Reading in his native cockney accent, Harry Geduld entertained a small audience with his comically surreal folk tales, acting them out with relish.
"In case you haven't heard it, this story is about a mohel who just retired, and he takes his fifty year collection of foreskins to a leather worker and asks him to make something worthwhile out of them," Geduld began, eliciting laughs from the audience.
Geduld is best known as the former chair of IU's Department of Comparative Literature, and as the founder of the university's film studies program.
On a recent Tuesday evening at The Venue Fine Art and Gifts in Bloomington, the IU professor emeritus displayed a different role: fiction writer. He selected a few of his stories from the sixty he's written, which are collected in two self-published volumes.
The stories included tales of a dog who speaks Hebrew and get bar mitzvahed, a World War I solder who misses the chance to change the course of history, and a story that speculated on the sex life of the biblical King Solomon.
"This one's called The Sex Life of King Solomon," Geduld read, introducing a story. "If you have a wayward mind like mine, you may have wondered-as I often have-about the sex life if King Solomon. After all, the guy had, we are told, 700 wives and 300 concubines . . . .Â Regrettably, on the subject of King Solomon's sex life, the Good Book tells us nothing."
Mr. Parish's Advice
The 80-year-old self-described "Englishman by birth, American by choice" started writing stories after receiving an important piece of advice.
"I had teacher in high school, Anthony Parish," Geduld recalls. "He asked me one day-I was about fourteen-âWhat do you want to do when you grow up?' and I said, âI want to be a writer.' And he said, âI'll give you a piece of advice. It's the most important piece of advice I can give anybody who wants to be a writer. That is, you have to write something every day; no matter whether it's just half a page-just write something every day. If you do that, it will never become very, very easy, but it will become much easier than writing occasionally.' He was absolutely right."
Geduld read his story "Sniper," a gritty tale of a World War I marksman named Tommy who is in a trench "having a successful day-except for the runner."
So far he had got five Germans. But the runner had eluded him time and again. Tommy's position was ideal for a sniper. He could see clearly for at least a hundred yards in both directions. There were none of the usual rotting corpses dangling from coils of barbed wire to block his view of the enemy line. He was a crack shot, the best in the regiment. And whenever a Fritz had been so careless as to raise his head above the trenches-Bingo! He put a bullet below the spiked steel helmet, right between the man's eyes. But he was getting nowhere with this runner . . . .
"Sniper" is an example of what Geduld calls his "vista" stories: narratives that refer back to a character's past or suggest future events to come.
Tommy's mind turned to the girl he had in the French brothel behind the lines. Five minutes for five francs. Marceline-that was her name. Pretty kid, only fifteen or sixteen, who'd already serviced hundreds of men. She might've given me the clap or something worse, he thought. But that wouldn't be too bad; he'd have a day or two out of the trenches and get a shot on the rear end with a hypodermic. That would cure him, but he'd lose his stripes: he'd be kicked down to private again. Not the worst thing in the world, except that it meant less pay.
Like many of Geduld's stories, "Sniper" ends with a twist. It also offers a "vista" of a future that could have been different had Tommy achieved his goal of picking off a messenger who is running behind enemy lines.
"I got you now," thought Tommy. To get a perfect aim, he stood erect in the trench, and raising his rifle, peered through the sight, and tightened his finger on the trigger. But he never fired. The dum dum bullet that struck him passed through his forehead, just below the steel helmet, and exploded his skull and brain.
The runner stood up and resumed his zig-zagging until he reached German headquarters at the far end of the line. The lieutenant to whom he handed the message smiled, patted him on the shoulder and said, "You have performed invaluable and courageous services. Germany is in your debt. I shall recommend you for the Iron Cross, First Class, Corporal Hitler. It's through such men as you that Germany will triumph and bring enduring peace to Europe."
They Just Came Flooding In
During Geduld's academic career, he wrote and edited many books and articles of academic scholarship while putting his fiction writing on hold.
"I did that in order to further my career," he says. "I wanted to get tenure, and I wanted to get promoted. I was absolutely sure that by writing short stories I would never get tenure and I would never get promoted."
When Geduld retired, the stories that had been simmering in his mind boiled over.
"So these stories buzzed around in my head for years and years-and I didn't have much time to write them down-but as soon as I retired they just came flooding in. . . . and I mean literally flooding in. I could sit down and write for hour after hour these short stories."
"I've never had a problem with writer's block," he adds.
The Ideal Short Story
Geduld enjoys writing short stories because the form demands concision and compression. To him, the ideal short stories are jokes.
"I think jokes are the ultimately perfect minor short story. It's got everything-a beginning, middle, and end, has a dÃ©nouement, which of course is the kick at the end of the joke."
Geduld fondness for jokes finds expression in the writing of limericks. He's written several hundred limericks, many of them risquÃ©, which he's collecting for his next book. He's titling the volume, with characteristic whimsy, A Collection of Per-Verses.