Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween, 2013--Walter de la Mare's "Creatures" and "The Riddle"

Happy Halloween, everyone. I am working on a critical history of the British short story and thought in honor of Halloween this year, I would post a brief discussion from the draft of that book on a couple of the best-known spooky stories of the late great Walter de la Mare.
In his study The Short Story in English, Walter Allen calls Walter de la Mare the most distinguished of the writers who made the Edwardian age a "haunted period" in English literature (88).  Part of the reason is the poetic "dignity" of de la Mare as opposed to what is often called the "crude Gothicism" of his contemporaries.  David Daiches says in The Present Age in British Literature that de la Mare's particular escape from external reality does not lead him to self-indulgent dreaming but often to "a magical brooding over the sense of loss and mystery that lies at the heart of experience" (186). Lord David Cecil in The Fine Art of Reading calls de la Mare a symbolist for whom the outer world is only an "incarnation of an internal drama."  He says de la Mare is concerned with the most profound human issues, particularly the central issue of whether the world has any objective existence or whether it is a reflection of the mind which alters depending on the mood and character of the observer (222). It is obvious that these comments suggest the basically romantic nature of de la Mare's work and thus align it emphatically with the short story genre itself.
Walter de la Mare's most basic characteristic, which makes his work stand out from the work of his contemporaries is what Cecil calls its poetic and lyrical nature, a characteristic which many seem to feel is lacking in the stories of the other Edwardian writers.  Most particularly, this poetic nature seems reflected in what Cecil calls de la Mare's fascination with the elfin and the odd and his "curious bias toward the miniature" (220).  As opposed to other Edwardian short-story writers, de la Mare, says Cecil, uses ghosts not as devices to arouse shudders, but rather as symbols of the eternal world of the spirit.  Children are often used in his stories because they, living largely in the imagination, are less likely than adults to believe that the material world is the only reality.  For de la Mare, only the imagination makes reality significant, and what we call external reality itself is like a dream.

All of these characteristics, which are actually characteristics of the short story genre itself, can be seen most readily in de la Mare's two best-known and most anthologized stories, "The Creatures" and "The Riddle," neither of which have received much critical comment.  "The Creatures" is built, as many short stories are, on the model of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which the conveyor of the tale to the reader is made to listen to a tale told to him by a stranger he meets on a railway car.  The story the stranger tells is in many ways like a set piece; he begins by establishing his philosophic position about the nature of reality and then narrates an experience that seems to illustrate the position.  The basic philosophic point of view is the one that Cecil says characterizes de la Mare's work--that the world is a dream created by consciousness.

The story recounts an experience in the teller's past when he chanced upon one of the talented few who seem to be aware of the imaginative  nature of reality; the meeting occurred when he himself wandered in search of "that unforeseen nowhere for which the heart, the fantasy aches."  In his travels he hopes to get lost, for "How shall a man find his way unless he lose it?" and stumbles into a "country of dream" wherein reason is left behind, and in solitude the spirit "realizes that it treads the outskirts of a region long since called the Imagination."

His encounter with the region's inhabitants--a bent-up woman, a dark gaunt man, and their two dwarfish children--seems very similar to the kind of experience that H.G. Wells uses in "The Country of the Blind" but which Turgenev makes more meaningful in "Bezhin Meadow."  The realm is some country half-way between reality and imagination, yet the people who inhabit it seem real.  The teller realizes, for example, that the man is one of the small tribe of the aloof, such as hermits, lamas, fakirs and such.  The children appear as if "animal and angel had connived in their creation" although they are actually dwarfish. The narrator feels he has come back to the borders of Eden--"gazing from out of dream into dream, homesick, 'forsaken.'"  However, the problem of the story, as is usual in such stories, is that the nature of the reality of the creatures is not made clear.  On the one hand, they seem real yet strange; on the other hand, the narrator feels that he has entered for a few moments into a "strange region of consciousness."

After returning from the otherworldly region, the narrator asks a pig-like woman of the village about the farm he has visited; her response makes the status of the strange people even more problematical and ambiguous.  When the woman asks if the narrator has seen any of the Creatures, the narrator is startled, for the ambiguity of the word suggests that the creatures are indeed inhabitants of another realm of reality, that is until the narrator realizes that Creatures is the name of the host and that Maria and Christus are the names of the two gardeners. The woman's story is of a man--a stranger and a pilgrim--who came there in the past and made his home at the farm.  She also tells, as part of what the narrator calls her "absurd story," of a woman from the sea who was either dumb or inarticulate who gave birth to two children who were simple, "naturals."  She tells the narrator that the woman is buried in the neighboring churchyard that he might visit.  When he does visit it, the last words of the story list what is written on her stone:  Feminina Creature.

This final ambiguity about the nature of the creatures--that is whether they are creatures from another realm of reality or whether they are actually people named Creature--is the central ambiguity of the story itself.  The question remains unresolved, for the inscription on the stone of the woman could suggest her name as well as her status--that is as an image of the Jungian anima figure who suggests imagination and unitive knowledge itself.

"The Creatures" is a story about the ambiguity that results when reality and dream, consciousness and unconsciousness seem to interpenetrate and remain inextricably entangled.  The journey the narrator makes is both to a realm of reality and to a realm of consciousness.  The Creatures are indeed creatures, for they have isolated themselves away from the external world to live within their own self-constructed imaginative world.  What happens in this story, just as it happens in Turgenev's "Bezhin Meadow," is that the narrator stumbles into the world of the imagination, into the world of folk song and story; for within that very world are those that have transformed themselves into the characters or creatures of story.      

De la Mare's other often-anthologized story, "The Riddle," is an unabashed parable, for the riddle exists not within the story, but is the story--a puzzle that readers must solve themselves.  Once again the puzzle focuses on whether the characters are real or exist in some realm of reality other than the natural.  de la Mare was once asked if the children died and if he meant to make the grandmother a sinister figure, to which he answered that the children did die and that he did not make the grandmother any more sinister than she appeared to be.  Such a question can only arise if one takes the characters to be real rather than representative.  However, even if one takes them to be representative, the events of the story make it difficult to understand what exactly it is that they represent.

The story begins like a fairy tale in which the children come to visit the grandmother and she tells them that they may play anywhere in the house except in the room where an old trunk sits.  Of course, as is typical of such fairy stories, it is to the old oak trunk that the children go first, and one by one and then two by two they disappear into it.  The clue to the meaning of the disappearance of the children lies within the means by which they disappear.  At first, Henry goes into the chest when he has memories of his mother who used to read to him.  Then Matilda goes into the chest singing songs about the absent Henry.  Harriet and William go into the chest while pretending to be Sleeping Beauty and the Prince who comes to awaken her.  Dorothea and James go in while playing a pretend game about being Eskimos fishing.  Finally, Ann, the oldest, goes into the trunk during a dream after she has been reading a story about fairies and gnomes.

 It seems clear that the children's entrance into the chest comes in the midst of experiences outside the present world of everyday reality--in memory, in fairy tale, in play, and in dream.  Consequently, one need believe that the children die or that the grandmother is evil, but rather that the children's disappearance into the trunk marks an abrupt departure from reality via the world of fantasy and play into another realm that inevitably takes them away from the grandmother.  At the end of the story, the old woman's mind is a "tangled skein of memories--laughter and tears, and little children now old-fashioned, and the advent of friends, and long farewells."

The story must be read in a different way from "The Creatures," for here, we cannot take the characters literally, but must see them as metaphors for the boundary line that separates the world of childhood from the world of external reality.  The fact that the grandmother and the trunk are the vehicles for this significance is not made clear in the story, except by the suggestion that she herself is the conventional figure of the conventional fairy story which the children inhabit in their childlike world.   


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Stinging Fly Press--Mary Costello's The China Factory and Colin Barrett's Young Skins

I admire the small journals and small presses in England, Ireland, Canada, and America that treasure the short story and keep it alive publishing stories by both newcomers and established writers, even though the chances of those stories being widely read are slim. No doubt, Alice Munro's recent win of the Nobel Prize for Literature, based solely on short stories, is a source of encouragement to writers, editors, and publisher. But there is only one Alice Munro.

One of those small journals/presses that I have grown to respect ever since it published Kevin Barry's There Are Little Kingdoms in 2007 is The Stinging Fly Press, which is  run, I suspect, on a relatively meager budget with Arts Council support in Dublin by Declan Meade. Declan, recently asked if I would be interested in reading two recent collections of stories published by The Stinging Fly—Mary Costello's The China Factory, which got on the longlist for the Guardian First Book Award and earned much praise from Irish writer Anne Enright in The Guardian; and Young Skins, by Colin Barrett, which recently got very good notices in The Sunday Times and The Irish Times.

Yes, of course, I would.  I cannot resist the Irish voice—which I hear every day from my lovely Irish wife and that I heard  over many a Guinness in the year we spent in Dublin on a Fulbright Senior Fellowship several years ago. The Irish cannot, it seems, resist telling a story.  And I cannot resist listening to them.

Mary Costello and Colin Barrett represent two quite different Irish social contexts and two quite different Irish voices. Costello's view of human reality is what reviewers like to call "sensitive," while Barrett creates a world that reviewers like to call "hardscrabble." Costello's characters--mostly women—are educated, with decent jobs, who get married, have kids, become lonely and have affairs.  Barrett's characters--mostly men—are uneducated, drink, shoot pool, screw around, and do drugs. 

These are readable, well-written, engaging stories, albeit sometimes a bit predictable. While certainly more than a notch above popular simplistic plot-based stories, they are somewhat below the delicately woven stories of the top-of-the-line short story writers, such as William Trevor and Alice Munro. But then, for both Costello and Barrett, these are their first collections.  I expect more to come.

The title story of Mary Costello's collection focuses on a seventeen-year old girl who spends a summer before going to college in a factory that makes fine bone china—you know, dishes, cups, saucers, etc. She is brighter and more ambitious than many of the other women in the factory, but given the Irish distrust of folks that put on airs," (This is a common Alice Munro theme), she must keep secret her fantasies of long future days "among library stacks and the sound of page turning and my pen racing furiously across white paper."

The only person she knows at work is a man named Gus, with whom she catches a ride each day.  He is a lump of a guy that the other women in the place call a "freak," saying he is like "something out of a zoo." While the narrator thinks of lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins poetry, "Dapple-dawn-drawn," he reads Hopalong Cassidy and Riders of the Purple Sage.

There is no doubt that the narrator is going to be an English major and will probably try her hand at writing fiction or poetry someday. She even talks like an English major, saying things like "My heart took fright," which she would never be able to get away with saying out loud in the factory. To her English major mind, Gus, who works in the kilns is often "purple-faced and sweating," as if he'd drawn the clay up from the bowels of the earth."

This is a story held together by thematic tension between the fine bone china and the dirty red clay from which it is made; between the sensitive, bookish young woman whose hands grow hot and pink and swollen from sponging off the china, and the hulking Gus whose sweat threatens to come seeping through his jacket to drown both of them as he drives her to work.

It's obvious nothing is going to happen between these two radically different characters, but it is necessary that something happens to redeem Gus from his mere physicality and make the narrator realize that airy poetic transcendence cannot exist apart from physical reality. To that end Costello invents a mad man—someone whose mind is so obsessed that he threatens physical life. He drives up to the factory and, spouting fundamentalist religious notions about the Day of Judgment being at hand, takes a shotgun from his car and fires into the air. Gus, of course, is the only one who remains calm and goes over to the man, speaking to him quietly, getting him to lay down his gun and walk away.

A few years later, the narrator in her beloved library and lecture halls, thinks of Gus touching the madman's shoulder, and thus "the rarity of any human touch." In her senior year of college, she gets a letter from her mother saying that Gus has died in a particularly grotesque way: (reminiscent of a Eudora Welty story) he went out on a cold winter day to get water from a barrel and had a heart attack, falling in; the water froze and that's the way they found him.  The narrator, English major that she is, thinks of that day when Gus touched the man, wondering if when he reached out his hand, "was it to the man or to the madness he spoke?"

It's a well-done story, thematically significant and technically tight--worth reading more than once.  And Mary Costello is a writer worth reading again.  I recommend her to you. Yes, indeed, as reviewers have said, she is sensitive, but there is more to the promise of her stories than mere craft and sensitivity.

I must admit I have chosen to discuss "Kindly Forget My Existence," the final story in Colin Barrett's Young Skins, not only because the title is a line from James Joyce's "The Dead," but also because it is not about young men who drink, play pool, screw around, and do drugs.  Rather, it is about two older guys who run into each other in a pub while waiting for a funeral to start and talk about their past with the woman who is being buried, a singer in their old band twenty years ago, with whom they both were lovers, and who was the ex-wife of one of them.

The Irish are great at talk, especially in pubs, but this is not just a "bit of craic." (Oh, by the way, if you do not remember the line from "The Dead," it is when Gabriel has finished carving the bird and people are beginning the meal, and he says "kindly forget my existence" as he sits down to eat before his "three graces" tributes to his hostesses.)

The two men in Barrett's story are Owen Doran and Eli Cassidy, former bandmates.  The third man in the story is the barman, an Eastern European with a scarred Adam's apple, who spends most of the story down below doing inventory. The two men admit their cowardice at not going to the funeral, although Eli does sneak up to the cemetery where their old singer and lover, Maryanne, is being buried.  Doran, who says "mortality's a skull-fuck," tells Eli that he has entered the "era of grand onanistic solitude."

Much of the story tells the background of Doran and Eli's up-and-down  (mostly down) experiences with their band and their relationship with Maryanne, whose marriage to Eli was tainted by drugs and which only last fourteen months.  After Eli tells Own about watching Maryanne's family going into the service while hiding behind bushes near the church, the bartender, the third character in the story—actually the character who makes this more than just about two guys talking in a pub while avoiding the funeral of an old lover—shows up from the depths of the pub, like a denizen from nether regions.  His name is Dukic, and his has his own story to tell—about his experience in the war in Bosnia.

Dukic tells Doran that he reminds him of a man he once saw during the war who was trying to get to a woman and a child in the street, but cannot because of sniper bullets.  Although the woman and child are already dead, the man runs out to them and is killed also. He says that he had forgotten the man in the street until Doran walks in and reminds him. When the three men go out to smoke, Eli tells the barman that he has a wife and kid also and wants to know if the barman was the sniper who did the shooting.  But the barman only says, "It was a story."

When the funeral procession passes, Doran and Eli join it although they had not intended. When the barman goes back inside, he finds Eli's coat hanging on a stool. Although an hour or so later, some of the mourners come in for a drink, Doran and Eli are not with them.  The next morning the coat is still there unclaimed, and although the barman thinks that someday the man will come back for it, "the man never did."

I like this story; it is cooler and quieter than the other stories in Barrett's collection, which are often violent and  rough. "Kindly Forget My Existence," like many of James Joyce's stories, depends on talk, which Barrett does very well.  The  story conveys very delicately a sense of inevitable loss. It is not easy to communicate the subtle effect of death. I admire Barrett's ability to do so with such restraint and power.

 I recommend Young Skins to you.  And I urge you to support the good work Declan Meade does to promote the short story as a form at which the Irish have always excelled



Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alice Munro's Devotion to the Short Story

In honor of Alice Munro's wonderful win of the Nobel Prize for Literature, I post the following excerpt from the final chapter of my new book, "I Am Your Brother": Short Story Studies.

Although in the last forty years, the short story has been characterized first by experimentation and then by attenuation, Alice Munro has continued to go her own way, so confident of the nature of the short story and her control of the form that she needs to observe no trends nor imitate no precursors. Certainly she does not write in a vacuum, clearly aware of those short-story masters who have preceded her--Chekhov, Turgenev, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver--but Munro has found her own unique rhythm and controls it consummately.

There is always something mysterious and unspeakable in Munro's stories, even though there is never the cryptic compression of much late twentieth century short fiction. In an almost novelistic fashion, as if she had all the time in the world, Munro lovingly lingers on her characters and seldom misses the opportunity to register an arresting image. But a Munro story is deceptive; it lulls the reader into a false sense of security in which time seems to comfortably stretch out like everyday reality, only to suddenly turn and tighten so intensely that the reader is left breathless.

Book publishers usually consider short stories the work of the beginner—M.F.A. finger-exercises they reluctantly agree to publish only if they can promise on the flyleaf that the writer is “currently working on a novel.” This commercial capitulation to the fact that most readers prefer novels to short stories--along with the assumption that a big work of fiction is more important than a collection of small ones--is so powerful and pervasive that few writers are able to resist it. That Alice Munro, who has been able to resist it for so many collections of short stories, has become one of the most highly praised writers of the last half of the twentieth century should therefore go a long way toward redeeming the neglected short form. When her one novel, Lives of Girls and Women was called “only a collection of short stories,” she wasn’t bothered, saying she didn’t feel that a novel was any step up from a short story. To her credit, she has never wavered from that judgment.

With remarkable unanimity, reviewers, critics, and fellow authors agree that Alice Munro is the best short-story writer in the world today, often justifying this assessment by arguing that the numerous characters and multiplicity of events in her stories make them somehow novelistic. However, Munro has always insisted that she does not write as a novelist does, that when she is writing a short story she gets a kind of tension she needs, like pulling on a rope attached to some definite place, whereas with a novel, everything goes “flabby.” Characters and events don’t really matter in her stories, she says, for they are subordinated to an overall “climate” or “mood.” In Munro’s best work, the hidden story of emotion and secret life, communicated by atmosphere and tone, is always about something more enigmatic and unspeakable than the story generated by characters and what happens next. Her greatest stories simply do not communicate as novels do.

Alice Munro has probably been asked “Why do you write short stories?” so many times that she is tired of hearing it, especially since lurking behind the question is the corollary rebuke, “Why don’t you write novels?” The most common reason she has given, the one that Raymond Carver once related, is the practical one of spousal and parental responsibility. Carver liked to tell the story of being in a Laundromat in Iowa City waiting for a dryer and being close to frustrating tears as he realized that the greatest influence on his career was that he had two children and would always find himself in a position of “unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction” (Call if You Need Me 98). In a 1986 interview, after the publication of Progress of Love, Munro replied to this increasingly impertinent question: “I never intended to be a short-story writer. I started writing them because I didn’t have time to write anything else—I had three children” (Rothstein).

Certainly, domestic duties may help explain why authors like Carver and Munro—two of the greatest short-story writers in the latter half of the twentieth century—initially wrote pieces of fiction that they could complete in stolen blocks of time. But it does not explain why they continued to write short stories when they had more time and when their publishers kept hounding them for a novel.

The pressure on writers by agents, editors, and critics to abandon the short story as soon as possible and do something serious with their lives, such as write a novel, is unrelenting. This narrative bias that bigger is better persists in spite of the fact that the faithful few who have ignored it are among the most critically acclaimed writers of the twentieth century: Anton Chekhov, Jorge Luis Borges, Flannery O'Connor, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, and Alice Munro. Munro said back in 1986 that originally she planned to write a few stories to get some practice and then to write novels, but “I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and now I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel” (Rothstein).

The demand of household chores, although certainly not a trivial reason for choosing to write short stories, does not have enough explanatory power to satisfy the critic. On the other hand, Munro’s notion that there is “a short-story way” of seeing reality is a genre issue with significant critical implications. And perhaps one way to try to understand some of the significant characteristics of the short story form is to explore the beliefs and practices of one writer who has always seen her material in “a short story way.”

Munro once said, “I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a short story” (Rothstein). On another occasion, she used a metaphor to describe this short-story excitement. “I can get a kind of tension when I’m writing a short story, like I’m pulling on a rope and I know where the rope is attached. With a novel, everything goes flabby.” Munro says she doesn’t seem to be able to write in any other way. “I guess that’s why I don’t write a novel. God knows I still keep trying. But there always comes a point where everything seems to be getting really flat. You don’t feel the tension…I don’t feel this pulling on the rope to get to the other side that I have to feel.” Munro added, “People have suggested this is because I want to be able to manage everything and that I fear loss of control…. I have to agree that I fear loss of control. But I don’t think it’s anything as simple as that” (Struthers 14-15).

Munro explained that when she reads a story she does not take it up at the beginning and follow it like a road “with views and neat diversions along the way.” Rather, for her, reading a story is like moving through a house, making connections between one enclosed space and another. Consequently, Munro declares, “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure.”  She admits that the word “feeling” is not very precise, but that if she tries to be more intellectually respectable she will be dishonest (“What is Real” 224).

Munro used the term “feeling” again when Geoff Hancock asked her if the meaning of a story is more important to her than the event. “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter,” Munro replied. “When the event becomes the thing that matters, the story isn’t working too well. There has to be a feeling in the story” (81). Rather than being concerned with character or cause-and-effect consequence, Munro says she wants the “characters and what happens subordinated to a climate,” by which, she says, she means something like “mood” (Hancock 81). When Hancock asked Munro about meaning and intent in her stories, she said, “What I like is not to really know what the story is all about. And for me to keep trying to find out.” What makes a story interesting, she says, is the “thing that I don’t know and that I will discover as I go along” (84). When Hancock says he thinks she gives “voice to our secret selves,” she agrees emphatically, “That’s absolutely what I think a short story can do” (76).

I will try to illustrate in what follows that the aspects of Munro’s “specific kind of creative activity”—“tension,” “control,” “mood,” “emotion,” “mystery,” “secret self,” and the refusal to explain—underlie the complexity of her short stories in particular and the short story in general. What I wish to argue is that the complexity of Alice Munro’s short stories is not the result of the mere multiplicity of characters and the addition of a social, ideological, or historical context, but rather the result of seeing the world in a uniquely “short story way.”

As I have argued earlier in this book, the short story’s “way of seeing” is like that which Ernst Cassirer says characterizes perceiving the world in a mythic way, for it means not distinguishing objective characters, but rather “physiognomic characters.” When Munro says she is primarily interested in “emotion,” she echoes Cassirer when he says that within mythical perception “Whatever is seen or felt is surrounded by a special atmosphere” (Essay on Man 77). In this realm, says Cassirer, we cannot speak of things as dead or indifferent stuff, but all “objects are benign or malignant, friendly or inimical, familiar or uncanny, alluring and fascinating or repellent and threatening.”

Rather than plot or ideology, what unifies the short story is an atmosphere, a certain tone of significance. As Alberto Moravia has noted, when Chekhov tried his hand at a novel he was less gifted and convincing than he was with the short story. If you look at Chekhov’s long stories, says Moravia, you feel a lack of something that makes a novel, even a bad novel, a novel, for in them Chekhov dilutes his “concentrated lyrical feeling with superfluous plots lacking intrinsic necessity.” The very qualities that make him a great short story writer become defects when Chekhov tackles a novel. Characters in short stories are the product of “lyrical intuitions,” says Moravia; short stories get their “complexity from life and not from the orchestration of some kind of ideology” (150). The short story focuses on an experience under the influence of a particular mood, or, as Munro would say “emotion,” and therefore depends more on tone than on plot as a principle of unity.
The secret of Alice Munro’s short stories is that she is able to suggest universal, unspoken human desires--preferring meaningful fantasy to the insignificant actual, aesthetic disengagement to physical entanglement, the memoried past to the simple present—by describing what seems to be ordinary everyday reality. Her stories are complex and powerful not so much because of what happens in them, but because of what cannot happen except in the mysterious human imagination. More polished and profound than she has ever been, Alice Munro is the preeminent practitioner of the short story--and one of the most brilliant writers in any genre—in the world today. If there is any justice and judgment in matters literary, she should redeem the short story from its second-class status single-handedly.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Conan Doyle's "The Speckled Band" and G. K Chesterton's "The Blue Cross"

Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is a paradigm of the classic detective story formula, widely imitated since its publication. A visitor comes to Sherlock Holmes’ residence, distraught because of a mysterious crime already committed.  The “romance of detail” is laid bare when Holmes says that “there is no mystery” in his mysterious knowledge that his visitor has come by dog cart and by train to see him—only his observation of details and the conclusions he draws from them--deductions which Watson says are as “swift as intuitions, and yet always founded on a logical basis.” As usual, Holmes’s task is to “throw a little light through the dense darkness” which surrounds the lady, whose situation is horrible precisely because her fears are so vague and her suspicious “depend so entirely upon small points, which might seem trivial to another.”

The story is a variant of the locked-door mystery, which Poe explored in “The Murders of the Rue Morgue.”  The visitor tells of the death of her sister, supposedly by fear, and her last words: “It was the band! The speckled band!” As is also usual, the story is fraught with red herrings—that the stepfather keeps a baboon and a cheetah (which might make one suspect the “Rue Morgue” solution) and that there are often gypsies about the place.

In the detective story, however, as in the short story generally, it is not by the obvious solution that the mystery is laid bare.  The reference to the speckled band itself it the most obvious clue, which would seem to point to a band of gypsies or the band that a gypsy wears on his head--a direction which Holmes considers and rejects, but only after he has visited the home and discovered the meaning of the meaningless—the two clues of the bell rope which is a dummy and the ventilators which do no ventilate. Because these two items have no function within the naturalistic realm of the story they must obviously have a function in the mystery of the story.  That is, they are aesthetic motifs purely—motifs that constitute the hidden plot.

The hidden plot is not revealed until the speckled band itself, a swamp adder, is seen wound around the head of the stepfather.  As is also common for the detective story, and is appropriate to the process of analysis of a text, the laying bare of the plot can only take place at the conclusion of the events of the tale, as Holmes reveals to the average reader Watson the events which took place in the narrative that has preceded the story.

What makes “The Speckled Band” so paradigmatic of the detective story is that it lays bare the previous story at the same time that it prevents the recurrence of that story.  The fact that the threatened woman is a twin to the sister previously killed by the serpent, and that the second murder is to take place in the same room on the same fastened-down bed, indicates that what we have here is a previous event that will be repeated in duplicate unless the critic detective reveals the story’s mystery.  Thus the “plot” rebounds on its creator when the serpent returns to bite the doctor.  As Holmes says, “Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another.” 

The central clue is seen by Holmes when he first enters the doctor’s room and utters the words the sister uttered just before her death, the words of the title of the story.  Thus, the ambiguity of the title of the story is transformed into the solution—a solution pointed to by the purely aesthetic clues of the mock rope and the mock ventilator.

Mock clues which reveal themselves to be the real clues are also central in G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story, “The Blue Cross”; the aesthetic resolution is the true solution.  The tone of “The Blue Cross” is considerably lighter than that of “The Speckled Band,” both because the crime is one of theft rather than of murder and because the story depends on the device of roleplaying as well as the convention of playing with the presentation of clues themselves.

In the classic triangle of victim, pursuer, and detective, roles are manipulated in such a way that the victim Father Brown, plays the roles both of the criminal, leaving clues to his actions, and the detective, who has solved the crime before it has been committed.  Thus, the meaningless clues only have meaning aesthetically within the “plot as plot” of the story itself.  The professional detective, Valentin, head of the Paris police, serves as the reader of the text which Father Brown creates.

Three basic character images are set up in the story: the criminal Flambeau, noted for his great height (six feet, four inches) and his powerful physical strength, so much so that he takes on the folklore image of a powerful Paul Bunyan-like figure; Valentin, who is one of the most powerful intellects in Europe and a man who reasons from strong, undisputed first principles; and Father Brown, who from the perspective of both Flambeau and Valentin, is only a little priest with a face as “”round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling,” with “eyes as empty as the North Sea.”  The story does not focus, however, on Father Brown and Flambeau, who accompanies him dressed as a priest, but rather on the traces that Father Brown leaves behind for Valentin to follow.

And the clues are indeed such that appeal to Valentin’s penchant for following the unreasonable when he cannot follow the trail of the reasonable. His encounter with the sugar bowl which has salt in it and with the cross-labeled oranges and nuts are of course true clues to the reversal of roles being played by Father Brown, in which the victim is really the detective.

As Valentine follows “the first odd finger that pointed,” he begins to fit the “natural”: side of the story together—that Flambeau has posed as a priest to steal the jeweled cross from the greenhorn Father Brown.  All this he says is the “most natural thing in all natural history,” with nothing wonderful in it at all.

Thus the crime seems clear enough.   But the reversal or game that this story plays with the usual detective convention is that Valentin cannot determine the connection between the mysterious traces of events which have lead him to Flambeau and the crime itself.  “He had come to the end of his chase; yet somehow he had missed the middle of it.  When he failed (which was seldom), he had usually grasped the clue, but nevertheless missed the criminal.  Here he had grasped the criminal, but still he could not grasp the clue.”

The final section of the story presents the dialogue on which Valentin eavesdrops between Father Brown and Flambeau, a conversation that Valentin at first takes to be a quite ordinary theological discussion common to two prelates, in which Father Brown argues for reason and Flambeau, thinking to imitate the usual priestly view, argues for the irrational—another reversal of expectation similar to the salt/sugar, nuts/fruit reversal that Father Brown perpetuated earlier.

Reason, says Father Brown, is always reasonable, “even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things.” The reversal is dramatically embodied in the climax, when Flambeau declares that he has switched the parcels and thus has the jewels while Father Brown has the duplicate.  He says that Father Brown is “as good as a three-act farce.” But the switch has of course been switched, and Father Brown has left the jewels in a shop to be sent to a safe place.

Father Brown has supplied false clues for two reasons—to make sure that his companion is a criminal by finding out if he has tried to pass unnoticed (by switching the salt and sugar and by changing the bill at a shop to three times its amount) and to supply the clues which Flambeau himself would not supply.

Father Brown’s profession as a priest has enabled him to determine Flambeau’s disguise, just as his reason, which he calls just “good theology,” has enabled him to set up the plot in such a way that it will be successfully traced by Valentin.  Father Brown says he knows all the tricks of the criminal mind because by always hearing men’s sins, he is made aware of human evil.

Father Brown creates purely aesthetic clues which lead to the solution of the crime or plot.  So also, for that matter, does Sherlock Holmes, and before them both, Poe’s primal poet/detective Auguste Dupin.  From its beginnings, detective fiction has been closely aligned with the conventions of the creation and interpretation of the short story genre—a form that has always been self-consciously concerned with the creation of a latent aesthetic plot, hovering just beneath the surface of manifest mimetic details. The detective story is created for criticism or explication, and would not exist without the reader’s interpretative participation.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Detective Story and Its Historical Relationship to the Short Story as a Genre

While I am currently reading The China Factory by Mary Costello and Young Skins, by Colin Barrett, two new Irish writers, and also reading the new O. Henry Prize 2013 collection (not to mention, trying to figure out how to gently make folks aware of my new book "I Am Your Brother"), I thought I would post a couple of blogs on the detective story and its relationship to the short story as a genre.

I have just posted a handful of tweets on the detective story also, mainly on the stories of Borges.

Although the detective story is now more familiar as a novel form to its many admirers, its formal beginning as a short story in America with Poe’s Dupin is well known, as is its adoption in that form in England before it was later expanded into the novel.  And in many ways, the story of detection seems most appropriate for short fiction, so much so that it is little wonder that critics have suggested that Conan Doyle’s genius was better suited to the short story than to the novel.
There are two basic reasons why the short story seems an appropriate form for the tale of detection.  The first stems from a notion as old as Boccaccio and later developed by the writers and theorists of the German novella—that is that the story form does not deal with the commonplace but with the unusual.  At the very beginning of “The Speckled Band,” Watson reminds us that Holmes refused to “associate himself with any investigation which did not tend towards the unusual, and even the fantastic.” 

G. K. Chesterton notes in “The Blue Cross” that the detective Valentin, when he cannot follow the train of the reasonable, “coldly and carefully followed the train of the unreasonable,” keeping alert for any oddity that might catch his eye.  As Chesterton says: “In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss.  As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen.” And indeed, in both “The Speckled Band” and “The Blue Cross,” it is the unusual that is foregrounded.

The second reason why the short story seems so appropriate a form for the tale of detection concerns the relationship between the story and the reader.  As Chesterton’s Valentin says, “The criminal is the creative artist;’ the detective only the critic.”  Indeed, in the detective story, the criminal is the artist in that he creates the pattern of the plot--both in the sense of involving the mystery which the detective must solve and also of providing the pattern of the story that the critic must lay bare.  Thus, the reader is embodied in many ways within the detective story itself as he follows the ideal reader the story, who is of course the detective.
The detective mystery story is a natural offshoot of the supernatural mystery story, and the word “natural” is used here purposely. The supernatural story was a story of a violation of the natural order; the detective story is the story of the violation of the social order. The movement is one from belief in the supernatural to disbelief; thus, the disruption in the detective story becomes a human disruption of the social order rather than a superhuman disruption of the natural order.  The transitional figures in this movement from the supernatural to the criminal are the amateur ghost hunter in Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Haunters,” who discovers that the supernatural can be attributed to a criminal mind of a quasi-scientific bent, and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselisu in “Green Tea,” who finally determines that the supernatural monkey which so plagues the minister can be attributed to a physical/psychological source.

The detective as the critic does not create but rather unravels and exposes the hidden plot/pattern of the story.  The two basic methods by which he does so are the two basic methods by which any reader or critic lays bare the mystery of the story which he reads. W.H. Auden, in his delightful essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” pinpoints the two methods precisely.  Holmes is the “genius in whom scientific curiosity is raised to the status of a heroic passion,” whereas Father Brown solves crimes by “subjectively imagining himself to be the murderer.” These two methods suggest the two means by which anyone reads the tightly woven short story form—that is, both by following the material details of the story and by identifying with the characters.

As any good critic does with a short story, Holmes knows the importance of determining out of a number of facts which are incidental and which are vital—that is, to use the language of the Russian Formalist critics, which motifs in the story are “bound” ones and thus essential to the plot and which are “free” motifs and thus inessential.  The detective story, says Dorothy Sayers, in her essay “The Omnibus of Crime,” is a form that absolutely depends for its unity on its capacity to be analyzed.  It is, as it were, made for criticism or explication, and would not exist without the reader’s participation in the process of explication in which the detective engages.  Thus the detective story depends on a reader who perceives himself as a super-reader, not an ordinary or causal one.  As Sayers points out, the Holmes-Watson relationship makes this clear.  The ideal or super-reader believes that the average reader is supposed to understand no more clearly than Watson does, and thus he places himself above Watson in the text.
A central key to analysis of the detective story is of course the attention one must pay to the details of the text itself, for the explicator is one who perceives that details are meaningful because they are traces of human events, symbols of what is now absent but is nonetheless significant.  As G. K. Chesterton notes in “A Defence of Detective Stories,” the detective story is the earliest form of popular literature to express “a sense of the poetry of modern life.”  It is the social, not the natural, the human, not the inhuman on which the detective story must focus, for in a basic sense, says Chesterton, the city is more poetic than the countryside, because “while Nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious ones.”  There is no stone in the street or brick in the wall that does not have a human imprint and thus constitute a “deliberate symbol.”  Sherlock Holmes is of course the master of what Chesterton calls the “romance of detail.”

Next: A few comments about how Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventures of the Speckled Band” and Chesterton’s “The Blue Cross” illustrate these aspects of the relationship between the short story as a genre and the detective story as a type.