Tag: humor

Chekhov, “Le directeur des postes” (1883)

A two-page story about the cleverness of a man presumed to be more simple-minded than he was: the postmaster’s beautiful wife had just died. All assumed she had been cheating on him. He assures everyone she never had. They doubt him. He proves it, saying he maintained her fidelity by spreading rumors that she was the mistress of the chief of police, whom no one would dare cross. And so no one touched her. Et voilà.

Les éclats, 1883

Katherine Anne Porter, “Rope” (1928)

katherine ann porter rope

(William Jones)

A layered story of a young couple living in a turn-of-the century pre-suburb, four miles from town. The husband boys a rope that turns into a noose around what little air is breathing into a marriage of mutual resentments and wry slights, though the couple remains committed, and by the time the husband has trekked to town to buy the wife’s coffee and returned to a dinner prepared for him (and her), a measure of serenity is restored even if the underlying strains remain: it’s not easy to be a woman and to run a household at the turn of the previous century. The rope has as many meanings as the story’s layers. Noose, binding agent. comic relief. My reading of the story suffered from three interruptions and a distance, still persisting, between me and Porter’s style. The coffee at the end is redolent with aromatic desire. These brief analyses are enlightening for the kaleidoscopic readings “Rope” allows.

Poe, “Bon-Bon (1832)

poe pierre bon-bon

The devil, who needs no eyes to see better than anyone, visits the pretentious corpulent philosopher and restaurateur Pierre Bob-Bon. The two have  an evening’s conversation that sounds like an 1832 version of a Robin Williams appearance on Letterman: plenty of puns, jokes, one-upmanship, lots of drinking. The devil tells the increasingly drunk Pierre that he likes to eat souls, and has devoured those of Aristotle, Plato and Voltaire: de gustibus: the devil rejects Pierre’s offer of his own soul, not wanting to take advantage of a drunk man.

Broadway Journal, 1832, Tales, 1845

Chekhov: “Une nature énigmatique” (“An Enigmatic Nature,” 1883)

chekhov an enigmatic nature

“Study of an unknown woman in a train car,” George Estall
pen and ink, late 19th century. National Portrait Gallery.

A wealthy woman who thinks herself a martyr after Dostoevsky was born poor and wanted glory and wealth. She got it, through a rich husband, though all she wanted was his death so she could enjoy herself with his money. He died. He left her lucre and freedom. “I am as free as a bird,” she tells a traveler in a train compartment they share. But she now feels trapped by her freedom, unable to enjoy it. “But what — what stands in your way? I implore you tell me! What is it?” “Another old general, very well off—-” The enigmatic nature is a wink and a sigh.

Les éclats, 19 mars 1883

Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl” (1978)

jamaica kinkaid girl

The photograph, by Nina Lean of Time Life Pictures, appears in the online edition of the New Yorker’s version of the story. It did not appear when the story was originally published.

Some of the reasons this story, if it is a story (Kincaid’s early writings were autobiographical visas out of her former like in Jamaica), is so captivating: the mixture of humor and cruelty; the revelations, one after the other, about the girl and whoever happens to be giving her alleged life lessons, presumably her mother; the revelations about the family life the girl leads, comfortable enough to serve tea and have three meals a day at table but not so luxurious as to not have to plant okra a distance from the house; the recurring hammering about her becoming a slut: “try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming,” “and so prevent yourself from looking like the slut you know you are bent on becoming,” behave this way and that “this way [men] won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming”; the contrast, as in a piece of music when brass and winds clash, or when the percussion section suddenly blasts its awareness, between the mundane and the catastrophic (“this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child even before it becomes a child”); the use of allusive language in an environment where allusions appear to be always better than directness, except when preaching advice or directives, where it is important to learn how to smile to people you like only so much, or not at all, where it is important to learn how to lie, but also how to have the kind of fun that would have you spit in the air and move just enough to avoid it hitting you in the face; the way we have the entire biography of a girl coming of age, of her parent’s abrasive rearing, of a family where the girl’s role has been turned over to a form of servitude; the way semi-colons are the only dividers between a life of impositions, expectations, derision and occasional fun for appearance’s sake; the way Kinaid has invented an entirely new way to tell a story, long enough for two pages, long enough to die and never be done again: a one hit wonder of its kind; even the way it ends, with a hilarious and sad kicker that makes you want to squeeze every loaf of bread you see from now on.

The New Yorker, June 19, 1978

Flannery O’Connor, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (1953)

Lucynell Crater and her daughter Lucynell Crater, who’s 30 but whose mother will lie and say is 15 or 16, live in a paid-off home somewhere in rural Alabama. One-armed Tom T. Shiftlet (not the name) sidles up to the porch one day, sizing up Mrs. Crater quickly: she has some money, she’ll let him live and eat on the property in exchange for carpentry work but not money, and eventually she begins pushing her deaf-mute daughter on him, hoping he marries her. “Lady,” he tells her, “people don’t care how they lie. Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man.” At least he warned her: he lies. Then again, so does she. And both do it in such good humor. They’re both angling. He really wants that car sitting unused. Not the woman. But the woman, the daughter, is the conduit to the car. The daughter Lucynell learns to say bird, thanks to Shiftlet. It’s the hinge. “Mr. Shiftlet already knew what was on her mind,” meaning the mother’s mind.  Next: marriage. He agrees. But he bargains for money to take her to a hotel and feed her, his version of a honeymoon, or so he lets Mrs. Crater think. She agrees to give him $17. By then he’s fixed and painted the car. The couple leave after a wedding that leaves Shiftlet dissatisfied:

The last line says it all. He drives off with younger Lucynell, a character lumped in there to contrast Shiftlet’s shiftiness with her purity, and otherwise more of a device than a character. His spirits fall with every mile: she was extra weight. She falls asleep at a diner. He tells the guy at the counter she’s a hitchhiker and leaves her there. He picks up a young boy who wasn’t hitchhiking but carrying a suitcase, then starts sounding sinister, or preachy, to the boy as he reminisces about his own mother, “an angel of Gawd.” The boy jumps out of the car. Shiftlet drives on and prays: “Break forth and wash the slime from this earth.” The title of the story was a sign on the road, about being careful. O’Connor doesn’t just have Shiftlet paint the car: she paints every scene in varied shades, her colors suggesting various symbols. But the symbolism can leave me feeling like that boy in the car: happy to leap out.

Kenyon Review, Spring 1953