6 November 17 | Chad W. Post

Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast Brian and I talk about the next seven stories in Selected Stories by Mercè Rodoreda (with special guest Mark Haber!): “Afternoon at the Cinema,” “Ice Cream,” “Carnival,” “Engaged,” “In a Whisper,” “Departure,” and “Friday, June 8.” On Thursday’s podcast, we’ll get into more specifics about some of these stories, but in advance, you can get some initial insights below, especially about “Carnival.”

If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Selected Stories and Death in Spring for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Last week, I spent a lot of time on “The Mirror,” which was my favorite story of the six we read for that podcast. This week, I want to focus exclusively on what makes “Carnival”—now one of my favorite stories ever—work so well.

Before getting into the more structural mapping of motifs in this story, and how it links back to everything discussed before, I want to take a second to just talk about the emotional power of this piece.

In brief, “Carnival” is the story of a young boy and a young woman who meet coincidentally outside of a Carnival party. The boy is awkward, poor, has bad skin, is very alone, and is wearing a tailor’s costume that initially baffles the young woman. By contrast, she is lovely, more cosmopolitan (she tells him she’s leaving Barcelona for Paris in a couple of days, and then from there to Nice), more worldly (she initially claims to be having an affair with the host of the party), more vibrant. A sort of proto-manic pixie dream girl.

Stuck in the light rain, unable to get a taxi, they decide to walk home together. A number of things happen along the way: she convinces him to scale a fence and steal her some flowers, he falls for her quirky charm and beauty, they’re accosted by two thieves, they share secrets, they hold hands. We’ll discuss the sort of twist to all of this in more detail below, but on the surface, knowing these details, most readers would assume that this is a stereotypical story of young, burgeoning love. A love that’s initiated by a coincidence; a love that grows quickly over the course of a near magical night together.

That’s not what this story is, and that’s not what happens.

Although all of those cues are there, the story undercuts itself at the end, reversing in the most powerful of fashions, including these absolutely heartbreaking lines:

Carnival had ended. The wind and rain had helped it die. We too have died a bit, he thought, or the ghosts we have left along the way. No one would be able to see them at the top of Avinguda del Tibidabo, with the pastries and champagne, by the gate with the perfume of the false gardenias, at the door where they had sheltered during the rain. It was all far away, indistinct, a bit absurd, as if it had never happened.

“Will you give me your address in France?”

“I don’t even know it yet.”

She, however, would never again remember that night. The sound of the train taking her away would erase the last vestiges of it. But he . . . he would never find another girl like her, with that smile, that hair. From time to time he would see her blurred outline standing in front of him, her image evoked by a certain perfume, a sigh of leaves, a swarm of ghostly stars at the back of the sky, a silence that suddenly manifests itself.


I don’t know why, exactly, but this story was like a punch to my soul. It’s heartbreaking how the hope of that night, a night that is filled with such charm and promise, is just another moment that will be washed away by time and disinterest.

There’s more to what makes this story so emotionally charged, but we’ll get to that at the very end . . . For now, I just want to say that I read this just before falling asleep and having an absolutely terrible dream that was clearly related to “Carnival.” This story lodged in my subconscious, and thinking about it days later, I’m still overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness and nostalgia. To me, this is a viscerally emotional story, one which serves as a blueprint for how Rodoreda’s different motifs and techniques can come together to create something incredibly powerful.

*


Last year, I read (and then wrote about) Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading. This book is a collection of the inconoclastic literary critic’s essays, ranging from his core concept of “distant reading” (looking at larger literary trends instead of closely reading a single text) to ways in which you can incorporate quantitative analysis into literary criticism. One essay from here, “The End of the Beginning,” keeps coming to mind as I try and think about how to summarize and analyze Rodoreda’s stories as a whole.

Feel free to read that earlier article for a longer description of and response to Moretti’s ideas, but in short, in this piece he describes a graduate seminar he taught in which he and his students analyze a huge range of detective stories written around the same time as some of the most popular Sherlock Holmes stories. Their analysis started from selecting a “unit of analysis”—in this case the presence or absence of “clues”—and then seeing how that unit was treated in the various stories under consideration. Out of this they created a sort of tree-like diagram built from subdivision after subdivision. In other words, they separated all the stories into those with clues and those without. Then separated out the ones with clues that were “necessary,” then those that were both necessary and “visible,” and so on and forth. What they found in the end was that all of the stories that fit these categories were written by Arthur Conan Doyle, and that these were some of his most popular and well-liked pieces. One hypothesis as to why Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are still read today, whereas his contemporaries really aren’t, is that he stumbled onto this way of presenting “clues” that greatly appealed to readers. Then ideas of market acceleration and all of that set in, but that’s a subject for an entirely different article. (Actually, it’s the subject of the article referenced above.)

Anyway, I’m not about to choose a single “unit of analysis” and create a map of Rodoreda’s stories and those of her contemporaries, but I do think there is something to the way in which certain “units” in her writing are found over and again in her most lasting, important stories.

*


In last week’s Two Month Review post, I identified a few of these motifs. Namely, the presence of “tropisms,” of garden imagery representing the state of a romantic relationship, shifts in the time of the narration, and fragments reflecting the character’s inner state. All of these elements were found in “The Mirror,” and all are found within “Carnival” . . . along with one more that I think will add something crucial to our evaluation of the rest of the stories in this collection.

Garden Imagery

In the stories we discussed last week, flowers, or garden imagery in general, tended to draw characters to a more primeval time, often pointing toward the healthiness of a relationship, or the desire for some sort of human connection. These images function differently in different stories, but some sort of wildlife is present in all of Rodoreda’s best stories.

One of the key scenes in “Carnival” is when the girl asks the boy to get her some gardenias. He hops a fence, steals some flowers, gets barked at by a dog, and ends up ripping his costume. In a bit of foreshadowing, they then have this conversation:

“I still haven’t looked at the gardenias, or thanked you.”

She gently removed a flower from the handkerchief, but as she was about to smell it, she said with a surprise, “What kind of flowers did you pick?”

“The ones by the tree.”

“These aren’t gardenias. They have no scent at all.”

She glanced at the unfamiliar flower with an obvious expression of disappointment.

“Don’t give it another thought. If you don’t like them, toss them away.”

Without realizing, he’d used the familiar “tu.” He liked her, standing there absorbed in thought.


And then they try and figure out what the non-gardenias are:

“[. . .] What if they were begonias?”

“They’re smaller. I mean larger. I mean gardenias are smaller.”

“Maybe they’re stunted begonias.”

“They’re probably camellias.” Both had started playing the game.

“Camellias? No, I’d recognize a camellia anywhere. These, I can assure you, are mysterious flowers. Flowers that bloom on the night of Carnival.”


No need to point out that there are other things that can bloom on the night of Carnival, but I still will.

And what happens to those flowers? This is the bit that ties this story most directly back into last week’s accounting of various Rodoreda motifs.

She bit her lips. She felt bad that she’d lost the flowers. She would have kept one in a book till it was dry as paper, had lost its perfume—it wasn’t even a gardenia—and when she stumbled across it in the future, it would have always evoked the color of night, the sound of the wind, her eighteen years, the years she felt she had lost as soon as she had gained them.


There’s this great thing in Rodoreda where future memories, soon-to-be nostalgia, is created in the present moment on the page. I love that. As an old, this hits home a lot more now than it did when I first read these pieces.

Tropisms

These moments are sprinkled throughout the story, so I’ll just choose a couple examples here to show that these same inner emotional states are present in “Carnival.”

“[. . .] You know, perhaps it’s only when you’re young that you wish so desperately that now would last, that nothing we have would ever end. We wish it even more when what we have now seems the best thing possible.”


Or:

“I don’t see a thing.”

“That means you’ll have a long life,” she said with a touch of disdain. “People who see seven colors die the following day. Today I’ve seen five. Wait, let me try again, see if it changes.”

The boy felt depressed, as if having a long life was a true sign of mediocrity. The girl held her breath, still submerged in her experiment.


There are others, but to get on with it, here’s a segue to the next point:

“Why are you so worried?”

He couldn’t stand the silence any longer and began speaking with a serious voice.

“It’s not that I’m worried. It’s something much worse. I wanted to make this evening . . . I don’t know how to explain . . . a night like this! I wanted a memory, something I could cling to, keep for the future. Because I will never take any trips, or write poetry.”


Dissonance Between Reality and Desire

This is the “unit of analysis” or “motif” or whatever you’d like to call it that I’d like to add to the list above. It’s present in “The Mirror” in the way that the narrator thinks back on her night with Roger and contrasts that with her actual marriage. This disconnect is doubled up on by the conversation with the doctor about sweets, and the denial of that conversation later on in the story. But it’s here in “Carnival” that she really plays this to great emotional heights.

If you haven’t read this story yet and don’t want to lose any of its punch, close this tab, grab your copy of Selected Stories, and come back in a half-hour.

Okay.

Let’s start with the young girl. Here’s her initial explanation for why she’s leaving the party.

“The owner of the house,” the girl began explaining, “is . . . I guess I should confess—after all, we’re friends. He’s my lover. He’s the one I’m going to Paris with. He has to go on business, so we have an opportunity. His wife was at the dance. She’s rarely at home, travels all the time. Since she was there, I decided to leave. The situation was really tense, especially for me of course. I left without saying good-bye to anyone, and now I’m guessing he’s searching for me all through the house and garden. But if he wanted me to stay, why didn’t he lock his wife up in the dark room. For one night . . . I don’t want to give the impression she’s nasty. She’s very nice, dresses really well, knows how to be welcoming. I’d say she’s una gran senyora, a real lady. But I have the feeling that when she climbs in bed, covers her face with cream . . . He doesn’t love her any more; he likes me. As we danced he told me, ‘You’re the most charming girl at the party; you’re like a flower.’ And a little while later he said, ‘I’ll love you eternally’ or something like that.”


She also pauses for a moment along their walk because of a health issue:

“Nothing, my heart. I was just dizzy all of a sudden.”

He looked at her in alarm, not knowing what to say, whether he should hold her, let her go. She sighed deeply and ran her hand across her forehead.

“I’m all right now, it’s starting to pass. I have a weak heart. It must be the kind of life I lead.”

“What does your family say about it?”

“It doesn’t seem to worry them.”

“You should lead a healthier life. Fresh air, exercise, get to bed early.”

“I know the story: lots of fish and vegetables.”

“No,” he responded, a bit disconcerted. “That’s not what I mean. I mean to love more honestly.”

“And die of boredom. No thanks. I decided long ago the kind of life I wanted. I plan only to pick the flowers, as my concierge would put it,” she said, lowering her voice and shooting him a quick, amused look.


Let’s turn to the boy’s backstory for a second. After telling her that he’s dressed as Louis XV’s tailor, and immediately before she has her heart spell, he gives her a bit of info about his life and dreams.

“When I finish my studies, I’ll travel. I want to know the world. I’ll leave without a penny in my pocket. Maybe I’ll get myself hired as a stoker. Poets here all tend to die in bed surrounded by family, and the newspaper prints their dying words, describing the force of their last breath, the whole bit. I want to die alone, with my boots on, face down, an arrow in my back.”


Given how long this already is, I’m going to skip over the scene where they’re mugged, where the boy tries to stand up for himself and is immediately brushed aside, where the young girl momentarily goes off with the two muggers in a semi-flirtatious manner, but this is where the dream of the night—of having a lover who is taking you to Paris, of being a young poet who will live a life of adventure, of a night that will mysteriously bloom into something life-changing—all of it, comes crashing down.

Back to an earlier quote, but this time using the whole thing.

“It’s not that I’m worried. It’s something much worse. I wanted to make this evening . . . I don’t know how to explain . . . a night like this! I wanted a memory, something I could cling to, keep for the future. Because I will never take any trips, or write poetry. And it’s not true that I study. I used to, now I work. I have a younger brother and I’m head of the household. So, now you know it all. You also know what a bad impression I’ve made. I’ve made a fool of myself.”

She was filled with a deep sadness. It was as if a secret reserve of anguish had melted in the bottom of his chest, risen to his throat, and turned yet again into pain. [. . .]

He must think I’ll always laugh at him when I remember this night, those men, laughing at him always, till the end of time.


And, while we’re at it, let’s pour on the sadness and suffering:

“Me too. I’d been saving my money for three months so I could rent this costume, not even catching the tram, and I live in Gràcia but work on Carrer de la Princesa. When my father was alive we had everything we needed. One day he went to bed feeling very ill and never got up. What little we had disappeared with his illness and the funeral. It was really hard for me. I had to give up everything I enjoyed, all my plans. Everything. We were really alone, and I was the oldest child. I had to make a real show of pretense, so as not to add to my mother’s grief. It’s kind of ridiculous that I’m explaining all this, complaining. It shows a poor spirit. My life would make a great dime novel. Here I’d been saving for three months, thinking I’d have fun with my friends, but as soon as I saw myself in this costume, I was embarrassed. I did go out with my friends, but they were all with their girlfriends; and after we’d been in the park up on Tibidabo for a while, they disappeared without my realizing. I walked for a long time, I sat for a while on a bench by the funicular . . . but that’s not true. It’s painful to tell the truth. I went up Tibidabo because a friend of mine works in a restaurant there, and he told me to stop by and see him. He gave me the pastries we ate. I sat on the park bench, thinking how terribly boring life was, and gazed at the night, the lights of the city below me, till I was tired.”


Even within this confession there’s that little moment where he explains why he was up at Tibidabo and then immediately admits that that reason is a lie! This is that dissonance between inner desires and outer reality that really ramps up the emotion in Rodoreda’s early stories. And in case you thought the boy was the only one spinning tales . . .

“You know what? It’s not true that I have a lover. I’ve never loved anyone. All my brother’s friends that liked me a little, I found them . . . I don’t know how to explain it. It’s difficult to say the things the way we think them or feel them. I mean, all the boys who have liked me up till now left me indifferent. It’s probably that I don’t like young men and older men scare me a bit. Sometimes I’m convinced that I’m suffering from some strange illness, because I feel good all alone in my room, with my books, my thoughts. I know my thoughts aren’t particularly lofty; I’m not trying to sound grand. I don’t really know why I ran way from the party. I went with my brother and his fiancée. I shouldn’t say it, but I don’t like that my brother’s engaged. We were best friends. No brother and sister ever got along better. Nor is it true that I have a heart condition. Sometimes I can feel it beating fast and it’s because . . . I’ll never find a substitute for my brother, someone who can be what my brother was to me.”

He felt a sadness rising from deep within him. He’d have given his life to be able to replace her brother. [. . .]

She sighed deeply, affected by the insidious magic of the hour and the night. “I won’t marry for love or merely to serve my own interest. Or maybe I’ll marry for both these reasons. I’ll have an orderly house filled with jars and jars of marmalade and summer preserves made for winter and large wardrobes with neatly folded clothes. If I have children, they’ll have what I’ve had: heat in winter and the broad sea in summer.”


How it All Ends

You can find those other elements mentioned above in this story. Slight shifts in perspective and time that add complexity to the story, moments in which fragmentary prose reflects the inner thoughts of the characters, etc. They’re all there. In fact, I’d argue that these motifs are there in all of her great stories, and this is a great story.

Having come all that way though, through Moretti and various “units” that combine to make a larger, more powerful whole, let’s end where we began, at the end of this journey, where things just . . . end.

Carnival had ended. The wind and rain had helped it die. We too have died a bit, he thought, or the ghosts we have left along the way. No one would be able to see them at the top of Avinguda del Tibidabo, with the pastries and champagne, by the gate with the perfume of the false gardenias, at the door where they had sheltered during the rain. It was all far away, indistinct, a bit absurd, as if it had never happened.

“Will you give me your address in France?”

“I don’t even know it yet.”

She, however, would never again remember that night. The sound of the train taking her away would erase the last vestiges of it. But he . . . he would never find another girl like her, with that smile, that hair. From time to time he would see her blurred outline standing in front of him, her image evoked by a certain perfume, a sigh of leaves, a swarm of ghostly stars at the back of the sky, a silence that suddenly manifests itself.


That’s not exactly the end, there are a couple more beats, but I’ll leave those for you to enjoy for yourself.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

Read More >

I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World by Kim Kyung Ju
Reviewed by Jacob Rogers

Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the. . .

Read More >

Kingdom Cons
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera
Reviewed by Sarah Booker

Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally. . .

Read More >

The Invented Part
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in. . .

Read More >

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo
A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero
Reviewed by Emilee Brecht

Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story: The Last Malambo chronicles the unique ferocity of a national dance competition in Argentina. The dance, called the malambo, pushes the physical and mental limits of male competitors striving to become champions of not only. . .

Read More >

The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof
The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof by Cesar Aira
Reviewed by Will Eells

Aira continues to surprise and delight in his latest release from New Directions, which collects two novellas: the first, The Little Buddhist Monk, a fairly recent work from 2005, and The Proof, an earlier work from 1989. There are a. . .

Read More >

Agnes
Agnes by Peter Stamm
Reviewed by Dorian Stuber

The narrator of Peter Stamm’s first novel, Agnes, originally published in 1998 and now available in the U.S. in an able translation by Michael Hofmann, is a young Swiss writer who has come to Chicago to research a book on. . .

Read More >

Class
Class by Francesco Pacifico
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The thing about Class is that I don’t know what the hell to think about it, yet I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll begin by dispensing with the usual info that one may want to know when considering adding. . .

Read More >

The Dispossessed
The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély
Reviewed by Jason Newport

To be, or not to be?

Hamlet’s enduring question is one that Szilárd Borbély, acclaimed Hungarian poet, verse-playwright, librettist, essayist, literary critic, short-story writer, and, finally, novelist, answered sadly in the negative, through his suicide in 2014, at the. . .

Read More >

A Greater Music
A Greater Music by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .

Read More >

The next few events from our Translation Events Calendar: See More Events >