Maxwell, “A Final Report” (1963)

william maxwell

It seems preposterous to be reading the American short story and not include William Maxwell, who in his younger years had that Matthew Broderick-Ferris Bueller look. Error corrected. “A Final Report” is an inventory of a life remembered at the more intimate margins of a probate report. The narrator is remembering. The life remembered is that of Pear M. Donald, who never married, who was a neighbor of the narrator’s family, and who became Aunt Donald and the narrator’s mother best friend until the two women had a mysterious falling out. The story is a look back from her old age: “It took her almost twenty years of not wanting to live anymore,” a line right out of Trevor’s “The General’s Day.” There are memories of the narrator’s childhood from the time she carried him on a pillow when he was sickly, but mostly it’s an account of her decline, her cats, her house, in the elegiac prose of terminal loneliness: “she must have subsisted on air and old memories and fear–the fear of something happening to her cats.” The story ends on what could have been a dry account of the financial settlement of her estate. It isn’t. Each dollar sign is the cremated remains of a long possession, and these final lines: “It would have been a pleasure to go through Aunty Donald’s things, up to a point, and after that probably nauseating. This is the past unillumined by memory or love. The sediment of days, what covered Troy and finally would have covered her if my brother hadn’t come and taken her away.”

Pritchett, “Fishy” (1930)

pritchett fishy

(Peter Stevens)

Fishy all right. A weakling in a collection of weaklings, nothing but down from a promising opening paragraph: “He had not been near the place for thirteen years. All gone now, the boys. Kelly dead. His son dead. Denny, that waiter fellow dead too, he supposed. The good old days dead. Above all, credit dead, strangled by tightening purse-strings—and tightening heartstrings too, for that matter. That was the worst of all. Ireland had hardened. In the old days now, if you hadn’t the money in your pocket, sure any day would do.…” Then it’s all about the old days, booze and oysters in a haze of weak similes and metaphors in a dialogue at an Irish pub: “Heffernan winced in the alcoholic mist which hung over him like a cloud over a mountain, but the sight of those oysters gave him confidence.” There’s a theme of loss lost somewhere in there.

Hawthorne, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” (1831)

Robin is an ambitious 18-year-old country boy called to Boston by his uncle, Major Molineux, a British colonial official,z to make his way in the world. But from the moment he arrives in the city in search of his uncle, he’s the subject of ridicule, threats and false seductions until an older man hears his story and assures him that Major Molineux is about to appear in the street. He does, surrounded by a mob that’s tarring and feathering him, the latest in a string of British governors so dishonored. Robin and the major’s eyes lock in a moment of shrill recognition, but the moment is Robin’s chance to break free. He does, laughing off the major and becoming an independent man. Much of the story is swathed in a dreamy state. We never know whether any of this is happening or is being dreamed. Then again, it’s a story: we never know a great deal more. He tells the old man to show him the way back to the ferry. The old man suggests he wait a few days before leaving town so he has time to realize he can make his way in the world on his own. The story ends, leaving it unclear what choice Robin makes: there are different Robins, different choices.

The Token and Atlantic Souvenir, 1832

William Trevor, “Memories of Youghal” (1969)

Miss Grimshaw Andy Miss Ticher are now old maids who get together every year at a resort overlooking the Mediterranean. While Miss Grimshaw is somewhere else Miss Ticher is approached by a slovenly middle-aged man, a detective on assignment, an orphan who spies on others’ lives for having never had a life of his own. He wonders what might have happened had his parents not drowned when he was five months old, or had he been swept off his baby carriage by another woman. At first Miss Ticher is repulsed. His false teeth are dancing in his mouth, his skin shows through an open button, he has no regard for the way he looks: a Colombo. But the more he reminisces about Youghal the more she takes to him, as if finding affinities in what they both missed:

‘In 1934,’ said Miss Ticher, ‘when you were five months old, Mr Quillan, I was still hopeful of marriage. A few years later I would have understood the woman who wished to take you from your pram.’

Miss Grimshaw, who may be a touch demented, does not feel the same way. By the end Miss Ticher is touching his hand and speaking her sympathy, as much for him as for herself. Trevor had lived in Youghal.

It takes particular concentration to get into a Trevor story because everything is concentrated in first lines pulled from the later flow of the narrative.

The Transatlantic Review, Summer 1969

Updike, “Atlantises” (1978)

john updike atlantises

Self-absorption, unchecked.

“bored with reminiscence,” as a line goes in this story, yet another one of Updike’s melancholy eulogies for the life he lost with his divorce, the parties, the beaches, “the idyllic grandeur.” It is one retread after another allegorized as Farnham’s lost Atlantis, Farnham being an older man now exiled with a second wife to some landlocked place often confused with Ohio. Atlantis and Plato here play the role of Updike’s props, the props he uses to cloak his fiction in a gravity it otherwise lacks. The reminiscing is contrasted with a silence that sounds suspiciously like Updike’s prison-like marriage to Martha, though he remained within sight of the sea. This is the man who included in the bequest of his papers to Harvard, his golf scorecards.

The New Yorker, November 13, 1978

Katherine Anne Porter, “Rope” (1928)

katherine ann porter rope

(William Jones)

A layered story of a young couple living in a turn-of-the century pre-suburb, four miles from town. The husband boys a rope that turns into a noose around what little air is breathing into a marriage of mutual resentments and wry slights, though the couple remains committed, and by the time the husband has trekked to town to buy the wife’s coffee and returned to a dinner prepared for him (and her), a measure of serenity is restored even if the underlying strains remain: it’s not easy to be a woman and to run a household at the turn of the previous century. The rope has as many meanings as the story’s layers. Noose, binding agent. comic relief. My reading of the story suffered from three interruptions and a distance, still persisting, between me and Porter’s style. The coffee at the end is redolent with aromatic desire. These brief analyses are enlightening for the kaleidoscopic readings “Rope” allows.

Chekhov, “Une fille d’Albion” (1883)

A man is fishing next to an English woman who’s spent ten years in Russia but seems to know not one word of Russian. The man is approached by a friend. The man speaks demeaningly of the woman’s looks. His fishing line gets stuck. He has to go in to unhook it. He gets undressed in front of the woman, to his friend’s growing alarm. But he gets naked anyway, and goes in, retrieves his line, then gets back to fishing. The woman never moves.

Les Eclats, 1883

Wharton, “Kerfol” (1916)

kerfol wharton

From the website Little Dog Laughed.

“The pressure of the invisible”: A sixth sense of a ghost story involving dead dogs haunting an estate where a woman is accused to have murdered her husband, though she says the dogs he kept strangling mauled him. The narrator sees the dogs as he (or is it she? we never know) surveys the estate called Kerfol in Brittany. His friend suggested he buy the place, which evokes “that sheer weight of many associated lives and deaths which gives majesty to old houses.” He spots the silent, brooding dogs who follow him but unaggressively. Then he hears the story of Kerfol, essentially the captivity of a woman by her husband in a “Yellow Wall-Paper” way (she has no rights, no autonomy), but much worse. She has no children. Her husband gifts her a dog but eventually strangles it and leaves it on her pillow after he somehow finds out that she’d given a necklace to another man. He kills the dog with the necklace, and kills every other dog she acquires. The same way. The narrator tells the story through the month-long transcript of the woman’s trial, who one night was to meet the man she’d been befriending, though not yet having an affair with, to warn him off. Her husband wakes up. As he walks down the stairs, the dogs maul him. She is accused of the murder, but let off to live with the man’s family–a worse sentence. She dies a mad woman. Her potential lover lives an unremarkable life. I am seeing pulmonary veins between Wharton and Karen Russell’s narrative verve.

Scribner’s, March 1916

O’Hara, “Do You Like It Here?”(1939)

o'hara do you like it here smugness

A smug man.

The story perfectly captures the high school principal as smug goon, the principal’s office as a Room 101 of unbridled, sadistic authority for its own sake. Roberts is a student in a boarding school. Van Ness is either a principal or a dean. He has Roberts sit down. Van Ness plays those games, making the student wait, wonder, stew. All unnecessary, all absolutely necessary to the sadist. He is an immediate condescending fuck, asking Roberts to tell him about his life “before you decided to honor us with your presence,” and when Roberts adds “Illinois” to his Chicago genesis, Van Ness again insults him: “Well, a little geography thrown in, eh, Roberts? Gratuitously. Thank you. Proceed.” Every one of those words a slight, a put down, an order sharpening Van Ness’s role, though still we have no idea, Roberts has no idea, why he’s there. He’s not done anything that we know of, and even if he had, it would not excuse the fucker’s behavior. The condescension continues, and Van ness finally reveals that someone stole a watch, then returned it, but he’s investigating who did. And doing so by humiliating every student. The school, you see, means so much to him. The school is an institutional deity. You know the type of administrator who places a school’s emblems and traditions and abstract meanings above the worth and individuality of every student, having perfectly lost sight of purpose: the institution is an end in itself. The education of the student is incidental. O’Hara captures the madness down to the spittle forming at the edge of the dean’s mouth (even if he doesn’t go that far, you can see it):

Roberts returns to his room and cusses out Van Ness. “The bastard, the dirty bastard.”

The New Yorker, April 1, 1939

Kafka, “The Judgment” (1912)

loire kafka the judgment

Un pont sur la Loire, 2013. (© Notebooks)

The father slays the son. Georg Bendemann writes a letter to a friend who left for (unsettled, revolutionary) Russia to start a business there three years earlier. The business does not go well. Georg is engaged. He lives with his father. His father makes him believe he doubts the existence of that friend in Russia, complains a lot abut his son, claims his wife’s death was much harder on him than on Georg, then says he knew of his friend in Russia all along. The father is unappreciative of his son’s care, seeing in it–particularly in his son’s attempt to cover him–an attempt to entomb him. He condemns him to die by drowning. Georg leaves, goes to the river, jumps in, an apparent suicide, as we say in the profession. The last line has been a subject of debate, as the translation doesn’t convey its nuances. There’s plenty of autobiography, but that’s irrelevant. Kafka’s writing method maybe a bit less so: he wrote in his diary that “this story, ‘The Judgment’, I wrote in one sitting of the 22nd-23rd, from ten o’clock to six o’clock in the morning. I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk, they had got so stiff from sitting. The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me as if I were advancing over water…” That was his preferred writing method. So it’s a free-writing meditation that doesn’t lend itself to a single judgment. Kafka is working out tensions inherent to fathers and sons, and more particular to his father, who did not like Franz wasting his time writing. He’s reflecting his own neuroses. He’s projecting himself on the friend in Russia. The father in the story is not an appealing man. The explicit judgment is of the son by the father, the more powerful judgment is of the father by the son, with the mother as holy spirit.

Faulkner, “A Rose For Emily” (1930)

a rose for emily

Faulkner gothic. Emily Grierson is an eccentric recluse in Jefferson, Mississippi, believed to have come close to marrying a Homer Barron but failed: Barron disappeared one day. Of course he never left. She’s poisoned him with arsenic and kept him in an upstairs bedroom, the indentation in the pillow next to his suggesting an affection transcending, transgressing, death. There’d been a smell, townspeople investigated, but found nothing. It was one more reason to ridicule Emily. Previously, she’d lived with her imperious father, who’d kept her from marrying. When her father died, who knows how, she held on to his body three days before townspeople convinced her to let go. Throughout, there’s the nameless, wordless black servant, who disappears out a back door the day she dies. Old and new generations clash. If there was ever a story that illustrates Faulkner’s famous line, that the past is never dead, it’s this one, in a literal sense: Emily hangs on to Homer, her rose, because life isn’t where she is.

The Forum, April 30, 1930

Danielle Evans, “Boys Go To Jupiter” (2017)

In a December 2016 interview in the Nashville Review Danielle Evans said: “For a lot of the characters there’s that moment when they consider the decision, consider the possibility of a different course of action, and move forward anyway. It was important to me, especially in thinking about adolescence and particularly female adolescence, to write characters whose problematic behavior came from complexity and not from lack of comprehension. Sometimes that tendency to hurt themselves is a way of reconciling trauma. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision to choose between what seem like only bad options, so that at least they have the dignity of knowing in which way something will hurt. Sometimes it’s a drive to punish themselves for something else that seems like it should have hurt more.” That sums up Claire in “Boys Go To Jupiter,” a flawed but absorbing story–flawed because it’s more of a topical study along Evans’s purpose than a story breathing on its own, free of the necessary contrivances Evans builds into the plot. One of them seems untenable: that Claire, the central character, is capable of wearing a confederate-themed bikini (the bikini that somehow ends up snapped onto somebody’s social media page, triggering the scandal she faces in college when a dorm mate sees the picture) even though her best friend growing up had been black. Then again, the severing of that friendship by two dramatic shocks (both girls’ mothers have cancer, but Claire’s dies, her friend’s mother does not), and Claire’s car crash with the girl’s brother, her occasional lover (he is killed, she is not) may be the reason Claire is so foolishly exploring the self-hurt of going far beyond wearing the confederate bikini. Along the way Evans captures the language and often contradictory sanctimony of social and racial correctness and the lurid expediency of those who will brandish a racist cause behind the cloak of free expression. I kept thinking of The Human Stain. The story’s artistry almost chokes from its heavier polemic but for Evans’s remarkably assertive and lucid style. More on Evans here.

Sewanee Review, Nr. 4, 2017, Best American Short Stories 2018, ed. Roxane Gay

Karen Russell, “The Prospectors” (2015)

orange world karen russell

There’s a delicious élan vital in Karen Russell’s style that rarely lets you down, along with an awareness that whatever you’re about to read will be original and limpid: “At the sound of my real name, I felt electrified–hadn’t I introduced myself by a pseudonym? Clara and I had a telephone book of false names. It was how we dressed for parties. We chose alter egos for each other, like jewelry.” This from the character called Aubergine, a name given her by her father who thought he was calling her something a lot more elevated. Aubergine and Clara’s ages are never given, but they’re young women in Depression Florida who leave the state after Clara keeps showing up blue from bruises. We never find out what those bruises were about (a weakness in the story, I think, a loose thread: was it that in consequential aside from being a device to propel the characters to Oregon?), only that Aubergine makes a deal with Clara: she;d never ask, but Clara would have to agree to leave the state with her and be the happily promiscuous Thelma and Louise types they like to be: “On our prospecting expeditions, whatever doors we closed stayed shut.” Invited by a suave-seeming, French-seeming aristocrat, they end up taking a ski lift to a mountain top resort, what they believed to be a mountaintop resort atop Mount Joy in Oregon, built by WPA workers. They end up at the wrong resort, one demolished in a construction accident that killed 26 workers. But the workers are there, alive and not alive, when the girls show up. That sixth sense set-up is the story, taking after the Isaac Singer notion that the dead are never really dead. If Hitler can appear at a Broadway cafeteria with his homies, why shouldn’t the dead of Company 609 of the Oregon Civilian Conservation Corps haunt the construction site that’s their tomb? It allows for imaginative explorations of the tongue, metaphorical and not so much: “Lee may not have known that he was dead, but my body did; it seemed to be having some kind of stupefied reaction to the kiss. I felt myself sinking fast, sinking far below thought. The two boys swept us toward the stairs with a courtly synchronicity, their uniformed bodies tugging us into the shadows, where our hair and our skin and our purple and emerald party dresses turned suddenly blue, like two candles blown out.” The illusion becomes a sinister vise when the dead start taking pictures. The girls decide that if they were caught by the lens, they’d be dead too. The try to escape. The structure begins to crumble. There’s a bit of Lucas-Spielbergian theatricality a-la-Indiana Jones here as they rush out to the ski lift, but they make it out. In the end I’m not so sure the story leaves us with more than a very delightful pot-au-Poe trip to a mountaintop snowy with crystalline prose. But not every story needs to be The Metamorphosis.

The New Yorker, June 1, 2015, “Orange World,” 2019

Flannery O’Connor, “A Stroke of Good Fortune” (1953)

a stroke of good fortune flannery o'connor  Stuyvesant Flats, 1935. (NYPL)

Stuyvesant Flats, 1935. (NYPL)

Think of Nicholson Baker’s “Mezzanine” but in 10 pages, and the elevator replaced by many flights of stairs Ruby, a 34-year-old pregnant with complaints, is struggling to climb. She’s tired, she must rest, she speaks with tenants along the way, she fantasizes about moving elsewhere, she complains about her brother, gone to the army two years and back, unchanged–she complains about everyone–and she denies to herself that she could possibly be pregnant (“Bill Hill’s been taking care of that for five years,” she says of her husband’s presumed condoms), though her fortune teller recently told her that she would have a stroke of good fortune. She thinks it’s the chance to move. It’s really her pregnancy. She doesn’t want babies. “And there her two sisters were, both married four years with two children apiece. She didn’t see how they stood it, always going to the doctor to be jabbed at with instruments.” But her specialty is the put-down of everyone but herself. There’s humor along the way, but not enough to let the story take flight as “The Mezzanine” does: it takes itself more seriously than it pretends not to.

Shenandoah, Spring 1953

Jack London, “To The Man On the Trail” (1900)

klondike gold man on the trail jack london

Still looking in the Klondike. (Denver Post)

Not heeding Jules Verne’s lesson, London traveled to the Klondike in 1897 to look for gold. He lasted a year. Scurvy wrecked him. He never found gold. He found Malamute Kid. “To the Man on the Trail” anticipates the familiar Isaac Singer set up: a group of men huddled against minus 74-degree cold, a stranger drops in, on a long trek, the stranger’s story follows. This one, Jack Westondale, an unlucky workhorse, married, with children, chasing after his team of swindlers, a man of “clean grit and stubbornness.” The man rests just a few hours then goes on his way, provisioned with food for himself and his dogs and Mamelute Kid’s respect. Fifteen minutes later the mounted police arrives, chasing after him over some issue. But the group of men thwart the policeman, giving Westondale time to make his escape: solidarity before submission to government authority.

Carver, “Nobody Said Anything” (1973)

nobody said anything carver


A young boy hears his parents arguing angrily for the nth time. It’s a poor family: he sleeps with his brother. He elbows him, looking for sympathy. His brother “is an asshole.” He pretends to be sick in the morning. When everyone leaves, he goes fishing. He’s horny. A pretty woman gives him a lift. He fantasizes about her. He fishes. He meets another boy who was also fishing. They compete for a steelhead they catch, eventually slicing it in half. He’s very proud. When he gets home, his father orders him to throw it in the trash. The parents are still arguing violently.

Seneca Review, May 1973

O’Henry, “Caught” (1904)

cabbages and kings caught

A report of President Miraflores’s escape with a woman. He is reported to be at a hotel in Coralio, with a beautiful woman and a valise full of cash. Senor Goodwin goes there and finds all three. The alleged president shoots himself. Goodwin steals the money, launches a search for it, marries the woman and builds a house for them both. The picture above is by Robyn Stockwell.

Henry James, “My Friend Bingham” (1867)

henry james my friend bingham

(© The Notebooks)

What do you do when you stupidly shoot at a seagull and kill a child instead? Why, you marry his mother. Bingham is the rich friend of the narrator. He has learned not to indulge in “this monstrous hereditary faculty for doing nothing and thinking nothing,” though he doesn’t do much or think much in this story. The doing is limited to his vacationing with the narrator, his shooting the child, and his immediately turning to devising ways to atone toward the woman, even as the child’s body is lolling about in the carriage, “the desire to obtain from the woman he had wronged some recognition of his human character, some confession that she dimly distinguished him from a wild beast or a thunderbolt.” Realism in James at times surrenders entirely to his thematic fixation, itself making props of characters. Mrs. Hicks is repeatedly described as intelligent and full of integrity, but we never see it. She’s a bit of a flat character here, and of the child himself all we know is the image of him as a “pale-faced little boy, muffled like an invalid” in the moments before he is killed. Incredibly, he is thrice blamed: first by Bingham for going on the rocks, where he supposedly shouldn;t have been, then by his mother, who says she told him he shouldn’t have gone there, then by the narrator: “Her little boy has hurt himself.” But the story is breezily, almost humorously toned, anticipating the Maupassant approach and twists, with Bingham’s marriage to Mrs. Hicks at the end, though they remain childless: he could not give her back what he took. By then he’s grown as “stout” as Pierre Bon-Bon.

Atlantic Monthly, March 1867

Maupassant, “Sur l’eau” (1876)

Monet, de la serie de "La Seine a Giverny."  maupassant

Monet, de la serie de “La Seine a Giverny.”

Part of Maupassant’s fixation on canotage, the story was first titled “En canot,” and is the first of two by that title (“Sur l’eau”): he wrote another one in the form of a diary in 1888. A solitary canotier is sliding on the Seine, stops to have a pipe, and feels something shivery graze the boat just as he’d been reflecting superbly about rivers: “c’est en effet le plus sinistre des cimetières, celui où l’on n’a point de tombeau. La terre est bornée pour le pêcheur, et dans l’ombre, quand il n’y a pas de lune, la rivière est illimitée. Un marin n’éprouve point la même chose pour la mer. Elle est souvent dure et méchante c’est vrai, mais elle crie, elle hurle, elle est loyale, la grande mer ; tandis que la rivière est silencieuse et perfide. Elle ne gronde pas, elle coule toujours sans bruit, et ce mouvement éternel de l’eau qui coule est plus effrayant pour moi que les hautes vagues de l’Océan.”

His boat is stuck. The anchor won’t give. The next several pages paint the portrait of a frightened man in the thick mists of the Seine, immobilized as much physically as mentally by the imagined frights of his situation: “J’essayai de me raisonner. Je me sentais la volonté bien ferme de ne point avoir peur, mais il y avait en moi autre chose que ma volonté, et cette autre chose avait peur. Je me demandai ce que je pouvais redouter ; mon moi brave railla mon moi poltron, et jamais aussi bien que ce jour-là je ne saisis l’opposition des deux êtres qui sont en nous, l’un voulant, l’autre résistant, et chacun l’emportant tour à tour.” Finally, another canotier passes by and helps him unhook the anchor, or at least loosen it enough to bring the weight that had been clamping it down to the surface. It’s the cadaver of an old woman “avec une grosse pierre au cou.” So the misty uncertainty outlasts the story: suicide? Murder? We won’t know.

Le Bulletin français, 10 mars 1876

Poe, “Bon-Bon (1832)

poe pierre bon-bon

The devil, who needs no eyes to see better than anyone, visits the pretentious corpulent philosopher and restaurateur Pierre Bob-Bon. The two have  an evening’s conversation that sounds like an 1832 version of a Robin Williams appearance on Letterman: plenty of puns, jokes, one-upmanship, lots of drinking. The devil tells the increasingly drunk Pierre that he likes to eat souls, and has devoured those of Aristotle, Plato and Voltaire: de gustibus: the devil rejects Pierre’s offer of his own soul, not wanting to take advantage of a drunk man.

Broadway Journal, 1832, Tales, 1845

Hemingway, “The End of Something” (1925)

At Princess Place (c Notebooks)

At Princess Place (c Notebooks)

Nick is 17. Marjorie is his girlfriend. But “it’s no longer fun.” They’re in a row boat, going for a picnic. They remember the days of the mill, long gone. He’s not hungry. He eats anyway, and tells her it’s no longer fun. She rows off, leaving him. His friend Bill joins him. He doesn’t want to be joined by his friend Bill. It’s the end of something. I’m all broken up inside. I hope the pâté was good, at least.

Malamud, “The Prison” (1950)

bernard malamud the prison

The Lexington Candy Shop on the corner of 83rd Street and Lexington Avenue, opened in 1925. (Untapped Cities)

Tommy is one of Malamud’s Sisyphean characters, married to the sort of woman who goes so far as to change his name. He was once Tony. He did not stop her from changing it to Tommy. That was his first mistake. He runs a candy store with her, working from eight in the morning to midnight six days a week, going to the movies by himself on the seventh day. “No matter how hard you tried you made mistakes and couldn’t get past them. You could never see the sky outside or the ocean because you were in a prison, except nobody called it a prison, and if you did they didn’t know what you were talking about, or they said they didn’t.”

A 10-year-old girl is in the habit of buying two rolls of colored tissue paper every Monday, and, as Tommy discovers after his wife installed a surveillance mirror (she trusts no one), stealing two candy bars. The story is a study in the psychology of discipline: Tommy’s own as he tries to control himself before confronting the girl, and the notion of disciplining a 10-year-old thief: how do you do it? How far do you take it? Tommy ponders. He doesn’t want to frighten her. His compassion gets the better of him. Week after week his plans to confront her fail him. He finally decides to put an anonymous note in one of the bars. But she doesn’t appear the Monday he wanted to try the note. Somehow he ends up at home upstairs for a nap and when he goes back down, his wife has caught the girl and is thrashing her, as is the girl’s mother. The girl runs off, and “at the door she managed to turn her white face and thrust out at him her red tongue.”

“You could never see the sky outside or the ocean because you were in a prison, except nobody called it a prison.”

Commentary, September 1950, “The Magic Barrel,” 1958 

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Cafeteria”

isaac singer the cafeteria

Automat, 163-5 East 86 St., Sept. 15, 1936. (NYPL Digital Collection)

An echo of “The Psychic Journey” in structure and themes, though Journey came a decade later. Aaron, an exiled Polish writer in his late 60s regularly dines at a cafeteria on Broadway where Holocaust survivors gather, among them Esther, who loves the writer’s work. “Sometimes I imagine that the funeral parlor is also a kind of cafeteria where one gets a quick eulogy or kaddish on the way to eternity.” She’d been imprisoned in Russia. She works odd jobs. She disappears and reappears over time. On one of these reunions Esther tells Aaron she saw Hitler with his posse at the cafeteria late one night. This is the 1960s of course. The vision coincides with a fire that destroys the cafeteria. Maybe she set it. Just like Margaret Fugazy in “Psychic,” Aaron becomes afraid that Esther will continue to contact him. But she doesn’t. He then has an apparition of his own, seeing Esther looking younger and happier than she’d ever been, on the arm of a man walking on a street in Toronto. He does not speak to her of course. Aaron later learns that Esther had killed herself a long time before that apparition.

The parallels are as much with “Psychic Journey” as with, say, Russell’s “Prospectors,” the differences being that Singer amplifies the gravity of his story by injecting Hitler in his apparition, while Russell uses unknown WPA construction workers and fills her story with more mirthful mist than Singer’s brooding reflections on death and the afterlife. Switch the characters–what if Esther happened on a performance of “Guys and Dolls” at the cafeteria in the middle of the night?–and the scale doesn’t tip as heavily toward the profound.

The New Yorker, December 28, 1968

Wharton, “The Muse’s Tragedy” (1899)

"The Muse's Tragedy" appeared in "The Greater Inclination," Wharton's first collection of stories, in 1899.

“The Muse’s Tragedy” appeared in “The Greater Inclination,” Wharton’s first collection of stories, in 1899.

Danyers is a young scholar infatuated with Mrs. Anerton. Mrs. Anerton had been the muse of poet Vincent Rendle who, like her husband, is dead. Danyers wrote about Rendle, but is now falling in love with Anerton. They spend a month together in Venice. The third part of the story is a letter Anerton writes him to explain why she would never “stoop” to marry him or any other. The story is a meditation on artistic inspiration, its imprisoning limitations, its tragic dimensions, when the muse is in the end objectified: inspiration, sex object, what’s the difference if it stunts a heart’s desires: “Alone—quite alone; for he had never really been with me. The intellectual union counted for nothing now. It had been soul to soul, but never hand in hand, and there were no little things to remember him by.”

Scribner’s, June 1899, The Greater Inclination, 1899

Chekhov, “Le trousseau” (1883)

One of the classic foreboding Chekhov openings, the themes personified in the sense of place, a house that looks like a hunchback straining to hide:

Madame Tchikamassoff and her family, including her daughter, live there, receive “avec inquietude” the young narrator, whose purpose is unclear. The house business is to fill Manechka’s trousseau. But she has no prospects. Just her mother’s double-edged hopes. Her mother is the reason she has no suitor, and the trousseau is a red herring. There’s also General Tchikamassoff who lives in the past and is at the story’s periphery, and Gregory, who’s got some condition maybe related to his service in war. The narrator visits three times. The third time Madame Tchikamassoff is in mourning. Her daughter is gone. Where was she? The narrator asks himself. There is no answer. Maybe she’s married. Maybe she’s dead. Maybe she killed herself. The last line: “Tout etait clair et j’avais le coeur lourd.”