There was a statue of Charles the Fat—Pippa liked the sobriquet. She liked the Beguinage, too: white buildings housing black-robed figures. “Ladies or men?” They were women, her mother told her, women who lived austere lives and didn’t marry and did good works and felt a sense sorority. “Austere? Sorority?” Simple. Sisterhood. No sister would ever betray another.
Here Edith Pearlman shares how her short story, “Decorum,” in the Fall, 2013 issue of The Antioch Review came into being.
Many of my stories originate in a concurrence of two elements. One element is an incident, sometimes recent but usually past, falling like a blown seed onto receptive field. The receptive field — the second element — is something that happens to interest me at the time of writing – the life cycle of a butterfly, say; the history of the Russian royal family; some puzzling story from the Bible. Why this particular seed falls on this particular field is anybody’s guess.
In “Decorum” the seed element is the scene in the restaurant, and it is taken almost unchanged from life. I had an experience like Portia’s decades ago – I was a young wife brought along to my husband’s conference abroad; I seized a chance to dine alone in an elegant restaurant; there I saw a conference attendee from our town, married to an acquaintance who’d stayed home with their kids. He was amorously dining a conferee from another country. I was pregnant – bursting with embryo, stuffed with family values, saddened by this new evidence of the vulnerability of women especially those left behind. I was tempted to stand up and denounce my fellow townsman to the restaurant patrons. But my French was so awful …I was so ungainly … Instead I left my dinner half finished and fled. But I imagined this bit of heroism for years.
The ground this seed fell upon is my general interest in magic and the improbable, fed by the Old Testament in Sunday School and Ovid in high school and Baroque opera. When I write in this sub-genre, I usually write about transformations. I’m not concerned with motivation – “Who knows what makes people do things?” – the poet Amy Clampitt bravely asked – but rather in possibility, however unlikely. In such a world, anything can exist, anything can happen, anything can change. Gods can act like mortals and mortals like gods and fleeing virgins can turn into laurel trees. And Zeus can transform himself into a swan after many years posing as an unexceptionable public servant.
So I had my two elements, and I had a conflict growing between the righteous Portia and the seductive Magistrate, who invaded my imagination around draft 3. His persistence eventually overpowers her resistance – but in fact her resistance has weakened throughout the story as he becomes more defined and attractive, until by the final paragraph it seems clear that passion will trump good behavior, that libido will trump decorum. I made use of the faithful swans; the sexual looseness peculiar to most conferences; the exotic village with religious women intent on their pious errands. These things entered the story slowly, in revision after revision. That’s the inefficient way I work – thinking of new details for the next draft as I rewrite the present one. And into one of these drafts usually glides the hint that there’s been a shift in someone’s attitude. In “Decorum” Portia’s attitude changes from disapproval of adulterous hanky panky to acknowledgement of her own desire.
That’s the story behind the story as I worked on it and worked on it. And to complete the circular history I confess that Decorum was invisibly working on me. Through the decades of observation and experience since the encounter in the restaurant I came to understand and sympathize both with the pleasure of light affairs and with overwhelming passion that scuttles vows, so that by the time I came to write “Decorum” my highest values were no longer Love and unswerving Loyalty but Accommodation and Forgiveness. But I’d never say that to anyone. Fiction can say it for me.
That’s the story, behind the story, behind the story.
Edith Pearlman was the recipient of the 2011 PEN/Malamud award for excellence in short fiction, honoring her four collections of stories: Vaquita, Love Among the Greats, How to Fall, and Binocular Vision. Binocular Vision received several other awards. It was published in the UK by Pushkin Press in 2013. Recent work has appeared or will appear in, among other places, the American Scholar, The Harvard Review, Ecotone, and Orion, and in the anthology, A Story Larger than My Own. www.edithpearlman.com
© 2014 The Antioch Review