Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas

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Overview

From the award-winning author of The Tunnel and Finding a Form—four interrelated novellas that explore Mind, Matter, and God. In the first novella, Gass redefines Descartes' philosophy. God is a writer in a constant state of fumble. Mind is represented by a housewife who is a modern-day Cassandra. And Matter is, what (and who) else but the helpless and confused husband of Mind. In the novella that follows, the concept of salvation is explored through material possessions—a collection of kitsch—as a traveling ...
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Cartesian Sonata: And Other Novellas

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Overview

From the award-winning author of The Tunnel and Finding a Form—four interrelated novellas that explore Mind, Matter, and God. In the first novella, Gass redefines Descartes' philosophy. God is a writer in a constant state of fumble. Mind is represented by a housewife who is a modern-day Cassandra. And Matter is, what (and who) else but the helpless and confused husband of Mind. In the novella that follows, the concept of salvation is explored through material possessions—a collection of kitsch—as a traveling businessman is slowly lost in the sheer surfeit of matter in a small Illinois town. In another, Gass explores the mind's ability to escape. A young woman growing up in ruralIowa finds herself losing touch with the physical world as she loses herself in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. And in "The Master of Secret Revenges," God appears in the form of Descartes' evil demon, Lucifer, as Gass chronicles the life of a young man named Luther and his development from his devilish youth to his demonic adulthood. A profound exploration of good and evil, philosophy and action, filled with the wit and style that have defined the work of William Gass.
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Editorial Reviews

James Wood
[Gass'] fiction describes a strange crescent around the unavoidable. His recoil is more respectable than most writer's embraces, but it is still a recoil. . .
New York Times Book Review
David L. Ulin
Gass's new book, Cartesian Sonata, does little to dispel the impression of his fiction as an intellectual conceit. . . all four novellas remain largely static, the lliterary equivalent of geometric proofs. . . what [it] fails to encompass is the notion that fiction is not an intellectual discipline but an emotional one, a medium where storytelling and character, even in the most abstract sense, are paramount. -- Bookforum
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Revered two-time winner of the National Book Critics Circle award, Gass serves up an enticing mix of high-flown lyricism, sketchy narrative and momentary brilliance in his playful latest fiction (after the celebrated The Tunnel). The title novella is really an amalgamation of three short stories written during the '60s and '70s, before and after the great stories included in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Ostensibly the story of a clairvoyant named Ella Bend, her Cassandra-like curse of psychic vision and her brutal husband, this bleak interior monologue charts the narrator's descent into near-madness as she escapes into an imaginary intrigue between Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. Here, as in the other novellas, Gass' love of verbal wordplay almost eliminates narrative coherency. 'Bed and Breakfast' is a variation on a Rod Serling plot: a traveling accountant takes a room at a rather sinister old-fashioned B&B and feels compelled to settle down there. You'd think Walter Riffaterre, the accountant, would look for a Howard Johnson's or even a Motel 6 when the landlady starts conversing in Emily Dickinson outtakes ('what would we do if we had no burden, no weight upon our chests, we'd fly, wouldn't we? Fly like fluff, up and away to nowhere, for we're nothing but our burdens...'). While this work may puzzle or even bore some readers, Gass is an engrossing character-portraitist, whose plots depend on psychic and spiritual motions rather than linked events and whose humor, inventiveness and erudition keep the ride inviting, wherever it goes.
Library Journal
Gass' latest work is stylistically and thematically quite similar to his first collection of stories, In the Heart of the Country. Character and plot are irrelevant; words and objects are the real protagonists. In the title story, a clairvoyant housewife 'sees' noises and hears voices. She could shut them out if she tried, but then she would be alone. In 'Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's,' a daughter stays on in her parents' house after their death, severing ties to the outside world to concentrate her full attention on favorite poems. In 'Bed and Breakfast,' a businessman's personality unravels as he inventories the bric-a-brac in his hotel room. All three tales are variations on the 'haunted house' scenario first introduced in the famous story 'Order of Insects' from the earlier collection. Despite the philosophical tone, Gass' prose is vivid and poetic: 'Her eyes [were] like the holes of pebbles in the moment after striking water.' Coming on the heels of his unwieldy novel The Tunnel, Cartesian Sonata supports the notion that Gass works best in shorter fictional formats. -- Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles
James Wood
[Gass'] fiction describes a strange crescent around the unavoidable. His recoil is more respectable than most writer's embraces, but it is still a recoil. . . -- New York Times Book Review
Time Out
. . .Gass is unafraid to resort to typographical trickery and metapysical metafictions, [and] he's also capable of devastatingly captivating prose. . .
Kirkus Reviews
Four virtuoso performances, playfully juggling exuberant prose with sly post-modern speculations on the nature of desire, fiction, and the soul. A fascination with absorption, with the process of dissolving into some much-studied subject, seems to lie at the core of these novellas. In the title piece, a hapless biographer struggles to render something of the life of a woman who had clairvoyant powers, but finds language elusive, and truth uncertain. The deeper he digs, the less he knows. In 'Bed and Breakfast,' a shady traveling accountant is at first intrigued, then obsessed, by the overwhelming numbers of 'objects, ornaments and endearments' the stately owner of a B&B has accumulated. Used to living in a featureless world, he finds the mass of kitsch (from bottles to wall plaques) oddly reassuring, and in them, he discovers 'History. Not a life lost, not a thought gone, not a feeling faded, but retained by these things,' a tenuous connection with simple, restorative life. Not surprisingly, he cannot imagine ever again leaving his lodgings. 'Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's,' the grimmest tale, features a desiccated would-be poet who tries, quite literally, to plunge into the lines, to virtually become the words, of her favorite poet, with rather grisly results. 'The Master of Secret Revenges,' another faux biography, offers the life story of Luther Penner, who creates a religion based on the principle of leveling an ingenious revenge on all those thought to have harmed one. Because these tales are by Gass, they are of course much more than the sum of their odd, alarming characters and parts, and they're full of deeply inventive wordplay, droll references to philosophy, aswell as ingenious metaphors about the nature and purpose of artistic creation. Displaying crackling verbal energy, a fond fascination with the detritus of our culture (our 'priceless and useless and adorable' artifacts), and a shrewd grasp of our conflicting (and conflicted) beliefs, these startling novellas remind us that Gass is the most purely original (and idiosyncratic) of our major writers.
From the Publisher

Four virtuoso performances, playfully juggling exuberant prose with sly postmodern speculations on the nature of desire, fiction, and the soul.' -Kirkus Reviews

Dalkey Archive Press

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465026203
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 788,912
  • Product dimensions: 5.01 (w) x 8.04 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

William Howard Gass (born July 30, 1924) is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and former philosophy professor. He has written three novels, three collections of short stories, a collection of novellas, and seven volumes of essays, three of which have won National Book Critics Circle Award prizes and one of which, A Temple of Texts (2006), won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. His 1995 novel The Tunnel received the American Book Award.

Dalkey Archive Press

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

CARTESIAN SONATA

The Writing on the Wall

This is the story of Ella Bend Hess, of how she became clairvoyant and what she was able to see.

    There was nothing in her childhood to suggest it. Her gift was the gift of the gods, not a natural product of her past, I am sure of that. It was a true gift: free and undeserved, as beauty is supposed to be, or the descent of the dove: inexplicable and merciless.

    Marvelous is what I mean. Miraculous. Mysterious? Surely not a word so weak. Yet it has to begin with an m.

    You see how little pride I have, to let you watch me fumble. I could have sent that wretched word away and written what I wanted, you'd have been no wiser; but I haven't got that kind of courage anymore, the courage of the liar. My will, somewhere along the way, has grown most deathly tired; now I have the scruples of a worn-out thief--fierce, painful scruples--and I wish I could recover everything I've stolen from my stories over the years; maybe then my angry blood would quiet. Of course, they do catch up, these phrases that I've condemned, poor awkward creatures, and occupy my dreams. They remind me of a row of prisoners, rapping on their bars. They shout their names and shout their names. I laugh with all my nerves. Well... prison is my only metaphor.

    Is it right or honest? After all--Ella Bend--where is she? Isn't she as much in all those scraps I threw away as in the scraps I saved? Threw away, mind you, when they held her name. Where else did she have her life? I'd given her a long nose, I remember--no good reason why. Now her nose is middling. I made her sing a bawdy song--a poor idea. And I cut the nursery scene entirely, the whole scene, you understand, where she comes in, more than half asleep, the baby bawling, frightened, pawing at the darkness, helpless as a beetle on its back. When Ella touches him she shares his skin and feels him stiffen. Just then she understands the dreadful quality of his confusion. Her mouth falls open. She strikes the air.

    I've never had the experience myself. How would it be to bump things like a spider? Anyway, there were too many principles against the passage.

    I didn't give her a long nose exactly. She had a long nose. Now it's gone. I decided she looked too much like a witch, and since she really was a witch, it wouldn't do to have her look precisely like one. If I weren't honest you'd never know; you'd think her nose was middling. So it is. My god, don't blame poor authors. Think how shameful it would be to say: Ella Bend had a long nose, which I shortened to a middling one because a middling one made her look less like a witch, although a witch is what she was. You won't find many who've got the guts. They make a cheap product--skimp on the goods. If you want my advice--don't buy.

    Passage is the right word. Passage. Every sentence is a passage. So I changed her life; changed it; not in advance but afterward, after it was over. That's real magic for you, not the merely manual kind. What is this art but the art of appearance? I make bright falsehoods to blind the eye.

    Maybe it was merciless I meant. Beauty is often a curse, and I suppose clairvoyancy could be. Now: what do I mean? You realize that time has passed--another thing the cheapskates hide. Time. Whole weeks. A lot happens. My mother dies. I am caught by a famous disease. Or nothing happens. My mother does not die. I am not caught by a famous disease. Do I still intend whatever it was I did? Ella Bend is lucky to be alive. I have a terrible pain in my head. Of course she's dead. But not yet. She doesn't die in the story. At the moment all she has is an altered nose and nervous eyes. Think if that were all you were.

    Cassandra's curse wasn't clairvoyancy. It was not being believed. Suppose it had been Cassandra who saw but who also disbelieved. That would have been more interesting.

    I wonder if you understand about that m. The other day I idly scribbled twelve of them in the margin of a canceled page: mmmmmmmmmmmm. They doubtless affected my mind. I was writing away, "the descent of the dove" and all that, when I caught those m's in the corner of my eye. That's how I came to feel some force in its direction. But, good lord, why? Could anything be more absurd? Would God create that way?

    Look at them again: mmmmmmmmmmmm. Hear the hum. Isn't that the purply dove? the witches' mist? It's Ella Bend in receipt of her gift. Her eyes fill.

    The dove descends, says here you are, accept it and forgive. Her eyes fill.

    There was nothing in her childhood to suggest it. She was pudgy. She'd worn a red coat that buttoned to her chin, scratching her neck; Sallydale highshoes, secure as a mother's love, the salesman said; thick stockings with tight elastic tops; bloomers that cut her skin; severely woven braids tied with pale fluttery bows; and wool mittens that itched when her hands began to sweat. The salesman had a case that folded out impressively. Even Ellareen had hoped he'd fold it out again. He unlidded and unpleated it. It was a polished black sample tray with shiny chrome catches--a shoes-in-the-box, Ellahen had said--and everyone had laughed, Ellareen putting her hand on Ellahen's colorless head, deciding right then to buy her a pair; and the box undid itself, legs sliding out, secret after secret coming until the shoes were there, even yellow ones, red, very vulgar and beautiful, making Ellareen feel like an Indian, covetous and primitive. The salesman was talking and smiling. He had fine hands and smooth black hair.

    Let's just try this on for size, he said.

    A shoehorn dangled from a chain that disappeared into his vest.

    Black is useful.

    Ella trembled when he held her feet. The shoes seemed cool, but they didn't feel like a mother's love.

    It don't show wear.

    Thomas thumped the case.

    Stands up noble, Ellareen said.

    It gets them all, the salesman said. They want to know how it works. They love it.

    The salesman rubbed his thumb against the side of Ella's arch.

    Walk on that. See how it feels.

    Ella stood awkwardly, wiggling her toes, rocking as she was bid, while Thomas touched the leg-joints of the sample tray. Her mother stooped quickly, closing her thumb and finger on Ella's ankle.

    Is it tight enough there?

    Oh yes ma'am, you need some play.

    Has to be some support, too. I like things to fit. She snapped erect. Try a pair on Ellahen.

    We like to sell our shoes in the home where they're worn. That's why we come here like we do. See there, he said, holding up the mate, that's well made.

    He folded the toe into his hand, then crumpled the top, and Ella felt a pang for the shoe that might be hers.

    Feel that--soft and smooth.

    He held it out to Ellareen, who balanced the shoe on her hand, squinting at the heel.

    Has to be firm, she said.

    The shoes were in tiers, one from each pair, on deep puffed velvet like valuable jewels. He had the others loose in a bag.

    The salesman measured Ellahen.

    Ella has weak ankles and her feet are flat, takes after Mister Bend in that. It's Ellahen who's real strong there.

    The salesman smiled at Ellahen, who blinked and rubbed her nose. Well all of them lace high, he said, and Ella thought he seemed like a knight, kneeling in front of Ellahen, making his vows, and she wondered how in the world all those shoes went in. She wanted him to fold it up so she could see, and the request shaped her mouth. Then she wondered instead what the salesman thought of Ellahen, whether he'd ever seen an albino before (she supposed he had) and what he would think it' he knew why Ellareen had broken her rule against men who sold from door to door to let him in.

    This salesman's name is Philip Gelvin; he's a thoroughly bad hat, as the saying was then, and he hates albinos; they make his flesh crawl. He hates their pink rabbitlike eyes. His uncle saw one sunburned once. The lines in the skin were embossed on the blisters. She was helplessly sick to her stomach; terrifying white hair fell about her face; her tinted glasses lay in the grass. That was Willie Fogal--his uncle--who is ninety and who saw Pister Welcome, he says, shoot The Badman in the boot, like the rhyme says. Willie was always claiming to have seen this or that. Who could tell? He's in his dotage now and takes a dislike to death that's far too late to be sincere. But poor old man and his dissolving head. Visit him at the farm sometime, he'll tell you what he sees: gray mists, vapors, spaces, holes. Stares straight ahead. The kindly ladies keep him clean. Might as well look one way as another, he says, it's all around, just open up your eyes and look ... Quite a change from the warrior days ... Well I pity everyone his age. Anyway that's what he said: he saw Pister take his rifle down the first the pigs got loose, mad as hell naturally, and he saw him walk up the street with it under his arm until he was where The Badman was standing, where they all were standing, and then Pister says, according to Uncle Fogal, you ain't worth shooting in the head; you ain't worth shooting in the ass, whereupon the gun went off, as though, really, it was accidental, and The Badman fell on his shoulder in the mud. The boot, even with the hole through it, held the blood from The Badman's shattered foot so well it hardly stained the puddle. I never shot anybody just because of pigs, The Badman said.

    Scenes like this--that's what Uncle Fogal filled his eyes with, why he lived ... the swine.

    There must be some truth to the tale, though, because you can view the boot, the shattered edges of the leather curled and the mud removed, at the Harrison County Historical Museum any hour it's unlocked. Take the stairs you'll see in front of you when you enter (mind the banister, it rocks), cross the balcony as it sweeps to the right, and you will find the boot on the first table through the door, by the spurs of The General, with a placard propped; but Mrs. Crandall keeps her schedule secret, so if you want to see it you'll have to set a watch. Try to look honest, sincere and devout. She fears thieves and anyone with a pencil. It is generally believed that wags one day arranged a number of the mounted animals in attitudes of copulation, destroying as they did so the supports and backdrop of an educational tableau, much admired over the years, which had featured a leaping frog, a frightened hare, and a screaming eagle. I happen to know that when Mrs. Crandall observed the address being paid by a moose to a deer, a terrible weakness overcame her and she almost fainted--not from modesty or outrage but from an unbearably poignant recollection--sagging against the banister I warned you about with such force it yielded, nearly spilling her across its upper railing onto a table of fans and combs and looking glasses just below, the mirrors cleverly arranged to multiply the combs and fans by three. (So I should, she said, have broken more of those fine combs and illustrated fans than ever had existence.) Instantly her weakness was replaced by indignation, for, as she very often told me later, the decorative scene had been created by Willard Scott Lycoming himself, and though the foreground was mostly grass enlivened here and there with daisies, the middle distance represented with astonishing fidelity (fidelity, alas, uncommon in the paintings of our faithless age) a view of the Harris Creek, where the Lister Farm had been before it burned and where the plant that folks now call the Pork Works was, while the far ground contained the barest suggestion of a pointed mountain scarfed with purple haze of which the artist had been vouchsafed, he had told the then Miss Swanson, a vision in a dream (there are no mountains in these parts, though several low hills lie along the river); a peak which had, he said, meant a great deal to him ever since and which the tableau had hinted was the home of the screaming eagle, whence it came; and the violation of this lovely historical work had filled her with such a fierce and avenging anger that she struck an indecent squirrel from its mounting, snapping its dry and ancient tail upon the floor. The placard was composed by Mrs. Crandall, who ought to know the facts, and it says nothing of Uncle Fogal or Pister Welcome either. (Pister, Mrs. Crandall tells me, is a myth.) It merely identifies the owner of the boot; relates the manner of his shooting simply and does not fasten to his death the dignity of names; calls attention to the worn heel, the scuffed toe, the poor quality of leather; suggests that The Badman was hardly a fit object for hero worship, even though he has become a hero to our children; and closes with a bitter reference to the symbolism in his ruin, the coating of his shattered foot with clay.

    What impressed me most about the boot, when I was taken as a boy to see it, was its size. It's quite small, smaller than I felt it should be, dainty almost, and in those days the top had been allowed to droop upon its stem like a flower, although now there is a stick inside to stiffen it. While I made no public boo-rah, privately I snapped my jaws together and refused to believe in it, a judgment I have since had ample reason, of course, to change. A boot so small and cheaply made could not have held The Badman's foot, I thought, and I was encouraged in this opinion by Pelcer Wilson's dad, who said the boot had been fished from the creek--the hole looked bitten through by water rats--and anyway it was a lady's style and size, look at the heel, he said, ever see a man wear a heel like that? and where was the mate if it was the boot of The Badman, a man near six foot five, he knew, and not a teeny-weeny dandy, his father having seen him kill a man with his bare hands, holding him clear of the ground at the end of his arms like a clutch of prize fish. It was Melon Yoder he killed this way, and Melon was at least six foot himself, broad in his shoulders like a steer, fat in his belly like a sow, thick through his thighs like Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, and when The Badman loosened him he made a dent in the ground. His father told him, Pelcer Wilson said, that The Badman's boots were tall and darkly glistening; there were silver nails in the heels and silver stitching over the toe and a row of silver tassels all along the top which shook joyously when The Badman walked like wheat in an intermittent wind.

    Lies, lies, lies. What can anyone believe? The Badman was a mimsy parlor-chested squit who stole small change from empty poker tables and whose most daring and most desperate act was freeing Pister Welcome's pigs to run the town. That sort of childish bullyragging jape was what he made his name by, how he lived ... the swine. Men will always lie about the measure of their penis, you can bank on it. Sam T. Hoggart somewhere in his History says the same. Sam's the only historian I know who hates numbers (excepting William Frederick Kohler, of course, up on charges now for molesting his female students). Anyway, his book is a fine one, and I more than echo our friendship when I recommend it. He'd do the same for me.

    Then Lycoming. I take no pleasure in inventing him. He is a negligible painter. Three names for snob. A man, however, as they used to say, of parts. But no dent in the history of art. It may have been his contradictions that destroyed him, teetered him insane, for he was a hollow-eyed visionary of the romantically desperate kind, cruelly devoted to the truth, afire to prophesy, full of flummoxy notions about the nature of perception, intoxicated by geometry, royally ceremonious, utterly unscrupulous, wholly mad, yet loyal, with the stupid blind loyalty of the lover, to the world he saw and felt surround him. Well it threw him down. These fanatic, jealous, brutal devotions made him so fastidious with every detail he could not manage their subordination. He gave them all his skill, painting each with a microscopic precision that shattered the unity of his canvas and created there a kind of grossly luminous horror. Obedient to the perverse demands of his creative demon, he could not paint a crowd it did not fall into an anarchy of faces (Ensor's Christ Entering Brussels comes to mind)--(no, it's called The Entry of Christ Into Brussels), while these immediately became round porous noses and converging eyes--all, mind you, at the behest of some arbitrary spatial symbol, mathematically shaped and mystically significant (like the logarithmic spiral or a chessboard, the lines of someone else's poem, and so on). Yet it is nearly true that in his work each brush stroke speaks. Well they make a godly clamor (one should confess the virtue that gives suck to every vice), but the din, I must admit, despite my love for dear Peg Crandall, who may love him still (since it was he who first put paint-stained fingers to her breasts and chewed her ear), is awful, simply awful. The foreground of that scene I mentioned, although torn by the vandals and never repaired, is marvelously rendered, and so subtle was Lycoming's genius that in its lower corner, by the signature which grime by now has nearly covered, he has broken off some blades of grass and flattened others to suggest that someone was standing there a moment ago, perhaps the artist himself, gazing across the Harris Creek to the overgrown stones of the Lister home and toward the vaguely risen dream peak in the distance.

    W.S.L. You know what he asked her? To pose. What else? To pose. Oh to be a painter so to ask to pose. To pose. A request a lady's vanity will always find appealing. To pose. Nibbling on her shell-pink ear. My genius is stirred by your beauty my dear. The snake. Not nude, of course, just naked to the waist--unclothed, that is to say, undraped. So she did, she posed--despite the best upbringing, despite her years of Sunday school, despite her love of fancy clothing, her doting father, and several carnal shocks that fell together in her fifth year, none of which she could remember, though one of them had to do with Willard Scott as a little bratty boy in a Sunday tie and collar, black short pants, and urgently opened fly; despite the fact her painter had a skinny penis and a stony cod, which she could hardly have known at the time and seemed never to mind; in spite of her mother, who slept in her corset, or her marriage vows, or the laws of the state, the commands of God, or the rules of her rutty artist's maidenly college; greedily, without listening for the sound of steps on the stairs or the stealthy creak of a peeper, with laughter and with solemn lewd intent, debonair as a true gymnosophist, and, as she fancied ladies often were in Aristophanes, with a smudge of ferrous green an inch below her rosier nipple. 'Pon my honor. By my faith. And I understand that in the painting, though I've never seen it, he put the metal smudge (tenderly, with the nostalgic tip of his finger) precisely where it belonged. Poor Peg. What an unending cliche her life has been. And so badly painted. It was a sweet joke they had to nibble on between them. Of course she couldn't bear to wash it off, weeping when it flaked away. Prophetically. In the course of the fateful stars. My word as a disciple of Jesus.

    To be looked at like that. Not the way the doctor did when he wasn't playing doctor. But the way the painter did whose soul admired what his loins desired. What an aureole! What an inner-thigh line! Belly button to be gently pressed. Is anyone at home? To be looked at as if it were the sun, and her blood came up under her skin like a blush a burn where the eyes gazed, where desire grazed. But the result clearly compromised her 'cause it wasn't art, it represented Lycoming's adoration OK his lust.

    So she hid the painting prudently beneath her bed until her husband's hand uncovered it, fumbling for a slipper she had purchased Wednesday for the celebration of his fifty years. N.B. The husband and the wife made love above the oily canvas. Why not? Husband and wife. Calculate how often. Squirmed and giggled. Full orchestra for the beautiful ballad: Made Love Above the Canvas. Heedle deedle deedle. Or a cabaletta for tenor and tambourine. Ladies and gentlemen: introducing Philip and Phyllis, that inimitable pair of gymnasts, who will thrill you by making love on the giant swings--boom ..., on the back of a galloping camel--boom, boom ..., while riding a trike on the high wire--boom, boom, boom ..., and as a special treat, never before attempted outside the steppes of Asia, in midair above a trampoline--boom ..., boom, boom, boom. False nose straight? Want to borrow mine? It's aquiline. Have a pink tasseled hat and a horn. Now, I hate to keep harping on this, but don't forget the significance of the slippers. Shall we play a few more games? Tromp about in the rosin box, it's slippery on the wire. Or bundle up with camera. Clothing disarrayed? Uncover to discover: your wife's image as a lover's longing. How many rents in Aphrodite's tents? Lucky guesser gets a buss upon his plucky kisser. Ah, what a rouser! Well, sheepishly he'd worn them to please her. They looked foolish and bedraggled, flopping on his feet--the sort of man he was. O wise and worldly gods, what appropriate conjunctions! But a silly sort of horns. Now. What does he say? He says very naturally what is this? what? eh? um? eh? In short, nothing. He has difficulty sliding it from under. Like the bare leg of a lover. Discovered. He tugs and hauls while Peg what? claws at her rump where she's been bitten by a spider. Unattractive patch that's not in the painting. Well, insects have no nerves. Of course it puts him in a rage. Regular. Towering. Flames flash from his steeple. His nightshirt's ashake. There follow a number of inner ticulations. So he destroys it, the iconoclast. He smashes it, rends it. Mem. must be a convenient size, consider the set. Next gesture: he takes it up in his hands and brings it down on the left post of the bed with all his excavator's strength. The canvas does not yield, though the knurl strikes her belly. Poor old Bill. It was beautifully stretched and sized. It's a problem for properties. Alarm them early. The painting springs from the post--look at those aureoles!--tears itself from his hands--the light down on her arms, what a likeness!--falls, strikes his unslippered foot, skids away, shoving the rug into waves, scratching the floor--tessellated too, what workmanship!--and so on. He nearly strangles her for that scratch, of course. Hopping, he takes her by the creamy throat. 0 revengeful Italy. But his foot pains him greatly and he sits on the edge of the bed to massage it. Rough skin. Needs a regular application of Bag Balm. In any case he had his thumbs misplaced. How did Othello do it? She kneels now, mewing, to rub his footie too. Ah, soft France. Later he is grateful for the slippers since he cannot walk around in shoes with such a knot in his toe. Peg coughs to make him feel he's been dangerous. She may be a whore, he thinks in the freshest way he can, but at least she's clean. No doubt in his mind about that, for some reason. Thereafter, his manhood challenged, he thinks of her as cheap enough to purchase wealthy pleasures, and makes love to her with gusto and invention. Well, for him--invention. Dark and holy Russia. Of which the upshot is--poor Lycoming's acold. Cuckolded by the man he made a cuckold. Of. Not long after this scene whose shameful elements with zest we have provided, the husband was killed in a sewer by a slide of mud. For his sins against art. O implacable Spain.

    Can you bear this peep show any longer? How's this for a sneak: the painter pursuing the lady, who by now is naked, through the studio with a messy palette, mainly cobalt blue, for sky, and the brush from the hair of a camel. I'll have a sweeter canvas soon, he cries, she giggling. There are jokes about Indians and sailors and circus shows. Also under canvas. And then he has her. Dirty-fingered artist. Chester the White.

    Why should I complain? Our artist merely requested Peg to pose naked to the waist, and doubtless he said something about painting the delicate slope of her back or capturing the soft shadows which fell from her shoulder blades or rendering the swanlike tube of her throat. These were all lies, of course, lies; they were not meant to be believed; except the poor girl did think she had a delicate slope and that there were shadows flowing softly down her back and that her neck was tall and nobly bent, feathery smooth and white. A painter would surely want to paint such things as these if he could stand to his easel to do it and wasn't weak in the knees with lust. There must have been some excitement for her, too, in being looked at by another man, a painter, who, at least while he painted (as we've already reported), really examined his woman, consequently had to see the fine things she saw, had to touch them anyway with the soft tips of his eyes. Ah married, yet a maiden! Peg, your husband saw no further than his prick--it, elderly--and when that instrument was dangling, he was nearly blind; but a painter, even a miserable daub like Lycoming, sees too far, too dangerously far, you dare not leave an opening, he'll enter your eyes, or your mouth and ears--any of the seven portals of the head--and for god's sake tighten up your thighs. That carriageway is easy. The painter, my dear, the painter perceives as deeply as his seed. There he sends his eyes, curled like trichinae in the muscles of a pig. But never mind. It was thus, her back turned modestly, he painted her. Well, it was a fine painting, of course, though it would have been finer if the draperies, more in the classical manner, had fallen lower on the hips ... to here, you see, creating a beautiful arabesque. Thank god that sort of flaw a little overpainting will correct. It's a wonderful medium--oil. So now he wishes to treat the splendid bones of her behind. And hasn't she, though! Her husband, bless his sewer-slid-on soul, not once hefted her there, hardly her breasts either, and his experiments at the very last were not of that kind. If you would turn please, a little, to the light ...

    There's no point in going on. The plot, which is the soul, as Aristotle says, remains the same. Only the body undergoes a change. If we could X-ray that painting, I'm sure we'd find there every level of unclothing, like the layers of Troy, beneath its radiantly naked top. Adam--wheedle by wheedle--in the same way, got existence.

    Now the careful reader will have noticed--

    Bless me. The careful reader. I had forgotten him.

    Does anyone remember me?

    Well ... My typewriter rests on a great oak plank between two sawhorses. In the old days, when the first volume of Vines and Memorial Porches had appeared and I was, in a manner of speaking, famous, I had been pictured in the colored pages of a national weekly working on Trumpet to the Dawn, then shortly to follow Hurst's House as the middle of my masterpiece (and a thumping success, as it turned out), shirtless, the hair on my back, which was bleached by the sun, making quite an effect in Kodachrome, puffing at a cigarette, a bluish string of testimonial smoke wreathing my clenched eyes, hands descending roughly toward the keys, face screwed with the effort of creation and my nails trimmed, rope belt tightly cinched and tied as a pirate would with a looping bow above the hip ... I was vain ... god ... it cut into my waist and raised, or rather while indenting the skin seemed to raise nevertheless, a weal, which reproduced itself in the photo as an irregular pale splotch contiguous with the top of my tan shorts ... not a bit flattering; and as I remember, I wore clogs and had my legs spread straight as sticks, as I have since seen pregnant women spread them when they dared, and my desk in that photo was just such a desk as this, exactly the one my knees are under now, as a matter of fact, for I felt obliged by the picture to use it sometimes, though I don't wear a thing when I write but work naked and compose by staring at my cock and balls, alternatively, first one and then the other; and that sense of obligation, the sight of myself in the picture, put me under it so often that I began to compare my wooden horses to the feathered dray-pulls of the Phaedrus: the right-hand horse a stallion, graceful as a skipping girl, blond and clear-eyed, yet thick-maned and large like the lion, with the lion's deep throat and tubular teeth, swift and tireless, moreover, as a coasting bird, as farsighted, patient, and implacable, with a regal neck which lifted at every sound like a deer's, and with wings to satisfy an angel glowing from their passage through the air; while the left ... oh dear, the left a shambling, drunken mare with a cropped tail and a coarse shaggy coat made of hairs with darkened ends, sore-footed, foulmouthed, fattish and nobby, with short, uneven legs and a snub face and white-webbed eyes, nervous, sly, her inner organs cruelly eaten by disease, given to rhythmic swaying like a bear, inclined to bite, her dwarfed wings so closely folded to her sides she never flew at all but fell as crudely as a stone, as brutally, as eager; and as I say, this obligation sent me back and back again until sitting to the trestle became automatic, necessary even when bitter (as now), it was a track so deeply worn; and I can reach with a pencil end the words I have carved in the wood by tracing them a hundred thousand times, my doodles too, always the same, cutting a canyon like a stream, dark at the bottom with graphite, beautifully smooth (for graphite is a handsome lubricant), in beautifully turned calligraphy: cunt, for instance, with many curlicues ... (here is something funny: I had begun that particular tracing first, so it was rather permanently down when I began the final volume, and it really happened that on the day I composed its most famous scene, that tender lovers' parting on the porch of Mt. Lion, Parker kissing the tines of Carol's parasol (OK, anything sounds absurd when outlined simply, and there's a lesson for us all in that), then folding it abruptly as a sign that he is leaving the Mount forever; while I was composing this tender, sentimental scene, I say, restlessly stirring my words around and wondering how I should manage the business, my pencil was continuously, thoughtlessly, idly tracing cunt still more darkly in the oak--imparting a rhythm to my hand and arm, rocking my shoulder, affecting ... what? my brain? (which reminds me of the technique of Madame Bovary and of Flaubert's startled whore, cigar ash on her belly, formal hat on him--the supremely cool equestrian), well ... and Covenant, which was the name of an historic oak beneath whose boughs a treaty, depriving some Indians of land in return, I believe, for their enjoyment of an interlude of peace, was signed by some Quakers and those Indians with an X; and when the oak, having fallen prey to drought, wind, age, or some disease (I wonder was it the same disease as mine?), was cut down (bands played, doubtless; there were solemn speeches in rented hats from wooden stands while pennants snapped in the rhetorical winds), a long heart slice was sent to me, though god knows why, I hate both covenants and trees, and this accounts for the incision of Covenant, and for fuck the Indians hurrah, a bordering phrase, etched small.

    I am an inveterate pencil carver and I consequently understand the qualities of wood. I know how, for instance, the grain will cause the most determined line to quake and wriggle. My first attempt to engrave the letter c in the plank from the Covenant tree left a very bent and shaken l, though you would never guess it now, the original is so overlaid with flourishes. The secret is to proceed by a series of gentle scratches, repeated often; never an impatient deep gouge, which the wood will surely put a crick in, but always the patiently light scratch. A painted surface is tricky. Oh, it's easy enough to make pencil marks on a fine enamel, but that's not the aim, you know. Get under the skin, that's the idea. You must watch that the paint doesn't flake or you will spoil the clarity and decision of your line. I'm not much interested in images myself. I always carve letters or abstract designs: five-pointed stars sometimes, the capital L, which in script curls its edges like a sheet of stamps, or f or k, or the word Isabel, or thickety black scrawls bunched like tumbleweeds, and mazes of dizzily turning lines like the spill and flow of hair, whole worlds really, the track deepening as you journey on, as if at any moment you might penetrate

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Cartesian Sonata 3
Bed and Breakfast 66
Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's 144
The Master of Secret Revenges 192
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2001

    rare novellas that are quite beautiful...

    It is always Good to findout about another Writer who is a Master.. and this Master is lesser known by the general readers.. who will unfortunately discover his writing to be rather difficult.. if they've not read a lot of post-modernisim.. Gass is along the lines of Thomas Pynchon And William Gaddis.. This novella Collection.. feels more like one novel.. or has consistent thematic elements that we Find in all of Gass's work, funny , weird, and Rather Disturbing.. though written in a singular style!

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