The County Houses

The County Houses

Introduction by Ben Marcus

Jason Schwartz was once asked to imagine his audience. What kind of people read such brutal, cryptic fiction? He pictures them prettily:

A young family, stranded on a mountain pass, killing time until help arrives. They take turns reading aloud—the text in question having been purchased by mistake and packed by accident, and later discovered in the luggage as potential kindling. The father shields the first child from those passages displaying traces of grotesquerie. The mother corrects the second child’s pronunciation or praises his elocution—as the case may be—on the occasion of the most ostentatious phrases. The third child, meanwhile, has wandered off into the woods. Ah!—it’s beginning to rain.

It is telling that Schwartz’s ideal reader is not home safe in bed, nursing a mug of tea. The old and cozy notion of reading. Comfort, escape, delight. Schwartz’s readers are in danger. Nowhere near home, perhaps never to return. Beyond rescue, no doubt. It seems likely they will die. Can you relate? If so, welcome to this strange and beautiful book, which endlessly slips from apprehension, but lodges, finally, where it matters—beneath reason and understanding—where it is not so easily shaken.

“The County Houses” by Jason Schwartz

He stands by a wall. The wall is a brick wall. There is a crack. There are slats and slants left from the letters of boys’ names. His sixteenth great-grandfather was executed by the elector of Saxony in the sixteenth century. His sixteenth great-grandfather became famous for his way of weeping. The family is named for the place. They went away by boat. They arrived safely. He claps shut the cuff of a sleeve. The groom wore a frock coat and a top hat. He tripped on the way to the wedding. He drowned in the Nevsky River. They put their mouths on the lung. They breathed into it. The sons would eat the bladder. A king was coming from Bleeds in Augsburg. It was lazy in Hazia. Or hazy in Lazia? They stayed. He once practiced a waltz with his father in a barn. He holds his heart in the heat. They put rocks atop a headstone. The plot is at Mount Ararat. This name comes from the word for quiet-and-early death. This is the great-nephew of the smallest man killed at the Battle of Visby. He did not trip over any of the graves. He turns. He has his back to us now. His father fought in a war. They put the guns to the soldiers’ noses. There were calves’ skulls in the windows. There was a dead cow in the road.

They called the names.

He falls.

A German Picturesque

Copyright © 2015 by Jason Schwartz and Ben Marcus from A German Picturesque. Reprinted by permission of Pharos Editions, an imprint of Counterpoint. 

– Jason Schwartz is the author of two books of fiction, A German Picturesque (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) and John the Posthumous (OR, 2013). His work has appeared in American Letters and Commentary, Antioch Review, Conjunctions, New York Tyrant, The Quarterly, Story Quarterly, Unsaid, and other publications. He is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Florida Atlantic University where he teaches creative writing

– Ben Marcus is the author of four books of fiction. His latest book, Leaving the Sea: Stories, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in January 2014. His stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in publications including Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, The New York Times, GQ, Salon, McSweeney’s, Time, and Conjunctions.

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