Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Annie Proulx’s “Rough Deeds” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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Of all the stories in this week’s issue, the one I was most looking forward to was this one, because it is by Annie Proulx. I’m actually not that familiar with Proulx’s work, having read only The Shipping News and a few of her stories, but for some time now I’ve been looking forward to the day when I dig into her work.
While many people may think of Wyoming when they see a short story by Proulx, “Rough Deeds” takes us to the region around New England and southeastern Canada in the early 1700s. Yes, a piece of noir that examines the evil heart in the new world.
After a childhood of deprivation in France, Duquet has moved to New France to grow rich on timber. When his business selling timber to shipyards in Scotland is nicely developed, his business consultant, Dred-Peacock, who initially said Duquet should focus on timber around the Saint Lawrence River, says Duquet is a fool to stay in New France — the economy is to the south — and that he should begin purchasing land and townships in New England. It’s a risky proposition to deal with the land that is so hotly contested, but Duquet does just this, moving south to the colonies at the same time many other immigrants are finding homes there.
One day while surveying some timber land he purchased in Maine, Duquet and his man Forgeron come across a group of men cutting his pines. Things do not turn out well for the group, but an ominous owl watches what takes place (I, myself, was shocked to say the least — having read four of the five “crime” stories, this crime is the most horrific). Years later, after Duquet has changed his business from Duquet et Fils to Duke and Sons, that day when his ambition and rage became one will come back to haunt him.
To be sure, we see the ending coming from a mile away, and this really is, at its heart, just a wonderfully told revenge tale. And yet through the detailed writing and the atmosphere Proulx evoked, I loved walking the old land that, to Duquet, felt so new and mysterious, on which anything could happen. What more does one want from noir fiction?
Last month, we both reviewed and podcasted about NYRB Classics’ new editions of Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man and The Alteration (reviews here and here, respectively, and here’s the podcast). But on the same day those were released, NYRB Classics also published a new edition of Anna Seghers’ Transit (1944; tr. from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo). I really enjoyed the two Amis novels, but, between you and me, if I could choose only one of the three, I’d swoop up Transit – even with its ending that doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the book — without second thoughts.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
Anna Seghers was born in 1900 to an upper middle-class Jewish family in Germany. In 1933, after Hitler took over, she moved to France but had to flee the Nazi invasion again in 1940. She sailed from Marseille to Mexico on the same ship that carried Victor Serge, André Breton, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, around the same time she heard her friend Walter Benjamin had committed suicide on the French-Spanish border after being turned away from Spain when Spain cancelled all transit visas.
In a sense, then, Transit is autobiographical, focusing as it does on those trying to flee before the Nazis arrived, particularly those held up in Marseilles, waiting for the perfect combination of documents that would take them to a new world. That said, here our central character and narrator is a twenty-seven-year-old man who has already escaped a concentration camp in Germany and another in Rouen. Transit begins with this narrator sitting across from some “you” in a Marseilles café, watching the ships in the harbor.
He offers to buy the listener a slice of pizza and then says he once gave up a chance to take a ship — he already had the ticket, the visa, and the transit visa — and now there is a rumor that ship, the Montreal, struck a mine and sank. He knew a couple who was on the ship. He’d like to imagine that they made it. Ah, if it won’t be too boring, he’d like to, for once, tell someone the whole story.
Dealing as it does on the life of a refugee who is always circling just on the cusp of survival, the story can be repetitive — wait in line here, wait in line there, secure a visa here, lose it there, always dealing with some bureaucrat – but Transit is far from boring. And so we begin his story in a concentration camp, move from there to an escape that takes us quickly past Paris, and then a life on the edge of frontiers on the dusty, hazy port of Marseilles.
When I say our narrator is nameless, I mean that we don’t know his real name. In the story, he actually possesses two names. On the way to Marseilles, someone asks if he’d deliver a letter to a writer named Weidel, in Paris. When he gets there, he finds Weidel has committed suicide, so the narrator leaves for Marseilles, assuming the name Siedler to assist him along the way, but the authorities think his real name is Weidel. Kafka would have been proud to see a nameless narrator with two names attempting to secure temporary residence papers, for which one is required to have a transit visa, for which one is required . . . and so on.
In the midst of this waiting game, the narrator befriends a man with an invalid son. When he goes out to find a doctor, he meets Marie, the doctor’s lover. The narrator, now that he’s Weidel/Siedler, turns out to have other connections to Marie.
But as fascinating as the story with Marie is, as fascinating as the trips around the bureaucracy are, for me the book’s real treasure lies in its examination of narrative and its postulation that, in a way, life is but a dream. These two concepts come together.
As I mentioned, when the story begins, the narrator talks of a ship that carried this mysterious couple and that might have sunk, and now he’d like to, for once, tell the whole story. He may feel it’s a way of rescuing them. Also, the manuscript Weidel left behind is a kind of fairy tale that the narrator claims could rescue from evil. And in all of this, there are the hazy harbors of Marseilles, where the narrator seems to be in a state of waiting, or limbo, no longer living, not yet dead, and all the time waiting transit to some promised land where the terrors chasing them down do not exist.
Such a perspective, on narratives and on this dreamy afterlife, is not all positive. The narrator wonders if he’d survived all of these things simply to write about them, as if life is only meant to be the source of some exciting story of humans in mortal peril. And the narrator also knows that the promised land everyone is lining up for is not yet tangible. If — and that’s a big if – we even succeed in arriving there, it won’t be heaven. We are all passing through this life, which perhaps has no meaning and which perhaps leads to nowhere.
Unfortunately, as alive as these concepts are through most of the novel, in the end they take backseat to a strangely compelling love triangle that leads to a rather sentimental epiphany. If you’re thinking of Casablanca, you’re not alone. Still, provocative in so many ways (and the love triangle is rather great), Transit remains powerful and relevant today as we all move about in this life.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Dashiell Hammett’s “An Inch and a Half of Glory” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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It’s time for the summer fiction issue of The New Yorker, and it looks like an exciting package centered on “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Besides the fiction, there is a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy and four true crime accounts (brief, personal accounts, so not as exciting as I had hoped) by George Pelecanos, David Peace, Roger Angell, and Joyce Carol Oates. There are also a couple of memoirs, one by Gary Shteyngart.
And of course, there’s the fiction. Here we have pieces by Jhumpa Lahiri (the longest piece of fiction I’ve seen in the magazine in a long time), Annie Proulx, Sherman Alexie, Ed Park, and — most surprising of all — Dashiell Hammett, one he wrote in the late 1920s, “An Inch and a Half of Glory.”
I enjoy it when The New Yorker gets a hold of a story by a long-deceased writer. Last August they published an almost forgotten story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (see my post here). Certainly Hammett’s name fits with the theme of this issue, but, strangely (or not, if you remember last year’s “science fiction” issue), the story itself does not, at least, not in any specific way that I can see.
At the story’s center is Earl Parish, a man of about thirty years. When the story begins, Earl is standing with a group of people looking at smoke coming out of a second-story window. One in the crowd sees a child up above that, looking out the window, puzzled, perhaps by the people below, but without fear. Everyone agrees the child is in no real danger: the smoke doesn’t suggest an imminent fire, and the fire department is already on its way.
But there is something about watching a confused child that makes one uneasy.
If the child had cried and beat the pane with its hands there would have been pain in looking at it, but not horror. A frightened child is a definite thing. The face at the window held its blankness over the men in the street like a poised club, racking them with the threat of a blow that did not fall.
A group of eight men, including Earl Parrish, go into the smokey building; seven come back out because the smoke is so bad. Earl stays, uncertain because now it looks maybe like he thought he was better than the other seven. They’d be upset if he went up to get the child, coming down looking like the hero when really it was just a bit of smoke. Then again, since he hesitated, he couldn’t go back out: “The men in the street, who no doubt had missed him by this time, would think he had lost courage after breaking faith with them.”
So we see that when this story begins Earl Parrish is an uncertain, unassuming man who helps a child who is in no real danger from a smokey building. The next day he got an inch and a half in the local paper.
That is all just set up. The story is actually about what that inch and a half of print does to Earl Parrish. At first the quiet man, who works in the information booth at the train station, is embarrassed when people talk to him about it, but after a few days they stop. Slightly relieved, he thinks they are just bored with the news. Then, when they refuse to talk about the fire even when he tries to slip it into a conversation, he decides envy is the true culprit, and the bulk of the story shows us what happens to this humble man become proud.
It’s a fun story, though much like the Fitzgerald story it’s pretty clear why it not only hasn’t been hailed as a classic in the eighty years since it was written but also why it was never published in the first place. The writing in and of itself is fine with some nice observations, particularly the parts that examine Earl Parrish’s humility or pride, but on the whole ”An Inch and a Half of Glory” is an on-the-nose moralizing tale, complete with a spiritual baptism by fire, warning us to beware of pride.
Warning: These film posts are not meant to be reviews nor are they meant to be film criticism. While I try not to spoil the films, I do hope to sometimes discuss their central issues without the constraints of ignoring dramatic moments. Please let me know what you think of this film or of Ingmar Bergman.
A few years ago, two of my teenage nieces were visiting my wife and me for the summer. When my birthday came around, they thought I was “super lame” when I got giddy after my wife gave me an Ingmar Bergman boxset instead of some skinny jeans from Hollister or something. I’m still giddy about this box set and watch these movies one or two times each year. The set includes Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Winter Strawberries, and The Virgin Spring. Each film is also available individually from The Criterion Collection.
When I decided to start writing a few thoughts on Bergman’s movies, I was tempted to begin with the three films he made in the early 1960s, often called the Faith Trilogy or the Silence of God trilogy. They were my introduction to Bergman, after all, and Winter Light, the second film, is possibly my favorite movie ever. But for reasons to come, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) seemed a better place to start.
First, Smiles of a Summer Night was the film that brought international success to Bergman. Though he was still a young filmmaker, beginning with Torment in 1944, over the course of a decade he’d already directed 15 feature films. In fact, that he had been so prolific but failed to gain a large audience had taxed Bergman, and it’s hard to get into a discussion about this film without also discussing the depression Bergman was apparently suffering when he wrote it.
Brooding, melancholic, depressing . . . not at all! At the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, Smiles of a Summer Night won the award for Best Poetic Humor, the perfect award for this picture. So this is the second reason I want to start with this film: despite his reputation, Bergman wasn’t all seriousness and sadness, and it pays to remember that. The Criterion cover shows a couple reveling the glorious new dawn.
This movie never fails to charm me, and I can confidently say it never will. Set at the turn of the century (19th to 20th), it begins by introducing us to Fredrik Egerman, played by the great — and I’ll keep bringing him up as I go through more of Berman’s films — Gunnar Björnstrand (one thing I like about Bergman is his use of the same actors over and over again; they are great actors, and it’s fantastic to see them bring out different roles as they age).
Fredrik Egerman is a middle-aged lawyer and has lost his first wife. That’s in the past (kind of). He’s now married to nineteen-year-old Anne (Ulla Jacobsson). They’ve been married for two years when this movie begins, and they’ve never consummated the relationship. Anne is reticent and Fredrik is sensitive: he’d like it to happen — so noble — on her time, when she’s ready. Here they are, early in the film, taking a nap together. They look like two dead people sharing a casket.
But as ignorant as Anne is about sex, she is curious and, perhaps, willing. There’s a moment during the nap when Fredrik looks like he may be making his move, but then he slips up, obviously mostly asleep, and says the name “Desiree.”
Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck) is an old “friend” of Fredrik’s, and it just so happens that Fredrik and Anne are going to see a play that night in which she’s the star. She’s an actress – that says it all (or so the folks say) – and Anne, completely jealous now, cannot stomach the performance and goes home to go to bed. Fredrik, unaware of his slip-up during the nap and therefore ignorant of his wife’s real reason for leaving, decides to go out on a walk with Desiree, ends up soaking wet after falling in a puddle, and, because Desiree’s place is close, has to warm up by putting on the night-clothes of Desiree’s current lover, the arrogant, militaristic Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle). Naturally, the Count shows up during this awkward moment.
Well, the Count’s (also young) wife, Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), knows full-well about her husband’s affair with Desiree, and, despite the comfortable lifestyle he provides her, she doesn’t approve. Desiree doesn’t seem to like the arrangement either. Fredrik has always been her favorite (and may even be the father of her son, Fredrik).
All of this is set up in just the first bit of the film. The fun really begins when Charlotte and Desiree form an unlikely but believable alliance, Charlotte to secure the affections of her own husband, the Count, and Desiree to secure the affections of Anne’s husband, Fredrik. But don’t worry. They aren’t so cruel as to leave Anne out: she can have Fredrik’s grown son, Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam). Henrik is chastely studying to be a minister even amidst the distraction of his father’s young wife and her curvy maid Petra (Hariet Andersson, one of my favorites). Oh, but Henrick has some urges:
Off the families and lovers go to spend some time together in the countryside at the estate of Desiree’s mother, where Charlotte and Desiree hope their plan will come to fruition. Along for the ride and unbridled are Petra and the lusty groomsman Frid (Åke Fridell).
Marvelously acted and full of wit, this is a very fun romantic comedy that manages to be exceedingly light and a touch grave:
Okay, it’s not actually that grave at all. Though Bergman is primarily remembered for his darker films, he should also be remembered for making one of the greatest comedies of all time — before he went on to make some of the greatest films of all time. Thankfully, besides launching his career, this movie gave Bergman that independence.
Today they announced the shortlist for the 2013 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award:
- Tea at the Midland and Other Stories, by David Constantine
- Siege 13, by Tamas Dobozy
- Black Vodka, by Deborah Levy
- Black Dahlia & White Rose, by Joyce Carol Oates
- We’re Flying, by Peter Stamm
- Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins
The winner will be announced sometime during the first week of July.
On first glance, this is an exciting list. I have read some of Black Vodka and We’re Flying, and I’m enjoying both (Levy was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize last year and Stamm was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize this year), and Battleborn recently won The Short Story Prize (I still haven’t gotten my hands on a copy, but from what I’ve seen this is right up my alley). Siege 13 got a nice write-up in The New Yorker this week. That leaves Tea at the Midland and Black Dahlia & White Rose, both of which I know nothing about, though perhaps a few of the stories in the Joyce Carol Oates collection were originally published in The New Yorker, which means I have read a few.
Naomi Alderman’s “Soon and in Our Days” is the fourth story in Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
This is the first piece so far that is a stand-alone story rather than an excerpt from a forthcoming novel (though Alderman is working on another novel), and it was a hoot, a satire of both old and new approaches to religious zeal, or the lack thereof.
When it begins, it’s the first night of Passover and the Rosenbaum family is celebrating. The kids are bored, having lost the magic with age, when Mrs. Rosenbaum opens the door for the Prophet Elijah’s return. While her husband recites the traditional supplication that Elijah return to usher in the Messiah — “‘Pour out thy rage upon them,’ read Mr. Rosenbaum, with passion and gusto” – and, in a flaming chariot, Elijah actually does come down and park next to their Renault Espace. He didn’t return in his official capacity, mind you.
No. I didn’t mean to get your hopes up. I just thought, you know, for a change it might be nice to come down. For Passover. To see how things are. It’s been, literally, ages.
Elijah asks if he could maybe stay in their spare room — “If it’s not too much trouble.”
Mrs. Rosenbaum doesn’t like it at all, telling her husband that his “tradition” of making his wife open the door for Elijah is ridiculous — “I would have liked to be more modern, but you said no.”
I was surprised to find that I enjoyed each of the characters in this story, from Elijah to Mr. Rosenbaum — “And it’s a miracle, after all.” — to the Rosenbaum children, who delight in revealing that some of the people eating leavened bread at the park during Passover are Jewish. I imagine in someone else’s hands, portraying the foibles of these characters, their judgments and self-righteousness, would merely manage to make the characters despicable. Here that’s not the case. All of the characters are recognizable and warm.
And poor Elijah, completely out of his element in modern-day Hendon:
‘How is Ba’al getting along these days?’ asked Elijah, in an apparent attempt to help. ‘Get much trouble with Ba’al round these parts?’
‘Oh, no,’ said the rabbi. ‘No, there hasn’t been any . . . well, apart from that unfortunate business with Mr Bloom . . . No. We haven’t had any Ba’al worship for quite some time.’
He finds other troubles. He offers to have a contest with the idol worshippers. Let’s see if Bee’Yon’Say or Bee-Bear can send down fire from heaven to light their pier.
Despite all that, the humor is understated and all of the characters, including Elijah, have a certain stereotypical British humility and deference. For example, when asked if he was upset enough about the state of affairs to do something apocalyptic, Elijah answers, “Oh no, no. I’m not authorized to set anything like that in motion.”
A humorous take on a concept similar to The Grand Inquisitor, ”Soon and in Our Days” manages to show just how different current religious sensibilities are from the Old Testament — for most of us.
Is this typical Naomi Alderman? If so, I must read more.
This month, we are joined by Nick During of NYRB Classics to discuss Kingsley Amis’s novels The Alteration and The Green Man.
We do apologize to you and to Nick, though, because for some reason only half of our discussion was recorded. Brian and I did get back together a few weeks later (finding time was difficult) and did what we could to cover some of what we discussed.
In the Fall of 2012, NYRB Classics began a project to release new editions of ten Kingsley Amis novels, starting with his comic debut, Lucky Jim, and his Booker Prize winning The Old Devils. Recently they released two more, venturing this time to Amis’s work with a science fiction/alternate history novel in The Alteration and a classic ghost story in The Green Man.
NYRB Classics published these editions of The Alteration and The Green Man in May of 2013, and they are the books we’ll be talking about in Episode 8 of The Mookse and the Gripes Podcast.
In Episode 9 we will be returning to the first author we discussed on this podcast and discuss John William’s magnificent Stoner. If you have any thoughts on John Williams or Stoner, we’d love to hear from you via email, via comments, or via Twitter. Perhaps we can set up a Skype call to pull some sound bites of your thoughts.
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Show Notes (53:06)
- A look at what NYRB Classics has in store (03:13)
- Bio of Kingsley Amis (06:41)
- Brief glimpse at Lucky Jim and The Old Devils (11:45)
- Synopses of The Green Man and The Alteration (14:16)
- Discussion of The Alteration (18:05)
- Discussion of The Green Man (35:29)
- Co-Host Trevor Berrett
- Co-Host Brian Berrett
- Guest Nick During 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 — “Where I’m From” by Jeff Zentner, from his album The Dying Days of Summer (used with permission)
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Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Akhil Sharma’s “We Didn’t Like Him” was originally published in the June 3, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
I liked Akhil Sharma’s “We Didn’t Like Him,” whose setting is the land of death and what we do to relieve its loss. The story felt so appropriate to the day, given that I was reading it on Memorial Day, a time in my own family which had often been marked by visits to the cemetery bearing flowers. Just to think of the cemetery, though, one is confronted with confusion: so much lost, so much undone. Sharma’s story floats on these facts – what scarcities life provides us with to deal with the deprivations death enforces. Sharma’s flat tone allows him to tell both about the scarcities that death ensures, and also about the kind of sudden reversal into life and newness that we all crave.
Could this story happen? Sharma persuades me, with his deceptively flat account, that it could, and in the telling, there’s a richness of the unfamiliar (the story takes place in a city in northern India) that allows us to access the deep sadness beneath. In his interview with Deborah Treisman, Sharma remarks that in the course of writing the story, he had his own epiphany, and I really enjoyed hearing about that. He tells about how the story began with his own annoyance at a religious functionary at his own brother’s funeral, but how writing the story ended with him thinking, “We are all foolish. We all do dopey things.” Isn’t that true. The question Sharma sets up for the reader is whether or not we get that, that everybody does selfish things, clings to useless grudges and hatreds. What could shake you out of that? What could bring you to your senses?
In short, the story revolves around its title, around the casual, entitled dislike the narrator has always felt for Manshu, a kind of third cousin who even as a grown man is defined by the nonsense he got up to as a child. What was it the narrator never liked? Manshu had an annoying way of barging into your life from the very beginning: taking over and ruining the little kids’ street games, taking over and coloring, somehow, the role of pundit in the local temple, the way he so self-importantly could visit all the women in the neighborhood to pray with them, the way he took it upon himself to marry out of caste, the way he tried to make money off his temple job.
In an off moment, part way through the story, the narrator admits what it is that really bothers him about Manshu. It is that he is an orphan, his father dying when he was five and his mother about ten years later. The narrator remembers being about 13 and having to make the ritual visit to Manshu upon his being orphaned, upon the occasion of the second parent’s death.
I got scared. I wanted to leave so badly I did not care if I hurt Manshu’s feelings.
So, in fact, the story follows a braided line: the “hatred” he nurses for Manshu, the way he counts up, almost treasures, all the foolish things that Manshu does combines with his own uses for that hatred – that the grudge helps him deep-six his own fear of his own parents’ inevitable death, his own fear of having to make his own way.
Manshu is annoying, and it’s easy to get caught up in the narrator’s self-righteousness. Later, there are more deaths. Oh, the nonsense we get up to in the face of other people’s losses. Somehow, right in the middle of Manshu’s most grievous loss, the narrator entitles himself to a last act of very profound carelessness toward Manshu. And yet, Sharma manages a small, sudden, welcome, workable, redemptive explosion out of all this recurring selfishness. Manshu is suddenly honest, and the narrator is suddenly kind. Were it possible for such honesty to work such transformations in the broader world today.
Death confronts us with confusion: so much lost, so much undone. This story provides a small reprieve.
Sharma’s flat tone allows him to touch upon the deepest of emotions without putting us off. I look forward to reading more from Akhil Sharma.
When I finished the story, I had a similar reaction to Betsy’s. I appreciated how well Sharma navigated these difficult waters in a first-person narrative, taking us from the narrator’s childhood to that “redemptive explosion” after the narrator and Manshu have lost so much.
The narrator is a tricky fellow. He presents himself as fairly reasonable and deferential, humble and sensitive. He appears wise and repentent as he’s aged, understanding his cruelty as a child of eight or nine who didn’t think Manshu, who had lost his father, had a right to speak to the narrator’s father.
And yet this sense of wisdom still blinds the narrator. Over the years, as the two have grown up and gone on to start their professions (the narrator as a lawyer, Manshu as a pandit for the temple), the narrator’s wisdom and forgiveness have given him a sense of superiority. As an adult, Manshu cannot shed the wretched child he was.
So much was changing in my life and so little in his that I began to see Manshu as simpleminded.
I found it interesting that the narrator’s views were set on a foundation laid by the narrator’s father, and the narrator admits to this off-handedly. And yet, so well does the narrator present his reasonableness, his sense of weary care for his simpleminded relative, that we readers may actually justify his greatest offense. But what an offense! Unfeeling in every way, the narrator takes his self-appointed role too far, and the result is a rich story that examines self-perception as it accumulates losses throughout the years.
They’ve just announced this year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize:
I’m thrilled at this news. Not only is Lydia Davis one of my favorite writers, she is also a short story writer and a supreme translator (in fact, the only thing I have reviewed here from her is her translation of Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow (here); we’ve even done a podcast on it (here)). Click here for the official press release.
A deserving winner, indeed, from a very good list of finalists. I’d have been happy with almost any of them winning, truth be told, but I’m feeling particularly happy that it went to Davis. Davis is not the first short story writer that the Man Booker International Prize has chosen to honor. In 2009, the award went to another of my favorite writers, Alice Munro.
Stepping back, it’s worth pausing a moment to look at the five winners of the Man Booker International Prize
- 2005: Ismail Kadare
- 2007: Chinua Achebe
- 2009: Alice Munro
- 2011: Philip Roth
- 2013: Lydia Davis
Four of these winners write in English (the last four, in fact). The last three have all been from North America. They happen to be three of my favorite authors, so I have no problems with them winning this award — truly. Also it would undermine the integrity of the award if judges decided it would be inappropriate to award, say, Lydia Davis because of those who’ve already won the award. They should be judging their finalists and choosing the one they think deserves the prize in that particular year. And, of course, these authors are all different from the other. Just because Lydia Davis and Alice Munro both write short stories does not mean they write in nearly the same vein. Just because Lydia Davis and Philip Roth are both from the United States does not mean there are any other similarities.
Still, this international prize has not felt particularly international, and, while I don’t think we can use that to criticize the prize or the judges, I do think it shows the difficulties inherent in putting together an award like this. Perhaps the best way we readers can use this prize is to consider Davis a worthy winner and seek out work from all of the finalists.
Leandro Sarmatz’s “The Count” (“O Conde”; tr. from the Portuguese by Peter Bush) is the ninth 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.
This relatively short piece (only five pages) centers around Emil Fleischer, a Yiddish actor from Czernowitz, before and after World War II. He is known as the Count due to his specialty performance: Count Dracula. When the story begins, he has just been released from a concentration camp in Poland. We are told that he survived the experience, at least in part, because he fed on a dream of going to America, an example of logotherapy, Viktor Frankl’s psychotherapeutic method.
Indeed, the Count, though “he suffered privations nobody can ever anticipate,” recognizes that he’s passed over that terrible time better off than most: “Besides, he seemed to have an iron constitution. There was a touch of magic in surviving all that.” Prior to being placed in the concentration camp, he survived a couple of certain-death situations because of his acting skills and his knowledge of German. And now, released, things seem to be moving in the right direction. He’s had a few comfortable nights, finally, with plenty to eat, and he’s decided to visit Czernowitz one last time — “before it was swallowed up by the death machine” — and then head to America to realize the dream that kept him alive.
It’s an interesting story about being caught up in the trappings of history and about the ironies of fate. In fact, the irony is so pronounced it might feel a bit cheap. In other words, if you don’t like O’Henry, this story may not do much for you. I’m afraid it didn’t do much for me.