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Dec 022011
 

Capture

Keith Lee Morris has been compared to Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. He explores the world of bars and racetracks, of working class men on the edge and families struggling to stay afloat. In the dark corners of small-town taverns, his writing unhinges us. It takes us to places that are so familiar yet so startlingly strange in their portrayal, that it’s easy to forget you are actually reading a story and not sitting in the bar and watching it unfold. This is not to say that his work is entirely in the realist tradition. His more experimental work deals with the story in uncanny ways, and pushes back against strict verisimilitude. And his writing blends the best of both styles into a narrative that is at once compelling, sad, funny and utterly honest. To read Morris is to journey into the dark places of existence, to open your heart to sadness, to root for the underdog even when he doesn’t stand a chance. But you feel comfortable taking that journey because Morris is such a certain guide.

We spoke over the phone. Morris was in his office in South Carolina. His answers were sharp and enthusiastic. He spoke of writing, of teaching, of growing up in Idaho. For much of the interview, it felt more like we were sitting in a bar and having this conversation.

Morris teaches writing at Clemson University. He has published two novels, The Greyhound God (University of Nevada Press, 2003) and The Dart League King (Tin House Press, 2008), and two collections of stories, The Best Seats in the House and Other Stories (University of Nevada Press, 2004) and his most recent work, Call it What You Want (Tin House Press, 2010).

–Richard Farrell

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Richard Farrell (RJF): The Paris Review once asked William Maxwell this question: Do your best sentences come from the air or as a product of much working and reworking?

Keith Lee Morris (KLM): (Laughs, then answers without much pause.) I’ll say both. Or maybe I’ll say they come from the air more often. When the writing just seems to happen on its own, that’s when I feel I’m at my best.  But maybe it has to do with the fact that if you write enough, over and over, it becomes more automatic.  In that sense, it’s the product of hard work.  I suppose it’s like playing football. Tom Brady has thrown thousands of passes, so that it looks like it’s happening with ease.  But it’s because he’s done it so many times that it looks so easy. When I’m writing well, it’s like being in that zone, where I’m not conscious of what I’m doing. It’s the bad sentences that I go back and rework.  And maybe by working on them over and over that they get better.

I have whole stories that I almost don’t remember writing. I’m inside the scene itself, and the characters are talking and I’m not aware of it, I’m just trying to keep up. And when you’ve done this so many times, it just happens.

RJF: I once read an essay (sadly I can’t remember the title or the author) that said in short stories, a character doesn’t necessarily go through change like the traditional method says. But rather, something happens in the life of the character after which nothing can ever be the same. So even if the character hasn’t come to something like an epiphany, even if the character isn’t yet aware of change, the life of the character is forever affected. Noting can be the same. Do you agree with this?

KLM: Most rules don’t make sense in writing fiction. If someone tells me a rule to follow, it just goads me into trying to break it. So I disagree that a story has to contain a change by which the character is forever changed in order for the story to be effective. The reader has to feel the possibility of change.

Look at The Great Gatsby. One of the arguments goes, Who is the main character? Is it Gatsby? If you buy into the argument of necessary change, then Gatsby can’t be the main character, because he is fixed. He doesn’t change at all. Daisy, Daisy, Daisy—he’s like a broken record. If it was really Gatsby’s story, the novel wouldn’t work. Even after he is shot and killed, the reader has the sense that change was never going to occur. But up until that point, you think it might. So I think that change matters, whether it’s internal or external, and it might not happen in the story, but it exists as a possibility. Part of what makes the novel work, too, of course, is that Nick Carroway does change significantly.

RJF: Much of your writing explores the motif of heterosexual male relationships. Specifically, the friendships between men. I think this is a rare thing to write about. Hemingway did this, of course, but you explore this territory with a more overt emotional compass. What is it about this male dynamic that is so interesting to you?

KLM: That’s interesting. I’ve never been asked that before. I’d say that some of it comes from my own experience. I’ve had the same set of half a dozen male friends since middle school. After I get off the phone, I’m calling one of them. We’ve been friends since I was, I guess, thirteen. His wife was just recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I call him every week to check in. So I guess this comes through in my writing from this sort of personal experience and this strong group of friends. And we all make the trek back home every year, to our small town in Idaho. I have guy friends that are writers, too. Steve Almond, Brock Clarke. So I guess, on reflection, that those kinds of long-term close friendships are important and they make their way into my writing.

RJF: Following up on this topic: What rituals exist for the contemporary male? You write a lot about bars, dart games, dog races, etc. Your male characters have this ‘lovable loser’ quality—they’re always getting drunk and stoned and getting into trouble, but you test them, too. Do you think that men today have lost some sense of the sacred ritual or the passage from boyhood to manhood?

KLM: Like the Hemingway thing, bullfights and war? Hunting, fishing, sports, sexual encounters? Those are the kind of standard coming of age rituals, I suppose. But I think my characters tend not to participate in rituals. Take Luke Rivers (the protagonist in The Greyhound God). When he was young, he went through a lot—the death of family members, a psychological breakdown, being in a mental hospital. So at a time when he would have been experiencing the traditional coming of age rituals, he was experiencing other things. He has this close bond with his wife, and while he goes through the ‘buddy stuff’ in the bars and at the track, his experiences are not typical. Even his friendships are atypical. He’s exploring his identity in the novel.

Typically characters I identify with have difficulty with rituals. They don’t see themselves as going through the traditional rites of passage.

Another example would be the character Deeder in my short story “Ayudame.” He was based on a friend of mine I grew up with, a working class, blue collar guy, but I crosscut him with another friend who had always dreamed of opening a record shop. And I wondered what it would be like for this character who never stopped dreaming of that record shop, who still felt that he should have been born in the 1960s. I guess I think about the different ways to create male characters who don’t go through the typical “coming of age” scenarios.

You called them ‘lovable losers.’ I grew up in northern Idaho. I went to school in the second-lowest funded district in the second lowest-funded state in the country at the time. A lot of those guys I knew didn’t even make it into high school. They just dropped out after eighth grade and disappeared. So I’m writing about people that are familiar to me. I’m actually uncomfortable around writers a lot of the time, you know? Guys with PhD’s and professors. It’s just not where I came from.

And I’ve been lucky. A lot of my friends have embraced my writing. Even if they aren’t readers or if normally they’d be reading books I’d hate, they still read all of my stories and books.

RJF: In your story collection, Call it What you Want, you refer to two types of stories. You have your traditional, realist stories and a type you call “dream stories.” Do these two types of writing inform each other as you go?

KLM: They do inform one another. Even in the ‘dream stories’ you’ll find the same types of characters at the center. And I think, because of my immersion in the dream stories, my realist stories aim at a language that is different. If you look at the end of “Ayudame” you’ll see that. The sentences become long and lyrical. So maybe the dream stories are a way of getting at the more lyrical writing. Something about me wanting to write those types of sentences.

RJF: I’m going to quote you back to yourself here. In The Greyhound God, you write this about fathers: “A father is anyone with answers to the questions that keep you awake at night.” Do you think this is the writer’s task, to answer the questions that keep us awake at night?

KLM: (Laughs) Well, it’s a lofty ambition. I meet a lot of writers who don’t want any meaning at all attributed to their stories. Maybe this is a result of the post-modern era. Authors won’t take ownership of their message. There’s a sense that, as a group, we don’t have that kind of influence anymore. If you take the most    famous writer in America, if Stephen King died tomorrow, they wouldn’t turn out in the streets like they did in Paris when Victor Hugo died. So things have changed.

But I do mean something when I write. I’m trying to get across an idea, even if I’m sometimes not entirely sure what that idea is. I’m exploring, too, while I’m telling a story. I’m certainly looking to find answers for myself when I write, so if I happen to answer some questions for someone else, then great. Part of the process is sharing ideas. Some writers think of a story as art. Like a story is the same thing as a painting. For me, a book is a form of communication. It’s a conversation.

RJF: Someone once asked Graham Swift what the essence of storytelling was. He replied that a story is “the relation of something strange.” He talked about overhearing a guy in a bar tell a story and that guy’s urge to relate the strange. He said he wanted to remember that guy in the bar when he wrote stories, that he wanted to be in that bar, too. Here’s the longer part of his response: “It begins with strangeness, it takes us out of ourselves but back to ourselves. It offers compassion.” Since so many of your stories are bar stories, I’m wondering how you think about Swift’s answer.

KLM: I hadn’t thought about stories that way before. But bars are fascinating. There’s nowhere else where you get people from all different walks of life coming together. And everyone’s there for the same reason, to have a drink and maybe to talk. So a lot of my stories are set in bars because the possibilities between people are so fascinating. But I think, even in the opening stages of a story, familiarity is just as important as strangeness. Think about it, if a total stranger walks up to you and starts talking, you’ll probably go the other way. If someone sits down with a strange story, you need to be interested in the person before you’ll be interested in his story

There has to be something familiar in a story. Until something is familiar in a character, we probably don’t want to hear what they have to say. We don’t want someone’s back-story until we are interested in him. So the element of the familiar matters. The strangeness has to come out of the familiar first for it to matter. I’d say it goes from familiarity to strangeness and then back again.

RJF: Here’s a more personal question. When did you first realize that you were going to be a writer?

KLM: It was later for me. I was in my twenties and I’d dropped out of college. I thought about acting for a while. I acted in some community theater, but I realized I sucked as an actor. I was acting in some locally written plays, and some of them were pretty bad, and I started thinking, damn, I could do as well as that. So I first started by writing plays. And I started reading more fiction, but I was well into my twenties. Back in middle school and high school, my teachers always told me I had talent as a writer, but I didn’t get serious about it until I was much older.

RJF: Was there an important person who influenced you to pursue it more seriously?

KLM: I suppose it was my parents first, who instilled in me the notion that I was responsible to do something, to not just be a bum. And I was well on my way to being a bum for a while.

The usual suspects, of course—my professors and writing teachers at The University of Idaho and UNC-Greensboro. But I can think of some less obvious examples, too. There was a guy in New Orleans who owned a bookstore. It was just a hole-in-the-wall shop, with books stacked from the floor to the ceiling. All these great books, literature, history, philosophy. I’d walk in and ask him what to read and he’d point me to a bunch of books, then I’d go back and tell him what I liked and didn’t like, and he’d suggest more. So I read a lot of good books because of him.

One person for sure had a big influence. I was dating a girl at the University of Idaho and I was writing short stories. I wasn’t in college then, but she took some of the stories to her English professor to read without me knowing it. He asked her to bring me in, to come and see him. He told me I needed to get back in school and get some formal guidance. He didn’t have to do that. I was nobody to him, and he took the time to call me in off the street. Walter Hesford. I’ll always be grateful to him. And as a professor now, it really taught me that you can’t ignore anybody. You never know who’s out there.

RJF: This is a weird question but I’m going to ask it anyway. Are there places you won’t go in your writing? Are there topics, for one reason or another, that you won’t touch?

KLM: I know I’m supposed to say, ‘no,’ right? But I’ll try to answer this.

I’m really reluctant to write about people that will be hurt if they recognized themselves. I’ll radically alter plots and characters to avoid that. So I shy away from material if it’s too close to someone. Other than that, probably not.

I do feel like I’ll write a story then go back and look at it and if I don’t like a character or a situation, I won’t send it out. I don’t always know where a story’s going when I’m writing it, so when it’s finished, I’ll sometimes decide that what comes out is too negative, that there’s absolutely nothing hopeful that the story has to offer, and for that reason I’ll dismiss it. If I can’t see anything in there that I would want to read about, I don’t want to force anyone else to read it.

RJF: My editor here at Numéro Cinq, Douglas Glover, was also my advisor in grad school. His nickname was “The Shredder” and he was insistent that his students think deeply in terms of structure. He said a lot of new writers, even in an MFA program, don’t understand structure. So it’s for him that I ask you this: How do you think structure in writing?

KLM: I had a professor like that in grad school, too. Michael Parker. He really focused on structure and the integrity of language, the integrity of the story as a whole. He forced me to recognize things that I hadn’t been thinking about. To this day, I have this little Michael Parker running around in my head, making me pay attention to structure, both at the sentence and the story level.

But to be honest, I couldn’t care less about structure. Yet of course I’m aware of it. When I wrote The Dart League King, I was experimenting a lot with structure. And as a writing teacher, I force my students to pay attention to it. Paying attention to structure is important, but it’s not structure that I’m interested in.. It’s a precursor to or a byproduct of what I write. In itself, it’s not what I’m interested in. Writers write for different reasons, and I think all writers have parts of the process that they submit to grudgingly.

I know a lot of writers who just love writing sentences, and they have to be forced to think in terms of plot. But I want to write stories—I’m interested primarily in narrative and the ideas contained in narrative. You have to consider structure as part of how to create a story, though—and if structure is one of your weaknesses as a writer, it’s your responsibility to shore up the weaknesses in order to get the material out there.

—Richard Farrell & Keith Lee Morris

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Richard Farrell is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq where he has published memoir, craft essays and book reviews. He is the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” appeared in the most recent Hunger Mountain Menagerie and has been nominated for a Puschcart Prize. He lives in San Diego, CA and is currently at work on a collection of short stories.

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Dec 022011
 

Keith Lee Morris’ short story “Ayudame” is a tale of friendship, failed dreams, and possibly a sliver of salvation. Morris has written two novels, The Greyhound God and The Dart League King, as well as two collections of short stories.  “Ayudame” comes from his collection Call It What You Want, available from Tin House Books. The story originally appeared in Third Coast magazine.  Morris teaches writing at Clemson University. (Read an interview with Keith Lee Morris on Numéro Cinq. )

—Richard Farrell

Ayudame

By Keith Lee Morris

 

Douglas “Deeder” Mumphrey was wakened from a dream of the record shop in Haight-Ashbury by his ten-year-old daughter, Grace, who was, surprisingly enough, standing by the side of the bed dressed and ready for school. It was Deeder’s turn, not his wife’s, to get Grace ready for her car pool ride, that much seemed sure, based on the fact that Grace stood by his side of the bed, not Theresa’s, and based on her serious and rather tired expression, which said several things to Deeder, such as “Dad’s lazy,” and “Dad’s forgetful,” and “Dad had too many beers last night,” and “I had to make my own breakfast,” all of which were true, more or less, not to say that the various truths contained in the expression didn’t annoy the hell out of Deeder, because they did, because why the hell should a ten-year-old girl be right about so many things when he himself, Deeder, a forty-one-year-old man, was rarely right about anything.

Deeder glanced over at his wife, her hair in the band she wore to keep it out of her face while she slept, soft snores coming from her puffed-out lips, and he was reminded of the argument they’d had the night before and he wondered how she could sometimes look like such a peaceful, easygoing person, and then he whispered “Sorry” to Grace and dragged himself out of bed, still smelling somewhere in the back of his head the incense he burned in his record store, the one he never had, back there in the Summer of Love when he was just born.

In the kitchen he brewed a pot of coffee and ran through a couple of spelling words with Grace to see if she was ready for her test, which she semi-was, not for lack of effort, but Grace wasn’t much of a speller. Rapture, censure, preacher, adventure–three out of four. Her forte was personal grooming–he marveled now at the way she’d managed to pick out the blouse, the pants, the matching socks all by herself, the way she looked so neat, her straight blond hair brushed just so.

There was Mrs. Adkins, pulling into the drive. He waved out the window, hoping she couldn’t see he was in his boxers. He made Grace give him a kiss on the cheek. “You stink, Dad,” she said. He watched her set her pack carefully in the back of the Adkins’ Aerostar, watched her climb in, smoothing her pant legs under her to keep them from wrinkling. Monterey Pop, the family’s black Lab, was lying with his head on his paws over by the sofa, wagging his tail slightly. Deeder poured some more food in his bowl and watched him come over and eat.

Continue reading »

2011

 

Vol. II, No. 12, December 2011

Vol. II, No. 11, November 2011

Vol. II, No. 10, October 2011

Vol. II, No. 9. September 2011

Vol. II, No. 8, August 2011

Vol. II, No. 7, July 2011

Vol. II, No. 6, June 2011

Vol. II, No. 5, May 2011

Vol. II, No. 4, April 2011

Vol. II, No. 3, March 2011

Vol. II, No. 2, February 2011

Vol. II, No. 1, January 2011

The Richard Farrell NC Archive Page

 

Richard Farrell

Richard Farrell is the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a former Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of Vermont College of Fine Arts students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and a Navy pilot. He is a graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, both fiction and non-fiction, has been published or is forthcoming in Descant, Hunger Mountain, Newfound, Blue Monday, Dig Boston, Contrary, Numéro Cinq, and others. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories and a novel. In 2016, he will be a resident writer at the Ragdale Artist Community in Lake Forest, Illinois. Richard lives with his family in San Diego.
Contact: richardfarrell@numerocinqmagazine.com

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Fiction

Dogfights

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Nonfiction

A Boy Falling out of the Sky: Memoir

First Solo

On Reverence

On A Writer Dying Young

Into the Realm of the Dark

On Courage

Almost Independence Day

About Face: On Class Reunions and Reading Salter


Will, Kate & Osama: Jean Baudrillard on Royal Weddings and the Death of bin Laden

Deforming Form: Outlier Short Stories and How They Work

What It’s Like Living Here [San Diego]

Non-Commencement Commencement Address, January, 2011

Unintentional Pugilism: A Memoir

The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders

Invitation to a Re-shredding: The Top 10 Things I Learned This Semester

Degenerates, Monks and Writers

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Book Reviews

Fever Dreams: Review of R.W. Gray’s Entropic

The Decomposition of Continuous Movement: Review of Juan José Saer’s La Grande

Tin-Penny Miseries and Chickenshit Joys: Review of Lorrie Moore’s Bark

Outside the Known Limit | Review of Victoria Redel’s Make Me Do Things

Laundromats, Lucky Charms and the Labors of Herakles | Review of Anne Carson’s Red Doc>

Ship of Fools: Review of A Thousand Morons by Quim Monzo

Unmeasured Depths: A Review of Steven Heigthon’s The Dead Are More Visible

Desperate Wagers: Review of Scars by Juan José Saer

In Search of the Author, Barthes Be Damned: Review of The Selected Stories of Mercé Rodoreda

Elegant Uncertainty: Review of Juan Jose Saer’s novel The Sixty-Five Years of Washington

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Interviews

Bushwacked by Inspiration: An Interview with Steven Heighton

Capturing the Equivalences: Interview With Translator Steve Dolph

Manufacturing Dreams: An Interview with Anthony Doerr

Double Exposure: An Interview with Darin Strauss

Making the Little Monsters Walk: Interview with Brad Watson

And Make Mine a Double: Interview with Keith Lee Morris

The Confluence of Rivers: Interview With Tammy Greenwood

Change the Weather/Avoid the Dead: Interview with David Shields

When I’m in the Swamps, I Just Need Questions: Interview with R.W. Gray

Feb 272012
 

Strauss

Darin Strauss is an American writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of three novels and one book-length memoir. Strauss is married to the journalist Susannah Meadows, and together, they are the proud (and busy) parents of twin, four-year-old boys.

Strauss’ 2010 memoir, Half a Life, won the 2011 National Book Critics Award and was excerpted in GQ and NPR’s This American Life. Half a Life chronicles the aftermath of a motor vehicle accident in which Strauss was the driver. His car struck and killed a young girl whose bicycle swerved into the road. Cleared of any wrong-doing in the accident, Strauss writes about the effect of this traumatic event which haunted him for twenty years. Hailed as a “masterpiece” and as a “memoir in its finest form,” the book has garnered critical acclaim and was named ‘Best Book of the Year’ by NPR, Amazon.com and others.

Chang and Eng, Strauss’ first book, was published in 2000. The novel, which tells a fictional story of the famous real-life conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, met with widespread critical acclaim. Set in Siam and antebellum North Carolina, Chang and Eng bravely explores the concept of self and other through the lives of the eponymous Siamese Twins, who came to the United States, became farmers, husbands and fathers. Strauss’ unflinching exploration of the twins’ story, told from the point of view of Eng, won many major literary awards and is currently being optioned for a movie. After Stauss’ second novel, The Real McCoy, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship. His third novel, More Than It Hurts You, was published by PenguinPutnam in 2008.

We speak over the phone. I reach him early in the morning and he asks if I can call him back. He is getting his boys ready for school. We talk amidst the street noise of rush hour New York, as Strauss goes for his morning walk through Brooklyn. At one point, I reluctantly offer up that I’m a Patriots fan. His New York Giants have recently defeated my favorite team for the second time in a Super Bowl. He is gracious in victory. I tell him that my son cried for fifteen minutes after the game and he says that I’m the second person who has mentioned this phenomenon. Being a parent changes the way we enjoy sports, in addition to how we live our lives. He is generous and quick with his responses. Once again, I’m reminded that even the most successful writers, and Strauss is clearly one of these, retain a sense of wonder and humility at the practice.

 

Richard Farrell (RF): Is there a spiritual tradition from which your write? How do ideas of spirituality and religion affect how you approach your work?

Darin Strauss (DS): I don’t know about that one. I’m not a fully LAPSED Jew. I do believe. But I don’t go to temple and I don’t speak Hebrew. I’m a very secular person. I suppose the closest I come to a true spiritual tradition might be the literary tradition. For me, there’s something almost liturgically intense in the best writing. Someone like Tolstoy or Bellow. People like that created texts that have an important gravity; they pull on my brain the way the Talmud would pull on another Jewish person’s brain. I think Tolstoy is the best writer we have ever had. I’m sure he wouldn’t be impressed by someone like me saying that – big whoop, right? — but for me, there is something spiritual about being engaged with reading a work of literature like that.

RF: You wrote three novels before Half a Life was published. Beyond the thematic material, can you talk about the process of writing non-fiction compared to writing fiction?

DS: I find in memoir it is harder to make a coherent whole—I mean an artful structure. The great and  popular writer David Lipsky helped me significantly in structuring the book. I was lost with it. He said do this and change that–he actually did some real stuff in there for me. The material in the memoir was so close to me personally I couldn’t see it. Ask any sea captain: When you are too close to something, it’s hard to get perspective.

In fiction writing, the difficult stuff is testing to see if what you’re writing is believable. For the memoir, that problem vanishes: it’s the truth you’re working with. I just had to figure out how to make the structure of it work.

A lot of people have asked me why I didn’t just write a novel about what had happened? I chose to do it as CNF because for me, fiction has a kind of narrative playfulness about it. There has to be fun involved in fiction, even if its fun played out in a serious way. There’s a gamesmanship to it. All fiction writing involves intellectual play, in other words. I didn’t feel like I could do that with the memoir. It would have been disrespectful to the memory of the girl who died. The thematic and textual art-making in fiction would’ve disrespected the actual events of an actual life.

RF: You’ve talked about being sensitive to critics and reviewers. Does that, for lack of a better word, anxiety, ever work its way into your writing? I suppose what I’m asking is, does your sensitivity make you defensive at all?

DS: I can wall off certain demons. I do read reviews. I mean if I’m going to be reviewed in the New York Times or the Washington Post, I’m not strong enough not to read the review. But it does affect you. You become sensitive to the slights. But I’m good at walling that part of myself off when I write. The reviews don’t get in there, into that place where I’m writing.

Maybe if there was a bad review that seemed to understand my writing—that got at the very specific flaws I know are there—that would bother me more. I think most writers—most of us non-genius writers –know deep down what our flaws are. But I haven’t had a bad review that focused on what I feel are the secret, weak parts of my work. I haven’t had a critic that made a point that could make me think to be a better writer.

RF: I want to ask you about writing sex scenes. I’m thinking specifically about the scene in Chang and Eng where the conjoined twins have sex for the first time to their new brides. I found this scene (really two back to back scenes) highly erotic (and well written). Rather than being turned off by the oddness of the situation, I found myself identifying with Eng in a very personal way. Besides accepting a compliment to your writing, can you talk about how you approach sex scenes, or scenes of physical intimacy in your writing?

DS: (Laughs and points out my inadvertent pun on ‘back to back’) I knew that was going to be one of the main questions of the book. How were they able to father 21 children? I knew I had to address how they had sex and that it was going to be essential.

Sex scenes always create a problem. And they have to serve the story. You can’t just stop in the middle of a scene and forget everything—just for a little textual thrill. I mean, it’s best not to be merely prurient about it. Here’s an analog to sex-scene writing. I think of a scene where a character walks into an ice cream shop. You have describe things that matter, but you can’t stop the forward motion of your story just to have a six-page description of the sprinkles and the cone. How the sprinkles and the cone move your story along, how they affect your particular characters in ways that are particular to them—that’s a good scene.

For that sex part in Chang & Eng, I focused on the conflict between those two men and the trouble with having your brother constantly with you. There was no intimacy, nothing was ever private. But I also wanted to conceive the sex scene as something that could get at what was special about this thematic material and this plot. So I made Eng in love with his sister-in-law. But he could never tell her or touch her because the woman’s husband—his brother—was always with her. The sex was an extension—or an elucidation—of the problem.

RF: Do you have (or did you) other writers you modeled yourself after? Who and how did you escape that influence? How did you get out of its way.

DS: I’m always picking up new influences. You certainly don’t stop being influenced. Zadie Smith said something like, ‘A writer should approach the library the way an eater approaches the buffet table.’ Like: I’ll take from this, from that, and also from that. That cobbled-together meal ends up—if you have enough various dishes in there, in various quantities—being something unique to you.

The writers influential to me include Tolstoy, Nabokov, Lorrie Moore, Martin Amis, John Cheever, Isaac Babel, V.S. Pritchett. Pritchett isn’t read much anymore but he was a great writer and a critic who kept writing late into his eighties. David Foster Wallace too, and Roth. A dash of Updike, a touch of Chekhov.

So I’m always reading and being influenced. I don’t think that ever stops.

RF: How important is voice to you in writing?

DS: It’s important. If there’s a morality in writing, it’s in the voice or the style. Nabokov made that point, and lived it, too. I try to see what other writers do, and to figure out how to do it myself.

Nabokov was great at compressing metaphors. David Lipsky teaches his students to look at what Nabokov does with metaphors and try to find ways to use that. Or David Foster Wallace, and how well he uses incredible modifiers to jazz up the prose.

But, to get less craft-lessony for a second. When I read Tolstoy, it’s a chance to take a ride in the brain of a genius for a few weeks. That’s the part that movies and TV can’t get at, because you are always watching the pictures with your own eyes, and having your own observations. Which I’m guessing are limited than Tolstoy’s. But if you read Tolstoy, you really are existing in his brain, getting the full strength of his thoughts. I think of it like brain vitamins.

RF: My last interview was with Anthony Doerr. He also has twin boys. I hope it’s not something in the well water. How has being a parent effected your writing?

DS: (Laughs) It’s made me have less time to write! My third book was about someone harming a child. But now when I get to a place in a book, maybe it’s harder to go to the cruel places. But I don’t think it’s affected my writing in a negative way, beyond having less time.

RF: In Half a Life you say, “Things don’t go away. They become you. The trailing consequence of further days and hours. No freedom from the past or future.” James Joyce wrote that “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” How does writing help this? Does writing about the events offer a glimpse of freedom or only soften prison of the past?

DS: That was an allusion to a T. S. Eliot quote. But writing does help; it has been helpful for me. I used to subscribe to what William Gass said, that if you write well it cannot be cathartic, because you are working too hard. But after writing the memoir, I have to say that either Gass was wrong, or I didn’t do it well. Because it was completely cathartic. It has helped me smooth over the psychic bumps which accumulated from the accident. It helped me heal. I didn’t want to be a self-help book author, but I guess if you write well about these kind of things, the book can be self-helpful, in a way.

RF: What are you working on now?

DS: David Lipsky and I are collaborating on a young adult adventure series. I’m also working on a new novel that’s a mix of everything I’ve done to this point. The book is contemporary and historical and even a mix of fiction and non-fiction.

RF: In your opinion, can writing be taught? Also, and I think these questions are related, is it perseverance or talent?

DS: I think this whole argument, writing can’t be taught, is ridiculous. Yes, few people are super-brilliant writers once they graduate. Is that really a useful expectation, though? You don’t graduate from law school and instantly become Clarence Darrow! Does that disqualify law school? If you do not graduate among the top one percent of lawyers in the world, did law school fail you?

Does an MFA make you, magically, Philip Roth? No. It’s not a practical degree, but I tell students that if you really want an MFA, go where you can afford to go. Go to a school where you can get money to attend.

I also think you need to go to school where the writers you like teach. The economic truth of writing is that you’ll likely have to teach, even if you do publish your books. Even the incredibly successful writers, for the most part, teach. Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safron Foer and Zadie Smith all teach—in fact, they’ve all taught with me at NYU.

But if you can’t afford it, don’t go. You won’t just be able to hang a shingle on your door when you graduate and start making money. But, certainly, yes, writing can be taught. You will improve, you will—if you work hard in grad school—get closer to the last limits of your potential. If you go into it with that expectation, and you know there are no guarantees, and you still want to go, and can afford to go, and end up getting into a good program, then do it.

RF: Keith Lee Morris once wrote, “A father is anyone with answers to the questions that keep you awake at night.” I interviewed him and asked him this question. I’m now going to ask you: Do you think this is the writer’s task, to answer the questions that keep us awake at night? (Interviewer’s Note: Morris, in his answer, talks about exploring and not having all the answers. I didn’t want to give him a bad rap on this one!)

DS: No! It’s a nice line. It sure sounds good. Here’s a plainer one. A father is someone whose sperm helps create a child. I don’t know—I don’t have many answers.

The truth is, fiction writers shouldn’t have too many answers. Debate team captains have answers. Literature is its own way of thinking about things, as Milan Kundera said. Stories that purport to have an answer are not fiction; they’re propaganda. It’s an easy thing to say the answers. Literature transcends answers. Its job is not to tell you what’s right or wrong, but to show how everything is a little bit of both.

—Richard Farrell

Masthead

 

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Capo di tutti capi
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Douglas Glover, Theatre Passe MurailleDouglas Glover’s obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.” Luckily, he owns a dog and is not completely alone in the world. And occasionally someone actually reads what he writes: He has also been called “a master of narrative structure” (Wall Street Journal) and “the mad genius of Can Lit” (Globe and Mail) whose stories are “as radiant and stirring as anything available in contemporary literature” (Los Angeles Review of Books) and whose work “demands comparison to [Cormac] McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, William Faulkner” (Music & Literature). A new story collection, Savage Love, was published in 2013.

Glover is the author of five story collections, four novels, two books of essays, Notes Home from a Prodigal Son and Attack of the Copula Spiders, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. His novel Elle won the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was optioned by Isuma Igloolik Productions, makers of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner. His story book A Guide to Animal Behaviour was a finalist for the 1991 Governor-General’s Award. His stories have been frequently anthologized, notably in The Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Stories, and The New Oxford Book of Canadian Stories. He was the subject of a TV documentary in a series called The Writing Life and a collection of critical essays, The Art of Desire, The Fiction of Douglas Glover, edited by Bruce Stone.

Glover has taught at Skidmore College, Colgate University, Davidson College, the University at Albany-SUNY and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has been writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick, the University of Lethbridge, St. Thomas University and Utah State University. For two years he produced and hosted The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program which originated at WAMC in Albany and was syndicated on various public radio stations and around the world on Voice of America and the Armed Forces Network. He edited the annual Best Canadian Stories from 1996 to 2006. He has two sons, Jacob and Jonah, who will doubtless turn out better than he did.

See also “Making Friends with a Stranger: Albert Camus’s L’Étranger,” an essay in CNQ:Canadian Notes & Queries; Consciousness & Masturbation: A Note on Witold Gombrowicz’s Onanomaniacal Novel Cosmos,” an essay in 3:AM Magazine; “Pedro the Uncanny: A Note on Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo,” an essay in Biblioasis International Translation Series Online;A Scrupulous Fidelity: Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser,” an essay in The Brooklyn Rail;Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought,” an essay on the history of ideas also in The Brooklyn Rail; and a dozen extremely wise epigrams at Global Brief

 

Senior Editors

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Book Reviews

Jason DeYoungJason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has recently appeared in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, The Fiddleback, New Orleans Review, and Numéro Cinq.
Contact: jasondeyoung@numerocinqmagazine.com.
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Numéro Cinq at the Movies

R. W. Gray (Numéro Cinq at the Movies) was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. His most recent book, a short story collection entitled Entropic, won the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Fiction Award in 2016. Additionally, he is the author of Crisp, a short story collection, and two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton..

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Editor-at-Large

Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is the author of Dysfunctional Males, a story collection, and Shetlag: una novela acentuada. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. He tweets at @f_sd.

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Translations

WoodardBenjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, Spartan, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews and essays have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, Numéro Cinq, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.
Contact bwoodard@numerocinqmagazine.com.

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Poetry Editors

aizenberg-thumbnailSusan Aizenberg is the author of three poetry collections: Quiet City (BkMk Press 2015); Muse (Crab Orchard Poetry Series 2002); and Peru in Take Three: 2/AGNI New Poets Series (Graywolf Press 1997) and co-editor with Erin Belieu of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (Columbia University Press 2001). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, among them The North American Review, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Connotation Press, Spillway, The Journal, Midwest Quarterly Review, Hunger Mountain, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and have been reprinted and are forthcoming in several anthologies, including Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier UP) and Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation (Etruscan). Her awards include a Crab Orchard Poetry Series Award, the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Levis Prize for Muse, a Distinguished Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mari Sandoz Award from the Nebraska Library Association, and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner award. She can be reached through her website, susanaizenberg.com..

gillisSusan Gillis has published three books of poetry, most recently The Rapids (Brick Books, 2012), and several chapbooks, including The Sky These Days (Thee Hellbox Press, 2015) and Twenty Views of the Lachine Rapids (Gaspereau Press, 2012). Volta (Signature Editions, 2002) won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. She is a member of the collaborative poetry group Yoko’s Dogs, whose work appears regularly in print and online, and is collected in Rhinoceros (Gaspereau Press, 2016) and Whisk (Pedlar Press, 2013). Susan divides her time between Montreal and rural Ontario..

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Managing Editor.

Deirdre thumbnailDeirdre Baker is a freelance web and copy editor living in Toronto. She worked for nearly three decades at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, most recently as manager of the Legislature’s website and intranet. After years of bills, proceedings, debates, policies, and procedures, she is delighted to finally have something interesting to read for work.

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Chief Technical Officer/Internet Security

Jonah Glover is a twenty-three-year-old human male. Jonah was hired into a technical role despite a long history of shoving chalk into the Glover family VCR. His tenure as CTO is a brazen act of nepotism by DG, so he says. In truth, he has rescued the magazine from malware attacks and hosting issues over and over again. He also designed the logo (many years ago). He works as a software engineer in Seattle and is completing a degree at the University of Waterloo.
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Contributing Editors.

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Riiki DucornetThe author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays and five books of poetry, Rikki Ducornet has received both a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. She has received the Bard College Arts and Letters award and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature. Her work is widely published abroad. Recent exhibitions of her paintings include the solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, and the group shows: O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008, and El Umbral Secreto at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. She has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, Forest Gander, Kate Bernheimer, Joanna Howard and Anne Waldman among others. Her collected papers including prints and drawings are in the permanent collection of the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago Chile, The McMaster University Museum, Ontario, Canada, and The Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.

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Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

HeadsJulie Larios is the author of four books for children: On the Stairs (1995), Have You Ever Done That? (named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Outstanding Children’s Books 2001), Yellow Elephant (a Book Sense Pick and Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book, 2006) and Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures (shortlisted for the Cybil Award in Poetry, 2008). For five years she was the Poetry Editor for The Cortland Review, and her poetry for adults has been published by The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s, Swink, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Field, and others. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. Her work has been chosen for The Best American Poetry series by Billy Collins (2006) and Heather McHugh (2007) and was performed as part of the Vox series at the New York City Opera (2010). Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University on July 13th, 2013.

Sydney Lea2Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications  released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013. In 2015 he published a non-fiction collection, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long (many of the essays appeared first on Numéro Cinq). His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.

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Special Correspondents

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Victoria Best small photoVictoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (http://shinynewbooks.co.uk).

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Jeff BurseyJeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His forthcoming book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Garvin thumbnailGary Garvin lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, translator, writer, and cultural conspirator living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’ (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of a collection of Robert Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum, 2015). She is currently working on completing a collection of essays exploring the tension between spirit and matter in contemporary culture and a room-sized, illuminated, accordion book inscribed with one of the essays from the collection, along with many other fanatical projects. You can find Genese online at genesegrill.blogspot.com.

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JasonJason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.

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Bruce Stone4

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he edited a great little book of essays on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His own essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. He currently teaches writing at UCLA.
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Trimingham_Julie

Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.

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Production Editors

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Alyssa green backgroundAlyssa Colton has a PhD in English with creative dissertation from the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her fiction has been published in The Amaranth Review and Women Writers. Her essays have appeared in Literary Arts Review, Author Magazine, Mothering, Moxie: For Women Who Dare, Iris: A Journal about Women, and on WAMC: Northeast Public Radio. Alyssa has taught classes in writing, literature, and theater at the University at Albany, the College of St. Rose, and Berkshire Community College and blogs about writing at abcwritingediting.
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Nowick GrayNowick Gray writes fiction, essays and creative nonfiction that likes to bend boundaries and confound categories. He also works as a freelance copy editor and enjoys playing African drums. Having survived American suburbs, the Quebec Arctic and the BC wilderness, Nowick is now based in Victoria, frequenting tropical locations in winter months..

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Nic Leigh has had work published in Juked, The Collagist, UNSAID, Atticus Review, Requited, Gobbet, and DIAGRAM. A chapbook, Confidences, won the Cobalt/Thumbnail Flash Fiction contest and is forthcoming from Cobalt Press. Leigh is also a fiction reader for Guernica.

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CaptureKathryn Para is an award-winning, multi-genre writer with a MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in Grain, Room of One’s Own, Geist, Sunstream, and Vancouver Review. She is the 2013 Winner of Mother Tongue Publishing’s Search for the Great BC Novel Contest with, Lucky,  her first novel, which was also shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2014. Her stage play, Honey, debuted in 2004. She has also written, directed and produced short films.

Daniel Davis Wood is a writer based in Birmingham, England. His debut novel, Blood and Bone, won the 2014 Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia. He is also the author of Frontier Justice, a study of the influence of the nineteenth century frontier on American literature, and the editor of a collection of essays on the African American writer Edward P. Jones. He can be found online at www.danieldaviswood.com..

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Assistant to the Editor

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mary-brindley2Mary Brindley is a Vermont-born copywriter living in Boston. A recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she writes creative nonfiction, performs improv, and is about to move to London.

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Contributors

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Anu2A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

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dylanbrennan-croppedCurrently based in Mexico City, Dylan Brennan writes poetry, essays and memoirs. His debut collection, Blood Oranges, for which he won The Patrick Kavanagh Award runner-up prize, was published by The Dreadful Press in 2014. His co-edited volume of academic essays Rethinking Juan Rulfo’s Creative World: Prose, Photography, Film is available now from Legenda Books (2016). In addition to his work as Mexico Curator for Numéro Cinq, he regularly contributes to the online Mexican literary site Portal de Letras. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan.

jeremy brungerJeremy Brungeroriginally from Tennessee, is a writer attending a graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests trend toward the Marxian: how capital transforms us, abuses us, mocks us. His writing on philosophy and politics has been featured on Truthout, The Hampton Institute, and 3 AM Magazine and his poetry has appeared in the Chiron Review and Sibling Rivalry Press. He can be contacted at jbrunger@uchicago.edu.
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Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology, The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He helps edit the Wrath-Bearing Tree and is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Laura Michele Diener author photoLaura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine..

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Daniel Green is a writer and literary critic whose essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in a variety of publications. He is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism (2016).

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A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.
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OgburnCarolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and NC School of the Arts, she writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

Paddy Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and will begin work on an MFA at the University of Saskatchewan this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”

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Frank Richardson lives in Houston where he teaches English and Humanities. He received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Mark SampsonMark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Natalia SarkissianNatalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She was an editor and a contributor at Numéro Cinq from 2010-2017.

 


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Joe SchreiberJoseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and The Scofield. He tweets @roughghosts.

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captureDorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.

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Authors & Artists of Numéro Cinq

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Ryem Abrahamson • Abdallah Ben Salem d’Aix • Alejandro de Acosta • Caroline Adderson • José Eduardo Agualusa • Susan Aizenberg • Laurie Alberts • Ramón Alejandro • Taiaike Alfred • Gini Alhadeff • Abigail Allen • Steve Almond • Darran Anderson • Trevor Anderson • Jorge Carrera Andrade • Ralph Angel • A. Anupama • Guillaume Apollinaire • Jamaluddin Aram • Fernando Aramburu • Louis Armand • Melissa Armstrong • Tammy Armstrong • Glenn Arnold • Miguel Arteta • Adam Arvidson • Nick Arvin • Kim Aubrey • Shushan Avagyan • Steven Axelrod • Elizabeth Babyn • J. Karl Bogartte • Julianna Baggott • Louise Bak • Bonnie Baker • Sybil Baker • Martin Balgach • Brandon Ballengée • Zsófia Bán • Phyllis Barber • John Banville • Byrna Barclay • Mike Barnes • Stuart Barnes • Kevin Barry • Donald Bartlett • Todd Bartol • John Barton • Sierra Bates • Svetislav Basarav • Charles Baudelaire • Tom Bauer • Melissa Considine Beck • Joshua Beckman • Laura Behr • Gerard Beirne • Amanda Bell • Ian Bell • Madison Smartt Bell • Dodie Bellamy • Joe David Bellamy • Leonard Bellanca • Russell Bennetts • Brianna Berbenuik • Samantha Bernstein • Michelle Berry • Jen Bervin • Victoria Best • Darren Bifford • Nathalie Bikoro • Eula Biss • Susan Sanford Blades • François Blais • Clark Blaise • Denise Blake • Vanessa Blakeslee • Rimas Blekaitis • Liz Blood • Harold Bloom • Ronna Bloom • Michelle Boisseau • Stephanie Bolster • John Bolton • Jody Bolz • Danila Botha • Danny Boyd • Donald Breckenridge • Dylan Brennan • Mary Brindley • Stephen Brockbank • Fleda Brown • Laura Catherine Brown • Nickole Brown • Lynne M. 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Dec 082010
 

This is Mary Stein’s critical thesis, hot of the press, as she says. It’s part critical essay, part personal essay, one writer’s adventure in the art of reading as much as an exploration of the technique of absence in Amy Hempel’s stories. Would that all readers could be as curious, open, intelligent and humble. Would that we could all have such readers.

dg

This essay was really selfishly motivated––I was basically just trying to figure out why I had been so obsessed with Amy Hempel, and now I have a 30-page half-answer to that question. I also like to think I belong to the “reality” camp, and while writing this, it was clear the essay experienced a crisis of identity, and I had resigned myself to a mildewy fate in the basement in College Hall. More than anything, I just wanted to figure out a thing or two about artful craft and about my own creative process…

—Mary Stein

 

Another Way to Fill an Empty Room: The Voice of Amy Hempel’s Aesthetic

By Mary Stein


 

“Here’s a trick I found for how to finally get some sleep. I sleep in my husband’s bed. That way the empty bed I look at is my own.”

(“Nashville Gone to Ashes,” 20)

One may not notice the loneliness of an empty room until you place a small desk and chair in its corner.

Amy Hempel’s words are the desk and chair that sit in the corner of an empty room.

It is no secret that Hempel’s stories rely heavily on aesthetics. For Hempel, construction is of utmost importance: She intends her stories to start from and arrive at a particular destination, approaching each story with knowledge of its final line. In her stories, what is not present becomes just as important––if not more important––as that which shows up on the page.

Return for a moment to the image of a room sparsely populated with furniture: In the emptiness of a room, a reader may view herself in relationship to the space that surrounds her. (I called the room “lonely,” whereas the narrator of Doris Lessing’s story, “To Room Nineteen,” may have called it “salvation”). If that same room is filled with objects and people and pictures and doors to other rooms, a reader will be more likely to view all these objects in relationship to one another. Regardless, the role of the reader in relationship to a story is clearly important as it is with any text. We are entering some Bertolt Brecht territory of the relationship between the roles of the audience (readership) and the art (text)––how a reader becomes an inextricable part of what she observes, diminishing the possibility of pure objectivity. Of course, we don’t read stories in hopes of objectivity. But the risk of using economic prose to write narratives as spacious as Hempel’s is that these stories will more likely foster speculation: There is literally more room for a reader to project his or her own interpretive slant on a story.

Continue reading »

About

 

Well-known for being intellectual and deep, in other words obscure.

Globe and Mail

Always a must-read.

—Two Lines Press

Holy shit!  This looks great!  Even the fine print (I always read credits at movies too).

—a reader

I think it looks spectacular! Numéro Cinq is one handsome webzine…

—a reader

Thanks so much for doing a great journal. Folks are a-buzz about it.

—a reader

Must read with coffee & rejoice that NC continually makes neurons fire and leaves readers a little smarter than before.

—another reader

…yesterday was the first time I looked at N.Cinq in a while, not because it isn’t great which it is but because it makes my ambition stand up and scream and on days when I have so much else to do (most days now that it’s summer) this is like eating something really good in small spoonfuls, some sugar, some fire, mostly fire.

— yet another reader

Well, I live by myself on a rock in the middle of the woods, so you’ve elevated the level of discourse for one person, anyway. I don’t even have a dog to converse with any more.

— even again another reader

Humanity is being preserved at NC, along with literature. (Just saw Court’s piece.)

—a reader

Very cool place.  Easy-going but chewy, dense stuff.  Perfect mix I think.   I’m apt to hang out a bit more often.  I just wish it served drinks….

—a reader!!!!

I love how it carries a conversation in a dark house, voices popping up from various corners, passing thought threads here and there. And I love how it carries back through you, too. Like some strange heartbeat that you pulse out, but returns to give you something in response.

— incredible as it seems, another reader


Numéro Cinq started January 11, 2010, as…

a reading, discussion and resource site for a small group of Douglas Glover‘s friends and writing students. It morphed into something monstrous, tenticulate, multiform and quite possibly (gasp) alive!

In its 7 1/2 years as a going concern, the magazine published a stellar array of new and known (international, award-winning) writers including among others, from Canada, Jowita Bydlowska, Lynn Coady, Leon Rooke, Diane Schoemperlen, Mavis Gallant, Julie Trimingham, Bill Gaston, Sheila Heti, Mark Anthony Jarman, Caroline Adderson, Amanda Jernigan, Ann Ireland, David Helwig, Phil Hall, Cynthia Flood, Catherine Greenwood, Julie Bruck, Sharon McCartney, Steven Heighton, and Jack Hodgins; from the U.S., Rikki Ducornet, Curtis White, Lance Olsen, Lydia Davis, Noy Holland, Greg Mulcahy, Madison Smartt Bell, Victoria Redel, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Joseph McElroy, Donald Hall, David Ferry, Steve Almond, Mary Ruefle, Keith Lee Morris, Darin Strauss, David Shields, Robert Wrigley. Anthony Doerr, Brad Watson, Bianca Stone, Robert Wrigley, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Dawn Raffel, and Lynne Tillman; from Ireland and the UK, Gabriel Josipovici, George Szirtes, Andrew Gallix, Kevin Barry, Julie Reverb, John MacKenna, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, John Kelly, Doireann Ni Griofa; plus work in translation by Viktor Shkolvsky, Mauricio Segura, Daniil Kharms, Julián Herbert, Mircea Cărtărescu, Álvaro Pombo, Quim Monzó, Juan José Saer, Anton Chekhov, Mihail Sebastian, Giacomo Leopardi, Habib Tengour, Besik Kharanauli, Rilke, Mathias Énard and many others. We’ve published novellas, entire books, plays, poems, translations, fiction, nonfiction, sermons, criticism, memoirs, music, art work, hybrid art, conceptual art, provocative graphics.

And this is not to forget our intrepid band of NC staffers, contributors and contributing editors, all convicted felons of the literary type, dedicated artists fast making a name for themselves in the brash new digital universe.

The Name

The name for the magazine came from DG’s short story “The Obituary Writer” in which story the hero, based loosely on the author as a young newspaperman, harasses a distraught neighbour who lives in the apartment across the hall by making loud noises in the night and pretending to be a member of a sinister terrorist group called Numéro Cinq.

Sgt. Pye evicts Earl Delamare. It’s my fault, too, because I was taunting Earl, playing on his fantasies. It’s possible I have driven him mad. One night he came to my door, first listening, then mumbling, then beginning his litany of wild accusations. Instead of responding with my usual silence, I put Night on Bald Mountain on the stereo. As the music rose, I began to intone the French advertisements on the backs of cereal boxes in my kitchen cupboard.

The music gave Earl fits; he practically howled with rage. “Numéro Cinq! Numéro Cinq!” he cried. I played John Cage on the stereo and read the cereal boxes backwards, imitating several voices at once. Earl began to beat the door with his fists, perhaps even his head. I could see the panels giving with the force of his blows. In the midst of this I heard Sgt. Pye climbing the stairs. When he came into my apartment, he found me sitting in an old Morris chair, eating a bowl of Rice Krispies, with the stereo low. Earl had retreated to his room like a mole going underground. But I could still hear him shouting. “Numéro Cinq! Numéro Cinq!” When Sgt. Pye let himself into Earl’s room, the black man went through the window and down the fire escape.

After Earl is evicted, the hero slips into his abandoned room and discovers a photograph of a young woman. Later, he finds Earl living at a shelter while he awaits a decision on whether or not he will be committed to a mental hospital. The hero buys Earl a beer and the two walk through town at which point, for no particular reason, he starts to needle Earl again.

When we finish the beer, I take a deep breath and hand him the photograph. It turns out, as I had begun to expect it would, to be a photograph of his dead wife, a woman he loved deeply but who betrayed him with another man. I tell him I am researching a newspaper story about a secret terror organization called the Numéro Cinq, that I’d appreciate him telling me anything he knows about it. Earl is silent, but tears come to his eyes. I say, “I don’t know much. I’ve been tracking them for years.” Earl nods vigorously. “But they’re everywhere,” I say. Earl hides his face in his hands. “Everywhere,” I say, “and we’re doomed.”

–from “The Obituary Writer” in A Guide to Animal Behaviour; also in Bad News of the Heart.

Douglas Glover’s…

obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.” Luckily, he owns a dog and is not completely alone in the world. And occasionally someone actually reads what he writes: He has also been called “a master of narrative structure” (Wall Street Journal) and “the mad genius of Can Lit” (Globe and Mail) whose stories are “as radiant and stirring as anything available in contemporary literature” (Los Angeles Review of Books) and whose work “demands comparison to [Cormac] McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, William Faulkner” (Music & Literature). A new story collection, Savage Love, came out in 2013.

Glover is the author of five story collections, four novels, two books of essays, Notes Home from a Prodigal Son and Attack of the Copula Spiders, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. His novel Elle won the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was optioned by Isuma Igloolik Productions, makers of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner. His story book A Guide to Animal Behaviour was a finalist for the 1991 Governor-General’s Award. His stories have been frequently anthologized, notably in The Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Stories, and The New Oxford Book of Canadian Stories. He was the subject of a TV documentary in a series called The Writing Life and a collection of critical essays, The Art of Desire, The Fiction of Douglas Glover, edited by Bruce Stone.

Glover has taught at Skidmore College, Colgate University, Davidson College, the University at Albany-SUNY and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has been writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick, the University of Lethbridge, St. Thomas University and Utah State University. For two years he produced and hosted The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program which originated at WAMC in Albany and was syndicated on various public radio stations and around the world on Voice of America and the Armed Forces Network. He edited the annual Best Canadian Stories from 1996 to 2006. He has two sons, Jacob and Jonah, who will doubtless turn out better than he did.

See also “Making Friends with a Stranger: Albert Camus’s L’Étranger,” an essay in CNQ:Canadian Notes & Queries; “Consciousness & Masturbation: A Note on Witold Gombrowicz’s Onanomaniacal Novel Cosmos,” an essay in 3:AM Magazine; “Pedro the Uncanny: A Note on Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo,” an essay in Biblioasis International Translation Series Online;A Scrupulous Fidelity: Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser,” an essay in The Brooklyn Rail;Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought,” an essay on the history of ideas also in The Brooklyn Rail; and a dozen extremely wise epigrams at Global Brief.

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Dec 102016
 

karen-mulhallen-undated

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Karen Mulhallen age two with her parents

This is a photograph of me at about two years of age. I have been looking at this picture for the past year or so, while I was working on a collaborative essay, a chapter on twentieth-century fashion in literature. It was impossible for me to reread so many early twentieth-century books without thinking of my own mother, and her clothes and the way in which clothing was a bond between us. My mother was always fashionable, and briefly was a model for Max Factor, while she was freelancing as a journalist in the first years of her marriage, before I was born. My father was fat, very fat, as you can see, and was very lucky to have her. She is chic in her slender yellow dress, appliqued with brown velvet leaves on the chest. Her hair partially rolled in a chignon. Two things strike me about my role in this picture. I am dressed, as I was for years, in a handmade dress, this one with sweet cross-stitching. I seem oblivious to my clothing, although that might not be true. And of course my stuffed animal is a horse, which resonates with the fact I have written many poems about horses, including an entire book, Sea Horses, about the wild horses of Sable Island. Was my identity being forged even then by my dress and my accessory, a stuffed horse?

karen-mulhallen-in-crepe-dress-1942-44The author in crepe dress, with stuffed horse, 1942-44

My youngest brother David has, by default, become a sort of archivist of the family photographs. He observes that most of the pictures in the nuclear family collection were of me. I am the eldest of four siblings and the only girl. Is the preponderance of pictures of me because I am a girl? Because girls get dressed in pretty dresses? Because I am pretty? Because I was first born? These are all seemingly innocuous and even commonplace questions. But what do they mean?

karen-mulhallen-childhood-photos“[M]ost of the pictures in the nuclear family collection were of me.”

Like many women of her generation, my very beautiful and intelligent mother was an excellent seamstress. And so she dressed me, made my clothes, as a baby and a little girl. That stopped when I was an awkward and highly emotional teenager. Then, eventually, I had part-time jobs, and began to buy inexpensive and standard clothes for myself: saddle shoes, poodle-cloth skirts, white sharkskin blouses. But when I got my first real job, as a teacher in a university, my mother spent months with me going to the fabric mills, just east of Kitchener-Waterloo, and then making me suits and dresses, some from elaborate Vogue patterns. Was this because I was gainfully employed and needed to present a professional appearance, or was it because I became beautiful for the first time since I was a little girl? Now I could be a brooch on my mother’s lapel. Or, as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own remarked, women are the looking glasses who enlarge men at twice their size. Did I become again, perhaps for the first time since childhood, the looking glass enhancing my mother, after such a long wait?

karen-mulhallens-motherThe author’s mother

Here is a photograph of me at the age of 13, with my adored baby brother David on my lap. I am wearing a sharkskin blouse and a poodle-cloth skirt. David is too young to worry about how I look, to wonder whether I am pretty, or why I am not as pretty as the other girls in our small town. He loves me because he knows I love him passionately and I spend all my waking hours thinking of him, rushing home from school to take him for walks, feeding him, changing his diapers, even sharing the bed with him and his many stuffed animals.

karen-mulhallen-with-brothersThe author, age 13, with baby brother David

Here is a photograph of David sixty years later. His expression is the same, although now, like our father, he is wearing a suit and tie.

brother-david-60-years-laterThe author’s brother David, 60 years later

In the first few years of my teaching, and my brief marriage, I too began to sew. Sew independently, of my own volition, that is. Of course I had to take Home Economics in high school, although I had asked to take Shop, and sewing was part of the Home Economics curriculum. Most of my sewing, and my knitting, I took home to work on, which really meant that my mother could rip it out and redo it and advance a bit on it for me for the next day. I certainly learned to vacuum and to make tomato juice from scratch, and to embroider tea towels, all activities I have not continued. However, when I came of age the hippie era had begun. I began to sew kaftans, my mother was making macramé jewelry, and I began to sell my work and my mother’s in the various head shops, like Tribal Village, which sprang up in the city. I put away my Vogue pattern-St. Laurent suits, and my bra, and followed the trend, vintage clothing, much from my mother’s wonderful stock of 1940s and 1950s coats and outfits from Creed’s, an elegant high-end Toronto store, and 1920s and 1930s dresses from London’s vintage shops in Chelsea and the Portobello Road markets, and from my friend Mary Fogg’s Oxfam shop in Reigate, Surrey.

Here is a picture of me in a luminous green robe trimmed with fake fur, made for me by my mother. I am sewing a kaftan, the fabric featuring an overall geometric silver design, intended for sale at a local head shop.

Karen Mulhallen sewing a kaftan 1974The author sewing a kaftan, 1974

Young designers had begun to open shops in Toronto, and in London, England, in Chelsea and High Street Kensington. Those clothes too were part of my wardrobe, clothes from The Unicorn, and Dr. John’s and the Poupée Rouge in Toronto, and from Biba’s in London and from Ossie Clark.

Toronto wasn’t as swinging as London, with its mod wear for men, but Toronto did have several designers’ shops in Yorkville, on Cumberland and on Yorkville and on Bellair, and even on Avenue Road, and in the Village on Gerrard Street, and in Honest Ed’s Village on Markham Street. And the city was buzzing with the marvelous energy brought to it by the American draft dodgers. Clothing became fun, and a direct expression of the sexual revolution.

I got married in London in Trafalgar Square in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in a Unicorn orange velvet dress, its hood and hem trimmed in red fox fur. My husband wore a black velvet suit and my brother Robin, who was best man, wore one in green velvet.

There are few photographs of me in this period in these clothes; in many I am naked, as befits the sexual revolution, but here is one where I am wearing an outfit from Dr. John’s on Gerrard Street, a grey jersey top and short grey flannel skirt with gored panels in it, topped by a fake suede vest which I had sewn myself. The rather rough stitching on my vest might or might not have been intentional.

Karen Mullhallen in handmade vest and Dr Johns jerseyThe author wearing an outfit from Dr. John’s (photo by Jay Cohen)

karen-muhallen-naked-in-the-late-60s“I am naked, as befits the sexual revolution…”

So my life as a student and a teacher of literature has been from the beginning intertwined with my changes in costume and with the way in which my clothes not only signaled my identity, but also were active in its construction.

I remember even as a young graduate student visiting my parents and putting on fashion shows with my mother for my father as he sat in his armchair reading the daily newspapers. It never occurred to me then that this might be an unusual activity. While some graduate students were attentive to what characters in novels were eating, the boeuf en daube, for example, that Mrs. Ramsay serves for dinner in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, I was more interested in what the characters were wearing.

When I look again at that early picture of myself with my parents, I notice my father’s green tweed suit and his paisley tie. It is a uniform, one commonplace enough since suits became standard for menswear, after what culture critics have called the “Great Male Renunciation” in the nineteenth century. What this rather rotund phrase acknowledges was the fact that men had stopped wearing high heels and elaborate and luxurious clothing, including voluminous lace cuffs and powdered wigs as well, for a sort of uniform which has more or less persisted through the twentieth and even into the twenty-first century. Swinging Chelsea and the Haight-Ashbury hippie era and punk culture being notable exceptions.

Although my father was always rather formally attired, including English brogue shoes, shirts and ties, as was his generation, he did express himself in his choice of headgear. Here he is in a straw hat, dancing with one of my brother Robin’s girlfriends…

father-dancing-in-straw-hatThe author’s father dancing in straw hat, 1980

…and here he is celebrating St Patrick’s Day, with a hat of his own devising. He did enjoy costume opportunities.

father-with-st-patricks-day-hatThe author’s father in St. Patrick’s Day hat

In this picture, he appears to be walking a catwalk. He has an audience and is prancing in his shorts. My father often wore shorts in the summer time when he drove into Toronto to do film bookings for his cinema. He considered the wearing of shorts in the city to be a bit rebellious and in line with some aspects of his character. He also wore an Odd Fellows Lodge ring, although he never belonged to the Odd Fellows Lodge.

father-parading-with-cigar-and-shortsThe author’s father parading in shorts, with cigar

General male sobriety in clothing highlights profoundly the moment in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) when Daisy and Gatsby gather at his two wardrobe cabinets, where his shirts are “piled like bricks a dozen high . . . shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel . . . shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue” and Daisy begins to weep at the beauty of his many different coloured shirts.

Shirts seem to be essential masculine garb throughout the twentieth century. As a teenager I remember well ironing and folding my father’s shirts. This was a task I enjoyed and the smell of them while ironing and then the folding them gave me great satisfaction. My father wore a fresh shirt each day and had a chest of drawers, a highboy in green lacquer, built in the art deco style, something like a pyramid, dedicated to their storage.

Unlike my father’s shirts, however, Gatsby’s shirts signal his immense wealth and therefore his attractiveness. Clothing has always been a crucial signifier. The literary depictions of women’s clothing in the first half of the twentieth initially signal primarily their class, often their age, and eventually their occupation, as the roles of women, and the presence of women in the workplace, change.

In erotic fiction, of course, little changes, as the fewer the clothes, the more so-called “erotic” the portrait. When I was a graduate student everyone was reading Pauline Réage’s wildly popular novel, The Story of O (1953), which could be considered the standard for women engaged in erotic behaviour, a short skirt, no underwear, long gloves, and, in cold weather, some sort of fur coat. By the end of the twentieth century, underwear becomes outerwear, as Madonna’s Sex (1992) book amply illustrates. The question of undergarments is in itself of some interest, since, except for nightgowns, very little of these essentials make a fictive appearance.

When I began to teach in the late 1960s, there was a major shift in Western clothing and some of these shifts appear in well-known authors. The hippie movement, the rise of feminism, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and London’s Chelsea, all see male and female clothing coming closer to one another, as do hairstyles in general. The punk movement of the 70s in a sense repeats this trope, as girls dress like boys, and a little bit contrariwise. I remember when I was working on a project centred on the Palais Royale in Paris wandering through its garden and being delighted at spying a young man in a sarong topped by a tweed sports coat and shirt and tie. He turned out to be a clerk in the Jean Paul Gaultier shop nearby. Returning to London, I noticed for the first time in Chelsea men also wearing skirts with sports jackets.

karen-mulhallen-wearing-mans-cap-1974-75The author wearing a man’s cap, 1974-75

For the next twenty years or so, the reverence for couture, and the use of dressmakers who might imitate couture, also begins to erode, as fashion is democratized, male and female clothing blends, and branding takes priority, initially as a reaction to democratization. The wide availability of high street knock-offs of expensive runway creations does mean that authentic luxury brands are increasingly valued as signs of status, and their logos are worn on the outside of many garments and accessories. However, a proliferation of copies of luxury brand items, both labels and logos, ensues, and all attempts to police and patent couture and luxury design, while continuing into the twenty-first century, are more or less ineffective.

As television and film become primary channels of expression for clothing as iconic, I think a good case might be made that literature turns inward, the interior life of characters becomes central, and their external appearances, and particularly their clothing, play little part in who they are and what they do. This was a shift signaled as early as 1924 by Virginia Woolf in her pamphlet “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” where she argues against stressing the fabric of things in order instead to depict human nature. The interior life, argues Woolf, is what the novelist should focus on.

A classic and spectacular example of the rise of couture in popular media is Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York (2002)—loosely based on Herbert Asbury’s 1927 nonfiction book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld—where the gangsters are dressed brilliantly and memorably; male clothing dominates the screen. The costume design won an Oscar award for British costume designer Sandy Powell. The cut of the male costumes seems to reference the men’s wear of Italian designer Giorgio Armani, who has himself designed clothes for more than two hundred films including American Gigolo, The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall StreetBy 1981, Giorgio Armani had become the rock star of fashion, appearing on the cover of Time magazine. Scorsese’s own father was a clothes presser, so Scorsese’s emphasis on male clothing and fashion in the film, about to be a TV series, has intriguing autobiographical roots.

My own return to designer clothing began about this time in the late 1970s–early 1980s. I was earning a living as a lecturer, and I was constantly in the public eye. Japanese and Italian designers were shaking up the runways in Paris.

The use of actors, and most often actresses, in advertisements for major luxury fashion companies in the later twentieth century, shows just how much fashion and clothing have become an important component of the commercial presentations of self, linked to class and prestige. Not that this is new, but the use of models whose financial lives are made by impersonations, in essence improvisational identities, does emphasize the importance of clothing in the construction of the public self.

In the nineteenth century, descriptions of the wearing of used clothing, what we call vintage, seemed to be confined to rent girls, who rented attractive clothes in order to sell their bodies. In the later twentieth century vintage carried with it a number of charges, a turning away from the contemporary, from luxury, from commodity culture, but also a way of taking on the past in all its guises. A deliberate looking backward, with the freedom that this engenders.

Here is a late-1970s photograph of me, taken by photographer Michel Verreault, in a vintage lace dress from the 1930s. This dress was given to me by my mother, although it is not a dress she ever wore. She had simply collected it as an antique.

author-wearing-1930s-vintage-lace-dress

karen-mulhallen-photos-by-michel-verreault-1980Photos of author by Michel Verreault, 1980

Although my doctoral dissertation finally was on William Blake’s illustrations, I spent several years in graduate school working on what is known as modernism. Two modernist writers who had a major impact on my own sense of costume were D.H. Lawrence and Djuna Barnes. In both writers the putting on of costume is a colourful putting on of identity. Each frames a scene and sets it up as in a painting. Each uses colour as well as texture to convey class, emotion, and occupation. Each has a direct relationship to the world of painting—Lawrence was an exhibited painter, and Barnes had studied at the Pratt Institute.

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D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930)

The body and its clothing are crucial tropes in Lawrence’s work. In the opening chapter of Women in Love, “Sisters,” Gudrun stands out from the ashy, dark Midlands colliery town to which she has returned from art school and her life in London:

The sisters were women. Ursula twenty-six, and Gudrun twenty-five. But both had the remote, virgin look of modern girls, sisters of Artemis rather than Hebe. Gudrun was very beautiful, passive, soft-skinned, soft-limbed. She wore a dress of dark-blue silky stuff, with ruches of blue and green linen lace in the neck and sleeve and she had emerald-green stockings. Her look of confidence and diffidence contrasted with Ursula’s sensitive expectancy. The provincial people, intimidated by Gudrun’s perfect sang-froid and exclusive bareness of manner, said of her: “She is a smart woman.” She had just come back from London, where she had spent several years, working at an art-school, as a student, and living a studio life. (page 4)

d-h-lawrence-women-in-love collageD. H. Lawrence

The girls, whom Lawrence in this passage casts as incarnations of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, walk by rows of dwellings of the poorer sort: everything is ghostly. “Everything is a ghoulish replica of the real world, a replica, a ghoul, all soiled, everything sordid.” Gudrun is aware of “her grass-green stockings, her large grass-green velour hat, her full soft coat, of a strong blue color. . . .‘What price the stockings!’ said a voice at the back of Gudrun. A sudden fierce anger swept over the girl, violent and murderous.” (pages 8–9)

The sisters are both school teachers, and Ursula will become involved with a school inspector Rupert Birkin, while her sister Gudrun will become the lover of Gerald Crich. When Gudrun first sees Gerald (page 11) we are told he was “almost exaggeratedly well-dressed.” But no details of his clothing are given. His mother is described as wearing a sac coat of dark blue silk and a blue silk hat (page 11). In this scene at the church we first see Hermione Roddice, a friend of the Criches. Hermione is the wealthy daughter of a baronet; she is Rupert Birkin’s long-time lover, and a woman of intellect and culture:

Now she came along, with her head held up, balancing an enormous flat hat of pale yellow velvet, on which were streaks of ostrich feathers in natural and grey. She drifted forward as if scarcely conscious. . . . She wore a dress of silky, frail velvet, of pale yellow color, and she carried a lot of small rose-colored cyclamens. Her shoes and stockings were of brownish grey, like the feathers on her hat. . . . ( pages 11-12)

Lawrence compares her to a woman in one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings with her heavy hair and long pale face, and drugged look.

Later, at the school, Hermione appears “a vision . . . seen through the glass panels of the door” (“Class-Room,” pages 34-35). She has come for a surprise visit, while Birkin is giving instruction about the sex life of plants. She speaks in a “low, odd singing fashion”: Her manner is intimate and half bullying:

She was a strange figure in the class-room, wearing a large, old cloak of greenish cloth, on which was a raised pattern of dull gold. The high collar and the inside of the cloak was lined with dark fur. Beneath she had a dress of fine lavender-colored cloth, trimmed with fur, and her hat was close-fitting, made of fur and of the dull green-and-gold figure stuff. She was tall and strange, she looked as if she had come out of some new bizarre picture.

In a scene in a London café, “Crème de Menthe” (chapter 6), where artists gather, an artist’s model called “Pussum” Darrington presents herself :

At Birkin’s table was a girl with dark, soft, fluffy hair cut short in the artist fashion, hanging level and full almost like the Egyptian princess’s. . . . She had beautiful eyes, dark, fully opened, hot, naked in their looking at him. . . . She wore no hat in the heated café, her loose, simple jumper was strung on a string round her neck. But it was made of rich peach-colored crepe-de-chine, that hung heavily and softly from her young throat and her slender wrists. ( pages 60-63)

The architecture and the setting of “Breadalby” ( chapter 8), Hermione’s family home, also provide a frame for dramatic presentations: “Breadalby was a Georgian house with Corinthian pillars, standing among the softer greener hills of Derbyshire, not far from Cromford.” ( page 82)

As Ursula and Gudrun arrive the house appears “like an English drawing of the old school . . . women in lavender and yellow moving to the shade of the enormous, beautifully balanced cedar tree.” ( page 83)

Hermione takes in the two sisters’ appearance:

She admired Gudrun’s dress more. It was of green poplin, with a loose coat above it, of broad, dark-green and dark-brown stripes. The hat was of a pale greenish straw, the color of new hay, and it had a plaited ribbon of black and orange, the stockings were dark green, the shoes black. It was a good get-up, at once fashionable and individual. Ursula, in dark blue, was more ordinary, though she also looked well.

Hermione herself wore a dress of prune-colored silk, with coral beads and coral colored stockings. But her dress was both shabby and soiled, even rather dirty.

To entertain themselves the various characters form Biblical tableaux of Naomi and Ruth and Orpah, in the fashion of the Russian Ballet of Pavlova and Nijinsky, with a panorama of costume and emotion. (page 92)

As they all go up to bed, Hermione brings Ursula to her bedroom.

They were looking at some Indian silk shirts, gorgeous and sensual in themselves, their shape, their almost corrupt gorgeousness. And Hermione came near and her bosom writhed, and Ursula was for a moment blank with panic. . . . And Ursula picked up a shirt of rich red and blue silk, made for a young princess of fourteen, and was crying mechanically: ‘Isn’t it wonderful—who would dare to put those two strong colors together—’ (pages 93–94)

fashion-timeline-1910-to-19191910s fashion timeline (via Glamour Daze archive)

In the chapter entitled “Rabbit” (chapter 18), Gudrun is hired to teach art to Gerald’s young sister Winifred at his family home of Shortlands. Gerald waits in the garden to catch sight of Gudrun. Gerald is described as “dressed in black, his clothes sat well on his well-nourished body.

Gudrun came up quickly, unseen. She was dressed in blue with woollen yellow stockings, like the Bluecoat boys. He glanced up in surprise. Her stockings always disconcerted him, the pale yellow stockings and the heavy heavy black shoes. . . . The child wore a dress of black-and-white stripes. Her hair was rather short, cut round and hanging level on her neck.

As she and the child move away to see the child’s rabbit, Bismarck, “Gerald watched them go, looking all the while at the soft, full, still body of Gudrun in its silky cashmere.” He is in love with her, but he is also annoyed “that Gudrun came dressed in startling colors, like a macaw, when the family was in mourning. . . . Yet it pleased him.”

He contrasts her with Winifred’s French governess’s “neat brittle finality of form.” “She was like some elegant beetle with thin ankles perched on her high heels, her glossy black dress perfectly correct, her dark hair done high and admirably.” (pages 245–247)

In Chapter 28, “In The Pompadour,” it is Christmas time, and Rupert and Ursula are now married, and the two couples are travelling to the continent. Gudrun and Gerald travel via London and Paris to Innsbruck, where they will meet Ursula and Rupert. Gudrun and Gerald go to the Pompadour Café after seeing a show at a music-hall. (page 397)

Pussum approached their table: “She was wearing a curious dress of dark silk splashed and splattered with different colors, a curious motley effect.”

As Gudrun flees the café, the far end of the place begins to boo “after Gudrun’s retreating form”:

She was fashionably dressed in blackish-green and silver, her hat was a brilliant green, like the sheen on an insect, but the brim was a soft dark green, a falling edge with fine silver, her coat was dark green, brilliantly glossy, with a high collar of grey fur, and great fur cuffs, the edge of her dress showed silver and black velvet, her stockings and shoes were silver grey. . . . Gudrun entered the taxi, with the deliberate cold movement of a woman who is well-dressed and contemptuous in her soul. (page 401)

Women in Love was written during the first World War and its characters reflect some of the bitterness of that time. Nonetheless, the women’s strength is portrayed in their choice of clothing. Their artistic and intellectual nature is expressed in their elaborate and individual choices of dress.

Another development in Lawrence’s work is his depiction of women in men’s roles and in male clothing. The collection of stories in England, My England take us close to the changing social status of working class women who take on men’s jobs and their clothing and male attitudes.

In “Tickets, Please,” girls work on a single line tramway in the Midlands during war time. The countryside is black and industrial. The drivers are men unfit for active service, cripples and hunchbacks. It is “the most dangerous tram service in England,” as the authorities declare with pride, “entirely conducted by girls and driven by rash young men, a little crippled, or delicate young men who creep forward in terror.

The trams are “packed with howling colliers.” “The girls are fearless young hussies”: “In their ugly blue uniform, skirts up to their knees, shapeless old peaked caps on their heads, they have all the sang-froid of an old non-commissioned officer.” “They fear nobody—everybody fears them.

tickets-please-illus-from-strand-magazine-1919“Tickets, Please” illustration from Strand Magazine, 1919

The female protagonist in “Tickets, Please” is Annie. She incites the other girls to beat up on one of the male inspectors, John Thomas, who has dated each of them. They are depicted by Lawrence as furious Maenads. Annie takes off her belt and hits John Thomas on the head with the buckle end. They tear off his clothes, kneel on him, beat him, forcing him to choose one of them.

In “Monkey Nuts,” two soldiers are loading hay. The older one, about age 40, is Albert, a corporal, the younger Joe, about 23. They are not in Flanders so life seems good. Into their activities, driving a wagon pulled by splendid horses, comes a land girl, Miss Stokes. She was a buxom girl, young, in linen overalls and gaiters. Her face was ruddy, she had large blue eyes.”

land-girls-1915-1918Land girls, 1915-1918 (courtesy Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network)

The men begin to flirt with her, and she is attracted to Joe. She begins to make advances, to insist he meet her. The most memorable scene is where she arranges to meet Joe and has changed out of her men’s clothing. Now she is wearing “a wide hat of grey straw, and a loose, swinging dress of nigger-grey velvet.” This is when Albert is able to defeat her, when she is clothed as a woman. Joe doesn’t want her and she doesn’t want Albert, but Albert appears in Joe’s stead.

There is a suggestion of a homoerotic relationship between the two men, but it is not developed. Lawrence intimates that men are becoming less male and women are becoming masculine. War is a disorder in many ways. Once Albert humiliates Miss Stokes, they jeer at her, and begin to call her Monkey Nuts.

The trope of the female in male clothing continues into the novella The Fox (1918), which went through several revisions, until its final form in 1923. A young soldier Henry Grenfel, who has been living in Canada, returns to his grandfather’s farm and finds two women, Nellie March, and Jill Banford living there, running the farm inefficiently. The women call one another by their last names, in masculine fashion. March dresses as a man, a tightly buttoned workman’s tunic, a land girl’s uniform, and she does the heavy work. Banford wears soft blouses and chiffon dresses. Henry decides he will have March and he comes into the women’s relationship like a fox into the hen house. One day he enters the house and March is wearing

a dress of dull, green silk crape. Her dress was a perfectly simple slip of bluey-green crape, with a line of gold stitching round the top and round the sleeves . . . She had on black silk stockings and small, patent shoes with little gold buckles. (pages 48–49)

Seeing her always with

hard-cloth breeches, wide on the hips, buttoned on the knee, strong as armour, and in the brown puttees and thick boots it has never occurred to him that she has a woman’s legs and feet. Now it came upon him. She had a woman’s soft, skirted legs, and she was accessible.

The story has a dramatic and tragic end, but the fox does get his hen in the end.

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Djuna Barnes (1892–1982)

After studying at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students League, Djuna Barnes lived from 1913 in Greenwich Village, New York, and worked for several newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair and The Morning Telegraph, as a journalist, illustrator, and short story writer. Poetry and plays were also published over the next fifteen years, but most of her time in the 1920s was spent in Paris where she was part of a vibrant circle of expats, including James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. She moved to London in 1931, but then returned to America in 1941, and died in New York. Today Barnes is best known for her novel Nightwood, which was first published in England in 1936 with the strong support of T.S. Eliot at Faber & Faber.

djuna-barnes-nightwood-collageDjuna Barnes

Nightwood defies the conventions of the realistic novel; its characters are all deracinated; its settings of Berlin, Vienna and Paris, and somewhere in the country in New York state, provide mise en scène for highly charged emotional encounters, presented in dense poetic language, a language so metaphorical it creates in its readers a narcotic effect. The reader moves in a vivid haze, part dreamscape, part interior landscape. One’s memory of the book is not confirmed by rereading, but what remains resonates and grows in the mind.

In addition to the vital carnivalesque role of a group of circus performers, there are six characters in the book. The guide to its world, the Virgil in this Purgatoria and Inferno, is an American named Dr. Matthew O’Connor, an impoverished transvestite whose medical bona fides are suspect; yet he is in some way a doctor of the soul, and Nora Flood seeks him out for healing.

The character who is the focus for the action of the text is a young American woman of twenty, Robin Vote. She is the lover of Nora Flood, who is twenty-nine, and of Jenny Petherbridge, a wealthy American divorcee whose four husbands have made her exceedingly rich. Robin has myriad lovers, but she is eternally questing for herself in the night and in the arms of someone new. She is described as a boy in a woman’s body.

The book opens not in the Paris of the 1920s, but in another place and time with the birth of Baron Felix in 1880. We discover him as a man obsessed with the past and with validation through the past. He wears spats and cutaway jackets and clings to the pageantry of kings and queens. In a moment we are in Paris, forty years later, where Felix meets Robin, marries Robin and brings her back to Austria where she gives birth to a child Guido and then deserts the Baron and her newborn child.

It is Robin whose appearance, whose boyish body and clothing, suggest the alterity of this night world of outcasts. We see her first in the Hôtel Récamier, where Dr. Matthew O’Connor, accompanied by Baron Felix, is summoned to attend a young woman who is not well: she lay

heavy and disheveled. Her legs in white flannel trousers were spread as in a dance, the thick lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step, her hands long and beautiful lay on either side of her face. . . . Her flesh was the texture of plant life. . . . About her head there was an effulgence of a phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water . . . the troubling structure of the born somnabule, who lives in two worlds—meet of child and desperado.

Like a painting by the douanier Rousseau, she seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room.

If Robin with her shocking blue eyes appears like a wild beast, her first appearance also conjures a history of painting, in the portraits of Madame Récamier, which were still scattered through this hotel at 3 Place Saint-Sulpice in 1990 when I stayed there, and might still be there to this day. Récamier was famously painted by Jacques-Louis David (1800) and by le Baron Gerard (1805), while posing barefoot, on a chaise longue, in a soft white chiffon dress, enhanced under the bosom with a simple ribbon, her hair in a soft chignon.

portrait-of-madame-recamier-by-jacques-louis-david-1800Portrait of Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David, 1800

karen-mulhallen-in-slip-dressThe author wearing a summer dress, Montreal 1968

Robin’s appearance evokes this and confutes it, since she is wearing white flannel trousers and thick lacquered dancing pumps. If Madame Récamier’s bare feet, and her wearing of an undergarment as outer garment, the light muslin slip dress, symbolized the end of the ancient regime and an elevation of nature, Robin’s appearance does the opposite. She is transgendered and encased, and yet she is a danger to all. “The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a ‘picture’ forever arranged is, for the contemplative mind, the chiefest danger.” (page 41)

The Baron’s fascination with Robin comes in part from her appearance:

Her clothes were of a period that he could not quite place. She wore feathers of the kind his mother had worn, flattened sharply to the face. Her skirts were moulded to her hips and fell downward and out, wider and longer than those of other women, heavy silks that made her seem newly ancient. One day he learned the secret. Pricing a small tapestry in an antique shop facing the Seine, he saw Robin reflected in a door mirror of a back room, dressed in a heavy brocaded gown which time had stained in places, in others split, yet which was so voluminous that there were yards enough to refashion. (page 46)

Robin is both a modern girl and an ancient being. Her wearing of vintage clothing is transformative, as she crosses sexual, historical and vestimentary lines. Applying Kaja Silverman’s phrases from “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse,” we can see how Robin’s recycling of fashion waste denaturalizes her own specular identity.

Other characters also participate in this crossing of genders and epochs, even in dreams. Nora Flood’s grandmother will appear to her in fantasy as a cross-dresser, leering and plump, but also echoing the world of children’s fables like Little Red Riding Hood (pages 68–69), with the Wolf as Grandmother in her nightgown in bed. The doctor is also seen (page 85) in makeup and a woman’s flannel nightgown.

Love of the invert, we are told (page 145), is a search for one idealized gender in another, the girl lost is the Prince found, the pretty lad is a girl. And even one life form in another: Robin “a wild thing caught in a woman’s skin” (page 155), “the third sex” (page 157).

In the final scene (pages 178-179) at a “contrived altar,” “Standing before them in her boy’s trousers was Robin,” and she slides down and begins to bark and crawl after the howling biting dog.

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Jean Rhys (1890–1979)

I was spending a lot of time in England in the early 1970s, while I worked on my dissertation on William Blake’s paintings, and it was there I discovered the novels of Jean Rhys, shortly after the publication of her novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Looking back I have often wondered whether some of my own feelings about clothing and security, about fitting in, and being both invisible and visible, didn’t come directly from Rhys’s heroines, especially from Julia Martin in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie.

jean-rhys-after-leaving-mr-mackenzie-collageJean Rhys

Did my own desire for a mink coat come from my reading of Rhys’s novels, or from looking at many Blackglama mink ads in the American edition of Vogue magazine, featuring beautiful young actresses and singers at the height of their physical power?

I remember my mother asking my father to buy her a black mink coat for Christmas one year, which he did, of course. And my own acquisition of a mink coat was purchased with my share of our sale of my mother’s house after her death. I remember carrying my dog Lucy up the escalator to the Holt Renfrew fur department on Bloor Street one early winter day. I had decided that if my dog was unhappy among all those dead animals, then I would abandon my plan for a mink coat. Lucy was fine, and I purchased a Gianfranco Ferre mink coat; the Italians were still dominating the fashion runways in the 1990s. My glorious mink coat now sits abandoned in the closet in my guest room, but whether this putting aside bespeaks a new sense of security on my part or simply a shift in fashion trends it would be hard to say.

As a model and an actress Rhys was attuned to the zeitgeist. Women’s confidence and acceptability was embodied in their dress. And she knew about poverty and issues of race firsthand. The BBC documentary on Rhys’s work revealed that while she had been forgotten, like many artists, she was indeed still alive, living in poverty, in the west of England. Educated in Dominica and England, after a brief stint at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Rhys worked as a chorus girl, was a nude model, and lived as a mistress of a wealthy stockbroker. Eventually, she had three marriages and two children, a son who died young and a daughter. Although she had lived in London, Paris and Vienna, she died in Devon, England. Her trajectory is in many ways akin to that of Canadian author Elizabeth Smart.

Rhys’s work, written in a spare, clear style, focuses on and takes the perspective of rootless, mistreated women, who are frequently down and out in London and Paris. With her BBC-inspired rediscovery, Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) where she rewrites Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, from the point of view of Mr. Rochester’s mad wife imprisoned in his attic. Set on a small Caribbean Island, Rhys’s book addresses the European man’s fear of and attraction to a Caribbean woman’s sensuality. Locking up the woman, rejecting and humiliating her, reaffirms his power and puts to rest his fear and repulsion of his own desires.

Rhys’s ongoing concern was the political inequality of women, their powerlessness in a man’s world: “The life of a woman is very different than the life of a man,” observes Julia Martin in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930). It is clothing which confers power and prestige, clothing which is transformative.

At the age of 36, Julia Martin returns to London in search of money, and perhaps love, and also a home, after she has been left in Paris by her lover Mr. Mackenzie. She is careful in her clothing, hoping to make a good impression on her family and she buys a second-hand coat, regretting the sale of her fur coat which would have conferred not only warmth but status.

Julia waited for her uncle

in a large, lofty room crowded with fat, chintz-covered arm-chairs . . . .She was cold, and held her coat together at the throat. The coat looked all right, but it was much too thin. She had hesitated about buying it for that reason, but the woman in the second-hand shop had talked her over.

She thought: “Of all the idiotic things I ever did, the most idiotic was selling my fur coat.” She began bitterly to remember the coat she had once possessed. The sort that lasts forever, astrakhan, with a huge skunk collar. She had sold it at the time of her duel with Maître Legros.

She told herself if only she had had the sense to keep a few things, this return need not have been quite so ignominious, quite so desolate. People thought twice before they were rude to anybody wearing a good fur coat; it was protective coloring, as it were. (page 57)

Julia visits her sister in Acton who lives with their mother and a nurse called Wyatt. Wyatt’s clothing, her wearing a tie, her use of her last name, and her hair cut, plus the severity of her dress suggest she is the lover of Julia’s sister:

The door on the second floor was opened by a middle-aged woman. Her brown hair was cut very short, drawn away from a high, narrow forehead, and brushed to lie close to her very small skull. Her nose was thin and arched. She had small, pale-brown eyes and a determined expression. She wore a coat and skirt of flannel, a shirt blouse, and a tie. (page 68)

Julia is in London for ten days. When she returns to Paris, she is expecting a lover from London named Mr. Horsfield. When he doesn’t turn up, he sends her 10 pounds. Walking along the Seine, Julia imagines

Happiness. A course of a face massage. . . . She began to imagine herself in a new black dress and a little black hat with a veil that just shadowed her eyes.

In her mind she was repeating over and over again like a charm: ‘I’ll have a black dress and hat and very dark grey stockings.’

Then she thought: ‘I’ll get a pair of new shoes from that place in Avenue de l’Opera. The last ones I got there brought me luck. I’ll spend the whole lot I had this morning.’ . . . A ring with a green stone for the forefinger of her right hand.

She spends the whole afternoon in the Galleries Lafayette choosing a dress and a hat. Then she goes “back to her hotel, dressed herself in her new clothes, and walked up and down in her room, smoking.”

In Rhys’s work, the themes of suitable clothes, respectable clothes, and of the little black dress, recur over and over.

The little black dress as a fashion accessory emerges in the 1920s as an essential element of a woman’s wardrobe, with the designs of Coco Chanel and others. Simple, elegant and affordable, it can be dressed up or down with accessories. Before the 1920s, black was the color of mourning, and its stages allowed black and grey. Tints of purple were also popular.

Throughout the twentieth century the charge on the LBD ( Little Black Dress) changed. All of Rhys’s female characters identify the black dress as a powerful and sophisticated symbol of success. It is simple in cut and fabric. In many ways it is classless.

My own clothes closet is brimming with black clothing. This is both symptomatic of an urbanite in Western culture in the later twentieth, and twenty-first century, and also a testament to Coco Chanel’s liberation of women. Here is a portrait of my mother from the 1940s in an iconic LBD. Notice her simple accessory, a necklace with multiple strands of pearls.

karens-mother-in-lbd-and-pearlsAuthor and father with mother in little black dress and pearls

In Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight (1939), Sasha Jansen in her forties comes back to Paris, a place where she once found love and then disaster. She gets a job in a fashionable dress shop as a receptionist. The shop has a branch in London and is owned by an Englishman. He comes over every three months or so, and she is told “he’s the real English type . . . Bowler-hat, majestic trousers, oh-my-God expression, ha-ha eyes—I know him at once.” (page 19)

An old English woman and her daughter come into the shop. The old woman wants to see hair accessories. When she removes her hat, she is completely bald on top.

She tried on a hair-band, a Spanish comb, a flower. A green feather waves over her bald head. She is calm and completely unconcerned. She was like a Roman emperor in that last thing she tried on. (page 22)

Her daughter condemns her mother and says she has made a perfect fool of herself as usual. But Sasha feels the old lady is undaunted.

Oh, but why not buy her a wig, several decent dresses, as much champagne as she can drink, all the things she likes to eat and oughtn’t to, a gigolo if she wants one? One last flare-up, and she’ll be dead in six months at the outside. (page 23)

Sasha rushes

into a fitting- room. . . . I shut the door . . . I cry for a long time—for myself, for the old woman with the bald head, for all the sadness of this damned world, for all the fools and all the defeated. . . .

In this fitting room there is a dress in one of the cupboards which has been worn by a lot of the mannequins and is going to be sold off for four hundred francs. The saleswoman has promised to keep it for me. I have tried it on; I have seen myself in it. It is a black dress with wide sleeves embroidered in vivid colors—red, green, blue, purple. It is my dress. If I had been wearing it I should never have stammered or been stupid. (page 28)

Like her clothing, which is acceptable or not, empowering or not, Sasha says there are locations which are accepting and those which are not:

My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t, streets that are friendly and streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I never shall be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on. (page 47)

Sasha is picked up by two Russians; “one is impressed by my fur coat.” It is all about appearance. A prosperous appearance gives a woman the strength to go on. Aging is hell, because youth is the key to attractiveness, and attractiveness means men will give a woman money. Hence greying hair must be dyed:

Again I lie awake, trying to resist a great wish to go to a hairdresser in the morning to have my hair dyed. (page 48 )

I must go and buy a hat this afternoon, I think, and tomorrow a dress. I must get on with the transformation act. But there I sit, watching the same procession of shabby women wheeling prams, of men tightly buttoned up into black overcoats. (page 63)

1927-fur-and-fur-trimmed-coatsFashionable fur coats, c.1927

Mavis Gallant (1922–2014)

I met Mavis Gallant in the late 1980s and her conversation through the hours we spent together was of a piece with her depictions of women’s roles, and oppressions, in her fiction. My account of my time with Gallant was published in Numéro Cinq Magazine in September 2014.

Gallant’s From The Fifteenth District (1978) is a series of stories set during and after the Second World War. Their primary focus is a community of expats. Many of the scenes unfold on the border between France and Italy. In the first story, “The Four Seasons,” we find a young Italian servant girl named Carmela, her employer, a parsimonious English woman, Mrs. Unwin, and, next door to them, a Marchesa.

Mavis Gallant from-the-fifteenth-district-book-coverMavis Gallant

Gallant presents the contrast between these characters in her description of their dress. Carmela wears

A limp black cardigan. . . . She did not own stockings, shoes, a change of underwear, a dressing gown, or a coat,. . . . Carmela’s father was dead, perhaps. The black and the grey she wore, speculates the narrator, were half-mourning. (page 5)

As the time is just before the Second World War, there is an ongoing feud between two neighbours, the Unwins, who are Mussolini sympathizers, and their next door neighbour, the Italian Marchesa. This feud is encapsulated in the narrator’s description of Mrs. Unwin’s smock and her cigarette-stained and freckled hands, in contrast to Mrs. Unwin’s description of the Marchesa’s clothing:

Mrs. Unwin suddenly said she had no time to stroll out in pink chiffon wearing a floppy hat and carrying a sprinkling can; no time to hire jazz bands for parties or send shuttlecocks flying over the hedge and then a servant to retrieve them; less time still to have a chauffeur as a lover. Carmela could not get the drift of this. She felt accused. (pages 4–5)

Although the entire collection of stories is sensitive to the nuances of clothing, my own favourite is perhaps “The Moslem Wife” which uses a single item of clothing, a shawl, as metaphor for a wife’s apparently submissive role.

Shawls have often been associated with elderly women, with aging, and with the cold the aged feel. In Gallant’s story, the heroine Netta is young, but has begun to wear her mother’s shawl as she works with a modern adding machine at the books for her hotel. I myself began to collect shawls in the 1960s, but I have no idea how my own preoccupation came about. I still own my first shawl purchase, a purple silk Indian shawl trimmed in silver.

Here is a picture of me wrapped in this purple silk shawl but wearing a long black linen dress by Canadian designer Brian Bailey. The photograph was taken in the late 1990s.

karen-mulhallen-in-purple-silk-shawlThe author in purple silk shawl, late 1990s

My mother did not wear shawls, except occasionally as part of a specific outfit, nor did my grandmother own any shawls whatsoever. Over more than forty years my own shawl collection has grown, although I do give some away occasionally. However, I find it painful to let even one go. The shawl is a powerful symbol, and seems not to be connected with any masculine clothing symbols. There is no question in my mind that my own collection represents some important aspect of my identity, but which identity?

In Gallant’s “The Moslem Wife,” the chief characters are a second-generation expat English family who run a hotel which continues during and after the war. Netta is married to her first cousin Jack. One day she overhears an English doctor refer to her, to Netta, as “ the little Moslem wife.” Soon the idle English colony is calling her by that phrase.

Among the hotel guests are three little sisters from India:They came smiling down the marble staircase, carrying new tennis racquets, wearing blue linen skirts and navy blazers.”  Mrs. Blackley “said, loudly, “They’ll have to be in white. . . . They can’t go on the courts except in white. It is a private club. Entirely in white.” (page 59)

Gallant gracefully sketches English racism in this small moment about the colour of appropriate tennis clothes. In the end, the little girls continue to wear their blue clothes, but they stay at the hotel for their tennis lessons, rather than go to the English Lawn Tennis Club. (pages 58–59)

A shawl enters Gallant’s narrative when Jack’s mad and imperious mother comes to live with them: Netta began “wearing her own mother’s shawl, hunched over a new modern adding machine, punching out accounts” (page 60). The shawl is Netta’s protection and comfort, and it is her conduit to a sort of power line. Others however see it as a sign of submission.

After Jack leaves her alone in the hotel, and runs off with another woman to America, abandoning her and the hotel during the war: “The looking glasses still held their blue-and silver-water shadows, but they lost the habit of giving back the moods and gestures of a Moslem wife.” (page 76)

The shawl and Netta’s title as the Moslem wife, competent as she is running the hotel, overseeing the entire operation, are the symbols of her passivity in the face of her husband’s profligate behavior and her subservience to men. However, she later insists to Jack that when the Italians took over the hotel and the Germans left she was no longer the subservient female: “When the Italians were here your mother was their mother, but I was not their Moslem wife.” (page 78)

North American women’s clothing and the image of the New World girl changes dramatically in life and in Gallant’s stories. The story “Potter” is set after the Vietnam War (1975), that is in the later 1970s, in Paris. So Gallant, in this astonishing collection of stories, runs through five decades in the clothing of her characters. Blue jeans, and long shiny hair, have become part of the uniform of the American girl. Piotr, a Polish immigrant in Paris, falls in love with an American girl living off men.

The girls were Danish, German, French, and American. They were students, models, hostesses at trade fairs, hesitant fiancées, restless daughters. Their uniform the year Piotr met Laurie was blue jeans and velvet blazers. They were nothing like the scuffed, frayed girls he saw in the Latin Quarter, so downcast of face, so dejected of hair and hem that he had to be convinced by Marek they were well-fed children of the middle classes and not the rejects of a failing economy. Marek’s girls kept their hair long and glossy, their figures trim.” (page 219)

Laurie Bennett has “blue eyes, fair hair down to her shoulders, and a gap between her upper front teeth.” (page 220) She is refreshingly and casually well-groomed and makes fun of the stuffy Canadians in the form of her own sister-in-law from Toronto who “wears white gloves all the time, cleans ’em with bread crumbs—it’s true.” (page 221)

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Alice Munro (1931– )

I have never met Alice Munro, although I have seen her onstage and I once wrote a radio program for the Toronto radio station CJRT on her work which is so ironic and nuanced. Like Gallant, Munro is certainly an avatar of my own coming-of-age and costume. You never come to the end of a Munro story. Once while I was lecturing on her work in Italy, I suddenly could hear her regional cadence, which is from my own area of the country, in Canada’s deep south, southwestern Ontario. And yet of course her voice is universal.

Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) consists of ten linked tales which together constitute a bildungsroman of the protagonist Rose. Although eight of the stories were published separately in various magazines, when they were placed together Munro wrote two especially for the collection : “Simon’s Luck” and “Who Do You Think You Are?” In adding these two, she reconstituted the book in the form of an experimental novel.

Alice Munro who-do-you-think-you-are collageAlice Munro

In time span, the stories run from before the Second World War until the early sixties, although time frames are embedded in the details, rather than in specific references to historic events. Rose’s clothes in part mimic her class, and her poverty; she comes from the poor part of town, where the divide between East and West Hanratty is not only a bridge, but also what people eat for breakfast and where their toilet is located. In Rose’s house, the toilet is in the kitchen where farts can be heard as the family eats its meals.

In “Wild Swans,” on her first trip away from home, Rose comes to Toronto by train. As Rose walks through Union Station, she is remembering a friend of her stepmother Flo. Flo’s friend is Mavis who looks like the movie star Frances Farmer and so she “bought herself a big hat that dipped over one eye and a dress made entirely of lace. . . . She had a little cigarette holder that was black and mother-of-pearl. She could have been arrested, Flo said. For the nerve.” (page 69)

Mavis in her clothing mimics the appearance of the film star she resembles and goes to a resort on Georgian Bay in the hopes folks will think she is Francis Farmer herself.

Celebrity clothing, the appearance of film stars, sets one model for women. Glamour and sexuality are what it is really about, the cigarette holder and the lace and the hat dipping over the eye. They are desirable and to be avoided, perhaps even unlawful. Similarly in “The Beggar Maid,” Rose has come to London, Ontario, to university. She has the local dressmaker in Hanratty make her a suit for her new life, but the dressmaker, who is a friend of Flo’s, refuses to make it tight enough. The chapter opens with a glamorous purchase; Rose and her friend Nancy sell their blood for $15 in order to buy fashionable shoes: “They spent most of the money on evening shoes, tarty silver sandals.” (page 70). Later we see Rose wearing the green corduroy suit which was made for her in Hanratty:

The skirt of her green corduroy suit kept falling back between her legs as she walked. The material was limp; she should have spent more and bought the heavier weight. She thought now the jacket was not properly cut either, though it look all right at home. The whole outfit had been made by a dressmaker in Hanratty, a friend of Flo’s whose main concern had been that there should be no revelations of the figure. When Rose asked if the skirt couldn’t be made tighter this woman had said: “You wouldn’t want your b.t.m. to show, now would you?” and Rose hadn’t wanted to say that she didn’t care. (pages 76–77)

Rose gets a job in the college library and a wealthy graduate student named Patrick Blatchford falls in love with her. He compares her to the Beggar in Edward Burne-Jones painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. Class is writ large in the clothing in the painting, the poor beggar girl in a slip and the king in armored clothing. The courtiers looking down on the girl caught within the picture frame.

Patrick says to Rose:

“I’m glad you’re poor. You’re so lovely. You’re like the Beggar Maid.”

“Who?”

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. You know. The painting. Don’t you know the painting?”

Rose studies the painting in an art book. The girl white, “meek and passive,” the King “sharp and swarthy” and “barbaric.” “He could make a puddle of her, with his fierce desire” (pages 81- 82).

In “Mischief,” Rose, now married to Patrick, begins an affair with her best friend Jocelyn’s husband Clifford, a musician. Rose has ambitions to be an actress. Patrick expects her to dress conservatively, but she wants to wear toreador pants (page 111). It is the Beat era, so black is becoming the fashionable colour for artists:

A few of the girls were in slacks. The rest wore stockings, earrings, outfits much like her own. . . . And most of the men were in suits and shirts and ties like Patrick. . . . A few men wore jeans, and turtle necks or sweatshirts. Clifford was one of them, all in black. (pages 112–113)

Rose goes to Powell River to meet Clifford. There is no bus depot and the only place to wait is on the porch of a loggers’ home for old men:

There was no place to loiter. She thought people stared at her, recognizing a stranger. Some men in a car yelled at her. She saw her own reflection in store windows and understood that she looked as if she wanted to be stared at and yelled at. She was wearing black velvet toreador pants, a tight fitting high-necked black sweater and a beige jacket which she slung over her shoulder though there was a chilly wind. She who had once chosen full skirts and soft colors, babyish angora sweaters, scalloped necklines, had now taken to wearing dramatic sexually advertising clothing. The new underwear she had on at this moment was black lace and pink nylon. In the waiting room at the Vancouver airport she had done her eyes with heavy mascara, black eyeliner, and silver eye shadow; her lipstick was almost white. All this was the fashion of those years and so looked less ghastly than it would seem later, although it was alarming enough. (page 127)

beat-girlBrigitte Bardot wearing Beat clothing in Le Mépris, 1963

Rose’s clothing, that of the emerging artist and of her own sexual liberation, contrasts dramatically with her friend Jocelyn who wears her husband’s old clothes. But Jocelyn comes from a wealthy family and has nothing to prove.

In “Simon’s Luck,” Rose, who is now a professor at Queen’s University, takes up with a man at a party. The host is wearing a “velvet jumpsuit” (page 167). This was the hippy era, late sixties: “He was looking very brushed and tended, thinner but softened, with his flowing hair and suit of bottle-green velvet.” A costume which resonates with those velvet suits of my brother and my soon-to-be husband at my own wedding in London in this era.

Novelists’ alertness to dress as exemplifying and creating character interacts with questions of commodification and branding. It’s hard to say what exactly branding is. Easy to point to the display of the logos of designers, but something else is surely afoot. Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, which are structured like the tales of Tolkien and the schema of Joseph Campbell, medieval grail knights’ tales, have over time and immense popularity become branding opportunities. These opportunities were certainly set in place by Ian Fleming himself, as a look at Fleming’s texts, even before the James Bond films, demonstrates.

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Ian Fleming (1908–1964)

Set during “a new era of fashion and prosperity,” Ian Fleming’s bestselling tales of Secret Agent 007, James Bond, have sold more than 100 million copies. There are 14 Bond books—12 novels and two short story collections. Films continue to be made with the central figure, Secret Agent 007, and always with at least one beautiful woman, and lots of technology—flame throwers, guns, cameras, cars, and the like. These books are one bellwether for changes in fashion in literature. Their proliferation of luxury commodities signal the shift in popular media to all sorts to branding.

The first Bond book, Casino Royale (1953), sets the template of branding, of consumer culture, of luxury goods evoked and validated by name, which accelerates through the next half century. The book is set in the Hotel Splendide, and at the Casino Royale-les-Eaux in France, at the mouth of the Somme, in south Picardy. The location is a watering hole, as Fleming describes it, in a “new era of fashion and prosperity.” This is the 1950s, the1930s depression is over, as is the Second World War.

ian-fleming-casino-royale-colIan Fleming

Everything in Bond’s world is bespoke, specially chosen, specially constructed, and expensive. Bond’s cigarettes are “a Balkan and Turkish mixture made for him by Morlands of Grosvenor street” (page 22). He keeps them in “a flat gunmetal box,” which holds “fifty of the Morland cigarettes with the triple gold band” (page 49). Bond’s French aide smokes Caporals. Bond’s radio, personally delivered by a salesperson from Paris—who is in fact another secret agent—is a Radio Stentor, and his car is a 1933, 4 ½ litre battleship-grey convertible coupe Bentley ( page 30).

In the Hermitage bar, Bond sees men drinking champagne and women dry martinis made with Gordon’s gin (page 31). One man is in a tweed suit with a shooting stick from Hermès.

Bond’s first meeting with his female assistant for this mission, Vesper Lynd, displays her in a

medium-length dress of grey “soie sauvage” with a square-cut bodice, lasciviously tight across her fine breasts. The skirt was closely pleated and flowed down from a narrow, but not a thin, waist. She wore a three-inch, hand-stitched black belt. A hand-stitched black “sabretache” rested on the chair beside her together with a wide cartwheel hat of gold straw, its crown encircled by a thin black velvet ribbon which tied at the back in a short bow. Her shoes were square-toed of plain black leather. (pages 32–33)

Bond meets his CIA counterpart who drinks Haig and Haig scotch (page 43). Bond drinks a dry martini, shaken not stirred, in a deep champagne goblet—“three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold and then add a large slice of lemon peel. Got it?” (pages 43–44) He prefers his vodka made with grain rather than potatoes. His cigarette lighter is a Ronson; his weapon of choice is a .25 Beretta: “a very flat .25 Beretta automatic with a skeleton grip” (page 49). Bond’s clothing is as carefully detailed as his accessories: “single-breasted dinner-jacket, over his heavy silk evening shirt, with a double silk tie” (page 49).

Vesper Lynd’s clothes are from Paris; she has a friend who is a vendeuse and so, in the casino itself, she is wearing a borrowed black velvet Christian Dior dress. Dior had shown his first collection in Paris only in 1947, establishing Paris as a centre of fashion. The choice of Dior demonstrates just how attentive Fleming was to the luxury items of the moment. Later Vesper will say her grey dress was also a borrowed Christian Dior (page 56).

Her dress was of black velvet, simple and yet with the touch of splendor that only a half a dozen couturiers in the world can achieve. There was a thin necklace of diamonds at her throat and a diamond clip in the low vee which just exposed the jutting swell of her breasts. She carried a plain evening bag. . . . Her jet black hair hung straight and simple to the final inward curl below the chin. (page 50)

When Bond has dinner, he is precise in his order. Initially he orders the Taittinger 45 champagne, but he allows the waiter to suggest a Blanc de Blanc Brut of 1943.

“You must forgive me,” he said. “I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink. It comes partly from being a bachelor, but mostly from the habit of taking the trouble over details.” (page 53)

Near the end of the narrative, Vesper and Bond are at a family-run seaside inn. They have both changed their style of clothing.

He is

dressed in a white shirt and dark blue slacks. He hoped that she would be dressed as simply and he was pleased when, without knocking, she appeared in the doorway wearing a blue linen shirt which had faded to the color of her eyes and a dark red skirt in pleated cotton. ( page 158)

Dr No (1957), the sixth of the Bond thrillers is set primarily in the Caribbean, in Jamaica and on a small island off shore. The central female, “Honeychile” Rider, appears naked on the beach, like a Girl Friday to Bond’s Robinson Crusoe. An innocent, a sort of noble savage, she is the sole survivor of an old Jamaican family which has lost its money. Her dream is to become a New York call girl. As a child of nature, she is every man’s dream child/lover.

The villain of the text is Dr No, a recluse with a fascination with pain and a pair of pincers for hands. Most of the men on Dr No’s off shore island wear Chinese kimonos. The food in his hideout is perfect, and all the bath accessories are brand names.

Bond went to one of the built-in clothes cupboards and ran the door back. There were half a dozen kimonos, some silk and some linen. He took out a linen one at random. . . .

There was everything in the bathroom—Floris Lime bath essence for men, Guerlain bathcubes for women. He crushed a cube in the water and at once the room smelled like an orchid house. The soap was Guerlain’s Sapoceti, Fleurs des Alpes. In a medicine cupboard behind the mirror over the washbasin were toothbrushes and toothpaste, Steradent toothpicks. Rose mouthwash, dental floss, Aspirin and Milk of Magnesia. There was also an electric razor, Lentheric aftershave lotion, and two nylon hairbrushes and combs. Everything was brand new and untouched. (pages 182–183)

Confronting Dr No, the imprisoned Bond keeps his aplomb and orders “a medium Vodka dry Martini—with a slice of lemon peel. Shaken and not stirred, please. I would prefer Russian or Polish vodka.” (page 203).

The Bond novels are charming, brilliantly constructed adult fairy tales, but like all fairy tales they carry important cultural-political lessons.

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Truman Capote (1924–1984)

For me, and for many of my generation, the 1961 film of Truman Capote’s novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), starring Audrey Hepburn, captured the era. In retrospect, it seems to me like a summation of the trends found in the earlier fictions from Lawrence to Gallant. While the film is a romantic and memorable adaptation of Capote’s novella, the novella itself is a sophisticated investigation of class and character. And it is a perfect work of art. The prose is exquisite, spare, clean and evocative, and designed to foreground its central figure, Holly Golightly, a nineteen-year-old starlet, on the lam from Hollywood and her older widowed veterinarian husband with his four children, a man whom she had married at the age of fourteen.

truman-capote-breakfast-at-tiffanys collageTruman Capote by Jack Mitchell (Wikimedia Commons)
Image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly courtesy Grace Hamilton

The novella unfolds through retrospective action—a call from a bar and the barkeep Joe Bell leads the narrator to recall his life in an apartment in a brownstone, where Holly Golightly was a tenant in 1943. Joe Bell’s bar on Lexington Avenue was often used by both Holly and the narrator to make telephone calls.

Although Capote’s novel has lived on in popular mythology through the film adaptation, it is in the novel that improvisational identity is tied to clothing. And in Capote’s narrative, it makes perfect sense. Holly, after a stint in Hollywood where she was being groomed for stardom and saw the opportunity as a way to vamp herself, including learning some French, understands that dressing will be the way she rises above street prostitution. Clothing will enable her to present herself as a girl who should be given a handsome amount of money to go to the powder room.

The little black dress becomes Holly’s costume of elegance, refinement and versatility. Throughout, Capote contrasts Holly with the men she hangs out with—youth and age, innocence and experience. The men are cartoons, caricatures, criminals, bounders, chubby in buttressed pin stripe suits, sexually unrealized heirs who yearn for a spanking, skinny rich conventional South American diplomats, Hollywood agents with the money and the power and the big cigar, soldiers in uniform.

Holly wears simple understated clothes, plays old show tunes, rides horses, wears gloves. Although her living quarters are messy, like a teenager’s, she always emerges unscathed. In the opening scene in Joe Bell’s bar, the narrator looks at what Joe Bell has handed him:

In the envelope were three photographs, more or less the same, though taken from different angles: a tall, delicate Negro man wearing a calico skirt and with a shy, yet vain smile, displaying in his hands an odd wood sculpture, an elongated carving of a head, a girl’s, her hair sleek and short as a young man’s, her smooth wood eyes too large and tilted in the tapering face, her mouth wide, overdrawn, not unlike clown-lips. On a glance it resembled most primitive carving; and then it didn’t, for here was the spitting-image of Holly Golightly, at least as much of a likeness as a dark still thing could be. (page 6)

Joe Bell, the bartender who, like the narrator, is in love with her, sees “pieces of her all the time, a flat little bottom, any skinny girl that walks fast and straight . . .” (page 8 )

The narrator had lived in New York in the same brownstone on the upper east side as Holly. He notices on the mailbox, in the name slot for Apt 2, a formal printed card which reads: “Miss Holiday Golightly, Traveling.” Later, he learns she had purchased her card at Tiffany’s, and he also will learn what Tiffany’s represents for Holly.

He first sees Holly late one warm evening:

She was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing, and the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday.

She was not alone. There was a man following behind her. The way his plump hand clutched at her hip seemed somehow improper, not morally, aesthetically. He was short and vast, sun-lamped and pomaded, a man in a buttressed pin-stripe suit with a red carnation withering in the lapel. . . . his thick lips were nuzzling the nape of her neck. (pages 10–11)

Holly’s clothing presents her as demur and innocent and refined:

She was never without dark glasses, she was always well-groomed, there was a consequential good taste in the plainness of her clothes, the blues and grays and lack of luster that made her, herself, shine so. One might have thought her a photographer’s model, perhaps a young actress, except that it was obvious, judging from her hours, she hadn’t time to be either. (page 12)

One evening on his way home, the narrator noticed a cab-driver crowd gathered in front of P.J. Clarke’s saloon, apparently attracted there by a happy group of whiskey-eyed Australian army officers baritoning “Waltzing Matilda.” As they sang they took turns spin-dancing a girl over the cobbles under the El; and the girl, Miss Golightly, to be sure, floated round in their arms light as a scarf.” (page 13)

Holly smokes “an esoteric cigarette,” charmingly called by Capote, Picayunes; she “survived on melba toast and cottage cheese”; “her vari-colored hair was somewhat self-induced. . . . Also, she had a cat and she played the guitar” and had “white satin pumps.

He often hears her playing her guitar while she dries her hair sitting on the fire escape.

She played very well, and sometimes sang too. Sang in the hoarse, breaking tones of a boy’s adolescent voice. She knew all the show hits, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill; especially she liked the songs from Oklahoma! which were new that summer and everywhere . . . harsh tender wandering tunes with words that smacked of pineywoods or prairie. (page 14)

She chooses older men, established men, with money: “I can’t get excited by a man until he’s forty-two. I was fourteen when I left home” (page 16). Although all the men around her are unlike one another, none is young. Rutherford “Rusty” Trawler is “a middle- aged child that had never shed its baby fat . . . his face had an unused virginal quality . . . his mouth . . . a spoiled sweet puckering” (pages 28–9).

Holly’s place of peace is Tiffany’s whenever she is down, whenever she gets “the mean reds,” not the blues but worse.

What I’ve found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. (Page 32)

Holly’s world is her absent brother Fred, who is a soldier, and the men, including O.J. Berman, who was her agent when she was in training for film, along with her model friend Mag Wildwood and Mag’s South American boyfriend.

He’d been put together with care; his brown head and bull fighter’s figure had an exactness, a perfection, like an apple, an orange, something nature has made just right. Added to this, as decoration, were an English suit, and a brisk cologne and, what is still more unlatin, a bashful manner. ( page 39)

Holly keeps her room like a girl’s gymnasium, but always emerged “from the wreckage pampered, calmly immaculate with her lizard shoes, blouse, and belt.” (page 43)

audrey-hepburn-breakfast-at-tiffanys-trailerAudrey Hepburn, screenshot from trailer for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (via Wikimedia Commons)

Holly is a Manhattanite, but she is still rooted in her hillbilly past. She goes riding in Central Park, wearing jeans which were then still farm work clothes, not city wear. When she is arrested for her alleged role in a drug-smuggling racket she is wearing her riding costume, tennis shoes, blue jeans and a windbreaker. In the newspaper, the photograph of her shows her wedged between two muscular detectives, one male, one female:

In this squalid context even her clothes (she was still wearing her riding costume, windbreaker and jeans) suggested a gang-moll hooligan: an impression dark glasses, disarrayed coiffure and a Picayune cigarette dangling from sullen lips did not diminish. (page 71)

Her iconic black dress re-emerges when she goes to the airport, leaving NYC, fleeing her bail on the charges of helping the drug racket of underworld mobster Sally Tomato, to whom she made weekly Thursday visits in Sing Sing prison: “Holly stripped off her clothes, the riding costume she’d never had a chance to substitute, and struggled into a slim black dress.” (page 84)

And in that moment the genius of Coco Chanel, inventor of the LBD, is reconfirmed.

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Bret Easton Ellis (1964–)

The literary movement into branding, and not merely into luxury, takes a grotesque turn in Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho (1991). As so often we ask ourselves, are artists the recorders of what is, or the makers of what must be? How to distinguish the permeable membrane?

bret-easton-ellis-american-psycho-collageBret Easton Ellis

In Ellis’s best-known third novel, the central figure is a serial killer, a Manhattan business man called Patrick Bateman. The novel presents itself as a satire on the consumer culture of late twentieth-century America. Of interest is the extreme form of fashion branding, perhaps for satirical purposes. Every single page presents myriad brands to the reader who becomes enveloped in a haze of consumerism. The examples which follow are not unique, but characteristic of each page of Ellis’s text.

I go into the bedroom and take off what I was wearing today: a herringbone wool suit with pleated trousers by Giorgio Correggiari, a cotton oxford shirt by Ralph Lauren, a knit tie from Paul Stuart and suede shoes from Cole Haan. I slip on a pair of sixty-dollar boxer shorts I bought at Barney’s and do some stretching exercises . . . (pages 72–73)

I run in place for twenty minutes while listening to the new Huey Lewis CD. I take a hot shower and afterwards use a new facial scrub by Caswell-Massey and a body wash by Greune, then a body moisturizer by Lubriderm and a Neutrogena facial cream. I debate between two outfits. One is a wool-crepe suit by Bill Robinson I bought at Saks with this cotton jacquard shirt from Charivari and an Armani tie. Or a wool and cashmere sport coat with blue plaid, a cotton shirt and pleated wool rousers by Alexander Julian, with a polka-dot silk tie by Bill Blass. The Julian might be a little too warm for May but if Patricia’s wearing this outfit by Karl Lagerfeld that I think she’s going to, then maybe I will go with the Julian, because it would go well with her suit. The shoes are crocodile loafers by A. Testoni. (pages 76–77)

The scene goes on, names the wine, the wine cooler, the Steuben glass animals on the glass top coffee table, the Wurlitzer jukebox, and so forth. When the date arrives, she is not wearing her Karl Lagerfeld suit: “But she looks pretty decent anyway: a silk gazar blouse with rhinestone cufflinks by Louis Dell’Olio and a pair of embroidered velvet pants from Saks, crystal earrings by Wendy Gell for Anne Klein and gold sling-back pumps.”

In a way it is a dispiriting, even tedious text. But the point is made, and the question is raised—consumerism reigns, and we must ask ourselves if James Bond was a licensed killer, whose own predispositions/or taste ran to branding in every way, how different is this New York financier?

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Patti Smith ( 1946–)

I confess I am in the multitudes who adored Patti Smith’s heartbreaking memoir of her time as a young person with the young Robert Mapplethorpe. Her writing is immediate and tender, evocative and visceral. Published in 2010, and deservedly award-winning, Just Kids takes us back more than forty years and it recapitulates many of the earlier themes of twentieth century clothing: the importance of black clothing, the development of Beat and hippie culture in clothing, the elevation of used clothing into vintage, the merging of male and female styles, and the influence of films on the way women dress. And in clothing styles, Smith’s book captures many of my own sartorial shifts through the same decades.

patti-smith-just-kids-collagePatti Smith (photo on left by Nate Ryan for Minnesota Public Radio)

In Patti Smith’s case, another rich vein is not only the importance of film stars and their dress, but also the impact of art, of literature, of literary figures, of musicians and of visual artists on one’s personal styles. As she herself says, “I was full of references.”

Just Kids is an artistic triumph, and a rich history of an important period in Western culture, when the centre of art shifts from Paris to New York city. Although Smith’s book’s primary focus is a little more than a decade of New York culture, 1967–1979, her narrative takes us up to the death of Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989.

When Patti Smith arrives in New York in 1967, she is wearing dungarees, a black turtleneck, and an old second hand gray raincoat (page 25). Looking for work, she describes herself as cultivating “a good beatnik ballet look” (page 29–30). “It was Friday, July 21, and unexpectedly I collided with the sorrow of an age. John Coltrane . . . had died.” The boys in the village wear striped bell-bottoms and military jackets, the girls are wrapped in tie-dye.

Flyers paper the street with Country Joe and the Fish, and Paul Butterfield, and The Electric Circus.

For her trip to New York and away from her nuclear family, Smith’s mother had given her a white waitress uniform and white wedgies. A uniform, not experience, will make her a waitress. Smith abandons the uniform (page 35); she and Robert Mapplethorpe dress like other hippies of the period.

She wears beatnik sandals and ragged scarves, he a sheepskin vest and love beads (page 47). They listen to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Joan Baez, Tim Hardin and Vanilla Fudge.

Film and literature as well as the hippie movement influence their clothing choices. She gets a job at a bookstore, Charles Scribner’s, 597 Fifth Avenue, and her costume is modeled on Anna Karina’s clothing in Godard’s 1964 movie: “My uniform for Scribner’s was taken from Anna Karina in Bande à part: dark sweater, plaid skirt, black tights, and flats.” (page 55)

Smith and Mapplethorpe search out used clothing in the Bowery, “tattered silk dresses, frayed cashmere overcoats, and used motorcycle jackets.” ( page 64)

patty-smith-and-robert-mapplethorpePatti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe (photo by Judy Linn)

After the shooting of J.F. Kennedy, Mapplethorpe buys her “a white dress for Easter. . . . It was a tattered Victorian tea dress of handkerchief linen.”

Reading Genet, Mapplethorpe abandons his hippie costume, and becomes obsessed with sailor’s uniforms and those of Japanese kamikaze pilots ( page 70). Cocteau, Genet and The Diary of Anne Frank animate their imaginings and their choices.

They stop living together for a time, and she takes to wearing dresses and waving her hair; he to dressing in a long oxblood leather trench coat. It is 1968. ( page 73)

In 1969, Smith and Mapplethorpe and other friends begin to hang out in what was known as the Bermuda Triangle: Brownie’s, Max’s Kansas City and The Factory, all part of Andy Warhol’s world, an artist-friendly world. One of their friends, Sandy Daley wears London designer clothes.

Sandy didn’t have a diverse wardrobe but was meticulous with her appearance. She had a few identical black dresses designed by Ossie Clark, the king of King’s Road. They were like elegant floor-length T-shirts, unconstructed yet lightly clinging, with long sleeves and a scooped neck. They seemed so essential to her persona that I often daydreamed of buying her a whole closetful.

I approached dressing like an extra preparing for a shot in a French New Wave film. I had a few looks, such as a striped boatneck shirt and a red throat scarf like Yves Montand in Wages of Fear, a Left bank beat look with green tights and red ballet slippers, or my take on Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, with her long black sweater, black tights, white socks, and black Capezios. . . . I had the attention span of a hopped-up teenage boy. (Pages 118–119)

One day at the automat in her gray trench coat and Mayakovsky cap, Smith meets Allen Ginsberg (page 123) who takes her for a pretty boy.

The sixties were coming to an end. Robert and I celebrated our birthdays. Robert turned twenty-three. Then I turned twenty-three. The perfect prime number. Robert made me a tie rack with the image of the Virgin Mary. I gave him seven silver skulls on a length of leather. He wore the skulls, I wore a tie. We felt ready for the seventies. (page 131)

And ready for a life as artists along with Viva Superstar, Diane Arbus, Jonas Mekas and Shirley Clarke.

When someone at Max’s Kansas City comments that her hair is like Joan Baez and asks her if she is a folksinger, she decides to cut her hair; she cuts out pictures of Keith Richards (page 140).

My Keith Richards haircut was a real discourse magnet . . . Someone at Max’s asked me if I was androgynous. I asked what that meant. “You know, like Mick Jagger.” I figured that must be cool. I thought the word meant both beautiful and ugly at the same time. Whatever it meant, with just a haircut, I miraculously turned androgynous overnight.

She gets a job playing a boy at LaMaMa theatre in the East Village: “I was dressed in my Song of the South getup—straw hat, Brier Rabbit jacket, work boots, and pegged pants” (page 141). Bobby Neuwirth and Bob Dylan are part of her world.

“We were invited to a fancy dress ball hosted by Fernando Sanchez, the great Spanish designer known for his provocative lingerie.” Loulou and Maxime de la Falaise send her a vintage gown of heavy crepe designed by Schiaparelli: “The top was black, with poufed sleeves and a V-neck bodice, sweeping down into a red floor length skirt. It looked suspiciously like the dress Snow White was wearing when she met the Seven Dwarfs.” (page 194)

The Schiaparelli dress is too small, so she dresses completely in black, finishing off her costume with pristine white Keds. Running shoes become iconic additions to the costumes of the New Age.

This was one of the most glamorous parties of the season, attended by the upper echelon of art and fashion. I felt like a Buster Keaton character, leaning alone against a wall when Fernando came up. He took me in skeptically. “Darling, the ensemble is fabulous,” he said, patting my hand and eying my black jacket, black tie, black silk shirt and heavily pegged black satin pants. “But I’m not so sure about the white sneakers.”

“But they’re essential to my costume.”

“Your costume? What are you dressed as?”

“A tennis player in mourning.”

Fernando Sanchez gives her a slot in his upcoming fashion show. “I wore the same black satin pants, a tattered T-shirt, the white sneakers, modeling his eight-foot-long black feather boa and singing Annie Had a Baby. It was my catwalk debut, the beginning and end of my modeling career.” (page 195)

patti-smith-in-white-shirtPhoto by Ruven Afanador

French poetry, photography, contemporary music, especially rock and roll, contemporary poetry and fiction, French New Wave films, all come together in her choices of clothing: Verlaine, Rimbaud, Yves Klein, Duchamp and Man Ray, Enid Starkie (pages 225–226)

It is 1973, and she plans her clothing for a trip to France, a pilgrimage to the grave of Rimbaud.

I decided to go in October, the month of Rimbaud’s birth. Robert took me shopping for a proper hat, and we chose one of soft brown felt with a grosgrain ribbon. Sam sent me to an optometrist where I was fitted for National Health-style spectacles. Sam gave me enough money for two pairs, considering my penchant for leaving things behind, but instead I chose an impractical pair of Italian sunglasses that only Ava Gardner could pull off. They were white cat’s eyes, nestled in a gray tweed case stamped Milan.

On the Bowery I found an unconstructed raincoat of Kelly green rubberized silk, a Dior blouse of gray houndstooth linen, brown trousers, and an oatmeal cardigan: an entire wardrobe for thirty dollars, just needing a bit of washing and mending. In my plaid suitcase I placed my Baudelaire cravat, my notebook; Robert added a postcard of a statue of Joan of Arc. Sam gave me a silver Coptic cross from Ethiopia . . . Janet Hamill . . . a handful of blue glass beads—scarred trade beads from Harar—the same beads that Rimbaud had traded—as a cherished souvenir . . . Thus armed, I was ready for my journey.

It’s mid-1970s, she is performing, and Mapplethorpe has become a successful photographer. Her costumes shift again: “black ballet flats, pink shantung capris, my Kelly green silk raincoat and a violet parasol… (page 241)

Then for the cover of her album Horses (1975), Mapplethorpe takes her picture. Influenced by artists Jim Morrison, Peter Reich. Jimi Hendrix,

I went to the Salvation Army on the Bowery and bought a stack of white shirts. Some were too big for me, but the one I really like was neatly pressed with a monogram below the breast pocket. It reminded me of a Brassai shot of Jean Genet wearing a white monogrammed short with rolled-up sleeves. There was an RV stitched on my shirt. I imagined it belonging to Roger Vadim, who had directed Barbarella. I cut the cuffs off the sleeves to wear under my black jacket adorned with the horse pin that Allen Lanier had given me. . ..

I finished getting dressed: black pegged pants, white lisle socks, black Capezios. I added my favorite ribbon, and Robert brushed the crumbs off my black jacket. . . . I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style. I was full of references. (pages 249–251)

—Karen Mulhallen

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Photo Gallery I: The Author, Travelling in Style

karen-mulhallen-on-karl-marxs-graveSitting on Karl Marx’s grave, 1974-75

karen-mulhallen-at-petra-jordan-1992At Petra Jordan, 1992

karen-mulhallen-at-the-equator-in-ecuador-wearing-missoni-pantsuit-peter-fox-shoes-and-aboriginal-plains-earrings-1993On the equator in Ecuador, wearing Missoni pantsuit, Peter Fox shoes and Aboriginal plains earrings

karen-mulhallen-wearing-robert-clergie-mulesWearing Robert Clergie mules

karen-mulhallen-in-venice-wearing-betsey-johnson-dress-2005In Venice, wearing Betsey Johnson dress, 2005

 

Photo Gallery II: The Author Wearing…

karen-mulhallen-wearing-italian-silk-dress-at-tiff-1977An Italian silk dress at Toronto International Film Festival, 1977

karen-mulhallen-wearing-n-poal-in-toronto-1980An N. Peal cashmere sweater from Old Bond Street, London; in Toronto, 1980 

karen-mulhallen-wearing-victor-costa-dress-from-joy-cherry-1992A Victor Costa dress from Joy Cherry, at Truffles restaurant in Toronto, 1992

karen-mulhallen-wearing-indian-dress-1996An Indian dress, 1996

karen-mulhallen-wearing-pearls-1998Pearls, 1998

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Dressing the Twentieth Century, a Bibliography

Pauline Réage, pseudonym for Anne Declos (1907–1998)
xxStory of O (1954) New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.

D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930)
xxWomen in Love (1917–1920)
xxEngland, My England (1921) Stories: “Monkey Nuts”(1919);
xx“Tickets, Please” (1919)
xxThe Fox (1923)

Djuna Barnes (1892–1982)
xxNightwood (1937)

Jean Rhys (1890–1979)
xxThe Letters of Jean Rhys (1931–1966), edited by Francis Wyndham and
xxDiana Melly. New York: Viking Penguin, 1984.
xxTigers Are Better Looking. Stories. (1927–1967) London: Andre Deutsch, 1968.
xxQuartet. [Original Title, Postures] (1928) London: Andre Deutsch,1969.
xxAfter Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. (1930) London: Penguin, 1971.
xxVoyage in the Dark. (1934) London: Andre Deutsch 1967.
xxGood Morning, Midnight. (1939) London: Andre Deutsch, 1976.
xxWide Sargasso Sea. (1966) London: Andre Deutsch 1974.
xxSleep It Off Lady. Stories. London: Andre Deutsch, 1976.

Mavis Gallant (1922–2014)
xxFrom The Fifteenth District (1979)

Alice Munro (1931– )
xxWho Do You Think You Are? (1978) Toronto: Penguin, 2006.

Ian Fleming (1908–1964)
xxCasino Royale (1953)
xxDr. No (1957)

Truman Capote (1924–1984)
xxBreakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Voices,
xxOther Rooms,
New York: Modern Library, 2013.

Bret Easton Ellis (1964– )
xxAmerican Psycho (1991) New York: Vintage/Random House, 1991.

Patti Smith (1946– )
xxJust Kids (2010) New York: Harper Collins, 2010.

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karen-mulhallen-in-her-closet

Karen Mulhallen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar, a Professor Emeritus of English at Ryerson University, and adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto.

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Apr 062012
 

Over the past four decades, Gladys Swan has published six collections of short stories and two novels, Carnival for the Gods (Vintage Contemporaries Series), and Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices, nominated by LSU Press for the Pen/Faulkner Award.  Her short fiction appears in a variety of anthologies and in such literary magazines as the Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Shenandoah, and the Ohio Review.  She is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including Prairie Schooner’s Lawrence Foundation Prize for Fiction, and a Tate Prize for Poetry from the Sewanee Review.  In addition to receiving multiple fellowships for residencies and retreats in both the visual arts and in writing, she was awarded one of the first Open Fellowships from the Lilly Endowment, for a study of Inuit art and mythology. Swan’s The Tiger’s Eye—A Collection of New and Selected Stories was published by Servinghouse Books in the fall of 2011.

To view a selection of Gladys Swan’s paintings published earlier on NC, click here. Read her wonderful short story “The Orange Bird” (from The Tiger’s Eye), click here.

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Joyce J. Townsend: What prompted the publication of your latest short story collection at this point in time?

Gladys Swan:  The Tiger’s Eye is a milestone of sorts, representing forty years of work in the short story.  It serves as a retrospective, a chance to look back and see where I’ve come in this particular genre.  I hadn’t read most of the stories for years, so it was interesting to see what has held my attention, what motifs have recurred, what I’ve discovered along the path.

JJT: How were you drawn to the writing life?

Swan: I suppose at heart it’s a matter of temperament and thereby a kind of fate.  I was propelled early on by an impulse I didn’t really understand.  A need, I think, to define my experience somehow, to discover a way of looking at the world, to find some kind of orientation in a place where I was a stranger.  Then it became a fascination with what the imagination could know, a satisfaction in doing the work no matter what, after a long struggle, “a lonely impulse of delight,” to borrow a line from Yeats.

JJT: What moved you from creative writing to the visual arts?  Or did it happen the other way around?

Swan: I was drawn to the visual arts as a child.  I remember trying to paint a horse and being terribly frustrated when it didn’t come out right.  When I got to high school, I took a painting class sponsored by New Mexico Western College.  Dorothy McCrae, a wonderful artist and teacher, oversaw the class and came in at various times to work with the student instructor.  She put me in touch with my imagination.  I didn’t realize how much I owed Dorothy until later.

Although I was also trying to write, and felt great excitement about literature, I took another painting class when I attended New Mexico Western College, and I continued to sketch and paint a little as I went along.  As it began to appear that I was never going to get published, I started working in ceramics—making bowls was better than collecting typescript.  A pivotal moment for me came when I was awarded a Lilly Endowment Open Fellowship for a project in art and mythology.  I went up to Purdue and took every art course I could manage, and then I put all that aside when, all of a sudden, my writing began being published.  But I couldn’t stay away: I had spent so much time over the years in art museums that finally I couldn’t stand it any longer—I had to paint.

After I began teaching creative writing at the University of Missouri, I took art classes there.  I’ve had some fine teachers along the way, people I still spend time with, to whom I owe a great deal for their support and inspiration, among them Woody Johnson from New Mexico Western College, and Curt Stocking with whom I studied figure-drawing at Purdue.  Here in Missouri, Frank Stack, Brooke Cameron, Ben Cameron, and William Berry have been influential, and Robert Friedman and Bede Clark in ceramics.

JJT:  In what ways do you see the two creative processes affecting each other?

Swan: The visual arts engage the senses in a different way, perhaps closer to the way the mind works when rational thinking is not imposed on it.  You have a flow of images.  Art works with those images—words and definitions come later.  The process is non-linear.  Its language is color, line and mass, pattern and rhythm, light and dark.  It offers me a great refreshment to get out of words, and I love playing with color.  Attention to the act of seeing makes me observe the world more closely, its lights and shadows, its tones and variations, its people, their expressions and gestures.  Art offers a new and continuing opportunity for discovery.  I believe that is reflected in my writing.

JJT: Do you find similar patterns between writing and the visual arts emerging for you?

Swan: Patterns there are, and more.  I believe that it is very beneficial for an artist to work in another medium, whether it be music or dance, drama or painting.  There is no direct equation, but one art form influences the other in interesting and subtle ways.  You learn things about form and pattern, rhythm and emphasis.  You get another take on how you see the world.  Also, when you are learning to work in a different medium, you recognize similarities in the creative process, what stages you have to go through before you reach any kind of mastery.

JJT: When you first started out as an artist and writer, whose work most influenced you?

Swan: Strong influences shaping my mind and imagination came from the writings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and the works of Homer and the Greek playwrights.  I discovered Jung when his books were first translated: Psychology and Alchemy and Symbols of Transformation.  They introduced me to the idea that there was another kind of thinking beyond that of the rational mind, and it was one to be equally valued, with treasures to be gained from it: enrichment from unconscious sources, the potentials for human growth and realization, as well as insight into the dark side of human behavior.  Joseph Campbell was especially helpful in locating the patterns and stages of human experience, the truths embodied in mythology.  It was helpful to return to origins.  Those insights were certainly underscored by Dante, that great psychologist, and the work of Dostoyevski, Conrad and Hawthorne, among others.  All the writers mentioned gave me a sense of the heights literature can reach.

Probably the writer who influenced me most when I was starting to write short stories was Katherine Anne Porter.  Her stories were gems.  She set me on the path.

There were a good many artists who inspired me in the visual arts, particularly the Impressionists and early Modernists.  Curiously, as my writing has moved more in the direction of the fantastic, my painting has gone more in the direction of the abstract.  Klee, Kandinsky, Diebenkorn, and Joan Mitchell have been very important to me lately.  In watercolor, John Marin, Charles Burchfield, Georgia O’Keefe, and Keith Crown have influenced me strongly.  Keith Crown is an artist who deserves to be better known.

JJT:  What has been the best advice you received along the way and, conversely, what was the worst?

Swan: I think the best advice came from Thoreau: “Live in the direction of your dreams.”   Maybe the worst advice was embodied in the question an agent asked me with great irritation after she’d read the first fifty pages of Carnival for the Gods, “Can’t you just write a good commercial novel?”  From Frank Stack, a well-known underground cartoonist and fine painter, came the statement: “Only you can empower yourself as an artist.”  From him, I also learned not to destroy work—always a temptation—until you’ve let it sit around for a while.  That way, you have some distance and can make a better judgment about it.

JJT:  You’ve written essays, translations, poetry, prose, and various other forms.  Do you have a favored format or genre?

Swan: I thought I would live and die a short story writer since I played in that form for so many years.  But as I have made other rewarding ventures, I would say that I’m wedded to whatever form I happen to be engaged with at the moment.  Each allows a certain kind of emphasis and way to explore.  I am guided by an old aesthetic principle: vision dictates form.  The materials themselves make the suggestions emerge in the way they require.  You have to keep listening.  The novel allows a broader reach, and I appreciate its scope: with the chance to develop more characters, to give more time to social and political issues.  With poetry, I love the focus on image, the chance to engage all the resources of language, to link them to narrative and song.  The essay is rather a late development for me, and I find a satisfaction in exploring a subject through a process of thought.  I could say that the short story is my first love, since I keep coming back to it, but I enjoy the excitement of playing with form.  There’s an unfinished play still lying in the drawer . . ..  And the visual arts—that’s a whole other territory.

JJT: In retrospect, what emerges as major recurring themes in your short fiction throughout your career?

Swan: I think a major preoccupation has been the effort to determine what is meant by “experience.”  Flannery O’Connor once said something to the effect that the greatest tragedy is not to have experience.  What I think she meant is that there is considerable difference between event and experience.  At first I thought that experience meant that something of great magnitude had to occur.  Then I discovered that some people have extraordinary things happen to them, but essentially nothing much changes except the addition of a few anecdotes.  “We had the experience, but we missed the meaning,” as Eliot notes.

I believe that experience brings about a different perspective, a way of seeing and, for better or worse, a different way of being in the world.  It can awaken new potentialities for growth or bring about a shattering of illusions.  The subject of experience is complex and takes one into deep mysteries.

JJT:  What effect does change of locale have on your writing in terms of both story content and the act of writing?

Swan:  Any change of local is like traveling to a foreign country.  Some offer strong contrasts in language and people, landscape, and way of life.  So whether I’m in Maine or Missouri, New Mexico or France, there is a great deal to take in.  Locale has certainly had a great effect on the content of both my novels and my short stories.  I left New Mexico at a young age, but in a strong sense, I’ve never left.  It has been the primary territory for my imagination although other work is set in places where I’ve spent long and short periods of time.  I’ve written half a dozen stories set in Maine, where I have lived for nearly forty summers, taking in the whole ambience of the place, its landscape, the coastal region, Down East, as opposed to the central and western parts, etc.  And in Europe where I’ve spent a lot of time—Paris, Florence, Yugoslavia, Greece, Spain—I’ve found stories I need to tell.  One of my as-yet unpublished novels has sections set in Copenhagen, Venice, and Prague.  In some ways, I’ve gone the route of both James and Hawthorne in considering how the consciousness of an American is influenced from abroad.  Certain stories seem to arise from the landscape, and I am in many ways influenced by what is around me for content and for the act of writing.  A quiet place near a window that looks out on water and/or woods does very nicely.  For a number of summers the landscape in Maine was so compelling I could barely concentrate on anything else.  I just wanted to follow the light on water and in the trees—to dream.

JJT: In looking over your work, what discoveries have you made about yourself as a writer?

Swan: My first novel, Carnival for the Gods, was a complete surprise to me.  A writer friend once told me I should try writing comedy, and I just laughed.  I had no thought of moving toward the fantastic.  I thought I was a realist, of a serious disposition at that.  Then I ended up writing a comic fantasy about a small circus/carnival and the adventures they have in a mythical territory: the Seven Cities of Cibola, supposedly with roof tops of gold, such as the Spaniards were looking for when they came north to New Mexico.  They didn’t find it, but I did, inventing the cities as I went along—my first discovery that I wasn’t a realist.  I had to wrestle with the half-hatched insight that my supposed “real bent” was heading in a direction I hadn’t banked on.

JJT: You mentioned being surprised at how the circus has become a preoccupation of yours.

Swan: At first I was fascinated by carnivals, and I wanted to write about one.  I thought I’d like to travel with a carnival, but at the time it was not possible.  I was whining to a friend about this state of affairs, and she said,  “Why don’t you invent one?”  So I did—the result was Carnival for the Gods, a combination circus and carnival.  I thought I was finished with that particular world, but ten years later I found myself making notes for a series of other novels, based on characters from the first.  They were born of reading and imagination, but by the time I got to the fourth of the series, I had a strong desire to see a circus firsthand.  I called up David and Laura Balding, the producers of the Circus Flora in St. Louis, told them what I wanted to do and asked if I could be on hand. They invited me to meet with them.  I didn’t want to be just a spectator, so they gave me something to do.  I ended up pulling the back curtain for all their performances in St. Louis that season, thereby seeing what went on backstage.  Later they invited me to do the same during their season in Phoenix, so I went out there as well.

It was a wonderful experience.  I spent time meeting and talking to various performers—the Flying Walendas, the Cossack riders, the clowns, the expert juggler they had, Flora-the-elephant’s handler, and others.  Being with that group of dedicated artists was a real education.  I learned things I could never have learned otherwise and gained an appreciation for them beyond what I already had.  In the Arizona performance, I was given a small part: wearing a cloak and monster face, I had to run into the ring with two other performers, all of us carrying various signs which we waved in front of the crowd. Mine said,  “Don’t talk to the animals.”

I thought I had finished the sequence with the fourth novel, Down to Earth, but another character, Amazing Grace, had to have her story told as well.  I’m in the midst of that novel now—Dancing with Snakes.

The whole experience was so important to me that it affected more than the novels I’ve been working on.  I wrote a long poem entitled, “The Dream of Circus,” and gave a copy to the performers.  “The Dream of Circus” was published in the Sewanee Review and awarded their Tate Prize for Poetry.

JJT: Have your short stories followed the same trajectory into fantasy?

Swan: My short fiction pretty much kept its feet on the ground until I came to The Tiger’s Eye, inspired when I heard about a man who held conversations with a tiger in England’s Bristol Zoo.  Recent stories have moved more and more in unexpected directions.  My work has as its basis actual events, which take off from there towards other dimensions.

Perhaps I have simply fulfilled a certain suggestion in my work that I recorded a number of years ago: “My stories seem to be a kind of dreaming awake.  Impressions float along the surface of consciousness in a coherent but diffuse manner—the thinking is associative, digressive, imagistic.  The event becomes a cluster of impressions that work the same way an image or symbol does in a poem.  The cumulative effect of these images is a meaning that is hinted at but not stated.  There is change, usually the coming of awareness.  I suppose that my stories are the reflection of a singularly untidy mind—there is an order in my work, arising from diffuseness, not imposed on it.”

I think that probably characterizes a good deal of what I’ve done and why perhaps, under the influence of Yeats and Stevens, Bachelard, Toni Morrison, Garcia Marquez and others, I’ve been exploring what kind of knowledge can be apprehended through the imagination.

JJT: How would you challenge writing students to better their craft?

Swan:  Mainly to read and learn from really good work, and to explore the tradition to reach a sense of where they came from.  Though it’s important to read one’s contemporaries, I think it’s a mistake to spend all one’s time with them.  A lot of books speak only to a particular moment and then become dated.  Of course if your aim is simply to produce a best seller, that’s another matter and takes some study of what seems to be important to the culture at a given time.

JJT: What moods, thoughts, and impressions do you hope your stories leave with readers?

Swan: A writer creates a world, whether it’s Bernard Malamud’s Lower Ease Side or Flannery O’Conner’s Georgia, and the reader is being invited to enter it, meet the inhabitants, enter their experience with its predicaments and opportunities.  All good writers speak to a dimension of our experience and illuminate it in some way.  Malamud and O’Connor explore the implications of a certain religious identity; Philip Roth goes to great depths in presenting characters entwined in the political and social realities at certain moments of our history.  We have Nadine Gordimer’s South Africa, and so forth.  All of them give us a sense of the triumphs and deficiencies of the human condition.

I hope that my fiction does the same, that it touches some aspect of a reader’s experience and leaves the reader with a sense of recognition and aesthetic satisfaction, a feeling of having been somewhere and that the trip was worth it.  I’d like to leave behind a sense that there’s a language different from the Newspeak that we meet on a daily basis, that there is a sensual and emotional depth to our experience, a dreaming self that is worthy of our attention.  That within us are ways of valuing our experience that the culture doesn’t emphasize.

JJT: Do you prefer working in certain environments, surrounded by talisman-type objects, say, or wearing certain clothing?

Swan: I like to work alone in a quiet place.  Except on one occasion, I’ve not gone in for talismans or particular behavior, but that one occasion was quite extraordinary.  I was in Prague, in 1988, right when everyone was celebrating the election of Vazclav Havel.   Except for foreign tourists, the square had been deserted before.  Now there were crowds on Wencelas Square, and music everywhere, of all kinds.  I went on an excursion with a woman who wanted to show me her village, which she hadn’t been back to for years.  I didn’t know this when we started off through the fields, but finally it was clear that we were lost; she didn’t know the way.  After walking a stretch, we finally came to an abandoned quarry, with translucent stones of various colors in the ground—black, green transparent, pink, blue.  It was a great discovery.  We went around like a couple of kids gathering them up.  I took home a bagful.

I was working on a novel that had to do with an American woman who comes to an understanding of the suffering of Europeans during the Hitler-Stalin era, and each morning I’d make an arrangement of the stones, working with them until the pattern satisfied me.  Only then could I begin work on the book.  Sometimes, I left the stones where they were for several days, but then I’d have to make another arrangement.  I did this until the book was finished.  Then I put them away, and that was that.

JJT:  How do you usually edit your work?

Swan:  I write draft after draft and after it’s fine-tuned, I may send it to a friend to read.  Then I consider any suggestions and go back to it.

JJT: You’ve said that except for a six-week class in creative writing, you learned the craft through practice, and by reading.  What would be your advice to someone who is considering an MFA-type program?

Swan: There are many good programs, with some excellent writers and teachers, so I think it’s a matter of defining your priorities and going after the program that best provides for you.  Do you need financial support, for instance, and how much?  Do you want to spend a winter navel-deep in snow, or do you have a liking for mountains or the desert?  These things figure in along with everything else.  What happens to the graduates of a particular program?  Can they earn a living?  I think you learn as much from your colleagues as you do from your instructors.  Finally, whether you’re in a program or doing the job on your own, you have to educate yourself.  I didn’t come through any formal training program and I didn’t know any writers.  If the choice had been open, I’d have done things differently.  On my own, I was a very slow learner, and perhaps a degree might have saved me from some mistakes, might have let me make better use of my time.  Sometimes, though, I think I might have been unteachable.

JJT:  What’s next for you?  Are there as-yet-unexplored aspects of your work that you have a yen to discover?

Swan:  My major work has been the sequence of five novels, beginning with Carnival for the Gods.  I hope to complete the final one this summer.  I might like to do a series of poems with paintings or even music.  I have a strong yearning to do something with music, but I’m not sure I can get everything into one lifetime.

JJT: Where does the bulk of your work stand in relation to contemporary culture and politics?

Swan: For the most part I haven’t taken a political stance, except in Ceremony of Innocence, a novel that is yet to be published, although one section of it appeared in the Beloit Fiction Journal and another section in The Literary Review.   Ceremony of Innocence is an attempt to explore the fragmentation of personality that occurs under despotism.  But I do consider my work strongly political in that a writer can’t avoid revealing the values she stands for and which, because they affect the individual, affect the society, the polis.  There is a strong connection to the natural world implicit in my work.  I see nature as the basis for all value.  A feeling that there is an underlying order that needs our respect if we’re not to be destroyed.  I think a value system has to grow out of the recognition that we are a part of nature and deeply connected to all life.  We’re doing terrible things at the moment, beginning with our food, the chemicals we use, the willingness to sacrifice the landscape and the purity of air and water to mining interests and oil production, as well as to untrammeled development.  I deplore the waste embodied in our endless consumerism, our worship of money—the triumph of the Ayn Rand philosophy.  At what price are we producing a generation of technical experts and financial wizards?  What kind of mental and spiritual life are we creating with our devouring need to be entertained by sit-coms, reality shows, sports heroes, rock stars, and the like—so many passive entertainments?  Although we have great energy and tremendous human potential, these are the things I find deeply troubling.  I feel that life is the great miracle, terribly precious, and I’m strongly in favor of what will foster it.  I hope that is revealed in my work.

Joyce J. Townsend holds a Master’s in Social Services Administration from Case Western Reserve University. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals and newspapers.  In 2009 she received a fellowship from the Elizabeth George Foundation for a novel. A chronicle of her family’s involvement in the alternative school movement of the 1960s and 70s appears in Three Rs and the Other F Word—FREEDOM! (Excerpts appear on WebdelSol.)  She narrates for The National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and is a regular reviewer for the Library Journal.

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