Apr 272010


Jacob Paul is a former student of mine, a VCFA graduate, a ferocious mountain climber, and the only person I know who was in the World Trade Center when the planes hit on 9/11. 

This is a hot-off-the-press excerpt from his first novel Sarah/Sara, a book that reflects Jacob’s own orthodox Jewish upbringing, his love of Nature’s astringent extremes, and, yes, the haunting mystery of political terror and death.



August 10

What will become of me? Yesterday, I skipped out on Shabbat. I wrote all day, cooked over my stove, didn’t da’aven. Basically, the only violation that I could conceivably have done, but didn’t, would have been to travel in my kayak.  And that’s the one thing it might have made some sense to do (though the fog was really too thick to travel; it seems to be fog season here). Today, on the other hand, I da’avened three times, morning, noon and night (the distinctions between which I’m coming to accept as any sense of ongoing wonder at this unmitigated day bores me now).  It makes no sense.  I don’t transgress smartly.

And here is the other thing that doesn’t quite jive. Those days on which I da’aven, do follow my structure and order, are my best; and yet I so rarely bother to pray anymore. But really, today was a perfect day. I woke up on time; promptly washed my hands and said the bruchah for that; doused myself in mosquito repellant; said Shemah and Shemonah Esrai; ate, saying bruchahs before and benching afterward; rowed out past the breakers in the fast sea like I am trained; pulled ashore for lunch saying bruchahs before eating, benching afterward, and then saying Shemah and Shemonah Esrai before getting back in the boat.

The afternoon session on the water was equally productive. I felt strong and elected to row rather than sail, blissfully blanking my mind in an exegesis of physical endurance. A small pod of white whales breached intermittently on my left – generally a common sight but anomalous in the dense fog – atomizing a sardine-scented mist that drifted in wisps of otherwise indiscernible wind and precipitated along the lee side of my boat and myself. I really stink now.  And then past that interlude, and late in the day, I rounded a rock-corniced jetty, a jumble of leaning shattered gray rock testifying to a lost glacier’s ocean border. On its far side, a concavity of black sand beach steeply shelters the facing side of a frigid trickle rushing through tundra from the hills. I set up camp on a step in the beach’s curve well above the high-water mark. Above the beach, all still passes for summer, but the sun will set soon, and once it starts to do that, darkness grows like a bad habit, staying out a little longer each night until it loses itself in a months long binge of black night and effervescent celestial light and death-cold.

I prepared a dinner of rice and beans cooked with butter and rehydrated eggs and ate it wrapped in flour tortillas. Gradually, while I ate, lifting fog uncloaked a broadening landscape. Finished eating, I benched and da’avened for the third time, leery of saying nighttime prayers proscribed for sometime after three stars come out, in what passes for broad daylight here. Finished with the day’s obligations, feeling good, swaddled in fleece, top, bottom, head and toes, and able to see the landscape for the first time in a while, I delicately felt my way down the deep rut my hull carved on the way up to what passes for surf here, my down booties finding there slightly less tenuous purchase than on the rest of the steep slick sand.

Near the waterline, the grade relented and I comfortably walked along surf-scum tailings towards a large flat rock I’d noticed on the way in.  The rock was about four feet high, and I easily climbed on top of it. Scanning the now-visible horizon, my intention was to lose myself in a meditation on my mother. I perused the ocean in front, beach and jetty to the left, mountains behind, wondering what she might think if confronted with this brutal landscape, empty of people, jagged and raw and colorful. She’d made fun of it for years. I continued my revolving watch. To my right, where the beach abruptly ended in a scrub of brush, I saw the glint of glass. I focused. Yes, the low sun caught something amber and reflective. I thought, well here’s evidence of people; trash is everywhere. I thought to go pick it up and pack it out, but figured that with all the corroded oil drums I’d passed and not thought to remove, what difference could this infinitely smaller relic make?

But I have all the time in the world, in a certain sense. There’s nothing for me to do, really, once I’ve rowed for the day. I was under no obligation or discipline to stay on my rock, thinking about my mother, and staring off into space (literally, when the clouds clear, the horizon here ends in space. I’m confident of it).  So I sort of slid-slash-jumped off the rock, smashing out twin bootie prints that seeped water like a rotten hull, and picked my way across to the shrub.

I have to say, I’ve never felt so self-consciously awkward as I did walking over, completely unobserved, to investigate this oddity in the bush. After several weeks of purposeful motion, this luxurious amble made me feel guilty. And how innocent and clear my mind was then. Because this is what I found in the shrub: my whiskey.

Abba and Eema, if you guys are watching over me, please explain what this all means. Am I being tested? Am I meant to hurl the bottle back into the surf whence it reemerged having so successfully followed me here? Am I supposed to carry it out as trash? Or am I being regranted the right to drink having had a recovery of sorts these past several days? Or is the world in fact entirely random as my mother believed? No, I’m way to creeped out to believe that this is entirely accidental.

And have I mentioned how pissed I am that in two week’s hard effort rowing – has it been two weeks since I cast off the booze? I should check this journal – I’ve made no better time than a drifting bottle. Though, in my defense, I have at my best rowed twelve hours in a day while this bottle has plugged ahead twenty-four seven, no rest stops for it. Or has it? Can’t it be possible that it too washed ashore from time to time, only to be sucked out by a changing tide, all the while wondering whether it would be better to go backwards or forwards or just stop for once and for all? Could it not have in fact been carried by a playful polar bear great long distances?

Ursus Marinus may well have seen that glinting, highland confection and taking it for a reflective bauble playfully pushed and batted it along the frozen shoreline, carrying it like a dog’s toy baby on long northward detours to ice floes past the 85th parallel. Perhaps he showed it to his friends, and in the face of their ridicule – what ferocious white bear, god of the natives, carries a manmade, glass liter bottle around with him – abandoned it back to the waves. Or maybe he had it beside him as he lurked on top of a seal’s breathing hole and when making that fateful lunge, slipped, tragically on the smooth, rolling glass, and succeeded in losing at once both libation and dinner. And maybe the seal, inquisitively trailing the stream of bubble accompanying the bottle’s temporary plunge, pushed its savior along the bottom of the ice until it reached open sea again, bidding it alas farewell, safe home, good journey. Or maybe the bear stashed the bottle here temporarily. Or maybe it wasn’t a bear at all but some people in a boat, or on a beach, who found my whiskey and expecting some special message in that buoyant bottle instead found the best of clan McCallan, aged in oak twelve years. And those people, as they passed this piece of shore, stashed the bottle for safekeeping (unlikely, the bottle hardly seemed stashed, it looked as if it had been entrapped on the backwash of wave, held back in a sieve of stunted willow as the water dropped. No, if in its journey it encountered other humans, they did not willing leave it there. And yet, they may have parted with it as willingly as I, taking that piece of dangerous trash far out into the ocean and dropping it, hopefully to never return.

Or perhaps Hashem, creator the universe, simply ceased the bottle’s existence once I cast it from me, and now, for reasons only known to the divine, has recreated it in my path.

I don’t know.

I also don’t know whether to have a drink or not.

I don’t think I’ll throw it back just yet.

August 11

Like a donkey after a carrot, I followed The Whiskey bottle duct-taped to my bow all day. It sits there, glowering, an ever-watchful, never-sleeping bowspirit; baruch Hashem.


August 12

White-knuckled, not-sleeping, hanging-on-for-dear-life, tehillim-reciting me is still here. And so is It, unopened. Baruch Hashem.

But I passed a long abandoned sod and wood hut today. Something I expected to see far more of than I have. I stopped there for lunch. A track where the last visitors hauled boats out persisted above the waterline. I reached and circled the hut. Behind it, meadows broken by rain-pools stretched back at a gentle but increasing slope into the foothills of the mountains, which are growing ever nearer. In a week or so, I expect to reach their near-confluence with the ocean, which will be the closest I come to the tree line on this journey, one of only two stops in towns, and the Canadian border. The hut’s roof was well set into the small rise of land on which, and undoubtedly, from which, it was built. It faced out towards the water. I went inside, an easy feat in the absence of doors. Ancient cigarette filters – lone survivors of butts long pilfered for remnant tobacco – mixed with bits of fur and random decomposition on the floor.  The space would have been claustrophobic had the front opening been closed and the sod washed away from the wood walls. In other words, restored, the hut would have been quite unpleasant.

Yet there were conveniences and comforts that made sense for a small outpost on a near empty arctic shore. The center of the floor was carved in lower, the way snow caves are, so that cold air sinks out of the structure. The walls were well shaped to accommodate sitting backs and stacks of fur. A small oil fire in here would be very warm. No longer. This place is like nature now. For decades, passing itinerants, what few there are, have probably used it to get out of the wind, maybe cook a meal. But no one vests an interest in maintaining the hut, or what others like it persist. No one counts on it as a point of return. No, nomadic arctic life is a failing experiment, even amongst those born into it. What am I doing here?

—Jacob Paul

From Sarah/Sara pages 98-103, courtesy of Ig Publishing, Copyright 2010


Apr 262010

Though I’ve known and admired Jack Hodgin‘s work for ages, we actually hadn’t met til we ended up on the same judges’ panel for a literary award three years ago. Usually, these things are tense affairs, but Jack, our third panelist, the novelist Joan Barfoot, and I had such an agreeable time together we became internet friends, a tiny community of three sending group emails back and forth. Joan lives in London, Ontario, and Jack lives far, far away on Vancouver Island. He has been known to complain ruefully, upon finding a sequence of emails from Joan and me, that everything happens in the rest of the world before he even wakes up in the morning.

Jack has been a huge and beneficent presence on the Canadian literary scene for a couple of generations now. You can find all this for yourself by exploring his website (which, incidentally, contains a generous amount of writing advice). I love the list of prizes he’s won; it’s almost as long as the number of books he’s published. I am also fascinated by his real life relationship with the fictional character Dr. Jack Hodgins in the TV series “Bones.”

This little essay is just a taste. I like it because it reminds me of all the friends who have made the pilgrimage to Oxford–so many of us loved Faulkner and yet had to fight our way out from under his stylistic shadow.

Jack has a new novel coming out in May. It’s called The Master of Happy Endings. This is what Alice Munro says about it: “From one of Canada’s master storytellers comes a powerful new novel about memory, belonging, helping others, and the vagaries of the human heart. It is also a compelling story about how a man in his later seventies manages to conjure one more great adventure for himself.” Buy the book.



Walking up the pathway towards the front steps and white pillars of the house known as Rowan Oak, I was aware of a chill that lifted the hairs at the back of my neck. William Faulkner had lived here, had written most of his novels here, had walked up this pathway, perhaps had even laid this herringbone brickwork in the pathway himself. The man would not be inside, of course – he had been dead for several years – but the house was open to visitors, with a resident guide from the nearby university.  Still, I was about to reach the destination in what was really a sort of pilgrimage.

We had spent a few sunny April days in New Orleans before driving the little rented car north, pausing only briefly in Baton Rouge before passing into Mississippi. We’d visited the ante-bellum houses in Natchez and toured the 16 miles of Vicksburg battleground before driving on up the highway through pine forests in the direction of Oxford.

In the direction, that is, of the town where once lived the man whose books had thrilled and inspired me, and whose powerful voice and vision had so invaded me as to destroy all my earliest attempts at writing – two bad novels and several stories, all rejected and abandoned — before I’d eventually found my own place and my own voice. Still, though I may have shaken off much of the power I’d once allowed him to have, I had not abandoned my admiration for the man and his work.

Of course the first indication we were entering Faulkner country was the little signpost naming the Yocana River, which was just a narrow yellow creek barely moving at the bottom of a muddy ditch.  It was not easy to imagine this “Yoknapatawpha” in anything like flood, or to believe in the difficulties it gave the Bundren family when they crossed it with the mother’s coffin, heading, as we were, for the town where “Pa” would get a new set of teeth, bury his wife, and find himself a new one. I hoped this was not a hint of more disappointments ahead.

Read the rest!

Apr 232010


Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Down in the mouth myself the past months over matters personal and literary, I decided to follow Ishmael’s advice and took to the sea, vicariously at least, and reread Moby Dick, or rather Moby Dick; or the Whale—the full title of the original edition. It was a good break. I had a chance to leave behind the present noise and let myself drift in its sea of words, be carried by the slow, restless rhythms of musings that took me everywhere and nowhere. To read Moby Dick is to become aware of the immensity of things one cannot explain, that one may never understand, yet at the same time be reminded of humanity and culture. All three are related.

I also ran across two recent editions, both abridgments. Orion, a British publisher, released Moby Dick (Moby Dick: In Half the Time) a version that did just that, cut the novel in half, to make it accessible to those of us who just don’t have the time to read those big, old books. This edition prompted Damion Searls to take all the parts that were removed by Orion and present them together as a novel in their own right, ; or The Whale—the part of the title Orion cut—which appeared in its entirety in The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Summer 2009). The Orion edition does not name the editor (editors?) who made its cuts.

I have the Searls but not the Orion. It’s impossible for me to read either fresh since I have read the full version several times and would be able to fill in what is left out in both. I have, however, skimmed through ; or The Whale. It is a strange, wild book that intrigues me in many ways, for reasons I may never be able to sort out, which intrigues me as well.

The introduction to the Searls also gave an excerpt from Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker review of the Orion (“The Corrections,” October 22, 2007), which I also tracked down.

These passages are, by modern critical standards, “showy” and “digressive,” nervously intent to display stray learning and to make obscure allusion more powerful than inherent emotion… Melville’s story is intact and immediate; it’s just that the long bits about the technical details of whaling are gone, as are most of the mock-Shakespearean interludes, the philosophical meanderings, and the metaphysical huffing and puffing.

Gopnik is referring to the parts that were deleted. He is also voicing an esthetic, “modern critical standards,” and that is what I want to look at in this post.

Melville does spend an enormous amount of time detailing whales, whalers, whaling ships, and the history and practice of whaling—and so much more. He also densely packs his writing with a wide range of allusions that span centuries and cross cultures, East and West. Many day-to-day incidents are related in scenes that have no dramatic bearing on the essential plot, the course of events leading up to the fatal encounter with that huge, white fish. Allusions and other references are pared down; the introductory section “Extracts,” which contains excerpts from the Bible and literary writing that mention whales, was removed entirely. What Shakespeare did with language, apparently, should be left in the Bard’s grave. Not only is philosophy idle bluster, neither, apparently, is there much use for religion. Orion also removed the chapter on Father Mapple’s pulpit and, needless to say, we don’t get to see him climb it and hear him deliver his sermon—based on the book of Jonah, of course.

But what is essential to this novel—or to any novel? Some standard needs to be set, and one is suggested: emotion is what should drive a novel and not thought. Gopnik elaborates:

By the same token, the Orion Moby-Dick is not defaced; it is, by conventional contemporary standards of good editing and critical judgment, improved. The compact edition adheres to a specific idea of what a good novel ought to be: the contemporary aesthetic of the realist psychological novel.

Moby Dick does have many penetrating psychological observations, but these are only one part of his development of characters, of the ground beneath the plot. The main plot itself, the pursuit of the white whale, is determined by more than Ahab’s obsession and subsequent mental breakdown. Melville takes a position that people are more than a mixed bag of motives, traits, and pathologies, that our identities and behavior are defined not just by the interaction of these with those of other people, but also by whatever else exists in our cultures and whatever might lie beyond that.

I’m not sure what a realist novel is, however, though know I haven’t read one yet. Reality is a subjective matter that depends on who looks at what, how he or she looks, and why. Melville’s technical and historical excursions are what ground me in the “reality” of the book, and their bulk massively persuades me to accept it. But reality is only one effect in fiction. Mystery is another. Why are we so profoundly moved by an immense mammal that is largely comprised of that fragrant, oily stuff whalers refined to light America? Melville explores this question at length. We need to ask a similar question about his novel.

It is what a good editor, of the Maxwell Perkins variety, would do: cut out the self-indulgent stuff and present a clean story, inhabited by plausible characters—the “taut, spare driving” narrative beloved of Sunday reviewers…

There is nothing self-indulgent about Moby Dick. Ishmael, the narrator, is self-effacing and rarely speaks about himself. He always step backs, placing himself in the vast perspective of the subject matters of the novel. It is one of the least egotistical books I’ve read.

Self-indulgent, however, is a word I’ve often heard lately from readers and reviewers—and editors and agents. Pretentious is another. Again, I’m not sure what they mean, but these words seem to be applied to anything that taxes them in content or form, or slows them down, or stretches their frame of reference.

The subtraction does not turn a good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness.

If these editors have their say—and they have—this is my greatest regret about writing today, that we can’t have anxious, half-mad, much less fully mad, novels. For me it is enough cause to write one.

But the novel is an exploration of sanity, set against the serious madness of Ahab. Not mentioned in Gopnik’s comments is what buoys the narrative and helps keep madness in check, Melville’s generous democratic spirit and the expansive humor that infuse his book. Nor does Melville ever rest with certainty, or the appearance of certainty. He does not claim to have all the answers, or any of them. This, to me, is sanity, and Moby Dick is as sane as a novel can get.

Moby Dick is a ponderous book that promotes pondering. Is there a god or gods, thus a basis for religion? Is there any point to philosophy? Is our culture determined by anything other than our desires and their manifestations and perversions? I have no idea, but all of these are engaging esthetic propositions that give a novel depth and extension. Literature, however, I am certain exists, and Melville sustains a discussion about literature that has been going on for millennia and, I would argue, looks forward to its future.

Some of the writing, to be sure, is overblown, and many of his allusions strike me as odd and forced. And it is an odd book. The novel takes the point of view of Ishmael, yet often abandons it. In one chapter we see Ahab in his cabin, talking to himself; in another we hear a voice from another ship, the Delight, as the Pequod sails away. Several chapters are written like plays, with stage directions and characters’ lines. Sometimes the narrator steps back in time, sometimes forward, and sometimes steps out of it altogether as he writes chapters that take the form of entries in an encyclopedia.

None of which disturbs me. It is a novel that necessarily has to be hit or miss in its writing, given the magnitude yet elusiveness of its subject. A harpooner has to hurl several times before he hits his target. Not only does it grapple with life’s questions, it questions novels themselves, taking on the conflict between form and content, between containers and what they try to contain, between points of view and larger perspectives. It is a novel that debates the novel. I don’t have to adjust much to make the shifts work.

“Call me Ishmael”—is that actually the narrator’s name, or is he characterizing himself by this allusion, a kind of Ishmael about whom the angel said:

And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. (Genesis 16:12)

A judgment Melville must have taken to heart, given his literary career. Or is Ishmael a pseudonym the narrator gives himself? We never hear his last name and are told almost nothing about Ishmael’s prior life except that he once sailed on a merchant ship. Is the young narrator, in fact, a budding novelist, who presents himself both as a character in the book as well as the Author? (The Author is Melville, writing from his experience as a sailor and writer, but not Melville, since Melville never sailed on the Pequod.) The dominant time of the novel is not that of the events on the Pequod but of the writing of the book itself, a time to which so many chapters return; the dominant voice is that of the mature writer. It is a novel of reflection and looking back, and the Author is an author who tests authorship.

I have no objection to judicious editing or to realist psychological novels. Both depend, however, upon a set of assumptions, which, like any other, need to be examined and considered against other possibilities. To decide these modern critical standards have priority is to make the mistake that form should determine content, and not the other way around.

If these are our only standards, what esthetic and cultural decisions have been made, with what effects? These editors suffer, I fear, from a modern condition known as sanity. Fiction has made progress, and we have discovered its true structure. There is no longer any need to experiment with the form. Novels must be terse, direct, and clean, where motives and actions are what count most, perhaps all that count. Action speaks louder than thought and should be decisive and quick. There is no room for doubt or hesitation, no reason to question ourselves or look for other contexts. Our references should come from the things that most catch our attention at the moment, that most thrill. We know all we need to know now and have no need for looking back.

And what if our ways of telling stories are telling us how to live? Once upon a time there was a passionate man of action who decided if we took out the bad guy—well, what? Peace and world order would be restored? Did our last president look at other texts or think past the dramatic climax to the story he wrote about Iraq?

An excerpt from ; or The Whale, Chapter 10 in its entirety:

Chapter 10

A Bosom Friend


It may seem ridiculous, but

He made no advances whatever; appeared to have no desire to enlarge the circle of his acquaintances.

If there yet lurked any ice of indifference towards me in the pagan’s breast, soon thawed it out, and

More excerpts can be found here. Searls comments on ; or The Whale here, at The Quarterly Conversation. A translator, he also writes fiction and offers his manifesto for the New Aestheticism here, again at The Quarterly, which might be compared and contrasted with Gopnik’s esthetic. We’re trying to find our way now, once again. Excerpt:

Modest in aim, New Aestheticist art does not want to change the world—to bear witness, deconstruct, problematize. It does not batten onto greater social goals, the kind responsibly fundable with tax dollars. It wants merely to be beautiful.

It differs from the old Aestheticism, “art for art’s sake,” in that it no longer believes in Art as a sake either, as a holy cause. New Aestheticism is art for people’s sakes. It is not antisocial; it aims to please. It is elitist but not discriminatory, for it is open to any and all who care to love it.

Seamen had to take their turns standing at the mastheads, ever on the lookout for whales. But they didn’t have a crow’s nest as such, but rather had to stand and balance themselves on two thin spars—the t’ gallant crosstrees—with only two metal rings to cling to. Ishmael describes the temptations of his first watch:

… but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space… There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.

Also deleted in the Orion.

I must confess I took a few lines out myself.

The picture of an American whaler, above, is by Currier and Ives.

— Gary Garvin




Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his essays and short stories have appeared in Numéro Cinqthe 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 another novel.



Apr 212010

Herewith, a lovely poem by my friend Steven Heighton from his new book (his fifth poetry collection) Patient Frame. Steve is also a prolific novelist, story writer and essayist. He has a fourteen-year-old daughter and recently took up hockey–has been trying to lure me into a comeback (not going to happen). Read him and look up his other books. Something here not to be missed.




There’s a final bedtime when the father reads
to his daughter under the half-moon lamp.
The wolf-eyed dog sits guard on the snowy
quilt at their feet—ears pricked, head upright
like a dragon on its hoard—while the daughter’s
new clock ticks on the dresser.  When the father
shuts the book, neither feels in the cool sigh
cast from its pages a breath of the end—
and how can it be that this ritual
will not recur?  True, this latest story
is over, Treasure Island, which held them
a dozen nights, but “the end” has arrived
this way often before.  Maybe she’s tired
of the rite, or waking to a sense of herself
revised?  Maybe he’s temporarily bored,
or unmoored, reading by duty or rote,
turning deeper inside his own concerns.

How does the end enter?  There’s a hinging
like a book’s sewn spine in the raw matter
of time—that coded text, illegible—
and stretched too far, it goes.  An innocent
break, the father off one weekend or the child
sleeping at a friend’s, followed by a night
or two she wants to read alone, or write,
for a change, in her new padlock journal.
She has no idea what has changed.  She
can’t know that the enlargement of her life
demands small death after death, and this one,
the latest, is far from last.  She will not
notice this death, being so intent on life—
so implied in its stretching crewelwork
of seconds.
Some nights later, suddenly,
writing cheques or checking email, he might
notice and wonder at the change.  In a sense
such minor passings pre-enact his own.
For a moment he might lay down his pen,
forget the figures, peer over the roofline
and find she was right—Orion, rising,
is more blueprint of butterfly, or bird,
than hunter.  How does it enter, through what rift
or flaw?  Maybe it doesn’t enter at all.
It was there in every sentence: the end.

–Steven Heighton

Apr 162010


It’s a huge pleasure to introduce Donald Breckenridge to these pages. He’s an old friend and supporter, the fiction editor at The Brooklyn Rail, editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology and co-editor of the Intranslation web site. He’s written a dozen plays as well as the novella Rockaway Wherein and two novels, 6/2/95 and YOU ARE HERE.

The following is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel This Young Girl Passing (Autonomedia, 2011). A while ago I read the ms. and wrote the following: This Young Girl Passing is a deceptively short, dense, ferociously poignant novel of sexual betrayal and despair set in impoverished upstate New York, a Raymond Carver-ish milieu of never-weres and left-behinds. Breckenridge is a pointillist, constructing scene after scene with precise details of dialogue and gesture, each tiny in itself but accumulating astonishing power and bleak complexity. The novel’s triumph though is in its architecture, its skillfully fractured chronology and the deft back and forth between the two main plot lines, two desperate, sad affairs twenty years apart and the hollow echoes in the blast zone of life around them.



Monday April 19, 1976

Bill had kept Sarah after the bell to find out why she was failing his class.  She dutifully asked him to recommend a senior who would be willing to tutor her. He wrote a name and number down on a scrap of orange paper then offered her a ride home.

“And the photographs,” Sarah glanced at Bill, “you should see them,” as they continued along the narrow path, “the models are wearing casts and some of them even have black eyes,” they walked by a cluster of bluebells as she concluded, “it’s like pornography only worse.” A chipmunk scurried across a large rock then disappeared into a pile of leaves. “Women being beaten by groups of men in suits… How could anyone find that beautiful?” Bill stepped over a tree trunk that had fallen over the trail, “I know I don’t,” turned to her and held out his right hand. The cloudless sky was teeming with dozens of songbirds in flight. She placed her left hand in his, “it’s like the feminist movement never happened,” and stepped over the trunk. The plaster cast on Sarah’s right arm extended from her elbow to her wrist. He stepped on a brittle weed and a cluster of brown thistles clung to the cuff of his pant leg. Her best friend Laura had covered the cast in tiny red hearts and flowers with fingernail polish. When a blossoming willow caught Bill’s eye he stopped walking, “I think they’ve run out of supposedly wholesome ways,” and pointed it out to her, “to sell expensive clothes to wealthy women.” The willow’s flowering limbs swayed as the breeze cast off a shower of yellow petals. “What does that say about the way society treats women?” A multitude of bees, undeterred by the breeze, pollinated the tree. Bill realized that he was still holding her hand, “but the models are just well paid mannequins.” She frowned, “What does that mean?” “It isn’t that complicated Sarah,” beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, “the people behind the camera simply script fantasy roles for women and those roles have little or nothing to do with reality.” The air around them was enriched by the scent of the blooming tree. “Well,” she looked at him closely, “don’t you think it says a lot about the kind of people who buy them?” and noticed the faint outline of her reflection in his brown eyes. “I suppose,” he nodded, “but aren’t most of those designers gay?” A robin in a nearby tree began to sing. They saw each other in class, their last class of the day, five-days a week, and yet she never looked the same. He was almost twice her age, “I mean, that really doesn’t have anything to do with it, but it does seem strange that you would get so worked up about advertisements in fashion magazines.” She smiled tentatively at her reflection while asking, “How is it not complicated?” Bill had been married for three years, “things like that are very temporal,” and he was as bored by his wife’s passionless lovemaking as he was repulsed by the middle-class existence that pacified her. He was as embarrassed by his wife’s ideals, “next year they’ll find something else,” as he was resigned to them. “Like what?” “Who knows,” Bill shrugged, “maybe next year they’ll use vivisection to peddle their dresses.” Sarah let go of his hand, “that’s very funny,” and began walking away. He watched her hips sway beneath her blue jeans, “Can I ask you something?” She turned around, “you just did.” He stepped toward her, “Why does that bother you so much?” She lowered her eyes, “I really thought you were different,” and scratched at the rash above her cast, “So, why make jokes about something you obviously don’t understand?” Her fingernails left faint whitish trails around the rash. “I was being ironic, Sarah.” A bee hovered above a cluster of dandelions just inches away from the tips of her sandals. “You’re being an asshole.”

She had told him in the car that the cast would be removed next Monday and that she was very self-conscious about the way it smelled. When asked if her parents were concerned about her grades she looked out the open window of his Impala and laughed. When asked why that was funny she spoke enthusiastically about Truffaut’s 400 Blows that he had shown the class a month ago—then made it clear to him that the only place she didn’t want to go was home.

“What is it that I don’t understand Sarah?” She placed her hands on her hips, “What is it that you wanted to show me, mister Richardson?” He took two steps forward, “I thought that maybe we could talk and that you could tell me-” “Tell you what,” she held her ground, “that I’m going to love playing in your magic tree-fort?” “You can start by telling me why you’re failing my class.” She shrugged before looking intently above his head. He softened his tone, “there’s a beautiful lake a short walk from here,” then motioned toward the tail, “are you coming or not?” She nodded sullenly and they continued along the trail. “I don’t care if you call me an asshole, we can always disagree, but please don’t ever call me mister.” “Why not?” “Because it makes me feel like an old man.” “What about mister Asshole,” she laughed, “Can I call you that?” “That really doesn’t work either,” furrowing his brow, “I’d really like for you to think of me as a friend… okay?” She took his hand and asked, “How old are you?” “I’ll be thirty-one this August.” “Oh, that’s right, you’re a Leo… you are the most willful.” “Not that nonsense again.” “It’s not nonsense Bill, you can tell a lot about a person from the sign they are born under.” “For instance?”  “The Zodiac is how we, as mortal beings, have passed from the spirit world into the material one.” Holding Sarah’s warm hand while being lectured about the Zodiac made Bill feel like he was sixteen again. “The world is divided into two opposing parts, involution and evolution.  The first six signs of the Zodiac represent involution and-” “What are the first six signs?” He asked. “Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, and then you the Leo,” squeezing his hand for emphasis, “the willful lion and then Virgo, the soulful giver.” “And when were you born?” With a smile, “my birthday is in February, under the sign of Aquarius.” “Isn’t that a water sign?” “Right, it’s the eleventh sign in the Zodiac and it’s a water sign, on the side of evolution. Aquarius symbolizes the disintegration of existing forms. It’s a symbol of liberation.” Bill’s foot got caught on a root and he almost tripped. “Be careful there…” he nodded sheepishly as she continued, “the Egyptians identified Aquarius with their god Hapi who personified the Nile and when it flooded it was a tremendous source of both agricultural and spiritual importance.” He was tempted to suggest that if she spent half-as much time studying French as she did astrology then she wouldn’t be failing his class. They passed a rusting black and white sign nailed to a tree warning trespassers that they would be prosecuted. “So,” Sarah concluded, “we are from opposite sides of the Zodiac and I think that is a very good thing.” The trail opened onto a small clearing. “And you consider yourself a liberated person?” They startled a pair of Mourning Doves foraging in the tall grass and their wings made an airy whistling sound as they flew away. “I do,” with a solemn nod, “to the extent that a woman can be in a society dominated by men.” He turned to her, “And how much of that has to do with the sign you are born under?” She said, “everything,” with conviction. “Come on Sarah, don’t you think your environment has more to do with shaping the person you are and the one you’ll turn out to be?” “No I don’t,” she stopped walking, “I think it’s the other way around,” then let go of his hand. “It’s all up to your astrological sign?” “You know,” noting his smirk, “arrogance is another one of the Leo’s traits.” He placed his hands on his waist, “it seems to me that you’ve got it all backwards.” “How so?” A crow cawed as it flew above the meadow. He looked away from her before asking, “How did you break your arm?” “I fell off my bike,” she bit her lower lip, “I told you that.” He frowned, “yes, you did.” She looked down at the clump of green grass between them, “So how far away is this world famous lake of yours?” He nodded in the direction they’d been walking, “it’s just beyond this meadow.” She tried to sound apathetic, “Are we going there or not?” He cleared his throat before stating, “the most important virtue in any relationship is honesty.” She stepped toward him, “you are nothing like any of my other teachers.” “I think most of your teachers are in school because of the paycheck they get every other Friday.” She nodded, “it is so easy to talk to you.” “If they had to sell shoes instead of teaching to pay the bills it wouldn’t faze them one bit.” Her curly blonde locks, “everyone in class thinks you’re really cool,” were rearranged by the breeze. He glanced at her chest, “it is very important to me that we are always honest with each other.” Her dark brown nipples were erect and visible through the light cotton blouse. “Sure Bill.” He scratched the top of his head, “I’m really glad you feel that way Sarah,” and looked down at her sandals, “let’s not keep any secrets from each other.” Her toes were perfectly symmetrical and the nails were dark red. “Sure Bill, I think that honesty-” “I think you already know that I really care about you,” he looked into her eyes, “and I always want you to tell me the truth.” Her smile, “sure,” revealed the narrow gap between her two front teeth. “Don’t you have a boyfriend?” “No, I did,” shaking her head, “but he broke up with me right before Christmas.” “Did he hurt you?”  The trees cast shadows around the edge of the meadow. “Not really, he was a real jerk though… I still don’t know why I went out with him.” “No,” Bill shook his head, “I meant physically,” while looking at her intently, “Did he break your arm?” “No way,” her eyes widened, “I don’t like guys like that… jocks or violent ones.” A jet silently streaked across the blue sky leaving a thin vapor trail behind. “What kind of guys do you like?”  She began to blush, “older ones I guess, most of the guys my age are so immature… they behave like little kids.” “What about married men?” She laughed out loud. “Why is that so funny?” The last thing she wanted to do was offend him, “it’s not,” but he had such a constipated expression on his face, “you make it sound so serious,” she took hold of his left hand and examined the gold band, “Aren’t you married?” he nodded before she quickly added, “I’ve even met your wife.” Bill slowly pulled his hand away, “When?” “She’s almost as tall as me and she has long brown hair and,” Sarah winked, “and her name is Mary.” “How do you know her name?” She felt like a lawyer on television presenting a surprise witness to a stunned jury, “Mary chaperoned a dance in my sophomore year,” with a giggle, “your not very happily married to Mary though.” “Sarah,” he began to blush, “I asked you a question and I’d like for you to answer it.” She held up her left hand, “okay,” and whispered an oath, “I’ve never dated a married man,” before placing her left hand on his shoulder and kissing him on the mouth, “but in twenty years you’ll still be fourteen years older than me.”

Friday March 28, 1997

Sarah contemplated his tranquil expression before saying, “I always thought that you had,” in a soft voice. Bill pulled the damp condom off his flaccid erection, “that isn’t true.” The pounding in his chest had begun to subside. Sarah possessed a glowing intensity that radiated between them, “a lot of girls in school,” her cheeks were a rosy pink, “said they slept with you,” and her eyes were wide open. Sperm collected in the tip of the condom he held between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. She pressed her thighs together and sighed. He weighed the fluid with an absentminded pride, “that certainly doesn’t mean that I did.” A television could be heard through the wall behind the bed. She reached behind her back with both hands and undid the tangled clasp of her bra. He leaned over and placed the condom in the ashtray. She pulled the black bra away from her breasts and cast it onto the edge of the bed. To the right of the ashtray there was a beige touch-tone phone. “How could you believe something like that was true?” To the right of the phone a red and white brochure instructed the occupants on how to exit the building in the event of a fire. A metal lamp with a beige lampshade was mounted to the wall above the nightstand, a sixty-watt bulb illuminated a portion of the room. She waited for him to adjust the thin foam pillow beneath his head before claiming, “because you never took me seriously.” Long brown watermarks ran across the ceiling above the bed. He closed his eyes, “that isn’t true,” clasped his hands and rested them on his stomach.

Bill had saved a batch of color photographs of Sarah from the spring of ’76 and would remove them from the cardboard box marked poetry that was buried in the bottom of the closet in his study at least twice every five years. Mary would be spending the weekend at her sister’s in Bridgeport and he would be home alone and very drunk. Bill and Sarah had driven up to Sylvian Beach on a sunny weekday during the Easter break of her junior year. The image of Sarah standing on the beach with her jeans rolled up to her knees as small waves broke before her pale ankles. The image of Sarah feeding a seagull (with outstretched wings) French-fries while sitting at a dark red picnic bench. The portrait of her looking directly into the 50-millimeter lens—her blue eyes almost mirrored the cloudless sky. Sarah sitting on the back of a green bench overlooking Oneida Lake. Sarah holding a melting chocolate ice cream cone with a sardonic grin. Bill would spend hours pouring over the images until he was seeing double.

The springs in the mattress creaked, “like you were just testing the bath water with the tip of your foot,” as she placed her right arm on his chest. He opened his eyes, “What does that mean?” The television on the dresser reflected their faint silhouettes on its darkened screen. She noticed the crows-feet, “That you were just interested in having sex with me,” etched around the corners of his eyes, “and that you just saw me as some dumb, needy girl-” “How can you-” He tried to interject.  “-Who really couldn’t give you anything else.” “-You were sixteen years old,” Bill shook his head while adding, “and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have found someone who was as… as passionately interested in me as you were then,” then lowered his voice, “it was like a dream come true,” as the realization that it had taken two decades to tell her that descended upon him. “You never made me feel like you were committed to our relationship.” “I certainly tried,” he nodded with conviction, “the sex was very important, the sex was incredible, as it should be in every relationship, although it never is… but we shared a lot of the same interests as well.” Her eyes narrowed, “you never made me feel appreciated.” That she would berate him about the way their relationship ended didn’t come as a surprise, “I think that had a lot more to do with your upbringing and besides-” “I always felt like you were taking me for granted,” she pursed her lips, “like that letter you gave me.” “Twenty years ago,” he shrugged his shoulders, “you can’t change the past so why live in it?” Wasn’t renewing their relationship a way of reliving the past? Televised laughter could be heard through the wall as she thought about his question. How could she have harbored his betrayal for twenty years?

Sarah took her arm off his chest and sat up, “you know that I kept it.” Bill looked puzzled, “Kept what?” “That letter you gave me on the last day of school,” Sarah rested her shoulders against the headboard. “Oh that,” he contemplated their reflection in the television screen. “Oh that,” she placed the tip of her index finger on her chin, “I should have brought it tonight,” while watching his expression turn sullen, “Do you remember that day?” He nodded, “I don’t remember what I wrote in it though.” “You don’t?” “No of course not… Jesus Christ… not word for word.” She saw herself sprinting through the teacher’s parking lot, “I guess you’ve done it before,” and reached his car just as he was turning the key in the ignition. She was about to ask him what was wrong, “it was in the parking lot,” as he rolled down the window, “on the last day of school,” and shoved the envelope into her hands. He noticed the burgundy lipstick, “yes,” smudged around the corners of her mouth, “I do remember that.” “I’ll have to show it to you sometime… maybe that will freshen your memory.” Bill recalled how idiotic it felt waking up with a hangover on the daybed in his study to discover those photographs scattered across his desk. “What good would that do,” he shrugged, “I’m sure that you can find a lot of faults with anyone in retrospect.” “And I would get so angry with myself for wanting that life with you,” she brushed his right hand off of her thigh, “you had convinced me that you didn’t love her and I gave myself to you… unconditionally… and then you-” “I think you were being delusional,” Bill unclenched his fists, “I was never going to leave Mary,” before changing the subject, “What happened with your parents?” Sarah swallowed hard, “my mother is in a nursing home and I haven’t spoken to my father in thirteen years.” A door down the hall slammed. “Really?” She leveled her eyes at him, “if anyone hurt Kate the way he hurt me I would kill them.” “And no jury would ever convict you,” He cleared his throat before adding, “what if you got pregnant.” “I wanted that life with you so badly,” she hadn’t taken her eyes off his chest, “and I…” “What then Sarah,” he pressed his hands on hers, “what sort of life would we be living now?” “And I…” she blinked twice while looking intently at his face, “and I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved you. Not even my husband,” she squeezed his hands, “even when things were really good between us. I’ve compared every man I’ve been involved with to you and none of them have even come close.” He leaned forward, “I’m right here,” and kissed her on the forehead. “I had an affair,” she turned her head away, “with my boss.” “The dentist?” She nodded, “at one point he wanted to leave his wife and kids for me and I told him I would quit and end our relationship if he even suggested it again.” “How long did this go on for?” “The other night I realized that I was never really able to love any of them… it was more like a role that I was playing,” she cleared her throat, “after we ran into each other last month I ended it with him.” Bill managed to mask his skepticism, “just like that,” but how many hours had she spent with her boss in a room like this, “you didn’t know,” he swallowed dryly, “you didn’t know that we would be intimate again?” “That didn’t matter,” she leaned forward, “knowing that you still cared about me was enough,” and kissed him on the mouth. Bill thought of taking her picture as she stood on the shore of Sylvain Beach. Sarah had removed her sneakers and socks, rolled up her jeans and stepped into the dark gray water. “It’s sooo fucking cold!” He was standing five yards away when he framed her in the viewfinder and focused. She looked down at the miniature waves breaking around her ankles just before he took the picture.

“Why were you playing a role?” Bill asked. Sarah’s shoulders were covered with gooseflesh, “I guess in some stupid way I felt that if I couldn’t be fulfilled by one person than two might make me feel,” she stopped herself from saying happy, “the thing is I could never convince myself that it was true.” He shifted on the bed, “That what was true?” She frowned, “that I was unhappy,” shrugging her shoulders, “or that I was just really lonely,” then looked closely at his face, “or maybe I had finally convinced myself that things would never change and that I would never have another chance with you.” Bill examined their entwined fingers, “When did you start sleeping with your boss?” comparing their mismatched wedding bands. “In December.” “That wasn’t very long ago,” he sighed, “you made it sound like-” “December of ’94,” she bit her lower lip, “it was three years ago… right after I started taking Prozac.” “And you’re still working there?” When she smiled and said, “I just got a raise,” he noticed how white her teeth were. He took his hands away and stood up. “Where are you going?” He slowly crossed the room, “to the bathroom.”

Dearest Sarah, She saw him in the teacher’s parking lot and ran over to his car. We have had the very real pleasure of each other’s company for more than a year now, but this relationship cannot continue any longer. She got there just as he was turning the key in the ignition and breathlessly asked, “What’s the matter with you?” I know this will not be easy for you to understand and it wasn’t easy for me to reach this decision but I need you to be strong for me and for yourself. He rolled down the window and gave her the letter. I have carefully thought through the plans we have made and the dreams we share for our life together and I honestly feel that I will be nothing more than a blight on your future. When she asked what was wrong he replied, “I think it’s time to move on.” The love and passion we have shared has been a real blessing and you have helped me rediscover a part of my youth that I thought I had lost forever. “What,” she pressed her hands on the car door, “what are you talking about?” I am ashamed to admit that I could never be willing or able to leave my wife for you. He revved the engine while asking, “How is this being discreet?” And instead of living a lie that would have only created greater unhappiness for us in the future I think it’s best that we come to our senses now and honor the secret love and friendship that we have shared. The car pulled away as she stood there. I will never forget you and I will always be devoted to the memory of our time together.

With much love and gratitude,


She was smoking when he returned. “Does it bother you that I’m on anti-depressants?” He stood at the end of the bed, “Isn’t everyone in America on Prozac?” She exhaled, “I’m being serious,” while scrutinizing his torso. “Well,” shifting his feet, “is it helping?” She said, “sometimes,” before placing the cigarette between her lips. “Then it doesn’t bother me,” the mattress sagged beneath him, “I didn’t know that you smoked,” as he sat next to her. “Maybe a pack every other week,” she noticed a tiny bit of flesh-colored wax on his earlobe, “why were you looking at me like,” picked it off with her index fingernail and flicked it onto the floor, “like you were afraid of me.” Bill shrugged, “Did you hear about that cult in California?” Their clothes had slipped off the back of the wooden chair and formed a pile on the gray carpet. “Heavens Gate?” The smoke from her cigarette swirled above the lampshade.  He nodded, “it was all over the news again tonight.” She cleared her throat, “they thought the comet was coming to take their souls away,” and placed the cigarette between her lips. “And maybe it did,” he turned to her, “you know it’s flying above our heads right now.” She exhaled slowly, “Hale-Bop,” and the smoke was pushed beneath the lampshade, “that is just so sad,” where it lingered in the yellow light, “they claimed their bodies were only temporary vehicles holding in their souls and when Kate and I saw that clip on the news she said that all of those bodies, that the way they were dressed in those uniforms, made them look like envelopes.” “I really loved you Sarah.” Her eyes were downcast, “Then why did you end it?” Shaking his head, “I wasn’t.” She reached over and crushed the cigarette in the ashtray, “you used me.” “That was twenty years ago.” She crossed her arms beneath her breasts, “Can’t you just apologize for hurting me?” “Why have you victimized yourself over this?” Clenching her jaw, “I want to know why you took me for granted.” He let out a long sigh, “The risks were just impossible.” She placed her hands on her knees, “Just tell me why you gave up on us.” He frowned, “Answer my question.” “It’s not like I could have gotten pregnant anyway,” she looked at him uneasily, “I was on the pill, remember that, that was your idea.” He nodded, “Weren’t you on the pill in college?” The off-handed way she said, “I really wanted to have your baby,” stunned him.  Bill shook his head in disbelief, “I wouldn’t have given you that choice.” “You’re an idiot,” she looked away and whispered, “I wanted to spend my life with you.” “That’s not what I thought was best for you,” he examined the tufts of hair below his knuckles, “that was a mistake on my part, a selfish and –” “Is this a mistake?” He didn’t hesitate, “No, no it isn’t.” She stretched her long legs out on the bedspread, “I’m going to see you again?” He nodded before asking, “If we had married then do you think we would still be happy?” “Why,” she placed her hands on his shoulders, “wouldn’t we be happy now?” and kissed him on the cheek. He cleared his throat before saying, “that’s an interesting question.”

—Donald Breckenridge


Apr 132010

I can do no better than repeat what I said when I introduced David’s translation of the Chekhov story “About Love,” published earlier on these pages. David Helwig is an old friend, a prolific novelist, story writer, translator, and poet, and a mighty gray eminence on the Canadian literary scene. In 2007 he won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Prize for distinguished lifetime achievement. In 2009 he was appointed to the Order of Canada. His book publication list is as long as your arm. He founded the annual Best Canadian Stories which he edited for years. He is also a very graceful human being as evidenced by his comments on Numéro Cinq.

I had my choice of new Helwig poems to post here, but I picked this one because I really like it. The last stanza alone is worth the trip. It’s a rare poet who can make you feel the fever and mystery of  life in as few words.

Unfortunately, the poem is written in Canadian, so I’ll have to translate a few of the words for my American and Mexican readers. Lower Canada College is a venerable Montreal private school, Lower Canada being the former name for what became the province of Quebec. There is an Upper Canada College in Toronto, another venerable private school (not a college in the American sense, a grade school and high school). Upper Canada is what we used to call Ontario. Upper Canada and Lower Canada as designations don’t make a lot of sense intuitively to Americans since they are actually east-west neighbours. But in the days when the St. Lawrence River was the major highway east and west, Ontario was upriver and Quebec was downriver.

Hugh MacLennan was a great Canadian novelist, whose book Two Solitudes invented the myth or metaphor that, for decades, defined the way we thought about relations between the French and English sides of the nation. His other fine novel, Barometer Rising, about the Halifax Explosion of 1917 I gave to my son Jacob when I took him to Halifax for his freshman year at the University of King’s College last September. MacLennan taught at Lower Canada College and later McGill University.

The rest you can figure out for yourselves.


La Rentréé

The dignity of a considered rhythm: today
the school year begins. Across the dappled green lawn
of Lower Canada College children of privilege
kick a soccer ball, foregather in little groups;

by the fence a red-head and her friend exchange news.
The ghost of Hugh MacLennan in his teaching days
observes from the shade of a tall tree. He can hear
the plock of tennis balls from further up the street,

the sacred precincts of the Monkland Tennis Club.
A seasonable invention, all these memorable
hours, a cherishing of slowness, as eyes might observe
the infinite seconds of fine craftsmanship,

afforded to some in their best bargain with time,
the finely grained and cut and carved, its artifice
emulating the splendour of the eternal,
the existential calm of the elegiac.

Then turn the wrong corner. A house has disappeared.
As if entrapped in the suicide’s murderous mistake
or the muddle and depletion of dementia,
you come upon maddened wasps in all the cities,

sea giants, monsters, dragon, roc, sphinx, mermaid,
a phoenix tattoo paints resurrection on a pale skin.
Retrace your steps toward the pragmatics of freedom
in the grace of the familiar, that shape of our being,

the chosen hour of the chosen day, though the lost
slip from the slender thread of their living, yet first
and last the taut and shining wire vibrates
with tunefulness, proposes such fine music.

–David Helwig

Apr 132010

CaptureLorrie Moore



Dancing Amidst Despair: From Cosmology to Counterpointed Characterization

We begin adrift, as an idea hovering above a blank page, as two cells floating in the miasma of fallopian tubes.  Our stories and our lives begin as little-things, as truly, almost nothing.  And from the void emerges a word, a unified cell; and thus begins the story, begins the life.  How much does an idea weigh?  Certainly even less than a single cell, if such weights were quantifiable, yet all things are built upon these foundations of lightness.  A creation begins with the merest thing.  The idea, like the cell, must gain by accretion.  It lives only with connections to other ideas—without those connections, it vanishes.  And with variability, with diversity, with contrast, the stories and characters become rich and layered.

Pattiann Rogers opens her essay, Twentieth-Century Cosmology and the Soul’s Habitation, with this thought: “I’m very curious about the grid upon which we mentally place ourselves in time and space.  There must be a grid of some kind there for each of us, a visual scaffolding, for balance, for orientation.”  I think of that grid as a story, as the details which define the particular world of imagined lives captured on a page.  I think of that grid as the small, Pennsylvania college town where Lorrie Moore’s unnamed narrator has gone for an evening to meet up with her old friend, Cal, in the short story “Dance In America.”  I’d like to dwell on that grid awhile, to see if it can provide some clue what it’s all about.

Moore opens with an evocative, almost lyrical passage about dance.  Yet absent in this opening is character.  The unnamed narrator speaks in abstractions to an undefined audience, albeit with carefully crafted words.

I tell them dance begins when a moment of hurt combines with a moment of boredom.  I tell them it’s the body’s reaching, bringing air into itself.  I tell them it’s the heart’s triumph, the victory speech of the feet, the refinement of animal lunge and flight, the purest metaphor of tribe and self.  It is life flipping death the bird.

I make this stuff up.

Despite the power of the language, the story suffers because we don’t have a grid yet, we don’t have a context for what’s happening, until the second paragraph, that is.  Until the narrator bursts in and says, “I make this stuff up.”  That short sentence brings life in.  It opens up the story so that a character speaks honestly about herself.  It reveals instantly a penetrating and close narrative voice.  The rest is slight by comparison—beautiful phrases destined for posters hanging in a dance studio.  Without the dancer, the words mean almost nothing.  Character must be present to contextualize the abstraction.

Later, the narrator and Cal are out walking his dog, and talking about the past.  “He’d been exaggerating his interest in dance.  ‘I didn’t get it,’ he admitted.  ‘I kept trying to figure out the story.’” Dance continues to remain abstract here, a concept not yet alive.  Cal as much as tells us this.  There is also a distinct coolness between these two old friends so far.  “I’m determined to be agreeable,” the narrator says at one point; “I must be nice,” she says just a paragraph later.  They talk about paint colors and trade witticisms about Snickerdoodles, but all of this is surface clutter.  There is not enough contrast or conflict between the narrator and Cal.  At one point on the walk, they even think the same thoughts.  “Up in the sky, Venus and the thinnest pairing of sickle moon, like a cup and saucer, like a nose and mouth, have made the Turkish flag in the sky,” thinks the narrator.  “‘Wow,’ Cal says.  ‘The Turkish flag.’”  Were this to continue, I would argue that these two characters would not generate much dramatic spark.  Such energy-providing contrast comes from what Charles Baxter calls counterpointed characterization.  This will come in a minute, but first, back to the cosmos.

Rogers quotes Bertrand Russell when she says, “The point of departure must be ‘unyielding despair.’  We start from the recognition of that point to build the soul’s habitation.”  This despair emerges from a modern cosmology, a historically recent understanding of the universe and our almost imperceptible presence in it.  Rogers says:

The Sun is tiny compared to the size of the solar system, the solar system to the size of the Milky Way galaxy, the Milky Way to the size of the Andromeda galaxy, which is twice as big, containing 400 billion stars.  And yet the Andromeda galaxy is tiny compared to the universe, which contains billions of other galaxies.  All of that, up there, going on at this moment.

The point of departure Rogers refers to is the act of creation within the vast coldness of an indifferent cosmos.  In the past, such creation had a single source and a single destination: the divine and it’s manifestation of a destiny—a revealed plan for man.  For a long time in the West, art, history, politics and society served and glorified God, with a capital G.   Modern thinking, however, must contend with a much different perception of reality.  Rogers says: “As a result of this cosmology all of us, I would venture to say, have seen ourselves at some moment or other as ‘mankind aimlessly adrift in a meaningless universe.’”  We begin adrift. This awareness of our diminished role in the cosmos leads directly to a sense of unyielding despair.  What can we do, specks of dust on a piece of rock floating in an unfathomable, endless universe? How can we create something of value in a universe devoid of meaning?  Rogers turns not to science’s reductive approach of cutting and measuring (which she also defends and respects) but by seeking an artistic interconnectedness in things.  “The creative person, whether scientist or artist,…is that person who imagines new, different connections, broadening our conception of the universe and its interconnectedness as a whole.”   Charles Baxter echoes this too, although more narrowly, when he talks of the “incompatibility of passion and gentility” in James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.”  The artist seeks to illuminate the human condition in the darkness of an unfathomable universe.  Creation, in its highest forms, begins as an act of passion.  “Passion knocks decency right off the stage,” Baxter says.  The soul’s habitation is constructed on this grid, against this backdrop of cold, endless despair, filled with quotidian formality, gentility, struggles and structures, but in the hearth, a fire surely burns.

In order to render such passion in fiction, characters must be brought into contrast.  Baxter says, “Plot often develops out of the tension between characters, and in order to get that tension, a writer sometimes has to be something of a matchmaker, creating characters who counterpoint one another.”  Baxter says that characters are designed to rub up against each other, to create friction of sort, or even warmth, but that it is the connections between the characters that make the story.  “Certain kinds of people are pushed together, people who bring out a crucial response in each other.  A latent energy rises to the surface.”  It can’t be done with beautiful prose alone, at least not in a sustainable way.  Without the characters, the prose energy cools quickly. With counterpointed characters, the energy levels rise even more quickly.  In “Dance In America,” Lorrie Moore works to heat up her story with the introduction of a seven year-old boy named Eugene.

Eugene, the son of Cal and his wife, Simone, has cystic fibrosis and his “whole life is a race with medical research.”  Moore never says so directly, but we gather that the boy is dying.  “Already, Cal says, Eugene has degenerated, grown worse, too much liquid in his lungs.  ‘Stickiness,’ he calls it. ‘If he were three instead of seven, there’d be more hope.’”  Enter the backdrop of despair. Yet in spite of his condition, a condition which makes him labor for breath, Eugene steals this story, crashing into it with life and verve.  Notice the verbs Moore uses with respect to Eugene:  shouts, slides, chases, races, grabs, and smiles.  Eugene roars with life, overcoming his parents, the narrator and even our own despair.  Before he even enters the story directly, his presence pulsates with energy.  Talking to the narrator, Cal says:

‘It’s not that I’m not for the arts’, says Cal.  ‘You’re here; money for the arts brought you here.  That’s wonderful.  It’s wonderful to see you after all these years.  It’s wonderful to fund the arts.  The arts are so nice and wonderful.  But really: I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.’

Notice the contrast here.  The repetitive use of wonderful and the clichéd language in relationship to abstract things, and in relation to the narrator’s visit, builds to an almost ecstatic outpouring for Eugene, who has yet to appear but whose illness has been introduced.  Moore uses the word fuck two times in this story, and both times (I will examine the second use below) the energy and force of that most un-genteel word strike exactly the right tone.  There is no vulgarity here, only passion.  The last sentence of this paragraph works like a prayer, like a devotion to the modern god, Science, driven by the most desperate yearning of the human spirit.

Eugene works as the counterpointed character to the adults in the story.  With only Cal, Simone and the narrator, the story would fall flat.  Eugene reminds the other characters what life is supposed to be about.  In talking about counterpointed characters, Baxter says:

A third element is born when these characters meet.  This element is not just drama, the force of conflicting desires.  It is a kind of invisible presence whose identity is generated by the proximity of these…characters, and this presence in not moral or simple.

Eugene shakes up this story when he arrives.  The adult lives are turned completely around.  The story becomes exciting during Eugene’s time on stage.  Notice the changes in the voice of the narrator especially—gone is the cynicism and ironic detachment from her voice.  “He huddles close, cold in the drafty house, and I extend my long sweater around him like a shawl.”  “He watches, rapt.  His brown hair hangs in strings in his face, and he chews it.”  With Eugene present, the narrator is dancing for the first time.  Through his suffering, Eugene teaches the narrator (and presumably, hopefully, the reader) to celebrate life. After dinner, they actually go and dance in Cal’s living room.  The narrator takes the hand of the “amazing Eugene” and loses herself to the music of Kenny Loggins.  “We make a phalanx and march, strut, slide to the music.  We crouch, move backward, then burst forward again.  We’re aiming to create the mildew, resinous sweat smell of dance.”

This story works with no real direct conflict in it, other than the unyielding despair of an indifferent universe that would besiege a seven year-old boy with cystic fibrosis.  What drives this story is the contrast between the adult word of sophistication and social codes and the free, more open world of Eugene.   It’s Baxter’s passion knocking decency off the stage again.  “Counterpointing substitutes for conflict, or displaces it,” Baxter says.  Were Eugene not present, some other motive force would have to drive this story forward.  Instead, Eugene’s vibrancy works to shake the characters loose of their doldrums.  It’s managed carefully, however.  Moore is hardly preaching and hardly providing a caricature of morality.  In one telling scene, Eugene practically begs the narrator to visit his classroom the next day, when she stops by his school to conduct a dance workshop for older kids.  “‘Sure,’ I say, not knowing that, in a rush, I will forget, and that I’ll be on a plane home already, leafing through some inane airline magazine before I remember that I forgot to do it.”  Moore uses prolepsis here to underscore this scene’s importance, and she shows us how easy it is to forget the sublime in place of the mundane.  The use of the airline magazine works to underscore this point.  Just because Eugene’s presence shines like a beacon in this story, Moore is a careful enough artist to render reality’s often cold indifference to the light.

Yet, in spite of the pain and suffering, we press forward.   Rogers puts it this way:  “And here’s a miracle that must be constantly celebrated: In spite of the moments of the soul’s desperation, we do proceed.”  Moore paints this picture vividly in the story, again using the sharp contrasts between Eugene and the adults.   After he is called to dinner, Eugene must take a regimen of pills for his illness.  Notice the verbs and how they contrast between the characters.

‘Coming!’ shouts Eugene, and he leaps off the couch and slides into the dining room, falling sideways into her chair.  ‘Whoo,’ he says, out of breath.  ‘I almost didn’t make it.’

‘Here,’ says Cal.  He places a goblet of pills at Eugene’s place setting.

Eugene makes a face, but in the chair, he gets up on his knees, leans forward, glass of water in one hand, and begins the arduous activity of taking all the pills.

I sit in the chair opposite him and place my napkin in my lap.

In this short example, we have despair and miraculous procession.  The illness hovers always over Eugene.  Like the universe, it is a dark, relentless presence that cannot be escaped.  Yet Eugene perseveres, undaunted by the magnitude of it.  Notice also the counterpointing to create this effect: Cal, placing the pills, the narrator placing the napkin, while Eugene shouts, leaps, slides and falls into his chair.  And though out of breath, he finds the strength to speak while the adults watch in near silence.  As readers, we feel the emotional weight of Eugene through the adult consciousness of the story, but it is Eugene, not the adults, who instructs us how to live under the cold universe.  Rogers says that “we continue to build the soul’s habitation” by “expressing the awe and thrill and gratitude we feel at the mystery and beauty of the universe.”

The final scene in “Dance in America” seems to capture this feeling of awe perfectly.  The characters are dancing in the living room but Eugene tires due to his illness. He is “determined not to cough until the end,” and the narrator then goes to him.  Notice the change in language from the opening.

I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn.  This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven?  What do you fucking think?

This passage is the narrator’s direct answer to the cosmos; it’s her defiant answer to the question, What’s it all about, down here?  In spite of the flaws and terrible fates awaiting them, these characters are dancing.  They are staring into the unfathomable emptiness of infinity and “flipping death the bird.”   Moore’s narrator has reclaimed the language of her opening, by rubbing up against Eugene, and has taken the “latent energy ris(ing) to the surface” and burst it over the top.  By achieving a harmonious balance between very different characters, Moore has crafted both a simple story and a profoundly moving one, one that seeks to find a grid, a location to construct the human soul’s rightful habitation in the universe.

—Richard Farrell

Works Cited

Baxter, Charles.  Burning Down the House.  (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1997)

Moore, Lorrie.  “Dance in America.”  In Birds of America. (London: Faber and Faber, 1998)

Rogers, Pattiann.  “Twentieth-Century Cosmology and the Soul’s Habitation.”  In Writing it Down for James, edited by Kurt Brown.  (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995)


Apr 102010


I see some terrific essays now and then from students—critical essays, critical theses, and lectures. Sometimes they find a home, sometimes the AWP Chronicle picks them up. But often they just languish because they’re too long for a lot of magazines, or too craft oriented for general magazines, or not academic enough for scholarly magazines. That’s a shame because they are full of insights and real hands-on instruction in the art of writing. So it’s a great opportunity not to be missed for Numéro Cinq. Julie Marden’s essay is a wonderful analysis of Chekhov’s stories and an explication of the narrative structure I call “thematic passages.” It fits in especially well since we have had a run of Chekhov posts, including David Helwig’s translation of Chekhov’s story “On Love.” See also Julie’s short essay on Chekhov and Alice Munro.



None other than Flannery O’Connor has warned against a consideration of literary theme at a technical level. “I feel that discussing story-writing in terms of plot, character, and theme,” she says, in her essay “Writing Short Stories,”  “is like trying to describe the expression on a face by saying where the eyes, nose, and mouth are.” I take her point. We expect theme to arise naturally from the details of our stories, not to be something we should work at specifically.  But later in the same essay, O’Connor says this: “I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. . . The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it . . . the meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully. Which brings me to my subject: the different ways Chekhov makes statements about meaning in his stories “Grief” and “Gusev.” Personally, I would like to get better at making such statements in my own fiction, and have concluded that expecting theme or meaning to arise naturally from my stories’ details can be unproductive.  In doing so, I may neglect to write the very passages that make those details significant, passages that might bring me, while writing, into deeper contact with my story’s potential, and that might help readers, while reading, experience that potential more fully.

Douglas Glover, in his essay, “Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise” in Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, picks up where O’Connor leaves off by defining such statements as “thematic passages.” According to Glover, “a thematic passage is any text in which the narrator or some other character questions or offers an interpretation of the action of the story.”  This definition provides technical clarity to O’Connor’s idea, since by questioning or interpreting a story’s action a narrator or character renders that action more available to a reader’s experience and understanding.

Let’s quickly consider the two distinct ideas of action and interpretation.  Suppose I wrote, “One spring afternoon I gave up my job and enrolled in an MFA program for fiction writers.” That’s action. Then say I wrote, “what a reasonable thing to do.” That’s interpretation. Of course, it’s just a quip, but nevertheless it holds up the action to further inspection, making it easier for a reader to relate to than if it were merely stated and then abandoned.  By addressing its readers, the comment invites them to participate in the action.  In fiction, thematic passages can open our stories to greater ideological depth and allow them to develop with increasing psychological and or mythic resonance. Thematic passages also bring life to our stories, making them seem aware of their own implications. They are a way for us to declare intent.  In reading the two Chekhov stories as well as other fiction I’ve come to believe that writing them well requires and therefore helps develop a suppleness and control with respect to voice and point of view.

Anton Chekhov’s story “Grief” is about a talented turner (or woodworker) and abusive alcoholic named Grigory. He’s a poor Russian peasant and has been married for 40 years, coming home drunk and beating his wife every night, until the night before the story begins (yes, there’s a flashback).  That night, Grigory comes home drunk and is about to beat his wife when she gives him a look that scares him so much he doesn’t beat her.  Instead, first thing next morning he borrows a neighbor’s horse and sledge to take her to the rural district hospital to cure her of whatever is causing the funny look that scared the shit out of him the previous night.  But a terrible blizzard slows him down, no matter how hard he whips the borrowed horse.  His wife dies before they reach the hospital. Grigory thinks he should head to the cemetery but for some reason keeps heading to the hospital. He gets lost. Night comes on.  He starts to freeze. His hands become so numb he can’t control the reins.  The horse goes on unguided until it stops in front of a building, which Grigory can just make out in the dark and through the snowstorm.  By this time, Grigory’s so cold he can’t even move his feet, so he decides (as if he has any choice) to fall asleep in the sledge, not even minding that he might die in the process.  But he doesn’t die.  The next day, he wakes up in the hospital.  He recognizes the doctor – the one he’d wanted to take his wife to.  He wants to get out of bed and fall on his knees to thank the doctor or beg him for help – he’s quite confused.  But he can’t move.   He has lost all four of his limbs to exposure.  The doctor tells him not to complain – he’s had a good, long life – and leaves the room.  The end.

“Grief” is short – about 2,000 words – and is told by a third-person narrator, limited for the most part to Grigory, who delivers a long muttered monologue in the first half, which doesn’t really end until he falls asleep but which is interrupted mid-way through by the narrator.  (The other character who speaks in this story is the doctor, but just for a few lines.)

“Grief” was written in 1885, fairly early in Chekhov’s writing career. It is considered pivotal to that career for its emotional depth and its blend of comedy and tragedy, which are remarkable considering the story’s length.  The story’s thematic passages have a lot to do with that depth and blend.  I wouldn’t be surprised if “Grief” appeared just as Chekhov was getting good at writing these passages, discovering his own way to mine his stories for meaning.

In “Grief,” the four main thematic passages appear fairly close to each other in the center of the story. Of course, as Flannery O’Connor has reminded us, almost no word or phrase can ever be given completely to one function or another, so I’ve put text that I feel is especially thematic in bold.

He let his tongue run on mechanically, so as to stifle as much as possible the feeling of heaviness in his heart.  Grief had taken the turner unawares, like a bolt from the blue, and he was still unable to recover from the blow, he was still unable to come to his senses, to think clearly.  He had till now lived a carefree life, in a kind of drunken stupor, knowing neither grief nor joy, and all of a sudden there was that terrible pain in his heart.  The lighthearted tippler and idler found himself for no rhyme or reason in the position of a man who was busy and worried, a man in a hurry, struggling against nature herself.Grigory remembered that his grief had started the night before. When he had come home in the evening, drunk as usual, and from old habit had begun to swear and brandish his fists, his wife had looked at her bully of a husband as she had never looked before.  Usually the expression of her old eyes was martyred and meek, like that of a dog who is beaten a lot and given little to eat, but now she gazed sternly and fixedly at him, as saints do from icons, or dying people. It was this strange disturbing look in those eyes that made him conscious of his feeling of grief.

See how Chekhov persists at describing the look in Matryona’s eyes until he can open it up into that third, almost sweeping thematic statement – “it was this strange disturbing look in those eyes that made him conscious of his feeling of grief.” The next passage occurs after Matryona dies.

And the turner wept. He was not so much sorry as vexed. His grief had only just begun, and now it was all over.  He had not really begun to live with his old woman, to open his heart to her, to feel sorry for her, and now she was dead. He had lived forty years with her, but then those forty years had passed as though in a fog. What with drinking, fighting, and poverty he had not noticed how life had passed. And, as though to spite him, his old woman had died just when he was beginning to feel that he was sorry for her, that he could not live without her, that he had wronged her terribly.Forty years ago, he remembered, Matryona had been young, beautiful, gay.  She had come from a well-to-do family. . . Everything pointed to a happy life, but the trouble was that, having flung himself dead drunk on the stove after the wedding, he had not seemed able to wake up properly. He could remember the wedding, but what happened after it he could not for the life of him remember, except perhaps that he had been drinking, lying about, and fighting.  So forty years had been wasted.

What these passages do and don’t do is clear.  They don’t provide much action or setting or even character.  Instead, using a little summary and past history, they provide the moral and emotional core with which those particulars – the characters, actions, and setting — can engage.  Over and over, in these passages, Chekhov reiterates the idea that his story is about a moral, emotional awakening after a wasted life, an awakening brought on by the specter of death.

But before discussing these passages in detail, let’s look at what precedes them.

Whenever I read the first paragraph of “Grief,” I always feel as though I’m looking at an oil painting – or a snow globe.

Grigory Petrov, a turner, who had long enjoyed a reputation as an excellent craftsman and at the same time as the most drunken ne’er-do-well in the whole Galchino district, was taking his wife to the rural district hospital. He had to drive about twenty miles, and yet the road was so terrible that not only a lie-abed like the turner Grigory but even the postman could not cope with it.  A sharp cold wind blew straight in his face. The air was full of whirling clouds of snowflakes, and it was impossible to say whether the snow came from the sky or from the ground. Neither fields, telegraph poles, nor woods could be seen for the snow . . . The feeble aged mare dragged herself along at a snail’s pace.  . . . The turner was in a hurry.  He jumped up and down on his seat restlessly, now and again whipping the mare across her back.

Chekhov holds us at a distance, in an observer’s role, even as he shines a spotlight on Grigory and presents us with Grigory’s desire, action, conflict, and setting, all in one paragraph. We continue as observers as we hear Grigory speak.

“Don’t cry, Matryona,’ he muttered. “Put up with it a little longer!  We’ll soon be at the hospital, and, God willing, you’ll be all right in time.  Pavel Ivanych will give you some drops, or tell them to bleed you . . . He’ll shout a bit, stamp his feet maybe, but he’ll do his best for you.  .  .  .  A nice gentleman he is, very obliging, bless him.  Soon as we’re there, he’ll come running out of his room and start cursing.  “What’s all this?” he’ll shout.  “How did it happen? Why didn’t you come earlier? Am I a dog, to be looking after you all day, damn you? . . . Get out!  I don’t want to see you. . . . But I’ll say to him, “Your honour, sir. Pavel Ivanych, sir.”

Clearly, this is a character study, depicting Grigory as a stock, comic figure, at whom we laugh even as we become aware of his panic.  As his monologue continues, Grigory reveals his simple peasant religion  (“But how could I get here in time, sir, if God – the Holy Virgin – got angry and sent a blizzard like this?” ), his emerging guilt (“Your honour, sir, what do you take me for?  A heartless villain or a heathen?  My old woman’s giving up the ghost, she’s dying, she is, and me run to the pubs?  Really, sir!  May they all sink to the bottom of the sea, the pubs I mean, sir!” ) and his physical talents (“I’ll do everything for your honour. A cigarette case, if you like, of Karelian birch.  Croquet balls. Skittles.” )

On top of this, the monologue also offers a completely dramatized comic version of the entire story, a hypothetical, imagined, and future scene in which Grigory barely gets his wife to the hospital, uses his peasant wits to persuade the doctor to cure her, and everything works out for the best.  Like any stock comic peasant, he boasts.  “Well, old woman, you see I know how to talk to the gentry!” He’s the Russian Ralph Kramden. This entire comedy, though, is layered over the darker action of the present journey to the hospital, to which Grigory’s mind can’t help returning (“Only God grant I don’t lose the way.  What a snowstorm! Can’t see a thing for the snow!”) right before the narrator steps in with the story’s first thematic passage.  (Another great effect of the monologue is that the fiction of Grigory’s imagined scene makes the fiction of the “real” scene all the more real.)

Thematically, things get pretty interesting in these four passages, as Chekhov reaches into his story and changes its and our perspectives, so that instead of looking at Grigory from the outside, we now see him from within.  The narrative voice becomes more subjective and bold, as Chekhov repeats the title word four times in these passages, (at least in this translation by David Magarshack), starting with: “Grief had taken the turner unawares, like a bolt from the blue, and he was still unable to recover from the blow, he was still unable to come to his senses, to think clearly.” This is not subtle language.

Note  how far apart in consciousness the narrator and Grigory are in the first passage.  The narrator articulates things about Grigory that Grigory is unable to say for himself, because, as the narrator tells us, he is “unaware.”  In fact, Grigory is still delivering his monologue – staving off these new emotions, unable and unwilling to “come to his senses” – but the narrator presses Grigory’s mute button and tells us what’s going on.

And what happens to this stock comic figure, this wife-beating drunk? To our horror – because it makes us identify with him – Chekhov gives him dignity.  With this first thematic passage, Chekhov begins to process both Grigory and us as, here in the middle of the story, the comedy turns tragic.  Perhaps Chekhov was discovering his signature style of interpretive writing, discovering that narrative voice in which he manages to be, all at once, respectful, attentive, unpretentious, and emotionally honest.

Finally, Chekhov uses this first passage to bring his exposition to a close.  When he restates the conflict (“The lighthearted tippler found himself. . .  in the position of a man in a hurry, struggling against nature herself”), we don’t know what will happen but we understand the story’s internal and external parameters.

Now let’s look at the second thematic passage.  Two important things happen here.  First, Chekhov attaches it to a one-sentence-long scene, a flashback scene that dramatizes the moment described more abstractly in the first thematic passage, the moment when grief strikes Grigory “unawares.”  We learn that Grigory’s pain was already there, but that he’s only now becoming “conscious” of it.

Secondly, the narrator no longer gets sole credit for the interpretive work here; Grigory himself is “remembering.” A look ahead at the next two passages shows that they repeat this pattern: in one the narrator explains, in the next Grigory “remembers.”  Chekhov makes these subtle shifts in perspective as Grigory begins to emerge from his long “drunken stupor.” Grigory and the narrator become closer, even as we the readers begin to experience the story from the inside, no longer peering into it as we might a snow-globe or painting.

In the third thematic passage, the narrator describes Grigory’s despair at Matryona’s death, extending our view of Grigory’s past from the events of the night before to the general quality of his forty years of marriage.  (“What with forty years of drinking, fighting, and poverty, he had not noticed how life had passed.”) Chekhov again uses that simple, authoritative, and respectful voice to reveal Grigory’s growing moral awareness of himself, his tragic discovery that he can’t live without Matryona, that “he had wronged her terribly.”

The fourth passage shows Grigory remembering the previous forty years more specifically, recalling his wedding day and subsequent inability “to wake up properly.”  This passage offers the most damning interpretation of Grigory’s situation yet. It ends with the final, reverberant thematic statement:  “So, forty years had been wasted.”

Now the story has reached its lowest point, with Grigory recognizing that he must wake up from these forty years of sleep with the pain of his wife’s death as part of the bargain.  At this point, the narrator’s, Grigory’s, and the reader’s perspectives are all fairly unified, through the work of these four passages. We are fully experiencing this story by now, even before it’s over. The story has become a weird palpable force that is leading us and Grigory through itself.

In “Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise” Douglas Glover describes the function of thematic passages in a way that not only summarizes clearly what I’ve just attempted to demonstrate but also provides an excellent bridge to a look at the rest of “Grief.”  Here, Glover talks about a specific thematic device involving rhetorical questions, but since by nature all thematic passages pose questions, this applies to the more or less direct, interpretive passages I’ve discussed so far in “Grief,” too.

The truth is that good stories often open themselves up to readers by reading themselves. . .   The act of questioning is more important here than the act of answering. . . by asking the question in the text, the author creates a sense that the story is aware of the larger mysteries of its own existence.  A story that does not ask its own questions often seems to be fatally unaware of itself, unintelligent and inhibited.  It cannot develop any moral or psychological depth.  By asking questions the story generalizes its own meaning, opens up thematic depths, and, more importantly, creates new possibilities of action.

So what “possibilities of action” has Chekhov created for himself at this point in “Grief?” With Matryona now dead, the conflict becomes one of Grigory fighting against nature to get home and do what is right: to bury his wife and lead a better life.  He still wants a happy ending, but he also wants to finish the process of waking up.  He wants redemption. He first expresses this desire just before the fourth thematic passage, muttering “If only one could start life over again . . .”

Then, afterwards, as the night grows darker, he repeats his wish. “ ‘Live my life all over again,’ . . .   ‘Get a new lathe and get new orders.  I’d give the money to the old woman, I would!”

But the reawakening Grigory receives is not the one he has in mind.  The irony is that just as he begins to wake up to these internal nobler yearnings, he falls asleep. And the next thing we know about Grigory is this:  “He woke up in a large room with painted walls.  Bright sunshine was streaming through the windows.” Consider the contrast between the darkness of the night before and the painted walls and bright sunshine.  That combined with Grigory’s twice-stated desire to “live life over again” makes it hard for anyone faintly familiar with the Russian orthodox Christian tradition (in which Chekhov was steeped — and not always pleasantly) not to think of Easter, of the resurrection of Christ. Even if you don’t think of that, the contrast is vivid.  And at this point we identify so thoroughly with Grigory that Chekhov, brilliantly, doesn’t bother letting us know how Grigory even got to this room. We don’t even know if the hospital is the building in front of which he fell asleep the night before.  So when he opens his eyes to the painted walls and the streaming sunlight, he and we may as well have woken up in heaven.  It seems miraculous. We only begin to realize that we’re still on earth when other people enter, at which point Grigory tries to appear, as Chekhov and his translator say, “sensible,” an apt word, given Grigory’s struggle to come to his “senses,” not to mention his yet-undiscovered sensory loss.

‘Must order a funeral service for my wife,’ he said.  ‘Tell the priest…’  ‘All right, all right,’ a voice interrupted him.  ‘Keep still there.’

When Grigory sees the doctor, he wants to go down on his knees, and when he can’t do this, he asks the doctor why. To which the doctor kindly replies:

‘You can say good-bye to your arms and legs.  You got them frozen.  There, there. . . What are you crying for?  You’ve had your life, haven’t you?  You must be sixty if a day – isn’t that enough for you?’

Talk about a blend of comedy and tragedy. As Douglas Glover himself has noted, “It’s Monty-fucking-Python!”  It’s hysterical and horrific.  But within this blend, Grigory experiences his final and fullest moment of recognition, saying, “‘What a thing to happen to a man, sir.  What a grievous thing!’”

This line is the story’s ultimate thematic passage.  It ties everything together: on the surface, Grigory refers to his newly discovered state of quadriplegia, but because of all the work of the four earlier thematic passages, this epiphanic line means so much more. It applies to Grigory’s entire life and, by extension, to our lives, to our emotionally and morally if not physically or economically impoverished condition in general.   Most importantly, the line comes directly out of Grigory’s mouth; the narrator no longer needs to speak for him.  Grigory has awakened. And when the doctor curtly dismisses him and walks out of the room, (“Goodbye to the turner!” is how Magarshack translates the last line of “Grief”), we wake up too.

Written in 1890, five years after “Grief,”  “Gusev” is known for its somber, sleep-and-silence-studded atmosphere and above all, for its ending, which has led Richard Bausch to call it the most “audacious . . .  story in the world.” Bausch attributes this audacity to “the radical way [the point of view] shifts, in the last paragraphs, from the limited omniscience of Gusev’s consciousness, to an omniscience that includes the sea and sky.  The way it leaves the province of human thought and action . . . and enters the animal kingdom.” Reading those words helped explain the disorientation I encountered the first time I read the closing scene of “Gusev.” My reaction was almost physical, as though something had dropped away from me.  I am sure, also, that my reaction was intended, for, as Bausch says, Chekhov’s aim in “Gusev” is to “lead us into a perception we do not want: the enormity of the world and the universe and to our puny place in it.” (Not altogether unlike “Grief,” come to think of it.)  The profound effect of this “radical” shift in “Gusev” is achieved to a great extent because of the way the story’s thematic passages prepare us for it.  (Also not altogether unlike “Grief.”)

“Gusev” is about a Russian peasant who is sailing home after five years of military service in the Orient, while dying of tuberculosis. From his hammock in the ship’s sick-bay, he gets to know Pavel, an educated cynic with an ecclesiastical background, who is also dying.  With a few other sick or dying soldiers playing cards in the background, Gusev and Pavel compare their lives and opinions and religious ideas.  They also sleep a lot. Both men want to get home. (Again as in “Grief,”  the central conflict is one of a journey to a specific destination being thwarted by nature and illness.)  Gusev longs to see his village and family, who occupy his many fevered dreams; Pavel wants to ignite a revolution.  But neither of them makes it. In a three-act progression, first one of the card players – a character named Stepan — then Pavel, then Gusev die and are buried at sea.  The story ends as Gusev’s corpse descends through the ocean and is released from its sailcloth coffin by a shark. Meanwhile, the sky bursts into a sunset whose colors are reflected in the water.  The story is about fifteen pages long and is divided into five numbered sections. It is told by a third-person narrator, mainly from Gusev’s perspective.

As opposed to “Grief,” whose major thematic passages appear close together in the middle and are presented by the narrator, but whose final thematic passage is presented in dialogue, by Grigory, the thematic passages in “Gusev” occur throughout the story, delivered first in the speech or thought of either Gusev or Pavel, and then, at the end, by the narrator. Thus, in “Gusev,” there are three thematic threads, as opposed to only one in “Grief.” The first two appear right away in the story’s opening dialogue, in which Pavel scoffs at Gusev’s naïve belief in a story about a fish that “came smack against a ship and tore a hole in the bottom” as well as his observation, after a jug falls off a table, that “the wind must have slipped its chains.”

Is the wind, then, an animal that it breaks loose from its chains?” Pavel asks.  Gusev acknowledges that this is indeed his understanding, and Pavel says, “You should have a head on your shoulders and try to reason things out. You don’t have any brains!” This leads to the subsequent passage coming from Gusev, as translated by Robert Payne:

What was strange or astonishing in the story about the fish or the wind slipping its chains? Suppose the fish were as big as a mountain, suppose its backbone was as strong as a sturgeon’s, and then suppose that far away, at the end of the world, there were great walls of stone and that the furious winds were chained to these walls.  If the winds had not broken loose from their chains, how do you account for the fact that they fling themselves across the sea like maniacs, and struggle to escape like dogs?  If they were not chained up, what became of them when the seas were calm?

Through Gusev’s rhetorical questions, Chekhov carves open a thematic vein, helping us experience more fully something central to the meaning of the story: the mystery of nature’s power. Gusev’s embrace of this mystery is simple and folkloric, but still his questions comment on or interpret a huge part of the action of the story, which is quite simply the action of nature or, more mythically, the cosmos. And by asking what is “strange or astonishing” about it, Chekhov begins to prepare us for the astonishment we experience at the end. This passage isn’t the only one in which Chekhov connects Gusev to the natural and cosmic world.  Again and again, Gusev blurs distinctions not only between himself and nature, but also between the imagined and the real.  When Gusev becomes drowsy at one point, he feels as if “all of nature was falling asleep.” At another point, he wakes up from a dream of his family so happy to have “seen his own people” that “joy made him catch his breath, shivers went up and down his spine, and his fingers tingled.”

Pavel, on the other hand, is more cynical and enraged, obsessed with human injustice.

Dear God!  You tear a man from his home, drag him out of his nest, send him ten thousand miles away, let him rot with consumption, and . . . You wonder why they do it! . .  It doesn’t make sense!  .   .  .”

He points out the immorality of Gusev’s meaningless years in service and the insanity, not to mention political expedience, of putting people on board the ship in such bad health. Gusev counters with:

“Of course, Pavel Ivanich, a bad man is never well treated, either at home or in the service, but if you live right and obey orders, who wants to do you harm?”

But Pavel is all scorn and protest. With him, Chekhov makes ranting a type of thematic passage device. Pavel’s most heated diatribe appears in the third section, after the death of the card-player Stepan.

“In Kharkov I have a friend, a man of letters.  I’ll go up to him and say: ‘Come, brother, put aside those abominable subjects you write about, the loves of women and the beauties of nature, and show us the two-legged vermin.  There’s a theme for you. . . You people are in the dark, you are blind and beaten to the ground;  .  .  .  They tell you the wind breaks loose from its chains, that you are beasts, savages, and you believe it.  . . . You are outcasts, poor pathetic wretches.  .  .  I am different.  I live in full consciousness of my powers.  I see everything, like a hawk or an eagle hovering over the earth, and I understand everything. When I see tyranny, I protest.  When I see cant and hypocrisy, I protest.  I cannot be silenced: no Spanish Inquisition will make me hold my tongue.  No! If you cut out my tongue, I will still protest – with gestures.  Bury me in a cellar, and I will shout so loud they will hear me a mile away, or else I will starve myself to death, and thus hang another weight round their black consciences. . . . Yes, that’s life as I understand it.  That’s what is called life!”

Of course, neither Gusev nor Pavel are portrayed as two-dimensional characters. Within Pavel’s ranting we hear his compassion, which causes him in a quieter moment to lament that “life only happens once and must be taken care of.” Gusev, despite his innate sweetness and capacity for joy, is an uneducated bigot.  He refers to the “crazy Jew” in his village, says he would never jump into the sea to rescue a non-Christian or a German, and admits to having beat up two “Chinamen” who brought firewood into his yard during his years of service. At one point while in harbor, Gusev looks out the ship’s porthole and sees another Chinese man standing on a boat, holding a bird in a cage, and singing.  This blissful image inspires Gusev to wish to slug the man (possibly out of jealousy and possibly because he can only relate to the bird in the cage).

It’s notable that – unlike Gusev – neither Stepan (the card player) nor Pavel recognizes the approach of his own death. Chekhov isn’t afraid to be funny at these moments, either.  Stepan’s last words – he lies down in the middle of a card game – are, “I won’t be a moment, fellows,” and Pavel, mere hours from dying, boasts: “My lungs are healthy – what I’ve got is the stomach cough.  I can stand hell and that goes for the Red Sea. . .”

Gusev, in contrast, faces his death knowingly, yet another example of his uncanny affinity with the incomprehensible.  To be sure, he is warned by the deaths of Stepan and Pavel, not to mention the nameless wounded soldier who carries him on deck and tells him:  “you, too, Gusev, you’re not long for this world.  You’ll never reach Russia.”

This anonymous wounded soldier, very interestingly, whispers these words to Gusev just before, again as in “Grief,” Chekhov slows the tempo and allows his narrator – as the story’s own consciousness – to emerge. This is in the middle of the fourth section, closing in on the end.  With the appearance of this anonymous soldier, the point of view begins to widen.  First, stepping around the countless bodies of sleeping soldiers, all on their way home (is it becoming clear that sleep is a constant refrain – and metaphor – in this story?), Gusev and his companion make their way to the ship’s prow.  As they gaze out at the night and sea, the point of view quietly shifts – almost slips – to the narrator.

“. . . The deep sky lay over them, the clear stars, stillness and peace, and it was exactly as it was in the village at home” – this is still Gusev observing – “while below them lurked darkness and chaos.” Here the narrator is starting to enter the language, the voice. “Great waves were booming; no one knew why.” Suddenly, “no one” steps behind the point of view. Then, in a moment, “you” will, as again, distinctions and identities are blurred.  “Every wave, whichever one you looked at, was trying to climb over the rest, hurling itself on its neighbor, crushing it down; and then there would come a third wave with a glint of light on its white mane, as ferocious and hideous as all the others, with a full-throated roar.”

Now comes a crucial shift, where the narrator, with one bold, subjective, declarative sentence, takes control. We forget that Gusev is there. This is the story’s central thematic passage, in which we feel addressed by the story itself.

The sea is senseless and pitiless. If the ship had been smaller, and not made of thick iron plates, the waves would have crushed it without the slightest remorse and devoured all the people, making no distinction between saints and sinners.  The ship itself possessed the same cruel expression, devoid of any meaning.  This beaked monster pressed forward, cutting a pathway through a million waves, fearing neither darkness nor winds, neither space nor solitude – all these were as nothing, and if the ocean had been populated, the monster would have crushed its inhabitants, making no distinction between saints and sinners.

This passage does so much. It unifies and makes moot all of Gusev’s and Pavel’s ideas of morality and life, and it opens the story to “new possibilities of action,” providing a hinge by which the story pivots to its audacious conclusion. To begin with, Gusev emerges from this trance having unblinkingly absorbed the truth of his mortality.  His last words, after the nameless soldier asks him if he’s afraid of dying, show no denial and are anything but naive: “Yes, I’m afraid.  I’m full of sorrow for the farm.  My brother at home, you know, there’s nothing sober about him – he’s a drunkard, beats his wife for no reason at all, and doesn’t honor his parents. . . . But my legs won’t hold me up, brother, and it’s suffocating here. Let’s go to sleep!”

After Gusev’s funeral, his body, sewn up in the sailcloth, slides into the air off of a “tilted plank” and tumbles into the sea.  The point of view has by now broadened to the soldiers on board, who, chorus-like, share this rather lovely, timeless, and all-inclusive observation and rhetorical question:  “Strange that a man should be sewn up in a sail cloth and then tossed into the waves.  Was it possible that such a thing could happen to anyone?”

And then, with the scene that provoked my disorientation, the mood picks up:

. . .  he fell among a shoal of pilot fish. When they saw the dark body they were astounded and rooted to the spot, and they suddenly turned tail and fled.  In less than a minute they came hurrying back to him, quick as a shot, and they began zig-zagging round him in the water.

This is the scene Richard Bausch talked about, where the point of view enters the animal kingdom. It’s comic-strip-like.  In its next “frame,” the shark appears and swims “below Gusev with dignity and reserve.” Then, mimicking that fish in Gusev’s opening story, the shark tears the sailcloth from head to toe and Gusev and an iron fire bar drop out.  Chekhov, with his own dignity and reserve (it can be hard not to discern certain doctor-like qualities in his depiction of the shark), guides us away from what happens to Gusev, and diverts our attention first to the fire-bar as it sinks to the bottom of the sea and then to the sky and the top of the sea, ending the story like this:

Meanwhile in the heavens clouds came and massed themselves against the sunset . . . There came a great beam of green light transpiercing the clouds and stretching to the center of the sky, and a little while later a violet-colored beam lay beside it, and then there was a golden beam, and then a rose-colored beam.  The heavens turned lilac, very soft. Gazing up at the enchanted heavens, magnificent in their splendor, the sea fumed darkly at first, but soon assumed the sweet, joyous, passionate colors for which there are scarcely any names in the tongue of man.

I consider the last line a thematic passage, which ever so slightly mitigates the effect of the longer one preceding it.  For what has happened to the senseless and pitiless sea?  Like the fish and the shark, it has taken on human characteristics, even as Gusev has relinquished them.  As David Jauss points out, “by personifying impersonal nature, Chekhov depersonalizes Gusev, and further emphasizes the meaninglessness of both his death and life.” Yet Chekhov –just barely – spares us and himself from total starkness by honoring Gusev even while emphasizing his insignificance, by describing the “scarcely” nameable colors in the sea and sky as “sweet,”  “joyous,” and “passionate,” qualities specifically attributable to Gusev when he was alive.

Finally, it’s been fascinating and illuminating to compare the thematic passages of “Grief” and “Gusev” side-by-side.  Whereas in “Grief” these passages lead us from the nameless narrator’s voice to Grigory’s individualized epiphany, in “Gusev” we travel from specific, individualized, human thought into something more nameless and vast, an “unconscious” consciousness alluded to by the title of the hymn sung at Gusev’s funeral, “Eternal Memory.” Whereas in “Grief” we wake up, in “Gusev” we fall asleep.  We surrender what is characteristic. We die and vanish.  No wonder it’s disorienting.

—Julie Marden