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!

The Points of View Challenge – A Bundle of Letters – Henry James

Henry JamesHenry James (1843 – 1916)

American novelist (The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Bostonians), ghost story writer (The Turn of the Screw), short story writer, critic, playwright and travel writer.

A Bundle of Letters, first published in The Parisien magazine, 1879

Available to read online here

This is the third and final story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Letter Narration. They describe A Bundle of Letters as “a collection of one-way correspondence by characters who because they are together do not write to each other but about each other; since the person each is writing to is a mere listening post, the letters are like entries in a diary.”

They go on to conclude: “although the novel of letters enjoyed its greatest vogue in the eighteenth century, when it was used universally to make fiction more plausible […] the use of the technique continued in the nineteenth century but was used selectively, for certain effects only. Although today’s novel is more likely to combine correspondence with other techniques than to tell a story entirely through letters, epistolary short stories continue to crop up.” Remember this commentary was published in 1966. In the twenty-first century, emails and texts are much more likely to be the norm.

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

 

A Bundle of Letters

 

On 5th September 1879, an independent and outspoken young American woman, Miranda Hope, writes to her mother in Bangor, Maine, from her hotel in Paris. She travels alone, determined to steep herself in as much culture as possible. She wants to learn some of the language too, and to that end by the time she writes her mother another letter on 16th September, she has moved into the house of Mme de Maisonrouge, for conversation practice with Madame and her family. Madame has other paying guests; English, American, and German.

But living under one roof will always bring out animosities.  The next letter is from the other young American woman, Violet Ray, to her New York friend, in which she calls Miranda “the most extraordinary specimen of artless Yankeeism that I ever encountered; she is really too horrible”. Another letter is written by Louis Leverett, a Bostonian, to his friend Harvard. He cares for neither of the young American women: “they are both specimens of the emancipated young American girl—practical, positive, passionless, subtle, and knowing, as you please, either too much or too little”. But he has fallen for the sweet looks of the Englishwoman Evelyn Vane. An update letter from Miranda to her mother reveals that she is learning a lot from Mme de Maisonrouge’s cousin Mr Verdier, that she doesn’t get on with Violet because she is “haughty”, she is inspired by Leverett’s enthusiastic intellectualism, disappointed in Evelyn’s lack of ambition, disgusted by her brother’s lack of respect and flattered by the attention of the German professor.

Evelyn meanwhile confesses in letter to her friend that, apart from Violet, all the guests are various degrees of frightful, Verdier makes it clear in a letter to his friend that his intentions with Miranda are far from honourable – not that she appears to mind – and the German professor, Dr Staub, reveals himself to be a nationalistic bigot who sees all interaction between foreigners in terms of how weak they are and how glorious Germany will step in and rise to supremacy: “…between precipitate decay and internecine enmities, the English-speaking family is destined to consume itself; and that with its decline the prospect of general pervasiveness, to which I alluded above, will brighten for the deep-lunged children of the Fatherland!”

The last word goes to Miranda, who in a letter dated October 22nd, advises that she’s going to move on to somewhere else – not sure where yet, but noting that everyone has been kind and attentive: “especially Mr. Verdier, the French gentleman, from whom I have gained more than I ever expected (in six weeks), and with whom I have promised to correspond.” Did Verdier get his way with her? I guess we’ll never quite know.

This is a very funny and cleverly constructed story; the grand joke in it all is that no one knows precisely what everyone else thinks about them, and the behaviour of each of them on the surface is likely to be completely different from what’s going on inside their heads! It’s also beautifully written in terms of the individual characterisations of those people lodging chez Mme de Maisonrouge. Miranda can’t understand why she upsets and offends people with her plain talking because surely everyone should share the same ideas that she does? Evelyn retreats into English snobbery as she cannot bear the company of all those ghastly common people. Verdier is a louche ne’er-do-well, bragging to his mate about the progress he’s making. Perhaps most entertaining of all is Leverett’s delightfully pretentious use of language, his mind on a self-consciously higher level as the only things that matter to him in life are self-expressioni and Art.

James was fascinated by the differences between Americans, the English, the French and other European nationalities. In this little story he gets to explore nationalistic stereotypes to his heart’s content. Maybe there is a degree of caricature, particularly with the snobbish Englishwoman and the nationalistic German. Much has been made of how the characterisation of Staub was remarkably forward-looking and predictive, with the German’s disdain for the behaviour of his fellow residents, describing Verdier as homunculus, despising any show of decadence, his pompous mocking of anything that isn’t German, and looking ahead to good times for the Fatherland.

James impresses with his ability to tell a fascinating tale but leave much untold too – he demonstrates that there’s great eloquence in silence. What did happen between Miranda and Verdier? Why does she despise William Pratt so? What is buried Mme de Maisonrouge’s past? And many more questions besides.

Apparently, James wrote this in one sitting, which maybe explains how beautifully it flows. Hugely entertaining, a rather elegant and classy read that gives a good insight into the times and prejudices of the day. This could well make me want to read some more Henry James!

The next story in the anthology is the first of the two diary narration stories, and the reason that I bought Points of View in the first place – Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. I am really looking forward to reading this story again!

The Points of View Challenge – Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General – Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose BierceAmbrose Bierce (1842 – 1913/4*)

*date of death uncertain, disappeared sometime after December 26th 1913

American short story writer, journalist, poet, and Civil War veteran.

Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General, first published in The Wasp, 1885

Available to read online here

This is the second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Letter Narration. They describe Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General as “a crisscrossing of letters, with excerpts from other documents and a deposition thrown in for good measure.”

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

 

Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General

 

WaspOn 3rd November 1861, the Secretary of War writes to the Hon. Jupiter Doke to inform him that the President has appointed him a brigadier general of volunteers. Will he accept the honour? Oh yes he will! He replies on the 9th that it will be the proudest moment of his life. The Secretary of War writes to Major General Blount Wardorg that the new Brigadier General is to be assigned to his department and is to take command of the Illinois Brigade at Distilleryville, Kentucky. Wardorg, however, deliberately instructs Doke to take a route that he knows will be ambushed; he and his men are to be an instant sacrifice. But Doke sends his wife’s cousin in his place (because Doke never likes to get that involved) and it’s poor Mr Briller who gets sacrificed.

As the letters and diary notes continue, we see that Doke has taken to his new status like a fish to water – all apart from the military skill aspect. Wardorg quickly realises that Doke’s is a woefully poor appointment and that he and his men will have to be sacrificed due to their incompetence and stupidity, with the cutting remark to the Secretary of War: “I think him a fool”. After all, Doke is the man who has been collecting 2,300 mules in preparation for each of his men to ride one into Louisville as a form of dignified Retreat. The Confederate Army generals report that a freak of nature in the form of a tornado completely wipes out their men and Doke gets the credit. However, according to the eyewitness Mr Peyton, what really happened was that, at the first sounds of the oncoming enemy, Doke jumped through a window to escape and startled the mules so badly that they stampeded down the road towards the Confederates… I guess any that survived the tornado – if there really was a tornado – were muled to death! Result: Major General Jupiter Doke.

So despite all evidence to the contrary, when the President appointed Doke as Brigadier General, he might just have chosen the right guy! Doke quickly settles in to his new high office, spending all his time enjoying his peripheral benefits, appointing and recommending family members and friends, filling up his expense claims, publishing his speeches and over-egging his heroism, leasing a prominent residence in which to instal his wife and family, and engaging his brother in law to supply arms and regalia (much as you would with PPE today). When it comes to actual military matters, his judgment is pathetic, accidentally sending men to their death, and marching his men into town to be attacked because they were taken for the enemy, and when they returned to camp the real enemy had moved in.

This is a wonderful account of how someone can be promoted way beyond their ability, yet, by a series of extraordinary accidents and misjudgements, the final outcome has them smelling of roses and decorated accordingly. Every decision Doke makes is wrong, primarily because he spends all his time reaping the cash or status benefits of his new-found authority. Bierce portrays him as a magnificent example of small-town pomposity, concealing his own ineffectuality with flattery and self-aggrandization. He never misses a chance to improve his own standing, sneaking in an application for the Gubernatorial Chair of the Territory of Idaho, moving into a “prominent residence” whilst its previous incumbent is fighting in the war, writing a nonsense account of his own heroism for publication in the newspaper. However, the truth is that he is a coward who’ll escape through a window at the first sight of the enemy.

The story improves enormously on a second reading; for 21st century British readers not that familiar with 19th century American idiom and history, it’s easy to miss a few very important details on a first reading. Bierce himself had enlisted in the 9th Indiana Infantry at the start of the Civil War in 1861 and had a great deal of active involvement in several battles and campaigns, so we can trust his experience when it comes to the military procedures and the type of manoeuvres that feature in this story. An excellent satire on how to muck up a war and the elevation of a clown to high office. Now, why does that ring a bell today?

The next story in the anthology, and the last of the three letter narration stories, is A Bundle of Letters by Henry James. As an English graduate, it is to my shame that I have never read any James, so it’s definitely time to put that right.

The Points of View Challenge – A Novel in Nine Letters – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881)

Russian novelist, (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Brothers Karamazov) philosopher, short story writer, essayist, and journalist

A Novel in Nine Letters, first published in 1847

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 Letter Narration. Here is the start of their description of this narrative style: “Each of the following stories is, to use the title of the James story, “a bundle of letters.” A letter is a written monologue, still relatively spontaneous, still addressed to a certain person for a certain reason; but of course the speaker is not face to face with his listener.” They describe A Novel in Nine Letters as “a two-way correspondence, a dialogue at a distance.”

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

 

A Novel in Nine Letters

 

Novel in nine letters (Russian edition)Pyotr Ivanitch writes to Ivan Petrovitch saying he’s been looking for him everywhere, but would he and Tatyana please come to tea. He’s also not happy about having been introduced to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, but we don’t know why. Also his son is ill and his wife is depressed. Ivan Petrovitch replies to Pyotr Ivanitch that he was at home all the time, so he has no idea why he couldn’t find him. He’s not sure what the problem is with Yevgeny Nikolaitch but wants to meet to talk it out – but now he can’t find Pyotr anywhere. Also, his wife is having a baby. Pyotr responds that he was called away because his aunt was ill – but will meet him at a mutual friend’s. Ivan replies that Pyotr didn’t turn up at the mutual friend’s, making him (Ivan) look an idiot, and accusing Pyotr of backtracking on a financial loan. Pyotr replies that it wasn’t a loan, his aunt’s dead and he’s too wounded to discuss the issues. Ivan says Pyotr’s deliberately avoiding him, deceiving him with pretend friendship, leading him on a merry dance and lying. Pyotr refuses to engage. At the end, both receive evidence that their wives have been cheating with aforementioned Yevgeny Nikolaitch and their friendship is incontrovertibly over!

This is a very entertaining battle of words and will between two “gentlemen” – Dostoevsky gives them shared names in an attempt, I think, to show that they’re interchangeable, and each as bad as the other. It’s great to see how the extreme formality and politeness of the earlier missives gets replaced by downright invective towards the end! Dostoevsky deliberately holds back with the details – what exactly did Yevgeny do to make himself such an unwelcome guest? Why was he at Ivan’s flat? (I think we know the answer to that!) Was it a loan between Pyotr and Ivan or some other kind of agreement? And at the end you ask yourself, is Anna really depressed, and who is the father of Tatyana’s baby?!

Deceptively simple, this short story merits being re-read a few times to get the full nuances of what’s being accused and what’s happening behind the scenes. Apparently, Dostoevsky wrote it over the course of one evening, to pay off a gambling debt – something that Ivan accuses of Pyotr of doing. There are some wonderful turns of phrase in these letters; my favourite is when Ivan accuses Pyotr of “shameful exactitude” for pinpointing the precise time that his aunt suffered a stroke. Over 170 years since it was written, it’s fun to imagine these St Petersburg men engaging in a vicious and bitchy spat, but the nature of their disagreement is timeless – you could just imagine how today they would be keyboard warriors of the worst kind!

The next story in the anthology is Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General, by Ambrose Bierce, another writer whose work I have never encountered, so I am looking forward to reading this one!

The Points of View Challenge – Travel is so Broadening – Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis (1885 – 1951)

American novelist (Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry), playwright, poet and short story writer, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930

Travel is so Broadening, originally published as Part V of the novel The Man Who Knew Coolidge, 1938

Available to read online here (start at page 202 of the document)

The second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Dramatic Monologue. Here’s more of their description of this narrative style: “This kind of monologue, too, has a counterpart in the theatre, whenever one character takes over the stage and talks for a long time uninterruptedly. Some such speeches provide information about what has taken place offstage or permit the character to explain himself, reveal himself, or betray himself.”

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

 

Travel is so Broadening

 

The Man Who Knew CoolidgeLowell Schmaltz collars George Babbitt and his wife after an enjoyable dinner, and takes it upon himself to give advice about the best way to drive to Yellowstone, considering his own extensive, personal experience of long-distance driving. Schmaltz, however, is easily distracted from his main task, and, revelling in the sound of his own voice, forces a range of opinions on his listeners, including the life and times of his brother-in-law Lafayette, the singing talent of his daughter Delmerine, buying a pair of pumps in Chicago, descriptions of typical eateries to be found en route, the rights and wrongs of thumbing a lift, and so on and so on and so on. At the end of his monologue, he realises he hasn’t told the couple half of what he had intended, so it will have to save for another time – although there’s always time for him to squeeze in just one more thing before he goes…

Strictly speaking, this is not a short story in itself, but an extract from the larger book, The Man who knew Coolidge. If one reads the book from the beginning, one will already have encountered the narrator, Mr Lowell Schmaltz, as well as having heard about a couple of the people to whom he refers – his wife Mame, his daughter Delmerine, and some of the places in his life – his hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts, and the fictional city Zenith in the fictional state of Winnemac.

It’s an amusing account of a pompous know-it-all who loves to hold court and never gives anyone else the remotest chance of having their say. We all know people like that, and Schmaltz is a very recognizable character without ever becoming a caricature; although Lewis, the writer, manages to get his own word in when he breaks off from Schmaltz’s narration to explain: “here, by request of the publishers, are omitted thirty-seven other articles recommended by Mr Schmaltz. – EDITOR”.

Its main purpose is to divert the reader with imagining what this dreadful bore would be like in real life, but to today’s audience it also gives a little insight into the early days of driving in America. Even an experienced driver like Schmaltz wasn’t able to drive more than 298 miles in one day – which makes you realise he must have travelled at some speed in the times before freeways! We also get a good understanding of the kind of man Mr Schmaltz is, which doesn’t require much room for anything too deep. Although it’s an enjoyable read, you’re also aware that, deep down, it’s fairly inconsequential, and you don’t need to read too much into it. If there is one lesson to be learned from it, it would be beware of getting cornered by the likes of Mr Schmaltz!

The next story sounds as though it might have a little more gravitas – A Novel in Nine Letters by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In my younger days I read The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, but I’ve never read any of his short stories, so this should be interesting! This is also the first of the three stories in the anthology that have been categorised as Letter Narration.

The Points of View Challenge – The Lady’s Maid – Katherine Mansfield

 

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield (1888 – 1923)

New Zealand born poet and short story writer, associated with the Bloomsbury Group of writers

The Lady’s Maid, originally published in The Garden Party, 1922

Available to read online here

Here’s the first story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification Dramatic Monologue by Moffett and McElheny. This is how they start the description of this narrative style: “Now we overhear somebody speaking aloud to another person. He has a particular reason for telling a particular story to his particular audience, and his speech, as in real conversation, is spontaneous and unrehearsed. We can tell where he is and to whom he is talking from references he makes in his monologue.”

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

 

The Lady’s Maid

 

Katherine Mansfield TheGardenPartyMy Lady has a guest staying overnight, and there’s a nice cup of tea left over, so the lady’s maid (Ellen) thought the guest might appreciate it, if she wasn’t asleep yet. The guest gratefully accepts the tea and asks the maid a number of polite questions (that we don’t read) and the maid responds with polite and disarming honesty. During the conversation we discover that the maid dealt with my lady’s mother when she passed away after a stroke; that she chose to leave her own cruel and uncaring family at the age of thirteen to become a junior maid in this same household; and that at one stage she considered marriage to a man named Harry, but my lady couldn’t hide how devastated she would be if Ellen left – and so Harry was dumped.

It’s an elegant tale of complete, self-denying loyalty; part admirable in its honour, part horrific in its self-sacrifice. It’s very convincingly written; when I was reading it, Ellen’s voice came to me as though it were Jean Marsh’s Rose from TV’s Upstairs Downstairs. It’s harder to discern the nature of the unseen character in the conversation; one can only assume she doesn’t know My Lady that well, otherwise she would probably already have known the details that Ellen tells her. You sense that Ellen welcomes the opportunity to open up and tell her story; although she shies away from considering what might happen in the future. She’s content in the here and now and that’s the main thing. Any regrets are pushed right to the back of her mind.

The dramatic monologue style invites you to make sense of a conversation even though you only hear one side of it. It’s a little like a jigsaw puzzle, occasionally you have to piece together the questions from the replies. But it lends itself to exploring the narrator’s thought processes in a gradual and thoughtful way. Very short, but very enjoyable.

The next story in the anthology is Travel is so Broadening, by Sinclair Lewis. I know nothing of him, so have no idea what to expect!