I. Xingu  by Edith Wharton – ★★★★★
In this story, one intellectual reading club is led by one Mrs. Ballinger and composed of a number of ladies of distinction, i.e. “huntresses of erudition”, “who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone”. Mrs. Ballinger is the epitome of proper behaviour, but is also described as having a “mind [like an] hotel where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their address behind, and frequently without paying for their board”. Mrs. Roby is the newest addition to this elite club who gained her entry by way of one gentleman’s recommendation. However, she does not seem to fit and does and says the wrong things. That is, until Mrs. Ballinger and the other ladies invite a respected female author Osric Dane to talk about her latest book and that “inadequate” Mrs. Roby asks Ms. Dane to comment on one supposed book titled “Xingu”. The uttering of that word “Xingu” is that Alice in Wonderland’s Unbirthday Party moment in this story which precedes changing power dynamics and the quiet, or maybe not so quiet, disintegration of the club’s supposed erudition.
Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth ) could always be counted on to produce a fine satire of the upper-class. The haughtiness and self-absorption of the club, that focuses too much on what is “right” and “proper”, means that the ladies lose sight of the very culture and intellectual endeavours they are supposed to be pursing. They are necessarily restricted by the very “fine” social parameters within which they operate, and the goal to pursue culture and serious literature, which does require a level of open-mindedness, sits at odds with the club’s inflexible and discriminatory practices. Xingu must be among Wharton’s best short stories, being both caustically amusing and delightfully sarcastic.
II. The Tree  by María Luisa Bombal – ★★★★1/2
“It may be that true happiness lies in the conviction that one has irremediably lost happiness. It is only then that we can begin to live without hope or fear, able finally to enjoy all the small pleasures, which are the most lasting” [Bombal/Cunningham, Editorial Orbe, 1939/76/82: 63].
Chilean author Maria-Luisa Bombal (1910 – 1980) is described as “the most important Latin American woman novelist of the twentieth century”. Her short story El árbol (The Tree) follows a woman in an unhappy marriage looking back at her life while listening to classical music (Mozart and Chopin take her by the hands and lead her to her “garden of youth”). Misunderstood, lonely and largely abandoned as a child, Brigida grew up in a large family consisting of other five girls and then morphed into a bitter and disappointed young woman who was more or less happy to settle for Luis, a much older man who happened to be her father’s best friend. Craving love, Brigida desperately clings to Luis who has little time for her. A mix of nostalgia, emotional pain and melancholy suffocate, and only one thing seems to provide a momentary relief: the view of a rubber tree outside Brigida’s window. What can be more delightful than “that sudden rustling of vegetation, the soft chirping of a cricket perched on the bark of the rubber tree under the stars”? The tree, probably symbolising love and hope in Brigida’s marriage, becomes a special friend.
The dream-like quality of Bombal’s narrative, as well as the theme of marriage as a trap, is strongly reminiscent of her contemporary Daphne du Maurier, while that subtle portrayal of loneliness recalls the best works of Clarice Lispector and Anita Brookner. Bombal’s lyrical prose brings to mind the most extraordinary scenes. Is it a story of one deeply creative, but never realised potential?, of a promise of unconditional love left unfilled?, of severe depression never treated?, or maybe of patriarchal society giving up on its children way too soon? Though short, Bombal’s The Tree has many psychological branches to explore.
III. The Magic Chalk  by Kōbō Abe – ★★★★
This short story by the author of The Woman in the Dunes  and The Face of Another  tells of one poor, starving artist Argon who lives in a very cramped room devoid of any furniture. He discovers a red chalk in his pocket and soon realises that anything he draws with it has a possibility to turn into a real thing. He draws food, eats and is no longer hungry. And, then, when he works out how the magic of the red chalk truly operates, he feels limited only by his own imagination. It is Kōbō Abe, so there is uncertainty at every corner in this story and absurdity at its centre. The author was probably inspired by the myth of Pygmalion and numerous fairy-tales that warn against desiring or having unlimited power, telling of devastating consequences befalling anyone who wishes from the higher powers something more than what is simply necessary for life. The story remains simple and predictable, but manages to redeem itself somewhat by one purely Kafkaesque ending. If you like Japanese short stories, check out also my post Japanese Short Stories from Akutagawa, Enchi, Endō, Inoue & Kawabata.