Mark Twain’s “A Medieval Romance”

“My heart is full of bodings; yet all may still be well.”

“Tush, woman! Leave the owls to croak. To bed with ye, and dream of Brandenburgh and grandeur!”

 

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In Mark Twain’s 1870 short story “A Medieval Romance”, unmarried Lady Constance gives birth to a baby and blames Lord Conrad. The only problem, and the reader knows this almost from the beginning, is that Lord Conrad is actually a woman.

This makes for a humorous and perhaps even racy story (at least by 1870 standards). I don’t think that Twain is making fun of gender roles although its not difficult to wonder why someone might come to that conclusion.

Speaking of conclusions, I think that’s where Twain is headed in this story. He does a great job of poking fun at a “happily ever after” ending. But he doesn’t do it by turning it into a sad ending. Since Lord Conrad’s secret may or may not give himself/herself a “way out” in this story, Twain simply prefers not to end it. He doesn’t really know a way out, either.

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Ann Beattie: Distant Music (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 5)

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On Friday she always sat in the park, waiting for him to come. At one-thirty, he came to this park bench (if someone was already sitting there, he loitered around it), and then they would sit side by side, talking quietly, like Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in “Notorious.” Both believed in flying saucers and health food.

In Ann Beattie’s “Distant Music”, Sharon and Jack share a park bench, a dog and a relationship. Though the  story is told in third person, it’s mostly Sharon’s story. Knowing that the story was published in 1977, I couldn’t help imagining Sharon as a combination of Rhoda Morgenstern and Annie Hall.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the title “Distant Music” is a way of referring to background music. Unfortunately, the background music in the story are songs written by Jack after he’s left Sharon, the dog, his New York City home (and the bench) to pursue a successful songwriting career in California – which makes the background music not so much in the background, not so distant.

The story also reminded me of “Superstar”, the 1970’s song by The Carpenters (a highly underrated song, I might add). However, in the case of Jack, he never said he’d “be coming back this way again, baby”.

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“Distant Music” is included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker. I read it this week when I selected the King of Diamonds for Week 5 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Up there in that part of the City – which is the part they came for – the right tune whistled in a doorway or lifting up from the circles and grooves of a record can change the weather. From freezing to hot to cool.

Coming in at 229 pages, Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz is not a long novel; however, it took me a long time to read it.

But was it ever worth the effort!

Initially set in New York City in 1926 during the Harlem Renaissance, Jazz begins with a noir feel when a young girl is murdered by her older lover and his wife disrupts the victim’s funeral.

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While Morrison moves the narration between various points of view and the setting from different time periods and locations, the City is always there as well as the new type of music that has old people fearful of the young kids that are jumping around to it.

It’s not difficult to figure out when a character is telling their part of the story.  But there is a mysterious “I” that seems to be a higher narrator controlling the other narrators as the other narrators tend to have their parts with quotation marks. Is this narrator God? A ghost? The author herself as Creator? The City? Jazz? I don’t know but I think this mystery has something to do with the creative process:

You would have thought everything had been forgiven the way they played. The clarinets had trouble because the brass was cut so fine, not lowdown the way they love to do it, but high and fine like a young girl singing by the side of a creek, passing the time, her ankles cold in the water. The young men with brass probably never saw such a girl, or such a creek, but they made her up that day.

After finishing the novel, I jumped around the internet to see what others thought about this unknown narrator. A few came up with an idea that they thought obvious. While I might disagree with the obvious part, they could be right. I don’t want to give it away to anyone who has not read the novel. I will say that this idea, in a manner of speaking, is related to the creative process. One has to read the novel to the very end to come up with this conclusion, though.

After reading Jazz, I’ve come to another conclusion. I’m not going to worry about how many books I read this year. I plan to read at least a few more of Morrison’s novels and if they are like this one, I will simply take my time.

I highly recommend this novel!

Rusty Barnes: Country Boys (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 4)

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While I can’t say that Rusty Barnes’ short story “Country Boys” is my favorite, it does pose some interesting questions. It’s included in my copy of Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia edited by Charles Dodd White and Page Seay.

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The narrator, high-school student Jimmy, lives in a town with a population of 400 in what I think is rural Pennsylvania (I make that assumption because there is a reference to going across the border to New York), yet to the Stone family, of which Reena is the object of Jimmy’s affection and lust, he is considered a straight-laced city boy. This in itself caused me to reflect more than I would have thought on the question of why people have to draw so many distinctions between each other. If we can’t find obvious differences, we are going to get really picky and find some anyway. My thinking is that this is more universally human than simply Appalachian.

In Jimmy’s pursuit of Reena, she tends to ask him to do things that he wouldn’t normally do as a test to see if he can gain the approval of her family especially her father Carlton, who explains his family’s philosophy:

They weren’t outlaws. They were country boys, as her dad Carlton never failed to tell me. He made it clear he didn’t want me around as he said it, spitting at my feet.

Jimmy gets a thrill out of doing whatever Reena asks of him but wonders to himself when she might ask him to do something in which he would have to decline. What bothers me about the story is when that time comes, the story ends before we actually know what decision Jimmy makes. I’m all for unresolved endings; however, I really wanted to know what happened with this story. I guess Barnes wants us to wonder for ourselves whether Jimmy would fulfill Reena’s request. Without giving anything away, instead of requests that are fun little infractions of the law, this request goes farther and is more serious. I’m going to say that Jimmy wouldn’t do it.  But you never know.

I read “Country Boys” when I selected the Ten of Spades for Week 4 of Deal Me In 2017. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Mark Twain’s “How I Edited an Agricultural Paper”

The title of Mark Twain’s short story “How I Edited an Agricultural Paper” doesn’t exactly scream out “read me!” But because I’m making my way through Twain’s short stories I read it anyway.

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Mark Twain’s fictional version of himself narrates as he takes a short-term job filling in for an editor of an agricultural newspaper. The key is that he knows nothing about agriculture which makes for some humorous articles that are reprinted in the story, like this portion of one:

“Turnips should never be pulled, it injures them. It is much better to send a boy up and let him shake the tree.”

These articles cause a minor sensation in the narrator’s home town and even make subscriptions increase a little.

If it stopped there, this could be a funny little story poking fun at journalism – which it still is. But when the editor returns and questions the articles, Twain’s fictional self goes on a little rant explaining how nobody in the newspaper business ever knows anything about what they are writing and with this little rant, Mark Twain explains the meaning of the story. The same way one might explain a joke even though explaining a joke makes the joke not quite as funny.

 

Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Cafeteria (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 3)

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I decided not to rest until I knew for certain what had happened to Esther and also to that half writer, half politician I remembered from East Broadway. But I grew busier from day to day. The cafeteria closed. The neighborhood changed. Years have passed and I have never seen Esther again. Yes, corpses do walk on Broadway. But why did Esther choose that particular corpse? She could have got a better bargain even in this world.

Isaac Bashevis Singer uses as a backdrop for his short story “The Cafeteria” a – you guessed it – cafeteria; however, he takes what might be considered recurring leisurely lunches to more universal heights – working in the evils of the twentieth century and the human condition in general.

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Aaron, an acclaimed author, visits a New York City cafeteria on a regular basis. Various acquaintances and strangers usually join him. The group seems to change frequently but most of them are of European origin, Jewish, and have been in New York City since the 1930’s. Some survived the atrocities of World War II and arrived from Europe since then.

Through decades of lunches, a woman, Esther, joins him occasionally disappearing for years at a time. Esther falls into that category of friends who came from Europe after the war. Singer uses Esther’s potential psychosis to haunt the story with real questions about this world we live in. Questions that haven’t gone away since this story’s 1968 publication.

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Each year with Deal Me In, one of the first few stories I read jumps out as a potential favorite and “The Cafeteria” is that story for 2017. It’s included in my collection Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker edited by David Remnick. I read it when I selected the Ten of Hearts for Week 3 of Deal Me In 2017. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Next week, I’ll be leaving New York City to visit “Country Boys” by Rusty Barnes.

 

Mark Twain’s “Legend of the Capitoline Venus”

It was an exquisite figure of a woman, and though sadly stained by the soil and the mold of ages, no eye can look unmoved upon its ravishing beauty. The nose, the left leg from the knee down, an ear, and also the toes of the right foot and two fingers of one of the hands were gone, but otherwise the noble figure was in a remarkable state of preservation.

Mark Twain skewers the art world in another short short story “Legend of the Capitoline Venus”. It’s set up similar to a play where a starving artist is unable to get permission from the love of his life’s father to marry her. The reason is, of course, he doesn’t make enough money as a sculptor. The artist’s more “practical” friend finds a way for him to make money.

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As usual, its very funny and while the art world gets most of the satirizing, I would say that the broader idea of which Twain is trying to poke fun is how “the masses” can be so easily duped.

At the end of the story, Twain references the Cardiff Giant or the Petrified Giant. A hoax that apparently made quite a sensation in Mark Twain’s day even though I don’t hear much about it today. Twain also used this hoax in his story “A Ghost Story” which I posted about here.

While technology may have changed drastically since his time, I can’t help but think that Twain would still have a lot to make fun of today. Speaking of hoaxes and forgeries in the art world, a fascinating documentary came out a couple years ago called Art and Craft.  It boggles the mind how easily people can be duped.