Archive for the ‘A-Z Shorter Fiction’ Category

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.


Read Full Post »

Extracted from The Oxford Book of Scottish Short Stories

To complete my last reading challenge of 2008, I was looking for a short story with a weather event in the title. So, it was entirely by chance, that I stumbled across a story set on Christmas Day in one of those places that I have been visiting again and again during my 2008 reading – a mental institution! (Let’s hope this isn’t fiction foreshadowing life …)

The title derives from the Russian fairy tale, The Twelve Months, in which a wicked stepmother sends her beautiful daughter out into the snow to find violets and strawberries. It takes a miracle to find them. Similarly happiness and pleasure at Xmas are out-of-reach when you’re a broken man locked away in an asylum. Christmas is the time of year that is driving you crackers!

Douglas, the antihero, has left his wife and children to live in a dingy rented flat and wrap himself in his overcoat of alchohol. He takes a job delivering free papers, which he loses after he harrasses one of the wealthy householders on his route. His breakdown follows rapidly and leads to his commital. The ward is full of pitiful souls, the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree utterly at odds with the mood. More apt is “the big empty doll’s house that stood incongruously, and desolate, with dead leaves blown against its open door; a too easy metaphor for lost childhoods and broken homes and lives.”

It’s surprising how many broken lives MacKay packs into the 8 pages. The language is heavy with symbolism, at times dripping with irony. In one of the papers to be delivered, Douglas reads:

Glasgow – World’s Cancer Capital ….Nicotine and alcohol had given to his native city this distinction.

“Christ. Thank God I left Glasgow when I did”.

The climax arrives when his daughters visit on Christmas Day, putting a brave face on it. After they leave, Douglas reflects on their refusal to eat the satsumas.

he took the paper and pen, and wrote “Satsumas Are Horrible This Year”, as if by writing it down he could neutralize the pain; turn the disgrace to art. It would not be very good, he knew, but at least it would come from that pulpy, sodden satsuma that was all that remained of his heart.

A story not to be recommended if you want your Christmas full of unremitting cheer. But I loved the quality of the prose, the vividness of the pictures. Sheena MacKay has a new fan. I discover she has written eight novels. Where do I begin?

Read Full Post »

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

The Grasshopper by Anton Chekhov (1892)
Extracted from the Folio Society Anton Chekhov Anthology (2001)

 Mid-December already?  Where did 2008 go?  With only 3 weeks left, it’s time to make a sprint to the finish line of  my reading challenges.  The literary equivalent of a sprint being the short story and here I am sprinting with Chekhov to the end of the What An Animal! challenge.

My only previous experience of Chekhov was – confession time – a bad one.   Two years ago.   The Three Sisters at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, staged as part of the Edinburgh Festival.  Static, boring and not the ideal introduction to Chekhov, it would appear.  Best forgotten I’m told by those in the know.  In fact, I believe the word execrable was applied by some Chekhovians to that particular production.

It has still taken me two years to make a second sally into the world of Anton Chekhov, master of stage and short story.   Two years wasted it transpires because The Grasshopper entranced me from the very first.

All Olga Ivanovna’s friends and acquaintances were at her wedding.

“Look at him; isn’t it true that there is something about him?” she said to her friends,with a nod towards her husband, as though she wanted to explain why she was marrying a simple, very ordinary, and in no way remarkable man.

Within 50 words Chekhov has described the tensions that will pervade the whole narrative.  Olga Ivanovna, a social butterfly (Chekhov using the much less complimentary grasshopper metaphor), has married Dymov, 9 years her senior and a doctor of great promise.  He will make a name for himself in medical research – only the hard work, the long hours and the slog are still in front of him.  How will Olga handle the wait?

Obsession with celebrity and romance is nothing new it transpires and once the honeymoon period is over, Olga returns to her artistic circle to be seduced by the irresistible romantic flourishes of the artist Ryabovsky.

I feel  that I am in your power.  I am a slave. Why are you so enchanting today?

The Grasshopper is  the classic 19th century adulteress story – will the flighty Olga learn the difference between seduction and true love and if so, will she do so in time?  In terms of characterisation, Chekhov’s story has more in common with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary than Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina but with details and an ending sufficiently divergent to render it an original in the canon of a popular 19th century theme.

Read Full Post »

It was with high anticipation that I opened this book expecting the action to transport me to my favourite place in Germany .  Well,  it doesn’t and that may be the reason why Pushkin Press has changed the book cover from that on the left to this on the right.  The new cover more apt as the place is unidentifiable, a generic setting in the Austrian alpine landscape as per Stifter’s novella.   He may use place names but they are entirely fictional.

Not that it detracts one jot from the vivid landscape word portraits.  I am a mountain person (as opposed to a beach person) and so, it would seem, is Stifter.  Here just one description of the frequently described “beautiful” mountains.

The woods had opened out, the lake lay at the young man’s feet and all the mountains he had seen from the plain and Attmaning were now ranged so peacefully, clearly and closely around the water that he imagined he could reach out and touch them – their rock faces, though, their ravines and crevices, were not grey but wreathed in a delightful blue, and the trees on them were like little sticks, or not to be seen at all on others, these latter ones stretching up heavenwards with perfectly smooth sides.

Contrasted against the majesty and permanence of the mountains is the the paltriness and impermanence of man. The Bachelors of the title, an adolescent on the cusp of life and his uncle, an old man, embittered and withdrawn.  It is a novella about time, how it separates the generations, how they struggle to communicate, to appreciate each other and how easy it is to waste the few opportunities that come our way.

Life is immeasurably long while you are still young.  You always think there is so much ahead of you and that you’ve only gone a short way.  And so you postpone things, put this and that to one side to be taken up later.  But when you do want to take it up it’s too late and you realise you’re old.  That’s why life seems a vast expanse when viewed from the beginning but scarcely a stone’s throw when at the end you look over your shoulder.

The story can be summarised as a coming-of-age.  I’m not going to detail plot elements because the main threads are detailed here within an illuminating article about Stifter in the framework of German literature as a whole.  An article which became a bit of a lecture for this reader, if truth be told.

Stifter may be a curriculum read in Germany but this was my first tasting.  While I enjoyed the landscape and the themes, I did not enjoy the pace of the action.  The central section in which the young man and his uncle learn to tolerate each other seemed interminable, particularly as one of the two protagonists refuses to speak to the other.  That section sandwiched between beginning and end sections that seemed so twee, verging almost on the sentimental.


Having read Roger Devlin’s article in full, that last paragraph possibly says more about me as a reader than it does of Stifter the writer.  I obviously don’t get him because

a) I have poor 21st century reading habits.  I do need the page turning element and to quote Devlin “To many readers today, the very definition of a good story is a “page turner,” a book that one “can’t put down.” To appreciate Stifter, on the other hand, one must above all learn to slow down. The reader who becomes impatient for him to get to the point is probably missing his point.”

b) I need to learn to reread.  To quote Devlin again “Many of Stifter’s stories improve on rereading, because the significance that is gradually revealed casts back light on earlier episodes, and especially on those which the impatient modern reader will be most likely to dismiss as “boring.”

That’s me told then.  I’ll accept the criticism but the idea of re-reading The Bachelors isn’t my next move.  I’ll probably visit Brigitta – I’ve seen good reviews on other blogs.  And now I know what to expect, I may appreciate my second outing with Stifter a little more.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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 ….

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »