“The Mountebank” — Jorge Luis Borges

“The Mountebank”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


One day in July, 1952, the man dressed in mourning weeds appeared in that little village on the Chaco River.* He was a tall, thin man with vaguely Indian features and the inexpressive face of a half-wit or a mask. The townsfolk treated him with some deference, not because of who he was but because of the personage he was portraying or had by now become. He chose a house near the river; with the help of some neighbor women he laid a board across two sawhorses, and on it he set a pasteboard coffin with a blond-haired mannequin inside. In addition, they lighted four candles in tall candleholders and put flowers all around. The townsfolk soon began to gather. Old ladies bereft of hope, dumbstruck wide-eyed boys, peons who respectfully took off their pith hats—they filed past the coffin and said: My condolences, General. The man in mourning sat sorrowfully at the head of the coffin, his hands crossed over his belly like a pregnant woman. He would extend his right hand to shake the hand extended to him and answer with courage and resignation: It was fate. Everything humanly possible was done. A tin collection box received the two-peso price of admission, and many could not content themselves with a single visit.

What kind of man, I ask myself, thought up and then acted out that funereal farce—a
fanatic? a grief-stricken mourner? a madman? a cynical impostor? Did he, in acting out his mournful role as the macabre widower, believe himself to be Perón? It is an incredible story, but it actually happened—and perhaps not once but many times, with different actors and local variants. In it, one can see the perfect symbol of an unreal time, and it is like the reflection of a dream or like that play within a play in Hamlet.

The man in mourning was not Perón and the blond-haired mannequin was not the woman Eva Duarte, but then Perón was not Perón, either, nor was Eva, Eva—they were unknown or anonymous persons (whose secret name and true face we shall never know) who acted out, for the credulous love of the working class, a crass and ignoble mythology.

“A Problem,” a three-paragraph story by Jorge Luis Borges

“A Problem”

by Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


Let us imagine that a piece of paper with a text in Arabic on it is discovered in Toledo, and that paleographers declare the text to have been written by that same Cede Hamete Benengeli from whom Cervantes derived Don Quixote. In it, we read that the hero (who, as everyone knows, wandered the roads of Spain armed with a lance and sword, challenging anyone for any reason) discovers, after one of his many combats, that he has killed a man. At that point the fragment breaks off; the problem is to guess, or hypothesize, how don Quixote reacts.

So far as I can see, there are three possibilities. The first is a negative one: Nothing
in particular happens, because in the hallucinatory world of don Quixote, death is no
more uncommon than magic, and there is no reason that killing a mere man should disturb one who does battle, or thinks he does battle, with fabled beasts and sorcerers. The second is pathetic: Don Quixote never truly managed to forget that he was a creation, a projection, of Alonso Quijano, reader of fabulous tales. The sight of death, the realization that a delusion has led him to commit the sin of Cain, awakens him from his willful madness, perhaps forever. The third is perhaps the most plausible: Having
killed the man, don Quixote cannot allow himself to think that the terrible act is the work
of a delirium; the reality of the effect makes him assume a like reality of cause, and don Quixote never emerges from his madness.

But there is yet another hypothesis, which is alien to the Spanish mind (even to the Western mind) and which requires a more ancient, more complex, and more timeworn setting. Don Quixote—who is no longer don Quixote but a king of the cycles of Hindustan—senses, as he stands before the body of his enemy, that killing and engendering are acts of God or of magic, which everyone knows transcend the human condition. He knows that death is illusory, as are the bloody sword that lies heavy in his hand, he himself and his entire past life, and the vast gods and the universe.

“Covered Mirrors,” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“Covered Mirrors”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


Islam tells us that on the unappealable Day of Judgment, all who have perpetrated images of living things will reawaken with their works, and will be ordered to blow life into them, and they will fail, and they and their works will be cast into the fires of punishment. As a child, I knew that horror of the spectral duplication or multiplication of reality, but mine would come as I stood before large mirrors. As soon as it began to grow dark outside, the constant, infallible functioning of mirrors, the way they followed my every movement, their cosmic pantomime, would seem eerie to me. One of my insistent pleas to God and my guardian angel was that I not dream of mirrors; I recall clearly that I would keep one eye on them uneasily. I feared sometimes that they would begin to veer off from reality; other times, that I would see my face in them disfigured by strange misfortunes. I have learned that this horror is monstrously abroad in the world again. The story is quite simple, and terribly unpleasant.

In 1927, I met a grave young woman, first by telephone (because Julia began as a voice without a name or face) and then on a corner at nightfall. Her eyes were alarmingly large, her hair jet black and straight, her figure severe. She was the granddaughter and greatgranddaughter of Federalists, as I was the grandson and great-grandson of Unitarians, but that ancient discord between our lineages was, for us, a bond, a fuller possession of our homeland. She lived with her family in a big run-down high-ceiling’d house, in the resentment and savorlessness of genteel poverty. In the afternoons— only very rarely at night—we would go out walking through her neighbor-hood, which was Balvanera.  We would stroll along beside the high blank wall of the railway yard; once we walked down Sarmien to all the way to the cleared grounds of the Parque Centenario. Between us there was neither love itself nor the fiction of love; I sensed in her an intensity that was utterly unlike the intensity of eroticism, and I feared it. In order to forge an intimacy with women, one often tells them about true or apocryphal things that happened in one’s youth; I must have told her at some point about my horror of mirrors, and so in 1928 I must have planted the hallucination that was to flower in 1931. Now I have just learned that she has gone insane, and that in her room all the mirrors are covered, because she sees my reflection in them—usurping her own—and she trembles and cannot speak, and says that I am magically following her, watching her, stalking her.

What dreadful bondage, the bondage of my face—or one of my former faces. Its odious fate makes me odious as well, but I don’t care anymore.

He sets off one day on an arduous journey to a remote kingdom, wondering, as the weeks pass, about the wisdom of it (Robert Coover)

He sets off one day on an arduous journey to a remote kingdom, wondering, as the weeks pass, about the wisdom of it. Even the purpose. When he launched forth, he was sure he had a purpose, but by the time he reaches the primitive mountain village at the edge of the wilderness, he can no longer remember it. In fact, he is not certain this was his original destination. Wasn’t he going to the barber shop? It was summertime when he left, but now it is winter and the dead of night and he is alone and dressed only in his golf shirt and orange-and-green checked Bermuda shorts. He is met by villagers, huddled in heavy furs, who stare at him with expressions of dread and horror. He’s a friendly guy, even among strangers, always ready to buy the first round, and he puts his hand out and flashes them his best smile, but they shriek and shrink back, crossing themselves theatrically. A horse-drawn sleigh stands waiting in the middle of the snowy road, apparently meant for him, the driver’s face hidden in his upturned collar and large fur hat, the horses impatiently snorting plumes of white fog. There are thick fur wraps laid out for him on the seat, so he crawls into the sleigh and pulls them around him and they’re off, whipping over the snowswept mountains with alarming speed, the sleigh’s bells tolling funereally. The icy wind pushes his eyelashes back, but he can see nothing except the snow thudding against his naked eyeballs. The sleigh stops abruptly in a neighbourhood of ancient stone castles. He is dropped off unceremoniously in front of one of them, and the sleigh flies off into the distance, rear lanterns wagging frantically in the black night. Overhead, the bitter wind whistles around the louring towers, and wolves howl menacingly in the surrounding hills. As he approaches the heavy doors, they open of their own accord, the hinges grinding, and he enters the castle’s great hall. It is starkly inhospitable, unkempt and cold and smelling vaguely of unwashed laundry, yet, for all that, it looks suspiciously like his own living room. The television is on so he goes in and, exhausted by his travels, collapses in front of it, ready to accept whatever might appear there. Seems to be a sitcom with comic monsters playing a ball game of some sort with human heads. He laughs along with the canned laughter on the TV and about as sincerely. His wife comes in, baring, with a wink, her incisors, and offers him a Bloody Mary.

Read the rest of Robert Coover’s very short story “Vampire” at Granta.

Five from Félix Fénéon

ffff

Two Telegrams (Antonioni) — Jen Mazza

MazzaScissorsWeb

Two Telegrams (Antonioni), 2013 by Jen Mazza (b. 1972)

“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.

Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? (Lucia Berlin)

No one else was outside, and I was too depressed to call anybody to come see the unbelievable sunset. Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? Or a word to describe how I saw my whole future flash before my eyes? I saw that I’d stay at the Albuquerque National Bank and Bernie would get his doctorate and keep on painting bad paintings and making muddy pottery and would get tenure. We would have two daughters and one would a dentist and the other a cocaine addict. Well, of course I didn’t know all that, but I saw how things would be hard. And I knew that years and years from then Bernie would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.

From Lucia Berlin’s short story “Lead Street, Albuquerque.” Collected in Evening in Paradise.

Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father (Book acquired, 29 Oct. 2018)

dqsvys2vsaaengd

Attempting to fictionalise things that happened to me or that I observed, even from afar, can be like trying to slip through a gap in a wire fence: shirtsleeves are snagged and threaten to unspool—so bear with me.

From “Music for Church Organs.”

Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is new from Transmission Press.

“What does one wear to one’s death? What does the sheep think of the sky? Wrap the disc of soap in the washer. Draw it slow across the flesh, up the arm, up the arm, across the belly. Flesh of the living becomes flesh of the dead. Open the cupboard, doorknob squealing. Finger through coathangers, coats and throwovers and dresses. Pull a skirt out to see, imagine it on the hips, around the legs, hang the hanger back and look for death-clothe again. The water hot brings out the soap’s smell soft and light as feathers. That day on the corner the boys threw eggs. Egg in the hair and ran home. Egg on face means a smile now. Water down back down legs.

From “What the Sheep Thinks of the Sky.”

There are 28 stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father.

I met the dead man in the only place appropriate: underground. I was in Cappadocia, Turkey, in a tunnel dug more than a millennium ago by Byzantines hiding with their faith. I was—I admit this only reluctantly—lost; I’d separated from the tour group soon after the smiling guide had explained that the network of tunnels stretched out under the countryside for kilometers, and was alone in the ancient hallways for long enough to imagine being trapped in them forever.

From “The Deadest Man in the Underworld.”

I have not read all of the stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father yet.

While on holiday in Europe you go to a Courbet exhibition with a friend but you are so distracted by the scratching of your shirt’s tag on the base of your neck that later, after you’ve left the gallery, all that will remain with you are memories of idyllic, woodland scenes. A deer maybe. Only when you exit the exhibition do you go into a toilet cubicle, wrestle the back of the shirt around to the front and pluck off the tag, tearing a hole in the collar.

From “Stories About You.”

Some of the stories in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father are microfictions; some are not. Most are what could lazily be called experimental, but I don’t think Foster is experimenting. I think he knows what he’s doing. The reader is the one who gets experiment.

To be specific: fire-burnt fingers.

From “Hellhole.”

Tristan Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is new from Transmission Press.

 

“Lunch” — William T. Vollmann

“Lunch”

by

William T. Vollmann


Faces at lunch, oh, yes, smirking, lordly, bored or weary—here and there a flash of passion, of dreams or loving seriousness; these signs I saw, notwithstanding the sweep of a fork like a Stuka dive-bomber, stabbing down into the cringing salads, carrying them up to the death of unseen teeth between dancing wrinkled cheeks; a breadstick rose in hand, approached the purple lips in a man’s dull gray face; an oval darkness opened and shut and the breadstick was half gone! A lady in a red blazer, her face alert, patient and professionally kind like a psychoanalyst’s, stuck her fork lovingly into a tomato, smiling across the table at another woman’s face; everything she did was gentle, and it was but habit for her to hurt the tomato as little as possible; nonetheless she did not see it. Nodding and shaking her head, she ate and ate, gazing sweetly into the other woman’s face. Finally I saw one woman in sunglasses who studied her arugula as she bit it…It disappeared by jagged inches, while across the table, in her husband’s lap, the baby watched in dark-eyed astonishment. Her husband crammed an immense collage of sandwich components into his hairy cheeks. He snatched up pommes-frites and they vanished in toto. When the dessert cart came, the starched white shoulders of businessmen continued to flex and shine; the faces gazed at one another over emptiness, maybe happier now that they had eaten, unthinking of what they had wrought.

“Farewell,” a very short story by Denis Johnson

“Farewell”

by

Denis Johnson

(A vignette from “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”)


Elaine got a wall phone for the kitchen, a sleek blue one that wears its receiver like a hat, with a caller-I.D. readout on its face just below the keypad. While I eyeballed this instrument, having just come in from my visit with the chiropractor, a brisk, modest tone began, and the tiny screen showed ten digits I didn’t recognize. My inclination was to scorn it, like any other unknown. But this was the first call, the inaugural message.

As soon as I touched the receiver I wondered if I’d regret this, if I was holding a mistake in my hand, if I was pulling this mistake to my head and saying “Hello” to it.

The caller was my first wife, Virginia, or Ginny, as I always called her. We were married long ago, in our early twenties, and put a stop to it after three crazy years. Since then, we hadn’t spoken, we’d had no reason to, but now we had one. Ginny was dying.

Her voice came faintly. She told me the doctors had closed the book on her, she’d ordered her affairs, the good people from hospice were in attendance.

Before she ended this earthly transit, as she called it, Ginny wanted to shed any kind of bitterness against certain people, certain men, especially me. She said how much she’d been hurt, and how badly she wanted to forgive me, but she didn’t know whether she could or not—she hoped she could—and I assured her, from the abyss of a broken heart, that I hoped so, too, that I hated my infidelities and my lies about the money, and the way I’d kept my boredom secret, and my secrets in general, and Ginny and I talked, after forty years of silence, about the many other ways I’d stolen her right to the truth.

In the middle of this, I began wondering, most uncomfortably, in fact with a dizzy, sweating anxiety, if I’d made a mistake—if this wasn’t my first wife, Ginny, no, but rather my second wife, Jennifer, often called Jenny. Because of the weakness of her voice and my own humming shock at the news, also the situation around her as she tried to speak to me on this very important occasion—folks coming and going, and the sounds of a respirator, I supposed—now, fifteen minutes into this call, I couldn’t remember if she’d actually said her name when I picked up the phone and I suddenly didn’t know which set of crimes I was regretting, wasn’t sure if this dying farewell clobbering me to my knees in true repentance beside the kitchen table was Virginia’s, or Jennifer’s.

“This is hard,” I said. “Can I put the phone down a minute?” I heard her say O.K.

The house felt empty. “Elaine?” I called. Nothing. I wiped my face with a dishrag and took off my blazer and hung it on a chair and called out Elaine’s name one more time and then picked up the receiver again. There was nobody there.

Somewhere inside it, the phone had preserved the caller’s number, of course, Ginny’s number or Jenny’s, but I didn’t look for it. We’d had our talk, and Ginny or Jenny, whichever, had recognized herself in my frank apologies, and she’d been satisfied—because, after all, both sets of crimes had been the same.

I was tired. What a day. I called Elaine on her cell phone. We agreed she might as well stay at the Budget Inn on the East Side. She volunteered out there, teaching adults to read, and once in a while she got caught late and stayed over. Good. I could lock all three locks on the door and call it a day. I didn’t mention the previous call. I turned in early.

I dreamed of a wild landscape—elephants, dinosaurs, bat caves, strange natives, and so on.

I woke, couldn’t go back to sleep, put on a long terry-cloth robe over my p.j.’s and slipped into my loafers and went walking. People in bathrobes stroll around here at all hours, but not often, I think, without a pet on a leash. Ours is a good neighborhood—a Catholic church and a Mormon one, and a posh town-house development with much open green space, and, on our side of the street, some pretty nice smaller homes.

I wonder if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you, when you walk in your bathrobe and tasselled loafers, for instance, well out of your neighborhood and among a lot of closed shops, and you approach your very faint reflection in a window with words above it. The sign said “Sky and Celery.” Closer, it read “Ski and Cyclery.”

I headed home.

“The Auction,” a very short story by Stephen Crane

“The Auction”

by

Stephen Crane


 

Some said that Ferguson gave up sailoring because he was tired of the sea. Some said that it was because he loved a woman. In truth it was because he was tired of the sea and because he loved a woman.

He saw the woman once, and immediately she became for him the symbol of all things unconnected with the sea. He did not trouble to look again at the grey old goddess, the muttering slave of the moon. Her splendours, her treacheries, her smiles, her rages, her vanities, were no longer on his mind. He took heels after a little human being, and the woman made his thought spin at all times like a top; whereas the ocean had only made him think when he was on watch.

He developed a grin for the power of the sea, and, in derision, he wanted to sell the red and green parrot which had sailed four voyages with him. The woman, however, had a sentiment concerning the bird’s plumage, and she commanded Ferguson to keep it in order, as it happened, that she might forget to put food in its cage.

The parrot did not attend the wedding. It stayed at home and blasphemed at a stock of furniture, bought on the installment plan, and arrayed for the reception of the bride and groom.

As a sailor, Ferguson had suffered the acute hankering for port; and being now always in port, he tried to force life to become an endless picnic. He was not an example of diligent and peaceful citizenship. Ablution became difficult in the little apartment, because Ferguson kept the wash-basin filled with ice and bottles of beer: and so, finally, the dealer in second-hand furniture agreed to auction the household goods on commission. Owing to an exceedingly liberal definition of a term, the parrot and cage were included. “On the level?” cried the parrot, “On the level? On the level? On the level?”

On the way to the sale, Ferguson’s wife spoke hopefully. “You can’t tell, Jim,” she said. “Perhaps some of ’em will get to biddin’, and we might get almost as much as we paid for the things.”

The auction room was in a cellar. It was crowded with people and with house furniture; so that as the auctioneer’s assistant moved from one piece to another he caused a great shuffling. There was an astounding number of old women in curious bonnets. The rickety stairway was thronged with men who wished to smoke and be free from the old women. Two lamps made all the faces appear yellow as parchment. Incidentally they could impart a lustre of value to very poor furniture.

The auctioneer was a fat, shrewd-looking individual, who seemed also to be a great bully. The assistant was the most imperturbable of beings, moving with the dignity of an image on rollers. As the Fergusons forced their way down the stair-way, the assistant roared: “Number twenty-one!”

“Number twenty-one!” cried the auctioneer. “Number twenty-one! A fine new handsome bureau! Two dollars? Two dollars is bid! Two and a half! Two and a half! Three? Three is bid. Four! Four dollars! A fine new handsome bureau at four dollars! Four dollars! Four dollars! F-o-u-r d-o-l-l-a-r-s! Sold at four dollars.”

“On the level?” cried the parrot, muffled somewhere among furniture and carpets. “On the level? On the level?” Every one tittered.

Mrs. Ferguson had turned pale, and gripped her husband’s arm. “Jim! Did you hear? The bureau—four dollars—”

Ferguson glowered at her with the swift brutality of a man afraid of a scene. “Shut up, can’t you!”

Mrs. Ferguson took a seat upon the steps; and hidden there by the thick ranks of men, she began to softly sob. Through her tears appeared the yellowish mist of the lamplight, streaming about the monstrous shadows of the spectators. From time to time these latter whispered eagerly: “See, that went cheap!” In fact when anything was bought at a particularly low price, a murmur of admiration arose for the successful bidder.

The bedstead was sold for two dollars, the mattresses and springs for one dollar and sixty cents. This figure seemed to go through the woman’s heart. There was derision in the sound of it. She bowed her head in her hands. “Oh, God, a dollar-sixty! Oh, God, a dollar-sixty!”

The parrot was evidently under heaps of carpet, but the dauntless bird still raised the cry, “On the level?”

Some of the men near Mrs. Ferguson moved timidly away upon hearing her low sobs. They perfectly understood that a woman in tears is formidable.

The shrill voice went like a hammer, beat and beat, upon the woman’s heart. An odour of varnish, of the dust of old carpets, assailed her and seemed to possess a sinister meaning. The golden haze from the two lamps was an atmosphere of shame, sorrow, greed. But it was when the parrot called that a terror of the place and of the eyes of the people arose in her so strongly that she could not have lifted her head any more than if her neck had been of iron.

At last came the parrot’s turn. The assistant fumbled until he found the ring of the cage, and the bird was drawn into view. It adjusted its feathers calmly and cast a rolling wicked eye over the crowd.

“Oh, the good ship Sarah sailed the seas,And the wind it blew all day—”

This was the part of a ballad which Ferguson had tried to teach it. With a singular audacity and scorn, the parrot bawled these lines at the auctioneer as if it considered them to bear some particular insult.

The throng in the cellar burst into laughter. The auctioneer attempted to start the bidding, and the parrot interrupted with a repetition of the lines. It swaggered to and fro on its perch, and gazed at the faces of the crowd, with so much rowdy understanding and derision that even the auctioneer could not confront it. The auction was brought to a halt; a wild hilarity developed, and every one gave jeering advice.

Ferguson looked down at his wife and groaned. She had cowered against the wall, hiding her face. He touched her shoulder and she arose. They sneaked softly up the stairs with heads bowed.

Out in the street, Ferguson gripped his fists and said: “Oh, but wouldn’t I like to strangle it!”

His wife cried in a voice of wild grief: “It—it m—made us a laughing-stock in—in front of all that crowd!”

For the auctioning of their household goods, the sale of their home—this financial calamity lost its power in the presence of the social shame contained in a crowd’s laughter.

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.

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.”

“Two Little Things” — Robert Walser

tw

“It” — Norman Mailer

it

“Happiest Moment” — Lydia Davis

happiest