Three Observations and One Story [Two Month Review]

Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast Brian and I talk about the first six stories in Mercè Rodoreda’s Selected Stories : “Blood,” “Threaded Needle,” “Summer,” “Guinea Fowls,” “The Mirror,” and “Happiness.” Which is only the first 50 pages, yet is as emotionally intense as almost any set of stories you can name. To give you a bit more insight into these stories, and to get you prepared for Thursday’s podcast, I’m going to summarize a few things I noticed in rereading these, and dig in a bit more into my favorite story of the bunch.

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.

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1) I Want to Reread Nathalie Sarraute.

I think I’ve brought her up on both of our podcasts—and inevitably will a dozen more times—but the first author who comes to mind when reading these early stories has to be Nathalie Sarraute.

Frequently grouped in with Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Pinget, Simon, and the rest of the “Nouveau Roman,” Sarraute was one of the most interesting French writers of the mid-twentieth century. And although she was instrumental in paving the way for this group’s relationship to the possibilities for the novel, her work isn’t as staunchly cerebral as the rest of these writers. Not that her books aren’t incredibly intelligent and experimental in style and form, but the first handful—Tropisms, Portrait of a Man Unknown, Martereau, and The Planetarium—revolve around the idea of depicting “tropisms,” a imprecise feeling or set of feelings that arise within a given person or character in response to the outside environment. Here—The Guardian does a better job of explaining this:

The term “tropism” she had taken from biology, where it names the reactive, almost imperceptible movements that living organisms make, towards or away from whatever impinges on them. Sarraute’s are tropisms with a human face, the buried, never quite conscious to-ings and fro-ings of the psyche that accompany all social contact, which she turns pitilessly yet very gracefully into words as she delves into the unspoken and quite often unspeakable root-system of polite conversation. Politeness is shown cruelly up in Sarraute, as the mask for aggression on the part of some and for a corresponding anxiety on the part of others. She is the unforgiving zoologist of our dissembling species, as observed in the habitat she shared with it, of “civilised” Paris.

Or, in her own words, tropisms are “interior movements that precede and prepare our words and actions, at the limits of our consciousness.” And from an interview in the Paris Review

I knew it seemed impossible to me to write in the traditional forms. They seemed to have no access to what we experienced. If we en- closed that in characters, personalities, a plot, we were overlooking everything that our senses were perceiving, which is what interested me. One had to take hold of the instant, by enlarging it, developing it. That’s what I tried to do in Tropisms.

I’m in Poland, sans my copy of Tropisms, but I think this example from a Full Stop review of Saurrate’s short book can link this idea with Rodoreda:

“Well, then! How are you?” He would dare to do that. “Well, then! How do you feel?” he would dare to say that to her – and then he would wait. She should speak, make a move, show her real self, let it come out, let it finally explode – that wouldn’t frighten him. But he would never have the strength to do this. So he was obliged to check it as long as possible, to keep it from coming out, from spurting from her, curb it in her, at any cost, no matter what.

So, turning to Rodoreda’s stories, here’s a bit from “Blood”:

But then I started to agonize. If I hadn’t seen them together, maybe the strange change in me would never have happened. I began to feel like I was a nuisance to my husband; something was different, and without wanting to, I started to distance myself from him. [. . .] Obsessions of mine, I know. Because you see, when a woman stops being a woman, her head fills with obsessions.

From “Summer”:

His wife turned over. She was small and weak. She had been very sick three or four years ago and looked the worse for it. She tired easily and coughed all winter. The doctor said it wasn’t anything serious. All of a sudden, she sighed. A brief sigh, just enough to show she was alive. He was filled with grief. Yes, a deep grief, without really knowing why.

One last one, from “Guinea Fowls”:

Quimet started sobbing uncontrollably. He wept loudly, his mouth open, his eyes all wrinkled from being closed so tight.

“What’s the matter? Did someone hit you? What is it?”

He shook his head after each question, but couldn’t stop crying. All his grief, all his pent-up pain, came pouring out. When the trauma began to pass, his chest still shaking from the last of his sobs, he announced, as if he had suddenly grown older:

“I’m terribly sad.”

2) No Surprise She Wrote a Novel Called Garden By the Sea

I have no grand statements about how to interpret all the garden imagery in these stories, but I just want to draw attention to it now, since it might be interesting to track across both this collection and Death in Spring.

“Blood” opens with the narrator talking about how her husband used to plant dahlias in a particular basket, and the climax of this story involves her husband playing a trick on her (or just has a vivid dream) in which there’s a woman sneaking around their garden. And, tying this back into the first observation, the story ends with this paragraph:

“Dahlias have never grown in this basket again. Sometimes, when the weeds grow high, I pull them up, and move the earth around so it won’t look bad, and if I see dahlias at the florist, a kind of dizziness sweeps over me and I feel like vomiting. Forgive me.”

Things are a bit more complicated in “Summer,” although flowers once again draw the characters into the past, this time also symbolizing some primal desires and the vitality of life (or lack thereof). This story is narrated by the husband, who goes into a bit of a revery on his balcony after getting into a bit of a debate with his wife about their son’s safety:

The scent of flowers reached him from the gardens below. He could see them all from the balcony. The palm tree at the Codinas’ spread its dusty fans in the thick air. The darkest tree of all was a medlar, old and tall, with a smooth, knotless trunk and leaves so stiff they looked like cardboard. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and neck. A mosquito buzzed furiously around him. What if by magic he suddenly found himself in the woods . . . If he could only spend the night in the woods . . . Life, after all . . . This is the only good thing there is in life. Just this. The night. A girl. Just this. And even then it’s so terrible, as if you were suffering or dying. For a girl like that you could do anything. “Carme, Carme.” Why does a beautiful girl always have an ugly girlfriend?

And then, after his son gets back home, right before he’s overcome by “grief” looking at his recently-ill wife, he thinks, “He knew both of them were thinking about the unwatered carnations.”

Near the opening of “Guinea Fowls,” Quimet, the young boy who will end the story “terribly sad” after helping slaughter some poultry, has a chance to take a different path:

The garbage was piled up in front of him, at the edge of the sidewalk. As he munched calmly on the bread, he poked through the pile and discovered a bouquet of wilted flowers, a dark, still fresh carnation, cabbage and lettuce leaves, leek stems, and a few squashed tomatoes full of shiny white seeds. He was tempted to pick up the seeds and put them in the empty matchbox in his pocket; he could plant them in a flowerpot and put it on the balcony. But he was feeling lazy after the sleepless night.

I’ll write more about “The Mirror” later, but in the present of this story, the narrator’s daughter-in-law and grandson are working in the garden. More unsettling though—if we link gardens up with interior life, healthy relationships, etc.—we get this passage about the narrator:

She wanted to be alone, to rest. Her room was her world, filled with secrets, with pictures of people that not even her son or daughter-in-law knew. As she entered, the mirror on the wardrobe reflected the mysterious-looking green garden, barely visible behind the slats on the partially lowered blinds, a dreamlike landscape.

“Happiness” includes another example of the link between a garden (or nature generally) and a more serene, positive relationship:

Quick, quick, she thought. If only the clock could be turned back, back to a previous moment. Back to the little house last year by the sea. The sky, water, palm trees, the fiery red of the sun reflected at sunset on the glass of the balcony. Blooming jasmine gripping the balcony. And the clouds, the waves, the wind that furiously blew the windows closed . . . It was all in her heart.

3) The Complexing of Form

This post is already thesis length, so I’ll try and keep this section to just a couple of paragraphs. Mostly, I just want to point out that, for anyone who’s read War, So Much War or Death in Spring, these first stories might come as a bit of a shock. They’re so direct! So straightforward! A different side of Rodoreda.

And this is all true. These early pieces are working within an aesthetic that’s not as baroque or symbolic as her later works. They’re still absolutely amazing in their precision, emotional power, and depiction of her character’s inner lives. But in terms of form and structure, we’re going to see an immense amount of growth over the next two months.

That growth is even evident in these first six stories. We talk about “Blood” a bit on the podcast this week, so I won’t say too much here, but this framing device seems acts as a sort of unlocking mechanism, a simple way for Rodoreda to give herself permission to tell this story of a marriage failing and a woman leaving. In “Threaded Needle,” internal fantasies start to appear, fantasies that run counter to what is portrayed in “real life” and add a lot of emotional dimensions to these characters. The same thing is seen in “Happiness,” when the narrator goes through a whole internal journey in which she dreams of leaving her husband, and imagines what her life would be like if she went through with it. Finally, “Summer” has a nice interlude about the woods (see above) that’s one of the earliest examples of how Rodoreda juxtaposes unexplained images that are both fragmentary and open to interpretation. This will definitely show up later, and is one of the most incredible ways in which she complicates her texts and transforms them from simple stories into something more universal and multifaceted.

The story where these techniques really come together (at least in this artificial grouping of six pieces) is in “The Mirror”—my personal favorite of this bunch.

“The Mirror”

This is the story in which Rodoreda levels up. The primary elements of what makes this story work so well—melodrama related to a bad marriage, internal feelings straining to be expressive, events from the past couched in slightly obscure ways—can be found in the other stories as well, just not quite as compressed.

This is the same passage I mention on the (forthcoming) podcast, but it’s also a great place to start:

Beneath the lilac-filled vases lay purple stars; lots of tiny flowers had fallen. Roger was getting dressed. His initials, R.G., were embroidered on the left side of his shirt. I too needed to get dressed, but I lingered, afraid that the most insignificant gesture would shatter that mirror of sad, fragile happiness. As if my dismay could make the afternoon last for years and years. When we went down to the street, we stopped beneath a streetlight and shook hands, as if we were simply friends, and said good-bye. Yet coming down the stairs, we had stopped to kiss on each step. When I was alone again, I thought, “We’ll never see each other again as we have today.” I looked around for something to call my own: the light from the streetlamp, the purple sky, a window with a light. Then I started walking. And later? The dance, Agata, the child, my marriage.

So many great things about this paragraph! Tying this into all that came above, we have “lilac-filled vases” that are shedding their flowers. We have the “mirror of sad, fragile happiness” that’s ready to shatter. We have the honest, depressing thought that comes as soon as she’s alone. But most notably to me, we have a series of fragments that punctuate the real plot of this story and drive home the narrator’s sadness tinged with anger. “And later? The dance, Agata, the child, my marriage.” Just typing that leaves me with a sense of longing and nostalgia for what could’ve been.

I don’t want to spoil this story completely for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but it works through two plots running in parallel. In the present, the narrator goes to the doctor who gives her some advice about treating her diabetes by avoiding sweets. She then buys a bag of cookies and goes to her son’s house, where she lies about seeing the doctor and watches her grandson dig up the garden. There is a simmering contempt there, especially toward her son. (I’ll leave the why for you to figure out.)

Then there’s the story of the past, of two men, a too-brief romance, a tormented marriage, and a death. This too I’ll let you find out about as you read, but I want to end with one other example of the reason why I think her writing took a leap with this story. This muddled representation of the narrator’s internal life works so well because it’s slightly confusing to process, yet reeks of emotion.

“Why won’t you dance with me?”

Jaume Mas, her husband, had entered her life in that manner: timidly, as she gazed at Roger, remembering that afternoon. She was filled with the terrible wish to scream. Jaume had entered her life too late, but it was at the precise moment when she was losing her bearings. Are you tired? She was gazing at her fan, the mother-of-pearl ribs, the silk tassel. She had had a mauve dress with a lilac posy at the waist made for her. She had it made with Roger’s words in mind. We’ve begun to love each other beneath the sign of the lilacs. You could see clumps of lilacs in the park, and branches of them stood in vases around the room. On that afternoon. If Roger comes near, he’ll see the landscape on my fan, tender apple green with a peach-colored sky. But he didn’t approach. I don’t think he even saw me, and I wanted to scream.

“You don’t want to dance?”

I felt sorry for him, a sudden sadness, as if I had just been shown a condemned man.

Till next week . . .

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