‘Something happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places.
From “Child’s Play”:
‘I suppose I hated her as some people hate snakes or caterpillars or mice or slugs. For no decent reason. Not for any certain harm she could do but for the way she could disturb your innards and make you sick of your life.
In “Child’s Play,” the animosity conceived by one young girl for another is as powerful as it is irrational. You know almost from the outset that if this feeling is ever acted on, bad things will happen. Even so, I was not prepared…
This study in the generative effect of a baseless loathing put me in mind of the story that sets the standard: “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. “Child’s Play” is included in Best American Mystery Stories 2008 (this despite the fact that Ms Munro is Canadian – go figure).
The first story in this collection, “Dimensions,” initially appeared in a June 2006 issue of The New Yorker. As I soon as I began reading it I knew I had encountered it before. It is not a story you’d forget: its central event is as shattering as it is inevitable, born as it is from the actions of a deeply flawed character. It is also about consolation, which, in this instance, comes in an unexpected form from an equally unexpected source.
“Free Radicals,” on the other hand, surprised me because in form and substance it is much like the classic short stories I studied in high school. In it, a widow suddenly finds herself at the mercy of a jumpy sociopath who has talked his way into her home by taking advantage of her kindness. In her own turn, she proceeds to talk her own way out of the situation by means of an extremely clever stratagem. “Free Radicals” is quite the cunning little invention – it even reminded me, albeit faintly, of O.Henry at his most ingenious.
Munro’s dialog tends to be terse. The same is true of her descriptive powers. Even so, she can make a setting spring vividly to life, as in this passage from “Wenlock Edge”:
‘The college library was a high beautiful space, designed and built and paid for by people who believed that those who sat at the long tables before open books–even those who were hung-over, sleepy, resentful, and uncomprehending–should have a space above them, panels of dark gleaming wood around them, high windows bordered with Latin admonitions, through which to look at the sky. For a few years before they went into schoolteaching or business or began to rear children, they should have that.
How beautifully she evokes this special time in a young person’s life when he or she is given this unique gift of a time and place apart from the world.
In “Deep-Holes,” Sally, a nursing mother, is made to feel shame, even mortification, not when among strangers but within the confines of her own immediate family. This story covers the span of a lifetime; Sally’s children grow up. Stiff necked Kent, the eldest, finds new ways to inflict pain on his mother. One may fairly ask: when does it end? (This is a story I would love to discuss with someone.)
The title story is placed at the end of the collection. It concerns one Sophia Kovalevsky, whom Wikipedia describes as “the first major Russian female mathematician.” In a note at the end, Munro explains that she ran across this fascinating character while doing research on another subject. (This kind of serendipitous discovery is, of course, one of the prime joys of doing research.) Munro’s re-imagining of Kovalevsky’s turbulent life features a large cast of characters, and I lost my way from time to time in the thicket of names and places. Nevertheless I loved sojourning in the heady world of late nineteenth century European intellectuals. (A word to the wise: Don’t read the end note until you’ve finished the story, as it contains a “spoiler.”)
One last word on Munro: all is not weighty seriousness. Throughout these stories one finds a liberal scattering of sly, provocative observations on the human condition. There is this, from “Too Much Happiness”:
“‘Always remember that when a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind….When a woman goes out she carries everything that happened in the room along with her.'”
Finally in the story “Wood,” there’s this description of a large extended family: ‘It was a clan that didn’t always enjoy one another’s company but who made sure they got plenty of it.’ I laughed out loud when I read that. I’ve known such families – haven’t you?
Here’s an extremely interesting and perceptive piece on Alice Munro. (And aren’t I delighted to have found this fine blog!)
The December issue of the Atlantic features critic Benjamin Schwarz’s picks for the twenty-five best books of 2009. It’s an excellent list – an eclectic mixtures of novels, short stories, and nonfiction, the latter consisting primarily of works of history and biography. (Alas no genre fiction, but no surprises there.) Schwarz begins with his top five, followed by twenty additional runners up.
But wait – what’s this I see? In that list of the top five is a short story collection that I loved, by an author whose works I recommend at every opportunity:
Take the time to listen to the short interview with Schwarz: he packs a number of provocative observations into a discussion that’s under five minutes in length. Among other topics, he addresses the contention that we have now arrived at “the end of the history of the book.” (Got anything sharp I can slit my wrists with? No – just kidding…)
Schwarz calls It’s Beginning To Hurt “an almost perfect book.” Such a perceptive man!
After you’ve read these stories, you can then proceed to Lasdun’s two fine novels of psychological suspense:
‘All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments’ – “Somnambulism: a fragment,” by Charles Brockden Brown
Here is the passage in its entirety:
“All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments. Ideas haunt them in spite of all their efforts to discard them. Prepossessions are entertained, for which their reason is unable to discover any adequate cause. The strength of a belief when it is destitute of any rational foundation, seems, of itself, to furnish a new ground for credulity. We first admit a powerful persuasion, and then, from reflecting on the insufficiency of the ground on which it is built, instead of being prompted to dismiss it, we become more forcibly attached to it.
A man called Althorpe tries to warn a certain Mr. Davis and his daughter against embarking on a nighttime journey. He is sure they will come to some harm. The more frantically he entreats them the more determined they become to execute their proposed plan.
Althorpe is especially agonized over the possibility – in his eyes, the probability – of harm coming to Miss Davis. She is beautiful; she is loved by him – and she is betrothed to another. In his desperation, he offers to accompany them on their sojourn. His offer is politely but firmly declined. And so they set off, father and daughter, along with a carriage driver also acting as a guide.
Meanwhile Althorpe is at war with himself. He knows his fears are irrational, yet he is powerless to quiet them: “How ignominious to be thus the slave of a fortuitous and inexplicable impulse! To be the victim of terrors more chimerical than those which haunt the dreams of idiots and children!”
On reading those lines, I was immediately put in mind of this one: “TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” It is the opening sentence of Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart.” The content is not exactly the same, but it’s close enough. Even more remarkable is the similarity of tone – the urgency, the near panic, the fear of encroaching insanity.
So, who is Charles Brockden Brown? Here’s the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry:
“Charles Brockden Brown (January 17, 1771 – February 22, 1810), an American novelist, historian, and editor of the Early National period, is generally regarded by scholars as the most ambitious and accomplished US novelist before James Fenimore Cooper. He is the most frequently studied and republished practitioner of the “early American novel,” or the US novel between 1789 and roughly 1820. Although Brown was by no means the first American novelist, as some early criticism claimed, the breadth and complexity of his achievement as a writer in multiple genres (novels, short stories, essays and periodical writings of every sort, poetry, historiography, reviews) makes him a crucial figure in US literature and culture of the 1790s and 1800s, and a significant public intellectual in the wider Atlantic print culture and public sphere of the era of the French Revolution.
To which one can only append the question: Who knew?
And here’s another question: Why am I reading this story in the first place? The answer is that it is the first selection in a splendid new two-volume anthology called American Fantastic Tales, from Library of America:
I vaguely remember Charles Brockden Brown from my undergraduate English major days. But his is not a name that I have often encountered since then. “Somnambulism” makes extremely compelling reading, not least because of the remarkable way in which it prefigures the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. (Brown died one year prior to Poe’s birth.)
“Was this it? Was this the catastrophe he had felt preparing itself inside of him?” – It’s Beginning To Hurt: Stories, by James Lasdun
Recently in a New Yorker profile, Daniel Zalewski called Ian McEwan a connoisseur of dread. James Lasdun has a pretty good line in that regard himself. Like the better known McEwan, Lasdun, a Londoner now residing in upstate New York, creates compelling characters, puts them in disturbing situations, then proceeds to worry the heck out of the reader.
I’ve written about James Lasdun on previous occasions. IMHO, as a writer of psychological suspense he has few peers. I very much liked his two novels: I was riveted by The Horned Man but that work has the peculiar distinction of being the novel I’ve recommended most frequently to people who disliked it with various degrees of intensity. Lasdun shares with Ruth Rendell the power to inflict discomfort to an extent that the reader stops enjoying the experience and simply wants to bail. (At least, I think that’s the problem!)
Like Ian McEwan, Jasmes Lasdun is a terrific writer. In my post on the Horned Man, I quote this passage:
“I had come to realize that I no longer wanted a ‘lover’ or a ‘girlfriend’; that I wanted a wife. I wanted something durable about me–a fortress and a sanctuary. I wanted a women whom I could love–as a character in a book I’d read put it–sincerely, without irony, and without resignation. I had been observing a self-imposed celibacy as I waited for the right woman to come along; partly so as not to be entangled when I met her, but also, more positively, in order to create in myself the state of receptiveness and high sensitization I considered necessary for an auspicious first meeting. I believed that human relations were capable of partaking in a certain mystery; that under the right conditions something larger than the sum of what each individual brought with them, could transfuse itself into the encounter, elevating it and permanently shielding it from the grinding destructiveness of everyday life. And just such a mystery, such a baptism-in-love, was what I felt to be sweetly impending as I stood beside Carol in my room that afternoon.
I’ve just finished Lasdun’s story collection It’s Beginning To Hurt. It is as excellent as I expected it to be. The short form actually gives Lasdun greater scope for exercising his ability to evoke unease, to depict scenarios in which small details and occurrences suddenly acquire a huge, threatening scope.
He is a master at limning the precariousness of the human condition. Just when you think, ah, no more worries, something happens…
In 2005, the BBC established its National Short Story Prize. The first winner, announced in 2006, was “An Anxious Man” by James Lasdun. It’s the first story in this collection, and it is indeed masterly. As the value of Joseph Nagel’s investment portfolio plunges to ever lower depths, his anxiety becomes global and begins to encompass the things in the world that are most precious to him: his wife and his small daughter:
“Was this it? Was this the catastrophe he had felt preparing itself inside of him? His obscure, abiding sense of himself as a flawed and fallen human being seemed suddenly clarified: he was guilty, and he was being punished. A feeling of dread gripped him. Childlike thoughts arose in his mind: propitiation, sacrifice…
Read on, and you’ll discover just how childlike, in this age of materialism, those thoughts are.
In “The Incalculable Life Gesture,” Richard Timmerman, an elementary school principal and family man, finds a swelling under his chin. It’s a discovery that threatens to derail completely his busy, well-ordered existence:
“Was it death itself that frightened him? Not exactly….More upsetting was the prospect of being reassigned in the minds of others from the category of the living to that of the dying, which appeared to him a kind of sudden ruin, an abrupt, calamitous coming down in the world, with all the disgrace and shame that accompany such a circumstance.
It gets worse:
“If you didn’t believe in God or the soul or the hereafter, then what was a human being if not merely living meat? And if that was so, then surely it was natural to want to be healthy, nubile, muscular, lusty…Better that than tainted meat, as he had become! It was he himself who was grotesque, surely, with this little death kernel growing in his throat.
Living meat, tainted meat… I found myself thinking, If this is what you’re left with when you’ve lost belief – better to be a believer, if there’s any way you can find it in yourself to be one. (As I was transcribing the above, in my mind I began hearing the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
Lasdun describes rapture as vividly as he does despair. In “The Old Man,” Conrad, a widower inured to loneliness, unexpectedly finds himself embroiled in a passionate affair:
“They entered then on a phase of rapidly deepening intimacy.Was this possible, at the age of fifty, to have desire suddenly running through your days like a torrent from some underground spring? Such things apparently had a life and logic of their own. Before long every trace of reserve had vanished from their lovemaking. No woman Conrad had known before, not even Margot, seemed quite so sheerly, so poignantly naked as Lydia when she undressed and none had ever come to his bed with such open delight.
The title story in this collection was written for the Small Wonder Short Story Festival. A tiny masterpiece, it can be read in full here – in a matter of a few short minutes.
“Caterpillar,” the final story in the collection, is about Craig, an ideologue, and the effect that his unbending convictions have on those around him. His first utterance in the story is this: “Human beings…are disgusting.” “Caterpillar” features a peculiarly satisfying denouement, heavy with irony but relayed in the author’s trademark straightforward, almost affectless prose. (I happen to know someone very like Craig, so this story struck me with a special force.)
“Life could punch you in the throat no matter how you chose.” – Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy
Are we entering a Golden Age of the short story? First, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and now this hugely entertaining collection from Maile Meloy. The title is taken from a poem by A.R. Ammons. The poem consists of a single sentence:
“One can’t have it / both ways and both / ways is the only / way I want it.”
In the story “The Children,” Fielding is torn between his wife and his lover. In a moment of exquisite anguish he recalls this poem and thinks to himself, ‘What kind of fool wanted it only one way?’
What kind, indeed. Meloy’s stories are full of people avidly pursuing ends that are almost sure to prove mutually exclusive. They want their spouses, and they want their lovers. They take lovers carelessly and yet yearn for a stable domestic life, as in the story “Nine.” That’s the age of Gwen’s daughter Valentine. Theirs is not a cruel household, nor even an indifferent one. And yet you will wish fervently that circumstances could be different for Valentine, a sweet and confused child surrounded by clueless, self-absorbed adults.
Meloy’s stories are often informed by a kind of bitter irony. In “The Girlfriend,” a father’s desperate effort to protect his daughter goes horribly awry. He relentlessly presses yet another girl for the truth of what actually happened on one fateful night. Eventually he gets what he is seeking from her, and it proves to be information that will haunt him for the rest of his life. “The Girlfriend” is the most somber tale in this collection – and, incidentally, one of the best crime stories I’ve read in a long time.
“Spy Vs. Spy” offers a pained, often hilarious look at the way in which family members cheerfully drive one another nuts. George, a ski instructor, has invited his brother Aaron along on a ski trip. George’s latest girlfriend Jonna will also be there. For his part, Aaron will be accompanied by his wife Bea and daughter Claire. Claire is a comely college girl; in Aaron’s eyes, George has lately been paying her undue attention.
It’s hard to imagine two people with more disparate temperaments than George and Aaron. Aaron, an orthopedic surgeon, is a conscientious, conservative person. George, on the other hand, tends to grab life by the throat and shake it until it bleeds. Here’s what happens when the members of the ski party assemble for lunch (Among his other strongly held beliefs, George is a militant vegetarian.):
“‘George,’ [Aaron] said. ‘We should ski together this afternoon.’
‘All right,’ George said warily, pounding the ketchup bottle over his yellowish soy patty.
‘You act like I want to push you off a cliff.’
‘Maybe you do.’ George resorted to a knife, and the ketchup slid out along the blade.
‘You should take me on the good stuff.’
‘You can’t handle the good stuff.’
‘Sure I can.’
‘Honey, you don’t always do well at eight thousand feet,’ Bea said. ‘And you’ve had two beers.’
‘See?’ his brother said. ‘Listen to your wise wife.’
Aaron didn’t like to be reminded of his debility – no one else got sick at this altitude – and he was doing fine. ‘Did you take Claire on the good stuff?’ he asked.
‘Dad,’ Claire said.
‘Claire’s a really good skier,’ George said, through a mouth full of soy.
‘I know she is. I taught her.’
“I taught her,’ George said. ‘And she’s thirty years younger than you are.’
‘But you’re only five years younger.’
‘But I ski every day. Stop staring at my veggie burger. Eat your own goddamn burger. Your dead cow corpse burger.’
And that’s just the beginning…
In “Agustin,” we meet a man who, in his distant youth, had let his one chance at real happiness slip through his fingers. Over the years he has more or less come to terms with the consequences of his action – or inaction; the last thing he needs or wants is to be reminded of what was lost all those years ago. As the story opens, Agustin is leading a blameless, quiet life on his ranch, a prosperous enterprise. A visit by his daughter and son-in-law – she with one eye to her potential inheritance – brings little in the way of solace and much in the way of regret. He cannot help thinking to himself “Children were experiments, and his had failed.”
Meanwhile, I feel like saying to lovers of quality fiction: Put away your Grishams, your Pattersons, your Picoults (if only for a little while) – Maile Meloy can really write!
I’ve been reading the stories in this slender volume over a period of several months. This is something I like to do with story collections, but it does mean that by the time I finish the book, precise memory of the earlier stories has begun to recede. Nevertheless, there’s been a cumulative effect from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; and that effect is quite simply admiration unbound.
The Pakistan in which Daniyal Mueenuddin sets his stories is largely rural, a place where a few well-heeled landowners, almost always male, hold all the cards and do not scruple to play them as they see fit. It is entirely within purview of these men to be either kind or cruel to the workers on their estates; they show themselves capable of being both, depending on the circumstances and the personalities involved.
Even as Mueenuddin depicts this society with meticulous care, he acknowledges through his characters that it is fast disappearing:
“It’s a little dying world, she reflected, this household, these servants, the old man at the center. She had seen this before among her own relatives, one of her great-aunts who lived on into her nineties, quarreling with her maidservants, absorbed in prayer, ill-tempered, reputedly with boxes full of cash and gold salted away, though none of it turned up after her death. (from “Lily”)
Mueenuddin is particularly adept at showing us the lives of impoverished women, who use their wiles and sometimes their bodies to get what they want; their goal, usually to secure a leg up in an age-old power struggle. Even when they succeed, their position within a given household often remains precarious.
Mueenuddin possesses formidable powers of description. In his hands, even minor characters – especially minor characters – spring vividly to life:
“The next evening, when I drove through the gate of my house, a sagging wooden affair once painted green, once perhaps in colonial days a swing for little English children, I found an old man standing by the portico with the timeless patience of peasants and old servants, as if he had been standig there all day. He wore a battered white skullcap, soiled clothes, a sleeveless sweater, and shoes with crepe rubber soles, worn down on one side, which gave each foot a peculiar tilt. The deep lines on his face ran in no rational order, no order corresponding to musculature or to the emotions through which his expressions might pass, but spread from numerous points. The oversized head had settled heavily onto the shoulders, like a sand castle on the beach after the sea has run in over it. (from “About a Burning Girl”)
These tales are told with terse eloquence. Mueenudin’s writing puts me in mind of other masters of the short form: Joan Silber, Jhumpa Lahiri, and William Trevor among them. Also, with their air of quiet fatalism, these stories made me think back to one of the most powerful, shattering novels I have ever read:
Here’s one of my favorite passages from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; it comes from the title story:
” A servant came in with an armful of wood, threw it with a crash into the fireplace, then took a bottle of kerosene and poured a liberal splash. Hew threw in a match and the fire roared up. For a minute he sat on his haunches by the fire, grave before this immemorial mystery, then broke the spell, rose, and left the room.
It seems to me that one of the advantages of using the short story form to describe life in a troubled region is that a writer can confine his material to a small canvass. He can depict a particular town or household through the eyes of a single individual and concentrate on the relationships among a small cast of characters and more or less excluding the larger picture of the body politic. People do, after all, have personal lives, even in war zones. The first story in this volume, “Nawabdin Electrician,” also appears in Best American Short Stories 2008. In selecting it for that prestigious collection, Salman Rushdie comments: “It had wit, freshness and suppleness of language, everything a short story should be.” Rushdie then adds that up until the time that the story was referred to him as guest editor, he had never heard of Mueenuddin.
Here is this author’s brief biography, as it appears on his website:
Daniyal Mueenuddin was brought up in Lahore, Pakistan and Elroy, Wisconsin. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, and The Best American Short Stories 2008, selected by Salman Rushdie. For a number of years he practiced law in New York. He now lives on a farm in Pakistan’s southern Punjab.
I was much intrigued by this rather elliptical summation of a life in which some interesting decisions about how to live have been taken. Then I came across a review, in the New York Times Book Review of July 26, of the novel The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi. In this piece, Mike Peed observes that “…Sethi joins an ever-expanding roster of gifted young Pakistani writers who, after graduating from Western universities, have returned home with an urgent need to explain their misunderstood country to a global audience.” Daniyal Mueenuddin would appear to be part of this cohort.
I have not yet read The Wish Maker, but I recommend, with the greatest enthusiasm, In other Rooms, Other Wonders. It is superb.
Peter Robinson’s “The Price of Love” has been nominated for this year’s CWA Short Story Dagger. I’m pleased to report that I really enjoyed this story, which can be found in this anthology . In fact, I’m especially pleased because I recently read All the Colors of Darkness, the latest Alan Banks novel, and, alas, found it in some degree wanting.
Along with my close friend Marge (often referred to in this space as my “partner in crime” – meaning nothing more sinister than a shared enthusiasm for crime fiction), I began reading Robinson’s Alan Banks series at the very beginning. Gallows View came out here in 1987 and was hailed by critics and readers alike to be a worthy addition to the venerable tradition of the British police procedural. Along with Marge, I have read every book in this series and gotten a great deal of enjoyment from the experience. But IMHO, All the Colors of Darkness did not quite a measure up to the high standard that, over the years, Robinson has set for himself.
The novel had its pleasures, for sure. In one scene, Banks’s second-in-command (and erstwhile love interest) Annie Cabot goes to the house of Nicky Haskell, a young punk who may have useful information concerning a case she’s investigating. A surprise awaits her there, but it has nothing to do with her case; instead, it evolves into a rather humorous exchange with Nicky:
“‘Mind if I turn the TV down?’ Annie asked.
‘Knock yourself out.’
‘ Midsomer Murders,’ Annie said as she turned the volume down. ‘I wouldn’t have thought that was your cup of tea.’
‘It’s soothing, innit? Like watching paint dry.’
Annie quite liked the program. It was so far removed from the real policing she did that she accepted it for what it was and didn’t even find herself looking for mistakes.
I’m a great fan of Midsomer Murders myself, and this exchange made me smile. I only wish the rest of the dialogue in the novel was comparable. But awkward dialogue was not the only problem I had with All the Colors of Darkness. The convoluted plot involves the death of two men, one of whom turns out to have been involved in intelligence work. Nothing wrong with this premise, at least, not initially. But about a third of the way along, Banks comes up with a theory of the crime that seemed to me to have pulled out of left field. He’s gotten this idea – an idee fixe, I would almost call it – as a result of recently attending a performance of Othello. Now I’m all in favor of cultured detectives – I’m a devoted fan of Adam Dalgliesh, Reg Wexford, and, naturally, Morse – but I can’t help feeling that in this instance, it would have been better if Banks had just taken in a movie that night instead. Or perhaps he could have gone to a concert; his passion for music , after all, is one of his more endearing characteristics.
And yet, and yet…as I said before, the novel does succeed in some ways. Robinson excels in descriptive passages; his skill in this area has, I think, been insufficiently appreciated. Of course, the Banks novels have a terrific advantage in regard to setting, since they take place in one of the most magical and beautiful places in the world: Yorkshire.
[These videos were made by Ron from my photographs of my trip to Yorkshire in 2005. Be sure to turn up the sound so that you can hear "The Lark Ascending" by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I'll hold off on the superlatives; the music speaks for itself.]
Alan Banks currently lives in a cottage on the outskirts of a small village. Annie Cabot declares herself surprised by his choice of such an isolated dwelling place, but at this moment in his life, it’s what suits him. Behind the cottage runs a stream, Gratly Beck, and Banks finds peace by sitting on a wall there and taking in the beautiful surroundings:
“It was after sunset, but there was still a glow deep in the cloudless western sky, dark orange and indigo. Banks could smell warm grass and manure mingles with something sweet, perhaps flowers that only opened at night. A horse whinnied in a distant field. The stone he sat on was still warm and he could see the lights of Helmthorpe between the trees, down at the bottom of the dale, the outline of a square church tower with its odd round turret dark and heavy against the sky.
I don’t know about you, but I feel I could be deeply happy in such a place.
Ultimately, reading All the Colors of Darkness was, for me, a frustrating experience, with the novel’s undisputed strengths only serving to magnify its weaknesses. Once again, I warmly commend to crime fiction readers “The Price of Love.” Peter Robinson won the Edgar for Best Short Story in 2001 with “Missing in Action,” a taut tale set during the Second World War. (Robinson has an excellent feel for that era, as he amply demonstrated in novel In a Dry Season.)
A man bears witness to the final journey of the aunt who raised him in Colm Toibin’s “The Color of Shadows.” This immensely moving story is told with eloquence and restraint by one of Ireland’s finest living writers.
In “Enameled Lady,” Hilton Als revisits the life and work of Katherine Anne Porter. The occasion is The Library of America’s recent release of Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories and Other Writings.
Porter had a messy private life. Born in Texas, she endured a hardscrabble childhood; as an adult, she experienced a succession of broken marriages and numerous, largely unsatisfying love affairs. She was, nonetheless (as a result?), a terrific writer.
At the age of 28, Porter nearly died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. Here is an excerpt from an interview that appeared in the Paris Review, in which she describes the after effects of what she suffered:
“‘It just simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really ‘alienated,’ in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the ‘beatific vision,’ and the Greeks called the ‘happy day,’ the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are.’
Porter fictionalized this experience brilliantly in what many consider to be her masterpiece, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. I have never forgotten this passage describing Miranda’s close brush with oblivion, and the strange aftermath:
“At night, after the long effort of lying in her chair, in her extremity of grief for what she had so briefly won, she folded her painful body together and wept silently, shamelessly, in a pity for herself and her lost rapture. There was no escape. Dr. Hildesheim, Miss Tanner, the nurses in the diet kitchen, the chemist, the surgeon, the precise machine of the hospital, the whole humane conviction and custom of society, conspired to pull her inseparable rack of bones and wasted flesh to its feet, to put in order her disordered mind, and set her once more safely in the road that would lead her again to death.
I really appreciate “Brevity’s Pull,” an aptly titled piece by one of my favorite columnists, A.O. Scott. In it, he discusses the work of three American writers: Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, and Flannery O’Connor, each of whom is the subject of a new biography. All are renowned for their mastery of the short story form.
I’ve never read Barthelme or Cheever(!!), but as for Flannery O’Connor…she has been giving me chills since I first encountered her work . (This would have been during my English major days at Goucher College, a small women’s college in the Baltimore suburbs where I received a superb education in the humanities. I graduated in 1966. Since that time, Goucher has become co-educational.)
O’Connor’s stories combine laugh-out-loud hilarity with apocalyptic dread You wouldn’t think it possible, but it is, in the hands of this amazingly gifted writer. Ordinarily I am not a great fan of Southern Gothic, but it’s hard to imagine these stories taking place anywhere but in a hardscrabble South still oppressed by the past horrors of slavery and the lingering legacy of racism.
For me, the most memorable works from O’Connor’s oeuvre are “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “A Good man Is Hard To Find,” with its shocking conclusion (though, sad to say, probably not as shocking today as when it was published, in 1955), and above all, “The Displaced Person.” This last was memorably dramatized in one of the films comprising the series called The American Short Story Collection.
Flannery O’Connor’s star flamed only briefly toward the heavens: she died of lupus in 1964 at the age of 39.
Every once in a while I like to return to the classics as a way of retraining my brain for a more rigorous mode of apprehension.
Well. Having uttered that lofty sentiment, I should say that I recently selected a Henry James story to read because Robert Clark discusses it in Dark Water, his book about Florence, Italy. James knew the city well and admired it. “The Madonna of the Future” was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1873. (To my astonishment, I found that a copy of this number is currently being offered for sale on E-Bay!)
The story contained in “The Madonna of the Future” is told at several removes, by which I mean that at the outset, the first narrator introduces the reader to another gentleman,an acquaintance identified only as H—-. It is H— to whom the events of the story actually happened, so it is he who tells the tale.
The situation is this: while partaking of their after-dinner cigars,a group of men are engaged in a discussion of art . Specifically, they are interested in individuals who, in the course of their creative lives, are able to produce only one great work. Into this lively conversation, H— interjects the following:
“‘I have known a poor fellow who painted his one masterpiece, and…he didn’t even paint that. He made his bid for fame and missed it.'”
In this way, his interlocutors and the reader are, at the same moment, drawn into this strange and poignant story.
It transpires that H— had been sojourning in Florence when he meets a fellow American, an expatriate who is devoted to the city’s great art and is himself an aspiring painter. The story is about this chance meeting, which develops into brief but intense a friendship.
Nothing much happens in the way of action in “The Madonna of the Future.” The story mostly consists of talk and description. But such talk, and such description! Here, the expatriate painter summons up the glory days of Florence:
“‘That was the prime of art, sir. The sun stood high in heaven, and his broad and equal blaze made the darkest places bright and the dullest eyes clear. We live in the evening of time! We grope in the gray dusk, carrying each our poor little taper of selfish and painful wisdom, holding it up to the great models and to the dim idea, and seeing nothing but overwhelming greatness and dimness. The days of illumination are gone!'”
The story contains rapturous description of the treasures to be seen in “the city of masterpieces.” Here the narrator speaks of Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair:
“Graceful, human, near to our sympathies as it is, it has nothing of manner, of method, nothing, almost, of style; it blooms there in rounded softness, as instinct with harmony as if it were an immediate exhalation of genius.The figure melts away the spectator’s mind into a sort of passionate tenderness which he knows not whether he has given to heavenly purity or to earthly charm. He is intoxicated with the fragrance of the tenderest blossom of maternity that ever bloomed on earth.
And there is this:
“We stood more than once in the little convent chambers where Fra Angelico wrought as if an angel indeed had held his hand, and gathered that sense of scattered dews and early bird-notes which makes an hour among his relics seem like a morning stroll in some monkish garden.
Finding ” The Madonna of the Future” was not easy. The full text is available online, but I wanted to read it in book form. Utlimately, I located it in the first of The Library of America’s five volume set of The Complete Stories of Henry James.