Last Stories and Other Stories

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9780670015979: Last Stories and Other Stories

Supernaturally tinged stories from William T. Vollmann, author of the National Book Award winner Europe Central
 
In this magnificent new work of fiction, his first in nine years, celebrated author William T. Vollmann offers a collection of ghost stories linked by themes of love, death, and the erotic.
 
A Bohemian farmer’s dead wife returns to him, and their love endures, but at a gruesome price. A geisha prolongs her life by turning into a cherry tree. A journalist, haunted by the half-forgotten killing of a Bosnian couple, watches their story, and his own wartime tragedy, slip away from him. A dying American romances the ghost of his high school sweetheart while a homeless salaryman in Tokyo animates paper cutouts of ancient heroes.
 
Are ghosts memories, fantasies, or monsters? Is there life in death? Vollmann has always operated in the shadowy borderland between categories, and these eerie tales, however far-flung their settings, all focus on the attempts of the living to avoid, control, or even seduce death. Vollmann’s stories will transport readers to a fantastical world where love and lust make anything possible.

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About the Author:

William T. Vollmann has written nine novels, three collections of stories, six works of nonfiction, and a memoir. He has won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a Whiting Writers Award, and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

LISTENING TO THE SHELLS 1

In the dimming living room they were drinking slivovitz and water out of fine crystal glasses, and everyone was laughing and smoking American cigarettes until a shell fell twenty-five meters away. The women jumped. Another shell fell slightly closer and the women screamed. Then the people sat silently smoking in the last light, their smoke nearly the same color as the drinking glasses, and presently began to laugh again, leaning over their hands or spreading their fingers; they stubbed out their cigarettes in crystal ashtrays, and the poet who loved Vesna even suspected that finally he had found life. But Enko the militiaman sat glaring. Now it was dark, with echoes of the last light fading from the bubbles of mineral water just within the glasses and from the women’s pale blouses, and they sat in silence, listening to the shells.

When a shell approaches closely, you may well hear a hiss before it strikes. Once it does, you will be deafened for a minute or two, during which time you are not good for much except to wait for another shell. Meanwhile you see what they call the big light. After that you can hear the screams of children.

Vesna’s best friend Mirjana had had two little boys, and a shell killed them both. A shell had sheared away the tree in front of Vesna’s apartment; the smash had been so loud that she was certain she must be wounded.

Mirjana said: Marinko has a car but no petrol. Do you know where he can get petrol?

Ask Enko, said Vesna.

Enko said nothing.

Smiling brightly, Mirjana tried to light another cigarette. The match-flame trembled between her fingers and went out. Vesna leaned toward her, so that they could touch their cigarettes together. People still had plenty of tobacco at that time. In a couple of years they would be smoking green tea.

Vesna said: It’s quiet now, thanks to God!

In the corner sat Enko with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and his police ID clinking on its neck-chain. He had pulled off his bulletproof vest, which was leaning against the wall in easy reach. Every now and then his hand touched the grip of his gun in the holster; then he swigged from the crystal glass and took another drag; finally he pulled off his now ridiculous sunglasses, his head turning rapidly as he listened to his comrade Amir, who leaned forward as if anticipating something, all the while touching his moustache with a ringed forefinger. No one else could hear their conversation. Enko’s cigarette burned steadily between two fingers as he raised it again, tapping his foot, and his face was young and hard.

2

Amir rose, gazed out the window into the greenish darkness, then went out.— He knows how to get American whiskey, Enko explained.

Vesna said: Enko, can you tell me where Marinko can buy some petrol?

Who’s Marinko?

Didn’t you meet him? I thought you did. He’s Mirjana’s cousin.

Enko locked his bleak eyes on Mirjana. He said: Where are you from anyway?

Look, I’m Sarajevan, just like you.

Great. Now what part of town are you from?

Her children are all killed, Vesna explained. From now she has none.

Who the fuck cares? said Enko. What do you need petrol for?

My cousin wants it. I don’t ask him his business.

Enko laughed.— Sure, he said. I can get him as much petrol as he wants.

He’ll be grateful to you.

Gratitude doesn’t do much for me, said Enko.

3

When Amir came back with the whiskey, he informed Enko that there was a lost American journalist at the Holiday Inn.

At the Holiday Inn, journalists were smoking quietly around marble tables in the dark. Across the river a machine gun chortled like a night bird. Enko found the lost American and quickly uncovered his particulars: He had no idea what he wanted, and he could pay a hundred fifty Deutschemarks per day—not nearly as much as any television reporter, let alone a sexy anchorwoman such as Christiane Amanpour, but whatever they could get out of him would be easy money, and his pockets might be deeper than he said. Amir, who had recently inherited an almost new Stojadin automobile, would be the driver, billing by the hour; while Enko would babysit the journalist at, for instance, a hundred fifty Deutschemarks a day. Amir and Enko knew that everything is negotiable, while the journalist knew that when one might be killed this very hour, all money is play money. So the three contracting parties quickly achieved agreement, Enko staring into the American’s face while Amir drummed fingers on the tabletop as if he knew of more lucrative projects elsewhere, which indeed he did.

A man in a flak jacket and helmet strutted by, with his tape recorder’s light glowing red. At another table, some functionary from Municipality Centar was assuring a French journalist: Everything will be solved by winter. Everything must be, or there will be hundreds and thousands dead.— The Frenchman nodded delightedly. Now he could file his story.

The American journalist was encumbered by a pair of binoculars for which he would never have any purpose. Enko told him: I sure could use your binoculars.

We’ll see, said the American vaguely. Maybe at the end . . .

Eight-o’-clock, said Amir to the American. Goodbye.

See you then, the American said. Well, Enko, can I buy you another drink?

Sure. By the way, I’m counting on those binoculars.

This building across the street, are there snipers in it? asked a very young British journalist in a worried voice.

Oh, no, they’ve cleaned it! his handler assured him.

Enko knew the handler, who was a sonofabitch and had once stolen away from him a very pretty Swedish correspondent. He therefore leaned across his enemy and explained to the British journalist, as if out of helpfulness: But there’s a sniper shooting at the other entrance. You don’t use that.

Now the lost American was looking even more lost, just as Enko had intended. He needed to be reminded that Enko could ditch him at any time. As a matter of fact, Enko was a man of his word. He would never do less than he had contracted to do, and often he would do more. But it was bad business to reveal that at the beginning.

The light continued to fail. Looking out the front windows, which happened to be lacking a few ovals and triangles, the journalists stared at blue sky, and at that silent building across the street.

Another drink? said the American.

Enko began to feel sorry for him.— There’s a party if you want to come.

What time?

Now.

How will I get back?

No one expects you to go out by yourself, said Enko contemptuously. He rose, pulled his bulletproof vest down over his head and strapped it tight across his sides.

4

In the windows those shards of bluish twilight sky were already colder, and now the clouds swam in.

The lights had come on in the parking garage. All was noiseless. They emerged into the grey light, which was dulling down with dust and a little rain, Enko already half flooring the accelerator as they screeched around the protected corner and into the sniper’s reach. Across the street, the journalist glimpsed a building with four rows of windows visible, grey and black like ice against the pale tan façade. Metal was chattering, but not here. Almost biting his lip, his shoulders hunched as if that could somehow diminish his vulnerability, Enko wrenched the car around another corner; now they were rushing past yellow walls into the Stari Grad; there was dust, chalk and broken glass on the sidewalk.— That’s from right now, explained Enko, perhaps enjoying himself.— Just then, more glass departed windows, smashing on the street. The journalist sat quietly in the passenger seat. He excelled at being calm when he was powerless.

Enko demanded: What do you think about those fucking Chetniks?

Murderers, said the journalist.

Temporarily satisfied, Enko said: A few days ago a man was killed in front of the President’s palace. We tried to help him, but he was already bloody. The trail of blood went more than a thousand meters. Here’s where she lives.

Who?

Vesna. When you get out you don’t need to run, but I’m telling you, pay attention and move your ass.

All right.

Wait a second. Inbound. Shut up. Shut up. No, we’re fine.

As they trotted away from the car, they heard the shell explode.

In the dark landing between the first two flights of steps, Enko said: How about a cash advance?

Sure, said the journalist. How much?

Give me fifty.

Just a minute. Here it is.

Fine. Now, Vesna, she’s open-minded. She won’t care that I brought you. And there’s chicks galore, hot chicks. Not that they’d be especially interested in a guy like you, but maybe you’ll get lucky.

Okay.

Another thing. Anybody asks what you’re paying me or if you’re paying me, that’s only my business.

I won’t say a word.

I wish you’d have brought those binoculars. I wanted to show them off.

Vesna’s door was open. As they entered the apartment, which was foggy with cigarette smoke, they heard many people, and far away a machine gun fired three bursts. A woman laughed very loudly.

Look! cried Mirjana. I was wondering when you’d get here. Who’s that?

Just some American, said Enko.

And this is from my cousin, for the petrol. You’d better count it.

I don’t need to count it. If he shorted me, that’s his problem.

Thanks for helping him.

Well, he owes me. Who’s that girl over there?

5

At that party Enko met a woman named Jasmina, and in the morning he brought her home with her blouse buttoned up wrong and her lipstick smeared all over his neck. Enko’s mother knew enough not to say anything. He was her only help. As for the American, he had to sleep in Vesna’s living room because nobody felt like driving him back, especially after curfew. He didn’t mind a bit. Until half-past three he sat up with the poet, discussing the novels of Ivo Andric, whom the poet detested, Danilo Kiš, whose Garden, Ashes the poet liked better than he did, and, while Vesna sat smiling, smoking and yawning, the ideal form of Slavic feminine beauty, which, since they were young men, occupied their intellects. The other guests had departed. By now the snipers must likewise have gone to sleep, and the jewel-like silence which accordingly illuminated them both, not to mention their obsessive natures, rendered the conversation yet more interesting, if that were possible, than the topic warranted, so that they nearly could have been outside beneath the stars investigating essential things. Vesna had gone to share a cigarette with the new widow upstairs. The poet asserted that there was a certain kind of look, embodied in the bygone actress Olga Ilic, which had to do with dark eyes, dark hair (preferably curly), round silver earrings, large breasts, a long throat and plump lips. I am sorry to inform you that the American had never heard of Olga Ilic. The poet explained that she had played both Desdemona and Hamlet—what a free spirit!—and that on the wall of his room he treasured a newspaper photograph of her in the lead role of “Bad Blood.” If it weren’t for the Chetniks, he’d take the American by the arm and show him that picture right now, because these were the most important topics to human beings: true art, romance, expression—all present in Olga Ilic’s eyes.— And you know, my friend, when she died, she was practically a beggar! One of our greatest Yugoslav actresses! If I could go back in time, I’d attend one of her performances at the National Theater. She used to wear a rose on her breast, and then she’d give it away. What a poem I could write about that!— In the American, who cheerfully admitted to knowing less about Balkan womanhood than he should, or intended to, the poet found a refreshingly respectful audience; and in the poet the American found a guide to the names and charms of most of the women who had been there tonight, listening to the shells. It accordingly became evident that the poet was infatuated with Vesna, who now returned, smiling at them with seeming love even though there were dark rings under her eyes. The American allowed himself to be likewise infatuated, but without denying himself permission to remember Mirjana, Ivica and Dragica. Vesna poured them all a nightcap. To himself the American pretended that he had rescued her; now they would go to bed together for the first time. She gave him a blanket, and he lay down as far from the window as he could, with his bulletproof vest for a pillow. When the fabric got too wet, for instance from perspiration, it became dangerously permeable. That was why one shouldn’t sleep in it. The poet sat up, writing a poem for Vesna. Like many egoists, he had a very kind heart, and so just before dawn, while it was still safe, he woke up the journalist and walked him over to Enko’s.

At a quarter of nine that morning the noises began again, deep sullen thumpings and almost happy strings of popping like firecrackers. The poet had wisely departed long since. Enko and Jasmina were sleeping, or something. The journalist had brought a pound of American coffee for Vesna or some other ideal Slavic beauty, but, missing the opportunity to deploy it, he now gave it to Enko’s mother instead. That tired, hungry old woman accepted the gift with neither surprise nor thanks. Whatever came to her came not from this foreigner, who was nothing, but from Enko.

Make yourself at home; take a shower, she said, slipping the coffee into her coat pocket.— I have some business downstairs.

It was the first chilly day. The American took a cold shower in the pitch-dark bathroom and came out wondering how people would manage when the snow fell.

Now there were no shells, and the sun peered mirthlessly down on broken glass. Enko and Jasmina did not appear; nor yet did Enko’s mother. Enko and Amir were on the payroll today, but the American, who did not know so very many things, did know that this would come right sooner or later, or not, and that in the meantime the best thing he could do was nothing. Tired, hungover, self-bemused by Vesna, who smiled on every guest; instructed by the poet in the ways of Slavic women, and of course altered by the various evil potentialities of the shells, he considered that he was making progress, and sat at the dining table cheerfully enough, writing up his observations, with his vest leaning against his knees. He thought it his duty to express something of these people’s sufferings. If he were here for any reason, it must be that. If he could not do anything for them, then his journey had no purpose. As sincere in his way as Vesna, he wished for peace even if it made his story less dramatic. Like the poet, not to mention the snipers, he gave due credit to his feelings.

In front of the apartment the asphalt had been eaten away in blotches by shells, and beyond that was a littered sort of green over which wandered two dogs whose owners, Enko’s mother had said, couldn’t feed them anymore, and then a row of cars, some perfect, some rusted and windowless, some bullet-holed. The American listened. The smashing roar of a howitzer was startling, to be sure, but what did it accomplish? Did the besiegers possess only one shell? At nine it was quiet again aside from certain boomings in the background, and people passed leisurely, most of them walking, a few driving or bicycling, all of them crossing the two-lane highway at the intersection where the streetcar had been abandoned, then vanishing behind a tall constructio...

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Vollmann, William T.
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ISBN 10: 0670015970 ISBN 13: 9780670015979
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Descrizione libro Viking. 1 Cloth(s), 2014. hard. Condizione libro: New. Are ghosts in fact memories, fantasies, or monsters? In his first book of fiction since the 2005 National Book Award winner Europe Central, William T. Vollmann presents a collection of 32 ghost stories linked by themes of love, death, and the erotic. A Bohemian farmer's dead wife returns to him, and their love endures, though at a gruesome price. A geisha prolongs her life by turning into a cherry tree. A journalist, haunted by the half-forgotten killing of a Bosnian couple, watches their story, and his own wartime tragedy, slip away from him. A dying American romances the ghost of his high school sweetheart, while a homeless salaryman in Tokyo animates paper cutouts of ancient heroes. These eerie tales, however far-flung their settings, all consider the attempts of the living to avoid, control, or even seduce death. "Nightmarish, beautiful. Vollmann is an exquisite magician of a baroque stylistic obscurity that changes the reader slowly but surely. These troubled, voluptuous narratives are deeply concerned with the bewildering effects of trauma and loss. The book took reading and rereading for me, just as an intensely odd, seductive love song asks to be heard again and again. But Vollmann is a great storyteller, and the weird aurality is a critical part of these tales."—NYTBR"[These stories] call to mind no living writers, summoning instead Calvino, Marquez, Kafka. So mysterious are Vollmann's motivations, so sweeping his interests, so prodigious is his production, so vastly different is the thing he does from the thing that everyone else does that he may actually be a visitor from another dimension come to report comprehensively back to his home planet."—Esquire"There are ghost and horror stories here, parables, tales, and tender, more memoiristic stories, all enriched by Vollmann's travels to the Balkans, Scandinavia, Japan, Trieste, Bohemia, Buenos Aires, Mexico. It's less a story collection than a dozen interrelated mini-novels wrapped around various continents."—New Republic 677. Codice libro della libreria 71023

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