Sunday, 13 December 2009

Moulds of the Earth

by Bolesław Prus

One time I happened to be in Puławy with a certain botanist. We were seating ourselves by the Temple of the Sibyl on a bench next to a boulder grown over with mosses or moulds which my learned companion had been studying for several years. I asked what he found of interest in examining the irregular splotches of beige, grey, green, yellow or red?

He looked at me distrustfully but, persuaded that he had before him an uninitiated person, he proceeded to explain: “These splotches that you see are not inanimate dirt but — collections of living beings. Invisible to the naked eye, they are born, carry out movements that are imperceptible to us, enter into matrimonial bonds, produce offspring, and finally die. More remarkably, they form as it were societies which you see here in the form of the variously colored splotches — they cultivate the ground beneath them for the next generations — they proliferate, colonize empty places, even fight each other.

“This grey splotch, large as the palm of a person’s hand, was two years ago no larger than a penny. This tiny grey spot a year ago didn’t exist and comes from the great splotch that occupies the top of the boulder. These two again, the yellow and the red, are fighting. At one time the yellow was the larger, but slowly its neighbor has displaced it. And look at the green one — how its grizzled neighbor is making inroads into it, how many grey streaks, spots, clumps can be seen against the green background?”

“As it is among people,” I interjected.

“Well, no,” replied the botanist. “These societies lack language, art, learning, consciousness, feeling; in a word — they lack souls and hearts, which we human beings possess. Here everything happens blindly, mechanically, without sympathies and without antipathies.”

A few years later I found myself beside that same boulder at night, and by the light of the moon regarded the changes that had taken place in the forms and sizes of the various moulds. Suddenly someone nudged me. It was my botanist. I asked him to have a seat; but he stepped before me in such a way as to hide the moon, and whispered something voicelessly. The Temple of the Sibyl, the bench, and the boulder vanished.

I sensed about me a faint luminosity and an immense void. And when I turned my head to the side, I saw something like a schoolroom globe that shone with a faint light, as large as the boulder beside which we had been a moment before. The globe slowly revolved, showing successive new areas. There was the Asian landmass with the little peninsula of Europe; there was Africa, the two Americas...

Looking intently, I made out on the inhabited lands the same kinds of splotches, beige, grey, green, yellow and red, as on the boulder. They comprised myriads of vanishingly small points, ostensibly motionless, actually moving very lazily: an individual point moved at most by a two-minute arc in an hour, and that not in a straight line but as it were oscillating about its own center of motion.

The points joined, separated, vanished, came to the surface of the globe: but all these things did not merit particular attention. What was of consequence was the movements of entire splotches, which diminished or grew, showed up in new places, infiltrated or displaced one another. The globe meanwhile kept making its rounds and seemed to me to execute hundreds of thousands of revolutions.

“Is that supposed to be the history of mankind?” I asked the botanist standing beside me. He nodded in confirmation.

“All right — but where are the arts, knowledge?...”

He smiled sadly.

“Where’s consciousness, love, hate, longing?...”

“Ha! ha! ha!...” he laughed softly.

“In short — where are the human souls and hearts here?...”

“Ha! ha! ha!...”

His demeanor offended me.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Just then I found myself back in the garden beside the boulder, whose shapeless splotches swam in the moonlight. My companion had vanished, but now I knew him by his mockery and melancholy.

Bolesław Prus (1847-1912). Born in Hrubieszów, a Polish town on the border with Ukraine, he became one of the most significant Polish writers of the 19th century. At the age of fifteen he took part in the Polish Uprising against Russia and was imprisoned, an experience that left him traumatised for many years. His most famous novel, The Doll, was published in book form in 1890. Reconstructing the city of Warsaw in minute detail, this novel has often been seen as a forerunner to James Joyce's Ulysses.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The End

by Fredric Brown

Professor Jones had been working on time theory for many years.

"And I have found the key equation," he told his daughter one day. "Time is a field. This machine I have made can manipulate, even reverse, that field."

Pushing a button as he spoke, he said, "This should make time run backward run time make should this," said he, spoke he as button a pushing.

"Field that, reverse even, manipulate can made have I machine this. Field a is time." Day one daughter his told he, "Equation key the found have I and."

Years many for theory time on working been had Jones Professor.

End The

Fredric Brown (1906-1972). One of the finest exponents of 'flash fiction' in the 20th Century. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, Brown wrote scores of such pieces for a variety of magazines, many of these tales demonstrating a postmodernist love of unusual rhythm and fragmentation. He was equally adept at longer works. His refined sense of the absurd and questioning of the nature of reality were hugely influential on Philip K. Dick. Brown's novel, What Mad Universe (1949), is an excellent example of his ability to perfectly balance outrageous humour with serious speculation.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

On Parables

by Franz Kafka

Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: "Go over," he does not mean that we should cross over to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labour were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.

Concerning this, a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables, you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares.

Another said: I bet that is also a parable.

The first said: You have won.

The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.

The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924). A Czech writer of monumental importance, Kafka was barely published in his own lifetime and left instructions that his manuscripts should be burned after his death. Fortunately this did not occur. Novels such as The Trial, The Castle and Amerika explained the frustrations of the modern world in a way that had never been achieved before. His complete short stories constitute a trove that can be continually mined for wonders.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The Picnic Party

by D.F. Lewis

Gushing Downs was peppered with picnic parties: a loom of dawnlight; twirling parasols; bright checked tablecloths spread over the greenest grass possible (possible, that is, outside the scope of a painting); wicker baskets brimming with edible goodies of every dietary persuasion; and joyful, sexy people.

"Nice day, Louise." A hand both saluted and shaded the sun.

"It'll be even nicer when the wine coolers arrive."

The voices of chirpy, dimply children mingled with the deeper grown-up sounds. The clink of glasses. The buzz of bee. The chomp of molars. The giggles of those deep in love with each other.

"It'll be great when the competition begins."

"Yes, it'll soon be time."

Any stranger might have questioned what competition was in prospect. Three-legged or egg-and-spoon races ... or both together? Tug of love? The loudest laugh? The furthest roll of the hoop? The fastest spin of the top with a cracking whip? The prettiest frock? The sweetest smile? The longest beard? The shortest? The ugliest pulled face? The biggest this, the smallest that? The most durable picnic? The maroon-party to beat all maroon-parties?

It was probably none of these. Whilst it wasn't, after all, any old stranger who questioned the prospect.

As a rubicund retainer arrived with cases of chilled white wine, and amid the consequent hilarity surrounding the popping of corks, it gradually became clear to the stranger what exactly was to transpire. Each group of picnickers was sited beside one of the many natural geysers that abounded on the Downs. The openings were controlled by manual valves -- and the intention was to release them in one fell swoop, whereby the winning group would be the one with the tallest and longest lasting fountain. Furthermore, a special prize was to be given for the fountain that emerged with the fanciest configuration.

As the sun dipped below the distant wooded hills, it spread along the horizon like thick cut marmalade. The wine corks took up new crescendoes of popping, as bonfire beacons were set alight across the Downs by each picnic group. Then, there was a secret starting signal (which was only obvious retrospectively to the stranger) -- and the geysers were released in a perfect flashpoint of simultaneity. Some spluttered in short silver cascades or spirts of gurgling spray. Others were sufficiently tall to steal gold from the sunset and become gushing giants of myth and magic. A few, even taller, sported every colour of the rainbow plus colours unknown to the painter's palette. Yet, there was one geyser, the tallest of all, which lost its colour as it sprayed new-born stars across the darkening sky -- and at the mountain-peak of its fountaining power, it formed a mighty dragon's head. The roar from the head's gargling mouth was incredibly even louder than the geyser which had originally given it birth.

The picnickers were cowed by the intrinsic, if short-lived, magnificence of such a white-water beast looming from the earth in cataclysmic contrast to the rearing tides of night...

After eventually packing their hampers, the parties wended their way home across the Downs, each jollifier with a blazing torch. The stranger followed, keeping himself to himself, and softly sobbing. He had stayed on the Downs long enough to watch the geysers being pent up within their rightful confines of dark earth -- except, of course, for that single squirt the picnickers had forgotten to cap within its oubliette, one that continued spluttering, perhaps pathetically, perhaps otherwise, forming snowdrop petals in the marooned night. Tiny silver frostfish sparkling: sparkling, even, without light.

The stranger knew -- despite the carefreeness of those erstwhile picnickers whom he followed -- that the treasure which Dragon Earth greedily guarded was itself.

Having the sense of floating upon one among an archipelago of ice-carvings, the stranger shuddered with ultimate fear. The fear of self.

O Stranger, O Saint George.

D.F. Lewis (1948- ). An incredibly prolific author of short baffling tales mostly published in British and American small-press magazines in the late 1980s and 1990s. With an extremely dense style and themes often taken from pulp horror writers, Lewis has managed to create a distinctive voice for himself in the literary underground. His best work is saturated with an intense brooding atmosphere and frequently explores the territory that Angela Carter once labelled 'the mercantile gothic'.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Making Do

by Italo Calvino
translated by Tim Parks

There was a town where everything was forbidden.

Now, since the only thing that wasn't forbidden was the game tip-cat, the town's subjects used to assemble on meadows behind the town and spend the day there playing tip-cat.

And as the laws forbidding things had been introduced one at a time and always with good reason, no one found any cause for complaint or had any trouble getting used to them.

Years passed. One day the constables saw that there was no longer any reason why everything should be forbidden and they sent messengers to inform their subjects that they could do whatever they wanted.

The messengers went to those places where the subjects were wont to assemble.

"Hear ye, hear ye," they announced, "nothing is forbidden any more."

The people went on playing tip-cat.

"Understand?" the messengers insisted. "You are free to do what you want."

"Good," replied the subjects. "We're playing tip-cat."

The messengers busily reminded them of the many wonderful and useful occupations they had once engaged in and could now engage in again. But the subjects wouldn't listen and just went on playing, stroke after stroke, without even stopping for a breather.

Seeing that their efforts were in vain, the messengers went to tell the constables.

"Easy," the constables said. "Let's forbid the game of tip-cat."

That was when the people rebelled and killed the lot of them.

Then without wasting time, they got back to playing tip-cat.

Italo Calvino (1923-1985). Born in Cuba. Grew up in San Remo, Italy. One of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. Extremely versatile, Calvino produced superb examples of neo-realism, modern fables, science fiction, fantasy and OuLiPo experimentalism. Numbers in the Dark is a representative cross-section of his life's work. Tip-cat is a game that involves hitting a stick across a certain distance and trying to estimate the number of hops it will take a player to cover the same distance.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

A Shortish Gent

by Daniil Kharms
translated by Neil Cornwell

A shortish gent with a pebble in his eye went up to the door of a tobacconist's shop and stopped. His black polished shoes gleamed on the stone step leading up to the tobacconist's. The toe-caps of his shoes were directed at the inside of the shop. Two more steps and the gentleman would have disappeared through the door. But for some reason he dilly-dallied, as though purposely to position his head under the brick which was falling from the roof. The gentleman had even taken off his hat, baring his bald skull, and thus the brick struck the gentleman right on his bare head, broke the cranium and embedded itself in his brain. The gentleman didn't fall. No, he merely staggered a bit from the terrible blow, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, used it to wipe his face, which was all gooey from blood and brains, and, turning towards the crowd, which had instantly gathered around the gentleman, he said: -- Don't worry, ladies and gents: I've already had the vaccination. You can see -- I've got a protruding pebble in my right eye. That was also once quite an incident. I've already got used to that. Now everything's just fine and dandy!

And with these words the gentleman replaced his hat and went off somewhere into the margins, leaving the troubled crowd in complete bewilderment.


Daniil Kharms (1905-1942). Born in St Petersburg. From "Sherlock Holmes" he took the pseudonym "Kharms". With Alexander Vvedensky he co-founded the avant garde literary movement, OBERIU (An Association of Real Art). Typical catch-phrases of the movement: "Art is a cupboard!" and "Poems aren't pies, we aren't herring!" Continually arrested for subversion, Kharms was murdered by enforced starvation in the psychiatric ward of a Lenningrad prison. Why not buy Incidences, his collected short stories...