Wednesday, July 29, 2009

`Nothing Passes Away'

“Last weekend in Union Square I found a pristine copy of Penelope Fitzgerald’s one collection of stories, The Means of Escape, which as you no doubt know was completed just before her death. As I often do I read the shortest story first, the New Zealand story `At Hiruharamm’ and cried out in surprise, shaking my head from time to time for the next hour with pleasure at the way she shaped the tale.”

So writes a reader in New York City. It’s a fine story, too, new to me, moved along by digressive memory. A New Zealander wants to tell how his family finally has a lawyer in it. His grandparents emigrated from England and met in the new country. Their farm is remote – 15 miles by horse and wagon from the doctor’s office. While his wife is in labor, a neighbor, a bachelor farmer named Brinkman, stops by for his semi-annual dinner (from memory he recites the last menu):

“Like most people who live on their own, Brinkman continued with the course of his thoughts, which were more real to him than the outside world’s commotion.”

When the doctor arrives, Tanner (“covered with blood, something like a butcher”) has already safely delivered the baby. At this point “At Hiruharamm” (“`I think it means Jerusalem,’ Tanner says.”) might have turned into a tale of horror. At the start of the 11-page story’s second-to-last paragraph, Tanner tells the doctor he has disposed of the placenta:

“There Tanner had made his one oversight. It wasn’t the afterbirth, it was a second daughter, smaller, but a twin….That evening, when the doctor came in from the yard with the messy scrap, he squeezed it as though he were wringing it out to dry, and it opened its mouth and the colder air of the kitchen rushed in and she’s got her start in life. After that the Tanners always had one of those tinplate mottoes hung up on the wall: Throw Nothing Away.”

The first-born sister, we’re told, “never got to be anything in particular”; the second “grew up to be a lawyer with a firm in Wellington, and she did very well.” There’s an amusing four-sentence coda involving Brinkman, the hungry bachelor, and I thought: This is a Chekhov story set in rural New Zealand – the cool, sympathetic deliberation; the comic counterpoint; the provincial setting; the resignation to contingency, happy or otherwise.

The tinplate motto reminds me of the hapless hero of “My Life,” one of Chekhov’s certified masterpieces. His wife writes him a letter asking for a divorce, and tells him she has purchased a ring with an engraving in Hebrew: “All things pass away.” Our hero muses: “If I wanted to order a ring for myself, the inscription I should choose would be, `Nothing passes away.’”

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