Category Archives: Short Stories

The treason of the artist

I was trying to think of something to post today, and I saw that someone had searched and found my blog using this question: What does “the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain” mean?

This quote is from the short story by Ursula Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

I thought I’d take a stab at answering this question. Alternatively, whoever asked the question might try contacting Ursula. Who knows, she might answer you. Some authors are quite friendly and happy to expound on the topics that interest them. But, sometimes I find questions in stories to be opportunities to do a little soul searching, a little probing to see what I can make of their significance.  So here is my take.

The quote that I put on my blog was this:

“They [the citizens of Omelas] were no less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

Le Guin is contrasting the citizens of Omelas with us—the world she has created (a utopian world where everyone is happy) and the real world (where there is much hardship and pain).

The quote goes on to say:

“If you can’t lick ’em join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy…”

To me, Ursula is saying that the treason of the artist is that artists regard evil as supremely interesting. Artists value pain and despair. These things drive creativity behind art; they are at its core. Artists don’t recognize the commonplace or ordinary nature of evil. Artists see evil as unique, worth writing about, worth centering stories around, worth painting and showing off. Evil fuels the news. We fight evil in our games. In a way, all this attention to evil elevates evil as though it were extraordinary, as though it were unique, as though it could be categorized as new and different.

But, argues Ursula, there is nothing new about evil, or pain. They are quite ordinary to our world and to our condition in the world. The treason of the artist, therefore, is to refuse to see evil this way. Artists idolize our world. Artists see the world as a place that should not have evil and pain, and therefore they continue their treason, that of regarding evil and pain as interesting above happiness, as extraordinary, as something worth examining in every creation. Evil and pain are the points of interest. Our resistance to them, how and why we resist, consumes our imagination as we obsessively and compulsively ruminate over these fundamental elements of our existence.

As for the terrible boredom of pain, I struggle with this idea. When someone is in pain, their pain fascinates them. Nothing else can absorb their interest. If someone, as in Ursula’s story, was condemned to a life of pain, I suppose there could be a terrible boredom in that. Would there come a horrible point when the pain became boring? And would that point result only from a hideous pain and psychological struggle hard for us to even imagine? I don’t know.

In the end, I think Ursula is saying that artists betray our trust. They commit “treason” against us by continuing to demonstrate that evil is unique/extraordinary and that pain is interesting.

But are artists by nature of our world and the very nature of our existence condemned to be treasonous? Writing exists (art) only when there is conflict. Art arises out of resistance to conflict. We regard our world as “creation.” Could “creation” exist without conflict? Is it even possible to have a world, “creation,” without pain?

In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” Ursula has tried to not commit this treason; she has tried to create art, a utopian world, where pain is unique and not banal, not commonplace. This becomes a horrible world where everyone is in on inflicting the pain so that they don’t have to personally experience it. If there were such a world, asks Ursula, would you want to be part of it? Would you want to live in a world where evil is unique because wouldn’t that mean that if you yourself did not experience the pain of evil, wouldn’t you then be the one who inflicts the evil? To not rescue someone in pain makes you a party to inflicting the pain.

Ursula also tell us that the victim of this pain and evil can never be truly rescued, can never be healed, can never recover. They are permanently damaged by all this pain and degradation beyond all repair. There is nothing you can do to help them. Even if they were released from their bondage, they are forever imprisoned psychologically. You can’t fix this.

And so, some people, a limited few, upon realizing their powerlessness to affect change in Omelas refuse to be a part of that society and they walk away. They leave a world where their happiness is ensured and enter a dark world where they will know suffering and despair. They chose to take on their part of the burden of the world’s suffering.

So in the end, do artists commit treason? Are artists by the very nature of the creation we all live in compelled to commit treason? Is it possible to create an interesting story without evil or pain?

The Night Before Christmas

Night before Christmas GogolBy Nikolai Gogol, New Directions Books, 73 pages.

Nikolai Gogol was born in Ukraine in 1809. He died of starvation (and possibly depression) when he was nearly 43 years old. Gogol is best known for his book Dead Souls and for his short stories, “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” and “Diary of a Madman.” He also wrote Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, which I would now like very much to read.

I have long heard of Gogol but until recently had never read anything written by him. I am excited to discover him because he is so very very different and refreshing.

The Night Before Christmas was a fun read. It begins as a witch flies into the sky and fills her sleeves with stars. The devil has a plan to get back at a blacksmith/painter for an unflattering painting the blacksmith has done of him. The blacksmith is in love with the most beautiful (and spoiled) girl in the village and travels all the way to Petersburg to ask Catherine the Great for her slippers.

Here is a quote from early in the story:

“Meanwhile the devil stole silently up to the moon and stretched his hand out to seize it, but drew it back quickly as though he were scorched, sucked his fingers and danced about, then ran up from the other side and again skipped away and drew back his hand. But in spite of all his failures, the sly devil did not give up his tricks. Running up, he suddenly seized the moon with both hands; grimacing and blowing, he kept flinging it from one hand to the other, like a peasant who has picked up an ember for his pipe with bare fingers; at last, he hurriedly put it in his pocket and ran on as though nothing had happened.”

The book also has some very funny parts regarding the witch’s suitors hiding in coal sacks. All in all, The Night Before Christmas is a fun entertaining read with some insights on what it was like to live in Ukraine in the early 1800s.

To Room Nineteen

Cover of "To Room Nineteen"

Cover of To Room Nineteen

By Doris Lessing, @ 28 pages, (1963).

[Spoiler alert] When I see a short story over 20 pages long, I shudder. Will it be that interesting? Will I like it? Or, will it be a trudge?

To Room Nineteen did not disappoint. It held my interest all the way through, and the pages flew by. This, even though I felt myself arguing with the viewpoint of the protagonist, Susan Rawlings, pretty much the whole way through.

One of my problems, I suppose, is that I don’t have four children. I don’t fully know how draining that can be. But I can imagine. She did have help. She had a cook and later a nanny.

And granted, the personality type of the protagonist Susan Rawlings is not my personality type. I can’t imagine having no interests in life. If I had free time at my disposal, I would write, draw, paint, play music, compose, and hike. But I don’t, and I’m envious of those who do. It’s hard for me to understand those who have time on their hands and waste it.

Susan was restless. It seemed she had the dream in her grasp, and then it disappeared. Some of the uglier parts of marriage materialized and although everyone involved thought they were so intelligent, no one had the common sense to say “no.”

With four children, Susan couldn’t go to the parties any more. She had to stay home with the children. Why did her husband go? They were his children too.

There seemed to be this unspoken idea in the story that it was better to be unfaithful than to be insane. I don’t agree. Being unfaithful is a choice. Being insane is not.

I must have missed the point of this story somewhere. Was it that all marriages are farces? Was it that having four kids and a husband leads to insanity? Was it that people who think they are intelligent can make some pretty stupid decisions? Was it about a woman’s need for privacy?

But what about the man? He worked all day. When was he supposed to have any privacy? When was he supposed to have his own life?

So he cheated? So she went insane?

I’m not agreeing with all of these premises. How could Susan’s life have been so empty? Why did she not have any art in her life? Music? Something of her own? What about the children?

Maybe the story is about the traps people can fall into while trying to do everything right. Everything that society wants and expects. Then when you do those things, you’re in a trap, and society has no sympathy. And you have no life. 

But, all my complaining aside, the story kept me turning pages without agony.

Rules of the Game

Amy Tan, author

Amy Tan, author (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Amy Tan, @ 10 pages (1989).

Rules of the Game is a story about how a young Chinese girl living in San Francisco’s Chinatown discovers something she can take pride in and how to temper that pride.

This story is a breeze to read. It flows and carries you along with it. Its theme and promise are contained in the first sentence: “I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength.”

All of a sudden, I want to learn more. What is invisible strength? What is its art? The mother must be very wise. We know that this is a story about a mother-daughter relationship. What a great first line.

Later, we see the protagonist, the daughter, learning how to get what she wants, tapping into invisible strength:

A man who watched me play in the park suggested that my mother allow me to play in local chess tournaments. My mother smiled graciously, an answer that meant nothing. I desperately wanted to go, but I bit back my tongue. I knew she would not let me play among strangers. So as we walked home I said in a small voice that I didn’t want to play in the local tournament. They would have American rules. If I lost, I would bring shame on my family.

‘Is shame you fall down nobody push you,’ said my mother.

During my first tournament…”

I love Amy Tan. Must read more! 🙂

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything That Rises Must Converge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Flannery O’Connor, @ 14 pages (1965) .

Ok, quick. Flannery O’Connor: male or female? Well, I didn’t know. Female. Her first name was Mary. This short story was published after her death.

Everything That Rises Must Converge is a story that illustrates the old degrading habits of racism and the self-delusion that comes hand-in-hand with racist beliefs. Human ugliness, anger, degradation, violence, and what’s up with the ending? What is Flannery telling us? What does she want us to think? Are we to be utterly confused? We rejoice at and despise the hateful narrator son. We hate and despise his hateful mother. We get the feeling that they hate each other too. It’s all very hateful.

There is the interesting twist with hats. But I even found that annoying.

I disliked the story for purely personal reasons, not because of its merits as a story. I’m sure it meets all the criteria for success. I am caught up on the content; I have met people like these. I grew up with people like these. What callous hateful ignorance. How do people not recognize the evil that lurks behind it. I don’t understand.

Death by Landscape

By Margaret Atwood, @ 15 pages (1989).

This story took a little while to get going for me. The action of the present is bookended around the actual story. An event from the protagonist’s past is at the core of the story, so it makes sense that the author started a little farther away from the action than what we typically experience in contemporary short stories.

After I got to the action, I was glued to the page. The suspense was incredible. The following paragraph was especially suspenseful for me:

“She has gone over and over it in her mind since, so many times that the first, real shout has been obliterated, like a footprint trampled by other footprints. But she is sure (she is almost positive, she is nearly certain) that it was not a shout of fear. Not a scream. More like a cry of surprise, cut off too soon. Short, like a dog’s bark.”

And a couple of pages back there is foreshadowing:

“Out on the lake there were two loons, calling to each other in their insane, mournful voices. At the time it did not sound like grief. It was just background.”

I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but this story basically gives us an important event from the protagonist’s past and invites us to think about how it may have shaped her whole life.

An interesting story that raises interesting questions.

The Salesman

Talking Walls and CigarettesBy Kelli Beck @ 2013, from the short story collection Talking Walls and Cigarettes and Other Dark Tales.

I am still very interested in the short story form, so when I saw that fellow blogger Kelli Beck had just released a collection of short stories written by herself and Erin Beck, I had to get it.

The first story of the collection is “The Salesman.” I don’t want to give away the story, so I’ll just point out a few things that I especially appreciated. This story did a great job of setting a tone and a mood. I was transported into the scene. I had a sense that I was there.

When she was in front of the window a slight breeze slipped up her neck, caressing the small hairs that had fallen from her loose ponytail. She shivered, turned and faced the night. Fog started to wash its way across the street heavy like smoke creeping in from all directions, swallowing up first the hardware store and the small defunct movie theatre, moving in to the center until the entire parking lot was invisible behind the shroud of fog. A childish fear built up in her and she closed the window, securing it in place with the locks. She watched the haze, then, afraid of what might appear out of the mist, closed the shades, and turned her back on it.”

I thought the part where the protagonist turned her back on this scene was wonderfully creepy. It captured my attention and built suspense.

I think it’s important for stories to have a big idea. One of the big ideas of this story has to do with messes and responsibility. The protagonist ruminates over this and comes to the conclusion:

“Whatever mess you cleaned up, it always ended up somewhere else.”

I could identify with the protagonist and the guilt she felt at being put into a difficult situation and having to make some hard choices.

The pacing of the story is very effective, and I enjoyed the surprises that the author threw my way. These really added interest to the story.

“The Salesman” was a great diversion. I’m excited to read the rest of the collection.

 

 

 

The Overcoat

English: A frock overcoat (front and back view)

English: A frock overcoat (front and back view) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Nikolai Gogol (1842)

Silly me. Nikolai Gogol is not to be confused with Maxim Gorky. I have a collection of stories by Gorky, so when I decided to read Gogol, I went to that collection, only to find a Soviet writer! Bah. No Gogol wrote many years before the revolution; he lived from 1809 to 1852 and was of Ukrainian/Polish decent.  Wikipedia says he was a surrealist and I agree. I’m thinking I like this guy Gogol! [slight spoiler alert below]

Gogol’s Overcoat, to my great amusement and surprise, was a  zombie story? Wow!

Ok, yes, I am being a little extreme. It wasn’t a zombie story the way you and I think of zombie stories, but still. Are the roots of zombie stories here? I don’t know. Hmm.

I thought “The Overcoat” was a great read, and Gogol is definitely on my list of authors to read more of. I don’t want to be an extreme spoiler, so I won’t comment on which parts nearly tore my heart apart, but I was especially gratified and surprised by the ending.

I learned several things too. I learned what a marten was. I was thinking of martins, the birds I grew up with, which are not the same at all. Martens are cute little mammals with beautiful fur, which trappers collect and sell to be contribute to the fur on coats. In the story, an adequate marten substitute is a cat. Gasp.

Our protagonist is Akaky Akakievich. The note says that this is a play on the on the word “kaka,” which means defecator. I thought this was interesting given the translation of the Spanish word, caca. Is this a sign (pardon the pun) of a Latin influence on Russian? Or, the other way around?

Another thing I found interesting was the smell of the stairs that led up to the tailor’s apartment. They were ammonia soaked.Why would they be ammonia soaked? I am almost afraid to ask—or ponder this.

And, I learned that serfs were called only by their first names. Only when they were freed, were they called by first name and patronymic. I had always wondered about that.

Lastly, I found an insight into the “name day.” But I’m still not sure how this works. It seems that the name day is the day on which the mother (or family) decides on the name of their newborn child and the child is Christened. In this story, a calendar was taken out and several dates were examined to see what names were associated with them. When Akaky’s mother didn’t like any of the proposed names (from the calendar), she decided to simply name Akaky after his father, and hence he was Akaky Akakievich.

This was an interesting story. I enjoyed it. And I especially liked the weirdness at the end.

Cathedral

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Raymond Carver, 13 pages.

In the short story, Cathedral, the narrator is not too happy about his wife’s friend, who is blind, coming to visit. It seems to bother him quite a bit that the man is blind. The narrator doesn’t seem jealous, I don’t think, except perhaps at the sharing of thoughts that his wife has been doing with this other man over the years. That might have him upset. But instead of mentioning anything about that, he focuses on the man’s blindness. As he does this, all of his stereotypical and weird biases emerge, making him less sympathetic to us.

This story is wonderfully crafted. The opposing ideas of blindness and sight are woven throughout.

I really liked this part. It gave us information not only about the narrator’s wife and her past, but also about the narrator himself:

“…where one night she got to feeling lonely and cut off from people she kept losing in that moving-around life. She got to feeling she couldn’t go it another step. She went in and swallowed all the pills and capsules in the medicine chest and washed them down with a bottle of gin. Then she got into a hot bath and passed out. But instead of dying, she got sick. She threw up. Her officer—why should he have a name? he was the childhood sweetheart, and what more does he want?—came home from somewhere, found her, and called the ambulance.”

This made me chuckle. You really get the narrator’s voice here. And yeah, any guy who holds the title of first love, doesn’t deserve a name. He’s already gotten enough.

By the end of the story, the protagonist undergoes a change, as he should. The way that Carver shows this change is beautiful and subtle.

This is definitely a story to come back to.

The Story of an Hour

Kate Chopin in 1894

Kate Chopin in 1894 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Kate Chopin (1851–1904), @ 3 pages (1891).

Long before there was flash fiction, Kate Chopin seems to have mastered the form. The Story of an Hour gets a lot done in three pages.

A wife (Mrs. Mallard) learns some terrible news. It turns out she has a heart condition (relevant back story), so her sister is very careful about how she delivers the news. As it turns out, (a little twist) what we might think was horrible news is received as fantastic news by Mrs. Mallard. While everyone is terribly worried about her, she is secretly rejoicing.

But it turns out that there was an error in the news. What we thought happened actually did not (another twist). Mrs. Mallard receives a terrible shock when she finds out, and dies on the spot (twist).

The Story of an Hour is a story worth studying. It’s a great example of a short story in that it takes one situation and gives just enough information about the protagonist and supporting characters, so that we understand what’s going on. And personally, I love a good twist.

Kate Chopin is most known for her novel The Awakening (1899), which my anthology says ended her writing career because of its scandalous nature. The book is now praised as a portrait of a woman in search of her individuality.  Potato/ Potahto.

The Darling

By Anton Chekov, @ 10 pages.

It’s funny how the title of a work can influence what you imagine it will be. “The Darling” doesn’t sound that exciting to me, and it wasn’t, but I would not have guessed that I would come away from it with such a high level of repulsion.

Olenka is the protagonist of the story and “The Darling.” Chekov tells us that Olenka is the sort of person who always has to have someone to love. When there is no one in her life to love, she stagnates to the point of having no independent thought at all. When she is with someone she loves, her thoughts are merely repeats of their thoughts.

“The Darling” seems to give a stereotype of a Russian woman. From my time there, it seems that the older women I met sometimes behaved in this way and had these values. But I come away from the story confused. Is this sort of character an ideal for a Russian woman? From the way Chekov wrote the story, I have to form the opinion that it is not.

Overall it seems a really sad story that I don’t plan to revisit.

The Garden-Party

Alumna, Katherine Mansfield

Alumna, Katherine Mansfield (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923), @ 13 pages (1922).

There’s nothing like a good cry in the morning. Wretched. How wretched!

There are so many things about this story that I just love—for example, the way we are lead into the story. We begin with an opinion on the weather, then ponder the flowers that people are most likely to recognize. When we meet our first character we are transported from the outside world into the home. We learn more about the plot and the characters when we are given insights into how each character feels about participating in the setup of the party. When we learn that one doesn’t want to be part of that action, we move to another, who also will not be involved. Finally, we meet the character who will take charge, Laura, and we follow her out of the house and into the garden.

My grandmother used to throw garden parties, so this story transports me back to those days and to thoughts of her. This line, especially, made me think of her:

“Oh impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.”

Ah, the good life.

And that’s just it. Right outside their massive estate, poverty is just down the lane.

Another reason I like this story is because of its contrasts. Rich, poor. Happiness, sadness. Joy, grief. An man is killed just down the road. The family is practically a neighbor of his widow and five children. Laura asks the question, should we really go ahead with the party?

“‘But, my dear child, use your common sense. It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it. If some one had died there normally—and I can’t understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes—we should still be having our party, shouldn’t we?'”

It’s funny (weird) how we can explain things away in order to get what we want.

To her credit Laura does push back and gets this response:

“‘You’re being very absurd, Laura,” she said coldly. ‘People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.'”

Upping the stakes, after the party, Laura’s mother has the splendid idea of sending the leftovers to the widow and her children. I won’t spoil the whole story, but I thought this was a wonderful touch by the author.

Well done Katherine Mansfield. I want to read more from you!

The Use of Force

By William Carlos Williams (1883–1963), @ 4 pages.

William Carlos Williams was both a doctor and a writer. Sadly, I only know him from his wheel barrow and chicken poem:

So much depends
on the red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.

But it appears that he was a prolific writer with strong opinions. The Use of Force is a short story that describes a doctor’s battle to examine a young girl who he believed might have diphtheria, a disease which could be lethal. The only way he could know was by looking at her throat and getting a throat culture. Meanwhile, the young girl is terrified and not cooperating. With her parents’ permission, he uses force to open her mouth.

Williams very effectively conveys his feelings of frustration and blind determination so that the reader feels it as well. He lays out the stakes, has a ticking clock, explains his own motivations as all of this is going on, and has a force to contend with. It is also quite the picture to imagine a grown man, a doctor, struggling with a little girl and nearly being defeated. It seems she is a worthy adversary. While this might not be the greatest story ever told, it is a good study of technique.

I looked William Carlos Williams up on the Poetry Archive and found this quote from him:

“Forget all the rules, forget all restrictions, as to taste, as to what ought to be said, write for the pleasure of it.”

A little encouragement for the writer’s soul.

The Death of Ivan Ilych

By Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910); @ 46 pages.

The Death of Ivan Ilych describes a death.

The story begins as Ivan Ilych’s friends/associates learn of his death. They remember that he was a friendly guy liked by all, but really their immediate reaction was what effect Ivan’s death would have on them. What kind of promotion would they get now that Ivan Ilych’s position had been vacated? Then we are transported into a review of Ivan Ilych’s life, his major decisions, profession, and character.

One thing I think is so interesting about reading Tolstoy is how observant he is of human nature and social interactions. Although Tolstoy lived more than 100 years ago, it makes no difference; his observations and insights into human relationships remain fresh and contemporary.

Tolstoy himself was an interesting man. He fathered 13 children, became something of a religious fanatic, and according to my short story anthology, had a most annoying habit of running away from home. On one such adventure, he died in a railway station.

Ah, great artists.

One of my big complaints about my own culture is the seeming denial of the reality of death. When my family members started dropping off, I was woefully unprepared for the logistics. When my grandmother was on her death bed and I left work to be at her side for her final days, I was overwhelmed by the whole experience. We had been very close. She had spent more time with me growing up than perhaps anyone else, and I was beside myself with grief.

I witnessed the deathbed experience again with my mother, this time for several months leading up to the event. It was a grueling ordeal, and I came away from both experiences with the idea that death happens when the body becomes so uninhabitable that the soul is forced out. Perhaps those who can let go of life easily have the easiest time with death, and perhaps those who are determined to live have the most pain. These are my impressions from direct experience.

There are lots of religious ideas around death too, many of which I find very difficult to deal with during the event. My husband’s family views grief as a kind of heresy, a viewpoint I find incredibly inhumane.

The short story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, leads us through these experiences and related happenings in great detail, physical, psychological, and social. Ivan Ilych did not marry the love of his life, we are not sure if he ever had one; instead, he married a woman who later became a shrew and failed to understand him, pity him, or even face his imminent death directly.

I think I must seem preoccupied with death. And perhaps. A friend of mine passed away a couple of years ago. She had contracted a rare virus that attacks the heart and actually had a heart transplant. Her body rejected the transplant and a terrible skin irritation developed. Medicines then destroyed her liver and eventually she died. It was all quite gruesome.

Ivan Ilych:

“Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be, when I did everything properly?”

I can’t claim that I have done everything properly by any means. I reflect now and find so many errors and only hope to not make more. It seems to me as I reflect on my life at this point that things are of little value. My family put such a high value on collecting things, and I feel not a small amount of guilt for wanting to be rid of them and considering what experiences and travels their “worth” could bring. I’ve been obsessed for nearly two years with unburdening myself of things, and it seems that I am never happier than when I am traveling. These desires to see the world are in constant conflict with my desire to build a home, so that I have populated my backyard with lavender, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, spinach, mint, and arugula. I am fascinated with gardening even though gardening and traveling are forever at odds with each other.

Tolstoy raises an interesting idea of correctness in living one’s life. Who decides what is correct? You? Someone else?

At some point, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to live correctly—by my own definition. And this meant tearing down everything I had built up. What had been my dreams back when I dared to dream? And could I still accomplish them? Could I detach myself from all my self-created prisons and live? And what does living now mean to me? And is living worth anything without love?

Ivan Ilych:

“What if my whole life has really been wrong?”

A horrible question and then:

“He felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into a black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it.”

Finally Ivan Ilych has a realization that helps him die. It seems that Tolstoy touches all the bases surrounding death that I myself have experienced as a witness, all except one. Both my mother and grandmother hallucinated about people who were dead being in the room with them. I have read that others have had the same sorts of hallucinations.

As for my poor dog who recently died, I could not bear to have her suffer in these ways. Maybe I did the wrong thing. There are some who believe the process of death is valuable and not to be denied. Her euthanasia was my selfishness. And what would I want for myself?

I want not to lie on my deathbed and realize I got it all wrong. I would like to look back and think I that when I saw two paths that converged in the woods that I took the one less traveled. Finding that path and getting onto it is the trick. It’s around here somewhere. I know it is. I can almost see it.

The Dead

Just before Sunday service

Just before Sunday service (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By James Joyce, 35 pages.

This story took a good 20 pages to gain my interest, but the end was worth it. The story takes place on the night of the Misses Morkan’s annual dance, which is in the wintertime, I think between Christmas and New Year. The Misses Morkans are three elderly ladies who live in Dublin and have lots of friends and family.

Irish hospitality is praised highly in this work. The Irish scenes, social habits, and conversations reminded me of my own family a long long time ago in Texas.

In my last blog entry about James Joyce, I mentioned a couple of rules of storytelling. Here, I am reminded of yet another rule, which is when it snows, somebody dies—or died. Of course, the title foreshadows this as well. All through the story, I’m thinking: ok, who gets it?

I don’t really like this “rule” of storytelling. I adore snow, and I would like to find (or tell) a story that resists this rule.

The story’s tone and pacing change radically after the party is over when everyone is heading home. Our protagonist, Gabriel, who seems like a pretty good guy, but perhaps has a bit of an inferiority complex, is excited to finally be alone with his wife. The writing really picks up here, and for me becomes a real page turner.

Oddly, when I got to the last paragraph I realized I had already read it, the last paragraph, not the story. The paragraph was given as an example in one of my writing books. And indeed, it is a very nice paragraph. This is where writing truly becomes art.

Sad, sad love.

Araby

James Joyce, 1 photographic print, b&w, cartes...

James Joyce, 1 photographic print, b&w, cartes-de-visites, 9.2 x 6.1 on mount 10.5 x 6.5 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By James Joyce; 6 pages.

As I read Araby, I was reminded that in every story the main character has to want something. In Araby, the young man wants to impress a girl. The girl mentions a bazaar that she cannot go to and recommends it to our love-struck narrator/protagonist. He tells her that if he is able to go to the bazaar, he will bring something back for her.

I am not sure, and shame on me, I didn’t check, but I think that Araby was the name of the bazaar and it was held in Dublin to benefit the Jervis St. Hospital.

The next thing I remember about the dos of story writing is that complications must be thrown in the path of the protagonist, and so they are in Araby.

As I reflect on the story, a third do of story writing comes to mind, and this one is that everything in the story must count. There must be no irrelevant details. So here I am stumped and if one of my readers can enlighten me, I will be grateful. But what was the relevance to the detail that a priest had once been a tenant in our narrators’ family’s house? And what was the relevance that he had died in the back drawing-room? And why was it mentioned that our narrator was in the drawing-room in the paragraph preceding our narrator’s first conversation with the girl he liked so much? Was he praying in the room? Did the room have special powers that led to his conversation with the girl?

Or was it simply that priests are supposed to have a vow of poverty and the way our protagonist wants to win the love of the girl is with a gift?

I’m stumped. I do get a vivid image of twilight and children playing in the streets. And I have to admit that the mention of the poem “The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed” in which the Arab imagines his heartbreak after selling his favorite horse, was good foreshadowing.

I have the impression that in the end the narrator was humiliated because he had been forced to wait so long to go to the bazaar and the only items left were far beyond his means—thus, a present for the girl was impossible. Oh sad, sad love.

All in all, I found this story hard to understand with a casual read. I felt like Joyce wanted me to come to conclusions that I couldn’t quite make it to. Maybe in the end I got there.

The Lady With the Dog

ChekhovBy Anton Chekhov, (1860–1904), 14 pages @ 1899.

Oh. My. God.

As you might expect from a book hoarder, I have several very large short story anthologies. And, I have Chekhov’s Lady With the Dog story in three different translations.

I have read The Lady With the Dog before and found it to be a big snooze. This time I found it rather captivating. Quick to blame myself, I think: have I changed? Is it me?

I took one of the anthologies to work with me today, thinking that I would analyze the story over my lunch hour. It didn’t happen as I got into a discussion about a trip to Yellowstone National Park.

This evening when I returned home, I left the book in the car, and too lazy to go downstairs and get it, I simply picked up another version of the story in a different book.

The first sentence was startling:

“The talk was that a new face had appeared on the embankment: a lady with a little dog.”

I got this mental image of a face on an embankment. Very odd. Then the phrase after the colon indicates that the face is “a lady with a little dog.” This struck me as odd too and momentarily gave me a startling image as well.

The translation that captivated my attention began like this:

“People were telling one another that a newcomer had been seen on the promenade—a lady with a dog.”

“Promenade” seems the better choice than “embankment.” “Newcomer” seems to me the better choice than “face”—although, I admit that “face” is understandable. You also get the idea of people gossiping, which foreshadows the content of the story. It’s a much better beginning.

OK, but what kind of dog was it? One translation has “Pomeranian” while the other says “spitz.” I haven’t lost my mind have I? A Pomeranian is not a Spitz!

For all the Russian books I hauled back with me from Russia, not one of them is a collection of stories by Chekhov, meaning that it is very likely that my Pomeranian/Spitz conundrum will go unsolved.

Anyway, The Lady With the Dog is aptly named, as opposed to The Lady AND the Dog, because the dog only makes a brief appearance. This story might have been named The Lady and the Scammer, The Lady and the Player, etc. The dog turns out to only have one line: “Grrrrr.”

Or, if we could stretch the word “dog” a bit, the dog could have been Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov, the protagonist and adulterer. While one translation has the story as The Lady with the Little Dog, the other simply has Dog (not little). But I don’t know that Russians call men who misbehave “dogs” as Americans tend to do.

I will note that the translation that appealed to me was by Ivy Litvinov. Kudos to Ivy!

Our protagonist, Dmitry, has gone to Yalta and spotted the young beautiful Anna Sergeyevna Von Diederitz, who has come to Yalta alone. He decides to make her acquaintance in order to get to know her.

Dmitry is much older than Anna. He has a disdain for women and considers them the lower race: “their beauty aroused nothing but repulsion, and the lace trimming on their underclothes reminded him of fish scales.”

But he is still drawn to them.

“One evening, then, while he was dining at the restaurant in the park, the lady in the toque came strolling up and took a seat at a neighboring table. Her expression, gait, dress, coiffure, all told him that she was from the upper classes, that she was married, that she was in Yalta for the first time, alone and bored…”

“But when the lady sat down at a neighboring table a few yards away from him, these stories of easy conquests, of excursions to the mountains, came back to him, and the seductive idea of a brisk transitory liaison, an affair with a woman whose very name he did not know, suddenly took possession of his mind.”

The concise way Chekhov has of summing people up is impressive. We get an interesting sense of Dmitry’s wife when we learn that she omits the hard sign at the ends of words. The other translator relates this detail as “using the new orthography.” Boring. ZZZZZ. The rest of the story, as you might imagine, is kind of sad and disgusting, as stories of betrayal are bound to be. But on second thought, maybe “the new orthography” goes a step further to describe his wife as with the times, or progressive? Either way, this little fact simply stated tells us that there is a fundamental difference between Dmitry and his wife. He is apart from her in a fundamental way, and perhaps their marriage isn’t a very happy one.

I could not figure out Dmitry. He was hot and cold throughout, which I suppose was intentional. That’s how this type of guy tends to be. So maybe as a character study, this story is quite valuable indeed.

The end, which I won’t ruin for you, left me bewildered. But I suppose I understand it if I accept that Dmitry has at last fallen in love. But that’s the problem. I can’t see why. Why now? Because he has gotten old? This isn’t believable to me. I don’t see an old player reforming.

“His head was beginning to turn gray. And it seemed strange to him that he had aged so much in those last years, had lost so much of his good looks…Why did she love him so? Women had always taken him to be other than he was, and they had loved in him, not himself, but a man their imagination created, whom they greedily sought all their lives; and then, when they had noticed their mistake, they had still loved him. And not one had been happy with him.”

Interesting. And sad. A cautionary tale?

I feel for Dmitry. I want him to heal. I want him to be happy. It doesn’t have to be with Anna. I’m certain there is good in him, even if Chekhov doesn’t reveal it.

 

 

 

 

A Hunger Artist

Franz Kafka's grave in Prague-Žižkov.

Franz Kafka’s grave in Prague-Žižkov. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Franz Kafka (1883–1924); 7 pages.

As the title suggests, this story is about an artist whose medium is his own hunger. He fasts. During his youth, people appreciated his work. He would sit in a cage and people would come by and watch him during his fast. He always wanted to have a chance to go longer than 40 days, but that was never allowed. He would be pulled out of his cage and given food to eat.

As he grew older, people grew less interested in hunger artists. He was too old to change careers, so had to settle for joining a circus. At the circus, he was positioned en route to the animal menagerie. People rushed passed his cage and barely noticed him. The ones who lingered, lingered merely out of pure stubbornness, not  wanting to be pushed by the crowd, not out of real interest or appreciation.

As the days passed, no one even bothered to keep track of his fast. Even the hunger artist didn’t know what records he was breaking. In the end, he was forgotten about and only discovered when the circus owners wanted to fill the cage with a panther. Then he was found, still alive, but not for long. He said he had never had any food he liked and that’s why he was able to fast.

I’m a little stumped on how to analyze this story. It reminded me a little of being in the workforce and how careers can progress. It charts success and decline. One gets too old to be trained for a new profession. Choices evaporate. One becomes depressing and because of this, uninteresting.

So, for an uplifting read, try A Hunger Artist. 😉

The Lottery

By Shirley Jackson (1919–1965); @ 8 pages.

It’s hard to discuss a short story without becoming a spoiler and giving the plot away, but here goes. The pacing and element of surprise are very good in this story. The story’s central theme seems to revolve around the importance and value of social rituals to societies.

The action begins on a clear, sunny morning on Jun 27. Villagers are gathering in the square about 10 a.m. for a lottery that will take about two hours to complete. Everything seems very ordinary.

Jackson goes right into showing. We see the children show up in the square first and learn some of their names. We watch what they’re doing—the boys, the girls, the small children. The men arrive. We learn some of their names. Then the women enter the scene. Jackson gives just enough details to give the impression of a crowded city square.

In the village, there are about 300 people, similar in size to the town where I live.

The drawings occur once a year and much ink is spilt in telling about the black box that holds the individual pieces of paper.

The views in this story are cinematic. As readers, we are watching the crowd. The first sinister hint comes when we find out that there is some importance placed on the men drawing for the lottery. Women draw only when the men in their family are too sick or too young.

As the names are being called, we overhear a conversation in the crowd. We learn that some towns have given up the lottery and some are considering it. Some people in the crowd are against this and strongly believe in continuing the lottery. The pacing of the conversation against the calling of the names works very well to build interest and suspense. Over time, the reader can tell that winning the lottery isn’t the greatest thing in the world; in fact, it’s quite the contrary.

I was disappointed in this story because at the end, it doesn’t explain why it’s so important to the townspeople to have the lottery. Still this story is very popular among creative writing teachers and students—I think mainly for its craft and shock value.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

By Ursula K. Le Guin

This is one of the most profound stories I have ever read. It does a lot in five pages. I read it first in 2006, and it has stayed with me ever since. Le Guin creates a city called Omelas, a place were people are very happy. But, although they were incredibly happy, they were not simple:

They were no less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

She describes this beautiful city of joy and then asks her readers: Do you believe?

She decides that we can’t yet believe, not without one more detail of the life in Omelas.

What she then describes is what I found so incredibly profound because at first the whole story seems like pure fantasy, but after further consideration, it struck me that the second part of the story (be warned this is only my interpretation) accurately describes what is happening to the animals on this planet (other than humans). It struck me so forcefully and so completely.  And so sadly. I doubt that Ursula meant for me to take it that way, but once the idea formed in my mind, it’s been unshakable.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there…”

The end of the story seems to leave us with a choice.

What a fantastic job Ursula has done.