“sackcloth and ashes as they are, the isles are not perhaps unmitigated gloom”

“The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles,” presented under the name of one Salvator R. Tarnmoor, is constructed of several “sketches,” each of which is titled, begins with a short poem, and then leads to a vignette or short anecdote about the Galapagos Islands. In the first sketch, the narrator describes the Enchanted Isles as the most desolate place on earth, and one of the most solitary, and all that magnified by the fact that the place is utterly changeless and without season.

He then explains that the islands are uninhabitable, and

refuse to harbor even the outcasts of the beasts. Man and wolf alike disown them. Little but reptile life is here found:—tortoises, lizards, immense spiders, snakes, and that strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the iguana. No voice, no low, no howl is heard, the chief sound of life here is a hiss.

Funnily enough, then, most of the rest of the sketches go on to discuss the inhabitants of the islands, some human but many animal. To be sure, the tortoise, a reptile, is a major focus. The narrator gives us just the tiniest version here of Moby-Dick‘s whale-worship. Reading and interpreting the tortoises is irresistible: “Lasting sorrow and penal hopelessness are in no animal form so suppliantly expressed as in theirs; while the thought of their wonderful longevity does not fail to enhance the impression.” He even sees tortoises crawling despondently through drawing-rooms back home, never able to shake the feeling they give him that he has “indeed slept upon evilly enchanted ground.” Shiver.

The second sketch is all about tortoises, and the third is about Rock Rodondo, an outcropping that is home to thousands of sea-birds at its top and thousands of fish at its base. Again is the typical philosophizing on animals. Penguins are “without exception the

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“when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it”

“Bartleby, the Scrivener” is, I believe, normally taken as something of a story against the mindless drudgery of work, especially rote office-work done as an employee rather than one’s own boss. Bartleby, the clerk who refuses to work with his constant refrain of “I would prefer not to,” is something of a hero who sacrifices himself on the altar of capitalism—one of the many slaves in this man-of-war world of ours that Melville is always bringing up.

On my re-reading of “Bartleby” along with the rest of The Piazza Tales, I found what may be a “creative misreading” of the story unfolding in front of me. I had always been sympathetic to the narrator, the man in charge of the law office who hires Bartleby, and taken his description of himself as “safe” as self-effacing and humorous rather than heavy and serious. But this time that impression was even stronger and my ideas about Bartleby himself and the narrator’s relation to him coalesced further—that safeness is not to be scorned, and Bartleby is in fact dangerous through his refusal to play by the rules.

One problem with reading Bartleby as a noble man unwilling to compromise his ideals for lowly copying work is that Bartleby hires himself out as a copyist. He shows up at the law office door when the narrator needs help and accepts a job. He works, seemingly assiduously, for a while, until it comes time to check his copies against their originals. He has made quadruplicates of a single document, and the narrator contrives to read the original aloud himself while his three clerks and one office boy check each of the copies individually—with the whole office working together as a group to help Bartleby in his own work, just as each would do for

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“Goldfish” by Raymond Chandler

For the most part, the stories collected in Trouble Is My Business were written before Raymond Chandler’s novels, and they all bear a slightly different tinge from his longer works. Chandler condensed is darker and grittier.

In “Goldfish,” Philip Marlowe gets a tip from someone he trusts and sympathizes with that could make him a lot of money. Suddenly he is embroiled in a chase with thugs and vixens; they each gain the upper hand by turns until finally Marlowe gets everything to fall into place. Pretty standard. Except in “Goldfish” it all happens, with just as much precision and detail of scene and character, in a third of the space.

Instead of doing without any of the real Chandler trademarks, the plot just gets a bit simpler. Fewer players are involved; there are fewer twists. There is still real mystery and suspense. But the shrinking of the distance between plot elements means the harsher bits of Chandler’s work seem to come faster and thicker. Marlowe finds his first body after just five pages; normally it would take longer than that to get to the home of his client. And the violence continues through nearly to the last scene.

The villains in “Goldfish” are surprisingly hard and clear for such a short work; they are at least as good as the ones in his novels. And remarkably, while the story begins in LA the bulk of it takes place in Olympia, Washington:

The Snoqualmie Hotel in Olympia was on Capitol Way, fronting on the usual square city block of park. I left by the coffeeshop door and walked down a hill to where the last, loneliest reach of Puget Sound died and decomposed against a line of disused wharves. Corded firewood filled the foreground and old men pottered about

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“Master Flea” by E.T.A. Hoffmann

“Master Flea” is, I suppose, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s idea of a Christmas story. A Christmas fairy tale, really, since that’s what all his stories are. And not just in the way that “A Christmas Carol” or “The Chimes” have elements of fantasy; Hoffmann’s work is overblown and Romantic in this department, entirely taken over by dream logic. It even starts out, “Once upon a time…”

Peregrinus Tyss is a strange man. Around his coming of age he left home to do not much in school and wander around for a few years. When he returned to Frankfurt am Main and found his parents had passed away, he holed himself up alone in their house with his old nurse. Every Christmas he buys an elaborate set of gifts for himself—children’s toys—opens them ceremoniously, and then brings them to the homes of his poorer fellow citizens. This Christmas, he finds himself accosted by a mysterious woman making mysterious demands, and so begins the fairy part of the tale.

This is pretty classic Kunstmärchen stuff, with a parallel paradise universe where everyone is a flower and plotting scientists who live for hundreds of years. Peregrinus is befriended by a flea who has fled from Leeuwenhoek’s flea circus and who can give Peregrinus the smallest lens of all, one that will sit inside the eye and allow the wearer to read people’s thoughts.

Peregrinus makes some interesting findings this way. For example,

that when these people talked with exceptional eloquence about art and learning and the main currents of intellectual life, their veins and nerves did not penetrate into the recesses of their brains, but curved back, so that it was impossible to discern their thoughts with any clarity. He communicated this observation to Master Flea, who was sitting as usual in a

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“The South” by Jorge Luis Borges

At first impression, “The South” misses many of the signature Borgesian qualities of stories like “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and “The Library of Babel.” There are no magical numbers, no flights of philosophical fancy, no fake footnotes, and no intrusive first-person narrator. “The South” is just not that flashy.

But it subtly has many of the same dreamlike qualities. Juan Dahlmann, in a dreamlike state, doesn’t realize he’s gashed his head on an open window while walking up the stairs with his nose in a book. He perceived it as “[s]omething in the dimness brush[ing] his forehead,” but it lands him after days of septicemia locked in a sanatorium, undergoing tortures. Then, he is released.

“Reality is partial to symmetries and slight anachronisms,” and Dahlmann leaves the sanatorium the same way he came, in a cab. But is this reality? Fiction is also partial to symmetries after all. Dahlmann’s release is too literary and too romantic—too like himself. “The first cool breath of autumn, after the oppression of the summer, was like a natural symbol of his life brought back from fever and the brink of death.” Along with natural symbols are scenes constructed from the melding of memory with romantic imagination: “bouillon served in bowls of shining metal, as in the now-distant summers of his childhood”; “long glowing clouds that seemed made of marble…like some dream of the flat prairies”; “something in its sorry architecture that reminded Dahlmann of a steel engraving, perhaps from an old edition of Paul et Virginie.” The narrator notes that the city-dwelling librarian’s “direct knowledge of the country was considerably inferior to his nostalgic, literary knowledge.”

Dahlmann’s trip to the South ends as literarily as it begins (just as earlier, he feels “something lightly brush his face” which will turn

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“The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges

When I wrote about Borges last week, I mentioned I was often bowled over by him. “The Library of Babel” is for me another example of why. Borges returns to many of his usual themes: books and literature, infinity, words and their meaning, the universe and its comprehensibility (or lack thereof), numbers and mathematics. He plays with these subjects and arranges them into a pleasing shape with beautiful prose, but my ultimate impression is always that these stories are probably best understood in the context of his whole project, which I have yet to fully absorb.

He’s certainly a reader’s writer; what book-lover wouldn’t love a universe in the form of a massive library, containing every possible book of a specified length? And what numbers-lover wouldn’t love thinking about the permutations of hexagons that would contain the unfathomable number of volumes therein? “You who read me, are You sure of understanding my language?” Ach, so wonderful; I’m gushing.

I’ve found writing about short stories in general on the difficult side, but writing about these is even harder. These are sort of vignettes. Borges gives us the Library of Babel, and it’s in a first-person narrative form so he does give us someone’s life history, but it’s the picture of this universe that dominates. What would this universe be like, and is it different in any way from our own, other than at the most superficial level?

I will head over to Caravana de recuerdos and find out what my fellow bloggers had to say on Friday. Stay tuned for “The South” this Friday to wrap up our Borges readalong.

“Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges

I’m going into May’s group reads of Borges stories a bit cold; I’ve read Borges before but only in the loosest, most casual sense of the term. I don’t think I’ve read “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” before, but couldn’t swear to it. Briefly, I loved it, and it has everything I expect in a Borges story: an absurd, somewhat fantastical but mostly bizarre premise, a metafictional element, and an intrusive narrator who seems as much to be writing a nonfictional treatise as a short story. Oh, and me not really knowing at the end exactly what it is I’m supposed to think. Borges kind of bowls me over like that.

Pierre Menard, the subject of the story, is an eccentric academic who has written a wide variety of “visible” work, from poems to monographs on Boolean logic, as well as the “invisible” work of recreating Don Quixote. This is such a strange idea that it takes a while to figure out what that really means, and when it becomes clear it seems sort of brilliant. Crazy, but brilliant. But mostly crazy. And totally absurd and pointless.

That reaches a head when the narrator quotes from Cervantes’s Quixote and Menard’s Quixote the same passage, proceeding to interpret the two passages, which are word-for-word identical, entirely differently. The ideas expressed by the same words are totally different, and:

The contrast in styles is equally striking. The archaic style of Menard—who is, in addition, not a native speaker of the language in which he writes—is somewhat affected. Not so the style of his precursor, who employs the Spanish of his time with complete naturalness.

Ridiculous! Ridiculous things happen when you leave the text behind. But what the narrator says is not untrue. Should we be, as he suggests, “encourage[d] to read

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“Byezhin Prairie” by Ivan Turgenev

After a week in grey St. Petersburg with the murky Dostoevsky, I headed back to the plains of Russia to read one of Ivan Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches, “Byezhin Prairie.” The Sketches are apparently generally about serfs, their condition, their Romanticization perhaps. This one is about serfs too, but the fact of their oppression is very much in the background. Still, the glorification of the “Russian peasant” is certainly an element.

A hunter gets lost in the woods and before long finds himself quite disoriented. By the time he realizes where he is, night is falling and he must sleep outside. He spots a campfire in the distance and goes to sleep among five peasant boys who are spending the night with the grazing horses of the village. The main part of the story consists in the narrator describing the boys and eavesdropping on their ghost stories. Not quite ghost stories, but talk of superstition and daily village life.

You can tell right away what Turgenev does really well. The setting is beautiful: “On such days all the colors are softened, bright but not glaring; everything is suffused with a kind of touching tenderness.” Or later, “the night had crept close and grown up like a storm-cloud; it seemed as though, with the mists of evening, darkness was rising up on all sides and flowing down from overhead.” The portraits of the boys as well—Turgenev is a bit of a cameo artist:

The second boy, Pavlusha, had tangled black hair, gray eyes, broad cheek-bones, a pale face pitted with small-pox, a large but well-cut mouth; his head altogether was large—“a beer-barrel head,” as they say—and his figure was square and clumsy. He was not a good-looking boy—there’s no denying it!—and yet I liked him; he looked very sensible and straightforward, and

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“Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” by J.D. Salinger

Last week I received a surprise birthday book package that included J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories (the serendipity of long-ago-added-to-Amazon-wishlist books). I’d read about half the stories in high school, and remembered liking them—especially “For Esmé, with Love and Squalor.” But on the whole the book is rather different from what I remember. I didn’t remember the heavy focus, in several stories, on the psychological aftermath of World War II on the men who fought it—and didn’t. And it also seems even more different from the way I remember Catcher in the Rye, which makes some sense, since I never cared for that book.

While I still enjoyed “For Esmé,” this time “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” stuck out as effective. It’s very simple: a gray-haired man and a girl are in bed when the phone rings; the gray-haired man answers; the call is from a man, Arthur, whose wife has not come home from the party they and the gray-haired man were at that evening. The gray-haired man calmly talks Arthur down, as Arthur drunkenly rants about his wife, her infidelity, and other personality flaws. The gray-haired man assures Arthur that Joanie will walk in any minute, after a wild outing in the Village, and they finally hang up. Arthur calls back a moment later to say that he was right, Joanie just came in, and everything is grand.

Of course, all through the first phone call, we are sure that Joanie is the very girl in bed with the gray-haired man. And we are sure that the gray-haired man, while genuinely trying to calm Arthur, is also carefully deflecting suspicion—and looking down on the man he’s cuckolding. Nothing at all says that. On the contrary, Salinger is careful not to say it. The girl’s eyes are a focal

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“The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich” by Nikolai Gogol

“The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich”* makes a perfect introduction to Gogol, I think—not that it was actually my introduction, of course. But it has it all, starting with the almost pointillist piling of detail on detail along with the intrusive narrator. It opens:

A fine bekesha Ivan Ivanovich has! A most excellent one! And what fleece! Pah, damnation, what fleece! dove gray and frosty! I’ll bet you anything that nobody has the like! Look at it, for God’s sake—especially if he starts talking with somebody—look from the side: it’s simply delicious! There’s no describing it: velvet! silver! fire! Lord God! Saint Nicholas the holy wonder-worker! why don’t I have a bekesha like that! He had it made for him back before Agafya Fedoseevna went to Kiev. Do you know Agafya Fedoseevna? The one who bit off the assessor’s ear?

Not only intrusive, but excitable. There follows a highly excitable description of Ivan Ivanovich: tall, thin, pious, addresses every beggar, speaks mellifluously. His best friend, Ivan Nikiforovich (and here we get into Gogol’s wonderful absurdity—not only will the two Ivans quarrel, but later there will even be another Ivan Ivanovich), is short, fat, taciturn, lazy. “Ivan Ivanovich’s head resembles a turnip tail-down, Ivan Nikiforovich’s a turnip tail-up.” I think that really sums things up here, don’t you? In any case, they are inseparable:

Anton Prokofievich Pupopuz, who to this day still goes around in a brown frock coat with blue sleeves and on Sundays has dinner at the judge’s, used to say that the devil himself had tied Ivan Nikiforovich and Ivan Ivanovich to each other with a piece of string. Wherever the one goes, the other gets dragged along.

There’s another detail, that bit about the brown coat with blue sleeves. Anton Prokofievich isn’t important

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