If you’ve been following along, you know that Betsy and I just finished reading and posting on Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. Without delay, it is time we got started with Munro’s third book, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974).
We will soon be posting our thoughts on the first story, and I wanted to get this anchor post set up so that any of you who are interested in joining us can get the book and get started.
Review copy courtesy of Vintage.
Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You contains the following thirteen stories:
- Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You
- How I Met My Husband
- Walking on Water
- Forgiveness in Families
- Tell Me Yes or No
- The Found Boat
- The Spanish Lady
- Winter Wind
- The Ottawa Valley
A couple of years ago, Open Letter Books published Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture, a collection of essays examining culture from a wide variety of perspectives. Deservedly, that book went on to become a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. We now have the great fortune of a new book of Ugresic’s essays: Europe in Sepia (Europa u sepiji, 2013; tr. from the Croatian by David Williams, 2014).
Review copy courtesy of Open Letter Books.
In some ways, the book’s main theme is nostalgia, though not in a conventional sense. Ugresic continues her examination of today’s culture, albeit tongue-in-cheek. Things are not what they used to be:
Blessed were the times of totalitarian dictatorships and information blockades!
I pulled that quote out of context. When she says the above, Ugresic is talking about the information revolution and how, every day, she is unnerved by some “disturbing piece of news,” almost making thoughts of that time when such a vast amount of information was inaccessible seem like a good dream.
Of course, the simple time she longs for was only a subjective, personal illusion enforced by brutality, and Ugresic, who was born and raised in Yugoslavia (in a region that is now part of Croatia), has been politically active and self-reflective for some decades. In Europe in Sepia, Ugresic examines her own relationship to this old brutality as well as our cultural relationship to many new forms of brutality that have, often in a more quiet manner, taken the old form’s place.
The first piece in the collection, entitled “Nostalgia,” takes us to Zuccotti Park in October 2011, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Ugresic went to visit at that time and found herself thinking more about her own revolutionary spirit, old accusations of “Yugonostalgia” (initially, Ugresic advocated reform within Yugoslavia rather than its dissolution), and her own relationship with the media that ridiculed and demonized her in the early 1990s. She calls the Occupy Wall Street participants the Zuccotti kids, and she feels for them. At the same time, they are small, their drums only echoing around the world because “[i]n those few days the Zuccotti kids were photographed so often that thirty years’ worth of Japanese tourists haven’t managed to take more photos of Mannekan Pis, the famous little peeing boy of Brussells.” It’s clear that, while Ugresic is compassionate and sympathetic to the movement, she doesn’t think it’s going to go far. In fact, in the end, the “kids” will probably just be eaten up by the media. But, for now, at least there is some drumming.
It’s an excellent essay in an excellent collection in which Ugresic finds herself, by virtue of living long enough, in the ”brighter future”:
It’s entirely possible that as a child I had been wound not according to Greenwich time, but rather to a socialist clock, one always rushing on ahead into the brighter future, toward progress, a tomorrow envisaged as a majestic fireworks display of a thousand shapes and colors.
And yet, in the same essay, she finds herself taking pictures and making them look like the past. She finds herself in an airport bookstore buying her third copy of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, the first because “I was curious, the second and now third time simply to suppress any urge to buy Fifty Shades of Grey.” In another essay, all of the themes come together (again) when she talks about a YouTube video clip that used to be used as propaganda in Croatia in the 1970s, showing Zagreb’s economic boom in the late 1960s.
The Internet is like the ocean — every day it washes new debris upon the shore. The clip in question is just one such piece of detritus. Viewed by anyone able to claim it as part of his or her own mental baggage, it’s bound to prompt a reaction. My Zagreb acquaintance complains that her husband just sits there on YouTube all day, watching the clip over and over, bawling his eyes out. “He’s completely lost his marbles! How can someone cry over a bunch of sepia shots of factory halls?!” she protests. Her husband used to work at the factory. In the “transition” period it went belly-up, and he was forced to take early retirement.
Is the brighter future simply brighter because the past is in sepia? What brighter future do we now promise ourselves — if we even do?
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” was originally published in the March 3, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
I think Denis Johnson is an exceptional writer, so I was excited to find him in this week’s issue. I’ll have my thoughts up shortly.
“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” by Denis Johnson, is a loose collection of memories that trouble Bill Whitman, a 63-year-old ad-man. In fact, throughout these ten vignettes, Whitman is troubled by thoughts of “repentance and regret,” is troubled by his “crimes” against his first wives, is “confused” by his relationships to other people, is nagged by his relationship to his work (it seems to leave his bowels “in flames”), and throughout, although art beckons to him, he has trouble answering its call.
The reader is troubled by the dreamlike quality of almost every vignette, and even more troubled by the cool distance at which Whitman holds everyone else that he knows. Johnson, a Christian, has placed Whitman in the neighborhood of a couple of churches, but Whitman scarcely notices, just as he scarcely notices his wife Elaine, except to say she is a good cook and a good companion, just as he hardly seems to notice the art he mentions in almost every vignette.
He seems like a contemporary Prufrock, a cool man in blazer and tasseled loafers, lost amid the plenty of life.
I enjoyed this peculiar piece of writing. In places Whitman seemed deranged, like a character from Poe, and in places, the vignettes that Whit recounts feel more like the bad dreams he tells us he suffers from.
What I think made the story work for me was that in places, like the rest of us, Whit seems on the verge of some kind of recognition, but just like the rest of us he usually stops short before he can reach any kind of revelation. Amputation is a theme that is introduced in the first vignette, as if Johnson is warning us that this will be a theme. In Whit’s case, the amputation is a way of describing his distanced, pained involvement in regular life. He is a man distanced from his wife, and almost divorced from his grown daughters. It is as if his family, his friends, his work, his art, and his religion are all phantom limbs. In fact, this is a man who is greyed out: he seems to have no sexual being, despite having had three wives. It is as if his sexual life has been amputated as well.
I also liked the note of the bizarre – the bizarre that lies just beneath the surface of ordinary life. In the fourth vignette, one of his former wives calls to say she is dying and to say she wants to “forgive” him. Whit apparently apologizes for his silences, his secrets, his infidelities and his lies, enough so that the former wife hangs up. Trouble is, Whit is not sure if he was talking with his first wife, Ginny, or his second wife, Jenny. No matter, he thinks. In the end, he says, “both sets of crimes had been the same.”
But what I mean by the way amputation works in this story is this. He simply stops with there. He has no concern for which wife is actually dead. He has no recollection of either wife’s beauty, allure, or kindness; it is as if his own “crimes” against them obliterated any memory of their actual life. He feels no sorrow or pity for the suffering she may be actually enduring at the present. He feels no shame or regret at his present crime: his aloofness.
As I write about this story, I realize how much I like it. There is a note of Dickens here, with a man sensing that his life has been squandered. (Money is another active device in this story.) There is the note of Poe, with the man who does not realize how deranged he actually is, despite his orderly presentation in blazer and tasseled loafers. There is, in each disorderly vignette, a lot left for the reader to think about. Johnson himself is about 65, and I recognize the impulse to look back on life. What I enjoy about this story is that it is so hallucinatory that it feels fresh, and in addition, the hallucinatory, somewhat like a Chagall painting, allows for a lot of Whit’s life to be floated out there.
Art, painting and writing comprise several subjects of the story, and I notice Whit’s name, an amputation of Whitman, with the man’s corollary amputation of empathy and personal connection. There is an ambition in the piece that rewards the reader.
But here I regret to admit that I can only recommend the story with this caveat: I’m going to have to wait for my paper issue to arrive before I can give it a second read.
I am away from home and using my HP lap-top. The New Yorker “Archives” format is almost unreadable on my device. My lap-top is large, but The New Yorker print is tiny. When I tap the Archive page to enlarge it, the print becomes so fuzzy as to be almost equally unreadable. It’s like reading microfiche. (Does anyone even remember microfiche?)
As I poked around the internet reading various reviews of Johnson, I noticed that my laptop could handle The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Atlantic Monthly with ease. In all, my laptop rendered the print from those publishers highly readable. In contrast, The New Yorker “Archives” print is ridiculously inadequate. At home, my Dell desktop is able to make The New Yorker “Archives” print legible, but not large. I usually print the story, because the on-line experience is so miserable.
Of course, this may all reflect on my lack of technical expertise. But I counter – on both of my Windows devices, I can read any number of sources with great ease. I just can’t read The New Yorker Archives with any ease. In addition, the “Archives” make it difficult on the reader to move from section to section. I would love to hear from anyone who could explain why The New Yorker “Archives” needs to be so difficult to negotiate and read. They should take a look at The Paris Review. There’s a web site that has magnificently presented print.
My apologies to Denis Johnson. I recommend his story, and I think it benefits from a leisurely encounter and a second reading. I look forward to that second reading when I get my paper issue on Thursday.
“Epilogue: The Photographer” is the eighth and final piece in Alice Munro’s second book, Lives of Girls and Women. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.
The epilogue to Lives of Girls and Women begins by talking about suicides. “This town is rife with suicides,” Del would often hear her mother say. Though when she grew up Del figured that her mother was wrong and that Jubilee couldn’t have more suicides than the statistical average, her mother could certainly go a while naming the men and women who’d killed themselves over the years (which, since Del is probably right about the statistical average, means this can all be very bleak). Del settles on two, the two by drowning, bringing us back to the terrifying climax in “Baptism.” It also takes us back to “Changes and Ceremonies,” where we already read about Miss Farris’s suicide by drowning. Now we hear a bit about seventeen-year-old Marion Sherriff’s.
Marion was a wonderful tennis player in the high school, so great, in fact, that they have a trophy named after her which they give to the best girl athlete in the school. Each year the winning girl’s name is engraved on the trophy which is then put back in a case at the school. Why did Marion commit suicide? Was she pregnant, as many suspect? And what is the fate of these other girls? That question lingers in the book entitled Lives of Girls and Women, where so many of the women are drowning, even if they are still walking around on dry ground.
That’s not where this epilogue goes explicitly. Rather, Del focuses on her first attempts at writing stories. That said, I think this is Munro’s way of suggesting just how important it is to get at those other stories, the ones that appear nondescript, the ones that might look boring at first, the ones that result from Del’s epiphany:
People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.
In Del’s first attempt at writing a novel she focuses on the Sherriff family because many in town, including her mother, always said, “Well, there is a family that has had its share of Tragedy!” Marion died by drowning, her brother died an alcoholic, and another brother is in the asylum at Tupperton — “I picked on the Sherriff family to write about; what had happened to them isolated them, splendidly, doomed them to fiction.”
In this book, Marion’s name has been changed to Caroline, which has a romantic sound. As we see the following lengthy, but important and extremely well crafted passage, the real Marion disappears quickly into this more romantic girl of fiction:
Her name was Caroline. She came ready-made into my mind, taunting and secretive, blotting out altogether that pudgy Marion, the tennis player. Was she a witch? Was she a nymphomaniac? Nothing so simple!
She was wayward and light as a leaf, and she slipped along the streets of Jubilee as if she was trying to get through a crack in an invisible wall, sideways. She had long black hair. She bestowed her gifts capriciously on men — not on good-looking young men who thought they had a right to her, not on sullen high-school heroes, athletes, with habits of conquest written on their warm-blooded faces, but on middle-aged weary husbands, defeated salesmen passing through town, even, occasionally, on the deformed and mildly deranged. But her generosity mocked them, her bittersweet flesh, the color of peeled almonds, burned men down quickly and left a taste of death. She was a sacrifice, spread for sex on moldy uncomfortable tombstones, pushed against the cruel bark of trees, her frail body squashed into the mud and hen dirt of barnyards, supporting the killing weight of men, but it was she, more than they, who survived.
In the novel, a mysterious photographer comes to the highschool:
The pictures he took turned out to be unusual, even frightening. People saw that in his pictures they had aged twenty or thirty years.
Most people fear him, yet Caroline runs after him. This is the man she falls for, the man who impregnates her. Then, one day she finds his car overturned in a ditch, empty. She walks to her death in the river. Caroline’s brother in the asylum receives the photograph taken of Caroline: her eyes were white.
This is the older Del recalling, with some degree of embarrassment, her first jabs at narrative: “I had not worked out all the implications of this myself, but felt they were varied and powerful.” Of course, Caroline’s story has absolutely nothing to do with the Sherriff’s real life; it’s derived from Del’s own experiences in the library. Yet there is some connection to reality. This still comes from Jubilee, a place Del looks down on as she turns it into her “black fable.”
Then, one day she goes on a walk to see if her exam results have arrived. They haven’t, but she passes the Sherriff’s yard and Bobby Sherriff, home from the asylum for who knows how long, invites her to come in sit down for some cake. Del looks around and sees all the ordinary items: “The ordinariness of everything brought me up short, made me remember. This was the Sherriff’s house.”
She is struck by these items. She sees the door frame that Marion walked through on her way everywhere, including to the river.
And what happened, I asked myself, to Marion? Not to Caroline. What happened to Marion? What happened to Bobby Sherriff when he had to stop baking cakes and go back to the asylum? Such questions persist, in spite of novels. It is a shock, when you have dealt so cunningly, powerfully, with reality, to come back and find it still there.
This is where I think the story comes back to the fate of all those other girls on that trophy — “such questions persist, in spite of novels.” The ordinary, the mundane, the quotidian: that’s where Del — that’s where Munro — dwells when she becomes a writer. She makes lists of the ordinary, though “no list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting.”
This is an exceptional ending for at least two reasons: first, it ushers Del — and, with her, Munro — into her vocation as a writer; and, second, it is the culmination of everything we’ve read before as we explored, by way of so many different avenues, the lives of girls and women.
The sublime Alice. In her memoir, Sheila Munro says:
I read once that when a certain group of well-known Canadian women writers got together to discuss literature, they referred to my mother as “The Sublime Alice.” (252)
The last piece in the book, Lives of Girls and Women, indicates why Alice Munro deserves to be called sublime.
Above all, there is her concern with humility. In “Epilogue: The Photographer,” Munro mentions how at one point in her life, Del viewed everything her mother said “with skepticism and disdain.” The reader is left to judge, given what we have read in the previous seven stories, if Del has grown beyond that stage, or at least has grown into struggling with that attitude. Del’s mother is present in every story – sometimes brave, sometimes foolish, and always, completely, deeply human. The adult Del treats her gently, all the while telling us what the critical, unforgiving, adolescent Del thought. Two things stay with me: Del’s enormous, delicate understanding of her mother’s difficult upbringing and Del’s identification with her mother’s fierce intellectual ambition. When Del tells us she had been disdainful of her mother at one point, I think we see the book is proof this is a school of thought from which she has graduated.
In her stories, Munro privileges various points of view above her own: we understand both Del and her mother; we understand Fern and Naomi; we understand Garnet and Jerry Storey; we understand Miss Farris and Mr. Boyce. We understand that each life has its push-pull struggle. Above that, Munro does not intrude.
This “epilogue” also tells the story of an encounter Del had at 18 with Bobby Sherriff, the local guy who had been in and out of the asylum. Bobby invites Del onto his porch to have some tea and cake. This encounter provokes in Del a variety of revelations about the nature of writing, but at this point, I am interested in the revelation she has about herself. When saying good-bye, Bobby wishes her good luck. Del remembers back:
People’s wishes, and their other offerings, were what I took then naturally, a little distractedly, as if they were never more than anything more than my due.
Yes, I said, instead of thank you.
The reader admires such honesty – that Del can admit what she used to be like, that she thought it was her due to be admired or wished well. Now she can indicate what she should have been like, and Munro offers this apologia for Del; as the very last words in her book, she offers a tribute to humility.
During this morning “tea” with Bobby Sherriff, Del realizes that the gothic novel she had been writing about his family was a failure. Some “damage had been done.” She means she knows the novel is a failure. She does not explain precisely what the damage was, except that we know she has fictionalized many of the details of Sherriff family story, and she knows, too, that while she used to feel the story she had written was “true,” she didn’t exactly know what that truth was. Perhaps the truth was “I did not pay much attention to the real Sherriffs.” Perhaps the real truth was, as she realized in time, “the ordinariness of everything” is what mattered rather than using reality to create a clever take or make of real people a “black fable.” Slowly, Del, the writer, is learning the uses of writing – not to be clever, and not to get revenge, but instead writing should represent “every last thing.” It is every last thing and “every layer of speech and thought” that should be “radiant” and “everlasting.” It is what is represented that is important, not the author.
Another face of the sublime in Alice Munro has to do with her use of autobiographical detail. The writing is so plain-spoken, so understated, and so properly elliptical, that Munro herself is a shadow in the background. For instance, in “Epilogue” Munro opens with Del’s mother remarking, “This town is rife with suicides.” Several suicides are recounted. Del focuses on the death of Marion Sheriff, one of whose brothers died an alcoholic and the other spent a lot of time in the local asylum. Del tells how her mother’s boarder thought that a suicide at seventeen must be because of pregnancy. The boarder asks, “Otherwise, why drown yourself at seventeen?”
That question is not answered. Instead, Del shifts immediately to talking about how “the only thing to do with my life was write a novel.” But the idea of suicide is in the air – without books, without writing, what would life be? On the one hand, there is the life of the mind, and on the other, something as blank, something as black, perhaps, as the Wawanash River. But Munro does not say that. She leaves you to think it.
That kind of shift is ordinary in Munro, and the reader is trusted to read between the shifts, to read into the juxtapositions. That is sublime.
As everyone who reads the “Epilogue” can see, Munro lays out her own Ars Poetica:
[. . .] what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together – radiant, everlasting.
And that is sublime as well.
All of Lives of Girls and Women is true to that goal of every last thing “held still and held together.” Just to pick one thread from many, I want to look at how she views writing itself, since writing is the topic of the “Epilogue” and also the topic of its Ars Poetica.
Writing and reading comprise a vast terrain in Lives of Girls and Women. There are the tabloids that Uncle Benny reads and that little Del loves, too, and there are the newspapers, like the Jubilee Herald-Advance, that her mother reads. Her Uncle Craig keeps locked boxes full of precious newspaper clippings that will help him write his history. Del herself reads magazine articles, such as the one by a “famous New York psychiatrist.” There are the Bibles her grandmother wants the local poor man to read, the encyclopedias her mother wants the farm families to buy, and the nursing textbooks Naomi’s mother wants no one to read. There is the Book of Common Prayer, and there are the hymns sung at church, at home, at funerals and revivals, and there are children’s folksongs sung in the street. There is even a patriotic school song that Del teaches Uncle Benny. There is the library, where Wuthering Heights, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Kristen Lavransdatter, Look Homeward, Angel, and Tennyson and Browning are “worlds of creation.” There are Del’s father’s copies of H.G. Wells’s Outline of History and Robinson Crusoe and also his James Thurber; there is Addie’s Tennyson, the gift to her from Miss Rush. There is the King Arthur in the Grade Seven Reader, there is Browning in the University exam.
Del is not the only reader: her mother favors reading that makes her think, like the magazine article “Heirs of the Living Body” that proposed that human organs could be transplanted. One year Addie joined a Great Books discussion group, and the next year enrolled in a correspondence course on the “Great Thinkers of history.” In contrast, Del’s father preferred to read the same books over and over, like personal bibles. Uncle Benny preferred the tabloids. Fern, the boarder, has a stash of sexual how-to lore and a little collection of salacious verse like “The Lament of the Truckdriver.”
Del herself prefers the library – she tells us: “I was happy in the library.” This is where she could read an adventure about an orphaned baby (The Winning of Barbara Worth), as well as a Norwegian epic by Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset.
Writing abounds in many forms in this book. Uncle Benny wants to write a letter, but he has to ask Del to write it, because he can’t write. There is Uncle Benny’s wife, who can barely write, but manages to get a letter to him after she has run away, asking, not for forgiveness, but for her favorite yellow sweater. Del’s classmate Frank Wales cannot spell but can sing like an angel. Del’s mother writes “op-ed” pieces for the paper and advocates things like free birth control for everyone. She also writes romantic descriptions for the paper, essays she signs “Princess Ida.” Addie does the crossword puzzles, and she concocts writing games for her ladies’ tea party. As town clerk, Uncle Craig writes documents like licenses, but he also writes family trees and local history, both of which strike Del as lifeless. There are Uncle Craig’s sisters who tell stories. Uncle Bill writes, too; he writes a will in which he leaves a bequest of $300 to his sister, blood money, really, meant to erase the damage he’d done as an adolescent, when he’d abused Addie in the barn. There are two important sermons: one by the Anglican minister on Easter Sunday, the one that makes no sense to Del, and is the beginning of the end of her experiment with religion; and one the revivalist gives about the sinner crossing above the fires of hell on a rope bridge, the threads of the bridge being continually nicked by the sinner’s sins. And there is Del herself, known to be a great essay writer.
Ghastly Mr. Chamberlain writes love letters of some sort to Fern.
The high school “writes” maxims on the schoolroom walls like “Time and Energy are my Capital; if I Squander them, I shall get no Other.”
And Del writes a novel and locks it up in her uncle’s lock box, having stashed her uncle’s useless clippings and thousand pages of manuscript in the basement.
Such are the layers of thought in reading and writing in Lives of Girls and Women, held still and held all together, ordinary and radiant and – most of all – believable.
People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable – deep caves paved with linoleum.
That is the sublime Alice.
The Literature Translation Institute of Korea has been actively working to showcase English translations of modern Korean literature. Last year, they collaborated with Dalkey Archive to bring out the first ten of a planned twenty-five book set of modern Korean literature “aim[ed] to introduce the intellectual and aesthetic diversity of contemporary Korean writing to English Language Readers” (see The Dalkey Archive webpage here).
Last week, here, M.A. Orthofer of The Complete Review pointed to an online library of short modern Korean works — all free! The Korea Times wrote about the digital library here, saying:
These twenty works are the equivalent of a free collection of modern colonial fiction of Korea that give an overseas reader a snapshot of the first “modern” Korean literature and its styles, themes and discontents.
I don’t plan to cover them individually here (indeed, I have only read the first one), but I wanted to point the way to anyone else who was interested. You can access each of the following works, in PDF format, here.
- Broken Strings (Pageum, 1931), by Kang Kyung-ae (1906 – 1944)(tr. by Sora Kim-Russell)
- Lashing: Notes from a Prison Journal (Taehyeong, 1946), by Kim Dong-in (1900 – 1951) (tr. by Stephen Epstein and Kim Mi Young)
- Tale of a Mad Painter (Gwanghwasa, 1935), by Kim Dong-in (tr. by Stephen Epstein and Kim Mi Young)
- The Golden Bean Patch (Geum Ttaneun Kongbat, 1935), by Kim Yu-jeong (1908 – 1937) (tr. by Eugene Larsen-Hallock)
- The Heat of the Sun (Ttaenbyeot, 1937), by Kim Yu-jeong (tr. by Eugene Larsen-Hallock)
- Home (Gohyang, 1926), by Hyun Jin-geon (1900 – 1943) (tr. by Sora Kim-Russell)
- Poor Man’s Wife (Bincheo, 1921), by Hyun Jin-geon (tr. by Sora Kim-Russell)
- After Beating Your Wife . . . (Cheoreul Ttaerigo, 1937), by Kim Nam-cheon (1911 – 1953) (tr. by Jenny Wang Medina)
- Management (Gyeongyeong, 1940), by Kim Nam-cheon (tr. by Jenny Wang Medina)
- Into the Light (Bit Sokae, 1939), by Kim Sa-ryang (1914 – 1950) (tr. by Jane Kim)
- The Water Mill (Mullaebanga, 1925), by Na Do-hyang (1902 – 1927) (tr. by Jane Kim)
- Poverty (Jeokbin, 1934), by Baek Sin-ae (1908 – 1939) (tr. by Janet Hong)
- Gasil (Gasil, 1923), by Yi Kwang-su (1892 – 1950) (tr. by Peter Lee)
- Child’s Bone (Donghae, 1937), by Yi Sang (1910 – 1937) (tr. by Janet Hong)
- Dying Words (Jongsaenggi, 1937), by Yi Sang (tr. by Jack Jung and Janet Hong)
- The Farmers (Nongchon Saramdeul, 1927), by Cho Myung-hee (1894 – 1938) (tr. by Peter Lee)
- Frozen Fish (Naengdongeo, 1940), by Chae Man-sik (1902 – 1950) (tr. by Myles Ji)
- Transgressor of the Nation (Minjokui Joein, 1948 – 1949), by Chae Man-sik (tr. by Jane Kim)
- Harbin (Harbin, 1940), by Lee Hyo-seok (1907 – 1942) (tr. by Ally Hwang)
- Bunnyeo (Bunnyeo, 1936), by Lee Hyo-seok (tr. by Ally Hwang)
I have to admit that I didn’t know Leigh Brackett was a renowned science fiction author. I only knew her through her screenwriting credits. In 1946 she worked with William Faulkner on Howard Hawks’ film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. In 1959, she worked with Hawks again on his 1959 film Rio Bravo, one of my favorites. She returned to Raymond Chandler in 1973, writing the screenplay for Robert Altman’s film adaptation of The Long Goodbye:. And, perhaps most famously these days, before she died in 1978, she completed the first draft of George Lucas’s The Empire Strikes Back (though she died before she had a chance to revise it and her draft was substantially rewritten by both Lucas and Lawrence Kasdun (you can see her script online here, where you might be surprised to meet Minch rather than Yoda, as well as the ghost of Luke’s father — that’s right, it isn’t Darth Vader yet)). I was excited, then, to find her book The Long Tomorrow (1955) (with its Chandleresque title) in The Library of America’s box set American Science Fiction: Classic Novels of the 1950s, a set that just keeps getting better.
Review copy courtesy of The Library of America.
For me, one of the most striking things about this science fiction novel is its opening third, which has a near complete lack of technology. The story takes place in the United States in the future, but it feels like United States in the 1850s. The protagonist, Len Colter, would feel at home in Huckleberry Finn, as Len too struggles to make sense of the surrounding conventions. The severe religious atmosphere, with its satisfied sense of certainty and distrust of technology and change, is wonderfully handled in layers composed of criticism and respect. The outside world is richly presented, yet this is a story of an inner world and the loss of innocence, when innocence is forced upon you.
The epigraph to the story is the fictional Thirtieth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:
No city, no town, no community of more than one thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile shall be built or permitted to exist anywhere in the United States of America.
Sometime a couple of generations before there was some kind of nuclear war. The fear of large cities is the fear of technology, the fear of amassing power, and also the fear of seeing so much destruction in the blink of an eye. The destruction was so great that essentially there is nothing left. Those best able to survive in such a world happened to be those who were already preparing to live in it: religious sects that advocated simple living all along, and they now hold power, nationally (not that a lot of trans-national communication appears to be happening) and locally. They simply will not let things get out of hand again.
The Long Tomorrow is divided into three sections. In the first, we are immersed in this antique world, populated by New Mennonites, where a religious revival — and a stoning — are commonplace. It’s on a farm in Piper’s Run, “where opportunities for real sinning were comfortably few,” where we first meet fourteen-year-old Len Colter.
Len’s family represents the relationship of three generations to the great destruction — or scourge. Len’s grandmother lived in the world before the destruction, and she mortifies her family when she slips and says, “It was a good world! I wish it hadn’t ended.” Len’s father is severe, though loving, and represents the first generation born in and right after the world ended. He has had a hard life and internalized the post-destruction messages — it helps that things are noticeably better in Piper’s Run in this new world than they had ever been when he was growing up.
But Len (and his friend Esau) is removed from the terror. In fact, the terror he witnesses is the suppressive violence enacted on anyone who seems even an ambiguous advocate for change.
I want to step in here and say that I didn’t find the world Brackett rendered to be one-dimensional. It’s easy to imagine such a world because we see it so often in fiction. Piper’s Run, though, is extreme but presented in a way that also makes it somewhat understandable. Len’s father comes from a place of love and protection and is not presented as maniacal. Len truly loves and understands his father. He just thinks he’s wrong. I think this is a delicate impression, and Brackett does it well.
Len loves to hear his grandma’s stories, and he’s happy that in her old age she’s more reckless in telling them. His dreams are fed by her stories of cities, cars, colors. His dreams, becoming more voracious, are also tantalized by the rumor that one city still exists somewhere out west, a city called Bartorstown. One day he and Esau find a functioning radio receiver and are certain it’s a sign that Bartorstown really exists. They listen to it when they can, hoping something will be transmitted.
The book doesn’t necessarily go where I thought it would. To summarize without spoiling, in the second (and unfortunately slightly dull) section, Len and Esau have abandoned Piper’s Run and go to work in one of the larger cities by the river. Here economic forces have stamped out some — not all, but some — of the religious fervor as well as exposed problems with the country’s current plan. Change is still feared, yet here it is a bit harder to hide all thoughts of change.
Things pick up again nicely when in part three – it can’t be a spoiler, can it? — they go to Bartorstown and find themselves severely disappointed, and not in the way one might expect.
I bring up part three because it’s there that the themes of the book are most satisfyingly explored. Len’s loss of innocence leads him exactly where he always wanted it to be, but he finds there more oppressive forces that he never could have anticipated. He finds there people who want to escape their own inescapable prisons. And he finds himself unable to return to where he once was.
I know this sounds like he finds evil and corruption at Bartorstown, as if Brackett is warning us to be careful what you wish for. But it’s not that at all. It’s simply not that simple. Again, Brackett shows that while she’s created a convincing, interesting world, she’s much more interested in exploring the human conscience.
Dan Rhodes’ Marry Me (2013), just out in the U.S. from Europa Editions, is a collection of around 80 short — very short — stories focused on, says Michael Dirda in his exciting review for The Washington Post (here), love, marriage, infidelity, divorce, and death. Perfect for Valentine’s Day, right?
I actually do not have this book. Earlier in the week, Europa Editions emailed folks and gave permission to post a few of the stories from this book on their blogs. I read the three stories they sent, and now I’m kicking myself for not getting the whole collection. After reading Dirda’s review, which contains several of the stories as well as his astute analysis, I kicked myself even harder. These understated — often unstated — stories are funny and biting as they eschew conventional views of love and even masculinity. I’m rereading Jane Austen this year, and even before Dirda made the comparison I was thinking how much she’d love these pieces.
Anyway, here are three of the stories (though not three that particularly remind me of Jane Austen), presented in increasing degrees of dread, the first being the most lovey I’ve seen from the collection.
I asked my girlfriend to marry me, and she said yes. I couldn’t afford a diamond, so instead I handed her a lump of charcoal. ‘It’s pure carbon,’ I explained. ‘Now, if we can just find a way to rearrange the atoms . . .’
She stared at the black lump in her palm, and I began to worry that ours was going to be the shortest engagement in history. She smiled. ‘We’ll put it under the mattress,’ she said. ‘Maybe we’ll squash it into a diamond over time.’
It’s been there ever since. We check up on it every once in a while, and it never looks any different. I think we would be disappointed if it ever did.
My fiancée suggested we get married while strapped together and falling ten thousand feet from an aeroplane. I wasn’t nearly as interested as she was in that kind of thing, and suggested we have a more conventional ceremony. She dismissed my misgivings. ‘Feel the fear,’ she said, ‘and do it anyway. That’s my motto.’ Not wishing to appear unmanly, I went along with her plan, and I have to admit that in the event it was a lot of fun exchanging vows in mid-air while a vicar plummeted alongside us.
Unfortunately, our parachute has failed to open, and our marriage is looking likely to prove shortlived. She’s screaming in terror, and I’m wondering whether this would be a good moment to remind her that it had been her idea.
A week before our wedding day, my fiancée suggested I go into suspended animation and leave all the last-minute preparations to her. At first I wasn’t sure about the idea, but she soon convinced me that it would be best for both of us if I was to take something of a back seat. She took me to the local cryogenic freezing centre, and told me she would thaw me out on the morning of the big day. She kissed me goodbye, and shut the door to the chamber.
When I unfroze, there was no one there to meet me. I walked over to her place to see how things were getting along. She saw me coming down the past, and called out, ‘Look everyone, it’s the Iceman.’ As I got closer, I noticed she looked a bit different, in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. A tall, handsome man I had never seen before came out of the house, followed by a group of children, and they all started pointing at me and laughing.
She explained that she’d gotten cold feet, and hadn’t been able to resist setting the time for fifteen years. Then she stopped laughing, and her face turned to stone. She told me she hardly remembered me, and that it was time I left. She said I was trespassing, and that she would be well within her rights to call the police.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
“Baptizing” is the seventh piece in Alice Munro’s second book, Lives of Girls and Women. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.
Baptism represents the death of one life and a rebirth into another. In “Baptism,” Del is seventeen years old, and she recognizes she is about to launch her life on some trajectory, hopefully university. Her best friend Naomi has drifted away from Del, quitting school to work an office job in the creamery. Such a job is, she and Del think, the normal thing for girls to do when they’re preparing for marriage, even if it’s just a hypothetical, wished-for (or not) marriage. Del, meanwhile, bucking convention, is still at school, working hard to get a scholarship that will allow her to go to university.
Baptism also represents cleansing. Remember that the last story, “Lives of Girls and Women,” ended with Del saying she was going to live her life, ”go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what [I] didn’t want.” She’ll try to put that into practice in “Baptizing.”
In this story, though, baptism can also represent drowning. One goes under the water – perhaps waiting with futility for the new life to begin or perhaps simply forcing the old life to die – and does not resurface.
“Baptizing,” the longest story in this book at approximately 70 pages, can essentially be split into three parts. In the first, we see Del and Naomi are on different trajectories. They are splitting apart in every way possible, and Del is set in her conviction that she doesn’t want that kind of life:
What was a normal life? It was the life of the girls in the creamery office, it was showers, linen and pots and pans and silverware, that complicated feminine order; then, turning it over, it was the life of the Gay-la Dance Hall, driving drunk at night along the black roads, listening to men’s jokes, putting up with and warily fighting with men and getting hold of them, getting hold — one side of that life could not exist without the other, and by undertaking and getting used to them both a girl was putting herself on the road to marriage. There was no other way. And I was not going to be able to do it. No.
But Del does go to the Gay-la Dance Hall. She does go to a room with men who are telling dirty jokes, drinking, gearing up for sex. What does Del do? She drunkenly goes out the fire escape, essentially severing all ties to Naomi and that “normal” life.
In the second part, we meet Del’s intellectual rival at the school, Jerry Storey. He’s socially awkward, set apart from the rest of the school, yet he and Del “drifted together” at around the same time Del and Naomi drifted apart. Though everyone thinks Del and Jerry are the same — they are the two smartest in the school — they resent this, seeing themselves as very different from each other.
I though Jerry was a thousand times more freakish, less attractive than I was, and it was plain that he thought putting my brains and his in the same category showed no appreciation of categories; it was like saying Toscanini and the local bandmaster were both talented.
Jerry thinks Del is smart, but he thinks she is smart in useless areas he calls memory tests — literature, history, art. He is scientific, destined for MIT — and he teases Del that he hopes to win the Nobel Prize before the world is destroyed (again, congratulations to Alice Munro, for your win :-) ).
Jerry’s mother also sees Jerry and Del as very different, and she warns Del that Jerry’s trajectory and hers will not match:
“So you mustn’t get into trouble, you know,” she said matter-of-factly. “Jerry couldn’t get married. I wouldn’t allow it. I have seen these cases of young men forced to sacrifice their lives because some girl has got pregnant and I don’t think it’s right. You and I have both seen it, you know the ones I mean, in the school. Shotgun weddings. That’s the style in Jubilee. I don’t agree with it. I never did. I don’t agree that it’s the boy’s responsibility and he should have to sacrifice his career. Do you?”
Del is shocked to find herself discussing diaphragms with Jerry’s mother. She thinks, “The thought of intimacies with Jerry Storey was offensive in itself. Which did not meant that they did not, occasionally, take place.”
As in the first section, when Del suddenly finds herself drunk with a bunch of men, here she finds herself — inexplicably — naked in Jerry’s bedroom (“Each of us was the only avenue to discovery that the other had found.”). The body, the unknown thrill of sex, takes over. Again, though, before anything further happens, Jerry’s mother returns home. Trying to escape this situation unnoticed, Jerry shoves Del, still naked, into his cellar. Later that night, Jerry drops Del’s clothes down the laundry shoot, and Del finds her way home, furious. Furious, probably, that she was shut up naked in a cellar, but what she says is that she was furious “to think of myself naked on that bed. Nobody to look at me but Jerry, giggling and scared and talking dialect. That was who I had to take my offerings. I would never get a real lover.”
In the third section, Del finally does get a real lover, Garnet French. He’s a twenty-three-year-old from a neighboring — and, everyone in Jubilee agrees, wretched — town. Del meets him one Friday when she’s looking for a new experience (“scientific curiosity”); she goes to a religious revival in the Town Hall where The Pied Piper was performed in “Changes and Ceremonies.” She finds the whole thing ridiculous, but it becomes much less so when she strikes up a covert flirtation with this stranger whose name she does not learn for days.
They are nothing alike. Garnet dropped out of school, he’s spent time in prison, he works in a lumberyard, he’s a fervent Baptist, and he has no interest in anything Del is interested in. Yet they become lovers. Del finds herself doing things she’d never do otherwise, like attending the Baptist Young People’s Society every Monday night. She also finds herself unable to study. Del’s calls her out on it — “You’ve gone addled over a boy. You with your intelligence.” But Del, by this time, has no interest or confidence in her mother’s asexual way of life. Del would come home after being with Garnet and find her mother on her bed, ready to read out of the university catalogs.
“Tell you what I would take — ” She was not afraid of Garnet anymore, he was fading in the clear light of my future.
Yet Del finds herself unafraid as well: “I did not fear discovery, as I did not fear pregnancy.” She doesn’t fear these because she doesn’t think they are possible. Yet, she’d be surprised to find out, she also doesn’t fear them because she doesn’t simply doesn’t fear them. She wants to end up with Garnet. That Naomi is getting married — because she’s pregnant — is shocking, but when she and Naomi talk about it, Del finds her and Naomi have drifted together again. Del says she has also had sex. She finally is able to tell Naomi about Mr. Chamberlain, from “Lives of Girls and Women.” Naomi denies to herself that she is depressed, and Del suspects it but, I think, in a way, finds it all attractive — probably because it’s what society expects of her and, as we’ve seen so far, that’s hard to escape.
Which brings us to the final moment, the moment we often find in Munro’s stories when everything slows down and we watch a scene play out in horror. Garnet and Del finish making love and go swimming. He asks her, “Would you like a baby?” She simply answers, “Yes,” and thinks:
Where would such a lie come from? It was not a lie.
Garnet tells her she needs to be baptized first, then. She doesn’t want this, she tells him. It may look like it starts out playful, but soon she finds herself in a serious struggle with Garnet, who is trying to baptize her on the spot. She genuinely thinks he’s going to drown her. Fighting under water feels like fighting in a dream.
In reflection, the whole affair with Garnet feels like a “possibly fatal game.” It still might be fatal in one way: she passes her tests but not with marks high enough to get her scholarship.
I was free and I was not free. I was relieved and I was desolate. Suppose, then, I had never wakened up? Suppose I had let myself lie down and be baptized in the Wawanash River.
She wonders about this life, “off and on, as if it still existed — along with the leafy shade and the waterstains in his house, and the bounty of my lover’s body — for many years.” It’s not easy for her to move on (would she have drowned?), but in the end she decides it’s time to “get started on my real life.” And free from the scholarship, free from Naomi, free from Garnet French, she has no idea what that might be.
“Baptizing” tells of the delirious affair that 17-year-old Del has with 23-year-old Garnet French. This passionate affair, which lasts several months, begins when the two strangers encounter each other at a revival and make a game, like Romeo and Juliet, of intertwining their hands, bit by bit. Not long after, Del is going out with Garnet in his truck every night, a night which sometimes starts with a church social and sometimes starts with one of Garnet’s baseball games. Once they are by themselves, Del remembers:
Garnet turned to me always with the same sigh, the same veiled and serious look, and we would cross over, going into a country where there was perfect security, no move that would not bring delight; disappointment was not possible.
The memories of these trysts keep Del awake at night. She remembers the “pleasure,” the word itself seeming “explosive, the two vowels in the first syllable spurting up like fireworks, ending on the plateau of the last syllable, its dreamy purr.” These are “great gifts” that she receives from Garnet. After they actually make love, their relationship deepens even more. ”Now we made love in earnest. We made love on the truck seat with the door open, and under the bushes, and in the night grass.” She goes on to say, “We had come out on another level – more solid, less miraculous, where cause and effect must be acknowledged, and love begins to flow in a deliberate pattern.”
Del, the narrator, comments years later on the rarity of what they had:
I was surprised, when I thought about it – am surprised still – at the light, even disparaging tone that is taken, as if [physical attraction] was something that could be found easily, every day.
Del and Garnet share Eden, as the dreamy valley and the precious stone of their names denote. Munro takes her time to tell their story, interrupting each stage with the more mundane. The slow pace of the story telling matches the story itself: “we felt an obligation [. . .] to make shy formal retreats in the face of so much pleasure.”
One of the reasons Del’s delirious affair with Garnett is so unforgettable is because they are fatally mismatched. (But aren’t all of us?) Garnet has been to jail and has never been to high school, while Del is famous for her academic triumphs and on the fast track for a scholarship to the university. Except for their physical attraction, Garnet and Del are realms apart – in age and experience, in social class, in the way they like to think and talk, in education, and in religion.
Garnet is a born-again Baptist. In “Age of Faith” Del remarks that Baptists were “extreme” and “slightly comic.” Perhaps of more importance, she also says in that story: “No person of importance or social standing went to the Baptist Church.” Part of the mismatch is engineered by the fact that that Del meets Garnet at a Baptist revival, which Del has chosen to attend out of ornery curiosity. Garnet, on the other hand, during a four month stint in jail for assault, has been saved. He readily admits that because of his tendency to drink and fight, he would end up back in jail, except for the church. So he is a steady member, even to the point of reaffirming his devotion to God during the revival. This is who Garnet is.
Del, for the sake of the sex, attends meetings at the Baptist Church every Monday night, but she is “appalled” by it and “waiting only for it to end.” Curiously, Del thinks of Garnet’s religion as being a “mask he was playing with.”
Actually, however, religion is real to Garnet. Munro leaves it to the reader to realize it is Del who is wearing the mask. She never mentions to Garnet what she really thinks of religion in general, and the Baptists in particular. She never mentions to Garnet her mother’s dreadful childhood with a religious zealot for a mother, a childhood in which she was both neglected and not protected, as we learn from “Princess Ida.” Not being religious is seriously important to Del. “Age of Faith” closes with Del looking for God, but not in church. Instead, she has long envisioned God thus:
God real, and really in the world, and alien and as unacceptable as death? Could there be a God amazing, indifferent, beyond faith?
While Del rejected organized religion as a means of making space in her soul for autonomy and art, Garnet embraced religion as a means of not ending up in jail again. Del lacks respect for the complete Garnet French. Garnet is open about how important religion is to him. Del’s position is a secret. She is the one who wears a mask.
She says that they hardly talk, given that they have no idea how to bridge their differences with talk. But perhaps Garnet’s silences are his version of a mask.
The social divisions between them are an issue. Before she ever meets Garnet, we know that Del considers people from Jericho Valley to be beyond the pale. She and her friend Jerry (both smarty-pants) watch the revival buses arrive from the country, and the two friends joke about how the folks from Jericho Valley (where Garnet is from) are inbred, “moronic and potentially criminal.” Later on, Del’s mother says, “I know who the Frenches are. Out beyond Jericho Valley. That’s the poorest Godforsaken backwoods you ever hope to see.” And yet, it is Del who admits she was happy the day she visits Garnet’s family.
Later in the affair, when her buddy Jerry refers to Garnet as a Neanderthal, Del mock-corrects him in “cheerful, shameful treachery,” saying, “No he’s Cro-Magnon.”
The mask that Del wears springs partly from her nature and partly from her age. She is only 17, while Garnet is 23. We know of his other girlfriends, but we also know that Garnet is her first meaningful relationship. The difference in their ages is key. Apart from his sexual experience, Garnet is worlds apart from Del in another regard: together, Garnet and his mother support the big family, and in his mother’s words, they are “the mainstay of the family.” This, despite no high school education and despite his stint in jail; in contrast, Del is nobody’s mainstay yet. Del is barely responsible for herself, let alone anyone else. She is, simply put, too young to understand how rare their love is, too young to respect him, and too young to know how to bridge the gaps between them.
Concealment is a theme in the entire book of Lives of Girls and Women. Del conceals her religious explorations and sexual adventures from her mother, and she conceals her artistic ambitions from everyone. Sheila Munro, in her memoir of life with her mother, Lives of Mothers & Daughters, says of Alice Munro that she “has spoken often of her art for dissembling, for concealment, which, for a writer can be very advantageous, allowing her to remain free and detached, almost without a self” (111). Del certainly conceals her real self from Garnet, and the result is inevitable.
I would turn, here, to another theme that runs throughout the book, which is the casual way in which men impose their ideas on women, and the case which Munro makes for the necessity women face: that they must stand up for themselves and fight for their own autonomy. Del has already had the experience of having her mother attempt to impose her asexual world view on Del, and Del has resoundingly rejected her mother, deciding in the title story to do as men do: “take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what [I didn’t] want and come back proud.” To a degree, Del’s reserve is part of fighting back, and is a part of her learning to be independent.
In the first half of “Baptizing,” Del must fight back. When she and Naomi end up in a seedy hotel room with a 28-year-old man and his buddy, the men try to manipulate the girls with (old story) dirty jokes and liquor. Although she is quite drunk, Del fights back by climbing down a fire escape and jumping to the ground, leaving Naomi (and her friendship with Naomi) behind. On another occasion, a steady beau who is neither attractive nor compelling to her, but merely convenient, convinces her to take off all her clothes. His mother comes home early, though, and the beau locks naked Del in the basement. Later, he sends her clothes down the laundry chute, and she escapes out a basement window.
What men have to say to women is, if anything, harder to escape. Magazine writers suggest that girls and women don’t think like men (of the meaning of the universe), and if they do, maybe they are just “Trying to Be a Boy.” Teenaged Del finds these assumptions difficult to wiggle out of. The young men in the hotel room tell dirty jokes, jokes which serve two functions. They mistakenly think that the jokes (with liquor) are the setting for sex, and they know that the jokes demean the girls. The man that Del had ended up with has a dirty joke that begins with this question: “You believe in equal rights for women?”
Del fights back at this sort of thing in her every-day life: she likes operas with main characters like Carmen, who has a “self-created self.”
The convenient beau is another nerd like Del, and convinced of his own superiority, he imagines himself winning a Nobel Prize. He cavalierly tells Del that while she has “a first rate memory” and “a not unusual feminine gift for language,” she also has “fairly weak reasoning powers and almost no capacity for abstract thought.” Throughout their long friendship, Jerry and his mother both treat Del as a handmaiden to their superior status as man and mother of the man. For her part, Jerry’s role is protection and exploration, and Del puts up with him, but she says: “I had indifference, a contempt, almost, that I concealed from him.”
Even her own father and the hired man have ideas about how Del should behave: she shouldn’t get into physical tests of muscle with her brother, and she shouldn’t have a beer, even when her father, her younger brother, and the hired man are having one. Her world comes furnished with masculine assumptions about women and their role. Munro’s attitude is that women have a choice. They can be victims, or they can stand up for themselves. Del, in fact, spends most of this book standing up for herself. But when you think about it, even while you are cheering her on, you know how unusual she is.
It would be easy to read “Baptizing” as a feminist fable: most of the men in this story are foisting themselves on women, and women are in danger of not being in control of their lives. These men are more espoused to their ideas about women than they are espoused to women, and their ideas run from the childish to the imperial. But to think in such simple terms is to ignore what Munro is always about. She is always interested in the complexity of life, and how when things go wrong, all sides are usually complicit. Regardless that the men are chauvinistic, Munro makes clear that the women in this story, (Del, Naomi, and to some extent, Del’s mother Addie) all have a choice to make.
To a degree, “Baptizing” is defined by its title. At 70 pages, this is a very long and convoluted short story, but throughout, Del is fighting for her life. The story is an ongoing baptism by fire in which Del must repeatedly and almost singlehandedly preserve her self. By choosing the gerund form (“Baptizing”), Munro emphasizes that this fight for autonomy, this fight for a “self-created self” is ongoing. No sooner have you climbed down one fire escape, but then you have to climb out a basement window.
The minister at the revival speaks in term of the fires of hell, and the human predicament of having to cross above it on the thinnest of rope bridges, thus echoing not only the idea of a baptism by fire, but also the Munro idea that, man or woman, life is where you fight for your life.
On first reading, I took Del’s baptism to be by Garnet – a thrilling baptism into pleasure and love. And I do think that is one of her baptisms in this story. But the final baptism is the fight she has with Garnet in the river, the one where he becomes determined to “baptize” her to be ready to marry him. This is a violent, violent event, one in which she thinks at one point he intends to drown her. So she kicks him in the belly as hard as she can and escapes. And with that, the bubble is over. Garnet and Del are done. Although now she was free (of his restrictions, of his social class, of his control), she was also “desolate.” She thinks of him, the pleasure of him, the joy of him, the rest of her life.
One thing she cannot bring herself to say is this: although he wants to marry her (he carves stars around her name), it is also possible that he understands it cannot be. And perhaps when the truck “broke down” the night before her university tests, and gave them an opportunity to have their first real sex, perhaps there was some other intention at work. Perhaps quiet Garnet was quietly arranging things just as he wanted them, and at the same time sealing the possibility that Del would not pass the test.
But even if Munro makes it possible for us to think this, she holds Del responsible. Throughout, Del has chosen not to apply the brakes, and she has chosen not to protect herself. Ironically, she is able to protect herself from pregnancy. She just cannot protect herself from falling into “having a good time,” like Fern. That she fails to nail her exams means she will not go to university; that she fails to go to university perhaps satisfies some unspoken need of Garnet’s as well. They have, to a degree, acted in concert.
This many-leveled story is deeply, deeply true to the experience of women. The love affair remains for Del a memory and a yearning for the rest of her life. But I think Munro means us to see that the baptism by fire never ends. If you want a “self-created self,” if you want to be an artist, there is no way but to fight for it, at every pass. Life is a violent event, interspersed, if you are lucky, with some pleasure. But man or woman, you have to fight for it every step of the way. Del herself says:
We had seen in each other what we could not bear, and we had no idea that people do see that, and go on, and hate and fight and try to kill each other, various ways, then love some more.
Next time, it may be that Del will fight for the relationship as well as fight for her own autonomy. To lose a love like Garnet’s twice would be more than would make sense. But that (to mesh marriage, art, and the human capacity for dissembling) would be an ongoing process. It would be a daily baptism by fire.
Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto, 1965) was my first Luis Buñuel film. I didn’t mean to start here, but one night my wife was working on something and, looking for something brief but presumably good, I saw that this movie was only 45 minutes. I’d been curious about Buñuel for some time, so this seemed a great place to start. If you are also curious about Buñuel, after watching this and several others now, I still think Simon of the Desert is a great place to get a sense of the director’s dark comedy and spontaneity.
The movie begins by showing us Simon (Claudio Brook) on top of a pedestal that sits on top of a column. Right away Buñuel introduces some ironic comedy: a rich man, full of thanks, has commissioned a nicer column a few dozen yards away, and today is the day Simon will descend (after 6 years, 6 months, and 6 days — hard to miss that reference), walk on the earth for a few moments, and then ascend the new column, which I guess will provide a more fulfilling state of self-deprivation — or, I mean, allow Simon to be even closer to God (I’m not nearly so flippant about religion, being religious myself, but that’s the tone Buñuel strikes here; and, after all, being religious doesn’t prevent me from seeing how silly (or horrific) some can be when it comes to religion).
Anyway, here is Simon enjoying a quick blessing before going across to his taller tower.
Once on top of the new column, the crowd that has gathered for the event hopes that they will witness a miracle. Sure enough, a miracle happens – a remarkable one – and the people, satisfied but not inspired, wander away, the miracle even giving a man the means to strike his own child as they go back to work.
Simon himself is both admirable and completely unlikable. On the one hand, his goal of getting closer to God by neglecting the physical world is genuine, no matter how we may see such a task. He really doesn’t seem to be doing this as a show. On the other hand, his mother has built a small shack below the column so she can watch him, but he tells her he doesn’t even think of her: she cannot come between him and the Lord. He’s dedicated and endures many pains, yet he’s self-righteous and his self-deprivation doesn’t really do anything for anyone. For him, I guess, that is far from the point.
Then comes some (more) Buñuelian strangeness. Simon is based on a fifth-century Syrian saint named Simon Stylites, who lived on a column for 39 years. Everything we’ve seen in this film so far seems to fit that time period (though in this desert setting with the tattered robes, I honestly couldn’t discern the fifth century from the 14th century – it just looks suitably pre-Rennaissance). But who is this young woman singing and dancing around in a very mid-twentieth-century sexy sailor dress? And why is she showing Simon her legs . . .
Oh, and now . . . well. Despite her allure – or because of it – Simon recognizes who she is: Satan (Silvia Pinal), come to try to tempt him from his self-denial. But he won’t descend or be distracted. In the screenshot below we see him not pausing a second from his self-deprivation, ignoring his mother as she crosses the ground to her little make-shift home:
I don’t want to give any more away, but one fairly quick look at the Criterion cover above should tell you that this movie doesn’t necessarily go where one might expect.
Part of the reason the film is so short and the ending so unexpected (well, the ending probably would have been unexpected anyway) is because Buñuel ran out of money and had to put it all together quickly. As sad as I am that Buñuel didn’t get to film the other scenes he’d planned, what we get here is still complete and coherent, and still packs a punch. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been as effective and the film would have felt padded had money allowed the other scenes in.
I’m a bit sad that this is the last of his three movies he made with Silvia Pinal (I’ve reviewed Viridiana here and The Exterminating Angel here). All three, though, are so rewatchable it’s kind of like having twenty films. And, of course, there’s plenty more Buñuel.
Later this month, The Library of America will publish the first two of what will be three volumes of Bernard Malamud’s work: Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s and Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1960s. Before these volumes arrived, I’d read only The Fixer (included in the second volume), and that was five years ago (my review here). Since then, I’ve been meaning to read more of his work, particularly his short stories collected in The Magic Barrell, which John Self of The Asylum praised
the other day back in 2010 (here). The stories in The Magic Barrell are spread out over these two volumes, and I’ll be getting to them and the rest of the collection soon because this is exceptional stuff.
Review copy courtesy of The Library of America.
But I’ll start with Malamud’s debut novel, The Natural (1952). I have mixed feelings towards it — knew that all the way through the book — yet I couldn’t put it down.
I still remember just getting in to baseball and seeing Robert Redford play Roy Hobbs in the 1984 film adaptation. At that point in my life, I loved it. I loved that last scene, all the spectacle in slow motion. But revisiting the film later in life left me incredibly disappointed. What a cheesy, sentimental, disingenuous bit of myth-making, I think now. Did I really want to read the book? Well, one night in early January I started it and, though I knew what was coming due to the film, I still read late into the morning.
The opening section of the book is rather well ingrained in my mind, since I saw the movie many times when I was too young to understand what I was seeing but old enough to be shocked. It’s the early to middle part of the twentieth-century, and baseball has been around long enough to run through a classic period, but it’s still relatively young. We meet the nineteen-year-old Roy Hobbs on a train to try out for the Chicago Cubs. He is the natural of the title, the baseball player destined to break all the records. He just gets it, he’s always in the zone, it’s almost easy for him. There’s no question he is going to play in the big leagues.
On the train he meets baseball’s current sensation: Walter “The Whammer” Whambold (who, I hear, is based slightly on Babe Ruth). The Whammer is accompanied by a beautiful, mysterious woman named Harriet Bird, and neither of them show much interest in Roy. But when the train gets delayed near a carnival, Roy shows off his throwing arm and, to everyone’s surprise, strikes out The Whammer easily. Suddenly everyone, including Harriet, is interested in Roy. They arrive in Chicago, and Roy is thrilled when he receives a call from Harriet, who is at the same hotel. She invites him to his room where, after she makes sure Roy really is going to be the best baseball player there ever was, she shoots him in the stomach.
The next section moves us fifteen years into the future. We know little about what Roy did in those fifteen years, but here he is trying to get a position as a baseball player on the fictional National League team, the New York Knights. No one knows Roy’s history, and everyone is skeptical he can play at all, let alone well, as a rookie at his age. The story proceeds to tell us the ups and downs of Roy’s first — and only — season in the major leagues, when he finally has the opportunity to prove himself.
And, yes, a lot of it comes across as sentimental myth-making, though the novel is much darker and pessimistic than the film. Roy has a special bat he himself made, called Wonderboy, and with it he can hit almost anything. He goes through hitting streaks that are all but unheard of in real life. The women in Roy’s life are overtly good or bad, and the represent hyper levels of malevolence or beneficence.
But Malamud did this intentionally. He was setting out to write a myth about baseball, and The Natural is heavily based on the legend of Sir Perceval and the Fisher King. The Knights’ manager, who is seeking the elusive National League pennant, is even named Fisher. Roy is the knight who might save Fisher and heal the Waste Land in the process.
And, I have to say, even though while reading it I would flinch when the symbols became too blunt — like when Wonderboy is split in half (by lightning?) — there is a part of me that never got over my love for the story — I enjoyed reading this book as much as any other book I’ve read this year, even though it’s not, in my estimation, a great work. The little boy in me still finds Roy Hobbs a fascinating character on his quest to prove himself. I still want to see him play baseball.