31. Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose
This is day Thirty-One of my Month of Short Stories – the last day – a story a day for June (and one day in July).
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose – by John Singer Sargent
Today, for the last post of my Month of Short Stories – I present to you a story I have definitely read before. It’s been a long time, though, and I wanted you to know about this story, this book, and the writer.
I remember clearly, back then… 2002? probably… I was looking for something to read. I came across an article in Salon that listed their favorite books of the year. There, nestled in with such literary giants of our time like The Corrections, Bel Canto, and Austerlitz, was an odd looking little book of stories called Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link. The magazine raved about it.
Surfing around the web I found plenty of other folks giving it a lot of love. So I bought the thing.
And it was amazing. The stories are best described as adult fairly tales – fantastic and imaginative – passionate and very, very odd. It lived up to expectations.
So please go out and get this book. If you are cheap, it’s available for free download – as are her other works. If you download it and like it as much as I did, you will buy a copy (I think I’ve bought three over the years). She’s coming out with a hardback special limited edition later this year – but it’s a little over my price range right now.
Today’s story, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is a strange piece of fantastic fiction. A recently deceased man, stuck is some sort of odd limbo, is writing letters to his still-living wife. Unfortunately, he can’t remember her name, though he does remember a girl, Looly Bellows, that beat him up in fourth grade.
As time goes on, the scene gets stranger and stranger as his mind continues to drift further away from the mortal plane. I’m not sure if it is an accurate depiction of what happens when we die, and I don’t know if I want it to be, but it’s the sort of thing that should happen if the universe has as much of a sense of perverse humor and strange surprises in the next life as it does in this one.
Now, like all obsessions – this story led me down a long rabbit-hole. The title, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is taken from a painting by John Singer Sargent. I had to do a little research on him, and came across the famous story of Madame X.
In Paris he did a portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, an young American woman from New Orleans. She was a rising star in Parisian High Society and her portrait caused a huge stir when it was unveiled. A huge stir of the wrong kind.
Sargent had painted her with one strap of her gown hanging down off her shoulder. This, along with her plunging neckline and powder-white skin gave the painting a sensual excitement that wasn’t acceptable at the time.
A photograph of the original painting of Madame X.
The repainted Madame X – her gown strap is back up on her shoulder.
He re-did the painting with the strap in a more demure position – but the damage was done. Ms. Gautreau had to slink back to Louisiana to escape the social ridicule. Sargent had to flee to England to regain his reputation.
None of this has anything to do with the story – but it’s cool anyway. I’ve become a fan of Sargent because of this story, even though I’ve never been big on portraiture. I always stop and look at Dorothy whenever I visit the Dallas Museum of Art.
Dorothy, by John Singer Sargent, in the Dallas Museum of Art.
So, my advice is to read all of Stranger Things Happen – the other stories are just as odd, but in surprisingly different ways. Then go to the nearest good art museum and take a look at a Sargent – see what you can see in the eyes. It might be useful, help you remember things when you are stuck in limbo. We all will be there, sooner than we think.
I hope you enjoyed some of my month of short stories – it was fun and educational putting it together (though a surprising amount of work). Don’t know what I’ll do tomorrow… maybe a photograph.
I’ve been here for 3 days, and I’m trying to pretend that it’s just a vacation, like when we went to that island in that country. Santorini? Great Britain? The one with all the cliffs. The one with the hotel with the bunkbeds, and little squares of pink toilet paper, like handkerchiefs. It had seashells in the window too, didn’t it, that were transparent like bottle glass? They smelled like bleach? It was a very nice island. No trees. You said that when you died, you hoped heaven would be an island like that. And now I’m dead, and here I am.
—-Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, by Kelly Link