community.” She’s not like them. Her yard smells. It’s unseemly. As Mary listens to them all speak at the birthday party, plotting like a kitchen cabal, we hear their clever, legal scheming, their use of land-use rules against Mrs. Fullerton, and finally how they rally everyone at the party to sign a petition to drill a lane through Mrs. Fullerton’s property, forcing her to give up and move. Munro recreates that totalitarian spirit of community, that smugness, that self-satisfied power of the do-gooders who think they are community, and she does it all without actually seeming to pass judgment. They are well-meaning. “[I]t did not matter much what they said as long as they were full of self-assertion and anger. That was their strength, proof of their adulthood, of themselves and their seriousness. The spirit of anger rose among them, bearing up their young voices, sweeping them together as on a flood of intoxication, and they admired each other in this new behavior as property-owners as people admire each other for being drunk.” Mary does not sign, and draws her neighbors’ wrath. “There is nothing you can do at present but put your hands in your pockets and keep adisaffected heart.” A line that I can borrow in Palm Coast every day.
First Read on CBC’s Anthology, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968)
Reversed remake of Maupassant’s “Necklace.” Charlotte’s aunt was an actress. She dies. Charlotte and her aunt’s son, Arthur Prime, find what appears to be a pearl necklace among her belongings. Arthur is adamant that it’s mere paste. The pearls can’t be real. Charlotte isn’t so sure. But who gave the pearls to the aunt? Might she have had a lover? Arthur can’t abide the thought. He lets her keep them though. Charlotte lends them to another woman for a party, where everyone marvels at the pearls. Charlotte decides they must be real and returns them to Arthur, who alleges to destroy them. But later the woman who’d worn them at the party has them again, having bought them at a store. Arthur had sold them, become aware of their authenticity.
Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, December 1899
Two teen-age boys whose mothers live together and who develop sexual affection and love for each other, written in a deliberately insistent present tense, the tense of the uncertain confessor whose every line seems to beg a question mark, unrequited. They break rules. They grow up. Rio, the narrator’s love, breaks more rules than the narrator does. They break rules together after the narrator marries and awaits a child. Rio is not happy about it. Life goes poorly for him, and well for the narrator. “We will wonder what got into us.” The starkness stands out more than the story does.
Passages North Nr. 38, Best American Short Stories 2018
Loneliness as a life sentence: Alice Hindman is a 27-year-old retail clerk, quiet, “but beneath a placid exterior a continual ferment went on.” She falls in love with Ned Currie, who is touched but also puzzled by her ardor, also literally: she gives herself to him in a field, thinking of it far more than he did. He leaves for a bigger town. He never returns. She never abandons her hope that he will. She stays out of the unvirginal woods. She joins a church. A middle-aged man, another store clerk, begins walking her home. “It is not him that I want.” One rainy night she gets naked and walks into the rain by her house. “She thought that the rain would have some creative and wonderful effect on her body. Not for years had she felt so full of youth and courage. She wanted to leap and run, to cry out, to find some other lonely human and embrace him.” All she finds is a strange, half deaf old man. She must “face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.” It is Anderson’s version of quiet desperation.
Tom Harris is a 30-year-old salesman who has trouble connecting with any one person, any one place, any one emotion. He is restless. He seems cold, though it’s not certain that he is. He picks up two hitch-hikers, one of whom ends up slamming the other on the head with a blunt object, injuring him fatally. Harris goes to a party while the victim agonizes, and he stays in a hotel where the assailant is kept in a separate room, because there’s a black man at the jail’s only cell. During the night, the victim dies.Harris had had a “date,” a strange date, at the party, but did not connect with the girl. He leaves the next day.
Southern Review, Autumn 1939
An unnecessarily longish story about Nils Ericson, a young man in the shipping business, the only one of innumerable sons not to stay and farm, who returns to the family farm for a visit, where he sees Clara, the Bohemian girl, with whom he’d been in love. He’s come back to claim her. She’s a free spirit of sorts. It takes some tiresome convincing, but she eventually leaves her husband and runs off with Nils. The subplot is Eric, Nils’s little brother, whom Nils wants to see leave the farm. He almost does a year later, taking a train to travel and meet up with Nils, but gets cold feet, turns around, and returns to his mama.
McClure’s, August 1912
Bondel and his wife are a querulous couple but on the whole get along tolerably enough. This time they argue about adultery, and whether men can or cannot be blind to their wives’ affairs. Blondel’s wife alludes to his inability to see. Hubristically, he thinks himself infallible in that regard, but decides to put his wife to the test (L’Épreuve), by rejoining her with a man she’d stopped talking to a long time before. When he does so, he realizes that, well, they’d been lovers.
L’Écho de Paris, 13 juillet 1889, L’Inutile Beauté, 1890
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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’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.
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.
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