Tag: 1910s

The terrible thing about poetry

Every time I relocate my loofah to a dry air vent to keep it from getting moldy, I think of the lines “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.” (Although I remembered it as two for some reason until I googled. Three makes more sense really. Who would even build a fence if two foggy mornings were enough to put it on the brink?)


Novelette: “Making Us Monsters”

“Making Us Monsters,” by Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly

Appeared in Uncanny Magazine Issue Nineteen, online here

10,893 words

I had trouble telling the two men’s voices apart, so at first I didn’t understand the letter/diary correspondence as intended. (Donnelly says in an interview, “One weird thing to add is that although we each took one man to write as, and I agree with Sam that we have very different voices and styles, during critiques we had several people ask who was who, or even if we had collaborated on each letter individually.”)

I like the comments about verbal clichés: “a pretty shroud for an ugly truth” and “Clichés do not make us animal; they prove the continuity of human connection. They are shared metaphors, shorthand communication.”


I feel a kinship with poor Kolya

“‘Of course I hate my name Nikolay.’

“‘Why so?’

“‘It’s so trivial, so ordinary.’

“‘You are thirteen?’ asked Alyosha.

“‘No, fourteen—that is, I shall be fourteen very soon, in a fortnight. I’ll confess one weakness of mine, Karamazov, just to you, since it’s our first meeting, so that you may understand my character at once. I hate being asked my age, more than that … and in fact … there’s a libelous story going about me, that last week I played robbers with the preparatory boys. It’s a fact that I did play with them, but it’s perfect libel to say I did it for my own amusement. I have reasons for believing that you’ve heard the story; but I wasn’t playing for my own amusement, it was for the sake of the children, because they couldn’t think of anything to do by themselves.'”

The Brothers Karamazov, as translated by Constance Garnett

On how opinions are made

“This new concept of ‘the finest, highest achievement in the realm of art’ had no sooner entered my mind than it located the imperfect enjoyment I had had at the theater, and added to it a little of what it lacked; this made such a heady mixture that I exclaimed, ‘What a great artiste she is!’ It may be thought I was not altogether sincere. Think, however, of so many writers who, in a moment of dissatisfaction with a piece they have just written, may read a eulogy of the genius of Chateaubriand, or who may think of some other great artist whom they have dreamed of equaling, who hum to themselves a phrase of Beethoven for instance, comparing the sadness of it to the mood they have tried to capture in their prose, and are then so carried away by that perception of genius that they let it affect the way they read their own piece, no longer seeing it as they first saw it, but going so far as to hazard an act of faith in the value of it, by telling themselves, ‘It’s not bad, you know!’ without realizing that the sum total which determines their ultimate satisfaction includes the memory of Chateaubriand’s brilliant pages, which they have assimilated to their own, but which, of course, they did not write.”

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Marcel Proust, translated by James Grieve

On living without a desk job

“[Franz Kafka] was incessantly questioning whether he was entitled to stay alive. Other people’s existences he never challenged in the same way, but in October [1914], when he took a week off to work on [The Trial] and found on Wednesday evening that he had made little headway, he was already asking himself whether the evidence proved he was unworthy of living without a desk job.”

K: A Biography of Kafka, by Ronald Hayman

This is intriguing

Describing a lesbian relationship between his neighbors, the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past calls it

“one of those situations which are wrongly supposed to occur in Bohemian circles only; for they are produced whenever there needs to establish itself in the security necessary to its development a vice which Nature herself has planted in the soul of a child, perhaps by no more than blending the virtues of its father and mother, as she might blend the colours of their eyes.”

He seems awfully confident in attributing sexual orientation (“vice” or not) to genetics or at least to some biological origin! I haven’t read very far yet, so I imagine I’ve only scratched the surface of Proust’s intriguing asides….

Short story: “The Eyes”

“The Eyes,” by Edith Wharton

Collected in Tales of Men and Ghosts (on Project Gutenberg), 1910; online here; looks like there’s an inexpensive audio version here

8,081 words

One of those horror stories where the horror is all unstated. The biggest hint about the nature of that horror is Culwin’s apparent willingness to believe, even now, that he was being kind to Nowell and Noyes (“making people happy”!). The other big hint is at the end, when he sees his own face in the mirror. Up until that moment, Culwin failed to grasp the meaning of his own “ghost” story. The revelation is carefully foreshadowed:

“[T]here came over me a sense of [the eyes’] tacit complicity, of a deep hidden understanding between us that was worse than the first shock of their strangeness. Not that I understood them; but that they made it so clear that some day I should …”

If Culwin is gay, as seems plausible, then his first self-betrayal lies in making a sham attempt at heterosexuality, his second in a failure to treat the man he admires with respect. He even uses the former to excuse the latter (“I’d done it for his cousin’s sake, not his”), as though, in his self-loathing, he thinks he can cancel out a homosexual love affair by invoking a heterosexual one.

This essay tries to paint Culwin as basically admirable, but I don’t think that interpretation holds up. Frenham’s reaction is too extreme to be simple fear of losing his relationship with his mentor; it’s the reaction of someone who’s lost faith in his hero. Besides, Frenham is too minor a character for his personal feelings to set off the climax of the story, even considering his parallels to Noyes; rather, his breakdown is significant because of what it reveals about Culwin.

I don’t know whether Culwin has mistreated Frenham, and I’m not sure I care. (The narrator seems to think not.) What’s at stake here is Culwin’s soul.

I want to read some double meaning into “No well” and “No yes!”

Another interesting essay here.

Short story: “A Painful Case”

“A Painful Case,” by James Joyce

Original manuscript dated August 15th, 1905; collected in Dubliners in 1914 (on Gutenberg.org); also found online here; an excellent reading here on Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

3,641 words

This piece contains some of my favorite character descriptions:

“His cheekbones also gave his face a harsh character; but there was no harshness in the eyes which, looking at the world from under their tawny eyebrows, gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed. He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.”


“He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed. He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died. He performed these two social duties for old dignity’s sake but conceded nothing further to the conventions which regulate the civic life. He allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his bank but, as these circumstances never arose, his life rolled out evenly—an adventureless tale.”

The name “Duffy” is a little too obvious for someone who’s such an emotional duffer. Though I’m afraid what really bothers me is that it reminds me of an adorable toy dog.

Why the lengthy article inserted in the middle of the story? To make us feel the pain of the case sooner and more acutely than Mr. Duffy allows himself to feel it. The article hurts because it is so clumsy and inadequate and unwittingly cruel (the line about the “failure of the heart’s action” in particular—but also, more generally, the dryness of the legal and clinical proceedings), and in that way it resembles Mr. Duffy himself. To me, though, the technique of including the entire news item seems dated. I feel sure that today, a writer of Joyce’s abilities would cut it much shorter. I’m not sure if that’s because today’s readers are more familiar with the emotional tone being struck here or because we simply have less patience.

For all Mr. Duffy’s Jamesianness, his ending reminds me more than anything of “The State of Grace.”

Short story: “Suzanne Delage”

“Suzanne Delage,” by Gene Wolfe

Originally published in the 1980 anthology Edges; collected in Endangered Species in 1990; appeared here in the September 2013 Lightspeed Magazine

2,422 words according to Lightspeed; 2,283 according to MS Word

I didn’t understand this story, but when the ending came I felt like laughing, as though I had caught the tone of a joke without hearing the words. The excellent reading by Stefan Rudnicki in the Lightspeed podcast probably contributes a lot to the charm I feel about it.

The style and subject matter make me think of Henry James. Also reminded of Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Missing Girl”—two maybe-ghost stories that refuse to solve their mysteries for us. This story, however, goes further than either of those, refusing to make it explicit what the mystery is and whether it even exists. The narrator denies that anything “supernatural” has taken place.

I’m not sure whether a twice-married, at-least-middle-aged guy checking out a fifteen-year-old was creepy to Wolfe’s readership when this was first published, or for that matter to the narrator’s own contemporaries (the story seems to be set earlyish in the twentieth century; some, based on the mention of Spanish influenza, have said the 1910s). I would like to think it’s intentionally creepy. Especially the “virginal breasts” thing and the implication that he’d like to fondle her waist. Talking to the reader, the narrator is self-aware enough to feel compelled to deny that his interest in her is merely physical; talking to his acquaintance, he says “child” rather than “girl.” All this seems like a clue that he’s an unreliable narrator, as well as, perhaps, a clue to what makes him unreliable. His idea that he “would no doubt have soon come to both love and hate” Suzanne also stands out, being too extreme a sentiment for a rivalry that never happened in the reasonably happy childhood of a sedate man.

It’s also possible that the narrator is in fact pretty reliable. The fact that he and Suzanne have never met is explicable only by an astonishing set of coincidences, each of which is unremarkable on its own. But if this fact points to the one “extraordinary experience” in his life, then by the rules of the story he is incapable of telling us about that experience, because “he has forgotten it.” He can only offer hints. The story may merely be an excerpt from his private musings, whose larger significance, if any, he fails to recognize.

This is the first thing I’ve read by Wolfe, who’s been strongly recommended to me. It strikes me as very accomplished, even if it’s a literary joke of some sort.


A great collection of theories here. Perhaps this is the real point of the story, to provide endless grounds for analysis and debate.

The meaning of the tale consisted / In discussing if it existed.

I can’t resist jotting down a few more points:

  • The narrator notes that some of the girls in the Pie Club photo have their backs turned. He wouldn’t mention that fact if he didn’t consider it significant. Therefore, we can infer that the number of names in the caption of the photo is greater than the number of visible faces. (The only way it makes sense for the two numbers to be the same, or for the names to be fewer than the faces, is if there are faces in the background, where the photo captioner would have had the option of leaving them nameless. The narrator doesn’t mention any background faces, so there probably aren’t any.)
  • Assuming the captioner didn’t make a mistake, Suzanne is visible in that photo. No photographer has the patience to take notes on everyone present in a group photo; it would make far more sense to note “Pie Club” and let the yearbook editors work out the details. Therefore, we can rule out the theory that Suzanne is supernaturally impossible to photograph.
  • If someone deliberately expunged Suzanne’s picture from the yearbook, they must have been interested only in removing her face. The yearbooks still contain her name and, almost certainly, a photo of her facing away from the camera.
  • The Spanish influenza isn’t enough information to reliably date this story. The narrator seems vague about what kind of epidemic it was. Furthermore, we know he has been married and separated amicably twice (he never actually says divorced). Would that really have been acceptable and “mundane” in small-town America before 1960? He says he has “lived nowhere else”; where, then, did he find two women who were willing to end a marriage for no reason except boredom?
  • Even post-1960, was it conventional for people to end marriages so lightly? Perhaps he’s fudging the truth a bit. His wives left him because he couldn’t give them children, or for sexual reasons.
  • Speaking of culture questions, when and where do Americans customarily visit each other “for tea”? I associate that phrase with something more elaborate than a mug of Lipton or a Southern glass of iced tea, but the discussion of textiles places us in North America.
  • The rules of the small town setting seem to ensure that, if Suzanne had been involved in some scandal, the narrator would have known something about it. He admits to knowing “the few really promiscuous girls and the dazzlingly beautiful ones[.]”
  • Robert Borski’s “Snow White” theory doesn’t hold up. His interpretation of the narrator’s role is good and he points out some tantalizing connections, but the apple and mirror allusions are too faint and too ambiguous to be convincing. It would be just as plausible to connect the textiles with Sleeping Beauty’s spindle, or the yearbook to the book of life (Revelation 3:5). Besides, Suzanne’s daughter isn’t described as having anything like “lips as red as blood,” and there’s no one to fill the roles of the huntsman or the dwarves.
  • Here’s a theory: The narrator’s mother, or some other adult, actually conspired to keep the narrator and Suzanne from meeting. Perhaps she was trying to protect him from something she knew about Suzanne, or to protect her friend’s daughter from something she knew about her son. Perhaps he and Suzanne were secretly siblings or half siblings, and their guardians were terrified of accidental incest. The widowed neighbor’s grudge was an invention, the yearbook photos were destroyed deliberately, and the narrator’s and Suzanne’s classes were carefully scheduled to keep them from even passing each other in the halls. (It’s unusual for a mother to see a good marriage prospect for her child without at least making introductions, isn’t it? The narrator doesn’t seem to notice the oddity of that omission.) But no, a parental conspiracy makes no sense. If their parents wanted to separate them, the obvious thing would be to send them to different schools. The narrator implies that there are at least two elementary schools in town, so it would be odd for there to be only one high school, even an “overgrown” one.
  • Hasn’t anyone suggested a time travel theory yet? No wild mass guessing session is complete without Purgatory, a gay romance, and time travel. So, in another timeline, the narrator knew Suzanne, and their relationship had disastrous repercussions. He caught the flu from Suzanne; he passed the flu on to someone important (perhaps to all the “pilgrims from other towns” who visited his mother!); he and Suzanne, young and foolish, did something terrible together; Suzanne infected the main quarterback with flu, thus giving the narrator his chance to shine (or to get horribly injured); the widowed neighbor turned against him and his family; whatever. At some later date, somebody (the narrator, Suzanne, Suzanne’s mother, or someone else entirely) decided to overwrite the timeline, giving the narrator a dull, peaceful life.
  • The Purgatory theory should be easy to come up with. Actually, the narrator’s mediocrity might place him just outside the gates of Dante’s Hell, among “the sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise.”
  • The mothers’ obsession with textiles is extreme, even manic—more passionate than anything in the narrator’s own life. A hint of what he’s missed out on, and/or been protected from?
  • Neither the narrator’s father nor Suzanne’s is ever mentioned.

Short story: “The Judgment”

“The Judgment” or “The Judgement” (“Das Urteil”), by Franz Kafka

4,491 English words in Ian Johnston’s version; 4,559 in the Muirs’

Written in 1912; first appeared in Arkadia in 1913; the original is on Project Gutenberg; translated here by the Muirs, with revisions by Arthur S. Wensinger; translated by Ian Johnston here and here; an unattributed English translation recorded for Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast here

I don’t feel as strongly about this story as about Kafka’s later work, but I can well understand why he stayed up all night to write it and found it a revelation.

Definitely feels like a box story, not a keyhole one (though from the way Kafka analyzes it in his diary, I’m not sure he agrees). It’s like a bad dream. At times it seems like the distant friend is a projection of Georg himself; at times it seems like the father is. Both the friend and the father give Georg reasons to feel anxious and guilty about his engagement, and I think that’s one way in which this is a wish-fulfillment story. Kafka (and perhaps his character too) must have found it a relief to justify his anxiety and guilt in this way.

I’ve heard it said that in German, “zugedeckt” (“covered up”) has the second meaning “defeated” or “smothered.” I’m surprised I’ve never seen it rendered in English as “tucked in.” To me at least, the word “tuck” suggests, however vaguely, the image of male genitals being pushed back and hidden, perhaps emasculated, and “tucking in” is something one does to a child. But the term doesn’t carry the suggestion that Georg’s father has been half buried and is rising out of the grave.