Here’s how it opens: “This is the story of a man who did not appreciate his wife; also, of a woman who did him too great an honor when she gave herself to him. Incidentally, it concerns a Jesuit priest who had never been known to lie. He was an appurtenance, and a very necessary one, to the Yukon country; but the presence of the other two was merely accidental. They were specimens of the many strange waifs which ride the breast of a gold rush or come tailing along behind.”
The couple is Edwin Bentham and Grace Bentham. Edwin is a loser. Grace is a noble soul who makes her husband shine, though he doesn’t deserve it. Grace falls for a man called Wharton. They prepare to elope. The Jesuit priest who cannot lie warns her not to, evoking the prospect of her giving birth to a bastard son. She changes her mind. Just then her husband shows up at Wharton’s door. The priest lies to protect her hiding place. She goes back to him. It’s a strange story, the focus being more on the lie of the priest allegedly to protect her than on the lies he makes up to claim that she’d ruin her life if she runs off. Or are we meant to see both lies? Either way, the priest is all about oppressing women. He’d be an Eye in The Handmaid’s Tale.
“… and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.” The penultimate lines in Munro’s “Walker Brother Cowboy,” the first story in her first collection of stories, the lines that sealed my conversion to her, though I was well on the way after the briefest of pages in this story of a young daughter’s realization that fathers have pasts, that sometimes those pasts took the form of intimacies that, seen again up close, even as distant shimmers of what once was, can still have the shock of something adulterous. The girl and her little brother have joined their traveling-salesman father in the poor drab backwoods of the Ontario prairie (“We play I Spy, but it is hard to find many colours.” It’s details like this that say drab without saying it.) It’s the 1930s. Their mother stays home, and after a failed sale and a bit of humiliation–the father got pee sprinkled on him–he takes a detour down, well, yes, memory lane. Nora had been his former girlfriend, his lover, something intimate enough that they’d danced and don’t a lot more. She discovers that her father does drink whisky after all, at least with a certain person, from a certain time. The girl witnesses the visit, and learns that certain things must be kept between her and her father, who earlier had described to her the formation of the Great Lakes. The immensity of time, prompting this from the girl: “The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquillity. Even my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in. He has not known a time, any more than I, when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist. He was not alive when this century started. I will be barely alive—old, old—when it ends. I do not like to think of it. I wish the Lake to be always just a lake, with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown.”
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.
A Hemingwayesque story of a page and a half devastating in the simplicity of its indictment of a mother’s possible faithlessness or the father’s disconnection from his family as the family gathers around her latest of four children, the firs boy. It’s the three sisters, the grandmother and the mother cooing around the crib until one of the girls says something about the nose: “It looks like somebody’s nose.” Not her mother’s. Not her father’s. Sister Phyllis immediately tries to divert the cooing to something else. Anything but “who the baby looks like.” Because “He doesn’t look like anybody,” she says, a realization she has trouble making sense of. Another girl says he looks like her daddy, but her daddy who looks like “nobody,” Phyllis says, crying briefly. All the while the father was at the kitchen table, his back to the scene. “He had turned around in his chair and his face was white and without expression.” Is the baby his? Is he just a blank?
Toyon, Spring 1961, Will You Please Be Quiet Please
A thin story burdened by its topical strains and confusion over its unsteady point of view: Sushila and Len are an item. Mateo and Marcie are still married, still very good friends, but separated. Mateo, who’s known Sushila 18 years, makes an almost brutally direct move on Sushila: why not sleep together? Sushila looks past it. Len does not. “The insult was now general. It didn’t belong to anyone, and it couldn’t happen again. Women were at risk.” Of course the didn’t belong to anyone bit is rhetorical, sensational: Len takes ownership of the insult and thinks he must deal with it, no matter what the women say or do, dissuading him to go forth. He becomes an aggressor of sorts, his sanctimony growing more putrid as he considers–imagines, really–Mateo a “serial abuser,” though what Mateo may have done is merely act the way he thought he ought to within the new requirements of the MeToo era: if you’re going to make a move, at least be direct and take No for an answer, which he did. With several women. It’s a transaction. But for the pretensions and the name he sounds no different than Bulldog, Dan Butler’s lust-lapping but predictably aggressive character on “Frasier” who just asks: “Is she baggable?”
Len is offended by the approach, the number of “victims,” maybe by Mateo’s liberty rather than his libertinage. Of course they have a confrontation at a party when Mateo approaches him:
Len pushed him away. “Don’t fucking stand so close to me,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re saying. You’re actually a savage. What about Susan, Zora, and all the other women?”
Mateo replied that everyone knew that seduction was difficult these days. In these impossible times, courtship rituals were being corrected. In the chaos, those seeking love would make missteps; there would be misunderstandings, dark before light. Anger was an ever-present possibility. But it was essential that people try to connect, if only for a few hours, that they never give up on the need for contact. Otherwise, we would become a society of strangers. No one would meet or touch. Nothing would happen. And who would want that? Of course, Len was known in their circle to have issues with inhibition. If there was an opportunity to be missed, he’d miss it for sure. Didn’t he dream repeatedly that he’d gone to the airport and all the planes had left? At least, that was what he had memorably told everyone at supper one night. He was a born misser.
Len told Sushila that he had to go out for some air, but once he was outside he didn’t want to go back. He felt as if he didn’t quite recognize anything anymore. The world was stupid, and there was no way around that. He started to walk quickly away, but he knew that, however far he went, he’d have to come back to this place—if he could find it.
The title of the story is meaninglessly disconnected from the story. It seems to be flung up there for effect. Nothing about this is he said she said. The characters are flatly straightforward and uninspiring. Kureishi grazes the periphery of the topic more sociologically than searchingly, and the story has none of the depth, even the shallow depths expected of a New Yorker story, to be more than a graffiti.
La comtesse de Mascaret, hautaine, dédaigneuse de son jaloux mari, qui s’impose pour l’accompagner au bois.
I like this description: “Ils montaient maintenant les Champs-Élysées, vers l’Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile. L’immense monument, au bout de la longue avenue, ouvrait dans un ciel rouge son arche colossale. Le soleil semblait descendre sur lui en semant par l’horizon une poussière de feu. Et le fleuve des voitures, éclaboussées de reflets sur les cuivres, sur les argentures et les cristaux des harnais et des lanternes, laissait couler un double courant vers le bois et vers la ville.”
He is a brute. She was forced to marry him by her parents, for his money. She’s never liked him, let alone loved him. “Vous m’avez donc achetee.” She tells him she’ll confess her feelings. Her name is Gabrielle. She is three months out from her last child. Her seventh. Three boys, four girls, the oldest is 10. He wants yet another. She is married 11 years, she’s 30. She, like a Wharton heroine, “ne veux plus être la victime de l’odieux supplice de maternité que vous m’imposez depuis onze ans ! je veux vivre enfin en femme du monde, comme j’en ai le droit, comme toutes les femmes en ont le droit.” Because as soon as she began to be devoted to him, to play the part of the loving wife, “vous êtes devenu jaloux, vous, comme aucun homme ne l’a jamais été, d’une jalousie d’espion, basse, ignoble, dégradante pour vous, insultante pour moi.” Impregnating her was his way of keeping her from other men. She didn’t realize it at first, “puis j’ai deviné. Vous vous en êtes vanté même à votre sœur, qui me l’a dit, car elle m’aime et elle a été révoltée de votre grossièreté de rustre.” [How repulsive: she’s right to rebel.]
And this devastating passage: “Ah ! rappelez-vous nos luttes, les portes brisées, les serrures forcées ! À quelle existence vous m’avez condamnée depuis onze ans, une existence de jument poulinière enfermée dans un haras. Puis, dès que j’étais grosse, vous vous dégoûtiez aussi de moi, vous, et je ne vous voyais plus durant des mois. On m’envoyait à la campagne, dans le château de la famille, au vert, au pré, faire mon petit. Et quand je reparaissais, fraîche et belle, indestructible, toujours séduisante et toujours entourée d’hommages, espérant enfin que j’allais vivre un peu comme une jeune femme riche qui appartient au monde, la jalousie vous reprenait, et vous recommenciez à me poursuivre de l’infâme et haineux désir dont vous souffrez en ce moment, à mon côté. Et ce n’est pas le désir de me posséder – je ne me serais jamais refusée à vous – c’est le désir de me déformer.”
He reasserts himself physically as the carriage takes them to the park, forcibly, telling her he’s the master and the law is on his side. It’s domestic violence, pure and simple: “Vous voyez bien que je suis le maître, dit-il, et le plus fort.”
He agrees to her proposition to go to a church. They turn around. And then she tells him: one of the seven children is not his. It was her “unique vengeance” against him, “contre votre abominable tyrannie de mâle, contre ces travaux forcés de l’engendrement auxquels vous m’avez condamnée. Qui fut mon amant ? Vous ne le saurez jamais ! Vous soupçonnerez tout le monde. Vous ne le découvrirez point. Je me suis donnée à lui sans amour et sans plaisir, uniquement pour vous tromper. Et il m’a rendue mère aussi, lui. Qui est son enfant ? Vous ne le saurez jamais. J’en ai sept, cherchez ! Cela, je comptais vous le dire plus tard, bien plus tard, car on ne s’est vengé d’un homme, en le trompant, que lorsqu’il le sait. Vous m’avez forcée à vous le confesser aujourd’hui, j’ai fini.”
He spares her the beating she expected. Dinner. He examines his children “avec des yeux incertains qui allaient d’une tête à l’autre, troublés d’angoisses.” She swears the truth of what she said. In bed later, knowing he’s coming, she hides a gun. “Elle attendait, énergique et nerveuse, sans peur de lui maintenant, prête à tout et presque triomphante, car elle avait trouvé pour lui un supplice de tous les instants et de toute la vie.” But he doesn’t show. He tells her by letter he’s going on a long trip.
Suddenly, we get part III.
I love it. But it breaks the dramatic flow of the story entirely. It’s a socio-philosophical disquisition between two men. (Men, of course: the irony.) It’s a great exchange, but does it belong in such a raw form?
At the opera, a few years later (actually, six) two men gossip about the couple, seeing her radiant, having seen Mascaret worried, getting old. The men are Bernard Grandin and Salinas. But one of the men, Salins, has a social conscience, pitying woman. Why? “Pourquoi ? Ah ! mon cher, songe donc ! Onze ans de grossesses pour une femme comme ça ! quel enfer ! C’est toute la jeunesse, toute la beauté, toute l’espérance de succès, tout l’idéal poétique de vie brillante, qu’un sacrifice à cette abominable loi de la reproduction qui fait de la femme normale une simple machine à pondre des êtres.” The other guy says it’s “la nature.” But the conscious one persist: “Oui, mais je dis que la nature est notre ennemie, qu’il faut toujours lutter contre la nature, car elle nous ramène sans cesse à l’animal.” It’s a humanist speech, rejecting god and honoring mankind.
Back to the couple, as they return home from the opera (just as in all TV shows: the conversation in the car), but there’s nothing humanistic about Mascaret’s begging of his wife to reveal who the odd child is. He says he’s been going crazy all these years trying to figure it out. “Est-ce que j’aurais accepté, sans cela, l’horreur de vivre à votre côté, et l’horreur, plus grande encore, de sentir, de savoir parmi eux qu’il y en a un, que je ne puis connaître, et qui m’empêche d’aimer les autres.” But isn’t that cruel? How is the fact that he’s not the biological father stopping him from being a father? The limits of enlightened thinking, even by Maupassant.
Even worse: he tells her he didn’t kill her six years before not because it’s morally wrong, because it would orphan the children, but because he would have never found out who his non-biological child is. This is awful. So is this: “J’ai attendu, mais j’ai souffert plus que vous ne sauriez croire, car je n’ose plus les aimer, sauf les deux aînés peut-être ; je n’ose plus les regarder, les appeler, les embrasser, je ne peux plus en prendre un sur mes genoux sans me demander : « N’est-ce pas celui-là ? »”
Then she doubles down with their awfulness, telling him she never lied, she never cheated on him, they’re all his. And he triples down: how is he going to trust her at all, from now on? How can he not continue to doubt? She tells him had she not lied she’d have continued to make babies, but, she says, triumphantly, “Je suis, nous sommes des femmes du monde civilisé, monsieur. Nous ne sommes plus et nous refusons d’être de simples femelles qui repeuplent la terre.” [This is a fantastic story for Alabama legislators]
Then Maupassant gives Mascaret this epiphany, as he finally believes his wife: “Alors, il sentit soudain, il sentit par une sorte d’intuition que cet être-là n’était plus seulement une femme destinée à perpétuer sa race, mais le produit bizarre et mystérieux de tous nos désirs compliqués, amassés en nous par les siècles, détournés de leur but primitif et divin, errant vers une beauté mystique, entrevue et insaisissable. Elles sont ainsi quelques-unes qui fleurissent uniquement pour nos rêves, parées de tout ce que la civilisation a mis de poésie, de luxe idéal, de coquetterie et de charme esthétique autour de la femme, cette statue de chair qui avive, autant que les fièvres sensuelles, d’immatériels appétits.
L’époux demeurait debout devant elle, stupéfait de cette tardive et obscure découverte, touchant confusément la cause de jalousie ancienne, et comprenant mal tout cela.”
A stifling story. A couple on honeymoon in Panama. On honeymoon, though it isn;t long before the woman cheats on her husband, who buys a monkey, “a little horror like that,” as she calls it, to haunt their honeymoon, because by looking at it, he says, “I’d be reminded of how stupid I was ever to get upset.” The monkey sums up her hatred of all things wild, the jungle and the trip included. They’re not a good match: “I’m crazy too, U know,” she tells him. “But I wish there were some way I could just once feel that my giving in meant anything to you. I wish you knew how to be gracious about it.” He doesn’t. He’s self-absorbed, self-conscious, as his occasional dips into the self-referential notebook he keeps tell us. He blames her for “always being disillusioned and going around wondering how mankind can be so bestial.” He blames her: “You can never enter into the spirit of s thing, can you?”
There are frequent condescending lines throughout, about the natives, who are all faceless, nameless, crudely drawn, servants both to the honeymooners and to Bowles’s story: “with fewer teeth missing they would be a handsome people.” Is this the best he can find to say about them? And he blames the wife for wondering how mankind can be bestial? Worse, he goes Jules Verne on the natives, comparing them to animals, even monkeys: About an employee on board (possibly the man she’d end up cheating on him with) Bowles writes: “he gave an impression of purely animal force, his broad, somewhat simian face was handsome…” There are also a couple of passages about the man’s childhood, which haunts him: “… the strangeness of his dreams persuaded him that at last he had turned the corner, that the dark place had finally been left behind, that he was out of hearing,” but the mere look of a common object “and the accustomed feeling of infinite futility and sadness would recur.”
She likes to booze with whisky. She disappears. He eventually finds her asleep half naked with another man. He packs up, leaves, boards a train. He thinks he sees her rushing toward him, but the train is whistling off.
Jeffrey Meyers in the Spring 2011 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review begins his essay, “The Oddest Couple: Paul and Jane Bowles” with three paragraphs that explain much of the 13-page “Call at Corazon”—the husband’s anxiety about his childhood, the husband’s need for a monkey, the wife’s boozing and eventual fling on board the boat as the couple was honeymooning:
The strange marriage of Paul and Jane Bowles, two extraordinarily eccentric characters, exemplified the change in mores from the Edwardian to the modern era and anticipated many of the sexual practices that became common after the social revolution of the 1960s. Both bisexual writers, with wildly different personalities, often separated but closely bound to each other, preferred to have sex with their own kind. Far from hiding their homosexuality, marriage allowed them to express it. The mysterious question of what held them together, as they encouraged each other’s work but became rivals in fiction, fascinated and baffled their friends.
Paul Bowles (1910–1999), born in New York and raised on Long Island, was the son of a cruel, tyrannical father, a frustrated would-be violinist who became a dentist. While still in his teens Paul published poems in the French avant-garde magazine transition. He left the University of Virginia after one semester, lived in Paris, studied composition with Aaron Copland, and met Gertrude Stein and many other writers. Always nomadic, in his twenties he traveled extensively in Europe, North Africa, and Central America and composed concert works as well as incidental music for ballet, theater, and film.
Jane Auer (1917–1973) was born to an affluent New York family and moved to Long Island when she was ten years
old. Her father died three years later; and in 1931, while at a girls’ school in Massachusetts, she broke her leg in a serious riding accident. In the early 1930s she was treated in a Swiss sanatorium for tuberculosis of the knee. After returning to New York in 1937, she met Paul and impulsively invited herself to join him and his Dutch friends on their trip to Mexico. But she hated the primitive country and, soon after arriving, flew straight back to America—not a promising start for their future travels together. Paul and Jane had a certain amount in common. Both were only children, grew up on Long Island, had lived in Europe, and were fluent in French. They did not want to have children, who would interfere with their work and their travels, were essentially homosexual, and felt free to pursue their own sexual interests. In 1938 they surprised all their friends by getting married.
As to the story, Meyers summarizes it this way:
Paul’s story “Call at Corazón” (1947), like Jane’s Two Serious Ladies, is based on their rather awful 1938 honeymoon in Panama. These works show how a husband and wife portray different views of the same miserable experience. (Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald had also done this in Save Me the Waltz and Tender is the Night.) Paul did seem to take cruel delight in dragging Jane into the jungle. As he wrote Gertrude Stein, “I am married to a girl who hates nature, and so we are here with volcanoes, earthquakes and monkeys.”
Corazón de Jesús is a real island port off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Though corazón is the most frequently recurring word in Spanish love songs, in Paul’s story, the woman’s heart does not answer the call. The unnamed wife constantly complains and is more irritating than “amusing.” She hates the cramped cabins on the stinking ships (Paul always traveled with an enormous amount of luggage), the intrusive cockroaches who share their quarters, and the destructive pet monkey (a symbol of primitive unreason) who tears out the pages of his book. She also fears the sick-making food, biting insects, torrid heat, poisonous snakes, and tropical diseases. He complains that she refuses to enter into the adventurous spirit of their travels; when he tries to be caustic, she tells him he’s boring.
The husband can’t sleep when the alcoholic wife is prowling around at night: “he began to feel pangs of anxiety as to where she might be. . . . The comfort of her presence was lacking, and there was also the fear of being awakened by her return.” He gets up, searches for her, and finds her on deck next to a strange man, asleep and half-naked after having had sex with him. The husband then returns to the cabin, packs his bags, leaves the boat, and boards the train that’s waiting near the dock. As the train departs, “he thought he saw a figure in white running among the dogs and children toward the station, but the train started up as he watched, and the street was lost to view.” The exasperated but coldly efficient husband takes revenge by abandoning his wife, who suddenly needs him, to an uncertain fate in the jungly port.
The protagonist, a writer, makes good on a promise to. Is it an eccentric but ultimately “atrocious” and “unreadable” writer, Paltiel, on a lay-over in Rio. Paltiel offends him. Paltiel’s wife Lena seduces him after years of being in love with him, and is also “a liar, an exhibitionist, and mad to boot.” But he begins to sleep with her only for the two to tumble out of the Hammock into a morass of gnats, mosquitoes and worse. She claims to have a dybbuk inside her but it turns out to be cancer. Paltiel drives him back to the ship, without saying a word, but then sends him slews of manuscripts and bad books of his, just as she sends him reams of letters. She dies of cancer, Paltiel is institutionalized. So goes the “frightening documents of what loneliness can do to such people and what they can do to themselves.”
The Forward, Nov 17-Dec. 1, 1977, The New Yorker, April 3, 1978