I was preparing a meal for Celeste-a meal of a certain elegance, as when arrivals or other rites of passage are to be celebrated.
First off there were Saltines of the very best quality and of a special crispness, squareness, and flatness, obtained at great personal sacrifice by making representations to the National Biscuit Company through its authorized nuncios in my vicinity. Upon these was spread with a hand lavish and not sitting Todd’s Liver Pate, the same having been robbed from geese and other famous animals and properly adulterated with cereals and other well-chosen extenders and the whole delicately spiced with calcium propionate to retard spoilage. Next there were rare cheese products from Wisconsin wrapped in gold foil in exquisite tints with interesting printings thereon, including some very artful representations of cows, the same being clearly in the best of health and good humor. Next there were dips of all kinds including clam, bacon with horseradish, onion soup with sour cream, and the like, which only my long acquaintance with some very high-up members of the Borden company allowed to grace my table. Next there were Fritos curved and golden to the number of 224 (approx.), or the full contents of the bursting 53c bag. Next there were Frozen Assorted Hors d’Oeuvres of a richness beyond description, these wrested away from an establishment catering only to the nobility, the higher clergy, and certain selected commoners generally agreed to be comers in their particular areas of commonality, calcium propionate added to retard spoilage. In addition there were Mixed Nuts assembled at great expense by the Planters concern from divers strange climes and hanging gardens, each nut delicately dusted with a salt that has no peer. Furthermore there were cough drops of the manufacture of the firm of Smith Fils, brown and savory and served in a bowl once the property of Brann the Iconoclast. Next there were young tender green olives into which ripe red pimentos had been cunningly thrust by underpaid Portuguese, real and true handwork every step of the way. In addition there were pearl onions meticulously separated from their nonstandard fellows by a machine that had caused the Board of Directors of the S&W concern endless sleepless nights and had passed its field trails just in time to contribute to the repast I am describing. Additionally there were gherkins whose just fame needs no further words from me. Following these appeared certain cream cheeses of Philadelphia origin wrapped in costly silver foil, the like of which a pasha could not have afforded in the dear dead days. Following were Mock Ortolans Manques made of the very best soybean aggregate, the like of which could not be found on the most sophisticated tables of Paris, London and Rome. The whole washed down with generous amounts of Tab, a fiery liquor brewed under license by the Coca-Cola Company which will not divulge the age-old secret recipe no matter how one begs and pleads with them but yearly allows a small quantity to circulate to certain connoisseurs and bibbers whose credentials meet the very rigid requirements of the Cellarmaster. All of this stupendous feed being a mere scherzo before the announcement of the main theme, chilidogs.
“What is all this?” asked sweet Celeste, waving her hands in the air. “Where is the food?”
“You do not recognize a meal spiritually prepared,” I said, hurt in the self-love.
“We will be very happy together,” she said. “I cook.”
THE OUTCAST NEPHEW was farhearinged. That is a difficult word and concept, but as with farsighted, his ear could not participate with sounds up close, only those far away, up to a quarter mile, a distance of course at which the rest of us townsmen can hear little at all except explosions and aircraft. It seemed to work that if voices were soft enough, faint enough, they could penetrate his tympana. One thought of the sound waves, but how, in his case? I don’t know, but imagine the tenderness of his ears, bent by the incredible bawling of noise he must have sensed up close, so that he ran away, holding both ears in agony, dispossessed of normal human intercourse.
He was one of those exceptional children, ghostly with long blond hair, to whom none of his family out at Loog Root Pass felt kin, except the mother. We never got, because of his affliction, a definite reckoning on his intelligence before he ran off, alone, into the hills.
Having murdered his brother-in-law, Orrin Brower of Kentucky was a fugitive from justice. From the county jail where he had been confined to await his trial he had escaped by knocking down his jailer with an iron bar, robbing him of his keys and, opening the outer door, walking out into the night. The jailer being unarmed, Brower got no weapon with which to defend his recovered liberty. As soon as he was out of the town he had the folly to enter a forest; this was many years ago, when that region was wilder than it is now.
The night was pretty dark, with neither moon nor stars visible, and as Brower had never dwelt thereabout, and knew nothing of the lay of the land, he was, naturally, not long in losing himself. He could not have said if he were getting farther away from the town or going back to it – a most important matter to Orrin Brower. He knew that in either case a posse of citizens with a pack of bloodhounds would soon be on his track and his chance of escape was very slender; but he did not wish to assist in his own pursuit. Even an added hour of freedom was worth having.
Suddenly he emerged from the forest into an old road, and there before him saw, indistinctly, the figure of a man, motionless in the gloom. It was too late to retreat: the fugitive felt that at the first movement back toward the wood he would be, as he afterward explained, “filled with buckshot.” So the two stood there like trees, Brower nearly suffocated by the activity of his own heart; the other – the emotions of the other are not recorded.
A moment later – it may have been an hour – the moon sailed into a patch of unclouded sky and the hunted man saw that visible embodiment of Law lift an arm and point significantly toward and beyond him. He understood. Turning his back to his captor, he walked submissively away in the direction indicated, looking to neither the right nor the left; hardly daring to breathe, his head and back actually aching with a prophecy of buckshot.
Brower was as courageous a criminal as ever lived to be hanged; that was shown by the conditions of awful personal peril in which he had coolly killed his brother-in-law. It is needless to relate them here; they came out at his trial, and the revelation of his calmness in confronting them came near to saving his neck. But what would you have? – when a brave man is beaten, he submits.
So they pursued their journey jailward along the old road through the woods. Only once did Brower venture a turn of the head: just once, when he was in deep shadow and he knew that the other was in moonlight, he looked backward. His captor was Burton Duff, the jailer, as white as death and bearing upon his brow the livid mark of the iron bar. Orrin Brower had no further curiosity.
Eventually they entered the town, which was all alight, but deserted; only the women and children remained, and they were off the streets. Straight toward the jail the criminal held his way. Straight up to the main entrance he walked, laid his hand upon the knob of the heavy iron door, pushed it open without command, entered and found himself in the presence of a half-dozen armed men. Then he turned. Nobody else entered.
On a table in the corridor lay the dead body of Burton Duff.
Katherine Anne Porter
And, Madame Blanchard, believe that I am happy to be here with you and your family because it is so serene, everything, and before this I worked for a long time in a fancy house—maybe you don’t know what is a fancy house? Naturally … everyone must have heard sometime or other. Well, Madame, I work always where there is work to be had, and so in this place I worked very hard all hours, and saw too many things, things you wouldn’t believe, and I wouldn’t think of telling you, only maybe it will rest you while I brush your hair. You’ll excuse me too but I could not help hearing you say to the laundress maybe someone had bewitched your linens, they fall away so fast in the wash. Well, there was a girl there in that house, a poor thing, thin, but well-liked by all the men who called, and you understand she could not get along with the woman who ran the house. They quarreled, the madam cheated her on her checks: you know, the girl got a check, a brass one, every time, and at the week’s end she gave those back to the madam, yes, that was the way, and got her percentage, a very small little of her earnings: it is a business, you see, like any other
—and the madam used to pretend the girl had given back only so many checks, you see, and really she had given many more, but after they were out of her hands, what could she do? So she would say, I will get out of this place, and curse and cry. Then the madam would hit her over the head. She always hit people over the head with bottles, it was the way she fought. My good heavens, Madame Blanchard, what confusion there would be sometimes with a girl running raving downstairs, and the madam pulling her back by the hair and smashing a bottle on her forehead.
“For Sissy Miller.” Gilbert Clandon, taking up the pearl brooch that lay among a litter of rings and brooches on a little table in his wife’s drawing-room, read the inscription: “For Sissy Miller, with my love.”
It was like Angela to have remembered even Sissy Miller, her secretary. Yet how strange it was, Gilbert Clandon thought once more, that she had left everything in such order-a little gift of some sort for every one of her friends. It was as if she had foreseen her death. Yet she had been in perfect health when she left the house that morning, six weeks ago; when she stepped off the kerb in Piccadilly and the car had killed her.
He was waiting for Sissy Miller. He had asked her to come; he owed her, he felt, after all the years she had been with them, this token of consideration. Yes, he went on, as he sat there waiting, it was strange that Angela had left everything in such order. Every friend had been left some little token of her affection. Every ring, every necklace, every little Chinese box-she had a passion for little boxes-had a name on it. And each had some memory for him. This he had given her; this -the enamel dolphin with the ruby eyes-she had pounced upon one day in a back street in Venice. He could remember her little cry of delight. To him, of course, she had left nothing in particular, unless it were her diary. Fifteen little volumes, bound in green leather, stood behind him on her writing table. Ever since they were married, she had kept a diary. Some of their very few-he could not call them quarrels, say tiffs-had been about that diary. When he came in and found her writing, she always shut it or put her hand over it. “No, no, no,” he could hear her say, “After I’m dead-perhaps.” So she had left it him, as her legacy. It was the only thing they had not shared when she was alive. But he had always taken it for granted that she would outlive him. If only she had stopped one moment, and had thought what she was doing, she would be alive now. But she had stepped straight off the kerb, the driver of the car had said at the inquest. She had given him no chance to pull up. . .. Here the sound of voices in the hall interrupted him.
“Flavia and Her Artists”
As the train neared Tarrytown, Imogen Willard began to wonder why she had consented to be one of Flavia’s house party at all. She had not felt enthusiastic about it since leaving the city, and was experiencing a prolonged ebb of purpose, a current of chilling indecision, under which she vainly sought for the motive which had induced her to accept Flavia’s invitation.
The Picton boat was due to leave at half-past eleven. It was a beautiful night, mild, starry, only when they got out of the cab and started to walk down the Old Wharf that jutted out into the harbour, a faint wind blowing off the water ruffled under Fenella’s hat, and she put up her hand to keep it on. It was dark on the Old Wharf, very dark; the wool sheds, the cattle trucks, the cranes standing up so high, the little squat railway engine, all seemed carved out of solid darkness. Here and there on a rounded wood-pile, that was like the stalk of a huge black mushroom, there hung a lantern, but it seemed afraid to unfurl its timid, quivering light in all that blackness; it burned softly, as if for itself.
Fenella’s father pushed on with quick, nervous strides. Beside him her grandma bustled along in her crackling black ulster; they went so fast that she had now and again to give an undignified little skip to keep up with them. As well as her luggage strapped into a neat sausage, Fenella carried clasped to her her grandma’s umbrella, and the handle, which was a swan’s head, kept giving her shoulder a sharp little peck as if it too wanted her to hurry… Men, their caps pulled down, their collars turned up, swung by; a few women all muffled scurried along; and one tiny boy, only his little black arms and legs showing out of a white woolly shawl, was jerked along angrily between his father and mother; he looked like a baby fly that had fallen into the cream.
Then suddenly, so suddenly that Fenella and her grandma both leapt, there sounded from behind the largest wool shed, that had a trail of smoke hanging over it, “Mia-oo-oo-O-O!”
“Saint Cecilia; Or, The Power of Music”
Heinrich von Kleist
Towards the end of the sixteenth century, when iconoclasm was raging in the Netherlands, three young brothers, who all studied at Wittenberg, chanced to meet at Aix-la-Chapelle with a fourth, who had been appointed preacher at Antwerp. They wished to take possession of an inheritance, which had fallen to them by the death of an old uncle, perfectly unknown to all of them, and had turned into an inn, because no one was on the spot to whom they could apply. After the lapse of some days, which they had passed in listening to the preacher’s accounts of the remarkable occurrences that had taken place in the Netherlands, it chanced that the festival of Corpus Christi was just about to be solemnised by the nuns of St. Cecilia’s convent, which then stood before the city gates. The four brothers heated with fanaticism, youth, and the example of the Netherlands, determined to give the town of Aix-la-Chapelle a spectacle of image-breaking. The preacher, who had been more than once at the head of such enterprises, assembled in the evening preceding the festival a number of young tradesmen and students, devoted to the new doctrine, who spent the night in eating and drinking at the inn. Day had no sooner appeared over the battlements than they provided themselves with axes and all sorts of instruments of destruction, to begin their violent work. Exulting with delight, they agreed upon a signal at which they would begin to knock in the windows, which were painted over with biblical subjects, and, secure of finding a great number of followers among the people, they betook themselves to the cathedral, at the hour when the bells first rang, with the determination not to leave one stone upon another. The abbess, who, as early as daybreak, had been informed by a friend of the peril in which the convent stood, sent several times, but always in vain, to the imperial officer who held command in the town, requesting him to appoint a guard for the protection of the convent. The officer, who, clandestinely at least, was favorably imposed towards the new doctrine, refused her request, under the pretext that she was merely dreaming, and that not the slightest danger to her convent was to be apprehended. In the meanwhile the hour appointed for the commencement of the solemnities arrived, and the nuns prepared themselves for mass, praying and trembling with the apprehension of approaching events. The bailiff of the convent, an old man, aged seventy, with a troop of armed servants, whom he had posted at the entrance of the church, was their only protection. In nuns’ convents, it is well known, the sisters themselves, who are well practised in every sort of instrument, are their own musicians, and they play with a precision, a feeling, and an intelligence, which we often miss in orchestras of men, probably because there is something feminine in this mysterious art. Now it happened, to increase the embarrassment, that the conductress of the orchestra, Sister Antonia, had fallen sick of a nervous fever some days before, and the consequence was, that the whole convent was in the greatest tumult about the performance of a suitable piece of music, to say nothing of the fact that the four profane brothers were already visible, wrapped in mantles among the pillars of the church. The abbess who, on the evening of the preceding day, had ordered the performance of a very old Italian mass, by an unknown master, with which the greatest effect had always been produced on account of its peculiarly sacred and solemn character, and who was now more than ever bent on her purpose, sent again to sister Antonia to know how she was. The nun who took the message, returned with the intelligence that the sister lay in a perfectly unconscious condition and that all notion of her conducting the music must be entirely given up. In the meanwhile, there had already been several very critical scenes in the convent into which more than a hundred impious persons of all ranks and ages, armed with hatchets and crowbars, had gradually found their way. Some of the guards who stood at the portals had been shamefully annoyed, and the nuns, who, engaged in their holy offices, had from time to time appeared singly in the porticoes, were insulted by the most unseemly expressions. At last the bailiff retreated to the sacristy, and there upon his knees implored the abbess to stop the festival, and to seek the protection of the commander in the city. But the abbess was immoveable, insisting that the festival which had been instituted for the honour of the Deity must take its course. She reminded the bailiff that it was his duty to defend the mass, and all the solemnities of the cathedral with life and limb, and as the bell had rang, ordered the nuns, who surrounded her, shaking and trembling, to take an oratorium of some sort or other, and make a beginning by performing it.
“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”
Katherine Anne Porter
She flicked her wrist neatly out of Doctor Harry’s pudgy careful fingers and pulled the sheet up to her chin. The brat ought to be in knee breeches. Doctoring around the country with spectacles on his nose! “Get along now. Take your schoolbooks and go. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
Doctor Harry spread a warm paw like a cushion on her forehead where the forked green vein danced and made her eyelids twitch. “Now, now, be a good girl, and we’ll have you up in no time.”
“That’s no way to speak to a woman nearly eighty years old just because she’s down. I’d have you respect your elders, young man.”
“Well, Missy, excuse me.” Doctor Harry patted her cheek. “But I’ve got to warn you, haven’t I? You’re a marvel, but you must be careful or you’re going to be good and sorry.”
“Don’t tell me what I’m going to be. I’m on my feet now, morally speaking. It’s Cornelia. I had to go to bed to get rid of her.”
Her bones felt loose, and floated around in her skin, and Doctor Harry floated like a balloon around the foot of the bed. He floated and pulled down his waistcoat, and swung his glasses on a cord. “Well, stay where you are, it certainly can’t hurt you.”
“Get along and doctor your sick,” said Granny Weatherall. “Leave a well woman alone. I’ll call for you when I want you…Where were you forty years ago when I pulled through milk-leg and double pneumonia? You weren’t even born. Don’t let Cornelia lead you on,” she shouted, because Doctor Harry appeared to float up to the ceiling and out. “I pay my own bills, and I don’t throw my money away on nonsense!”
Jorge Luis Borges is first mentioned in the sixth paragraph of Roberto Bolaño’s masterful short story “The Insufferable Gaucho.” In this paragraph, the narrator tells us that the story’s hero, an ex-judge named Pereda, believed “the best Argentine writers were Borges and his son; any further commentary on that subject was superfluous.”
Several paragraphs later, Bolaño’s narrator explicitly references Borges’s short story “The South,” the precursor text for “The Insufferable Gaucho.” The reference to Borges is tied again to Pereda’s son, the writer Bebe.
Leaving tumultuous Buenos Aires, basically destitute from the Argentine Great Depression, Pereda heads to the countryside to take up residence in his family’s ancient ranch. Departing the train and arriving to a rural town,
Inevitably, he remembered Borges’s story “The South,” and when he thought of the store mentioned in the final paragraphs his eyes brimmed with tears. Then he remembered the plot of Bebe’s last novel, and imagined his son writing on a computer, in an austere room at a Midwestern university. When Bebe comes back and finds out I’ve gone to the ranch . . . , he thought in enthusiastic anticipation.
Bolaño essentially appropriates the plot of “The South” for his tale “The Insufferable Gaucho” and inserts a version of himself into this revision. Bolaño is “Bebe” here, an author who “wrote vaguely melancholy stories with vaguely crime-related plots,” his name phonically doubling the series of mirrors and precursors that Bolaño, mystery man, leaves as clues: Bebe, B-B, Borges-Bolaño, Belano-Bolaño. (Is this too wild a conjecture, dear reader? Mea culpa).
And Pereda then? A stand-in for Borges’s Juan Dahlmann (hero of “The South,” who “considered himself profoundly Argentinian”), surely, but also, maybe also—a stand-in for (a version of) Borges.
What I mean to say:
Bolaño, displaced Chilean, writes “The Insufferable Gaucho” as an intertextual love letter to his displaced father, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges.
One night in autumn a few men were gathered about a fire on the slope of a hill. They belonged to a small detachment of Confederate forces and were awaiting orders to march. Their gray uniforms were worn beyond the point of shabbiness. One of the men was heating something in a tin cup over the embers. Two were lying at full length a little distance away, while a fourth was trying to decipher a letter and had drawn close to the light. He had unfastened his collar and a good bit of his flannel shirt front.
“What’s that you got around your neck, Ned?” asked one of the men lying in the obscurity.
Ned—or Edmond—mechanically fastened another button of his shirt and did not reply. He went on reading his letter.
“Is it your sweet heart’s picture?”
“‘Taint no gal’s picture,” offered the man at the fire. He had removed his tin cup and was engaged in stirring its grimy contents with a small stick. “That’s a charm; some kind of hoodoo business that one o’ them priests gave him to keep him out o’ trouble. I know them Cath’lics. That’s how come Frenchy got permoted an never got a scratch sence he’s been in the ranks. Hey, French! aint I right?” Edmond looked up absently from his letter.
At his wonderful blog The Philosophical Worldview Artist, Douglas Robertson has posted his English translation of Thomas Bernhard’s 1962 story “Der Kulterer.”
The closer he drew to the day of his release from the penal institution, the more Kulterer dreaded returning to his wife. He led an existence that was completely withdrawn and completely unheeded by his fellow-inmates, and during his free time, which was often much too long, because in accordance with regulations they worked only five or six hours a day at the printing machines, he would write down his ideas, or as he termed them, “trifling thoughts,” which preoccupied him almost uninterruptedly.
MR HOLOHAN, assistant secretary of the Eire Abu Society, had been walking up and down Dublin for nearly a month, with his hands and pockets full of dirty pieces of paper, arranging about the series of concerts. He had a game leg and for this his friends called him Hoppy Holohan. He walked up and down constantly, stood by the hour at street corners arguing the point and made notes; but in the end it was Mrs. Kearney who arranged everything.
Miss Devlin had become Mrs. Kearney out of spite. She had been educated in a high-class convent, where she had learned French and music. As she was naturally pale and unbending in manner she made few friends at school. When she came to the age of marriage she was sent out to many houses where her playing and ivory manners were much admired. She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life. But the young men whom she met were ordinary and she gave them no encouragement, trying to console her romantic desires by eating a great deal of Turkish Delight in secret. However, when she drew near the limit and her friends began to loosen their tongues about her, she silenced them by marrying Mr. Kearney, who was a bootmaker on Ormond Quay.
He was much older than she. His conversation, which was serious, took place at intervals in his great brown beard. After the first year of married life, Mrs. Kearney perceived that such a man would wear better than a romantic person, but she never put her own romantic ideas away. He was sober, thrifty and pious; he went to the altar every first Friday, sometimes with her, oftener by himself. But she never weakened in her religion and was a good wife to him. At some party in a strange house when she lifted her eyebrow ever so slightly he stood up to take his leave and, when his cough troubled him, she put the eider-down quilt over his feet and made a strong rum punch. For his part, he was a model father. By paying a small sum every week into a society, he ensured for both his daughters a dowry of one hundred pounds each when they came to the age of twenty-four. He sent the older daughter, Kathleen, to a good convent, where she learned French and music, and afterward paid her fees at the Academy. Every year in the month of July Mrs. Kearney found occasion to say to some friend:
“My good man is packing us off to Skerries for a few weeks.”
If it was not Skerries it was Howth or Greystones.
THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.
It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.
George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.
On the television screen were ballerinas.
A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.
“That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.
“Huh” said George.
“That dance-it was nice,” said Hazel.
“Yup,” said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good-no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.
George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.