Writers always want to write a better novel or short story. And so, we naturally turn to writers we admire. I like to use images in stories and so, I often wonder how a writer can develop an image which governs the meaning of the whole story and breathes life into it. After all, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a mental “word” image must be worth at least five hundred.
No Man’s Meat is a novella written by Morley Callaghan, one of my favourite Canadian authors. But no commercial house would touch it. It had to be published privately by an avant-garde house in Paris in 1931. And soon, I will tell you why that was so.
But, first to the story. Bert and Teresa Beddoes are a reasonably well to do married couple from the city [probably Toronto]. Frequently they stay at their cottage somewhere up north where the farming is poor and the farmers live a hard-scrabble existence. The Beddoes are laughed at as city folk.
Their marriage [they say] is one of peaceful contentment, loving and respectful, but it is clearly lacking in any sort of passion. They sleep in separate rooms in the cottage.
They are looking forward to the visit of a well travelled, worldly friend, Jean Allen, who has been divorced. Her excitement and joie de vivre are very stimulating to the Beddoes who seem to live rather narrow, pedestrian lives. I think they are the sort of people who feed on the life and experience of others. Perhaps, back then, Jean would have been referred to as a gay divorcee.
When Jean arrives, she spends much time entertaining them with stories of her travels. All seems to be going well. But In the evening , Bert and Jean, who both love to gamble, play cards first for money and then the wager is that Bert gets to sleep with Jean—and his wife approves. Yikes! And this after we were thinking they were dull, straight-laced couple!
I will tell you more of the story but first, back to my initial question: How can a writer use one image which governs the meaning of the whole story and gives it life?
Callaghan brings the image of a massive rock face across the lake right into the very first paragraph of the story. Somehow, this image is ever present, yet somehow it remains in the background, just under the surface of conscious awareness. Callaghan doesn’t make a big deal of it or go into lengthy or detailed descriptions.It’s just there and always has been there since time immemorial. If you’ve ever been to the Canadian Shield, you can easily visualize it—a bit like the photograph below.
He writes: The face of the rock was solid. At the base, the water was velvet black and motionless.
But here’s what is really interesting. Throughout the novella, he mainly describes the rock face by its effect on the people in the story.
Teresa Beddoes says to her husband Bert,
The time we paddled by the base in the shadow on the dark water and it hanging out over us, it drove all the feeling out of me.
He replies, Well, it calms me.
She says, [reconsidering] It calms me, it’s got into us.
And, of course, the Beddoes like to think that their marriage is steady and rock-solid. Their life, although passionless, is filled with steady contentment. You may think you can pretty much guess what’s coming.
So, back to the story. Bert and Jean go in town to dance and have a drink—first. When they return, Teresa is—believe it or not— waiting for them. They decide to go ahead with the wager. Bert enters Jean’s bedroom and she consents to his efforts at lovemaking, although her responses are pretty much wooden. But near his climax, she begins to cry hysterically. Dismayed and distraught, he beats a hasty retreat and, when he leave, his wife is right there ready to give advice [!] She goes into Jean’s room to comfort her, where she stays for the rest of the night.
The image of the primordial rock face is interwoven with the story. Everyone reacts, in some way to it, seeming to be a little in awe of this all too solid fact of nature. It has existed in this exact place for aeons. And human beings, with all their foibles and foolishness, have been here for only a moment.
Next morning Jean is ready to get back on the train. Because she is still upset, Teresa decides to take her into town by herself leaving Bert alone.
Once they are gone, Bert finds a note on the table. He is shocked to his core to learn that his wife and Jean have become lovers and have gone off together. Now you know why no commercial house would touch the novella in 1931. Such relationships were never talked about, much less written about.
Poor Bert, who opened up this Pandora’s box, is stunned, but is [like the rock face] unable to express any real, human emotion. As he walked slowly to the cabin, the strong sun was shining brilliantly on the smooth lake, lighting up the desolate face of the big solid rock.
A really fine writer can use a powerful image to help him tell the story. I wonder if Callaghan planned the interweaving of the images of the rock face into the story, or did it just happen? My guess? I think the rock face was just below Callaghan’s conscious state. After all, he, as a resident of Ontario, had undoubtedly seen the Canadian Shield many times. When he wrote the novella, that image just “popped” up into his consciousness. Then, once aware of it, he used it most skilfully to give life and depth to his story. It’s almost as if the foibles of poor humans are measured against this immovable fact of nature—and we come up as no more than wisps in the air. Just try writing like this!