As we were leaving the tobacconist’s, my friend carefully separated his change; in the left pocket of his waistcoat he slipped small gold coins; in the right, small silver coins; in his left trouser pocket, a handful of pennies and, finally, in the right he put a silver two-franc piece that he had scrutinized with particular care.
“What a singularly minute distribution!” I said to myself.
We encountered a poor man who held out his cap with a trembling hand‹I know nothing more disquieting than the mute eloquence of those supplicating eyes that contain at once, for the sensitive man who knows how to read them, so much humility and so much reproach. He finds there something close to the depth of complicated feeling one sees in the tear-filled eyes of a dog being beaten.
My friend’s offering was considerably larger than mine, and I said to him: “You are right; next to the pleasure of feeling surprise, there is none greater than to cause a surprise.” “It was the counterfeit coin,” he calmly replied as though to justify himself for his prodigality.
But into my miserable brain, always concerned with looking for noon at two o’clock (what an exhausting faculty is nature’s gift to me!), there suddenly came the idea that such conduct on my friend’s part was excusable only by the desire to create an event in this poor devil’s life, perhaps even to learn the varied consequences, disastrous or otherwise, that a counterfeit coin in the hands of a beggar might engender. Might it not multiply into real coins? Could it not also lead him to prison? A tavern keeper, a baker, for example, was perhaps going to have him arrested as a counterfeiter or for passing counterfeit money. The counterfeit coin could just as well, perhaps, be the germ of several days’ wealth for a poor little speculator. And so my fancy went its course, lending wings to my friend’s mind and drawing all possible deductions from all possible hypotheses.
But the latter suddenly shattered my reverie by repeating my own words: “Yes, you are right; there is no sweeter pleasure than to surprise a man by giving him more than he hopes for.”
I looked him squarely in the eyes and I was appalled to see that his eyes shone with unquestionable candor. I then saw clearly that his aim had been to do a good deed while at the same time making a good deal; to earn forty cents and the heart of God; to win paradise economically; in short, to pick up gratis the certificate of a charitable man. I could have almost forgiven him the desire for the criminal enjoyment of which a moment before I assumed him capable; I would have found something bizarre, singular in his amusing himself by compromising the poor; but I will never forgive him the ineptitude of his calculation. To be mean is never excusable, but there is some merit in knowing that one is; the most irreparable of vices is to do evil out of stupidity.
So, you’re probably aware that The New Yorker has opened up some of its archive for the summer.
I posted a reading list last month of some of my favorite short stories from the magazine (okay, favorite open stories), as well as a few I hadn’t read before, like pieces from Janet Frame and Annie Proulx.
Here’s another list, a baker’s dozen, including some stuff I hadn’t read before the archive opened, as well as suggestions offered by some folks on twitter:
“To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers
First read-through: you are biking through the Cotswolds when you come across the thing. Spring of ’63. Twenty-one years old, in your junior year abroad at the University of York, after a spring term green with Chaucer, Milton, Byron, and Swinburne. (Remember Swinburne?) Year One of a life newly devoted to words. Your recent change, of course, has crushed your father. He long hoped that you would follow through on that Kennedy-inspired dream of community service. You, who might have become a first-rate social worker. You, who might have done good things for the species, or at least for the old neighborhood. But life will be books for you, from here on. Nothing has ever felt more preordained.
Term’s out, and it’s time to see every square mile of this island. Bicycle clips, a Blue Guide, a transistor radio, and skin-hugging rain. Villages slip past on valley roads as twisty as the clauses in Henry James. The book turns up in a junk shop in an old Saxon market town whose name you will remember as almost certainly having an “m” in it. Among the rusted baby buggies and ancient radios you find old cooking magazines, books on fly-tying and photography, late-fifties spy novels with cardboard covers worn as soft as felt.
The thing pops out at you: “To the Measures Fall,” by someone named Elton Wentworth. There’s nothing else like it in the shop. It’s a fat tome with rough-cut pages in a deluxe, tooled binding. The dust jacket has disappeared, but the front matter suggests that you know all about Mr. Wentworth already. Born in 1888, the author of twelve previous books and the winner of awards too numerous to mention.
The first line reads, “A freak snow hit late that year, two weeks after the sand martins returned to the gravel pits near the South Downs.” The next few paragraphs sketch out a hard-pressed town, Wotton-on-Wold, much like the one you are in, with the “m” in it. On page 3, the author reveals the date: 1913. On the last page, a village search party finds the body of a young amputee captain who served at the Somme lying at the bottom of said gravel pits. Only seven years have passed, but the lilting opening cadences have darkened into fragments from another world.
The book seems to be a sweeping portrait of rural England before and after the First World War. You check the title page: copyright 1948. Aside from two bold exclamation points at the end of Chapter 1, the pages are unblemished, perhaps unread.
Pencilled into the upper right hand of the inside front is a price: 10/6 d. Exorbitant. You draw seven pounds a week for student expenses. A three-course Chinese dinner on Station Road costs four shillings, and lunch in the canteen is half that. A 12-inch LP runs only a pound, and even a two-minute call to the States is cheaper than Mr. Wentworth’s book. Half a guinea for a used novel you’ve never heard of? Robbery. But something about that opening is too strange for you to resist. Besides, you’ve just devoted your life to literature. You graze the start of Chapter 2, in which Trevor, a spindly farmer’s son with Addison’s disease, baffles his parents by insisting on going to university. You need to know how this beginning can reach so macabre an end.
The shop’s owner is a beaked old man with a gray hairline like a cowl slipping off his head. It’s humiliating to bargain with him, but you’re desperate.
How much do you offer the junk-store owner for his used book?
You are, by the way, female. Lots of folks think you shouldn’t be out biking alone, even in the Cotswolds. See pages 214 to 223 of Mr. Wentworth’s epic.
How much would you have offered for the book had you been male?
As you, savvy reader, are undoubtedly already aware, The New Yorker has opened up some of its archive for the rest of the summer (to show off its website redesign, I guess).
Here’s a reading list of short fiction from the archives (admittedly, some of the stuff I wanted to put on here is still behind a paywall).
Some of the stories on the list are classics, some are pieces I’ve shared on this blog before, some are excerpts from longer works, and a few are stories I have yet to read myself.
“Over an Absinthe Bottle”
Arthur Kimberlin, a young man of very high spirit, found himself a total stranger in San Francisco one rainy evening, at a time when his heart was breaking; for his hunger was of that most poignant kind in which physical suffering is forced to the highest point without impairment of the mental functions. There remained in his possession not a thing that he might have pawned for a morsel to eat; and even as it was, he had stripped his body of all articles of clothing except those which a remaining sense of decency compelled him to retain. Hence it was that cold assailed him and conspired with hunger to complete his misery. Having been brought into the world and reared a gentleman, he lacked the courage to beg and the skill to steal. Had not an extraordinary thing occurred to him, he either would have drowned himself in the bay within twenty-four hours or died of pneumonia in the street. He had been seventy hours without food, and his mental desperation had driven him far in its race with his physical needs to consume the strength within him; so that now, pale, weak, and tottering, he took what comfort he could find in the savory odors which came steaming up from the basement kitchens of the restaurants in Market Street, caring more to gain them than to avoid the rain. His teeth chattered; he shambled, stooped, and gasped. He was too desperate to curse his fate—he could only long for food. He could not reason; he could not understand that ten thousand hands might gladly have fed him; he could think only of the hunger which consumed him, and of food that could give him warmth and happiness. Read More
by Franz Kafka
(Trans. by W. & E. Muir)
To LIFT YOURSELF out of a miserable mood, even if you have to do it by strength of will, should be easy. I force myself out of my chair, stride around the table, exercise
my head and neck, make my eyes sparkle, tighten the muscles around them. Defy my own feelings, welcome A. enthusiastically supposing he comes to see me, amiably tolerate B. in my room, swallow all that is said at C.’s, whatever pain and trouble it may cost me, in long draughts.
Yet even if I manage that, one single slip, and a slip cannot be avoided, will stop the whole process, easy and painful alike, and I will have to shrink back into my own circle again.
So perhaps the best resource is to meet everything passively, to make yourself an inert mass, and, if you feel that you are being carried away, not to let yourself be lured into taking a single unnecessary step, to stare at others with the eyes of an animal, to feel no compunction, in short, with your own hand to throttle down whatever ghostly life remains in you, that is, to enlarge the final peace of the graveyard and let nothing survive save that.
A characteristic movement in such a condition is to run your little finger along your eyebrows.
“Ubazakura” –Lafcadio Hearn
Three hundred years ago, in the village called Asamimura, in the district called Onsengori, in the province of Iyo, there lived a good man named Tokubei. This Tokubei was the richest person in the district, and the muraosa, or headman, of the village. In most matters he was fortunate; but he reached the age of forty without knowing the happiness of becoming a father. Therefore he and his wife, in the affliction of their childlessness, addressed many prayers to the divinity Fudo Myo O, who had a famous temple, called Saihoji, in Asamimura.
At last their prayers were heard: the wife of Tokubei gave birth to a daughter. The child was very pretty; and she received the name of Tsuyu. As the mother’s milk was deficient, a milk-nurse, called O-Sode, was hired for the little one.
O-Tsuyu grew up to be a very beautiful girl; but at the age of fifteen she fell sick, and the doctors thought that she was going to die. In that time the nurse O-Sode, who loved O-Tsuyu with a real mother’s love, went to the temple Saihoji, and fervently prayed to Fudo-Sama on behalf of the girl. Every day, for twenty-one days, she went to the temple and prayed; and at the end of that time, O-Tsuyu suddenly and completely recovered.
Then there was great rejoicing in the house of Tokubei; and he gave a feast to all his friends in celebration of the happy event. But on the night of the feast the nurse O-Sode was suddenly taken ill; and on the following morning, the doctor, who had been summoned to attend her, announced that she was dying.
Then the family, in great sorrow, gathered about her bed, to bid her farewell. But she said to them:—
“It is time that I should tell you something which you do not know. My prayer has been heard. I besought Fudo-Sama that I might be permitted to die in the place of O-Tsuyu; and this great favor has been granted me. Therefore you must not grieve about my death… But I have one request to make. I promised Fudo-Sama that I would have a cherry-tree planted in the garden of Saihoji, for a thank-offering and a commemoration. Now I shall not be able myself to plant the tree there: so I must beg that you will fulfill that vow for me… Good-bye, dear friends; and remember that I was happy to die for O-Tsuyu’s sake.”
After the funeral of O-Sode, a young cherry-tree,—the finest that could be found,—was planted in the garden of Saihoji by the parents of O-Tsuyu. The tree grew and flourished; and on the sixteenth day of the second month of the following year,—the anniversary of O-Sode’s death,—it blossomed in a wonderful way. So it continued to blossom for two hundred and fifty-four years,—always upon the sixteenth day of the second month;—and its flowers, pink and white, were like the nipples of a woman’s breasts, bedewed with milk. And the people called it Ubazakura, the Cherry-tree of the Milk-Nurse.
The Book of Men is curated (and not, curiously, edited, which is the word I thought we used, but hey, whatever) by Colum McCann. Publisher’s blurb:
To help launch the literary nonprofit Narrative 4, Esquire asked eighty of the world’s greatest writers to chip in with a story, all with the title, “How to Be a Man.”
The result is The Book of Men, an unflinching investigation into the essence of masculinity.
The Book of Men probes, with the poignant honesty and imagination that only these writers could deliver, the slippery condition of manhood. You will find men striving and searching, learning and failing to learn, triumphing and aspiring; men who are lost and men navigating their way toward redemption. These stories don’t just explore what it is to be a man or how to achieve manliness, but ultimately what it is to be a human—with all of its uncertainty, complexity, clumsiness, and beauty.
With contributions from literary luminaries as diverse as the subjects they capture, and curated by the editors of Esquire, National Book Award winner Colum McCann, and Narrative 4, a global nonprofit devoted to using storytelling as a means to empathy, The Book of Men might not teach you how to negotiate a deal or mix a Manhattan, but it does scratch at that most eternal of questions: What is a man?
Lots of shorties here. Here’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s entry:
Our Sundays always tasted like peppers that flared hot in the rice and soups and stews. We sat in the kitchen, knees fresh from pews, and watched our houseboy pounding them in pairs. He held the phallic pestle—thump thump thump—while we coughed and spluttered with watery eyes. Nobody tastes them raw, it wasn’t wise. But we did, and then we’d shout and jump to the fridge for ice.
My mom sang an Igbo song about strong women. It wasn’t too trite, but it told of places she didn’t know, streams, goddesses, women who couldn’t read. Women like that would squeeze peppers, I heard, and force them between their daughters’ legs—“so they’ll stop following boys.” But Eros was good for sons. No peppers to curb sons’ paths to manhood.
“Fiction” by Carl Shuker
So there was a US novelist, permanently relocated to the UK some years back for an MFA, now mid-list, mid-career and “between books”, thirty-mid-something, author of two well-received novels and a less-well-received book of short stories, product of a labor of ten years on and off, and thus at the quintessential time and place to stall, creatively, who was that kind of writer who worked from emotion thence into intellect and, if he was successful, back once again into emotion, “evoked.“
And he came to the Lebanon looking to be bitten by the dragonfly.
Emotion > intellect > emotion. From the dream to the text to the dream. In practice this meant the not-so-youngish writer knew his subject when it hurt his heart, when it obsessed him and seemed too painful and the hardest thing at which to look. Then the writer knew he would have the dark, acidic energy it took to compose, edit, destroy, recompose, re-edit, polish and eventually finish, after years, a novel something like the kind of novels he loved and aspired to create, the books that made him want to become a writer in the first place. This method, which he fell into rather than chose, in the messy process of finding one’s way as a writer in his twenties, meant that by his early thirties the writer had published first one deliberately thinly veiled book of first-person late-adolescent horror, which counted, for its relative success, on the frisson of a patchwork of à clef-ish links with his own life and on making his own weaknesses—inexperience and naiveté—part of the material, and had published second one semi-immense “follow-up” or “sophomore effort”, as critics who hadn’t read the first book always wrote, a terrific shambling thing that during the long three years of its composition veered in his imagination from being a bloated, confused, constant evasion of a real book, a shadow of the kind of book it aspired to be, to being sometimes briefly the most amazing thing he’d ever read, like, ever; structured, strong, urgent, inevitable; the writer being thrilled and dazzled it’d come out of himself, then brutally depressed and miserable at its derivativeness and the puniness of his talent and by extension his soul, his self. And so how he’d done it (coming back to the MO thing), how he’d surmounted the hugeness and endlessness of the task and this bipolar crippling self-doubt and corresponding occasional massively inflated sense of self-importance was with the choice of a subject so tough, so big and hard, so new, that he had a kind of duty to it; a duty that transcended his own comfort and his own ego. A duty to the world. A subject that humbled and steeled. The second book was published to polite notices but bigger papers and a year or so of peace for the writer, and then the award of a one-year fellowship slash residency at a red-brick university like the one he’d graduated from (in crea writ, natch; the MFA) wherein the writer was immediately expected to write again. Having drawn on his childhood and his adolescence, having spent most of his twenties writing or thinking about writing while not publishing anything, the writer was immediately wary of being seen, by imagined peers, by his remembered brutal adolescent reading self with its impossible but definitive demands, of having sold out or trying to be commercially big, not cool or hard or true or essential, so he carved out a book of singular and odd semifuturistic short stories and a novella that linked them all, in a hazy darkness of second-novel-hangover and fellowship-paid-for Scotch, a clutch of one-night-stands compared to the love affairs of the first books, and worked really hard while never really, really loving these new small strange things, never adoring them like he did the books he’d had to summon forth forces for that were old and presymbolic and frightening. He had an office and stuff, and people knew he was a writer. This hadn’t happened before.
And then he got a job teaching creative writing.
“My First Romance” by Lafcadio Hearn
There has been sent to me, across the world, a little book stamped, on its yellow cover, with names of Scandinavian publishers – names sounding of storm and strand and surge. And the sight of those names, worthy of Frost-Giants, evokes the vision of a face – simply because that face has long been associated, in my imagination, with legends and stories of the North – especially, I think, with the wonderful stories of Björnstjerne Björnson.
It is the face of a Norwegian peasant-girl of nineteen summers – fair and ruddy and strong. She wears her national costume: her eyes are grey like the sea, and her bright braided hair is tied with a blue ribbon. She is tall; and there is an appearance of strong grace about her, for which I can find no word. Her name I never learned, and never shall be able to learn; – and now it does not matter. By this time she may have grandchildren not a few. But for me she will always be the maiden of nineteen summers – fair and fresh from the land of the Hrimthursar – a daughter of gods and Vikings. From the moment of seeing her I wanted die for her; and I dreamed of Valkyrja and of Vala-maids, of Freyja and of Gerda. . . .
She is seated, facing me, in an American railroad-car – a third-class car, full of people whose forms have become indistinguishably dim in memory. She alone remains luminous, vivid: the rest have faded into shadow – all except a man, sitting beside me, whose dark Jewish face, homely and kindly, is still visible in profile. Through the window on our right she watches the strange new world through which we are passing: there is a trembling beneath us, and a rhythm of thunder, while the train sways like a ship in a storm.
An emigrant-train it is; and she, and I, and all those dim people are rushing westward, ever westward – through days and nights that seem preternaturally large – over distances that are monstrous. The light is of a summer day; and shadows slant to the east.
The man beside me says:
“She must leave us tomorrow; – she goes to Redwing, Minnesota. . . . You like her very much? – yes, she’s a fine girl. I think you wish that you were also going to Redwing, Minnesota?”
I do not answer. I am angry that he should know what I wish. And it is very rude of him, I think, to let me know that he knows.
Mischievously, he continues:
“If you like her so much, why don’t you talk to her? Tell me what you would like to say to her; and I’ll interpret for you. . . . Bah! you must not be afraid of the girls!”
Oh! – the idea of telling him what I should like to say to her! . . . Yet it is not possible to see him smile, and to remain vexed with him.
Anyhow, I do not feel inclined to talk. For thirty-eight hours I have not eaten anything; and my romantic dreams, nourished with tobacco-smoke only, are frequently interrupted by a sudden inner aching that makes me wonder how long I shall be able to remain without food. Three more days of railroad travel – and no money! . . . My neighbor yesterday asked me why I did not eat; – how quickly he changed the subject when I told him! Certainly I have no right to complain: there is no reason why he should feed me. And I reflect upon the folly of improvidence.
Then my reflection is interrupted by the apparition of a white hand holding out to me a very, very large slice of brown bread with an inch-thick cut of yellow cheese thereon; and I look up, hesitating, into the face of the Norwegian girl. Smiling, she says to me, in English, with a pretty, childish accent:
“Take it, and eat it.”
I take it, I devour it. Never before nor since did brown bread and cheese seem to me so good. Only after swallowing the very last crumb do I suddenly become aware that, in my surprise and hunger, I forgot to thank her. Impulsively, and at the wrong moment, I try to say some grateful words.
Instantly, and up to the roots of her hair, she flushes crimson: then, bending forward, she puts some question in a clear sharp tone that fills me with fear and shame. I do not understand the question: I understand only that she is angry; and for one cowering moment my instinct divines the power and the depth of Northern anger. My face burns; and her grey eyes, watching it burn, are grey steel; and her smile is the smile of a daughter of men who laugh when they are angry. And I wish myself under the train – under the earth – utterly out of sight forever. But my dark neighbor makes some low-voiced protest – assures her that I had only tried to thank her. Whereat the level brows relax, and she turns away, without a word, to watch the flying landscape; and the splendid flush fades from her cheek as swiftly as it came. But no one speaks: the train rushes into the dusk of five and thirty years ago . . . and that is all!
. . . What can she have imagined that I said? . . . My swarthy comrade would not tell me. Even now my face burns again at the thought of having caused a moment’s anger to the kind heart that pitied me – brought a blush to the cheek of the being for whose sake I would so gladly have given my life . . . But the shadow, the golden shadow of her, is always with me; and, because of her, even the name of the land from which she came is very, very dear to me.