“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.

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“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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“The Invention of the Devil,” a short fable by Franz Kafka

“The Frog Prince,” a very short story by Robert Coover

“The Frog Prince” by Robert Coover 

At first, it was great. Sure. It always is. She cuddled a frog, wishing for more, and—presto! A handsome prince who doted on her. It meant the end of her marriage, of course, but her ex was something of a toad himself, who had a nasty habit of talking with his mouth full and a tongue good for nothing but licking stamps.

The prince was adorable—all the girls at the bridge club, squirming with envy, said so—though you could still see the effects his previous residence had had on him. He had heavy-lidded eyes and a wide mouth like a hand puppet’s, his complexion was a bit off, and his loose-fitting skin was thin and clammy. His semen had a muddy taste, like the pond he came from, and his little apparatus was disappointing, but his tongue was amazing. It could reach the deepest recesses, triggering sensations she’d never known before. His crown was not worn like a hat—it grew out of his head like horns and sometimes got in the way—but his tongue was long enough for detours and tickled other parts on the path in. It gave him not so much a lisp as a consonantal slurp, making gibberish out of his sweet nothings, but talking was never the main thing between them.

Read the rest of Robert Coover’s “The Frog Prince” at The New Yorker

“Macadam” — Lucia Berlin

“Macadam” by Lucia Berlin

from A Manual for Cleaning Women


 

When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice.

I’d chew ice when the lemonade was finished, swaying with my grandmother on the porch swing. We gazed down upon the chain gang paving Upson Street. A foreman poured the macadam; the convicts stomped it down with a heavy rhythmic beat. The chains rang; the macadam made the sound of applause.

The three of us said the word often. My mother because she hated where we lived, in squalor, and at least now we would have a macadam street. My grandmother just so wanted things clean — it would hold down the dust. Red Texan dust that blew in with gray tailings from the smelter, sifting into dunes on the polished hall floor, onto her mahogany table.

I used to say macadam out loud, to myself, because it sounded like the name for a friend.

Read a short story by Witold Gombrowicz

Witold Gombrowicz’s (very) short story “The Tragic Tale of the Baron and His Wife” is up at The Paris Review (translation by Tul’si Bhambry). First section of the story—

The Baroness was a charming creature. The Baron had taken her from a family of high principles and had no reason to mistrust her, despite the fact that the tooth of time had already gnawed into him quite deeply . . . And yet a disquieting element of grace and charm lay dormant within her, which could easily complicate the practical application of the Baron’s imponderabilia (since the Baron was a bit of a stickler). One day, after a period of conjugal life graced with the quiet bliss of marital duty, the Baroness came running to her husband and threw her arms around his neck. “I think I ought to tell you this. Henryk has fallen in love with me . . . Yesterday he declared himself to me, so quickly and suddenly that I had no time to stop him.”

“And are you in love with him, too?” he asked.

“No, I don’t love him, because I have pledged my love to you,” she replied.

“Very well then,” he said. “If you are in love with him but do not love him because it is your duty to love me, then my esteem for you doubles and I love you twice as much. And the young chap’s suffering is a well-­deserved punishment for his weakness of character—losing his heart to a married woman! Principles, my dear! Should he ever make another declaration of love, tell him that you also have a declaration to make—but of principles. A man of unshakable principles can walk through life with his head held high.”

Read the rest of “The Tragic Tale of the Baron and His Wife.”

“Rainy Day” — Lucia Berlin

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“Unmasking a Confidence Trickster” — Franz Kafka

“Unmasking a Confidence Trickster”

by

Franz Kafka

English translation by the Muirs


 

At last, about ten o’clock at night, I came to the doorway of the fine house where I was invited to spend the evening, after the man beside me, whom I was barely acquainted with and who had once again thrust himself unasked upon me, had marched me for two long hours around the streets.

“Well!” I said, and clapped my hands to show that I really had to bid him goodbye. I had already made several less explicit attempts to get rid of him. I was tired out.

“Are you going straight in?” he asked. I heard a sound in his mouth that was like the snapping of teeth.

“Yes.”

I had been invited out, I told him when I met him. But it was to enter a house where I longed to be that I had been invited, not to stand here at the street door looking past the ears of the man before me. Nor to fall silent with him, as if we were doomed to stay for a long time on this spot. And yet the houses around us at once took a share in our silence, and the darkness over them, all the way up to the stars. And the steps of invisible passers-by, which one could not take the trouble to elucidate, and the wind persistently buffeting the other side of the street, and a gramophone singing behind the closed windows of some room-they all announced themselves in this silence, as if it were their own possession for the time past and to come.

And my companion subscribed to it in his own name and–with a smile–in mine too, stretched his right arm up along the wall and leaned his cheek upon it, shutting his eyes.

But I did not wait to see the end of that smile, for shame suddenly caught hold of me. It had needed that smile to let me know that the man was a confidence trickster, nothing else. And yet I had been months in the town and thought I knew all about confidence tricksters, how they came slinking out of side streets by night to meet us with outstretched hands like tavernkeepers, how they haunted the advertisement pillars we stood beside, sliding round them as if playing hide-and-seek and spying on us with at least one eye, how they suddenly appeared on the curb of the pavement at cross streets when we were hesitating! I understood them so well, they were the first acquaintances I had made the town’s small taverns, and to them I owed my first inkling of a ruthless hardness which I was now so conscious of, everywhere on earth, that I was even beginning to feel it in myself. How persistently they blocked our way, even when we had long shaken ourselves free, even when, that is, they had nothing more to hope for! How they refused to give up, to admit defeat, but kept shooting glances at us that even from a distance were still compelling! And the means they employed were always the same: they planted themselves before us, looking as large as possible, tried to hinder us from going where we purposed, offered us instead a habitation in their own bosoms, and when at last all our balked feelings rose in revolt they welcomed that like an embrace into which they threw themselves face foremost.

And it had taken me such a long time in this man’s company to recognize the same old game. I rubbed my finger tips together to wipe away the disgrace. My companion was still leaning there as before, still believing himself a successful trickster, and his self-complacency glowed pink on his free cheek.

“Caught in the act!” said I, tapping him lightly on the shoulder. Then I ran up the steps, and the disinterested devotion on the servants’ faces in the hall delighted me like an unexpected treat. I looked at them all, one after another, while they took my greatcoat off and wiped my shoes clean.

With a deep breath of relief and straightening myself to my full height I then entered the drawing room.

“The Tadpole and the Frog,” a fable from Robert Louis Stevenson

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“The Citizen and the Traveller,” a short fable from Robert Louis Stevenson

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Five from Félix Fénéon

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