I discovered ‘Nothing But You’ many years back when I was browsing in my favourite bookstore. It was a collection of love stories from the New Yorker. It was published by Modern Library. I am a big fan of Modern Library books. I have quite a number of them in my collection like the two volumes of Chekhov short stories, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ by Alexandre Dumas, ‘Possession’ by A.S.Byatt (I have three editions of this book and I haven’t read any of them yet!), ‘The Tale of Genji’ by Murasaki Shikibu (the world’s first novel as some scholars put it), ‘The French Revolution’ by Thomas Carlyle and surprisingly ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ by Edward Gibbon. I don’t know why I got that last one, because it is a 3000+ page tome and I don’t know whether I will ever read it. Maybe I got tempted by the raving comments that my dad gave about it, when I was young.
Like all Modern Library books, ‘Nothing But You’ had a cover which was wonderful to feel, the pages were smooth and pleasant to the touch, the font was pleasant to read and the book was a collector’s item. I couldn’t resist it. I read probably one or two stories then, but somehow they didn’t stick with me and I put the book in the bookshelf to savour at a later time. Then later I moved cities and countries and ‘Nothing But You’ always travelled with me and was a favourite star on my bookshelf – a constant companion who brought a lot of pleasure just by its appearance but who was never understood and never read.
Last week, when I was thinking of what book to read next, I pulled down ‘Nothing But You’ from the bookshelf. The book cover was still intact inspite of the careless way I handle books and the papers were still smooth and had all their magic. I decided that it was time to give my old friend some attention and understand it better. So, I started reading it and finished reading a couple of days back. Here is the review.
Description of the book
I am giving below a description of the book as given in its back cover.
Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, John Updike, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mavis Gallant, Julian Barnes, Michael Chabon, Jamaica Kincaid, John O’Hara, Muriel Spark, Ann Beattie, and William Maxwell are among the contributors to ‘Nothing But You : Love Stories from the New Yorker – assembled by Roger Angell, senior editor at The New Yorker. This is the first fiction anthology in more than three decades from the magazine that has defined the American short story for almost a century. As noteworthy for its range as for its excellence, Nothing But You features a stunning array of present and past masters writing about love in all its varieties, from the classic love story to dislocated narratives of weird modern romance. Taken separately, these stories suggest the infinite variety of the human heart. Taken together, they are a literary milestone, a comprehensive review of the way we live and love.
Who can resist such a description!
What I think
I will first borrow a few words from the above description. One is ‘dislocated narratives of weird modern romance’. Another is ‘Taken together, they are a literary milestone, a comprehensive review of the way we live and love’. I will request that you make a mental note of them and remember them. I will come back to these two interesting descriptions later.
Before I write about what I think about this book, I have to reveal something about myself as a reader. I read all kinds of books. I love novels, short stories and plays. In novels, I read all kinds of genres. I like a good story, but I also don’t mind reading novels which are experimental or which don’t have a plot or where the plot is very thin and the novel is more about beautiful prose or the insights it offers. One of my alltime favourite novels is ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery, which fits this description – beautiful prose and insights, not much plot. Another of my alltime favourite novels is ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ by Pascal Mercier, which has a plot, but its strength is its beautiful prose and the insights it offers. Another is Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Savage Detectives’ where the story is so discontinuous and the perspective shifts every few pages that it is difficult to make sense of the book. But I discovered that when I ploughed through it painfully, it turned out to be a rewarding read in the end. So, I think with respect to reading novels, my taste is probably well-rounded. But I am a more conservative reader when it comes to short stories. I prefer the story to have a beginning, a middle and an end. If there is a twist in the end, I prefer it even more. Sometimes I don’t mind if the short story paints a picture of a slice of life. But if the short story looks only vaguely like a story and it expects the reader to discover some abstract things hidden inside it and delight at these hidden abstractions, then I have a problem. If a short story is extremely experimental, and has no semblance of a plot, then I find it difficult to like it.
Now, back to the book. And back to the two descriptions of it. ‘Dislocated narratives of weird modern romance’ is actually a wonderfully perfect description of the book. There are few, if any, classic love stories in the book. Most of the stories are either ‘dislocated narratives’ or ‘slice-of-life’ kind of stories or have abstract themes and none of them had the beginning-middle-end with the twist, that I expected. Most of them were realistic. ‘A comprehensive review of the way we live and love’ was a perfect description of most of them. I have to say that, unfortunately, inspite of this book adorning my shelf for so many years and I having fallen in love with it and getting started on it with a lot of expectations, it was a deep disappointment for me. Many times, I wanted to drop the book, in between, and move on. Because life is short to waste time on books that we don’t enjoy. Even if they are critically acclaimed. But one part of me – the never-say-die part – said that I shouldn’t give up. That I will be admitting failure and accepting that I am incapable of reading a book which is out of my comfort zone. These two parts of my mind wrestled with each other constantly and I went back and forth and was undecided on whether to continue or whether to drop the book. The never-say-die part of my mind triumphed in the end. I continued and after a lot of hard work finished reading the book.
‘Nothing But You’ book had contributions from a stellar group of writers. All the stars – Raymond Carver, Jean Rhys, John Cheever, Alice Munro, John Updike, John O’Hara, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jamaica Kincaid, Julian Barnes, Mavis Gallant, Vladimir Nabokov, Harold Brodkey, Michael Chabon, William Trevor, Donald Barthelme – were there. None of their stories worked for me. One inference out of this could be that these ladies and gentlemen don’t know how to write short stories, which is quite a preposterous conclusion. The obvious conclusion would be that I am out of touch with the short story genre these days and my short story tastes are more classical and have been shaped by older writers like Mark Twain, Anton Chekhov, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway. I probably am not aware of what is a model short story as accepted by literary critics and fiction editors of literary magazines today. Maybe the stories by the above authors all fit the current model. They all seem to be critically acclaimed and famous. Alas, that was not enough for me!
They say that every cloud there is a silver lining. Fortunately, there was one here too. The lesser known authors in the book – they came out firing on all cylinders! And boy, was I glad! You could relate to some of the stories they told, in a complex way, as if the story happened in your own life. (Here I should add a comment – the lesser known authors are lesser known to me. All the featured authors are stars in their own right and are quite famous in the short story universe.).
My most favourite story was ‘In the Gloaming’ by Alice Elliott Dark. It describes the beautiful relationship between a mother and her son. The son is dying of a terminal disease. The mother and the son start having evening conversations everyday and discover new things and interesting surprises about each other. It is beautiful, musical and sometimes sad.
There is a description of the mother at the beginning of the story which went like this :
She knew she was generally considered sincere, but that had more to do with her being a good listener than with how she expressed herself.
There is another description on what the mother would do to keep her children entertained.
It was one of those moments when she felt nostalgic for cigarettes. On nights like this, when the air was completely still, she used to blow her famous smoke rings for the children, dutifully obeying their commands to blow one through another or three in a row, or to make big, ropy circles that expanded as they floated up to the heavens. She did exactly what they wanted, for as long as they wanted, sometimes going through a quarter of a pack before they allowed her to stop. Incredibly, neither Anne nor Laird became smokers. Just the opposite; they nagged at her to quit, and were pleased when she finally did. She wished they had been just a little bit sorry; it was a part of their childhood coming to an end, after all.
Here is an interesting conversation between the mother and the son.
“Is this still your favorite time of day, Mom?”
“Yes, I suppose it is,” she said, “although I don’t think in terms of favorites anymore.”
“Never mind favorites, then. What else do you like?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean exactly that.”
“I don’t know. I care about all the ordinary things. You know what I like.”
“Name one thing.”
“I feel silly.”
“All right. I like my patch of lilies of the valley under the trees over there. Now can we change the subject?”
“Name one more thing.”
“I want to get to know you.”
“Oh, Laird, there’s nothing to know.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute.”
“But it is true. I’m average. The only extraordinary thing about me is my children.”
“All right,” he said. “Then let’s talk about how you feel about me.”
“Do you flirt with your nurses like this when I’m not around?”
The below passage sets the context for the above conversation.
Parents and children were all captive audiences to each other; in view of this, it was amazing how little comprehension there was of one another’s stories. Everyone stopped paying attention so early on, thinking they had figured it all out. She recognized that she was as guilty of this as anyone.
Here is another interesting conversation between the mother and her son.
“I don’t like reading about sex.”
“No, no,” she said. “It’s not for the reason you think, or not only for that reason. You see me as a prude, I know, but remember, it’s part of a mother’s job to come across that way. Although perhaps I went a bit far…”
He shrugged amiably. “Water under the bridge. But go on about sex.”
“I think it should be private. I always feel as though these writers are showing off when they describe a sex scene. They’re not really trying to describe sex, but to demonstrate that they’re not afraid to write about it. As if they’re thumbing their noses at their mothers.”
He made a moue.
Janet went on. “You don’t think there’s an element of that? I do question their motives, because I don’t think sex can ever actually be portrayed – the sensations and the emotions are…beyond language. If you only describe the mechanics, the effect is either clinical or pornographic, and if you try to describe intimacy instead, you wind up with abstractions. The only sex you could describe fairly well is bad sex – and who wants to read about that, for God’s sake, when everyone is having bad sex of their own?”
“Mother!” He was laughing helplessly, his arms hanging limply over the sides of his chair.
“I mean it. To me it’s like reading about someone using the bathroom.”
“Now who’s the prude?”
“I never said I wasn’t,” he said. “maybe we should change the subject.”
Here is a passage when the mother thinks about the simple things that she had desired and how getting even them was difficult.
After Anne left, Janet always had a tranquil moment or two as she walked back to the house through the humid September air. Everything was so still. Occasionally there were the hums and clicks of a lawnmower or the shrieks of a band of children heading home from school. There were the insects and the birds. It was a straightforward, simple life she had chosen. She had tried never to ask for too much, and to be of use. Simplicity had been her hedge against bad luck. It had worked for so long. For a brief moment, as she stepped lightly up the single slate stair and through the door, her legs still harboring all their former vitality, she could pretend her luck was still holding.
Then she would glance out the window and there would be the heart-catching sight of Laird, who would never again drop by for a casual visit. Her chest would ache and flutter, a cave full of bats.
Perhaps she had asked for too much, after all.
Here is a passage at the end of the story, where the mother is angry at the way fate has dished out things.
“It’s so wrong,” she said angrily. She hadn’t felt angry until that moment; she had saved it up for him. “A child shouldn’t die before his parents. A young man shouldn’t spend his early thirties wasting away talking to his mother. He should be out in the world. He shouldn’t be thinking about me, or what I care about, or my opinions. He shouldn’t have had to return my love to me – it was his to squander. Now I have it all back and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it,” she said.
That passage made me cry.
I will stop quoting passages from this story here. If I go on, I will end up quoting the whole story. If you decide to read just one story from this book, this is the one – ‘In the Gloaming’.
To my delight, I discovered that ‘In the Gloaming’ was selected as one of the ‘Best American short stories of the century’. Well, well! My short-story-taste is not as off-the-radar as I think J I also discovered that it was made into a movie starring Glenn Close, Bridget Fonda, Whoopi Goldberg. Wow! I want to see this movie now!
My second most favourite story in the collection was ‘Roses, Rhododendron’ by Alice Adams. It is about a girl’s love for another family and how this love grows and evolves and the interesting consequences of it. I identified very much with this story, as I had been in a similar situation when I was younger, when I loved another family as my own. The narrator of the story describes this theme in this passage (Margot is the narrator’s mother).
A word about Margot’s quite understandable jealousy of the Farrs. Much later in life, when I was unreasonably upset at the attachment of one of my own daughters to another family (unreasonable because her chosen group were all talented musicians, as she was), a wise friend told me that we all could use more than one set of parents – our relations with the original set are too intense, and need dissipating.
Here is a beautiful passage from this story (Emily is the narrator’s new friend’s mother).
There must have been a moment of “meeting” Emily, but I have forgotten it. I remember only her gentle presence, a soft voice, and my own sense of love returned. Beautiful white hair, dark deep eyes, and a wide mouth, whose corners turned and moved to express whatever she felt – amusement, interest, boredom, pain. I have never since seen such a vulnerable mouth.
Here is another.
Once, I told Emily what I had been wanting to say since my first sight of her. I said, “Your hair is so beautiful. Why don’t you let it grow?”
She laughed, because she usually laughed at what I said, but at the same time she looked surprised, almost startled. I understood that what I had said was not improper but that she was totally unused to attentions of that sort from anyone, including herself. She didn’t think about her hair. In a puzzled way, she said, “Perhaps I will.”
My most favourite character in the book was called Edna and she featured in the story ‘The Man in the Moon’ by William Maxwell. It is a story where the narrator looks at a photograph of his uncle which brings back memories from the past. Edna is his uncle’s wife. Here is a description of her.
Edna I took to on sight. She had dark eyes and a gentle voice. She was simple and open with my wife, and acted as if meeting me was something she had been hoping would happen. Looking around, I could see that they didn’t have much money, but neither did we.
I wrote to them when we got home, and heard from her. After my uncle died, she continued to write, and she sent us a small painting that she had done.
Here is another description of her.
She never spoke about things they lacked, and never seemed to realize how poor they were. She lived in a world of art and music and great literature.
‘The Man in the Moon’ is about love, but it is also about the role fortune plays in our lives.
I also liked very much ‘We’ by Mary Grimm. It is about three friends who are married and have children at the same time. How their lives pan out forms the rest of the story. Here is a description of what happened when two of them meet for the first time.
But whatever we thought we wanted or thought each other was like didn’t matter – was forgotten, even – because from the first words we said to each other we knew we were going to be friends. I had thought that wouldn’t happen anymore now that I was married. I went back from the supermarket to her house for coffee (I felt like my mother – having coffee and doughnuts with a neighbor) and we talked for two hours while my groceries melted and slumped in the car. I can’t remember what we talked about. Everything. Suzanne said it was like being in love, which I found upsetting when she said it. But it was true. We leaned across the table toward each other, that morning and other mornings, drinking cups of coffee (later Sanka) and eating and smoking until we had to quit, and told each other stories about our pasts, our families, our school loves, our hopes for adventure. It wasn’t like a conversation, which sounds too stiff and polite; it was more like a piece of music where we each had parts that overlapped, or a play where the actors say what is closest to their hearts.
Here is a passage about what happens when the three friends have babies.
For a while we didn’t have to worry about the thing of being married. For quite a long while. There was all the business of doctor visits, baby showers, maternity clothes, painting the extra bedroom. And then the hospital, the drive home with the baby looking so cute in the infant seat for the first time, the adoring grandparents waiting at home with giant panda bears and potty seats that played a tune. And then the long plunge into babyness. All of life was baby life : baby food, baby clothes, baby wipes, the baby changing table, baby’s schedule, baby’s nap, baby’s bed time with breast-feeding / colic / teething. All our stories were baby stories : how baby had thrown up yellow, how baby had pulled the pierced earrings right out of our ears, how baby had rolled over for the first time while we were out of the room and almost fallen off the bed, how baby would not go to sleep until a certain song was played on the tape player.
And here is a nostalgic passage from near the end of the story.
Now we’re too busy to think or to remember the time when Suzanne and I sat in one of our kitchens with the kids milling around while we talked on, oblivious, or cooked together, or sat under the apple trees; how we were pulled together like magnets every morning after our husbands went to work; how we spent the whole day together; how our kids had lunch together, took naps and went to the bathroom together.
Which is O.K. But do we miss it, what we had together when there was no one else in the world but mothers and children? And do we miss it, the soft solid feel of our children’s bodies under our hands, the sweet smell of their breath, their voices in our ears singing the alphabet and the names of trees, puddings, television characters; the look of their bodies asleep, arms and legs flung out like a star or would in a tight breathing ball; their questions asking why and what and how the world is made and ordered and laid out before us?
I also liked this short gem called ‘Yours’ by Mary Robison. It is about the love of an elderly man (Clark) for his young wife (Allison) and how they spend an evening together carving pumpkins and making jack-o-lanterns during Halloween. Clark’s sister thinks that Allison has married him for the money, but he knows that the truth is different. Here is a beautiful passage from near the end of the story.
He wanted to get drunk with his wife once more. He wanted to tell her, from the greater perspective he had, that to own only a little talent, like his, was an awful, plaguing thing; that being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time, and liked yourself too little. He wanted to assure her that she had missed nothing.
I also liked ‘A Country Wedding’ by Laurie Colwin very much. I knew of Laurie Colwin as the author of ‘Home Cooking’ and ‘More Home Cooking’ and so it was surprising to know that she wrote stories too. ‘A Country Wedding’ is about Freddie and her husband Grey who are going to attend the wedding of their friend Penny. During the journey Freddie thinks about the affair she had recently with another man and she also thinks about the love she has for her husband. Here is a beautiful passage which introduces Freddie and her husband.
Grey was more used to being dressed up than Freddie, but he did not like it any more than she did. He was a Wall Street lawyer, with a closet half full of pin-striped suits. The other half was full of walking shorts, hiking boots, old bluejeans, and waders for the trout season. He had been Freddie’s guide to the outdoors, which she had experienced mostly through books. As a child, she had read endlessly about bats, birds, frogs, and the life of swamps, but her parents were entirely urban, and no one had taken her into the natural world until she met Grey. Together they had hiked, trekked, climbed, explored swamps, gone for own walks, and kept life lists of birds. When the trout season opened, Freddie was perfectly happy to sit on a bank swatting midges and reading while Grey stood up to his hips in cold water. On their honeymoon they had gone to Dorset to search for fossils.
Here is what Freddie feels when she thinks about the affair she had.
Love made strange bedfellows, Freddie thought, and then did absolutely nothing to help them out.
Here is a passage which describes how Freddie and Penny spend time just before Penny’s wedding ceremony.
A sweet breeze blew in through the window. Freddie lit two cigarettes and watched the air bat the smoke around. She and Penny never smoked except when they were together. It was a childhood tradition. Neither of them inhaled but both blew very beautiful smoke rings, a skill they had been perfecting for years.
Here is a snippet of a conversation between Penny and Freddie after the ceremony.
“I feel as if life is all spread out in front of me but I don’t know what’s there,” said Penny.
“That’s what life is like,” Freddie said.
Other stories I liked in the collection were ‘Dating Your Mom’ by Ian Frazier, which was on an interesting and unconventional topic, ‘The Man with the Dog’ by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, which was about the love between a single middle-aged Indian lady and her Dutch tenant, ‘The Cinderella Waltz’ by Ann Beattie which is about a divorced couple, their daughter and the husband’s gay lover and the complex way they love each other and ‘The Kugelmass episode’ by Woody Allen, which is about a man who falls in love with Emma Bovary (from ‘Madame Bovary’) and how he enters the book and spends time with her every weekend and how once, he finds a way of getting her out of the book and come to the real world and the interesting consequences which result. When I first heard of this premise – characters coming out of the story into the real world, or characters missing from stories because they were busy doing something else rather than doing what the author wanted them to – I was amazed. I found it extremely novel and mind-blowing! I first discovered it, when one of my friends wrote a novel which was based on this premise and she showed me excerpts of it. Later, I discovered that Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series (which starts with ‘The Eyre Affair’) is based on this concept. ‘The Eyre Affair’ was published in 2001 and the series is all the rage now. Woody Allen wrote this story in 1970 – nearly forty years back and thirty years before Fforde wrote his – which just shows what a visionary storyteller he is. Woody – you are a genius!
Do you know of other writers / stories which are based on this premise?
Other than my favourites and the stories I liked very much, honourable mention should go to ‘Elka and Meir’, Nobel prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story of two unlikely lovers, ‘Sculpture 1’, Angela Patrinos’ story about a sculpture model and one of the sculpture students and ‘Love life’ by Bobby Ann Mason which is about a woman who comes back to a small town after being away for many years and discovers some interesting surprises there. One of the lines in the story describes this perfectly :
“Her old rebellion against small-town conventions gave way to curiosity.”
Another interesting story was ‘The Diver’ by V.S.Pritchett. The story was not bad, but the writer was someone I had encountered before in a different medium in interesting circumstances. If you have seen the movie ‘The Dead Poet’s Society’ which has Robin Williams in a starring role as an English teacher, you will remember this scene. During his first class at a new school, Robin Williams takes a poetry anthology which is assigned to the class, reads the introduction to the anthology and then tears the pages of that introduction and throws them away. Then he asks the students to do the same. Then he tells the students that poetry shouldn’t be analyzed but it should be read and experienced with one’s heart. It is a powerful scene. If you haven’t guessed it already, that introduction was by V.S.Pritchett J
There were four other stories in the collection which were bearable – ‘Blackbird Pie’ by Raymond Carver, ‘The Nice Restaurant’ by Mary Gaitskill, ‘Here Come the Maples’ by John Updike, ‘How Old, How Young’ by John O’Hara. My most favourite title in the book was ‘Spring Fugue’ by Harold Brodkey. Unfortunately the story behind the title didn’t work for me.
Out of the thirty-eight stories in the book, I liked ten stories and I found three others interesting. That is a thirty-four-percent strike-rate. For a book that I found ‘deeply disappointing’, I think that is a pretty awesome strike-rate. It just shows that while we might think that we don’t like something, when we think about it a bit more, it might not be all that bad. Maybe the book grew on me, while I continued reading.
I am glad that I finally read ‘Nothing But You’. It was like getting to know an old friend at close quarters, discovering new facets about him / her and finding out secrets about the friend which was a world apart from my perceptions.
So, what is my conclusion about ‘Nothing But You’? Firstly, I would say that it is a collector’s item. Secondly, if you are a sophisticated reader and are in touch with the short story genre today and are familiar with its themes, you will like it very much. If I liked thirteen stories, you might like all of them. Thirdly, if you are a reader like me and you are not a book collector, maybe you can borrow this book from the library and read some of the stories. If you decide to do that, don’t miss ‘In the Gloaming’, ‘Roses, Rhododendron’, ‘We’ and ‘A Country Wedding’. And ‘The Man in the Moon’. And ‘Yours’ J
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