Monday, January 20, 2014

Deal Me In Short Story Challenge: George Orwell meet Isak Dinesen

This is what I get for cheating on a challenge....

Since I've long had this collection of essays by George Orwell on my TBR short story shelf, I decided to include some of them in my deck for the Deal Me In Challenge.   Because I'm a natural over-achiever, I decided to up the ante and make my own version of the Deal Me In Challenge by drawing two cards (stories) at a time and finding some way to connect them.  It's proven difficult.

It's tough to think of two authors who could be further apart than the two I drew this time around, George Orwell and Isak Dinesen.  Adding to the challenge is the particular essay I drew, the seven  of diamonds, "Inside the Whale," which is largely a review of Henry Miller's novel The Tropic of Cancer.  It's also a meditation on the writers of Miller's generation and the generation proceeding him with a healthy mix of political history thrown in.  It's terrific.  So far, every one of the Orwell essays have been wonderful.  He's a master of the form.

Just as Isak Dinesen is a master of her form, the short story.  The eight  of spades was "The Dreaming Child" from Winter Tales.  It's not quite a fairy tale, but almost.   In "The Dreaming Child' a destitute, unmarried woman leaves her baby son, along with a 100 rixdollars payment, with a boarding house keeper in a disreputable section of Copenhagen,  The boy is raised by Mamzell Ane, another boarder, who tells him stories about the wonderful life he left behind where he was the child of wealthy aristocratic parents who lived in a fine house and will one day return to take him home.

Mamzell Ane essentially convinces the little boy that he is a character in a piece of fiction:

It was, she said, by no means unheard of, neither in life nor in books, that a child, particularly a child in the  highest and happiest circumstances, and most dearly beloved by his parents, enigmatically vanished and was lost.  She stopped short at this, for even to her dauntless and proven soul the theme seemed too tragic to be further dwelt on.  Jens accepted the explanation in the spirit in which it was given, and from this moment saw himself as that melancholy, but not uncommon, phenomenon: a vanished and lost child.

(I love how Mamzell Ane equates life and books.  What's in each is equally real, equally valuable as evidence.)

Just before the boy turns six, a wealthy, childless woman arrives seeking to adopt the him.  He believes she is his long lost mother, finally returned to take him home.

"Mamma," he said, "I am glad that you have found me.  I have waited for you so long, so long."

Once he arrives at his new home, a mansion in a much better section of Copenhagen, the boy soon convinces everyone in the house that he really is the couple's son and that he remembers everything and everyone in the house from the time before he was lost.  His new parents, and the household staff, soon are caught up in the boy's story.  Not only do they believe him, they are the better for it.  Each member of the household begins to become the person the boy remembers, a better version of themselves.

Orwell's essay on Henry Miller and the generation of writers between the World Wars is about what makes Miller's characters so compelling and why his writing benefits from avoiding direct political engagement.

How can these connect?

In his essay "Inside the Whale" Orwell discusses what it's like to read Henry Miller:

"When you read certain passages in Ulysses you feel that Joyce's mind and your mind are one, that he knows all about you though he has never heard your name, that there exists some world outside time and space in which you and he are together.  And though he does not resemble Joyce in other ways, there is a touch of this quality in Henry Miller. Not everywhere, because his work is very uneven, and sometimes, especially in Black Spring, tends to slide away into mere verbiage or into the squashy universe of the surrealists. But read him for five pages, ten pages, and you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood.  "He knows all about me," you feel; "he wrote this specially for me."  It is as though you could hear a voice speaking to you, a friendly American voice, with no humbug in it, no moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike.  

If we can read the boy in "The Dreaming Child" as an writer, a creator of tales, this is just the reaction he produces in his audience, his new parents and their household staff.  They come to believe he really did know them because he understands them so well.  So much so, that by the story's end, the wealthy woman who took him in confesses to her husband that he really is her long lost son, the product of a failed relationship she had before marrying into the position she now enjoys.

I know this experience of finding an author who understands me.  I almost always feel it with Tennessee Williams who somehow managed to loosely most base all of his plays on various members my family though no one in my family ever met him.

Which author best understands you?


bibliophilica said...

Well done in finding that connection! I enjoyed Dinesen's "A Sailor Boy's Tale" as part of my 2013 Deal Me In efforts. I also read a lot of Orwell back in my college days (though not much recently). He seems to be praised almost without exception by all my most respected blogging colleagues.

mirrorwithclouds said...

Its been a while since I've read anything by either of these two authors, but they both sound great. And kudos to you for picking essays. I've read a few here and there since I've been blogging and have found them to be beneficial. Especially authors who write about other authors.

readthegamut said...

Ah, these two seemed like they might be impossible to connect, but you did an admirable job. Wonderful!

I have Dinesen's novella, Babette's Feast, on my to-read-soon list, but I've never yet read anything by her. I read a few of Orwell's essays many years ago and enjoyed them very much.