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Btw - this is the first of three posts to come on "An Incident."

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Another way to think about this idea of “coaching” - how purely factual is a sentence? Is there “spin” being added?

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Hi Prof. Saunders! Hi Everyone!

I've been here for a couple of weeks and (very, very quietly) I've been pottering around and eavesdropping through the posts to see what's going on.

I kept quiet, didn't even introduce myself, because I don't have many (formal) qualifications and everyone here seems to be so... how shall I put this?... literati and academic.

Very pleased to say that my reading and enjoyment of reading is as good as any here.

Thank you so much!

This is a great place!

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Jan 23, 2022Liked by George Saunders

Thank you - I love taking these stories apart. Kind of unrelated, but - this is a great example of why I love literature. This takes place in a different country, a different culture, different era, and the narrator is a different gender from me, but I can still recognize myself in it. The older I get, the more amazed I am to realize human nature never changes. It’s why we still like to read Shakespeare. The only fluid thing is character, and we see in this how experiences can change character. But that’s it! Nature is unchanging! I was running late to pick my dog up from daycare the other day. At a stoplight - me headed north, car across stopped headed south - when a fellow going east, maybe afraid his light would turn red, made a quick left and hit the car opposite me. There I am thinking My God, I’m gonna be late, it doesn’t look like anyone’s hurt, can I just keep going - and THEN - realized I’m the guy in the rickshaw ; )

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Jan 24, 2022·edited Jan 24, 2022Liked by George Saunders

Some of the "coaching" I noticed had to do with the rickshaw driver's gentleness, the way he slowly helped the old woman, went at her pace. Noticing this, I felt the way it contrasted with the ungentle affairs of state, the military, war. And the story seemed to be saying: real power is in this gentleness. It is, after all, the one incident which can threaten to "overpower" the narrator's small comfortable self.

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I notice several comments about the use of passive, blame-avoiding terms. The "was entangled" is an interesting choice by the translator. The original text reads "剛近S門,忽而車把上帶著一個人", which charts a course between active and passive: something like "just near S Gate, suddenly there's a person on the handlebar." (Chinese doesn't require a sentence to be either active or passive.) I think it's a fine translation here, but it does highlight how the translator is active in creating meaning. If they'd chosen "the handlebar caught and picked someone up", that would be quite different, for example.

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Story Club community, I am moved to share here a link to the latest Radiolab podcast. It's a story about someone who is suffering deeply, who finds comfort from his grief in a work of art, and then is comforted by the artist, a mensch we all admire. I was overwhelmed with emotion.The letter from George part starts about 9 minutes before the end of the episode. http://www.wnycstudios.org/story/11th-letter-george/

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What makes the coaching more interesting is that it's not happening in the moment - i.e. this is not his immediate reaction to the event - but is him coaching on *recollection*. This is something that happened in his past, that he feels guilty/ashamed of (or at the very least moved/haunted by). Time has passed, and these are either the details that stood out to him and remained stuck in his memories, or he's still trying to defend himself in a way (I was unfeeling, but she was careless you see. She fell slow, no way she could have been hurt; but, still, there was a kindness in the rickshaw driver that was not in me). It reminds me of people who apologise and then say 'but' - 'I'm sorry I broke your watch, but you shouldn't have left it there'. It's an *almost* moment of accountability - there's some acceptance of responsibility, but no desire to take on the full amount, because without some blame-shifting the shame and guilt upon self-reflection is too heavy to bear. Blame shared is guilt halved. And he's still trying to protect himself all these years after (as he recounts the incident), even as he tries to atone.

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Rather than spin, I would say perspective. When we tell our stories, I think we tell them thinking of them as factual when we are actually just telling how we experienced them. Someone might say someone was "yelling" at them, and if I saw the incident, I would not hear yelling, but I might hear a critical remark. The person who tells their story isn't lying in my opinion. They are trying to tell their experience. I think the narrator in this story is speaking his experience throughout -- just as we all do. I don't think the facts are as important in understanding each other as how we experience the facts. A great example is how we all are having our experiences of this story.

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Jan 24, 2022Liked by George Saunders

OK here's my take! Go easy on me!

The first two thirds of the story are full of coaching - facts of this time and place, these little details are given this moral weight by the narrator - so we see this commonplace world where his (and by extension, our) petty judgement, small mindedness and self importance, overshadow everything.

Then the paragraph that starts "Suddenly..." does a lot of work. It upends his reality with a kind of divine experience. Something shifts “suddenly” - in an “instant”. The imagery becomes totally surreal: as the driver moves toward doing the right thing, the better thing, he becomes literally bigger, more powerful - he “looms” over the shrinking narrator. The narrator feels at the same time a claustrophobic, stifling “pressure” - he is overwhelmed, almost “overpowered” by what he is experiencing.

The sudden use of surreal imagery in this paragraph morphs the everyday into an almost supernatural/spiritual experience. A great stillness that descends: the narrator’s “vitality is sapped”, he sits “motionless”. Time seems to stop: the action slows right down. There is this abrupt shift - literally mid sentence - back to reality: “My vitality seemed sapped as I sat there motionless, my mind a blank, ...→ until a policeman came out. Then I got down from the rickshaw.” …this shift keeps us unsettled, unsteady. The language works to pull us back into that still place - “the wind had dropped”... it was “still quiet”.

We are left to feel the moral/emotional shockwaves reverberating. Someone else also pointed out that from here on, the story is light on coaching - there’s just this rattled guy, looping back over it, trying and not quite succeeding to make sense of what he experienced. There’s a feeling that there’s some divine message he is missing: this event is intentionally “teaching” him, “urging” him, “giving” him a sense of something larger.

Thanks for this exercise! Enjoyed letting my initial reading percolate, coming back and rereading - paying close attention to the deliberate phrasing and structure.

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Jan 23, 2022Liked by George Saunders

For my first reading of this story, I printed a copy, underlined passages, and made tons of scribbles and notes in the margins. This culminated with me writing “unreliable narrator” in big letter across the top, right above the title.

I agree that on first read, you don’t question it too much. You are taking in the story at face value. Once you sit with it a while and visit again (and again) you start thinking, “Wait a minute…”

I even think the narrator is doing this sort of “coaching” in the introduction. He claims the “so-called affairs of state” are the cause of his ill temper and misanthropy. He’s definitely not responsible for acting that way! It’s not his fault! (At least according to him.)

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Jan 24, 2022·edited Jan 24, 2022

The wind seems to be important in the story. Adding a layer under the narrative.

"a bitter north wind was blowing"

"the wind dropped a little"

"unbuttoned and fluttering in the wind"

"because of the wind"

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Good experience rereading the story to find the places where the narrator is shaping or coaching the reader to experience the work in a particular way. In addition, I compared two translations to see how these phrases may be worded differently as a few other Story Club members mentioned. Below are some of the more notable differences I found between the translation by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1960, 1972 that George gave us for this exercise vs Julia Lovell, Penguin Classics, London 2009.

Title: An Incident (Yang & Yang) vs A Minor Incident (Lovell)

so-called affairs of state vs matters of national importance

one incident vs one minor incident: a tiny thing

winter of 1917 vs winter of 1917-the sixth year of our new Republic

entangled in our rickshaw vs someone caught on the handlebar of the rickshaw

a bad fall and seriously injured vs somersaulted over the bar and cracked her head open

resented the officiousness vs irritation…getting needlessly involved

she must be pretending which was disgusting vs You phoney…no one ever came to harm going down as slowly as that

exerting pressure on me…overpower the small self under my fur-lined gown vs pressing out the petty selfishness concealed beneath my fur coat

military and political affairs of those years vs recent political or military achievements

the classics I read in my childhood vs Confucian primers that tormented my boyhood

teaching me shame vs shaming me

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I'm with everyone else and George on this - I didn't notice the coaching phrases on the first read through. On the second, much closer read I did begin to see them and begin to doubt the narrator's account. One example that stands out to me is this line:

"He paid no attention, however - perhaps he had not heard - for he set down the shafts, and gently helped the old woman to get up."

That little justification - "perhaps he had not heard" - is fascinating. I would argue it shows his self-importance. Obviously the rickshaw man not hearing the narrator's direction is the only reason he continues to help the woman. The narrator has trouble conceiving of a person who would do the right thing even at the personal cost of losing a paying customer and potentially getting in trouble with the police. The narrator is the center of his own universe. It's no wonder such a small - even mundane - act of kindness cracks open his worldview.

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Things I noticed that I want to ruminate on: the lack of impression the past six years have left compared to the deep impression of this one moment.

All of his descriptions are bleak - the weather for one “bitter cold.” His view of his work - that it’s simply “to make a living.” His description of the woman are bleak in a sense too, white streaks, ragged clothes. But he also assigns a morality to his view of her and her assumed motivations.

His mention that there are no witnesses… but he forgets that he, himself, is a witness. And he continues to witness this event in his memory in to the future.

That he doesn’t want to be held up from getting to a job he is tired of - one that gives him an “ill temper”

His view of the driver getting larger in the distance and the growing pressure he felt the further the driver was into the act of kindness. As the driver becomes larger, the narrator describes himself as small.

After the encounter with the policeman, and the copper coins, he is afraid to self-evaluate… to face himself as he is.

And, of course, his thoughts in the conclusion, this is where I overlooked a lot in my harsher judgment of him. This incident continues to make him look inward. He wants to be a better man. I think he remains tethered to this story because it’s become his moral compass. A vivid reminder to acknowledge shame and attempt reform. He tells us, himself, that he is hopeful. But I judged him as hopeless, initially. My initial thoughts were about the capacity for good and harm. But I made the driver and the narrator to represent those choices (one to do good and one to, well, not do good. But what I didn’t notice was that battle of choice within the narrator, himself. He’s shamed by an act of kindness, but the existence of the shame gives him hope and courage for reform. In the end, it is both honest and optimistic.

From bleak existence to courage and hope.

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"The Incident" strongly reminded me in particular of Chekhov's short story "The Seizure" about three students out on the town. Again I recognise, I raise the Lu Hsün and Chekhov link because within the short stories and the plays Chekhov uses this device in a way which does not look unduly patronising or didactic! Lu Hsün was a later special discovery for me some years ago, ( You'll also find his name under an alternate romanisation of Lu Xun. Might I commend to your attention his collection of prose poems "Wild Grass (Yecao, Weeds)") Those coaching words, are used by both writers, to subtly open the individual experience of the reader and extend across the barriers of culture and time. Reminds me, at the other end of short story reading, of a lovely quote from Proust in "Le temps retrouvé" - "en réalité chaque lecteur est, quand il lit, le propre lecteur de soi même" - "in reality, each reader is, when they read, the reader of themselves", ( my english rendering). He seeks to do something similar for/to the reader. It certainly helps that the skill of the author, in revealing the hidden to the reader by techniques such as these coaching words is deeply relevant in this "trajectory altering" outcome. Thank you George for this wonderful Story Club sub stack.

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