Archive for the ‘short story september’ Category

Grüß Gott,  meine Damen und Herren! After a two week detour to Edinburgh, I’m rejoining the Crime on A Europass Tour now that the train has arrived in Munich,  the city where my love affair with Germany began and where the Weisswurst (white sausage) is delicious and the beer is even better!

Munich is also home to Ferdinand von Schirach, a celebrated defense lawyer IRL who has channelled some of his experience into this anthology of fictionalised cases.  The crimes are as varied as they are heinous and, without giving too much away, noone is imprisoned.  Not necessarily because of the prosecutor’s incompetence or the defense’s brilliance either.  In all cases the guilty party is known and yet sometimes the obstacles to proof are insurmountable and in others natural justice overrules the law.

The viewpoint is unique.  Narrated by an anonymous defense lawyer, omniscient through client privilege, these stories give unrestricted access to the background and more importantly, to the tipping point.  What turns the law-abiding into the law-breaking? It’s fundamental to Schirach’s narrative that the reader understands the motivation behind the crime and realises that like that apple, in one of the best book covers of the year for me, the criminal is not always rotten to the core, just decaying and shrivelled.  Which is not to say that these stories are sentimental in any way.   The descriptions are vivid and the prose is matter of fact.  Some stories will break your heart (because life sometimes deals a lousy hand) and others will make you wish for a little less detail.  Every single one will make you think.

Crime – Ferdinand von Schirach (translated by Carol Brown Janeway)

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Short Story September Week Two

Saki, or Hector Hugh Munro in real life, was a satirist of Edwardian society and is today widely considered a master of the short story. According to his sister, he chose his pen-name from the last quatrain of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Yon rising Moon that looks for us again -
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same Garden – and for one in vain!

And when like her, oh Saki, you shall pass
Amongst the Guests, Star-scatter’d on the Grass,
And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One – turn down an empty Glass!

It’s an image entirely apt to the society that he passed through as an observer; an anonymous cupbearer of stories, not an impressive personality in his own right. Hugh Walpole noted that “He was to be met with at country houses and London parties, apparently rather cynical, rather idle , and taking life so gently that he might hardly be said to be taking it at all”. Much like the eponymous Clovis in this 1911 collection of stories.

Clovis spends his time visiting the higher classes, lounging around the lawns, sipping the cocktails and amusing himself at the expense of his hosts.  Injecting wicked, if not downright malicious comments at (in)appropriate intervals.

“We’ve lost Baby,” she screamed.

“Do you mean that it’s dead, or stampeded, or that you staked it at cards and lost it that way?” asked Clovis lazily.

“He was toddling about quite happily on the lawn,” said Mrs Momeby tearfully, “and Arnold had just come in, and I was asking him what sort of sauce he would like with the asparagus …”

“I hope he said hollandaise,” interrupted Clovis, with a show of quickened interest, “because if there’s anything I hate …” (From the Quest)

There are a number of stories in this collection in which children do not fare well and adults are strangely indifferent.  During a hunting trip an unearthly noise is heard coming from the direction of a marauding hyena.

The wailing accompaniment was explained. The gypsy child was firmly, and I expect painfully, held in his jaws.

The child is left to its fate. 

Constance shuddered. “Do you think the poor little thing suffered much?” came another of her futile questions.

“The indications were all that way,’ I said; ‘on the other hand, of course, it may have been crying from sheer temper. Children sometimes do.”  (From Esmé)

Battlelines are often drawn between adult and child and the victor is not always the grown-up.  Sredni Vashtar is one of the darkest tales in this collection.  No clues beyond that the mentality of the young boy makes me shudder.

As does the idea of having a pet that can talk and that bears witness to the innermost secrets of an household – an idea executed to brilliant effect as Tobermory, the cat is interrogated at an Edwardian tea-party.

What do you think of human intelligence?” asked Mavis Pellington lamely.

“Of whose intelligence in particular?” asked Tobermory coldly.

“Oh, well, mine for instance,” said Mavis, with a feeble laugh.

“You put me in an embarrassing position,” said Tobermory, …

and it’s all downhill from there!  Especially for Cornelius Appin, the cat’s trainer, who later is trampled to death by an elephant at Dresden Zoo.  Clovis, showing his aptitude for a deadpan oneliner, comments

If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast, he deserved all he got.

Witty, cruel, incisive, frequently macabre, this is a stunning collection of stories.  Prescient almost.  In The Hounds of Fate Stoner, a vagrant,  is mistaken for Tom, a black sheep returning to the family fold.  During the time he spends with his “family” it becomes obvious that Tom has enemies, many enemies.  He never finds out what black deeds lie in his assumed past but threats are made on his life.  He is given money and persuaded to disappear once more.  As he leaves the village

there stepped out from the shadow of an overhanging oak tree a man with a gun … Stoner sprang aside in a wild effort to break through the hedge that bordered the lane, but the tough branches held him fast.  The hounds of Fate had waited for him in those narrow lanes, and this time they were not to be denied.

Stoner shares the ultimate fate of his creator.  On the morning of November 13, 1916 Hector Hugh Munroe was shot through the head by a sniper’s bullet in the trenches of World War I and Britain was deprived of yet another brilliant pen.

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Henry James – shorter fiction? Surely that’s a contradiction in terms? The Bostonians – 504 pages. The Ambassadors – 512 pages. The Wings of the Dove – 528 pages. The Golden Bowl – 592 pages. Daunting length – difficult prose. There’s reading challenges and then there’s tests of endurance. And when reading is a hobby, I’m not up for the latter. However, Melville House Publishing’s The Lesson of the Master - a mere 122 page bagatelle – winked at me from afar and threw down a gauntlet, picked up only after David Lodge had persuaded me that reading James may just be something enjoyable.

The main theme of The Lesson of the Master is the separation of the artist from love for the sake of his art. According to Lodge, James consciously decided not to marry and there’s many an embarrassing incident in Author! Author! between James and his authoress friend Constance Fenimore Woolson as he tries to avoid the weight of her expectations. For Paul Overt, the young protagonist of The Lesson of the Master, the dilemma is the same though the details differ. It is he who, after discussion with his literary hero, decides not to pursue the woman he loves and withdraws into solitude for a couple of years to write his second novel.

After a slow but entertaining build in which society is depicted with measured irony, the pivotal scene occurs in chapter V. Overt’s self-appointed mentor delivers his verdict on the quest to create the perfect novel.

“On the supposition that a certain perfection’s possible and even desirable …. Well, all I say is that one’s children interfere with perfection. One’s wife interferes. Marriage interferes.”

“You think then that the artist shouldn’t marry?”

“He does so at his peril – he does so at his cost.”

This man has married a rich (but not entirely sympathetic) woman and has enjoyed a lucrative literary career. He hasn’t written any masterpieces though. Is it any wonder that young impressionable Paul makes the decision he does.

The events following his return cast an entirely different hue on the lesson he has learnt. No telling here but it appears that the younger man has been outwiled by the master, the older novelist. St. George is his name and therein lies the clue. The Lesson of the Master can be seen as a humorous retelling of the legend. St. George is, by necessity, the victor. But what or who is the dragon? Marriage itself? Or perhaps even the young Paul Overt?. Because in certain affairs of the heart, Overt is the foe who must be vanquished.

My goodness, James was being playful. That was something completely unexpected. So was the delight of his prose – not half a difficult as I was fearing. Or maybe I, the reader, have come a long way since the day I abandoned The Portrait of a Lady – 672 pages. Ok, maybe not quite far enough to attempt it again. No running before we can walk. The Jamesian Experiment Part 3 likely, therefore, to revolve around The Turn of the Screw – 112 pages.

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In one of our government departments … but perhaps I had better not say exactly which one.  For no one’s more touchy than people in government departments, regiments, chancelleries or indeed any kind of official body.  Nowadays every private citizen thinks the whole of society is insulted when he himself is ….

And so it was that the first sentence of the first story I had ever read from Gogol’s pen pulled me right in without further ado.  18 years of working in the public sector has taught me that government departments can indeed be tetchy.  Citizens outraged by bureaucratic incompetence (or should that be constraint) and apparent insult.  I loved the irreverent tone and the need to keep things anonymous.  Onwards to the second paragraph.

In a certain department, then, there worked a certain civil servant.  On no account could he be said to have a memorable appearance; he was shortish, rather pock-marked, with reddish hair, and also had weak eye-sight, or so it seemed.  He had a small bald patch in front and both cheeks were wrinkled.  His complexion was the sort you find in those who suffer from piles … but there’s nothing anyone can do about that: the Petersburg climate is to blame.

Gogol now narrowing his focus from the institution to the individual – still playing it for laughs. (I’ll not explain how the cold climate and hemarrhoids are connected.)  Our certain civil servant quickly established as typical of his class, poor, mocked and jeered at by his fellow workers and “certain writers with the very commendable habit of attacking those who are in no position to retaliate”.  And with that phrase the tone of Gogol’s story turns and his sympathy with the certain civil servant, Bashmachkin, becomes apparent.  The man is so underprivileged that his parents could not even bestow him with an individual name.  He is christened Akaky Akakievich – Akaky, the son of Akaky.  He ekes out his existence as a copy writer, a profession he loves so much that he takes work home in the evenings.  He is content with his meagre existence and so life plods on until his tailor refuses to mend his overcoat, which has now become so threadbare and worn that it now ressembles a shabby dressing-gown.

And so, the narrowing of the Gogol’s focus is complete – from the institution, to the individual, to the garment.  The worn-out coat becomes the catalyst for all further action.  A new coat – its cost 80 roubles – demands sacrifice to obtain.  The middle section of the story describes those sacrifices and the reader struggles with Bashmachkin and revels in his triumph as the new hand-stitched coat is wrapped around his shoulders.  His happiness on achieving his objective – and I’m not spoiling anything here, for this is a Russian short-story with mandatory misery, is shortlived.  

In the final section of the story, which relates Bashmachkin’s quest for justice, the author’s focus returns the way it came: from garment, to individual to institution.  In a parallel arc, the tone gradually regains the sardonic qualities of the first paragraph.  Institutions are represented by Important Persons and often incompetent Important Persons, filled with nothing but the sense of their own – er – importance.

Do you realise who you’re talking to?  Do you know who is standing before you?  Do you understand, I ask you, do you understand?  I’m asking you a question?

I can fully empathise with Arkady Arkakievich.  Nothing’s changed much in the 244 166 years since The Overcoat was published in 1842. No wonder then that the justice he seeks is only to be found by unconventional, subversive means ….

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A woman suffering from post-natal depression in the 1880’s with access to  the best medical treatment would have been prescribed 1) extended and total bed rest; 2) isolation from family and familiar surroundings; 3) overfeeding, especially with cream, on the assumption that increased body volume created new energy; 4) massage and often the use of electricity for ‘muscular excitation”(Note 1).  This was the regime endured by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who had sought Dr S Weir Mitchell’s advice during the breakdown that followed the birth of her daughter.  If marriage, motherhood and the sacrifice of her working life weren’t enough to tip her into insanity, the added torture of the above regime certainly was.  For Gilman the only resolution was to divorce her husband and finally hand back her daughter to his care. And then in 1892 she published her 20-page short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” into which she distilled the agony of her own experience.

Narrated by a woman who is living in temporary accommodation while her own house is being refurbished, it quickly becomes apparent that all is not well:

John is a physician, and perhaps – (I would not say it ot a living soul, of course, but this is deap paer and a great relief to my mind) – perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.

You see he does not believe I am sick!

In C19th parlance, the woman has a “slight hysterical tendency” and she is locked away in a country estate, imprisoned in an upstairs room, where she is to rest until she gets well.  With no distractions, she is not allowed to read and she really shouldn’t be writing (she hides her scribbles from her husband). The room has a barred window, there is a gate preventing access to the stairs.  Her movements, if not her mind, are controlled completely by her husband.  With nothing to do and no company, she becomes fixated on the hideous yellow wallpaper that decorates the room.

I never saw a worse paper in my life.  One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.  It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contractions.  The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

As her mental anguish become more horrific by the paragraph, so her fantasies regarding the wallpaper become more gothic.  There’s a woman beneath it, crawling round and round the room trying to break free.   It gradually becomes clear to the modern audience that the narrator is suffering from post-natal depression, a condition worsened by the complete lack of understanding of those who are closest to her.  Neither does the patient understand – she knows however that the complete lack of distraction is exacerbating her mental breakdown.  So does the reader.  It’s a downward spiral can only end in disaster.

The symbolism of the woman trapped beneath the wallpaper is obvious.  A projected fantasy of a woman similarly imprisoned.  Or is it?  Could it be a ghost or even an apparition of things to come?  At times both husband and sister-in-law appear entranced and affected by the paper.  And the ending, which I cannot possibly reveal, allows for multiple interpretations.

Gilman’s writing is impeccable.  Not sensational but very matter-of-fact and all the most heartbreaking for it.  It is intense and packed with many layers of meaning.   Great literature, indeed. Check out the wealth of literary criticism available.  More importantly, however, is its value in social history.  Depicting prevailing male attitudes, the resulting suffocation of the female and the incompetence of medical practice, it caused an uproar.  One physician wrote “”Such a story ought not to be written . . . it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it”“.  On a more positive note, however, it did effect a change in medical procedure. For Gilman sent a copy to her torturer, Dr Mitchell.  The result? – the beginning of enlightenment and a change in his recommended treatments.  


Note 1: The Yellow Wallpaper – An autobiography of Emotions by Kelley Gilbert

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T(he) S(hort) S(tory) – well, really novella – on T(he) S(unday) S(alon)

A few months ago I read Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, an Austrian classic, which unfortunately plodded more than marched for me.  Given its acknowledged masterpiece status, I am obviously out of step.  There is more than one reason for this, but the main one is that as I read I kept wishing that Stefan Zweig had written it.  Why?  Because Zweig writes so vividly about his characters’ dilemmas that the reader feels the pain.  Roth holds his readers at a further distance and the experience isn’t as enjoyable, as roller-coastery, if you will.  

One of my favourite passages of  Zweig comes from 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman.  Describing the desperation of a gambler in the midst of a losing streak, the eponymous woman focuses purely on the hands:

I knew at once that I was seeing a human being overflowing with emotion, forcing his passion into his fingertips lest it tear him apart.  And then – just as the ball, with a dry click, fell into place in the wheel and the croupier called out the number – at that very moment the two hands suddenly fell apart like a pair of animals struck by a single bullet.  They dropped, both of them, truly dead and not just exhausted; they dropped with so graphic an expression of lethargy, disappointment, instant extinction, as if all was finally over ……

So the release of a new Zweig by Pushkin Press is a highly-anticipated event for me.  This summer’s treat,  the publication of the 1913 novella, Burning Secret.   It is the story of a threesome: a 12-year old boy, his mother and an unscrupulous sexual predator.  The drama is flagmarked in the very first chapter when the Baron first beholds the mother. 

 The hunter had scented his prey.

She, however, is resistant to the Baron charms but her lonely sickly 12-year old son is not. Neither is the Baron above seducing (in a figurative way) the child to get to his intended target.  It is a painful coming-of-age for the boy, who progresses from trusting innocence to deceitful spitefulness in the course of a few days.   The emotional arc of the mother is no less profound.  Her starting point:

She was at that crucial age when a woman begins to regret having stayed faithful to a husband she never really loved, when the glowing sunset colours of her beauty offer her one last, urgent choice between maternal and feminine love.”

Each chapter is written by an omniscient narrator using either the Baron’s or Edgar’s point-of-view. This results in an intense emotional experience.  Events spiral out-of-control rapidly and very dramatically, the novella format ensuring the exclusion of anything extraneous to the central action.  Yet even within these constraints Zweig finds time to paint delightful pictures of the mountain landscape.

Spring was in the air.  Those white clouds that are seen only in May and June sailed past in the sky, a company clad all in white, still young and flighty themselves, playfully chasing over the blue firmament, hiding suddenly behind high mountains, embracing and separating again, sometime crumpling up like handkerchiefs, sometimes fraying into shreds, and finally playing a practical joke on the mountains as they settled onto their heads like white caps.    

If only the clouds over the characters’ heads were as light and fluffy!         


I’m aware that, based on these texts, my Zweig/Roth comparison is somewhat unfair in comparing the intensity of a novella  with a multi-generational epic.  So no further comment on The Radetzky March at this juncture.  That can wait a little while longer until I’ve read Zweig’s full length Beware of Pity, also published by Pushkin Press.  Don’t you just love them!

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T(he) S(hort) S(tory) on T(he) S(unday) S(alon)

At the recent Edinburgh Book Festival event, Colm Tóibín admitted that he had waited until his mother’s death to publish this short story collection.  “He wouldn’t have got away with it” he said.  A number of further anecdotes gave evidence to a difficult relationship and when he was asked “So how did you get on with your mother?”, he gave a long answer in which he named the authors whose work she preferred to his own.  (Saul Bellow was one.)  But he did not answer the question.

While the answer is most likely contained in his “Mothers and Sons” , it would be foolish to hazard a guess at the exact details of Tóibín’s own story.  The diversity of cause leading to the same fractured effects is quite remarkable.  In fact, by the final page, you could be forgiven for thinking that a mother/son relationship surviving into the child’s adulthood is nothing short of miraculous.  Sometimes the trigger is the son (a priest accused of child abuse), sometimes it is the mother (one who walks out on the family home when the child is young), and other times the breaking point is much more nebulous (a son withdraws into depression during adolescence).  But in all cases, the stories here are vivid, the psychological insights profound, although not explicit.  This is a masterclass in showing, not telling.  The body language is three-dimensional.  The silences speak volumes, with Tóibín showing only what he knows, nothing more. 

Tóibín’s measure of a successful short story is one that makes the reader shudder not by what (s)he has read but by what (s)he imagines happens next.  This can only happen if the tension is not fully resolved.  Full marks, therefore, for “Mothers and Sons” in general and for the story of “A Journey” in particular.  A story of just 8.5 pages in which life deals some terrible blows to a family of three.  At the end the wife and mother is driving her depressed adolescent home from hospital to visit his father who has been paralysed by a stroke. As she walks into her husband’s bedroom:

“Is he here?” Seamus asked.

She did not answer but walked over and sat on a stool in front of the dressing-table mirror from where she could see him.  She noticed how strange her well-kept blonde hair looked beside the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth.  Her crocks, David (her son) used to call them.  It was time, she thought, to let the grey appear.  Seamus was staring at her from the bed and when their eyes caught she was struck for a moment by a glimpse of a future in which she would need to muster every ounce of selfishness she had.  She shut her eyes before she turned around to face him.

“Is he back?  Did you bring him?” he asked her again.

The longest story is the final one,  “A Long Winter”, in which a mother goes missing during a snowstorm in the mountains. 85 pages long, the pace is slower.  There is time to show the events, the tensions in the family,  that lead up to the disappearance and time also to describe the search.    Tóibín considers his previous multi-award-winning work, The Master,   to be “quite damaged” by flashback.  So he was determined that this story would not use the device at all.  Whilst writing it, his conscious mind was focused on solving this technicality.  It was only as he wrote and the story took shape that he realised he was subconsciously working through his grief at his own mother’s death.  A grief that lies frozen beneath the snow for much of the story but, which eventually,  defrosts and weeps from the page in passages like the following. 

Miquel began to sob as he walked along, allowing Manolo to hold him and comfort him.  For the first time in a while he felt the sharp certainty of his mother’s disappearance; the idea that when she was found she would not be alive appeared to him as brutal fact.  She would not be returning to them.  Finding her, he thought, would mean nothing; looking for her was pointless. …..

“You are lucky that this has already happened to you, your mother’s going, that it cannot come again.”

“I wish she was at home, alive,” Miquel said.

“Yes, but you would always dread that this blow was going to come, her death, now you are free of it.  It has happened.  It cannot happen again.”

That passage, surely a more eloquent statement, concerning the complexity of the author’s feelings for his mother, than any answer at a literary festival event could ever be.

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As Vulpes Libris launch their own short story week, I have decided to dive into a Short Story September.  There are many reasons for my change of focus.

1)  Documenting the shenanigans at the Edinburgh Book Festival has left me with a backlog of outstanding reviews,

2) which I won’t write if they are going to prevent me getting through the TBR.

3) I can progress through the TBR and  write the reviews by reading short stories and novellas during September.

4) I’m in danger of letting some reading challenges beat me.  A few timeously read short stories will give me the victory.

5) Short Story September will ease me back into the true spirit of The Sunday Salon.  I realise that my EBF series talked more about the things I did and the authors I met than the books I read.  But hopefully you enjoyed it all as much as I. Alexander McCall Smith has summarised the whole experience on his celebration postcard.   

As of next Sunday, I promise I’ll get back to talking about my reading material,  particularly as the title is irresistible: TSS on TSS (The Short Story on The Sunday Salon). 

Oh, why wait till Sunday!  Let’s start as I mean to go on. 

With one hour to spare last Sunday evening, I read two short stories with numbers in the title, thus completing the Numbers Challenge by the skin of my teeth.  The stories were extracted from an anthology of American Short Stories published by The Folio Society.

The £1,000,000 Bank Note by Mark Twain tells of a destitute man who is loaned said note for a period of one month.  One benefactor wagers it will be the making of him, the other the ruin.  The adventure that follows is amusing, wry and particularly pertinent in these days of the credit crunch.

In The Other Two by Edith Wharton, a newly-married man contemplates his future happiness.  This is his first, his bride’s third marriage.  Not that any blame is attached to her, as she divorced the other two.   However the past has a way of casting its shadows on the present and gradually the her ex-husbands become a part of their daily lives, despite the best efforts of husband #3 to keep them at a distance.  In just 20 pages the assumptions of the poor man are turned completely on their head.  The best laid plans of mice and man and all that.    The story is told in Wharton’s engaging prose that pulls me right into the middle of the action within just a couple of paragraphs.    

I’m a fan and I’ve yet to read her masterpieces, The Age of  Innocence and The House of Mirth.  I’ve taken a note to add them to the pile of Novels for November.

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