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!
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.