February, 18th.–A walk, yesterday afternoon, with the children; a bright, and rather cold day, breezy from the north and westward. There has been a good deal of soaking rain lately, and it has, in great measure, cleared hills and plains of snow, only it may be seen lying in spots, and on each side of stone-walls, in a pretty broad streak. The grass is brown and withered, and yet, scattered all amongst it, on close inspection, one finds a greenness;–little shrubs that have kept green under all the severity of winter, and seem to need no change to fit them for midsummer. In the woods we see stones covered with moss that retains likewise a most lively green. Where the trees are dense, the snow still lies under them. On the sides of the mountains, some miles off, the black pines and the white snow among them together produce a gray effect. The little streams are most interesting objects at this time; some that have an existence only at this season,–Mississippis of the moment,–yet glide and tumble along as if they were perennial. The familiar ones seem strange by their breadth and volume; their little waterfalls set off by glaciers on a small scale. The sun has by this time force enough to make sheltered nooks in the angles of woods, or on banks, warm and comfortable. The lake is still of adamantine substance, but all round the borders there is a watery margin, altogether strewed or covered with thin and broken ice, so that I could not venture on it with the children. A chickadee was calling in the woods yesterday,–the only small bird I have taken note of yet; but crows have been cawing in the woods for a week past, though not in very great numbers.
Barad-dûr: The Fortress of Sauron, c. 1944 by J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973).
Evening in Paradise is the second posthumously-published collection of short stories by the American writer Lucia Berlin. The book collects twenty-two stories originally published between 1981 and 1999. Most of the stories center around a semi-autobiographical version of Berlin herself. Like the excellent compendium A Manual for Cleaning Women which preceded it, Evening in Paradise is crammed with life. These stories teem with electric energy—even when their immediate subject matters might seem banal on the surface. Evening in Paradise shows an artist shaping the events of her life, big and small, wild and tragic, sharp and dull, into an impressionistic and urgent patchwork of tales that add up to a fictional memoir of sorts. As Berlin’s eldest son Mark Berlin noted in a 2005 essay on his mother (which serves as an introduction to Evening in Paradise),
Ma wrote true stories; not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes. Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.
The first stories in the collection feel sharply autobiographical. Both “The Musical Vanity Boxes” and “Sometimes in the Summer” are told by a first-person narrator named “Lucia” who details the small adventures of her childhood early 1940s in El Paso, Texas. Lucia and her friend slip over borders of all sorts, passing not only into Juarez, but also into a more complicated version of themselves as they mature. There’s a subtle menace rumbling under these stories. A mature Berlin looks back, knows what her girl protagonist does not yet know about the world and its dark joys and sinister terrors. The writer shows us a narrator gazing on life’s bright lights, even as she—the writer—draws our attention to the edge of those lights, to the threatening shadows on the margin.
Like A Manual for Cleaning Women, the stories in Evening in Paradise follow an arc of maturation—they are organized not chronologically by dates of composition or publication, but organized rather around the age of the central protagonist, the Berlin stand-in.
We find this protagonist simultaneously struggling and thriving in her teenage years. “Anando: A Gothic Romance” lives up to its subtitle. Set in Chile in an ex-pat community, “Andado” features a version of Berlin’s own teenage family—the father, a somewhat-absent mining engineer; the mother a depressed alcoholic. It’s no wonder then that our hero “Laura” is so easily seduced — “ruined” — by an older man. In one telling aside, the third-person narrator assesses a subtle moment of the seduction from the distance of time:
She was simply enveloped.
This would never happen to her again. When she grew older she would always be in control, even when being submissive. This would be the first and the last time anyone took over herself.
In “Itinerary,” another fictionalized-version of Berlin departs Chile for college in New Mexico. She leaves on her own, taking a series of planes and being greeted by a series of hosts, each of which reveals, inadvertently, something about her family which she had not previously seen, something that would be obvious though to any mature eyes settling on the family with objective distance. Berlin’s first-person narrator never quite names what is revealed to her; instead, she takes us up to the moment where we see her seeing what she has previously been blind to, yet still does not quite have the language to name. The final lines of “Itinerary” are a sort of negative epiphany:
It was sunset as we circled Albuquerque. The Sandias and the miles of rocky desert were a deep coral pink. I felt old. Not grown up, but the way I do now. That there was so much I did not see or understand, and now it is too late. The air was cold in New Mexico. No one met me.
The middle section of Evening in Paradise gives way to a series of stories focusing on young wives and young mothers different iterations of Berlin in the fifties. “Lead Street, Albuquerque” is particularly fascinating. Here, Berlin splits the material of her life into two different characters—the narrator, a somewhat hapless housewife who’s relegated to washing the dishes while her artist-husband and his artist-friends chat about hepcat stuff—and “Maria” — “seventeen, American, but grew up in South America, acts foreign, shy. English major.” A mature narrator looks back, half-mockingly and half-lovingly, at an ingénue-muse version of herself, the pair framed in the same tale. And our narrator turns toward her own life in the same attitude in turn:
Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? Or a word to describe how I saw my whole future flash before my eyes? I saw that I’d stay at the Albuquerque National Bank and Bernie would get his doctorate and keep on painting bad paintings and making muddy pottery and would get tenure. We would have two daughters and one would a dentist and the other a cocaine addict. Well, of course I didn’t know all that, but I saw how things would be hard. And I knew that years and years from then Bernie would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.
The push-pull of artistic ambition against domestic life’s constraints ripple through these middle stories, where women raise kids and clean houses while men pursue their muses—writing, jazz, painting. There are small resentments and sordid affairs, banal routines and burgeoning substance abuse problems. Threaded through these stories is a common theme though, summed up in the last line of “Cherry Blossom Time,” when the hero Cassandra addresses her husband: “David. Please talk to me.”
The collection’s title story marks a shift in the trajectory of the Berlinverse, and stands out as a bit of an oddity. “Evening in Paradise” is the only piece here that doesn’t feature a straightforward Berlin stand-in; indeed, the story doesn’t have a strong central persona at all. Rather, “Evening” plays like a series of elegiac vignettes centered around the Oceano hotel–notably its bar—in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It’s 1963 and cast and crew of The Night of the Iguana are causing a ruckus in the small fishing town, drinking heavily, taking up with beach gigolos, smoking reefers—and even shooting heroin and snorting coke. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor burst in and out; Ava Gardner looms larger than life. Director John Huston sits in the bar’s corner, drinking homemade mescal from a mayonnaise jar. There’s scheming and screaming, and generally famous times—but, like the title declares, the scene announces the end of an era.
“Evening in Paradise,” without a Berlin-protagonist, resets the stage, moving us to Mexico for a while, and introducing heroin as a major trope. In the next tale, “La Barca de la Ilusion,” Maya and her husband Buzz move to Yelapa (in Jalisco, Mexico) so that Buzz can kick heroin. “La Barca” is a standout in the collection, a slow burn of a tale, but one packed with lifetimes of storytelling. Buzz, born to a wealthy Boston family, drops out of Harvard to play saxophone in jazz clubs. He marries an heiress named Circe (I know, right?), starts a Volkswagen franchise, becomes a millionaire, has an affair with Maya, divorces Circe, etc. The problem remains though: “Heroin is easy to hide if you are rich, because you always have it.” That problem transgresses the paradise of Yalapa in the form of Victor, a menacing drug dealer who’s had his hooks in Buzz for years. Victor is a creature from the shadows, the sinister specter that haunted the background of the earlier tales of Evening in Paradise finally made manifest. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but it swells to a startling, cinematic climax.
Characters like Victor and Buzz and Circe show up in different iterations in successive stories, like “My Life Is an Open Book” and “The Wives,” before Evening in Paradise gives over to Berlin’s Oakland years. Stories like “Noël, 1974” feature Berlin’s sons—excuse me, Berlin’s stand-in’s sons. These stories also feature her alter-ego’s high-functioning alcoholism. (Again, features that will be familiar to fans of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women).
The one-pager “The Pony Bar, Oakland” serves as something of a summary of the material that preceded it, delivered in Berlin’s economical prose. “There are certain perfect particular sounds. A tennis ball, a golf ball hit just right….Pool is erotic any way you look at it” the narrator begins, perched on a bar stool, as the sounds of billiards take her back in time to a cricket match in Chile:
Cricket in Santiago. Red parasols, green grass, white Andes. Red and white striped canvas chairs at the Prince of Wales Country Club. I signed chits for lemonade, tipped the tuxedoed waiters, applauded John Wells. Perfect crack of the cricket bat. I wore white, was careful of the grass stains, flirted with the boys who wore Grange school gray flannels, blue blazers in summertime. Cucumber sandwiches with tea, plans for Sunday at Viña del Mar.
The narrator remarks that she felt like an alien in that privileged childhood, just as she feels like an alien here at the Pony Bar in Oakland, sitting next to a tattooed biker. Berlin—or hey, sorry, Berlin’s stand-in—is never at home, but also at home every where. The tale ends as she glances at the hinges tattooed on the biker’s wrists, elbows, knees. The story ends in a wry punchline:
“You need a hinge on your neck,” I said.
“You need a screw up your ass.”
The smoky bar reverberating with the erotic sounds of pool transmutes into expatriate pastimes and then lands back into unglamorous Oakland, to culminate in a dirty joke. “Pony Bar, Oakland” condenses Evening in Paradise’s themes of memory, sensation, and life into a spare but evocative tale.
Later stories, like “Our Brother’s Keeper,” “Lost in the Louvre,” and “Luna Nueva” work in much the same way, filling a few slim pages with full fat life. These late stories are reflective and fully mature—still questioning and questing, but also shining with a strange peace, a strange reconciling to the sinister forces that vibrate under life’s vivid contours of family, work, culture, persona. I’ll confess that there’s something in these stories that I don’t fully appreciate—something beyond my forty years, something that their narrators see that I don’t maybe—maybe not yet, maybe not ever. But I’ll be happy to revisit them—and Berlin’s work in general—in years to come. Highly recommended.
“Yesterday I dreamed about Thea von Harbou. . . . It woke me right up. . . . But then, thinking about it, I realized that I dreamed about her because of a novel I read recently. . . . It’s not that it was such a strange book, but I got the idea that the author was hiding something. . . . And after the dream, I figured it out . . .”
“Silhouette, by Gene Wolfe.”
“. . .”
“Want me to tell you what it’s about?”
“All right, while I’m making breakfast.”
“I had some tea before, when you were asleep.”
“I’ve got a headache. Are you going to want another cup of tea?”
“Go on. I’m listening, even if my back is turned.”
“It’s the story of a spaceship that for a long time has been looking for a planet habitable by the human race. At last they find one, but it’s been many years since they set off on the voyage, and the crew has changed; they’ve all gotten older, but you have to realize that they were very young when they set off. . . . What’s changed are their beliefs: sects, secret societies, covens have sprung up. . . . The ship has also fallen into disrepair—there are computers that don’t work, blown-out lights that no one bothers to fix, wrecked sleeping compartments. . . . Then, when they find the new planet, the mission is completed and they’re supposed to return to Earth with the news, but no one wants to go back. . . . The voyage will consume the rest of their youth, and they’ll return to an unknown world, because meanwhile several centuries have gone by on Earth, since they’ve been traveling at close to light speed. . . . It’s just a starving, overpopulated planet. . . . And there are even those who believe that there is no life left on Earth. . . . Among them is Johann, the protagonist. . . . Johann is a quiet man, one of the few who love the ship. . . . He’s of average height. . . . There’s a hierarchy of height; the woman who’s captain of the ship, for example, is the tallest, and the privates are the shortest. . . . Johann is a lieutenant; he goes about his duties without making too many friends. Like nearly everyone, he’s set in his ways; he’s bored . . . until they reach the strange planet. . . . Then Johann discovers that his shadow has grown darker. . . . Black as outer space and dense . . . As you probably guessed, it’s not his shadow but a separate being that’s taken over there, mimicking the movements of his shadow. . . . Where has it come from? The planet? Space? We’ll never know, and it doesn’t really matter. . . . The Shadow is powerful, as we’ll see, but as silent as Johann. . . . Meanwhile the sects are preparing to mutiny. . . . A group tries to convince Johann to join them; they tell him that he’s one of the chosen, that their common fate is to create something new on this planet. . . . Some seem pretty loony, others dangerous. . . . Johann commits to nothing. . . . Then the Shadow transports him to the planet. . . . It’s a vast jungle, a vast desert, a vast beach. . . . Johann, dressed only in shorts and sandals, almost like a Tyrolean, walks through the undergrowth. . . . He moves his right leg when he feels the Shadow push against his right leg, then the left, slowly, waiting. . . . The darkness is total. . . . But the Shadow looks after him as if he’s a child. . . . When he returns, rebellion breaks out. . . . It’s total chaos. . . . Johann, as a precaution, takes off his officer’s stripes. . . . Suddenly he runs into Helmuth, the captain’s favorite and one of the heads of the rebellion, who tries to kill him, but the Shadow overpowers him, choking him to death. . . . Johann realizes what’s happening and makes his way to the bridge; the captain and some of the other officers are there, and on the screens of the central computer they see Helmuth and the mutineers readying a laser cannon. . . . Johann convinces them that all is lost, that they must flee to the planet. . . . But at the last minute, he stays behind. . . . He returns to the bridge, disconnects the fake video feed that the computer operators have manipulated, and sends an ultimatum to the rebels. . . . Whoever lays down arms this very instant will be pardoned; the rest will die. . . . Johann is well acquainted with the tools of falsehood and propaganda. . . . Then, too, he has the police and the marines on his side, who’ve spent the voyage in hibernation, and he knows that no one can snatch victory from him. . . . He finishes his communiqué with the announcement that he is the new captain. . . . Then he plots another route and abandons the planet. . . . And that’s all. . . . But then I dreamed about Thea von Harbou, and I realized that it was a Millennial Reich ship. . . . They were all Germans . . . all trapped in entropy. . . . Though there are a few weird things, strange things. . . . Under the effects of some drug, one of the girls—the one who sleeps most often with Johann—remembers something painful, and, weeping, she says that her name is Joan. . . . The girl’s real name is Grit, and Johann thinks that maybe her mother called her Joan when she was a baby. . . . Old-fangled and unfashionable names, banned by the psychologists, too . . .”
“Maybe the girl was trying to say that her name was Johann.”
“Possibly. The truth is, Johann is a serious fucking opportunist.”
“So why doesn’t he stay on the planet?”
“I don’t know. Leaving the planet, and not going back to Earth, is like choosing death, isn’t it? Or maybe the Shadow convinced him that he shouldn’t colonize the planet. Either way, the captain and a bunch of people are stuck there. Listen, read the novel, it’s really good. . . . And now I think the swastika came from the dream, not Gene Wolfe. . . . Though who knows . . . ?”
“So you dreamed about Thea von Harbou . . .”
“Yes, it was a blond girl.”
“But have you ever seen a picture of her?”
“How did you know it was Thea von Harbou?”
“I don’t know, I guessed it. She was like Marlene Dietrich singing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ the Dylan song, you know? Weird stuff, spooky, but very up-close and personal—it’s hard to explain, but personal.”
“So the Nazis take over the Earth and send ships in search of new worlds.”
“Yes. In Thea von Harbou’s version.”
“And they find the Shadow. Isn’t that a German story?”
“The story of the Shadow or the man who loses his shadow? I don’t know.”
“And it was Thea von Harbou who told yo all this?”
“Johann believes that inhabited planets, or habitable planets, are the exception in the universe. . . . As he tells it, Guderian’s tanks lay waste to Moscow . . .”
From Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction. English translation by Natasha Wimmer.
Gene Wolfe’s 1975 novella Silhouette was originally published in The New Atlantis, an anthology of sci-fi edited by Robert Silverberg, and later collected in Endangered Species (1989). Silhouette begins with an epigraph culled from Ambrose Bierce’s short story “A Psychological Shipwreck” (1879):
To sundry it is given to be drawn away, and to be apart from the body for a season; for, as concerning rills which would flow across each other the weaker is borne along by the stronger, so there be certain of kin whose paths intersecting, their souls do bear company, the while their bodies go foreappointed ways, unknowing.
In Bierce’s story, this passage is itself quoted from “that rare and curious work, Denneker’s Meditations.”
Thea von Harbou wrote many novels and screenplays, including numerous screenplays for her husband director Fritz Lang, including the classic sci-fi film Metropolis. After its ascendance to power, von Harbou remained loyal to the Nazi party.
Caroline “Caddy” Jellyby
Set millennia in the future, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We tells the story of a man whose sense of self shatters when he realizes he can no longer conform to the ideology of his totalitarian government. Zamyatin’s novel is a zany, prescient, poetic tale about resisting the forces of tyranny, conformity, and brute, unimaginative groupthink.
We is narrated by D-503. D-503 is an engineer building a spacecraft, the Integral, which will expand the domain of OneState. Although OneState has conquered earth (after the apocalyptic Two Hundred Years War), they seek to expand their empire of conformity to the stars, perhaps replicating their giant city-state on planets yet unknown. In its physical form, OneState is a glass panopticon surrounded by a great Glass Wall that keeps the wild natural world out. In its ideological form, OneState mandates uniformity, mechanization, and mathematical precision. The denizens of OneState conform to this ideology at all times. They wear uniforms — “yunies” — that bear the numbers that serve as their names. Indeed, they are “Numbers,” not people. The Numbers wake and sleep at the exact same hour. They march in unison and live and work in glass buildings. They “vote” to elect the same Benefactor each year, who runs unchallenged. They eat foods made from petroleum and produce children in a machine-like process that follows a system of “Maternal and Paternal Norms.” Numbers that don’t meet these Norms are forbidden from reproducing, but any Number can register for intercourse with another Number on Sex Day. A secret police force, the Bureau of Guardians, monitors the population, but it’s ultimately groupthink that keeps the Numbers in line.
One-State’s groupthink ideology is neatly summed up in propaganda that D-503 shares late in the novel:
Here’s the headline that glowed from page one of the State Gazette:
For henceforth you are perfect! Up until this day your offspring, the machines, were more perfect than you.
IN WHAT WAY?
Every spark of the dynamo is a spark of purest reason. Every stroke of the piston is an immaculate syllogism. But do you not also contain this same infallible reason? The philosophy of the cranes, the presses, and the pumps is as perfect and clear as a circle drawn with a compass. But is your philosophy any less perfect? The beauty of the mechanism is in the precise and invariable rhythm, like that of the pendulum. …But think of this: The mechanism has no imagination.
Imagination is the ultimate enemy of the machine, and the Benefactor and his Guardians have a plan to finally root it out and exterminate it.
Throughout much of We, D-503 is very much attuned to this ideology. D-503 thinks of OneState as “our glass paradise.” What we see as dystopia he sees as utopia, he initially constructs We as a testament to OneState’s glory that he will include as part of the cargo of the Integral. However, as the narrative unfolds, D-503 unravels. His sense of self divides as signs of mental illness emerge–first dreams, then an imagination, and then—gasp!—a soul.
D-503’s internal conflict stems from discovering his own innate irrationality—namely, a soul which cannot be measured in numbers or weighed in physical facts. This internal conflict drives much of the narrative of We. Zamyatin delivers this conflict in D-503’s first-person consciousness, a consciousnesses that contracts and expands, a consciousness that would love to elide its own first-person interiority completely and subsume itself wholly to a third-person we—but he can’t. Consider the following passage;
I lie in the bed thinking … and a logical chain, extraordinarily odd, starts unwinding itself.
For every equation, every formula in the superficial world, there is a corresponding curve or solid. For irrational formulas, for my √—1, we know of no corresponding solids, we’ve never seen them…. But that’s just the whole horror—that these solids, invisible, exist. They absolutely inescapably must exist. Because in mathematics their eccentric prickly shadows, the irrational formulas, parade in front of our eyes as if they were on a screen. And mathematics and death never make a mistake. And if we don’t see these solids in our surface world, there is for them, there inevitably must be, a whole immense world there, beneath the surface.
I jumped up without waiting for the bell and began to run around my room. My mathematics, up to now the only lasting and immovable island in my entire dislocated life, had also broken loose and floated whirling off. So does this mean that that stupid “soul” is just as real as my yuny, as my boots, even though I can’t see them now (they’re behind the mirror of the wardrobe door)? And if the boots are not a disease, why is the “soul” a disease?
What initiates D-503’s anti-quest for a soul? It is a woman of course. I-330 interrupts D-503’s routine life, puncturing his logic with irrational passions, taking him on transgressive trips to the Old House—and eventually, leading him to the greatest transgression of all. You see, there’s an underground movement, a secret resistance force—one that not uncoincidentally needs access to the Integral—and this resistance plans to…but I shouldn’t spoil more.
Or really, could I even spoil the plot of We? So many novels and films have borrowed heavily from (or at least echoed) its premise that you already know what it’s about. The major examples are easy—Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1955), etc. Then there are all their followers—the cheap sci-fi paperbacks of the sixties and seventies, their corresponding films—Logan’s Run, Soylent Green–and so on and so on, well into our Now (Running Man, Total Recall, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, etc. forever).
You get the point: We is a generative text. And after reading We, I couldn’t immediately think of a clear generative text that generated it. From what materials did Zamyatin craft his tale? The closest predecessor I could initially think of was Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1907), or maybe bits of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), neither of which feel as thoroughly modern as We does. However, cursory research (uh, skimming Wikipedia) turned up Jerome K. Jerome’s 1891 short story, “The New Utopia,” which does feature some of the tropes we find in We. Set in city of the future, “The New Utopia” features uniformed, nameless, numbered people whose government attempts to destroy the human imagination. Here, the “Destiny of Humanity” has become an egalitarian nightmare.
While it’s likely that “The New Utopia” furnished Zamyatin some of the tropes he needed to construct We, Jerome’s story simply doesn’t have the same epic themes of underground resistance to technological bureaucracy that have became the stock of so much 20th and 21st-century science fiction. (I rewatched Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) while reading We, and the parallels are remarkable—but the same can be said for any number of sci-fi films of the last sixty or so years).
More significantly, Jerome’s “The New Utopia” is beholden to a rhetorical scheme that makes it feel closer to an essay than a finished work of art. The story is essentially a one-sided dialogue—a man falls asleep, wakes up a few thousand years later, and gets the skinny on the utopian nightmare city he’s awoken in from an enthusiastic Future Person. Reading “The New Utopia” reminded me of reading London’s The Iron Heel, which essentially works in the same way—London’s plot often feels like an excuse to stitch together Marxist readings into monologues posing as dialogues.
Zamyatin’s book, in contrast, is Something New. We is a work of Modernism, not just a collection of new tropes, but a new configuration of those tropes. Zamyatin’s D-503 is a consciousness in crisis, a self that simultaneously dissovles and resolves into something new—a creature with a soul. Consider D-503’s recollection of a nightmare:
It’s night. Green, orange, blue; a red “royal” instrument; a yellow-orange dress. Then, a bronze Buddha; suddenly it raised its bronze eyelids and juice started to flow, juice out of the Buddha. Then out of the yellow dress, too: juice. Juices ran all over the mirror, and the bed began to ooze juice, and then it came from the children’s little beds, and now from me, too—some kind of fatally sweet horror….
The prose here showcases Zamyatin’s vivid style. We, crammed with colors, often evokes Expressionist and Futurist paintings. We get here a painterly depiction of D-503’s abjection, his sense of a self leaking out in “some kind of fatally sweet horror” — his boundaries overflowing. The dream-synthesis here is at once joyful, terrifying, and utterly bewildering to our poor hero. It is also poetic in his rendering. D-503 laments early in his narrative that he is not a poet so that he cannot properly celebrate OneState in writing for his readers. But later, his friend R-13—a poet himself—tells him that he has “no business being a mathematician. You’re a poet…a poet!”
R-13 is correct: D-503 is a poet, a poet who cannot abide all the metaphysics gumming up his mathematical mind. This poetry is rendered wonderfully in the English translation I read by Clarence Brown (1993), and is showcased in the very “titles” of each chapter (or “Record,” in the book’s terms). Each “Record” begins with phrases culled from the chapter. Here are a few at random:
An Author’s Duty
The Most Difficult Love
An Absolutely Inane Occurrence
These are the titles of four random chapters, but I suppose we could string together the whole series and arrive at a Dadaist poem, one that might also serve as an oblique summary of We.
And yet for all its surrealist tinges and techno-dystopian themes, the poem that We most reminded me of was, quite unexpectedly, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855). Whitman’s poem sought a new language and a new form to tell the story of a new land, a new people. He wanted to be everyone and no one at the same time, himself a kosmos, form and void, an I, a you, a we. Whitman addressed his poem to both the you of his readership, an immortal future readership beyond him (“Listener up there!”) as well as himself, famously declaring: “I loaf and invite my soul.”
D-503 presents almost as an anti-Whitman. He directly addresses his “unknown readers” in nearly every chapter, and with a Whitmanesque turn, like this one: “You, my unknown readers, you will be told everything (right now you are just as dear, as close, and as unapproachable…).” His ebullience and optimism are ironic of course—they are honest performances that crack under the increasing reality of his emerging soul. Unlike Walt Whitman, D-503 cannot loaf and invite his soul. He can’t sustain the negative capabilities Whitman’s poem engenders. His we cannot reconcile with an I, even as it seeks a mediating you in its dear readers.
And yet for all its bitter ironies and for all its hero’s often feckless struggle, We is a comedy. The book is a cartoon-poem-satire, its comedy sustained in the careening voice of D-503. It’s somewhat well known that George Orwell used We as a template for 1984 (he began that novel less than a year after penning a review of a French translation of We). Orwell’s novel though falls into the same essaying that we see in The Iron Heel and “The New Utopia.” It’s also awfully dour. In contrast, We shuttles along with zany elan, inviting us to laugh at modern absurdity. Indeed, Zamyatin posits laughter as resistance to tyranny, myopia, and brutish closed-mindedness. Late in the novel, D-503 arrives at the following epiphany:
And that was when I learned from my own experience that a laugh can be a terrifying weapon. With a laugh you can kill even murder itself.
I could end by cataloging the various parallels that might be drawn between We and our own dystopian age, but I think that they are too obvious, and, as I’ve noted, have been repeated (with degrees of difference) throughout the body of dystopian narratives that We has helped generate. What the book does though—or I should say, what it did for me—is offer the strange comfort. A century after Zamyatin diagnosed the emergence of another modern world, the human position remains essentially unchanged, and in times of despair we can remember to laugh—and imagine to imagine. Very highly recommended.
No one else was outside, and I was too depressed to call anybody to come see the unbelievable sunset. Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? Or a word to describe how I saw my whole future flash before my eyes? I saw that I’d stay at the Albuquerque National Bank and Bernie would get his doctorate and keep on painting bad paintings and making muddy pottery and would get tenure. We would have two daughters and one would a dentist and the other a cocaine addict. Well, of course I didn’t know all that, but I saw how things would be hard. And I knew that years and years from then Bernie would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.
From Lucia Berlin’s short story “Lead Street, Albuquerque.” Collected in Evening in Paradise.
Otherwise I scarcely know what to say to your request for help on ‘more background’ first, I think, and I am not being facetious when I plead not that it’s so long since I wrote it but that [following a strikeover] (I’ve been typing all day and getting a little bleary) so long since I read it. If I named a single influence it would certainly be TS Eliot who still takes my breath away as he did then (and as a fair number of his lines sprinkled through the book might attest). Regarding any ‘message’, perhaps that art abides and the artist is its tool and victim but despite that it is the only enterprise worth embracing in the attempt to justify life; that art executed without love is bad (false) art but such love is not easy to come by. There was a corollary there too with God (perfection, gold) and the driving impossibility of grasping it because of our finite condition but that attempt being all we have to justify this finite condition (page 689 at the top I suppose is the key to the book if there is such). And in taking it down just now to look for this reference I read a few pages at random and must confess found them quite entertaining. I suppose if there has been one immense frustration with the book’s often grudging acceptance it has been how few people seemed able to permit themselves, despite its so-called ‘erudition’, to simply enjoy it.
From Letters of William Gaddis, edited by Steven Moore. Excerpted from a 1972 reply to Jeanne G. Howes, a student at Case Western Reserve University who wrote a thesis on The Recognitions.
Edgar Allan Poe
What say of it? what say of CONSCIENCE grim, That spectre in my path? Chamberlayne’s Pharronida.
LET me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation. This has been already too much an object for the scorn—for the horror—for the detestation of my race. To the uttermost regions of the globe have not the indignant winds bruited its unparalleled infamy? Oh, outcast of all outcasts most abandoned!—to the earth art thou not forever dead? to its honors, to its flowers, to its golden aspirations?—and a cloud, dense, dismal, and limitless, does it not hang eternally between thy hopes and heaven?
I would not, if I could, here or to-day, embody a record of my later years of unspeakable misery, and unpardonable crime. This epoch—these later years—took unto themselves a sudden elevation in turpitude, whose origin alone it is my present purpose to assign. Men usually grow base by degrees. From me, in an instant, all virtue dropped bodily as a mantle. From comparatively trivial wickedness I passed, with the stride of a giant, into more than the enormities of an Elah-Gabalus. What chance—what one event brought this evil thing to pass, bear with me while I relate. Death approaches; and the shadow which foreruns him has thrown a softening influence over my spirit. I long, in passing through the dim valley, for the sympathy—I had nearly said for the pity—of my fellow men. I would fain have them believe that I have been, in some measure, the slave of circumstances beyond human control. I would wish them to seek out for me, in the details I am about to give, some little oasis of fatality amid a wilderness of error. I would have them allow—what they cannot refrain from allowing—that, although temptation may have erewhile existed as great, man was never thus, at least, tempted before—certainly, never thus fell. And is it therefore that he has never thus suffered? Have I not indeed been living in a dream? And am I not now dying a victim to the horror and the mystery of the wildest of all sublunary visions?
I am the descendant of a race whose imaginative and easily excitable temperament has at all times rendered them remarkable; and, in my earliest infancy, I gave evidence of having fully inherited the family character. As I advanced in years it was more strongly developed; becoming, for many reasons, a cause of serious disquietude to my friends, and of positive injury to myself. I grew self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions. Weak-minded, and beset with constitutional infirmities akin to my own, my parents could do but little to check the evil propensities which distinguished me. Some feeble and ill-directed efforts resulted in complete failure on their part, and, of course, in total triumph on mine. Thenceforward my voice was a household law; and at an age when few children have abandoned their leading-strings, I was left to the guidance of my own will, and became, in all but name, the master of my own actions. Continue reading “Read Edgar Allan Poe’s doppelgänger tale “William Wilson””
It was Christmas night and the proper things had been done. The whole village had come to dinner in hall. There had been boar’s head and venison and pork and beef and mutton and caponsbut no turkey, because this bird had not yet been invented. There had been plum pudding and snap-dragon, with blue fire on the tips of one’s fingers, and as much mead as anybody could drink. Sir Ector’s health had been drunk with “Best respects, Measter,” or “Best compliments of the Season, my lords and ladies, and many of them.” There had been mummers to play an exciting dramatic presentation of a story in which St. George and a Saracen and a funny Doctor did surprising things, also carol-singers who rendered “Adeste Fideles” and “I Sing of a Maiden,” in high, clear, tenor voices. After that, those children who had not been sick from their dinner played Hoodman Blind and other appropriate games, while the young men and maidens danced morris dances in the middle, the tables having been cleared away. The old folks sat round the walls holding glasses of mead in their hands and feeling thankful that they were past such capers, hoppings and skippings, while those children who had not been sick sat with them, and soon went to sleep, the small heads leaning against their shoulders. At the high table Sir Ector sat with his knightly guests, who had come for the morrow’s hunting, smiling and nodding and drinking burgundy or sherries sack or malmsey wine.
After a bit, silence was prayed for Sir Grummore. He stood up and sang his old school song, amid great applausebut forgot most of it and had to make a humming noise in his moustache. Then King Pellinore was nudged to his feet and sang bashfully:
“Oh, I was born a Pellinore in famous Lincolnshire. Full well I chased the Questing Beast for more than seventeen year. Till I took up with Sir Grummore here In the season of the year. (Since when) ’tis my delight On a feather-bed night To sleep at home, my dear.
“You see,” explained King Pellinore blushing, as he sat down with everybody whacking him on the back, “old Grummore invited me home, what, after we had been having a pleasant joust together, and since then I’ve been letting my beastly Beast go and hang itself on the wall, what?”
“Well done,” they told him. “You live your own life while you’ve got it.”
William Twyti was called for, who had arrived on the previous evening, and the famous huntsman stood up with a perfectly straight face, and his crooked eye fixed upon Sir Ector, to sing:
“D’ye ken William Twyti
With his Jerkin so dagged? D’ye ken William Twyti
Who never yet lagged? Yes, I ken William Twyti,
And he ought to be gagged With his hounds and his horn in the morning.”
“Bravo!” cried Sir Ector. “Did you hear that, eh? Said he ought to be gagged, my dear feller. Blest if I didn’t think he was going to boast when he began. Splendid chaps, these huntsmen, eh? Pass Master Twyti the malmsey, with my compliments.”
The boys lay curled up under the benches near the fire, Wart with Cavall in his arms. Cavall did not like the heat and the shouting and the smell of mead, and wanted to go away, but Wart held him tightly because he needed something to hug, and Cavall had to stay with him perforce, panting over a long pink tongue.
“Now Ralph Passelewe.”
“Good wold Ralph.”
“Who killed the cow, Ralph?”
“Pray silence for Master Passelewe that couldn’t help it.”
At this the most lovely old man got up at the furthest and humblest end of the hail, as he had got up on all similar occasions for the past half-century. He was no less than eighty-five years of age, almost blind, almost deaf, but still able and willing and happy to quaver out the same song which he had sung for the pleasure of the Forest Sauvage since before Sir Ector was bound up in a kind of tight linen puttee in his cradle. They could not hear him at the high tablehe was too far away in Time to be able to reach across the roombut everybody knew what the cracked voice was singing and everybody loved it. This is what he sang:
“Whe-an/Wold King-Cole/was a /wakkin doon-t’street, H-e /saw a-lovely laid-y a /steppin-in-a-puddle. / She-a /lifted hup-er-skeat/ For to / Hop acrorst ter middle, / An ee /saw her /an-kel. Wasn’t that a fuddle? / Ee could’ernt elp it, /ee Ad to.”
There were about twenty verses of this song, in which Wold King Cole helplessly saw more and more things that he ought not to have seen, and everybody cheered at the end of each verse until, at the conclusion, old Ralph was overwhelmed with congratulations and sat down smiling dimly to a replenished mug of mead.
It was now Sir Ector’s turn to wind up the proceedings. He stood up importantly and delivered the following speech:
“Friends, tenants and otherwise. Unaccustomed as I am to public speakin’”
There was a faint cheer at this, for everybody recognized the speech which Sir Ector had made for the last twenty years, and welcomed it like a brother.
“Unaccustomed as I am to public speakin'” it is my pleasant dutyI might say my very pleasant dutyto welcome all and sundry to this our homely feast. It has been a good year, and I say it without fear of contradiction, in pasture and plow. We all know how Crumbocke of Forest Sauvage won the first prize at Cardoyle Cattle Show for the second time, and one more year will win the cup outright. More power to the Forest Sauvage. As we sit down tonight, I notice some faces now gone from among us and some which have added to the family circle. Such matters are in the hands of an almighty Providence, to which we all feel thankful. We ourselves have been first created and then spared to enjoy the rejoicin’s of this pleasant evening. I think we are all grateful for the blessin’s which have been showered upon us. Tonight we welcome in our midst the famous King Pellinore, whose labours in riddin’ our forest of the redoubtable Questin’ Beast are known to all. God bless King Pellinore. (Hear, hear!) Also Sir Grummore Grummursum, a sportsman, though I say it to his face, who will stick to his mount as long as his Quest will stand up in front of him. (Hooray!) Finally, last but not least, we are honoured by a visit from His Majesty’s most famous huntsman, Master William Twyti, who will, I feel sure, show us such sport tomorrow that we will rub our eyes and wish that a royal pack of hounds could always be huntin’ in the Forest which we all love so well. (Viewhalloo and several recheats blown in imitation.) Thank you, my dear friends, for your spontaneous welcome to these gentlemen. They will, I know, accept it in the true and warmhearted spirit in which it is offered. And now it is time that I should bring my brief remarks to a close. Another year has almost sped and it is time that we should be lookin’ forward to the challengin’ future. What about the Cattle Show next year? Friends, I can only wish you a very Merry Christmas, and, after Father Sidebottom has said our Grace for us, we shall conclude with a singin’ of the National Anthem.”
The cheers which broke out at the end of Sir Ector’s speech were only just prevented, by several hush-es, from drowning the last part of the vicar’s Grace in Latin, and then everybody stood up loyally in the firelight and sang:
“God save King Pendragon,
May his reign long drag on,
God save the King.
Send him most gorious,
Great and uproarious,
Horrible and Hoarious,
God save our King.”
The last notes died away, the hall emptied of its rejoicing humanity. Lanterns flickered outside, in the village street, as everybody went home in bands for fear of the moonlit wolves, and The Castle of the Forest Sauvage slept peacefully and lightless, in the strange silence of the holy snow.
—From T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.
At length, towards noon, upon the final dismissal of the ship’s riggers, and after the Pequod had been hauled out from the wharf, and after the ever-thoughtful Charity had come off in a whale-boat, with her last gift- a nightcap for Stubb, the second mate, her brother-in-law, and a spare Bible for the steward- after all this, the two Captains, Peleg and Bildad, issued from the cabin, and turning to the chief mate, Peleg said:
“Now, Mr. Starbuck, are you sure everything is right? Captain Ahab is all ready- just spoke to him- nothing more to be got from shore, eh? Well, call all hands, then. Muster ‘em aft here- blast ‘em!”
“No need of profane words, however great the hurry, Peleg,” said Bildad, “but away with thee, friend Starbuck, and do our bidding.”
How now! Here upon the very point of starting for the voyage, Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad were going it with a high hand on the quarter-deck, just as if they were to be joint-commanders at sea, as well as to all appearances in port. And, as for Captain Ahab, no sign of him was yet to be seen; only, they said he was in the cabin. But then, the idea was, that his presence was by no means necessary in getting the ship under weigh, and steering her well out to sea. Indeed, as that was not at all his proper business, but the pilot’s; and as he was not yet completely recovered- so they said- therefore, Captain Ahab stayed below. And all this seemed natural enough; especially as in the merchant service many captains never show themselves on deck for a considerable time after heaving up the anchor, but remain over the cabin table, having a farewell merry-making with their shore friends, before they quit the ship for good with the pilot.
But there was not much chance to think over the matter, for Captain Peleg was now all alive. He seemed to do most of the talking and commanding, and not Bildad.
“Aft here, ye sons of bachelors,” he cried, as the sailors lingered at the main-mast. “Mr. Starbuck, drive aft.”
“Strike the tent there!”- was the next order. As I hinted before, this whalebone marquee was never pitched except in port; and on board the Pequod, for thirty years, the order to strike the tent was well known to be the next thing to heaving up the anchor.
“Man the capstan! Blood and thunder!- jump!”- was the next command, and the crew sprang for the handspikes.
Now in getting under weigh, the station generally occupied by the pilot is the forward part of the ship. And here Bildad, who, with Peleg, be it known, in addition to his other officers, was one of the licensed pilots of the port- he being suspected to have got himself made a pilot in order to save the Nantucket pilot-fee to all the ships he was concerned in, for he never piloted any other craft- Bildad, I say, might now be seen actively engaged in looking over the bows for the approaching anchor, and at intervals singing what seemed a dismal stave of psalmody, to cheer the hands at the windlass, who roared forth some sort of chorus about the girls in Booble Alley, with hearty good will. Nevertheless, not three days previous, Bildad had told them that no profane songs would be allowed on board the Pequod, particularly in getting under weigh; and Charity, his sister, had placed a small choice copy of Watts in each seaman’s berth. Continue reading ““Merry Christmas” (Moby-Dick)”
They discharge the Hands and leave off for the Winter. At Christmastide, the Tavern down the Road from Harlands’ opens its doors, and soon ev’ryone has come inside. Candles beam ev’rywhere. The Surveyors, knowing this year they’ll soon again be heading off in different Directions into America, stand nodding at each other across a Punch-bowl as big as a Bathing-Tub. The Punch is a secret Receipt of the Landlord, including but not limited to peach brandy, locally distill’d Whiskey, and milk. A raft of long Icicles broken from the Eaves floats upon the pale contents of the great rustick Monteith. Everyone’s been exchanging gifts. Somewhere in the coming and going one of the Children is learning to play a metal whistle. Best gowns rustle along the board walls. Adults hold Babies aloft, exclaiming, “The little Sausage!” and pretending to eat them. There are popp’d Corn, green Tomato Mince Pies, pickl’d Oysters, Chestnut Soup, and Kidney Pudding. Mason gives Dixon a Hat, with a metallick Aqua Feather, which Dixon is wearing. Dixon gives Mason a Claret Jug of silver, crafted in Philadelphia. There are Conestoga Cigars for Mr. Harland and a Length of contraband Osnabrigs for Mrs. H. The Children get Sweets from a Philadelphia English-shop, both adults being drawn into prolong’d Negotiations with their Juniors, as to who shall have which of. Mrs. Harland comes over to embrace both Surveyors at once. “Thanks for simmering down this Year. I know it ain’t easy.”
“What a year, Lass,” sighs Dixon.
“Poh. Like eating a Bun,” declares Mason.”
The last paragraphs of Ch. 52 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.
Christmas approaches, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in A Christmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting. Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.
But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose can be served on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:
Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.
Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.
So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.
But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…
Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.
I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:
Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.
A riot ensues.
Very highly recommended.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in December, 2017].
The latest issue of The Evergreen Review features a long excerpt from Antoine Volodine’s novel Lisbon, Last Frontier. The excerpt is translated by Andrew Wilson and features some pretty cool art by Billy Jacobs. Here are the first six paragraphs:
On the Rua do Arsenal, in Lisbon, gallows abound.
“What?” he asked, startled. “What did you say?”
“Gallows,” she confirmed, with a provocative movement of her shoulder.
And: I’ve always wanted to start my novel that way, with a sentence that slaps them in the face. And him: Your novel? You aren’t seriously going to write it? And anyway who is slapping whom? And her: It just hauls off and slaps them, all of them, the overfed slaves of Europe, pudgy little slaves and their tie wearing masters, and all the managers, militarized by America, and the employers’ serfs and all those pathetic types, subjugated by everyone, and the social-traitors and their bulldogs, and you as well, my bulldog, you as well.
He sensed she was drifting, on the verge of hysteria again, and if that happened she was liable to lose the fundamental sense of things, attracting the not necessarily indulgent attention of the passers-by, and creating a scene and, in the wake of that scene, a disaster; for herself certainly, but also for him, for he was up to his neck in this affair. “A slap to the snout of the Western pig,” she hissed playfully. “Please don’t tell me you’re going to ruin everything by writing a book riddled with information,” he countered, “where anyone who cares in the German police will find all he needs to pluck you from your hiding-place, not to mention plucking me from my not so hiding-place and breaking me, dismantling in turn what’s left of your network of nutjobs? Don’t forget I’m up to my neck in this thing.” And her: Would you get a hold of yourself, my brave bulldog, I’d never rat on you. I wouldn’t rat on you for anything in the world. And him: Again happy. And her: Nevertheless, my novel will open with a vision of gallows. And him: That’s absurd. Don’t write anything. And her: I remind you that we are in fact on the Rua do Arsenal, in Lisbon, and gallows do abound. As throughout Europe, I might add. And him: Darling, let me just say: you’re fucking nuts.
He hastily examined the messages being sent by her pupils, diving immediately for the shadows and light, which conveyed, from the other end of this tunnel, her intellect. She’d turned toward him, her sunglasses perched atop her head, as if to hold back abundant curls, but for the past two weeks she’d worn her hair short; it was the face of a young woman sunning, only tormented and hard; her features ravished by passions, hatreds and fear. An arid veil was morphing the transparent blue-green of her eyes; darkening the silver glints, until recently so bright: a wind carrying charred dust across an age-old steppe, where presently everything alive was tempted to rave. She’s going mad, he thought. Despondency rose in him. Her mind is fading, she’s drowning. A cynical mistrust had sunk its claws into him, and already he was drawing up contingency plans, already he was preparing emergency measures, sirens wailing. Their joint survival rested on a ruse. If Ingrid were to crack, she would take him down with her. And he, Kurt, had no intention of stumbling into the void just to keep her company.
As he stared her down, she reigned in her smile, and then broke free, joyous. She nodded with her chin towards the clumps of dried cod hanging in front of the markets.
And: You see, I’m not lying, all around us it’s nothing but disfigured corpses. And him: I’m sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were sinking into madness. And her: Oh don’t worry I sank ages ago, now I’m just pretending. My bulldog was the only one to realize, such a clever bloodhound. And him: Forget about writing this book. The trail will be too visible. And what’s the point of leaving clues? Forget about literature. And her: First I give up my machine gun, and now black ink; is that how it is, my bulldog?
The moment her aunt went to pay for her purchases, Joana removed the book and slipped it furtively between the others she was carrying under her arm. Her aunt turned pale.
Once in the street, the woman chose her words carefully:
— Joana.. . Joana, I saw you…
Joana gave her a quick glance. She remained silent.
— But you have nothing to say for yourself? — her aunt could no longer restrain herself, her voice tearful. — Dear God, what is to become of you?
— There’s no need to fuss, Auntie.
— But you’re still a child… Do you realize what you’ve done?
— I know…
— Do you know… do you know what it’s called… ?
— I stole a book, isn’t that what you’re trying to say?
— God help me! I don’t know what I’m going to do, you even have the nerve to own up!
— You forced me to own up.
— Do you think that you can… that you can just go around stealing?
— Well… perhaps not.
— Why do you do it then… ?
— Because I want to.
— You what?
— her aunt exploded.
— That’s right, I stole because I wanted to. I only steal when I feel like it. I’m not doing any harm.
— God help me! So, stealing does no harm, Joana.
— Only if you steal and are frightened. It doesn’t make me feel either happy or sad.
The woman looked at her in despair.
— Look child, you’re growing up, it won’t be long before you’re a young lady… Very soon now you will be wearing your clothes longer… I beg of you: promise me that you won’t do it again, promise me, think of your poor father who is no longer with us.
Joana looked at her inquisitively:
— But I’m telling you I can do what I like, that…
A biblioklept episode from Clarice Lispector’s novel Near to the Wild Heart. English translation by Alison Entrekin.