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.
And we’re back!
Two stories today: Italo Calvino’s novella “The Argentine Ant” and John Collier’s “Lady on the Grey”. They could not be more different from each other.
“The Argentine Ant” by Italo Calvino
In a lot of ways this story is a straight realist story about a young couple that moves to a new town and have their hopes of finding an easy life there all dashed by the ants that infest the village. As the couple is increasingly tormented they seek help from their neighbors, all of who have pursued different methods to deal with the ant problem. One builds elaborate mechanical traps, another adheres to a complicated routine of poison application, a third lives in complete denial of the ants’ existence even though they torment her. And that’s when you start to think maybe the ants are a metaphor and underneath the realist veneer this story is an allegory for life.
What the ants represent is open to debate. My take is that they embody unfettered nature that contains pleasure and pain, stability and entropy, and which can’t ever be stopped only accommodated. As the story progresses and the ants become more of a nuisance, the situation deteriorates until the couple finally seeks out the man from the Ant Company. He’s supposed to be exterminating the ants on behalf of the government, but no one trusts him and most people in the district believe he’s in league with the ants.
The only relief comes when the family leaves the neighborhood and goes to the beach where the sight of the waves and the sun break the hold the Argentine ants have over them, but there’s no sense that the couple have escaped, only that they’ve discovered a balm for a time.
Give it a read sometime and let me know what you think.
“The Lady on the Grey” by John Collier
Ringwood and Bates are two roguish fail-sons of the penniless aristocrat sort. They’re hangers-on and leeches, living on modest allowances as they travel Ireland in search of game, be it fish, fowl, fox, or human female. Neither are the letter writing sort, and their communications are done via third persons: mutual acquaintances, train agents, barmen, etc. One day while Ringwood’s wondering at his prospects, a message arrives via one-eyed horse dealer that Bates has gone to Knockderry and if anyone saw Ringwood they should tell him that. Ringwood assumes Bates has come upon something good and sets off for Knockderry at once. Of course, when he arrives there’s no sign of Bates and no one in the village knows where he can be found. No matter, thinks Ringwood, he’ll see for himself what the town has to offer (mostly in the way of farm maids he can assault). As he spies a potential victim, he’s interrupted by the arrival of a beautiful woman on a grey horse and the mangy dog that travels behind her. She initiates a seduction and Ringwood can’t believe his luck, despite how annoying her dog is. He doesn’t care that the dog keeps accosting him. So she tells him to come by her lonesome tower house later that night, and Ringwood goes back to the inn to prepare himself. From the innkeeper he learns the woman is the last of an ancient Irish family, and from that Ringwood’s predatory fantasies blossom.
But, of course, things aren’t as they seem.
This is one of those stories you enjoy not because you’re rooting for the characters, but because you like seeing the trap spread around them. When Ringwood finally gets his, you can’t help but feel satisfied.
Do people still talk about John Collier? I feel like he’s one of those writers no one ever talks about but whom provided the seed-story to a dozen well-remembered Twilight Zone episodes. Like Bradbury, he’s the sort of writer you think you know based on one story or book, but whose work as a whole offers a lot more complexity than you realize. Also, there’s the sheer level of craft on display in his stories. The plot might be predictable, but the joy’s in the execution. They’re perfectly designed little narratives.
If you like the Neil Gaiman/Michael Chabon style you might want to check John Collier out.
Next week, a long one from Pushkin!
Among the many unsettling things this year of our lord entropy 2020 has revealed, one that snuck up on me is how much all those weird, surrealistic Eastern European writers from the 1930s are starting to make sense. Case in point, Bruno Schulz.
I know I read Schulz back in university and thought him “weird”, but his full eeriness never quite strike me until I read this story of his “Father’s Last Escape” in Black Water. It’s nothing particular or prescient. It’s simply the fact that as weird as things get, the characters all respond to it with an exhausted numbness that I now recognize all too well.
“Father’s Last Escape” by Bruno Schulz
The cleaning girl has no bones and makes a sauce by boiling old letters.
The fur coat in the hall has become alive and attacks everyone that gets too close to it.
And father has drifted away, first into the wallpaper, and then into something crab-like that scuttles and crawls.
Why? Who knows?
The world is in some mutable state and reality can’t be relied upon to behave as one would wish. Father has dreamt too long and deep, and has been transformed. (Although everyone comments on how striking the resemblance is to when father had a human form.)
Schulz is clear in his nods to Kafka, but there’s that banal note to it all that Manguel favors: All the other characters accept the transformation in stride. Sort of. Eventually fate intervenes, but even then it does so in a dreamlike fugue state.
Reality is no longer fixed. Everything is in flux. Father is retreating into a mythic fantasy world and everything seems capable of changing at a moment’s notice. So much so that we’re all numb to it.
Nothing at all familiar in that…
“A Man By the Name of Ziegler” by Herman Hesse
Herman Hesse brings us back to familiar territory, giving us a tale in the classic genre of Guy Gets High, Guy Loses His Mind.
Here our guy is one Ziegler. A typical specimen of his culture and era, well-dressed and confident in his belief that he exists at the pinnacle of culture. He’s smug, he’s proud, he’s self-righteous, and he has a day off so he’s decided to go to the museum and the zoo. But first, we get a full glimpse at how superior he believes himself to be. At the museum he chuckles at how primitive people were in the past, and the way they believed such foolish things. He’s particularly scathing in his views of fortune-telling and the like. But alchemy was all right because it led to chemistry. So while standing before the alchemy exhibit, he pilfers a small pill on display and stuffs it into his pocket. Later at lunch he gives the pill a more thorough examination, and finds its resin scent pleasant. This leads him to tasting the pill, then swallowing it. And then like all novice stoners, he goes to the zoo.
At which point he realizes the drug has allowed him to understand the speech of animals, and they do nothing but mock and insult all the people who stop by their cages. Ziegler’s particularly incensed by the insults from the lions and gets into a shouting match with them. This of course makes the other zoo patrons nervous, and they call the guards, who arrive and take Ziegler away because in true Reefer Madness-style he’s now insane.
So, don’t do drugs!
Or, maybe, if you do drugs, don’t be a smug prick!
Next week… ants!
David Garnett’s Lady into Fox is a short novella from 1922 about a woman who turns into a fox and the problems this causes for her husband.
In its day Lady Into Fox was highly regarded, winning awards and earning praise from the likes of Virginia Wolfe, Joseph Conrad, and HG Wells. It’s one of those English fantasy stories from the early 20th century, the same era that gave us Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees and Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. But, despite a reprint in 2004, its legacy hasn’t lasted as well as those other books.
Wikipedia calls Lady into Fox allegorical, but if it is I’m not sure what the allegory is supposed to be. The story’s like one of those old movies that is so fraught with possible interpretations you can easily find contradictory ones. You can read it as feminist. You can read it as misogynist. You can read it as a defense of polyamory and an attack upon it. You can read it as one of those books that could only have been written in a society where uptight, closeted gay men regularly married unconventional, heterosexual women in the hopes of satisfying a society that wanted to pretend neither one existed.
Whatever it is, it’s quite good and worth the afternoon it would take to read it. I’ll put a link to the Gutenberg version down at the bottom. That one has great wood cut illustrations in it by Rachel Marshall, Garnett’s first wife.
A word of warning though: this is one of those stories where a dog dies, and that lets you know that no matter how good things are for the characters at any given moment, a dog has died and therefore everyone’s destined for ruin.
Lady Into Fox
One day, Richard Tebrick is walking with his wife, Sylvia, when suddenly she is transformed into a fox. Why? Who knows. The only explanation given is that her maiden name was “Fox” and maybe that pointed to some “feyness” in her background. Whatever the reason, her transformation causes no end of trouble for poor Mr. Tebrick, because he still loves his wife despite her new form.
And at first, at least after he gets rid of the servants and kills his dogs, everything appears like it will be fine. Sylvia remains human enough in mind to wear dresses, take tea, and play cards. In effect she stays a Lady. But in time her more animal nature asserts itself, and as she grows more fox-like and in line with her new nature, Mr. Tebrick grows more miserable. Yet, despite it all he still loves his wife* and increasingly tolerates her growing more and more wild. Even when she takes completely to living in the forest and mates with another fox, Richard overcomes his jealousy by reasoning no true man can be brought down by a beast, and so his love goes on, untarnished. When the kits are born he calls himself the godfather to her litter and takes to regularly bringing them food and playing with them. Never is the man so happy as when he renounces society and embraces the unconventional. At those times, he doesn’t care at all what form his wife takes, nor how she behaves.
But society can’t abide with those who refuse to fit into it and the bark of the foxhound is never far distant. Tragedy is waiting in the wings and as things roll along it’s only a matter of time before that tragedy comes crashing down. After all, a dog died, and in that act the Tebricks doomed themselves.
Like I said at the start Lady Into Fox is a good little book, even if it’s ultimately a downer. It has that richness to it that makes you want to pick away at it while it draws you in and captivates you.
You can check it out for yourself here.
Even if you don’t download it, you should check that out for the Rachel Marshall illustrations.
And here’s the Wikipedia entry for David Garnett. Why does everything I read about the Bloomsbury Group make me believe they were awful people?
And if you’d like to read another review of Lady Into Fox, I quite liked this one.
Next week, Bruno Schultz!
*I didn’t want to distract from my review, but at one point when Mr. Tebrick goes on a self-loathing drinking binge it’s implied that there’s bestiality. Which… if I go with my take that this is a story about a closeted gay man who can’t handle his wife’s sexuality, then there’s your metaphoric ick-factor.
Hello, welcome back, I’m glad you could make it.
Three more stories this week: one a flash-length excerpt from a longer story, the other two your standard slightly shorter than average short stories. Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen gives us our flash length story, an excerpt from ”Peter and Rosa”. After that is a bit of decadent literature from Junichiro Tanizaki called “Tattoo”, and a humorous story from Flann O’Brien called “John Duffy’s Brother”.
From “Peter and Rosa” by Isak Dinesen
Did you know that when Isak Dinesen sent the manuscript for her collector “Winter’s Tales” to her publisher it was right at the start of World War 2, and she had no way of knowing if it was received or published until after the war when former soldiers wrote to tell her how much they loved her book? While that story is wild on multiple accounts, I like to imagine what kind of guys these soldiers were who read Dinesen during the war.
An old friend of mine described Dinesen as a writer who readers always feel like they alone have discovered, and I think there’s something to that. When one of her stories clicks, that feeling of some truth being revealed to you and you alone is overwhelming. You might have to read a few of her stories for that to happen, but when it does… mmm, chef’s kiss.
Sadly, the excerpt Manguel includes here from “Peter and Rosa” is not enough to generate that feeling. If anything it gives only the barest hint with its short tale of a ship captain, his ship, and his wife’s jealousy that has all the qualities one recognizes from fairy tales.
All I can say is find yourself a Dinesen collection. She’s well worth the read.
“Tattoo” by Junichiro Tanizaki
I have to imagine that when Edgar Allan Poe’s work was translated into Japanese, they arrived alongside Oscar Wilde’s and Charles Baudelaire’s, making like this stew of decadent weirdness that the edgelordier sections of early 20th century Japanese writers must have loved. This story is direct from that main vein about one Seikichi, a sadistic tattoo artist, being gifted with a teenage girl to decorate as he pleases in the days before she is to start her training as an elite courtesan.
The ick-factor is strong here.
Seikichi starts the session by showing the girl his collection of erotic torture etchings. This terrify-titillates her, leading to an all-night tattoo session that leaves both exhausted. In the morning the artist knows he has reached his peak, but is more alarmed at the change in the girl. She has been transformed from the shy girl into a cruel woman. And as the sun rises, its light appears to set fire to the new tattoo.
And what is the tattoo of? A spider.
That’s it. The end. No moral. No comeuppance. No attack by the suddenly living spider, just a whole heap of decadence with a few extremely vivid images. Which is in no way a bad thing, but maybe not everyone’s cup of tea.
“John Duffy’s Brother” by Flann O’Brien
This is a story about a man who wakes up one day and thinks he is a train. He goes to work and does his job, and says things like he’s a train, then he goes home to lunch and realizes that he is in fact not a train. He’s then mortified by his morning’s behavior, but no one there ever mentions it. In fact they hardly noticed. Beyond a newfound particular-ness with sticking to a timetable, the man hadn’t really changed all that much. But still, those hours when John Duffy’s brother thought himself train would go on to haunt him for the rest of his life.
Initially, this story didn’t make much of an impression, but now a few days later I see it’s quite funny. Like what if Gregor Samsa did wake up one morning as a giant cockroach but nobody cared or noticed? That would be funny.
Next week… more transformations! Or, at least one transformation because it looks like a long story.
Until then, stay safe!