"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Lines I Wished I’d Written: The Carette Family Moves by Mavis Gallant from “1933”

Mavis Gallant is not exactly a household name as a writer though not obscure either.  She is a Canadian writer, mostly known for her short stories, and unfortunately unless you have some highly acclaimed novel as part of their opus, short story writers tend to get the accolades they deserve.  The short story is a small canvass, and the petite scale dampens prestige.  I presume she is more widely known in Canada. Her Wikipedia entry mentions she published 116 stories in The New Yorker magazine, which means she was considered among the top short story writers of her day. 

I remember reading Gallant in college for what I think was a women’s fiction course.  She had a short story in one of the collections.  I no longer remember the story (I guess I could find it since I’ve kept the collection) but I must have been impressed enough to remember her.  So when Amazon included in their daily specials (I get their emails) for Gallant’s collection, Across the Bridge: Stories, for $1.99, I jumped at it.  I try to keep collections of all major short story writers.  That collection is now back to regular Kindle price

The first four stories of Across the Bridge center around members of the Carette family, and follow chronologically from 1933 to 1980.  You can read more about Gallant and this collection at John Self’s reading blog, Asylum.  I so enjoyed the first story that I will plan to read one every year.  “1933” is the opening story set with the premature death of family’s father and the wife and two daughter’s move to a reduced home.  The Carette’s are a French Catholic family in Montreal.  Just noticed the wonderful details of a time and place: the furniture that is handed down, the horse-drawn sleigh, the local neighborhood, the clothes, and the French Catholic cultural memes.  I was surprised to learn that Gallant grew up and has always been Protestant.  She really picked up the Catholic cultural life.  In fact, the climax of the story results at Mme. Carette’s realization and guilt that her ill will toward her new landlord, Mme. Grosjean, is a sin.  “No sooner had she said this than she covered her mouth and spoke through her fingers: “God forgive my unkind thoughts.” She propped her arms on each side of her plate, as the girls were forbidden to do, and let her face slide into her hands.”

Finally here is the opening section of “1933,” where the move takes place from a “comfortable flat” to “smaller place.”

About a year after the death of M. Carette, his three survivors—Berthe and her little sister, Marie, and their mother—had to leave the comfortable flat over the furniture store in Rue Saint-Dennis and move to a smaller place. They were not destitute: there was the insurance and the money from the sale of the store, but the man who had bought the store from the estate had not yet paid and they had to be careful.

Some of the lamps and end tables and upholstered chairs were sent to relatives, to be returned when the little girls grew up and got married. The rest of their things were carried by two small, bent men to the second floor of a stone house in Rue Cherrier near the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb. The men used an old horse and an open cart for the removal. They told Mme. Carette that they had never worked outside that quarter; they knew only some forty streets of Montreal but knew them thoroughly. On moving day, soft snow, like graying lace, fell. A patched tarpaulin protected the Carettes’ wine-red sofa with its border of silk fringe, the children’s brass bedstead, their mother’s walnut bed with the carved scallop shells, and the round oak table, smaller than the old one, at which they would now eat their meals. Mme. Carette told Berthe that her days of entertaining and cooking for guests were over. She was just twenty-seven.

They waited for the moving men in their new home, in scrubbed, empty rooms. They had already spread sheets of La Presse over the floors, in case the men tracked in snow. The curtains were hung, the cream-colored blinds pulled halfway down the sash windows. Coal had been delivered and was piled in the lean-to shed behind the kitchen. The range and the squat, round heater in the dining room issued tidal waves of dense metallic warmth.

The old place was at no distance. Parc Lafontaine, where the children had often been taken to play, was just along the street. By walking an extra few minutes, Mme. Carette could patronize the same butcher and grocer as before. The same horse-drawn sleighs would bring bread, milk, and coal to the door. Still, the quiet stone houses, the absence of heavy traffic and shops made Rue Cherrier seem like a foreign country.

Change, death, absence—the adult mysteries—kept the children awake. From their new bedroom they heard the clang of the first streetcar at dawn—a thrilling chord, metal on metal, that faded slowly. They would have jumped up and dressed at once, but to their mother this was still the middle of the night. Presently, a new, continuous sound moved in the waking streets, like a murmur of leaves. From the confused rustle broke distinct impressions: an alarm clock, a man speaking, someone’s radio. Marie wanted to talk and sing. Berthe had to invent stories to keep her quiet. Once she had placed her hand over Marie’s mouth and been cruelly bitten.

They slept on a horsehair mattress, which had a summer and a winter side, and was turned twice a year. The beautiful stitching at the edge of the sheets and pillows was their mother’s work. She had begun to sew her trousseau at the age of eleven; her early life was spent in preparation for a wedding. Above the girls’ bed hung a gilt crucifix with a withered spray of box hedge that passed for the Easter palms of Jerusalem.

Marie was afraid to go to the bathroom alone after dark. Berthe asked if she expected to see their father’s ghost, but Marie could not say: she did not yet know whether a ghost and the dark meant the same thing. Berthe was obliged to get up at night and accompany her along the passage. The hall light shone out of a blue glass tulip set upon a column painted to look like marble. Berthe could just reach it on tiptoe; Marie not at all.

Marie would have left the bathroom door open for company, but Berthe knew that such intimacy was improper. Although her First Communion was being delayed because Mme. Carette wanted the two sisters to come to the altar together, she had been to practice confession. Unfortunately, she had soon run out of invented sins. Her confessor seemed to think there should be more: he asked if she and her little sister had ever been in a bathroom with the door shut, and warned her of grievous fault.

On their way back to bed, Berthe unhooked a calendar on which was a picture of a family of rabbits riding a toboggan. She pretended to read stories about the rabbits and presently both she and Marie fell asleep.

They never saw their mother wearing a bathrobe. As soon as Mme. Carette got up she dressed herself in clothes that were in the colors of half-mourning—mauve, dove-gray. Her fair hair was brushed straight and subdued under a net. She took a brush to everything—hair, floors, the children’s elbows, the kitchen chairs. Her scent was of Baby’s Own soap and Florida Water. When she bent to kiss the children, a cameo dangled from a chain. She trained the girls not to lie, or point, or gobble their food, or show their legs above the knee, or leave fingerprints on windowpanes, or handle the parlor curtains—the slightest touch could crease the lace, she said. They learned to say in English, “I don’t understand” and “I don’t know” and “No, thank you.” That was all the English anyone needed between Rue Saint-Denis and Parc Lafontaine.

In the dining room, where she kept her sewing machine, Mme. Carette held the treadle still, rested a hand on the stopped wheel. “What are you doing in the parlor?” she called. “Are you touching the curtains?” Marie had been spitting on the window and drawing her finger through the spit. Berthe, trying to clean the mess with her flannelette petticoat, said, “Marie’s just been standing here saying ‘Saint Marguerite, pray for us.’”


Some might complain that the story is just a slice of life rather than a more traditional story where conflict and resolution is more pronounced.  I would disagree with that.  The conflict and resolution is there, only in a muted and subtle fashion.  This muted story line form was common in The New Yorker in the last few decades of the last century.  In this tribute in that magazine, Deborah Treisman says this about Gallant’s stories:

It’s that quality—Gallant’s “like-lifeness,” her unresolved presentness—that makes her stories sit so solidly, almost bad-naturedly, in memory. They have come to dinner, and, no matter how late the hour, you just can’t show them to the door. You’re haunted both by the moments of beauty and intelligence and by the scenes of devastating loneliness or disappointment.


I agree.  Gallant’s stories seem to capture life in a sincere way.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

List: Great Fathers in Literature

Today is Father’s Day, and it got me thinking about all the great fathers in literature.  I did a search for the characters who were fathers.  There are lots of fathers in literature, obviously since fatherhood is a major life experience.  At a minimum one has a father, but in many cases most men at some point become fathers.  It’s amazing how many fathers in literature were bad fathers.  Perhaps there are more bad fathers in literature than good.  I decided to make a list of the good fathers in literature for Father’s Day, but I wanted to limit the list to works that I have read. 

1. Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
2. Mr. Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
3. Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
4. Bob Cratchit from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
5. Joe Gargery from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
6. The father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
7. Prospero from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
8. Squire Allworthy from Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.
9. Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses.
10. Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov from Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.
11. Sir Thomas Bertram from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.
12. Teshoo Lama from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.
13. Tom Brangwen from D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow.
14. Odysseus from Homer’s The Odyssey.
15. King Priam of Troy from Homer’s The Iliad.
16. Anchises from Virgil’s The Aeneid.
17. Mr. Tulliver from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss.
18. Byrun Bunch from William Faulkner’s Light in August.
19. Nikolai Bolkonsky from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
20. Consul Johann Buddenbrooks from Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family.
21. King Henry IV from William Shakepeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.
22. Earl of Gloucester from William Shakespeare’s King Lear.
23. Virgil in Dante’s Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy
24. Konstantin "Kostya" Dmitrievich Lëvin from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

One name on the list where I did cheat is with Johann Buddenbrooks.  I’m currently reading Buddenbrooks, but I haven’t finished the family saga yet.  Still I can tell he will be a very good father.

It’s interesting that a number of fathers on the list were adoptive fathers.  Jean Valjean (Les Misérables), Squire Allworthy (Tom Jones), Byrun Bunch (Light in August), and Joe Gargery (Great Expectations).  Some are rather idealized fathers like Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbirdi), Sir Thomas Bertram (Mansfield Park), and Bob Cratchit (A Christmas Carol).  Some are more realistic fathers such as Tom Brangwen (The Rainbow) and Johann Buddenbrooks (Buddenbrooks).  Some are symbolic fathers in that their “sons” see them as their father such as Leopold Bloom (Ulysses) and Virgil (The Divine Comedy). 

Now which of these fathers strike a chord of father/son love that is truly touching?  For me I would have to say the unnamed father of McCarthy’s The Road with his son, the Teshoo Lama’s relationship with Kim, and Jean Valjean’s fatherly nurturing of Cosette resonate the most.  If you haven’t read those works, do so. 


What about you?  Which fathers in literature do you like the most?


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Lines I Wished I’d Written: Buck Mulligan Shaves from James Joyce’s Ulysses

Today, June 16th is Bloom’s DayJamesJoyce’s great novel Ulysses is set on one day, June 16th, 1904.  It runs the course of a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, and therefore June 16th has been dubbed Bloomsday.  I don’t have the time to really explicate the novel, so read the Wikipedia links.  Suffice it to say that a rather ordinary, mild mannered man, Leopold, is a stand in for the great ancient Greek legendary hero, Odysseus, or referred to in Latin as Ulysses.  So what we have is a sort of contraries: the modern man as antihero as opposed to the ancient man as heroic.

Many people across the world spend the entire Bloomsday celebrating and reading the novel. 

Here is the opening paragraphs of the novel where two character, Buck Mulligan and Stephan Dedalus share a flat and interact.  Mulligan is in the process of a morning shave, but twists the process to parallel a Catholic Mass, which in effect becomes a black mass since at the heart of Mulligan is a deep cynicism.  “Kinch” is Buck’s nickname for Stephan, and Stephan used to be a student under the Jesuits.



Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently-behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

-- Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:

J-- Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful Jesuit.

Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awaking mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak.

Buck Mulligan peeped an instant under the mirror and then covered the bowl smartly.

-- Back to barracks, he said sternly.

He added in a preacher's tone:

-- For this, O dearly beloved, is the genuine Christine: body and soul and blood and ouns. Slow music, please. Shut your eyes, gents. One moment. A little trouble about those white corpuscles. Silence, all.

He peered sideways up and gave a long low whistle of call, then paused awhile in rapt attention, his even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points. Chrysostomos. Two strong shrill whistles answered through the calm.

-- Thanks, old chap, he cried briskly. That will do nicely. Switch off the current, will you?

He skipped off the gunrest and looked gravely at his watcher, gathering about his legs the loose folds of his gown. The plump shadowed face and sullen oval jowl recalled a prelate, patron of arts in the middle ages. A pleasant smile broke quietly over his lips.

-- The mockery of it, he said gaily. Your absurd name, an ancient Greek.

He pointed his finger in friendly jest and went over to the parapet, laughing to himself. Stephen Dedalus stepped up, followed him wearily half way and sat down on the edge of the gunrest, watching him still as he propped his mirror on the parapet, dipped the brush in the bowl and lathered cheeks and neck.

Buck Mulligan's gay voice went on.

-- My name is absurd too: Malachi Mulligan, two dactyls. But it has a Hellenic ring, hasn't it? Tripping and sunny like the buck himself. We must go to Athens. Will you come if I can get the aunt to fork out twenty quid?

He laid the brush aside and, laughing with delight, cried:

-- Will he come? The jejune Jesuit.

Ceasing, he began to shave with care.

-- Tell me, Mulligan, Stephen said quietly.

-- Yes, my love?

-- How long is Haines going to stay in this tower?

Buck Mulligan showed a shaven cheek over his right shoulder.

-- God, isn't he dreadful? he said frankly. A ponderous Saxon. He thinks you're not a gentleman. God, these bloody English. Bursting with money and indigestion. Because he comes from Oxford. You know, Dedalus; you have the real Oxford manner. He can't make you out. O, my name for you is the best: Kinch, the knife-blade.

He shaved warily over his chin.

-- He was raving all night about a black panther, Stephen said. Where is his guncase?

-- A woful lunatic, Mulligan said. Were you in a funk?

-- I was, Stephen said with energy and growing fear. Out here in the dark with a man I don't know raving and moaning to himself about shooting a black panther. You saved men from drowning. I'm not a hero, however. If he stays on here I am off.

Buck Mulligan frowned at the lather on his razorblade. He hopped down from his perch and began to search his trouser pockets hastily.

-- Scutter, he cried thickly.

He came over to the gunrest and, thrusting a hand into Stephen's upper pocket, said:

-- Lend us a loan of your noserag to wipe my razor.

Stephen suffered him to pull out and hold up on show by its corner a dirty crumpled handkerchief. Buck Mulligan wiped the razorblade neatly. Then, gazing over the handkerchief, he said:

-- The bard's noserag. A new art colour for our Irish poets: snotgreen. You can almost taste it, can't you?

He mounted to the parapet again and gazed out over Dublin bay, his fair oakpale hair stirring slightly.

-- God, he said quietly. Isn't the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look.

Stephen stood up and went over to the parapet. Leaning on it he looked down on the water and on the mailboat clearing the harbour mouth of Kingstown.


-- Our mighty mother, Buck Mulligan said. 

You can read the rest of the chapter, or the whole novel if you wish, at The Literature Network.  



Sunday, June 12, 2016

Notable Quote: The Lure of the Wild by Jack London

I finished reading Jack London’s White Fang, a novel from the perspective of a wolf-dog as he goes from wild to tame.  White Fang is London’s complementary novel to The Call of the Wild, where a tamed dog enters the forest and becomes wild.


“But it did not all happen in a day, this giving over of himself, body and soul, to the man-animals. He could not immediately forego his wild heritage and his memories of the Wild. There were days when he crept to the edge of the forest and stood and listened to something calling him far and away.”

Jack London, White Fang



Monday, June 6, 2016

Matthew Monday: Matthew Breaks My Heart

A father and son are supposed to share some vital interests.  It must be a violation of some natural law that a father and son don’t root for the same baseball team.  As some who have followed my blog might remember I am a passionate Baltimore Orioles fan when it comes to my favorite—and slowly becoming my only—sport, baseball.  Outside of my family, my job, and my love of literature, baseball is the only interest that enters my head.  Elegant beyond compare, nuanced in complexity, baseball is the game for those with an artist’s eye, with a poet’s ear, with a storyteller’s heart for drama.  I love the game.

And it’s not important how I became an Orioles fan, though I’ll mention it.  My father was an immigrant from Italy, and he had no notion of the game.  It was not handed down to me, especially a team to root for.  I guess being a lifelong New Yorker I could have gravitated to one of the New York teams.  But I didn’t.  Some kid named Benny Testa in second grade was an Orioles’ fan, and he convinced me to fight against all those Yankee and Met fans.  I lost sight of Benny in the next grade and have no clue whatever happened to him.  But at eight years old I latched onto the Baltimore Orioles and it has been a lifelong love, despite the many years of disappointments.

So you would expect my son to follow in rooting for the Baltimore Orioles, right?  Well, unfortunately his mother is a Yankees fan, and she drilled in him the greatness of the Yankees.  I figured I could slowly lure him away from the dark side—yes, the Yankees are evil—and I think I was beginning to, but what I didn’t count on was that Matthew’s best friend in school, J.J., is also a Yankees fan, and that is more powerful than anything I can do.  I hate to say this, but my son Matthew is —shudder—a Yankees fan.

And he’s been cheering them when he hears the Yankees have won or the Orioles have lost.  He keeps asking how many championships have the Yankees have won.  Twenty-seven I think, averaging something like one every four years for the past hundred years.  And those are the ones they’ve won; they’ve been in many a World Series and playoff where they did not go on to win it all.  The Orioles in comparison have won three.  Thank goodness this year the Orioles have been fighting for first place in their division while the Yankees have been either last or next to last.  This is a potentially rare bad year for the Yankees.  Still Matthew tries to verbally jab me when the Orioles lose.  And I don’t like it.  If he wants to be a Yankees fan, he should keep it to himself and not try to antagonize his father, who if antagonized too much might decide to give the child a swift spank on the butt.

So a few weeks ago he asked if I could buy him a Yankees hat.  I sometimes wear my Orioles hat, and he wants one to counter me.  “No,” I said.  “I ain’t gonna buy you a Yankees hat.  No way, I will never do that.” 

After going back and forth in an effort to dissuade me, he finally turned into a pout.  “Then I’ll get mommy to buy it or grandma.  Or I’ll buy it with my own money.”

“Fine, but I ain’t buying it for you.”

Then as it happened I passed a stand on the street where a man was selling sports items, and I noticed a Yankees hat.  I thought about buying it, but I didn’t.  That night I said to Matthew, “Guess what I saw.  Someone selling Yankees hats.”

“Did you buy me one?”

“Noooooo.  I told you I don’t buy Yankees stuff.” 

“Why?” he cried.

“Because it’s yucky.  The Yankees are yucky.”

He just stared at me.  “Oh yeah.  The Orioles are yucky.  The Orioles are yucky.”

So a week later I passed that same man selling baseball items on the street.  I stopped and bought a Yankees cap.  It hurt but I did.  When I got home, I told him I had something for him. 

“What?”

“A Yankees hat.”  I took it out and handed it to him.  His eyes lit up. 

“Thank you Daddy.” 

“Don’t thank me.  I didn’t buy it.  I told you I would never buy that yucky stuff.”

“Then who bought it?”

“Nonna bought it.”  Nonnna is Italian for Grandma and is what we call my mother.  “Nonna made me stop the car and she bought you a Yankees hat when she heard you liked the Yankees.”  I was lying of course.  But he doesn’t need to know that.  Here’s a picture of him in his Yankees hat, sticking his tongue out at Dad.




Ha, the little punk.  At least the Orioles beat the Yankees two out of three this weekend.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Possibly the Cutest Picture Ever

Identical Triplets Born, Conceived without Fertility Drugs
Every baby is a one-of-the-kind human being unlike any other person who has ever been alive, but the Tierney triplets are an extreme rarity.

The Daily Mail reports 10-month-old Roman, Rocco and Rohan Tierney are identical triplets who were conceived naturally against up to one in 200 million odds.

Doctors initially told their mother, Becki-Jo Allen, that the boys probably were not identical. They were born via C-section after 31 weeks in the womb, each weighing a little more than 3 pounds, the report states. They spent several weeks in the intensive care unit of the hospital before coming home, according to the report.

“When they were in the hospital, the doctors said they were non-identical, but since they came home lots of people have said they can’t tell them apart,” their British mother said.

Now here’s the kicker, possibly the cutest picture ever. 



Aahhhh!  You can also see more pictures and read more of the story at the original Daily Mail article here.


Monday, May 30, 2016

Notable Quote: Mark Twain Favorite of His Books

Today, May 30th, is St. Joan of Arc’s feast day.  She was certainly a most remarkable saint.  On my list of reads for quite a while has been Mark Twain’s biography of Joan, The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which remarkably was his favorite of the books he wrote.  Here is Twain’s quote about his book:

“I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.”

I don’t have the place to finally read it this year, but next year in 2017, when I plan to focus on French literature, I am determine to include this biography of the patron saint of France. 

Stephan Ryan at the Mystic Post portal at Patheos forum wrote a fine post on Mark Twain’s fascination and love of St. Joan.  He call her “the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”  That is high praise.  (By the way, read the article for its refutation of Twain as being an atheist, which the atheist community seems deluded into thinking.)  It is quite surprising that Twain a Presbyterian, would be so enthralled with a roman Catholic saint, but Twain was certainly unconventional in his Christianity, and rebellious in people trying to pigeonhole him.  Here is a paragraph Twain wrote on Joan, also quoted from Stephan Ryan’s post:

She was deeply religious, and believed that she had daily speech with angels; that she saw them face to face, and that they counselled her, comforted and heartened her, and brought commands to her direct from God. She had a childlike faith in the heavenly origin of her apparitions and her Voices, and not any threat of any form of death was able to frighten it out of her loyal heart. She was a beautiful and simple and lovable character.


I can’t wait to finally read Twain’s biography.  Holy St Joan of Arc, pray for us.