Ella Leffland's short story "Last Courtesies" is surprisingly violent. But the violence is, at least at the beginning, more suggested than explicit. In the foreground, the protagonist Lillian suppresses violent urges, while she is described as "too polite." Throughout most of this story, Lillian is filled with fear and remorse, but she is determined to keep her emotions in check. She does go out of her way to not return rudeness expressed toward her. There are, however, moments when doing so is impossible, just as there are moments when the background violence of this story leaks through. This story is a psychological study of eccentrics. The violence erupts in ever mounting stages as the eccentricities of the characters collide, culminating in the brutality at the end.
"Last Courtesies" was first published in 1976 in Harper's Magazine. It was then chosen for the O. Henry Award for best short story the following year. Four years later, the story was selected as the title piece for Leffland's collection Last Courtesies. In a New York Times review of this collection, John Romano referred to Leffland as one of the "poets of alienation" but distinguished her from others "in being essentially moral as well as psychological." Romano also praised Leffland for the sympathy that she arouses for her characters without judging them.
Ella Leffland's Last Courtesies begins with a comment about the protagonist Lillian. Vladimir, the Russian piano tuner, tells her she is "too polite." Lillian disagrees. Lillian does not push people in the bus line, but she does "fire off censorious glares." Thus, according to Lillian, she is far from being too polite. She is merely "civilized."
Only four months have passed since her aunt Bedelia's death, and Lillian misses her very much. She thinks of her aunt as an elegant woman, who can engage in intellectual discussions about Bach, Russian novelists, her well-kept garden, and topics of nature. Her aunt was also a pianist, and that was how their acquaintance with Vladimir came about. Wearing overalls that make him look like a mechanic, Vladimir has tuned their Steinway grand piano. He used obscenities whenever Bedelia was not present. He spoke his mind and was known to insult his clients for not taking better care of their pianos. Rumor has it that he poured buckets of urine on dog-walkers who allowed their pets to defecate underneath his windows, and it is said that he had several times been institutionalized. But Aunt Bedelia enjoyed him.
One night, Lillian told her aunt that "Vladimir was brilliant but unsound." Bedelia asked how her niece came to this conclusion. But every detail that Lillian offered, Bedelia turned around to Vladimir's advantage. That was Bedelia's manner, to see the best in people. Lillian felt inadequate, as though she lived in Bedelia's shadow. She felt left out of the friendship between Bedelia and Vladimir, but no matter how long Lillian lives (her aunt has died at age ninety-one), Lillian suspects she will never gain the grace her aunt possessed. Bedelia was the "last survivor of a fair, legendary breed."
Before she died, Aunt Bedelia invited Vladimir over for dinner. She prepared the meal herself, picked flowers from the garden for a centerpiece, and donned jewelry that she usually wore only for special holidays. None of this was wasted on Vladimir. He noted and admired everything. Bedelia and Vladimir spent the evening talking about lofty subjects, covering their travels to exotic places and the finer points of music theory as it related to classical masters. Then Vladimir "flung himself into Bach" on the grand piano. With Bedelia, Vladimir was a cosmopolitan gentleman. But with Lillian alone, he was vulgar, even aggressive.
Although Lillian doubted it, Bedelia thought that Vladimir might be enamored of Lillian. After Bedelia's death, Vladimir spends a lot of time at the apartment. Lillian consoles him, and Vladimir, in turn, tries to counsel Lillian regarding her future. Vladimir tells...
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