"Look at a Teacup" by Patricia Hampl Originally published in the June 28, 1976 issue of The New Yorker.
In an effort to get some more current classic New Yorker fiction in the Clock at the Biltmore feature, I decided to choose a story from the 1970s, Patricia Hampl’s “Look at a Teacup,” published June 28, 1976. I had heard of Hampl but never read her. I had never heard of this story and I had no idea what it was about. Again, I was a bit shocked (as always, in retrospect, I should have been) at how much it seems a product of its time. I’ve said it before, but if you ever get the chance, go browse the New Yorker cover art archives (go ahead, they’re all there from 1925 to today) and just watch the century of politics and art unfold before you.
The story begins:
She bought the teacup in 1939, of all years.
Hah! Another reason I went for the 1970s was an attempt to see a piece of fiction a bit more distant from World War II. It’s not that I don’t like that fiction — I love it — it was more to get some variety in the dates of these features and to see the themes arising at different parts of the century. Of course, the War has been at least a shadow in so much fiction since 1939. Of course, in 1976 in particular, as the mother in the story says, “It wasn’t that long ago.” “Look at a Teacup,” however, is still a product of the 1970s, a time when social mores were changing rapidly and yet where this narrator — a daughter, trying to connect in some way to her mother — feels a strong pull to the past.
We soon learn that the narrator’s mother was married in 1939 (“Even on sale, it was an extravagance as far as her new in-laws were concerned; it set her apart.”). The narrator is unmarried (“Some people just don’t want to get married — I know that,” she says broadmindedly. But she knows I’m saying marriage isn’t there anymore; the flowered flannel nightgown isn’t being hung on a peg in a closet next to a pair of striped pajamas anymore.”). From that date — 1939 — the daughter contemplates the passing years — for a teacup. We get what must be one of the most beautiful, evocative descriptions of a teacup ever. But the teacup isn’t really the point. It is “a detail, a small uncharred finger from the mid-century bonfire.” There are no embedded photographs (other than the comics), but the subtle emotion-laden description of an object while keeping in mind the passage of time reminded me of W.G. Sebald:
In the cup, amid the bundle of pastel falling flowers at the bottom of the bowl there is another firm, thin gold circlet. It shines up just below the most deeply submerged flower, like a shoreline submerged by a momentary tide of morning tea. The engulfed flowers become oranges and violets — those colors. Above the tea-line there are green leaves and several jots of blue flowers, not deep and bright like cornflowers but a powdery, toneless blue, a monochrome without shadow or cloud. Also, there is the shape of the flowers. Some are plump, all curve and weight. There is a pale lavender rose on the saucer, with a rounded, balled-up cabbage head of petals; and on the opposite side a spiky, orange dahlia-like flowers. None of the flowers looks real. They are suggestions, pale, almost unfinished, with occasional sparks of brightness, like a replica of memory itself. There is a slur of recollection about them, something imprecise, seductive, and foggy but held together with a bright bolt of accuracy — perhaps a piercing glance from a long-dead uncle, whose face, all the features, has otherwise faded and gone.
There is an interesting contrast between the mother and the daughter. The daughter is constantly looking back — “everything drives me into the past that she insists is safely gone.” The mother insists that “you can’t keep going over things . . . It’s the flow of life that counts.” And the mother isn’t being coy. She really doesn’t seem to think she has much to offer:
I try to get her to talk about her life, but she won’t do that. It’s not that she thinks I’m prying. “Well, honey, what do you want to know?” she says. “I mean, what’s there to say?”
And there’s this wonderful line, coming after the wonderful details of the teacup: “Her details don’t add up to a life story.” There is a lot going on in this very short story — passage of time, mother / daughter relationship, generational gaps, war, marriage, family — and it is all beautifully written. Highly recommended. So far, my efforts to find “classic” New Yorker fiction for the Clock at the Biltmore have been paying off.