Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Encounters with Strangers in Three Short Stories

Title: Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants
Author: Nadine Gordimer
Where I Read It: World Literature: An Anthology of Great Short Stories, Drama, and Poetry


A middle-aged white woman working at a garage in South Africa finds herself in a dangerous situation when she takes up with a guy she barely knows.

There’s a strong disconnection between the woman, the world around her, and the needs within her. She’s lonely and has fallen out of touch with her daughter. The only people she might turn to for advice or assistance are the “boys” (really, adult black men) who work at the garage. She isn’t honest with herself, and lives in a society that discourages various kinds of honesty. The lies she tells herself leave her vulnerable to unscrupulous or unstable people, and will maybe prevent her from reaching out for help from people whose worth she comes close to seeing but won’t (or can't) allow herself to see.


Title: The Lecture
Author: Isaac Bashevis Singer
Where I Read It: The Oxford Book of American Short Stories


I raised my eyes to the sky. One half was full of stars; the other was already flush with morning. For a few seconds I seemed to have forgotten all that had happened and gave myself up entirely to the birth of the new day. I saw the stars go out one by one. Streaks of red and rose and yellow stretched across the sky, as in a child's painting.
This is a beautiful story, with a mix of humor and heartache. It hurt to read.

Shortly after WWII, a Yiddish writer travels from New York City to Montreal to give a talk about the fate of Yiddish. This writer moved to the US prior to the Holocaust, and so avoided likely death. Throughout the story, he gets a taste of what his life might have been like had he remained in Europe. He also finds an unexpected connection by the end, a link forged with a stranger over sorrow and survival.

The story unfolds in two stages. First, the train trip to Canada, and how the writer - reading a book, and noting the snow and deepening cold - considers his isolation from the other passengers, and what would happen if the civilized trappings of the train melted away, leaving people to turn on him - maybe as they would have in a train in Eastern Europe. There’s a lingering mistrust of what lies behind civilized demeanors.

Then there’s his arrival at Montreal late at night. He expects that no one will be waiting for him at that hour, but finds a mother and daughter, both Holocaust survivors, ready to take him to their home. They live in poverty, as if they’re still in the Poland he remembers from childhood. They’re isolated in their community, even looked down on by the other people in the cultural club who invited him to speak. The mother is a huge fan of his, and is voluble not only in her praise but also about the recent horrors she and her daughter have survived. ("All the troubles come from people being deaf and blind. They don't see the next man and so they torture him. We are wandering among blind evildoers...") The daughter doesn’t want to talk about the Holocaust at all.

So this is where the writer finds himself, with strangers who suffered a fate he was spared, trying to figure out what to say about Yiddish when faced with these heart-breaking refugees who lost almost everything. He winds up in a place beyond words.
Let the paper and ink return to the cosmos, where there can be no errors and no lies. Atoms and molecules are guiltless; they are a part of the divine truth...

Title: Little White Sister
Author: Melanie Rae Thon
Where I Read It: Breaking Into Print


A black man witnesses a white woman running down a street in the cold at night. He wonders if he should find out what’s going on with her. Is she in danger? Would it be dangerous to try to help her?

His reflections cover his life so far: his father’s brutal job, his more successful siblings, his own music career disintegrating into drug use, his past troubles with the law and how he got into them. In music, he’s always had a knack for picking up on sounds others don’t hear. There are underlying layers he’s sensitive to. This also becomes a metaphor for relating to others. Race crackles on the surface, bringing with it automatic assumptions and perceptions, a friction that can push people apart; but beneath it there are other layers, deeper selves that call out from one person to another. What will he choose to listen to or ignore? People who understand each other in some deep way might remain alone and apart in overwhelming fear.

2 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

These all sound good. The Lecture seems particularly intriguing. It must have been a surreal experience for those who managed to barely escape the holocaust. I love the passages that you quoited. The writing seems almost poetic.

HKatz said...

@ Brian - Maybe sometimes a feeling of survivor's guilt, questioning why them and not me. And yes, Singer's writing in "The Lecture" is so beautiful.