Tag: loneliness

Maxwell, “A Final Report” (1963)

william maxwell

It seems preposterous to be reading the American short story and not include William Maxwell, who in his younger years had that Matthew Broderick-Ferris Bueller look. Error corrected. “A Final Report” is an inventory of a life remembered at the more intimate margins of a probate report. The narrator is remembering. The life remembered is that of Pear M. Donald, who never married, who was a neighbor of the narrator’s family, and who became Aunt Donald and the narrator’s mother best friend until the two women had a mysterious falling out. The story is a look back from her old age: “It took her almost twenty years of not wanting to live anymore,” a line right out of Trevor’s “The General’s Day.” There are memories of the narrator’s childhood from the time she carried him on a pillow when he was sickly, but mostly it’s an account of her decline, her cats, her house, in the elegiac prose of terminal loneliness: “she must have subsisted on air and old memories and fear–the fear of something happening to her cats.” The story ends on what could have been a dry account of the financial settlement of her estate. It isn’t. Each dollar sign is the cremated remains of a long possession, and these final lines: “It would have been a pleasure to go through Aunty Donald’s things, up to a point, and after that probably nauseating. This is the past unillumined by memory or love. The sediment of days, what covered Troy and finally would have covered her if my brother hadn’t come and taken her away.”

William Trevor, “Memories of Youghal” (1969)

Miss Grimshaw Andy Miss Ticher are now old maids who get together every year at a resort overlooking the Mediterranean. While Miss Grimshaw is somewhere else Miss Ticher is approached by a slovenly middle-aged man, a detective on assignment, an orphan who spies on others’ lives for having never had a life of his own. He wonders what might have happened had his parents not drowned when he was five months old, or had he been swept off his baby carriage by another woman. At first Miss Ticher is repulsed. His false teeth are dancing in his mouth, his skin shows through an open button, he has no regard for the way he looks: a Colombo. But the more he reminisces about Youghal the more she takes to him, as if finding affinities in what they both missed:

‘In 1934,’ said Miss Ticher, ‘when you were five months old, Mr Quillan, I was still hopeful of marriage. A few years later I would have understood the woman who wished to take you from your pram.’

Miss Grimshaw, who may be a touch demented, does not feel the same way. By the end Miss Ticher is touching his hand and speaking her sympathy, as much for him as for herself. Trevor had lived in Youghal.

It takes particular concentration to get into a Trevor story because everything is concentrated in first lines pulled from the later flow of the narrative.

The Transatlantic Review, Summer 1969

Sherwood Anderson, “Godliness” (1919)

Millfield, Athens County, Ohio. Sherwood anderson godliness

Millfield, Athens County, Ohio. (Southeast Ohio History Center and the City of Athens Historic Preservation Commission)

The longest so far in the collection, written in a mostly traditional narrative style, “Godliness” is a story of fanaticism, loneliness, a touch of madness in Jesse Bentley–but isn’t that always the case with fanatics–and the effects of an industrializing America. Written in four parts, the story goes multi-generational, from grandfather Jesse to grandson David Hardy, son of Louise Bentley, the unloved daughter of Jesse. He’d wanted a son. The first part is about Jesse, “a man born out of his time and place and for this he suffered and made others suffer. Never did he succeed in getting what he wanted out of life and he did not know what he wanted.” He is a brutal man driven by the fixation of serving god at the expense of ignoring and hurting everyone else around him: a pitifully conventional man in that regard. “It is God’s work I have come to the land to do,” he claims, the typical abrogation of all other responsibilities. God is not love in Jesse’s interpretation, but Old Testament vengeance, wrath and sacrifice. He has a lust for violence and blood. He channels it in his work and his indifferent hatred of those around him, his daughter in particular, who grew up studios, unloved, and ultimately strayed into brief promiscuity in her lunge for a love unrequited by her husband: “You never wanted me there and of course the air of your house did me no good,” she tells her father. “It was like poison in my blood but it will be different with him.” After failing to make him understand what she needs in a year  of hills like white elephants, she becomes mean to her husband, at times mad, not much caring for her son as she would have been of her daughter: “It is a man child and will get what it wants anyway,” she said sharply. “Had it been a woman child there is nothing in the world I would not have done for it.”

The story is framed in the country’s rapid changes and how it affects Jesse:

It will perhaps be somewhat difficult for the men and women of a later day to understand Jesse Bentley. In the last fifty years a vast change has taken place in the lives of our people. A revolution has in fact taken place. The coming of industrialism, attended by all the roar and rattle of affairs, the shrill cries of millions of new voices that have come among us from overseas, the going and coming of trains, the growth of cities, the building of the inter-urban car lines that weave in and out of towns and past farmhouses, and now in these later days the coming of the automobiles has worked a tremendous change in the lives and in the habits of thought of our people of Mid-America. Books, badly imagined and written though they may be in the hurry of our times, are in every household, magazines circulate by the millions of copies, newspapers are everywhere. In our day a farmer standing by the stove in the store in his village has his mind filled to overflowing with the words of other men. The newspapers and the magazines have pumped him full. Much of the old brutal ignorance that had in it also a kind of beautiful childlike innocence is gone forever. The farmer by the stove is brother to the men of the cities, and if you listen you will find him talking as glibly and as senselessly as the best city man of us all.

And:

The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse the man of God as it was to the men about him. The greedy thing in him wanted to make money faster than it could be made by tilling the land.

But the story fails to convincingly connect Jesse’s increasing materialism with his fanaticism as much as it does to his inability to keep even the closest thing to a person he’s loved, David, close to him. One day when David is 15 Jesse wants to sacrifice a lamb to god. David is frightened by his grandfather rushing him with a knife, though Jesse was only rushing for the lamb David was holding. David runs off and fires a sling shot at his grandfather, knocking him out cold. David, having felled Goliath, thinks he’s killed him. He runs away, never to return.

 

The story did not appear in a magazine before publication in “Winesburg, Ohio” in 1919.

William Trevor, “The General’s Day” (1967)

william trevor the general's day

Old Man Walks alone in Sommières, France, 2018. (x1klima)

Not a story for Veterans Day. Bad-tempered astrologically tilted General Suffolk, “a leader and a strategist in two great wars,” takes 10 minutes to prepare his breakfast, 10 to consume it, and a day to repeat a ritual of public humiliation and drunkenness he can’t bring himself to end, because it’s not in him to kill himself. “[H]e was to the last a rake, and for this humanity a popular figure. He had cared for women, for money, for alcohol of every sort; but in the end he had found himself with none of these commodities.” He’s 78. He wants this latest of country Saturdays to go his way. He’s looking to pick up a “stout matron” at the Brown Cafe. Mrs. Hinch, his maid, his “fat old bitch,” sends him on his way with wry humor so she can indulge in what’s left of his luxuries. For the general, it’s a string of rejections, starting with young Basil, whose mother is producing babies at a suspiciously faithless clip, like the mother in Carver’s “Father,” or the “buzz off” from a man the general tries to help back on his feet after he falls in front of him. He discovers that those who reject him with excuses are just lying. They just don;t want to be with him.  “[S]ome people are like that: so addicted to the lie that to avoid one, when the truth is in order, seems almost a sin.” He has gins with Mrs. Hope-Kingley the divorced widow. He goes too far when his hand wanders. She leaves him. He tries his opening line–his astrological what sign are you–on a man on the bus who also rejects him. “I do not like to offend people. I do not like to be a nuisance. You should have stopped me, sir,” he tells him. It’s always too late. He too lies to the bartender, pretending that he’s been off to see “The Guns of Navarone.” He doesn’t want to let on that he’s been jilted all day. He tries to have drinks with Frobisher a second time, having already been rejected in the morning. Frobisher this time rejects him the way the other general rejects Dimitritch Tcherviakov in “The Death of a Government Clerk”: “Get the hell off my premises, you bloody old fool! Go on, Suffolk, hop it!” The general’s entreaty (“”Look, I’m a little lonely –” gets him nowhere. He doesn’t go home to die, like Tcherviakov. He wishes. But he won’t be so lucky. His wrenching realization, a preface to Donald Hall’s two memoirs: “I could live for twenty years,’ he whispered. ‘My God Almighty, I could live for twenty years.’ Tears spread on his cheeks.” He should have met William Maxwell’s Pearl M. Donald: “It took her almost twenty years of not wanting to live anymore,” or Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Max Flederbush in “A Party in Miami Beach”: “sometimes I think that the real heroes aren’t those who get medals in wartime but the bachelors who live out their years alone.”

 

The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories (Bodley Head, 1967)

O’Hara: “The Cold House”

The story was titled “Cold House” when it ran in The New Yorker, which summarized it this way: “Mrs. Carnavon drove several miles to visit her summer home in the middle of the winter. When she arrived she didn’t know why she had come. She climbed the stairs to her son’s room; she had thought of leaving that room the way it was. Looking at the objects that had belonged to her son; a diamond-shaped plaque, with the clasped hands and the Greek letters; a photograph of a baseball team, a magazine that he may have read, she realized how little she had known her son and that by keeping his things, she would end by hating a memory that she only knew how to love.”

We don’t know how he died. He was 24. Nor do we know how her husband died, though her husband died a long time before. The war seems too long ago or not yet (there’s an allusion to fascism in Europe). Maybe he died in Spain.

Of course it’s more powerful than that:

The New Yorker, April 2, 1938

Hemingway, “Cat In the Rain” (1924)

American Writer. Ernest Hemingway With His First Wife Hadley Richardson And Their Son John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway (Jack) In Schuns, Austria, 1926. (Credit unclear. Found on “Posterazzi,” on Amazon.)

There’s always been various connections between Hemingway and cats, even in passing. This is one of them.  Carlene Brennen in Hemingway’s Cats (2000) describes Hemingway’s young marriage to Hadley Richardson when she wanted a child and a cat. A child was out of the question: he was writing. She was lonely. At the time Hemingway was a reporter for the Toronto Star, writing from Europe. She had nothing to do. They both loved cats but he told her they were too poor to own one. They lived in a shabby rented room with beautiful views of Paris rooftops. Hemingway thought the room had belonged to Verlaine, where Verlaine had died. He worked. She paced. She got pregnant, unexpectedly. “The story was a tribute to Hadley, who was dealing with her first year of marriage, the loneliness it entailed, and her deep desire for motherhood,” Brennen writes. Brennen then cites Gioia Diliberto’s biography, Hadley, that found Hemingway basing the story on an incident in Rapallo in 1923, the little Mediterranean town near Genoa, where the couple spent some time when Hadley was two months pregnant. She saw a kitten hiding under a table, just as in the story. “I want a cat,” she is reported to have said in the biography, or in the story: Brennen doesn’t make a distinction. “I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can’t have long hair or any fun I can have a cat.” Ernest actually gave her a small dog in her last month of pregnancy, and they both took to it. “Cat in the Rain” was part of the In Our Time collection published in 1924.

As in “The Quay at Smyrna,” most of the story is in what’s not told, though in this case, between the affected prose and the Hemingway anchor attached to the story, it leaves a lot of room for wild interpretations. The biographical context of the story doesn’t help, except to shed some of the pretentious assumptions a critical reading of the story risks producing. To me, a little too obviously, the protectiveness for the cat is the basic maternal instinct, the more so since Hadley was gestating child and instinct. The opening scene-setting seems superfluous: the war monument, the palms, the Italians who come “from a long way off” to look at the monument, even Italy: they could have been on a hot tin roof for all we care, the story could have still been pulled off the same way but for Hemingway’s affectations and his desire to advertise that he’s ben to an Italian seaside town with a war monument. The insistent rain is necessary to ensure that the cat needs to be sheltered from it, though wind, cold, sleet or afternoon heat might’ve had the same effect on most cats. Why the woman is referred to, twice, as a “girl” is unclear. Maybe that’s how Italians saw Americans. Why she can’t have long hair even more so: in the mid-20s? In Europe? Finally, the cat presented to her by the Italian maid may not be the one she’d seen, though given the incessant rain, it seems a quick check of her fur would reveal whether she’d been outside or not. The ambiguity seems more literary than meaningful, although isn’t it so with  child: you never know what you’re going to get until it’s delivered. Or didn’t, anyway, back then, before the era of grotesque-dimensional ultrasounds.

This is too much: “Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument. Across the square in the doorway of the café a waiter stood looking out at the empty square.” This is the sort of paragraph that makes Hemingway disciples swoon. This is the sort of paragraph that does not make me swoon. It just makes it clear how much of a one-trick wonder Hemingway was, and how much he demolished generations of writers who tried to be the next Hemingway. At least Camus had something to say in his minimalism. With Hemingway, the iceberg below the surface is hollow.

Paul Bowles, “Call at Corazón” (1947)

Paul and Jane Bowles.

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.”[37]

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.”[38] The exasperated but coldly efficient husband takes revenge by abandoning his wife, who suddenly needs him, to an uncertain fate in the jungly port.

Harper’s Bazaar, October 1947

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “One Night in Brazil” (1977)

isaac singer one night in brazil

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

Edith Wharton, “Mrs. Mantsey’s View”

Mrs. Mantsey is an aging, stuck-in-her-ways woman whose only pleasure in life seems to be the views of the city from her boardinghouse in New York. Mrs. Black plans to build an extension of the building in front of Mantsey’s view, which would be blocked. Matsey panics, offers $1,000 to Black not to build. Black had offered her a room in the extension, which would have fixed the problem. But Mantsey doesn’t want to move. Black takes Mantsey for nuts. She’s right. Mantsey next sets fire to the construction’s wares after the first day. But she catches pneumonia and dies–happy, because she was able to look at her view one last time. (Compare to Carver’s “The Idea.” Why do we assume that looking out from a greater distance is OK, but looking from a nearer distance is voyeurism, at least when one is within one’s own home?)

The story reminded me of this recent item in The Times: “That Noise? The Rich Neighbors Digging a Basement Pool in Their $100 Million Brownstone: The extremely loud and incredibly expensive renovations that have shattered a formerly quiet residential block in Manhattan.” (See the picture above.)