The Points of View Challenge – The Use of Force – William Carlos Williams

William Carlos WilliamsWilliam Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963)

American poet (The Red Wheelbarrow), writer, and physician.

The Use of Force, first published in the collection Life Along the Passaic River, in 1938

Available to read online here

This is the third of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s how their introduction continues: “Two of the stories are about the narrator’s childhood, told many years later. The other two are about adult experiences. One of them might have happened the day before it is told, but after strong feelings have cooled, the narrator’s maturity enables him to talk about them with an outsider’s detachment.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

The Use of Force

 

Life Along the Passaic RiverDoctor has called on the Olson family because daughter Mathilda is very sick. Although she seems “strong as a heifer”, she’s had a fever for three days. There have been cases of diphtheria at the local school so it’s important she’s checked out. Doctor asks if she has a sore throat. Apparently not, say the parents, but Doctor decides he should inspect her throat to make sure.

But Mathilda has other ideas. She refuses to engage with Doctor in any way, won’t open her mouth, and when he tries to get near, she flings her arm out and nearly breaks his glasses. At first Doctor rather admires her tenacity and independence, especially in the face of her parents’ embarrassment and annoyance at her behaviour. But as she grows more and more unreasonable, he gets progressively angrier, and, despite his better judgment decides that the use of force will be the only way he can check her throat.

Even though she’s bleeding, and shrieking in agony, Doctor continues to pin her down and “overpowered the child’s neck and jaws. I forced the heavy silver spoon back of her teeth and down her throat till she gagged.” Surprise, surprise, he discovers she’s been hiding the fact that her tonsils are covered with a membrane that tells him that she’s had a sore throat for three days. Her final fury at being found out is worse than the pain of the throat.

William Carlos Williams was a physician all his life and so presumably this incident is based on a real event, or at least suggested by one. In the grand scheme of things this is a very minor incident, but it reveals to Doctor just how personally he became involved with the case – that it became war between him and his patient, and that he allowed his reactions to get out of control. “I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it.”

As for Mathilda, she didn’t take defeat lying down. The last lines of the story are: “ Now truly she was furious. She had been on the defensive before but now she attacked. Tried to get off her father’s lap and fly at me while tears of defeat blinded her eyes.”

What started off as a simple home visit to a patient escalated to battle of wits and strength. A minor incident perhaps, but Doctor learned a lot about himself as a result. Maybe next time he would react differently? Was the use of force justified in this case? Could it potentially have saved the girl’s life? Were the parents acting in her best interests? There are a number of questions you can ask yourself – and no obvious answers.

The next story in the anthology is the fourth and final of the detached autobiography stories, Bad Characters by Jean Stafford, of whom I have never heard!

The Points of View Challenge – Warm River – Erskine Caldwell

Erskine CaldwellErskine Caldwell (1903 – 1987)

American novelist (Tobacco Road, God’s Little Acre) and short story writer.

Warm River, first published in the collection We are the Living, in 1933

Available to read online here

This is the second of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s the part of their introduction that specifically refers to this story: “The other story, which is about a change in emotional perspective, is told from the newly learned point of view. By one means or another, but ultimately always by the passage of time, the speaker has arrived at the understanding of his experience he must have in order to discuss it with a neutral, watchful audience.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

Warm River

 

We Are The LivingOur narrator, Richard, crosses a rickety bridge over a warm river to reach the house of Gretchen, her father and her two sisters. At this point we don’t know why he’s visiting them. They’re obviously both very excited to be seeing each other, and his visit was clearly expected. Richard and Gretchen spend a long time looking at each other, not finding the right words to say. Later, Richard asks her father why it is that he has settled in this romantic location in the mountains. He says he and his late wife were born there, and lived there for twenty years, and by living there he still feels close to her and can still carry on loving her, even though she’s no longer there.

Stunned by this simple revelation of true love, Richard finds himself questioning his own reason for being there. Does he love Gretchen? He admits to himself that he can’t really say that he does, although he understands that she loves him ardently. She tries to get him to say he loves her, at least just a little – but he cannot.

They sleep separately, Gretchen promising to wake Richard in good time to get his morning train. But Richard cannot sleep. He smokes and frets. Eventually he opens his bedroom door and looks towards hers, only to find that she too is not asleep, but kneeling on her rug, crying. He is struck by how beautiful she is. Come morning, she is rushing around to get his breakfast before he leaves; but he has a fresh understanding of his emotions. “Gretchen […] don’t hurry to get me off – I’m not going back this morning – I don’t know what was the matter with me last night – I know now that I love you”. The story ends with his asking her to show him the way down to the river; “I have got to go down there right away and feel the water with my hands.”

This is a deceptively soft, slight, gentle tale which reveals much more on a second reading. At first it appears to be the story of a rather naïve and tentative chap who’s been invited in by a prospective girlfriend to meet the family, uncertain of his emotions towards the young lady, but which grow stronger and more certain as he sees more of her. However, you can also read it as though he knows exactly what he wants from that naughty night away – in fact both of them do, and it’s only when Richard can spend his time alone no more that he gets up, “stiff and erect” (Caldwell’s words, not mine) and voyeuristically spies on Gretchen. And it’s only then that he realises she’s worth more than just a one night stand.

The sensuality of everything to do with the warm river, that Richard initially fears to cross but later desperately wants to wash over his hands, reeks of sexual symbolism. Caldwell’s writing feels a little heavy-handed to me, with its constant references to the countryside, the mountains, the river, deliberately daubing the romanticism onto the canvass. I think it’s a clever tale, but I didn’t like it that much. It’s a well-regarded short story but I don’t think it would attract me to reading more of his works.

The next story in the anthology is the third of the detached autobiography stories, The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams, an author whom I think of more as a poet than a short story writer. I will be interested to see what his short story skills are like!

The Points of View Challenge – First Confession – Frank O’Connor

Frank O'ConnorFrank O’Connor (1903 – 1966)

Irish Republican Army soldier, teacher, theatre director, librarian writer of over 150 short stories (Guests of the Nation, The Majesty of Law, My Oedipus Complex).

First Confession, first published in the collection Traveller’s Samples, in 1951

Available to read online here

This is the first of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s how their introduction starts: “Each speaker in the next stories tells about what happened to him in the past. Now he is in a frame of mind that has changed greatly since the time he underwent the experience he describes, a frame of mind that may even be a result of what he has learned from the experience.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

First Confession

 

Traveller's SamplesYoung Jackie tells us about how embarrassed he was when his grandmother came to live with the family, eating her potatoes with her hands, sneaking a jug of porter into the house, and not knowing what she’d say in front of his friends. She used to give his older sister Nora a penny from her weekly pension, but he got nothing – not that he would take it from her anyway. If she cooked dinner for the family he’d refuse to eat it.

It was coming up for the time for Jackie’s first confession and he was dreading it – mainly because of the terrifying tales of Mrs Ryan who prepared the children for their first confession and communion. She told him about people who made a bad confession and who started to burn in hell on the spot. His mother couldn’t accompany him for confession so Nora did instead – and she did everything she could to make him feel bad; his sins were so extraordinarily severe that he’d be lucky to come out of it alive.

When he finally gets inside the confessional box, he’s confused as to where she should sit or stand – and decides to climb up onto a moulding high up in the box, much to the priest’s annoyance. As a result, “I lost my grip, tumbled, and hit the door an unmerciful wallop before I found myself flat on my back in the middle of the aisle.” Nora lands him a clip around the ear in fury at his behaviour – but the priest’s reaction shocks them both.

He tells Nora off for being so cruel, and takes Jackie aside and kindly welcomes him to take his first confession, pretending to be horrified at the awful things Jackie has been keeping inside, but in reality finding it all very funny. The priest is the epitome of kindness – and when Nora finds out he has only been given Three Hail Marys (the same as her) she’s mad. “Some people have all the luck! Tis no advantage to anybody trying to be good. I might just as well be a sinner like you.”

It’s a delightful little tale – O’Connor really gets under the skin of this earnest little scamp and plays with his fears only for him to be rewarded with kindness. You know that Jackie will never be scared of going to confession again! There’s clearly a lot of love – critical love maybe, but love all the same – for old Irish traditions of food and drink, family relationships, sibling rivalry and everyone’s relationship with the Church. O’Connor’s writing has a lively lightness of touch that finds the humour in unlikely places and provides the reader – whether they be Irish Catholic or not – a lot to recognise from their own childhood. I really wasn’t expecting the priest to be so kindly and friendly – perhaps that’s a lesson for me not to prejudge the characteristics of people before you’ve met them!

The next story in the anthology is the second of the detached autobiography stories, Warm River by Erskine Caldwell. This is yet another author of whom I of course have heard but never read, so I will be fascinated to see what his style and content is like!

The Points of View Challenge – A & P – John Updike

John UpdikeJohn Updike (1932 – 2009)

American novelist (Rabbit series of novels, The Witches of Eastwick), poet, short-story writer, art critic, and literary critic.

A & P, first published in the New Yorker magazine, July 22 1961, and then in the collection Pigeon Feathers, in 1962

Available to read online here

This is the fifth and final story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration.

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

A & P

 

Pigeon Feathers19-year-old Sammy operates one of the checkouts at A & P Supermarket. One day, he’s just ringing up some groceries for a customer when three girls walk in, all dressed in swimsuits – an unexpected delight for Sammy, who accidentally then rings up the same item twice, much to the annoyance of his customer.

His eyes follow the girls admiringly around the store; one of them, whom he calls Queenie, is particularly attractive, and it’s his lucky day when she ends up with her friends at his checkout till wanting to buy a 49c Herring snack. She offers a dollar bill from her cleavage to pay for it, when Lengel, the manager, sees the girls and marches over to them, reminding them that this is not the beach, and next time they come in, they should have their shoulders covered.

At first, Queenie blushes apologetically, but Lengel continues to make his point and she starts defending herself, saying that she’s perfectly respectably dressed. Lengel disagrees and, upset at the treatment he has dealt out to the girls, Sammy quits his job on the spot. Lengel suggests he shouldn’t act so rashly; he’s been a friend of Sammy’s parents for many years and this will be an embarrassment for everyone. But Sammy is determined, ceremoniously removing his A & P apron and bow tie, and leaving Lengel to work at the cash register.

Coming out of the store, Sammy realises the girls have gone. And the regret starts to kick in…

Short and sweet, this wry little tale is amusingly told, with excellent attention to character, particularly Sammy, Lengel and Sammy’s colleague Stokesie. Updike can produce excellent turns of phrase; I particularly enjoyed the description of Queenie’s dollar bill emerging from her costume as “having come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known were there”.

I’ve seen analyses online that suggest the story is symbolic of anti-commercialism and that Sammy represents a voice of reason making a stand against encroaching capitalism. My own view is that this is one of those little stories that just take a slice of life at one particular moment and explores it to the full. There’s no doubt that the unexpected appearance of three girls in swimsuits in a supermarket a long way from the beach is going to cause a young man to let his mind wonder.

His surprise but real repercussion of finding himself out of a job because he did what he thought was The Right Thing will no doubt come as a shock, but as he says, “it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it.” I have no doubt that young Sammy will move on to bigger and better things, so I don’t think anyone needs worry about him.

The next story in the anthology is the first of four detached autobiography stories, First Confession by Frank O’Connor, yet another author about whom I know absolutely nothing!

The Points of View Challenge – On Saturday Afternoon – Alan Sillitoe

Alan SillitoeAlan Sillitoe (1928 – 2010)

English novelist (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), short story writer (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), poet and essayist.

On Saturday Afternoon, first published in the collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, in 1959

Available to read online here (search for the title, about two thirds of the way through the document)

This is the fourth of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how their introduction continues: “First-person fiction, especially today, abounds in stories narrated by persons whose perspective and values are questionable for the reader. Is the speaker missing something? Can we accept his judgments? If we are not sure, we may wish the author had been “clearer” so that we would not be reminded of our own uncertainties about what we see and what we ought to make of what we see. Even after his travels, does Gulliver have the proper perspective?”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now! Also, a trigger warning, as the story deals with suicide.

 

On Saturday Afternoon

 

TheLonelinessOfTheLongDistanceRunnerOur 16-year-old narrator, whose name we never learn, remembers a time when he “once saw a bloke try to kill himself”. It happened one Saturday afternoon when he was ten, and he’d left the house because his dad was in a black mood and the best thing he could do if his dad was in one of his moods was to escape the house.

He saw the bloke in the yard – he hadn’t been living in the neighbourhood long. He had a rope with him. When the boy asked him what he was going to do with the rope, he replied, “I’m going ter ‘ang messen, lad”. Why? “Because I’m fed up […] and because I want to. My missus left me, and I’m out o’ work.” The man gets the boy to agree to kick the chair away from under his feet when he shows signs of struggling. The boy tells him that the rope around the light fitting wouldn’t be strong enough for the job, but the man won’t hear of it.

True enough, just when the man is dangling there and the boy has kicked the chair away, “he fell down with such a horrible thump on the floor that I thought he’d broke every bone he’d got.” When the policeman comes to cut him free, he tells him he’ll get six years for that, as taking your own life was illegal in those days. Taken to hospital, he gets a bed on the top floor. It doesn’t take long  for him to throw himself from a window on the top floor and kill himself that way.

For the boy it’s a memorable moment; he’s confident he will never be in a position where he wants to kill himself. He’ll never be that black. But he also finds it a thrilling memory – and much more exciting than watching Saturday morning shows at the pictures. He also realises his dad will never have that dark look in his eyes; so, for the boy, it’s quite an optimistic story.

Though relatively short, this is a delicately and finely written piece, which gets under the skin of both the boy and the man – and to a lesser extent, the boy’s father. You can hear the voice of the boy very clearly in the writing, with the use of Sillitoe’s local Nottingham dialect and speech structure.

I take two things away from this story. One is the simple, matter-of-fact determination of the man to take his own life; quietly, unsensationally, calmly. It’s not only the public school alumni who espoused the stiff-upper-lip where it comes to men’s emotions; the man’s inability to say much about his plight shows that it’s a problem that transcends the class system. The other is the undisguised thrill that the boy feels to be witnessing real life drama like this, getting an almost voyeuristic pleasure from what promises to be the man’s last act on earth. He’s not particularly interested in the man’s reasons – although he feels it’s only polite to ask; he just wants to see the final action. The man is also perfectly happy for the boy to witness it; indeed, to participate in it, by kicking the chair away. When he fails to make a clean job of it, the boy is rather disgusted with the man’s inadequacy. When he hears how the man later threw himself out of the hospital window he feels both glad and sad about it. Finally, he also realises that if he’d witnessed the act now, at the age of sixteen, he would have found it a much more horrific and stressful experience. But for a 10-year-old, it was something new to brighten up an otherwise dull Saturday.

It’s an interesting little tale; the reader has a rather curious sense of detachment to it all, partly because the narrator is so emotionless about the whole experience, partly because it took place six years ago, and partly because we learn very little about the victim himself. It’s just one of life’s little tragedies. Life moves on.

The next story in the anthology is the fifth and final of the subjective narration stories, A & P by John Updike. This is another author of whom I of course have heard but never read, so I will be fascinated to see what his style and content is like!

The Points of View Challenge – My Sister’s Marriage – Cynthia Marshall Rich

Cynthia RichCynthia Marshall Rich (1933 -)

American writer and lesbian activist, teacher of writing at Harvard University, author of anti-ageism and anti-homophobia books.

My Sister’s Marriage, first published in Mademoiselle magazine, in 1955 (winner of the Mademoiselle Fiction Prize)

Available to read online here

This is the third of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how their introduction continues: “Of course all first-person stories, even third-person stories, are somewhat subjective; any storyteller is, after all, mortal and fallible. But there is a difference between the narrator who does not seem to be aware of his prejudices and therefore is telling a story somewhat different from the one he intends to tell, and the narrator who consciously makes his bias so obvious that we consider it merely “personal flavor.””

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

My Sister’s Marriage

 

MademoiselleSarah Ann and Olive were the closest of sisters; people thought they were twins, although Olive was the elder. They lived with their father, Dr Landis, a most respected gentleman who taught them right from wrong, how to be a lady and to live a decent and caring life. With their mother dead, Olive took on the role of mother to Sarah Ann and to care for her father. He never had to raise his voice, but calmly and with maturity, steered his daughters in the direction of a good life.

But Dr Landis could go too far. When Olive meets Mr Dixon, a young gentleman who takes an interest in her, she quickly falls in love. Far too quickly for Sarah Ann’s liking; surely that’s not the behaviour of a decent young woman. Father insists it’s an infatuation and requires Olive to see the young man no more. He’s only a travelling salesman for Miracle-wear soles. Dr Landis knows, without meeting him, that he’s a scoundrel who’s not to be trusted.

Refusing to allow him in the house, and refusing to give his blessing on their relationship, Olive steals away and marries him. Her name is rarely mentioned in the house again, and her letters home are ignored by Landis, although Sarah Ann has been furtively replying. Landis insists that her letters be burned – he takes them away for that purpose. Sarah Ann tells herself that her father knows best, when he tells her that it should be just the two of them in the house for the rest of their lives. She still loves Olive – but Olive can never know.

A riveting piece of storytelling that captures you right from the beginning and never lets up. Sarah Ann is our narrator, and she is clearly bitter and unhappy – and probably lying to herself. She tells us quite aggressively that we are strangers and therefore won’t understand the feelings of herself and her father, but if we weren’t strangers, she wouldn’t be telling us anyway.

Somehow Landis has brainwashed Sarah Ann into fan-worshiping him, to the extent that all other relationships are insignificant. She points out that he went to Harvard and is a better quality man than all the others in their hometown of Conkling. He has made Sarah Ann a brooding, prudish young woman, disapproving of anyone having fun or trying to make a separate life for themselves.

In the end she accedes to his wishes to stop writing back to her sister and to devote her life to only him. Using powerful, clever writing Rich shows how Sarah Ann has been manipulated into giving up her own identity; something that Olive was simply not prepared to do. You feel sad for Sarah Ann and expect that one day she will wake up to her surroundings and discover it’s too late to break free. But Landis has done too good a job at controlling her.

The next story in the anthology is the fourth of the subjective narration stories, On Saturday Afternoon by Alan Sillitoe. I’ve never read any Sillitoe, so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into this one!

The Points of View Challenge – Too Early Spring – Stephen Vincent Benét

Stephen Vincent BenetStephen Vincent Benét (1924 – 1984)

American poet (John Brown’s Body), short story writer (The Devil and Daniel Webster), and novelist.

Too Early Spring, first published in Tales Before Midnight, a short story collection, in 1939

Available to read online here

This is the second of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how their introduction continues: “The following stories are all told by one of the characters after the conclusion of events and the “speaker” is supposed to be addressing us, the general public, not himself or another character. In some of these stories, however, he may sound like a correspondent, or diarist; we may feel he is “using” us or assuming something we don’t assume. Furthermore, as the speaker usually makes clear, the events have not been over very long, although the time gap between the happening and the telling varies a lot among the stories.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

Too Early Spring

Tales before MidnightYoung Chuck starts his tale by saying he’s writing it down because he never wants to forget “the way it was”. He sets the scene with basketball practice, and how he’s been encouraged by his brother Kerry, and by mentioning a guy named Tot Pickens, who’s a bit of a louse.

We soon meet Helen, “the Sharon kid”. The Sharon family have only been in town for three years or so, and Chuck has never really noticed her before. But slowly, and gently, the pair fall in love. They’re very respectful of each other, but they talk as if they are an old married couple, fantasising about the house they will have lived in for ages, and the times they have spent together. They work out they will have had seven children, how their kids would have been educated, and how perfect their life together would be.

One day Chuck’s team wins an important basketball match. Mr Grant, the coach, sets up a big celebration meal. But none of Chuck’s immediate family can attend, and Helen stays away because that’s what the girls did. But Chuck wants to continue the celebration later into the evening and decides he will go and visit Helen at her home to let her know the good news. Helen’s parents are also out, but she lets him in and they chat in front of the fire, in their usual, relaxed, respectful way. But the match was tiring, and it’s getting late, and both fall asleep….

…to be awoken by a whirlwind of fury as Helen’s parents return and discover them, put two and two together and assume that Chuck has taken advantage of Helen. Strangely incapable of defending themselves, they become the subjects of shame and gossip. The parents ensure the two never meet again, Chuck gets sent to a college in Colorado, and Helen eventually is moved to a convent.

This bittersweet little story truly has a sting in its tail. The reader suspects right from the start that something has gone wrong and maybe fears a wrongdoing that is much worse than what actually happens. There is a huge sense of tragedy through the misunderstanding that a genuinely charming and loving relationship, which has been conducted throughout with total decency, is brought to an abrupt end through no other fault than falling asleep.

Benét’s writing is measured and sensitive, deliberately introducing a small amount of uncertainty to give the climax of the story a little extra light and shade. The characters are very well drawn as clean-cut All American kids of good morals and decency, and the sad ending is very believable. The two youngsters will live their lives always wondering what if.

The next story in the anthology is the third of the subjective narration stories, My Sister’s Marriage by Cynthia Marshall Rich. Ms Rich is an unknown quantity to me, so that should be interesting!

The Points of View Challenge – My Side of the Matter – Truman Capote

Truman Capote (1924 – 1984)

American novelist (In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), screenwriter, playwright, and actor (Neil Simon’s Murder by Death).

My Side of the Matter, first published in A Tree of Night and Other Stories, a short story collection, in 1949

Available to read online here – please search on the title of the story

This is the first of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how they introduce this method: “To question the reliability of the person to whom we are listening is to stop and look at our own reliability for a moment. To say that someone else is “being subjective” is to risk a similar complaint about oneself. It is not always possible to be sure whether a narrative is subjective or not. All we can ever do, in or out of fiction, is to test the speaker’s perspective against our own.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

My Side of the Matter

 

A Tree of NightMeet young Mr Sylvester. He’s only 16, but had a good job at the Cash ‘n’ Carry until his new wife Marge (getting married – his first mistake) insists he gives it up to live with her and her two aunts because she’s pregnant (getting her pregnant – his second mistake) in the miserable settlement of Admiral’s Hill (“which is nothing but a damn gap in the road”). Sylvester wants to explain to what a hard time he’s had living with these three women, and is lucky to have escaped with his life (“On Sunday, August 12 […] Eunice tried to kill me with her papa’s Civil War sword and Olivia-Ann cut up all over the place with a fourteen-inch hog knife.”)

His relationship with the aunts started poorly and never got better. Eunice’s first words when she saw him were: “So this is what you ran off behind our backs and married, Marge? […] You sure must’ve picked the runt of the litter. Why this isn’t any sort of man at all.” Whatever Eunice says, Olivia-Ann says the same, although what Eunice doesn’t know is that Sylvester saw Olivia-Ann help Eunice’s canary escape by shooing it through an open window with a broom.

Marge asks if they can take the car to see the picture show at Phoenix City. Eunice is steadfast. “If you think I’d let that runt drive my just-as-good-as-brand-new 1934 Chevrolet as far as the privy and back you must’ve gone clear out of your head.” Sylvester insists he’s used to driving Chevvies but she just retorts “if he’s ever so much as driven a plow I’ll eat a dozen gophers fried in turpentine.” The sisters don’t even let him and Marge sleep together, despite being married; he has to sleep in a cot on the back porch.

So what actually happened on Sunday, August 12? Our hero was picking out a tune on Olivia-Ann’s piano when she complained at him for creating an infernal racket. Incensed, Sylvester confronts her about the canary. She walks out in a quiet fury, only to return with Eunice and Bluebell, the maid, and Eunice demanding the return of one hundred dollars she says she has stolen from her. He denies it, of course, but Marge beseeches him to return the money. “I said “Et tu Brute?” which is from William Shakespeare.” Bluebell adds her supportive voice of complaint, and as a result he “picked up this umbrella off the hat tree and rapped her across the head with it until it cracked smack in two. “My real Japanese silk parasol!” shrieks Olivia-Ann. Marge cries, “You’ve killed Bluebell!” He hadn’t of course. But they try to kill him before he kills them. As the scene descends into farce, Sylvester barricades himself into the parlour with all the ghastly heavy furniture, and we last see him munching through a five pound box of chocolates, occasionally playing the piano to let the others know he’s “cheerful”.

Apparently written when Capote was about 21, this is a lively and seemingly light-hearted tale but it hides a number of darker, more sinister themes. It’s a great choice as an example of subjective narration, because you really come away from it feeling that, as far as blame is concerned, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. Capote weaves an intricate web of truths and likely-falsehoods, and you really can’t tell when one ends and the other begins.

His use of language, particularly in the reporting of conversation, shows a most acute ear for bizarre turns of phrase. The “gophers” and “Brute” lines I’ve already quoted make you laugh out loud with their unexpected eloquence. Here are some more devastatingly good one-liners: “she is a natural born half-wit and ought to be really kept in somebody’s attic”; “she has this positively morbid crush on Gary Cooper and has one trunk and two suitcases full of his photos”; and “mosquitoes that could murder a buffalo, given half a chance, not to mention dangerous flying roaches and a posse of local rats big enough to haul a wagon train from here  to Timbucktoo.”

I also like his device of not explaining things that cry out for explanation. Why is Olivia-Ann’s canary called Mrs Harry Steller Smith? How come Sylvester and Marge married so young, after only four days knowing each other, and clearly without family approval? Is there an ulterior motive for the aunts constantly to ridicule Sylvester’s masculinity? What’s Sylvester’s first name? And how come he is acquainted with Julius Caesar?

Masked with comedy, there is a lot of domestic violence in this story, with Sylvester admitting to slapping Marge, bringing Olivia-Ann down with a tackle and hitting Bluebell over the head. Olivia-Ann delivers a knee-punch to Sylvester, but you do sense that it is in self-defence. There’s criticism of the church and religious devotion, with the Morning Star Baptist Church having a preacher, “an awful old turd named Shell whom Eunice drug over one day to see about the salvation of my soul, I heard him with my own ears tell her I was too far gone”; and Olivia-Ann bellowing out hymns whilst planning her next physical assault on Sylvester.

There’s also some deep-south racism, with the N word used twice, and Sylvester seeing Bluebell as a justified target for his violence simply because of the colour of her skin. He also shows a derision for Eunice and Olivia-Ann’s papa by judging him from his portrait: “Papa is kind of handsome but just between you and me I’m convinced he has black blood in him from somewhere.” Of course, one has to assess that kind of language in the context of the age in which it was written, but it’s clear that Sylvester looks on people of colour as having less value.

It’s fair to say that you wouldn’t want to meet any of the characters in real life, although Sylvester would certainly be the most intriguing. There’s no doubt he has an admirable survival instinct, uses language as a weapon in the domestic wars that he has no real interest in waging. He’s also a layabout slob who you sense can probably turn on and off the charm with the flick of a mental switch. Very well written though; Capote packs a lot of content into nine or so pages and certainly proves that brevity is the soul of wit.

The next story in the anthology is the second of the subjective narration stories, Too Early Spring by Stephen Vincent Benét. I think I read some of his poems in an anthology of American poetry when I was at school – but that’s all I know of him.

The Points of View Challenge – Diary of a Madman – Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai GogolNikolai Gogol (1809 – 1852)

Russian novelist (Taras Bulba, Dead Souls), short story writer (The Nose, The Overcoat), surrealist, satirist and playwright (The Government Inspector).

Diary of a Madman, first published in Arabesques, a short story collection, in 1835

Available to read online here – please note, this is a different translation from that by Andrew R MacAndrew, which appears in the Points of View book.

This is the second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Diary Narration. Their description of this method continues: “The writers of diaries reveal, or perhaps betray, their own states of mind as well as report recent events. Which claims more attention, self-revelation or reporting?” Mentioning other works written in the diary format, they conclude “such stories lie between the strangely public privacy of diary and a subjective narration addressed to the world at large.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

Diary of a Madman

 

Gogol ArabeskPoprishchin starts his diary on October 3rd, with an account of a miserable day at work as a lowly civil servant, mending pens. He says his boss complains that he’s in a muddle and that his work is of poor quality; but Poprishchin has no respect for him anyway and doesn’t care. What he does care about is the director’s beautiful daughter, Sophie, whom he spies alighting from a carriage; he’s instantly lost in her stunning eyes. He recognises her dog, who starts talking to him.

“What an extraordinary dog! I was, to tell the truth, quite amazed to hear it talk human language. But when I considered the matter well, I ceased to be astonished. In fact, such things have already happened in the world. It is said that in England a fish put its head out of water and said a word or two in such an extraordinary language that learned men have been puzzling over them for three years, and have not succeeded in interpreting them yet. I also read in the paper of two cows who entered a shop and asked for a pound of tea.”

The next day he sees her again, and he’s head over heels in love. He even writes love poetry on his bed. A few weeks pass until his next diary entry, and it seems obvious that he has just been shadowing her. The chief clerk tells him he has no chance at his age, with his looks and his poverty. Eventually he gets the idea of convincing her dog that he is worthy of her. The next day, the dog writes to him, with loads of gossip about her daily life, and that of her father. But the dog lets on that the lady thinks Poprishchin is worthless. “His hair looks like a truss of hay” she says, according to the dog. And then the dog tells him that she is besotted with a young chamberlain, and marriage is on the cards.

“Deuce take it! I can read no more. It is all about chamberlains and generals. I should like myself to be a general—not in order to sue for her hand and all that—no, not at all; I should like to be a general merely in order to see people wriggling, squirming, and hatching plots before me. And then I should like to tell them that they are both of them not worth spitting on. But it is vexatious! I tear the foolish dog’s letters up in a thousand pieces.”

At this news, Poprishchin starts to imagine that he is really a count or a general. He reads in the papers that the throne of Spain is vacant, due to a woman being next in line to succeed. And he concludes, therefore, that it must be he who is the next King of Spain. He still goes to the office, but calls himself Ferdinand VIII; Sophie is still not impressed, so he assumes she is in love with the devil. He prepares for his coronation, organising a suitable costume. He waits for the Spanish deputies to arrive, to take him to Madrid. He waits… and waits…

And eventually they arrive! He is taken away to meet the Chancellor of the State who surprises him by beating him with a stick, but Poprishchin maintains his noble stance. He meets the other grandees with shorn heads and is subjected to cold water torture and assumes the Chancellor is in fact the Grand Inquisitor.

“But yet I cannot understand how the king could fall into the hands of the Inquisition. The affair may have been arranged by France—especially Polignac—he is a hound, that Polignac! He has sworn to compass my death, and now he is hunting me down. But I know, my friend, that you are only a tool of the English. They are clever fellows, and have a finger in every pie. All the world knows that France sneezes when England takes a pinch of snuff.”

Finally he can take no more. The beatings, the cold water, and the lack of appreciation of his royal birthright have taken a total toll on him. He is left to dream of what might have been, and of his childhood memories.

“Mother, mother, have pity on your sick child! And do you know that the Bey of Algiers has a wart under his nose?”

Without doubt this is the masterpiece of the anthology so far. There are many fascinating critical appraisals of this story available to research on the Internet which are definitely worth a read, but what impresses me most about the story is that the use of the diary technique means that we only see Poprishchin’s viewpoint of what’s going on. We never hear at first hand the words of his colleagues, of the director’s daughter, or of the doctors and asylum staff, who clearly operate in his head under the guise of the Spanish delegation and the State Chancellor. We only see the world through his own, disastrously dilapidating sanity.

Being Gogol, he cannot help but make you laugh as you read, but it’s a very uncomfortable laughter as you realise that you’re mocking someone who cannot help himself, and who is headed for mental catastrophe. Your laughter turns to sadness as the story proceeds, and you see the awful treatment of the patients by the staff.

The story has been considered one of the first to be a genuine portrayal of a decline into insanity, specifically through schizophrenia. We see Poprishchin’s delusions of grandeur, hallucinations, and finally his complete breaking with reality, by dating his diary entries with made-up, impossible dates. Even almost two hundred years on, it still gives the reader an alarming insight into what the mind of a – for want of a better word – madman might be like. A true work of genius.

The next story in the anthology is the first of five what Moffett and McElheny describe as subjective narration stories, Truman Capote’s My Side of the Matter. I’ve never read any Capote so this should be interesting!

The Points of View Challenge – Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

Daniel KeyesDaniel Keyes (1927 – 2014)

American writer (The Minds of Billy Milligan), awarded the Hugo Award for the short story Flowers for Algernon, given the Author Emeritus honour by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2000, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ohio University.

Flowers for Algernon, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1959

Available to read online here

This is the first story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Diary Narration. This is how they begin their description of this method: “Like monologists and correspondents, the diarists of the next two stories are reacting to events almost as they happen; like correspondents, they write on successive dates. But as diarists they are not writing to anyone in particular: “Dear Diary” suggests a curious image of an audience that is somehow close to the writer, and yet rather general; the imaginary listener or correspondent does not respond at all.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

Flowers for Algernon

 

Fantasy and Science Fiction MagazineCharlie Gordon, aged 37, with an IQ of 68, a student at Miss Alice Kinnian’s remedial reading evening classes, and a general helper at Mr Donnegan’s factory, is approached by two doctors, Nemur and Strauss, to be the subject of an experiment. A little white mouse, Algernon by name, is part of the same experiment, to see if they can artificially raise his intelligence. So far, Algernon’s intelligence has increased extraordinarily. Can the experiment work the same way for a man?

At first, the success (or otherwise) of the experiment is reflected in Charlie’s regular progress reports that he writes for Nemur and Strauss; as the weeks go by, his understanding of language, grammar, spelling and so on all improve by leaps and bounds. At the same time, Charlie and Algernon have been competing in how quickly they can escape from a maze; at first Algernon wins easily, but after a while Charlie starts to beat Algernon. In the end they dispense with the maze races.

But it’s not just Charlie’s intelligence and dexterity that improve. He undergoes an emotional development too, realising to enormous shame that he has been the butt of jokes at the factory as they have been laughing at his stupidity, rather than with him. He also realises he is falling in love with Miss Kinnian. It’s not long before Charlie’s intelligence outshines those of the two doctor scientists and his English teacher; and he realises that he needs to take charge of the experiment himself and starts to write reports and undergo research that will all make the experiment much more easily and dynamically understood.

And then Algernon starts to get irascible, unpredictable, and within a few days he dies. It was always a danger that any intelligence growth by Charlie might be temporary, and that he might regress again – or worse. As time runs out, Charlie tries to complete as much of the research and science as he possibly can; but he’s facing a losing battle. He goes back to sweeping the floors at the factory; refuses to see Alice Kinnian; and in the end is a shadow of his former self, with just the occasional flash of memory. His last words, in his last diary entry, are: “Please, if you get the chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard”.

This is not my idea of a typical Science Fiction story. No zombies, no galaxies far far away; just an exploration of what could happen if a certain type of scientific research were to grow and be applied to a man. You might say that the experiment should never have been tried on a human being until they had done much more research with mice; Algernon’s death would surely have put paid to Nemur and Strauss’ dream. But that would have deprived Charlie of the pleasure of intelligence – of reading great books, of working out scientific theories, of falling in love. Would it have been fairer not to have involved him, or did it give him the chance of a brilliant life? There are all sorts of ethical questions that this story throws up, and I’m not sure there is a right or wrong answer to any of them.

Massively successful as a short story, in 1966, Keyes expanded it into a full scale novel of the same name, which was the joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel. It became a film, a play, a musical; it has been adapted into all sorts of media all around the world. My own personal link to the story was seeing the West End musical (called Charlie and Algernon when it was shown in the US) and being completely overwhelmed by it, emphasising the emotional side by concentrating more on the love affair between Charlie and Alice. However, I truly admire the original short story for its brevity and simplicity; Keyes’ fantastic concept, which is only a small step away from reality, captures the imagination and the heart with huge power and immediacy.

The diary technique works extremely well with this story as we see at first hand how Charlie’s understanding of basic grammar and literacy gradually improves through the treatment up until the time when Algernon dies and then it all starts to go badly wrong; and there isn’t a dry eye in the bookshop or library when you get to the end.

It’s an outstanding read, an absolute classic of the genre, and it’s a testament to the strength of the original that it could be adapted into so many other art forms, in so many cultures. Completely appropriate that Keyes should have been so significantly lauded for it.

The next story in the anthology is the second of the two diary narration stories, Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman. I’ve read some Gogol and he’s a brilliant, exciting and witty writer, so this should be very good!