Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. “Backbone” was originally published in The New Yorker‘s March 7, 2011, issue.
Click for a larger image.
Well, I still haven’t finished last week’s story (you can see how excited I am to read it — as if any of the comments have been encouraging), but when I saw that this week’s story was another excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s forthcoming The Pale King, I had to read it as quickly as I could. I was a big fan of “Wiggle Room” and (though to a lesser extent) “And All That,” both also excerpts that were published in 2009. I’ve never read a David Foster Wallace novel (not sure I will), but I do like his essays and short fiction. I had a bit of a harder time with this one, though.
“Backbone” is the strange story of a boy who, at the age of six, has the singular goal of being able “to press his lips to every square inch of his body.”
There is little to say about the original animus or “motive cause” of the boy’s desire to press his lips to every square inch of his own body. He had been housebound one day with asthma, on a rainy and distended morning, apparently looking through some of his father’s promotional materials. Some of these survived the eventual fire. The boy’s asthma was thought to be congenital.
On that day, the boy begins his first contortions. Lacking any direction, though, he is soon injured. The chiropractor who helps nurse him back to health offers him some books on stretching and on the spine, and then this story dives straight into a fairly detailed and, seemingly, scientifically acurate description of how the boy worked little by little, whether through contortion of his spine or exercise of his lips, to reach that strange goal.
Radical increase of the lips’ protrusive range requires systematic exercise of the maxillary fasciae, such as the depressor septi, orbicularis oris, depressor anguli oris, depressor labii inferioris, and the buccinator, circumoral, and risorius groups. The zygomatic muscles are superficially involved. Praxis: Affix string to Wetherly button of at least 1.5-inch diameter borrowed from father’s second-best raincoat; place button over upper and lower front teeth and enclose with lips; hold string fully extended at ninety degrees to face’s plan and pull on end with gradually increasing tension, using lips to resist pull; hold for twenty seconds; repeat; repeat.
I can handle passages like that in short segments like this. Wallace is very talented at keeping a steady pace despite this maximalist specificity. Injected into this is the story of a boy who is, “among his classmates, the sort of marginal social figure who was so marginal he was not even teased.” While reading, I had to acknowledge the boy’s dedication. Wallace also peppers the segment with small passages about famous contortionists and even stigmatics, as if to show that the human body is nothing if not an object potentially malleable through sheer will.
And then there’s the boy’s father. He takes up a rather short ammount of space, even for such a short piece. However, in that small space we get a sad summary of the father’s love life, which is one affair soon violated by another affair, all of them ongoing because he cannot handle the thought of the women with someone else, though he must find someone new. I’m not sure what to make of the father’s role here.
Which brings me to one of my common gripes about segments published as short stories. Surely the book explores the relationship between the father’s and son’s very different narratives, but there’s not much here to go on. Furthermore, we get only a quick glance (quoted above) of some fire that is never brought up again. Such ellipses work well in short stories, but they don’t work well in excerpts. I left the story happy to have spent some time with David Foster Wallace’s unique temperament (all that scientific specificity mixed with an informal voice and all the underlying emotino), but I was disappointed in the week’s offering. It doesn’t make me want to read The Pale King, as much as I enjoyed following the boy’s goal.
Since the Best Translated Book Awardlonglist was announced, I have been slowly going over the list and considering which I wanted to read at this stage. One of the first I picked up (it’s very very short) was Jacques Chessex’s provocatively titled (at least in English; not so much in its original form) A Jew Must Die (Un Juif pour l’exemple, 2009; tr. from the French by W. Donald Wilson, 2010). I’ve been meaning to read his The Vampire of Ropraz since it was well received by respected opinions a couple of years ago. I never got around to reading it, though, and haven’t thought of it much since. I didn’t want to let another Chessex book slip past my radar.
A Jew Must Die opens in Payerne, Switzerland, Chessex’s home town, in April 1942: “The War is far off: such is the general view in Payerne.” Chessex was born in 1934, making him eight years old at the time of the events in this book.
For the first few short sections (only the first few), I wasn’t enjoying the book. It had a strange tone that felt over-the-top. In one moment, the narrator would adopt the voice of the anti-semitic townsmen, quoting Mein Kampf, declaiming all the parasitic Jews had done to make life hard; in the next, we get something like this:
But evil is astir. A powerful poison is seeping in. O Germany, the abominable Hitler’s Reich! O Nibelungen, Wotan, Valkyries, brilliant, headstrong Siegfried; I wonder what fury can be instilling these vengeful spirits from the Black Forest into the gentle woodlands of Payerne: the aberrant dream of some absurd Teutonic knights assailing the air of La Broye one spring morning in 1942, as God and a gang of demented locals are taken in, once again, by a brown-shirted Satan.
It all felt quite blatant, a weak echo of the Book of Lamentations. Soon, though, I settled down and realized what Chessex was doing. This is not a subtle novella. The focus is hardly on aesthetics. What we have here is more of a documentary, or, perhaps more accurately, the long-hidden testimony of an old man still haunted by what happened when he was only eight years old, still slightly disgusted at the general population of Payerne, who, it appears, have almost forgotten this story. What we’re about to read actually happened in Chessex’s home town. It’s an episode that has all but disappeared from the historical record, but Chessex didn’t want it slip any further, though he didn’t want to write it: “I am telling a loathsome story, and feel ashamed to write a word of it.”
When Chessex was eight years old, Fernand Ischi (Chessex sat next to Ischi’s eldest daughter in school) was swayed by the toxic rhetoric of Pastor Lugrin and felt the need to establish Hitler’s dominion in Switzerland:
Death to Judeo-Bolshevism! Total victory is only weeks away. A few months at most. By the end of the year, 1942, all Europe, and Russia, will be in Hitler’s grasp. Let his dominion begin. And let it be right here in Payerne that the first steps are taken towards Nazi rule in Switzerland, a dominion within his dominion, of which Gauleiter Ischi, with his party of brave men, will be the cleansing chief.
Pastor Lugrin had been excommunicated from the church (though not, apparently, for his hatred of Jews). Lugrin established a small band of men who plotted in a garage just how to get Switzerland prepared for Hitler. An important step, they felt, was to kill a Jew:
The time is ripe for the band to set an example for Switzerland and for the Jewish parasites on its soil. So a really representative Jew must be chosen without delay, one highly guilty of filthy Jewishness, and disposed of in some spectacular manner.
The prominent Jew is Arthur Bloch, a successful cattle dealer who will be in town for a cattle fair. Well, the plot hardly needs to be further ellaborated here. Despite their bungling, Lugrin’s plan is brought to pass by Ischi and his men. Ischi was soon arrested; also in the classroom with Chessex and Ischi’s eldest daughter is the son of the police officer who arrest Ischi.
It’s this proximity that makes this book so powerful. I was misreading the first few sections. What appeared to be an over-the-top tone did not need to be toned down, didn’t need to be more subtle. Chessex is putting an event back on the record. This isn’t a work of art, though it is artful. In fact, when it becomes most personal is when it becomes something more than a witness’s account. Pastor Lugrin was arrested and served a 15 year sentence.
Chessex ran into Pastor Lugrin in 1964. Overcoming any misgivings, Chessex approaches Lugrin and speaks to him. Lugrin is unrepentant; indeed, he says, his only regret is that he didn’t “bring others to my friends’ attention,” meaning, despite the turning of the years, many of them spent in captivity, Lugrin wishes only that he’d been able to influence the death of more Jews. Then these great lines:
I stare at him; he stares back with the wary, arrogant gaze of a man always ready with a reply and prepared to make his escape. Deep-blue eyes. Angelic. Features unmarked by prison. High forehead. Long, narrow nose. Little round spectacles, whose metal rims frame the brilliant blue eyes that still gaze back at me.
Even at eight years old, Chessex recognized that such an event could quickly be transformed into something else — the same citizens of Payerne who fumed at the Jewish vermin also showed up to shame Ischi when he was arrested — and for decades the event’s central horror still haunted him. Thankfully, his account is out there, and it is a great read, whatever literary category it fits in.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia” was first published in The New Yorker‘s February 28, 2011, issue.
Click for a larger image.
I haven’t read this story yet because I’m deeply engaged in a few other reading projects and don’t want to take the time just yet. When I read it, hopefully soon, I will post my thoughts here, but in the meantime I’d love to see how people are responding to it. I was so-so on Sayrafiezadeh’s last New Yorker story, “Apetite.”
Last year, Dezsö Kosztolányi’s wonderful Skylark – a tale about an unfortunately ugly girl’s relationship with her parents, a relationship that changes dramatically when she goes away for a couple of weeks — just missed being in my year end “best of” list. If I were writing the list today, in fact, it just might be there, just as it may have been on the list had I written it on, say, a Tuesday rather than a Friday. I was thrilled to see that New Directions was publishing a new translation of his somewhat-autobiographical Kornél Esti (1933; tr. from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams, 2011), a book written near the end of his life (1885 – 1935).
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Kornél Esti begins with one of the most fascinating opening chapters I’ve read in a long time. The first-person narrator, a writer, is around forty years old. Ten years earlier he severed his relationship with one of his closest and most constant companions, Kornél Esti. But, in a line echoing the opening to The Inferno, the narrator thinks enough time has passed.
I had passed the midpoint of my life, when one windy day in spring, I remembered Kornél Esti. I decided to call on him and to revive our former friendship.
Before we meet Kornél Esti, who is also around forty — in fact, he is the exact same age as the narrator — the narrator takes us briefly to his childhood with Kornél Esti. One wonders why he would ever want to revive this friendship. The narrator was a well-raised boy, calm and controlled; but not his friend: “There were no two people on the planet more different than Kornél and myself.” This only led to trouble for our narrator:
Once Uncle Loizi was coming toward us, an old friend of my father’s, whom I had always liked and respected, a three-hundred-pound magistrate. Kornél shouted at me:
“Stick your tongue out.” And he stuck out his own till it reached the point of his chin.
He was a cheeky boy, but interesting, never dull.
He put a lighted candle in my hand.
“Set fire to the curtains!” he urged me. “Set fire to the house. Set the world on fire.”
He put a knife in my hand too.
“Stick it in your heart!” he exclaimed. “Blood’s red. Blood’s warm. Blood’s pretty.”
I didn’t dare follow his suggestions, but I was pleased that he dared to put into words what I thought. I said nothing, gave a chilly smile. I was afraid of him and attracted to him.
Yes, their friendship could have led to many bad endings. It was still pretty bad. For one thing, the narrator and Kornél Esti were uncommonly alike in appearance. Even if the narrator didn’t follow Kornél Esti’s urgings, he was often maligned, and sometimes just by association and sometimes due to mistaken identity. It almost cost the narrator all he had.
I paid. Paid a lot. Not only money. I paid with my reputation too. People everywhere looked at me askance. They didn’t know where they were with me, whether I was right or left of center, whether I was a patriotic citizen or a dangerous rabble-rouser, a respectable family man or a depraved voluptuary, and altogether whether I was a real person or just a dream figure — a drunken, double-dealing, lunatic scarecrow who still flapped his ragged, cast-off gentleman’s coat whichever way the wind blew. I paid dearly for our friendship.
All that, however, I instantly forgot and forgave on that windy spring day when I decided to call on him.
The author seeks Kornél Esti at a hotel at which he’s rumored to be staying. At first, he cannot find his old friend, but soon Kornél Esti appears, standing in front of the mirror. Though it is never explicit, the reader has known for some time that Kornél Esti is a clear double to the author (and to Kosztolányi), but if anything this makes all we’ve read more interesting, particularly the near suicidal urges. It’s a great opening to the book and a fine introduction to Kosztolányi’s keen observations, which he packs into lively prose.
At the end of the first chapter the author and Kornél Esti decide, “Let’s write something, together.” Kornél Esti will come up with the stories, exaggerated vignettes from his own past, and the author will put them down in writing. Together they will edit for style. And, in a final bit of play, Kornél Esti suggests:
“You put your name to it. And my name can be the title. The title’s in bigger letters.”
I was in. Unfortunately, this virtuosic opening didn’t lead to the type of novel I was expecting (and I’d like to read this again without the expectations). With the play between the author and alter-ego I was expecting some great ancestor to Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock (review to come) or The Counterlife. Rather than continue to examine the relationship between the author and Kornél Esti, the book goes into those vignettes from Kornél Esti’s life, any one of which has little to do with another. I was, sadly, disappointed that an interesting concept led to a series of disconnected episodes, and that affected my overall view of this book (I’d rate Skylark above it). Still, I have to wonder if I’d read it with a different frame of mind whether I would have ended up loving this one. Most of the vignettes, after all, are striking.
For example, I loved the first one. Kornél Esti is six years old; it is his first day at school and he’s terrified. One of my favorite scenes in all of literature is when Stephen Dedalus goes to boarding school in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. It came on the page as if it were my own memories (though I never went to boarding school). I have to say that here Kosztolányi nearly matches it, particularly when Kornél Esti’s mother leaves him alone at the classroom door. His terror and his desire to be back with her, to not be left alone, are viscerally felt, as is the profound transformation of his fear:
He could see children, more children than he’d ever before seen in one place. It was a crowd, a crowd of completely unknown little people like himself.
So he wasn’t alone. But if it had previously plunged him into despair that he was so alone in the world, now an even more alarming despair seized him, that he was so very much not alone in the world, that all those other people were alive as well.
In another vignette, in which we may see some of the inspiration for Skylark, Kornél Esti is a nineteen year old, leaving his home town for the first town, travelling by train. In the car with him is a mother and her young daughter. Kornél Esti is fascinated by the mother. Then, suddenly, he takes in the daughter, an unfortunately ugly girl: ”his soul wandered around those two souls, glancing now at the mother, now at the girl. What sufferings, what passions must tear at them. Poor things, he thought.”
In another we also find Kornél Esti on a train. This time, he’s travelling through Bulgaria. He knows not a word of Bulgarian, but he’s challenged himself to have a full conversation with the Bulgarian conductor without ever letting on that he cannot communicate.
Though that vignette is perhaps not believable, others are obviously fictitious, such as the one where Kornél Esti travels to a town that is completely honest. The advertisements are self-deprecating, explaining that in their food products they use substandard ingredients and you’re probably better off buying from someone else. The mayor himself admits he doesn’t have the citizens’ interests at heart. As it turns out, everyone is happy, and even the businesses disclosing the worst are thriving. No one expects much, so things turn out to be great.
A few other vignettes aren’t even about Kornél Esti, like the one involving a young love affair (“If a girl jumps into the well, she loves somebody.”) that ends in marriage and tragedy. One thing all of the stories have in common: a strangeness mixed into the normal tones of a conventional narration.
Kornél Esti has its longueurs, and, as I said, it doesn’t necessarily live up to the promising first chapter, but it is a lively book, a delightful read, and the work of a master I hope to get to know better.
I don’t know much about John O’Hara, other than that during his lifetime he was frequently published in The New Yorker and that of the books he wrote a couple are still frequently brought up, BUtterfield 8 and, his first, Appointment in Samarra (1934). I went into the bookstore looking for BUtterfield 8, but, when it wasn’t there, I opened Appointment in Samarra and found at the beginning this short vignette by Somerset Maugham:
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city adn avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra. — W. Somerset Maugham
Well, even though Maugham didn’t write the book, his short story sold me.
I was pleased when I started reading the actual book O’Hara wrote to find that it, too, would have convinced me to buy the book. The first paragraph is frank and written in the kind of clarity I find very attractive:
Our story opens in the mind of Luther L. (L for LeRoy) Fliegler, who is lying in his bed, not thinking of anything, but just aware of sounds, conscious of his own breathing, and sensitive to his own heartbeats. Lying beside him is his wife, lying on her right side and enjoying her sleep. She has earned her sleep, for it is Christmas morning, strictly speaking, and all the day before she has worked like a dog, cleaning the turkey and baking things, and, until a few hours ago, trimming the tree. The awful proximity of his heartbeats makes Luther Fliegler begin to want his wife a little, but Irma can say no when she is tired.
The Flieglers serve to introduce us to Gibbsville, the Pennsylvania community. The title and short vignette would never have led me to think this story took place in Pennsylvania; honestly, the title and the vignette would never have led me to think of anything that takes place in this story, except, well, death. It is the early 1930s. The Great Depression is affecting everyone, but most of the characters in this novel are among the least affected. They have money trouble, but it seems that most of the problems are social. No one is starving.
Notwithstanding the fine introduction to the Fliegler’s sex life, we move quite quickly past them and arrive at a holiday party where “[e]veryone was drinking, or had just finished a drink, or was just about to take one.” In this scene we see O’Hara stretch out and employ his larger skills of social observation and criticism, which is probably the reason he was so often in The New Yorker. We meet people who will never again appear in the novel, but the scene is a nice collage of the secrets that live under the surface of this small town’s society:
The curious thing about her was that four of the young men had had work-outs with her off the dance floor, and as a result Constance was not a virgin; yet the young men felt so ashamed of themselves for yielding to a lure that they could not understand, in a girl who was accepted as not attractive, that they never exchanged information as to Constance Walker’s sex life, and she was reputed to be chaste.
It is at at this holiday part that we meet the principle character, Julian English, a relatively successful Cadillac dealer in his early thirties. He and his wife Caroline are members of the Gibbsville social elite. Julian is getting drunk and is becoming increasingly upset by the boisterous Harry Reilly.
Julian English sat there watching him, through his eyes that he permitted to appear sleepier than they felt. Why, he wondered, did he hate Harry Reilly? Why couldn’t he stand him? What was there about Reilly that caused him to say to himself: “If he starts one more of those moth-eaten stories I’ll throw this drink in his face.” But he knew he would not throw this drink or any other drink in Harry Reilly’s face. Still, it was fun to think about it.
And think about it he does. His imagination runs freely and he pictures his drink flowing down Harry Reilly’s body, under his clothes. We move away from Julian for a moment to focus, again, on the crowd. Suddenly, there is a clamor. Apparently Julian English has just thrown his drink in Harry Reilly’s face.
On their way home from the party, Constance is bitter and embarrassed. How are they going to get overe this. Worse, Julian owes Harry money. We know from the vignette how this story is going to end, and at this point I was very interested in how we would get there.
From here, though, the novel branches out even more, as we meet a gangster and his clever lackey. Their role is central to the plot, but instead of keeping the book moving, we go into theirpasts. The book, which started well for me — I was well into it when the drink hit Harry Reilly’s face — becomes a series of digressions and social criticism, particularly of the middle class forever striving to outdo their neighbors (remember the Flieglers?). While the digressions could be entertaining, they stalled the narrative so much that, to me, they took away from the story rather than add to it. And they get longer — much longer. Each time a new back-story began, for whichever character (central or side), I cringed, wondering when the story would move on.
About three-quarters of the way through the book, I was fully annoyed. Before starting this book, I wanted to get a feel for O’Hara, and in my research I read such statements that compared him to Henry James, Dorothy Parker, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. All overstatements. Despite the lengthy treks into the past, this work lacked the psychological acuity of Henry James. Despite the social criticism, often rendered with clarity, it lacked the sophisticated wit and penetration of Dorothy Parker. And this is no great examination of America and, thus, lacked the grand scope of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
So, for the last part of the book, I was fighting it quite a lot. Still, I ended up with neutral feelings for it. Why neutral and not negative? Well, there is a great deal of skill here. It just feels undisciplined and a bit self-satisfied. And despite the increasing rancor I felt toward the book, it still had moments of insight and emotional depth, and such passages stripped away my ho-hum-ness:
Our story never ends.
You pull the pin out of a hand grenade, and in a few seconds it explodes and men in a small area get killed and wounded. That makes bodies to be buried, hurt men to be treated. It makes widows and fatherless children and bereaved parents. It means pension machinery, and it makes for pacifism in some and for lasting hatred in others. Again, a man out of the danger area sees the carnage the grenade creates, and he shoots himself in the foot. Another man had been standing there just two minutes before the thing went off, and thereafter he believes in God or in a rabbit’s foot. Another man sees human brains for the first time and locks up the picture until one night years later, when he finally comes out with a description of what he saw, and the horror of his description turns his wife away from him . . .
The book’s strengths and weaknesses balanced together for me, leaving me not altogether fulfilled but not altogether disappointed. Still, I’ll not be moving on to BUtterfield 8, unless someone has some serious persuasion skills.
I have been meaning to read the late Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl (Kleine Stechardin, 1994; tr. from the German by Michael Hofmann, 2004) ever since John Self reviewed it on his blog (click here for his review). John’s review spoke of charm, yet, mixed in the review, is a disturbing premise. Charming and disturbing? Why did I take my time getting around to it? Whatever the reason for my procrastination, I recommend you don’t wait. Now that I’ve read it, I feel pity for that alternative life I would have led had I not.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
“Once, many many years ago . . .” is the soft opening to the book about the real historic figure Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742 – 1799). In his afterword, Michael Hofmann (the author’s son and translator) says we might be forgiven for not knowing who Lichtenberg was since it is likely we would only know if we were “a Germanist, a lover of aphorisms, or a student of ur-science.” In 1763, Lichtenberg arrived at Göttingen University where he was a physics professor until his death, though he has no major accomplishments to his name. This book gives a comical account of one of his failed experiments when he inflated a balloon indoors, but it was too big to take outdoors where he planned to use it as a transportation device — something already invented by others — and, consequently, “Lichtenberg was left sitting with his balloon in his lecture room.”
My own knowledge of Lichtenberg before reading this was limited to the fact that NYRB Classics published The Waste Book, a collection of those aphorisms Michael Hofmann mentions. I haven’t read The Waste Booksbut I’m now tempted because this book uses them liberally. Lichtenberg was apparently a clever man and took pride in it, carrying around a pencil to copy down and refine his wit.
“In case Heaven should really consider it necessary to withdraw me from circulation and put out a new version,” he wrote to his friend Polycarp Erxleben (1744 – 1777), “I would like to give it one or two bits of advice, in particular concerning the form of my body and the overall design of the whole thing. Straighter,” he wrote, “altogether straighter!”
Why straighter? I’m getting ahead of myself, and perhaps to the detriment of this book. After all, perhaps the idea of reading a book about an eighteenth-century scientist and aphorist sounds a bit dry. I should retreat a bit and allow Lichtenberg to be introduced the way Hofmann introduces him:
As he scrambled around among the chair legs, one thing became clear: he had a hunchback! Quick, let’s write about it!
The hunchback was enormous!
As you can see, that this book may be stodgy should not be a concern. Hofmann’s presentation is whimsical and vivacious, chuck-full of exclamation points (which I never, here, tired of). Whoever the narrator is, the thrill he gets telling the story is contagious as he brings the reader into the narrative, always assuming our next question: “And then?”
As the story begins, we feel sorry for Lichtenberg. He’s in his thirties but is a feeble wreck of a man:
“My poor spirit happens to have been poured into a miserable vessel,” he wrote to Alessandro, Count Volta (1745 – 1827).
His hunchback, in particular, is a constant embarrassment. He dreads going to his classes, knowing that everyone’s attention is on his hunchback, not on physics. As much as he wants to be social, he can’t stand the thought that his hunchback is always between him and his friends.
He wished they wouldn’t insist on touching it. It made him feel terribly impatient, later sad.
Of course, he saves himself with some cleverness:
“The only manly attribute I have, decency unfortunately prevents me from displaying.”
What Lichtenberg wants more than anything, though, is love. He adores females of any age; he comes off every bit as lusty as he does witty. Any dread that his hunchback instills in him is almost eclipsed if a woman is giving him a bit of attention. Nevertheless, he knows he is repulsive. One day, though, Lichtenberg’s time comes:
Shortly thereafter, Lichtenburg wrote a letter — still preserved — to his schoolfriend, the pastor Gottfried Hieronymus Amelung (1742 – 1800). “Just imagine,” he wrote, “something has happened, all of a sudden! I’ve met a girl, a girl, a girl, a girl! — the daughter of someone in the town. [Here he was lying through his teeth, she wasn't a burgher's daughter at all, she was way below!] She is thirteen, and, I have to say, beautiful. I have never seen such a picture of beauty and gentleness. She was in a group of five or six others, doing what children do here, selling flowers up on the wall to passersby. [. . .]“
Well, said Lichtenberg, and then indeed.
Soon the little flower girl, Maria Stechard (Hofmann often calls her the Stechardess) has moved in with Lichtenberg, to Lichtenberg’s absolute joy, and he becomes a subject of gossip (as, we are assured, were many others in that day):
In Göttingen — pop. 10,000 — there were no secrets. One person yanked another around the corner, and the whispering began. Often enough, the subject was Dr. Lichtenberg and the beautiful child.
For some time, the Stechardess and Lichtenberg live together in innocence. She is an object of contemplation for him, and he is just a kind malformed man for her. Nevertheless, we know Lichtenberg’s heart, and the seduction begins. Though it is clumsy and, for all its shamefulness to us today, funny, it is an ugly moment. Here sit Lichtenberg and the Stechardess one quiet evening:
When the sun’s gone down, he said, I don’t know if you’ve observed this too, the world is changed. Even the people are different. In their houses they move closer together and speak more quietly, as though they don’t want to be heard. They sit by the stove. The old women cross themselves and sigh a lot. All because of the darkness, better termed blackness, said Lichtenberg, and the pair of them ate. He looked towards the Stechardess and had sinful thoughts, his face turning red. The Stechardess lowered her eyes. Ah yes, he said.
There’s some marvelous control and pacing in that passage. We can feel night dropping in the silence as the evening becomes much more grave for both Lichtenberg and the Stechardess. It serves to note, also, the lack of the exlamation point, used so often elsewhere. And then, in one simple paragraph, this:
Don’t hurt me, she said.
The entire book, though it is funny — and charming, don’t forget charming — throughout, contains such grave undercurrents. Lichtenberg is practically a failure and he’s already contemplating the fact that when he is swallowed up by the grave so are his memories (making his deceased parents, he thinks, truly dead). He’s already fairly certain that he has achieved nothing of note that will merit remembrance. And death is all around. Good healthy friends and students are absent the next day, death having visited them inexplicably in the night.
And Hofmann keeps the flow of time ambiguous, despite the consistent “And then?” that moves the story from one scene to the next: “It was summer again — or was it still summer?” A great book, worthy of remembrance.
“I would prefer not to.” How long has that phrase haunted me because I didn’t know what it meant to literature! I confess: I had never read Melville’s short masterpiece, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street (1853). I’m not sure why not. After all, I’m a fan of American fiction. I’m a fan of Moby-Dick. I know many tastes I admire love this book. I wander around downtown Manhattan, from Wall Street to Trinity Church to City Hall, the book’s haunts, and, indeed, I dabble in the law of stocks and bonds as does the book’s narrator — and not many great works of literature go there. What got me to read it, finally? The desire to be in on the joke! ”I would prefer not to.”
Our narrator is a Wall Street attorney who lacks professional ambition: “I am a man who, from his youth upward, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.” He never argues in court and is very content that his job consists primarily in creating legal documents that help others transfer stocks and bonds. Back then, since all of the documents were written by hand, and there had to be several copies of each document, it is no surprise that his support staff consists of a few scriveners and one courier. Before Bartleby arrives (“who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of”), the staff consists of Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. With wit and verve, Melville describes each of these employees. Turkey and Nippers are the two scriveners. One is tense and touchy in the morning, the other in the afternoon. They are great side characters who provide a lot of comedy throughout. Here, for example, is a description of Nippers’s attempts to get his desk set to just the right incline:
Though of a very ingenious mechanical turn, Nippers could never get this table to suit him. He put chips under it, blocks of various sorts, bits of pasteboard, and at last went so far as to attempt an exquisite adjustment by final pieces of folded blotting paper. But no invention would answer. If, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp angle well up towards his chin, and wrote there like a man using the steep roof of a Dutch house for his desk: — then he declared that it stopped the circulation in his arms. If now he lowered the table to his waistbands, and stopped over it in writing, then there was a sore aching in his back. In short, the truth of the matter was, Nippers knew not what he wanted.
“Nippers knew not what he wanted”: what a great way to get to that insight.
The young courier is Ginger Nut, so-named because most of the time he is sent to fetch these treats for the rest of the staff. Before even getting to know Bartleby, I was enchanted by this book and its strange characters portrayed in such charming language. But then, he approaches: “I can see that figure now — pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.”
When hired, Bartleby appears to be an ideal worker. He doesn’t have the mood swings that afflict Turkey and Nippers, and, for the most part, he just sits down and works and works — “at first.”
At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.
The narrator’s misgivings are well founded. There’s something odd about Bartleby, some disconnect. He sets up his office space to secure the utmost privacy, though there is nothing he is trying to hide. His interactions with the staff and the narrator are limited to the work at hand. And then, what occurs next comes as a complete shock to the narrator, who is impressed but worried:
In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do — namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singluarly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”
It’s hard to imagine saying that to an employer. Still, Bartleby has said it in such a manner that our narrator cannot help but sit there dumbfounded and mute.
His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been anything ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.
It only gets worse. “I would prefer not to” becomes Bartleby’s response to every request. The narrator’s mood vascillates between fury and curiosity and pity. Obviously there is something amiss in Bartleby, and the narrator cannot grasp it. And Bartleby would prefer not to get into any specifics.
Despite this book being much much shorter than Moby-Dick, Melville is still able, through his incredible writing, to grasp depths of emotion. The reader feels the complexities of these characters deeply. .
My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion.
As funny and fun as it is to read, Bartleby the Scrivener is not necessarily a happy story. How does one deal with an employee who prefers to do no work and who, eventually, prefers not to leave the premises, even when he is invited to move in with the narrator?
To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it.
Highly recommended. Get in on the joke, too, and be wowed by the great literature on the side!
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. “The Other Place” was originally published in The New Yorker‘s February 14 & 21, 2011, issue.
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I’m familiar only with Mary Gaitskill’s reputation: great, dark writing about taboo topics. I am not aware of having read any of her work before. “The Other Place” certainly confirms her reputation for me, and I hope to look into more of her work soon.
The story begins by misdirecting our attention:
My son, Douglas, loves to play with toy guns. He is thirteen. He loves video games in which people get killed. He loves violence on TV, especially if it’s funny. How did this happen? The way everything does, of course. One thing follows another, naturally.
It would seem that the narrator, Douglas’s father, is going to relate a story about his son’s development into a desensitized lover of graphic violence. To be honest, I wasn’t that interested at this point. But quite soon the narrator introduces the taboo and his own perverse role.
My wife, Marla, says that this is fine, as long as we balance it out with other things — family dinners, discussions of current events, sports, exposure to art and nature. But I don’t know. Douglas and I were sitting together in the living room last week, half watching the TV and checking e-mail, when an advertisement for a movie flashed across the screen: it was called “Captivity” and the ad showed a terrified blond girl in a cage, a tear running down her face. Doug didn’t speak or move. But I could feel his fascination, the suddenly deepening quality of it. And I don’t doubt that he could feel mine. We sat there and felt it together.
I was not expecting this father to confess to his own love of violence, particularly violence against women. Here he is worried about his son but then we suddenly learn that he himself feels the lusty fascination with a woman in captivity. It’s a father-son moment, sure, but not the comforting kind. The story becomes only more uncomfortable.
Shifting our attention from Douglas’s nascent lust, the narrator recounts his own adolescence. ”I believe I had a normal childhood,” he says. Gaitskill proceeds to write – in the softest language of nostalgia – the narrator’s perceptions, and they’re terrifying.
When I was a kid, I liked walking through neighborhoods alone, looking at housees, seeing what people did to make them homes: the gardens, the statuary, the potted plants, the wind chimes. Late at night, if I couldn’t sleep, I would sometimes slip out my bedroom window and just spend an hour or so walking around. I loved it, especially in late spring, when it was starting to be warm and there were night sounds — crickets, birds, the whirring of bats, the occasional whooshing car, some lonely person’s TV. I loved the mysterious darkness of trees, the way they moved against the sky if there was wind — big and heavy movements, but delicate, too, in all the subtle, reactive leaves. In that soft blurry weather, people slept with their windows open; it was a small town and they weren’t afraid. Some houses — I’m thinking of two in particular, where the Legges and the Myers lived — had yards that I would actually hang around in at night.
The Legges had a daughter named Jenna: “She was on the ground floor, her bed so close to the window that I could watch her chest rise and fall the way I watched the grass on their lawn stirring in the wind.” Going back to the beginning of the story, is the narrator concerned about his son? Or is he somewhat proud? We learn, after all, that they don’t necessarily have a lot in common and that the only thing they really succeed at doing together is fly fishing — and even that is a bit strained.
Then again, this is just the beginning of the story. The narrator goes on to recount his fascination with violence against women, which started, as best he can remember, when he was about the same age as Douglas.
But suddenly, when I was about fourteen, I started getting excited by the thought of girls being hurt. Or killed. A horror movie would be on TV, a girl in shorts would be running and screaming with some guy chasing her, and to me it was like porn.
As the reader might expect, this lusty fascination isn’t perfectly satiated by the television. The narrator’s imagination compensates:
And I would go invisibly into an invisible world that I called “the other place.” Where I sometimes was passively watched a killer and other times became one.
As he admits later on, going to this other place ”was great.”
Gaitskill isn’t writing about this topic just to make the reader uncomfortable. She’s not writing against taboo just to be irreverent. This is a sensitive piece. Despite the despicable side of the narrator, we still see him as a loving father and a sensitive older man who, at this point, seems more nostalgic and fascinated in his younger self. He obviously still suffers from (or is aroused by) his lust, but he comes off, to me, as genuinely worried about his son and grateful that he has gone through it himself so he can help, though this is probably something they can never talk about out loud.
I enjoyed this story immensely. There is so much to think about, and Gaitskill’s writing was superb throughout. I’m very curious about how others responded, so I’m looking forward to any comments.
For my seventh venture into McCarthy’s novels, I chose his debut (I’m apparently on a debut streak right now) The Orchard Keeper (1965). For me, this was his most difficult yet, perhaps because much of the time I didn’t really feel like I knew what was going on and didn’t entirely trust that the obfuscation was with valid purpose. More than any other McCarthy novel, I had to work very hard to follow the narrative thread (or, rather, to find the narrative thread after losing it several times). There were some pay-offs, though. Well before I finished it, I already could tell it was going to be a book that I would enjoy thinking about more than I enjoyed reading it. Was it worth it? The answer, of course, is it depends.
The book begins with a disorienting italicized scene that sets up a metaphor. A couple of African American cemetery workers (who do not play another role in the novel) are trying to cut through a tree when they discover that an iron fence has “growed all through the tree.” At first glance, the meaning of the metaphor is obvious: something man-made is destroying nature. Basically, that is the metaphor’s essence; however, as The Orchard Keeper develops, the layers of meaning multiply. Yes, on one level it is man’s inclination to destroy nature. But on another level, it is man’s inclination to destroy another man’s nature. Thankfully, McCarthy was intelligent enough at this young age to not give way to meanings quite so simple. Or, in other words, McCarthy has a story to tell; the meaning is almost — but not quite — incidental.
I think the best way to discuss this novel is to give a very short introduction to the characters and plot, even though the book takes a long time for us to get there. The story takes place between the wars in an isolated community in Tennessee. In the first part we meet a drifter who comes off rather menacing. This is Kenneth Rattner, father to our central character (number one), John Wesley Rattner. Later in the novel we learn that he was once (allegedly) a captain. Hanging in his house above his wife and son is his portrait where he, “fleshly of face and rakish in an overseas cap abutting upon his right eyebrow, the double-barred insignia wreathed in light, soldier, father, ghost, eyed them.” There is little of the military captain in the drifter we meet (whether there is anything to the miliatry captain at all remains in doubt for me). He picks up rides and then, foreshadowing many of McCarthy’s most menacing characters, frightens his drivers with opaque statements.
Another of our main characters (number two) Marion Sylder is one of the menaced drivers. When both men are out of the car, Kenneth Rattner inexplicably attacks Sylder. Sylder is able to defend himself and ends up killing Kenneth Rattner. The fight and the aftermath show McCarthy’s already developed gift of developing tension in everyday interaction as he shows just how sudden violence strikes. Sylder eventually takes the dead body to the spray pit in a decaying orchard. Here we meet the last of our main characters (number three), Ather Ownby, the old man who oversees the orchard.
Interestingly, both Ownby and Sylder become surrogate fathers to the young John Wesley Rattner, though it appeared to me that Ownby and Sylder never actually meet face-to-face. The young Rattner does not know that Sylder killed his father and that Ownby knows where the dead body is. But, in fact, Sylder does not know he killed Rattner’s father, and Ownby has no idea whose body lies in the spray pit. It is a complicated set up where no one but the reader knows what has happened.
Honestly, though I found the characters interesting and well realized, I wasn’t much taken in by this McCarthy story. Despite the underlying tensions, the setup between these characters felt relatively tame. To me the novel’s strengths lie in the atmosphere and in the history McCarthy tracks.
Sylder is a bootlegger and runs illegal alcohol around the countryside (I may be wrong, but I believe the only times Ownby sees Sylder is when from the shadows of his hermit home he sees Sylder driving the country road past the orchard). The temperance movement is in full swing:
Long paper banners ran the length of the buses proclaiming for Christ in tall red letters, and for sobriety, offering to vote against the devil when and wherever he ran for office.
As he does in his later works, McCarthy injects into this scene a vast scope. This is not just a period in history. This is an epoch. This is a legend. What it has to say has ramifications beyond the historical as we venture to the fringes and into the liminal space:
Sundays the Knoxville beer taverns were closed, their glass fronts dimmed and muted in sabbatical quietude, and Sylder turned to the mountain to join what crowds marshaled there beyond the dominion of laws either civil or spiritual.
Marion Sylder’s family, in particular, is used to create this epochal feel: “They were a whisky-making family before whiskey-making was illegal, their family mythical, preliterate and legendary.” Of course, we know early on that Sylder’s time is limited, and therefore this myth is about to end. Sylder also knows this and, in fact, one of the best passages in the novel is when a jailed Sylder explains this to the young Rattner who vows to kill the man who took Sylder into captivity. Without attempting to call this a golden age or these characters heroes, this book is nevertheless a lamentation for this lost time. The disorienting tone serves this purpose.
Also, the disorienting nature of the narrative brings to mind a dream (appropriate as the time period now exists only in a dream), and some of the images bolster this impression. For example, in one of my favorite scenes from the first part of the book, a tavern that creaks like a boat seems to explode when its porch falls off. The dream-like quality continues as McCarthy describes the aftermath:
There it continued to burn, generating such heat that the hoard of glass beneath it ran molten and fused in a single sheet, shaped in ripples and flutings, encysted with crisp and blackened rubble, murrhined with bottlecaps. It is there yet, the last remnant of that landmark, flowing down the sharp fold of the valley like some imponderable archaeological phenomenon.
Now, that passage shows to a small extent what The Orchard Keeper proves again and again: young McCarthy already had a phenomenal vocabulary, and he wasn’t afraid to use it. For those who dislike his later work because his vocabulary seems affected or forced, this is certainly not a book to read. I am a fan of McCarthy’s language, but at times The Orchard Keeper was all complex vocabulary all the time. Consequently, because even the most unimportant passage is raised to heights by the lofty language, it felt a bit flat and atonal. Still, McCarthy is able to use it to describe some great scenes, like this one where the police are coming to take Old Man Ownby. When they fear he will fire upon them, they fire away, and we get a great description of the scene from inside the house where Ownby is hiding on the floor.
The kitchen glass exploded in on him then and he got behind the stove. There was a cannonade of shots from the woods and he sat there on the floor listening to it and to the spat spat of bullets passing through the house. Little blooms of yellow wood kept popping out on the planks and almost simultaneously would be the sound of the bullet in the boards on the other side of the room. They did not whine as they passed through. The old man sat very still on the floor. One shot struck the stove behind him and leaped off with an angry spang, taking the glass out of the table lamp. It was like being in a room full of invisible and malevolent spirits.
So, the book is both frustrating and beautiful. It lacks the cohesiveness of McCarthy’s later works, but it also shows his strengths were already highly developed. The story itself is not satisfying, but the atmosphere it evokes is. Therefore, whether the book is worth reading depends. As a fan of McCarthy, I had to read it. I may have been disappointed in one sense, but it worked to satisfy the hunger I feel for McCarthy’s work at times. Its last lines make me hungry for more:
They are gone now. Fled, banished in death or exile, lost, undone. Over the land sun and wind still move to burn and sway the trees, the grasses. No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains. On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Tessa Hadley’s “Honor” was first published in The New Yorker‘s February 7, 2011, issue.
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I’m becoming a bigger and bigger fan of Tessa Hadley’s short fiction. She’s frequently in The New Yorker (this is her fourth story I’ve written about since I started my New Yorker fiction project in January 2009. All of them offer a great sense of the people involved, generally just a couple of characters developed through a few episodes, though the stories often take us into a few different times.
This particular story is a great follow-up to last week’s piece by Alice Munro, which looked at a pair of girls growing up fifty years ago. Here, in “Honor,” our narrator is Stella, a woman in her mid-fifties and is looking back to the early 1960s when she and her mother lived together alone:
My father was supposedly dead, and I found out only years later that he’d left, walked out when I was eighteen months old. I should have guessed this — should have seen the signs, or the absence of them. Why hadn’t we kept any of his things to treasure? Why whenever he came up in conversation, which was hardly ever, did my mother’s face tighten, not in grief or regret but in disapproval — the same expression she had when she tasted some food or drink she didn’t like (she was fussy, we were both fussy, fussy together)? Why did none of our relatives or friends ever mention his name? (Which was Bert, unpoeticaly.) What had he died of, exactly? (“Lungs, my mother said shortly. She had hated his smoking.)
It goes without saying that this was a rough time for a woman to be a single parent. I imagine it must have been even more disgraceful if she was abandoned and not a widow. However, Stella’s mother puts up a very strong front in the face of the times:
This was in the nineteen-fifties and the early sixties (I was born in 1956), so many things that seem quaint now were current and powerful then: shame, and secrecy, and the fear that other people would worm themselves into your weaknesses, and that their knowledge of how you had lapsed or failed would eat you away from the inside.
Hadley takes us back to this time and introduces us to this narrator when she was an ignorant child and then she introduces us to Auntie Andy (Andrea) and Andy’s son Charlie, who is roughly the same age as Stella. Stella never really knew Charlie (Andy was the only relative from the father’s side to keep in touch, but it was still only every once in a while), but she also never really liked Charlie. Then, out of the blue, there is a phone call. Auntie Andy has asked to come stay with them for a while. Stella’s mother says not to ask about Charlie or Charlie’s father. When Andy arrives, she gives an eerie description of Auntie Andy who was once very shy:
Her face was rather white. She reminded me of a girl at school, who had been slapped for extreme insolence (usually only the boys were hit): when this girl walked back to her desk, she was in a sort of smiling daze, vivid with shock.
Though no one is telling us or Stella, we can guess that something terrible has happened to Charlie. Stella herself has only been able to piece together the story through the years as a bit of detail pops out here and there. However, her mother finally does tell her that Charlie is dead. Charlie’s father is on trial:
People had mixed feelings about men’s violence against their families in those days: it was disgusting, but it was also, confusedly, part of the suffering essence of maleness, like the smell of tobacco and the beard growth. I think that sexuality itself was sometimes understood, by the women in my family, as a kind of violence that must be submitted to, buried deep in the privacy of domestic life.
All of this is very well told. We go into the narrator’s young consciousness as she figures out what has happened, deals with the other kids at school, and begins to realize that Charlie was a real person who had real experiences. It is a very powerful, if conventional, line in the story.
However, the story’s real power lies in how it looks at the aftermath for the women. Andy has that dazed smile. She’s grieving, certainly, but as the story progresses, while we never — or I never, at least — questioned her love for her son, somehow this previously shy woman has a respectible reserve about her. And if we step back to the beginning of the story, when Stella is telling us about her own mother and absent father, we can’t help but see some similarities. We never know what Stella’s father did. Was he abusive? It doesn’t say. Nevertheless, Stella’s mother has a portion of independence now, and we can sense that she is thriving in it. All of this is subverted:
And then, within a couple of years, they both found themselves a man, as if that had been the whole point of the enterprise.
Certainly a story to pay well on multiple readings, it is a nuanced look at the violence these women experienced and how it affected them. At the same time we have this narrator trying to tell her own story in the wake of tragedy and secrecy.