Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hortense Calisher - Two Short Stories - "The Pool of Narcissus" and "Letitia, Emeritus"

"In Hugo is maybe where I learned the freedom to be discursive, to trust that there will be readers who can accept long sentences, and long meanings. In the nineteenth century quite ordinary readers could do that. And also accept that a big novel can ramble structurally, and maybe should. It’s the run-of-the-mill jobs where you always know where you’re going. A big novel has a deeper directional sense." Hortense Calisher in her Paris Review interview

Yesterday I discovered yet another new to me writer I now want to read in some depth, Hortense Calisher (1911 to 2009-born and died in Manhattan.  Her collected works in book form would fill over a meter on your book shelves and I think it is a meter you would be proud and happy to read.  Calisher in her very interesting Paris Review interview said she thought of herself first as Jewish then as American.  Both of the stories I read yesterday focused on young women from affluent families but my  range extends way beyond that.   Of the two stories I read, one was very good and the other simply amazing. 

"The Pool of Narcissus" is a day in the life, circa 1950 or so, of a family of very affluent New Yorkers.  The family, leaving of the servants, consists of a twelve year old girl and her sixteen year old sister and their widowed mother.  The girls never knew their father but he left them in a lovely brownstone set for life.   The interaction between the two girls is perfect (I have three daughters 16, 18, and 21 so I really appreciated this being well done).  The mother has a suitor of sorts, he owns a pharmacy.  We go along as the girls and the pharmacists go to his shop to get ice cream.  (If you can recall when pharmacies had lunch counters you were alive in the period in which this story is set.)  The brief conversation between the mother and the pharmacist are very poignant and a way sad.

"Letitia, Emeritus" is a great story focusing on the subtle hard to see at first the cruelty and indifference in which a mentally challenged girl born into a very wealthy old money family is treated. I think the story takes place in the American south but I am guessing based on small clues.  Letitia is twenty four but mentally is about six.  At first she appears a normal structurally sound young woman but in a bit one can see her mind does not quite focus.  Her siblings were sent to Oxford and Harvard and did brilliantly.  Six years ago Letitia's family placed her in an elite in terms of cost girls college whose primary function was to turn out wives for the sons of wealthy families.  She has her own maid to dress her and all and has only the most expensive clothes.  In six years she has never gone home, not even when the school is closed for the summer or Christmas. She always hopes she will go home.  Her parents come maybe once a year for a few minutes. Today is graduation day and in a ceremony sure to offend all now, the engaged girls are all introduced.  When a student gets engaged she completes a special engraved card and turns it in.  To be included in the list of engaged girls is a very big thing.  I hate to tell to much of the really sad near heartbreaking close but an elderly male professor, an emeritus from a real university where he taught classics, has the job of inspecting the girls toga outfits for a traditional graduation party and the girls laugh about how "hands on" he is in his inspections. The professor, we are not privy to quite what happened but he has some kind of passionate encounter, stopping short of sex, with the physically adult Letitia.  I just can't spoil the heartbreaking ending that shows the depth of the cruelty and indifference with which Letitia is treated but the close was almost overpoweringly intense in its sadness.  

There are a total of thirty six stories in The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher. I look forward to reading them all as well as some of her longer works.

Paris Review interview (has good background information)

Much of the work,of Calisher is published by Open Road Media.  Their fairly priced very interesting and diversified collection can be viewed at the link in this very accurate quote from Independent Publisher.

“Groundbreaking,” “cutting-edge,” “light years ahead of their time” – call them what you will, Open Road Integrated Media is a true leader in digital book technology. Started in the summer of 2009 by Jane Friedman (former President and CEO of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide) and Jeffrey Sharp (an Academy Award and Golden Globe-winning filmmaker), Open Road has flourished in the e-book and digital market.

Mel u

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