Wednesday, January 25, 2012

3. the assignments

by emily de villaincourt

illustrated by rhoda penmarq and konrad kraus

click here for previous chapter, here to begin at the beginning

miss prue reached under the table and produced two hats - a white top hat and a black homburg - and placed them in front of her.

the girls looked properly bewildered.

"are you going to pull rabbits out of them?" asked minette.

"oh, i like those!" nanette exclaimed. "can i have one of them ?"

"perhaps, when we are through," miss prue replied. "they may be a bit large for you. now, pay attention." she looked around. "each of the hats contains fourteen pieces of folded paper - very neatly and tightly folded paper, i might add - which will determine the content and style of the novel you are to write. the papers in the white hat describe the essence, or ethos of the novel you are to write - "

"excuse me, " ameline interrupted, "but what does that mean? essence? does it mean something like a pirate novel, or a vampire novel, or a locked room mystery-"

"oh, nothing so specific as that. for example, one of the essences is "violent" - you would write the most violent novel you can. another is "romantic" , another is "left wing" - "

ameline looked around to the other girls. "but that is ridiculous! what if i am not a violent person? or a left wing person?"

"these are the terms of the contest. i will explain more fully later and you can ask questions. may i proceed?"

"i want the romantic one!" at least two girls cried.

miss prue ignored this. "the black hat contains papers with the names of fourteen famous authors. your novel will be written in the style of the author you pick."

"oh, but what if we are not familiar with the author!"

"they are very well known authors. and you are supposed to be well read young ladies."

the girls fell silent.

"actually, the contest has shown some mercy in this regard - more than i might have myself. you will each be provided with the complete works - or at least a generous selection - of your author. your rooms will contain a library with these and other useful works such as the encyclopedia brittanica - "

"i hope it is the eleventh edition," exclaimed paulette, " or at least the fifteenth."

"i believe it is one of those, yes. also butler's lives of the saints, the golden treasury of palgrave, the historical essays of macaulay, and i am not sure what else -"

"the bible, perhaps?'"asked quinette, the smallest and most timid of the girls, who had not spoken before.

"yes, of course, the bible."

"and the bhagavad-gita?" asked paulette.

"yes, i believe we have sir edwin arnold's translation -"

"oh, bother this!" cried rosalind. "do let her go on, please!"

"sorry," paulette mumbled.

"where was i? why don't we just pull the papers? then you can ask questions. "

"what about the girl who isn't here?" dorine asked.

"she will get the two papers left over - obviously. we will start on my right, and go around the table. you can either come up and pick the papers yourself, or have me pick for you. ready?"

none of them answered. miss prue nodded to ameline, who stood up and picked a paper out of the white hat. she unfolded it. "feminist. cool." she stared at the piece of paper. "that means i get to write the most feminist book i can?"

"that's what it means."

"i can live with that." she looked around. the others looked back or looked away, not sure what to think.

miss prue pushed the black hat toward her. "now pick your author."

"bulwer-lytton! " a few of the others laughed. "well - we'll see."


sabine was next. she came up and quickly snatched a paper from the white hat. "left-wing." she looked at miss prue. "so i write the most "left-wing" thing i can think of, and i don't get in trouble?"

"the terms of the contest are that you indeed write the most "left-wing" thing you can think of. "

"this is weird," said laurene. "i thought we would pick something like the seven deadly sins or something. like something you'd do in dance class."

miss prue ignored this. "pick your author," she told sabine.

"oh yeah." sabine took a paper from the black hat. "graham greene. whatever"

"next." victorine, the youngest girl, was next. she stayed in her seat. "go ahead and pick for me."

"very well." miss prue took a paper from each of the hats. "ridiculous." this got a big laugh all around. victorine blushed. "yes, " said miss prue, "that means you need only write the most ridiculous thing you can think of. and your author is - kafka. "

"that's not a bad pick," said dorine. "i wouldn't have minded getting it." victorine blushed again.

perky minette was next. she came up and picked "violent." "ohhh - but i am not a violent person! " she looked around for sympathy. "can i trade with somebody?"

"absolutely not. pick your author."

"samuel beckett." she looked blank. "samuel beckett." she went back to her seat.

nanette was next. "pick for me, please."


"patriarchal! what the - i am not even sure what it means."

"look it up in the fifteenth edition of the encyclopedia brittanica ," drawled rosalind. she stood up, as her turn was next.

"and your author is proust," miss prue told nanette.

"proust. i need help here."

rosalind strode up to miss prue. she took a paper from the white hat. "anti-religious. huh. what religious am i to be anti?"

"that is for you to decide. let me say to all of you," said miss prue, "that some of these categories are indeed very broad. you will have to use your own judgment as to what is best meant by them."

"you mean to read the judges' minds," said ameline.

"if you want to put it that way," said miss prue. pick from the black hat, please," she
told rosalind.

"sir walter scott. " rosalind rolled her eyes, and returned to her seat.

"i believe scott was the oldest author in the list," said miss prue. "next."

little quinette was in the last seat on the right. "pick for me, please, miss."

"non-violent. and your author is stendhal."

"that's a pretty broad category," said dorine. "that's another pick i wouldn't mind."

"who are you, the roving commentator?" rosalind asked her. "is anybody asking for your opinions?

"i'll say whatever i please, thank you very much."

"ladies, ladies. we have been here less than twelve hours. no temperamental displays, please. let's get through this." miss prue looked down the left side of the table. "i think it will save time if i make the rest of the picks. do any of you feel she absolutely has to pick herself?'

"yes," said dorine, "i would like to pick for myself."

"very well. anybody else? no? good."

"and by the way." added dorine, "are there not any women authors in the list?"

"yes, i believe there are a couple."

"two out of what, fourteen? that's great."

"i'm sorry. i didn't draw up the list."

"i'm sorry too. let's get on with it."

"you are a rude little thing, miss. you are not getting off to a very good start."

"i said i was sorry."

miss prue stared at dorine for another two seconds. "all right, you down on the far left, you are - "


"florine." miss prue took papers from the white and black hats. "right-wing."

"i - i'm not sure what that means."

"well, you will have a year to figure it out. and the author you will imitate is - gertrude stein."

florine just nodded.

"next - you are -"

"coraline, miss."

"your assignment is - "politically correct."

"oh, i know what that means." coraline made a rueful little face. "at least."

"good. and your author is - thomas mann."


"moving right along."

"my name is paulette."

"paulette. you are the lucky one, paulette. you get "romantic"


"you don't seem all that excited. your romantic novel will be done in the style of - balzac,"

"oh. thank you."

"now you, miss." miss prue looked at dorine sternly, then softened her expression. "you wish to pick for yourself."

"yes, i do." dorine rose and approached the head of the table. she stuck her hand in the white hat, fumbled around in it and pulled out a paper. she slowly unfolded it.

"religious." she looked at it. "that might be the broadest category of them all."


dorine stuck her hand deep in the black hat. "and my author is - george sand."

"ah. happy now?"

"i'm not sure happy is the word. but thank you." dorine returned to her seat, clutching her two pieces of paper.

"we are almost done. you, my dear - ". miss prue looked at laurene and took a paper from the white hat - have as your assignment - "romantic comedy"

"oh!" laurene clapped her hands. "you didn't say anything about romantic comedy! all right!"

"and your romantic comedy will be done in the style of - dickens."

"whatever. romantic comedy. ha, ha!"

"and finally - " miss prue turned to jolene at her left elbow, and took a paper from the white hat. " you get - banal."

"banal? you mean i am supposed to make the book as banal as possible and i will get credit for that?'"

"interpret it as you wish."

"and whose style am i to write my banal book in?"

miss prue opened a paper from the black hat. "flaubert"


miss prue stuck the black homburg into the white top hat and placed them under the table at her feet. "now - i am sure you have questions." she looked down the table. "no?" no one spoke. now that the girls had their assignments, they all looked more bewildered than ever.

chapter 4: celine

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