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.

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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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Each one in its humour

Jizzle by John Wyndham.
Dennis Dobson 1974 (1954)

Fifteen short stories, five of which appeared originally in magazines like Argosy and Women’s Journal, run the gamut of fantasy, nearly all written in a tongue-in-cheek style not usually associated with the author of The Day of the Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos.

Though jumping from time-travel to artificial intelligence via surreal fantasy, fairytale, legend and myth, these tales nearly always involve individuals caught up in situations beyond their comprehension or control, often to their discomfiture but mostly to our amusement. Though a couple are told in the first person the majority are fly-on-the-wall observational pieces, thus allowing us the privilege of becoming aware of how matters stand a short while before understanding dawns on the unfortunate victims.

Because victims they generally are: and it’s Fate, in the guise of the author, that determines whether they emerge sadder and wiser or don’t emerge at all…

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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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Bleak but beautiful

Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik)

Orsinian Tales
by Ursula Le Guin.
Panther Books 1976

These eleven tales set in the Ten Provinces of the imaginary country of Orsinia are bleak yet beautiful, vivid but melancholic, tinted with the grey dust of limestone plains, the wet surfaces of urban streets, and the golden light of autumnal groves.

Peopling these landscapes are quarrymen, nobles, musicians, factory workers, doctors, academics; whether eking out their lives in the Middle Ages, the Thirty Years War, or the tumultuous years of the twentieth century, characters speak of the fragility of human existence, of their cautious optimism and of individual heroism.

Writing during the long postwar period of the Cold War Ursula Le Guin invests her subjects with the humanity they deserve, allowing us episodic views of a land that draws not on one specific country but from many Central and Eastern European polities; extraordinarily she depicts an entirely credible geographical entity rooted in reality, despite telling us in the final tale in this collection, set in 1935, that

all this happened a long time ago, nearly forty years ago; I do not know if it happens now, even in imaginary countries.

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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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To cut a tale short

Collections of short stories are, I’ve found, tricky things to review compared to a solid novel or longish novella. The reasons are as various as the pieces in the collection can be:

  1. there may be too many individual stories to cover them all in any detail;
  2. mere listing of the contents doesn’t, in my view, constitute a review but often that seems to be main option, which is a disservice to those hoping to decide whether to read the volume;
  3. the selection may be uneven in quality with any poor specimens bringing down the standard of the collection and thus one’s overall assessment;
  4. the variety in terms of subject matter, tone, length and order also make an overall assessment difficult.

But without reviews how is one to tread the labyrinth of the Library of Brief Narratives? I have a number of such collections in my purview waiting for my perusal and assessment so I have those paths to follow.

In the meantime, here is an overview of some of the collections I have reviewed, with brief commentary, for those (like, I think, Cath Humphries) hoping for signposts to new pastures. For this first of two posts I look at collections with a realist slant (links are to my reviews).

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Further reading

Artwork by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com.

Approaching the last two months of this extraordinary year — one which I’m sure is seared into our collective consciousness — I thought I’d briefly, with your gracious acquiescence, take stock.

Goodreads tells me I’ve read 70 titles so far in 2020, surpassing my modest target of 60 for the whole year. Bar one or two I’ve reviewed them all too, on Goodreads as well as here. As the year progressed (even as conditions globally regressed) I determined to be less constrained by goals and targets and challenges and go mainly for comfort reading, even if some titles weren’t necessarily comfortable reading.

So, as November and December beckon, what am I likely to have piled up by my elbow?

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Honest and very human

Edith Bland (née Nesbit) at work

The Magic World by E Nesbit,
Puffin Classics 1994 (1912)

Not everyone is successful at writing literary fairytales, especially those stories that mix the modern world with traditional wonder tales of magic and enchantment. Joan Aiken was one who mastered this deft conjoining of old and new, as did her predecessor Edith Nesbit. Maybe it takes a special individual, or maybe it requires a female touch — many 19th-century male writers, such as the Brothers Grimm, Charles Kingsley et al, found it hard not to come over all didactic and moral, though some female writers were not averse to these failings. Nesbit slyly parodies these aspects of Victorian literary fairytales at the end of “The Mixed Mine” when she concludes

“There is no moral to this story, except… But no – there is no moral.”

And yet morality lies deeply embedded in most of these dozen stories — the wicked meet their just deserts, or maybe just don’t profit from their wickedness; the meek inherit the earth, or at least don’t lose out. She subverts your expectations, but in a nice way, leaving the reader challenged but also satisfied.

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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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From pathos to bathos

Oakleaf window, Tyntesfield, Bristol

Ransom Riggs:
Tales of the Peculiar
Illustrated by Andrew Davidson
Penguin 2017 (2016)

I really wanted to like this: a handsome book to look at and a pleasure to hold and handle, with extremely classy wood engravings by Andrew Davidson and a series of short stories of ‘peculiar’ people told purportedly in fairytale fashion. I do love convincing fakery in a novel, the kind that allows one to fully suspend one’s disbelief and immerse oneself in an alternative world where unnatural things happen and peculiar people exist.

However, with this instalment of Ransom Riggs’ popular series I found that the things which irritated me about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children were still present, but amplified, and that unfortunately led to me feeling let down and profoundly disappointed as I waded through the eleven pieces and a foreword.

But first, the Prologue, in which I enumerate the many facets which predisposed me to find this tome attractive.

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Muddling through

Penelope Lively: Uninvited Ghosts
Illustrated by John Lawrence
Puffin 1986 (1984)

This delightful collection of eight short stories aimed at young readers is perfect for a quick diverting read by those of more mature years too. At between ten and twenty pages each in this edition they share humour and fantasy in equal measure in ways that remind me of writers like Joan Aiken and E Nesbit — which should be all the recommendation needed.

The plentiful line illustrations by John Lawrence, heading as well as littering each story, are simple yet effective; in a style reminiscent of Peter Firmin’s cartoons they succeed in conveying a typical child as protagonist confronted by abnormal situations; they perfectly complement the author’s narratives in which it’s touch and go whether all will turn out well or not.

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Good tales well told

Daniel Morden:
Secret Tales from Wales
Illustrated by Brett Breckon
Gomer Press 2017

Enough for one,
Too much for two,
Nothing for three.
What is it?
— epigraph to Secret Tales from Wales

I always smile to myself when I see journalistic headlines like The Top Ten Secret Beaches or The Secrets Only Locals Know, because once those details are screamed out at you and tens of thousands other readers, whether in hard copy or online, by definition it’s no longer a secret. They become the Top Ten Best Known Beaches or Famous Local Facts All the World Knows.

So the title of this book doesn’t refer to tales never ever revealed before but to stories about secrets. And the tales are from Wales because the writer is Welsh, not because they are unique to Welsh tradition.

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About children

1953 Coronation mug

Jan Mark: The One That Got Away.
Thirty Stories from Thirty Years
Roffo Court Press 2020

How have I not come across the fabulous Jan Mark before? I look over some of the titles of her children’s books, all written and published over some three decades from 1974, and find that not one rings a bell. Maybe they weren’t what I was avidly consuming then, or what our children brought back from the library, but I now find she represents a significant lacuna in my reading experience.

Collected here are some thirty short stories arranged by alphabetical order of titles; they represent a selection of varied narratives, from school stories to family vignettes via ghost tales and humorous anecdotes, speculative short fiction and flashbacks to life in the mid-20th-century, and everything else in between.

I can’t possibly comment on them all so I’ll point out the real highlights for me, the ones that lingered even more than others as I read through the collection over a month, though to be honest that could still be a lot more than the representative sample I was intending.

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