More brief narratives

I recently mentioned that I had several collections of short stories in hand which I intended to get round to in the near future using the tag the Library of Brief Narratives. It’s my intention to include as many short story titles as I can bear throughout 2021, but to get off to a flying start by reviewing a couple of them in December.

I’ve already listed selections and collections with or including realist themes. Now, as a further amuse-bouche for you all, comes another listing of titles with a more speculative range of genres, from SF and fantasy through fairytales and on to horror and suspense.

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A tease

The Fool from the Marseille tarot deck

Utz by Bruce Chatwin,
Picador 1989 (1988)

Tyranny sets up its own echo-chamber; a void where confused signals buzz about at random; where a murmur or innuendo causes panic…

Chatwin’s final fiction, the novella Utz, is a tease in that nothing is quite what it seems. In 1967, a year before the Prague Spring, the unnamed narrator travels to Prague for some academic research where he hears of and meet Kaspar Utz, a collector of Meissen china figures. Behind the Iron Curtain is not of course the ideal place to amass a collection of kitsch artworks but Utz has agreed they will all go to a state museum after his death.

The novella opens with the collector’s funeral; the inevitable question then becomes, What has happened to the porcelain figures? And then, What will the Czechoslovak state now do? But here’s the tease: the narrator takes his time to render this question an urgent issue for the reader. And this being a Cold War story, some of the participants have to learn to be as secretive as the Soviet-era country they are living in.

As for the surname of the German-born baron whose life we are introduced to, will it surprise you to know — despite utz bearing “any number of negative connotations: ‘drunk’, ‘dimwit’, ‘card-sharp’, ‘dealer in dud horses'” — that it’s very possible that the word derives from the German verb uzen, ‘to tease’?

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Gothick Dreams

An 1835 illustration for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

“I waked one morning [in 1764] from a dream, of which, all I could recover, was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head like mine filled with Gothic story), and that on the uppermost banister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down, and began to write…”
— Horace Walpole, in a letter

At the heart of early Gothick literature — I use the spelling ‘Gothick’ to differentiate it from historical or architectural meanings of Gothic — broods The Castle.

And when I say ‘Castle’ I mean those edifices, usually ancient abbeys or mansions, with a clutch of qualities which we immediately recognise, namely antique origins, some of which may be ruinous, harbouring histories of romance, the supernatural, even horror, and — at its heart — mysteries in the form of eldritch scandals or objects, accessed via secret passages, tunnels, caves, crumbling staircases and hidden doors.

The attraction of stories that include these edifices is twofold: first, the intellectual satisfaction that comes from following a confusing trail that may or may not lead to answers; and second, the curiosity that has its roots in psychology, dreams, even nightmares, with an inkling that the skull may itself be the castle and that, within it, the brain’s convolutions hide the ultimate mystery. Let’s have a look at these two aspects.

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Two brothers

Haworth Church and Parsonage

Ashworth by Charlotte Brontë,
in Unfinished Novels.
Introduction by Dr Tom Winnifrith,
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993

“When Edward and I were in penury, kept chained together by want, and abhorring each other for the very compulsion of our union, I used to endure worse torments than those of hell. Edward overwhelmed by his strength and bulk. He used his power coarsely, for he had a coarse mind, and scenes have taken place between us [of] which remembrance to this day, when it rushes upon my mind, pierces every nerve with a thrill of bitter pain no words can express.”
— Sir William Percy, in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘The Duke of Zamorna’ (1838)

In discussing Ashworth, one of the four items in Tom Winnifrith’s collection of Charlotte Brontë’s uncompleted tales, I want to focus on a motif that she kept returning to in her novels, that of two brothers in conflict, a motif which only disappeared with Villette, her last finished work (published in 1853, a couple of years before her death).

One brother, who may be called Edward, was often (as with Sir Edward Percy) described as having a “savage, hard, calculating barbarity” while his younger sibling, frequently named William, was altogether more gentle and sensitive. In varying degrees of intensity that fraternal rivalry was pursued in narratives for roughly two decades until her writing tailed off before her tragic death.

I’ve already discussed this aspect in a review of The Story of Willie Ellin (1854) but in outlining Ashworth I want to consider how the unfinished fragment forms a link between Charlotte’s juvenilia and her later work and speculate about why her Two Brothers theme seems to be a continuing obsession.

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Effie’s fairy tale

Euphemia ('Effie') Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins, albumen print, late 1850s
Euphemia (‘Effie’) Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins: albumen print, late 1850s, National Portrait Gallery

John Ruskin: The King of the Golden River, or
The Black Brothers: A Legend of Stiria (1851)
Illustrated by Richard Doyle, E.P.Dutton / J.M.Dent 1925
Illustrated by Charles W Stewart, Edmund Ward 1958

The King of the Golden River was written in 1841, at the request of a very young lady, and solely for her amusement, without any idea of publication…”

The very young lady was the twelve-year-old Effie Gray and the writer was John Ruskin, ten years her senior.

Ruskin was eventually to marry Effie in 1848 but the marriage foundered and was annulled, Effie then marrying the artist John Everett Millais. All that turbulence was in the future, however, and Effie must have been delighted with her present, along with later generations too after the tale was published in 1851.

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Picturesque prosody

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

A Sicilian Romance
by Ann Radcliffe,
edited with an introduction and notes by Alison Milbank.
Oxford World’s Classics 1998 (1790, 1821 edition)

The commission of one crime often requires the perpetration of another. When once we enter on the labyrinth of vice, we can seldom return, but are led on, through correspondent mazes, to destruction. — Chapter XV

Ruinous castles, subterranean passages, tempest-tossed shipwrecks, bloodthirsty bandits, damsels in distress, villainous rulers, picturesque scenery, murder most foul — if anything defines the Gothick novel it is a selection of these features. And A Sicilian Romance, one of the early examples of this genre, has these in bucket loads.

In addition, setting her story in the island of Sicily allowed Ann Radcliffe full rein to indulge in the frissons of horror and bewilderment that her readership expected, gleaned from travellers’ tales and from the dramatic pictorial landscapes that proliferated during the 17th and 18th centuries.

In this, her second ever novel — this text is that of the 1821 edition — the author produced a fine novel in the Gothick tradition which, despite a few infelicities in factual detail and unlikely coincidences, still thrills the reader with its account of moral retribution.

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Cruel as the grave

Jean Rhys (1890–1979)

Till September Petronella
by Jean Rhys.
Penguin Modern: 13,
Penguin Books 2018

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave.” — Song of Songs, 8:6

This selection of four short stories of contrasting lengths have been well chosen, their semi-autobiographical nature spanning the author’s lifetime from a Caribbean childhood to an ill-advised revisit, their themes of alienation, loneliness and depression mirroring the author’s own experiences.

One might think such bleak writing might be of a nature best avoided, but the power of her simple yet expressive prose, seemingly artless but nevertheless exquisitely crafted, is hypnotic and at times dreamlike. I was captivated and felt, paradoxically, both protective and utterly useless: here was a human being expressing her hurt and sense of drifting and yet I was unable to help.

Three of the pieces are told in the first person, a fact which to me strongly suggests a degree of autobiografiction, and though the final piece — less than two pages long in this edition — is in the third person, almost as if she is standing apart from herself, sadly observing and grieving for the person that she was. In such a context it feels close to a form of literary disassociation.

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Marking time

Scheherazade, by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (d 1903). Walsall Art Gallery.

The Patience Stone
by Atiq Rahimi,
Polly McLean (translator),
Khaled Khosseini (introduction).
Vintage Books 2011 (2008)

It’s a measure of a novel’s power when images and ideas and characters and emotions continue to swirl around in the mind; and Atiq Rahimi’s long novella does just that. A disturbing but mesmerising tale, The Patience Stone uses symbols and parables as the loci for the author’s passionate advocacy against women’s miserable lot in countries such as Afghanistan, where deeply misogynistic traditions hold sway under the pretext of a strict adherence to Islam.

Amidst factional fighting in an unnamed country a woman nurses her comatose husband, immobilised by a bullet in his neck, got not from battle but from a quarrel. Our point of view is entirely that of a fly on the wall in a sparsely furnished room, decorated with a photo of the husband and a sheathed khanjar hung at head level. We know there are other rooms, a courtyard in front of the house, a door from there onto the street, and a world outside, but — ensconced with the recumbent man — we never get to see all that.

In this claustrophobic chamber we observe comings and goings, intimate acts and confessions, stories and intermittent silences. Until the explosive conclusion.

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Shadow play

Claud-Joseph Vernet, Genoa Lighthouse and the Temple of Minerva Medica (Bristol Museum): https://wp.me/p2oNj1-4bm

Tempest-Tost
by Robertson Davies,
in The Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books 2011 (1951)

“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.
All’s Well that Ends Well

The first volume in Robertson Davies’ Salterton Trilogy is a provincial Canadian comedy of manners with a universal appeal, in which despite errors being compounded all’s well that ends well, which is as we like it.

From this corny introduction you’ll have gathered Tempest-Tost is a novel with a Shakespearean theme, and so it is. In the middle of the 20th century The Little Theatre company, an amateur group, is attempting to put on an open air pastoral of The Tempest, unaware that they are as much the dramatis personae in a real-life play as the characters they are hoping to portray. Except, as I hope to argue, the fictional parts they play in the comedy are not those they live during the course of the novel.

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A jug of wine, and thou

ساقی| Cup bearer (Saghi)

The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam
translated by Robert Graves and Omar Ali-Shah.
Appendix: Edward Fitzgerald translation.
Penguin Books 1972 (1967)

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
— Fitzgerald, 11 (1859 edition)

The collection of quatrains, or rubaiyat, attributed to Omar Khayaam (‘Omar the tentmaker’) have been made famous by Edward Fitzgerald’s English version, published in the middle of the nineteenth century, so much so that his rendition is what English-speakers usually think of whenever Rubaiyyat is mentioned. But it has long had a controversial aspect as misrepresenting what the poet is supposed to have both written and indeed meant.

And there is more. Fitzgerald, who wasn’t a Persian scholar but largely taught himself, working from dictionaries to produce the work associated with him, wasn’t as assiduous in conveying the sense of the quatrains as he may have been, and mixed and matched texts as suited his tastes, even stitching together lines from different quatrains. And when he couldn’t understand a word or phrase, he liberally interpreted it.

In the middle of the twentieth century the poet Robert Graves and the Sufi Omar Ali-Shah (Graves had worked with his brother Idries Shah) produced this annotated text in English, claiming it to not only present the original more accurately to an English-speaking audience but also to restore the poet’s Sufic credentials. Have they been successful?

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Mirages and breakdowns

Western Asia, 1936 (Bartholomew Atlas)

Agatha Christie,
writing as Mary Westmacott:
Absent in the Spring
HarperCollins 2017 (1944)

A few days before, an old school friend of Joan Scudamore had wondered “what, if you had nothing to do but think about yourself for days and days, you might find out about yourself.” And now that Joan finds herself in just that position, stuck in limbo waiting for a train, she learns that all that she’d assumed about her life and her family may not have been as she imagined.

Will the mental crisis she experiences, and the reevaluation of relationships that she undergoes, represent a sea change in her attitudes — or will she return to old ways of thinking despite all she has gone through?

In this psychological novel the author portrays a woman whose assumptions are profoundly challenged by isolation — well, she’s not totally alone, but she is the only European — and alone with her thoughts she finds them taking very unexpected turns.

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Supported by experience 

Rebecca Solomon (1832-86) ‘The Governess’ (1851): public domain image

Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey
Wordsworth Classics 1994 (1847)

There is a stock image of the Victorian governess, isn’t there: the stern, plain figure in black who is given charge of the upper- or middleclass family’s children, shepherding them from classroom to drawing room, and thence to bed. It’s easy to caricature this figure, as Joan Aiken did with the figure of Miss Slighcarp in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, or to portray her as a dominatrix for men (and women) of certain tastes, but I suspect that mostly the romantic view of the governess will rest on the titular person of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847).

However, the life of many a governess is portrayed more realistically in Charlotte’s sister’s novel, the semi-autobiographical Agnes Grey, which even more than Jane Eyre exposed the circumstances which governesses were expected to tolerate without a murmur. Clues that much of the story of Agnes (“pure, holy”) is based on Anne’s own experiences come in the opening paragraphs: both their fathers are clergymen in the north of England; both young women are twice engaged as governesses, the first post being short-lived though the second lasts a few years; and both are involved in plans to begin a school with family members (though in only one case does it come to fruition). And, from what we know of Anne’s life, the circumstances of Agnes’ treatment parallel the author’s own.

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Serene economy

carnegie-waukegan
Waukegan’s Carnegie library

Ray Bradbury:
Summer Morning, Summer Night
Edited by Donn Albright and Jon Eller
Harper Voyager 2015 (2008)

Its suburbs housed young and old, hermits and gossips, conservatives and eccentrics, the love-lorn and the unlovable; Green Town, Illinois, was — maybe still is — a town of mystery, secrets and heartaches underneath its bland exterior.

Bradbury’s chronicles of lives lived under his microscope extended from the observational vignettes in Dandelion Wine to the magic realism of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Based on the author’s childhood experience in Waukegan, Illinois, its aspiring middle-class neighbourhoods are portrayed as a hothouse harbouring secret passions and private obsessions, all seething beneath a thin veneer of respectability.

This selection of short stories (some only half a page long) similarly let the reader eavesdrop or spy on the everyday doings of townsfolk; but rather than it being an abusive relationship our fly-on-the-wall position allows us to extend our compassion to many of the denizens, just occasionally permitting us to be judgemental.

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Many a quaint craft

You may have seen many a quaint craft in your day, for aught I know;—square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter-box galliots, and what not; but take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod. She was a ship of the old school…

I’ve been in a typhoon in the South China Sea when returning to Hong Kong in a China Navigation vessel in the 1950s; and crossed the Bay of Biscay in a vomit-inducing gale on a so-called mini-cruise in October — to be sure, a notorious time of year for storms.

Contrast these violent passages with more forgettable ‘calm sea and prosperous’ voyages to Japan, the Philippines and Thailand in my pre-teens, or numerous uneventful cross-channel ferry journeys to France as an adult.

Sailings have featured in recent reads, and though I’ve disembarked from them I’m still aboard another; I’m hoping maybe you’ll be interested in hearing what was jotted down in the captain’s logs for these several sea passages.

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Shirley’s neck of the woods

Gable of Gatehouse, Kirklees Priory (H P Kendall) 1937 © Calderdale Libraries

‘And that,’ asked Miss Keeldar, pointing to the forest—‘that is Nunnwood?’
‘It is.’
‘Was it not one of Robin Hood’s haunts?’
‘Yes, and there are mementos of him still existing.’
—Chapter XII ‘Shirley and Caroline’

Welcome to the most final post on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (the very last despite what I suggested in an earlier piece) and welcome, especially, to the greenwood that is Nunnely Forest.

Newly established friends Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar have walked from the parish of Briarfield and are now overlooking the treetops surrounding the Nunnely Priory estate. In this novel, set towards the end of the Napoleonic wars and during a period industrial unrest, the thing we might least expect to come across might be the legend of a medieval outlaw.

But perhaps this is not so unexpected. For the two have not long before been extolling the virtues of each being a native of Yorkshire, and an independent thinker at that. Given that some Robin Hood legends are set in Barnsdale (South Yorkshire, but formerly part of the West Riding) the mention of the outlaw’s baunts is not entirely outlandish.

And there’s more.

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