Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Short Story Month 2014: Alice Munro

I go to Ottawa tomorrow to join my Canadian colleagues in a celebration of the work of Alice Munro. Professor Robert Thacker, author of the excellent biography of Ms. Munro, Writing Her Lives, and I share the honor of giving keynote addresses.  Professor Thacker will speak on Friday afternoon, and I will speak on Saturday morning. Many fine writers, critics, and scholars will discuss various aspects of Munro's work over the three-day weekend. I will give you a summary of the celebration when I return.

Since I will be taking a break from my blog for a few days while in Ottawa, I though it only appropriate that I post a brief discussion of her work before I left.  I have written many blogs on Alice Munro over the past several years, but for some reason have neglected her most personal collection, The View from Castle Rock.  Munro says that as she put together the material in this book over the years, not surprisingly, since she is, with little or no argument, the best short-story writer currently practicing that underrated art, the material began to shape itself into “something like stories.” The combination of the words of her ancestors and her own, she says, resulted in a re-creation of lives about as truthful as the past can be.

 In addition, Munro says, during this same period she was also writing a special set of stories that she had not included in her last four books of fiction because she felt they did not belong.  Although they were not memoirs, they were closer to her own life than other stories she had written.  She says in her previous stories, she drew on personal material, but then did whatever she wanted to with it, for the chief thing she was doing was “making a story.”  However, in these new pieces, she knew she was doing something closer to what a memoir does—exploring her own life, although not in a rigorously factual way.

The View from Castle Rock is made up of these two separate sets—five family chronicles that Munro says are “something like stories” and six pieces drawn from her own life that she emphatically declares are “stories.” Munro describes them as two separate streams that flow into one channel.

The first story, “No Advantages,” is the most historical, least fictionalized, of the five pieces of “family history.”  The narrator is Munro, in her sixties, traveling alone in Scotland.  When she finds the gravestone of her great-great-great-great-great grandfather, born at the end of the seventeenth century, she enjoys that familiar human experience of imagining her ancestors existing in time and space.  Discovering he is the last man in Scotland to have seen the fairies, she envisions him as a sort of Rip Van Winkle who encounters little people, about as high as a two-year-old child, calling his name.  She draws conclusions and forms hypotheses about him and those who follow him.  She identifies a trait of her Scottish ancestors that forms her own attitudes generations later--the reluctance to call attention to one’s self, the opposite of which is not modesty, but rather a refusal to turn your life into a story, either for other people or for yourself--a curious trait for a storyteller who has all her adult life transformed her life into story.

The title story of the collection moves closer to fictionalized narrative.  Its imaginative spark derives from a received story of one of her ancestors, a young boy, being taken up to Edinburgh Castle by his father, who points out a grayish-blue piece of land showing through the mist beyond the waves and pronounces gravely “America.”  The boy knows he is not looking at America, but rather an island off the coast of Scotland, but this does not lessen the force of the illusion of a land that does have “advantages,” so far away, yet so close—a combination of fiction and reality.  The story focuses on the actual journey the family makes to Nova Scotia. Although Munro says she depends largely on a journal kept by one of the family members, whereas he merely records events, Munro speculates and humanizes, inventing actions for which she has no historical basis and creating motivations based on her imaginative identification with her ancestors.

“Illinois” deals with an event that must have been irresistible to Munro, who has written previous stories of tricks and cross-purposes.  A young male ancestor steals his baby sister and hides her; two silly young girls who like to play jokes steal the infant a second time to tease another boy.  It is a comedy of errors that ends well when the father finds the baby. “The Wilds of Morris Township” has less drama and little comedy, focusing on the quiet intentions of an ancestor who builds himself a house and lives out his life in a brotherly-sisterly relationship with a second cousin.  Munro’s recollection that her father said he had seen the odd couple at church when he was a child brings the chronicle of the family closer to her own life.

“Working for a Living” recounts how Munro’s father begins his adult life as a fur-trapper and seller of skins for the commercial market and how he meets her mother.  After her father stops raising animals for fur, he gets a job at a foundry as a night watchman; when Munro, as a young girl, goes to visit him there, she sees him as someone other than just her father.  In this story, we are introduced to Munro as a future writer. While her father provides her with particular explanations of the foundry, she is more interested in the general effects--the gloom, the fine dust, and the atmosphere of the place. Munro leaves this first half of The View from Castle Rock with her father listening to his grandfather and other men speaking in the dialect of their own childhood---an appropriate transition to the second half, which begins with a fictional account of Munro’s early understanding of the complex relationships that daughters have with their fathers.
“Fathers,” the opening piece of the second part of the book, brings us closer to the kind of story that has made Munro famous.  Describing the relationship that two different girls have with their fathers, it is structured around theme rather than event.  First, there is Dahlia, who hates her father for his brutality and would kill him if she could.  Secondly, there is Frances, whose parents try to encourage their daughter’s friendship with Munro. However, when Munro sees Frances’ father squeeze the mother’s behind, she feels some sort of “creepy menace” about them.  Not used to this open display of attention, she feels cornered and humiliated.  She recalls once when her father beat her for some back talk to her mother, the probable source of “Royal Beatings” one of Munro’s most famous stories.  However, she does not compare her situation to Dahlia’s, but she knows that her father hates the arrogance in her.  “Fathers’ is a story about two kinds of father/daughter relationships, neither with which Munro completely identifies, but both of which she intuitively understands.

All the stories in this second section point to Munro’s future as a writer.  In “Lying Under the Apple Tree,” she is thirteen and has a secret poetic idea about looking up through apple blossoms, which has an irresistible formality for her, like kneeling in church.  She has her first erotic feelings for an older boy, but when they are interrupted in what Munro expects will be her first sexual experience, she realizes that the boy is having a relationship with the woman who owns the farm where he works.  Once again, the story ends with a presage of Munro’s future life as an author, for she says for the next few years it is men in books who become her lovers, sardonic and with a ferocious streak in them; her preference running to Heathcliff rather than Edgar Linton, Rhett Butler rather than Ashley Wilkes. 

In “Hired Girl,” Munro, 17, takes a summer job with a family.  When they have a party and friends come to stay the weekend, Munro thinks they are glamorous, like the people she has read about in magazines--people who drink a lot, have affairs, and go to psychiatrists.  When the visiting husband suggests she go swimming without her bathing suit, the next time she is in the water she pulls her top down and thinks of him touching her, feeling both a sense of pleasure and repulsion. When the summer is over, the husband for whom she works gives Munro a copy of Isak Dinensen’s Seven Gothic Tales.  The fictional takes precedence over the merely real, for as soon as she begins to read, she loses herself in the book, believing that this gift of literature has always belonged to her. 

In “The Ticket,” Munro is 20 and preparing for her wedding with her first boyfriend.  The family is glad someone wants her, for she has always scared men off with her intelligence and her arrogance.  More and more, Munro sees the world in terms of language.  As if they were stories, she studies three marriages as a way to prepare for her own—that of her parents, which is the most mysterious because like many children she cannot imagine them in any connection except the one through her; that of her grandparents, which she knows from reports from her mother; and that of her Uncle Cyril and Aunt Charlie, who warn her about marriage.  Munro makes a rare confession in this story by saying that her first husband deserved better than what she gave him; he deserved a “whole heart.” 

The last three stories in the collection bring events closer to the present.  In “Home,” Munro is in love with a man other than her husband, her mother has died, and she comes to visit her ill father and her stepmother, a woman good at sniffing out high-mindedness and superiority.  In “What Do You Want to Know For?” she is married to her second husband and has been told she has a lump in her left breast and must have a biopsy.  Over sixty now, she does not think her death would be a disaster.  It is at this time in her life that she begins to think more about her family and to become interested in imagining them in the past.

In the Epilogue, entitled “Messenger,” Munro ponders the impulse to investigate one’s family history, sifting untrustworthy evidence, linking names, dates and anecdotes--determined to be joined to death and thus to life.  Alice Munro’s most personal book ends appropriately with a metaphor, a huge seashell, which she holds to her ear to listen to the pounding of her own blood and the roar of the ocean.  This metaphor of listening to the self and the sea brings the book full circle, echoing the young ancestor so many years ago, gazing from Castle Rock across that misty ocean which held the future and now holds the past.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Short Story Month 2014: William Trevor

As in all great short stories, from Chekhov to Carver, there is mystery and not a little menace in the stories of William Trevor—secrets so tangled and inexplicable that efforts to explain them with the language of psychology or sociology or history are either futile or absurd. This is not accidental, but part of the short story’s historical and generic tradition, for the form originated in primitive myth, which, by its very nature, was concerned with mystery, for which story was the only explanatory model available.  Moreover, the short story is often concerned with the enigma of motivation. 

This mystery of motivation is as true of Trevor's first collection The Day we Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories, 1967 as of his last collection forty years later, Cheating at Canasta, 2007.  In honor of one of the two best short-story writers in the world today, I offer a few comments on the stories in that last collection.  I only hope there will be another.

In  “The Dressmaker’s Child,” Cahill, a nineteen-year-old Irish man takes a couple of young Spanish tourists, seeking a blessing on their marriage, to a statue that was once thought to shed miraculous tears.  However, the miracle of the statue has since been discredited, and the Dublin man who told them about it was only lying to get them to buy him drinks. Cahill knows all this, but wants the fifty euro he charges to drive the couple out to the statue.  On the way back, a young female child, who has a habit of doing such things, runs out in the road and into his car. Cahill does not stop.

When the child’s body is found in a quarry half a mile from her home, the mother, a dressmaker, who has borne the child out of wedlock, begins to stalk Cahill, hinting that she saw him hit the girl.  Cahill imagines that he walked back to the site of the accident and carried the body of the child to the quarry, but he knows that it was the mother who has done this.  The mother urges Cahill to leave his girlfriend and invites him to come home with her. Cahill, afraid, without knowing what he fears, cannot dismiss the connection between him and the dressmaker.  When he tries to understand this, he is bewildered, but he knows that one day he will go to her.  The story suggests that it is possible that death and guilt, as well as birth and love can unite two people.

Guilt, secrets, and obsession also dominate “Folie À Deux.” Wilby, a divorced man in his forties, is in Paris, indulging in his interest in rare stamps.  At a café, he sees an employee who looks like a man named Anthony who Wilby knew as a boy, a man who disappeared years before and who everyone assumed was dead.  Wilby recalls a significant event that has bound them together in guilt.  Once the two boys, out of curiosity, put Anthony’s old dog Jerico in a small boat and pushed him out to sea, just to find out what he would do. They hear the dog howling and later see its body when it is washed up on shore.

Although this does not seem to affect Wilby so much, it profoundly changes Anthony, who becomes quieter and more withdrawn.  Later when Wilby runs into Anthony again at school, he discovers that Anthony is even more remote and strange; Wilby does not befriend him again, even though he feels guilty about this.  Like Cahill in “The Dressmaker’s Child,” Wilby’s guilt is muddled by bewilderment.  When he goes back to the café and realizes that it is Anthony, Wilby knows that he will return to his own safe, tidy world, but this morning he likes himself less than he likes his childhood friend. 

The mystery of motivation and secrets of the past also energize “The Room.”  A forty-seven-year-old woman named Katherine is engaged in an affair, perhaps in revenge, for her husband’s involvement with a prostitute, who was murdered and for whom he was a suspect, nine years before.   Katherine lied for her husband then, in partial repayment for her inability to have children, providing him with an alibi, although it seems quite clear that he did not kill the woman.  

When the man with whom she is having an affair asks Katherine why she loves her husband, she says that no one can answer that question and, in a statement central to Trevor’s success with the short story, asserts that most often, people don’t know why they do things. For the nine years since the murder, she has not asked her husband about the girl, but knows that her alibi for him has given her release from any restraint.  The story ends with her knowledge that the best that love can do is not enough, for what holds people together is often guilt, debt, secrets.

What makes people do what they do and the mysteries of what holds them together or tears them apart is also central to “Bravado.”  Five young people are on the way home late at night—the leader Manning, his cohorts Donovan and Kilroy, Aisling, his girlfriend, and a second girl named Francie. When Dalgety, a boy they scorn as a geek, urinates in someone’s yard, Manning, who always likes to play the big fellow, knocks him down and kicks him. The next morning the boy is discovered dead.  Donovan and Kilroy are sent to jail for eleven years, getting off easy, for they did not know that Dalgety had a weak heart. 

Manning disappears, but writes to Aisling several years later, telling her he has changed.  Aisling finishes school and gets a job but never marries.  At Dalgety’s grave, she begs for forgiveness, for she knows that the beating was done to impress her, to deserve her love, and watching it she had felt a momentary pleasure.  She sometimes thinks she will run away from the shadow of bravado that hangs over her, but she is also now a different person and feels that she belongs to where the act took place.

Guilt and the mysteries of the past have a wider compass in “Men of Ireland.”  A fifty-two-year old man, Donal Prunty, returns to the small village in Ireland where he was born after having spent several years in England “on the street.”  Prunty goes to the parish priest, Father Meade, for whom he served Mass when he was a child and tells him about hearing the old stories of priest abuse with other men--the “hidden Ireland.”  When he accuses Father Meade of abusing him, the priest knows he is lying and wonders if he is confusing him with another priest, his brain addled because of methylated spirits.  Although he insists that no finger has ever been pointed at a priest in this village, still he goes to a drawer and takes paper notes and gives to him.

After Prunty leaves, the priest does not blame him because you cannot blame a hopeless case, and he feels guilty for not being able to reach him as a boy as his mother has asked of him.  He knows that no honorable guilt and no generous intent have made him give Prunty the money, but rather that he has paid for silence.  He accepts that the petty offense of Prunty is minor beside the betrayal by the Church and the shamming of Ireland’s priesthood. 

The inexplicable nature of love and human need dominate such stories as  “An Afternoon,” in which a young girl meets a man in a chat room and then arranges to meet him in person.  She obviously needs the attention of the man and seems to trust him, although the reader is suspicious of his thoughts, discovering gradually that he has met young women like this before.  He is solicitous of the girl, winning a necklace for her in a carnival type game and giving her drinks.

 However, his plans, whatever they are, are foiled, when his aunt, with whom he lives, drives up, telling him to remember that he is on probation.  The girl goes home, and hears her mother and the man she lives with having a fight.  In face of this, the girl, even though she now knows the man planned to take advantage of her, still thinks of him tenderly.  She kisses the necklace he gave her and promises she will always keep it with her.

“The Children” begins with the perspective of Connie, a child of eleven, whose mother has just died.  It then shifts to a woman named Teresa, forty-one, whose husband left her several years before.  Two years later Robert, Connie’s father, asks Teresa to marry him.  Connie takes her mother’s books up on the roof to read them, although it is really pretense, for she is too young to understand them.  She worries that all her mother’s books will be sold, so she wants to know what every single one of them is about.  Five days away from the wedding, Teresa comes to see Robert and they decide to cancel the wedding.  Realizing that nothing is as tidy as they had thought, and that no rights cancel other rights, they both know they have been hasty and careless.  Robert accepts that time will gather up the ends, and that his daughter’s honoring of a memory was love that mattered also. 

"Cheating at Canasta"  opens with a man named Mallory, an Englishman in his middle years, at Harry’s Bar in Venice, famous as a hangout of Ernest Hemingway.  It has been four years since he was last here with his wife Julia, who is now afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease.  As a last request, she has made him promise to go back to Harry’s, but he is not sure if this trip is really meaningful.  However, when he hears an American man ask his younger wife why she is crying, he becomes interested in their quarrel.  When they leave, he tells them the reason for his trip, feeling ashamed that he has come close to deploring this tiresome, futile journey.  He recalls letting his wife win at canasta, even though she was not sure why she was happy when she won.  As the couple leave, the man smiles, hearing his wife’s voice say that shame isn’t bad, nor is humility, which is shame’s gift.

These are not cultural examinations of either the old Ireland of legend or the new Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, but rather profoundly wise explorations of individual, yet universal, secrets and mysteries of the heart. Luminous, restrained stories, every one of them deserves to be read and reread, their motivations marveled at, their sentences savored.   They fill the reader with awe at the complexity of the human experience and the genius of William Trevor.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Short Story Month 2014: Grace Paley

The first thing one notices about the short stories of Grace Paley is the voice that narrates them.  It seems unmistakably  the voice of a woman talking to other women.  Paley once said in an interview that it was "the dark lives of women" that made her begin to write in the first place, adding that at the time she thought no one would be interested, "but I had to illuminate it anyway."  In a preface written especially for The Collected Stories, she says that in 1954 or 1955, when she first felt the storyteller's need, she was not sure that she could write the important serious stuff that men were writing.  Consequently, she says she had no choice but to write about what had been handed to her:  "Everyday life, kitchen life, children life."

Usually, the women in Paley's stories are either unwed, widowed, or divorced; although they often have lovers and children, they are not defined either by marriage or the desire for marriage.  This focus on the female without men has resulted, say some critics, in stories that are feminist in point of view, language, and theme.  And in her new preface, Paley says she agrees, at least to the extent that every woman writing during the decades of the 50's, 60's, and 70's had to "swim in the feminist wave."  Paley's stories are often unified by her focus on the voices of women engaged in conversation, gossip, jokes, intimacies, and above all, storytelling. 

It is the power of this talk and storytelling, Paley insists, that bonds women together into a unified, collaborative force to make their voices heard.  In an interview, Paley once said, "Our voices are, if not getting a lot louder, getting so numerous.  We're talking to each other more and more."  Paley believes that women banding together and talking to one another, especially mothers, constitute a powerful political force for social change.  When you have kids, you get involved in community affairs, Paley says, for your concern is for protection of the children.  Indeed, in many Paley stories, the community of mothers on the playground constitute a central source of social consciousness.

Although Paley's stories show a concern for community and social responsibility, they are far from solemn social tracts or feminist polemics.  Instead, they are characterized by an earthy awareness of urban folk culture combined with an often bawdy sense of humor.  For example, the women in Paley's stories rebel against the traditional role of woman as passive partners in sexuality, and at the same time they reject the egoistic image of men as the answer to all woman's needs.  As Mrs. Luddy tells the character Faith Darwin in the story "The Long Distance Runner," men thought they were bringing women a "rare gift," but it was just sex, "which is common like bread, though essential."  As Faith and Mrs. Luddy talk, like many other women in Paley's stories, we begin to realize that such collaborative talk among women fosters community and freedom.

Faith Darwin, Paley's alter ego, was first introduced in a pair of early stories in The Little Disturbances of Man categorized as "Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life."  The first one, entitled "The Used-Boy Raisers," begins with the typical Paley ironic voice--"There were two husbands disappointed by eggs"--and then continues with Faith's voice characterizing her husband and former husband, who are dissatisfied in the way she has fixed their eggs, as Pallid and Livid as they quarrel about the future of the Jewish race.  At this point in Faith's life, she rarely expresses her opinion on any serious matter and says she considers it her destiny to be, "until her expiration date, laughingly the servant of man."  But as the two husbands go off to face the "grand affairs of the day ahead of them," Faith's voice has managed to gently ridicule the pretensions of these "clean and neat, rather attractive, shiny men in their thirties."

In many ways, the various situations of Faith Darwin reflect the central thematic concerns of Paley's fiction.  As Faith moves from egoistic self pity to a broader identification and sympathy with women in general and women as an oppressed group in particular, she embodies Paley's own growing conviction that fiction can serve a powerful purpose in affirming community, hope, and love.  Faith reappears in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in the story "Faith in the Afternoon," where, recently abandoned by her husband, she visits her parents in a retirement home.  Although she is very much aware of her family history, she holds herself aloof from family in this story, rejecting union and connection. 

Another story, "Faith in a Tree," finds Faith still holding herself aloof, this time symbolically sitting on the limb of a sycamore tree above an urban playground.  However, by the end of the story, she is brought out of her lofty perch by her eight-year-old son's sympathetic identification with the purposes of a peaceful antiwar march and decides to change her distanced perspective to one of social and artistic involvement.  In the final Faith Darwin story in Enormous Changes, "The Long-Distance Runner," Faith jogs to her childhood neighborhood on Cony Island.  Finding the area now populated by African Americans, she retreats to her old home place and stays for three weeks, uniting both with her past and with the black woman Mrs. Luddy who now lives there.

In "Friends," in Paley's third collection, Later the Same Day, Faith goes with her friends Ann and Susan to visit another friend Selena who is dying.  The story is a Paley experiment in creating a collective narrator; she has said in an interview that it is based on her own female friends with whom she had a kind of collective existence.  "Ruthy and Edie," also in Later the Same Day, begins with the relationship between two young girls who talk about the "real world of boys" and fight their fear of a strange neighborhood dog, then shifts to a period many years later at Ruthy's fiftieth birthday when she invites three friends, including Faith and Edie, to her apartment for a celebration.  The story ends with Ruth's anxiety about her success as a mother as she struggles with the hopelessness of protecting her granddaughter from the hard world of "man-made time." 

Faith appears again in "The Expensive Moment," in which the network of women, a frequent theme in Paley's stories, broadens to include a Chinese woman who Faith and Ruthy have met at a meeting of a women's governmental organization sponsored by the UN.  Over tea in Faith's kitchen, the three women wonder whether they were right to raise their children as they did.
A number of Paley's stories are so short that they seem carefully crafted situations symbolic of the circumstances of women.  For example, "Love" is an inconclusive episode in which a man tells his wife about his past loves, one of whom is a fictional character in her own book.  "Lavinia:  An Old Story" is a brief monologue in which a black woman tries to talk her daughter's suitor out of marrying her.  "At That Time, or The History of a Joke" is, in itself, little more than a joke in which the virgin birth becomes the source of several satiric jabs at the Christian religion.  The story "Anxiety" consists primarily of a woman's warnings to a young father taking his daughter home from school; "In This Country" is a two-page prose-poem in which a female child tries to understand whether her maiden aunt has a life of her own; and "Mother" is a two-page memoir brought on by a woman's hearing the song "Oh, I Long To See My Mother in the Doorway."  The two short pieces, "A Man Told Me the Story of His Life" and "This is a Story about My Friend George, the Toy Inventor," are more like brief parables than fully-developed narratives.  In one, we hear of a man who, unable to fulfill his dream to be a doctor, saves his wife's life because of his diagnostic ability; in the other, a man invents a pinball machine that is a poem of the machine, its essence made concrete.

"Wants"--a three-page piece in which a woman meets her ex-husband at the library when she returns books she has had checked out for eight years--effectively expresses a woman's basic desire to be the kind of person who returns books in two weeks, stays married to the same person forever, and addresses the Board of Estimate on the troubles of urban centers.  In "Living," a woman friend calls Faith to tell her she is dying, but Faith says she is dying too, for her menstrual bleeding will not stop; the story is a poignant but restrained exemplum of female sympathy and identification.  "Northeast Playground," another three-page story, deals with a typical Paley social concern as she describes going to a playground where she meets eleven unwed mothers on relief who band together in a kind of playground.

When asked about these very short stories, which seem to challenge the limits of narrative structure, Paley said that a story is more often apt to be too long than too short, arguing that stories should deal with more than the simple dialectic of conflict.  "I think it's two events or two characters...bumping against each other, and what you hear, that's the story."  And that, she says, can happen in two pages.

Grace Paley is very much concerned with the nature of storytelling in her stories, for her narrator is often self-consciously aware of the fact that the characters in the stories are fictional creations.  One of her most frequently anthologized stories, "A Conversation With My Father," is Paley's most explicit treatment of her view of story and its relationship to hope for the future of women.  The protagonist of the story, a writer, is visited by her eighty-year old dying father who wants her to write a Chekhov-type story for him, one with a plot, a concept she despises because, she says, it takes away all hope.  In order to please her father, she tells two versions of a story of a woman who becomes a junkie so she can remain close to her son, who has become a junkie.  Although the father sees the situation of the woman in the story-within-the-story as tragic, the narrator sees it as comic.  As a result, the story is, as many of Paley's stories, both tragic and comic at once.

What Paley rebels against in "A Conversation With My Father" is the inevitability of plot, which, because it moves toward a predestined end, is a straight line between two points.  A basic difference between fiction and "real life," Paley suggests is that whereas real life is open and full of possibility, fiction moves relentlessly toward its predetermined end.  A basic difference between the father's reaction to the woman in the story-within-the-story and the author's reaction is that whereas the father takes her situation seriously, as if she had a separate existence in the world, the author knows that the woman is her own creation; thus, although she feels sorry for her, she never loses sight of the fact that as the author she has the power to alter her destiny.

            The key words in the titles of several of the stories in Later the Same Day are "telling," "listening," "hearing," and "story," for the nature of narrative talk is central to all of them.  As a storyteller, Paley's central concern is the basic characteristics of story, specifically, the characteristics of oral narrative specifically associated with women.  In "Listening," at breakfast, Faith tells her husband Jack the two stories "Anxiety" and "Zagrosky Tells," stories which she neglected to tell him in the story "The Story Hearer."  Jack complains these are stories about men and urges her to tell him the stories told by women about women.  Although Faith says they are too private, many of Paley's stories are indeed about the very private talk between women.

            Paley's concern with the nature of story moves many of her narratives into the realm of self-reflexive fiction or metafiction, for they are about reality as a language construct.  Although her stories lack the kind of tight intentional patterning of the well-made short story since Poe, they are not "realistic" in the usual "slice-of-life" sense. Paley is too self-conscious a writer to be content with straightforward mimetic treatments of real people in the real world.  As a result of her refusal to build her stories around a clear conflict and thus move them toward am emphatic sense of resolution and closure, a number of critics have often been puzzled about how to discuss her stories about women.

            Paley's very brief stories have also been the source of many critical reservations, for they are so short and seemingly inconsequential that they seem to challenge the lower limits of storyness.  Paley has sometimes been classified among those contemporary short story writers known as "minimalists," although her minimalism has been more accepted than that of Ann Beattie, Mona Simpson, Amy Hempel, and Mary Robison because of her subject matter focus on the urban Jewish community and the community of women.  In spite of the politically correct nature of her characters, she has been criticized for self-indulgently engaging in meaningless memoirs and desultory dialogues that, although they contain socially significant ideas, are not really stories at all.

            However, this is the same kind of criticism that once was lodged against Anton Chekhov, the originator of the tradition of short-story "realism" to which Paley belongs.  Although her stories seem like mere slices of life without intentional pattern, they are actually quite carefully crafted narratives in which simple objective description takes on symbolic meaning by a careful structure of repetition and interconnection of motifs.  Paley believes that stories should be "like life," at least the  way life should be--that is, open-ended, full of hope, promise, and possibility.  Stories should not be governed by the inevitability of plot, particularly plot determined by the goal-directed nature of male culture.  If life is like a story, then Paley insists that we should all be story tellers, each writing his or her own stories and forming communities of stories with others.

Writing for Grace Paley is a collaborative, social act, not merely in the obvious sense of centering stories on social issues, but in the more complex and profound sense of writing as the creation of a community of speakers and listeners sharing the same values.  Not content to remain the prisoner of a language system based on the dominant male culture, Grace Paley has devoted her art to the creation of a language-based community made up of talk by women to women.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Short Story Month 2014: Eudora Welty

            Eudora Welty once said in an interview that a writer's creative work should be read instead of an account of his or her life, adding that she did not think anyone would be interested in her own private life.  However, she changed her mind when Harvard University asked her to deliver the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization on the subject of what made her become a writer.  Although never before having written about herself as herself, Welty has said she became interested in the idea and began to draw on memory and develop a structure that would hold her many reminiscences together.  The result, she has said, was so much fun, so enlightening, that she advises everyone to do it.

            One Writer's Beginnings (1984), the book that grew out of the lectures Welty delivered, stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for almost a year, easily countering Welty's modest assumption that no one would be interested in her private life.  However, the book is not an autobiography in the traditional sense, for it focuses mostly on her early childhood and only briefly deals with her life as an adult.  Instead, it is a memoir or meditation, a lyrical recollection of how one writer learned to see the world in such a way that she could recreate it in stories.

            The three 1983 lectures that make up the book are entitled "Listening," "Learning to See," and "Finding a Voice."  The first, the longest of the three, deals with Welty's childhood relationship to her parents.  Instead of being strictly chronological, it is structured on what Welty calls the "pulse" of childhood, for childhood's learning is not steady, she argues; rather it consists of separate yet connected moments.  Welty's emphasis in this section is on her discovery of the magic of sounds, letters, words, and talk; consequently the focus is on teachers, books, music, and films--all of which fed her hunger for the sound of story.

            "Learning to See" takes Welty out of her small hometown of Jackson, Mississippi to describe her summer trips to Ohio and West Virginia to visit the families of her parents.  In small anecdotes that could be short stories, Welty tells of her mother running into a burning house to retrieve her precious set of the novels of Charles Dickens and of her mother, at age 15, taking her own father to Baltimore because of a ruptured appendix and then bringing his body home alone on the train.  Because, as Welty says, her mother brought some of West Virginia to Mississippi with her, Welty brought some of it with her also

            The final section of the book, "Finding a Voice," deals with Welty's leaving Jackson to go to college in Wisconsin, taking her first job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a publicity agent, and writing her first stories, such as "Death of a Traveling Salesman," "Livie," "A Still Moment."  It was these stories that quickly gained the admiration of the so-called New Critics of the influential journal The Southern Review.  Because this is a book about "beginnings," it says nothing of her writing career after these early works.

            The charm and magic of One Writer's Beginning can largely be attributed to the personality of Welty herself, the model of the genteel Southern lady--gracious, kind, hospitable, and therefore irresistible.  But it is also a memorable little book because of its ability to recreate the feel of small town American life in the first two decades of the twentieth century--a time when home libraries were filled with Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and the Book of Knowledge rather than a time when family rooms were filled with televisions and computers.   Welty's ear for the dialogue of the small town South, her eye for the telling detail, and her vivid memory for the look and feel of the first two decades of the twentieth-century era make the book a minor classic.

            The central purpose of One Writer's Beginning is Welty's exploration of what it is that makes a writer become a writer and what it is that sets a writer apart from others.  Welty tries to answer these two questions in two basic ways:  by describing the actual events and details of her life that she transforms into the stuff of story and by her own meditative consideration of the meaning of these sources of her fiction making.  The central key to the secret of the writer, Welty seems to suggest, is his or her ability to determine the difference between mere events and "significant" events.  A relation of mere events may be simply a chronological retelling; however, significant events follow what Welty calls a "thread of revelation."  And that phrase perhaps is the best description of the structure of One Writer's Beginning, for the book develops a continuous related thread of individual moments of revelation and meaning.

            Some of the central points along this thread involve Welty's gradual awareness of what she calls "the voice of story."  She recalls hearing her mother read stories to her, but it is not her mother's voice she hears; she says that when she writes she hears her own words in the same voice that she hears when she reads.  Welty also recalls when neighbors were invited to go on a Sunday drive in the family car and she would sit in the back seat between her mother and a friend and say, "Now talk."  It was in this way that she learned the wonderful language she recreates in such stories as "The Petrified Man" and "Why I Lived at the P.O."

            The section of the book entitled "Learning to See" is more unified in time than the anecdotal first section, for it deals with Welty's annual summer visits to relatives in West Virginia and Ohio.  Although she never lived in these areas, she feels a strong sense of place in them, particularly the mountains of West Virginia where her mother was born and raised.  She takes obvious delight in telling stories of her mother's family, for such family stories are usually a child's first introduction to the roots of story--those revelatory moments of reality worth remembering.  If life is a series of revelations, as Welty claims, then each trip she made to her parents' roots constituted a particular revelation for her.

            In the last section, "Finding a Voice," Welty talks about the specific sources of some of her most memorable stories, usually some image, character, or phrase from which the story grows.  For example, the story "Livie," a mythical piece about youth and old age, springs from her seeing trees throughout the South that people beautified by putting brightly-colored bottles on the ends of limbs.  Her first story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," originated with a phrase she heard from a traveling man--"He's gone to borry some fire"--that took on mythological meaning for her.

            Although many experiences are too indefinite to be recognized alone, Welty says, in a story they come together and become identifiable when they take on a larger shape.  Writing develops a sense of where to look for these connections, how to follow the threads, for nothing is ever lost to memory.  Memory is a living thing, urges Welty, and all that is remembered joins and unites the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.

            As slight as One Writer's Beginning seems on the surface, it is a profound document about the beginning and the development of a writer's consciousness.  Although its stated purpose is to delineate what makes a writer different from other people, the book also implicitly deals with what makes a woman writer different from a man.  Several reviewers and critics of Welty's book have noted that in order to write, women must very early see themselves as both "subject and object" and that for Welty becoming a writer began with the discovery that language is the means by which one moves from passive object to free subject.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty contains forty-one stories--the distinguished southern writer's complete short fiction corpus.  It includes four earlier volumes--A Curtain of Green (1941), The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), The Golden Apples (1949), and The Bride of Innisfallen and Other Stories (1955)--and two New Yorker stories previously uncollected, "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" (1963) and "The Demonstrators" (1966).  In her Preface, Miss Welty, always the model of graciousness, briefly expresses her gratitude for the fact that her early stories, beginning with "Death of a Travelling Salesman," were welcomed by influential southern critics and writers, such as Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Katherine Anne Porter.

Stories from Welty's first two collections are generally better known than those from the last two, having frequently been anthologized in numerous college literature anthologies since the 1940's.  In them, Welty focuses brilliantly on the Mississippi milieu she knows so well, creating enigmatic characters and symbolic situations that combine the ordinary and the mythically meaningful in a way that has become characteristic of her best work. 

It is in these first two collections that we meet the following gallery of unforgettable women:  Ruby Fisher, who mistakes herself for an abused woman of the same name she reads about in the newspaper ("A Piece of News"); Leota and Mrs. Fletcher, who, medusa-like in a beauty parlor, metaphorically turn men into stone ("Petrified Man"); Sister, the postmistress of China Grove, who laments the return of the prodigal daughter and tries to justify her own exile ("Why I Live at the P. O."); Clytie, who ends up upside down in a rain barrel, her black-stockinged legs hung apart "like a pair of tongs" ("Clytie"); Phoenix Jackson, a never-say-die grandmother on a sacred journey to seek relief for her scarred grandson ("A Worn Path"); and Livie, who finally dares to leave the control and order of Solomon for the raw life of Cash McCord ("Livie").

Stories in Welty's last two collections, while no less magical than the first two, are less well known because they are more heavily linked to their mythical sources and therefore less accessible to the average reader.  For example, it helps to know, when reading "Shower of Gold," that Welty draws from the myth of Zeus's impregnation of Danae by visiting her in a shower of gold; and her story "Circe" will make no real sense to the reader unfamiliar with the story of Ulysses' brief stop at the island of that sorceress on his famous journey home.  Furthermore, in The Bride of Innisfallen, Welty uncharacteristically moves out of her home in the South; for example, the title story deals with a group of travelers on the way from London to Cork in Ireland, and "Going to Naples" focuses on a band of Italian-Americans on a journey to Naples.  Because these stories seem less linked to the power of place, an important element in all of Welty's best fiction, they are less magical and memorable.

Because of historical tradition and the aesthetic conventions that adhere to short narrative, short stories are less apt to focus on characters defined by their stereotypical social roles than they are by their archetypal metaphysical roles.  The short story deals with situations that compel characters to confront their essential isolation as individual human beings, not as social masks within a particular cultural context.  As a result, the women in Welty's short stories do not so much confront their social roles as women as they reveal what Welty sees as their essential roles as isolated human beings.  Such an approach, which eschews the social and the polemical and instead explores the symbolic and the metaphysical, does not lend itself to that brand of feminist criticism concerned with the wide range of social traps in which women find themselves.

For example, in "A Piece of News," although Ruby Fisher is caught in a marriage in which she is most likely abused and which allows her no sense of herself as an independent social entity, this is not Welty's concern.  When Ruby sees a story in a newspaper describing how a woman named Ruby Fisher was shot in the leg by her husband, her recognition, "That's me," followed by her elaborate, self-pitying fantasy of her death and burial, is an effort to find a sense of identity in a basic and primal way.  When her husband comes home and points out that the newspaper is from another state and swats her fondly across the backside with it, both Ruby and the reader feel a puzzling sense of loss.            

In the story "Clytie," although it is true that Clytie is a stereotyped old maid, exploited by her family and laughed at by the townspeople for her eccentricity and addled demeanor, it is not social criticism Welty focuses on here, but once again a search for primal identity.  Just as Ruby recognizes her self in the newspaper story, so does Clytie when she looks down into the mirrored surface of the rain barrel and sees her own face recoil from her look of waiting and suffering; she can think of nothing else to do but thrust her head into the "kind, featureless depth" of the water and hold it there.  It is not social isolation that Welty's women suffer from, but rather a more basic sense of separateness; and it is not social validation that they hunger for, but, as Robert Penn Warren noted several years ago in a famous essay, love that will heal the separateness and magically give them a sense of order and meaning. 

The fact that Welty's short stories do not focus on social issues as such has been one source of criticism of her short fiction and one reason why her stories have sometimes been characterized as women's writing in a pejorative stereotyped sense.  Welty's stories seem to spring more from the world of myth and story than from the real world, and the language in which they are written is often highly symbolic and allusive, therefore susceptible to being called, especially in the mid-twentieth century when such so-called masculine writers as Hemingway and Faulkner dominated literary life, somewhat "precious" and overly self-conscious.  However, as heavily loaded with metaphor and allusion as Welty's language is, and as resonant as her characters are of the world of myth, still her stories seem rooted in a strong sense of place, even if they seem eternally out of time in what she has called a "season of dreams."

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Short Story Month: Anton Chekhov and the Modern Short Story

Continuing my celebration of Short Story Month, I post the following discussion of Chekhov's contribution to the modern short story--an excerpt from a chapter in my book I Am Your Brother:  Short Story Studies.

Anton Chekhov's short stories were first welcomed in England and America just after the turn of the century as examples of late nineteenth-century realism, but because they did not embody the social commitment or political convictions of the realistic novel, they were termed "realistic" primarily because they seemed to focus on fragments of everyday reality. Consequently, they were characterized as "sketches," "slices of life," "cross-sections of Russian life," and were often said to be lacking every element that constitutes a really good well-made short story. However, at the same time, other critics saw that Chekhov's ability to dispense with a striking incident, his impressionism, and his freedom from the literary conventions of the highly plotted and formalized story marked the beginnings of a new or "modern" kind of short fiction that somehow combined the specific detail of realism with the poetic lyricism of Romanticism.

The most basic problem in understanding the Chekhovian shift to the "modern" short story involves a new definition of the notion of "story" itself, which, in turn, necessitates not only a new understanding of the kind of "experience" to be embodied in story but a new conception of character as well. Primarily this shift to the modern is marked by a transition from the romantic focus on a projective fiction, in which characters are functions in an essentially code-bound parabolic or ironic structure, to an apparently realistic episode in which plot is subordinate to "as-if-real" character. However, it should be noted that Chekhov's fictional figures are not realistic in the way that characters in the novel usually are. The short story is too short to allow for character to be created by the kind of dense detail and social interaction through duration typical of the novel.

 Conrad Aiken was perhaps the first to recognize the secret of Chekhov's creation of character. Noting that Chekhov's stories offer an unparalleled "range of states of consciousness," Aiken says that whereas Poe manipulates plot and James manipulates thought, Chekhov "manipulates feeling or mood." If, says Aiken, we find his characters have a strange way of evaporating, "it is because our view of them was never permitted for a moment to be external--we saw them only as infinitely fine and truthful sequences of mood." This apprehension of character as mood is closely related to D. S. Mirsky's understanding of the Chekhov style, which he described as "bathed in a perfect and uniform haze," and the Chekhov narrative method, which Mirsky says "allows nothing to 'happen,' but only smoothly and imperceptibly to 'become'".

Such a notion of character as mood and story as a hazy "eventless" becoming is characteristic of the modern artistic understanding of story. It is like Joseph Conrad's conception in Heart of Darkness; for his storyteller Marlowe, "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." As Eudora Welty has suggested, that the first thing we notice about the short 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.”  Once we see that the short story, by its very shortness, cannot deal with the denseness of detail and the duration of time typical of the novel, but rather focuses on a revelatory break-up of the rhythm of everyday reality, we can see how the form, striving to accommodate "realism" at the end of the nineteenth century, focused on an experience under the influence of a particular mood and therefore depended more on tone than on plot as a principle of unity.

       Rather than plot, what unifies the modern short story is an atmosphere, a certain tone of significance. The problem is to determine the source of this significance. On the one hand, it may be the episode itself, which, to use Henry James's phrase, seems to have a "latent value" that the artist tries to unveil. On the other hand, it may be the subjectivity of the teller, his perception that what seems trivial and everyday has, from his point of view, significance and meaning. There is no way to distinguish between these two views of the source of the so-called "modern" short story, for it is by the teller's very choice of seemingly trivial details and his organization of them into a unified pattern that lyricizes the story and makes it seem natural and realistic even as it embodies significance. As Georg Lukács has suggested, lyricism in the short story is pure selection which hides itself behind the hard outlines of the event; it is "the most purely artistic form; it expresses the ultimate meaning of all artistic creation as mood."

       Typical of Chekhov's minimalist stories is the often-anthologized "Misery," in which the rhythm of the old-cab driver's everyday reality is suggested by his two different fares, a rhythm Iona himself tries to break up with the news that his son is dead. The story would indeed be only a sketch if Iona did not tell his story to his uncomprehending little mare at the end. For what the story communicates is the comic and pathetic sense of the incommunicable nature of grief itself. Iona "thirsts for speech," wants to talk of the death of his son "properly, with deliberation." He is caught by the primal desire to tell a story of the break-up of his everyday reality that will express the irony he senses and that, by being deliberate and detailed, will both express his grief and control it. In this sense, "Misery" is a lament--not an emotional wailing, but rather a controlled objectification of grief and its incommunicable nature by the presentation of deliberate details.

            The story therefore illustrates one of the primary contributions Chekhov makes to the modern short story, that is, the expression of a complex inner state by presenting selected concrete details rather than by presenting either a parabolic form or by depicting the mind of the character. Significant reality for Chekhov is inner rather than outer reality, but the problem he tried to solve is how to create an illusion of inner reality by focusing on external details only. The answer for Chekhov, and thus for the modern short story generally, is to find an event that, if expressed "properly," that is, by the judicious choice of relevant details, will embody the complexity of the inner state. T. S. Eliot later termed such a technique an "objective correlative"--a detailed event, description, or characterization that serves as a sort of objectification or formula for the emotion sought for. Modern short-story writers after Chekhov made the objective correlative the central device in their development of the form.

       For Chekhov, the only way that the eternal can be achieved is aesthetically through unification with the human. It is best embodied in his two most mystic stories that deal with the nature of art: "Easter Eve" and "The Student." Both stories focus on the tension between disorder and harmony, between separation resulting from everyday reality and unity achieved by means of story and song. In an in-between time between death and resurrection, in an in-between place on the ferry between darkness and chaos, Ieronim tells his story of Brother Nikolay and his extraordinary gift of writing hymns of praise. Chekhov comes as close here as anywhere in his letters and notes to describing his own aesthetic. As Ieronim says, canticles are quite a different thing from writing histories or sermons; moreover, it is not enough to know well the life of the saint or the conventions that govern the writing of canticles. What matters, he says, is the beauty and sweetness of it:

Everything must be harmonious, brief and complete. There must be in every line softness, graciousness and tenderness; not one word should be harsh or rough or unsuitable. It must be written so that the worshipper may rejoice at heart and weep, while his mind is stirred and he is thrown into a tremor.

In contrast to the silence of the dark river and the remembered beauty of Nikolay's songs is the chaos and restlessness of the celebration that the narrator enters, where everyone is too caught up in the "childishly irresponsible joy, seeking a pretext to break out and vent itself in some movement, even in senseless jostling and shoving" to listen to the songs of Nikolay. The narrator looks for the dead brother, but does not regret not seeing him. "God knows, perhaps if I had seen him I should have lost the picture my imagination paints for me now." Indeed, it is the creation of Nikolay in the narrator's imagination that justifies Ieronim's story, just as it is Nikolay's songs that sustain Ieronim. For the key to the eternal for Chekhov is the artwork that serves to unify human experience; thus Ieronim sees the face of his brother in the face of everyone.

 "The Student" begins with a sense of disorder and lack of harmony. However, it is once again song or story that serves to heal a fractured sense of reality. After he tells the story of the Last Supper and Peter's denial of Christ, which itself takes up about one third of this very short story, he says he imagines Peter weeping, "the still, still, dark, dark, garden, and in the stillness, faintly audible, smothered sobbing." And with this final imaginative projection, the power of the story affects the two listeners. The student says the fact that they are affected must mean that what happened to Peter has some relation to them, to the present, to the desolate village, to himself, and to all people. The widow wept not because of the way he told the tale, but "because her whole being was interested in what was passing in Peter's soul."

       Although the story does not reveal what is passing through Peter's soul, it compels the reader/listener to sympathetically identify with Peter in his complex moment of realization. Indeed the revelation of character by means of story presentation of a crucial moment in which the reader must then imaginatively participate is the key to Chekhov's much discussed "objectivity" and yet "sympathetic" presentation. The student thus feels joy at the sense of an unbroken chain running from the past to the present. He feels that "truth and beauty" which had guided life there in the garden had continued without interruption "and had evidently always been the chief thing in human life and in all earthly life . . . and life seemed to him enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning." As in "Easter Eve," here we see the only means by which Chekhov feels that the eternal can be achieved, through the aesthetic experience and sense of unity that story and song create.

       The charge often made against the Chekhovian story--that it is dehumanized and therefore cold and unfeeling--has been made about the short story as a form since Hawthorne was criticized for his "bloodless" parables. However, such a charge ignores the nature of art that has characterized Western culture since the early nineteenth century and which Ortega y Gasset so clearly delineated in The Dehumanization of Art. In their nostalgia for the bourgeois security of nineteenth-century realism, critics of the short story forget that the royal road to art, as Ortega delineates is, is "the will to style." And to stylize "means to deform reality, to derealize: style involves dehumanization." Given this definition of art, it is easy to see that the short story as a form has always embodied "the will to style." The short story writer realizes that the artist must not confuse reality with idea, that he must inevitably turn his back on alleged reality and, as Ortega insists, "take the ideas for what they are--mere subjective patterns--and make them live as such, lean and angular, but pure and transparent."

       With Chekhov, the short story took on a new respectability and began to be seen as the most appropriate narrative form to reflect the modern temperament. There can be no understanding of the short story without an understanding of Chekhov's contribution to the form.  Conrad Aiken's assessment of him in 1921 has yet to be challenged: "possibly the greatest writer of the short story who has ever lived."

Friday, May 2, 2014

Isak Dinesen:" Seven Gothic Tales"

  Isak Dinesen is probably the most influential champion in the twentieth century of the primitive power of story.  In "The Cardinal's First Tale," Dinesen's Cardinal makes a distinction between "story" and a new art of narration which, for the sake of realism and individual characters, sacrifices the story.  Whereas this "novel" literature, the Cardinal says, is a human product, "the divine art is the story.  In the beginning was the story."  And within our whole universe, he continues, "the story only has authority to answer that cry of heart of its characters, that one cry of heart of each of them: 'Who am I?'"
By story" I understand the Cardinal to mean that same linguistic phenomenon which Claude Lévi-Strauss refers to as myth--that "part of language where the formula traduttore, tradittore reaches its lowest truth value," for its "substance does not lie in its style, its original music, or its syntax, but in the story which it tells. Story means that which the Russian Formalists defined as the sequence of actions existing prior to and independent of any particular discursive presentation of the events, and thus to be distinguished from plot, "sujet," or discourse.
            Karen Blixen had been working on the stories that make up Seven Gothic Tales for ten years before she tried to get them published in English under the masculine name Isak Dinesen.  After being turned down by three publishers she sent the manuscript to American writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who liked it so much that she urged a publisher friend of hers to publish it, even though no one really believed that it would make any money.  However, when the book appeared in January 1933, it was not only enthusiastically received by critics, it was chosen as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month-Club and eagerly snapped up by readers.

            The title of the collection is in some ways a misnomer, for there are many more tales here than seven; Dinesen, like the medieval and romantic storytellers from whom she draws her inspiration, often makes use of the insert tale; thus, her stories contain tales within tales within tales.  Dinesen's plots are often so complex that they are difficult to describe briefly, but since plot is so important in the Gothic romance in general and in Dinesen's stories in particular, a short summary of some of the stories is necessary to get some idea of their thematic implications.

            The first story in the American edition of Seven Gothic Tales, "The Deluge at Norderney," has been called one of Dinesen's most characteristic tales because it contains so many of her typical themes and motifs.  The story takes place in 1835 when a great storm strikes a summer resort on the coast of Denmark.  A famous Cardinal, Hamilcar von Sehestedt, is trapped in a farmhouse with three others awaiting rescue: the eccentric Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag, her companion the young Countess Calypso, and a young man.  In the tradition of Boccaccio's Decameron, the four tell stories while they wait.  Discovering a spiritual union as a result of their stories, the two young people are joined in marriage by the Cardinal, who then reveals he is not the Cardinal, but rather Kasperson, the Cardinal's secretary, a former actor.  Miss Malin "marries" him in a spiritual union just before the water reaches them.

            "The Old Chevalier" is a story told by a Danish nobleman, Baron von Brackel, about his adventure one wintery night in Paris in 1874 when his mistress tried to poison him.  Escaping into the night, he encounters a young girl who he takes to his apartment.  Although their lovemaking is idyllic, on awakening, the Baron  asks what he must pay for the experience.  When the girl asks for twenty francs, the ideal of the night before becomes the cold reality of daylight.

            "The Monkey" is a supernatural story in which the Prioress of a secular convent tries to get her young nephew, Boris, who has been involved in a homosexual scandal in his regiment, married to Athena, the gigantic daughter of a count.  The young woman refuses to marry Boris until, following her to her room one night, he forces her to kiss him--an attack that takes on all the implications of a rape in the light of the following day.  The climactic scene occurs when the Prioress's pet monkey jumps on her and tears off her cap, revealing that she is the monkey disguised as the Prioress, whereas the monkey is really the true Prioress of the Cloister.

            "Supper at Elsinore" focuses on two sisters who, after the disappearance of their brother, remain old maids.  When the ghost of the brother appears when they are in their fifties and tells them of his adventurous life as a pirate who has had five different wives, they must confront the ghostliness of their own lives. 

            "The Dreamers" is about the greatest opera singer of all time, Pellegrina Leoni, who loses her voice in a theater fire and take up a life of wandering under various disguises.  Three different men tell stories of their encounters with three different beautiful women, only to discover that all three were Pellegrina.  Pursued by the men, Pellegrina jumps over a precipice and dies.

             The word "Gothic" in the title does not primarily refer to the Medieval Gothic tradition, but to its romantic revival in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries, specifically identified in the imagination of Isak Dinesen with Horace Walpole, the author of the gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, and Lord Byron, the great romantic poet.  Seeing this period as the "last great phase of aristocratic culture," Dinesen has said that she set her tales in the past because it was a finished world, a world that she could easily "recompound" in her own imagination and one in which her readers would not be tempted to look for realism.  As is typical of the gothic romance form, the characters in these stories are less realistic individuals than they are representatives of basic human desires and fears.

            And indeed it is the romance form of Dinesen's stories that has always drawn readers to them--not the romance associated with the cheap gothic thriller or the romantic melodrama, but rather the romance of the nineteenth-century decadence of Baudelaire and Huysman.  Dinesen has often been compared with Scherazade, the mother of all storytellers in The Arabian Nights, because of her fantastic plots and inset stories; but she has also been compared to Henry James for her psychological insight and her careful use of language.

            Dinesen's stories are not about time-bound social issues, but rather about timeless universal desires.  The one-night relationship of Baron von Brackel and the young woman he meets on the street in "The Old Chevalier" represents a basic human yearning for the actualization of the ideal.  "The Monkey" is an allegorical tale about the split between human spirituality and physicality.  The sisters' desire for their brother in "Supper at Elsinore" is not a realistic treatment of incest, but rather a romantic and symbolic embodiment of narcissism and idealism.

            Dinesen's stories can only be understood in terms of the Kantian philosophic foundation that underlies and informs them.  Her aesthetic point of view affirms that art is more real than everyday reality, that identity is never absolute but always shifting, that life is like a marionette theater in which we live in plots determined by God, and that the quest for the ideal is the inevitable heroic gesture that must end in inevitable tragi-comic conclusion.  What readers looking for realism have criticized as Dinesen's focus on aristocratic decadence and sexual perversion is but the means by which Dinesen explores basic human desire.

            It is for these philosophic reasons that Dinesen's stories are often about fiction-making and storytelling.  In following her fantastic stories within stories, the reader becomes increasing cut off from ordinary reality, entering into a world of pure creation and imagination.  Dinesen's gothic tales are the stuff that dreams are made on--not dreams that allow escape from reality, but rather those that plunge one deeper into the very heart of darkness that is the human psyche.

            Because of the fantastic, romantic nature of her stories and the elegant, aristocratic stature of Dinesen herself, she has become almost an iconic image of the archetypal storyteller--a wise elfin creature--more than a little witch-like--who has the magical ability to create self-sustaining worlds that, even as they strike us with their strangeness, evoke some deep sense of recognition of the mysteries that lies at the very heart of all human kind.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Walter Benjamin: "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov"

Although the sub-title of Walter Benjamin's storytelling essay, from Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, 1968, suggests that its focus is on the fiction of the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, what Benjamin actually develops in the essay is a definition of the nature of storytelling--an art which he laments is coming to an end for various sociological reasons. The essay lists what Benjamin considers to be the primary characteristics of the storyteller and examines each one in turn, both in theoretical and historical terms and as evidenced by the fiction of Leskov. Benjamin examines the sources of storytelling, analyzes its basic characteristics, points out its differences from other similar narrative forms, suggests what in human experience gives it its most basic authority, and laments nostalgically its inevitable passing away in the modern world.

The first criteria of storytelling Benjamin describes is its oral nature; moreover, he says, of those who write down stories the best ones are those who most closely stick to a simulation of this oral source.  Benjamin says there are two basic types of oral storytellers--those who come from afar and tell of their adventures (embodied in the figure of the travelling seaman) and those who stay at home and tell of events there (as represented by the stationary farmer). The second characteristic of the storyteller is an orientation toward practical interests; all stories contain something useful, Benjamin argues, whether that useful information is obvious and on the surface or whether it is embedded within the narrative in some way. Thus, stories do not derive from idle gossip or even from the need to recount interesting experiences, but rather they spring from a basic human need to recount real-life examples of trying to cope with the mystery of human reality.

However, storytelling is dying out, says Benjamin; we no longer seem to have the ability to exchange experiences. He offers several historical and sociological reasons for storytelling's demise. The most basic reason for the death of storytelling is the fact that the communicability of experience itself is dying out; thus storytelling, which always offers counsel, has no more place in the modern world.  Indeed, wisdom itself, which Benjamin defines as counsel woven into the fabric of life and thus which has its origins in storytelling, is dying out. This process, which Benjamin links to the increasingly secular forces of history, have gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech.

The rise of the novel is one of the primary symptoms of the decline of storytelling, Benjamin suggests.  For the novel is quite different from the story in that it neither comes from the oral tradition, nor does it go into it.  Whereas the birthplace of the story is the teller's experience, the novel begins with the solitary self.  Whereas the story springs from orality, the novel is bound to the form of a book. Whereas the storyteller takes his story from experience, either his own or what he has heard from others, the novelist is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concern.

Furthermore, Benjamin says, another form of communication has come to predominate in the modern world which threatens storytelling even more seriously than the novel; that is, "information," by which Benjamin means primarily the information of the news media. The difference between the forms of storytelling and forms of news information, argues Benjamin, is that whereas storytelling always had a validity that required no external verification, information must be accessible to immediate verification. Storytelling differs from information in that storytelling does not aim to convey the pure essence of the experience in some distilled way, but rather imbues the story with the life of the storyteller. Aspects of the storyteller cling to the story; this is the reason why many storytellers begin with the circumstances by which they have gained access to the story they are about to tell.

This distinction between storytelling and information points to one of the primary differences between the "truth" of story and the truth of other forms of explanation characteristic of discursive writing.  Whereas, in such forms of discourse as history, sociology, psychology, etc, the aim of the work is to abstract from concrete experience so that a distilled discursive meaning remains, in story, the truth is somehow communicated by a recounting of the concrete experience itself in such a way that the truth is revealed by the details of the story, not by abstract explanation. The story has a compactness that defies psychological analysis; in fact the less psychological shading the story has the more the listener will remember it and tell it to someone else later on, says Benjamin.

Whereas story is borrowed from the miraculous and does not demand plausibility or conformity to the laws of external reality, information must be plausible and conform to such laws.  When stories come to us through information, they are already loaded down with explanation, says Benjamin; it is half the art of storytelling to be free from information.  Because the reader of story is free to interpret things the way he understands them, story has an amplitude lacking in information.

Another basic difference between story and information is that whereas the value of information does not survive the moment of its newness, a story is so concentrated that it retains its truth power for a long time.  Moreover, story stays in the memory and compels the listener to tell it to someone.  In fact, insists Benjamin, it might be said that storytelling is the art of repeating stories, for when the rhythm of the story seizes the reader he listens in such a way that the ability to retell it comes by itself.

However, Benjamin does not spend the entire essay focusing on such external characteristics of story as how it is transmitted. He is also concerned with what gives storytelling its validity, since he insists that, unlike information, it does not require external verification. Instead, the story finds its validity in the awareness of death, says Benjamin.  One's wisdom and real life, the very stuff of stories, become transmissible at the moment of death, and thus death is the sanction for whatever the storyteller tells, for death is storytelling's ultimate authority.  However, since increasingly modern man has become distanced from the actual experience of death, Benjamin argues, we can see another reason why the art of storytelling is coming to an end.  Whereas dying once was a public process for the individual, in modern times death has been pushed out of the perception of the living. In deriving its ultimate validity from death, Benjamin argues, story faces ultimate reality, not immediate reality; that is, story deals with man's most basic existential situation in the world.

In describing the craftsmanship required of story, Benjamin cites Paul Valery, who notes that nature creates perfection through a long chain of causes; man once imitated nature, says Valery, by elaborating things to perfection, but he does so no longer. Modern man is only concerned with dealing with what can be abbreviated and abstracted; he is no longer concerned with telling stories by the layering of various retellings so that multiple experiences of storytellers can imbue the story with concrete human meaning.

Benjamin also sets up a distinction between the chronicler and the historian to clarify his definition of storytelling.  Whereas the historian must explain the happenings he describes, the chronicler is content with displaying the events as models of the course of the world. Whereas the chronicler bases his tales on a divine plan of salvation and thus is relieved of the burden of explanation, the historian is bound to the abstraction process that explanation demands. The storyteller preserves the nature of the chronicle, Benjamin says, albeit, in a secularized form.

The most basic relationship between the storyteller and the listener, Benjamin argues, is the listener's need to retain the story so that he can reproduce it.  There is a crucial difference between the way memory is manifested in the novel and the way it is manifested in the story, Benjamin says.  Memory is that which creates the chain that passes story from one generation to the next, much as a web is created in which one story ties on to the next.  What distinguishes memory in story from memory in the novel is the perpetuating "remembrance" of the novelist as contrasted with the short-lived "reminiscences" of the storyteller.  Whereas the remembrance of the novel is bound to one hero and one journey, the reminiscences of the storyteller encompass many diffuse occurrences.

As a result, story focuses on the relatively concrete "moral of the story," while the novel focuses on the more abstract "meaning of life."  The first true storyteller, says Benjamin, is the teller of fairy tales, for the fairy tale provides good counsel. According to Benjamin, whereas realistic narrative forms such as the novel focus on the relatively limited areas of human experience that indeed can be encompassed by information, characters in fairy tales or stories encounter those most basic mysteries of human experience which cannot be explained by rational means, but which can only be embodied in myth.  The wisest thing the fairy tale teaches is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and high spirits.  What the fairy tale, and therefore the tale, does is to tell us how to deal with all that which we cannot understand.

The storyteller is of the same company as that of teachers and sages, says Benjamin, for the storyteller has counsel for many based on a lifetime of experience.  The gift of the storyteller is the gift of relating his life, for he is able to fashion the raw material of experience, both his own and the experience of others, in a solid and useful way. It is therefore unfortunate, says Benjamin, that storytelling, that is, the ability to exchange experiences is being slowly taken from us.

Because Benjamin has so often been identified with Marxist criticism, many critics and readers who are either hostile or indifferent to Marxism have not studied this essay very carefully.  Its real value lies not in its assertion of Marxist values, either socially or aesthetically, nor does it lie in its analysis of Leskov, for that is but a minor  part of the piece, but rather in the suggestions it offers about the basic nature of narrative, particularly the primal nature of story as opposed to the more recent realistic narrative characteristic of the novel form.  No one who wishes to understand the basic nature of story can really afford to ignore Walter Benjamin's profound study of the storyteller.