“Parthenope” – The Last Short Story from my 2011 Reading Project

2011’s “Project: Deal Me In!” has been one of my most enjoyable (and successful – I actually finished it!) projects I’ve tried. And random chance (I chose in which order to read my 52 stories by drawing from a dwindling deck of cards over the year) saved one of the best short stories for last, Rebecca West’s oh, so poignant tale, Parthenope.

Rebecca West may not be well known to many readers. To me, she (unfairly) had been most famous for an affair she had with H.G. Wells, which I first read about in his Experiment in Autobiography – quite the weighty tome, I must say. The affair produced a son, Anthony West, who also wrote a biography of Wells that I own, “H.G. wells: Portrait of a Life.” She also wrote an acclaimed account of the Nuremberg trials, “A Train of Powder” in 1955.

The story of hers that I read for my project was originally published in The New Yorker magazine in 1959. ***Spoilers Follow***

I think almost all of us have in our memory certain magical moments in time, or magical places visited in our youth. This story describes both. The narrator is actually telling the story of her uncle who, as a child, was sent to a neighboring house with a message. In this house lived seven daughters (of “The Admiral”) who her uncle, from his window, had frequently observed in the gardens, playing croquet and generally being – at a distance – enticing and alluring.

He is greeted by the eldest of the sisters, Parthenope (for pronunciation help, think “Penelope”) who seems more serious and mature than her sisters. He is quickly under her spell, though just a boy and twelve years younger. It seems clear that there is also “something wrong” with the sisters. In one encounter, the narrator’s uncle describes Parthenope as:

“…playing a game by herself, a game that he knew well. She was throwing a ball high into the air, then letting her arms drop by her sides, and waiting to the last, the very last moment, before stretching out a hand to catch it. It was a strange thing for a grown-up lady to be doing, but it did not distress him like the playground gambolling and chattering of her sisters. They had been like children as grown-ups like to think of them, silly and meaningless and mischievous. But she was being a child as children really are, sobered by all they have to put up with and glad to forget it in play.”

Sadly, there is mental illness in Parthenope’s family, from her mother’s side. And her sisters, after being “hectored into” unsuitable marriages by the Admiral, have become worse than only “silly,” as they were first presumed. It seems it will be Parthenope’s fate, as the healthy sister, to watch over them.

The uncle’s few encounters with Parthenope and her sisters have stuck with him over the years, and as fate would have it, he encounters them once more, quite by chance, when he himself is full-grown.

In a meeting filled with tenderness, he calls upon them and speaks again to Parthenope, with whom he has come to “know” that he is “…united by eternal bonds” though “they hardly knew each other, which was the reverse of what usually happened to men and women.”

Telling him of her sisters’ fate, and their husbands, she says, “They married my sisters because they were beautiful, and laughed easily, and could not understand figures. They might have considered that women who laugh easily might scream easily, and that, if figures meant nothing to them, words might mean nothing either, and that, if figures and words meant nothing to them, thoughts and feelings might mean nothing too. But these men had the impudence to feel a horror of my sisters.”

There is a near infinite sadness associated with Parthenope – one which the uncle cannot but acutely empathize with. She tells him, “You do not know what it is like to be a character in a tragedy. Something has happened which can only be explained by supposing that God hates you with merciless hatred, and nobody will admit it.” She is also haunted by the fear that one day, she too may lose her mind (“Every night when I lay down in bed I examine my day for signs of folly”).

His offers to help her in her misery are gently rebuked. When he offers to at least write to her on occasion to assuage her loneliness, she says, “You must not be involved in my life. There is a force outside the world that hates me and all my family. If you wrote me too often it might hate you too.”

I wish I could say that the story had a happy ending, but how could it? It makes me wonder why I like this story so much. I’m guessing it’s because West succeeds in making the reader feel the exact emotions of not only Parthenope, but also those of her would-be benefactor. Not emotions that one wants often to feel, but emotions that are nonetheless quite real and powerful.

(below: Rebecca West)

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Just Finished: “The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents” by H.G. Wells

I’ve spent a rather pleasant afternoon with two great writers – H.G. Wells and Kurt Vonnegut. As coincidence would have it, my two “main” book clubs are reading short story collections this month. I had already started the H.G. Wells collection several days ago, and today I was kind of alternating between the two, finishing the last five Wells stories and reading the first four of Vonnegut’s collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House.”

I think Wells is a splendid writer, and went through a “Wells Phase” in the late 90s, reading “tons” of work by him. Many of the stories in this book I had read before, in a used paperback collection (one of those non-standard sized oddities that wreak havoc with the symmetry of one’s bookshelves), but there were a few unknown nuggets for me here as well.

I was struck once again by Wells’s capacity for placing ordinary people – or maybe more accurately, people with ordinary points of view – in extraordinary situations, and seeing where that takes them. He also has a great skill, in my opinion, in giving brief physical descriptions of characters which convey a whole lot of information – a handy talent in a short story writer I suppose. The engineer in the story “Lord of the Dynamos” comes to mind as an example.

Which stories were my favorites? that’s a tough one. Of the fifteen stories in the book, I’ll pick four: “In the Avu Observatory,” “Aepyornis Island,” (and a shiny nickel prize to the first reader who can tell me how to pronounce that!) “The Lord of the Dynamos,” and “The Diamond Maker.” I’ve already commented on “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes,” which is also quite good. There were only a couple that I didn’t like: “Triumph of a Taxidermist” and “The Temptation of Harringjay.”

My book club is discussing these stories in a couple weeks and I’ll probably share some of the others’ impressions here later.

Below: Aepyornis Maximus. This was a real creature (!) though extinct. I had no idea!

The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes

This short story is another tidbit from H.G. Wells’s collection, “The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents.” It is one of my favorites and showcases the stupendous imagination of this famous author. I’ve been pondering about imagination lately, as I was also quite impressed with its being on vivid display in Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games Trilogy,” and was reminded again at the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club meeting on September 30th, where several club members marveled at Vonnegut’s “imagination” and “How did he come up with that?” sort of questions. At first I (internally, anyway) dismissed this as a case of the non-artist (as in me or my colleagues in the book club) not easily understanding the artist. I still believe that is largely true, because such things “might never occur to us” as non-artists. We often need, I think, things to be “closer together” before we can make a connection. It’s as though the artist has stronger “pattern recognition” muscles than the rest of us. He can see similarities that the rest of us cannot. The neat thing is, once he trail blazes those connections for us, we usually – or at least often – have an “oh, yeah..” moment as realization dawns.

The premise/setting of this story starts with an accident in a lab resulting in a temporary experience of a sensory trans- or dis-location: the sight of the unfortunate Davidson is mapped to a point the other side of the globe. Wells speculates that Davidson’s condition was brought on by accidentally “stooping between the poles of some big electromagnet” and had “some extraordinary twist given to his retinal elements.” Other curious symptoms of his affliction are that he can hear and feel those around him in the “real world”, even though he sees another world, which is apparently on the other side of the globe since when it is daylight where his physical body is, it is nighttime “wherever his eyes are” and vice-versa. Also, as he gains or loses altitude in his local landscape, he does the same wherever his eyes are, even going underwater at one point. Another odd twist is that Davidson cannot taste tobacco as he smokes, and our narrator comments that now neither can he, unless he can see the smoke(!)

An interesting little story, written in 1895, no less. Oh, and I even saw somewhere on-line that some view this as one of the earliest descriptions of “remote viewing” – a popular pseudo-scientific phenomenon.

H.G. Wells

“Through a Window” by H.G. Wells

I just read this short story last night. Not that much to it, really, but it did set me thinking. The setting is that of a man convalescing from an injury (the nature of which is not specified in the story, other than he hasn’t the use of his legs) who spends his waking hours looking out of a large window with a view of a close by river. Over just a few days, he gains “an intimate knowledge” of the river and its ‘regular customers,’ both boats and people.

One day, he has some ‘excitement, as he observes the flight (and subsequent pursuit) of an escaped slave or servant (a “Malay” he suspects). The unfortunate fugitive had apparently gone mad and went on a kree (a kind of bladed weapon) wielding spree of violence. Not surprisingly, the Malay finds his way to our side of the river and, though wounded, manages to gain access through the very window in the title of the story, when our hero “finishes him off.”

Where this story resonated with me was in the early part, as our main character begins to gain his “intimate knowledge” of the river. He even comments that one of the hands on one of the regular boats ‘must not be feeling well today’ by observing how he carries himself. This heightened sense and skill of observation reminded me of when my retired Granddad used to come visit us in Indianapolis (this was after the death of my Grandmother and before he remarried). He enjoyed sitting on our front porch and observing all the goings on of the street we lived on. I remember being impressed that, in seemingly just a few days of observation, he discovered habits and routines that we “who lived there all the time” had never bothered to notice. The steps of the mailman, his route around fences and yards, when certain dogs would notice and react to his presence, the different personalities of the squirrels who called our trees and yard home, school bus stops and who got off at each one, and on and on.

My Granddad came from the mountains of West Virginia and was already known (to me) as a keen observer of the natural world. He seemed to know every creature and plant in those mountains and even, one time when I told him what my high school biology teacher had told me about a certain snake’s behavior that was contrary to what Granddad himself had observed – even laughing off what I said my Granddad had seen – replied to me “Well, you tell him he’s a damned liar!”

Well, I see I’ve once again gotten off the subject, but the fact is – if one would only focus one’s attention – it’s amazing what type of things one could notice that had perviously been hidden from view…

Photo of a young H.G. Wells:

Now reading: “The Stolen Bacillus and other Incidents” by H.G. Wells

This collection of short stories is the October selection of my book club, The Indy Reading Coalition. Usually, in October we have a seasonal theme of ghost stories, or – last year – we read a collection of Edgar Allan Poe works. We struggled to decide on something this year but finally went with H.G. Wells who, though not a writer of the horror genre per se, did write a lot of off-beat, unusual stories. Plus, our club had read and enjoyed one of his other stories (“The Flowering of the Strange Orchid”) as part of our “Short Story Month III” in July of this year.

In addition to this collection, I’m looking forward to a busy reading month in October. I plan to finish Mockingjay (the final installment in Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy) and also read “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier to count toward my personal Project: Civil War reading. Then, late in the month I have another meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club, which is reading “Welcome to the Monkey House” – another short story collection. That’ll be a lot of short stories to read in a month, but Im looking forward to it. That would make four “books” in October, which is kind of my “par score,” but if I read anything else this month it might by The Sparrow, or A Prayer for Owen Meany, which I’ve wanted to get started on for a long time.

That’s me. What’s on your agenda…?

New book purchase

This weekend was the annual book sale to benefit the historic Benton House in the historic neighborhood of Irvington on the east side of Indianapolis. This is a neighborhood that I once lived in for about five years, and which I still visit occasionally – haunting Lazy Daze (a coffeehouse) or Bookmama’s Bookstore or playing chess at the Irvington branch of the Marion County Public Library.

I only bought one book this year, H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History. They did have a few collectors books for sale as well, one of which (an 1895 memoir by the wife of Stonewall Jackson!)

I eyed covetously but for which the price ($500!) was a bit out of my target range. Maybe more than a bit, actually. So, I settled for my $1 copy of the Wells book (the 1930 edition, it looks like) which I will read someday. Maybe.

I actually skimmed the first few chapters tonight, and it starts with a brief history of the Earth itself, which I found charming for some reason. H.G. Wells has long been a favorite and this book is a worthy addition to my library.

below: a “boring-looking copy” of The Outline of History, but it looks pretty similar to the edition I have.

Below the historic Benton House in Irvington (Indianapolis)

H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells has long been one of my favorite authors. In fact, one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books was his weighty tome, Experiment in Autobiography. Like I’ve posted about before in relation to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, this book has the power to ‘convince’ me that great achievements are possible, and one line is particularly memorable to me. Wells, in talking about all the rejections he got for his writing, has an epiphany moment and realizes that he was seeking topics too “rare and precious” and that “All the time I had been shooting over the target. All I had to do was lower my aim – and hit it!” (exclamation point mine). I love that line.

I’ve been thinking about this quotation this weekend for a particular reason. I’m a bit strange in that I will sometimes make “New Year’s Resolutions” on my birthday (hey, it’s a new year for ME); it always falls somewhere around the Memorial Day weekend, which gives me more time for reflection and introspection. And I was thinking about some of the resolutions and goals I set last “year” and maybe some were too high or unreasonable.

Anyway, regardless of all that personal drivel, you really should read some H.G. Wells. It’ll do ya good… 🙂