“He is the really permanent citizen of the earth, for mortals, at best, are but transients.”

November 1, 2015 at 3:51 pm (Art, books, Short stories)

The above quote (on the subject of the ghost) is from The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction by Dorothy Scarborough. It is cited by Michael Newton in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories.

static1.squarespace.comThis recently published anthology of ghost stories is assembled and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger. In addition to being a writer, Ms Niffenegger is an illustrator and printmaker – a sort of latter day William Blake. In this volume, she has selected fifteen of her favorite tales of the supernatural, plus one  that she herself has penned. It’s entitled “Secret Life, with Cats,” and I found it quite effective.

Endpapers for the book Ghostly

Endpapers, drawn by Audrey Niffienegger for the collection entitled Ghostly [click to enlarge]

You may recall Ms Niffenegger as the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife – which I really have got to read some time; so many people love that book. She also wrote Her Fearful Symmetry, a highly engaging and imaginative novel.

Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger


There are many collections of ghost stories and supernatural tales. There are two that I especially recommend. First, the aforementioned Penguin Book of Ghost Stories.  Penguin Ghost  Published in 2010 and edited by Michael Newton, it contains a wondrous variety of  stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell; “The Cold Embrace” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (author of the mesmerizing Lady Audley’s Secret); “No.1 Branch Line:The Signal-man” by Charles Dickens; “Green Tea” by Sheridan Le Fanu; “The Moonlit Road” by Ambrose Bierce – these and more are here included. And there is much added value in this small volume: Newton has constructed a chronology of the ghost story; in addition, there is an extensive list of titles suggested for further reading.

I’m indebted to Michael Newton for introducing me to Catherine Crowe and Dorothy Scarborough,   both authors and literary critics of distinction. Crowe’s Night-Side of Nature (1848) and The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) by Scarborough are each available in full text on the Internet Archive. The latter title was submitted by Dorothy Scarborough as her doctoral thesis at Columbia. She went on to teach creative writing at that university; Carson McCullers was among her students.

I am rather amazed, and somewhat vexed, that I’ve not previously been aware of the existence of these two highly accomplished women.

Catherine Crowe 1803 - 1876

Catherine Crowe  1803-1876

Dorothy Scarborough

Dorothy Scarborough 1878-1935


If you’re going to buy just one book of this type, I highly recommend Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. Edited by Phyllis Cerf Wagner and Herbert Wise, this hefty compendium first came out in 1944 and has remained in print (courtesy of Modern Library) ever since. “Fifty-two stories of heart-stopping suspense” chortles the Amazon.com write-up, and that is most definitely true. The usual suspects are present and accounted for: Poe’s “The Black Cat” (also the lead story in Audrey Niffenegger’s collection); “The Boarded Window” by Ambrose Bierce; “Sredni Vashtar” by Saki; and a particular favorite of mine, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Many others are present for your reading pleasure – though you may be seriously unnerved by certain among them!

Original cover for Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural

Original cover for Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural

Current cover. The painting is The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781)

Current cover. The painting is The Nightmare b’y Henry Fuseli (1781)

As the Washington Post’s  Michael Dirda here avers, “These Great Tales of Terror Live Up To their Promise.”

And by the way, Mr. Dirda has given us a wonderful gift for this Halloween season in an article replete with excellent ghostly reading suggestions.

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Ambrose Bierce

April 4, 2015 at 9:27 pm (History, Music, opera, Short stories, True crime)


Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce

I knew of Ambrose Bierce from his famous – and famously irreverent –  Devil’s Dictionary, and his equally famous and frequently anthologized short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Owlcreek

First: some excerpts from the aforementioned dictionary:


Featured in the True Crime anthology were excerpts from Bierce’s varied journalistic output. All appear under the rubric “Crime News from California.” This first entry effectively conveys  Bierce’s satiric flair. For something written – and published – in 1869, it seems to me rather daring, not to mention in some respects ahead of its time:


In the course of looking into Beirce’s background, I discovered a story – a very brief tale – entitled “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” This is the whole of it:

One morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six miles from Selma, Alabama, was sitting with his wife and a child on the veranda of his dwelling. Immediately in front of the house was a lawn, perhaps fifty yards in extent between the house and public road, or, as it was called, the “pike.” Beyond this road lay a close-cropped pasture of some ten acres, level and without a tree, rock, or any natural or artificial object on its surface. At the time there was not even a domestic animal in the field. In another field, beyond the pasture, a dozen slaves were at work under an overseer.

Throwing away the stump of a cigar, the planter rose, saying: “I forgot to tell Andrew about those horses.” Andrew was the overseer.

Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture, pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a passing neighbor, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation. Mr. Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of thirteen. When he had driven some two hundred yards from the point of meeting, Mr. Wren said to his son: “I forgot to tell Mr. Williamson about those horses.”

Mr. Wren had sold to Mr. Williamson some horses, which were to have been sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow. The coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the pasture. At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came near falling. It had no more than fairly recovered itself when James Wren cried: “Why, father, what has become of Mr. Williamson?”

It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.

Mr. Wren’s strange account of the matter, given under oath in the course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate, here follows:

“My son’s exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had seen the deceased [sic] an instant before, but he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible. I cannot say that at the moment I was greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence, though I thought it singular. My son, however, was greatly astonished and kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at the gate. My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a greater degree, but I reckon more by my son’s manner than by anything he had himself observed. [This sentence in the testimony was stricken out.] As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the field, and while Sam was hanging [sic] the team to the fence, Mrs. Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several servants, came running down the walk in great excitement, crying: ‘He is gone, he is gone! O God! what an awful thing!’ and many other such exclamations, which I do not distinctly recollect. I got from them the impression that they related to something more–than the mere disappearance of her husband, even if that had occurred before her eyes. Her manner was wild, but not more so, I think, than was natural under the circumstances. I have no reason to think she had at that time lost her mind. I have never since seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson.”

This testimony, as might have been expected, was corroborated in almost every particular by the only other eye-witness (if that is a proper term)–the lad James. Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. The boy James Wren had declared at first that he SAW the disappearance, but there is nothing of this in his testimony given in court. None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions, originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day; but what has been here related is all that is certainly known of the matter. The courts decided that Williamson was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law.

As can be seen, the date Bierce assigns to  this strange event is 1854.  The story appeared originally in 1888 and was included in a collection called Can Such Things Be, published in 1893. Now it seems that in the mid twentieth century, a similar legend was recounted concerning a certain David Lang. The year of these alleged events is given as 1880:

David Lang was said to be a farmer who lived near Gallatin, Tennessee. On September 23, 1880 he supposedly vanished into thin air while walking through a field near his home. His wife, children, and two men who were passing by in a buggy all witnessed his disappearance.

Frank Edwards included the following description of Lang’s disappearance in his book Stranger Than Science (1959):

David Lang had not taken more than half a dozen steps when he disappeared in full view of all those present. Mrs. Lang screamed. The children, too startled to realize what had happened, stood mutely. Instinctively, they all ran toward the spot where Lang had last been seen a few seconds before. Judge Peck and his companion, the Judge’s brother-in-law, scrambled out of their buggy and raced across the field. The five of them arrived on the spot of Lang’s disappearance almost simultaneously. There was not a tree, not a bush, not a hole to mar the surface. And not a single clue to indicate what had happened to David Lang.

The grownups searched the field around and around, and found nothing. Mrs. Lang became hysterical and had to be led screaming into the house. Meanwhile, neighbors had been altered by the frantic ringing of a huge bell that stood in the side yard, and they spread the alarm. By nightfall scores of people were on the scene, many of them with lanterns. They searched every foot of the field in which Lang had last been seen a few hours before. They stamped their feet on the dry hard sod in hope of detecting some hole into which he might have fallen — but they found none.David Lang was gone. He had vanished in full view of his wife, his two children, and the two men in the buggy. One second he was there, walking across the sunlit field, the next instant he was gone.

Eventually the grass around where Lang had disappeared turned yellow in a fifteen-foot diameter circle, suggesting that some form of energy had mysteriously transported him away.

Seven months later his children were said to have heard their father’s voice faintly calling out for help as they played near the spot of his disappearance, but eventually the sound of his voice faded away. They never heard his voice again.

This tale is recounted on the site The Museum of Hoaxes.  Further information and speculation is therein contained.

At any rate, the question remains: Whose is the original disappearance? Williamson the planter of Alabama or David Lang the farmer from Tennessee? Is either story true?

In the late 1990s, a chamber opera was composed that was based on the story “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” It has been performed several times since then, to considerable acclaim.

To add to the general strangeness of this subject, the composer’s name is David Lang.



In 1913, after an extended period of travel, Ambrose Bierce, then age 71, announced his intention to go to Mexico. At the time, that country was embroiled in revolutionary turmoil.  His stated  aim was to join the army of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juarez as an observer. At the time of Bierce’s last known communication, he was in Chihuahua. After that, he was never heard from again.

In other words, he disappeared.


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“One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s favorite books….”

September 30, 2014 at 6:17 pm (books, Short stories, True crime)


So says Harold Schechter, editor of True Crime: An American Anthology. Schechter informs us of this startling fact concerning Hawthorne’s reading preference in the course of his introduction to the essay “Jesse Strang.” Strang, it seems, murdered one John Whipple, husband of his lover Elsie Whipple. Jesse was besotted with Elsie, and she made use of that fact to goad him into eliminating her inconvenient and unwanted spouse. It’s a scenario redolent of associations with Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray,  though it predates that sensational case by many decades.

Nathaniel Hawthorne himself is represented in the Schechter anthology by a brief excerpt from his notebooks in which he describes a display of wax figures representing a variety of notorious murderers and their victims.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, true crime buff! As my grandmother (of blessed memory) would’ve said, “Who knew?”

In his fiction, Hawthorne returns time and again to the theme of sin, its corrosive and irreversible affect on the  human spirit, and the often vain hope of redemption. This preoccupation is usually said to have its roots in his ancestry – actually in one ancestor in particular. John Hathorne was one of the examining magistrates in the Salem witch trails of 1692. Unlike other judges who also took part, Hathorne was not known ever to express remorse over the role he played in those notorious proceedings.

I love the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in part because they capture the mixture of unease and longing that dwelt in the hearts of the early settlers. Among my favorites are “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Birthmark,” and “The Gray Champion.” I especially love “Rappaccini’s Daughter” for its strange inversion of good and evil, and “The Minister’s Black Veil’ for its aura of  impenetrable mystery. Nothing is explained; the reader is left to wonder and speculate.

As a youth, Hawthorne was an introvert. He almost never went out into society. Having graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825, he declined to take up a profession. Instead,  he returned to his mother’s house in Salem to live in solitude and to write. His mother, being of a similar temperament,  left him to it.

After he had passed some years in this manner, Hawthorne became restless. On a visit to the Peabody family, ostensibly to see Elizabeth Peabody, he encountered her sister Sophia. They fell in love, and she and Hawthorne were married in 1842.

Nathaniel_HawthornebyCharles Osgood  Sophia_Peabody_Hawthorne

The full story of this late blooming love is an appealing one, especially as told in Miriam Levine’s lambent prose:

On a visit to the Peabody family in Salem, [Hawthorne] met Sophia Peabody. They had much in common. Both felt shadowy, unnreal, cut off from affection and vital life. Sophia, who, like Hawthorne, was born in Salem, had lived as a recluse since she was nine. sensitive, prone to excruciating headaches, she was dosed with drugs and encouraged in her invalidism as if it would be her lifes’ work. She told Hawthorne that she had lived in a seclusion as deep as his own.

Their marriage brought the Hawthornes into vivid immediate contact with the physical world. They felt alive, newly created by love. The world was real. They could feel it. They called themselves the new Adam and Eve. Everything they wrote during their stay at the Old Manse – in letters and diaries – conveys the pleasure of well-matched lovers who luckily, and against all odds, find sex delightful from the beginning. Sophia rejoiced that she was completely his. Her headaches stopped.

from A Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England


It has been my privilege and pleasure to visit Concord, Massachusetts on several occasions. Each time I go, I am moved by the rich literary and historical sites and associations encountered there. Visiting the Old Manse, where the Hawthornes spent the first three years of their married life, is  a special experience.

The Old Manse, Concord, Massachusetts

The Old Manse, Concord, Massachusetts

I always seek out the window pane which bears the inscriptions made by Hawthorne and Sophia. (They used Sophia’s diamond ring as their writing tool.):

Man’s accidents are God’s purposes.
Sophia A. Hawthorne, 1843.

Nath’l Hawthorne.
This is his study.

The smallest twig
leans clear against the sky.

Composed by my wife,
and written with her dia-

Inscribed by my
husband at sunset,
April 3, 1843
On the gold light. S. A. H.

How one longs to touch the words! But they are protected by an additional pane of glass (or at least, they were when I was last there.)

ManseWin Glass Etching at the Old Manse 2-M

Should you find yourself in this lovely town one day, I highly recommend Jane Langton’s delightful mystery, God in Concord. 11674. (Thanks to the Mysterious Press, novels in Langton’s series featuring Homer and Mary Kelly are now available on Kindle.)

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Carrying your soul like a treasure through life….Alice Munro, once more with feeling

March 12, 2014 at 10:43 am (Awards, Book clubs, books, Short stories)

9780307390349_custom-e27155c40d223c6858288333cae9ff0dc4056f80-s6-c30  When it was announced that Alice Munro had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, AAUW Readers expressed a desire to discuss some of her short stories. (As for me, I had my own, slightly hysterical reaction  to this much deserved recognition of one of my favorite writers.)

As I had previously led such a discussion – twice, in fact – I suggested that we talk about some of the stories in the 2009 collection Too Much Happiness. I said some rather than all, because despite their relative brevity, these tales have more density, ambiguity, and just plain strangeness than many a full length novel. You can spend a fair amount of time discussing just one of them. And so it proved.

Of the stories in this collection, reviewer Troy Jollimore said this:

The power of random events lies at the heart of “Too Much Happiness.” Nearly every story here hinges on some calamity, some unanticipated and mostly arbitrary event. Such things appear, before they happen, neither probable nor possible, though afterward they may well come to seem inevitable.

Nowhere is this truer than in the opening story, “Dimensions.” Doree, an unworldly and gentle soul, marries Lloyd, a hospital orderly whose surface geniality masks a ruthless need for domination. He and Doree have three children in quick succession; all during this time, Lloyd increases his oppression of Doree, bending her to his will and all but extinguishing whatever spirit she still possesses. Finally, out of the relentless workings of this pressure cooker existence, the explosion comes.

The climactic event of this first story is so awful that some readers declared themselves too put off to continue. Or if they did continue, it was under duress and with heightened anxiety. But even those whose reactions were strongly negative admitted the power of the writing. Here is how Munro describes Doree’s life in the aftermath:

For almost two years she had not taken any notice of the things that generally made people happy, such as nice weather or flowers or the smell of a bakery.

From a previous reading, I had written in the margin that this was as succinct a description of human misery as any I’d ever encountered.

In the first part of “Dimensions,” Lloyd emerges as the kind of person most of us meet with at some point, either in real life or in fiction. Here’s my description of a similar character in another context:

Bart Hansen is a veritable case study of the narcissistic personality. His numerous woes are everyone’s fault but his own. His list of grievances is epic and endless, no one understands him, he is sorely put upon, etc. And as for that dreadful crime….who are they talking about anyway in that courtroom? Surely not him: he could never do such a thing!

Bart Hansen is a character in “The Execution,” one of four novellas in  Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates.

One of  the readers commented that the power of “Dimensions” lies in the meaning of the title: that the characters, Doree in particular, live in an always changing dimension as events unfold. And those events do unfold with a kind of terrible inevitability, until at the very end there is an unanticipated moment of genuine consolation.

The story we considered next was “Wenlock Edge.” Where “Dimensions” was shocking and tragic (and for some, bewildering), this one is just plain weird. As with many Munro stories, “Wenlock Edge” opens in a studied and understated way, with the introduction of a character who goes on to play a supporting rather than a leading role in subsequent events:

My mother had a bachelor cousin who used to visit us on the farm once a summer. He brought along his mother, Aunt Nell Botts. His own name was Ernie Botts.

In demeanor, Ernie seems to have been a sufficiently pleasant person; physically, however, he was at best unprepossessing. Because he tended to be somewhat heavy in the hip region, the narrator referred to him, when he was out of earshot, as Earnest Bottom. She adds: “I had a mean tongue.”

This narrator, whose name is never divulged, is destined to be on the receiving end of a life lesson that is equal parts unanticipated and bizarre. It requires that she accede to an outrageous demand.

The title “Wenlock Edge” refers to the poem “On Wenlock Edge” by A.E. Housman. This poem is part of a cycle of sixty-three poems published in 1896 and  called A Shropshire Lad. In a key scene in the story, the narrator is asked by an elderly man to read to him from this collection. The circumstances in which this occurs are singular, to say the least.

Here is the poem “On Wenlock Edge:”

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

At first sight, this poem is somewhat confounding – at least, with its esoteric and archaic vocabulary, it confounded me. An excellent explication can be  found on a site called Hokku.


“On Wenlock Edge” and other Housman poems were set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. In this video, tenor Ian Bostridge sings them and also tells something of their background:


We were in Shropshire in 2011. It’s easily one of the most mysterious and beautiful places I have ever been to. Wenlock Edge is defined as “a limestone escarpment near Much Wenlock, Shropshire.” We saw it from a distance. Here it is, photographed from the air:


While there, it was my great good fortune to obtain this gorgeously illustrated edition of A Shropshire Lad:


The next story we looked at was “Deep-Holes.” A husband and wife are on a picnic excursion with their three young children. What appears on the surface to be an ordinary family outing turns out to be anything but. The eldest child, Kent, tumbles down a hole and is severely injured. Sally and Alex are informed of the accident by their younger son Peter. Sally meanwhile is attempting to nurse baby Savanna.

There follows the inevitable panic. By Herculean effort, Alex manage to rescue Kent, who has broken both legs. One of the breaks was sufficiently severe that he’s left with a slight limp. Other than that, he recovers and seems to be fine. Yet this outing proves fateful, in more ways than one. The family goes on as before, but there’s  been a subtle change, especially as regards relations between Kent and his  father.

In fact, this discussion made me realize that “Deep-Holes” is a story about the father-son relationship. I mentioned reading somewhere once that every son must eventually face a moment of reckoning with his father. This moment can be especially fraught if the father is difficult and demanding, or has achieved  a distinguished position in the world and expects his son to do the same. The irony in this story lies in the fact that Sally is the one who ultimately bears the brunt of Kent’s accumulated resentments.

This story elicited some personal (and to a certain extent, painful) recollections from members of our group . One involved a brother, a favored sibling in the family, who joined a cult and cut himself off from that same family. Another was of an elder brother whose troubled relationship with their father never achieved a satisfactory resolution.

As we were trying to parse the differences between an American and a Canadian sensibility, one among us revealed that she’d lived in Calgary, Alberta, for a time. When you dwell in the Canadian provinces, she assured us, you definitely know that you’re outside the U.S. The place just had a different feel. This was even more true of the small towns in the region. (Actually, her observations reminded me of how I felt when I left the Baltimore/Washington area to go live in a small town in southern Wisconsin. I’d lived in South Korea for a year prior to that move, and I felt more of an alien in Wisconsin, perhaps because I didn’t expect to feel so thoroughly out of place there.)

The penultimate choice for discussion was “Child’s Play,” a story that begins with unprovoked hatred and culminates in an act of terrible malevolence. When I first wrote about Too Much Happiness, I said that “Child’s Play” put me in mind of  “The Tell Tale Heart.” by Edgar Allan Poe.   Both stories illustrate “the generative effect of a baseless loathing,” but there the similarity stops.

“Child’s Play” contains a sentence that demonstrates the way in which Munro’s stories sometimes go quietly along and then wallop you:

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.

With Poe’s narrator, it is, of course, the old man’s eye:

He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Poe’s narrator is a lone actor, whereas in “Child’s Play,” Marlene and Charlene act in concert. Before they act, though, they’ve spun a web to enclose one another in their own unique world, one in which irrational feelings and beliefs make perfect sense. This phenomenon has a name: folie à deux, also called shared psychotic disorder. That may seem an extreme diagnosis in the case of these two ordinary-seeming girls – that is, until they do what they do.

That “Child’s Play” is told by Marlene in the first person makes it all the more provocative. She circles the horror at the center of the story, unwilling to confront it until the very end. Back and forth she goes, from her childhood to her life as adult, leaping lightly over the truth at the center of things until Charlene’s plea renders continued denial all but impossible. Charlene is desperate for absolution. But what about Marlene? What does she truly feel about their shared past? We can never know. Munro lets you into her heart and mind just so far, and then no further.

So intense was our discussion of these four stories that we barely had time to discuss “Too Much Happiness.” The title story in this collection is substantially longer than the preceding ones and differs from them in significant ways. It recounts the life of Sophia Kovalevsky, the first great female Russian mathematician. (The feminine form of the last name is Kovalevskaya. Her first name is sometimes spelled Sofia, and she was also known as Sonya. One must be mentally nimble when dealing with Russian names.)

Sophia’s life, both in its personal and professional aspects, was a constant struggle. She could not travel outside her native land without the consent of either parents or husband. Therefore she acquired a husband for that specific purpose, so that she could pursue her studies at some of Europe’s great institutions of learning. Not long after, the husband dies; so does Sophia’s sister. When she goes to visit her widowed brother-in-law and her adolescent nephew, she is shabbily treated. Urey, the nephew, is especially mean-spirited, disparaging Sophia’s study of mathematics as unnecessary and a waste of time. He himself declares that he aspires to be employed on buses to call out the names of stations – a much more useful occupation, he smugly informs his aunt, than that of mathematician.

Urey reminds me of Kent in “Deep-Holes.” In fact, Munro’s fiction features a veritable gallery of repugnant and nasty offspring. She’s the least sentimental writer on the subject of children that I’ve ever encountered (with the possible exception of Joyce Carol Oates). They turn on their well-meaning parents and/or relations for no apparent reason. Or if they don’t turn on them, at the very least they abandon them, as Kent does.

In an acknowledgement at the end of the book, Alice Munro says that she discovered Sophia Kovalevsky while researching another topic in the encyclopedia. Many of us who love to do research have had similar experiences.

Sophia is in love with Maksim, a man who resents her intellectual accomplishments and aspirations and in my view is in no way worthy of her. But of course such considerations carry very little weight where matter of of the heart are concerned. Sophia seems to me a conflicted woman, wanting to excel in her field but also willing, even eager, to submit to a man’s domination. Sometimes, in both life  and art, our preferences do not line up as neatly as we would wish them to.


Sophia Kovalevsky 1850-1891

Someone in our group said that “Too Much Happiness” was her least favorite story. One problem all of us encountered when reading it is that the cast of characters was large and sometimes hard to keep track of. In addition, there was a great deal of time shifting, a narrative device to which Munro is quite partial. Usual she makes use of it very effectively, but perhaps because of the length of this particular story, it can cause some confusion regarding the sequence of events. Nevertheless, I really liked it, mainly because of its recreation of the world of late nineteenth century academia and because, like Munro, I was deeply gratified to be introduced to this extraordinary woman, whose existence I’d not  been previously aware of.
In general, some members of our  group liked Alice Munro’s fiction more than others. One person said that these stories simply did not work for her because  she could not like or identify with any of the characters, nor did she find them sympathetic or likeable.. Yet this same individual made valuable contributions to the discussion. I know I complain about the demands of book groups, but sessions like this remind me of how exhilarating and edifying  the experience can be.
There are some excellent critiques and posts on the subject of Alice Munro’s works. In particular I’d like to recommend Reading the Short Story, a blog by Charles May, Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Long Beach.
c16711  For those wanting to read more of Alice Munro’s stories, I recommend Carried Away: Selected Stories, published in 2006. The selecting was done by Munro herself, as representative of what she considered to be her best work to date. The book contains a very illuminating introduction by Margaret Atwood.
It has to be said these stories are not for everyone. Some readers find them too bleak and too perverse in their view of human nature. But I find them both mesmerizing and brilliant.

While I was preparing for this discussion, I let Carried Away fall open to where I’d stuck a post-it flag a couple of years ago. This is what I found:

My mother prayed on her knees at midday, at night, and first thing in the morning. Every day opened up to her to have God’s will done in it. Every night she totted up what she’d done and said and thought, to see how it squared with Him. That kind of life is dreary, people think, but they’re missing the point. For one thing, such a life can never be boring. And nothing can happen to you that you can’t make use of. Even if you’re wracked by troubles, and sick and poor and ugly, you’ve got your soul to carry through life like a treasure on a platter. Going upstairs to pray after the noon meal, my mother would be full of energy and expectation, seriously smiling.

                                                                                                      From “The Progress of Love”

Alice Munro

Alice Munro

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Stop the presses: Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize for Literature!

October 10, 2013 at 5:14 pm (Awards, books, Short stories)


Yes, yes, YES!!


One keeps hearing that she is greatest short story master currently at work. Really, she’s one of the best writers, period – in any form or medium.

Click here for the official announcement.

Here are some links to various media: The New YorkTimes,  The Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, and The Toronto Globe and Mail. Here’s the lead in Globe and Mail article:

For the first time in history, the Nobel prize in literature has been awarded to a Canadian. Alice Munro, one of the world’s most respected and admired writers, was named this morning as the winner of the prize in an especially notable year: one in which she has announced her retirement.

How proud they must be, and with every reason.
9780307264862_p0_v1_s260x420  If you are a newcomer to the works of this author, the collection Carried Away, published by Everyman’s Library in 2006, is a good place to start. Munro selected her favorites from her own body of work, to be included in this volume. Be sure not to miss the two collections that have come out since that year: Too Much Happiness and Dear Life.

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Dear Life: Stories, by Alice Munro

December 25, 2012 at 11:51 am (Book review, books, Short stories)

dear_life  I had already read some of these stories in the New Yorker, but I was glad to encounter them again. Each story in Dear Life is a gem; each carries with it the freight of human longing and confusion. They invariably reinforce the belief that our fellow human beings are alternately, kind, cruel, arbitrary, hypocritical, and just plain strange. Mostly they are unpredictable, and in some cases, unknowable.

In “Night,” insomnia engenders dangerous thoughts on the part of a young girl – or the thoughts cause the insomnia, it’s hard to tell. The danger seems real enough, until the narrator’s father, a plainspoken man, defuses the situation with the most anodyne of comments: “‘People have those kinds of thoughts sometimes.'” That’s all it took: “…on that breaking morning he gave me just what I needed to hear and what I was even to forget about soon enough.” And most importantly: “From then on I could sleep.”

In “Amundsen,” a young woman named Vivien Hyde travels to a sanitorium, where children ill with tuberculosis are treated. She’s been hired as a teacher for the resident patients.  This is during World War Two, a period which obviously resonates for Ms. Munro, as she sets many of her stories during that time. The ‘San,’ as it’s called, is in remote countryside. It is deep winter, and Vivien, a city girl from Toronto, is stunned by what she sees:

Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some kind of small untidy evergreens rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling….
But the birch bark not white after all as you got closer. Grayish yellow, grayish blue, gray.
So still, so immense an enchantment.

Once Vivien gets to the San, though, the enchantment is pretty well broken. And then she meets the man in charge of the place. He is Dr. Fox. In their first conversation, he gets her good and flustered: “He was evidently the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into.” She’s right about him, but that’s not his worst fault. Not by a long shot, as Vivien is soon to find out.

Alice Munro writes in a style that is almost completely devoid of adornment. As these are short stories, not full length novels, she has but a limited space in which to create a world. Precision is therefore vital. As with poetry, the choice of words is crucial. I love the way the young woman in “Night”sums up the weather in her part of the world: “Our climate had no dallying, no mercies.”

One feels a maximum impact in a small space.

Munro’s stories sometimes begin as though she’d already begun telling them before you, the reader, wandered onto the scene.

At that time we were living beside a gravel pit. (“Gravel”)

Some people get everything wrong. (“Haven”)

This is a slow train anyway, and it has slowed some more for the curve. (“Train”)

That fall there had been some discussion of death. (“Dolly”)

I always feel as though I’m being signaled to insert myself into the action as swiftly as possible. No problem: I’m there.

In “Leaving Maverley,” a man’s wife dies after a long hospitalization. He had known this was coming, and yet “…the emptiness in place of her was astounding.”

She had existed and now she did not. Not at all, as if not ever. And people hurried around, as if this outrageous fact could be overcome by making sensible arrangements. He, too, obeyed the customs, signing where he was told to sign, arranging – as they said – for the remains.

What an excellent word – “remains.” Like something left to dry out in sooty layers in a cupboard.

The juxtaposition of the quotidian and the profound put me in mind of Emily Dickinson’s poem:

After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

There is no way to cope with the vagaries of fate, except to hang on for dear life.

Alice Munro was born in 1931 in Wingham, Ontario.

Alice Munro was born in 1931 in Wingham, Ontario.

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Paris on my mind

September 1, 2012 at 6:15 pm (Film and television, France, Short stories)

“Thank you for the Light,” a previously unpublished story by by F. Scott Fitzgerald, appeared in the August 6 edition of the New Yorker Magazine. The piece was recently discovered by Fitzgerald’s heirs; they were perusing his papers in preparation for an auction at Sotheby’s. Several commentators have dismissed this sad, brief tale as facile and sentimental. I think Sarah Churchwell’s piece in the Guardian comes much nearer the truth.

When Fitzgerald originally submitted this story to the New Yorker in 1936, it was rejected. His heirs offered the magazine another crack at it. This time around, unsurprisingly, they accepted it.


“An Affront To Love, French Style” by Agnes Poirier appeared in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. This article was written in response to a recent Parisian phenomenon: locks affixed to the railings of the bridges over the River Seine. These locks  purported symbolize the commitment of the lovers who place them there. However, Poirier and others find them erroneous and misguided, and worse: utterly at variance with the French way of loving:

At the heart of love à la française lies the idea of freedom. To love truly is to want the other free, and this includes the freedom to walk away. Love is not about possession or property. Love is no prison where two people are each other’s slaves. Love is not a commodity, either. Love is not capitalist, it is revolutionary. If anything, true love shows you the way to selflessness.

This brings me to Midnight in Paris.    Several nights ago, Ron and I finally got around to watching Woody Allen’s blockbuster romantic comedy cum time travel fantasy. Let me just say right up front: we loved it! For those of us who’ve been fans of Allen’s work for decades, Midnight in Paris was a most welcome return to form. He has penned, in cinema format, the kind of affectionate love letter to the City of Light that, in earlier films, he frequently offered up to New York City. I loved the evocation of Paris in its glory days, He did a great job of summoning up the rich artistic scene of the 1920s. The viewer gets to share the same “Wow” factor that Gil Pender is experiencing. (Pender, an unmistakable Woody Allen stand-in, is played delightfully by Owen Wilson. He gets the stumbling, excuse-making Wood Man character just right!) There’s Scott Fitzgerald! And with him Zelda, already displaying signs of increasing instability! And what’s this: I’m talking to Hemingway! (That’s him all right: every sentence is a weighty pronouncement; there’s nary a glimmer of irony or humor;  but instead, he’s always gunning for higher profundity!  As you can guess, he’s not been a favorite of mine – but I did enjoy Corey Stoll in the part.)

And there are many more: Luis Bunuel, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, T.S. Eliot, Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas – all appear on the crowded canvas portraying the splendor of Paris in times past. My personal favorites were Adrien Brody’s delightful send-up of Salvador Dali in all his outré glory, and Kathy Bates as the hyper-intellectual, nonstop verbalizing  Gertrude Stein. (And what a treat to see Picasso’s portrait of Stein prominently displayed in her apartment! The painter himself, played by Marcial Di Fonzo Bo, appears in a brief cameo.) 

Allen is great at skewering pretentious pseudo-intellectuals, and he does it again here in the person of Paul Bates, played by Michael Sheen. Bates is an acquaintance of Gil and his wife Inez (played with marvelous bitchiness by the beautiful Rachel McAdams), encountered quite by accident at a cafe. My favorite scene with Bates/Sheen is the one in which he critiques the flavor of a wine he’s been sampling: “…slightly more tannic than the ’59; I prefer a smoky feeling.” Aargh! you’d like to shake him. (Ron’s invariable observation upon hearing a pronunciamento of this kind: “They’re making that stuff up!”)

The shots of the city, especially at the beginning of the film, are ravishing. Gil is positively childlike in his delight: ” This is unbelievable! There’s no city like this in the world!”  That just about says it.

Owen Wilson and Woody Allen at last year’s Cannes Film Festival


(You may have to endure an ad before watching this trailer.If so, be patient; it’s worth it!)

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Brief Lives: Wilkie Collins, by Melisa Klimaszewski

September 26, 2011 at 2:41 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

London-based Hesperus is one of the many fine small presses that have sprung up in recent years both here and in the UK. I’ve just had the pleasure of reading a short biography of Wilkie Collins, one of the titles in the Brief Lives series put out by Hesperus.

  In her traversal of the life of Wilkie Collins, Melisa Klimaszewski places primary emphasis on the works of this great Victorian novelist and playwright. This is not to say that we don’t learn about Collins’s private life – we do, and a most unconventional life it was, at least by the perceived standards of the day. Collins maintained not one but two households. He loved both Caroline Crane and Martha Rudd, and although he had children by both, he never married either one.

This reluctance to wed was born primarily of a dislike of the institution of marriage. I can’t help feeling that Collins’s own home life, with two loving but rather rigid and straitlaced parents, may have also had something to do with his aversion to matrimony.

William Wilkie Collins was born in London in 1824. From the outset, he was an odd looking little chap. On the right side of his forehead was a singularly noticeable bulge. “The firm protuberance, looking something like a tennis ball trying to press its way out of his cranium, is visible in depictions spanning Collins’ life, from an early sketch of him as an infant to photographs of the elderly Collins.”   As the boy grew, another anomaly became evident: his hands and feet did not keep pace with the rest of him, and remained unnaturally small when he had attained adulthood. In order to find shoes and boots that he could wear comfortably, he looked for sizes smaller than those that a woman would require. In some cases, items sized for young children fit him as well.

These irregularities in his physique seem to have troubled him very little:

He admired those with more ideal physical forms, but he did not develop an intense or bitter desire to fit in with the masses.

Klimaszewski adds that “from a young age, Collins was comfortable confronting and disputing social custom.” So in his case, one might almost say that form followed function.

Collins’s first published stories appeared in the early 1840s. Soon he had completed his first novel, entitled Iolani. Collins was never able to find a publisher for that work. In fact, the manuscript disappeared, only surfacing once again in 1991. It was sold to a private collector in New York City and then finally published. According to Klimaszewski, Iolani “…has provided a fresh and amusing look into Collins’ early writing.”

In 1851, an event occurred that influenced Collins profoundly, from both a personal and a professional standpoint, and for the rest of his life. He met Charles Dickens. Though the latter was twelve years his senior, Collins formed a close bond with the great novelist:

They shared an energetic disposition, a passion for detail, a taste for extravagant dress and a creative spark. Both men were also drawn to what others regarded as the seedy underside of Victorian life. Dickens had a lifelong habit of walking for miles, often through the streets of rough neighborhoods, and Collins now joined him in regular jaunts through pub- and prostitute-lined streets….Dickens favoured carousing with Collins above staying home with his nine young children and wife of nearly fifteen years.

They may have celebrated life with a certain abandon, but as writers, they were serious and extremely effective collaborators. They co-wrote and produced dramas based on their own novels; Collins contributed stories to popular literary magazines such as Household Words and All the Year Round, both of which were published by Dickens. 

Klimaszewski is careful to point out the innovations in detective fiction that can be attributed to Wilkie Collins. “The Lawyer’s Story of the Stolen Letter,” written in 1856, “…has the distinction of being regarded as the first British detective story.” That same year, with “The Diary of Anne Rodway,” Collins gave us the first woman detective protagonist to appear in a short story. “Who Is the Thief?” was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1858. Now known as “The Biter Bit,” this was the first comic detective story and also the first to be written in the epistolary form. (“The Biter Bit” can be found in Masters of Mystery, along with a terrific story by Dicken called “Hunted Down.” “A Terribly Strange Bed,” another tale by Collins that’s both highly atmospheric and genuinely frightening, can be found in Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a superb anthology originally published in 1944 and brought back into print by Random House’s Modern Library division.) 

In the 1860s, Wilkie Collins produced his four greatest novels: The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone. The Woman in White, first serialized in All the Year Round and subsequently published in three volumes, was wildly popular from the moment it first appeared on the literary scene. The same happy fate befell The Moonstone.        

Klimeszewski does a fine job of elucidating the original and distinguishing qualities of each of these four works of fiction. In regard to The Moonstone, she admits that the designation “first” can almost always provoke an argument: “Perhaps it is more useful to discuss The Moonstone as the detective novel whose plot devices, characterisation, and narrative methods would become standards for the form and as the first to achieve such instant and widespread fame.” The Moonstone contained within its pages a synthesis of several literary subgenres: the Gothic, psychological realism, and sensationalism.

I’d like to take a moment to look at that last category, because Klimaszewski offers an excellent definition of the novel of sensation, a designation I’ve run across frequently in the annals of literary criticism but rarely seen pinned down with such clarity. “Sensation fiction,” she explains, “was by no means a discrete entity.”

It regularly overlapped with Gothic fiction, domestic realism, psychological realism, melodrama, and the development of detective fiction. In seeking to categorise a work as as sensational, one looks  for some combination of the elements above, an especially heavy dependence on strained coincidences, and settings where the most shocking of intrigues are discovered within familiar domestic spaces often belonging to the higher social classes.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it became a commonplace trope that in the pantheon of great literature. sensation fiction was of a lower order. It was considered a time waster, and worse: “…a vice akin to addiction that would fuel moral degeneration and vice in impressionable, and mostly women, readers.” According to Klimaszewski, a revaluation of this much maligned subgenre got under way in the late twentieth century. With regard specifically to The Moonstone, the process was kick started even earlier by T.S. Eliot in his 1927 essay, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens.” Eliot declares that work to be “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels…in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe.”

Here’s Klimaszewski on The Moonstone:

The novel’s plot twists are surprising but often so plausible that they do not feel as ‘sensational’ as the shocking developments in many of Collins’ other novels. As Collins’ writing emerged in the detective and mystery form, surprising elements became clues, not simply shock tactics. The revelation of those clues ultimately had much more to do with characters or readers overlooking something than with Collins attempting to produce gratuitous surprise.

In other words, exactly as it should  be in a well wrought mystery.

Serialization of The Moonstone began in 1868. Eight years prior, a terrible murder had occurred in the small village of Road, in Wiltshre in the south west of England. A three year old boy named Saville Kent had gone missing in the night. The next day, an extensive search of the house and grounds resulted in the finding of his small body stuffed down  privy.

It was felt from the outset that some member of the household was the perpetrator. But between the parents, older children, and numerous servants, there was  large cast of characters from which to choose. The Met sent its finest, in the person of Detective Inspector Jack Whicher. to head up the investigation.

Meanwhile there was a major piling on by the press, where speculation was rife as to who had committed this abomination. In a letter to Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens weighed in with his own hypothesis:

‘Mr. Kent [victim’s father], intriguing with nursemaid, poor little child wakes in Crib, and sits up, contemplating blissful proceedings. Nursemaid strangles him then and there. Mr. Kent gashes  body, to mystify discoverers, and disposes of same.’

Very ingenious – one almost wants to say, very Dickensian! But true…? Find out for yourself by reading The Suspicions of Mr.Whicher, Kate Summerscale’s fascinating look at the facts and circumstances surrounding the murder at Road Hill House. ( This article makes me hope fervently that we get the opportunity to view the filmed version of Summerscale’s book here in the States. Rebecca Eaton, are you listening?)

Detective Inspector Whicher’s theory of the crime differed from that of Charles Dickens. Unfortunately, Whicher’s was a voice crying in the wilderness, at least at the time of the initial inquiry. Five years later, by which time he had left the Metropolitan Police Force, the culprit confessed, in the process proving Jack Whicher  right in his belief concerning the case. Whicher was the model for Sergeant Cuff, the investigating officer in The Moonstone. 

Detective Inspector Jack Whicher

(The Usual Suspects book group has discussed  both The Moonstone and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Both are wonderful books; both provided plenty of matter for a lively discussion.)

In the final chapter of her book, Klimaszewski names several works by other authors who have used the writing, or the life, of Wilkie Collins in crafting their own fictions. She’s enthusiastic about Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, whose novel The Little Stranger I so enjoyed. In addition, several of the stories in an anthology called Death By Dickens are warmly recommended.   I was able to get this book from the library and have just read “The House of the Red Candle” by Martin Edwards. This is a locked room mystery – or to be more precise, a locked room-in-a-brothel mystery. Here’s how Klimaszewski describes it: “Concern for a prostitute leads Collins and Dickens to a brothel where a suspected murderess seems to have disappeared impossibly, and their slowly developing detective skills result in an entertaining exposition of the mystery.” In fact, this delightful tale is both entertaining and highly imaginative.

We have just passed the anniversary of the death of Wilkie Collins: he died on September 23, 1889. This is how Melisa Klimeszewski concludes this short but enlightening and highly enjoyable work:

The inclusion of repellent as well as sympathetic misfits throughout Collins’ body of work insists upon a diversity of difference and grants a flawed – and therefore accessible, recognisable – humanity to characters so often drawn in other fiction as one-dimensionally odd. These complexities, in addition to fast-paced and intriguing plots, continue to draw new readers to (and inspire new imaginings of) Collins’ tales. Exploring the power of lust, the inequities of marriage, a mysterious disappearance, or a comic scenario, the works of Wilkie Collins stand as a testament to the lasting and varied legacies of a supreme storyteller.

Portrait of Wilkie Collins by Rudolph Lehmann

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“It was always impossible to know…why one small spark caused a large fire and why another was destined to extinguish itself before it had even flared.” – “Silence,” by Colm Toibin

February 16, 2011 at 11:35 pm (Book review, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Short stories)

Of late, I have been enjoying the short stories in Colm Toibin’s new collection, The Empty Family. I particularly like “The Silence,” in which Toibin imagines himself into social and literary world of turn of the century London. One of that world’s brightest stars is Henry James. Lady Gregory, a young widow, has been listening to him as he holds forth on the subject of Americans in Venice:

James sighed and mentioned how a warm personality, especially of the American sort, had a way of cooling one’s appreciation of ancient beauty, irrespective of how grand the palazzo of which this personality was in possession, indeed irrespective of how fine or fast-moving her gondola.

Once he has concluded this eloquent if rather idiosyncratic disquisition, Lady Gregory informs James that she has a story to tell him. The story concerns a newly married clergyman and his bride. Would James like to hear it? Or is he weary of people’s relish for telling him tales to use in his fiction? The author, in his turn, is reassuring; he is more than amenable to hearing her recitation. And so she commences  her tale:

There was an eminent London man, a clergyman known to dine at the best tables, a man of great experience who had many friends, friends who were both surprised and delighted when this man finally married. The lady in question was known to be highly respectable….

“The Silence” is prefaced by an entry purportedly from one of Henry James’s notebooks; in it, James divulges the particulars of the rest of this story. He also states that it was related to him by  “Lady G.” So what I want to know is this: Is this an actual notebook excerpt? For that matter, is there a story by Henry James that more or less conforms to the plot points in that notebook entry?

These are tantalizing questions (They tantalize me, at any rate.).  In addition to being a literary puzzle, “The Silence” is about a rapturous love affair, boldly entered into and culminating in the expected way. A beautifully wrought gem of a story.


This volume’s title story showcases Toibin’s intense lyrical bent as the narrator, coming to terms with his life and his fate, meditates on  what Henry James called “the distinguished thing:”

One of these days I will go and stand in that graveyard and contemplate the light over the Slaney, the simple beauty of grey Irish light over water, and know that I, like anyone else who was born, will be condemned eventually to lie in darkness as long as time lasts. And all I have in the meantime is this house, this light, this freedom, and I will, if I have the courage, spend my time watching the sea, noting its changes and the sounds it makes, studying the horizon, listening to the wind or relishing the clam when there is no wind. I will not fly even in my deepest dreams too close to the sun or too close to the sea. The chance for all that has passed.


I have one complaint about The Empty Family, and it has nothing to do with the contents thereof. I very much appreciate short story collections in which the title of the story I’m reading appears not only at its beginning, but also at the top of succeeding pages. I’m referring to what I believe are called “running heads,” or “headers,” in contemporary computer-influenced parlance. In this collection, the words “The Empty Family” served as the headers throughout, on the right, while the author’s name appears top left in likewise fashion.  This is a small cavil, but worth mentioning, IMHO.


Colm Toibin will be reading from his works at the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s 33rd annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry. What a wonderful tradition “HoCoPoLitSo” has established with this series! I had the good fortune to attend this event both last year and the year before that. I’m glad I went, especially in 2009.

Colm Toibin

Claire Keegan

Frank McCourt

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“Somerset Maugham, the great teller of tales”

February 2, 2011 at 1:50 am (books, Short stories)

Once again, here is Selina Hastings on the works of Somerset Maugham:

To the vast majority of his readers, Somerset Maugham has come to be associated with the latter days of the British Empire, and in particular with the British Empire in the Far East. Just as Kipling is identified with India and the Raj, so is Maugham identified with the Malayan archipelago. Those famous tales of his set on rubber estates, on remote outstations, in the card rooms of the local club, those stories of incest and adultery, of sex-starved missionaries and alcoholic planters, of footsteps in the jungle and murder on the veranda, are what remain in the minds of many as the very image and epitome of Maugham’s fictional territory.

Many consider the two collections pictured above as containing some of the best work this author ever did. This is especially true of The Casuarina Tree. This collection is comprised of six stories. Thus far I’ve read three of them: “Before the Party,” “The Letter,” and “The Yellow Streak.” The first two are tales of murder. The setting may be exotic, but the passions aroused and acted upon are all too familiar. In “The Yellow Streak,” Maugham describes what happens when a group of men making their way downriver suddenly encounter a tidal bore. This is a type of tsunami in much narrower quarters than its oceanic counterpart and apparently every bit as terrifying:

In a moment the waves were upon them. It was a great wall of water that seemed to tower over them, and it might have been ten or twelve feet high, but you could measure it only with your horror. It was quite plain that no boat could weather it. The first wave dashed over them, drenching them all, half filling the boat with water, and then immediately another wave struck them. The boatmen began t shout. They pulled madly at their oars and the steersman yelled  an order. But in that surging torrent they were helpless, and it was frightening to see how soon they lost all control of the boat. The force of the water turned it broadside on and it was carried along, helter-skelter, upon the crest of the Bore. Another great wave dashed over them and the boat began to sink.

This harrowing description is  based on an incident that actually happened to Maugham. It very nearly cost him his life.


In 1911 Ethel Proudlock, wife of a school teacher in Kuala Lumpur, shot and killed one William Steward, manager of a tin mine. The case became a sensation at the time. (A book on the subject, Murder on the Verandah by Eric Lawlor, came out in 1999. The New Statesman’s review contains spoilers, so be aware.) Mrs Proudlock’s lawyer told Maugham about it ten years after the fact, when both were in Kuala Lumpur.  Maugham, ever on the alert for good story material, turned it into “The Letter,” which was published in 1927 and has had a remarkable afterlife extending to the present day. Maugham himself turned the narrative into a successful play. Bette Davis starred in the 1940 film. “The Letter” was made into a TV film in 1982 starring Lee Remick.  Most recently it became an opera, with music by Paul Moravec and libretto by Terry Teachout. The work premiered at the Sana Fe Opera in 2009.


During the First World War, Maugham worked for British Military Intelligence. His main base of operations was Geneva, but he was also sent on a mission to Russia. He arrived in Petrograd in 1917,  plunging, as it were, directly into the eye of the storm. While there, he met Louise Bryant and John Reed,  the couple portrayed by Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty in the film Reds. (Reed wrote an eyewitness account of the revolution that went on to become a classic: Ten Days That Shook the World.) Maugham himself invariably played the part of the bon vivant, peripatetic writer, always on the lookout for a good “scoop.” The role provided the perfect cover for him. At one point, while dining with Reed and Bryant, he confided to the latter, assuming his best roguish manner: “‘You won’t reveal you had lunch with a British Secret Agent, will you?'” She found the suggestion risible: “‘It couldn’t have been funnier if he’d said he was an ambassador of the Pope,’ she remarked afterward.”

Maugham drew on his experiences as an agent in the field, primarily in neutral Switzerland and to some extent in Russia, when he wrote the volume of linked stories entitled Ashenden; or, the British Agent. Maugham clearly enjoyed intelligence work. His friend Lord Kenneth Clark said that he spoke of it often: “‘I suppose he liked the light that it shed on human nature.” Maugham’s accounts of Ashenden’s various missions are dispassionate and distinctly unglamorous. He gives credit to acts of courage, but also depicts in an unblinking manner the inevitable hypocrisy and moral ambiguity that attend such work. Selina Hastings comments: “It is this clear-eyed vision that largely accounts for the extraordinary impact that Ashenden made on the writing of espionage fiction.”

Ashenden is out of print and not owned by the local library, so I’m currently reading a large print edition I got through interlibrary loan. I’m loving these stories; they’re atmospheric, cunningly plotted and of course, beautifully written. Like Maugham, his alter ego, Ashenden is a cultured person. In “A Domiciliary Visit,” two large policemen confront Ashenden in his hotel room in Geneva. In his mind he dubs them Fasolt and Fafner, after the giants from Wagner’s Ring operas. In the story “Miss King,” Ashenden is called to the bedside of an extremely old women whom he barely knows:

It gave Ashenden a shock to look at her. She wore a large white  cotton night-cap…tied under the  chin and a white, voluminous nightdress that came high up in the neck. Night-cap and nightdress belonged to a past age and reminded you of Cruikshank’s illustrations to the novels of Charles Dickens.

(This is one of the few stories in this collection that I feel I didn’t actually “get,” although I was fascinated by it anyway.)

Some quite “fabulous” characters, in the literal sense of the word, come and go in these tales; “The Hairless Mexican” is certainly one of the more memorable among them. At one point, this person, whose actual name is Manuel Carmona, nearly causes Ashenden to miss a crucial rail journey:

When the time drew near for the arrival of the train from Paris that was to take them directly to Rome and the Hairless Mexican did not appear Ashenden, beginning to grow a trifle anxious, went out on the platform to look for him. Ashenden suffered from that distressing malady known as train fever: ann hour before his train was due he began to have apprehensions lest he should miss it; he was impatient with the porters who would never bring his luggage down from his room in time and he could not understand why the hotel bus cut it so fine; a block in the street would drive him to frenzy and the languid movements of the station porters infuriated him….

As I too suffer from “train fever,” I was empathizing powerfully with Ashenden at that moment. As you can probably guess, the Hairless Mexican saunters onto the platform at the last possible moment, acting as though he had not a  care in the world. While making conversation on the train (finally!), Ashenden explains that although he is a writer of fiction, he eschews the writing of detective stories:

‘They are very difficult. You need an incredible amount of invention. I devised a murder story once, but the murder was so ingenious that I could never find a way of bringing it home to the murderer, and after all, one of the conventions of the detective story is that the mystery should in the end be solved and the criminal brought to justice.’

This put me in mind of the famous anecdote concerning the movie version of The Big Sleep. Neither the director nor the screenwriters could work out who had murdered the chauffeur. They asked the question of Raymond Chandler, author of the novel, who replied that he didn’t know either! Chandler, by the way, greatly admired Maugham’s work, saying of it: “His plots are cool and deadly and his timing is absolutely flawless.”

Ashenden is included the recent compendium Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads. In her essay for that collection, Melodie Johnson Howe tells us:

In creating the Eton-educated Ashenden, Maugham paved the way for Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, John Le Carre, and many more. I even see Ashenden in P.D. James’s Inspector Dalgliesh. [And now that she mentions it, so do I.]

Howe makes special mention of the story “Giulia Lazzari,” in which a woman is presented with an extremely stark choice either to betray her lover into enemy hands or herself suffer intolerable consequences. I agree with Howe that this is an exceptionally powerful tale, but I was dismayed by the use of an abominable racial epithet. It is uttered not by Ashenden but by his boss and handler, know only as “R.” Giulia and her beloved come across as  the real heroes here.

Howe states in her conclusion:

This group of stories was written on a long-ago era. The element of the ticking time bomb so popular in thriller writing today does not exist in them. But the human element does.

Turns out that the CIA has a highly selective list of best spy novels: “Ashenden or the British Agent is on it.”

(I’ve had no luck finding that list, BTW.)


“Before the Party,” “The Yellow Streak,” and “The Letter” can all be found in Collected Stories by W. Somerset Maugham, from Everyman’s Library. The following stories from Ashenden can be found in this same volume: “Miss King,” “The Hairless Mexican,” “Guilia Lazzari,” “The Traitor,” and “His Excellency.”


One of the great pleasures of Selina Hastings’s biography is the number of famous people from all walks of life that cycle in and out of the narrative. Here  are just a few of them:

Noel Coward

Winston Churchill

Virginia Woolf

Bette Davis

Cary Grant

Lytton Strachey, portrait by Dora Carrington

Osbert, Edith, and Sacheverell Sitwell

Dorothy Parker

Eleanor Roosevelt

George Bernard Shaw

Evelyn Waugh

Charlie Chaplin

Graham Greene

H.G. Wells

Rebecca West

Henry James

Thomas Hardy

Ian Fleming

Rudyard Kipling

Anthony Blunt

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor

And there are many, many others…


Selina Hastings

At the conclusion of this magisterial work, Selina Hastings proclaims W. Somerset Maugham to be “the great teller of tales.” So he was – and Hastings has done a magnificent job of bringing this complex, gifted individual vividly to life.

I’ll let writer and reviewer Diana Athill have the last word: “An impressively perceptive and often moving account of an extraordinarily interesting man.”

Somerset Maugham, portrait by Graham Sutherland

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