Aug 312010


It has been said that creative nonfiction authors like to write about themselves: I had a tumultuous childhood, I went a year without eating anything brown, I find gems of wisdom in the ingredient lists of common foodstuffs.  That’s nice, but the real world isn’t populated solely with various iterations of the first person.  Though all the “others” out there might interrupt our self-indulgent reveries, they often have something very important to say.  So how can we carefully and strategically let them into our personal essays and our memoirs.

introductions1McPhee’s “Founding Fish,” page one.

I am, generally speaking, a science and nature writer.  Therefore, so-called “experts” (actual scientists and naturalists) always poke their heads into my essays.  In an effort to learn how to organize and orchestrate their entrances, I decided to look at the opening chapters of two books that are rich with interlopers: Founding Fish, by John McPhee, and Hell or High Water, by Peter Heller.  (You’re gathering by now this is a critical essay DG asked me to tweak and post here.  I, sadly, do not have the lucrative publication deal Mr. Farrell enjoys.)

McPhee’s book is an all-angles examination of one species of fish: the American shad.  In the opening chapter, McPhee spends more than two hours reeling in one of these anadromites from the Delaware River.  Woven into this primary narrative are segments about the landscape, the life history of the fish, and the key characters that will figure prominently in the remainder of the book.  Heller follows a kayak expedition down Tibet’s Tsangpo River, which has never been successfully run.  The author, a kayaker himself commissioned by Outside Magazine to follow the trek, doesn’t ever get into the river, but instead walks the shore with the “ground team” supporting the seven boaters.  In the prologue and first chapter, Heller juggles the entrances of all seven kayakers and nearly a dozen other major and minor characters.

introductions2Heller’s “Hell or High Water,” page one.

In these two books, the authors use a variety of methods to introduce the large number of characters.  This essay will examine the structures and triggers employed in introducing these characters.  An introduction structure refers to how a character is brought into the story over time, and appears in these books in four types: continuous, suspended, stuttering, and brief.  An introduction trigger refers to the immediate reason the character is introduced, and appears here in five types: by the story, by association, by background, by others, and by needed expertise.

Types of Character Introduction Structures:

Continuous: A continuous introduction includes a lengthy introduction and description of a character the very first time the character is encountered.  McPhee uses this structure to introduce the three expert fishermen, Buddy Grucela, Erwin Dietz, and Gerald Hartzel.  On page 5, these three men are mentioned for the first time: “[Cervone] knew he wasn’t fishing with Buddy Grucela.  He knew he wasn’t fishing with Erwin Dietz or Gerald Hartzel – living figures in the Cooperstown of shad.”  There is a short paragraph, and then McPhee begins a more than two-page description of Dietz and Hartzel, in sequence, before entering and even lengthier description of Grucela.  At no point during the introduction and description of these three men does McPhee return to the present story (that of him fishing with the Cervones in the Delaware River).  The three expert fishermen are called by name, then brought into the book with lengthy descriptions.

Suspended: A suspended introduction includes an initial mention of a character, by name or “profession,” then a later lengthy introduction after other action or discussion has occurred.  McPhee uses this structure to introduce the other two fishermen that appear in the opening chapter: the Cervones, who are in the boat with him.  On page 5 the men are mentioned by name: “Three of us were in the boat, close and tandem.  I was in the middle, fishing over the shoulder of the skipper, Ed Cervone.  Fishing over my shoulder was Ed’s son, Edmund Cervone.”  No further information is shared about these men (except for Ed’s psychology degree, which is used for humor, not introduction) until page 12, after having left the present action to introduce the three expert fishermen and relate some natural history elements.  Then the Cervones return to the story: “Edmund Cervone, behind me, said nothing.  Edmund was an instinctive, natural absolute river fisherman.  On various outings, fish had come to his line while avoiding his father’s and mine” and “Ed Cervone is the sort of person who, when he is fishing, might as well be chained among the shadows in a cave.  No nuance of depth or color is too subtle to prevent his frequent adjustments of style.”  Until this point, though McPhee has divulged his companions’ names, there has been no other information shared.  Notable also is the reiteration of physical location in the boat (“Edmund Cervone, behind me”), to tie the two portions of the introduction together.

Stuttering: A stuttering introduction is composed of several initial mentions of a character, sometimes not even by name, then a later lengthy introduction.  Heller uses this technique to introduce the expedition kayakers.  Though each of the seven (including the expedition leader Scott Lindgren) is dealt with similarly, the technique is illustrated here through Willie Kern.  Kern first appears on page 1, in the second paragraph of the book, though not by name.  He is an undifferentiated member of a group: “The kayakers moved quickly, pulling on life vests and helmets, and didn’t speak.  It was already afternoon.  After 10 years of planning, there wasn’t much to say.  They were seven of the best expeditionary paddlers in the world, from four countries, led by Scott Lindgren of Auburn, California.”  On page three he reappears, again without being named: “If anyone could get it done, though, it would be these seven.  Most of them had been kayaking since they were children, and in recent years each had paddled close to 300 days a year.”  On page 4 he begins to emerge individually, and is at last named, at the conclusion of a list of all the kayakers: “Twin brothers Johnnie and Willie Kern, 29, from Stowe, Vermont, have a reputation for fearlessness – for years in the States, a truism went: ‘If the Kern brothers won’t run it, nobody will.’”  Much later, on page 15, he is mentioned once again by name: “For the past two weeks, Scott, Dustin, Willie and Johnnie Kern, and Dustin Knapp had been working 22 hours a day editing footage of their latest video.”  Three sentences later, in what constitutes the fifth time Willie Kern is brought up with the other kayakers or mentioned by name, he is finally described in full, beginning with: “The first person I met was Willie Kern.  He was tall, broad-shouldered, and bulky, with a goatee and wide-set, intelligent eyes, and he had shades propped on the brim of a baseball cap.”  An ensuing paragraph continues the physical and skill-set description

Brief: A brief introduction reveals a character by name or with a brief description without a follow-up appearance by the character.  This technique is used by both McPhee and Heller when the character is minor or introduced for a very specific purpose.  On page 23 of “Founding Fish,” in the second to last paragraph of the chapter, McPhee introduces an expert briefly:  “Soon after that evening in Lambertville, I told this story to Richard St. Pierre, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Headquartered in Harrisburg, on the Susquehanna River, he is a shad specialist, who has worked as a shad consultant on the Hudson River, the Columbia River, and the Yangtze.”  Mc Phee then uses just two sentences to conclude the chapter – in essence using St. Pierre only to deliver the chapter’s punch line.

Types of Character Introduction Triggers:

The Story: When the story is the trigger, the character is physically encountered by the narrator during the primary action of the story.  On page 5, McPhee uses this trigger technique to introduce the Cervones by describing the “lay of the land” of the fishing expedition he is on: “Three of us were in the boat, close and tandem.  I was in the middle, fishing over the shoulder of the skipper, Ed Cervone.  Fishing over my shoulder was Ed’s son, Edmund Cervone.”

In “Hell or High Water,” this is the dominant introduction trigger, and is often used repeatedly with the same character, such as in the introduction of Willie Kern and the other kayakers.  On page 1, when Heller first describes the kayakers entering the water, he is standing on the bank watching them.  When Willie Kern is finally introduced in detail, Heller begins with: “The first person I met was Willie Kern.”  Similarly: “Steve Fisher ambled out of a video editing room.”

Association: When an introduction is triggered by association, the character is introduced when real-time action or thought makes the narrator think of the character.  This association can be to illustrate contrast or similarity, or as an example or proof of the real-time action or thought.  McPhee uses this trigger to introduce the three expert fishermen.  On pages 5 and 6, he moves from the initial mention of the Cervones to the continuous introduction of the experts.  He uses contrast to shift from characters he is physically near to characters that are in his mind:  “Cervone the Elder, who has a doctorate in psychology, seemed unimpressed – seemed to be suggesting, through a light shrug, that he knew bullshit by its cover.  He knew he wasn’t fishing with Buddy Grucela.  He knew he wasn’t fishing with Erwin Dietz or Gerald Hartzel – living figures in the Cooperstown of shad.  He knew that in my seven years as a shad fisherman I had risen steadily into a zone of terminal mediocrity.”

Heller uses this trigger technique to introduce the late kayaker Doug Gordon and to offer proof of the danger of the expedition.  He does this twice for Gordon, once on page 3:  “There was no guarantee that any of them would come back alive.  The last team to make a serious attempt on the Tsangpo – an American group led by Wickliffe Walker in 1998 – made only 27 miles before seasoned kayaker Doug Gordon drowned.”  And again on page 6: “’Have you heard of the Tsangpo Gorge?’ It may have been the breath of the down-valley night wind, but I don’t think so: A wave of goose bumps spread over my shoulders.  ‘Yes,’ I said.  Three years before, I had attended a memorial service for 42-year-old Doug Gordon.”  A short description of Gordon and the circumstances of his death follows.

Background: When an introduction is triggered by background, the character appears in a secondary story to the main story, such as in an anecdote from the past or something the narrator heard second-hand.  Heller uses this technique with several other kayakers, including Doug Gordon again, who are peripheral to the main story but provide context.  On page 9, Heller is describing the expedition’s leader Scott Lindgren, and begins to relate the story of another expedition down the same river: “…but [Lindgren had] already backed off once when other teams were clamoring at the gates.  In the spring of 1998, when [Scott Lindgren] and [Charlie] Munsey were there the first time, a race was on.  An old Special Forces Vietnam vet and expeditioner, Wickliffe Walker, and Tom McEwan were putting together a team of former whitewater racers and Olympians – including the ill-fated Doug Gordon – for a run in the fall.”

Others: When an introduction is triggered by others, the character is mentioned in the story by someone other than the narrator, which leads to an introduction of the character.  McPhee uses this technique to introduce the two wives, Marian Cervone and Yolanda Whitman, beginning on page 20:

“Well,” the cop continued, with the slightest pause.  “Your wife called.  She wants you home.  She thinks you’re dead.”

Laughter on the bridge – 9:50 PM

It was not true that Marian Cervone was concerned about her husband.  By her own account, the man is too unpredictable to worry about.  She wasn’t worried about Edmund, either.  It was my wife, Yolanda Whitman, whose mind had been crossed by the ultimate possibility.

Heller also uses this trigger technique to introduce one of the expedition kayakers who was not apparently present in the office where he met the others.  Johnnie Kern appears in detail (after a stuttered introduction) on page 15-16:  “I pointed to a Liquid Lifestyles poster of a kayak midway down monstrous 80-foot falls and asked if the paddler was Willie.  ‘That’s Johnnie, dang him,’ [Willie] said.  ‘My stunt double.  I’ll be using him a lot on the Tsangpo.’  Johnnie was Willie’s fraternal twin and looked like him, with a long, trimmed moustache and soul patch.”  A lengthy description of Johnnie follows.

Expertise: When an introduction is triggered by the need for expertise, the character is introduced for the purpose of adding credibility to a statement made by the author/narrator, and usually includes a reference to the character’s credentials.  McPhee introduces Richard St. Pierre this way, but also Willy Bemis, who figures more prominently in the book but appears on page 14 of the first chapter for his expertise:  “One look at that forked tail and you know that the fish is active in the middle of the water column and not sitting around on the bottom like a bullhead catfish, whose tail is so rounded it looks like a coin.  A trout has a rounded tail, as well, and, as a swimmer, is one notch up from a catfish.  I am indebted for these descriptions primarily to Willy Bemis, an anatomist of fishes, who is a professor of ichthyology at the University of Massachusetts.”  McPhee introduces Bemis to give him credit for his knowledge, essentially citing a source.

Both authors use a wide variety of introduction structures and triggers, and tend to group their characters together with similar techniques.  McPhee uses continuous structure for the expert fishermen, but suspended structure for his companions.  Heller uses stuttered structure for the seven expedition kayakers, but either brief or continuous structure for everyone else.  Dare I say there is probably another essay here about how to establish the importance (or not) of characters through the choice of introduction structures and triggers….

PS:  If you’ve recently read something with plenty of characters introduced early on, I’d love to hear about it.

—Adam Arvidson

Aug 272010

Naton Leslie, Photo by Jennifer May

Here is a story by my old friend Naton Leslie, short story writer, essayist, poet, teacher & mad antiques collector extraordinaire. He lives down the road from me in Ballston Spa and teaches at Sienna College. This story is from his collection Marconi’s Dream which won the George Garrett Fiction Prize. I wrote a blurb for the book. It went like this:

Naton Leslie’s passionately detailed prose wrings meaning from the lives of Americans passed over by the go-go economics of the last thirty years, the working poor of the rust belt and the old upstate New York mill towns gone to seed. His characters are desperately trying to find love and dignity in the wreckage of a society where the old verities—honesty, hard work, fair dealing— don’t count for much any more.

The rather splendid photo above is reproduced here courtesy of Jennifer May who just published a book of author photos River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers.


Author’s Note

I’ve always been fascinated with depression-era stories, as they always contain a certain pathos and desperation.  Sometimes I they think enter the realm of mythos as well; the story of being served up your own pet rabbit on a dinner plate has been told to me by a number of people, and nearly always the same way: the somber faces of the parents; the silent dinner as everyone digs in and devours Thumper etc. While my father also told this story, as reported in the following piece, he had other, more singular tales to tell.

—Naton Leslie


My father always laid claim to a Dickensian childhood, to hear him tell it. And he did, often, whenever some little triumph or tragedy entered our pale, inflated lives. When he delivered newspapers, long before breakfast, he’d pick apples along the way to keep from truly expiring from hunger. He had been close to death many times—but this is not about death.

This is about the movies. My father swept the movie theater floor for the change he’d find, and for a free ticket to the next show. Then he’d see Flash Gordon, the news from The War, Roosevelt relaxed in his seat, shaking hands with other men my father called great, or, if he was lucky, white-hatted men who finally gunned down their black-hatted foes—simple justice, simple myth-making when there was a real enemy, when there was a right and a wrong, a drunk and sober, a dirty and clean, a hungry and full, a happy and sad. On this he was adamant. His days were times of extremes, delineated like black and white film, not muddy and imperfect and phony, with our life-like living color. It was damned shame, he’d say, the way things turned out.

But my father is telling this story, mind you, not me. I’m not part of this story, or maybe simply a witness, an ear. I don’t even have to tell this story because you already know it. Your parents had their own snow drifts to navigate when they walked, often barefoot or at least bareheaded (come-on, you’d say) to school, their own pet rabbits slaughtered and served up on their own depression plates—that’s another story he told, too, and I’m sure he didn’t make it up because it’s happened to so many other people.

One time, at the Orpheum theater (a great name, I always thought, for the location of my father’s own Stygian stables), he was finished sweeping up the candy wrappers and popcorn, and the manager offered him a ticket to a show, but not to the next movie the next night because Gene Autry would be making a personal appearance, before the opening of a new feature film—even the big stars did that kind of stuff back then, he said. They weren’t primadonnas, like now. Well, my father would say, the theater owner knew he’d have no trouble filling the house with paying customers and didn’t want to waste a seat on him. He was sorry.

My father, the poor waif who swept up after the paying customers, was a great fan of all cowboys, especially those like Roy Rogers, but he tried to hide his disappointment as he left, walking home in tennis shoes that were both left feet because he’d bought them himself from the second-hand store because he’d needed them and there was a war, you know, and rationing. He tried to hold his chin up anyway, because he was strong, even back then. So he walked home, in the snow, I’m sure there was snow; there was always snow when you had to walk back then, and he left footprints that looked like they were made by someone you’d call Hopalong Cassidy, who was my father’s hero, though Cassidy had both left and right boots. He got home early so he could do his chores, for which he never received so much as a thanks, let alone a nickel, and then he’d go to bed early so he could deliver the paper the next day. It was Sunday, and the papers were extra heavy. A real burden.

But the manager had a soft heart, a common ailment back then, along with a stiff upper lip, tight fists and something my father simply called “backbone,” though I never knew if it meant you couldn’t sit down or stand up. The next day my father showed up after the show to sweep, but this time he was wearing a toy six-gun, a genuine Wyatt Earp, pearl-handled, hog-legged gun my father often described, his only toy as far as I could tell, which he bought with the sweat of his brow, I tell you. Nothing was given to him, not like children today, he’d say. But how I wanted that cap gun, all metal and nearly real.

But this is not about me. This is my father’s story. There he was, doing his job, when he heard a voice call out his name, and the owner walked down the aisle with another man, and as sure as you’re born it was Gary Cooper, tall and silent, my father’s favorite cowboy, asking him if he’d like to get a drink down at the soda fountain when he finished his work. This was better than seeing him before the movie. This was my father as a boy and his hero, Roy Rogers, walking down the street, the two of them, with everybody watching as they sat at the counter and had a fountain Coke and a hamburger too, and he usually didn’t get meat more than once a week—just my father and Jimmy Stewart or someone, I can’t remember who, but I know he was proud, and there was no snow, and he was wearing his six gun and everyone was finally envious of him. When the story ended we knew we’d never feel as proud as he did that afternoon. And we knew he spoke the truth.

—Naton Leslie

Aug 272010

Jeet and Robin 005

A little over a decade ago, Hugh Kenner returned to Canada to deliver the Massey Lectures, a long-standing Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio lecture series. House of Anansi subsequently published Kenner’s lectures under the title The Elsewhere Community, and Jeet Heer wrote the following review essay for Canadian Notes & Queries #55 (the same magazine, not the same issue, that just published my essay on Alice Munro). Though all this happened some time ago, it’s a pleasure to bring Jeet’s essay back on Numéro Cinq; new eyes make the piece new. And some of Kenner’s background may come as a surprise to a new generation of American readers.

Jeet Heer, whom I have come to know since he scrambled up the bear-sex idea in my novel Elle a couple of weeks ago, is a graceful man, a widely published and prolific literary journalist and a comic book scholar (he is finishing his doctorate at York University, incidentally, my alma mater, in Toronto).


On Hugh Kenner’s The Elsewhere Community

By Jeet Heer

Canadians, who are now merely indifferent to literature, once lived in fear of it. Customs agents, armed with a high school education and a list of proscribed authors, stood guard not only against smut but also naturalism, aestheticism and modernism – anything strange and foreign. As late as 1946 books by Balzac, Guy de Maupassant, Zola, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce were deemed by official policy to be dangerous to the Dominion.

During this distant era, Hugh Kenner, a student at the University of Toronto, developed an interest in twentieth-century literature. His mentors of Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, both of whom benefited from studying abroad, had brought back word of modernism of the Canadian hinterland. Kenner discovered that Joyce’s Ulysses, otherwise verboten in Canada, could be found in the restricted access section of the University of Toronto library. However, in order to take a look at the illicit text, Kenner needed to secure two letters of reference: one from a religious authority and one from a medical doctor. Kenner knew a priest who could vouch for his morals, but unfortunately, was unable to find an obliging M.D. to attest to the fact that reading Joyce would not corrupt his physical stamina. Ultimately, Kenner had a family friend, a Jesuit priest, smuggle into Canada a copy of the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Reading Ulysses, along with meeting Ezra Pound in 1948, was a turning point in Kenner’s life. Modernism, he quickly decided, was the central literature of his time. While D.H. Lawrence was also forbidden in Canada, Kenner believed that it was Joyce’s masterly of language, much more than his sexual frankness, that made him a revolutionary writer. He once made a sharp comparison between Lawrence and Jocye:

The telling difference between Constance Chatterly’s surrender (“She was utterly incapable of resisting it. From her breast flowed the answering, immense, yearning over him; she must give him anything, anything”) and Marion Bloom’s (“yes and my heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes”) is a difference in the molecular structure of language: the former, a Victorian survival applied to counter-Victorian situations, the latter a radical linguistic innovation, rhythm and syntax interlocked, assured. Which is why the presence or absence on American shores of Lady Chatterly’s Lover ultimately makes no difference except to the publishing trade and the custodians of the immature, while the presence of Ulysses has for some decades been slowly altering the world.

Confident of the importance of modernism, Kenner would spend his career writing about not only Joyce and Pound, but also their many friend and disciples, including T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and W.B. Yeats. Viewed as a whole, Kenner’s critical oeuvre constitutes our best guide to twentieth-century English literature. No one else has written about such a range of authors with as much care, as much thought, as much perception. Moreover, especially in major books like The Pound Era (1971), Kenner has written prose of rare grace and energy, making him one of the few academic literary critics who delight as well as illuminate.

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Aug 242010

Sex and poetry don’t often go together, to my mind at least–you know, not automatically anyway, although maybe, sometimes.  (Well, what do I know. Poets are so quiet. You never know what they’re thinking.) My friend Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, a Toronto novelist and story writer, smacks them together violently along with a hybrid motor car and a tale of old love in this new story “The Longest Destroyed Poem.” Kathryn’s two novels and her first collection of stories can be found at Amazon. Look her up.



The Longest Destroyed Poem

By Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

When Rosa saw him after all those years her first thought was how fleshily ugly Victor had become, and yet, if she was honest to herself, he hadn’t ever been much of a looker. He was a poet. And the second thing she thought was how easy it would have been all those years back to get him in one of his gin sleeps, and suture his mouth tightly shut. She imagined the semi-circular needle and the thick surgical thread, black and angry, and the coarse knots, like waxed midges, at regular intervals, but of course she was, in those days, not equipped with expertise in any field much less doctoring.

Victor noticed her in that split second, too, and he knew what Rosa was up to, for his face changed, channel surfing from neutral smug — well, this was his everyday face — to impending doom. The eyes dilated and he reeled ever so slightly backward. Rosa was driving. Coming up through the Annex on her way home from the hospital. It was primal instinct that led her to accelerate, and a surge in adrenaline after that, that — she could practically feel the dopamine firing her into focus — had her steering the Prius up between two parked cars over the curb and, then, right into Victor’s stomach. Whoop!

Their relationship had been a competition. Who could drink the most (him), who could over-extend orgasm (her) — like that. They were practically athletes when it came to domestic games. And now it was like the car ate him right up. Rosa paused, pulling her foot off the gas pedal, and then hitting it again, which bucked the car forward. She was excited to see him lift up, a test dummy, and fly along with the chassis of her ecovehicle through the plate glass window of the East-West Futon store.

Twenty-five years. He would be sixty-something, and she damn well wasn’t revealing her age. She looked fabulous. Better than back then, when she’d thought she wanted to be an artist, and Victor had made a point — she realized this as she realized many many things, that is she realized it in retrospect — of dropping into the conversation — the one she hadn’t actually been having with him, because she was instead focused almost solely on the fact his much younger roommate had a hand under the blanket her crotch also happened to be under — that he was off to bed early so he could work on a poem he’d been having trouble with.

A poem, she had thought, one he’s been having trouble with, like most men would say of their carburetor, or a girlfriend, things you really could fix by hitting them with the right sort of wrench or else a witty comment. But a poem. It hadn’t occurred to her that one worked on these. To her they arose genius born on the onion pages of a Norton’s Anthology.

Yet through the moist fug of foreplay, she had heard this little gem of information, and even though what the much younger roommate had been doing was more or less exactly what she wished for to happen, she discreetly pulled away and said she needed to go to the washroom, and where was it? And then Rosa followed her pheromonal imperative up the stairs to rake the door gently with her new manicure.

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Aug 222010

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne. To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.

The personal essay as a form is relatively new to me; I enrolled at VCFA in the area of Creative Nonfiction, in fact, without a complete understanding of what the term means, and after my first residency I found I wasn’t the only one. In asking CNF faculty, I found they frequently brought up the terms “literary journalism” and “personal essay.” They almost always referred us to Phillip Lopate’s introductory essay from The Art of the Personal Essay for basic traditions of the personal essay form, and I referred to Mark Kramer’s “Breakable Rules of Literary Journalism” from the Literary Journalism anthology, which I also teach in my Media Writing classes. I’ve found that, while my media writing (and teaching) tends to follow the rules of literary journalism, the work I’ve been most interested in learning and doing recently has been personal essay. So, it makes sense that I would want to learn the traditions and conventions of the form, in the context of both my own writing and the CNF genre.

While Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay is a perfectly apt summation of the form for the general reader, I had my worries as a writer about applying a descriptive list of formal attributes to my own writing (and reading!). One name, though, kept coming up in both the introduction and my conversations with other people writing, teaching, and learning the personal essay form, a man who died more than 400 years ago, whom Lopate considers so important to the personal essay that he gave him his own section titled “Fountainhead” – Michel de Montaigne. I hadn’t read him since taking an undergraduate Renaissance literature course, and the only thing I remember is liking the fact that he was the only Renaissance writer we read who wasn’t obsessed with the nature of God. So last semester I read Montaigne’s three essays in the Lopate anthology, including the 54-page “On Some Verses of Virgil.” After reading all three of them, but especially “On Some Verses…,”I started to realize why Montaigne is so frequently cited, and – I’m not ashamed to admit it – I decided I want to write like him.

Which is, of course, a fool’s errand. But, at the least, I’ve decided to use his work as a model. So, for each of the five months of this semester, I’ll identify a technique Montaigne uses, show said technique at work in at least one other personal essay, and attempt an explanation of its purpose and effects. Besides my obvious hope that it will somehow ingrain some of these things in my own writing, I hope this series will be helpful to other writers struggling to come to grips with the personal essay form. And yes, I’m making this up as I go– I’ll be reading Montaigne’s Collected Essays each month as I go, annotating, denotating (okay, denoting), compiling, and analyzing as I go, god help me.

This month’s entry is on a central concern to most non-fiction writing (perhaps more so than fiction, but not exclusive to non-fiction) – the integration of “big ideas” with first-person narrative.  Montaigne does this masterfully in all three of his essays I’ve annotated so far, but none so seamlessly and extensively as the 54-page “On Some Verses of Virgil.” I’ll describe the macro pattern first, then for the sake of brevity I’ll  look at this pattern in the first two pages of the essay. After that, I’ll look at how Joan Didion employs this technique in her essay “Goodbye to All That.”

All 54 pages of “On Some Verses” generally eschew an overarching narrative, instead integrating, in order according to the amount  of words Montaigne gives to each, the following three elements:

  1. Personal anecdote, self-revelation, and opinion
  2. Aphorism, advice, and universal wisdom
  3. Direct quotations from other authors

For now I’ll concentrate specifically on 1 and 2, as 3 will probably merit its own essay later this semester. It’s also important here to note the difference between opinion and aphorism. In the (more frequent) cases where Montaigne gives his personal opinion, he generally uses the first-person and employs humor and winking self-deprecation; when using aphorism, he switches to the omniscient third person and the tone shifts to a weighty circumspection.  The fact that the personal material takes up the most space doesn’t necessarily betray a preference on Montaigne’s part – though it probably does – but rather  a necessity of the form. Montaigne’s forbear Cicero, quoted here from John O’Banlon’s Reorienting Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story, posited that narrative is “the fountainhead from which the whole remainder of the speech flows.” Most readers will attest that a story is more interesting than an argument, and the arguments people respond to most are the ones grounded in personal narrative, whether theirs or someone else’s.

Montaigne starts “On Some Verses” big:

To the extent that useful thoughts are fuller and more solid, they are also more absorbing and more burdensome. Vice, death, poverty, disease, are grave subjects and grieve us. We should have our soul instructed in the means to sustain and combat evils and in the rules for right living and right belief, and should often arouse it and exercise it in fine study. But for a soul of the common sort this must be done with some respite and with moderation; it goes mad if it is continually tense. [58-59]

You’ve probably already noticed that he’s meta-writing here, identifying and addressing some of the issues I’ve just pointed out that a personal essayist faces when writing, and reading  – we want to read and write important things – but too much weight at once will crush all but the most interested readers. (Edie Brickell’s most memorable words, to me, were “Shove me into shallow water, before I get too deep.”) Aware of this, Montaigne spends a lengthy paragraph confessing that his own body is failing him, summarizing in one confessional sequence how he went from, “In my youth [needing] to warn and urge myself to stick to my duty,” to his present state, where “I defend myself against temperance as I once did against sensual pleasure.” He continues in this vein for several pages afterward, describing – sometimes with humor, sometimes with a sigh – what a drag it is getting old, punctuating his personal confessions with aphorism and advice like “Wisdom has its excesses, and has no less need of moderation than does folly,” and “Let childhood look ahead, old age backward.” [59] In the course of 54 pages, Montaigne covers disease, depression, women’s roles, sex, love, vice, religion, fatherhood, and literary criticism, maintaining an obvious  self-awareness as a writer throughout.

Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” written roughly 400 years after “On Some Verses,” also mixes personal anecdote with universal statement; it also, at least in part, covers similar thematic territory. One of the essay’s major tropes is a Blakean focus on innocence and experience. I’ll focus on this here in context of the essay’s relationship to Montaigne’s. The innocence (or youth) vs. experience motif runs through literally every page of Didon’s essay, intermingling with the other motifs as well as narrative snapshots of her life in New York:

…one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before .(681)

She then tells of arriving at Idlewild, hearing a song on a jukebox on the Upper East Side that she thinks must be about her, and mistaking the Triboro Bridge for the Brooklyn Bridge from her apartment window in Queens. The most aphoristic statement of the essay is perhaps the one I can most endorse personally:

It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young. (682)

She segues from this into a story of a party in December which she goes to with an older male friend who has slept with five women and owes money to two men from the last party they went to, giving narrative attestation to her previous aphorism.

…I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never loves anyone quite that way again. (683)

After this, she tells of eating a peach on Lexington Avenue with the lush detail of a first kiss.

I knew that it would cost something sooner or later – because I did not belong there, did not come from there – but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have high emotional balance. (683)

There a delicious ambiguity to this statement – will the peach cost her something later, or is it something else? She recounts charging food at Bloomingdale’s in order to eat on $70 a week, looking in the windows of brownstones while thinking about she ways she would make herself rich, meeting extravagant people at extravagant parties, and watching the holidays and years go by.

New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu. (684)

Which leads into her observation that for her first year she lived entirely in other people’s apartments, and after that she had a longstanding aversion to buying furniture, eventually leaving all of her belongings in her old apartment to move into a “monastic” apartment on 75th Street, where her new husband finally moved actual furniture when they were married.

That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it. (685)

This leads her to recount minute, seemingly unrelated flashes of memory, mnemonic smells, touches, sensations.

I suppose that a lot of us who have been in New York have the same scenes on our home screens. (685-6)

After this, she transposes a panoply of sleepless nights with friends at different bars with the comfort of Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee at her midtown job writing advertising copy, then describes the comforting loneliness of housesitting her friend’s apartment in the West Village with no one calling her, to the very end going to every party she was invited to.

You will have perceived by now that I was not one to profit by the experience of others, that it was a very long time indeed before I stopped believing in new faces and began to understand the lesson in that story, which was that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the fair. (687)

And here she tells of everything seeming old, like she’d heard it all before, avoiding certain parts of the city, hurting people she cared about, insulted those she didn’t, crying compulsively “in elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries,” contemplating the final step to becoming a New Yorker – getting a therapist – but getting married instead, and leaving New York with him.

All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore. (688)

It wasn’t until I strung these lofty statements together and summarized the stories between that I discovered the road maps they gave to the succession of short narratives that might seem to have only intuitive coincidence with each other. In fact, each story reinforces the aphoristic point made by these epic statements, and allows her to be open-ended about the ending – in fact, seems to leave her no choice but open-endedness, as that’s the structure she set up.

—John Proctor

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.

To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.

Aug 202010




It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread, to think of nothing, to hear no thunder, no rain, no splashing from the gutter, no gurgling around the house. Perhaps no pagoda will emerge, but the night will pass. —Man in the Holocene

We would like to think there is, if not an amity, at least some correspondence between what ticks inside our heads and whatever it is that runs the world’s clock. Geiser, the protagonist of Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene, indirectly voices such a desire throughout the novel. As for Geiser, as for writers and readers. If fiction is an ordering of experience, point of view can define relationships within that expe­rience. Between readers and author there is the narrator who shapes the telling and manages the way we receive its characters and the story’s message. The point of view established in a text is based on assumptions about what narrators and char­acters understand and are capable of understanding, about what they can and can­not do in the world, and about what the world might offer in return. The concept itself implies, perhaps, that our knowledge of people and the world exists only as it is refracted through a mind. Point of view can also, in the distance it sets between narrators and characters and between writers and readers create “the interest, the conflicts, the suspense, and the plot itself in most modern narratives” (Martin 131). More is involved here than dramatic effect, though: the way we feel about charac­ters and what they do contributes to our understanding of them. We would like to think that the distance that separates us can be closed, that tensions can be eased, that we agree about something, that conflicts find resolution, or, failing all these, that we might at least learn something from the broil. The evidence from Holocene and most recent fiction has been less than favorable, however. Certainties are dis­covered, but these certainties do not add up to much or tell us what we want to know. Still we are reluctant to give up these desires, and if we can’t fulfill them, we still try, those of us who write fiction, to find ways to contain our disappointment.

The horologists who study our fictions and the way we tell them have not brought consensus or felicity, either, and it is difficult even to find a useful defini­tion of point of view or one upon which all agree. The writing handbooks only give a few superficial details, while theorists have dismantled and rebuilt the concept so it can fit into their complex, comprehensive theories of narrative. Stevick regrets the phrase “point of view” because of its ambiguity and broadness: it can refer to the “intellectual orientation of a work. . .to the emotional stance of the writer. . .and to the angle from which a fictional work is narrated”(85). The third sense, he says, has stuck in one guise or another with most theorists, but I prefer a definition that includes all three. An outlook, intellectual or otherwise, will determine this angle of vision and color the light it passes, and it may be hard in some cases to separate Stevick’s second sense from the third. Point of view in the narrower sense depends on Point of View in the larger (hereafter I will resort to the melodramatic gimmick of capitalizing it). Not that this inclusion brings clarity; in fact the opposite may be true, that it compounds the distortion. And theorists may be frustrated in their attempts to create a coherent, unified theory: theories about point of view ulti­mately depend on a coherent, unified Point of View, and their elaborate structures may not have anywhere solid to rest.


Covert vs. Overt Narration

If a theoretical basis for point of view cannot be settled on, the behavior can at least be observed. An author has several matters to resolve and coordinate. First he needs to decide who speaks and in what grammatical person, almost exclusively first or third. Then he has to determine the degree the narrator is present as a per­son. A narrator can have an existence in a story that ranges from covert (or effaced), where we are scarcely conscious of his presence, to overt, where we are aware of being directly addressed by a distinct personal voice, separate from those of the characters. If overt, the narrator may be involved in the story itself as an active participant or perform only as an observer, marginally involved in the plot. Or he may be located at some point removed which may not even be specified, where, though we are aware of his presence as a personal voice, he is not directly linked to the time or place of the story and can move freely across the terrain with­out restraint, and even have the perspective of knowing past and future events, knowledge characters locked in the time of the narrative do not share. A covert narrator can have similar privileges, but because, covert may be even freer because we’re less likely to think of this type as even being located in space and time.

Whether overt or covert, the range and depth of a narrator’s field of vision also need to be defined. A narrator may follow one character closely, presenting only his thoughts and feelings and seeing only what he sees (though we’re not bound to his vision: our understanding of this character will be qualified by other characters he encounters and what they say and do), or be able to observe closely the lives of several or all characters. A narrator may then stay on the surface, reporting only characters’ external words and actions, or dip inside their heads and present their thoughts, feelings, and whatever else he finds there. An author also has to decide on how his narrator will present this material, by summary and analysis, by direct or indirect quotation of their words and thoughts, or by some combination of these (free indirect discourse—more on this later). And in summary and indirect dis­course, the narration will be conditioned by the manner in which it is said, the tone of the narrator’s voice, his language, its rhythms.

Finally, an author has to decide how trustworthy to make his narrator. Unreli­able narrators, usually made so by their age and immaturity or by some emotional instability, stake a point against which another viewpoint must be posited (oh, let’s call it the author’s, but then there is also the possibility the author does not have one or refuses to give one, in which case the first point can’t be set and we’re all lost in relativity). But what is the opposite of unreliability? To say a narrator is reliable leads to the question as to what he is reliable about, and any account that goes beyond presenting the details of behavior must have a way to assemble them. Ulti­mately, we have to consider Point of View in the larger sense, whatever intellectual baggage the narrator carries. And selection of Point of View will influence the other decisions. A moralist on the order of Thackeray or a Marxist might give his narra­tor absolute authority and have him look through the eyes of a limited character—limited because a single individual at best can only play a small part in a larger social order—and may not have him spend much time inside that character’s head because there is little there he finds worthwhile (Cohn makes this point on Thack­eray, 67). A psychologist of whatever camp, on the other hand, may demote his orators and revolutionaries to characters who think they know what they’re talking about, but don’t, because he may believe their ideas not only ignore the funda­mentals of human behavior but also because their ideologies are suspect them­selves, based on psychological imbalance.

However gross my characterizations of the above narrators—thank heaven none of these exist, or exist very long—any writer is going to have, even though not formalized into theory, some attitude towards people, along with opinions on why they behave the way they do and how they should behave, and these will influence his esthetic choices. The person and thoughts about the person cannot be abstracted out of motive in fiction, the way, perhaps, motif can in music. We, of course, do not read fiction to learn ideas, any more than we look at a painting so we can imagine and then contemplate lines of perspective, but in both arts, perspective shapes the work (and perspective itself in the visual arts depends on a theoretical position). Even to reject ideas themselves implies an intellectual stance, and a writer who accepts this tact may spend his time on the surface, paying more atten­tion to craft than theme, turning point of view into a prism which produces many bright and interesting colors, but such a work will still influence the way we think about people and how seriously we take them.

Yet anyone trying to deal with the workings of the mind, however much he wants to believe in the permanence and universality of his views, has to face the fact that not only gray matter but also theories and opinions about it are loose and malleable stuff. Trends change along with what we raise from the depths (the rea­son why I suspect any attempt to define a theory of stream of conscious writing is doomed, also the reason why I’m glad we have writers: they create better fictions about the mind). Writers dealing with social order have to contend with a similar looseness in the rules they believe govern social conduct. It could be argued (and I would agree) that the most successful writers are those who most take on the chal­lenge of Point of View but at the same time recognize its limitations and do not let it too rigidly control their work. These writers also realize not only that much behavior is simply idiosyncratic but also that part of their task is to produce indi­viduals who embody those idiosyncrasies, not reduce them to a set of ideas. I include Point of View in my definition of point of view not because I believe there exists some kind of transcendent order that writers can grasp and in which they should align their work, but the opposite. Just as we accept their characters as “real,” as people who in some way exist, we grant their ideas a similar reality—but only provisionally. We always have to step back from a work and decide if charac­ters behave the way we think actual people do, just as we measure the writers’ ideas against what we believe to be true. We cannot do so until, however, until both are fixed before us in a text, becoming a kind of proposition, and point of view is one way to establish this fixity.

Two examples from Joyce and Mann will illustrate the interrelationship of the different aspects and also define opposite strategies used in third person narratives I will use in analyzing Frisch’s novel. As in Holocene, both narrators center on a single consciousness and have access to that character’s mind. And in all three, the characters are in a state of emotional distress, posing challenges to reaching an understanding of what is going on inside their heads. First, a passage from Mann’s Death in Venice, where Aschenbach is caught in a moment of infatuation with the boy Tadzio:

Too late, he thought at this moment. Too late! But was it too late? This step he had failed to take, it might quite possibly have led to goodness, levity, gaiety, to salutary sobriety. But the fact doubtless was, that the aging man did not want the sobering, that the intoxication was too dear too him. Who can decipher the nature and pattern of artistic creativity? Who can compre­hend the fusion of disciplined and dissolute instincts wherein it is so deeply rooted? For not to be capable of wanting salutary sobering is dissoluteness. Aschenbach was no longer disposed to self-criticism; the tastes, the spiritual dispositions of his later years, self-esteem, maturity, and tardy single-mind­edness disinclined him from analyzing his motives, and from deciding whether it was his conscience, or immorality and weakness that had pre­vented him from carrying out his intention. (qtd. in Cohn: 27)

The excerpt begins with the actual words of Aschenbach’s thought, but pre­sumably he is so distraught that he can go no further and the narrator has to take over. While the narrator is not located in the story in any physical way (how could he be, and then get inside Aschenbach’s head?), he has a distinct presence and speaks to us as a person in his own voice, using his own language. He also speaks with authority, talking about certainties (“the fact” of Aschenbach’s condition). The source of his authority comes from his superior knowledge of human behav­ior, along, perhaps, with his superior control of his emotions which makes such dispassionate analysis possible. And while he largely focuses Aschenbach’s psy­chological condition, his analysis has the force of judgment, a judgment based at least on the virtues of moderation. Whatever the narrator’s exact beliefs, we are aware that he does have a larger Point of View, and this Point of View puts him—and us—at an emotional and intellectual distance from Aschenbach, whom he analyzes as if he were a patient on a couch, if not someone in the confessional, hopelessly unrepentant.

Compare this example with one from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

He shook the sound out of his ears by an angry toss of his head and hur­ried on, stumbling through the mouldering offal, his heart already bitten by an ache of loathing and bitterness. His father’s whistle, his mother’s mut­terings, the screech of an unseen maniac were to him now so many voices offending and threatening to humble the pride of his youth. He drove the echoes even out off his heart with an execration: but, as he walked down the avenue and felt the grey morning light falling about him through the drip­ping trees and smelt the strange wild smell of the wet leaves and bark, his soul was loosed of her miseries.

The rain-laden trees of the avenue evoked in him, as always, memories of the girls and women in the plays of Gerhardt Hauptmann; and the mem­ory of their pale sorrows and the fragrance falling from the wet branches mingled in a mood of quiet joy.(30-31)

Again, the narrator follows his character closely, reports on his behavior, sees through his eyes, and knows what is going on inside his head. He is in touch with Stephen’s emotions as he describes his anger at home and his relief when he escapes, and also knows his habits and predilections—the effect of trees on him “as always,” along with his taste in theater. In both examples, the characters are too absorbed in their present emotional state to make any comment themselves. Here, however, the language of the narrative is rich with imagery, and unlike Mann’s nar­rator, Joyce’s is more interested in presenting emotional fullness and engaging us in it, rather than analyzing its problems. But where does the language come from and how does the narrator feel about this scene or want us to feel? Perhaps having wet leaves described as “strange” and “wet” reflects Joyce’s insight and might alter our perception of them, but the emotion is Stephen’s not the narrator’s. And while the language may not be directly Stephen’s, it is the kind of language he—or at least a sensitive yet sentimental youth—would use. All of the language, its rhythms, its diction, and its imagery, is conditioned by Stephen’s sensitivity and immaturity (a risky trick for Joyce, because so much of the prose has the charm but also the ungainliness of adolescence). Only a mawkish writer would have his narrator use words like “the humble pride of his youth,” and while in other fictions these words might be presented ironically if not sarcastically, as if calling to attention Stephen’s sentimentality, the context of Joyce’s novel does not support such a conclusion. While it is clear that some presence is controlling the narrative which has consider­able privilege in depicting the character, it is difficult to separate the narrator from Stephen. The narrator is an effaced one, not a distinct and separate voice, and exists only to present Stephen as he is at any given moment. Mann’s narrator has proba­bly seen Aschenbach’s fall all along and hints at it. Joyce’s narrator only follows Stephen as he rises and stumbles, without giving us clues as to which might happen next.

Further, while we may question Stephen’s emotional excess and his judgments of his parents, perhaps even form conclusions about the volatility of youth, the larger Point of View here is also Stephen’s: he believes in souls, not the narrator, and has an opinion as to their gender. Joyce does not use his narrator to assert some theological belief. Yet Stephen’s Point of View is incomplete and unstable, and does not provide a full, coherent way for us to reach any definite assessment of him or anything else. Point of View, inasmuch as it exists in the novel, comes from the maturing Stephen as he develops one, and we sense at the end he has more work to do. Here Point of View is dependent upon the character and to an extent inseparable from him, and thus suspect.

Cohn uses the terms dissonance and consonance to describe these two exam­ples respectively. The terms do have unfortunate connotations, as an overt narrator could be in harmony with his character, the covert, at least implicitly, removed, though her use is neutral. Her purpose is to measure distance, and the examples set opposite poles between which other narratives might vary. In the dissonant type, the “narrator remains emphatically distanced from the consciousness he narrates,” while the consonant involves the mediation of a narrator “who readily fuses with the consciousness he narrates” and thus brings it close(26).

Along with the obvious technical differences in the way these types of narra­tions are constructed, there will also be differences in the effect they have on the reader and different trade-offs as well. The covert narration will have a greater degree of immediacy and spontaneity: we see character in the throes of existence without being aware of a separate consciousness channeling this information. But since the narrator closely tracks the character’s thoughts and absorbs his language, his voice will be just as uncertain and unstable. According to Cohn: “The absence from A Portrait of any sort of evaluative judgments has led to the unresolved dis­cussion of its author’s attitude toward Stephen; but Joyce’s avoidance of a marked authorial presence is surely sufficient proof that the portrait of a problematic artist as a problematic young man demands from the reader the same tolerance for ambiguities that went into its making” (32). Joyce’s knowledge of people and the world are built into the way he constructs his character and narrator, but these larger meanings, inasmuch as they exist, will be implicit, and more open to varying interpretations. The appearance, if not the actuality of directness and coherence is sacrificed, the trade-off. Overt narration has the advantage of directness, as the nar­rator not only provides a vehicle for discussion, but also has the means for amplifi­cation, through analysis and commentary, as well as through summary enhanced, perhaps, by his superior control of language. If the writer wants us to take him seri­ously, his voice will assume the force of authority. As Cohn points out, “the stronger the authorial cast, the more emphatic the cognitive privilege of the narra­tor. And this cognitive privilege enables him to manifest dimensions of a fictional character that the latter is unwilling or unable to betray”(29), but, again, at the loss of closeness and spontaneity.


Voice in Frisch

The poles, then, define a spectrum not only between closeness to and distance from a character, but also between authority and subjectivity, and clarity and ambiguity. Towards which end does Man in the Holocene belong? I will argue both, in a sense, and in a sense, neither. Frisch, then, the opening sections of the novel:

It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread, to think of noth­ing, to hear no thunder, no rain, no splashing from the gutter, no gurgling around the house. Perhaps no pagoda will emerge, but the night will pass.

Somewhere a tapping on metal.

It is always with the fourth floor that the wobbling begins; a trembling hand as the next piece of crispbread is put in place, a cough when the gable is already standing, and the whole thing lies in ruins—

Geiser has time to spare.

The news in the village is conflicting; some people say there has been no landslide at all, others that an old supporting wall has col­lapsed, and there is no way of diverting the highway at that spot. The woman in the post office, who ought to know, merely confirms that the mail bus is not running, but she stands behind the little counter in her usual care-laden fashion, keeping usual office hours, selling stamps, and even accepting parcels, which she places unhurriedly on the scales and then franks. It is taken for granted that state and canton are doing everything in their power to get the highway back in order. If necessary, helicopters can be brought in, unless there is fog. Nobody in the village thinks that the day, or perhaps the night, will come when the whole mountain could begin to slide, burying the village for all time.

Somewhere a tapping on metal.

It is midnight, but still no pagoda. (3-4)

This is obviously a third person narrator, and, as gradually becomes apparent, one who follows a single character, Geiser, closely and is privy to what goes on inside his head. The first sentence is a conditional with a gnomic flavor, as might come from an overt narrator with authority, who is commenting about some desir­able state of affairs for man in general, were it not for the specific, localized details of splashing from a particular gutter and gurgling around a particular house. Throughout these sections, there also seems to be some narrative control of time as well, as most the sentences are cast in progressive tense or habitual present, yet the actual time is vague and confusing. And so much of the narrative that follows looks only like objective description, such as might come from an effaced narrator who only reports places, events, thoughts, and sensations, and does so sparingly without comment or analysis. At the outset, who even is being described, where he is, and what happens—much less when—are not immediately clear, and we have to piece the evidence together as it comes. The second sentence tells us a pagoda is actually being built, sometime at night. The second section marks the first actual event in the present, after the progressive time of the first section, but who hears the tapping or where it comes from are still not specified. In the third we become aware of the person who not only hears the tapping but must be the subject of the speculation in the first sentence, an actual person who would like not to hear the noise of rain. And this must be the same person who builds the pagoda, who coughs, whose hand trembles. That “the whole thing lies in ruins” is in the present tense instead of present perfect, which would indicate a completed action, tells us this person has been trying to build one several times, may be doing so now, and will continue to try, probably without success. The fourth section tells us indirectly that this person is Geiser, who either cannot or does not want to sleep, and who is killing time with his construction. Then the fourth section takes us away from the house to a village, presumably the one where Geiser lives, and reports on the villagers’ opinions on a landslide, a highway that may have been damaged. But mention of a landslide takes us back to the first section: it was probably caused, if it did happen, by severe storms—over a week’s worth, we find out on the next page—which might explain why Geiser does not want to hear the rain. He is worried. The sixth section gives only the second actual event in the present time of the narrative, a repetition of the tapping, and the seventh finally identifies the time specifically, midnight, though it is not clear how much time has passed since the beginning section—or how many pagodas have risen and fallen. It would seem, however, that Geiser has been at it for a long time, that his concern about the storm must be considerable. Perhaps this is why his hand trembles.

The narrator does not give much help, and even after several pages, we only have a vague sense of where we are or who is involved. As we read on we are fed information bit by bit, and each new detail forces us to go back to reevaluate what we think we have learned. Only later do we find out that the highway is the only entrance to the village, thus that it is out would leave the villagers—and Geiser—isolated. Yet each new detail also makes us doubt our earlier conclusions. The ninth section suggests Geiser is old, as he describes his guests as youngish. Perhaps his age, then, is why his hand trembles, rather than his worry, or perhaps the shak­ing comes a combination of the two. Only much later can we piece his situation together: 73, a widow, Geiser was an entrepreneur of some sort who retired in this village, where he now sits out a long series of storms. And each new piece of evi­dence leads to more questions. We never feel we know as much as we need to know. How great is the possibility of a flood or landslide? How realistic or exagger­ated are Geiser’s fears? We don’t get definite answers. And when we find out Geiser is distraught enough to attempt what for him is a dangerous climb to safety over a nearby pass, to throw a salamander in the fire, to cook his cat because a power out­age has spoiled his food, yet who also, since these decisions are supposedly made for his survival, ignores his daughter’s phone calls and does not respond to people who knock at his door to help—we are either shocked, because we didn’t see this behavior coming, or not surprised at all because we saw it all along. Either way, we may not be satisfied the narrator has prepared us. Why is he holding out?

Still, as little guidance as we get from the narrator, we are always aware of his presence. He can not only observe but also present Geiser’s thoughts in indirect statement: “Geiser wonders whether there would still be a God if there were no longer a human brain, which cannot accept the idea of a creation without a creator” (9). And he has a distinctive voice, one that can formulate the generalization in the opening section about Geiser’s specific desire to be safe. Perhaps it is the voice of a narrator who is trying to be objective, and thus withholds comments and lets the facts speak for themselves. Or we may sense a wry detachment from a character the narrator at best finds curious. If we read a hint of sarcasm in the first sentence, we might decide that it may be normal to worry about storms, but not to the point that no rain or thunder can be heard. That “Geiser has time to spare,” if we hear a voice with this attitude, might suggest he is a person who does not know how to fill his spare time, and this idleness might lead to his excessive worry. That the village might be buried “for all time” could be read as a heavily sarcastic remark, pointed at Geiser’s boundless fear. Either way, the narrator distances us from Geiser, and we feel we have been given a specimen for some study, though one whose line of inquiry is less than clear. As with Mann’s narrator and his subject, Aschenbach, we have a narrator who knows his character and his condition too well and who sees the inevitable fall. If he doesn’t tell us more, it might be because he would only be stating the obvious (and of course doing so would kill suspense in the plot).

But he is also a narrator who corrects himself. A few pages later we find out “It is not true, incidentally, that no horns are sounding in the valley. . .”(11). Is the road out after all? Perhaps the narrator merely describes earlier reports, and here sets the record straight. Yet so many simple facts which the narrator should have the omniscience to know are often left uncertain, and this uncertainty cannot be attributed to ironic distance. Our attitude about Geiser’s extreme behavior depends on how we interpret the evidence, but I’m not sure we have been given enough by the narrator to reach a definite conclusion about Geiser’s sanity, much less know exactly why he does what he does. More importantly, the narrator, even by impli­cation, does not ascertain what he should know and what we most need to know, the degree of danger that might come from the storms. If there is a high probability of a landslide, and there is much evidence to suggest some probability, then Geiser’s fear, perhaps even his behavior, is not as excessive as we might think. The reason why the narrator doesn’t tell us is because he does not know any more than Geiser what to expect. In fact, the narrator does not tell us anything about his char­acter that Geiser himself does not know. We question the narrator’s apparent omniscience and realize we have to reassess his relationship with Geiser.

Ultimately, we have to decide who is speaking and how. In the fourth section the assessment of the postal clerk as a person “who ought to know” if there has been a landslide, but doesn’t because she is too occupied “in her usual care-laden fashion” with day-to-day matters, might be read as another wry remark from the narrator, yet these words seem out of character for him. However we read him, he seems too distant to concern himself with what would to him be trivial—but would not be to Geiser. And as we settle down in the narrative, we realize that we are told nothing that Geiser has not directly seen or thought about. Again, we have to backtrack and reassess what we’ve been told, but when we do, we understand that though he’s not mentioned in this section, he is the one who goes to the village to find out what has happened. And as we get to know Geiser and increasingly doubt the authority of the narrator, we realize that not only the assessment of the villagers but also many of the actual words are Geiser’s. The context, belatedly, makes this clear. What is suggested in the first two pages is made manifest in the following pages: Geiser is quite worried about the storms and is trying to calculate possible damage. The villagers, however, not only don’t seem especially concerned but can’t even get the facts straight, which, in Geiser’s mind, they “ought” to be able to do. He won’t get any help from people who, perhaps, put too much trust in the state and canton, none of whom are aware “that the whole mountain could begin to slide, burying the village for all time,” Geiser’s concern and probably Geiser’s words. The voice that corrects itself is, of course, Geiser’s, and when we realize this, we begin to wonder where the narrator himself stands.


Free Indirect Discourse

The method that allows a character’s words to appear in a third person narra­tive is free indirect discourse, which will take a bit of explanation. A narrator has several ways to present the words and thoughts of his characters, which range from direct presentation of their words through quotation—dialogue for speech, inte­rior monologue for their thoughts—through indirect quotation, as exemplified in the sentence quoted above (“Geiser wonders. . .”), where specific details of a char­acter’s speech are presented, but not his exact words, and through summary, where both the details and the words become subsumed into a general report. An author’s choices here depend on the degree he wants to directly represent his character’s words (mimesis) or have his narrator report them (diegesis)(McHale 258-59). Somewhere between direct and indirect quotation lies a nether realm theorists have assigned to free indirect discourse, which uses characters’ actual words but frames them in the grammar of the narration, as shown in the following example from Dos Passos’ novel, 1919:

She almost fainted when he started to make love to her. No, no, she couldn’t just now, but tomorrow she’d drink in spite of the pledge she’d signed with the N.E.R. and shoot the moon. (qtd. in and slightly altered by McHale: 250)

The sentence keeps the past tense and third person (“she” instead of “I”) of the narrative, but in presenting her speech, it not only follows her syntax, as we might imagine it were this a direct quotation (the interjectional construction “No, no”), but also uses her specific words, her diction and colloquial expressions (“shoot the moon”). The advantage such a technique offers is that it maintains the immediacy and spontaneity of speech—we are aware of a character’s actual words and feel we actually experience them—yet also allows the author to move almost seamlessly between character and narrator to report actions and fill in background. An author could, of course, accomplish the same ends by mixing narrative summary and direct quotations, but free indirect discourse is more fluid and more economical, and certainly less awkward than the alternative of having a character report the all the needed background in his speech. The same advantage would apply to render­ing consciousness, where free indirect discourse takes the place of interior mono­logue, extensive use of which can be awkward and unrealistic. Free indirect discourse offers another benefit: since a character may have limited understanding, an author can move freely—even imperceptibly—back to the narrative voice to fill in what we need to know.

Free indirect discourse in its specific meaning applies only to a character’s actual thoughts or speech as they occur, as in the example above (Cohn uses the term “narrated monologue” to make this distinction). An author can set up a nar­rative in ways that help us distinguish the different discourses, as in the following example from Flaubert:

A quarter of an hour later he had a longing to go into the coach yard, as if by chance. Would he perhaps see her again?

“What’s the use?” he said to himself. (qtd. in Cohn: 135)

Narrative summary in the first sentence is followed by free indirect discourse in the second and direct quotation in the third, a pattern Flaubert often uses whose repe­tition helps us know which type of discourse is being used and identify who is speaking(135). There is also a more general sense of the term, where the narrative might use a character’s idiom even though no actual speech may be involved and grammatical indicators are less distinct, which occurs in the Joyce example cited above. And the more subtly and the more loosely the technique is used, the more difficult it becomes to know who is talking, narrator or character, or decide how we should take the words. Closeness brings ambiguity.


Voice in Frisch/Complications

In Holocene, it is difficult not only to know who is speaking but even determine what kind of discourse is being used. With a few exceptions, the entire narrative is set in the present tense, so there is not the indicator of a shift of tense, as in the Flaubert and Dos Passos examples. As occurs in the first pages, many sections report Geiser’s behavior without mentioning him, so there isn’t the indicator of shift in personal pronoun as well. The fragmented nature of the narrative also con­tributes to the ambiguity of discourse. Consider the following examples, which exist as separate, consecutive sections:

Today is Wednesday.

(Or is it Thursday?) (9)

By itself, the first could simply be narrative summary, made independently of Geiser’s words, but the second section makes us realize Geiser’s confusion is involved, so both could be free indirect discourse. Then again, one or both could be free direct discourse, where the narrative uses a character’s exact words without using the conventional quotation marks to distinguish them as such. (Parentheses probably mark an actual thought in the second.) And again, we lack the indicators of shifts in tense and person. More baffling is this section, where there is not even a verb to mark a tense:

No knowledge without memory. (6)

Geiser here is concerned about losing his memory, specifically, as mentioned in the preceding section, with his inability to recall how to draw the golden section. This sentence could be free direct discourse, presenting his actual thought, his own con­clusion about the implications of losing one’s memory. Or it could be free indirect discourse, a presentation of that thought. Or, if we haven’t yet abandoned the authority of the narrator, it might be some gnomic statement the narrator makes himself not only about Geiser’s condition, but about people in general.

A narrator’s ability to step back and view events in other places and times also helps distinguish voices. Here, however, as in the Joyce example, despite appear­ances otherwise, the narrator stays entirely not only within Geiser’s angle of vision but sees only when Geiser actually sees. Everything in the narrative is grounded in the actual time and place of Geiser’s experience. In the section on the first page that begins “The news in the village is conflicting,” it looks as if the narrator has left the house to report on another scene, or, once we realize Geiser’s involvement, that the narrator is giving us a flashback of what Geiser does at an earlier time. Neither is the case. The context of the entire narrative tells us as much. There are few sections that deal with other places and times at this length, and to give the narrator free­dom and omniscience here and not elsewhere would be technically odd and incon­sistent. Instead, Geiser is actually remembering, in the actual time and place of the narrative, at night inside his house, an earlier trip to the village and his talk with the postal clerk and others, and does so now because he is worried about the storm and is comparing his view with theirs, which is too vague and inconclusive to help him with his present concern, a fear made greater, perhaps, by the late hour. The pre­sentness and actuality of this memory is made clear when the narrator says “Nobody in the village thinks the day, or perhaps the night, will come. . .” (my italics). The night is this night, the night the story begins. The use of the present tense in describing the clerk’s treatment of parcels (“which she places unhurriedly on the scales and then franks”) suggests that Geiser now has this image before him in memory and is reexperiencing it.

The influence of Geiser’s language on the passage indicates free indirect dis­course, at least in the general sense, and we see the advantages of such a technique. A kind of psychological realism is maintained here: memories can have a specific nature and influence us in specific ways, even though we don’t actually go through the process of recalling all the details they might contain. And by having the nar­rator report on the memory, Frisch can present these details without violating this effect yet still maintain the actuality, the presentness of the memory in the mind of the character. There are technical advantages as well. The narrator can present the memory without resorting to extensive inquit formulas (“Geiser thought about. . .”; “He remembered when he. . .”), which would be awkward, or making the entire section an interior monologue, a technique Frisch has decided not to use, at least directly, and which would be unrealistic and odd anyway. A similar case can be made for the longish sections that describe his trip to Iceland and his Matterhorn climb, where many details are presented which are not necessarily actually recalled. But note the difference between this kind of reported memory and a flashback. The latter, even if it only reports details without comment, could present a different Geiser, a younger one, and provide some point of reference, a basis for comparison with the present Geiser. The reported memory, since conditioned by his present state of mind, will not allow this perspective—unless, of course, a character can look back objectively on his life.

Perhaps what is most odd about the narrative is that, except possibly for the few handwritten notes, themselves largely summaries of what he has read, and a few sentences that might be free direct discourse, there is no direct voicing of Geiser’s speech or his thoughts, odd because if we stay this close to a character, we expect him to speak up once in a while, if not out loud, at least to himself. Hearing his actual words might not only help us get fix on who he is and how he speaks, but also set up a pattern of discourse, as in the Flaubert example, giving us a better sense of which words might be his when presented in free indirect discourse, and thus separate him from the narrator. It is not even easy to tell when he is actually thinking. There are few indirect statements to indicate mental activity. Most sen­tences report perceptions or thoughts by themselves, without using a pronoun to identify Geiser. And frequently the narrator uses the indefinite personal pronoun “one,” as in this example:

A summer guest from Germany, a professor of astronomy, knows a lot about the sun and, if asked, is not unwilling to talk about it, even to a lay­man. Afterward one clears the cups away, grateful for the short visit. (15)

The conditional “if” leaves us wondering if Geiser asks today or not, though he probably does, given his pressing concerns about meteorology and the influence the sun might have on the weather. The use of “one” makes it sound as if the nar­rator is describing some generalized situation to raise some truism about people in general, even though this is a specific, actual event and the “one” is Geiser. Even where we are certain what Geiser is doing, the narration blurs his presence.

What most makes separation of voices difficult is that the narrator uses no lan­guage that Geiser would not use himself. Even though we may not know exactly when he speaks or what he says, we can infer the types of words he would use once we get to know him. The sparseness of the language—there are few descriptive adjectives, and most of these are neutral, indicating only physical properties or measurement—the neutral coloring of tone, the concrete images, and the crisp, sharp phrasing of the sentences are consistent with what we know about the char­acter and his situation. He prefers “factual books” (10) over novels. By profession, which though not specified is obviously a tech­nical one, Geiser would be given to such terse, formulaic expressions and he would attempt to be objective in his descriptions, as guided by his scientific outlook. As an admirer of the explorer Captain Scott, he is independent and self-reliant, not self-absorbed or given to emotional effusion. And his age would bring a laconism that comes from so many years of dealing with expecta­tions and disappoint­ments, as well as from a sense of what lies ahead. We feel the presence of a mind trying to establish personal and intellec­tual control and be directed by the possibilities such control might offer.

And whatever conclusions the narrator might reach with this language, Geiser would reach also, because he is aware of his condition to an extent. He realizes that his posture as Geiser the imperiled explorer is unwarranted when he does not send a letter to his daughter because “there are sentences in it that sound like Captain Scott in his tent”(20). Geiser finds solace in the thought that “At any rate, one knows afterward that one is not crazy: other people have also noticed that it keeps on raining” (16), but also shows recognition that his behavior may be less than rational, and perhaps senses what is to come. The narrator does not say anything Geiser would not say, or think anything he would not think. If Geiser wrote this story, he would say it exactly the way this narrator has.

While the dry, detached tone of the narrative might distance us from Geiser, sympathy—ours or anyone else’s—is not an emotion he would allow. If we feel distant from Geiser, it is because Geiser is distant from himself. It would not be out of character for him to be removed from his thoughts or even think about himself in the third person, as if about someone else. Thus sentences such as:

Geiser has time to spare. (3)

Geiser is a widower. (37)

Geiser is still wearing his hat. (57)

Geiser wants no visitors. (93)

Geiser is not a newt. (97)

could be read as free indirect discourse in the strict sense, a presentation of his actual, specific thoughts. Geiser is making observations about himself and voicing them with the same wry detachment we might first have attributed to the narrator. Or for that matter, they might be free direct discourse: he is actually saying these to himself—or out loud, for all we know—referring to himself as “Geiser.” A case could even be made that almost the entire narrative is free indirect discourse in the specific sense—only his actual thoughts are present. Or, more likely, that it uses only free indirect discourse in the general sense—his type of thought and language colors the narrative, without there being any indication of actual thought or speech. We have no way of telling. The ambiguity about discourse itself prevents the per­spective a separation of narrative and figural voices might offer.

Though we may not always know where he is, we do have, as in Mann, an overt narrator who speaks in a separate voice, and speaks with authority, but it is an authority without content, as he says nothing beyond what Geiser himself knows. The narrator, who, of course, is not Geiser, is still a doubling of Geiser’s conscious­ness and exists as a kind of ghost who hovers bodiless over the corporeal character. But once we cast appearances aside, we see that the narrator, though overt, really functions more like an effaced narrator, like Joyce’s, who, with the help of free indi­rect discourse is fused with his character and presents him without comment or even clear hints. And as with Stephen in Portrait, we see the development, or at least an attempt towards development of a Point of View, contained by and contin­gent to some degree upon the character Geiser. It would be a mistake, however, to think of the covert narration as controlled by some kind of hidden person—it is with reluctance I refer to him as “him” or “who”—who hides behind the scenes and manipulates images and words while the overt narrator walks the stage and speaks. Only gradually—if at all—do we realize how the narrative works, so care­fully and subtly has Frisch crafted the narrative voice. Like many effects in fiction, his depends on our not noticing it.

Yet still unlike Joyce’s narrator, at least in effect, because an effaced narrator can present emotions when a character is not in a state to voice them. In Holocene, we don’t even get amplification of these emotions, not even where they should be most strong: Geiser’s struggle with the climb over the pass, his feelings when he abandons this escape—and especially when he goes haywire and roasts his cat, which only gets a brief, bare report. The narrator only presents Geiser’s conscious­ness, and does not go deeper to express some unconscious substratum because it is Geiser’s consciousness, shaped by his scientific outlook that controls what is pre­sented. Nor can the narrator imply conclusions where Geiser cannot: he can only show the pieces as Geiser scatters them. The only fear expressed is the fear Geiser feels is justified: if he decides he is in danger, he would feel a measure of fear is in order to determine a course of action. Any other play of emotion would serve no purpose. And if Geiser does not attempt to analyze himself, it is because he may not know how or, more likely, because he might question the kinds of introspection that place more emphasis on emotions than reason.

To be sure, we are made aware of his emotions and how they affect him, beyond their pragmatic value, but in the only way his rational mind would allow, through concrete things and their physical description, the images of memory and perception covertly planted in the narration. But again, the narrator can only present them, not embellish them or pull them together. Early in the novel, he watches the vines and roses in his garden “being torn to shreds”(8) by the rain, and later he imagines a fallen tree on the slope he is contemplating climbing, “its smashed crown pointing” the “black roots spread out in the air” (13). While these details might give Geiser useful external evidence in determining the possibility of greater destruction, they make us wonder about the emotional condition of the man who perceives them, who must imagine himself ripped to shreds, emotionally, perhaps even physically if he steps out. The black roots suggest a darkness within, a despair he barely recognizes and cannot control.

This oblique expression of his emotional state is evident between pages 41 and 53, a passage where it would most seem the narrator has left the scene—and Geiser—to fill in background, but hasn’t. Page 41 gives a string of reports on rain outside the window, made morning to night, almost on the hour. Geiser has been watching the rain constantly, in a frame of mind we can only guess at, but obvi­ously he is quite concerned. Next a long scene on winter, introduced by the sentence, “At least it is not snowing.” The immediate relevance of this seeming non sequitur is that were it now winter, all this rain would be snow and Geiser would have an avalanche to worry over as well if he stayed through the next season. After all, he is in the Alps. And thoughts of snow and avalanches recall his earlier reading about the area’s past, the relentless glacial activity in the Ice Age. Thus the later section on Iceland, where he once visited, is also anticipated. Echoed perhaps as well is Geiser’s self-image as Captain Scott, a solitary arctic explorer.

Then follows a longish description of the valley in winter. The color black is used in each specific description, in all but four of the next eighteen sentences—black footprints in the snow, black asphalt, black birds, and so on—and in the other four there is a “dirty gray,” “silvery gray,” and “bracken brown”—dark or neutral shades. Coffee in the last of the eighteen might suggest black as well. And snow is grimy in the next sentence, a ravine in shadow. This passage is another reported memory, whose details, while he may not be actually recalling them, are determined by his present state of mind and whose impact he now feels. The blackness that briefly appears earlier here explodes, and his mood must be very dark indeed. This memory, its blackness might be motivated by the time—it is after eleven, perhaps much later. He is again spending another night worrying and when he goes to the window now, all he can see is the night. We realize what Geiser may not, that he is disturbed, perhaps to the point of pathology. He does make some qualification at the end of this section when he realizes that the glaciers, after all, are “in retreat,” but in the summation “All in all, a green valley,” after all the blackness, the color green bursts out like a vain ray of hope, too quick, too brief to last. We sense not optimism, but a rapid mood swing, a sign of instability. And just as Geiser struggles to contain his darker fears with reason, the rational control exerted on the narrative struggles with stream of conscious, barely allowed to emerge.

The next day gets only a brief two sections, where the possibility of the sun coming out is pitted against the sound of water rushing again in the ravine. And in the next section he contemplates if not prepares for his escape: a train schedule is cut out and posted on the wall. Then the next six pages have many short sections, again seemingly out of the scene, describing the advantages and disadvantages of the valley, all trivial (and often comic). At best it is a picturesque place, but then again, there’s not much to be said for it—“A valley with no Baedeker stars,” as is noted in one section. We realize that Geiser is not just thinking about his immedi­ate future, but the rest of his life and what it might be worth. Loneliness is not an emotion the stoic Geiser would allow, but he must sense his isolation in a valley where he feels out of place, an isolation intensified by the storms. Basel, the desti­nation of his escape plan, is not only where his daughter lives but also where he grew up. Perhaps it is time to return. And, at his age, he must be aware of his approaching death. Winter is our last season. That “Erosion is a slow process” (48) offers some consolation: whatever may happen in the valley might not happen suddenly, as he fears. But erosion happens nonetheless, and its effects are irreversi­ble. Geiser must also be aware of his own possible erosion, physical and mental, which throughout the novel is paralleled with that caused by the storms, and while both types of erosion usually occur gradually, his, at his age, can also happen as suddenly as a flood or landslide. These sections and the next, dealing with Iceland, are probably set at night, when he is most prone to despair. The long section on Iceland—another reported memory, of a trip he made some time ago—can only describe the sterility of the land. Here, the memory is again motivated by his fear of danger and echoes what he has been learning from the texts he has cut out and taped to the wall. What has happened in Iceland once occurred in the Alps and will eventually happen again. Nature once was, still is, and will forever be indifferent to man, to Geiser in particular. But there is also the suggestion, even if Geiser doesn’t see it, that his own life is just as barren now—and perhaps has always been that way, for reasons he may glimpse but not admit. All the images in these pages, in their coldness, their sterility, and their blackness are too extreme, too exaggerated for his immediate or even distant concerns. We see cracks in the rational mind and sense that his breakdown, already anticipated, might be imminent. Later, after his hike, when his behavior is most bizarre, the narrative, like Geiser, is silent because the reasoning machine has broken down and can’t find the words to speak.

While Geiser’s consciousness determines the narrative, we become aware of its limitations and realize the only way we can come to any kind of assessment of Geiser is by going outside it. And the narrative, the way it is constructed, impels us to make some kind of assessment of Geiser and his odd behavior. In so many ways we are put at a distance from Geiser that screams to be closed. The authoritative character of the overt narrator, however much this is only a matter of appearance, puts us at a psychological if not moral remove. And discovering the narrator is no different from Geiser only makes us wonder more why Geiser doesn’t see what is so obvious to us. Frisch probably avoided interior monologue to reinforce this dis­tance, as hearing Geiser’s actual words might lead to a familiarity that would com­promise it. Perhaps, too, Geiser not only is not disposed to talking to himself, he might also lack the confidence or ability to do so, which would present another aspect of his psychological distress. The covert narration, however, in its focus on Geiser and its fusion with him through free indirect discourse, brings us close enough to him to want some kind of accounting for all the details embedded in it of his extreme behavior. The fragmentary nature of the narrative itself, along with gaps it creates, perhaps suggesting a fragmented mind, posits the need for a whole­ness that a conclusion might bring—


Point of View/point of view

But how can we reach any definite conclusion? The novel pushes us only in a vague direction towards some kind of assessment, but does not give us the means to make one or even know what kind of assessment is in order. We aren’t even given enough hints to understand what is happening to Geiser, much less decide how we should take him. Should we feel sympathetic with him, pity him, or view him from some ironic distance? We can’t even get an answer to the question that most cries for one: Is this guy crazy or not? The tone is so sparse it could be read in several ways, whether we ascribe it to Geiser or the narrator. The terse, bare words could come from someone too resigned to say more, or one who is simply being stoic. Or they could be the words of someone who does care about his life and life in general, perhaps too much, and does not want to spoil this hope with false and exaggerated expectation. The overt narrator has no authority, and the strict adher­ence to Geiser’s point of view, unreliable itself, allows no other. The use of an effaced narrator and free indirect discourse does not necessarily preclude coher­ence. In fact, as Cohn notes, “narrated monologues themselves tend to commit the narrator to attitudes of sympathy or irony: “Precisely because they cast the lan­guage of a subjective mind into the grammar of objective narration, they amplify emotional notes, but also throw into ironic relief all false notes struck by a figural mind”(117). But, as she explains, this kind of emotive shaping depends on an implied context, and in Holocene, there isn’t one provided by the narration. It’s hard to determine a false note in music that has no determinable key. The point of view is so fixed on Geiser’s consciousness that covert narration is not given the power to direct by implication. We can’t even get the point of view of other voices—of other characters. We question the competence of the villagers, and almost everyone else has left town. The novel provides an apt image that might describe the narrative. Geiser is out in his yard one morning. The rain has lifted but left a dense fog:

Field glasses are no use at all in times like these, one screws them this way and that without being able to find any sharp outline to bring into focus; all they do is make the mist thicker. (7)

We have the tools for focusing—a narrator fixed on Geiser’s point of view—but we don’t have anywhere to focus through his eyes, his mind. Like Geiser, we’re in a fog, and without guidance, a place to focus, we are forced to weigh the evidence ourselves.

What can we conclude?

We might decide that the consciousness—Geiser’s—that controls the narrative presents the major conflict of the novel and perhaps demonstrates the trap Geiser has put himself in. We sense that reason has turned into rationalization, a covering up of inner turmoil instead of a recognition and treatment of it. This rational out­look, coupled with his independence, has led to his cutting himself from what he most needs, the help and support of other people. Geiser recognizes this himself to some extent, but only after much physical and psychological distress. After aban­doning his escape, after suffering a stroke and the fall it causes, after throwing a salamander in the fire—which he must have hated because it reminded him of his own inhumanity (“Geiser is not a newt”)—after roasting the cat, Geiser, at the end of his rope, is saved by another, the one his brother lowers when they get trapped during their Matterhorn climb. This long section is another reported memory, motivated by Geiser’s immediate need for help, perhaps by his recognition of the essential need for relationships with other people. And this memory helps him recall what he has forgotten earlier, the names of his grandchildren, and what he has ignored all along, that his daughter is affectionate. And while we’re at it, we might question his abandoning the beliefs of other people, their religion—he falls asleep at the shrine—or their diversions, their novels. In a curiously parenthetical, nicely ironic comment in a work of fiction, he thinks:

(Novels are no use at all on days like these, they deal with people and their relationships, with themselves and others, fathers and mothers and daugh­ters or sons, lovers, etc., with individual souls, usually unhappy ones, with society, etc. as if the place for these things were assured, the earth for all time earth, the sea level fixed for all time.) (8)

But how secure can we be with such a conclusion and does the text support it? His isolation is not self-imposed: many retire to quaint villages, and he certainly did not cause the death of his wife, the only real company he might have had. His daughter understandably treats him as a child at the end, given his state when she finally comes, but we don’t know what his relationship with her is or what it would be like if he returned to Basel—or if she wants him to. And we don’t have any evi­dence that his life in his former home would be any better than what he has now. His distance from the villagers and their habitual ways is understandable and does not come from arrogance. In fact, if we criticize him for turning his back on other people, how much are we speaking from some habit ourselves we haven’t ques­tioned? One can be miserable with other people as well. Geiser at the end of the novel does stay in the village, for reasons not given, and while he may be setting himself up for isolation again, we have no way of knowing that he has not made the best choice he can make, given his options.

Or, if we deduce some kind of personality disorder, how confident can we be with our diagnosis? That his behavior is odd goes without saying, but is it the result of some underlying psychological defect or just a temporary aberration, not indicative of who he is? Even senility is not certain, as we all forget things when we are upset. A case could be made that his actions, however bizarre, are understand­able, given the circumstances. Several weeks of rain are enough to unnerve the best of us, especially if we live alone, if our neighbors are leaving, if our yard shows signs of damage, if our power goes off and spoils our food, which will be hard to replace when the villagers are hoarding, if our means of escape are closed, a single highway, which may go out at any time, if our means of communication with the outside world are periodically cut, our telephones, our TVs—and especially if we are 73 years old. Instead of pitying him, we might admire him for his stamina, his heroic resolve. Our assessment of Geiser ultimately depends on the issue the narrator cannot resolve—how imminent the danger is and how great might it be. Geiser’s evidence is not conclusive, but it does offer cause for alarm. There is, after all, the possibility that while not right this time, he might be the next, and when the land­slide comes, we applaud him for his prescience.

And the evidence Geiser gathers from his observations are to an extent cor­roborated by the texts he cuts out and tapes on the wall. These texts add another dimension to the narrative. Here we have overt narration with authority, with the twist that these voices come from actual sources, bringing a kind of realism to the novel. The reports from these authorities are not promising, as they tell about mas­sive, destructive floods, avalanches, and landslides in the area over the canton’s history, many within the last hundred years or so, recent enough to suggest possi­bilities, although too old to give any indication of what might happen in the near future. (It is curious, however, that Geiser does not consult meteorological reports from a newspaper or radio.) The report from all time is utterly bleak. The forces that created the Ice Age, that covered the valley with glaciers, that killed off the dinosaurs and will probably dispatch with man as well are still in motion, and in the long view, one has no cause for hope at all—but then this evidence is not useful at all, and we question Geiser’s sense of proportion. Scale is part of Geiser’s prob­lem: small cracks in his garden, loom large; salamanders stalk the house like dinosaurs. But our assessment of Geiser most depends on how we interpret what he is doing, and if we aren’t blinded by the habits of day-to-day living, we see much more is involved than his immediate safety.

The texts themselves, like the rest of narrative, are motivated by Geiser’s con­sciousness, appearing as they occur to him or he finds them, and we see these only when he reads or summarizes them and posts them on the wall. The collection of notes, as it gathers, must look to us like the rest of Geiser’s behavior, random and scattered. Yet there are patterns to them which suggest if not a wholeness, at least a movement, a groping towards wholeness. Consider the following series of hand­written notes (40), which I will analyze in turn:

The cells making up the human body, including the brain consist mainly of water

Water in the form of rain has preoccupied him throughout. Geiser is also wor­ried about his mental faculties, memory in particular, and since water is an unstable substance, some change, some deterioration can only be expected. If Geiser is contemplating his ultimate worth as a human being—not an unusual activity at a time of crisis—the thought that our minds are made of water is not uplifting. And if, as he wonders earlier, there may not be a God “if there were no longer a human brain, which cannot accept the idea of a creation without a creator,” whatever larger reality there might be to offer spiritual support could go as well.

The earth is not a perfect sphere

A desire for absolute perfection may be irrational on Geiser’s part, but the opposite, absolute mutability, hardly offers a source of strength, as imperfection suggests instability as well. Echoed here is his wish that “the earth for all [be] time earth”(8). Throughout the novel, he tries to find something that is stable and cer­tain, a lifeboat he can trust, some firm truth to latch onto. Earlier in the novel, having failed at building pagodas, he tries to remember how to construct the golden section, which not only is built upon the unalterable principles of geometry, but also suggests order and proportion. Perhaps the earth is incapable of these in any degree.

There has never been an earthquake in Ticino

At least there is not this to worry about, even if the earth is imperfect. As always, Geiser weighs the evidence.

Fish do not sleep

Geiser has not been sleeping well himself, which must concern him and which may account for his behavior later, as he should be exhausted. Also fish live in water, with all that it implies—is this why they do not sleep? And if Geiser sees himself as a fish, surrounded by water, his earlier thought about metamorphosis is reinforced. He fears he is turning into something less than human—but perhaps, humans, who are mostly water, as less than human anyway, who, if they keep their eyes open, only see and swim in unstable water.

The sum total of energy is constant

Another absolute truth, though not a reassuring one, as it does not preclude violent change in maintaining this constancy.

Human beings are the only living creatures with an awareness of history

At least there is this which distinguishes Geiser, who has been consulting the books, and other men from other animals—but this awareness only applies when their memory is intact. After all, “No knowledge without memory.” And what has this history produced of value, say, in Ticino, a place with no Baedeker stars?

Snakes have no hearing

Is Geiser hard of hearing, thus by extension, a kind of snake? In a figurative sense, he is if he is losing his memory. Or at least Geiser, who can hear thunder and rain, has proof he is a man and not a reptile, a stay against his fear of meta­morphosis.

3/4 of the earth’s surface is water

Water again, globally.

Europe and America move two centimeters away from each other every year, while entire continents (Atlantis) have already disappeared

Nature does not rest, and the effects of the earth’s imperfection can be devastating.

Since when have words existed?

Words are our way of expressing our awareness, but then there was a time before us, when there were no words. What was true then, and has it changed? What does it have to do with our words? With the words Geiser finds in the texts? With the words he indirectly voices in the narrative?

The universe is expanding

The forces of nature were here before us, still are present, and will be ever on the move, once we are gone. The notes move from the mind to the universe, from microcosm to the cosmos, and there is a logic not wholly psychological that joins them. What Geiser is contemplating is not just his own existence but what authori­ties—scientists, theologians, and philosophers—have attempted to define, what man is and how he stands in relationship to the universe, what his place is in some larger scheme. Holocene, of course, is not some kind of philosophical tract dis­guised as a novel. Rather, it is a story about a particular character’s experience, and his experience—the personal crisis posed by the storms—forces him to contem­plate larger matters. What kind of a world is it that could let happen to him what he fears might happen? The violence of the storms and the violence they inflict on his thoughts lead him explore abstract issues and look for connections.

Geiser, not a scientist or a philosopher, has to turn to the authorities. And if as we read we do question the authority of the narrator and Geiser’s competence, then all more reason to find someone who has it. Like Geiser, we read the texts and look for answers as well. The way the narration is constructed invites us to this larger speculation in several ways. Even though Geiser selects the texts and though we might question his motives for cutting them out, having them isolated in the nar­rative and quoted gives them an independence that encourages us to consider them in their own right, regardless of what we think about Geiser. Within the narrative proper, the construction of statements without reference to Geiser (“No knowledge without memory”), along with the uncertainty of who says them, also makes us consider them on own merits. But then again, when we realize that Geiser influ­ences and is involved in these statements, then his words gain some philosophical weight. What Cohn describes as the effects of extensive use of free indirect dis­course in Broch’s novel Death of Virgil also applies to Holocene: “The near-continuous employment of the technique in its most emphatic form, inducing a radical fusion of narrating and figural voices, leads third-person narration to the frontiers where it borders at once on lyric poetry and philosophic dis­course”(126). Lyric, because we are aware of the individual who thinks and how his thoughts make him feel, philosophic, because of what he thinks and the import his thoughts carry.

The language itself—again, Geiser’s language—through it’s attempts at preci­sion, its direct syntax, and carefully measured tone suggest the language of abstract discourse. The voice is the voice of a mind which tries to state only what can be said with certainty and exclude all that cannot. Even the short sections, seen in a differ­ent light, suggest complete, isolated perceptions, as if propositions in some treatise. Compare the opening sections of the novel with:

1           The world is everything that is the case.

1.1        The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

1.11      The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.

1.12      For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.

1.13      The facts in logical space are the world. (31)

I note here that if Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus were a novel—I am intrigued by the use of first person in the book—and these words were spoken by a character named Ludwig Wittgenstein, say, during a severe storm, we might be inclined to think he was crazy. Wittgenstein’s work, of course, is organized and systematic, Geiser’s scattered and fragmented, but then again, they are dealing with different subjects. Where Wittgenstein tries to construct a world based on the certainties of logic and words, Geiser is concerned with the certainties of things which exist in the physical world and of perceptions and emotions, which can gauge and determine the temper of whatever touch he has with whatever lies beyond him. He’s an exis­tentialist, not a logical positivist. The real nature of his study becomes apparent in his catalogue of thunder:

The twelve-volume encyclopedia Der Grosse Brockhaus explains what causes lightning and distinguishes streak lightning, ball lightning, bead lightning, etc., but there is little to be learned about thunder; yet in the course of a single night, unable to sleep, one can distinguish at least nine types of thunder:


The simple thunder crack.


Stuttering or tottering thunder: this usually comes after a lengthy silence, spreads across the whole valley, and can go on for minutes on end.


Echo thunder: shrill as a hammer striking on loose metal and setting up a whirring, fluttering echo which is louder than the peal itself.


Roll or bump thunder: relatively unfrightening, for it is reminiscent of rolling barrels bumping against one another. (5)

Geiser is listening to the thunder and thinking about past thunder as well as thun­der in the abstract, trying to make rational classification. And again he is weighing the evidence: based on the sounds, how dangerous is this series of storms? Possibly a great deal so, possibly not. The evidence is inconclusive, and he has no way of knowing what will happen next. His study here, how­ever, is only indirectly related to the threat. I doubt thunder is an appropriate subject for scientific study, and if it were, it would be related more to atmos­pheric con­ditions and causes, not types of sounds, and discussed in quantitative terms, not metaphorical. Rain, landslides, and lightning inflict damage, not noise. What he is really con­ducting is a phe­nomenological study of his fear, which sound does influence, and its causes and effects. Not nature, but man’s perception of and relation­ship to it is the subject of Geiser’s thoughts and of the novel as a whole.

Geiser, of course, is not a philosopher, but it is as valid to call him one as it is a lunatic (and we might decide there is some relationship between the two). If Geiser does not find any way to bring the texts or his observations together into some coherent, explicit understanding, it is in part because he has limited abilities to do so. After all, “Man remains an amateur” (60). But our criticism here would not be of what he is attempting but that his efforts are incomplete and sketchy. Still, if there are any ideas that can explain whatever it is that is going on out there, an average man should be able to comprehend them to some degree, and whether he fully understands them or not, his life will be influenced by the forces they try to explain—and he will feel these forces in palpable ways. And in many ways, the nar­rative encourages us to take Geiser as an average person, as one of us. The slow and incomplete development of Geiser’s character forces us to create some kind of abstract person to absorb the information as it comes, and this abstract person could be anyone—thus everyone. The frequent use of the impersonal pronoun “one” has a similar effect. And unless we judge too quickly, we realize that Geiser, aside from his age, is no different from most of us. We simply don’t know enough about him to make any solid personality assessment. The suppression of details that might help us get a better fix on his personality cannot be attributed to denial. If Geiser had some essential flaw, it would still appear obliquely in the text and we would feel the tension of his repression. Rather, Frisch has not given these details because they are not essential to what he is doing. He has deliberately created an ambiguous—and prototypical— character. Geiser is everyman, man in the Holocene.

Then again, Geiser may be better equipped than many of us for this inquiry. He is capable of grasping abstract concepts, and his resolve keeps him from shying away from where they might lead. Also, his age brings him closer to what the younger among us can for the time being ignore, our mortality and what causes it. And his isolation, caused by his retirement in the valley and exacerbated by the storm, means that he will not have anything to distract him in his inquiry. If we reject the thread of his thoughts—and ignore reading the texts on the wall—what is our justification? We are turning our backs on the only real authority in the novel, but replacing it with what? We may simply be responding from reflex, like the vil­lagers, caught up in what we expect to read about in novels—about “people and their relationships, with themselves and others, fathers and mothers and daugh­ters or sons, lovers, etc., with individual souls, usually unhappy ones, with society”—to see anything larger.

Then what does Geiser find out about himself—about man in the Holocene?

Man has always been conscious of the mystery surrounding his origin and development as a species, and an inexhaustible field of inquiry is opened to him by his ability to regard himself (the “subject”) in relation to the world in which he lives (the “object”)—see Philosophy. . . .

Since M. is unable to understand himself through insight, he has from earliest times tried to reach out toward the idea of a divine being (see Religion) or some other nonhuman presence, to which he equates himself while at the same time distinguishing himself from it: it may be an animal (see Totemism), the spirit of an ancestor (see Ancestor Worship), or some other alter ego (see Mask); in rationalistic times it might even be a machine. . . . (53)

If this source is right, and Geiser has found nothing in his other reading or his experience to contradict it, then all our attempts to give meaning to our place in the world are our own projections, illusions created by ourselves that are perhaps self-serving, and not revelations from some beyond. There is no relationship between “subject” and “object” beyond the effect physical forces of the object have on sub­jects. These forces make us appear and grow and age—and die and disappear. That’s it. We may look at nature and think about what we see, but we will get no response to our thoughts. As Geiser later notes, “only human beings can recognize catastrophes, provided they survive them; Nature recognizes no catastrophes”(79). If Geiser’s thoughts have lost proportion, it is because there is no frame of reference on a human scale. If Geiser cannot find any meaningful connections between the texts, it is because there aren’t any. We may need other people—and Geiser may have to recognize this need—but our relationships with others do not bring us closer to the world. And we may not have any stable or even real way to define or validate these needs. The Matterhorn memory about the help from his brother is balanced against but does not cancel out what he remembers from Iceland, the potential violence and absolute indifference of nature. The novel ends where it started. Geiser—man in the Holocene—is alone. If we feel distant from Geiser, it is because we are all isolated from the world and from each other. The way the narra­tive is built reflects this state. We are even isolated from our own selves, because, paradox­ically, the more Geiser looks at the contents of his mind, the less he feels they belong to him, and the closer we get to Geiser’s mind, the more we become aware of this distance.

So much of his behavior can be read as a struggle against this condition. He throws the salamander in the fire in rejection of an indifferent Nature that allowed dinosaurs to perish, as well as in rebellion against the fact of his own physical nature, that in many ways he is no different from reptiles. If he roasts his cat, it is because he decides his life is worth something and thus worth saving. We regret, of course, that he doesn’t ask for food from someone else first and are relieved he gives Kitty a decent burial—his line of reasoning has slipped—but we have to con­sider this act in the light of what he is up against. The absurdity of his behavior only underscores the Absurdity of his existence. But there is something if not heroic, at least honest in his attempts to come to terms with the void and our insignificance in face of it, with our eventual individual, even collective extinction. We might admire him, then, for his determined but futile struggle.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how strong or smart or sane Geiser is: no one has the strength or knowledge to stand up against the void. What Geiser can’t do, Frisch or his narrator can’t do either. No one can provide the perspective in which to view someone else’s behavior because no one can claim any authority to explain what does not exist. There is no definite point of view in the novel because there is no definite Point of View. Still there is the desire to push against whatever it is that surrounds us, and to find ways to talk about it, and even to write about it. Perhaps these efforts are the ones that most define us as humans and are the ones that are most worthwhile. Stiller, the protagonist of Frisch’s first novel, I’m Not Stiller, sees death—by suicide—as the only other alternative. He realizes that suicide itself is an illusion, and concludes “. . .I must fly in the confidence that the void itself will bear me up, that is to say a leap without wings, a leap into nothingness. . .into emptiness as the only reality which belongs to me, which can bear me up. . .”(68). That Geiser can look at himself and at the world from a distance posits another self that can look, perhaps the self that most matters, and while we may not be able to locate this self or place it in the world, we discover the inviolability of the fact this self exists—and sense the presence of something that pushes back against us. But we also real­ize this self is impermanent and will perish. Geiser must know, as Stiller does, that “In face of the fact of life and death there is nothing whatever to be said”(280). And what pushes back, we can’t know, much less put faith in: Stiller’s hope in the void has to be pitted against despair. We can only find ways to talk around what cannot be said, and when we write, if we write honestly and carefully, we construct narra­tives that do not violate the ineffable by having narrators or characters say more than they can say. As Frisch himself explains about his writing:

What is important is what cannot be said, the white space between the words. The words themselves always express the incidentals, which is not what we really mean. What we are really concerned with can only, at best, be written about, and that means, quite literally, we write around it. We encompass it. We make statements that never contain the whole true expe­rience: that cannot be described. All the statements can do is to encircle it, as tightly and closely as possible: the true, the inexpressible experience emerges at best as the tension between these statements. (Sketchbook 1946-1949 25)

He compares himself to a sculptor, who can only carefully chip away at the stone but not see what he creates. Language is his chisel, which “works by bringing the area of blankness in the things that can be said as close as possible to the central mystery, the living element.” It is Geiser’s partial apprehension of this mystery which makes him as a character more than an oddity in a case study, and it is our apprehension of the mystery through Geiser that makes Holocene a profound and disturbing work. Like Geiser, we are moved, we are frightened, and then confused and perhaps exhausted, but at the end, we can only draw quiet.

Wittgenstein’s work, after so many pages of sentences that turn into formulas of symbolic logic, comes to same conclusion:

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who under­stands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

7      Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (89)

Here we realize Wittgenstein is a novelist after all.

—Gary Garvin.


Works Cited

Cohn, Dorritt. Transparent Minds. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Friedman, Norman. “Point of View in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept.” The Theory of the Novel. Ed. Philip Stevick. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Frisch, Max. I’m Not Stiller. Trans. Michael Bullock. New York: Vintage, 1958.

———. Man in the Holocene. Trans. Geoffrey Skelton. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.

———. Sketchbook 1946-1949. Trans. Geoffrey Skelton. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

McHale, Brian. “Free Indirect Discourse: A Survey of Recent Accounts.” PTL 3: 249-288.

Martin, Wallace. Recent Theories of Narrative. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Stevick, Philip. The Theory of the Novel. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. C. K. Ogden. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.



Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his short stories have appeared in Numéro Cinqthe minnesota review, New Novel Review, Confrontation, The New Review, The Santa Clara Review, The South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and another novel.



Aug 192010

Jason DeYoung

It’s a pleasure to offer here this shocking and deeply comic little story by my former student and recent VCFA graduate Jason DeYoung (above with his son Harrison). “Mariska’s Tongue” was originally published in Gargoyle, No. 53 (2008).  It reads like a cross between a segment from The Twilight Zone and something Donald Barthelme or Julio Cortazar could have written. Chief among its charms is the evidence herein of a deeply disturbed mind at work (would that we could all find our inner cannibal and let it out on the page).



When I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to have it.  Tongue. When the waiter came to fill my water glass, I asked him what kind of tongue was it. “Human,” he said. I believe I gasped a little like some expectation had been fulfilled.  I was not nonplus, however.  The waiter had answered curtly, and when he picked up my water glass, he parried my eyes, and I sensed he didn’t want to give any explanation for this item.

In general, on a menu the indelicate items appear below what are the best things at the restaurant, maybe in the lower left column or tucked in among more mundane, unsatisfying things—squash salad, yuck. There is a rule I have: Order what the restaurant specializes in.  For instance, if it’s a steakhouse, order steak.  I do not stray from this rule, typically.

Everything conspired against ordering the tongue, the listing for which occupied a section of the menu that fully conveyed that it wasn’t the restaurant’s specialty.  The tongue dish wasn’t cheap either at $25.00 a serving, and I was short on cash.

Looking up, I saw that the waiter was still filling my water goblet; the dark hair on his rock-colored fingers looked like hunched, over-fed horseflies, and his eyes were narrowed on the goblet’s sliver-clear rim.  “Do you recommend the tongue?” I asked, when he was finished pouring.  “For some,” he said.  He was terse and respectful.  He turned on his heels and limped back into the kitchen.

I looked again at the un-dramatic listing for tongue, and then put my menu down and sipped a little of the ice-water.  How could I not take this opportunity to have human tongue?  My god, what would it be like, taste like? What would it be served with?  I looked back to the menu.  It would come with a side tomato salad and wild rice.

When the waiter returned and asked if I was ready to order, I said, “I’ll have the tongue.”

“And how would you like it cooked, sir?”

“How do you suggest?”

“It is very lean meat.  I would said medium rare, for you.”

“For me?”


“What does that mean?  For me?”

“With respect, you do not seem to be the type to eat his meats cooked at a rare temperature.”

I smirked at the waiter, and asked him how he knew I didn’t eat rare meat, thinking he would give some observation about me, something keen and complimentary, something I’d secretly cultivated about myself but that no one else had picked up on or said anything to me about.

He tapped his nose with the ball end of his pen and gave an overly familiar smile: “You are a tourist, sir.  I can smell a tourist.”

What gall! “I live here, in the city, the same as you,” I stammered.

“Very well. Rare tongue,” he said, without missing a beat, without a hint of reproach.  He was obviously practiced at giving obsequious responses to petulant outrages.

“No, no.  I do not eat my meats rare. I want it medium rare. I’m not a tourist.”

“Of course.” He limped back to the kitchen.

I sat there stewing, wondering if I should just leave. I furious over the waiter’s presumptuous attitude, and how he’d said tourist like it was an insult.  It was true, in a way.  I’d just moved here from a stay in Russia.  I’d just broken it off with this curly-headed, overweight Russian woman I’d been with since my second year out of college.  Though she was much older than I, she wanted me to marry her, but she had terrible habits that I couldn’t stand, such as that she plucked her gray pubes and collected them on the dark tile sink counter as if she was planning some wig or weaving.  I’d say, “Mariska, what the hell!  You think there’s some hair fairy for the middle-aged?  What’cha gonna do when you got a whole gray bush?”  She’d say, “I do not und’rstand you ‘Merry-cans.”  Then she’d come over and rub my head and press her sweat-moist jelly body to mind.  I liked her.  She was generous and loving.  But have you ever seen a collection of glossy gray pubes plucked from a soft bed of blond hair?

The waiter returned finally, his face much swarthier than I remembered, my meal plated in the dishes he carried.  He sat the plate and bowl down without care, but not without decency—they didn’t rattle as they settled. There before me was a heat-swollen, grilled tongue that sizzled and smell wonderfully, nestled within tan long-grain wild rice with a side tomato salad.

I tried to put Mariska out my head.  But she was there now, she was on my mind, and though I don’t know why, the tongue reminded me of her all the more.  Its length, its readiness, its presences was too much like Mariska.  In some grime outpost of my imagination, I thought of it as Mariska’s tongue.

I stared at it, a long, un-sliced meaty tongue.  Its sizzles subsided.  I needed a moment, so I started with the tomato salad and then nibbled on the wild rice around it.  But I was starting to have difficultly bringing myself to look at it. A human tongue.  No, no: a human’s tongue. Right there on my plate. Sanctioned by the restaurant, and by the state, I suppose.  I looked around at the other patrons in the restaurant.  I didn’t see another serving of tongue on anyone’s plate.  They all had companions, and they all looked contented.  As I scanned the room, I saw only one other person alone, and he sat two tables across from me.  He had a jowly toad’s face, and winked knowingly at me as I noted his meal.

I stopped looking around and finished my side dishes. I even sopped up the oil and vinegar in the bottom of the salad bowl with bread before I took a long glance at what I thought of as Mariska’s tongue.  It took on the stale, wizened appearance of something you’d want to flush.  It just made me think more about that jolly gal who loved me, and who I knew would take me back without a second thought.

I’d left her, I thought at the time, like an outlaw.  On the night of our first anniversary, we went to a Turkish restaurant and ordered everything we desired on the menu.  We ate our feast with the speed and intemperance of trough-fed pigs.  Afterward we went home for a bread pudding I’d made earlier that day.  As she kissed the back of my neck and swore her love, I stirred together a simple syrup to go on top of the bread pudding.  We test tasted the syrup many times.  She giggles, “You have stuff on you face.”  “Your,” I corrected, and let her lick the syrup from my cheek. As she moved back, I caught an unflattering glance of her.  Her face looked beaded in blemishes and jaundiced. I stepped back.  She was a crone in the poor Russian lighting. She giggled. I hurried her through dessert, making her drink as much imported Cognac as I force down her throat.  She could hold her liquor, and it just made her more randy.  The drunker she got the more clearly her flaws presented themselves to me—every stray hair, every small blemish, all of the imperfections coalescing into something utterly grotesque that unpleasantly spread across a glowing face-palette of ruddy flesh. Before she got a chance to force me to bed, I slipped into the kitchen, tucked the un-tallied rubles she kept hidden in a container in the refrigerator into my satchel, and bolted for the apartment door, all the while she was refreshing herself for me.  I ran practically stark mad across the winter grey courtyard of her Soviet-era apartment building under the gloom of the midnight sun.

“Is there something wrong, sir?”  I look up and there was that laconic and insulting waiter, hanging over me like a gawking spectator.  I could see the dirty black hairs that jutted out of each dark nostril like the soot-covered bristles of a chimney sweep’s broom.

“How can you serve this kinda thing?”

“It is what you requested, is it not?”

“Aren’t there laws against serving human flesh?”

“Not in this country, sir.”

“What about natural laws?  What about the laws of decency or respect.”  Sweet, plump Mariska, welcoming and jovial, weighed heavily on my mind.

“Please sir, temper your voice.”

“Fuck my voice. You served me a human tongue!”  The other patrons now looked up.

“But that is what you ordered.”

He had me there.  I had ordered it.  Just because it was available to me, I still had the choice not to order it.  But I loved the exotic.  Exotic.  Poor Mariska.  She was Russian, and I was not (I’d fuck a Martian).  I looked back down at the tongue.  It was dry now except for a thin layer submerged in its own bloodied juices.

“Sir,” —the waiter was unflappable, by now I’d be calling me all sorts of ugly names— “can I get you something else.  Perhaps a stiff drink?  A hamburger or a steak?”

“That drink sounds good.”

“Of course, and consider it on the house.”  He turned and limped toward the bar.  He left the dished tongue there in front of me.  I pushed it away.

But I won’t lie.  Across the table, out of my immediate reach, it seemed to attract me. I wanted it. I pulled it back and picked up my knife and fork. I steadied myself over it.  It was here, after all. There was no giving it back to the owner to have it reattached.  I closed my eyes.  Natural laws be damned.  Rebel, rebel: the outlaw moaned in my head.  And just then I felt a hand clap me on my back.  “You from out of town or something?”

I look up to see the man who’d winked at me making his way around to the chair at the opposite end of my table.  He sat down slowly—he spoke slowly.  “You don’t cut tongue,” he said with the grace of man who had never been hungry.  “That’s not how you eat it.  You take it in your hand.” He demonstrated by outstretching his fingers like he was holding a large invisible hotdog.  “You show it respect.  Someone will never speak again for your gullet’s pleasure.”  His broad, moonlike face smiled over the table at me. He was the type of man I admired, the kind who never seemed to suffer damp wrinkles in his shirts or a moment of uncertainty while making plans.  I did as he instructed. I picked up the char-stiffened meat; its tip hanging slightly wilted. “Yes, that’s right.”  The man gave me a proud smile. My god, his teeth were prefect.

Like a last kiss from a lover, I put the tip of the tongue in my mouth and tasted its juices.  Spiced and sweet.  The waiter arrived with my whiskey, as I was about to sink my teeth into the tongue.  He stood there with a slight smirk on his face peering at me.

What can I say?  I ate it.  Sweet Mariska on my mind the whole time.  The outlaw in my head singing a happy saloon song as every bite of that tongue was chewed and tongued by my own and pushed down my throat. As I ate it, the waiter told me that the best tongue comes from those in their twenties, after salvia had tenderized it, but before it toughens.  “Yet, generally, what is served here is of somewhat lower quality.”  I wouldn’t know the difference, I told him.

I got to know the waiter and the other patron a little. We made paced and protective conversation. The broad-faced man had traveled through Russia, too.  I told him a little about Mariska.  He said, “I do love the Russian woman.  Dirty in the sack, dirty in the kitchen.”

The waiter asked how the tongue was.

“It was very good.  It reminded me somewhat of skirt steak, but with a more workaday texture.  It was really quiet exciting to eat, however.”  Sated and enjoying myself, the guilt I felt over Mariska and eating human tongue had vanished. “I was a little surprised that I had difficulty eating it at first.”

“Most do. You shouldn’t worry so.  And I apologize about the ‘tourist’ remark.”

It was like we were old pals now.  I’d learned both their names and knew they were both unmarried, like myself.  “Would you like to see how we prepare tongue?” the waiter asked.

“Would I!”

They took me to the kitchen.  I considered this a rare treat, much like the tongue.

In the kitchen, a pair cooks dithered over stoves and prated to one another. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Their aquiline, heat-scarred faces were ruddy in the brightly lighted kitchen.  The waiter walked to a prep station in the rear of the kitchen and lifted what looked to be garden sheers.  He scrutinized their cleanliness.  He took a small sponge, rubbed out a spot on the tool, and then beckoned me to come closer.

“This is what we use to remove the tongue.”  He held aloft the large pair of cutters. “We have to make sure it is clean to avoid infection.  We’re not in the murder business, you know.”

“Intriguing,” I said. “So you remove the tongues, here, in the kitchen?”

“Yes, and this is what we use to hold the tongue.”

“Whoa.” It was a pair of pliers with imbedded spikes that sparkled like polished jewels.  He held both tools.  The cutters were in his right, the pliers in his left.

“If you like, I could demonstrate on you.”

“That’s okay.” Not taking him seriously in the least.

“But sir,” he came closer. “Someone gave up her tongue for you.”

“But I’m not that giving.”

“But she was.  And that is how it works.  You get tongue only if you give it.”  The waiter lunged toward me. “You tourists never know the rules!”

I ran for the door only to find the moon-faced man and the two ruddy-cheeked cooks standing in front of it.  “Out of my way!” was the last thing I said.

—Jason DeYoung