Among the many unsettling things this year of our lord entropy 2020 has revealed, one that snuck up on me is how much all those weird, surrealistic Eastern European writers from the 1930s are starting to make sense. Case in point, Bruno Schulz.
I know I read Schulz back in university and thought him “weird”, but his full eeriness never quite strike me until I read this story of his “Father’s Last Escape” in Black Water. It’s nothing particular or prescient. It’s simply the fact that as weird as things get, the characters all respond to it with an exhausted numbness that I now recognize all too well.
“Father’s Last Escape” by Bruno Schulz
The cleaning girl has no bones and makes a sauce by boiling old letters.
The fur coat in the hall has become alive and attacks everyone that gets too close to it.
And father has drifted away, first into the wallpaper, and then into something crab-like that scuttles and crawls.
Why? Who knows?
The world is in some mutable state and reality can’t be relied upon to behave as one would wish. Father has dreamt too long and deep, and has been transformed. (Although everyone comments on how striking the resemblance is to when father had a human form.)
Schulz is clear in his nods to Kafka, but there’s that banal note to it all that Manguel favors: All the other characters accept the transformation in stride. Sort of. Eventually fate intervenes, but even then it does so in a dreamlike fugue state.
Reality is no longer fixed. Everything is in flux. Father is retreating into a mythic fantasy world and everything seems capable of changing at a moment’s notice. So much so that we’re all numb to it.
Nothing at all familiar in that…
“A Man By the Name of Ziegler” by Herman Hesse
Herman Hesse brings us back to familiar territory, giving us a tale in the classic genre of Guy Gets High, Guy Loses His Mind.
Here our guy is one Ziegler. A typical specimen of his culture and era, well-dressed and confident in his belief that he exists at the pinnacle of culture. He’s smug, he’s proud, he’s self-righteous, and he has a day off so he’s decided to go to the museum and the zoo. But first, we get a full glimpse at how superior he believes himself to be. At the museum he chuckles at how primitive people were in the past, and the way they believed such foolish things. He’s particularly scathing in his views of fortune-telling and the like. But alchemy was all right because it led to chemistry. So while standing before the alchemy exhibit, he pilfers a small pill on display and stuffs it into his pocket. Later at lunch he gives the pill a more thorough examination, and finds its resin scent pleasant. This leads him to tasting the pill, then swallowing it. And then like all novice stoners, he goes to the zoo.
At which point he realizes the drug has allowed him to understand the speech of animals, and they do nothing but mock and insult all the people who stop by their cages. Ziegler’s particularly incensed by the insults from the lions and gets into a shouting match with them. This of course makes the other zoo patrons nervous, and they call the guards, who arrive and take Ziegler away because in true Reefer Madness-style he’s now insane.
So, don’t do drugs!
Or, maybe, if you do drugs, don’t be a smug prick!
Next week… ants!
David Garnett’s Lady into Fox is a short novella from 1922 about a woman who turns into a fox and the problems this causes for her husband.
In its day Lady Into Fox was highly regarded, winning awards and earning praise from the likes of Virginia Wolfe, Joseph Conrad, and HG Wells. It’s one of those English fantasy stories from the early 20th century, the same era that gave us Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees and Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. But, despite a reprint in 2004, its legacy hasn’t lasted as well as those other books.
Wikipedia calls Lady into Fox allegorical, but if it is I’m not sure what the allegory is supposed to be. The story’s like one of those old movies that is so fraught with possible interpretations you can easily find contradictory ones. You can read it as feminist. You can read it as misogynist. You can read it as a defense of polyamory and an attack upon it. You can read it as one of those books that could only have been written in a society where uptight, closeted gay men regularly married unconventional, heterosexual women in the hopes of satisfying a society that wanted to pretend neither one existed.
Whatever it is, it’s quite good and worth the afternoon it would take to read it. I’ll put a link to the Gutenberg version down at the bottom. That one has great wood cut illustrations in it by Rachel Marshall, Garnett’s first wife.
A word of warning though: this is one of those stories where a dog dies, and that lets you know that no matter how good things are for the characters at any given moment, a dog has died and therefore everyone’s destined for ruin.
Lady Into Fox
One day, Richard Tebrick is walking with his wife, Sylvia, when suddenly she is transformed into a fox. Why? Who knows. The only explanation given is that her maiden name was “Fox” and maybe that pointed to some “feyness” in her background. Whatever the reason, her transformation causes no end of trouble for poor Mr. Tebrick, because he still loves his wife despite her new form.
And at first, at least after he gets rid of the servants and kills his dogs, everything appears like it will be fine. Sylvia remains human enough in mind to wear dresses, take tea, and play cards. In effect she stays a Lady. But in time her more animal nature asserts itself, and as she grows more fox-like and in line with her new nature, Mr. Tebrick grows more miserable. Yet, despite it all he still loves his wife* and increasingly tolerates her growing more and more wild. Even when she takes completely to living in the forest and mates with another fox, Richard overcomes his jealousy by reasoning no true man can be brought down by a beast, and so his love goes on, untarnished. When the kits are born he calls himself the godfather to her litter and takes to regularly bringing them food and playing with them. Never is the man so happy as when he renounces society and embraces the unconventional. At those times, he doesn’t care at all what form his wife takes, nor how she behaves.
But society can’t abide with those who refuse to fit into it and the bark of the foxhound is never far distant. Tragedy is waiting in the wings and as things roll along it’s only a matter of time before that tragedy comes crashing down. After all, a dog died, and in that act the Tebricks doomed themselves.
Like I said at the start Lady Into Fox is a good little book, even if it’s ultimately a downer. It has that richness to it that makes you want to pick away at it while it draws you in and captivates you.
You can check it out for yourself here.
Even if you don’t download it, you should check that out for the Rachel Marshall illustrations.
And here’s the Wikipedia entry for David Garnett. Why does everything I read about the Bloomsbury Group make me believe they were awful people?
And if you’d like to read another review of Lady Into Fox, I quite liked this one.
Next week, Bruno Schultz!
*I didn’t want to distract from my review, but at one point when Mr. Tebrick goes on a self-loathing drinking binge it’s implied that there’s bestiality. Which… if I go with my take that this is a story about a closeted gay man who can’t handle his wife’s sexuality, then there’s your metaphoric ick-factor.
Hello, welcome back, I’m glad you could make it.
Three more stories this week: one a flash-length excerpt from a longer story, the other two your standard slightly shorter than average short stories. Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen gives us our flash length story, an excerpt from ”Peter and Rosa”. After that is a bit of decadent literature from Junichiro Tanizaki called “Tattoo”, and a humorous story from Flann O’Brien called “John Duffy’s Brother”.
From “Peter and Rosa” by Isak Dinesen
Did you know that when Isak Dinesen sent the manuscript for her collector “Winter’s Tales” to her publisher it was right at the start of World War 2, and she had no way of knowing if it was received or published until after the war when former soldiers wrote to tell her how much they loved her book? While that story is wild on multiple accounts, I like to imagine what kind of guys these soldiers were who read Dinesen during the war.
An old friend of mine described Dinesen as a writer who readers always feel like they alone have discovered, and I think there’s something to that. When one of her stories clicks, that feeling of some truth being revealed to you and you alone is overwhelming. You might have to read a few of her stories for that to happen, but when it does… mmm, chef’s kiss.
Sadly, the excerpt Manguel includes here from “Peter and Rosa” is not enough to generate that feeling. If anything it gives only the barest hint with its short tale of a ship captain, his ship, and his wife’s jealousy that has all the qualities one recognizes from fairy tales.
All I can say is find yourself a Dinesen collection. She’s well worth the read.
“Tattoo” by Junichiro Tanizaki
I have to imagine that when Edgar Allan Poe’s work was translated into Japanese, they arrived alongside Oscar Wilde’s and Charles Baudelaire’s, making like this stew of decadent weirdness that the edgelordier sections of early 20th century Japanese writers must have loved. This story is direct from that main vein about one Seikichi, a sadistic tattoo artist, being gifted with a teenage girl to decorate as he pleases in the days before she is to start her training as an elite courtesan.
The ick-factor is strong here.
Seikichi starts the session by showing the girl his collection of erotic torture etchings. This terrify-titillates her, leading to an all-night tattoo session that leaves both exhausted. In the morning the artist knows he has reached his peak, but is more alarmed at the change in the girl. She has been transformed from the shy girl into a cruel woman. And as the sun rises, its light appears to set fire to the new tattoo.
And what is the tattoo of? A spider.
That’s it. The end. No moral. No comeuppance. No attack by the suddenly living spider, just a whole heap of decadence with a few extremely vivid images. Which is in no way a bad thing, but maybe not everyone’s cup of tea.
“John Duffy’s Brother” by Flann O’Brien
This is a story about a man who wakes up one day and thinks he is a train. He goes to work and does his job, and says things like he’s a train, then he goes home to lunch and realizes that he is in fact not a train. He’s then mortified by his morning’s behavior, but no one there ever mentions it. In fact they hardly noticed. Beyond a newfound particular-ness with sticking to a timetable, the man hadn’t really changed all that much. But still, those hours when John Duffy’s brother thought himself train would go on to haunt him for the rest of his life.
Initially, this story didn’t make much of an impression, but now a few days later I see it’s quite funny. Like what if Gregor Samsa did wake up one morning as a giant cockroach but nobody cared or noticed? That would be funny.
Next week… more transformations! Or, at least one transformation because it looks like a long story.
Until then, stay safe!
And we’re back with three short stories this week. The first one was my favorite of the bunch.
“Split Second” Daphne Du Maurier
Mrs. Ellis is a fussy widow. She likes everything to be in its proper place and stresses a lot about her adolescent daughter who’s away at school. While taking a post-lunch stroll, a delivery van narrowly misses Mrs. Ellis, and things turn strange after that. As she attempts to make sense of the new world she finds herself in, we, the readers, get a deep dive into a story of paranoia and fear.
Is Mrs. Ellis insane? Has she been an unreliable narrator this whole time?
Why are all the details she gives to prove her identity partially right but partially wrong?
Du Maurier adds layer upon layer of details, and this is very much one of those claustrophobic stories where you wonder whether you could prove your own identity if everyone around you denied you were who you said you were. Not my favorite style of story to be sure, but Du Maurier makes it real and the slow progression from detail to detail makes the escalating tension masterfully done. It’s good, but maybe not for everyone. Du Maurier’s worth tracking down, but she’s a writer that you can’t rush and she’ll take as long as she needs to tell her story.
“August 25, 1983” Jorge Borges
A young man named Jorge Borges visits an old man named Jorge Borges, but they are both the same man and each claims to be dreaming the other. How does this work? Who knows! It’s a Jorge Borges story with a lot of talk of doubles, mirrors, suicide, and who can tell what is real and what is truth and yadda yadda. The whole thing has a masturbatory air. There’s better Borges to read.
“How Wang-Fo Was Saved” by Marguerite Yourcenar
Marguerite Yourcenar was the first woman to be admitted into the French Academy. Her novel about Hadrian was a big deal when it came out, as it was an exploration of post-war Europe through characters from Antiquity. As a fan of Graves’s I, Claudius I hope to track it down some day. “How Wang-Fo Was Saved” is her rendition of a classical Chinese tale. Or at least so Manguel says. I have my doubts. My take is that Yourcenar used Orientalism to write fantasy that bordered on the Conte cruel.
Wang-Fo is an itinerant painter and little more than a beggar. Ling is his apprentice and deeply devoted to his master. But before they met Ling was a privileged aristocrat with a beautiful wife and a vast fortune. His life changed abruptly the moment he met Wang-Fo in a tea house and the old man described the world in a way that opened Ling’s eyes to wonder.
However, not everyone is pleased with Wang Fo. In particular the Emperor is more than a little pissed at him. You see all through the emperor’s youth he was kept in seclusion with nothing but Wang Fo’s paintings for company. The Emperor became so enamored with these paintings that when he eventually left seclusion everything in the actual world proved to be a disappointment. Now he hates Wang-Fo. So when Wang-Fo shows up in the city the Emperor promptly has him and Ling arrested.
The Emperor’s arranged a whole sort of punishment for Wang Fo that involves blinding the old man once he finishes an uncompleted painting from his youth. Ling protests and gets killed for his troubles.
Without any other choice, Wang Fo starts on his work, but here a strange thing happens. He paints an ocean and a boat appears on that ocean. In fact the room is now full of water. Inside the boat is Ling and he has come to rescue Wang Fo and take him away into his painting, which he proceeds to do. The End. It’s not a bad story, but Orientalist af.
Next week… more unless there’s less.
A strange thing has occurred: I am having a hard time reading. I keep starting books then setting them aside, and I’m not sure what the cause of the trouble is. Here’s two months worth of what I’ve finished.
Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham: I’m a big fan of boring and absurd spy novels and this book delivers both. Ashenden’s a thinly veiled Maugham stand-in and these stories all take place between the start of World War I and the Russian Revolution except the war’s far away and it’s more about intriguing in Swiss hotels than carrying out missions behind enemy lines. Maugham has a great skill in using prose to paint a portrait. One sour note is that these stories take place very deep in the Colonial project and so you get the bigotry that goes along with it.
Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary by Terry Jones: I am not up on my Chaucer scholarship, but Terry Jones is. Here he takes to task scholars who see Chaucer’s knight as an exemplar of chivalry, instead of the cut throat mercenary he is. Using The Canterbury Tales, Jones goes into the details of each and every reference, trying to get at how Chaucer’s contemporaries would have reacted to them. Instead of an exemplar of chivalry, Chaucer’s knight is revealed to be a blood-thirsty mercenary typical of the era. Part of what I loved about this book was how bite-sized it was. I could read a few pages one day then put it down for a few days while I read something else.
Foundation by Isaac Asimov: A seminal text, in fact dare I say… foundational? Eh? Eh? So I’d never read this before and was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. Granted, I was amused by how the Foundation’s great project revolves mostly around setting up bogus religions and pyramid schemes. Every chapter is sort of the same too: two characters in a room first they react to plot event, then they plot more events. You simply keep cycling from character and events. And the tech is pure fantasy. Still… this was a big greasy meal and I regret nothing.
The Sign of the Labyrs by Margaret St. Clair: This is going to sound like a back-handed compliment, but I don’t mean it that way: the faster I read this book, the better it was. The story takes place in the future after some unspecified apocalyptic event in an underground maze-like mega-structure. There’s a plague and traps and monsters, and a whole lot of Wiccan style paganism on display. This reminded me of Fritz Leiber’s Gather Darkness, another post-apocalyptic SF novel that embraces the whole witchcraft versus church idea. This one is a heady ride.
How are you all holding up? What have you enjoyed reading lately?