Monday, September 30, 2013

Introduction to "I Am Your Brother": Short Story Studies (Part II)

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a “parable” in the same sense as Hawthorne’s short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil.” It is not a simple story from which a moral lesson can be drawn, but rather a verbal construct that presents basic Enigma, essential Mystery. The minister puts on the black veil that shuts him off from the rest of the world as a symbolic objectification of what he has realized to be implicitly true. It is the townspeople’s intuitive awareness of that reality that strikes fear into their hearts when they see the veil. At only one point of the story does the minister almost forget the significance of the veil. While attending a wedding, he raises his glass as a toast to the happiness of the bride and groom, but seeing himself in the mirror, he is reminded of the basic separation of all human beings and spills the wine untasted. Because of this realization, the minister cannot drink the toast, nor can the Wedding-Guest celebrate the ceremony.

The Cain and Abel story, as echoed in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” has been invoked in many twentieth-century short stories. Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” which I discuss in another chapter in this book, is one of the most famous examples. Another highly regarded “love and separateness” story is Carson McCullers' “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” Paul Engles, in the Introduction to the 1942 O'Henry Award Prize Stories, said he considered it "the most perfect short story in American Literature." Although this may sound extreme for such a seemingly slight narrative, there is something classic about the basic character configuration and theme of the story. The enclosed situation of the cafe in the early morning, the confrontation between the young initiate and the experienced older man; the cynical and ironic observer, the silent chorus of men in the background--all this suggest an archetypal short story situation. The story's focus on loneliness and the difficulty of loving corresponds to Frank O'Connor's famous definition of the short story in The Lonely Voice.

The narrative situation of the story is simple; what needs to be understood is the notion of love that it presents. McCullers provides a suggestion about what she means by love in her essay, "The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing”: "How, without love and the intuition that comes from love, can a human being place himself in the situation of another human being? He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage” (163).

If we ask why it is easier to love a tree, a rock, a cloud than it is to love a person, the answer must be that love is indeed synonymous with identification with the other. The aim of love is to dissolve that which separates us by swallowing up, or being swallowed up by, the other. It requires what philosopher Ernst Cassirer calls primitive man’s “deep conviction of a fundamental and indelible solidarity of life that bridges over the multiplicity and variety of its single forms” (Essay on Man 82).

Mircea Eliade uses the term “hierophany,” meaning “something sacred shows itself,” the most elementary being a manifestation of the sacred in a stone or a tree and highest being of God in Jesus Christ (Sacred and Profane 10). Loving another person is difficult because the other is a subjective consciousness who wishes to maintain self-identity. However, as the transient tells the puzzled boy, one can gradually learn to identify with the other if one begins simply with the less threatening. McCullers’ story is about that primitive sense of the sacred that constitutes true reality, the basic religious yearning of human consciousness to lose the self in the other. The cynical observer Leo knows the transient is right, but he also knows that such a demand is impossible for the ordinary human; the boy, of course, has yet to learn this hard fact of human reality.

 If the “I-Thou” is inborn, as Buber says, it exists in that realm of the individual and the race that predates consciousness of the self, and therefore can exist for human beings only as an ideal, for which we yearn. Humans are continuously possessed by this desire for unity, which our very reason makes impossible, which is why the Romantics, of course, decried the deification of reason in the eighteenth century and wished to reinstate imagination in its place, imagination that transcended reason and made strange that which was so seemingly familiar. And since imagination is the leading aesthetic idea of the Romantics, love or sympathy became its leading moral idea—a basic yearning for the underlying unity of all things that springs forth in moments of what Abraham Maslow called “peak experience,” or what Wordsworth in the Prelude called "spots of time."

If the boundary between inner experience and external reality is established at the same time that consciousness of the self and thus the world of objects outside the self is established, then as far as the adult civilized human being is concerned, this primal state of at-oneness can neither be experienced nor understood except by means of an imaginative “as if” or fiction which he or she can either seek or be seized by.

"In the beginning was the Word," says John, "and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . .And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us….” The Incarnation, prefigured in the Creation and Fall, offers human beings the opportunity to be reunited with all that from which the Fall separated them, to regain that primal oneness of being and perception they experienced before the knowledge of object permanence. The ideal that will enable human beings to reenter paradise lies in the central message of Christ: "Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind, and soul, and thy neighbor as thyself.”  For to love the Lord is to love all other selves and to love the neighbor as the self is, in the supreme imaginative fiction, to perceive the neighbor as indistinct from the self.

William James says in The Varieties of Religious Experience that there is a common nucleus of all religions—an uneasiness that “there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand” (221). The solution is a sense that “we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.” And German theologian Rudolph Bultmann says “There is no obedience to God which does not have to prove itself in the concrete situation of meeting one’s neighbor… The demand for love surpasses every legal demand; it knows no boundary or limit (18).

The human dilemma is that we are always caught between the demands of our deepest wish for unity and the demands of our social being for self-assertion--which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation. The unconscious is where "reality" resides, says Eliade. The human search to know it is equivalent to the desire of the religious man to live in the sacred, which is, "equivalent to his desire to take up his abode in objective reality… to live in a real and effective world, and not in an illusion” (Sacred and Profane 28).

This tension constitutes fiction's chief resemblance to life, says C. S. Lewis: "In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied" (91). For Lewis, life and art reflect each other, for both embody the tension between our desire for a state and our despair of ever catching that state in our everyday net of time and event. This characterization of a tension-filled life and art is of course a religious one, regardless of whether we use William James's basic definition of the religious impulse as stemming from a feeling that "there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand" or Mircea Eliade's definition of homo religiosus as one whose desire to live in the sacred is equivalent to the desire to live in objective reality. 

"Dancing After Hours" is one of Dubus's finest "shared rituals," a communion in which the characters--reflections of us all in our lonely and fragile flesh--transcend mere externalities through spiritual union. This is one of the great romantic themes of the short story since its beginning, a religious theme that originated in the early nineteenth century and which has been illuminated brilliantly by the form up to the present day.

Emily Moore, the central character in "Dancing After Hours," a forty-year old bartender in a town in Massachusetts, has always wanted a pretty face, but has lacked "the mysterious proportion" of such; her belief that she was homely as a girl and a young woman has "deeply wounded her."  This is not a trivial injury. Typical of the musical way the short story communicates matters of the spirit, all the characters in the story echo this theme. Like the old waiter in Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," another waitress, Rita, hates to go home alone. Emily knows that the waitress Kay is falling in love with Rita; she imagines her walking into her apartment, listening to her answering machine with both hope and dread.

Indeed, it is Emily's ability to imagine the secret lives of the other characters--which reflects Dubus's own ability to empathize with his characters--that makes the story such a communal triumph. At night when she cannot sleep, Emily reads and, like all readers, is opened to the world by the women, men, and children on the pages. In a wonderful echo of Joyce's "The Dead," Dubus says that though Emily's sorrow remains, she is consoled as she "became one with the earth and its creatures: its dead, its living, its living after her own death; one with the sky and water, and with a single leaf falling from a tree."

The theme of the external that separates and spirit that unites is echoed in Emily's memory of the blind musician Roland Kirk, who in a small club twenty years before, told the crowd that it was nice coming to work blind: "Not seeing who's fat or skinny. Ugly. Or pretty."  When he comes off the stage and puts his arm around Emily to dance, she understands what it is "to love without the limits of seeing; so to love without the limits of the flesh."  When he hugs her, she does not feel like a woman in the embrace of a man; "she melded; she was music." 

This is, of course, the brilliant central metaphor of the story--the dance, which, even as it is intensely physical, strives to transcend the physical, the dancer mysteriously dissolving into the dance itself. The sky dive Drew tells about likewise embodies an effort to escape the deadly effect of gravity and transcend the body. And though all this communal sharing and memory there is the music: the singing of Frank Sinatra, the saxophone of Paul Desmond.

Short stories revolve around their central theme as in a piece of music, repeating with variations. Jess, the manager of the bar, still somewhat dazed after his wife of twenty-three years left him, tells Emily about a friend made a quadriplegic in Viet Nam; Jeff says the man knew that his body was his enemy and that when he fought it he lost. "What he had to do was ignore it. That was the will. That was how he was happy."  Emily watches her "pretty friends" dance in a magical moment that is truly "after hours," as if time has stood still and no one wants it to start again. Kay says, "Let’s go to my house, and dance all night."  In the wee small hours of the morning, the group reluctantly separate, but not completely. Drew promises to return. Emily watches Rita drive away with Kay and feels tender and hopeful for them. Jeff and Emily make plans to go fishing and share a meal. In the end, which is a beginning, Emily reaches through the window and squeezes Jeff's hand. "Then she drove east, smelling the ocean on the wind moving her hair."

What we ask of the story, says American poet Randall Jarrell, is that it satisfy our wish, and the wish is the first truth about us, "since it represents not that learned principle of reality which half-governs our workaday hours, but the primary principle that governs infancy, sleep, daydreams--and, certainly, many stories.” As Freud well knew, says Jarrell, the root of all stories is "in Grimm, not in La Rouchefoucauld; in dreams, not in cameras and tape recorders" (35). As many artists have noted and short stories will testify, the source of story lies indeed in myth, folk tale, fairy tale, and thus in dreams--not in the concept of external reality that most often constitutes the novel.

The important distinction that must be made is between narratives that strive to make the realm of value seem temporal, and thus graspable by experience and reason, and narratives that strive to transform the temporal into the transcendent. What I wish to suggest in this book is that the novel is a form dominated primarily by the first impulse, whereas the short story, at its most successful, is dominated by the second. Depiction of the first process requires temporal development, a slow process of "as if" lived experience in a world of objects, social relationships, and conceptual frameworks. It must have the bigness of a comprehensive theory of the whole human being facing the whole world. Depiction of the second process, on the other hand, focuses on the moment, an instantaneous single experience that in its immediacy challenges social and conceptual frameworks.

There are therefore two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: the one, that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenal, sensate, and logical relation--a realm that the novel has always taken for its own--and the other, that involves single experiences that challenge reality as simply sensate and reasonable--a realm that has dominated the short story since its beginnings. The novel involves an active search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is ultimately conceptually accepted, based on the experiences one has undergone. The short story takes a character who has reached, or is in the process of reaching, for such a conceptual identity through reason, experience, or a combination of both, and confronts him or her with the world of yearning or anxiety, which then challenges that sense of identity achieved by reason and everyday experience.

Many thinkers have noted this primal spiritual impulse of storytelling. Short fiction is a fundamental form because the earliest stories focused on the human transformative encounter with the sacred. Narrative in its primal origins is of "an experience" concretely felt, not "experience" generally conceived; the short story still retains that primal aspect.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Introduction to "I Am Your Brother": Short Story Studies (Part I)


rank O'Connor opens his book The Lonely Voice by arguing that the short story has always "functioned in a quite different way from the novel,” insisting that however difficult it may be to describe that difference, describing it is the critic's “principle business" (14).

This is not a popular academic notion in the early twenty-first century when considerations of genre and artistic form are overlooked in favor of social and cultural issues. Few have taken O’Connor’s theories about the short story in The Lonely Voice seriously. Perhaps because O'Connor's ideas are largely intuitive, critics have not thought it worthwhile to follow up his perceptions and ground them in a comprehensive theory. American author Richard Ford is a happy exception in his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Short Story, calling The Lonely Voice “the most provocative and attentive” study there is on the form (vii-xxii).

In his Introduction, O’Connor cites the passage in Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat” when a young clerk in Akakey Akakeivitch’s office recognizes the little man’s humanity. Akakey cries out to his colleagues, "`Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?' and in those heart-rending words he heard others, 'I am your brother’." O'Connor says if one wanted an alternative title for a study of the short story, he might choose the phrase, "I Am Your Brother" (16). I like to think that Frank O’Connor would approve my taking that sentence as the title of my own book, for I have always thought that what he grasped is the central way the short story maps its characteristic world.

Admitting it is a bad phrase, but that he has no other, O’Connor then introduces his controversial term "submerged population group," before leaping to the most provocative theory in his book:

Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society . . .. As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel--an intense awareness of human loneliness. Indeed, it might be truer to say that while we often read a familiar novel again for companionship, we approach the short story in a very different mood. It is more akin to the mood of Pascal's saying: Le silence eternal de ces espaces infinis m’effraie. (19)

Some recent cultural critics have appropriated the notion of the submerged population group, assigning it to postcolonial and marginalized societies. However, O’Connor is more interested in the formal implications of this theme—particularly how the management of time creates form in fiction. The chronological development of character or incident constitutes what O'Connor calls "essential form" as we see it in life, adding that the novelist "flouts it as his peril." But for the short-story writer there is no such thing as essential form, for he must always be selecting some point. Because the moment is chosen so carefully, it must be lit by an “unearthly glow,” says O'Connor (22).

My own experience with reading and teaching the short story leads me to agree. However, what needs to be explored is what it is about the very nature of the short story that makes it focus on characters outside of a specific concrete cultural/historical context. O'Connor is not the first, nor the last to make this suggestion. In the early nineteenth century, when the German novelle--the short fiction form that predates Poe's stories and theories--was being developed, Friedrich Schlegel said that the novelle is like a story "torn away from any cultural background” (Bennett 9).

As Frank O'Connor recognized, this trans-cultural character of the short story seems related to the typical kind of characters usually found in short stories, who are more apt to be like emotional “gestures” or lyrical embodiments of feeling than actual people in the world. Part of the reason for this may be that short stories often present characters in a crisis situation, and as American writer George P. Elliott once said in a discussion of the form, "At the brink, people are apt to behave much alike, less according to their personal nature than according to human nature generally." This is related to the short story’s primitive origins in myth, which, as Mircea Eliade has suggested, narrates, "all the primordial events in consequence of which man became what he is today…. Myth teaches him the primordial stories that have constituted him existentially” (Myth and Reality 11-12).

I believe that what Frank O’Connor has perceived about the central focus of the short story as a genre is the primordial story that constitutes human beings existentially--their basic sense of aloneness and their yearning for union. As British literary theorist Roger Poole once pointed out, according to phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, the problem is the enigma of the other, for I can only see from the other’s point of view what I would have seen if I were there in the same place.  Poole cites Paul Ricoeur as noting, that the “as if I were over there” does not permit introducing the “here’ of the other into my sphere.” My “here” and the other’s “over there” are mutually exclusive (Ricoeur, 131). As Poole concludes, since “There is no way of knowing what the other actually sees, feels, intends, as if I were he, we are born into solipsism” (130).

The human yearning that this would be otherwise is best expressed by Austrian Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. "In the beginning," says Buber, "is relation as category of being, readiness, grasping form, mould for the soul; it is the  ”a priori of relation, the inborn Thou" (27). Studies in anthropology and child psychology support Buber's assertion that both in the history of the race and in the development of the individual, the “Thou” relation precedes the “It” perception, but only in a primal undifferentiated universe from which the adult civilized human is excluded except by means of an aesthetic or religious "as if,” i.e. a story or myth.

According to Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, the young baby itself constitutes its sole reality because the baby's universe contains no permanent object, no “It” and therefore no “I” except the total and unconscious egocentric self. Piaget tells us that the baby's objectless universe is made up of "shifting and unsubstantial `tableaux’ that appear and are then totally reabsorbed." However, during the second year of life, a kind of "Copernican revolution" takes place in the child, a general decentering process during which the child begins to perceive the self as an object in a universe made up of permanent objects, a universe in which causality is localized in space and objectified in things (14).

Buber describes this realization in terms that suggest its metaphysical and moral implications:

This actual event is the separation of the human body, as the bearer of its perceptions, from the world round about it . . .whenever the sentence “I see the tree” is so uttered that it no longer tells of a relation between the man and the tree, but establishes the perception of the tree as object by the human consciousness, the barrier between subject and object has been set up. The primary word “I-It,” the word of separation, has been spoken (23).

Thus arises, says Buber, the "melancholy of our fate" in the earliest history of both the race and the individual.

In Western culture, the origins of this separation in the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel in the Old Testament have always fascinated poets and storytellers. Major critics agree that the stories of the Fall of Adam and Eve and the crime of the outcast wanderer Cain are central myths of Romantic literature. It is perhaps no accident that the short story, as we know it today, received its most important impetus in the early nineteenth century. Robert Langbaum says that the Romantics see the Fall in much the same way that Piaget sees the young child's early development, that is, as a fall of perception--"a fall into analytic fragmentation of a world which was once perceived singly, a world in which subject and object, fact and value . . .had no separate name" (51) The primal story in the Judeo-Christian tradition that exemplifies the separation of human beings, one from the other, is, of course, the story of Cain and Abel—a story centrally embodied in the archetypal Romantic narrative of the discovery of separation and the obsessive need to implicate the other--Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Cain’s murder of his brother is the first sin of one human being against another in the Old Testament. But it is a sin that is only possible because of the Original Sin of humankind against God. As a result of eating the apple, Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden—separated from the God and nature with which they were formerly at one. However, perhaps the most far-reaching result of the Fall is the separation of human beings from one another. As Erich Fromm suggests in The Art of Loving, when Adam and Eve see their nakedness and seek to cover themselves, they do so not because of bodily shame and prudery, but because they have become aware of themselves as separate beings. The realization that they are no longer one causes their shame, guilt, and anxiety (47.)

The story of Cain and Abel dramatizes the inevitable result of this separation; it recounts a series of cumulative symbolic objectifications of the implicit reality that results from the Fall. Both Cain and Abel bring offerings to the Lord, each according to his own ability and resources. Abel brings the “firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof” and Cain brings the “fruit of the ground.” However, “The Lord had respect unto Abel and his offering: But unto Cain and his offering he had not respect.” No real explanation is given for God’s making this distinction between the two brothers. Cain has given his best just as Abel has. It is certainly not, as many casual readers think, that Cain offered rotten fruit. Moreover, simply to attribute the distinction to the historical notion that the Old Testament God was partial to blood sacrifices trivializes the symbolic significance of a powerful story.

God’s distinction may be better understood as an explicit objectification of what is implicit in the Fall: All human beings, even brothers, are ultimately separate. By this act, God says, “You are separate from one another. It is therefore possible to make a distinction between you.” Cain reacts to this knowledge by testing it in the extreme—by rising up against his brother Abel and slaying him. Cain kills Abel because he can, because he is separate from him, because he is fallen and thus free to do so. God’s response is, of course, to make Cain the original symbol of isolated humanity, by cutting him off from others completely: “a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.” Thus begins the nightmare reality of human isolation--a reality that makes one horrifyingly free to slay his brother because he is separate from him.

Just as the short story of Cain and Abel is one of Western Culture’s primal myths, so also is Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” a prototype of the modern short story since the nineteenth century. The Ancient Mariner kills the albatross for the same reason that Cain kills Abel—simply because he can, because he is free to do so. This is how the slaying of the albatross reenacts the “Mystery of the Fall” as Robert Penn Warren suggests in his essay “Poem of Pure Imagination.” However, the Mariner does not kill the bird as a violation of the “One Life,” as Warren argues, but rather as an affirmation of the Separation of Life. He simply tests and makes explicit what is already implicit in the Fallen World—the separation of human beings and one’s freedom to kill his brother, in this case, an albatross that is hailed by the sailors “As if it had been a Christian soul.”

The only support for the view that the killing of the albatross is a violation of the “One Life” is the assumption that the nightmarish events that follow the act are the Mariner’s punishment. However, it is no more necessary to assume that the Mariner’s nightmarish voyage is a punishment than it is to assume that Ivan Ilych’s death in Tolstoy’s paradigmatic story or Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis in Kafka’s iconic parable are punishments. Is Ivan Ilych being punished, or is he being made aware of the contingency of self that he had ignored before? Is Gregor being punished, or is he being made aware, by means of a symbolic objectification, of his basic human condition?

When Coleridge was questioned about the moral of his poem, he asked in return, what indeed is the moral of the Arabian Night’s tale of the merchant who, throwing aside his date shells, is suddenly confronted by a genii who says, “he must kill the aforesaid merchant because one of the date shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the genie’s son?” (Raysor, 88.) Coleridge’s italicized emphasis of the words must and because indicate the irony of his response to one reader’s objection that “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” had no moral. And of course it does have no more moral than the Arabian Night’s tale. There is no necessity or causality in what the genie does following the discarding of the date shells, no moral at all. The genie is the impingement upon the merchant of what Albert Camus calls in The Myth of Sisyphus the “primitive hostility” of the world; it is the world becoming itself again. “That stage scenery masked by habit becomes again what it is. It withdraws at a distance from us… Just one thing: that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd” (14). Acts that serve to bring such “strangeness” into objective reality are as devoid of moral culpability as bumping one’s side while hanging up drapes, as throwing away one’s date shells, as waking up in the morning feeling stiff, or as killing an albatross.

After the killing of the bird, the nightmare journey in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” objectifies the meaning of the Mariner’s freedom to kill it. The voyage is not a punishment, but an objectification of the isolation and aloneness of all humankind. The poem bears dramatic witness to our deepest fears about our place in the world: a world in which we are whimsically praised or condemned by others, a world in which in the midst of water we die of thirst; a world in which we bear the burden of our shame and guilt like an albatross around our neck; a world in which our fate is determined by a toss of the dice; a world in which we are both punished and absolved for no apparent reason.

When the nightmare has ended, the Mariner, back in his “own countree” and on “firm land,” asks the Hermit to shrive him. But the Hermit, a man who has willingly severed relations with other men to sing “godly hymns/That he makes in the wood,” can only ask: ‘What manner of man art thou?” The mariner’s initial telling of his story is an answer to this question, and his story reveals that he is the manner of all men, for the human condition is just that state of isolation that all must bear, but which most fear to confront.

Many critics have noted the inadequacy of the moral tag of Coleridge’s poem: “He prayeth best, who loveth best/All things both great and small.” And of course, it indeed is weak coming at the conclusion of the horrible nightmare story the Mariner has just related. Although love is the only way man can heal the original breach between himself and others, the mariner’s injunction seems just as deficient and impossible as Christ’s command to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is not enough to ease the Wedding Guest’s horror at the Mariner’s story; for it is the “tale” the Mariner is compelled to teach, not some simple moral. And it is the “tale” that makes it impossible for the Wedding-Guest to attend the wedding feast. He realizes the futility of a ceremony that symbolizes humanity’s vain attempt to heal the breach and become one with another, and he is “stunned” by the knowledge.
(Part II of the Introduction will be posted in a couple of days)

Friday, September 27, 2013

"I Am Your Brother": Short Story Studies is now Available for Purchase!

I am most happy to announce that my new book, "I Am Your Brother": Short Story Studies is now available for purchase.

I will be posting the Introduction in  a few days on my blog in two parts. The Introduction will probably be the section of the book that Amazon will make available via their "Look Inside" feature.

 If you are interested in purchasing the book, click on the cover to the right to go to my Createspace "store."  In a few days, the book will also be available on Amazon as a paperback and a Kindle ebook..

Cost for the paperback is $14.99 and for the Kindle $9.99.  Both will also be available in Great Britain and Europe at an equivalent price.
"I Am Your Brother": Short Story Studies
Preface                                                                                          i
Introduction: “I Am Your Brother”                                            1
1   Genre and the Short Story                                                     15
2  History and the Short Story                                                  29
3   The Novel and the Short Story                                             51
4  Shortness of the Short Story                                                 73
5   Mystery and Obsession in the Short Story                          91
6  Metaphoric Motivation and the Short Story                       113
7  Mythic Perception: Steinbeck & Malamud                         125
8  Birth of the Modern Short Story:   Chekhov                       145
9  Love and Separateness in the Short Story: Welty              173
10 Artifice in the Short Story: Malamud and Williams         189
11  Saying the Unsayable in the Short Story: Carver               211
12 The Short Story Way of Meaning: Munro                           235
Epilogue                                                                                        259
Works Cited                                                                                 261
Acknowledgements                                                                      273
Index                                                                                             274


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

David Constantine's "Tea at the Midland"

British writer David Constantine has won the 2013 Frank O’Connor Short Story award, which will be presented this week at the International Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland.  It comes with a prize of 25,000 Euros. The title story of the collection, “Tea at the Midland” won the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award, which came with a prize of 15,000 British pounds. According to my calculations, that’s 57,246 U.S. dollars. Not a bad haul for short stories.
Constantine has been around for a while, but because he writes poems, stories, essays, and translations—alas, no novels--he is not well known, especially not in America. He laments, as many short story writers have before him, that the novel is too often seen as a superior form, “as if you’re working toward graduating to a novel,” but he is hopeful that such attitudes are starting to shift. I am happy to say that, thanks to the work of several very fine short-story writers and a number of very bright and very dedicated critics and scholars, that is true in Great Britain—not so much in America.

Like many great short-story writers, Constantine says he is not partial to creating plots, adding: “The best short stories by the people I really admire are open at the end rather than closing, and the form allows that. I detest the idea of closure, in life and in writing.” With short stories, Constantine says, “you must never feel that the subject has simply been abbreviated in order to get it into 3,000 words, or 5,000 words.” Of course, what Constantine does not like about closure is that it smacks of plot—usually in the short story, a kind of “rigged” plot.
David Constantine said in a recent interview that he writes “the kind of stories that someone would write who is mainly writing poems.” He added: “I think that if you try to write poems it makes you very attentive to language.  It also makes you quite impatient of language which is merely instrumental, which is just saying this happened, then that happened, to get you from this point to the next.”  Of course, what Constantine is expressing his impatience at is language that just advances mere plot.

So what is the kind of story written by someone who mainly writes poems?  I will try to pose an answer that question by making a few comments about the title story of Tea at the Midland.
First the context for the story. The Midland is a hotel in Morecambe, once a popular bayside resort in Lancashire, on the west coast of northern England. The Midland is an art deco hotel that fell into disrepair in 1998, but was restored and reopened in 2008, complete with art works by the artist Eric Gill, including one of his best-known works, a bas-relief behind the Reception desk of the main lobby, depicting a nude Odysseus being greeted by Nausicaa and three of her handmaidens with food, drink, and clothing. The inscription on the bas-relief reads: “There is good hope that thou mayest see thy friends.” A biography of Gill in 1989 by Fiona MacCarthy revealed that the artist had sexual relations with his sisters and his daughters, not to mention his dog.

The two most basic questions we often ask about a story are: What happens in this story? And what is this story about?  The answer to the first question is, on the surface, quite simple. A man and a woman are having tea and scones and an argument in a hotel tearoom. They are having, or have been having, an affair; he is married; she is not. We don’t know how long the affair has been going on.  An unknown narrator describes the event, largely from the perspective of the woman, although at certain points he seems to know what the man is thinking also.
When the story opens, the woman is watching kite surfers on the bay, admiring them for their grace and beauty.  The couple has been having an argument about the famous bas relief in the hotel entitled “Odysseus welcomed home from the sea,” by the artist Eric Gill. The man dislikes the frieze because he knows that the artist was a paedophile who had sex with his own daughters. The woman is more interested in the subject of the frieze than the artist. She has read The Odyssey and knows the background of the artwork; the man does not. She tells him the story of how Odysseus was welcomed on the island by Nausikaa and her family and about how, after he was fed and clothed, fifty-two young men rowed him back to his home in Ithaca; on the way back they were turned by stone by Poseidon because they helped Odysseus, whom the god of the sea hated. 

Telling the story, the woman cries, and the man accuses her of never crying about him, after which he leaves. After the woman watches the surfers paddle ashore with their boards and sails, she pays the bill. On the way out, she sees a man kneeling and explaining the frieze to a little girl—telling her it is about how the people welcomed Odysseus, a stranger, because every stranger was sacred to them, concluding that the lady in the frieze would have liked to marry the stranger, but because he already had a wife they rowed him home.
That’s what happens in the story—not much in the way of plot. But then, ever since Edgar Allan Poe redefined “plot,” the short story is not about what happens, but rather what kind of artistic pattern the language, characters, action, and ideas create and what significance it has.

Constantine once said that his stories often start with a single image and then from there, it is a “process of realisation, for me and hopefully for the reader.”  In what follows, I hope to articulate my own “process of realisation" in reading this story.
The story opens with a sentence that establishes the situation: “The wind blew steadily hard with frequent surges of greater ferocity that shook the vast plate glass behind which a woman and a man were having tea.” The sentence sets up a contrast between the sporadic ferocious surges of the wind behind which the man and woman are “protected” in their stasis. The voice of the story begins with a description of the outside world rather than the inside one. The sea is seen as “breaking white” in shallow water far out, then leveling out with nothing “impeding” the waves until they are “expended” on the shore. The sky “was torn and holed by the wind and a troubled golden light flung down at all angles, abiding nowhere, flashing out and vanishing.” This rhythm of ferocity contrasted with stasis, suggested by “torn,” “holed,” “flung,” “flashing,” and then, the waves coming on shore, “vanishing,” establishes the emotional rhythm of the story.

The perspective shifts to the surfers towed by kites: “And under the ceaselessly riven sky, riding the furrows and ridges of the sea, were a score or more of surfers towed on boards by kites.” The phrase “ceaselessly riven,” suggesting being torn apart, further sets up the emotional situation of the story. The sound of the language—“a score or more of surfers towed on boards by kites” insists that the language must be attended to.
At this point, a motif of motivation of gesture is introduced by the voice: “You might have said they were showing off but in truth it was a self-delighting among others doing likewise. The woman behind plate glass could not have been in their thoughts, they were not performing to impress and entertain her.” The description suggests a self-contained set of gestures, a performance only because it is being observed by a spectator separated by the heavy glass window.

What is emphasized about the surfers is their control of the ferocity of the sky and waves: “In the din of waves and wind under that ripped-open sky they were enjoying themselves, they felt the life in them to be entirely theirs, to deploy how they liked best.” Although this observation is expressed by the nameless narrator, the next sentence suggests that the perspective of the woman has shifted to the woman, confirmed by the following admiring, even envious, observation:

To the woman watching they looked like grace itself, the heart and soul of which is freedom. It pleased her particularly that they were attached by invisible strings to colourful curves of rapidly moving air. How clean and clever that was!  You throw up something like a handkerchief, you tether it and by its headlong wish to fly away, you are towed along.  And not in the straight line of its choosing, no: you tack and swerve as you please and swing out wide around at least a hemisphere of centrifugence. Beautiful, she thought. Such versatile autonomy among the strict determinants and all that co-ordination of mind and body, fitness, practice, confidence, skill and execution, all for fun!

I felt I had to quote this long passage, for it is important in setting up the contrast between the woman’s emotional situation and the man’s. The man is introduced in the next sentence, and it does not take much to know him, for he has not noticed the surfer riders and is only aware of the “crazed light” and the “shocks of wind” as “irritations.”  All he sees is the woman, and all he sees in her is that he had “no presence in her thoughts.”

The first character voice we hear in the story is the man’s voice, who repeats something he has said earlier, but which the woman is not thinking about: “A paedophile is a paedophile.  That’s all there is to it.” This startles the woman from her attention on the surfers, and the man is annoyed even more by her being startled, for it makes him aware how “intact and absent” she had been. “Her eyes seemed to have to adjust to his different world.”  She is annoyed that he is still harping on the pedophile subject and wants him just to let it be.  But he cannot let it go; he is angry that he has not been able to “force an adjustment in her thinking.”
Now we get some background context.  The woman has made the arrangements for their tea at the Midland hotel; she has brought him here because she hoped he would find it a romantic rendezvous and that they would come here some night and get a room with a big curved window and look out at the bay. However, he sees this not as an invitation but as a recrimination. They have obviously been arguing about the fact that Eric Gill did the frieze in the lobby; she has already lost interest in the specifics of the argument and has seen it as an indication of “his more general capacity for disappointing her.” Even though he sticks with the Eric Gill argument, she knows he just wants something to feed the “antagonisms that swarmed in him.”  She, “malevolently” gives him what he wants, asking him if he would have liked the bas-relief if he had not known it was by Gill or if he had not known Gill had sex with his sisters and his daughters, and, she adds, “Don’t forget the dog.”

She pushes the argument further, ostensibly making it an issue of art for art’s sake, vs. art for social purposes, asking him to hypothesize that what if Gill had made peace in the Middle East, to which he replies, making peace is “useful,” to which she retorts, “And making beauty isn’t.” She turns to look at the waves, the light, and the surfers, but cannot do so with her previous attention. This makes her angrier, and her turning away makes him fills him with rage. “Whenever she turned away and sat in silence he desired very violently to force her to attend and continue further and further in the thing that was harming them.” This cryptic comment is a technique that Chekhov innovated and that Hemingway and Carver and William Trevor, and James Lasdun, and David Means, and Alice Munro, and…..I could go on and on with other great short story writers who use language to suggest but not explain complex human interactions and emotions.
In the next paragraph, the woman pushes the Gill argument into wider generalities about the difference between the way she sees the world and their relationship and the way he does. She says if she took his view, she would not be able to enjoy watching the surfers unless she knew that none was a rapist or a member of the British National Party (an extreme right wing organization). Or she would have to hate the sea itself because in 2004 at Morecambe Bay twenty-one Chinese workers collecting cockles were drowned when an incoming tide cut them off from the shore.  He denies this, but she says the way he thinks and the way he wants her to think is to join everything together so that she cannot concentrate on one thing without bringing in everything else. She says that when they make love and she cries out for joy and pleasure, according to his view she must keep in mind that some woman somewhere is screaming in pain.  She says he should write on his forehead the lie he told his wife to make this tea possible so that whenever he looked at her kindly, she would have to remember that lie and thus spoil the moment. When he tells her how much he risks for her, she says she risks something too, that she also has something to lose.

When he sarcastically tells her to stay and look at the clouds, for he is leaving, she talks about the background to the frieze—saying Odysseus was a horrible man,  that he did not deserve the courtesy he received from Nausikaa and her parents, for she knows the horrible things Odysseus has done and the horrible things he will do when he gets home and kills the suitors to his wife Penelope. But she says in spite of that context, at the moment Gill chose to capture him in the frieze, he is naked and helpless, asking the man, “Aren’t we allowed to contemplate such moments.”

When the man says he has not read the Odyssey, she says she must have been a fool to think that she would have read passages of the book to him if they got one of “those rooms with a view of the sea and of the mountains across the bay that would have snow on them.” At seeing the tears in her eyes, the man looks more closely at her. “He felt she might be near to appealing to him, helping him out of it, so that they could get back to somewhere earlier and go a different way.” But this time, at least for the moment, it has gone too far.
She then tells him about the fifty-two young men who row Odysseus back to Ithaca and then on the way back, Poseidon, who hated Odysseus, turned the men and their ship into stone and sent them to the bottom of the sea. The man says he has no idea why she has told him this story and upbraids her for crying about imaginary people in a book and never crying about him, to which she asserts that he never will see her cry for him and their relationship.

The penultimate paragraph needs quoting in full, for it captures a moment of metaphoric resolution that needs no explanation:
The sun was near to setting and golden light came through in floods from under the ragged cover of weltering cloud. The wind shook furiously at the glass. And the surfers skied like angels enjoying the feel of the waters of the earth, they skimmed, at times they lifted off and flew, they landed with a dash of spray. She watched till the light began to fail and one by one the strange black figures paddled ashore with their boards and sails packed small and weighing next to nothing.

But there is one final paragraph, a kind of coda that sums up the woman’s sense of loss.  A tall man is kneeling in the lobby by the frieze explaining to a little girl, probably his daughter, what the sculpture depicts. He tells her it is about welcome, for every stranger was sacred to the people of the island, concluding, the lady admitted she would have liked to marry him but he already had a wife at home. So they rowed him home.”
What is the story about?  I think it is about a couple who have reached a point of divergence. There is no specific cause that has brought them to this point; it is certainly not that they disagree about what to think of Eric Gill and his bas relief. And now that they have reached this point, there is nothing that can be said or done to bring back what they perhaps once had.

The basic difference between the woman and the man is that the woman is still trying to hold on to the romantic sense of the moment set apart from the everyday world, a moment of beauty, of freedom, or art for art’s sake, love for love’s sake; there is nothing “useful” about being in love; it just is. She watches the surfers and longs for their detachment, their control of their own transcendent moment. She admires Gill’s bas-relief because Gill has caught Odysseus at just the moment when he is vulnerable and helpless and the young woman reaches out to him and he is saved. And that moment has nothing to do with what Odysseus has done in the past or will do in the future. 
Similarly, Eric Gill’s private life has nothing to do with his capturing of that transcendent moment. And you cannot hold the sea accountable for the death of the cockle pickers; it is nonetheless beautiful for all that. The story is about the loss of love, about the difference between the romantic and the realistic. At the end, the woman watches the father explain the frieze to the little girl, knowing that, like Odysseus, the man she was with has gone home to his wife, and she is left alone, with no husband, with no child--with only the image of the strange black figures like angels weighing next to nothing paddling ashore. It is a Keatsean moment of beauty and the only truth that one can have—the truth of the much desired, but always evasive, transcendent moment elevated out of space and time—all you know and all you need to know.

A story very similar to this is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” which I have discussed in a July 4, 2011 blog entitled “Haunted by Hemingway.” Another story similar in its poetic economy is James Lasdun’s “It’s Beginning to Hurt,” on which I posted a blog September 28, 2010. I invite you to read those two stories and compare their technique to David Constantine’s subtle and complex “Tea at the Midlands.”
I congratulate David Constantine for his two prizes. Good short stories should be rewarded. I only hope I have proved to be the kind of reader that this story deserves.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Tamas Dobozy's "Siege 13"

The 2013 Cork International Short Story Festival (formerly the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival) will be held September 18—22.  If you happen to be in the area, it would be worth your while.  You can find the program at Among the many promising emerging writers featured, you will find the very fine established writers Alistair McLeod, Patrick McCabe, Kevin Barry, Etgar Keret, Deborah Levy, and David Constantine making presentations—reading or talking or being interviewed.

If you follow my blog, you will know that I have been posting brief essays on the books that made the short list for the 2013 International Short Story Award.  For some reason, the Munster Literature Centre, which sponsors and organizes the Festival, announced the winner of the award several weeks ago—David Constantine’s Tea at the Midland.  As I recall, in the past they usually waited until the Festival to make the announcement—which always gave me a chance to play second-guessing with the judges.
I have already posted blog essays on four of the books.  Today, I will comment on Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13 and will write about the winner, Tea at the Midland, before the end of the festival.

I apologize for being absent from this blog for the past three weeks, but have been working harder than I expected, trying to complete my new book “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies. I underestimated how much of the formatting mysteries of MS Word 2010 I needed to learn. I spent three days on the first set of proofs, trying to make it all right.

I am now waiting for a second round of proofs to give the book a final check before giving Createspace and Amazon the O.K. to post the book as available for sale in paperback. I will let you know when it is available—probably sometime next week. I now have to go through the manuscript one more time to clean it up sufficiently—i.e. getting rid of headers and footers and tabs and multiple returns and the index (none of which work in ebooks)—to make it ready for Kindle and other ebook formats.

But now to Siege 13, which I have read with interest and engagement, but have just not had time to write about.
Tamas Dobozy is a Canadian short-story writer who is the son of Hungarian immigrants. This is his third book.  His first two, When X Equals Marylou and Last Notes and Other Stories, are both collections of short stories. I had not heard of him until I read “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kalman Once Lived,” which was chosen for the 2011 edition of the Pen/O.Henry Prize Stories.  I apologize for that; it just goes to show you how separated U.S. reviewers and critics are from Canadian short fiction. It shouldn’t be that way; but it is.

Siege 13 takes its title from the fact that it contains 13 stories, many of which are about the Siege of Budapest by Soviet forces near the end of World War II; other stories focus on aspects of the aftermath of the Siege, mainly among Toronto’s Hungarian émigré population.
In his author comments in the Pen/O.Henry collection, Dobozy talks about the use of history in fiction, musing that there is something both moral and amoral in it at the same time: “a desire to write in a way that responsibly engages the world, and a desire to write about something simply because it makes for a marvelous story.” Dobozy says this is a question that haunts the writing of this particular story.

Garth Risk Hallberg, in his review of Siege 13 in The New York Times seems to suggest that it haunts the writing of many of the stories in this collection, complaining that “Portentousness, melodrama and just plain not knowing when to stop are the large weakness of these stories.  Too often Mr. Dobozy shackles an already outsize plot to an even more outsized Symbol.”
Hallberg may be a bit harsh in this assessment, but I think I know what he means.  I will comment briefly on two of my favorite stories in the collection, both of which absorbed me as a reader, but both which left me with some nagging reservations--“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-45” and “The Encirclement.”

Both stories raise two issues for me in reading and discussing short stories. First of all, as an academic who has studied the form for many years, I am often irresistibly captured by stories that are structured around a galvanizing theme—stories that do not just depend on plot or character, but that manage a narrative way of “meaning” something significant about what it means to be a human being in the world. However, I find myself backing away when I sense that the story, written by an academic like myself, seems too much dependent on its theme.  It is one thing for a critic to ferret out the motifs that make a story mean something; it is another thing for the author to self-consciously to put the motifs all in place.
The second issue these stories raise for me has to do with the endings of stories and how a critic like myself can analyze a story and walk the narrow line between “spoiling” the story for a future reader and failing to give the story its just deserts by failing to talk about its ending.

In his New York Times review, Garth Risk Hallberg raises another issue about the endings of Dobozy’s stories, reminding us that in a way the ending of a story is the story, “the way the punch line of a joke is the joke.  No amount of teachable craft can make it work; it’s where mastery gives way to mystery.  Which is the literary quality the stories in Siege 13 find it hardest to manage.”
However, it may indeed be just the “literary” quality of Dobozy’s stories—a quality that depends on thematic repetition and an epiphanic ending--that causes me most pause.
“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-45” focuses on two zookeepers, Sandor and Jozsef, who try to save the animals as the Soviets approach Budapest, entrapping the people (and animals) between the viciousness of the invader/liberators and the Nazi/Fascist occupiers. On the one hand, the grotesque horrors that Dobozy describes seem gratuitously obscene, while on the other hand, they seem necessary to further develop the theme of animalistic behavior of humans at war he insists on relentlessly embedding throughout the story.

What makes the story a story is not the graphic horrors described, or the historical context invoked, but rather the thematic “metamorphosis” theme that dominates it. On a first reading, one does not notice so much the literary theme, being caught up in the surrealistic detail of the horrors.  But on a second reading, the theme becomes so obsessive that it seems too literary—too much the work of a creative writing teacher intent on unifying a story.  Here are a few examples:
When the director of the zoo tries to escape with the institution’s money and is caught by zookeeper Jozsef, he exhibits “the bared teeth, the eyes darting back and forth, the desperation to escape—looking just like the animals did….”
Sandor, the other keeper, mutters about human beings turning into flowers and animals and holds up a copy of Ovid, author of Metamorphosis.

When one of the keepers is dying, she speaks of flames taking on the bodies of animals “transmigrated into fire.”
Sandor reads the books left by the zoo manager and begins to speak of how characters in myths, stories, and fairy tales are turned into horses and flowers and back again, thinking  perhaps that is how previous generations explained death, “becoming something else.” He concludes, “There was no self to begin with.  Just an endless transformation, a constant becoming.”

The animal/human metamorphosis becomes even more expository when Jozsef and Sandor argue into the night about the relationship/difference between animals and humans.  Jozsef says no animal was ever interested in war for glory or mastering the world or getting rid of another species—that by attending to their immediate needs, they created a kind of harmony.  To this, Sandor laughs and talks about how male grizzly bears kill the cubs belonging to another male so the female will mate with him, about how gulls will steal eggs from another, sit on them till they hatch and then feed the chicks to their own young, asking “Does that sound like harmony to you?”

I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but the story ends, as the thematic argument it has established makes inevitable, involving a hungry lion in the subway caves, a dying request made by Sandor of his friend, and a final gesture that suggests the bestial depths to which war reduces everyone in the story.
Another one of my favorites, although equally literary and perhaps academic, is “The Encirclement,” which deals with the clash between a history professor doing a lecture tour about the Siege and a blind heckler who follows him from venue to venue challenging the truthfulness of his accounts.

The theme here, not as heavily laid on as in the zoo story, is once again about to what depths war and fear and desperation will take one. At a certain point the professor thinks the heckler, named Sandor (not to be confused with the zookeeper in the earlier story) begins to wonder if he knows more about the Siege than the blind man. He begins to think Sandor is “some kind of spirit of vengeance, one of those mythic figures who were blind not because they couldn’t see but because they were distracted from the material world by a deeper insight, by being able to peer into places no one else could see.” Here again, we have Dobozy embedding the literary in his story.
The tactic that Dobozy uses to great effect here is to have the heckler Sandor mock the professor Teleki by role-playing him in little verbal scenarios which Sandor says reflects Teleki’s true cowardice and betrayal, culminating in one particularly vicious act in which Sandor claims Teleki literally stepped on the face of a woman trying to escape with him out of a sewer, causing her to fall back to her death while he runs away.

Once again, I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but the doppelgänger motif of the two men, in which one plays the role of the other, comes inevitably to a conclusion in which truth and falsehood become indistinguishable, in which self and the other become inextricable, and in which guilt and innocence become intertwined.
I don’t mind admitting that I liked both these stories, but I also have to admit that it is the critic in me that was irresistibly drawn to the literary in them.

I don’t hesitate recommending Siege 13 to you.  The writing is controlled and powerful; the imagery is fearless and profoundly disturbing; the historical context is compelling; and the themes are universally significant.  Of the six books in the International Short Story shortlist, I put it in the top half.
One more book to go: the winner of the contest: David Constantine’s Tea at the Midland. Back with that before the end of the week. 

By that time, hopefully, I can announce the availability of “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies.