Sunday, June 12, 2011

Good Short Fiction: Nuns at Luncheon (Aldous Huxley)

Title: Nuns at Luncheon
Author: Aldous Huxley

Where I read it: The Oxford Book of English Short Stories (edited by A.S. Byatt)

A fiction writer and a journalist meet for lunch. The journalist, Miss Penny, has just returned from a trip to Germany where she had to have her appendix removed; she spent her time recuperating in a hospital staffed with nuns. Over lunch she shares the story of a condemned nun who had run off with a patient.

Some reasons to read it
  • The story-within-a-story structure works well. There's the dramatic tale of the nun and her fate. And then there's Miss Penny and the fiction writer eating lunch. Not much happens between them other than their discussion of the nun and her story, but that's fitting; such stories are their life and livelihood.

  • The writers try to figure out the nun's motives; what would make her abandon her vows and risk deepest condemnation? But they seem to have little feeling for her as a person, even when they discuss her gruesome punishment; their main concern is how to write about her, fashion her in words and get into her head. The fiction writer regards Miss Penny with the same attitude, not only using her for her anecdotes but also searching for the most striking way to describe her. She's someone to be pitied and secretly mocked; though she may be entertaining, she doesn't inspire passion or love in others.
    Miss Penny threw back her head and laughed. Her long earrings swung and rattled - corpses hanging in chains: an agreeably literary simile. And her laughter was like brass, but that had been said before.

    The story raises interesting questions about how writers relate to the people they write about; though it's not always the case that a story is lifted straight from real life, writers generally draw on the people around them and on various life circumstances for inspiration. When does a writer's attitude become too manipulative or unfeeling? Does such an attitude take away from the merit of a story and make it less beautiful or illuminating? At one point Miss Penny considers this aspect of writing:
    "... two professionals gloating, with an absolute lack of sympathy, over a seduced nun, and speculating on the best method of turning her misfortunes into cash. It's all very curious, isn't it? - when one begins to think about it dispassionately."

    And earlier she asks:
    "Do you really - honestly, I mean - do you seriously believe in literature?"

    The fiction writer dismisses the question, which isn't even very clear, and doesn't seem interested in discussing her passing doubts. He just wants to get back to the nun.

  • The writers try to understand the nun and craft her story in such a way as to stir emotion in others, without feeling much themselves except for the great satisfaction of a story well told. And it is a story well told - you feel the suspense of it, the passion and tragedy.
    "Why, it's ready-made literature, this scene. In the morning... two woodcutters on their way to work noticed that the door of the hut was ajar. They approached the hut cautiously, their axes raised and ready for a blow if there should be need of it. Peeping in, they saw a woman in a black dress lying face downwards in the straw. Dead? No; she moved, she moaned..."

    These lines are from Miss Penny, who is enthusiastic about stories and possesses admirable skill in the craft of story-telling; she also has a pensive moment of her own, when she stops to consider whether anyone would ever attempt to seduce her. Some of her personal feelings are touched, if only briefly. With a sense of humor that's sharp and not at all warm, the fiction writer studies her from across the table:
    No, decidedly, Miss Penny was not beautiful; you could not even honestly say that she had charm or was attractive. That high Scotch colouring, those hare's eyes, the voice, the terrifying laugh, and the size of her, the general formidableness of the woman. No, no, no.

    Of everyone in the story the fiction writer is most elusive. We get the sense of someone remote, urbane, and not especially kind or charitable; otherwise in appearance and character the fiction writer is formless, inhabiting the shadows of the story while the nun and Miss Penny get trotted out for scrutiny.

  • There are significant parts of the nun's story, and her life, that are unknown to the writers. They attempt to reconstruct these private moments, and they don't always succeed; their words and explanations are inadequate. When the writers fail to give a satisfactory account of her character, it feels almost as if the nun is retaining some of her dignity and privacy. Still, as a reader you want all the details. Everyone is complicit in using the nun - not only the man who seduced her, but also the readers who crave the story and the writers who wish to tell it for the sake of their craft and for the profit they'll make off of it.

Other recommended stories from this collection include these three and At Hiruharama (by Penelope Fitzgerald).