“… 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.”
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.