Tag Archives: fiction

An Old Easter Fable


Mykola Pymonenko, “Easter morning” (1891)

Having looked at what Easter is not about last week (during the Catholic/Protestant observation), the following story about rebirth, renewal, and repentance offers a self-critical corrective. It too comes from the 1916 edition of Werner’s Readings and Recitations, the “Easter Celebrations” volume. The story itself is by Annie Hamilton Donnell.

Father’s Easter Sermon

“Today, father?”

“Yes, Plumy, why not? If you don’t feel able to go, I can go alone. Only I should miss my congregation sorely—it’s hard preaching to an empty church!”

The pale little woman smiled bravely. She got to her feet and crossed the room to the-stooping old figure at the desk.

“You shall have your ‘congregation,’ father,” she said. “Is it almost done—the sermon?”

“Yes, almost done, Plumy; I have tried to make it clear and strong.” She got his cane and hat and her own things. Then the old couple went out into the street. It was a beautiful day, with joyous thrill of waking life.

“You ain’t getting tired, are you, Plumy?”

“Tired, father? Why, you talk as if I was old!” smiled Plumy. She had her hand on his faded broadcloth sleeve and tried to lighten its weight. They had walked to church arm in arm for forty years.

In Mrs. Ronald Smythe’s bay window an animated discussion was in progress. Mrs. Ronald Smythe “ran” the little Elmwood church.

“We must have any amount of flowers—mountains and seas of them!” she was saying. “I want this to be a red-letter Easter at our church. It will encourage our new minister. See, there go old Parson Sledd and his little shadow of a wife. VVhat a queer couple they make! Where do you suppose they go together every week?”

“To church,” Mrs. Elsie said. “I’ve seen them going in. The door is always open, you know.”

“Yes, that’s where they go, all right,” chimed in big Mrs. Pingree, “they usually stay an hour or more.”

“These broken-down ministers who’ve lived out their day!” sighed Mrs. Elsie.

“Yes, it’s a problem what’s to be done with them, isn’t it? Somebody—who is it?—asks if they shall be shot!”

The three ladies broke into laughter. Then the talk went back to the Easter preparations and the flowers. Ten years ago Lemuel Sledd had been quietly dropped from his pulpit, to make place for a younger man.

Mrs. Ronald Smythe handled the reins of church government. The following week was a busy one for her. On Friday afternoon she went down to the church with Mrs. Elsie and Mrs. Pingree to plan for the floral display. At the church door they suddenly paused.

“It’s the old parson; shh! He’s preaching,” she whispered. “Don’t either of you make a sound. It will be as good as a play to hear him!” They stood in the shadow of the gallery and listened.

“It’s an Easter sermon!” tittered Mrs. Elsie. Out in the great dim church sat “father’s” little “congregation,” listening breathlessly. A single lily reared its slender stalk from an old-fashioned vase on the pulpit. The quivery old voice steadied and grew strong. It filled the empty church. The bent figure straightened, and “father’s” face was beautiful in the afternoon light.

It was a wonderful sermon preached in the empty church that spring afternoon. The three women in the shadow of the gallery heard it with sobered, wondering faces. The earnestness in it appealed to them where the thoughtfulness penetrated beyond their shallower depths. They sank into seats and sat with folded hands, listening.

After the sermon “father” prayed. “Gracious Lord, Thou risen One, have mercy on Thy servant. Give him of the patience that kept Thee patient. Let him be willing to stand aside while Thy younger servants serve Thee. It is hard, gracious Lord, it is hard to grow old! Thy servant would have liked to die in the harness, his soul longs for one more chance to preach Thee to Thy people in this Thy house. Give him Thy patience, Lord!”

Then the two old voices quivered into song together. “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” Then, in a hush broken only by the distant call of a robin to her mate, “father” pronounced the benediction. “Be and abide with you all. Amen.” The three women under the gallery shrank back out of sight as the two old people went out.

Mrs. Ronald Smythe suddenly said, “I want to see the new minister about something.”

“Oh, well, tell him to do his best!” cried Mrs. Elsie. “No common sermon will do—now.”

“No,” Mrs. Pingree murmured, “not now.”

The young minister rose from his desk as Mrs. Smythe was ushered in. “Sit down and write it for me,’Mrs. Smythe,” he laughed boyishly.

“We won’t either of us write IL’: she smiled; “it was that came for. There is a minister—our old rninister—I want you to invite him to preach our Easter sermon to us. I have heard it; it will be a beautiful sermon.”

The old minister preached the Easter sermon in the Elmwood church. There were Easter flowers all about him. His white head seemed uplifted above a sea of them. There was Easter song in his ears as he sat in the pulpit with folded hands. Among the listening faces that filled the great room, row on row, was one that shone like a face transfigured. It was the face of “father’s congregation.”

“Dear Lord, dear Lord, I thank Thee for this day!” prayed Plumy, silently. “It’s the best day of all! Dear Lord, it’s most as if father and I had risen from the dead to-day with Thy dear Son.”

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A Lesson in Political Speech from Sinclair Lewis

The following is a passage from Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry in which the Reverend Elmer Gantry contemplates the KKK and what stance to take on them publicly. With characteristic wit, Lewis gives the reader a picture of the vacuity of the vast majority of public discourse. Whoever can read the following without hearing the clear echos of our current political partisans either hasn’t been paying attention (lucky them) or does not have “ears to hear.”

The new Ku Klux Klan, an organization of the fathers, younger brothers, and employees of the men who had succeeded and became Rotarians, had just become a political difficulty. Many of the most worthy Methodist and Baptist clergymen supported it and were supported by it; and personally Elmer admired its principle–to keep all foreigners, Jews, Catholics, and negroes in their place, which was no place at all, and let the country be led by native Protestants, like Elmer Gantry.

But he perceived that in the cities there were prominent people, nice people, rich people, even among the Methodists and Baptists, who felt that a man could be a Jew and still an American citizen. It seemed to him more truly American, also a lot safer, to avoid the problem. So everywhere he took a message of reconciliation to the effect:

“Regarding religious, political, and social organizations, I defend the right of every man in our free America to organize with his fellows when and as he pleases, for any purpose he pleases, but I also defend the right of any other free American citizen to demand that such an organization shall not dictate his mode of thought or, so long as it be moral, his mode of conduct.”

That pleased both the K. K. K. and the opponents of the K. K. K., and everybody admired Elmer’s powers of thought.

[emphasis added]

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Truth is Stranger than Fiction is Truth

Paul Auster’s aptly named Travels in the Scriptorium takes the reader on a journey through the human condition, which is astounding, exhausting, and fulfilling all because the reader has a sense throughout that the books delights and disappointments are life’s delights and disappointments. The book is not, in any traditional sense, pleasurable to read. Make no mistake. With his deliberately dry, encyclopedic style of narrative, Auster is not prone to cheap titillation. He is an absurdist author, as much as anything, and his novella deals with deep-seated questions of identity, knowledge, and existence. Travels will not make you laugh and cry and scream (except from boredom). It will make you think.

The premise of the story (and I give nothing away here, because there is nothing to give away) is that a certain Mr. Blank finds himself in an unfamiliar room almost completely without memory. Within moments of beginning the account, the narrator reveals to us that Mr. Blank, because of his strange condition, will find himself grappling not with trivialities but with more basic questions: “His mind is elsewhere, stranded among the figments in his head as he searches for an answer to the question that haunts him. Who is he? What is he doing here? When did he arrive and how long will he remain? With any luck, time will tell us all.” As is so often the case, however, it turns out we don’t have any luck at all. At the end of the story–through the means of a less than sophisticated plot device–the narrator reintroduces the questions to us as if to say, “Just in case you forgot, these are the important questions that didn’t get answered.”

The questions that form an inclusio for the entire piece are presented as peculiar to this unfortunate man in this extreme situation, but it should be immediately apparent to the reader that these are the very questions which are universal to mankind regardless of circumstance. Who am I? Why am I here? How long do I have? These are the most foundational of existential quandaries which transcend time and culture. In perfect concert with his absurdist forefathers, Auster sidesteps the primal impulse to construct answers to these questions. He clearly finds it more compelling to thrust the reader headfirst into the brick wall of reality: these questions never get answered. They are phantoms which disappear the moment we try to grasp them, like the “figments” that dance around in Mr. Blank’s head throughout the story. Laments Mr. Blank, “I walk around the world like a ghost, and sometimes I question whether I even exist, whether I’ve ever existed at all.” He cannot prove that he is, not even to himself. How is he then to demonstrate conclusively where or when or even why he is? Unifying theories are no sooner expressed than they prove to be inadequate, the falter under the crushing weight of everyday experience.

It is this everyday experience which forms the meat of Auster’s tale and which makes the reading so dense. Auster takes pride in describing in minute detail every occurrence within the very limited frame of the story. Because of this, the story–like life–is both mundane and disgusting. Auster takes note of activities ranging from putting on a shirt to moving one’s bowls. The narrative consequently proves dreary, non-linear, scatological, and pornographic in the way that life really is. There is a certain irony to the realization that in spite of the fact that we must constantly stand up, sit down, bend over, consider inconsequential choices, and actualize our decisions, we can barely stand to read about Mr. Blank doing all these things and more. At one point–apparently not above teasing his audience–the narrator declares that he sees no point in describing with microscopic precision some normal activity of Mr. Blank’s, and the reader lets slip a deep sigh of relief.

This exhaustive account of nothing is not (or at least not entirely) simply to fill out the pages of what might otherwise be a very brief and hackneyed philosophical point. The reader’s navigation through Mr. Blank’s world becomes a kind of a reflection on how all life is supposition and inference and memory. Mr. Blank will dramatically vacillates from thoroughgoing empiricism (e.g. Mr. Blank sees no closet ergo he refuses to believe there is a closet, even though he seems to see the effects of the closets existence) to a fantastic epistemology which assumes causality in the most tenuous of circumstances (e.g. Mr. Blank health improves and so he assumes it has to do with proximity to Anna). Mr. Blank is a case study in the way humanity, no matter how noble our efforts or how convincing our self-deceptions, engage the world in ways which are ultimately inconsistent and indefensible. What Mr. Blank seems to know is suggested to be untrue. What he believes is impossible, the circumstance would seem to indicate is the case. What he considers important, the reader is inclined to think is trivial. What he disregards as inconsequential are the questions forefront in the other characters minds. Mr. Blank is a child and an old man and a type for all people.

There are of course countless other avenues which Travels offers to the reader’s mind. One that particularly delighted me was the narrator himself, who takes great pains to present his narrative as if it is the result of hidden cameras and microphones yet he has no qualms about telling us not only what we can see and hear but what Mr. Blank thinks as well and how many seconds it takes him to think it. The narrator is, at any given moment, a character in the story, an entity on the same plane as the reader, and an omniscient observer. (The conclusion is likely intended to shed light on this, but I won’t tip Auster’s hand.) At the same time, the story often seems to be trying too hard. Still struggling with the question of existence, Mr. Blank wonders, “When was the last time someone took a photograph of someone who did not exist?” This strikes one, or at least struck me, as more akin to a lyric from a hipster anthem than a serious philosophical musing. Then again, it would be possible to argue that Auster does this deliberately since only rarely do people express themselves with any marked profundity.

That, in the end, is the beauty of Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium: it is as much or as little as the reader wants to make it. Any reader may pick up the work and decide, with equal justification, that Auster is a deeply engaging philosophical novelist or a tiresome author whose lack of compelling plot leaves the reader with only a drudging, unrewarding prose to suffer through. For my part, I would recommend the novella to anyone who delights in absurdism, fiction with a philosophical bent, or offbeat novels in general. With the exception of an extremely disappointing ending–which was a grossly transparent attempt to dress cheap Hollywood tricks like serious discourse–I found the work to be successful at its most obvious goal: provoking thought.

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The Thin Man

I am quite the avid fan of Myrna Loy’s, and I am almost equally fanatical in my love of William Powell, so I naturally have had a strong affinity for the Thin Man series of films which started and epitomized their on screen charisma. Recently, however, I have had the opportunity for the first time to read Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, on which the characters for the film series are based. I must say, I enjoyed the book even more than the films. Hammett’s story is much darker, racier, and grislier than the book, a product no doubt of the different expectations of the two media. Still it gives the story in the novel a fuller body, the weight of which Hammett throws at you with astonishing force. The characters outside of Nick and Nora are two-dimensional as seen through Nick’s eyes but at the same time, perhaps because of their antic qualities, startlingly lifelike. Nick and Nora, at the same time, for all their character depth seem strangely surreal by comparison.

The real delight in the book that cannot be gleaned from the films, however, is Hammett’s peculiar narrative style. On the one hand, the story is carried along almost entirely on the back of episodic dialogues between Nick and the myriad suspects in a way that is oddly reminiscent (at least to me with my training) of the philosophical dialogues of Plato or Hume. With Nick at the helm and a bungling horde of interlocutors not up to the task of sparring with him, however, the dialogues are less philosophical than they are comical, an ironic look at the way conclusions are truly reached. On the other hand, Hammett does not seem at all bothered to simply stop recording the dialogue. He frequently shifts from the actual content of speech to a third person summarization of what is being said in a way that is at once jarring and deeply revealing of Nick’s character as narrator.

My favorite aspect of the book was undoubtedly the way Hammett reversed my expectation of the relationship between the characters and the author. Typically, the author uses the narration to comment on the characters, but in The Thin Man it seems at times that the characters are using the narration to comment on the author. The book ends abruptly with Nora declaring, ostensibly to Nick, that “it’s all pretty unsatisfactory.” I cannot help but read in this a touch of self-referential derision as Hammett simply abandons the characters he has worked so hard to introduce to you. With that line, my sense of awe at his craft overpowered my frustration with being left wanting. That, in my opinion, is a powerful recommendation in itself.

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