The Swimmers by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My enjoyment of So We Read On (teaser here; review to come) convinced me that I needed to read Fitzgerald’s short story The Swimmers, which Corrigan regularly refers to. So I did. I found it easily enough online.

When we meet him at the opening of this story, Henry Marston is working in a bank and living in France with his two children and his French wife. He could make more money back home in the States, but that’s not what’s important – until it is. A nasty event prompts him to move his family to the U.S., where he is wealthier; but a recurrence of the same unpleasantness spurs him to make changes a second time.

Between the two events he meets a young woman who teaches him to swim. This takes place on a French beach, and the young woman is American; this juxtaposition (symbolism, even, as swimming stands in for Americanism) persists, and it will be his newfound ability and love for swimming that will free him at the end of the story.

The most noticeable element of this story is national differences, epitomized in the final paragraph, which closes out a remarkable last page. Sweeping statements and symbolism are very much at work here, and the language is lovely. Perhaps I’m suggestible after just reading Corrigan’s book which compares The Swimmers so strongly to The Great Gatsby, but I definitely recognized Fitzgerald’s voice as I remember it from his most famous work. There are also some strong statements about class, money, and values, similarly familiar to the Fitzgerald fan. And reference to the lost generation (no capitals here). Finally, I swear I heard shades of Cheever, but surely that’s just the confoundingly similar title to Cheever’s well known story

What can I say? It’s Fitzgerald. I recommend it. I’ll leave you with that final paragraph:

But when, in a moment, he left her he knew that she could never tell him – she or another. France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter – it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.

I’m willing.


Rating: 8 Southerners.

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allen Poe

This is one of Poe’s better-known short stories, “The Purloined Letter”:

I cannot remember now why I printed this story out (from here, and thank you) to read on my lunch break. I read a line about it in another book – Mr. Mercedes, perhaps? Heck. Sorry. Suffice it to say, a Poe recommendation is always worthwhile.

Now I will try to answer the question: What makes Poe so great?

His tales rely not on the solutions offered to the problems presented – which, while no pushovers, are not the mindbending puzzles of the century. Rather, his characters are so very clever, come around to things in such intellectual twists and turns that we are dazzled; and perhaps the best bits are the dialogue. I love his flair!

“That is another of your odd notions,” said the Prefect, who had a fashion of calling every thing “odd” that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of “oddities.”

When the story opens, our narrator has stopped in to smoke a pipe with a friend, when the Parisian Prefect (of police) drops by to ask for help with a case. He is stumped, and wants to pick the clearly superior brains, in particular of the narrator’s host, Dupin, who we have met before (see the Murders in the Rue Morgue). A lady has lost a letter that will get her in great trouble if her husband finds out about it; and she knows exactly who took it, because he took it from under her very eyes – and those of her husband, which is why she couldn’t cry out about it. She has engaged the Prefect to recover this document, which has become an object of blackmail. He has had his men very very thoroughly search the dwelling and person of the thief, repeatedly and using microscopes, needles, and probes. The letter is clearly not in the home; clearly not on the man; and yet he clearly would keep it near to hand to help in blackmailing the lady. What a puzzler!

Dupin sends him on his way, but he returns some time later, having given up; the considerable reward he’s been promised will clearly have to go unclaimed. It is an unsolvable mystery. This is when Dupin speaks up: for a portion of that reward, he will happily hand over the letter. The Prefect pays; the letter is produced from a drawer in Dupin’s desk. The Prefect goes away again, mystified but triumphant. And our narrator asks for the explanation, which of course is… I won’t spoil, but simplicity is always the answer.

This entire story is set in Dupin’s “little back library.” The action is all removed, told in narrative; if this were a play, it would be done with the single setting, that darkened book room filled with pipe smoke, and two or three men talking. That in itself is kind of an attractive feature to me. Poe’s mysteries are cerebral; it’s all in the dialogue and the internal machinations. The likes of Hercule Poirot or Claire DeWitt, those detectives who solve mysteries by thinking, clearly owe a debt to Poe. In fact, Poe’s detective stories are credited with (at least in part) birthing the genre; but some modern-day versions follow him more closely than others.

The plot is lovely because it offers room for plenty of debate, being intellectual in nature. It is clever. But my favorite part is definitely the dialogue and the intricacies of the very clever players.

Poe’s cleverness is on display as well; I had to look up several terms & lines.

First, pardon my ignorance, but I had to look up what was meant by “the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum” – what the heck is that?? It’s a pipe, of course. The Sherlock Holmes type, one assumes.

Others:

Procrustean bed: “an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is forced.”

recherche: “unusual and not understood by most people.”

And then the French! I copied out “Il y a parier que toute idee publique, toute convention recue, est une sottise, car elle a convenu au plus grand nombre” and Google Translate gave me the (very rough) “there a bet that any public idea, any agreement received is nonsense, because it agreed to the largest number.” Okay, I think I can follow that: what the masses easily buy is not necessarily the best solution, hm? But then in closing:

Un dessein si funeste, S’il n’est digne d’Atree, est digne de Thyeste.

Again, my rough Google translation gives me “if a fatal design is worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.” I am totally charmed by anybody who invokes the Greek myths to close a mystery story. Although I could take a pass on the reference coming to me in French.


Rating: 9 ravens, how about.

Next up, I would like to read Shirley Jackson’s The Summer People, inspired by (what else?) my recent read of Shirley. Short stories referenced in novels, moving forward.

Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros (audio)

marieWhat a lovely, lovely book. Fans of Sandra Cisneros, don’t be put off by the sometimes-classification of this short fable as a children’s book. Cisneros says in an afterword that she certainly never thought of it that way; she intended it for adults, and I can confirm that it works that way, very well.

This is a short, dreamy, poetic tale of a woman, the narrator, who has just lost her mother; a visiting friend (“I was the only person Rosalind knew in all of Texas”) has lost her cat, Marie. Together, the two women go walking the streets of San Antonio, distributing fliers and asking folks the title question: Have you seen Marie?

The voice and rhythms and lyrical style that I remember from The House on Mango Street are vibrantly present here. The women ask dogs, cats and squirrels as well as people about the missing Marie, and their reactions are noted, and charmingly represented as being every bit as important as the people’s. On the surface, this is the story of searching for Marie; but it is also the story of Cisneros losing her beloved mother, feeling like an orphan in her own middle age, and gradually coming to understand that “love does not die.”

As I mentioned, Cisneros is careful to point out that this was not meant to be a story for children, but rather one for adults, with the idea of helping others like herself deal with experiences like hers: losing a parent, or a loved one. I am very (very) glad & relieved that I don’t seem to facing this experience now, or soon; but I imagine that this book would indeed help. I appreciate its soothing musical tone and gently loving, inspired advice and creative understanding of death, what it means, the grieving process. It is a tender tale. Cisneros is inventive and calming and this is a beautiful, moving story about family and friendship. I highly recommend it, for anyone.

This audio version is read by the author, and so beautifully; I love her lilt; it’s perfect. I want to very much recommend this version (in both English and Spanish in one edition – one cd of each). But then, the print copy is illustrated by Ester Hernandez, and Cisneros is clearly very pleased with that aspect. Hearing her speak about their collaborative efforts on the illustrations (Hernandez came to visit & tour Cisneros’s San Antonio; she calls it documentary-style) made me regret missing the print. So there you are. Both, perhaps?? I think I will go out and get myself a copy of the book, too.


Rating: 10 trees along the San Antonio River.

book beginnings on Friday: Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

marie

I cannot say enough nice things about this short piece of beauty by Sandra Cisneros. It begins:

The day Marie and Rosalind arrived on a visit from Tacoma was the day Marie ran off. It had taken three days of driving to get to San Antonio, and Marie had cried the whole way.

You will be captivated. Do check it out.

The Black Monk and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (audio)

blackmonkI am tagging this as a did not finish, although I did, in fact, finish two short stories (and barely started a third). I DNF’d the story collection, though. Meaning, I don’t seem to be a Chekhov fan. It’s funny when things turn out that way: when I turn out not to like an author who is Classic, or in this case, revered as one of the best short story writers of all time (I can’t remember where I’ve heard this, but I have. More than once. sigh). But it does happen.

I listened to The Black Monk and Gooseberries. It was remarkable to me how much these stories reminded me of Tolstoy (who, if you recall, I also did not like). I don’t know if it’s Russian writers with shared characteristics, or that they both evoke the same world and that’s what bothers me. At any rate, the Russian society on the estate felt very much like the same background, transferred from Anna Karenina to Chekhov’s short stories.

In The Black Monk, our protagonist visits the estate where he was raised family-like by non-relations. The father figure encourages him to marry the daughter of the estate (so, the sister figure?), and he does. At a party somebody shares the legend of the black monk, who is imaginary but shows up… sometimes, some places. Our protagonist sees the black monk, talks with him, and uses their conversations as fodder for his own writing (oh yes, he is a writer by profession). He gets caught talking to himself (as it seems – he’s talking with his imaginary black monk) and “treated” for his “illness,” which frustrates him. He and the wife split up. The end. This is a story in which nothing much happens, and the black monk bits I found uninteresting. Is this minimalism as a stylistic statement, or something? Is it not what’s there, but what isn’t there? (Like action, personality, conflict?) This is a well-regarded piece of literature, but it passed me right by.

In Gooseberries, a few friends gather and sit around and tell a story: the brother of one of these men, having grown up in the country but found work as a bureaucrat in a city, dreams about retiring to the country. He will have a farm, or something like it; and he will have gooseberry bushes. In time he accomplishes this: he has a country estate, and gooseberry bushes. The brother (who is telling the story, to his friends) visits, and is served gooseberries. The country-aspiring brother praises them highly, but they are in fact bitter. I assume this is the grand symbolic conflict of the story that is meant to impress me, but again I found it banal. Oh, there is some social commentary on the fact that this bureaucrat-brother now professes to be a nobleman and high-handedly distributes buckets of vodka to the peasants on special occasions, pretending grandeur. But again, this is a story in which nothing happens, and I am bored. So I stopped listening.

In many literary cases, we praise the understated. I’m thinking of Cheever’s short story, The Swimmer, and Hemingway’s, Hills Like White Elephants. The under-context of these stories remains pretty well hidden, but they are praised as masterpieces. (I enjoyed both, for the record.) In Hemingway’s story, nothing really happens; but it is still thought-provoking and oh, so emotionally evocative. In Cheever’s, a little more happens; nothing is said about what Cheever really wants to say; but it still works. I wonder if there’s something hidden in The Black Monk that, if explained to me, would make it so much more enjoyable? I suspect not.

Funnily enough, this audiobook I picked up right after The Gunslinger is read by the same narrator, George Guidall. That was an interesting experiment in the different voices and moods a good narrator can evoke. When I thought to notice, I could tell – obviously – that the same man read the two books; but it never would have occurred to me mid-story, because he does a fine job of bringing to life two such different worlds. The fantastic, dramatic made-up world of King’s fantasy series couldn’t be more different than Chekhov’s staid, frustrated Russian society, and Guidall did well by each, so none of my criticism falls on him. I was annoyed by the characters Guidall read; but I think he read them as they were written.


Rating: 2 empty comments.

Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe

Available as 11 pages in quite small type here.

I am 98% sure that I was led to this story by a mention in Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder. I’m always up for some Poe; he’s batting 1000 with me. I have a complete works volume on my shelves somewhere; maybe one of these days…

I’m pretty sure the reason I came to this story from the above book is that it is cited as one of the earliest mystery stories in literature, that is, in which a detective (in this case an amateur) puzzles through the clues to come to a conclusion of whodunit. It begins with a fairly lengthy (several long paragraphs) discussion of analytical powers, in which our narrator argues that whist or draughts are both more challenging intellectual games than chess. [I am not familiar with whist or draughts so can't comment on that.] The point of all this rather cerebral discussion finally becomes clear: the narrator’s roommate, a Frenchman named Dupin, is an analytical genius. He can tell what the narrator is thinking. And he will solve… The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

by Daniel Urrabieta y Vierge [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (click to enlarge)

illustration by Daniel Urrabieta y Vierge, via Wikimedia Commons (click to enlarge)

In a tone and a climate I recognize from The Invention of Murder, we learn that a mother and daughter have been brutally killed in their home on the Rue Morgue. All the doors are locked from within, and a very large amount of cash has been left behind, spilled on the floor. The Parisian police are stumped. Dupin, however, reasons through what clues he finds – having been allowed special access to the crime scene, naturally – and comes to a very strange and improbable, but correct, conclusion. Occam’s Razor aside.

The strengths of this short story, as always with Poe, lie in its atmosphere: brooding, dark, melancholy, cerebral. The character of Dupin is not well-rounded or human, but that’s okay. He plays a role. Our narrator is there, Watson-style, to provide a foil for Dupin’s analysis. The solution to the mystery is most strange and enjoyable for its strangeness. Realism this is not.

An enjoyable quick read and a good early example of a genre I love. Well worth a few minutes.


Rating: 8 thick tresses of grey human hair.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I heard about this short story through the National Library of Medicine’s Traveling Exhibition Program (we will be hosting several exhibitions at the hospital library where I work). I hadn’t heard of it before, although clearly I should have! If you want to read it, too – and I recommend it – I found my copy online here.

It is a very quick read at 9 pages, during which our narrator keeps a secret diary. She suffers from nervous depression, or neurasthenia, or the usual woman-sickness as diagnosed in the 1890’s when this story was written; and her physician husband has prescribed bed rest. So she’s shut up in the top floor of a decaying old mansion, in what used to be a children’s nursery (she thinks) because it has bars on the windows; and it has terribly ugly yellow wallpaper. Now, she’s forbidden even the exertion of writing, but because she disobeys, we get to follow her descent into madness, by way of that wallpaper.

It is a chilling story, and let me tell you that I read it while camping alone in a remote valley in Colorado, in a tent with a yellow rain fly on it (in the rain) – but never fear, I’ve made it back with all the marbles I began with, I’m reasonably sure. No one has tried to make me stay in bed yet, at any rate.

It turns out that this is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s own story, to some extent: she was diagnosed similarly and given a similar “treatment”, but feeling herself slide downhill, disobeyed doctor’s orders, shook herself off, and got to work – writing, and living her own life. This turned out to be the healthier option for her, and it seems she lived a reasonably happy life thereafter. My copy (link above) came with a less-than-one-page piece called “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which she states that “it was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy.”

I learned more by going back to the NLM’s exhibition entitled The Literature of Prescription: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, which I recommend and which also won’t take you but a few minutes.

Finally, I couldn’t resist sharing with you this related piece of art that I found while trolling the interwebs…


Lovely work, and of the images I found online that try to illustrate this story, it was my favorite.

Not only is the plot chilling, and the purpose behind the story important and sympathetic, but it is a well-crafted story too. I enjoyed it very much and am moved by the story behind the story. I’m lucky people like Charlotte Perkins Gilman were speaking up over 100 years ago, or I would never have been allowed to go camping alone in a valley in Colorado, yellow rain fly or no.


Rating: 9 disruptions of the pattern.
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