This is the first from a short story collection by the Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez from The Dangers of Smoking in Bed only recently translated in English as far as I’m aware.
Angelita Unearthed is a short story dark yet interesting and surreal and shows us how (in Argentina as it does in many other cultures) how we live and survive changes over generations. The narrator lives alone, thinking she has disappointed her father by not making him a grandfather in his lifetime. She definitely does not live the same life as her grandmother who had many siblings. Something happens however, that almost definitely brings those old times to the forefront. The ghost of her dead grant auntie Angelita appears before her. Angelita was only a baby when she died and she appears to our narrator fleshy and decaying and thus we get to see what the write Marian Enriquez is all about and what I suspect I will be expecting from her in her subsequent stories. We read how our narrator interprets Angelita’s actions and what she wants also learning that her grandmother’s superstitions had an element of truth to them.
I found this short story (which is less than ten pages long) fascinating because there was an element of the familiar about it. There are old stories from my family from my grandparent’s generation of brothers and sister they had who died young. I, like the narrator definitely don’t have a family of my own. The difference being with our narrator is that she suddenly gets a stark reminder from Angelita about her family’s past. There is apparent strangeness that I have come across in writers before (Kafka etc) and Enriquez does a good job in putting something that you would expect from an older story in a more contemporary setting along side the anxieties and thoughts of the modern day along side something we would never consider. In this case a decaying zombie baby ghost who is also a family member. I have yet to look at the other short stories but if this first one is anything to go by I’m sure I will not be disappointed.
Valentin, the great French investigator, head of the Paris police is on the trail of the great criminal Flambeu who has eluded capture from the police of three countries, a master of disguise his only distinguishing feature is his tall height. Valentin gets a lead that Flambeau may well be on his way to London to a Eucharistic Congress in London.
Here looks see the start of two great minds of the detective and criminal on a duel on who can out think the other. Like Holmes and Moriarty, Bond and Blofeld. This is nothing like that however, that would be too predictable. No, our real hero is a short round unassuming priest of all people. This priest comes across as some what bumbling and does not appear to be anything like the great Valentin. They meet on their way to London on a train and he politely warns the old priest about telling everyone what expensive things he is bringing to the Conference, a blue cross being the main thing.
Without going into too much detail the detective manages to follow a convenient trail that leads him to track down Flambeau who is with the old priest who suspects Flambeau is on the trail of the blue cross. It is later found out that the priest Father Brown was on to Flambeau. Father Brown tests Flambeau to see if he is a criminal or not whilst in disguise and realises for a priest he had a disappointing grasp of ecclesiastical theology so leaves a trail for the police to come and find them and arrest Flambeau.
Father Brown is similar to the Agatha Christie sleuths Poirot and Marple, appears relativity harmless. He is a man not of action but of realising how others think based (going on this story) what has been told to him in confessions. Unlike Sherlock Holmes who relies on deduction and observation, exhausting all possibilities, Father Brown has his suspicions tests them and draws his conclusions based on psychological and spiritual observations. Where as Sherlock is a man of action who knows his martial arts and can get involved in a bit of rough with Holmes and Lestrade among the others from Scotland Yard, Father Brown is more intellectual and spiritual and will try to achieve his objective. His course is that of good and he can confront those who try to justify their actions by reminding them how it is wrong.
There has been many adaptations of the Father Brown Mysteries. The BBC produced one starring Mark Williams of The Fast Show Fame (you ain’t seen me, right). As great and marvellous as he is as the character I do think he’s a bit tall for the character.
I am a big fan GK Chesterton. I find his life as fascinating as his works and I adore his works The Man Who was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill. I recommend you all to give him a look.
[From The Complete Farther Brown Collection, Kindle Edition]
Unlike the previous short stories Asylum Piece is not all in the first person. These are a collection of short chapters that describe the lives of people working and living at the Asylum on the continent. We get to read about how the patients think and how the staff treat them. Asylum Piece is very sympathetic to the patients. It is written of course by someone who has experienced themselves. The characters we meet have the qualities of being compassionate and caring and are being treated by people who have little understanding of what it is they are treating. Only the patients themselves can understand as people send them to the Asylum if anything, to be out of site and out of mind, like a jail. The stories are emotional and thought provoking, Anna Kavan writes in a way that is easy to read and is not unnecessarily convoluted, especially when it comes to describing mental wealth.
In the second chapter our narrator who is not able to think straight remembers she had a friend, a lover or did she? She remembers at the least that this person is in the asylum. We meet the patient Hans, a young man who is not so sure about how unwell he actually is. He has his crushes in the hospital area. What he does not know as we find out is that his letters never get sent by the postmaster, which begs the question if this applies to all the patients.
One tragic story that appears in Asylum Piece is the story of the parents who come to visit their daughter, the mother is concerned naturally and the father relies on the Doctor’s word but they are not permitted to see her, the Doctor just wanting rid of them. The daughter finds out they visited and is upset they never saw.
Within the collection of chapters in Asylum Piece we read more about the patients, some who are frustrated, who get admitted to the hospital by their loved ones. Upset patients and sympathetic staffers. There is another story of a husband coming to visit his wife hoping he will eventually get her out of the asylum only for another patient to know that she will be let down.
The End in Sight and There is no End
The End in Sight is another Kafka like story. The narrator finds out that her demise is due through a formal letter. There is no End suggested to me that regardless if there is an ending or not, the overthinking the Enemy which appeared in her other short stories is something that is only real in the head of the narrator and is always there. Although it may not physically exist the Enemy causes a lot of pain for the narrator. Something that seems to combat the Enemy is the narrator’s love of nature and birds. It seems to put them at ease. The battle may be exhausting but it is something that they have to do.
[Peter Owen LTD ebook edition 2014. Written by Anna Kavan in 1940]
I would like to write more with respect to how mental health is portrayed in literature, to read about how mental health is portrayed. There are many books out there that look at it to a certain degree. I do not know how these are going to be presented by myself and I suspect a bit of myself will come out.
Let me introduce you to if you have not heard of it already to something special. Asylum Piece (and Other Short Stories) by Anna Kavan.
Asylum Piece (and Other Short Stories) is a collection of short stories that interconnect to a certain degree and describes the thoughts and feelings of someone who is suffering from mental health problems along with their time in a mental health clinic an old school asylum. Somewhere in Switzerland in these stories.
Within these collection of stories we read what the narrator thinks, how they thought at the time. It is plainly and beautifully written. The narrator never wholly describes what her mental illnesses are but if you’ve ever experienced them yourself you may well recognise how the narrator is thinking. There is of course the fact that we are only getting the narrator’s side of the story. We do not know what is happening outside of what the narrator tells us.
To anyone who has had problems with respect to your mental health, you will recognise the suffering, the worrying, the overthinking and the low moods. You will be able to recognise not being able to think straight, to see straight, the angers and the frustrations.
Without going in too much detail and repeating the stories again I would like to describe to you what each story shows us. See these as brief summaries about them if you will. I will do a separate post on Asylum Piece and the two short stories that come after it.
The narrator talks about a girl she meets in boarding school who seemed different and somewhat different to the other pupils. Years later the narrator thinks she see the old acquaintance after taking wrong way at a tourist spot and seeing her in what she thinks to be an asylum, recognising her by her unique birthmark she was made aware of in school. After seeing this she is escorted away by guards.
Going Up in the World
Here the narrator tells us about meeting some patrons to ask for help saying she wants to share in their sunshine and warmth, she tells us of how cold and lonely she is in the fog as she goes up to see them living high up in what she sees as the light. Her patrons are reluctant making reference to her past deeds with them but the narrator is desperate, she descends back to the fog, the patrons ungrateful of her modest gift to them. We do not have much detail other than what is given. We are also presented with the darkness and cold when compared to the light and warmth.
The narrator talks about an unknown enemy that wants to do them wrong. This describing what many of us with mental health problems feel. That there is someone out there who hates us, who wants to do us wrong, they win when we feel bad, when we lose our tempers for that is what they want from us. We can feel them inside our thoughts, almost like they are breathing on the back of our necks.
A Changed Situation
This is an interesting short story in that the narrator discusses the house they currently live in before leaving it. A well written mediation on how our environments can affect us. How a space can dominate us (we are learning this now with respect to the current lockdowns, especially in the UK)
The Birds makes reference to that unknown enemy described. It also has a slight nod to Franz Kafka’s The Trial with respect to that they feel victim to some senseless injustice, to a frightening uncertainty. In this story the narrator is fascinated by the birds outside ignoring the environment around her. Within The Birds the narrator analyses their own mental health to some degree.
Airing a Grievance
The narrator is not sure about her official adviser for her condition and the fact that she has to travel. The narrator’s overthinking comes into play and we witness the narrator having to put up with a certain degree of bureaucracy as well as her self doubts.
Just Another Failure
Here we are made aware of the narrator’s relationship with a certain D as well as her overthinking
and mental thoughts come into play. The narrator has a difficulty with living.
In the Summons the narrator meets up with an old friend. Their intentions are not made clear to us at first. We know that they are a close friend and that they are to meet for a date of sorts. The narrator notices R’s ugliness and is made to feel uncomfortable by a waiter. It is later revealed that this is where the narrator is to be taken away by what we would suggest is ‘the men in white coats’ and there is the possibility that R was involved with this. Again, there is the feel of Kafka in this story.
The narrator we would assume is in an asylum. The narrator is thinking over her current situation, as far as she is concerned she has done nothing wrong, as she is not too happy about her situation. She is upset at her loss of freedom acknowledging the fact that she has to put up with it.
An Unpleasant Reminder
To say the reminder is unpleasant is an understatement. A cruel trick is played on our narrator. She is made aware of the mortality of her life and who have control over her whilst she is at the asylum.
Machines In The Head
Anyone out there who have suffered with their mental health would be aware of how it affects them when they are trying to sleep. The narrator’s anxieties take over her in a way that she has trouble controlling it. She is battle with her mind, she is in battle with the machine in her head.
These stories show us a woman who is intelligent and yet at the same time held back by what plagues her mind. She is a good woman and her intentions are honest and true, her hearts in the right place. As stated previously stated we only know her as she is described herself to us. We know that she thinks people are out to get her and to some extent she may well be seem justified which only adds to her paranoia. How the narrator thinks seems wholly justified to her. For example she is repulsed by an ugly waiter despite the fact that he does not appear to have any malicious intent.
These stories are so beautifully yet simply written. The thoughts of the narrator appeared strong in my mind’s eye. The only thing that irked me was that I was able to recognise the frustrations and mental frustrations. I have sensed the enemy coming after me, I have had the sleepless nights and lost all hope. I haven’t (touch wood) had to be committed to a mental health hospital but many people have with varying experiences. Anna Kavan of course was writing in a time when knowledge an attitudes of mental health are different to what they are now (having been written in 1940). Hopefully more will be understood in the future and even out attitudes today may well be seen as dated.
The first in the complete volume of Clarice’s short stories is The Triumph. We start with the type of prose we would come to expect from Clarice:
The clock strikes nine. A loud, sonorous peal, followed by gentle chiming, an echo. Then silence.
In Triumph we wake to Luisa. As we get to read about the detail of what is going at that time with the clock just striking nine we get to read about Luisa’s afternoon before. She is aware of the silence when there would otherwise be noise. The afternoon before, her partner leaves, saying he despises her. We spend the next morning with poor Luisa going over what had happened before and now that the morning is different she sees things in a different light. At first Luisa cannot acknowledge that he is gone only finding a note he has written about mediocrity and some form of frustration. Luisa then realises however, that she is the better person and eventually that her partner will come back.
This first of the short stories leave us wanting to know more about Luisa and her situation. We know that she lived in an isolated area, that her partner Jorge left with his servant and that he used to travel abroad. Could it be that Jorge can no longer go abroad and is now a bit fed up of his current situation? Could it be that he is just a bit of a jerk and was just being mean? Why would Luisa want him back? These are some of the questions that I though after reading this story.
Luisa’s triumph is that she has not let Jorge leaving get to her. She realises it is a perfect day. If anything it is Jorge is the one who has lost. Without knowing the wider facts, she is not at fault and she keep her head held up high. That is always something you should make an ex spouse be aware of. That you are not at loss and Luisa has realised this.
I have looked at Clarice’s previous works most notably her novels and now I will be looking at her short stories. With Clarice’s novels, Clarice wants your undivided attention when you read them, she wants to suck you into the worlds she creates. In her short stories, we go straight to the point of the stories for want of a better word with her use of language and imagery. As mentioned by Benjamin Moser in his autobiography of Clarice people such as the poet Elizabeth Bishop preferred her short stories saying;
‘Her 2 or 3 novels I don’t think are so good but her short stories are almost like the stories I’ve always thought should be written about Brazil – Tcheckovian, slightly sinister and fantastic’
If you want to introduce people to the works of Clarice Lispector I would usually recommend Near to the Wild Heart but I would also introduce you ti her short stories as they can slowly break you in to Clarice’s style and what she is all about.
I will be using the Penguin edition of Complete Stories (2015) when looking at her short stories, the edition contains 85 of them. We will be looking at the stories written from her early years and the stories written throughout her life. Throughout these stories we will see Clarice playing with ideas and we will see stories that had an influence on her novels also. The majority of the stories look at the role of women in Brazil. These characters are just people you would meet in your own lives, housewives children, office workers for example.
As I like at the stories I will write in more detail at these stories individually and I would also like to look at if there is anything else we can learn or understand from each of them.
I will also be starting with the first short story in the Complete Stories edition with The Triumph.
I said in my last post on A Breath of Life by Lispector that I will go on to look at her short stories. I thought I would do the same with other writers also and it will be quicker for me to post something on here, I am currently going through some longer books and they are going to take me a while to get through so here goes.
Germans at Meat is about a British narrator having dinner with a number of German guests.
Katherine Mansfield does not write about the German dinner guests in a positive light. The German guests in question are from a time when Germany’s place in the world was ever rising after unifying as one nation. A very different Germany to what we know now.
The German guests pass comment on the British diet and the English breakfast. At the same time we get to witness their table manners such as ‘He turned up his eyes and his moustache, wiping the soup drippings from his coat and waistcoat’ and the British narrator interrupts one of the guests before he goes on about the effects of the amount of sauerkraut he has eaten. We also read about the German guest’s bemusement by the narrator choosing to be a vegetarian and even more surprised about not knowing what her husband’s favourite meat is.
Among other topics discussed is how Munich is described as being what Germany is (I assume none-Bavarians would disagree with this) and asking the British guest if they are scared of a German invasion saying ‘You have no army at all – a few little boys with their veins full of nicotine poisoning’ (of course history has showed us what really would happen… twice but that’s neither hear nor there).
We also hear about the thoughts on the family. It appears German women like to produce big families. It ends with the British dinner guest leaving.
Although a British person is used in contrast to the German dinner guests, it is really about people with different cultures and ideologies meeting face to face and not quite understanding each other as opposed to Britain and Germany themselves. You could argue in today’s world there are more similarities than differences.
The British narrator observes their table manners and holds back from saying anything that may be deemed to offensive as the German guests reveal their thoughts and attitudes. The British narrator does not appear to have any form of the Edwardian British stereotype. She can speak German to her guests, she is a vegetarian, she does not behave like the classic housewife who knows what her husband like to eat all the time. Despite all this the German guests almost treat her like (as far as they are concerned) that she is the embodiment of what the English are.
What I learnt from this short story is that despite where we are from, we are actually all individuals and we have to choose to act as such. I could be wrong on that but that is what I got out of it.
[From Katherine Mansfield, The Complete Collection, Kindle Edition]