Blog about Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story “Stir-fry”

stir fry

  1. I listened to an audiobook of Claire-Louise Bennett’s 2016 book Pond a few weeks ago, and then wound up getting a digital copy so that I could reread the stories in it.
  2. Pond did something electric to me.
  3. I audited most of it over the course of a weekend. This particular weekend was the first weekend of March. We had an unusually cold February in North Florida, and I’d more or less let my lawn and gardens go to hell. I audited most of Pond while gardening—cutting back dead branches, pulling thorny vines, clipping bushes, etc. I even dug a hole or two.
  4. I had not read a review of Pond before auditing and then reading it; I’d just heard (probably on Twitter) that it was good and odd. I point out that I did not know anything about Pond before getting in to it because I mistakenly thought that Pond was a novel for most of the auditing experience. I realized only toward the end that it was not, properly speaking, a novel—or at least not a novel in the sense that we think of novels as “novels.” Pond is more like a series of related vignettes about a young woman’s life in a remote village in Ireland. And I’m not even sure what I mean by “young woman’s life” in that previous sentence. Let it stand that the book won me over very quickly with “Morning, Noon & Night,” an episode that begins with the aesthetics of breakfast, includes an ill-advised gardening adventure, a hostile academic conference, some sexy emails, and culminates in chopping. It’s wonderful.
  5. Pond does so many things that I always want a book to do, by which I mean that Pond does things that I didn’t know I wanted a book to do until the book has done them.
  6. Pond is unique (are we allowed to use that word?) and thus reminds me of other innovative prose I love: William Carlos Williams’ poetry, Lydia Davis’s stuff, the fictions Jason Schwartz and Gary Lutz, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress.
  7. But the title of this post is “Blog about Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story ‘Stir-fry,'” and I have produced a few hundred words thus far, none about Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story “Stir-fry.”
  8. (I chose to blog about “Stir-fry” not because it is my favorite in the collection or because it is an especially representative sample of Bennett’s prose, but because it is short. The longer piece “Morning, Noon & Night” offers a richer sample of Bennett’s powers and you can click on that link and read it for free and see for yourself).
  9. Okay, “Stir-fry.”
  10. The story is a title and two sentences.
  11. The title specifies the ostensible subject of the story, dinner.
  12. But the story is not about dinner; the story is about throwing dinner away.
  13. But is the story even about throwing dinner away?  I suppose that’s the central action that takes place in “Stir-fry” — tossing food away — but the story is also about consciousness in the creative process.
  14. Our narrator creates something that she knows she intends to throw away immediately after its creation.
  15. Hence, the key line to the story is the one that begins with the coordinating conjunction soBennett emphasizes the line by typographically isolating it; the effect on the page approximates poetry rather than traditional prose.
  16. “so I put in it all the things I never want to see again”: A stir-fry is usually made at least in part from leftovers or food that must be eaten soon or tossed. If we read the story literally (which we should of course), we can fill in the details with our sympathetic imaginations: A bit of rice from three days ago. That last onion. A solitary carrot going to rubber. A stub of ginger. Two small peppers, their skin now papery. The last bit of Sunday’s roast chicken. Etc.
  17. There is something deeply satisfying for some of us in using all the food in our refrigerator.
  18. But I think our sympathetic imagination could extend that phrase “things I never want to see again” even farther than the last few stray vegetables or half of a leftover pork loin or an egg clearly reaching its expiration: What else might have our narrator mixed into her stir-fry? The last little bits of blackberry jam that cling to a jar? Pickles she made two years ago? A questionable yogurt? Pine nuts past their prime? Those turnips? Why did we buy those turnips?
  19. And we can push the phrase even farther if we want: If we are creating something that we know that we will immediately discard and not use for its ostensible purpose (in this case, sustenance, life force), what else might we stir in there? What are all the things we “never want to see again”? All our feeble faults and deficiencies? Our terrible creeping anxieties? Even the bad ambitions we so often trip over? Could we throw war, prejudice, avarice into our stir-fry, and then throw those away too?
  20. Maybe I have pushed an interpretation of “Stir-fry” far too far. But I do read the vignette as a fantasy of sorts. Our narrator consciously creates something she intends to uncreate. This creative uncreation allows her to eliminate all the things she never wants to see again. The fantasy here is about opening up a new way of seeing, one unencumbered by the stale, the musty, the rancid. The desire I see is to see and taste with a fresh spirit.
  21. Or maybe “Stir-fry” is just about throwing away dinner.
Advertisements

Blog about like just the sheer damn orality of Robert Coover’s short story “The Brother”

This weekend I picked up a new audiobook collection of Robert Coover short stories which has been titled Going for a Beer (presumably because “Going for a Beer” is a perfect short story).  The audiobook contains 30 stories and is read by Charlie Thurston, a more than capable as an orator.

The opening story is one of Coover’s earliest published stories. “The Brother” (1962) retells the Noah narrative from the book of Genesis. I just wrote “retells,” but that’s not really the right term. Instead of retelling the story of Noah and the ark and YHWH’s flood, Coover imagines the apocalyptic affair from the perspective of Noah’s younger brother, who narrates this tale.

Noah’s unnamed brother is an earthy, sensual fellow who loves his wife and loves his wine. His wife—a sympathetic and endearing figure—is pregnant with their first child. They’re already picking out names (“Nathaniel or Anna”). Brother Noah keeps taking the narrator from his own familial duties to help build a boat though:

right there right there in the middle of the damn field he says he wants to put that thing together him and his buggy ideas and so me I says “how the hell you gonna get it down to the water?” but he just focuses me out sweepin the blue his eyes rollin like they do when he gets het on some new lunatic notion and he says not to worry none about that just would I help him for God’s sake and because he don’t know how he can get it done in time otherwise and though you’d have to be loonier than him to say yes I says I will of course I always would crazy as my brother is I’ve done little else since I was born and my wife she says “I can’t figure it out I can’t sec why you always have to be babyin that old fool he ain’t never done nothin for you God knows and you got enough to do here fields need plowin it’s a bad enough year already my God and now that red-eyed brother of yours wingin around like a damn cloud and not knowin what in the world he’s doin buildin a damn boat in the country my God what next? you’re a damn fool I tell you” but packs me some sandwiches just the same and some sandwiches for my brother

That’s kinda-sorta the opening paragraph—although no it’s not, because the whole story is just one big paragraph, a big oral fragment really, which begins with a lower-case and keeps going in a verbal rush whose only concessions to punctuation are question marks and quotation marks. No periods or commas here folks. On the page, “The Brother” perhaps approximates the blockish brickish look of a Gutenberg Bible or even the Torah, neither of which give the reader a nice period to rest on, let alone a friendly pause between paragraphs.

“The Brother” might be typographically daunting, but the apparent thickness of verbal force on the page belies its oral charms. The story is meant to be read out loud. Hell, it’s biblical, after all—a witnessing. Read aloud, “The Brother” shows us a deeply sympathetic pair of characters, a husband and wife whose small pleasures, telegraphed in naturalistic speech, might remind the auditor of real persons living today. And yet there’s an apocalyptic backdrop here. Noah’s brother and Noah’s brother’s wife—and their unborn child, and all the unborn children—will not survive YHWH’s flood.

Coover does not paint Noah as anything but a shrugging reluctant weirdo. He’s no prophet who warns and helps his brother, but rather a defeated man:

and it ain’t no goddamn fishin boat he wants to put up neither in fact it’s the biggest damn thing I ever heard of and for weeks wee\s I’m tellin you we ain’t doin nothin but cuttin down pine trees and haulin them out to his field which is really pretty high up a hill and my God that’s work lemme tell you and my wife she sighs and says I am really crazy r-e-a-l-l-y crazy and her four months with a child and tryin to do my work and hers too and still when I come home from haulin timbers around all day she’s got enough left to rub my shoulders and the small of my back and fix a hot meal her long black hair pulled to a knot behind her head and hangin marvelously down her back her eyes gentle but very tired my God and I says to my brother I says “look I got a lotta work to do buddy you’ll have to finish this idiot thing yourself I wanna help you all I can you know that but” and he looks off and he says “it don’t matter none your work” and I says “the hell it don’t how you think me and my wife we’re gonna eat I mean where do you think this food comes from you been puttin away man? you can’t eat this goddamn boat out here ready to rot in that bastard sun” and he just sighs long and says “no it just don’t matter” and he sits him down on a rock kinda tired like and stares off and looks like he might even for God’s sake cry

Noah’s dismissing his brother’s work strikes me as utterly cruel—he makes no attempt to explain why his brother’s efforts at creating a better world are in vain. I shared the passage at length again in part because I hope you’ll read it aloud gentle reader, but also that you’ll note that maybe you didn’t note all its blasphemies—Coover’s story is larded with “my Gods” and “damns” and “goddamns,” no different than the speech of 1962, no different than the speech of 2018.

Coover gives us a narrator like us, human, earthly, driven by simple pleasures and a basic sense of love. Noah comes off like a prick. The Bible loves its heroes, but the ordinary folks don’t even get to live in the margins. There’s more morality in orality though—in conversation and communication and talk.

You don’t have to buy the audiobook though to hear “The Brother.” Here is Coover reading it himself:

Blog about making a sherry cobbler, a cocktail I read about in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel

In the final third of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance, the narrator, having departed the titular would-be utopian farm, enjoys some city time in a hotel. He takes a voyeuristic pleasure in watching people from his window, and elects to deepen the pleasure by ordering a drink: “Just about this time a waiter entered my room. The truth was, I had rung the bell and ordered a sherry-cobbler.” The explanatory end note for my Penguin Classics copy of Blithedale gives the following recipe: “A drink made with sherry, lemon juice, sugar, and cracked ice.” I decided to make a few.

A brief internet search resulted in dozens and dozens of recipes, all more or less the same iteration: long glass, crushed ice, sherry, simple syrup, citrus (oranges cited most frequently), fresh berries if you have ’em, and a straw. The straw is the kicker here. Here is a passage from Charles Dickens’ 1844 novel Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit that shows the titular hero’s delight with his first sherry cobbler (note Chuzzlewit’s ecstasy when he gets “the reed” to his lips):

‘I wish you would pull off my boots for me,’ said Martin, dropping into one of the chairs ‘I am quite knocked up—dead beat, Mark.’

‘You won’t say that to-morrow morning, sir,’ returned Mr Tapley; ‘nor even to-night, sir, when you’ve made a trial of this.’ With which he produced a very large tumbler, piled up to the brim with little blocks of clear transparent ice, through which one or two thin slices of lemon, and a golden liquid of delicious appearance, appealed from the still depths below, to the loving eye of the spectator.

‘What do you call this?’ said Martin.

But Mr Tapley made no answer; merely plunging a reed into the mixture—which caused a pleasant commotion among the pieces of ice—and signifying by an expressive gesture that it was to be pumped up through that agency by the enraptured drinker.

Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop.

‘There, sir!’ said Mark, taking it from him with a triumphant face; ‘if ever you should happen to be dead beat again, when I ain’t in the way, all you’ve got to do is to ask the nearest man to go and fetch a cobbler.’

‘To go and fetch a cobbler?’ repeated Martin.

‘This wonderful invention, sir,’ said Mark, tenderly patting the empty glass, ‘is called a cobbler. Sherry cobbler when you name it long; cobbler, when you name it short. Now you’re equal to having your boots took off, and are, in every particular worth mentioning, another man.’

Anyway. Where was I? Oh, yeah—so I looked around for recipes. David Wondrich’s 2007 cocktail history Imbibe! gives a helpful baseline recipe by citing Jerry Thomas’s 1862 classic, How to Mix Drinks. From Thomas’s book:

cobbler-1

Thomas doesn’t mention muddling the oranges, although pretty much every online recipe I read called for muddling.

So reader, I muddled.

Here is my variation on the sherry cobbler (or Sherry Cobbler, or sherry-cobbler). In the loose spirit of the cocktail, I made ours entirely of ingredients I already had at the house. These were for each cocktail:

–4 oz of sherry

–1/2 oz of simple syrup

–1/2 oz of maraschino syrup

–1 oz of sparkling water

–1 clementine (muddled)

–sprigs of mint

–blueberries

–crushed ice

img_9558

The maraschino syrup was an afterthought after I’d mixed the cocktail and was about to pour it over ice—I wanted to get a pop of color at the bottom of the glass. The mint and blueberries were from our garden. The pic above is lousy; sorry—not sure why I didn’t move the dishcloth and maybe photograph the cocktails like, uh, not in front of my wife’s kombucha hotels.

So how was it? Pretty refreshing. My wife enjoyed it more than I did, although I’m not a huge cocktail guy. (I think it’s pretty hard, for example, to improve upon neat scotch , although I do like bourbon straight up in the hotter months).

I’ve always been fascinated by literary recipes, so I’m a bit surprised the sherry cobbler has evaded my attention until now, despite its having shown up in various novels I’ve read (including Nicholson Baker’s House of Holesas Troy Patterson pointed out in a remarkably thorough literary history of the cocktail at Slate years ago). I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to make a sherry cobbler again (not that I went out of my way to make these ones), but the basic cobbler recipe’s spirit is very close to my approach to making cocktails at home anyway—use what you have. In fact, the major difference between the sherry cobblers I made yesterday and the kind of cocktail I’d normally cobble together for my wife on a Saturday afternoon is the sherry—I’d usually use rum or maybe vodka. Anyway, the whole thing was fun, which is like, the point of cocktails.

Blog about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for April 14th, 1841 (including a recipe for buckwheat cakes)

For years now, I’ve been reading, rereading, and sharing on this website excerpts from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journals. I like to post selections that share dates. For example, yesterday, April 13th, I posted Hawthorne’s notebook entry from April 13th, 1841. This particular post, which records Hawthorne’s arrival at Brook Farm, was especially felicitous, as I’m currently reading Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance, which is loosely based on the author’s time at Brook Farm.

In the novel’s second chapter, the Hawthorne-figure (Coverdale) arrives at Blithedale on “an April day, as already hinted, and well towards the middle of the month.” He complains that though the morning could be described as “balmy,” by noon it was snowing. Hawthorne’s corresponding journal entry (composed over a decade before he published Blithedale) perhaps-mockingly refers to Brook Farm as a “polar Paradise”; some of this language finds its way into the protagonist’s description of Blithdale: “Paradise, indeed! Nobody else in the world, I am bold to affirm—nobody, at least, in our bleak little world of New England,—had dreamed of Paradise that day except as the pole suggests the tropic.”

There are twenty-four chapters to Blithedale, and Hawthorne devotes the first five to that first day (presumably April 13th, 1841). The novel’s sixth chapter, “Coverdale’s Sick Chamber,” begins the next morning with our narrator too sick to attend to his first day of farm work. However, Hawthorne’s journal makes clear that the real-life Hawthorne did not fall ill until a few weeks later, around April 28th, and that he recovered around May 4th (“My cold no longer troubles me, and all the morning I have been at work under the clear, blue sky, on a hill-side”).

(I know my audience—you come to this site to read about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s head colds, right?).

Unlike his stand-in Coverdale, Hawthorne went to work at Brook Farm almost immediately. He recounts his first morning’s work in his journal entry for April 14, which I have annotated via footnotes:

April 14th, 10 A.M.–. . . I did not milk the cows last night, 1 because Mr. Ripley 2 was afraid to trust them to my hands, or me to their horns 3, I know not which. But this morning I have done wonders. 4 Before breakfast, I went out to the barn and began to chop hay for the cattle, and with such “righteous vehemence,” as Mr. Ripley says, did I labor, that in the space of ten minutes I broke the machine. 5 Then I brought wood and replenished the fires; and finally went down to breakfast, and ate up a huge mound of buckwheat cakes. 6 After breakfast, Mr. Ripley put a four-pronged instrument into my hands, which he gave me to understand was called a pitchfork 7; and he and Mr. Farley being armed with similar weapons, we all three commenced a gallant attack upon a heap of manure. This office being concluded 8, and I having purified myself, I sit down to finish this letter. . . .

Miss Fuller’s cow hooks the other cows, and has made herself ruler of the herd, and behaves in a very tyrannical manner. . . . I shall make an excellent husbandman,–I feel the original Adam 10 reviving within me.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for April 14th, 1841. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

1 Coverdale’s first night at Blithedale ends with Slias Foster (the only real farmer there) telling everyone to go to sleep early as they have “nine cows to milk, and a dozen other things to do, before breakfast.”

2 George Ripley, a Unitarian minister and charter member of the Transcendentalist Club, founded Brook Farm in 1840. Following Charles Fourier’s brand of communal socialism,  Brook Farm was intended to put transcendentalist idealism into concrete action. Ripley has no clear corollary in Blithedale as far as I can tell.

Never fear—Hawthorne reports in his journal a few days later (April 16th): “I have milked a cow!!!” What charming enthusiasm! Not two !! but three exclamation marks!!! Hawthorne only deploys a triple exclamation one other time in the journals collected as The American-Notebooks: On May 31st, 1844, he joyously notes, “P.S. 3 o’clock.–The beef is done!!!” Dude got excited for bovines.

I genuinely love Hawthorne’s ironic humor, which I think is often overlooked by some readers.

Good job breaking the farm equipment there, city boy! The reference to “machine” here is vague; you can read more about 19th-century feed-cutters (and see some images of them) here.

A contemporaryish recipe for buckwheat cakes from S. S. Schoff and ‎B. S. Caswell’s 1867 cookbook The People’s Own Book of Recipes and Information for the Million: Containing Directions for the Preservation of Health, for the Treatment of the Sick and the Conduct of the Sick-room : with a Full Discussion of the More Prominent Diseases that Afflict the Human Family, with Full Directions for Their Rational Treatment : Also, 1000 Practical and Useful Recipes, Embracing Every Department of Domestic Economy and Human Industry : with Copious Notes and Emendations, Explanatory and Suggestive:

buckwheat cakes

7 If you haven’t caught on, Hawthorne (and the rest of these fops too) is going to be a terrible farmer.

Hawthorne’s phrase “a gallant attack upon a heap of manure” is a wonderfully poetic turn, but his referring to finishing his shit-shoveling as “this office being concluded” straight up kills me.

Margaret Fuller was the author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, one of American feminism’s earliest works. She was also the first editor of The Dial, (first a transcendentalist journal, and later a vehicle for modernist literature). Fuller spent time at Brook Farm, although she was never a full member. Many critics and historians suggest that Fuller is in part the inspiration for Zenobia, the soul of Hawthorne’s Blithedale.

10 The biblical Adam was of course the first gardener. Hawthorne’s romantic turn of phrase points to the idealism of Brook Farm’s utopian experiment—but also underscores the eventual fall.

The unregenerated man shivers within me | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for April 13th, 1841

Brook Farm, Oak Hill, April 13th, 1841.–. . . Here I am in a polar Paradise! I know not how to interpret this aspect of nature,–whether it be of good or evil omen to our enterprise. But I reflect that the Plymouth pilgrims arrived in the midst of storm, and stepped ashore upon mountain snow-drifts; and, nevertheless, they prospered, and became a great people,–and doubtless it will be the same with us. I laud my stars, however, that you will not have your first impressions of (perhaps) our future home from such a day as this, . . . Through faith, I persist in believing that Spring and Summer will come in their due season; but the unregenerated man shivers within me, and suggests a doubt whether I may not have wandered within the precincts of the Arctic Circle, and chosen my heritage among everlasting snows, . . . Provide yourself with a good stock of furs, and, if you can obtain the skin of a polar bear, you will find it a very suitable summer dress for this region. . . .

I have not yet taken my first lesson in agriculture, except that I went to see our cows foddered, yesterday afternoon. We have eight of our own; and the number is now increased by a transcendental heifer belonging to Miss Margaret Fuller. She is very fractious, I believe, and apt to kick over the milk-pail. . . . I intend to convert myself into a milkmaid this evening, but I pray Heaven that Mr. Ripley may be moved to assign me the kindliest cow in the herd, otherwise I shall perform my duty with fear and trembling.

I like my brethren in affliction very well; and, could you see us sitting round our table at meal-times, before the great kitchen fire, you would call it a cheerful sight. Mrs. B—- is a most comfortable woman to behold. She looks as if her ample person were stuffed full of tenderness,–indeed, as if she were all one great, kind heart.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for April 13th, 1841. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

The entry is the first of Hawthorne’s journals to mention Brook Farm, a utopian enterprise that forms the basis of Hawthorne’s 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance (which I am currently re-reading).

Blog about Lydia Davis’s short story “Happiest Moment”

happiest

I’m not sure exactly how many nested layers there are to Lydia Davis’s short story “Happiest Moment.” Sometimes I count as many as nine frames to the tale, sometimes only four or five. Sometimes the story seems its own discrete entity.  A matryoshka doll could look like one thing or lots of things, I guess, and this matryoskha doll points back at herself: When you open the final doll, the minutest level of narrative, you find that you’ve found the source of the story. The biggest doll is there nesting in the belly of the smallest doll.

But I’m getting ahead, maybe. Break it down:

“Happiest Moment”

The title is the first frame, the big doll that declares: This is a story.

If you

The second-person pronoun here is general, sure, but also points directly at you, you reader you. We have here another frame, one outside of the story (because you are the reader) but also bounded inside of it (as the character you).

ask her what is a favorite story she has written,

We’re not into the next frame yet, but we’ve got a new character, a her—a story writer! Like Lydia Davis! The author of this particular story!

she will hesitate for a long time

Still no new frame, but rather the space between layers, the hesitation, the drawing together of thought, judgment, analysis, reflection—Davis doesn’t makes the reader feel any of that rhetorically, instead snappily snapping to the point of this whole deal.

and then say

Okay here’s the next frame. I’m not counting though.

it may be this story that she read in a book once:

Good lord, where to start here. Okay, so, we have another frame, but even more significantly, we have this verbal shift: Our her, our she, our hero-author, who has been asked (hypothetically by interlocutor you) about a favorite story she’s written avers that the favorite story she’s written is a story that she read in a book once.

(To save me the trouble of coming back later: Of course our hero-author is writing the story she read in a book once now; “Happiest Moment” is this performance, kinda, sorta, kindasorta).

an English language teacher in China

There’s a frame.

asked his Chinese student

Another frame (and a second ask).

to say what was the happiest moment in his life.

The student, like the hero-author-has to say his answer (not write it).

The student hesitated for a long time.

(Like the hero-author—note the precise repetition of verbs in this tale).

At last he smiled with embarrassment

(God I love this guy).

and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there,

(We’re getting to our climax folks).

and she often told him about it,

Another frame, another telling.

and he would have to say

Our verb, our answer—

that the happiest moment of his life was her trip and the eating of the duck.

What a sweet, sweet ending.

The Chinese English language student’s wife’s enjoyment of duck in Beijing is his favorite memory, despite it not being a memory at all, but rather the story of a memory, not his own, but his beloved’s. He relays this memory of someone else’s to his English teacher and the memory somehow ends up in a book, which the hero-author of “Happiest Moment” somehow reads, and then attests to be the most favorite story she has written, despite the fact that she makes it clear that this is a story she read and didn’t write—although of course, she wrote it, because it is the story “Happiest Moment.”

Blog about William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Wedding Dance in the Open Air”

800px-pieter_bruegel_de_oude_-_de_bruiloft_dans_28detroit29

William Carlos Williams’ final and posthumous book Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) opens with a cycle of ten ekphrastic poems that describe (and subtly interpret) ten paintings by the sixteenth-century Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

These poems are, in my estimation, some of Williams’ finest. Possibly the most famous of these poems is “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” a devastating observation of how inclined we are to look away from miracles.

Another of Williams’ Brueghel poems, “The Dance,” which takes The Peasant Dance as its subject, is also widely-anthologized; however Williams’ poem “The Dance” was published in The Wedge (1944). Williams’ “The Dance,” which begins “In Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess, / the dancers go round,” is frequently and incorrectly cited to have been published in Pictures from Brueghel (a cursory internet search shows this misinformation appears in Harper’s, as well as the last resort of lazy high school students, Shmoop). Williams did publish a poem called “The Dance” in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, but this “Dance” is very much one of those other poems (this “Dance” begins “When the snow falls the flakes / spin upon the long axis,” for the record). That The Peasant Wedding is another subject of Pictures of Brueghel may also account for the spread of this misinformation (which can be resolved simply by opening the second volume of The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, which includes both The Wedge and Brueghel). But I find myself going on a bit too much about this simple mistake.

Let’s get to the poem:

“The Wedding Dance in the Open Air”

by

William Carlos Williams

 

Disciplined by the artist
to go round
& round

in holiday gear
a riotously gay rabble of
peasants and their

ample-bottomed doxies
fills
the market square

featured by the women in
their starched
white headgear

they prance or go openly
toward the wood’s
edges

round and around in
rough shoes and
farm breeches

mouths agape
Oya !
kicking up their heels

“The Wedding Dance in the Open Air” echoes the sensual depth of Williams’ earlier poem “The Dance” (1944), which emphasized the hips and bellies and shanks of those dancers who are “swinging their butts” (!) to “the squeal and the blare and the / tweedle of bagpipes” as they prance about.

The word “prance” is repeated too in “Wedding Dance” — and not only do our partygoers prance, they even “go openly / toward the wood’s / edges,” the edge of civilization where civilization gets made.

Screenshot 2018-04-11 at 8.52.09 PM

At the other edge of the painting, the foreground, are some of the boldest of Williams’ “riotously gay rabble.” But should I call them “Williams’ ‘riotously gay rabble'” or Brueghel’s? I think that it is Williams’ interpretation that matters here, but Brueghel gives him the material with which to grapple.

Look at those colors, look at those codpieces! Look at the hands, twisting, gripping, artfully fingering!

Screenshot 2018-04-11 at 8.53.37 PM

Williams captures the painting’s sexual energy not just in lines that highlight the “ample-bottomed doxies” who fill this market square, but also in the vivacious images of “mouths agape” and heels a’ kicking. The poem pulses with an energy proximal to the painting, an energy simultaneously alien and native, highlighting not only the difference in the two art forms—poetry and painting—but also the space between the viewer and the thing being viewed.

Screenshot 2018-04-11 at 9.02.03 PM

Enhancing the poem’s ekphrastic powers of imagery and feeling are the subtle rhymes of Williams’ “The Wedding Dance.” While one can find the odd (very odd) rhyme or three in WCW’s poetry, “The Wedding Dance” makes for one of the poet’s more direct concessions to poetry’s most common formal feature. The second stanza gives us “gear” slipping into “their,” picked up again in the fourth stanza’s “headgear,” and more subtly touched on in the final lines of stanzas six and seven, “breeches” and “heels.” Hell, “edges” in the fifth stanza basically rhymes with “breeches.” This thread of slant rhymes approximates the off-kilter, elliptical dance Brueghel depicts. Williams kneads guttural g sounds and harsh rs into his poem, roughening his poetry to match his rustic subject. And yet there’s just the right measure of sensuality that slips through the poem, just enough to get the rough words wet.

Like any successful ekphrasis, Williams’ poem transcends a mere physical description of art. He does describe The Wedding Dance in Open Air, yes, but the description does more than relay the physical contours of Brueghel’s art, or Williams’ analysis of Brueghel’s art—William gives us something of the painting’s spirit, captured in language, sound—another way of feeling something beautiful. Oya!

Blog about “The Silvery Veil” allegory in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (and David Foster Wallace’s Madame Psychosis)

This afternoon I got to Ch. XIII of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance. Titled “Zenobia’s Legend,” most of the chapter is given over to the titular heroine’s tale “The Silvery Veil,” a wonderfully pre-postmodern moment in Hawthorne’s novel.

Let’s look lookingly at the layers: The Blithdale Romance is Hawthorne’s ironic-but-sincere dark-romantic semi-autobiographical account of his time at Brook Farm, a failed utopian community of Transcendentalists who maybe didn’t quite, uh, transcend. Zenobia is based partially on the great American feminist Margaret Fuller (who also did time on Brook Farm).  Taking center stage here in (the aptly-numbered) thirteenth chapter of Blithedale, Zenobia extemporizes a story about The Veiled Lady. This Veiled Lady is a local celebrity, a clairvoyant of some renown who (we learn in the opening chapter of the novel) has recently disappeared. Zenobia’s yarn is a leisure-time amusement, one she contends that she’ll spin to get out of an apparent rut:

“I am getting weary of this,” said she, after a moment’s thought. “Our own features, and our own figures and airs, show a little too intrusively through all the characters we assume. We have so much familiarity with one another’s realities, that we cannot remove ourselves, at pleasure, into an imaginary sphere. Let us have no more pictures to-night; but, to make you what poor amends I can, how would you like to have me trump up a wild, spectral legend, on the spur of the moment?”

Ironically however, Zenobia clearly relies on her “own features” as well as the features of Blithedale’s spectral ingenue Priscilla to inform her performance. Despite her declaration to “remove” herself and her auditors “into an imaginary sphere,” Zenobia essentially recasts poor Priscilla’s waifery into a supernatural ultraromantic mode. The story’s basic conceit is thus: There is a famous veiled lady who may be extraordinarily beautiful or who may be extraordinarily ugly. No one knows what she looks like because like the the veil obviously hides her face, preventing any viewer’s agency to interpret for himself.

Zenobia’s legend is a tale within a tale within a tale—a performance that each member of the small Blithedale community will recode into their own readings. However, Zenobia guides her audience toward a certain conclusion, all but declaring that meek Priscilla is in fact the Veiled Lady—hell, Zenobia even throws a bit of gauze she’d been vamping with over the poor dear’s head at the climax of her tale.

“The Silvery Veil,” in another pre-postmodern layer, is a thin but clear echo of Hawthorne’s famous allegory “The Minister’s Black Veil,” which was published 15 years before The Blithedale Romance, and would clearly have been known to Hawthorne’s intended audience of Transcendentalites. (There’s perhaps a more clear connection between “The Silvery Veil” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” : Hawthorne likely based the titular minister on the real-life preacher Joseph Moody, who wore a handkerchief over his faceBlithedale features a character named “Old Moodie” who we eventually learn is Pricilla’s secret father).

So Hawthorne overloads the allegory with meaning and misdirection—is Zenobia’s legend “The Silvery Veil” the secret key to Priscilla’s identity? A clue to Blithedale’s destiny? A watery paraphrase of Hawthorne’s own stronger story, “The Minister’s Black Veil”? Simply a Saturday night’s entertainment?

The trick of the tale I think rests in the undecidability of what’s under the veil, in the not knowing, which is neatly summed up in a paragraph:

Some upheld that the veil covered the most beautiful countenance in the world; others,—and certainly with more reason, considering the sex of the Veiled Lady,—that the face was the most hideous and horrible, and that this was her sole motive for hiding it. It was the face of a corpse; it was the head of a skeleton; it was a monstrous visage, with snaky locks, like Medusa’s, and one great red eye in the centre of the forehead. Again, it was affirmed that there was no single and unchangeable set of features beneath the veil; but that whosoever should be bold enough to lift it would behold the features of that person, in all the world, who was destined to be his fate; perhaps he would be greeted by the tender smile of the woman whom he loved, or, quite as probably, the deadly scowl of his bitterest enemy would throw a blight over his life.

Hawthorne’s description here immediately reminded me of Joelle van Dyne aka Madame Psychosis aka the P.G.O.A.T., a character in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest who wears a veil either because she’s too beautiful to behold and/or because she bears a physical deformity to abject to bear. I can’t actually remember if it’s the “and” or the “or” in that previous sentence that’s correct, even though I’ve read IJ a few times (and even not that long ago). Which is like, maybe the point of this literary veiling—what I mean is that we read faces, we read expressions, and the veil covers over what we would read directly, giving us a blank space to interpret through the lens of our wild (or not so wild) imaginations. Hawthorne’s veils (and maybe Wallace’s veils) require an inward reading, asking us to interpret a signifier that does not bear a clear signified—a most puzzling sign.

Blog about Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Schrödinger’s Cat”

Screenshot 2018-04-08 at 7.02.26 PM

Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1982 short story “Schrödinger’s Cat” is a tale about living in radical uncertainty. The story is perhaps one of the finest examples of postmodern literature I’ve ever read. Playful, funny, surreal, philosophical, and a bit terrifying, the story is initially frustrating and ultimately rewarding.

While I think “Schrödinger’s Cat” has a thesis that will present itself to anyone who reads it more than just once or twice, the genius of the story is in Le Guin’s rhetorical construction of her central idea. She gives us a story about radical uncertainty by creating radical uncertainty in her reader, who will likely find the story’s trajectory baffling on first reading. Le Guin doesn’t so much eschew as utterly disrupt the traditional form of a short story in “Schrödinger’s Cat”: setting, characters, and plot are all presented in a terribly uncertain way.

The opening line points to some sort of setting and problem. Our first-person narrator tells us: “As things appear to be coming to some sort of climax, I have withdrawn to this place.” The vagueness of “things,” “some sort,” and “this place” continues throughout the tale, but are mixed with surreal, impossible, and precise images.

The first characters the narrator introduces us to are a “married couple who were coming apart. She had pretty well gone to pieces, but he seemed, at first glance, quite hearty.” The break up here is literal, not just figurative—this couple is actually falling apart, fragmenting into pieces. (Although the story will ultimately place under great suspicion that adverb actually). Le Guin’s linguistic play points to language’s inherent uncertainty, to the undecidability of its power to fully refer. As the wife’s person falls into a heap of limbs, the husband wryly observes, “My wife had great legs.” Horror mixes with comedy here. The pile of fragmented parts seems to challenge the reader to put the pieces together in some new way. “Well, the couple I was telling you about finally broke up,” our narrator says, and then gives us a horrific image of the pair literally broken up:

The pieces of him trotted around bouncing and cheeping, like little chicks; but she was finally reduced to nothing but a mass of nerves: rather like fine chicken wire, in fact, but hopelessly tangled.

Nothing but a mass of nerves hopelessly tangled: one description of the postmodern condition.

The bundle of tangled nerves serves as something that our narrator must resist, and resistance takes the form of storytelling: “Yet the impulse to narrate remains,” we’re told. Narration creates order—a certain kind of certainty—in a radically uncertain world. The first-time reader, meanwhile, searches for a thread to untangle.

Like the first-time reader, our poor narrator is still terribly awfully apocalyptically uncertain. The narrator briefly describes the great minor uncertain grief she feels, a grief without object: “…I don’t know what I grieve for: my wife? my husband? my children, or myself? I can’t remember. My dreams are forgotten…”  Is grief without object the problem of the postmodern, post-atomic world? “Schrödinger’s Cat” posits one version of uncertainty as a specific grief , a kind of sorrow for a loss that cannot be named. The story’s conclusion offers hope as an answer to this grief—another kind of uncertainty, but an uncertainty tempered in optimism.

This optimism has to thrive against a surreal apocalyptic backdrop of speed and heat—a world that moves too fast to comprehend, a world in which stove burners can’t be switched Off—we have only heat, fire, entropy. How did folks react? —

In the face of hot stove burners they acted with exemplary coolness. They studied, they observed. They were like the fellow in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, who has clapped his hands over his face in horror as the devils drag him down to Hell—but only over one eye. The other eye is looking. It’s all he can do, but he does it. He observes. Indeed, one wonders if Hell would exist, if he did not look at it.

Screenshot 2018-04-08 at 7.02.50 PM

—Hey, like that’s Le Guin’s mythological take on Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment!—or at least, part of it.

(Hell exists because we keep one eye on it, folks. Look away, maybe).

I have failed to mention the titular cat thus far. Schrödinger’s cat is the Cheshire cat, the ultimate escape artist and trickster par excellence who triggers this tale (tail?!). He shows up to hang out with the narrator.

Le Guin peppers her story with little cat jokes that highlight the instability of language: “They reflect all day, and at night their eyes reflect.” As the thermodynamic heat of the universe cools around our narrator and the feline, the narrator remarks that the story’s setting is cooler— “Here as I said it is cooler; and as a matter of fact, this animal is cool. A real cool cat.” In “Schrödinger’s Cat,” Le Guin doubles her meanings and language bears its own uncertainty.

A dog enters into the mix. Le Guin’s narrator initially thinks he’s a mailman, but then “decides” he is a small dog. The narrator quickly decides that not only is the non-mailman a dog, she also decides that his name is Rover. In naming this entity, the narrator performs an act of agency in a world of entropy—she makes certain (at least momentarily) an uncertain situation.

Our boy Rover immediately calls out Schrödinger’s cat, and gives the narrator (and the reader) a fuzzy precis of the whole experiment, an experiment that will definitely give you a Yes or No answer: The cat is either alive or the cat is not alive at the end of our little quantum boxing. Poor Rover gives us a wonderful endorsement of the experiment: “So it is beautifully demonstrated that if you desire certainty, any certainty, you must create it yourself!” Rover gives us an unintentionally ironic definition of making meaning in a postmodern world. Agency falls to the role of the reader/agent, who must decide (narrate, choose, and write) in this fragmented world.

For Rover, Schrödinger’s thought experiment offers a certain kind of certitude: the cat is alive or dead, a binary, either/or. Rover wants to play out the experiment himself—force the cat into the box and get, like, a definitive answer. But the curious playful narrator pricks a hole in the experiment: “Why don’t we get included in the system?” the narrator questions the dog. It’s too much for him, a layer too weird on an already complex sitch. “I can’t stand this terrible uncertainty,” Rover replies, and then bursts into tears. (Our wordy-clever narrator remarks sympathy for “the poor son of a bitch”).

The narrator doesn’t want Rover to carry out the experiment, but the cat itself jumps into the box. Rover and narrator wait in a moment of nothingness before the somethingness of revelation might happen when they lift the lid. In the meantime, the narrator thinks of Pandora and her box:

I could not quite recall Pandora’s legend. She had let all the plagues and evils out of the box, of course, but there had been something else too. After all the devils were let loose, something quite different, quite unexpected, had been left. What had it been? Hope? A dead cat? I could not remember.

Le Guin tips her hand a bit here, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great dark romantic she is heir to; she hides her answer in ambiguous plain sight. Hope is the answer. But hope is its own radical uncertainty, an attitudinal answer to the postmodern problem—but ultimately a non-answer. The only certainty is non-certainty.

What of the conclusion? Well, spoiler: “The cat was, of course, not there,” when Rover and narrator open the box. But that’s not the end. The last lines of Le Guin’s story see “the roof of the house…lifted off just like the lid of a box” — so the setting of our tale this whole time, as we should have guessed, was inside the apocalyptic thought experiment of Schrödinger. Apocalyptic in all sense of the word—in the connotation of disaster, but also revelation. The revelation though is a revelation of uncertainty. In the final line, the narrator, musing that she will miss the cat, wonders “if he found what it was we lost.”

What I think Le Guin points to here as the “it” that we lost in these hot and fast times is the radical uncertainty of hope.

Blog about a particular Gordon Lish sentence

A new literary magazine called Egress debuts in the UK this month and in the US next month. I have read an advance copy and it is Very Good. Egress features, for lack of a better term (although there are better terms; I’m just being lazy) experimental short fiction. It might be better just to list some of the authors featured in the inaugural issue: Diane Williams, Christine Schutt, David Hayden, Sam Lipsyte, Evan Lavender-Smith, and Gordon Lish (there are more).

There are two shorties by Lish in the collection. Both are Very Good and Very Funny. One of them, “Jawbone,” is about a narrator killing two bugs.

Have I spoiled Lish’s “Jawbone” by revealing its intricate plot (i.e., the murder (murders?) of a pair of (possibly copulating) bugs)? No, not really—for the story is really about language itself (which like so a lot of Lish’s fictions are ultimately about, yes?)

There’s a sentence in “Jawbone” that I could not leave alone. I kept reading it and rereading it, and then read it aloud almost rapturously:

Like lucky thing for the local citizenry someone on your side was there in there on duty on the nightbeat last night in the crapper last night.

The line is simultaneously gorgeous and ugly, elegant and clunky, elevated and base, smooth and harsh. The alliteration is at once sumptuous and unbearable–ells and kays fray into esses and zees; tittering alveolar touches stutter throughout the thirty-six syllables. The repetitions clip along, cleverer in the end than they at first seem: “was there in there on duty on the nightbeat” builds with a force that shuttles into not one but two “last nights,” a bit of redundant fun. Should a sentence of 27 words contain so many prepositions? I guess this one should. I would go on about the hyperbolic brilliance of the line but maybe that’s pinning it down a bit too much, which is not what one should really do with such a clean upstanding decent ugly sentence. (“Crapper”!).

Let’s close by connecting Lish’s ironic hyperbolic sentence to what I take to be the namesake of his short vengeful tale, an episode in the book of Judges. After tying together 300 fox tails and lighting them on fire, the great (and eventually-blinded) hero Samson kills a bunch of Philistines (Philistines!) with the jawbone of an ass. He then gets thirsty and God Provides Some Water from yon jawbone. Here is Judges 15:16, King James Version on this matter: “And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men.

490px-salomon_de_bray_28dutch_-_samson_with_the_jawbone_-_google_art_project
Samson with the Jawbone, 1636 by Salomon de Bray (1597 – 1664)

And here—I mean, I hope I’m not being too tacky in revealing the last line but, Lish, but—

Well, fuck, bugs – I mean, what can anyone really do?

“The New Thing,” short story by Robert Coover

“The New Thing”

by

Robert Coover


He attempted, he urging her on, the new thing. The old thing had served them well, but they were tired of it, more than tired. Had the old thing ever been new? Perhaps, but not in their experience of it. For them, it was always the old thing, sometimes the good old thing, other times just the old thing, there like air or stones, part (so to speak) of the furniture of the world into which they had moved and from which, sooner or later, they would move out. It was not at first obvious to them that this world had room for a new thing, it being the nature of old things to display themselves or to be displayed in timeless immutable patterns. Later, they would ask themselves why this was so, the question not occurring to them until she had attempted the new thing, but for now the only question that they asked (he asked it, actually), when she suggested it, was: why not? A fateful choice, though not so lightly taken as his reply may make it seem, for both had come to view the old thing as not merely old or even dead but as a kind of, alive or dead, ancestral curse, inhibitory and perverse and ripe for challenge, impossible or even unimaginable though the new thing seemed until she tried it. And then, when with such success she did, her novelty responding to his appetite for it, the new thing displaced the old thing overnight. Not literally, of course, the old thing remained, but cast now into shadow, as the furniture of the world, shifting without shifting, lost its familiar arrangements. The old thing was still the old thing, the world was still the world, its furniture its furniture, yet nothing was the same, nor would it ever be, they knew, again. It felt?though as in a dream so transformed was everything?like waking up. This was exhilarating (his word), liberating (hers), and greatly enhanced their delight? she whooped, he giggled, this was fun!? in the new thing, which they both enjoyed as much and as often as they could.

Read the rest of Robert Coover’s “The New Thing” at The Iowa Review

Blog about starting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance

img_9465

I started a reread of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance this afternoon, prompted by Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell and its utopian commune setting. I don’t think I’ve read Blithedale in a dozen or so years; the copy I’m reading is from grad school. The margins brim with every sort of nonsense, every damn adjective circled, etc.

My son, seven, picked up the novel and remarked that he didn’t know that I read romances. I tried to explain Romance here; failed. Then my daughter read the blurb. I asked her what she thought and she said the she liked the betrayal part but wasn’t sure about the rest. I flipped it over and read the blurb, which I’m not sure I’d read before. The blurb is all about sex, which seems about right.

The Blithedale Romance is Hawthorne’s horniest novel. Here is a passage from just three chapters in, where protagonist Miles Coverdale conjures some delight in imagining his lively host Zenobia au naturale (right after damning domestic work altogether)—

“What a pity,” I remarked, “that the kitchen, and the housework generally, cannot be left out of our system altogether! It is odd enough that the kind of labor which falls to the lot of women is just that which chiefly distinguishes artificial life—the life of degenerated mortals—from the life of Paradise. Eve had no dinner-pot, and no clothes to mend, and no washing-day.”

“I am afraid,” said Zenobia, with mirth gleaming out of her eyes, “we shall find some difficulty in adopting the paradisiacal system for at least a month to come. Look at that snowdrift sweeping past the window! Are there any figs ripe, do you think? Have the pineapples been gathered to-day? Would you like a bread-fruit, or a cocoanut? Shall I run out and pluck you some roses? No, no, Mr. Coverdale; the only flower hereabouts is the one in my hair, which I got out of a greenhouse this morning. As for the garb of Eden,” added she, shivering playfully, “I shall not assume it till after May-day!”

Assuredly Zenobia could not have intended it,—the fault must have been entirely in my imagination. But these last words, together with something in her manner, irresistibly brought up a picture of that fine, perfectly developed figure, in Eve’s earliest garment. I almost fancied myself actually beholding it!

Ah Hawthorne! The “fault must have been entirely in my imagination,” Miles muses. That last line — “I almost fancied myself actually beholding it!” — doesn’t appear in the Gutenberg version of The Blithedale Romance I linked to above (and here too, I guess). The editors of my Penguin Classics edition note that the line was probably deleted from the original manuscript “due to Sophia Hawthorne’s prudishness.” But the line—and really, here, I mean that that adverb almost—tells us so much about our unreliable narrator, Miles Coverdale. To almost fancy beholding an imaginative vision is to have absolutely imaginatively beheld the vision, and then applied a second consciousness to the whole affair—a witness to the sinful vision, a witness who reports to one’s own awkward soul.

Coverdale is the Hawthorne-figure, or rather an ironized version of Hawthorne, who recalls his memories of his time on real-life Brook Farm, an experimental utopian community founded by Unitarian preacher George Ripley and his wife Sophia in the mid-1850s. Hawthorne brings his pessimistic bent to the whole business (failed business), but shows us this perspective though Coverdale’s Romantic, even nostalgic optimism—an optimism clouded by experience:

The better life! Possibly, it would hardly look so now; it is enough if it looked so then. The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one’s self a fool; the truest heroism is to resist the doubt; and the profoundest wisdom to know when it ought to be resisted, and when to be obeyed.

Yet, after all, let us acknowledge it wiser, if not more sagacious, to follow out one’s daydream to its natural consummation, although, if the vision have been worth the having, it is certain never to be consummated otherwise than by a failure. And what of that?

So the sex of sexy Blithedale, even in its first chapters, is to be “consummated…by a failure.” But if I recall, there’s a lot of blithely lively fun in getting to that failure, and I’m enjoying Hawthorne’s often-ironic but always deeply-felt sentences, sentences that dwell on the ways in which we imagine and then try to create (and perhaps fail to create) the better life.

Blog about Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell

img_9112

I have just finished Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel The Bell. This is the first novel I have read by Murdoch and I now want to read more novels by Murdoch, which I suppose is the best praise I can offer the novel.

The Bell is set primarily in Imber House, a large old mansion in the English countryside. Imber House adjoins a Benedictine abbey; this nunnery is essentially closed off to the outside world. The residents of Imber House form a “brotherhood,” a laity of would-be acolytes who strive to find spiritual meaning in the commercial and often venal world of the postwar era. Various conflicts between these characters drive the plot of The Bell.

One of these conflicts, especially notable for a novel published in 1958, involves Michael, the leader of the Imber House community. A former schoolmaster who dreamed of joining the clergy, Michael lost his job in a small scandal for “seducing” one of his students, Nick, a teenage boy at the time. Over a decade later, circumstance brings Nick to Imber House, where his twin sister Katherine is staying. Katherine plans to join Imber Abbey; in the meantime, her family hopes that the religious solitude at Imber House will help Nick recover from his alcoholism. The conflict between Michael and Nick becomes further charged when the youngest member of Imber House, a teenager named Toby, befriends both of them.

I could go on about Michael and Nick and Toby and Katherine and etc., but the real star of The Bell is Dora Greenfield, a wonderfully complicatedly simple unassuming unpretentious flighty former art student who has recently left her demanding husband Paul. Through Murdoch’s precise free indirect style, we get to inhabit Dora’s constantly vacillating mind. Like many people, Dora does not know what she is going to do, and even when she thinks through a plan, she often ends up doing the opposite of what she had intended to do. There is a hilarious passage in the novel’s first chapter when Dora goes through a lengthy imaginative exercise about giving up her train seat to an elderly woman. Dora’s thought experiment ends like this:

She decided not to give up her seat.

She got up and said to the standing lady ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.’

The blank space between those sentences highlights a radical gap between contemplation and action.

The train-seat passage is one of many humorous episodes in The Bell, but Murdoch’s humor is underwritten by a deeper menacing anxiety, which can be neatly summed up in the novel’s opening sentences:

Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.

Those opening lines basically summarize the big thematic plot of The Bell—the conflict between controlling and ultimately abusive Paul and his much younger wife. (“She married him a little for his money,” Murdoch writes just a few paragraphs in, wedging the detail between more positive aspects of Paul’s character–the “a little” is just genius there, the slightest omission from Dora’s consciousness slipping into the third-person narrator for the briefest of moments). The opening lines of The Bell also showcase Murdoch’s rhetorical powers. Her comic precision here reverberates with a hazardous undertone.

Will Dora really return to her husband? Or will she become her own person—whatever that means? The Bell satisfies these questions with complex answers. The novel has every opportunity to veer toward pat conclusions. Murdoch fills her novel with images that suggest a conventional tragic conclusions, and then surpasses these conventions, turning them into something else. A death by drowning might be foreshadowed, but someone will learn to swim; an epiphany achieved in an art museum might not meet its achievement outside of aesthetic response; the Blakean contraries of innocence and experience might be synthesized into a new, original viewpoint. There’s something real about The Bell—it offers a realism that points outside of its own literary contours. The English novelist A.S. Byatt puts it far better than I can in her essay “Shakespearean Plot in the Novels of Irish Murdoch”:

 …The Bell seems to me arguably Miss Murdoch‘s most successful attempt at realism, emotional and social—the tones of voice of the members of the religious community are beautifully caught, the sexual, aesthetic and religious passions and confusions of the three main characters, Dora, Michael, and, to a lesser extent, Toby, are delicately analysed with the combination of intellectual grasp and sensuous immediacy of George Eliot.

Byatt’s comparison to Eliot reminds me that I had intended to read Middlemarch some time this year—but to be fair to myself, I put The Bell on the same list. I won’t be reading Middlemarch next though; The Bell, with its story of a would-be utopian community, strongly reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, which I haven’t read in ages. And after I read that, I’d like to read another one by Iris Murdoch. Any recommendations?

“White Rabbits,” a short tale by Leonora Carrington

rabbit

“White Rabbits”

by

Leonora Carrington

THE TIME has come that I must tell the events which began in 40 Pest St. The houses which were reddish-black looked as if they had survived mysteriously from the fire of London. The house in front of my window, covered with an occasional wisp of creeper, was as blank and empty looking as any plague-ridden residence subsequently licked by flames and saliv’d with smoke. This is not the way that I had imagined New York.

It was so hot that I got palpitations when I ventured out into the streets—so I sat and considered the house opposite and occasionally bathed my sweating face.

The light was never very strong in Pest Street. There was always a reminiscence of smoke which made visibility troubled and hazy—still it was possible to study the house opposite carefully, even precisely; besides my eyes have always been excellent.

I spent several days watching for some sort of movement opposite but there was none and I finally took to undressing quite freely before my open window and doing breathing exercises optimistically in the thick Pest Street air. This must have blackened my lungs as dark as the houses. One afternoon I washed my hair and sat out on the diminuitive stone crescent which served as a balcony to dry it. I hung my head between my knees ¡and watched a blue-bottle suck the dry corpse of a spider between my feet. I looked up through my lank hair and saw something black in the sky, ominously quiet for an airplane. Parting my hair I was in time to see a large raven alight on the balcony of the house opposite. It sat on the balustrade and seemed to peer into the empty window, then poked its head under its wing apparently searching for lice. A few minutes later I was not unduly surprised to see the double windows open and and admit a woman onto the balcony—she carried a large dish full of bones which she emptied onto the floor. With a short appreciative squawk, the raven hopped down and picked about amongst its unpleasant repast.

The woman, who had hemp-long black hair, wiped out the dish, using her hair for this purpose.

Then she looked straight at me and smiled in a friendly fashion. I smiled back and waved a towel. This seemed to encourage her for she tossed her head coquettishly and gave me a very elegant salute after the fashion of a queen.

“Do you happen to have any bad meat over there that you don’t need?” she called.

“Any what?” I called back, wondering if my ears had deceived me.

“Any stinking meat? Decomposed flesh … meat?”

“Not at the moment,” I replied, wondering if she was trying to be funny.

“Won’t you have any towards the end of the week? If so, I would be very grateful if you would bring it over.”

Then she stepped back into the empty window and disappeared. The raven flew away. Continue reading ““White Rabbits,” a short tale by Leonora Carrington”

“Easter Eve” — Anton Chekhov

“Easter Eve”

by

Anton Chekhov


I was standing on the bank of the River Goltva, waiting for the ferry-boat from the other side. At ordinary times the Goltva is a humble stream of moderate size, silent and pensive, gently glimmering from behind thick reeds; but now a regular lake lay stretched out before me. The waters of spring, running riot, had overflowed both banks and flooded both sides of the river for a long distance, submerging vegetable gardens, hayfields and marshes, so that it was no unusual thing to meet poplars and bushes sticking out above the surface of the water and looking in the darkness like grim solitary crags.

The weather seemed to me magnificent. It was dark, yet I could see the trees, the water and the people. . . . The world was lighted by the stars, which were scattered thickly all over the sky. I don’t remember ever seeing so many stars. Literally one could not have put a finger in between them. There were some as big as a goose’s egg, others tiny as hempseed. . . . They had come out for the festival procession, every one of them, little and big, washed, renewed and joyful, and everyone of them was softly twinkling its beams. The sky was reflected in the water; the stars were bathing in its dark depths and trembling with the quivering eddies. The air was warm and still. . . . Here and there, far away on the further bank in the impenetrable darkness, several bright red lights were gleaming. . . .

A couple of paces from me I saw the dark silhouette of a peasant in a high hat, with a thick knotted stick in his hand.

“How long the ferry-boat is in coming!” I said.

“It is time it was here,” the silhouette answered.

“You are waiting for the ferry-boat, too?”

“No I am not,” yawned the peasant—”I am waiting for the illumination. I should have gone, but to tell you the truth, I haven’t the five kopecks for the ferry.”

“I’ll give you the five kopecks.”

“No; I humbly thank you. . . . With that five kopecks put up a candle for me over there in the monastery. . . . That will be more interesting, and I will stand here. What can it mean, no ferry-boat, as though it had sunk in the water!”

The peasant went up to the water’s edge, took the rope in his hands, and shouted; “Ieronim! Ieron—im!” Continue reading ““Easter Eve” — Anton Chekhov”

A very short riff on a compelling Stephen Crane character (and six marvelous paragraphs of Crane’s prose)

I took a few paperback books with me when I went camping two weeks ago, but I didn’t actually read from them. Instead, I wound up reading (or rereading in some cases) a few of the tales in Stephen Crane’s collection The Open Boat and Other Stories, which I downloaded from Project Gutenberg onto my iPad thanks to a data connection from my phone. Rain was pouring down on my tent and for some reason, I want to reread “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” popped into my head, so I made it happen. I don’t know how these details are germane to anything I am trying to say here.

What I am trying to say here is that I didn’t read “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” right away. Instead, I read a story I’d never read before, “A Man and Some Others.” This tale contains some of the most fantastic sentences I’ve read in ages. (This is what I’m trying to say here: That “A Man and Some Others” contains some magical fucking prose).

Here is the opening paragraph:

Dark mesquit spread from horizon to horizon. There was no house or horseman from which a mind could evolve a city or a crowd. The world was declared to be a desert and unpeopled. Sometimes, however, on days when no heat-mist arose, a blue shape, dim, of the substance of a spectre’s veil, appeared in the south-west, and a pondering sheep-herder might remember that there were mountains.

I confess that I might have had some beers and Bushmills that evening, but I read and reread the opening sentences of “A Man and Some Others” in a little loop, hypnotized by the way Crane’s prose collapses human agency into an overwhelming naturalism—a naturalism with just the slightest Romantic touch of “a spectre’s veil.” (In “The Open Boat,” Crane demonstrates a more masterful and more complete grappling of naturalism resisting (and perhaps ultimately synthesizing) the Romantic traces of his transcendentalist forebears. But that’s a topic for another riff).

“A Man and Some Others” is about a cowboy named Bill. Threatened off a range that he claims as his own by Mexican ranchers who see otherwise, Bill retaliates. Along the way he meets a stranger—a stand-in for Crane, perhaps—who bears witness to the whole fandango. As a story, “A Man and Some Others” is slight, a thin premise that exists primarily as a space for Bill to swagger around in for a few pages. Sure, there could be a critique of Manifest Destiny somewhere in there, but Crane’s tale never coheres into a fully realized allegory or satire (as the poet John Berryman pointed out in his study of Crane, “Crane‘s humor, finally, and his irony are felt as weird or incomprehensible.” Berryman was referring to War Is Kind, but the description fits here as well).

Crane’s humor and irony are on vivid display in the six paragraphs that make up the second short chapter of “A Man and Some Others.” In this section, we get the improbable and wild life story of Bill, which reads on the one hand as a hyperbolic archetype of American machoism, a kind of fabulous legend of Manifest Destiny. On the other hand, Bill’s bio strikes the reader as so thoroughly and lovingly true that it seems Crane must have wholly plagiarized the life of a real individual (or at least combined a few wild but true stories from a handful of folks).

I won’t comment any further, but instead offer those six paragraphs, which I simply could never improve upon:

Bill had been a mine-owner in Wyoming, a great man, an aristocrat, one who possessed unlimited credit in the saloons down the gulch. He had the social weight that could interrupt a lynching or advise a bad man of the particular merits of a remote geographical point. However, the fates exploded the toy balloon with which they had amused Bill, and on the evening of the same day he was a professional gambler with ill-fortune dealing him unspeakable irritation in the shape of three big cards whenever another fellow stood pat. It is well here to inform the world that Bill considered his calamities of life all dwarfs in comparison with the excitement of one particular evening, when three kings came to him with criminal regularity against a man who always filled a straight. Later he became a cow-boy, more weirdly abandoned than if he had never been an aristocrat. By this time all that remained of his former splendour was his pride, or his vanity, which was one thing which need not have remained. He killed the foreman of the ranch over an inconsequent matter as to which of them was a liar, and the midnight train carried him eastward. He became a brakeman on the Union Pacific, and really gained high honours in the hobo war that for many years has devastated the beautiful railroads of our country. A creature of ill-fortune himself, he practised all the ordinary cruelties upon these other creatures of ill-fortune. He was of so fierce a mien that tramps usually surrendered at once whatever coin or tobacco they had in their possession; and if afterward he kicked them from the train, it was only because this was a recognized treachery of the war upon the hoboes. In a famous battle fought in Nebraska in 1879, he would have achieved a lasting distinction if it had not been for a deserter from the United States army. He was at the head of a heroic and sweeping charge, which really broke the power of the hoboes in that country for three months; he had already worsted four tramps with his own coupling-stick, when a stone thrown by the ex-third baseman of F Troop’s nine laid him flat on the prairie, and later enforced a stay in the hospital in Omaha. After his recovery he engaged with other railroads, and shuffled cars in countless yards. An order to strike came upon him in Michigan, and afterward the vengeance of the railroad pursued him until he assumed a name. This mask is like the darkness in which the burglar chooses to move. It destroys many of the healthy fears. It is a small thing, but it eats that which we call our conscience. The conductor of No. 419 stood in the caboose within two feet of Bill’s nose, and called him a liar. Bill requested him to use a milder term. He had not bored the foreman of Tin Can Ranch with any such request, but had killed him with expedition. The conductor seemed to insist, and so Bill let the matter drop.

He became the bouncer of a saloon on the Bowery in New York. Here most of his fights were as successful as had been his brushes with the hoboes in the West. He gained the complete admiration of the four clean bar-tenders who stood behind the great and glittering bar. He was an honoured man. He nearly killed Bad Hennessy, who, as a matter of fact, had more reputation than ability, and his fame moved up the Bowery and down the Bowery.

But let a man adopt fighting as his business, and the thought grows constantly within him that it is his business to fight. These phrases became mixed in Bill’s mind precisely as they are here mixed; and let a man get this idea in his mind, and defeat begins to move toward him over the unknown ways of circumstances. One summer night three sailors from the U.S.S. Seattle sat in the saloon drinking and attending to other people’s affairs in an amiable fashion. Bill was a proud man since he had thrashed so many citizens, and it suddenly occurred to him that the loud talk of the sailors was very offensive. So he swaggered upon their attention, and warned them that the saloon was the flowery abode of peace and gentle silence. They glanced at him in surprise, and without a moment’s pause consigned him to a worse place than any stoker of them knew. Whereupon he flung one of them through the side door before the others could prevent it. On the sidewalk there was a short struggle, with many hoarse epithets in the air, and then Bill slid into the saloon again. A frown of false rage was upon his brow, and he strutted like a savage king. He took a long yellow night-stick from behind the lunch-counter, and started importantly toward the main doors to see that the incensed seamen did not again enter.

The ways of sailormen are without speech, and, together in the street, the three sailors exchanged no word, but they moved at once. Landsmen would have required two years of discussion to gain such unanimity. In silence, and immediately, they seized a long piece of scantling that lay handily. With one forward to guide the battering-ram, and with two behind him to furnish the power, they made a beautiful curve, and came down like the Assyrians on the front door of that saloon.

Mystic and still mystic are the laws of fate. Bill, with his kingly frown and his long night-stick, appeared at precisely that moment in the doorway. He stood like a statue of victory; his pride was at its zenith; and in the same second this atrocious piece of scantling punched him in the bulwarks of his stomach, and he vanished like a mist. Opinions differed as to where the end of the scantling landed him, but it was ultimately clear that it landed him in south-western Texas, where he became a sheep-herder.

The sailors charged three times upon the plate-glass front of the saloon, and when they had finished, it looked as if it had been the victim of a rural fire company’s success in saving it from the flames. As the proprietor of the place surveyed the ruins, he remarked that Bill was a very zealous guardian of property. As the ambulance surgeon surveyed Bill, he remarked that the wound was really an excavation.

“Murnane has not made the selling of himself an easy task”

01murnane5-extra-superjumbo

This week’s New York Times Magazine offers a compelling profile of Gerald Murnane. The profile, by Mark Binelli, is an expansive and engaging look at the Australian author, whose cult will undoubtedly grow larger after this exposure. From Binelli’s piece:

Murnane’s books are strange and wonderful and nearly impossible to describe in a sentence or two. After his third novel, “The Plains,” a fable-like story reminiscent of Italo Calvino published in 1982, Murnane largely turned away from what might be called conventional narrative pleasures. Dispensing almost entirely with plot and character, his later works are essayistic meditations on his own past, a personal mythology as attuned to the epic ordinariness of lost time as Proust, except with Murnane it’s horse races, a boyhood marble collection, Catholic sexual hang-ups and life as a househusband in the suburban Melbourne of the 1970s.

Murnane has not made the selling of himself an easy task. Even by the standards of the solitary writer, his eccentricities are manifest. He has never flown on an airplane; in fact, he has barely traveled outside of Victoria. In a 2001 speech that has become legend among Murnanophiles, he informed an audience at the University of Newcastle of his longstanding belief that “a person reveals at least as much when he reports what he cannot do or has never done.”

A lovely section from later in Binelli’s essay touches on Murnane’s archives:

Murnane began keeping the archives more than 50 years ago, both for posterity and to satisfy his own meticulous sense of order, and he has left strict instructions regarding their contents, which are not to be made public until after his own death and the death of his surviving siblings. (He has one brother, a Catholic priest, and a sister; another brother, who was born with an intellectual disability and was repeatedly hospitalized, died in 1985.) Nonetheless, Murnane opened the cabinets to give me a sense of their contents. His so-called Chronological Archive is stuffed with hanging files covering each period of his life and featuring headings like “I rebuff a wealthy widow,” “I fall out with an arrogant student of mine,” “Two women bother me,” “I decide that most books are crap,” “Hoaxes! How I love them!” and “Peter Carey exposed at last.” He also has multiple drafts of his 13 books; letters addressed, as in a time capsule, to a future Murnane scholar, whom he imagines as a young woman, and whom he addresses in the letters as “Fc,” for “future creature”; a notebook of 20,000 words titled “My Shame File”; a 40,000-word report on miraculous or unexplained events in his life; and a 75,000-word account of his dealings with everyone he has ever courted romantically or considered courting.

Read the profile at The New York Times Magazine.