Friday, May 29, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Door in the Wall: The Conversation

Our next story is "The Door in the Wall," by H. G. Wells.

I first came across this story while doing research on Nabokov's Lolita, which I taught in my class, Does Literature Matter?, at Stanford. In his article "H. G. Wells's 'The Door in the Wall'" in Russian Literature,"* Richard Borden shows that this particular tale strongly influenced both Nabokov and another favorite of mine, Yuri Olesha. Nabokov vividly alludes to this story in the enchanting, green-suffused scene in which Humbert Humbert first sees Lolita sunning herself in the backyard.

We'll get back to greenness and enchantment. For this post, I want to talk about the frame for this story. It always amazes me how many science fiction and fantasy stories are portrayed as conversations, or remembered conversations ("The Turn of the Screw" comes to mind, as do many of Poe's stories, Bellamy's Looking Backward, Poul Anderson's stories, and many others). The story is either told directly to the narrator by an acquaintance, or the narrator is recalling how the acquaintance (or friend) told him the story. The narrator himself disappears for most of the tale, but steps in every now and then to comment on the storyteller's emotional state (often distraught or seemingly deranged)--and to wonder whether the story could possibly be true. I've never been quite sure what this convention does for us as readers, but because it's so prevalent, it must have some special power.

So here's the opening of "The Door in the Wall":

One confidential evening, not three months ago, Lionel Wallace told me this story of the Door in the Wall. And at the time I thought that so far as he was concerned it was a true story.

He told it me with such a direct simplicity of conviction that I could not do otherwise than believe in him. But in the morning, in my own flat, I woke to a different atmosphere, and as I lay in bed and recalled the things he had told me, stripped of the glamour of his earnest slow voice, denuded of the focussed shaded table light, the shadowy atmosphere that wrapped about him and the pleasant bright things, the dessert and glasses and napery of the dinner we had shared, making them for the time a bright little world quite cut off from every-day realities, I saw it all as frankly incredible. "He was mystifying!" I said, and then: "How well he did it!. . . . . It isn't quite the thing I should have expected him, of all people, to do well."

Afterwards, as I sat up in bed and sipped my morning tea, I found myself trying to account for the flavour of reality that perplexed me in his impossible reminiscences, by supposing they did in some way suggest, present, convey--I hardly know which word to use--experiences it was otherwise impossible to tell.

Well, I don't resort to that explanation now. I have got over my intervening doubts. I believe now, as I believed at the moment of telling, that Wallace did to the very best of his ability strip the truth of his secret for me. But whether he himself saw, or only thought he saw, whether he himself was the possessor of an inestimable privilege, or the victim of a fantastic dream, I cannot pretend to guess. Even the facts of his death, which ended my doubts forever, throw no light on that. That much the reader must judge for himself.

The narrator's musings about truth vs. fiction, and the overall distancing effect of his presence, aren't particularly earth-shaking as devices; in fact I'd venture to guess that even by Wells's time these were cliches. We don't see this set-up too often in contemporary literary fiction, perhaps for that reason. And yet, the narrator's ability to comment on the storyteller, as well as the story, seems like a great opportunity. I also like the notion of creating a setting for the telling of the story, which contrasts with the actual story's setting. The former is usually some tranquil or festive domestic scene; a little dinner, a little wine, a little party. Those hearing the tale are often a bit bored with their staid, comfortable lives, and relish being shaken up--although they generally end up more shaken than they wish to be, and sometimes make themselves part of the story later on by going out to investigate.

So for an exercise, we can try framing a story in this manner. You might even play up, or play with, this gentlemen-after-dinner cliche, as a starting point for characterizing both the narrator and the storyteller. What's the relationship between these two (or more) people? How does our ability to see and hear the actual storyteller affect the story itself? And what kind of story does this sort of frame seem to generate? Would the teller tell it differently on some other, so to speak, narrative occasion?

* The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 36, No. 3. (Autumn, 1992), pp. 323-338.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I've had mixed success with recipes from the NYT. And the word "pudding" for me conjures the plastic-within-plastic experience of Jello pudding--not that I didn't love that shit as a kid, but now the very thought makes me shudder.

Anyway: this recipe is beyond great. Do everything it says, and don't be alarmed that right after it's blended it will have the consistency of soup--it will set up beautifully as it's chilled. I used Whole Foods vegan chocoloate chips, to maintain absolute dairy-free purity.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Vegan fig date bread

This recipe, from The Joy of Vegan Baking (p. 64) is amazing. I don't know how to describe this bread--it somehow tastes deep and warm, even when cooled. The secret seems to lie in soaking the figs and dates in boiling water, baking soda, and oil for 15 minutes, which softens them up and creates a sort of syrup that permeates the bread.

Is it evil to link to a page from Google Books? Is my little teaspoon of a link helping to chip away the edifice of copyright, from which I myself hope to benefit one day? Well, at any rate, you should definitely buy this book.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Overcoat: Justice Done

Here is the text of "The Overcoat," called "The Cloak" in this collection, from Project Gutenberg. (You'll need to do a search for "cloak" or Gogol, since the whole story collection is in one file.)

For this writing exercise, I'm borrowing from two living souls, in addition to Gogol. One is Julie Orringer, whose creative writing class I took several years ago; she taught "The Overcoat" to make us think about fiction as a means of dispensing justice. The other is William Flesch, whose recent talk at Stanford also focused on justice in storytelling. He argues that perhaps the most satisfying aspect of storytelling, from a reader's perspective, is "altruistic punishment." Fantasized punishments, in which those who've done wrong come to see the error of their ways, are more appealing than virtue rewarded--though writers must be careful not to take the punishment too far, or we begin to feel sorry for the punishee. (The same dynamic holds for real life.)

Gogol negotiates this balance perfectly, I think, by making the punishment truly fantastical, even with in the context of fiction (which is already fantasy by definition). After our poor hero, Akaky, finally saves enough to buy his new overcoat, and the coat somehow starts to make his whole life better, he's robbed on the street and his coat is stolen. Seeking help, Akaky goes to see a "prominent personage," who, although he appears late in the story, quickly becomes the main villain. The "prominent personage" verbally abuses Akaky so severely that Akaky becomes ill and, after a short time, dies. At this point, we really, really want to see justice done, and Gogol provides. But he also makes Akaky's ghost the instrument of justice, so that we remain just a bit doubtful as to whether the retribution really happens:

Suddenly the important personage felt some one clutch him firmly by the collar. Turning round, he perceived a man of short stature, in an old, worn uniform, and recognised, not without terror, Akaky Akakiyevich. The official's face was white as snow, and looked just like a corpse's. But the horror of the important personage transcended all bounds when he saw the dead man's mouth open, and heard it utter the following remarks, while it breathed upon him the terrible odour of the grave: "Ah, here you are at last! I have you, that--by the collar! I need your cloak. You took no trouble about mine, but reprimanded me. So now give up your own."

The pallid prominent personage almost died of fright. Brave as he was in the office and in the presence of inferiors generally, and although, at the sight of his manly form and appearance, every one said, "Ugh! how much character he has!" at this crisis, he, like many possessed of an heroic exterior, experienced such terror, that, not without cause, he began to fear an attack of illness. He flung his cloak hastily from his shoulders and shouted to his coachman in an unnatural voice, "Home at full speed!" The coachman, hearing the tone which is generally employed at critical moments, and even accompanied by something much more tangible, drew his head down between his shoulders in case of an emergency, flourished his whip, and flew on like an arrow. In a little more than six minutes the prominent personage was at the entrance of his own house. Pale, thoroughly scared, and cloakless, he went home instead of to Karolina Ivanovna's, reached his room somehow or other, and passed the night in the direst distress; so that the next morning over their tea, his daughter said, "You are very pale to-day, papa." But papa remained silent, and said not a word to any one of what had happened to him, where he had been, or where he had intended to go.

This occurrence made a deep impression upon him. He even began to say, "How dare you? Do you realise who is standing before you?" less frequently to the under-officials, and, if he did utter the words, it was only after first having learned the bearings of the matter. But the most noteworthy point was, that from that day forward the apparition of the dead official ceased to be seen. Evidently the prominent personage's cloak just fitted his shoulders. At all events, no more instances of his dragging cloaks from people's shoulders were heard of. But many active and solicitous persons could by no means reassure themselves, and asserted that the dead official still showed himself in distant parts of the city.

So "The Overcoat" dispenses justice, but--this is the key--not too neatly. Akaky suffers just a little too much, and his suffering is not quite redeemed. The punishment for those who hurt him, while seemingly fitting, can't be verified. And it's these imbalances that somehow give the story perfect balance, making it supremely satisfying.

The writing lesson here? When it comes to justice, give with one hand and take away with the other.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Art of Living

A great discussion on KQED's Forum about literature and the good life, with my friends Lanier Anderson and Josh Landy.

Bigot smackdown

Back in slave times, well-meaning folk made the argument that slavery hurt whites as much as blacks. For whites, the harm, of course, was to their moral character, and in a deeply religious society this was (and still is) serious business. You could go to hell. The argument also worked because it allowed whites to think of themselves as victims rather than perpetrators or beneficiaries of an unjust system--so they could be less defensive and more open to the abolitionist message.

When we read such arguments now, how bigotry harms the bigot as much as the victim, they mostly seem facile. But a deeper, subtler truth is still in there, and Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks it. This is a great, great post on how dumb bigots really are harming themselves and the mini-thems of the next generation, to whom they hope to pass the burning cross.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Overcoat: The Elements

The text of "The Overcoat," called "The Cloak" in this collection, from Project Gutenberg. (You'll need to do a search for "cloak" or Gogol, since the whole story collection is in one file.)

Just as in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, the St. Petersburg weather plays a significant role in "The Overcoat." The motif of St. Petersburg as a grid imposed upon chaos dates back to Peter the Great, who wanted to construct a "rational," western-European-style city on top of what was essentially swampland. Having been to St. Petersburg, I can tell you the weather is, to put it mildly, changeable; and the futility of trying to give structure to uncooperative nature drives many a Russian tale.

Near the beginning, Gogol suggests--though I don't think this is entirely true--that "The Overcoat" is a story about weather:

There exists in St. Petersburg a powerful foe of all who receive a salary of four hundred rubles a year, or there-abouts. This foe is no other than the Northern cold, although it is said to be very healthy. At nine o'clock in the morning, at the very hour when the streets are filled with men bound for the various official departments, it begins to bestow such powerful and piercing nips on all noses impartially, that the poor officials really do not know what to do with them. At an hour, when the foreheads of even those who occupy exalted positions ache with the cold, and tears start to their eyes, the poor titular councillors are sometimes quite unprotected. Their only salvation lies in traversing as quickly as possible, in their thin little cloaks, five or six streets, and then warming their feet in the porter's room, and so thawing all their talents and qualifications for official service, which had become frozen on the way.

Weather itself takes a back seat later to all the metaphorical weather to which poor Akaky is subject--namely bureaucracy, and the aforementioned cruelty of human nature. Still, I propose a writing experiment in which weather itself drives both plot and characterization. Not necessarily freakish weather (for example, riding out a storm on the high seas), but everyday weather. I'm thinking, for instance, of the Coen brothers' movie Fargo, in which different characters' preparedness for and understanding of snow--that is, endless miles of deep, drifting, relentless snow--signals who ultimately will and won't survive (the Steve Buscemi character being in the latter category).

A human and the weather--an elemental tale in many senses.