The winners have been announced:
- Fiction: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
- Nonfiction: Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon
- Autobiography: Swimming Studies, by Leanne Sharpton
- Criticism: Stranger Magic, by Marina Warner
- Biography: The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro
- Poetry: Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, by D.A. Powell
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Colm Tóibín’s “Summer of ’38” was originally published in the March 4, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
I’m a fan of Colm Tóibín. It’s been nearly four years since we’ve had any of his fiction in The New Yorker, so this is a treat. And what a treat it turned out to be, too, this story about secrets and fear and the unspoken loyalty that might emerge from the two.
“Summer of ’38″ is set in Spain, where Tóibín lived for a while and where he set his first novel, The South. The story begins some fifty years after the summer of 1938, when Montse, getting old, is visited by a man who is writing a book about what happened in the local community during the Spanish Civil War. She immediately says she had nothing to do with the war, nor did her father and she had no brothers. He says that’s not why he has been looking for her. Rather, he has gotten in touch with one of Franco’s soldiers who had been in the small town during the war. This soldier and eventual general told the man he’d come to the town and tour the town, explaining how it was set up during the war. The general said the only person he remembered from the town was Montse, and he asked if she might join them for lunch. Montse denies remembering much of anything, something ingrained in her through a lifetime of habit. He asks her to consider and he’ll check in later.
The story flashes back to 1938. Franco’s soldiers have entered the valley to guard a dam. While at first the people were afraid, soon they started venturing out again, some even to the parties the soldiers would throw. Even Montse herself went, eventually hooking up with Rudolfo, one of the quieter soldiers who, we have no reason to disbelieve, treated her well.
As the summer dwindled and the weather changed, people started to understand how this was going to end. People were already disappearing, either because they fled or were killed. It would be very dangerous to have anything to do with Franco’s soldiers. Fortunately, Montse didn’t have to worry that much.
Instead, she hoped that those who had noticed her presence at the soldiers’ bonfire would have their own reasons to keep silent about it. In the years afterward, everyone — even those who had been there every night — pretended that none of it had happened.
Unfortunately, after Rudolfo is gone, Montse realizes she is pregnant. These were dangerous times, and it wasn’t going to get better. With the end of the war, Montse knew there would be accusations leading to arrest or death, and no matter who the father of her child was no one could protect her from the presumptions that were ultimately correct anyway. How to keep this secret locked away? The only thing she can think of is to chase after the one man who had been pursuing her for years, Paco, a pathetic man who seemed to love Montse though she and her family made it clear he was well below her standards.
Montse’s father laughed at him, and for her mother and her sisters the idea that he had been pursuing her since she was sixteen or seventeen was a source of regular jokes. She did her best to avoid him, and if she could not avoid him then she openly rebuffed his efforts to speak to her.
Now she urgently wanted to meet him.
She didn’t love him. It wasn’t about that at all. But: “If had wanted her before, she figured, he would still want her now.” He would be a protection.
I found the story strong throughout, but I must say I particularly liked the final bit, when we know all that has happened and are allowed to see where, in this instance, this time of “don’t speak” led. An excellent story.
In “Summer of ‘38,” Colm Tóibín depends upon understatement. Set in Spain, an elderly Spanish widow is presented with the possibility of meeting with a lover of many years before. Her oldest daughter, Rosa, was conceived in that short affair, but Paco agreed to marry Montse — and raised Rosa as his daughter. As time went by, Montse had two more daughters, and came to feel intense “loyalty” for everything Paco did for her and her family.
The long-ago affair is complicated by the setting for the love affair having been the Spanish Civil War, raising questions of “loyalty,” collaboration, and treachery. Montse resists the several invitations to meet with “the General,” and in the end does not meet him for lunch. Instead, she meets with Rosa, and specifically gives her an album of family pictures. The pictures, though, have no images of Paco, perhaps because Montse does not want Rosa to see how little she and her son resemble him.
The difficulty lies in the fact that one of Montse’s other daughters has met an emissary of the General. The persistence of the emissary indicates that if he wants to make contact with his daughter, he will do so through the sister, and so the truth will not lie buried after all.
The silence that Montse tries to enforce mirrors silences in the greater society of countries torn by civil war and internal violence: Spain, Chile, Argentina, Ireland, Cambodia, Rwanda, and now Syria, to name just a few.
There is the very understated suggestion in this story that countries not only bury the memory of violence but they re-write history to keep the truth buried. Tóibín does not address the effects of the silence or the rewritten history. It is just proposed that history is buried and struggles to re-emerge.
This is the first story I have read written by Tóibín that was set in Spain. I feel like I need to read that larger body of work to grasp the gravity of what he is trying to say. Faulkner dealt with buried truths, and it took him volumes. Ondaatje, too. I am also unfamiliar with the current arguments in Spain that I think have resurfaced regarding the Civil War and buried truth.
Understatement as a foundation, however, allows the reader the space to think and question. Given that political writing at its worst is polemical, strident, bombastic, and untruthful, an approach that stresses calm thinking is an important contribution to the conversation. I also feel that surface clarity helps the reader relax into the work, and then be more receptive to difficult ideas and deeper mysteries.
Friedrich Reck was a self-proclaimed conservative who, while the Nazis held power in Germany, longed for the days of monarchy, of order and nobility. He saw the Nazis as a horde of vicious apes and, over the course of eight years, put his life in danger as he kept a kind of journal of hatred and lamentation, cursing the Nazis and the German people for allowing such a brutish force to destroy what was once a great nation. Arrested in 1944 and executed (or did he simply die in a concentration camp) in early 1945, his diary was only published posthumously as Diary of a Man in Despair (Tagebuch eines Verzweifelten, 1947; tr. from the German by Paul Rubens, 2000). A fascinating historical document, it is also a great piece of literary, declamatory art.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
The book begins with an entry in 1936. Its first line: “Spengler is dead, then.” It’s been three years since Hitler took power, and Reck still cannot believe such a weak, short, mouse of a man could be leader of Germany. Spengler was a philosopher who in the early 1930s refused to accept Nazi ideals; he was a man Reck looked to for solidarity in his quest to delegitimize Hitler and return Germany to what it should be. But now Spengler is dead, Spengler, who was a bulwark, a force, a true “man,” the exact opposite of the diminuitive Hitler:
I still remember our first meeting, when Albers brought him to my house. On the little carriage which carried him from the station, and which was hardly built with such loads in mind, sat a massive figure who appeared even more enormous by virtue of the thick overcoat he wore. Everything about him had the effect of extraordinary permanence and solidity: the deep bass voice; the tweed jacket, already, at that time, almost habitual; the appetite at dinner; and at night, the truly Cyclopean snoring, loud as a series of buzz saws, which frightened the other guests at my Chiemgau country house out of their peaceful slumbers.
As the book continues, Reck becomes more and more disheartened, more and more pessimistic about the future of Germany. At first, thinking some foreign aid would stop this experiment in barbarism early he soon sees “the inevitable Second World War.” He can’t stand the fact that it is his own people causing such destruction:
My life in this pit will soon enter its fifth year. For more than forty-two months, I have thought hate, have lain down with hate in my heart, have dreamed hate and awakened with hate. I suffocate in the knowledge that I am the prisoner of a horde of vicious apes, and I rack my brain over the perpetual riddle of how this same people which so jealously watched over its rights a few years ago can have sunk into this stupor, in which it not only allows itself to be dominated by the street-corner idlers of yesterday, but actually, height of shame, is incapable any longer of perceiving its shame for the shame that it is.
I found the book fascinating throughout. Reck is perhaps not our perfect hero, but his principled and dangerous stand against the Nazis is heroic and poignantly written down in this book he had to keep buried to avoid capture and execution.
Besides being a fascinating piece of history, a first-person account from the ground (a perspective that does cause Reck to get a number of details wrong, but that also exemplifies just how chaotic the time could be), the book is also a magnificent piece of poetry. One could liken many passages to Psalms, and I thought many times of Lamentations, written by Jeremiah as he mourned the destruction of Jerusalem and his people as well as connecting the tragedies to their own faults and hoping, almost beyond hope, that somehow things might be recovered:
You threaten all who oppose you with death, but you forget: our hatred is a deadly poison. It will creep into your blood, and we will die shouting with joy when our hate pulls you down with us into the depths.
Let my life be fulfilled in this way, and let my death come when this task is completed! This promise has come out of the heart of the people you are now striking, and I set it down, at this moment, since it applies to you as well as to us:
If you banish God from the earth, we will meet him under the earth. And then we, the underground men, will sing a song to God, who is joy . . .
We know how this ends before we begin the book, but that doesn’t lessen the power of the last few chapters in 1944 when Reck still has no idea how or even if this terror, which he hoped would be quashed soon after it began, will end. Still, the book somehow ends on a jubilant note of relief and hope, and then we simply see the empty pages beyond the last words. An important book that must be read.
“Thanks for the Ride” is the fourth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.
“Thanks for the Ride” might, on first examination, seem slight and straightforward. Dickie, our male narrator who is just out of high school, has gone with his mother to a type of health spa. He and his cousin George, bored one day, decide to go explore a small, rundown town they’ve never seen before, their main goal is to find bootleggers and girls. They succeed, and in the end they drive off and should be satisfied. Dickie, though, is not.
What I enjoyed so much about this story is the fact that, though we are treated to one of Munro’s rare male narrators, we get a very opaque look at a strong girl, and we fear for her even as we realize just how strong she is.
Stepping back, I think it’s important to look at how Munro introduces this rundown town. It is remarkably different from anything the relatively wealthy Dickie is used to. It is filled with silent pain.
You see that judgment on the faces of people looking out of windows, sitting on front steps in some little towns; so deeply, deeply uncaring they are, as if they had sources of disillusionment which they would keep, with some satisfaction, in the dark.
It’s almost a fallen world in comparison with the paradise that Dickie and George are apparently used to.
Obviously not exactly what they’re looking for, as George says when he finds his date Adelaide: “This’ll do in a pinch.” George asks Adelaide if she has a friend for Dickie. They run into Lois. As fortune would have it, Lois is free for the night because her boyfriend is spending time with his fiancée. Before she goes with him, though, she’d like to go home and change.
For me, this is where the story becomes strong and mysterious. While waiting for Lois to get dressed, Dickie has a strange conversation with her widowed mother (her father was killed in an accident — his head came clean off). Lois’s mother seems not-quite-there as she talks to Dickie, whom she obviously envies, even as she denies having any such attachment to possessions. Lois comes out in her best dress.
Assuming himself to be in control, to be the one who can take, Dickie is surprised to find something he cannot comprehend in Lois. He wants access to it more than he wants access to her body.
I put my arm around her, not much wanting to. I was wondering what was the matter. This girl lay against my arm, scornful, acquiescent, angry, inarticulate and out-of-reach. I wanted to talk to her then more than to touch her, and that was out of the question; talk was not so little a thing to her as touching.
As the story comes to a close, we realize that Lois has been in control of Dickie, which is not to say she’s in control of her life. There’s pain and power, and she finds at outlet to each, Dickie shocked in the end when she says, “Thanks for the Ride.” Yet she remains the one without power as Dickie drives off to his better life.
The smell, the slovenly, confiding voice — something about this life I had not known, something about these people. I thought: my mother, George’s mother, they are innocent. Even George, George is innocent. But these others are born sly and sad and knowing.
I would like to say here that I write as merely an engaged reader who is trying to think clearly about Munro, not as any kind of expert. But isn’t that the way most of us read? Isn’t that the reader Munro hoped to have? Certainly our scholars guide us, but given work and family, most of us make do with reading primarily on our own, with only occasional opportunities to read scholarship. In fact, given the human drive for autonomy, we really enjoy, if truth be told, trying to make sense, initially, on our own. And if the writer we are reading is rich, many of us enjoy the challenge, the conversation, of writing about what we’ve read, given that writing is a frame that forces clarity and thoughtfulness.
Scholarship can be helpful, but most of the time the reader must make the best of their own mind. And, given the recent decades of literary scholarship being hi-jacked by people who make an art of obfuscation, sometimes it is hard to know where to turn for scholarship that is not a waste of time. Hence the wonderful proliferation of the book club – virtual or in person – for the clarification conversation gives. And I enjoy making of an author my temporary Virgil – someone who can be a guide, for a while, through the vale of life. Munro’s immense collection makes her a wonderful choice for just that. She is someone who has offered a lifetime of saying how she sees life. As a woman, I am particularly interested in her point of view.
“Thanks for the Ride,” a very early story of Munro’s, is one which she may have later considered practice or experiment. But I like its subject, its ambition, and its dense, concise, affecting complexity – complexity involving death and birth, wealth and poverty, power plays, loss and acquisition, sadness and anger, yearning and revenge. That’s a lot for a short story to manage, and I thought she managed it. Shakespeare manages that kind of condensation, and I think Munro aims at that. I liked, in particular, the respect which Munro affords the unacceptable girl: her speechlessness, her sexuality, her anger, her grief, her wild drive.
Having an eighteen-year-old male narrator presents both opportunity and challenge. What works well is how we see Lois through the boy’s confused, slowly awakening perspective. The challenge is for us to believe in him (given that Munro is a woman). I think it works (although only a man could say for sure) because it is a man speaking of himself in the past tense, and therefore, we are not in a stream of consciousness; we are privy to only what he chooses to tell us, and his is a reserved voice, and he clearly chooses to tell us only an outline, and that outline has a ring of truth.
Does Munro get away with the boy thinking about the Latin “ Omne animal trist est”? Yes, I think so. First, we disrespect the fifties if we don’t accept the rigor of the four or more years of Latin study often done in high school at that time. As always, the boys would have lightened the task by learning anything off-color as soon as possible, and the older boys would have gone for what they thought of as the sophisticated phrases, even before the internet. Second, the phrase appears to have a confused history, and is appropriate to the boy’s confused state. So I think she does get away with it, and in fact, the Latin phrase is important to the story because it points to the way we have to “translate” life into words, and succeed or fail half the time. So the narrator reads true to me, although there is much more could be said about that.
As for the story:
Late one summer, a couple of randy adolescent boys roll across the tracks so that the older can procure some fun for himself and some first real sex for the younger one. They pick up two girls they’ve never seen before and never intend to see again. But in the sexual encounter which is the pivot of “Thanks for the Ride,” Munro turns the tables. The boy who thinks he holds all the cards turns out to be holding fewer than he thought. The girl he is using, it turns out, is using him, and the girl who has nothing, it turns out, has instead a riveting power. It’s not that she awakens him to her beauty or her goodness; it’s that she awakens him to her (wild) force and all its possibilities. He understands he has happened against something he cannot contain or keep, except, perhaps, to tell it, or write about it. But of course, Munro says this all far more obliquely than that.
Lois is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in a house with a couch on the porch and a privy out back. She’s quit school after her father died at the mill, and she is left with a grandmother like a “collapsed pudding” and a mother who has a “slovenly, confiding voice.” Lois is free for a pick-up because her “boyfriend,” who is engaged, is busy with his fiancée.
Lois dresses to the nines for the double date, even though she knows their likely destination: the farmhouse where the widow will sell them a little moonshine and then give them the use of her front room. What is so shocking is the way we, along with Dickie, slowly realize that Lois is the one doing the using. Lois is “cold and narrow and pale” as well as “scornful, acquiescent, inarticulate and out-of-reach,” not to mention that she manages to do things in a “mannerly and subtly contemptuous way.”
Just before her assignation in a barn, she smooths out her shiny dress – her good dress. “’I wanted to show you guys!’ she said with a sudden small explosion of viciousness.” And the boy who is telling the story realizes: “The drunken, nose-thumbing, toe-twirling satisfaction could now not be mistaken . . .” So he makes vicious fun of her in return, but she takes him on: she slaps him. Which leads, almost inevitably, to sex, which reveals to him that:
There are some people who can go only a little way with the act of love, and some others who can go very far, who can make a greater surrender, like the mystics.
Lois was one of those. But when she was done, she was done, and “utterly closed up in herself.” Dickie finds himself completely undone. There are things he wants to say, but cannot. Dickie thinks he wants to tell the girl a Latin saying he’s “read somewhere” about all animals being sad after sex. Perhaps he wants to re-establish his position. But he doesn’t, because in her presence he is now utterly tongue-tied. He thinks she would understand. It is possible that she would indeed understand it, given that once sex is done, Lois has back, once again, the very real sadness of her life.
To the end Dickie and George act the boor, leaving the girls at the corner to walk themselves home. Ironically, speechless Lois has the last word. “Thanks for the ride,” she yells. Not tongue-tied now, she.
Lois is another version of Munro’s wildly self-possessed, contradictory, self-preserving, and at times, self-destructive girls. In this case, an angry, inarticulate girl uses sex as a language for her anger, and uses it, too, to enjoy herself. By referring to her sexuality as that of “a mystic” Munro makes clear that it is not the sex itself that is troubling. It’s that Lois has so many strikes against her (having dropped out of school, for one) that perhaps she cannot afford the indulgence that Dickie and George can afford, or that a girl with more means could survive.
Munro forces the issue upon the reader – what will become of Lois? It’s unclear, really, with her determination to seize life, earn money and look good, whether she will become a kind of a star or a kind of a mess. Or just a prostitute.
A central metaphor in the story is her father’s beheading at the mill; it suggests the inevitability of both accident and carelessness, and it bores down on class inequity. But the beheading also links to the wrong-headed pick-up, the head in the sand hope that Lois has in clothes, the several wrong-headed attempts at communication that Dickie makes, and the headlong sex.
But the sex is important. Dickie thinks of the sex as that “headlong journey,” meaning, of course, the delicious speeding up. But the reader understands the oddly worded “headlong journey” also as a kind of birth. Mothers, motherhood, and escape from mothers play a role in this story, too, and there is the suggestion that sex is the necessary second birth. What matters here is the sense of Dickie being born into something: a consciousness – one that Lois has birthed him, headlong, into.
But as for Lois, is there any revelation for her?
Say Lois loved her father; say he might have been a wonderful force in her life; say he died in a terrible accident at the mill; say she was only thirteen at the time; say it was so horrible her mother cannot stop talking about it. What does a thirteen-year-old girl do with such loss? How do you comfort such a loss?
Her mother says, “Everybody in town just stripped their gardens . . . I guess it was the worst accident ever took place in this town.”
But if you’re thirteen, it may be difficult to make sense or solace of the losses: the shock, the abandonment, the anger, the poverty, and the loneliness. It may be almost impossible to find comfort or find words for so much anger and loss. Solace is scarce. So if, as Dickie says, what one feels after sex is sadness, sex makes sense for Lois, being both a solace and a language for the sadness. That it’s also a language for anger only helps. One must not perish; one must make sense of things, one must have comfort – money, clothes, a fur for winter – as well as the acting out. She’s only sixteen. What does she know where it all may lead? Or perhaps she does know, saying as she does, with revenge, “Thanks for the ride.”
Or perhaps not: as Pop has posted on the diner wall: “Don’t ask for information. If we knew anything we wouldn’t be here.” Either/Or/Both at the same time.
I like this story immensely. I like Lois’s ferocity, her force, and the mystery of whether she will perish or survive.
NYRB Classics has published a few books by Vasily Grossman, including Life and Fate, a book that was not published in Russia until the late 1980s, over twenty years after Grossman’s death. Life and Fate has been called his masterpiece and one of the greatest Russian novels of the twentieth century. I still haven’t read it. In fact, until I read An Armenian Sketchbook (partially published in 1967 and fully in 1988; tr. from the Russian by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, 2013) I had not read a word by Grossman. This book, at just over 100 pages, was a great place to start.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
An Armenian Sketchbook was also published posthumously. The book’s introduction notes that it could have been published in Grossman’s lifetime but he refused to take out fifteen lines the censors demanded he cut. After a lifetime allowing his work to be mangled by the Soviet authorities, he wouldn’t be pushed around any more. His principled stand shows through in the pages of this little “sketchbook” he wrote during two months he spent in Armenia. He begins with his train ride into the country:
My first impressions of Armenia were from the train, early in the morning: greenish-grey rock — not in the form of a mountain or crags but in the form of scree, a flat deposit, a field of stone. A mountain had died, its skeleton had been scattered over the ground. Time had aged the mountain; time had killed the mountain — and here lay the mountains bones.
This passage beautifully introduces the vast history of this region, a sense of the antiquity as well as of decline. Supposedly Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, which can be found on the country’s coat of arms. Over the centuries, this country that sits between Eastern Europe and Western Asia has seen many tragedies, including the Armenian Genocide during World War I, an event that comes up often in this book. When speaking of the nation’s diversity, Grossman refers to the country’s history:
This diversity is the reflection of centuries, of millennia, of victors passing the night in the homes of those they have defeated. This diversity is the story of the crazed hearts of women who passed away long ago, of the wild passions of soldiers intoxicated by victory, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet.
To me, that’s a remarkably sensitive passage, and I was honestly surprised at how often I was struck by Grossman’s sensitivity to humanity in general and to the humanity he witnessed in Armenia specifically. In some ways, this book reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts (review here and podcast here). Each shows a thoughtful outsider examining the humanity and history of an unfamiliar region, writing with tenderness and spontaneity.
An Armenian Sketchbook, however, is more philosophical. As Grossman discusses the region, he ties his observations to his thoughts on such subjects as nationalism. That particular discussion begins when Grossman reflects on the Armenian national character:
But just as thousands of streams running through forests, mountain rocks and desert sands, just as thousands of silent, thoughtful, roaring, foaming, transparent and turbid streams can spring from the same underground source and contain the same salts — so all these human characters and fates are united by thousands of years of Armenian history, by the tragedy that befell the Armenians in Turkey, by the longing every Armenian feels for the lands of Kars and Van.
Again, I found this passage to be particularly insightful, especially as it led to some of the uglier and more unfortunate aspects of transforming national character into an attitude of nationalism, what he calls favoring the husk for the kernel.
I also found An Armenian Sketchbook to be more spontaneous than A Time of Gifts. Here Grossman seems constantly able to link whatever is going on around him with some deeper thought. Consequently, we even get discussions on his physical state (he didn’t know it at the time, but he was already suffering from the cancer that was going to kill him).
I particularly enjoyed a passage early in the book when he arrives in Yerevan, the city in which he’d spend one of the two months he spent in Armenia. Grossman talks about all of the things he sees, and we know that these things have been around forever and have been witnessed by millions of people. Yet, Grossman makes the case that he himself is the creator of this city: “This city that suddenly arises from non-being is a special city; it differs from the city that exists in reality — it is the city of a particular person.” Another beautiful image and a pleasing perspective on humanity, on our individual ability to perceive this world: “And when a man dies, there dies with him a unique, unrepeatable world that he has created — an entire universe with its own oceans and mountains, with its own sky.” Yes, this universe may be strikingly similar to thousands of others, but it “lives in the soul of the man who has created it.”
Lord and creator, I wander through the streets of Yerevan; I build Yerevan in my soul.
And in this way, throughout the book Grossman moves from the universal to the individual and back again. It’s pleasant, thought-provoking, and even a bit reverent, and I’m anxious to get to know Grossman’s masterpieces.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Paul Theroux’s “The Furies” was originally published in the February 25, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
“The Furies” reveals why so few people go to their 40th high school reunion – the badly treated old friends, girlfriends, boyfriends. There is history, for sure, but not all of it is good.
In “Dear Life,” published this past fall, Alice Munro ended: “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.”
This feels like the story Paul Theroux wrote in response. If it is in conversation, I like the totally different tone, the tip of the hat to Dante, Bunyan, Dickens, and Wilde, the numerous one-liners, the audacious precision of the his hero’s trial, and the hallucinatory quality.
Dr. Ray Testa (think test, testes, protest, testament) throws over old Angie (think angry, think angel) for the beautiful new model, his dental hygienist, Shelby (think silent, catlike, overpowered for the road, wildly indulgent, expensive, supercar).
Angie unexpectedly lays a curse on him, just when he had thought she might wail about how much she would miss him. Angrily, she says, “I made it easy for you.” Not this time.
Determined to show off at his 40th reunion, Ray insists that he and Shelby must go. Instead of triumph, however, Ray begins a journey of reunion with people he had forgotten he’d wronged – three girlfriends from his hometown, a college fling, a night in med school, the wife of an artist he “admired,” a pass in the hallway. Each one of these women appears to him in hallucinatory haggery; they seem to him much older, inexplicably, maybe even unjustifiably bitter.
The reader recognizes some of these situations: lies, broken promises, denials, casual appropriations. Ray doesn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of what he is hearing; it doesn’t seem to him that these women have the right to claim he has ruined their lives, or that they have a right to remember what he has forgotten.
I love the fact that he has been called to task. I couldn’t put the story down. I recommend the story to you.
But I’m not sure I could recommend it to my two good, beautiful friends whose husbands did a Ray Testa on them. From this vantage point (almost 70), it feels as if the Furies have let this guy off easy.
To have him merely lectured, to have him merely realize he is old, to have him merely lose his trophy wife – not enough! Ray’s Furies are not furious enough!
I agree, Betsy. Ray gets off easy, despite the fact that in the end he is alone. Still, I enjoyed this story, which I took to be a rather straightforward with no “message,” just revenge and the grotesque.
The story begins thus:
“I now belong to an incredibly exclusive club,” Ray Testa said in his speech at his wedding reception. He savored the moment, then winked and added, “There are not many men who can say that they’re older than their father-in-law.”
It’s chuckles all around. People seem fine with the fact that Ray, fifty-eight, is marrying his thirty-one-year-old hygienist, Shelby (his father-in-law is fifty-six). Ray and Shelby havce known each other for a while and their love is true.
Well, it’s not all chuckles. Ray is about to find that the curse his discarded wife Angie muttered when he divorced her is to come true:
I know I should say I wish you well, but I wish you ill, with all my heart. I’ve made it easy for you. I hope you suffer now with that woman who’s taken you from me. These women who carry on with married men are demons.”
And vengeance (and demons) come. It’s almost time for Ray’s fortieth high school reunion, and he’s anxious to take Shelby. She’s much less anxious. At first, running into people, even those with whom he had a past, is no big deal. Soon, though, three of his old girlfriends are almost shrieking at him: “Everything that he’d forgotten was still real and immediate to them — the prom, the lake, the yearbook, Miss Balsam’s third-grade class.” It’s even more terrifying when these women follow him and Shelby when they try to escape the party.
Naturally, Shelby is terrified. At first, her terror might be directed to these women, but it doesn’t take long before she fears Ray himself. After all, women from his past just keep popping up, always old and slightly grotesque.
At first, Ray takes some pride in the fact that these women have aged so poorly. It allows him to dismiss them as pitiful creatures who allowed their disappointment to warp their bodies. And, after all, he is with Shelby. But Shelby, after weeks of torture, says “They all look like you.”
He’s built a life on taking advantage of the present and and forgetting the past. Why can’t Shelby forgive?
He wanted to tell her that most people have flawed pasts, have acted selfishly at some point in their lives, and then moved on. New experiences take the place of the old ones, new memories, better memories; and all the old selves become interred in a forgetfulness that is itself merciful. This was the process of aging, each new decade burying the previous one; that long-ago self was a stranger.
Of course, these past selves have all combined to create the present self, something Shelby understands.
“Reeling for the Empire” is the second story in Karen Russell’s second short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. For an overview with links to review of the others stories in this collection, please click here.
Hmmm. After a great first story, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” (my thoughts here), I now sit scratching my head after reading “Reeling for the Empire.” I’m hopeful that of all the stories in this new collection this story will be the one I like least. ”Reeling for the Empire,” to me, was straightforward and more interested in its quirky concept than in how that concept could be used to examine something beyond the story. Naturally, there is “meaning”; I just think it is superficial, something tacked on to make it seem like the quirky concept is worth writing down.
The story’s concept is this: as Japan has industrialized, it has adopted a new practice for silk production. Women are sold by their uncles, fathers, or even their husbands to a recruiter who offers the women tea. This tea begins the metamorphosis, and the women soon become part silk worm, producing more silk than the old silk worms could, and with better efficiencies.
Our narrator is Kitsune. She herself was not sold into this. Rather, she chose it, forging her father’s signature.
The story becomes more metaphysical as the silk itself begins to represent memories and pain, eventually leading to further metamorphosis and, maybe — just maybe — flight.
The tone of the story is matter-0f-fact, which is welcome, and Russell’s gift with sentence construction helped me enjoy the story more than I feel it deserved. Naturally, I could be missing something. I checked around online to see how others felt about it and (surprisingly? maybe not?) it seems to be one of the highlights of the collection for many. I’ll be interested to hear any thoughts.
“Images” is the third story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.
“Images” takes us again to the home of the Jordan family we met in the first story, “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” The connection isn’t overt, and one does not need to read one to understand the other. This time, Del Jordan (still unnamed) is our first-person narrator. When the story begins, Del is thinking back to a particular summer and to the strange people who haunted her young mind.
In truth, I had to read it three times before I felt able to even start writing here. A lot is going on: Del’s mother is sick and has taken to bed; Mary McQuade has come to help, and Del thinks she is the malicious force to blame for her mother’s condition; Del’s father, Ben, seems to have two personalities, and Del accepts each; and it appears a strange man might kill Ben one day while Ben is out trapping muskrats. It’s a bit overwhelming, “all this life going on.” Yes, life is going on, but there’s the ever-present spectre of death. Young Del does not understand it yet — it’s just on the tip of her comprehension: these strangers have come, her mother could die, her father could die.
It’s this struggle to understand that is so frightening as Del begins to come into an awareness of the life outside herself and the life she’s known. Even her mother is growing more inscrutable and frightening:
This Mother that my own real, warm-necked, irascible and comforting human mother set up between us was an everlastingly wounded phantom, sorrowing like Him over all the wickedness I did not yet know I would commit.
It’s the newness of all of this that frightens her. After all, for years she’s been aware of her father’s brutal side and she doesn’t think less of him for it: “Nor did that brutality surprise me; my father came back to us always, to my mother and me, from places where our judgment could not follow.” This brutality, as frightening as it must have been, is, at least, familiar.
The story takes a rather sudden turn toward the end. Ben asks his daughter if she’d like to come with him while he checks the muskrat traps. She waits up above the bank while he goes to check the traps, and all of a sudden she sees a man walking toward her father with an axe:
I never moved to warn or call my father. The man crossed my path somewhere ahead, continuing down to the river. People say they have been paralyzed by fear, but I was transfixed, as if struck by lightning, and what hit me did not feel like fear so much as recognition. I was not surprised. This is the sight that does not surprise you, the thing you have always known was there that comes so naturally, moving delicately and contentedly and in no hurry, as if it was made, in the first place, from a wish of yours, a hope of something final, terrifying.
It’s fascinating how well Munro mixes the terror and the power here. Finally, the worst possible thing was going to happen, and the young girl watches transfixed as an image of her fear seems about to become reality.
I want to end my thoughts here with the final paragraph, which brings the story together in such a pleasing manner. Del has come back home (with her father safe, though they’ve seen other things that are pretty terrible as they dealt with the man with the axe), and she’s not to mention the axe to her mom or Mary McQuade. It’s as if by withholding this dangerous secret, she finally has some of the same power they have over her:
Like children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who had discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back fresh from marvellous escapes and take up their knives and forks, with humility and good manners, prepared to live happily ever after — like them, dazed and powerful with secrets, I never said a word.
The most memorable image in “Images” is that of the little girl spotting the feral man in the woods before her father does, the man with a little hatchet in his hand:
All my life I had known there was a man like this, and he was behind doors, around the corner at the dark end of a hall. So now I saw him and just waited, like a child in an old negative, with blazing hair and burned out, Orphan Annie eyes.
The story, in fact, is about an album the little girl’s fears: that people die, like her grandfather; that something has taken her mother, because pregnancy (which no one talks about) has so changed her; that maybe cousin Mary McQuade, who took care of her grandfather and now has come to take care of her mother, has caused all this; that maybe this feral man will hurt her beloved father, and that maybe the unspoken fear will come true – that her mother will stay permanently sorrowful, or worse, die. (But that very last is unspoken – and yet the “fact of death” is the constant current of the story.)
But the fierce little girl also fights against these fears (yet another fierce little girl!): the way she argues with Mary McQuade, the practical nurse, the way she wants to go out along the trap lines with her father, the way she wants to touch “the fact of death,” “the stiff, soaked body” of the king muskrat her father has just killed; the way she looks at Old Joe, hatchet in hand, terrified, but forthright.
What the adventure does for her is she gets to see her father tame Old Joe, the man who lives underground, the man who is compelled to carry a hatchet around, the poor man who thinks “the Silases” are after him. Later, at home, she hears her father taming Mary McQuade when she insists that Old Joe “ought to be locked up.”
“Maybe not,” [her] father said. “Just the same I hope they don’t get him for a while yet.”
She had discovered she was “like children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who have discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back fresh from marvelous escapes . . .”
This fierce little girl is satisfied – she is “dazed and powerful with secrets . . .”
It’s a great story. There’s a feeling of Faulkner here, even if, in The Paris Review Munro says it was Welty, not Faulkner who inspired her. Nonetheless, I feel her fighting with Faulkner here, for the right to the territory.
This month, we are joined by Nick During of NYRB Classics to discuss Friedrich Reck’s political memoir, Diary of a Man in Despair.
My life in this pit will soon enter its fifth year. For more than forty-two months I have thought hate, have lain down with hate in my heart, have dreamed hate, and awakened with hate. I suffocate in the knowledge that I am the prisoner of a hoard of vicious apes, and I wrack my brains over the perpetual riddle of how this same people, which so jealously watched over its rights a few years ago, can have sunk into this stupor, in which it not only allows itself to be dominated by the street corner idlers of yesterday, but actually, height of shame, is incapable any longer of perceiving its shame for the shame that it is.
This is a passage written by Friedrich Reck on August 11, 1936, and recorded in a journal of sorts that he kept from 1936 unti l1944. It was a dangerous document that he kept hidden in various places. Certainly, had it been found, it would have led to his death. Regardless, at the end of 1944, Reck was arrested and killed in early 1945.
This journal was first published in German in 1947 and gained footing in 1964. It first came to English in 1970 as Diary of a Man in Despair. It was reprinted in 2000 with portions that were previously expunged.
NYRB Classics published their edition of Diary of a Man in Despair in February of 2013, and it is the book we’ll be talking about in Episode 5 of The Mookse and the Gripes Podcast.
In Episode 6 we will be discussing Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King.
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Show Notes (58:27)
- Intro (xx:xx)
- Brief Friedrich Reck Bio (xx:xx)
- General Thoughts (xx:xx)
- The Complexity of Reck: Monarchist, Hero (xx:xx)
- Psalms and Lamentations (xx:xx)
- Deliberate Structure (xx:xx)
- Women (xx:xx)
- Victor Serge (and a couple of other NYRB Classics authors): (xx:xx)
- “The Liar” (xx:xx)
- Co-Host Trevor Berrett
- Co-Host Brian Berrett
- Guest Nick During, Marketing & Sales Associate of NYRB Classics
- Introduction Music — “Where We Fall We’ll Lie” by Jeff Zentner, from his album The Dying Days of Summer (used with permission)
- Outro Music — “Promise Me That You Will Never Die” by Jeff Zentner, from his album Hymns to the Darkness (used with permission)
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“Vampires in the Lemon Grove” is the first story in Karen Russell’s second short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. For an overview with links to review of the others stories in this collection, please click here.
I approached this story warily. As much as I loved Russell’s strange first collection of short stories (which I must revisit), I was frightened that I had just gone in a different direction, not being that big of a fan of her novel Swamplandia!. Perhaps I’d feel she was just too self-consciously bizarre these days, that the cleverness pushed out the subtlety I admired (as I feel with George Saunders). I was heartened, then, when I found Russell’s meditative prose introducing me to the life of a married but lonely vampire in a lemon grove in Italy. Here’s how she introduces the setting, the vampire, and the lonely passage of time:
In October, the men and women of Sorrento harvest the primofiore, or “first flowering fruit,” the most succulent lemons; in March, the yellow bianchetti ripen, followed in June by the green verdelli. In every season you can find me sitting at my bench, watching them fall. Only one or two lemons tumble from the branches each hour, but I’ve been here so long their falls seem contiguous, close as raindrops.
It would be easy to summarize this story in such a way that it sounds hokey: Clyde, a vampire, and his vampire wife, Magreb, live in a Lemon Grove, lemons being the only thing that gives some relief to their bloodlust. But lately the period of relief is getting shorter and shorter . . .
That’s all true, but there is a lot more to this story, not the least of which is the touching and tragic relationship between Clyde and Magreb, who have the potential to live together forever but, at this point, for what?
As a young vampire, Clyde believed all of the stories he heard about vampires. Awkward and alone, he slept in a coffin and developed a deep fear of the sun. He stalked victims and sucked their blood, feeling noble because he didn’t kill small children as he’d heard other vampires did. Magreb is the first other vampire he meets. She works hard to disabuse him of the myths he’s subjected himself to. The most shocking is that blood does nothing for them. Yes, they lust after it, but the lust doesn’t go away. Over the course of a 130-year marriage, they’ve searched for something else to appease them:
Over the years, Magreb and I have tried everything — fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls. We have lived everywhere: Tunis, Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca. We spent our honeymoon hopping continents, hunting liquid chimeras: mint tea in Fez, coconut slurries in Oahu, jet-black coffee in Bogotá, jackal’s milk in Dakar, Cherry Coke floats in rural Alabama, a thousand beverages purported to have magical quenching properties. We went thirsty in every region of the globe before finding our oasis here, in the blue boot of Italy, at this dead nun’s lemonade stand. It’s only these lemons that give us any relief.
But the lemons aren’t doing their job like they used to, so change is imminent. Clyde is getting tired of it all. Magreb believes they can still find just what they’re looking for (in fact, she chose her name in aspiration of finding “the setting place,” or, as she calls it, the “final answer”; Clyde, incidentally, chose his name during the California Gold Rush and wants to find another one that is more suitable to Italy).
This relationship, brought to us in pensive, tired yet still yearning prose, is the heart of this story. How long can they hold out in eternity?
Often I wonder to what extent a mortal’s love grows from the bedrock of his or her foreknowledge of death, love coiling like a green stem out of that blankness in a way I’ll never quite understand. And lately I’ve been having a terrible thought: Our love affair will end before the world does.
It’s actually touching. Clyde loves his wife but recognizes the futility of their quest. He sees them as staying together merely to thirst together. She, of course, still hopes for some “final setting,” but what is good about that? They’ve been everywhere together. It seems the best change to hope for is the one they cannot effect: death.