Category: Short Story Project

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892)

John and the narrator have rented a colonial mansion, “a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house,” where the narrator can rest from an illness her physician husband John, who “scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be left and seen and put down in figures,” does not believe she has, though he is treating her and manages her hourly prescriptions. “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.” He is also controlling and patronizing. He doesn’t let her have the room she wished they’d taken on the first floor. “He hates to have me write a word.” All activities are discouraged. But she writes, from a room with atrocious yellow wall paper that commits “every artistic sin,” and “when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide.” The narrator has just had a baby but was separated from it because of her illness. It’s post-partum depression to our eyes, but to her husband and the rest of her family, it’s an invention, a conceit, an indulgence, an ironic twist on the blame: it’s all in your head.

Actually, it’s all in the wall-paper, which gradually becomes the narrator’s doors of perception. Gilman’s device is simple and ingenuous. The paper is a mirror to the narrator’s slow degradation as she slowly unmoors herself from John, with the occasional snide aside (“I suppose John was never nervous in his life”) while the patterns in the paper take on life, little by little as if sucking the life out of her: “There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside-down.” At first the wallpaper oppresses her with its ugliness but then becomes her. The story’s obvious limitation is the coherent narration throughout: a woman losing grasp of life as she knew it would not know to write sop lucidly. That suspension of disbelief is the accepted deal with Gilman. It can’t be resolved. Although we also don;t know whether this is memoir or testament. The patterns in the wallpaper become her testament: “On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.” She supposedly improves, at least according to how she reports John reacting, but she is only degrading further, talking about burning the house, “creeping” about the room, demolishing the paper as if to free the souls within, and herself. The paper had been a reflection of her prison, her prison a reflection of her society, starting with her husband.

The prison is still full of guards and inmates.

Sherwood Anderson, “Nobody Knows” (1917)

night shadow edward hopper

From the Met: “In this print, the viewer is given a bird’s-eye perspective of a city street corner. Hopper has evoked an entire world with just a few elements: a storefront, a fire hydrant, and a lone walking man who is about to cross the looming shadow of a streetlight that lies across his path. The setting that inspired Hopper was an actual location in New York, which the artist also used for his oil painting New York Corner (also known as Corner Saloon, 1913; Museum of Modern Art, New York). It is a downtown street near the riverfront, marked by a simple brick building with a painted sign; yet as ordinary as this place may be, Hopper has made it seem mysterious and even threatening through the use of dark tonalities and strong compositional devices. The viewer becomes a voyeur, watching the unaware pedestrian, and a possible narrative of the man’s destination at this late hour (when even the saloon is closed) extends beyond the single moment of the image. Hopper’s sensibility in such a work as Night Shadows forecasts the film noir style of the 1940s, with its shadowy lighting and its narratives of crime, guilt, and betrayal. Although the imagery of Night Shadows is characteristic of Hopper’s work, this etching is unusual in his oeuvre in one respect. He normally printed his own works, in very small numbers; in this case, however, a commercial printer “steel-faced” the etching plate of Night Shadows for longer wear, and printed a large edition of several hundred images. The resulting etchings were included in a folio titled “American Etchings,” published in the December 1924 issue of the New Republic.”

George Willard “set forth upon an adventure.” He leaves the Winesburg Eagle office in the evening to meet Louise Trunnion on a date, who’d sent him a one-line letter: “I’m yours if you want me.” She’s gossiped about around town. A loose woman. “In his heart there was no sympathy for her.” It’s a lugubrious evening of shadows and flitting glances, but also a walk through town, giving the reader an increasingly sharp picture of Winesburg’s shops, its streets, its people–all those people who won’t know. They go toward a field. All is as suggestive as unwitting flirts. Unsure at first, he becomes more daring until his boldest advance: “There won’t be anyone know anything.” I’m reminded of the lines in Roth’s Human Stain:

philip roth nobody knows

George can’t know anything. The girl doesn’t know anything. He treats her with the indifference of not knowing, but rather wanting, and wanting one thing: to fuck, even if “she must have rubbed her nose with her finger after she had been handling some of the kitchen pots.” He’s not interested in what she needs, starting with not being made to feel inferior to the boor. Afterward he walks around town unable to contain himself, wanting “more than anything else to talk to some man,” to boast without having to boast. He’s just lost his virginity, a transaction, nothing more: “She hasn’t got anything on me. Nobody knows.” Again a proleptic echo of the Roth line: “For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.” Easy to judge though, especially from the post-sexual envelope of the MeToo era, that turning of the tables on the Salem trials, albeit with a bit more evidence on the judges’ side.

The story was not published in a magazine.

Maria Anderson, “Cougar” (2017)

maria anderson cougarThe story immediately announces its writerly intent: “Our trailer sat on cinder blocks in a half-acre lot a four-cigarette drive outside of town,” town being Bonner. The writerliness is muted but for a self-consciously spare style that reflects the spareness, almost barrenness, of the narrator’s life, the starkness of his surroundings, the laconic energy of his own drive.

The narrator called Cal, an 18-year-old man, lived in a trailer with his unemployed-logger dad, burrowed his hands deep in slaughtered elk and deer and, in the same breath, felt safe. The title of the story refers to a cougar that’d been wandering about, terrorizing domesticated animals, and that he at times may have spied to kill. Cal’s father disappears in the narrator’s senior year in high school. “Search and rescue never found a body.” Narrator washes dishes in a Korean-owned Chinese restaurant whose owners prefer to illegally dump their garbage than pay dumping fees. (“We had a Korean restaurant but no one came. People here only want shit Chinese food.“) The landlord, an Indian, is called Jenny but is a man who fishes for girls on the internet, chases after them naked, dispenses the occasional puff of wisdom. He turns Philip Noiret’s Salvatore in “Cinema Paradiso” telling Alfredo to leave and not “come back. Don’t think about us. Don’t look back. Don’t write,” but to Cal, with the same absence of poetry or emotion that had him tell Cal he needed to get his dick wet: “Cal, I’m serious,” he said. “You got to get out of Bonner. You got to start figuring out what you want to do next.”

Cal’s only friend is Koda the dog, who is killed by the cougar, that recurring predator that manages to have the most agency in the story: it’s the only doer. A friend of Cal’s keeps urging him to join him on a lucrative oil-rigging job. He takes the test, passes, but seems to lack the money, or something, to push him to the job, even as a year passes and he gets fired from the restaurant. “I wondered if my trailer was shit, if my way of living was shit. If Dad’s life had been shit.” He loses it, shoots the place up, seemingly, improbably, with no consequences: if he’s able to do something that reckless, able to get his hands in a carcass’ guts, what’s keeping him from getting his hands dirty elsewhere? It doesn’t quite add up. The outburst at the restaurant is not any kind of marker. He might as well have been having another cigarette. Somehow he goes on, unable to pay rent. Jenny seems to be dying and wants Cal to take care of the cougar in his absence, feed him. The irony.

So the story circles, like that cougar, its preys the narrator and his diminishing entourage, an angel of death with motives Jenny wants to make justifiable and earthy: hunger. There’s not much realism here, least in  Cal’s arrested motivation: it’s never clear, like everything else—Cal’s father’s disappearance, Jenny, Cal himself. The story’s coherence doesn’t match with its captivating pacing, which weakens as Cal’s infuriating inaction marks the days. I don’t think Anderson intends her readers to lose interest in proportion to Cal’s drift.

[The image of Maria Anderson is from Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, where her biography reads: “Maria Anderson is a Montana-born writer with a degree in literary arts from Brown University. She wins her bread working for various publications. She also writes for Curbs & Stoops, a Brooklyn-based art accessibility think-tank, where she does featured artists and interviews. Much of her fiction and nonfiction work takes inspiration from the outdoors and from the fine arts world.”]

Iowa Review, Fall 2017, Best American Short Stories 2018

Cather, “The Namesake” (1907)

Illustration for Willa Cather’s “The Namesake” in McClure’s Magazine, 1907, by American artist Ernest L. Blumenschein (1874–1960). (Willa Cather Archive)

Illustration for Willa Cather’s “The Namesake” in McClure’s Magazine, 1907, by American artist Ernest L. Blumenschein (1874–1960). (Willa Cather Archive). The Library of America used the illustration for its Story of the Week in November 2017.

Between Wharton’s “Coming Home,” Faulkner’s “Two Soldiers” and now Cather’s “The Namesake,” we’ve been on a run of patriotic stories on speed, each one about a different war. Cather wrote this one in 1907, well before World War I, well after the Civil War, setting it in a bohemian Paris I don’t think she ever knew, which hints at the superficiality of the setting: too many efforts to point out that “the sycamores were almost bare in the Luxembourg Gardens” and how “wonderful little bonnets nodded at one along the Champs-Elysées. At first you’re not sure whether the story is an elegy to the artist’s life in Europe or a love letter to American courage and longing for the old country (in this case, America). It’s about Lyon Hartwell, an Italy-born American son of a sculptor who left the United States to become in Italy the artist he never could be, before imploring his son to try to make up for his failure. Hartwell becomes a sculptor. The scene in Paris focuses on seven artists who frequently gather at Hartwell’s studio, though this time they’re doing so because Hartwell’s roommate is leaving to return to the United States. There’s melancholy all around. It is the cause of a reminiscence by Hartwell, of his namesake, his uncle who was a pennant bearer during the Civil Wart, and who displayed courage and enthusiasm for the fight in equal parts, bearing the flag even after having one of his arms chopped off by a shell. Hartwell discovers the uncle’s history on a trip to the United States, where he’d gone to care for his grandfather’s invalid sister for two years. In a trunk he discovers the history of his uncle, and in the memory he discovers the power to sculpt him:  “Color Sergeant.”

“It was the portrait of a very handsome lad in uniform, standing beside a charger impossibly rearing. Not only in his radiant countenance and flashing eyes, but in every line of his young body there was an energy, a gallantry, a joy of life, that arrested and challenged one.” The connection between the uncle and his father is chiseled in the work: “”There is a good deal of my father in the face, but it is my father transformed and glorified; his hesitating discontent drowned in a kind of triumph. From my first day in that house, I continually turned to this handsome kinsman of mine, wondering in what terms he had lived and had his hope; what he had found there to look like that, to bound at one, after all those years, so joyously out of the canvas.”

Cather pushes the lyricism to the edge of cliché, a weakness of hers I’ve found in many of her novels. It doesn’t come naturally to her. There’s more of the repertorial than artistic description in those passages. Here she uses Hartwell’s discovery to illuminate the artistic process, a process strangely, a bit distastefully rooted in an exile’s patriotism (the word race connoting something then that may not have been as entirely revolting as its connotation now, but not entirely innocent of revulsion either: it was the age of Spencer and Holmes: “The experience of that night, coming so overwhelmingly to a man so dead, almost rent me in pieces. It was the same feeling that artists know when we, rarely, achieve truth in our work; the feeling of union with some great force, of purpose and security, of being glad that we have lived. For the first time I felt the pull of race and blood and kindred, and felt beating within me things that had not begun with me.”

McClure, March 1907

Daniel Orozco, “Orientation” (1994)

Who hasn’t endured the absurdity, the cringing humiliations, the claustrophobia, the hilarity and despair of cubicled office work where the work performed is as deplorable as the relationships forced to develop between the workers (employees is too good a term, associates an insult out of Kafka’s encyclopedia of the damned) corralled in an environment no more  and no less glamorous than that of a mouse on a treadmill in a science lab?

This is a two-page story. Like Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” it’s a small world onto itself, the workplace prison orientation for a new convict who’s told the do’s and don’ts, what will get him fired, who’s infatuated with whom and who’s repulsed by whom, the lines interspersed with the mechanics of the job, what would get him fired (such as asking too many questions), and the intrusion of soulful touches, as with Barry Hacker, “who sits over there, steals food from the refrigerator. His petty theft is an outlet for his grief. Last New Year’s Eve while kissing his wife, a blood vessel burst in her brain.” So the narrator conducting the orientation, as dry and morbid and shallow as an 11 by 8.5 sheet of 93-bright copy paper as he can be, tells the newby to make sure that “if you bring a lunch, pout a little something extra in it for Barry hacker.”

It’s the fictional distillation of a world summed up in a Yahoo Finance story from 2014:

For 60% of Americans, the average workday consists of sitting in a cramped cubicle lit by overhead fluorescent lights, wedged between two coworkers whose phone conversations and keyboard strokes can be heard every minute of the day. In fact, you’re probably sitting in one now, wondering about the weather outside. But walking to your office windows would mean traversing across a sea of other drab cubicles, identical in shape and size. It’s no wonder that 93% of workers despise cubicles. The cubicle “connotes dread, hatred, the terrible white collar life,” says Nikil Saval, author of the new book “Cubed.”

A telling irony in “Orientation”: it disorients you, between humor, horror and asphyxiation to come (this is the newby’s first day), evoking Poe’s mixture of those themes in his day of different cubes, or Melville’s Bartelby, though in Bartelby the claustrophobia becomes self-inflicted. In “Orientation,” it’s the way of the modern office, creating the illusion of personal space in a space essentially smaller than most jail; cells, with the significant difference that you can get up and move around, and you do leave the office at the end of the day, though you are sentenced to terms generally longer than prison terms, and you turn yourself in, day after day, for more.

[The image above is from here.]

The Seattle Review, 1994, Best American Short Stories 1995

Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl” (1978)

jamaica kinkaid girl

The photograph, by Nina Lean of Time Life Pictures, appears in the online edition of the New Yorker’s version of the story. It did not appear when the story was originally published.

Some of the reasons this story, if it is a story (Kincaid’s early writings were autobiographical visas out of her former like in Jamaica), is so captivating: the mixture of humor and cruelty; the revelations, one after the other, about the girl and whoever happens to be giving her alleged life lessons, presumably her mother; the revelations about the family life the girl leads, comfortable enough to serve tea and have three meals a day at table but not so luxurious as to not have to plant okra a distance from the house; the recurring hammering about her becoming a slut: “try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming,” “and so prevent yourself from looking like the slut you know you are bent on becoming,” behave this way and that “this way [men] won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming”; the contrast, as in a piece of music when brass and winds clash, or when the percussion section suddenly blasts its awareness, between the mundane and the catastrophic (“this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child even before it becomes a child”); the use of allusive language in an environment where allusions appear to be always better than directness, except when preaching advice or directives, where it is important to learn how to smile to people you like only so much, or not at all, where it is important to learn how to lie, but also how to have the kind of fun that would have you spit in the air and move just enough to avoid it hitting you in the face; the way we have the entire biography of a girl coming of age, of her parent’s abrasive rearing, of a family where the girl’s role has been turned over to a form of servitude; the way semi-colons are the only dividers between a life of impositions, expectations, derision and occasional fun for appearance’s sake; the way Kinaid has invented an entirely new way to tell a story, long enough for two pages, long enough to die and never be done again: a one hit wonder of its kind; even the way it ends, with a hilarious and sad kicker that makes you want to squeeze every loaf of bread you see from now on.

The New Yorker, June 19, 1978

Pritchett, “Tragedy in a Greek Theatre” (1932)

The artist William Bantock in his cliffside studio in Sicily, constantly painting sketches of Mt. Etna or the Greek theater. After his death the narrator and landlord intrude on the studio. “It was as though the thoughts Old William had left there in his lifetime were still present; as though his breath were still there, vapid, thick on the amber air. I was depressed. I felt we had intruded on the scene of a suspected tragedy, the tragedy I had half sensed during his lifetime.” The narrator tells Bantock’s story. Bantock thought himself Greek. Puigi is the landlord, frustrated by Bantock, who arrived, turned his room into a pigsty and never left. Puigi sets him up in a cottage. Figures maybe he can make a mint from Bantock painting Etna for tourists. But it doesn’t work.

The story is generously overwritten—about the cliffs of Messina, the clanking of the train, the clock tower that “gestured over the hot black pauses not of time, but of eternity.” Pritchett is figuring out how to write before our eyes, his descriptions overenthused and ceaseless, “this straying, bleated eloquence“ he ascribes to Bantock. Beyond that, it just seems pointless, shallow, dull, neither character coming off the canvas.

[The image of Etna is by Marek Lenik]

The Spanish Virgin and Other Stories

Maupassant, “Le champ d’oliviers” (1890)

maupassant champ d'oliviers

L’abbé Vilbois, curé de Garandou, près de Toulon, “…fait pour les aventures plus que pour dire la messe,” “l’homme le mieux musclé du pays,” “il renonça à des projets de carrière quelconque pour se contenter de vivre en homme riche.” He’d been in love with a woman who cheated on him, but was pregnant. And so, “un descendant de lui était là, dans cette chair souillée, dans ce corps vil, dans cette créature immonde, un enfant de lui.” But she tells him, as he gets ready to kill her, that the baby is not his. He’s convinced that it isn’t, and let’s her go. He despairs. “La religion qui lui était apparue autrefois comme un refuge contre la vie inconnue, lui apparaissait maintenant comme un refuge contre la vie trompeuse et torturante.” He becomes a priest in a small coastal town. “Il fut un prêtre à vues étroites, mais bon, une sorte de guide religieux à tempérament de soldat, un guide de l’Église qui conduisait par force dans le droit chemin l’humanité errante, aveugle, perdue en cette forêt de la vie où tous nos instincts, nos goûts, nos désirs, sont des sentiers qui égarent. Mais beaucoup de l’homme d’autrefois restait toujours vivant en lui. Il ne cessa pas d’aimer les exercices violents, les nobles sports, les armes, et il détestait les femmes, toutes, avec une peur d’enfant devant un mystérieux danger.”

His always-suspicious and paranoid servant Marguerite tells him someone was over to see him. Of course it’s his son, bearing an image of himself when he was younger, when he was with his mistress, and when he looked exactly as his son does now. “C’était pour sauver sa vie, menacée par l’homme outragé, que la femme, la trompeuse et perfide femelle lui avait jeté ce mensonge. Et le mensonge avait réussi. Et un fils de lui était né, avait grandi, était devenu ce sordide coureur de routes, qui sentait le vice comme un bouc sent la bete.” The boy passed for his mother’s other lover’s son until he was 15, when the resemblance to the priest became too obvious. The man, a senator, rejected him. Now, he’s a vagabond, has “la figure de crapule.”

“Entre cet homme et lui, entre son fils et lui, il commençait à sentir à présent ce cloaque des saletés morales qui sont, pour certaines âmes, de mortels poisons.” What frightens the priest is his son as mirror: he is “ surpris et désolé de tout ce qu’il découvrait de bas sur cette figure qui lui ressemblait tant.” The boy tells his life story, how his mother kicked him out, how he stumbled into a life of crime out kept a prank tha5 resulted in multiple drownings. On her deathbed, his mother tells him who his father was. She dies. He takes his revenge on her lover, torturing him, marking him with a fire iron as if he were a convict, robb8ng him of 12,000 francs. He calls it aveng8ng his biological father. But the priest is disgusted with it all and banishes his son, granting him a small pension as long as he doesn’t leave his assigned place of exile. Of course the son, Philippe-Auguste, refuses. They brawl.

The servant finds them, panics, brings a posse from town: the priest’s throat is cut. The other is out cold, drunk. Everyone assumes he killed the priest. Maupassant creates more ambiguity: “ l’idée ne serait venue à personne que l’abbé Vilbois, peutêtre, avait pu se donner la mort.”

A little simplistic, a facile ending, not entirely satisfying: why would the priest kill himself? Because he sees his own brutality in his son? Why would his son kill his only means of survival? There’s more contrivance than psychology.

Le Figaro du 19 au 23 février 1890, puis dans le recueil L’Inutile Beauté.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Two” (1976)

isaac bashevis singer transgender gay two story

(Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. )

A transgender boy, Zissel, wants to be a girl, acts like a girl, dresses like a girl when he can, “spent most of his time with girls and enjoyed their ways and their games.” Singer details the agonies of the transgender soul: Zissel “suffered anxiety and all kinds of doubts. He already was convinced that to be a male was unworthy and that the signs of manhood were a disgrace.” His family finds him a bride. Meanwhile he falls in love with a boy, Ezriel, who is also headed for marriage. Both marriages fail: Zissel writes Ezriel that his marriage “caused him heartache and shame.” Finally Ezriel steals his wife’s dowry and jewels, dresses as a woman, and flees from town to meet Ezriel at a hotel, where they spend a night before moving and setting up house in Lublin, where they lived several years. When the money ran out Ezriel set up shop but got no customers. Zissel became a bath successful attendant, and the household’s only support. Ezriel gets fat and depressed, again an aspect of the life of a repressed gay man but not fully explored here. Singer’s focus is on Zissel, who develops affection for a 17-year-old virgin about to be married, a woman, and eventually falls in love with her, to her consternation. Zissel and Ezriel fight, come to blows. One night when Zissel and Reizl, the girl, who by then is married, are alone at the bathhouse, he rapes her. They drown. The secret is out. When townsmen find out, they rush Ezriel’s home and bludgeon him to death: just like a stoning by the Taliban.

Zissel’s desire for a woman is never explained and seems more like a device than a natural development though nothing says a transgender person can’t be bisexual: the story is about the fluidity of sex, not its dogmas–and the dogmas triggered as a consequence of the fluidity of sex, when uncovered. The title of the story is perfectly revealing: two boys, two natures, two love stories, two fates, and so on. (He wrote another story called “Two” later in his career.) This was written before transgender was a common word. The word is never used, nor are transsexual, gay, homosexual: part of the purity and truth of of the story is its avoidance of these trap-words that ultimately mean as little as racial or ethnic denominators.

The ending is moving, a hope:

isaac bashevis singer transgender gay two story

The New Yorker, December 20, 1976

Hawthorne, “The Haunted Quack” (1831)

“The Quack Doctor” (Arallyn)

Hawthorne’s humor and satire, more contemporary than this rarely read tale lets on. The narrator is on a slow boat to Niagara, traveling on a canal boat to Utica. He’s forgotten to bring a book. He’s bored. He finds one and gets all engrossed in it until awoken from a “dreamy state” by the self-reproaching moans of a man calling himself a murderer. So we’re not sure this isn’t a continuation of the narrator’s dream. The man is Hyppocrates Jenkins. He was apprentice to a quack, a man who “was no more a doctor than his jack-ass,” working out of an office whose “single window commanded a view of the church-yard, in which, it was said, many of the Doctor’s former patients were quietly slumbering.” The “doctor” dies, Jenkins picks up the practice, becomes sought after for his crazy concoctions until one old woman, wonderfully described, falls ill and imbibes one of his inventions. The description of the woman has that touch of Balzac’s portraits:

“I dare say you have met with that species of old women, so frequent in all country towns, who, seeming to have outlived the common enjoyments of life, and outworn the ordinary sources of excitement, seek fresh stimulus in scenes of distress, and appear to take a morbid pleasure in beholding the varieties of human suffering, and misery. One of the most noted characters in the village was an old beldame of this description. Granny Gordon, so she was familiarly denominated, was the rib of the village Vulcan, and the din of her eternal tongue, was only equalled by the ringing of her husband’s anvil. Thin and withered away in person and redolent with snuff, she bore no small resemblance to a newly exhumed mummy, and to all appearance promised to last as long as one of those ancient dames of Egypt. Not a death, a burial, a fit of sickness, a casualty, nor any of the common calamities of life ever occurred in the vicinity, but Granny Gordon made it her especial business to be present. Wrapped in an old scarlet cloak–hat hideous cloak! the thought of it makes me shudder–she might be seen hovering about the dwelling of the sick. Watching her opportunity, she would make her way into the patient’s chamber, and disturb his repose with long dismal stories and ill-boding predictions; and if turned from the house, which was not unfrequently the case, she would depart, muttering threats and abuse.

She takes the concoction and seems to die. Jenkins panics, thinks he’s killed her, throws out all his inventions in the river and disappears from town, now finding himself next to this stranger on a slow boat to Niagara and seeing the ghost of the old woman haunting him. “I plainly saw that he was a little disordered in his intellect,” goes the narrator. “To comfort him, however, I told him, that if he had killed fifty old women, they could do nothing to him, if he had done it professionally.” Once there, the sheriff and a posse are at the docks. He thinks they’re there to arrest him. They’re there because they’ve been looking for him, thinking he was kidnapped, and were ready to try the old woman’s husband for murder for having spoken of wanting to kill him. The old woman never died. “She was only in a swoond.” They celebrate him, bring him home, where he resumes his quackery.

It’s as fitting a tale for modern health care as any: Medicine as quackery, as superstition, and doctors as misplaced heroes. And malpractice.

Updike, “The Faint” (1977)

A bouncily crass story plodding with clichés (“an ass like two moons”), stereotyped racism (a Japanese girl giving the narrator the eye, “though it was hard to tell with those eyes, those opaque little pools of racial ambition, noncommittal as camera apertures”) and the usual objectifications (“it thrilled him like a spurt of ice water to realize he must dump her”), none of it redeemed by the humor of the grown-man narrator and Porsche-driving real estate developer living with his mom, his first marriage having failed years before.

The slithery-named Freddy Python’s girlfriend Corinna “(or whoever),” goes one reference about her, gets bored at plays and seems to be the usual shallow canvas Updike uses to paint his desires’ vagaries. They go to the theater, she doesn’t feel well, she faints. “She was out cold, and looked grand.” A whole paragraph about the way she looked out cold, the way he felt, as if prized to be the refracted object of the attention she draws. An attendant wakes her up with smelling salts. “The watching women [obviously, no men are watching] greeted this prodigy with murmurs, and Freddy, as somehow its father, took their applause as a compliment to himself.” Everyone orbits around Updike’s male protagonist. Himself. Her unconsciousness is his epiphany. The couple marries.

The New Yorker rejected the story. It appeared in the same Playboy issue that carried the interview with Anita Bryant. Apt, in its own way.

Playboy, May 1978

Wharton, “Coming Home” (1915)

verdun 1916

Verdun, 1916.

This is Edith Wharton’s idea of an “atrocity story,” fiction’s equivalent of the propaganda newsreel crafted to touch nerves and stir up emotions. It’s beautifully written, it’s exquisitely plotted, but it’s agenda-driven writing with two purposes: advertising German atrocities and making the point that “there is something to be said for the new way of bringing up girls.” It’s a girl who saves the estate near the front–a save that further undermines the realism of the story with melodramatic pandering to the reader: atrocities have their limits. It’s all “sentiment and cinema scenes,” those words Wharton uses derisively at the beginning of the story, returning to them as if self-consciously trying to neutralize her own doing: “I know you affect to scorn the cinema, and this was it, tremolo and all.” It is it, the front’s version of Faulkner’s “Two Soldiers,” but not as emotionally accomplished.

Jean de Rechamp, 27 or 28, wants news of his family at Rechamp, and his girlfriend Mlle Malo. He fought, was wounded and put out of action (though he can still drive), and gets to know Greer, an America supply man who refers to the Germans as “brutes” and whose “eyes see so much that they make one see even what his foggy voice obscures.” The narration is his.

Wharton gives the backstory of Rechamp and his girlfriend, a free-spirited artist who’s lived alone after being fostered by a rich man. Jean asks his parents and grandmother permission to marry Malo. They refuse. She lives alone. She travels. She’s never been married. Ergo, harlot. But she wins his heart. Malo is the New Woman, a Wharton hero.

“Soon after Mlle. Malo’s return to Paris he followed her and began to frequent the Passy studio. The life there was unlike anything he had ever seen—or conceived as possible, short of the prairies. He had sampled the usual varieties of French womankind, and explored most of the social layers; but he had missed the newest, that of the artistic-emancipated. I don’t know much about that set myself, but from his descriptions I should say they were a good deal like intelligent Americans, except that they don’t seem to keep art and life in such water-tight compartments. But his great discovery was the new girl. Apparently he had never before known any but the traditional type, which predominates in the provinces, and still persists, he tells me, in the last fastnesses of the Faubourg St. Germain. The girl who comes and goes as she pleases, reads what she likes, has opinions about what she reads, who talks, looks, behaves with the independence of a married woman—and yet has kept the Diana-freshness—think how she must have shaken up such a man’s inherited view of things! Mlle. Malo did far more than make Réchamp fall in love with her: she turned his world topsy-turvey, and prevented his ever again squeezing himself into his little old pigeon-hole of prejudices.”

Jean’s attempt to win permission is described in the same language of trench warfare. He’s up against “a heap of vague insinuations, baseless conjectures, village tattle,” all based on a maid’s sing single slander: That Mlle Malo slept with her foster father. But he disproves the slander and wins the family’s approval. During the war she improbably stays with the family.

And so back to the present, Rechamp’s quest for Rechamp, the road trip with Greer as they hear “the stories we all refused to believe at first, and that we now prefer not to think about….”

“But you know well enough,” I insisted, “that the Germans are not all alike—that it all depends on the particular officer….” Greer tells Rechamp. Thy speak of one German in particular, the murderous Scharlach.

As they approach the front all the old landmarks down to the names and distances on mile-stones have disappeared, as have village church steeples, as have villages. Rechmap thought he knew where he was. He was where he thought he was, a village neighboring his own. But the where was no longer there. “The place looked like an abandoned stoneyard. I never saw completer ruin. To the left, a fortified gate gaped on emptiness; to the right, a mill-wheel hung in the stream. Everything else was as flat as your dinner-table.” They run into an old woman whose house was spared because the Germans used it to bivouac. She tells them of various atrocities.

They drive on. But Rechamp is intact: the whole family is there. They all credit Yvonne Malo for saving them with her wiles after Scharlach shows up. Those wiles are never described in details: she wined and dined them, but the implication is that she did more than that: she screwed the German to save the village. She’s happy to see Jean but eager to see him leave on the improbable excuse that he’s not ready to know of the horrors yet, as if he hadn’t seen them–unless she means the horrors she performed. Jean and Greer leave. On the way they pick up a German wounded from a French hospital. The German dies on the way, though he wasn’t supposed to: the car runs out of gas, Greer has to walk on to get some, Jean may have killed the German during Greer’s absence. Murdered him. The German is supposedly Scharlach. Talk about schematized. The story by this point is held together by very thick nails and sledgehammers.

Scribner’s, December 1915

Reading the Ruins: “Coming Home,” Wharton’s Atrocity Story of the First World War, by William Blazek

edith-wharton-coming-home-analysis

Chekhov, “Un portier intelligent” (1883)

A doorman daily lectures the help in a mansion, calling them good for nothing, demeaning them. That day, it’s about “instruction.” He berates them for not reading. Extols the virtues of books, where all sorts of worlds await. He picks up a ratty old book and goes to work, reads a few pages, falls asleep. He dreams of a world where everyone is intelligent, well read, where everyone, god forbid, is French (Des Francais, des tas de Francais”!) He’s then shaken awake by one of his masters and dragged to the police station for dereliction of duty. Returning to the mansion, he sees the help following his advice, one among them reading to the rest. “Laisse ça!” he yells at him. Not the direction I thought the story would take. Sartre would have turned a world of intelligent French into an inescapable hell.

The Spectator, No. 16, 1883

Kafka, “Description of a Struggle” (1909)

Frank kafka

“… that it might be a good idea to go to church and pray at the top of one’s voice in order to be looked at and acquire a body.”

At a party. The narrator is disconcerted by an acquaintance’s confessions of recent intimacies. He leaves the party with him on a pretense, supposedly to save him “from disgrace.” The man has nothing to recommend him but for some reason “he must always remain with me, always.” He’s uncomfortable with his lanky body. There’s an odd, misplaced eroticism between the two, more from the narrator’s perspective. That, or paranoia: he thinks the acquaintance will murder him. He falls. Gets up. Tells him to tell his life story. Jumps on his back, rides him like a horse. Says meaningless lines: “We walk along so happily, a fine wind is whistling through the gaps made by us and our limbs. In the mountains our throats become free. It’s a wonder we don’t break into song.” His acquaintances knee is injured. He abandons him to the vigil of vultures he’s summoned with a whistle: a touch of magic realism. The moon recurs, “terrifying.” He sleeps in a tree. He wakes up. Falls. “I could not bear the strain of seeing around me the things of the earth. I felt convinced that every movement and every thought was forced, and that one had to be on one’s guard against them.” Sound of sobs. His? Depression.

Then the section called The Fat Man. Meditation on a mountain. Men carrying the fat man drown. The fat man drifts down the current. The narrator loves the fat man, thinks by following him he could “learn something about the dangers of this apparently safe country.” Memory of church, attended for the love of a church-going girl. “For since my arrival in this town clarity had become more important to me than anything else.” He wants to know why a supplicant made such a spectacle of his praying in church. They develop the same strange semi-seductive courtship as with the other acquaintance until the supplicant agrees to sit down and answer questions about his praying. “Oh, I just get fun out of people watching me, out of occasionally casting a shadow on the altar, so to speak.” (Isn’t that half the reason people go to church? Or a third, the half being to show off wardrobes and flirt?) Now all of a sudden “this creature had practically forced me to listen to him.” Again with the fluidity of testimonies: Now it’s the supplicant who wants to learn truths from the narrator. (It’s all in his head.) A girl speaks a few good lines to the supplicant: “‘There’s no doubt, sir, that for you the truth is too tiring. Just look at yourself! The entire length of you is cut out of tissue paper, yellow tissue paper, like a silhouette, and when you walk one ought to hear you rustle. So one shouldn’t get annoyed at your attitude or opinion, for you can’t help bending to whatever draft happens to be in the room.’” Of course the reality of that and other scenes is put in question. Long disquisition, meandering, missing lyricism’s mark because lyricism is not intended as much as mocked.

The conversation with the supplicant takes on tones of revelation. Why do you pray in church every evening? “Oh, why should we talk about it? People who live alone have no responsibility in the evenings. One fears a number of things — that one’s body could vanish, that human beings may really be what they appear to be at twilight, that one might not be allowed to walk without a stick, that it might be a good idea to go to church and pray at the top of one’s voice in order to be looked at and acquire a body.”

”The Drowning of the Fat Man” sequence is more surrealism. Arms as huge as the clouds, legs sprawled over mountains. Then we’re back where we started, with the man from the party following the narrator. He speaks of his lotharioism. He’s lost. “You’ll have to kill yourself,” narrator tells him. The man stabs himself in his upper arm. “I sucked a little at the deep wound.” (More jarring eroticism.)

The end is as abrupt as the story’s entire rhythm, as dissatisfying and frustrating. Meandering self-indulgence that fits in a collection only because Kafka wrote it, but without his name it’s a fat story drowning in murky prose and murkier surrealism. There are glimmers of beauty but the art is on a distant shore.

Faulkner, “Two Soldiers” (1942)

The Anguish of Departure: Giorgio de Chirico, 1914 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

The Anguish of Departure: Giorgio de Chirico, 1914 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

A story despised by critics, beloved by Faulkner. “I like, it” he wrote, ” it because it portrays a type which I admire—not only a little boy, and I think little boys are all right, but a true American: an independent creature with courage and bottom and heart—a creature which is not vanishing, even though every articulate medium we have—radio, moving pictures, magazines—is busy day and night telling us that it has vanished, has become a sentimental and bragging liar.” I like it because very few stories make me cry. This one did. The relationship between the two brothers is all.

Pete is 18 or 19. The younger boy is not named. They’re in the habit of listening to the radio outside a deaf woman’s house at night. They hear about Pear Harbor. Pete understands. The younger boy doesn’t. Pete is restless until he decides to enlist. His mother is shattered but won’t stop him. His brother doesn’t yet know how shattered he’ll be. Pete takes the bus for Memphis. The next day, his brother finds ways to follow him. The trip is hilarious. The boy’s interactions with the bus driver, with the Law, with soldiers: critics may have seen it all as stereotypical and demeaning. But the humor is never crass. It’s moving, as almost everyone indulges the young boy. Pete hasn’t left for Little Rock yet. He shows up at the recruiting station. His brother pleads. “I got to go too. I got to. It hurts my heart, Pete.” Maybe that’s the line critics disliked so much. It made me cry actual tears. Pete lectures his brother about doing his part–he doesn’t say so, but he’s telling him to be a soldier on the home front, hence the title of the story. The boy returns home.

There’s a whiff of the war-office propaganda reel about it, a Sgt. York shucksiness that defines each boy in his way. But it’s in the distance, or maybe it’s the reader’s contrivance becase we’re not supposed to be so taken by a story that, in Spielberg’s hands, would have had us flooding the theater in tears.

Saturday Evening Post, March 28, 1942

Carver, “Are You a Doctor?” (1973)

The magnetism of an enigma. Arnold Breit, at home, gets a phone call from a woman, Clara Holt, who can’t explain why she is calling or how she got the number. The sitter may have written down the number. Arnold is bothered. His number is unlisted. He wants to hang up. She doesn’t let him. There’s nothing untoward about her insistence, but she is insistent. She keeps him on the line, asks him for his name, then his last name, gives him hers. He lights a cigar and stays on. Then she seems to end the conversation abruptly, soon after telling him they must meet. She later calls back. “I’m sorry we got cut off.” She calls again the next afternoon. She tells him it’s important they meet–at her home. He can’t help himself. He goes. When he shows up, a little girl improbably opens the door. Her mother is not there. She’s gone to the pharmacy to get some medicines. The girl invites Arnold in, having been told to do so. She tells him she’s not sick. Soon Clara is home with shopping bags, some medicine. “Are you a doctor?” she asks. He’s not. He tells her he must go. She insists, mirroring the non-seductive seduction of the phone conversation. He stays. She tells him she’d checked with the sitter about the number. Someone had called and left a number for Clara, and that’s the number the sitter wrote down. He must leave. He wants to leave. He gets up, she gets up, he takes her around the waist, clumsily, regretfully, and kisses her, as if it was expected, as if there was nothing else to do to ease an exit. He leaves. The phone is ringing when he gets home. He doesn’t pick it up. later when he doesn’t, it’s his wife, who’s been calling all evening. “You don’t sound like yourself,” she tells him.

It’s not clear who the intruder is: she intrudes, but so does he, playing along. They’re both willing to pursue the odd thread, neither so certain who’s weaving it.

Fictions, 1973

O’Hara: “The Cold House”

The story was titled “Cold House” when it ran in The New Yorker, which summarized it this way: “Mrs. Carnavon drove several miles to visit her summer home in the middle of the winter. When she arrived she didn’t know why she had come. She climbed the stairs to her son’s room; she had thought of leaving that room the way it was. Looking at the objects that had belonged to her son; a diamond-shaped plaque, with the clasped hands and the Greek letters; a photograph of a baseball team, a magazine that he may have read, she realized how little she had known her son and that by keeping his things, she would end by hating a memory that she only knew how to love.”

We don’t know how he died. He was 24. Nor do we know how her husband died, though her husband died a long time before. The war seems too long ago or not yet (there’s an allusion to fascism in Europe). Maybe he died in Spain.

Of course it’s more powerful than that:

The New Yorker, April 2, 1938

Jack London, “The Men of Forty-Mile” (1900)

Jack London can make it too easy to like Jack London, as in this story crunching with the pleasure of fresh snow underfoot and the certainty of good grog afterward. McFane and Bettles, camp buddies, fight, one of them insults the other’s woman, and they decide to duel. There’s never been a duel in those parts. They can’t be stopped. There’s no law to speak of. But Mamelute Kid devises a plan: whoever survives the duel will be hanged. The men think it over and demur, just as a rabid dog attacks, allowing McFane to dog-block as the dog was heading for Bettles, and Bettles to fire the shot once intended for McFane into the rabid dog. Scores settled. Would the Kid have carried out his promised hanging of the survivor? “Well, as yet, I have n’t found the answer.” But there is ingenuity in the Kid, the ingenuity of isolation, the quick-thinking of survival that’s not always one’s own: caring is survival.

And this paragraph:

Henry James, “The Given Case” (1898)

Piet Mondrian’s ‘Trafalgar Square (1939-43) at MoMA. (© FlaglerLive)

Mrs. Despard is married to a colonel off in India or somewhere. Miss Hamer is engaged to a Mr. Grove-Steward off in India or somewhere. Barton Reeve is running after Mrs. Despard. Philip Mackern is running after Miss Hamer. Both men whose women are being prowled about return from their Indias. Mrs. Despard will reject Barton reeve out of loyalty to her husband (“What I may feel for him–what I may feel for myself–has nothing to do with it”), however horrid he is to her. The final scene between Mrs. Despard and Reeve is powerful for its latent violence. Miss Hamer will drop her fiance for Mackern in a scene of feelings “so divine a thing that lips and hands were gross to deal with it.” A study in symmetry, otherwise too often marred by Henry’s arid rainforest style. Example:

“I dare say my predicament makes me a shocking bore,” Reeve says. I dare say it kind of does.

Collier’s Weekly, December 1898-January 1899

O’Henry, “The Lotus and the Bottle”

o'henry the lotus and the bottleWillard Geddie is the consul for the United States in tropical Coralio, “an insignificant town in an insignificant republic lying along the by-ways of a second-rate sea.” He has a girlfriend. Her name is Paula. He’s just written a report for the State Department about the country’s agricultural exports. No one will read it. He periodically takes delivery of a stack of English-language newspapers dropped by ship. He reads in “one of those bulky mattresses of printed stuff” that the 800-ton yacht Idalia is sailing with an an amorous couple, Miss Ida Payne and a Mr. Tolliver. Geddie and Ida used to be an item. Thy’d split, he’d taken the consulship to be as far away from he as he could, and for 12 months there they’d not exchanged a word. Tolliver “had not yet abandoned hope,” while he, Geddis, “had eaten the lotus. He was happy and content in this land of perpetual afternoon.” After he reads, he is shaken by the sight of the Idalia sailing by. Then shaken more by the sight of a bottle. And a message in a bottle. Yes, stories were once written as if they were bottles containing stories about messages in a bottle. He picks it up. He recognizes the sealing-wax inside, bearing the insignias of IP, Ida Payne. Recognizes her handwriting. He sets out three cigars to smoke them and decide what to do. He surmises the message is an attempt at reconciliation. He then goes off and proposes to Paula. She accepts. Then he throws the bottle into the sea, unopened. But wait: there is more. A “half-breed fisherman and smuggler” is woken up by the third mate on a ship that yells to him he’s just saved Geddie from drowning. The third mate saw Geddie a mile from shore, swimming after a bottle, and going under just as he was about to lay hand on it. He was saved. The bottle sailed on.

The languid simplicity of the story almost makes up for its brew of cliches and improbability. O’Henry is cutting his teeth.

Flannery O’Connor, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (1953)

Lucynell Crater and her daughter Lucynell Crater, who’s 30 but whose mother will lie and say is 15 or 16, live in a paid-off home somewhere in rural Alabama. One-armed Tom T. Shiftlet (not the name) sidles up to the porch one day, sizing up Mrs. Crater quickly: she has some money, she’ll let him live and eat on the property in exchange for carpentry work but not money, and eventually she begins pushing her deaf-mute daughter on him, hoping he marries her. “Lady,” he tells her, “people don’t care how they lie. Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man.” At least he warned her: he lies. Then again, so does she. And both do it in such good humor. They’re both angling. He really wants that car sitting unused. Not the woman. But the woman, the daughter, is the conduit to the car. The daughter Lucynell learns to say bird, thanks to Shiftlet. It’s the hinge. “Mr. Shiftlet already knew what was on her mind,” meaning the mother’s mind.  Next: marriage. He agrees. But he bargains for money to take her to a hotel and feed her, his version of a honeymoon, or so he lets Mrs. Crater think. She agrees to give him $17. By then he’s fixed and painted the car. The couple leave after a wedding that leaves Shiftlet dissatisfied:

The last line says it all. He drives off with younger Lucynell, a character lumped in there to contrast Shiftlet’s shiftiness with her purity, and otherwise more of a device than a character. His spirits fall with every mile: she was extra weight. She falls asleep at a diner. He tells the guy at the counter she’s a hitchhiker and leaves her there. He picks up a young boy who wasn’t hitchhiking but carrying a suitcase, then starts sounding sinister, or preachy, to the boy as he reminisces about his own mother, “an angel of Gawd.” The boy jumps out of the car. Shiftlet drives on and prays: “Break forth and wash the slime from this earth.” The title of the story was a sign on the road, about being careful. O’Connor doesn’t just have Shiftlet paint the car: she paints every scene in varied shades, her colors suggesting various symbols. But the symbolism can leave me feeling like that boy in the car: happy to leap out.

Kenyon Review, Spring 1953

Maupassant, “La maison Tellier” (1881)

“L’on allait là, chaque soir, vers onze heures, comme au café, simplement.“ a house of prostitution, unremarquable, beloved, in the country. Five women and Madame, the widow and her “intarissable bonne humeur.” The house is busy. Madam runs it like Cheers: everyone knows your name with complete discretion, so the bourgeois can keep coming. One night the house is shuttered. Man after man encounter each other, wander about town, their numbers and disappointment increasing proportionately. They bicker, just as a bunch of equally disappointed sailors make noise. French and British sailors brawl. The six bourgeois eventually split. “Seul, un homme errait toujours, M. Tournevau, le saleur, désolé d’attendre au prochain samedi ; et il espérait on ne sait quel hasard, ne comprenant pas, s’exaspérant que la police laissât fermer ainsi un établissement d’utilité publique qu’elle surveille et tient sous sa garde.” The ostensible cause of the closure? A first communion.

No joke. Madame takes her entire brood to her brother’s place for her 12-year-old niece’s the ceremony. In the train, it’s a whole ménage with a  jarretières salesman. Joy. He wants them to try them on. One by one they do, letting him up their legs. (Maupassant was up on his porn-acteress names even then: Flora Balançoire). Others on the train are incensed, blaming “ce satané Paris.’” At Oissel Joseph Rivet the carpenter picks up the jarretièred brood in a carriage.at The Rivets’, it’s a feast: whores or not, everyone is family. Or so it seems. When they all take a stroll through the village of ten homesteads, “chacun suivait longtemps du regard toutes les belles dames de la ville qui étaient venues de si loin pour la première communion de la petite à Joseph Rivet.” no one knows they’re whores. A superb detail: “Lorsque rentra la petite fille, ce fut sur elle une pluie de baisers ; toutes les femmes la voulaient caresser, avec ce besoin d’expansion tendre, cette habitude professionnelle de chatteries…” they pet the girl with abandon.

Then the quiet of the country night: “Les filles, accoutumées aux soirées tumultueuses du logis public, se sentaient émues par ce muet repos de la campagne endormie. Elles avaient des frissons sur la peau, non de froid, mais des frissons de solitude venus du cœur inquiet et troublé.” And a daring detail: Rosa is alone. She can’t sleep. She’s not used to sleeping alone. She hears Constance, the girl also unused to sleeping out of her room, crying. She takes her in her bed: a substitute trick. “Et jusqu’au jour la communiante reposa son front sur le sein nu de la prostituée.”

The next day, the great ceremony, the carpenter’s pride, the girl’s entourage on its way to the “house of God,” all of them beautiful Magdalens not quite yet washing Christ’s feet. The train of ironies. The village is breathless at the sight of the beauties surrounding the little girl. In church, Rosa cries, remembering her own first communion. (Isn’t it always so?) it’s contagious. Louise and Flora turn into Florida storms. Then Madame. Then the entire church. The comic of the scene is moving. “ Hommes, femmes, vieillards, jeunes gars en blouse neuve, tous bientôt sanglotèrent, et sur leur tête semblait planer quelque chose de surhumain, une âme épandue, le souffle prodigieux d’un être invisible et tout-puissant.” The sacrament is delirium. The priest turns to the congregation, calls it a miracle: “le Saint-Esprit, l’oiseau céleste, le souffle de Dieu, s’est abattu sur vous, s’est emparé de vous, vous a saisis, courbés comme des roseaux sous la brise.” No doubt. The power of women: he thanks his “sisters” (the whores), “qui êtes venues de si loin, et dont la présence parmi nous, dont la foi visible, dont la piété si vive ont été pour tous un salutaire exemple. Vous êtes l’édification de ma paroisse;” (my underline of course.)

The brood must return to work. Madame atelier and her sister have a conversation about a Constance, but nothing is settled. Were they negotiating the girlks graduation to whoredom? And really, in repressive, sexist late 19th century France, what other emancipating business was there for women?

Rivet is drunk. He tries to have his way with Rosa, who laughs him off as Raphaële and Fernande hold him back. “Salope, tu ne veux pas ?” Évidemment, nonm you don’t ask a doctor at a party to treat your bunions, nor do you ask a whore to tend to your repressed desires. Madame is incensed. They throw him out. He cools off with water, and the whole brood trundles back out to the train in joyous song, Rivet at the reins, “cette carriole enragée et hurlante emportée dans la poussière.” They make it home, home to the whorehouse that Madame Tellier missed, “et la petite lanterne allumée, la petite lanterne de madone, indiquait aux passants que dans la bergerie le troupeau était revenu.“ It’s another delirium in town. A judge, a former mayor, many others are horny for the women. Tourneveau can’t wait. It’s a debauch of a feast: whores and clients had missed each other like old and passionate lovers.

Contrasts, memories, ironies. Superb. And that unforgettable line:  Fermé pour cause de première communion.”

Poe, “A Tale of Jerusalem” (1832)

Neither of Jerusalem nor a tale, more like a Poe equivalent of a Saturday Night Live skit spoofing another story called “Zillah, a Tale of Jerusalem,” by Horace Smith, published in 1828. Three Jews are awaiting payment of some sort from Romans at Pompei–money or tasty meat of some sort. They get a hog instead, “the unutterable flesh.” Along the way the language is offensive, the portrayal of the Jews ridiculous, the whole setting anachronistic. But so is our reading: shorn of its Zillah context, it can’t possibly make sense, as so much of early Poe does not.

Broadway Journal, September 20, 1845

Chekhov, “Le triomphe du vainqueur” (1883)

It’s Carnival Friday, everyone gathers at the functionary Kozouline’s house for crêpes, giving Chekhov room to write as few crêpiers ever could about crêpes. Then two functionaries, among them Kozouline, make fun of an old man, humiliating him, paying him back for the time when he was their boss. The cruelty of the host is apparent at the end when Kozouline tells the narrator’s father to prance around like a rooster–which the father does. As does his son, who wants to make sure he lands himself a proper post: “On me nommera sûrement commis aux écritures.” Not a scintillating story but for the triumphalism of lowly clerks’ self-aggrandized ascent in the lower reaches of miserable bureaucracies, and the petty cruelties that shadow the reigns, delicious crêpes notwithstanding. After all, they’re all gathered together.

Les Éclats, 1883 Nr. 9. Not included in the Constance Garnette edition. 

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Dr. Beeber” (1970)

isaac singer dr. beeber

Dr. Mark Beeber is a rich Bohemian philosopher who’s written one book but bears his title for pretension’s sake: he’s never written his dissertation. “His stories always came to the same conclusion: everything is vanity, all philosophers are mistaken, all ideals silly and hypocritical. Man is nothing but a sly ape. However, when one can’t pay the rent, there’s trouble.” He befriends a young writer at the Warsaw Writers’ Club whom he calls Tsutsik (which means puppy) who, seeing him deteriorate–he’d rejected his family–suggests a matchmaker. Beeber marries a rich woman who turns out to be a Martha Updike, controlling his environment so as to force him to publish another book. “She won’t let me answer the phone; she’s afraid I’ll be robbed of my time for contemplation.” All his needs are fulfilled down to a gastronomy that fattens him. But he’s bored. He feels so enslaved he starts an affair with the maid. He’s eternally dissatisfied. Then goes to a casino and wastes all of his wife’s money. She throws him out. His deterioration resumes. His philosophy has twisted, though it’s not much different than what it had been: “Rationalism is the worst disease of the human species. Reason will reverse evolution. Homo sapiens will become so clever that he won’t know how to breed, to eat, or go to the toilet. He’ll even have to learn how to die.” But even though he can’t pay the rent–he has no roof, no bed, no zlotys–what frightens him most in the end is that his wife would forgive him.

The New Yorker, March 7, 1970