When I was driving once I saw this painted on a bridge: "I don't want the world, I just want your half"
All night I’ve been watching you breathe and it’s hard to conceive of anything that could make me feel gladder…
Quite how Katell Keineg isn’t better known is beyond my fathoming, but there it is: things are as they are.
In the interim, if you haven’t already seen this, see this…
This just arrived in the post (and I mean just - within the last 30 minutes): the latest issue of The White Review. It’s very beautiful. I ordered it specifically because it contains a new story by Jesse Ball. The story is called ‘A Wedding’. As it happens, I am going to a wedding on Friday. And we say there is no God who watches over us.
I first came across Jesse Ball when I read ‘The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr’ in the Winter 2007 issue of The Paris Review. (It would go on to win ‘The Plimpton Prize’ in 2008). I’ll make no bones about it, it gave me the horn, in the way that some stories can. I’d say now that it came along at precisely the moment I needed it to. In any case, it punched me around a bit, bloodied my nose. I’ve read it since, many times, and still there are passages and conceits that make me dangle my tongue, like a lollygagger of the old school. For instance, this exchange between one of the central characters, Carr, and a little girl. The scene arises beautifully, as if out of nothing, and then vanishes the same way:
A little girl was there with a cygnet on a narrow leather leash. She drew near and looked at Carr. Carr looked at her.
-When it grows up, it will do its best to hurt you, he said. I know that much.
-Her name is Absinthe, said the girl. And I’m Jane Charon.
-Nice to meet you, Jane.
-Not so nice for me, said Jane stoutly. You say such horrible things.
-I saw a swan maul a child once, said Carr. The child had to be removed. To the hospital, I mean. The swan was beaten to death with a stick.
Jane covered the cygnet’s ears. You’ll have to imagine for yourself what that looked like. I don’t really know where a bird’s ears are.
-But, said Jane. If you were there, why didn’t you help the child?
-Sometimes, when you see something awful about to happen, although you are a good person and mean everything for the best, you hope still that the bad thing will happen. You watch and hope that the awful thing will happen and that you will see it. Then when it happens you are surprised and shocked and pretend that you didn’t want it to happen. But really you did. It was that way with me and the swan.
-So you were on the swan’s side? asked Jane.
-I guess so. Yes, that’s right.
-Well, that’s even worse. It’s all right for a person to pick a side, but once he’s on that side he should stay there. You ought to have helped the swan escape. You should have stopped them from killing it and helped it away. Or even helped it to maul the child, if you were really the swan’s friend. How could anyone ever trust you?
Jane gave Carr a stern look and continued on down the path. The cygnet nipped at him as it passed, but its beak got fouled up in Carr’s coat, and it missed.
-You can’t own a swan, anyway, Carr yelled. The Queen of England owns them all already.
And it was true. The Queen of England is the owner of all swans. It was decided a long time ago, and so it has always been.
That is enough for now, but I shall return to this subject - and ‘A Wedding’ - after the wedding.
Not so loud, Nino, my nerves…
Two things (as in proper things) arrived in the post this week: two new chapbooks from Nightjar Press. ’Marionettes’ and ‘Into the Penny Arcade’ are both by Claire Massey. (Claire’s story, ‘Feather Girls’, is in The Best British Short Stories 2011). The Nightjar Press website says this about the nightjar:
The nightjar – aka corpse fowl or goatsucker – is a nocturnal bird with an uncanny, supernatural reputation that flies silently at dusk or dawn as it hunts for food. The nightjar is more often heard than seen, its song a series of ghostly clicks known as a churring.
I’m not going to give a full review of the stories (there’s a very good one here, in any case), save to say that both are unsettlingly excellent, and worth the money.
Of the two stories, I particularly liked ‘Marionettes’. The set up is straightforward enough: a couple are in Prague for the weekend. We’ve all been there, as they say. Karl is driven, largely, by his belly and his thirst, while the unnamed female protagonist is interested in other things:
The next morning she left Karl in bed with his hangover. ‘We’re on holiday, we can actually have a lie-in,’ he’d said. But when she opened the curtains onto a brilliant blue sky, she wanted to be down on the cobbled streets below. She couldn’t tell him the thought of wandering the city alone thrilled her.
Wandering cities alone is a dangerous business. Alone, she re-visits a marionette shop that she had seen the previous day. Later, together, they visit the castle:
As they passed through the courtyards she tried to take in the grandeur, the gothic palaces, the ornate mass of St Vitus’ Cathedral that towered over everything. ‘Don’t you want to look at any of it before we go?’
’We’ve seen it all.’
The tenor of their relationship emerges in such snippets of conversation, familiar frustrations, recollections of past arguments. So far, so everyday, but, in amongst it all, the narrow streets of the Old Town conspire to channel her back and back again to the marionette shop - and we follow along, agog, hoping the worst won’t happen.
Italo Calvino, writing about the supernatural tale, suggests that:
its main theme is the relationship between the reality of the world that we inhabit and that we know through sense perception, and the reality of the world of thought which lives in us and controls us.
Evidently, something of this is going in ‘Marionettes’ (and in ‘Into the Penny Arcade’, for that matter). It has a peculiar attraction, that line between street and brain, between how things are and how we think they are. Obviously all writing - all art, all living, for that matter - addresses that line in one way or another. It’s the realm of daydreams, of course, and nightmares. As Calvino goes on to suggest, although we recognise such things as irrational, we also experience them as vividly ‘real’, in the sense that, inchoate or random as they may be, they are a part of us and the way in which we experience the world: even today, in these sophisticated, secular times, they make us smile, they make us jump, they make us act differently.
In any case, these are excellent stories, excellently published as stand-alone entities. There’s lots of talk about the short story (there’s about to be some more), about the way it is produced and the way it is consumed. There always has been, but today perhaps the mood is more defensive, and, at the same time, more clamorous than ever. William Maxwell (who knew what he was talking about) said:
I think it is generally agreed that stories read better one at a time. They need air around them.
Perhaps it is more simple than we think: read, stop, reflect; let the air circulate, in other words. Of course, such an approach isn’t for everyone (nor should it be). And a story needn’t be published alone in order to hold its own weight; (all we need to do is put the book down for a minute, pause in the race for the end of the physical object). Nonetheless, there really is a special pleasure in having a story accorded its proper status, as a singular object - which may well nod beyond its own borders, but is still resolutely its own thing. The end, by this method of publishing, instructs us (in the most generous sense of that word) to put the thing down and give it time. This is not new news (Paul Magrs said similar here; Jonathan Gibbs here; and Charles May here and elsewhere) but with the weather as it is - and time as it is - there’s no harm in a reminder.
- You weren’t making that up, I said.
- You couldn’t make that shit up, she responded, holding her voice flat and cold.
- So it was all true.
- I didn’t say that. I just said you couldn’t make that shit up.
—David Means, ‘Sault Ste. Marie’
And maybe you’ll kill me. Honey, I don’t blame you. If I were in your place. Maybe that’s what I would do.
Oh by Jupiter! by Jove! or whatever, oh storm of narrative and calamity. Oh glorious grand design of nature. Rage through me. Grant my heart the guts to resist but not too much. Make me, oh Lord, a good conductor. I will suffer imitatone Christi, taking on the burden of the current and endeavouring to live again.
—David Means, ‘Lightning Man’