Dec. 21, 2009

The Loneliest Job in the World

by Tony Hoagland

As soon as you begin to ask the question, Who loves me?,
you are completely screwed, because
the next question is How Much?,

and then it is hundreds of hours later,
and you are still hunched over
your flowcharts and abacus,

trying to decide if you have gotten enough.
This is the loneliest job in the world:
to be an accountant of the heart.

It is late at night. You are by yourself,
and all around you, you can hear
the sounds of people moving

in and out of love,
pushing the turnstiles, putting
their coins in the slots,

paying the price which is asked,
which constantly changes.
No one knows why.

"The Loneliest Job in the World" by Tony Hoagland, from Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. © Graywolf Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

In the northern hemisphere, today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night. It's officially the first day of winter. It's officially the first day of winter and one of the oldest known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years, before humans even began farming on a large scale. Many of the most ancient stone structures made by human beings were designed to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice. The stone circles of Stonehenge were arranged to receive the first rays of midwinter sun.

It's Christmas week, and we're celebrating with Christmas stories. There are the famous stories nearly synonymous with Christmas literature, like Dickens' A Christmas Carol and like the rhyming "A Visit from St. Nicholas," which begins "Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." There's O. Henry's heavily anthologized The Gift of the Magi and Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales." But there are also a host of Christmas stories, some jolly and joyful, some sad and sorrowful, some startling or satirical, written by famous fiction writers, which aren't exactly iconic or particularly well known. They shed light on the holiday's multifaceted aspects and are thoroughly enjoyable and beautifully written. This week, we bring you some of these stories.

Vladimir Nabokov's (books by this author) short story "Christmas" is set on a country estate buried in snowdrifts outside St. Petersburg, Russia. The main character, Sleptsov, carries the coffin of his adolescent son to the village church plot, goes to bed, and wakes up on Christmas Eve Day.

He goes into the room that had been his son's summer study, separate from the main house and unheated, sits at his son's desk, and numbly sifts through some of the dead child's belongings. The son (like Nabokov himself) had enjoyed butterfly-collecting, and at the desk the father finds the tools of the hobby: cork-bottomed spreading boards, supplies of black pins, a torn muslin net, and "an English biscuit tin that contained a large exotic cocoon." Nabokov writes that the cocoon was "papery to the touch and seemed made of a brown folded leaf. His son had remembered it during his sickness, regretting that he had left it behind, but consoling himself with the thought that the chrysalid inside was probably dead."

Sleptsov sits, sobs, and returns to the main house carrying a few of his son's belongings, including the biscuit tin with the cocoon. He reads from his son's diary, realizes that his son was infatuated with a girl he'll never know about, and begins another round of tears. He's convinced he'll die of grief, the next day, Christmas. He sees earthly life "totally bared and comprehensible — and ghastly in its sadness, humiliatingly pointless, sterile, devoid of miracles."

And then, Nabokov writes: "At that instant there was a sudden snap — a thin sound like that of an overstretched rubber band breaking. Sleptsov opened his eyes. The cocoon in the biscuit tin had burst at its tip, and a black, wrinkled creature the size of a mouse was crawling up the wall above the table. It had emerged from the chrysalid because a man overcome with grief had transferred a tin box to his warm room, and the warmth had penetrated its taut leaf-and-silk envelope; it had awaited this moment so long, had collected its strength so tensely, and now, having broken out, it was slowly and miraculously expanding.

"... And then those thick black wings, with a glazy eyespot on each and a purplish bloom dusting their hooked foretips, took a full breath under the impulse of a tender, ravishing, almost human happiness."

Nabokov's "Christmas" story can be found in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, a collection published by his son Dmitri in 1995.

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