Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1430
The notion of the artist as a sacred figure has made a fair amount of Western literature since the nineteenth century seem forced, hysterical, and self-centered. Spencer Holst’s stories belong in the tradition of this notion, but they regard the artist and the creative process without the psychological overstatement one might expect. The writer to Holst is indeed a magician, and ordinary creatures, things, and events are magical. The writer accepts this phenomenon, as a child might agree that a mountain can cast a shadow on the moon, or as an adult might concede that the history of baseball is holy. Parable, satire, and parody are possible in Holst’s work because the delight in the unpredictable and wondrous which the writer shares with the child is enriched by the moral sense which defines maturity. In a style free of self-congratulation, Holst’s stories oppose the tyranny and paranoia in our view of nature, man, and art, and reveal that being is random and that this quality is the source of those transformations which we call magic and ought to revere. Transformation, in fact, is the essential point and procedure of Holst’s book, and it shows up in his use of animals, in his belief in the unpredictable, and in his presentation of the “magician” and his audience.
Animals often arrive in Holst’s stories as magic events. Among “64 Beginnings,” we find the first ostrich which ever flew, plants transforming themselves into birds, and a gang of “baby Galapagos tortoises” approaching the narrator in the livingroom of a New England mansion with the word “memento” engraved on their shells. Animal transformations also occur in literary parodies. In The Case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are presented as Conan Doyle’s cats and fiction as a way of transforming the unstated into the stated. The story The Frog changes the frog into a drug addict, the prince into an Italian opportunist, and the princess into a teen-ager who abhors “junkies.” Besides turning animals into humans and back again, Holst invests animals with human, and human with animal, properties. The parrot in The Lovers acquires a human fidelity and trust, and the youth in the story the bearing and skill of an animal.
The unpredictable or random complements the transformations in Holst’s stories. Finders Keepers suggests that moral occasions depend on the unforeseen. By chance the narrator in this story finds a large sum of money belonging to the family whose garbage he collects. During a bestial search through the city dump, the father, corrupted by disappointment, forgets and attacks the narrator when the latter tries to return the money, and later the whole family dies of diseases contracted from the garbage. Coincidence has turned industry into greed, a good deed into a mistake, and a garbage collector into a rich man.
Such is the transformation of ordinary details into an extraordinary sequence in The Prime Minister’s Grandfather (where the Canadian Prime Minister, looking through the periscope of a submarine, mistakes a playful walrus for his own grandfather) and in The Blazing Blue Footprint (where several Dutch youths paint an enlargement of Winston Churchill’s baby-footprint on the Cliffs of Dover), that it is clear Holst delights in the unpredictable. His “64 Beginnings” relies on it. After a flood a ring appears on the outside of a bathtub; the fat puppeteer washes dishes in the dark; angry peasants bombard Paris with cucumbers from Piper Cubs; Poe acquires a new biography in which he becomes a thriving hedonist; the hangman shoots his prisoner and hangs himself; the yellow cabs convene around their garage as it burns and sound their horns in mourning.
As the unpredictable is the fun of transformation, so death is the sorrow of it. The Cat Who Owned an Apartment shows us a man so caught up in the transformation of sound into lovely music that he fails to hear the approach of his murderer, and The Green Gardenia—perhaps written with Poe’s Ligeia in mind, even down to the shriek at the end—presents a funeral organist who wallows in the elaborate trappings and music which death occasions. He wants to transform death into beauty and save beauty (the gardenia) from death. But his impossible task isolates him, and fatigue, the harbinger of death, slowly turns him into something as ugly as the corpse of the fat man he had disdained.
The intrusion of death is the closest Holst comes to treating transformation as a dilemma. He is more interested in those who transform. These are the magicians in their various guises, and one of them is the con-man in A Balkan Entertainment: The Man Behind the Scene. He has stolen everything important there is to steal, and then, transforming the New Testament parable, he steals the treasures a second time by disappearing with them on his prize camel through the eye of a needle. The magician in Real Magic (which seems to be a version of the miracle of the loaves and fishes) creates many pairs of gloves out of one pair. The writer himself is a magician who can reconstruct history as well as literature. The insight of The Scotch Story is that Scotch whiskey might well have been invented in the absurd way the story pretends it was, for nothing, not even a material fact, is frozen in Holst’s world. This includes the artist. Doubletalk French, a story in which an American painter and a French actor who speak each other’s language without knowing what they’re saying come to inhabit the same body, emphasizes that the artist’s identity is liquid enough to assume other identities.
Concerning the writer’s medium, Holst uses The Hunger of the Magicians to say that after centuries of vanity and gloom, language will disclose the magic in the world and return reverence to it. In this prophetic vein, The Institute for the Foul Ball maintains that the true artist, understanding the roots of his art and revering its monuments, will cashier its superficial customs and conduct its renewal with skill, imagination, and humility.
Beyond the magician and his means, there is his audience, and Holst tends to take a moral view of it. For example, the audience of greedy chieftans and unimaginative experts in A Balkan Entertainment is taught that treasure belongs to transformation, not to stasis. The Typewriter Repairman manipulates its main character to suggest the audience as supporter and interpreter, and to show that the second function can destroy the first. The repairman, sentimentalizing the creative act, does not see that the image for it is the terrarium where the writer maintains trees and animals as they are, reducing only their size, working on the reader’s eyes like a playful optometrist. Committed to his trite notion of the artist as a dreamer and degenerate, the repairman mistakes a fungicide for opium, and smokes it while he sits at the author’s typewriter to compose “the truth.” The fungicide, a mixture of “Japanese snuff” and “powdered anthracite coal,” is exotic enough in itself, but the repairman is too benighted to appreciate this. His arrogance turns him into the envious judge who types “BORGES IS BETTER,” and when he breathes carbon monoxide from the water pipe and a truck runs over his fingertips, we see not only a sentence carried out but an image of the reader’s self-betrayal as the writer’s advocate.
To transform the reader’s eye—which is to say his view of things—is the aim of Holst’s style. Though it occasionally (in The Green Gardenia, for example) strains to convince us how childlike he is (something a real child would not have to do), it generally conceals the work that has gone into it. The transformations it shapes are unlabored and tonic, the characters which inhabit it are known simply by what they do and see and by where they are, and the morally apt exaggerations of the beast fable and the satirical legend which it draws upon are hilarious. Last, Holst’s work resembles with its brevity and surreal images, and advances with its attention to characterization, motivation, and climax, the modern prose-poem.
If literary history means anything, one must credit Holst for his belief that the art of fiction has a future impelled by a momentous past; and if imagination means anything, one must thank him for a vision of the world more accurate and delightful than the cold mind of our age is likely to encourage.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23
Booklist. LXXII, June 15, 1976, p. 1451.
Christian Science Monitor. LXVI, August 2, 1976, p. 30.
New York Times Book Review. April 4, 1976, p. 8.
Publisher’s Weekly. CCIX, February 9, 1976, p. 92.
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