The Elevator and Other Stories by Maude Hutchins by Maude Hutchins - Read Online

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Table of Contents

The Elevator and Other Stories

Introduction

The Elevator

Really

Alonso

The Wedding

The Job

Conversation Piece

Tonight My Love Is Coming

The Wreck

The Man Next Door

The King's English

The Cure

The Party


The Elevator and Other Stories

Maude Hutchins

This page copyright © 2009 Olympia Press.

Introduction

1.

Maude Hutchins first came into prominence— brilliant writer, painter, sculptor that she is—with A Diary of Love, in 1950. This was a charming story of a young girl's coming of age, told with a kind of eighteenth century aristocratic, or agrarian, frankness of tone, filled with a delicate sensuality which was at once touching and witty—which was on the side of the pagan gods, as I said once, and written with the pen of a mischievous angel.

This book is still, and is likely to remain, a minor classic, which, now that we have been able to digest the erotic writings of D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller without apparent harm to our moral sensibility, should have its own revival. (As a matter of fact, A Diary of Love has been selling steadily: it has had at least five hard-cover printings, and an equal number of paperback editions; it has been translated into Danish, Italian, German and, shall we say, English.) But Mrs. Hutchins would resent, I know, any description of her work as erotic. The curious thing about her writing, so remarkably open about all forms of personal behavior, was the prevailing tone of candor. If nothing human was foreign to her, everything human was a constant source of delight, of pleasure and gaiety.

When her book was banned by those sagacious guardians of the public morals, the Chicago police, Mrs. Hutchins was quite naturally bewildered. I can assure you that I have no desire to shock, disrupt the morals or undermine the conventions of the general public, she wrote at the time. "My defense for A Diary of Love is that having written it, I published it; and that I would not willingly withdraw any of it. My intention was purely artistic, and the subject matter innocence."

The police were finally routed in Chicago; but in England eight thousand copies of this book were ordered to be burned by a local magistrate. What a display of puritanical prurience; what an insult to art; what a conspicuous consumption of good print and paper—since A Diary of Love was then republished in an expurgated edition which was hardly very different from the original one. But I should add that Maude Hutchins' innocence, as in the present volume, is highly sophisticated, sometimes ribald, and always entertaining. It is really a devilish kind of innocence. Meanwhile she continued serenely to produce her painting and sculpture, and to publish a series of short novels, or novelle—My Hero, The Memoirs of Maisie, Victorine —which are not well known in this country, but which have been very popular in England, Germany, Italy and Japan: those foreign countries which have sometimes understood our native talent faster and better than we have.

But this country-bred, inherently upper-class, and off-beat virtuoso (for Maude Hutchins is certainly that; while like most native aristocrats, she is profoundly democratic in her instincts) is, above all, a natural and a born short story writer. An earlier collection of her tales and sketches, Love Is a Pie, in 1952, is still one of her books that can be read over and over again. And perhaps the most memorable protagonist of this volume, in the sketch called Innocents, is a little female, aged twenty-four hours, in the tragi-comic account of a baby's first disheartening contacts with life. In one day she had been born and wished to die.

2.

In the present collection, moreover, Mrs. Hutchins has opened up an altogether new vein both of her own talent, and very possibly in American literature itself. After our great tradition of Naturalism and Realism, starting around 1890 and reaching its peak and climax in the famous books of the 1920's and '30's, we have had Symbolism (in the works of Anais Nin, for example); we have had Surrealism in such advance-guard experimentalists as John Hawkes, or Jack Jones. We have had a whole body of psychological fiction, whose purest practitioner is perhaps Conrad Aiken. And these experimental movements have in turn permeated and colored our continuing and central tradition of native realism: the reports of whose death, like Mark Twain's in his own day, are both premature and exaggerated.

Mrs. Hutchins' new stories contain elements from all these literary movements. They are dream-tales, usually about psychological states of mind, centering around the theme of Time, using elements of both Symbolism and Surrealism, but always—and that is the point—specifically Hutchins-like. And that is to say, they are profoundly human and recognizable, almost always witty and entertaining, if sometimes they are also discomforting, chilling or disturbing. It is a rather weird world which is projected in these stories; a psychological world that may even startle the conventional Freudians. Just as in the typical logic of dreams, the macabre may suddenly turn into the bawdy and hilarious, the comic into the grotesque or the ominous. I know of no other such stories in our contemporary writing as well-written as these are, or animated by such a distinctive artistic vision of life or death; of fantasy and reality.

Take the title story of this volume, The Elevator itself. A group of invisible characters (according to Mrs. Hutchins) are huddled together in an elevator which is plunging wildly up (a virility fantasy in orthodox Freudian symbolism, which, however, has nothing to do with this story) thousands of floors to Japan. These are among the strangest lot of characters to be found in contemporary fiction; and what is remarkable in the prose is the intensity of the surface: the sensations of sight, sound, smell, and human feelings. The psychological states of mind (which are far more than that) are made concrete, visual, touchable, real. The dubious heroine is madly in love with each winsome, gruesome, ribald part of her own anatomy. It is no surprise she is called Narcissa: Mrs. Hutchins is quite aware of her effects.

The lecherous old man of the story undresses her visually—and her clothes begin to drop off. No sooner said than done in this dream logic; or this world-logic of the dream life where the thought is the action. Meanwhile she appears to be having a casual love affair with a beautiful voice. Sweetheart, the voice said to himself. My little love, I said to me. Then, as we read: The elevator man like a good hostess began to hum one of Bach's better-known chorals. A remarkable sentence built upon three dazzling non sequiturs; but surely any good hostess, put in an embarrassing situation, would like to be able to hum a Bach choral. And the elevator man would like to be a good hostess, obviously, because his zipper runs between his buttocks; so everything begins to make sense.

And certainly so when the Author finally enters the elevator, with his suitcase full of commas, periods, semi-colons, etc., and we realize that this particular dream-tale is a kind of mad dialogue between a popular romancer and the characters in all his famous novels. (No, I have no compunctions about revealing the secret of The Elevator, because it is quite possible to read the story without knowing what the secret is; just as it is equally possible to give a completely different interpretation to the story, and you can pick your own.) In her own original way, too, Maude Hutchins is a very acute observer of the contemporary social scene. Approaching all the issues of social reality through her tangential, incongruous method, avoiding all the cliches of political, social and economic thought (maybe because she is simply not aware of them), her dream-tales are also sharp and incisive social satire. The Negro Hero of this story is a marvellous burlesque on certain stereotypes of race conflict and race thinking; on white stereotypes, I mean, of a Negro hero.

Well, there are also undertones here of Ronald Firbank, say, in whose Valmouth the Negro became a purely pictorial problem, so much more decorative than the white man. Maude Hutchins may be guilty, a little, of the Esthetic Crime; but, when it is funny enough, we have to forgive it. And the story here called Alonso, perhaps the single best story in the collection, is a sort of little macabre masterpiece of mythological dream-making, or of the timeless pre-history when human and animal life, along with all the spirits of pantheism—and the Thunder God Himself, whether Jove or Jehovah—were all inextricably mingled. Here again is Mrs. Hutchins' implausible dialogue, made, by some magic trick of her pen, completely plausible; and her painter's eye which makes the improbable visual effects of the story not only convincing, but concrete. They are just there, right down to the droppings of the Moose-Husband, or the twins who are suckled defiantly by the poor-white Nature Goddess in the blaze of the thunderbolt itself.

Obsolete, viviparous, cuddly creatures from way back, preglacial, extinct—in this notable tale of a queer contemporaneous transmigration, in Mrs. Hutchins' own prose. But is Alonso really better than The Job, where I suspect the psychological state of anxiety has never had a more pictorial materialization. There are, to begin with, the routine insults and degradations which go along with any job in our commercial and industrial society. (Here again is Mrs. Hutchins' off-beat social satire, the sharp edge of the reality principle which gives her fantasy world another dimension.) There is the hard sell, indeed, in this story, and the marvelously middle-class customers, and the disappearing roll of Harris tweed which suddenly becomes animate, and disgusting. There is the customer's slip, which the heroine forgets to fill out, like any good salesgirl should, and which she suddenly finds herself wearing. Wearing; when she also finds herself transposed from the dreadful department store to the Ship of Anxiety. I was in a similar corridor with narrowed doors on either side and a false perspective. And where:

The little boy came toward me slowly, he wore very short pants and a sailor hat with a red pompon; in each eye socket was a large violet and he held a whistle in his hand. Mama, he said, and I looked behind me. I saw a wedge-shaped woman or simply a wedge, I could see the grain in the wood. Don't! I warned him, stay away from the edge of the ravine. The man didn't startle me appearing out of nowhere, he wore white flannel pants, tight-fitting like a sailor's but he was not a sailor, he had the narrow skull of a thinker and his eyes were piercing bright, the color or no-color of aluminum, his naked chest was transparent and I saw his aorta and pale blue fluid bubbling in intricate cylinders that fitted into platinum sockets. In his navel was a moonstone. He will ask me a difficult question with a simple answer, I said and a nervous shudder shook me because I could not answer it.

Talk about motherhood, or the machine age, or Salvador Dali. Maybe Mrs. Hutchins should write the scenarios for his paintings. Maybe she has. But I have forgotten to mention that this heroine is hounded by anxiety—and immediately there is the hound-dog complete, down to the pointed tip of his tale, who follows her around in the story.

Well, if The Job is as good in its way as Alonso is in its vein, and as is The Elevator in still a different way, I'd better also include The Wreck in the quartet of brilliant stories which make this volume notable. This is the dream-parable of a young homosexual boy, beautifully described, without moral judgment, and without morbidity. Is this hero decadent, is he even evil? To Mrs. Hutchins he is just an example of the way things, and people, are. This story is certainly different from the psychological case histories on this theme; but it is just as accurate, I'd guess, and recognizable, and terrifying. (Or maybe this story is a case history, of a new kind, which the textbooks have not yet got around to investigating.) But it is just close enough to my own inner world of adolescent fantasy (my memories of this, I mean, naturally) to make me say: Yes, she has caught something, and, "Thank God, those particular dreams and fantasies don't inhabit my mind any more."

But is this really true; and are we really sure