1. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Short Story Club (15): Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by thirdwind, May 25, 2013.

    For this discussion we'll be reading "Leiningen Versus the Ants" by Carl Stephenson. The story can be found here.

    Carl Stephenson was a German writer most famous for the story "Leiningen Versus the Ants." From what I've read, this story is one of the most famous stories out there and is frequently anthologized.
     
  2. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Well.

    Of all the stories we've read in our short story club here, this one is pretty clearly the most poorly written. Leiningen himself is presented as a stock character - the proud, strong European master of all he surveys. The District Commissioner who appears at the beginning of the story is a panicky minor official who claws the air "with wildly distended fingers." Leiningen's workers are portrayed in a racist light - many are fearful and all are considered "slow-witted Indians." Stephenson freely includes infodumps. He attempts to stimulate the reader's fear of the ants with numerous adjectives and over-the-top epithets ("awe-inspiring throng", "this host of infinity", "myriad battalions", etc.). He breaks all the rules - he even uses lots of semicolons in dialogue (mammamaia would object strenuously!).

    There are some good things, though. Some of the imagery works, for instance: Leiningen has "the look of an aging and shabby eagle"; the District Commissioner is an "exclamation mark." Stephenson also introduces the ants by first describing all kinds of animals fleeing them, hunters having become the hunted. He also uses a couple of decent literary references: Macbeth's Birnam Wood, Dante's horrific vision.

    Do the strengths overcome the weaknesses in this story? Not really. Still, technique be damned - it's a good, old-fashioned adventure piece. The story itself rocks. In the hands of a more skilled writer - a Kipling, say, or a Conrad - this could have been a masterpiece. As it is, it's an exciting man-against-nature story, and it's refreshing to read one after all the highfalutin literary stuff we've been dealing with in this club (just kidding, sort of!).
     
  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Wow, this is a long story. One thing to note about this story is that it's a translation, so that may account for some of the poor writing (although I didn't think the writing was that awful; I think minstrel just has higher standards than I do ;))

    I enjoyed the story and can see why it's so popular. It was funny at times, too, and this may have been the effect Stephenson was going for for the whole story (though I think he failed here). I have to agree with minstrel that the concept itself is the best thing about this story. In fact, even if the writing had been a little worse, I think I still would have read the whole thing.

    I'll be posting more thoughts when I get more time.
     
  4. nastyjman
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    Reading this now, but had to stop to share this:

    I love that construction. Makes you feel the rush and the tumult happening in the scene.
     
  5. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I mentioned that, too, nastyjman. I think it's one of the most effective features of the story. Before the ants themselves are introduced, we see the panic they cause in the other animals. That's a great way to handle it, I think!
     
  6. nastyjman
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    nastyjman Contributing Member

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    So here's my thoughts on it:

    I love this piece; I can feel the tension in this one. Vivid would be the appropriate word for how I experienced this story. And the author's command with his sentences and his pacing was masterful (sorry for gushing).

    Although the main character seems to be stolid, I think it's a symbol to parallel the European with the "Indians": him, calculating, using his intelligence for survival; them, emotional, following their instinct for survival. But his composure is shocked as soon as he confronts the ants. And the ants symbolize what Leiningen values the most: overcoming obstacles through use of intelligence and carrying the plan of action with reserve. Of what he values most might destroy him.

    The ants think of ways to get to the heart of the plantation, to the heart of Leiningen. When things get dire, Leiningen absconds reason with emotion. The act of endangering himself brings him closer to the natives. Drinking the medicine and being layered with the salve is a form of communion with the natives. As he broke through the swarm and turned the wheel for the flood, he is assailed, bitten, consumed, paralyzed. At the last bit where he falls down to look at the eaten doe, Leningen draws his last strength, his instinct to live, and jumps back from hell ("Through the blazing ring hurtled an apparition...").

    He is alive, but badly wounded. Some bone were showing, a symbol of true form.

    (I apologize for any typos or bad grammar on this. I'm at work. Bleh.)
     
  7. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    That's a great interpretation and similar to mine. I find it interesting that Leiningen's intelligence fails him. It's almost as if Stephenson is saying that some problems can't be solved with reason. But because there's a sharp contrast between Leiningen and the natives, I'm inclined to think there's more going on here. Leiningen represents reason and logic, whereas the natives represent human emotion (particularly fear) and superstition. In the end, Leiningen doesn't survive because of his intelligence but because of an emotional response to remembering the death of the stag. I get the impression that Stephenson sympathizes with the natives and their way of life more than he does with Leiningen and his logic and reason.
     
  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    That's an interesting take, guys. I'm not sure, though, that Stephenson is saying some problems can't be solved by reason. I think maybe he's saying that reason isn't just the province of scholars in their chambers, surrounded by their books and the protection of their walls and the society that built them. Reason also functions in the wild, but in the wild, it has to be backed up by a degree of commitment and courage that not many men possess. It reminds me, in a way, of the book and movie The Right Stuff. In that (factual) story, there are the engineers on the ground who think and design and use their slide rules to create amazing aircraft and spacecraft, and then there are the rare men who have to risk their lives testing them. Reason works great on paper; how does it work when you have to put your life on the line?

    In Leiningen's case, it works - barely. Maybe Leiningen finds out at the end of the story that it isn't just brains that win the day, it's balls. (Sorry if that sounds sexist, but the alliteration works. :) )
     

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