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BWBC 29: The Long Slow Train Ride to the Sausage Factory

Let’s jump right into it.

In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka

I’m sure we’ve all read this story, but in case you haven’t and are cribbing from this blog to complete your English assignments (a foolish course of action, if I may say so), I’ll give you the particulars here:

In a penal colony, a traveler is present at an execution. An ingenious machine designed by the colony’s former commandant performs the execution. This commandant is dead now, but the machine’s current operator attends to the machine and the commandant’s memory with a near-religious devotion. Besides the traveler and the operator are a soldier and the convict awaiting execution. The convict doesn’t know his crime, or verdict, but it makes no difference to the operator since all this follows the former commandant’s designs. Much of the first half of the story is the operator describing the machine, its function, and operation in minute, pain-staking detail. (In my head I envision the device as something like a printing press mixed with some farm device that makes hay bails.)

When in top form, the machine’s intended to write the victim’s crime into their body over hours flipping and bandaging them this way and that until the convict’s attain the enlightenment of their guilt, die, and have their inscribed corpses dropped into a pit. But the current commandant is not a fan of the machine, seeking instead to be a reformer, and has allowed the machine to fall into neglect. This has made the operator increasingly annoyed at the current commandant as well as made the operator spend all his energies maintaining this slowly deteriorating machine.  

A quick aside here: there’s a part of the machine that’s a bit of felt fabric used by the condemned to bite down on as the machine goes about its hour long inscription work. This felt is supposed to be replaced each time the machine is used, but the current commandant’s indifference has meant that the felt hasn’t been replaced in a while and has been reused over and over again despite being stained with the blood, vomit, and saliva of those that have been executed. Kafka can really paint a picture.

The operator finishes up his demonstration and then he and the soldier strap the convict down (with detail given to the filthy felt nubbin they need to force into the convict’s mouth). The whole while the traveler has wondered if he should somehow stop this procedure from happening. The fact that the condemned doesn’t even know their crime is particularly upsetting to him. Noticing something of the traveler’s discomfort the operator tries to recruit the traveler to his side against the new commandant, since he assumes the traveler is there as a “spy” for the commandant. The traveler refuses to take a side, but makes no point hiding the fact that the machine and the whole procedure disgusts him. The operator is shocked to hear this and makes a last effort to convince the traveler of the righteousness of the machine. The traveler won’t budge, at which point the operator realizes there’s no point trying to make people understand the beauty of the former commandant’s vision. He orders the convict freed from the machine, then strips himself down and takes the criminal’s place in the machine. Everyone is too shocked or distracted to stop him, but once the machine starts all eyes look to the machine and watch as it carries out its function. But neglect has taken its toll and very quickly the machine starts to breakdown and no longer function in the sublime fashion the operator described. Instead it just makes a complete mess of its inscription as it tears the man apart. In the end it botches the job so much that the corpse gets stuck to the device and the traveler is required to pull the bloody body off the spikes.

Afterwards the traveler prepares to leave, but makes a quick stop to visit the former commandant’s grave which is located at the back of a tea house. An inscription there tells how the commandant will one day return to bring order and glory to the colony. This upsets the traveler even more and he flees the colony as quickly as he can while preventing both the soldier and the convict from escaping with him. The end.

What can I say? That Kafka, right? Upbeat guy.

Now, I do find Kafka to be a bit too morbid and reading him at times feels like being stuck next to an eleven year old going on about the worms crawling out of a dead kitten’s skull, but for all this story’s excruciating absurdity, it’s all excruciatingly absurd in a way that you recognize as an accurate depiction of reality.

And there’s depth here, a vast undercurrent of critical commentary on colonialism, religion, and technological “progress”. The operator treats the original commandant with a devotion that gives the machine and the commandant’s notes on its operation a religious aspect. This is underscored by the convict’s ignorance of why he must be punished. The traveler’s presence, as a perceived agent of civilization, is seen as a powerful tool to validate or destroy the colony’s practices. You can swim around in this story’s depths. And the reversal at the climax, where the operator switches places with the convict, gives us some sense of relief, despite this story still being torture porn.

I mean, at least it’s some top shelf torture porn. 

Next week, stories by people I’ve never heard of!

Stay tuned.

BWBC 28: This and That

Albert Kahn photo from 1914

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. 

Next week? 

Everyone’s favorite two-fisted pulp action superstar: Franz Kafka! 

BWBC 27: A Little Wisdom, A Little Too Late

“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. 

Remember him? 

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. 

And if you dug this, here’s a longish essay on Wilde’s fairy tales you might also enjoy.  

Next week, Lord Dunsany and Le Guin!

BWBC 26: Idol Scholarship

Marc Chagall, yo!

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.

Oscar Wilde!

BWBC 25: More Paint, Different Painting

“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!

April/May/June/July Books 2020

Screenshot from the Met Opera’s performance of Philip Glass’s Akhanaten

The next Black Water Book Club should be up this weekend. It’ll feature at least one story, maybe even two. I got caught up in some other reading this past week. Speaking of which, it used to be something of a regular feature on my blog to do a monthly post about the books I was reading. All that stopped back in March when the Fire Nation attacked… I mean, COVID-19 happened… I mean…

The truth is I started reading an SFF book* that everyone seemed to love, and which I too enjoyed at first, but then slowly I fell out of enjoyment with until I stopped reading it entirely, but I never quite admitted that I was giving up on it, so it would sit there on my Kindle taunting me with its “53% complete” every time I searched around for something else to read. And so it has been for weeks. The book sits there like an unusually small boulder of large-size. Since then I’ve been shamefacedly reading books with my head low and feeling all out of sorts with current genre.

As is often the case I feel it is less the book’s fault than the fact that the hype around it elevated my expectations. It’s a fine book, good in fact, but the way people talked about it made me expect more than what it was.

And I’ll say that I usually have no problem dropping books. A book gets a hundred pages (or 10% on my Kindle), and if I’m not hooked by then I have no problem moving on. But, this one remains interesting enough that I want to finish it, only not now but some day. Until then it’ll remain an unusually small boulder of large-size impeding my path. 

Now on to one or two sentence reviews for all the books I’ve read since March:

Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle: What if Ursula LeGuin’s Left-Hand of Darkness was about Klingons? An envoy from Earth travels to a post-technological world populated by a humanoid species of conservative warriors (Science Fiction)

Top Ten Games You Can Play In Your Head By Yourself – edited by Sam Gorski and D.F. Lovett: A guide to daydreaming, full of in-depth scenarios, and which might possibly make you lose your mind… or save it! (How-To)

Out of Body by Jeffrey Ford: A librarian learns to astral project and gets involved in supernatural hi-jinx involving monsters and monster-slayers. (Urban Fantasy)

The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss: A young teen leaves home to take a job “breaking” horse, but does so in a way that impresses most everyone she encounters. This one got me in the feels. (Historical/Western)

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson: A tour across the solar system and the human habitats there in the early decades of the 24th century. Pretty thin plots and character, but lots of BIG IDEAS and marvels. (Science Fiction)

War of the Maps by Paul McAuley: A western set on a Dyson megastructure built around a brown dwarf star, in other words this has all the weird world-building of Gene Wolfe with less of the Catholicism. (Science Fiction)

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: Memoir of an abusive lesbian relationship written in fragments across multiple genre styles like an Oulipo exercise. (Memoir)

The Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White: Rollicking space opera that manages to mash together Nascar racing and space-wizards while sitting between the feel-good works of Becky Chambers’s and the brutal violence of Kameron Hurley’s.

Lifelode by Jo Walton: Slice-of-life fantasy novel about polyamorous relationships on a farm in a world where the laws of reality change depending on which direction you travel. (Fantasy)

Lady Into Fox by David Garnett: One of those English stories that gets called allegorical because it was written at a time when society could not deal with either closeted gay men or unconventional women, and the tragedies that ensued when society forced the two together. (British Fantasy)

* Join my patreon and leave a comment there if you want to know the book’s name or if you simply want to support my many other mistakes and receive nothing in return.

BWBC 24: No Escape

Two stories this week, by the assholes Leon Bloy and Vladimir Nabokov.

Both stories are about the futility of escape, and that no matter how far you travel some places will never let you go and you’ll forever be trapped within their borders. Both stories, while quite enjoyable, have a sketchy quality that suggests better stories than they actually deliver. This isn’t that much of a problem, and the Bloy story in particular made me interested in reading more by him.

“The Captives of Longjumeau” by Leon Bloy

Our narrator who we assume is Bloy recounts reading the news and learning that his friends, the Fourmis, cherished residents in the city of Longjumeau and by all accounts a truly loving couple, have died by suicide.

From very early on some sinister notes start to seep and hint that not everything was quite so wonderful for the Fourmis. First, they live in a house with a garden like “an abandoned cemetery”. Second, they never once left Longjumeau upon arriving there as newlyweds. As the narrator was friendly with the couple, he received a letter from Monsieur Fourmis some days before their deaths in which the Monsieur reveals the truth of their time in Longjumeau and his hopes that he and his wife may at last have found the means to escape it. The truth being that no matter how much they tried to leave the city, even for a daytrip, the world conspired to keep them trapped in the town. Tickets would be misplaced; strange slumbers would strike them while they waited for their trains – one time they even managed to board the train only to have them discover too late that they entered one of the cars to be left in the station. The fact that they can’t escape has led to their isolation and much bad feeling between the Fourmis and their families and acquaintances.

Bloy doesn’t posit any intelligence behind this entrapment nor does he suggest conspiracy among the town’s other inhabitants, but it’s not hard to imagine one at work in the margins: a pact made by the city’s inhabitants to keep the Fourmis in town for some ritualistic reason. Or what if the town requires them in some psychogeographical way? It’s hard not read this story and think of ways to use the same kernel in something myself.

“A Visit to the Museum” by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s story on first read is a bit of a shaggy-dog story, but after a day’s reflection I don’t know whether it’s sinister, an indictment of nostalgia, or still just a shaggy-dog story.

We start with Nabokov talking about this friend of his, a fellow Russian émigré, whose relative’s portrait hangs in a museum. Nabokov doesn’t believe the friend and by his own account thinks the friend’s a bore obsessed with his lost station. But one day the rain forces Nabokov to take refuge in the museum and he goes to seek out the portrait. To his shock it is there, so Nabokov decides right then and there to buy the painting, which the museum’s director doesn’t remember the museum owning, and from there things go south. The director claims some paperwork is required, and Nabokov not wanting to be alone with a group of soccer hooligans who are also in the museum sticks with the director. This then leads him deeper into the museum, which by turns takes on a dreamlike quality of ever shifting vistas and sights, galleries full of locomotives, musical instruments and the like, until finally Nabokov can’t bear it any longer and says they can deal with the paperwork tomorrow, at which point he realizes he’s alone and lost in the depths of the museum. A panicked flight through the dark halls ensues until finally Nabokov throws open a door and walks out into the real world once more. Except it’s not the real world he started the story from, but the world he fled: the Soviet Union. He realizes then that he is likely to be arrested and proceeds to strip naked in order to shed the “integument of exile”. The story then stops with a brief “… and I won’t tell you how I finally managed to get home” paragraph by way of coda, yet the fear remains. Overall, it’s a ride and one that I think is broader than Nabokov’s own hatred of the USSR, but of the way we sometimes remain prisoners places no matter how much we or they might change. That frisson at end hits such a weird note that I have to salute it.

Next week, Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

Who’s he? Stop by next time to find out. Until then, may your path not be your adversary.

BWBC 23: This Time It’s Personal

Two stories for you. One annoyed the hell out of me. We’ll start with the non-annoying one.

The Friends” by Silvina Ocampo

Two adolescent boys grow up in close proximity to each other because their moms are friends. The boys are dear friends, except one claims to have made a pact with the devil. The other boy is rightfully scared by this, especially after his friend makes several displays of infernal powers. Inevitably the two fall out, and Satan Child attempts to destroy his friend, but in the end manages only to destroy himself.

Ocampo’s a writer I want to like. From a scan of her Wikipedia page I can see she was phenomenally talented, both a visual artist and a writer. I can dig that. But I have yet to read THE STORY by her that will get me hooked on her style. The one I can say I love and that makes me want to rave about to everyone I know. I hope to rectify this at some time by reading her short story collection that the NYRB published some years back and which sits on a shelf in my apartment here gathering dust. But until then all I can say is that her stories are, well, fine.  

Now to the story I hated…

“Et in Sempiternum Pereant” by Charles Williams

Oh Charles Williams… how I’ve want to like you. Like with the case of Ocampo you have got this pedigree: a member of the Inklings, occult interests, and books about wizards and ghosts and archetypes from Tarot cards moving about a 1930s London. It’s all so great sounding and makes me eager to read your books, then I do and they’re shit: overwritten, self-satisfied, High Anglican shit. What I feel is the feeling of a potential lover betrayed.

This story is a perfect illustration. It’s in a genre I love: British Man goes for a walk. It has weird metaphysical ruminations sparked by walking on time and duration. And it throws in a wonderful image: a skeletal ghost dressed in rags chewing at their own wrists above a pit that leads to hell. But it’s all written to appeal to a stodgy bunch of Oxford scholars who find any sort of emotional content in fiction must be strangled beneath words, words, more words, and words with extra points for Latin words because fuck those lay people without the proper education.

Anyways, this story is about a retired judge walking to a house to do some scholarship, only to find himself on some weird desolate stretch of road before a cottage that holds passages to both heaven and hell.

I will contend that Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood wrote a lot of sentimental crap, and that Charles Williams never did, but I’d rather either of those hokey writers than Williams any day of the week.

Next time, more assholes.   

BWBC 22: Behind the Green Door

Crashing into July like an avalanche. Does anyone else feel utterly exhausted?

This project has reached its halfway point. Although I will likely finish the review series a month or two before years end. I’d rather have that break in November and December than take time off in the summertime only to have to worry about starting up again. Newton’s First Law of Motion tells us a body at rest tends to stay at rest. I feel guilt enough as it is getting the weekly Friday updates out on the Wednesday Thursday Friday of the week after.

But such is life and so it goes.

This week we will be looking at HG Wells’ “The Door in the Wall”.

The Door in the Wall” by HG Wells

Manguel starts by comparing this HG Wells story to the typical Algernon Blackwood story with Blackwood coming off as the lesser. This got my blood up because I am a big Blackwood fan, and largely unread in the works of HG Wells. Again there’s that ubiquitousness and the feeling like you don’t need to read Wells because he’s been so saturated into the culture. Similar to Bradbury (and others who have appeared in this series to date) and as with Bradbury you realize that your assumptions about the writer were wrong and upon encountering the source, you discover they’re much bigger than you believed. There’s a certain death of aspect in cultural popularity.

“The Door in the Wall” sort of resembles a fairy story, and digs straight into that nostalgia Englishmen have for their boyhoods. It’s also that style of story I love with a narrator telling a friend’s story and trying to square the friend’s monolog with some recent, and likely tragic, event.

Here we have a guy remembering a school friend of great talents who went on to a great career, but seemed plagued by an event that marked him as fae and tragic. This faeness is highlighted by the school friend’s precociousness and talents that were visible from a young age. Later the friend and narrator meet, and the friend unveils something of the tragedy that haunts him.

You see the friend led a stern and lonesome life from the time he was an infant. Then when he was nearly six years old he was out wandering one day when he saw this door. It was a green door in a white wall colored with all the bright reds and greens of autumn. The friend was greatly tempted to open the door and pass within and for some time he debated which course to take. In the end he passes through the door and finds himself in a wondrous world full of everything his lonesome heart desires: wonder, friendship, delights, and games. The garden’s people treat him as a warm friend, and it’s an experience that haunts him even now. For some reason he is sent away by a dark-clad woman who shows him the book of his life and he the child finds himself back out in the street where the loss drives him to have a breakdown. Later when he reveals his vision to his protectors (aunts, nurses, and distant father) they go to great lengths, including violence, to make him forget the event ever happened.

But the green door continues to haunt him and as time goes by, and as the child grows older into adulthood the green door reappears. Always when he’s on the cusp of some achievement, and always he rejects the happiness it offers as he pursues worldly success. Yet, the memories of the garden beyond the door won’t let him go.

He accepts that it is something magical, especially after he finds the door in different parts of town. And he knows, he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that what the door offers is in every way superior to the material success he has accrued. The world has lost its color. He knows it’s all the laments of a forty-something man, but the door haunts him. Three times in the past year it has appeared and three times he has passed it by. Now though he knows he is ready to pass through and he has taken to wandering the London streets at night, hoping to discover the door again.

And so it’s no surprise when tragedy occurs and the friend finds the door late one night, opens it, and falls to his death in a construction pit. It’s a tragic ending, but the narrator can’t help but feel his friend’s death had some noble aspect in it. A quest linked to the friend’s unconventional talents that drove him onward to success.

All in all an enjoyable story, and the sort that I find crawls under my skin a bit.

It’s also interesting to compare Wells’ story with Algernon Blackwood (and Arthur Machen). Manguel’s right when he makes the comparison to Blackwood, and right too when he suggests Blackwood could be treacly at times. But the Blackwood Machen style posits a world where it’s possible to pass through magical garden doors with some unpredictable regularity, being awestruck and bewildered if we’re lucky; destroyed if we aren’t. For the Blackwood-Machens the risk is not in losing the way, but in embracing the encounter. Which, I guess, is true of the Wells story too after all.

As always I appreciate your continued support and I hope you are doing well in your corners of the world.  

BWBC 21: A Bit of Meh

Two stories this week, one okay, one meh. 

The okay story is “The Third Bank of the River” by Joao Guimaraes Rosa. The meh story is “Home” by Hilaire Belloc. I didn’t mind reading the former, but the latter annoyed me. If Hilaire Belloc were alive today he’d be one of those tut-tutting  conservatives who write op-eds for the New York Times. A David Brooks or Bret Stephens. 

“The Third Bank of the River” by Joao Guimaraes Rosa 

This story is another in the Something Is Wrong With Dad genre. We’ve seen the type before in Bruno Schultz’s story. It goes like this: for some reason dad’s not right and it’s up to the son to make sense of this while everyone else reacts. In Rosa’s story, dad buys a canoe, renounces the land, and goes to live permanently on the river. The family is thrown into turmoil, and after many harangues to dad, who refuses to relent, the family each make’s some accommodation to their new reality. Years pass. Dad stays on the river. And slowly the family changes with everyone moving away except for our narrating son who stays behind out of loyalty to his father. 

In the end the son sets on the idea that he will take his father’s place on the river. But when the time comes the reality of the task proves too great and the son flees his faith in the world shattered because he’s betrayed his father. 

I wonder if TVTropes has an entry for Strange Dads? This story also dabbles in that other genre I enjoy: Devotion to the Incomprehensible and/or Futile Task. See my read of the Tartar Steppes.   

“Home” by Hillaire Belloc

This isn’t Belloc’s first time in these parts. Awhile back I read The Footpath Way his whole Edwardian paean to English Eco-Fascism. 

In “Home” Belloc indulges in the classic “it was all a dream or was it?” bit of corn. The story goes like this: one day while sketching some trees Belloc meets an eccentric man who tells  him a story of finding paradise in a French manor house, the “home” of the title. This occurred while on a hiking trip and when the man went to bed in paradise, he woke later on a train and has now been trying to find paradise ever since. 

Don’t get me wrong, the story is written well and Belloc can turn a phrase, but he’s a smarmy prick and I find I prefer different smarmy pricks. 

Make of that what you will. 

Next week, HG Wells!