Deal Me In: Week 11, Elizabeth Taylor: “Spry Old Character”

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Taylor continues her streak of heart-breaking stories with “Spry Old Character,” about a man, Harry, who has been forced by circumstances (his sister’s death) to live in “The Home For The Blind,” where not a week passes without some “dispiriting jollity being forced upon him.”

Going blind was not easy for him:  “This orderly aspetic world was not only new to him, but beyond him imagining.  Food and talk had lost their richness; central-heating provided no warmth.”

He is juvenilized by the staff; he has been unable to learn Braille; and he decides that the other inmates are quite unfit for him because they are so virtuous, so wholesome, so upright–always turning off the radio when anything “suggestive” is on.  Miss Arbuthnot is a particular nemesis:  “She had been a governess in Russia in the Tsarist days and had taken tea with Rasputin”.   She describes her English Ascot experience as being “The cream of the cream, as one might say, but; dear, dear me…my poor feet. I wore some pale grey buckskin shoes…”

Harry finds a way to escape his insipid companions by learning how to make his way to the bus stop with his white cane.  There, bus drivers take sympathy on him and permit him to ride the bus route for free.   He finds a sense of true fellowship there:  “In their company he opened out, became garrulous, waggish, his old manner returning.”

He loves the bus, but the bus-drivers and the regular riders feel as if they’ve been “saddled” with an “old geezer”.

There are so many ways in which people fail to fit into the respective worlds into which fate has flung them.  Miss Arbuthnot is the “Queen” of the Home for the Blind, but perhaps only in her own head.   Harry feels that he’s in a community with the bus drivers, but they tolerate him and the warm feelings he had with his cockney friends in his youth are not reciprocated here.

Instead of remaining individual people, the elderly and infirm become “characters”.   That Taylor makes his feel fiercely in favour of Harry  as person and not merely “spry old character” speaks to her eloquence and skill as an author.

 

 

 

Deal Me In: Week 10: “A Red Letter Day” by Elizabeth Taylor

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The Jack of Hearts returns me to Elizabeth Taylor and her “A Red Letter Day” is a triumph of astute character revelation.   Tory, the divorced mother of an eleven year old boy, is going alone to a parent’s visiting day at his school.  The atmosphere could not be less propitious:
It’s a “malevolent landscape” with “wastes of rotting cabbages, flint cottages with riakish privies, rubbish heaps, grey napkins drooping on clothes-lines, the soil like plum cake.  Even turning in at the rather superior school-gates, the mossy stone, the smell of fungus” is dismaying.

Tory has caught one of the last cabs because, she thinks she has “no man to exert authority for her.”  At home, she had spent too much time trying to figure out what to wear so that having tried on so many hats and flinging them, rejected, on the bed, “It resembled a new grave with its mound of wreathed flowers.”

Tory has one child and she begins to hate a rather random woman who “looked as if she had what is often called a teeming womb.”   She thinks of her “spitefully” and imagines all the fun her sons must have.  Tory’s own “love for her son was painful, shadowed by guilt.”  She thinks to herself, disparagingly about her son, “Between Edward and me there is no promise of love, none at all, nothing taken for granted, as between most sons and mothers.”  It’s very painful reading:  Tory does love her son, but has no idea how to spend an afternoon with him.

Edward tells her that he is not popular with the other boys–“unbearable news for any mother,” but she is not able to respond.  They go to a museum and are bored together.  For Edward, “sinking down within him are the lees of despair….alone with his mother he felt unsafe, wounded and wounding” and thinks of death.

“So lovely, Darling,” she remarks to him as she drops him back at school.

The story is heart-wrenching because both the mother and the son have been caught in traps of self-loathing, depression, and despair.   Edward seems to think he’s the worst child at school and Tory has an inferiority complex that emerges in spite towards others.

There seems to be no way out.  Tory, as a mother of an eleven-year-old, deserves to be scolded for her lack of empathy for his plight; for her perhaps associating him (by indirect contamination) with his father, who has left her.   She’s stuck to far into her slough-of-despond which has become a quicksandish quagmire.  Both Tory and Edward are thinking of death — prematurely — and seem to have no way to escape the entrapment they feel around each other.

Taylor knows her to dangle her readers between judgment and sympathy in her exquisitely wrought stories about people who are unable to connect.  She has a clear empathy for young people as the story I read last week about the young girl who does not want to drink alcohol despite her parent’s expectations indicates.

 

 

Deal Me In: Week 9: “You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There” by Elizabeth Taylor

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Elizabeth’s Taylor “You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There” is about a young girl, Rachel, –aged 18—who lives with an alcoholic mother who loves to browbeat her daughter and to make fun of her shyness and “modesty”.   Her mother insists that she start drinking but Rachel hates the taste and when she refuses to have a drink her mother responds:

“I, I, I, I hate this; I loathe that.  What do you think would have happened if I had considered what I liked through all these years.  Or the Queen…The poor girl!  The rubbish she’s been forced to ear and drink and foreign countries.”

When Rachel comments that the Queen is a “different kettle of fish” from herself, her mothers response is “I despair.”

Rachel is accompanying her father to a municipal  trade banquet, delegated presumably because her mother does not want to go herself or else perhaps because her father does not want to take his drunken wife–she is said to be “on the waggon”.   Rachel throws out her sherry–she cannot drink.   At the banquet and dance she is shy and mortified.  The only conversation she can make is about her cat.

This is a haunting little story about a girl who lives around people who drink all the time, while she prefers her cat.  Her mother wants her to act like the Queen of England yet Rachel is not only several years younger, she has not been trained to talk to people.  Shy, sensitive Rachel endures a good deal of estrangement in this story.  Her parents don’t value her; she is uncomfortable with a world of the intoxicated bourgeois and her cat is the only thing that makes her life happy.

 

Queen of Spades: “Greenleaf” by Flannery O’Connor

 

It’s week 8 of the “Deal Me In” challenge and I finally selected a spade.  The Queen of Spades is Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Greenleaf.”queenofspades

Mrs. May is one of those quintessential O’Connor women.  She’s similar to the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and Mrs. Hopewell in “Good Country People”.    As the story begins a bull has invaded her space.    Right outside her bedroom window, she sees him “chewing steadily with a hedge-wreath that he had ripped loose for himself caught in the tip of his horns.”  He seems to emanate a “pink glow” and “bars of light” are created on him as Mrs May lifts the Venetian blinds.    This bull is acting like an “uncouth country suitor”, “gaunt and long-legged.”  If you have read much by O’Connor, a Catholic living amidst the Georgia baptists, you might as well be given a big sign that says “Christ Figure” on top of the bull’s wreath.

But that would be an over-simplification of O’Connor’s understanding of faith.

Mrs May has had a worker, Mr. Greenleaf, for some fifteen years.  Much of the story contrasts Mrs. May and her two sons and the Greenleaf family and their sons.  Mrs. May’s sons are surly and named Wesley and Scofield, two Prostestant theologians:  “Scofield was a business type and Wesley was an intellectual.”  The ‘boys’ are in their 30’s and still live at home which would not mean anything today but this story was written in 1956.

Mrs. Greenleaf is her nemesis in large part because she is a faith-healer and calls out to Jesus.  Mrs May comments that “Jesus would be ashamed of you.”   We know that Mrs. May is a “good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

The contrast between the Greenleaf way of belief and the May way of non-belief underscores the narrative.  Mrs. May thinks that the Greenleaf twins, inexplicably named O.T.and E.T. Greenleaf–who are younger than her sons got lucky during the war and became “some kind of sergeants”.   They had both married nice French girls and it rankles Mrs. May that “they had both managed to get wounded and now they both had pensions.”  Her son Wesley got out of serving because of a heart condition and Scofield never made it past private.

Mrs. May bitterly contemplates that fact that the Greenleaf family is likely to climb high in “society.”  They already have their own “milking room” which is a “spotless white concrete room … filled with sunlight.”

Although O.T. and E.T. are the apparent owners of the bull, they don’t seem to be in a hurry to catch him.  Mrs May comments to her sons that “I’m the victim.  I’ve always been the victim.”   While her sons get into a fist-fight and smash the crockery about, Mr. Greenleaf promises that he will get rid of the bull.

But Mrs. May’s animosity intervenes and she has a final date with the bull who becomes like her “wild tormented lover.”  He holds her in “an unbreakable grip”.

Mrs. May has been in the hating business a long time.  Her sons are overaged disgraces.  They taunt her and each other as if they were 10 years old.  Mrs. May looks down on the Greenleafs as “scrub-human” and she tells her sons bitterly that within twenty years the Greenleafs will be a family in “society”.  As Mr. Greenleaf says, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.”

Mrs. May seems to be getting a well-deserved come-uppance in the world as her fortunes fall while the Greenleafs’s fortunes improve.  She strikes me as the quintessential Trump voter–60 years premature.

 

 

 

“Deal Me In Challenge: Week 7” Katherine Mansfield, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”

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“The Daughters of the Late Colonel” by Katherine Mansfield was my lucky draw this week.  Mansfield’s daughters, Josephine and Constantia, are very close and very paralyzed because their lives have been dominated by their father.  As the story opens, their father, Colonel Pinner, has died and in 12 brief parts, we see the sisters trying to deal with the reality of his death.  They are caught up in domestic issues;  what should they do with his top-hat?  What about his watch?  What if he’s not really dead?    Because their mother has died, apparently from a snake-bite, a long time ago Josephine and Constantia have allowed themselves to become their father’s care-givers and have not really grown up.

Written in a modernist style with shifting sensibilities and points-of-view we see the sisters vacillate in their preoccupations.  Making decisions is difficult for them.  Constantia thinks that Josephine should make the decisions because she is older.  Josephine, on the other hand, believes that Constantia should make decisions because she is “taller’.

In part one Constantia identifies with mice–“a spasm of pity squeezed her heart.  Poor little thing!  She wished she’d left a tiny piece of biscuit on the dressing table”…..”I can’t think how they manage to live at all,” she laments about the lives of mice.  The food and animal motif continues.  Perhaps sympathy for mice is engendered by their mother’s death from a snake bite?

In Part 2 of the story they decide to keep the nurse around for a week because they don’t quite have the courage to ask her to go.  Keeping their father’s nurse with them is also a small way of denying his death.  One of them thinks:  “Nurse Andrews was simply fearful about butter.  Really they couldn’t help feeling that about butter, at least, she took advantage of their kindness…” Nurse Andrews tells that that “When I was with LAdy Tukes…she had such a dainty little contrayvance for the buttah.  It was a silvah Cupid balanced on the –on the bordah of a glass dish, holding a tayny fork….”

For the pudding they have a “terrified blancmange” which is a lovely description.

They have a maid who thinks of them as “old tabbies”.

The two sisters are a huddled mass, clinging together in fear and incompetence.   They cannot yet know how to grieve their father’s death.  If it is a liberation for them, they are left with few liberties to take—beyond the age of marriage, beyond the age of experience, they rather fear servants and undoubtedly put people off with their juvenile ways.  Their nephew, Cyril, who has visited his grandfather, their grandfather, is impatient because their only topic of discussion is merengue.

The story is like a Chekhovian tragi-comedy.  Are they going to be able to have lives and ideas of their own after they realize that their father is really dead, and not just hiding in a chest of drawers?

 

 

Deal Me In: Week 6, 6 of Clubs: “Requiem” by Anton Chekhov

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It’s the third week in a row that I’ve drawn Chekhov.  “Requiem” tells the story of a man, Andrey Andreyitch, who submits a note to Father Grigory in church.  The Father confronts him:

“Then it was you wrote this? You?” And Father Grigory angrily thrust before his eyes the little note.

And on this little note, handed in by Andrey Andreyitch before mass, was written in big, as it were staggering, letters:

“For the rest of the soul of the servant of God, the harlot Mariya.”

“Yes, certainly I wrote it, . . .” answered the shopkeeper.

“How dared you write it?” whispered the priest, and in his husky whisper there was a note of wrath and alarm.

Who is this “harlot” Mariya?  She was Andrey Andreyitch’s daughter, who had become a well-known actress.  Her death has been reported in leading newspapers.  For some reason her father would prefer to call her “harlot” rather than “actress”.

After being reproached by Father Grigory:   “The shopkeeper’s amazement was so great that his fat face spread in all directions like spilt dough.

“How dared you?” repeated the priest.

“Wha . . . what?” asked Andrey Andreyitch in bewilderment.”

He cannot seem to understand the distinction between “harlot” and “actress” and has judged his own daughter most harshly.  He has been a neglectful father who spent little time with her when she was growing up.  About three years previous to her death she has come to visit him and expressed great pleasure in the beauties of the country town.    She thinks it is a lovely place; her father thinks it is “simply taking up room.”

The story certainly points out the way some people looked down upon actresses and saw their work as no different that prostitution.   Chekhov, married to the actress Olga Knipper, must have picked up on the negativity that some foolish people felt about actresses.   He was able to create complex characters, such as Madame Arkadina in “The Seabull” who were actresses.  In this story, “Requiem,” although the actress is dead, her dignity soars above that of her earth-bound troglodyte of a father.

Deal Me In Challenge: Week 4: Chekhov, “The Ninny”

This week I drew the King of Clubs, which corresponds to a very short story by Anton Chekhov, “The Ninny”.  It’s a bemusing story.  The scene is almost entirely dialogue between a governness, Yulia Vasilyevna, and her boss, the father of the children she cares for.  He is also the narrator of the story.  He commences:

“Just a few days ago I invited Yulia Vasilyevna, the governness of my children, to come to my study.  I wanted to settle my account with her.”

He then proceeds to underpay her.   It’s being just like Goneril and Regan when they reduce King Lear’s entourage of Knights down from 100 to zero very quickly.

He says she earns 30 rubles a month and when she replies it was 40 a month, he maintains it is 30.  He says she has been working for 2 months; when she says it’s 2 months plus five days, he says that’s nonsense.  He takes off money for the days her charges were ill and for the damage to a child’s trousers when he had climbed a tree.  “Then around New Year’s Day you broke a cup and saucer.  Subtract two rubles”.  At the end, he offers her 11 rubles for what should have been somewhat more than 80 rubles as previously agreed upon.

Finally she accepts the 11 rubles and thanks him.  He then proceeds to shout at her for not standing up for herself and demanding the 80 rubles.  He calls her a nitwit–a ninny–for agreeing to be thus robbed.  After shouting at her about her stupidity, he gives her the 80 rubles she has earned.

I felt some unease reading this story.  I adore Chekhov.  But is he depicting the woman as a nitwit or is he trying to suggest that the “nitwit” is the boss with all his capital and his standing?   He ends the story (remember he is the narrator) thinking “How very easy it is in this world to be strong.”

I hope that Chekhov is spinning the story around so that we think how very easy it is for the powerful and the wealthy to be strong.   They don’t need to fear unemployment; they don’t need to fear recriminations.  There is also the powerful male/less powerful female dynamic here.   He wants her to protest, but perhaps protest is too much of a luxury for her to embark upon.

Is Chekhov condemning the man for playing games with the hapless woman?  I like to think so and that the “ninny” is not the poor woman but the wealthy man who can devise his own Stanley Milgram obedience experiment in his own house.

 Several hours after posting this, I still am fuming. I keep thinking of all the ways the “boss” here is acting like Donald Trump–underpaying an employee, critiquing an employee, putting others into shameful situations.