The Metamorphoses of Narcissus
(Originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #164, January 2015, edited by Scott H. Andrews.)
The Story Behind The Story
A year after we came to Ottawa, my father got peeved with the Russian Saturday school, and so to spite them he enrolled the eight-year-old me in Spanish Saturday school instead. Without a single drop of Spanish blood, I emerged after many years with the ability to read a newspaper and converse imperfectly but fluently and with a distinct Madrid accent, and a great many interesting things have happened to me as a direct or indirect consequence. Including this story.
My third visit to Madrid was in July of 2013; after presenting at a conference in La Rioja, I spent a couple of days in the capital with two very old school friends who also happened to be on the Iberian peninsula at the time. Among other adventures, we went to the Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art and its special exhibition on Salvador Dali. Along with paintings, it had artifacts of his life, commentary in Spanish and English, and clips from films and documentaries. Including footage from his avant-garde films involving beautiful models in strange costumes, and a talk he gave once, standing with a young woman with bound breasts and arguing that beauty does not lie in the breasts as a woman with bound breasts is still beautiful.
I started wondering what the model thought about this as she stood there, smiling.
I happened to finish the exhibit before my friends, and as I stood by the gift shop waiting for them, the story started to spill out of me. I wrote the first draft on the plane back from Madrid to Chicago and graduate school, and decided that I could sell this. It took a few tries to find a home, but I used it as my application story for Clarion, and there first-week instructor Gregory Frost convinced me to keep trying.
Of course, the Hestland-Caltava war takes place in a fantasy world and is very different from how the real Second World War affected Dali and Gala (they waited it out in the United States, and Gala lived for many years afterward). But most of the imagery of the transformation, including Avardi proudly affirming that he was a narcissist himself, are drawn directly from that Reina Sofia exhibition, and The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is one of my favourite paintings by Dali.
As George Orwell remarked, “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.”
Out of that tension was my first published story made.