Concerning Craft: John Alford

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet John Alford. John’s stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, Zone 3, and The Louisville Review. He has taught at numerous universities in the United States and abroad, and is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities in connection with his scholarly publications on Middle English literature. However, John’s story, “Contrappasso”, is a distinctly American tale in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe.

We published “Contrappasso” in our Summer 2013 Music issue. Here he is reading an excerpt of that story at our launch event:

Here are the insights he had to share about the writing and refinement of the piece:

“Contrappasso” grew out of a trivial slight I suffered in the lobby of an Asheville multiplex on January 9, 2010. It was during the second intermission of the Met’s HD simulcast of Der Rosenkavalier. I was gushing to a friend over the visual aspects of the production, the lavish sets, the costumes, when she cut me short: “Opera is all about the voices.” I didn’t give her pronouncement much thought at the time but discovered next day it had lodged, like a splinter, under my skin. I let it fester into a story.

To get things going I took Poe’s classic tale of revenge, “The Cask of Amontillado,” as a template. Over time I worked up a scheme of parallels:

Setting                               Italy (19th cen.)                       New York (20th cen.)

Narrator                           Montresor                               Vera

Victim                                Fortunato                               Felice

Victim’s rival                    Luchresi                                  Lucretia

Bait                                     Cask                                         Callas

Scene I                                Carnival                                  Opera guild party

Scene II                               Catacombs                             Ruined theater

Form of revenge               Live burial                              Rats

In addition to plot there were many other opportunities for parallelism. Dialogue: Luchresi  “cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry”; Lucretia “doesn’t know Strauss from Stravinsky.” Imagery (including other Poe territory): the red moon and collapsing hall, from “The Fall of the House of Usher”; the huge bird, from “The Raven”; the orchestra pit and rats, from “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Style: Poe’s fondness for certain words (ebony, sorrow) and certain constructions (“fortunately … I say fortunately because”). At some point I came to realize that my story was not only indebted to Poe, it was also about Poe.

Besides plot, the most consequential thing I took from “The Cask of Amontillado” was the narrative voice. Once I’ve settled into a voice, the rest follows. No voice, nothing comes. (Maybe, in writing, it is all about the voices.) Before she acquired her own voice, Vera mostly mimicked Montresor. She was sardonic, superior, confidential with the reader. Soon she was parroting other voices. The narrator of Lolita, for instance. Rereading the novel in the course of writing this story, I was astonished to hear an echo of Montresor in Humbert Humbert, though Nabokov’s narrator is more charming, more playful with words. (“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”) I gave something of his tone to Vera. Or rather Vera absorbed it simply by being in his company, just as my then five-year-old daughter, after a year in England, spoke “Yorkshire.” As for the physical qualities of voice—how my characters sounded—I hadn’t given this aspect much thought before the launch, where, for the first time, Vera and Felice spoke out loud. A good lesson. If I had spoken their parts earlier, during the writing process, I think they would have lived more brightly in my imagination.

What’s not in “The Cask of Amontillado” provided the theme of my story. In an earlier draft, after Vera declines to name the specific cause of her revenge, she goes on to say:

What was the insult for which the unfortunate Fortunato deserved to be walled up alive in a crypt? My Master does not say. Is his silence an accident, a mere lapse of memory? I cannot believe it. What, then, does it signify? What else but this? The motive does not matter. Revenge needs no cause outside itself, but if it should go looking for a motive (to satisfy the conscience or the police or the doctors), it will always succeed in finding one. May I be frank? I’ve begun to question the relevance of my own theme, the notion of contrappasso. In truth, I hated Felice from the start. Her very being was an affront.

This speech from an earlier draft illustrates how badly I was struggling at the time. The central concept of contrappasso (“let the punishment fit the crime”) was threatening to bring down the story. Vera’s analysis only made things worse. She wasn’t this self-aware. The narrative had reached a crisis point. Incredibly, I had not seen it coming. Suddenly I realized what had happened. Idiot! I had intruded into the story. This was not Vera’s voice. It was mine. Simultaneously I realized the problem was hers. Lured by the “esthetic appeal” of contrappasso and foolishly thinking to improve upon her Master, Vera had outsmarted herself. The concept of contrappasso is not merely irrelevant to revenge, it is incompatible, inimical. I decided to let this incompatibility stand as the whole point of the story. I cut Vera’s speech in half, leaving to the reader all speculations about Poe’s intent, and kept my title as a judgment on the nature of revenge, the absence of measure at its heart.

Note: If you enjoyed John’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Music issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online. The full text of John’s story is part of the Music issue preview.

3 thoughts on “Concerning Craft: John Alford

  1. clarinda harrissc

    The story was one which absolutely knocked my socks off–I re-read it again and again, though admittedly it was only the first reading which elicited several very loud, uncontrollable yelps in a public place–and I’m therefore doubly excited about Dylan B’s careful exegesis. Thanks, DB, for doing the work for me. I meant to make up that list of parallels a long time ago, and kept starting it in my head, but I never got to cask/callas, which, I have to confess, also elicited a loud yelp just now. Luckily this most recent cry of amazement and delight was uttered in the privacy of my home office.


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