Monday, November 21, 2016
This story by E.L. Doctorow is not particularly interesting or original in its substance—a basic working over of oedipal strains, told from the point of view of the son, Willi. What's more interesting and ultimately unsettling and effective about it to me are its formal qualities. It is less than 10 pages, with two sections and a grand total of five paragraphs. They are big paragraphs. The first one takes up more than four pages. The setting is deliberate and precise: 1910 in Central Europe. As with the 2009 Michael Haneke movie, The White Ribbon, the ghosts of Nazism and the Holocaust brood over this, suggesting ... something. I am actually as confused about this story as I am about that movie, in terms of intentions, but something similar gets under my skin in both places. Willi is 13, and Jewish. On a beautiful summer day he wanders to the barn on his family's estate and spies his mother having sex with his tutor. This is disturbing to him on any number of levels. He is ashamed and furious. At first he tries to keep the secret, until his resentments push him to reveal his knowledge to his father. His father is a great and successful agriculturalist, a farmer advancing scientific methods. But he's only human, and it's 1910. So his response is to beat his wife, which only further confuses and agitates Willi, who throws himself between the two. The story ends: "I was enraged, I pushed her back and jumped at him, pummeling him, shouting that I would kill him. This was in Galicia in the year 1910. All of it was to be destroyed anyway, even without me." The last paragraph is by far the shortest of the five in the story, underlining the sense of an interruption, an abrupt transition. For its brevity, the story's long paragraphs establish a peculiar rhythm, also bluntly interrupted. I struggled with the language in this story, which is ornately overwritten to the point where details such as the mother's barn assignation have to be reconstructed. For example, it's also likely that, just before his discovery of her, Willi had masturbated for the first time. But it's not certain. The language is liquid and effulgent, but the radiance obscures the concrete details, except in random glimpses. So it is annoying to read, or was for me, at least the first time. The conflict is hackneyed enough I wasn't that interested. And yet something about this story does stick and haunt.
American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks