Short Stories All the Time

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... a few of my thoughts about 900, mostly contemporary, short stories.
Showing posts with label Leskov. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Leskov. Show all posts

11 December, 2014

Nikolai Leskov, "The Spirit of Madame de Genlis"

This 1881 story is divided into 16 parts, each numbered with Roman a numeral. It was first published in the Russian magazine Fragments. A widowed woman, Princess, with a grown son, and a teenaged daughter, have returned to Petersburg, Russia. The princess conducts her life by a small set of books written by Mme de Genlis. The princess believes Genlis acts as a medium through the books. She hires a man to tutor her daughter so that her daughter "be able to learn about Russian life from this reading." However, the princess instructs him, the narrator, that he must not have her daughter read anything "infected by the 'evil of the day.'"

I. The first-person narrator sets up the circumstances to which he was acquainted.

II. Describes the princess and her predilections for reading female letter writers and memoirists. "'I have instructed my son,' she said, 'to put these littles books into the coffin with me, under the pillow, and I'm certain they will be useful to me even after death.'" And the reason for the story comes next. "I cautiously expressed a wish to receive an explanation, however remote, of these last words--and I received it." The princess believes "...'that the spirit of Felicity lives, and lives precisely here!'"

III. The narrator tells us that it is a time in which "an abundance of news about spiritualist phenomena was coming to us from abroad." And, "I could see that I was dealing with a very convinced follower of spiritualism."

IV. The narrator describes the princess's friends, "small but very select circle," "well-bred and courteous." The narrator also believes that her friends were not sure if the princess believed that the spirit of Mme de Genlis was directly in the books, or rhetorically, or if it was "all a joke."

V. He's not sure why she's opened her doors to him, she liked his story, "The Sealed Angel," he'd been bitterly persecuted, or that he'd been recommended by Prince Gagarin. Then he finds out that she is afraid of "unchaste allusions" and she wants him to avoid them.

VI. The narrator tells of the authors that he cannot give to the teenager to read. There was no author whose entire oeuvre were approved, "not even Derzhavin or Zhukovsky." Gogol "was banished entirely." Lermontov was also not allowed. "Of new authors, Turgenev alone was approved without question, but minus the passages 'where they they talk of love.'" The narrator attempts to convince the princess to allow Goncharov but she states "you must admit there are arousing subjects in him." I have to say that I'm getting quite a kick out of this story with all of the ridiculous banishments going on right now, 2014, in Highland Park, Dallas, Texas. LOL LOL

VII. More hilarity. "...I plucked up my courage and asked outright what the arousing subjects in Goncharov were." "Elbows." LOL LOL "And what recommendations could I make to her, since she considered 'elbows' an outrageous indecency, and all the latest literature had stepped so far beyond such revelations?" He has no choice but "...not to advise..."

VIII. He then delivers to her "a whole critique of false purism..." and tells her of a story of a French lady who cannot say "the word culotte" and naturally brings much more attention to it. "My goal was to show that too much delicacy could be detrimental to modesty, and therefore an overly strict selection of reading was hardly necessary." This is when her little set of blue books come in so handy. "'You,' she said, 'have arguments, but I have an oracle.'" So she invokes her friend who resides in the book and tells the narrator to open the book at random and the spirit will show him what to read.

IX. Naturally, the passage he is to read is vague and says that a young person's reading should be guided or they will be predisposed "to flightiness."

X. The princess and three of her friends met once a week to converse. The young prince and young princess and the narrator sat by quietly and listened. One of the three friends, the diplomat, stated, "The best serpent is still a serpent." And, "This same opinion gave rise to the terrible incident that follows."

XI. On New Year's Eve Mme de Genlis's name was mentioned again and the diplomat reminded everyone that "the best of serpents is still a serpent." Then the princess says that there is an exception to every rule and the diplomat understood who she was talking about, Genlis. They decide upon an experiment. The princess states, "that the most fault-finding person will not find anything in Genlis that could not be read aloud by the most innocent young girl, and we are going to test it right now." She opens a volume and instructs her daughter to begin reading.

XII. A blind woman who feels peoples' faces when she meets them was feeling a super fat face with cheeks that engulfed all other features. "All at once the blind lady's face expressed first astonishment, then wrath, and at last, quickly pulling her hands away in disgust, she cried: 'What a vile joke!'"

XIII. Naturally the young princess "asked, 'What was it that Mme du Deffand imagine?'" The young princess cries and runs from the room. New Year's Eve celebrations are off.

XIV. The guests "could barely refrain from bursting into laughter."

XV. After the incident, the narrator never saw the princess, the young princess and the young prince again.

XVI. He finds out later from the diplomat that the princess burned all of her volumes of Genlis that very night and then they left town. Then he lays out four truths. 1. Should first read what we decide to talk about. 2. "It's not reasonable to keep a young girl in such childish ignorance..." 3. "...spirits are just as unreliable as living people." 4. Not only is the best serpent still a serpent but the better the serpent the more dangerous it is.

"The Spirit of Madame de Genlis" can be found in the 2013 publication, The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013.

review at The Guardian

01 January, 2011

Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov"

Walter Benjamin's essay, "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov," is the scheduled reading for the Professor's Corner in January at the South Branch Library.

"The Storyteller" is divided into 19 sections. Following are some of my notes and jottings from the essay. The version I'm reading was translated by Harry Zohn and from the book, Illuminations, edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt.

We are losing our ability to share experiences.
Experience is contradicted and anything but experience is being told.

The first 2 lines seem to capture the idea best.
“Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn. And among those who have written down the tales, it is the great ones whose written version differs least from the speech of the many nameless storytellers.”

2 sides to Leskov
Religious interests but also opponent of church bureaucracy

Best storytellers impart something useful.

The novel is dependent on the form of the book.
The novelist is a solitary being.
Storytelling is oral.
Invention of printing is the downfall of storytelling.

Information versus storytelling.

Benjamin tells us Leskov was knowledgeable of the ancient stories. Benjamin uses as an example a Herodotus story with an Egyptian king and his emotion at seeing his servant imprisoned. Herodotus does not explain the psychological impact and so the story retains its power in retelling for centuries whereas information is of the moment and must be explained and then it's power is finished. [I'm thinking about Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." and Richard Bausch's "The Man Who Knew Belle Starr." ]

When a story "chaste of psychological shading" is told, it is more likely to become the experience of the listener. Relaxation and listening are becoming rare but are necessary for the story to become part of the listener's memory--his experience--and hence will eventually be retold.

We no longer make fun with a stick and a cardboard box and create the attendant story.

Benjamin quotes Paul Valery. "...all these products of sustained, sacrificing effort are vanishing, and the time is past in which time did not matter." The short story has been removed from the oral tradition and hence does not build layers upon layers with retelling.

According to Benjamin, Leskov wrote in a letter, “Writing is to me no liberal art but a craft.”

Storytelling has become abbreviated with no layers created by retellings.

Because we do not think of death every day, so our idea of eternity will disappear which has imparted to us a certain authority and this is the stuff of stories.

An example of “natural history” “embedded” in a story by Hebel.

chronicler is the history-teller differentiated from the historian=writer of history
The historian explains.
Interpretations which do not have to be accurate
Chronicler = “…displaying them as models of the course of the world.”

"...memory--manifests itself in a form quite different from the way it manifests itself in the story.”
People most remember stories that do not contain psychological analysis.
Relaxation is required for stories.


“Here ‘meaning of life’—there ‘moral of the story’: with these slogans novel and story confront each other…”

“Actually there is no story for which the question as to how it continued would not be legitimate.”

“What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.”

“…refine the tricks with which the attention of the listener was captured.”

Benjamin says that Leskov’s story “The Enchanted Pilgrim” is a hybrid of a fairy tale and a legend.

“voice of nature”

Storytelling in its oral tradition seems to be his topic here.

All in all, I think he is describing what confounds people even today. On the one hand, we do not understand why short stories are not more popular given their shorter length and people's short attention spans. However, as we are in the "information age" and are inundated with information and little, if any, storytelling, it makes sense that those who do read prefer novels with its information and explanation and verifiability. We do not share experience but we share massive amounts of information.