The fate of most to fall short in expression

Ephraim is the penultimate story in Tamar Yellin’s collection Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. In it, the narrator comes across a slim volume in the window of a provincial bookshop. Its author is Georg, an old student, who used to talk “at great length about his literary ambitions”. The bookseller and publisher is Georg’s uncle, who had once unsuccessfully run off to join the theatre now has an “old-fashioned Linotype in the basement where he ran off a few limited editions”.

“Having renewed contact with his family some years ago, it had been his privilege, when the right time came, and, naturally sharing the risk with his nephew, to produce what no other publisher would venture, namely Georg’s book, and to take on the whole burden of selling it by giving it pride of place in his window.”

This small joint venture was not a success.

“I held the book in my hand: it was cheaply produced, a little amateurish, and I saw in my mind’s eye at that moment the series of frantic letters now sitting in his uncle’s drawer, in which he had vainly pleaded for the whole edition to be pulped.”

The publisher/bookseller persuades the author’s old teacher to take two copies on a special offer, and continues to push for more sales until the narrator “stumbled out of the shop with fifteen slim volumes where I would far more happily have slipped away with one”. When the book is read on board the ship that takes the narrator away – “leaving the continent for what might prove to be the last time” – it proves to be unfinished, unsatisfactory, but strangely moving.

“I should not have been surprised, I suppose, to find the actuality failing my expectations, for what book, what mere combination of words could have lived up to the ineffable idea I had of it? It is after all the fate of most to fall short in expression, though we do try, though we do try hard.[…]Yet what I had from it was a sense no words can convey, which brought the tears to my eyes and made me ache with longing: the sense of his presence, of himself simply.”

After only a short reflection that Georg was even now “toiling over the new draft which would be perfect, which would express everything”, the books are dropped over the ship’s rail, consigned, one by one, “into the oceanic silence”.

The puzzle remains. Is it the author, the publisher, or the reader who should make the ultimate decision on the worth of any text?

Tamar Yellin, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, 2008

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