“Detective Novel” — Robert Walser

“Detective Novel”

by

Robert Walser

translated by Tom Whalen


HE PRETENDED to possess technical expertise. Anyway, the title seemed quite brilliant. I resolved to learn more and started reading him, but he left much to be desired. Both he and his author lacked a certain finesse. He seemed to have no place to call home. How can I cuddle up to someone who isn’t comfortable with himself? His sentences were laborious paths for those who tread on them. I remember far more beautiful rambles and gladly admit this, since I gain by this admission. He was viewed quite kindly. An attempt to create interesting situations was discovered with delight. Already the first chapter stretched out to the most accommodating length imaginable. Each paragraph elicited from me a grateful yawn. By the way, I think the time of the detective novel is over. The puzzling disappearance of refined, charming people doesn’t seem very fresh these days. Authors have operated more than enough with chemicals and the like. I did my best to succumb to his charms, but alas I failed in this endeavor. Perhaps I lack the openness, I said, smiling at one of those persons (I mean myself) unsympathetic to some new releases. In fact, I find it aggravating to say yes to everything. In the course of the events he let me gaze into a Russian female. It may be that I’m expressing myself a bit sloppily here. All in all, for what he was, I found him unable to live up to himself. I hold his father responsible that I’m pained by his existence. My contemporaries may note his innocuousness. But can a detective novel be innocuous? Doesn’t he fail when, instead of arousing suspense, he allows us to be bored in his presence? Ambitious lackey, it would be best if you vanished. That you were published was your misfortune. Whoever reads you pities you. Whoever investigates you has to laugh at you, though, alas, alas, you’re innocent! In any case, you’re not what you should be. What you could be if things had turned out right you aren’t, because things didn’t turn out right. Fare thee well, unwarranted detective novel.

Read “55 Miles to the Gas Pump,” a very short horror story by Annie Proulx

“55 Miles to the Gas Pump”

by

Annie Proulx


Rancher Croom in handmade boots and filthy hat, that walleyed cattleman, stray hairs like the curling fiddle string ends, that warm-handed, quick-foot dancer on splintery boards or down the cellar stairs to a rack of bottles of his own strange beer, yeasty, cloudy, bursting out in garlands of foam, Rancher Croom at night galloping drunk over the dark plain, turning off at a place he knows to arrive at a canyon brink where he dismounts and looks down on tumbled rock, waits, then steps out, parting the air with his last roar, sleeves surging up, windmill arms, jeans riding over boot tops, but before he hits he rises again to the top of the cliff like a cork in a bucket of milk.

Mrs. Croom on the roof with a saw cutting a hole into the attic where she has not been for twelve years thanks to old Croom’s padlocks and warnings, whets to her desire, and the sweat flies as she exchanges the saw for a chisel and hammer until a ragged slab peak is free and she can see inside: just as she thought: the corpses of Mr. Croom’s paramours – she recognizes them from their photographs in the paper: MISSING WOMAN – some desiccated as jerky and much the same color, some moldy from lying beneath roof leaks, and, all of them used hard, covered with tarry handprints, the marks of boot heels, some bright blue with remnants of paint used on the shutters years ago, one wrapped in newspaper nipple to knee.

When you live a long way out you make your own fun.

“The Nobel Prize” — Robert Walser

“The Nobel Prize”

by

Robert Walser

translated by Tom Whalen


Today, thank God, I’m back in the pink again, which I definitely deserve because I’m a nice person. How was it for me yesterday? I was emotionally ill. Full of thoughts, I ran about vehemently and at the same time galled. And why was that? I believed my colleague Hopeful had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. A notice in the paper had fooled me. How gullible I am! I took my countryman High-hope for the happiest person and myself in consequence for the unhappiest. I imagined all the pretty girls had already composed the most talented satirical poems about me. Yet nevertheless, with what strength, what grandeur I conducted myself! With what composure I strode forth. I can barely describe it. In any case I’m satisfied with myself. I had received an apparently hard blow, but inwardly I did not refuse, not even for a minute, to accept the perfidy of fate. This morning I checked and learned that Persistence, not Hopeful, had received the Nobel Prize. Persistence is someone whom I do not begrudge the honor. The sensations one has. Regarding my dear compatriot Hopejoy, I can calm myself. This pleases me, and since I’m full of joy, I can allow myself to be seen again. Yesterday I thought I had become impossible to my countrymen. Thankfully this unpleasant notion had to retreat. My friend Hopeful is at work. I want to be as well. I can now. I’m capable of this anew. To the same extent that Persistence was crowned with the Nobel Prize, I am crowned with the most cheerful serenity. Yesterday I was like a snapped-off plant, while today I’m a sturdy tree. What illusions can do to us! Brain power, you’re weird! Now that this Nobel Prize business no longer weighs on me, how noble I seem. Yes, the world is gay and serious.

“Ghosts” — Robert Walser

“Ghosts”

by

Robert Walser

translated by Tom Whalen


I don’t know if it can be to my advantage to review a kind of dime novel in which, as far as I can remember, there stood in a pretty little town a haunted tower.

In my opinion ghosts are very modern. It seems to me it’s become fashionable to believe, with a certain persistent willfulness, in inexplicable appearances.

One must admit this takes courage. As for me, I lived temporarily, if I dare say so straight out, in a bright, wide, two-windowed room. One night I awoke in bed and saw, on one of the armchairs or stools that came with the room, someone sitting.

Something nonexistent was existent, for when I had gone nearer to inspect or examine the place, the something (undoubtedly I was dealing with a ghost here) had evaporated.

To return to my little booklet in which, among other things, a young woman danced: it’s been quite some time since I perused this work, which dealt mainly with an ingenious Hans who, in all innocence and innocuousness, pulled off, as it were, a stroke of genius.

The landscape seemed to me delightfully sketched; the subject matter revolved as much around money as around love. A little river that stretched around the town the author had charmingly entrusted to blab mysterious things. The brooklet in this regard proved to be immensely talented, since it busily burbled and babbled night and day.

Attentively I listened in on the engaging story. Roles were swapped, young sophisticated girls sat in the pleasing interiors of music stores, into which one glanced in passing.

Hans proved to be a complications-disentangler.

I like to imagine my up-to-the-minute diction as tabloidish. I hope this will be judged kindly.

A beautiful woman sat interestingly ghostlike, I mean conspicuously thin, thus in fashion, at a window. Hans bestowed upon her his interest. In his eyes lay so much justifiable or baseless melancholy that the woman leapt up in bewilderment.

These and similar events occurred in the little volume whose author I don’t name because he hardly wishes it. There are little books we read as if we’re eating something delicious. We quickly forget them. After a certain amount of time, perhaps we recall them again. They’re like people we’re capable of loving because they’re not difficult. I also wish this for what I have written here.

“Legend,” a very short tale from Jorge Luis Borges

“Legend” by Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


Cain and Abel came upon each other after Abel’s death. They were walking through the desert, and they recognized each other from afar, since both men were very tall. The two brothers sat on the ground, made a fire, and ate. They sat silently, as weary people do when dusk begins to fall. In the sky, a star glimmered, though it had not yet been given a name. In the light of the fire, Cain saw that Abel’s forehead bore the mark of the stone, and he dropped the bread he was about to carry to his mouth and asked his brother to forgive him.

“Was it you that killed me, or did I kill you?” Abel answered. “I don’t re-member anymore; here we are, together, like before.”

“Now I know that you have truly forgiven me,” Cain said, “because forgetting is forgiving. I, too, will try to forget.”

“Yes,” said Abel slowly. “So long as remorse lasts, guilt lasts.”

“On Trout” — Anne Carson

“Imagination Dead Imagine” — Samuel Beckett

“Imagination Dead Imagine”

by

Samuel Beckett

No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine. Islands, waters, azure, verdure, one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit. Till all white in the whiteness the rotunda. No way in, go in, measure. Diameter three feet, three feet from ground to summit of the vault. Two diameters at right angles AB CD divide the white ground into two semicircles ACB BDA. Lying on the ground two white bodies, each in its semicircle. White too the vault and the round wall eighteen inches high from which it springs. Go back out, a plain rotunda, all white in the whiteness, go back in, rap, solid throughout, a ring as in the imagination the ring of bone. The light that makes all so white no visible source, all shines with the same white shine, ground, wall, vault, bodies, no shadow. Strong heat, surfaces hot but not burning to the touch, bodies sweating. Go back out, move back, the little fabric vanishes, ascend, it vanishes, all white in the whiteness, descend, go back in. Emptiness, silence, heat, whiteness, wait, the light goes down, all grows dark together, ground, wall, vault, bodies, say twenty seconds, all the greys, the light goes out, all vanishes. At the same time the temperature goes down, to reach its minimum, say freezing-point, at the same instant that the black is reached, which may seem strange. Wait, more or less long, light and heat come back, all grows white and hot together, ground, wall, vault, bodies, say twenty seconds, all the greys, till the initial level is reached whence the fall began. More or less long, for there may intervene, experience shows, between end of fall and beginning of rise, pauses of varying length, from the fraction of the second to what would have seemed, in other times, other places, an eternity. Same remark for the other pause, between end of rise and beginning of fall. The extremes, as long as they last, are perfectly stable, which in the case of the temperature may seem strange, in the beginning. It is possible too, experience shows, for rise and fall to stop short at any point and mark a pause, more or less long, before resuming, or reversing, the rise now fall, the fall rise ,these in their turn to be completed, or to stop short and mark a pause, more or less long, before resuming, or again reversing, and so on, till finally one or the other extreme is reached. Such variations of rise and fall, combining in countless rhythms, commonly attend the passage from white and heat to black and cold, and vice versa. The extremes alone are stable as is stressed by the vibration to be observed when a pause occurs at some intermediate stage, no matter what its level and duration. Then all vibrates, ground, wall, vault, bodies, ashen or leaden or between the two, as may be. But on the whole, experience shows, such uncertain passage is not common. And most often, when the light begins to fail, and along with it the heat, the movement continues unbroken until, in the space of some twenty seconds, pitch black is reached and at the same instant say freezing-point. Same remark for the reverse movement, towards heat and whiteness. Next most frequent is the fall or rise with pauses of varying length in these feverish greys, without at any moment reversal of the movement. But whatever its uncertainties the return sooner or later to a temporary calm seems assured, for the moment, in the black dark or the great whiteness, with attendant temperature, world still proof against enduring tumult. Rediscovered miraculously after what absence in perfect voids it is no longer quite the same, from this point of view, but there is no other. Externally all is as before and the sighting of the little fabric quite as much a matter of chance, its whiteness merging in the surrounding whiteness. But go in now briefer lulls and never twice the same storm. Light and heat remain linked as though supplied by the same source of which still no trace. Still on the ground, bent in three, the head against the wall at B, the arse against the wall at A, the knees against the wall between B and C, the feet against the wall between C and A, that is to say inscribed in the semicircle ACB, merging in the white ground were it not for the long hair of strangely imperfect whiteness, the white body of a woman finally. Similarly inscribed in the other semicircle, against the wall his head at A, his arse at B, his knees between A and D, his feet between D and B, the partner. On their right sides therefore both and back to back head to arse. Hold a mirror to their lips, it mists. With their left hands they hold their left legs a little below the knee, with their right hands their left arms a little above the elbow. In this agitated light, its great white calm now so rare and brief, inspection is not easy. Sweat and mirror notwithstanding they might well pass for inanimate but for the left eyes which at incalculable intervals suddenly open wide and gaze in unblinking exposure long beyond what is humanly possible. Piercing pale blue the effect is striking, in the beginning. Never the two gazes together except once, when the beginning of one overlapped the end of the other, for about ten seconds. Neither fat nor thin, big nor small, the bodies seem whole and in fairly good condition, to judge by the surfaces exposed to view. The faces too, assuming the two sides of a piece, seem to want nothing essential. Between their absolute stillness and the convulsive light the contrast is striking, in the beginning, for one who still remembers having been struck by the contrary. It is clear however, from a thousand little signs too long to imagine, that they are not sleeping. Only murmur ah, no more, in this silence, and at the same instant for the eye of prey the infinitesimal shudder instantaneously suppressed. Leave them there, sweating and icy, there is better elsewhere. No, life ends and no, there is nothing elsewhere, and no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness, to see if they still lie still in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark for good, or the great whiteness unchanging, and if not what they are doing.

“The Friar’s Dream” — Álvaro Mutis

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From The Mansion; English translation by Beatriz Haugner.

“The Girl’s Dream” — Álvaro Mutis

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From The Mansion; English translation by Beatriz Haugner.

“How Trees Walk” — Leo Tolstoy

“How Trees Walk”

by

Leo Tolstoy

(Trans. by Leo Wiener)


One day we were cleaning an overgrown path on a hillock near the pond. We cut down a lot of brier bushes, willows, and poplars,—then came the turn of a bird-cherry. It was growing on the path, and it was so old and stout that it could not be less than ten years old. And yet I knew that five years ago the garden had been cleaned. I could not understand how such an old bird-cherry could have grown out there. We cut it down and went farther. Farther away, in another thicket, there grew a similar bird-cherry, even stouter than the first. I looked at its root, and saw that it grew under an old linden. The linden with its branches choked it, and it had stretched out about twelve feet in a straight line, and only then came out to the light, raised its head, and began to blossom.

I cut it down at the root, and was surprised to find it so fresh, while the root was rotten. After we had cut it down, the peasants and I tried to pull it off; but no matter how much we jerked at it, we were unable to drag it away: it seemed to have stuck fast. I said:

“Look whether it has not caught somewhere.”

A workman crawled under it, and called out:

“It has another root; it is out on the path!”

I walked over to him, and saw that it was so.

Not to be choked by the linden, the bird-cherry had gone away from underneath the linden out on the path, about eight feet from its former root. The root which I had cut down was rotten and dry, but the new one was fresh. The bird-cherry had evidently felt that it could[Pg 177] not exist under the linden, so it had stretched out, dropped a branch to the ground, made a root of that branch, and left the other root. Only then did I understand how the first bird-cherry had grown out on the road. It had evidently done the same,—only it had had time to give up the old root, and so I had not found it.

“The Behavior of Mirrors on Easter Island” — Julio Cortázar

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(English translation by Paul Blackburn)

Seven story ideas from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 22nd, 1838

A young man and girl meet together, each in search of a person to be known by some particular sign. They watch and wait a great while for that person to pass. At last some casual circumstance discloses that each is the one that the other is waiting for. Moral,–that what we need for our happiness is often close at hand, if we knew but how to seek for it.

The journal of a human heart for a single day in ordinary circumstances. The lights and shadows that flit across it; its internal vicissitudes.

Distrust to be thus exemplified: Various good and desirable things to be presented to a young man, and offered to his acceptance,–as a friend, a wife, a fortune; but he to refuse them all, suspecting that it is merely a delusion. Yet all to be real, and he to be told so, when too late.

A man tries to be happy in love; he cannot sincerely give his heart, and the affair seems all a dream. In domestic life, the same; in politics, a seeming patriot; but still he is sincere, and all seems like a theatre.

An old man, on a summer day, sits on a hill-top, or on the observatory of his house, and sees the sun’s light pass from one object to another connected with the events of his past life,–as the school-house, the place where his wife lived in her maidenhood,–its setting beams falling on the churchyard.

An idle man’s pleasures and occupations and thoughts during a day spent by the seashore: among them, that of sitting on the top of a cliff, and throwing stones at his own shadow, far below.

A blind man to set forth on a walk through ways unknown to him, and to trust to the guidance of anybody who will take the trouble; the different characters who would undertake it: some mischievous, some well-meaning, but incapable; perhaps one blind man undertakes to lead another. At last, possibly, he rejects all guidance, and blunders on by himself.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 22nd, 1837. From Passages from the American Note-Books. The full journal entry contains a description of a walk, a note on Hawthorne’s ancestors, and a description of a portrait gallery in the Essex Historical Society.

“The Plot,” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Plot”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

English translation by Andrew Hurley


To make his horror perfect, Caesar, hemmed about at the foot of a statue by his friends’ impatient knives, discovers among the faces and the blades the face of Marcus Junius Brutus, his ward, perhaps his very son—and so Caesar stops defending himself, and cries out Et tu, Brute? Shakespeare and Quevedo record that pathetic cry.

Fate is partial to repetitions, variations symmetries. Nineteen centuries later, in the southern part of the province of Buenos Aires, a  gaucho is set upon by other gauchos, and as he falls he recognizes a godson of his, and says to him in gentle remonstrance and slow surprise (these words must be heard, not read): Pero, ¡che! Heches, but he does not know that he has died so that a scene can be played out again.

“The Witness,” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Witness”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

English translation by Andrew Hurley


In a stable that stands almost in the shadow of the new stone church, a man with gray eyes and gray beard, lying amid the odor of the animals, humbly tries to will himself into death, much as a man might will himself to sleep. The day, obedient to vast and secret laws, slowly shifts about and mingles the shadows in the lowly place; outside lie plowed fields, a ditch clogged with dead leaves, and the faint track of a wolf in the black clay where the line of woods begins. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten.

The bells for orisons awaken him. Bells are now one of evening’s customs in the kingdoms of England, but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again. The world will be a little  poorer when this Saxon man is dead.

Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder—and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonia Fernandez, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

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

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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.”

The scene is grey (Stephen Crane)

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“It” — Norman Mailer

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