30 Stories, Day 15: The Nightingale and the Rose

I was saving the one by Oscar Wilde like a rare coin—I knew it was going to be good. Now, halfway through my 30 day challenge of reading and reporting on short stories, I present to you one of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful short stories I have ever read. (Highly recommend it! Readable online at the link below.)

“The Nightingale and the Rose” by Oscar Wilde

“If you want a red rose,” said the Tree, “you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart’s-blood. You must sing to me with your breast against a thorn. All night long you must sing to me, and the thorn must pierce your heart, and your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine.”

Synopsis

A Student mopes in his garden, bemoaning its lack of red roses. Were it that the garden held but a single bloom! His heart’s desire promised she would dance with him at the Prince’s ball the next evening if only he brought her red roses; because he has none to give he must instead sit alone and watch her glide across the floor with others. He is heartbroken just thinking about it and falls and weeps in the grass.

The animals of the garden hear his cries. “Why is he weeping?” they ask. The Nightingale, who has been listening from a branch overhead, answers: “He is weeping for a red rose.” The other animals scoff, calling the Student ridiculous, but the Nightingale understands his pain. Pain is the other half of what she so joyously sings of each night: Love.

The Nightingale resolves to help the student.

She flies from one Rose-tree to another. “Give me a red rose,” she says, “and I will sing you my sweetest song.” But one tree bears white roses; the next bears yellow; the third bears red, but has lost its buds to the harsh winter.

The Nightingale pleads. She only wants one, she says—is there no way she can get it? “There is,” the Tree replies. “But it is terrible.”

For a red rose, the Tree says, the Nightingale must sing to him with her heart against a thorn. She must sing to him all the night, heart pierced, and her blood must flow into the Tree’s veins.

The Nightingale considers this. At length she decides that love is greater than life, and that the heart of a man is greater than that of a bird. She will do it.

She flies down to the Student, still in the grass, and tells him to be happy: she will make a rose for him. But with one caveat: in return he must be a true lover (for love is wiser than philosophy and mightier than power). The student looks up and listens, but does not understand. Even when the Nightingale sings (the Tree that keeps her nest has heard her plan, and requests a final song) the Student perceives her through an academic lens, noting in a journal that she has form, but not feeling; style, but not sincerity. He sees neither meaning nor purpose in her song, and goes inside to sleep.

The moon comes out and the Nightingale goes to work, singing of love with her breast again the rose Tree’s thorn. Song by song petals begin unfurling, but still the rose is pale. “Press closer,” bids the tree, “or the Day will come before the rose is finished.”

The bird heeds the advice and presses closer, so that the thorn pricks deeper into her body. The petals begin to go pink as she continues singing, but still it is not enough; the thorn has not yet pierced her heart. The tree bids the Nightingale press closer once again.

Finally the thorn pricks the bird’s heart, and as she is cut by bitter pain the Nightingale’s song grows wilder: becomes a verse about Love that does not die even with Death. Her blood seeps into the rose, finally turning it crimson.

When the rose is finished, the bird lies dead in the grass.

The next day, the Student looks out his window and sees the rose. Quickly he dashes it up and takes it to the home of the girl he pines for.

“Here is the reddest rose in the world,” he says, producing the rose when the door opens. He offers it as a symbol of his affection; suggest that she wear it that night and know how he loves her.

The girl frowns. She says it will not go with her dress, and besides—another suitor has sent her jewels.

The boy, angry, calls the girl ungrateful and casts the rose into the street; the rose is trodden flat by the wheel of a passing cart.

The Student concludes that Love is a silly, useless thing—not half as useful as Logic or Philosophy—and goes back to his room to read.

Favorite line

(Alright, it’s really more of a passage this time…but Wilde just has too much great imagery and writes too beautifully to include any less!)

“Death is a great price to pay for a red rose,” cried the Nightingale, “and Life is very dear to all. It is pleasant to sit in the green wood, and to watch the Sun in his chariot of gold, and the Moon in her chariot of pearl. Sweet is the scent of the hawthorn, and sweet are the bluebells that hide in the valley, and the heather that blows on the hill. Yet Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?”

Observations

This breed of fable is an interesting one: animals speak, but humans don’t understand them. This serves a purpose, of course: the inability of the Student to understand the Nightingale’s sacrifice says something about love (perhaps even plays back to her creed that Love was greater than Philosophy or Power) and makes her noble act all the more heart-breaking. What a wretched lesson in love! I mean, I had heard that Oscar Wilde’s children’s stories were depressing, but this has got to be one of the most heart-wrenching short stories EVER! (And yet, it’s so beautiful and poignant—I love Wilde all the more!)

As far as fables and parables go, I am constantly learning more: one of the keys to keeping a story timeless, it appears, is using basic characters (be they human or animal or plant or object) who have both been present in the past and are present today. The more generic, the more timeless. One object, and one object only, I felt, dates The Nightingale and the Rose: a “cart-wheel” running over the eponymous rose near the end. Now, that doesn’t diminish the story for me at all—it’s just an observation. Actually, it begets a question: are the best parables/fables/folklore timeless? Or do we associate them with a certain time period: the middle ages, perhaps?

Wilde is THE MAN when it comes to maxims and pithy sayings. After reading The Picture of Dorian Gray I wanted to write nothing but Lord Henry-style witticisms! My observation with aphorisms is that, though they don’t always use absolutes, they tend to take a position and are said with confidence. In this story, for example: “In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity.”

Vocab

As observed with past parables and children’s tales, the language here is simple and designed for a broad, youth-inclusive audience. No new words here.

Right-o. It’s going to be hard to top this one. We’ll see what tomorrow’s short story brings… 🙂

Advertisements

30 Stories, Day 6: The Door

On the sixth day of 30 Short Stories, my anthology gave to me…a wonderfully nonsensical story by a renowned grammar nazi!

(Apologies for the shabby rhyme. Ahem:)

“The Door” by E.B. White

“More and more (he kept saying) I am confronted by a problem which is incapable of solution (for this time, even if I chose the right door, there would be no food behind it) and that is what madness is, and things seeming different from what they are.”

Synopsis

An unnamed narrator seeks a way forward through a confused description of non-doors (see: “One was an opening that wasn’t a door, the other a wall that wasn’t an opening”).

The narrator remembers lab rats: ones that have been trained to jump at a card with a circle on it for food. Those rats, he remembered, were tricked one day: a card was put in a flat place—one that did not give way to food—and the rodents went mad, confused, and then totally passive. He compares himself to the rats; says he doesn’t know which card to jump at.

His life, he says, has been full of situations without solution. Doors are compared to objects; goals; stages of life. “The door with the girl on it,” is one. Home (“householder’s detail”) is another.

The problem is that the doors keep changing. “It is inevitable that they will keep changing the doors on you…because that is what they are for.”

Favorite line

“You wouldn’t want me, standing here, to tell you, would you, about my friend the poet (deceased) who said, “My heart has followed all my days something I cannot name”? (It had the circle on it.)”

Observations

I absolutely love the way this story is written. No, it isn’t clear, but yes, it flows; no, it isn’t coherent, but yes, it makes sense, and resonates; it flows and swells along, pulling back and forth, a pendulum, tick tock, back and forth, a maddened maze unto itself, a vehicle for the message. “The medium is the message,” it has been said. Nowhere do I find that to be truer than with this story.

This was an especially pleasant surprise given that the author is E.B. White—E.B. White of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. I was expecting the story to be something very cut and dry; something dull, flat, and grammatically sound. I daresay it was grammatically sound (at least, all the commas were in the right places), but that did not make it any less unstable and desperate and compelling. I can tell right now: this is one I will read again. This one has something to teach.

There is only one line of spoken dialogue in this story: “Here you have the maximum of openness in a small room.” It is unclear to me what this (the maximum openness, or the small room) is, but the ambiguity allows for many interpretations: is this a metaphor for all of the possibilities in one’s life? The choices, or “jumps” we make within a maze? (For some reason, on initial reading I thought of a realtor; and then a mental patient.)

The ambiguity/lack of clarity in this story are unique and poignant and I think done with great delicacy. Some readers would be impatient or upset with not having a clear idea of what’s going on, but that is the great skill of this story: it moves in such a way that treads that thin line, that moves with mastery, that pulls one through and after it with strange allure so that even though it is less than lucid our attention does not waver.

Vocab

All these words are fictional scientific terms that were designed for the sake of the story:

tex, koid, oid, duroid, sani, thrutex

Another lesson: it’s okay (sometimes even beneficial) to create new words for the sake of your story! Don’t be afraid to break the rules.

Une autre histoire demain…

30 Stories, Day 3: A Sound of Thunder

Hello, wordsmiths! Today is the third installment in my venture to read 30 short stories in 30 days with the long-term goal of improving my writing. Today I report on this:

 “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury

“Anything happens to you, we’re not responsible. … Six Safari leaders were killed last year, and a dozen hunters. We’re here to give you the severest thrill a real hunter ever asked for.”

Synopsis: A man named Eckels, two safari guides and two fellow hunters journey back sixty million years to hunt a Tyrannosaurs Rex. The hunt must be conducted with the utmost of care; Time Safari Inc. has laid out specific rules, provisions, and a literal path from which the party must not stray (not even to touch a blade of grass): to do so could alter the future drastically. As the party confronts their game, Eckels falters and stumbles off the path. The party picks up the slack and fells the beast, but one of the guides, Travis, tells Eckels he’s really stepped in it now and threatens to kill him if he changed anything. The hunters return to the future and Eckels finds a dead butterfly in the mud caked to his boots; the future changed. There is a sound of thunder: Travis making good on his word.

Favorite line: [Describing the effects of the Time Machine] “… all, everything fly back to seed, flee death, rush down to their beginnings, suns rise in western skies and set in glorious easts, moons eat themselves opposite to the custom, all and everything cupping one in another like Chinese boxes, rabbits into hats, all and everything returning to the fresh death, the seed death, the green death, to the time before the beginning.”

Observations: Bradbury writes very concisely, using vivid imagery. Check out this brief passage describing the sensation of time traveling back sixty million years in a whir:

“The Machine howled. Time was a film run backward. Suns fled and ten million moons fled after them. “Think,” said Eckels. “Every hunter that ever lived would envy us today. This makes Africa seem like Illinois.”

The Machine slowed; its scream fell to a murmur. The Machine stopped.

The sun stopped in the sky.”

Look at how short and simple those sentences are. But how much they convey! And how perfectly! I am envious of such detail and delivery.

A criticism: I find it unrealistic that Time Safari Inc., who claims to have to jump through all manner of hoops to get the government’s permission to do what they do, seems to let anyone who walks in with $10,000 go back into the past without first laying out the rules and making sure the person understands the significance of not disturbing anything. It is only after Eckels and the other two hunters have gone back that one of the leaders lectures them—and clearly, as the story plays out, that’s a little too late in the game. Now, I might be a harsher critic than the average reader, but if the whole of the story resides on a detail that lacks credibility…well, that’s something I’ll make a personal effort to avoid in my own writing.

Vocab: No new words! Interesting. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing; common language can make a story more accessible. A lesson in itself!

30 Stories, Day 1: The Saucier’s Apprentice

Alright lads, today I’m making good on the first of my writing resolutions for the year: to read thirty short stories in thirty days, and post here after each one. I’m reading primarily to help my writing and specifically my short stories, but I imagine there will be other benefits, too: vocabulary, the chance to observe craft and technique, and of course, the oh-so-Portlandian distinguishment of being better-read among them.

In each post I’ll include a general overview of the story, new words I picked up, favorite lines/an excerpt, and observations as far as writing technique/storycraft. And of course I will link to the story itself whenever possible!

Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

The Saucier’s Apprentice” by S.J. Perelman

Today’s selection comes from an anthology titled Americans in Paris, compiled by Adam Gopnik. You can read an excerpt of The Saucier’s Apprentice here.

“I am not overly intuitive, but I have learned that when sub-inspectors of the Sûreté with dickty fashion magazines protruding from their pockets invite one to share an aperitif, curious stories ofttimes unfold, and so it proved.”

Synopsis: “The Saucier’s Apprentice” is the story of mysterious sabotage inside the famed Parisian restaurant Maxim’s. Inspector Marcel Riboflavin relays all to a nameless narrator over drinks: the pride, the care, the secrecy, the almost sacredness with which the French (particularly Maxim’s sauciers) prepare their delicacies; disturbing developments in Maxim’s dining experiences of late (one dissatisfied customer haughtily suggested that the sauce in his dessert would be more suitable for caulking a boat); finally, how he solved the case and uncovered the startling truth.

Favorite Line: “In France,” Marcel said with wintry dignity, “accidents occur in the bedroom, not the kitchen.”

Observations: This was one of those elusive story-within-a-story types. I found the presentation (one friend telling another what happened in past tense) intriguing and amusing and yet I wonder if it diminished the story by making it less immediate. If the same story had been told first person, through the Inspector’s eyes, I think it would have been radically different. But would it have been better? I can’t say. It probably would have ended up being longer, had it been first person; and in the interest of a short story, brevity is probably key (at least these days, if you want a shot at publication!).

The narrator was well-spoken and humorous, but not much more than a medium. I’m not sure if I like that. I think I need to read other stories like this to observe more.

One thing I loved about this story was the language. I have a host of a new words here, including some lovely French expressions (which, as a Francophone, I duly appreciate):

Vocab:

vagary: an unexpected and inexplicable change in a situation or in someone’s behavior

disabuse: to persuade someone that an idea or belief is mistaken

prognosticate: foretell; prophesize

perfidious: deceitful; untrustworthy

histrionic: overly theatrical/dramatic

epicurean: having luxurious taste/excessive indulgence, especially in food and drink

pullulating: swarming, teeming, sprouting with ~

nadir: the lowest point (in fortune, despair); the point on a celestial sphere directly below an observer

depredation: attack or robbery

ribald: referring to sexual matters in amusingly rude way

badinage: humorous conversation

owlish: resembling an owl; appearing wise or solemn

hurly burly: a disturbance

French Words: 

coup de main: a sudden surprise attack, esp. during war

copain: buddy/mate

anisette: a liqueur flavored with aniseed

aperitif: a pre-dinner drink

haute couture: “haute” means “high”; “couture” means “seam”; together they refer to high fashion

Another story tomorrow!~

Writing Challenge, Day 8: Ghosts, Superhorses, and Sock Monsters

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 8: How old were you when you started writing? What did you write?

I started writing in grade school. To be honest, memories of my earliest work are vague, but here is what I recall:

1st or 2nd grade

I wrote a short story having to do with Halloween and ghosts. I found ghosts to be simply fascinating at the time and, along with writing about them on paper, may or may not have scribbled the occasional crayon illustration on my wall…

As would portend to much of my future writing, however, I grew frustrated with the piece and never finished it. Two hours is a LONG TIME for a six year old to keep her butt in the chair!

3rd grade

Although I didn’t know what it was until a good seven or eight years later, it was at this age that I first wrote fan fiction. I was BIG into Judy Blume and her Fudge books at the time and my favorite character from them was Sam. I remember admiring Sam’s mischievous genius—particularly the way he once pretended to dislike all his pajamas just so he could see, with each item he refused to wear, the looks of frustration on his parents’ faces grow crazier and more disgusted. He found it amusing. This scheming prankster was one of my childhood heroes and I determined to pen more misadventures for him.

I also remember envisioning (but never actually wrote) the first scenes for a book that would be comparable to Jaws. I resolved that people would read this book and be astonished a nine-year-old had written it. I imagine I was also proud that I knew what ‘astonished’ meant.

4th grade

Influenced by my favorite 2nd grade book Ghost Horse (which I have since searched for and been unable to locate—the author’s name was something like Jannie Lee Simner or Janie Lee Simmer…) and other horse adventure books, I started my very own story of a girl and her magical horse. NO JOKE. THEY COULD COMMUNICATE TELEPATHICALLY AND EVERYTHING.

4th-5th grade:

It was around this time that I made my first earnest attempts at poetry. I wrote about deep and meaningful subjects such as starlight, snowfall, and the laundry monster that ate all my socks.

Many years and many more writing endeavors have passed. I’d like to think I’m a little more grounded these days (none of this sock monster, superhorse nonsense) but I do still tend to begin many more projects than I am humanly capable of finishing. Three chapters into a novel I start a short story that takes me over a month to write the first draft of and then somehow, in the middle of that, I decide it’s a good idea to start an offbeat and possibly publishable third project. True story; this is my current predicament. Somebody slap me!