Short Stories, H. C. Schweikert

This was one of a couple short story anthologies that made their way from my Dede’s library to my parents’ house to my own bookshelves, for the simple reason that I’m a sucker for old books. This, especially, is a piece of family history to hold in my hands, with my Dede’s name and old Kensington address in neat, old-fashioned cursive in blue ink right on the flyleaf. I finally sat down to read it after a long stint with Swedish, when I could only muster enough brain for 1) something in English and 2) something short.

In a serendipitous turn of events, while I was reading this collection my sambo had taken to devouring old pulp magazines from the extensive collection at the Internet Archive—publications that were contemporaneous with this collection, and about which the editor (Harry Christian Schweikert, a prodigious anthologizer it seems) had this to say:

The pupils who will use this book are already confirmed short story readers, many of them, unfortunately, addicts of the popular and more sensational magazines. To condemn these magazines is worse than useless, especially if the teacher adopts a “high-brow” attitude. Pupils like nothing better than to shock the teacher. The situation is often complicated by the fact that many of these journals often contain good stories. Perhaps the best way is to ignore the magazines entirely at first. If the teacher is successful in stimulating genuine interest in the discussion of stories, the pupils will themselves dispose of the trashy magazines.

The second entertaining morsel about this collection is seeing how many of its featured authors are referred to in the present tense and whose death dates had not yet come to pass.

A table of contents in a short story anthology. The authors birth and dates are given, but several authors who have been long dead, such as Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle and James M. Barrie, lack death dates.

Since it’s a textbook, each story comes with an author biography, though as whole they’re more editorializing and nakedly subjective than anything I would have read in an English textbook in school. Discussion questions and “subjects for composition” also accompany each story, which make for a fun little peek into the English teaching of yesteryear. The same can be said for the actual selection of stories, a snapshot of prevailing tastes of the time. Several of the authors chosen were already well-established giants in 1925 (O. Henry, Anton Chekhov, Alexandre Dumas); others are familiar household names today that were still in their productive years (the above Sinclair Lewis et al.); still others were popular at the time of publication but later faded into obscurity (Joseph Hergesheimer or Frances Gilchrist Wood).

The vast majority of the stories were new to me, even if I knew around half of the authors. Is this another sign of changing times? Or am I just woefully ill-read when it comes to short stories? Hard to say. But the best part is how many new authors—especially women writing in the first half of the twentieth century—I can look up and enjoy for the first time.

L’Élégance du hérisson

The downside of reading in French is that it takes me so much longer than in either English or Swedish.

(It’s only a downside if a manic obsession with productivity drives you to stick to a particular reading schedule, I suppose, but that’s maybe a topic to take up another time, or in another context.)

An acquaintance recommended this (alongside Pappan och havet, actually) and I opted to read the French original because why not? The library had it, and I was behind on my French reading quota anyway.

(A manic obsession with self-improvement might drive me to set particular language quotas in my reading, I suppose, but that’s maybe a topic to take up another time, or in another context.)

It’s interesting to notice similarities in the books people enjoy and resonate with. Both Pappan och havet and L’Élégance du hérisson focus on how outcasts find genuine emotional and social connection with the people around them—though of course the personalities in Moomin Dalen are very different from those in Rive Gauche Paris. In Pappan och havet, our outsiders are Mårran and the fisherman; in L’Élégance du hérisson, they are Paloma, the precocious 12-year-old daughter of a respectable center-left politician, and Renée, the well-read and cultured concierge of Paloma’s posh apartment building. In Pappan och havet we have the Moomins bringing warmth and connection to both Mårran and the fisherman after they move in to the lighthouse; in L’Élégance du hérisson we have the genteel and kindly Kakuro Ozu who moves into an apartment after the death of its snobbish food critic owner.

With each passing year, it seems that the greatest benefit of my philosophy studies in college is being able to appreciate novels written by authors who also studied philosophy: David Foster Wallace, Lydia Sandgren, and now I suppose Muriel Barbery.

(This glib joke is actually unfair to the many excellent philosophy professors I had in my college career. In all seriousness, philosophy is a worthwhile course of study and it’s only because our minds have been poisoned by an excess of capitalism that the humanities seem like a waste of time.)

Did I only enjoy L’Élégance du hérisson because it made me feel like an elite smartypants? No, I don’t think so—I liked it on its own merits, or additional ones, maybe. There is always room in my heart for snarky, keenly observant children who hold nearly everyone around them in disdain, for example. But my French is still quite rusty, so I don’t know that I can quite comment on much more than that for now. The next thing is to read it again in Swedish (or English), then a third time in French, and see how much more I pick up.

(Does this sound like a laborious and joyless task? Possibly. But here, at least for a moment, I can put aside the capitalist obsession with numbers and figures and progress-at-all costs and take the time to linger over something just for the sake of enjoying it.)

Handels: Maktelitens skola

I have no end of studying to do for Kammarkollegiets Auktorisation exam, which means now was the perfect time to dig into a completely unrelated 500-page sociological tome on the Stockholm School of Economics (hereafter just “Handels”). Trust me, that’s actually 5D space chess levels of expert studying strategy. It has nothing to do with the fact that the cover caught my eye when I was in the library to pick up Kammarkollegiet study material.

The best kind of nonfiction books answer a question you would have normally never asked, and answer it so thoroughly that you’re left wondering why you would have never asked it to begin with. With Handels that question is, “Why do business schools exist?”

If you’d asked me that question a month ago I would have said something like, well I guess they’re just kind of a natural outgrowth of an already-established scholastic tradition. We add new fields of study all the time in other disciplines, after all. And then they spin off and form their own highly specialized institutions for any number of reasons, and that’s how we have Handels.

Mikael Holmqvist goes on a deep dive into the history of Handels, from the original motivations behind its establishment through the administrative decisions made throughout the century up to how it operates today. The short version of the argument that Holmqvist makes is that Handels, like other business schools at the time, was founded to lend an air of academic authority and social prestige to the growing business class in society and to the field of economics generally. This particular task now a fait accompli, Handels occupies a normative role in our neoliberal society: creating an “employable” pool of people for a specific industry by imbuing them with specific ideologies and personality traits that are compatible with neoliberal market values. News to me, but not to anyone who makes a career out of studying this sort of thing, I suppose. Similar arguments have been published by anglophone academics, including several books cited by Holmqvist (most notably Debra J. Schleef’s Managing Elites: Socialization in Law and Business Schools). I don’t know that there’s an English translation in the works for Handels; I don’t really know what the point would be? But on the other hand it appears that there’s an English version of Holmqvist’s previous work on the neighborhood of Djursholm so maybe there is some kind of niche demand for this kind of thing in English.

My tone sounds a bit “damned by faint praise,” though, and that’s not my intention. This was one of those books where I had to stop three or four times per chapter to send a quote to a friend, along with my own comments, in order to pick their own brain on the topic. (Deep appreciation to those friends for indulging me and my not-always-well-lit photos of walls of text.) Likewise, I found myself wishing there already was an English version that I could share with my policy nerd friends who can’t speak Swedish. (“Aren’t you a translator? Surely it wouldn’t be hard to toss off your own translation of a couple paragraphs?” The cobbler’s children has no shoes, my friend.)

If you can read Swedish, Handels is absolutely worth your time. If it comes out in English I’ll certainly be recommending it to a very particular subset of nerdy policy people that I hang out with. Until then there’s a very thorough works cited I can dig through to find the best and most interesting English equivalent.

Pappan och havet

My TBR keeps growing at an astonishing rate, and yet I keep getting distracted and reading just about anything else. Oops.

Pappan och havet came up in a conversation I was having last week about, among other things, re-reading books. I’m not much of a re-reader, but the person I was talking to mentioned that he liked to re-read Pappan och havet in the fall because it has a very autumnal vibe. “Dyster tillfredställande,” to be exact in the quote he cited from the book itself. Gloomy satisfaction. Such a strong reaction to a book will always pique my curiosity, and I hadn’t ever read a Moomin book before, anyway, so why not? Not like my TBR is going anywhere.

Once again, another review of a classic that needs no more reviews. It’s interesting, though, to see how children’s literature has evolved over time. Considering my past life as a teacher and private tutor to young people, I’ve stayed slightly more up to date on children’s and middle grade books than I might have otherwise; I think I have at least some authority on which I can make comparisons.

Putting aside the simplest picture books and early readers, the childhood reads that have stayed burned into my memory and part of my library have a certain ponderous quality to them. Of course it makes sense that I would keep, say, The Secret Garden and The Phantom Tollbooth in my library as I got older but eventually give away however many of the Animorphs and Babysitters Club books I’d accumulated. For one, there are practical considerations and limitations when it comes to housing never-ending series as opposed to single stand-alone volumes.

But there are also simply differences in their content, and I like to think I could sense those differences even at first reading (I was reading all of those books at about the same time, from ages 8 to 10). Don’t get me wrong: I definitely enjoyed every single Animorphs and Babysitters Club book I ever read. I was hardly a snob. But if a book had a ponderous or somewhat grown-up aura to it, I think it stuck with me extra much; I cared about it more. (Putting aside the ones that were like running up against a brick wall because they were perhaps a bit too grown-up for my brain, which also happened. I’ve already talked about how long it took me to really appreciate Ursula K. LeGuin here.)

Skimming through books to decide which ones would be appropriate birthday gifts to students, or to see what my students were excited about, I don’t think I ever found something with that same aura. The sense I got was less ponderous and more about distraction. Entertainment. Action. And this is probably a change that was happening even before I was born, considering that the aforementioned Animorphs and Babysitters Club novels of my youth also have the same distracting entertainment quality to them.

Of course, I’ve heard from more than one librarian that the children’s books that win the Big Serious Awards as decided by Adults are never the ones that are actually popular with children. Maybe a hypothetical lack of ponderous depth in children’s literature doesn’t actually matter and I’m just being grumpy.

All of this is to say that Pappan och havet has the same ponderous quality I would have enjoyed as young reader. I’m sad I missed out on it when I was the “right” age, but I’m glad I got to read it now.

Outline

Sometimes I read English books in Swedish translation out of personal (and I guess professional) curiosity. Is the experience any different? Will I pick up some new vocabulary, learn how to express a particular English sentiment that I still struggle with?

Other times I’m desperate to find any copy of a particular book and only Swedish is available, at which point the exercise is more pragmatic and akin to mental ambidexterity. (See The Jakarta Method.) Such was the case with Rachel Cusk’s Outline, or Konturer in Swedish. This was a selection for the local book club; by the time this post goes up, we’ll have already met for dinner and discussion. I needed a copy by a particular deadline and the Swedish was what was immediately available, so that’s what I went with.

The whole book plays out over just a few days. The narrator is a writer, Faye, an Englishwoman teaching a creative writing workshop in Athens. Most of the book consists of the stories other people tell her, presented in reported speech from Faye’s first-person perspective.

I also might have lied a little bit when I said I only read the Swedish because of availability. That is true, but I was also relieved to find out that the Swedish was more readily available because nothing about this book sounded appealing and because a friend whose taste I trust implicitly hated it. Yes, yes, let’s not judge a book by a cover, either literally or metaphorically, but silly to pretend I’m not influenced by other people’s opinions. Hence I was hoping that reading the Swedish would bypass everything my friend found tedious about the book and let me enjoy it regardless.

James Lasdun notes in his review in the Guardian that

…in funnelling all the characters’ stories through Faye’s very refined sensibility (there’s little direct speech), Cusk gives them all a certain high-polished sameness, at least at the purely verbal level. I can’t say that bothered me, but no doubt it will keep some readers from responding to the book as enthusiastically as I did.

And that is exactly what happened. All of these people had backgrounds not particularly different from each other (disappointed middle-aged parents, often divorcés), meaning that Cusk’s “high-polished sameness” made for extremely monotonous reading.

Outline also requires a huge suspension of disbelief that I’m frankly not willing to give a book if I’m not having a great time. People tell their entire life stories to strangers in the most unlikely environments: during flights, writing workshops, over dinner. These accounts are always eloquently and coherently presented in language that sounds like no conversation I’ve ever actually had with another human. Much is often given in reported speech or summarized by Faye, and when direct speech appears it doesn’t sound all that different from Faye’s own voice. The latter is maybe a fault with me—I no doubt still lack some nuance and sophistication in my ear for Swedish, so I might have missed the elegance of Rebecca Alsberg‘s translation in places—but it doesn’t make the actual structure of the book any less repetitive.

The only mildly interesting moment in the book comes in the last chapter, and I’m not sure if Cusk actually intended this to be self-reflexive commentary on the rest of the book or if she was just taken with the idea without realizing how it applied to what she was writing. On her last day in Athens, Faye runs into her replacement (they are staying in the same apartment provided by the hosting school), who tells Faye that she’s had the worst time trying to write since she was mugged. Instead of being able to properly write or read a story, she can only fixate on a one-word summary that essentially drains the narrative of all life. Her once-beloved Beckett, for example, she can now only think of as “meaninglessness.” This summarization fixation has also bled beyond literature and into real life, where she’s now facing a crisis of sorts after she realizes that her entire existence could be summarized merely as “Anne’s life.”

That’s all Outline is: a bunch of lives, summarized in more or less the same voice, with nothing interesting arising out of their interaction or juxtaposition. The comparison that comes to mind is Ten Women from Marcela Serrano (English translation by Beth Fowler). Both are a fairly disjointed collection of life stories anchored in the one person all of these people have in common, but at least in Ten Women the characters are from all walks of life (from a TV celebrity to an elderly sales clerk to a young computer science student) and each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective and in a different character’s voice. Moreover, their presentation together as a collection gives rise to a more coherent organizing principle than anything in Outline: we can see at once the huge gulfs in experience for all of these women, as well as the struggles they share, and the book functions as a fairly straightforward feminist critique of socio-economic conditions in Chile.

If there is any kind of organizing principle in Outline, it’s a much more banal and self-indulgent one: Faye is sad about her divorce. And since the book gives me no real reason to care that Faye is sad about her divorce, or to understand why it’s such a spectacular tragedy in the world of divorces, everything else collapses into a bunch of tedium.

Three Weeks in Östersund

Despite being my longest vacation in a good long while, compared to other vacations I have the least to say about Östersund after the fact. This is hardly surprising; after all, I set out with the intention of making this trip as low-key and do-nothing as possible. It ended up being slightly more do-nothing than I maybe intended, seeing as I forgot that at least one of the museums I wanted to visit closed for the season in the middle of my trip, but no matter! I finished all of the books on my Östersund reading list, so I’m calling this vacation a win.

Boulders in front of a lake on a sunny day.

The most eventful part of the trip was dealing with my lodgings. I booked a loft apartment AirBnB close to the water for most of the trip, but for the first and last nights I wanted to stay in town so I didn’t have to stress about catching buses and all of my bags and so on.

A dock and breaker leading into the water, on an overcast day with a bench in the foreground.
I did a fair chunk of reading here.

My first hotel was an absolute pit—a “Best Western” I booked using grocery store customer loyalty points that bait-and-switched me into a run-down hostel that was pretty clearly a separate commercial operation altogether—and then on my second to last day I realized my booking at the same “Best Western” had never gone through. I don’t like booking lodgings at the last minute (it was too late to try to use more loyalty points), but on the plus side it was much nicer than the first place and not at a ridiculous cost. The same price, actually, I would have paid for my first room if I’d been paying in cash.

As for tourist attractions, I made a couple visits to Jamtli and also stopped by Frösö сhurch.

The interior of Frösö chuch, facing the altar. A copper chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and the interior is decorated in a blue and gold motif.

In an unexpected turn of events, one of my Stockholm friends was also up for an overnight stay in Östersund for schooling related matters. That’s how our first in-person interaction in nearly two years ended up happening in another city entirely.

An askew view of two half-empty beers and a small blue bowl of French fries on a black table.
That hand is proof I wasn’t drinking alone at Bishop’s Arms.

Now it’s really properly fall. Lazy summer days are over and it’s back to the grindstone. I have a few months’ grace time to focus on my own studies before the high season kicks in at work, so I better make good use of it.

The Seep

Now we’re out of my non-English vacation reading and back into English territory with The Seep, the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club’s selection for October.

Straight off, I really liked The Seep. The only reason I didn’t finish it in one marathon session was because I started reading it in the middle of the night and exhaustion eventually overtook me. To get into slightly more detail, The Seep uses the framework of first-contact and utopia genres to examine grief, how it feels to be left behind by seismic shifts in society, and which struggles are worth having. It’s also very queer, very trippy, and very short: the perfect book for getting out of a reading slump.

Perfect, no notes.

La Gloire de mon père & Le château de ma mère

Marcel Pagnol’s Souvenirs d’enfance were burned into my memory at some point during my French studies—I watched Le Gloire de mon père for class, and I had an abridged or otherwise simplified edition of the book for course literature (that I don’t think I ever actually read, and that I definitely didn’t hold on to). Trying to track them down at the library or at the handful of international bookstores I knew of in Stockholm never got me anywhere. Nor did I think to check at Språkbokhandeln, the absolute treasure trove nestled in Lund, when I was there in 2020. It all worked out, though, because I can’t think of a better souvenir (hah) from Paris: one book from each bookstore we visited!

I packed both books for vacation and assumed that would keep me well occupied, but to my surprise I absolutely tore through each book in little over a day. Usually my reading experiences in French require frequent dictionary breaks just to follow what’s going on (George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir), but Pagnol did me favor and kept it relatively simple—even with all of the terminology for wildlife and hunting, I could keep up with the story. Dictionary breaks could wait until a re-read.

La Gloire de mon père was also a welcome counterbalance to the despair in Världen av i går. Pagnol was Zweig’s junior by fourteen years or so; reading the two alongside each other meant I was getting a bit of a Cubist portrait of turn-of-the-century Europe, two different perspectives presented simultaneously.  The years in Berlin and Paris that Zweig writes about with the nerves of a young man were merely the warm and happy days of Pagnol’s childhood in Marseilles.

I got too cocky, though, and rushed ahead through Le Château de ma mère, which is just as drenched in sunshine and nostalgia as its predecessor…until the very last chapter, which is when it collides with the grim realities Zweig depicts in Världen av i går. A lot of crying, this vacation! Turns out I didn’t really pack as much light reading as I thought I had.

According to English Wikipedia, Pagnol is considered a bit old-fashioned and passé these days, but since I’m not French that context was completely lost on me. To an extent it’s also pretty on brand for me, anyway, considering I’ve been well behind the times for basically my entire life.

The two are collected in a single volume, both translations from Rita Barisse that were more or less contemporary with the original publication in French. Have there been more recent ones? Is it any good? Who knows!

Världen av i går & Amok

It seems I followed much of the rest of the world, or if not the world then just one friend of mine in particular, in reaching for Die Welt von Gestern in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. But since my arbitrary rule of translations is to read German originals in Swedish rather than in English, I had to wait until I came across a Swedish translation (and it never seemed to be available at the library when I remembered to check). Six years later, it appeared in front of me at Söderbokhandeln Hansson & Bruce. I took it with me for vacation reading, and while I was browsing Hubenettes in Östersund I happened to notice Zweig’s novella collection Amok on the shelves. Since they’re the same author and I read them in such close succession, collapsing them into a single blog-thought makes sense.

Amok is not any deliberate assemblage of Zweig’s or time-honored collection that’s seen international release in several languages.  Instead, it’s a collection from Ersatz Förlag, only available in Swedish, featuring “The Royal Game,” “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman,” “Confusion,” “A Girl and the Weather,” and “Amok.”

The World of Yesterday, on the other hand, is available in several English translations: one from titan among translators Anthea Bell, which seems to be the translation put out by Pushkin Press; one from Plunkett Lake Press attributed to B. W. Huebsch and Helmut Ripperger; and finally a translation from Robert Boettcher independently published through Amazon.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Zweig doesn’t really discuss his own writing much in Världen av i går, at least from a personal perspective on the process. The only time he addresses the craft of writing more or less head on, he toots his own horn and talks up how one of his strengths as a writer is his ability to murder his darlings and stick to only the most essential elements of a story. After the five stories included in Amok, I have to disagree, but maybe that’s a factor of changing times and literary conventions.

Women are essentially invisible in Zweig’s depiction of Europe in general and of his life in particular. Not surprising for the content or the times, so I’m not exactly mad about it. Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out that Zweig’s first wife (who only gets two incidental mentions in Världen av i går, one of which is when Zweig is trying to divorce her) undertook a significant chunk of research and administration for him; his second wife (whose only mention is in the same breath as the aforementioned divorce) had originally been his secretary. Amazing how being able to outsource drudgery and life maintenance frees you up to be a highly productive writer!

The same lack of women more or less applies to the stories in Amok, which are all deeply anchored in a first-person perspective from a male narrator. Even “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman” uses a male narrator to frame the story of the woman in question—a frame that I don’t see much narrative use for. Of course, Amok only contains five novellas out of a substantial body of work; such a limited selection is hardly indicative of an entire body of writing. I just wish there had been more thought on the publisher’s part about which stories to select.

Overall, I was touched by Zweig’s humanity and empathy, which was just as much on show in the above stories as it was in his memoirs. They are all deeply psychological, character-driven narratives rooted in human struggles, suffering, and resilience. But in all honesty, his knack for characterization is actually on better display in Världen av i går than in most of the stories in Amok. Zweig’s sketches of his contemporaries are precise and cutting, unambiguously sympathetic to the person involved but clear-eyed about their flaws or failures. The characters in the stories collected in Amok, on the other hand, are muddier and harder to pin down. I cried at some point in every chapter of Världen av i går, but I shed no tears over any story in Amok.

The reason I was so unmoved by, and ultimately a bit disappointed in, Zweig’s fiction might be the same reason I could lose myself so easily in his memoirs: they are a product of a specific time. Sympathy for an amorous widow scorned by a younger lover, or for a closeted gay English literature professor, might well have been scandalous or at least unusual upon publication in the 1920s, but close to a century later those stories are fairly tame and predictable. So the wheel turns; with any luck, in another hundred years, stories like “I Sexually Identify As an Attack Helicopter” will seem confusing or just banal because we’ll live in a better world where fluid gender identities are a matter of course. While Världen av i går might as well be subtitled “Plus ça change,” stories like “Confusion” with their now-dated and unremarkable plot twists make you realize that things can get better.

Dvärgen

When I did my semester abroad at Stockholm University, I took a course in modern Swedish literature (offered in English, since our Swedish wasn’t much more advanced than “En stor stark, tack!”). It was by far the best literature course of my undergrad career, in large part because of the excellent reading list. The course literature included Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist, which made such a strong impression on me that I started building a small library of his books as soon as I moved to Sweden.

As I write this, I realize that I have to start almost every review here with some kind of explanation as to either how I came to hear of a book, or why I chose to read it, or both. I guess context is important to me. Here, for example, you can (rightly) infer that I went into this book biased and well-disposed towards Lagerkvist, and now you can (rightly) expect that I liked it. Now I can dispense with the pointless formality and hubris of passing judgment on a well-established classic and just ramble a bit. My point here isn’t to encourage—or discourage—anyone from picking up something relatively new and/or obscure. I just want to remember what I read and, in this case, present worthy Swedish books to my English-speaking friends. Lagerkvist was a huge international hit in his lifetime but he seems to have returned to mere domestic fame; these days Sweden’s entries in world literature appear to be limited to Strindberg and Nordic noir, which I feel is deeply unfair. Fortunately, it’s my understanding that there is an English translation of Dvärgen available and that it is of excellent quality, so you don’t have to miss out on this one.

Anyway! Dvärgen is simply the diary of a court dwarf in Renaissance Italy, spanning maybe six months to a year for the bulk of the action. It includes war, assassinations, intrigue, plague, famine and all the rest through the eyes of said unnamed dwarf, a character that literary criticism has near unanimously described as “evil incarnate.” That’s the interpretation I was thinking about after I finished the book. Is the narrator really meant to be as much?

I don’t ask the question to “woobify” him, as the expression goes—to turn a clearly morally corrupt character into a sympathetic and victimized hero. While his role as as servant means he’s often acting on behalf of others, the dwarf also carries out several actions on his own initiative, motivated by rage and sadism. Nor is there any attempt to make him appealing or “likeable,” like a secret fondness for animals or sensitivity to music. He finds all of the nobler human emotions and pursuits abhorrent or ridiculous; the only things he confesses to enjoying are war, violence, and bloodshed. The extent of the sympathy evoked for him is the absolutely dehumanizing treatment he receives from just about everyone around him. Stepping back, we can also of course point out that we are reading his own diary and account of himself, which is naturally how he wants to be experienced and how he is choosing to present himself, but that is an ambiguous point we can, at best, only infer. I’m sure there’s been more than one thesis already about the role of toxic masculinity and ableism in forming his character.

Rather, I ask the question because just as much of the evil in the book—if not most of it—is someone else’s doing. The prince decides to go to war entirely of his own volition, without consulting the dwarf at all. Likewise, when war proves fruitless, he decides to lure the enemy into an assassination with promises of peace and free trade. The dwarf might be the one to serve the enemy poisoned wine at the celebratory dinner, but he does so only at the order of the prince. And while the dwarf decides of his own accord to inform the prince of the tryst between the enemy prince’s son and the prince’s own daughter, the prince is the one who, in a fit of impetuous rage, murders the young man in his sleep.

Moreover, if we are to take the dwarf at his word, the fear and distaste that people express when they encounter him is nothing more than fear and distaste for what lurks inside themselves. Is this an observation that the reader is meant to take seriously? Or are we to understand that this is projection or warped thinking on behalf of the narrator, and that his claims of true insight and understanding are just so much bloviating?

Life is ambiguous, art is ambiguous, there are no easy answers. Even the ending is ambivalent: yes, the dwarf is in prison and peace seems to reign in the kingdom, but the connection between those two situations is unclear. Does the dwarf have such a supernaturally evil presence that peace cannot be achieved until he is disposed of? Or is the prince genuinely a changed man after facing political and personal consequences for his ambition, and the dwarf’s imprisonment merely an incidental fact following the death of the prince’s wife? The text supports both; the text chooses neither. The unanswered question.