Thursday, October 26, 2017

"The Nightingales Sing" (1946)

Story by Elizabeth Parsons not available online.

I've spent a fair amount of time on this short story project characterizing some of the pieces I've encountered as "not a story"—that is, more like memoir, journalism, excerpt from something larger, or experiment of some kind. This story, published originally in the New Yorker, strikes me as more or less exactly what I have in mind as a short story. It's nearly perfect. It recounts a specific event, a visit by a young woman, Joanna, with the older brother of a friend to an eccentric household. She doesn't know the people living in the house at all, and she doesn't know the older brother well either. Her friend is not there because she came down sick at the last minute. The brother, Phil, kindly volunteered to accompany Joanna to a horse event she wanted to attend. That's where he meets his friends Sandy and Chris, who extend the invitation for the visit. Sandy and Chris are involved with one another, but Sandy is also married to another woman, with whom he also shares a house, shuttling between them. It's a small event, this visit, but seen through Joanna's eyes it's like encountering the world of adults for the first time all over again. There's no need to ask what the writer, Elizabeth Parsons, is trying to do. It's evident with every reaction from Joanna. This is what it's like to grow up. Suddenly you find yourself in a situation that changes you forever. The worlds of adults, responsibilities, and pleasures are revealed as infinitely complex, impossible to reduce to black and white platitudes. And more—discoveries like these, illuminating moments like this, may be the best life has to offer. Even after the brief evening visit is concluded and Joanna is home again, she realizes she will never be the same. Something has changed permanently and there is awe and mystery in the understanding. All that is compressed into this remarkable story of 16 pages or so, which stays close to Joanna's point of view but more often just dispassionately reports the events. From the way I'm talking about it I think it's fair to call it an epiphany story. Certainly something like that happens to Joanna. But what is the nature of her epiphany? That's not easily reduced to some didactic point, which is what makes this a great story. Joanna's experience vividly reminded me of some of my own early adventures in my late teens and early 20s, encountering unexpected revelations in my interactions with adults and strangers. There is a point where they shift from people who control you, abstracted authority figures, to flawed human beings a lot like you—peers. That's about as simple as I can make what I think Joanna finds in this wonderful story, and it's way too simplified for everything packed into it. This is one of the best stories in all these anthologies, even though, mysteriously, very little is known about the author.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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