Wednesday, December 2, 2020


 One of the enduring theories of art is that it provides symbols that point to truths extending wider and deeper than they appear on the surface. The enigmatic smile on the haunting face of DaVinci's Mona Lisa has provoked admirers over the centuries to guess its meaning. Psychologists tell us the imagination is where it all starts—sexual attraction, wonderment, infatuation, jealousy, rage, the entire gamut of emotions, even love, whatever that might mean. Filmmakers know well the power of suggestion in images and sounds that seem to replicate life, frequently keeping the starkest drama in shadows or off the screen entirely—murder and copulation come immediately to mind—providing just enough clues to prick the collective imagination of audiences into providing a perhaps more inclusive scene in their minds than the one created by actors in front of a camera.

Take the classic romantic drama, Casablanca, for example. Peter Lorre's character is killed off screen, although we know enough about his situation to know he was shot trying to escape from police. The romance between Humphrey Bogart (Rick) and Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa), despite its dripping sentimentality and ultimate heroics, doesn’t really give us much background to work with to enable us to fill in the blanks. What was their situation in Paris besides riding in a convertible and drinking wine and making toasts--here’s looking at you, kid--and googly eyes at one another? I don’t recall seeing them even kiss, and if they did there surely was no evident tongue action or lip wrestling. How could we not have remembered that?

Robert Coover obviously had the same questions when he took a peek beneath the scripted scene years later in Rick’s Café Américain when Ilsa tries to persuade the heartbroken Rick to help her and her husband escape the know all that. He refuses, she pulls a gun, he says, “Go ahead, shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.” she melts, they embrace (I think) and pledge their love—at least she does, etc. etc. That’s what we’re given to stimulate our imagination. Coover takes us all the way. He leaves no doubt about whether they embrace after she melts. He...well, here’s his version:

She seems taken aback, her eyes damp, her lips swollen and parted. Light licks at her face. He gazes steadily at her from his superior moral position, smoke drifting up from his hand once more, his white tuxedo pressed against the revolver barrel. Her eyes close as the gun lowers, and she gasps his name: “Richard!” It is like an invocation. Or a profession of faith. “I tried to stay away,” she sighs. She opens her eyes, peers up at him in abject surrender. A tear moves slowly down her cheek toward the corner of her mouth like secret writing. “I thought I would neffer see you again… that you were out off my life…” She blinks, cries out faintly—“ Oh!”— and (he seems moved at last, his mask of disdain falling away like perspiration) turns away, her head wrenched to one side as though in pain. Stricken with sudden concern, or what looks like concern, he steps up behind her, clasping her breasts with both hands, nuzzling in her hair. “The day you left Paris…!”

 The scene picks up steam and trundles, hell, races down the track for more than thirty pages in excruciating detail. I’ll give you one more line, and if your imagination hasn’t gotten on board by then you’ve missed the train. “He can’t seem to stop his goddamn voice from squeaking. He wants to remain cool and ironically detached, cynical even, because he knows it’s expected of him, not least of all by himself, but he’s still shaken by what he’s seen down in the bar. Of course it might help if he had his pants on. At least he’d have some pockets to shove his hands into. For some reason, Ilsa is staring at his crotch, as though the real horror of it all were to be found there. Or maybe she’s trying to see through to the silent crowd below. ‘It’s, I dunno, like the place has sprung a goddamn leak or something!’”

Six more pages to go….

This story’s included in Coover’s collection A Night at the Movies, with a dozen more fiction pieces. I’ve read a couple of the others, but I don’t remember them, one whit. But this? Who could forget it?

[Find more Short Story Wednesday links at Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


  1. The only thing I have read by Coover is THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION, which I loved. I need to read this one.

    1. Going back over this story I'm again amazed at his wit and mastery of irony and pacing. I shall read more of him, too, if only to see how maybe I can loosen up my own style. I laugh like a dieseling engine every time I imagine Bogart's voice squeaking during his intimate encounter with Bergman. Brilliant juextapositioning of contrasting stereotypes, going from Bogie to Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate) with no warning.

  2. PRICKSONGS AND DESCANTS is better, but I like this collection, too.

    I gather Coover is not pleasant to deal with in person, alas. Definitely some to read, rather than meet, I hear repeatedly.