Short Fiction 2015 Week 5: Rachel Seiffert

Earlier posts can be found here, here, here, and here:

Week 5 was another short week because I was observing Yom Kippur on Wednesday. I warned the class that their string of Jewish holidays had run its course and we’d resume meeting for our allotted three times a week. (Actually it’s now the harvest festival of Sukkot, in some ways an even more important holiday than the High Holidays, but I’m not cancelling class for it.)

We discussed two very good stories this week: Malamud’s heartbreaking “The Lady of the Lake” on Monday and Rachel Seiffert’s “Field Study” on Friday.

Since we’ll be returning to Malamud later in the semester, I’ll concentrate here on “Field Study.” I can’t remember how I came across this story. I think it was when, newly hired at Hendrix, I was preparing a course on contemporary British Fiction. (I taught that class a couple of times but gave it up. Too dispiriting to find that books I’d really liked didn’t hold up to the scrutiny of teaching.) Seiffert was listed in the 2003 version of the Granta Best Young British Writers. Born in Australia, she grew up in England and lived for a while in Germany. Her first novel is about fascism in Germany and meant to be quite good. She has a few other novels now, too, though my sense is she’s fallen off the radar a bit. The only thing of hers I’ve read is the collection to which “Field Study” gives its name (2004). From the first I liked this story, drawn to it in some way I couldn’t explain. And now I’ve taught it probably four or five times, and it’s always a winner, by which I mean both the students and I like it.

“Field Study” came through for me yet again, even though this group continues to be reticent; it’s always just the right side of pulling teeth with them. There was a point about a third of the way through the class period when I thought, Jesus, it’s like I’m just doing this for myself, good thing I like the damn story, but then something broke, some resistance melted, and I felt good will and, more importantly, that hard to define but highly desirable sensation of things falling into place, light bulbs going off, you name the cliché.

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“Field Study” is about Martin, a graduate student researching water pollution in a country next to his own. As he methodically takes samples from a river, he sees a young woman and her eleven-year-old son bathing. Later at the restaurant in his guesthouse, he recognizes the woman as his waitress. Her son is doing his homework at the bar. He strikes up a friendship with them, the boy, Jacek, translating between Martin and the mother, Ewa. The next day the boy comes to the river to help with the samples. The initial results show high levels of a dangerous chemical. Martin warns the pair not to swim in the river anymore. On the last night of the field study, Ewa invites Martin for dinner. Jacek translates until the wine loosens Martin and Ewa’s tongues; it gets late; the boy falls asleep at the table. Martin leans forward to kiss Ewa, but she says no, apologizes, covers her mouth and laughs. The next morning, as he is packing up, the final results come in from the lab back home. The new data contradicts the old. The chemical’s concentration is normal. Martin thinks about telling Ewa and Jacek it’s ok to swim again, but then he doesn’t. The road home follows the river; soon he is at the border. “His chest it tight with shame, but the border guard is waving him through now, and he is driving on again.”

I started by asking the class: What’s a field study? That was easy: It’s a way of researching where you collect data outside the lab and where the subjects are in their natural habitat. Why then is this story called “Field Study”? The guy is on a field study. And what is the guy studying? Pollution. Levels of a chemical that builds up in the human body and causes mortality. Right, I said. What else is Martin studying? A slight pause, but not too long. He’s studying another culture.

Good, I said. What is that culture? In other words, where is this story taking place? Pause. Then: Russia. How do you know that? The names. They’re like Russian. Also, there used to be Communism there. Not bad, I said. The names sound Slavic, don’t they? And the Communism is important. We’ll come back to that. Then I added: What do we know about Martin’s country? There’s a university there. Okay, what else? Silence. What about its geography, I prompted. It’s on a river. What river? The same river he’s studying. Okay, so Martin’s country is next door to Ewa and Jacek’s. That’s important, I said, because the story is very interested in the ideas of connection and interdependence. The factory that produces the chemical as a byproduct and flushes it into the water is in Ewa and Jackek’s country, but the river runs into Martin’s. We know Martin’s university has lots of sophisticated equipment. It seems prestigious, wealthy. What’s a big, prestigious country in Central Europe? (Here I was really leading them along, not especially jolly work or good form, but I had somewhere I wanted to go with all of this.) Germany, said a rising, tentative voice. Right. So if Martin’s from Germany, and the country with Slavic names is right next to it, Ewa and Jacek could be from the Czech Republic or, more likely, Poland.

But then why doesn’t Seiffert ever name these countries? It would be easy to do. Why make it at once fairly obvious and yet still obscure?

Now there was a longer pause. Finally one student—one of those smart but careless students that are for me the hardest kind to teach—said something like: The place doesn’t matter, it could be any place. I’d anticipated this response—“it makes it more universal” being a favourite of undergraduates everywhere—but I found it as unsatisfying here as I usually do. But if that’s true, I said, then why do we learn about post-Communist life, the difficult transition to capitalism exemplified by the “cartons of cigarettes and cake mix piled high along one wall” in the entrance to Ewa’s building. (Jacek explains the landlord gives them a break on the rent in exchange for letting him store goods that have presumably come from further west: “Every week is something new coming for him to sell.” Why the names pointing to a particular geographic and linguistic region, if not an exact place?

The story’s reticence, I suggested, is part of its exploration of cross-cultural communication. Borders in this story are at once porous, meaningless (they can’t stop pollution) and impermeable, effective. Jacek tells Martin about his Tata, who is in Martin’s country: “He is illegal. Too much problems at the border, so he don’t come home.” The father never appears in the story, but his effects are felt, both in the Jacek’s physiognomy (studying him, Martin realizes he doesn’t look much like his mother) and in Ewa’s memory (presumably he’s one of the reasons she rejects his overture). As the scenes of refugees from Syria and Iraq playing out on the news each day remind us only too vividly, borders are meaningless or artificial only for the privileged. For others, they are all-too powerful, able, for example, to separate families.

It’s a luxury to be waved through borders, as Martin is in the story’s final sentence. And in the end it suits Martin rather well that the border effectively shuts out Ewa and Jacek (who is learning Martin’s language as a way to better himself, and presumably become someone like Martin). That sentiment fits with Martin’s other attempts to seal himself off from the world, as in his insistence on wearing hip waders and rubber gloves while collecting samples and in his predilection for voyeurism. When Ewa and Jacek first come to the river, he keeps himself hidden, even abandoning the protocols of the study, which say he should take a sample every hundred meters, so that he can give them a wide berth. Of course, he can’t avoid them, on the contrary, he runs into them at every turn, until eventually he wants to encounter them—until he doesn’t.

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But Martin’s wish to keep himself apart—to be only the perceiving eye, an image for the idea of scientific detachment—is continually foiled. (We looked at a scene in which Martin takes a day off from collecting samples to organize data; he is calling his lab from a phone booth when a distraught Jacek finds him and presses his face to the glass.) The difficulty of sealing oneself off from the world fits with the idea that borders don’t matter. But the motif of watching in this story isn’t simply directed outwards, at others. It’s also directed inwards, at the self.

Here I returned to the question of what Martin is studying. To the list of pollution and a foreign culture we had to add Martin himself. The story is full of examples of second-order awareness on Martin’s part. Here he is, catching himself staring at Ewa in the bar: “He looks away. Sees his tall reflection in the mirror behind the bar. One hand, left, no right, moving up to cover his large forehead, sunburned, and red hair.” Or here he is packaging up samples after the first results have come in: “His fingers start to itch…. He knows this is psychosomatic, that he has always been careful to wear protection, doesn’t even think that poisoning with this metal is likely to produce such a reaction.” No matter how objective Martin tries to be—reminding himself that what he sees as his left is really his right—no matter how clinically he diagnoses his own reactions, he can’t overcome his body or his emotions. Awareness doesn’t stop feeling. Martin is often flushing and blushing, lowering his eyes, feeling the tightness of shame well up in his chest.

Seiffert doesn’t believe in the so-called objectivity of science, but her point isn’t to discredit science as cold or dehumanizing. Rather it’s to undermine the certainty of those, like Martin, who persist, against the evidence of their own bodies, to believe in that objectivity. The story pursues this criticism through its use of the motif of measuring and observing. (One of the first things we learn about Martin is that he “has a camera, notebooks, and vials.”) These activities seem neutral, the “mere” description of the world. But as Martin’s data suggests, measuring tells contradictory stories. It can also be influenced by confirmation bias, as when Martin, knowing Ewa and Jacek swim regularly in the river, thinks they look healthy enough, but “perhaps a little underweight.” Even a seemingly healthy person, he adds, can carry malignancy hidden inside, the toxins imperturbably doing their sinister work: “nothing for a decade or two, then suddenly tumors and shortness of breath in middle age.”

This criticism of what we can call a scientific world-view so long as we agree that this is a naïve definition of science might make us wonder about how we’re supposed to feel about Martin. In the last part of class, students considered their feelings about him. Why doesn’t he tell Ewa about the new, inconclusive results? Why, when he remembers the expression of sadness on her face at the river, later explained when Jacek says his mother often used to go there with his father, is Martin “shocked at the satisfaction the memory gives him”? Is it, as some students suggested, simply that he’s angry with her for “shutting him down”? (Students tittered a little the first time one of them used this expression; they repeated it as often as they could.) Is he revenging himself on her, and by extension on her country? Is this why he feels shame for at the end? Would that shame be a sign of remorse? If so, would that make us feel better about him? And what, at the climactic moment in the apartment, does Ewa laugh about? Is she laughing at him? If so, would that legitimate his otherwise petulant revenge? Or is she laughing with him, at the absurdity or bittersweet piquancy of the situation? (The story sympathizes strongly with Ewa, making a joke of the possibility that she could be a temptress: she sends Jacek to Martin with a present of apples.)

I left the students with one last thing to think about, pointing out five examples of the story’s most characteristic stylistic quirk. Here’s one of them; it’s the story’s first sentence: “Summer and the third day of Martin’s field study.” Students correctly noted that the examples were all sentence fragments. (Interestingly, they didn’t note the present tense narration, which was fine with me; we’ll study that soon enough with Nathan Englander’s story “The Wig.”) Often these fragments are quite obstreperous, separated from the previous sentence by a period when they could easily, and more correctly, have been added to it with a comma. Sometimes they are disorienting, as in this description of the boy’s shoes when he mother carries him piggyback through a field: “Brushing the ears of rye as she walks, bumping at her thighs as she jogs an unsteady step or two.” These seem at first like dependent clauses, the beginning of a description of Ewa’s action, but then we realize they’re fragmentary descriptions of what the shoes are doing.

Why are there so many fragments in “Field Study”? It’s like a lab report, one student immediately said That’s how you write them, in shorthand. Direct. To the point. Indeed, I agreed. That would make the story itself a kind of field study. And its conclusions would be as provisional as Martin’s. By eliminating “to be” from so many of its sentences, the story reminds us of the very thing it is questioning: the notion of identity. I can’t decide, I told the class, as the hour came to an end and the murmuring of the calculus students waiting to come into the room grew louder, whether the fragments break up the text or actually, paradoxically, only tie it together more cohesively, by reminding us of what they separate. This consideration of connection and disconnection returned us one last time to the idea of borders and separations, communication and miscommunication. The story can’t seem to decide which of these opposed terms is more powerful. But it’s much more at ease with that uncertainty than its protagonist.

There was more to say—there always is—but it was time to stop. So I will too. Next week: Kay Boyle, Elizabeth Bowen, Nathan Englander.

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Short Fiction 2015 Week 4: Mueenuddin & Saunders

Click here to read this series from the beginning.

Thanks to Rosh Hashanah, it was another short week in Short Fiction. We studied two stories, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “Nawabdin Electrician” and George Saunders’s “The Falls.”

“The Falls” was new to me, one of those last minute syllabus-making decisions to which I’m so fatally prone. (Does that happen to anyone else?) I’d been meaning to read Saunders for a while, especially after his Tenth of December got such good reviews. But when I got around to looking at the collection, the stories all seemed so long. Some rudimentary online searching led me instead to this much shorter piece. “The Falls” is an interesting story, and one the students seemed to enjoy. But I’m unconvinced I’ll teach it again.

It seems to pander to young people’s ideas of what it’s like to be older—maybe why the students liked it so much—and I can’t find a satisfactory explanation for what one of the two main characters is doing in the story, other than to make us sympathize more with the other. That’s a good enough reason, I guess, except that the other character was already fairly sympathetic to begin with: adding the other seems like unnecessary special pleading. (For those who have read it, I’m talking about Aldo Cummings—what’s he doing there? Morse is plenty interesting all by himself.) I often need a second or third teaching to really get a handle on a text, but in this case I don’t feel compelled to give it another try. Saunders lovers, tell me why I’m wrong!

“Nawabdin Electrician,” on the other hand, is a winner. I can’t remember if this is the second or third time I’ve taught it. But it keeps getting better. Mueenuddin grew up in Pakistan and the US; he published his first and so far only collection, Other Rooms, Other Wonders, in 2009. I think I first read “Nawabdin” in The New Yorker. I really hope Mueenuddin is working on something new.

The story is set between Multan and Firoza in the Punjab province of Pakistan at an unspecified date, probably in the 1980s or 90s. I don’t know anything about this place, which doesn’t reflect well on me, but the story explains it’s an arid region where water matters a lot and tube wells run continuously to provide for the crops. Nawab, the story’s first sentence tells us, “flourishe[s] on a signature capability, a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of electric meters.” Additionally, he fixes the motors on the pumps and ensures that the home of the region’s largest landowner, K. K. Harouni, who lives mostly in Lahore, remains a cocoon of comfort. Nawab thrives under Harouni’s patronage, even convincing the man to give him a motorcycle. Mueenuddin is a warm writer, not above poking fun at his subjects. People are rightly, if predictably always comparing him to Chekhov. Some of his humour comes from his syntax: his sentences often have a sting at the end. Here the narrator reflects on the effect of the motorcycle on Nawab’s prestige:

The motorcycle increased his status, gave him weight, so that people began calling him “Uncle,” and asking his opinion on world affairs, about which he knew absolutely nothing.

The joke here is as much on Nawab as on everyone around him.

The first half of the story is a bit aimless, setting up Nawab’s life, his devotion to his large family, composed, and this is the great tragedy of his life, of thirteen daughters that he cannot hope to ever provide dowries for yet for whom he works indefatigably. I use the word “aimless” advisedly, because that’s the one the story uses to describe its protagonist’s movements:

Nawab’s day, viewed from the air, would have appeared as aimless as a that of a butterfly… the maps of these days, superimposed, would have made a tangle; but every morning he emerged from the same place just as the sun came up, and every evening he returned there, tired now, darkened, switching off the bike, rolling it over the wooden lintel of the door leading into the courtyard, the engine ticking as it cooled.

We can see here Mueenuddin’s genius with the long sentence, his way of unfurling clauses in leisurely but consequential fashion. The idea of the difference between a life viewed from above and from within reappears in the story’s dramatic shifts in perspective, most famously in this description of the trees that line one of the roads Nawab tears along on his bike:

Some hundred and fifty years ago one of the princes had ridden that way, going to a wedding or a funeral in this remote district, felt hot, and ordered that rosewood trees be planted to shade the passersby. He forgot that he had given the order within a few hours, and in a few dozen years he in turn was forgotten, but these trees still stood, enormous now, some of them dead and looming without bark, white and leafless.

We considered this passage for a while, lingering over its magisterial irony: the whim of the potentate that can make such a mighty and extraordinary thing come to pass even as he himself is as soon forgotten as his initial whim. Only the narrator remembers, and this move to omniscience—there’s no attempt to tie the information to Nawab’s consciousness—suggests that individuals are insignificant in the sweep of time, an idea that casts the end of the story in a new light.

Halfway through, the story switches gears, as it were, and narrates a single incident in detail. Nawab is riding home one night when a man steps out on to the road and motions for him to stop. Nawab takes pity on the man and offers him a ride. Half a mile later, the man pokes a gun in Nawab’s side and orders him to stop. Nawab loses control of the bike, the men go flying and land in a heap, but when Nawab tries to take the man’s gun the robber shoots him in the groin. After another tussle, the man fires five shots at Nawab from point blank range: they all miss. The commotion brings two other men running; one of them shoots the robber. The injured men are taken to a pharmacy. Only Nawab has the money for medical care, and he refuses the robber’s pleading: “Have mercy, save me. I’m a human being also.”

Nawab counters with a lofty, self-serving judgment—“At every step of the road I went the right way and you the wrong”—and the man dies after whispering, “It’s not true.” Then this, the story’s remarkable final paragraph:

Yet Nawab’s mind caught at this [the referent is unclear—perhaps the man’s final words], looking at the man’s words and his death, like a bird hopping around some bright object, meaning to peck at it. And then he didn’t. He thought of the motorcycle, saved, and the glory of saving it. He was growing. Six shots, six coins thrown down, six chances, and not one of them killed him, not Nawabdin Electrician.

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I had begun class by referencing E. M. Forster’s classic distinction between round and flat characters. Surprisingly, Forster begins by describing flat characters at length and only then goes on to define round characters—and then mostly in opposition to flat characters. Flat characters, says, Forster, can be summarized in a sentence. We went on to consider the relation between flat characters and stock characters of types (quite similar, but not, I think, the same). Flat characters are static, maybe even simple, but they’re not dull. I asked the class for an example of a flat character in “Nawabdin Electrician” and was pleased when the immediate answer was Nawabdin’s wife. (I also offered the example of the pharmacist, whose ruthlessness about only exchanging his services for cash reminds us of certain aspects of Nawab’s character.) We briefly discussed Nawab’s wife, concluding that what best characterized her was her long-suffering attitude to her husband. I wanted students to see, though, how warm and moving a portrait of a “flat” character can be. We see that her life is hard, she always comes last in the family, but she isn’t entirely put upon, she’s shrewd and funny and seems to love her husband as much as he evidently loves her. And we learn all this in only a single scene.

I proceeded to offer a riff on what the names of character can reveal, whether through allusion (Ishmael in Moby Dick, as exiled and wayward as his namesake in Genesis) or through description, (the evasive and obfuscatory lawyers Dodgson and Fogg in Pickwick Papers: I nicked these examples from a textbook I’ve lying around my office.) Then I turned to the most interesting thing Forster says about round characters: they surprise us. Their motivations are complex, sometimes inscrutable even to themselves.

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Having given this background, I suggested that Nawab was a perfect example of a round character. The ending, students readily agreed, surprised them. Did they like Nawab, I asked? The class was split, and this naïve question sparked the most open, back-and-forth conversation we’d had so far. Some students were taken by Nawab’s devotion to his family. Others were impressed by what a bad ass he turns out to be. But still others disliked him for that same reason, pointing out how judgmental and cruel he proves in the end. Indeed, I suggested, to call him a bad ass is to believe his own propaganda, which we see at work in the free indirect discourse of that brilliant final sentence. This is aggrandizement of a different sort than the prince’s whim that led to a forest. This is a man given the opportunity to reflect on his actions and simply choosing not to (“And then he didn’t.”) Moreover, though I forgot to mention this at the time, to judge the robber as harshly as Nawab does is to ignore another surprising narrative shift when we suddenly, via narrative omniscience, learn that the man had never used guns before and couldn’t bear to point at the head or the body.

There’s much more to say about the subtle ambivalence of Mueenuddin’s characterization of his protagonist. I’ll end simply by citing the passage we looked at in the last minutes of class, with time running down and still so much to say. It’s a passage from early in the story, when we are still being introduced to Nawab, still inclined to look kindly on him as a Robin Hood type. Nawab has been called in to fix the pump on a well:

Hammer dangling like a savage’s axe, Nawab entered the oily room housing the pump and electric motor. Silence. He settled on his haunches. The men crowded the door, till he shouted that he must have light. He approached the offending object warily but with his temper rising circled it, pushed it about a bit, began to take liberties with it, settled in with it, drank tea next to it, and finally began disassembling it. With his screwdriver, blunt and long, lever enough to pry up flagstones, he cracked the shields hiding the machine’s penetralia. A screw popped and flew into the shadows, He took the ball-and-peen and delivered a cunning blow. The intervention failed. Pondering, he ordered one of the farmworkers to find a really thick piece of leather and to collect sticky mango sap from a nearby tree. So it went, all day, into the afternoon, Nawab trying one thing and then another, heating the pipes, cooling them, joining wires together, circumventing switches and fuses. And yet somehow, in fulfillment of his genius for crude improvisation, the pumps continued to run.

The backhandedness of that last sentence is wonderful: is that honest praise for genuine skill, however crude, or is it a testament to an unchanged reality (not even Nawab could break the machine)? Over and over the passage undermines Nawab: his “cunning blow” fails with a thud echoed by the unusually short sentence in the midst of these glorious, sinuous lists of Nawab’s efforts, which range from brute force to tender solicitation. (Am I the only one to hear “genitalia” in that obscure “penetralia”? Not to mention his “taking liberties” with the machine.) Nawab is a master, wielding his carefully described tools with precision. Nawab is a charlatan, throwing everything at the wall and hoping something, some piece of leather dripping with mango, sticks.

The precision of Mueenuddin’s description, his genius with tempo and rhythm (we really feel Nawab’s desperation in those lovely lenthy sentences), and his through-going ambivalence about Nawab’s character: in these ways the passage offers in miniature everything that is so good about this terrific story.

In past entries, I’ve expressed some doubts about this group of students. This week was certainly our best so far. It seemed as though the students were starting to get a handle on what I’m asking them to do. Some still have that half-puzzled, half-terrified look. But in general the week was characterized by a kind of looseness and joy that our conversations had usually been lacking so far. Here’s hoping that atmosphere continues next week, when we discuss the concept of place/setting/locale in stories by Malamud and Rachel Seiffert.

Short Fiction 2015 Week 3: Nabokov & Malamud

Labour Day made for a short week. Wednesday saw us conclude the first unit of the course on narrative event with Vladimir Nabokov’s wonderful, too-little known story “The Fight” (1925). Today saw us begin a unit on character with the first of several stories we’ll be reading by Bernard Malamud, the enigmatic “The Mourners.”

Once again I’ve assigned Malamud’s third book, The Magic Barrel (1958), one of the few story collections ever to win the National Book Award. We’ll be returning to it regularly this semester. I love this collection and I was really pleased last time I taught the course that students liked it a lot too. I really wasn’t sure that would be the case. They’re very Jewish, these stories, and my students are not. That last group was much more Humanities oriented than this one seems to be, but at least reading a single author in some depth will help them as they prepare for the final essay, in which they’ll examine the formal and thematic preoccupations of an author as they are manifested in four or five stories from at least two collections.

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I spent some time at the beginning of class telling the students a little about Malamud. Normally I don’t do this, we just don’t have time, but it seemed worth doing today. The result, however, was that, after describing Malamud’s childhood in Brooklyn with parents who had escaped Tsarist Russia—real Fiddler on the Roof stuff, I said, and was shocked by the sea of blank faces: only two students had ever seen it—a childhood that was poor, the parents working long hours at a small grocery of the sort that appears so often in Malamud’s fiction, and difficult, the mother institutionalized after a failed suicide attempt (she was found by Malamud himself) and a brother similarly plagued by schizophrenia, a childhood that Malamud escaped by becoming a teacher, an occupation he continued through his marriage to a Catholic (bitterly contested by both families), a stint at a land-grant university in Oregon, and a fellowship year in Rome before landing a permanent gig teaching college writing at Bennington College in Vermont, where he painstakingly worked on his highly polished sentences, a determined, almost monastic life made famous in Philip Roth’s lightly fictionalized, and overtly hostile representation of Malamud in The Ghost Writer (1979)—after saying all this we only had about 40 minutes left to discuss the story.

Moreover, we spent so long analyzing the first sentence—“Kessler, formerly an egg candler, lived alone on social security”—that we didn’t have time to say everything I wanted to about the story. But I thought it worth lingering on that sentence for two reasons: one, I always love beginnings, and two, I think this one is quintessential Malamud. His economy is evident, as is his lack of patience with extended exposition. We considered two things in this sentence that are present at the beginning of almost all his stories: the use of last names, and the reference to occupations.

I was relieved that most students had found out what an egg candler does. (I hate it when students don’t look up words.) When I asked them what images came up in their google searches, they described various machines, devices, or contraptions that involved a light source. Not, I observed, any pictures of guys looking at eggs. This led them to conclude that egg candling must not be done by people any more. Which might mean what? Maybe that it’s boring, repetitive, the kind of thing people don’t do as well as machines. Kessler, on that reading, would be a superfluous man. That proves to be true, in a way, yet we also learn, in the next sentences of the story, that Kessler had been fired by “more than one egg and butter wholesaler” not because he was a bad worker—“he sorted and graded with speed and accuracy”—but because he was “a quarrelsome type and considered a trouble maker.” There are plenty of quarrels in the story (one reason I wanted to pair it with the Nabokov), but Malamud’s phrasing leaves open the possibility that he might not really be a troublemaker, he might just be mistaken for one, and thus perhaps not a bad guy, or as bad a guy as he seems.

At any rate, we learn here in passing something important: that the job of egg candler, which might seem dull and repetitive, actually requires discernment, even finesse (all that sorting and grading). Those qualities are important to keep in mind, since they might make us feel more kindly towards Kessler later on. For our opinion of Kessler quickly takes a nose dive, since we learn that thirty years ago he suddenly abandoned his wife and children, merely because he is “unable to stand” them—they had been, the story chillingly tells us, “always in his way.”

The distance we soon feel towards Kessler is intimated already in the use of last name, which students pointed out removed the characters from us—and from each other. Through my prompting, they noted that this story—set almost entirely in a single tenement building in which people live on top of each other—is filled with characters who hardly know each other, and don’t seem to like each other much when they do.

Kessler gets into a fight with the janitor in his building; the janitor tells the landlord, one Gruber, a big sweaty man with high blood pressure caused from his desire to wring as much money out of his run-down building as possible. Gruber gives Kessler notice, but Kessler won’t leave. Gruber has Kessler evicted, but Kessler sits in the snow on the sidewalk until his neighbours take pity and file the lock off the door and carry him back upstairs. Kessler asks Gruber plaintively, “‘What did I do, tell me? Who hurts a man without a reason? Are you a Hitler or a Jew?’” As he does, he is all the time hitting his chest with his fist, an allusion to the prayers of atonement Jews offer on Yom Kippur, the striking of the chest with the fist metaphorically suggesting how much we must take the task to heart.

The next day—after the landlord spends a restless night worrying over how to get Kessler to leave, just one of several references in the story to Melville’s marvelous “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853)—Gruber ascends the stairs of the building only to find Kessler still in the apartment. Now Gruber sees Kessler as a mourner, and indeed we learn that Kessler is thinking about what he has apparently been thinking about ever since being evicted to the sidewalk, namely, his having abandoned his family.

At the end of the story, Gruber, who has a sudden vision of falling down the stairs that are referenced so often, becomes convinced that Kessler is mourning him. The final paragraph reads:

At last he could stand it no longer. With a cry of shame he tore the sheet off Kessler’s bed, and wrapping it around his bulk, sank heavily to the floor and became a mourner.

What exactly the two are mourning, and why they mourn rather than, say, repent, is just one, though perhaps the most important, of the story’s many enigmas.

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As a way to solve those mysteries, I asked the students to free write for a couple of minutes in answer to the question: “Who does the story ask us to sympathize with?” (I later introduced the term “identification”—a fancy way of describing our tendency to model ourselves on others, which involves looking for others that we want to be like.) I thought this was a good question to ask of “The Mourners” because it has no obvious answer. I’ve often found that asking students to write for a bit half way through class leads to good results: sharper thinking, more nuanced answers. That was true this time, too, as became evident when I asked a few of them to read their responses. Most answered Kessler, one Gruber. No one, I noticed, but only to myself, there just wasn’t time, though I see now it would have been helpful to bring it up, said the old Italian woman, Kessler’s neighbour, who shrieks and shrieks when she sees Kessler on the street without pause until her grown sons carry him back up to the room. I don’t understand this moment, really, but it’s one of the only times when someone in this story cares for somebody else.

Perhaps the old woman sees her own fate in Kessler’s. After all—and I regret that I didn’t say this in class—the other piece of information in the story’s opening sentence is that Kessler lives on social security, an unremarkable fact to readers today, especially eighteen-year-olds, but more remarkable given the time of the story’s writing and its setting, which is never directly named but seems to be a few years earlier. But social security only dates to 1935, and it wasn’t offered as a regular monthly sum until 1940. This historical fact connects to the story’s interest in what it means to care—or not to care—for others. One way to understand social security is as an affirmation that we will all care for each other, even those we don’t know (by “all” I mean Americans: proving one’s bona fides as an American is an abiding concern in these stories, filled as they are with Jewish immigrants). It’s a way of generalizing responsibility. I don’t think the story disputes that social security is good, even very good, but I think it might be suggesting it’s not enough. Maybe the idea is that each of us must take responsibility for our friends, loved ones, and neighbours. Perhaps this failure is what is mourned. For the accusation Kessler levels at Gruber—“Who hurts a man without a reason?”—could be asked of Kessler himself. After all, that’s what he did to his family.

Things got rushed at the end of class, just as they are here. We didn’t have time to really grapple with these ideas of responsibility. The period didn’t feel wasted, but it didn’t feel as satisfying as I’d have liked. “The Mourners” is remarkable, though, and I urge you to read it, especially now, on the eve of the Jewish High Holidays.

I haven’t time or energy to say much about “The Fight,” the other story we read this week. It too is wonderful. Nabokov’s stories are underrated, especially the ones from his time in exile in Berlin in the 1920s. “The Fight” has an odd structure. It begins with a lengthy description on the part of the first person narrator—an émigré in Berlin, presumably someone like Nabokov himself—of the excursions he regularly makes to a lake on the outskirts of Berlin, perhaps some place like the Wannsee, which would later take on such a sinister associations because of the decision taken at a villa there in 1942 by top Nazis to exterminate European Jewry. At the period of Nabokov’s story, though, the lake is merely a place to swim and sun. The narrator regularly sees an older man there, a man with whom he can only haltingly converse, but who seems genial and pleasantly anarchic. For example, he warns other bathers of the arrival of the hated dogcatcher with a piercing whistle and a glint in his eye.

Only later does the narrator discover more about the man, when he happens to enter a bar in an unfamiliar part of the city that turns out to be owned by him. The narrator begins to drop in regularly, watching the goings on of the regulars, especially the love affair between the daughter of the man—his name, we learn only relatively late in the story, is Krause—and a young electrician. The last part of the story tells what happens one day when the weather is sultry and a storm just about to break. The electrician stops by the bar, pours himself a drink, and makes himself on his way. Krause demands that he pay; the man refuses, saying that, after all, here he is at home. Matters escalate rapidly and in a matter of a sentence or two the men are fighting with bare fists on the street, to the glee of a crowd that has gathered seemingly from nowhere. Krause knocks the electrician out. The narrator vainly, rather heartlessly, attempts to comfort the girl with a kiss. And that’s it. The story’s over.

For me, “The Fight” is a parody of the chart known to every high school student, the one that details initial exposition followed by gradually rising action that leads to a climax and then comes down to a resolution. Instead of those hoary conventions, this story asks instead: In what way does a climactic action need to be prepared for? What happens if that action isn’t resolved?

Wednesday was the first rainy day of the semester, and I knew the students would be listless. So I divided the students into groups and gave each a question I’d prepared beforehand. In lieu of any interpretation of the story—read it, it’s about five pages, and fabulously Nabokovian with its disturbing first-person narrator, you won’t be disappointed—I’ll simply list them here. I’ll take your answers in the comments below.

  1. Why is this story called “The Fight”? After all, the fight doesn’t take up much of its length. What is the fight like? What does it lead to? What is the story telling us about it?
  2. We could divide the story into three parts: pp 141-3//143-4//144-6. What do the parts have to do with each other? Why all that stuff about swimming at the beginning?
  3. What is the narrator like? What do we learn about him, even if indirectly?
  4. What does the story tell us about bodies?
  5. How does the anecdote about the dogcatcher function? What’s it doing here?
  6. How does the final paragraph affect our understanding of the story?

Another short week next week, what with Rosh Hashanah. And the demands of the semester are really tightening. But I’ll do my best to report back here again when we turn our attention to two much more recent stories.

Short Fiction 2015 Week 2: Balzac, Chekhov, Kipling

I’m still uncertain what kind of a group I’m dealing with. A smaller one than last week, at any rate. Two students dropped—one had been a strong contributor to discussion and we’ll miss her—and now we’re reaching the point where the class won’t work if everyone doesn’t pitch in. It doesn’t help that there are almost no humanities students in the class. That can bring its own rewards, but it doesn’t help my department’s goal of using classes like this one as a way to generate majors. And although the students have been willing to work with me so far, I sense that they simply aren’t sold yet on the value of close textual analysis. I worry that if even a few of them decide to check out, our conversations will become strained and artificial.

What a shame that would be: the material is so interesting! I would say that of course, but I really don’t see how anyone could fail to be intrigued by the stories we studied this week: Balzac’s “Sarrasine” (1830), “Kipling’s “Mrs. Bathurst” (1904), and Chekhov’s “The Kiss” (1887). They happen to be the three oldest stories on the syllabus, as well as some of the longest. No doubt those things contributed to some of the students’ difficulties. But in general we persevered.

I wanted us to consider in particular these questions: What sorts of things should happen in a story, and how should they be told? To this end I introduced the distinction made by the Russian Formalists in the first decades of the twentieth century between fabula and syuzhet, or story and plot. Although readers sometimes use these terms as synonyms, narratologists make a useful distinction between them. Story is the chronological order of events; plot is the arrangement of those events into the order we experience them in our reading of the text.

In preparing for class I came across this example, which I put on the board. (I love the room we’re in because it still has a chalkboard.) What, I asked, is the difference between these narratives?

Tim got up in the morning. There wasn’t any cereal left, so he went out to get some. On his way to the store, he was hit by a car and died.

Tim couldn’t believe he was dying because of cereal. He should never have left the house.

Students were readily able to note to difference between a chronological ordering of material and an achronological one that begins with the end and will presumably flash back to earlier events in order to explain the cryptic sentence “Tim couldn’t believe he was dying because of cereal.” It took a little prodding, however, for them to say that the second of these admittedly not especially elegant examples is more interesting than the first—specifically, it is more suspenseful. I observed that some genres, crime fiction in particular, manipulate story more than others, largely in the service of suspense.

My main points were these: all narratives have plots, however minimal, and so all narratives manipulate the presentation of events. Story is what readers are continually creating, often unconsciously, from their experience of plot. Story is therefore a necessary fiction, an effect of plot. It’s not something that pre-exists plot.

I hope they got this counter-intuitive idea, but I don’t know (yet). I noticed that the students were happiest—and liveliest—when they were learning this vocabulary and applying it to the course texts. They liked it, in other words, when I was lecturing. But I’m not a particularly good lecturer, and I don’t do much of it in this course or any other. What I really do—what I really want them to learn—is how to pay close attention to literary texts; how to develop interpretations of the whole based on scrupulous attention to its parts.

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I can’t talk about these stories without spoiling some of their surprises, so consider yourself warned. Each is wonderful, but this time around the one that really struck me was “Sarrasine.” I’ve only ever taught it in the context of Roland Barthes’s powerful reading of it in his brilliant book about realist fiction, S/Z. My take on the story is heavily indebted to Barthes, but I found it freeing to teach the story on its own terms. I think using Jordan Stump’s translation from this lovely new edition of Balzac stories helped too. It feels fresher and lighter than the one by Richard Howard I’m familiar with.

I had the students bring a one-page summary of the story to class, partly as a diagnostic exercise (so I could see what their writing was like) and partly to get them to practice accurate and concise description. I wanted to know what they chose to emphasize. (Interestingly, they almost all ignored the ending.) Here’s my crack at it:

“Sarrasine” begins at an opulent ball at the home of the mysterious de Lanty family. The narrator has brought a (married) woman to the party, Madame de Rochfide, whom he hopes to seduce. Like the rest of Parisian society, the young woman is both attracted and repelled by an old man who regularly appears at the de Lantys’ parties. Who is he and why is the family so solicitous but also so frightened of him? The narrator knows and agrees to explain all to his lover when they meet in her boudoir the following evening. There he launches into the story of one Earnest-Jean Sarrasine, a sculptor who rose from obscurity in provincial France to fame in Paris, leading him to win a prize to study in Rome. Sarrasine’s genius combines a fiery, unruly nature with a profound lack of worldliness. That naivety is apparent when, arriving in the Eternal City, he attends the opera and falls immediately in love with a singer known only as La Zambinella. La Zambinella rebuffs the sculptor’s professions of love, saying that if Sarrasine really knew her he would be horrified—a diagnosis that proves to be true when she turns out not to be a woman. Her unearthly voice is the result of castration. An enraged Sarrrasine is on the point of killing the poor creature, to use a word the text repeats several times, when he is himself murdered by ruffians hired by the singer’s protector, one of Rome’s most powerful Cardinals. The old man—the uncle of Madame de Lanty—is none other than La Zambinella; his musical career generated the fortune that has fueled the family’s rise to respectability. But when the mystery is revealed it casts a shadow, a kind of taint on its eager audience. Madame de Rochfide is so repelled by the story that she breaks off her relation with the narrator (and in classic Balzac fashion, threatens to retire from this monstrous world to a convent).

“Sarrasine” is a great story. And it’s great for teaching narrative structure, both because it’s filled with so many mysteries and because it’s so brilliantly manipulative in making us care about them. In other words, it’s very suspenseful, and we feel the suspense all the more powerfully because characters in the story do too, and they’re always cuing us to experience events in a certain way.

I began our discussion of the story by asking the class to identify the story’s key mysteries. They quickly said: Where does the de Lantys’ money come from? Who is the old man? Who is the subject of the portrait of Adonis that hangs in the de Lanty mansion? Who is La Zambinella? Will the narrator get together with Madame de Rochfide?

These all turn out to be versions of the same question. Even the last one hinges on the revelation of the others. I pointed out some of the ways the story answers these questions early on without really answering them. These pieces of incomplete information fit with the story’s depiction of concealment and revelation. Plots work by oscillating between revealing and concealing; Balzac is a master of literalizing these narrative metaphors. The story is full of secret passages, cloistered window-ledges, disguises, etc.

Here’s an example of the kind of half-answer I’m talking about. Already on the fourth page the narrator reveals “The beauty, the fortune, the wit, the grace and intelligence of these two children [the de Lantys’ son and daughter] came to them solely from their mother” (my emphasis). As Barthes points out, the sentence’s parataxis—the presentation of information serially, without any kind of subordination or hierarchy—sweeps us along, so that it’s almost impossible to notice that we’ve already been given the answer to one of the story’s burning questions. But the answer is only a partial answer, an answer we can’t yet fully understand. The de Lanty fortune comes from the maternal side. But we don’t yet know what that means.

The story’s clever plotting, especially the extended flashback to the time when the enigmatic old man was the diva La Zambinella, contributes to its sense of mystery. Where things get really interesting is when that mystery is resolved. At the end of the story, all our questions are answered, but the resolution isn’t satisfying, at least not to the character that has been our stand-in, Madame de Rochfide. (She is the one, like us, who hungers to know the truth behind the mysterious appearances.) Barthes famously described the story’s final scene as a metaphorical instance of castration, an echo of the literal castration that befalls the singer. Here, for example, is the narrator explaining the connection between the old man, La Zambinella, and the de Lanty fortune:

“Perhaps now you can understand Madame de Lanty’s interest in concealing the source of a fortune that comes from—”

“Enough!” she interrupted, with a commanding gesture.

We sat for a moment in the deepest silence.

The event at the heart of the story—Zambinella’s castration, that is, his becoming Zambinella—is so terrifying, even, it would seem, disgusting, that it cannot be spoken, and even the incomplete revelation of its truth is enough to kill desire in anyone who hears of it. (I mean both narrative desire and sexual desire.) The exchange the narrator and his lover have agreed upon—a story for sex—isn’t consummated. In this sense “Sarrasine” offers an allegory of the impossibility of any story to conclude satisfactorily—no solution is ever as satisfying as its enigma.

In other words, one of the things Balzac’s story is about is that what is hidden can never be fully revealed. To satisfy narrative desire is always to incite a kind of death. And that’s especially true in a story like this one, where a key connection between the story of the sculptor and the castrato and the story of the narrator and his lover is the former’s desire to shape the other to their own ends. What Madame de Rochfide says bitterly to the narrator—“Oh! You’re remaking me to suit your own tastes. A strange sort of tyranny that is! You want me to be something other than me”—could just as easily be said by La Zambinella to Sarrasine.

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The same sort of solipsistic control is evident in more melancholic form in Chekhov’s “The Kiss.” A general who like fat women assumes his men must as well. A habitual cynic assumes his colleague must be lying. And an introvert assumes that others must share his disparagement of himself. In contrast to Balzac, and also to Kipling, with their dramatic, even melodramatic events, Chekhov operates in a more muted register. I don’t know if he invented the modern conception that short fiction centers on small epiphanies, but he’s certainly an important figure in the development and eventual triumph of that mode.

I began our discussion of the story by asking students to name the central event of the story. They immediately referred to the scene in which the protagonist Ryabovich, lost at a house party, wanders into a darkened room where he is embraced by a woman who has mistaken him for her lover. But a student immediately added that the real event seems to be the man’s reaction to the embrace. Thus the titular kiss becomes an allegory for our tendency to imagine that a story pre-exists its telling—its plot—when in reality it is only ever constructed from our ways of telling it. Here’s the passage we spent a lot of time on:

Ryabovich stopped, uncertain what to do… Just then he was astonished to hear hurried footsteps, the rustle of a dress and a female voice whispering breathlessly, ‘At last!’ Two soft, sweet-smelling arms (undoubtedly a woman’s) encircled his neck, a burning cheek pressed against his and at the same time there was the sound of a kiss. But immediately after the kiss the woman gave a faint cry and shrank backwards in disgust—that was how it seemed to Ryabovich.

It took a little prodding but eventually I was able to get students to see that this is really a very strange description. The loss of sight in the darkened room means that other senses are heightened—here we referenced a number of other passages that describe sounds and smells—but how trustworthy are those senses, or how are they being interpreted? Why does the text add that parenthetical “undoubtedly a woman’s”? Hasn’t the reference to a female voice made that clear? (Though “Sarrasine” ought to have made us suspicious about such essentialism.) I can’t trust that “undoubtedly”—I immediately hear the doubt hiding within the word. It’s not that I think the person was actually a man. It’s that the whole scenario seems so insubstantial. As one student pointed out, it’s only Ryabovich who is convinced the woman shrinks in disgust. (And because he decides never to return to the house, we never find out if he’s right.)

Further uncertainty comes from that strange phrasing, “there was the sound of a kiss.” Sound isn’t usually the first way we experience a kiss. Why then does Chekhov describe it this way? Again the effect is to render the whole event uncertain. But that very uncertainty is what enables Ryabovich to speculate extravagantly about it, to construct an ideal woman composed of all the most appealing parts of the different women at the party (he imagines the shoulders of one, the smile of another, etc).

We didn’t have time to consider the different registers of experience in the story—the way the habitual actions of the artillery battalion to which the protagonist belongs are succinctly described but derided by the text as boring, whereas the singular action of the kiss, if we can even talk about it in such terms, is developed at length to the point of distortion. But we did linger over the end of the story, over Ryabovich’s decision not to return with the others to the house where the kiss occurred, a decision that comes after he stands overlooking a river. The current that purls faintly and passes inexorably along leads Ryabovich to feel a sense of futility. Yet the story’s final irony is that in taking, at long last, a decisive action—in not returning to the house where, in a different kind of story, he would have re-encountered the woman from the darkened room—he resolutely chooses irresolution. But doing so allows him to maintain the power of fantasy, thereby asserting the inevitable quality of reconstruction that attends all the important moments of our lives. Yet in a way I still don’t fully understand the recognition of this inevitability is combined with a really ominous sense that things will go badly for poor Ryabovich. When the others go off to the party, he lies on his bed “in defiance of fate—as though he wanted to bring its wrath down on his own head.”

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Speaking of ominous fate, what about “Mrs. Bathurst”? This post is already too long, so I won’t say much about it here other than that it is in fact the most enigmatic of these puzzling tales. In fact, it’s really hard to know what happens in it, and we spent much of the class period trying to sort that out. Like “Sarrasine” and “The Kiss,” “Mrs. Bathurst” is also a story about storytelling. Four men gather in a railway car near Cape Town to tell the story of a man who deserted from the Navy. But what exactly happens to him, and what led him to desert? A quick online search suggests that commentators can’t agree on the answers. I think the students found it hard—it worked less well than the last time I taught it—and it’s true that to make any sense of it at the most basic level we have to make much of enigmatic and offhand phrasing, as when the deserter tells the story-teller: “remember that I am not a murderer, because my lawful wife died in childbirth six weeks after I came out [i.e. away from England].” Why “lawful wife”? Isn’t that redundant? Well, maybe not if you have a second wife, an unlawful one. Not, in other words, if you’re a bigamist. Look here for an extraordinarily detailed, if sometimes pedantic to the point of obtuseness, analysis of much of the existing criticism of the story, where this suggestion among others is made. (The whole site has the layout and monomaniacal tone that so characterized the Internet in its early days.) Kipling doesn’t even attempt the resolution of narrative enigmas that proved so problematic in Balzac. He’s probably the least well respected of the three writers today, but in this sense at least he feels the most radical. We’ll return to the topic of uncertain or unknowable events when we read an early story by Nabokov next week.