Life Stories

October 4, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

Life is a matter of listening as much as doing; a matter of stories as much as events.  Is this a message (a moral?) I’m imposing on the work, or is it intentionally buried in its structure?  I suspect it’s the former, but Potocki seems to have been so sensitive to his eccentric work’s effects on his readers that I’m not entirely sure.

One reason I suggest this is the recurring theme of stories that reflect upon and/or interpret the events in one or more of their framing narratives.  A straightforward example is “The Story of Thibaud de la Jacquiére,” on the tenth day.  Van Worden, wondering whether his “adorable and adoring” cousins might actually be “sprites,” “witches,” or “vampires” who are playing tricks on him, reads the story in a 17th-century collection of German tales.  A kind of erotic prodigal-son story, it involves a young man seducing a beautiful stranger, only to find her transformed into Beelzebub as they have sex.  He wakes up on top of a corpse in a garbage dump, then repents with his last breath.

This kind of correspondence between levels of narrative makes you think something’s up: is the whole thing going to end up being a dream, or some kind of farfetched plot to teach van Worden a lesson, or are there actual supernatural forces at work, or what?  In fact, even van Worden seems to sense that something’s up, since after reading he only “almost” comes to believe that his cousins are demons.  This might be a poor example for the point I set out to make, actually, since it’s a little too pat; there are other stories which seem to comment on van Worden’s couching of all virtue in honor, or on the plot developments with the haunted (?) Venta Quemada.  In fact, there’s a possible counter to the story of Thibaud: the Gypsy Chief’s adventures with the Knight of Toledo, a libertine who repents after an apparent supernatural experience, only to find it was actually an extraordinary set of coincidences that scared him so; he leaves his excessively monastic penance, instead doing good and revealing his virtuous character.

The story of Pandesowna, the Gypsy Chief, was what brought this possible moral to mind for me.  This one story is actually the bulk of the book: appearing, frequently interrupted, from the twelfth to the 62nd day, containing many further layers of story.  Pandesowna’s life story contains many incidents, to be sure, but much of it is composed of the stories of others: Pandesowna listening, in other words.  What moves his own story forward is his and others’ reactions to narratives, the stories of others and  the emotions they provoke.  And this infects the top level of the narrative’s reality: van Worden and the others await the continuation of the chief’s story just as he awaits the stories of those he hears, and many days pass in which nothing happens but the group waiting for Pandesowna to continue his tale.  (There’s more than a little of the Thousand and One Nights in this day-to-day interruption and continuation of the narrative.)  Is the work actually a moral progress whereby van Worden comes to see that virtue is not only a matter of honor, but of empathy, as well?

I think perhaps I’m not doing this aspect of the work justice: it’s a rather beautiful effect, the way it points out (in its plot- and genre-besotted way) how much it matters to think and care about the stories you read and hear, the people you meet, to weigh them judiciously without rashly judging (after all, I don’t know yet whether or not Emina and Zubeida actually are demons, and neither does van Worden).  One of the great meta-themes and justifications of literature, as many people have said, is this vicarious living of many lives, fictional or not.  But I digress.  I hope I can work this in some more in my subsequent posts on the book.

“Closing Time” and the Truth of the Story

September 1, 2008 § 15 Comments

Now reading: Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman.

First off, an apology to Nosferatu in Love, by Jim Shepard. I did finish it, and it is good — an imaginative biography of F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu among many other classics (I was disappointed that Sunrise was not only not featured, it wasn’t even mentioned). However, I read a lot of it on an airplane, then finished it during a hectic week. It’s got some more interesting things to say, and I especially enjoyed its descriptions of Murnau flying his airplane in WWI, and the experience of being above the clouds targeting the earth, and how that impacted his sense of what cinema could do — but I’m going to have to skip it for now. Onward.

Because Neil Gaiman is a lot of fun to read, and a lot of fun to think about. “Closing Time,” in particular, is a doozy. There are mysteries here, and ambiguity aplenty. And ooh, Narrator Trouble.

(Allow me to digress and bitch for a minute here. The Internet is a marvelous tool, and so is Google, and blogs are marvelous tools themselves. But, see here: a Google search for [“neil gaiman””closing time”] revealed roughly a zillion reviews of one sort or another in the first 100 hits, including reviews in blogs, and zero substantial critical discussions of what’s actually going on in this or any other story. Mechanisms for selling, basically, not thought. Part of the problem is the imprecision of my search, certainly, and my laziness in going through only 100 of the 6000+ hits (although things get more or less off-topic after what I saw, from a skim of later hits). And another part is the Google algorithms, and the fact that Google just doesn’t search everything: there are some discussions of this story on the neilgaiman.com message boards, but they’re buried too deep in the site for Google to recover. (They’re not very good discussions, anyway.) But might I suggest that people move beyond “I liked this,” etc. if they’re going to the trouble of writing about literature in the first place? We have many commercial vendors compiling that sort of information for us. There are already mechanisms for communicating your likes/dislikes to your pals. They’re called e-mail, telephone, and the good ol’ interpersonal conversation. You don’t have to be useful in a pseudo-public setting, but for God’s sake, would it hurt to try?)

So anyway, this is a “club story.” I’m a sucker for this genre, for reasons I can’t necessarily define: I tend to love frame stories of any sort. Something about stories-within-stories gives me a shiver of pleasure. Anyway, here it’s the Diogenes Club (named after the philosopher who famously could not find an honest man), and three young men are trading ghost stories one night. We have a first-person narrator, an “I,” a “young journalist.” (The story, according to Gaiman’s introduction, includes real places, and some real or similar-to-real events, and seems semi-autobiographical.) And we have an “elderly man” drinking by himself in a corner.

When the two named characters, Paul and Martyn, have each had a go at a fairly uninteresting story, we get this: “And then one of us said, ‘I’ll tell you a true story, if you like…. I don’t know if it’s a ghost story. It probably isn’t.'”

Wait… “one of us”? We then get the entire, genuinely creepy story in first person. And when it’s over, both Paul and Martyn comment upon it. So they weren’t the teller, who’s defined as “the storyteller,” separate from our narrator’s “I.” And it becomes evident that the old man wasn’t the teller either. There was also the proprietor, Nora, but she couldn’t have been the teller either, because she doesn’t accompany the four men out at closing time (plus, the storyteller was clearly a boy).

So: what the hell? Is this just a strange affectation of Gaiman’s? Or is it a way of dividing a person as he normally is and that same person as “storyteller”? A way of pointing out the kind of magic circle that’s drawn around a person telling and the people listening, the way they step outside of normal life, even if it’s a “true story” they’re sharing?

Plus, there’s the strangeness of the story itself. It involves a nine-year-old boy (the storyteller) who meets a group of three slightly older boys. (So we have two groups of four: the four in the Diogenes, the four in the story, with similar three-and-one groupings.) These boys show their younger visitor to a “playhouse” in the woods behind “the Swallows,” a manor house. And the door to this playhouse has a “metal knocker… painted crimson… in the shape of some kind of imp, some kind of grinning pixie or demon, hanging by its hands from a hinge.”

Fair enough, and creepy enough. But we’ve been told, four pages earlier, that the storyteller had made in art class “a painting… of a little house with a red door knocker like a devil or an imp.” And yet he gives no impression that he recognized this house, or this knocker, from his own painting. He says: “I found myself wondering what kind of a person would hang something like that on a playhouse door.”

Now, my wife Jaime (who read the story a few months ago) originally suggested that the three boys in the story were ghosts. The ending makes this difficult to accept, though, at least for all three of the boys. We went back and forth a bit on it, and settled on thinking that perhaps they were a kind of ghost of the living: memories made flesh, or the essence of childhoods lost. A kind of ambiguous, indefinable, deeply interesting non-being. This seems to fit best with the chronology of the story.

But that painting; and the weird handling of the narrator; what is going on here? I suspect that what Gaiman is doing here is something like constructing a “true” ghost story: the story of a haunting. (The story right before “Closing Time” is an avowedly “true” ghost story, called “The Flints of Memory Lane,” and some of the details in it echo in strange ways in “Closing Time.”) The “true” story is of this nine-year-old boy whose school closes down and who takes his strange painting back from its abandoned halls. He’s got a melancholy air about him. He seems, in a word, haunted, as does his landscape of “old houses and estates” about to be torn down to make way for “blandly identical landscapes of desirable modern residences.” And the rest of this story, the meeting of these boys, their strange hiding place, the playhouse, and the ambiguous evil they’ve undergone: it’s a way, also but differently “true,” of giving life to the haunting the boy feels, of explaining “what kind of person,” indeed, “would hang something like that on a playhouse door.” (Some answers: an imaginative person. A cruel person. A young boy. Neil Gaiman. And maybe you could also say that we, the readers, are the kind of people who “would hang something like that.” It’s what gives the story its shiver, after all, that door-knocker. And we like our shiver, whatever it might mean for the characters in the story we’re reading.) It’s a way, I expect, of dramatizing how we’re captured by story, and by memory, in thrall to them. They can make us do, and relive, awful things, wonderful things.

Tales and Tellers: The Eighth Day

June 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Reading next: The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis.

Eight days in, and I’m still not sure what to think about Boccaccio’s orientation toward his work and his characters. Is he trying to create characters, in the ten patricians abandoning Florence? Or is he merely creating a pliable framework in which he can tell stories, dozens of them, of all shapes and sizes?

There have certainly been moments that indicated that Boccaccio was interested in the interaction of tale and teller, most obviously in the theme of Filostrato’s day. There’s also the songs sung at the end of each day, which are sometimes just pretty little lyrics but are sometimes self-consciously revealing of the singer’s desires or emotional state. At the end of this day Panfilo sings that “I with burning joy conceal/ A rapture I may not reveal.” Unlike Filostrato, flayed by his inability to hold his beloved, Panfilo seems to enjoy his love, even though he cannot express it in public and must keep it secret.

But on this day, at least, the stories are largely related only to one another: an incident or character in one provokes the next, with little apparent revelation of the teller’s character. Boccaccio, I suppose I’m trying to say, does not seem to care whether he’s consistent with the kinds of stories he has the ten tell, or whether the stories always seem appropriate to those telling them.

This more or less makes sense, I suppose, given Boccaccio’s times, his Humanist leanings away from the church but his still basically medieval world. There’s this strange tension between the literary world to come, of psychology and character, and that which had been before, of allegory, moral, formalism. (This is a little clearer, I think, in Chaucer, with his flesh-and-blood slices of society on a pilgrimage to Canterbury.) Interesting, then, that story about Giotto, with his move towards realistic human forms while still incorporating medieval techniques.

Fiammetta tells perhaps the most radical story yet, the eighth of the day. In it, a friendly neighbor, Spinelloccio, starts an affair with his neighbor Zeppa’s wife. Finding out about it, Zeppa takes his revenge by contriving to make love to Spinelloccio’s wife, on top of a trunk in which Spinelloccio’s hiding. And here’s how the story ends:

Spinelloccio now emerged from the chest, and without making too much fuss, he said:

‘Now we are quits, Zeppa. So let us remain friends, as you were saying just now to my wife. And since we have always shared everything in common except our wives, let us share them as well.’

Zeppa having consented to this proposal, all four breakfasted together in perfect amity. And from that day forth, each of the ladies had two husbands, and each of the men had two wives, nor did this arrangement ever give rise to any argument or dispute between them.

Before the ninth story it’s mentioned that the ladies discuss “the two Sienese and their wife-sharing.” That’s it! No mention of anyone offended, or blushing!

We also meet some recurring characters on the eighth day, the painters Calandrino, Bruno, and Buffalmacco, all real Florentines. Poor Calandrino! He’s come down through history (because of Boccaccio, or just because Boccaccio recorded his actual character?) as a naive simpleton, superstitious and capable of believing that a particular rock had made him invisible. The ten seem to love this crew, telling three stories about them on the eighth day and two more on the ninth. Boccaccio seems to use Calandrino as the fool who believes in folktales and thereby gets in trouble.

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