Friday, December 14, 2012

Steven Millhauser’s “A Voice in the Night” and Flannery O’Connor’s Romance Short Fiction

As I have mentioned before, I much admire the stories of Steven Millhauser.  If you have not read his “new and selected stories,” We Others, published last year, you owe it to yourself to buy it for you and your best friend for Christmas, or whatever end-of-the year holiday you favor.

I like Millhauser’s new story, “A Voice in the Night,” in the Dec. 10 issue of The New Yorker. Every author has been asked the question at a reading a lecture, or an interview: “Where do you get your ideas?”  Steven Millhauser’s answer is: “a voice in the night.”  I think it is a good metaphor for the compulsion one must have to be a writer. I firmly believe that to be a writer, you must feel an irresistible, inescapable compulsion to write.  I think of Raymond Carver, feeling frustrated because he is stuck in a Laundromat in Iowa City when he wants to be home writing, or when Alice Munro had to rent a little apartment to get away from her domestic chores long enough to write.  Both describe the need to write as something that calls them. Sherwood Anderson described his “voice in the night” in this way:

Having, from a conversation overheard […] got the tone of a tale, I was like a woman who has just become impregnated. Something was growing inside me. At night when I lay in my bed I could feel the heels of the tale kicking against the walls of my body.” 

All writers have also been asked at readings, lectures, and interviews, ” When did you decide to become a writer?”  Steven Millhauser’s answer in this story is: “Three thousand years ago in the temple of Shiloh.”  His story “A Voice in the Night” is his fictional account of the source of his writing obsession.

“A Voice in the Night” is divided up into four three-part sections:
Section I is a retelling of the story in 1 Samuel, Chapter 3, in which the boy Samuel, age 12, hears his named called in the night three times and thinks it is Eli, the high priest of the temple of Shiloh;
Section II takes place in 1950, in which an American boy age, seven, lies awake in his bed for four straight nights, thinking of the Samuel story and wondering if he will know how to respond if he hears a voice in the night;
Section III focuses on the boy at the age of sixty-eight, now an author, thinking about his father, his Jewish education, and his long-ago waiting for the voice in the night.

The story is about ‘being called” or “having a calling.” Once in high school, when the boy asked his father, a university professor, if he liked teaching, the father answered: “If I were a millionaire, I would pay for the privilege of teaching.”  The son is moved by this answer, knows he has heard something important, and is proud and envious of his father, thinking he wants to say that someday; he knows it is “a calling.  Samuel’s call in the night.”

The author’s childhood is filled with three elements that contribute to the writer’s calling:
 First, stories, in this case, stories from the Jewish tradition: Joseph in the pit, the parting of the Red Sea, David soothing the soul of Saul with his harp; and children’s tales of Rapunzel being called to let down her hair, Dr. Doolittle telling of the pushmi-pullyu’
 Second, the mysterious sounds of words, as when his father said the Rabbi was making boys jabber words they did not understand, calling it “pure gibberish.” And the boy liked that word for the sound of it—gibberish;
Third, sentences: his father tells him the three greatest opening sentences in all of literature are: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”; “Call me Ishmael,” and the opening of the children’s book “Tootle”: Far, far to the west of everywhere is the village of Lower Trainswich.”

“A Voice in the Night” with the author seeing understanding the nature of his own calling:

“A calling. Not Samuel’s calling but another.  Not that way but this way. Samuel ministering unto the Lord; his father-teacher ministering unto the generations.  And the son? What about him?  Far, far to the west of everywhere, ministering unto the Muse.  Thanks, Old Sea-Parter, for leaving me be. Tired now.  Soon we’ll all sleep.”

“A Voice in the Night” not only responds to the questions, “Where do your stories come from? And “When did you become a writer,” it also responds to the kind of fiction that Millhauser finds most irresistible—the modern romance form, most often embodied in the short story form.

In the Oct 3, 2008 issue of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Steven Millhauser published a short essay entitled “The Ambition of the Short Story.”
You can find it at:

I quote below the conclusion of that essay:

The short story believes in transformation. It believes in hidden powers. The novel prefers things in plain view. It has no patience with individual grains of sand, which glitter but are difficult to see. The novel wants to sweep everything into its mighty embrace — shores, mountains, continents. But it can never succeed, because the world is vaster than a novel, the world rushes away at every point. The novel leaps restlessly from place to place, always hungry, always dissatisfied, always fearful of coming to an end — because when it stops, exhausted but never at peace, the world will have escaped it.

The short story concentrates on its grain of sand, in the fierce belief that there — right there, in the palm of its hand — lies the universe. It seeks to know that grain of sand the way a lover seeks to know the face of the beloved. It looks for the moment when the grain of sand reveals its true nature. In that moment of mystic expansion, when the macrocosmic flower bursts from the microcosmic seed, the short story feels its power. It becomes bigger than itself. It becomes bigger than the novel. It becomes as big as the universe.
Therein lies the immodesty of the short story, its secret aggression. Its method is revelation. Its littleness is the agency of its power. The ponderous mass of the novel strikes it as the laughable image of weakness. The short story apologizes for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar. That is the outrageous ambition of the short story, that is its deepest faith, that is the greatness of its smallness.
 Before Millhauser, one of the most important advocates for this kind of fiction was Flannery O’Connor.  In the essay “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” in her collection Mystery and Manners, O’Connor claimed that the social sciences had “cast a dreary blight on the public approach to fiction.” (The paper was first read in 1960 at Wesleyan College for Women in Macon, Georgia; one can only wonder, had she lived, what she would have said fifty years later when social approaches to fiction have narrowed artistic and critical vision even more).  O’Connor complains that many readers and critics “demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit fiction’s scope, associating the only legitimate material for fiction with the movement of social forces, with the typical, with fidelity to the way things look and happen in normal life.

However, O’Connor’s “voice in the night” comes not as a demand for “realism of fact,” but rather for what she called “the modern romance tradition.”  I have discussed O’Connor’s role in this tradition in the introduction to the book I edited last year entitled Critical Insights:  Flannery O’Connor, and will not repeat here my comments there.  Both O’Connor and Millhauser’s identification with the romantic tradition of the romance explains why they are such masters of the short story form—a form that is much more aligned with “mystery” than with “manners.”  O’Connor says works in this tradition make alive some experience we are not accustomed to observe every day, experiences which ordinary folk may never experience in their ordinary lives.  She says the fictional qualities of the romance “lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected” and that it is this kind of “realism” she wants to consider. It is a fiction that more closely aligned with poetry, a fiction that is “initially set going by literature more than by life.” 

O’Connor says if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, “then what he sees on the surface will be or interest to him only as far as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.”  For the romance writer, “the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted.”

When Frank Kermode in his Norton lectures several years ago asked, "Why Are Narratives Obscure?" he cited Kafka's parable  "Before the Law" in The Trial. It’s about a man who comes to beg admission to the Law but is kept out by a doorkeeper.  So he sits there year after year in inconclusive conversation with the doorkeeper outside the door unable to get in. When he is old and near death, he sees an immortal radiance streaming from the door.  He asks the doorkeeper why he alone has come to this door and receives this reply: "This door was intended only for you.  Now I am going to shut it."  A terrible parable, you would have to agree.  "To perceive the radiance of the shrine," says Kermode, "is not to gain access to it; the Law, or the Kingdom to those within, such as the doorkeeper, may be powerful and beautiful, but to those outside they are absolutely inexplicable.  This is a mystery.  While the insiders protect the Law without understanding it, the outsiders like us see an uninterpretable radiance and die."  A terrible parable indeed.

Kermode is concerned, of course, with the radiant obscurity of parables. The word “parable” is used in the Gospel of Mark as a synonym for "mystery."  It is the radiance Eudora Welty refers to when she says the "first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own.  It is wrapped in an atmosphere.  This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initially obscures its plain, real shape." To Marlowe, sitting Buddha-like on the deck telling the story of Kurtz, to outsiders to the mystery, the "meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."

Why is there more mystery in short stories than in novels?

First there is the historical and prehistorical source of the short story in myth and oral tale that, by its very nature, was concerned with mystery, for everything was mystery and story was the only explanatory model available.  A genre never completely departs from its origins.

Second, there is short story's dependence more on pattern than plot for its structure.  As a result of this dependence, the action of a short story is more apt to be organized around an implicit principle or idea rather than a series of events occurring causally in time

Third, there is the mystery of motivation in short stories.  It is not easy to determine why Bartleby prefers not to, what Roderick Usher is so afraid of.  Part of the problem may be the short story's close relationship to the romance form, which, allegorical in its nature, develops characters that, even as they seem to be like real people in the real world, are driven by the discourse demands of the narrative and thus act as if they are obsessed, propelled by some central force rather than merely logically, causally, or randomly.

Flannery O'Connor says "The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery." 

Steven Millhauser, who hearkened to the “voice in the night,” would surely agree.


Theorbys said...

Millhauser's miniessay was a pleasure to read, and he would seem to be a strong champion of scale in what sets novels apart from short stories. Although I love the poetics, I am not sure I get it. What is true of a grain of sand is surely true of a rock, a boulder, a mountain. Each, as much as the other, contains within itself the whole world. The grain of sand is more poetic, more dramatic, more likely to seize our all too seizable mind, but does it really have a microcosmic advantage the boulder does not? Even if it did, the novels world is not the silicosm of sand but rather the bibliocosm. Open the pages of a book (while you still can) and you open, potentially, whole worlds of lands and seas and cities and peoples and times.

Flannery O'Connor's essay seems to me to have been pretty clearly talking about novels and novelists, but if living in the South in and before 1960 she could not see what was grotesque about it she must have been deaf, dumb, and blind. It was grotesque and appalling on a mind boggling human scale. Ooops sorry, don't really want to go there. But the mystery and romance she is talking about, it seems to me, she certainly sees in novels. In any event, perhaps realism per se has its advocates, but it seems to me to be more of a critical windmill than a giant. Writers are taken to task for being unbelievable in the context of their own writing space more than in the context of reality. No literate person today, I hope, would criticize Kafka's Metamorphosis (et al) because it isn't realistic.

I mention this in the context of O'Connor because I do not understand the privileged status of short stories (although I do not deny it, it just isn't proved yet for me) vis a vis the mysterious, sacred, spiritual, inner, etc. O'Connor does not seem to be limiting "romance" to short stories, or even to be concerned with them. The words "novel(s)", and novelist occur 29 times in this rather short essay, and clearly seem to be able to carry the burden of mystery. I don't see at all that Wenlock Edge, Amundsen, Chef's House have an aura of mystery or spiritually whereas Murakami's Kafka on the Shore or Windup Bird Chronicles are overflowing with mystery.


PS I just read Osamu Dazai's collection of short stories "Blue Bamboo" several of them seemed to me to be truly wonderful (and I admit, full of strange mysteries). Dazai was a Japanese writer, active around and just after WW2 who committed suicide in the late 40s.

Theorbys said...

The above post got published before I could proof read it, because I got all bollixed up trying to log in. I meant "spirituality" not "spiritually" in the last sentence.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for your, as usual, thoughtful response, Eric. Perhaps you and I are not using the words "mystery" and "spirituality" in quite the same way. And I am not sure you are using the word "grotesque" the same way Flannery O'Connor uses that term. And when O'Connor talks about the "romance" form, she is not defining by length, but rather by theme and technique. In my own essays on O'Connor, I focus on the similarity between the theme/technique of the romance form (as the term is used by Hawthorne, for example) and the theme/technique of the short story form--neither of which adheres to the same technique as the novel as a genre generally. Thanks again for reading and reacting to my blog, Eric. I much appreciate it.