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.
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 I told him it was despicable to lead people to slaughter with the white lie of an ideological project that was no longer valid.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.
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 fact that Frances Bellerby’sSelected Stories has been out of print for over thirty years now is literally a case of insult being added to injury. Having damaged her spine while walking along the Lulworth Cliffs on the Dorset coast in 1930, Bellerby spent the remaining forty-five years of her life in pain and illness, yet managed to write short stories that are discussed alongside those of Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Jean Rhys, and Elizabeth Bowen. Of the 40-plus writers profiled in David Malcolm’s recent survey, The British and Irish Short Story Handbook, only one–Bellerby–has none of her story collections currently in print.
Although no less a worthy than Robert Gittings contributed an illuminating biographical sketch for Bellerby’s Selected Poems (which is still in print, probably simply due to the fact that Amazon hasn’t sold out the 1994 printing), her life deserves a treatment similar to Jean Strouse’s classic biography of Alice James. For, like Alice James, Bellerby’s was an intense and creative spirit that burned within a body often inadequate to the task of sheltering it.
Born in Bristol, Bellerby was taught at home until the age of nine by her mother, a trained nurse who worked alongside her husband, an Anglo-Catholic cleric, in a mission among the working poor in the quarries, collieries, and factories outside the city. The family was, in Gittings’ words “exceptionally tight-knit and isolated socially.” Frances idolized her older brother, Jack, and his death in World War One was the first of a series of tragedies that left permanent imprints that can be seen clearly in her work.
Eager to join the fight after the outbreak of the war, Jack volunteered for the Coldstream Guards and was among the first of the so-called Kitchener’s Army to be sent to France. Visiting his family shortly before embarkation, Jack told his father that he expected to be killed in action, saying that he considered it a fate preferable to being wounded and sent home a permanent invalid. His prophecy proved true, as he was killed by an artillery shell on 8 August 1915 at “Windy Corner” near Givenchy. Decades later, in her story “The Carol”, his sister imagined her brother’s return to their home:
Observing a photograph which he did not remember, he went close to see what it was. It hung over the bed, and beneath it hung the old snapshot of James. To his amused surprise the photograph was of himself in uniform. Vaguely, he remembered having it taken. Funny old Mater to put that in my room! he thought, much entertained. Then, noticing written words at the foot of the photograph, he read: “Killed in Action at Givenchy, Aged i8, August 8th, 1915.” This gave him a tremendous shock.
So when his mother, hearing, as she often did, the softly whistled carol, ran upstairs and opened the door to look in, the room was, as usual, empty.
“Time is, perhaps, little more than a flimsy curtain, which under the least pressure of intensity gives way.” As Jeremy Hooker writes in his introduction to Selected Stories, this opening sentence from her story, “Soft and Fair”, “serves well to indicate the nature of Frances Bellerby’s short stories.”
She did try, at first, to break free from her family and painful memories. After attending a Catholic girls’ boarding school with the financial assistance of a family friend and a short stint writing for several newspapers in Bristol, she was hired by The Bristol Times and Mirror and sent to work in London as their drama critic. There she met and married John Rotherford Bellerby, a Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge studying conditions among workers in the East End. She supported her husband as she had seen her mother do, and her first books were, in Gittings’ estimation, little more than Sunday school tracts.
Then came her accident. Walking along the cliffside with her husband and another couple, Frances ran ahead in a burst of enthusiasm, slipped, and landed very awkwardly. She assured John that it was nothing and he and the other man walked on. When the other woman approached, however, she saw Frances dragging herself forward with only her hands, her face twisted in agony. Even after being helped back to their lodgings, she insisted it was only a passing injury. She wasn’t helped by her own tendency to dismiss the seriousness of what had happened, but, as Gittings puts it, “the 1930s were not a good time for the treatment of spinal injury.” And she did, somehow, realize that this was more than just a passing matter. As she later wrote in a notebook, when she found herself on the ground after the fall, “I saw … tall golden letters: THIS IS FOR EVER.”
From that point forward, she found much of the life she had become accustomed to impossible. Walking was difficult and soon required the help of a cane or crutches. She tried a variety of braces to support her back, none of them very effective. When she did consult a physician, she was likely to return home in worse pain from their manipulations. She railed against her plight: “I HATE my spine,” she wrote in her diary. “I am going to write this here because I want it out of me. I HATE my spine…. I am NEVER used to it. I NEVER shall be … I NEVER shall be reconciled to this.”
Adding to her difficulties was the news of her mother’s suicide in 1932. Having suffered from depression almost continuously since her son’s death, she waited one day for her husband to leave their house, then went up to her bedroom, shut the window and plugged up the door and opened up the gas cock. “I suffered and broke and died with her,” Frances later wrote of the impact of her mother’s death.
Her situation also strained her relationship with John Bellerby. She found living in a busy place like London or Cambridge, where he needed to work, increasingly difficult, and she began spending more and more of her time in isolated cottages in the countryside. They separated permanently in 1942. Although this added to her practical challenges, she also found that being away from him freed creative energies she had not experienced since the early days of their marriage. While she had managed to write and publish enough stories for her first collection, Come to an End (1939), before the separation, she now became to write poetry and fiction in earnest.
Writing provided a way for her to channel some of her frustrations. As Sabine Coelsch-Foisner writes in her article, “Finding a Voice: Women Writing the Short Story (to 1945),” included in A Companion to the British and Irish Short Story, “Springing from her own tragic life, Bellerby’s stories focus on exceptional experiences and events too large or formidable to understand: the traumas of war, pain, and bereavement.” Understanding something of her life’s story undoubtedly helps a reader see that Bellerby often transfers painful episodes from it into the experiences of her characters–as in the example from “The Carol” above.
She mustered the energy to write an extended work of fiction, the novel Hath the Rain a Father (1946), but her talent was shown to best advantage at a smaller scale. Some of Bellerby’s best stories deal with situations seen through a child’s eyes and with a child’s sensibility. She had a remarkable understanding of the fragility of a child’s world. As she writes in “The Little Lamps”,
A child is so strong. A child is the strongest creature on earth. A child is integrated, is its own. A child needs no loved one to share the experiencing of beauty, yet has always the underlying certainty that sharing would be easily achieved if need arose: that there is, in fact, no involuntary aloneness.
For some people, growing-up is largely a matter of the death of this certainty. A sudden death, perhaps, or perhaps a very lingering affair.
For Bellerby herself, her brother Jack’s death was undoubtedly such a death of certainty. For her characters, however, it may be merely the suspicion that some stable element in their world is about to break up. In “Pre-War”, a brother and sister are at loose ends, left to play by themselves in their house: “Life had suddenly become a stranger. For three days their mother had been shut away from them in her bedroom.” In “The Cut Finger”, a family suddenly goes to the seaside for what the children are told is a holiday, so that their father can rest. Coming back to their rooms after playing on the beach, the little girl sees her mother crying, and somehow realizes the tragic weight that lies behind this moment:
How could such a thing be? What frightful hurt had brought it about? Her mother! The one person to whom Judith had always gone, by right, without shame or doubt, whenever she herself had been broken to tears. This cherishing omnipotence writhing face-downwards on a bed, sobbing into the pillow–so that the whole world, yes, the whole established world, had been blown sky-high and come hurtling down in fragments anyhow, anywhere.
Most of her work during the 1940s was devoted to short stories. Bellerby published two further collections of stories, The Acorn and The Cup (1948) and A Breathless Child (1952). Perhaps because of her diminishing strength from dealing with her spinal injury, however, she turned increasingly to the more concentrated form of poetry. Her first collection, Plash Mill and Other Poems, named after the Devon cottage where she spend much of the decade, was published in 1946, and The Brightening Cloud in 1949. By the end of the 1940s her poems began to be read on a regular basis on BBC radio, selected by presenter Charles Causley.
With the start of the new decade, however, the fragility of her own situation only increased. In 1950, she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. She was given “perhaps a year, perhaps about five months” to live. A double mastectomy, followed by radiation treatment, suspended this sentence for some years, but she continued to suffer from respiratory problems and other frequent illnesses. Their impacts can be seen in the titles of poems from her next collection, The Stone Angel and the Stone Man, published in 1957: “Convalescence,” “Hospital Car,” “Chronic Ward,” “Dying in June”. She was increasingly confined to the little cottage in Cornwall she had bought, and eventually lost the ability to use a typewriter. She tried to direct her waning energies toward an autobiography, but gave up the effort after working on it for over fifteen years. She confided to her diary: “Desolate. Desolate. Desolate. Frightened, broken, alone.”
Yet the memory of her family traumas was never far away. When, in 1970, with the help of a friend, the publisher Alan Clodd, the first edition of her Selected Poems was released by Enitharmon Press, she dedicated the book “To the brief and everlasting life of my brother”. Clodd and others also helped her gain a Civil List pension in 1973, but it did little to relieve her situation. After years of remission, her cancer returned and she died just short of the age of 75 in July 1975. The following poem serves as a fitting epitaph for this woman whose life and work were filled with such pain and struggle:
Before the Light Fades
Before the light fades Someone should be found to explain With sufficient wisdom and patience Everything I have seen.
And before owl and moth Shock by remembered flight The deep, tombed, silence Of the world of night,
There should appear some linguist Hot-blooded as a bird, To translate with a single sentence Everything I have heard.
Then darkness Might prove home, And eternal silence The kingdom come.
In her preface to the collection, Mannin writes that she “sought to give the book as definite a ‘shape’ as a novel.” To that end, she collects stories set in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War Two in the first section, “Before the Deluge”; in the second section, “Thunder in Spain”, she includes four stories centered upon the defeat, flight, and exile to England of an actual group of Spanish pro-Republican radicals, including Joaquin Delso de Miguel, to whom she dedicated the book; and in the final section, “The Deluge”, she depicts a Europe in the midst of a war which, at the time she was writing, there was no apparent end.
While a few of the stories in No More Mimosa are run-of-the-mill magazine fodder–more O. Henry than Chekhov, and forgotten minutes after finishing them–the collection could, with a bit of editing, serve as a striking record of its time. Mannin is an interesting case. Hugely prolific, she managed to sell well throughout her long career. The stories in this collection first appeared in such mainstream publications as Good Housekeeping, Nursery World, and The Evening Standard. At the same time, she was fierce and unapologetic in her politics and causes, supporting the Anarchists in Spain and refusing to register for national service in World War Two. In this book, these contrasts improve its interest and variety, as Mannin portrays a wider range of classes and circumstances than one is likely to find in any collection from one of her contemporaries.
With the opening story, “Mimosas for Remembrance,” she signals a clear awareness–even writing some years before the start of the war–that storm clouds were gathering:
The light was fading and the room was filled with a soft greyness, upon which the scent of mimosa floated like a dream in a sleep. A dream of spring; of other springs, in other worlds, long ago. There had been mimosa lighting the greyness of the olive-groves above Lake Como. And mimosa woods on the hillsides of Cavalière….
“Europe is doomed and damned,” one character predicts. “We’ll to the woods no more–the mimosas are all gone! It’s probably the last European spring in which they’ll not spread their branches above machine-gun nests, or be mown down before tanks.” He sums up the world they see nearing its end:
… the lives we lived sitting on cafe-terraces, drinking green wine under the chestnut trees in little Tyrolean towns, running in and out of art galleries in Paris, Rome, Florence, Vienna, all the lying in the sun we did on little plages in the South of France, the Balearic Islands–the painting, the writing, the love-affairs, the wild parties, the scandals–all lived out to a background of bars and cafes, olive-groves, mimosa woods, and rapides with romantic names–the Rome Express, the Flèche D’Or, the Blue Train, and trains that pulled into Paris from Istanbul, Belgrade, Wien, Napoli….
And the tales Mannin tells in this first section are utterly cosmopolitan in character. Mostly under five pages long, the sixteen stories comprising “Before the Deluge” are scattered all over the map: Buenos Aires, Algiers, Marseille, Sarajevo, Ragusa, Jerusalem, Montparnasse, and Moscow. And her people come from all over the social spectrum: English spinsters, French nobility, a Palestinian nationalist, an ambitious Algerian wharf-rat, a down-on-his-heels Eton graduate making his way around the Balkans as a member of a sad nightclub dance act. Some of them are still coping with the aftermath of the last war. Of a Russian family in Paris, Mannin writes, “They fled across Europe and into France, which is something which is said in a few words, but which in living meant months and years of semi-starvation in all the capitals of Eastern Europe.”
Ironically, while Mannin’s characters are almost all great travelers, one can’t help but notice after a few stories that few of them are actually heading somewhere in their lives. The English dancer changes partners in the course of his story, but this make no real difference: “Between the time of their arrival and opening they had to find rooms, find the bar, rehearse. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. Nor the last.” Even in the rare case, as in “Algiers”, where the wharf-rat manages to polish up his act, make enough money to pass himself off as wealthy (for a few days, at least), and insinuate himself into the fringe of Paris society, the final destination of his climb up the ladder proves a dead end and, soon enough, he finds himself back on the waterfront. For all its travel opportunities, Mannin’s world of the thirties seems rather claustrophobic.
In the middle section, “Thunder in Spain,” her characters don’t lack for a cause or direction to their lives, but this proves to matter little when you find yourself on the losing side. She follows a group of five pro-Republican organizers fleeing first from Madrid to the temporary capitol, Valencia, and then to the small port of Gancia. In “The Last Night in Gancia”, which Mannin describes as “historic fact”, they spend their last hours on Spanish soil in a tense limbo, wondering whether they would be caught and executed by the Nationalists or rescued by the French or British warships circling offshore. When at last the business of embarkation begins,
[A] great motley crowd of men, and a few women, with pale strained faces, some of them with their eyes dark with misery or wet with tears because they were leaving behind everything they held dear, those they loved and might never see again, and with them the grey ashes of their dreams, some with their eyes alight with hope; for some the embarkation was tragedy, for others, in spite of everything, adventure; for some it was the end of everything, for others merely the end of a chapter.
For the revolutionaries, however, as Mannin shows in “Refugees”, their next chapter is another, duller form of limbo:
After all, when you have nothing whatsoever to do, from the time you get up, late, in the morning, till the time you go to bed in the small hours of the following morning, it does not matter how you get through the time. Time flowed over us in a grey stream, empty, endless, unmeasured–we who had lived such intense, crowded lives. Now we were lost in a vacuum of futility. We had endless political discussions that developed into impassioned arguments, voices raised, fists banged on the table, and usually someone sweeping out; we held endless futile political post-mortems. We played chess; we wrote letters, and were eaten out and in with longing for letters, for news, that never came; we made fitful attempts at learning English; we struggled with the grey labyrinth of London; we made a good deal of coffee, and we spent a good deal of our time lying on our beds and looking at the high dirty ceiling, our thoughts flowing endlessly backward.
When the war does come, however, it doesn’t prove to offer anything better in the way of a direction for most of the characters Mannin portrays. The Army comes to the rescue of a couple whose dream of running a quaint little hotel in the country by buying them out–but financial relief is a poor second best to actually seeing their dream succeed. An actress and an escaped prisoner spend a night together discovering just how well human nature can let down our hopes. A chorus girl struggling to find work gets played by a con artist, only to be dragged out of the rubble after a German bomb hits their bar. And two sets of evacuees find themselves and their hosts disappointed, then unhappy, then disgruntled and resentful. Patriotism turns out to be a pretty weak force in the face of people who simply dislike each other intensely. Mannin could not have foreseen it, but she was doing a good job of preparing her characters for the Cold War to come.
If this makes No More Mimosa sound like grim fare, I must point out that Mannin is a solid and professional story teller. She has a remarkably talent for sketching in enough details for the reader to accept the story’s setting and principals in a matter of a page or two. I often thought of Maugham while reading the book–that same sense of a writer saying to the reader, “Now, I’m going to tell you a story, and I know what I’m doing, so your job is just to read along. Shall we?” However, Mannin’s characters are, in general, a bit rougher around the edges–you wouldn’t be surprised to see some dirt under their fingernails or a bit of food in their teeth. Come to think of it, they’re a lot more like the inhabitants of Orwell’s fiction. I don’t want to oversell the book, however–it’s not “Rain” meets Keep the Aspidistra Flying. But for anyone looking for an antidote to nostalgia for the thirties and war years, No More Mimosa offers a convincing demonstration that the West had its share of grim, grey lives well before anyone came up with the phrase “Iron Curtain.”
No More Mimosa, by Ethel Mannin London: Jarrolds Publishers, Ltd., 1943
I’ve never found anything written by George P. Elliott entirely satisfying–yet I keep coming back to his work.
Considered a rising talent in the 1950s, when his short stories such as “The NRACP” and “Among the Dangs” began appearing in anthologies and to be mentioned as some of the more significant works in then-contemporary American writing, Elliott was solidly placed in the literary mainstream by the 1960s, when his name often appeared alongside those of Bellow, Heller, and Roth; beginning to be seen as marginal by the start of the 1970s; and largely forgotten by the time he died at age 62 in 1980. His books are all out of print today, and he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry (yet).
What happened? I think a look at his best-received book, the short story collection Among the Dangs (1961), can explain a lot.
Among the Dangs includes several stories that stand out quite starkly from most of what was being published at the time. In the title story, a black American academic and anthropologist studies and then becomes a member of a violent Amazonian tribe, the Dangs, only to flee from them in the end, in fear that he was on the brink of reverting to their more instinctual and primitive level. I remember thinking it a remarkable and memorable story when I first came across it in some anthology of contemporary short stories back in college, and that memory was the main reason I but the book on my “to read” list for this year.
Nearly forty years later, the impression left by “Among the Dangs” is not nearly so powerful. Aside from the novelty factor of a white writer adopting the voice and perspective of a black man, there is nothing revealed about the narrator that gives any sense that this was anything but an arbitrary choice by the writer. The color of his skin could just as easily have been purple for all it adds to the story. Elliott later wrote that, “My work in composing ‘Among the Dangs’ was made the easier because I was so little interested in all those aspects of the world which are recognizably arranged in a realistic story,” and this gets to one of the first problems with his fiction.
When I dug back through contemporary reviews of Among the Dangs, one theme jumped out as a constant. The Kirkus Reviews reviewer described Elliott’s outlook as “disinterested and detached. Critic Benjamin DeMott said that Elliott wrote with a “mild irony and a certain detachment from his characters.” Another wrote that Elliott “… entertains and interests us and at the same time puzzles us–puzzles me, perhaps not you–for he conveys a sense of great moral and emotional earnestness without making clear what more or what emotion he wants us to feel.” And another simply confessed defeat in the face of Elliott’s detachment: “I don’t know what George P. Elliott thinks of the people in his stories.”
Elliott’s most reprinted story also appears in Among the Dangs. Originally published in the Hudson Review in 1949, “The NRACP” is such a dryily-written satire that more than a few readers miss the joke entirely. NRACP standa for “National Relocation Authority: Colored Persons,” and the story postulates an America in which a government-run program is quietly carrying out the genocide of its black citizens. In some ways, it’s a fictional demonstration of the old saying about how to boil a frog (i.e., very slowly). Much of the story deals more with the personal dilemma of the protagonist, a relatively hapless guy torn between staying with his wife or having a fling with his younger and more attractive secretary. Only vaguely does the reader come to understand that all around, the blacks are being taken away to camps and disappearing from the streets. And Elliott’s protagonist is even slower to catch on.
A fair number of readers were shocked by the story when it first came out, and as the civil rights movement gained momentum, the violence of the story’s premise came to seem even more dramatic. Elliott was considered coarse and insensitive by liberals and viewed as mocking the beliefs of conservatives. Elliott himself said that it was the first story he ever sold that made him enough money to go out to dinner on: “So I invited Josephine Miles and some other friends out, but Josephine wouldn’t go. She would not dine on that story because she thought it was so bad, so wrong.” The America of “The NRACP” is one increasingly split between the winners and the losers–or, as Elliott puts it, “Those who get it and those who dish it out.” Of all the stories in this collection, it’s certainly the most relevant for readers in today’s America, where this sort of divide is becoming more and more apparent.
A third story, “Faq'” (a title likely to be misunderstood by most readers today), evokes the work of Borges, Kafka, and other metaphysical writers. In it, an American geographer sees a remote settlement in the Atlas mountains of Morocco while flying on an Army Air Corps mission and vows to visit and study it after the war. What he finds is a long-isolated civilization where the men spend all day worshipping numbers while the women–kept at a rough ratio of three to every male to ensure a ready workforce. The people of Faq’ have come to believe that their existence depends upon continuing the communal task of counting: “By hypothesis the highest nameable number is as far from the end as one is, and there is no end to counting. It is the function of Faq’ to test this hypothesis in the only statistically verifiable fashion, actually by counting forever.”
As with the anthropologist of “Among the Dangs,” however, the American ultimately flees and returns to the world he is more familiar with. He is determined “never to go there again, for he is sure that though he does not know what is right for men ordered perfection is wrong, and that though suffering is bad the lack of suffering is much worse.”
This last statement could easily serve as Elliott’s motto. The anthropologist gains a place among the Dangs in part through his prowess as a storyteller, and the primary story he tells them is that of the life of Christ. While not an overtly religious writer, Christian themes–particularly those of human fallibility, of sin, of the need for repentance, and of the possibility of forgiveness–are easily found throughout Elliott’s work. And he always had a moralist’s disdain for the notion that seeking freedom or pleasure would ultimately change man’s situation. He would have agreed with wittgenstein: “I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.” As Elliott wrote in a piece in The Nation titled, “The Happiness Rat Race”, “To be sure, having the kind of fun you have to have doesn’t hurt as much as finding out what’s really wrong and doing something about it. But finally, rather than that grinning stupefaction, I’d prefer to hurt.”
Human failure is in many ways Elliott’s favorite subject. Although one critic wrote that the story, “A Family Matter”, “sounds as if it had been written as a contribution to a seminar on the novels of Miss Compton-Burnett”–and Elliott himself later admitted that he had written it as an experiment after reading several of Compton-Burnett’s novels. “That is, I felt like writing a story in which the plot problem is announced at the outset, developed in clearly marked stages, and resolved near the end, and in which all the characters are connected with the same family and speak concisely and hyperconsciously.”
In the story, an elderly millionaire returns to the place where his ex-wives and children live, in part to try to understand what led to his becoming so distant and detached from them. In the end, neither he, the ex-wives, the children, nor the reader is any more the wiser–and yet, it’s clear that the effort was both necessary and useful. Elliott was a firm believer in the necessity of trying to come to grips with the world we live in–even if that effort is likely to prove unsuccessful: “A good deal of fiction derives from the writer’s impulse to understand or cause the reader to understand the true nature of part of the world. Whether he does it for himself primarily or for the readers he wants to affect does not matter as much as that he is pressed by the need to understand the world, to order experience.”
I think this is what continues to interest me in his work: even when it’s not entirely satisfying, it always reveals an individual making a deep and serious effort to understand. As someone has probably already said, it’s probably more important to have the right questions than to have the right answers.
Though Elliott published four novels during his life, all were consistently judged interesting but ultimately unsuccessful. Many reviewers remarked that his short fiction was better than his novels. And reviewing his second story collection, An Hour of Last Things, William Peden judged that Elliott was “As much a thoughtful essayist as story-teller.” But even in his essays, Elliott could, at times, become somewhat strident and brittle. However, as Phillip Stambovsky writes in The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, a few of these essays, mostly autobiographical, “are among the most original and impressive of his literary productions”: “A Brown Fountain Pen” and “A Piece of Lettuce” from A Piece of Lettuce; “Never Nothing” from Conversions; “Snarls of Beauty” from The George P. Elliott Reader. “Whatever other qualities this unnamed, unshaped age we are entering may have,” Elliott once wrote, “I hope that it will realize it needs art in order to live.” I will have to return to these essays next year, when I plan to focus on autobiographical works, to give Elliott’s art the appreciation it deserves, in its own earnest if never fully successful way.
Among the Dangs and Other Stories, by George P. Elliott New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961
I recently had the chance to travel to Estonia for the first time, to attend a conference in Tallinn. In the spirit of this trip, then, I took along a copy of The Conspiracy, a collection of stories by one of the leading Estonian writers of the last 50 years, Jaan Kross. I was thoroughly impressed by the people, sights, food, and energy of life in Estonia, and once you’ve read a little of the country’s history, you realize how long and hard they have had to struggle to establish–and reestablish–their independence and to maintain their culture and way of life in the 50+ years they spent under Nazi and Soviet control.
The Conspiracy offers a particularly good fictional introduction to what the Estonians endured during that time. Kross, who was born in 1920, not long after Estonia declared its independence, reached adulthood at about the time when that independence was crushed–first by Soviets (1940-1941, starting with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and ending soon after the German invasion of Russia), then by the Germans (1941-1944), and then again by the Soviets, who settled in for over forty years. The stories in The Conspiracy trace this history through episodes in the life of Kross’ fictional counterpart, Peeter Mirk.
The first story, “The Wound”, is set in the time around the start of the German invasion of Poland, when Germany offered ethnic Germans in the Baltic republics the opportunity to move into settlements in recently-conquered Poland and begin the process of establishing Hitler’s precious lebensraum. Peeter Mirk’s first love, a neighbor and fellow student in Tartu University, belongs to a family with German connections who decides to accept the offer. At a farewell party, feelings of nostalgia overtake the two young people and they decide in a moment of haste to run away and get married. As they run from the restaurant through rainy streets, however, she slips and falls, getting a severe cut on her leg, forcing them to stop and go back. Their impulsive act leads, in the end, to just the first of many casualties suffered by people in Peeter’s life over the next twenty years.
Kross was able to complete law school and stay on as a member of faculty for the first years of German occupation, in part through a series of medical dodges, avoiding the “lead piping” into which many Estonian men were channeled:
And the lead pipes, as already mentioned above, were, according to these notices, two in number. One of them spewed forth its load on to the front via the notorious Bad-Tölz training camp, that is to say, via southern Bavaria after a period of three to four months. The other pipe did the same, after a couple of weeks of basic drill at the Kohila or Elva training camps. Those spewed out of the first pipe wore SS uniforms and were told that they constituted the elite of Neues Europa and of the Estonian people. The second pipe spat forth so-called “Volunteer Assistants”, who were in fact required to stay in the frontier zone in the same section as the prisoners of war stationed there.
But some of Kross’s friends were not so lucky. Even those who tried to escape to Sweden or Finland took extraordinary risks, as is illustrated in the stories “Lead Piping” and “The Stahl Grammar.” And Kross himself ended up being arrested by the Germans in 1944, only to be set free from a Tallinn prison by the first wave of Soviet troops to retake the city. Two years later, however, he was again arrested, this time on the charge of being a “bourgeois recidivist”, and was sent to the Vorkutlag complex of camps. He spent the next eight years in the Gulag, finally returning to Estonia in 1954.
Fortunately for Kross and his readers, he was possessed of a spirit of extraordinary resilience and good humor. He was lucky, he once remarked in an interview for the Guardian, that he was imprisoned by the Soviets and not the Germans: “Such was their Ordnungsliebe –passion for order–and their savage discipline. The Soviets at least had their saving virtues of inefficiency and incompetence.” He had an intense interest in other people–indeed, at a few points in his stories he pulls himself up with a remark such as, “But why have I begun to describe him in such detail?”
And Kross works details into his writing with all his senses. The reader gets the sense not just of how things looked, but also weather, textures, sounds, and, most of all, smells:
I had keys to Uncle’s apartment. We climbed the stairs with their faint smell of polish and stepped into the hall of the apartment. For some reason (or perhaps because we entered without switching on the light) it was the smells of the apartment which impinged on my consciousness on that occasion: the faint smell of ether emanating from Uncle’s surgery into the hall and its extension which served as a waiting room; the faint smell of naphthalene which arose from the Biedermeier furniture in the living room, the faint smell of cooking oil from the dining room through which we groped our way and where rye flour pancakes fried in a drop of sunflower oil, obtained goodness knows where, had been eaten; the fragrance of Soir de Paris which seeped through his wife’s door which stood ajar; the smell of the liquor store from the chink in the bathroom door, though this could have been mere imagination, since Uncle stored his several-liter stock of spirits in large flagons which stood in the bath which was half-filled with water as a precaution against fire and air raids; and then the comically coarse yet subtle whiff of tobacco from Uncle’s own room (for he had, for donkeys’ years, been smoking a weed grown by some patient or other and prepared with rose oil in his straight-stemmed pipe).
After Kross returned to Estonia, he realized that the only way he could survive was to write things that would not be closely examined for possible counter-revolutionary themes. So he became a historical novelist, carefully disguising his criticism of Soviet rule and calls for Estonian independence through characters and situations from hundreds of years earlier. Through this work and teaching, he was able to survive to see Estonia’s return to independence in 1991, and even to sit in its first Parliament and participate in writing the country’s new constitution. He died in 2007.
Four of Kross’ books, including his best-regarded novel, The Czar’s Madman, were translated into English, by Anselm Hollo and Eric Dickens, and published by Harvill in the mid-1990s, and a further novel featuring Peeter Mirk, Treading Air, was issued in 2003. Most of these are now out of print, but recently, Quercus Publishing began releasing an English translation of his most popular work in Estonia, a historical trilogy, Between Three Plagues, starting with the first volume, The Ropemaker.
In a piece for the Estonian Literary Magazine, Kross once wrote of the disadvantages and benefits of being a writer from a small, much-invaded country. Starting out as a writer at perhaps the worst time in his country’s history, he became “not only a writer of a small nation, but a writer who had lost his country.” When, after fifty years’ wait, he had the chance to reclaim his country, he was burdened
… with only the normal troubles of the literature of a small nation: linguistic isolation, the indifference with which the world mostly treats us and our helpless resignation in the face of it -instead of trying to fight it with every possible means within the limits of good taste. Most important of all is the sense of proportion: the amount of time for all sorts of meetings where these means are being discussed, should be reasonable. The rest of the time a writer should stay at home–the smaller the nation of the writer, the more he ought to stay at home, at his desk, writing truly remarkable books.
When Kross died in 2007, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves saluted him in a funeral service that was broadcast live on Estonian State Television: “He was one of those who kept fresh the spirits of the people and made us ready to take the opportunity of restoring Estonia’s independence.”
In “The Fall”, the first story in Virgilio Piñera’s collection, Cold Tales (Cuentos Frios), the leader of two mountaineers climbing a peak slips and falls. The fall pulls his partner down after him, and the two plummet, topsy-turvy, down the mountainside, colliding into rocky outcrops and losing limbs along the way. By the end, all that is left is the leader’s beard and his partner’s eyes: “But I couldn’t complain; my eyes landed safe and sound on the grassy plain and could see, a little ways off, the beautiful gray beard of my companion, shining in all its glory.”
Cold Tales is a collection of stories where things take place in this world we all know but happen in ways that defy all our common senses. This may be a reflection of Piñera’s own perspective, as his life was lived both in the midst of his world and always standing somewhat outside it. In his introduction to the collection, Guillermo Cabrera Infante writes that “Virgilio Piñera’s short stories are far from any received notion in literature, for they come from absolute alienation, where the shortest distance to hell is not through paradise but purgatory.”
In his native Cuba, Piñera is considered one of the great writers of the 20th century, but few of his works are currently in print in English translation. Born in Cárdenas in 1912, he began writing plays and poems in the 1930s and participating in Cuban politics and literary affairs. He was also homosexual, and the treatment of the Cuban government of people with his sexual and political inclinations led him to move to Buenos Aires as a voluntary exile. There he met the Polish writer, Witold Gombrowicz, and helped him translate his novel, Ferdydurke. Piñera also became acquainted with other writers and Cuban exiles and began writing absurdist short stories, likely influenced by Gombrowicz and Borges and anticipating. Many of the stories in Cold Tales were written during this period.
In 1958, anticipating the success of Fidel Castro’s revolution, Piñera returned to Cuba, and was, at first, involved in the circle of political and literary personalities forming around the core of the new regime. His pieces appeared in some of the most widely-read periodicals. But while acceptance of his political views had changed, attitudes toward his sexuality had not. Castro’s government wanted to eliminate what they called “the three Ps”: “prostitutes”, “pimps” and “pájaro” (homosexuals in Cuban slang). Che Guevara himself once hurled one of Piñera’s books off a shelf in the Cuban embassy in Algiers, shouting, “How dare you have a book by this foul faggot!”
In October 1961, he was arrested and jailed for pederasty, after which it became a struggle to live and love freely. He got work as a journalist and translator, and a few of his plays were performed, but it was well known that he was in Castro’s disfavor. Ostracized by many who had known him, he became known as something of a literary ghost. Though it was difficult to get his work published, he continued writing, and when he died of a heart attack in 1979, eighteen boxes of unpublished material were recovered from his apartment.
His work did gain some attention outside Cuba, however, being published in France, Romania, and elsewhere in Europe. And in 1988, Eridanos Press, a small (and much-missed) U. S. publishing house backed by Bompiani, the literary arm of Italy’s leading publishing corporation, Fabbri, released Cold Tales, taken from Piñera’s Cuentos Frios, published in Buenos Aires in 1956, along with over twenty more written afterwards, in excellent translations by Mark Schafer. Two years later, Eridanos also published one of Piñera’s three novels, Rene’s Flesh. And, in 2012, he finally received some posthumous recognition from the Cuban government, which organized a conference and several events to recognize “el Año Virgiliano“ in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Cold Tales has been, for me, the discovery of 2017 (so far). Unlike Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories, which suffer too much from taking place in the head and not the flesh, Piñera’s stories are both fantastic and palpably real. “These tales are cold because they limit themselves to the hard facts,” Piñera asserts in his Foreword.
You can see this in “Meat,” for example, in which people respond to a growing famine by cutting away and eating parts of their own bodies. “One distinguished physician predicted that a person weighing one hundred pounds (discounting viscera and the rest of the inedible organs) could eat meat for one hundred and forty days at the rate of half a pound a day.” One of the most obese men in town cannot control his hunger, however, and disappears in fifteen days: “After a while, no one could ever find him. Evidently, he was hiding….”
In “Swimming”, the narrator learns to swim on dry land–which, he admits, “has an agonized quality about it.” “… [A]t the same time one is dying, one is quite alive, quite alert, listening to the music that comes through the window and watching the worm crawl across the floor.” And there are benefits: “Once in a while I sink my hands into the marble tiles and offer them a tiny fish that I catch in the submarine depths.” In “The Mountain”, a man resolves to eat an entire mountain. He realizes that people will think him crazy, but takes comfort that, very gradually, “the mountain is losing mass and height.”
Some of Piñera’s stories are a mere paragraph long. Here, for example, is “Insomnia” in its entirety:
The man goes to bed early. He can’t fall asleep. He tosses and turns in bed, as might be expected. He gets tangled in the sheets. He lights a cigarette. He reads a little. He turns out the light again. But he can’t sleep. At three o’clock, he gets out of bed. He wakes his friend next door and confides that he can’t sleep. He asks the friend for advice. The friend advises him to take a short walk to tire himself out. And then, right away, to drink a cup of linden blossom tea and turn out the light. He does all that, but is unable to fall asleep. He gets up again. This time he goes to see a doctor. As usual, the doctor talks a lot but the man still doesn’t fall asleep. At six in the morning, he loads a revolver and blows his brains out. The man is dead, but hasn’t been able to get to sleep. Insomnia is a very persistent thing.
Cold Tales ends with perhaps Piñera’s last story, written in 1978, within a year of his death. In “The Death of the Birds”–just two pages long–the narrator reviews the different theories offered to explain why all the birds have died–epidemic, mass suicide, sudden thinning of the atmosphere, etc.. Many millions of birds lie strewn all over the earth and humanity is “filled with fright by the impossibility of discovering an explanation for such a monstrous fact.” But then, suddenly, they all come back to life and take flight.
Why? One can imagine a wise smile coming across Piñera’s as he wrote these closing lines:
The fiction of the writer, erasing the deed, returns them to life. And only with the death of literature will they fall again wretched onto the earth.
Cold Tales is now, sadly, out of print and used copies fetch over $30. But perhaps someone from David R. Godine, which bought Eridanos Press some years ago, will notice this piece and realize the simple step that can be taken to forestall the death of literature and keep the birds flying.
Cold Tales, by Virgilio Piñera, translated by Mark Schafer Hygiene, Colorado: Eridanos Press, 1988
When I reviewed Thyra Samter Wilson’s first short story collection, Picture Frames, I wrote that there was “No room for nostalgia in this tough cookie’s heart.” In the thirty-plus years that separated Picture Frames from her last collection, The Sex Without Sentiment, Winslow seems to have squeezed a little in. But as her title proclaims, it’s not much–a broom closet, maybe, as the subtitle, “Short Stories Written With Understanding But Without Sentiment” emphasizes.
If Balzac had been a woman living in Manhattan in the 1950s, he might have written The Sex Without Sentiment. Like Balzac, Winslow’s human comedy is closer to Greek tragedy than to anything with the remote chance of evoking a laugh. And to Balzac’s grim fascination with human failings Winslow adds a feminine perspective. Woman, as they appear in The Sex Without Sentiment, are abused, cheated on, gossiped about, kept down, and, most often, ignored.
Winslow’s stories reveal a female version of the same rat race run by the businessmen scurrying over the island of Manhattan each work day. In a few cases, they are fighting their way up the same corporate ladder, but in most, the competition is for the simple matter of being noticed. In “Fur Flies,” a beautician in an expensive Midtown salon offers a quick overview of the race’s most popular heats:
When a woman like that hits a spot like Emily Deane’s there are only a few reasons. A younger man has fallen for her, which is unlikely, unless she’s a rich widow. Or somebody’s left her a fortune, and that’s unlikely, too, unless she tells about it; folks always want to tell about a fortune. Or her husband has fallen in love with another woman and she wants to get him back—the routine reason. Or her children think she’s dowdy and put the pressure on her.
Even for someone as the low end of the social scale, such as “Sophie Jackson”, a maid looking for a job, the feminine rat race has its trickle down effects:
Looking back, there wasn’t so much difference between the best and the worst places. Lazy mistresses or worried mistresses. Generous ones or those who, through nature or necessity, kept her from getting enough to eat. You got up early and set the table and cooked breakfast. Breakfast got lighter every year, but there was always toast and coffee and fruit–and eggs most of the time. Even this meant dozens of steps and dishes.
And, after breakfast, the work started. Beds to be made. “Don’t forget to turn the mattress. You didn’t turn it yesterday.” Rooms to be cleaned. Silver to be polished. And one eye on the clock, so lunch wouldn’t be late. And maybe a couple of visits to the store, during the morning. “Why didn’t you tell me you needed eggs? I believe you like to run to the store!”
After lunch, more dishes and more cleaning. And children coming home from school. Vegetables to prepare. Dinner—and more dishes. And washing on Monday and ironing on Tuesday. “Don’t get Mr. Watkins’ collars so stiff. These are soft shirts, Sophie!” And one room cleaned thoroughly each week. And staying in nights, so the children wouldn’t be alone.
Nights off—every Thursday, if you were lucky, and every second Sunday. Going to the movies alone, unless you made friends with one of the girls working in the neighborhood. The mistresses didn’t want to be mean. Sophie knew that. But they were harassed too. Or were worried about money. Or had difficult husbands. Or wanted to be out of the house, away from the work, as much as they could be.
In the race for romance, the odds are against Winslow’s women. Marriages, when they do happen, are usually unhappy. Or the price of love means being the other woman. In “More Like Sisters,” Lela Robbins, having been bound to her widow mother as a companion for the whole of her prime, has learned to take quick stock of her occasional dates: “She’d never hear from him again, or from the other men who would appear briefly and seem to like her a little.”
So some woman look for proxies. Rita, one of the four career women in “Girls in Black”–“and all four of them liked to think of themselves as career women, instead of professional women or girls who ‘go to business’”–finds one by inviting her older sister to move to Manhattan from Ohio: “Why, with Millie here, she belonged to someone. They were a family, the two of them. A woman alone at night is a pitiful sight. A woman alone in a restaurant always looks out of place, forlorn. But two women–that’s different.”
In “A Lamb Chop for the Little Dog,” an elderly widow discovers that something as small as having a dog makes the difference between being treated as part of a community and being ignored: “Before she had Frisky it never occurred to Mrs. Taylor that she was practically invisible. She had worn dark, decent clothes and thought that people treated her very well. Now she saw, curiously enough, that no one noticed her. She went out on the street–and it was just as if she were not there!”
Ironically, Winslow sold her work primarily to women’s magazines: Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Harpers Bazaar, Journal of Living, Todays Woman and Womans Day. Now, these are certainly stories of their time and not, for the most part, timeless classics. Perhaps The Sex Without Sentiment is more artifact than art, so it could be argued that, sixty years later, many women have found ways to avoid Winslow’s version of the rat race. Yet I could also point to Vivian Gornick’s recent Odd Woman in the City, which was discussed here at the end of last year, and suggest that there are still many effective ways to render older women living alone invisible.
Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories is something of a litmus test for readers. For some, it is a neglected masterpiece, a revolutionary work in the development of fiction, a book like no other. For others, it a book like no other … in its pretentiousness, its relentless interruptions to remind the reader that he/she is reading a piece of fiction, and its refusal, in many stories, to follow any conventional narrative pattern.
Riding first published Progress of Stories in 1935, when she was living with the poet Robert Graves on Majorca and running the Seizin Press. She had already made a name as a modernist poet in the U.S., divorced her first husband, had an affair with the poet Allen Tate, attempted suicide and broken up Graves’ first marriage–although she cut off sexual relations with Graves early in their time as a couple. If Riding comes across as a woman inclined to take things to extremes, that comes across in her fiction.
In the words of Graves’ nephew and biographer Richard Perceval Graves, “Her plenipotent intellect and personality swept away all resistance, reducing to discipleship, abject servility, or virtual madness anyone who could not manage to shake him/herself free from her mesmerizing, tyrannical influence. Her most subjective responses to experience were translated (by her as well as her followers) into world-historical imperatives and aesthetic universals, while her insight into the multiple layers of human personality enabled her to manipulate everyone around her intellectually, emotionally, and sexually.” (There is a striking resemblance between accounts of Riding by people who knew her–and her responses to them–and those of another litmus-like figure, Ayn Rand.)
I must confess defeat through exhaustion in dealing with Riding’s life and a good deal of her opinions. This is a woman who, in her eighties, could chastise Harry Mathews over four lengthy paragraphs for referring to her in a New York Review of Books article of the 1982 of Progress of Stories as “Laura” rather than “Laura (Riding) Jackson” (her preferred name after her 1941 marriage to critic Schuyler Jackson). She also made sure to note that “my work and myself” were subjects “which no professional literary man or woman can afford to disregard in his or her position-taking.” And I nearly surrendered before even reaching the stories in Progress of Stories thanks to 33 pages of prefaces (the one to the 1935 edition, followed by a second for the 1982 edition).
From the start, Riding draws a stark line between her work and those of virtually all her predecessors: “There is a quaint cult of story-writing which practises what is called ‘the short story’; pompous little fragments in whose very triviality, obscurity and shabbiness some significant principle of being is meant to be read.” Instead, it is time, she declares, that “we should be telling one another stories of ideas.” This is no earth-shaking assertion, but soon after it, Riding challenges the reader to digest the following sentence: “Thus the story-telling model of human speaking, or, as speaking recorded for silent apprehending is literarily named, ‘writing’, persists, in its natural casting of speaking or writing as reduplicating the live processes of happening, into the open areas of knowledge and understanding that all minds share as the world of intelligent being—partaking, in their unitary reality as minds, of the identity of mind.”
I balked for a moment, but plowed on (write me if you can explain what she meant). Or rather, detoured past the rest of the preface material and headed into the stories themselves. The book is organized in three major sections: the stories from the 1935 edition, followed by a selection of stories from Riding’s first two fiction collections, Anarchism is Not Enough (1928) and Experts Are Puzzled (1930). It concludes with “Christmastime,” a story she wrote in 1966 and her own reflections on some of the preceding stories.
The Progress of Stories section represents something of a journey out of conventional story-telling into the new territory Riding proposes to discover. The seven stories in Part One, “Stories of Lives”, a written in a very spare style but still somewhat represent other short stories one might be familiar with, although rather as if being viewed under a microscope like a specimen.
In Part Two, “Stories of Ideas,” however, Riding sets the reader down in wholly unfamiliar material. “Reality as Port Huntlady” opens with a simple, traditional narrative sentence: “Dan the Dog came to the town of Port Huntlady with two friends, Baby and Slick.” OK, no problem there. But then Riding tells us that, “Port Huntlady was not a town as other towns are towns. It was rather like a place where one felt a town might one day be, or where one felt that perhaps there had once been a town.” Port Huntlady, in other words, is not your usual seaside resort town. No, it is a town that–like the story itself–hovers between life in the real world and life in a world of ideas: “Port Huntlady was a place where things might happen; not the things that happened in the world proper, which were personal experiences, but universal experiences, such as the end of the world, or great turning-points in the course of human events.”
At the center of Port Huntlady affairs is Lady Port-Huntlady–herself an orphic figure who might well be a fictional counterpart for Riding herself: “Never seeming to say anything—and yet, after one had left her presence, it seemed that she had said a great deal, at least that one had understood a great many things that one did not really understand.” Indeed, a cynic might say the same thing after finishing Progress of Stories
But it doesn’t really matter what Lady Port-Huntlady might or might not say during her soirees, since, as Riding soon tells us, “We are all aware that there is no such place as Port Huntlady. It may well be that there is a place to which Port Huntlady stands as a lie stands to the truth. In fact, this is not far from being the case.” The inclusion of details is, for Riding, part of the attempt the story-teller to be believable, but this is ultimately equivalent to hypnotism: “this true-seeming is the power of the story to keep your interest until you have abandoned, quite frankly, those rational standards of interest with which we all prop up our chins when our thoughts scurry between brain and heart and we can do no better than be proud. It is the moral pretence of the story created by our joint vanity in being conscientious, orderly and truthful creatures—before we give ourselves up to its gentle idiocy….”
“But, indeed,” she asks further on, “is our story very important? Is any story very important? I assure you that no story is of much importance; and I think you will agree with me. Are we not all agreed that only a few things are really important?” Though she introduces other characters and engages them in various actions, she notes that these matters are both pointless and, therefore, infinite in their possibilities: “… how Lady Port-Huntlady would have consoled the cats by bringing down the remains of their lunch from the lounge; and how Miss Bookworth would have left Port Huntlady soon after to take up a post as secretary to a wealthy invalid whose hobby was corresponding with patients in tuberculosis sanatoria, in which he had spent much of his own life; and how a story may go on indefinitely unless there is perfect understanding at the start of the limitations that keep a story from being anything but a story….” In the end, she writes, driving a last stake through any pretense of honoring the “laws” of fiction, “no amount of ingenuity can save a story from seeming, in the end, just a story–just a piece of verbal luggage, belonging to anybody who cares to be bothered with it.”
In an interview, the poet Lisa Samuels, who edited the University of California Press 2001 reprint of Riding’s 1928 collection, Anarchism Is Not Enough, argued that Riding was challenging the very conceptual basis of fiction itself, rather like Brecht breaking the fourth wall between the play and its audience: “Her tone can be crisp in those stories, as you say; but her combinations of the fantastic, fairy tales, interrogating language as power, investigating what it means to draw and disassemble characters, challenging the reader to be aware of their desire for narrative and syntactic seduction, and so on, make for a situation, in my reading, of multiple possibilities (rather than precision) and messy genres (excess – I mean that in a good way).”
If you wanted to know whether or not you would get anything out of Progress of Stories, you could actually just go straight to “Reality as Port Huntlady” and draw your conclusions from that. For me, reading it was rather like the experience of looking at a Magic Eye picture, where you can feel your visual perception of the image switching back and forth between what seems like noise and then, a moment later, becomes coherent. It was both disorienting and, in a way, almost thrilling.
Continuing on in this manner for another two hundred-plus pages, however, was a like being trapped in a gallery with nothing on the walls except Magic Eye pictures. A little bit is an exciting novelty; dozens of these pictures, one following the other relentlessly, was mind-numbing. Reviewing the 1982 edition in New York magazine, Edith Milton concluded, “All this self-consciousness makes for quite difficult reading, and, despite their formal brilliance, the stories pall.”
On the other hand, Harry Mathews–himself a veteran challenger of the conventions of fiction–considered Riding’s venture among the most ambitious in 20th century literature: “Riding’s aim in writing this carefully structured series of stories was to make articulate in the experience of her readers a knowledge of life that is both true and nonconceptual. It was as if she wanted to make the mechanisms of language, usually so approximate and reductive, accurate enough in the effect of their working to initiate the reader willy-nilly into an awareness of what she felt to be the pure, unmediated truth.”
Unfortunately, Mathews managed to express himself better than Riding herself. For her entry in the 1955 edition of Twentieth Century Authors, she wrote: “We did not fully understand the character of the mental operation required for definitions of the kind we wished to make until we perceived that we must liberate our minds entirely from the confused associations of usage in which the meanings of words are entangled–and that, for us, the act of definition must involve a total reconstituting of words’ meanings. Much of our work has been done upon our minds, rather upon words directly: and we have proceeded very slowly, in consequence.” Indeed, “a total reconstituting of words’ meanings” could present a fairly insurmountable obstacle if one is trying to pursue writing as a career.
After seeing Progress of Stories mentioned as an undeservedly neglected book for decades, I was glad to finally have the chance to read it, but in the end, I was reminded of something a friend of mine once said when returning a book he’d borrowed: “It was good, but not that good.”
Progress of Stories, by Laura Riding New York: Persea Books, 1982
“It has been said that a judge is a member of the Bar who once knew a Governor,” Curtis Bok quips in the first story in his collection of judicial stories, The Backbone of the Herring. With this opening line, the reader immediately gets a sense of Bok’s easy-going humor and self-deprecation. Although John Lukacs once described Bok’s personality as “glacial”–which it may well have been in public–as a writer, channeled through his fictional identity as “Judge Ulen” in these stories, Bok comes across as the kind of judge you’d want to have hearing your case–whether as plaintiff or defendant: conscientious, empathetic, impartial, and capable taking or making a joke once in a while.
Lukacs’ assessment might stem from Bok’s position on the highest tier of Philadelphia society. His father, Edward Bok was editor of The Saturday Evening Post and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and his mother, Mary Louise Curtis, brought a fortune and her husband’s access to his editorship courtesy of her father, Cyrus Curtis, who founded the Post along with a half-dozen of the other leading American magazines of the time. She herself founded the Curtis Institute of Music, considered the toughest American conservatory to get into, and somewhat shocked Philadelphia when, a widow of 67, she married the violinist and bon vivantEfrem Zimbalist (Senior). And, not to stunt the family tree, Curtis’ son, Derek grew up to become president of Harvard.
On the other hand, for a son of the Main Line, Curtis showed a remarkable capacity for choosing his own path. After a tour in the Navy during World War One, he studied law at the University of Virginia and became a member of a prestigious Philadelphia firm. He won a place on the cover of Time magazine in 1933 when he turned down the chance to run the family publishing company and, instead, kept his low-paying job as an assistant district attorney. Despite his time in the military, he was a practicing Quaker and a lifelong opponent of the death penalty.
In 1937, he became President Judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the city’s primary civil and criminal court. Early on, he began keeping a notebook of his observations from the courtroom–not so much to aid in writing his opinions as to help shape his understanding of the nature of justice, and these developed into fictional sketches that he began publishing in The Shingle, the magazine of the Philadelphia Bar Association in 1939. These stories are collected in The Backbone of the Herring
“These are not entirely autobiographical or fictitious, nor is Ulen,” Bok writes in his foreword. His point in recounting these stories was “that our system of justice, apart from Justice, which will remain undefined so far as I am concerned, can be made to work when applied with art and sympathy and a sly sense of humor.” Describing himself as a “mediocre lawyer with good connections,” Ulen took some time to overcome his timidity and found, somewhat to his surprise, that “when at last he had drifted to a point of rest he came rather abruptly into his full powers and began to use them with a delight.”
Although Ulen’s reflections on justice (“Justice has to do with the play of an enlightened personality within the boundaries of a system”) are a constant motif, the real interest of these stories is in Bok/Ulen’s observations of people. One defendant, a hulking laborer, is “the kind of man who puts his hands on his hips to think.” A large woman at the end of a difficult day collapses into a chair “like an exhausted avalanche.” A wife leaves her husband not because he beat her, cheated, or “was actively unkind: he simply lived as though he had been cored out and had nothing with which to respond.” Of another left man, Bok writes that, “No one thought to educate him in the art of getting on with his fellow man: this knowledge is supposed to grow on trees.”
His survey of human relations includes his own. When his friend, Henry Fielder, newly elected as Governor, offers him a post on the bench, the little dance Bok describes is something you often witness in male interactions:
Gosh, said Ulen to himself, this is serious. He was an introvert and Henry was an extrovert, and they were very shy of sentiment. The one feared a rebuff and the other was afraid of falling in a swamp. It was an impasse of language, for each of them was continually delighted by what the other did and bothered by what he said. Fielder called the thing he saw a spade. Ulen preferred to call it nothing, on the chance it might turn into something else of make a reasonable answer. The result was that when they were together they spent a great deal of time looking at their own feet and thinking what a wonderful fellow the other was in his own way.
On the other hand, Bok/Ulen is clearly operating in unfamiliar territory in those sketches where he ventures out of the courtroom, and positively lost when he tries to imagine what people do and say when he is not there. In “Artema’s Story,” about a failed romance that ultimately winds up on his docket, he expects the reader to believe that any woman would say the following to her lover: “We must lie greatly or not at all. To me this evening was a natural as walking in the city and suddenly seeing the hills. Maybe we stop being prisoners only when we don’t care whether the gates are open or shut. I may never know that with lucidity, but you will when the time comes.” Perhaps she was talking to Master Thespian. Fortunately, these potholes are few and easy to veer around.
Bok spent over twenty years in charge of the Court of Common Pleas, and wrote several well-regarded law texts, along with a few influential opinions. In his most famous, throwing out obscenity charges against a Philadelphia bookseller who was offering works by such smut-mongers as William Faulkner and James T. Farrell, he wrote that “It will be asked whether one would care to have one’s young daughter read these books.” The worst that might happen, in Bok’s view, was that “they will learn what is in the world and in its people, and no parents who have been discerning with their children need fear the outcome. Nor can they hold it back, for life is a series of little battles and minor issues, and the burden of choice is on us all, every day, young and old.”
He also wrote a sequel to The Backbone of the Herring, I, Too, Nicodemus (1946), which collected further “judicial adventures” of Judge Ulen. He also wrote two novels: Star Wormwood (1959), written as an illustration of the moral harm of the death penalty, and Maria (1962), a romance set on his beloved coast of Maine and published posthumously. Bok was appointed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1958 and served there until his death in 1962.
The title of The Backbone of the Herring, by the way, comes from a judicial oath used on the Isle of Man centuries ago: “You swear to do justice between cause and cause as equally as the backbone of the herring doth lie midmost of the fish.” The dust jacket design is by renowned graphic designer W. A. Dwiggins, who provided Knopf with some of its best covers of the 1930s and 1940s.
The Backbone of the Herring, by Curtis Bok,br> New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941
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.
I’m pretty sure this is the first book written by a member of the House of Lords I’ve included on this site. I came across The Cucumber King and Other Stories while looking for short story collections on the Open Library, and downloaded a copy to my tablet. I had no idea who Edwin Samuel was, and it was only when preparing this piece that I discovered that he was, in fact, better known as Edwin Samuel, 2nd Viscount Samuel. Not just a member of the House of Lords but an officer in the Jewish Legion in World War One who’d had Private David Ben-Gurion serving under him, and a long-time administrator of British Palestine. And he’d written four collections of short stories, starting with A Cottage in Galilee (1958) and continuing on to My Friend Musa (1963), The Cucumber King (1965), and finishing with The Man Who Liked Cats (1974).
After finishing another book on a recent flight, that I opened the file with Samuel’s book–for no better reason than that it was the next one listed–and began to read. The book opens with “The Cucumber King,” in which a fat and powerful Hollywood producer and his starlet third wife visit the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Although ostensibly on vacation, the producer has no idea how to properly relax, and so has brought along a film crew to help make a home movie to die for of their trip. Samuel clearly agrees with Blake that a lovely bird in a cage “puts all Heaven in a rage,” and manages to give the producer a just reward and leave the wife in the arms of a handsome and gentle Cambodian man.
The exotic setting and black humor of “The Cucumber King” reminded me of a number of Graham Greene’s short stories, as did a good share of the rest of Samuel’s stories. Like Greene, he clearly seems to have done his share of globe-trotting, as his settings range everywhere from Tokyo and Shanghai to the Middle East and Italy to London, Ireland, and New York City. He’s also comfortable with travel through time and space, taking us to “Israel in the Year 2000 A.D” (spoiler alert–no Internet, mobile phones, or Hamas) and the waiting room for Heaven.
Samuel’s taste in fiction tends toward the humorous, although with more than an occasional appetite for bitter irony and poetic justice. Death pops up on a regular basis and Samuel is not at all reluctant to shove one of his characters in front of an oncoming train to make his point. In “The Man Who Was Too Late,” Samuel leaves a fellow member of the House of Lords reflecting on the positive points of his death: “Perhaps it is lucky that I’ve now been run over by a taxi and killed–in my 64th year. Better than lingering on, with a small pension, but no wife or children or grandchildren.” As he wait for the angel to fetch his raiments, Lord FitzHugh ponders what to expect of Heaven:
Presumably, once I get beyond the Pearly Gates, it’ll be quite different. Rather splendid, in fact, in compensation for all that we’ve had to suffer on earth. I do wonder what Heaven will be like. The ardent believers, especially in earlier times, were quite sure they’d find a beautiful landscape, always sunny and warm —not too warm, I hope; I’ve had my fill of that in the tropics–with green lawns and shady trees, the murmur of a waterfall, soft music, good food—what a relief after that terrible cooking in East Africa. Some nice people, I hope–beautiful women, like this Angel, for example–after all those frightful Colonial wives. A few interesting men, too; not those awful Sports Club bores in Nairobi.
I thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories in The Cucumber King. They are a fine combination of British attitudes and rituals, exotic settings, and a rich sense that God has more than a few good laughs at our expense. On the other hand, they are also more like the sort of thing you might find in Collier’s or The Saturday Evening Post–if they’d published stories written by a British Jew: magazine fiction, in other words, which means a good story, a touch of novelty, but nothing too unsettling to one’s sense that whatever might be wrong with the world can be put right with a gin and tonic.
The Cucumber King and Other Stories, by Edwin Samuel London/New York/Toronto: Abelard-Schuman, 1956
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.
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:
Remove fire extinguisher from bracket
Approach source of fire
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
In my post on Gavin Lambert’s 1959 book, The Slide Area, I wrote that the character sketch was his forte, and the best proof of that is The Goodby People (spelled “Goodbye” in all subsequent reissues). In it, Lambert puts all his talents into crafting three remarkable portraits: Susan Ross, a one-time model and widow of a wealthy movie producer and businessman; Gary Carson, a draft dodging golden boy making his way through the world one bed at a time; and Lora Chase, a long-faded yet legendary actress–sort of a Greta Garbo–who attracts as an unlikely follower a young, blonde, motorcycle-riding woman.
As in The Slide Area, the challenge is that these characters from the fringes of the movie world, are well-practiced in adapting themselves to the expectations of those around them and hence, somewhat at a loss to know just who they are themselves. Born in Arizona and raised in Nebraska, Susan Ross takes on the look of a sleek, beautiful woman, a sophisticate accustomed from birth to the finer things. She marries a man the opposite of her sun-leathered, taciturn father: “He had a dry disenchanted humor, a fascinating inside knowledge of shady political deals and the secrets of the Pentagon and the FBI, and that aura of joylessness which surrounds so many rich, powerful and clever people and makes them truly dangerous.”
When her husband dies, Susan has money, influence, and reputation enough to carry her in luxury to her last days. She throws enormous parties at the spectacular home she has inherited: “I saw Susan surrounded by all the sons of the millionaires, and a movie actor with long sideburns, and I think a rock group, and various girls. She sat on a high-backed chair and it looked like a throne.” Unfortunately, as a widow and not a wife, as a former model and not a model, and as a farm girl long gone from the farm, she has, as the narrator puts it, “no tribe.” Finally, she builds a stark modernist house high on a ridge above Malibu and retreats there to study self-consciousness. “It’s a perfect place, up here,” she tells the narrator when he calls to check on her. “I’ve come to realize the mind can achieve anything so long as reality doesn’t get in its way.”
The narrator–as in The Slide Area something of a stand-in for Lambert himself, only this time ready to acknowledge his homosexuality–meets Gary Carson through a friend, an aimless heir whose hobby is “sheltering young wanderers and fugitives.” A year or so later, he calls up the narrator and invites his way into the man’s bed. “I am never seduced,” he later remarks.
Gary, it becomes clear, is without prejudice when it comes to his partners. Looking through the young man’s luggage, the narrator finds a bundle of letters:
Kept neatly in their envelopes and packaged together with a rubber band, they were notes from about thirty different people, all over the last two years. He’d apparently had brief affairs with most of them; the rest made offers…. They came from a French girl at the Sorbonne, another who was a model, the male secretary of an Italian industrialist, the wife of the same industrialist, a movie actress in Rome who’d had a walk-on in a Fellini film, a girl once quite well known in Hollywood movies and now married to an English producer, from whom there was also a letter. Gary had apparently spent a month with the wife in St. Tropez and ten days with the husband in Tangier.
Gary at one point refers to himself as “A blank envelope. But, address it, and it’s just another bill, or a love letter.” After a short spell living with the narrator, enjoying the attention, fine wines, and cultural refinements, Gary moves on, disappearing for a while. “He was never quite here, was he?,” friends ask. In keeping with the times, when Gary makes contact again, he is living in the hills outside L. A., part of a small cult family gathered around a would-be Jesus going by the name “Godson.” When the narrator asks Gary whether he ever worries about being arrested for draft evasion, Gary shakes his head: “That’s the future, and it doesn’t exist.” In other words, his quest is not to find himself, but to leave his past and ties to his identity behind.
In a brief epilogue, the narrator overhears a conversation between one of his friends, a very successful screenwriter on the prowl, and a young woman who’s been stranded at his house in Malibu: “Is there anyone you should call, Frances? Anyone who’ll be wondering where you are?” “No. There’s no one in the world,” she replies. Lambert leaves the reader to wonder: are these people saying goodbye to the worlds they came from? Or have their worlds said goodbye to them? The Goodby People is itself a sad farewell to the optimism that briefly lit up the initial innocence of flower power, sexual liberation, and the swinging Sixties.
The Goodby People, by Gavin Lambert New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971
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 action begins just before Christmas 1956 and ends two years later,” Gavin Lambert writes at the The Slide Area. From that, a reader could easily conclude that the book is a novel, and, indeed, Lambert refers to his stories as “sections.” I’m not sure that it makes much of a different whether one labels The Slide Area as short story collection or novel. It’s a marvellously well-written work of fiction regardless how it’s categorized.
As anyone who’s lived in Los Angeles knows, the city sits on the wrong side of a great geological fault line and its hills aren’t much more than temporarily-stabilized piles of earth and rock and have a tendency to fall away in great hunks with little notice, taking with them the big, showy, and expensive houses built along their flanks and ridges. So L. A. residents get used to seeing “Slide Area” signs, usually surrounded by scattered chunks of dirt offering hints of things to come. What goes up must come down–and afterwards, there’s room to erect yet another showcase home.
In much the same way, L. A. residents get used to see people falling from great heights while others are fighting their way up. The Slide Area is filled with such stories. There is the Countess Osterberg-Steblechi, “a great aristocratic wreck,” “a balloon blown up into roughly human shape and ready to burst.” But she has enough cash still left to entice her hangers-on to stage, in “The End of the Line,” a grand tour of the Continent that never actually takes her beyond the confines of her living room. It’s a cleverly-told tale but by far the weakest in the book, the closest Lambert ever comes to a stock magazine short story.
His forte is the character sketch. But in Lambert’s case, his characters are as shifting and unstable as ground they walk upon. They aspire to leave Nebraska or Oklahoma or Colorado behind, change their names, change their looks, lose their histories, and become what everyone else wants to be. Of Julie Forbes, a Joan Crawford/Bette Davis-like eternal star, coming into her living room as if walking onto a stage, he writes,
Her skin was golden, her figure trim and pliant as a young girl’s. She had been created a moment ago. There was no childhood, no past, nothing. I thought of a joke about the mortuaries in California: they supply human ashes to cannibals in the South Seas, who make them flesh by adding water. Instant people, like instant coffee. Julie Forbes, I decided, was an instant person. That must be her secret. Every few years she was reduced to ashes, then reconstituted in a new form. Different. Shining. Instant.
And of all Lambert’s characters, perhaps the greatest is Los Angeles itself. The Slide Area is studded with some of the best writing about L. A. ever put on paper:
Los Angeles is not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes….
How to grasp something unfinished yet always remodelling itself, changing without a basis for change? So much visible impatience to be born, to grow, such wild tracts of space to be filled: difficult to settle in a comfortable unfinished desert. Because of the long confusing distances, the streets are empty of walking people, full of moving cars. Between where you are and where you are going to be is a no-man’s land. At night the neon signs glitter and the shop windows are lighted stages, but hardly anyone stops to look. A few people huddle at coffee stalls and hamburger bars. Those dark flat areas are parking lots, crammed solid.
The city itself is a mirror of the constant metamorphosis of inhabitants. And, of course, the combination of shape-shifting people and ever-remodelling city creates a reality that’s almost unreal. Looking down upon the city from high on one of its unstable hills, one of Lambert’s characters observes, “Looking down on the straight intersecting lines of pink and yellow and green is like finding a vast abstract painting laid out on the earth. It has nothing at all to do with living.”
When I first read The Slide Area about four years ago, I dog-eared at least two dozen pages featuring this sort of striking writing, and reading it again recently, I dog-eared at least a couple dozen more. Indeed, I could easily just fill this piece with quotes from the book. Although best known for his novel, Inside Daisy Clover, which was made into an even better-known movie starring Natalie Wood, “Inside Daisy Clover”, Lambert deserves to be recognized for The Slide Area, which ranks with The Last Tycoon, The Day of the Locust, and anything Raymond Chandler ever wrote about Los Angeles.
The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, by Gavin Lambert London: Hamish Hamilton, 1959
Viola Meynell worked hard as a writer all her adult life, publishing short stories, novels, and nonfiction to critical acclaim, steady if not exceptional sales, and the respect of her peers, helped support D. H. Lawrence in hard times and brought Moby Dick back to recognition as a classic, and helped her husband run a productive farm in Sussex. And for all that, she hasn’t got a single book in print today.
Collected Stories, which Meynell was helping to edit when she died in October 1956, offers perhaps the best introduction to her work. These 17 stories, compiled from previous collections–Young Mrs. Cruse (1925); Kissing the Rod, and Other Stories (1937); First Love and Other Stories (1947); and Louise and Other Stories (1954)–as well as several stories published in The New Yorker a year or so before her death. As an anonymous reviewer once wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, “The delicate and assured talent of Viola Meynell is admirably suited to the short-story form. Dealing in qualities and emotions which it would be easy to overemphasize in a novel, she is discreetly content with the brevity suited to a fragment of the truth.”
Some of the stories are not much more than fragments. In “Compassionate Leave,” a wife works out with her husband what to write to tell their son he will have to come to tend the farm because the father has fallen and shattered his leg. “Half of a Bargain” is nothing more than a few pages of dialogue between husband and wife, along with a few glimpses into their thoughts–but enough to show us the gulf separating them:
“Oh–surely–isn’t it something you could possibly put off?”
He hesitated. If he had had anything special to do he might have put it off. It was all the infinite chances that attended him on his rounds that he could not give up–the casual encounters, the attractive bits of business cropping up at odd turns, the knack of finding the way to where there was most to be gained, which made his daily life a pleasant adventure. One specific thing he could have given up, but not that whole wide field of possibility.
“One specific thing he could have given up, but not that whole wide field of possibility.” That is just the sort of fine observation one finds throughout this collection. A fellow neglected short story writer, Elizabeth Bibesco, once wrote that, “With Miss Meynell, you find yourself continually loitering over a phrase. You walk into a word as you might walk into a patch of sunlight.” As in this passage from “The Letter,” in which a pregnant farm girl being hounded by her parents to write to the man responsible walks through a morning field: “She had not walked far through the first field before each of her ankles was bound round and round with threads of moist cobweb, spun between one stalk and another. If those threads had been cords, she would have been a close prisoner, neatly caught and fastened up. But as it was she went idly through the stubble, unconscious that with each step she was bursting bonds, dragging chains, and escaping a thousand prisons.”
“This art is built straight upon reality, reality observed with such precision that perception not usually given to the physical eye seems to be involved,” Louise Bogan wrote in a review of Young Mrs. Cruse. She “notices the gestures, the inflections, the turns in manner and speech by which people betray themselves, the slight signs which Ibsen marked, from behind his unread newspaper, during long hours in cafes.” Bogan was a great fan of Meynell’s work and often recommended it to her acquaintances. “It is at first difficult to understand Bogan’s high opinion of Meynell,” Elizabeth Frank writes in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Louise Bogan: A Portrait:
… whose ordinary, middle-class characters are immersed in utterly quotidian lives. The novels are singularly free of melodrama, plottiness, and contrived effects. Not even the faintest trace of social criticism or political awareness invests the page. Yet it is just this fidelity to the domestic and insular scale of her characters’ lives that allows her to render them with great psychological keenness and extraordinary warmth and intuition.
In some stories, the lives she depicts are, in Thoreau’s words, ones of quiet desperation. In “Diminuendo,” a woman driving home with her husband through a bitter winter night finds in her thoughts a moment of happiness. “It was the kind of happiness allowed to a diminished life, the happiness of the wretchedest woman on earth.” In others, Meynell reveals comedy with the lightest touch:
The Butts were staying with the Longstaffes–very successfully too. It was not one of those plans, hearty in origin, which are wished at an end almost as soon as they have begun. The tensions which can exist when a middle-aged couple forsake their own surroundings to go visiting, and when another middle-aged couple are invaded in their Englishman’s castle, did not arise.
It might be only a small thing, but it so happened that four armchairs of absolutely equal comfort and accessibility to the fire–for it was winter–were part of the equipment of the living-room. Here no one usurped, no one was dethroned. Also there was no false delicacy about the necessity to be always on parade as hosts and guests. In those four armchairs could sit four people with four books, silent and separate, congratulating themselves that among less sensible people a futile stream of remarks might have been considered essential.
It’s ironic that Meynell’s very last stories were published in The New Yorker, for her technique and tone were consistent with what some have called The New Yorker formula: brief, spare anecdotes, really more sketches of incidents that tell the reader much about their characters while almost nothing seems to happen. Like a fine liqueur, however, in the hands of a master, even formulas can produce something consistently wonderful.
Collected Stories, by Viola Meynell London: Max Reinhardt Limited, 1957
For a dozen years or so, starting in the late 1930s, Edward Newhouse was one of The New Yorker’s most prolific fiction writers, working with editor Gus Lobrano in an impressive stable that included John Cheever, Irwin Shaw, and Jerome Weidman. Granville Hicks rated Newhouse “high in the ranks of contemporary short-story writers,” and a Publisher’s Weekly once wrote that, “If I were to receive in the same mail new books by the dozen best writers of fiction in America, Edward Newhouse’s would be the first I’d read.” But hardly anyone has heard of Newhouse for the simple reason that he stopped writing.
Between 1934 and 1954, Newhouse published seven books–four novels and three short story collections. Then nothing, then a few stories in The New Yorker’s in 1957, then nothing more aside from a short autobiographical piece, “Hungarians,” published in The New Yorker’s in 1965. Unlike the magazine’s legendary Joseph Mitchell, who came to work for decades without producing a single article, however, the issue in Newhouse’s case wasn’t writer’s block. He simply didn’t need the work.
Born Ede Ujhazi in Budapest in 1911, Newhouse emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1923. His father, an unemployed actor (who named his son after a famous 19th century Hungarian actor), was simply desperate to find work. Thrown into the New York City public school system without a word of English, Newhouse weathered a fair number of schoolyard fights until he established his street smarts. After a short attempt at City College, he spent the better part of a year riding the rails around the country and looking for work. In the end, he came back to New York and got a job covering sports for the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, and wrote a novel, You Can’t Sleep Here (1934), based on his time as a hobo. He went on to join the staff of The New Masses, an experience he later satirized in his third novel, The Hollow of the Wave (1949).
He had already published a second novel, This is Your Day (1937), before placing his first story with The New Yorker in 1939, and his first collection of stories, Anything Can Happen, appeared soon afterward in 1941. Around this time, he met and married Dorothy DeLay, a classical violinist, and became friends with another rising star at The New Yorker, John Cheever. Cheever later said that he and Newhouse shared “an inability to draw the parts of [their] lives together.”
Joining the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor, Newhouse was selected to attend Officer Candidate School and quickly found his niche as a public relations man for the service. He finished up as a lieutenant colonel, writing speeches and reports for General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, the Army Air Corps commander and working in the same Pentagon office as James Gould Cozzens, whose diary of the experience was later published as A Time of War. Newhouse went straight back to work for The New Yorker right after separating from the Army. He published a third collection, of short stories dealing with childhood, The Iron Chain, in 1946.
Many are Called (1951) was his last collection. Thirty-nine of the stories in the book were from The New Yorker. The stories are arranged thematically. The three shortest and least interesting sections gather stories based on characters gathered around a bar (“At Jake’s”), a candy-and-cigar store (“A George’s”), and from Newhouse’s time as a hobo (“En Route”). These are more sketches than complete stories, and none rises above the level of an imitation Ring Lardner.
The book opens with “In Edgerton,” six stories set in a fictional town north of New York City, and with one of the best stories in the whole book, “My Brother’s Second Funeral.” In it, the narrator reflects on the attitudes of his home town to the burial of his brother, a war hero killed in Italy now with the local chapter of the American Legion named after him. Barely ten pages long, it somehow manages to capture so much about the ways in which American men attempt–sincerely, pretentiously, ineffectually–with life. “He was my friend, and I’ll never have another one like him,” the narrator observes. “Grown men can’t make friends, not really, not like boys. That piece of steel at Salerno killed the only man that ever knew what I was all about.”
The stories in “Waiting” could easily remind readers of Newhouse’s friend Cheever. Set in and around New York City, they are all about people poised on the edge of a transition. A man takes a bus tour of Manhattan on his last day before entering the Army. A man tries to contain his thoughts and emotions after quitting his job. A woman whose husband is serving in the Pacific decides to move back into the city after an awkward time living in suburban Westchester. In each, Newhouse displays what short story expert William Peden called “his own special kind of genius for the usual.”
The best pieces in the book, however, can be found in “The Captains Depart,” which collects stories clearly drawn from Newhouse’s own experiences on active duty. Though he spent most of his time in the Army Air Corps in the relatively comfortable position of a speechwriter and press liaison, Newhouse did accompany senior officers on numerous trips overseas, saw many different aspects of life in the Air Corps, and seems to have flown as an observer on a least a couple of combat missions.
This variety of contacts is reflected in the ten stories in “The Captains Depart.” Some are set stateside, where the safety and petty concerns of base life can still be unexpectedly disrupted by a telegram from North Africa or an accident that scatters parts of an aircraft and its crew over half of a farm. Others are scattered all over the map, from a fighter base in England to a transport field in Nigeria. “The Four Freedoms” takes place one evening in Cairo, with part of the entourage of generals and staff returning with Roosevelt from the Teheran Conference. At one point, Newhouse’s fictional counterpart, Captain Wyatt, considers the situation of the Air Corps general he works for:
The General will be descending the great staircase soon, Wyatt thought, in full consciousness of his role as the most important man in a room filled with rank. He will slap his current favorite, the new young General Jack Crane, on the shoulder, and he will play wicked uncle to April Starr and Gail Fiske. If he likes the comedian and the juggler, he will ask them if they have any relatives in the Air Forces or what they thought of the food at some A.T.C. base. With the juggler and the comedian, he’ll be Harun-al-Rashid, incognito on the streets of Baghdad, sounding out public opinion. He might confound them by asking how long they thought the war would last and why.
Like most, though by no means all, other soldiers, the General was obsessed by that question.He’ll never again attain a fraction of the power he wields. A coal miner’s son and still drawing only moderate pay, the chief was living as only the wealthiest men in the history of the world had lived. In England he had stopped at the greatest of feudal castles, elsewhere in a series of royal suites, and here among such Byzantine splendors as gold cups on the table and zippers on the mosquito net. He had at his disposal any means of transport or communication known to man. Presents and honors came to him from everywhere. And large formations of bombers went on critical missions, at tree-top level, against targets selected by him.
Newhouse may be the only American writer of fiction to take in the global scope of the war, as well as its industrial capacity and efficiency for destruction. At the same time, however, he never loses sight of the fact that this destruction also operates as a very human scale. In “Irving,” Wyatt recalls an earnest young Jewish kid from New York who worked as a speechwriter in the Pentagon. Irving had worked himself up from being a towel boy in a Turkish bath to second lieutenant’s bars by virtue of a series of cheap mysteries featuring a Boston Brahmin detective named Sedgwick Cabot “equally at home in an opium den off the Embarcadero, at a coming-out party in the Pierre, down in a bathysphere, or aloft at the controls of a PBY.” Eager to experience combat, Irving wheedles his way into being sent to the Philippines to accompany a minor party of reporters. He talks his way onto a B-25 on a bombing mission over Formosa and is promptly killed, along with the aircraft’s whole crew. Wyatt and another speechwriter retire to a bar when the news arrives. “We covered the whole subject of Irving in some detail. All we left out was that he had been the only child of two very old people who lived behind a tailor shop.” As Granville Hicks wrote in his review of Many are Called, “These stories, with their wonderful combination of sensibility and intelligence, belong with the best writing the war has produced.”
Newhouse published less than a dozen stories after Many are Called. His last novel, The Temptation of Roger Heriott (1954), was well-received, but marked his last serious attempt at fiction. In the view of Cheever and others, Newhouse’s primary reason was simply money. He’d sold several stories to Hollywood studios and made good investments with the proceeds. By the late 1940s, Dorothy DeLay had moved from performing to working as a member of the faculty at Julliard and earned a respectable income. He took on the role of supporting spouse, and helped many of his wife’s students–who included such luminaries as Itzhak Perlman, Nigel Kennedy, and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg–with grant applications and business decisions. Few of them were aware that their teacher’s husband had had a successful career as a writer, and some even assumed he was somehow attached to the faculty. Newhouse stayed friends with Cheever, lunching with him regularly (although Blake Bailey reports in Cheever: A Life that he came to think of Newhouse as a bore). Dorothy kept on teaching at Juilliard up to her death in March 2002; Newhouse followed his wife just eight months later.
Once upon a time, a student in one of George Garrett’s writing classes at the University of Virginia turned in a story about a girl in a black raincoat that was about a real girl in a black raincoat in the class. “It’s a good short story,” Garrett writes in the introduction to The Girl in the Black Raincoat, “but a lot of the class reacted unfavorably. It didn’t seem right to them to make fiction out of something so close and near.” In Garrett’s view, such a choice was neither right nor wrong but exemplary of the kind of choices creative artists always have to make.
So he set the whole class the assignment of writing a story or poem about girls in black raincoats. Soon after that, talk of the assignment went around the English department and spread out to a variety of Garrett’s friends and former students, and he started to get other stories about girls in black raincoats. It was kind of a game, “innocent and scoreless as Frisbee.” The rules were simple: there just had to be a girl in a black raincoat in the story or poem. Eventually, he had so much material that he decided to collect them into this anthology. “What little editing there was to do was in choices,” he writes in the introduction, “for there was far too much in the end to be in one book.” As for sequencing, Garrett took the arbitrary option of placing the stories in reverse alphabetical order by the author’s last name.
In this case, the arbitrariness of the whole exercise also proves serendipitous. As in many short story collections, a really good story may be followed by a forgettable one, but quality spikes up more often than down and there are no extended dull patches in the whole book. Also, Garrett’s contributors are a mix of recognized, unrecognized, and later-to-be-recognized names. Later Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Mary Lee Settle contributed a sketch, “Paragraph,” only lightly adapted from her memoir, All the Brave Promises (1966). The journalist and historian William Manchester contributed a rare piece of fiction, “Out in the Crazy, All Alone,” a monologue by a sad, lonely, and slightly drunk young wife contemplating adultery. Novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote contributed what is basically an old dirty joke in a flimsy wrapper of fiction. Leslie Fiedler wrote Garrett saying he was too busy to contribute a story and then proceeded to write the first of the “Four Academic Parables” included here. William Jay Smith, later a Poet Laureate, offerded two poems and his soon-to-be ex-wife, the poet Barbara Howes, contributed “Roselma,” a far better fable than any of Fiedler’s:
Her name was Roselma Pantry, from Tiffin, Ohio, a slender girl of medium height, presumably pretty, but as she was never without her long black mackintosh, topped by a sort of snood or hood, one could not be sure. The textile industry might have despaired had they known of her, for she never sported a tweed or jaeger coat, or even silk or gabardine; she out-minked, or out-foxed, no one; winter and summer, night and day, she trotted up and down those gravel paths in the same black fabric–composed more likely in a test tube than on a loom. Nights, it gave off a faint phosphorescent sheen; once at a college dance she floated by in the arms of the French professor, but still in her black apparel, now unbelted, which under the bright chaperoning lights was near diaphanous.
UVA faculty and former students understandably predominate, including Annie Dillard (a poem, “The Affluent Beatnik”) and her first husband, R. H. W. Dillard (a story, “The Little Man with the Long Red Hair”), and later Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Henry S. Taylor (one of the best stories of the bunch, “And Bid a Fond Farewell to Tennessee”), as well as lesser-known alumni such as John Rodenbeck, later a translator and expert on Egyptian literature (a wonderful story of unsuccessful college romance, “Keep Your Eye on the Feet”).
“The raincoat girl in all her guises and disguises” is, as Garrett writes, “erratic, inconsistent, contradictory, sad, whimsical, mostly irrational and often marvelous. And so is The Girl in the Black Raincoat. I’ll take this arbitary anthology over any deliberate one any day of the week.
The Girl in the Black Raincoat, edited by George Garrett New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1966
The only child of two artists, Philip Leslie Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale, granddaughter of the Rev. Edward Everett Hale, and great grand-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hale’s Boston Brahmin stock was of blue-plate quality. But she also came to maturity during the Roaring Twenties and soon after finishing school, she moved to New York City, where she quickly got a job working for Vogue magazine and, not long after that, snagged herself a handsome and well-to-do husband named Taylor Scott Hardin. She played the part of a Smart Set-er to the full, even parading down Fifth Avenue smoking a “torch of freedom” for PR pioneer Edward Bernays.
Hale went through husbands like shoes until she found the right fit with University of Virginia English professor Fredson Bowers and stayed with him for over 45 years, until her death in 1988. Hale settled easily into the life of a faculty wife in Charlottesville, and a fair number of her later short stories are set in and around the town.
If there is any unifying theme to her third collection of short stories, The Empress’s Ring (1955), it’s memory. But Hale has spent too much time in Manhattan to allow much room for the sentimental in her writing. In the story “The Place and the Time,” for example, the narrator decides to pull off the main highway while driving from Washington to Charlottesville and drive around Starkeyville, a quiet little Virginia town where his first wife had lived.
Parking across from the home of his former mother-in-law, he muses about walking up and knocking, unannounced, on the front door. He imagines several possible receptions, starting with a warm and gracious Southern welcome: “I’d say, ‘Hullo, Miss Grace. Do you remember me?’ And she’d say, ‘I reckon I remember my own son-in-law.’ I’d mention Elizabeth and she’d simply put her hand on mine.” But as he thinks a bit more, the cold truth cuts through his nostalgia:
What else could she say? Could she say, “You killed my daughter, with your neglect and your scoffin’, and your stayin’ out all night when the baby was comin’. That poor little baby, that never saw the light of day.” Could she say, “My daughter loved you, Mr. Peters, she was a lovely girl, a simple, singlehearted girl, and she gave you all her heart. And you repaid her with jeerin’, and belittlin’, and all your grand intellectual friends that she wasn’t good enough for.”
It had been a bad match from the start, and that fact is still too apparent to let him think otherwise. Guiltily, he heads back to the highway. “What the hell do I want, anyway, he asked himself. Do I imagine I want to live in Starkeyville?”
Many of the stories in The Empress’s Ring deal with adults coming into connection with memories of their childhood. Hale would go on to write two collections of her own memories of childhood–A New England Girlhood (1958) and The Life in the Studio (1969)–and it’s hard, despite the disclaimer at the start, not to believe that there is a strong autobiographical element running through this book as well.
In “Charlotte Russe,” for example, the fancy dessert–too sophisticated to serve to children–symbolizes the brilliant, unreachable world of adults that so tantalized the narrator. Any child who’s had to lie in bed and listen to a dinner party going on downstairs can relate to Hale’s recollection:
When I was in bed, I would lie still with the window open to the dark, snowy winter night, and let my feelings soar. I could faintly hear the hum of conversation in the dining room underneath me; when the door between the dining room and the kitchen was opened, a burst of laughter would float up the back stairs. The people at the dinner party were Olympian, seated around a Parnassan table loaded with the fare of gods. I could hear the footsteps of the maids, hurrying over the wooden floor of the kitchen to wait upon them. They drank from crystal goblets, their napkins were vast, satiny; they jokes were, surely, magnificent and immortal.
The connection of memories runs in both directions–putting the adult back in the child’s world and enabling the child’s perspective to illuminate the adult’s current experience, as in the case of “The Year I Had Colds”:
As I lie here, trying to get over this idiotic cold before the Hanson’s party, my mind becomes restless and inattentive if I try to read; I set up a game of patience on a tray and even then it is as though my mind’s eye were focussed on some other scene; until sometimes I give up altogether trying to distract myself and simply lie here, resting, and letting my thoughts wander about as they will in my childhood, in the time when I was kept out of school so much by colds.
The empress’s ring of the title story–a tiny gold ring given to the narrator as a girl that she was told had belonged to the Empress of Austria–represents just the kind of object that can create such a connection: “I worry about it still, even today, thirty odd years later. I close my eyes to go to sleep at night, sometimes, and I am back at the old, disintegrated sand pile where I lost it, digging in the dirt-mixed sand with my fingernails to find my little ring.” Her mother’s scoldings over the ring’s loss are echoed in her self-admonishments as an adult for various shortcomings–not having enough matching drinking glasses, not being able to sew clothes that quite fit. But there is also still the possibility that one day another little girl will find it–a bare bit of hope to offset the sense of loss and inadequacy.
In all, The Empress’s Ring is an elegant, cool, and moving set of reflections on life, memory, connections, and disconnections that rings clear and true even over a distance of sixty years.
The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale New York City: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1955
When James Stern died in 1993 at the age of 88, most of his obituaries acknowledged him as a writer but noted that he was better known as a friend to the famous. An early acquaintance of W. H. Auden, he went on to break bread and knock back whiskies with a fair share of the good writers of the Anglo-American world of the mid-twentieth century. Malcolm Cowley once remarked to Stern, “My God, you’ve known everybody, his wife, his boyfriend, and his natural issue!”
Those letters were somewhat legendary. He wrote as many as eight a day, in fine, precise handwriting. His correspondents included Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, David Garnett, Brian Howard, Arthur Miller, Lewis Mumford, Sonia Orwell, William Plomer, Katherine Anne Porter, V. S. Pritchett, and Patrick White. His one and only biographer, Miles Huddleston, was able to draw heavily upon them in his 2002 book, James Stern: A Life in Letters.
And he was a very well-traveled man. Born in County Meath, Ireland, to a Anglo-Irish banking family with an estate, servants, horses, and annual fox hunting parties, Stern attended Eton and Oxford, tried his hand at farming in Rhodesia, worked in the family bank in London and Frankfurt, then quit and went to Paris to try his hand at writing. “That I ever published a page of prose,” he once wrote, “was due primarily to the dread prospect of spending the rest of my days in a bank.” His first book, The Heartless Land, was touted by Auden and Christopher Isherwood as one of the great works of fiction of the Thirties.
In Paris, he met and married the German physical therapist and writer, Tania Kurella, and they moved to New York City just before the start of World War Two. Stern worked as a journalist in New York, and in late 1944, he was approached with an offer to join the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Bombing Survey, which studied the effects of Allied bombing on Germany. This experience led him to write his only book to be republished, The Hidden Damage (1947). Although some critics felt the book demonstrated remarkable sympathy for the plight of the Germans but was, overall, shapeless and unclear in its ultimate message.
This capacity for empathy is evident throughout The Stories of James Stern. With settings ranging from the Rhodesian bush to Welsh mines, Irish estates, Manhattan apartments, and a graveyard in Germany, these stories demonstrate a confident grasp of setting and a fine ear for the words of his characters.
“You bin down t’pit?”
“Which one’s that’ bin down?”
“Five! he shouts. “Why, tha’s seen best conditions in t’colliery. Who sent thee down, lad?”
“Ah!,” and his eyes narrow and he clenches his fists. “Down ‘ere, lad,” he suddenly bursts out, “in Pit One–four hundred yards under where ah’m standin’, is men an’ boys workin’ on theer stomachs, on theer backs, in two-an’-‘alf-foot seams. They can’t kneel, lad–t’ain’t ‘igh ‘nough. Seven-an-‘alf-hour shifts–roof may fall in an’ kill ’em tomorrow–fifty shillin’s a wik w’en lucky….”
This comes from “A Stranger Among Miners,” which Stern notes is actually a piece of non-fiction drawn from his visit to Welsh and English coal mining communities in the early 1930s. Also non-fiction are the last two pieces in the book, which are taken from The Hidden Damage. In “A Peaceful Place,” Stern recalls a graveyard he would often visit while stationed near Kempten in Bavaria:
Reading the fringe of the cemetery, I stood still and found myself admiring the good sense and taste of the man who had chosen such a spot to bury the dead. In a large, protected circle cut out of the pines, hundreds upon hundreds of crosses–all identical except for an occasional, surprising Star of David–gleamed white against a background of beautifully mown, very green grass. It was the first clean, orderly, peaceful place I had encountered in bomb-battered Bavaria. I stood for several minutes in the intense evening silence and though: If I should die tomorrow, I suppose this is where my bones, if not my dog-tags, would lie for ever….
Although the remainder of the pieces in the book are fiction, it’s clearly fiction that never stretches too far from Stern’s own experiences. In “The Broken Leg,” for example, he seems to be working through long-standing conflicts with his parents, who were avid fox-hunters and, apparently, quite intolerant of anyone who wasn’t–especially their son. Max, the younger son riding off with great trepidation to his first hunt, soon embarrasses himself and his parents by falling clumsily from his horse:
He felt that nothing he did in the future could ever atone for the humiliating performance his mother, father, and brother had just witnessed. He knew, moreover, that he had committed a great sin, two sins: he had shown fear while on a horse, and he had ‘cried before he was hurt.’ In the great hollow abyss of misery that only a child can know, he felt utterly, terribly alone; the whole of his tiny world was against him; there was none to whom he could turn; he was doomed.
It’s no wonder that one of his later friends, the novelist David Hughes, described Stern’s stories as “reports on his traumas lightly disguised as fiction.”
Yet Stern’s thin skin also made him extraordinarily sensitive to the hurts of others. In “The Woman Who Was Loved,” an ever-so-sophisticated socialite, struggles when she has to perform in the one role in which she can gain no notice in the columns: “The periods between governesses–the family averaged two a year–were not easy days for Mrs. Turnbull, for then she had to take charge of her children, a task for which she knew herself to be unfit and which embarrassed both her and them.” Stern himself provided perhaps the most accurate assessment of his work in an obituary he drafted in the early 1960s: “He is to be judged by the highest standards; but his art remains a probing of wounds and somehow, lacking as it is in power of invention and ultimate detachment, fails to achieve its own release from pain.”
Whether it was the growing rawness of his nerves after too many years of laying them bare to the sufferings of the people and characters he observed or struggles with drink or simply a decision to pursue translation (from German, of works by Mann, Kafka, and others) instead, Stern decided to give up writing for publication about the time he penned his own obituary. One assumes it was a decision he was content with. Stern’s literary executor, John Byrne, said that he “was not reticent about his friendships with writers better known that himself. In a way it was a compensation for not writing other things.” As Alan Ross wrote in Stern’s obituary in The Independent, “… if the gift for friendship is one of the most precious gifts of all, then Jimmy Stern was more blessed than as if he had written 15 books instead of five.”
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
I was skeptical when I started reading the poet Howard Nemerov‘s 1971 collection, Stories, Fables and Other Diversions. It gave all the appearances of being a minor work–a writer working outside his primary form; an early volume from a small (if well-respected) press; short (barely 121 pages); a title suggesting nothing more than a hastily-applied label for a miscellany. And the first few stories are more fables than stories and more jokes than fables.
But I hung in, and with the fourth story, entered a new class of writing. Almost like a specimen brought into focus under a microscope, a wholly unfamiliar perspective came into view, minute in detail, with wildly exaggerated features. In “Bon Bons,” a lonely widow, Mrs. Melisma, decides one day to undertake an odd and original study:
Inspired, she purchased a pack offiling cards and began, as she ate away, to note down a Descriptive Catalogue of Chocolates, measuring the dimensions and identifying the surface characteristics of each chocolate, and correlating with these both the objective qualities and the subjective sensations communicated to her by the inside. A series of rather odd thoughts began to form itself and emerge from the darkness.
Her dedicated and meticulously-observed research quickly reaches an inevitable obstacle: she realizes that she does not like chocolate. And yet she carries on, driving herself to penetrate her sensations ever more deeply, opening her imagination to new associations, venturing into new realms of philosophy, and eventually, into nihilism:
She perceived, in effect, that what she ate was not chocolate at all, but only anticipation, suspense; she was eating, as much as anything, not the chocolates themselves, but only the moment between one and the next; now, what did that moment taste of?
Nothing. It tasted of nothing at all. Mrs Melisma wept.
And finally, she is overtaken by a vision of wondrous breadth and tenderness, in a passage that reminded me of that amazing scene in Gravity’s Rainbow that begins, “Near her battery one night, driving Somewhere in Kent …”:
In which she saw the jungles, and, beside the jungles, the sugar cane in fields, the plantations of nougat and almond, the herds of cows giving their milk to be turned into fondant; she saw the black men and the brown men, naked to the waist, going among the trees and through the fields where lonely white men stood with rifles; she saw the great white ships riding, she saw the mumbling stainless steel factories from whose monotonous and automated ruminations a myriad moments of chocolate filled with mysterious sweetness came forth—endless they seemed—; and she saw the candy shops, with their cloying smells and their attendants dressed like nurses in starched uniforms; and she saw by miracle in a million rooms the lonely hunger that existed for the sweetness of life, that sweat and starvation and cold-eyed greed equally and helplessly competed for; and somewhere in all this a child sat, a monstrously chubby child with open mouth, who stretched out pudgy hands before him while he blubbered for the agonizing beauty of this world.
From this point on, Stories, Fables and Other Diversions rolls through a series of imaginative and philosophical whirlwinds, each carrying off in their force other wonderful fragments of prose. “The Native in the World,” for example, opens with this stunning sentence:
The climb from sleep was difficult, a struggle up a staircase of soft pillows into which he sank again and again, drowsily defeated, from which he clumsily climbed again to a sight of the room that, seen in the equivocal wisdom of sleep, seemed to him any room, or all the rooms, in which he had ever slept, or ever been at home.
In “The Nature of the Task,” Nemerov focuses his microscope on the smallest of subjects–literally nothing more than a man in an empty room–and demonstrates how quickly close observation can verge into madness: “But where—this problem proposed itself inevitably and at once—where did simply looking divide itself from looking and thinking at once?” It’s a powerful illustration of a comment Wallace Shawn makes in “My Dinner with Andre”: “I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware … of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant … I think it would just blow your brains out.”
Not every story in this little book has such mind-expanding power, but a good half-dozen do, and those are certainly worth rediscovery. This was Nemerov’s second collection of short stories. His first, A Commodity of Dreams , was published in 1959 and I have ordered a copy in hopes of finding more.
I’ve probably looked past a copy of the Signet paperback edition of Peter Green’s Habeas Corpus fifty times or more while browsing through used bookstores over the decades and looked right past it. But on the look-out for short story collections now and having the good fortune to spend an hour in one of Seattle’s last great used bookstores, Magus Books, a while ago, I finally saw it for the first time.
Habeas Corpus provided an excellent counterpoint to Hugh Walpole’s The Thirteen Travellers, which I’d read just before. Most of Peter Green’s stories are set 30-40 years after Walpole’s, but Green’s England is a very different world. It’s been through a second world war and a long grey time of rationing. The upper class is in retreat, the working class is getting into university, and everyone is drinking and smoking–hard. The veneer of English gentility is wearing through to the wood in spots.
Jack Newhouse, the … well, one can hardly say protagonist, once you’ve read what he does … of Green’s title story, for example, is quite the contrast to Walpole’s dandy, Absalom Jay:
… somehow an ineffectual figure despite the carefully calculated raffishness–bottlegreen corduroys, the old tweed jacket patched like a prep school master’s at elbows and cuffs, blond hair not so thick as it had been, too fine anyway to be worn quite so long by a man in his over-late thirties, blown now every which way by the tangling wind…. A fair if fashionable judge of College wine; slightly suspect politically, and apt to appear on television programmes rather more often than the unspoken norm allowed….
Newhouse proves to be just the sort of heel you might suspect from this description, but his sort of misdeed is less one of great evil than of the petty, cowardly kind–not doing wrong, just simply failing to do right. Many of Green’s characters are compromisers and prevaricators. Ideals are just bubbles waiting to be popped, as in “The Tea Party,” in which a naive but ambitious young student comes to realize the truth about an idolized professor: “And Grandison, his old world in shreds, saw from the heart of his confusion that the Professor was as naked as himself. Do not reject me, cried the stony mask beneath its stone.”
You might think from this that Habeas Corpus is a drab, depressing book, but in all but perhaps one of Green’s eight stories, there is a strong narrative, a sense of a revelation yet to come, that makes for irresistible reading. His characterizations are often enhanced through just the simplest details, and in each story, there is a vivid sense of place. Thumbing back through the book as I write this, I find myself recalling the settings as if I’d actually seen them. I tend to skip around stories in a collection, particularly if there is, as in this case, no evident pattern or sequence intended, but I read straight through Habeas Corpus and was only tempted to look elsewhere during “Proof of Identity,” which was a throw-away compared to the other stories in the book. It’s a shame that this is Green’s one and only collection of stories.
Although Green attended Charterhouse, one of the poshest public schools, his time at Cambridge was interrupted by the war, during which he spent five years in the R.A.F. in the heat and dirt of India and Burma, where everyone’s finer points eventually got blunted. After finishing with a degree in classics at Trinity, he scrabbled along for some years as a journalist until moving to Greece, where he wrote several works of fiction. By the time that Habeas Corpus was published in the U.S., however, he had moved into teaching and writing classical history, which has remained his focus ever since (he is still on the faculty of the University of Iowa as an adjunct professor at 92). Habeas Corpus was his last work of fiction.
Habeas Corpus, by Peter Green London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962
I put off my plan to devote a year’s worth of posts to neglected short story writers and collections for a year when I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave my year of the neglected woman writer quite yet. So I stretched that year into two and have made a pretty poor start of things by putting off this year’s project until–Jeepers, the middle of March. Yes, life is what happens while you’re making other plans.
In any case and not to procrastinate further, let me start things off with a lovely package of ripping yarns: Hugh Walpole’s 1920 collection, The Thirteen Travellers. I’ve wanted to cover this book ever since reading its first story, “Absalom Jay,” which manages to be both satirical and heart-tugging in its portrait of an aging and forgotten fop.
At the height of the Yellow Book era of the late 1890s, Absalom Jay was the perfect embodiment of the London dandy, caricatured in Punch and other magazines:
Everyone always noticed his clothes. But here again one must be fair. It may not have been altogether his clothes that one noticed. From very early years his hair was snow-white, and he wore it brushed straight back from his pink forehead in wavy locks. He wore also a little white tufted Imperial. He had an eyeglass that hung on a thick black cord. His favourite colour was a dark blue, and with this he wore spats (in summer of a truly terrific whiteness), a white slip, black tie, and pearl pin. He wore wonderful boots and shoes and was said to have more of these than any man in London. It was also said that his feet were the smallest (masculine) in the British Isles.
But when Walpole finds Absalom, a year or so after the Armistice, society as he had known it–which had been Society with a capital S–had been left behind, one of the war’s many victims, and good manners and light conversation no longer gained one reliable invitations to dinner parties and dances. He is now an old man, whose living has become increasingly tenuous due to a bit of imprudent speculation just before the war, and whose elbows and welcomes have worn exceedingly thin.
Absalom is one of Walpole’s thirteen travellers–all residents of Horton’s, a respectable residential hotel somewhere between Picadilly and St. James’ Square. Some of them, like Absalom, are moving down, some are moving up, and others are just passing through. For each, Walpole constructs an efficient, well-balanced, and soundly-built story as dependable as Mr. Nix, the manager of Horton’s. He even tosses in a jolly good ghost story.
One could see in The Thirteen Travellers a predecessor to Vicki Baum’s best-seller of a decade later, Grand Hotel, but this is format that’s been around since at least the time of The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales: the linked story collection. In Walpole’s case, the link is Horton’s Hotel and the transitional time just after the Great War and before the Twenties started to roar. His cast ranges from young to old, rich to poor, nobility to working class, but they share a common set of English values and prejudices. Not that Walpole is so obtuse that he can’t see that some of these values got banged out of shape in the war and are rapidly being replaced by harsher facts.
Hugh Walpole was one of the most successful English writers of his time, but his reputation took a serious hit after W. Somerset Maugham mocked him in fictional form as the sycophantic social climber, Alton Kear, in his novel Cakes and Ale. By the time he died in 1941, he was considered such a joke that his Time obituary dismissed his work with remarks such as, “He could tell a workmanlike story in good workmanlike English.” Since then, however, some of his works, particularly the six novels of the Herries Chronicle, have remained in print and held a small but loyal following. In recent years, his standing has been restored somewhat, but an honest critic would have to acknowledge that he is better remembered as a story-teller than as an artist. And his ghost stories in particular are well worth seeking out and now easily available in the collection, All Souls’ Night, released last year from Valancourt Books.
The Thirteen Travellers, by Hugh Walpole London: Hutchinson & Company, 1920