Over the past few years I’ve developed a deep love for William Trevor’s short stories. Particularly this past month, regular visitors here have caught wind of this (and hopefully have sought him out if they did not already know his work). But until now, I had never read one of his novels, and he’s written many in his 84 years. I consider him primarily a short story writer, and he himself has said, “The short story is infinitely harder, but it’s infinitely more worthwhile” (here). Obviously, just because his short stories are, in his words, infinitely more worthwhile doesn’t mean that his novels are not incredibly worthwhile. Obviously. I was completely engrossed in Death in Summer (1998), shocked, as usual, at how much Trevor is able to put into even the smallest sentence, how completely he enters into his characters’ heads as we watch them suffer tragedies both large and small.
The first chapter of Death in Summer is a masterpiece in and of itself, and it goes on my shortlist of best first chapters in literature (off the top of my head I’d also place on this list James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Cormac McCarthy’s The Outer Dark — any other ideas?). In this chapter Trevor introduces multiple characters through their individual perspectives, various themes, and even a few different timelines, all to develop the beginnings of a haunting book.
The book begins in the immediate aftermath of a funeral.
All that is over now, and yet is coldly there in the first moment of waking every day: the coffin, the flowers laid out, the bright white surplice of the clergyman, dust to dust, and that seeming an insensitive expression at the time.
Thaddeus’s kind wife Letitia was struck by a car, leaving him, after six years of marriage, alone with their six-month-old daughter, Georgina. He is thinking of their last moments together (as are, in another room, his two servants, Maidment and Zenobia). They’d managed to have a bit of a fight, if it could be called that. When he was a younger, single man, Thaddeus had a fling with a married woman. It’s been nearly twenty years, and suddenly she came back into his life. She sent a letter asking for some money, any, as she was sick and alone. He wanted to ignore it, but Letitia found it and said that she thought he should (she didn’t know any details about the affair). He told her he would, a bit baffled by her.
He wondered if the nature of the relationship had crossed Letitia’s mind, if even for a passing moment it has occurred to her that the woman she wished to see assisted had been his associate in passionate intimacy, that they had deceived a decent man, carelessly gratifying desire.
The only reason Thaddeus has any money, after all, is because he married Letitia. The heir of the great Quincunx House, Thaddeus was a few generations removed from any real wealth that could keep the house from decline, so it was fortuitous indeed that he met Letitia one day on the train. She might have known that this was why he was really interested in her, but she entered marriage committed to making it real. She was kind, loving, caring, and in every way wonderful to him. After her death, we get this:
It was his considerable loss, Thaddeus was every day aware, that he did not love his wife.
But with her gone, what’s now to be done, particularly with the child? Letitia’s mother, Mrs Iveson, has a plan. She will help him to get an advertisement out and then to interview any potential nannies. Unfortunately, none of the three who show up to be interviewed are up to their standards, especially not the last one to come, Pettie, who smells of cigarette smoke and has obviously drafted her own references. It’s bad news, but Mrs Iveson, who knows why her daughter married this strange, quiet man, says she will stay to help with Georgina.
Miraculously, things settle down and this seems to be a great fit. Mrs Iveson and Thaddeus even begin to admire each other. But they are still dealing with their own grief, and Mrs Iveson writes the strangest thing to a friend:
Bereavement brings the truth out, Mrs Iveson wrote ten days ago to a longtime friend in Sussex. Letitia’s innocence seems just a little remarkable now, and I wonder if the good are always innocent.
Whatever she meant by this, we soon become aware that Pettie, that last girl interviewed, has become attached to Thaddeus and is calling and hanging up. She finally gets the courage to speak and says she lost a ring that day, could she come look for it. Naturally, she despises Mrs Iveson, because obviously Thaddeus preferred her: “She wants to tell him what Letitia would, that the baby isn’t properly minded, that the baby isn’t safe.” Worse, she’s allowed her imagination to keep this going, and here’s something she imagines when she visits to look for her ring:
Sorrowing gets to you, he might have said, saying also that he shouldn’t have done that, that he got carried away. No, it’s all right, she had it in mind to reassure him. She knew, she understood.
This leads to a “second cruelty, drifting out of the summer blue, as the first did.”
To be honest, the plot here is actually very simple. The complexity comes with the multiple characters and the complexity of their feelings and thoughts as chance overtakes them and they have to wonder about whether defilement leaves a trace. And, of course, there is William Trevor’s exquisite atmospheric and insightful prose. Here is Thaddeus, who has sat up through a terrible night of anticipation with Mrs Iveson:
Thaddeus turns off the lamp on the table, and the conservatory is more softly lit by the haze of early morning. He does not want this day, so gently coming. He does not want its minutes and its hours, its afternoon and its evening, its relentless happening.
Trevor and Betsy discuss:
Our post on William Trevor’s “The Women” (here) has become one of the most viewed posts on this site. It is the top post for the past six months, though it’s been up for only a few weeks of those months. It is an exceptional story that delves into many mysteries. In that post, I said I didn’t think Trevor had published anything since late 2008. This was wrong on one front, obviously, since in 2009 he published his novel Love and Summer. I didn’t think much of this error since I was primarily talking about his short stories. But I was wrong there too. The other day I was browsing for anything I could find on Trevor and found that on November 7, 2011, he published a piece in The Guardian (you can click here to read the entire piece — you really should). I printed it out properly and started reading it immediately. If, like me, you missed it, I suggest you do the same thing. Due to the interest in “The Women,” I hope there are plenty of you out there who find this to be excellent news.
I must admit, I wondered how good this story would be. It is my understanding that The New Yorker has a right of first refusal when it comes to Trevor’s stories (if you can find a solid source for this rumor, please let me know). Not that that magazine always gets only the best. They also have a right of first refusal with Alice Munro, but several of her best stories have been published elsewhere. Still, it made me wonder if this was passed over, and if not, if The New Yorker and William Trevor ignored their relationship so he could publish a piece in The Guardian, not known for its fiction. Perhaps it would be a slight piece, something produced for fun. Whatever the case, “An Idyll in Winter” is another masterful work. I have read it a few times since I found it, and in writing this post, in selecting passages, I found it still hit me just as hard, if not harder.
“An Idyll in Winter” is a kind of love story that is forced to deal with enemies of love: time and imagination. Our lovers are Anthony and Mary Bella. The story begins when Mary Bella is twelve. She’s trying to stay up late because her new summer tutor is arriving at their isolated house on the Yorkshire moors. His train is delayed, she falls asleep, but soon the summer begins and her relationship with Anthony, who is twenty-two.
Mary Bella is enraptured by the stories, and, fittingly, they take walks out on the moors where her young love develops, and we know it will never die. But this idyll — as with all idylls — soon ends, though “[h]e said it never would, because remembering wouldn’t let it.” For his part, Anthony doesn’t seem to take advantage:
And that summer, which was warm, with hardly any rain, she developed a fondness for Anthony that he could not dismiss or pretend he didn’t notice and which, when September came, caused him more unease than he admitted to himself.
But is he feeling uneasy because of her love for him? Or is it that, with September, he must leave this twelve-year-old girl who has linked him to the growing world he’s introduced her to. In the next passage, we learn a lot about Anthony’s character.
He left what he thought would be impossible to forget — the sadness Mary Bella had spoken of, and something like desperation in her eyes when the last day came and they said good-bye to one another. But Anthony did forget. He made himself, considering it better that he should.
He makes himself forget. Somehow, he’s able. And this is followed by a short, lovely section that shows us the wonderful life Anthony goes on to live. He becomes a successful cartographer and marries the lovely Nicola. They have two daughters, and Anthony doesn’t like to leave them for his assignments.
Neither wondered how married life might have been if they had married other people, how different their children would be. It was enough to know that being married to one another was what they wanted, that neither wanted more.
Twelve years pass, and during this time Mary Bella’s parents die and she takes over the home. She does not forget: “She knew she was living in the past, that it would always be here, around her, that she was part of it herself.”
One day, Anthony’s job takes him back to the Yorkshire moors. He decides to wander a bit, allowing himself to remember pieces of that summer twelve years earlier. He finds the old house, sure that Mary Bella must have left by now. They meet and he stays longer than he’d planned.
The remainder of this post is loaded with spoilers. It’s difficult to discuss the themes of this story if they are not revealed. Consider yourself warned.
Anthony and Mary Bella begin an affair, and it’s as if the twelve years they spent apart never happened, as if it was some kind of dream: “Someone else, not he, had lived his other life: that fantasy, in silence, was shared.” At first, Anthony wonders what has happened. How is he now able to disregard the family he loved so much?
Anthony hadn’t made it happen. It had happened because it was part of something else, of what had been impossible and now was not. He told himself that, but it made no difference. He tried to push it all away, to deny that time, only by passing, could contradict so easily and so naturally, but he found he couldn’t.
Mary Bella, as much as she loves Anthony, as much as she wants him there, cannot help but imagine the lives he left to be with her. He doesn’t tell her much about his wife or his children, “[y]et out of so little, images came, and voices spoke.” The easiest thing for Anthony, though, is to do what he did the first time: forget.
But in all this Anthony’s instinct was as it always was: not ever to allow in himself the kind of tribulation that haunted Mary Bella. His way was to suppress, to conceal, to be protected.
They are happy as winter comes and their lives become one. Cutting out periods of time, though, is not as easy as Anthony would like to think.
When he left Mary Bella the first time, the summer they shared felt like a dream. Then, when he comes back, his time with his wife felt like a dream, like the part of life that didn’t quite fit and could be forgotten. Of course, the title of the story gives it away. This time with Mary Bella will also become an idyll, a period of time that feels disconnected from whatever “reality” Anthony begins when he leaves again. He will, again, simply try to forget; Mary Bella will continue to remember.
Many thanks to you, Trevor, for discovering Wm Trevor’s “An Idyll in Winter.” What a wonderful read! Like you, I enjoyed reading it very much. I want to add to your commentary.
Economy has to be the short story writer’s staff and stave. Here, I note the way Wm Trevor creates an observer in the trusted servant of the Grange, Woods. The name alone suggests “many” and “omnipresent,” though quiet — like the rest of the world, like the reader. The reader is reminded by his presence — what is Woods thinking? We don’t know, of course, but we can imagine. We are reminded that even if they are quiet about it, people are watching Anthony and Mary Bella; society is watching.
Another little structural note has to do with Anthony’s thinking about the Grange. “Inaccurate clocks were everywhere.” With that, and with all the references to Bronte and Heathcliff, I think the author is pointing us to something askew in the timing of this story — i.e., not just that this is a 19th century idyll taking place in the 21st, but also that the young male tutor had been tempted by a 12 year old girl. (Of course, he resisted.) He says, years later, after he has returned, “. . . too much had colored too many moments since they had walked again on the moors, since in the kitchen afterwards she had made tea, since in their schoolroom he had wanted her.”
“Since.” Does the author mean since as in earlier in the day? As in “when”? Or does he mean since as in because . . . meaning that extra color was there because he had wanted her even when she was a child in the schoolroom? I think both — all.
I do think the Irish pedophile crisis colors such a story. Anthony is not a pedophile. But he has the “double self” of a pedophile, and the ability to conceal the truth from himself. I think Trevor lures us into this lovely idyll and makes us want, want, want this union, just as Anthony does. But he points out — the “woods” are watching — as if the world, or even, nature — is asking us — what do we see?
In a way, the story reminds me of the way Juliet and Romeo perish. Mary Bella’s parents are not in their right minds when they hire this young man and leave the child alone with him for hours and days on end, just as Juliet’s parents were not in their right minds when they entrusted their daughter to the nurse and the priest. It is not Anthony so much who was at first at fault, but the people who hired him and then abdicated their duty to him. And look at Mary Bella’s parents’ reasoning — to get her into Evelyncourt. (There’s a discussion in that name — court, class, Eve, temptation — what else?)
But in the end, what we see, in fact, is that Anthony is a man who, no matter that he resisted seducing the child (although he did, so to speak) has now committed a very different sin — the betrayal of his family — which of course we take very lightly nowadays . . . another way the clocks are all out of whack.
Anorexia overtakes the oldest daughter — but it is clear that it is not the disease so much as the betrayal that is killing the girl. There is such a huge debate about the seeds of anorexia. But it is interesting that it is in England where a common sense philosophy regarding anorexia appeared — that you should eat with your anorexic (and not relinquish her to the hospital.) What Wm Trevor is suggesting, I think, is that it is unnatural for a parent to abandon their child. And the English ideal treatment for anorexia blames no one, but makes the parents the center of the treatment, in their home, thus strengthening and validating the family (where Americans have been somewhat dedicated to hospitalization). And to decide you are going to eat with your anorexic is no light decision — it can take every minute of the day, at first, as Laura Collins, “American author of Eating with Your Anorexic “ could tell you.
Hannah Arendt talked to us about the banality of evil, and how easy it is for us to fall in with it. I think Wm Trevor does as well, showing us, as he does, how casually Anthony can abandon his family, see his daughter dying, and convince himself that “that would pass.”
We want to believe it, too. That it would be that easy. It takes Mary Bella to convince him otherwise. But, in fact, this idyll in winter is so alluring, having as it does every beautiful fantasy — servants, vast tracts of land, horses, and primroses, not to mention the living in the past — that we fall in with it, too, seduced bystanders. But not Mary Bella.
I’ve been hearing about Yoko Ogawa for a few years now, but I haven’t read her books and really didn’t even know what they were about. But there was something striking and terrifying about her new book Revenge (Kamoku na shigai, 1998; tr. from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, 2013). Time to find out more about Ogawa.
Review copy courtesy of Picador.
Presented as “Eleven Dark Tales,” Revenge is a collection of short stories, of sorts, but in truth they begin to refer to one another in strange ways, finally coming together toward the end. While each story stands on its own, a large part of the enjoyment is finding out how the stories’ characters and themes come together.
The first story, and for me one of the most disturbing, is “Afternoon at the Bakery.” A woman goes into a bakery to purchase some treat to celebrate her son’s birthday. Strangely, the bakery, which usually has a line going out into the street, is empty. It’s open, but no one is attending the woman. Eventually another woman enters the bakery, remarks how strange it is that no one is there, and sits to chat with the first woman. Through their conversation, the second woman learns it’s the first woman’s birthday. How old is he, she asks. “Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.”
The story quickly becomes a horrific tale of loss:
He died twelve years ago. Suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator left in a vacant lot. When I first saw him, I didn’t think he was dead. I thought he was just ashamed to look me in the eye because he had stayed away from home for three days.
After losing her son, the woman can no longer function. Her marriage crumbles, and she doesn’t really care. Obsessed with death, she clips any article she can find about children dying. She replays her son’s terror in her head until:
The door that would not open no matter how hard you pushed, no matter how long you pounded on it. The screams no one heard. Darkness, hunger, pain. Slow suffocation. One day it occurred to me that I needed to experience the same suffering he had.
While for me this was the most successful story, I still found myself racing through the rest of them, wondering why the stories seemed to pointlessly point to one another, obsessively underlining these references and thinking about them. For example, in the second story, “Fruit Juice,” we find out what happened to the young woman who was working at the bakery the day it was empty. She’s in the back on the phone crying.
Perhaps one reason the first story worked so well for me is because the death it deals with is, for me, the most terrifying, the most personal, the most innocent and accidental. The rest of the stories tend to deal with someone dying of natural causes or, even more prevalent, with someone being murdered or being the murderer. For me, those aren’t as visceral, though the intrigue surrounding them is thrilling.
Best of all, almost all of the deaths happen slightly off-screen, our characters dealing with them from a vantage point that is slightly removed. There’s a murder in room 508; one character lives just below, one is looking for the physician who was killed, another is talking to the woman who killed him. In some stories, as the characters go around, they see car wrecks where, by the state of it, it’s obvious someone died. The characters are surrounded by and think constantly about death. The woman in the first story is not the only one to find some fascination with stories about the dead.
In the end, we come back around to that abandoned refrigerator. We have loads of questions, but it is oddly satisfying.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Nicole Krauss’s “Zusya on the Roof” was originally published in the February 4, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
My review of Nicole Krauss’s Great House is one of the most viewed pages on this blog (that review here), so I believe there is a lot of interest in her work. Though I didn’t particularly think that book came together, I loved pieces of it, particularly the portion that was published in The New Yorker when Nicole Krauss was selected as one of the ” 20 Under 40″ authors to watch, “The Young Painters” (my review here). So I’m sure that I share with many other readers my excitement that we have a new piece by Krauss.
Sadly, I didn’t particularly like this one, it’s tone and pacing reminding me a great deal of Great House, though “Zusya on the Roof” comes together nicely. I’ll get to that at the end of my thoughts.
“Zusya on the Roof” begins where it ends, with a man (Brodman) up on a roof holding his newborn grandson: “how did he wind up here?” the story asks and then goes back to tell us:
To begin specifically: Brodman had been dead for two weeks, but then, sadly, he had come back to this world, where he’d spent fifty years trying to write unnecessary books.
Lying in a coma in the hospital, Brodman ”dreamed wildly,” and could “parse the infinite wisdom of the dead.” He counsels with Buber, Rabbi Akiva, and Gershom Scholem, with Maimonides, Moses Ibn Ezra and Salo Baron. During this period of physical release, Brodman ”saw the true shape of his life, how it had torqued always in the direction of duty.”
While Brodman has these visions, his first grandchild is born in the same hospital. His daughter Ruthie is a forty-one-year-old lesbian, so when Brodman heard the news he took it “as a miracle of immaculate conception.” When he wakes and learns the child has been born, Brodman feels that he is, in no small part, responsible:
Sweating and moaning, in horrific pain from his gut, he had pushed the idea of the child through the tight passage of incredulity and borne him into existence. It had almost killed him. No, it had killed him. He had died for the child, and then, by some miracle, he had been brought back again. For what?
For what? The doctor who treats Brodman, assuring him he’s come back and will be the same as before, is young, most of his life still before him. Broadman thinks, “What could such a person know of regret? [. . .] What could he know of a life misspent?” I felt the story was most interesting when we learn about why Brodman doesn’t want to hear he is the same as before. He’s been a failure as a scholar, a husband, and a father. His daughters rejected him and went their own way, something he could not conceive of doing to his own parents: “His own children had not suffered under the same filial yoke as he.”
“Zusya on the Roof” is about this sense of duty — to parents and, particularly, to the Jewish tradition — which can be a burden, restrictive. Brodman questions whether he ever became anything in his life, under such restrictions. In a sense, Brodman is born again — at the same time as his grandson — and, with much less time, how can he help this child to be free?
It’s an interesting question because, as mentioned above, the grandson is already going to be raised in a home far from the type of home Brodman grew up in. He will have two mothers (the man who donated his sperm is one of their gay friends). It’s very unorthodox. There will be a ritual circumcision, but even there they hired a female mohel ”who broke custom to allow for a topical anesthetic.” Still, Brodman hopes his grandson will not have to live a life so defined by tradition. But even if this were possible, what, then, would define it?
I found “Zusya on the Roof” to be an interesting story about the relationships and traditions that define and bind us, but I did feel there was something heavy in the prose, a kind of gravity that slowed me down to an uncomfortable pace. I felt this when I read Great House as well, so it is more than likely just a style that doesn’t appeal to me. Even though I think Krauss comes up with great sentences, I feel that there is a lack of humor and spontaneity that begins to weigh things down, perhaps even more than the subject matter itself. True, the subject is “weight,” but it is also about life and urgency and a desire to break free.
So, all in all, this one didn’t appeal to me, primarily because of the style. I do hope others can help me find more here.
Trevor, I could not not read Nicole Krauss’s story, “Zusya on the Roof.” But whether I can convince you of the story’s worth, I don’t know. In fact, I do think each of us has fine authors and books that just don’t speak to us. As for Nicole Krauss, she speaks to me. But the fact of that is both accidental and specific to me.
The gravitas with which she speaks has a familiar weight and mystery to me: in my family, a grandmother-in-law died in the Holocaust, most likely at Theresienstadt. I remember the February blizzard that gave me the time to search for her name in the newly released Austrian records of all the Jews who had been removed, during the war, from their homes in Vienna. Shortly after that, my husband received the transcript of the interview that the Austrian Nazis had held with her to determine just what it was she owned. By that time, she had insured her son’s freedom, and he was safely in the United States, and so what she owned meant less to her, having already purchased his freedom. Within just a few years, he enlisted in the US army to serve as a doctor in a mash unit in Normandy. When the war was over, he returned to Vienna to search for her, but she was gone.
So I understand the weight, somewhat, with which Krauss contends. My whole life has had this surprising turn: I am someone who has spent half a lifetime — more — learning about what it might mean to be a particular Jew with a particular mother. Me, a lapsed Christian, it weighed on me: my ignorance.
My father-in-law was a man who lived for meaning: family, patients, music, roses, painting. Krauss’s Brodman could not be further from who he was. But Krauss’s Brodman was also my father-in-law’s brother, so to speak. “Because I was a Jew, there was no room left to be anything else, not even Zusya.” Mourning is the common thread.
But Brodman’s awakening to life was late. My father-in-law’s awakening had happened years before, in the trenches, or maybe it was the day in Vienna that he realized his mother had disappeared. But the weight of it all remains: one way I know its weight is that it all — the losses, the holocaust itself — was a forbidden topic. What cannot be talked about is heavy, heavy, heavy. There is a duty, there, to observe that silence, and carry it. Despite his terrific embrace of life, my father-in-law was a man in mourning, but the complexity of what he mourned was never clear. Did he mourn what he had lost? What might have been? What he would never know? What danger being who he was meant for all the rest of us?
Forgive that long, personal, and not quite apt aside. I just remark that the gravitas with which she speaks to you is joyless and you rightly resist that. And to me, the gravitas with which she speaks is filled with mourning, and I, because of my accidental life, am compelled to listen.
There is much more I would like to add — about her sentences (in another register than conversation and perfect, like music), about her imagery (birds, flight, rescue), about her spot-on, devastating portrait of Mira, about Brodman’s collapse upon his father’s death. But what I truly, truly admire is the period of Brodman’s hallucination — during which Brodman dies and is reborn. The reader reels with him from scholar to scholar and rabbi to rabbi. This reader regrets with him all that wasted time, all that darkness, all that mourning, all that rage. And yet, there is that explosion of birds –
There is the central question of the story — can one renounce one’s Judaism? That is what Brodman is doing when he takes the baby to the roof — renouncing, for the baby’s sake, the bris, and the weight of all that memory. And in my own family? There is that same question. My father-in-law let it all go.
The difference is that Krauss says it all aloud — where in my family it is all silence. And so I cannot not read what she has to say.
“Dear Life” is the fourteenth and final story in Alice Munro’s short story collection Dear Life. For an overview of the book and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
I really didn’t want to finish this short story collection, which came out last November but which, in a sense, I’ve been reading for the past two and a half years since Munro published “Corrie” in the October 11, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. All but two of the stories here were published somewhere at sometime since that October, and who knows if we’ll ever get anything more.
The title story was first published in the September 19, 2011, issue of The New Yorker as “Dear Life: A Childhood Visitation,” and I first read it there. I didn’t review it at the time because it was published as a “Personal History,” and I just didn’t get around to it. Because the piece was presented as nonfiction, I was surprised to see this collection of short stories titled Dear Life, but then it all made sense when we found out that the last four stories in it were explicitly “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.”
In some ways “Dear Life” takes us back to Munro’s very first short story collection which included two of my favorite stories: “Walker Brothers Cowboy” and “The Peace of Utrecht.” As in “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” here the narrator, an older Alice Munro looking back on her childhood, reflects on her father’s failed business raising silver foxes and mink. As in “The Peace of Utrecht,” this piece also reflects on a particular experience with Munro’s mother (though, interestingly, as published in Dear Life the piece has taken out an explicit reference to “The Peace of Utrecht” that was included in the version that showed up in The New Yorker. All in all, this is a fantastic piece, and, if it is to be, a fitting way to end a career as one of the world’s greatest writers.
“Dear Life” begins (like “Walker Brothers Cowboy”) with a description of the town and the surrounding areas. We learn that Munro lived not quite in the country and not quite in the town, and in just a few short pages we sense the richness of a childhood, complete with scenes from school and home, shown in various states of transition. It is a look at a time now long past but still part of memory — for a while longer.
After this generous look at childhood, its innocence and vibrance in the face of decline, Munro tightens the story up (as she so often does) and focuses on one scene, a terrifying visit from an unhinged neighbor, Mrs. Netterfield. Alice was just a baby, set outside while her mother washed the dishes. Something — who knows what — makes her mother glance outside, and her heart sinks when she sees Mrs. Netterfield coming down the road threateningly. Her mother rushes out and grabs Alice, gets back in the house and blocks the door.
I hesitate to go further, but I will say that there was a degree of malice in Mrs. Netterfield’s heart, a malice and the sadness we all feel when we realize time has changed everything, a malice that Alice came to understand only years later. It’s not a spoiler to give you the final line:
We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.
The ten Man Booker International Prize Finalists are:
- U R Ananthamurthy (India)
- Aharon Appelfeld (Israel)
- Lydia Davis (USA)
- Intizar Husain (Pakistan)
- Yan Lianke (China)
- Marie NDiaye (France)
- Josip Novakovich (Canada)
- Marilynne Robinson (USA)
- Vladimir Sorokin (Russia)
- Peter Stamm (Switzerland)
This marks the second time in a row that there have been no Latin American authors, not that that’s at all surprising given the judges’ backgrounds. I am pleased to see Lydia Davis and Marilynne Robinson on the list, as I think they are two of the best writers in the United States.
“Voices” is the thirteenth story in Alice Munro’s short story collection Dear Life. For an overview of the book and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
Though each of the final four stories in Dear Life (if not each of the stories in this collection) are reflective pieces, to me “Voices” felt the most like the mind simply wandering in the past, allowed to follow one thought and then leave it for another. Though I’m used to Munro’s tightly structured short stories, this style is also enjoyable, if not quite as strong.
When “Voices” begins, it appears that it will deal primarily with the relationship between Alice and her mother. Her mother was never quite happy with her position in society and did her best to appear higher:
She said things like “readily” and “indeed so.” She sounded as if she had grown up in some strange family who always talked that way. And she hadn’t. They didn’t. Out on their farms, my aunts and uncles talked the way everybody else did. And they didn’t like my mother very much, either.
However, as the story progresses, we see it is also about the very beginning of Alice’s emergence from the innocence of childhood to the sexual world.
Here, at ten years old, she accompanies her mother to a community dance. There she sees a prostitute. She doesn’t know what a prostitute is yet, but she senses scandal (something she also probably doesn’t comprehend) from the way people, in particular her mother, respond to the prostitute’s presence. They must leave at once, but the way out is blocked by a crying young woman cry and the two young soldiers who are trying to comfort her, their attention tinged with lust that Alice senses and that remains with her:
Their hands blessed my own skinny thighs and their voices assured me that I, too, was worthy of love.
And while they still inhabited my not yet quite erotic fantasies they were gone. Some, many, gone for good.
For me, as much as I liked it, “Voices” was the weakest piece in this collection. That’s saying something about this collection, though, since “Voices” is still a complicated, troubling piece of work.
Written in Moscow between 1926 and 1930, in the decade following the October Revolution, the seven pieces that make up Memories of the Future (tr. from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull, 2009) are surprisingly critical of Soviet life, even bitter. Consequently, they, along with most of Krzhizhanovsky’s works, were never published during Krzhizhanovsky’s lifetime. Most were not even shown to editors. Rather, they languished in the state archives until 1976 when scholar Vadim Perelmuter uncovered them. The first pieces were published in Russia only in 1989. He has since overseen the publication of five volumes of Krzhizhanovsky’s works, and we’re starting to get them in English (see my review of The Letter Killers Club here). It’s always surprising to get a glimpse into how easily great works of art can be lost for all time, sometimes unread.
Memories of the Future is composed of six short stories and one novella. Besides being critical, they are remarkably bizarre. In one, a gravedigger has a conversation with a corpse (“It’s not right: dropping dead then dropping in”); in another a man’s train takes a detour into the land of dreams (“Don’t over-stay-awake”); and in another a man wakes every morning to practice the art of resignation (“he walks over to the wall, puts his back up against it and stands there in an attitude of utter resignation. For a minute or two. And that’s all. The exercise is over. He can begin to live”). At the time the arts in Russia were steadily moving toward the ideal of socialist realism, a form of art that portrayed the virtues of the working class and spread the good news about communism. Obviously, Krzhizhanovsky’s works did not fall in line, and what we have are these fantastical stories that, far from being realistic, show the existential struggles of the citizens of this new world.
One of my favorites in the book is the first story, “Quadraturin.” Here we meet citizen Sutulin who, like everyone else, lives in an eighty-six square feet room. It is illegal to occupy a space any larger (I was shocked to turn to the notes at the back of this edition and find out that this was not a farcical element — there really was a Remeasuring Commission created in the early 1920s whose job it was to measure rooms and find out who had “excess” living space). One day Sutulin is approached by a salesman who has “an agent for biggerizing rooms.” It’s a salve of sorts that, when applied to the interior walls, floors, and ceilings of a room will “biggerize that room on the inside, but not on the outside. Sutulin decides it’s worth a shot and soon finds his room is growing on the inside, albeit a bit mishapenly since he didn’t apply the agent evenly.
But the agent doesn’t stop working. Soon the room is so large, light from one end doesn’t travel to the other and Sutulin finds that ”an unpleasant sense of morringlessness interfered with his sleep.” The darkness proliferates, and Sutulin breaks down. The story ends with this brilliant single-sentence paragraph:
In their sleep and in their fear, the occupants of the quadratures adjacent to citizen Sutulin’s eighty-six square feet couldn’t make head or tail of the timbre and intonation of the cry that woke them in the middle of the night and compelled them to rush to the threshold of the Sutulin cell: for a man who is lost and dying in the wilderness to cry out is both futile and belated: but if even so — against all sense — he does cry out, then, most likely, thus.
It’s a darkly fun story that can be enjoyed even if one doesn’t put it into context in 1920s Moscow. However, in context, it is an examination of the alienating darkness that had been proliferating in Moscow, making its citizens feel unmoored, lost, and wretched.
Each story contains such criticisms. In “The Bookmark” Krzhizhanovsky is critical of the state of Russian literature as one of his characters says, “‘Authors?‘ his scraggly beard twitched nervously. ‘We have no authors: we have only second-raters. Imitators. And outright thieves.’” In that story, as in The Letter Killers Club, a man invents strange stories — or, themes — out of the random things going on around him, valorizing the imagination, the dangerous imagination. In “The Branch Line,” a man finds the world of dreams, which is attempting to take over the world of reality. There was no better time to attempt such a feat, and nightmares would be the surest means to that end:
The main advantage of the heavy industry of nightmares over the light industry of golden threads plunged into brain fibrils, over the production of so-called sweet dreams, is that in marketing our nightmares we can guarantee that they will come true, we can hand our customers ‘turnkey dreams.’ Sweet dreams cannot withstand reality, sleepy reveries wear out faster than socks; whereas a heavy dream, a simple but well-made nightmare, is easily assimilated by life.
Krzhizhanovksy was certainly ahead of his time, and it’s easy to see why he never quite fit into the literary crowd during his lifetime. His stories are, thankfully, still fresh and still relevant today. There’s much more Krzhizhanovsky in Russian, and it will be a treat to read as it makes its way into English. Quickly, please.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Kevin Canty’s “Mayfly” was originally published in the January 28, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
Though Kevin Canty has been around for a while (with four novels and three collections of short stories), I don’t think I’d ever heard of him until now. He currently lives in Montana and this story begins with a couple driving across Utah on I-70 (a particularly lovely drive through the desert mountains), so I was thrilled to find another author who set stories in this neglected terrain (neglected to the point that, even at The New Yorker, whoever was in charge of writing up the story abstract said ”Mayfly” takes place in Utah, though no one in Utah can take a quick drive in and out of Denver in a day).
The couple driving across Utah to Colorado is James and Molly. In their mid-thirties, they are getting married in September. I don’t know how long they’ve been together, but it’s long enough they’ve already had plenty of ups and downs, most recently when Molly lost her job. In some ways, their relationship looks like a marriage that is about to end rather than one that is about to being.
This sense of an ending — of death, in fact — is present throughout the story and emphasized at the beginning when James and Molly end up travelling through a giant rabble of Monarch butterflies migrating north from Mexico. The beautiful orange and black swarm is so thick James can’t drive without killing dozens every second. Molly, for her part, is completely distressed and actually suggests they turn around, though they are much closer to their destination than their origin. James stops to see if she can calm down, and this is what he thinks:
He looked at the tangle of wings and bodies in the grille of the car. Some of them were still moving, or maybe it was just the wind. Butterflies landed on his arm, his face, his hair, creeping him out. But Molly’s eyes were wet. Let her sort it out, he thought. Let Molly figure it out for herself.
They eventually just drive through it, which doesn’t take long at all, but Molly is worried the whole time. James thinks, “To be honest, it was part of what he loved about her, just not now.”
The whole reason they are driving to Colorado is to see James’ old college roommate Sam. Sam lives with his wife Jenny and their three children somewhere in the mountains outside of Denver. As it happens, Sam has to go to Denver early the next morning, and Molly goes with him so she can visit an old friend, too.
James wakes up invigorated and goes fishing: “She was in Denver for the day, a day in which James could make his own choices.” Through the day, he feels alive, even though he periodically thinks back on his own parents who have died. He learns that Sam and Jenny are struggling to keep their marriage together, and he knows they are going to fail. Yet, here he is with her and Molly is with Sam. He feels jealous, yes, but more and more he just feels thrilled. It’s like he was born to a new life when he was wading in the water that morning.
He was done taking care of Molly. She’d find a way, or she wouldn’t. Hew as young and his body was a source of pleasure to him, supple and strong. It would carry him to many further adventures.
To be honest, I wasn’t much enjoying the story at this point. Water, sunlight, sex — it felt fairly typical. Fortunately, the story also follows the final and most notorious moment in the day of an adult mayfly: death (even if not death in the conventional sense). This day is ephemeral.
I read the story twice, each time not particularly loving (though not hating, either) the first 9/10s of the story, but each time finding that last 1/10 to be completely worth it.
Ricardo Lísias’s ”Evo Morales” (tr. from the Portuguese by Nick Caistor) is the fourth story in Granta 121: The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
Before I read “Evo Morales” I read the tiny biography of Lísias in the magazine. He has written one short story collection and four novels, and his work has been featured in Granta em português twice. I was surprised, then, to find the first few pages of the story strangely off. The concepts felt stretched, the encounters a bit too coincidental, for a writer who at such a young age is relatively established. Here is how the story begins:
The first time I had coffee with Evo Morales, he had not yet been elected president of Bolivia, and I was a long way from winning the title of World Chess Champion.
Yes, this is the real Evo Morales, and according to the story he became president of Bolivia a couple of years after this encounter, so this first encounter was sometime around 2003 or 2004. It’s a brief encounter, and as the narrator says, neither has made their name yet. Still, a few years later, when they run into each other again, Morales remembers the chess champion, and they seem to strike up a slight friendship, the kind you might strike up with someone you run into while travelling but at no other time.
Our narrator goes on to train and prepare for his chess tournaments, hoping he might run into Morales again (it’s kind of like good luck). He’s a lonely person. In fact, he took up chess in an effort to get out of his shyness, as if chess doesn’t just make such things worse. He seems to have adjusted to life, though:
Once you get used to it, being alone is no longer sad. It’s like feeling cold, for example: you simply have to get used to it. Those with experience know the ideal (both for the cold and for loneliness) is to slip under the duvet until you fall asleep, or, on the contrary, get up and move around.
Despite the simplicity (so far), I was engaged in the story. I remember stopping reading and wondering just why I was still interested. Nothing much was happening. Most passages were simply about the next chess tournament or the next flight, during which the narrator hoped to run into Morales again; passages like the one above, the one about loneliness, are few and far between. Even now, thinking back, I can’t quite say why these early pages kept me engaged. It must have been the inkling that something was off, that our narrator was not all there, even if at the time I wondered if it was just shoddy writing.
I started to understand that things were not all as they seemed when the narrator starts to refer to Morales as his “best friend.” The story itself suddenly becomes epistolary and, until the end, we read letters the narrator has been writing to Morales. He’s becoming increasingly unhinged. Loneliness and chess . . . and Evo Morales.