Aleksander Hemon‘s story, “The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders,” works as a list story. Alphonse Kauders is a Zelig like character with access to some of the past century’s worst men. Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, Tito and Gavrilo Princip all have direct contact with Kauders. Kauders even impregnates Eva Braun. The story basically involves a series of philosophical musings about Kauders likes and dislikes, about his predilections for pornography, about his fascination with fire, and about his hatred of watches and horses.
Like other list stories I’ve read, Hemon uses repeated images and patterns to substitute for traditional structural devices. There were many memorable lines from this story:
One of Alphonse Kauder’s seven wives had a tumor as big as a three-year old child.
Alphonse Kauders was a Virgin in his horoscope. And in his horoscope only.
Alphonse Kauders said to Eva Braun: “Money isn’t everything. There is some gold too.”
“Since the day I was born, I have been waiting for Judgement Day. And the Judgement Day is never coming. And, as I live, it is becoming all to clear to me. I was born after the Judgement Day.”
The strange, perplexing part of this story comes at the end. There are a series of explanatory ‘Notes’ at the end of the story. In these notes, the author (apparently directly) gives historical context and commentary on some of the real people who figured in the story as well as on various books and historical events. I’m not sure what to make of these notes. Are they supposed to represent some kind of ironic statement about the story? Is the author of the notes Hemon? Is the author of the notes someone else (in the sense of the original story, say an absent narrator?) The strange thing for me was how the notes (which take up almost 4 pages) seem to be really outside the formal construction of the story. Yet when you read the notes, they seem straight forward and un-stylized. Here’s an example:
Richard Sorge was a Soviet spy in Tokyo, undercover as a journalist, eventually becoming a press attaché in the German embasssy. He informed Stalin that Hitler was going to attack the Motherland, but Stalin trusted Hitler and disregarded the information. The first time I read about Sorge I was ten and, not even having reached the end of the book, decided to become a spy. At the age of sixteen, I wrote a poem about Sorge entitled “The Loneliest Man in the World.” The first verse: “Tokyo is breathing and I am not.”
Is the ‘I’ of this note Hemon, commenting directly on this historical figure (who also appears in the story) or is it something else? Part of my dilemma with this is that the notes seem obvious and basic, while the story is strange. Does the reader really need an explanation of the Yalta Conference?
It would be interesting to see how Hemon approaches the story for a reading. Does he read the notes too? Anyway, this has plagued me now for a few days.
I haven’t read this story, but now am intrigued, first because it’s a list story and second because of the notes.
From my reading, I’ve seen that notes when used in fiction serve to render the narrative strange in a V. Shklovsky sense (so that the reader, feeling stones underfoot is made to stop and reflect). As you point out, when used well, notes must be an integral part of the story. Some successful note strategies include digression (as seen in Tristram Shandy & The Mezzanine, parallelism (Pale Fire and the Kiss of the Spiderwoman) metafiction (Pale Fire and Blackout) and satire (Pale Fire). Usually notes are purportedly written by the story’s fictional narrator or editor.
My guess is that the author, when giving a reading, doesn’t always read the notes, but then again, I’m remembering Xu Xi’s lecture a couple of residencies ago where the entire lecture was a series of endnotes.
The story is in the anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, ed. by Ben Marcus. I should have included that in the post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the story, and especially on Hemon’s use of notes. I agree, that most stories I’ve read that use notes use them to estrange the act of reading the narrative. One of J.M. Coetzee’s recent books, Diary of a Bad Year, does a lot of this, with the narrative split into 3 sections right on the page, each commenting on the other. (Not exactly ‘notes’ but similiar enough to make the point.) In Hemon’s story, it seems like the notes might be just explanatory, at least as they’re written, but I have a hard time believing that’s possible. Look forward to hearing from you about if you can track down the story. 🙂