Issue Number 16

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Ariane’s big pot, from above, at an angle

My Big Pot

Ariane Lodkochnikov

FOR A LONG TIME, I cooked little meals in little pots, the smallest meals that would fill me up, cooked in the smallest pots that would do the job. I was often wrong about how small a meal would fill me up and how small a pot would do the job, and when I was wrong, things would boil over and make a mess of the stove, or while adding ingredients I would reach a point where the next ingredient wouldn’t fit in the pot and I would have to transfer the whole hot concoction to a larger pot, or when I’d finished eating the little meal I’d made, the pot would be empty, but I wouldn’t be full. Why did I persist in that folly, always making little meals in little pots? I was reacting against my mother’s cauldron.

It was an enormous pot that looked like a prop from the witches’ scene in Macbeth. She had other pots, but only that one would do for chowder. She would have had an easier time with another pot, because the cauldron was really too heavy for her to handle, but she wouldn’t use anything else. I thought that cauldron made us look like peasants and made her look like a witch. I wanted her to get rid of it or disguise it as a planter.

I couldn’t manage to tell her any of that directly, of course, so I tried to be subtle. One day when she was making chowder I asked, “Ma, why don’t you use a smaller pot?” 

You see how subtle I could be in those days.

She looked at me with her brows knit and said, “A smaller pot?”

“Yeah.” I said. “You wouldn’t have to struggle with it the way you do with this thing.”

“I couldn’t use a smaller pot,” she said, as if the idea were preposterous.

“You could,” I said. “Look at all the chowder in there. That’s more chowder than we can eat. Lots more.”

She put her hands on her hips and shook her head, and she smiled the indulgent smile of a mother who sees that her daughter has a lot to learn. “You’ve got a lot to learn,” she said.

“Maaa!” I said, and I frowned the impatient frown of a daughter who is convinced that her mother has nothing to teach her.

“Look,” she said. “You see how much extra chowder there is in this cauldron?”

“I sure do.”

“That has to be there. There has to be some extra, just in case.”

“In case what?”

“In case your father comes home extra hungry, or in case cooking the chowder makes me extra hungry, or in case company drops in.”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “In all the years that I’ve been living here, no one has ever dropped in.”

“But someone might,” she said. “Someone might. You’ve got to have extra, because you never know what might happen, and you never know who might come along.”

“Oh, Ma,” I said, and, in effect, I went on saying it for years by cooking small meals in small pots. It was a way of telling my mother that she was wrong, or that I thought she was wrong.

Eventually, after my mother died, I began to see that I had been the one who was wrong. Small pots will do for the cook who wants no surprises, who wants to keep things under tight control, who will entertain no guests who weren’t invited, but another kind of cook keeps the door open, welcomes guests and welcomes surprises, and that kind of cook needs a pot like my mother’s cauldron. When I realized all that, I understood that my attitude toward my mother’s cauldron and her overabundant batches of chowder had diminished me. I had become as small as my meager meals. 

I hung my little pots on the wall, and I went out and bought the biggest soup kettle I could find. It isn’t as big as my mother’s cauldron was, but it’s big enough so that when I make chowder now there’s always extra.

My mother’s example taught me another thing about big chowder: it’s no use wishing for someone new and interesting to drop in unexpectedly and make the extra chowder necessary; wishing won’t make it so. So, whenever the urge to make a batch comes upon me, I send out invitations, and I add “bring a friend.” I never know who might come along.

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Ariane’s big pot, from above, with lid
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Ariane’s big pot, from directly above

 

“I am large, I contain multitudes.” 

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

 

“A good chowder is a big chowder, so make extra, just in case.”

My Mother

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Copyright © 2019 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved.

Issue Number 15

 

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The Small House in Stow, Massachusetts

Risking the Ridiculous, Continued

An Interview with Eric Kraft, Part Two

FOR ALL OF HIS ADULT LIFE, Eric Kraft has been working to construct a single large work of fiction, The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy. (That is not to say that he has been working on it all the time throughout all of his adult life, although his wife, Madeline, who insisted that he stop driving after finding once too often that the green light he seemed to see at an intersection was shining in another world, might contend that such a characterization would be accurate. We mean merely that he has worked on it for some time nearly every day from the age of eighteen onward, if we count thinking as working.) The Personal History is composed of many smaller parts interconnected in intricate ways, like a complex machine or a multi-celled organism or a human society or a bowl of clam chowder.

The Babbington Review: We’re back. I’m here with Eric Kraft, author of the voluminous work of fiction he calls The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy. Welcome back.

Eric Kraft: It’s a pleasure to be here—again.

TBR: Actually, I was welcoming our readers, but you’re welcome, too. Of course.

EK: Well, ah, thank you.

TBR: Let’s recap briefly. In our earlier interview, you offered a well-rehearsed origin story for the Personal History, and I did my best on behalf of the Review and our readers to pry you from the practiced version—

EK: [chuckles] Yes, you did.

TBR: And I think I succeeded—to a degree. Let’s see if I can loosen you up a bit more this time. Ready?

EK: Ready. I think.

TBR: You “met” Peter Leroy while daydreaming over a German lesson. At some point you began writing about him. Tell me about that—the first experience of writing about this character.

EK: I began writing about Peter Leroy in an exploratory way, not for publication, and not even in an attempt to tell a story, just to find out what was there. This exploratory phase—which I think of as practice now—lasted nearly eighteen years, eighteen years spent learning about Peter’s friends, the town of Babbington where he lived, his family, his experiences, his feelings and ideas, scenes, snatches of conversation, encounters, bits and pieces—

TBR: I’m hearing something practiced again.

EK: Sorry. As I told you last time, I have said these things before. I’ve been asked these questions before, and my answers don’t vary much. I’ll try to improvise a little more.

TBR: Tell me: do you have any of that material—the stuff you call practice?

EK: Yes. I do. Stacks of it.

TBR: Would you ever make it public?

EK: No.

TBR: Would you give it to a library or university?

EK: No.

TBR: Why not?

EK: I don’t want my mistakes made public. I want the finished work to be all there is. No scraps, nothing that should have been thrown away but wasn’t.

Do we show the public . . . the mechanism behind our effects? . . . Do we display all the rags, the paint, the pulleys, the chains, the alterations, the scribbled-over proof sheets—in short, all the horrors that make up the sanctuary of art? — Charles Baudelaire, quoted by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project

TBR: Okay, I guess I understand that.

EK: Some day I have to get around to actually throwing all the scraps and mistakes away.

TBR: Ah! The fact that you haven’t done that suggests to me that you don’t actually want to do that. You do want someone to see the scraps and mistakes.

EK: Moving right along—

TBR: Ha. All right. Go ahead. 

EK: While I was practicing, I didn’t think that I was practicing. I thought I was writing a novel—a novel about Peter Leroy. But whatever it was or was to become, I couldn’t stop working on it. 

TBR: Was that all you were working on at the time? I mean—did you have a day job?

EK: Oh, yes. I always have. At the time that we’re talking about I had left teaching and become an editor at an educational publishing company. 

TBR: Care to say what one?

EK: Ginn and Company, in Boston. 

TBR: A company with a long history before you joined it.

EK: Yes. I think—

TBR: Founded in 1867 by Edwin Ginn, originally called Ginn Brothers, specializing in school texts from very early in its history.

EK: You’ve certainly done your homework!

TBR: I’m just reading from my phone.

EK: Oh. Of course.

TBR: So you became an editor at Ginn—

EK: Yes, and I worked in educational publishing for the next seven years, from 1968 through—or nearly through—1975.

TBR: I detect a little foreshadowing in there.

EK: You’re right. Be patient.

TBR: Patience isn’t really one of my virtues, but go on, and I’ll wait im-patiently to find out what happened in 1975.

EK: So—during that time, in the evening or early morning hours, I continued elaborating Peter Leroy and his world, creating his personal history, adventures, and experiences. The only person who experienced it was Madeline. She heard it. That was the beginning of a lifetime habit. She’s always been the first audience—the first auditor.

TBR: First auditor. I like that.

EK: So do I.

TBR: So—the work grew—for an audience of one—and you accumulated “stacks of it.”

EK: Right—and as it grew I began to ask myself—more and more often—what I was going to do with all of the stuff I’d written.

TBR: Oh, come on. You must have intended to publish it eventually—or at least hoped to.

EK: That’s not quite what I’m talking about. Well, maybe it is—partly. I mean that I was—overwhelmed by it—and confused by it. It had grown so large that I couldn’t—grasp it. I couldn’t even imagine a form that would contain it all. The bits and pieces were piling up, and my ideas were accumulating even faster. I could see that the longer I waited to begin publishing this work, the less likely it seemed that I would ever get it into a form in which it could be published—or even find a form that could accommodate it all. 

TBR: Whew.

EK: The hunt for form was wearying and frustrating. It almost killed the work. 

TBR: Really? Or are you just being dramatic?

EK: I’m being honest. I couldn’t “get my head around it.” When I tried to make something coherent out of what I’d done, I’d begin on one tack, go a little way, decide that it was wrong, change course, try again, change again, and so on. It wasn’t actually giving me headaches, but if I’d been prone to headaches it would have given me headaches.

TBR: When was this?

EK: Roughly 1970 to 1975.

TBR: Wow. Five years. Five years struggling to find the form for the thing?

EK: Yes. And during those five years there were times when I wanted to quit, forget about Peter Leroy, do something else. 

TBR: How did that feel?

EK: Oh, sometimes I felt that I wasn’t up to the task, and sometimes I wasn’t sure that the task was worth doing, and sometimes I just felt—I don’t know—defeated by my own undertaking.

TBR: But you kept writing it—accumulating more and more of it?

EK: Yes. Even though it was frustrating me, at times even annoying me, I kept writing bits and pieces of—it—whatever it might be—if it ever became anything at all.

TBR: And throughout this time the First Auditor was the only audience for it?

EK: Yes. [pauses, knits his brows] 

TBR: Anything wrong?

EK: I’m deciding whether to tell you something—show you something.

TBR: Take your time.

EK: [grins] Sometime in the mid-nineteen-seventies, I wrote something called “The Evolution of the Half-Time Show.” 

TBR: What was that like?

EK: It was a bunch of very short passages strung together, just brief episodes involving a couple of characters—

TBR: Did it take place in Babbington?

EK: Yes.

TBR: During Peter’s childhood?

EK: No. During his teenage years. His late teens, I think. If I’m remembering it correctly—

TBR: [snorts]

EK: That sounded like a snort of doubt.

TBR: It was. I suspect that your claiming not to remember “The Evolution of the Half-Time Show” adequately is a cover-up.

EK: You think that I remember it perfectly well but I’d like to hide it in a fog of forgetfulness?

TBR: I do.

EK: Well, I remember that Ariane was in it. I mean, I think I remember that Ariane was in it.

TBR: And Albertine?

EK: No.

TBR: Really?

EK: If I remember correctly.

TBR: [snorts]

EK: One thing I remember very well is that I read it to Madeline.

TBR: Of course. The First Auditor.

EK: Right.

TBR: Where was this? Set the stage for me.

EK: We were living in Stow, Massachusetts, in a small house that had a tiny front porch. I read it to her there, while we were sitting in a couple of chairs that friends had given us and we’d and repainted yellow.

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TBR: Tell me: do you have any of that material—the stuff you call practice? EK: Yes. I do. Stacks of it.

TBR: How did she react to it? What did she think of it?

EK: You can judge for yourself.

TBR: I can? How?

EK: I photographed her while I read. I bought an East German camera, a Hanimex Praktica, used, and I had it at my side, on a tripod, with a cable shutter-release.

TBR: And you have the pictures?

EK: [grins] I do. Here they are. [produces a small stack of photographs, face down]

TBR: Wow.

EK: I’ll show them to you in order. Here we go. [turns the top photograph over, like a card]

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The First Photo

TBR: She looks attentive, even eager.

EK: That might be because I’m handing her a margarita. [turns the next card]

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The Second Photo

TBR: Here she looks puzzled.

EK: The narrative—well—it was a fragmented piece of work.

TBR: Fragmented?

EK: Right—as if it had once been whole but had been shattered.

TBR: Into fragments.

EK: Right. 

TBR: Resulting in something that might puzzle any audience. [EK turns another photo.] Ah!

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The Third Photo

EK: I’ve made her laugh. This may mark the arrival of humor in The Personal History. I’m not quite sure how it happened. I don’t know whether I actually wrote something that was funny or whether I added something in the reading—some text or maybe just an attitude.

TBR: An attitude?

EK: An attitude toward the work, my work, an attitude toward the author of the work, me. [turns a photo]

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The Fourth Photo

TBR: You’ve really got her now.

EK: By now, the time of this photo, I had turned a corner. Before, I worked very hard at being someone I was not. The work that I produced was deliberately difficult. It was very, very serious—and it was very, very dull. I think it was also annoying—and pompous—and bloated. In this reading, I improvised, and I turned away from that set of attitudes and turned toward the ridiculous. I turned away from what Emerson called “the painful kingdom of time and place” and toward what he called “immortal hilarity.” 

TBR: May I see the last card—the last photo? [EK turns the last photo.] Ah! I see her looking toward the future—envisioning a future in which you will bring her more hilarity.

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The Fifth Photo

EK: Hm. Maybe. I hope you’re right.

TBR: [Clears his throat.] Well.

EK: Well.

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Copyright © 2019 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved.

Issue Number 14

TheLastWish
Cover illustration from The Gruesome Family Ritual: A Larry Peters Adventure (detail)

The Phantom Island

A Lucy Peters Adventure

Peter Leroy

THE STORY SO FAR: Given the use of a typewriter and some flimsy “second sheets” of paper, I had launched an attempt to infiltrate the world of Larry Peters, boy hero of The Adventures of Larry Peters.

To my astonishment and delight, I had succeeded in that effort. I had managed to write myself from my grandparents’ house in Babbington to the fictional town of Murky Bay. Appearing “as if from nowhere,” I secured employment as a paperboy, replacing the boy who had previously held that position. Then, toting a sack of papers, I made my way across the treacherous waters of the tidal channel that separated Kittiwake Island, where the Peters family lived, from the mainland. To my further astonishment and delight, I was welcomed there by the member of the Peters family whose welcome I most desired: Lucinda (“Lucy”) Peters. Alas, I couldn’t stay. My parents were ending their visit with my grandparents, and I had to leave Kittiwake Island, the world of Larry Peters, and Lucy, put the typewrite away, and return to my home in Babbington Heights, where, as far as I could tell, there were no adventures to be had.

A week passed before I visited my grandparents again. As soon as I arrived, I begged for permission to use the typewriter again, and as soon as I had rolled a sheet of paper into it, I wrote myself back onto Kittiwake Island, in my paperboy disguise, carrying my newspapers, and I immediately set off in search of Larry—and Lucy.

I DISCOVERED THEM on a small beach on the south side of the island, stretched out side-by-side on a blanket on the sand. For a while, I observed them from a distance, close enough to overhear their conversation, but not close enough for them to notice me.

Lucy yawned elaborately.

“I’m bored,” she said.

“I knew that,” said Larry. “Your elaborate yawn gave you away.” 

“I wish something would happen to alleviate my boredom,” said Lucy.

“Maybe you should invite some of your girlfriends over from the mainland. I could baste them with suntan lotion. That would be fun.”

“Fun for you.”

“Their squeals of delight would alleviate your boredom.”

“Not much—and besides they complain that it’s hard to get here.”

“They’re right. It is.”

“Dad’s put so much work into making this place invulnerable that nobody wants to come here.”

“Yeah.”

“We’re prisoners on this island.”

“Yeah.”

“Like Napoleon on Elbow.”

“Elba.”

“What?”

“Elba, not Elbow. Napoleon was exiled to Elba.”

“An island, right?”

“Right.”

“He must have been bored out of his skull.”

She rolled onto her back and put her sunglasses on.

“There is absolutely nothing to do here,” she said.

“Say! I’ve got an idea,” said Larry. “We could offer our services to Dad for the summer. He’d find plenty for us to do. He’s always got extra work on the new fall line of gewgaws.”

Lucy lowered her sunglasses and looked at Larry over the top of the frame.

“Please,” she said. 

Time passed. I crept closer. Lucy yawned again.

“I heard you the first time,” said Larry. “You’re still bored.”

“Yes, I am,” she said, “now, here, today, right here, right now, on this stretch of shoreline on Kittiwake Island, I’m still bored.”

“You know what Dad would say to that.”

“He would say, ‘People who are bored are boring.’”

“Right.”

“But he doesn’t have to endure a summer on this island with nothing to do. He has his work, and that occupies most of his waking hours.”

“Much of his dream time, too, I suspect,” said Larry.

“You know,” Lucy said suddenly, animated for a moment, raising herself to look at Larry earnestly, “just at this moment I envy him his work. I wish that I had something like that to occupy me so completely that it would keep the deadly stultifying boredom at bay.”

“Hmmm,” said Larry.

“‘Hmmm,’ what?”

“It just occurred to me that when your Boredom Quotient reaches this level, something totally unexpected usually happens to shatter the calm of our idyllic island existence—”

“—you mean our totally boring island existence—”

“—and send us off on another of our thrilling adventures.”

“Send you off on another of your adventures, you mean. No matter where you go or what thrilling adventures you manage to get into, I’m always left here with Mom, bored to tears.”

She let herself fall to the blanket, and rolled over onto her belly again. Larry ran his eyes along the length of her. From a distance, so did I, and then, suddenly, I called out, “Hello!” I hadn’t intended to call out “Hello!” or anything else, but I couldn’t help myself. It just burst from me. Some part of me not under my control must have insisted on my letting Lucy know that the fascinating new paperboy, Peter Leroy, had returned.

Startled by the sound of my voice, they looked in my direction.

“What the hell was that?” asked Larry.

“It was someone calling ‘Hello!’” said Lucy.

“Then who the hell was that?”

“Oh! It’s that fascinating new paperboy, Peter Leroy,” gushed Lucy. 

“Oh—that jerk,” snarled Larry.

“Hello, Peter!” squealed Lucy.

I waved and hastened to her side, arriving a little out of breath.

“Hi,” I gasped.

Lucy smiled and said, provocatively, “Hi, to you, too, Peter Leroy.”

Larry smirked and said, aggressively, “How are things in Glocca Morra, kid?”

I recognized the insult in “kid,” and I recognized the challenge to a battle of wits in “How are things in Glocca Morra?”

For an instant, I felt anger, because of the insult, but in another instant, I felt pity, because I understood Larry’s resentment of my intrusion, his fear that I might usurp him as Boy Number One on Kittiwake Island, and in understanding that I think that I even understood the meaning of tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, in a twelve-year-old’s way, even though a couple of years would pass before I heard it in Mr. MacPherson’s French class, and quite a few years before I saw it in the last chapter of War and Peace, and more years still before I decided that it was bullshit.

I smiled, and I was about to say, “Well, I’ve never been to Glocca Morra, but I’d be very surprised if things in Glocca Morra were as boring as things in Murky Bay—before I arrived,” but Lucy spoke first.

With a sneer she told Larry, “That remark does not deserve a response.”

To me she said, “You’ve come to alleviate my boredom, haven’t you, Peter?”

“Well—ah—I—ah,” I said.

“Aren’t you the eloquent one,” she said.

That stung. I resolved to say nothing until I had something clever to say. So I stood there saying nothing at all and wondering what had gone wrong, what was going wrong now.

I’d expected that Larry and I would be friends, but he seemed to think differently. Not only did he not want me to be his friend, but he actually seemed to think of me as an enemy. I’d expected Lucy to—well—to be honest, I’d expected her to fall in love with me. I’d thought, in a vague sort of way, that she’d take me by the hand and lead me along the shore to a small cove, quiet, secluded, and picturesque, where she and I—

“Cat got your tongue?”she asked.

“Huh?” said I.

“You became silent and distant, as if you had gone into a trance or drifted far away from us.”

“I did drift away,” I said, shyly, and possibly blushing slightly, “but not far. I was having an adventure—in my mind.”

“This kid is nuts!” said Larry. “Totally nuts! An adventure in his mind!”

“Pay no attention to him,” said Lucy. “Tell me—how are you going to do it?”

“Do it?”

“Alleviate my boredom. How are you going to do it”

“I—well—I—don’t know.”

“Oh. That’s disappointing, Peter.”

“Sorry, but I don’t know how to alleviate your boredom. I just don’t.”

“What do you do when you’re bored? How do you alleviate your boredom?”

“I—well—”

“Well? Don’t you know?”

“Yes! I do know. I’m doing it now.”

“Huh?” said she.

“I’m alleviating my boredom now. Being here, with you, is alleviating my boredom. I alleviated my boredom by going somewhere, not where I was, somewhere not boring.”

“So you came here? To the epicenter of boredom?”

“Well, yes.”

Why?”

“Well—I guess it was because—well—everything I’ve read about life on Kittiwake Island made me feel sure that—well—that I’d find adventure here.”

“Not today, apparently,” she said. “Besides, it doesn’t work that way. Adventure isn’t just waiting here. Most of the time, there’s nothing going on here that even remotely resembles adventure—take it from me.”

“Oh. I—well—I guess I’ve been misled.”

“Oh, it’s true that once in a great while, adventure comes here. It’s thrust upon us, out of the blue, when we least expect it.”

“Oh. Sure. I remember that now.”

“You remember that?”

“I remember reading about the way adventures are thrust upon you.”

She gave me a puzzled look. “Okay,” she said. “If you say so.”

“What a jerk,” muttered Larry.

I did remember the way adventures were thrust upon the Kittiwake island clan, sending Larry and his father, Edgar Peters, the renowned inventor and gewgaw magnate, hurrying off to parts unknown, and I wished he would take off for Glocca Morra or someplace immediately.

Just then, Mr. Peters came running up. A heavyset man, he was puffing and wheezing when he reached us.“There you are, Larry!” he gasped. “I’ve been looking all over for you. We’ve got to leave right away!”

“Leave?” said Lucy.

“Yes!” Said Mr. Peters. “Adventure has been thrust upon us once again! We’re off to Glocca Morra!”

“Glocca Morra! Does Glocca Morra really exist, Dad?” asked Larry.

“I suppose so,” said Mr. Peters, “but I have to admit that I don’t know anything about Glocca Morra but its name—to me it’s one of those ‘parts unknown.’”

“Gosh, Dad,” said Lucy, “I thought you knew everything!”

Turning to me, Mr. Peters said, “Perhaps you know something about Glocca Morra, lad?”

“Just the name,” I admitted.

“He’s a jerk,” said Larry. “What’s happening in Glocca Morra, Dad?”

“We’ll find out when we get there!” said Mr. Peters, “Let’s get going!”

“Have fun, you two,” said Lucy.

“Sure will!” said Larry. “Keep the home fires burning.”

They hurried off. Lucy stood there with her head down, staring at the sand, sniffling.

“I’ve got an idea,” I said, because I wanted to say something that would cheer her up.

She said nothing.

“Why don’t we try doing what I did—going somewhere else—somewhere where we might find adventure?”

“Fine with me,” she said gloomily, “but where are we going to go. Glocca Morra is taken.”

“Well—I—”

I had no idea. I looked around frantically, as if some promising place might appear out of nowhere.

“How about that island out there in Murky Bay,” I suggested.

“What island?” she asked. “This is the only island in—oh my God—there is an island out there. Where did that come from?”

“I’m not sure that it is an island,” I said. “I think it’s moving.”

“Come on!” she said, taking me by the hand and dragging me off with her. “We’re going to row out there and investigate. There’s something strange about an island that moves.” Suddenly she stopped and turned to me “You’ve done it!” she said. “I could kiss you!”

She did.

And I decided to become a writer.

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Frontispiece illustration from The Botched Experiment: A Larry Peters Adventure

The problem of other minds is the problem of how to justify the almost universal belief that others have minds very like our own.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition)

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“One must be indulgent to little weaknesses; who is free from them? . . . We should enter into everyone’s situation. Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.”

Maria Bolkonskaya to her brother, Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky, in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace

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Misdirected
Frontispiece illustration from The Waylaid Honeymooners: A Larry Peters Adventure

I remember [Meyer] Schapiro telling us that before Cézanne, there had always been a place in landscape painting where the viewer could walk into the picture. There was an entrance; you could go there, like walking into a park. But this was not true of Cézanne’s landscapes, which were cut off absolutely, abstracted from their context. You could not walk into them—you could enter them only through art, by leaping.

Anatole Broyard

Kafka Was the Rage

 

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Copyright © 2019 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved.

Issue Number 13

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He saw a nameless little boy, sitting on a dilapidated dock, in the sunny warmth of a summer day, dabbling his feet in the water . . .

Risking the Ridiculous

An Interview with Eric Kraft, Part One

FOR ALL OF HIS ADULT LIFE, Eric Kraft has been working to construct a single large work of fiction, The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy. (That is not to say that he has been working on it all the time throughout all of his adult life, although his wife, Madeline, who insisted that he stop driving after finding once too often that the green light he seemed to see at an intersection was shining in another world, might contend that such a characterization would be accurate. We mean merely that he has worked on it for some time nearly every day from the age of eighteen onward, if we count thinking as working.) The Personal History is composed of many smaller parts interconnected in intricate ways, like a complex machine or a multi-celled organism or a human society or a bowl of clam chowder.

FunHouseMirror
Eric Kraft: Self Portrait with Muse

The Babbington Review: When did you begin this voluminous work?

Eric Kraft: I’m going to say that my work began one cold afternoon in the winter of 1962, when I was dozing over a German lesson, because that was when I discovered the central character, that muddleheaded dreamer, Peter Leroy. I had settled myself comfortably at a large table on the first floor of Lamont Library, and—

TBR: Lamont Library at Harvard?

EK: Yes, at Harvard. I had settled myself—

TBR: You were an undergraduate?

EK: Yes. I was a sophomore. so—there I was, on that cold afternoon, settled comfortably at a large table. My feet were up; my chair was tilted back; the room was warm, overheated; I was tired. I dozed. When I woke up, I was lying on the floor. 

TBR: Lying on the floor? Why was that?

EK: The chair had tipped over. My feet were up. [demonstrates] While I was asleep, I must have shifted on the tipped chair so that the center of gravity shifted, and over I went.

TBR: Not an auspicious beginning.

EK: Well, I didn’t know that it was the beginning of anything, so I didn’t think of it as inauspicious—I just thought it was embarrassing. There I was—flat on my back—or there we were—

TBR: “We”?

EK: The chair and I—both of us—flat on our backs. My books were scattered around me, people were laughing, and I was embarrassed. I gathered my things and rushed out of the library. Outside, in the cold air, the memory of a dream returned to me, something I had dreamt while I was dozing. In the dream, or at least in the memory of it, I saw a nameless little boy, sitting on a dilapidated dock, in the sunny warmth of a summer day, dabbling his feet in the water. He was playing a game. He was trying to bring the soles of his bare feet as close as he could to the surface of the water without touching it. The memory of that dream has never left me, and it continues to surprise me.

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Another of Babbington’s docks

TBR: That’s the origin story?

EK: It is.

TBR: Is it true?

EK: Well—

TBR: I’m asking because it sounds rehearsed.

EK: Well, I’ve told that little story about falling asleep in the library many times—so many times over so many years that I no longer know exactly which parts of it are true. I think that all the details are true, but I also think that in fact they were widely separated in time and unrelated. Over the years, I’ve brought them closer together to make a story, improving their relationship without really altering the truth of any one of them, although I have certainly altered the truth of the totality of them. 

TBR: That sounds rehearsed, too, by the way.

EK: It is. It’s rehearsed. It’s my origin story, and I’ve told it many times. Didn’t you catch the theme?

TBR: Lying?

EK: Let’s call it the impulse to improve on the past. It’s an impulse that’s always been with me and it’s one of the traits that I’ve given to the character who grew from the little boy on the dilapidated dock—

TBR: —Peter Leroy—

EK: —who became—

TBR: —the character at the center of all your work, and the narrator of most of it.

EK: Yes.

[a pause]

TBR: And?

EK: I was pausing for effect.

TBR: Oh.

EK: Years passed. 

TBR: I get it.

EK: From time to time the memory of the dream returned to me, and from time to time the dream itself returned. 

TBR: It became an obsession.

EK: No—it wasn’t an obsession—not then. It may be now, but it wasn’t then. It was just a pleasant amusement, a diversion, a vacation from whatever I was working on, thinking about, or worrying about. I could drift into that dream and play with it—and in playing with it, exploring it, I began improving it.

TBR: Yielding to that impulse of yours.

ELK: Exactly. I added a context for the boy—an island, where the dock was, an abandoned building on the island—a grand house or an abandoned hotel—I wasn’t sure which—a gray bay, and the mainland, the town of Babbington. I wrote none of this down. 

TBR: Sounds rehearsed again. I mean, “I wrote none of this down.”

EK: Okay. I’ve explained that.

TBR: Right.

EK: Shall I continue?

TBR: Of course. That’s why you’re here.

EK: Right. That’s why I’m here. Well—what I was doing at that time wasn’t writing—not yet. I had no intention or expectation of making a piece of writing out of my explorations. I was daydreaming. Soon, however—

TBR: That sounds like the beginning of a lengthy bit. Do you mind if we take a short break here?

EK: No. Of course not.

[time passes]

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A Bowl of Clam Chowder: The Personal History is composed of many smaller parts interconnected in intricate ways, like a complex machine or a multi-celled organism or a human society or a bowl of clam chowder.

TBR: We’re back. Do you want to pick it up at “Soon, however—“?

EK: Sure. [clears throat] Soon, however, like most people who read books, I began to want to write one of my own. Like most people who want to write books, I really wanted to write a book about myself. I tried, but I couldn’t do it.

TBR: You couldn’t do it? 

EK: I couldn’t do it.

TBR: At all?

EK: Oh, I did something—but I didn’t make anything worth keeping.

TBR: What was the problem? I mean—a hell of a lot of people seem to find it easy to write about themselves—ad nauseam.

EK: I my case, the problem was that I was too close to my subject. My feelings toward my protagonist were ambiguous. I wanted him to be something better than he was, but I wished that he could learn to live more comfortably with himself as he was, and I wished that he could learn to laugh at himself now and then. 

TBR: True of most of us, I suppose.

EK: If we’re being honest with ourselves.

TBR: Are we everreallytruly?

EK: An interesting question. [pauses] So—I began wanting to trip him up, play practical jokes on him, deflate him. In anything I tried to write, I seemed—more and more often—to be about to make the man on the page take a pratfall, and since he was me I didn’t want him falling down in any book I wrote about him.

TBR: Look—I have to be somewhere in half an hour. Can you bring this to a good stopping point—for this installment?

EK: I can. I can even give you a cliffhanger.

TBR: Knock yourself out.

EK: In 1969 or 1970—a miracle occurred. I found another protagonist, and with that other protagonist, I found my life’s work.

TBR: You’re talking about—

EK: —that little boy who had been sitting on a dock in a dream. 

TBR: And with that, you were off and running.

EK: Not quite. I didn’t just jump in and start writing Peter Leroy’s personal history. No. What I began with was nothing like what the work has become—but it was a beginning. I began writing about that dream. I was still trying to write about myself, of course, but as I explored the dream I began the process that would eventually push me out of the story.

TBR: Okay. Let’s stop there for now.


The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy

Little Follies

Herb ’n’ Lorna

Reservations Recommended

Where Do You Stop?

What a Piece of Work I Am

At Home with the Glynns

Leaving Small’s Hotel

Inflating a Dog

Passionate Spectator

Flying

Persistence

Albertine’s Overcoat

The Babbington Review


“Is it not superfluous to write more than one novel if the writer has not become, say, a new man?  Obviously, all the novels of an author not infrequently belong together and are to a certain degree only one novel.”

Friedrich Schlegel

Aphorisms from the Lyceum

(translated by Ernst Behler and Roman Struc)

 

He had been making conjectures about his own history, as he had often made stories about Pericles or Columbus, just to fill up the blanks before they became famous. Only there came back certain facts which had an obstinate reality,—almost like the fragments of a bridge, telling you unmistakably how the arches lay. 

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

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The First Lesson in Kraft’s First-Year German Text at Harvard, German: A Comprehensive Course for College Students, by John W. Kurtz and Heinz Politzer. The passage to be memorized begins: Robert Meyer schreibt einen Brief an seine alte Lehrerin. Liebe Frau Martin! Ich bin nun endlich in München und sitze hier in meinem Zimmer bei Frau Brenner in der Schellingstrasse. . . .

 

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Observe that it is with his tears that man washes the afflictions of man, and that it is with his laughter that sometimes he soothes and charms his heart. . . . 

To take one of the most commonplace examples in life, what is there so delightful in the sight of a man falling on the ice or in the street, or stumbling at the end of a pavement, that the countenance of his brother in Christ should contract in such an intemperate manner, and the muscles of his face should suddenly leap into life like a timepiece at midday or a clockwork toy? The poor devil has disfigured himself, at the very least; he may even have broken an essential member. Nevertheless the laugh has gone forth, sudden and irrepressible. It is certain that if you care to explore this situation, you will find a certain unconscious pride at the core of the laugher’s thought. That is the point of departure. “Look at me! I am not falling,” he seems to say. . . .

   The man who trips would be the last to laugh at his own fall, unless he happened to be a philosopher, one who had acquired by habit a power of rapid self-division and thus of assisting as a disinterested spectator at the phenomena of his own ego. But such cases are rare.

Charles Baudelaire, “On the Essence of Laughter”

 

“Later, when I remembered my dealings with Kraft, I thought with wonderment of his ability to give so much selfless attention to other people’s business at a time so critical for him and to explain so clearly and calmly things that didn’t concern him.”

Arkady Dolgoruky, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent

 

He added a context for the boy—an island, where the old dock was, an abandoned building on the island—a grand house, perhaps, or an abandoned hotel—he wasn’t sure which, a gray bay, and the mainland, where the town of Babbington lay. He wrote none of this down. This was not writing—not yet. He had no intention or expectation of making a piece of writing out of his explorations. He was daydreaming.

GrayBay

 

He began by creating landscapes; then he created cities; then he created streets and cross streets, one by one, sculpting them out of the substance of his soul — street by street, neighborhood after neighborhood, out to the sea walls of the wharfs, where he then created the ports . . . street by street, and the people who walked them or gazed down at them from their windows . . . He began to know some of the people, at first just barely recognizing them, but then becoming familiar with their past lives and their conversations, and he dreamed all this as if it were mere scenery to delight the eyes . . . Then he traveled, with his memory, through the country he’d created . . . And thus he created his past . . . Soon he had another previous life . . . In this new homeland he already had a birthplace, places where he’d grown up, and ports from where he’d set sail . . . He began to acquire childhood playmates, and then friends and enemies from his youth . . . It was all different from what he’d actually lived. Neither the country, nor its people, nor even his own past were like the ones that had really existed . . .

Fernando Pessoa, The Mariner

 

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Another of Babbington’s docks

 

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Copyright © 2018 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved.

Issue Number 12

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B. W. Beath, “September 15, 2005, 5:53:45 PM” from the series Metropolitan Messages

They Embrace. They Kiss Passionately.

Peter Leroy

 

EARLY ONE MORNING, in the Beath-Manning apartment in Manhattan, BW Beath bends to pick up an envelope that has been pushed under the door.

BW (to himself): Ah, I see that it is that time of year again.

He takes the envelope into his bathroom, where he props it at the back of the sink. He begins shaving, but from time to time he pauses to glance at the envelope. Sometimes he squints at it, as if trying to see inside it. Sometimes he frowns at it. Once or twice he growls at it.

He finishes shaving and takes the envelope with him when he leaves his bathroom. For a moment he hesitates outside the bathroom door. He’s considering returning the envelope to its place under the door and letting the beautiful Miranda discover it on her own. He frowns. He recognizes that that would be the coward’s way out.

BW (jauntily, as he strides through the kitchen and the dining area to the living area, where Miranda is staring out the window at an ice storm): My darling, it’s that time of year again!

Miranda: Do you mean April, “dressed in all his trim,” that “hath put a spirit of youth in everything”?

BW: I mean April, “the cruelest month,” that hath brought the lease-renewal notice.

He hands the envelope to her. She looks at it and growls.

BW: My sentiments exactly!

They embrace. They kiss passionately.

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B. W. Beath, “July 27, 2013, 6:06:12 PM” (detail), from the series Metropolitan Messages

 

BW and the beautiful Miranda sit at a round table in a tiny room in the offices of their apartment building’s management team, facing the Property Manager. The building is marketed as a “luxury building.” The laminated surface of the table is lifting off in two places. The chairs around it do not match.

Property Manager (tenting his fingers and assuming the tone of a veterinarian who is about to recommend putting Frisky down): I’m afraid there is nothing I can do about the rent increase. My hands are tied.

Miranda (sotto voce): If only.

Property Manager: Ms. Manning?

Miranda: Can you at least do something about the noise in the gym?

Property Manager: Ah! I received your email about that. You asked us to turn the radio down. (He pauses.) Other people have asked us to make it louder!

Miranda (after a moment of stunned silence): Could you at least play different music?

Property Manager (with a false smile meant to suggest magnanimity): What would you like?

Miranda: Bach.

Property Manager (after taking his turn at a moment of stunned silence): Oh—that’s a good one! You had me going there for a minute. Bach! In a gym! You’ve got a sense of humor! (rising to indicate that as far as he’s concerned the meeting is over) Bach! In a gym!

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B. W. Beath, “January 9, 2016, 2:45:28 PM” (detail), from the series Metropolitan Messages

 

BW and Miranda leave the Joyce Theater after seeing the Lar Lubovich Dance Company perform “Little Rhapsodies,” a portion of “Othello,” “Something About Night,” and “Men’s Stories.” They begin walking on Eighth Avenue. 

Miranda: The idiot who reviewed them for the Times should be turned out to pasture and left there until he is a little pile of dust.

BW: Along with the idiot a few places to my right who kept turning a phone on and off.

Miranda: I didn’t notice that. 

BW: And I didn’t read the review.

Miranda: No one should have. Basically, the egotistical little shit declared that Lubovich’s “fine craftsmanship,” the “technical finesse of the company’s excellent dancers,” and the “attractive” style of the choreography, failed to earn his respect.

BW: Really? Why? Was he blinded by the bright light of someone’s phone?

Miranda: He was blinded by the bright light of self-love. He actually admitted that he wasn’t capable of explaining what he thought was wrong except that the work “made little impression” on him, because he wanted “something more,” or “something else.”

BW (in the voice of a whining child): “The work should have been made for me, just for me, and I’m damned annoyed that it wasn’t.”

Miranda murmurs inaudibly.

BW: Was that a curse, hex, or malediction?

Miranda: Yes, it was.

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B. W. Beath, “September 15, 2005, 5:53:16 PM” from the series Metropolitan Messages

 

Miranda and BW hear the Vera Quartet play works by Haydn, Adès, and Britten at the New School’s auditorium on West 12th Street, as part of the Schneider concert series.

They join the rest of the aged audience in enthusiastic applause. As an encore, the players give Joaquín Turina’s “La Oración del Torero” (“The Bullfighter’s Prayer”).

Afterward, during their walk toward midtown, to get buradi rolls at Biryani Cart, BW is unusually silent. Miranda is ebullient.

Miranda: There are times when I’m glad I’m alive, and today is one of them. I love the young players we hear here, and I love the young students who are revolting against the culture of violence, and—what’s wrong?

BW: At the end of the bullfighter’s prayer, what did you hear?

Miranda (thinking that this may be a joke): Two violins, a viola, and a cello.

BW: I mean, what did the final strains say to you?

Miranda (still expecting a joke): What did they say to you?

BW: “Memento mori.”

Miranda: Ah. I see. Well, I think I heard “Carpe diem.”

BW: Two sides of the same coin?

Miranda (no longer expecting a joke, drawing him near): Perhaps.

 

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The question was, What to write about? . . . I had read that one writes because one has something to say. I could not see that I had anything to say except that I was alive.

V. S. Pritchett, Midnight Oil

 

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John William Waterhouse, “Miranda, The Tempest” (detail)

 

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Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; . . . and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974)

 

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BW and Miranda are shivering. For the third morning in a row, their apartment has no heat.

Building maintenance has notified them that there is “a problem” with “the boiler.” Maintenance assures them that they have had “a vendor” in to look it over.

BW: Apparently, looking it over hasn’t solved the problem.

Miranda: I want to get out of here.

BW: Move?

Miranda: Possibly, but right now I’ll settle for a visit to a nice warm supermarket. 

BW: Oh. Shopping.

Miranda: I’m afraid so. We need things.

As they cross the lobby, their progress is interrupted by a fellow tenant whom I will call Christopher, because that is not his name, and his privacy ought to be respected, I think.

Christopher (stepping in front of them, flashing a smile): Do you think I could fly an airplane?

Miranda: We’re on an urgent errand, Christopher.

Christopher: Just tell me—do you think I could fly an airplane? A big one? For a major airline?

Miranda (squeezing gracefully past him): Possibly, but not one that I was on.

Christopher: Why do you say that?

Miranda: Christopher, I think you’re a nice man, but I would not be on a plane that you were going to fly.

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B. W. Beath, “September 18, 2010, 1:35:08 PM” from the series Metropolitan Messages

 

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He always liked to spread his meals out, to make them last longer. A drink of water to wash the food down, and he returned to the middle of the cage, where he proceeded to conduct a few intimate researches with his beak under his left wing. After which he mewed like a cat, and relapsed into silent meditation once more. He closed his eyes and pondered on his favourite problem—Why was he a parrot?

P. G. Wodehouse, Jill the Reckless

 

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The problem of other minds is the problem of how to justify the almost universal belief that others have minds very like our own.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition)

 

BW and Miranda have had an excellent lunch at Pera Mediterranean Grill on Madison Avenue.

Miranda pays the check. She adds a twenty percent tip. The waiter collects the completed paperwork. He smiles at them both, leans toward them, and speaks in a lower-than-usual voice.

Waiter: Thank you. It was good to see you. You’re nice people.

He leaves. Miranda watches him go. She turns to BW, shaking her head.

Miranda: That was depressing.

BW: It certainly was. “Nice people”? Outrageous. Egg salad on white bread: nice sandwich.

Miranda: I don’t mean that. I don’t mind being seen as a nice person. I think I am a nice person.

BW: Then what was depressing about it?

Miranda: If he was spontaneously inspired to tell us that we’re “nice people,” think of all the shits he must have to deal with every day.

BW: Oh. 

Miranda: Doesn’t that thought depress you?

BW: It does now.

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B. W. Beath, “April 5, 2017, 3:05:00 PM” from the series Metropolitan Messages

 

BW and Miranda are in the kitchen of their apartment. They are in the process of making dinner. BW opens the oven door to check the roasting progress of a pork loin coated with cracked peppercorns. Miranda is flash-frying shishito peppers in a large pan on the stovetop.

The smoke detector in the hallway adjacent to the kitchen begins screaming at them. The one in the den joins it. The one in the guest bedroom does, too.

For a moment, Miranda and BW seem startled. Then they sigh in unison. 

BW: I should have disconnected them before we began. It may interest you to know that a man in Barton, Vermont, annoyed by frequent false alarms from the smoke detector in the kitchen of his apartment, “disarmed” it with two shots from a 20-gauge shotgun.

Miranda (slowly, thoughtfully): How much does a shotgun cost?

BW (from a step stool, while ripping a smoke detector from its mounting bracket): That depends.  I discovered that they come in many sizes and configurations. The 12-gauge models seem to be most widely used by hunters. The 20-gauge used by your hero up in Barton, Vermont, is a lighter gun, and apparently less powerful, despite the higher gauge number. I found an H&R 1871 Pardner Pump Youth Model 20-gauge online for $160.82 and a Charles Daly 101 Single Barrel Break Action 12-gauge for $163.14. Of course, there would be shipping, and tax, and we’d need ammunition.

Miranda (narrowing her eyes, contemplating the smoke detector): I might want a 12-gauge. 

BW: I can understand that, but my research leads me to conclude that a 12-gauge would be—

Miranda (after a moment): I’m waiting for it.

BW: Overkill.

They embrace. They kiss passionately.

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B. W. Beath, “April 5, 2017, 3:05:00 PM” from the series Metropolitan Messages

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Copyright 2018 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved.

Issue Number 11

Realism in the Service of Romance

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B. W. Beath, “View of Central Park, June 20, 2007”

Eric Kraft

ONE DAY, while Madeline and I were strolling arm in arm through Central Park, that island of greenery in New York’s urban environment, playing the part of a couple from the nineteenth century, I found myself thinking about realism, not from a reader’s or critic’s point of view but from a writer’s point of view; that is, as a set of aspirations and techniques employed by writers—or other artists, for that matter—rather than as a result of those aspirations and techniques. During the ensuing days and weeks, I found myself wondering more and more about the aspirations of writers—particularly Henry James—who use the techniques of realism to create the illusion of reality as a cloak for a romance.

THE CENTRAL PARK SETTING suggested that a revealing comparison might be made between the aspirations of such writers and the aspirations of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed the landscape. Parts of the park announce themselves as urban and planned, but other sections—in particular “The Ramble”—seem to have been left in a natural state, as bits of wilderness in the heart of the city. The truth is that all of Central Park is an artificial environment, with false hills, false lakes, and imported trees. It is a distillation of nature—naturalistic, but not natural.

In parts of the park, I think I can detect the designers’ desire to create a work that would inspire the awe and wonder and joy that nature inspires, and to achieve that effect in a more compact and richer way than nature herself ordinarily does. To bring a taste of the sublime to the urban stroller on a rushed lunch break requires a landscape more than real, enriched by concentration, like a sauce made by reduction.

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Plan of Central Park prepared by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux for inclusion in the Thirteenth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park, January 1st 1870. The Ramble, identified by the numeral 34, is to the left of the proposed Croton Reservoir (south of it). Wikimedia Commons.

Olmsted envisioned the Ramble as a romantic “wild garden.” After the terrain was cleared of undesirable stone and plant life, and after its swampy wetlands were filled, a forest of richly varied trees, shrubs, and flowers was planted. A stream was created and made to wind through the landscape, forming pools and splashing down rocky slopes before emptying into the Lake. Charming paths, rustic bridges, a mysterious cave, an ancient-looking stone arch, and exotic birds . . . provided additional fairy-tale touches.

Richard J. Berenson and Raymond Carroll, The Complete Illustrated Map and Guidebook to Central Park (Sterling, 2008)

In the case of our Park it must be remembered that for the site on which it was decided to plant it, nature had hardly expended the slightest effort. . . . A more unpromising locality was never given to any Adam to make an Eden of, and few persons who have not watched the progress of the Park from its commencement can fully understand that its present condition is almost entirely an artificial product. Nature having done almost nothing, art had to do all. And yet art . . . has been able to produce a result, which, on the whole, so closely resembles nature, that it is no wonder if the superficial observer does not clearly see how vast is the amount of work that had to be performed before the Park could reach its present perfection. Nowhere in the Park, as it seems to us, has the result achieved been more worthy of the money, labor, and thought expended to produce it, than in the Ramble. Here at least we may be thankful that the Commissioners have not been content with merely “letting alone.” For the Ramble is, in almost every square foot of it, a purely artificial piece of landscape gardening. Yet the art of concealing art was hardly ever better illustrated.

Clarence Cook, A Description of the New York Central Park (New York: F. J Huntington and Co., 1869)

HENRY JAMES explained his view of the difference between realism and romance in his preface to the New York Edition of The American in 1907. There he said that romance deals with

experience liberated, so to speak; experience disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered, exempt from the conditions that we usually know to attach to it and, if we wish so to put the matter, drag upon it.

In a lighthearted image, he likens the effect of romance to the lifting power of a lighter-than-air balloon:

The balloon of experience is in fact of course tied to the earth, and under that necessity we swing, thanks to a rope of remarkable length, in the more or less commodious car of the imagination; but it is by the rope we know where we are, and from the moment that cable is cut we are at large and unrelated: we only swing apart from the globe—though remaining as exhilarated, naturally, as we like, especially when all goes well. 

Then he turns to the art of the romancer:

The art of the romancer is, “for the fun of it,” insidiously to cut the cable, to cut it without our detecting him. 

However, he goes on to contradict himself somewhat, because he says that for the reader of a romance there remains

. . . our general sense of the way things happen—it abides with us indefeasibly, as readers of fiction, from the moment we demand that our fiction shall be intelligible; and there is our particular sense of the way they don’t happen, which is liable to wake up unless reflection and criticism, in us, have been skillfully and successfully drugged. There are drugs enough, clearly—it is all a question of applying them with tact; in which case the way things don’t happen may be artfully made to pass for the way things do.

He seems to say that the reader, even if skillfully and successfully drugged, must be allowed enough contact with the reassuring earthly sense of the way things happen to keep the fiction intelligible.

I THINK that many artists—including writers who are romancers—are tempted to show the audience—or at least that part of the audience that is worthy of the favor—how the trick is done, how the art is made, how the cable has been cut so tactfully and insidiously that the cutting has gone unnoticed. Why do I think that? Because in the company of some writers, after a few drinks, I have heard them discourse on the power of that temptation and describe with glee specific times when they have given in to it. Having thus been alerted to the phenomenon, I have become quite good at spotting it in print. For example, while I was rereading James’s The Bostonians, this passage brought me up short:

Basil Ransome lived in New York, rather far to the eastward, and in the upper reaches of the town; he occupied two small shabby rooms in a somewhat decayed mansion which stood next to the corner of the Second Avenue. The corner itself was formed by a considerable grocer’s shop. . . . The house had a red, rusty face, and faded green shutters, of which the slats were limp and at variance with each other. . . . The two sides of the shop were protected by an immense penthouse shed, which projected over a greasy pavement and was supported by wooden posts fixed in the curbstone. Beneath it, on the dislocated flags, barrels and baskets were freely and picturesquely grouped; an open cellarway yawned beneath the feet of those who might pause to gaze too fondly on the savory wares displayed in the window; a strong odor of smoked fish, combined with a fragrance of molasses, hung about the spot; the pavement, toward the gutters, was fringed with dirty panniers, heaped with potatoes, carrots, and onions . . .

The passage struck me so forcibly because it was the first time in my rereading that I had encountered James using techniques of realism so directly. I hadn’t found much of this kind of realistic precision elsewhere in his work, but this passage has the vividness and accuracy of a photograph. 

Let me quote further, because I soon found James giving the game away, winking at the reader, and displaying the rope that holds the balloon:

I mention it not on account of any particular influence it may have had on the life or the thought of Basil Ransome, but for old acquaintance sake and that of local color; besides which, a figure is nothing without a setting, and our young man came and went every day, with rather an indifferent, unperceiving step, it is true, among the objects I have briefly designated.

James has, for reasons of his own, chosen to tell us that what we have read about the decayed mansion on Second Avenue and the grocer’s shop on the corner next to it isn’t part of the romance at all. It’s there to satisfy what he referred to as “our general sense of the way things happen.” The shop is one of the spots where the rope of the balloon of romance was tethered to the earth before the rope was cut . . . and here he is at least momentarily tying it back to its mooring there . . . just to show us that he can.

WHAT MIGHT Basil Ransome’s New York have looked like? Well, it would have looked something like what we see in the images of New York in the Nineteenth Century that follow.

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Fifth Avenue, photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons

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Ladies’ Mile, photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons

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Wall Street, photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons

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Fifth Avenue and 14th Street, photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons

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Mulberry Street, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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Mott Street between Bleecker and Houston, Jacob Riis, Wikimedia Commons

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Tenement Yard, Jacob Riis, Wikimedia Commons

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Bandit’s Roost, Jacob Riis, Wikimedia Commons

These images do not float free. They are solidly tied to the earth, and the rope that ties them is short and sturdy. You would have to work hard to cut these images free. They do not show disconnected and uncontrolled experiences: they depict experiences that are entirely controlled by our sense of the way things happen. Or do they? We’ll return to that question a little later.

WHEN I THINK of realism in literature, I think of Balzac, of course. One mark of Balzac’s realism—one that I think of as an essential element of realism—is an interest in the broadest possible range of the real world out there, including its people, their occupations, their lives, their travails, their burdens, and their stories. In this, in his range, Balzac is unequaled.

In contrast, James’s world, the world of James’s work, is almost laughably narrow. Ignoring for a moment Basil Ransome’s neighborhood, it is a moneyed world, peopled largely by snobs who disdain anyone whom they consider vulgar. They seem almost to have a fear of vulgarity, as if it might be catching.

James knew himself as a romancer, but he also knew that he owed a large debt to Balzac because it was from Balzac’s work that he learned the techniques of realism, the techniques that James used to lend verisimilitude to his romances.

Balzac, in contrast, had a real desire to document the life of his times, the way things happened, as well as to tell romances about the way things didn’t happen. Balzac was not “a documentarian,” as the sneering writer of an introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of one of James’s novels called him, though he was adept at the techniques of documentary.

James makes a reference to Balzac in the scene in The Princess Casamassima in which Hyacinth calls on Lady Aurora, at her invitation, to choose some books to borrow.  James writes that

There were certain members of an intensely modern school, advanced and scientific realists, of whom Hyacinth had heard and on whom he had long desired to put his hand; but, evidently, none of them had ever stumbled into Lady Aurora’s candid collection, though she did possess a couple of Balzac’s novels, which, by ill-luck, happened to be just those that Hyacinth had read more than once.

Is James saying here, “I’m no Balzac, and I neither pretend to be nor desire to be”? Maybe. Let’s come back to that question. 

NOW I want to make a distinction between art and documentary, between an artist and a documentarian.

For a definition of art, I’ll turn to Flaubert, who is, of course, widely regarded as a realist of the first order (though as we shall see shortly he ought to be regarded as a romancer who employed techniques of realism). Writing to Louise Colet on August 26, 1853, Flaubert said:

I am devoured now by a need for metamorphoses. I would like to write everything I see, not just as it is, but transfigured. An exact account of the most magnificent real fact would be impossible for me. I would still need to embroider it.

In The Perpetual Orgy, his wonderful book about Flaubert and Madame Bovary, Mario Vargas Llosa pointed out that that remark sums up the relation between fiction and reality in what he called “novelistic creation”: 

the point of departure is real reality (“everything I see”), life in the broadest sense . . . but this material is never narrated “exactly”; it is always “transfigured,” “embroidered.” The novelist adds something to the reality that he has turned into work material, and this added element constitutes the originality of his work, that which gives autonomy to the fictional reality, that which distinguishes it from the real. [translated by Helen Lane]

To put that in James’s terms, returning to his floating balloon, the added element is what lifts the work above vulgar reality, things as they happen, and takes it into the realm of romance, things as they don’t happen.

So, I take the aspiration of the documentarian to be: to present or to communicate in some form things as they happen, or as they happened. And, in contrast, I take the aspiration of the artist to be: to transform things as they happen or happened into things as they don’t happen or didn’t happen.

Why does a documentarian attempt to record and present things as they are or as they were? One motive is preservation, obviously, and another, probably just as obviously, is propagation, publication in the sense of bringing to an audience something that the documentarian has observed or discovered, as we do when we take snapshots on our vacations and force our friends to look at them.

The photographer of this souvenir view of the Avenue de l’Opéra had those motives, I think.

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Paris, Avenue de l’Opéra, ca.1885–90, photograph by Neurdein Frères, Wikimedia Commons

The Neurdein brothers began their photographic career in 1863 in Paris, at 8 rue des Filles du Calvaire. . . . In 1868 we find [them] at 28 Boulevard Sevastopol. This is the beginning of the prosperity of the Neurdein House, whose production is such that they are obliged to hire photographers who harvest images for them in France, and soon the whole world. Production is eminently for commercial purposes. The tourist finds, in all the resorts or remarkable sites, small notebooks containing a dozen or fifteen photographs in miniature format representing the main views of which he wants to keep the memory.

Yves Lebrec, “Neurdein Frères,” yveslebrec.blogg.org (freely translated and lightly edited)

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The camera was made of black plastic, the kind called Bakelite. . . . When one held the camera with the viewfinder to one’s eye, the forefinger of one’s right hand fell quite naturally on the shutter button, and the middle finger fell quite naturally over the right half of the lens. I loved that camera. I carried it with me everywhere. . . . But as much as the camera pleased me it intimidated me. A statement in the instruction booklet said, “Snapshots will capture your memories forever,” and I understood at once that the snapshots I was likely to take would capture forever memories of my childish ineptitude as a photographer, the evidence of my awkwardness and uncertainty. Clearly, the wise thing to do would be to avoid using film until I had acquired some poise, if only enough so that I wouldn’t take pictures I would really regret, so I put the film in the back of my sock drawer to save until I felt confident enough to use it.

Peter Leroy, “The Girl with the White Fur Muff,” in Little Follies

Why does an artist transform things from the way they are or were to some form in which they are not or were not? One motive is to have an effect on the world, to make it a little less the property of everyone else and a little more the property of the artist. Another is to play god a little bit, to make a world more in the artist’s image than this one is. And another is to beguile an audience, to enjoy a host’s pleasure at giving them an entertainment, a ride in one’s balloon.

In painting this view of the Avenue de l’Opéra, Camille Pissarro had those motives, I think.

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Avenue de l’Opéra, Morning Sunshine, Camille Pissarro, 1898

Was Balzac a documentarian? No. He was an artist who used the techniques of documentary in the service of romance. When he was assiduously preserving the manners and mores and methods and madness of France, of Paris and the provinces, he was documenting a France that Balzac the artist had already transformed, had already lifted a certain distance above the France of Things as They Happened—though it was anchored securely there, and then he tethered his romances to that other France, Balzac’s France.

Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited.

Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974)

No art without transformation.

Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph

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“Nadar Elevating Photography to the Level of Art,” Honoré Daumier, 1862, Wikimedia Commons

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THERE IS, as I suggested earlier, an impulse, a tendency, or a desire on the part of most artists—I’m tempted to say all artists—to pause in the work of being artful and say, “Look: this is what I’m really up to. I’m going to give you one quick look behind the scenes, let you see the way the props are made, sit down with you for a moment over a congenial glass and confess to you what it is that I want to achieve, and then I’m going to send you back to your seat and return to drugging you and deluding you.”

Often, the urge to confess—or to show off—becomes so overwhelming that the artist gives in to it because it arises from a desire to tell or show the reader or audience where the artist’s balloon is tethered, as we saw James doing when he inserted his documentary description of the grocer’s shop into Basil Ransome’s New York.

Here is Marcel Proust, in Frederick A. Blossom’s translation, giving in to the impulse in the section of The Past Recaptured called “Charlus During the War.” First he introduces—with a wealth of documentary detail—some characters we haven’t met before:

One of Françoise’s nephews, who was killed at Berry-au-Bac, was the nephew also of those millionaire cousins of Françoise, former café owners who had made their fortune and retired a long time before. The nephew, also a café proprietor, but in a small way and with limited means, had been drafted at the age of twenty-five and had left his young wife alone to run the little bar which he expected to come back to in a few months. But he was killed. . . . The millionaire cousins, who were no relation to the young widow, left the country place to which they had retired ten years before and went to work again in the café business, but refused to accept a sou for their labor; at six o’clock every morning, the millionaire wife, a real lady, and her young lady daughter were dressed and ready to help their niece-in-law and cousin-by-marriage. And for more than three years, they had been rinsing glasses in this way and serving drinks from early morning till half-past nine at night, without a single day of rest.

And now he beckons to us and takes us to a place where the rope from his enormous balloon is tied to a stake driven right into the earth:

In this book of mine, in which there is not one fact that is not imaginary, nor any real person concealed under a false name, where everything has been invented by me to meet the needs of my story, I ought to say in praise of my country that, at any rate, these millionaire relatives of Françoise, who gave up their retired life in order to help their niece when she was left without support, are people who really are alive and, convinced that their modesty will not take offence because they will never read this book, it gives me a childlike pleasure and deep emotion to record here their real name, Larivière.

Well, do you believe him? I certainly don’t believe him when he says that in In Search of Lost Time there is not one fact that is not imaginary. I don’t believe that he intends me to believe him, either. I do believe that he wants me to understand that he has labored to make the people, the places, and the institutions in his story meet the needs of his story, and in doing so has brought them a long way from their real origins. And I do believe that to make his point he has inserted here, as little altered as he could make them, these real Larivières, to show me or to remind me that there is a difference between them and Françoise or Charlus, between people who live in the world and characters who live in a romance.

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I had found myself awakened by a desire, the way I might have been awakened by the sun. . . . I wanted to learn to paint—really wanted to learn to paint. . . . I’d been sold on the idea by the matchbook advertisements distributed by the Past Masters Correspondence School, an outfit that offered instruction in everything from plumbing to poetry, all in the privacy of your own home, through lessons devised by professionals recently retired from the discipline of your choice. These lessons were very popular at the time. Smoking was also popular at the time, and the Past Masters used matchbooks to recruit their students. . . . The one for the taxidermy course showed a cartoon raccoon over the challenge “Stuff Me!” The one for plumbing showed a dripping faucet over “Stop Me!” The one that got me, the one for the art course, showed the profile of an attractive young woman over the challenge “Draw Me!”

Peter Leroy, At Home with the Glynns

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NOW let’s take a look at Henry James succumbing again to the impulse to reveal the anchor for the tether on his balloon and this time also revealing his motive in launching that balloon.

In The American, originally published in 1877, Christopher Newman, the millionaire American of the title, falls in love with Claire de Cintré, but her family opposes their marriage. Her mother and elder brother conspire to destroy Newman’s chances by making the marriage an issue of her loyalty to her family and to the family’s illustrious lineage. Claire steps aside from the conflict by entering a convent. Newman is dumbfounded and heartsick.

This passage occurs in Chapter 24:

Sunday was as yet two days off; but meanwhile, to beguile his impatience, Newman took his way to the Avenue de Messine and got what comfort he could in staring at the blank outer wall of Madame de Cintré’s present residence [the convent]. The street in question, as some travelers will remember, adjoins the Parc Monceau, which is one of the prettiest corners of Paris. The quarter has an air of modern opulence and convenience which . . . suggested a convent with the modern improvements—an asylum in which privacy, though unbroken, might be not quite identical with privation, and meditation, though monotonous, might be of a cheerful cast. And yet he knew the case was otherwise; only at present it was not a reality to him. It was too strange and too mocking to be real; it was like a page torn out of a romance, with no context in his own experience.

I’m going to return to that final sentence in a moment, but I’d like to consider another sentence first:

The street in question, as some travelers will remember, adjoins the Parc Monceau, which is one of the prettiest corners of Paris. 

If we may believe Joris-Karl Huysmans, who used an abundance of documentary detail in his fiction, the convent did exist at number 23 Avenue de Messine. Here is his summary of its history from De Tout, published in 1902:

Le dernier Carmel de Paris est enfin situé au no. 23 de L’avenue de Messine; il est la seule maison de cette avenue, bordée de constructions de luxe, qui soit propre; il apparaît recueilli et charmant, dans sa petite robe gothique, au milieu de tous ces hôtels qui s’alignent, prétentieux et rigides, neufs et bêtes. Ce Carmel qui touche presque au parc Monceau, a derrière lui un grand jardin dont les murailles s’aperçoivent . . . dans le square de Messine.

Here is my translation of the passage, which I ask you to read in a forgiving frame of mind:

The most recent Carmelite convent in Paris is situated at Number 23, Avenue de Messine; bordered by deluxe structures, it is the only house that seems appropriate to that avenue; it appears composed and charming, in its modest Gothic raiment, in the midst of all these pretentious and stiff, new and beastly mansions that are lined up beside it. This convent, which nearly adjoins the Parc Monceau, has behind it a large garden whose walls are visible . . . from Messine Square.

I think that we can believe Huysmans on the subject of the convent, because the Société historique et archéologique des VIIIe et XVIIe arrondissements de Paris reported in its Bulletin of 1905 that “M. Le Senne nous a retracé l’existence effacée et si courte du Carmel de l’Avenue de Messine, auquel Huysmans dans son livre «De Tout» a consacré des pages à la fois si mystiques et si réalistes.” That is, “M. Le Senne outlined for us the brief and obscure life of the Carmelite convent on the Avenue de Messine, to which Huysmans in his book De Tout devoted several pages that were simultaneously very mystical and very realistic.” (The modest Gothic convent building was, apparently, replaced in 1907 by a private mansion designed by the art nouveau architect Jules Lavirotte. Its size and the richness of its sinuous decorations would not, I imagine, have pleased Huysmans.)

There stands poor Christopher Newman, staring at the blank wall of the convent, very near the Parc Monceau, but as far as we can tell from James’s text, Newman doesn’t even know that the park is there. He is not a well-traveled man; he is certainly not among those travelers who would know that a short walk along the Avenue de Messine would lead to the Parc Monceau, “one of the prettiest corners of Paris.” Had he known so, he might have walked there and sought some solace in the beauties of the park, but I doubt that he would have; he wouldn’t have left the convent and the bleak comfort that staring at its wall offered him.

What sort of place is this Parc Monceau? Why does James include it in the setting for Newman’s visit to the convent? Here is a description from the “Monuments in Paris” website:

It is a park of shady walks, of leafy bowers, of ponds, of imitation natural springs . . . Even the famous pond surrounded by a semi-circular colonnade of fluted Corinthian columns, partly broken, partly missing, is so overgrown with vines that it looks as though it had been standing there for ages. In contrast to the splendid formal gardens one sees in Paris, there is absolutely no order in the Parc Monceau: the trees are allowed to grow naturally—and by that I don’t mean unattended—the walks curve around in the most unexpected manner, and all over the park the lawn areas seem to be littered with remnants of broken Roman columns, archways, parts of ancient ruins, forgotten statuary, and what not. And yet, all this seeming naturalness is not the naturalness of neglect . . . but the studied arrangement of care and good taste.

This is a fantastical place. It is a romance of a park. But it is useless to Newman. For whom, then, does James mention the park? Well, for you and for me and for himself, so that we might be reminded that we are co-conspirators in a romance and that we are allowing ourselves to be beguiled by the romancer. He includes it to say to the careful reader, the fully engaged reader, something like the last line in the website description, but applied to the story that we are reading: “This seeming naturalness is not the naturalness of neglect but the studied arrangement of care and good taste.”

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“Carmontelle giving the Keys of the Parc Monceau to the Duke of Chartres,” possibly painted by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle himself, Wikimedia Commons

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“Turkish tents in the Parc Monceau,” hand-colored engraving by Jean-Baptiste Delafosse after a painting by Carmontelle, Wikimedia Commons

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“The Naumachia, Parc Monceau,” by Charles Marville, photographed ca. 1861–1871, Wikimedia Commons

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“Parc Monceau,” by Gustave Caillebotte, painted in 1877, Wikimedia Commons

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“In the Parc Monceau,” by Claude Monet, painted in 1878, Wikimedia Commons

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“Le Parc Monceau,” by Claude Monet, painted in 1876, Wikimedia Commons

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“Paris – Parc Monceau – The Roman Entrance,” photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons

I found the description of Parc Monceau on the “Monuments in Paris” website (http://www.monument-paris.com/parc-monceau.htm) in 2007, but the link now leads only to a “Not Found” notice. EK

I PROMISED that I would return to the final sentence in the passage that has poor Newman standing in front of the convent, and I also promised that I would return to those images of New York at the turn of the twentieth century and the question of whether they, in the terms that James used to describe realism, depict experiences that are entirely controlled by our sense of the way things happen.

The final sentence about Newman’s perception of the convent that Claire de Cintré has entered was this:

It was too strange and too mocking to be real; it was like a page torn out of a romance, with no context in his own experience.

A romancer is always in danger of letting his romance get away from him. Beguiled by his own subtle drugs, he may let the rope loose, and not quite realize what he’s done until he finds himself and his romance headed for cloud cuckoo land, leaving the readers behind, with no context in their own experience that will make the romance a reality for them.

The corrective impulse is toward verisimilitude, and the techniques for achieving it are those of documentary, the methods of the documentarian. That brings me to photography, because it brought James to photography.

From 1907 to 1909, Charles Scribner’s Sons republished nearly all of James’s novels in the so-called New York Edition. For that edition, James made a selection from his entire oeuvre, made revisions to the texts, and wrote prefaces to the novels. He also commissioned a highly respected photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, to take photographs to be used as frontispieces to the several volumes in the edition.

Claude Rivet had told them of the projected edition de luxe of one of the writers of our day—the rarest of the novelists—who, long neglected by the multitudinous vulgar and dearly prized by the attentive (need I mention Philip Vincent?) had had the happy fortune of seeing, late in life, the dawn and then the full light of a higher criticism—an estimate in which, on the part of the public, there was something really of expiation. The edition in question, planned by a publisher of taste, was practically an act of high reparation; the wood-cuts with which it was to be enriched were the homage of English art to one of the most independent representatives of English letters.

The unnamed narrator in Henry James’s “The Real Thing”

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“Self Portrait,” Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1905 (detail), Wikimedia Commons

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“Santa Maria Della Salute,” Alvin Langdon Coburn, (detail), Wikimedia Commons

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“The White Sail,” Alvin Langdon Coburn, (detail), Wikimedia Commons

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Now why would James want to add photographs as frontispieces to the New York Edition of his novels? Before I answer that question, I’d like to consider the work of Bertram W. Beath.

Bertram W. Beath is a highly respected food critic and somewhat-less-highly-respected photographer who uses the techniques of realism in the service of romance. He sometimes signs his work “B. W. Beath” and sometimes “BWB.” Here is a quick introduction to his work from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia in which one sometimes also finds techniques of realism used in the service of romance:

Some of Beath’s photographs have been characterized as one-frame cinematic productions. Beath distinguishes between unstaged “documentary” pictures, like his “Bronx River,” and “cinematographic” pictures, like his “Those Who Wait,” produced using a combination of actors, sets, and special effects . . .

Below are examples of Beath’s documentary photographs (“Track 3” and “Bronx River”) and cinematographic photographs (“Those Who Wait” and “Hay Bales”). Making the documentary photographs was largely a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but making the cinematographic photographs required much more effort. “Those Who Wait,” for example, required continual cellphone contact with the actors posing on the footbridge, who had to adjust their poses in response to Beath’s oral instructions. The composition in “Hay Bales” was the result of hours of manipulation of the bales by farm machinery hired for the occasion. After each “draft” of the composition, all the machinery had to be driven from the field, out of sight, so that Beath could judge the effect of the arrangement of the bales, and then the machinery had to be brought back to adjust the arrangement until Beath was satisfied.

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“Track 3,” B. W. Beath

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“Bronx River,” B. W. Beath

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“Those Who Wait,” B. W. Beath

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“Hay Bales,” B. W. Beath

Beath’s cinematographic photograph “Taking Their Ease” is reproduced below this paragraph. Its obvious allusions to Georges Seurat’s “Un Dimanche Après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte” and Claude Monet’s “Le Parc Monceau” are the result of painstaking calculation, color-conscious costuming, and precise manipulation of the actors. Days of preparation and advance planning were followed by hours of placing and posing the actors on the day of shooting. Many, many preliminary “draft” photographs preceded this final version. A staff of more than fifty is invisible beyond the edges of the image.

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Taking Their Ease, B. W. Beath

In an interview from 1998 quoted on the website of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Beath said this about the relationship between his cinematographic work and the kind of street photography that we saw in the images of New York made in James’s era:

From my earliest attempts at restaurant criticism I saw and understood the element of theater in dining, but my understanding that there could be an element of theater in photography came only after quite a long time and quite a large number of photographs. I had been focused on recording something. Increasingly, I began to focus on making something. The documentary motive never completely disappeared, but the motive to transform what I had formerly intended only to document began to dominate. I think I am heading now toward a balance of the two, a balance that is reaching its apotheosis in my series Water.

The result, the seeming naturalness of Beath’s cinematographic photographs, is not really the naturalness of documentary photography, but the studied arrangement of elements in the artist’s projected world, as we will hear Henry James say shortly.

MADELINE AND I didn’t get around to seeing The Museum of Modern Art’s blockbuster exhibit of B. W. Beath’s enormous cinematographic photographs until nearly the end of its run, but when we did see it, it gave me the theme and title for this essay.

I don’t want you to think that I was just standing there looking at Beath’s “Taking Their Ease,” say, and the whole thing came to me in a flash. No. It simmered for some time, and didn’t reach its full flavor until a Sunday several weeks after the exhibit had closed, the day when, as I mentioned at the start of this essay, Madeline and I were strolling through Central Park. We stopped at the Tavern on the Green to have a pastis at the outdoor bar. As we were leaving, Madeline detoured to the ladies’ room. Passing through the little crowd of people outside the restaurant waiting for taxis and shuttle buses, I heard someone ask, “Did you see the B. W. Beath photographs at MoMA?”

I looked in the direction of what I’d heard, and I saw a young man and a young woman conversing. The man had asked the question, and the woman answered it. 

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I did.”

“What did you think of them?” asked the man. “I’m curious.”

“Well, technically, I thought they were brilliant.”

“In what sense?”

“Very well focused. Sharp. Highly detailed. Technically advanced.”

“And the content?”

“Banal. Totally banal. But that’s why they capture modern life so brilliantly. Because modern life is totally banal. They are really slices of modern life.”

“Really,” he said, with a note of surprise in his voice.

“And the patience!” she said. “He must sit for hours and hours, just waiting for the right moment. Or maybe it’s luck. No, it’s patience, not luck. He’s like a nature photographer, but he’s observing people. People in their habitat.”

Slowly, gently, the man said, “It’s artifice.”

“Artifice?” she asked.

“Those photographs are staged. He sets them up as if he were making a movie.”

“Staged? You mean they’re fakes?”

“For each photograph, he assembles a cast, a crew, he sets the stage, manipulates the actors—”

I didn’t have a smartphone at the time, nobody did, but I always carried my camera with me. I always had it in my pocket. Because I realized what an opportunity Chance had given me, I had already taken it from my pocket and turned it on, so I was ready. It was at that moment that I took their picture.

Immediately after I took the picture, the young woman said, with a distant, disturbed, disappointed look in her eyes:

“But they seem so realistic.”

“Well, Cindy Sherman does the same sort of thing.”

“But she winks at you a little bit when she does it. You can tell what she’s up to. You’re in on the joke. But this B. W. Beath—I feel cheated now. I feel duped.”

“Don’t take it too hard.”

“He set me up to believe what I was seeing, to accept it for what it seemed to be: real life. But it wasn’t. It was something else. It was—”

At that point, I couldn’t help myself.

“It was romance,” I said.

The man turned toward me and said, “What?”

I said, “Sorry. I couldn’t help overhearing. You were talking about B. W. Beath. I think he uses the techniques of realism in the service of romance.”

“Who the hell asked you?” said the young woman.

At that point I made a conciliatory gesture, Madeline arrived, and we retreated into the park.

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“For each photograph, he assembles a cast, a crew, he sets the stage, manipulates the actors . . .” It was at that moment that I took their picture.

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Shelf Eight of my Permanent Design Collection

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The camera that I used to take the photograph of the couple

THE YOUNG WOMAN’S REACTION is poignant testimony to the fact that too great a degree of verisimilitude, too thoroughgoing an application of the techniques of realism, may do a disservice to a romance. It may beguile the readers so completely that they forget that the romance is a romance, and that is not quite what the romancer wants, I think.

I think that the romancer wants the relationship with the reader or other audience to remain cooperative; he does not want to dupe the reader or viewer entirely; he wants to solicit and earn the willing suspension of disbelief, but not to hoodwink the reader into unquestioning acceptance.

James for his part seems to have worried that the effect of Alvin Langdon Coburn’s photographic illustrations might be to create too great a degree of verisimilitude. In fact, he seems to have begun worrying about that possibility almost from the moment he commissioned the photographs.

He imposed stringent limits on them to ensure that they did not lean too far in inspiring a belief that the novel that followed the frontispiece presented things as they happened. According to remarks that Coburn made years later, after the New York Edition had been published with the photographs,

James did not want the kind of realistic description that [photographer J. J.] Pennell offered. Instead of actual places and objects James required types and archetypes. The illustrator had to recognize in nature and society what already existed in the author’s mind and make an ideal representation of it.

J. J. Pennell made an exhaustive documentary photographic record of Junction City, Kansas, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. (See James R. Shortridge’s Our Town on the Plains: J. J. Pennell’s Photographs of Junction City, Kansas, 1893-1922, published by the University Press of Kansas in 2000.)

After the commitment had been made and the photographs were set to appear as frontispiece illustrations, James wrote about his concerns, at length, in the preface to the first volume. Among many other things, he had this to say:

Nothing . . . could more have amused the author than the opportunity of a hunt for a series of reproducible subjects . . . small pictures of our “set” stage with the actors left out; and what was above all interesting was that they were first to be constituted.

So James and Coburn set out wandering the streets of London and Paris and Venice in search of suitable subjects for these frontispieces. Below are six of them.

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A. L. Coburn, “Faubourg St. Germain,” frontispiece to The American

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A. L. Coburn, “Some of the Spoils,” frontispiece to The Spoils of Poynton (Apparently it is a photograph of James’s own sitting room. If, on the one hand, it is interesting to speculate about the degree to which the novels were “documentarized” by the inclusion of the frontispiece photographs, it is equally interesting to speculate on the degree to which the sitting room and its owner were romanticized by the use of this photograph as one of those frontispieces.)

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A. L. Coburn, “The Doctor’s Door,” frontispiece to The Wings of the Dove, Volume 1

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A. L. Coburn, “The Curiosity Shop,” frontispiece to The Golden Bowl, Volume 1

BR1141
A. L. Coburn, “Portland Place,” frontispiece to The Golden Bowl, Volume 2

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A. L. Coburn, “The Venetian Palace,” frontispiece to The Wings of the Dove, Volume 2

“The Curiosity Shop” especially interests me, and it seems to have been the one that most interested James, too, for he singled it out as an example of a successful search. In the preface, he wrote:

On the question, for instance, of the proper preliminary compliment to the first volume of “The Golden Bowl” we easily felt that nothing would so serve as a view of the small shop in which the Bowl is first encountered.

The problem thus was thrilling, for though the small shop was but a shop of the mind, of the author’s projected world, . . . our need . . . prescribed a concrete, independent, vivid instance, the instance that should oblige us by the marvel of an accidental rightness. . . . It would have to be in the first place what London and chance and an extreme improbability should have made it, and then it would have to let us truthfully read into it the Prince’s and Charlotte’s and the Princess’s visits. 

This must have been a remarkable ramble. Here we have James—who acknowledges that the shop he conjured for The Golden Bowl had risen up and away from experience to become a shop of the mind, lifted from the real world and lofted into the author’s projected world, a romance of a shop in a romance of a tale—setting out with Coburn in tow to find a real shop that could play the part of the imaginary one.

It was Quixotic behavior. No, it was beyond Quixotic. It was as if Don Quixote had himself written the romances that so beguiled him and then set off to live what he came to believe was the reality of them. Its contemporary equivalent would be B. W. Beath’s beginning to believe that all of his “cinematographic” photographs were “documentary” photographs and then beginning to reminisce about the great good fortune that had allowed him to come upon such telling moments in the random chaos of everyday life.

Obviously, we can tell from the picture of the curiosity shop that appeared as the frontispiece that James and Coburn did find a shop that could play the part. Where did they find it? James refused to say. All he said in the preface was this:

It of course on these terms long evaded us, but . . . as London ends by giving one absolutely everything one asks, so it awaited us somewhere. It awaited us in fact—but I check myself; nothing, I find now, would induce me to say where.

Well, of course not. 

Saying where the shop could be found would have done what James had worried that a photograph might do. It would have driven a stake in the ground at a specific spot in London and tethered The Golden Bowl tightly to it. Employing the techniques of realism with such a heavy hand, encumbering the story with such a palpable reference to the world of things as they happen, would have been using realism to fetter the balloon of romance so snugly that it could never rise and drift, and that no artful romancer would allow himself to do.

Acknowledgments

I am indebted to Professor Francisco Collado-Rodríguez of the University of Zaragoza for inviting me to deliver to his graduate students in American literature a lecture on realism in the work of Henry James. Without that invitation, I doubt that I would have been thinking about realism and Henry James when Madeline and I were strolling through Central Park.

I am also indebted to Elizabeth Nagengast and Dossie McCraw, the actors who played the young couple discussing the work of B. W. Beath.

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Copyright © 2018 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved.

Issue Number 10

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Above: “It Fills a Void” (Little Lessons in Art, Number 1) Margot and Martha Glynn, 2014 (incorporating “A Void, Filled and Framed,” 1994), Mixed media: paper, photographic paper, double-sided adhesive tape, glue, wood, plastic, metal, cardboard, digitally altered photographs

It Fills a Void

Margot and Martha Glynn

Our father made paintings. He was Andrew Glynn, the painter. We were still only girls when we began referring to him as “our father, Andrew Glynn, the painter.”

Not long after we began referring to him as “our father, Andrew Glynn, the painter,” we began asking him what it was like to be Andrew Glynn the painter, and not long after we began asking him that we began asking him what it was like to make paintings. 

Our questions progressed from “What are you doing?” to “How do you do it?” and eventually arrived at “Why do you do it?” Underlying that question, from two little girls of twelve, were, our father decided, some very deep questions about art and the making of art. He answered us with the seriousness that he thought we deserved, sometimes very seriously indeed, and sometimes not very seriously at all. 

We wrote every answer in a little book, taking turns. He had given us the book. He had told us to write his answers in it. 

His first answer was, “It fills a void.” 

“Oh,” we said, or at least one of us said, while the other wrote it in the little book. 

“It doesn’t fill the void,” he said, “but it does fill a void, some small part of the void.” 

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Above: A Miniature Imitation of One of Father’s Paintings

AVoid
Above: A Void

voidframed
Above: A Void, Framed

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Above: A Void, Filled and Framed

The house that we lived in when we began asking our father, Andrew Glynn, the painter, about his art, had been the carriage house for a mansion, a place of local renown, which had burned to the ground.

Our father’s studio filled half of the ground floor of the house. The family living space occupied the other half. The bedrooms were on the second floor. We shared one.

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Above: Our Bedroom Window

Behind the house was a walled garden where, in good weather, we sunned ourselves while our mother sat in the shade of an old arbor, writing advertising jingles.

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Above: A Part of the Garden Wall

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About the Artists

Margot and Martha Glynn create photographs and mixed media artworks that combine images and text.

By reiterative abstraction of both content and container, they often create several similar yet unique works, upon which thoughts that have apparently just been developed are manifested: notes are made and then crossed out again, “mistakes” are repeated. From an early age, the Glynns have been fascinated by the traditional understanding of the human condition. With influences as diverse as Nietzsche, Roy Lichtenstein, and of course their father, Andrew Glynn, the painter, Margot and Martha generate insights from both explicit and implicit meanings. At times, the internal dynamic of the negative space in their work threatens to penetrate the inherent overspecificity of the content. What starts out as hope soon becomes corrupted into a cacophony of lust, leaving only a sense of dread and the possibility of a new reality. 

Margot and Martha Glynn currently live and work in New York.

(From the catalog accompanying the exhibition “Little Lessons in Art” at the Serena Traulings Gallery)


 

 

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quotationmarks“Rule Six: There is no Rule Six!”

Fourth Bruce in the philosophy department at the University of Walamaloo in Monty Python’s “The Bruces Sketch”


The Work in Progress

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quotationmarksThe Glynns’ works are often about contact with architecture and basic living elements. Energy (heat, light, water), space and landscape are examined in less obvious ways and sometimes developed in absurd ways. By manipulating the viewer to create confusion, the Glynns create intense personal moments by means of rules and omissions, acceptance and refusal, luring the viewer round and round in circles.

The Babbingtonian

quotationmarksIn a search for new methods to “read the city” and “read the self” the Glynns’ focus on the idea of “public space” contrasted with “private space” and more specifically on spaces where anyone can do anything at any given moment and spaces where one cannot: the non-private space versus the private space, the non-privately-owned space versus the intimately guarded space, space that is economically uninteresting versus space that is owned.

Urban Eye

quotationmarksThe Glynns’ mixed media artworks do not reference recognizable form. The results are deconstructed to the extent that meaning is shifted and possible interpretation becomes multifaceted.

 Long Island Culture Today

quotationmarksThe Glynns’ works are on the one hand touchingly beautiful, on the other hand painfully attractive. Again and again, the artists leave us orphaned with a mix of conflicting feelings and thoughts. As temporal derivatives become reconfigured through frantic and diverse practice, the viewer is left with a clue to the darkness of our world. 

The Cassandra Chronicles


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On April 16, 2018, The Babbington Press published Eric Kraft’s new novel, Albertine’s Overcoat.

Albertine’s Overcoat is the eleventh novel in Kraft’s voluminous work of fiction, The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy.

Albertine’s Overcoat is, among many other things, an exploration of a notion that may underlie every memoir and drive every memoirist: the idea that a life, like a work of art, is incomplete without an audience.

It’s also one of literature’s great love stories.

It’s also hilarious.

Paperback and ePub

Limited Hardcover Collector’s Edition


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Copyright © 2018 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved.