In the 1950s death lost its sting in The New Yorker. As in the opening line of Albert Camus’s novel L’Etranger, mothers – and others – keep dying without anyone shedding a tear over them.
Albert Camus could have begun his novel L’Etranger (1942) like this: “Although the telegram came out of the blue, I had a premonition as I began to open it. I hid the content of the message and looked only at the signature. It came from the director of my mother’s nursing home. I folded it up, put it in my pocket and broke down in tears.” Instead, he wrote “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile : « Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. » Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.” The appearance of a new translation by Sandra Smith of L’Etranger (not as The stranger but The outsider) has jolted me into writing something about those lines that struck me 45 years ago.
At NYU in the 1950s, L’Etranger was taught as a model of existential alienation. The narrator of the novel, Meursault, was said to be so detached from his own emotions that he was indifferent even to the death of his mother. Another phrase related to alienation was “lack of affect.” Meursault did not display and perhaps did not feel emotions in a way that others would consider normal. In psychological studies of L’Etranger this is considered a pathological defect, an attendant cause of the casual murder that he comes to commit. Whatever psychologists may have thought, writers and editors came to regard affectless references to death as a good thing. This realization dawned on me in the years of my subscription to The New Yorker, starting in 1968. Now that I have taken out a digital subscription that gives me access to the entire New Yorker archive, I have been able to confirm this impression. Here are six excerpts from the opening paragraphs of stories (the magazine always carried one or, more usually, two short stories) in the first six issues of 1968.
|6 January, André Dubus, “Andromache”||“They found Joe’s body, but she never saw it, and the funeral was with closed caskets.”|
|13 January, Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The letter writer”||“Herman (or Hayim David, as he was called in Kalomin) had lost his family to the Nazis.” Toward the end of the story comes the quintessential Camus thought: “’Am I dying? Is this death?’ he asked himself. He felt only curiosity.”|
|27 January, Gilbert Rogin, “Cheering up”||“Charley has fallen asleep and is dreaming about his end – in fact, that of mankind as well.”|
|3 February, Penelope Gilliatt, “Known for her frankness”||“I predict that the car will crash. Then I drive it at a brick wall…. The wages of sin is death.”|
|10 February, Mavis Gallant, “April fish”||“Last night, in one harrowing dream, one of my adopted children drowned, there, outside the window, in the Lake of Geneva.”|
|10 February, H.L. Mountzoures, “A day in the country”||“Jeff remembered as he was putting a pot of coffee on the stove: Grammie was picking out her coffin today.”|
Fascinated by the phenomenon, I went through the fiction in the first three issues of all the years from 1941 to 1974. Throughout the war years, perhaps because death was considered the business of daily papers rather than of high-tone weeklies but yet to my astonishment, I found nothing at all. The first sign of things to come dates from the year after L’Etranger was published in English, 1946, and after, on 20 April 1946, The New Yorker published a brief report on Camus’ doings in New York on a publicity tour for the translation. Sally Benson’s “Lady with a lamp” I would call a pseudo-Camus story. The nurse Miss Robbins “glanced at the woman who lay on the couch…. The couch stood with its back to the two windows of the apartment living room, so the woman’s body lay in shadow.” The flirt with death continues through several pages until we learn at the end that Miss Robbins’s charge is not dead at all.
A further step came in the issue of 10 January 1948 from the pen of John O’Hara, in “Nil nisi”: “In the morning, people stayed out of the ocean, partly through fear, but mostly out of decent respect for the woman whose body had not been found.” After three morbid pages, the body had still not been found. Tiptoeing toward Camus, Victoria Lincoln’s “Death in the house” has the early line, “’Poor old Ben,’ we would say, stroking his head. ‘When are you going to die, poor old Ben?’” Ben is a dog.
By 10 January 1953, things had gotten no further than “The magistrate had come to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the death of one of the villagers three months before” (Christine Weston, “A man has no choice”). Sylvia Townsend Warner makes an essential Camusian move by opening her story “Uncle Blaire” (2 January 1954) with the sentence “There was a distinct, if non-contractual, understanding between Miss Iris Foale and her fellow-citizens that something commemorative would go up after her death.” Further feints follow, in about one-third of the consulted issues from 1955 (Richard H. Rovere, “See Naples and drop dead”); 1956 (Jean Stafford: “…in her silvery coffin she was a goddess”, Nancy Hale: “De mortuis nil nisi bonum… and Elizabeth is dead” and John Collier: “… discuss the more interesting of the murders they have happened upon”); 1957 – the year Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature (Richard T. Gill: “It was around the time of my brother’s death”); and 1959 (Frank O’Connor: “I suppose you’d like to see poor Jeffrey before the undertaker comes. ‘I might as well…’”), before in 1960 a breakthrough moment occurred. Fittingly, it was the death of Camus himself that brought The New Yorker, in “Talk of the town” of 16 January 1960, to put into so many words what was at stake. “In 1946, he was already bored with Existentialism… What Camus deplored was the necessity of ceasing to exist. For him, that constituted the absurdity of man’s relation to the universe. He believed, however, that the acceptance of the relation was the mark of a man.”
It took another few years for absurdity to carry the day. In 1961 the absurdist Peter De Vries wrote in the first sentence of “Reuben, Reuben” that “filial devotion [is] the wish to do one’s parents in,” but then things reverted to the status of hints, as in Rhys Davies’s story of 4 January 1964, “I will keep her company,” portraying the understated effect of the death of a woman on her husband, and M.F.K. Fisher’s “The second time around,” beginning: “In most college towns of America, there are widows of professors….” Sylvia Warner Townsend becomes more explicit, giving a narrator a childhood memory of “a coffin being lowered into a grave.” However, the honor of putting an affectless death into the opening sentence of an early January New Yorker story belongs to the intrepid Calder Willingham. The date is 16 January 1965; the story titled “What star so humble” begins: “Six weeks before the death of Bonnie, Mrs. Hillyer declared that the girl could not possibly live for another day or two.”
From then on, things pick up speed as they cool off. Natacha Stewart on 9 January 1965: “Three months later, Easton was dead.” H.L. Mountzoures tipped his hand on 8 January 1966: “Staring at [my brother], I could see Mama, but I said nothing, to avoid being maudlin.” Meursault of course did not have to avoid being maudlin. He did not have maudlinity in him. If American writers had a harder time than Camus in accepting the absurdity of life, they were helped along decisively on 7 January 1967 by no one less than the Argentinian grandmaster Jorge Luis Borges, in “Three stories” with a passage in the first telling that “…the man perished in a ditch, his skull sliced open by a sabre”; the second entitled “The dead man”; and the third doing Camus one better, with the opening sentence “On the incandescent February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after a death agony so imperious it did not for a moment descend into sentimentality or fear, I noticed that the iron billboards in the Plaza Constitución bore new advertisements for one brand or another of Virginia tobacco.”
That is what did it. By January 1968 things reached the climax described above, with an affectless death, free of maudlinity and sentimentality, in nearly every issue of the magazine. Thereafter the pace slowed, but the phenomenon has survived until today. Click on the Fiction tab of The New Yorker website and you will find the leader: “Savage breast” by Elizabeth McKenzie: “’Mama?’ I called, even though of course she was no longer living.” In 2014 The New Yorker is still advertising its superior quality with a literary device that achieved iconic status after being employed by a French writer in 1942.
Does this mean anything more than that some writers and editors of The New Yorker think that affectless death – the acceptance of man’s absurd relation to the universe – is the ultra-cool mark of a real writer? Was the habit related to French nouvelle vague cinema? What does it owe to the upward cultural mobility of pulp fiction? If indebted to Evelyn Waugh’s The loved one (1948) or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), why are all but one or two of these stories so devoid of humor? Do they reflect developments in the world outside literature? Is cool literature related to cool jazz? Did confusion over the war in Vietnam play a role? Was mankind drained unnoticed of empathy by war and genocide? Or, on the contrary, did people feel a greater need to take account of death in their lives after Auschwitz? What difference between 1941-1946 and 1968 – literary, cultural, historical, existential – can account for this uncomfortable need to show off an ability to take death itself in one’s stride? Why should crying over the death of a mother be considered an inferior, because maudlin or sentimental, subject for a writer? All I have are questions.
© Gary Schwartz 2014. Published on the Schwartzlist on 12 December 2014.
The above is related to my work earlier this year on the exhibition Emotions: pain and pleasure in Dutch painting of the Golden Age at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem. Why, I asked myself and was asked by others, has no museum ever devoted an exhibition to a subject that was of such obvious and far going importance to artists and writers on art? Part of my answer is a quotation from the catalogue of Rembrandt paintings by Horst Gerson in the very year of 1968, for which I served as Gerson’s editorial assistant. In his entry on the world-famous David playing the harp before Saul in the Mauritshuis, showing Saul wiping a tear from his eyes, Gerson rejected – he was the first to do so – Rembrandt’s authorship of the painting. One of his reasons is “the superficial handling and the somewhat ‘larmoyant’ interpretation” of the subject. A great artist like Rembrandt, Gerson felt, had no need of outward signs to convey feelings. This I believe was the same modernist sentiment – pardon the word – that moved Borges in 1967 to equate the news of a death to noticing a new billboard ad for tobacco.
7 March 2022: A major update. As I wrote in the comment below, I have been tracking this phenomenon in bed since 2014. In all those years, not a single affectless death made its way into the first paragraph of a New Yorker story. Until this week. See Camille Bordas, “One sun only,” in the issue of 7 March 2022:
This is not a rewrite of that story in which plants and animals and people keep winding up dead over the course of a school year, but it starts the same, and it feels odd not to acknowledge, so I will. I just did. Things kept dying. My father first, in June, then the puppy my ex-wife had adopted to help the children get over their grandpa, and then the school janitor, Lane. Right after Halloween, Lane had died during lunchtime in the cafeteria, in front of the kids. Heart attack. A few weeks later, my son, Ernest, came home from school and told me that he hoped there was no afterlife.
It must be said that the opening is very functional for the story, which is about the writer wrestling with her son Ernest’s preoccupation with death. Still, this manifestation of Camus redivivus at The New Yorker deserves notice.
27 March 2022: Astonishingly, two weeks later it was clear that after eight years Camus was back in full flight. Here are the first sentences in the story in the New Yorker issue of 28 March, “After the funeral,” by Tessa Hadley:
After the funeral, the two little girls, aged nine and seven, accompanied their grief-stricken mother home. Naturally, they were also grief-stricken, but, then again, they hadn’t known their father very well and hadn’t enormously liked him. He was an airline pilot, and they’d preferred it when he was away working; being alert little girls, they’d picked up intimations that he preferred it, too. This was in the nineteen-seventies, when air travel was still considered glamorous. Philip Lyons had flown 747s across the Atlantic for B.O.A.C., until he died of a heart attack—luckily not while in the air but on the ground, prosaically, eating breakfast in a New York hotel room. The airline had flown him home free of charge.
My revelatory mails to the fiction editor of the magazine, from 2014 and earlier this month, have gone unanswered. Apparently, he or she doesn’t know what to say.
19 April 2022: It goes on, in a lighter vein, in the issue of 11 April. Kevin Barry’s story “The pub with no beer,” begins:
He hadn’t noticed the voices at first. In the endless stretch of the afternoon he entered the pub through the side door with a soft hushed aspect as if broaching a place of burial.
The quotation the magazine uses as a come-on to the reader: “An experienced publican is an educated reader of mood’s nuance. It wasn’t Death, by any chance, that stood there?”
20 June 2022. André Alexis, “Houyhnhnm.” Opening sentences:
My dad, Robert auf der Horst, died seven years ago. He was a successful doctor, and for most of his life he divided the world into two categories: what he thought useful (science) and what he thought frivolous (almost everything else).
8 July 2022. Not a fiction piece, but a quotation in a feature by Ian Parker, “Emmanuel Carrère writes his way through a breakdown.” The French writer beats them all with a flaunting of affectless death in a first and second sentence to his novel The adversary, 2000, that I cannot imagine will ever be bested:
On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son. He was five years old, the same age as Antoine Romand. Then we went to have lunch with my parents, as Jean-Claude Romand did with his, whom he killed after their meal.
5 September 2022. Following the unbeatable quotation above, it was perhaps inevitable that the next symptom in this syndrome would retreat from actual to imagined death and would have a pinch of pathos. (Well, almost anything would, by comparison.) It was delivered by Ben Lerner, in the (over)long opening sentence of his story “Café Loup”:
When I became a father, I began to worry not only that I would die and not be able to care for my daughter but that I would die in an embarrassing way, that my death would be an abiding embarrassment for Astra—that in some future world, she will be on a date with someone, hard as that is for me to imagine, and her date will ask, “What does your father do?,” and she will say, “He died when I was little,” and her date will respond, “I’m sorry,” hesitate, and then ask, in a bid for intimacy, how I died, and Astra will feel ashamed, will look down into her blue wine, there will be blue wine in the future, and say, “He had an aneurysm on the toilet,” which is one of the ways I often fear I might die.
18 September 2022. Joan Silber too dishes up a non-death death in the opening of “Evolution”:
I was ten when my mother had to take me to the emergency room. I’d sort of skidded on our fire escape while I was recklessly dancing around on it, showing off for the kid in the apartment across the way. I’d done bump-de-bump, and I was singing “whoopty-whoopty” and starting a foxy little move while waving the ends of my bathroom sash when I slipped on the rusted flooring that was splashed with snow, and collapsed on its see-through slats in an unnatural crumple. The back yard was three floors below, too visible.
I screamed when I tried to get up. I wanted my mother to hear me. She was watching TV, she thought I was asleep—how would she guess where I was? I knew I had done something very bad to my leg. Fortunately, Nini Seidenbaum, for whom I’d been showing off, screamed for her own mother. In the frozen air between our buildings, I heard her wail that I was dead.
10 October 2022. David Gilbert, “Come softly to me”
Upstairs, the sisters prepared by putting on their dresses, while down in the yard everyone drank Mott’s apple juice and snacked on Ritz crackers squared with Cheddar. Afterward, they’d have a proper meal. Lily had brought six pies. Eleanor, pasta salad and lentils with sweet potatoes. Louise’s son Charlie would man the grill. There’d be enough to drink, that was for sure, and maybe something to smoke thanks to the dispensaries in nearby Great Barrington. Come night, Jasper, Lily’s grandson, would play guitar. And Lewis, the son of Benjamin, the sisters’ cousin, would light the bonfire, once his father’s job. Oh, Benjamin. He’d been cremated with his healing crystals still clenched in his hands.
I’m not making this up. The year 2022 has seen an unprecedented, spectacular resurgence of affectless death in The New Yorker, and the year is not over.
Two weeks later, in the issue of 24 October, a diluted instance makes its appearance. It is not until the second paragraph of “Tiny, meaningless things,” by Marisa Silver, that we read:
It’s like a head of wilted lettuce, she thinks, as she mists a blouse with water. All you have to do is put it in ice water and it springs back to life. These were lessons she’d tried to impart to her daughters: the proper way to store vegetables, to fold clothing, to wash their faces (never soap, only water). They hadn’t listened, of course. They couldn’t imagine decay. Her daughters’ bored or frankly antagonistic responses to her attempts to make them understand the value of preservation had agitated her, and she’d repeated her warnings two or maybe three times until they screamed or slammed doors. They were young. How could they know the disaster of carelessness? She knew. She’d been at her cousin’s wedding in Tulsa when her husband died so long ago.
Diluted not only because delayed to the second paragraph but also because the death of the narrator’s husband actually touches her.
21 November 2022. Graham Swift, in his story “Hinges,” is Camusier.
One day in April, their father, Ted Holroyd, suddenly died and a few days afterward Annie and her older brother, Ian, both still a little dazed, went to see the minister who, as Annie put it, was going to “do” their father’s funeral. There was surely some better word than “do,” but Annie couldn’t, for the moment, think of it.
“A little dazed” is not strong affect, but it isn’t nothing. Well, still five issues to go in the year.
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