She has an exciting time doing this. When, for instance, she first visits her tawny-faced race, which consists entirely of women inhabiting a land of perpetual “hard snow,” she is greeted with the complaint, “We worship you, great Physician, in the way appointed, but we are still very, very, cold.” Miss Banquett immediately decides to provide them with warm husbands. “In a few moments, Miss Banquett returned with a certain number of polar bears….” But these animals have a will of their own, and eventually Miss Banquett herself is carried off by the best bear. The episode concludes sententiously:
It is always well to include even the most frigid friends in one’s sphere of intimacies, for otherwise they turn into dumb, unanswerable challengers and make one’s most glowing experiences seem all rather affected. Thus do the polar regions have a peculiar psychological value for the rest of the world.
After completing her universe, which perfectly establishes her beauty, Miss Banquett feels that there is only one thing still missing from her life: being simply what she is. She realizes that, for her at least, being simply what she is means being alone. But there we are, staring at her…. So she leaves us and withdraws into solitude. As far as we are concerned, she vanishes. She continues to exist, we are told, but invisibly, alone within herself: she both “is and is not.” We are left reading a story from which the only character has disappeared and in which nothing more can happen. A great deal does happen, however: as we look into this disconcerting void, Laura begins pressing us to think for ourselves—like Miss Banquett. After that the story, to which no ending is now possible, ends.
By now the world of realism is far behind us. We are deep into fantasy—more accurately, into fairy tale. (One of the Nearly True Stories is in fact “A Fairy Tale for Older People,” and the meditative essay is called “A Crown for Hans Andersen,” in tribute to the Danish fabulist.) Hard noses needn’t turn up at the news: the last four stories leave no one out. No one can be left out of them because, with no less wit or liveliness than the earlier stories, these address the basics of universal consciousness.
That is a forbidding way of putting it—perhaps the subject itself is forbidding, but weren’t fairy tales invented to turn such subjects into enchantment? There is certainly nothing forbidding about “The Story-Pig,” the first of the tales. The pig of the title is a hollow silver one set over the mantelpiece in a fine country hotel. Guests gather in the evening to tell stories around it, as if they would drop them through the slit in its back. Hans (Andersen?), the door-man, has the only key to the pig. He also watches constantly over the guests—he is the only visible member of the hotel staff, except for Rose, the chambermaid, with whom he is in love. When the guests have gone to bed, he turns Rose into a queen, she makes him a king, and a magical world springs up around them.
The story is deliberately, lovingly sweet. In it we learn how “the other one” is created in our lives; the procedure, strangely enough, requires a willingness to die. At the end, queen and king once more become Rose and Hans—except they don’t, things are not quite as they had been, it’s a little dismaying: “Perhaps Rose would marry the chef after all.”
The subject of “The Playground” is dreams. Two boys are sent by their mother to a secret, out-of-bounds playground. They meet Lady Thinking-hard, a heretofore imaginary woman their mother has mentioned, who supplies them with special dream-buying money. That night they dream about the primal playground, where nothing is, and which a game called Life and Death is invented to fill. Next morning they discover that their father has dreamed about their secret world and are terrified that he will give it away. Their mother tries to notice as little as possible. Before this story, parents have only been glimpsed lowering in the wings of other lives. Here they step into the light to form a visionary original family that emerges, appropriately, from the vision of creation in the boys’ dreams.
“A Fairy Tale for Older People” is about the transformation of Frances Cat, a creature perhaps woman perhaps cat, into her very self—ex-cat, present woman. She is abetted by the Indescribable Witch, along with her cat, who may or may not be Frances. Like Miss Banquett, Frances knows how to disappear, although she emerges from disappearance; unlike Miss Banquett, she invents not a new world but the one she left behind, with the same old parents and chocolates, although these now look very different to her: she no longer depends on them, as she did before, for signs of appreciation and sympathy, which she now knows can only come from herself if they are to mean anything. She then gives up her new-old world to become utterly poor and alone, and in this state is at last restored to herself in a final series of transformations that are fascinating and also quite baffling. We would like to know more; but we learn that there is “nothing—nothing more.”
The fourth fairy tale, “A Last Lesson in Geography,” is very last—a complete topography of being. Laura here gathers up many of the questions raised in preceding stories—questions of selfhood and otherness, of dream and transformation, of life and death—and packs them into one stupendous metaphor. The metaphor is humanity conceived as the human body in its various parts. It is as if she had chosen to take literally the “body” present in anybody, everybody, or nobody. The protagonist of the story is Tooth. Led by him, we set off on the last of the many journeys in Progress. It takes us from the first nowhere to the final nowhere, through all the somewheres of actuality. The guiding spirit of the journey and its goal are an absolute, also indescribable “she.” She is not a woman and not an idea; if she is a mystery, she is an inescapable one. She might be described as what-happens-next and what-lets-things-happen. Others follow Tooth:
He saw that their number was the parts of the body. Each of them was a body, but also a part of the body. And the parts also had parts. He was a part, a Tooth. But Tooth, instead of having parts, had other teeth, each almost the same as himself. It might seem that this was also true of Nails; but a Nail was not so independent, so numerical a part of the body as a Tooth. Nails were the Teeth of Hands, but their identity was largely lost in Fingers, which in themselves were only theatrical creatures. He was a Tooth, and that is why he was the First One. It was his fate to be a Tooth; it could not similarly be said of any Nail that it was its fate to be a Nail. There was really greater likeness between Hair and himself, though his sympathy was with Nails. But Hair was almost too independent and numerical; antipathy rather than sympathy existed between Hair and himself. Hair was the Last One.
(Bone and Flesh also play crucial roles.) This band of somebodies travels across the world—the real world, where the earth is flat and only a stretch of time in any case, not true space. They wonder, “How long would [the journey] last? No, the question was rather: How long was it lasting?” Only the present journeying matters—forget beginnings and endings. Endings are for stories only. Even this story must end. And what comes after the end of stories? Why, more stories.
There are more stories—four lovely ones, given us for dessert after the hardcheese course of “A Crown for Hans Andersen.” (Its hardness consoles us for the ending of “Geography.”) But instead of looking at them, I think we should glance back over the main ground of Progress. Even a first time round, it is useful in reading the work to know how varied a progress it truly is, how pertinently the book is ordered. What connects its parts is a number of topics, recurrent although evoked in very different, sometimes well-hidden, ways. These topics can be apparently prosaic, like travel, or more obviously significant, like the definition of self-hood and otherness. I mention these particular themes because, brought together, they suggest an image of Progress that may be helpful. The book, beginning with Fanny’s solitary trip through life in “Socialist Pleasures” and ending with the universal trek of “Geography,” can be read as the story of travel between different conceptions and experiences of self. It is as if we were accompanying Laura on a succession of journeys, each taking us farther (or nearer) than the last—with, at the halfway point, a long seaside rest at Port Huntlady.
It is there that we become aware of the first peculiarities of a topic that has been treated thus far in seemingly normal fashion. The narrator is considering the character of Lady Port-Huntlady herself. It is a frustratingly elusive one. We know that Lady Port-Huntlady is perfect and always right. She gives the impression of a grand and worldly schoolmistress—Port Huntlady does sometimes sound like a superior night school. Even the narrator, after telling what Lady Port-Huntlady does, hesitates to say what she is:
As for herself, one might say, simply, that she had a virginal soul. Is this a crime? Perhaps. But against what? Against life, perhaps. But are there not other things besides life? Surely it can be no crime against death to have a virginal soul. But then, how many of us have patience with such distinctions?
Now what, I wondered, forgetting Lady Port-Huntlady, can this possibly mean? Is Laura playing with words? With me? A crime against death: what sort of death do these words imply?
Death is explicitly present in almost all the stories, from “The Friendly One” on. But what the word “death” means changes as we move through the book. In “The Friendly One,” as in the other Stories of Lives, death is appropriately literal. (The Friendly One accidentally causes the girl he has rather insanely decided to marry to blow herself up.) Even on a first reading, one can’t help noticing that death is commonplace in the first stories, that it occurs very matter-of-factly, and that what is remarkable about it is, all pathos aside, its usefulness. The girl’s death demolishes the Friendly One’s insane illusions (or one set of them). In “Schoolgirls,” the death of Judith’s husband—the one who broke her nose—consolidates the choices she has made. Emile’s suicide, in “The Incurable Virtue,” appropriately terminates a life of complete delusion. “Three Times Round” tells the elaborate story of Lotus who, after the most extraordinary adventures in her three trips around the world, stays home and at last finds a certain pleasure in herself: “…soon she would really begin to live. She felt, indeed, that she had begun to live already. She did not notice that she was dying.”