Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Stories: "A Christmas Memory" and "The Dead"

It’s Christmas Eve, 2010. I wish every one who celebrates Christmas or any other winter festival a most happy holiday.

I will post one more blog before the end of the year: my usual survey and commentary on the annual “Best of 2010” “Notable,” “Favorite” Books listed by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, etc. etc. etc. I will comment why I agree or disagree with the short story choices and note with mea culpas those short story collections I have somehow failed to read so far.

Now, my Christmas blog:

There are basically two types of Christmas stories, it seems to me: stories of nostalgia and stories of conversion. The nostalgia stories, best represented by Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” and Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story,” are, of course, memories, memoirs, anecdotes, recollections--most often told by an adult recalling childhood.

The conversion stories include Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and such film favorites as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street.” They focus on some spiritual event that causes someone who is bitter or skeptical to be transformed into a selfless believer in the human community.

Nostalgia Christmas Stories: “A Christmas Memory”

Dylan Thomas once said, “I like very much people telling me about their childhood, but they’ll have to be quick or else I’ll be telling them about mine.” I know what he means. I have written many recollections of my own childhood, several of them about Christmas. (There’s no stopping me when I have a possible audience; here I go):

I was the oldest of the family, with two brothers and two sisters. We grew up in a beat-up little old house in a valley known as “The Nars,” a corruption of the word “Narrows.” The house perched precariously on the hillside above U.S. 23, which was just above the C&O Railroad tracks, which was just above the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River—all about two rural miles southeast of the small town (pop. 4,200) of Paintsville, Kentucky.

We were poor, but Christmas, of course, was always rich. My favorite gifts on three different Christmases were an erector set, a Red Ryder Daisy air rifle, and a portable phonograph. In the late fall, my brothers and I always nervously gathered black walnuts from a huge tree in a neighboring pasture (occupied by a very mean and very large bull); we would split open the green husks, getting our fingers black from stain, and array them on the roof to dry out. On Christmas Eve, we would crack them on the hearth of the small fireplace, and when we awoke the next morning, mom and dad, (who had stayed up all night making mysterious preparations) had set out on the mantle plates of fudge full of the walnuts. Lord, Lord, I could go on and on. But I won’t.

Although I like Dylan Thomas’s recollection of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” my favorite nostalgia story (and as his comment on the previous blog indicates, also the favorite of my son Alex) is Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” What makes the story hard to resist is the present-tense voice of the boy describing his elderly friend” “I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins…. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

The story begins: “Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago…A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window…’Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘It’s fruitcake weather!’”

As much as I love the story—the voice and the relationship between the boy and the woman as they gather the ingredients (especially the bootleg whiskey from the Indian, Mr. Haha Jones) and prepare the fruitcakes to send to “people who’ve struck our fancy,” including President Roosevelt—this may be a rare case in which a film adaptation is even better than the written story. I cannot read this story any more without hearing the high pitched twang of Truman Capote doing the voiceover, and I cannot visualize the characters without seeing the wonderfully expressive face of Geraldine Page playing the boy’s “best friend.” The way she presses her lips together, squeezes her eyes close, and cocks her head coyly to the side breaks my heart every time.

And like my son, I cannot read the story or see the film, without my eyes tearing up. I know it is sentimental, but I don’t care. When the two of them fly those kites at the end of the story, and the voice tells us it is their last Christmas together, I choke up quite pleasurably. When the boy walks across a school campus in an early November twenty years later, he can hear her voice saying “Oh, my, it’s fruitcake weather.” And he looks up, searching the sky. “As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.” Oh, my! Like all good nostalgia Christmas stories, “A Christmas Memory” recalls a time when life was simple and good, and filled with love.

Conversion Christmas Stories: “The Dead”

Conversion Christmas stories are, of course, also about love—about an old Scrooge or an old Grinch, filled with bitterness and bile, undergoing a spiritual transformation to understand the central message of Christmas--love, charity, selflessness. I very much enjoy Dickens’s "Christmas Carol." My favorite of the many film versions is the 1950s black and white version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge. I have an old VHS tape version that I watched with my family the other day.

However, the most complex Christmas conversion story, as my friend Dex correctly identified in a comment on my previous blog, is James Joyce’s “The Dead.” The events of the story do not take place on Christmas, but probably on January 6, which marks the Feast of The Epiphany, or the Twelfth Day of Christmas--the day the three Wise Men visited the Christ child. Joyce, who had already formulated his theory of epiphany from Aquinas in his first novel, Stephen Hero, perhaps purposely centered his final story in Dubliners on the day of the epiphany. The story combines both the nostalgia Christmas story and the conversion Christmas story.

The first section, which centers on the party given by the Morkan sisters in their dwelling on Usher’s Island, centers to a large extent on the past—the tradition of the party, the old singers from the past. The final section, when Gretta tells Gabriel that Michael Furey died for her, he comes to see the significance of the ultimate act of love—to die for the other. When Gretta says, “I think he died for me,” the Christ story is evoked. In practical, profane terms, for the young Michael Furey to stand out in the rain and die of pneumonia seems childishly absurd. However, it is precisely acting like a little child rather than a practical adult that marks the radical difference between the everyday world and the world of the spiritual.

Anyone reading “The Dead” for the first time might be hard pressed to understand its fame and influence. The narrative and description in the first two thirds of the story suggests that the story will end naturalistically with the end of the party. However, it is with the end of the party, of course that the lyrical nature of the story begins to emerge. Thematically, the conflict in "The Dead" that reflects its realistic/lyrical split is the difference revealed to both Gabriel and the reader between public life and private life, between life as it is in everyday experience and life perceived as the objectification of desire.

The party portion of "The Dead" is the story of Gabriel's public life, and his only psychic interest is what kind of figure he is going to cut publicly. However, throughout the party period of the story, there are moments--particularly those moments that focus on the past, on music, and on marital union--when reality is not presented as here and now, but as a mixture of memory and desire. Joyce's achievement in this story, its contribution to the development of the short story as a genre, can be best understood if we see its most basic theme as the difference between the kind of reality that realistic prose imitates and the kind of reality that romantic prose reveals.

Thematically, the basic issue the story poses is: In which one of these realms does true reality reside? Gabriel's discovery at the end of the story is not only that his wife has an inner life inaccessible to him but that his own life has been an outer life only. This is all the more devastating to him because on the journey to the hotel, he has indulged in his own self-delusion about their relationship: "moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory.... Like the tender fires of stars moments of their life together that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illuminated his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy."

Filled with desire and the memory of intimacy, wishing Gretta to at one with him, Gabriel is annoyed that she seems so distracted. When he discovers that she has a secret life that has nothing to do with him, he tries to use his typical public devices of irony, but the very simplicity of her story undercuts the effort, and he sees the inadequacy of his public self. Michael Furey, who has romantically been willing to give his life for love of another, challenges Gabriel's own smug safety much the same way that Bartleby challenges the narrator in Melville's famous story “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

In the much-discussed lyrical ending of "The Dead," Gabriel confronts the irony that the dead Michael is more alive than he is. "Generous tears" fill his eyes because he knows that he has never lived the life of desire, only the untransformed life of the everyday. The ending, in which Gabriel, awake and alone while his wife sleeps beside him, allows himself to lose self and imaginatively merge into a mythic lyrical sense of oneness, makes it possible for the reader to begin the story over again with this end in mind. "The Dead" is not a story that can be understood the way most novels are read--one thing after another--but the way the modern short story must be read--aesthetically patterned in such a way that only the end makes the rest of the story meaningful.

There are two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: one that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenon, sensate, and logical relation--a realm that the novel has always taken for its own--and the other that involves an experience that challenge the acceptance of the real world as simply sensate and reasonable—an experience that has dominated the short story since its beginnings. The novel involves an active quest for reality, a search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is finally conceptually accepted, based on the experience one has undergone. The short story more often focus on a character who is confronted with the world of spirit, which then challenges his or her conceptual framework of reason and social experience.

“The Dead” is my favorite Christmas story, for it is a great short story, a classic short story that delicately and definitively does what all great short stories do.

As a postscript, I must share a personal note about “The Dead.” Fifteen years ago, my wife, her Irish mother (who had just lost her husband to a heart attack), my pre-teen daughter, and I spent a year living in a suburb just south of Dublin. I had a Fulbright Senior Fellowship and taught courses in short story theory and the American short story at University College, Dublin, and Trinity College. It was a sad year in some ways (I lost my mother to a lung infection at Easter that year), but it was also a wonderful year in many other ways. It was a fine experience for my daughter, attending an International school with children from Ireland and countries all over the world. It was good for my mother-in-law to spend the year in her home country after the death of her husband. It was good for my wife to get in touch with her Irish family and her heritage of Irish culture. And it was good for me in too many ways to enumerate here.

However, one of my most memorable experiences was walking down along the Liffy and looking up to the second storey of the house at Usher’s Island, and from there walking to O’Connell Street and down to the Grisham Hotel, where Gabriel stood and looked out the window at the snow, which was general all over Ireland, falling softly upon all the living and the dead.


Anonymous said...

Good writing. Worth the wait. Dex

Ann Graham said...

Is it Patty Duke, not Geraldine Page?

Charles E. May said...

Ann, Patty Duke played Sookie in a more recent film version of the story, but for me the classic and unforgettable version is the one with Geraldine Page.

Peter said...

Charles, I wonder if the lines you quote are necessarily self-delusion? ""moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory.... Like the tender fires of stars moments of their life together that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illuminated his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy."

Charles E. May said...

I agree, Peter, that Gabriel is "deluded" about their secret life together, but no more so than any one is, since one person's secret life is not the same as another person's. That's what I think the story, and many stories, are about. That's what Chekhov's "Lady with the Pet Dog" is about also, don't you think?