Two lost scenes: the stationery shop, the rotating prison

Two scenes from books I’ve read and now can’t place, and which niggle me for that reason. I write them down in the hope that someone can identify them for me – or that, if no one does, I can claim them for myself.

1. A scene in a stationery shop. We are in Europe, early or mid 20th Century, or perhaps that part of Midwest or northeastern America which once was Europe. The narrator, or protagonist, is on a return visit to the small town he has otherwise left behind. He is a young man now, or perhaps still just about a boy, in the last years of his teens. But probably a young man. The shop is old-fashioned, with a counter and shelves behind it. I don’t know what he is after: ink, or printer ribbons, but the girl, or young woman, behind the counter has to go up a ladder to reach it down for him. A step ladder. Shelves packed tight with the materials of writing – the protagonist must be a writer – that must be the point of the story. But, in truth, it is the girl or woman he has come to see. She was either his girlfriend, when he lived in the town, or his friend, or the object of his desire. She is what he might have aspired to, had he stayed – had he not left town to ‘become a writer’. Her father owns the shop. I don’t know if he is physically present in the scene, or only in spirit. I don’t know if the young woman, recognises the young man. I get the sense that he has come back half-hoping she will recognise him, that he can ‘take her away from here’, but also half-fearing the sight of what might have been, had he stayed – that his own doppelganger will be stood alongside her behind the counter. Will lay his hand on her arm, stare him out. I think I might be going beyond the bounds of the scene into my own concerns. In any case, it is an old story – the boy writing himself out of the ghetto, the woman as symbol of domestication. Here’s what you could have won. When what you have won is the endless loss of ‘being an artist’. I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.

2. This isn’t so much a scene as the whole premise or conceit of the story. A man is sent to prison. The prison is circular, like a wheel. It is built of stone, with stone walls radiating from the centre like spokes from the hub of a wheel. Each cell a segment, capped at its far end by the exterior wall. The spokes, however, turn, rotating clockwise above the stone floor. They turn slowly, moving millimetre by millimetre as they are pushed by the inmates. Soon after entering, they have moved enough that daylight is lost. This is their punishment, that their jail term is fixed by their communal efforts to push the walls until the wheel has come full circle and they can leave the way they came in. They never see another inmate, but can hear them. It sounds like bad Kafka, or Borges, but I can’t find it in them, and I don’t want to Google it, for fear of what I might find.

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One comment

  1. Paul McAuley

    The prison is from Brian Adiss’s Helliconia trilogy – not sure which of the volumes it is in, though.

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