Occasionally on Twitter I will post pictures of upcoming books. None in recent memory got quite the response that the new NYRB Classics edition of Saki’s The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories with its illustrations by the great Edward Gorey. This is the first time such an edition has appeared in English, and it’s all that you’d hope: beautiful, whimsical, disturbing, macabre, hilarious.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
I should start this with a confession: I have not finished this book yet. It collects 26 tales by Saki (a.k.a. H.H. Munro), published from 1904 to 1919. Though they are all short and could easily be read in a day, I didn’t want to rush through them (I’m currently enjoying one or two at night — and they go down so smoothly). However, rather than wait until I finish the whole book, I wanted to get the word out now. Most of us have encountered Saki and Gorey in the past, so you probably don’t need much from me other than notice that the book is now out.
If, on the other hand, this is your first encounter, I would like to say that Saki and Gorey are a divine — or devilish — match (does providence want us to contemplate our ridiculous state in such an irreverent way?). Both Saki and Gorey have a way of revealing our ridiculous, emotional, precarious state by showing us just how easily, how gruesomely, this life can end for the old and young alike. In some ways, it’s not such a big deal. If society is so hypocritical, if life is so ridiculous, it doesn’t hurt to chuckle a bit at our demise.
Then again, in some ways, I suppose, Saki may be doing the work of God, revealing to us our hypocrisies, the way we worry more about society than our own soul. There is, for example, an early story from Saki’s Reginald stories, “The Woman Who Told the Truth.” Here an Edwardian woman has a distasteful preference for telling the truth: “It may have been pleasing to the angels, but her elder sister was not gratified.” Society is scandalized and speaks their own half-covered truths:
It was unfortunate, every one agreed, that she had no family; with a child or two in the house, there is an unconscious check upon too free an indulgence in the truth. Children are given us to discourage our better emotions. That is why the stage, with all its efforts, can never be as artificial as life; even in an Ibsen drama one must reveal to the audience things that one would suppress before the children and servants.
It is all a lot of fun, reminding me often of P.G. Wodehouse. For example, this opening from “The Reticence of Lady Anne”:
Egbert came into the large, dimly lit drawing-room with the air of a man who is not certain whether he is entering a dovecote or a bomb factory, and is prepared for either eventuality. The little domestic quarrel over the luncheon-table had not been fought to a definite finish, and the question was how far Lady Anne was in a mood to renew or forego hostilities.
It turns out it’s fitting I think often of Wodehouse when reading Saki; Saki is apparently one of Wodehouse’s primary influences. And all of this leaves me with a bit of depression. It seems we currently live in an age of cleverness, an age of voice. How wonderful it would be to have a resurgence from the age of wit.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Thomas McGuane’s “Stars” was originally published in the June 24, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
I have read this already, but as I’m on holiday I’m not sure when I’ll be able to post my thoughts. Soon I hope! Until then, enjoy!
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Cormac McCarthy’s “Scenes of the Crime” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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Cormac McCarthy’s “Scenes of the Crime” is included in this fiction issue and isn’t a story at all; rather, it’s an excerpt of McCarthy’s screenplay for the forthcoming movie The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott, slated for release in November.
A few years ago, on another website, I got into a baffling argument with someone who claimed that McCarthy’s books were, from the beginning, written with the intent to cash in on a Hollywood film adaptation. Obviously, in the end we got no where, really; the person I was arguing with was not only demonstrably wrong but had read only one book by McCarthy (“My belief is: once you have read one of his books, you’ve read them all.” The book, by the way, was Blood Meridian. How that book became the basis of an argument that McCarthy was writing for two decades with Hollywood floating around his head is beyond me). Besides the fact that this screenplay reminded me of that pointless argument, I bring it up here because here we have a McCarthy screenplay. And, as far as enjoyable reading goes, it is nothing – nothing — like his novels.
The title is apt: this excerpt is a series of scenes of a crime, during which other crimes are committed, and that’s about it. At the beginning, we see men preparing a septic tank truck – cutting the tank in half, placing in some barrels, then welding it back together — for a drug run from Mexico to the United States. If you’ve seen Breaking Bad, you’re familiar with the territory and even with the intended rhythm of the edits. All of this plays out nicely, even if it’s familiar.
What follows is a mix of violent scenes, men behaving deliberately, with control, with technical acumen (like whittling a stick to the size of a bullet to plug up a hole), and no story, no character, no development.
Honestly, I have no problem with this on its face. This could make for a brilliant film, but why The New Yorker published an excerpt is beyond me. Present are McCarthy’s violence and landscape, but absent are the qualities that make those elements meaningful: McCarthy’s lyricism, his philosophical inquisitions, even his tension.
Since there is no story here, only familiar scenes, I’ve got nothing more to say. Bring on the film, and the next issue of The New Yorker.
At the end of December 2012, The Library of America published Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories. Michael Dirda, in a review he wrote for The Times Literary Supplement (here), called Anderson “the John the Baptist who prepared the way for (and influenced) writers as different as Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty and Ray Bradbury.” The Library of America said, “Without Anderson’s example, the work of Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, Steinbeck, McCullers, Mailer, and Kerouac is almost unthinkable.” There’d be quite a hole in our literary history if he hadn’t come along, yet I feel that Anderson’s work is neglected these days.
Review copy courtesy of The Library of America.
Is Anderson widely read anymore? Every once in a while someone brings up Winesburg, Ohio, and it seems that when they do they’re talking about some yesteryear; in other words, it seems many people have read it but no one is reading it now. Furthermore, I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard of anyone reading his other work.
Naturally, my position does not give me any real privilege into the world of Anderson’s readers. I myself have read only Winesburg, Ohio. It remains one of the most formative and most enjoyable reading experiences of my life. That’s an understatement, actually: along with changing my relationship to literature, it affected my relationship with those around me, shaped the way I see our community, our shared histories, our isolation. Along with a few other select pieces of American literature, it is one of the reasons I enjoy the richness of small town life when I once dreamed of living in the bustling city.
It’s been a few years since I revisited Winesburg, Ohio, and this time I’m not going to stop when I’ve finished it. I’m encouraged by Michael Dirda, who, in that piece I linked to above, said, “[A]t least a half dozen of the stories he wrote in the 1920s and 30s are equal, or superior, to any of those in Winesburg, Ohio.” I’m anxious to see if I agree. I’m actually wondering if one of the reasons we don’t read much of Anderson’s work anymore is because the writers he influenced are better, so we read them.
As I read Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, I’m going to be blogging about each story. It will take a while, I’m sure. I’d like to invite you to explore the works of Sherwood Anderson with me. As I said, I’m planning to do this slowly, so you have time to get your hands on a copy. Posts will start next week, while I’m away on holiday.
Here, for reference and as an outline of my simple from-page-one-to-the-end approach, is the Table of Contents. I will be updating this table with links to the individual posts as they materialize.
- Winesburg, Ohio (1919)
- The Book of the Grotesque
- Hands — concerning Wing Biddlebaum
- Paper Pills — concerning Doctor Reefy
- Mother — concerning Elizabeth Willard
- The Philosopher — concerning Doctor Parcival
- Nobody Knows — concerning Louise Trunnion
- Godliness (Parts I and II) — concerning Jesse Bentley
- Surrender (Part III) — concerning Louise Bentley
- Terror (Part IV) — concerning David Hardy
- A Man of Ideas — concerning Joe Welling
- Adventure — concerning Alice Hindman
- Respectability — concerning Wash Williams
- The Thinker — concerning Seth Richmond
- Tandy — concerning Tandy Hard
- The Strength of God — concerning The Reverend Curtis Hartman
- The Teacher — concerning Kate Swift
- Loneliness — concerning Enoch Robinson
- An Awakening — concerning Belle Carpenter
- “Queer” — concerning Elmer Cowley
- The Untold Lie — concerning Ray Pearson
- Drink — concerning Tom Foster
- Death — concerning Doctor Reefy and Elizabeth Willard
- Sophistication — concerning Helen White
- Departure — concerning George Willard
- The Triumph of the Egg (1921)
- The Dumb Man
- I Want to Know Why
- The Other Woman
- The Egg
- Unlighted Lamps
- The Man in the Brown Coat
- The Door of the Trap
- The New Englander
- Out of Nowhere into Nothing
- The Man with the Trumpet
- Horse and Men (1923)
- I’m a Fool
- The Triumph of a Modern
- A Chicago Hamlet
- The Man Who Became a Woman
- Milk Bottles
- The Sad Horn Blowers
- The Man’s Story
- An Ohio Pagan
- Death in the Woods and Other Stories (1933)
- Death in the Woods
- The Return
- There She Is — She Is Taking Her Bath
- The Lost Novel
- The Fight
- Like a Queen
- That Sophistication
- In a Strange Town
- These Mountaineers
- A Sentimental Journey
- A Jury Case
- Another Wife
- A Meeting South
- The Flood
- Why They Got Married
- Brother Death
- Uncollected Stories
- The White Streak
- Certain Things Last
- Off Balance
- I Get So I Can’t Go On
- Mr. Joe’s Doctor
- The Corn Planting
- Harry Breaks Through
- Mrs. Wife
- Two Lovers
- White Spot
- Nobody Laughed
- A Landed Proprietor
- The Persistent Liar
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Sherman Alexie’s “Happy Trails” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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I haven’t read a lot of Sherman Alexie, but I have enjoyed the bits and pieces I’ve read over the years. My main experience with the author was back in 2002 when I watched him give a reading (which was actually a lot like a comedy show). Certainly, from what I’ve read and from listening to him speak, I understand that one of his primary themes is to desentimentalize the Native American past. This story covered that ground as well, but I still found it fresh.
“Happy Trails” is narrated by a 48-year-old man who lives with his mother.
The rest of the world would call me a failure, I suppose, but Indians don’t judge adult Indians for remaining in the family home. Everything — our worst losses and our greatest beauty — is deemed sacred and necessary.
One of the reasons I felt this piece was fresh is shown in that passage. There are two sides to the final line. On the one hand, we have the sentimental versions: the Indian recognizes the nobility in human life, even in failures. But on the other hand, we get the sense that this narrator — even as he believes it — takes this as a kind of cop-out. Each perspective is valid, here, allowing us to consider and attempt to reconcile the viewpoints.
The narrator’s uncle, Hector, disappeared 41 years ago. No one knows what happened to him on the day he tried to hitchhike to Spokane, but by now everyone assumes he was killed somehow. It’s time, the narrator says, to memorialize Hector and give him a decent burial. He and his mother think about the man and his greatness. But then the narrator pulls off the rose-colored glasses:
Actually, Hector was only sometimes great. But we need to make the dead better people than they were, because it makes us look better for loving them.
Interestingly, the narrator has come up with a possible way Hector died. This man, “only one degree removed from slavery,” “only one degree removed from the Indian War,” “only one degree removed from genocide,” was probably killed by some white boys while he hitchhiked to Seattle:
Yes, crime begets crime begets crime begets and Indian man who probably hitched a ride with some drunken, seemingly friendly white boys who killed him.
It’s possible, and it further ennobles Uncle Hector, but the narrator knows, when he’s truly honest with himself, that this is completely unlikely:”Or wait, no.” He’s desentimentalized Hector; now it’s time to desentimentalize his death. The narrator knows Hector would not have gotten in a car with some strange white boys; no, he would have ridden with other Indians, probably some he knew. He probably died because of some stupid argument: “Half-assed warrior against half-assed warrior.”
All of this leads the narrator, as he buries the empty casket, to determine to live a long life. What exactly does he have to forsake to get accomplish this? It’s an interesting question.
Sherman Alexie has a voice to die for, but it’s the honesty that makes me buy the ticket, time after time.
If Sherman Alexie is telling you a story called “Happy Trails,” however, you know it’s also going to have a lot of layers. The gist of it is this: a grown man on the res decides it’s finally time to bury Hector – the uncle who disappeared so many years ago the night he decided to hitchhike to Spokane. Alexie is not both a stand-up comic and a poet for nothing: the story is given pace and structure by the way the man telling it likes to remark every so often, “Best thing about . . .” And thus the deep sorrow and rage of the reservation is given light and wit. The story is also a model of concision: it contains a short history of the last three hundred odd years, or depending how you look at it, the last three millennia, in a page and a half.
The issue of burying Hector has a certain resonance this spring, when the funeral director in Worcester at first could not find a cemetery to accept the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Achilles did not want to bury his enemy either – he wanted his revenge. Revenge and mourning are the twin issues in the middle of “Happy Trails.” Until Spokane Hector is buried, all the old incapacitating ills of genocide remain alive: fear, sorrow, shame, and rage never rest but inhabit the living, so that life is lived in a permanently wounded and shackled state. When the family gathers to bury an empty coffin, they have agreed, so to speak, to let memory rest, and then, as the speaker says, maybe he can set about to “live a long life.”
And so Hector’s family says to his memory: “Happy Trails to you, until we meet again . . .” I like the way that sweet melody is interwoven into the story of a life like Hector’s – that of the lives of so many Indian men, says the speaker.
Indian men live wild-horse lives, running beautiful and dangerous, until some outside force – some metaphorical cowboy – breaks them.
That’s a thousand and one trails right there, but then, with his name, Uncle Hector is woven together not just with his particular tribe of men, but also with the sweet Roy Rogers and his never-never wild west, and then, grandly, with the echoes trailing from the great doomed Hector of Troy and his great doomed civilization. And so this very short story compasses thousands of years, tragic ambition, and the issue of what happens when you don’t bury the hatchet, so to speak.
Another thing that gets me about this story is the way the story-teller is not married, is not a father,as if to really tell stories, some people have to have their concentration about them. As if Alexie is saying that art is really not a family man’s game. Because the speaker is an artist, the way he creates resolution by helping the family lay to rest an empty coffin.
But the key thing that gets me about this story, what makes the one-liners and the history have a heartbeat, is that Alexie is all about the layers in what the Indian really thinks. It’s important to memorialize Hector, it’s important to have him as a memory around which to remember the genocide and the complicated history, but it’s also important to have the empty coffin as an artful means to control such huge and unwieldy emotions.
As the story proceeds, the speaker uses Hector’s memory to release an intense resentment against the white man. But it is hard to live (hard to think) when all that sorrow and rage are continually at the surface and can never be laid to rest.
The speaker persuades us that Uncle Hector was killed by white men. But in fact, after his mother has sung the mourning song, our story-teller tells the truth, admits the truth. White men were probably not Hector’s killers. Uncle Hector was probably killed by other Indians. What do you do with all that sorrow and rage if you keep it at the continual simmer? You take it out on your own tribe. Somewhat the way Achilles prolonged the Trojan War by picking a fight with his fellow Greeks. Best if you can find a way to contain that sorrow and rage, and move on. For Alexie, of course, part of how you stop killing each other, stop killing yourself, is that you leave the res.
In a 2010 interview with Cowboys & Indians, Alexie remarked, “I could walk into any room of people?–?whatever part of the country, whatever politics, whatever religion?–?and I could make them mine quickly” (see here). His art is that he can do just that. And in that little time he has our attention, he gives it his all – pacing, legend, wit, story, history, voice, vista, image, vision – just to wrap my mind around a little of what comprises his art. But I really like the vision.
It’s no secret that Alexie thinks it’s time for anyone still on the res to leave, or at least, to decide to live so that it will be “a very long life.” I love that. I read him for that hope. He speaks to us from within the community of the American Indian, but somehow he speaks for the rest of us at the same time, and despite all, despite all, he’s not ashamed to hope. There’s the greatness.
Being funny lets you go dark places. I’m glad Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is widely read in American high schools. The boy there speaks the truth – you don’t have to die young; you don’t have to wed yourself to disaster as your bride. You can choose another course. And he’s so funny when he tells you this.
What lasts? Melville does, in his way. Twain does, totally. Alexie’s curse is his apparent simplicity – the way he can talk to anybody, as if that were actually easy, and not an art. Twain, at his peak, could compress the nature of the nation into one boy’s voice. Alexie has that same gift.
Before we recorded our podcast going over the early 2013 NYRB Classics releases (you can listen to it here), I had never heard of Russell Hoban. Now, it seems I hear about his novel Riddley Walker all the time. Why, I even listened to Michael Dirda on a podcast the other day (here) and he said something to the effect that, while he would never venture to guess what books will be read in a century, if he were to venture a guess, he’d guess Riddley Walker.
So who is this Russell Hoban? Incredibly prolific, Hoban wrote everything: novels for adults, including mainstream, fantasy, and science fiction; stage plays; librettos; essays; a script for an animated film; and lots of children’s books. Well, having just heard about him, I’ve also just finished my first book by him: today NYRB Classics is publishing a new edition of Hoban’s Turtle Diary (1975), which may be the best book I’ve read this year.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
The central premise — though not the focus — of Turtle Diary is simple if a bit strange. William G. and Neaera H., two lonely souls in London, independently decide to go to the London Zoo, steal a trio of old sea turtles, and set them loose in the sea. William and Neaera find each other and decide to work together.
To me that sounds like a sappy journey to self-fulfillment (stay with me). In fact, if you watch the trailer for the 1985 film adaptation (here on YouTube), starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson, you’d get the sense that this is a quirky, sentimental, half-baked, comic adventure story. As fun as such a thing might be, such is not the case. After all, being attracted to the source material, it was the great, morose, quiet Harold Pinter who wrote the screenplay. There are moments of comedy in Turtle Diary, and the wit — even in passages about, say, suicide — often comes across as an amusement, but I feel it is more on the mark to bring up two of my favorite novels about existential despair, Moby-Dick and The Rings of Saturn, and say that these two lonely souls have been, for years and years, contemplating the whiteness of the whale and the rings of Saturn. Turtle Diary takes us into the minds of two people who have been staring at the abyss for so long, they have made the emptiness a part of themselves.
Turtle Diary is told as a series of first-person passages, alternately by William G. and Neaera H. Each voice is distinct, even though each shares the quality of a kind of loneliness and despair that is so pervasive and long-standing it comes off as only slightly less distant than happiness and hope. As Neaera says, “My despair has long since been ground up fine and is no more than the daily salt and pepper of my life.”
A quick introduction to William and Neaera:
William G. (I don’t think it says how old he is, but probably mid-forties) works as a clerk in a bookstore. Several years ago his wife and two daughters left him. It’s been at least three years since he’s heard from them, and he doesn’t even know where they are now. Terribly lonely and filled with self-loathing and a general loathing for the false promises of life, his early passages are bitter and biting. He does not want to interact with anyone. He lays in bed at night and thinks of how disappointing his life has been. He blames his current state on his family’s absence — that is, until he is honest with himself and understands that even when he was with Dora and the children he had a biting sense that his life was a disappointment, already winding down into nothingness. In this passage he yearns for over a paragraph before simply saying to himself, “rubbish”:
The past isn’t connected to the future any more. When I lived with Dora and the girls the time I lived in, the time of me was still the same piece of time that had unrolled like a forward road under my feet from the day of my birth. That road and all the scenes along it belonged to me, my mind moved freely up and down it. Walking on it I was still connected to my youth and strength, the time of me was of one piece with that time. Not now. I can’t walk on my own time past. It doesn’t belong to me any more.
There’s no road here. Every step away from Dora and the girls leads only to old age and death whatever I do. No one I sleep with now has known me young with long long time and all the world before me. Rubbish. I remember how it was lying beside Dora in the night. O God, I used to think, this is it and this is all there is and nothing up ahead but death. The girls will grow up and move out and we’ll be left alone together. I remember that very well. It’s the thisness and thisonlyness of it that drives middle-aged men crazy.
Neaera H. is forty-three years old and she’s never married, though we get the sense she almost was once. Or maybe that’s just her view of events. At any rate, she’s a successful children’s books author. When we first meet her, she says, “I am tired of meek and cuddly creatures, my next book will be about a predator.” For most of her life she’s been making impermanent plans while waiting for the permanent things to appear. She’s long since accepted “[t]he longevity of impermanent things!”
While William and Neaera have each had relationships, they are past the point of dwelling on them. None of these past events ever comes completely into the foreground. They are not things to be overcome; rather, they are just there in the narrative, as they are in life.
And that is one of the book’s primary strengths. It’s a slice of life story, despite the shared “turtle thoughts.” We get a sense of what these characters are dealing with in their every-day life. Even the build-up to the turtle liberation is internal. It’s anxiety, it’s fear, not excitement, that permeates life at the bookshop or life contemplating the next children’s book. In fact — and this is devastating — the turtle plans may well be, at least subconsciously, a way for William and Neaera to stave off suicide, but in forcing them out of their miserable comfort zones, it may actually bring suicide closer. That’s what Hoban is exploring here.
To better explore the effects of this one-time event, Hoban doesn’t allow the turtle liberation to some glorious event that ends the book. He takes us to what Neaera calls the back side of the event, showing us that whatever moment of glory they experienced, it would be fleeting, and they’d have to return to London:
Well, then. This was the back of the turtle thing. Not quite despair as I had thought before. Just a kind of blankness, as blank and foolish as a pelmet lying face-down on the floor with all the staples showing.
It’s a sad book, there’s no getting around that. The happiest character is the man who takes care of the turtles at the zoo, and his reasoning is that he doesn’t mind being alive. Neaera is intelligent enough to recognize that not minding being alive doesn’t mean life meant a great deal to the zookeeper.
And yet, somehow — I haven’t put my finger on it yet — this book is warm, even uplifting. Yes, I’ll say it: this book, this book that ends with a suicide, is inspiring. These characters may not think life is anything grand, and they certainly have good reasons for their beliefs, but they are putting up a fight. The unsentimental, unflinching look at this fight is beautiful to behold.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Ed Park’s “Slide to Unlock” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
I know little about Ed Park. I believe the first thing I read knowing it was by him was the introduction to the forthcoming NYRB Classics edition of Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary. It was a unique, spritely introduction, so I wasn’t surprised by the tone of “Slide to Unlock,” the shortest story in this issue. The story is a nice concept story with a hint of tragedy.
The central concept here is a twist on a ”life flashes before your eyes” moment. Here it’s not the life itself that flashes before the man’s eyes but rather the various passwords. Here’s how it begins:
You cycle through your passwords. They tell the secret story. What’s most important to you, the things you think can’t be deciphered. Words and numbers stored in the lining of your heart.
As we move through the story we get a sense of who this person is. The familiar methods of coming up with a password — which we think are so private — are found here too, allowing us to relate with the character, but it’s the small details that allow us to get a sense of who this man is, the touches of sadness in his life:
Best friend from high school.
Best friend from college
Year you last saw your daughter.
Year you last saw your daughter plus her name.
You’ll notice that “Stop stalling” interjected in the above quote. What does it mean? You’ll find out soon enough if you read the story.
I have to say that when I finished “Slide to Unlock” I thought, “Is that it?” But sitting on it, rereading it, and in the process of writing about it I’ve come to have a bit more affection for it. It seems to me to be much more than a concept story that shows how technology affects our perception of life, or how our life interacts with technology. It’s the sadness at its center, the reduction of a life mixed with the disrespect for a life, that lifts it up above the “clever.”
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Brotherly Love” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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“Brotherly Love” takes place in India more than 40 years ago. Two brothers, so close they are practically twins, grow up in Calcutta, one the one who gives his parents no trouble, the other the one who gives them lots of pause. The boys become very good students, but gradually go their separate ways, the one to America to graduate school, the other to stay behind and become radicalized by the terrorist movement that was sweeping through eastern India at the time. In her understated way, Lahiri describes the terror that flashed through eastern India in the late sixties:
By  the Naxalites were operating underground. Members surfaced only to carry out dramatic attacks. They ransacked schools and colleges across the city. In the middle of the night, they burned records and defaced portraits raising red flags. They plastered Calcutta with images of Mao. They intimidated voters, hoping to disrupt elections. They fired pipe guns on the city’s streets. They hid bombs in public places, so that people were afraid to sit in a cinema or stand in line at the bank.
Then the targets turned specific: unarmed traffic constables at busy intersections, wealthy businessmen, certain educators, members of the rival party the C.P.I. (M.) The killings were sadistic, gruesome, intended to shock.
This is the life that the younger brother, Udayan, chose, and in due time, the police track him down and shoot him in full view of his wife and parents.
The older brother, the émigré graduate student, must return home to mourn and make sense of all this. He finds his parents paralyzed by shock; he finds himself “assaulted by the sour, septic smell of his neighborhood, of his childhood.” He also finds that his parents have isolated their pregnant daughter-in-law to a distant part of the house and deny her certain foods, all the while defending their behavior as “custom.” They want to drive her away, but hope to keep the grandchild.
How the older brother, Subhash, reacts to all this will, in the end, define “Brotherly Love.”
There is a simplicity to the story that is subtly clouded by the images that Lahiri uses: the seasonal flood, the renovated house, a wooden tombstone, and the great festival. The images reverberate with multiple meanings, and Lahiri’s simple story-telling becomes less obvious, more complicated.
The periodic flooding that the monsoon brings is echoed by the floods of Hindu refugees who have fled the newly formed state of Bangladesh. These refugees crowd into Calcutta and live in wretched poverty – while some, like Subhash’s parents, have more than enough room, and others, the very well-to-do, frequent the walled country club nearby. Near Subhash’s house are two large oblong pools that seem to me like eyes looking up out of the earth; Lahiri makes a point of mentioning eyes several times in the story. It is as if nature is watching the goings-on. When the monsoon comes, these pools flood, and it feels to me like the earth itself is sobbing. The seasonal quality of the flooding, though, reminds us that there is no simple answer to the terrorism that has overtaken them. It will reappear, as we know it does.
Subhash’s parents have added another story to their house; when he sees it he hardly recognizes it. Big as it now is, it’s possible to isolate the daughter-in-law so they never see her; big as it is, they can see their son’s execution from the top floor. Somehow this house echoes the state of India itself, the way it has built its democracy on top of the British Raj, and in fact on top of all past history. The new structure is there, but the people inside are wedded to the past, and lost. While the house was intended to make room for arranged marriages and grandchildren, what their younger son did was make it his terrorist hidey-hole. Instead of being filled with children, the house finds itself ransacked by police looking for terrorist evidence and the son himself. Just as the refugees and the terrorists have upended India itself, the police invade the house. Home is no more.
The terrorists have made Udayan a small wooden memorial which his mother visits every day. But the story asks: what is the actual answer, the fitting reply, the lasting memorial, for a criminal revolutionary?
Subhash thinks: “Udayan had given his life to a movement that had been misguided, that had caused only damage, that had already been dismantled. The only thing he’d altered was what their family had been.”
Udayan’s execution occurs during the great festival of Durga Puja, the holiday that goes on for days in Calcutta. The holiday itself has symbolic ties to the quest for independence, and it also has the overall significance of the triumph of good over evil. The horror of Udayan’s probable terrorist activities put him on the side of evil. But what is the good that triumphs? The house invasion by police? Udayan’s execution? The parents’ intention to keep the baby but put out the mother?
The title, “Brotherly Love,” is both sincerely hopeful and completely ironic. Udayan’s hope to save his brother Indians through murder is futile; this political movement flails on but does not succeed. The police, thinking themselves to be secluded in the swamp, murder Udayan in full view of his parents, thus invalidating the “democracy” the parents thought they’d won in 1948. Wedded to the family customs of the past, the parents treat their “daughter” like a prisoner. The only hope is that Subhash, the oldest son, will provide a viable version of “brotherly love,” one that would make the most fitting memorial for the whole terrible tragedy.
How resonant this story is, how surprising. I really liked reading this, both the plain writing and the complicating images. What is the fitting answer to terror, its proper memorial, its final burial? The story offers, in the end, a man who consciously chooses a difficult single act of “brotherly” love, regardless of the losses that love requires, regardless of the unknowns ahead. That fact that Lahiri makes Durga Puja a character in the story puts front and center the question of whether good has a role in the world.
That leaves, of course, Herbert Marcuse and The One Dimensional Man, and whether or not the book that Gauri wanted is the signal that she is not herself a terrorist. That, of course, is the unknown.
As this is the last story in the magazine (and a rather long one at that), I haven’t read it yet, but I’ll get there. A few of Lahiri’s stories are among my favorites.
From early Twitter reports, they’ve just announced the winner of this year’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award:
- City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry
The paperback edition of this came out just Tuesday here in th United States. I looked for it at a local bookstore yesterday but didn’t see it yet. I’ve enjoyed Barry’s short stories, and this novel interests me a great deal.
This is my first encounter with Marie NDiaye, who was recently a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, and who has received quite a bit of acclaim in the English-speaking world for her novel Three Strong Women, which won the Prix Goncourt. NDiaye has written a lot more, though, so with open arms we welcome to the world of publishing Two Lines Press, a new publisher centered on literature in translation, and its new translation of NDiaye’s All My Friends (Tous Mes Amis, 2004; tr. from the French by Jordan Stump, 2013). May there be many more.
Review copy courtesy of Two Lines Press.
All My Friends is a collection of five stories, each featuring characters and situations grotesque and unconventional, yet fully realized. Each is narrated by or closely follows characters fighting — foolishly fighting – their situation in a world that, in more cases than not, despises them.
The opening tale, “All My Friends,” is seductively told by a narrator who reminded me of a variety of my favorite obsessive, paranoid, peevish, self-pitying, self-congratulating narrators: the narrator of ”The Tell-Tale Heart,” Humbert Humbert of Lolita, Charles Arrowby of The Sea, the Sea, David Lurie of Disgrace.
This narrator is around forty-five years old. Sometime in the last few years his wife and children left him and now shun him — no, they nearly become sick at the sight of him and flee as they would from a man with a noxious disease. We never know exactly what occurred, but now he is alone in this house which feels almost haunted, as if the house itself knows its occupant is a disgusting man and wants the wife to return.
Fifteen years ago earlier we get the sense the narrator had a lot more going, though he was probably a buffoon then as well; he just hadn’t suffered all of the consequences. At that time he was a school teacher. Now, three of those students have grown up, threateningly. The story opens with the narrator chuckling because he may finally render speechless the great Werner, at one time his protégé now his rival. Then we meet Séverine, his reticent maid, who pretends she never before met his acquaintance, never had him as a teacher. Later, the narrator learns that Séverine married one student he couldn’t stand, the one he reduces to the appellation “the Arab.”
As is so often the case with these types of men, the narrator is lovesick and lusts after Séverine. He’s furious that she pretends she doesn’t remember him, furious she shows so little gratitude for the education he bestowed upon her, furious that she seems to be erasing him from her life:
My idea is that Séverine had chosen to sacrifice her education simply so as to receive nothing from me, and when a rational voice, rising from some spot in my empty house, assures me that this scarcely seems likely, I remain convinced all the same, however powerless to prove it.
Yes, he loves her and wants to continue her education, wants to rescue her from wherever she is — and she remains aloof (truthfully, she remains repulsed):
How many times, in this very house that Séverine now halfheartedly cleans, saving her strength for activities unknown to me, how many times did I await her in vain, to give her, free of charge, the supplementary lessons she so sorely needed, and how many times did I drift off to sleep as I waited, beside the window where I’d been watching for her, and such a bitter, lost sleep it was?
As you can glean from the ironic title, “All My Friends” is fun, funny, and disturbing.
Two other stories – “The Death of Claude François” and “Brulard’s Day” – also deal with the present’s failure to live up to the past, or, rather, the characters’ failures to become who they thought they already were. In “The Death of Claude François” two women who were best friends as children come together again when one decides it’s time to commit suicide. Each were once devastated by the death of a pop star thirty years earlier, and each vowed to live life in mourning. One has moved away from this nonsense; the other decides she cannot exist in the world for longer than the pop star did. In “Brulard’s Day” a film star becomes disconcerted as she looks over her life.
As much as I liked these two stories, though, for me they were the weakest in the collection. Bringing us to the one that is the most grotesque and probably my favorite: “The Boys.”
When we enter “The Boys” we find our narrator, the young, malnourished boy René, sitting quietly in a corner while he watches his neighbors, the Mours, eat. Father, mother, and two sons ignore René, as they do every day, but he doesn’t mind — he just likes watching them:
The Mours’ eight lower limbs undulated dreamily, and all the while, up above, a battle was being waged between the stubborn mouths and the forks plunging into those mouths’ most secret depths.
After this particular meal, though, a wealthy woman shows up to purchase the more attractive son. Matter-of-factly, the family completes the transaction while René watches how each member responds: the father, sad, mute; the mother, tired, relieved; the remaining son, smug, vindictive; the sold son, the attractive one, quiet, reticent, yet willing.
When René returns home, he finds his own exhausted mother.
He looked at his mother and realized that the mute, outraged question he was asking her (And why shouldn’t you find the same sort of lady for me?) was being answered in kind, by her unhappy, resigned, realistic glance, by a small, dubious shake of the head (What have you got to sell, my son?).
With that introduction, we move into even darker territory. I’d like to take this moment to talk about NDiaye’s sentences. Perhaps you noticed that each of the quotes above, even the longer ones, are single sentences, wonderfully constructed, taking us through a process. Below is a long quote that is nearly one sentence. It reflects René’s dillemma, his conflicting thoughts, his pain even while he tries to put forward a strong face:
Every morning, after walking those of his brothers and sisters who still went to school as far as the bus stop and leaving them on the narrow strip of grass between the road and the cornstalks, he hurried onward down that same road, already hot and dry, soon seeing the bus pass him by, glimpsing his brothers’ and sisters’ faces pressed to the windows, their noses flattened, their eyes too close together, and raised one hand toward those unlovely faces in an attempt at a jaunty wave, thinking “They look just like me,” with pity and disgust, for how was it that such varied progenitors had each time produced this same sort of child, without spark, without strength, without qualities? There was some kind of . . . something in that . . . a cruel trick, an injustice? Or else . . .
You know, up above I said that each story was grotesque and unconventional, yet fully realized, but, truth be told, “Revelation,” the final story, which clocks in at a mere six pages, is actually rather conventional, by which I mean it could take place anywhere in this world exactly as it is told. The basic premise is this: a mother boards a bus with her son and asks the driver for one round-trip ticket and one one-way ticket. Such is the state of our mind by this point, though, that we fill in all of the story’s holes, come up with a variety of terrible, even outlandish, reasons this mother is about to abandon her child because “there was no way to live with a son such as hers.”
The truly terrible thing about this story is that it isn’t, as far as we know, unrealistic — this terror happens all of the time. It’s a clever ending to this collection that keeps us on the fringe of acceptability, already well past the point of disgust. It’s here we realize that each of the stories is realistically terrifying in its own grotesque way.