Inspired by Buried.In.Print’s Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro reading projects, I decided to incorporate more short stories into my weekly reads, and I thought that a fun way to do it would be to use Jay’s Deal Me In Challenge as a framework.
The basic idea of this challenge, as many of you may already know (it’s been going on since 2011!), is to choose fifty-two stories and assign each one to a playing card in a standard deck of cards. Each week, you draw a card at random from your deck and that is the story you will read.
In 2015, O. did a version of the challenge where she assigned a different genre for each deck (short stories, plays, essays, and poetry), and that inspired me to incorporate essays to the project, so that I read one short story and one essay a week.
Finally, I would also like to use the challenge as a framework for my project of listening to a different album a week, instead of skipping from playlist to playlist, as I usually do now. Perhaps this will eventually get too overwhelming – we will see.
For my deck of ♦Diamonds♦ I assigned the short story collection Infinite Riches, a Virago Modern Classic edited by Lynne Knight (1993), and some of the essays published online (and for free!) by the Brazilian indie publishers Chao da Feira & Zazie Edicoes.
Here are the story and essay I read & the album I listened to in the first week of 2020:
Week 1 – ♦Ace♦:
Short story: “An Act of Reparation”, by Sylvia Townsend Warner (New Yorker, 1964. Also: Selected Stories, 1988)
A divorced woman named Lois accidentally meets the new wife of her former husband, Valerie, in the bank. Valerie has been married for five months and has been cooking roast chicken every weekend ever since. Fenton, the husband, feels he has had enough of chicken, and Valeria is at a loss to know what to buy and cook. The story opens with a shopping list:
“Lapsang sooshang – must smell like tar.
Liver salts in blue bottle.
Strumpshaw’s bill – why 6d?
Something for weekend – not a chicken.”
When Valerie meets Lois, the embarrassment of the situation leads her to ask for help concerning the weekend dish. Lois immediately suggests oxtail stew, and not only goes shopping with Valerie, but also helps her to cook the stew (which happens to be Fenton’s favourite dish).
By now, you may already have a feeling that the whole situation is very bizarre. When the husband arrives home, Valerie is quietly waiting for him in the living room (something he loves about her and secretly prides himself of: “A man likes to be awaited. At the end of a dull day’s architecture, to find a wife quietly sitting, undistracted by any form of employment, not even reading a book, but just sitting and waiting and ready to look pleased is very agreeable.”). Not only that, but, most unusually, she is wating enveloped in a wonderful smell of cooking. Initially, he wonders that she has had this talent up her sleeve all this time:
“When will it be ready?” he said with ardour.
“Not just yet. Do you like my nail varnish? It’s new. I bought it today.”
“Very pretty. Do you think you ought to go and stir it?”
“Oh no! She’ll do that.”
“She? What she?”
“Your other wife. She’s in there. She’s been doing it all the afternoon”.
The whole thing just made me laugh. This is a gem: Townsend-Warner is at her best and most acerbic is this story. I love the way she keeps going back and forth between Valerie, Lois, and Fenton’s perspectives, blurring them, constantly breaking our expectations. The author seems to be driving a dark sense of humour out of the story’s slightly unsettling edge.
While Valerie thinks Lois feels like a rejected woman eager to come back home one more time (“Of course at her age, she was probably a bit deaf…”; “(…) grieving for what could never again be hers…”), Lois actually feels guilty of having used Valerie as an excuse for divorce, shunting the poor girl into marriage with Fenton (“And this, this careworn, deflated little chit staring blankly at a shopping list, was what Fenton had made her in six months’ matrimony.”)
While the husband thinks his ex-wife is trying to win him back by showing off her superior culinary skills (“an unassimilable answer to prayer”), Lois, in her mind, is performing an act of reparation to the young wife whom she now pities for being stuck with her ex-husband, as well as to the husband himself, who is stuck with five months of love and chicken (“she had cast the child on Fenton’s ageing shoulders and hung twenty-one consecutive frozen chickens round his neck.”).
I also love the contrast between the polite conversation going on between Valerie and Lois, and its somewhat violent undercurrent: as in the scene where Lois is throwing a critical eye on the new wallpaper in the living room, while trying to be a snob – “‘What a pretty new wallpaper – new wallpapers, that is’… ‘I must not, will not, be censorious’, said Lois to herself.” Meanwhile, Valerie is struggling not to show any anger: “If she goes on being a condescending old ray of sunlight, I’ll murder her”.
We also have a feeling that Lois may be slightly witchy – at one point, her ex-husband thinks about the witching smell of her cooking, and Valerie seems paralysed by some kind of spell that prevents her of taking charge of the situation. Lois name also reminded me of Gaskell’s Lois The Witch (1859), and the oxtail stew itself sounds almost like a magical potion. Maybe Valerie and Fenton are Lois’ victims, and the act of reparation a strange form of revenge: “No act of reparation, thought Lois, sitting in the taxi, can be an exact fit. Circumstances are like seaweed: a moment’s exposure to the air, an hour’s relegation to the past tense, stiffens, warps, shrivels the one and the other”.
My rating: ★★★★★
Essay: “A literatura, muitas vezes” (‘Literature, often’), by Maria Gabriela Llansol (O diário, 1982. Also: Caderno de Leituras n. 92)
In this essay, Llansol explores the question over the purpose of literature – and the limits of knowledge in dealing with this question: “it is a border that I must approach indefinitely, never having the joy of reaching it” (my translation). She observes that this is a question that can only be answered backwards, it is an endless question, over which no criterion of truth can be called upon to arbitrate between different points of view.
As if going through a hall of mirrors, Llansol argues that the most faithful image of a text is “not given by the final image behind the text”; it is only backwards that we can start to grasp the effects that, through that first image, writers leave as their inheritance. While he is alive, a writer must always live with the uncertainty of the purposes of literature: “but those who must live with it have either the possibility of remaining silent, or the faculty of talking to each other: talking about their own inner persuasions, so as to assert them as hypotheses – or, better yet, as a desirable meaning for our human culture in the near future”. (my translation)
What Llansol calls a desirable meaning is an unstable mixture of facts, personal taste, and interests that opens new ways of thinking and living, new human paths, a mixture that can neither be expressed nor remain unexpressed: “a link between solid and fragile, sometimes a montage of various inclinations that gives way to what, unexpressed, would destroy our body and feeling – but which, once expressed, without context and without art, perverts our will and sterilizes our understanding”. (my translation)
Llansol adds, however, that there is no predictable or programmable progress in literature, and it may even be true that there are no new human paths. Literature is, for her, only a way of seeing that is at the same time a language technique – and one can only respond to the lack of new paths by creating new language techniques. “Personally, I never wrote a single word; I do not see anything in words; I hear images that confront wondering thoughts and that are nothing if they are not born with the body that suits them. And, with no use of metaphor, body and language are strictly synonymous, even if in parallel categories or, more accurately, with identical functions in different realities”. (my translation)
She argues that, in a time when we do not know where or what we are; where the notion of reality is purely metaphorical; and where we have lost track of the wells of joy – in such a time, the need to create is imperative: “In order for the existing realities we touch with our hands to survive, it is necessary to create non-existent realities, ‘possible others’ that will be other worlds, if created by language and made viable by the body; and there will be no world if, in its radiant centre, it is absent the figure of joy that each of us can glimpse”. (my translation)
Llansol argues that there is a tenuous, hypothetical, virtual link between the situations she writes about and the situations she is immediately conditioned by: this link “is one of the greatest traditions of our medium (literature), its most human purpose: to experiment with solutions to the coming problems, and to strike against the intolerable. To collect the grain of sand, to cultivate the quality link, which will transmute the macro-conditionalities of now into singular experiences of another time. That’s what I relish”. (my translation)
To create new realities, even when we are not sure whether they can really exist or be created: that’s the purpose of literature – “to come into deep contact with nearby and non-speaking universes – and seek identity in the erring ways of both”, “to search for the sources of joy and its radiant figure”. (my translation)
My rating: ★★★★☆
Album: Mug Museum, by Cate Le Bon (2013)
- Sad, contemplative songs about relationships and death, like a collection of mugs on a shelf, chipped and worn out, marked with memories of things past.
- Length: 42:09
- My rating: ★★★★☆
- Favourite songs: Duke, Cuckoo through the walls, Are You with Me Now?
“(…) I don’t know how we have come to function so far away
Drifting in directness with the compass we’ve made, ya know
It’s our best work
I’ll see you here
Where the weather licked your face dry
The weather licked your face dry
I am half bitten
You were half hidden
Until the arms close
Pitching up in our packs
You’ll never grow old to me (…)” (Duke)
“(…) never leave the house
cuckoo through the walls
lay still on the ground
exhale the sounds of symphonies
she did not use the door
she did not leave the table
she spread out like a fan
and then burst into tears
and I watched the dinner drown
I drank for hours (…)” (Cuckoo through the walls)
“ (…) In my mug museum I grow
company from echos in my walls
I forget the detail but know the warmth
tailor to the letter till it becomes
In my mug museum. (…)” (Mug Museum)
When asked whether there was an over-riding theme to the album, Cate Le Bon said: “The album was inspired by the loss of my maternal grandmother but rather than it being a grief laden album it is more about what someone at the top of the female chain leaves behind and how there’s a palpable shift in every relationship. I suppose when you start meditating on any relationship then others naturally fall into the fold. The Mug Museum is an imaginary place where relationships are looked at and thought upon.” In the same interview, she mentions Tove Jansson and Lou Reed as artistic sources of inspiration. ❤
Film: The Age of Innocence, directed by Martin Scorsese (1993)
- I will comment more on this when I post my review of Wharton’s novel. But, for now, I must say that I never believed Scorcese and Wharton would be a good match. And Michelle Pfeiffer is #NotMyOlenska
- Running time: 139 minutes
- My rating: ★★☆☆☆
- Favourite scene: Daniel Day-Lewis’ horrified look in the last scene with Winona Ryder.
- UPDATE: Review
That’s all for now, folks. What are you reading and listening this week? Tell me about it.