Thursday, July 2, 2015

Independence Day 2015 and Hale's "The Man Without a Country"

Independence Day in the U.S.A. this year has special significance for all Americans who have long believed, or have finally come to accept, that an individual should not be discriminated against simply because he or she loves someone of the same gender.
The wide acceptance of the Supreme Court's recent decision that "the right to marry is a fundamental right" and that "couples of the same sex may not be deprived of the fundamental right to marry" makes me proud to be an American.
I was so delighted with the decision that this past Sunday I picked up the Orange County Register, a very conservative newspaper in my area, with anticipation of schadenfreude that the editors would be morally and politically outraged at the decision. I wanted to gloat over that.
However, I was happily surprised that the lead editorial in the Register was headed "Expanding liberty for all." The editors agreed with the Court that to "suppress the freedom of same-sex couples to devote themselves to each other in the same manner as opposite-sex couples is misguided, and we should be proud that our society is turning away from this misuse of law."  The editorial in this very conservative Orange County newspaper agreed with me and many others, concluding: "Today, I feel especially proud to be an American."
Of course, recently Americans have been torn about something for which they are not proud—a reminder of racism that at one time was so strong it threatened to rend the country into two separate entities. And a powerful symbol of that hateful history—the Confederate flag—has been at the center of the debate.
Born in the border state of Kentucky, I understand the powerful symbolism of that flag, even though I repudiate one of the terribly hateful facts that it stood for. I agree with those who feel it is long past time to take the flag down from public buildings and sites, for whatever else it symbolizes, it is a reminder of a shameful chapter in American history.
Independence Day and reminders of the Civil War this year reminded me of one of the most famous short stories in American life—Edward Everett Hale's "The Man Without A Country." Written specifically to challenge the Southern Rebellion and to remind the citizens that their allegiance was to the United States of American, the story was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1863, even as the tide was beginning to turn in favor of the North. It was pirated and reprinted and sold over half a million copies within the year. It made Hale a celebrity and his central character in the story, Philip Nolan, famous. 
Reviewers said it was unanimously conceded that Hale had no superior in America as a writer of short stories. When he died in 1909, his obituary notice called "Man Without a Country" the most popular short story ever written in America.
In that same year, H.S. Canby, in his book The Short Story in English, said that what makes the story so memorable, even though it lacks the tightness and complexity of the best short stories, is that Hale hit upon a "striking situation" and made the story center on it until the end.
The story is about a young officer who gets seduced by the grandiose and perhaps treasonable plans of Aaron Burr. At his court martial, which takes place on the 23rd of September, 1807, the judge gives the young lieutenant a chance to redeem himself by asking him if he wished to make a statement to show he had always been faithful to the United States. In a mad state of anger and frenzy, Nolan cries out: "Damn the United States!  I wish I may never her of the United States again!" 
The Colonel who is conducting the court, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, is so shocked that he sentences Nolan to have his wish granted—that he shall never hear the name of the United States again. He is to be incarcerated on U.S. ships and never allowed to come any closer than a hundred miles to U.S. shores. Although he is to be exposed to no indignity or be reminded that he is a prisoner, he is denied all books that mention the U.S. Any reference to the U.S. is cut out of newspapers, so he may be reading something and find a great hole or gap in the text.
Nolan laughs at the sentence at first and remains arrogant for a time as he is moved from ship to ship. However, the turning point in the story comes when Nolan joins the officers on deck who are taking turns reading poems and stories aloud. Nolan reads from Sir Walter Scott's "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," and when he gets to the following lines, he breaks down:
Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own my native land!
The narrator of the story says Nolan was never the same again and wears the look of a "heart-wounded man."
The rest of the story describes a few episodes of Nolan's life during the fifty-six years of his banishment: his bravery during a battle of the War of 1812, his serving as a nurse to wounded men, his study of plants and insects brought to him by sea men, his acting as a lay chaplain, his empathy for African slaves freed from a slave ship, his eloquent repentance of his denial of his country, and his warning to other young men to be true to their homeland.
The story ends with the death of Nolan in his eighties as finally he is allowed to hear the history of the U.S. during his exile. A slip of paper found in his Bible after his death states what he wishes to be written on his tombstone:
"In Memory of Philip Nolan, Lieutenant in the Army of the United States.  He loved his country as no other man has loved her, but no man deserved less at her hands."
Although the story is little known now, it once was required reading in junior high and high school textbooks in America. I remember reading it when I was a child in a Classics Illustrated comic book edition. It was read on the radio several times during the 1940's.  For example, Bing Crosby narrated a reading of the story for the Philco Radio program in 1947 just before Thanksgiving. It has also been filmed several times, the most recent being a 1973 made-for-television movie starring Cliff Robertson as Philip Nolan.
In an introduction to the story, Hale says he wrote it in the "darkest period of the Civil War, to show what love of country is." He says he has heard many examples of its "having been of use" during the Civil War. Calling it a "parable," Hale says it was his intention to describe the life of a man "who tried to separate himself from his country, to show how terrible was his mistake."
A simple parable, the story never had much respect among academic critics, and Hale was seldom, if ever, taught in university classroom, nor is it any longer anthologized for the edification of junior high school students, at least as far as I can determine. Even as long ago as 1970, when I did a search for it in print, I could find it anthologized in only one short story text: An Anthology of Famous American Short Stories, edited by Burrell and Cerf for Random House in 1953..
It is of interest to me as a critic and scholar of the short story, for it is one of the rare cases when a short story—not a novel or a play, but a mere short story—had a powerful impact on the minds of its readers.  Granted, it is a simple story, rather carelessly written, and obviously designed for a polemical purpose, but simplistic as it is, it has many of the characteristics of what I have come to recognize as central to the short story as a genre.
It illustrates the central characteristic of the form that Frank O'Connor argued for his book The Lonely Voice, and which I have tried to further clarify and develop in my own modest book I Am Your Brother
"Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society…. As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness."
The atomistic short story seems perfectly appropriate for dealing with the life of the atomistic and isolated character. Because he has denied his country, Nolan is made to wander, like the archetypal wander Cain. Like the Ancient Mariner, he has denied the unity of life, but even worse than Cain, he is forbidden to tell his story.
In terms of technique, the story tries to create a sense of reality so strong that it makes readers ask, "Did that really happen?" Another story in American literature created this kind of engagement and belief—Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery," which had people writing countless letters asking her where the horrifying lottery actually took place.
It is not a story that needs to be read carefully, for it succeeds primarily because of its concept rather than its human complexity or its narrative technique.
You can find the Atlantic Monthly version on the Internet at

Friday, June 19, 2015

Four Stories for Father's Day 2015

To celebrate Father's Day on Sunday, I am posting brief comments on four short stories that focus on fathers. These are very short short stories that can be read in a few minutes, and I am including a link in case you want to read them in the next couple of days.  Just copy the url into your browser. The only version of the Lagkervist story I could find is a reading because, I guess, the text is still protected by copyright.
I included these four stories in a textbook of stories I edited back in 1993 entitled Fiction's Many Worlds. I sometimes used the book in my Short Story classes when I was teaching and always enjoyed discussing these stories with my students. What follows are some of the comments I used to stimulate discussion in those classes.
Happy Father's Day!

Par Lagkervist, Father and I
Lagkervist's story provided an opportunity to discuss how a fictional series of events that begin realistically can move into the realm of the dreamlike and the hallucinatory, and, by their very unreality, become parables. The first section of the story taken by the father and his son, which charts the journey forward, is brightly lit and delineated; everything seems sure and full of life. However, the return journey is dark and mysterious; everything suggests loneliness and death. What makes the story illustrative and parable-like is the archetypal situation of father and son journeying to the place of the father's old home. On the journey there, the son sees the father as completely at home in the world, one who is all-knowing and self-assured. However, on the return journey, it is as though an emotional, as well as a physical, turning point has been reached. 
The boy feels the father is no longer there to protect him because he is not afraid of the same things the boy fears. No longer does the boy think of "Daddy and I" or "we"; instead, the father is a separate individual with his own private thoughts to which the boy is denied access.  Moreover, for the first time, the boy recognizes a basic difference between the father and himself. Whereas the father seems comfortable and at home, treating things of the world as merely things, the boy transforms things into meaning. For him, the world is filled with mysterious forces; even God, which the father takes for granted, the boy senses to be an invisible force that inhabits all things.
The division of the story into two diametrically opposed parts--day journey and night journey--suggests a symbolic significance, as does the way that familiar objects in the day become transformed into mysterious objects at night. However, the mirror reflections of the two parts of the story would not be complete without the second train. On the way out, the train that passes is familiar and known to the father. The black train that roars past them at night, on the other hand, has a driver who is pale faced, immovable, and unknown. The boy says the train had been for his sake and he guessed what it meant. "It was all the fear which would come to me, all the unknown; all that Daddy didn't know about, and couldn't save me from." And with this transformation of the train into a symbolic object, the transformation of the story from realism to parable is complete. 

Anton Chekhov, "Grief" ("Misery")
The most influential figure in the development of modern short fiction is Anton Chekhov.  Chekhov's short stories were first welcomed in England and America just after the turn of the century as examples of late 19th-century realism, but since they did not embody the social commitment or political convictions of the realistic novel they were termed "realistic" primarily because they seemed to focus on fragments of everyday reality. Consequently, they were characterized as "sketches," "slices of life," "cross-sections of Russian life," and were often said to be lacking those elements which constitutes a really good short story. 
However, at the same time, other critics saw that Chekhov's ability to dispense with a striking incident, his impressionism, and his freedom from the literary conventions of the highly plotted and formalized story marked the beginnings of a new or "modern" kind of short fiction that combined the specific detail of realism with the poetic lyricism of romanticism.         
In Chekhov's story "”Grief" (sometimes translated as "Misery"), the everyday rhythm of the old cab-driver Iona's reality is suggested by his two different fares, a rhythm Iona tries to break into with the news that his son is dead. The story would indeed be only a sketch if Iona did not tell his story to the little mare at the end. For what the story presents is the comic and pathetic sense of the incommunicable nature of grief itself. Iona "thirsts for speech," wants to talk of the death of his son "properly, with deliberation." He is caught by the basic desire to tell a story of the break-up of his everyday reality that will express the irony he senses and that, by being deliberate and detailed, will both express his grief and control it. 
In this sense "Grief" is a lament (as the title is sometimes translated)--not an emotional wailing, but rather a controlled objectification of grief and its incommunicable nature by the presentation of deliberate details. It therefore indicates in a basic way one of the primary contributions Chekhov makes to the short story; that is, the use of the form as the expression of a complex inner state by means of the presentation of selected concrete details rather than by presenting either a parable form or by depicting the mind of the character. Significant reality for Chekhov is inner rather than outer reality; but the problem is how to create the illusion of inner reality by focusing on externals only.  The answer for the modern short story is to find a story that, if expressed "properly," that is, by the judicious choice of relevant details, will embody the complexity of the inner state. 

Katherine Mansfield, "The Fly"
Like Chekhov, whom she greatly admired, Katherine Mansfield was often accused of writing sketches instead of stories because her works did not manifest the plotted action of 19th-century short fiction. The best-known Mansfield story similar in technique and theme to the typical Chekhov story is "The Fly."  Like Chekhov's "Grief," the story is about the nature of grief; also like Chekhov's story, "The Fly" maintains a strictly objective point of view, allowing the details of the story to communicate the latent significance of the boss's emotional state.
However, Mansfield differs from her mentor Chekhov by placing more dependence on the fly itself as a symbol (depending on your interpretation) of the death of the boss's grief, his own manipulated son, or the trivia of life that distracts us from feeling.  Moreover, instead of focusing on the inarticulate nature of grief that goes deeper than words, "The Fly" seems to emphasize the transitory nature of grief.
Regardless of how much the boss would like to hold on to his grief for his son, he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain such feelings. Such an inevitable loss of grief does not necessarily suggest that the boss's feelings for his son are negligible; rather it suggests a subtle aspect of grief--that it must flow naturally or not at all. The subtle way that Mansfield communicates the complexity of the boss's emotional situation by the seemingly irrelevant conversation with his old acquaintance and by his apparently idle toying with the fly is typical of the Chekhovian device of allowing objective detail to communicate complex states of feeling.           
A great deal of critical ink has been spilled over those drops of ink that the boss drops on the fly at the end of the story because of the ambiguity over what the seemingly meaningless action objectifies.

Grace Paley, "A Conversation with My Father"
Grace Paley once said that this story is about storytelling, generational attitudes, and history.  She says the father in the story is right, from his point of view, for he came from a world where there was no choice, where you couldn't change careers when you were forty-one years old. Paley has said that the father in the story is patterned after her own father.
What Paley rebels against in this story is the inevitability of plot, which, because it moves toward a predestined end, is a straight line between two points and thus takes away all hope. A basic difference between fiction and "real life," Paley suggests is that whereas real life is open and full of possibility, fiction moves relentlessly toward its predetermined end. Consequently, as much as the writer might like his or her fiction to be "like life," it can never quite be a similitude of life. The closest the writer comes to feeling this sense of similitude is when fictional characters are so fully realized that they seem to take on a life of their own and somehow "get away" from their authors.
After the author tells her second story, the character of the mother does seem to "come alive" both for the author and the father, for whereas the father feels sorry for her as if she were a real person in the real world, the author feels that she has the freedom to do something other than she does in the story. A basic difference between the father's reaction to the woman in the story and the author's reaction is that whereas the father takes her situation seriously, as if she had a separate existence in the world, the author knows that the woman is her own creation; thus, although she feels sorry for her, she never loses sight of the fact that as the author she has the god-like power to alter her destiny. 
The basic implication of this difference is that whereas the reader can become involved with fictional characters within the predetermined pattern of the plots in which they live, the author necessarily takes a more distanced approach to his or her characters and thus is more apt to see them satirically rather than tragically.

Happy Father's Day!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Happy Bloomsday! Joyce's Contribution to the Modern Short Story

Today, June 16, is Bloomsday, which James Joyce made forever famous as the day Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedelus were out and about in "Dirty old Dublin" in the great novel Ulysses.
A few years ago, I took a group of students to Dublin for three weeks to study Ulysses and Dubliners in the city itself.  It was a grand time we had, for we were there for Bloomsday, and many of us had Gorgonzola cheese and red wine at Davy Byrnes pub just off Grafton Street.  And we had Guinness—lots and lots of Guinness. 
Today, I will have to content myself with having a Guinness in California alone—which is not as much fun as having a Guinness with friends in Dublin, but certainly better than not having a Guinness at all.
I have read Ulysses six times and would not mind talking a bit about it here.  But that novel, although it started as a short story, does not quite qualify for discussion on this blog.  Still I could not let Bloomsday pass without making a few comments about Joyce's contribution to the short story form.
Joyce's most famous contribution to the theory and technique of modern short narrative is his notion of the "epiphany," which he defined in his early novel Steven Hero:  "By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself.  He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments."
 In a Joyce story, an epiphany is a formulation through metaphor or symbol of some revelatory aspect of human experience, some highly significant aspect of personal reality, usually communicated by a pattern of what otherwise would be seen as trivial details and events.  Joyce's technique is to transform the casual into the causal by repetition of seemingly trivial details until they are recognized as part of a significant pattern.  Two of Joyce's best-known stories, "Eveline" and "Araby," end with decisions or revelations that seem unprepared for until the reader reflects back on the story and perceives the patterned nature of what at first seem only casual detail.
In "Eveline," the reader must determine how Eveline's thoughts of leaving in Part I inevitably to her decision to stay in Part II.   Most of the story takes place while Eveline is sitting at the window watching the evening "invade" the avenue.  Nothing really "happens" in the present in the first part of the story, for her mind is on the past and the future, occupied with contrasting images of familiar/strange, duty/pleasure, earth/sea, entrapment/escape, death/life.  It is the counterpoint pattern of these images that prepares the reader for the last section of the story when Eveline stands among the crowds and decides not to leave her father and Ireland.
The problem is how to understand how the first part of the story, which focuses primarily on the bleakness of Eveline's past life at home and thus seems to suggest that she will decide to go with Frank, manages at the same time to suggest that she will decide to stay?  The basic tension is between the known and the unknown.  Although Eveline does not have many happy memories of her childhood and family life, at least they are familiar and comfortable.  Because these events have already happened, what "used to be" is still present and a part of her.  However, life with Frank, because it has not yet happened, is tinged with fear of the unknown, in spite of the fact that it holds the promise of romance and respect.  Thus, at the end, when she sets her face to him, passive, like a helpless animal, with no sign of love or farewell or recognition, we realize that her decision to stay is ultimately inexpressible.
What Joyce achieves in one of his most anthologized stories, "Araby," derives from Chekhov's experiments with creating symbols out of objects by their role or context, not by their preexisting symbolic meaning.  The primary counterpoint throughout the story consists of those images that suggest ordinary reality and those that suggest unknown romance.  The result is a kind of realism that is symbolic at the same time for the boy's spiritual romanticism is embodied in the realistic objects of his world. 
This is a story about the ultimate romantic projection, for the boy sees the girl as a religious object, a romantic embodiment of desire.  Her name is like a "summons" to all his "foolish blood," yet it is such a sacred name that he cannot utter it.  Her image accompanies him "even in places the most hostile to romance."  Thus, when he visits Araby, a place he fancies the most sympathetic to romance, what he seeks is a sacred object capable of objectifying all his unutterable desires. 
The conversation he overhears causes his realization precisely because of its trivial flirtatious nature, for what the boy discovers is that there is nothing so sacred that it cannot be made profane.  To see his holy desire for Mangan's sister diminished to mere physical desire is to see a parody of himself.  The result is the realization not only that he is driven and derided by vanity, but that all is vanity; there is no way for the sacred desires human beings store up in their ghostly hearts to be actualized and still retain their spiritual magic.
"The Dead" is the most subtle example of Joyce's innovative technique.  The first two-thirds of the story reads as if it were a section from a novel, as numerous characters are introduced and the details of the party are reproduced in great detail.  It is only in the last third, when Gabriel's life is transformed, first by his romantic and sexual fantasy about his wife and then by his confrontation with her secret life, that the reader reflects back on the first two-thirds of the story and perceives that the earlier concrete details and the trivial remarks are symbolically significant.  Thematically, the conflict that reflects the realistic/lyrical split in the story is the difference revealed to both Gabriel and the reader between public life and private life, between life as it is in actual experience and life perceived as desire.
The party portion of "The Dead" reflects Gabriel's public life; his chief interest is what kind of figure he is going to cut publicly.  However, throughout the party period of the story, there are moments--particularly those moments that focus on the past, on music, and on marital union--when reality is not presented as here and now, but as a mixture of memory and desire.  During their short carriage ride to the hotel, he indulges in his own self-delusion about his relationship with his wife: "moments of their life together that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illuminated his memory."
When Gabriel discovers that Gretta has a secret life that has nothing to do with him, he sees the inadequacy of his public self.  Michael Furey, who has been willing to sacrifice his life for love of another, challenges Gabriel's smug safety.  In the much-discussed lyrical ending of "The Dead," Gabriel confronts the irony that the dead Michael is more alive than he is.  "Generous tears" fill his eyes because he knows that he has never lived the life of desire, only the untransformed life of the everyday. 
At the end, awake and alone while his wife sleeps beside him, he loses his egoistic self and imaginatively merges into a mythic lyrical sense of oneness.  "The Dead" is not a story that can be understood the way most novels are read--one thing after another--but the way the modern short story must be read--aesthetically patterned in such a way that only the end makes the rest of the story meaningful.

Happy Bloomsday to one and all!

Monday, June 15, 2015

"Wow!" vs. "Whoa!" in the Short Story

            In response to my recent piece on V. S. Pritchett, Pearl Street posted a comment on what Louis Menand once called the "whoa" effect of short stories. I referred to Menand's remark about his "not exactly a term of art" a dozen years ago in a paper I read on so-called "linked stories" or "short story sequences" at the Modern Language Association Meeting.  I thought it might be worth posting a few paragraphs from that paper.

                                            Wow Vs. Whoa in the Short Story
I must tell you at the outset--as perhaps the world’s oldest cheerleader for the short story as a genre--that I have some reservations about focusing on short stories as parts of a whole rather than as complete artistic entities in themselves.  Given the current trend in the literary marketplace, I could say that I am interested in protecting the marginalized short story from the hegemonic influence of the globalized strength of novelistic predominance, but an old formalist like me would never use language like that. 
My worry is that, precisely because of the hegemonic notion that bigger is better, focusing on the sequential nature of stories inevitably throws the focus on the novel side of the formula rather than on the short story side.  The question of what makes a short story sequence something other than a group of randomly assembled stories and also something other than a novel is worth examining.  I certainly do not want short stories to be read as if they were sections of a novel.  However, by the same token, I do not want them to be read as “part” of an overarching sequence, a tactic that may result in neglecting the unique characteristics of short stories as individual works of art.
It troubles me that James Nagel in The Contemporary American Short Story Cycle says that some readers have misinterpreted individual stories because they did not take into account that they have a book-length intertextual context.  The very word “misinterpret” suggests that one can not really read a story from, say Winesburg or Dubliners, individually, but only within the overall context of the sequence in which they were ultimately published.
I admit there is a certain pleasure involved when you read a story and run across a character you have met in a previous story.  Such character reappearances create pleasurable little shocks of recognition for the reader, a sort of “wow” factor that these characters actually live outside the fictions in which they exist and have been hanging around just waiting for another story in which to pop up.
For example,  although Stuart Dybek’s collection, I Sailed with Magellan, was promoted by his publisher as a “novel-in-stories,” the only thing novelistic about it is that some of the same characters appear in all the stories.  In an interview, Dybek said that the overall narrative line of such linked story collections as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and James Joyce’s Dubliners doesn’t even begin to suggest what they are about, for such books do not assume that life is a neat pattern of cause and effect.  Thus, to call I Sailed with Magellan an ethnic “coming-of-age novel” about a young Polish-American growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s is to minimize the universal power of the eleven individual stories, for each one is a self-contained, lyrically powerful, literary experience.
In the Dec. 1, 2003 issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand, in a long review essay on John Updike’s The Early Stories, says that if you try to name the sensation that an individual story delivers, you might call it a general sense of  “Whoa,” which, he admits, is not exactly a term of art, but you know it when you feel it--that shiver of recognition of the “whatness of a thing” being revealed when you read “Snow was general all over Ireland.” 
Basically, I guess, I prefer this “whoa” feeling when a single story comes completely yet inexpressibly together over the “wow” feeling of running across the same characters, settings, or themes in several stories sequentially arranged stories. 
The short story's dependence on a tightly controlled structure rather than a linear plot and mimetic methods has been one of its central aesthetic characteristic since Poe adapted from A. W. Schlegel a new meaning of the term plot as being "that from which no part can be displaced without ruin to the whole."  By this one stroke, Poe shifted the reader's narrative focus from mimetic events to aesthetic pattern.  Julio Cortazar has reaffirmed that “intensity in a story consists of the elimination of all the filler and transitional material that the novel permits and even demands.”  This need for the elimination of all transitional material is suggested by C. S. Lewis as the human need to transcend temporality to achieve some atemporal understanding:  "In real life, as in a story, something must happen,” says Lewis.  “That is just the trouble.  We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied.”
Many years ago I argued that the short story “way of seeing” was like that which Ernst Cassirer says characterizes perceiving the world in a mythic way.  When Alice Munro says she is primarily interested in “emotion,” she echoes Cassirer’s argument that within mythical perception “Whatever is seen or felt is surrounded by a special atmosphere.”  In this realm, says Cassirer, we cannot speak of things as dead or indifferent stuff, but all “objects are benign or malignant, friendly or inimical, familiar or uncanny, alluring and fascinating or repellent and threatening.”  
This also reflects Raymond Carver’s conviction that,  "It's possible in … a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense, even startling power."  It’s also what John Dewey means by the difference between an emotionally charged experience phenomenologically encountered and experience discursively understood.  As Dewey makes clear, an experience is recognized as such precisely because it has a unity, "a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of the variation of its constituent parts.” 
Moreover, although the novel may focus on cause and effect in time, the short story accepts the fact that what makes characters do what they do is not so simple.  Flannery O’Connor once said she lent some stories to a country lady who lived down the road from her, and when she returned them the woman said, “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do.” O’Connor agreed that when you write stories you have to show how “some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.”  
               Part of the reason for this sense of an elusive and mysterious “secret” life of the characters of short stories derives from its origins in the folk tale and later the romance form.  Whereas the focus of the novel is often on multiple inner consciousnesses, the focus of the short story is more often on an obsessed inner consciousness.  Characters in short fiction seem somewhat like allegorical figures because of their obsessive focus on some single task: Goodman Brown's journey into the forest, Old Phoenix's trip to get the healing medicine, Bartleby's preference not to, Nick Adam's fishing trip at Big, Two-Hearted River.  Obsessiveness—centering the attention on an activity, a person, and a belief--is a limiting, formal process that can be identified as a pattern or structure.  Although in Joyce’s “The Dead,” Gabriel's mind wanders through a number of memories, thoughts, objects, tasks, etc. there is a discernible pattern to his thoughts and preoccupations or else the story would not end with the revelatory sense of transcendence and meaningful closure that it does.
A number of narratologists have noted the basic tension in story between sequence and  significance.  Frank Kermode  calls it the tension between narrative sequence and “secrets.”  And “Secrets,” says Kermode, are at odds with sequence.”  Paul Ricoer calls it the tension between the episodic dimension, which refers to the story as events, and the configurational dimension, “according to the which the plot construes significant wholes out of scattered events.”  As Ricoeur says, every narrative combines these two dimensions in various proportions.”  Most great short-story writers suggest that the short story is more configurational than sequential. 
 The hidden story, of emotion and secret life, communicated by atmosphere, tone, and mood is always about something more unspeakable, more mysterious, than the story generated by the reader’s focus on characters and on what happens next.  The genius of great short stories is that whereas they could indeed be the seedbed of novels, they do not communicate as novels do.  And if we try to read them as if they were parts of novels, they will never haunt us with their mystery. However, this mystery is not easy to describe.

As Louis Menand said in his 2003 piece in The New Yorker: "The difficulty of putting into words the effect a story produces is part of the point.  The story is words; the effect is wordless, or at best, whoa."

Friday, June 12, 2015

V.S. Pritchett: Neglected British Master of the Short Story

Two observations on which most writers and critics agree about V.S. Pritchett are:  (1) He was one of England's best short-story writers. (2) He has always been unfairly ignored. 
Dean R. Baldwin, in one of the few studies of Pritchett (V.S. Pritchett. Boston: Twayne, 1987), rightly observes that neglect of Pritchett is largely due to the fact that his most lasting contribution are his short stories. The fact that "neglect" and "short stories" somehow often seem to be linked should be no surprise to readers of this blog, who know that short stories have often been ignored because of a critical bias for the big over the small, action over language, and the social over the artistic.
Because I have battled these biases throughout my career, I am always delighted when a publisher has the gumption to go against them and makes forgotten short-story writers newly available.
Turnpike Books (London), who has previously published handy handsome paperback collections of A.E. Coppard (Weep Not My Wanton) and J. B. Priestly (What a Life!), has now published a selection of eight stories by V.S. Priestly entitled On the Edge of the Cliff.  They were kind enough to send me a copy.  I posted an essay on the Coppard collection earlier on this blog.
Not to be confused with a Random House 1979 edition of the same name (the title of one of the stories), Turnpike's edition of On the Edge of the Cliff, contains eight of Pritchett's most memorable stories. In addition to the title story: "Wheelbarrow," "Citizen," "The Wedding," "The Speech," "A Debt of Honor," "The Cage Birds," and "The Skeleton."
If you associate British short stories with genteel drawing room comedies or superficial social satires, then you haven't read V. S. Pritchett. In the opening story, "Wheelbarrow," for example, the central character is a "natural destroyer," who looks like some "hard-living, hard-bitten doll," a taxi-driver, who "captures" a woman and takes over assisting her ready an inherited house for sale. Squatting like an imp or devil, he tells her about a vision he had in a mine that converts him from being a gambler and a fornicator to a pious Christian. The story becomes a back-and-forth battle between the two involving temptation, lust, coveting, avarice. It is a classic example of how the short story creates a "realistic" story that is simultaneously a mythic story that focuses on the "secret life."
Adrian Hunter, in his 2007 book, The Cambridge Introduction to the Short Story in English, suggests that Pritchett regards the short story "fundamentally at odds with the English cultural imaginary," which is ruminative. Hunter explains Pritchett's failure to find respect in the academy by locating him unpalatably between modernist formalism and old fashioned social satire.
In the Introduction to the Oxford Book of Short Stories (1981), Pritchett says the short story springs from a poetic rather than a prosaic impulse, which suggests that things that are left out are there all the time and that it approaches the mythical.  The short story writer, he says is not sustained by the discursive like the novelist but rather the distinctiveness of his voice and the ingenuity of his design. He says a good storyteller knows he is putting on a "personal, individual act."  The short story, says Pritchett, knows that our "restless lives achieve shape at times and our emotions have their architecture."
In one of the most recent pieces on Pritchett, (New Statesman, 6 February 2012), the great short story writer William Trevor agrees with Elizabeth Bowen that the form is "a child of our time," at the very "heart of modernity" in its "matter-of-fact brevity," its "sense of urgency, its glimpsing manner, its stab of truth."  All of this, he says, was waiting for V.S. Pritchett, who "gratefully reached out for it, prized it, and indelibly left his mark on it." And indeed, Pritchett has shown himself more appreciative and proficient in the unique characteristics of the short story than most British writers of the twentieth century.
In a 1953 piece in Harper's Bazaar, Pritchett noted that whereas novels are bemusing, the short story, on the other hand," wakes the reader up.”  Like other short story writers before and after him, Pritchett argues that the form answers the "primitive craving for art, the wit, paradox and beauty of shape, the longing to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience." 
In a 1985 interview (John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview.  NY: Methuen),  he says he likes Chekhov's stories because they are so open-ended and he tries to do that too, to leave things hanging.  "it's terribly difficult for English writers to do, since some sort of practical or responsible sense works against it.  We tend to lack the courage to leave it like that, and we don't know what 'that' is."
In the same interview, Pritchett says, "Writing short stories is like writing sonnets or a lyrical poem: it's strictly disciplined, it has to be highly concentrated, and it has to suggest a world much larger than it appears to be doing in its space.... I have always wanted to pursue intensity, and a long time ago I became infatuated with the Idea of 'essences'--essences of behavior--which I got out of reading Croce in Spanish. Croce made a great impression on me as a young man, and I thought: 'Yes, I don't want the whole cake, I want the essence.'"
Pritchett says one of the delightful things about the short story is it is like looking a picture, for you can see the whole thing at once. He also says its intensity attracts him. In his introduction to a collection of Mary Lavin's stories, he said that the Irish short story writer tends to concentrate on the discrepancy between ordinary, everyday life and the self's hidden life."
In the Preface to his Collected Stories (1982), Pritchett talked about how story-writing was "exacting work," and that so-called "real life" is "useless until art reveals what life merely suggested." He says that although he laboured at novels, he was really attracted to "concision, intensity, reducing possible novels to essentials." He adds that he has always thought the short-story writer is a mixture of reporter, aphoristic wit, moralist and poet—though not "poetical." He says the short-story writer is like a ballad-maker and in the intricacy of his designs like a writer of sonnets, like an architect.  The short story, he argues, is not simply read, but re-read again and again.
If you are familiar with my own discussions of the short story in this blog, and in my essays, reviews, and books, you will also find Pritchett's comments on the form familiar. The characteristics of the form Pritchett identifies, and which I have argued for over the years are as follows:
1.      The short story is poetic rather than prosaic.
2.      Things that seem left out are there all the time in short stories.
3.      The short story approaches the mythical. 
4.      The short story is sustained  by the distinctiveness of the writer's voice.
5.      The short story is sustained by ingenuity of its design.
6.      A good storyteller knows he is putting on a "personal, individual act."  
7.      The short story knows that our lives achieve shape at times and our emotions have       their architecture.
8.      The short story reflects a primitive craving for art and beauty of shape, the longing       to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience. 
9.      Short stories are like lyrical poems--strictly disciplined, concentrated.
10.  The short story must suggest a world larger than it appears to be doing.
11.  The short story is not simply read, but re-read again and again.
12.  The short story deals with "essences" of behavior.
If you appreciate the short story and have not read V. S. Pritchett's short stories, Turnpike Books' Edge of the Cliff is a good place to start. He knew the form well—perhaps too well to be well-received by popular readers who prefer long rambling "real life" or academic critics who prefer social significance.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--Guy de Maupassant, "La Horla"

After the success of Boule de Suif ("Ball of Fat")  in 1880, the touching little story of the prostitute who reluctantly goes to bed with a Prussian officer in order to procure the release of her traveling companions and then is scorned by them, Guy de Maupassant began to write anecdotal articles for two newspapers, the practice of which served as preparation for writing the short stories that were to make him famous.
His first full volume of short fiction appeared in 1881 under the title of his second important story, La Maison Tellier ("Madame Tellier's House"), a comic piece about a group of prostitutes who attend a First Communion. After the success of this book, Maupassant published numerous stories in newspapers and periodicals which were then reprinted in the volumes of his stories that began to appear at the rate of approximately two a year. Many of his stories created a great deal of controversy among the French critics of the time because he dared to focus on the experiences of so-called "lowlife" characters.
However, in addition to the realistic stories of the lower-class, Maupassant also experimented with mystery tales, many of which are reminiscent of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.  Instead of depending on the supernatural, these stories focus on some mysterious dimension of reality which is justified rationally by the central character.  As a result, the reader is never quite sure whether this realm exists in actuality or whether it is a product of the obsessed mind of the narrator.
The year 1884 saw the publication of Maupassant's most famous short story, La Parure, usually translated as "The Necklace," which has become one of the most famous short stories in any language. Indeed, it has become so famous that it is the story which most commonly comes to mind when Maupassant's name is mentioned, in spite of the fact that most critics agree that Maupassant's creation of tone and character in such stories as Boule de Suif and La Maison Tellier are much more representative of his genius than this ironically-plotted little trick story about the woman who wasted her entire life to pay back a lost necklace, only to discover that it was fake.
La Horla, a story of psychological horror, is actually the pinnacle of several stories of madness which Maupassant had experimented with previously.  The story focuses on the central character's intuition of a reality which surrounds human life but remains imperceptible to the senses.  Told by means of diary entries, the story charts the protagonist's growing awareness of his own madness as well as his lucid understanding of the process whereby the external world is displaced by psychic projections.
What makes "The Horla" distinctive is the increasing need of the narrator to account for his madness as being due to something external to himself.  Such a desire is Maupassant's way of universalizing the story, for he well knew that human beings have always tried to embody their most basic desires and fears in some external but invisible presence. "The Horla" is a masterpiece of hallucinatory horror because it focuses so powerfully on that process of mistaking inner reality for outer reality which is indeed the very basis of hallucination. The story is too strongly controlled to be the work of a madman.
Of all the Maupassant tales that focus on madness, hallucination, obsession, and the mystery of a dimension beyond the senses, the most sustained and deservedly the most famous is "The Horla."  Although many critics point to the autobiographical elements in this story (for during its writing Maupassant was possessed by the increasing madness caused by syphilis), still others suggest that the work stands on its own merits as a masterpiece of psychological horror. Told by means of diary entries, the story charts the protagonist's growing awareness of his own madness as well as his understanding of the process whereby the external world is displaced by psychic projections.
The story begins with many of the same themes that Maupassant had earlier developed in "Letter from a Madman," even at times using much of the same language as that story.  The narrator begins considering the mystery of the invisible, the weakness of the senses to perceive all that is out there in the world, and the theory that if there were other senses, one could discover many more things about the world around human life.  The second predominant Maupassant theme here is that of apprehension, a sense of some imminent danger, a presentiment of something yet to come.  This apprehension, which the narrator calls a disease, is accompanied by nightmares, a sense of some external force suffocating him while he sleeps, and the conviction that there is something following him; yet when he turns around there is nothing there.
This sense of something existing outside the self but not visible to the ordinary senses is pushed even further when the narrator begins to believe that there are actual creatures who exist in this invisible dimension.  This conviction is then developed into an idea that when the mind is asleep an alien being takes control of the body and makes it obey. All of these ideas then lead easily into the concept of mesmerism or hypnotism; for under hypnosis it seems as if an alien being has control of our actions which, when we awake, we have no awareness of.  Although the narrator doubts his sanity, he also feels he is in complete possession of all his faculties, and he becomes even more convinced that an invisible creature is making him do things that his own mind does not direct him to do.  Thus he finally believes that there are Invisible Ones in the world, creatures who have always existed and who have haunted mankind even though they cannot be seen.
The final event to convince him of the external, as opposed to the psychological, existence of the creatures, is a newspaper article about an epidemic of madness in Brazil in which people seem possessed by vampire-like creatures who feed on them during sleep.  He remembers a Brazilian ship that sailed past his window and believes that one of the creatures has jumped ship to possess him.  Now he knows that the reign of man on earth is over and that the forces of the Horla which man has always feared--forces called spirits, genii, fairies, hobgoblins, witches, devils, and imps--will enslave man.
Finally, in a scene which was used earlier in "A Letter from a Madman," he "sees" the creature in the mirror when its presence blurs his own image by coming between him and the mirror. He decides to destroy the creature by locking it in his room and burning his house to the ground. As he watches the house burn and realizes that his servants are burning too, he wonders if indeed the Horla is dead, for he considers that it cannot, like man, be prematurely destroyed.  His final thought is since the Horla is not dead he shall have to kill himself; the story ends with that decision.
What makes "The Horla" distinctive is the increasing need of the narrator to account for his madness as being something external to himself.  This universalizes the story, for human beings have always tried to embody their most basic desires and fears in some external but invisible presence named gods, devils, spirits, etc. "The Horla" is a masterpiece of hallucinatory horror because it focuses so powerfully on that process of mistaking inner reality for outer reality which is the very basis of hallucination.
Because of his ability to transform the short mystery tale from a primitive oral form based on legend into a sophisticated modern form in which mystery originates within the complex mind of man, Maupassant is an important figure in marking the transition between the nineteenth-century tale of the supernatural and the twentieth-century short story of psychological obsession.
Guy de Maupassant is one of those writers whose contribution to literature is often overshadowed by the tragic facts of his life and whose real experimentation is often ignored in favor of his more popular innovations.  Too often it is his promiscuity and profligate Parisian life style that receives the most attention from the casual reader.  As if to provide evidence for the payment Maupassant had to make for such a lifestyle, these readers then point to the supposed madness-inspired story La Horla--a fit ending for one who not only wrote about prostitutes but paid for their dangerous favors as well with his life.
However, Maupassant's real place as a writer belongs with such innovators of the short-story form as Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Ambrose Bierce, and O. Henry.  Too often, whereas such writers as Turgenev and Chekhov are admired for their so-called lyricism and realistic vignettes, writers such as Bierce and O. Henry are scorned for their so-called cheap narrative tricks.  Maupassant falls somewhere in between.  On the one hand, he indeed mastered the ability to create the tight little ironic story that depends, as all short stories do, on the impact of the ending, but on the other hand he also had the ability, like Chekhov, to focus keenly on a limited number of characters in a luminous situation. The Soviet short-story writer Isaac Babel has perhaps paid the ultimate tribute to Maupassant in one of his stories by noting how Maupassant knew the power of a period placed in just the right place.

Maupassant had as much to do with the development of the short-story genre in the late nineteenth century Chekhov did. in somewhat different ways.  However, because such stories as "The Necklace" seem so deceptively simple and trivial, his experiment with the form has often been ignored.  Not until the short story itself receives the recognition it deserves as a respectable literary genre will Guy de Maupassant receive the recognition he deserves for his contribution to the perfection of the form.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Short Story Month--2015--Joseph Conrad, "The Secret Sharer"

As Eudora Welty once said, "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery.  And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again.  Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement.  As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful" (164). The implication of this awareness of “mystery” is that the short story often seems to focus on a moment out of time, or on time as mythically perceived, the way Ernest Cassirer and Mircea Eliade have described it.
  More so than in the novel, the short story most often deals with phenomena for which there is no clearly discernible logical, sociological, or psychological cause.  As Welty says, the "first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own.  It is wrapped in an atmosphere.  This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initial obscures its plain, real shape" (163).  To Conrad’s Marlowe, sitting Buddha-like on the deck telling the story of Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness,” the "meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."
Joseph Conrad confronts the problem of manifesting the secret, hidden life in the external world explicitly in his two most famous short works.  In "The Heart of Darkness" he creates a world like that of "Young Goodman Brown," in which landscape symbolically represents the ultimate reaches of psychic reality; moreover he develops a plot structure very much like Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," in which a realistic narrator confronts a metaphoric extremist
In "The Secret Sharer," Conrad seeks a method to reveal the secret conflict of his protagonist by having the young captain project that conflict outside of himself.  Just as Hamlet creates a play within a play to externalize his conflict so that he can cope with it, the captain in Conrad's story creates the character of Leggatt to provide him with the means by which he can deal with his own insecurity and establish his own identity.  Conrad pushes to metaphoric extremes the common psychological phenomenon of inner conflict creating a split in the self so that it seems as if there are two separate voices engaged in a dialogue. 
Leggatt, whose name suggests he is a representative or emissary, is the objectified side of the captain's Hamlet-like, preoccupied, subjective self.  The story thus is torn between the plot, which focuses on the efforts of the captain to protect and conceal the mysterious stranger, and the mind of the captain, which obsessively persists in perceiving and describing the stranger as his other self, his double.  Although some critics have suggested that the constant repetition of the similarity between the captain and Leggatt is tedious and the weakest part of the work, the repetition is a purposeful Conrad tactic of overdetermination to suggest both that Leggatt is a romance-like symbolic projection of the captain's psyche and at the same time a real character with his own objective existence to whom the captain reacts in an obsessive way.
The  story begins with the central motif of the captain's lack of identity.  He says he is not only a stranger on the ship but also a stranger to himself, and he wonders if he will "turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly." And indeed, many metaphorical details in the story suggest Leggatt has been summoned forth from the captain's unconscious as an aspect of the self with which he must deal.
 For example, Leggatt is first seen as a silvery, fish-like naked body emerging from the sea to whom the captain responds in a matter-of-fact way, as if he were expecting him.  The image of the captain looking straight down into a face upturned exactly under his own is clearly an allusion to the myth of Narcissus.  However, instead of the captain falling into his reflection, as in a number of German romantic tales, the reflection comes out of the mirror-like sea and takes on a problematical independent existence.  After Leggatt puts on one of the captain's sleeping suits, the captain says, it was "as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror."
In Conrad's story the mysterious mythic emissary from the unconscious is presented as an objective existence in the world, not as a dreamlike or allegorical projection.  Although we know that others have seen Leggatt as an objective presence before the story begins, no one but the captain sees him during the actual events of the story.  The anecdote of the scorpion in the inkwell is the mise en abyme in "The Secret Sharer" in which we see the entire story reflected in miniature.  Leggatt comes out of the inky water of the sea, which represents both the unconscious of the captain/Conrad and the inkwell source of all stories, the Ocean of Story.  At the end of "The Secret Sharer," Leggatt's movement back into the sea, representing the captain's reintegration of the split in his self, is his movement back into the inkwell.  Leggatt, the oneiric creation of both the captain and the artist, says "I am off the face of the earth now.  As I came at night so shall I go."
Making manifest that which is hidden is the primarily structural force of "The Secret Sharer."  This objectification of inner reality marks the beginning of the “modern” mythical method of fictional narration, as Thomas Mann defines it in his famous essay, "Freud and the Future."  Mann explicitly calls for a modern fiction that mixes the psychological and the mythical, for he affirms as truth the Schopenhauer‑Freud perception that life itself is a "mingling of the individual elements and the formal stock‑in‑trade; a mingling in which the individual, as it were, only lifts his head above the formal and impersonal elements."  Much of the "extra‑personal," Mann insists, "much unconscious identification, much that is conventional and schematic, is none the less decisive for the experience not only of the artist but of the human being in genera. (421)." 
Our interest in fictional characters, Mann implies, is, regardless of the events in which they are enmeshed, always centrally located in the process by which they try to find their identity, the means by which they attempt to answer the age‑old Oedipal question:  Who am I?  In such a process the two forces of the subjective and the schematic are decisive.  As Robert Langbaum has described it, when you realize that introspection leads to nothing but endless reflection, you see that the only way to find out who you are is to don a mask and step into a story.  "The point is," says Langbaum, "at that level of experience where events fall into a pattern. . . they are an objectification of your deepest will, since they make you do things other than you consciously intend; so that in responding like a marionette to the necessities of the story, you actually find out what you really want and who you really are" (175). 
This creation of an "as-if" real character to embody psychic processes marks the impressionistic extension of the romantic trend that began the short story form earlier in the nineteenth century.
Much of the reason for this sense of an elusive and mysterious “secret” life of the characters of short stories derives from its origins in the folk tale and later the romance form.  Whereas the focus of the novel is often on multiple inner consciousnesses, the focus of the short story is more often on an obsessed inner consciousness.  Characters in short fiction seem somewhat like allegorical figures because of their obsessive focus on some single task: Goodman Brown's journey into the forest, Old Phoenix's trip to get the healing medicine, Bartleby's preference not to, Nick Adam's fishing trip at Big, Two-Hearted River.  The hidden story of emotion and secret life, communicated by atmosphere, tone, and mood is always about something more unspeakable, more mysterious, than the story generated by the reader’s focus on characters and on what happens next. 
The genius of the short story form is that whereas short stories often could indeed be the seedbeds of novels, they do not communicate as novels do.  And if we try to read them as if they were novels, they will never haunt us with their sense of that mysterious secret life within all of us.