A silent rant in answer to a friend.
Because why the fuck should I? Seriously, why the fuck should I?
I should leave it right there but this is a rant, and isn’t the thing about rants that they lurch onward unnecessarily after what needed to be said has been said? A rant by its nature says more than it needs to, which makes it, already, antithetical to the short story but in any case I’m not going to do it, defend the short story again, I’m tired of it, half-drunk as I am on this plane that amid heavy turbulence is flopping over Omaha as we speak. I refuse to grovel, to attempt to put into words what will always be unsayable, which is to say that what makes certain stories reach into your chest cavity and rip out what is left of your heart needs not be discussed. It is itself all the justification a story will ever need. The best offense being no defense at all. And so: none offered. And you, my friend, recently said to me, “You’re lucky you write stories. I mean the form is an ideal forum for today’s uber-distracted society. Don’t you think?” And because I love and respect you, in spite of the pain in my soul the question inflicted, here I am answering by not answering which has been my MO for much of life. No I do not think. Ah, screw it: the short story is, with the glorious exception of poetry, absolutely the least ideal mode of expression for our distracted society because it takes a certain kind of intense concentration. Compassionate concentration? To appreciate. To grasp. To love. I’m talking about a reading a story, a good story. What’s a good story? How am I defining—
You tell me. Because you know. This is personal. To you and to me. And anyway, I refuse to even—
See where this going?
Nowhere it is going nowhere.
And yet. There’s an Isaac Babel story called “Guy de Maupassant.” You know it? I love this story beyond all rational measure. It’s eight and a half pages. In it a guy in wartime Saint Petersburg gets a gig as a translator of Maupassant. Because this is what people need in the middle of rampant bloodshed. A new edition of Maupassant stories. Right? I don’t have the story in front of me. I’m drunk on American Airlines, seven dollars for a little bottle of warm white wine, I’ve had two, that’s fourteen bucks I’ll die short of, where was I? In the story, the Babel character reports for translation duty at the house of a rich couple. The husband, a banker, I think, is bankrolling the Maupassant project. I should have made this clearer. The Babel character is hired to assist the banker’s wife with her translations. Kind of like a translator’s helper. The wife whose name I seem to remember is Raisa (or am I for no reason at all thinking of Gorbachev’s wife? Is she dead, Raisa Gorbachev?) is a terrible translator. Her versions of Maupassant’s stories are god-awful. Stiff, flat nothings. The Babel character takes them home with him and makes them sing. Sing as any Maupassant story must sing, sing with such simplicity you hardly even notice, because this is what makes them so singular, even in translation they must read like that whacked Frenchman is whispering, singing softly in your and only your—
I forgot why I brought all this up in the first place. What I meant to tell you about is the moment the Babel character meets Raisa, she says something like, “Maupassant is the only passion of my life.” The fact that she’s a crappy translator makes the line only more magnificent. How is it we can spend a lifetime yearning over something and still have zero idea how it came to be and no notion whatsoever how to replicate it? (And we do, we all do.) Raisa’s line is my favorite moment in literature. This plane continues to rattle over the Great Plains. An overhead bin just opened and a suitcase fell on a woman who laughed. The bag was a sort of a duffel and soft, not a suitcase. Maupassant is the only passion of my life. Floors me just thinking about it. I don’t even need to read it to fall apart. The Russian revolution, mayhem in the streets. And I can already hear myself. The wall’s up, neo-Nazi good people are marching into San Francisco, cages for us all, and I’ll be gripping my Babel, and I’ll shout at some little führer in training, “Guy de Maupassant is the only passion of my life!” Because politics is important but so is life. And translating Maupassant when you have no skills to do so, that’s life itself. And life itself is resistance.
For the past ten minutes I’ve been sitting here alone, in a little cone of personal light, my seatmate snoring gentle bubbly snores, the plane still flouncing, trying to think of some way to say (by saying) what I didn’t want to have to say.
This is a lame-ass refusal.
How about I put it this way? Each time I read “Guy de Maupassant” I die a little death. I don’t read it to find out what happens. The Babel character and Raisa hook up on the couch, in the throes of their mutual literary passion. The throes on the couch will always be part of some distant, unreachable youth. Even Maupassant himself ended up eating his own shit in Paris, or so Babel tells us, without evidence, at the end of the story. I read it to breathe, breathe. Because I’m alive and the upshot of Babel’s story, and any good story, is to remind us (because we forget, every day we forget) that breathing is finite. Breathing takes concentration.
Peter Orner’s most recent book is Maggie Brown & Others. Read his short story, “Ineffectual Tribute to Len,” in our Spring 2019 issue.