Nighthawks: a piece of flash fiction

This 450-word piece was published on 22 June last year for Flash Fiction Day on the official website, FlashFlood. It’s called ‘Nighthawks’. I like doing these sort of ‘talking heads’ dialogues; the flash fiction mode seems to lend itself to that form. Hope you like it.

Chordeiles Henryi: common nighthawk

Chordeiles Henryi: common nighthawk

Zinna comes to bed wearing a gumshield.

‘What the hell is that?’ I ask.

‘It’s my teeth-whitener’, says Zinna.  ‘It’s to whiten my teeth.  I got it at the dentist this morning.’

‘But your teeth are perfectly white’.

‘No, they’re…ivory.  I want them to be pearly white.’

‘You won’t start glowing in the dark will you?’

‘No, of course not.  It’s a very subtle process.  Clinically proven, said James.’

‘You won’t turn out like what’s his name in ‘Friends’, you know, Ross?’

‘Nothing like that.  It’s all tested scientifically.  It takes out the stains and, well, whitens the teeth to a perfect smile.’

‘That’s against nature,’ I say.  ‘Nature makes our teeth the colour they should be.  It’s like, I don’t know, black people whitening their skin.  Michael Jackson.’

‘Don’t be melodramatic.’

‘I’m not.  You’re Jacksoning your teeth.’

‘No, I’m not’, says Zinna.

‘You’re doing a tooth-job.’

‘Now you’re being insulting.’

‘Do you have to wear that gumshield all night?’


‘It’ll be like sleeping with a prop forward.’

‘What’s a prop forward?’

‘Do you have a sponsor’s name on the shield?’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Is this what all those syringes are about in the fridge?’ I ask.

‘Yes.  They’re all part of the whitening process.  I have to squirt the solution on before I wear the gumshield.’

‘I thought you’d become like a junkie or something.’

‘There aren’t any needles.  Just the syringes.  And the fluids taste disgusting.  Like fish spit.’

‘That’s what threw me.  You keep the needles someplace else, don’t you?  I may be wrong; I’m not up on drug culture.’

‘It’s nothing to do with drugs,’ says Zinna, turning off her bedside light.  ‘As you well know.’

‘Do I?’

‘Of course you do’.  She turns abruptly away from me.  ‘You just don’t like it that I went ahead and paid for this process without consulting you.’

I adopt a tone of mortified innocence: ‘You don’t have to consult me.’

‘I know.  That’s why I went ahead and did it.’

‘You might at least have mentioned it, though.’

Zinna turns over to face me again.  ‘What?’

‘The teeth.  The nuclear fission on your teeth.’

‘Don’t exaggerate.  It’s a natural, toxin-free procedure.’

‘What if you get cancer from the fallout?’

‘Ridiculous.’  She turns over, away from me again.

‘Sex is out of the question now, I suppose?’ I ask.

‘Was it ever in the question?’

‘It’s not very attractive.  The gumshield.’

‘It will be.  Bit like a teenager’s brace.’

‘Who’d snog a teenage brace-wearer?’

‘You did.’

‘You weren’t wearing a brace.’

‘I wasn’t referring to me.’

‘How could you know that about me?’

‘You have no idea how much I know’, she says.

‘The Author of Beltraffio’: final part of the critique

My last two posts were about ‘The Author of Beltraffio’. In the first I wrote about the ironic significance of characters’ names in the story and how this indicated the relationships between those characters – notably the central erotic triangle of the eponymous Author, Mark Ambient, and the two rivals for his attention: his wife, Beatrice, and the American narrator – a callow 25-year-old, and a disciple of this Master of aesthetic literature. In the second I began examining James’s literary technique: the dual narrative perspective which created an ironic gap between the young narrator’s unreliable perceptions and those of his older, wiser self – who may also be less reliable than he thinks:

In looking back upon these first moments of my visit to him, I find it important to avoid the error of appearing to have understood his situation from the first, and to have seen in him the signs of things which I learnt only afterwards. This later knowledge throws a backward light…[my italics]

Let’s now continue with the question I finished with last time: how to understand the central theme of the story.

Symonds in 1889

Symonds in 1889: picture for Whitman

The answer is found, I think, in its origins. In his notebooks James wrote that the germ of the idea came via Edmund Gosse’s portrayal of John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), one of the group of aesthetic writers which included Pater, Wilde and Swinburne.  Symonds’ wife, he claimed,   disapproved of her husband’s work and homosexuality. Ambient is said by our young narrator to have been ‘saturated with what painters call the ‘feeling’ of that classic land’ (Italy), which he ‘understood’ profoundly. He’d set several of his novels there. The title of Ambient’s masterpiece may well have been inspired by the Italian high renaissance artist Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1466/7-1516), who worked in Leonardo’s studio. His would be an apt name for such an aficionado of this period’s art to use.

Boltraffio: Portrait of a Lady

Boltraffio: Portrait of a Lady

The narrator, before meeting Ambient, had spent the winter there: ‘Italy opened my eyes to a good many things, but to nothing more than the beauty of certain pages of the works of Mark Ambient’, he says.  As Italy was associated with (homo)sexual tourism at the time, this passage, and the emphasis on Ambient’s Italianism, appear to support the interpretation that the root cause of Beatrice’s fierce hostility towards her husband, and obsessive desire to keep him from contaminating their son, arises from similar causes to Mrs Symonds’: she knows of Ambient’s sexuality, and is terrified that he will ‘poison’ Dolcino with this ‘contagion’. This language seems, as we saw in my previous two posts, too strong to be explained simply as an aversion to her husband’s literary aesthetic.

As we saw last time, Ambient describes their opposing viewpoints as ‘the difference between Christian and Pagan. I may be a pagan…She thinks me, at any rate, no better than an ancient Greek.’ Symonds wrote extensively about Italian art and culture, and on ‘Greek love’ and ethics – he was an unusually outspoken advocate of homosexual attachments.

By employing this ‘ingenuous’ and adoring young American as the refracting lens for such a doomed family drama, James is able to show the underlying origins of the ‘discord’ between Ambient and Beatrice without ever explicitly naming this taboo subject. This would also account for Beatrice’s hostility to the narrator himself. He’d told her of his admiration for her husband: ‘He likes being admired’, she replies enigmatically. He replies that Ambient has ‘many worshippers’. ‘Oh yes’, she retorts, ‘I have seen some of them’, and he finds it ‘strange’ that ‘she was not in sympathy’ with her husband, but dismisses this half-perception as not ‘important’ at the time; on the contrary, it simply encourages him to become more ‘gushing’ and rapturous. He describes her as looking at him as if he were ‘peculiar’; he dimly perceives that she thinks him ‘rather young’, but that ‘people usually got over that sort of thing.’ She declares that she is different from her husband; ‘If you like him, you won’t like me.’ He thinks her ‘positively disagreeable; delicate and proper and rather aristocratically dry’. He becomes patronising and aggressive, and goads her by asking about what her husband is working on at the time. At this point the older narrator comments sardonically: ‘I have every reason now [my italics] to know that she thought me an odious person.’ This sounds like jealousy.

There are frequent uses of terms from the semantic field of perception: ‘You Americans are very sharp,’ said Ambient. ‘You notice more things than we do.’ This may have been meant sincerely by Ambient, but in the context of James’s dual-perspective narrative, it’s clearly ironic, ambiguous, even comically self-deprecating.

More on the ambiguities of ‘seeing’ in the narrative: Ambient is shown reading a Sunday paper – the Observer; the narrator ‘watched’ Beatrice, who had expressed her vehement antipathy towards her husband to him earlier, taking lunch with her husband with apparent ‘good grace’, showing few of the ‘signs’ (again!) of the ‘fanatical temperament’ he suspects her of harbouring – though he goes on, unsympathetically, to describe her ‘air of incorruptible conformity, her tapering, monosyllabic correctness’ which show with ‘a cold, thin flame’. At first he says she ‘looked’ like a woman of few ‘passions’, but if she did have one he supposes it would be ‘Philistinism’ – she’s the ‘angel of propriety’. ‘I saw, more than before,’ he adds, that she was ‘delicately tinted and petalled’ like a plant. Once more, this reads like the spiteful account of a romantic rival. She’s not even perceived by him as fully human; she’s bloodless, vegetable, decorative only, like a corsage, a portrait by Gainsborough, undeserving of the great Master, Ambient (whereas he, of course, would appreciate him and accord him the homage and devotion he merits.)

In a brief moment of rare perspicacity the narrator then sees Ambient as ‘a little of a hypocrite’ for this apparent docility at table, but he quickly explains away this perception. We saw above how another aspect of Ambient’s hypocrisy has already been hinted at but not apparently accepted by the narrator. That the narrator himself at this point might also be perceived as hypocritical is a possibility that the narrator refrains from considering.

Later he ‘suspected’ but ‘afterwards definitely knew’ that Beatrice had ‘taken a dislike’ to him: she thought him an ‘obtrusive and even depraved young man, whom a perverse Providence had dropped upon their quiet lawn to flatter her husband’s worst tendencies.’ She tells Ambient’s sister Gwendolen that she had rarely seen her husband ‘take such a fancy to a visitor’, and ‘measured, apparently, my evil influence by Mark’s appreciation of my society.’  Is this another reference to the narrator’s adulation of his author-master’s artistry, or to a sexual attraction which Beatrice has jealously perceived?

DG Rossetti, Beata Beatrice, c.1864-70

DG Rossetti, Beata Beatrice, c.1864-70

This ‘consciousness, not yet acute’, is partially clarified at the story’s conclusion, after the tragic climax, when the older narrator reflects on what has happened. The crisis is precipitated by the narrator’s urging Beatrice to read the manuscript of Ambient’s work in progress, which the author had earlier lent to him. Gwendolen tells him that the crisis with Dolcino came after Beatrice had unaccountably read the pages, by ‘an author whom she could never abide.’ He agrees it was ‘a singular time for Mrs Ambient to be going into a novelist she had never appreciated’, on the recommendation of a young American she ‘disliked’. He ingenuously describes his younger self picturing her ‘turning over those pages of genius and wrestling with their magical influence.’ When the tragedy duly comes, Gwendolen tells the narrator Beatrice ‘sacrificed’ the boy: ‘The book gave her a horror, she determined to rescue him – to prevent him from ever being touched.’ He thinks it ‘dreadful’ to see himself figuring in this story of hers ‘as so proximate a cause…I saw myself to woefully figure in it.’ With this rather Gothic language the young narrator finally permits us a glimpse of the culpable (treacherous?) role he played in destabilising the Ambients’ marriage. Or is he simply a catalyst – bringing about the inevitable fracturing of relations between a couple married only in name? This seems unlikely, given that this requires the sacrifice of the angelic Dolcino. But he in turn can be seen as another object of the narrator’s jealousy – the embodiment of the physical, heterosexual bond between Ambient and Beatrice. Then again, how do we interpret the narrator’s lyrical, swooning accounts of the boy’s ethereal beauty, if he is so jealous of him?

Other possible interpretations arise. This is the first of several James stories in which a writer or artist plays a central role, and in Ambient’s long discussions with the narrator about the aesthetics of fiction he adumbrates some of the arguments in his extended essay on such principles in The Art of Fiction, published just months after this story. Although James’s position is very different from the posturing ‘art for art’s sake’ faction’s (as represented in part by Ambient), his is nevertheless a plea for high ideals and artistic freedom in the craft of fiction. And his work, written in accordance with those ideals, though popular, didn’t sell well. He was impelled to produce more crowd-pleasing fiction – a compromise which must have rankled. He was also scathing about the purveyors of low-brow, mass-market fiction which sold far better than his own.  The central triangle in this story can therefore be seen as a melodramatic representation of the tensions between high literary art (‘Beltraffio’ ) and the moralist repugnance it elicited in a philistine, puritanical and hypcritical reading public – represented here by Beatrice. As for Gwendolen: she could stand for the poseurs and hangers-on in the Aesthetic movement – the wearers of the moody garments and owners of the soulful, husband-seeking eyes.

The narrator says near the story’s end,

And, à propos of consciences, the reader is now in a position to judge of my compunction for my effort to convert Mrs Ambient.

Who, though, is ‘converted’?  The story ends with the ambiguous disclosure that, shortly before her death, she even ‘dipped into the black Beltraffio.’ James seems to be inviting us to accept the narrator’s inference that she is the one who’d been ‘converted’ by her child’s death (and by inference her husband’s aestheticism: she regrets preferring her son should die than be contaminated by his father); I have tried to show how the dual narrative perspective in the story, however, indicates otherwise. She was surely just proving to herself that her assessment of her husband as a malign, perverse influence on her little boy because of his sexuality was justifiable, and would be confirmed in this other book, his ‘masterpiece’.

As with Pip’s younger narrator, James’s young American’s imperfect perception of the scenes he finds himself caught up, and his myopic, partial presentation of the events he witnessed, presents us with an invitation to share his misinterpretations and vanities, with just the occasional ironic hint from the older narrator to encourage us to see through these ingenuous misinterpretations and possibly deliberate evasions. James’s narrative resists lending itself to a definitive interpretation of events: full knowledge is elusive. It’s probably too simplistic to see the story as just a representation of suppressed homoerotic impulses and feelings. James seems to thwart our efforts to decode the story’s signs, and the disorientating narrative voice, with its shifts in mood and tone (from social-satiric comedy to macabre psycho-sexual melodrama), in focalisation and narrative authority, draw us as readers back into the story’s own self-reflexiveness.

It’s for these subtleties of narrative technique, structure and ambivalence that I feel this story ranks higher in the literary canon (and James’s own) than some commentators would place it.

All pictures are in the public domain via WikiMedia Commons

Henry James, ‘The Author of Beltraffio’: Critique part I

I’ve been trying to condense this post into one piece, but find it refuses to accommodate, so here’s part I of my critical investigation into this story.

Henry James

Henry James

In my last post I wrote about Henry James’s 1884 story ‘The Author of Beltraffio’, where I described it as a ‘puzzling story’. I focused on the ironic significance of the names of the central characters. This time I intend looking more closely at the story’s themes, and at James’s literary technique. All quotations are from the Everyman’s Library edition cited previously.

As we saw last time, the story tells of the ultimately deadly struggle between the decadent-aesthetic author of the scandalous novel Beltraffio and his ‘tremendously moral’ wife, Beatrice, over their cherubic young son Dolcino. Beatrice believes her husband has a ‘pernicious’ influence on the boy’s character and ‘principles’. ‘She thinks me immoral’, Ambient tells the narrator.

Where does this hostility come from? We’ve already seen how venomous she is about her husband’s work and mind. And how come the story starts like a light country-house comedy and then takes a macabre turn?  In order to answer these questions I think it’s useful to examine the narrative approach James takes in the story.

James is famous for his use of ‘point of view’ in his fiction, and this is a phrase that appears repeatedly through the story (three times, for example, on the opening page) – and this clearly indicates the importance he attaches to it in the narrative. Our narrator is repeatedly described as ‘ingenuous’ in the time span of the story. He’s only 25, and a devout fan of Ambient’s. He’d read Beltraffio, which appeared three years before our story begins (when Ambient was 38), five times. He considered it a ‘fascinating work’ and a ‘masterpiece’. James is at pains, that is, to have his American narrator establish his younger self’s persona as naive and innocent – as so many of his protagonists are, in order to create stark contrasts with the often jaded, more mature (usually European) characters with whom they interact with usually abrasive consequences.

Great Expectations: Pip waits on Miss Havisham

Great Expectations: Pip waits on Miss Havisham

James also takes care from the start, however, to emphasise the contrast between this callow young man’s point of view and his more sober, rational self at the supposed time of writing the narrative in the ‘present’, ie about 1884. (Nevertheless, he admits that, looking back on it with his ‘riper judgement’, he admires Beltraffio as much now as he did then.) This is a technique found perhaps most famously in Dickens’ Great Expectations, narrated by a wiser, adult Pip musing on how little he understood in his youth, when the events of the story took place. Now he realises their true and full significance, whereas his unreliable, youthful point of view, from which he presents those events as they happened, shows him misreading them and disastrously misinterpreting them. This in turn enables Dickens to lure the reader into sharing young Pip’s unreliable version, so that Miss Havisham is seen by him as his Fairy Godmother, Estella the Princess to whom he deludedly believes he’s destined to be married, and Magwitch as the Ogre; he later learns, as we do, that these characters were polar opposites to this view, and it’s the painful learning of this lesson that’s at the heart of the novel.

Thus in James’s story, when the impressionable young American arrived at the train station, ‘nervous and timid’, to be met by Ambient, he describes the encounter in terms that would not feel out of place in a frothy romantic comedy:

My heart beat very fast as I saw his handsome face, surmounted with a soft wide-awake…

Ambient knew ‘by instinct how a young American of an aesthetic turn would look when much divided by eagerness and modesty. He took me by the hand, and smiled at me’…

The narrator felt ‘very happy and rosy, in fact quite transported, when he laid his hand on my shoulder’, and describes Ambient as ‘a delightful creature’. His appearance is ‘Bohemian’ – he favours ‘velvet jackets’, ‘loose shirt-collars’, and is ‘looking a little dishevelled’.

DG Rossetti, The Bower Maids, 1872:

DG Rossetti, The Bower Maids, 1872: typically soulful women in aesthetic garb and poses

Arrived at the author’s cottage the narrator describes the pastoral scene, as we have previously seen, in similarly gushing terms: it looks like a copy of ‘a masterpiece of one of the pre-Raphaelites’. Last time I pointed out how Ambient’s sister Gwendolen is likened to a portrait by Rossetti, while Beatrice was a Gainsborough or a Lawrence. James uses the contrasting styles and philosophies of these schools of artists to make his characters’ nature clear: the avant-garde and aesthetic versus the traditional and conventional.

James frequently places reminds us that this rose-tinted narrative is presented in retrospect, repeatedly using the same ‘that was then, this is now’ technique that Dickens uses with Pip; for example there is often an interjected ‘I remember’, which places the reader in this dual zone: the immediacy of the young enthusiast’s unreliable point of view, and the clearer-sighted maturity of the later man:

I remember looking for the signs of genius in the very form of his questions – and thinking I found it.

The house was, ‘to my vision, a cottage glorified and translated; it was a palace of art.’ When they first saw Beatrice and Dolcino in the garden, Ambient remarked that ‘she has got the boy’, in a tone the narrator had not heard before.

I was not fully aware of it at the time, but it lingered in my ear and I afterwards understood it.

This dual chronology places us, therefore, in the midst of action as it happens, but as with Pip’s narration, the American declines to present to us a fully mature and clear interpretation of the significance of what is unfolding as he narrates. Like the extracts just quoted, they tend to hint at something else, but the narrator never fully discloses what really happens. This is where the plot darkens, and the light comedy fades out.

The plot proceeds to show how the fierce struggle for possession of the little boy’s heart and soul between his morally contrasting parents culminates tragically.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Portrait of a Woman, c. 1750

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Portrait of a Woman, c. 1750: the stiff formal pose in a classical setting contrasts strikingly with the loose-limbed, loosely garbed souls in Rossetti

The young narrator is so besotted with Ambient that we see the plot progress largely from a point of view that is sympathetic to him and critical of Beatrice (and Ambient’s phony-Rossetti sister). On first meeting Beatrice, for example, he says she is ‘slim and fair’, has ‘pretty eyes and an air of great refinement.’ But she’s also said to be ‘a little cold’, with ‘a certain look of race’ – he learnt ‘afterwards’ that she was ‘connected’ to several ‘great families’. He refers to the ‘coldness’ in those ‘pretty eyes’ later.  With ironic generosity he refrains from portraying her as one of those poets’ wives whom it’s difficult to see as gratifying the ‘poetic fancy’ of their spouses; there is no ‘obvious incongruity’ in their union, and she’s patronisingly deemed ‘worthy of the author of a work so distinguished as Beltraffio.

The narrator’s portrayal of the visitor in the garden, a ‘jolly, ruddy personage’ whom he guesses to be the vicar’s wife, is also illuminating. When Ambient is shown conversing with her on humdrum matters the narrator expresses his surprise on seeing him even in ‘such superficial communion with the Church of England’. His writings are fundamentally at odds with ‘that institution’, and express ‘a view of life so profane’ and unlikely ‘to be thought edifying’ that he would have expected to find Ambient ‘an object of horror to vicars and their ladies’. He would expect Ambient to subject such people to ‘good-natured but brilliant mockery’.  Looking back from his older perspective he ascribes Ambient’s behaviour to English politeness and ‘keeping up their forms’, which his younger self was unaware of —  as he was of ‘the mysteries of Mark Ambient’s hearth and home.’ He ‘found afterwards’, he goes on, that in his study Ambient had, ‘between smiles and cigar-smoke, some wonderful comparisons for his clerical neighbours.’

In other words, this young man’s counter-cultural Victorian hero is a hypocrite. Why give us this rather unflattering depiction of the author so early in the story? Much of the rest of it gives us copious examples of the narcissistic narrator’s starry-eyed reverence for the aesthetic author. Soon after this scene, for example, Ambient dazzles him with his passionate, startling discourse, and ‘point of view’:

It was the point of view of the artist to whom every manifestation of human energy was a thrilling spectacle, and who felt for ever the desire to revolve his experience of life into a literary form.  On this matter of the passion for form – the attempt at perfection, the quest for which was to his mind the real search for the holy grail, he said the most interesting, the most inspiring things.

The callow American listens ‘open-mouthed’ and ‘astonished’, his ‘youthful mind’ marvelling at Ambient’s artistry, which also startles him and makes him wince.  What is it that is so shocking about Ambient’s aesthetics?  This is a conundrum at the heart of the story, and one which I shall return to in my next post.