In just a little over a month we learn what author will take home the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though I enjoy the speculation and then looking into the winner’s work, I usually don’t get too worked up about the Nobel. It is, after all, another book prize with an impossible mandate. Not only is it unlikely my choice will win, but so vast is the field of candidates that, if I’ve heard of the author, I’ve usually never read the winner’s work. But this year, spurred by Alice Munro’s recent short story “Amundsen,” I find myself getting worked up to not only make a cheer for “my choice” but also to actually feel some disappointment if my choice doesn’t win. I cheat and have two choices: Alice Munro or William Trevor.
Thinking about this caused me to go back and revisit one of my favorite William Trevor stories: “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” which was first published in the October 30, 1995 issue of The New Yorker and first included in his collection After Rain.
When I started reading William Trevor, I didn’t get him. I felt there was more there, but for some reason I wasn’t accessing it. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I began digging into his work and found that I, for whatever reason, can engage with it. Now I can’t get enough. Now he’s one of my favorite authors, someone worth getting worked up over when others dismiss him. “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” was one of my early entrance points.
It is a relatively short story that showcases Trevor’s ability to layer time. When it begins, well, let’s let Trevor’s beginning show how it begins:
Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man; Belle married him when he was old.
There was a little more to it than that, because in choosing Violet to be his wife the piano tuner had rejected Belle, which was something everyone remembered when the second wedding was announced. “Well, she got the ruins of him anyway,” a farmer of the neighborhood remarked, speaking without vindictiveness, stating a fact as he saw it. Others saw it similarly, tough most of them would have put it differently.
This opening introduces the two time frames we’ll be dealing with. Owen Dromgould, the piano tuner, married his first wife Violet around forty years ago; now he’s marrying Belle, who, we’ll see, replays that first marriage day often. It doesn’t help that the weddings take place in the same place. As Trevor moves through this wedding, he moves back and forth, sometimes in the same sentence:
“I will,” he responded in the small Protestant church of St. Colman, standing almost exactly as he had stood on that other afternoon. And Belle, in her fifty-ninth year, repeated the words her onetime rival had spoken before this altar also. A decent interval had elapsed; no one in the church considered that the memory of Violet had not been honored, that her passing had not been distressfully mourned. “And with all my earthly goods I thee endow,” the piano tuner stated, while his new wife thought she would like to be standing beside him in white instead of suitable wine-red. She had not attended the first wedding, although she had been invited. She’d kept herself occupied that day, white-washing the chicken shed, but even so she’d wept. And tears or not, she was more beautiful — and younger by almost five years — than the bride who so vividly occupied her thoughts as she battled with her jealousy.
Yes, Belle is certain that she was the more beautiful. But, her beauty did her no good; the piano tuner is blind. And since he chose the plain Violet, it seemed to Belle “that the punishment of blindness was a punishment for her, too.” Jealous and bittern, Belle never married until this day late in life when she finally gets Owen to herself. Is her beauty still there to be sacrifice? After all, when she was nineteen, “[a]n act of grace it would have been, her beauty given to a man who did not know that it was there.”
The story continues to move back and forth in time but without ever losing its place, fully representing how Belle’s mind is working as she marries and begins her life with the piano teacher. She should be happy herself, now, but she is ”haunted by happiness.” That wedding day forty years earlier continues to occupy her thoughts. The blind piano tuner cannot help but speak Violet’s words as he describes things he never has seen for himself. There is no consolation.
That Belle was the one who was alive, that she was offered all a man’s affection, that she plundered his other woman’s possessions and occupied her bedroom and drove her car, should have been enough. It should have been everything, but as time went on it seemed to Belle to be scarcely anything at all.
These beautiful sentences respect Belle — how truly difficult it must be – even as they show her start to quietly destroy her marriage. In just a few pages, we see the years layered on years, events from the past still touching the present in complex ways that baffle. After all, as bitter as Belle was, she didn’t marry the piano tuner to retroactively annihilate his first, and she feels guilty when she sees the effects of her actions, but she cannot stop and we dare not judge her.
“The Piano Tuner’s Wives” is a masterpiece.
This year’s judges of the Man Booker Prize seem to have quite a task in front of them when they sit to whittle the longlist down to a shortlist. On the one hand, at least a few of the judges opted to include Rachel Joyce’s rather conventional, sentimental journey The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (my review here). At least a few judges — and, who knows, but I’m guessing not the same ones who liked Harold Fry — opted to include Deborah Levy’s anti-sentimental, formally challenging Swimming Home (2011). In his introduction, Tom McCarthy (author of C, which I reviewed here) writes, “Like the emotional and cerebral choreographies of Pina Bausch, her fiction seemed less concerned about the stories it narrated than about the interzone (to borrow Burrough’s term) it set up in which desire and speculation, fantasy and symbols circulated.” Will we really get a shortlist where a book like Harold Fry, which is very concerned about the story it’s telling, can coexist with Swimming Home, where the story is not at all what matters?
Review copy courtesy of And Other Stories.
Levy quickly gets to work setting up a simple stage on which the characters will subtly terrorize each other. It’s the summer of 1994, and two families have decided to vacation together in the Alpes-Maritime. We have the Jacobs: Joe is the father and “the arsehole poet known to his readers as JHJ; his wife is Isabel (she calls her husband Jozef), a war correspondent who understandably has a hard time reconciling her home life with her work life; their fourteen-year-old daughter is Nina, more aware than people give her credit for. We also have Mitchell and Laura, the Jacobs’ friends, who have come along a bit awkwardly.
One Saturday, to everyone’s surprise, there is a naked body in the villa’s pool. When she gets out of the pool, Kitty Finch feigns shock, saying someone must have messed up her schedule and told her she could be at the villa that week. No one buys it. Almost as a challenge to her husband — a sign that these couples might be, as one onlooker says, anxiously on the ”task of trying to destroy their lifelong partners while pretending to have their best interests at heart” — Isabel says that it’s okay, Kitty can stay in the spare room.
Laura is a bit shocked. She and Mitchell own a shop in Euston, which is frequently vandalized; she says that they “had come to the Alpes-Maritime to escape from the futility of mending broken glass.” And now she sees Kitty as “a window waiting to be climbed through.” In fact, surprised and unsure, but it seems to Laura that “Joe Jacobs had already wedged his foot into the crack and his wife had helped him.”
Everyone is tense; everyone pretends to be enjoying a holiday. And we readers are on the edge of our chair wondering just when the violence and death is going to spring up from under the surface — we swear we can see it lurking around under there. It reminded me a great deal of Roman Polanski’s film Knife in the Water.
Our suspicions about Kitty Finch are quickly confirmed. Her arrival is no accident. She’s a fan of JHJ, and she’s brought her poem “Swimming Home” for him to read. Never do we think this is less than creepy: “When I write poems I always think you can hear them.” Never do the characters think so either; why do they allow her in? There’s a desire for annihilation; there’s desire.
Kitty and JHJ share more than poetry. Each have been on medication to get over trauma, and neither is particularly stable now. Their past is also unstable for the reader. We learn right away that JHJ was born Jozef and was able to escape Poland as a child. Much more than this we don’t know. More strangely, we are led to suspect that Kitty and JHJ have brushed past each other before, in a haunted past, though we have reason to doubt this. Nevertheless, whatever home they are swimming to it does not appear to have ever existed for them; after all, one of JHJ’s famous lines is “give me your history and I will give you something to take it away.”
We mustn’t forget about Isabel and Nina, to whom Levy gives equal time and weight in this story. Isabel, generally a “ghost” in her own home, some kind of transient or passerby, has even more cause to withdraw now that Kitty Finch has arrived (even though Isabel is the one who invited her to remain): “After Kitty Finch’s arrival all she could do to get through the day was to imitate someone she used to be; but who that was, who she used to be, no longer seemed to be a person worth imitating.”
How all of this affects Nina becomes central to this short (though it took me over a week to read it) book. It’s true that we readers are constantly on the lookout for physical violence to erupt (and it does), but the reality is that emotional violence is around us the whole time. Sadly, that’s what Nina is going to inherit.
I’ve only read three of the twelve longlisted titles, but I’d be happy if this one won. That said, I’d be happy if something else came along that was better (well, of course) because the time it took me to read this wasn’t just because the book demands time. Despite the high tension, or maybe because of it, each time I picked it up I had a hard time getting into it again. And at times, as short and tense as the book is, it was still a bit boring, and therefore all the easier to set aside when something else demanded my attention. I’m perfectly willing to accept that ease of putting the book down and difficulty picking it up again was entirely due to my own personal circumstances — with three children at home my life is not interruption free, and I think this book needs and deserves an unbroken stream of reading. Of course, now finished, looking back I see that unbroken stream and thinkSwimming Home is a powerful and disturbing book, well worth the time and work I devoted to reading it.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Birnam Wood” was originally published in the September 3, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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Another story you can read for free online, from another well known short story writer. Though I’m not always keen on Boyle’s work (more on that at the end), I did enjoy this story.
It’s the 1970s and the story begins one cold September. Our narrator and his girlfriend, Nora, spent the summer season in a shack (“Back in May, when Nora was at school out West and I sent her a steady stream of wheedling letters begging her to come back to me, I’d described the place as a cottage.”). As the pleasant summer passes into a harsh September, the shack becomes unlivable. They have very little money: “enough, we hoped, to get us out of the converted chicken coop and into someplace with heat and electricity till we could think what to do next.” What to do next? It’s an awful situation. The narrator feels he should be the provider, so even though Nora laughs when they visit a tiny, dirty apartment, he doesn’t think it’s so funny. He knows he might just have to move there, and then what?
Good news comes when the narrator’s best friend comes across a housesitting job. It’s at a place called Birnam Wood and sits on a private lake. It’s more lavish than anything they could ever have expected, and right when they saw it their ill will towards each other almost vanished:
A moment ago, I’d been worked up, hating her, hating the broken-down car with its bald tires and rusted-out panels that was the only thing we could afford, hating the trees and the rain, hating nature and rich people and the private lakes you couldn’t find unless you were rich yourself, unless you had a helicopter, or a whole fleet of them, and now suddenly a different mix of emotions was surging through me — surprise, yes, awe even, but a kind of desperation, too. [. . .] I knew that I had to live here or die [. . .].
Introducing Nora as his wife, the narrator and Nora successfully woo the older couple who will be moving away for the winter, trusting their home to these two young strangers. For a while, the question of what to do next doesn’t matter. They settle into a pleasant routine, both working, though still not earning much. But even at Birnam Wood trouble can enter their relationship.
It’s a finely written story and a nice read. My problem with it is one I often have with Boyle: it seems a bit on the nose, and, contrary to last week’s story by Alice Munro, here “what happens” seems more important than “what it signifies” (a conception of the short story that I picked up from May on the Short Story). Yes, when the end comes we move away from the action and are left to think about what it signifies, but the progress of the story to that point is quite “plotty,” which is not a bad thing, just not necessarily what I think of when I think of a strong short story.
I should say, though, that I still enjoyed this story, and it does leave us with some things to think about. Had we not read Alice Munro last week, I probably wouldn’t be contrasting this one as harshly. I know many readers here really enjoy Boyle, so as well as your thoughts on this story, I’d like to hear your thoughts on Boyle vis-a-vis Munro.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Alice Munro’s “Amundsen” was originally published in the August 27, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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I’ll complain still that The New Yorker publishes too much Junot Díaz, but the number of his appearances in the last few years is overshadowed by Alice Munro’s. But I won’t complain that there’s too much Munro, because I also don’t feel Díaz’s stories hold a candle to Munro’s. That she can produce, time and time again, these quietly powerful stories is wonderous.
“Amundsen” itself is wonderous. Once again, Munro gives us a story that dwells on the details while shunning what many writers would consider the larger moments. When the story opens, Vivien Hyde has left Toronto to become the new teacher at a tuberculosis “san” near a frigid place called Amundsen. It’s the mid-1940s and the War is the big news, but in Amundsen, everyone is dealing with life and death closer to home. When someone doesn’t show up for work, you assume the worst. At first, it makes the residents seem distanced, but Vivien begins to understand: “It was just that whatever happened in places they didn’t know had to be discounted; it got in their way and under their skin. Every time the news came on the radio, they switched it to music.”
The first person to really introduce herself to Vivien is a young girl — healthy, so she won’t be in Vivien’s class — named Mary. Mary’s mother works at the sanitorium, and Mary is boisterous and happy to welcome Vivien. Mary introduces Vivien to her new boss, the doctor, Alister Fox. As they talk, Vivien quickly figures out that Fox is ”the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into.”
Munro allows us to settle into this community, and we aren’t sure exactly where this will all go. But, as usual in a sudden and perfect transition, Vivien is on her way to dinner with Dr. Fox. We know it means something to Vivien because she chooses to miss Mary’s play in order to subject herself to Dr. Fox’s superiority and condescension — or is that just the way he flirts (reminding me of the despicable Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin).
Why does she allow Dr. Fox into her life? She knows how he is, but she can’t deny a desire to be with him. There are some explanations — “My stock had risen. Whatever else I was, at least I might turn out to be a woman with a man.” But even this doesn’t seem to answer the question completely.
Anyway, Munro continues to move the story forward quickly, again, taking time to develop small moments (it’s heartbreaking when Mary comes to perform her play while Vivien and Dr. Fox are having another dinner together), and the seemingly large moments are passed by quickly, as if Vivien doesn’t want to dwell on them, either because they don’t matter (which is quite possible) or because the pain is slightly more intimate.
I don’t want to give much more away, but if the sunlight outside is too strong and you’re feeling a bit hot in this late summer weather, I can promise this story will cool you down.
I have read and reviewed here some fine “walking” books. I’m thinking of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. These books use walking to create a reflective journey, showing how physical space can affect our mental space. As much as I enjoyed — no, loved — these three books, I was wary about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), which was recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. See, there are also ”walking” books I don’t like that use some journey to represent some checklist through life’s lessons (I’m thinking of David Gutterson’s East of the Mountains). These sentimental books, though the characters are always struggling with some darkness in their past, shine light into every corner, making sure we know that the wandering narrator — as well as the reader — has been edified; this new perspective afforded by the journey can teach us all a thing or two. From its description, I suspected Harold Fry would be that kind of sentimental book.
Review copy courtesy of Random House.
And this book has left me somewhat flummoxed. Indeed, Harold Fry is that kind of sentimental journey, and I really disliked it for that reason. However, in many segments, Joyce shows her fine ability to illustrate all of the reasons we should feel for her characters, and, though still sentimental, at those moments I was happy to let her carry me off. Consequently, I enjoyed a book that I also disliked immensely, and strangely those two feelings are related.
Harold Fry is a recently retired sixty-five-year-old. He lives on the southern coast of England in the small town of Kingsbridge, Devon. His wife, Maureen, doesn’t know what to do with this man wandering around the house. It’s been years and years since they shared any affection. One morning, Harold gets a letter in the post from an old acquaintance named Queenie Hennessy. He hasn’t heard from her in two decades, but she’s writing him now to say goodbye. She’s in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed (on the northern-most tip of England), and she’s dying of cancer. Shocked, Harold’s mind uncomfortably thinks of how he disappointed — even betrayed – Queenie all those years ago, and he struggles to find a suitable reply. He fails to write anything adequate in his short letter to Queenie, but he leaves to drop his reply in the mail. When he arrives at the mailbox, he decides to walk just a bit farther, and then a bit farther, and still a bit farther. Walking is a way for him to mourn, to reflect, to put off doing what he doesn’t want to do, and to escape his home, his wife, and himself. Spurred on by the unwitting words of a girl who sells him a hamburger, Harold makes one of the only spontaneous decisions of his life: if he walks all the way to Berwick-upon-Tweed, Queenie will have to wait for him; therefore, Queenie will continue to live.
Thus begins The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and I suspect that you already know pretty much how this books will play out. After Harold’s initial burst of energy, he will tire and become discouraged by self-doubt (self-doubt brought on because while walking he has plenty of time to think about how disappointed he is in himself). Someone will come along and, again usually unwittingly, say something encouraging, often in the form of a little nugget of life’s wisdom, and Harold will fight through his pain and continue with new resolve.
As Harold walks north, we focus on his relationship with four people: Maureen, Queenie, his estranged son David, and his mother. In the book’s early pages, we learn Maureen is tired of the man after putting up with him for forty-seven years; though confused about how things could be so different from their happy early years, Harold probably doesn’t blame her for being disappointed. We learn that something happened with Queenie, who was a co-worker, all those years ago, and we don’t know what until quite late in the book. We learn that David doesn’t speak to his father anymore (even when he did, the way he said “father” suggested “the bond between them was a whim of irony, rather than blood”). We learn that his mother abandoned him when he was a young teenager, because she never wanted a child in the first place. Really, Harold has disappointed and been disappointed by all of the central people in his life. But on that first page he got “the letter that would change everything.”
The book was strongest for me when these relationships were explored. It’s in those passages, where Harold drifts into his past for a few pages when the sun is getting hot and his legs are on auto-pilot, that Joyce shows these relationships develop and fall, and it really is emotionally difficult to read, so much do we want to reach out and help these lonely people who look normal on the outside.
But this is also where some of my central problems with the book enter. These memories are couched in chapters that begin to feel formulaic (as if the book’s structure — sorrow, hope, sorrow, repeat — weren’t formulaic enough). The chapter often begins with Harold walking; he begins to think of his past, which leads to disappointment; he meets someone; that person offers hope; he continues walking. No, it’s not that simple (in fact, I was often surprised at how fresh Joyce could make all of this feel chapter after chapter), but basically that’s what we have here. It is often a slog to get through, and not in a way that is supposed to make us feel the tedium and exhaustion of Harold’s journey. On the contrary, much of the book is set up in such a way that makes effectively alienates us from Harold.
The development of these relationships is such that we don’t know what’s really going on until near the end; in other words, we are slightly manipulated to suspect something but we keep getting dragged on without knowing for sure. I’m going to spoil something here, but it illustrates my point: at the beginning of the book we are led to believe that something untoward happened between Harold and Queenie. After all, why would a co-worker write him after twenty years, and why else would Harold abandon his wife to walk north to see another woman to whom he hadn’t spoken in all that time? And Joyce feeds this conception with sentences like this: “Worse: the son who didn’t speak to him and the wife he had betrayed.” Truth is, Harold and Queenie had a chaste friendship. Sadly, the truth is much more interesting and thought-provoking than what we are led to believe, but for some reason — I don’t know, to make us feel some undeserved tension? — we don’t get the benefit of working through the real issues with Harold until late in the book.
That is one of the main differences between this book, and others like it, and the ones of the Chejfec, Galgut, Sebald variety. In those books, as well as the physical journey, we get to go on the mental and spiritual journey with the characters. Here, we not only suffer as readers because the author is withholding vital information and also actively misleading us. Consequently, we can’t really join Harold on anything but his physical journey. Meanwhile, it feels like we are on his spiritual and mental journey because we are force-fed a bunch of platitudes like: “Life was very different when you walked through it” or “Maybe you saw even more than the land when you got out of the car and used your feet.” Just as tiring are the characters who com on stage for only a moment to say trite things like: “‘The truth is,’ and here he wiggled his ear with his finger, ‘we’ve all got a past. We’ve all got things we wish we’d done, or hadn’t. Good luck to you. I hope you find the lady.’”
There is a lot to love in this book. Yes, many of the characters who appear, particularly at the beginning of the book, seem to be there only to get Harold’s — and the book’s — engine going. But we do meet some people along the way who really are heartbreaking, and we believe that if we were to walk around and pay attention we’d notice that everyone has some darkness in their lives and maybe we can provide a bit of light, in the process receiving a bit of light from them. We feel that their situations are worth reflecting on. As I mentioned a bit ago, the real story of Harold’s past is also worth reflecting on, but we work around the book’s structure before we get there (making the book’s ending quite strong). And Joyce’s writing, when she doesn’t feel the need to unleash aphorisms about life’s journey, is very good, at once giving us insight into a character’s past and personality. For example, many of the moments where she has Harold talking to or thinking about David are strong: “Harold had spent his whole life bowing his head to avoid confrontation, and yet, spilled from his own flesh was someone determined to hold his eye and have it out with him.” She also does a great job making us believe in a few — not all — of the transformations that take place, particularly the one Maureen undergoes as she realizes she misses Harold: “She had stayed because, however lonely she was with Harold, the world without him would be even more desolate.”
But for me these strengths only emphasize — and are severely undercut by — the book’s weaknesses. There’s darkness in these relationships, and it’s sad that Joyce feels the need to cast a false light over the shadows. Let the light shine through, but not through a false structure and by way of trite tidbits of wisdom.
As a fan of Michael Frayn, I was thrilled to see he had a new novel out this year. Headlong (my review here) is one of my favorite books, and I had big hopes I would enjoy Skios (2012) even half as much. My hopes were bolstered when Skios was placed on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist. It’s seemingly a strange choice for the Booker list, where comedy doesn’t usually show up, but thank goodness it’s on there (even if I share the opinion of others that it falls below Frayn’s usual standards). After all, here we have a master writer having fun, which is infinitely more to my taste than a poor writer being serious (a type of book I think has much more propensity to get Booker attention).
Skios is named after a fictional Greek island where all of the hilarious, completely implausible action takes place. This island is the site of the Fred Toppler Foundation, and it’s June, time for the annual Fred Toppler Lecture. This year, Nikki Hood, Mrs. Fred Toppler’s PA (Fred Toppler being deceased, the Foundation is now run by his widow, a former exotic dancer), has invited distinguished academic Dr. Norman Wilfred to speak; his address is provocatively titled “Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics.” This will be delivered to a lively crowd, including “the second richest couple in the state of Rhode Island” and a distinguished authorities, such as one on “comparative underdevelopment.” (I have to say that I have a lot of respect for academics, but the hilarity of the positions, like the one at a school that, if it existed, would be in my neck of the woods — the Department of Applied Dynamics at the University of West Idaho — and the book and lecture titles are spot on).
Nikki is responsible for making Dr. Wilfred feel welcome and charmed, and she has some hopes that maybe Dr. Wilfred will be someone special, after all, “Some of [the lecturers] could absorb amazing amounts of charm and flattery — and still not show the benefit.” Besides hoping against hope that Dr. Wilfred will be some handsome man who might charm her back, she hopes the lecture will go better this year than last; she has a promotion in her sights. That’s not to be, sadly, and Frayn gets the ball rolling the wrong direction right at the start.
When Dr. Wilfred disembarks his plane at Skios, he finds an email from his assistant that includes a clip of an article critical of Wilfred from some no-body in Manitoba. He shouldn’t deign to respond to something so worthless from someone so meaningless. But a brilliant retaliatory take-down comes to his head, and he chuckles to himself as he pounds away with his thumbs on his phone to send his response. Meanwhile, the younger, more attractive Oliver Fox has also disembarked the plane. He’s come to Skios to meet Georgie, a married woman he met for only a couple of hours, at a villa where he could run into a woman he’s dating, Anuka. Why does he do this to himself? But then Oliver spies Nikki Hood, holding her sign for Dr. Norman Wilfred. Why can’t he be Dr. Norman Wilfred? Well, no reason he can think of, so he goes for it. In the process, he also grabs the real Dr. Wilfred’s bag that just happens to look just like his own. Off he goes, hoping to get a little action with Nikki. And she has been hoping for some as well. Why worry about the future?
She plainly wanted him to be Dr. Wilfred, he could see. She would probably be disappointed later, of course, when he turned out not to have been Dr. Wilfred after all. But later wast later. The immediate priority was not to disappoint her now.
You can see how this is all a bit silly. Could this really happen today? Even so, Nikki knew what Dr. Wilfred actually looked like, so how could Oliver Fox dupe her, let alone all of those honored attendees? Obviously, plausibility is not the point in this farce, but Frayn does allow Fox to wonder: “You were who you said you were, even if they knew you weren’t!” And after all, this is Greece: the gods rejected the real Dr. Norman Wilfred; this is all fate.
I laughed out loud many times, particularly when Georgie finds her way to Skios and into the villa, now occupied by a snoring real Dr. Wilfred, and ends up terrified, locking herself in the bathroom. And Frayn does inject into this a bit of contemplation on identity in this modern age, even if it is mostly lip-service. No, the intellectual content we might expect from Frayn is as irrelevant as plausibility here.
But Frayn still shows he’s a supreme writer. His humor comes out in a case of mastered close narration, taking advantage of dramatic irony as his characters meander through the absurdity that has struck their lives. I admit to being unsatisfied with the ending, which, even for a book like this, felt forced and contrived and, consequently, a bit humorless, but this is still a fine read, and a book I’d recommend reading before the leaves start to fall, making us all think serious thoughts again.
It’s not everyday you get a book with this violent a cover in the post! Perfectly featuring a mad giant dismembering (with his teeth?) a bloody corpse, Yasumasa Morimura’s Exchange of Devouring in and of itself nicely introduces the mad violence in and frenetic tone of Ramón del Valle-Inclán’s Tyrant Banderas (Tirano Banderas, 1926; tr. from the Spanish by Peter Bush, 2012). This work may need to be introduced to most of us, since, despite it being a classic and a forerunner to the massively successful line of books about Latin American dictators, it has been out of print in English nearly since it was first published.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
Tyrant Banderas is set in a fictional Latin American country, Santa Fe de Tierra Firme. Del Valle-Inclán himself was Spanish, but, according to Alberto Manguel’s introduction (which I needed), in 1892 and then again in 1921 he travelled in Mexico. Critical of Spanish dictator Primo de Rivera, but knowing he’d never be able to write a book quite like this if he based it solely on de Rivera, del Valle-Inclán decided to set this disturbing book in a place that looked and felt like the Mexico he was familiar with, under a dictator who — if you weren’t looking too closely — could be said to be like Porfiro Díaz or any number of other Latin American dictators (there are so many to choose from). The book was immensely successful, and it’s clear why. Not only is the subject matter of deep interest, but the style and vim make this a work of art.
When I opened it up, given its status as trailblazer for other authors writing about Latin American tyrants, I thought I already knew how this book would unfold. It was not what I was expecting. Instead of lengthy tracts showing inhumanity and a hypocritical leader (though that’s certainly there), this book’s pace is like a whip cracking ceaselessly: it never slows down and is constantly jolting in one direction or another, to fantastic effect. The short book is organized into seven parts, each part is divided into three books (except for the middle part, which has seven books), and each book is further divided into even smaller units. Each small unit is made simply of a quick scene of dialogue or perhaps a description, but still the book moves steadily forward, quickly, never quite allowing the reader to settle down.
Here are some of the basics of the story, though the story is not why this book is a great read. Banderas is a ruthless dictator who pays lip service to democracy and dissent (meanwhile, the sharks surrounding his palace tire of human flesh). Banderas, who like any good dictator is referred to by many fawning names throughout (as well as many not-so-fawning names, like the mummy), gets his power propped up from outside the country, ruling with an iron fist over the native Indians. But on this Day of the Dead, a revolution has broken out, and shockingly it is headed by Don Roque Cepeda. In a particularly dark and funny scene, “a Yankee adventurer with mining interests,” Mr. Contum says to a couple of anti-revolutionaries that he is interested in hearing Don Cepeda at a rally. A Spanish landowner – a “dimwhitted, dour fanatic from Álava” – named Don Teodosio del Araco, shouts at Mr. Contum (or, rather, “expanded his bilious grimace”) that Don Cepeda is “[a] lunatic! An idiot! It’s incredible that a man in his financial position sides with the revolution, people without a share to their name.”
While this setup may be somewhat familiar, it’s the side stories that are so fascinating and powerful. It’s the marvelous control and playfulness that del Valle-Inclán inserts into his prose, creating a darkly comic and grotesque work of art that is more than a simple political diatribe. Each part moves the story quickly in and out of the revolution’s fire as individuals on both sides struggle with the madness going on around them. The tone shifts just as quickly from light to dark. Here, for example, we find an Indian named Zac returning home after helping a man escape. While he was gone, his wife sought to pawn a valuable ring the man gave her for payment. The pawn shop owner, much to his regret later, turned her in, and the police force simply made her abandon her son.
The dog barks and buzzards sweep into the sky, their black wings flapping above the swamp slime. And Zac stands there, horrified, grim-faced, lifting up a bloody mess. It is all that is left of his child! Face and hands devoured by pigs; heart pecked out by buzzards. The Indian goes back to the hut. He puts the remains in a bag and sets it down at his feet. He thinks. He’s standing completely still. Flies settled on his body. Lizards sunbathe at his side.
I guess, then, that I misspoke a bit above when I said the book doesn’t slow down; in this scene, we too stop and sit numbly with Zac.
That such a dark scene can be surrounded by tinges of comedy and a surplus of wordplay — and that it all works together with the structure to form a cohesive work – shows just how much this relatively short book contains. And following that form, the book ends happily yet still feels tragic, which shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Justin Taylor’s “After Ellen” was originally published in the August 13 & 20, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here for a larger image.
I have never heard of Justin Taylor, but, as a young author (one book of short stories and one novel so far), I’m glad to see him in The New Yorker. That said, despite some initial interest, I don’t feel that excited about the story itself. I finished reading it a couple of days ago, but I’m having a hard time summoning the energy to post my meager thoughts.
All of that isn’t to say “After Ellen” is a bad story; for me, it was decent story (I’m sure I’d rather write about a bad story, honestly).
At the beginning of the story, our central character Scott is just finishing his cowardly move to pack up his “half of everything they own” while Ellen is away at an internship with the film festival. He can still back out of this move, which will surely shock Ellen, but he doesn’t. He actually gets in the Jetta (leaving her without a car) and drives away — to where? He has only a vague idea, and he doesn’t get there anyway. It’s hard to say just why he is leaving, and the only explanation he leaves Ellen is a small note: “I wasn’t ready and am so sorry but swear this will have been the right thing for us.” He signs his name, leaving enough room in case he wants to add a “Love.” He doesn’t, which is only right.
Scott comes from what he considers to be a fairly domineering Jewish ancestry. He and Ellen (not a Jew) lived in Portland, and his parents really just couldn’t understand why he’d leave Long Island. Obviously, a feeling that other forces are governing his life is one of the reasons he’s leaving Ellen (whom we never do meet). The bulk of this story takes place in the months “after Ellen.” He has no idea where he’s going, and, interestingly, he gets a dog through dubious means and begins to shape a life much like the one he abandoned before.
It’s all decently written, decently constructed, and decently enjoyable to read, but as much as I wanted to enjoy it even more it just didn’t quite get there for me.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Thank You for the Light” was originally published in the August 6, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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I was very surprised when I opened up this week’s issue of The New Yorkerand found a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Looking at the issue’s list of contributors, it has this to say about Fitzgerald and this story: “F. Scott Fitzgerald was first published in The New Yorker in 1929. This story, written in 1936, was recently found among his papers.”
I must say, it’s always fun to find something new by a long-gone master. It’s also usually disappointing when we come to understand just why the piece was forgotten in the first place.
“Thank You for the Light” is a short piece, taking up merely one page — just three columns — of space in this issue. You can read it all online at the link above in just a few minutes. In fact, in that time you can read it twice, as I did.
Mrs. Hanson is the story’s protagonist, a “somewhat faded woman of forty.” She is a travelling saleswoman in the Mid-west; her product is corsets and girdles. She used to work out east, and she thoroughly enjoyed the tradition of concluding a deal with a drink or a cigarette. In her new area, smoking is shunned.
Not only was she never asked if she would like to smoke but several times her own inquiry as to whether anyone would mind was answered half apologetically with “It’s not that I mind, but it has a bad influence on the employees.”
Consequently, this hard-working woman is missing her comfort, and she feels even more lost since everyone seems to look down on her for her habit.
After a particularly grueling day with no escapes to smoke in private, she wanders into a church. And for me, the story barely gets over its rather unclever play with the title. In whatever bit of time Fitzgerald took to write this, he did manage to instill it with the frenetic energy of someone dying for a cigarette. The tone is just right. But I can’t say there was much more than that. Am I missing something?