camus stretched taut between misery and history




Poverty was not a calamity for me. It was always balanced by the richness of light… circumstances helped me. To correct a natural indifference I was placed halfway between misery and the sun. Misery kept me from believing that all was well under the sun, and the sun taught me that history wasn’t everything.

I found in myself an invincible sun.

-from Albert Camus, “De L’Envers et l’endroit”

neurosis – creation – proust


Everything great in the world comes from neurotics. They alone have founded our religions, and composed our masterpieces. Never will the world know all it owes to them, nor all they have suffered to enrich us.

– Marcel Proust

more underground men in montreal: dany laferrière’s famous first novel

The narrator of How to Make Love To A Negro (Without Getting Tired), a young Haitian man, rents a seedy apartment in the Montreal slums. His shut-in roommate, a Muslim named Bouba, is an obsessive jazz fan. The two men spend their days listening to jazz classics, drinking wine, reading, discussing Kant and Freud, the Koran and Allah, or else busy themselves pursuing sex with young Canadian women they nickname Miz Literature, Miz Sophisticated, Miz Piggy, etc. The narrator wanders through Montreal and works on his novel—a bildungsroman he hopes will bring him fame—and a degree of fortune—while exposing the absurdity of the ideas and behaviour of those around him.

How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired

By Dany Laferrière

Coach House Press, 1987

(trans. David Homel)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Nigger Narcissus

I CAN’T believe it, this is the fifth time Bouba’s played that Charlie Parker record. He’s crazy about jazz, and this must be his Parker period. Last week I had Coltrane for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now it’s Parker’s turn.

There’s only one good thing about this place: you can play Parker or Miles Davis or even a noisier cat like Archie Shepp at three o’clock in the morning (with walls as thin as onionskin paper) Without some idiot telling you to turn it down.

We’re suffocating in the summer heat, jammed in between the Fontaine de Johannie (a roach-ridden restaurant frequented by small-time hoods) and a minuscule topless bar, at 3670 rue St-Denis, right across from Cherrier. An abject one-and-a-half that the landlord palmed off on poor Bouba as a two-and-a-half for $120 a mouth. We’re up on the third floor. A narrow room cut lengthwise by a horrible Japanese screen decorated with enormous stylized birds. A fridge in a constant state of palpitation, as if we were holed up above some railroad station. Playboy bunnies thumbtacked to the wall that we had to take down when we got here to avoid the suicidal tenden-cies those things inevitably cause. A stove with elements as cold as a witch’s tit at forty below. And, extra added attraction, the Cross of Mount Royal framed in the window.

I sleep on a filthy bed and Bouba made himself a nest Oil the plucked couch Cull Of mountains and valleys. Bouba inhabits it fully. He drinks, reads, eats, meditates and fucks on it. He has married the hills and dales of this cotton-stuffed whore.

When we came into possession of this meager pigsty, Bouba settled on the couch with the collected works of Freud, an old dictionary with the letters A through D and part of E missing, and a torn and tattered copy of the Koran.

Superficially, Bouba spends all day doing nothing. In reality, lie is purifying the universe.

Sleep cures us of all physical impurities, mental illness and moral perversion. Between pages of the Koran. Bouba engages in sleep cures that can last up to three days. The Koran, in its infinite wisdom, states: “Every soul shall taste death. You shall receive your rewards only on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever is spared the fire of Hell and is admitted to Paradise shall surely gain his end; for the life of this world is nothing but a fleeting vanity.” (Sura III, 182.) The world can blow itself up if it wants to; Bouba is sleeping.

Sometimes his sleep is a, strident as Miles Davis’s trumpet, Bouba becomes closed upon himself, his face impenetrable, his knees folded under his chin. Other times I find him on his back, his arms forming a cross, his mouth opening onto a black hole, his toes pointed towards the ceiling. The Koran in all its magnanimity says: “You cause the night to pass into the clay, and the day into the night; YOU bring forth the living from the dead and the dead from the living. You give without stint to Whom You Will.” (Sura II, 26.) And so Bouba is aiming for a place at the right hand of Allah (may his holy name be praised).

CHARLIE PARKER tears through the night. A heavy, humid, Tristes Tropiques kind of night. jazz always makes me think of New Orleans, and that makes a Negro nostalgic.

Bouba is crashed out on the couch ill his usual position (lying on his left side, facing Mecca), sipping Shanghai lea and perusing a volume of Freud. Since Bouba is totally jazz-crazy, and since he recognizes only one guru (Allah is great and Freud is his prophet), it did not take him long to concoct a complex and sophisticated theory the long and short of which is that Sigmund Freud invented jazz.

“In what volume, Bouba?”

Totem and Taboo, man,”

Man. He actually calls me man.

“If Freud played jazz, for Christ’s sake, we would have known about it,” Bouba breathes in a mighty lungful of air. Which is what he does every time he deals with a non-believer, a Cartesian, a rationalist, a head-shrinker. The Koran says: “Wait, then, as they themselves are waiting.”

“You know,” Bouba finally intones, “you know that SF lived in New York.”

“Of course he did.”

“He Could have learned to play trumpet from any tubercular musician in Harlem.”

It’s possible.”

“Do you know what jazz is at least?”

“I can’t describe it, but I’d know what it is if I heard it.”

“Good.” Bouba says after a lengthy period of meditation, “listen to this then.”

Then I’m sucked in and swallowed, absorbed, osmosed, drunk, digested and chewed up by a flow of wild words, fantastic hallucinations with paranoid pronunciation, jolted by jazz impulses to the rhythm of Sura incantations—then I realize that Bouba is performing a syncopated, staccato reading of the unsuspecting pages 68 and 69 of Totem and Taboo.

the underground man in montreal: rawi hage’s cockroach

According to the jacket copy, “The nameless narrator of Rawi Hage’s COCKROACH is an Arab immigrant who has failed at everything, including suicide, so he settles into a restless refuge among the human detritus of the Montreal underworld. He uses his court-ordered therapy sessions to spew surprisingly witty and descriptive bile about his life among the thieves and miscreants of the city, seducing his psychiatrist with his transgressive monologues and the intensity of his belief that he is part insect. He eventually finds work as a busboy, a position which allows him to maintain his social invisibility and listen in on the illicit schemes of the clientele. When he discovers a dark connection between one of the customers and an Iranian waitress whom he is infatuated with, he resolves to use his worthless life as currency to purchase a small measure of justice for her.”

 

I like to pass by fancy stores and restaurants and watch the people behind thick glass, taking themselves seriously, driving forks into their mouths between short conversations and head nods. I also like to watch the young waitresses in their short black dresses and white aprons. Although I no longer stand and stare. The last time I did that it was summer and I was leaning on aparked car, watching a couple eat slowly, neither looking at the other. A man from inside, in a black suit, came out and asked me to leave. When I told him that it is a free country, a public space, he told me to leave now, and to get away from the sports car I was resting against. I moved away from the car but refused to leave. Not even two minutes later, a police car came and two female officers got out, walked towards me, and asked for my papers. When I objected and asked them why, they said it was unlawful to stare at people inside commercial places. I said, Well, I am staring at my own reflection in the glass. The couple in the restaurant seemed entertained by all of this. While one of the officers held my papers and went back to the car to check out my past, I watched the couple watching me, as if finally something exciting was happening in their lives.They watched as if from behind a screen, as if it were live news. Now I was part of their TV dinner, I was spinning in a microwave, stripped of my plastic cover, eaten, and defecated the next morning just as the filtered coffee was brewing in the kitchen and the radio was prophesying the weather, telling them what to wear, what to buy, what to say, whom to watch, and whom to like and hate. The couple enjoyed watching me, as if I were some reality show about police chasing people with food-envy syndrome. 

I thought, I will show this happy couple what I am capable of. One of the officers came back from her car, gave me back my papers, and said, You’d better go now if you do not want trouble. So I started to walk. And when I passed the man outside his restaurant, I spat at the ground  beneath him and cursed his Italian suit. Then I crossed the street, entered a magazine store, flipped through a few pages, and came out again. I watched that same couple from behind the glass of the entrance to an office building. Now, all of the sudden, they had something to say to each other, so they had started to converse. And I watched the owner come to their table and talk to them as well.

Excitement had been injected into their mundane lives. I bet they even got an apologetic complimentary drink on the house at my expense. Bourgeois filth! I thought. I want my share!

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rudy wurlitzer’s nog as california cult classic

Toby Litt on Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog:

NOG IS THE KIND OF NOVEL THAT SUFFERS FROM BEING CALLED ‘EXPERIMENTAL’. Actually, it is part of a clear, established tradition. I would place it between Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable) and Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street—closer to Beckett in spirit, to Delillo in time.

The narrator of Nog, who may or may not be called Nog, shares with Beckett’s M-people a deep desire for inertia: ‘It is better to stay indoors and not mess around with useless experiences. A small room in a boarding house. Anonymous… Do nothing, want nothing, if you feel like walking, walk; sleeping, sleep.’ With DeLillo’s Bucky  Wunderlick, he shares an absurd paranoia: ‘I have nailed the pillowcase to the wall, as a sign or a flag. I asked for and I received a hammer and nail. It’s not safe here any more. And yet I am unable to creep out and establish some new space. Something has to happen, a new noise, a sense of something impending. Is it safe to say that?’

The whole performance, rap, trip, is highly self-conscious, ‘There are times when the voice of the narrator or the presence of the narrator should almost sing out.’ But never, or very rarely, annoyingly so. The hippyisms are kept to a minimum—which for a novel set in California in 1968 is stunningly restrained.

In fact, it is the craft of the prose which redeems Nog. There is no sentence here of which Wurlitzer isn’t fully in control—he may not know exactly what its overall long-term effect will be, but this is very unwild writing.

The opening paragraph of Nog is one of the most carefully constructed I have ever read:

Yesterday afternoon a girl walked by the window and stopped for sea shells. I was wrenched out of two months of calm. Nothing more than that, certainly, nothing ecstatic or even interesting, but very silent and even, as those periods have become for me. I had been breathing in and out, out and in, calmly, grateful for once to do just that, staring at the waves plopping in, successful at thinking almost nothing, handling easily the three memories I have manufactured, when that girl stooped for sea shells. There was something about her large breasts under her faded blue tee-shirt, the quick way she bent down, her firm legs in their rolled-up white jeans, her thin ankles—it was her feet, actually; they seemed for a brief, painful moment to be elegant. It was that thin-boned brittle movement with her feet that did it, that touched some spot that I had forgotten to smother. The way those thin feet remained planted, yet shifting slightly in the sand as she bent down quickly for a clam shell, sent my heart thumping, my mouth dry, no exaggeration, there was something gay and insane about that tiny gesture because it had nothing to do with her.

It was reading this passage convinced me I needed to read this book. I was at Waterstones Deansgate, in Manchester, and had just done a reading from Beatniks. I’d browsed a few other books, but Nog was the one which had caught me. When one of the booksellers told me I could choose any book I wanted from the shop, Nog was it.

A number of things came to mind whilst reading Nog: The Monkees’ film Head, Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Pascal, Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, Charlie Chaplin. But it is very much its own book. ‘I bought the octopus, and for a year I travelled through the country with it.’

YESTERDAY AFTERNOON A GIRL WALKED BY THE WINDOW AND stopped for sea shells. I was wrenched out of two months of calm. Nothing more than that, certainly, nothing ecstatic or even interesting, but very silent and even, as those periods have become for me. I had been breathing in and out, out and in, calmly, grateful for once to do just that, staring at the waves plopping in, successful at thinking almost nothing, handling easily the three memories I have manufactured, when that girl stooped for sea shells. There was something about her large breasts under her faded blue tee shirt, the quick way she bent down, her firm legs in their rolled-up white jeans, her thin ankles – it was her feet, actually; they seemed for a brief, painful moment to be elegant. It was that thin-boned brittle movement with her feet that did it, that touched some spot that I had forgotten to smother. The way those thin feet remained planted, yet shifting slightly in the sand as she bent down quickly for a clam shell, sent my heart thumping, my mouth dry, no exaggeration, there was something gay and insane about that tiny gesture because it had nothing to do with her.

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art collecting & anti-semitism in paris: edmund de waal’s the hare with amber eyes

“It wasn’t just Renoir who disliked the Jews . . .”

Chapter 10     My Small Profits

It wasn’t just Renoir who disliked the Jews. A string of financial scandals throughout the 1880s were laid at the door of the new Jewish financiers, and the Ephrussi family was a particular target: ‘Jewish machinations’ were supposed to be behind the collapse in 1882 of the Union Générale, a Catholic bank that had strong ties to the Church, with many small Catholic depositors. The popular demagogue Edouard Drumont wrote in La France juive:

The audacity with which these men treat these enormous operations, which for them are just simple game parties, is incredible. In one session, Michel Ephrussi buys or sells oil or wheat worth ten or fifteen million. No trouble; seated for two hours near a column at the Stock Exchange and phlegmatically holding his beard in his left hand, he distributes orders to thirty courtiers who crowd around him with their pencils extended.

Courtiers come and whisper in Michel’s ear the day’s news. Money is seen to be a bagatelle to these Jewish money-men, implies Drumont, a plaything. It has no connection to the savings carefully taken into the bank on market day, or hidden in the coffee pot on the mantelpiece.

It is a vivid image of covert power, of plotting. It has the intensity of Degas’s painting At the Bourse of a whispered conversation between hook-nosed, red-bearded financiers amongst the pillars. The Bourse and its players segue into the Temple and the money-changers.

‘Who shall stop these men from living then, who shall soon make France look like a wasteland then?…it is the speculator in foreign wheat, it is the Jew, the friend of the Count of Paris…the favourite of all the salons of the aristocratic quarter; it is Ephrussi, the chief of the Jewish band who speculate on wheat.’ Speculation, the making of money out of money, is seen as a particular Jewish sin. Even Theodor Herzl, the apologist of Zionism, always eager to raise money for the cause from wealthy Jewry, is rude in a letter about ‘the Ephrussi, spekulant’.

Ephrussi et Cie did wield extraordinary power. The absence of the brothers from the Bourse was noted with panic during one crisis. Their threat to flood the markets with grain in response to Russian pogroms was taken seriously in an excited report in a newspaper during another crisis. ‘[The Jews]…have learned the potency of this weapon when they made Russia hold her hand in the last Jewish persecution…by reducing Russian securities twenty-four points in thirteen days. “Touch another of our people and not another ruble you shall have, to save your empire,” said Michel Ephrussi, head of the great house at Odessa, the largest grain dealers in the world.’ The Ephrussi were, in short, very rich, very visible and very partisan.

Drumont, the editor of a daily anti-Semitic newspaper, acted as the marshaller of opinion into print. He told the French how to spot a Jew – one hand is larger than another – and how to counter the threat that this race posed to France. His La France juive sold 100,000 copies in its first year of publication in 1886. By 1914 it had gone into 200 editions. Drumont argued that Jews, because they were inherently nomadic, felt they owed nothing to the State. Charles and his brothers, Russian citizens from Odessa and Vienna and God knows where, looked after themselves – whilst leaching the life-blood of France by speculating with real French money.

The Ephrussi family certainly thought they belonged in Paris. Drumont certainly thought not: ‘Jews, vomited from all the ghettos of Europe, are now installed as the masters in historic houses that evoke the most glorious memories of ancient France…the Rothschilds everywhere: at Ferrières and at Les Vaux-de-Cernay…Ephrussi, at Fontainebleau, in the palace of Francis I…’ Drumont’s ridicule of the speed in which this family has moved from being ‘penniless adventurers’ to this ascent into society, their attempts at hunting, their recently commissioned coats of arms, became vicious anger when he thought of his patrimony soiled by the Ephrussi and their friends.

I force myself to read this stuff: Drumont’s books, newspaper, the endless pamphlets in numerous editions, the English versions. Someone has annotated a book on the Jews of Paris in my London library. Written very carefully and approvingly next to Ephrussi is the word venal pencilled in capitals.

There are quantities and quantities of this stuff, swinging wildly between hectoring generalities and splenetic detail. The Ephrussi family comes up again and again. It is as if a vitrine is opened and each of them is taken out and held up for abuse. I knew in a very general way about French anti-Semitism, but it is this particularity that makes me feel nauseated. It is a daily anatomising of their lives.

Charles is pilloried as someone ‘who operates…in the world of literature and the arts’. He is abused as someone who has power in French art, but treats art as commerce. Everything Charles does comes back to gold, say the writers in La France juive. Meltable, transportable, mutable gold to be carried, bought and sold by Jews who do not understand land or country. Even his book on Dürer is scrutinised for Semitic tendencies. How can Charles understand this great German artist, writes one angry art historian, for he is only a ‘Landesmann aus dem Osten’, an oriental.

His brothers and uncles are excoriated and his aunts, now married into the French aristocracy, are savagely parodied. All the Jewish finance houses of France are anathematised by rote: ‘Les Rothschilds, Erlanger, Hirsch, Ephrussi, Bamberger, Camondo, Stern, Cahen d’Anvers…Membres de la finance internationale’. The complex intermarriage between the clans is repeated endlessly to build up a picture of one terrible spider’s web of intrigue, a web even more tightly bound when Maurice Ephrussi marries Béatrice, the daughter of the head of the French Rothschilds, Alphonse de Rothschild. These two families now count as one.

The anti-Semites need to pull these Jews back to where they came from, to strip them of their sophisticated Parisian life. One anti-Semitic pamphlet, Ces bons Juifs, describes an imagined conversation between Maurice Ephrussi and a friend:

– Is it true that you soon have to leave for Russia?

– Within 2 or 3 days, said M. de K…

Well! Maurice Ephrussi replied, if you are going to Odessa, go to the stock exchange to tell my father some news of me.

M. de K promises, and after having finished his business work in Odessa, goes to the stock exchange and asks for Ephrussi the father.

– You know, he is told, if you want it to be done, it is the Jews you need.

Ephrussi the father arrives, an awful-looking Hebrew with long and dirty hair, wearing a pelisse which is completely covered with grease stains.

M. de K…delivers the message to the old man and wants to leave, when he suddenly feels pulled by his clothing, and hears the Ephrussi father who tells him:

– You forgot my small profits.

– What do you mean by your small profits? exclaimed M. de K…

You understood perfectly well, dear Sir, replies the father of Rothschild’s son in law, while bowing to the ground, I am one of the curiosities of the Odessa stock exchange; when strangers come to see me without doing any business they always give me a small present. My sons thus send me over 1000 visitors a year and this helps me to make ends meet.

And with a large smile, the noble patriarch adds: they know well that they will one day be rewarded…my sons!

The Ephrussi, les rois du blé, are simultaneously loathed as upstarts and fêted as patrons. One minute they are to be reminded of the Odessan grain merchant, a patriarch with his grease-stained coat and his outstretched hand. The next, Béatrice is at a society ball wearing her tiara of hundreds of slender ears of trembling golden corn. Maurice, the owner of a vast chateau at Fontainebleau, put himself down on his marriage certificate to Béatrice de Rothschild as ‘landowner’, rather than banker. This was no slip. For Jews, owning land was still a comparatively new experience: it was only since the Revolution that Jews had full citizenship, a mistake – according to some commentators – as Jews were not capable adults. Just look at how the Ephrussi lived, suggested one screed, The Original Mr Jacobs, ‘the love of bric-a-brac, of all odds and ends, or rather the Jews’ passion for possession, is often carried to childishness’.

I wonder how these brothers lived their lives in these conditions. Did they shrug their shoulders, or did it get to them, this incessant hum of vilification, mutterings about venality, the sort of constant, bubbling animosity that the narrator in Proust’s novels remembers of his grandfather: ‘Whenever I brought a new friend home my grandfather seldom failed to start humming “O, God of our fathers” from La Juive, or else “Israel, break thy chains”…The old man would call out “On guard! On guard!” upon hearing the name of any new friend and if the victim had admitted his origins, ‘then my grandfather…would look at us, humming under his breath the air of “What! Do you hither guide the feet of this timid Israelite?”’

There were duels. Though outlawed, duels were nonetheless popular amongst young aristocrats, members of the Jockey Club and army officers. Many of the quarrels were inconsequential, issues of territoriality amongst young men. A disparaging reference to an Ephrussi-owned horse in an article in Le sportstarted a quarrel with the journalist, ‘which led to an altercation and then a hostile meeting’ with Michel Ephrussi.

But some of the disputes reveal the growing, alarming fissures within Parisian society. Ignace was an accomplished dueller, but choosing not to fight was regarded as a particularly Jewish failing. A gloating report tells of one example of this when a business deal between Michel and Count Gaston de Breteuil had ended with substantial losses on the part of the count. Michel, a man of business, did not see it as a matter for a duel and failed to give satisfaction by fighting. When the count returned to Paris after the refused invitation, ‘according to the story current in club circles…he encountered Ephrussi…and twisted the latter’s nose with the bank notes representing the balance, the pin with which they were fastened together severely scratching the proboscis of the great wheat operator. He resigned from the Rue Royale Club and gave a million francs to be distributed amongst the poor of Paris…’ This is recounted as a comedy – rich Jews, gross and without honour, and their noses.

They are not above reproach: Jews just don’t know how to behave.

Michel did fight a bitter run of duels with the Comte de Lubersac on behalf of a Rothschild cousin whose honour had been impugned, and who was too young to stand up for himself. One took place on the island of the Grande Jatte, in the River Seine. ‘At the fourth onslaught, Ephrussi was wounded in the breast, the count’s sword striking a rib…The count attacked vigorously from the outset, and the combatants parted at the finish without the customary handshake. The count left the scene in a landau, and was greeted with cries of “À bas les juifs!” and “Vive l’Armée!”’

Protecting your name and your family’s honour was increasingly difficult as a Jew in Paris.

—from Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Centurty of Art and Loss, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2010)

leonard michaels on telling stories

 

Leonard Michaels, “What’s A Story?”

i

Thrusting from the head of Picasso’s goat are bicycle handlebars. They don’t represent anything, but they are goat’s horns, as night is a black bat, metaphorically.

Come into the garden . . .

. . . the black bat night has flown.

 

     Metaphor, like the night, is an idea in flight; potentially, a story:

There was an old lady who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.

 

Here, the metaphorical action is very complicated, especially in the syllables of the second line, bubbling toward the period—the way the old lady had children—reflecting her abundance and distress. The line ends in a rhyme—do/shoe—and thus closes, or contains itself. With her children in a shoe, the old lady is also contained. In effect, the line and the shoe contain incontinence; but this is only an idea and it remains unarticulated, at best implicit.

“Can you fix an idea?” asks Valery. “You can think only in terms of modifications.” Characters, place, and an action “once upon a time” are modifications deployed in rhythm, rhythmic variation, and rhyme- techniques of sound that determine the psycho-physical experience, or story, just as the placement, angle, spread, and thrust of the bicycle handlebars determine horns, a property of goat, its stolid, squat, macho bulk and balls behind, like syllables of a tremendous sentence.

Lo even thus is our speech delivered by sounds significant: for it will

never be a perfect sentence, unless one word give way when it has

sounded his part that another may succeed it.

 

St. Augustine means perfection is achieved through the continuous vanishing of things, as the handlebars vanish in the sense of goat, as the dancer in the dance, as the bat in the night in flight.

Here is a plain sentence from Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Revelation,” which is metaphorical through and through:

Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps.

 

Those pumps walk with the weight and stride of the moral being who inhabits them, as she inhabits herself, smugly, brutally, mechanically good insofar as good is practical. The pumps vanish into quiddity of Turpin, energetic heave and thump.

Taking a grander view than mine, Nabokov gets at the flow and sensuous implication of Gogol’s story, “The Overcoat.”

The story goes this way: mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all derived. At this superhigh level of art, literature appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.

 

No absolute elements, no plot, only an effect of passage, pattern, and some sort of change in felt-time. The temporal quality is in all the above examples; it is even in Picasso’s goat, different parts vanishing into aspects of goat, perfection of bleating, chomping, hairy, horny beast.

The transformation, in this seeing, is the essence of stories:

A slumber did my spirit seal;

     I had no human fears.

She seemed a thing that could not feel

     The touch of earthly years.

 

Life is remembered as a dream, her as a “thing,” and himself not feeling. Amid all this absence, is an absence of transition to the second stanza. Suddenly:

No motion has she now, no force;

     She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course;

      With rocks, and stones, and trees.

 

The transformational drama is deliberately exemplified, in the best writing lesson ever offered, by Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon. He tells how he forces himself to remember having seen the cowardly and inept bullfighter, Hernandorena, gored by a bull. After the event, late at night, slowly, slowly, Hemingway makes himself see it again, the bullfighter’s leg laid open, exposing dirty underwear and the “dean, clean, unbearable cleanness” of his thigh bone. Dirty underwear and clean bone constitute an amazing juxtaposition—let alone transformation of Hernandorena—which is redeemed (more than simply remembered) half-asleep, against the blinding moral sympathy entailed by human fears.

In this strenuous, self-conscious, grim demonstration of his art, Hemingway explicitly refuses to pity Hernandorena, and then he seizes his agony with luxurious exactitude. Though he does say “unbearable,” he intends nothing kindly toward Hernandorena, only an aesthetic and self-pitying reference to himself as he suffers the obligations of his story, his truth, or the truth.

The problem of storytelling is how to make transitions into transformations, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom (that is, real time, the trudge of “and then”) and the latter belongs to art. Most impressive in the transformations above is that nothing changes. Hernandorena is more essentially himself with his leg opened. Wordsworth’s woman is no less a thing dead than alive. The handlebars, as horns, are fantastically evident handlebars.

ii

In Chekhov’s great story, “The Lady with the Dog,” a man and a woman who are soon to become lovers sit on a bench beside the sea without talking. In their silence the sea grows loud:

. . .  the monotonous roar of the sea came up to them, speaking of peace, or the eternal sleep waiting for us all. The sea had roared like this long before there was any Yalta or Oreanda, it was roaring now, and it would go on roaring, just as indifferently and hollowly, when we had passed away. And it may be that in this continuity, the utter indifference to life and death, lies the secret of life on our planet, and its never-ceasing movement toward perfection.

 

But this man and woman care, through each other, about life, and they transform themselves into the creatures of an old and desperately sad story in which love is the vehicle of a brief salvation before the sound of the sea, the great disorder that is an order, resumes and caring ceases.

The man’s feelings in the story, like those of Wordsworth and Hemingway in their stories, are unavailable in immediate experience. He lets the woman go, time passes, then it comes to him that he needs her, the old story.

The motive for metaphor, shrinking from

The weight of primary noon,

The A B C of being.

The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

 

He goes to the woman’s hometown, checks into a hotel, and is greeted by the sight of

 … a dusty ink pot on the table surmounted by a headless rider, holding his hat in his raised hand . . .

 

A metaphor. To find his heart, he lost his head. Nothing would be written (ink pot) otherwise; nothing good, anyhow, and that is the same as nothing. “There is no such thing as a bad poem,” says Coleridge. In other words, it doesn’t exist.

The best story I know that contains all I’ve been trying to say is Kafka’s:

A cage went in search of a bird.

 

Like the Mother Goose rhyme, it plays with a notion of containment, or containing the uncontainable, but here an artifice of form (cage rather than shoe) is in deadly pursuit of spirit (bird rather than children). A curious metaphysic is implied, where the desire to possess and the condition of being possessed are aspects of an ineluctable phenomenon. (Existence?) In any case, whatever the idea is, Kafka suggests in eight words a kind of nightmare—chilling, magnificently irrational, endless—the story-of-stories, the infinitely deep urge toward transformation. ” . . one portion of being is the Prolific, the other, the Devouring,” says Blake, a great storyteller, obsessed with cages and birds.

iii

The ability to tell a story, like the ability to carry a tune, is nearly universal and as mysteriously natural as language. Though I’ve met a few people who can’t tell stories, it has always seemed to me they really can but refuse to care enough, or fear generosity, or self-revelation, or misinterpretation (an extremely serious matter these days), or intimacy. They tend to be formal, encaged by prevailing opinion, and a little deliberately dull. Personally, I can’t carry a tune, which has sometimes been a reason for shame, as though it were a character flaw. Worse than tuneless or storyless people are those with a gift for storytelling who, like the Ancient Mariner (famous bird murderer), go on and on in the throes of an invincible narcissism, while listeners suffer brain-death. The best storytellers hardly ever seem to know they’re doing it, and they hardly ever imagine they could write a story. My aunt Molly, for example, was a terrific story- teller who sometimes broke into nutty couplets.

I see you’re sitting at the table, Label.

I wish I was also able.

 But so long as I’m on my feet.

 I don’t have to eat.

 

 I went to visit her when she was dying and in bad pain, her stomach bloated by a tumor. She wanted even then to be herself, but looked embarrassed, slightly shy. “See?” she said, “that’s life ” No more stories, no more rhymes.

—from Leonard Michaels, What’s a Story?, Ploughshares, Vol. 12, No. 1/2, (1986), pp. 199-204