The Miserere by Gustavo Bécquer


I featured a couple of winter tales by Spanish author and poet Gustavo Bécquer this past December; this week I’m sharing my favorite Bécquer ghost story, “The Miserere , in honor of Holy Week (the week leading into Easter).

In the Abbey of Fitero, the narrator (presumably, Bécquer) discovers a curious piece of sheet music, an unfinished Miserere:

This was what got my attention at first, but when I looked more closely at the sheets of music, I noticed that, instead of the Italian terms they usually use, like maestoso, allegro, ritardando, più vivo, pianissimo, there were some lines written in fine print in German, some of which mentioned things that would be difficult to do, like: “they are creaking…, the bones creak and it should seem like cries that come from the marrow”; or this other one, “the chord moans without being out of tune, the brass thunders but does not deafen; therefore, everything is heard and nothing is lost, and all of this is Humanity that sobs and moans”; and then undoubtedly the strangest of all, at the end of the final verse it declared: “The notes are bones covered with flesh; undying light, the heavens and their harmony…, strength!…, strength and sweetness.”

Naturally, the narrator is curious, and asks the monks about this. An old man then shares with the narrator the story of a musician whose mission in life was to compose the ultimate Miserere (as penance for a youthful crime), and of the ghostly monks, murder victims who died without last rites, who return to the ruins of their monastery every Maundy Thursday (Thursday of Holy Week) to pray for redemption — by singing the Miserere. This is the creepiest of all Bécquer’s ghost stories; the scene where the monks and their monastery come back at the stroke of eleven is just awesome.

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Saltair and the Carnival of Souls

Saltair III on an overcast March evening.
Photo: Nina Zumel

I was in Salt Lake City all this past week, on business. It’s a beautiful area, the Salt Lake Basin, and the weather was fantastic. It’s too bad I had to spend most of my time indoors, in meetings and working sessions. Being able to see the snow-frosted peaks of the Rockies in every direction whenever I did step outside almost made up for that — but only almost. One of these days, I’m going to take an extra weekend after visiting our Salt Lake client, to hike and really see the Great Salt Lake, but this trip I had to make do with a quick trip to the Saltair Pavilion, on the shore of the lake, before heading to the airport for home.

It was after hours (and off season, of course), so the gates to the pavilion were closed. The clouds had thickened, and a chill settled in after a week of unseasonably warm weather. The lake stank of sulfur. I didn’t want to scramble through the fence in my business clothes, so I contented myself with a few snapshots from the road while a few curious roadies (Saltair is a concert venue now) looked on.

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The Door to Mr. Shay’s Bookshop

Last evening in Franklin. I have to get up early tomorrow to catch my plane, and I should be packing now. I’m procrastinating.

Killed half an hour listening to Darkly Lit Podcast’s Christmas Eve ghost story (only a month and four days too late, I know, I know…). It was, to me, a vaguely unsatisfying story, and also vaguely familiar. It turns out that I had the story, in a 1922 collection I found on Project Gutenberg called Masterpieces of Mystery, Volume 1 (Ghost Stories), edited by a Joseph Lewis French. Reading it instead of listening to it did not make it any more satisfying.

But I still didn’t want to pack. So I googled the author, and found nothing (as the Darkly Lit post had already warned that I wouldn’t). Then I googled Joseph Lewis French. Why not? I found this:

Photo: Greenwich Village Bookshop Door Website, Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin

This is the door to Frank Shay’s office, in his bookshop, which was located on 4 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village from 1920 until 1925.

Frank Shay, a friend of Christopher Morley, was in the center of the Greenwich Village literary and artistic scene of that period. Everyone came to his shop, and somehow, the custom began of signing his office door. Eventually, the door collected 242 signatures of Greenwich Village locals and “visiting dignitaries”.

Shay sold the shop in 1924, and the new owner shut it down the following year. She saved the door, though, and eventually sold it to the University of Texas, Austin, in 1960. At the time, only 25 of the signatures had been identified. Twenty-five more signatures were identified by a UT Austin doctoral student in 1972. Then nothing.

In 2010, the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin began compiling a web exhibit to recreate the life and times of The Greenwich Village Bookshop, its denizens, and their work. In the course of their research, they identified 191 more signatures.

Joseph Lewis French signed the door, which is how I found it. Scanning quickly through the list of signatures, I spotted Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and Susan Glaspell (whom I know mainly for her short story, “A Jury of Her Peers”). Many other names that I recognize, several that I don’t.

The exhibit has a page on each of the identified signers, along with an artifact: pages from the draft of Main Street, a letter from Upton Sinclair to a woman who wanted to translate one of his plays to Spanish. It’s fascinating browsing. And a whole list of new things I want to find, and read….

It was, in large part, the web that enabled the exhibit curators to flesh out the story of the door’s signers. The irony of that isn’t lost on them:

The rich resources of the web are, of course, a bittersweet development for those of us who have long loved browsing, talking, and learning from each other in bookstores. While resources on the internet have fostered this project, they have also led directly to the closure of thousands of bookstores over the last decade. We hope that telling the story of this shop and its community will encourage audiences to be mindful of the history of bookstores, bookselling, book buying, and the power of place, as we experience this moment of enormous change.

Definitely worth checking out.

Selective Memories

We’ve just returned from a trip from Budapest to Vienna, through the Wachau Valley and eventually to Nuremberg. I saw several lovely towns and beautiful cities, magnificent palaces and churches, had great food and heard good music.

But you know what sticks in my mind?

On a long evening bus ride from Budapest towards Austria, the dullest part of the trip as far my traveling companions were concerned, I saw a little village rising up out of the mist. It was a factory town, or a mill town, I have no idea what it was called, but it was wreathed in the foggy, misty weather, and in the steam, or maybe smoke, coming from the industrial buildings along the river. I could see the church, and the houses, looming on the hills above the riverbanks through the opaque steamy air, as if the town was materializing before my eyes in just that very second.

And not too long after that, we passed an oil refinery. A HUGE oil refinery, possibly bigger than my little village, every building and structure alight from the ground all the way to the top, all interconnected. It reminded me of Ridley Scott’s vision of future Los Angeles, perpetually midnight, in Bladerunner. Even after seeing Vienna, and Melk, and Nuremberg, I still remember that anonymous town, that oil refinery.

Funny how the mind works.

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