On Re-Reading Ambrose Bierce

Some classics are part of our childhood reading. There are many different writers that I haven’t re-read since I was quite young. Ambrose Bierce was one of them.

I remember sneaking off with a volume of his short stories and liking them very much when I was little. I knew nothing about the man, only much later when I read a lot of Latin American literature and came across Carlos Fuentes’ Gringo ViejoThe Old Gringo, that was also made into a movie, did I learn something about the man himself. Or rather the mystery of his ending. In 1913, at the age of 71, he rode off to Mexico and was never seen again. Fuentes’ exploration of his vanishing is a great book. I have also seen the movie but can’t remember if I liked it or not. It is believed that Bierce, who also fought in the Civil War, joined the forces of Pancho Villa.

But even without such a mysterious ending, Ambrose Bierce would be an interesting character. He was known for his satirical writings in which he used an acerbic and vitriolic tone. Some of his articles seem to have ruined more than one career of a new writer. He also wrote a lot of short stories and his famous The Devil’s Dictionary.

Since my time is limited these days, I’m much more inclined to read short stories and novellas besides my chunky August Readalong choice (Elsa Morante’s History – one of the great works of Italian literature ! – Yes, you can still join me).

Yesterday I decided to re-read some of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories. I wanted to see how I would like them as a grownup and how the knowledge of his disappearance would influence my reading. I read An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Beyond the Wall, An Adventure at Brownville, The Damned Thing, One of the Missing and The Stranger. Most of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories can be found online here.

I really loved these stories. Bierce is a fantastic writer. Realistic, yet capable of creating an eerily haunting atmosphere. The Civil War, in which he served, is often a backdrop. The stories are either set in San Francisco or rural California, one takes place in an Arizona desert. The city as well as the country provide material for mysterious descriptions.

In my memory, Bierce’s stories had a certain resemblance with Edgar Allan Poe. It is also said that H.P. Lovecraft was influenced by him. Of the 90something short stories written by Bierce far over 50 have a supernatural, macabre or horror theme. What I had not realized when reading them before is the fact that he has a lot in common with Maupassant. The descriptions more than anything bear a strong resemblance with Maupassant’s short stories. Poe’s descriptions are different.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is one of his most famous stories. It is set during the Civil War and tells the story of a man who has been sentenced to be hanged. The story is, like so many others, quite surprising, it is non-linear and offers an unexpected ending. There isn’t anything supernatural in this one, just a touch of it.

Beyond the Wall is a ghost story set in San Francisco during a cold winter night.

The night of my visit to him was stormy. The Californian winter was on, and the incessant rain plashed in the deserted streets, or, lifted by irregular gusts of wind, was hurled against the houses with incredible fury.

An Adventure at Brownville is an atmospherical exploration of the mind’s faculties. It is a beautiful story with great descriptions.

As I leaned wearily against a branch of the gnarled old trunk the twilight deepened in the somber woods and the faint new moon began casting visible shadows and gliding the leaves of the trees with a tender but ghostly light.

The Damned Thing is the story that reminded me the most of Maupassant. It is a very subtle horror story in which two men go hunting.

One of the Missing is the longest story in the collection. It is a tragic story of the Civil War in which a soldier of General Sherman’s army is sent on a dangerous mission.

The Stranger is a ghost story in form of a Western. A party of men camping in the Arizona desert meets a mysterious stranger who tells them an uncanny tale.

If I think of the story of his life and compare its ending to his tales, I think, it is safe to say that Bierce loved mysteries. Maybe he didn’t want to return, maybe he got lost on the way or something occurred that was similar to what happened to the soldier in One of the Missing. One thing is certain, we will never know.

As I said, I enjoyed reading these stories a great deal and since we have autumn-like weather it was quite fitting. I sat on the balcony floor while reading them, it was raining and quite cool. One of the cats was lying on a table, the other one sitting with me under the woolen blanket I had draped around myself. There were a dozen ravens sitting on the huge maples in the back garden flapping their wet wings and cawing.

Writers in Paris – Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke (2008)

No city has attracted so much literary talent, launched so many illustrious careers, or produced such a wealth of enduring literature as Paris. From the 15th century through the 20th, poets, novelists, and playwrights, famed for both their work and their lives, were shaped by this enchanting place. From natives such as Molière, Genet, and Anaïs Nin to expats like Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, author David Burke follows hundreds of writers through Paris’ labyrinthine streets, inviting readers on his grand tour.

Writers in Paris may very well be one of the most enjoyable and interesting books I own, one that you can browse, open at random, read from beginning to end or backwards, it will always be great. I don’t even know where to begin to give you a good impression, it is so full of fantastic details.

Burke organised the book by “regions”, so to speak, “The Literary Left Bank”, “The River and Islands”, “The Literary Right Bank”…

What I like best is that you can either follow the traces of an author, be it a Parisian or an expat, or you can find information on books set in Paris, and read about the places described in novels. Each chapter is divided in sub chapters and Burke will indicate who lived in what street, quote excerpts of letters and diary entries, passages of novels and poems.

In the case of Rainer Maria Rilke, Burke, describes the streets and places where the writer lived

On a first stay in Paris during 1902 and 1903, Rainer Maria Rilke lived in a shabby student room at No. 11 rue Toullier, between rue Soufflot and rue Cujas. The house is still there, neat, cream-colored, with weathered shutters. The Prague-born poet was twenty-six years old when he arrived, unquestionably gifted, but emotionally and artistically immature. To him Paris was a sinister place.

But Burke also explores the streets evoked in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Or he describes, where Rilke found inspiration for one of his most famous poems, The Panther, namely at the Jardin des Plantes.

There are many authors mentioned in the book, some famous like Rilke, Balzac, Sartre, Orwell, Hemingway and others who are less well-known like Lautréamont (One sub chapter is called “Lautréamont and Maldoror on rue Vivienne”). Some writers are named repeatedly because they either moved about Paris quite a lot or because their books are set in different streets, different arrondissements.

One sub chapter is dedicated to “The Noble Houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain”. In this chapter you can find long paragraphs on Proust’s The Guermantes Way or on Edith Wharton’s stay in Paris. But also Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story is set here.

During two years I had an apartment at the Place de la Contrescarpe where Hemingway had his first home in Paris. He describes that stay in A Moveable Feast. I was curious to see who else had lived there at a certain point in time. It seems that François Villon roamed the premises in the 15th century, Mme Vauquer, one of Balzac’s characters, lives here, James Joyce and Valérie Larbaud had an apartment close by. The side streets of the rue Mouffetard, which leads to the Place de la Contrescarpe, are described in great detail in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. I found this particularly interesting as Emma’s has recently reviewed it (here is the review) and I hadn’t even known before reading her review that Orwell also stayed in Paris for quite a long time.

The river Seine and the islands also play quite an important role in many a book like in Zola’s L‘Oeuvre.  Here is a scene in which the mad painter drags Christine to the river bank.

There he stopped again, his gaze fixed upon the island riding forever at anchor in the Seine, cradling the heart of Paris through which its blood has pulsed for centuries as its suburbs have gone on spreading themselves over the surrounding plain. His face lit up, as with an inward flame, and his eyes were aglow as, with a broad sweeping gesture, he said, “Look! Look at that!”

Other famous writers who have more than one entry are Colette, Proust, Céline, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, George Sand, Anaïs Nin and Arthur Miller.

Writers in Paris also contains quite a lot of black and white photos of writers and places, houses and streets.

Here is the homepage of the book with table of contents, lists of authors and some photos.

This is another contribution to  Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris in July.