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Special Section
Social Invisibilities

“Some Issue of Little Consequence”: Mina Loy’s Neglected Short Stories

Diane Drouin
p. 145-165

Résumés

Les nouvelles de l’artiste britannique Mina Loy (1882-1966) restent encore aujourd’hui dans l’ombre de ses poèmes avant-gardistes des années 1920. Cet article analyse ces nouvelles méconnues afin d’identifier les stratégies qu’elle élabore pour redéfinir l’humilité. Il montre que Loy emploie l’humour et la parodie en contrepoints aussi humbles qu’efficaces au sérieux de ses poèmes et romans. Loy met en scène des personnages vulnérables et s’inspire de la tradition victorienne des contes sociaux pour traduire les inégalités de son temps. Elle revisite le genre populaire du conte de fées, tout en parodiant les avant-gardes cosmopolites. Le jeu simultané de Loy sur l’emphase, l’euphémisme et le ridicule l’aide à articuler son expérience personnelle et à étudier le fonctionnement de la conscience moderne. Cette contribution s’intéresse aux tensions—entre banalité et intensité, entre humilité et ambition—qui éclairent les nouvelles de Loy, son style et son rapport aux avant-gardes.

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  • 1 The collection was published under the title Lunar Baedecker by Robert McAlmon’s Contact Editions. (...)

1The British-born artist Mina Loy (1882-1966), one of the most fascinating figures of the transatlantic avant-gardes, is mostly known today for her innovative poetry of the 1920s and for her collection of poems Lunar Baedeker, published in 1923.1 Loy’s reputation as an elitist, cosmopolitan, and flamboyant poet should not, however, overshadow the fact that her work as a versatile artist was deeply rooted in materiality and humility. Indeed, Loy experimented with both verbal and plastic techniques, from painting to poetry, from prose to collage, and was also a very practical craftswoman, who devised a large variety of artworks and inventions. She kept working on drawings, assemblages, and designs throughout her life, and more than once, these artistic ventures beyond the written word helped her and her daughters make ends meet. The lampshade shop that Loy opened in Paris under the patronage of Peggy Guggenheim in the late 1920s offers a perfect case in point, as it combined Loy’s surrealist aesthetics with the very practical considerations involved in the running of a small, precarious business. Aesthetic preoccupations and prosaic matters always coexisted at the core of Loy’s creative process.

  • 2 Except otherwise stated, all page numbers refer to this collection of short stories, dramas, and e (...)

2If James Joyce’s Dubliners, as well as Katherine Mansfield’s and Virginia Woolf’s short stories, now belong to the modernist canon, along with longer masterpieces, Loy’s stories are still overlooked today. Most of them, held in the archive of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, were only published in 2011 in the ground-breaking collection Stories and Essays of Mina Loy,2 edited by Sara Crangle. The lack of scholarship on Loy’s short fiction can be explained in part by its unavailability to a large readership until that date. Nonetheless, the perceived hierarchy among literary genres should also be taken into account: poetry is generally considered as a consecrated and noble art, and is deemed more worthy of attention and praise than short stories, often regarded as a more popular literary genre. It comes as no surprise, then, that the publication of Loy’s stories was not considered a major event outside the circles of Loy scholars, and that her highly acclaimed poems remain centre stage.

3In the early twentieth century, a further distinction was drawn within the genre of the short story itself, between high modernist experimentations and popular tales published in magazines, leading to the “craft-versus-art debate” (Einhaus 102). Yet, Loy’s stories, which were never published in her lifetime, do not fall exclusively into one of these categories. Some of them draw explicitly on Victorian social tales and present a traditional structure and plot, while others address the modernist preoccupations with fragmentation and the workings of consciousness. Their settings vary widely, leading the reader from nineteenth-century England to Futurist Italy, and from Mexico in the 1920s to New York in the 1950s. Most of these stories, however, are concerned with the meaning and reach of the humble, which relates to the realm of the ordinary and to “the unnoticed backdrop that saturates our everyday lives” (Gardiner 229). Within these “low” themes and frames, Guillaume Le Blanc usefully identifies the risk of “social invisibility” and “the frailty of ordinary life” (1) leading to precariousness. The concept of the humble appears particularly relevant when studying, as Christine Reynier explains, “the simple stuff the short story should be made of: ordinary situations, ordinary characters and ordinary words” (141).

4Relying on a representative range of stories which have received little scholarly attention, this article aims at establishing a critical overview of Loy’s neglected short fiction and identifying her strategies to revalue humbleness. More specifically, it will argue that, in her short stories, Loy uses humour and parody as humbling devices, offering an efficient counterpoint to the drama that unfolds in her poems and novels. Staging vulnerable characters struggling with poverty, she also offers her own take on the subgenres of the fairy-tale and of the Victorian moral tale, while satirising the avant-gardes that she observed from up-close. Through the analysis of her short stories, this contribution will explore these tensions between banality and intensity, and between humility, ridicule, and ambition that crucially inform Loy’s short fiction, her narrative style, and her relationship to the avant-gardes.

“Compensations of Poverty”

  • 3 The exhibition was organised by David Mann at the Bodley Gallery in New York, with the collaboratio (...)

5Humility resonates throughout Loy’s work, and her own experience of financial hardship influenced the assemblages that marked the last decades of her life, after she had settled in New York in 1936. In a letter to a friend dating from the 1950s, Loy confessed: “I have struggled with poverty and almost died of real starvation” (qtd. in Parmar 87). As a tribute to her companions in misery, Loy made collages and constructions out of discarded objects and debris found in the streets of New York, many of which were exhibited at the Bodley Gallery in 1959.3 She also wrote a number of poems about the outcasts of the popular Bowery neighbourhood in Manhattan. Roger Conover published most of them, including “Hot Cross Bum” and “Mass Production on 14th Street,” in a section of The Lost Lunar Baedeker entitled “Compensations of Poverty.” In the late 1920s, Loy’s son-in-law, the American art collector and gallery owner Julien Levy filmed her in Paris as part of a series of portraits in motion, also featuring Max Ernst and Constantin Brancusi. In his memoirs, Levy explains how Loy wished to stage her appearance in the short film: “For her portrait, Mina, claiming bitterly that her true environment should be a dustbin, led me through the byways of the Marché aux Puces, to pose inside, in front of, or on top of, the most disreputable shacks for my camera’s eye—shopping on the way, buying old bottles, picture frames, ornaments, even an ancient hurdy-gurdy” (149). It is no coincidence that Loy chose such a humble setting given her profound interest in found objects and flea markets, echoing Breton’s own quest for surrealist objects in his 1937 novel Mad Love.

  • 4 The story appears in a notebook along with a letter mentioning the poem “Aid of the Madonna” publi (...)

6Many of Loy’s short stories are rooted in these urban cityscapes, home to vulnerable characters who experience everyday struggles. The incomplete story “The Agony of the Partition,” which opens the collection, is composed of three fragmented sections. Following Sara Crangle’s analysis, this story must have been written during Loy’s late New York period.4 It presents a rooming house in New York, with very thin partitions separating the destitute lodgers: “In this old apartment, spacious rooms had been sliced to cubicles where the staccato chatter of the inmates, relayed like tom-tom messages, mingled with the crash of irreconcilable radios” (Stories 5). The narrator and her neighbours are all deprived of privacy and of decent living conditions, as the narrator states: “The page I wrote upon become [sic] hazy; resting awhile, I looked up at my bit of ceiling. The moulding, like a monorail into the unknown, streaked through a false wall into the visibility of other lodgings” (5). The story portrays humble characters, and among them a heartbroken young girl, pregnant and betrayed by an unfaithful lover. The narrator becomes acquainted with their arguments, secrets, and sorrows, thereby giving a voice to the voiceless.

7In some of Loy’s earlier stories, Crangle identifies a form of “latent Victorianism” (xiv), reminiscent of Dickens’s social tales. “The Three Wishes,” a thirty-page story, narrates the itineraries of three young boys growing up with very different social backgrounds. Crangle argues that “the plot of ‘The Three Wishes’ is virtually Dickensian in scope” (xiv), and questions of social inequalities, class, and education are indeed centre-stage. Loy portrays humble subjects who are struggling to find their place in society, while exploring the genre of the Victorian moral tale. The first boy, Ian Gore, is born into a wealthy family but contests the social order: “Ian defied authority openly. He could. Belonging to the class in which authority was bred” (Stories 114). The second boy, Jacky Sider, comes from an honest and hard-working family, thoroughly determined to make ends meet: “He had been told that thrift was the moral motive of mankind. That three rags and an old fender equal one dinner, forty years of thrift, one old-age pension” (114). Reflecting on his parents’ life, Jacky acknowledges that their struggles have been rewarded, “he knew their poverty to be blessed” (126). The third boy, Hyde Park Hinderman, is the son of thieves, and vehemently condemns his parents’ marginal way of life, aspiring to “conformity”: “He yearned to prop himself against the pillars of society, in time to delicately detach himself and become one of such pillars himself. He was convinced that criminals were not good form. He longed for approval. In other words, he was a snob” (116). Loy portrays him as an idealistic young boy rejecting his family’s life of corruption, and wishing to follow a more conventional and respectable trajectory.

8As Sandeep Parmar explains: “[Loy’s] potential traditionalism or Victorianism . . . is equally refreshing—it shows her engagement with modernity as a deliberate process of fending off her English childhood values while also putting her squarely within the realm of Britishness” (79). Loy drew her inspiration from traditional Victorian tales she was familiar with in her childhood to implement structural and stylistic strategies. In “The Three Wishes,” for instance, her imitation of traditional lower-class dialogues, in particular through the conversations of the two poorest families, can be considered as an attempt to reach authenticity through verbal mimesis and to anchor her story in “the realm of Britishness.” In order to achieve this mimetic effect, the dialogues contain transcriptions of phrases that are sometimes hardly decipherable. Although this layer of hermeneutic complexity led Crangle to regret that “Loy occasionally proves intrigued by rendering lower-class dialects to a rather painfully excessive degree” (xiv), I believe that it pertains to what Parmar identifies as “[Loy’s] engagement with modernity.” Experimenting with the distortion of language that became the backbone of modernism, Loy openly adopted a social perspective to offer a “refreshing” take on the themes of vice, morality, social inequalities, and poverty.

9Set on the other side of the Atlantic, the story “In Maine: Green’s Colony,” that Crangle dates back to the late twenties or early thirties (Stories 323), depicts everyday life in the American state of Maine and portrays a series of humble characters endowed with legendary features. Even though “The Three Wishes” and “In Maine” are quite different in terms of plot, their moral dimension is evident. The inhabitants of the region pride themselves on their morality and hard work: “The ray of the clean mind of Maine swept through its habitations like a search light, in which those poor stark unprotected wooden houses gave a perfect representation of living ‘morally’ inside out” (50). The condemnation of vice and the sense of self-righteousness permeate the town, as the inhabitants come under the harsh scrutiny of their neighbours, “Where every moment of everyone’s time was so meticulously ‘counted,’ where every door and every window—so collectively and so incessantly watched—where everyone with every reason had ascribed that particular attribute of God–allseeing–to the villagers” (51). The disciplined population is quick to detect, denounce, and condemn any form of supposed vice.

10In a region that is characterised by its “cleanliness”—the adjective “clean” is repeated again and again throughout the story—one character stands out: “Bad Mary of Maine” (52), a prostitute who lives in a miserable house on the outskirts of town. Extreme poverty and vice are associated in the mind of many: “On my way home, I found the door of the dilapidated house wide open, and Bad Mary of Maine shading her glazing eyes with her hand invited me in—She cleared me a space among the indescribable gimcracks of her poverty” (56). The narrator does not take part in the collective blaming of the community of outcasts living in Green’s Colony. Instead of avoiding any contact with its inhabitants, she visits the colony, and even proves her goodwill by accepting Mary’s invitation into her humble home.

11Through acute observations and biting remarks, Loy points out the narrow-mindedness of the supposedly respectable inhabitants of Maine, and “makes invisible lives visible again” (Le Blanc 2). As Laura Scuriatti notes in Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism, “the story performs the fraught discourses of othering, which contributes to the creation of local and racial identities. It exposes the functioning of racial and territorial boundaries, even on a small, local scale, as they rely on false myths of origin” (229-30). The “small, local scale” in which Loy’s story is rooted echoes the ordinariness of the characters. Loy highlights the prejudices against miserable people, who do not conform to the social norms of their community, thus leading to a destructive process of othering, exclusion, and alienation.

12However, the narrator’s visit to “this underworld” (Stories 53) does not conclude on the discovery of indescribable atrocities, as she was led to expect, but instead results in a peaceful vision, “the very dust was like a carpet in heaven” (55), reminding the reader of the etymology of the adjective “humble,” from the Latin “humus,” referring to the ground, to the soil. Here, the “dust” on the ground takes on an etherealised dimension, as Loy elevates the dirt to the realm of spirituality. Green’s Colony does not appear as a horrible settlement full of “degenerate” people (53); on the contrary, the secluded community strikes the narrator as a Foucauldian heterotopia, as a place outside conventional norms: “From the door onto the garden where a venerable old gentleman sat over the soup-tureen with his napkin tied over his magnificent white beard, a melodious tinkling of china issued like the call home from Wonderland that ended Alice’s dream” (55). The reference to Lewis Carroll’s story reveals how Loy delighted in drawing on and subverting fairy-tales.

Twisting the Fairy-Tale

  • 5 Loy lived in Florence between 1907 and 1916. In 1916, she left her young daughters behind and trave (...)

13Loy’s interest in humble artforms is striking when it comes to the literary traditions that she explores, and in particular the subgenre of the fairy-tale. Loy’s take on the romantic encounter, often central in fairy-tales, relies on strategies of parody and distortion. The short story “Piero & Eliza” portrays two characters whose first encounter and subsequent relationship are steeped into the ordinary. Carolyn Burke, Loy’s biographer, dates the story back to 1907-1910, when she was living in Florence,5 and draws a parallel between Piero and the openly gay Italian artist Gino Carlo Sensani, whose name appears on the title page of Loy’s manuscript (109). The opening sentence sets the incisive tone of the story: “Like a drop of arsenic falling upon clay, he appeared among the lethargic clients of the café, as they crouched at sundown over their cheap vermouth” (Stories 98). The male protagonist makes an entrance dressed as a dandy, “His mouth was an arrogant crimson blot, and he cherished an ebony cane with his white kid gloves” (98). The colourful appearance of the main character contrasts with the dull everyday lives of the workmen who cannot afford more than cheap alcohol as a reward after a long working day. Burke notes that “Gino Sensani appeared in public with his face painted green, a habit that did not deter an English spinster from installing him in her palazzo” (109). Such a spinster is portrayed as Loy’s second eponymous character: “Eliza Blane was a middle-aged English girl of middle-class morality, with a hankering after the arts as a social outlet” (Stories 99). The main female character therefore appears as perfectly ordinary, with the repetition of the adjective “middle” reflecting her average and unremarkable personality and appearance.

14Even though Piero and Eliza become intimately acquainted, their relationship remains purely platonic, and the weight of everyday life becomes more acute: “She warmed the blast of emptiness that swept her Pallazzo to a home atmosphere, where she fed Piero with zeal and performed the ceremony of darning his socks” (99). The domesticity that surrounds the actions of cooking and mending clothes is clearly gendered. In keeping with the fairy-tale tradition, Loy’s Eliza calls to mind a Cinderella-like figure, who, in the daytime, is supposed to be her family’s maid. However, the romantic setting, under “the Venetian moonlight” (99), is the backdrop of a more prosaic situation, with no happy ending in sight. Eliza is not young and pretty but quite ordinary and mediocre, while Piero is compared first to “a drop of arsenic” (98), then to “a sinister kitten” (99) consequently making him a very poor suitor, in turn evil and ridiculous, and evidently unfit to play the role of Prince Charming.

15Moreover, the two characters are never in a position to fall in love in a happily-ever-after fairy-tale scenario. Indeed, a “scattering of expatriated bachelors” (99) intrude upon their household, providing Piero with unexpected advice: “they taught him that he who treads tactfully may keep one foot in society and one in Fairyland” (100). Eliza and Piero do not conform to traditional gender roles, and the bachelors form a homosexual community, determined to preserve “something incommunicably sweet and secret, which their mouths must never surrender” (101). Loy plays with the generic boundaries of her story, exploring the threshold between the tale and its parody. The female character submissively accepts this unstable situation and the romantic and sexual entanglements from which she is excluded: “Eliza abetted this innovation of compromise with her middle-class maxims. So Piero washed his face and wore tweeds which she chose for him” (100). The notion of compromise is essential here—an in-betweenness that makes an artificial relationship work, but with no flamboyant or passionate love for the characters to experience. The narrator leaves Eliza to a mediocre fate: “Of those rooms which she entered alone the planes of the walls seemed to turn inside out to withhold the fulfilment of life from her” (100). Instead of marrying her Prince Charming, Loy’s anti-heroine seems doomed to a life of failure and compromise and seeks comfort in spiritualism and psychic phenomena.

16“The Crocodile without any Tail” more explicitly tackles the underestimated genre of children’s tales. According to Burke, Loy wrote the story for her young daughter Fabienne in 1926 (373); the tales were both a source of entertainment and a way to teach her English as well as progressive values. This story follows the adventures of a threatening creature turned vulnerable and friendly. From the onset, the title of the story with its double negative structure makes fun of the crocodile and deprives the young reader of the feeling of fear that such a scary animal should produce in a child. To more aware readers, however, the parody becomes evident in the play on the words “tail” and “tale,” which similarly denies the story its status of fable. Loy therefore plays with the conventions of fairy-tales by downplaying fear and goes even further when the crocodile loses not only his tail but also his threatening teeth, thus turning into a ridiculous and—paradoxically—charming monster.

17A possible source to Loy’s fairy-tale may have been a sculpture by the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi. Loy’s famous ekphrastic poem “Brancusi’s Golden Bird” (Lost Lunar Baedeker 79) pays tribute to the sculptor’s bird series and first appeared alongside a photograph of the sculpture in the November 1922 issue of The Dial. Loy does not mention any crocodile sculpture, but given her friendship with Brancusi, she could perfectly have been familiar with the driftwood sculpture, that Levy describes as one of the artist’s favourite pieces: “Brancusi had also, in an evident place of honor in his studio, a piece of old wood which he called his ‘crocodile.’ Gray driftwood, it was molded by the elements in conflict with its own material and grain. . . . This, an accident of nature, stood equal, and was so respected by Brancusi, to his own marble birds in flight and metal fish” (240). Contrary to Loy’s intricate poems, and to some of her more complex short stories with multiple layers of meaning, “The Crocodile without any Tail” does not present any linguistic difficulty and strikes the reader by its simplicity. Loy’s short sentences and minimal style are particularly appropriate to address young children, while the theme is typical of children’s tales.

18The story opens with the canonical phrase: “Once upon a time there lived a crocodile in a river” (Stories 17). Throughout the story, the children remain nameless: “the children were called 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 because as their funny Mamma said so few children approve of the names their parents choose for them when they grow up, she had not thought it worthwhile to do anything more than number them until they were old enough to decide for themselves’ (21-22). The six young protagonists act together as a family and the siblings’ lack of individuality adds to the abstract and symbolical dimension of the tale. In her introduction, Crangle insists on this “deliberate, disruptive absurdity”: “At the heart of this nameless naming is a suspicion toward language consistent throughout Loy’s works, resulting in the linguistic play that is the foundation of so much of her originality” (xiv). This paradoxical “nameless naming” is a source of laughter and confusion, while making the story more accessible. The setting of the story and the family background confirm the parodic dimension of Loy’s fairy-tale: “All these children were the children of Mr and Mrs Happy Go Lucky and lived in Jollyville” (Stories 20). Generalization, which is a recurring stylistic device in fairy-tales, facilitates the process of identification of the young readers to the characters and emphasises the fact that, even though fantastic events occur, the story could happen anywhere, and to anyone, thus refusing the extraordinary dimension of the story and bringing it back into the realm of the everyday and the ordinary.

19Loy plays with the codes of children’s tales, introducing a benevolent fairy who “flew into the crocodile’s mouth while he was snoring, and gently drew out all his teeth with a bone-magnet” (17). The fairy’s surrealist invention makes the crocodile harmless by removing his teeth, the source of fear, and the narrative obstacle all at once. From the very first page of the story, Loy mocks and reverses the traditional figure of the villain in fairy-tales, as the scary creature haunting children’s nightmares immediately becomes an ally and a friend. Through a process of anthropomorphism, the crocodile, “growing more human everyday” (21), is adopted by the family. The children even recreate a fake set of teeth—“[t]hey cut two fine rows of teeth out of white cardboard and fixed them in the crocodile’s mouth” (24)—and invent an attraction, displayed at the village fair: “sixpence to see six little children put their heads in a crocodile’s mouth” (24). Loy uses humour and parody to defuse the tension and makes her readers laugh along with her.

The Parody of the Avant-gardes

  • 6 Loy joined the Dadaist circles in New York in 1916, before observing the development of the Parisi (...)

20Humour pervades Loy’s short stories, as she elicits laughter through her acute observation of the transatlantic avant-gardes.6 Throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, the short story experienced a shift, under the influence of modernist aesthetics. As Adrian Hunter explains, “Far from its origin in the popular tale-telling tradition, the short story had become, by the time Hardy died in 1928, a focus for modernist experimentation, a fixture of high-culture publishing venues, and the subject of a growing body of aesthetic theory” (44). Loy’s stories document this shift to modernist aesthetics, characterised by incompleteness, lack of resolution, and fragmentation. Loy satirizes the avant-gardes in several short stories, targeting wealthy artists and the superficial world of modernist celebrities. In 1907, she moved to Florence and witnessed the emergence of what Marjorie Perloff calls “the Futurist moment.” Loy’s story “Pazzarella” adopts the perspective of a male Futurist as first-person narrator to take aim at F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini. Significantly, the title page of the manuscript presents a handwritten note, “Parody of Gio’s work” (Stories 333).

21As Kate Macdonald explains, “Parodies are the most common examples of comic short fiction on the satirical continuum: burning up fast and brightly, in contrast to the slow deliberate smoulder of the satirical novel, which can be humourless in its pursuit of a lengthy savage rendition” (154). In “Gloria Gammage,” Loy mocks her close American friend Mabel Dodge Luhan and her husband Edwin Dodge, whom she had met in Florence around 1910. This short piece, set in the beautiful Villa Curonia, “stuffed with things bought in the hurry of a woman with taste” (Stories 25), is a character sketch that parodies Dodge’s lifestyle and that of the “millionheir class” (25). This neologism highlights the power of inherited wealth that Loy’s friend exhibits out of vanity: “Gloria was one of those who exhaust modes of being in bursts of emptiness” (26). Her sophistication and her frivolity become a source of satire: “She had the divine female quality of lending to every latest science or philosophy, no matter how mathematical or how austere—a ribald flavour of lubriciousness” (26). The ending of the story holds Dodge up to ridicule through a failed suicide scene: “Gloria . . . carefully measuring an enormous overdose of something frightfully dangerous—commits suicide—and is horribly sick” (28).

  • 7 Crangle dates the story back to the late 1910s or early 1920s (330), which seems plausible conside (...)

22In “Monde Triple Extra,” the narrator, called “Mina Loy” (57), portrays a modernist celebrity named Jove Ivon Corvon.7 The adulated young man, a rising star of the “cosmopolitan world” (58) despises the crowds of fashionable women begging for his attention, and enjoys tormenting them:

     “Tell me, Jove Ivon Corvon” said la petite Duchesse de Da Da, “Why is it that you can be so kind to a kitten, when you are so cruel to women?”
     Jove Ivon lowered his eyelids in a subliminal uprush of pudicity, and answered with a blush and a whisper:
     “Because the kitten does not desire me.” (59)

23Ignoring the advances of the most elegant women, the protagonist falls desperately in love with a charwoman, who appears to him as a vision from fairyland. Her humble broom becomes a magical instrument: “In her hands she held a great sceptre or want decorated at its lower extremity with a mass of soft wisps matted together like a mermaid’s hair and of the colour of twilight” (60). Loy weaves together the humble and the mythical, the blunt reality and the dream. The middle-aged charwoman with large feet, grey hair, and an altogether common appearance does not seem particularly friendly: “[she] planted one hand on her hip—a powerfully archaic gesture—and cried in a voice unlike other voices ‘Lookit the guy!’” (60). The stark difference of linguistic register between the elegant phrasing of the young man and the down-to-earth reaction of the older woman produces a comical effect.

24The vision that appears to the young man as “a super-woman” (61) strikes him on the head with her broom when he tries to kiss her: “With this supreme encouragement he gathered the unearthly creature to his breast, whereupon she with her magic did something passing strange to his head with the wand; allowing him the privilege of perceiving in their brilliancy an undiscovered constellation of stars” (61). Loy’s use of emphasis, displacement, and the mock-epic style leads to the debunking of the fairy-tale logic. The prosaic nature of the charwoman’s mop and water bucket becomes legendary material, as the blinded anti-hero “leap[ed] at her in a shower of iridescent blue feathers and sparkling emeralds” (61), thus creating a comical discrepancy, and an effect of incongruity which is central to comic short fiction (Macdonald 148). The format of the story­—only six pages long—makes the ending of the tale all the more cutting. Once the illusion is lifted, the revelation of the woman’s true identity casts ridicule on the male protagonist rather than on the female figure. Here, Loy uses humour to parody the avant-gardes, while revaluing humble subjects.

25The frame of the short story offers Loy more freedom of tone as well as a platform for her modernist experimentations. The mode of parody developed by Loy is particularly striking in “Lady Asterisk,” which displays fragments of a conversation held between elegant people gathered at a dinner party, and combines what Reynier identifies as “the main characteristics of the modernist short story: its bareness, impersonality and intensity which bring it closer to poetry and drama than to the novel” (149). There is no narrative voice in this story, but rather a collage of scraps of overheard dialogue between dinner guests, and a series of abruptly interrupted sentences taken out of context. Crangle explains that “[t]he structural disjointedness of the work is compounded by the fact that the same volume includes notes for ‘The Apology of Genius,’ a poem Loy first published in The Dial in 1922” (320). Consequently, the story can be dated back to the very early 1920s, a time when Loy was back in bohemian Paris after having spent a few years among the Dadaist circles in New York.

26The fragmented dialogue intertwines streams of thought and threads of conversation touching on various matters of little importance. Taken as a whole, the story points to the futility of avant-garde conversation and vain gossip—a situation that could be summed up by the line “What’s the use of all this humbug?” (Stories 44). The lack of plot and the simultaneous, disjointed aesthetics of “Lady Asterisk” make it specifically modernist. As Ann-Marie Einhaus observes, “early-twentieth-century audiences and later critics alike perceived a departure from plot and from a stable narrative voice as the most striking and defining feature of new, avant-garde short fiction” (103). The value of the modernist story is no longer dependent on the density of the plot; what matters is not so much the events unfolding in the narrative, but rather the writer’s stylistic experimentations and the story’s role in approaching and accounting for modernity: “In the way that it makes an aesthetic virtue out of social phenomena of fragmentation, dislocation and isolation, the short story participates in this process of acclimatizing the subject to the experience of technological modernity” (Hunter 47).

27The first few lines of the story immediately present the state of mind of the guests through snippets of conversation, rendering all physical description useless. The recurrent use of titles and the proper name “Mrs. Birthright” satirically show the entitlement of the unnamed speaking voices. Loy reveals the hypocrisy of the upper-class while highlighting their ridicule: “The avoidance of wrinkles had made her callous to the expression of the emotions—” (Stories 42). Stylistically, Loy’s juxtaposition of unrelated scraps of conversation produces a comical effect:

     They have solved the sex question.
     Nothing much need happen all you have to do is to keep ’em jumping’
     And cocktails make fine wooers—but they take all the kick out of love philtres—
     If we are to preserve our Civilisation we must avoid climax—
     Keep ’em jumpin’—
     And jazz is such a stimulus to memory— (43)

28This short passage that conflates remarks on sex, love philtres, and jazz music shows how Loy articulates linguistic fragments to experiment with comical contrasts and how she elaborates a parody of avant-garde discourse. Macdonald, relying on Mark Twain’s 1897 essay “How to Tell a Story,” mentions, among the most important markers of the comic short story, the ability “to string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, innocently unaware that they are absurdities” (147). Loy adopts such a stylistic strategy to debunk the arrogant elite’s false claim to witticism.

29As Hunter suggests (47), the modernist short story was a form that relied both on the reflection of modernity and on its satire. In Loy’s story, the intellectual elite nonchalantly practices the art of aphorism, more often than not devoid of meaning, while harshly judging people in statements that are close to nonsense:

The highest culture of the upper classes is the study of the lower classes through art.
Creation, simply–was destroyed by the concept Art.
Art is a grimace of creation.
Creation is the making - - -
Art is the aping - - - (Stories 45)

30The punctuation that concludes the last two incomplete aphorisms emphasises the absurdity of such obscure and meaningless dialogue. In her essay “The Library of the Sphinx,” Loy claims that “the asterisk is the signal of a treasure which is not there” (253), which could be applied to the elusive meaning of these scraps of conversation in “Lady Asterisk.”

The Threads of Modern Consciousness

  • 8 Loy and Woolf were both born in London in 1882, and were consequently exact contemporaries.

31In the story entitled “Incident,” Loy transforms what could have been a “moment of being”—to use the phrase coined by Virginia Woolf to describe a moment of revelation—into “a ridiculous little accident” (Stories 36).8 In her autobiographical essay “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf explains that these “moments of being” inscribe themselves in one’s memory and stand out as “exceptional” among the ordinary moments of the day, which are “embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool” (70) and form a state of “non-being.” As an artist, Woolf welcomes these moments of epiphany that stimulate her creativity and writes that, “the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer” (72). The opening lines of Loy’s short story similarly highlight the surprising turn of events suddenly disrupting everyday life: “A ridiculous little accident that happened to me just after World War I, while crossing the Place de la Federation, was the cause of a most significant experience” (Stories 36). Loy’s play on scales, scope, and magnitude becomes apparent in the tension between the euphemistic adjectives “ridiculous” and “little,” discarding the episode as trivial, and the adjective “significant,” implying a more serious dimension. The realms of the ordinary and of the extraordinary collide as Loy stages the unexpected dislocation of the physical self, leading to a “high adventure for consciousness,” immediately and surprisingly qualified as “some issue of little consequence” (37).

32Loy’s narrator explores the workings of fragmentary consciousness through an experience of physical fragmentation. She relates a seemingly banal episode, taking place in the streets of Geneva, a city that Loy had visited in 1919 (Potter and Hobson 13). The unnamed first-person narrator is walking down the street and conversing with a woman friend, identified in Loy’s notes (Stories 318) as the American feminist peace activist Emily Greene Balch:

We were walking very quickly; arguing humorously, when, laughing, I nodded my head with what turned out to be exaggerated emphasis, which, as I was to realise later, dislocated my cranium from the spinal column.
Suddenly, I found myself “nowhere.” (36)

33Reduced to a minor incident through the euphemism “a ridiculous little accident,” this violent physical phenomenon causes both a fragmentation of the body and a distortion of time and space. The narrator’s spatial bearings disappear, while time comes to a standstill.

  • 9 Loy began her surrealist novel Insel in Paris in the 1930s, and completed it in New York in the 194 (...)

34For a fraction of a second that turns into a very long period of time, the narrator experiences an alternative temporality, allowing her to explore the mysterious ways of consciousness: “[The] world had ceased; the way a radio-television programme, once turned off, would no longer be conveyed to one. I was stimulated by an innate assurance of high adventure for consciousness” (37). The dislocation of the vertebra causes the distortion of body and mind. The comparison with the radio or television programme unable to reach its audience reminds the reader of Insel and his ability to broadcast his thoughts and visions in Loy’s 1930s eponymous novel.9 Nevertheless, the narrator who is no longer in contact with the outside world paradoxically becomes more receptive to her own consciousness, and suddenly perceives its movements with striking accuracy. By unintentionally separating her consciousness from her body, the protagonist can finally access her interiority—which had been inaccessible up until that moment—and search for the meaning and workings of consciousness.

35The narrator thus becomes a spectator of her own consciousness, stepping out of her body, “as if it were quite usual for me to look upon my body as merely an instrument with which to contact one’s universe, rather than my whole circumscribed ‘self’” (36). This passage echoes a remark from Loy’s unpublished autobiographical novel, “The Child and the Parent,” in a chapter entitled “Being Alive”: “[Being alive] gives us the impression of being the witness of our own experience, of witnessing that witness and of witnessing that witnessing, until there is no end to the multiplication of the witnessed witness within us” (Box 1, folder 20, 1). Loy explores the layers of consciousness and the implications of a dissociation between consciousness and the body. In “Incident,” the narrator’s body, which serves as an intermediary between the self and the world, collapses, and is no longer whole: “I did not associate the body-contour, which had no existence in my emptied universe prior to the annunciatory ‘click,’ with myself at all, as I waited, totally disinterested, for the expected collision” (Stories 38). The integrity of the self is therefore threatened, bringing to mind a similar passage from Insel:

I unexpectedly disintegrated. My body, which had hitherto made upon itself the impression of a compact mass, springing a multiplicity of rifts, changed to a fractional covering I can only compare to the spines of a porcupine. . . . A greater dynamism than my own rushed in to fill the interstices. Looking down at myself I could see my sensation. The life-force blasting me apart instead of holding me together. It set up a harrowing excitement in my brain. An atomic despair–so awful–my confines broke down. I lost contour. (127)

36The “loss of contour” that occurs in both texts is synonymous with the dislocation and the doubling of the self. Confronted with this tremendous liberation of energy and the threat of annihilation, the narrator acknowledges the limits of her own existence, and goes through a deeply humbling process.

37The “life force” threatens to overwhelm and dislocate the narrator, as the episode takes on a metaphysical and even cosmic dimension. In “Incident,” Loy examines further this unidentified force:

Suddenly, a cylindrical shaft of rushing “force,” which on impact-potential of incalculable tonnage descended from above upon that form. On its approach, I reflected, “The whole force of the universe! It will crush that body to infinitesimal fractions of atoms.” I knew the form was about-to-be-a body, for although I had no organs of sense, I saw it out there in the dark, its contours so vaguely phosphorescent, just as I could hear the tornado-like thunderous onrush of infinite force. (Stories 37-38)

38The anticipated fragmentation of the body into “infinitesimal fractions of atoms,” reveals the violence of the threatening, overwhelming force. The italicised verbs of perception “see” and “hear” contradict the previous segment, “I had no organs of sense”: the experience of physical dislocation offers Loy unknown sensorial and spiritual powers, thus producing a striking synesthetic effect. What should belong to the realm of the imperceptible, such as the “thunderous onrush of infinite force,” turns into a material reality thanks to the newly acute senses of the narrator’s consciousness. This mysterious, powerful force reminds the reader of “the Rush,” that Loy describes in her autobiographical novel “Islands in the Air,” under the name of “the Hurry” (Box 4, folder 58, 6). Parmar analyses this force as follows: “this idea of ‘the rush’ marks the origins of Loy’s ongoing obsession with that unmediated experience of consciousness found most often in her autobiographical manuscripts” (27).

  • 10 Levy, who followed the writing of Loy’s autobiographical project, insists on this essential dimens (...)

39Loy then proceeds to describe the shock and collision of the various forces, shapes, and body parts: “The click becoming more immanent, my liberated self, the body-contour and the intervening space telescoped into one another” (Stories 38). Space and time on the one hand, mind and body on the other seemed clearly separated from one another during the fraction of a second of the dislocation. In both the short story “Incident” and the autobiographical novel Insel, Loy explores the multiple layers of temporality, their fragmentation, distortion, and staging within the narrative form. The process of storytelling allows Loy to stretch time, to transform an elusive moment into a five-page-long story while distorting “the almost timeless click of our usual time-perception” (38).10 Time, space, and the self all seem to collide suddenly, merging with a sharp sound, an ominous “click” that brings the incident to an end: “the click concluding, I found myself ‘coming alive’ again, as my leg . . . crashed to the pavement” (38). The episode, narrated quite humorously, reminds the reader of a near-death experience, just as the narrator’s friend, who has witnessed the incident, compares her to a dead body: “All at once you actually became a corpse” (39). The concluding paragraph of the story insists on the life-threatening accident: “It so happened that some days later my baby’s nurse, reminiscing on her hospital work, mentioned how rare were cases of survival after arrested circulation” (39). This incident, more dramatic than it first seems, highlights the tension between life and death and offers a liminal position, allowing room for a closer insight into the workings of consciousness.

40Recovering their integrity, becoming whole again, both body and mind are brought back to life, the only physical trace of the striking episode being an odd persisting sensation: “I could have sworn little blocks of ice, little over a square inch, had been neatly inserted in either elbow” (39). Traces of the episode subsist even after its immediate effects have disappeared. Considering the temporal marker, “just after World War I” (36), the violent dislocation could be read as a reference to the trauma and shell-shock endured by many soldiers. Of course, neither Loy nor her narrator have been sent to the front, contrary to Septimus Smith in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway; nevertheless, just as in “The Mark on the Wall,” where “nothing ever happens” (10), the spectre of war is never far. The brutality of the shock threatening Loy’s narrator and the collision affecting the mind translate in their own way the aftermath of the war. In her short story, Loy’s narrative strategy is similar to Woolf’s, giving her “a great delight to put the severed parts together” (Woolf, “Sketch” 72), as she weaves back into words the threads of consciousness. Loy thus reflects on the humbling process of disintegration and “loss of contour,” making the fragmented self highly aware of its limits and vulnerability.

41Loy’s short stories reveal a lesser-known aspect of her work as a writer of fiction. Relying on the concept of the humble to explore her short fiction offers the reader new perspectives on a versatile artist mostly known for her avant-garde poetry. We can identify in Loy’s stories what Gardiner calls “an ‘everyday utopianism’ in which routine and creativity, the trivial and the extraordinary, are viewed as productively intertwined rather than opposed” (228). Loy stages humble characters living in precarious conditions, and draws on Victorian legacies and on the tradition of the social tale to depict the inequalities of her times on both sides of the Atlantic. She revisits the popular subgenres of the fairy-tale and of children’s tales, while elaborating strategies of parody to point out the flaws and pretensions of the cosmopolitan avant-gardes. Loy’s simultaneous play on emphasis, euphemism, and ridicule help her shape personal experience. She analyses the workings of modern consciousness, inherently linked to a revaluing of the humble and of the everyday, and offers a celebration of vulnerability and of the ordinary with humour and empathy.

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Bibliographie

Brasme, Isabelle, Jean-Michel Ganteau, and Christine Reynier, eds. The Humble in 19th- to 21st- Century British Literature and Arts. Montpellier: PU de la Méditerranée, 2017. Print.

Breton, André. L’Amour fou. 1937. Paris: Gallimard, 2015. Print.

Burke, Carolyn. Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. Berkeley: U of California P, 1996. Print.

Crangle, Sara, ed. Stories and Essays of Mina Loy. Introduction and Notes. Champaign: Dalkey Archive P, 2011. vii-xxv; 297-416. Print.

Einhaus, Ann-Marie, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the English Short Story. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016. Print.

Gardiner, Michael. “Everyday Utopianism: Lefebvre and his Critics.” Cultural Studies 18.2-3 (2004): 228-54. Print.

Hayden, Sarah. Curious Disciplines: Mina Loy and Avant-Garde Artisthood. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2018. Print.

Head, Dominic. The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. Print.

Hunter, Adrian. The Cambridge Introduction to the Short Story in English. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.

Le Blanc, Guillaume. L’invisibilité sociale. Paris: PUF, 2009. Print.

Levy, Julien. Memoir of an Art Gallery. 1977. New York: MFA, 2003. Print.

Loy, Mina. “The Child and the Parent.” Mina Loy Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. YCAL MSS 6. Print.

---. Insel. 1991. Ed. Elizabeth Arnold. Introd. Sarah Hayden. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2014. Print.

---. “Islands in the Air.” Mina Loy Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. YCAL MSS 6. Print.

---. The Lost Lunar Baedeker. Ed. Roger L. Conover. New York: Straus, Farrar, and Giroux, 1996. Print.

---. Stories and Essays of Mina Loy. Ed. Sara Crangle. Champaign: Dalkey Archive P, 2011. Print.

Macdonald, Kate. “Comic Short Fiction and Its Variety.” The Cambridge Companion to the English Short Story. Ed. Ann-Marie Einhaus. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016. 145-58. Print.

Parmar, Sandeep. Reading Mina Loy’s Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern Woman. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre and the Language of Rupture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. Print.

Potter, Rachel, and Suzanne Hobson, eds. The Salt Companion to Mina Loy. London: Salt, 2010. Print.

Reynier, Christine. “Theorizing the Modernist Short Story with Woolf (and Agamben) as an Art of Empowering ‘Poverty.’” Journal of the Short Story in English 64 (Spring 2015): 137-54. Print.

Scuriatti, Laura. Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2019. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. “The Mark on the Wall.” The Mark on the Wall and Other Short Fiction. Ed. David Bradshaw. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. 3-10. Print.

---. Mrs Dalloway. 1925. Ed. Anne E. Fernald. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015. Print.

---. “A Sketch of the Past.” Moments of Being. Ed. Jeanne Schulkind. London: The Hogarth Press, 1985. 64-159. Print.

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Notes

1 The collection was published under the title Lunar Baedecker by Robert McAlmon’s Contact Editions. Here, Loy distorts the name of Karl Baedeker and his famous travel guides.

2 Except otherwise stated, all page numbers refer to this collection of short stories, dramas, and essays by Loy published in 2011. All fourteen stories can also be found in the Mina Loy Papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale, where they are gathered in Box 6.

3 The exhibition was organised by David Mann at the Bodley Gallery in New York, with the collaboration of Julien Levy and of Marcel Duchamp, a close friend of Loy’s since their first encounters in the New York Dadaist circles around Walter and Louise Arensberg in 1916-1917.

4 The story appears in a notebook along with a letter mentioning the poem “Aid of the Madonna” published in Accent in 1947 and a version of “Property of Pigeons” published in Between Worlds in 1961 (Crangle 298).

5 Loy lived in Florence between 1907 and 1916. In 1916, she left her young daughters behind and travelled to New York, where she stayed until 1918 before joining Arthur Cravan in Mexico.

6 Loy joined the Dadaist circles in New York in 1916, before observing the development of the Parisian Surrealist scene in the 1920s. She travelled to Mexico, Vienna, and Berlin, before settling in Paris, where she attended Gertrude Stein’s salon, met Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, and Djuna Barnes, among many other artists.

7 Crangle dates the story back to the late 1910s or early 1920s (330), which seems plausible considering Loy’s parody of the greed and vanity of the avant-garde circles she knew so well in Paris and New York.

8 Loy and Woolf were both born in London in 1882, and were consequently exact contemporaries.

9 Loy began her surrealist novel Insel in Paris in the 1930s, and completed it in New York in the 1940s. See Parmar’s analysis of the chronology of her manuscripts and typescripts (175).

10 Levy, who followed the writing of Loy’s autobiographical project, insists on this essential dimension: “Mina Loy, in the book she had been writing for more than fifteen or twenty years, based her entire approach on this sort of temporal disformation” (244).

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Diane Drouin, « “Some Issue of Little Consequence”: Mina Loy’s Neglected Short Stories »Journal of the Short Story in English, 77 | 2021, 145-165.

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Diane Drouin, « “Some Issue of Little Consequence”: Mina Loy’s Neglected Short Stories »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 77 | Autumn 2021, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 20 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/jsse/3646

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Auteur

Diane Drouin

Diane Drouin is a PhD candidate in British Literature at Sorbonne Université, working under the supervision of Professor Frédéric Regard. She is a member of VALE (EA 4085) and teaches in the English Department. She is a former student of the ENS Ulm (2012-2017) and agrégée d’anglais (2016), and works on the transatlantic avant-gardes and on women’s writing, focusing more specifically on the Modernist and Surrealist fragmentation of the self in Mina Loy’s autobiographical texts and works of art.

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