Author Archives

Anna Wiener lives and works in San Francisco.

Honeymooning with Elizabeth Taylor, and Crying All the While: The Fiction of Margot Hentoff

The Harper’s digital archive is a small and unsung national treasure, at least as far as I’m concerned; I’ve spent countless hours sifting through old issues, scanning for early work from familiar names and tracking down forgotten gems from authors whose bylines have largely faded. One such writer is Margot Hentoff, whose short story “Where Do the Detectives Eat?” (paywalled PDF, February, 1968) caught me completely off-guard when I downloaded it on a whim. The writing is strikingly contemporary: its cynical humor, thematic threads, and first-person, present-tense prose style all feel fresh.

“Where Do the Detectives Eat?” is deceptive in its brevity; in only three pages, it contains sharp observations about the pains and rejections of motherhood, the disappointments of friendship and marriage, and aging’s small shocks. (“This morning, Sally, my friend of longest standing, called to tell me she had taken a lover. Twenty years old, she said… But I can see Sally at twenty, and tonight I am appalled that we age in our own skins.”)

The story opens with a gesture toward Hollywood glamour and romance, then swiftly delivers a jab to the chest:

A long time ago, when I was very young, Elizabeth Taylor and I got married – each for the first time and in the same summer. We traveled in Europe that July; she with Nicky Hilton, I with my then husband, both of us visiting essentially the same places, she usually leaving an area some days before I arrived. I knew where she was because the European press kept following her, and I read the stories with an interest born of identification. What the papers didn’t tell me was how she felt about being married, so I never knew what Elizabeth Taylor did; but all that summer, I cried and cried and cried.

I wept in Paris cafés, in English bookshops, and in Swiss trains going over the mountaintops. But most of all, I wept on my twentieth birthday in a room in the Golf Hotel in St. Jean-de-Luz. I sat, that day, at a window overlooking the Bay of Biscay and beyond that, the Pyrenees. The sky was blue, the trees green. There were flowering bushes in the gardens, and striped tents on the beach below. The more I looked, the lovelier it became, and the lovelier it was, the more I cried, knowing that not only was all Europe my jail, but that New York, where we lived, was not going to be any better because I was married now, and I was twenty years old, and everything had passed me by.

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The Dreamy, Sensual, and Bizarre Folk Tales of Yoko Tawada

Yoko Tawada’s English-language publisher, New Directions, describes her slender book The Bridegroom Was a Dog in simple and straightforward terms: “A bizarre tale of passion and romance between a schoolteacher and a dog.” There is, of course, complexity to this tight and colorful novella (written in 1993, and translated from Japanese in 1998), in which the life of Mitsuko, an eccentric teacher, begins to take on the qualities of a fable when a strange, doglike man arrives in her home and engulfs her life. Dark humor dovetails with stark and erotic prose as the story careens through surreal twists and turns. The story is narrated with the breathless quality and wide-eyed spirit of a child telling a fairytale for the first time, with visceral, lively details spilling across the page:

One August day soon after school had let out for the summer, a man of twenty-seven or -eight came calling at the Kitamura School with an old-fashioned leather suitcase but not a trace of sweat on him despite the hot sun beating down from above, and although he didn’t look like a friend of Mitsuko’s, with his closely cropped hair, immaculate white shirt, neatly creased trousers and polished leather shoes, he seemed to know all about her house, for he walked straight into the garden through the gap in the fence, and when he saw Mitsuko repairing her mountain bike, half-naked, her hair disheveled, he went right up to her and said:

“I’m here to stay.”

Mitsuko’s eyes widened and rolled upward, her mouth dropped open and she forgot to close it, and since she couldn’t think of what to say, she kept touching her throat with her fingertips, while the man silently put his suitcase down on the veranda, took off his wristwatch, and gave it two or three hard shakes as though to get the water out of it.

“Did you get my telegram?” he asked with a knowing laugh.

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Angela Carter on Myth and Deception in Hollywood

Angela Carter’s short story “The Merchant of Shadows” first appeared in The London Review of Books in 1989. Set in Hollywood, the narrator is a young, male student conducting research on a famed but mysterious director. The story bends and twists, ricocheting between dark comedy, deep camp, and Carter’s signature surreal, Gothic sensibility. Carter was an ardent fan of the movies, and “The Merchant of Shadows” is rich with cinematic conceits and allusions. (It also contains some searching, if subtle, feminist critique: another Carter hallmark.) I love it for these reasons, and for its lush, playful prose, its gentle damning of the narrator, and the overall self-awareness and exuberance that Carter brought to her work:

Aliens were somewhat on my mind, however, perhaps because I was somewhat alienated myself, in LA, but also due to the obsession of my roommate. While I researched my thesis, I was rooming back there in the city in an apartment over a New Age bookshop-cum-healthfood restaurant with a science fiction freak I’d met at a much earlier stage of studenthood during the chance intimacy of the mutual runs in Barcelona. Now he and I subsisted on brown rice courtesy of the Japanese waitress from downstairs, with whom we were both on ahem intimate terms, and he was always talking about aliens. He thought most of the people you met on the streets were aliens cunningly simulating human beings. He thought the Venusians were behind it. He said he had tested Hiroko’s reality quotient sufficiently and she was clear but I guessed from his look he wasn’t too sure about me. That shared diarrhoea in the Plaza Real was proving a shaky bond. I stayed out of the place as much as possible. I kept my head down at school all day and tried to manifest humanity as well as I knew how whenever I came home for a snack, a shower and, if I got the chance, one of Hiroko’s courteous if curiously impersonal embraces. Now my host showed signs of moving into leather. It might soon be time to move.

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How Michael Cunningham Writes About the Pains, Pleasures, and Psychedelia of Childhood

Michael Cunningham’s short story “White Angel” (The New Yorker; paywalled) is a vibrant masterpiece in miniature about two young brothers in suburban Cleveland pursuing the promises and pleasures of the sixties. Told through the eyes of 9-year-old Robert, the story travels an elegant curve – from the wonder, joy, and power imbalance of the brothers’ collusion, to a crashing and tragic denouement – that is at once funny, insightful, and utterly heartbreaking. “White Angel” was originally published in The New Yorker in 1988, and later became a key chapter in Cunningham’s novel A Home at the End of the World (1990):

Here is Carlton several months before his death, in an hour so alive with snow that earth and sky are identically white. He labors among the markers and I run after, stung by snow, following the light of his red knitted cap. Carlton’s hair is pulled back into a ponytail, neat and economical, a perfect pinecone of hair. He is thrifty, in his way.

We have taken hits of acid with our breakfast juice. Or rather, Carlton has taken a hit and I, considering my youth, have been allowed half. This acid is called windowpane. It is for clarity of vision, as Vicks is for decongestion of the nose. Our parents are at work, earning the daily bread. We have come out into the cold so that the house, when we reenter it, will shock us with its warmth and righteousness. Carlton believes in shocks.

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Errors Renewed: James Salter on Children, Futurity, and Hope

James Salter’s Light Years (1975) is a generous, intimate portrayal of a family that bends and splinters under the weight of its own differences and desires. This book exacerbated anxieties about marriage that I didn’t even know I had; thankfully, the novel’s emotional devastation is delivered in seductive, glorious prose. In the passage below, a sort of serpentine sense of doom winds its way around what is otherwise a tranquil domestic moment; this is Salter’s skill at play:

Their life was two things: it was a life, more or less – at least it was the preparation for one – and it was an illustration of life for their children. They had never expressed this to one another, but they were agreed upon it, and these two versions were entwined somehow so that one being hidden, the other was revealed. They wanted their children, in those years, to have the impossible, not in the sense of the unachievable but in the sense of the pure.

Children are our crop, our fields, our earth. They are birds let loose into darkness. They are errors renewed. Still, they are the only source from which may be drawn a life more successful, more knowing than our own. Somehow they will do one thing, take one step further, they will see the summit. We believe in it, the radiance that streams from the future, from days we will not see. Children must live, must triumph. Children must die; that is an idea we cannot accept.

There is no happiness like this happiness: quiet mornings, light from the river, the weekend ahead. They lived a Russian life, a rich life, interwoven, in which the misfortune of one, a failure, illness, would stagger them all. It was like a garment, this life. Its beauty was outside, its warmth within.

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Improbable Seductions: The Unsparing Eye of Mary McCarthy

For those interested in origin stories, posthumous literary gossip, and New York City in the 1930s, look no further than Mary McCarthy’s Intellectual Memoirs (1992) – a candid and lively account of McCarthy’s early writing career and the intellectual and political scenes that fueled it. McCarthy’s observations are sharp and often quite searing; she spares no one, not even herself.

We had fun in the New York Public Library reading-room, doing our research in back issues of magazines and newspapers and using lined cards to copy out quotations, some of them unbelievable. Peggy Marshall came from a Mormon family in Utah or Montana; she was about ten years older than I, around thirty-three, and was divorced from her husband; they had one little girl, whose custody they shared. Peggy, I soon discovered, did not have much energy; she was having an affair with a labor writer named Ben Stolberg, and both of them would lie on a sofa or daybed in her living-room, too tired to do anything, apparently too tired to go to bed and make love. Nor can I remember her ever cooking a meal.

Neither was very attractive; she was blond, grayish-eyed, and dumpy, with a sharp turned-up nose, and Stolberg was blond, blue-eyed, and fat and talked, snorting, through his nose, with a German accent. I don’t know what view Stolberg took of himself, but Peggy, to my horror, saw herself as seductive. Once, when we were talking of Ben and whether he wanted to marry her, I saw her look in the mirror with a little smile and toss of her head; “Of course I know I’m kinda pretty,” she said.

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The Fierce and Misty Flood: Barbara Comyns on the Quiet Seduction

Barbara Comyns’s novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950) follows the doomed marriage of two young, bohemian artists during England’s Great Depression. The excerpt below is a simple, gentle seduction; I love the way in which the protagonist, Sophia, swiftly and casually dismisses her husband and her own sense of identity. The scene strikes me as quietly wild. Its predictability is charming; its comedy, unassuming and disarming:

When we had finished eating and drinking, I played the portable gramophone. He had a lot of foreign records – chiefly Spanish. I hadn’t heard any before and played them every time I came. After a while I became bored with turning the handle, which fitted badly and kept flying out, so we just talked. I sat on the floor, very near the fire, and he sat in a low chair behind me, and I leant my back against him. It was so comfortable, I couldn’t bear the idea of going home and making the flat smell of polish. Then we became silent, and Peregrine came and sat on the floor beside me. Then he began to kiss me; at first I was shy and scared, although I realised now I’d been wanting him to do this for quite a long time. I forgot about being shy and kissed him back. Then I knew I had never loved Charles. I felt I was being carried away in a great, fierce, misty flood.

Some time later, when I realised I had been unfaithful, I didn’t feel guilty or sad; I just felt awfully happy I had had this experience, which if I had remained a “good wife” I would have missed, although, of course, I wouldn’t have known what I was missing. I felt quite bewildered. I had had one and a half children, but had been a kind of virgin all the time. I wondered if there were other women like this, but I knew so few women intimately it was difficult to tell.

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