After the worst there’s still more: Cynthia Ozick, Rosa

Cynthia Ozick, Rosa (1983)

Rosa Lublin, a madwoman and a scavenger, gave up her store – she smashed it up herself – and moved to Miami. It was a mad thing to do. In Florida she became a dependent. Her niece in New York sent her money and she lived among the elderly, in a dark hole, a single room in a ‘hotel’.

This is the opening to Cynthia Ozick’s story Rosa. It’s the fourth in my sequence of posts on some of the stories selected by Richard Ford for his collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Not much happens, because Rosa’s awful experiences in the Nazi death camps have left her haunted and ‘mad’, we’d probably call it PTSD, incapable of functioning in the world thirty-five years later. She hates the climate, the jaded, complacent elderly people around her, and her pain shuts out all capacity for human interaction. She feels ‘the whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret.’ Real life had been left behind by these ‘scarecrow’ old folk. Does she realise she’s one of them?

Her only solace is found in writing long, lyrical letters to her dead daughter, Magda, ‘in the most excellent literary Polish.’ To the niece, Stella, in Queens, NYC, she writes in jerkier, alien English:

‘Golden and beautiful Stella…Where I put myself is in hell. Once I thought the worst was the worst, after that nothing could be the worst. But now I see, even after the worst there’s still more…a devil climbs into you and ties up your soul and you don’t even know it.’

But Stella is part of that hell she’s not out of. She calls her Angel ‘for the sake of peace’, but ‘Stella was cold. She had no heart. Stella, already nearly fifty years old, the Angel of Death.’

This vitriol we discover is largely justified. A terrible event in the camps led to the death of baby Magda, and Rosa blames Stella for it. Yet the niece accuses her aunt of refusing to accept that Magda is dead, of making the baby’s shawl, which Rosa has asked her to post to her, into a ‘fetish’, an ‘idol’: ‘you’ll kiss it like a crazy person.’ It’s time, Stella says harshly, ‘to have a life.’

When Rosa meets a flirty old man, another Warsaw Jewish survivor ‘refugee’ of the Nazis’ murderous camps, in a laundromat – he cheerfully admits he’s there to meet women – she tries to shut him out, rather than to have some kind of life as Stella urged (guilt?). ‘My Warsaw isn’t your Warsaw,’ she snaps at him repeatedly as he tries to break down her barriers.

Further confirmation that, as Rosa believes, the world is ‘diseased’ comes in the form of a jargon-filled letter from a professor of ‘clinical social pathology’ at Iowa University. His ‘specialty’ is to analyse what he calls ‘survivor data’ with which to test the theory of ‘Repressed Animation’ in the ‘Humanitarian Context’ (he uses the pompous upper case initials). Rosa rejects this insensitive pseudo-academic nonsense with justified rage. He’s reduced her to the status of ‘survivor’, and doesn’t want to say ‘human being.’ Her hellish memories are just ‘data’ to him.

Stella is also part of the ‘disease’. ‘Stella Columbus’ Rosa calls her in another long letter to Magda. ‘She thinks there’s such a thing as the New World.’ Ozick is a very different writer from Roth, but here there’s an element of congruence in their view of America; but Neil Klugman’s response to the ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ song he hears in the story of that title is less intensely felt, more ironic, less visceral than Rosa’s, and reveals Roth’s critical authorial stance to be more like immature intellectual snobbery. Ozick, on the other hand, is probing into what Conrad calls the heart of darkness.

This might all sound a little bleak and depressing, and it is, but there’s a flickering light of humanity and hope deep inside this beautifully written story (it’s only forty pages long, but packs in a lifetime of Ozick’s central character’s tragic experience). There’s no neat epiphany or conversion for Rosa, but there is a sense that out of her crazy sadness can come some kind of redemption.

Like Philip Roth, whose story I wrote about last time, Ozick is a Jewish American writer, born five years before him, in 1928 – and, I’m pleased to say, still alive (Roth died in 2018). Her stories are also said (this is the first of hers I’ve read) often to feature Jewish American characters and communities, but as I’ve already noted she openly confronts and exposes their memories and scars of the horrors of the Holocaust.

It seems that Rosa is a partner story to the more famous ‘The Shawl’, published three years earlier in The New Yorker. From what I’ve read online the terrible events that are hinted at in Rosa are described there explicitly.

 

 

 

Futile gestures: William Styron, The Long March

William Styron, The Long March. The Granta Book of the American Long Story, ed. Richard Ford (1999), pp. 71-128. First published 1952

William Styron (1925-2006) is probably best known for his controversial 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice, and Darkness Visible: a memoir of madness (1990), about his descent into clinical depression, and subsequent recovery. Like Eudora Welty, whose story June Recital opens this anthology of stories (I posted on it here yesterday), Styron was born in the south, and is said to have favoured a ‘southern Gothic’ style in his fiction. There’s certainly an element of it in The Long March.

Granta Book of the American Long Story coverThe Long March is the second story in Ford’s anthology of ‘long stories’ (I also discussed his choice of that term in yesterday’s post), and one of the shorter ones at just over fifty pages. I had mixed feelings about it. I wonder if the title is intended to echo the name usually given to the series of strategic retreats undertaken by the Chinese communist forces (under the rising influence of Mao) to escape the pursuit of the then dominant forces of their enemy nationalist army.

It’s a grim story about a martinet colonel who subjects his unit of marine reservists, most of them unfit and untrained, to a brutal thirty-mile overnight march in the swampy countryside of Carolina. Far from strategic and, as with the Red Army, militarily justifiable and ultimately successful, it’s what Peter Cook described in his famous, darkly satirical sketch with Jonathan Miller about posh, ‘stiff upper lip’ WWII officers (YouTube clip HERE) from the seminal ‘Beyond the Fringe’ comedy review, as a ‘futile gesture’.

The story opens with an account of an accidental ‘friendly fire’ incident in which a group of young reservists has been shelled by their own artillery as they queued for dinner. It’s told from the viewpoint of Lieutenant Culver, a veteran of WWII called back into service because he never removed himself from the reserve list – a decision he now bitterly regrets as he witnesses the pointless cruelty, stupidity and ineptitude (like the friendly fire incident) of the military regime he finds himself back in. He misses his wife and post-war peacetime life, and despairs as the world lurches back into yet more wars and conflicts in distant lands.

His fellow officers are appalled by the colonel’s gung-ho, macho manner and uncompromising orders. Most notably rebellious is Captain Mannix: he hates the strutting colonel, and his behaviour with him borders on open insubordination. When he begins leading his group of physically unfit men on the pointlessly barbaric, horribly long march, however, he’s determined that they – and he – will complete it, depriving the colonel of the satisfaction of confirming that they’re ‘soft’. It’s a matter of honour for him.

What follows is sometimes almost unbearably grim, but there’s a kind of redemption and softening at the very end in a scene when the march has ended. As the men try to recover from the ordeal, ‘one of the Negro maids employed in the unit’ shows human kindness when she sees the half-crippled Mannix swaying giddily as he limps towards the showers:

Culver would remember this: the two of them communicating across that chasm one unspoken moment of sympathy and understanding…

It’s a moment that almost makes the previous fifty gruelling pages worth enduring.

 

 

Novella or long story? Richard Ford’s anthology, and Eudora Welty

The Granta Book of the American Long Story, ed. Richard Ford (paperback, Granta Books, 1999; first published 1998). Post 1

Why this unwieldy title? Ford’s introduction ‘Why not a novella?’ explains why he’s preferred the generic term ‘long story’. After discussing some of the genre conventions and theories in fiction (novel, novella, short story), he gives a historical account of the novella form, tracing it back to Boccaccio through to Goethe and later (Henry James, for example). He points out that novellas were particularly popular in Germany through the 19C, and they generated a great deal of earnest theoretical-generic analysis, much of it providing inconclusive or contradictory definitions of what exactly a novella was.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Ford canvassed fellow American writers to assess what they, as ‘practitioners’, believed a novella to be. No consensus emerged, but there was a great deal of disagreement when Ford compiled this anthology in 1998.

He finally opted to go with ‘long story’ as a ‘possibly less historically-infuriating and ultimately freeing expression’. His purpose was to ‘address readers and writers who relish long stories…free[ing] its audience to write and relish as suits its wishes, undistracted by offstage wranglings over nomenclature.’

Despite his best efforts to come up with a ‘spanking’ definition himself, he could ascertain nothing to ‘discern anything other than length to distinguish these stories as a uniform genre, or to distinguish them consistently from their seemingly better-defined narrative cousins’.

So that’s sorted that out.

The stories Ford selected for this anthology were all written between the end of WWII and the time when he was compiling it. They vary in length – which, as he’d argued, ‘is just another arbitrarily chosen attribute’. Some were called ‘novellas’ when first published, but he’s decided he just doesn’t know what that term means – and neither is there any agreement generally – so why not consign ‘a worn out literary term into retirement.’

His main criterion for selection was subjective: he chose stories that he considered ‘excellent’, but concedes that some readers will disagree with his choices (I’m one of those: more in a later post.)

American writers since the end of the war haven’t tended to write long stories compared with their output of novels and short stories; perhaps this is because of the exigencies of ‘magazine space and publishing economies’. Maybe that’s the reason ‘novellas’ proliferated: it was expedient for the outlets in which they were published, and the contemporary taste and reading habits of their intended audience.

I’ll finish with a note about the first story in the collection (pp. 1–70); I hope to post about some of the others later on:

Eudora Welty (1909-2001), June Recital (from the collection The Golden Apples, 1949)

 This is a strange, hallucinatory story set in the fictional Morgana, Mississippi, told initially from the point of view of Loch Morrison, a small boy of about ten, in bed with a fever. He spies, ‘Rear Window’ style, through his bedroom window, and later from a tree outside it, on the goings-on in the house next door.

It’s now unoccupied. Loch observes a young couple sneaking into the house and disappear upstairs – it’s obviously a place where they can have sex, but of course the boy is too young to realise this.

His big sister Cassie’s voice then takes over. Some years earlier she used to have piano lessons in the house; her teacher was an old woman called Miss Eckhart, the impoverished lodger there. She was very stern with her pupils, except for a flighty girl called Virgie – the same girl Loch saw sneaking into the house with her sailor boyfriend. Only Virgie could get away with challenging the teacher, because she had a genuine gift for music, and wasn’t frightened by her strictness. On the contrary, she bullied the old lady.

The story ends with a bizarre sequence of events (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to summarise them here). An old lady enters the former teacher’s room and starts setting fire to the dilapidated piano, still standing there, and to the rest of the room. It’s the room where Miss Eckhart used to host an annual June recital. Two neighbours spot the smoke, alert the house’s watchman, and confront the ‘fire bug’. The half-dressed lovers walk flagrantly out of the house while this altercation is going on, Virgie with a characteristic swagger.

In a poetic, elegiac coda, Loch reflects on these developments, and so does his sister. It’s a story full of steamy, sultry atmosphere, a sort of muted southern Gothic (Welty lived much of her life in Jackson, Mississippi). Miss Eckhart is sympathetically portrayed: a sad German emigrée, she longs to be accepted in the local community and to find love, but is always treated as a person with an alien, outsider’s culture. Her passion for music isn’t appreciated (or even wanted) – even the talented pianist Virgie is unimpressed by her, and treats her contemptuously and cruelly.

People like the spirited, rebellious Virgie and lonely, despised Miss Eckhart have no connection – with each other, or anyone else. They’re ‘deliberately terrible’:

…roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them – human beings, roaming, like lost beasts.

 

 

 

Richard Ford, ‘Let Me Be Frank With You’

Richard Ford is one of my favourite writers. I loved the three previous Frank Bascombe novels: The Sportswriter (1986 ), Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006). It was generally felt that Ford had done with this character, but he has now brought him back from retirement in another terrific novel. It isn’t quite up to the standard of the best – the middle one of the trilogy – or the other two, but it’s still damn good.

Richard_Ford_at_Göteborg_Book_Fair_2013_01In four loosely connected novellas Frank, now 68 and that paltry thing, an aged man —  not quite Yeats’s ‘tattered coat upon a stick’, but still fearful of falling and breaking his hip as a consequence of the giddy spells he suffers. These are caused by a problem in his neck bones, as he frequently tells us with the clinical relish of a chronic sufferer. He worries about his declining physical state a lot: Alzheimer’s, heart disease;  he notes the deterioration in his contemporaries – ex-wife Ann has moved to an expensive NJ care facility, suffering from Parkinson’s, near enough for him to feel obliged to visit regularly (one such visit is the subject of section 3). Frank is full of intimations of mortality now. He calls himself a ‘prostate “survivor’. Things are falling apart. He’s fond of quoting from a range of writers – Yeats, Richard Hugo, Roethke, and especially Emerson: ‘an infinite remoteness underlies us all’.

There are plenty of reviews out there which will provide more plot detail, so I’ll concentrate here on the distinctive Ford style, thereby I hope indicating what it is that makes this worth reading (it took me just three sittings: the font is quite large and the lines are wide-spaced).

The opening story begins with an evocative description of the devastating aftermath of hurricane Sandy on the Jersey Shore, where Frank used to live:

Strange fragrances ride the fragrant, twitchy wintry air at the Shore this morning…Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea stir expectancy in the unwary.

It is, of course, the bouquet of large-scale home repair and re-hab. Fresh-cut lumber, clean, white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits. The starchy zest of Tyvek mingled with the ocean’s sulphurous weft and Barnegat Bay’s landward stink.

Much of this reads like prose poetry: there are beautiful sound patterns, symmetries (the alliteration and near-rhymes like ‘strange fragrances’); the deftly chosen adjectives (‘twitchy wintry air’) surprise and delight (it had to be ‘wintry’, not ‘winter’; not sure why). He’s good on weather effects: he talks elsewhere of NJ’s ‘discordant skies’. There’s a pleasing mix of registers, from the lyrical, literary ‘Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea’ to the American-demotic/informal list of DIY materials in the second paragraph.

The loping first-person present-tense narrative voice takes us right into Frank’s head as he contemplates impermanence, transgressions and loss, ‘the bruise of defeat’. It usually has that mesmerising blend of relaxed vernacular and pungent philosophising. And the style has become sparer, more stripped-down, compared with the earlier trilogy; Frank has begun an ‘inventory’ of ‘polluted words’ that should ‘no longer be usable – in speech or any form’. Among his pet hates are the clichés ‘no worries’ and a well-wisher being ‘here for me’.

Often accompanying the American cultural references is Frank’s love of (multiple) compound expressions: ‘the plump-pastie Ishpeming girl’. In the Sandy-devastated shopping area of the Shore is a Home Depot ‘Kremlin-like, but enigmatically-still-your-friend-in-spite-of-all’… These add to the novel’s distinctive vernacular, colloquial style, counterpointed by the high register abstractions and polysyllabic obscurities (alongside ‘copacetic’ he’ll have ‘She knows what it’s all about – not as great as it’s cracked up to be’ – he’s talking about masculinity, having met a transgender person.)

Set just before another holiday period, like the other three Bascombe novels, this time Christmas, each section deals with an emotionally bruising meeting with someone who causes Frank to reflect ruefully on his life, and life in general: ‘life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end.’   These produce the novel’s main feature: Frank’s ongoing internal monologue. Mostly he ponders life with that sort of resigned, cagy stoicism. They are intercalated between the colloquial stream of Frank’s thoughts and observations, creating that curious hybrid style I’ve mentioned. Here are some typical examples:

…life’s a matter of gradual subtraction, aimed at a solider, more-nearly-perfect essence, after which all mentation goes and we head off to our own virtual Chillicothes…When you grow old, as I am, you pretty much live in the accumulations of life anyway.

This English reader often finds these American references obscure: I’d welcome an explanation of that Chilicothe allusion; all I know is it’s a town in Ohio?

He sees himself, after the various stages of existence he’d identified in the previous trilogy, as having moved on, at 68, to ‘the Next Level of life’ – ie retirement –

conceivably the last: a member of the clean-desk demographic, freed to do unalloyed good in the world, should I choose to…

The world gets smaller and more focused the longer we stay on it.

Sally, his second wife (they’ve remarried)

views life as one thing leading naturally, intriguingly on to another, whereas I look at life in terms of failures survived, leaving the horizon gratifyingly –  but briefly – clear of obstructions.

Frank’s reached a stage where he’s started trying to ‘jettison’ as many friends as he can as a means of achieving ‘well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity’, before ‘the-curtain-sways-shut-and-all-becomes-darkness’. He tries to present to the world what he calls his ‘Default Self’, which represents ‘bedrock truth’ at last. Mostly he succeeds, but being Frank, he’s self-deprecating about it – and is often very funny; at one point he’s not sure if he’s thinking or actually talking, when he says the Default Self allows questions, ‘but only ones for which you want an answer – the opposite of lawyers.’ He tries to eschew cynicism, and suspects he might, after all, have a ‘mass and a character peeping reluctantly out from behind the arras like Cupid – which is not a bad outcome at all.’ And then there’s love:

Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts.

001Despite this slightly weary, ruminating, introspective narrative voice, Frank is always palpably engaged in the lives of others, and the prose often soars to heights of beauty, as I hope some of my quotations demonstrate. The material world, shattered by the destructive forces of nature, mirrors his own existential state, but he comes through, more-or-less cheerfully. But the startling revelation he experiences at the end gives him pause: ‘A wound you don’t feel is not a wound.’

I sincerely hope this is not the last we hear from this battered but indomitable New Jersey survivor.

 

Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book.

Bloomsbury, 2014. 238 pp.

 

Spam poetry

S. Beckett (photo: Festival Paris Beckett)

S. Beckett (photo: Festival Paris Beckett)

I’ve just explored the spam filter on the dashboard of this blog for the first time; I’m amazed by some of the peculiar, poetic messages WordPress helpfully commit to the spam bin.  There’s this, for example:

Undeniably imagine that you said. Your favourite justification

seemed to be at the internet the easiest factor to be
aware of.  I say to you, I definitely get annoyed

 while other folks think about issues

 that they plainly do not recognize about.
You controlled to hit the nail upon the highest as smartly as defined out the whole
thing with no need side-effects , folks can take a signal.
Will likely be again to get more. Thank you

I’ve used this configuration because it seems to me a found poem.  I rather like ‘folks can take a signal’: sounds like something out of Richard Ford.

Richard Ford (photo: Guardian newspaper)

Richard Ford (photo: Guardian newspaper)

‘To hit the nail upon the highest’ mashes up the cliché and reinvents it as something that sounds biblical.   The fractured syntax is reminiscent of Beckett’s dramatic prose.  The website linked to the comment is for a spamming ‘make money online’ organisation, so I presume this message was generated by some automatic random algorithm – surely corresponds, therefore, to what Breton and the surrealists advocated in all creative writing…They’d have enjoyed the internet and its infinite capacities.

Here’s another found spam piece:

As that faculty uniforms rather monotonous, fail to replicate temperament, the provincial capital some middle school students began to wear shoes on the “rivalry”, like “your shoes are the generations”, turning into a hot topic once-school exchanges. Reporter 21, learned that some students the value of a combine of air max 90 shoes up to 5,00 zero yuan.

This appears (from the link given by WordPress) to be from a Chinese website promoting sports shoes; maybe it too is mechanically translated, but like the example above it has a weirdly pleasing resonance.

Another piece that looks to be translated by machine (I’ve modified punctuation slightly):

I’m at about 203-208lbs give or take what I ate. Sick weigh tomorrow and make it specified.  Nowadays is clear working day one for me.  I hope to be down 13lbs by may possibly fifth which happens to be 5 weeks.  Somewhat over 2lbs each week, but I believe I’m able to get it done.  I’m kickboxing and zi xiu tang bee pollen pillslifting. I want to be down to 160lbs from the middle of sept, 25weeks away.

This could be an interior monologue from any number of recent novels by writers in their twenties or thirties; there’s a Joycean neologism, ‘pillslifting’, which neatly links the registers of pharmacology and physical fitness, which is presumably what this spammer peddles.

Finally, here’s an extract from what looks like a site promoting expensive shoes for women (the ones with the shiny red soles – shoes, that is, not women):

particularly binaural beats become desirable among players, businesses, and those functioning to their personal development and/or religious brain express.

The plosives in the first phrase and the loose, paratactic syntax give a satisfying whiff of Ginsberg.  There’s a hint of the cut-up technique of William Burroughs here, too.

photo: the Allen Ginsberg Project blog

photo: the Allen Ginsberg Project blog

I love the internet.