This week’s story is an example of a skilled writer writing an unlikable character well. That the character is as unlikable as he is may or may not have been Forster’s intention. After all, my patience for Upper Class British men hectoring adolescent boys to make men out of them so they might continue to shoulder Empire and all that is not really what it once was.
“The Story of a Panic” by EM Forster
Our narrator is a very proper British gentleman on vacation with his family in Italy. They’re staying at a pension alongside some other English tourists: an artist, a doctor, a pair of widowed sisters, and the sisters’ fourteen-year-old nephew Eustace. Our very proper British gentleman takes a quick disliking to the artist and to Eustace. Much of the story’s beginning is mostly our narrator complaining about the sullen teen who isn’t manly enough to shoulder Empire. Honestly, it’s a bit funny.
Then one day while all the tourists are out hiking, Eustace dragged along with the rest, there’s a bit of talk about nature and the worship of Pan. This conversation gets cut short when a sudden storm sweeps down the mountainside and sends everyone running for shelter. Everyone except Eustace. He’s left behind, and it’s only after the storm that the characters realize this, so there’s another expedition up the mountain to search for the odious child.
When Eustace is found, it’s in a swoon with goat tracks all around him. This is curious and the doctor remarks on there being no goats on the mountain, but the narrator finds such talk too disturbing and expects a rational explanation for what happened. Eustace recovers, but has been altered. Where before he showed little interest in nature, he now is overwhelmed and captivated with it, so much so that he refuses to go back to the pension.
Of course, this won’t do, not for proper young English lads, and the boy is dragged inside where the Italian waiter, another teen the narrator dislikes, calms Eustace somewhat since the two boys are friends. This waiter says that it will mean the boy’s death to stay in the house, and once the wind calls to one, they can never be cooped up without risking their life. But the Italian waiter is improper and the narrator gives him a stern talking to, dismissing all talk of anything out of the ordinary happening. It’s all nonsense to our Proper English Fellow.
Eustace then breaks out of his room and runs for the countryside, communing with all the wilderness and nature he can see. As he runs about the Proper English Fellows bribe the Italian waiter to assist them in capturing Eustace. They manage to do so, but not for long. Eustace escapes again, the narrator wants the bribe he paid the Italian back, but the Italian refuses to return it and attempts to run away, but instead he falls and dies. At which point the landlady arrives and screams while Eustace runs through the trees and that’s it: THE END.
Overall, it’s an entertaining enough story and I appreciate how petty the narrator is. Also, as someone who has taught middle school boys, I can say that there is something almost instinctual in the disgust that they can quite unwittingly provoke. It’s like everyone is angry at you for not sitting still, when it’s nearly impossible for you to sit still. Maybe this is a guy thing, and women don’t have the same response upon encountering teen girls. I certainly have memories from my teens of every older male in my family being angry at me for no reason. But no one ever suggested this disgust was anything but an individual teen’s moral failing, and not simply default wiring that can be dealt with.
Next week, I suspect we’ll be talking about hunting humans for sport.
See you then!
And we’re back… This week’s story is a funny, if nasty, one. At least, it’s a nasty one if you’re a religious sort.
“The State of Grace” by Marcel Ayme
M. Duperrier is a devout Christian, so much so that God has anointed him in this life with a halo. M. is incredibly happy about this, but his wife Mme. Duperrier a lot less so. She is the sort of person that finds it much more important to be esteemed by her concierge than her creator. Needless to say, she’s mortified, because the halo sets her husband outside the norm. Enter strife and conflict. Enter woe. At first, M. Duperrier tries to hide the halo under a hat, but soon events occur that cause the halo to become visible. (M. needs to remove his hat in church after all and there’s another time when a funeral passes.) It’s not long before the neighbors start gossiping and all Mme’s fears seem warranted. She can’t let this go on and confronts her husband. Soon the two strike upon the idea that the only way to get rid of the halo is for M. to start sinning. So that’s what he does, starting with Gluttony, then working his way down the rest. All for nothing because the halo seems to be unshakeable. Finally, the last sin is the one of Lust, and the Duperriers train for this by reading pornography, which only serves to revolt them. But M. stays the course. First, he visits prostitutes, then he becomes a pimp to a devout but poor young provincial woman. And so, our story ends, in a shadowy alley way with M. Duperrier trying to keep his halo hidden as he watches the poor girl work her trade, thanking God for his good fortune even in this trade.
And there you go. It’s a short one like I said and irreverent.
Marcel Ayme’s own Wikipedia page seems awfully sparse on details about his life during the 1940s. It doesn’t look like World War 2 or the occupation of France impacted his career in any way. He had stories published and scripts produced, all of which does make me pause a little. That said, the story’s an enjoyable one. And there’s much truth to the idea that for some (a lot of?) people the worst thing one can be is exceptional in any way.
Next week, E.M. Forster and “The Story of a Panic”.
Only four more stories to go!
If you want writers to be forgotten the easiest way to do it is to teach them to high school students. Case in point, Stephen Vincent Benet, Pulitzer winning poet, short story and play writer. He’s the guy who wrote “The Devil & Daniel Webster”. No, I haven’t read it either. But I recognize the name. Which I know is the equivalent of Toni Colette saying to Daniel Craig in Knives Out, “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you.”
But so, that’s this guy.
The writer of a story I should’ve read but didn’t, which is vaguely familiar in that it’s American Literature from a certain era, the same era as Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but which for some reason I assumed was Corny Hawthorne. After reading “The Curfew Tolls” I realize Benet’s much closer to Bradbury. If Benet’s been forgotten it’s probably more due to the fact that he died youngish in the decade before the advent of television.
“The Curfew Tolls” by Stephen Vincent Benet
It’s 1788 and the General Charles William Geoffrey Estcourt is in the south of France taking the waters. He’s writing to his sister complaining about how dull the town and his fellow patients are. The only person he finds of note is a retired artillery officer from the French army, a small, intense man with a reputation for banditry.
The two bond over old poets and the General writes his sister all the details of his conversations with this strangely intense little man. As they talk they engage in wargames and the artilleryman tells how he’d fight this or that battle. The General finds his friend’s strategies equally shocking and amusing, and despite himself becomes quite close to the little man.
For his part the man invites the general around to his house and shows him off to his large family. The two also discuss fate and time and how cruel genius can be when born into eras that have no use for it nor provide the right setting for it to flourish. Before long (or from the start, if you know a bit of history) you figure out the little man is Napoleon, except he was born a generation too early and so he has had no chance to attain the power he did because the French king and aristocracy are still on hand. And while that’s meant to be a big reveal, it’s to Benet’s credit that the story’s an enjoyable read even if you’ve already figured it out. The twist is also why I think of Benet as suffering the same fate. It’s curious to imagine what his impact would’ve been if he had been born a decade or two later and come of age alongside the advent of television.
I will admit I enjoy alt-history stories like this, and one of my favorites plays with this same idea of minds and time needing to be in sync for genius to be recognized. That story is “Steam Engine Time” by Lewis Shiner and you can read it here if you want.
Next week, a story by an actual French man.