Tag Archives: short stories

Neel Mukherjee’s State of Freedom

Neel Mukherjee, A State of Freedom (W W Norton & Co 2019)

Short stories don’t sell. At least, I believe that’s the prevailing wisdom among publishers. That’s probably why this excellent collection of short stories – or more accurately three short stories and two novellas – has been marketed as a novel. Still, if that’s what it takes to draw readers in, then why not?

All the stories happen in India, though they are five different Indias. An expat returns from the USA with his seven-year-old son, and takes him to see the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri; another expat, this one from England, visits his parents and gets to know their cook; a man from a poor village goes on the road with a dancing bear; a girl from another poor village is sent off to a life of domestic servitude in ever bigger and further away cities, while her best friend joins the Maoist guerrillas; a man suffering from asbestosis does dangerous construction work in a city far from his home village.

All the protagonists are dislocated. Some of them turn up as minor characters in another’s story: the bear man is the twin brother of the man with asbestosis, and both of them, having left home intending to send money back, have left their wives and children to fend for themselves. The cook in the second story has it in for another servant, who turns out to the the girl in the fourth story.

These are grim stories. The first starts out like a mini-travelogue, though one with a dark cloud over it, and ends with devastating heartbreak; in the second, what might have been a piece of food-tourism comes hard up against the desperation of the poor; and in the rest, the harsh inequalities of class destroy people’s lives. There’s a Reading Group Guide up the back of my copy, which I skimmed. These notes insist that this is a novel with a brilliant structure. Perhaps they’re referring to the way the stories are ordered as a descent into ever more desperate situations.

It’s a grim book, and a beautifully written one. There’s some romance, some intrigue, some terrible domestic violence and cruelty to animals, but also kindness and a glimmering promise that things might improve.

I’ve read it during the Great Covid–19 Lockdown, and am writing this with cold symptoms waiting in strict isolation for the results of a Covid test [test came back negative about six hours after I wrote that]. Without wanting to trivialise the situation of the character, here’s a passage that seems to speak to my current situation and may give you a feel for the writing, and also a sense of the irony in the book’s title. Milly, the protagonist, is working as a maid in Mumbai, and her employers have forbidden her to leave the apartment block:

It was not that she needed to go out – where would, could, she go, in this endless city, without knowing anyone? – but something so fundamental denied is that thing made disproportionately enormous, consuming, and she began to think of herself as a caged bird, defined by the fact of nothing except its imprisonment …

She experienced a new feeling, at night, of the kitchen walls inching forward slowly from all four sides to crush her, lying in the middle. Their hut in the village had been tiny and eight of them had to sleep together, huddled, but she had never thought of that as small. Besides, there was always the great open outside – fields, forests, groves, river bank. The idea of space of something small or big, something that could be reduced, had never occurred to her, not even on the train, in the general compartment so dense with people that the air had sometimes felt too thick to breathe. not even in that battery-cage had the thought ever crossed her mind that ‘this is too small’. Now, in a Mumbai flat bigger than any house she had ever known, she felt trapped and squeezed.

(Page 228)

Sound at all familiar?

My copy of A State of Freedom is a loan from my book-swapping club.

G K Chesterton’s Incredulity of Father Brown

G K Chesterton, The Incredulity of Father Brown (©1926, Penguin 1958, reprinted 1970)

On my eleventh or twelfth birthday, my parents gave me The Father Brown Omnibus, a doorstop of a book containing all 53 of G K Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. If they hoped it would break my addiction to Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, they were to be disappointed, but I did love Father Brown, and once I’d read all his stories, I sought out everything I could find by Chesterton: the autobiography, essays (including ‘On chasing after one’s hat’), his books on Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas, Orthodoxy, some poetry (‘I don’t care where the water goes/ If it doesn’t get into the wine’) and more. I loved his way with paradox. I thought his aphorisms, ‘Blessed is he who expecteth little, for he shall often be surprised,’ and ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing badly’ were words to live by.

Then, having not read anything by him for roughly half a century, I found this slim, yellowing paperback in a street library.

The Incredulity of Father Brown was the third of five collections, and contains eight stories. Father Brown’s nemesis Flambeau doesn’t appear, and more action takes place in the USA than I remember. Most of the stories are locked-room mysteries: someone was murdered in a room that no one else could have got into or out of. There’s an arrow, a sword-stick and a noose, all ingeniously deployed, and a couple of corpses that aren’t who or what they seem. All the elaborately conceived crimes are solved by the brilliantly pragmatic but unassuming little priest (the reader doesn’t have a fighting chance of figuring them out).

Not all the murderers are arrested, or even identified. These aren’t stories in which the detective reassuringly restores order by bringing criminals to justice. The interest lies elsewhere: first in the pleasure of the puzzle, and secondly in the platform they provide for Chesterton to preach his particular form of Catholicism. This collection (and possibly the whole Father Brown corpus – I can’t claim to remember) has at its heart a paradoxical assertion that a man of faith like Father Brown is less vulnerable to being hoodwinked by ‘spiritual’ claims than a modern ‘secular’ person. In these stories, God is real and There’s a Perfectly Natural Explanation for Everything Else. Father Brown himself, usually mild-mannered and Britishly polite, has occasional angry outbursts about ‘heathen humanitarians’. The polemic gets most explicit in ‘The Miracle of Moon Crescent’:

‘By the way,’ went on Father Brown, ‘don’t think I blame you for jumping to preternatural conclusions. The reason’s very simple, really. You all swore you were hard-shelled materialists; and as a matter of fact you were all balanced on the very edge of belief – of belief in almost anything. There are thousands balanced on it today; but it’s a sharp, uncomfortable edge to sit on. You won’t rest till you believe something; that’s why Mr Vandam went through new religions with a tooth-comb, and Mr Alboin quotes scripture for his religion of breathing exercises, and Mr Fenner grumbles at the very God he denies. That’s where you all split: it’s natural to believe in the supernatural. It never feels natural to accept only natural things. …’

That’s rubbish of course. But the underlying paradox of a man of religion who is more immune to oogy-booginess than a wide range of hardboiled types is fun to read

My only specific Father Brown memory from 60 years ago wasn’t of anything in this book. It’s an observation in ‘The Vanishing of Vaudrey’ in The Secret of Father Brown. It took some searching, because I didn’t hve the exact words, but I found it eventually:

… there are two types of men who can laugh when they are alone. One might almost say the man who does it is either very good or very bad. You see, he is either confiding the joke to God or confiding it to the Devil.

Again, that’s nonsense, but I can testify that it’s memorable nonsense, because it lodged in my memory. I loved it for its audacity, or maybe just for its cleverness. And it’s the kind of thing I still enjoy in Chesterton. I should mention that there’s plenty of colonialism, racism, antisemitism and sexism (women being mainly absent in this volume). It’s hard to be an unqualified fan, but I’m not sorry to have revisited these stories.

Nana Kwama Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black

Nana Kwama Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black (Mariner Books 2018)

The Black Lives Matter movement looms large in the warp and weft of this book, especially in the first story, ‘The Finkelstein 5’, which features an activity known as Naming – African-Americans brutally kill random white people while shouting the names of the victims of a hideous racist murder –, and in ‘Zimmer Land’, in which a theme park named for Trayvon Martin’s killer caters to white men acting act out fantasies of killing young African-American men.

But it’s a long way from being a political manifesto. This is strong, beautifully crafted fiction, with a weird, fantastic edge to it: the killer in ‘The Finkelstein 5’ dismembered five teenagers in a parking lot with a chainsaw and was still found not guilty because he argued that what he did was for his own children; and the protagonist in ‘Zimmer Land’ wears a hi-tech suit that enables him on the one hand to become hugely threatening to the customers and on the other hand not be killed when they shoot him.

The other stories are less violent – though there is one set in a department store that involves a callous acceptance of the death of many customers in the Black Friday sales. (I was being all complacent about us not having such a barbaric ritual in Australia despite the efforts of Amazon and others to impose it – here Black Friday refers to some terrible bushfires – when I saw a news item about people being crushed in a mall in Parramatta, and the story retrospectvely took on a much more urgent feel.)

The sensibility behind the stories has a lot in common with Jordan Peel’s brilliant, borderline-horror movies, Get Out and Us. As in those movies, the stories are the thing, and the implications trail behind them like the tails of comets, staying in the mind a long time.

My copy was a gift from a friend who bought the book in New York to read on the flight home. He thought that because I enjoy China Miéville I would like these stories. I have no idea if Nana Kwama Adjei-Brenyah has even heard of China Miéville, but my friend was right about my response to the book.

The Book Group and Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction

Gerald Murnane, Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018)

murnane.jpg

Before the meeting:
Gerald Murnane has been described as ‘Australia’s most distinguished unread writer’. His most recent novel, Border Districts, is shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Prize. He is the author of seven other novels, two books of essays and a memoir as well as the 20 short fictions in this book, which have previously been gathered in three collections: Velvet Waters (1990), Emerald Blue (1995) and A History of Books (2012).

My introduction to Murnane was ‘The Breathing Author’, an essay published in Heat 3 (New Series) in 2002, in which he portrays himself in such a negative way (‘I cannot recall having gone voluntarily into any art gallery or museum or building said to be of historic interest’) that I felt absolutely no desire to read more.

So when the Designated Book Chooser chose Murnane’s  Collected Short Fiction for our August meeting, I was less than thrilled.

And now I’m grateful to the Book Group for once again taking me places I wouldn’t otherwise have gone. The book may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was enthralled – I loved it.

It’s hard to say why I loved it. These fictions (every time you see that word here, I have first typed ‘stories’, and then deleted it and replaced it with ‘fictions’) have no named characters (unless you count the uncle of the main character in the third last story who is given the name Nunkie), they generally have very little action, and it’s sometimes hard to see how they even hold together. They feature an obsessive repetition of words and phrases and constantly draw attention to themselves as something being written. If the word ‘introspection’ didn’t exist it would have to be invented to describe them.

What do they have? Well, the narrator of one of the stories, ‘In Far Fields’, who is described in the story itself as its implied author (that is, I think, he is implied to be Gerald Murnane), describes to a hypothetical student his own approach to creating fictions. He begins by writing a sentence, which is ‘a report of a detail of an image in [his] mind’, an image that ‘was connected by strong feeling to other images in [his] mind’. He then proceeds to write a sentence that is a report of a detail of another image that was connected by feelings to the first image. And then a third image, and so on. This chain of images forms the basis of the story. It becomes complicated after that, but it’s worth quoting a little from near the end of his talk to the hypothetical student:

Before she left my office, I would tell her, as a last piece of advice, that she need not have learned the meaning of every image reported in a piece of fiction before she had finished writing the final draft. Nearly every piece of my fiction, I would tell her, included a report of an image whose connections I did not discover until long after the piece had been finished. Sometimes these connections had not appeared until I was writing a later piece of fiction, and then I would understand that the image in the earlier piece of fiction was connected with an image in the later piece.

I think it’s this sense that the (implied) author is always exploring something that involves deep and not yet understood emotion, not knowing where the writing is taking him, that kept me pretty much spellbound on almost every page of this book. The prose is generally dry, methodical, self-referential, but the analogy that come to my mind is of an archaeological dig in a temple of Aphrodite: meticulous brushing, digging, scraping around objects that speak for themselves of great unruly passion.

One effect of this approach is that no distinction is made in the text between memory and fantasy. Most of the fictions feel autobiographical, but that isn’t the point: the reader is invited/expected to respond to the images and the fiction that connects them without knowing or caring if they come from Murnane’s actual life. Many of the images that the fictions ‘report’ are scenes from rural Victoria, and I expect that readers from that part of the world would feel an extra connection with the writing. Another whole swathe of images relate to the Catholic childhoods and adolescences of the unnamed main characters, and it’s probably these that led me to a deeper emotional engagement.  ‘Pink Lining’ is an example. It begins:

The image that caused me to begin writing this story is an image of a single cloud in a sky filled with heaps or layers of clouds. The single cloud and all the other clouds in the sky are coloured grey, but the single cloud is surrounded by an aureole or nimbus of pink.

It turns out that this image is on a holy card preserved from the narrator’s childhood. Adult, non-believing cynicism having been raised and brushed aside, the image leads to memories of the narrator’s favourite aunt, a pious woman, bedridden since the age of twelve, who taught him a lot about Catholic teachings. The story of the narrator’s relationship to that aunt emerges, and the fiction wanders through other parts of his life, with every now and then a tight focus on the colour of a wall, a pink holy water font, a sky ‘filled with heaps or layers of grey clouds’. Here’s perhaps the most dramatic paragraph (which reports on one of the key images of the piece):

At certain times during the years following his twenty-fifth year, the man who was first mentioned in the second paragraph of this story believed that he had never looked at or touched the naked body of any woman before his twenty-fifth year. At other times during the years just mentioned, the man believed that he had looked at the naked body above the waist of a certain woman during his fifth year. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door mentioned in the previous paragraph, the naked body above the waist of his favourite aunt as she leaned over a dish of white enamel filled with water and on that body two breasts, each with a nipple surrounded by a zone of pink. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the sentence before the sentence mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door just mentioned, the naked body above the waist just mentioned and the dish filled with water just mentioned and on the body the nipples of a girl whose breasts had not yet begun to grow,

The affectless, asperger-ish quality of this is typical of Murnane’s prose. The prim but eloquent silence about what happened when the man was 25, and then the pedantically framed account of what he had seen when he was five (leaving the reader to imagine the emotional content of the experience) have a feel I recognise from my own Catholic childhood: some things simply aren’t meant to be spoken of, especially if sex or the naked human body is involved. (My mother’s response to The Female Eunuch comes to mind: ‘You don’t look over people’s shoulders when they’re brushing their teeth, so why do it with that?’) The result, though, is that moments like this or the final words of this story, which quote a line from a song ‘previously mentioned’, pack a huge punch.

Now that I have actually read this book, I am left wanting more: maybe I should start with Murnane’s first novel, Tamarisk Row. I am immensely grateful, not only to this month’s Designated Book Chooser, but also to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.

The meeting:
There were six of us. One of the absentees said on the phone, in a voice affected by a heavy cold, that he thought Murnane used a lot of words to say almost nothing. But those of us who ate the spinach pie and ice creams found a lot to talk about. In fact, we probably stayed with the book more than any other night except maybe Anna Karenina. I wouldn’t say everyone was wild about the book, and only three of us had read all 20 stories (plus one was part way through Border Districts), but we had all engaged with the writing, with Gerald Murnane’s mind (or to be more precise his way of writing about his mind).

One chap came back from a toilet break saying, ‘I’ll give him a hundred percent for slowing time down. I love dance and music that does that, and he’s done it  in writing.’ I think he meant that Murnane’s fiction moves from emotionally charged image to emotionally charged image is something that we all do, but what we do in fractions of a second, he slows down and dissects meticulously.

Someone quoted from a review that said that with Murnane’s writing, what matters is what you find yourself thinking about as you read it. That struck a chord: some of us had found ourselves reflecting on our intensely religious upbringings; others on our connection to the land where we live; others still on the complexities of early adolescent attitudes to sex.

Someone said that even when Murnane is annoying – and at least one person said he’d felt like throwing the book across the room more than once – he’s interesting. Someone said he’s cruel, leading the reader in one direction and then springing a nasty surprise. Others disagreed, reading him as not really caring how the reader responds, but following the logic of his own process. In fact, we generally felt there was a ruthless honesty in his self-exploration.

When someone gave a 30 second version of one of the stories, it produced belly laughs, which for me at least was a revelation, as I hadn’t found the story funny when I read it in its own tempo.

That is to say, I’d recommend these short fictions as an excellent choice for a book group.

Andy Kissane and the Swarm

Andy Kissane, The Swarm (Puncher and Wattmann 2012)

20121003-175856.jpg I read this collection of Andy Kissane’s short stories a month or so ago, just after reading some Chekhov stories for the first time. (The reason for the delay in posting is that – a rare event for me – I received an advance copy from the publisher, and the book isn’t being launched until Sunday.) The stories in The Swarm made me realise, with some embarrassment, that I had read Chekhov as if I was visiting a museum: it was interesting, instructive, challenging, but all at arm’s length, preserved, from another time and place. Andy Kissane’s stories are as alive and immediate as neighbourhood gossip.

Partly that’s because these stories, all except two, are set in the present. And partly because of the book’s strong sense of place. Most of the action takes place in an inner city landscape as distinctive as Chekhov’s rural villages, and the characters – musicians, mostly unsuccessful actors, a twenty-something artist, a young mother screwing up her courage to invite her recently widowed father to move in – are as much part of that landscape as Chekhov’s peasants, idlers and provincial bourgeoisie are of theirs. I imagine the sense of the local in these stories would appeal to any reader, including one for whom the Marlborough or St Vincent’s are no more than names, but it’s especially sweet to me because by and large, it’s my local.

[About 200 words about being a North Queenslander deleted here.]

A sense of place doesn’t make a good story, of course. And there is a lot more than that to enjoy here. Again and again a commonplace experience is seen freshly, charged with moral or emotional meaning the way commonplace things often are. A young man stands at a condom vending machine in a pub toilet. A couple spend an evening playing Monopoly when the TV set has died. An old man cleans up his daughter’s yard. A musician watches his cello being played badly by a prospective buyer. A man (who could have come from the pages of On Western Sydney) boasts of car-related derring-do. Looking at that fairly random list of closely observed, mostly domestic events, I realise that the common subject of the stories is love: romantic love, parental love, love betrayed, love unfulfilled, love surprisingly revived or belatedly recognised. Nothing flashy, just a deepening sense of what it means to be human and in connection.

The historical stories – ‘A Bright Blue Future’ and ‘A Mirror to the World’, about asbestos mining at Wittenoom and racist frontier violence respectively – mostly keep to a similar domestic perspective. They too can be read as about love – one man makes disastrous moral compromises out of concern for his family’s short-term wellbeing; tentative overtures between Aboriginal Australians and settlers end in disaster.

‘A Mirror to the World’ is the longest and most ambitious story in the collection. It is based on an incident that happened in Rockhampton in the 1870s – an incident, interestingly, that’s interpreted quite differently in Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions of an Australian Badland. At least, one of the story’s two narratives is based on that incident. The other belongs to the author–academic who is writing that historical narrative, in between running a creative writing course where he lectures on multiple narratives, mise-en-abîme and other devices that are used in the story itself. So, yes, unlike the other ten stories it draws attention to itself as an artefact. It does this in other ways as well. There are explicit references to at least two other stories in the collection: a character from one makes an offstage appearance, and a situation from another is echoed in detail. It’s cleverly done, and there’s a final twist that crowns the cleverness, but it serves a serious purpose. As the story turns back on itself, it opens the way for questions about what it means for a white Australian to tackle the appalling injustices of our colonial past, about the question of moral judgement, the difficulty of imagining the inner world of the early settlers without either surrendering or imposing a modern perspective. The ending is both a technical delight and a moral/political challenge. It’s a story I’d love to discuss – but not here, not to spoil it for people who haven’t read it.

Full disclosure: As well as receiving a free book, I have a degree of commitment to Andy Kissane’s work, since the script for the short film currently known as Scar!, which regular visitors here will know I co-wrote, was inspired by his poem ‘The Station Owner’s Daughter, Narrandera’.

Janette Turner Hospital’s Forecast: Turbulence

Janette Turner Hospital, Forecast: Turbulence (Fourth Estate 2011)

This collection of nine short stories and a memoir has been shortlisted for a number of awards and it may have won some. Sentence by sentence it’s very well written. It is populated by a range of eccentrics, outsiders and non-neurotypicals and should have been interesting. But as far as I was concerned it didn’t touch the sides. I didn’t believe a word of it, even the memoir, which I know is truthful. Newspaper reviewers seem to have loved it, though I’m not convinced they’ve all actually read it.

That is all.

The Book Group reads Chekhov short stories

Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Little Dog and other stories, 1896–1904 (translated by Ronald Wilks, Penguin 2002)

I was enthralled by The Brothers Karamazov when I was 16 – the Grand Inquisitor raised the hairs on the back of my Catholic neck – but have so far managed to read very little of other 19th century Russian writers. The Book Group made me read Anna Karenina a while back, and now it’s Chekhov.

Before the meeting:
Knowing that Chekhov is one of the masters of the short story, I was vaguely expecting a display of virtuosity – cleverly constructed mechanisms with twists in the tail, perhaps, like O Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi’ only profound. The stories in this late collection aren’t like that at all. (I don’t know about his earlier stories, and it would probably have been better to start with some of them.)

To generalise, the stories are studies in Russian provincial life at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s hard if not impossible to read them now without an awareness that the Communist revolution was on the horizon. Chekhov’s picture of the oppression of the peasants, the hand-wringing of liberal land-owners and the viciousness of others, the flailing about of the intellectuals, and the way the economic and social system stifles and corrupts everyone, clearly reflects a world ripe for revolution. Not that he calls for revolution, but he does lay out the inadequacy of anything else on offer. These are stories, not tracts. They contain a lot of argument, but they don’t push a line – or if they do, it’s in terms that have become impenetrable to this casual reader a century and a hemisphere away.

In ‘The House with the Mezzanine’, when a socially responsible woman chides the artist–narrator for having no interest in such matters as the creation of a clinic for peasants, he replies that on the contrary the question interests him a great deal, and in his opinion the peasants do not need a clinic:

‘To my mind, with things as they are, clinic, schools, libraries, dispensaries only serve to enslave people. The peasants are weighted down by a great chain and instead of breaking this chain you’re only adding new links … What matters is not Anna dying in childbirth, but that all these peasant Annas, Mavras and Pelageyas toil away from dawn to dusk and that this unremitting labour makes them ill. All their lives they go in fear and trembling for their sick and hungry children. … You come to their aid with hospitals and schools, but this doesn’t free them from their shackles.’

And he goes on. Up to the point where he starts talking about spirituality, he could be a hardline lefty of a couple of decades ago railing against reformism. In the story, the dilemma is not resolved. At the end the peasants are still suffering and the narrator, without explanation and perhaps symbolically, fails to find true love. (A while after I’d written that, I came across this quote from Chekhov’s correspondence:: ‘You … are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist.’)

Or take this rant in ‘Gooseberries’, in which a character is talking about his brother, who chose to live a contented life on a small farm. It could be 21st century polemic against the self-help industry:

It’s obvious that the happy man feels contented only because the unhappy ones bear their burden without saying a word: if it weren’t for their silence, happiness would be quite impossible. It’s a kind of mass hypnosis. Someone ought to stand with a hammer at the door of every happy contented man, continually banging on it to remind him that there are unhappy people around and that however happy he may be at the time, sooner or later life will show him its claws and disaster will overtake him in the form of illness, poverty, bereavement and there will be no one to hear or see him. But there isn’t anyone holding a hammer, so our happy man goes his own sweet way and is only gently ruffled by life’s trivial cares, as an aspen is ruffled by the breeze. All’s well as far as he’s concerned.

There’s a lot of grim humour. The wedding celebration in ‘In the Ravine’ could have been the inspiration for Jack Hibberd’s Dimboola – but audiences laugh at the latter, while any laughs at the former are tinged with despair and disgust. And the stakes are raised by the peasants outside, one of whom shouts, ‘You’ve sucked us dry, you rotten bastards. You can all go to hell!’ That moment, of course, quickly passes as the peasants too join the celebratory mood. But the reader has been warned.

Chekhov isn’t one of those writers who ties everything up in a neat little bow. In ‘In the Ravine’ when a baby is murdered, his mother is blamed and the murderer goes free – but we are given no explanation for the mother’s failure to defend herself or other people’s silence about the cruel injustice. ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ is a love story. Instead of ‘happily ever after’, it ends, ‘ And both of them clearly realised that the end was far, far away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.’ Which is my sense of what all the stories are saying, about everything.

I’ve seen Eudora Welty quoted on the Internet as saying, ‘Reading Chekhov was just like the angels singing to me.’ That transforms my sense of what an angel can be.

The meeting: This meeting was postponed a number of times because I was hosting it and I was down with a heavy cold. As a result, most people’s recollection of the stories wasn’t very precise, but we’d had time to absorb them – in particular I had read some new Australian short stories (about which I’ll post separately), and my appreciation of the Chekhov had grown with the comparison. A big impediment to our discussion was that, as it turned out, we’d read different books: three of us had read The Lady with the Little Dog and other stories, 1896–1904. Others had read Lady with Lapdog and other stories, translated by David Magarshack, which contains a different set of stories (damn you, Penguin, for giving different books almost identical names!). The only stories in both books are ‘The House with an Attic’ aka ‘The House with the Mezzanine’, ‘Ionych’, and ‘Lady with Lapdog’ aka ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’.

We had a lively discussion. I think Chekhov was a bit of a surprise for everyone – not enough story for one chap (who thought the title of ‘A Boring Story’ said everything that needed to be said about it), a bit on the grim side for another, surprisingly modern in his discontinuities and sexual morality, surprisingly not, or not always, about the sufferings of the peasants.  At one stage, for the benefit of someone who hadn’t read it, I gave a synopsis of ‘The House with the Mezzanine’. It seemed a bit on the incoherent side, and then someone realised that I’d thrown in a key scene from another story altogether. Will I ever be trusted again?

Since the meeting, I found ‘A Dreary Story‘ on the internet in Constance Garnett’s translation (I think). There’s a wonderful passage near the beginning that could have been about me:

 I write poorly. That bit of my brain which presides over the faculty of authorship refuses to work. My memory has grown weak; there is a lack of sequence in my ideas, and when I put them on paper it always seems to me that I have lost the instinct for their organic connection; my construction is monotonous; my language is poor and timid. Often I write what I do not mean; I have forgotten the beginning when I am writing the end. Often I forget ordinary words, and I always have to waste a great deal of energy in avoiding superfluous phrases and unnecessary parentheses in my letters, both unmistakable proofs of a decline in mental activity. And it is noteworthy that the simpler the letter the more painful the effort to write it.

Colm Tóibín’s Empty Family

Colm Tóibín, The Empty Family (Picador 2010)

I’ve read very little by Colm Tóibín – his book on Barcelona, an extraordinarily spoilerish review of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, and that’s pretty much the lot. This collection of nine short stories, which has been beside my bed for a while and which I decided to read just now as possibly better suited to post-nasal-surgery times than a single longer work, is my introduction to his fiction.

While there are no characters who recur, and nothing like a discontinuous narrative, the book feels coherent – a number of the stories are about people returning to their country of origin after a period of exile, self-imposed or otherwise; many of them deal with Gay male experience; they are mostly set in Ireland or Barcelona, and in all of them connection with place and the people of the place are significant. An elderly Irishwoman returns to her native Dublin after a long absence to design a film set; after the fall of Franco, a Barcelona Communist returns from exile and encounters the old and new Spains; an Irishman returns from New York when his mother is dying. ‘The Pearl Fishers’ traces a delicate, questioning path through the Irish Catholic Church’s sex scandals. ‘The street’, the longest story, traces the developing relationship between two Pakistani indentured labourers in Barcelona.

I don’t know if I would have been quite so struck by this book’s Not Safe For Work bits if I hadn’t read it immediately after Philip Roth’s The Humbling, but I was struck by them. In three of the stories, there are graphic accounts of sex, probably more specific than the ones in The Humbling, but where at one stage Roth’s narrator protests, ‘This was not soft porn,’ Tóibín’s narrator and his characters are too engaged to need any such disclaimer. Both writers describe activities that I personally have no urge to participate in – Roth’s account makes me wish I’d somehow missed those pages; Tóibín’s prose manages to shed light on the nature of desire. ‘Barcelona, 1975’ reads as memoir, or at least conte à clef, and has an almost anthropological feel to it: this is how we did things in the dying days of the Franco regime, this is some of what we learned, and in particular this is how it felt.  Everywhere in his writing, you can feel the connections between people, again in stark contrast to the despairing isolation in the Roth book. That’s got to do with their different subjects, of course: Roth is writing about the loss of creativity. But I suspect I’m talking about something that goes much deeper in each writer – perhaps a cultural difference between Irish Catholic, lapsed or otherwise, and New York Jewish intellectual who is only as successful as his latest creation.

Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand, Anyway

Jim Shepard, Like You’d Understand, Anyway ( 2007)

A friend told me about this in an email, describing it as short stories soaked in historical research, and mentioning that one of the stories is a set of fictitious journals kept by Charles Sturt. I trekked to the library the same day.

Most of the book’s eleven short stories evoke historical moments: Chernobyl in April 1986, Hadrian’s Wall in ancient times, a Nazi-sponsored quest for evidence of the yeti, Sturt’s exploration of the south Australian desert, a Russian space launch, the Battle of Marathon, and the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. These historical events aren’t there as background to the stories, they are the stories, reimagined from the point of view of key participants. For instance, the Reign of Terror story, ‘Sans Farine‘, is narrated by Charles-Henri Sanson, the royal executioner before the revolution who was kept on in the job to become the man in charge of the guillotine. The real Sanson has a Wikipedia entry, which confirms that Shepard’s story stays close to the known facts. But Shepard doesn’t give us some kind of pedagogical re-enactment – this story in particular takes us to a poignant human reality. The horrors of capital punishment before and after the revolution are graphically presented, and Shepard avoids what might seem another obvious temptation, to editorialise on the evils of state murder. His concern is with the experience of the man, and with coming to imaginative grips with historical events.

Eons ago, on the way to an MA thesis that never eventuated, I read Sturt’s published journals, as well as those of Leichhardt, Eyre, Mitchell, George Grey and Ernest Giles. My thesis would have argued, of Eyre’s Journals in particular, that these books were literary compositions and should be much more widely read. Novelists and poets including Patrick White and Francis Webb, have drawn on the various Journals, and there is at least one anthology of excerpts. Shepard’s ‘The First South Central Australian Expedition’ captures the feel of the original. It does something else as well, as the fictional diarist Sturt is much more forthcoming about his emotional life than the real one was, at least in published form, but Sturt is much more a presence in the story than a jumping off point.

The book is dedicated to the author’s brother, and it includes plenty of brothers and brotherly relationships. Probably the single thing that stops the historical pieces from feeling didactic or info-dump-ish is the overarching preoccupation with relationships between men. Even the one story with a female narrator is set in the predominantly male milieu of the Russian space program, and the relationship between the two main female characters has the kind of competition traditionally found between men. The nerdy scribe overwhelmed by barbarians in ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ has a lot in common with the skinny twelve-year-old who manages to survive the bullying at summer camp in ‘Courtesy for Beginners’. The team sport in ‘Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak’ (surely a science fictional take on American Football rather than a realistic account!) is as brutalising in its way as the work of the executioner in ‘Sans Farine’. Fathers ache for their sons, sons for their fathers. Sons die. Fathers die. Brothers die. Occasionally there’s a woman, but she’s not let in easily. Like she’d understand, anyway.

Joanna Russ’s Adventures of Alyx

Joanna Russ, The Adventures of Alyx (1976, Baen 1986)

I believe Joanna Russ carried the flag for uncompromising feminism in the science fiction/fantasy community in the 1970s. Apparently she invited James Tiptree Jr out of a fanzine symposium on women in science fiction because as a man Tiptree had no business speaking on the subject (for those who came in late, Tiptree was really Alice Sheldon lurking behind a male persona, and she responded graciously, in role, to the disinvitation). So it’s no surprise that Alyx in these stories is a strong female character. There are three short stories featuring Alyx, little more than active character sketches really, and a much longer narrative, then a final short story that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have anything to do with Alyx.

Alyx the adventuress from ancient Tyre is a marvellous character, so the sketches – in which Alyx respectively helps a young noblewoman escape a potentially lethal marriage, escapes her own marriage to take up with a pirate, and deals with a gross man who claims to have created the world – hold up well. The first two happen entirely in a version of earthly antiquity. So does the third, though the nasty patriarchal figure has the language and paraphernalia of a time traveller rather than those of a demigod. In the fourth and longest piece, ‘Picnic in Paradise’, Alyx is transported by the Polysyllabic Agency for Temporal Gobbledygook (or something like that) to a future where her skills – and her lack of knowledge of technology – equip her perfectly to shepherd a group of tourists out of a war zone. In this piece the book well and truly transcends the ‘of historical interest’ niche. It’s funny, touching, and sexy in an over the top way. It points vicious satire  at the Prozac generation before the name. Then, just as one is thinking of Alyx as a kind of moral touchstone, one who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs, a role model even, she confounds all expectations by going so far off the rails it’s hard to understand how the story manages to keep us sympathising with her. She’s a real hero, and the story brilliantly refuses to be neat.

Then the last, short story, as far as I can tell, is not an Alyx story at all. A teenage girl in rural USA in 1925 is visited by a strange woman who turns out to be a descendant from the distant future. The young heroine (and we with her) understands only a fraction of what her strange visitor is up to. She helps her to kill another visitor from the future, but we’re left with only glimpses the relationship between the two visitors. And there’s more. It’s a tantalising narrative in which all the huge world-changing events happen offstage and/or in a language we don’t understand. Yet it’s also a satisfying coming of age story. After all, what teenager understands the world s/he finds him/herself part of.

I don’t have fond memories of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, which I read (in 1970 something) as an undisciplined scream of rage. This book suggests strongly that I may have got it wrong.

If you want a proper, informed, intelligent discussion, I recommend you have a look at Niall Harrison’s review at Torque Control.