Masquerade and Other Stories by Robert Walser

To me, it seems like Masquerade and Other Stories by Robert Walser would be better titled “Masquerade and Other Prose Pieces” instead of referring to stories. As I see it, Walser appears to have his own idea what constitutes a story (just as he definitely has his own idea about the way to do a lot of different things in writing). Calling these prose pieces just might make things easier. Personally, I think Walser is better just to enjoy as opposed to having to debate about anything.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Lydia Millet.)

Let’s take a look at “The Gloves” as an example:

Nothing else occurs to me; I see only a pair of gloves lying wearily on the edge of the table. It’s clear to me how tired and sad they are, these gloves. Won’t they fit anyone, is that why they have to hang here like autumn leaves? They are yellow, trimmed in dark brown fur. Long and narrow.  How poor gloves are when they can’t live snuggled up against a beautiful hand.

Walser contemplates a pair of gloves. Different women try them on but they don’t fit. Eventually, a woman who is unhappy tries the gloves on and they fit. Walser then reflects on how the gloves are happy and the woman is not.

That’s it. That’s the story. At first glance, it seems like a bit of a weird story, but it has an interesting effect on the reader. It’s haunting, though I can’t exactly explain why. You’d have to look for yourself to really understand.

Picking another, let’s submit this portion from “The Girl (II)” for your consideration:

On a bench along an avenue sat a girl. All around her lay gardens with charming houses inside, and the girl, you might say, was lovely to look at.

Everyone who saw her sitting so quietly on her own had a desire to engage her in conversation. Soon someone stepped up and offered her a book to read. Thanking him, she turned down his offer, however, saying she wished nothing more than to sit quietly.

People keep offering her things, inviting her to dinner and such. She politely declines, reiterating her wish just to sit quietly. After a bit of this, the piece ends, the girl grateful for the sun and comparing the people to “water that came and went.”

Again, that’s it. It’s a great piece to sit and enjoy, but it’d give you fits to try to analyze it as a story. We won’t even get into use of phrases like “lovely to look at” instead of going further.

Pulling back to the big picture, though, the pieces in Masquerade and Other Stories tend to wander. Walser seems to start where he likes, goes where he likes, and stops things when he feels like he’s done. He definitely did his own thing, which I do enjoy (though outside of his writing this sort of thing may have had some part in him being put in an asylum for a large portion of his life under an apparent misdiagnosis of schizophrenia). It just seems better to avoid nitpicking about it.

Personally, I’d just advise sitting down with Masquerade and Other Stories and not worrying a whole lot about what it is. Life is simpler that way.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court–Mark Twain

Robert Pinsky listed A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain in his top ten.

I didn’t like it.  This is actually going to be a short post about it, that’s how much I was eh about the whole thing.

First though, the things I did like:

1.  Many of the things I noticed here, Mark Twain also uses his 19th century narrator who is in Arthurian times to point out.

2.  He does brilliantly at mixing both the langue of Mallory and 19th century language, having both the narrator (a man from the 19th century) reacting oddly to the language and mores of the people around him and the people around the narrator also reacting oddly to the language and mores of the narrator.

3.  This could almost be seen as a forerunner to such books as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Terry Pratchett’s recent books, first titled Long Earth.

Basically, the premise of the book is that a man from 19th century America travels back in time to Arthurian England.  He sets about to abolish many of the things he finds reprehensible, the control of the land by the church, the reverence for a monarchy and nobility that exists, slavery, and knights’ refusal to bathe.

The reason I didn’t like it?  It bored me, to be honest.  Which is sad, because in some ways it shouldn’t have been that boring of a book.  I also know others who really like it.  But, if I had to recommend a Twain from all that I have read (three of them lol), I’d recommend Huck Finn any day.

I could go on in further detail about why it bored me, but there doesn’t seem to be much point to that.  I was reassured when Dave did tell me it wasn’t his favorite Twain novel either.  And, the fact that only one author listed it in their top ten, whereas quite a few authors listed Huck Finn, was also completely reassuring to me.

I’m sorry Mr. Pinsky.


The Things They Carried-By Tim O’Brien

Okay.  One of these days I will learn that if I manage to read the book way in advance, I should write the blog _before_ Thursday.

Today, on my way home, I was on the interstate when I heard something that sounded very much like I hit a rock.  I worried it hurt something on the car, but everything seemed to be driving okay.  Shortly before I got off the interstate, I noticed that the car was pulling hard to the right.  Okay, it was windy.  As soon as I slowed down on the exit ramp, that horrible thump thump grrring sound that only means a flat tire came my way.  So.  I then spent a hour in an Embassy Suites parking lot with a very nice 18 year old in town for the high school basketball tournament changing my tire.

Sadly, I had this book read a week ago.  But I was horribly sick.  Which is why Dave blogged last week.

Anyway, I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.  It’s listed by Sherman Alexie as a top ten book.  In my opinion, I think it should have been listed more.  This book blew me away.  I think I have like 20 pages dog eared in my three dollar clearance section copy of it.  It’s a book about the Vietnam War.  It’s a fiction book, but to me it’s almost a fictionalized memoir of a book.  O’Brien keeps everyone’s names correct, as they are in true life.  And he discusses the difference between truth and fiction.  Which, I will probably end up quoting from.  And, for anyone wondering about the authenticity, O’Brien was there.  O’Brien is in the story and was a part of the real story.

He starts the book by talking about all the things the men carried while out in the Vietnam countryside.  From the mundane to the odd (like one man’s obsession with his girlfriend’s pantyhose that he wears around his neck).

The book goes through different “war stories”.  O’Brien uses the pages to explore why he keeps writing about Vietnam, what it was about Vietnam, what made this war apart from other wars.  Some of the things he writes about, I find in other war literature from other wars than this one.  Other things seem like it was a Vietnam unique experience.

One of the things he writes about seems to me to hit on the head what war experiences can be like, between the punctuations of battle, carnage and gore.

“If you weren’t humping, you were waiting.  I remember the monotony.  Digging foxholes.  Slapping mosquitoes.  The sun and the heat and the endless paddies.  Even in the deep bush, where you could die any number of ways, the war was nakedly and aggressively boring.  But it was strange boredom.  It was boredom with a twist, the kind of boredom that caused stomach disorders.  You’d be sitting at the top of a high hill, the flat paddies stretching out below and the day would be calm and hot and utterly vacant, and you’d feel the boredom dripping inside you like a leaky faucet, except it wasn’t water it was a sort of acid, and with each little droplet you’d feel the stuff eating away at important organs.  You’d try to relax.  You’d uncurl your fists and let your thoughts go.  Well, you’d think, this isn’t so bad.  And right then you’d hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you’d be squealing pig squeals.  That kind of boredom.”

One of the places O’Brien talks about why he writes about Vietnam still (he talks about how his daughter asked him about this, why he keeps writing about it) even though he is forty-three years old (the book was published in the 90s) says this:

“Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a life time ago, and yet the remembering makes it now.  And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever.  That’s what stories are for.  Stories are for joining the past to the future.  Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are.  Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember but the story”.

The truth of that resonates.  What do we know about the Civil War now?  Only the stories left behind about it, both non fiction and fiction.  I count sources such as speeches given at the time and letters written as part of the story left behind.  Memory of that time has been erased, as with World War I now too.  All we have is the story.

Then a thought that O’Brien’s young self thought upon receiving his draft notice;

“There should be a law, I thought.  If you support a war, if you think it’s worth the price, that’s fine, but you have to put your own precious fluids on the line.  You have to head for the front and hook up with an infantry unit and help spill the blood.  And you have to bring along your wife, or your kids, or your lover.  A law, I thought”.

And I clapped my hands almost.  Even though I’m no longer a kid of nineteen or twenty balling my fists in frustrated anger that older adults could still so effectively rule my world, I remember that feeling.  And, when they’re sending people off to war, they’re also effectively ruling the very lives of the people that they’re taking that person from.  And no, I’m not some peace loving pacifist, I am a military brat.  Which might make me more qualified than others to talk about what they do when they send someone away.

Another thought O’Brien had about stories.

“But this too is true: stories can save us.  I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still…..(cutting out to keep from spoiling the book for those of you who read it)……But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world”.

O’Brien definitely has done this, both the people now dead and the people that were also probably forty something year old veterans when O’Brien wrote this, they smile, sit up and return to us.  The Things They Carried also almost felt to me, at times to be a personal conversation between O’Brien and the reader.  I felt like sometimes, when you stay up late talking to someone.  They’re telling all these great stories.  And you think, well that’s it, they’re going to get tired and go to bed and suddenly they’re saying “I was shot twice.  the first time, out by Tri Binh, it knocked me against the pagoda wall, and I bounced and spun around and ended up on Rat Kiley’s lap.  A lucky thing, because Rat was the medic.”  And you’re off and listening again to another story that just builds on the one before and keeps on going.

Probably because I am of the generation that came after Vietnam (my dad was never in Vietnam but quite a few of my friends’ dads were), Vietnam has always been a whisper in the background around me.  Things about it, things that happened, the way something ended up, all there.  O’Brien’s book allowed me to really understand even more about the things they carried…both during the war and that they ended up carrying back home with them too.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

As wary as I am of any novel that was made into a movie (which I never bothered to see) starring Michelle Pfeiffer, I decided to check out Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. After all, it’s 18th century French literature, and I do like me some 18th century French literature. However, this one is a bit unusual for it’s time period.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Emma Donoghue.)

Let’s start with the basics, though. We start with the aristocratic but definitely treacherous pair of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil who seem to have some sort of odd relationship themselves while at the same time they make a game of sexual conquests and ruining people, women for him (Valmont) and men for her (Merteuil). Bring into this the young and highly innocent Cécile Volanges:

It’s not five o’clock yet and I’m due to see Mummy at seven so there’s lots of time if there’s anything to tell you! But nobody’s said anything yet; and apart from all the preparations I can see being made and all the dressmakers who keep coming just to for me, I wouldn’t guess they’re thinking of finding a husband for me and would think that it’s just another bit of deal old Joséphine’s nonsense. However, mummy’s told me so often that a girl ought to stay in the convent till she gets married that as they’ve taken me away Joséphine must be right.

and things start getting complicated.

You see, though no one has apparently told Cécile, she is to be married to someone upon whom Merteuil wants revenge, someone who apparently “wronged” her at some point. As such, she wants Valmont to do a certain little something:

Like me, you’ve been bored times without number by Gercourt’s inordinate concern regarding his future wife and his fatuous presumption that he alone will be spared the common fate; you know his ridiculous prejudice in favor of convent-bred girls and his even more ridiculous conviction that blondes are modest and reserved. In fact, I bet that in spite of the Volanges girl’s private income of sixty thousand a year, he’d never have agreed to marry her if she’d been a brunette and not been educated in a convent. So let’s give him proof that he’s cheating himself. He’ll be cheated on sooner or later, I’ve no worries on that score, but it would be such fun if he was cheated from the start. How wonderful it would be to hear him bragging the morning after! And brag he certainly will…What’s more, once you’ve set that little girl off on the right track, it’ll be bad luck indeed if that fellow Gercourt doesn’t become the talk of Paris, like anyone else.

Interestingly enough, Valmont isn’t keen on the idea at first. Not that he blanches at the idea, more because he has other plans afoot:

Your commands exude charm, dear lady, and the way you issue them is even more charming; you’d make a really lovable dictator. As you know, this isn’t the first time I’ve felt sorry I’m no longer your humble and obedient slave, and however much a monster I may be–your own words–I always look back with pleasure on the time when you bestowed less unfriendly names on me. Indeed, I often have the desire to earn them again, thus finally providing, with you, an example of constancy in love for all the world to see. But there are more important matters to engage our attention: we are fated to be conquerors and we must follow our destiny, perhaps at the end of our career we shall meet again, because, with all due respect, most lovely Marquise, you are following in my tracks at a pace at least equal to mine, and ever since, for the greater good of mankind, we set out on our separate paths to preach the good word each in our own way, it seems to me that as a missionary of love, you have made more converts than I. I know your proselytizing eagerness, your burning zeal, and if that particular God judged us according to our works, you would one day have risen to be the patron saint of some great city whereas your humble friend would be at best a local village saint. You find my choice of language surprising, don’t you? But it’s the only language I’ve been using and hearing for the last week and it’s because I’m anxious to hone my skills that I find myself compelled to disobey you.

Granted, this seems a lot like roles that are defined for these various players to play instead of characters, but this is both the case and not the case as I saw it. The major characters are certainly playing roles (seducers, innocent seduced, moral indignants, etc.), but they play those roles in highly individual ways.

More impressive, though, is the ambiguity in the overall moral tone that was so customary in books of the time. One would expect the bad to end bad, and hoping not to spoil anything I’d grant that is probably the case. However, what about the good? You might even understand the fall of those who get sucked in by the bad, but what of the damage to those who are innocent and only love the innocent fallen? Is it a mockery of virtue? A screed against over sheltering?

Honestly, it’s hard to say. The novel is complicated, as complicated as real life. Frankly, it’s more complicated than I expected from 18th century French literature, and that’s one of the things that makes Les Liaisons Dangereuses so intriguing. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is worth checking out, and it is a lot less challenging to read than one might expect. I’d certainly rather read it than see the Michelle Pfeiffer movie.