The world is unsatisfactory | Donald Barthelme

We are left, I submit, with the problem of her depressions. They are, I agree, terrible. Your idea that I am not “supportive” enough is, I think, wrong. I have found, as a practical matter, that the best thing to do is to just do ordinary things, read the newspaper for example, or watch basketball, or wash the dishes. That seems to allow her to come out of it better than any amount of so-called “support. ” (About the chasmus hystericus or hysterical yawning I don’t worry any more. It is masking behavior, of course, but after all, you must allow us our tics. The world is waiting for the sunrise.) What do you do with a patient who finds the world unsatisfactory? The world is unsatisfactory; only a fool would deny it. I know that your own ongoing psychic structuralization is still going on-you are thirty-seven and I am forty-one-but you must be old enough by now to realize that shit is shit. Susan’s perception that America has somehow got hold of the greed ethic and that the greed ethic has turned America into a tidy little hell is not, I think, wrong. What do you do with such a perception? Apply Band-Aids, I suppose. About her depressions, I wouldn’t do anything. I’d leave them alone. Put on a record.

From Donald Barthelme’s short story “The Sandman.”

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part IV

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

This post covers stories 42-37.

47. “The Crisis” (Great Days, 1979)

“The Crisis” is a bit of a toss off, a bricolage of the last decade (’69-’79) that never coheres into a duet, monologue, theme, or even punchline. Its plot, such as it is, details (details is not the correct verb) the circumstances of an absurd failed revolution. Ostensibly a dialogue (or is it a chorus?), “The Crisis” doesn’t add up to much, and is perhaps best summarized in one of its closing images:

Distant fingers from the rebel forces are raised in fond salute.

Is Barthelme shooting his readers the bird?

The story feels like a slapdash riff on Walker Percy’s weird and wonderful satirical novel Love in the Ruins. (Barthelme was a huge Percy fan.)

46. “Our Work and Why We Do It” (Amateurs, 1976)

“Our Work and Why We Do It” is self-consciously postmodern, a mash-up of Beckett’s absurdism, Benjamin’s seminal “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” burgeoning Marxist aesthetic philosophy, and the modes and means of modernism. The opening line seems to satirize capital’s relationship between art, artist, and the means of production: “As admirable volume after admirable volume tumbled from the sweating presses . . . ” The ellipses are not mine; rather, Barthelme sets the stage here for a print economy of capitalist transactions. The Wells Fargo man arrives, gun in hand, to pick up the “bundle of Alice Cooper T-shirts we had just printed up.” He hurries the “precious product” — that’s all it is, product, content — to the “glittering fans”.

We then learn there’s a bit of conflict between the owners and the workers.

A few lines later, the narrator quips, “And I saw the figure 5 writ in gold.” Barthelme copies-cuts-pastes the modernists into his collage here—we get the visual of Charles Demuth’s painting, itself copying-cutting-pasting Willliam Carlos Williams’ “The Great Figure.”

Publication is a rough business: “If only we could confine ourselves to matchbook covers!” laments the narrator–

But matchbook covers are not our destiny. Our destiny is to accomplish 1. 5 million impressions per day. In the next quarter, that figure will be upped by twelve percent, unless

The hanging “unless” is Barthelme’s rhetorical trick and not my oversight—the punchline is “leather,” by the way.  “Leather is the way to accomplish more impressions. But the real hanging punchline is that word “impressions,” with its many connotations.

45. “The Great Hug” (Amateurs, 1976)

Such a great weird little story—is it about a toxic relationship between the Balloon Man and the Pin Lady? is it a metaphor for relationships in the modern era? is it an autobiographical riff, Barthelme’s love woes scribbled into a weird parody? —an oblique comment on e.e. cummings “in Just” — look, I don’t fucken know, maybe read it here. It’ll only take a few minutes, and then you can think about it for a week or so.

44. “The School” (Amateurs, 1976)

“The School” is wonderful stuff, and will take you like, what, 9, 10 minutes to read, if not less.

It’s a monologue I guess, delivered by a sorry educator whose schooling has killed off all manner of creatures. In the first three paragraphs we learn about the school’s failure to keep alive trees, snakes, and herb gardens, but then there’s a more drastic turn:

Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy—goddammit Donald Barthelme. This line made me laugh out loud. And then it made me sad.

Reviewing my summary of the first three paragraphs, I’m tempted to make something religious out of it all—trees, snakes, gardens, and the like—but I don’t think that’s the gist. Or maybe it is the gist (Barthelme grew up Catholic). Is this a goof on the Eden thing? Humanity’s failure to be good stewards of the planet, etc. etc. etc.? I don’t know. Look, it’s a funny little story, read it.

43. “The Sergeant” (Amateurs, 1976)

“The Sergeant” reads like an oddity in Barthelme’s catalog—although not really, I guess, when that catalog is all oddity.

On one hand, “The Sergeant” is narrated in a seemingly-straightforward Hemingwayesque first-person I. This narrator is clearly based on a version of Barthelme. Barthelme served in the Korean War, but the real backdrop of “The Sergeant” is the Vietnam War–which was also the backdrop of much of Barthelme’s writing career (he arguably best addresses that folly in his 1968 story “The Indian Uprising,” which I’m still a ways from).

On the other hand, “The Sergeant” comes from the school of Kafka—it’s the bad dream we’ve all had, the nightmare repetitions of past duties we didn’t even sign up for. “The Sergeant” reads like a short blueprint for much of the Kafkaesque fiction that would follow it, including the labyrinths of Kazuo Ishiguro.

But Barthelme punctuates his nightmare-tale with a mythological touch: “Penelope!” cries the narrator, extending Barthelme’s anxiety riff into an ageless epic.

42. “I Bought a Little City” (Amateurs, 1976)

I Bought a Little City” is likely regarded as one of Barthelme’s greatest hits, possibly because it’s a more straightforward affair than his collages, pastiches, and oblique parodies. There’s a mean streak to this story about a rich man who buys Galveston, Texas. The story is about a lot things—control, desire, community, and creativity, maybe best summed up in two of its early lines: “What a nice little city, it suits me fine. It suited me fine so I started to change it.” People love to blow up their lives, but the asshole narrator citybuyer starts to blow up other people’s lives. He shoots six thousand dogs, for example. He humiliates a cop by making said cop buy him some fried chicken. He tries to steal another man’s wife, but it doesn’t work out. Maybe “I Bought a Little City” is about creative failures; maybe it’s a satire of capitalism. Or maybe it’s just another Barthelme goof.

Summary thoughts: Uh…the stories in Amateurs are generally better than those in Great Days. The weakest one here is “The Crisis,” from Great Days; the other stories feel more of a piece with each other. I enjoyed “The Sergeant” the most, but mostly because it has a different flavor from the other stories. “The School” is probably the best of the batch.

Going forward (in reverse): We continue backwards through the seventies, where we eventually hit (what I think might be a top-ten Barthelme hit) “Eugénie Grandet.”

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part III

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first. I wrote about stories 60-55 here and stories 54-49 here,

This post covers stories 48-43.

48. “The Death of Edward Lear” (Great Days, 1979)

Like many of the stories culled from Great Days, the humor in “The Death of Edward Lear” is tinged with melancholy. Perhaps it’s because of its subject matter, or perhaps it’s knowing that Great Days was the last collection of originals Barthelme would write, but “The Death of Edward Lear” feels like the work of a much older man. In fact, it was first published in The New Yorker in 1971, when Barthelme was forty, barely middle aged. (For whatever reasons, Barthelme didn’t include the piece in his collections Sadness (1972) or Amateurs (1976.))

The story begins in the most straightforward manner:

The death of Edward Lear took place on a Sunday morning in May 1888. Invitations were sent out well in advance. The invitations read:

Mr. Edward LEAR
Nonsense Writer and Landscape Painter
Requests the Honor of Your Presence
On the Occasion of his DEMISE.
San Remo 2:20 a.m.
The 29th of May Please reply

One can imagine the feelings of the recipients. Our dear friend! is preparing to depart! and such-like. Mr. Lear! who has given us so much pleasure! and such-like. On the other hand, his years were considered. Mr. Lear! who must be, now let me see… And there was a good deal of, I remember the first time I (dipped into) (was seized by)…But on the whole, Mr. Lear’s acquaintances approached the occasion with a mixture of solemnity and practicalness…

Lear treats his many guests to a strange spectacle of rants, rhymes, and mandolin-playing. He also delivers a “short homily on the subject of Friendship.” Then he dies.

His audience is initially confused, before realizing that Lear had crafted his death into a piece of absurdist art:

People who attended the death of Edward Lear agreed that, all in all, it had been a somewhat tedious performance. Why had he seen fit to read the same old verses, sing again the familiar songs, show the well-known pictures, run through his repertoire once more? Why invitations? Then something was understood: that Mr. Lear had been doing what he had always done and therefore, not doing anything extraordinary. Mr. Lear had transformed the extraordinary into its opposite. He had, in point of fact, created a gentle, genial misunderstanding.

And Lear’s performance engenders future performances:

The death of Edward Lear can still be seen, in the smaller cities, in versions enriched by learned interpretation, textual emendation, and changing fashion. One modification is curious; no one knows how it came about. The supporting company plays in the traditional way, but Lear himself appears shouting, shaking, vibrant with rage.

That final angry image is sad, haunting even. It recalls that other Lear, mad on the heath, as well as Dylan Thomas’s most famous villanelle.

In his biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty speculates that the idea for “Lear” might be attributed in part to the “farewell parties” Susan Sontag hosted in the mid-seventies when she thought she might die from cancer. There’s a human reality coursing under the story’s apparent absurdity that makes it a memorable, enjoyable tale about making art out of life and death.

Edward Lear’s actual death sounds much sadder. According to the Edward Lear Society, “Lear’s funeral was said to be a sad, lonely affair by the wife of Dr. Hassall, Lear’s physician, not one of Lear’s many lifelong friends being able to attend.”

47. “Morning” (Great Days, 1979)

In Hiding Man, Daugherty claims that “Morning” is about “the limits of the educational system,” but I don’t see it. It’s an absurdist dialogue, almost impenetrable in its obliquity—which would be fine if the sentences were better. There had to have been better stories in Great Days than “Morning” — the superior “Concerning the Bodyguard” is from that collection, and eventually ended up in Forty Stories—but I’m sure Barthelme had his reasons for including it. Those reasons, like the story, are inscrutable to me.

46. “The King of Jazz” (Great Days, 1979)

A great little ditty told (almost) entirely in dialogue, “The King of Jazz” takes place over the first few minutes of Hokie Mokie’s reign as the new, um, king of jazz. Hokie’s tenure comes under threat almost immediately when Hideo Yamaguchi, a stranger from Tokyo, appears seemingly from nowhere to challenger the new king. A musical duel ensues, helpfully described by one of the musicians in attendance:

“What’s that sound coming in from the side there?”

“Which side?”

“The left.”

“You mean that sound that sounds like the cutting edge of life? That sounds like polar bears crossing Arctic ice pans? That sounds like a herd of musk ox in full flight? That sounds like male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea? That sounds like fumaroles smoking on the slopes of Mt. Katmai? That sounds like the wild turkey walking through the deep, soft forest? That sounds like beavers chewing trees in an Appalachian marsh? That sounds like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk? That sounds like a mule deer wandering a montane of the Sierra Nevada? That sounds like prairie dogs kissing? That sounds like witchgrass tumbling or a river meandering? That sounds like manatees munching seaweed at Cape Sable? That sounds like coatimundis moving in packs across the face of Arkansas? That sounds like – ”

“Good God, it’s Hokie! Even with a cup mute on, he’s blowing Hideo right off the stand!”

Barthelme here and elsewhere excels at pushing and pulling language in ways with which we are unfamiliar. There’s a synesthetic quality to his best writing, writing which so frequently attempts to engage with and evoke other arts—visual, arts, poetry.

“The King of Jazz” also continues the thread of Oedipal anxiety that courses throughout Barthelme’s work. That anxiety here is not necessarily father-son oriented, but rather the anxiety of the outsider who becomes established, the experimenter who succeeds—and then finds his work challenged by new comers.

45. “The Zombies” (Great Days, 1979)

“The Zombies” is another fun story—and one of the rare late stories not told entirely in dialogue. I’m not really sure if “The Zombies” is a specific parody or just a goof, but it makes me laugh:

In a high wind the leaves fall from the trees. The zombies are standing about talking. “Beautiful day!” “Certainly is!” The zombies have come to buy wives from the people of this village, the only village around that will sell wives to zombies. “Beautiful day!” “Certainly is!” The zombies have brought many cattle. The bride price to a zombie is exactly twice that asked of an ordinary man. The cattle are also zombies and the zombies are in terror lest the people of the village understand this.

There are good zombies and bad zombies. Gris Grue is the hero of the good zombies. There’s a Bishop involved. Watch out: “The kiss of a dying animal, a dying horse or dog, transforms an ordinary man into a zombie.”

And watch out too for bad zombies: “If a bad zombie gets you, he will scarify your hide with chisels and rakes. If a bad zombie gets you, he will make you walk past a beautiful breast without even noticing.”

44. “The New Music” (Great Days, 1979)

“The New Music”: Another dialogue, another synesthetic excursion into Oedipal territories—this time focused on the mother:

–She had a lot on her mind. The chants. And Daddy of course.

–Let’s not do Daddy today.

Two brothers discuss “the new music,” which both is and is not music. As in much of Barthelme’s work, elements of art and culture might be patched and pasted in new designs, new collages.

–The new music burns things together, like a welder. The new music says, life becomes more and more exciting as there is less and less time.

–Momma wouldn’t have ‘lowed it. But Momma’s gone.

With their disallowing mother out of the way, the boys can now move forward into the new music.

43. “Cortés and Montezuma” (Great Days, 1979)

“Cortés and Montezuma” is the strongest tale in this batch. The story tells a version of the “friendship” between the Spanish conquistador and the Aztec emperor. Unlike the quippy, often absurd dialogue pieces, “Cortés and Montezuma” is told in a simple, direct (even flat) third-person voice. Here’s how the story opens:

Because Cortés lands on a day specified in the ancient writings, because he is dressed in black, because his armor is silver in color, a certain ugliness of the strangers taken as a group-for these reasons, Montezuma considers Cortés to be Quetzacoatl, the great god who left Mexico many years before, on a raft of snakes, vowing to return.

Montezuma gives Cortés a carved jade drinking cup.

Cortés places around Montezuma’s neck a necklace of glass beads strung on a cord scented with musk.

Montezuma offers Cortés an earthenware platter containing small pieces of meat lightly breaded and browned which Cortés declines because he knows the small pieces of meat are human fingers.

The story repeats the image of Cortés and Montezuma walking and holding hands, exchanging gifts, and not really trusting each other. There is plenty of intrigue and paranoia. Cortés is sleeping with his translator, but she’s also taken a high-ranking Aztec for a lover. The nobles are starting to turn on Montezuma. Various folks employ detectives to trail other folks. Assassination plots loom.

Much of the strength of “Cortés and Montezuma” derives from Barthelme’s decision to tactically employ the occasional anachronism. Consider the “powdered wigs” and “limousines” here:

Montezuma writes, in a letter to his mother: “The new forwardness of the nobility has come as a welcome relief. Whereas formerly members of the nobility took pains to hide among the general population, to pretend that they were ordinary people, they are now flaunting themselves and their position in the most disgusting ways. Once again they wear scarlet sashes from shoulder to hip, even on the boulevards; once again they prance about in their great powdered wigs; once again they employ lackeys to stand in pairs on little shelves at the rear of their limousines. The din raised by their incessant visiting of one another is with us from noon until early in the morning.”

These anachronisms highlight language’s inability to accurately translate reality. Barthelme gives us images that we identify with wealth and power — “powdered wigs” and “limousines” — but they do not fit within the historical context of Montezuma’s Aztec Empire, and they do not square historically with each other. The anachronisms do offer the contemporary reader an idea of the power of the Aztec aristocracy, and at the same time, their inclusion highlights how incomplete our picture of historical reality is—absurdly incomplete.

Indeed, Barthelme was working from a translation when he crafted “Cortés and Montezuma.” His fourth (and final) wife, the writer Marion Knox, had brought home a copy of Bernal Diaz del Castillo book about Spain’s invasion of the Aztec Empire. Barthelme translated that translation into a new translation, adding a postmodern wink to his story in the process: “Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who will one day write The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, stands in a square whittling upon a piece of mesquite.”

Behind the metatextual cleverness and intentionally-flat tone though, there is a strong, sympathetic core to “Cortés and Montezuma,” a deep sorrow summed up in the final line:

The pair walking down by the docks, hand in hand, the ghost of Montezuma rebukes the ghost of Cortés. “Why did you not throw up your hand, and catch the stone?”

Summary thoughts: It was a bit of an unexpected relief to get out of the dialogue stories. I appreciate what Barthelme did with them, but they are too often constrained but their form, despite highlights like “The Emerald,” “The Leap,” and “The King of Jazz,” which is the strongest dialogue in this batch. I found “Morning” an ugly irritation, some sub-Gertrude-Stein stuff, and “The New Music,” while better, is not especially strong. “Cortés and Montezuma” was the highlight of the six for me.

Going forward (in reverse): One last Great Days stories, and we get into the (stronger) collection Amateurs. 

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part II

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first. I wrote about stories 60-55 here, stories collected in 1981.

This post covers stories 54-49.

54. “How I Write My Songs” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Like his postmodernist contemporaries Robert Coover and William H. Gass, many of Donald Barthelme’s stories are, on at least some level, about the act of writing itself. “How I Write My Songs,” is, as its title suggests, a story about writing. Our narrator the songwriter offers tips and advice, most of it pretty straightforward, and he peppers his monologue with recitations of his own songs. Each time he offers up a song though, we’re treated to copyright notice at the end—little interjections from a faceless corporate voice. The copyright notices are ironic, especially given that the narrator’s songs are clearly based in folk traditions like blues and Appalachian music. The narrator acknowledges these traditions, positing his writing as a synthesis:

Songs are always composed of both traditional and new elements. This means that you can rely on the tradition to give your song “legs” while also putting in your own experience or particular way of looking at things for the new.

In the end, the story’s ironies don’t bite too hard—it it’s a parody of teaching creative writing, it’s loving, and full of practical advice. The narrator’s revelation of his name—Bill B. White—is also a nice punchline.

53. “The Emerald” (previously uncollected, 1981)

I love “The Emerald.”

It’s the longest story in Sixty Stories, a 29-page epic that Barthelme culled from an aborted novel, according to Tracy Daugherty’s biography Hiding Man. Unless I’m wrong, it’s the only piece Barthelme published in Esquiremost of his stories showed up in The New Yorker, whose editor Roger Angell was an early champion of Barthelme. Angell rejected “The Emerald” though. In his biography, Daugherty points out that Angell initially did not like Barthelme’s turn toward stories composed entirely in dialogue.

“The Emerald” (and the other stories discussed in this riff) is such a story. Barthelme adeptly commands the various voices here, but without exposition or stage directions of any kind, the story is challenging the first time around. Repeated readings reveal a rich, funny, strange fable.

Here’s what happens: Our hero Mad Moll, a bearded witch, is impregnated by “the man in the moon,” Deus Luna (she has a three-hour orgasm). After a seven-year pregnancy, she gives birth to a sentient emerald. This strange birth attracts the attention of the news media as well as hordes of would-be kidnappers who are after the emerald. Most of the bandits after the emerald want him because, well, he’s an enormous emerald. The emerald understands that they “want to cut me up and put little chips of me into rings and bangles.” When the emerald asks Moll if she values him, she replies that he’s “Equivalent I would say to a third of a sea.” However, our villain, a mage named Vandermaster, has different designs. Vandermaster wants to imbibe the emerald to obtain a second life: “Emerald dust with soda, emerald dust with tomato juice, emerald dust with a dash of bitters, emerald dust with Ovaltine.” He’s discovered a formula, “Plucked from the arcanum,” which will let him live again—and hopefully, find love. Oh, and Vandermaster has a secret weapon: The Foot, a sentient reliquary with devastating powers.

The final moments of “The Emerald” are lovely. Hero Moll gives an exit interview to Lily (“a member of the news media”) in which the young witch states that the gods are not done with us yet:

But what is the meaning of the emerald?  asked Lily.  I mean overall?  If you can say.

I have some notions, said Moll.  You may credit them or not.

Try me.

It means, one, that the gods are not yet done with us.

Gods not yet done with us.

The gods are still trafficking with us and making interventions of this kind and that kind and are not dormant or dead as has often been proclaimed by dummies.

Still trafficking.  Not dead.

Just as in former times a demon might enter a nun on a piece of lettuce she was eating so even in these times a simple Mailgram might be the thin edge of the wedge.

Thin edge of the wedge.

Two, the world may congratulate itself that desire can still be raised in the dulled hearts of the citizens by the rumor of an emerald.

Desire or cupidity?

I do not distinguish qualitatively among the desires, we have referees for that, but he who covets not at all is a lump and I do not wish to have him to dinner.

Positive attitude toward desire.

Yes.  Three, I do not know what this Stone portends, whether it portends for the better or portends for the worse or merely portends a bubbling of the in-between but you are in any case rescued from the sickliness of same and a small offering in the hat on the hall table would not be ill regarded.

Moll’s final questioner though is her child the emerald:

And what now?  said the emerald.  What now, beautiful mother?

We resume the scrabble for existence, said Moll.  We resume the scrabble for existence, in the sweet of the here and now.

52. “Aria” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Another monologue, this time in two paragraphs. Like “Grandmother’s House,” (story #60), “Aria” is an oblique reflection on parenting. In a 1982 interview, Barthelme claimed that the story was a mother’s monologue, but it could just as easily be a father. The monologue condenses the parent’s experience of parenting after the children have left home into an often absurd catalog of pleas, mixed metaphors, and bits of received wisdom. Like a lot of the later work, there are tinges of an empty nester’s melancholy here.

51. “The Leap” (Great Days, 1979)

Another dialogue–however, I think that this piece can actually be read as an internal dialogue–a central consciousness engaging in self-debate. That debate centers (“centers” is a very loose verb here) on whether or not to take the titular leap of faith. As David Gates points out in his explanatory notes for Sixty Stories,

In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments (1846),
Kierkegaard rejects the notion of a ladder of logical steps to spiritual certainty in favor of a “leap of faith” toward the Absolute.

Those familiar with Barthelme will know his early deep engagement with existentialism, and with Kierkegaard in particular. (In his biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty makes a strong case that it was not just Kierkegaard’s ideas that informed Barthelme’s work, but Kierkegaard’s style as well—disparate voices, pseudonyms, juxtapositions, aesthetic and literary references deployed ironically, etc.)

The interlocutor(s) of “The Leap” begin by trying to catalog the glories of the creator before realizing that the task is impossible. They eventually work themselves into the existential crises of the day (some of which seem dated, and dare I say, downright lovely compared to our current, ahem, climate).

In the final moments of the story, one of the speakers—or, in my estimation, one of the singular speaker’s internal voices—declares “Can’t make it, man.” What can’t he make? The leap. And again: “Can’t make it. I am a double-minded man.” (The latter phrase underlines the notion that a single voice authors this dialogue.) And so well: “What then?” Barthelme echoes lines of one of his other heroes, Samuel Beckett:

–Keep on trying?

–Yes. We must.

The conclusion is sad and beautiful, a list of earthly consolations that can inspire the leap:

-Try again another day?

-Yes. Another day when the plaid cactus is watered, when the hare’s-foot fern is watered.

-Seeds tingling in the barrens and veldts.

-Garden peas yellow or green wrinkling or rounding.

-Another day when locust wings are baled for shipment to Singapore, where folks like their little hit of locust-wing tea.

-A jug of wine. Then another jug.

-The Brie-with-pepper meeting the toasty loaf.

-Another day when some eighty-four-year-old guy complains that his wife no longer gives him presents.

-Small boys bumping into small girls, purposefully.

-Cute little babies cracking people up.

-Another day when somebody finds a new bone that proves we are even ancienter than we thought we were.

-Gravediggers working in the cool early morning.

-A walk in the park.

-Another day when the singing sunlight turns you every way but loose.

-When you accidentally notice the sublime.

-Somersaults and duels.

-Another day when you see a woman with really red hair. mean really red hair.

-A wedding day.

-A plain day.

-So we’ll try again? Okay?

-Okay.

-Okay?

-Okay.

50. “On the Steps of the Conservatory” (Great Days, 1979)

I initially started rereading Sixty Stories in reverse order as a fluke, but I quickly found it interesting to think about Barthelme’s development as a thinker and writer by going backwards instead of forwards. I think I would have enjoyed “The Farewell” (story #55) much more if I had read it after “On the Steps of the Conservatory,” to which it is the sequel. It’s a neat little parody, but I think the sequel is even funnier, even meaner.

49. “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (Great Days, 1979)

A postmodern riff on Mozart’s opera Abduction from the Seraglio. Barthelme told an interviewer the story originated from an assignment he gave to his writing class that he ended up doing himself. We have pure monologue here; the speaker seems to be a sculptor. He crafts “welded-steel four-thousand-pound artichokes” and plays around on his “forty-three-foot overhead traveling crane which is painted bright yellow.” He occasionally breaks into song.

There are a number of references to architecture and architects in “Abduction.” Again, it’s tempting to read for autobiographical traces here. Barthelme’s father, Donald Barthelme Sr., was a modernist architect who cast a large shadow over his son’s life. But I’m not too tempted by those traces—or, rather, I’m not sure what to make of them, just as I’m not sure of what to make of “Abduction.”

Summary thoughts: “The Emerald” is a fabulous late-period Barthelme–the best in this batch for sure. It’s much, much longer than most of Barthelme’s stories though, so my other pick would be “The Leap.” I didn’t remember “The Abduction from the Seraglio” even as I was rereading it, and I reread it once more before writing about it, and I don’t really think Barthelme pulls it off here.

I’ve enjoyed these late-period dialogue stories, but I’m also looking forward to some new (older) flavors ahead (behind).

I will keep going forward (in reverse) and resume the scrabble for existence, in the sweet of the here and now.

Couple of Ghost Dances, I begin to look up and take notice | A cocktail from Donald Barthelme

Mrs. Vandermaster.
Yes.
Please be seated.
Thank you.
The red chair.
You’re most kind.
Can I get you something, some iced tea or a little hit of Sanka?
A Ghost Dance is what I wouldn’t mind if you can do it.
What’s a Ghost Dance?
That’s one part vodka to one part tequila with half an onion.  Half a regular onion.
Wow wow wow wow wow.
Well when you’re eighty-one, you know, there’s not so much.  Couple of Ghost Dances, I begin to take an interest.
I believe I can accommodate you.
Couple of Ghost Dances, I begin to look up and take notice.
Mrs. Vandermaster, you are aware are you not that your vile son has, with the aid of various parties, abducted my emerald?  My own true emerald?
I mighta heard about it.
Well have you or haven’t you?
‘Course I don’t pay much attention to that boy myself.  He’s bent.
Bent?
Him and his dog.  He goes off in a corner and talks to the dog.  Looking over his shoulder to see if I’m listening.  As if I’d care.
The dog doesn’t–
Just listens.  Intently.
That’s Tarbut.
Now I don’t mind somebody who just addresses an occasional remark to the dog, like “Attaboy, dog”, or something like that, or “Get the ball, dog”, or something like that, but he confides in the dog.  Bent.
You know what Vandermaster’s profession is.
Yes, he’s a mage.  Think that’s a little bent.
Is there anything you can do, or would do, to help me get my child back?  My sweet emerald?
Well I don’t have that much say-so.
You don’t.
I don’t know too much about what-all he’s up to.  He comes and goes.
I see.
The thing is, he’s bent.
You told me.
Wants to live twice.
I know.
I think it’s a sin and shame.
You do.
And your poor little child.
Yes.
A damned scandal.
Yes.
I’d witch his eyes out if I were you.
The thought’s appealing.
His eyes like onions…

From Donald Barthelme’s story “The Emerald.”

If any one is inclined to try a Ghost Dance, let me know how it goes.

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part I

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s 1981 collection Sixty Stories.

I am reading the stories in reverse chronological order.

This reverse reading came about in this way: I read an intense, shocking, horrifying novel, and then I read it again. Then I tried to get into three or maybe four novels with no luck.

So I picked up the Barthelme book, a perfect book, a palate cleanser. Inside was a bookmark from a Catholic book store in St. Augustine, Florida; the bookmark marked the beginning of the final story in Sixty Stories, “Grandmother’s House.”

I recalled almost nothing about it. I read it, and kept going in reverse.

So here we go–thoughts on the last six stories in Sixty Stories:

60. “Grandmother’s House” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Like many of Barthelme’s late stories, “Grandmother’s House” consists entirely of dialogue. And, like many of Barthelme’s late stories, there’s an elegiac tone–mock-elegiac at times, but still tinged with a soft melancholy. The story begins in the by-now-traditional-postmodern mode of invoking fairy tales. One of the speakers alludes to figures from “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Beauty and the Beast.” They then move on to another trope of fairy tales—changelings, child thefts: “…we could steal a kid. A child. A kid. Steal one. Grab it and keep it. Raise it for our very own.” The dialogue is filled with non sequitur and oblique shifts, evoking the collage work of Barthelme’s prime work while also trundling along a more realistic course. The story ultimately conflates raising children with the creative arts; there’s something slightly sad about the two speakers’ desire to steal children so that they can start again, take a mulligan, improve on past failures. They want a new newness: “Of course this is not to say that what has been demystified cannot be remystified.”

59. “Bishop” (previously uncollected, 1981)

“Bishop” feels like it should be the last story in Sixty Stories. It’s a miniature portrait of an alcoholic writer, the titular Bishop who, in the course of writing a biography of the painter William Michael Harnett, discovers another painter,  John Frederick Peto.

Still Life with Three Castles Tobacco, 1880 by William Michael Harnett (1848-1892).

The story is easily one of Barthelme’s most straightforward, “realistic” pieces, employing very little of the rhetorical arsenal he’d built over the past two decades.

Old Souvenirs, c. 1881–1901 by John Frederick Peto (1854-1907)

However, his collage technique is on display throughout “Bishop,” where sentences jut brusquely against each other without the protection of transitions. Consider the economy of this opening salvo:

Bishop’s standing outside his apartment building.

An oil struck double-parked, its hose coupled with the sidewalk, the green-uniformed driver reading a paperback called Name Your Baby.

Bishop’s waiting for Cara.

The martini rule is not before quarter to twelve.

Eyes go out of focus. He blinks them back again.

He had a beer for breakfast, as usual, a Pilsner Urquell.

Imported beer is now ninety-nine cents a bottle at his market.

The oil truck’s pump shuts off with a click. The driver tosses his book into the cab and begins uncoupling.

Cara’s not coming.

The painter John Frederick Peto made a living Playing cornet in a camp meeting for the last twenty years of his life, according to Alfred Frankenstein.

Bishop goes back inside the building and climbs one flight of stairs to his apartment.

His bank has lost the alimony payment he cables twice a month to his second wife, in London. He switches on the FM, dialing past two classical stations to reach Fleetwood Mac.

Bishop’s writing a biography of the nineteenth-century American painter William Michael Harnett. But today he can’t make himself work.

Cara’s been divorced, once.

At twenty minutes to twelve he makes himself a martini.

Hideous bouts of black anger in the evening. Then a word or a sentence in the tone she can’t bear. The next morning he remembers nothing about it.

As Tracy Daugherty notes in Hiding Man, his biography of Barthelme, “it’s impossible to miss the parallels between author and character” in “Bishop”: “…same age, same physical appearance, same home city, same general profession.”

Barthelme himself protested the comparison in his 1981 Paris Review Interview:

…when [“Bishop”] appeared I immediately began getting calls from friends, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in some time and all of whom were offering Tylenol and bandages. The assumption was that identification of the author with the character was not only permissible but invited. This astonished me. One uses one’s depressions as one uses everything else, but what I was doing was writing a story. Merrily merrily merrily merrily.

There is nothing merry about “Bishop,” but there’s a lot of beauty in its odd realism.

58. “Heroes” (previously uncollected, 1981)

Another piece composed entirely in dialogue, this time between two dudes riffing on the relationship between the media, information, politics, democracy, and the average citizen. There’s a clever bit on TV screens as a “clear glass” through which we now see “darkly,” but the piece seems terribly dated in 2021.

57. “Thailand” (previously uncollected, 1981)

“Thailand” isn’t exactly a dialogue, but it’s again a piece with two speakers, an “old soldier” who served in the “Krian War” and the young man who listens to him—or, more to the point, doesn’t really listen to him. He’s introduced as “his hearer.” Instead of truly listening to the sweet old sergeant’s story about serving along the Thai military, the young hearer speaks to himself, his fragmented inner monologue intermixing with the vet’s exterior monologue, all along a similar vein: “I am young, thought the listener, young, young, praise the Lord I am young.” Again, it’s tempting to read autobiography into the story. Barthelme was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1953, but didn’t really see any action in his sixteen months there. And “Thailand” reflects that—it isn’t an old war story, but a gentle appreciation of time spent in another culture. In one memorable moment, the old soldier recalls a “golden revel” featuring thirty-seven washtubs of curry: “Beef curry, chicken curry, the delicate Thai worm curry, all your various fish curries and vegetable curries.” All the while, the young would-be interlocutor dismisses the old “demento,” culminating in the young man’s cruel final line: Requiescat in pace. The old man gets the punchline though: “They don’t really have worm curry, said the sergeant. I just made that up to fool you.” In my estimation, Thailand” isn’t so much a reminiscence of Barthelme’s army days as it is a story about an aging storyteller. Barthelme was a teacher, and while I’m sure most of his students were rapt, the older author had to know how that old Oedipal thing works.

56. “The Emperor” (previously uncollected, 1981)

A nice, precise little story of nine paragraphs. On one hand, it’s an accumulation of historical details (and some speculation) about China’s first emperor Ch’in Shih
Huang Ti, and his mad quest toward an unattainable perfection. At the same time, the story can be read as a take on the creative imagination at work, striving toward an ideal that the physical world can never quite accumulate. It can be read as a story about writing—writing as a means to attain immortality. Here’s Barthelme on the story, in his 1981 Paris Review interview:

I’ve just done a piece about a Chinese emperor, the so-called first emperor, Ch’in Shih Huang Ti. This came directly from my wife’s research for a piece she was doing on medical politics in Chinatown—she had accumulated all sorts of material on Chinese culture, Chinese history, and I began picking through it, jackdaw-like. This was the emperor who surrounded his tomb with that vast army of almost full-scale terra-cotta soldiers the Chinese discovered just a few years ago. The tomb, as far as I know, has yet to be fully excavated, but the scale of the discovery gives you some clear hints as to the size of the man’s imagination, his ambition. As I learned more about him—“learned” in quotation marks, much of what I was reading was dubious history—I got a sense of the emperor hurrying from palace to palace, I gave him two hundred some-odd palaces, scampering, almost, tending to his projects, intrigues, machinations. He’s horribly, horribly pressed for time, both actually and in the sense that many of his efforts are strategies against mortality. The tomb itself is a strategy, as is the imposition of design on the lives of his people, his specifications as to how wide hats shall be, how wide carriages shall be, and so forth.

55. “The Farewell” (previously uncollected, 1981)

A minor if entertaining dialogue between Maggie and Hilda, “The Farewell” is a sequel to “On the Steps of the Conservatory” (Great Days, 1979), and like that tale, it satirizes hierarchy in academia (and pseudo-intellectualism in general). And as silly as the whole thing is, there’s a kernel of pathos there in the story’s (off-centered center). Poor Hilda (who cannot for some reason see that she should tell her snooty snobby toxic friend Maggie to Fuck off) has finally made into the Conservatory, only to find that it’s old hat—it’s the Institution that folks are flocking to get into. And why not? As Maggie boasts, “The teachers are more dedicated, twice as dedicated or three times as dedicated.” The boasts continues. At the Institution,

Savory meals are left in steaming baskets outside each wickiup door. All meals are lobster, unless the student has indicated a preference for beautifully marbled beef. There are four Olympic-sized pool tables for every one student.

In the end though, poor Hilda comes up with that classic solution: Well, fuck it.

Summary thoughts: These late and previously-uncollected stories are tinged with melancholy and even resignation at time, and generally follow the same rhetorical mode of a two-person dialogue. Notable themes include anxiety over parenthood, writing, and one’s legacy. The weakest of the six is “Heroes” and the strongest is “Bishop.”

I will keep going (in reverse).

American Short Stories Since 1945 (Book published in 1968 and acquired, 30 April 2021)

I was perusing the anthologies, looking for a book called Anti-Story: An Anthology of Experimental Fiction (1971). I didn’t find it, but the spine of American Short Stories Since 1945 interested me enough to pull it out, and the wonderful cover (by Emanuel Schongut) intrigued me more. The tracklist on the back cover is what got to me:

I’ve read seven of the stories and fourteen of the twenty-six authors here. You probably have too. But there are close to a dozen authors here I’ll admit I’ve never even heard of—authors rectangle-pressed in with favorites of mine like Barthelme, Gass, Jackson, and Pynchon, whose piece “Under the Rose”is part of V., which I recently re-read. (I opened the “Acknowledgements” page to see that “Under the Rose” was first published in Noble Savage 3, May 1961—I checked the “N” anthologies and found Noble Savage #2, but no three for me.)

Edited and introduced by the poet John Hollander, Since 1945 “aims to show the major shapes taken by shorter fiction in America since the end of World War II.” Published in 1968, it’s heavy on the white guys, but I think there’s an attempt here to point toward not just “major shapes,” but new shapes.

I couldn’t not pick it up (I’d brought in some paperbacks to trade, anyway). Maybe I’ll try to read it this summer, posting on each piece. I’m most interested in how the selection of authors shows a tipping over in to postmodernism, a postmodernism many of these guys never signed up for.

 

Read “The Aurelian,” a short story by Vladimir Nabokov

“The Aurelian”

by

Vladimir Nabokov


I
Luring aside one of the trolley-car numbers, the street started at the corner of a crowded avenue. For a long time it crept on in obscurity, with no shop windows or any such joys. Then came a small square (four benches, a bed of pansies) round which the trolley steered with rasping disapproval. Here the street changed its name, and a new life began. Along the right side, shops appeared: a fruiterer’s, with vivid pyramids of oranges; a tobacconist’s, with the picture of a voluptuous Turk; a delicatessen, with fat brown and gray coils of sausages; and then, all of a sudden, a butterfly store. At night, and especially when it was damp, with the asphalt shining like the back of a seal, passers-by would stop for a second before that symbol of fair weather. The insects on exhibit were huge and gorgeous. People would say to themselves, ‘What colors—amazing!’ and plod on through the drizzle. Eyed wings wide open in wonder, shimmering blue satin, black magic—these lingered for a while, floating in one’s vision, until one boarded the trolley or bought a newspaper. And, just because they were together with the butterflies, a few other objects would remain in one’s memory: a globe, pencils, and a monkey’s skull on a pile of copybooks.

As the street blinked and ran on, there followed again a succession of ordinary shops—soap, coal, bread—with another pause at the corner where there was a small bar. The bartender, a dashing fellow in a starched collar and a green sweater, was deft at shaving off with one stroke the foam topping the glass under the beer tap; he also had a well-earned reputation as a wit. Every night, at a round table by the window, the fruiterer, the baker, an unemployed man, and the bartender’s first cousin played cards with great gusto. As the winner of the current stake immediately ordered four drinks, none of the players could ever get rich.

On Saturdays, at an adjacent table, there would sit a flabby elderly man with a florid face, lank hair, and a grayish moustache, carelessly clipped. When he appeared, the players greeted him noisily without looking up from their cards. He invariably ordered rum, filled his pipe, and gazed at the game with pink-rimmed watery eyes. The left eyelid drooped slightly.

Occasionally someone turned to him, and asked how his shop was doing; he would be slow to answer, and often did not answer at all. If the bartender’s daughter, a pretty freckled girl in a polka-dotted frock, happened to pass close enough, he had a go at her elusive hip, and, whether the slap succeeded or not, his gloomy expression never changed, although the veins on his temple grew purple. Mine host very humorously called him ‘Herr Professor.’ ‘Well, how is the Herr Professor tonight?’ he would ask, coming over to him, and the man would ponder for some time in silence and then, with a wet underlip pushing out from under the pipe like that of a feeding elephant, he would answer something neither funny nor polite. The bartender would counter briskly, which made the players at the next table, though seemingly absorbed in their cards, rock with ugly glee.

The man wore a roomy gray suit with great exaggeration of the vest motif, and when the cuckoo popped out of the clock he ponderously extracted a thick silver watch and gazed at it askance, holding it in the palm of his hand and squinting because of the smoke. Punctually at eleven he knocked out his pipe, paid for his rum, and, after extending a flaccid hand to anyone who might choose to shake it, silently left.

He walked awkwardly, with a slight limp. His legs seemed too thin for his body. Just before the window of his shop he turned into a passage, where there was a door on the right with a brass plate: PAUL PILGRAM. This door led into his tiny dingy apartment, which could also be reached by an inner corridor at the back of the shop. Eleanor was usually asleep when he came home on those festive nights. Half a dozen faded photographs of the same clumsy ship, taken from different angles, and of a palm tree that looked as bleak as if it were growing on Helgoland, hung in black frames above the double bed. Muttering to himself, Pilgram limped away into bulbless darkness with a lighted candle, came back with his suspenders dangling, and kept muttering while sitting on the edge of the bed and slowly, painfully, taking off his shoes. His wife, half-waking, moaned into her pillow and offered to help him; and then, with a threatening rumble in his voice, he would tell her to keep quiet, and repeated that guttural ‘Ruhe!’ several times, more and more fiercely.

After the stroke which had almost killed him some time ago (like a mountain falling upon him from behind just as he had bent towards his shoestrings), he now undressed reluctantly, growling until he got safely into bed, and then growling again if the faucet happened to drip in the adjoining kitchen. Eleanor would roll out of bed and totter into the kitchen and totter back with a dazed sigh, her small face wax-pale and shiny, and the plastered corns on her feet showing from under her dismally long nightgown. They had married in 1905, almost a quarter of a century before, and were childless because Pilgram had always thought that children would be merely a hindrance to the realization of what had been in his youth a delightfully exciting plan but had now gradually become a dark, passionate obsession.

He slept on his back with an old-fashioned nightcap coming down on his forehead; it was to all appearances the solid and sonorous sleep that might be expected in an elderly German shopkeeper, and one could readily suppose that his quilted torpor was entirely devoid of visions; but actually this churlish, heavy man, who fed mainly on Erbswurst and boiled potatoes, placidly believing in his newspaper and quite ignorant of the world (in so far as his secret passion was not involved), dreamed of things that would have seemed utterly unintelligible to his wife or his neighbors; for Pilgram belonged, or rather was meant to belong (something—the place, the time, the man—had been ill-chosen), to a special breed of dreamers, such dreamers as used to be called in the old days ‘Aurelians’—perhaps on account of those chrysalids, those ‘jewels of Nature,’ which they loved to find hanging on fences above the dusty nettles of country lanes.

On Sundays he drank his morning coffee in several sloppy sessions, and then went out for a walk with his wife, a slow silent stroll which Eleanor looked forward to all week. On workdays he opened his shop as early as possible because of the children who passed by on their way to school; for lately he had been keeping school supplies in addition to his basic stock. Some small boy, swinging his satchel and chewing a sandwich, would slouch past the tobacconist’s (where a certain brand of cigarettes offered airplane pictures), past the delicatessen (which rebuked one for having eaten that sandwich long before lunchtime), and then, remembering he wanted an eraser, would enter the next shop. Pilgram would mumble something, sticking out his lower lip from under the stem of his pipe, and, after a listless search, would plump down an open carton on the counter. The boy would feel and squeeze the virgin-pale India rubber, would not find the sort he favored, and would leave without even noticing the principal wares in the store.

‘These modern children!’ Pilgram would think with disgust, and he recalled his own boyhood. His father—a sailor, a rover, a bit of a rogue—married late in life a sallow-skinned, light-eyed Dutch girl whom he brought from Java to Berlin, and opened a shop of exotic curios. Pilgram could not remember now when, exactly, butterflies had begun to oust the stuffed birds of paradise, the stale talismans, the fans with dragons, and the like; but as a boy he already feverishly swapped specimens with collectors, and after his parents died butterflies reigned supreme in the dim little shop. Up to 1914 there were enough amateurs and professionals about to keep things going in a mild, very mild, way; later on, however, it became necessary to make concessions, a display case with the biography of the silkworm furnishing a transition to school supplies, just as in the old days pictures ignominiously composed of sparkling wings had probably been a first step towards lepidopterology. Continue reading “Read “The Aurelian,” a short story by Vladimir Nabokov”

Read “The Great Simoleon Caper,” a short story by Neal Stephenson

“The Great Simoleon Caper”

by

Neal Stephenson


Hard to imagine a less attractive life-style for a young man just out of college than going back to Bismarck to live with his parents — unless it’s living with his brother in the suburbs of Chicago, which, naturally, is what I did. Mom at least bakes a mean cherry pie. Joe, on the other hand, got me into a permanent emotional headlock and found some way, every day, to give me psychic noogies. For example, there was the day he gave me the job of figuring out how many jelly beans it would take to fill up Soldier Field.

Let us stipulate that it’s all my fault; Joe would want me to be clear on that point. Just as he was always good with people, I was always good with numbers. As Joe tells me at least once a week, I should have studied engineering. Drifted between majors instead, ended up with a major in math and a minor in art — just about the worst thing you can put on a job app.

Joe, on the other hand, went into the ad game. When the Internet and optical fiber and HDTV and digital cash all came together and turned into what we now call the Metaverse, most of the big ad agencies got hammered — because in the Metaverse, you can actually whip out a gun and blow the Energizer Bunny’s head off, and a lot of people did. Joe borrowed 10,000 bucks from Mom and Dad and started this clever young ad agency. If you’ve spent any time crawling the Metaverse, you’ve seen his work — and it’s seen you, and talked to you, and followed you around.

Mom and Dad stayed in their same little house in Bismarck, North Dakota. None of their neighbors guessed that if they cashed in their stock in Joe’s agency, they’d be worth about $20 million. I nagged them to diversify their portfolio — you know, buy a bushel basket of Krugerrands and bury them in the backyard, or maybe put a few million into a mutual fund. But Mom and Dad felt this would be a no-confidence vote in Joe. It'd be,'' Dad said,like showing up for your kid’s piano recital with a Walkman.”

Joe comes home one January evening with a magnum of champagne. After giving me the obligatory hazing about whether I’m old enough to drink, he pours me a glass. He’s already banished his two sons to the Home Theater. They have cranked up the set-top box they got for Christmas. Patch this baby into your HDTV, and you can cruise the Metaverse, wander the Web and choose from among several user-friendly operating systems, each one rife with automatic help systems, customer-service hot lines and intelligent agents. The theater’s subwoofer causes our silverware to buzz around like sheet-metal hockey players, and amplified explosions knock swirling nebulas of tiny bubbles loose from the insides of our champagne glasses. Those low frequencies must penetrate the young brain somehow, coming in under kids’ media-hip radar and injecting the edfotainucational muchomedia bitstream direct into their cerebral cortices.

“Hauled down a mother of an account today,” Joe explains. “We hype cars. We hype computers. We hype athletic shoes. But as of three hours ago, we are hyping a currency.”

“What?” says his wife Anne.

“Y’know, like dollars or yen. Except this is a new currency.”

“From which country?” I ask. This is like offering lox to a dog: I’ve given Joe the chance to enlighten his feckless bro. He hammers back half a flute of Dom Perignon and shifts into full-on Pitch Mode.

Read the rest of “The Great Simoleon Caper.”

Watch Robert Enrico’s short film adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s “The Mockingbird”


“The Mockingbird”

by

Ambrose Bierce


The time, a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the early autumn of 1861. The place, a forest’s heart in the mountain region of southwestern Virginia. Private Grayrock of the Federal Army is discovered seated comfortably at the root of a great pine tree, against which he leans, his legs extended straight along the ground, his rifle lying across his thighs, his hands (clasped in order that they may not fall away to his sides) resting upon the barrel of the weapon. The contact of the back of his head with the tree has pushed his cap downward over his eyes, almost concealing them; one seeing him would say that he slept.

Private Grayrock did not sleep; to have done so would have imperiled the interests of the United States, for he was a long way outside the lines and subject to capture or death at the hands of the enemy. Moreover, he was in a frame of mind unfavorable to repose. The cause of his perturbation of spirit was this: during the previous night he had served on the picket-guard, and had been posted as a sentinel in this very forest. The night was clear, though moonless, but in the gloom of the wood the darkness was deep. Grayrock’s post was at a considerable distance from those to right and left, for the pickets had been thrown out a needless distance from the camp, making the line too long for the force detailed to occupy it. The war was young, and military camps entertained the error that while sleeping they were better protected by thin lines a long way out toward the enemy than by thicker ones close in. And surely they needed as long notice as possible of an enemy’s approach, for they were at that time addicted to the practice of undressing–than which nothing could be more unsoldierly. On the morning of the memorable 6th of April, at Shiloh, many of Grant’s men when spitted on Confederate bayonets were as naked as civilians; but it should be allowed that this was not because of any defect in their picket line. Their error was of another sort: they had no pickets. This is perhaps a vain digression. I should not care to undertake to interest the reader in the fate of an army; what we have here to consider is that of Private Grayrock. Continue reading “Watch Robert Enrico’s short film adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s “The Mockingbird””

Read “Girls at War,” a short story by Chinua Achebe

“Girls at War”

by

Chinua Achebe


The first time their paths crossed nothing happened. That was in the first heady days of warlike preparation when thousands of young men (and sometimes women too) were daily turned away from enlistment centres because far too many of them were coming forward burning with readiness to bear arms in defence of the exciting new nation.
The second time they met was at a check-point at Awka. Then the war had started and was slowly moving southwards from the distant northern sector. He was driving from Onitsha to Enugu and was in a hurry. Although intellectually he approved of thorough searches at road-blocks, emotionally he was always offended whenever he had to submit to them. He would probably not admit it but the feeling people got was that if you were put through a search then you could not really be one of the big people. Generally he got away without a search by pronouncing in his deep, authoritative voice: ‘Reginald Nwankwo, Ministry of Justice.’ That almost always did it. But sometimes either through ignorance or sheer cussedness the crowd at the odd check-point would refuse to be impressed. As happened now at Awka. Two constables carrying heavy Mark 4 rifles were watching distantly from the roadside leaving the actual searching to local vigilantes.

‘I am in a hurry,’ he said to the girl who now came up to his car. ‘My name is Reginald Nwankwo, Ministry of Justice.’

‘Good afternoon, sir. I want to see your boot.’

‘Oh Christ! What do you think is in the boot?’

‘I don’t know, sir.’

He got out of the car in suppressed rage, stalked to the back, opened the boot and holding the lid up with his left hand he motioned with the right as if to say: After you!

‘Are you satisfied?’ he demanded.

‘Yes, sir. Can I see your pigeon-hole?’

‘Christ Almighty!’

Continue reading “Read “Girls at War,” a short story by Chinua Achebe”

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Tenth Riff: The Eighties)

jgb_complete_ss4003111

PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

Stories of 1963-1964

Stories of 1966

Closing out the sixties

The seventies

IN THIS RIFF:

“A Host of Furious Fancies” (1980)

“News from the Sun” (1981)

“Memories of the Space Age” (1982)

“Myths of the Near Future” (1982)

“Report on an Unidentified Space Station” (1982)

“The Object of the Attack” (1984)

“Answers to a Questionnaire” (1985)

“The Man Who Walked on the Moon” (1985)

“The Secret History of World War 3” (1988)

“Love in a Colder Climate” (1989)

“The Enormous Space” (1989)

“The Largest Theme Park in the World” (1989)

“War Fever” (1989)

“News from the Sun” (1981) / “Myths of the Near Future” (1982) / “Memories of the Space Age” (1982)

Let me first confess how happy I am to be finished with this enormously enormous book (okay, not physically enormous on my Kindle, but still…). Let me also confess to dread at having to finish out these riffs (no, no one is forcing me, but still…). At this point, I feel like I could write my own Ballard story—a crazed astronaut here, a drained swimming pool there, a femme fatale, some psychotropic drugs, armchair psychology, a swamp, some birds (perhaps), a plane or two, time obsession, sex obsession, space obsession. Obsession obsession Anyway. Ballard arguably peaks in the early 1980s; everything after reads like a day-glow Keith Haringesque pop-approximation of his grittier seventies stuff—or (worse) scolding wrapped up in little morality plays.

But, like I said (wrote), Ballard is in his prime in the early 1980s, and “News,” “Myths,” and “Memories” are some of his finest stories (file these triplets in my quasi-fictional-but-c’mon-we-can-make-this-happen collection The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard)—they are also some of his most Ballardian, riffing on space-travel-as-cosmic-taboo, paranoid parables obsessed with time. A particularly Ballardian paragraph (from “Memories”):

He had almost ceased to breathe. Here, at the centre of the space grounds, he could feel time rapidly engorging itself. The infinite pasts and future of the forest had fused together. A long–tailed parakeet paused among the branches over his head, an electric emblem of itself more magnificent than a peacock. A jewelled snake hung from a bough, gathering to it all the embroidered skins it had once shed.

(Parenthetical aside: “Myths” and “Memories” are both set in Florida. Ballard’s depiction of Florida feels thoroughly inauthentic (I’m Floridian), but that inauthenticity also feels thoroughly appropriate).

 “A Host of Furious Fancies” (1980)

Ballard constructs this little tale around a psychoanalytic reading of Cinderella:

The entire fairy tale of Cinderella was being enacted, perhaps unconsciously, by this deranged heiress. If she herself was Cinderella, Dr Valentina Gabor was the fairy godmother, and her magic wand the hypodermic syringe she waved about so spectacularly. The role of the pumpkin was played by the ‘sacred mushroom’, the hallucinogenic fungus from which psilocybin was extracted. Under its influence even an ancient laundry van would seem like a golden coach. And as for the ‘ball’, this of course was the whole psychedelic trip.

But who then was Prince Charming? As I arrived at the great mansion at the end of its drive it occurred to me that I might be unwittingly casting myself in the role, fulfilling a fantasy demanded by this unhappy girl. . . .

For all my resistance to that pseudo–science, it occurred to me that once again a psychoanalytic explanation made complete sense of these bizarre events and the fable of Cinderella that underpinned them. I walked up the staircase past the dismembered clock. Despite the fear–crazed assault on them, the erect hands still stood upright on the midnight hour – that time when the ball ended, when the courtships and frivolities of the party were over and the serious business of a real sexual relationship began. Fearful of that male erection, Cinderella always fled at midnight.

Etc.

Ballard’s Freudian riff would be more interesting as an essay.

(The story also showcases some of his typical chauvinism: The psychiatrist is described as the “woman psychiatrist” — just as earlier a dentist is referred to as a “lady dentist,” etc. Straight through to the end of the collection. In the 1990s).

“Report on an Unidentified Space Station” (1982) / “The Enormous Space” (1989)

“Report” and “Space” both read like takes on Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Soviet-era short story “Quadraturin” — both concern space, that corollary to time, and, just as Ballard repeatedly posits time as a matter of perspective, he treats space—area—the same way here. “Report” is a bit more satisfying than “Space,” which feels like a retread of so many of Ballard’s revenge stories—only with, uh, some comical cannibalism.

  1. “The Object of the Attack” (1984) / “Answers to a Questionnaire” (1985)

“Attack” and “Questionnaire” are maybe the same story—only “Questionnaire” is essentially perfect, whereas “Attack” feels like a clumsy, heavy first draft (but only because “Questionnaire” exists—do you see what I mean by this?)

Both stories showcase Ballard’s syntheses of religion (messianic; apocalyptic) and assassination (political; media-saturated). While “Attack” employs a discursive-but-still-linear approach to the theme, “Answers to a Questionnaire” gives us a discontinuous but more engaging riff in the form of (uh) exactly what its title promises.  First fifth:

1) Yes.

2) Male (?)

3) do Terminal 3, London Airport, Heathrow.

4) Twenty–seven.

5) Unknown.

6) Dr Barnardo’s Primary, Kingston–upon–Thames; HM Borstal, Send, Surrey; Brunel University Computer Sciences Department.

7) Floor cleaner, Mecca Amusement Arcades, Leicester Square.

8) If I can avoid it.

9) Systems Analyst, Sperry–Univac, 1979–83.

10) Manchester Crown Court, 1984.

11) Credit card and computer fraud.

12) Guilty.

13) Two years, HM Prison, Parkhurst.

14) Stockhausen, de Kooning, Jack Kerouac.

15) Whenever possible.

16) Twice a day.

17) NSU, Herpes, gonorrhoea.

18) Husbands.

19) My greatest ambition is to turn into a TV programme.

20) I first saw the deceased on 17 February 1986, in the chapel at London Airport. He was praying in the front pew.

Essential, natch.

“The Man Who Walked on the Moon” (1985)

I should’ve wedged this passable but ultimately forgettable little tale in elsewhere. J.G. Ballard’s faux memoir of a faux astronaut. Pass.

“The Secret History of World War 3” (1988)

“The Secret History of World War 3” is Ballard’s “I told you so” sequel to one of his best stories (frankly a much better story), 1968’s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” In his unofficial sequel, Ballard imagines (the horror!) of a third Reagan term (post-Bush 1), in which the country is obsessed with the President’s (lack of) health:

…the nation’s TV screens became a scoreboard registering every detail of the President’s physical and mental functions. His brave, if tremulous, heartbeat drew its trace along the lower edge of the screen, while above it newscasters expanded on his daily physical routines, on the twenty–eight feet he had walked in the rose garden, the calorie count of his modest lunches, the results of his latest brain–scan, read–outs of his kidney, liver and lung function. In addition, there was a daunting sequence of personality and IQ tests, all designed to reassure the American public that the man at the helm of the free world was more than equal to the daunting tasks that faced him across the Oval Office desk.

The story concerns a man who—alone, always alone, despite his wife, I mean this is Ballard here, hero’s alone (and rightjustified) in his paraonoia—a man who is the only person to remember the brief outbreak of WW3, wedged, as it is, among updates of Ronnie and Nancy’s bowel movements. The story is farcical but juvenile, and if it seems surprisingly sophomoric, it’s worth noting that “TSHofWW3” echoes not just “Fuck Ronald Reagan,” but also one of Ballard’s earliest efforts, “Escapement” (1956), where a man sits on his couch in disbelief as his wife (stand-in for the whole world) fails to perceive what he perceives.

“Love in a Colder Climate” (1989) / “The Largest Theme Park in the World” (1989) /“War Fever” (1989)

A trio of late period lectures blazoned in the day glow approximations that anyone who live in the late eighties will not-so-fondly recall. Ballard evokes the neon apocalyptic impulses of the day, reworking his familiar themes—reproduction, civilization, war (etc.). Our baroque surrealist’s strokes are broader, not as sharp, more magnified—more Haring than Delvaux. Michel Houellebecq will pick up JGB’s torch here (with arguably better results) a decade and a half later.

On the horizon:

A handful of stories of the nineties: Or: Ballard returns to the same well with diminishing returns.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Second Riff: Stories of 1960)

jgb_complete_ss400 PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

IN THIS RIFF:

Stories published in 1960:

“The Sound-Sweep”

“Zone of Terror”

“Chronopolis”

“The Voices of Time”

“The Last World of Mr. Goddard”

“The Sound-Sweep” (1960)

Ballard’s strong suit isn’t characterization. In his later writing, he transcends this apparent weakness, employing a style and rhetoric that dispenses with—or nakedly accepts, in some cases—the flatness of his characters. Ballard works in types: the scientist, the madman, the artist, the detective, the ingenue, the explorer, the has-been. Most of his characters are driven by very basic desires—curiosity, madness, revenge. There’s a thin line though between archetypal placeholders and hackneyed stereotypes, and Ballard occasionally stumbles over it in some of these early stories. “The Sound-Sweep” is one such story, plodding along over too many pages, asking its readers to care about characters that lack emotional or psychological depth. And while I don’t think we read Ballard for emotional depth, necessarily, we do read Ballard’s best work because it plumbs the contours of human psychology colliding into nascent technological changes that affect the most basic human senses.

As its title suggests, “The Sound-Sweep” is another early Ballard tale that takes on the sense of sound. The short version: This is a story about noise pollution, and also about how we might sacrifice an artistic way of listening in favor of apparent convenience. As is often the case in these early stories, Ballard constructs the tale to explore the fallout of one particular idea. In this case, that’s “ultrasonic music”:

Ultrasonic music, employing a vastly greater range of octaves, chords and chromatic scales than are audible by the human ear, provided a direct neural link between the sound stream and the auditory lobes, generating an apparently sourceless sensation of harmony, rhythm, cadence and melody uncontaminated by the noise and vibration of audible music. The re–scoring of the classical repertoire allowed the ultrasonic audience the best of both worlds. The majestic rhythms of Beethoven, the popular melodies of Tchaikovsky, the complex fugal elaborations of Bach, the abstract images of Schoenberg – all these were raised in frequency above the threshold of conscious audibility. Not only did they become inaudible, but the original works were re–scored for the much wider range of the ultrasonic orchestra, became richer in texture, more profound in theme, more sensitive, tender or lyrical as the ultrasonic arranger chose.

To tease out this idea, Ballard employs a washed-up opera singer, Madame Giaconda (a heavy base of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond with a heavy dash of Miss Havisham and cocaine), and Mangon, a mute orphan, the titular sound-sweep (should I wax on the Blakean undertones here? No? Okay).

“The Sound-Sweep” plods along over far too many pages, even divvying up the plot into chapters, asking us to care about the relationship between Giaconda and Mangon. The story would probably have made an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone, where performers might give life to some of the flat dialogue here and the constraints of television might compress the plot. The most interesting thing about “The Sound-Sweep”: The tale in some ways anticipates the mp3 and the ways in which music will be consumed:

But the final triumph of ultrasonic music had come with a second development – the short–playing record, spinning at 900 r.p.m., which condensed the 45 minutes of a Beethoven symphony to 20 seconds of playing time, the three hours of a Wagner opera to little more than two minutes. Compact and cheap, SP records sacrificed nothing to brevity. One 30–second SP record delivered as much neurophonic pleasure as a natural length recording, but with deeper penetration, greater total impact.

“Zone of Terror” (1960)

Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” is a much better doppelganger story. “Zone of Terror” reads like a very rough sketch for some of the stuff Ballard will do in his 1962 novel The Drowned World. (Both “Chronopolis” and “The Voices of Time” also clearly anticipate The Drowned World, each with much stronger results).

chronopolis

3. “Chronopolis” (1960)

“Chronopolis” offers an interesting central shtick: Clocks and other means of measuring and standardizing time have been banned. But this isn’t what makes the story stick. No, Ballard apparently tips his hand early, revealing why measuring time has been banned—it allows management to control labor:

‘Isn’t it obvious? You can time him, know exactly how long it takes him to do something.’ ‘Well?’ ‘Then you can make him do it faster.’

But our intrepid young protagonist (Conrad, his loaded name is), hardly satisfied with this answer, sneaks off to the city of the past, the titular chronopolis, where he works to restore the timepieces of the past. “Chronopolis” depicts a technologically-regressive world that Ballard will  explore in greater depth with his novel The Drowned World, but the details here are precise and fascinating (if perhaps ultimately unconvincing if we try to apply them as any kind of diagnosis for our own metered age). Ending on a perfect paranoid note, Ballard borrows just a dab of Poe here, synthesizing his influence into something far more original, far more Ballardian. Let’s include it in something I’m calling The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.

“The Voices of Time” (1960)

“The Voices of Time” is easily the best of the early stories in the collection. Ballard allows himself to dispense almost entirely with plot, or at least the kind of plot he’s been thus-far constrained by. Instead of the neat concision of his nineteenth century forebears (Chekhov and Poe), Ballard moves to something far more Ballardian (excuse the repetition), opening his text to a range of images and phrases that will repeat throughout his career—the word terminal, drained vessels, cryptic designs and sequences, a kind of psychic detritus the reader is left to account for and monitor. The loose threads in “The Voices of Time” are too many to enumerate. There’s a mutant armadillo and a girl named Coma. Mass narcolepsy and cacti that absorb gold from the earth as a shield against radiation. And sleep. And de-evolution:

…thirty years ago people did indeed sleep eight hours, and a century before that they slept six or seven. In Vasari’s Lives one reads of Michelangelo sleeping for only four or five hours, painting all day at the age of eighty and then working through the night over his anatomy table with a candle strapped to his forehead. Now he’s regarded as a prodigy, but it was unremarkable then. How do you think the ancients, from Plato to Shakespeare, Aristotle to Aquinas, were able to cram so much work into their lives? Simply because they had an extra six or seven hours every day. Of course, a second disadvantage under which we labour is a lowered basal metabolic rate – another factor no one will explain. …

… It’s time to re–tool. Just as an individual organism’s life span is finite, or the life of a yeast colony or a given species, so the life of an entire biological kingdom is of fixed duration. It’s always been assumed that the evolutionary slope reaches forever upwards, but in fact the peak has already been reached, and the pathway now leads downward to the common biological grave. It’s a despairing and at present unacceptable vision of the future, but it’s the only one. Five thousand centuries from now our descendants, instead of being multi–brained star–men, will probably be naked prognathous idiots with hair on their foreheads, grunting their way through the remains of this Clinic like Neolithic men caught in a macabre inversion of time. Believe me, I pity them, as I pity myself. My total failure, my absolute lack of any moral or biological right to existence, is implicit in every cell of my body…

I harped on Ballard’s lack of characterization earlier, and “The Voices of Time” makes no strong case for its author’s ability to create deep, full characters. What Ballard does very very well though is harness, express, and communicate the intellect of his smart, smart characters—something many if not most other writers (contemporary or otherwise) can’t do, despite any technical prowess they may possess. “The Voices of Time” doesn’t just tell you that its heroes and antiheroes are brilliant (and/or mad)—it shows you.

Marvelous stuff. Include it in The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

“The Last World of Mr. Goddard” (1960)

More Twilight Zone stuff. God-dard. Lilliput, sort of. Doll’s house. Etc. A one-note exercise that I doubt is worth your time. Skip it.

On the horizon:

Ballard anticipates how hollow and stale contemporary writing will become in “Studio Five, The Stars.”

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

The thought of being shut in for ever drives me out of my senses | Anna Kavan

The thought of being shut in for ever drives me out of my senses, so that I try to bash down walls with my bare hands, tear at bricks with my nails, pick the mortar out. It’s too ghastly. I’m not the sort of person who can live without seeing the sky. On the contrary, I have to look at it many times a day; I’m dying to be a part of it like the stars themselves. A cold finger of claustrophobia touches me icily. I can’t be imprisoned like this. Somehow or other I must get out..

From “The Old Address” by Anna Kavan. Originally published in Julia and the Bazooka (1970); reprinted by NYRB in Machines in the Head: Selected Stories of Anna Kavan (2020).

Arnold Roth’s original illustrations for Thomas Pynchon’s 1964 short story “The Secret Integration” (and a link to the full text of the story)

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Thomas Pynchon’s short story “The Secret Integration” was first published in a December issue of The Saturday Evening Post, and later published again as part of Pynchon’s first and only short story collection, Slow Learner.

In a 2018 article published at The Yale Review, Terry Reilly suggested that by publishing “The Secret Integration” in The Saturday Evening Post,

…Pynchon uses the form of an apparently simple, entertaining adolescent boys’ story to engage and then to manipulate the Post readers; to invoke various features of the publication history of The Saturday Evening Post while simultaneously calling attention to the magazine’s limited scope and conservative bias concerning issues of civil rights and racial integration in 1964.

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Pynchon’s story was accompanied by three illustrations by the cartoonist Arnold Roth, including a header, a small illustration, and this full page illustration below:

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The first page of the story:

“The Secret Integration”

by

Thomas Pynchon


OUTSIDE it was raining, the first rain of October, end of haying season and of the fall’s brilliance, purity of light, a certain soundness to weather that had brought New Yorkers flooding up through the Berkshires not too many weekends ago to see the trees changing in that sun. Today, by contrast, it was Saturday and raining, a lousy combination. Inside at the moment was Tim Santora, waiting for ten o’clock and wondering how he was going to get out past his mother. Grover wanted to see him at ten this morning, so he had to go. He sat curled in an old washing machine that lay on its side in a back room of the house; he listened to rain going down a drainpipe and looked at a wart that was on his finger. The wart had been there for two weeks and wasn’t going to go away. The other day his mother had taken him over to Doctor Slothrop, who painted some red stuff on it, turned out the lights and said, “Now, when I switch on my magic purple lamp, watch what happens to the wart.” It wasn’t a very magic-looking lamp, but when the doctor turned it on, the wart glowed a bright green. “Ah, good,” said Doctor Slothrop. “Green. That means the wart will go away, Tim. It hasn’t got a chance.” But as they were going out, the doctor said to Tim’s mother, in a lowered voice Tim had learned how to listen in on, “Suggestion therapy works about half the time. If this doesn’t clear up now spontaneously, bring him back and we’ll try liquid nitrogen.” Soon as he got home, Tim ran over to ask Grover what “suggestion therapy” meant. He found him down in the cellar, working on another invention. Continue reading “Arnold Roth’s original illustrations for Thomas Pynchon’s 1964 short story “The Secret Integration” (and a link to the full text of the story)”

“Sophocles” — Gordon Lish

“Sophocles”

by

Gordon Lish

from Self-Imitation of Myself  (1997)


Take egg. Boil until hard-cooked. Crack shell. Hold under running water. Remove shell. Set shell aside. Peel away white. Set white aside. Use heel of spoon to mash yolk in midsize mixing bowl. Add one teaspoon heavy cream, one tablespoon granulated sugar, one teaspoon confectioners’ sugar, three teaspoons almond extract, dash salt. Blend until blended consistency has been achieved. Set mixture aside. Take half cup shortening, two cups sifted flour, one teaspoon salt, four tablespoons ice water. Press with fork. Melt two sticks unsalted butter and fold in. Add two teaspoons vanilla extract. Shake in ground cinnamon and nutmeg to taste. Cover with dampened towel and set aside in warm, dry place. Core eight apples. Cream three bananas. Take one cup sour cream, half cup sweet cream, quarter cup molasses. Blend three tablespoons dark brown sugar with quarter cup unsalted butter. Add half teaspoon baking powder. Turn when bubbles appear. Set mixture aside. Heat bacon drippings, peanut oil, and corn oil in shallow frypan. Drain excess onto brown paper bag. Pour remainder into buttered casserole. Sprinkle with paprika. Pat dry. Remove from pan. Allow milk to “billow.” Cut in four servings of finely chopped cabbage. Put seven egg yolks, two pints buttermilk into large mixing bowl. Beat until ingredients are thoroughly moistened. Resolve butter while gradually adding sugar. Add egg mixture to hot milk in saucepan. Set aside and take two tablespoons strained orange juice and eight-ounce jar apricot preserves. Cut pecans coarsely. Pour and spoon into prepared pan. Add half cup condensed milk, half cup evaporated milk, whole cup skim milk. Cook until substance has clarified. Let cool before refrigerating. Then bring gently to boil. Stir in apples and “shave” top with well-chilled knife. Beat vigorously until thick. Set this aside. Crush four vanilla beans with curd mallet. Divide with scissors into one-inch pieces. Transfer mixture to baking tin. Core more apples. Fold in eggs. Fold in pecans. Beat until stiff. Where’s your cooked egg white? Don’t forget your cooked egg white! Cut shortening into safflower oil. Remove cabbage from double boiler. Steam and then spread until surface is crumbly. Beat with whisk. Set aside. To begin sauce, take one quart okra, two pints tomatoes, two chopped onions, salt and pepper to taste. Take off skin and slice thin. Shake until greens are engulfed. Combine and keep beating. Prepare greased sheet. Allow contents to regroup. Dice and remove grated walnuts. Mixture is “ready” when peaks appear. Set aside and boil without stirring. Is it brittle? Discard and start again if brittle. What happened to vanilla beans? Crush more vanilla beans. Take creamed bananas. Pat dry. Remove from bowl. Lift gently. Combine. Fold back towel. You dampened it, didn’t you? Didn’t you dampen it? You didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t dampen it! You took this for a joke and didn’t fucking dampen it, did you? See the brittleness? Weren’t you warned? You were warned, weren’t you?

Take egg.

No, forget it — don’t take egg.

Go get eight pounds stewing meat.

Hack away gristle.

Hack away suet.

Rip out bone.

“The Shape of the Sword,” a short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Shape of the Sword”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


His face was traversed by a vengeful scar, an ashen and almost perfect arc that sliced from the temple on one side of his head to his cheek on the other. His true name does not matter; everyone in Tacuarembó called him “the Englishman at La Colorada.” The owner of the land, Cardoso, hadn’t wanted to sell it; I heard that the Englishman plied him with an argument no one could have foreseen—he told him the secret history of the scar. He had come from the border, from Rio Grande do Sul; there were those who said that over in Brazil he had been a smuggler. The fields had gone to grass, the water was bitter; to put things to right, the Englishman worked shoulder to shoulder with his peons. People say he was harsh to the point of cruelty, but scrupulously fair. They also say he liked his drink; once or twice a year he would shut himself up in the room in the belvedere, and two or three days later he would emerge as though from a battle or a spell of dizziness—
pale, shaking, befuddled, and as authoritarian as ever. I recall his glacial eyes, his lean energy, his gray mustache. He was standoffish; the fact is, his Spanish was rudimentary, and tainted with the accents of Brazil. Aside from the occasional business letter or pamphlet, he got no mail.

The last time I made a trip through the northern provinces, high water along the Caraguatá forced me to spend the night at La Colorada. Within a few minutes I thought I sensed that my showing up that way was somehow inopportune. I tried to ingratiate myself with the Englishman, and to do so I seized upon patriotism, that least discerning of passions. I remarked that a country with England’s spirit was invincible. My interlocutor nodded, but added with a smile that he wasn’t English—he was Irish, from Dungarvan. That said, he stopped, as though he had let slip a secret.

We went outside after dinner to have a look at the sky. The clouds had cleared away, but far off behind the sharp peaks, the southern sky, creviced and split with lightning, threatened another storm. Back in the dilapidated dining room, the peon who’d served dinner brought out a bottle of rum. We drank for a long time, in silence.

I am not sure what time it was when I realized that I was drunk; I don’t know what
inspiration or elation or boredom led me to remark on my host’s scar. His face froze; for several seconds I thought he was going to eject me from the house. But at last, his voice perfectly ordinary, he said to me:

“I will tell you the story of my scar under one condition—that no contempt or condemnation be withheld, no mitigation for any iniquity be pleaded.”

I agreed. This is the story he told, his English interspersed with Spanish, and even with Portuguese: In 1922, in one of the cities of Connaught, I was one of the many young men who were conspiring to win Ireland’s independence. Of my companions there, some are still living, working for peace; others, paradoxically, are fighting under English colours, at sea or in the desert; one, the best of us all, was shot at dawn in the courtyard of a prison, executed by men filled with dreams; others (and not the least fortunate, either) met their fate in the anonymous, virtually secret battles of the civil war. We were Republicans and Catholics; we were, I suspect, romantics. For us, Ireland was not just the Utopian future and the unbearable present; it was a bitter yet loving mythology, it was the circular towers and red bogs, it was the repudiation of Parnell, and it was the grand epics that sing the theft of bulls that were heroes in an earlier incarnation, and in other incarnations fish, and mountains. … One evening I shall never forget, there came to us a man, one of our own, from Munster—a man called John Vincent Moon.

He couldn’t have been more than twenty. He was thin yet slack-muscled, all at once—he gave the uncomfortable impression of being an invertebrate. He had studied, ardently and with some vanity, virtually every page of one of those Communist manuals; he would haul out his dialectical materialism to cut off any argument. There are infinite reasons a man may have for hating or loving another man; Moon reduced the history of the world to one sordid economic conflict. He declared that the Revolution was foreordained to triumph. I replied that only lost causes were of any interest to a gentleman…. Night had fallen; we pursued our crosspurposes in the hallway, down the stairs, then through the vague streets.

The verdicts Moon handed down impressed me considerably less than the sense of unappealable and absolute truth with which he issued them. The new comrade did not argue, he did not debate—he pronounced judgement, contemptuously and, to a degree, wrathfully. As we came to the last houses of the city that night, we were stupefied by the sudden sound of gunfire.

(Before this, or afterward, we skirted the blind wall of a factory or a gaol.) We turned down a dirt street; a soldier, huge in the glare, burst out of a torched cottage. He shouted at us to halt. I started walking faster; my comrade did not follow me. I turned around— John Vincent Moon was standing as motionless as a rabbit caught in one’s headlights eternalized, somehow, by terror. I ran back, floored the soldier with a single blow, shook Vincent Moon, cursed him, and ordered him to come with me. I had to take him by the arm; the passion of fear had stripped him of all will. But then we did run—we fled through the conflagration-riddled night. A burst of rifle fire came our way, and a bullet grazed Moon’s right shoulder; as we fled through the pine trees, a weak sob racked his breast.

In that autumn of 1922 I had gone more or less underground, and was living in General Berkeley’s country house. The general (whom I had never seen) was at that time posted to some administrative position or other out in Bengal; the house was less than a hundred years old but it was gloomy and dilapidated and filled with perplexing corridors and pointless antechambers. The museum-cabinet and huge library arrogated to themselves the entire lower floor—there were the controversial and incompatible books that are somehow the history of the nineteenth century; there were scimitars from Nishapur, in whose frozen crescents the wind and violence of battle seemed to be living on. We entered the house (I think I recall) through the rear. Moon, shaking, his mouth dry, mumbled that the events of the night had been “interesting”; I salved and bandaged him, then brought him a cup of tea. The wound was superficial. Suddenly, puzzled, he stammered:

“You took a terrible chance, coming back to save me like that.”

I told him it was nothing. (It was the habit of civil war that impelled me to act as I acted; besides, the imprisonment of a single one of us could imperil the entire cause.)

The next day, Moon had recovered his composure. He accepted a cigarette and subjected me to a harsh interrogation as to the “financial resources of our revolutionary party.” His questions were quite lucid; I told him (truthfully) that the situation was grave. Deep rumblings of gunfire troubled the peace of the south. I told Moon that our comrades were waiting for us. My overcoat and revolver were  up in my room; when I returned, I found Moon lying on the sofa, his eyes closed. He thought he had a fever; he pleaded a painful spasm in his shoulder.

It was then that I realized he was a hopeless coward. I clumsily told him to take care of himself, then left.

I was embarrassed by the man and his fear, shamed by him, as though I myself were the coward, not Vincent Moon. Whatsoever one man does, it is as though all men did it. That is why it is not unfair that a single act of disobedience in a garden should contaminate all humanity; that is why it is not unfair that a single Jew’s crucifixion should be enough to save it. Schopenhauer may have been right—I am other men, any man is all men, Shakespeare is somehow the wretched John Vincent Moon.

We spent nine days in the general’s great house. Of the agonies and the rays of light of that dark war I shall say nothing; my purpose is to tell the story of this scar that affronts me. In my memory, those nine days form a single day—except for the next to last, when our men  stormed a barracks and avenged, life for life, our sixteen comrades fallen to the machine guns at Elphin. I would slip out of the house about dawn, in the blurred confusion of first light. I would be back toward nightfall. My comrade would be waiting for me upstairs; his wound would not allow him to come down. When I look back, I see him with some book of strategy in his hand—F. N. Maude, or Clausewitz. “The weapon of preference for me,” he confessed to me one night, “is artillery.” He enquired into our plans; he enjoyed criticizing or re-thinking them. He was also much given to deploring “our woeful financial base”; dogmatically and sombrely he would prophesy the disastrous end. “C’est une affaire flambée,” he would mutter. To show that his physical cowardice was a matter of indifference to him, he made a great display of mental arrogance.

Thus passed, well or not so well, nine days.

On the tenth, the city fell once and forever into the hands of the Black and Tans. Highsitting, silent horsemen patrolled their beats; there was ash and smoke in the wind. I saw a dead body sprawled on one corner—yet that dead body is less vivid in my memory than the dummy that the soldiers endlessly practised their marksmanship on in the middle of the city square…. I had gone out when dawn was just streaking the sky; before noon, I was back. Moon was in the library, talking to someone; I realized from the tone of his voice that he was speaking on the telephone. Then I heard my name; then, that I’d be back at seven, and then, that I’d be arrested as I came across the lawn. My rational friend was rationally selling me out. I heard him demand certain guarantees of his own safety.

Here my story becomes confused and peters out a bit. I know that I chased the snitch through black corridors of nightmare and steep stairwells of vertigo. Moon knew the house well, every bit as well as I.

Once or twice I lost him, but I managed to corner him before the soldiers arrested me.

From one of the general’s suits of armor, I seized a scimitar, and with that steel crescent left a flourish on his face forever—a half-moon of blood. To you alone, Borges—you who are a stranger—I have made this confession.

Your contempt is perhaps not so painful.”

Here the narrator halted. I saw that his hands were trembling.

“And Moon?” I asked. “What became of Moon?”

“He was paid his Judas silver and he ran off to Brazil. That evening, in the city square, I saw a dummy shot by a firing squad of drunks.”

I waited vainly for the rest of the story. Finally, I asked him to go on.

A groan made his entire body shiver; he gestured, feebly, gently, toward the curving whitish scar.

“Do you not believe me?” he stammered. “Do you not see set upon my face the mark of my iniquity? I have told you the story this way so that you would hear it out. It was I who betrayed the man who saved me and gave me shelter—it is I who am Vincent Moon. Now, despise me.”