A song unfinished

Carson McCullers

The Ballad of the Sad Café
by Carson McCullers.
Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics,
Penguin Books, 1963 (1951)

A novella, six short stories, along with innumerable themes and motifs are here united, packed into a slim volume of consummate writing which has lost none of its power in the seventy years since first appearing in 1951. Mostly set in Georgia and New York, with one or two fictional locations (possibly the author’s home town of Columbus, Georgia under other names) plus a brief visit to Paris, the stories deal with loneliness, unfulfilled ambitions, and love; they are by turns humorous and heart-rending, wistful and whimsical.

What gives them a special strength is the sense of their being based on lived experiences, certain situations echoing aspects of the author’s own life without necessarily being autobiographical. Add to this a musician’s sensibility in the phrasing, cadence and tempo and it’s unsurprising that these narratives are akin to Albumblätter: these were short instrumental pieces that were popular in the nineteenth century, independent compositions which were then published in collections.

Appearing in various periodicals between 1936 and 1951 the stories were collected under the umbrella title of The Ballad of the Sad Café, and as befits an author who had originally planned to pursue her studies in piano at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music, many of her pieces feature music in one way or another.

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The necessary passion

Le Guin’s endpapers map of Orsenya in The Complete Orsinia

The Complete Orsinia:
Malafrena | Stories and songs
by Ursula K Le Guin,
edited by Brian Attebery.
Library of America 2016.

I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. At last it occurred to be that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.

Introduction, ‘The Complete Orsinia’

A land-locked country somewhere in Europe. Known as Orsenya to its inhabitants and as Orsinia to the outside world. A land with its own language, culture and history but not so dissimilar to those of its neighbours. Yet beyond the writings of its only chronicler little is known about it. Although that chronicler is sadly no longer with us, she has nevertheless provided us with glimpses into lives lived at various points in its history; a few lives are those of the powerful but most are of ordinary people, though that’s not to say they’re not extraordinary in their own ways.

Containing Orsinian Tales (1976) and Malafrena (1979) you might, if you already have copies of both, wonder what the advantage of acquiring this compendium could be. Well, apart from the convenience of having the two titles in one volume there are the additions: two extra short stories published subsequently, in 1979 and 1990, and three short Orsinian songs, plus supporting material. That material — Le Guin’s 2015 introduction, an extensive chronology of the author’s life up to 2014 (she was to die in early 2018) and notes by the editor on the texts — renders this one-volume edition well worth the outlay.

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Lilith, the dragon and the frog prince

River Arno

New Penguin Parallel Text:
short stories in Italian / Racconti in Italiano.
Edited by Nick Roberts, Penguin Books 1999

A volume of nine short stories by nine 20th-century Italian writers has been with me for a score of years, not exactly studiously ignored but still incomprehensibly remaining unread. I’m not too sure why I hesitated because in translation they’ve been very satisfying, and although I’ve only read a selection of paragraphs from each story in the original the experience has been equally enlightening. At a time of pandemic only virtual travel is possible, so these brief narratives have evoked Italian life and lives really well when physical travel has been out of the question.

The authors whose names were familiar to me were Italo Calvino and Primo Levi, so it was interesting to comes across Leonardo Sciascia, Goffredo Parise, Stefano Benni and Antonio Tabucchi, while the female contributors who were included were Dacia Maraini, Susanna Tamaro and Sandra Petrignani. Nick Roberts (who translated a couple of the pieces) has done a great job selecting a variety in terms of subject, tone and style; and English versions by Avril Bardoni, Sharon Wood, Ruth Feldman, Tim Parks, Edward Williams, Charles Caroe and Chris Roberts have — as far as I can tell from my very limited command of Italian — have been very readable without being departing from the originals.

And what of the stories themselves? Here are psychological portraits, tales with a sting in the tale, insightful social narratives, reported conversations, a youngster’s stream of consciousness piece, even a satire, all very different and, like courses at a dinner, each needing a little time to savour and digest before moving on.

Continue reading “Lilith, the dragon and the frog prince”

Dark portraits in the gallery

in medias res

Now that you’re back
by A L Kennedy.
Vintage 1995 (1994)

Opening a collection of short stories is a little like getting into a lift (or elevator, if you prefer) — you never know who’ll get in, for how long they’ll ride, whether you’re likely to engage with them or what relationship, if any, they are likely to have with each other. Your curiosity may or may not be piqued, you may wrinkle your nose at the smell or be embarrassed at the enforced intimacy, however transient.

What you do know is that, like any passenger in the lift, you’re unlikely to be vouchsafed someone’s life story, that your experience will only produce brief and probably blurry mental snapshots of your fellow travellers.

And so it is with this collection of A L Kennedy vignettes. In virtually every tale the reader arrives in medias res — you pass through gates straight into the midst of the action (such as it may be), trying to guess at characters, motivation, context, relationships, tone; and as each story concludes you never quite know if you’ve got a handle on it all, if your grasping at the situation attains something substantial or merely thin air.

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Betwixt and between

Simurgh

East, West by Salman Rushdie.
Vintage 1995 (1994)

“East, West, home’s best.” — 19th-century proverb *

If one has a foot in two regions where then is home? In these nine short stories — three published for the first time in this collection — Salman Rushdie explores the disorientation that some experience when cultures collide.

These aren’t polemical essays, however, but character studies, thumbnail sketches which allow us insights into individual lives with all their comforts and dilemmas, and as such are a joy to read. They include vignettes, parodies, fables and mini-tragedies, each item with an independent life but all linked by themes, imagination and wit.

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Bittersweet symphony

Piazza (image credit: Polina Kostova /Pexels)

Nocturnes:
Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
by Kazuo Ishiguro,
Faber and Faber 2010 (2009)

This quintet of brief narratives told by different musicians and one music-lover, all told in the first person, describe relationships and acquaintances which never quite run smooth. Though ‘nocturne’ strictly describes a nighttime piece of music some of these stories have a daytime feel even when their tones can be dark.

The settings vary, moving from Venice to London, the Welsh Marches to Beverly Hills, and ending in an unnamed Italian town piazza.

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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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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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Haunting tales

Anton Chekhov, photographed in 1889

Chekhov: the early stories 1883-88
Chosen and translated by Patrick Miles & Harvey Pitcher
Abacus 1982

This selection of thirty-five of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, covering a period of five years, is an object lesson in how one author can create variety in this small-scale genre. There are scarcely any false moves here: we’re presented with cheeky humour as well as deep emotion, and served up with well-observed portraits and dramatic episodes. Some pieces are really short — punchy, scarcely two pages long — others approach novelette length. All are quintessentially Russian, infused now by bureaucracy, now by irreverence, sometimes expansive as suits the country’s landscape or intimate as we focus in on a fireside scene. And, for the most part, these tales are about people in all their fragility and weakness — youngsters, old people, couples, bourgeoisie, soldiers, musicians, artisans.

It’s impossible to do more than suggest the range by reference to a few select examples, so I will endeavour to give a suggestion of Chekhov’s skill in the setting of mood. I can’t speak of whether the choices made by the translators are exemplary or not, but I can marvel how a young man in his twenties (born in 1860, he died at too early an age, in his mid-forties) was able to capture such a broad view of human nature.

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Compassion

Giant: illustration by Arthur Rackham
Giant: illustration by Arthur Rackham

When Mick was little he thought of big Gus as Shouty Man.

All he could think of while growing up was being big enough to give Gus a taste of his own medicine.

Only now, as a six footer, with Gus shrunk to a little wizened man, Mick realised what being Big truly meant.

· ( • ) ·

· Flash Fiction Fifty Five, a short story of only 55 words (including title)
More on giants in this review here

Many meanings

cropped-stars.jpgPrimo Levi A Tranquil Star
Translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli
Penguin Modern Classics 2008 (2007)

‘A Tranquil Star’ — the last of seventeen short stories which gives its name to this selection of previously unpublished pieces in translation — is as good a place as any to start a consideration of this collection. It begins with a discussion of the inadequacy of superlatives (immense, colossal, extraordinary) to give indications of comparative size, especially when it comes to stars. Al-Ludra is the now not-so-tranquil star when it comes to its convulsive, cataclysmic end; how to describe an event which is beyond the comprehension of most, an event that is measured “not in millions or billions of years but of hours and minutes”? All we can do is relate its death to the impact it has on a human being, something we can more easily understand. On October 19th 1950 Ramón Escojido, a Peruvian married to his Austrian wife Judith, notices something unusual in photos taken from his mountain observatory. His dilemma is this: does he assume it’s a blemish on his photographic plate of the night sky, or does he cancel the planned family excursion to double-check if, in fact, it’s really a supernova?

While some stories may seem impersonal at first sight, underlying them all is the all-too-human individual. Continue reading “Many meanings”

A sad tale’s best

winter sleepwalker

Elizabeth Gaskell The Old Nurse’s Story [and Curious, if True]
Penguin Little Black Classics 2015 (1852 and 1860)

Nothing is commoner in Country Places, than for a whole Family in a Winter’s Evening, to sit round the Fire, and tell Stories of Apparitions and Ghosts. And no Question of it, but this adds to the natural Fearfulness of Men, and makes them many Times imagine they see Things, which really are nothing but their own Fancy.

— Henry Bourne in Antiquitates Vulgares (1725), quoted in
J Simpson and S Roud A Dictionary of English Folklore (OUP 2000)

Henry Bourne was a curate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne at the beginning of the 18th century who inveighed against traditions he regarded as popish or heathen. I suspect, then, that he would have given Mrs Gaskell’s short fiction ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ short shrift (or perhaps not, since “giving short shrift” is a relic Catholic phrase) for it perfectly epitomised that winter’s tale told at a Northumbrian fireside which he so hated. Luckily for his mental state he had died over a century before the two narratives included in this slim volume were published, the first in 1852, in Household Words, and the second in 1860, in The Cornhill Magazine.

The first-person narrator of ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ is Hester: an intelligent young girl in the second half of the 18th century she is selected to be nurse to Rosamond Esthwaite, daughter of a Westmoreland curate and Miss Furnivall, herself a granddaughter to a Northumbrian lord. When Rosamond is four going on five her parents both unexpectedly die within a short while of each other, and she and Hester are sent across country to the ancestral seat of Furnivall Manor House, located in Northumberland at the foot of the Cumberland Fells. The subsequent events are here recounted by the older Hester to Rosamond’s children, to whom she has also become nurse.

This is the setting for Continue reading “A sad tale’s best”

A showcase for storytelling

William Blake's The Ghost of a Flea
William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea

Garth Nix Across The Wall:
a Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories

HarperCollins Children’s Books 2007 (2005)

There can’t be many children’s fantasy authors who have remained untouched by the Arthurian legend: John Masefield, Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin (she shows this awareness in her introduction to Tales from Earthsea), Diana Wynne Jones, Joan Aiken and Philip Reeve are all writers who spring to mind as acknowledging the huge influence of the Matter of Britain. The Australian author Garth Nix is another who makes his debt clear but this predilection doesn’t represent the limits of his storytelling. Continue reading “A showcase for storytelling”

Not all at sea

shipoffools
Albrecht Dürer (?): The Ship of Fools (1494)

Terry Jones Fantastic Stories Puffin 2003 (1992)

Though unable to speak German I once acquired a modern edition of Sebastian Brandt’s 1494 satire Das Narrenschiff or Ship of Fools, mainly because it was illustrated with distinctive woodcuts, many by Albrecht Dürer. A fruitless search for my mislaid copy was prompted by the first story in this short story collection by Terry Jones (whose sobriquet seems destined to forever remain ‘former Python’): naturally this was a tale called ‘The Ship of Fools’. Medievalist that he is, author of Who Murdered Chaucer? and Chaucer’s Knight, he won’t have lightly chosen this tale to head this collection without a reason. Continue reading “Not all at sea”