For the longest time, I’ve had a great blog idea. I wanted to type up a chapter from various books I love for your entertainment… and not tell you who the author is until the end. That’s the fun part. I never followed up due to the enormous work it entails, and other competing priorities. But damn, last week I read something so delicious that I just knew I had to start this series. Even if this series only happens once every three months…
Okay, let’s get to our first episode. Since I am starting halfway through the chapter, the passage will require a short introduction. I’m also going to skip some passages to get to the best part faster.
I chose this selection because the latter part of the chapter is so fucking hilarious that I stayed up too late last week re-reading the passage twice.
Oswald Ten Eyck is a failed playwright who is literally a starving artist. This scene takes places at a dinner party full of artsy people from the surrounding college community. Okay. Now it’s time for me to get out of the way and let the content speak for itself.
“Usually, when Ten Eyck went to Miss Potter’s house, he found several members of Professor Hatcher’s class who seemed to be in regular attendance on Friday afternoons.
These others may have come for a variety of reasons: because they were bored, curious, or actually enjoyed these affairs, but the strange, horribly shy and sensitive little man who bore the name of Oswald Ten Eyck came from a kind of desperate necessity, the ravenous hunger of his meagre half-starved body, and his chance to get his one good dinner of the week.
It was evident that Ten Eyck endured agonies of shyness, boredom, confusion, and tortured self-consciousness at these gatherings, but he was always there, and when they sat down at the table he ate with the voracity of a famished animal.
The visitor to Miss Potter’s reception room would find him, usually backed into an inconspicuous corner away from the full sound and tumult of the crowd, nervously holding a tea-cup in his hands, talking to someone in the strange blurted-out desperate fashion that was characteristic of him, or saying nothing for long periods, biting his nails, thrusting his slender hands desperately through his mop of black disordered hair, breaking from time to time into a shrill, sudden, almost hysterical laugh, blurting out a few volcanic words, and then relapsing into his desperate hair-thrusting silence.
The man’s agony of shyness and tortured nerves was painful to watch: it made him say and do sudden, shocking and explosive things that could suddenly stun a gathering such as this, and plunge him back immediately into a pit of silence, self-abasement and despair. And as great as his tortured sensitivity was, it was greater for other people than for himself. He could far better endure a personal affront, a wounding of his own quick pride, than see another person wounded. His anguish, in fact, when he saw this kind of suffering in other people would become so acute that he was no longer responsible for his acts: he was capable of anything on such an occasion.
And such occasions were not lacking at Miss Potter’s Friday afternoons. For even if the entire diplomatic corps had gathered there in suavest mood, that good grotesque old woman, with her unfailing talent for misrule, would have contrived to set every urbane minister of grace snarling for the other’s blood before an hour had passed. And with that museum collection of freaks, embittered aesthetes and envenomed misfits of the arts that did gather there, she never failed. Her genius for confusion and unrest was absolute.
If there were two people in the community who had been destined from birth and by every circumstance of education, religious belief, and temperament, to hate each other with a murderous hatred the moment they met, Miss Potter would see to it instantly that the introduction was effected.
If Father Davin, the passionate defender of the faith and the foe of modernism in all its hated forms, had been invited to one of Miss Potter’s Friday afternoons, he would find himself shaking hands before he knew it with Miss Shanksworth, the militant propagandist for free love, sterilization of the unfit, and the unlimited practice of birth control by everyone, especially the lower classes.
And so it went, all up and down the line, at one of Miss Potter’s Friday afternoons. There, in her house, you could be sure that if the lion and the lamb did not lie down together their hostess would seat them then in such close proximity to each other that the ensuring slaughter would be made as easy, swift, and unadorned as possible.
…And having done her duty, she would wheeze heavily away, looking around with her strange fixed grin and bulging eyes to see if she had left anything or anyone undone or whether there was still hope of some new riot, chaos, brawl or bitter argument.
As usual, Oswald found he had been seated on Miss Potter’s right hand: and the feeling of security this gave him, together with the maddening fragrance of food, the sense of ravenous hunger about to be appeased, filled him with an almost delirious joy, a desire to shout out, to sing. Instead, he stood nervously beside his chair, looking about with a shy and timid smile, passing his fingers through his hair repeatedly, waiting for the other guests to seat themselves.
… And in this mood, he unfolded his napkin, and smiling brightly, turned to dazzle his neighbor on his right with the brilliant effervescence of wit that already seemed to sparkle on his lips.
One look, and the bright smile faded, wit and confidence fell dead together, his heart shrank instantly and seemed to drop out of his very body like a rotten apple. Miss Potter had not failed.
Her unerring genius for calamity had held out to the finish. He found himself staring into the poisonous face of the one person in Cambridge that he hated most – the repulsive visage of the old composer, Cram.
An old long face, yellowed with malevolence, a sudden fox-glint of small eyes steeped in a vitriol of age-less hate, a beak of cruel nose, and thin lips stained and hardened in a rust of venom, the whole craftily, slantingly astare between a dirty frame of sparse lank locks. Cackling with malignant glee, and cramming crusty bread into his mouth, the old composer turned and spoke:
“Heh Heh Heh – It’s Mister Ten Eyck, isn’t it? The man who wrote that play Professor Hatcher put on at his last performance – that mystical fantasy kind of thing. That was your play, wasn’t it?”
The old yellow face came closer, and he snarled in a kind of gloating and vindictive whisper: “Most of the audience hated it! They thought it very bad, sir – very bad! I am only telling you because I think you ought to know – that you may profit by my criticism.”
And Ten Eyck, hunger gone now, shrank back as if a thin poisoned blade had been driven in his heart and twisted there. “I-I-I thought some of them rather liked it. Of course I don’t know – I can’t say – “, he faltered hesitantly, “but I – I really thought some of the audience – liked it.”
“Well, they didn’t,” the composer snarled, still crunching on his crust of bread. “Everyone that I saw thought it was terrible. Heh! Except my wife and I. We were the only ones who thought there would ever be any hope for you. And we found parts of it – a phrase or sentence here or there, now and then a scene – that we liked. As for the rest of them,” he suddenly made a horrible downward gesture with a clenched fist and pointing thumb, “it was thumbs down my boy! Done for! No good…”
“That’s what they said about your play, all right, but don’t take it too seriously. It’s live and learn, my boy, isn’t it? Profit by criticism – a few hard knocks will do you no harm. Heh heh heh heh!”
And turning, satisfied with the anguish he had caused, he thrust out his yellowed face with a vulture’s movement of his scrawny neck, and smacking his envenomed lips with relish, drew noisily inward with slobbering suction on a spoon of soup.
As for Ten Eyck, all hunger now destroyed by his sick shame and horror and despair, he turned, began to toy nervously with his food, and forcing his pale lips to a trembling and uncertain smile, tried desperately to compel his brain to pay attention to something that was being said by the man across the table who was the guest of honor for the day, and whose name was Hunt.
Hunt had been well known for his belligerent pacifism during the war, had been beaten by the police and put in jail more times than he could count, and now that he was temporarily out of jail, he was carrying on his assault against organized society with more ferocity than ever.
He was a man of undoubted courage and deep sincerity, but the suffering he had endured, and the brutal intolerance of which he had been the victim, had left its mutilating mark upon his life. His face was somehow like a scar, and his cut, cruel-looking mouth could twist like a snake to the corner of his face when he talked. And his voice was harsh and jeering, brutally dominant and intolerant, when he spoke to anyone, particularly if the one he spoke to didn’t share his opinions.
On this occasion, Miss Potter, with her infallible talent for error, had seated next to Hunt a young Belgian student at the university, who had little English, but a profound devotion to the Roman Catholic Church.
Within five minutes, the two were embroiled in a bitter argument, the Belgian courteous, but desperately resolved to defend his faith, and because of his almost incoherent English as helpless as a lamb before the attack of Hunt, who went for him with the rending and pitiless savagery of a tiger. It was a painful thing to watch: the young man, courteous and soft-spoken, his face flushed with embarrassment and pain, badly wounded by the naked brutality of the other man’s assault.
As Ten Eyck listened, his spirit began to emerge from the blanket of shame and sick despair that had covered it, a spark of anger and resentment, hot and bright, began to glow, to burn, to spread. His large dark eyes were shining now with a deeper, fiercer light than they had before, and on his pale cheeks there was a flush of angry color.
And now he no longer had to force himself to listen to what Hunt was saying: anger had fanned his energy and his interest to a burning flame; he listened tensely, his ears seemed almost to prick forward on his head, from time to time he dug his fork viciously into the table cloth.
Once or twice, it seemed that he would interrupt. He cleared his throat, bent forward, nervously clutching the table with his claw-like hands, but each time ended up thrusting his fingers through his mop of hair, and gulping down a glass of wine.
As Hunt talked, his voice grew so loud in it’s rasping arrogance that everyone at the table had to stop and listen, which was what he most desired. And there was no advantage, however unjust, which the man did not take in his bitter argument with the young Belgian.
He spoke jeeringly of the fat priests and the old corrupt Church, fattening themselves on the blood and life of the oppressed workers; he spoke of the bigotry, oppression, and superstition of religion, and the necessity of the workers to destroy this monster which was devouring them.
And when the young Belgian, in his faltering and painful English, would try to reply to these charges, Hunt would catch him up on his use of words, pretend to be puzzle at his pronunciation, and bully him brutally in this manner:
“You think what?….What?….I don’t understand what you’re saying half the time… it’s very difficult to speak to a man who can’t speak decent English.”
“I—Vas—say—ink,” the young Belgian would answer slowly and painfully, his face flushed with embarrassment— “—vas-say-ink-zat- I sink – zat you ex – ack – sher – ate—”
“That I what—what? What is he trying to say anyway?” demanded Hunt, brutally, looking around the table as if hoping to receive interpretation from the other guests. “Oh-h!” he cried suddenly, as if the Belgian’s meaning had just dawned on him. “Exaggerate! That’s the word you’re trying to say!” and he laughed in an ugly manner.
Oswald Ten Eyck had stopped eating and turned white as a sheet. Now he sat there, looking across in an agony of tortured sympathy at the young Belgian, biting his nails nervously, and thrusting his hands through his hair in a distracted manner. The resentment and anger that he had felt at first had now burned to a white-heat of choking, murderous rage. The little man was taken out of himself entirely. Suddenly his sense of personal wrong, the humiliation and pain he had himself endured, was fused with a white-hot anger of resentment for every injustice and wrong that had ever been done to the wounded soul of man.
United by that agony to a kind of savage fellowship with the young Belgian, with the insulted and the injured of the earth, of whatsoever class or creed, that burning coal of five feet five flamed in one withering blaze of wrath, and hurled the challenge of it’s scorn at the oppressor.
The thing happened like a flash. At the close of one of Hunt’s jeering tirades, Ten Eyck jumped from his chair, and leaning half across the table, cried out in a high shrill voice that cut into the silence like a knife:
“Hunt! You are a swine, and everyone who ever had anything to do with you is likewise a swine!”
For a moment he paused, breathing hard, clutching his napkin in a bony hand. Slowly his feverish eyes went round the table, and suddenly, seeing the malevolent stare of the old composer Cram fixed upon him, he hurled the wadded napkin down and pointing a trembling finger at that hated face, he screamed, “And that goes for you as well, you old bastard! It goes for all the rest of you,” he shrieked, gesturing wildly.
“Hunt… Cram!… Cram!… God!” he cried, shaking with laughter. “There’s a name for you! It’s perfect, Yes, you! You swine!” he yelled again, thrusting his finger at Cram’s yellow face so violently that the composer scrambled back with a startled yelp.
“And all the rest of you!” He pointed towards Miss Thrall – “You – the Expressionist!” And he paused, racked terribly again with soundless laughter – “The Greeks, the Russians, Oh how we love in Spain! – and fantasy – why, Goddamn my soul to hell, but it’s delightful!” he fairly screamed, and then pointing a trembling finger at several in succession he yelled: “You? – And You? — And you? – what the hell do you know about anything?…Food, Food, Food – you goddamn fools! That’s all that matters.”
He picked up a morsel of his untouched bread and hurled it savagely upon the table – “Food! Food! Ask Cram, he knows… Now,” he said, painting for breath and pointing a trembling finger at Miss Potter, “Now,” he panted, “I want to tell you something.”
“Oh…. Mr. …Ten… Eyck,” the old woman faltered in a tone of astonished reproach, “I… never… believed it possible… you could—”
Her voice trailed off helplessly, and she looked at him. And Ten Eyck, suddenly brought to himself by the bulging stare of that good old creature fixed on him with wounded disbelief, suddenly laughed again, shrilly and hysterically, thrust his fingers through his hair, and looked about him at the other people whose eyes were fixed on him in a stare of focal horror, and said in a confused, uncertain tone:
“Well, I don’t know – I’m always – I guess I said something that – oh, damn it, what’s the use?” and with a desperate, stricken laugh, he slumped suddenly into his chair, craned convulsively at his collar, and seizing a decanter before him, poured himself out a glass of wine with trembling haste and gulped it down.
Meanwhile, all around the table people began to talk with that kind of feverish eagerness that follows a catastrophe of this sort, and Hunt resumed his arguments, but this time in a much quieter tone and with a kind of jeering courtesy, accompanying his remarks from time to time with a heavy sarcasm directed toward Ten Eyck – “If I may say so – since, of course, Mr. Ten Eyck considers me a swine” – or – “if you will pardon such a remark form a swine like me” – or – “as Mr. Ten Eyck has told you I am nothing but a swine,” and so on.
The upshot of it was that Ten Eyck gulped down glass after glass of the strong wine, which raced instantly through his frail starved body like a flame.
He got distastefully drunk, sang snatches of bawdy songs, screamed with maudlin laughter, and began to pound enthusiastically on the table, shaking his head to himself and shouting from time to time:
“You’re right, Hunt! Goddamn it, man, you’re right! … Go on! … Go on!… I agree with you! You’re right! Everybody else is wrong but Hunt and Cram! Words by Hunt, music by Cram… no one’s right but Hunt and Cram!”
They tried to quiet him, but in vain. Suddenly Miss Potter began to cough and choke and gasp, pressed both hands over her heart, and gasped out in a terror-stricken voice, “Oh, my God! I’m dying!”
Miss Flitcroft jumped to her feet and came running to her friend’s assistance, and then while Miss Flitcroft pounded the old woman on her back and the guests scrambled up in a general disruption of the party, Oswald Ten Eyck staggered to the window, flung it open, and looking out across one of the bleak snow-covered squares of Cambridge, screamed at the top of his voice:
“Relentless!…Relentless!.. Juh sweeze Un art-e-e-est!” Here he beat on his little breast with a claw-like hand and yelled with drunken laughter, “And Goddamn it I will always be relentless…relentless…relentless!”
The cool air braced him with its cleansing shock: for a moment, the fog of shame and drunkenness shifted in his brain, he felt a vacancy of cold horror at his back, and turning suddenly found himself confronted by the frozen circle of their faces, fixed on him.
And even in that instant glimpse of utter ruin, as the knowledge of this final catastrophe was printed on his brain, over the rim of frozen faces he saw the dial hands of a clock. The time was seven fifty-two: he knew there was a train at midnight for new York – and work, food, freedom, and forgetfulness. He would have four hours to go home and pack: if he hurried he could make it.
Little was heard of him thereafter. It was rumored that he had gone back to his former lucrative employment with Mr. Hearst: and Professor Hatcher smiled thinly when he heard the news: the young men looked at one another with quiet smiles.”
And there you have it. Are you missing those social gatherings now, people? (Or does it make you miss social gatherings even more?). Ha. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was Hunter S. Thompson, who was a fan of this author… and I can see now was obviously influenced by him, right down to the use of the word “swine”. But nope.
This is a passage from Of Time and The River by Thomas Wolfe.
I did a whole full-length feature post on Thomas Wolfe. Normally this is the part where I would plug the link, but nobody ever follows my inbound links anyway. So… if you’re interested, it’s somewhere on this blog. You can find it in the About directory.
I discovered Wolfe a few years ago and devoured all his books. This is why I like re-visiting authors – the first time I connected more to his descriptions of beauty and family. I had forgotten all about his talent for fucked-up comedy.
This passage is completely insane. It’s action-packed, full of internal violence, has excellent characterization and serves a perfect example of professional level fiction. It has become, for the moment, my favorite piece of writing ever.
I could spend all night talking about why this writing works and copy and paste all the action words into a column and analyze the daylights out of it.
But, it’s time to go to bed. It was bad enough I spent an hour typing up that mufuckuh last night. It’s so dense that I literally experienced hand cramps from typing.
Yeah, this is not something I’ll be doing every weekend.
Hope somebody enjoyed.