Overnight to Many Distant Cities

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Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983) is a collection of short stories by Donald Barthelme.


  • They called for more structure, then, so we brought in some big hairy four-by-fours from the back shed and nailed them into place with railroad spikes. This new city, they said, was going to be just jim-dandy, would make architects stutter, would make Chambers of Commerce burst into flame. We would have our own witch doctors, and strange gods aplenty, and site-specific sins, and humuhumunukunukuapuaa in the public fish bowls. We workers listened with our mouths agape. We had never heard anything like it. But we trusted our instincts and our paychecks, so we pressed on, bringing in color-coated steel from the back shed and anodized aluminum from the shed behind that. Oh radiant city! we said to ourselves, how we want you to be built! Workplace democracy was practiced on the job, and the clerk-of-the-works (who had known Wiwi Lönn in Finland) wore a little cap with a little feather, very jaunty. There was never any question of hanging back (although we noticed that our ID cards were of a color different from their ID cards); the exercise of our skills, and the promise of the city, were enough. By the light of the moon we counted our chisels and told stories of other building feats we had been involved in: Babel, Chandigarh, Brasília, Taliesin.
    • “They called for more structure...”
  • Walking down West Broadway on a Saturday afternoon. Barking art caged in the high white galleries, don’t go inside or it’ll get you, leap into your lap and cover your face with kisses. Some goes to the other extreme, snarls and shows its brilliant teeth. O art I won’t hurt you if you don’t hurt me. Citizens parading, plump-faced and bone-faced, lightly clad. A young black boy toting a Board of Education trombone case. A fellow with oddly-cut hair the color of marigolds and a roll of roofing felt over his shoulder.
    Bishop in the crowd, thirty dollars in his pocket in case he has to buy a pal a drink.
    Into a gallery because it must be done. The artist’s hung twenty EVERLAST heavy bags in rows of four, you’re invited to have a bash. People are giving the bags every kind of trouble. Bishop, unable to resist, bangs one with his fabled left, and hurts his hand.
    Bloody artists.
    • “Visitors”
  • “Actually I can’t stand artists,” she says.
    “Like who in particular?”
    “Like that woman who puts chewing gum on her stomach—”
    “She doesn’t do that anymore. And the chewing gum was not poorly placed.”
    “And that other one who cuts off parts of himself, whittles on himself, that fries my ass.”
    “It’s supposed to.”
    “Yeah,” she says, shaking the ice in her glass. “I’m reacting like a bozo.”
    • “Visitors”
  • Connors decided that “Shall we get married?” was an inappropriate second remark to make to one newly met, but it was a very tough decision.
    • “Lightning”
  • November 13, 1823
    I was walking home from the theatre with Goethe this evening when we saw a small boy in a plum-colored waistcoat. Youth, Goethe said, is the silky apple butter on the good brown bread of possibility.
    • “Conversations with Goethe”, opening
  • Food, said Goethe, is the topmost taper on the golden candelabrum of existence.
    • “Conversations with Goethe”
  • Music, said Goethe, is the frozen tapioca in the ice sheet of History.
    • “Conversations with Goethe”
  • The English, Goethe said in parting, are the shining brown varnish on the sad chiffonier of civilization.
    • “Conversations with Goethe”
  • Art, Goethe said, is the four percent interest on the municipal bond of life. He was very pleased with this remark and repeated it several times.
    • "Conversations with Goethe"
  • Goethe had been having great difficulties with a particular actress at the theatre, a person who conceived that her own notion of how her role was to be played was superior to Goethe’s. “It is not enough,” he said, sighing, “that I have mimed every gesture for the poor creature, that nothing has been left unexplored in this character I myself have created, willed into being. She persists in what she terms her ‘interpretation’, which is ruining the play.” He went on to discuss the sorrows of managing a theatre, even the finest, and the exhausting detail that must be attended to, every jot and tittle, if the performances are to be fit for a discriminating public. Actors, he said, are the Scotch weevils in the salt pork of honest effort. I loved him more than ever, and we parted with an affectionate handshake.
    • “Conversations with Goethe”
  • September 1, 1824
    Today Goethe inveighed against certain critics who had, he said, completely misunderstood Lessing. He spoke movingly about how such obtuseness had partially embittered Lessing’s last years, and speculated that it was because Lessing was both critic and dramatist that the attacks had been of more than usual ferocity. Critics, Goethe said, are the cracked mirror in the grand ballroom of the creative spirit. No, I said, they were rather, the extra baggage on the great cabriolet of conceptual progress. “Eckermann,” said Goethe, “shut up.”
    • “Conversations with Goethe”, conclusion
  • Alexandra was reading Henrietta’s manuscript.
    “This”, she said, pointing with her finger, “is inane.”
    Henrietta got up and looked over Alexandra’s shoulder at the sentence.
    “Yes”, she said, “I prefer the inane, sometimes. The ane is often inutile to the artist.”
    There was a moment of contemplation.
    “I have been offered a thousand florins for it,” Henrietta said. “The Dutch rights.”
    “How much is that in our money?”
    “Two hundred sixty-six dollars.”
    “Bless Babel,” Alexandra said, and took her friend in her arms.
    • “Henrietta and Alexandra”, opening
  • Henrietta stood up and, with a heaving motion, threw the manuscript of her novel into the fire. The manuscript of the novel she had been working on ceaselessly, night and day, for the last ten years.
    “Alexandra! Aren’t you going to rush to the fire and pull the manuscript of my novel out of it?”
    Henrietta rushed to the fire and pulled the manuscript out of it. Only the first and last pages were fully burned, and luckily, she remembered what was written there.
    Henrietta decided that Alexandra did not love her enough. And how could nuances of despair be expressed if you couldn’t throw your novel into the fire safely?
    • “Henrietta and Alexandra”
  • Speaking of the human body, Klee said: One bone alone achieves nothing.
    Pondering this, the people placed lamps on all of the street corners, and sofas next to the lamps. People sat on the sofas and read Spinoza there, an interesting glare cast on the pages by the dithering inconstant traffic lights. At other points, on the street, four-poster beds were planted, and loving couples slept or watched television together, the sets connected to the empty houses behind them by long black cables. Elsewhere, on the street, conversation pits were chipped out of the concrete, floored with Adams rugs, and lengthy discussions were held. Do we really need a War College? was a popular subject. Favorite paintings were lashed to the iron railings bordering the sidewalks, a Gainsborough, a van Dongen, a perfervid evocation of Umbrian mental states, an important dark-brown bruising of Arches paper by a printer of modern life.
    • “Speaking of the human body...”, opening
  • Inside the abandoned houses subway trains rushed in both directions and genuine nameless animals ate each other with ghastly fervor—
    • “Speaking of the human body...”
  • This morning in the mail I received an abusive letter from a woman in Prague
    Dear Greasy Thomas:
    You cannot understand what a pig you are. You are a pig, you idiot. You think you understand things but there is nothing you understand, nothing, idiot pig-swine. You have not wisdom and you have not discretion and nothing can be done without wisdom and discretion. How did a pig-cretin like yourself ever wriggle into life? Why do you still exist, vulgar swine? If you don’t think I am going to inform the government of your inappropriate continued existence, a stain on the country’s face... You can expect Federal Marshals in clouds very soon, cretin-hideous-swine, and I will laugh as they haul you away in their green vans, ugly toad. You know nothing about anything, garbage-face, and the idea that you would dare “think” for others (I know you are not capable of “feeling”) is so wildly outrageous that I would laugh out loud if I were not sick of your importunate posturing, egregious fraud-pig. You are not even an honest pig which is at least of some use in the world, you are rather an ocean of pig-dip poisoning everything you touch. I do not like you at all.
    • “The Sea of Hesitation”
  • I left Francesca and walked in the park, where I am afraid to walk, after dark. One must let people do what they want to do, but what if they want to slap you upside the head with a Stillson wrench and take the credit cards out of your pockets? A problem.
    The poor are getting poorer. I saw a poor man and asked him if he had any money.
    “Money?” he said. “Money thinks I died a long time ago.”
    We have moved from the Age of Anxiety to the Age of Fear. This is of course progress, psychologically speaking. I intend no irony.
    • “The Sea of Hesitation”
  • Wittgenstein was I think wrong when he said that about that which we do not know, we should not speak. He closed by fiat a great amusement park, there. Nothing gives me more pleasure than speaking about that which I do not know. I am not sure whether my ideas about various matters are correct or incorrect, but speak about them I must.
    • “The Sea of Hesitation”
  • The funniest thing in the world is a general trying on a nickname.
    • “Overnight to Many Distant Cities”
  • On another evening, as we were on our way to dinner, I kicked the kid with carefully calibrated force as we were crossing the Pont Mirabeau, she had been pissy all day, driving us crazy, her character improved instantly, wonderfully, this is a tactic that can be used exactly once.
    • “Overnight to Many Distant Cities”
  • Show me a man who has not married a hundred times and I’ll show you a wretch who does not deserve God’s good world.
    • “Overnight to Many Distant Cities”