"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Short Story Analysis: “Monday,” by Mark Helprin

This is a story of incredible beauty and love.  It is a simple tale, a parable almost, if reduced to essence.  It is a story set in the aftermath of 9-11, a story of Fitch a construction contractor who gives up all he has to remodel a house for a young lady who has recently lost her husband in the collapse of the second tower of the World Trade Center.

You have to piece of a few details together over the course of the story to get the full picture.  It is January in 2002.  Fitch is off to a job on a regular work day.  He comes across a funeral procession—“the mortuary convoys”—which apparently has become routine since the tragic event.  Fitch stops and covers his heart in respect.  He gets a call on his cell, and it’s from an old client, Lily, who he had remodeled her kitchen two years prior.  She has sold that house and is buying a new one in Brooklyn Heights, if not on the Promenade, close enough to have a view of the Lower Manhattan skyline. 

For those not familiar with New York City, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade is across the river from Manhattan and has this view.

Of course that is a post 9-11 picture.  What is missing are the two Twin Towers of the WTC which would have dwarfed those buildings.  Here are people on the Promenade watching the Towers collapse.

Here is another picture with the new Liberty Tower being built in the location where the towers fell.

Fitch agrees to look at Lily’s new place, but he knows he doesn’t have the time to fit her into his schedule.  He’s booked solid for over a year.  But out of professional courtesy to a good, previous customer he will advise her.  He wonders why Lily hasn’t mentioned her husband, and he speculates that they may have divorced.  When she gets there with her parents and reviews the work she wants done, Fitch off handily mentions the dust that has to be removed from the face of the building.

Fitch was hungry.  He wanted to go home and eat.  He needed to talk to Gustavo and Georgy.  He needed a hot bath.  But he wanted to leave with less abruptness than the sudden silence suggested, so he took a step toward the windows of the living room, his face lit by the skyscraper light, and said, “On September eleventh, we were working on Joralemon Street.  When we heard that the first plane had hit, we went up on the roof.  Everyone kept on saying, ‘Jesus, Jesus,’ and we stayed up there, and watched the towers come down.  The dust on the windows is from the ‘Trade Center.  It will have to be washed down very carefully, or the mineral grit will scratch and fog the glass.  And it will have to be done respectfully, because the clouds of dust that floated against these windows were more than merely inanimate.” 

When he turned back to them, only the father was there.  He could hear Lilly on the stairs, and her mother following.  Fitch thought this was somewhat ungracious.  Then her father moved a step toward him and took him lightly by the elbow, the way men of that generation do.  His tweed coat reminded Fitch of old New York; that is, of the twenties and thirties, when the buildings were faced in stone the color of tweed, when the light was warmer and dimmer, and when in much of the city, for much of the time, there was silence.

“Her husband was in the south tower,” the father said quietly.  “He didn’t get out.”  Then he turned and went after his daughter, walking stiffly down the stairs, like a crane.

As in many of Helprin’s works, we see here the motif of “light” that punctuates critical moments in his stories.  Fitch’s face is covered in light from the skyscrapers, and when he has his moment of nostalgia, he thinks of the city as covered in warm light.  Light in this work will symbolize a moment of idealism, and a moment of beauty.  It is this moment that works into Fitch’s soul.  He will reschedule all his jobs, even take a financial penalties; he will give Lilly an incredible deal.  He writes up a contract and a couple of weeks later they meet at an Oyster Bar to review it.  He tells her he doesn’t need a deposit.

“You don’t?  What about materials?”

“We’re coming off other jobs,” Fitch said.  “We’re hardly short of funds.  Don’t worry.”

She had not done enough of this kind of thing to know how unusual this was.  Her father would have been—and would be later—very suspicious, but she was not.

“And materials, that’s another thing I wanted to talk to you about.  We have a warehouse where we store our materials, tools, and trucks.  We do a lot of expensive projects, and most of the time the clients have no way to use excess material, so they ask us to take it.  Because we bring particular types of marble, tile, fixtures, moldings, whatever, from job to job, most of the time this is to our advantage.  But if we go to another kind of job where we don’t use the exact set, we have no room in our warehouse for the things we might need.”

“So you want to offload it on me?”

“No.  We can sell it back, but with restocking fee and prices for broken lots, it works out to the same thing as buying new material at a lesser quality, and it’s an accounting nightmare.  After your place, we’re going to the U.N. Plaza to do two entire floors, and the materials are specific to that job.  We’ve got to empty our warehouse so there may be opportunities for advantageous substitutions.”

This was totally untrue: his warehouse was too well managed to be overfull.  He simply intended to give her, at his own expense, a far better job than she could afford, and he did not want her to know that he had done so.

“I’ve made an extensive list, with cut sheets and full specifications, of these potential substitutes.  It has only upgrades, as you’ll see.  And if you don’t like anything, we’ll pull it out and go with the original.”

“You can do that?” 

“There’s no structural work.  We can do that.”

“But you might have to repaint a room, or redo a floor or something.  Wouldn’t that injure your profit?”

“No,” said Fitch, quite honestly, for on this job he would have no profit as commonly understood.  He would have, as commonly understood, a loss.  “You’ll see in the contract that if any substitution, or all, will not meet your approval, you can require us at absolutely no additional expense to install the original, to meet the contract specifications exactly.”

Taking out a little leather portfolio, she opened its red Florentine cover and, shuffling the pages, said, “I’m going to be away until Monday, March eighteenth.  You might put a lot in, in a month, that I might make you pull out.”

“Not to worry,” Fitch told her.  “In a month, we’ll be mainly setting up, doing demolition, the system rough-ins, framing, and administration—permits, ordering, receiving, inspections, all that kind of thing.  It’s a five month job.”

And so we get the name of the story, “Monday,” because Fitch doesn’t just do a six month job in five as he promises, he will have it done in a month by that Monday, March 18th.  He will have his crew work around the clock and at a great loss to have it done by that Monday.  I searched around to see if there is any significance to the March 18th date.  The only thing I could find was that was the date the United States countered the 9-11 attacks with an invasion of Afghanistan.  I don’t know if that was intentional or if it has any significance to the story, but it’s an interesting fact.

Lilly then questions Fitch’s generosity.  She says,

“It sounds so disadvantageous to you.  It makes me nervous.  Do you understand?”

“Of course I do.  Look, I don’t know what happened to this country, but everybody tries to screw everybody else.  More so than in my father’s day, more so than when I was a child, more so than when I was a young man, more so than ten years ago…more so than last year.  Everybody lies, cheats, manipulates, and steals.  It’s as if the world is a game, and all you’re supposed to do is try for maximum advantage.  Even if you don’t want to do it that way, when you find yourself attacked from all sides in such a fashion, you begin to do it anyway.  Because, if you don’t, you lose.  And no one these days can tolerate losing.”

“Can you?” Lilly asked?

“Yes,” he said.

“Tell me.”

He hesitated, listening to the clink of glasses and the oceanlike roar of conversations magnified and remagnified under the vaulted ceilings of the dining rooms off to the side.  “I can tolerate losing,” he said, if that’s the price I pay, if it’s what’s required, for honor.”

“Honor,” she repeated.

“Honor.  I often go into things—I almost always go into things—with no calculation but for honor, which I find far more attractive and alluring, and satisfying in every way than winning.  I find it deeply, incomparably satisfying.” 

And so we find the core of Fitch’s character.  He has been moved to redeem her loss and his integrity wants to bring whole the situation.  Ultimately he tells her he wants her to be happy.

Moved by this, for many reasons, some of which seemed even to her to be mysterious, Lilly looked away—at the long sweep of the bar at which they sat, and the blur of waiters and barmen in white, moving like the crowds in Grand Central, even busier, and the noise like that of water and ice flowing in a rock-strewn brook.

“Tell me why you value honor,” she said.

“I’m fifty-three,” he answered with analytic detachment.  “My father died at fifty-nine.  What good is money?  If I have six years left or thirty, it makes no difference.  My life will be buoyant, and my death will be tranquil, only if I can rest upon a store of honor.”

“There are other things.”

“Name them,” he challenged.

She met his challenge.  “Love.”

“Harder than honor, I’m afraid, to keep and sustain.”

This startled her into silence.

At one point in the story we learn that Fitch is divorced; his wife had left him.  When he speaks about love being harder than honor, he speaks from experience.  But while it is true Fitch is an honorable man, what he does goes beyond honor.  One doesn’t have to work for a loss to be honorable.  What he does for Lilly is for love, not romantic love, but love for a fellow human being.  He tries to explain it to Gustavo, his foreman.

“We’ll finish here in less than a month?  Gustavo was stunned.

“I’m going to call in as many subcontractors as we need, pay overtime, work day and night myself.  It’ll be done by that date.  When she returns from California she’ll come back to the most beautifully done space she’s ever seen—in pristine condition, clean, quiet, safe, complete—with a Fitch Company bill that says, ‘No Charge.’  That’s what I want.”

“Why?” Gustavo asked.  And, when Fitch was not forthcoming, Gustavo commanded, “You’ve got to tell me why.”

“If you could see her…,” said Fitch.

“I saw her when we did the kitchen.  She’s pretty.  She’s beautiful.  But she’s not that beautiful.”

“Yes, she is,” said Fitch.  “She bears up, but I’ve never seen a more wounded, deeply aggrieved woman.  It’s not because she’s physically beautiful.  What the hell do I care?  It’s because she needs something like this, from me, from us, from everyone.  Not that it would or could be a substitute, but as a gesture.”

“A substitute for what?” Gustavo asked.

“Her husband.”

“Her husband left her?”

“Her husband was in the south tower when it came down,” Fitch said.  “For Christ’s sake, they’ll never even find the bodies.  Vaporized, made into paste.  What can she think?  What can she feel?”

And so the narrative follows to its fabulous conclusion.  The men work to extraordinary strength and endurance to make right in one small person a deep wrong, a deep experiential hurt.  What was knocked down from hate, a rebuilding in love follows.  A wound from experience is healed by returning her to innocence.  The idealism overcomes the cynicism.  And ultimately Fitch too in his endeavor is healed.  The extraordinary effort becomes mystical, religious.

A lapsed but believing Catholic, [Fitch] had not been to mass since mass had lapsed out of Latin, but what happened in the weeks of February and March made up for the thousands of masses he had missed.  The mass existed, in his perhaps heretical view, to keep, encourage, and sustain a sense of holiness, and to hold open the channels to grace that, with age and discouragement, tend to close.  Witness to those who had little sacrificing what they had, to their children contributing to the work in their way, and to the fathers’ pride in this, Fitch felt the divine presence as he had not since the height of his youth.  The less he had and the closer to death he felt, the more intense, finer, and calmer the world seemed.  It had been a long time since he had been on the ocean on a day of sun and wind, but now he and all his men were lifted and traveling on the selfsame wave.

When the day comes and Lilly steps inside to find “ a work of art” that “was a beauty that arose from love” she is stunned back into innocence.  This was a a moving story, a story worthy of our Thanksgiving Holiday.  Perhaps having lived through September 11th myself, the story was particularly moving for me.  You can find the story in Helprin’s collection, The Pacific and Other Stories.  

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Poetry in Solidarity with France: “Aube, fille des larmes, rétablis” by Yves Bonnefoy

I don’t really know French poetry very well, so I went looking through my Introduction to French Poetry book and looked for an applicable poem to use as bond with the French people after Friday’s despicable barbarism in Paris.  I wanted to use something from the Song of Roland, or maybe something on Joan of Arc, or perhaps a French song from the crusades.  The anger in me certainly wanted to poke a fist into the eyes of the jihadists, but then I relented and found this sort of secular prayer by Yves Bonnefoy.  

Aube, fille des larmes, rétablis
by Yves Bonnefoy

Aube, fille des larmes, rétablis
La chambre dans sa paix de chose grise
Et le cœur dans son ordre.
Tant de nuit
Demandait à ce feu qu'il décline et s'achève,
Il nous faut bien veiller près du visage mort.
A peine a-t-il changé...
Le navire des lampes
Entrera-t-il au port qu'il avait demandé.
Sur les tables d'ici la flamme faite cendre
Grandira-t-elle ailleurs dans une autre clarté ?
Aube, soulève, prends le visage sans ombre,
Colore peu à peu le temps recommencé.

Here is the English translation by Stanly Applebaum.

Dawn, daughter of tears, reestablish

Dawn, daughter of tears, reestablish
The room in its grey thing’s peace
And the heart in its order.  So much night
Demanded that the fire should abate and finish.
We must keep watch by the dead face.
It has barely changed…Will the ship of the lamps
Enter the port it had asked for,
Will the flame fallen to ash on the tables of this place
Wax elsewhere in another brightness?
Dawn, raise up, take the shadowless face,
Color little by little the time that is beginning again.

Over at Vultus Christi is a beautiful religious prayer, "Litany For France" newly composed by Dom Benedict.  God rest the souls of the poor innocent slain.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

Faith Filled Friday: Participation at Mass

In my morning emailed meditation of the day on November 4th I received this quote that really rocked me.

"We do not come to church to attend the service as a spectator, but in order, along with the priest, to serve God. Everything we do—our entering, being present, our kneeling and sitting and standing, our reception of the sacred nourishment—should be divine service. This is so only when all we do overflows from the awareness of a collected heart and the mind’s attentiveness."
— Fr. Romano Guardini, from Meditations Before Mass, p. 28,

Now think about that next time you’re at Mass.  You are not a spectator, you are a participant of a divine service.  You can read about Fr. Guardini here.  

By the way, I get my daily devotional emails like this one sent to me by The Catholic Company.  It’s free.  You can subscribe here.  

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Poetry, for Veterans Day: “The Redeemer” by Siegfried Sassoon

Today in the United States, November 11th, is Veterans Day, a day to honor the men and women who served in the armed forces.  Most American holidays are subject to being shifted to the nearest Monday of the week to create a three day weekend, but as you can see with Veteran’s Day coming on a Wednesday this year, this holiday is not subject to being manipulated.  The reason is that Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day, the day to commemorate the ending of hostilities of World War I.  It was so agreed that all hostilities of the First World War would end “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” 1918.  And so remembrance of  Armistice Day was fixed, and when the day ultimately transitioned shortly after World War II to a general day to honor all veterans the day was fixed by the historical ending of WWI, though for seven years in the 1970’s it was brought over to October.  But that didn’t last, so strong was the phrase, “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”

In honor of all those veterans, especially those that actually saw action, I want to offer this poem written by a British soldier of the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon.  There were quite a few poets and writers who served in WWI, and many of them were killed in action.  However, Sassoon lived to a ripe old age.  He continued to write poetry, but I can’t say I’ve read any of his work that did not come out of that war.  He is known as a WWI poet.  Here is “The Redeemer,” written in 1915.

The Redeemer
by Sigfried Sassoon

Darkness: the rain sluiced down; the mire was deep;
It was past twelve on a mid-winter night,
When peaceful folk in beds lay snug asleep;
There, with much work to do before the light,
We lugged our clay-sucked boots as best we might
Along the trench; sometimes a bullet sang,
And droning shells burst with a hollow bang;
We were soaked, chilled and wretched, every one;
Darkness; the distant wink of a huge gun.

I turned in the black ditch, loathing the storm;
A rocket fizzed and burned with blanching flare,
And lit the face of what had been a form
Floundering in mirk. He stood before me there;
I say that He was Christ; stiff in the glare,
And leaning forward from His burdening task,
Both arms supporting it; His eyes on mine
Stared from the woeful head that seemed a mask
Of mortal pain in Hell's unholy shine.

No thorny crown, only a woollen cap
He wore-an English soldier, white and strong,
Who loved his time like any simple chap,
Good days of work and sport and homely song;
Now he has learned that nights are very long,
And dawn a watching of the windowed sky.
But to the end, unjudging, he'll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die

That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure.
He faced me, reeling in his weariness,
Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear.
I say that He was Christ, who wrought to bless
All groping things with freedom bright as air,
And with His mercy washed and made them fair.
Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch,
While we began to struggle along the ditch;
And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: 'O Christ Almighty, now I'm stuck!'

I’m not going to analyze every line or stanza, but I’ll give you some observations.  As you can read the situation is that in the trenches the narrator encounters Christ in the guise of a soldier.  Sassoon sets it up on a rain drenched day bringing a baptism to the troops, and ends the poem with Christ in His passion carrying a “load of planks” to what is a struggle to a metaphoric crucifixion.  The key lines I think are 30 through 33, which may be intentional since those are the years of Christ’s ministry:

Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear.
I say that He was Christ, who wrought to bless
All groping things with freedom bright as air,
And with His mercy washed and made them fair.

The muck and mire of trench warfare will be washed clean in a baptismal grace, albeit if one is graced with death.

What’s particularly interesting to me is the structure of the stanza.  Each stanza has nine lines with first five lines having a rhyme scheme of ABABB but the ending quatrain has two versions, either CCDD (first and last stanzas) or CDCD (middle two stanzas).  A nine line stanza would typically allude to a Spenserian stanza but the Spenserian rhyme scheme is fixed to ABABBCBCC which has a more musical interlocking sound than Sassoon’s rhyme scheme.  Also the ninth of the Spenserian stanza is not iambic pentameter as the other eight, but ends with an alexandrine line, meaning it has two extra syllables.  Sassoon’s meter is strictly iambic pentameter through all nine lines, no variation. 

One can say that Sassoon’s skill here was probably less than Edmund Spencer’s, Spencer being  one of the greatest English poets of all time, and the greatest of his day.  Spencer’s stanza is more elaborate and much more musical.  But Sassoon’s here aesthetically fits his poem perfectly.  The less interlocking rhyme scheme and the plodding rhythm create a treading monotony, a reflection of the repetitive, soldiering work going on in the poem.

It’s always great to listen to the poem out loud.  Here’s a good rendition.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Notable Quote: The Glitter of Words by Anthony Burgess

My book read on writing this year is Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style.  If you don’t remember some of my personal reading observances, I read one book on writing every year.  Tufte’s excellent book takes you through the various syntactic elements and shows the reader through actual examples their stylistic implications.  I’ll have more to say on it in the future, I’m sure.  But in her very first chapter she provides this marvelous quote by the novelist and linguist Anthony Burgess, who by the way is best known for his novel, A Clockwork Orange.  This quote is not from that work, but from one of his Enderby novels. 

And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.

      -Anthony Burgess

Monday, November 2, 2015

Matthew Monday: Halloween 2015

This year my little one went as another superhero.  That’s three years in a row.  Captain America two years ago, Batman last year, and this year, more powerful than a locomotive, Superman!

And he was really happy with his stash of candy.

So happy that he was running…ahem…flying home faster than a speeding bullet.

Have you ever met a child that does not like Halloween?  No, I don’t think so.