Barbara Kremen reading | Saturday, Dec. 4, 4 p.m.; free | PS118 Gallery & Event Space, Durham
Reserve seats by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
In her memoir Uncanny Valley, tech industry skeptic Anna Wiener bemoans the difficulty of escaping internet addiction and immersing ourselves in literature when many of our contemporary writers are, well, also addicted to the internet. Wiener has a point: crack the spine of a hot, Big Five–published book in 2021 and chances are the sections will be brief in a bid to hold readers’ attention. The characters will be neurotic, scrolling, fractured.
This makes it all the more striking to read a book unmoored from time like The Figure in the Glass by local author Barbara Kremen, out now from Durham’s Horse & Buggy Press.
The imaginative, discursive, carefully dense novellas and short stories in this 270-page collection require readers’ full attention. The book itself also defies convenience: it’s an unusual 7 by 10 inches, with heavyweight pages and a cloth hardcover.
“I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram and Facebook,” says Horse & Buggy publisher Dave Wofford. “I’m trying to do as much work as possible through the bookstore to reward people when they do want to settle in [with a more challenging book].”
At Horse & Buggy, Wofford aims to publish a variety of beautifully produced books—memoirs, art books, and more—that might not fit in at a traditional house. When he founded the press 25 years ago, his vision was to produce books that not only contained good stories but also functioned as objéts, and many of his early titles were hand-stitched and letterpressed.
Wofford met Kremen, 99, and her now-deceased husband 15 years ago when he published a mutual friend’s book, Jeffery Beam’s An Elizabethan Bestiary: Retold. The two stayed in touch and Beam recently introduced Kremen at her launch reading at Horse & Buggy’s event space, PS118.
Three of the stories in The Figure in the Glass were published in 2006 as The Damsel Fly: And Other Stories, but this is the first time the pieces have all appeared in one volume.
The book represents the culmination of decades of research, writing, fine-tuning, and, well, living: Over the past century, Kremen has worked at the Met in New York and lived abroad in France and Switzerland. After she moved to Durham in 1963, she immersed herself in her passion for the natural sciences through copious research and note-taking about the seasonal changes she observed in nearby Forest Hills Park. All of these experiences inform her work.
Settling into Kremen’s worlds involves deep engagement with those decades’ worth of knowledge. In the title story, an illustration of a young man escapes from a book while his counterpart, the actual young man, lives out his life as an amnesiac in a Dutch village.
In “Tree Trove,” a botanical fantasy for all ages that originally appeared in St. Andrews Review in the 1980s, child characters stumble into a world of anthropomorphized animals and plants. Her stories take unexpected turns and avenues: “The Damsel Fly,” for example, opens with a daughter telling her mother that she’s keeping her unplanned pregnancy and ends with a man in a days-long reverie as damselflies swirl and mate over a nearby lake.
Kremen describes the world of the damselflies as fully as she describes the world of the humans: here, “a giant scavenger beetle chopped up a naiad’s headless torso with its powerful jaws; a back strider pierced its victim with a beak-like mouth and sucked the juices.”
Kremen, who still lives in Durham, says that during the stop-and-start process of crafting these stories, many of which took decades to write, she drew inspiration from her own desire to slow down and immerse herself in the natural world.
“We’re intent on what we’re going out for, or thinking of something else,” Kremen says over the phone, the week after her reading at Horse & Buggy’s downtown Durham space. “We pass through all kinds of landscapes, cityscapes, whatever, barely seeing what’s around us. The idea of noticing, of being awake in one’s senses, got to be very strong with me.”
Although Kremen’s longer stories are impressive in their audacity and wide-ranging plots, the shorter pieces in the book often pack even more of a punch.
In “Deceit of Snow,” sprightly newlyweds on an Alpine vacation wander off onto an ice field where they encounter preternaturally beautiful flowers blooming in the snow—and doom. Meanwhile, in “One Summer in Maine,” children play games with the locals while their lonely mother fantasizes about a young man in a yellow car—only for the story to end with the surprise vulgarity of anti-Semitic vandalism. “Ponte Vecchio,” meanwhile, sees a disorienting and powerful sequence when an old man loses his way in a foreign city.
Kremen’s writing is finely wrought: to skim these stories and miss a sentence or even a clause is to miss an important implication or crucial gesture. Kremen’s strange precision and singular mind are evident even in her more traditionally told tales; in one, a character has “birdlike bones, the carriage of a martinet.”
There is a distinct pleasure in reading work like this, written decades ago, taking place in bygone eras, but gathered and published for the first time—stories that feel at once timeless and like a time capsule of a particular midcentury sensibility.
For Wofford, the book taps into an interest in “the long arc of history.” At Horse & Buggy Press, he wants to give a chance to all authors, not just those eligible for 35 under 35 lists. He hopes to “design books for generations from now, not just current readers in the bookstore.”
As for Kremen, she’ll do another public reading on Saturday, December 4, and she hopes she has more writing days ahead of her. But as of now, The Figure in the Glass is her magnum opus, the culmination of the long arc of her own life.
“It is particularly gratifying to have all the stories collected in the one handsome, hardcover volume produced by Horse & Buggy Press, in that it lends them a sense of weight and permanence, unlike the ephemerality that pervades much of the content of my fictions,” Kremen says. “Here’s my testament. Here’s what I have to say.”
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