Telling Stories

I used to tell stories to Mary, stories of my childhood and immigrant adventures, stories I had picked up from other people. But I had become tired of telling them, tired of listening to them.

In Chicago, I had found myself longing for the Sarajevo way of doing it — Sarajevans told stories ever aware that the listeners’ attention might flag, so they exaggerated and embellished and sometimes downright lied to keep it up. You listened, rapt, ready to laugh, indifferent to doubt or implausibility. There was a storytelling code of solidarity — you did not sabotage someone else’s narration if it was satisfying to the audience, or you could expect one of your stories to be sabotaged one day, too. Disbelief was permanently suspended, for nobody expected truth or information, just the pleasure of being in the story and, maybe, passing it off as their own. It was different in America: the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth and nothing but the truth — reality is the fastest American commodity.

Once upon a time Mary and I were at a wedding in Milwaukee. Her cousin, who worked for the governor of Wisconsin, was getting married, and we shared a table with eight other people, all couples invested in state politics. As it happens at weddings, they all started talking about their fateful encounters: Josh and Jennifer met at their gym; Jan and Johnny were a college couple, broke up, later found themselves working for the same law firm; Saul and Philip met at a toga party, by a keg of Miller Light. Everybody was happy now, you could tell, the table laden with bliss and future…

So as to contribute to the discourse of momentous attraction, I told them about the Cold War rabbits. It was Rora who had told me this story once upon his return from Berlin. All along the Wall, I/Rora said, there were grass-covered minefields, so there were a lot of free-running rabbits, too light to set off a mine, no other beasts to prey upon them. At mating time, the hormone-crazy rabbits would smell a partner on the other side, and they would go crazy, producing the pining-rabbit sound, trying desperately to find a hole in the Wall. The rabbits would drive the guards out of their minds, but they could not shoot them because they had to save their bullets for the humans trying to defect. Everybody in Berlin knew that the rabbit-mating season was the worst time to attempt to escape across the Wall, because the rabbits made the guards very trigger-happy.

Outrageous though it may have been, I always found the story funny and poignant — the unnaturalness of the Cold War, the love that knew no boundaries, the Wall brought down by horny rodents. It required no effort for me to suspend my disbelief and admire Rora’s narrative embroidery. But my Wisconsin audience stared at me with the basic you’re-okay-but-strange smiles, waiting for a more potent punch line. Whereupon Mary said: “I find that hard to believe.” She was hurt and annoyed, I know for a fact, because I didn’t tell our own falling-in-love story (the sand between the toes, the reflections of Chicago shimmering on the lake, the waves licking the breakers), but it was rather humiliating to be publicly distrusted by your own wife.

Josh asked: “Why didn’t the rabbits find a mate on their own side of the Wall? Why would they only be interested in a rabbit from the other side?” I had no answer, as it had never crossed my mind to ask Rora such a question: the story and its reality disintegrated right before me. What’s worse, I felt that Mary was speaking from across the wall that divided us and that all the verifiable reality was on her side. Never could I tell that story in Mary’s presence after that.

Aleksandar Hemon
The Lazarus Project

How Did It Come?

The radio was on as usual. For a second she stood by the window and watched the people inside. The bald-headed man and the gray-haired lady were playing cards at a table. Mick sat on the ground. This was a very fine and secret place. Close around were thick cedars so that she was completely hidden by herself. The radio was no good tonight — somebody sang popular songs that all ended in the same way. It was like she was empty. She reached in her pockets and felt around with her fingers. There were raisins and a buckeye and a string of beads — one cigarette with matches. She lighted the cigarette and put her arms around her knees. It was like she was so empty there wasn’t even a feeling or thought in her.

One program came on after another, and all of them were punk. She didn’t especially care. She smoked and picked a little bunch of grass blades. After a while a new announcer started talking. He mentioned Beethoven. She had read in the library about that musician — his name was pronounced with an a and spelled with double e. He was a German fellow like Mozart. When he was living he spoke in a foreign language and lived in a foreign place — like she wanted to do. The announcer said they were going to play his third symphony. She only halfway listened because she wanted to walk some more and she didn’t care much what they played. Then the music started. Mick raised her head and her fist went up to her throat.

How did it come? For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or march. Like God strutting in the night. The outside of her was suddenly froze and only that first part of the music was hot inside her heart. She could not even hear what sounded after, but she sat there waiting and froze, with her fists tight. After a while the music came again, harder and loud. It didn’t have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the day-time and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her — the real plain her.

She could not listen good enough to hear it all. The music boiled inside her. Which? To hang on to certain wonderful parts and think them over so that later she would not forget — or should she let go and listen to each part that came without thinking or trying to remember? Golly! The whole world was this music and she could not listen hard enough. Then at last the opening music came again, with all the different instruments bunched together for each note like a hard, tight fist that socked at her heart. And the first part was over.

This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms held tight around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. It might have been five minutes she listened or half the night. The second part was black-colored — a slow march. Not sad, but like the whole world was dead and black and there was no use thinking back how it was before. One of those horn kind of instruments played a sad and silver tune. Then the music rose up angry and with excitement underneath. And finally the black march again.

But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved the best — glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony and there was not enough of her to listen.

Carson McCullers
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

To Reiterate

Michel Butor says that to travel is to write, because to travel is to read. This can be developed further: To write is to travel, to write is to read, to read is to write, and to read is to travel. But George Steiner says that to translate is also to read, and to translate is to write, as to write is to translate and to read is to translate. So that we may say: To translate is to travel and to travel is to translate. To translate a travel writing, for example, is to read a travel writing, to write a travel writing, to read a writing, to write a writing, and to travel. But if because you are translating you read, and because writing translate, because traveling write, because traveling read, and because translating travel; that is, if to read is to translate, and to translate is to write, to write to travel, to read to travel, to write to read, to read to write, and to travel to translate; then to write is also to write, and to read is also to read, and even more, because when you read you read, but also travel, and because traveling read, therefore read and read; and when reading also write, therefore read; and reading also translate, therefore read; therefore read, read, read, and read. The same argument may be made for translating, traveling, and writing.

Lydia Davis
‘To Reiterate’

Fumbling for Exactitude

He expected people to make fun of, ridicule him. He expected people nowhere near his equal in stature or accomplishment or wit or anything else, to be capable of making him appear ridiculous. That was why he worked so laboriously and tediously and indefatigably at everything he wrote. It was as if he said to himself: ‘This anyway will, shall, must be invulnerable.’ It was as though he wrote not even out of the consuming unsleeping appeaseless thirst for glory for which any normal artist would destroy his aged mother, but for what to him was more important and urgent: not even for mere truth, but for purity, the exactitude of purity. … His was that fumbling for exactitude, the exact word and phrase within the limited scope of a vocabulary controlled and even repressed by what was in him almost a fetish of simplicity, to milk them both dry, to seek always to penetrate to thought’s uttermost end.

William Faulkner
on Sherwood Anderson

Adequacy / Inadequacy

Ray was not vain about his bookish phrases. He did not use them to show off, but because they seemed to him more adequate than colloquial speech. He felt strongly about these things, and groped for words, as he said, “to express himself.” He had the lamentable American belief that “expression” is obligatory. He still carried in his trunk, among the unrelated possessions of a railroad man, a notebook on the title-page of which was written “Impressions on First Viewing the Grand Canyon, Ray H. Kennedy.” The pages of that book were like a battlefield; the laboring author had fallen back from metaphor after metaphor, abandoned position after position. He would have admitted that the art of forging metals was nothing to this treacherous business of recording impressions, in which the material you were so full of vanished mysteriously under your striving hand.

Willa Cather
The Song of the Lark