Jun 262011

María Jesús Hernáez Lerena on Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland


What is a self? What is a short story? Those questions intersect at the moment of writing and the moment of reading but mostly at some pre-conscious level. There is however a growing mass of short story theory, research into the nexus of philosophy, psychology, genre and form. María Jesús Hernáez Lerena (see complete bio at the bottom of the essay) is a prolific Spanish scholar, critic and theoretician (also dg’s friend and a startlingly intelligent interpreter of his work). It’s a great pleasure to reprint here María’s essay (first appeared in the Journal of English Studies, full citation below) on Carol Shield‘s great novel The Stone Diaries (winner of the 1993 Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award). Though the subject is a novel, the essay itself deals with novel and short story as distinct genres and examines the ways they each deploys personal consciousness (the theoretical cousin of “point of view”). Dense with reference and argument, the essay is intricate and perceptive—a good “reading” of a text always opens up a wider world. And, as often is the case with scholarly work, it has not been easily available to the general reading public (who might actually be hungry for such information). You can use this essay (and bibliography) as a jumping off point to explore short story and narrative theory (as usual, dg could not get the footnotes to work as “jumps” in WordPress; you’ll just have to scroll down and back).

Though she teaches at the Universidad de la Rioja, María will shortly be flying to St. John’s, Newfoundland, for a summer of research (hence we get the second photograph inside of a month taken on Signal Hill—St. John’s is the Paris of the North; everyone goes there.)



 Narrative Genres and THE ADMINISTRATION OF CONSCIOUSNESS: The Case of Daisy Goodwill’s Rebellion

By María Jesús Hernáez Lerena


ABSTRACT. The Stone Diaries (1993), a novel by Carol Shields, examines the strategies characters use to render their selves accountable: they turn life into an ensemble made up of historical, scientific, novelistic or biographical discourse. In contrast, Daisy Goodwill, who is the subject-matter of this fictional autobiography,  remains close to the epistemology of the short story, whose potential has been described by critics as a challenge to knowledge or synthesis (Cortázar 1973; Bayley 1988; Leitch 1989, May 1994; Trussler 1996). There seems to be agreement that the only condition of coherence necessary for the short story is a pointing to the evasion of meaning in life, also that the genre allies itself to the way in which the past is attached to our memory (Kosinski 1978; Hallet 1998; Lohafer 199; Wolff 2000). This essay will analyze the implications of its protagonist’s stance with a view to pinning down some of the ideological grounds of the novel and of the short story in their approach to the question of identity.



[H]ow are we to understand the project of telling a life story
where it must be organized in terms of what is anomalous,
difficult, and resistant to narration?
(Gilmore 2001: 33)

This article deals with the question of how we articulate our consciousness by focusing on the proposals of two major narrative genres: the novel and the short story. One of society’s demands upon the individual is precisely self-articulation, the creation of an identity of one’s own made manifest by an exercise in verbalization. This task is performed through the adscription of meaning to a sequence of incidents and emotions, that is, through the making of a story. Thus, the psychological structures we use to make sense of ourselves seem to put us unavoidably in a narrative dimension; we read ourselves as characters in a story.[1] The interplay between storyness and personal biographical composition will be the object of this study.

Carol Shields

The finality of a life story is knowledge, or at least, intelligibility, a goal reached thanks to certain formulaic beliefs which allow us to connect events within a sequential pattern of progress which—we imagine—moves us towards the future and diminishes the chaos of existence. We like to believe that experience leads to maturation, that the cause-effect binomial organizes our life and explains the conditions of our present situation, that the passing of time brings about learning (intellectual, emotional, ethical). These assumptions, which no degree of postmodernism will be ever able to uproot, act like joints which help interpret the succession of occurrences in one’s life—or in a character’s life—as the dramatization of the efforts towards self-understanding, a path sanctified with the aura of redemption. These ethical dynamics of narrative is grounded in the religious precedent of sacrifice followed by reward. It is the metaphor of life as a river or as a journey which starts as blankness or as confusion and achieves its climax in an adjustment of perception (an awareness of wrongness) or in a more satisfactory appreciation of the relationship between a person and his/her world. However, not all narrative genres share the same joints or the same sense of finality.  Indeed, the short story has been often defined as contrary to the ingrained idea that stories have to make transitions plausible or intelligible. In its search for truth in the clash of experiences which do not cohere, the short story shows ample disregard for other genres such as the novel or the biography, which often equate reality with a slow display of psychological interiors. Aspirations toward knowledge also fare differently in both genres: whereas the short story is said to have constituted itself in its challenge to knowledge and has a penchant for situations that cannot be rationalized (Leitch 1989: 133; Trussler 1996: 560), the novel has historically sought the “expropriation” of life’s mystery (May 1994: 135); it evidences a will to dissect the machinery of connections at play in an individual’s existence. Our culture has made us mainly inheritors to the legacy of the novel, a form of discourse which reveals life as an ongoing pattern connecting the past to the future. The novel’s appearance as a life-long companion is firmly rooted in a sense of biographical time: its embodiment of learned ideas of self as history makes it possible to envision life as a path that is psychologically self-sustaining.[2]

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Jun 252011


Another Numéro Cinq first: This time Marilyn McCabe sings and translates a poem by the turn-of-the-century French poet Guillaume Apollinaire but not simultaneously. Marilyn is an old friend (we last ran into each other helping to pour concrete at a friend’s house in Porter Corners, NY, a couple of weeks ago), a poet, translator and essayist who has already appeared twice on NC. But now you get to hear her sing! It’s a treat, eerie and beautiful.


It became something of a tradition for French composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to set lyric poems by their poetry contemporaries to mélodies for solo voice and piano. Inspired by the poetry of the likes of Verlaine and Baudelaire, composers from Berlioz to Saint-Saens created these musical settings, attempting to “translate,” in a way, the lyric into a musical format that created a form greater than the two elements.

I’m preparing a concert of some these art songs, and as part of my preparation, I’m doing translations of the poems. Here is a funny little poem by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) set to music by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).

—Marilyn McCabe


L’hotel by Guillaume Apollinaire, Music by Poulenc

Performed (& Translated) by Marilyn McCabe


Click the button to play Marilyn McCabe singing “L’hotel.”



Ma chambre a la forme d’une cage,
Le soleil passe son bras par la fenêtre.
Mais moi qui veux fumer pour faire des mirages,
J’allume au feu du jour ma cigarette,
Je ne veux pas travailler — je veux fumer.


The Hotel

My room is like a cage.
The sun hangs its arms through the bars.
But I, I want to smoke,
to curl shapes in the air;
I light my cigarette
on the day’s fire.
I do not want to work —
I want to smoke.

—Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by Marilyn McCabe


Marilyn McCabe’s poetry chapbook Rugged Means of Grace is due out from Finishing Line Press any minute now. Her poetry has appeared in magazines such as Painted Bride Quarterly, Nimrod, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Numéro Cinq. Her recent collaborative poetry chapbook with Elaine Handley and Mary Sanders Shartle won the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Best Poetry Book award for 2010. A Marilyn McCabe essay appeared in Hunger Mountain. She took classical voice lessons for ten years and performs classical or jazz concerts whenever the mood strikes.

Jun 242011

The Immortality of the Crab

By John Proctor


…and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock
in the morning, day after day. At that hour the tendency
is to refuse to face things as long as possible
by retiring into an infantile dream…
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”

It’s 3AM, I must be lonely.
—Matchbox 20

Two days a week between mid-June and mid-October, I wake up at 3:00am without an alarm clock, thinking about crabs. I get dressed in the dark while my wife sleeps and feel my heart beating, hands twitching, mouth grinning involuntarily. I walk out to my car, where my traps, handlines, and bucket are already packed, and I head out to the sea, thinking about blue crabs. I drive toward the end of the earth and then walk out with my equipment, where the sea meets me at the edge of the pier. Sometimes a lighthouse searches in the distance; most times I see black islands shadow the water in the twilight; a few times I notice the dockside lights of boats whose captains beat me to the water. The morning mistral’s brisk song chills even the hottest midsummer night. On the pier I am all alone with the sea, surrounded by millions of ravenous blue crabs.

From November to June, I dream about blue crabs. Sometimes I’m back in Kansas fishing for catfish in the Wakarusa River where I spent so much time as a kid. I’m walking along the cliff overlooking the river, with the wild heather and cattails up to my armpits. I look down into the water from the edge where the grass meets the red clay, and I can see everything. Below the surface, huge flatheads are curled up in their red clay mudholes, or in the hollows of submerged tree stumps. And all along the edge of the river I see thousands of turquoise claws, all busy at work – good little members of the working poor, snapping up stray shiners, collecting detritus in the mud, and building fortresses from everything they find. Sometimes I’m so far up that I can see the Wakarusa River flowing into the sea, disregarding – and this is the great thing about dreams – that crabs and catfish generally don’t coexist, especially in Kansas. What’s important is the work they do, the order they make from the chaos. I don’t even try to catch them – I just watch, as the crabs and the catfish build their homes in the muddy water.


*                              *                              *


In  one of my favorite scenes from the ‘90s sitcom Mad About You, Helen Hunt walks in on Paul Reiser, and he’s sitting comfortably in his chair, doing – well, nothing.  He’s staring off into space, and she asks him for help with some random chore. “I’m busy,” he tells her. She does a double take, and then asks incredulously what he’s busy doing. “I’m working,” he replies. She asks him what he’s working on. “I’m thinking.” He’s a filmmaker, a profession only slightly less physically lazy than writing, if only because of the heavy equipment. In this scene, Paul’s thinking is rather heavy. “I’m developing ideas,” he says. “The less it looks like I’m doing, the harder I’m actually working.”

There is a Spanish expression for Paul’s labor – pensando en la inmortalidad del cangrejo, or thinking about the immortality of the crab. Basically, if you’re standing around doing nothing and someone asks you what you’re doing, instead of admitting you’re not doing much of anything, simply tell that person you’re thinking about the immortality of the crab. And thinking, done well, is hard work.

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Jun 212011


Selling Tea on the Nile


Egypt After the Revolution, Part II:

Photographs by Natalia Sarkissian




I’ve just returned from a second trip to Cairo. In the two months since my last visit, the mood of desperation has noticeably lightened. This time, I found no tanks patrolling Tahrir Square; the military had disappeared. Instead, the police force was back on duty. Protests were staged, but these were tiny and orderly. While dissatisfaction with the lack of a significant overhaul exists, for the most part, Egyptians keep it in check. They are waiting for the elections in September. They’re hopeful that with a new President, a new and more equitable direction will finally be charted. And, in the meantime, they’re living.


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Jun 202011

“They come out from behind the barn as though something is going to happen, and then nothing happens.”

— Lydia Davis, The Cows. 

YouTube Preview Image

(A claymation video of a line from Lydia Davis’s The Cows, by Electric Literature)

Flaubert and Cows

By Mary Stein

A few weeks ago, I ventured to my local Minneapolis bookstore on one of those rumored “quick stops” where people allegedly “swing by to pick up just one thing.” I was looking for The Cows, a new chapbook by Lydia Davis. Ultimately stymied by genre distinction, I begrudgingly asked a clerk where I could find this coveted gem, having not found it in any of the obvious places. After all, alphabetization couldn’t have become more complicated since the last time I was there, could it? The kind clerk pointed me toward the “Animal” section. The Cows was subcategorized under “Miscellaneous” where I found it wedged into near-oblivion between two door-stopper-sized books (one called Christian Lions and the other an anthology about birds).

The Cows is a fragmented story that meditates on three cows that live across the road from Davis. It was released as a chapbook in March, 2011 by Sarabande—a nonprofit literary press that releases approximately ten titles annually. Not six months earlier, Davis had embarked on an entirely different project. In September, 2010 Lydia Davis’s translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was published courtesy of Viking Penguin. The scope of these two projects seem to exist in entirely different literary realms, and if “opposite” could ever be measured in gradations, Sarabande and Penguin are about as opposite as it comes. But what struck me about each publication was Davis’s search for relevance—not in the oft-overlooked crannies of daily life, but in subjects that stare us in the face: a book translated almost twenty times already; cows.

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