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“Old Men Around Town”: a short story by Lydia Davis

A new short story by the Man Booker International winner.

Photo: Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

In our town there was an old man who would come out of his house and take his daily walk along the sides of the streets in the town. There were not many sidewalks, so he shared the street with the cars, but in the backstreets the cars went by slowly. He was a tall, thin old man with a slight stoop – the father of the doctor in our town. He held his cane in one hand and a cloth bag in the other, for the mail, and he walked briskly but with such small steps that he did not advance very fast.

He seems to be gone now. The warm weather has returned, but he does not appear on the streets. In the cold weather there are no old men on the streets. Now that the warm weather has come, a few old men have appeared, but we see them only in the centre of the town, walking a short distance along a sidewalk to enter a shop or standing at a street crossing. One of them is fleshy and bearded, in shorts and suspenders, dark socks and sturdy shoes. Another is bone thin and totters, swaying to one side, resting a hand against whatever bit of wall is nearby, or leaning far back to open a shop door.

Another old man, before the doctor’s father, used to walk past our house. He had good balance and a longer step. He wore a tam-o’-shanter at an angle on his handsome head. His white beard was short and curly. He had lived in the town all his life, unlike the doctor’s father, and he would stop to tell us where the sidewalks used to be and who had died a violent death, in which house. We no longer see him these days.

Another old man, once a week, would stand dressed in a suit and overcoat by his gate, in polished formal shoes. He was out early, waiting to be picked up by his son.

We see these old men on the streets of our town, and we see others in a nursing home, where they have been left by their families. The nursing home is itself like a little town, with its own chapel, barbershop, gift shop, and community meeting room like a town hall. There are the offices of the administrators, and there is the hallway like Main Street. There you may meet the others in the town and stop to talk with them. Some of the residents, though, spend the whole day going up and down the hall. They have given up stopping to chat, if they ever did, and as they pass you, they stare hard at you, almost with hostility, or else look straight ahead with vacant eyes.

One of them, fine-featured, neatly dressed, who walks briskly, with a vigorous step, mutters to himself about his men and what work they will be doing today. He stops to tell us that he must be up early in the morning – to get down to the factory. The factory is gone, his men are gone, but he still seems to be in charge of something.

A large-framed, tall, and bony old man still has all his wits about him. He sits in his wheelchair in the doorway to his room, facing out into the hall, and if we stop to talk to him, he tells us about his life as a wool sorter and grader in Australia. His wife visits him almost every day and spends many hours there, sitting in a chair next to him, their little dog on his lap brightly observing the foot traffic and wheelchair traffic as it goes by.

Lying in his white-sheeted bed is another old man, the professor, with skin almost as white as his sheets. In a nearby bed lies his roommate, his skin dark brown. They are good friends and are affectionate with each other, though the roommate has more of his wits about him than the professor. The roommate enjoys his visits from his family, but does not like to leave his room. The old professor has lost a lot of his memory, though not his sense of humour. He tries to make a joke, but he does not speak clearly, and only his family can guess what he is saying. He knows who his visitors are, but he does not remember what he has done in his life. His family wheel him out of his room in his wheelchair and down “main street”. At mealtimes, they take him to the dining room, where they help him to eat his food.

In a village we have read about, two hundred years ago, an old man would live out his days, whatever his condition, either in his own home or in the home of a relative or perhaps another person paid to accommodate him. He might be a burden to his family, or he might find small ways to help them. As long as he could get about under his own power, he might roam the streets or the fields, the meadows or the woods. Then one day he would be struck down by illness or accident, and die slowly or quickly.

Amiel Weekes, not yet near the end of his life, but elderly, lived on the south side of the village overlooking the sea and the woods. Every Saturday afternoon, when the sun was still high, he would come in from his work, wash, shave, and eat his frugal supper of bread and milk. Then he would sit down to read his Bible. In this way, he began his Sabbath.

Old Uncle Jonathan came to mortise posts and set fence. The children thought no other man in the town could mortise posts. Then, when the sun approached the Northern Tropic, he would come again with his hoe to plant corn, and again when the corn was up. The children would gather around Uncle Jonathan, for he had a kind gaze and a kind voice for children, and they liked to look on, hour after hour, when he mortised posts or spliced rails.

He was tall and athletic, and limped from rheumatism. He was regular in stopping work to take some refreshment at eleven and four o’clock, when he would lay down his tools and have a little rum, salt-fish, and crackers. His face was venerable, with a high intellectual forehead, and his mind was probably equally intellectual, but he was modest in expressing it. Like others of that time, he lived in obscurity, poor, working for his daily bread, at last dying of old age, mourned for only a few days and forgotten.

Ebenezer Brooks, another old man in the same village, had prominent eyes, a large Roman nose, and a broad, sloping forehead. His hair was silvery white, and hung down on either side of his spectacles as he sat leaning back in his chair by the side of the fireplace reading the great Bible or sleeping over it in his quiet home.

Old Uncle Eben was Ebenezer’s son. In late middle age, a stroke deprived him of the use of one half of his body and he became a heavy burden to his family. For ten years he sat in his chair or moved about by leaning on the top of it, shifting it forward, and leaning again on the top of it. He spoke in monosyllables but never clearly enough to be understood. He would take up a pencil in his left hand and scratch a few words with it.

He used to hobble over to his brother Obed’s house, leaning on his chair back and hauling it along, resting often in the chair when he grew tired. He returned less and less often to his own house. At last he remained in Obed’s house, sitting by the kitchen window or on a plot of grass in warm weather or standing in the woodshed in winter. There, for many years, with his left hand, he would saw and split kindling. At last he contracted an inflammation of the bowels and died.

George Weekes would wander from place to place, restlessly, all day long, returning to the home of the relative who looked after him only at nightfall or when he was hungry or tired. One winter day, he had travelled farther from home than usual. It began to snow and the east wind was blowing. The snowflakes fell on him more and more thickly. The storm and darkness gathered upon him when he was still far away from the fireside and evening meal that was waiting for him. The nor’easter howled through the trees and the snow encased their trunks and loaded down their branches and filled up all the sheltered spots in the landscape. Old George retraced his steps to the nearest house, but the only ones at home were children, and they were afraid to let him in. So he returned to the valley which he had to cross to reach home and descended into it, but he never reached the far side. His strength failed. A strange sleep came over him and he lay still. The snow covered him deeply.

Old Seth and Old Joe were eighty years old and too feeble to work. Their wives no longer spun wool or wove their own cloth. So the old men made an arrangement with Obed Brooks, proprietor of the general store. They deeded him some of their property, and in exchange, he supplied them with groceries and coarse broadcloth to keep them decent and warm. It then became a common sight in the village: Old Seth and old Joe coming up slowly along the Brewster Road with a wheelbarrow, taking turns wheeling it. In the wheelbarrow they would carry home their pork and molasses, stopping now and then to talk to someone they met along the way, and then walking on, chattering away together like two children. 

Copyright Lydia Davis, 2014. The last parts of this story were adapted from a memoir by Davis’s ancestor Sidney Brooks (1813-87)
Lydia Davis’s most recent collection is “Can’t and Won’t” (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain