Responses to Manatee and Mr. Seguin's Goat

Harry Mathews


I don't plan to delve into the mechanisms of Joe Ashby Porter's story, at least not now: I'm still too pleased by the reading of it. It's not that the story resists analysis - I do. But I can tell you what I like about it.

Its verbal felicities:

Most of the mobile homes rest dark and quiet on ornamental cinderblocks.

At the back of Gwen's head in a net snood swings a dollop of hair colored like jar
mayonnaise and just as lustrous.

" So, who's up for a tour of the compound? More oldsters than you ever saw
in one place together, and up to our natural tricks in a scenic habitat."

(If that doesn't make you at least smile, go back to your DVDs.)

Its telling details, accurate both in language and fact: " their white doublewide" (i.e., mobile home), " the cub refrigerator," " the Jar Jif," " her famous Windex eyes."

The accuracy - the verisimilitude, at least - extends to and through the individual personalities we encounter. This is a tribute to the author's humane imagination, since as far as I know he has never spent any time in a Florida retirement camp. (He performed a similar exploit in the Quebec stories of Lithuania, which suggest years spent in that city when in fact it was no more than a day or two.) Under Porter's sharp imaginary gaze the behavior of his characters is wonderfully comic; at the same time he is never derisive: we feel compassion for them even as we laugh. We're not laughing at them, unless we're laughing at ourselves, too, because there isn't one of them we can't to some extent identify ourselves with - another authorial mystery. And with the last of them to appear, Vola Byrd, we probably deplore her social decline even more than she does.

This is expert writing generating delight and discovery.

Mr. Seguin's Goat

Joe Ashby Porter has translated a familiar story by Alphonse Daudet starting at the end, sentence by sentence: something that may sound like a mechanical task that is basically pointless and at best amusing. It is much more than that. It accomplishes two remarkable things.

First, despite the inverted sentence order, the doubly translated story remains as clear as it is in the original; not only that, its narrative quality is greatly improved, since the reader is given opportunities to anticipate and imagine events that are almost boringly predictable when presented in their normal order. To intuit and then realize this possibility is already no mean achievement.

Second, and for me even more interestingly, Porter has exploited a principle that in general does not exist in writing: the principle of commutativity. Commutativity occurs when the order of items in a series has no effect on its content. In arithmetic, for example, a series of numbers added or multiplied is commutative: 1 + 2 + 3 = 3 + 2 + 1; 1 x 2 x 3 = 3 x 2 x 1. A series involving division is non-commutative: 1/2/3 ≠ 3/2/1. In language (Latin aside), commutativity is only occasional and accidental, whether applied to word order (" question the is that: be to not or be to") or to a sequence of sentences:

And Mrs Lucas, the mother of Pauline Leicester, suffered from angina pectoris. It stood in the New Forest, seven miles from Brockenhurst, with no house nearer it than just that seven miles. Pauline Leicester's mother's cottage had only one spare bedroom.

So reversing the 132 sentences of Daudet's story without creating awkwardness or confusion might seem to belong to the world of legerdemain. But done as it is without cheating or tweaking, what it actually does is open up an entirely original domain in the practice of writing. It would be interesting to investigate Daudet's text to discover what makes its complete inversion possible - something like the care commercial film-makers take to make sure that latecomers are quickly informed of what they've missed? or some subtler compositional practice? It certainly has nothing to do with Daudet's intentions - he would definitely not have approved of seeing his work so radically distorted. Nevertheless, and unlikely as it may seem that this comfortable author could provide the material for so novel and successful an experiment, I sense that " Mr. Seguin's Goat" may be well subjected to other similar manipulations. I've begun one here, using Porter's version, alternating paragraphs that proceed from the beginning and the end of the piece and advancing from both ends towards its center:

To Pierre Gringoire, lyric poet in Paris

Listen to the story of Mr. Seguin's goat. You claim you want to stay free
all the way to the end? Become a journalist, you idiot! You'll have your own table at
Brebant's and on first nights you'll be able to show yourself with a new plume in
your hat. Aren't you ashamed of yourself finally? Look what ten year's service to Apollo has brought you, look where a passion for beautiful rhymes has brought you! Look at that doublet full of holes, those tattered hose, that thin countenance that cries out hunger. Look at yourself, you unhappy boy. They offer you a job at a good Paris newspaper and you have the aplomb to refuse. My poor Gringoire, you'll never change! E piei lou matin lou loup la mange. You hear me very well, Gringoire. If you ever come to Provence, our old wives will tell you about Mr. Seguin's goat who fought the wolf all night and then in the morning the wolf ate her. I didn't invent the story.
Good-bye, Gringoire.
Good Mr. Seguin understood nothing of his animals' character. He was amazed. It seemed they were independent goats who wanted open air and freedom at any price. Not their master's caresses nor fear of the wolf, nothing would hold them back. He lost them all the same way: one fine morning they broke their rope, went up onto the mountain and the wolf ate them. Mr. Seguin had no luck with his goats. The wolf threw himself on the little goat and ate her up. " Finally," said the
poor beast, who was only waiting for day, and she lay down on the ground in her
beautiful white coat all spotted with blood. The hoarse cock's crow rose from one of the farms
Blanquette grazed so heartily that Mr.Seguin was seq.
It lasted all seq.

You can work out the rest.