From You Think That’s Bad
“One of my great subjects over the years,” says Jim Shepard, “great in terms of just volume, has been complicity with power and complicity with evil. … I don’t think I ever will write something from the point of view of Hitler, or Himmler, or something like that. But the guy who enables Himmler …”
Writing about history’s monsters is something that captures a part of the author’s imagination, but doing so in a straightforward way seems unsatisfying, in part because it lets the reader off the hook. “If I write about Himmler,” Shepard says, “I leave the reader in a very comfortable position, because the reader says, wow, what an evil guy. If I write about somebody who helps Himmler, I hope that I’m leaving the reader in a position of going, well, actually, that enabling is something that sounds familiar to me as well, because I happen to know of some things that happened that I didn’t do anything to try to stop.”
This is at once a statement of artistic intent, and an explanation of one of the key strategies Shepard employs in “Classical Scenes of Farewell,” an excoriating story featuring Gilles de Rais, a fifteenth century soldier in the French army who fought with Joan of Arc and was later executed as a child murderer. Crucially, the story is not centred on de Rais, but on one of his manservants, Etienne Corillaut, who goes by Poitou (the nickname is a region in France, but also refers more specifically to a kind of donkey bred there). By filtering the narrative through Poitou’s first-person perspective, Shepard paradoxically humanizes it, thereby rendering the events in the story all the more horrifying.
To tell the story of de Rais’ exploits would be monstrous, but his career as a murderer – think the Marquis de Sade crossed with Clifford Olson – was so outrageous, so extraordinary, that it readily affords the reader a safe distance: there is no way any sane person could possibly identify with de Rais as a character or find any empathy for his actions. However, by using a young man from a poor family – someone much easier for a reader to understand and empathize with – as a kind of tour guide through hell, Shepard forces a pang of recognition on the reader; the manifest discomfort in the story comes from a realization of just how apparently normal Poitou appears. If he is capable of abetting de Rais’ crimes, then by extension, and given the right circumstances, so might anyone be.
The story is structured as a confession, written by Poitou on the eve before he is to be executed along with Henriet, another of de Rais’ accomplices. “I am now twenty-two years of age,” Poitou writes, “and here acknowledge to the best of my abilities the reasons for those acts that have made this name along with my master’s the object of hatred throughout the region.” But, Poitou doesn’t stop there:
I here also address the questions that my kinsmen hear from every stable hand, every innkeeper, every farmer in his field: What transpired in his mind that allowed a young person to have acted in such a manner and then to have lived apparently untroubled among his fellows? What enabled him to have stepped forward into the sunlight and Nature’s bounty for six years of such iniquity?
In other words, Poitou – and by extension Shepard – wants his readers to understand him, to comprehend the reasons behind his active participation in absolutely horrific activities. Shepard does not spare the reader the horror: the scenes depicting de Rais’ crimes are explicit and highly disturbing, but they are not in any way gratuitous or pornographic; the violence in the story – some of it sexual violence – is unacceptable and frankly difficult to handle, but this is surely the point. What Shepard is interested in is a confrontation with evil, and a reckoning with the forces in the world that allow it not only to exist, but to flourish.
The opening scene depicts Poitou’s childhood on his family’s “tumbledown farm,” a place his mother believed to be “serried and tumid with devils.” These are the supernatural devils of early Christendom; when Poitou encounters an actual, flesh-and-blood devil in the person of de Rais, we note the disconnection between the Church’s notion of evil and evil as it actually exists in the world. Shepard ironically portrays de Rais as a highly devout man; he tells the Inquisitor who condemns him to death that before his sentence is carried out he wants to be reincorporated into the Church from which he has been excommunicated.
The backdrop to the story is of course France in the 1600s – a period in which the country had been ravaged by war and strife, and the gap between the wealthy, titled nobility and the dirt poor was astounding. “Each of [de Rais’] castles,” Poitou states, “was thronged about by children made homeless by a hundred years of war and brigandage, begging where they could and stealing where they couldn’t.” The rampant social inequality and class-based misery provides a waiting flock of forgotten children from which de Rais may choose his victims. De Rais is a manifestation of pure evil, but the story at least strongly implies that it was the social conditions in France – conditions that in some ways closely mirror our own in the second decade of the 21st century – that allowed him to continue killing unchecked.
Shepard is fond of quoting Flannery O’Connor’s assertion that the fiction writer’s focus is the action grace in the territory of the devil. There is no grace to be found in “Classical Scenes of Farewell,” though Pitou’s final words are an imprecation to God that the fires that burn him and Henriet alive may serve to cleanse them of their sins: “And God will come to know our secrets. At our immolation He’ll appear to us and pour His gold out at our feet. And His grace that we kicked away will become like a tower on which we might stand. And His grace will raise us to such a height that we might glimpse the men we aspired to be. And His grace like the heat of the sun will burn away the men we have become.”
The great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa claimed that being an artist means never averting your eyes. In telling the story of Gilles de Rais’ deluded manservant, Shepard resolutely refuses to avert his eyes. “Classical Scenes of Farewell” is a bold attempt to reckon with the nature of evil in history and, by extension, the evil that exists all around us in the present. That we as readers so easily recognize our own society – to say nothing of ourselves – in the pages of the story is perhaps its most disturbing and agonizing aspect.
“My wife has said about me that I’m the only person she knows who would take a history of the guillotine to the beach.”
American novelist and short story writer Jim Shepard’s choice of beach reading says quite a bit about the kind of author he is. It also testifies to the twin poles that animate his fiction.
Shepard is possessed of a voracious, roving imagination that seems equally at home on the killing fields of the French Revolution or the Second World War and onstage with The Who. So capacious is his imaginative empathy that he is capable of projecting himself inside the Hindenburg and offering a cogent explanation for what caused the famous disaster, all while telling a tender love story featuring two homosexual engineers and transforming the whole thing into a metaphor for the twentieth century’s failed aspirations in the areas of national and technological mastery.
But the fact that Shepard would read about the guillotine on the beach is equally significant. He feels comfortable writing about the heaviest of themes – the Holocaust, the Columbine school massacre – one moment, but the next will find him telling a story about the Creature from the Black Lagoon. From the point of view of the creature. Or doing a story about mental illness, filtered through the eyes of a narrator who, as a boy in the 1960s, was obsessed with collecting Topps’ Mars Attacks! trading cards.
“You’ve probably put your finger on how my own personal aesthetic works,” says Shepard about the short story “Mars Attacks.” “I don’t sit down at my desk and say, it’s time to tackle mental illness. What I’m doing is going, you know what would be great? To write about those cards. And that’s my way of talking myself into dealing with difficult emotional issues.”
If there is a unifying theme to Shepard’s diverse output, it can probably be found in the realm of “difficult emotional issues,” particularly those that manifest in extreme situations.
Shepard’s new novel, The Book of Aron, locates itself at the centre of one of the most extreme places in history: the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazis. It takes up the story of Janusz Korczak, the Jewish doctor and educational reformer who set up an orphanage inside the walls of the Jewish ghetto. Importantly for Shepard, however, Korczak is not the novel’s protagonist, but rather a secondary figure. The protagonist is the eponymous Aron, a child who learns to live by his wits – smuggling, colluding, and doing pretty much anything he has to in order to survive – before winding up in the care of the saintly Korczak.
“I was dealing with the kind of figure that normally doesn’t get narrated,” Shepard says of his approach to the novel. “One of the insidious things about a lot of Holocaust narratives is the way they choose figures that are quite extraordinary.”
Shepard cites Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s List and The Diary of Anne Frank as books that fall into this category, and offers a tacit rebuke to critics such as Geraldine Brooks, whose recent New York Times review of The Book of Aron questioned why the story wasn’t narrated from Korczak’s perspective. Reading Frank’s diary, Shepard posits, it’s impossible not to be astounded by the intelligence and empathic rumination that infuses the writing of such a young girl. “And it’s one short step from that to, you know, the Holocaust was a terrible thing because it killed Anne Frank,” Shepard says. “I thought, what about those people nobody valued, what about those people who got swept away. And, you know, all those people in the background of all the newsreels. I very much like that worm’s eye view, that sense that nobody cares about my protagonist but me.”
Brooks also points out that in order for Shepard to inhabit Aron’s consciousness, he must forgo numerous writerly flourishes, such as lush vocabulary and metaphor. She suggests this is a risky proposition for an author, but it is in fact simply another characteristic of Shepard’s writing. For all its diversity in terms of subject, Shepard’s fiction – be it novels or stories – is notable for its concision, its ruthless paring away of anything extraneous. “I’m really attracted to leanness,” Shepard says, while at the same time acknowledging, “I don’t think that’s a mainstream, readerly pleasure.”
Shepard suggests that Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winner, All the Light We Cannot See, offers an example of a book that resides at the other end of the spectrum from The Book of Aron. “Tony’s book is 500, 600 pages, and it reads pretty quickly, and readers feel like, I got my money’s worth there. [Whereas] mine is a shuttered, streamlined little thing.”
While Shepard’s attachment to sparseness is apparently engrained in his makeup, he is cognizant of the mainstream limitations inherent in this approach. “I recognize that in fact it’s not what I would call a good business decision,” he says. “I think the big canvas not only attracts more readers, but it feels self-consciously more important. It’s big in both senses of the word.”
And though it would be difficult to deny the evident ambition in Shepard’s range of output and his ability to inhabit an apparently endless variety of different characters convincingly, this is not the kind of ambition that calls attention to itself and wins prizes. “I’d be miserable if I didn’t think my work was ambitious,” Shepard says. “I think my work is extraordinarily ambitious, but I think you have to be a certain kind of reader to understand that. When you get a 700-page novel that is explicitly talking about the rights of man, even falling down the stairs you would think this is an ambitious book. So, it’s much more signposted.”
Those signposts don’t exist in the realm of short fiction, which is a genre Shepard continues returning to, in part because of his affinity for leanness, and in part because he enjoys “the guerilla aspect” of the form. “There’s a lot of what I call furniture moving in novel writing that I get quite impatient with. I love the idea that you hit the ground running.”
Of course, the very fact the writer hits the ground running, covers a brief distance, then stops is precisely one of the aspects of the short form that turns readers off. Shepard readily acknowledges that readers feel they don’t have time with a short story to make the kind of emotional investment that a novel affords, which is one reason stories are paradoxically unpopular in an age of constant distraction and short attention spans.
“One of the other things that’s operating that I think publishers forget,” Shepard continues, “is short stories seem very close in the reader’s mind to medicine. It’s very close to poetry. Or Literature with a capital ‘L.’ [Readers] think, this is going to be a little bit more oblique, this is going to be a little bit more difficult, a little bit more modernist, and I’m going to feel a little stupid, maybe, and who needs it?”
That said, one other signature facet of Shepard’s writing – the novels and, especially, the stories – is a staunch refusal to dumb itself down, a tactic that seems almost counterintuitive in our current anti-intellectual climate. “I always trust my readers to infer way more than other writers do,” Shepard says.
That is a large investment of trust, given the relative difficulty of Shepard’s fiction. It feels in some ways as though the title of the author’s National Book Award–nominated 2007 story collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway is a rebuke to the culture at large. “One of my students told her mother that I had a new collection out,” Shepard recalls. “And her mother said, ‘Oh, what’s it called? Maybe I’ll get it.’ And the student said, ‘Like You’d Understand, Anyway.‘ And the mother said, ‘Well, I might!'”
Yet for all its intellectual rigour, for all the evident research and erudition that goes into the work, it is the emotional connection that sparks Shepard’s fiction. Absent that emotional trigger, the author says he would not be able to find a way into the work. Returning to Shepard’s preferred beach reading, it is not the history of the French Terror itself, horrendously compelling though it may be, that provokes a story. It is always something much more specific, and more resonant.
In the case of “Sans Farine,” which is included in Like You’d Understand, Anyway, it was a detail about a hereditary executioner – “That already interests me: how do you get that job? How did a family end up with that?” – who complained to one of the French monarchs that his clothes were wearing out too quickly on account of all the blood they were becoming saturated with. “And I thought, what kind of a person complains about that? And in what way? The idea that you would be so good at self-pity that even as a mass murderer, you would think that you were the one beset … That I felt like I could relate to emotionally.”
The kind of miniaturism contained in this attitude is not to suggest that even Shepard is immune to feeling intimidated by the scope of his ongoing project. “The hubris involved with what I’m doing a lot of the time is fairly staggering,” Shepard says. “To me, anyway.” One of the reasons the author gives for defaulting to the first person in the majority of his work is that it is one way of tackling the hubris head on. “I was trying to write years ago about Aeschylus and I was trying to do so in a detached third person and it was a miserable failure. And finally I got so upset with myself that I thought, you know what, just head on: if you can’t finish a sentence that begins, ‘I am Aeschylus,’ then you should just stop doing it.”