“Three Short Moments in a Long Life” 
by John L'Heureux
Originally published in the May 9, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker website.

05_09_16John L’Heureux, an octogenarian who has been publishing since the mid-1960s, is a brand new author for me. I’m not sure I’d ever even heard of him or his work before doing a tiny bit of background research when I saw his story was being featured in this issue. He has published only once before in The New Yorker, a “Portrait,” back in 1980. He taught at Stanford for 35 years, and his most recent novel being The Medici Boy, published in 2014.

Please let’s start a conversation about the story or author (or whatever you feel is on point for this post). Let us all know your thoughts below!

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By |2016-05-02T00:25:37-04:00May 2nd, 2016|Categories: John L'Heureux, New Yorker Fiction|24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. Archer May 2, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    I was intrigued to see that this week’s story was by John L’Heureux. He’s not a very well-known name, and as Trevor noted, he’s hardly a New Yorker regular. But he’s been writing for a long time, and has a very extensive bibliography. I have a couple of his books on my shelf (including The Medici Boy, which sold me with its subject matter and a blurb from J.M. Coetzee on the cover), but I confess I haven’t gotten around to them. I feel compelled to do so now.

    I thought this was a remarkable story. L’Heureux’s craft is masterfully controlled: the supporting characters are vividly drawn (sometimes in just a few sentences), every detail is skillfully deployed to create a convincing whole and he effortlessly combines the realistic and the fanciful, without quite being either. But what’s even more impressive to me is the way he conveys the sense of a man’s whole life with three seemingly unrelated vignettes, and how well the story flows despite its unique formal construction. He wears his profundity lightly, shrouding big questions (about life and death, love and faith) in the wry, mordant narrative voice of the main character. And he builds to a quietly devastating conclusion without being cloying or sentimental. All in all, I was very impressed. I think this is one of the best New Yorker stories to run in a while.

  2. Trevor May 3, 2016 at 11:25 am

    I agree, Archer, this is excellent. I just finished it, and I’m haven’t gotten a handle on all that it is exploring or saying, but this is assured, direct prose at its best. I’d like to go at it once again to capture more, but I wanted to jump on here first to second your admiration for this piece!

  3. Sean H May 7, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    Can’t say this one did much for me and am surprised to see such raves in the above posts by Trevor and Archer. The three sections read like sketched recollections, and truly arbitrary. The voice was uncompelling and the structure/form of the tale had little impact (in terms of creating momentum or of working as a whole to create a vivid or dramatic thrust or punch). The story felt far from memorable and while not unaccomplished or poorly written, it also felt pretty meaningless by the end. It’s not one of those pieces that was flawed in any noticeable way, but it was equally generic and insubstantial and didn’t have a lot of to distinguish it. It was like when you hear a new band or artist that other people like and you really listen and you really pay attention and you really keep an open mind, but at the end of the song you just think “that was pretty damn unremarkable.” I guess I want an author that is new to me to have some sort of uniqueness or verve, and this tale, while not a disaster or a flame out, just didn’t wow me in any way at all.

  4. Trevor Berrett May 9, 2016 at 11:36 am

    I hope our praise didn’t set you up for disappointment on this one, Sean. For me, this one worked so well because of how personal it all felt. I’m a sucker for a melancholy person looking back on some even in childhood, particularly when rendered with such control. Thinking here in particular of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.

    I haven’t gone back to this one to see if it would hold up on a second reading, which I need to do since so much of my appreciation was in the tone, the control, the pace, the intimations of death that I picked up on without necessarily being able to put them all together to understand what the piece as a whole was doing. I can definitely see that it might not come together, and if that’s the case all of the things I admired about it are enough for me to appreciate it without really admiring it for the long-term.

  5. Mikw May 9, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    It appears that some of us have he good fortune to pass into the great unknown with a loving partner and an unrelenting sense of humor.
    Beautifully done.

  6. Greg May 14, 2016 at 9:05 am

    I am with Sean on this one…..”no verve”.

    Also, thank you Trevor for re-engaging in the weekly NYR stories….it’s a bonus too that so far you have had contrasting takes!

    Keeps things interesting….Hee-hee……..

  7. William Check May 15, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    I’m with Sean on this piece. He said several of the things that I was thinking. I’ll just try to articulate my main problem with the story — not sure if this is going to come out in comprehensible form, but I’ll give it a shot.

    So – Trevor used the word “profundity” I think. It’s clear that the story is striving for that. Big themes. But I don’t think it makes it. Why not? Because all the “profound” themes — death, Jesus, fitting in, dying — are pasted onto the narrative, they don’t emerge organically fro the events. I couldn’t for the life of me find where he actually SHOWED his fascination with Jesus — remember “Show, don’t tell?” I’m a fan of that maxim.

    People changing — the girl who came back in 3rd grade in a totally radically different personality — I didn’t believe it. It was an invention for the sake of the story’s “theme”. When George Saunders invents, I go along with him, because he writes that kind of story. But L’Hereux is writing a mostly realistic story. (Paradoxically, Saunders’ fantastical world feels more solid to me.)
    And all that business at the end about pneumonia — it didn’t feel like creative storytelling. It’s what us old people think and talk about all the time (I’m 72). Where is the originality, the unexpected twist that shows us we are in the hands of an artist? Didn’t see it.

  8. Greg May 15, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Well thought out William!

  9. Trevor Berrett May 16, 2016 at 6:16 pm

    Where did Archer go when I need some help!

    I can’t really defend this piece, to be honest, because I see what you’re all talking about. I’m still not 100% sure it would work on me the second time through. But I was very engaged in the first section, which captured, in a unique, dispassionate voice, the story of a boy witnessing someone else’s story. I love how that changes him, though he’s just a periphery character there. The second and third portions worked for me, too, though not as well. This wonderment at this thing we call life . . . the story explored that nicely for me.

  10. Greg May 16, 2016 at 10:31 pm

    I see what you’re saying Trevor – You read this piece with the simple aim of getting something interesting from it.

    Whereas when you read Alice Munro, you are looking for the complete immersive experience.

  11. Trevor May 17, 2016 at 11:47 am

    Very true, Greg, though I don’t want to back off too much from my earlier enthusiasm. I did find this story seductive. But you’re right that it wasn’t the complete wow experience.

  12. Harri T May 17, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    Not sure if I´m with anyone, except Mikw.

    I liked the story a lot, did not understand that it was striving for profundity, still don´t. I enjoyed the light touch and wry irony with which childhood events, midlife creative crisis and losing of autonomy are described.
    It sounds absurd to ask for verve as the story is eventually about the narrators death. I found the three parts well connected, nor arbitrary.

    The nearing death or being near death can change one´s personality. young or old. Both Beverly and the narrator experience it. The suicide attempt gave a possibility to rethink his position on Jesus and removed the chains of the childhood religious indoctrination. It also freed from the quilt that had haunted him all his life, from praying for the death of Beverly, the girl she was attracted to, afraid of, and loathed.
    The narrator did not show his fascination with Jesus, because at the end there was not any, the saintly caregiver wife, his own Mary Magdalene replacing Him.

    Lesson to learn for us oldies: have your living (should really be dying) will always at hand, it might happen that the system lets pneumonia take care of you.

    There are new posts, yes I´m with Trevor.

  13. Dennis Lang May 17, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    I just read it. It’s still resonating. Powerful, moving, mysterious in a unique and touching voice. Will look for more from this author.

  14. Greg May 17, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    I like Harri how you touched on the religious aspect in the story. It was beneficial for me to mentally go over those concepts again.

    Also, I am intrigued by how you think it’s absurd for a story about a narrator’s death to have verve….could you please elaborate on why?

  15. Harri T May 18, 2016 at 6:25 am

    Thank you Greg.

    Probably it has mostly to do with inadequate knowledge of English, its my fourth language. I associate verve with words like vigor, speed, eagerness,zeal, zest, velocity, pace…so I have a possibility to learn something here?
    I don´t know if it is any better if I rephrase it: “about a narrator´s slow dying process”.

  16. Greg May 21, 2016 at 1:12 am

    I see your point Harri about consistency in mood…..and I’m so jealous that you know four languages this well!

  17. Patricia May 22, 2016 at 12:48 am

    I liked the first and last sections of this story best. In fact, without the Jesus theme, which was a bit heavy handed, the middle could have almost been omitted (easy for me to say–I’m not trying to connect the two other time periods without the middle-aged man in between, ha). I personally loved hearing the octogenarian voice of the original narrator at the end. Perhaps this story didn’t have “verve,” per se, but it resonated with me. The bookends to the story were both well crafted and stirring: the still-humorous tone of the old fellow and his resignation in choosing to let pneumonia take him, the youth whose voice was so distinctly childish that I couldn’t for a moment discern if he were a boy or a girl. There was enough loveliness here that I would recommend it.

  18. Sean H May 22, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    Verve: the spirit and enthusiasm animating artistic composition or performance; vivacity, energy, vitality.
    I guess as the original poster who used the word I just wanted to say that I thought the story itself (the form, not so much the content) was where the lack of verve was. You can tell a story about dying but the telling of it can be full of verve. You can tell a story about boredom without writing a boring story. You can write a story about depression but not have it be a depressing story. Etc, etc, etc. I guess that’s what I was getting at. The prose itself lacked verve. For examples, Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” or Philip Roth’s Everyman or James Joyce’s Ulysses. They’re all about death, each very different from each other stylistically and formally and historically, but all are masterpieces because though their subject is (largely) death, the telling of the tale is invigorating and the prose is sharp and interesting, original and innovative.

  19. Harri T May 22, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    Thank you Sean, I got my possibility to learn something.

  20. Greg May 22, 2016 at 10:55 pm

    Thank you Sean for taking the time to help us better understand that in great writing the subject matter and the artistry are two separate entities.

  21. Patricia May 24, 2016 at 3:06 am

    Hmmm… I guess I’m alone here in thinking that the content and the craft are intertwined. Telling a story about dying with verve seems to me like playing a funeral march in a rollicking 6/8 time signature, allegro con brio. Writing is a just a different sort of music. Verve to me doesn’t equate interest, simply a level of energy, and likewise, adagio writing doesn’t necessarily mean boredom. I loved that this piece was like watching someone walk very slowly from the shallows into the deep with stones in his pockets. I thought it actually enhanced the work rather than detracted from it. I don’t know how many words this story was, but in my recollection, it was significantly shorter than many others. And yet it seem to play out unhurriedly. I liked that and found it very effective. But that’s just me.

  22. Dennis Lang May 24, 2016 at 9:30 am

    Patricia, I don’t think you’re alone if I understand. Reading the story in the “New Yorker” and having been deeply moved by it, discovered this blog looking for commentary.
    I respect the discussion to deconstruct and analyze the skill of the piece. I guess that’s the point of the blog. In my reading the author captured/compressed a life arc that on reflection does unfold in fragments of incidents, characters, remembrances, imaginings, often triggered by unbidden associations–in a voice, that at least for me stimulated a profound empathy.

  23. Trevor Berrett May 24, 2016 at 11:55 am

    Great thoughts, Patricia, and I love how you described the effect the story had on you. It was similar for me.

    I don’t think anyone here disagrees that form and substance are related, and in a successful work they go hand in hand. I think people disagreed that the form/style here worked in this piece. I’m glad to hear from others who didn’t feel that way!

  24. Maria Peiffer June 1, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    I loved this. John L’Heureux brought to life a reality of a person who feels guilt and chronic judgement feels alienated from other people.

    In the beginning, he separated himself as an observer (a “spy”) that made capricious judgements rather than participating with people. He understood as much about himself to realize that he was fearful of people who were different from him.

    In the middle, he was confused, trying to understand himself through writing, but not being able to hear or act on his own convictions rather than asking himself What Would his Wife Do?

    In the end, after the suicide attempt, he became fearless and consequently transubstantiated into one being with his wife. He died being physically connected and feeling and expressing the emotional lack of her from within him.

    Beautiful.

    Maria

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