There’s a lot going on in the world and every week it feels like there’s more of it.
Sometimes I feel like it may not the best time to ramble about fiction. But, we’re all leaning into self-care, and some more than others. Putting out these (near-) weekly blog post makes me feel some accomplishment. Is it selfish of me to foist that upon you? Maybe. Certainly I think so in the gloom of whatever negativity gets its clutches on me, but at those times I know better than to trust my thoughts or take them seriously. If I did I know I’d be more miserable.
This week we have two stories, both classics but one more so than the other.
First up, the lesser classic:
“The Bureau d’Exchange de Maux” by Edward Plunkett Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany AKA Lord Dunsany
This one felt like a Twilight Zone episode, and who knows, maybe it is.
Somewhere on a shady street in Paris there is a store and in that store sits the most evil man. This man operates a peculiar sort of stock exchange where one person can exchange their evil for another’s. Too many children got you down? Why not exchange that with someone who’s down because they have none? Fear losing all your money? Why not exchange that fear with someone who fears making more money?
People come to the exchange pay their dues, and the evil man matches clients together. The narrator has stumbled into the place and at first is an observer. But after awhile the concept of the place pulls him in. He wants to know how it works and decides to test the place by getting rid of some inconsequential evil, his fear of boats. He exchanges this with a man who’s afraid of elevators and the narrator goes away thinking he got the better of the deal. Of course when he gets back to the hotel, his new fear hits him hard and he realizes he’s doomed himself to a life of always taking the stairs. The next day he goes back to the Bureau to see if he can cancel the exchange, but when he reaches the street the store’s not there. It’s like it never existed at all. The end.
I won’t lie. I like Lord Dunsany, especially when he works in this contemporary weird mode, as opposed to his mythic Orientalist. You can give it a read here.
Next is our classic story, a philosophical tale that I’m sure you all know.
“Those Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
I will confess that at uncharitable moments I’ve viewed this story as “The Cold Equations” for the woke. If you’re not familiar with “The Cold Equations”, you can read the Wikipedia page here. It’s the type of story lauded for its adherence to a grim hard techno-objectivism and is as contrived as any other moral fairy tale. Omelas has some of that, except Le Guin’s more honest in what she’s doing. She tells us at the start that she isn’t writing a story, but writing a thought experiment dressed up as a story. And as the one in charge of the experiment she is tilting the field against us, the reader.
Omelas is a beautiful place and we come to it on the first day of its summer festival. In every way it is utopian and delightful with Le Guin pointing out that it has none of the usual utopian corniness. And so paragraph after paragraph we wander Omelas and admire all that it offers and we see the games and delights, and Le Guin lets us enjoy all that, until she decides that Omelas needs a taint for us to believe it is real. And the taint is where the moral puzzle rests.
In some building’s dark basement there is a child who lives abused and uncared for. All adults in Omelas know the child is there and all know if the child wasn’t there the utopia could not exist, and if it wasn’t this child it would likely have to be another, possibly even one of the beautiful ones we saw in the earlier paragraphs. Everyone knows the child is there. But some, those who walk away, see the child and can’t afterwards return to their idyllic existence in Omelas. In time they abandon utopia and leave to find a better place.
Unlike “The Cold Equations”, Le Guin doesn’t present her moral puzzle as a story. (Nor is she working with an editor that seems particularly set on having the sentimental teenage girl die.) Le Guin builds her moral puzzle in every paragraph, putting the pieces together just so. It’s a good read and a testament to Le Guin’s craft. When we get to the dark basement, she depicts the taint in Omelas in very clear terms. There is no way to negotiate with this evil. It simply is. And Le Guin gives us only two potential outs: do we live in Omelas, enjoying all it has to offer while knowing the only way it can exist is by gross cruelty or do we abandon it and walk away?
Most everyone likes to think they would walk away from Omelas, but would you still, if it meant you’d likely die from starvation on some mountain slope? Le Guin leaves unsaid any mention of the walkers’ fate. She doesn’t tell us there’s a better place, only that there’s a place more unimaginable than Omelas, and it’s one she can’t describe. My take is that those who walk away from Omelas die, but their rejection of Omelas is what makes that place change.
But here I am negotiating with a contrived moral puzzle. The most interesting moral puzzle is how to live when every place is Omelas, only of a differing shades. In that situation is it even possible to walk away?
Put your solution in the comments below.
Everyone’s favorite two-fisted pulp action superstar: Franz Kafka!
“The Fisherman and His Soul” by Oscar Wilde
This is one of Wilde’s not-for-children fairy tales that touch upon hiss interest in doppelgangers, morality, and redemption. All while never being dogmatic in the morality it presents, and allowing instead for an argument that’s a bit more nuanced. It’s the kind of story that invites you in to work over and decipher what it might mean.
Here’s how it goes.
It’s obviously about a fisherman. He falls in love with a mermaid, but can’t live with her under the sea because he has a soul. So he decides to get rid of his soul and sees the priest. The priest tells him his soul is precious and not to be traded away for the pleasures of the body. But the fisherman doesn’t care and tries to sell his soul, but all the merchants tell him it’s worthless. So he sees the sexy witch, and she wants him to worship Satan, but the fisherman’s too focused on his mermaid love and doesn’t fall for no witch’s Sabbath. He forces the soul-severing rite from the witch, does the deed, and goes under the sea to live with his mermaid. His soul however goes off and wanders finding itself in Arabian Night’s adventures. Before long through guile and ruthlessness, the soul’s amassed fabulous treasures. However the soul has no heart and each year it visits the fisherman trying to lure him away from the mermaid, but the fisherman’s too much in love, until the soul tells him about a nearby dancing girl, and since mermaids can’t dance, and the dancer’s nearby, the fisherman agrees to go with the soul. Of course along the way the soul makes the fisherman commit a number of crimes, and when the dancing girl doesn’t materialize, the fisherman returns to the ocean, but can’t be reunited with the mermaid because he has a soul now and is no longer innocent.
But, wait, there’s more!
The fisherman becomes a hermit and time passes. The mermaid dies and her body washes up on the beach. The fisherman finds the body and dies alongside it, and then the priest shows up.
He didn’t condone this whole mermaid business, so he refuses to bury the dead lovers in church grounds. Instead they get dumped in an unmarked grave in the Fuller’s Field. More time passes. The priest’s going to give a big sermon on hellfire and brimstone, but the altar is decorated with such beautiful flowers that he decides to preach on god’s mercy and love for all creatures. After mass he asks where the flowers came from and learns they came from the lovers’ unmarked grave. This prompts a change of heart in the priest and he goes out to bless the waters of the bay. But by then all the merfolk had moved away, and the flowers never again grew on the lovers’ grave.
Seriously, this is good stuff. It’s that style of story that is less straightforwardly allegorical and more fraught with meaning and implications. You want to dig in and puzzle over it. Things happen in threes and there’s magic and mermaids, but a sadness too that comes from society, social conventions, and the knowledge we have of right and wrong.
I suspect there’s at least one Penguin Classics style collection of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales out there, and I suspect I’ll have to buy it at some point, because after reading “The Fisherman and His Soul” I want to read more.
Next week, Lord Dunsany and Le Guin!
Last week this week’s latest Black Water post, this time by Cynthia Ozick, who if you are anything like me you vaguely remember reading an essay by back in university, or at least being assigned an essay by; whether you read it or not is a matter between you and your conscience.
Depending on a number of variables my chances are 50/50 for having done the assignment, but I’m 100% for having forgotten it all.
Anyhow, here’s the story:
“The Pagan Rabbi” by Cynthia Ozick
Cynthia Ozick’s “The Pagan Rabbi” is on one hand familiar to anyone who’s ever read Machen, Lovecraft, or the like: a narrator meets a person who tells them about another person who was the narrator’s friend, and the second person has a letter from the third person, which they want the first person, the narrator, to read as they hope it explains why everything got as bad as it did, and since this is horror/fantasy the narrator reads the letter hoping to find answers, but instead winds up more alienated from the world.
It’s a style I know and like.
The other part of “The Pagan Rabbi” is heavily steeped in Jewish mysticism and mythology, and that’s where I had to pause and look things up in order to understand the references the characters were making.
The story goes like this…
The Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld has killed himself in an urban park overlooking the bay. His friend, our narrator, goes out to see the tree where Isaac hung himself. He and Isaac grew up together and sought to be Rabbis, but only Isaac succeeded, while the friend opened a used bookstore and became a disappointment to his parents. After seeing the tree the Narrator goes on to pay a visit to Isaac’s wife with the idea of maybe starting to court her. But the widow’s distraught and angry at her husband for not simply killing himself, but for succumbing to idolatry before his death. The narrator’s confused, so the widow presses Isaac’s journal onto the narrator. In the book Isaac records his descent into a pantheistic paganism that saw a free soul in all aspects of the world. In entry after entry, he outlines his proofs explaining the existence of these souls, quoting mythical figures from the Old Testament, and even relaying accounts where he believes he encountered these unbounded souls. He soon looses himself to these visions, spending more time away from home. Finally, in an ecstatic fit, he encounters a dryad in a park near the polluted bay. This leads to his seduction and infidelity as he consorts with the dryad. But he welcomes these transgressions and continues his sport, until the dryad breaks things off, telling him that he has grown too attached to her and thereby his soul has fled his body. When the Rabbi protests, the dryad shows him his own soul wandering the road near the park. The sight of his wandering soul and his abandonment by the dryad sends Isaac tumbling into a despair so deep he hangs himself from the dryad’s tree.
Having read all this the narrator urges the widow to find her husband’s soul where it wanders along the road near the park, but she refuses, and upon seeing how angry the widow is, not at her husband’s suicide but at his idolatry, the narrator forgets about any seduction and goes home to put the whole episode behind him, but not before throwing away all the plants in his house.
Just in case. . .
It’s a good story and the late 1960s Jewish milieu gives the mystic bits familiar touchstones. I mean the story’s plot is literally “young rabbi abandons family to consort with flower child, dooms self”. And the Jewish mystical bits elide seamlessly with ideas from Greek antiquity. The dryad’s a distinct character that might have stepped forth from Ovid or a fairy tale and described in a very tangible way. There’s no doubt that Isaac encountered something numinous and outside the common in that park. And there’s no doubt that the human characters are caught and bound by petty urges and grievances. If you like that mix of the weird piercing the squalidly everyday, The Pagan Rabbi brings a new vantage point to the classic tragic fairy tale of what happens when the mortal seeks to capture the immortal.
Next week, get ready to get wild.
“Autumn Mountain” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Ryunosuke Akutagawa lived in the early decades of the 20th century and is considered the father of modern Japanese fiction. To the audience reading this, he might be most notable as the author who wrote the stories that were made into the movie Rashomon. “Autumn Morning” is the story of a painting that may or may not exist. Nothing happens in it except people walk and talk. Now I was once a young man who walked around a lot and spoke a lot of serious nonsense about paintings. Catch me in the right mood or bring up Max Beckmann and you’ll probably get an earful. But I also recognize blather as blather, and art school blather especially when about authenticity, truth, beauty, is a peculiar product all its own.
Anyway, this short story has eight characters in it, and one of them is telling a story to a second one about the painting done by a third which was owned by a fourth one and which a fifth guy who was the first guy’s teacher said was the most amazing painting ever, but after seeing it the first guy’s not so sure the painting he saw is the actual painting, so he tries to buy it, but can’t, then the painting disappears, only to re-emerge years later in the possession of a sixth guy, and this makes the first guy rush out to see it with a seventh guy who’s an art critic and, I think, the fifth guy, and guy one and guy five decide the painting’s not the actual legendary painting, while guys six and seven say it is… and I’m pretty sure I missed a guy in there somewhere, but it doesn’t help that all their names are the Japanese equivalent of Mr. Smith, Mr. White, Mr. Smythe, Mr. Whyte, Mr. Smitt, Mr. Whitt, Mr. Smithwhite, and Mr. Whitesmith. The moral of the whole tale is maybe this legendary painting doesn’t exist and yet by some weird fluke of the imagination what we imagine to be real can be more real than reality.
Manguel seems to have never met a story about a magical scroll painting he didn’t like. It’s a weird thing and I wonder if such stories were the ones that got the broadest reprinting in translation.
“The Sight” by Brian Moore
This one’s interesting because I learned that Brian Moore wrote the novel of a movie I quite like (Black Robe) is based on as well as won a host of awards as well as also being called “my favorite contemporary writer” by Graham Greene, and despite all that I had never heard of Moore before reading this story.
Benedict Chipman is an asshole lawyer in 1970s New York who has recently come home from the hospital after a bit of a medical scare. And while he’s still an asshole, and his doctors have told him their biopsy showed his tumor was benign, the doctors want him to come back at the end of the month for a second test. Chipman’s mostly satisfied, but has some lingering anxiety over this upcoming test, especially as everyone in his life seems to be extremely concerned for him and acting like they know something he doesn’t. This brings him around to discovering that his Irish housemaid claims to have “the sight” and can see when someone’s about to die. She’s let slip to all Chipman’s associates that he doesn’t have long to live, and when Chipman finds out all this the crisis happens.
This is a pretty introspective and psychological story about an unlikable egomaniac’s personality crumbling under a strain of doubt and anxiety. The whole thing probably takes place over the span of 48 hours, and the speculative element is barely present, but it’s a solid diamond of craft and characterization, and I’m glad to have read it.
“Clorinda” by Andres Pieyre de Mandiargues
This one’s a short vignette that reads like Charles Bukowski ghost writing a WB Yeats Celtic fairy tale. A drunkard encounters a miniature fairy knight and promptly subdues them and peels off their armor (like peeling a shrimp) and reveals that the knight is in fact a beautiful tiny woman. Our drunkard proceeds to restrain and disrobe the woman and readies himself to do more, at which point his beastliness gets the better of him and he runs off into the woods to rut and crawl in the dirt. When he recomposes himself once more and returns to where the fairy woman is bound, he finds only the torn string and a drop of blood and has to assume a bird ate her. . . and so that’s why daddy drinks.
This isn’t a story I would seek out and I don’t know if I’d be much excited to read more by the author, but if you like to be miserable or get your kicks watching the squalid mingle with the fantastic you might find this worth tracking down.
Next week… an author you probably read an essay by in university and haven’t read since!