John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men

Lennie is the character I’ve heard the most about, probably because he’s the most memorable: the seeds of his eventual downfall are expertly planted in his first appearance—he’s helplessly easy to scare and far too strong to handle the soft things he loves to touch more than anything:

“You crazy fool.  Don’t you think I could see your feet was wet where you went acrost the river to get it?”  He heard Lennie’ wimpering cry and wheeled about.  “Blubberin’ like a baby!  A big guy like you.    (10)

Lady, huh?  Don’t you even remember who that lady was.  That was your own Aunt Clara.  An’ she stopped given’ ’em (mice) to ya.  You always killed ’em.   (11)

But I’m far more interested in George’s character.  He’s the center of the novel: all of Lennie’s actions revolve around him and all the things he says or does in one way or another.  Even though Lennie commits the accidental murder that climaxes the novel, it’s due to George’s warnings that he gets scared enough to panic and cause the death.  George even motivates Lennie’s fantasies with his stories about the farm they’re going to buy—though it starts as a pleasant fantasy about Lennie being able to care for rabbits, Georgie himself starts to believe it as more than the mere carrot he uses to keep Lennie going.

I think I knowed from the very first.  I think I knowed we’d never do her.  He usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would.    (92)

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Hermann Ungar – The Maimed

Hermann Ungar is best known nowadays in America as an alternative to Kafka.  Indeed, he bears some resemblance, being a Jewish Czech writer in the 1920s, and his writing is filled with some of the same sense of dread and paranoia.  But The Maimed is far more stark, far less ornate, far more matter-of-fact in prose than even Kafka at his most creepily minimal.

At its essence, The Maimed is a picture of the worst outcome of standardized time.  The protagonist Franz Polzer takes comfort in the clock’s regularity, to the point where the slightest threat of an interruption disturbs him to his very core.  Polzer lives with the widow Porges, works as a lowly clerk at a bank, and visits his old childhood friend Karl Fanta, whose health has failed completely and left him a helpless, though rich, cripple.

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George Orwell – “Shooting an Elephant”, “Politics and the English Language”, “Reflections on Gandhi”, “Marrakech”, “Looking Back on the Spanish War”, & “Why I Write”

Shooting an Elephant

Reflecting on an incident in which he was compelled to shoot an elephant out of embarrassment (or the evasion of such) while working as a police officer in Burma, George Orwell describes the ambivalence inherent in working for an evil empire against a population of unruly citizens.

I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible.    (149)

Orwell describes the incident itself as “tiny” (149) and very simple: a rogue elephant had been delivered too early while its handler and master were diverted to a different town and it was ravaging the bazaar.  After being called, Orwell takes his rifle that he knows is too small to bring down the elephant purely with the intention of shooing it away with the noise if the occasion to do such presents itself.  But upon seeing the police officer with a gun following the elephant’s path of destruction, the citizens become excited at the possibility of violence.  “They had not shown much interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot,” (151).

Finding the elephant peacefully grazing in a field, the young Orwell considers his options and with a crowd of “two thousand at the least” (152) watching, Orwell finds he has no option.  “The people expected [the shooting] of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly,” (152).  Orwell feels like a puppet, the alleged “leader” white man armed in a sea of brown, unarmed faces, compelled to do the bidding of the empire’s tyranny.

Orwell shoots the elephant and it eventually dies, resulting in some controversy.  Orwell reflects that it is fortunate that the elephant had killed a man on its rampage, meaning he was in some way justified in ending the animal’s life.  Some police officers agree with Orwell’s decision, others do not, but none realize his true motives.  “I often wondered any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool,” (156).

Also of note:

  • As to disrespect and abuse from natives towards police officers: “The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all.”  (148)
  • Should he not have shot the elephant: “The crowd would laugh at me.  And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”  (153)
  • “The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.”  (156)

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A Question of Tennises

Early on in the curriculum, I taught (or tried to teach) my students various occupations, as was required.  Amongst them were teacher, actor, actress, businessman, singer, footballer, and tennis player.  When I said “tennis player” and indicated the picture in my students’ vocabulary books, one of the older men perked up.

“I am… tennis player!”

I asked “You play tennis?” and pantomimed swinging a racquet.  He looked confused but with repetitions and increasingly frantic invisible-tennis-racquet swings, he caught on and nodded, repeating that he was tennis player.

“That’s great,” I said, “I used to play tennis too.”  I non-verbally attempted to explain what I’d said with gestures to my chest and the area behind me (to indicate the past, of course) before my assistant jumped in and translated my statement.

“Oh!  Well, we… should…. play.”

“Haha, I’d love to sometime, but I’m not very good.”

Well, two weeks or so have gone by and I’ve not stepped onto a tennis court, but today the same student explained his absence on Wednesday as being because he’d been competing in a tennis tournament, which he’d won.

I explained what “congratulations” meant and congratulated him, suddenly a little more nervous to be taking the court against him at some point in the vague future.

On a break later in the day, my assistant offered to take me to the basement to look at where we would be playing tennis.  I explained I was not dressed for the sport and thus couldn’t play today and was greeted with confused looks but persistently beckoned to the basement.

“Hmm,” I thought, walking down the small, dark hallway.  “This doesn’t look much like the passage to an underground basement tennis court to me.”  Come to think of it, the Ministry’s regional office hardly seemed like the place to have a large tennis court in the basement.

My assistant opened the door for me into the rec room, where a ping-pong table stood.  Several Georgians stood glancing proudly between me and the table, and it became clear there was a misunderstanding.  They meant table-tennis, not tennis.  I laughed; I can take the embarrassment of losing at ping-pong, at least that’s not sweaty, frustrating work that involves sprinting in very little clothing in the hot sun.

I’d like to play some of them in real tennis now that I know they have no experience in it.  Just the sadist in me, I suppose.

Now I have to decide if it’s worth the time and confusion to correct their misconception about what a “tennis player” does for a living.

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