Posts tagged ‘Short Story’

February 10, 2014

“That Evening Sun” — William Faulkner

by Biblioklept

“That Evening Sun”

by William Faulkner

I

Monday is no different from any other week day in Jefferson now. The streets are paved now, and the telephone and the electric companies are cutting down more and more of the shade trees – the water oaks, the maples and locusts and elms – to make room for iron poles bearing clusters of bloated and ghostly and bloodless grapes, and we have a city laundry which makes the rounds on Monday morning, gathering the bundles of clothes into bright-colored, specially made motor-cars: the soiled wearing of a whole week now flees apparition-like behind alert and irritable electric horns, with a long diminishing noise of rubber and asphalt like a tearing of silk, and even the Negro women who still take in white peoples’ washing after the old custom, fetch and deliver it in automobiles.

But fifteen years ago, on Monday morning the quiet, dusty, shady streets would be full of Negro women with, balanced on their steady turbaned heads, bundles of clothes tied up in sheets, almost as large as cotton bales, carried so without touch of hand between the kitchen door of the white house and the blackened wash-pot beside a cabin door in Negro Hollow.

Nancy would set her bundle on the top of her head, then upon the bundle in turn she would set the black straw sailor hat which she wore winter and summer. She was tall, with a high, sad face sunken a little where her teeth were missing. Sometimes we would go a part of the way down the lane and across the pasture with her, to watch the balanced bundle and the hat that never bobbed nor wavered, even when she walked down into the ditch and climbed out again and stooped through the fence. She would go down on her hands and knees and crawl through the gap, her head rigid, up-tilted, the bundle steady as a rock or a balloon, and rise to her feet and go on.

Sometimes the husbands of the washing women would fetch and deliver the clothes, but Jubah never did that for Nancy, even before father told him to stay away from our house, even when Dilsey was sick and Nancy would come to cook for us.

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February 8, 2014

“A Pair of Silk Stockings” — Kate Chopin

by Biblioklept

“A Pair of Silk Stockings”

by Kate Chopin

Little Mrs. Sommers one day found herself the unexpected possessor of fifteen dollars. It seemed to her a very large amount of money, and the way in which it stuffed and bulged her worn old porte-monnaie gave her a feeling of importance such as she had not enjoyed for years.

The question of investment was one that occupied her greatly. For a day or two she walked about apparently in a dreamy state, but really absorbed in speculation and calculation. She did not wish to act hastily, to do anything she might afterward regret. But it was during the still hours of the night when she lay awake revolving plans in her mind that she seemed to see her way clearly toward a proper and judicious use of the money.

A dollar or two should be added to the price usually paid for Janie’s shoes, which would insure their lasting an appreciable time longer than they usually did. She would buy so and so many yards of percale for new shirt waists for the boys and Janie and Mag. She had intended to make the old ones do by skilful patching. Mag should have another gown. She had seen some beautiful patterns, veritable bargains in the shop windows. And still there would be left enough for new stockings—two pairs apiece—and what darning that would save for a while! She would get caps for the boys and sailor-hats for the girls. The vision of her little brood looking fresh and dainty and new for once in their lives excited her and made her restless and wakeful with anticipation.

The neighbors sometimes talked of certain “better days” that little Mrs. Sommers had known before she had ever thought of being Mrs. Sommers. She herself indulged in no such morbid retrospection. She had no time—no second of time to devote to the past. The needs of the present absorbed her every faculty. A vision of the future like some dim, gaunt monster sometimes appalled her, but luckily to-morrow never comes.

Mrs. Sommers was one who knew the value of bargains; who could stand for hours making her way inch by inch toward the desired object that was selling below cost. She could elbow her way if need be; she had learned to clutch a piece of goods and hold it and stick to it with persistence and determination till her turn came to be served, no matter when it came.

But that day she was a little faint and tired. She had swallowed a light luncheon—no! when she came to think of it, between getting the children fed and the place righted, and preparing herself for the shopping bout, she had actually forgotten to eat any luncheon at all!

She sat herself upon a revolving stool before a counter that was comparatively deserted, trying to gather strength and courage to charge through an eager multitude that was besieging breastworks of shirting and figured lawn. An all-gone limp feeling had come over her and she rested her hand aimlessly upon the counter. She wore no gloves. By degrees she grew aware that her hand had encountered something very soothing, very pleasant to touch. She looked down to see that her hand lay upon a pile of silk stockings. A placard near by announced that they had been reduced in price from two dollars and fifty cents to one dollar and ninety-eight cents; and a young girl who stood behind the counter asked her if she wished to examine their line of silk hosiery. She smiled, just as if she had been asked to inspect a tiara of diamonds with the ultimate view of purchasing it. But she went on feeling the soft, sheeny luxurious things—with both hands now, holding them up to see them glisten, and to feel them glide serpent-like through her fingers.

Two hectic blotches came suddenly into her pale cheeks. She looked up at the girl.

“Do you think there are any eights-and-a-half among these?”

There were any number of eights-and-a-half. In fact, there were more of that size than any other. Here was a light-blue pair; there were some lavender, some all black and various shades of tan and gray. Mrs. Sommers selected a black pair and looked at them very long and closely. She pretended to be examining their texture, which the clerk assured her was excellent.

“A dollar and ninety-eight cents,” she mused aloud. “Well, I’ll take this pair.” She handed the girl a five-dollar bill and waited for her change and for her parcel. What a very small parcel it was! It seemed lost in the depths of her shabby old shopping-bag.

Mrs. Sommers after that did not move in the direction of the bargain counter. She took the elevator, which carried her to an upper floor into the region of the ladies’ waiting-rooms. Here, in a retired corner, she exchanged her cotton stockings for the new silk ones which she had just bought. She was not going through any acute mental process or reasoning with herself, nor was she striving to explain to her satisfaction the motive of her action. She was not thinking at all. She seemed for the time to be taking a rest from that laborious and fatiguing function and to have abandoned herself to some mechanical impulse that directed her actions and freed her of responsibility.

How good was the touch of the raw silk to her flesh! She felt like lying back in the cushioned chair and reveling for a while in the luxury of it. She did for a little while. Then she replaced her shoes, rolled the cotton stockings together and thrust them into her bag. After doing this she crossed straight over to the shoe department and took her seat to be fitted.

She was fastidious. The clerk could not make her out; he could not reconcile her shoes with her stockings, and she was not too easily pleased. She held back her skirts and turned her feet one way and her head another way as she glanced down at the polished, pointed-tipped boots. Her foot and ankle looked very pretty. She could not realize that they belonged to her and were a part of herself. She wanted an excellent and stylish fit, she told the young fellow who served her, and she did not mind the difference of a dollar or two more in the price so long as she got what she desired.

It was a long time since Mrs. Sommers had been fitted with gloves. On rare occasions when she had bought a pair they were always “bargains,” so cheap that it would have been preposterous and unreasonable to have expected them to be fitted to the hand.

Now she rested her elbow on the cushion of the glove counter, and a pretty, pleasant young creature, delicate and deft of touch, drew a long-wristed “kid” over Mrs. Sommers’s hand. She smoothed it down over the wrist and buttoned it neatly, and both lost themselves for a second or two in admiring contemplation of the little symmetrical gloved hand. But there were other places where money might be spent.

There were books and magazines piled up in the window of a stall a few paces down the street. Mrs. Sommers bought two high-priced magazines such as she had been accustomed to read in the days when she had been accustomed to other pleasant things. She carried them without wrapping. As well as she could she lifted her skirts at the crossings. Her stockings and boots and well fitting gloves had worked marvels in her bearing—had given her a feeling of assurance, a sense of belonging to the well-dressed multitude.

She was very hungry. Another time she would have stilled the cravings for food until reaching her own home, where she would have brewed herself a cup of tea and taken a snack of anything that was available. But the impulse that was guiding her would not suffer her to entertain any such thought.

There was a restaurant at the corner. She had never entered its doors; from the outside she had sometimes caught glimpses of spotless damask and shining crystal, and soft-stepping waiters serving people of fashion.

When she entered her appearance created no surprise, no consternation, as she had half feared it might. She seated herself at a small table alone, and an attentive waiter at once approached to take her order. She did not want a profusion; she craved a nice and tasty bite—a half dozen blue-points, a plump chop with cress, a something sweet—a creme-frappee, for instance; a glass of Rhine wine, and after all a small cup of black coffee.

While waiting to be served she removed her gloves very leisurely and laid them beside her. Then she picked up a magazine and glanced through it, cutting the pages with a blunt edge of her knife. It was all very agreeable. The damask was even more spotless than it had seemed through the window, and the crystal more sparkling. There were quiet ladies and gentlemen, who did not notice her, lunching at the small tables like her own. A soft, pleasing strain of music could be heard, and a gentle breeze, was blowing through the window. She tasted a bite, and she read a word or two, and she sipped the amber wine and wiggled her toes in the silk stockings. The price of it made no difference. She counted the money out to the waiter and left an extra coin on his tray, whereupon he bowed before her as before a princess of royal blood.

There was still money in her purse, and her next temptation presented itself in the shape of a matinee poster.

It was a little later when she entered the theatre, the play had begun and the house seemed to her to be packed. But there were vacant seats here and there, and into one of them she was ushered, between brilliantly dressed women who had gone there to kill time and eat candy and display their gaudy attire. There were many others who were there solely for the play and acting. It is safe to say there was no one present who bore quite the attitude which Mrs. Sommers did to her surroundings. She gathered in the whole—stage and players and people in one wide impression, and absorbed it and enjoyed it. She laughed at the comedy and wept—she and the gaudy woman next to her wept over the tragedy. And they talked a little together over it. And the gaudy woman wiped her eyes and sniffled on a tiny square of filmy, perfumed lace and passed little Mrs. Sommers her box of candy.

The play was over, the music ceased, the crowd filed out. It was like a dream ended. People scattered in all directions. Mrs. Sommers went to the corner and waited for the cable car.

A man with keen eyes, who sat opposite to her, seemed to like the study of her small, pale face. It puzzled him to decipher what he saw there. In truth, he saw nothing-unless he were wizard enough to detect a poignant wish, a powerful longing that the cable car would never stop anywhere, but go on and on with her forever.

 

February 7, 2014

“Our Friend Judith” — Doris Lessing

by Biblioklept

“Our Friend Judith”

by Doris Lessing

I stopped inviting Judith to meet people when a Canadian woman remarked, with the satisfied fervour of one who has at last pinned a label on a rare specimen: “She is, of course, one of your typical English spinsters.”

This was a few weeks after an American sociologist, having elicited from Judith the facts that she was fortyish, unmarried and living alone, had enquired of me: “I suppose she has given up?” “Given up what?” I asked: and the subsequent discussion was unrewarding.

Judith did not easily come to parties. She would come after pressure, not so much-on felt-to do one a favour, but in order to correct what she believed to be a defect in her character. “I really ought to enjoy meeting new people more than I do,” she said once. We reverted to an earlier pattern of our friendship: odd evenings together, an occasional visit to the cinema, or she would telephone to say: “I’m on my way past you to the British Museum . Would you care for a cup of coffee with me? I have twenty minutes to spare.”

It is characteristic of Judith that the word spinster, used of her, provoked fascinated speculation about other people. There are my aunts for instance: aged seventy-odd, both unmarried, one an ex-missionary from China, one a retired matron of a famous London hospital. These two ladies live together under the shadow of the cathedral in a country town. They devote much time to the Church to good causes, to letter writing with friends all over the world, to the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of relatives. It would be a mistake, however, on entering a house in which nothing has been moved for fifty years, to diagnose a condition of fossilized late-Victorian integrity. They read every book reviewed in the Observer or the Times, so that I recently got a letter from Aunt Rose enquiring whether I did not think that he author of On the Road was not-perhaps?-exaggerating his difficulties. They know a good deal about music, and write letters of encouragement to young composers they feel are being neglected!– “You must understand that anything new and original takes time to be understood.” Well-informed and critical Tories, they are as likely to dispatch telegrams of protest to the Home Secretary as letters of support. These ladies, my aunts Emily and Rose, are surely what is meant by the phrase English spinster. And yet, once the connection has been pointed out, there is no doubt that Judith and they are spiritual cousins, if not sisters. Therefore it follows that one’s pitying admiration for women who have supported manless and uncomforted lives needs a certain modification?

February 4, 2014

“The Policemen’s Ball” — Donald Barthelme

by Biblioklept

“The Policemen’s Ball”

by Donald Barthelme

Horace, a policeman, was making Rock Cornish Game Hens for a special supper. The Game Hens are frozen solid, Horace thought. He was wearing his blue uniform pants.

Inside the Game Hens were the giblets in a plastic bag. Using his needlenose pliers Horace extracted the frozen giblets from the interior of the birds. Tonight is the night of the Policemen’s Ball, Horace thought. We will dance the night away. But first, these Game Hens must go into a three-hundred-and-fifty-degree oven.

Horace shined his black dress shoes. Would Margot “put out” tonight? On this night of nights? Well, if she didn’t– Horace regarded the necks of the birds which had been torn asunder by the pliers. No, he reflected, that is not a proper thought. Because I am a member of the force. I must try to keep my hatred under control. I must try to be an example for the rest of the people. Because if they can’t trust us. . .the blue men. . .

In the dark, outside the Policemen’s Ball, the horrors waited for Horace and Margot.

Margot was alone. Her roommates were in Provincetown for the weekend. She put pearl-colored lacquer on her nails to match the pearl of her new-bought gown. Police colonels and generals will be there, she thought. The Pendragon of the Police himself. Whirling past the dais, I will glance upward. The pearl of my eyes meeting the steel gray of high rank.

Margot got into a cab and went over to Horace’s place. The cabdriver was thinking: A nice-looking piece. I could love her.

Horace removed the birds from the oven. He slipped little gold frills, which has been included in the package, over the ends of the drumsticks. Then he uncorked the wine, thinking: This is a town without pity, this town. For those whose voices lack the crack of authority. Luckily the uniform. . . Why won’t she surrender her person? Does she think she can resist the force? The force of the force?

“These birds are delicious.”

Driving Horace and Margot smoothly to the Armory, the new cabdriver thought about basketball.

Why do they always applaud the man who makes the shot?

Why don’t they applaud the ball?

It’s the ball that actually goes into the net.

The man doesn’t go into the net.

Never have I seen a man going into the net.

Twenty thousand policemen of all grades attended the annual fete. The scene was Camelot, with gay colors and burgees. The interior of the Armory had been roofed with lavish tenting. Police colonels and generals looked down on the dark uniforms, white gloves, silvery ball gowns.

“Tonight?”

“Horace, not now. This scene is so brilliant. I want to remember it.”

Horace thought: It? Not me?

The Pendragon spoke. “I ask you to be reasonable with the citizens. They pay our salaries after all. I know they are difficult sometimes, obtuse sometimes, even criminal sometimes, as we often run across in our line of work. But I ask you despite all to be reasonable. I know it is hard. I know it is not easy. I know that for instance when you see a big car, a ’70 Biscayne hardtop, cutting around a corner at a pretty fair clip, with three in the front and three in the back, and they are all mixed up, ages and sexes and colors, your natural impulse is to– I know your first thought is, All those people! Together! And your second thought is, Force! But I must ask you in the name of force itself to be restrained. For force, that great principle, is most honored in the breach and the observance. And that is where you men are, in the breach. You are fine men, the finest. You are Americans. So for the sake of America, be careful. Be reasonable. Be slow. In the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Ghost. And now I would like to introduce Vercingetorix, leader of the firemen, who brings us a few words of congratulation from that fine body of men.”

Waves of applause for the Pendragon filled the tented area.

“He is a handsome older man,” Margot said.

“He was born in a Western state and advanced to his present position through raw merit,” Horace told her.

The government of Czechoslovakia sent observers to the Policemen’s Ball. “Our police are not enough happy,” Colonel-General Cepicky explained. “We seek ways to improve them. This is a way. It may not be the best of all possible ways, but. . . Also I like to drink the official whiskey! It makes me gay!”

A bartender thought: Who is that yellow-haired girl in the pearl costume? She is stacked.

The mood of the Ball changed. The dancing was more serious now. Margot’s eyes sparkled from the jorums of champagne she had drunk. She felt Horace’s delicately Game Hen-flavored breath on her cheek. I will give him what he wants, she decided. Tonight. His heroism deserves it. He stands between us and them. He represents what is best in society: decency, order, safety, strength, sirens, smoke. No, he does not represent smoke. Great billowing oily black clouds. That Vercingetorix has a noble look. With whom is Vercingetorix dancing, at present?

The horrors waited outside patiently. Even policemen, the horrors thought. We get even policemen, in the end.

In Horace’s apartment, a gold frill was placed on a pearl toe.

The horrors had moved outside Horace’s apartment. Not even policemen and their ladies are safe, the horrors thought. No one is safe. Safety does not exist. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

February 3, 2014

“The Anarchist: His Dog” — Susan Glaspell

by Biblioklept

“The Anarchist: His Dog”

by Susan Glaspell

Stubby had a route, and that was how he happened to get a dog. For the benefit of those who have never carried papers it should be thrown in that having a route means getting up just when there is really some fun in sleeping, lining up at the Leader office—maybe having a scrap with the fellow who says you took his place in the line—getting your papers all damp from the press and starting for the outskirts of the city. Then you double up the paper in the way that will cause all possible difficulty in undoubling and hurl it with what force you have against the front door. It is good to have a route, for you at least earn your salt, so your father can’t say that any more. If he does, you know it isn’t so.

When you have a route, you whistle. All the fellows whistle. They may not feel like it, but it is the custom—as could be sworn to by many sleepy citizens. And as time goes on you succeed in acquiring the easy manner of a brigand.

Stubby was little and everything about him seemed sawed off just a second too soon,—his nose, his fingers, and most of all, his hair. His head was a faithful replica of a chestnut burr. His hair did not lie down and take things easy. It stood up—and out!—gentle ladies couldn’t possibly have let their hands sink into it—as we are told they do—for the hands just wouldn’t sink. They’d have to float.

And alas, gentle ladies didn’t particularly want their hands to sink into it. There was not that about Stubby’s short person to cause the hands of gentle ladies to move instinctively to his head. Stubby bristled. That is, he appeared to bristle. Inwardly, Stubby yearned, though he would have swung into his very best brigand manner on the spot were you to suggest so offensive a thing. Just to look at Stubby you’d never in a thousand years guess what a funny feeling he had sometimes when he got to the top of the hill where his route began and could see a long way down the river and the town curled in on the other side. Sometimes when the morning sun was shining through a mist—making things awful queer—some of the mist got into Stubby’s squinty little eyes. After the mist behaved that way he always whistled so rakishly and threw his papers with such abandonment that people turned over in their beds and muttered things about having that little heathen of a paper boy shot.

February 1, 2014

“The Coat” — Flannery O’Connor

by Biblioklept

“The Coat”

by Flannery O’Connor

Rosa found him rolled over in the mud down by the gully. She started. The wash basket fell off her head and six white shirts-washed, pressed, and folded-flapped face-down in the mud. One of them was in reach of his hand, a rigid, immobile hand, strangely white against the soft red clay it lay in. She felt like sinking into the clay herself. It had taken her all afternoon to iron them shirts. She picked them up except the one that almost touched him. She fished that up with a stick and drop ped it into the basket. Then she looked at him again. He seemed almost to have been pressed down in the clay, his thin body and outstretched arms forming a weird white cross in relief on the red. Light-colored trousers clung to his wet body and Rosa notic ed that a thin coating of ice had begun to form around his arms and back.

He had on no coat.

“Whoever killed him ain’t lef’ nothin’ for nobody else,” she muttered. “Done took the coat offen his back. These niggers ’round here ain’t got no sense.” Allus got caught in some devilment an’ got theysevs in the ‘lectric chair. ‘Thout gittin’ nothin’ out it neither. Niggers was funny that way, she mused. Wonder howcome she was different? Allus had been. Even when she was little, she was brightern Lizzie an’ Boon. She was scrawny but she was bright. And scrawny as she was, she had got Abram. Strongest nigger in Bell’s Quarters was hers. He was devilish like the rest of ‘em, but, Lord, that nigger was strong! He could er strangled that man there wit one er his hans. She looked down at the cross apprehensively. Might er done it too ‘cepin’ he had gone in to wn for keresene an’ that had carried him t’other way. This would be one time Abram wouldn’t be mess up in nothin’. He warn’t a bad nigger, couldn’t help stealin’ now an’ then, er gittin’ hissef drunk, er fightin’. It was in his blood like sense was in her s. Abram had sense too-almost as much as she had- when he warn’t drunk; but git that nigger drunk and he’d forget he a king an’ gonna git him a throne someday. Him an’ her-they gonna have ‘em a throne, Abram say. He gonna git ‘em a throne. Would too. Long ‘s he won’t drunk an’ didn’t git hissef in trouble. But he warn’t mess up in this killin’ here. This was some other nigger’s doin’, er maybe a white man’s. Maybe.

Vaguely she wondered if they might think she had killed the man.

They sho would if they seen her tracks leadin’ up to him. Now how they gonna know them her tracks? They warn’t God Amighty. Rosa put the basket on her head again and went back home.

She was sorting the Grocery-Store-Wilkinson’s wash from the Sheriff-Thomases when Abram came in. She heard three, slow, deliberate footsteps and thought it was someone else. Then the door creaked and he peered in. She knew he was drunk by the way he opene d the door. If it had weighed a hundred, he couldn’t have done it more slowly. Cheap wine-allus got him. Abram closed the door behind him with infinite care and tiptoed to the bed where she had the wash laid out.

“You ain’t gonna lie down on that wash, nigger!” she screamed as he lowered himself to the Sheriff’s stiff, green-striped shirt. Abram rolled over on the floor.

January 30, 2014

“The Captured Woman” — Donald Barthelme

by Biblioklept

“The Captured Woman” by Donald Barthelme

The captured woman asks if I will take her picture.

I shoot four rolls of 35 mm. and then go off very happily to the darkroom. . .

I bring back the contacts and we go over them together. She circles half a dozen with a grease pencil — pictures of herself staring. She does not circle pictures of herself smiling, although there are several very good ones. When I bring her back prints (still wet) she says they are not big enough.

“Not big enough?”

“Can you make enlargements?”

“How big?”

“How big can you make them?”

“The largest paper I have is twenty-four by thirty-six.”

“Good!”

The very large prints are hung around her room with pushpins.

“Make more.”

“For what?”

“I want them in the other rooms too.”

“The staring ones?”

“Whichever ones you wish.”

I make more prints using the smiling negatives. (I also shoot another half dozen rolls.)

Soon the house is full of her portraits, she is everywhere.

(Read the rest).

January 18, 2014

“Mount Sinai” — Franz Kafka

by Biblioklept

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January 16, 2014

“An Anarchist” — Joseph Conrad

by Biblioklept

“An Anarchist”

by Joseph Conrad

That year I spent the best two months of the dry season on one of the estates—in fact, on the principal cattle estate—of a famous meat-extract manufacturing company.

B.O.S. Bos. You have seen the three magic letters on the advertisement pages of magazines and newspapers, in the windows of provision merchants, and on calendars for next year you receive by post in the month of November. They scatter pamphlets also, written in a sickly enthusiastic style and in several languages, giving statistics of slaughter and bloodshed enough to make a Turk turn faint. The “art” illustrating that “literature” represents in vivid and shining colours a large and enraged black bull stamping upon a yellow snake writhing in emerald-green grass, with a cobalt-blue sky for a background. It is atrocious and it is an allegory. The snake symbolizes disease, weakness—perhaps mere hunger, which last is the chronic disease of the majority of mankind. Of course everybody knows the B. O. S. Ltd., with its unrivalled products: Vinobos, Jellybos, and the latest unequalled perfection, Tribos, whose nourishment is offered to you not only highly concentrated, but already half digested. Such apparently is the love that Limited Company bears to its fellowmen—even as the love of the father and mother penguin for their hungry fledglings.

Of course the capital of a country must be productively employed. I have nothing to say against the company. But being myself animated by feelings of affection towards my fellow-men, I am saddened by the modern system of advertising. Whatever evidence it offers of enterprise, ingenuity, impudence, and resource in certain individuals, it proves to my mind the wide prevalence of that form of mental degradation which is called gullibility.

In various parts of the civilized and uncivilized world I have had to swallow B. O. S. with more or less benefit to myself, though without great pleasure. Prepared with hot water and abundantly peppered to bring out the taste, this extract is not really unpalatable. But I have never swallowed its advertisements. Perhaps they have not gone far enough. As far as I can remember they make no promise of everlasting youth to the users of B. O. S., nor yet have they claimed the power of raising the dead for their estimable products. Why this austere reserve, I wonder? But I don’t think they would have had me even on these terms. Whatever form of mental degradation I may (being but human) be suffering from, it is not the popular form. I am not gullible.

I have been at some pains to bring out distinctly this statement about myself in view of the story which follows. I have checked the facts as far as possible. I have turned up the files of French newspapers, and I have also talked with the officer who commands the military guard on the Ile Royale, when in the course of my travels I reached Cayenne. I believe the story to be in the main true. It is the sort of story that no man, I think, would ever invent about himself, for it is neither grandiose nor flattering, nor yet funny enough to gratify a perverted vanity.

January 12, 2014

“Resolutions” — Franz Kafka

by Biblioklept

“Resolutions”

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.

January 9, 2014

“Samuel” — Grace Paley

by Biblioklept

“Samuel”

by Grace Paley

Some boys are very tough. They’re afraid of nothing. They are the ones who climb a wall and take a bow at the top. Not only are they brave on the roof, but they make a lot of noise in the darkest part of the cellar where even the super hates to go. They also jiggle and hop on the platform between the locked doors of the subway cars.

Four boys are jiggling on the swaying platform. Their names are Alfred, Calvin, Samuel, and Tom. The men and women in the cars on either side watch them. They don’t like them to jiggle or jump but don’t want to interfere. Of course some of the men in the cars were once brave boys like these. One of them had ridden the tail of a speeding truck from New York to Rockaway Beach without getting off, without his sore fingers losing hold. Nothing happened to him then or later. He had made a compact with other boys who preferred to watch: starting at Eighth Avenue and Fifteenth Street, he would get to some specified place, maybe Twenty-third and the river, by hopping the tops of the moving trucks. This was hard to do when one truck turned a corner in the wrong direction and the nearest truck was a couple of feet too high. He made three or four starts before succeeding. He had gotten this idea from a film at school called The Romance of Logging. He had finished high school, married a good friend, was in a responsible job, and going to night school.

These two men and others looked at the four boys jumping and jiggling on the platform and thought. It must be fun to ride that way, especially now the weather is nice and we’re out of the tunnel and way high over the Bronx. Then they thought. These kids do seem to be acting sort of stupid. They are little. Then they thought of some of the brave things they had done when they were boys and jiggling didn’t seem so risky.

The ladies in the car became very angry when they looked at the four boys. Most of them brought their brows together and hoped the boys could see their extreme disapproval. One of the ladies wanted to get up and say, be careful you dumb kids, get off that platform or I’ll call a cop. But three of the boys were Negroes and the fourth was something else she couldn’t tell for sure. She was afraid they’d be fresh and laugh at her and embarrass her. She wasn’t afraid they’d hit her, but she was afraid of embarrassment. Another lady thought, their mothers never know where they are. It wasn’t true in this particular case. Their mothers all knew that they had gone to see the missile exhibit on Fourteenth Street.

Out on the platform, whenever the train accelerated, the boys would raise their hands and point them up to the sky to act like rockets going off, then they rat-tat-tatted the shatterproof glass pane like machine guns, although no machine guns had been exhibited.

For some reason known only to the motorman, the train began a sudden slowdown. The lady who was afraid of embarrassment saw the boys jerk forward and backward and grab the swinging guard chains. She had her own boy at home. She stood up with determination and went to the door. She slid it open and said, “You boys will be hurt. You’ll be killed. I’m going to call the conductor if you don’t just go into the next car and sit down and be quiet.”

Two of the boys said, “Yes’m,” and acted as though they were about to go. Two of them blinked their eyes a couple of times and pressed their lips together. The train resumed its speed. The door slid shut, parting the lady and the boys. She leaned against the side door because she had to get off at the next stop.

The boys opened their eyes wide at each other and laughed. The lady  blushed. The boys looked at her and laughed harder. They began to pound each other’s back. Samuel laughed the hardest and pounded Alfred’s back until Alfred coughed and the tears came. Alfred held tight to the chain hook. Samuel pounded him even harder when he saw the tears. He said, “Why you bawling? You a baby, huh?” and laughed. One of the men whose boyhood had been more watchful than brave became angry. He stood up straight and looked at the boys for a couple of seconds. Then he walked in a citizenly way to the end of the car, where he pulled the emergency cord. Almost at once, with a terrible hiss, the pressure of air abandoned the brakes and the wheels were caught and held.

People standing in the most secure places fell forward, then backward. Samuel had let go of his hold on the chain so he could pound Tom as well as Alfred. All the passengers in the cars whipped back and forth, but he pitched only forward and fell head first to be crushed and killed between the cars.

The train had stopped hard, halfway into the station, and the conductor called at once for the trainmen who knew about this kind of death and how to take the body from the wheels and brakes. There was silence except for passengers from the other cars who asked, What happened! What happened! The ladies waited around wondering if he might be an only child. The men recalled other afternoons with very bad endings. The little boys stayed close to each other, leaning and touching shoulders and arms and legs.

When the policeman knocked at the door and told her about it, Samuel’s mother began to scream. She screamed all day and moaned all night, though the doctors tried to quiet her with pills.

Oh, oh, she hopelessly cried. She did not know how she could ever find another boy like that one. However, she was a young woman and she became pregnant. Then for a few months she was hopeful. The child born to her was a boy. They brought him to be seen and nursed. She smiled. But immediately she saw that this baby wasn’t Samuel. She and her husband together have had other children, but never again will a boy exactly like Samuel be known.

January 6, 2014

Jack London’s Dystopian Short Story, “A Curious Fragment”

by Biblioklept

“A Curious Fragment” by Jack London

[The capitalist, or industrial oligarch, Roger Vanderwater, mentioned in the narrative, has been identified as the ninth in the line of the Vanderwaters that controlled for hundreds of years the cotton factories of the South. This Roger Vanderwater flourished in the last decades of the twenty- sixth century after Christ, which was the fifth century of the terrible industrial oligarchy that was reared upon the ruins of the early Republic. From internal evidences we are convinced that the narrative which follows was not reduced to writing till the twenty- ninth century. Not only was it unlawful to write or print such matter during that period, but the working-class was so illiterate that only in rare instances were its members able to read and write. This was the dark reign of the overman, in whose speech the great mass of the people were characterized as the "herd animals." All literacy was frowned upon and stamped out. From the statute-books of the times may be instanced that black law that made it a capital offence for any man, no matter of what class, to teach even the alphabet to a member of the working-class. Such stringent limitation of education to the ruling class was necessary if that class was to continue to rule. One result of the foregoing was the development of the professional story-tellers. These story-tellers were paid by the oligarchy, and the tales they told were legendary, mythical, romantic, and harmless. But the spirit of freedom never quite died out, and agitators, under the guise of story-tellers, preached revolt to the slave class. That the following tale was banned by the oligarchs we have proof from the records of the criminal police court of Ashbury, wherein, on January 27, 2734, one John Tourney, found guilty of telling the tale in a boozing-ken of labourers, was sentenced to five years' penal servitude in the borax mines of the Arizona Desert.—EDITOR'S NOTE.]

Listen, my brothers, and I will tell you a tale of an arm. It was the arm of Tom Dixon, and Tom Dixon was a weaver of the first class in a factory of that hell-hound and master, Roger Vanderwater. This factory was called “Hell’s Bottom”… by the slaves who toiled in it, and I guess they ought to know; and it was situated in Kingsbury, at the other end of the town from Vanderwater’s summer palace. You do not know where Kingsbury is? There are many things, my brothers, that you do not know, and it is sad. It is because you do not know that you are slaves. When I have told you this tale, I should like to form a class among you for the learning of written and printed speech. Our masters read and write and possess many books, and it is because of that that they are our masters, and live in palaces, and do not work. When the toilers learn to read and write—all of them—they will grow strong; then they will use their strength to break their bonds, and there will be no more masters and no more slaves.

Kingsbury, my brothers, is in the old State of Alabama. For three hundred years the Vanderwaters have owned Kingsbury and its slave pens and factories, and slave pens and factories in many other places and States. You have heard of the Vanderwaters—who has not?—but let me tell you things you do not know about them. The first Vanderwater was a slave, even as you and I. Have you got that? He was a slave, and that was over three hundred years ago. His father was a machinist in the slave pen of Alexander Burrell, and his mother was a washerwoman in the same slave pen. There is no doubt about this. I am telling you truth. It is history. It is printed, every word of it, in the history books of our masters, which you cannot read because your masters will not permit you to learn to read. You can understand why they will not permit you to learn to read, when there are such things in the books. They know, and they are very wise. If you did read such things, you might be wanting in respect to your masters, which would be a dangerous thing… to your masters. But I know, for I can read, and I am telling you what I have read with my own eyes in the history books of our masters.

January 5, 2014

“The Debutante,” A Short Story by Leonora Carrington

by Biblioklept

debutante

“The Debutante”

by Leonora Carrington

WHEN I was a debutante I often went to the zoological garden. I went so often that I was better acquainted with animals than with the young girls of my age. It was to escape from the world that I found myself each day at the zoo. The beast I knew best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was extremely intelligent; I taught her French and in return she taught me her language. We spent many pleasant hours in this way.

For the first of May my mother had arranged a ball in my honor. For entire nights I suffered: I had always detested balls, above all those given in my own honor.

On the morning of May first, 1934, very early, I went to visit the hyena. “What a mess of shit,” I told her. “I must go to my ball this evening.”

“You’re lucky,” she said. “I would go happily. I do not know how to dance, but after all, I could engage in conversation.”

“There will be many things to eat,” said I. “I have seen wagons loaded entirely with food coming up to the house.”

“And you complain!” replied the hyena with disgust. “As for me, I eat only once a day, and what rubbish they stick me with!”

I had a bold idea; I almost laughed. “You have only to go in my place.”

“We do not look enough alike, otherwise I would gladly go,” said the hyena, a little sad. “Listen,” said I, “in the evening light one does not see very well. If you were disguised a little, no one would notice in the crowd. Besides, we are almost the same size. You are my only friend; I implore you.”

She reflected upon this sentiment. I knew that she wanted to accept. “It is done,” she said suddenly.

It was very early; not many keepers were about. Quickly I opened the cage and in a moment we were in the street. I took a taxi; at the house, everyone was in bed. In my room, I brought out the gown I was supposed to wear that evening. It was a little long, and the hyena walked with difficulty in my high-heeled shoes. I found some gloves to disguise her hands which were too hairy to resemble mine. When the sunlight entered, she strolled around the room several times—walking more or less correctly. We were so very occupied that my mother, who came to tell me good morning, almost opened the door before the hyena could hide herself under my bed. “There is a bad odor in the room,” said my mother, opening the window. “Before this evening you must take a perfumed bath with my new salts.”

“Agreed,” said I. She did not stay long; I believe the odor was too strong for her. “Do not be late for breakfast,” she said, as she left the room.

The greatest difficulty was to find a disguise for the hyena’s face. For hours and hours we sought an answer: she rejected all of my proposals. At last she said, “I think I know a solution. You have a maid?”

“Yes,” I said, perplexed.

“Well, that’s it. You will ring for the maid and when she enters we will throw ourselves upon her and remove her face. I will wear her face this evening in place of my own.”

“That’s not practical,” I said to her.

“She will probably die when she has no more face; someone will surely find the corpse and we will go to prison.”

“I am hungry enough to eat her,” replied the hyena.

“And the bones?”

“Those too,” she said.

“Then it’s settled?”

“Only if you agree to kill her before removing her face. It would be too uncomfortable otherwise.”

“Good; it’s all right with me.” I rang for Marie, the maid, with a certain nervousness. I would not have done it if I did not detest dances so much. When Marie entered I turned to the wall so as not to see. I admit that it was done quickly. A brief cry and it was over. While the hyena ate, I looked out the window. A few minutes later, she said: “I cannot eat anymore; the two feet are left, but if you have a little bag I will eat them later in the day.”

“You will find in the wardrobe a bag embroidered with fleurs de lys. Remove the handkerchiefs inside it and take it.” She did as I indicated.

At last she said: “Turn around now and look, because I am beautiful!” Before the mirror, the hyena admired herself in Marie’s face. She had eaten very carefully all around the face so that what was left was just what was needed. “Surely, it’s properly done,” said I.

Toward evening, when the hyena was all dressed, she declared: “I am in a very good mood. I have the impression that I will be a great success this evening.” When the music below had been heard for some time, I said to her: “Go now, and remember not to place yourself at my mother’s side: she will surely know that it is not I. Otherwise I know no one. Good luck.” I embraced her as we parted but she smelled very strong.

Night had fallen. Exhausted by the emotions of the day, I took a book and sat down by the open window. I remember that I was reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. It was perhaps an hour later that the first sign of misfortune announced itself. A bat entered through the window, emitting little cries. I am terribly afraid of bats, I hid behind a chair, my teeth chattering. Scarcely was I on my knees when the beating of the wings was drowned out by a great commotion at my door. My mother entered, pale with rage. “We were coming to seat ourselves at the table,” she said, “when the thing who was in your place rose and cried: ‘I smell a little strong, eh? Well, as for me, I do not eat cake.’ With these words she removed her face and ate it. A great leap and she disappeared out the window.”

January 3, 2014

We found it! (Donald Barthelme)

by Biblioklept

barthelme1

January 2, 2014

“God Sees the Truth, but Waits” — Leo Tolstoy

by Biblioklept

“God Sees the Truth, but Waits” by Leo Tolstoy

In the town of Vladimir lived a young merchant named Ivan Dmitrich Aksionov. He had two shops and a house of his own.

Aksionov was a handsome, fair-haired, curly-headed fellow, full of fun, and very fond of singing. When quite a young man he had been given to drink, and was riotous when he had had too much; but after he married he gave up drinking, except now and then.

One summer Aksionov was going to the Nizhny Fair, and as he bade good-bye to his family, his wife said to him, “Ivan Dmitrich, do not start to-day; I have had a bad dream about you.”

Aksionov laughed, and said, “You are afraid that when I get to the fair I shall go on a spree.”

His wife replied: “I do not know what I am afraid of; all I know is that I had a bad dream. I dreamt you returned from the town, and when you took off your cap I saw that your hair was quite grey.”

Aksionov laughed. “That’s a lucky sign,” said he. “See if I don’t sell out all my goods, and bring you some presents from the fair.”

So he said good-bye to his family, and drove away.

When he had travelled half-way, he met a merchant whom he knew, and they put up at the same inn for the night. They had some tea together, and then went to bed in adjoining rooms.

It was not Aksionov’s habit to sleep late, and, wishing to travel while it was still cool, he aroused his driver before dawn, and told him to put in the horses.

Then he made his way across to the landlord of the inn (who lived in a cottage at the back), paid his bill, and continued his journey.

When he had gone about twenty-five miles, he stopped for the horses to be fed. Aksionov rested awhile in the passage of the inn, then he stepped out into the porch, and, ordering a samovar to be heated, got out his guitar and began to play.

Suddenly a troika drove up with tinkling bells and an official alighted, followed by two soldiers. He came to Aksionov and began to question him, asking him who he was and whence he came. Aksionov answered him fully, and said, “Won’t you have some tea with me?” But the official went on cross-questioning him and asking him. “Where did you spend last night? Were you alone, or with a fellow-merchant? Did you see the other merchant this morning? Why did you leave the inn before dawn?”

Aksionov wondered why he was asked all these questions, but he described all that had happened, and then added, “Why do you cross-question me as if I were a thief or a robber? I am travelling on business of my own, and there is no need to question me.”

Then the official, calling the soldiers, said, “I am the police-officer of this district, and I question you because the merchant with whom you spent last night has been found with his throat cut. We must search your things.”

They entered the house. The soldiers and the police-officer unstrapped Aksionov’s luggage and searched it. Suddenly the officer drew a knife out of a bag, crying, “Whose knife is this?”

December 28, 2013

Read “Peter,” A Very Short Story by Willa Cather

by Biblioklept

“Peter”

by Willa Cather

“No, Antone, I have told thee many times, no, thou shalt not sell it until I am gone.”

“But I need money; what good is that old fiddle to thee? The very crows laugh at thee when thou art trying to play. Thy hand trembles so thou canst scarce hold the bow. Thou shalt go with me to the Blue to cut wood to-morrow. See to it thou art up early.”

“What, on the Sabbath, Antone, when it is so cold? I get so very cold, my son, let us not go to-morrow.”

“Yes, to-morrow, thou lazy old man. Do not I cut wood upon the Sabbath? Care I how cold it is? Wood thou shalt cut, and haul it too, and as for the fiddle, I tell thee I will sell it yet.” Antone pulled his ragged cap down over his low heavy brow, and went out. The old man drew his stool up nearer the fire, and sat stroking his violin with trembling fingers and muttering, “Not while I live, not while I live.”

Five years ago they had come here, Peter Sadelack, and his wife, and oldest son Antone, and countless smaller Sadelacks, here to the dreariest part of south-western Nebraska, and had taken up a homestead. Antone was the acknowledged master of the premises, and people said he was a likely youth, and would do well. That he was mean and untrustworthy every one knew, but that made little difference. His corn was better tended than any in the county, and his wheat always yielded more than other men’s.

Of Peter no one knew much, nor had any one a good word to say for him. He drank whenever he could get out of Antone’s sight long enough to pawn his hat or coat for whiskey. Indeed there were but two things he would not pawn, his pipe and his violin. He was a lazy, absent minded old fellow, who liked to fiddle better than to plow, though Antone surely got work enough out of them all, for that matter. In the house of which Antone was master there was no one, from the little boy three years old, to the old man of sixty, who did not earn his bread. Still people said that Peter was worthless, and was a great drag on Antone, his son, who never drank,  and was a much better man than his father had ever been. Peter did not care what people said. He did not like the country, nor the people, least of all he liked the plowing. He was very homesick for Bohemia. Long ago, only eight years ago by the calendar, but it seemed eight centuries to Peter, he had been a second violinist in the great theatre at Prague. He had gone into the theatre very young, and had been there all his life, until he had a stroke of paralysis, which made his arm so weak that his bowing was uncertain. Then they told him he could go. Those were great days at the theatre. He had plenty to drink then, and wore a dress coat every evening, and there were always parties after the play. He could play in those days, ay, that he could! He could never read the notes well, so he did not play first; but his touch, he had a touch indeed, so Herr Mikilsdoff, who led the orchestra, had said. Sometimes now Peter thought he could plow better if he could only bow as he used to. He had seen all the lovely women in the world there, all the great singers and the great players. He was in the orchestra when Rachel played, and he heard Liszt play when the Countess d’Agoult sat in the stage box and threw the master white lilies. Once, a French woman came and played for weeks, he did not remember her name now. He did not remember her face very well either, for it changed so, it was never twice the same. But the beauty of it, and the great hunger men felt at the sight of it, that he remembered. Most of all he remembered her voice. He did not know French, and could not understand a word she said, but it seemed to him that she must be talking the music of Chopin. And her voice, he thought he should know that in the other world. The last night she played a play in which a man touched her arm, and she stabbed him. As Peter sat among the smoking gas jets down below the footlights with his fiddle on his knee, and looked up at her, he thought he would like to die too, if he could touch her arm once, and have her stab him so. Peter went home to his wife very drunk that night. Even in those days he was a foolish fellow, who cared for nothing but music and pretty faces.

It was all different now. He had nothing to drink and little to eat, and here, there was nothing but sun, and grass, and sky. He had forgotten almost everything, but some things he  remembered well enough. He loved his violin and the holy Mary, and above all else he feared the Evil One, and his son Antone.

The fire was low, and it grew cold. Still Peter sat by the fire remembering. He dared not throw more cobs on the fire; Antone would be angry. He did not want to cut wood tomorrow, it would be Sunday, and he wanted to go to mass. Antone might let him do that. He held his violin under his wrinkled chin, his white hair fell over it, and he began to play “Ave Maria.” His hand shook more than ever before, and at last refused to work the bow at all. He sat stupefied for a while, then arose, and taking his violin with him, stole out into the old sod stable. He took Antone’s shot-gun down from its peg, and loaded it by the moonlight which streamed in through the door. He sat down on the dirt floor, and leaned back against the dirt wall. He heard the wolves howling in the distance, and the night wind screaming as it swept over the snow. Near him he heard the regular breathing of the horses in the dark. He put his crucifix above his heart, and folding his hands said brokenly all the Latin he had ever known, “Pater noster, qui in cælum est.” Then he raised his head and sighed, “Not one kreutzer will Antone pay them to pray for my soul, not one kreutzer, he is so careful of his money, is Antone, he does not waste it in drink, he is a better man than I, but hard sometimes. He works the girls too hard, women were not made to work so. But he shall not sell thee, my fiddle, I can play thee no more, but they shall not part us. We have seen it all together, and we will forget it together, the French woman and all.” He held his fiddle under his chin a moment, where it had lain so often, then put it across his knee and broke it through the middle. He pulled off his old boot, held the gun between his knees with the muzzle against his forehead, and pressed the trigger with his toe.

In the morning Antone found him stiff, frozen fast in a pool of blood. They could not straighten him out enough to fit a coffin, so they buried him in a pine box. Before the funeral Antone carried to town the fiddle-bow which Peter had forgotten to break. Antone was very thrifty, and a better man than his father had been.

The Mahogany Tree, May 21, 1892

 

December 15, 2013

“Egotism; Or, The Bosom Serpent” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

by Biblioklept

 “Egotism; Or, The Bosom Serpent” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Here he comes!” shouted the boys along the street. “Here comes the man with a snake in his bosom!”

This outcry, saluting Herkimer’s ears as he was about to enter the iron gate of the Elliston mansion, made him pause. It was not without a shudder that he found himself on the point of meeting his former acquaintance, whom he had known in the glory of youth, and whom now after an interval of five years, he was to find the victim either of a diseased fancy or a horrible physical misfortune.

“A snake in his bosom!” repeated the young sculptor to himself. “It must be he. No second man on earth has such a bosom friend. And now, my poor Rosina, Heaven grant me wisdom to discharge my errand aright! Woman’s faith must be strong indeed since thine has not yet failed.”

Thus musing, he took his stand at the entrance of the gate and waited until the personage so singularly announced should make his appearance. After an instant or two he beheld the figure of a lean man, of unwholesome look, with glittering eyes and long black hair, who seemed to imitate the motion of a snake; for, instead of walking straight forward with open front, he undulated along the pavement in a curved line. It may be too fanciful to say that something, either in his moral or material aspect, suggested the idea that a miracle had been wrought by transforming a serpent into a man, but so imperfectly that the snaky nature was yet hidden, and scarcely hidden, under the mere outward guise of humanity. Herkimer remarked that his complexion had a greenish tinge over its sickly white, reminding him of a species of marble out of which he had once wrought a head of Envy, with her snaky locks.

The wretched being approached the gate, but, instead of entering, stopped short and fixed the glitter of his eye full upon the compassionate yet steady countenance of the sculptor.

“It gnaws me! It gnaws me!” he exclaimed.

And then there was an audible hiss, but whether it came from the apparent lunatic’s own lips, or was the real hiss of a serpent, might admit of a discussion. At all events, it made Herkimer shudder to his heart’s core.

“Do you know me, George Herkimer?” asked the snake-possessed.

Herkimer did know him; but it demanded all the intimate and practical acquaintance with the human face, acquired by modelling actual likenesses in clay, to recognize the features of Roderick Elliston in the visage that now met the sculptor’s gaze. Yet it was he. It added nothing to the wonder to reflect that the once brilliant young man had undergone this odious and fearful change during the no more than five brief years of Herkimer’s abode at Florence. The possibility of such a transformation being granted, it was as easy to conceive it effected in a moment as in an age. Inexpressibly shocked and startled, it was still the keenest pang when Herkimer remembered that the fate of his cousin Rosina, the ideal of gentle womanhood, was indissolubly interwoven with that of a being whom Providence seemed to have unhumanized.

December 12, 2013

“The Darling” — Anton Chekhov

by Biblioklept

“The Darling” by Anton Chekhov

Olenka, the daughter of the retired collegiate assessor Plemyanikov, was sitting on the back-door steps of her house doing nothing. It was hot, the flies were nagging and teasing, and it was pleasant to think that it would soon be evening. Dark rain clouds were gathering from the east, wafting a breath of moisture every now and then.

Kukin, who roomed in the wing of the same house, was standing in the yard looking up at the sky. He was the manager of the Tivoli, an open-air theatre.

“Again,” he said despairingly. “Rain again. Rain, rain, rain! Every day rain! As though to spite me. I might as well stick my head into a noose and be done with it. It’s ruining me. Heavy losses every day!” He wrung his hands, and continued, addressing Olenka: “What a life, Olga Semyonovna! It’s enough to make a man weep. He works, he does his best, his very best, he tortures himself, he passes sleepless nights, he thinks and thinks and thinks how to do everything just right. And what’s the result? He gives the public the best operetta, the very best pantomime, excellent artists. But do they want it? Have they the least appreciation of it? The public is rude. The public is a great boor. The public wants a circus, a lot of nonsense, a lot of stuff. And there’s the weather. Look! Rain almost every evening. It began to rain on the tenth of May, and it’s kept it up through the whole of June. It’s simply awful. I can’t get any audiences, and don’t I have to pay rent? Don’t I have to pay the actors?”

The next day towards evening the clouds gathered again, and Kukin said with an hysterical laugh:

“Oh, I don’t care. Let it do its worst. Let it drown the whole theatre, and me, too. All right, no luck for me in this world or the next. Let the actors bring suit against me and drag me to court. What’s the court? Why not Siberia at hard labour, or even the scaffold? Ha, ha, ha!”

It was the same on the third day.

Olenka listened to Kukin seriously, in silence. Sometimes tears would rise to her eyes. At last Kukin’s misfortune touched her. She fell in love with him. He was short, gaunt, with a yellow face, and curly hair combed back from his forehead, and a thin tenor voice. His features puckered all up when he spoke. Despair was ever inscribed on his face. And yet he awakened in Olenka a sincere, deep feeling.

December 8, 2013

“Coward” — Guy De Maupassant

by Biblioklept

“Coward” by Guy De Maupassant

In society he was called “Handsome Signoles.” His name was Vicomte Gontran-Joseph de Signoles.

An orphan, and possessed of an ample fortune, he cut quite a dash, as it is called. He had an attractive appearance and manner, could talk well, had a certain inborn elegance, an air of pride and nobility, a good mustache, and a tender eye, that always finds favor with women.

He was in great request at receptions, waltzed to perfection, and was regarded by his own sex with that smiling hostility accorded to the popular society man. He had been suspected of more than one love affair, calculated to enhance the reputation of a bachelor. He lived a happy, peaceful life—a life of physical and mental well-being. He had won considerable fame as a swordsman, and still more as a marksman.

“When the time comes for me to fight a duel,” he said, “I shall choose pistols. With such a weapon I am sure to kill my man.”

One evening, having accompanied two women friends of his with their husbands to the theatre, he invited them to take some ice cream at Tortoni’s after the performance. They had been seated a few minutes in the restaurant when Signoles noticed that a man was staring persistently at one of the ladies. She seemed annoyed, and lowered her eyes. At last she said to her husband:

“There’s a man over there looking at me. I don’t know him; do you?”

The husband, who had noticed nothing, glanced across at the offender, and said:

“No; not in the least.”

His wife continued, half smiling, half angry:

“It’s very tiresome! He quite spoils my ice cream.”

The husband shrugged his shoulders.

“Nonsense! Don’t take any notice of him. If we were to bother our heads about all the ill-mannered people we should have no time for anything else.”

But the vicomte abruptly left his seat. He could not allow this insolent fellow to spoil an ice for a guest of his. It was for him to take cognizance of the offence, since it was through him that his friends had come to the restaurant. He went across to the man and said:

“Sir, you are staring at those ladies in a manner I cannot permit. I must ask you to desist from your rudeness.”

The other replied:

“Let me alone, will you!”

“Take care, sir,” said the vicomte between his teeth, “or you will force me to extreme measures.”

November 10, 2013

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Fourth Riff: Stories of 1962)

by Edwin Turner

jgb_complete_ss400

PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

IN THIS RIFF:

Nine stories published in 1962:

“The Insane Ones”

“The Garden of Time”

“The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista”

“Thirteen to Centaurus”

“Passport to Eternity”

“The Cage of Sand”

“The Watch Towers”

“The Singing Statues”

“Man on the 99th Floor”

1. “The Insane Ones” (1962)

Psychology, and particularly subliminal psychology, remained a major theme throughout Ballard’s writing career. “The Insane Ones” is a thought-experiment that examines what might happen if libertarianism were taken to its most extreme:

The Mental Freedom legislation enacted ten years earlier by the ultraconservative UW government had banned the profession outright and enshrined the individual’s freedom to be insane if he wanted to, provided he paid the full civil consequences for any infringements of the law. That was the catch, the hidden object of the MF laws. What had begun as a popular reaction against ‘subliminal living’ and the uncontrolled extension of techniques of mass manipulation for political and economic ends had quickly developed into a systematic attack on the psychological sciences. Overpermissive courts of law with their condoning of delinquency, pseudo–enlightened penal reformers, ‘Victims of society’, the psychologist and his patient all came under fierce attack. Discharging their self–hate and anxiety onto a convenient scapegoat, the new rulers, and the great majority electing them, outlawed all forms of psychic control, from the innocent market survey to lobotomy. The mentally ill were on their own, spared pity and consideration, made to pay to the hilt for their failings. The sacred cow of the community was the psychotic, free to wander where he wanted, drooling on the doorsteps, sleeping on sidewalks, and woe betide anyone who tried to help him.

“The Insane Ones” isn’t a particularly good story—as is the case with many of the tales in The Complete Stories, it’s mostly an excuse to tease out a speculative notion—but its conceit of a lack of adequate health care set against the backdrop of reactionary politics seems particularly germane today. 

2. “The Garden of Time” (1962)

“The Garden of Time” is an oddity in Ballard’s oeuvre. Most of his short stories take cues from Edgar Allan Poe, but “The Garden of Time,” a direct allegory, is pure-Hawthorne territory, a dark fairy tale with fantasy tropes unusual for Ballard. Count Axel and his darling wife live in a perfect Edenic space that they maintain by picking flowers that “freeze” time. At the periphery, a mechanized mob approaches:

At first glance, the long ranks seemed to be progressing in orderly lines, but on closer inspection, it was apparent that, like the obscured detail of a Goya landscape, the army was composed of a vast throng of people, men and women, interspersed with a few soldiers in ragged uniforms, pressing forward in a disorganized tide. Some laboured under heavy loads suspended from crude yokes around their necks, others struggled with cumbersome wooden carts, their hands wrenching at the wheel spokes, a few trudged on alone, but all moved on at the same pace, bowed backs illuminated in the fleeting sun.

I’m not sure how to read the tale—it seems that Ballard identifies the horde, the mob, as a dumb, dim force of history, a consumer society that will destroy the last vestiges of High Culture embodied by the graceful Count and his wife, the aristocrats who understand Truth and Beauty and Art &c. I think there’s a streak of conservatism here, a tendency that we might not immediately think of when we think of Ballard the futurist.

3. “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista” (1962)

Another Vermilion Sands story, “Stellavista” takes on architecture. This is basically a haunted house story; the Ballardian trick here is the psychotropic house, dwellings that echo “every shift of mood and position of the occupants.” Young couple buys house, house is haunted, etc. The conceit is interesting, but again, Ballard’s not particularly inclined to write it in anything outside of a standard pulp fiction (or doesn’t seem to know how to yet).

Ballard’s treatment of his female characters is what I find most interesting here. As always, they seem to be divided into just a few classes: The wife, an unimaginative nag; the mysterious (and impossible to understand) ingenue; the mad, abandoned old woman (shades of Miss Havisham); and the abject, consuming Villain-Woman. Ballard often combines the last three types, but they are always set in opposition to the housewife. More on this in a moment.

4. “Thirteen to Centaurus”

“Thirteen to Centaurus” belongs in what I’ve been calling The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, a collection of the best stuff here. Each Ballard story is essentially a trick or a thought experiment—the tale is just a delivery system, a frame. Ballard here employs a metaframe; sure, the story is still composed in the tropes and language of pulp fiction, but Ballard shows signs of breaking out. In some ways, “Thirteen to Centaurus” is a rewrite of “Manhole 69″ (which I also suggested is Essential). I haven’t described the plot and won’t—I think the story is probably better read without preview or explication.

5. “Passport to Eternity” (1962)

“Passport to Eternity” highlights Ballard’s greatest imaginative failure. This is a guy who can conceive of every kind of fantasy trip—extraterrestrial adventures, private-war-as-vacation, space safari (the occasion for the story here is a list of surreal vacations; the story would read much, much better as just that list). Yes, Ballard can conceive of any kind of future, except one where a woman is something other than a house wife:

For several centuries now the managerial and technocratic elite had been so preoccupied with the work of government that they relied on the Templars of Aphrodite not merely to guard their wives from any marauding suitors but also to keep them amused and contented. By definition, of course, their relationship was platonic, a pleasant revival of the old chivalrous ideals…

Even if Ballard is poking ironic fun here (and I don’t think that’s the case), his framing is aggressively chauvinistic; not only does the “managerial and technocratic elite” appear to exclude women, the underlying anxiety of cuckoldry manifests in a social structure that must manage (and contain) women’s passions and sexualities. There’s something aggressively misogynistic here, a streak that finds its twin in Ballard’s abjectification of women elsewhere in the stories (I wrote above that he only conceives women as house wives—not quite true—they can also be consuming monsters in the Ballardverse).

6. “The Cage of Sand” (1962)

Astronauts. Ecology. Etc. Pass.

7. “The Watch-Towers” (1962)

“The Watch Towers” is basically an extended riff on how churches institutionalize power and regulate behavior. Ballard’s trick here is to elide or omit any language that would directly evoke religion or spirituality though. The story also gets its power comes from its bare simplicity, its lack of ornamentation—one can sense Ballard’s restraint here. The story would likely be more successful stripped even further—something closer to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which it echoes. There are also shades here of a particularly English brand of hauntology—The Prisoner and The Wicker Man come to mind.

8. “The Singing Statues” (1962)

“The Singing Statues” feels like a rewrite of several of Ballard’s Vermilion Sands stories. I suppose collected together in their own volume, the Vermilion Sands tales might read like a novel-in-stories, a work through of central themes, images, and ideas—but dispersed in The Collected Stories they get swallowed. They read like repetitions. Stale.

9. “Man on the 99th Floor” (1962)

Ballard handles subliminal suggestion much better in the next tale, “The Subliminal Man.” So I’ll take a pass on this one in anticipation of one of Ballard’s best

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