Should you require an antidote to all hearts, flowers, champagne and chocolates doing the rounds right now, you may wish to pick up the literary equivalent of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”.
But where to start? I’m not a seasoned short-story reader. It’s something I am working on. However, I am not yet able to read short story anthologies from cover to cover. Like a box of chocolates, I prefer to dip in and out but it’s always good to start with my favourite coffee cream.
Coincidentally that would be story 1. Here We Are by Dorothy Parker, sharp-eyed female wit and infamous ascerbic tongue. A newly-married couple are travelling to their honeymoon destination. The bridegroom hasn’t had time to learn the tact and diplomacy necessary to a smooth relationship and the bride is obviously on edge at the thought of well, you know what. When asked by his wife if he likes her hat he replies:
“I know this is the new style and everything like that, and it’s probably great. I don’t know anything about things like that. Only I like the kind of hat like that blue hat you had. Gee, I liked that hat.”
“Oh really?” she said. “Well, that’s nice. That’s lovely. … The first thing you say to your wife is you think she has terrible taste in hats.”
Nerves, or a harbinger of the unhappiness to come?
Discovering a difference in taste lies at the centre of the second story, Jumphra Lahiri’s This Blessed House in which a Hindu couple discover a treasure trove of Christian kitsch in their new home. Unaccountably the wife develops a fondness for it and displays it prominently. The husband with a penchant for understated minimalism is naturally irritated. Married only for two months, it is the initial step in his realisation that their shared “adolescent but still persistent fondness for Wodehouse novels and their dislike for the sitar” may not be enough.
At this point I decided to sample a story from each of the three other sections – randomly selecting an author whose work I had never yet read. Joyce Carol Oates’s The Quarrel shows how unexpected disputes can spring up between long established couples – in this case the trigger is the difference in the two descriptions of a would-be mugger. Fortunately this quarrel is not terminal but the scars take quite some time to heal.
In Virginia Woolf’s Lapin and Lapinova finding a pet-name for her husband is the key to a bride’s coming to terms with life married to a man whom she does not find entirely sympathetic. Woolf’s writing surprisingly accessible, finely nuanced as is to be expected from the pen of such a literary giant. Pitch perfect but for a completely unnecessary final sentence, which is at odds with the tone and the subtlety of the rest. Puzzling. This story is available on online and your thoughts would be welcome.
The final story in this collection from Grace Paley, a writer lavishly praised by the likes of Dovegreyreader and Kirsty of Other Stories. And I can see why on the strength of the two-page story Wants in which a woman meets her ex-husband, who is consumed by bitterness at the wasted years of his marriage to a woman who, in his eyes, wanted nothing. Her response to this accusation:
He had had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber’s snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment.
How’s that for original and intriguing …. and book-buying-embargo-busting. It took only 5 minutes to boot up and perform the necessary buy-The-Collected-Stories-of-Grace-Paley with 1-click action.
At which point, the bell rings on round one. Round two, in which I take on the combined mightiness of the translated authors, Chekhov, Ginzburg, Jansson, Platonov and Colette, to follow.