Tag: afterlife

Henry James, “The Real Right Thing” (1899)

henry james the real right thing herkenrath

Peter Herkenrath, “Untitled 02.”

The supernatural in stories can be hokey, a device to deceive realism by getting out from under its burdens, as when evidence is refuted with faith–or rather, as when a faith-based argument is introduced in an attempt to refute evidence. But isn’t fiction itself the ghost a writer conjures to bridge the otherwise unbridgeable gap between truth and a reality overwhelmingly reliant on, if not made up of, perceptions?

Ashton Doyne was a “great” writer. He died unexpectedly. His wife lets the young George Withermore’s publishers know she wants him to write her husband’s biography. Withermore admired Doyne and jumps at the chance to spend his nights with his master’s papers–swimming in his sheets. He quickly feels Doyne’s ghostly presence and comes to look forward to it, to “the possibility of an intercourse closer than that of life.” There are clear suggestions of eroticism between the two men as Withermore researches him, “the great fact of the way Doyne was ‘coming out’. He was coming out too beautifully — better yet than such a partisan as Withermore could have supposed.” But Withermore then senses that Doyne leaves him, and discovers from the widow that Doyne has flitted over to her. Withermore worries, as she does, about the wisdom of writing the biography. James explores the ethic of the biographer, a profound question:

There is an out: do the dead have rights? James clearly suggests that they do, that they’re not exactly dead, and he wants an artist’s life to be left as the artist’s work, nothing more: “The artist was what he did–he was nothing else.” Which is to say that understanding the artist is a pretext to invade a privacy extraneous to the artist’s work. That’s arguable, and there are endless lines that can and must be crossed: how is one to separate an artist’s private correspondence, and its artistry, from the artist’s work, for example?

Doyne and Withermore want to do “the real right thing.” They give up on the biography.

Collier’s Weekly, December 16, 1899

 

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

Edith Wharton, “The Fullness of Life”

A seemingly hoaky premise turns into a surprising and really affecting story, all hinged on the creaking of the boots of the protagonist’s husband. A woman is dying in the first page and a half, actually dying, whether from illness or suicide is not quite clear: “she had swallowed her noxious last draught of medicine.” She then finds herself in the afterlife, speaking to the Spirit of Life. The story risks being very silly at this point. But this is Wharton, who is not capable of silliness. The Spirit explains it all to her: she is to find her soul mate now, since she didn’t have one while Aline. Her husband certainly wasn’t it. She is ecstatic. She meets him. She connects. Florence, art, literature. He’s the one. He then tells her to come along so they can live in their dream home for eternity. Then it strikes her: it can’t be home, without the creaking of those boots. Can’t be home without husband. She was his soul mate, even if he wasn’t hers. Her loyalty is to him. She can’t bear to know that when his turn comes, he’d arrive and not find her there. This delicious, surprising passage:

Hemingway: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (1936)

Really? (During a safari in Africa in 1934. Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

Really? (During a safari in Africa in 1934. Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

Man and woman on safari. Man acts cowardly when first rushed by a lion. Woman is embarrassed, ashamed. So is he. She sleeps with the safari man. He regains his courage, kills a bull, then gets ready to kill a lion rushing him, but she shoots from the car–and hits him in the head, killing him. His happiness was those few hours of feeling courageous. It may be one of his most famous stories, but in retrospect the fame should’ve dimmed. The story is schematic, solipsistic, a tinge misogynistic.


From Wikipedia: In “The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story,” author and literary critic Frank O’Connor, though generally an admirer of Hemingway, gives one of the most colorful and uncharitable summations of “The Short Happy Life”: “Francis runs away from a lion, which is what most sensible men would do if faced by a lion, and his wife promptly cuckolds him with the English manager of their big-game hunting expedition. As we all know, good wives admire nothing in a husband except his capacity to deal with lions, so we can sympathize with the poor woman in her trouble. But next day Macomber, faced with a buffalo, suddenly becomes a man of superb courage, and his wife, recognizing that[…] for the future she must be a virtuous wife, blows his head off. […] To say that the psychology of this story is childish would be to waste good words. As farce it ranks with Ten Nights in a Bar Room or any other Victorian morality you can think of. Clearly, it is the working out of a personal problem that for the vast majority of men and women has no validity whatever.”

Cosmopolitan, September 1936