Tag Archives: The Last War

“The Last War” – Fiction by Stu Watson

The Critic - Arthur Dove, 1925
The Critic – Arthur Dove, 1925

Pride and pettiness spiral into catastrophe in “The Last War,” Stu Watson‘s exquisitely  twisted short story from our Fall 2016 issue.

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LIKE MOST THINGS, THE LAST WAR BEGAN AS A DISPUTE BETWEEN A POET AND A CRITIC, one that, in its unfolding, ultimately tells us little about the nature of art but reveals volumes about the pettiness and stupidity of human beings.

You see, at a fashionable party in the most fashionable part of the city with all of the correct people in attendance, the preeminent literary critic of his generation, at least by his own estimation and by the stature of the publications for which he wrote, overheard, while discreetly positioned behind a large antique computer monitor, the following conversation.

“So, it seems ———— was not too keen on your latest book of odes…”

“No. But then, who cares for that self-infatuated gas bag’s opinions outside of the media itself? He’s like the ultimate ‘insider’s insider,’ so far inside as to be completely up his own ass! And what’s more, I have it on good report his children aren’t even his.”

It took all of his strength for the critic not to reveal himself on hearing this last remark, for it hit him immediately with the full force of truth. It explained so much, was in fact obvious, but somehow, in over twenty years of marriage, it had never occurred to him as even the remotest possibility. For a moment he felt freed, gifted with the grace of one newly converted, but almost immediately this faded, twisted, and he began to wonder: “How can this poet be so secure in his knowledge to say such a thing, and so casually? What special access to truth does this man have that I do not?” And so his mind began to turn about the possibilities, fixating as each minute passed more and more completely on the poet who had uttered this remark.

He left the party having given no inkling of his new knowledge to any of his literary associates. He almost marveled at himself, keeping quiet about such a juicy piece of gossip, until he recalled that, as he was the object of this particular bit of gossip, it was, in fact, quite likely that everyone else at that particular literary gathering was already all-too-aware of this information that was to him so marvelously new and surprising. That this only occurred to him as he was getting into the taxi outside of the building, having already wordlessly given the driver his address, struck him as fortunate.

On reaching his apartment he stood for a long time looking at the door, thinking, before turning around and walking several blocks to a hotel where he booked himself a room for the week. The next morning he sent a note over to his home via courier informing his wife that he was leaving her, that she likely knew why, and that he expected her to cooperate with his desire for a divorce. By the same courier she sent back a note saying that she was sorry, and that she understood. At the end of his week at the hotel, having brought a few pending affairs to a close, the critic went to the airport and booked a flight for Berlin that departed that evening. Thus it was that one of the most public careers in the world of literary arts journalism came to a sudden and abrupt conclusion, and though there were rumblings as to what might have caused his absconding from the scene so precipitously, the story of his wife’s infidelity was so old, so well-known, that few suspected it might have played any role at all in his vanishing.

But of course the critic did not vanish, was in fact very much present in beginning, in middle age, a radically new life. In Berlin he lived frugally, as was still possible in those days in some of the city’s redeveloping eastern regions. His reputation as a prominent man of letters made it so that he had had few difficulties in procuring status as a permanent resident in Germany, and so, safely established in his new home, he got to working his revenge.

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