“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!
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)
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.
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.
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.
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!
This story is great. That’s it. You can go on about your business now. I don’t know if it’s my favorite in the collection*, but it’s certainly a standout.
Joanne Greenberg might be most famous for I Never Promised You a Rose Garden a semi-autobiographical novel about teenage schizophrenia she wrote in the early 1960s under the pen name Hannah Green. I’ve read it. It’s good. I mention it briefly here in this post where I misspell the author’s name. This story is completely different from that novel. It’s also very funny and reads like a Kelly Link story.
“Certain Distant Suns” by Joanne Greenberg
“Certain Distant Suns” is set in 1970s USA among the Jewish American community around New York City. It’s told from the POV of a nineteen year-old girl and the chaos that results when her Aunt Bessie declares that she no longer believes in God. For the first two-thirds of the story nothing fantastical happens. The family first has to deal with Bessie’s apostasy, then with her increasingly more eccentric decisions. She stops believing in Capitalism, germs, and electricity. And with every decision the family panics and wonders how Bessie can possibly survive. But she does, and she becomes an inspiration to the narrator, who notices how much happier Bessie is now that she’s given up all these things.
But this is a fantasy collection, and we’re in a stretch of stories dealing with faith and belief. A cosmic backlash brews against Aunt Bessie. And when it arrives it’s not just a single thing, but two-pronged. I don’t want to give too much away, because you should read this story. I will say that it involves a magic TV among other things.
Greenberg’s style is wry and observant, and it’s fun to see her mix the cosmic scale with the intimately personal. I’m not sure when I’ll again have the chance to read her work, but to stumble at random onto a story like this is exactly what I wanted out of this collection.
* At the end of this project I’ll likely do a Top 20 favorite stories list. And this story will definitely be there.
Three stories this week. No apologies. We’re all living in this world, and the past few days have been decades. If you’re out protesting you have my admiration. Please donate to what causes you can.
All three stories are “classics” in that they’ve filtered into the culture in some way, and at least one of them is one of those stories so ubiquitous you already know it without even having to read it. They’re the kind of stories a friend or colleague will reference and you’ll nod your head like you know what they’re talking about, and in a vague way you really do, but only because the story’s seeped into the culture.
Case in point, “The Monkey’s Paw” (by WW Jacobs), somewhat less in point, “The Bottle Imp” (by RL Stevenson) and “The Rocking-Horse Winner” (by DH Lawrence). All three have to do with wishes, and the problems that arise when those wishes come true.
This entry’s also one of the longer ones at close to 1700 words.
“The Monkey’s Paw” by WW Jacobs
Manguel introduces this story by saying Jacobs wrote a lot of mediocre junk, but struck gold with this story, and wisely sat on his laurels and never wrote anything else again. You can google for yourself whether that’s true or not. The story itself delivers even if it is annoyingly 19th century British. There’s an old duffer who says stuff like “guvnor”, a quaint older couple, and their irreverent hard working son. The old duffer tells them the story of the monkey’s paw, outlining its properties (three wishes) while hinting at its curse (you’ll regret them). The couple doesn’t take it all seriously, but buy the thing as a gag. The father wishes for money. The paw startles him by twitching. But nothing else happens. The family goes to bed and forgets the thing until the next day when the son’s killed at the mill and the family’s given compensation in the exact amount the father wished for. The wife then wishes for the son to come back, and in the middle of the night they hear someone trying to open their front door. The wife, distraught, wants to open the door. The husband, terrified, wants nothing to do with whatever’s returned. They tussle in the dark. The husband falls. The wife reaches the latch. The door gets stuck. The husband finds the paw, and before his wife can open the door he uses the third wish to send the son back to the grave. There’s only the night and the empty street beyond.
It’s short and neat and hits all the right notes. But you don’t have to read it, because you already know the story.
“The Bottle Imp” by RL Stevenson
I know this story from the card game based on it. If you like trick-taking games (and I don’t, but I still like this game) and want a game that requires exactly three people, then you might want to track it down. It’s the perfect game for the start or end of a board game night when you’re waiting for the stragglers to show up or go home. And if you look at the cards, you won’t have to read this story. Which is a shame, because it’s good.
Keawe is a young sailor from Hawai’i. While in San Francisco he finds himself chatting with a curious old man. This old man tells Keawe about the magic bottle he owns that has a demon in it that grants wishes. Of course there are rules to its use. First, if you use the bottle you’re doomed to hell. Second, if you want to get rid of the bottle you have to sell it for less than you paid for it. Keawe decides to buy the bottle at its current price of fifty dollars, and after a couple of tests realizes the old man told him the truth. Of course, his first wish is for money enough to build the house of his dreams. This occurs by the death of a wealthy uncle, and realizing the bottle’s power Keawe vows never to use it again and sells it to his friend.
After that Keawe’s happy, even more so once he sees the beautiful Kokua and convinces her to marry him. She agrees, and everything seems to be going great until Keawe finds a spot on his flesh and realizes he has contracted leprosy. This sends him off to find his friend and the bottle, and through a series of stages he learns the bottle has changed hands many times since he had it, and it’s price has gone down to a single penny. Despite knowing that if he buys it he’ll be damned to hell, the thought of earthly happiness with Kokua makes him take the deal. He uses the bottle to cure his leprosy, and he and Kokua wed. Except now he’s full of despair, because he’s going to go to hell since there’s no way to sell the bottle. Kokua fears everything is her fault and becomes nearly as despondent as Keawe. Finally, Keawe reveals the truth about the bottle and what fate now has in store for him because he can’t sell it. Except he can, Kokua tells him. She smart and figures a way to out-maneuver the curse. All they have to do is go to a French island where they use coins with values less than a cent. Keawe’s delighted and the two set off for the French island in the South Seas I’m too lazy to look up.
But when they get there, no one wants the bottle and everyone thinks Keawe and Kokua are witches.
The depression returns.
Distraught, Kokua decides to save her husband by buying the bottle herself. This she does by using a proxy and then buying the bottle from him. Of course, Keawe’s delighted to be rid of the bottle, only now it’s Kokua’s turn to be depressed. Keawe realizes what happened and goes off drinking. While away he falls in with an old villainous boatswain and he tells him about the bottle. The boatswain doesn’t believe it, but agrees to buy the bottle from Kokua and sell it to Keawe. Except when the time comes to sell it to Keawe, the boatswain refuses to give up the bottle, figuring he’s already going to Hell so why not have some fun before he gets there. The End.
One thing about this story, and I am likely splitting hairs here, but one thing this story does that I find so interesting is that it’s steeped in exoticism for Hawai’i and the South Seas, but it manages to avoid othering Keawe and its other characters. They’re definitely Hawaiians, but Stevenson makes them mundane and familiar. This isn’t to say they could be Welsh or whatever, but they’re portrayed with the same stolid familiarity.
All in all, a good story.
“The Rocking-Horse Winner” by DH Lawrence
Okay, it’s a stretch to say this story has seeped into our culture, but I do remember a friend mentioning it back in university and it had a profound effect on them. This one starts kind of like a fable, but then slips into a more familiar Edwardian setting.
It’s also a mean and depressing story, and I both like it and don’t like it.
There’s a family. They’re Upper Middle Class and living well beyond their means. The father’s a useless dandy. The mother’s desperate to keep up appearances and wishes they had more money. They have three kids, a son and two daughters. The mother realizes she doesn’t much love her children. This makes her anxious and guilty and she over-compensates by worrying over them. But the children know their mother doesn’t love them.
If only they had more money, the house whispers to the children.
The mother tells the son all their problems would be solved if only they had better luck. This idea of luck grows into an obsession for the son, where does it come from and how does one get it?
The son discovers his luck when he realizes his rocking-horse can predict the winning horses at races. So he and the gardener take to betting and soon start amassing a small fortune. The boy’s uncle (the mother’s brother) gets involved and soon the three of them (the boy, the gardener, and the uncle) are making piles of money. The catch is that the rocking-horse doesn’t predict every race and sometimes stays silent. No problem. They will only bet when they’re certain to win.
The son finds a way to give the money to his mom anonymously through the family lawyer, but his plans to provide a yearly income are dashed when the mother demands all the money from the lawyer in one lump sum.
If only they had more money, the house keeps saying.
For the next while the rocking-horse goes silent, and in that time the mother learns all about her son’s gambling. (The kid’s like ten years old and placing bets through the Uncle and the gardener.) The mother gives him a stern talking to about the perils of gambling, which the son doesn’t heed because there’s a big race coming up and they need more money. So the night before the race, the mom’s out, the dad’s somewhere being useless, and the boy’s up in his room on the rocking horse riding away with abandon. The mom comes back and decides to check on him, and hearing strange sounds coming from his room, she opens the door and there her son is “rocking” his “horse” with such force he collapses in a fever. But not before saying the winning horse’s name, which the uncle duly notes and bets on. The horse wins. The family makes a load of money. But, the son dies. His last words telling his mom how “lucky” he is. The Uncle’s last words to his sister telling her she’s better off now because she’s both richer, and rid of a poor devil of a son who had to rock his horse to find a winner. The Ambiguous End.
What a fraught piece of work this was. Would I be wrong to think DH Lawrence novels are nothing but 300 pages of strapping young stablehands vigorously polishing their boots while the women of the household watch in secret?
Next week… Joanne Greenburg will be making a return trip to this blog.
A thousand apologies!
I missed posting last week and I have no excuse. In fact, I’m a bit ahead with the reading, so much so that this week might have two posts. We’ll see how ambitious I get. But today’s post will be on the stories “Of a Promise Kept” by Lafcadio Hearn and “The Wizard Postponed” by Juan Manuel.
They aren’t dazzlers and are on the shorter end of stories, but they’re all right. I’m getting the feel for Manguel’s rhythm and how he’s putting together this mix-tape of an anthology. Some stories are long hefty numbers, while others are short little ditties.
And these two stories are definitely ditties.
“Of a Promise Kept” by Lafcadio Hearn
I’m a big Hearn fan. That might not be cool to admit, and I recognize that much of his fame is wrapped thick in Orientalism and Exoticism, but that doesn’t change the fact that I am a fan. Maybe it’s the journalistic angle he brings to his work. Maybe it’s some melodramatic kindred spirit bull-spit. Whatever reason it is (it’s probably the latter), I am always excited to read his work.
“Of a Promise Kept” is typical Japanese-era Hearn. There are two samurai. They are “foster brothers” and love each other very much. One needs to go far away, but promises his friend that he’ll be back on such-and-such a holiday. The holiday approaches, and the friend preps a big feast. Everyone tells him he’s crazy, because no one can guarantee when the other samurai will arrive, but the friend won’t hear it, and commands the feast be prepared. Of course, the day arrives and the feast is set out and hour after house goes by and the samurai doesn’t show. Despite this, the friend refuses to accept defeat, and stays up well into the night after everyone else goes to sleep. At which point the samurai arrives and sits with his friend, and tells a story about why he was so late. Turns out his family disapproved of his behavior and tried to keep him a prisoner in their house. But the samurai knew a way to travel a thousand miles in one day, using that one weird trick known as suicide. So that’s what he did, and he’s dead now, but he kept his promise.
All this makes the friend, the “foster brother”, get pretty angry with his dead friend’s family, so he travels to them and kills them, but he gets away and no one’s angry with him because he only did what was right. The End.
It’s not bad, but there’s better Hearn to be had – or maybe more Hearn. He might be the sort of writer that improves with quantity consumed in a single sitting.
“The Wizard Postponed” by Juan Manuel
Don Juan Manuel was a 15th century Spanish nobleman with a reputation for political maneuvering. He was also a writer and wrote some Aesop style fables in among all his other treatises. “The Wizard Postponed” is one such fable, and it’s not bad.
A certain learned dean travels to Toledo to learn magic from one don Illan. When he tells don Illan his desire, the don tells his maid to prepare dinner while the men go apart into an enclosed room. While they are in the room a messenger arrives for the dean saying his uncle is dead and won’t he come to the funeral. The dean says no and stays with don Illan, agreeing to help the don’s son find a position once the magical education is done. Days later another messenger arrives telling the dean he’s inherited a powerful position from his dead uncle. The dean leaves to take the position and don Illan accompanies him. From that position the dean inherits another and another, and with every success, don Illan asks for some position for his son. But each time the dean refuses the request saying he must appoint some other person instead. This goes on all the way until the dean becomes pope and still refuses to give don Illan’s son a position, at which point the maid arrives to tell the men that dinner is ready.
It turns out everything was an illusion made by don Illan to show how the dean would never repay the don for teaching him magic. The dean’s shown the door and don Illan goes to eat dinner by himself. The End.
It’s entirely possible that Jorge Borges made this story up.
Next: a monkey’s paw and a bottle imp!
This week’s story is a gem.
It has ghosts, gamblers, tragic love affairs, and hints of black magic. All that in a short story set against the backdrop of 19th century Russian high society.
“The Queen of Spades” by Alexander Pushkin
Hermann is a young soldier from a poor German family. He is obsessed with improving his station, but lack of prospects, money, and connections. He regularly joins his friends at gambling halls, but he never gambles, because he knows he doesn’t have the money to risk. This, however, doesn’t prevent him from developing a passion for cards. If only there was some way to guarantee he could win every time he played. Enter his rich buddy, Tomsky.
One night after coming back from the gambling hall Tomsky tells Hermann a story about how his grandmother, the Countess Anna Fedotovna, was a great beauty in her youth with a spendthrift gambling habit. When her husband refused to pay her debts, she turned to noted disreputable historical figure Saint-Germain for help. He taught her the three cards that will always win every game. The fact that the old woman now lives in the city makes Hermann concoct a scheme to seduce the Countess’s ward,
Lizaveta Ivanovna, in order to get close enough to the Countess to learn the secret. Lizaveta at first resists, but soon she’s in love with Hermann despite his true intentions. Eventually, Hermann convinces her to let him into the house one night while everyone is at a ball, and while he’s supposed to wait in Lizaveta’s room, he in fact hides in the Countess’s.
There he waits until everyone returns from the ball. From hiding he witnesses the “hideous mysteries” of the Countess’s toilet as the old woman prepares for bed. Finally she retires, at which point out comes Hermann to beg for the secret. The old woman is shocked and refuses to give it to him (is the story even true or simply gossip?). He then gets angry and pulls a gun, causing the Countess to drop dead from fright. Hermann flees to Lizaveta and tells her everything. He threatens to reveal her role in the scheme if she doesn’t help him to escape. She agrees and provides Hermann a key to a secret passage that leads to the street. He flees.
Then comes the Countess’s funeral and the entire town comes out to attend. Hermann goes too, in order to pay his respects to the family and the woman he’s accidentally killed, but when he approaches the coffin, the body appears to wink at him. This makes him have a breakdown and require being carried out from the church. Later as he lies with a fever in his quarters, the Countess appears to him in all the finery of her youth, and she teaches him the three cards that will win every game.
There are some rules that go along with their usage. First, only one card can be played an hour, and second, once the third card is played the player must never gamble again. Hermann agrees to all this and memorizes the cards, eager to try them out the next time his friends go gambling. Of course, everything goes side-ways at the end, because hahaha the Countess’s ghost was messing with Hermann the whole time.
Believe me folks, this story is great, an absolute ride that has made me happy that I chose to read through this book. I’m even excited for the end of the year when I’m done with this project and putting together my highlight list. “The Queen of Spades” will be high upon it.
If you like the yesterweird at all, then search this one out, or one of the movie adaptions of it. You’ll dig it.