Short Fiction Week 9: Lahiri

It’s been a long two weeks. We’re deep into the semester now: we’re tired and harried but we’ve still a long way to go.

I still can’t figure this group out. It’s one step forward, one step back with them. Some days I feel heartened: the vibe in the room is different, a little looser. The class feels like a group. But then the next time we meet we’re back to silence, hesitancy, the students’ heads down, their expressions silently shouting, “Don’t ask me anything!”

I even took the step of giving out a pop quiz last week to check if they’re reading the stories. Judging from the results almost all of them are. So it’s not that they’re slacking. It’s more that they still don’t seem sure how to do it, how to read a text. Admittedly, it’s not easy. One thing I’ve noticed these past two weeks, however, is that the class has started to stratify: there are those who are really starting to get it, and there are those who aren’t. Usually that separation happens sooner in the semester. I don’t know what it says about this group, or about my teaching of them, that they’ve either stayed together this long or that it’s taken some this long to pull away.

I thought for a while about writing about a bad class. But then I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. So here is a good one instead. In week 9 of the course, we considered three stories. One was Mansfield’s “A Cup of Tea” (a winner every time I’ve taught in, no matter what the context—but not this year). One was Joyce’s “Eveline,” though we hardly said anything about it since at the last minute I substituted a writing exercise that took a long time but that I think was worth it—we went over a strong student paper, highlighting each sentence as either description or analysis: the arrangement of the different colours offered visual learners a way to think about structure. I’d taught both of those stories many times before. But we also considered one I hadn’t: the week’s third story was Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar.”

I confess that although I’ve read most of Lahiri’s books, I haven’t cared for them much beyond her first collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, which is where “Bibi” can be found. Peparing the class this summer I decided I wanted a story told in the first-person plural—a google search led me to “Bibi.”

Since it was the first day after Fall Break, I started by reminding students of some of the things we’d learned about narrative voice.

We had studied Lawrence’s use of third person narration in “The Last Straw,” noting how he privileged first one character’s point of view and then another’s, and sometimes a point of view attached to no character at all. This served his interest in conflict between individuals.

We had studied Pearlman’s use of first person in “Binocular Vision,” noting how this technique limited our perspective so that we knew only what the narrator knew (which, we learned, was quite different from what her parents knew). First person narration gave us intimacy with the character but consigned us to her blind spots. Only with difficulty could we read “against” her.

Bibi Haldar is a woman, no longer so young, who lives near Calcutta at an unspecified time—I place it in the 70s or 80s but the story doesn’t tell us for sure. She suffers from a mysterious illness that sounds like epilepsy but that has resisted every attempt at a cure. Bibi lives on sufferance with her cousin and his wife in an apartment above their small cosmetics shop, but she is most often found in the storage room on the roof of the building, where she records inventory for the shopkeeper. The narrators are an unspecified group of neighbourhood women, who have known Bibi since she was a child. Unlike her, however, they are married with children.

It seems at first that Bibi wants nothing more than to be like them. As she says, in a voice that “was louder that necessary, as if she were speaking to a deaf person, “‘Is it wrong to envy you, all brides and mothers, busy with lives and cares? Wrong to want to shade my eyes, scent my hair? To raise a child and teach him sweet from sour, good from bad?’”

Everyone seems to want this for her too. An exasperated doctor, finding nothing wrong with Bibi, dismisses her with a classic chauvinist prescription: “a marriage would cure her.” “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” is an odd story in that not much happens for a long time, and then a lot happens quickly right near the end. For most of the story, Bibi bemoans her fate, suffers debilitating spells of illness, is consoled or advised, more or less, by the narrators. I say more or less because already in that early claim that she “spoke louder than necessary” we see that the narrators might be ambivalent about Bibi. When the cousin’s wife gets pregnant, she becomes convinced that Bibi is bad luck, eventually banishing her to the rooftop. The narrators respond with indignation and take their “only revenge”: they boycott the cousin’s store. This tactic is successful enough that before long the cousin and his wife and child move away, leaving only an envelope with 300 rupees.

The narrators try to look in on Bibi but their attention fades: they send the children by to make sure she hasn’t had a seizure; they leave plates of rice and glasses of tea at her makeshift door. But they no longer see much of her, catching only occasional glimpse of her walking the perimeter of the rooftop. Months pass and not until vomit is found by the cistern several days running do the women search out Bibi: “We found her lying on the camp cot. She was about four months pregnant.” Bibi refuses to explain what happened. She has the baby, a son, and with the money left by her cousin she reopens the shop to great success. The story ends:

In this manner she raised the boy and ran a business in the storage room, and we did what we could to help. For years afterward, we wondered who in our town had disgraced her. A few of our servants were questioned, and in tea stalls and bus stands, possible suspects were debated and dismissed. But there was no point carrying out an investigation. She was, to the best of our knowledge, cured.

I began by asking the class to write for a few minutes about the first-person plural narrator. What is the effect of this choice? How does it ask us to read the story? They had to reference at least one passage from the story in their writing. I gave them five minutes or so to work on this—some time I’ll write an essay about what it feels like in those peaceful but also rather guilt-inducing moments (I always feel like I should be doing something) when I’m wandering the aisles, looking out the window, watching them turn pages and scribble furiously and stare blankly—before making them exchange their writing with a partner. They discussed their writing for a few minutes, an exercise that brought a lot of energy into the room. Hoping to sustain the vibe I decided not to take up the specific questions I’d asked: sometimes students have a hard time returning to a group discussion after talking in small groups, even though they usually have lots to say to each other there, it’s as if they feel they’d said all they had to say already to their partner. Instead I asked something much more general: What is Bibi like?

The first answers—tellingly: this story is all about how women look—were about her appearance. The narrators flatly say she isn’t pretty, and even their ostensibly neutral descriptions feel unpleasantly judgmental: “her shins were hairless, and sprayed with a generous number of pallid freckles.” (“Sprayed” and “pallid” undo the work done by “generous.”) Then came other answers: she’s not like everyone else, she’s not part of the group, she’s an outsider.

IMG_0253

But she wants to be part of the group, someone piped up. She’s conventional, I said, summarizing tendentiously. How do you know? I pursued. The student replied by pointing to this passage: “Like the rest of us, she wanted to serve suppers, and scold servants, and set aside money in her almari to have her eyebrows threaded every three weeks at the Chinese beauty parlor.” (The students could even tell me what an almari is—Hindi for a free-standing wardrobe—which given my earlier struggles in this regard I regarded as a victory.) Notice, though, that the narrators are the ones providing this information. They judge her to be “like the rest of us.” (Incidentally, that phrasing suggests the narrators might themselves want this—that is, they might not have attained the life they think they ought to have.) We are back in Pearlman territory, I said, where people see only what they want to see, only what confirms their world-view: Bibi must want to be like us.

What’s wrong with her? I asked. Why does she need to be treated? No one knows, the students said. She’s sick, they said. She’s tried all kinds of cures and been to all kinds of doctors. Nothing works. Then, something more interesting: she doesn’t know how to be like everyone else. The narrators try to teach her, though: they “began to coach her in wifely ways,” preparing her for a suitor that never comes, not least after her cousin, having been pestered by Bibi and the narrators, puts her on the marriage market, even arranging to have her photo taken, ready to be circulated in the homes of eligible men, a process that culminates in a terse advertisement in the town newspaper designed to repel rather than attract: “GIRL, UNSTABLE, HEIGHT 152 CENTIMETERS, SEEKS HUSBAND.” We didn’t linger over this ad as much as we might have: had we considered the cataloguing function of its absurd specificity about her height we might have been able to connect this moment to a lengthy passage later in the text, which we only came to late in the class period and couldn’t do justice to, a wonderful and enigmatic and disturbing description of Bibi’s late father, a math teacher, who, we learn, had “kept assiduous track of Bibi’s illness in hopes of determining some logic to her condition,” but who is able to find out nothing more than the number of attacks and that they were more likely to happen in summer than in winter: meager conclusions considering his near-constant monitoring. In this he is rather like the narrators, who watch her all the time, it seems, but don’t know her very well.

Needless to say, the ad gets Bibi nowhere, but what I wanted the students to see was the way the story was showing us, here as elsewhere in the story, how being a woman in the world of this story (as, of course, in our own) is learned rather than natural. Bibi’s “unnatural” qualities are not outliers to a norm, but rather evidence of that norm, of behaviour that all women in the story must undergo. In this way, every woman in the story is unnatural.

If Bibi really is the exception that proves a patriarchal rule, then you might be able to guess where I was going with my next question, Do the narrators like Bibi?

This proved to be a good question: easy enough for students to access, but not that easy once we got talking about it. Some students said yes, pointing out how the narrators cared for Bibi when her relatives didn’t, how they took her under their wing, how they worked with her apparently unprepossessing material to shape her into a form some man might find acceptable. Most pertinently, they pointed to the scene of solidarity where the women run the cousin out of town by boycotting his business. These students seized on the text’s use of the word “revenge” to support their belief that the narrators care for Bibi—assuming, of course, that it is Bibi, and not themselves, their status as women, that they are avenging.

But other students disagreed. (How nice to have a disagreement! Hendrix students don’t much like disagreeing with each other.) These students argued that the narrators don’t really like Bibi at all, that they treat her like a kid sister or a doll that they grow tired of, as we see in this sentence: “Some days, after siesta, we combed out her hair, remembering now and then to change the part in her scalp so that it would not grow too broad.” A lot depends on how we read that “now and then”—is it normal to change the part only once in a while or are they giving us a sign that they’ve forgotten or can’t be bothered? Most triumphantly, these students pointed to a passage about the narrators’ relief at not being like Bibi: “We consoled her; when she was convinced a man was giving her the eye, we humored her and agreed. But she was not our responsibility, and in our private moments we were thankful for it.”

“In our private moments we were thankful for it.” I’m interested in this phrasing because it seems contradictory. In what way can a group, a “we,” have private moments? Only by excluding others, of course. One of the paradoxes of the first-person plural narrative, I noted, returning to my opening questions to the class about what effect the story’s narrative voice has on our understanding of its events, is that first-person plural suggests solidarity and unity but often ends up presenting separation and discord. (It’s also not much good at presenting single or individual events—things that happen once; it’s much better at presenting representative or general events—things that happen repeatedly. One of the most brilliant investigations of this tendency is Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides (1993), which makes much of the tension between its first-person plural narration and its detective-like investigation of a series of deaths. I hadn’t really thought this distinction through before class—still haven’t now, in fact, so I didn’t bring it up, and anyway our conversation went in a different direction. But maybe someone here has something smart to say about it.)

27monsoon1a

The question of whether the narrators like Bibi is best answered by looking at the end of the story. When her cousin exiles her to the rooftop to keep her away from his child, Bibi tries to reassure the narrators: “‘The world begins at the bottom of the stairs. Now I am free to discover life as I please.’” We’re led to believe—because the narrators do—that this is plaintive, unconvincing bravado. For as soon as she says it, Bibi shuts herself off from the world. All the more shocking, then, to the narrators and to us when Bibi gets pregnant. What they say when they discover the state of things is quite revealing.

I spent a long time close reading this passage with the class:

She said she could not remember what had happened. She would not tell us who had done it. We prepared her semolina with hot milk and raisins; still she would not reveal the man’s identity. In vain we searched for traces of the assault, some sign of the intrusion, but the room was swept and in order. On the floor beside the cot, her inventory ledger, open to a fresh page, contained a list of names.

The first two sentences are presented as near synonyms. But they’re not the same. How are they different? I asked. One is about what she couldn’t do, and the other about what she wouldn’t. What difference does that difference make? The first is about inability, the second about refusal. In both cases, the narrators assume Bibi has been raped, and of course that is a strong, depressing possibility. Yet we mustn’t overlook how much the narrators want that to be the case. They can’t imagine any other possibility: the only suggestion that there might be another way to read the situation lies in how strongly they refuse to countenance that possibility. They simply can’t imagine that a man might have wanted Bibi, and that she might have wanted him. So intent are they on confirming their lurid speculation that they even try to bribe her, preparing her a dish presumably intended to soothe her morning sickness—but “still she would not reveal the man’s identity” (my emphasis).

They want assault, intrusion, violation, but they search for it in vain; they find only cleanliness and order. The ledger, “open to a new page,” offers an image of a fresh start, a new kind of inventory to replace the cosmetics that were so unsatisfying to Bibi.

The doctor, it turns out, was wrong. Bibi didn’t need a man; she just needed some sperm. Or, she did need a man, but a son rather than a lover or husband. The narrators pass over Bibi’s newfound success rather hastily in the story’s final paragraph, preferring to harp on what they admit they will never find: the identity of the man they insist has disgraced her. But in the final sentences they admit defeat: “But there was no point carrying out an investigation. She was, to the best of our knowledge, cured.” The qualifying clause inserted into the last sentence holds out the possibility—the hope, even—that they might be wrong. Not to mention the conviction that something was wrong with Bibi. But to be right, in the world of this story, at least for women like our narrators, is to be reduced to a sameness, to live through the expectations and desires of others.

An interesting thing about this story is that there are almost no men in it. It’s a sign of how insidiously patriarchy works that women can do their own policing. We see, then, I said in the last minute of class, that the story’s title must be read in two ways. The treatment of Bibi Haldar refers to the various medical and cultural and psychological treatments she undergoes, especially, ironically, the “treatment” of becoming pregnant, having a child, and becoming a person for whom there are no other models in this story, and therefore a person decidedly at odds with the “we” who narrates it. But the treatment of Bibi Haldar is also the attitude or disposition of those narrators to Bibi. And the way they treat her is ultimately not very pleasant. It seems, however, that by refusing to be “like the rest of us,” Bibi finds a surprising escape from that treatment.

This wasn’t a story I knew well before I taught it. I’d read it once, years ago, and then skimmed it when I put it on the syllabus. Re-reading it the night before class I was sure I had nothing to say about it. But it proved more surprising than I’d credited. In the end I don’t love this story, it doesn’t have a hold on me the way many of the course texts do. And the reading I came to with the students is perhaps not the most sophisticated. But it worked for them, it hit a kind of interpretive sweet spot: they were left understanding the story in a new way, but that way wasn’t so difficult or abstruse that they couldn’t find a point of entry into it.

Sometimes, on good days, a class period ends with a tangible feeling of appreciation and accomplishment. That’s what happened on that Monday, and not even the let down of the Wednesday that followed can take that feeling away.

Next time: Malamud!

Advertisements

Short Fiction 2015 Week 8: Pearlman

As I mentioned last time, after discussing Lawrence we launched into three days of writing workshops, in advance of the first paper, due yesterday. Of course this isn’t the first writing they’ve done: they’ve each turned in two (of four) two-page reading responses.

I use these writing workshops to force students to start writing earlier—and to recognize that writing means rewriting. Most Hendrix students did very well in high school, often with minimal effort. My students regularly admit—and this group is no different—that they typically wrote their high school papers the night before, and that worked out just fine for them. But it doesn’t work any more.

For this first paper, I’d given the students prompts to choose from. (The next one will be quite different.) Before the first workshop, I asked students to do two things. First, find five passages from the story they had chosen to write about that they thought they might use in the paper. Second, complete a timed writing exercise adapted from the writing guru Peter Elbow. The instructions were: write for fifteen minutes without stopping about whatever comes to mind about your topic. Then revise lightly for five minutes. Set the writing aside for a day. Read it over, open a new document, write again for fifteen minutes, and revise again for five.

Students emailed me the second document by midnight the day before class, and brought their quotes to class. I organized the class into pairs (putting stronger and weaker students together where possible) and instructed students to arrange their partner’s passages in different combinations to suggest different interpretations. In addition they had to choose one passage to close read (to mark up with suggestions about how the way something is said affects what it says). Even though we do nothing but close read in our class discussions, students still struggle with this task. I sat in with a couple of groups who seemed to be finished far too quickly and worked through a passage with them.

In the last third of the class, I passed out one of the fifteen-minute writing paragraphs students had sent me, one that seemed representative of where most students were at in their writing process (having removed the author’s name, of course). What advice would they give the writer about how to proceed? My first question in such exercises is always the same: What is the best moment in this piece of writing? Where is the writing most alive, most compelling? Students are usually pretty good at pointing that out. They just need help knowing what to do with it once they’ve found it. I teach students how to extract the kernel of their writing—the key idea, invariably confused and under-developed at this point—and make it the basis for their draft.

A draft is what they needed for the next class, which wasn’t a class, but an individual meeting with me. (That took most of one day and part of the next.) Those meetings are quite draining for me—although at least I’ve managed to train myself to read the draft in the meeting itself: I used to do all that beforehand—but the results are worth it. At a certain point, students need individual attention to their writing, and they’re not good enough yet to peer review each others’ drafts usefully.

All of this took us through the end of last week. On Monday we met as a group to talk about citation and line editing. I addressed a few recurring mistakes and stylistic issues before passing out a sheet with sample sentences from the writing they’d already done that semester. I asked students to revise these sentences for clarity. Some of the sentences had grammatical mistakes, but that wasn’t the real problem with most of them. These students don’t struggle with mechanics; they struggle with having something to say. The sample sentences either (a) didn’t say much of anything at all, which became clear when we cut the redundancies and wordiness or (b) weren’t sure what they wanted to say. Most problems in writing, I explained, are problems in thinking.

I’ll find out soon whether these workshops helped: I have the stack of papers in front of me. Even at first glance, though, they look better than the drafts. Undoubtedly many will still be mediocre. But I’ll be happy if none of them are terrible, and even happier if one or two of them are great.

Yesterday, then, was the first time in a while that we talked about a story. I knew the students wouldn’t be good for much: their papers were due that day, they had assignments or papers or exams in most of their other classes too, and it was the day before Fall Break. That’s why I had scheduled a very short story by Edith Pearlman called “Binocular Vision.”

106-EP-sitting

For some reason every semester I usually assign one text I’ve never read before. Mostly this habit is self defeating, forcing me to scramble madly to get up to speed on something I know little or nothing about. But sometimes it’s helpful: when my knowledge isn’t that much greater than my students’ I tend to be a more accepting teacher, and there’s also the thrill of pulling off a pedagogical high wire act.

So it was for me with “Binocular Vision.” I’d read about Pearlman when she broke through into mainstream critical acceptance a few years ago (she’d published a few collections with small presses before that, but interestingly didn’t begin publishing until quite late in life—she’s born in 1936, and I think the first published stories are from the 1980s). Learning that she was Jewish only made me more interested. But I still hadn’t read anything by her.

When I made the course syllabus I was drawn to this story because it was the title story of the collection, because it was short (five pages), and because it was in first person (something I wanted to focus on, and that I would compare to the unusual second person address of an upcoming story by Jhumpa Lahiri). My hunch paid off. “Binocular Vision” is terrific, and a good story to teach on a difficult “last class before break” day.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator, a ten-year-old child living with parents and sibling in Connecticut at an unspecified time that is probably the late 1950s, for we learn “There was no television, of course—only rich show-offs had televisions then.” In addition to giving us a clue about setting, that sentence also tells us that the time of the telling is later than the time of the events (“only rich show-offs had television then”). In a few weeks I’ll remind students of Pearlman’s use of a narrator who reflects on life, for this strategy will recur in our unit on the theme of childhood. For reasons that will become clear in a minute, Pearlman stays quite close to her narrator’s child perspective, seldom pointing out the disparity between then and now.

The story takes place in December over the school holidays. The narrator’s father, an ophthalmologist, has been given a pair of binoculars as a fortieth birthday present but he never uses them. One day the narrator idly takes them up and begins spying on the Simons, the neighbours in the apartment next door. Mrs. Simon is at home all day without much to do beyond tidying, running errands, and cooking supper. (“Serious cleaning was done once a week by a regal mulatto woman.”) The narrator sometimes runs across Mrs. Simon in the neighbourhood and shyly whispers a greeting but the elderly woman never replies. The most exciting part of Mrs. Simon’s day, and, before long, the narrator’s, is Mr. Simon’s return home from unspecified work. The narrator can’t see their greeting; the door is blocked from view. But after dinner, the child watches as Mr. Simon reads the newspaper with great deliberation and Mrs. Simon knits and talks and laughs without pause.

School starts again. The narrator has less time to watch the Simons, even starts to lose interest a little. But it comes as a shock when two policemen knock at the door one February morning to ask that the doctor accompany them next door. When he returns he explains to his wife and children that Mr. Simon has committed suicide in his car. Here’s the end of the story:

“Did he drive it off a cliff?”

My parents exchanged frowns and shrugs. Such a child, their looks said, all curiosity and no sympathy—and this the teachers call gifted? Then, still in a patient voice, my father explained that Mr. Simon had driven into his garage, closed the door from inside, stuffed the cracks with newspapers, reentered his car, and turned on the motor.

The next day, in the obituary section, I could find no hint of suicide, unless suddenly was the code word. But the final sentence was a shocker. “Mr. Simon, a bachelor, is survived by his mother.”

I raced to my own mother. “I thought she was his wife!”

“So did she,” my mother said, admitting me abruptly into the complicated world of adults, making me understand what I had until then only seen.

I began class by making the students move to different seats (they always sit in exactly the same configuration). They couldn’t sit in the same place on the opposite side of the room, and they couldn’t sit next to someone they always sit next too. This went exactly as it always does: first it livened them up, but before long it quieted them down. I think it was worth doing because I’m hoping that what has happened in the past will happen again this time: some students will be bold enough to start sitting in different places, which means they are more comfortable in the room, which is good for group morale. We’ll see. Today I was able to add that the exercise was relevant to our impending discussion, since the story is about how we think differently about things depending on the position we see them from.

Once the students had shuffled, half-grumpily, half-excitedly, to new seats, I had them work with their new neighbours to find passages from the story that they understood differently now than they did when they first read them. There were plenty to choose from. One group pointed to the description of the Simons’ apartment. When the narrator sees “a double bed with an afghan at its foot, folded into a perfect right triangle” we assume the Simons sleep in it together—but that must not be the case, unless things are even stranger between mother and son than the story otherwise suggests.

Another group mentioned the narrator’s description of what happens when Mr. Simon comes home at night: “He’d pass a hand over his gray hair, raise the door of the garage, get back into the car, and drive it into the garage. He usually sat there for a while, giving me a chance to inspect his license plate.” (This scene brought back childhood memories of having to get out of the car, always, in my memory, in deepest winter, to open the garage door for my parents. I refrained from forcing this sepia-toned Canadiana on the class.) Once we know how Mr. Simon dies, his choosing to sit for a while in the car seems ominous.

That’s not the only ominous thing here. The narrator’s voyeurism gave the students pause. He’s just watching him doing nothing, one said, indignantly. Why do you say “he,” I asked? Is the narrator a boy or a girl? A boy, the class chorused, or, rather, mumbled. Why do you say that, I asked? Does the story ever tell us?

It’s because he’s staring at them all the time, one student said, a student whose work has improved recently and who I have great hopes for. Why, is staring something boys do? I asked. My little brother likes to do it… she said, before faltering amid general laughter. There’s a reason we say Peeping Tom, not Peeping Tina, said another student, valiantly keeping us on task. But we know she’s a girl, said a third student, the one who, I recently learned, had been planning to be an English major until he took a class he really disliked last year and who I am desperate to return to the fold. Aha! I said. How do you know? It says so, he answered, on the second last page.

We turned to the passage:

How I yearned to witness Mr. Simon’s return. Alas, it always took place in that inner hall. It must be like my father’s homecoming: the woman hurrying to the door; the man bringing in a gust of weather and excitement; the hug, affectionate and sometimes annoyingly long; and finally the separation, so that two little girls rushing downstairs could be caught in those overcoated arms.

I tried to keep the narrator’s gender a secret when I summarized the story, though my contorted phrasing probably gave it away. But the story seems to want to keep it a secret too. How strange, I observed to the class, that the narrator narrates this scene almost in third person. Only the possessive phrase “my father’s homecoming” tells us that this scene is reality rather than fantasy. (There is fantasy here: but it’s of something the narrator can’t see: Mr. Simon’s homecoming.) As a class, we didn’t decide why Pearlman makes this choice, although seeing how she plays with expectations in this story, I’m inclined to think she wants us to assume the narrator is a boy and then to have to reverse our expectation.

If I’m anything to go by, though, Pearlman might not succeed in this. I assumed the narrator was a boy, too, even after having read this passage. (I was taken in by its odd phrasing.) It wasn’t until I read an article that referenced the ten-year-old girl who narrates the story that I even imagined it could be otherwise. Perhaps I’d succumbed to sexism (assuming male as default gender). Or perhaps like my students I too unconsciously gender voyeurism male.

When I teach the story again next semester—and I will, it’s a keeper—I’ll try to make more sense of its reticence in this regard. What I concentrated on this time was the first part of the sentence describing the narrator’s father’s homecoming. “It must,” she says. Crucially, these words reveal the narrator’s assumption that other people’s lives must be like her own. If she thought about it for even a second, though, she’d know that couldn’t be right. After all, the Simons don’t have any children. They’re not even, she learns, the Simons.

I said before that the story doesn’t emphasize the difference between the time of the events and the time of the telling. I returned to this topic by turning us to the story’s final paragraphs. I’m not sure how to understand that description of the parents silently communing over their daughter’s head when she asks whether Mr. Simon drove his car off a cliff—“Such a child, their looks said, all curiosity and no sympathy—and this the teachers call gifted?” There is no indication here that the narrator is retrospectively making sense of that moment, bringing her adult experience to bear on a fleeting but meaningful moment. But how could the child get all that from a single look? She doesn’t seem preternaturally acute. The reference, however ironic, to her being gifted is the first we are invited to see her as particularly sensitive. I’m also interested in the ventriloquism of what the parents are imagined to have been thinking to each other—“and this the teachers call gifted?” The syntax and that idiomatic use of “this,” surely spoken with a rising emphasis and intonation, is the only place in the story that Jewishness makes itself felt. But I’m already worried the class is finding the class too Jewish, so I let these observations pass unspoken.

But the oddness of this moment—in which we can’t pin down whether the child or the adult narrator is speaking—might make more sense when we think about the story’s conclusion. I observed that in reading the obituary the child makes her own use of the newspaper, less devastatingly than Mr. Simon, perhaps, but no less dramatically. Suicide isn’t mentioned, unless through the code word “suddenly.” The reference to code reminds us that the child has been playing detective, and in this sense acts even more than any first person narrator would as a stand-in for readers. “But the final sentence was a shocker.” Pearlman’s joke is pretty neat: the same could be said for this story’s (almost) final sentence.

IMG_0244

“‘Mr. Simon, a bachelor, is survived by his mother.’” There’s another code word in this sentence, I said to the class, maybe the real code word. What’s a bachelor? An unmarried man, someone was kind enough to answer. I briefly sketched the difference between denotation and connotation. What does “bachelor” connote, I asked, convinced it would be obvious where I was going. I can’t even remember now how they answered, but nothing they said was remotely in line with what I was thinking. What about the way people might have said, “He’s a bachelor, wink wink, nudge nudge”? Blank stares. Exasperated, I said, People used to use “bachelor” as code for gay. Haven’t you ever heard that? They hadn’t. I told them I considered that a great victory but the difference between their experience and my own suddenly seemed dispiritingly vast. It made me doubt my reading. But for me this story takes place in Todd Haynes territory, tragically closeted life in the 50s.

screen-shot-2013-09-29-at-7-15-12-pm

Unnerved by the failure of this last gambit, I attempted to forge ahead. Look what she says next: “I raced to my own mother.” Note how that phrasing, that use of “own,” suggests how abruptly she has been shown to be like Mr. Simon in ways neither she nor we could have anticipated just moments before. Indeed, the word “abruptly” appears in the story’s final sentence, naming a mode, a change, an experience the story performs as much as describes.

Why, I wanted to know, is the story called “Binocular Vision”? Silence, that eternal silence of this class! I tried a left-field approach. I asked, Is anyone taking anatomy? Alas, the answer was no. So I explained what I had just learned the night before: binocular vision results from eyes with overlapping fields of view, which allows for depth perception. Prey animals have eyes on the sides of their heads, which means they have a wide field of vision (almost 360 degrees) but little depth of vision (their eyes’ visual fields barely overlap). Predator animals have eyes in the front of their heads. Their visual field is narrower, but their depth perception is much better.

How can you use that information to make sense of the story? More silence. I waited. But time was running short and I was losing faith in myself. Is the question too obvious, is that why you don’t want to answer? Amazingly, a student said yes. I’ve been thinking about her reply ever since. Maybe my problem with this class is that whenever I’ve been asking what I think are real questions they’ve been hearing nothing but rhetorical ones. Since I pride myself on asking good questions, I was hurt. And I wasn’t so sure the question was that obvious. Quietly I said, Tell me anyway. The student obliged: She learns how to see with depth. She learns what’s really going on.

Yes, I said, that’s right. But that’s only half the story. The title has another meaning too. Binocular vision also means the vision you get through binoculars. In principle that means better vision—I referred to a passage early describing the girl’s difficulty in getting objects into focus—but it also means narrow vision, blinkered vision. The narrator sees only what she wants to see, doesn’t see what the story allows us to recognize, that she is confusing real lives, presumably rather desperate ones, for a show. She has no television, but she has the Simons. After all, she calls the evenings in the living room—the man with his newspaper, the woman with her knitting, his silence, her talk—her favorite scene. The narrator marvels at how unceasingly the woman can talk, the same woman who won’t even greet her when they pass on the street. “Talking. Laughing. Talking again.” How desperate, even hysterical those actions seem once we re-read them in light of the story’s final events.

But before we condemn the narrator too quickly, before we judge her for projecting her own experiences on to others, before we conclude that the difference between understanding and seeing offered in the story’s final sentence is the difference between adults and children, and that this child has seen everything but understood nothing—before doing so, I warned, let’s think about ourselves. Let’s remember our experience of reading the text. Let’s be mindful that we too made assumptions and saw only what we wanted to see.

We’re adults. Yet we read the story, we saw everything, and we didn’t understand a damn thing.

Class dismissed. Enjoy your break.

Short Fiction 2015 Weeks 6 & 7: Englander & Lawrence

I’m writing weekly about my Short Fiction class this fall. The first installment is here.

The semester has more than caught up with me, and I’ve fallen behind with the Short Fiction project. In the past weeks, I did manage to complete a writing project, assemble and file my dossier for my first post-tenure review, advise a pile of students on their Fulbright and Watson applications, teach my classes, and more or less keep up with my grading. So it’s not like I haven’t been doing anything. But I’ve missed keeping up with this blog. In the interest of catching up, I’ll combine the last two weeks into one post.

Last week, we discussed three stories: Kay Boyle’s “Life Being the Best” (I actually haven’t been figure out the exact year of publication, but it’s late 20s or early 30s), Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover” (1945), and Nathan Englander’s “The Wig” (1999). These are wonderful stories: I’m particularly under the sway of the Boyle, which I only discovered this summer. Although its milieu—a community of poor refugees from Mussolini’s Italy in Southern France in the late 1920s—was completely foreign to the students, the subject matter—an orphaned child, an erudite, sensitive, but clueless teacher—seemed to resonate, and we had a reasonably lively discussion about the subtle ways the story undermines its teacher protagonist. I definitely have more to learn about this story, but it’s a keeper and I look forward to doing more justice to it next semester.

After that, though, the week went downhill fast.

I adore Bowen’s ghost story set during the Blitz, and I’ve taught it successfully many times. This time, though, I had a hard time getting the students to say anything useful about it. I even tried some group work, since we hadn’t done any in a couple of weeks, but, unusually, that tatic only took the air out of the room even further. Things reached a low point on Friday with the Englander story, another one I’d not taught before. I was lucky enough to host Englander on a visit to campus last year, and found him as funny and intelligent as his stories. I actually usually dislike meeting writers, it usually makes me like the work a little or even a lot less. But Englander was different: a total prince, and a smart reader of his own work. (Also, incredibly manic and charmingly neurotic.)

33d34edf46fb452e4ecd6f2c81d9302a

One of the reasons I assigned “The Wig” is that it is written in present tense, a tic of contemporary fiction I usually despise, but tolerate here because the story is so interesting. It’s about Ruchama, an Orthodox Jewish sheitel macher, a wig maker, who meets a Manhattan deliveryman with the most exquisite hair, hair she buys with money a client has given her and uses to make, in secret, a wig for herself, the wig of her dreams. I don’t have much interesting to say about first person narrative—it increases our sense of immediacy, I suppose—but what I like in Englander’s story is the way that immediacy, that connection with the reader, is undone by the story’s careful distancing techniques.

I started by asking students to look at the description of Ruchama’s frustration with her husband’s grudging performance of even the most modest household chores: “He trayfs up her kitchen to spite her. He is forever putting meat silverware in the dairy sink.” What does trayf mean, I asked? Only one student knew it meant food that doesn’t conform to Orthodox dietary laws (he had looked it up). I half-threatened, half-pleaded with the class to do the basic diligence required of them as students and look up words they don’t understand. (I’m about ready to assign some kind of basic vocabulary exercise to this class: they simply refuse to look words up). I continued by asking the students how they could have come close to knowing what the word meant by using its context. It took longer than I’d hoped, but I eventually got them acknowledge that the sentence about the meat silverware and the dairy sink could provide a clue, though admittedly one that is more meaningful if you know about the prohibition on mixing meat and milk.

Since I’d been expecting the students wouldn’t have looked up unfamiliar words, I had already prepared the next exercise. I had the students take out their phones and look up six words from the story. One side of the room took narishkeit, sheitel, and macher, and the other took gabbai, bimah, and Pesach. We discussed how Englander gives just enough context to help readers basically understand these words, as when he describes the fashion magazines Ruchama surreptitiously studies: “The magazines are contraband in Royal Hills, narishkeit, vain and immodest, practically pornographic.” The phrase “vain and immodest” modifies “narishkeit” as much as “magazines”; even if we don’t know the Yiddish word for foolishness, we sense it means something disreputable. Note that Englander doesn’t italicize these words. Why, I asked the class, are these foreign words in the story? For authenticity, one student finally replied. (Actually, she said: It makes it more real. I translated to the concept I wanted.) What, I continued, is the relationship between authenticity and comprehensibility, a question I had to rephrase as, Why doesn’t Englander give us a translation of the word or a glossary or something? I imagined they would say something like: The people the story is about would know the meaning of the word. To which I would say two things: (1) those (Orthodox) people wouldn’t read this (secular) story and (2) what about you—you don’t know the meaning. But the class couldn’t get there, and so I was left simply to assert my idea, namely, that these words make it clear that the story might not be for every reader. (Who the ideal audience for this story might be is an interesting question: I think the answer is, Jews, more particularly, Jews like Englander himself, who have grown up Orthodox (especially Hasidic) but aren’t any more—a small audience indeed.)

My point was that literature isn’t in any simple or straightforward way universal. One of its pleasures is its ability to offer us a glimpse into a world very different from our own. In other words, the story deliberates sets out not to be relatable, that term so beloved of students today. I suppose the students picked up on the implied chastisement in this reading, and maybe I was unconsciously assuming they wouldn’t get the story and had put myself in the position of being the only one in the room who knew the right answers. (Generally, I prefer to arrange our discussions so that I can pretend they have come up with answers of their own—which, in fact, on good days they do.) At any rate, that’s the most generous reading I can give of the discussion that followed, which was halting and stilted and left me frustrated at the students’ apparent inability to appreciate the story’s ambivalent but not defensive or accusatory portrayal of its Orthodox world. I like, for example, that Ruchama is a savvy and successful businesswoman, and that the vanity she ultimately succumbs to is evident in the story’s secular characters too. Ruchama is an enamored with fashion advertisements that depict a world so shallow and ridiculous that we’re led to ask: isn’t that world—of laughing models bobbing for apples or hailing taxi cabs, with star-struck men at their feet—much more preposterous than the Orthodox one? But the story isn’t holding Orthodox society up as better than a secular one. It’s not even that the woman who wears a wig to protect her hair from the eyes of anyone other than her husband is less oppressed than the woman who has to model her sense of self on impossible standards of beauty—because the Orthodox woman is herself under the sway of those standards.

I thought this accessible but not simplistic story about the relationship between the secular and the religious as figured through ideas of female appearance and empowerment would be a hit with students. But I was wrong. And so I approached the next class, this past Monday, with trepidation—especially because one of my colleagues would be coming to observe me.

I was also excited because we would be reading D. H. Lawrence, the writer closest to my heart. But mostly I was nervous, because I’d never taught the story before, and because I’d been so disappointed with the students’ performance the past few days.

Tate; (c) Was Luke Gertler - now out of copyright; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Tate; (c) Was Luke Gertler – now out of copyright; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Lawrence initially called the story “Fanny and Annie” (1922), but at the last minute asked his agent to change it to “The Last Straw.” The agent responded that it was too late, he’d already sold the story. And for decades the story went under the original; only with its publication in the authoritative Cambridge Edition in the 1990s was it finally published under Lawrence’s preferred choice.

Here are the quintessentially Lawrentian and very striking opening paragraphs:

Flame-lurid his face as he turned among the throng of flame-lit and dark faces upon the platform. In the light of the furnace she caught sight of his drifting countenance, like a piece of floating fire. And the nostalgia, the doom of the home-coming went through her veins like a drug. His eternal face, flame-lit now! The pulse and darkness of red fire from the furnace towers in the sly, lighting the desultory, industrial crowd on the wayside station, lit him and went out.

Of course, he did not see her. Flame-lit and unseeing! Always the same, with his meeting eyebrows, his common cap, and his red-and-black scarf knotted round his throat. Not even a collar to meet her! The flames had sunk, there was shadow.

The woman arriving at this phantasmagorically lit train station in the English midlands—the flames are from the local industry, an iron foundry—is Fannie, returning home after twelve years as a lady’s maid. The job is no more, for reasons we never learn, as are Fanny’s hopes to have married her dashing cousin. The man meeting her at the station is her first love, a foundry worker named Harry, who she has strung along for all the years she’s been gone.

After having a student read these paragraphs, I had us list the oppositions that structure the passage. I’ve found this a pretty fail-safe exercise for generating conversation and for forcing students to think more abstractly and analytically. We began with light and dark, of course, and eventually managed to add seeing/blindness, expectation/disappointment, individual/crowd (Fanny v the throng), and him/her—I used that last opposition as a way to think about the class differences evident in the passage and the story as a whole. Here industry is implicitly contrasted to gentility, an opposition made even clearer on the next page. That allowed the class to note Fannie’s superiority. Yet it’s hard to know what the story thinks about that superiority.

From this initial exercise, I asked students to look at characteristic elements of Lawrence’s style, particularly his use of those more or less unusual compound adjectives “flame-lurid” and “flame-lit” and the sentence fragments, all of which place us firmly within Fanny’s perspective. (We’ll return to this moment when we think about free-indirect narration in a few days.) The class really struggled to make sense of these attributes, though, and I had to drag every piece of information from them. I asked them what lurid meant and what its presence at the very beginning of the story suggested. Eventually we got to the shocking or sensational connotations of the word, which allowed me to ask whether Harry was in fact lurid in any way. That didn’t go anywhere, but when I asked what Harry looks like, thinking now about things we learn elsewhere in the story, students admitted he is repeatedly described as physically attractive. Fanny’s superiority clashes with her frank admiration for that beauty but her equally insistent shame at those feelings.

Eventually we turned to the final sentence of this opening passage. How does its tone compare to what’s come before? It seemed more ordinary to them, less strange and exalted than the earlier sentences. Absolutely right, I agreed, though I noted that even here Lawrence wasn’t giving us an entirely simple sentence: the parataxis (a fancy way of describing the comma splice) places the two clauses on equal footing, even though the register of the first is more literal than the second. (“There was shadow” comes to seem metaphorical or symbolic, in the absence of an article or modifier that we might have expected: a shadow or some shadow, or the shadow of the now darkened train station. That “there was” makes shadow into a kind of entity or force.) But the final sentence is less dramatic than earlier ones, and I argued that this suggests Fanny’s exalted life is coming to an end, as she returns to the ordinariness of home repeatedly and ominously described as a kind of doom.

Whereas the opening passage sticks closely to Fanny’s perspective, the final sentence doesn’t, or at least much less obviously so. This change is representative of the story’s trajectory which privileges Fanny’s voice less and less as it goes along.

To show students what I meant, I had us look at a later passage, one of the more dramatic moments of the story. Harry is a soloist in a concert at the local church:

But at the moment when Harry’s voice sank carelessly down to his close, and the choir, standing behind him, were opening their mouths for the final triumphant outburst, a shouting female voice rose up from the body of the congregation. The organ gave one startled trump, and went silent; the choir stood transfixed.

‘You look well standing there, singing in God’s holy house,” came the loud, angry female shout. Everybody turned electrified. A stoutish, red-faced woman in a black bonnet was standing up denouncing the soloist. Almost fainting with shock, the congregation realized it. “You look well, don’t you, standing there singing solos in God’s holy house—you, Goodall. But I said I’d shame you. You look well, bringing your young woman here with you, don’t you? I’ll let her know who she’s dealing with. A scamp, as won’t take the consequences of what he’s done.” The hard-faced, frenzied woman turned in the direction of Fanny. “ That’s what Harry Goodall is, if you want to know.”

And she sat own again in her seat. Fanny, startled like all the rest, had turned to look. She had gone white, and then a burning red, under the attack. She knew the woman: a Mrs Nixon, a devil of a woman who beat her pathetic, drunken, red-nosed second husband, Bob, and her two lanky daughters, grown-ups as they were. A notorious character. Fanny turned round again, and sat motionless as eternity in her seat.

I’d seized on this passage because of this careful reading that I’d found in my class preparation. It’s such a rich passage, but this post is already too long and class-time was getting short. So I had to move quickly past the ironic replacement of one outburst (the choir’s) with another (Mrs Nixon’s), past the passive voice that defers naming her and offering any sense of her subjectivity for a long while, past the seemingly unnecessary description of the congregation “realizing it,” a redundancy that performs for us the very shock of belatedness that the scene is describing, and past the oblique suggestion that Fanny and Mrs Nixon might not be as different as Fanny, at least, would like to think, given that both, whether in direct dialogue or in indirect speech, use “as” to introduce a modifying or characterizing clause (“a scamp, as won’t take the consequences of what he’s done,” “ground-ups as they were”), thereby suggesting Fanny is indeed of this place she has spent so long keeping away from.

Portrait-Of-Lydia-Sherwood

Instead I focused on the topic of perspective. Where, I asked, is Fanny’s perspective here? Only in the sentence beginning “She knew the woman” and the one following (the clearest indicator of her perspective, and a return to the fragments of the opening.) But why would we get less of Fanny’s perspective the further we get into the story?

Another way to ask that question, I said, is to ask about the story’s two titles. What’s the difference between them? Is one better than the other?

Annie, it transpires, is pregnant and has named Harry as the father. Harry doesn’t deny having been involved with Annie, but won’t admit to being the father, saying that it’s no more likely to be him than six or seven other men. The title “The Last Straw” suggests frustration and final consequences. And at the end of the story, Fanny decides not to return to the second concert but to stay at home with Mrs. Goodall, who she calls “mother” for the first time. She will, it seems, marry Harry. But when we say that something is the last straw, we are usually talking about something that pushed us over the edge, into an extreme position. What then would it mean to say: That’s it, you were involved with another woman and maybe are the father of her child, I’ve had it, it’s the last straw—I’m going to marry you”? How does that make any sense? Wouldn’t “The Last Straw” work better if Fanny were going to leave Harry?

And what about Lawrence’s first title, the one the story was saddled with for so many years? To me it’s just as intriguing. It promises a relationship that we never see. Annie, in fact, is only spoken of, and then only in the last few pages; she never appears directly. Wouldn’t it make more sense to call the story “Fanny and Harry”? As one of my better students pointed out, the title “Fanny and Annie” makes Harry the most important figure: these women are linked only through him. That would be yet another way of undermining Fanny’s importance. In both cases, Fanny is made lesser. Perhaps the story’s use of “doom” to describe her feelings at coming home isn’t as exaggerated as it might first appear.

Even after having been a teacher for more than ten years, I don’t find it easy to have someone else in my classroom, especially someone who is evaluating me. My colleague was very nice about the class, in the brief conversation we had on our way to our next obligations (we’ll talk more at a formal meeting with my Area Chair in a few weeks). “It’s really like pulling teeth with these kids,” she noted. And that has absolutely been my feeling the whole semester. My colleague was kind enough to say, “It makes me feel better to know that you have classes like this too.” The class wasn’t a disaster, we got through some useful material, and they warmed up by the end, a little, when we talked about the different titles. But I’m really not used to having to coax so many observations out of a class, so my mood as we arrive at the midway point of the semester is a little bit somber and a whole lot discouraged.

The rest of the week’s classes were devoted to writing exercises in preparation for the first longer paper, due next Wednesday, just before Fall Break. I’ll say more about that next time.

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.

IMG_0227

“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.

Halt_hier_grenze

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.

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.

pakistan-lahore-motorcycle-5311370-o

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.

IMG_0218

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.

feature_794_story

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.

IMG_0210

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.

doinel-balzac

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.

IMG_0206

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.”

rudyard-kipling

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.

Short Fiction Week 1: Lydia Davis

I mentioned last time that I’m teaching a course on short fiction each semester this year. It’s been a while since I’ve taught it and I’m quite looking forward to it. I love novels, but it’s a relief to have a course without any. Short Fiction falls under my department’s Introduction to Literary Studies category, and is intended for Freshmen and Sophomores. These courses satisfy two of the general education requirements all students at my institution need to fulfill: Literary Studies and Writing Level 1 (W1). Thus although I hope to entice some of these students into at least thinking about majoring in English, the reality is that this is the only English course most of them will take.

It’s not easy teaching students how to develop their interpretive skills by reading attentively. But it’s even more challenging when I’ve also got to combine that task with teaching them how to write. Reading and writing go together, of course, but turning students into proficient writers takes a lot of time, both in class and in individual conferences with me. All of the assignments are structured into stages emphasizes revision. The dual aims—complementary but each daunting in its own right—make these classes hard to teach. (Fortunately, we were recently able to limit these classes to 18 students (it used to be 25) which helps quite a bit.) But I usually enjoy my introductory level courses a lot, especially in the fall semester. There’s nothing quite like the excitement—however undisciplined—of a first semester college student.

It doesn’t take long for the semester to get to the point where day-to-day survival is the only thing that matters. One of the first things to go by the wayside, at least for me, is my own writing, including here at the blog. I want to change that, and so this year I’ve decided to write each week about one of the stories we’re studying in class. I hope my dozens of loyal readers will keep me accountable. I welcome all gestures of support!

73024233-davis_41391c

Class met for the first time today, and I reserved the tedious business of going over class procedures & the syllabus for the last ten minutes and spent the rest of the time on a short piece by the contemporary American writer Lydia Davis. I’ve often taught her absolutely wonderful story “A Mown Lawn,” but this year I decided to go with something different, the first story in her most recent collection, Can’t and Won’t (2014). Davis is known for writing very short, very smart, often very funny stories, and this one is no exception. It’s called “A Story of Stolen Salamis” and here it is in its entirety:

A Story of Stolen Salamis

My son’s Italian landlord in Brooklyn kept a shed out back in which he cured and smoked salamis. One night, in the midst of a wave of petty vandalism and theft, the shed was broken into and the salamis were taken. My son talked to his landlord about it the next day, commiserating over the vanished sausages. The landlord was resigned and philosophical, but corrected him: “They were not sausages. They were salamis.” Then the incident was written up in one of the city’s more prominent magazines as an amusing and colorful urban incident. In the article, the reporter called the stolen goods “sausages.” My son showed the article to his landlord, who hadn’t known about it. The landlord was interested and pleased that the magazine had seen fit to report the incident, but he added: “They weren’t sausages. They were salamis.”

I started by asking the class what wasn’t in the story. Answers came pretty quickly: defined characters, description of the setting or much of anything else, and most importantly, details about the crime and its upshot. As one student cleverly put it—and this was by far way my favourite observation today—the story “leaves out the meat.” (That kid’s going far.)

Students were readily able to recognize the story’s obliquity, though it was a bit harder for them to see how much of that effect comes from Davis’s decision to tell the story in first person but without telling us very much about that person. We know only that she is the parent of a son who lives in Brooklyn and the possessor of both a good vocabulary and a wry, detached way of looking at the world, in short, that she is someone rather like Davis herself, which is why I use “she” here though there’s no indication of the narrator’s gender in the text itself, and it really doesn’t matter whether she’s like Davis at all. The narrator’s presence in the text is so minimal that it’s as if the story is taking the piss out of the convention that first person narrators are the heroes of their own stories. But that indirect, mediated quality is central to understanding the story.

I asked the class why the story was called “A Story of Stolen Salamis” rather than, say, “Stolen Salamis.” Isn’t the introductory phrase redundant, implied by the very existence of the text? And why “a” and not “the”? One student observed that “the” would mean there was only one story. But in this case there are at least two. There’s the story as a whole, and there’s the story within the story, the one reported in “one of the city’s more prominent magazines.” I reminded students that we use “story” to refer both to fiction and to fact. What links these uses are narrative and rhetorical conventions of the kind we’ll be studying in class. Certainly fiction seems to trump fact here, since the reporter—echoing the son (though it’s unclear how directly—the passive construction “the incident was written up” doesn’t tell us how the reporter found out about it—from the crime blotter, maybe?)—wrongly calls the stolen objects “sausages.” And although we didn’t actually talk about it, the quotation marks matter a lot. “Sausages” isn’t in quotation marks the first time the word appears in the story. Here the narrator is aligning herself—in her words, commiserating—with her son, as if to suggest that she too would have made that mistake. But the later reference to sausages—“In the article, the reporter called the stolen goods ‘sausages’”—is clearly not the narrator’s. Yet the sentence would have worked just fine without the quotation marks. We’d still know it was the reporter who had used the offending word. But in setting “sausages” off like that, the narrator distances herself from the glib and patronizing magazine.

She respects the landlord, who, thanks to his perhaps absurd but ultimately noble insistence on distinguishing salamis from sausages, is definitely the hero of the story. Preparing for class (how did anyone do that before the internet?) I looked up the difference between these terms, and everything I found said a salami is a kind of sausage, just one that is cured longer and is therefore drier. The difference, then, is subtle, but subtle differences matter a lot, especially when we’re reading literary texts. The main reason I wanted to start the course with this text—besides the fact that I like it so damn much—is that it’s such an elegant parable of interpretation, of how words matter, how we must always respect the specificity of whatever it is we’re interpreting. This precision can have other ends than linguistic ones, too, as one student noted by saying, when I asked them why the guy cares so much about the distinction anyway, that he might be asserting his Italian or Italian-American identity.

A fair point, but the identity the story really cares about isn’t ethnic or nationalistic but rather linguistic. Returning to the title, we can see that the most important word in it is not, as we might have expected, “stolen” (in other words, the drama of its narrative events, however absurd—the alliteration of the “stolen salamis” is like something from a Post headline:   “Stolen Salamis!”) but rather “salamis” (in other words, language itself, the importance of naming). In the end, I can’t quite figure what eh story wants to say about linguistic precision—after all, insisting that they were salamis doesn’t keep them from being stolen. Maybe, then, the joke is on the landlord? But I think the story presents him as a man of integrity rather than a pedant. And certainly not clichéd or casual like the reporter, a tone the story itself always seems to be skirting in its use of ready-made phrases like “a wave of petty vandalism and theft” or “an amusing and colorful urban incident.” For these phrases reduce the specificity of what exists in a way that completely opposes the landlord’s insistence on his salamis.

IMG_0205

There’s even more to be said about this story, I’m sure. But we said a lot in a short time—we got to most of these points, and I was pleased about that. I was less happy about how uneven the participation was—some students seemed much more engaged than others. But it’s too early to come to any conclusions as to what this group will be like. I’ll report back next week about how we’re getting on as we tackle stories by Balzac, Kipling, and Chekov. Stick around—that is, if you can stand to see how the sausages are made.