Tag: cruelty

Peter Taylor, “A Spinster’s Tale” (1938)

Peter Taylor and his wife Eleanor in 1946. (Wikimedia Commons)

Peter Taylor and his wife Eleanor in 1946. (Wikimedia Commons)

As poorly read as I am I had not heard of Peter Taylor, or at least could not remember him, until the Library of America dropped the first of his two volumes of collected stories at the door this week. I must have read some of his stories in the New Yorker in the 80s and 90s, but none stand out clipped in memory. “A Spinster’s Tale” begins when the girl telling the story is 13 years old. Like William Trevor’s Mr. Jeffs she has too vivid an imagination but is not as cruel. She sees Old Mister Speed the drunkard hobble by below her window regularly, “persistent yet, withal, seemingly without destination,” building up anxieties about him in her mind. He is a threat to her. Entirely imaginary, but consequential. She ends up calling the cops on him when he seeks the house’s shelter from a storm. Along the way there are psychologically tantalizing parallels between Mr. Speed and the girl’s older, often drunk brother (“my desire form him to strike me and my delight in his natural odor”) and with the girl’s father: “I knew that it was more than a taste for whiskey they had in common.” The girl grows up a little, asserts herself, asserts herself too much: “I felt I had acted wrongly, with courage but without wisdom.” And then the call to the cops: “I was frightened by the thought of the cruelty which I found I was capable of, a cruelty which seemed inextricably mixed with what I had called courage. I looked at him lying out there in the rain and despised and pitied him at the same time, and I was afraid to go minister to the helpless old Mr. Speed.”

The Southern Review, Autumn 1940

Hemingway, “On The Quai at Smyrna” (1930)

Vir Heroicus Sublimis

Like reading a Barnett Newman. It is mostly in what Hemingway doesn’t say, in the silences between glimpses of terror and cruelty: “The worst, he said, were the women with the dead babies. You couldn’t get the women to give up their dead babies.” They scream at midnight until the soldiers point searchlights at them. One woman dies and goes immediately stiff. They’re refugees of the Greek-Turkish war of 1922, seen by a seemingly dissociated narrator, either a British or American soldier in charge of managing the situation while Turks, a little too Paul Bowles-like summed- and smudged up in the person of one “Turk,” are portrayed as complicating the situation. But that narrator is either unnerving or maddening, or both. Or mad: “You remember the harbor. There were plenty of nice things floating around in it.” Who is he talking to? Why this reference to “plenty of nice things floating around” in the midst of horrors? What nice things ever float in a harbor? Ever? It’s throw-away details like that, that you know would never be throw-aways in Hemingway, that make you think he’s just throwing a line for effect rather than meaning/ Nothing wrong with that of course. Viz, Newman, his Vir Heroicus Sublimis (the “Heroic Sublime”), whom we just saw at MoMa. See my picture above. Maybe that’s a Turkish man wondering yet again why he’s being thrown under the big red bus and those “zips,” as Newman called those lines. I don’t know why the photo utility I just used dulled the reds as it did. Maybe Kazyo Shigara’s 1964 “Untitled” is more apt:

kazuo shiraga

Kazuo Shiraga’s Untitled,” 1964. (c FlaglerLive)

The two-page vignette was originally the introduction to In Our Time. He unfortunately renamed it, pretentiously, “On the Quai at Smyrna.”