What if art is not communicative? | Ursula K. Le Guin

“Editorial. By the President of the Therolinguistics Association”

by

Ursula K. Le Guin

from

“The Author of the Acacia Seeds And Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics


What is Language?

This question, central to the science of therolinguistics, has been answered—heuristically—by the very existence of the science. Language is communication. That is the axiom on which all our theory and research rest, and from which all our discoveries derive; and the success of the discoveries testifies to the validity of the axiom. But to the related, yet not identical question, What is Art? we have not yet given a satisfactory answer.

Tolstoy, in the book whose title is that very question, answered it firmly and clearly: Art, too, is communication. This answer has, I believe, been accepted without examination or criticism by therolinguists. For example: Why do therolinguists study only animals?

Why, because plants do not communicate.

Plants do not communicate; that is a fact. Therefore plants have no language; very well; that follows from our basic axiom. Therefore, also, plants have no art. But stay! That does not follow from the basic axiom, but only from the unexamined Tolstoyan corollary.

What if art is not communicative?

Or, what if some art is communicative, and some art is not?

Ourselves animals, active, predators, we look (naturally enough) for an active, predatory, communicative art; and when we find it, we recognise it. The development of this power of recognition and the skills of appreciation is a recent and glorious achievement.

But I submit that, for all the tremendous advances made by therolinguistics during the last decades, we are only at the beginning of our age of discovery. We must not become slaves to our own axioms. We have not yet lifted our eyes to the vaster horizons before us. We have not faced the almost terrifying challenge of the Plant.

If a non-communicative, vegetative art exists, we must rethink the very elements of our science, and learn a whole new set of techniques.

For it is simply not possible to bring the critical and technical skills appropriate to the study of Weasel murder mysteries, or Batrachian erotica, or the tunnel sagas of the earthworm, to bear on the art of the redwood or the zucchini.

This is proved conclusively by the failure—a noble failure—of the efforts of Dr. Srivas, in Calcutta, using time-lapse photography, to produce a lexicon of Sunflower. His attempt was daring, but doomed to failure. For his approach was kinetic—a method appropriate to the communicative arts of the tortoise, the oyster, and the sloth. He saw the extreme slowness of the kinesis of plants, and only that, as the problem to be solved.

But the problem was far greater. The art he sought, if it exists, is a non-communicative art: and probably a non-kinetic one. It is possible that Time, the essential element, matrix, and measure of all known animal art, does not enter into vegetable art at all. The plants may use the meter of eternity. We do not know.

We do not know. All we can guess is that the putative Art of the Plant is entirely different from the Art of the Animal. What it is, we cannot say; we have not yet discovered it. Yet I predict with some certainty that it exists, and that when it is found it will prove to be, not an action, but a reaction: not a communication, but a reception. It will be exactly the opposite of the art we know and recognise. It will be the first passive art known to us.

Can we in fact know it? Can we ever understand it?

It will be immensely difficult. That is clear. But we should not despair. Remember that so late as the mid-twentieth century, most scientists, and many artists, did not believe that Dolphin would ever be comprehensible to the human brain—or worth comprehending! Let another century pass, and we may seem equally laughable. “Do you realise,” the phytolinguist will say to the aesthetic critic, “that they couldn’t even read Eggplant?” And they will smile at our ignorance, as they pick up their rucksacks and hike on up to read the newly deciphered lyrics of the lichen on the north face of Pike’s Peak.

And with them, or after them, may there not come that even bolder adventurer—the first geolinguist, who, ignoring the delicate, transient lyrics of the lichen, will read beneath it the still less communicative, still more passive, wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rocks: each one a word spoken, how long ago, by the earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space.

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Read Philip K. Dick’s short story “To Serve the Master”

“To Serve the Master”

by

Philip K. Dick


Applequist was cutting across a deserted field, up a narrow path beside the yawning crack of a ravine, when he heard the voice.

He stopped frozen, hand on his S-pistol. For a long time he listened, but there was only the distant lap of the wind among the broken trees along the ridge, a hollow murmuring that mixed with the rustle of the dry grass beside him. The sound had come from the ravine. Its bottom was snarled and debris-filled. He crouched down at the lip and tried to locate the voice.

There was no motion. Nothing to give away the place. His legs began to ache. Flies buzzed at him, settled on his sweating forehead. The sun made his head ache; the dust clouds had been thin the last few months.

His radiation-proof watch told him it was three o’clock. Finally he shrugged and got stiffly to his feet. The hell with it. Let them send out an armed team. It wasn’t his business; he was a letter carrier grade four, and a civilian.

As he climbed the hill toward the road, the sound came again. And this time, standing high above the ravine, he caught a flash of motion. Fear and puzzled disbelief touched him. It couldn’t be — but he had seen it with his own eyes. It wasn’t a newscircular rumor. Continue reading “Read Philip K. Dick’s short story “To Serve the Master””

Read Paul Bowles’s short story “The Fourth Day Out from Santa Cruz”

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“The Fourth Day Out from Santa Cruz”

by

Paul Bowles


Ramón signed on at Cádiz. The ship’s first call was at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a day and a half out. They put in at night, soon after dark. Floodlights around the harbor illumined the steep bare mountains and made them grass-green against the black sky. Ramón stood at the rail, watching. “It must have been raining here,” he said to a member of the crew standing beside him. The man grunted, looking not at the green slopes unnaturally bright in the electric glare, but at the lights of the town ahead. “Very green,” went on Ramon, a little less certainly; the man did not even grunt in reply.

As soon as the ship was anchored, scores of Hindu shopkeepers came aboard with laces and embroidered goods for the passengers who might not be going ashore. They stayed on the first-class deck, not bothering to go down below to third-class where Ramón was scullery boy in the passengers’ cocina. The work so far did not upset him; he had held more exacting and tiring jobs in Cádiz. There was sufficient food, and although it was not very good, nevertheless it was better than what was taken out to the third-class passengers. It had never occurred to Ramón to want privacy in his living quarters, so that he was unmoved by the necessity of sharing a cabin with a dozen or so shipmates. Still, he had been acutely unhappy since leaving Cádiz. Except for the orders they gave him in the kitchen, the sailors behaved as if he did not exist. They covered his bunk with their dirty clothes, and lay on it, smoking, at night when he wanted to sleep. They failed to include him in any conversation, and so far no one had even made an allusion, however deprecatory, to his existence. For them it appeared that he simply was not present. To even the least egocentric man such a state of affairs can become intolerable. In his sixteen years Ramón had not been in a similar situation; he had been maltreated but not wholly disregarded.

Most of the crew stood at the prow smoking, pointing out bars to one another, as they scanned the waterfront. Partly out of perversity born of his grievance, and partly because he wanted to be by himself for a spell, Ramón walked to the stern and leaned heavily against the rail, looking down into the darkness below. He could hear an automobile horn being blown continuously as it drove along the waterfront. The hills behind backed up the sound, magnified it as they threw it across the water. To the other side was the dim roar of the sea’s waves against the break-water. He was a little homesick, and as he stood there he became angry as well. It was inadmissible that this state of affairs should continue. A day and a half was too long; he was determined to force a change immediately, and to his undisciplined young mind kept recurring the confused image of a fight—a large-scale struggle with the entire crew, in which he somehow finished as the sole victor.

It is pleasant to walk by the sea-wall of a foreign port at night, with the autumn wind gently pushing at your back. Ramón was in no hurry; he stopped before each café and listened to the guitars and shouting, without, however, allowing himself to be detained by the women who called to him from the darker doorways. Having had to clean up the galley after an extra meal had been served to sixty workmen who had just come aboard here at Santa Cruz, bound for South America, he had been the last to get off the ship, and so he was looking for his shipmates. At the Café del Teide he found several of them seated at a table sharing a bottle of rum. They saw him come in, but they gave no sign of recognition. There was no empty chair. He walked toward the table, slowed down a bit as he approached it, and then continued walking toward the back of the café. The man behind the bar called out to him: “You were looking for something?” Ramón turned around and sat down suddenly at a small table. The waiter came and served him, but he scarcely noticed what he was drinking. He was watching the table with the six men from his ship. Like one fascinated, he let his eyes follow each gesture: the filling of the little glasses, the tossing down the liquor, the back of the hand wiping the mouth. And he listened to their words punctuated by loud laughter. Resentment began to swell in him; he felt that if he sat still any longer he would explode. Pushing back his chair, he jumped up and strode dramatically out into the street. No one noticed his exit. Continue reading “Read Paul Bowles’s short story “The Fourth Day Out from Santa Cruz””

“Game” — Donald Barthelme

“Game”

by

Donald Barthelme


 

Shotwell keeps the jacks and the rubber ball in his attaché case and will not allow me to play with them. He plays with them, alone, sitting on the floor near the console hour after hour, chanting “onesies, twosies, threesies, foursies” in a precise, well-modulated voice, not so loud as to be annoying, not so soft as to allow me to forget. I point out to Shotwell that two can derive more enjoyment from playing jacks than one, but he is not interested. I have asked repeatedly to be allowed to play by myself, but he simply shakes his head. “Why?” I ask. “They’re mine,” he says. And when he has finished, when he has sated himself, back they go into the attaché case.

It is unfair but there is nothing I can do about it. I am aching to get my hands on them.

Shotwell and I watch the console. Shotwell and I live under the ground and watch the console. If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys. Shotwell has a key and I have a key. If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies. But the bird never flies. In one hundred thirty-three days the bird has not flown. Meanwhile Shotwell and I watch each other. We each wear a .45 and if Shotwell behaves strangely I am supposed to shoot him. If I behave strangely Shotwell is supposed to shoot me. We watch the console and think about shooting each other and think about the bird. Shotwell’s behavior with the jacks is strange. Is it strange? I do not know. Perhaps he is merely a selfish bastard, perhaps his character is flawed, perhaps his childhood was twisted. I do not know.

Each of us wears a .45 and each of us is supposed to shoot the other if the other is behaving strangely. How strangely is strangely? I do not know. In addition to the .45 I have a .38 which Shotwell does not know about concealed in my attaché case, and Shotwell has a .25 caliber Beretta which I do not know about strapped to his right calf. Sometimes instead of watching the console I pointedly watch Shotwell’s .45, but this is simply a ruse, simply a maneuver, in reality I am watching his hand when it dangles in the vicinity of his right calf. If he decides I am behaving strangely he will shoot me not with the .45 but with the Beretta. Similarly Shotwell pretends to watch my .45 but he is really watching my hand resting idly atop my attaché case, my hand resting atop my attaché case, my hand. My hand resting idly atop my attaché case. Continue reading ““Game” — Donald Barthelme”

“The Boss,” a new short story by Robert Coover

“The Boss” is  a new (very short) short story by Robert Coover. Read the whole thing at The New Yorker

Read my review of Coover’s latest novel, Huck Out West, here.

Here are the first two paragraphs of “The Boss”:

The gunman lights a cigarette, watches despondently as dusk falls upon the empty alley. He is alone in a lonely place, summoned here to receive instructions from a master criminal known only as the Boss, but the Boss isn’t here. No one is. It’s spooky. He feels like a marked man. The Boss is known for his ruthlessness. When he orders a killing, someone dies. The gunman would like there to be witnesses for what happens next, but the alley’s deserted.

He glances at his watch, a gift from the Boss. Face a gold coin, no numbers. A joke, probably: time is money. Or, maybe, money is time; it depends on what you’re short of. The Boss is a great joker. The watch hands are hair-thin, like the edge of a razor blade, hard to see, especially in this fading light. There and not there, like time itself. Which is perhaps not being clocked—perhaps that’s what the numberless face is saying. How can you measure the shit you’re buried in? He doesn’t know what keeps the watch running. Battery inside, maybe. When the battery dies? Don’t think about it.

“The Itch,” a new Don DeLillo story in The New Yorker

There’s a new DeLillo story in The New Yorker. It’s called “The Itch” and I started itching terribly about halfway through. First three sections (and yeah, the story starts with “But”):

But nobody showed up, so he sat awhile looking at the wall. It was one of those Saturdays that feel like Sunday. He didn’t know how to explain this. It happened intermittently, more often in the warmer months, and it was probably normal, although he’d never discussed it with anyone.

After the divorce he felt an odd numbness, mental and physical. He looked in the mirror, studying the face that looked back. At night he kept to his half of the bed with his back to the other half. Over time a life slithered out. He talked to people, took long walks. He bought a pair of shoes but only after testing them rigorously, both shoes, not just one. He walked from one end of the shoe store to the other, four times at various speeds, then sat and looked down at the shoes. He took one shoe off and handled it, pressing the instep, placing his hand inside the shoe, nodding at it, tapping with the fingers of his free hand on the rigid sole and heel.

The salesman stood in the near distance, watching and waiting, whoever he was, whatever he said and did when he wasn’t there.

In the office his desk was set alongside a window and he spent time looking at a building across the street, where nothing was visible inside the rows of windows. There were times when he could not stop looking.

He looks and scratches, semi-surreptitiously. Certain days it’s the left wrist. Upper arms at home in the evening. Thighs and shins most likely at night. When he’s out walking, it happens now and then, mostly forearms.

He was forty-four years old, trapped in his body. Arms, legs, torso. Face did not itch. Scalp developed something that a doctor gave a name to, but it itched only rarely, then not at all, so the name didn’t matter.

His eyes swept the windows across the street horizontally, never vertically. He did not try to imagine the lives inside.

A review of Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows

One way to measure how great a work of literature is might be to ask how true (or “True,” if one is feeling particularly romantic) the writing is. We can find facts anywhere, but details and data are not the same as art. Great literature happens in the arrangement of that data, by presenting details with the right ear and eye for truth—and also, the good sense to know what to withhold from the audience, who, after all, are a part of the equation. The stories collected in Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows, both inspiriting and crushing, are some of the most psychologically true pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.

First Love collects nine stories, all composed and published in the 1950s; all but one was originally published in The New Yorker. Although discrete entities, the stories function together. First Love is very much a novel-in-stories, with recurring characters, themes, and motifs. Brodkey’s stories document the strange little bubble of time between WWII and the turmoil of the sixties, and his writing, a kind of late modernism, reflects this period, when the ideal of the American Dream began to be redefined in terms of new modes of class and education.

The first few stories in the collection are told from the first-person perspective of an adolescent, likely an iteration of Brodkey himself. Opener “State of Grace” serves as an overture to the collection, introducing a family that will be transposed throughout the tales. There’s the narrator, a sensitive, awkward boy, beginning to feel strains of alienation from his older sister and his mother. Dad is out of the picture, and with him, the family’s fortunes have fallen: big sis is expected to marry the right man for money—and for class.

These themes are explored in greater length in the very-long short story “First Love and Other Sorrows,” a compact little novella, really, that everyone should read at some point. The narrator, likely the same boy from the first story, describes his life at the end of his high school career in St. Louis, as he prepares to move on to college soon. Again, the major explicit conflict of the story revolves around his sister’s romances, as their mother pressures her to marry the right man. The real conflict though is the boy’s emerging realization of his own dramatic detachment from his family; or, more accurately, the young man is coming to realize the underlying instability that adults tend to hide from children. The boy observes his older sister, whom he reveres—

It occurred to me that she didn’t really know what she was doing; she was not really as sure of everything as she seemed. It was a painfully difficult thought to arrive at, and it clung to me. Why hadn’t I realized it before? Also, she sort of hated me, it seemed to me. I had never noticed that before, either. How could I have been so wrong, I wondered. Knowing how wrong I had been about this, I felt that no idea I had ever had was safe. For instance, we were not necessarily a happy family, with the most wonderful destinies for my sister and me. We might make mistakes and choose wrong. Unhappiness was real. It was even likely…

The narrator’s epiphany is articulate and crushing and wholly real: it documents the ugly realization that the fantasies of a middle class childhood — “happily ever after” — are, indeed, mere fantasies. Brodkey twins this moment in another epiphany at the end of the story that I would love to discuss but fear spoiling; suffice to say that the final line of the story, forever etched in my brain, is simply one of the finest and most fitting moments I’ve ever read.

The next story, “The Quarrel,” finds our young hero, a bit more jaded, off to Harvard, where he falls in with a bitter rich kid named Duncan; they quickly make it their business to despise everything, adopting (unearned) world-weary poses and contrarian natures. Against the advice of their families, the two take a semester off college to tour Europe, spending much of their time bicycling across France. The story documents the kind of friendships that many young people emerging from adolescence engage in: fierce, passionate, identity-defining relationships that always buckle under their own weight. Hence—

Duncan enjoyed Pernod. It made me sick. Duncan hated talking to people. I talked to everyone. My French vocabulary was better than Duncan’s. His pronunciation was better than mine. I became terribly adept at not irritating Duncan before breakfast. I couldn’t see that he appreciated any of this, or that he responded with any similar awareness. For the fiftieth time, I thought him unfair. The moment came when I could no longer stand the sound of his voice, or his ideas. After traveling with him day and night, without a break, for fifty-three days, I felt my senses suffocating in an awareness of Duncan.

“The Quarrel” perfectly captures the strange paradoxes of youthful, immature friendships that can’t survive; reading it forced me to remember myself at eighteen, and to recall a friendship similar to that between the narrator and Duncan, an intense friendship that burned out bitterly and quickly, yet nevertheless helped me to define myself.

“The Quarrel” is the last story in the collection written in first-person perspective; indeed, Brodkey’s narrative shift signals a shift in development; as his characters age (as they do through the collection), he allows himself to step outside of them a bit, as if the psychological pain he explores is almost too much to bear. “Sentimental Education” tells the story of an intense first love (the male lead seems like another iteration of the narrator from the first three stories). In a free indirect style, Brodkey glamorizes, valorizes, and satirizes the young lovers, all at once, exploring the passion and shame and confusion of early adulthood. Here, he describes what happens when the pair begin a sexual relationship—

Their first dip in sensual waters left them nonplussed. They didn’t know what to make of it. They tried to persuade themselves that something had really happened, but the minute it was over, they couldn’t believe they had ever done such a thing. They rushed into further experiences; they broke off in the middle of embraces and looked at each other, stunned and delighted. “Is this really happening?” they both asked at different times, and each time the other said, “No,” and they would laugh. They knew that nothing they did was real, was actual. They had received a blow on the head and were prey to erotic imaginings, that was all. But at the same time they half realized it was true, they were doing these things, and then the fact that they, Caroline and Elgin, shared such intimacy dazed and fascinated them; and when they were together, they tried to conceal it, but this indescribable attraction they felt for each other kept making itself known and draining all the strength from their bodies.

“Sentimental Education” retraces the fallout explored in “The Quarrel,” as the young lovers inevitably fall apart.

After this love story, Brodkey shifts his attention to a character named Laura (or, in one version, “Laurie”), who seems to be a version of the narrator’s sister from the first few stories. The five Laura stories are much shorter than the other narratives. These tightly detailed miniature portraits trace the development of Laura as she chooses the man her mother didn’t approve of; this plot is very much in the background of the stories, though, an implicit detail that nevertheless hangs over Laura’s psychological development. The Laura stories seem to trace what it means to grow old but not mature. They recall the narrator in “First Love and Other Stories” epiphany that adulthood might be a murky or unhappy place. “Laura” documents postpartum depression and “Trio for Three Gentle Voices” subtly explores the ways in which parents seek to avoid repeating their own parents’ mistakes. “Piping Down the Valley’s Wild” is a simple, elegant story about Laura’s husband’s college roommate coming over for dinner. Reading it, I experienced an uncanny transposition, as if I were observing a reinterpretation of something I experienced a few weekends ago. The story ends with another sad epiphany—

She just wanted this day to go on forever and ever, unending, with all its joys intact, and no one changing, nothing new happening, just these same things occurring over and over. Because how did you know happiness would come back? Or if it came back, that it would be as good as this? Laura sighed and wiped her eyes surreptitiously. The trouble with being happy was that it made you frightened.

This realization again encodes the paradox of adulthood, pointing toward its radical instability. To grow up, in Brodkey’s terms (terms I again point out strike me as utterly true) is to face irretrievable loss at every single moment, even as you gain new friends, new lovers, or new children. The joys of life are predicated on the necessary loss of these joys: existence costs.

First Love and Other Sorrows is a book that deserves more attention. In its spirit and art, it matches (and surpasses) other mid-century American narratives like The Catcher in the Rye or The Glass Menagerie, and in its spare, precise, minimal style, it points toward the later fiction of writers like Raymond Carver. This is a beautiful, sad book, the kind that leaves a deep impression. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept posted a version of this review in April of 2011].

“A Justice,” a short story by William Faulkner

“A Justice”

by

William Faulkner


 

I

Until Grandfather Compson died, we would go out to the farm every Saturday afternoon. We would leave home right after dinner in the surrey, I in front with Roskus, and Grandfather and Candace (Caddy, we called her) and Jason in the back. Grandfather and Roskus would talk, with the horses going fast, because it was the best team in the county. They would carry the surrey fast along the levels and up some of the hills even. But this was in north Mississippi, and on some of the hills Roskus and I could smell Grandfather’s cigar.

The farm was four miles away. There was a long, low house in the grove, not painted but kept whole and sound by a clever carpenter from the quarters named Sam Fathers, and behind it the barns and smokehouses, and further still, the quarters themselves, also kept whole and sound by Sam Fathers. He did nothing else, and they said he was almost a hundred years old. He lived with the Negroes and they—the white people; the Negroes called him a blue-gum—called him a Negro. But he wasn’t a Negro. That’s what I’m going to tell about.

When we got there, Mr. Stokes, the manager, would send a Negro boy with Caddy and Jason to the creek to fish, because Caddy was a girl and Jason was too little, but I wouldn’t go with them. I would go to Sam Fathers’ shop, where he would be making breast-yokes or wagon wheels, and I would always bring him some tobacco. Then he would stop working and he would fill his pipe—he made them himself, out of creek clay with a reed stem—and he would tell me about the old days. He talked like a nigger—that is, he said his words like niggers do, but he didn’t say the same words—and his hair was nigger hair. But his skin wasn’t quite the color of a light nigger and his nose and his mouth and chin were not nigger nose and mouth and chin. And his shape was not like the shape of a nigger when he gets old. He was straight in the back, not tall, a little broad, and his face was still all the time, like he might be somewhere else all the while he was working or when people, even white people, talked to him, or while he talked to me. It was just the same all the time, like he might be away up on a roof by himself, driving nails. Sometimes he would quit work with something half-finished on the bench, and sit down and smoke. And he wouldn’t jump up and go back to work when Mr. Stokes or even Grandfather came along.

So I would give him the tobacco and he would stop work and sit down and fill his pipe and talk to me.

“These niggers,” he said. “They call me Uncle Blue-Gum. And the white folks, they call me Sam Fathers.”

“Isn’t that your name?” I said.

“No. Not in the old days. I remember. I remember how I never saw but one white man until I was a boy big as you are; a whiskey trader that came every summer to the Plantation. It was the Man himself that named me. He didn’t name me Sam Fathers, though.”

“The Man?” I said.

“He owned the Plantation, the Negroes, my mammy too. He owned all the land that I knew of until I was grown. He was a Chickasaw chief. He sold my mammy to your greatgrandpappy. He said I didn’t have to go unless I wanted to, because I was a warrior too then. He was the one who named me Had-Two-Fathers.”

“Had-Two-Fathers?” I said. “That’s not a name. That’s not anything.”

“It was my name once. Listen.”

II

This is how Herman Basket told it when I was big enough to hear talk. He said that when Doom came back from New Orleans, he brought this woman with him. He brought six black people, though Herman Basket said they already had more black people in the Plantation than they could find use for. Sometimes they would run the black men with dogs, like you would a fox or a cat or a coon. And then Doom brought six more when he came home from New Orleans. He said he won them on the steamboat, and so he had to take them. He got off the steamboat with the six black people, Herman Basket said, and a big box in which something was alive, and the gold box of New Orleans salt about the size of a gold watch. And Herman Basket told how Doom took a puppy out of the box in which something was alive, and how he made a bullet of bread and a pinch of the salt in the gold box, and put the bullet into the puppy and the puppy died.

That was the kind of a man that Doom was, Herman Basket said. He told how, when Doom got off the steamboat that night, he wore a coat with gold all over it, and he had three gold watches, but Herman Basket said that even after seven years, Doom’s eyes had not changed. He said that Doom’s eyes were just the same as before he went away, before his name was Doom, and he and Herman Basket and my pappy were sleeping on the same pallet and talking at night, as boys will. Continue reading ““A Justice,” a short story by William Faulkner”

Read “The Variable Man,” an early short story by Philip K. Dick

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“The Variable Man”

by

Philip K. Dick


Security Commissioner Reinhart rapidly climbed the front steps and entered the Council building. Council guards stepped quickly aside and he entered the familiar place of great whirring machines. His thin face rapt, eyes alight with emotion, Reinhart gazed intently up at the central SRB computer, studying its reading.

“Straight gain for the last quarter,” observed Kaplan, the lab organizer. He grinned proudly, as if personally responsible. “Not bad, Commissioner.”

“We’re catching up to them,” Reinhart retorted. “But too damn slowly. We must finally go over—and soon.”

Kaplan was in a talkative mood. “We design new offensive weapons, they counter with improved defenses. And nothing is actually made! Continual improvement, but neither we nor Centaurus can stop designing long enough to stabilize for production.”

“It will end,” Reinhart stated coldly, “as soon as Terra turns out a weapon for which Centaurus can build no defense.”

“Every weapon has a defense. Design and discord. Immediate obsolescence. Nothing lasts long enough to—”

“What we count on is the lag,” Reinhart broke in, annoyed. His hard gray eyes bored into the lab organizer and Kaplan slunk back. “The time lag between our offensive design and their counter development. The lag varies.” He waved impatiently toward the massed banks of SRB machines. “As you well know.”

At this moment, 9:30 AM, May 7, 2136, the statistical ratio on the SRB machines stood at 21-17 on the Centauran side of the ledger. All facts considered, the odds favored a successful repulsion by Proxima Centaurus of a Terran military attack. The ratio was based on the total information known to the SRB machines, on a gestalt of the vast flow of data that poured in endlessly from all sectors of the Sol and Centaurus systems.

21-17 on the Centauran side. But a month ago it had been 24-18 in the enemy’s favor. Things were improving, slowly but steadily. Centaurus, older and less virile than Terra, was unable to match Terra’s rate of technocratic advance. Terra was pulling ahead.

“If we went to war now,” Reinhart said thoughtfully, “we would lose. We’re not far enough along to risk an overt attack.” A harsh, ruthless glow twisted across his handsome features, distorting them into a stern mask. “But the odds are moving in our favor. Our offensive designs  are gradually gaining on their defenses.”

“Let’s hope the war comes soon,” Kaplan agreed. “We’re all on edge. This damn waiting….”

The war would come soon. Reinhart knew it intuitively. The air was full of tension, the elan. He left the SRB rooms and hurried down the corridor to his own elaborately guarded office in the Security wing. It wouldn’t be long. He could practically feel the hot breath of destiny on his neck—for him a pleasant feeling. His thin lips set in a humorless smile, showing an even line of white teeth against his tanned skin. It made him feel good, all right. He’d been working at it a long time. Continue reading “Read “The Variable Man,” an early short story by Philip K. Dick”

“The Red Room,” a short story by H.G. Wells

“The Red Room”

by

H.G. Wells


“I can assure you,” said I, “that it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me.” And I stood up before the fire with my glass in my hand.

“It is your own choosing,” said the man with the withered arm, and glanced at me askance.

“Eight-and-twenty years,” said I, “I have lived, and never a ghost have I seen as yet.”

The old woman sat staring hard into the fire, her pale eyes wide open. “Ay,” she broke in; “and eight-and-twenty years you have lived and never seen the likes of this house, I reckon. There’s a many things to see, when one’s still but eight-and-twenty.” She swayed her head slowly from side to side. “A many things to see and sorrow for.”

I half suspected the old people were trying to enhance the spiritual terrors of their house by their droning insistence. I put down my empty glass on the table and looked about the room, and caught a glimpse of myself, abbreviated and broadened to an impossible sturdiness, in the queer old mirror at the end of the room. “Well,” I said, “if I see anything to-night, I shall be so much the wiser. For I come to the business with an open mind.”

“It’s your own choosing,” said the man with the withered arm once more.

I heard the faint sound of a stick and a shambling step on the flags in the passage outside. The door creaked on its hinges as a second old man entered, more bent, more wrinkled, more aged even than the first. He supported himself by the help of a crutch, his eyes were covered by a shade, and his lower lip, half averted, hung pale and pink from his decaying yellow teeth. He made straight for an armchair on the opposite side of the table, sat down clumsily, and began to cough. The man with the withered hand gave the newcomer a short glance of positive dislike; the old woman took no notice of his arrival, but remained with her eyes fixed steadily on the fire.

“I said—it’s your own choosing,” said the man with the withered hand, when the coughing had ceased for a while.

“It’s my own choosing,” I answered.

The man with the shade became aware of my presence for the first time, and threw his head back for a moment, and sidewise, to see me. I caught a momentary glimpse of his eyes, small and bright and inflamed. Then he began to cough and splutter again.

“Why don’t you drink?” said the man with the withered arm, pushing the beer toward him. The man with the shade poured out a glassful with a shaking hand, that splashed half as much again on the deal table. A monstrous shadow of him crouched upon the wall, and mocked his action as he poured and drank. I must confess I had scarcely expected these grotesque custodians. There is, to my mind, something inhuman in senility, something crouching and atavistic; the human qualities seem to drop from old people insensibly day by day. The three of them made me feel uncomfortable with their gaunt silences, their bent carriage, their evident unfriendliness to me and to one another. And that night, perhaps, I was in the mood for uncomfortable impressions. I resolved to get away from their vague fore-shadowings of the evil things upstairs.

“If,” said I, “you will show me to this haunted room of yours, I will make myself comfortable there.”

The old man with the cough jerked his head back so suddenly that it startled me, and shot another glance of his red eyes at me from out of the darkness under the shade, but no one answered me. I waited a minute, glancing from one to the other. The old woman stared like a dead body, glaring into the fire with lack-lustre eyes.

“If,” I said, a little louder, “if you will show me to this haunted room of yours, I will relieve you from the task of entertaining me.”

“There’s a candle on the slab outside the door,” said the man with the withered hand, looking at my feet as he addressed me. “But if you go to the Red Room to-night—”

“This night of all nights!” said the old woman, softly.

“—You go alone.”

“Very well,” I answered, shortly, “and which way do I go?”

“You go along the passage for a bit,” said he, nodding his head on his shoulder at the door, “until you come to a spiral staircase; and on the second landing is a door covered with green baize. Go through that, and down the long corridor to the end, and the Red Room is on your left up the steps.”

“Have I got that right?” I said, and repeated his directions.

He corrected me in one particular.

“And you are really going?” said the man with the shade, looking at me again for the third time with that queer, unnatural tilting of the face.

“This night of all nights!” whispered the old woman.

“It is what I came for,” I said, and moved toward the door. As I did so, the old man with the shade rose and staggered round the table, so as to be closer to the others and to the fire. At the door I turned and looked at them, and saw they were all close together, dark against the firelight, staring at me over their shoulders, with an intent expression on their ancient faces.

“Good-night,” I said, setting the door open. “It’s your own choosing,” said the man with the withered arm.

I left the door wide open until the candle was well alight, and then I shut them in, and walked down the chilly, echoing passage.

I must confess that the oddness of these three old pensioners in whose charge her ladyship had left the castle, and the deep-toned, old-fashioned furniture of the housekeeper’s room, in which they foregathered, had affected me curiously in spite of my effort to keep myself at a matter-of-fact phase. They seemed to belong to another age, an older age, an age when things spiritual were indeed to be feared, when common sense was uncommon, an age when omens and witches were credible, and ghosts beyond denying. Their very existence, thought I, is spectral; the cut of their clothing, fashions born in dead brains; the ornaments and conveniences in the room about them even are ghostly—the thoughts of vanished men, which still haunt rather than participate in the world of to-day. And the passage I was in, long and shadowy, with a film of moisture glistening on the wall, was as gaunt and cold as a thing that is dead and rigid. But with an effort I sent such thoughts to the right-about. The long, drafty subterranean passage was chilly and dusty, and my candle flared and made the shadows cower and quiver. The echoes rang up and down the spiral staircase, and a shadow came sweeping up after me, and another fled before me into the darkness overhead. I came to the wide landing and stopped there for a moment listening to a rustling that I fancied I heard creeping behind me, and then, satisfied of the absolute silence, pushed open the unwilling baize-covered door and stood in the silent corridor.

The effect was scarcely what I expected, for the moonlight, coming in by the great window on the grand staircase, picked out everything in vivid black shadow or reticulated silvery illumination. Everything seemed in its proper position; the house might have been deserted on the yesterday instead of twelve months ago. There were candles in the sockets of the sconces, and whatever dust had gathered on the carpets or upon the polished flooring was distributed so evenly as to be invisible in my candlelight. A waiting stillness was over everything. I was about to advance, and stopped abruptly. A bronze group stood upon the landing hidden from me by a corner of the wall; but its shadow fell with marvelous distinctness upon the white paneling, and gave me the impression of some one crouching to waylay me. The thing jumped upon my attention suddenly. I stood rigid for half a moment, perhaps. Then, with my hand in the pocket that held the revolver, I advanced, only to discover a Ganymede and Eagle, glistening in the moonlight. That incident for a time restored my nerve, and a dim porcelain Chinaman on a buhl table, whose head rocked as I passed, scarcely startled me.

The door of the Red Room and the steps up to it were in a shadowy corner. I moved my candle from side to side in order to see clearly the nature of the recess in which I stood, before opening the door. Here it was, thought I, that my predecessor was found, and the memory of that story gave me a sudden twinge of apprehension. I glanced over my shoulder at the black Ganymede in the moonlight, and opened the door of the Red Room rather hastily, with my face half turned to the pallid silence of the corridor.

I entered, closed the door behind me at once, turned the key I found in the lock within, and stood with the candle held aloft surveying the scene of my vigil, the great Red Room of Lorraine Castle, in which the young Duke had died; or rather in which he had begun his dying, for he had opened the door and fallen headlong down the steps I had just ascended. That had been the end of his vigil, of his gallant attempt to conquer the ghostly tradition of the place, and never, I thought, had apoplexy better served the ends of superstition. There were other and older stories that clung to the room, back to the half-incredible beginning of it all, the tale of a timid wife and the tragic end that came to her husband’s jest of frightening her. And looking round that huge shadowy room with its black window bays, its recesses and alcoves, its dusty brown-red hangings and dark gigantic furniture, one could well understand the legends that had sprouted in its black corners, its germinating darknesses. My candle was a little tongue of light in the vastness of the chamber; its rays failed to pierce to the opposite end of the room, and left an ocean of dull red mystery and suggestion, sentinel shadows and watching darknesses beyond its island of light. And the stillness of desolation brooded over it all.

I must confess some impalpable quality of that ancient room disturbed me. I tried to fight the feeling down. I resolved to make a systematic examination of the place, and so, by leaving nothing to the imagination, dispel the fanciful suggestions of the obscurity before they obtained a hold upon me. After satisfying myself of the fastening of the door, I began to walk round the room, peering round each article of furniture, tucking up the valances of the bed and opening its curtains wide. In one place there was a distinct echo to my footsteps, the noises I made seemed so little that they enhanced rather than broke the silence of the place. I pulled up the blinds and examined the fastenings of the several windows. Attracted by the fall of a particle of dust, I leaned forward and looked up the blackness of the wide chimney. Then, trying to preserve my scientific attitude of mind, I walked round and began tapping the oak paneling for any secret opening, but I desisted before reaching the alcove. I saw my face in a mirror—white.

There were two big mirrors in the room, each with a pair of sconces bearing candles, and on the mantelshelf, too, were candles in china candle-sticks. All these I lit one after the other. The fire was laid—an unexpected consideration from the old housekeeper—and I lit it, to keep down any disposition to shiver, and when it was burning well I stood round with my back to it and regarded the room again. I had pulled up a chintz-covered armchair and a table to form a kind of barricade before me. On this lay my revolver, ready to hand. My precise examination had done me a little good, but I still found the remoter darkness of the place and its perfect stillness too stimulating for the imagination. The echoing of the stir and crackling of the fire was no sort of comfort to me. The shadow in the alcove at the end of the room began to display that undefinable quality of a presence, that odd suggestion of a lurking living thing that comes so easily in silence and solitude. And to reassure myself, I walked with a candle into it and satisfied myself that there was nothing tangible there. I stood that candle upon the floor of the alcove and left it in that position.

By this time I was in a state of considerable nervous tension, although to my reason there was no adequate cause for my condition. My mind, however, was perfectly clear. I postulated quite unreservedly that nothing supernatural could happen, and to pass the time I began stringing some rhymes together, Ingoldsby fashion, concerning the original legend of the place. A few I spoke aloud, but the echoes were not pleasant* For the same reason I also abandoned, after a time, a conversation with myself upon the impossibility of ghosts and haunting. My mind reverted to the three old and distorted people downstairs, and I tried to keep it upon that topic.

The sombre reds and grays of the room troubled me; even with its seven candles the place was merely dim. The light in the alcove flaring in a draft, and the fire flickering, kept the shadows and penumbra perpetually shifting and stirring in a noiseless flighty dance. Casting about for a remedy, I recalled the wax candles I had seen in the corridor, and, with a slight effort, carrying a candle and leaving the door open, I walked out into the moonlight, and presently returned with as many as ten. These I put in the various knick-knacks of china with which the room was sparsely adorned, and lit and placed them where the shadows had lain deepest, some on the floor, some in the window recesses, arranging and rearranging them until at last my seventeen candles were so placed that not an inch of the room but had the direct light of at least one of them. It occurred to me that when the ghost came I could warn him not to trip over them. The room was now quite brightly illuminated. There was something very cheering and reassuring in these little silent streaming flames, and to notice their steady diminution of length offered me an occupation and gave me a reassuring sense of the passage of time.

Even with that, however, the brooding expectation of the vigil weighed heavily enough upon me. I stood watching the minute hand of my watch creep towards midnight.

Then something happened in the alcove. I did not see the candle go out, I simply turned and saw that the darkness was there, as one might start and see the unexpected presence of a stranger. The black shadow had sprung back to its place. “By Jove,” said I aloud, recovering from my surprise, “that draft’s a strong one;” and taking the matchbox from the table, I walked across the room in a leisurely manner to relight the corner again. My first match would not strike, and as I succeeded with the second, something seemed to blink on the wall before me. I turned my head involuntarily and saw that the two candles on the little table by the fireplace were extinguished. I rose at once to my feet.

“Odd,” I said. “Did I do that myself in a flash of absent-mindedness?”

I walked back, relit one, and as I did so I saw the candle in the right sconce of one of the mirrors wink and go right out, and almost immediately its companion followed it. The flames vanished as if the wick had been suddenly nipped between a finger and thumb, leaving the wick neither glowing nor smoking, but black. While I stood gaping the candle at the foot of the bed went out, and the shadows seemed to take another step toward me.

“This won’t do!” said I, and first one and then another candle on the mantelshelf followed.

“What’s up?” I cried, with a queer high note getting into my voice somehow. At that the candle on the corner of the wardrobe went out, and the one I had relit in the alcove followed.

“Steady on!” I said, “those candles are wanted,” speaking with a half-hysterical facetiousness, and scratching away at a match the while, “for the mantel candlesticks.” My hands trembled so much that twice I missed the rough paper of the matchbox. As the mantel emerged from darkness again, two candles in the remoter end of the room were eclipsed. But with the same match I also relit the larger mirror candles, and those on the floor near the doorway, so that for the moment I seemed to gain on the extinctions. But then in a noiseless volley there vanished four lights at once in different corners of the room, and I struck another match in quivering haste, and stood hesitating whither to take it.

As I stood undecided, an invisible hand seemed to sweep out the two candles on the table. With a cry of terror I dashed at the alcove, then into the corner and then into the window, relighting three as two more vanished by the fireplace, and then, perceiving a better way, I dropped matches on the iron-bound deedbox in the corner, and caught up the bedroom candlestick. With this I avoided the delay of striking matches, but for all that the steady process of extinction went on, and the shadows I feared and fought against returned, and crept in upon me, first a step gained on this side of me, then on that. I was now almost frantic with the horror of the coming darkness, and my self-possession deserted me. I leaped panting from candle to candle in a vain struggle against that remorseless advance.

I bruised myself in the thigh against the table, I sent a chair headlong, I stumbled and fell and whisked the cloth from the table in my fall. My candle rolled away from me and I snatched another as I rose. Abruptly this was blown out as I swung it off the table by the wind of my sudden movement, and immediately the two remaining candles followed. But there was light still in the room, a red light, that streamed across the ceiling and staved off the shadows from me. The fire! Of course I could still thrust my candle between the bars and relight it.

I turned to where the flames were still dancing between the glowing coals and splashing red reflections upon the furniture; made two steps toward the grate, and incontinently the flames dwindled and vanished, the glow vanished, the reflections rushed together and disappeared, and as I thrust the candle between the bars darkness closed upon me like the shutting of an eye, wrapped about me in a stifling embrace, sealed my vision, and crushed the last vestiges of self-possession from my brain. And it was not only palpable darkness, but intolerable terror. The candle fell from my hands. I flung out my arms in a vain effort to thrust that ponderous blackness away from me, and lifting up my voice, screamed with all my might, once, twice, thrice. Then I think I must have staggered to my feet. I know I thought suddenly of the moonlit corridor, and with my head bowed and my arms over my face, made a stumbling run for the door.

But I had forgotten the exact position of the door, and I struck myself heavily against the corner of the bed. I staggered back, turned, and was either struck or struck myself against some other bulky furnishing. I have a vague memory of battering myself thus to and fro in the darkness, of a heavy blow at last upon my forehead, of a horrible sensation of falling that lasted an age, of my last frantic effort to keep my footing, and then I remember no more.

I opened my eyes in daylight. My head was roughly bandaged, and the man with the withered hand was watching my face. I looked about me trying to remember what had happened, and for a space I could not recollect. I rolled my eyes into the corner and saw the old woman, no longer abstracted, no longer terrible, pouring out some drops of medicine from a little blue phial into a glass. “Where am I?” I said. “I seem to remember you, and yet I can not remember who you are.”

They told me then, and I heard of the haunted Red Room as one who hears a tale. “We found you at dawn,” said he, “and there was blood on your forehead and lips.”

I wondered that I had ever disliked him. The three of them in the daylight seemed commonplace old folk enough. The man with the green shade had his head bent as one who sleeps.

It was very slowly I recovered the memory of my experience. “You believe now,” said the old man with the withered hand, “that the room is haunted?” He spoke no longer as one who greets an intruder, but as one who condoles with a friend.

“Yes,” said I, “the room is haunted.”

“And you have seen it. And we who have been here all our lives have never set eyes upon it. Because we have never dared. Tell us, is it truly the old earl who—”

“No,” said I, “it is not.”

“I told you so,” said the old lady, with the glass in her hand. “It is his poor young countess who was frightened—”

“It is not,” I said. “There is neither ghost of earl nor ghost of countess in that room; there is no ghost there at all, but worse, far worse, something impalpable—”

“Well?” they said.

“The worst of all the things that haunt poor mortal men,” said I; “and that is, in all its nakedness—‘Fear!’ Fear that will not have light nor sound, that will not bear with reason, that deafens and darkens and overwhelms. It followed me through the corridor, it fought against me in the room—”

I stopped abruptly. There was an interval of silence. My hand went up to my bandages. “The candles went out one after another, and I fled—”

Then the man with the shade lifted his face sideways to see me and spoke.

“That is it,” said he. “I knew that was it. A Power of Darkness. To put such a curse upon a home! It lurks there always. You can feel it even in the daytime, even of a bright summer’s day, in the hangings, in the curtains, keeping behind you however you face about. In the dusk it creeps in the corridor and follows you, so that you dare not turn. It is even as you say. Fear itself is in that room. Black Fear…. And there it will be… so long as this house of sin endures.”

Read Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Husband”

“The Husband”

by

Anton Chekhov

English translation by Constance Garnett


 

IN the course of the maneuvres the N—— cavalry regiment halted for a night at the district town of K——. Such an event as the visit of officers always has the most exciting and inspiring effect on the inhabitants of provincial towns. The shopkeepers dream of getting rid of the rusty sausages and “best brand” sardines that have been lying for ten years on their shelves; the inns and restaurants keep open all night; the Military Commandant, his secretary, and the local garrison put on their best uniforms; the police flit to and fro like mad, while the effect on the ladies is beyond all description.

The ladies of K——, hearing the regiment approaching, forsook their pans of boiling jam and ran into the street. Forgetting their morning deshabille and general untidiness, they rushed breathless with excitement to meet the regiment, and listened greedily to the band playing the march. Looking at their pale, ecstatic faces, one might have thought those strains came from some heavenly choir rather than from a military brass band.

“The regiment!” they cried joyfully. “The regiment is coming!”

What could this unknown regiment that came by chance to-day and would depart at dawn to-morrow mean to them?

Afterwards, when the officers were standing in the middle of the square, and, with their hands behind them, discussing the question of billets, all the ladies were gathered together at the examining magistrate’s and vying with one another in their criticisms of the regiment. They already knew, goodness knows how, that the colonel was married, but not living with his wife; that the senior officer’s wife had a baby born dead every year; that the adjutant was hopelessly in love with some countess, and had even once attempted suicide. They knew everything. When a pock-marked soldier in a red shirt darted past the windows, they knew for certain that it was Lieutenant Rymzov’s orderly running about the town, trying to get some English bitter ale on tick for his master. They had only caught a passing glimpse of the officers’ backs, but had already decided that there was not one handsome or interesting man among them…. Having talked to their hearts’ content, they sent for the Military Commandant and the committee of the club, and instructed them at all costs to make arrangements for a dance.

Their wishes were carried out. At nine o’clock in the evening the military band was playing in the street before the club, while in the club itself the officers were dancing with the ladies of K——. The ladies felt as though they were on wings. Intoxicated by the dancing, the music, and the clank of spurs, they threw themselves heart and soul into making the acquaintance of their new partners, and quite forgot their old civilian friends. Their fathers and husbands, forced temporarily into the background, crowded round the meagre refreshment table in the entrance hall. All these government cashiers, secretaries, clerks, and superintendents—stale, sickly-looking, clumsy figures—were perfectly well aware of their inferiority. They did not even enter the ball-room, but contented themselves with watching their wives and daughters in the distance dancing with the accomplished and graceful officers.

Among the husbands was Shalikov, the tax-collector—a narrow, spiteful soul, given to drink, with a big, closely cropped head, and thick, protruding lips. He had had a university education; there had been a time when he used to read progressive literature and sing students’ songs, but now, as he said of himself, he was a tax-collector and nothing more.

He stood leaning against the doorpost, his eyes fixed on his wife, Anna Pavlovna, a little brunette of thirty, with a long nose and a pointed chin. Tightly laced, with her face carefully powdered, she danced without pausing for breath—danced till she was ready to drop exhausted. But though she was exhausted in body, her spirit was inexhaustible…. One could see as she danced that her thoughts were with the past, that faraway past when she used to dance at the “College for Young Ladies,” dreaming of a life of luxury and gaiety, and never doubting that her husband was to be a prince or, at the worst, a baron.

The tax-collector watched, scowling with spite….

It was not jealousy he was feeling. He was ill-humoured—first, because the room was taken up with dancing and there was nowhere he could play a game of cards; secondly, because he could not endure the sound of wind instruments; and, thirdly, because he fancied the officers treated the civilians somewhat too casually and disdainfully. But what above everything revolted him and moved him to indignation was the expression of happiness on his wife’s face.

“It makes me sick to look at her!” he muttered. “Going on for forty, and nothing to boast of at any time, and she must powder her face and lace herself up! And frizzing her hair! Flirting and making faces, and fancying she’s doing the thing in style! Ugh! you’re a pretty figure, upon my soul!”

Anna Pavlovna was so lost in the dance that she did not once glance at her husband.

“Of course not! Where do we poor country bumpkins come in!” sneered the tax-collector.

“We are at a discount now…. We’re clumsy seals, unpolished provincial bears, and she’s the queen of the ball! She has kept enough of her looks to please even officers … They’d not object to making love to her, I dare say!”

During the mazurka the tax-collector’s face twitched with spite. A black-haired officer with prominent eyes and Tartar cheekbones danced the mazurka with Anna Pavlovna. Assuming a stern expression, he worked his legs with gravity and feeling, and so crooked his knees that he looked like a jack-a-dandy pulled by strings, while Anna Pavlovna, pale and thrilled, bending her figure languidly and turning her eyes up, tried to look as though she scarcely touched the floor, and evidently felt herself that she was not on earth, not at the local club, but somewhere far, far away—in the clouds. Not only her face but her whole figure was expressive of beatitude…. The tax-collector could endure it no longer; he felt a desire to jeer at that beatitude, to make Anna Pavlovna feel that she had forgotten herself, that life was by no means so delightful as she fancied now in her excitement….

“You wait; I’ll teach you to smile so blissfully,” he muttered. “You are not a boarding-school miss, you are not a girl. An old fright ought to realise she is a fright!”

Petty feelings of envy, vexation, wounded vanity, of that small, provincial misanthropy engendered in petty officials by vodka and a sedentary life, swarmed in his heart like mice. Waiting for the end of the mazurka, he went into the hall and walked up to his wife. Anna Pavlovna was sitting with her partner, and, flirting her fan and coquettishly dropping her eyelids, was describing how she used to dance in Petersburg (her lips were pursed up like a rosebud, and she pronounced “at home in Pütürsburg”).

“Anyuta, let us go home,” croaked the tax-collector.

Seeing her husband standing before her, Anna Pavlovna started as though recalling the fact that she had a husband; then she flushed all over: she felt ashamed that she had such a sickly-looking, ill-humoured, ordinary husband.

“Let us go home,” repeated the tax-collector.

“Why? It’s quite early!”

“I beg you to come home!” said the tax-collector deliberately, with a spiteful expression.

“Why? Has anything happened?” Anna Pavlovna asked in a flutter.

“Nothing has happened, but I wish you to go home at once…. I wish it; that’s enough, and without further talk, please.”

Anna Pavlovna was not afraid of her husband, but she felt ashamed on account of her partner, who was looking at her husband with surprise and amusement. She got up and moved a little apart with her husband.

“What notion is this?” she began. “Why go home? Why, it’s not eleven o’clock.”

“I wish it, and that’s enough. Come along, and that’s all about it.”

“Don’t be silly! Go home alone if you want to.”

“All right; then I shall make a scene.”

The tax-collector saw the look of beatitude gradually vanish from his wife’s face, saw how ashamed and miserable she was—and he felt a little happier.

“Why do you want me at once?” asked his wife.

“I don’t want you, but I wish you to be at home. I wish it, that’s all.”

At first Anna Pavlovna refused to hear of it, then she began entreating her husband to let her stay just another half-hour; then, without knowing why, she began to apologise, to protest—and all in a whisper, with a smile, that the spectators might not suspect that she was having a tiff with her husband. She began assuring him she would not stay long, only another ten minutes, only five minutes; but the tax-collector stuck obstinately to his point.

“Stay if you like,” he said, “but I’ll make a scene if you do.”

And as she talked to her husband Anna Pavlovna looked thinner, older, plainer. Pale, biting her lips, and almost crying, she went out to the entry and began putting on her things.

“You are not going?” asked the ladies in surprise. “Anna Pavlovna, you are not going, dear?”

“Her head aches,” said the tax-collector for his wife.

Coming out of the club, the husband and wife walked all the way home in silence. The tax-collector walked behind his wife, and watching her downcast, sorrowful, humiliated little figure, he recalled the look of beatitude which had so irritated him at the club, and the consciousness that the beatitude was gone filled his soul with triumph. He was pleased and satisfied, and at the same time he felt the lack of something; he would have liked to go back to the club and make every one feel dreary and miserable, so that all might know how stale and worthless life is when you walk along the streets in the dark and hear the slush of the mud under your feet, and when you know that you will wake up next morning with nothing to look forward to but vodka and cards. Oh, how awful it is!

And Anna Pavlovna could scarcely walk…. She was still under the influence of the dancing, the music, the talk, the lights, and the noise; she asked herself as she walked along why God had thus afflicted her. She felt miserable, insulted, and choking with hate as she listened to her husband’s heavy footsteps. She was silent, trying to think of the most offensive, biting, and venomous word she could hurl at her husband, and at the same time she was fully aware that no word could penetrate her tax-collector’s hide. What did he care for words? Her bitterest enemy could not have contrived for her a more helpless position.

And meanwhile the band was playing and the darkness was full of the most rousing, intoxicating dance-tunes.

“Symbols and Signs,” a story by Vladimir Nabokov

“Symbols and Signs”

by

Vladimir Nabokov


 

For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to take to a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. Desires he had none. Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line, for instance, was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle—a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.

At the time of his birth, they had already been married for a long time; a score of years had elapsed, and now they were quite old. Her drab gray hair was pinned up carelessly. She wore cheap black dresses. Unlike other women of her age (such as Mrs. Sol, their next-door neighbor, whose face was all pink and mauve with paint and whose hat was a cluster of brookside flowers), she presented a naked white countenance to the faultfinding light of spring. Her husband, who in the old country had been a fairly successful businessman, was now, in New York, wholly dependent on his brother Isaac, a real American of almost forty years’ standing. They seldom saw Isaac and had nicknamed him the Prince.

That Friday, their son’s birthday, everything went wrong. The subway train lost its life current between two stations and for a quarter of an hour they could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of their hearts and the rustling of newspapers. The bus they had to take next was late and kept them waiting a long time on a street corner, and when it did come, it was crammed with garrulous high-school children. It began to rain as they walked up the brown path leading to the sanitarium. There they waited again, and instead of their boy, shuffling into the room, as he usually did (his poor face sullen, confused, ill-shaven, and blotched with acne), a nurse they knew and did not care for appeared at last and brightly explained that he had again attempted to take his life. He was all right, she said, but a visit from his parents might disturb him. The place was so miserably understaffed, and things got mislaid or mixed up so easily, that they decided not to leave their present in the office but to bring it to him next time they came.

Outside the building, she waited for her husband to open his umbrella and then took his arm. He kept clearing his throat, as he always did when he was upset. They reached the bus-stop shelter on the other side of the street and he closed his umbrella. A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle. Continue reading ““Symbols and Signs,” a story by Vladimir Nabokov”

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

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

“The Frog Prince” by Robert Coover 

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

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

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

“Bonebreaker,” a new short story by Nell Zink

The newest issue of Harper’s features a new story from Nell Zink called “Bonebreaker.” You can read it online for free. First few paragraphs:

Jed came downstairs. He worked mostly in the sleeping loft, writing serious journalism. His current project was about a friend’s imprisonment on charges related to terrorism. He said, “Laurie.”

“What?” She was sitting at the table, eating cereal and using the Tor browser on her encrypted laptop to read a friend’s personal newsletter. This week it was a funny-unfunny story about breastfeeding in a parking lot.

“We have to go.”

He had already counted their money in his head: $15,000 in cash, a premature inheritance from Laurie’s mother; $40 in fungible drugs; $200 in a PayPal account he couldn’t access. Getting locked out is what had told him it was time to go. They were renters in Detroit and owed $8,000 on the lease. They had $17,000 in credit card debt and $90,000 in student loans. None of it mattered but the cash.

They took a walk by the lake and talked about how to go.

Nonstop to London, obviously. Europe and Canada had great liberal reputations, but no borders. Any agent of any government could just come and get you.

 Read the rest of Zink’s story “Bonebreaker” at Harper’s.

Bolaño’s Borges

Jorge Luis Borges is first mentioned in the sixth paragraph of Roberto Bolaño’s masterful short story “The Insufferable Gaucho.” In this paragraph, the narrator tells us that the story’s hero, an ex-judge named Pereda, believed “the best Argentine writers were Borges and his son; any further commentary on that subject was superfluous.”

Several paragraphs later, Bolaño’s narrator explicitly references Borges’s short story “The South,” the precursor text for “The Insufferable Gaucho.” The reference to Borges is tied again to Pereda’s son, the writer Bebe.

Leaving tumultuous Buenos Aires, basically destitute from the Argentine Great Depression, Pereda heads to the countryside to take up residence in his family’s ancient ranch. Departing the train and arriving to a rural town, 

Inevitably, he remembered Borges’s story “The South,” and when he thought of the store mentioned in the final paragraphs his eyes brimmed with tears. Then he remembered the plot of Bebe’s last novel, and imagined his son writing on a computer, in an austere room at a Midwestern university. When Bebe comes back and finds out I’ve gone to the ranch . . . , he thought in enthusiastic anticipation.

Bolaño essentially appropriates the plot of “The South” for his tale “The Insufferable Gaucho” and inserts a version of himself into this revision. Bolaño is “Bebe” here, an author who “wrote vaguely melancholy stories with vaguely crime-related plots,” his name phonically doubling the series of mirrors and precursors that Bolaño, mystery man, leaves as clues: Bebe, B-B, Borges-Bolaño, Belano-Bolaño. (Is this too wild a conjecture, dear reader? Mea culpa). 

And Pereda then? A stand-in for Borges’s Juan Dahlmann (hero of “The South,” who “considered himself profoundly Argentinian”), surely, but also, maybe also—a stand-in for (a version of) Borges.

What I mean to say:

Bolaño, displaced Chilean, writes “The Insufferable Gaucho” as an intertextual love letter to his displaced father, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges.

Bolaño then, to steal a line from Borges’s story, locates in Dahlmann/Borges “his romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death.” (English translation of the Borges here by Anthony Kerrigan; Chris Andrews translates Bolaño).

Bolaño’s retelling of Borges’s tale is initially marked by a heightened self-consciousness on the part of its hero Pereda, who, over time, gives over to an entirely different consciousness. Let me share a passage of some length; note the hazy dream-tone:

On the way back to his ranch, he dozed off a couple of times. He woke up from his second nap on one of the streets of Capitán Jourdan. He saw a corner store that was open. He heard voices, and someone strumming a guitar, tuning it but never settling on a particular song to play, just as he had read in Borges. For a moment, he thought that his destiny, his screwed-up American destiny, would be to meet his death like Dahlmann in “The South,” and it seemed unfair, partly because he now had debts to repay and partly because he wasn’t ready to die, although Pereda knew that death is an occurrence for which one is never ready. Seized by a sudden inspiration, he entered the store on horseback. Inside, he found an old gaucho, strumming the guitar, the owner, and three younger guys sitting at a table, who started when they saw the horse come in. Pereda was inwardly satisfied by the thought that the scene was like something from a story by di Benedetto. Nevertheless, he set his face and approached the zinc-topped bar. He ordered a glass of aguardiente, which he drank with one hand, while in the other he held his riding crop discreetly out of view, since he hadn’t yet bought himself the traditional sheath knife. He asked the owner to put the drink on his account, and on his way out, as he passed the young gauchos, he told them to move aside because he was going to spit. This was meant as affirmation of his authority, but before the gauchos could grasp what was happening the gob of phlegm had flown from his lips; they barely had time to jump. May the rain fall soft on you, he said, before disappearing into the darkness of Capitán Jourdan.

Is this insufferably romantic episode real or simply imagined by our hero? Borges perhaps would simply answer, Yes.

We can find that Yes in”The South,” which turns the binary of real/imagined on its metaphorical ear. The story is larded with examples, but I’ll share one where Dahlmann dozes on a train ride to the ranch (just as decades later Pereda will doze on his train ride to a ranch, and then (then?!) doze on a horse):

Tomorrow I’ll wake up at the ranch, he thought, and it was as if he was two men at a time: the man who traveled through the autumn day and across the geography of the fatherland, and the other one, locked up in a sanitarium and subject to methodical servitude. He saw unplastered brick houses, long and angled, timelessly watching the trains go by; he saw horsemen along the dirt roads; he saw gullies and lagoons and ranches; he saw great luminous clouds that resembled marble; and all these things were accidental, casual, like dreams of the plain. He also thought he recognized trees and crop fields; but he would not have been able to name them, for his actual knowledge of the country side was quite inferior to his nostalgic and literary knowledge. 

Two men at a time, Borges tells us; Bolaño will continue exploring that bifurcation decades later with Dahlmann’s doppelgänger Pereda. Do either of the men actually ever wake up? Are their journeys merely their own fictions—or, more Borgesian, the fictions they cobble from the fragments of precursor fictions, shot through the lens of “nostalgic and literary knowledge?”

The extent of Dahlmann’s literary knowledge is never quite clear, although Borges (of course) names a precursor text for “The South”: Weil’s The Thousand and One Nights, a book so intertextually fraught and metatextually overdetermined that I feel little need to remark on its Borgesian significance other than to point out that the tales in that volume are Scheherazade’s way of saving her own life. In “The South,” we are told that Dahlmann uses The Thousand and One Nights as a tool for “suppressing reality” and that during his intense illness it “served to illustrate nightmares.”

Does Dahlmann actually die then, or does he, through literature, imagination, and story-telling, like Scheherazade, stave off death for one more night? Again, I think that the Borgesian answer here is, Yes.

Although I’ve been citing Anthony Kerrigan’s early translation of “The South” here, I think Andrew Hurley’s more recent one makes a marvelous emendation that resonates with the spirit of the tale (and actually fits the original Spanish): He translates the last line into the present tense: “Dahlmann firmly grips the knife, which he may have no idea how to manage, and steps out into the plains.”  Dahlmann is still alive at the end of “The South.” Like the enormous sleeping cat that dozes in his memory, Dahlmann “lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.”

Tellingly, Pereda doesn’t share my interpretation—for him, Dahlmann dies. Recall that “he thought that his destiny, his screwed-up American destiny, would be to meet his death like Dahlmann in ‘The South.’” Bolaño’s tale (typically Bolañoesque) radiates a cryptic, sinister morbidity, one saturated in dark humor. In a moment that seems both ironic and wholly earnest, Pereda fantasizes a death coded through “nostalgic and literary knowledge,” one modeled after “his romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death.”

I’ve plugged Borges’s lines into a different context here, but they work, and really the context isn’t so different. In “The South,” the specific ancestor alluded to is Dahlmann’s “maternal grandfather…Francisco Flores, of the Second Line Infantry Division, who  had died on the frontier of Buenos Aires, run through with a lance by Indians from Catriel.” Dahlmann figuratively or literally (Yes) repeats his ancestor’s romantic death.

And then Bolaño repeats his ancestor’s romantic death, reconfiguring the climax at the end of “The South,” in which Dahlmann faces off against the muchachones. I consulted three different translations of “The South”; each one does something a bit different with the youths who threaten Dahlmann: country louts, ruffiansyoung thugs.

How does Bolaño translate these young men? At the end of “The Insufferable Gaucho,” our quixotic hero, dirty, haggard, “attired like a cross between a gaucho and a rabbit trapper,” perhaps dreaming, perhaps insane, peers into a cafe, where he sees

. . . a group of writers who looked as if they worked in advertising. One of them, who had an adolescent air, although he was over fifty and maybe even over sixty, kept putting a white powder up his nose and holding forth on world literature. Suddenly, the eyes of the fake adolescent met Pereda’s. For a moment, their gazes locked, as if, for each of them, the presence of the other were a gash in the ambient reality. Resolutely and with surprising agility, the writer with the adolescent air sprang to his feet and rushed out into the street. Before Pereda knew what was going on, the writer was upon him.

Of course Bolaño, list-maker, canon-maker, curator, always registering the competitive anxieties of poets and authors, of course Bolaño will turn the threatening youth into a fucking writer!

Significantly, Pereda sees (or more likely believes he sees, although Bolaño doesn’t tip his hand here) “Bebe and an old man (An old man like me! Pereda thought)…presiding over one of the most animated tables.” The image betokens a fantastic displacement in Pereda’s warped mind, yes, but also perhaps signals Bolaño’s fantasy to hash out literary matters in a buzzing cafe with his father, Borges. In any case, this is the last we hear of Bebe, a detail that undercuts the reality of what happens next, as the coked-up writer advances on the insufferable gaucho:

Pereda realized that he had grasped his knife, then let himself go. He took a step forward and, without anyone noticing that he was armed, planted the point of the blade, though not deeply, in his opponent’s groin. Later, he would remember the look of surprise on the man’s face, in which terror blended with something like reproof, and the writer’s words as he groped for an explanation (Hey, what did you do, asshole?), as if there could be an explanation for fever and nausea.

Bolaño’s gaucho—the fantastic reconfiguration of Borges’s gaucho, son of Borges’s gaucho, but also doppelgänger to Borges’s gaucho—Bolaño’s gaucho performs a symbolic castration, an Oedipally-charged act of violence that seems to tip into visceral reality in the story’s last moments.

Bolaño turns the country louts into cosmopolitan poseurs, writers that look like yuppie admen, and then he has his hero cut one—right in the crotch.The gesture revises the ambiguous ending of “The South,” following through with the once-suspended knife fight.

Whether or not this final episode actually happens or happens only in the protagonist’s mind may or may not matter to you, reader. “The Insufferable Gaucho” is stocked with surreal Lynchian moments, from Pereda riding his horse into the country store, to a publisher being attacked by a feral rabbit (after which Pereda cauterizes the man’s neck wound with his knife!).

As the story progresses, Pereda shakes off nostalgia and literary reference. Like a bedraggled Quixote, he lives his romance. His consciousness, once informed by Borges and Antonio di Benedetto, becomes freer, asserts its own fantasy as self-generative and self-sufficient. When Pereda first entered the country store, “He heard voices, and someone strumming a guitar, tuning it but never settling on a particular song to play, just as he had read in Borges”; later in the tale, holding a party for his son, Pereda “sent for the foremost of Capitán Jourdan’s guitar-strumming gauchos, warning him beforehand that he was to do strictly that: strum, without playing any song in particular, in accordance with the country way.” Pereda omits Borges as the source of style here: Borges becomes the country way

The fantasy Bolaño constructs allows him to simultaneously posit Borges as his literary progenitor and then erase the evidence of that progenitor, even as his contours and essence remain. Bolaño-as-Bebe remains a marginal figure—Bolaño’s own stable consciousness, perhaps?—while knife-weilding Pereda enacts Borges’s revenge on all the poseurs and hacks. And if Pereda is too passionate, too romantic, too violent, too unstable—so be it. At least he thought enough of his son to class him with Borges the Great.

And it’s through this gesture—this literary trick—that Bolaño asserts and defends the literary lineage he lays his claims to: His romantic ancestor, Borges.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept published aversion of this essay in May of 2014].

Read Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Chemist’s Wife”

“The Chemist’s Wife”

by

Anton Chekhov

English translation by Constance Garnett


 

The little town of B——, consisting of two or three crooked streets, was sound asleep. There was a complete stillness in the motionless air. Nothing could be heard but far away, outside the town no doubt, the barking of a dog in a thin, hoarse tenor. It was close upon daybreak.

Everything had long been asleep. The only person not asleep was the young wife of Tchernomordik, a qualified dispenser who kept a chemist’s shop at B——. She had gone to bed and got up again three times, but could not sleep, she did not know why. She sat at the open window in her nightdress and looked into the street. She felt bored, depressed, vexed . . . so vexed that she felt quite inclined to cry—again she did not know why. There seemed to be a lump in her chest that kept rising into her throat. . . . A few paces behind her Tchernomordik lay curled up close to the wall, snoring sweetly. A greedy flea was stabbing the bridge of his nose, but he did not feel it, and was positively smiling, for he was dreaming that every one in the town had a cough, and was buying from him the King of Denmark’s cough-drops. He could not have been wakened now by pinpricks or by cannon or by caresses.

The chemist’s shop was almost at the extreme end of the town, so that the chemist’s wife could see far into the fields. She could see the eastern horizon growing pale by degrees, then turning crimson as though from a great fire. A big broad-faced moon peeped out unexpectedly from behind bushes in the distance. It was red (as a rule when the moon emerges from behind bushes it appears to be blushing). Continue reading “Read Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Chemist’s Wife””