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.”

Cheever, “Torch Song” (1947)

scarlett johanssen cheever torch song widow

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow.

She is the Widow, “that lewd and searching shape of death” who becomes the lover of men who love to abuse her until she revels in their demise. Her revenge. The New Yorker’s summary: “Jack Lorey knew Joan Harris from their home town in Ohio. They met when they both came to New York. This is the story of how Joan, who always appeared wholesome and generous, turned into a strange creature ready to gloat over the decay and death of her lovers – one by one. Jack realizes this after many, many years when he himself is down and out and she comes along to befriend him.” I counted seven men before be became the eighth. The story is a touch misogynistic, isn’t it? The woman as preying mantis, as serial killer.

The New Yorker, October 4, 1947

Emma Cline, “Son of Friedman” (2019)

emma cline son of friedman

102 Elm Street, Wyandotte, Michigan.

After hazy and rambling “Los Angeles,” I wanted to give Emma Cline a second look. “Son of Friedman” is more sharply told, but remains all shimmers and throw-away insights. There’s too much knowingness, too much judgment contaminating the eye, keeping it from being more penetrating. No Flaubertian detachment in Cline. She’s at the table, hovering, like an intrusive waiter not content to just set the table. The first part of the story is in a restaurant where George Friedman is waiting for William. The intrusions are especially pronounced when Cline weasles judgy thoughts into her characters–you’re never really sure whose thoughts they are–by immunizing them with question marks: “How old was she? Twenty?” “Had he been an editor?” William is a successful producer. George no longer is, and hadn’t been much of one. Both are older, but William’s managed to keep it going, if unimaginatively so: his latest project is a buddy movie. George is barely hanging on. “He was seventy-one, with a fake knee and a hip due for replacement.” George has a son, Benji, William’s godson, in and out of rehab but now showing his first attempt at a movie at a dingy moviehouse nearby, to which he’s invited father and godfather. Over their meal George tries to push a project on William but is gently rebuffed, the same way that William rebuffed two groupies who’d tried to have their selfie taken with him. George has sunk that low. They go to see Benji’s movie. “The theatre was one of those single-screen places any schmuck with a camera could rent out and show his movie for a weekend. You could probably show your vacation photos.” Has the New Yorker always used theatre as opposed to theater or is that one of Cline’s conceits? It’s a dreadful movie, but the scene is for Benji to show his greater affection and respect for William than for his father: another stab at the old man, who Benji refers to “last but not least” as “my old man.” The Red Sea-parted distance between father and son is sharply described: “Benji was visibly grooving on the sound of his own voice, on being the focus of an audience. George could remember that feeling, acutely, though you were never supposed to make it clear you liked it, and certainly not as clear as Benji was making it, peacocking back and forth, lassoing the mike cord in one hand.” But these stories about the movie business are like stories about the writing business, almost always more interesting to those who’ve lived or worked them than to their audience. Cline is telling us how much she knows the business. But the business itself is not that interesting. It’s one of the least interesting, most common, dullest, shallowest businesses around, an illusion of the illusive aim. So the story’s one strength, that guttered relationship between father and son, in whose murky liquid is reflected the relationship between George and William, is lost to Cline’s performance trills.

The New Yorker, July 1, 2019

Chekhov, “Un méchant garnement” (1883)

Balthus, "The Card Game,"1948-50. chekhoc

Balthus, “The Card Game,”1948-50.

A forgettable quickie about a young couple who are spied on by the naughty boy of the story who blackmails the couple for gifts in exchange for his silence, until the day when the man proposes, the couple marry, then seem to have more fun honeymooning by pulling their former tormentor’s ears than by pulling at each others’ erogenous zones, as they had formerly wished to do out of his sight.

Les éclats, 23 juillet 1883

Alicia Elliott, “Unearth” (2017)

Edward S. Curtis: Navajo child, ca. 1904

Edward S. Curtis: Navajo child, ca. 1904.

A 5-year-old boy had disappeared decades before–55 years before–the day he went to a school for Native Americans. His remains are discovered on what used to be the schools’ grounds during the construction of a fast-food restaurant not McDonald’s but “something flashy and fleeting,” not unlike the life the poor boy had led.  His sister is at the scene. She’s not very emotional. “All dirty details were declawed.” The boy’s mother had died 20 years earlier after having spent a few years in prison when she was younger, but from lashing out in grief at her son’s loss. The family had been Mohawks. But the mother had traded in her name and culture for Anglican names. The boy was sent to that Anglican school, though he supposedly never made it there. Beth, his 63-year-old sister, also went to the school. She was pliant. Now she remembers. She calls her daughter. Apparently she’d never told her of her brother’s disappearance when she was 8. Very improbable. She stops at a store on the Rez. Her accent is recognized. Mohawk.

Grain, 2017, Best American Short Stories 2018, ed. Roxane Gay

Last Train to Memphis

Dewey Phillips, Sam Phillips, black music

Extreme closeness between mother and son, father and son. Father imprisoned eight month for a forged check.

Henry James, “The Great Condition” (1899)

henry james the great condition

From Jules et Jim.

Smack into Downton Abbey syndrome again–the angsts of wealth, uncertain pasts, unsurely marriageable futures. These are contrived problems of course, hard to sympathize with their sufferers or to associate the word suffering with them. But the suspension of disbelief also requires the suspension of prejudice however justified. Within that world, James is mordant: This is about “the rich, the bloated Braddles,” Bertram Braddle in particular. He and his friend Chilver had spent 10 weeks in what sounds awfully like a hunt for American women before returning, disappointed, to England. It’s only on the way back that they meet one worth celebrating: “She was a person to whom they couldn’t possibly have had a letter; she had never in her life been to Newport; she was on her way to England for the first time; she was, in short, most inconsistently, though indeed quite unblushingly, obscure.” But Chilver falls in love with her, although Braddle has “joylessly” claimed her.

James is at least derisive of the useless men’s lifestyle: “Henry Chilver had found it salutary to sit and imagine himself ‘reading’. But Braddle had always been, portentously, a person of free mornings – his nominal occupation that of looking after his father’s ‘interests’, and his actual that of spending, though quite without scandal, this personage’s money, of which, luckily, there seemed an abundance.” They try to figure out the woman’s past. Chilver supposes that Braddle being in love lights the way to her past.

“For reading her clear?” Braddle broke in. “How can you ask – as a man of the world – anything so idiotic? Where did you ever discover that being in love makes a searching light, makes anything but a most damnable and demoralising darkness? One has been in love with creatures such that one’s condition has lighted nothing in the world but one’s asininity. I have at any rate. And so have you!”

So they try to figure out her deep dark secret, her “slips,” if she’d had any–or more than one. “She hasn’t really any references,” the distraught Braddle says as if on the slave docks of Montgomery, eliciting the, at least somewhat, proper response: “it’s not as if you were engaging a housemaid.” Of course that’s exactly what it might as well be for these gentlemen. Braddle speak of her hidden past as fact, indicting her as a man never would be for whatever might lurk in his rotten closets. She had a past in California and the Sandwich Islands. “I don’t fancy a Sandwich Islands past,” bigoted Braddle says. She had a husband and a little girl. They died. He doesn’t sympathize with her loss. He blames her for having no mementos of either. Dripping with distastefulness, he also blames her for having given piano lessons “on account of some of the persons she may have given them to.” This woman should run from Braddle at the speed of western winds. So then these two idiots figure that if Braddle asked her to marry him, he could find out all about that wretched past. Oh, the romance, the originality. (Clever Chilver: he might be trying to scare Braddle off, if he finds out what he doesn’t want too much know. Not to have the woman for himself, but maybe because he is really after Braddle. These boys.)

It then turns into something of an Abbot and Costello routine. Mrs. Damerel makes a marriage to Braddle conditional on a six-month embargo of revealing her secret. He can’t wait. He goes off traveling, stalking her past. The engagement is off. Chilver marries her. Braddle is incensed–not at the marriage, but that Chilver has neither asked of her secret nor is he telling him, or willing to tell him, about it. Chilver doubled the embargo, telling Damerel he’ll wait a year, if he’d ask even then. Braddle is disbelieving. The two friends almost break up. But Braddle is too addled to the mystery to break off. He’ll wait the year. Fifteen months later he shows up at Mrs. Chilver’s. Mr. Chilver still hasn’t asked to know the secret–so Mrs. Chilver tells Braddle in their first encounter since the dis-engagement. Of course he’s again beside himself.

But she reveals the obvious, with a condition: that he never tell anyone:

 “Then I invite you to make the inference most directly suggested by the vanity of your researches.” He looked about him. “The inference?” “As to what a fault may have been that it’s impossible to find out.” He got hold as he could. “It may have been hidden.” “Then anything hidden, from so much labour, so well—” “May not have existed?” he stammered after she had given him time to take something from her deep eyes. He glared round and round with it – seemed to have it on his hands before the world. “Then what did you mean—?” “Ah, sir, what did you? You invented my past.” “Do you mean you hadn’t one?” cried Bertram Braddle. “None I would have mentioned to you. It was you who brought it up.”

There is justice in the end. She’s made a fool of Braddle’s assumptions, and James teaches us a lesson about idle imagination, so much of it premised on the idiocy of class and male pretensions. There never was anything. Mrs. Chilver’s gift to her husband, James would have us believe, is to let him keep thinking there was something and to think himself delicate for not asking about it: she is protecting his ideal. The story couldn’t have found a better first home.

The Anglo-Saxon Review, June 1899

Sherwood Anderson, “Godliness” (1919)

Millfield, Athens County, Ohio. Sherwood anderson godliness

Millfield, Athens County, Ohio. (Southeast Ohio History Center and the City of Athens Historic Preservation Commission)

The longest so far in the collection, written in a mostly traditional narrative style, “Godliness” is a story of fanaticism, loneliness, a touch of madness in Jesse Bentley–but isn’t that always the case with fanatics–and the effects of an industrializing America. Written in four parts, the story goes multi-generational, from grandfather Jesse to grandson David Hardy, son of Louise Bentley, the unloved daughter of Jesse. He’d wanted a son. The first part is about Jesse, “a man born out of his time and place and for this he suffered and made others suffer. Never did he succeed in getting what he wanted out of life and he did not know what he wanted.” He is a brutal man driven by the fixation of serving god at the expense of ignoring and hurting everyone else around him: a pitifully conventional man in that regard. “It is God’s work I have come to the land to do,” he claims, the typical abrogation of all other responsibilities. God is not love in Jesse’s interpretation, but Old Testament vengeance, wrath and sacrifice. He has a lust for violence and blood. He channels it in his work and his indifferent hatred of those around him, his daughter in particular, who grew up studios, unloved, and ultimately strayed into brief promiscuity in her lunge for a love unrequited by her husband: “You never wanted me there and of course the air of your house did me no good,” she tells her father. “It was like poison in my blood but it will be different with him.” After failing to make him understand what she needs in a year  of hills like white elephants, she becomes mean to her husband, at times mad, not much caring for her son as she would have been of her daughter: “It is a man child and will get what it wants anyway,” she said sharply. “Had it been a woman child there is nothing in the world I would not have done for it.”

The story is framed in the country’s rapid changes and how it affects Jesse:

It will perhaps be somewhat difficult for the men and women of a later day to understand Jesse Bentley. In the last fifty years a vast change has taken place in the lives of our people. A revolution has in fact taken place. The coming of industrialism, attended by all the roar and rattle of affairs, the shrill cries of millions of new voices that have come among us from overseas, the going and coming of trains, the growth of cities, the building of the inter-urban car lines that weave in and out of towns and past farmhouses, and now in these later days the coming of the automobiles has worked a tremendous change in the lives and in the habits of thought of our people of Mid-America. Books, badly imagined and written though they may be in the hurry of our times, are in every household, magazines circulate by the millions of copies, newspapers are everywhere. In our day a farmer standing by the stove in the store in his village has his mind filled to overflowing with the words of other men. The newspapers and the magazines have pumped him full. Much of the old brutal ignorance that had in it also a kind of beautiful childlike innocence is gone forever. The farmer by the stove is brother to the men of the cities, and if you listen you will find him talking as glibly and as senselessly as the best city man of us all.


The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse the man of God as it was to the men about him. The greedy thing in him wanted to make money faster than it could be made by tilling the land.

But the story fails to convincingly connect Jesse’s increasing materialism with his fanaticism as much as it does to his inability to keep even the closest thing to a person he’s loved, David, close to him. One day when David is 15 Jesse wants to sacrifice a lamb to god. David is frightened by his grandfather rushing him with a knife, though Jesse was only rushing for the lamb David was holding. David runs off and fires a sling shot at his grandfather, knocking him out cold. David, having felled Goliath, thinks he’s killed him. He runs away, never to return.


The story did not appear in a magazine before publication in “Winesburg, Ohio” in 1919.

End of Sears

How sad. The innumerable times we walked through that store on our way to Dunderbok’s, never once buying anything (except for Cheryl’s treadmill), often going to the second floor to feel up the beds, pee in the–come to think of it, oddly yellow–bathroom where, as I recall, a city or county commissioner was once caught feeling up other boys a decade and a half ago, walking through the displays in the increasing solitude of wares no one was buying, finally resulting in the image above.

Welty, “Why I Live at the P.O.” (1941)

Gold Hill Post Office, in the Virginia City Historic District, Nevada. (Brent Cooper)

Gold Hill Post Office, in the Virginia City Historic District, Nevada. (Brent Cooper) From the page: “Gold Hill is a community in Storey County, Nevada, located just south and downhill of Virginia City. Incorporated December 17, 1862, in order to prevent its annexation by its larger neighbor, the town at one point was home to at least 8,000 residents. Prosperity was sustained for a period of 20 years between 1868 and 1888 by mining the Comstock Lode, a major deposit of silver ore. Mines such as the Yellow Jacket, Crown Point, and Belcher brought in over $10 million each in dividends. The Gold Hill post office remained in operation until 1943. Today Gold Hill exists as a shell of its former self; its population in 2005 was 191. It is part of the Reno–Sparks Metropolitan Statistical Area. Historical remnants of the town can still be seen, including the Gold Hill Hotel, promoted as Nevada’s oldest hotel, in existence since some time prior to 1862; the former Bank of California building; the train depot; and remains of several of the mines.”

In the style of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” and “Good Country People,” but with humor coating Sister’s every act and utterance like a shield. She cannot bear to say anything with a straight face. Humor is her defense and her blinders. It’s July 4. The fireworks are Sister’s family: Pappa-Daddy, his name as comical as his claim that he’s not cut his beard since he was 15 and reacts with a Hasidim’s angry panic when Stella-Rondo, Sister’s sister, falsely (purposefully) claims Sister wants to cut off the beard. Stella-Rondo has just been dumped by Mr. Whitaker, Sister’s ex-flame, stolen by Stella-Rondo, who has a two-year-old child by him, Shirley-T (named after Shirley Temple). Stella-Rondo absolutely refuses to acknowledge it’s her biological child. It’s adopted, in her invention. Uncle Rondo is the drug addict, the shock survivor (or PTSD as we’d have it these days), the veteran of World War I who ingests a bottle of a prescription narcotic every July 4 so he can knock himself out, and who wears a kimono, suggesting different treads in his sexuality. Fat Mama favors Stella-Rondo and slaps Sister around. And Sister: well, she seems to be the only employed one of the bunch, at the minuscule post office in China Grove, Mississippi, a job secured by her grandfather, and a refuge. She decides, as the story devolves into an endless series of alienating offenses, real or perceived, to pack up mounds of belongings, hers or not–if she’s paid a cent for anything, she claims it–and move to the post office, using a “Nigger girl” to haul the stuff–a sharp, brutal reference to a girl Sister has no regard for: “Took her none trips in her express wagon.” Even when she thanks her grandfather for the job, she wounds: “I says, “Oh, Papa-Daddy,” I says, “I didn’t say any such of a thing, I never dreamed it was a bird’s nest, I have always been grateful though this is the next to smallest P.O. in the state of Mississippi, and I do not enjoy being referred to as a hussy by my own grandfather.” So she’s no innocent. The story is written in dialect and takes a lot in style and perhaps aim from Twain. “One can find numerous topics for scholarly reflection in “Why I Live at the P.O.”—and in any other Welty story, for that matter,” Danny Heitman writes in a piece for Humanities, “—but my professor’s advice is a nice reminder that beyond the moral and aesthetic instruction contained within Welty’s fiction, she was, in essence, a great giver of pleasure.”

Atlantic Monthly, April 1941, A Curtain of Green (1941)

Cather, “TheEnchanted Bluff” (1909)

devil's tower

Devil’s Tower (c FlaglerLive)

A group of six young Sandtown boys have their own corner of river. They hang out, swim, look at the stars, dream of their future travels. “Our water had always these two moods: the one of sunny complaisance, the other of inconsolable, passionate regret.” One among them tells the story of the Enchanted Bluff, a Devils Tower-like bluff in New Mexico once inhabited by Indians, and so called “because no white man has ever been on top of it.” The tribe’s men were down below hunting when a storm blew away the stairs that led up the bluff and a war party killed the men. The village up top starved and died, “and nobody has ever been up there since.” The six boys all pledge to make it out there one day. They never do. They grow up, take jobs, die. Tip, who told the story, is waiting until his son is old enough to go with him. And now all the younger boy thinks of is the Enchanted Bluff.

It’s an unassuming story, as simple as once upon a time, but more layered in regret and allegory. It leaves the reader wistful about that enchanted bluff too, wherever it may be in our lost youths, the severing of the wood and bark steps echoing the severing between childhood and adulthood, the impossibility of innocence.

Harper’s Monthly Magazine, 118 (April 1909)

Maupassant, “Mouche” (1890)

guy de maupassant mouche canotiers seine

Anthony Morlon, “Les canotiers de la Seine” (1865), musée Fournaise, Chatou.

Trois hommes et un couffin, with the addition of two more men and a child never born. It’s one of Maupassant’s many stories from the Seine, where he was an enthusiastic canotier: “ma grande, ma seule, mon absorbante passion, ce fut la Seine,” he wrote somewgere, a line echoed in this story: “… la Seine. Ah! la belle, calme, variée et puante rivière pleine de mirage et d’immondices. Je l’ai tant aimée, je crois, parce qu’elle m’a donné, me semble-t-il, le sens de la vie.” Five men revel in their boat on the Seine and take on a woman they call Mouche: “Elle était gentille, pas jolie, une ébauche de femme où il y avait de tout, une de ces silhouettes que les dessinateurs crayonnent en trois traits sur une nappe de café après dîner entre un verre d’eau-de-vie et une cigarette. La nature en fait quelquefois comme ça.” She’s an eternal drunk. Why “Mouche”? “Parce que c’est une petite cantharide!” As in: “Spanish fly (Lytta vesicatoria) is an emerald-green beetle in the blister beetle family (Meloidae). It and other such species were used in preparations offered by traditional apothecaries, often referred to as Cantharides or Spanish fly. The insect is the source of the terpenoid cantharidin, a toxic blistering agent once used as an aphrodisiac.” (Wikipedia.) She ends up sleeping with all five. “On laissait par délicatesse Mouche à «N’a-qu’un-Oeil», du samedi soir au lundi matin. Les jours de navigation étaient à lui. Nous ne le trompions qu’en semaine, à Paris, loin de la Seine, ce qui, pour des canotiers comme nous, n’était presque plus tromper.” She gets pregnant. They all agree: “Ce n’est pas la moment de l’abandonner et la recherche de la paternité est interdite.» And N’a-qu’un-Oeil commands: “Elle a eu, en cette circonstance, la délicatesse de me faire des aveux complets. Mes amis, nous sommes tous également coupables. Donnons-nous la main et adoptons l’enfant.” They’re joyful in paternity. But one day she is either drunk or overly eager to get off the boat. She stumbles. She falls. She loses the baby. They promise to make her another one.


L’Écho de Paris, 7 février 1890, L’Inutile Beauté..

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Psychic Journey” (1976)

isaac singer psychic journey

Tel Aviv, 1967. (Getty)

Another tiresome, wandering story glued to the psychic imaginings of a Margaret Fugazy, who meets the unnamed writer on the Upper West Side and has supposedly been visiting him “in astral form.” She knows the interiors of his apartment. He has a girlfriend of his own, Dora, but she’s run off to a kibbutz in Israel, where her daughter Sandra was having her first baby. He and Margaret develop some sort of relationship. It’s never clear to what intimate extent. She convinces him to be a tour guide with her on a trip to Israel, where they’re both stranded by the breakout of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The relationship’s breakdown is inevitable but never clearly defined. Too much of the story is an excuse for whatever happens next, little of it meshing or making sense outside that glue that excuses everything. You’d expect the wart to provide a more interesting twist. It doesn’t. It provides this page:

There’s a bit of Orientalist stereotype in that smell of “tar, sulphur, and Biblical battles that time had never ended,” and lazy lyricism in “the acrid scent of eternity.” You wonder if the journey to Israel isn’t itself astral. The writer reunites with Dora in the end, and once crosses path with Fugazy, eliciting a confession.

The New Yorker, October 18, 1976

Hawthorne, “The Wives of the Dead” (1832)

nathaniel hawthorne wives of the dead

“Sisters” (Stephen Harlan).

Dreamy fiction gets on my nerves but this is a quite wonderful story of two women whose night of mourning and sorrow over the loss of their husbands isn’t defined as sleep or wakefulness. The two women live together. One husband is off fighting in Canada, the other sailing. News of both their deaths come to the wives the same day. They go to sleep in mourning. Margaret  can’t sleep and is startled by a man knocking at the door to tell her that news of her husband’s death in the ambush was premature. He’s alive and well. She goes to sleep with a smile on her face. Mary, the other wife, is awakened by a knock at the door. Somehow Margaret doesn’t wake up at this. The knocker is an old flirt, and Mary is at first incensed that he would come to woo her so soon. But he’s come by only to tell her that her sailing husband is fine, the ship did not sink after all. Mary is overjoyed, but doesn’t want to wake up Margaret, for the same reason that Margaret hadn’t wanted to wake up Mary: “Happy is it, and strange, that the lighter sorrows are those from which dreams are chiefly fabricated. Margaret shrunk from disturbing her sister-in-law, and felt as if her own better fortune, had rendered her involuntarily unfaithful, and as if altered and diminished affection must be the consequence of the disclosure she had to make. With a sudden step, she turned away. But joy could not long be repressed, even by circumstances that would have excited heavy grief at an other moment. Her mind was thronged with delightful thoughts, till sleep stole on and transformed them to visions, more delightful and more wild, like the breath of winter, (but what a cold comparison!) working fantastic tracery upon a window.” Mary watched the man who’d given her the news disappear “with a doubt of waking reality,” which  becomes ours. The final lines aren’t  more clarifying as she prepares to sleep: “Before retiring, she set down the lamp and endeavored to arrange the bed-clothes, so that the chill air might not do harm to the feverish slumberer. But her hand trembled against Margaret’s neck, a tear also fell upon her cheek, and she suddenly awoke.” The she could be either woman.


Pritchett, “The White Rabbit” (1930)

Fatal Attraction, Pritchett style.

Fatal Attraction, Pritchett style.

Mr. and Mrs Gough hire a nanny, Miss Spencer. Mr. Gough likes her. Mrs. Gough does not. It’s a tense household. “Only at night, when the household was horizontal and unconscious, did the skirmishing cease.” And: “The bang” was the most joyous sound in the house. It was the noise of father slamming the door as he left. There was no peace in the morning until it had sounded.” Spencer is caught between the two. On child, Geoffrey, calls the house cat “Spencer.” The other child threatens to tell. Then Spencer sees the cat poised to attack the children’s white rabbit, which had gotten away from his cage. The rabbit and the cat are proxies of the war in the house. Pritchett explains, once he gets past a clumsy simile: “A feint, thought Miss Spencer. Then her heart fluttered in wild, unreasonable panic like a pigeon startled out of the top of a tree. Was the cat going to kill the rabbit? Ought she to open the window and hiss the cat away? Whose side was she on? Mrs. Gough’s and the rabbit’s; or Mr. Gough’s and the cat’s? That is what it means, her heart said. She was startled by her avid desire to see what happened and she did nothing. I must be impartial: life must print itself …” The cat kills the rabbit. “Mummy! Mummy! Spencer’s killed the rabbit. Spencer’s killed the rabbit,” he yelled.

William Trevor, “The General’s Day” (1967)

william trevor the general's day

Old Man Walks alone in Sommières, France, 2018. (x1klima)

Not a story for Veterans Day. Bad-tempered astrologically tilted General Suffolk, “a leader and a strategist in two great wars,” takes 10 minutes to prepare his breakfast, 10 to consume it, and a day to repeat a ritual of public humiliation and drunkenness he can’t bring himself to end, because it’s not in him to kill himself. “[H]e was to the last a rake, and for this humanity a popular figure. He had cared for women, for money, for alcohol of every sort; but in the end he had found himself with none of these commodities.” He’s 78. He wants this latest of country Saturdays to go his way. He’s looking to pick up a “stout matron” at the Brown Cafe. Mrs. Hinch, his maid, his “fat old bitch,” sends him on his way with wry humor so she can indulge in what’s left of his luxuries. For the general, it’s a string of rejections, starting with young Basil, whose mother is producing babies at a suspiciously faithless clip, like the mother in Carver’s “Father,” or the “buzz off” from a man the general tries to help back on his feet after he falls in front of him. He discovers that those who reject him with excuses are just lying. They just don;t want to be with him.  “[S]ome people are like that: so addicted to the lie that to avoid one, when the truth is in order, seems almost a sin.” He has gins with Mrs. Hope-Kingley the divorced widow. He goes too far when his hand wanders. She leaves him. He tries his opening line–his astrological what sign are you–on a man on the bus who also rejects him. “I do not like to offend people. I do not like to be a nuisance. You should have stopped me, sir,” he tells him. It’s always too late. He too lies to the bartender, pretending that he’s been off to see “The Guns of Navarone.” He doesn’t want to let on that he’s been jilted all day. He tries to have drinks with Frobisher a second time, having already been rejected in the morning. Frobisher this time rejects him the way the other general rejects Dimitritch Tcherviakov in “The Death of a Government Clerk”: “Get the hell off my premises, you bloody old fool! Go on, Suffolk, hop it!” The general’s entreaty (“”Look, I’m a little lonely –” gets him nowhere. He doesn’t go home to die, like Tcherviakov. He wishes. But he won’t be so lucky. His wrenching realization, a preface to Donald Hall’s two memoirs: “I could live for twenty years,’ he whispered. ‘My God Almighty, I could live for twenty years.’ Tears spread on his cheeks.” He should have met William Maxwell’s Pearl M. Donald: “It took her almost twenty years of not wanting to live anymore,” a line


The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories (Bodley Head, 1967)

Updike, “Guilt-Gems” (1977)

John Updike, guilt-gems

Winter landscape, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, 2019 (Peter Rintels).

“Among humans, a sincere apology often involves a touch or an embrace, and the renewal of damaged or broken social bonds,” Richard Conniff writes in a 2006 New York Times article, a brief social and intellectual history of sorry.  “The half-baked apology (“I’m sorry it happened” or “I’m sorry if I offended you” instead of “I’m sorry I did it”) also fails to elicit the visceral reconciliation response.” A commenter reacted: “Your article left out the most recent excuse for an apology, “my bad”. The first time I heard it I was offended because it was obvious that it doesn’t resemble an apology but was instead a total deflection of responsibility for the offending act or the apology.” Updike’s story should be called “My Bad.” It hides its self-absorbed parade of guilt behind word-gems without once–in protagonist Ferris’s retelling of moments with his son, his oldest daughter, his ex-wife, his mother, all mined for the guilt they induced in him, obviously with immense retrospective pleasure at pulling off their recasting as psychologically aesthetic gems–reaching for that touch or embrace. The closest we have to touches is when he describes his ex-wife’s belly bouncing against him like a heart as she sobs, and his son’s kiss when he drops him off at school, as icy as the surrounding New Hampshire snow. Updike isn’t elevating Ferris to any heroic space. “He had been a bully since his first cry for milk, and had continued a tyrant.” It’s a cardinal error to attack a writer for not doing something he doesn’t intend. But it’s Updike’s pose, if not his teflon prose, that invites attack and rejects the title’s twin deceptions. The story is neither guilt nor gems. It is all about “my,” all about “bad.”

The New Yorker, September 19, 1977

Katherine Anne Porter, “Magic” (1924)

Toulouse-Lautrec, "L'inspection medicale" (1894). Lautrec grew up at 24 Rue des Moulins in Paris, a whorehouse, at a time when 34,000 prostitutes were licensed in Paris.

Toulouse-Lautrec, “L’inspection medicale” (1894). Lautrec grew up at 24 Rue des Moulins in Paris, a whorehouse, at a time when 34,000 prostitutes were licensed in Paris. See this interesting paper.

The whorehouse the maid describes in her Creolish patois to her aristocratically white and prissy employer Madame Blanchard–note the frosting on the name–is no Maison Tellier. As if to entertain a Blanchard who could be no less of a madame than the brutish one the maid is describing, she tells the story of Ninette, a prostitute whose wages are garnished and accused of stealing, and who is routinely beaten. Ninette saves up enough to flee. Her madam doesn’t object until her customers, all white and rich enough to be, in a different generation, sending money to adopt poor children as far away from their clipped lawns as possible, demand that she return. It takes magic to pull that off. The madam’s cook, clearly feeling no solidarity toward the whore–cooks considered themselves superior in the hierarchy–provides the recipe. “And then they did it just as the cook said. They took the chamber pot of this girl from under her bed, and in it they mixed with water and milk all the relics of her they found there: the hair from her brush, and the face powder from the puff, and even little bits of her nails they found about the edges of the carpet where she sat by habit to cut her finger and toe-nails; and they dipped the sheets with her blood into the water, and all the time the cook said something over it in a low voice; I could not hear all, but at last she said to the madam, Now spit in it: and the madam spat, and the cook said, When she comes back she will be dirt under your feet. Madame Blanchard closed her perfume bottle with a thin click.”

Seven nights later Ninete returns. There may be a touch of Isaac Singer’s supernatural here but not really, not if the madam had “began to ask the police to bring her again,” not if Jim Crow worked as intended on the oppressed, whatever their pigment or uses. Whores have always been aristocracy’s fetish.

Transition, Summer 1928

Chekhov, “La mort d’un fonctionnaire”
(“The Death of a Government Clerk,” 1883)

Max Ernst, "Birth of Comedy" (1947) chekhov death of a functionary

Max Ernst, “Birth of Comedy” (1947, when Ernst was in Sedona, Arizona).

Playfully cringing through three pages, Chekhov begins with a couple of badinneries in the first six lines–the “no less fine government clerk” than the “fine evening,” and the post-modern stab at “suddenly”: “In stories one so often meets with this ‘But suddenly.’ The authors are right: life is so full of surprises.” (I’m not sure if Constance Garnette invented the exclamation marks or whether the Pléïade translators eliminated them in their generally more poetic versions). Chekhov is having a good bit of fun at his reader’s and character’s expense, neutralizing the stylistic weakness of suddenly by giving it this unexpectedly double-edged endorsement, before turning almost cruel toward Ivan Dimitritch Tcherviakov, who has the misfortune of sneezing on a general he knows. The general wipes himself. Tcherviakov can’t stop apologizing, not just that evening, to the general’s rising fury. But Tcherviakov wants an acknowledgement for his apology, not a dismissal, until, frightened by the general’s last outburst, something snaps, literally, in his gut. he feels it. he lies down. He dies. down to die. It’s one of Chekhov’s most anthologized stories.

Les éclats, 2 juillet 1883

Wharton, “Autre Temps” (1911)

edith wharton autre temps

Ferry In New York Harbor, 1890s. (NYPL)

The hyper-sensitive Mrs. Lidcote is returning from Florence to New York to see her daughter, whom she fears is repeating her own error. We never know quite what Mrs. Lidcote’s error was. She scandalized Old New York and had to go into exile for 18 years in more tolerant Florence, probably with another man. Her daughter Leila appears to be going down the same path, but a friend of Mrs. Lidcote she meets on board ship, the seemingly good and kind Franklin Ide, tells her not to worry: New York has changed. Leila will be fine, whatever her choices. They’re in new York Harbor by now. Franklin is making subtle advances. Mrs. Lidcote doesn’t reject them.

“There’s no old New York left, it seems,” she realizes. As she does her diminishing place in the world: “Yes, yes; I’m happy. But I’m lonely, too—lonelier than ever. I didn’t take up much room in the world before; but now—where is there a corner for me?” And : “Where indeed in this crowded, topsy-turvey world, with its headlong changes and helter-skelter readjustments, its new tolerances and indifferences and accommodations, was there room for a character fashioned by slower sterner processes and a life broken under their inexorable pressure?” Franklin makes his proposal more explicit, but we don’t know if it’s a proposal of marriage or merely of an affair. But it reawakens in Mrs. Lidcote the urge, the verve and impulse that had caused her to elope in her younger years, this time seemingly at no cost to her reputation:

If the old processes were changed, her case was changed with them; she, too, was a part of the general readjustment, a tiny fragment of the new pattern worked out in bolder freer harmonies. Since her daughter had no penalty to pay, was not she herself released by the same stroke? The rich arrears of youth and joy were gone; but was there not time enough left to accumulate new stores of happiness? That, of course, was what Franklin Ide had felt and had meant her to feel. He had seen at once what the change in her daughter’s situation would make in her view of her own. It was almost—wondrously enough!—as if Leila’s folly had been the means of vindicating hers.


She had had what she wanted, but she had had to pay too much for it. She had had to pay the last bitterest price of learning that love has a price: that it is worth so much and no more. She had known the anguish of watching the man she loved discover this first, and of reading the discovery in his eyes. It was a part of her history that she had not trusted herself to think of for a long time past: she always took a big turn about that haunted corner. But now, at the sight of the young man downstairs, so openly and jovially Leila’s, she was overwhelmed at the senseless waste of her own adventure, and wrung with the irony of perceiving that the success or failure of the deepest human experiences may hang on a matter of chronology.

Her daughter is suspiciously over-solicitous, patronizing, almost dismissive of her mother, and ultimately segregating: Leila sends the insufferable Susy Suffren to keep Mrs. Lidcote company and serve her tea, but really to keep her from coming downstairs among Leila’s friends. Suffren infantilizes Mrs. Lidcote as if she were old enough for Donald Hall: “When a woman writes to the newspaper, approving of something I have done,” he wrote in Essays After Eighty, “she calls me “a nice old gentleman.” She intends to praise me, with “nice” and “gentleman.” “Old” is true enough, and she lets us know that I am not a grumpy old fart, but “nice” and “gentleman” put me in a box where she can rub my head and hear me purr. Or maybe she would prefer me to wag my tail, lick her hand, and make ingratiating dog noises. At a family dinner, my children and grandchildren pay fond attention to me; I may be peripheral, but I am not invisible. A grandchild’s college roommate, encountered for the first time, pulls a chair to sit with her back directly in front of me, cutting me off from the family circle: I don’t exist.”

That’s pretty much how Suffren treats Mrs. Lidcote. But Wharton’s superb descriptions of the dynamic between the two women, of Lidcote’s forceful, nearly unspoken rejoinders and rejections of Suffren’s imprisonment, restore Lidcote’s dignity, to the reader’s cheers–only for Leila to resume the assault, and win, her mother feeling too indulgent toward her daughter to deny her the triumph: one of the guests after all was the fearsome Mrs. Boulger, and the purpose of the evening was to secure Leila’s husband an appointment to Rome. Lidcote’s presence would have complicated matters. “Leila was in an agony lest I should come down to dinner the first night. And it was for me she was afraid, not for herself. Leila is never afraid for herself,” her mother reasons, not entirely correctly but lovingly, which has precedence in this heart of hers (as it does not in Ide’s). She decides to return to Florence, “which held her past in every fold of its curtains and between every page of its books, seemed now to her the one spot where that past would be endurable to look upon.” And Ide? He turns out to be as much of a cad as the rest of them.

The money quote:

It’s simply that society is much too busy to revise its own judgments. Probably no one in the house with me stopped to consider that my case and Leila’s were identical. They only remembered that I’d done something which, at the time I did it, was condemned by society. My case has been passed on and classified: I’m the woman who has been cut for nearly twenty years. The older people have half forgotten why, and the younger ones have never really known: it’s simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy.”

Century Magazine, July 1911 (as “Other Times, Other Manners”), “Xingu,” 1916.

O’Hara, “Trouble in 1949”

Adolf Erbsloh street with new building 1910

Adolf Erbsloh’s “Street with New Building,” 1910.

Taut, tense, past tipsy, Barry is on a business trip back from New York to his old grounds in Ohio, where he’s not been in 11 years. “That building was new, and that one.” He decides to look up old flame Judy Hayes, now Mrs. Nelson, married to Karl, who hates Barry, two children, like Barry and his own wife. Karl is out when he calls Judy. She agrees to have dinner with him, holding his hand as they drive to a restaurant, reminiscing about their times a decade earlier when she was 21 and lighter and he was 24. It’s a fling in time that would have completed the required laps toward a screw but for not just one but two improbable encounters at the restaurant. First, Judy’s brother in law, who’s there with a woman not his wife, then the brother in law telling the first illicit couple that Karl was on his way with a band of colleagues from work. The brother in law agrees to become Judy’s date, while Barry takes the other woman. They all make their getaway. Barry and Judy are back in her car, ambling past a particular spot of road “a mile back,” to Judy, “eleven years back,” to Barry, near where her tears reveal that she loves Karl but he doesn’t love her. We’re left to decide whether they do screw. The vantage point, the story’s broad brushstrokes and vivid contrasts, has a lot of Erbsloh’s painting above.

Harper’s Bazaar, November 1938

Kafka, “Wedding Preparations in the Country” (1908)

wedding preparations in the country kafkaA collection of fragments of interest to Kafka purists. We’re still in “Description of a Struggle” territory (won’t we always be?), with tantalizing hints of things to come. Eduard Raban’s anticipatory echo of The Metamorphosis: “As I lie in bed I assume the shape of a big beetle, a stag beetle or a cockchafer, I think.”

“Raban was traveling to his fiancée, to Betty, an oldish pretty girl.” He’s on his way to get married. It’s as laborious a journey as there is, his thoughts not once on the girl he’s about to spend the rest of his life with, the preparations alluded to in the title not once made material in the narrative. Raban is himself in preparation, poor soul. Poor Betty. He’s all nerves, raw nerves exposed to elements he senses too intensely. Every detail is a jangle. The journey is the thing, fragmented, physically uncomfortable, punctuated by encounters that evoke Raban’s anxieties. He doesn’t quite know what to make of these encounters anymore than he does of the journey. “I can be weak and quiet and let everything happen to me, and yet everything must turn out well, through the sheer fact of the passing of the days.” The missing pages, as if become part of the narrative of Raban’s disjointed temperament, can seem like a device all their own, a symptom of his anxiety. Puddles. Rain. Mud. More rain. It’s a grim journey, a fish out of water, amid so much water and those enigmatic lines: “I’ve never found eyes beautiful.” To us from the perspective of years and geographic distance we see the grime of that European muck when skies never get past gray and rain spits cold and clammy even in summer. But it wasn’t uncommon then anymore than it is now.

In the train, conversations, motion, seizing an unpalatable reality: “But if one has held a spool of thread in one’s hand so often and handed it to one’s customer so often, then one knows the price and can talk about it, while villages come toward us and flash past, while at the same time they turn away into the depths of the country, where for us they must disappear. And yet these villages are inhabited, and there perhaps travelers go from shop to shop.”

“Raban’s lips were very pale, not much less so than the very faded red of his tie, which had a once striking Moorish pattern.”

These are not the impressions of a man about to get married so much as one navigating between gas chambers.

Faulkner, “Shall Not Perish” (1943)

At Colleville-sur-Mer. (© FlaglerLive)

At Colleville-sur-Mer. (© FlaglerLive)

A lesser known sequel to “Two Soldiers,” equally sentimental in a different direction, “Shall Not Perish” is a eulogy of grief through the eyes of Pete’s family, the Griers, that of Major de Spain, rich and poor, both having lost their sons, both contending with the persistence of grief and the fluidity of the senseless: Major de Spain finds relief from railing about how his son had no country anyway: “His country and mine both was ravaged and polluted and destroyed eighty years ago, before even I was born. His forefathers fought and died for it then, even though what they fought and lost for was a dream.” It’s also a story told through the prism of the Gettysburg Address’s final words, so the whiff of propaganda is as much in the air as that of cordite drifting in from the Pacific. How long will that solidarity between rich and poor persist? A 9 year old can answer that.

Pete’s mother and her surviving son, Pete’s now 9-year-old, who’d been one of the “Two Soldiers,” pay their respects to General de Spain, and Mother Mother tries to console him. De Spain doesn’t seem to know who they really are, but accepts the shared moment of grief, in which a gun plays a role I did grasp. There are lines as if plucked from Henry James: “Maybe women are not supposed to know why their sons must die in battle; maybe all they are supposed to do is just to grieve for them. But my son knew why.” So did her ancestors. The story ends in an uncomfortably chest-thumping rhapsody for the United States, maybe necessary at the time of publication, but not nearly as effective as the simpler melancholy and fortitude of “Two Soldiers.” It’s as if the last paragraphs, rousing though they are–and impossibly those of a 9 year old–were written on the same movie lot where Ronald Reagan spent his share of military service, in Hollywood. “Shall Not Perish” was rejected by eight magazines. It would have been accepted by all eight on Sept. 12, 2001 and since.

Story, July-August 1943