Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Liphook: the communist

Week Three:  Liphook group, January 2016

On  The Communist
                                          by Richard Ford

I was moved by this story but somehow I don’t know quite how or why. It gave me several things to puzzle over.  Here are some of them.

·        Communist.   Is this a name he gives himself,  or that others give him?   In what sense is he a communist?   Communism doesn’t sit easily with shooting ducks (though perhaps it does with ‘poaching’).   Nor does it sit well with expensive cars like the ‘Nash’.   We get a sense of Ben as a sort of hippie but getting too old for the role -  outside mainstream society,  getting and spending as best he can.  Perhaps this is connected to his time in Vietnam?   He mentions shooting animals in Vietnam and Les speculates that he’d been thrown out for something he did there (again the assumption he’s an outsider).  Being a communist?  But he has been a trade unionist (‘labour man’) like Les’s father, and seems to believe in revolution  against the rich.  He says

“.  .  . the country was poisoned by the rich and strong men would need to bring it to life again.”

Or is his insecure life-style the result of his being known as a communist?  And also of being unable to adjust after Vietnam?    Again there’s a possibility that behind the individual character of Ben lies the paradox in communism – as it has so far been attempted – that an ideal ‘natural’ beauty of life somehow seems to end in even greater ugliness and death.

·        At the beginning of the story Aileen is on her own, and we’re not told what’s happened to Ben.   When he suddenly turns up she’s annoyed.  Perhaps she’s holding on to the remains of the quarrel which made him go?   Or angry at his leaving her?     She tries, in a very assertive way,  to stop Ben taking Les shooting.  But Les doesn’t allow himself to be dominated.    Perhaps Ben’s doing this to ingratiate himself in some way, at least with Les, who ‘likes’ him but not that much.    Then she turns up and goes with them, but then rather sulkily stays in the car, then joins them again,  then tries to make Ben show affection and/or susceptibility to her charms, by killing the wounded duck.  Which leads him to self-assertion and to withdraw his feelings, perhaps because he can’t deal with tenderness, and then do what she asked - but cruelly.    What is the matter with Aileen?   Is the point that she feels that can’t trust Ben to stick by her now she’s thirty-two and looking perhaps for a fixed relationship?  The point of her embarrassing question to Ben at the end about her femininity is to do with that perhaps, ‘left on the shelf’.   There’s just a hint that this whole story is about to be replayed with a new ‘Ben’.  We doubt if she’s really  going to college – a gesture towards greater independence, perhaps.

·        Les doesn’t seem to have strong feelings about either Aileen or Ben, and you get the sense that his feelings, whatever they are, are not such as he can express, but can embed in this story.  The story is his feelings.   He mentions his age, and at the end how almost a life time has gone by.   He’s now roughly the age Ben was then.   The moment of intimacy when his mother asks him about her attractiveness is not repeated, and almost as an afterthought he says:   “and I have not heard her voice now in a long, long time.”     This suggests at first that he’s left home, and perhaps he has.  In the story he’d thought about what she’d do when he did leave home.   But it just leaves open another, additional, meaning that he’s no longer able to respond to her feelings.

·        The ducks and the hunting.    The story was written in 1985, and so might well be drawing on a reader’s possible revulsion.  Why not just enjoy the beauty?   Why do you have to kill it?     Or is the killing a kind of selfie, a proof of how beautiful the ducks were by making one of them, though still and dead, mine?   This collision of the themes of love, fatherliness, and killing, needs more thought.   In one sense, of course, it’s good old conservative ‘manliness’,  the male asserting his powers -  originally , in the anthropological sense of feeding the family, surviving?   Here, the vision of the ducks spread out like that, does have the momentarily unifying effect that sharing a moment a beauty.   And perhaps there’s a parallel between the hunting, capturing, scene, and the personal relations involved.   Ben wants to capture that beauty in some way.  He can’t just ‘stand and stare’ in wonder. (I remember, much less dramatically, as a small boy taking birds’ eggs from the nests and being stirred by their beauty and otherness while shutting out thoughts of stealing, cruelty, killing.)     Or perhaps for some reason he feels he must ‘stamp out’ such moments by killing them, as if he’s guilty of something unmanly.  

·        The one person Les mentions with affection is his father, and the loss of his father is perhaps the ‘engine’ of this story.    The story as a whole made me think about the general problem of fatherless (or motherless)  children and step fathers/mothers.   This is made a problem, it seems to me, when the mother or father left is self-centred, perhaps, or dependent in one way or another on a partner.   There’s always, also, the sense that many children will have of the dead father or mother being irreplaceable like a ‘first love’, a kind of exclusiveness that makes it difficult to have or accept new relationships.   And then there are the ‘coping mechanisms’ people adopt, denying their feelings, loosing the capacity to feel, trust,  let go, and so on.    Les seems to cope by not allowing himself to have much in the way of feelings at all.    Much of this is connected with fear, and fear perhaps with loss of love and so of self.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Spring 2016:  American Short Stories   January 19

On   Collectors by Raymond Carver   

Best to think of this story as a kind of fairy tale puzzle.  It has plenty of interest as it moves along, and generates questions in our minds.  What’s happened that he’s out of work?   Why is he so suspicious when the door is knocked?  We begin to think perhaps he’s in debt, behind on the rent, or even that he’s a squatter.      He’s been there for some time as he knows the quirks of the floor sounds.  And yet later  we find he’s hardly ‘moved in’.

The person at the door does bring good news,  of a kind, but not for the narrator.    As they talk we wonder if the man is Mr Slater, the way he avoids acknowledging it.  And then where’s Mrs Slater who’s won the prize.    In all this story there are no explanations given.    But perhaps most people we come across casually in life are like this.

The demonstration by Aubrey Bell has its fascination, even though we feel – and he seems to as well – his hygiene is wasted on this flat which seems to be almost bare.     But why does Aubrey Bell go through with his so impressive display of skill?   It shows his ability in his job, but skill is often fascinating for its own sake.   And it shows his sense of duty in going through the routine whatever.   And it also focuses on dirt,  the large amount of gunge that our bodies leave behind is, and that we live in, forget, turn our backs on.   He shows the narrator how to clean,  how much of himself is left in and on what he touches, anonymous as he is,  outsider to society as he is.   Aubrey Bell has a job and is very professional in fulfilling its requirements – even though he’s not well.   It would have been so easy for him to skip this one.

So there’s an opposition between the outsider and the insider here, the man with a job and an income and so an identity and a pride, and the man with none of these.   And there’s the ‘winner’,  Mrs Slater, who has won, really, only the privilege to have this demonstration and buy a hoover.  She’s a winner by being a potential consumer.   She’s a winner without realising.   The narrator, by contrast,  is ‘not in the market’.

But Aubrey’s hygiene message is a philosophical one, too, perhaps.

“You’ll be surprised to see what can collect in a mattress over the months, over the years.  Every day, every night of our lives, we’re leaving little bits of ourselves, flakes of this and that behind.  Where do they go, these bits and pieces of ourselves?”

He answers this is physical day to day terms, of course,

                “Right through the sheets and into the mattress, that’s’s where!   Pillows, too.  It’s all the same.”

But the philosophical idea is still there, and with it perhaps the idea of Aubrey Bell as a kind of messenger -  whom the narrator can’t get rid of.    And his message?     The need to clean up, sort things out?    Unexpectedly,  he does make some knowledgeably academic comments, first about W H Auden the poey who wore carpet slippers, then about the German poet, Rilke who lived at the expense of a rich countess, which wasn’t “fair”.   He’s drawing a distinction between people like him and perhaps the narrator and people of a different class and degree of privilege.  Yet why do we assume a hoover salesmen would be ignorant about poetry?   Or is that itself a comment a bout the unpoetic nature of a buying and selling society?

The narrator adds more to the theme of collecting bits of ourselves, when he points out that the mattress isn’t his anyway.   He seems to have no roots.  Perhaps he is a squatter, and lives ‘nowhere’?  Like Rilke!

Then a letter does arrive and we think of the one the narrator’s expecting from up north, to do with a job.  But Aubrey Bell – surprisingly easily – prevents him picking up the letter, tells him it’s for a ‘Mr Slater’,  revealing he knows that the narrator is not Mr Slater, but never shows him, and then takes it off himself to return to the sender.  It’s as if the narrator doesn’t want to be identified as Mr Slate.    And we assume Aubrey’s got the idea that the man is a squatter.  He’s nothing to do with Mrs Slater, yet he’s still given him this demonstration.  Why?  To make a buck?

A more bizarre interpretation of the story would be that Aubrey Bell has come on purpose to intercept the letter, his demonstration being just a way of passing time till it comes.

But still, in the end, we’re left thinking, Well what was all that about?    Well, what about the title?  Who are the collectors?   They are all collecting dust and dirt as life goes on. Are they the dust itself?   Aubrey does collect a letter on behalf of the strangely absent Mr Slater.  Mrs Slater in a sense ‘collects’ her prize, but then it’s sent back on her behalf by the narrator.   The narrator collects nothing, except minimal dust and dirt, from which anyway he’s moving on.  He doesn’t collect a letter which would let him enter society.   He collects this experience.

So the story, perhaps, is about not belonging, not even having a home, not even having detritus of your own.   The story is about the empty vulnerable present.