Ya filthy animal

I’ve never read the Harry Potter books; as a kid I was a little bit of a hipster and thought that too many people liked it so it must be a bit shit (which admittedly wasn’t great logic given The Simpsons was also hugely popular).

I wound up watching all the movies for the first time in lock-down last year because I started dating someone who’s pretty into them (she’s also made me watch Con Air – I’ve given a lot to this relationship), and one thing I’ll say is that Nagini is an adorable name for a pet snake no matter your thoughts on Voldemort (Seven is a lot of books, I was a pretty lazy kid/teen, I was never going to make that kind of commitment to any one series).

Anyway, since my Animals Have Eerie Powers blogpost over two years ago, other animals who are enchanted or just have a proven ability to fuck shit up have continued popping up here and there in short stories/novellas I’ve been reading. So let’s add to that list now shall we?!

The Murder of Rue Morgue (Edgar Allan Poe, 1841)

Homicide investigators are too quick to dismiss the possibility that sometimes the murderer is in fact an escaped pet orangutan of a local sailor, and that’s just sad.

In this story, the narrator makes a new chum at the library called, C. Auguste Dupin. They gab about their shared interest in analysis and the importance of insignificant details, and later on when the unprecedented murder of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille is all over the papers, these two hardy boys team up and blow the cops minds with their conclusion. Who’s to say though whether they were too quick to overlook the possibility that that orangutan still had motive?

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865)

There’s a lot of cool animals petering around Wonderland -white rabbits in business casual, caterpillar-chillers smoking a hookah and giving sage advice about growth and such; but the Cheshire Cat has the ability to disappear and reappear and is basically everything you’d want in a guardian angel. He grins over you, he gives you reliable directions, plus he warns you on the beginning of your quest to watch out for how odd everybody else is.

Heart of a dog (Mikhail Bulgakov, 1925)

Starting from the perspective of a stray dog in Moscow (who’s given the name Sharik by a typist) one day he follows home a man who has given him some food. This man is a scientist called Professor Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky, and after keeping Sharik pampered in his apartment for several days the professor performs an operation where he replaces Sharik’s pituitary gland and testicles with those of a recently deceased human.

From this point the story is told through the professor’s notes of Sharik’s progression as he gradually becomes a very hairy human. It not as cute as it sounds though – as Sharik evenually becomes the drunk disappointing drop-kick son that the professor regrets, and ultimately turns back into a dog.

Saint Katy the Virgin (John Steinbeck, 1936)

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I read this in a Mcsweeney’s; the cover had Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Bradbury fist fighting in Heaven so naturally I went for it at the second-hand bookshop [the collection’s a mix of old short stories from an out-of-print Hitchcock spooky story collection called Stories Not for the Nervous, with a Bradbury collection, Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow].

This story was one of Bradbury’s and was originally published in Steinbeck’s collection, The Long Valley. and the moral of this story is essentially this, if you find yourself a victim of a rabid pig attack you best recourse of action is to try and baptise sed pig.

Saint Katy is a pet pig of a local jerk called Roark whose evil disposition rubs off on his pet pig. One day just to be an asshole, Roark donates his pig to two priests who are out tithing, and when they go to pick her up from the pen, Katy attacks and has them climbing up a tree in fear of their lives. Out of desperation they figure why not try baptising her and from that moment she’s a good girl and stops attempting to maul them.

Between Sea and Sky (Kirsty Logan, 2020)

This short story is from a recent collection, Hag, in which forgotten British and Irish folklores have modern feminist retellings by eminent female writers from Britain and Ireland. It’s pretty rad, plus the original stories are in the back so you can compare them.

Between the Sea and Sky is a retelling of The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a 19th century Scottish ballad: and just as in the original tale, Logan’s story is about a woman whose son is a ‘Selkie’ – a shape-shifting part human, part seal.

In Logan’s rendition, the main character, Skye is an archaeologist sent to Glenecher to study a intriguing mass grave of mothers with their babies. Skye also happens to be a single mum to a baby who’s a few months old, and the small town treats her with suspicion because they’re unsure who her babies father is (fools it wasn’t any of your husbands it was a man seal!).

I don’t want to give spoilers but one thundery night her baby-daddy comes to the door and they decide to spilt custody with her baby spending half a year as a human and half under the sea – with unfortunate results.

Siblings in books

At 28 years old, a blindfolded Fyodor Dostoevsky narrowly avoided execution for anti-government activities, right as he stood in line of the firing squad, instead sent to a Siberian labour camp at the last minute (I swear I am going somewhere with this).

Unbeknown to the young Dostoevsky, this was a mock execution intended to instil fear in dissidents of Tsar Nicholas I. Yet, convinced he was about to die, Dostoevsky’s final thoughts before he was spared were of his brother,

“I remembered you, brother, and all yours; during
the last minute you, you alone, were in my mind,
only then I realised how I love you, dear brother
mine!” 

Despite this likely being one of Dostoevsky’s least favourite moments, I do love this story. It’s incredibly sweet that the future novelist shared that kind of relationship with his brother, and that perhaps it took facing death for him to fully appreciate how strong their bond truly was.

I’m reading Little Women at the moment, and was reminded of Dostoevsky’s ‘final’ thoughts within the ‘Dark Days’ chapter, where it takes Beth being close to death for each of her sisters to reflect on just how much she means to them, and what losing her would mean.*

“Then it was that Jo, living in the darkened room with that suffering little sister always before her eyes, and that pathetic voice sounding in her ears, learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition, to live for others, and make home happy by the exercise of those simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth or beauty.”

[*But I’m also super childish and, in between being sad, the fact that Beth’s doctor is named Dr Bangs is giving me big laughs – I don’t deserve classic literature!]

Sibling’s are interesting; they’re essentially friends your parents assign you for life. Yet despite them looking like you and being raised by the same crowd, there’s no guarantee you’ll hit it off or even like each other (obviously though I lucked out with my sister whose a legend – and I’m not just saying that cause she reads my blog). 

Plus given I only have the one sister, I can only imagine what it’s like to experience multiple siblings (and to see multiple alternative results of your parents’ parenting technique walking around). 

It’s interesting what’s unique and what’s universal about these relationships. So let’s brood over a few sibling relationships found in fiction and memoirs, to see what bits feel comparable to our own complex ties. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson, 1962)

For some reason, I do disproportionately go for American books and/or books written in the 1960’s. I’m not sure why that is, it’s just a pattern I’ve started to notice lately.

Anyway, written by the author of The Lottery (which does not include any tips on how to win the lottery), We Have Always Lived in The Castle tells the story of two ostracised sisters, Merricat (18) and Constance (28) Blackwood.

Both live with their elderly, wheelchair bound, uncle, on the margins of a town that despises them for the suspicious poisoning of the rest of the Blackwood family six years prior.

Although she is eighteen, Merricat is incredibly childlike, to the point where you will flip back at least once to double-check you got the age right. Whereas Constance refuses to leave the house as she is unofficially blamed by the townspeople for her family’s murder despite being formally acquitted.

The good/infuriating thing about this short novel is how many unanswered questions it raises and leaves open for interpretation. I’m into it, but at the same time I’m lazy and I wouldn’t have been against everything eventually being spelt out for me.

Plus from a sibling standpoint, I think it’s touching/miraculous that Constance and Merricat live in such isolation for so long, with essentially only each other for company, yet rarely piss each other off. I love my own sister dearly, but it would take less than a week living in similar conditions for a scrag fight to kick off.

A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams, 1947)

That’s another thing, I generally go for books which are on the shorter side or at least have a bigger font – I think it’s cause I’m impatient and like to get through things fast; and A Streetcar Named Desire is under 100 pages so here we are.

Blanche DuBois is Stella Kowalski’s older sister. It’s presumed that they haven’t been in contact for a while given Blanche hasn’t yet met Stella’s husband Stanley, and Stella wasn’t aware that they’d lost their family property or that Blanche has been fired from her teaching job (for sleeping with a student – Blanche is a bit of a hot mess).

As the family home is gone, what Stella thought was Blanche visiting is now her crashing at their very tiny New Orleans flat indefinitely, and immediately Stanley can’t stand Blanche for being a car-wreck as well as somehow convinced she’s still upper-class.

The feeling is mutual, as Blanche considers Stanley belligerent and coarse, and she regularly make’s it known to Stella that she can’t understand why she chooses to stay with him.

Without giving too much away, after Blanche and Stanley’s hostility reaches its peak, ultimately Stella chooses denial and her husband over believing her sister, who is too easily dismissable [and I don’t know why I’m so scared about giving spoilers, the play is over 70 years old. But I don’t know though, you might want to read/see it and go in fresh].

One reason Streetcar is considered Williams’ greatest work is its frank portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics. It is very of its time yet its timeless and if you’re going to watch it, try and see it as a play – they change the ending in the 1951 film adaption because it was considered too dark (or alternatively you can always get a not-so-great gist from watching the Streetcar episode of The Simpsons, A Streetcar named Marge – that’s where I learnt prior to reading that there is some bowling in it but no partial nudity).

High School (Tegan and Sara Quin, 2019)

I really wish this book existed when I was a teenager. Rarely do I reread books but I will read this again next summer when its less fresh in my head.

So this one is a shared memoir of Canadian musicians and twin sisters Tegan and Sara, which primarily focuses on high school and their 1990’s adolescence. Starting in grade 10 (when they’re 15), each chapter swaps between which sister is narrating, and begins with Tegan’s perspective and hurt confusion when Sara starts wanting to spend more time alone with their shared best friend.

Unbeknown to Tegan, this becomes Sara’s first serious relationship, and it’s fascinating reading how two people, who are so close and in a lot of ways similar, how their story’s of self discovery and coming out could be so distinctive, as well as reading about two siblings both realising this huge part of themselves, for a long time in secret. 

Each chapter is a fragment story from high school, which lead to the sisters winning their first music competition and getting their first taste of success at 18. It’s touching and relatable no matter what decade high school was for you, and the line that stuck with me the most is close to the end, when Sara remembers her aunt’s response to her shaving her head – “you look exactly like yourself”

[Plus (in a non-creepy way) I’m a huge fan of other people’s family photos, and there’s lots of them in this book]

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 2000)

This is the breakout memoir of Dave Eggers, published two years after McSweeneys came into existence (the publishing house Eggers founded), and I’m not going to lie, a large part of why I wanted to read this was how good that title is. 

The title make’s it sound like it’s going to be hilarous, and while there are many little funny moments, the book’s focus is Eggers losing both his parents to cancer at 21 within weeks of each other, and becoming a guardian to his eight year old brother, Christopher “Toph”.

While this divides people, and admittedly the later chapters where he’s starting up Might magazine are weaker than the first chapters, Eggers’ shifting relationship with his younger brother and their experiences creating a new normal after such a heavy loss is uplifting and does make you think about what you were up to age 21 and whether you had your life together enough to handle that level of responsibility.

Behemoth is the original Salem

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Via @shy.witch.yk

According to Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, [which I haven’t read – so maybe this isn’t a fact at all. Maybe someone’s just told me this to make me look like a dickhead – like in Seinfeld when Elaine thought the original title for War and Peace was War? What is it Good For?] Hemingway would regularly let his cat, F. Puss, babysit his firstborn infant son. As in, he’d leave the baby alone in his French apartment with F. Puss in the playpen as company. His faith in the cat to be a reliable guardian was touching. But the kid lived, so maybe Hemingway should’ve written a parenting book all along!

Anyway hearing this little fun fact got me thinking about Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch (the 1990s, cleary-a-puppet, cheeky little trash-talking Salem; not the crappy reboot one that doesn’t talk and is definitely a real cat). Because if I had to choose a trustful cat to keep an eye on a human baby for a few hours, I’d pick Salem – even though he would likely make a few cutting quips refusing to do it.

For those who’ve forgotten, Salem (aka the reason every girl round about my age, wanted a black cat growing up) was a 500 year old warlock, trapped in the body of a cat for 100 years – as punishment for his failed attempt at world domination.

He was pure evil, but we’re all willing to forgive him (and accept him as a prospective babysitter), because he’s sarcastic and clever. Plus all cats naturally give off a slightly evil and snooty vibe; so an imagined reality where a cat can talk and has a human personality feels more realistic with that cat being a bit of a loveable shithead.

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Via @salemthecatfanpage

Salem’s literature equivalent would be Behemoth from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – a fellow talking black cat, who struts around the Russian streets, as part of the Devil’s posse, wearing an adorable bow-tie and bowler hat.

Written in the 1930s, and published 26 years after Bulgakov’s death, The Master and Margarita (which I’ve talked about previously in The Name Game post) is a dark comedy about the devil (who goes by the name Woland) taking over an apartment in Moscow with his buddies, and wreaking havoc across the atheist city.

Like Salem, mischievous Behemoth is known on occasion to take human form* and to drop witticisms into the conversation, such as, “I’d rather be a tram conductor and there’s no worse job than that” (where he’s clearly still holding a grudge about being kicked off a tram at the book’s beginning).

Behemoth is the size of a pig, and tends to be in the background with a vodka in hand, sunbathing at the windows of the apartment and being told to shut-up by the rest of the gang.

His hobbies include chess and arson, and without giving too much away (because you really should read it, it’s pretty wicked), my personal favourite Behemoth moment is that he can make a showdown between himself and a group of armed Moscow police, look effortless – and even make the time to be a wise-ass and pretend they’ve successfully shot him.

While Salem may not share Behemoth’s impressive size, they definitely have enough in common that if their paths did ever cross they would make tight drinking buddies. And on reflection, I’d only trust Salem to babysit if he swore not to invite Behemoth over (cause that little shit would raid your liquor cabinet no question).

[*and like Salem, the reader later learns Behemoth was a human whose cat form is a punishment.]

Vintage Russian Trash-Talk and Backhanded Complements from The Brothers Karamazov

There’s an old, and quite sexist, quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “If we encounter a woman of rare intellect, we should ask her what book she reads”. And on that note, if I’m in a situation that requires the doling out of some quality, razor-sharp insults – having recently finished The Brothers Karamazov (1880) will definitely work in my favour (or I could just throw the book at whoever’s being lippy – it’s a pretty hefty text and my copy’s a hardback).

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final novel, chronicles the tumultuous family rivalry between the Karamazov’s – and ultimately the murder of their father (also called Fyodor). It usually features on any must-read classics lists quite rightly, for being both: a dense philosophical pondering on morality and Russian culture, as well as a timeless story filled with drama worthy of the Jeremy Kyle Show (Fyodor spends a lot of his time trying to seduce his eldest son Dimitri’s love interest – he’s a bit of a shit-lord).

But what Brothers Karamazov doesn’t get enough credit for, is the incredible extent of sarcasm, bitchiness and witty put-downs it has scattered throughout it’s 800-something pages. Here are a few of my personal favourite moments where some hash insults and delightful vintage trash-talk enhanced the dialogue tenfold:

[Rakitin to Alyosha] “Your brother Ivan declared once that I was a ‘liberal booby with no talents whatsoever’”

[Dimitri, on why he doesn’t suspect Smerdyakov of Fyodor’s murder] “Because Smerdyakov is a man of the most abject character and a coward. He’s not only a coward, he’s the epitome of all the cowardice in the world walking on two legs. He has the heart of a chicken”

“He’s a puling chicken – sickly, epileptic, weak-minded – a child of eight could thrash him”

[a middle aged market woman at Koyla] “You impudent young monkey. You want a whipping, that’s what you want, you saucy young jackanapes!” 

[Ivan to Smerdyakov – this may be my favourite apology in literature ever] “Yes I am sorry I didn’t punch you in the face…I couldn’t have taken you to the lock up just then. Who would’ve believed me and what charge could I bring against you? But the punch in the face – oh, I’m sorry I didn’t think of it. Though blows are forbidden, I should have pounded your ugly face to jelly” 

[Smerdyakov on Grigory] “He is not a man, I assure you, but an obstinate mule”

[Dimitri on Smerdyakov again] “I don’t want to say more of the stinking son of that Stinking Lizaveta” 

[the narrator on the look Mitya’s sporting to his court hearing] “But Mitya made a most unfavourable impression on me. He looked an awful dandy in a brand-new frock-coat”

[Mitya, on hearing about Smerdyakov’s death] “He was a dog and died like a dog”

Koyla’s insults (a thirteen year old character who needs his own section cause he’s the 19th century Russian equivalent of Holden Caulfield)

[A back-handed complement on Ilusha’s mother]’“….I think she is awfully nice and pathetic”

[on Germans] “…sausage-makers, grovelling before authority” 

[Describing an incident where he inadvertently killed some farmers goose at the market and had to to the equivalent of small claims court] “I looked at him, he was a stupid, moon-faced fellow of twenty” …. “we all went off to the justice’s, they bought the goose too. The fellow was crying in a great funk, simply blubbering like a woman”

[to Kartashov (another child – this one’s pretty harsh)] “I beg you most earnestly, Kartashov, not to interrupt again with your idiotic remarks, especially when one is not talking to you and doesn’t care to know whether you exist or not” 

[talking to a doctor (bit of context, Koyla thinks ‘medicines a fraud’)] “Don’t be afraid, apothecary, ….” “And you know apothecary…” (what a little wise arse)

Versatile Insults You Could Easily Pepper into a Debate

  • Flunkey
  • Viper
  • Serpent
  • Trivial
  • Frightfully Stupid
  • Awfully Stupid
  • Snivelling Idiot
  • Mother’s Darling
  • Wanton Woman
  • Blockhead
  • A Repulsive Mug
  • Sheepishly Sentimental
  • Buffoon
  • Rogue
  • A Soft, city-bred rogue
  • A Mountebank
  • A Bernard (I have no idea why this is an insult, but Mitya repeatedly throws this one out there. Maybe Dostoevsky knew someone called Bernard who was just the worst – or maybe he’s referring to the dog breed)
  • ‘Wisp of Tow’ (apparently referring to someone acting cowardly. It’s quite a layered and intelligent insult for a group of schoolboys, it’s impressive really. They must’ve had a sophisticated-type pow-wow to come up with it)

The Name Game

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was the first time I’d heard about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language and ostensive definition: or as summarized by Nelson, the idea that ‘the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed’. 

Roughly, this quote is a summary of Wittgenstein’s lifelong pondering’s into language, and how much power words have to effectively represent every nuance of what reality they are attempting to describe.

A name, assigned to define something through language, and the physical entity itself, have two separate existences. Thus leading a name/word to acquire its meaning through the context its used.

Wittgenstein referred to our everyday intermingling of reality and words as ‘the language game’, and its a theory which has me thinking about how much the names that people know us by reflect the individual they’re there to represent.

Personally, I think my own name (selected in 1993 when Mum was watching a lot of Family Ties reruns) does suit my personality and the look I’ve got going. But sometimes I do wonder to what extent – if any – my life or personality might have alternated had I been carting around another title for the last 26 years. Classic literature after all, is peppered with instances where a character’s name, sculpts their fate or defines their reality. Here are a few I could think of,

The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967)

The first time I attempted to read this Russian classic was five years ago. I quit about twenty pages in, and now after revisiting it I can’t believe how quick I was to dismiss it.

It’s such an incredible book and I could’ve so easily never bothered picking it up again.  I’m such a fool! I missed finding one of my favourite books early – why didn’t I stick with it for a few more pages? A book about Satan working in Moscow as a magician and being cheeky and messing with everyone – that’s well up my alley (and I love that Satan is a smoker – of course Satan doesn’t give a shit about lung health of course!!!).

I’m mad at past me but at the same time it’s so exciting to be able to read it for the first time now.

Anyway the reason it’s relevant to a discussion on whether or not names determine your fate is that in The Master and Margarita, the Prince of Darkness holds a ball whenever he’s visiting a city, and his ongoing tradition is finding a girl from that city  whose name is Margarita to be his date. In exchange, for attending what promises to a wicked part-tay for the damned, el Diablo will grant Margarita her deepest wish.

The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde, 1895)

So it’s a play about two rich Victorian socialites who have a weirdly specific type, and are only interested in dating fellows called ‘Earnest’. So naturally two incorrigible gents pretend their names are Earnest to win these fair maidens affections. It’s a comedy, but people were easier to make laugh in Victorian times.

Basically I couldn’t get into it because I just kept thinking, was there ever a point in history where the name Earnest was the ultimate bachelor name? It just makes me think of those of those stupid 1990s flicks where doofus Ernest gets into various jams, like needing to save Christmas or assemble hard furniture.

The delightful twist (and sorry for spoilers) is that the two gents find out their names were Earnest all along so they were technically never liars – isn’t life funny like that?

Tess of the D’urbervilles (Thomas Hardy,  ‎1891)

Tess Durbeyfield is the eldest of John and Joan Durbeyfield – a dirt poor couple, whose hopes go up when they learn that they may be descendants of a noble family the d’Urbervilles.

Tess’ family name is the reason she is sent by her parents to ‘claim kin’ and ultimately work at the d’Urberville estate for Alec d’Urberville. Yet the reason I’m bringing this book up in this post, is for the name she gives her son – the product of Alec’s crime against Tess – baby Sorrow.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Márquez, 1970)

The saga of six generations of the Buendía family, all living within the isolated village  their family founded called Macondo, one reason this book gets progressively more difficult to follow is that names are passed down through the generations. The most extreme example being the second son of José Arcadio Buendía (the first generation’s patriarch), Colonel Aureliano Buendía, who names his seventeen sons (to seventeen different women – the Colonel was a dog!) all Aureliano. 

Here, the consistent repetition of names within the family is part of the novel’s ongoing point that history is a cycle repeating itself.