Four Short Short Stories from Lost Causes by José Leandro Urbina

Portrait of a Lady

In the light of dawn that filtered timidly through the window, she smoothed her dress carefully. One of her fingernails cleaned the others. She moistened her fingertips with saliva and smoothed her eyebrows. As she finished arranging her hair, she heard the jailers coming along the passage- way. In front of the interrogation room, remembering the pain, her legs trembled. Then they put a hood on her and she crossed the threshold. Inside was the same voice as the day before. The same footsteps as the day before came over to her chair, bringing the damp voice right up her ear.
–Where were we yesterday, Miss Jimenez?
–We were saying that you should remember you’re dealing with a lady, she said.
A blow smashed into her face. She felt her jawbone crack.
–Where were we, Miss Jimenez?
–We were saying that you should remember you’re dealing with a lady, she said.

Relationships

He told me I was an alarmist and I told him he was blind. He told me that if that’s really how things were the government would know what to do and there was no cause for concern. I told him his position was typical of people who think all problems will be solved from above and I thought it was extremely irresponsible. He told me it was more irresponsible to go around mudslinging and spreading dissension. I told him it was despicable to lead people to slaughter with the white lie of an ideological project that was no longer valid. He told me that attitudes like mine would lead to catastrophe and one day we would be judged. I told him, finally, to go to hell. We never spoke to each other again. Yesterday I found out he was in the cell next to mine, and this morning I saw him when they let us out into the yard. We didn’t say hello, but I know he was looking at me. I looked at him, too, out of the comer of my eye. He appears to be in poor health, just like me.

Questioning

In November, after more than two months away from home, I have decided to risk a visit. It is early afternoon, the sun is shining, and there is almost no one in the streets. My mother opens the door and I enter quickly. The big house is empty; my father and brothers are still in prison. My mother has been alone all this time, and three days a week she goes to ask for news of them. As we cross the patio toward the kitchen she tells me she hopes they will be released in time for Christmas. Before stepping across the threshold she stops, takes my hand and asks me: Do you believe there is a God, my boy? I look at her, smaller and older now, and I think that this woman who looks at me with anxious eyes as if my answer were some kind of verdict, this woman, my mother, has gone to church every Sunday and religious holiday for over forty-five years. Then, seeing her like this, I who haven’t cried for a long, long time, embrace her without answering and cry shamelessly.

Our Father Who Art in Heaven

While the sergeant was interrogating his mother and sister, the captain took the child by the hand to the other room.

–Where is your father? he asked.
–He’s in heaven, whispered the boy.
–What’s that? Is he dead? asked the captain, surprised.
–No, said the child. Every night he comes down from heaven to eat with us.
The captain raised his eyes and discovered the little door in the ceiling

These brief stories by José Leandro Urbina come from his first collection, titled Las Malas Juntas in Spanish and, somewhat more pessimistically, Lost Causes in English. All of the stories in Lost Causes are set in a Chile suffering the repression that followed the assassination of Salvador Allende in the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet and the crack-down against Allende’s supporters. They are soaked in a spirit of fear and violence leavened with the grim sense of humor shown in the last above.

“These stories are set and developed in the initial days and months after the coup,” wrote fellow Chilean writer Beatriz García-Huidobro. “They are all of great power; It is evident that they were written in raw flesh, in painful absence and still without the nostalgia of the calming time, but still with the head cold enough to print them literary quality without falling into stereotypes or lamentations.” As Chilean editor Paulo Slachevsky told García-Huidobro, “It should be compulsory reading in our schools.”

Urbina was born in Santiago, Chile and studied at the National Institute and the University of Chile. After the General’s coup in 1974, he went into exile, first in Buenos Aires and then in Canada. He returned to Chile in 2005 but still refers to himself as a permanent exile.

Lost Causes, by José Leandro Urbina, translated by Christina Shantz
Frederick, MD: Cormorant Books, 1987

The Russian-Estonians, from The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross (1995)

In a year such as 1947, a Russian-born Estonian was only a zemlyak, a compatriot of mine, to a most problematical degree. Such trusties with their partly, or wholly, unidiomatic phrases, their doubting and distrustful eyes who had, since the war, seeped into the university, from the dean of faculty right down to posts among the teaching staff and special departments, and in everyday life from executive committee and militia down to the local apartment block administration, had instilled in me a feeling which was as mixed as what must have been going on inside them themselves: pity and watchfulness.

At any rate, we home-grown Estonians and Russian-born Estonians had lived such different lives on our respective sides of the border that our mutual alienation had become inevitable. On both sides of the border irrational things had been said and printed about the other side. In Estonia, hungry children were supposed to go about scavenging for food in dustbins. While in Russia, claimed the Estonian daily Paevaleht in, for instance, 1937, the year of the great show trials, it had emerged that men who had been the vanguard of revolution only fifteen years before were now infiltrators, traitors and foreign agents who had with their bare hands mixed broken glass into the butter sold to the proletariat…

Ten years earlier, nothing but such news items were to be found about Russia in our papers. And never a whisper of protest or denial from their side of the border, something which would have been quite natural in the circumstances, had these proved to be lies. So you were bound to conclude: there must be some truth in the matter. And this then led one to ask: which side had gone mad over there, the courts or those who appeared before them? And to answer without hesitation: the courts. For if the courts had been normal and the accused, therefore, mad, then the mass-executions of those accused would not have been able to take place. And Russia’s Estonians lived right in the thick of this madness, in this oppressive atmosphere of mistrust which resulted from this madness, which Russia allowed especially to afflict the minorities on her western borders.

So that people who were used to all this seemed, according to my first impression, and soon a priori, more problematical, evasive, shifty-eyed and ill-defined than others. Especially if they tried (and as far as I could observe, they always tried) to justify that what had been, and was still occurring in their country was right and proper in itself; unequivocally right and proper that is, according to the conversations of uneducated people, but to a more problematic degree according to those arrested – well, anyway, right and proper, not always in that cosy petit-bourgeois sense of the expression, but in a nobler and more general sense.

from “The Ashtray”, in The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross (1995)

An Anonymous Book, from Progress of Stories, by Laura Riding

An anonymous book for children only was published by an anonymous publisher and anonymously praised in an anonymous journal. Moreover, it imitated variously the style of each of the known writers of the time, and this made the responsibility for its authorship all the more impossible to place. For none of the known writers could in the circumstances look guilty. But everyone else did, so this made the responsibility for its authorship all the more difficult to place. The police had instructions to arrest all suspicious-looking persons. But as everyone except the known writers was under suspicion, the department of censorship gave orders that the known authors should be put in prison to separate them from the rest of the population and that everyone else should be regarded as legally committed to freedom. ‘Did you write it?’ everyone was questioned at every street corner. And as the answer was always ‘No’, the questioned person was always remanded as a suspect.

The reasons why this book aroused the department of censorship were these. One–it imitated (or seemed to imitate) the style of all the known authors of the time and was therefore understood by the authorities to be a political (or moral) satire. Two–it had no title and was therefore feared by the authorities to be dealing under the cover of obscurity with dangerous subjects. Three–its publisher could not be traced and it was therefore believed by the authorities to have been printed uncommercially. Four–it had no author and was therefore suspected by the authorities of having been written by a dangerous person. Five (and last)–it advertised itself as a book for children, and was therefore concluded by the authorities to have been written with the concealed design of corrupting adults. As the mystery grew, the vigilance of the police grew, and the circulation of the book grew: for the only way that its authorship could be discovered was by increasing the number of people suspected, and this could only be done by increasing the number of readers. The authorities secretly hoped to arrive at the author by separating those who had read the book from those who had not read it, and singling out from among the latter him or her who pretended to know least about it.

….

Therefore the time has come to close. I am discovered, or rather I have discovered myself, for the authorities lost interest in me when they saw that I would discover myself before I could be officially discovered, that I would in fact break through the pages and destroy the strongest evidence that might be held against me, that is, that “An anonymous book”, etc. I understand now that what they desired to prevent was just what has happened. You must forgive me and believe that I was not trying to deceive, but that I became confused. I over-distinguished and so fell into satire and so discovered myself and so could not go on, to maintain a satiric distinction between authorship and scholarship.

from Progress of Stories, by Laura Riding

The Locomotive, from Cold Tales, by Virgilio Pinera

A locomotive–the biggest in the world–advances on a very narrow embankment. It’s the biggest locomotive in the world because it has surpassed the previous model, which–until the appearance of this one that runs on a narrow embankment–used to be the biggest in the world. It’s so big that you wouldn’t even see the other one next to it because it is the biggest in the world. But it’s all rather difficult to understand. For example, in relation to the place it hasn’t yet occupied in its travels, it isn’t the biggest in the world. I mean if it’s as long as from here to here, and the volume it displaces is from there to there, as long as it hasn’t yet occupied that space, one can’t say that it’s the biggest in the world.

If it’s moving at the incredible speed with which it eats up the track, you must know that it’s the biggest in the world, because if you don’t you will be threatened by knowing that it exists, yet not knowing that it’s the biggest in the world. The same holds true when you set your eyes on it: be careful how you look at it. Perhaps you will look at it and not see it as the biggest in the world, and will become greatly disappointed and even sad. I warn you, if you remain long in your contemplation with the complete understanding that it’s the biggest in the world, be very careful, for it will grow so big that it will occupy the whole earth and beyond.

After all, what does it mean to say that it’s the biggest in the world? The world is very big, but it too is the biggest in the world. But you will tell me that before it was built the other one was the biggest in the world and that it’s in relation to this one and not to the world itself that it’s the biggest in the world. I’m not telling you that, but rather, that the one that used to be the biggest in the world was, in its turn, the biggest in a world that was also very big. All right then, you will say, are there two locomotives that are the biggest in the world and two worlds that are the biggest in the world? And what about the locomotives built before the the biggest in the world and before the biggest of the biggest in the world? And the worlds that have corresponded to those locomotives from long before the biggest in the world?

Yes, where is the world prior to the biggest locomotive in the world, and the locomotive itself that used to be the biggest before the one that is now the biggest in the world? And so too, all those that were the biggest in the world before the one that now runs on the embankment and is the biggest in the world–were they thought the biggest in the world before the biggest in the world? Do you realize that there are many factors, that the whole question is surrounded by danger, that you could sink into an eternal night, that it’s possible to repeat the words and concepts without arriving at their meaning? Do you clearly understand the perils of the adventure that lies in knowing that the locomotive advancing along the narrow embankment is the biggest in the world?

from Cold Tales, by Virgilio Pinera, translated by Mark Schafer
Hygiene, Colorado: The Eridanos Press, 1988

A New Paragraph, from The Birth of a Story, by William Sansom (1972)

A manuscript page from William Sansom’s story “No Smoking on the Apron”

A new paragraph, a white breath for the eyes, is becoming more and more a necessity nowadays, with the accelerated pace of things in general and I would say certainly with readers reluctant to face too large a block of words with no relieving white space. Look at a page of Simenon, an economical writer with a fast narrative pace, and see how extremely short his paragraphs are, how seductive the whitened pages.

from The Birth of a Story, by William Sansom
London: Chatto & Windus/The Hogarth Press, 1972

The Bank Robbery, from Tri-Quarterly Magazine 35, Winter 1976 – Minute Stories

The Bank Robbery, by Steve Schutzman

The bank robber told his story in little notes to the bank teller. He held the pistol in one hand and gave her the notes with the other. The first note said:

This is a bank holdup because money is just like time and I need more to keep on going, so keep your hands where I can see them and don’t go pressing any alarm buttons or I’ll blow your head off.

The teller, a young woman of about twenty-five, felt the lights which lined her streets go on for the first time in years. She kept her hands where he could see them and didn’t press any alarm buttons.

Ah danger, she said to herself, you are just like love.

After she read the note, she gave it back to the gunman and said:“This note is far too abstract. I really can’t respond to it.”

The robber, a young man of about twenty-five, felt the electricity of his thoughts in his hand as he wrote the next note.

Ah money, he said to himself, you are just like love.

His next note said:

This is a bank hold up because there is only one clear rule around here and that is WHEN YOU RUN OUT OF MONEY YOU SUFFER, so keep your hands where I can see them and don’t go pressing any alarm buttons or I’ll blow your head off.

The young woman took the note, touching lightly the gunless hand that had written it. The touch of the gunman’s hand went immediately to her memory, growing its own life there. It became a constant light toward which she could move when she was lost. She felt that she could see everything clearly as if an unknown veil have just been lifted.

“I think I understand better now,” she said to the thief, looking first in his eyes and then at the gun. “But all this money will not get you what you really want.”

She looked at him deeply, hoping that she was becoming rich before his eyes.

Ah danger, she said to herself, you are the gold that wants to spend my life.

The robber was becoming sleepy. In the gun was the weight of his dreams about this moment when it was yet to come. The gun was like the heavy eyelids of someone who wants to sleep but is not allowed.

Ah money, he said to himself, I find little bits of you leading to more of you in greater little bits. You are promising endless amounts of yourself but others are coming. They are threatening our treasure together. I cannot pick you up fast enough as you lead into the great, huge quiet that you are. Oh money, please save me, for you are desire, pure desire, that wants only itself.

The gunman could feel his intervals, the spaces in himself, piling up so he could not be sure of what he would do next. He began to write. His next note said:

Now is the film of my life, the film of my insomnia; an eerie bus ride, a trance in the night, from which I want to step down, whose light keeps me from sleeping. In the streets I will chase the windblown letter of love that will save my life. Give me the money, My Sister, so that I can run my hands through its hair. This is the unfired gun of time, so keep your hands where I can see them and don’t go pressing any alarm buttons or I’ll blow your head off with it.

Reading, the young woman felt her inner hands grabbing and holding onto this moment of her life.

Ah danger, she said to herself, you are yourself with perfect clarity. Under your lens I know what I want.

The young man and woman stared into each other’s eyes forming two paths between them. On one path his life, like little people, walked into her, and on the other hers walked into him.

“This money is love,” she said to him. “I’ll do what you want.”

She began to put money into the huge satchel he had provided.

As she emptied it of money, the bank filled with sleep. Everyone else in the bank slept the untroubled sleep of trees that would never be money. Finally she placed all the money into the bag.

The bank robber and the bank teller left together like hostages of each other. Though it was no longer necessary, he kept the gun on her, for it was becoming like a child between them.


When I was an undergrad, I loved Tri-Quarterly magazine. I probably came across it while browsing through the stacks on the Periodicals floor, and saw in a glance that it was chock full of innovative writing. You have to understand that this was at the height of the Vonnegut craze. My brother and I read all of Vonnegut’s books. He gave me Breakfast of Champions for Christmas 1973, and we even bought the supposed Kilgore Trout novel, Venus on the Half-Shell when it came out in 1975. I suspect that for a lot of young men at the time, Vonnegut was the gateway drug to experimental fiction–Ishmael Reed, Donald Barthelme, and the just-formed Fiction Collective led by Ronald Sukenick, Jonathan Baumbach, and Steve Katz.

Still under the influence of its original editor, Charles Newman, Tri-Quarterly was always worth reading. Everybody who seemed to be pushing the envelope of fiction was in it. When it came time for me to write a senior thesis for English, I took as my subject the experimental American short story, and almost all my material came from Tri-Quarterly.

So when I decided to devote 2017 to covering neglected short stories, I tried to remember some of the writers I covered. Many of them have come up from the fringe to the mainstream, or at least to the mainstream as it’s reflected in academic coverage. Even what I had considered a pretty unknown experimental story, A. B. Paulsen’s “The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality: A Diagnostic Test in Two Parts” turns out to be included in the anthology Extreme Fictions and on some college course reading lists. But I remembered in particular a Tri-Quarterly issue devoted to short short stories that seemed to have something from just about everyone active on the American experimental fiction scene–Katz, Sukenick, Baumbach, Eugene Wildman, Russell Edson, Frederic Tuten, Max Apple, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Ursule Molinaro. When I got hold of a copy, however, I was surprised at the stellar level of the participation: Borges, Cortazar, Robbe-Grillet, John Hawkes, W. S. Merwin, Robert Coover, Annie Dillard, Angela Carter, and someone I’d love to see more of in English, the German fabulist H. C. Artmann.

Now, as often proves the case when one revisits enthusiasms of youth after a few decades, not everything in this collection was quite as fresh as I recalled. An unfortunate number of stories were experimental only in the sense that punctuation or spacing was played with–otherwise, they could have appeared in The Transatlantic Review, The Little Review, or transition fifty years before. An equal number were now insufferably sexist.

But a few have held up well, including this daffy romance from Steve Schutzman, which won a Pushcart Prize. Schutzman has his own website, and turns out to have published his one collection of short fiction, The History of Sleep way back in 1976. I will have to track it down.

Official Statement by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, from One Minute Stories, by István Örkény

Thanks to a long and heated debate championed by the members of our Society, the Rabbit Stew and Fish Soup Plant has just inaugurated a new workshop dedicated to opening the newly sealed tins.

At the new workshop which is called The Can Opener, the newly canned tins of rabbit stew and fish soup are reopened, drained of liquid, and the chunks of meat and fish are reconstituted and taken back to their original habitat, where they are released.

We herewith wish to express our sincere gratitude to the management of the Rabbit Stew and Fish Soup Plant, who have at last come to understand the true meaning of humanitarianism.


Nearly sixty short short stories are told in the space of the 120-some pages of István Örkény’s One Minute Stories (and as many more in its sequel, More One Minute Stories). Some are as much as three pages long; others fewer than three sentences long.

Most of Örkény’s pieces are closer to jokes or pared-down fables than short stories. “Life Should Be So Simple,” for example, is just a six-item list:

  1. Remove fire extinguisher from bracket
  2. Open valve
  3. Approach source of fire
  4. Extinguish fire
  5. Close valve
  6. Replace extinguisher on bracket

“Official government report published in the wake of the triumph of the principles of communism” is merely the statement, “According to a recent statement by government spokesman Károly K. Károly, István Balogh, Sr., stable boy at the Bábolna State Farmers Co-operative, has just started his regular yearly vacation.” Fortunately, the publishers let us in on the joke with a footnote explaining that, “The Hungarian Communist party’s daily newspaper, Népszabadság, every year announced, Kádár János, the First Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party started his regular yearly vacation.”

A fair number of the items in One Minute Stories have a similar flavor of being the sort of joke that takes having lived in Hungary under Communist rule for a decade or two to fully appreciate. I was reminded several times of the little stories that Austrian writer Karl Kraus wrote to mock the Nazis and other forms of authoritarianism. Still, anyone with a taste for sly satirical or absurdist humor can enjoy these amuse-bouches. And, as Örkény points out in his “Handling Instructions,” “They also have the added advantage of saving us time. While the soft-boiled egg is boiling or the number you are dialing answers (provided it is not engaged, of course) you have ample time to read one of these short stories….”

You can find more selections of Örkény’s one-minute stories here, here, and on the English portion of his commemorative website here.


One Minute Stories and More One Minute Stories, by István Örkény, both translated by Judith Sollosy
Budapest, Hungary: Corvina Books, Ltd., 2001 and 2006

“News from the Slide Area,” from The Slide Area, by Gavin Lambert (1959)

Summer is always reluctant to go. Sometimes it makes a false departure and comes back for Christmas. For a few weeks now, signs have presaged the end. One night it rains gently. A wind from the ocean swiftly wraps a sparkling afternoon in fog. Electric storms break out over the desert at night, salvos of thunder are heard and prongs of lightning flash like exclamations in the sky. By the end of summer they are deeply tanned, yet somehow autumn creeps into their eyes. Each time they scan the ocean with is swimmers waiting for surf to ride, it seems like a last glance before saying good-bye.

While summer fades, the city still spreads and grows. Much of the growing you wouldn’t notice. You pass a truck in the night, drawing a new frame-house; there are always plenty of these, set down and lost in the general sprawling pattern. But sometimes a landmark disappears, like the old pier between Santa Monica and Venice. Replacing the shabby arcades of obsolete peep-shows and makeshift booths is a bright new pleasure-cape, clean and synthetic. Neptune’s sculpture presides over an artificial lake with colored fountains and large aerated bubbles. Walk past it while the music plays, taking the moving stairway that lifts you above tree-like chandeliers with outstretched branches of light, and step into an elevator. It doesn’t move, but in the center of it a transparent column fills up with water, to make you think you’re going beneath the sea. You find yourself in a vast dim cavity called Neptune’s Kingdom. You walk round a tank with glass walls. It represents the ocean bed, but there is no water, only an illusion created by the play of light. Stuffed barracudas and other outsize creatures spin slowly round on wires. Neptune watches from his throne. Coral, marine growths and shells, all too brightly tinted, litter the depths. Less than half a mile away from this dry electrical kingdom is the Pacific itself, pale and streaked with patches of seaweed. At this moment it is secretly swallowing up ton after ton of disinfected garbage.

For other kingdoms have been created. Beyond Venice, there used to be a desolate stretch of sand dunes and waste ground, planted here and there with oil derricks. Then came a regiment of black squat cylindrical tanks. The face of the landscape changed; factory chimneys, scaffolding, machinery, wire fences, converged upon the empty beaches. Everything feels silent, looks unattended, but inside the tanks the city’s garbage is being chemically purified, then rushed along an underground channel and poured into the ocean.

To the north, cupped in the mountains, are missile bases. KEEP OUT. Constructions point skywards from a bulldozed desert. Old newspapers and empty cans of beer lie on the ground. Higher up, new houses are being built. The view should be good.

So the refuse is purified and pumped; the missiles are loaded; the lifeguard watches from his sunny tower; stuffed fish ponderously circle a waterless cage; and, in his frame house, a man wakes up to find he has a neighbor.

fromThe Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, by Gavin Lambert
London: Hamish Hamilton, 1959

“The Copley-Plaza,” from The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale (1955)

The next set of memories I bear of the Copley-Plaza are very different from these in mood. I must have been fourteen. I had been going to Miss Winsor’s School, out in Longwood, and I found it hard to make friends; as far as I could figure at that age, my total inability to play basketball or field hockey was the cause of my unpopularity. Some sort of instinct, right or wrong, caused me to begin stopping in at the Copley-Plaza on my way home from school, in search of a kind of comfort, in search of a kind of distraction.

For here I would sit, in the main lobby, opposite to the huge marble desk, dressed in my thick, untidy school clothes, my galoshes, with my plaid schoolbag huddled into the thronelike chair with me, and watch what seemed to me the worldly and wealthy conducting their fascinating lives at the Copley-Plaza. In from the Dartmouth Street entrance would hurry a bellboy, or two bellboys, laden down with expensive luggage, followed by a blond woman in a fur coat, or a close-shaven man in a check waistcoat, or a dark, romantic-looking lady all in black and attended by what seemed to be a governess with two or three rich, well-dressed children–important children, children with lives.

Occasionally I would get up and go down the corridor to the ladies’ room, not so much because I needed to as that there I found myself not two feet away from beautiful, expensively dressed women who talked to each other busily about their approaching engagements. I would wash my hands, taking a long time about it, and listen to some lovely girl saying, “We’re going to Paris Friday, on the Ile….” Then I would go back to my throne in the lobby to watch some more people make their entrances. All the time, the stringed orchestra would be playing waltzes, behind in the palm court–fast and sweet and queerly nostalgic. It was almost as if this were the only life I had.

From The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955

Christmas Trees New and Old, from The Christmas Tree, by Isabel Bolton (1949)

Cover of first US edition of 'The Christmas Tree'

The New

Though there was all manner of evidence of the season – New York producing it, as it produced everything else, on its own colossal, mass-production scale, all outdoors and public and promiscuous, with a tree in almost every park and square, all the churches turning them out properly lighted and arrayed, the great central civic spectacle there in Rockefeller Center, the tallest Christmas tree erected on this earth, standing up in all the majesty of its broad green boughs, with those beautiful balloons floating like celestial bodies of blue and gold and silver all around it, while from below, in the skating rink, with crowds and crowds of people listening, one heard, right through the night, those deep strong voices singing the familiar hymns.

The Old

There stood the tree – the great, the green, the fabulous hemlock – with all its layered boughs reaching out into the room, filling it with greenness, tapering upward, till its tip almost, but not quite, touched the ceiling, and distributing a Christmas incense which the warmth of the room, the heat of burning candles drew out to such a fine intensity of Christmas sentiment. There it stood before her, garlanded, looped round with ropes of snow-white popcorn, with rainbow-colored chains of paper bracelets, with silver tinsel and with gold, hung with blue and red and gold and with silver balls and bells and silver stars so cunningly faceted as to receive and flash back, from bell and ball, from star and candle flame, from the upper and the nether ornaments and trinkets so many tiny sparks and scintillations, so many beams and filaments of light, as to create in all the boughs and branches a mesh and maze of brightness, the candles with the blue candle-centers all together flickering, traveling upward to a point of highest ecstasy.

There it stood, fixing her in a trance, rendering her incapable of detaching this little picture from that, or one moment from the next – kneeling or sitting down, smiling, getting up, walking round, around, the blessed instants blending, melting one into another, becoming, and even as she gazed, memory, message, meaning.

For here, under the white sheet spread out to save the carpet from candle grease and hemlock needles, were all the Christmas gifts, of every shape and size, wrapped with white or silver paper, tied with white or red or silver ribbons, embellished with holly and mistletoe and inscribed with loving dedications – ‘Hilly from Mamma and Papa’; ‘Hilly, Merry Christmas from Uncle Theodore’; ‘John from Aunt Sally’; ‘Hilly from Mamma and Papa’; ‘Adelaide from her father’ – and all and everybody searching to find their own particular presents – package heaped on package, and each one for somebody, with love from someone else, and all presumably from Santa Claus.


Though proclaimed by Edmund Wilson as “a poet of the noblest kind who uses the compression and the polish of her fiction to focus human insight and to concentrate moral passion” and by Diana Trilling as “the best woman writer of fiction in this country today” when The Christmas Tree was first published and by Gore Vidal as “a magically alive writer” and by Doris Grumbach as “a writer of originality and great power” when it was reissued in 1997 as one of the three novels in New York Mosaic, Isabel Bolton remains a neglected writer, none of whose books have seen print this century. I featured her striking memoir of her childhood as an identical twin, Under Gemini (1966) here back in 2011, and Vivian Gornick recently recalled her as one of her prototypical New York City “odd women” in her memoir, The Odd Woman and the City.

Few facts have emerged about Mary Britton Miller, the woman who transformed herself into Isabel Bolton the novelist in her early sixties. Her parents both died within hours of each other when Mary and her sister Grace were both four, leaving them and three other siblings orphans. They were all raised by a spinster hired by their aunt, the wife of a railroad executive who prided herself on knowing best how to run other people’s lives. Ten years later, when Mary and Grace were rowing near the shore in Long Island Sound, their boat overturned and, in panic, Grace became exhausted and drowned as Mary watched, unable to help.

Mary attended the Cambridge School for Girls and then lived in Italy for a few years, probably in the company of her cousin, Marguerite Chapin, who later married Prince Roffredo Caetani and founded the influential literary magazine, Botteghe Oscure. In a letter to Diana Athill, Edward Field suggested she had a child out of wedlock in Italy, but, lacking any other evidence, we can only take this as hearsay.

Then she settled in New York City, eventually buying a pre-Civil War era brownstone at 81 Barrow Street in the West Village (a property that fetched a cool $15 million when sold in 2011). As Mary Britton Miller, she published a number of books of poems for children, starting with Songs of Infancy and Menagerie (1928), and continuing on with Intrepid Bird (1934). In 1943, she told the story of her life between the death of her parents and the loss of Grace in fictional form in In the Days of Thy Youth. It was not a timely subject, however, and the book went virtually unreviewed.

By then, she had turned sixty and begun to suffer from a loss of vision that led her to dictate all her writing and to hire readers (Grumbach recalls a story that Miller fired one for hesitating when encountering the word “fuck”). For reasons that no one has yet managed to unearth, she decided to use a pseudonym for her next novel, Do I Wake or Sleep? (1946), even though the book was published by Scribners, which had published In the Days of Thy Youth. All she offered in the way of a biographical sketch for the dust jacket was, “Here it is, the book over which I have thought deeply and worked hard. What more is there to say, except perhaps to add that I have lived some time in Europe, that I was brought up in America, and that New York has been my home for many years?”

What a difference three years made. Diana Trilling opened her review in The Nation with the announcement that, “Isabel Bolton’s Do I Wake or Sleep? (Scribner’s, $2.50) is quite the best novel that has come my way in the four years I have been reviewing new fiction for this magazine.” In a feature review in The New Yorker, Edmund Wilson compared Bolton to Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and Elizabeth Bowen. They and other reviewers were equally effusive when The Christmas Tree was published three years later. But by the time her third book, Many Mansions, was published in 1952, the glow had faded. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a rather mannered, meditative backward look” and wrote that “Miss Bolton, whom one often feels is under the influence of Edith Wharton, never gets beyond a certain drawing room elegance and withered gentility.”

And so Miller returned to children’s poetry, with burst of publications in the late 1950s: Give a Guess (1957); All Aboard (1958); Jungle Journey (1959), written with her friend, Tobias Schneebaum (to whom she later dedicated Under Gemini); A Handful of Flowers (1959); and Listen–the Birds (1961). Though simple and straightforward, these poems reveal the same intimate awareness of childhood that seems never to have left Miller, even if she could write fiction that was compared with that of Henry James:

Where Are You Now?

Someone has just
Put out the light;
Someone has just
Told you good night

People are talking
Not far away;
You wish you could hear
Just what they say.

The window is open—
People are walking,
Voices are calling
Out in the street.

Now you are falling
And falling and falling
Into a silence
Soft as your pillow,
White as your sheet.

Yet she was fully aware that she was no longer living in the same world. In the The Christmas Tree, the lead character’s grandson is obsessed with warplanes and informs her that it was the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And so she felt there was good reason to ask, in a poem titled, “This Wonderful World,” “It’s a world full of growing/And changing and flowing./Who’d want to blow it/To smithereens?”

In 1966, Miller once again took up the pseudonym for a nonfictional account of her life with her sister Grace, Under Gemini–this time roughly one-fourth the length of In the Days of Thy Youth. The book received respectful reviews but was not reprinted again until 1999. And when she published her last book, The Whirligig of Time, in 1971, Kirkus Reviews felt free to remark deridingly, “… one questions whether any contemporary will wish to join Blanche Willoughby in her return through the years ‘to the heartland of her soul” and called the book’s “perfumed sensibility … just about unbearable.”

In its obituary when Miller died at the age of 91 in 1975, The New York Times recalled Miller’s statement that after Grace’s death, her own life had been “blotted out——everything became dim, unreal, artificial.” And noted that “Miss Miller never married.”

Not My Mother’s Daughter, by Genevieve Taggard, fromThose Modern Women

Genevieve Taggard, 1926
Genevieve Taggard, 1926
Am I the Christian gentlewoman my mother slaved to make me? No indeed. I am a poet, a wine-bibber, and radical: a non-church-goer who will no longer sing in the choir or lead prayer-meeting with a testimonial. (Although I will write anonymous confessions for The Nation.) That is her story–and her second defeat. She thinks I owed her a Christian gentlewoman, for all she did for me. We quarrel. After I escaped, she snapped shut the iron trap around my brother and sister. That is their story. I do not know if they will ever be free of her. She keeps Eddie Guest on the parlor table beside the books I have written–a silent protest against me. She is not pleased.

I cannot pretend to be entirely frank in telling the story that results from this story; or to apply to it any such perspective. Let my daughter tell it later on. She will see outlines I cannot.

I think I have not been as wasted as my mother was–or as wasteful. I have made worse mistakes, which might have been more fatal than hers and yet have not been, at least for me. My chief improvement on her past was the man I chose to marry. I did not want a one-way street of a marriage, like hers. I married a poet and novelist, gifted and difficult, who refused defeat as often as I did. Hard as it is to live with an equal, it is at least not degrading. We have starved, too; struggled as hard as ever my folks did. But the struggle has not been empty: I have no grudges. Intellectually as well as emotionally my husband had as much to give that was new and strange as I had. In marriage I learned, rather tardily, the profound truth that contradicts Jesus when he said, “Bear ye one another’s burdens.” I am a better person when I bear my own burdens. I am happiest with people who can bear their own, too. I remember my mother’s weariness and contempt for a man who could never take up her challenges. Seven years with a real person is better than her thirty with a helpless, newspaper-reading gentleman.

The pioneer woman was a dynamo–and her man nearly always ran out on her. From the bitterness in such women many of us were born. Where was her mate? Did she destroy him? Did he hate her for her strength? Was he weaker because she was strong? Where is the equilibrium, anyway? I do not know, for sure, although I spend much time wondering.

Marriage is the only profound human experience; all other human angles are its mere rehearsal. Like every one else I have wanted it. And yet having it, it is not all I want. It is more often, I think, a final experience than a way of life. But I am a poet–love and mutual living are not enough. It is better to work hard than to be married hard. If, at the beginning of middle age, we have not learned some of the perils of the soul, in this double-selved life, we are pure fools. Self-sufficiency is a myth, of course, but after thirty, if one is a serious-minded egoist (i.e., artist), it becomes more and more necessary. And I think it can be approximated.

Lucinda Matlock, in the “Spoon River Anthology,” says:

We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
Rambling over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed,
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived long enough, that is all.
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent, and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you–
It takes life to love Life.

My mother was not this woman, nor am I, but we are both some way kin to her.


From These Modern Women: Autobiographical Essays from the Twenties, edited and with a revised introduction by Elaine Showalter
New York City: The Feminist Press, 1989

In 1926 and 1927, the progressive magazine The Nations published a series of autobiographical essays by seventeen women, including a poet (Taggard), a journalist (Sue Shelton White), a novelist (Mary Hunter Austin), an artist and children’s book author (Wanda Gag), and a psychologist (Phyllis Blanchard). Over fifty years later, Elaine Showalter collected them in These Modern Women. She also includes the analyses The Nations commissioned from three psychologists, two of them men. As one might expected, the men come off as superior and officious, while the woman (Beatrice M. Hinkle) is supportive and optimistic. If there was one thing I would have liked Showalter to correct one mistake in the book, which was leaving the last word to the second male psychologist, Joseph Collins (“On rereading these articles I fell into meditation. Which of these women should I have liked to companion?”). What a terrible way to end what is an otherwise fascinating and empowering book.

My Father Around the House, from Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell (1965)

Sir George Sitwell
Sir George Sitwell
My father was extremely active physically, and he had adopted, in later life, the custom of pacing the long passages at Renishaw because, he said, by cultivating such a habit one ceased to trouble if the days were wet and cold, or torrid and weighted by the heat, were drawing out or drawing in. If you paid no attention to a fact, it ceased to exist. He remembered, however, that the weather was useful as a basis for conversation (he would speak with approbation of noisy female nonentities who “kept the ball rolling,” by which he meant rattling out unceasing nonsense obliterating the passage of time, at every meal). Apart from these interludes, only the sound of his footsteps and the care for his health remained to bind him to reality. He did not believe in taking risks, however, and, though an agnostic by profession, said his prayers every night, on the chance of this being a good investment.

When pacing the passages he walked very slowly, occupying as much time as possible, in order that the house should seem even larger than it is—for he liked to think of it as very large. Occasionally (about once or twice a day) he would pause outside a door, if he could hear voices in the room beyond—not because he wanted to eavesdrop or to spy, since there was nothing he could hear that would interest him, but because he was enabled in this way to touch, for a moment, the world in which others moved, thought, acted, without being obliged to become part of it; and this made him real to himself, real in his isolation, in the separation of his identity from the world that he could yet touch at will. For this reason he would pretend to secret information from an unknown source: “We happen to know,” he would say; and when a letter arrived for my mother in a handwriting he did not know, he would enquire “How are they?” He would spread various objects belonging to himself all over the house, in the many rooms—his hat in one room, his stick in another, his spectacle case in a third—because when he came face to face once more, in the course of his wanderings, with these records of his personality, he was reminded of himself, which was pleasant, and because it enabled him to stake his claim on every room in the house as sole inhabitant. Should any other person enter one of the rooms in question, my father would follow him there, and, conveying suddenly the impression of very great age, would make it clear by his manner that he had intended to rest there and had hoped that he would not be disturbed. Then, having by this means routed the intruder and put him to flight, he would continue his walk.

When he was not pacing up and down the passages, my father spent much of his time in walking up and down outside the house, and when he did this, he would succeed in appearing like a procession of one person—he being the head, the beginning and the end.


taken_care_ofI was over halfway through Edith Sitwell’s autobiography, Taken Care Of (1965), before I realized that it was back in print, thanks to the Bloomsbory Press’ Bloomsbury Reader series, and hence, technically disqualified to be featured here. However, I couldn’t resist posting this excerpt, which follows a portrait of Sitwell’s mother etched with the same comic acid. Sitwell obviously had no sympathy with Louise Bogan’s view of looking back at one’s parents (“There is a final antidote we must learn: to love and forgive them”. She seems never to have gotten over the fact that her very handsome and self-centered parents saw their first child ‐ angular, unconforming, and decidedly eccentric in orientation — more as an odd creature than the fruit of their flesh, and in her old age gave them the same treatment, placing them under her magnifying glass like a couple of entomological specimens.

Taken Care Of is also available online through the Open Library (link).


Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell
London: Hutchinson, 1965

The best time to write about one’s childhood, from Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan (1980)

nb_0625The best time to write about one’s childhood is in the early thirties, when the contrast between early forced passivity and later freedom is marked; and when one’s energy is in full flood. Later, not only have the juices dried up, and the energy ceased to be abundant, but the retracing of the scene of earliest youth has become a task filled with boredom and dismay. The figures that surrounded one have now turned their full face toward us; we understand them perhaps still partially, but we know them only too well. They have ceased to be background to our own terribly important selves; they have irremediably taken on the look of figures in a tragicomedy; we now look on them ironically, for we know their end, although they themselves do not yet know it. And now — in the middle fifties — we have traced and retraced their tragedy so often that, in spite of the understanding we have, it bores and offends us. There is a final antidote we must learn: to love and forgive them. This attitude comes hard and must be reached with anguish. For it one is to deal with the people in the past — of one’s past — at all, one must feel neither anger nor bitterness. We are not here to expose each other, like journalists writing gossip, or children blaming others for their own bad behavior. And open confession, for certain temperaments (certainly for my own), is not good for the soul, in any direct way. To confess is to ask for pardon; and the whole confusing process brings out too much self-pity and too many small emotions in general. For people like myself to look back is a task. It is like re-entering a trap, or a labyrinth, from which one has only too lately, and too narrowly, escaped.

from New York: The Viking Press, 1980

My Mother’s Mirror, fromPersonal Geography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth

girlatmirror

The walls of my room would be covered with portraits if only I know the spell to call them forth from my mother’s mirror with its round silver frame. The first portrait would perhaps be of Mother in her wedding veil, tucking orange blossoms between the veil and soft fair hair. There would be many quick sketches of Mother later, in the first frilled shirtwaist, wearing for the first time her gold pince-nez, and then as an older woman, holding the same sweet look she had had as a girl. Father was not one to look much in mirrors, but he may have looked in this once or twice to see if the part in his hair was straight. There would be hidden here no portraits or sketches of Grandmother Coatsworth. She would, I think, never have entered her daughter-in-law’s room. A young woman has a right to some privacy, and if Mother’s was minimal, at least I am sure it was absolute.

Of course there would have been many sketches of Margaret and of me, so unlike in everything but our youth. The only carefully studied mirror-portrait of me was taken when I was ten or twelve years old.

Mother came into the room and said mildly, “You’ve looked long enough at yourself, Betty.” Or was I still “Bess” then? Anyway she was completely mistaken. I was not admiring myself. I was searching to find out who and what I was. There was no humor in the eyes that looked back at me under the arching brows, but I am sure there was humor in the thoughts back of the eyes. Like Father, I could make a joke without smiling. Like him, I could not laugh, just as I could not whistle or sing. As yet no one even guessed when I thought something was funny.

So if I knew the magic formula, all about this room there would be sketches and sometimes portraits of us all, of blue-eyed, smiling Margaret, and of sober, solemn Betty dark as a shadow. Our spirits did not know then how akin they were, how in later years the fair and the dark would merge into one complete whole, which even death would not completely destroy.

from Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Brattleboro, Vermont: The Stephen Greene Press, 1976

Some Sketches from The Woman’s Record, or Sketches of All Distinguished Women, by Sarah Joseph Hale (1853)

Sarah Josepha Hale, from the frontispiece to The Woman's Record

womans-record

ASTORGAS, MARCHIONESS OF

A Lady who lived in the latter part of the seventeenth century, in Spain, during the reign of Charles 11., killed with her own hands a beautiful woman, the mistress of her husband, and having prepared the heart of her victim, placed it at dinner before her husband. When he had eaten it, she rolled the head of the woman to him on the table. She then took refuge in a convent, where she became insane through rage and jealousy.

BRUN, MADAME LE

Was a French artiste or painter, who gained considerable reputation at Paris. Her paintings, historical pieces as well as portraits, were exhibited in the Louvre. Madame de Genlis speaks of the talents of Madame 1e Brun with much warmth of praise, and complains that the men sought to depreciate her paintings because she was a woman.

ERAUSO, CATALINA DE

Tns Monja Alferez, or Nun-Lieutenant. More famous women have lived than this, but a more extraordinary one has never been recorded. Her career was one of singular adventure, of wild passions, of unsparing cruelty, of heroic bravery; the few virtues which palliate her vices and savage conduct are such as are found to vindicate the dormant element in the breasts of brigands and pirates. And it is not the least singular circumstance connected with such a history, that it has been written down, detailed, and powerfully described by the heroine herself, in a style wonderfully vigorous, clear, and in pure and classic Spanish.

… It would be impossible, in this sketch, to detail her numerous homicides and fierce anger; but one may be alluded to from its consequences. Becoming enraged, at a gambling house, with a man of consequence, of Chile, she attacked him, and savagely killed him. She was obliged to take the refuge of a sanctuary; but as the friends of the murdered person were of rank and power, her retreat was carefully guarded, and after remaining there eight months, she felt the necessity of escaping into another government. The only way to effect this was by traversing the icy deserts of the Andes. “In this attempt I may find death,” said she; “by remaining here I shall certainly find it.“ At the outset she met three outlaws, who, like herself, were fugitives from justice. These banded themselves by necessity: fatigue and hunger were their first difficulties. Successively they killed their horses, when all other food was spent; but soon advancing into higher regions of the mountain, the cold became intense and biting. Still Catalina cheered on her companions, infused her own courage, and sustained their efforts to drag on, when one of them uttered a cheerful cry — help, aid dawned! Two men were standing at a little distance; the wretched creature tried to spring forward; he fell on a heap of snow. Catalina followed his indication; alas! horror and misery—the two men were unfortunate beings, dead, frozen stiff, with a ghastly look of anguish stamped on their frightful faces! Even Catalina was for an instant daunted. She turned to the man who had first seen them -— he was dead! She felt it was no time to pause, but urging on her remaining companions, sought a new impetus for exertion in her very despair. The cold became more and more bitter; still she stopped not. She saw her companions sink, one by one; she had no time to mourn them — recommending herself to the Virgin, she went on. The temperature became milder; at last she reached Tucuman, where she met with the utmost kindness and hospitality. She soon resumed her wild military life, always involving herself in quarrels.

FONTANGES. MARIE ANGELIQUE, DUCHESS 0F

Successor to Montespan in the affections of Louis XlV. “She was beautiful as an angel, but silly as a goose,” as Abbé Choisi said. She nevertheless captivated the affections of Louis XIV, who was tired of the pride and the caprice of Madame de Montespan. As soon as she discovered the passion which she had inspired, and had secured her royal conquest, she became haughty and extravagant, spending a hundred thousand crowns a month, and retorting a hundred-fold the disdain she had experienced from Madame de Montespan. She became the general dispenser of the king’s favours, and the model of fashion. One day, when she was on a hunting-party, the wind having put her head-dress in disorder, she fastened it with a riband, the knot of which falling over her forehead, this fashion spread all over Europe under her name. The king made her a duchess; but she did not long enjoy the rank, as she died when scarcely twenty years old, in the abbey of Port Royal, Paris, shortly after an accouchement.

ROSAMOND

Was the wife of Alboin of Albovinus, king of Lombardy, in the sixth century. Alboin slew her father, Gunimond, king of a neighbouring horde, in battle, and married his daughter by force. And, in order to retain a monument of his victory, he converted the skull of Gunimond into a drinking-cup, which he sent full of wine to Rosamond. In revenge, she had him assassinated.

from The Woman’s Record, available on the Internet Archive: Link.

Railings, from Another Part of the Forest, by G. B. Stern (1941)

London park railings being dismantled for scrap metal, around 1941
London park railings being dismantled for scrap metal, around 1941

A paragraph in a local paper told me a few weeks ago that orders had been given to “prune the railings” at Brighton, and use them for battleships.

A short time ago I had to drive up from Berkshire through Western London. Wherever I looked I became aware of railings, still in their rusty iron slumber, but dangerously potential; a delirium of railings planted in a frenzy most often where they could not possibly have been needed; as stoutly reinforcing a stout wall; as guarding sturdy little posts that would obviously rather have remained self-reliant; as shielding triangles of trodden grass that once were plague-pits (but this is no time to be out of date); as lining up in front of well-shuttered shops and barricading blind alleys; railings defensive and offensive; and railings content to stand in pure decoration (sic); an abundance, an orgy, an ecstasy of superfluous railings, which at a certain period in our history of architecture must have rushed down upon the city and conquered it with the same enthusiasm that great Birnam Wood once came to Dunsinane.

I have little doubt but that driving north, south or east, now that my attention was awake to railings, I should have seen them four times multiplied, striping our parks and our streets and our squares with bad-tempered vigilance. For the soul of railings is essentially rigid and narrow-minded, not to compare with benevolent cheerful wooden fencing which swirls into friendly knots and peepholes; but with the vicious snarl of barbed wire, the cruel jagged repartee of broken glass stuck upright on top of a wall.

Had we ever paused, down the peaceful years, to reflect upon the solemnity of a life guarded by railings, it might have seemed a little bit foolish. What did they fear, these nineteenth century folk, that they retired behind such preposterous regiments of iron? For though it is difficult to trace the very first man who cried “Eureka!” and leapt to his feet, inspired to design the very first railing, and triumphantly planted it, and having accomplished his life’s work, went satisfied to bed, yet most volumes of authority agree in yielding up the date 1812 for the beginning of railings in their multitudes; why this should coincide with the burning of Moscow is a matter that gives play to the most charming conjecture (or perhaps it was merely accident). What did they fear? They could not, even they, have thought that now and for ever they were adequately protected from the foe (their songs and ballads show us that enemies were always “foemen” in a Victorian world).

A proper valediction to railings could be illustrated with the picture of a disconsolate ghost in flowing whiskers and Albert watch-chain, weeping over a symbolical railing offered up to serve its country in time of war. For now, in time of war, the whole matter quite simply reverts to sanity: Is this not the very thing we are fighting for, that bars should be translated into battleships, and battleships into freedom? A London child of the past, probably also a Brighton child or a Birmingham child, always accepted railings as a matter of course, created as part of a seven-day universe; plenty of juvenile uses for railings; but chiefly for that urchin impulse to run along drawing a hoopstick across them, making sweet music. Friendly errand-boys leant their bicycles against the area railings outside your house, and then clattered with their baskets down the deep Victorian steps to deep basements copied from the Italians.

Just beyond the railings at the entrance of Kensington Gardens stood the woman with the balloons and the man with the toy windmills. Once inside, the railings did not bother you at all: you soon discovered, though they stood upright in sentinel rows along two sides of a grass enclosure, along the third they irrationally dipped to a low rail running horizontally only a foot high from the path, so that all you had to do, you and your dog, was to skip across the low boundary and go capering back to forbidden territory with perfect ease and a clear conscience. Yes, nice familiar things, railings, that made your gloves dirty, and who cared except Nannie?

Usually, in spring, when the awnings went up and the window-boxes blossomed, the railings became a freshly painted menace, vivid and sticky and very, very beautiful. “Don’t touch, child, they’re wet!” You smiled seraphically; you had already touched, and proved it for yourself.

I keep meaning to put together a post about G. B. Stern’s … well, autobiographies, to use the label that was put on them, although “commonplace book-channeled through stream-of-consciousness” is probably a more accurate one. They are both irresistible and unreadable. Irresistible because you can open them up at just about any page and alight upon a wonderful little improvisation on a topic like railings or walking sticks or taxi-cabs. Unreadable because there is really no shape or structure to these books, and at a certain point, that becomes unbearable. I’ve never managed to get through one from start to finish: I inevitably toss it aside in frustration.

At such moments, wandering along with G. B. Stern on a random walk through her memories reminds me of something John Waters once wrote of Edith Massey, one of his early amateur Baltimorean stars:

Edie and I used to do this kind of date together, but we’d drive by car, and she would drive me crazy because she would say out loud every single thing she saw. We’d be driving along and she’d say, “Car, house, lawn, pretty lady, red car, telephone pole, lawn, lawn, lawn…” I said, “Edith!!” It was just… internalization was a concept she was very unfamiliar with.

But then, a month or two later, having finished some other book, I reach for Monogram (1936), Trumpet Voluntary (1944), or Benefits Forgot and begin to think, “Maybe I should go on a drive with Edie again.” Fortunately, if you have a mind to do the same, you can start for free with Another Part of the Forest (1941), which is available on the Internet Archive.

Dorothy Richardson Answers 10 Questions from The Little Review

Cover of last issue of The Little ReviewIn The Little Review Anthology, the editor, Margaret Anderson, wrote:

In 1929, in Paris, I decided that the time had come to end The Little Review. Our mission was accomplished; contemporary art had “arrived”; for a hundred years, perhaps, the literary world would product only: repetition.

I didn’t want the Little Review to die a conventional death, so I discarded all the material that had been amassed for a Last Number and decided, instead, to ask the artists of the world what they were thinking and feeling about their lives and work. We drew up a questionnaire — ten simple but essential questions — and sent it out to all our contributors.

Those who responded included Richard Aldington, Ernest Hemingway, Marianne Moore, Jean Cocteau, Janet Flanner, and Joseph Stella. Others took the attitude of Djuna Barnes, who wrote, “I am sorry but the list of questions does not interest me to answer. Nor have I that respect for the public.”

Dorothy Richardson, however, provided a set of answers that, as might be expected, reflected her doggedly insistent individuality:

1. What should you most like to do, to know, to be? (In case you are not satisfied).

To build a cottage on a cliff.
How to be perfectly in two places at once.
Member of a world-association for broadcasting the goings-on of metaphors.

2. What wouldn’t you change places with any other human being?

Because I can’t separate future from present.

3. What do you look forward to?

Can’t separate future from present.

4. What do you fear most from the future?

Can’t separate future from present.

5. What has been the happiest moment of your life? The unhappiest? (If you care to tell).

A recurring moment. Another recurring moment.

6. What do you consider your weakest characteristic? Your strongest? What do you like most about yourself? Dislike most?

Lack of concentration. Ability to concentrate. A certain changelessness. Superficiality.

7. What things do you really like? Dislike? (Nature, people, ideas, objects, etc. Answer in a phrase or a page, as you will).

Dancing, an English valley in mid-May an hour before sunset, sun behind seer. Seagulls high in sunlight. Shafts of light. Most people under the age of three. Beautiful women. Ugly ones. Such hippo-hided men as guess they are half-truths. Most Irishmen. Synthesis.

Line engravings. Gothic. Daumier. Sisley. Blake. Brzeska. Alan Odle. Rossetti. Dumas pere. Balzac. Jane Austen. Hugo. Andre Gide. Wilde. The books Osbert Sitwell will write, and After [Before] the Bombardment. The plays Noel Coward will write between forty-five and sixty.

Poetry of Buddha, Jesus, Paul, Francis, Quaker Fathers, Hebrews. Keats. Alfred Lawn Tennyson. T. W. H. Crosland. Jean [Gene] Stratton Porter. Wassermann. Proust. Smuts of South Africa. H. D., Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Madox Roberts.

The cinema. Cafes. Any street. Any garden. Mornings. Sundays. Brown bread and Cornish butter. Soap. The cinema. Onions. Split greengages. Cigars. Berkshire bacon. The cinema. Munich Lager. Conversation. Dry champagne. Planter’s punch. Gilbert and Sullivan. Bach. Antheil. Bach. Wagner. Beethoven. Beethoven. Beethoven. Bach. Bach. The cinema. Quaker meetings.

Villas. Flats. Bungalows. Lapdogs. Diamonds. The sight of a moist-ended cigarette, of anyone lighting a cigarette in instead of above a flame, of anyone tapping off ash before it is ready to fall. Archness. White china and glass-ware. Satin. Plus-fours. Marcel waves. Trousers. Sinuosity. Aquilinity. Dogmatic eccentricity. North London. Burne Jones. Sound and Colour in cinema. The idea that everything has an evolutionary history.

8. What is your attitude toward art today?

Regret on behalf of literature in so far as it allows the conjectures of science to stand for thought and of “art” in so far as it is slick, clever, facile and self-conscious.

9. What is your world view? (Are you a reasonable being in a reasonable scheme?)

That humanity is the irreducible minimum of life, and affirms it by denying the existence anywhere in “life” of anything corresponding to what it finds in itself.

10. Why do you go on living?

Because I only just begin to see how to begin to be fit to live.

Blindness, from The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska (1994)

John Hull
John Hull

John Hull, an Australian theologian living in England, went blind in his forties. Black, black blind from detached retinas. His book describing the profound disorientation of self in blindness was the first I took up on my return to reading. It took some time to finish so closely did it echo my fears: the fear of the loss of self, of being cast from God’s light. The journey he recounts is as much of the passage of the soul through darkness as of the daily reality which came with a blindness so complete that he knew that he faced the sun only by the sensation of heat on his face. Even food, unseen, lost its appeal. He was no longer hungry. Life as well as sight dimmed within him.

While he struggled with the real limitations of a life without sight, treading his way with cautious steps to avoid the sudden slide when the ground slopes, or the path diverges, or obstacles block the way, he struggled also with the archetype of blindness within which he felt himself enclosed. At first the meanings he could give to the dark were as closed and as isolated as the world he inhabited even in the midst of a loving family. And indeed it is true that in many cultures, and certainly in ours, blindness has been crudely associated with a condition of unrelatedness: of being cast out, along, ignorant and confused. Because blindness disrupts the distinction between the known and the not-known that is regulated for the rest of us by sight, it represents, he says, dissolution, the borderline between being and not being. An alternative to death; as good as death.

Immersed in this archetype, unable to deny, or refuse it, yet not accepting it either, a glimmer of light flickered, a small beacon which took the form of a paradox, which as a theologian John Hull was quick to grasp, thought as a blind man slow to understand. For of course there is a paradox. For God, that transcendent being, as the blind psalmist sings, darkness and light are both alike to thee. It is for us with our dualistic either/or thinking that one is cast from the other, that one is held in opposition to the other. But a greater reality, and one we resist in our fearfulness and limitation, is that of light in darkness, and, more to the point, that of darkness in light. None of those who dwell so noisily in the realm of light wish to consider that light might contain its own darkness. And there is little in our culture to help those who inhabit the darkness grope their way to light.

Cover of first edition of "The Orchard"In Stravinsky’s Lunch, Drusilla Modjeska notes that, in her struggle to write the story of Australian painter Stella Bowen, she gave up at one point and, instead, wrote the “novel” The Orchard. I put novel in quotes because there are many essay-like passages, including a number related to Stella Bowen, that appear to be much more the thoughts of the author than of the nameless narrator in whose voice the story is told.

Modjeska attempted to weave her story around the old folk tale of “The Handless Maiden” (or “The Girl without Hands” or “The Girl with Silver Hands”). In the tale, a father cuts off his daughter’s hands in a bargain with the devil, and, many years later, her hands are restored through the love of the king who marries her. I say attempted because it’s only told at the end and, as far as I could tell, offered little to illuminate the story. The fictional element of the book is about several Australian women, united through their acquaintance with Effie, a woman in her eighties who has always pursued a very self-directed life, mostly tending to a garden seen by her friends as a haven.

Though I wasn’t persuaded by the fiction in the book, I found the narrator/Modjeska’s asides consistently interesting, and I read the book in one sitting, on a flight from Brussels to Dulles last month. Even if the novel per se wasn’t successful as such, it seems to have allowed her to work through thoughts that came together in the subsequent Stravinsky’s Lunch. Such as:

We live in a culture that daily encourages us to find our identity in that reflection of another, to experience ourselves as most real when we are in love. We live in a culture that encourages us to see ourselves as others see us. To become an object in the regard of others means that other become objects to us; and so too do we to ourselves. No wonder we are all in pursuit of control: to make sure that object is ours.

Considering that this was written before the Web exploded and social media and selfies became labels, there is a certain amount of prescience in this. Although I might argue that today, we are encouraged to think we are most real when we get a requisite number of “Likes” (in whatever form they might actually take).

[By the way, the Macmillan Australia hardcover edition I read has to have one of the most pleasant formats I’ve read in years. 7.5″ high by 4.5″ wide, it’s larger than a traditional paperback and smaller than a typical trade paperback or hardback, typeset in 11/13 Bembo. I would be happy to have a few hundred others like it — a perfect size for a myopic guy like me to travel with.]


The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska
Sydney: Macmillan Australia, 1994

Teetgen’s Teas, from Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage

teegenstea

Three times in the course of Dorothy Richardson’s “novel in chapters,” Pilgrimage, a tea shop in a small and unnamed London street spurs an intense connection in the subconsciousness of her protagonist and fictional counterpart, Miriam Henderson. The first occurs in The Tunnel, the fourth book of the series and the first in which Miriam comes to live and work in central London. Richardson gives the moment extra dramatic effect by setting it as a chapter onto itself:

Chapter VII

Why must I always think of her in this place…. It is always worst just along here…. Why do I always forget there’s this piece … always be hurrying along seeing nothing and then suddenly Teetgen’s Teas and this row of shops. I can’t bear it. I don’t know what it is. It’s always the same. I always feel the same. It is sending me mad. One day it will be worse. If it gets any worse I shall be mad. Just here. Certainly. Something is wearing out in me. I am meant to go mad. If not I should not always be coming along this piece without knowing it, whichever street I take. Other people would know the streets apart. I don’t know where this bit is or how I get to it. I come every day because I am meant to go mad here. Something that knows brings me here and is making me go mad because I am myself and nothing changes me.

When the shop appears again, in Chapter III of Deadlock, the 6th book in the series, its emotional impact has diminished. Now four years after first walking past, it has been integrated with her thousands of experiences of London streets:

Two scenes flashed forth from the panorama beyond the darkness and while she glanced at the vagrants stretched asleep on the grass in the Hyde Park summer, carefully to be skirted and yet most dreadfully claiming her companionship, she saw, narrow and gaslit, the little unlocated street that had haunted her first London years, herself flitting into it, always unknowingly, from a maze of surrounding streets, feeling uneasy, recognising it, hurrying to pass its awful centre where she must read the name of a shop, and, dropped helplessly into the deepest pit of her memory, struggle on through thronging images threatening, each time more powerfully, to draw her willingly back and back through the intervening spaces of her life to some deserved destruction of mind and body, until presently she emerged faint and quivering, in a wide careless thoroughfare. She had forgotten it; perhaps somehow learned to avoid it. Her imagined figure passed from the haunted scene, and from the vast spread of London the tide flowed through it, leaving it a daylit part of the whole, its spell broken and gone.

In its last mention, in Chapter III of Dawn’s Left Hand, Miriam recognizes that not only the memory of the shop, but also her reaction to it, has become integrated with her larger emotional experience:

And as she surveyed the little back street, where now she found herself, in search of food to be consumed in the ten minutes left of her lunch-hour, she felt, with a comfortingly small pang of wistfulness, the decisive hour that had just gone by slide into its place in the past and leave her happily glancing along the shopfronts of this mean little back street.

Teetgen’s Teas, she noted, in grimed, gilt lettering above a dark and dingy little shop….

Teetgen’s Teas. And behind, two turnings back, was a main thoroughfare. And just ahead was another. And the streets of this particular district arranged themselves in her mind, each stating its name, making a neat map.

And this street, still foul and dust-filled, but full now also of the light flooding down upon and the air flowing through the larger streets with which in her mind it was clearly linked, was the place where in the early years she would suddently find herself lost and helplessly aware of what was waiting for her eyes the moment before it appeared: the grimed gilt lettering that forced me to gaze into the darkest moment of my life and to remember that I had forfeited my share in humanity for ever and must go quietly and alone until the end.

And now their power has gone. They can bring back only the memory of a darkness and horror, to which, then, something has happened, begun to happen?

She glanced back over her shoulder at the letters now away behind her and rejoiced in freedom that allowed her to note their peculiarities of size and shape.

teetgensmatchboxIn his invaluable Notes on Pilgrimage George Thomson reveals that Richardson took artistic license in her use of the name Teetgen’s Teas: “Kelly’s Directory records seven outlets and a factory in London for Teetgen’s Tea, Tea and Coffee Dealers and Chocolate and Cocoa Manufacturers, but none was in central London where Miriam would be likely to encounter it. As the matchbox cover shown to the right states, Teetgen’s did have a shop in Bishopsgate, near Liverpool Station, but that would have been a fair hike to the east of Miriam’s dental office on Harley Street. So we will likely never know just whose gilt lettering inspired such strong feelings in Richardson/Miriam.

Richardson’s sister-in-law, Rose Odle, did shed some light on the possible emotional connection between the shop and Richardson’s own life in an article, “Dorothy and Alan,” that appeared in Miron Grindea’s ADAM International Review in 1966. “Until Dorothy was eighteen, except for worry over Mrs. Richardson’s fluctuating health, life was good,” she wrote. Then, when Dorothy was 17, her father lost most of the family’s money in business speculations and she was led to seek employment as a means to take some of the financial burden off his shoulders. This led to her taking a post as an English teacher in a private girls’ school in Hanover, Germany – the experience recounted in the first book in Pilgrimage, Pointed Roofs. “On her return home,” Rose Odle wrote,

… the little mother, who, despite her semi-invalid existence, was “the centre of jollity,” became seriously ill. For six months, Dorothy devoted herself to her — it was humanly impossible for a young girl to do more than she had done — yet, when Mrs. Richardson died, Dorothy felt not only the loss, but failure. There is a very short chapter — just a paragraph — showing it impossible for Miriam to walk in a street in London where she had been for the last time with her mother. Her dear friends of long standing have shared with me the impression that Dorothy was always somewhat withdrawn, afraid for long years — perhaps until her marriage — to give herself completely. There was always a noli me tangere about her: too great a friendship might mean a parallel loss. It may be her mother’s death that left a permanent mark on Dorothy’s mentality.

Her mother’s death is treated so indirectly at the end of Honeycomb, the third book in the series, that readers working through the text without a guide like Thomson’s are likely to miss it entirely. As Horace Gregory recounts in his short book, Dorothy Richardson: An Adventure in Self-Discovery, “On November 30, 1895, at Hastings, Dorothy Richardson took a short morning walk away from her lodgings. On her return she learned from her landlady that her mother had committed suicide by cutting her throat with a kitchen knife.” Gloria Fromm has even less to say of the event in her biography of Richardson.

But a last clue may be found in an article, “What’s in a Name?,” which appeared in Adelphi in 1924. In it, Richardson recounts her strong reaction to the name of St. Botolph’s, which was the name of the church “that saw my first spiritual desertion” at the age of six. For Richardson, “St. Botolph’s is the void, flatulent of horror.” In his name “neither shelter nor fragrance.” And she recalls when she experience her final decision to side with the agnostics against St. Botolph’s and any other church:

There was, leading to the church, a straight road, treeless. Long it probably was not. But I remember it as interminable. At intervals there were houses, large brick houses soured by being heralds of the final bitterness of St. Botolph’s, and surrounded by high walls that allowed no glimpse of gardens. My spirits, flagging always on leaving the winding ways of the old town for this bleak stretch of road, one day failed utterly, and I wept my despair aloud. That my spirits would be high and my pace eager if at the end of my walk there waited something that I loved, was the burden of the rebukes administered by outraged elders. That was true. Too true. But my logic had no words. And for words if I had them, my bitterness was too deep.

What actually did wait at the end of the dreary road, what was the quality of the good offered to youth and age in the hated edifice, I shall never know. But I know that always, treading that via dolorosa, I heard that sound: Botolph.

Whether there was any real connection in Richardson’s mind between her St. Botolph’s and Miriam’s Teetgen’s Teas, I can’t say. At the time Richardson was writing Pilgrimage, there was great interest in Freud’s writings on repressed memories and motivated forgetting, as well as the possibility of seemingly random sensations to provoke memories of suppressed traumas. Perhaps Teetgen’s Teas was Richardson’s attempt to provide an illustration of such an experience from her own life. If nothing else, the prominent treatment of the first response to the shop’s gilt lettering in The Tunnel and the subsequent mentions in Deadlock and Dawn’s Left Hand demonstrate one way in which the process of writing Pilgrimage was, as Horace Gregory puts it, a journey of self-discovery for its author.

Fun Facts from A World of Wonders, edited by Albany Poyntz (Catherine Gore) (1845)

Sketch in the Gelderland ship's journal, 1601

Credulity is unfortunately a weakness common to the human race; and a tendency to exaggeration is scarcely less universal. Between the two failings, monstrous stories obtain circulation; and as it is easier to assent than examine, the world becomes overrun with en’ors and prejudices. A curious anecdote related from mouth to mouth, becomes exaggerated into a miracle. Thus, as regards the longevity of parrots, a bird of this species which happens to survive three generations of the same family, though the period may not exceed thirty years, is talked of in the circle of their acquaintance as a Nestor or Methuselah; till, at last, from exaggeration to exaggeration, its age becomes converted into a miracle. No one, however, can personally attest the age of a parrot beyond fifty or sixty years. All the rest must be hearsay.

False pretensions and vulgar errors of this kind abound in the world: — as for instance, the belief that the pelican pierces her bosom to feed her little ones with her blood — that the scent of bean-flowers produces delirium — that the mole is blind — that the dove is a model of gentleness and conjugal fidelity; and how often are the questions still mooted whether Hannibal really worked a passage through the Alps with vinegar — whether the coffin of Mahomet be really suspended at Mecca between two loadstones — whether shooting stars be fragments of shattered planets, or souls progressing from purgatory — whether beasts of prey are afraid of fire; and whether human nature have ever exhibited affinities with the brute creation in the form of fauns, dryads, satyrs, or centaurs.

The proverbial fidelity of the dove to her mate has been equally disproved by naturalists; no person having ever kept a pair of doves without noticing that they are birds of a peculiarly irascible and quarrelsome nature.

Thiers informs us that an illustrious astrologer invented a talisman for intercepting the approach of flies to a house; when to his horror, no sooner was it suspended, than a fly, more daring than the rest, deposed a contemptuous mark of disregard upon the charm.


Albany Poyntz was at least one of the pseudonyms that Catherine Gore used for quick side projects that brought in cash to supplement the income from her novels and stories. These compendia of miscellaneous facts were very popular in the 19th Century. One industrious compiler, John Timbs, published several dozen of them on topics ranging from food and religion to medicine and literature, many of which can now be found on the Internet Archive (Link).

A world of wonders, with anecdotes and opinions concerning popular superstitions is available on the Internet Archive (Link).

from A world of wonders, with anecdotes and opinions concerning popular superstitions, by Albany Poyntz (Catherine Gore)
London: Richard Bentley, 1845