Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘café

9780141180403_p0_v1_s260x420If you write stories, you will be asked what your stories are about and, unless you’re one of the people who can answer that they are about a boy wizard, this makes for a tough conversation. You could lay down a clueless cross-stitch of parameters – regarding form, genre, theme, plot, setting, motifs – that equate to saying ’round and red like a cricket ball, juicy like a rare steak and as good in soups as a mushroom’ in order to communicate the taste of a tomato. Assuming your inquisitor has had the patience to wait for your paroxysm of bitterness and self-loathing to subside and is still listening, you might get to explain that the remorseless necessity of living is what the fiction is about, and all the rest of it is just costume, props and lighting.

This points to what makes the café such fertile ground for the short story. In my first post about cafés on this blog, I said that “I suspect there are answers to be found here as to why short stories never really progress as a form – and why, conversely, they are always relevant.” The lack of progression in short fiction may be better expressed as an aesthetic conservatism: reliant on long-established virtues; in constant conversation with its own past. The relevance, on the other hand, is configured in its enduring functionality, the way the genre has always shaped itself to form part of an essential ‘kit’ for modern living, whenever and whatever ‘modern’ was at the time. A desultory glance through its contemporary history shows periods in which the short story has functioned as modern myth and parable, amiable commercial distraction, a format for bringing the stories of ordinary people into the literary salon, training ground for the writers of the Next Great Novel, and, in this digital age, its current status as the perfect literary accompaniment for portable, hand-held, capsule living – exemplified in Comma’s promotion of the Gimbal app.

The Gimbal enables you to access text and audio versions of short stories from (at last count) more than two dozen cities, simultaneously locating some of the stories’ settings and journeys in map and guidebook form. Like the mapping of Dublin in James Joyce’s proto-Gimbal, Ulysses, celebrated each June 16th on Bloomsday, and like Dante’s choice of Virgil the poet – rather than, say, Frommer’s – as his tour guide, there is an understanding here that you might discover the setting through the story, but that you might find a way to get lost regardless.

The reason short stories work in this context is because we can see ourselves so clearly in them that whatever seems alien or remote about the fictional landscape begins to make sense: we understand, at least, the characters’ relationship with it all. The reason a café setting works is because we understand what goes on there, without the gauze of a local or historical context. At about the mid-point of time between the first appearance of Ulysses and last Sunday’s Bloomsday festivities, Mary Lavin was one of the writers mapping Dublin and other parts of Ireland in her stories. But we can see, when we join her protagonist Mary, that this café, in Dublin in the early 1960s, could easily be in any other city at any other time:

The walls were distempered red above and the lower part was boarded, with the boards painted white. It was probably the boarded walls that gave it the peculiarly functional look you get in the snuggery of a public house or in the confessional of a small and poor parish church. For furniture there were only deal tables and chairs, with black-and-white checked tablecloths that were either unironed or badly ironed. But there was a decided feeling that money was not so much in short supply as dedicated to other purposes – as witness the paintings on the walls, and a notice over the fire-grate to say that there were others on view in a studio overhead, in rather the same way as pictures in an exhibition. They were for the most part experimental in their technique.

It’s not difficult to see that, though this is not the opening paragraph of the story, it’s likely to have been the beginning of the writing. In those first two sentences, we have the writer taking stock of where she has found herself and discovering, in the physicality of the café, a personality. This personality is crucial because it enables a lone character to be seen in interaction. When there are other characters around, it’s easy to set them up in counterpoint to one another (and this will happen as In A Café progresses) and define them accordingly, but Lavin shows how it can be done when your character is in solitude. The character’s gaze is what’s important here, and it can be read in the way the physical detail is presented. We are in Mary’s Point of View and, in addition to being told what she is seeing, we are invited to observed how she sees. The observation of the ‘either unironed or badly ironed’ tablecloths, for example, is revelatory, not as a critique of the tablecloths but for the trouble taken to distinguish between the two explanations for their creases. The thought process is apparent here: this is the sort of place where they aren’t preoccupied with appearance, simply that the tablecloths function to cover the tables, and this is because the people here have removed themselves from the way of life in which formalities of appearance are a priority; or this isn’t a question of a lack of care but of a lack of competence, and someone has tried to iron the tablecloths but these aren’t people equipped to fit their café out to the standard that would meet normal commercial expectations – the money, it is noted, goes elsewhere.

Tom Waits almost certainly not taking tea in Dublin, c.1961

Tom Waits almost certainly not taking tea in Dublin, c.1961


The automatic reading of this passage is of the author’s own first impression observations of The Clog, the Dublin café on which this is based, re-framed to suit the character and story she’s found. We can see close-up, though, that Lavin has fine-tuned the language to her character’s mind-set, enabling us to understand and know her so easily and well that each nuance within every phrase makes like the wind and cries Mary.

In this, her Mary is a worthy addition to the short story’s roster of great, sequestered heroines, such as Katherine Mansfield’s perpetually marginalised Miss Brill or the suddenly, temporarily single Louise Mallard in Kate Chopin’s The Story Of An Hour. She is a widow. Her husband, Richard, died when she was still a young woman, though evidently close enough to middle age for her new identity to accelerate that transition. I use the word ‘identity’, rather than status, because Richard’s death has been a fact of her life long enough for widow to have become absorbed within her sense of self. The very reason she is in the café relates to her widowhood. She is due to meet Martha, a younger woman widowed only the year before – the meeting ostensibly a recognition that they have sufficient common ground to bond. As she waits and we follow her gaze around the café, she considers that Richard and she, living in Meath on a large farm, would have been out of place there, having acquired the ‘faintly snobby’ bearing of landowners:

But it was a different matter to come here alone. There was nothing – oh, nothing – snobby about being a widow. Just by being one, she fitted into this kind of café.

Mary’s concise navigation through her thoughts about the tablecloth and, shortly after, her inspection of the ‘certainly stimulating’ abstract paintings on the walls tell us how the café is prompting her towards an understanding of what the identity of widowhood has done to her. The consideration of whether she fits into the café is linked to an overall preoccupation with what belonging even means anymore. Has ‘widow’ taken away the identity she had bound up with Richard but left nothing in its place? She decides what she thinks Johann van Stiegler’s artwork depicts but realises that this is definition and not opinion:

She knew what Richard would have said about them. But she and Richard were no longer one. So what would she say about them. She would say – what would she say?

In A Café, and Lavin’s writing as a whole, is full to the brim with moments like this, in which she articulates the uncomfortable nuances that sit between our better natures and the raw truth of our feelings. The conversation between Mary and the beautiful, young widow Maudie is immediately a kinetic surge of shared understanding which then acquires an awkward edge, utterly removed from any expectation of forlorn, noble suffering. 251 When a male customer, who turns out to be the café artist, Johann van Stiegler, joins in their conversation, the unease between Mary and Maudie escalates. The reason for going to the café disintegrates and the action, unusually for a story in our Café Shorts series, moves outside.

You get the feeling that Mary would prefer the company of Louise Mallard from Kate Chopin’s story. Like Chopin, Lavin was widowed at a relatively early age and what she took from this experience contributed to her most sharply observed stories. A Mary, who has lost a husband named Richard, though more recently, begins to come to terms with her solitude in In The Middle Of The Field, set on a large farm in Meath. It scarcely matters whether the Mary of this story is the protagonist of In A Café, nor whether the broad brushstrokes of synchronicity with Lavin’s life are matched in the finer detail: Lavin’s achievement is not that she drew her stories from her own truth, but that her stories touch upon fleeting, ambiguous truths within all our lives.

‘I’m lonely.’ That was all she could have said. ‘I’m lonely. Are you?’

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I’ve found that people who’ve read stories by Roberto Bolaño tend to have stories to tell about Roberto Bolaño. These stories are inevitably about ourselves, our own life stories and the stories of those in our lives.

The first time anyone ever told me about Bolaño was when I had a chance meeting with my friend K, on Bold Street, which anyone in the Liverpool art scene knows is the street on which chance meetings are inevitable, so not really chance at all, and it’s really the only place I see K these days. K is a Glaswegian former Situationist, a playwright and DJ – at the legendary Eric’s in the punk era and on Toxteth pirate radio stations in the 90s, which is when I got to know him well, though our paths had first crossed as adult literacy tutors in the back end of the 80s. He set up the annual African and Latin American music festival in Liverpool and I’m used to him recommending artists to me whose names sound like songs – Orchestre Baobab, Oumou Sangaré, Lisandro Meza, Zaiko Langa Langa – and, to be truthful, the words “Roberto Bolaño” similarly washed over me as a melodic statement rather than a name to follow up. What did stick with me was that there was a buzz about a novel by this writer, that the work was unfeasibly ambitious and certainly messy but, K told me, “some of the things he does with prose” justified the hype. Slightly closer attention to the susurrus from the literary salon told me that the novel was Bolaño’s five-part, posthumously published 2666, so I got hold of a copy. In the spring of 2009, I began reading it in the café of Liverpool’s World Museum while waiting for a meeting about the Charles Darwin-inspired Evolving Words workshops I would be facilitating there over the summer.

The story of how I came by Bolaño now becomes a different story, not really a story about friendship and meetings and work and time, but a story about writing; it’s about reading and it’s about being a writer; it’s about being this writer and not being that writer. That’s why I am using these stories as a preamble – in case you were losing faith in my remembering the title of this post – to talking about Bolaño’s short story, A Literary Adventure from the similarly posthumous 2008 collection, Last Evenings On Earth: because any story I tell about Bolaño should rightfully mention the story about when I was reading 2666 and my head spun round in a complete circle.

I began reading with thoughts of K’s paean about the quality of ideas in the prose. For eight-and-a-half pages, I was conscious of the lack of spectacle. The writing was fluid, engaging, and the story was interesting. I don’t know what exactly I was looking for – I had the experience built up as something akin to a first hearing of a musical revolutionary like Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman, but what might that be like in prose fiction, with words on the mortuary slab of a page? If a work of prose is like a building, then in these early few pages I was still in the hallway of the prose, able to admire only the basic masonry and door hinges of the text. Then, on page 9, a character called Liz Norton, an English academic in an Oxford college, began reading a novel by an obscure German writer, Benno von Archimboldi:

She read it, liked it, went to her college library to look for more books by the German with the Italian name, and found two: one was the book she had already read in Berlin, and the other was Bitzius. Reading the latter really did make her go running out. It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have made no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs, or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.
[translation by Natasha Wimmer]

And that was when my head performed a 360.

The willingness to perform prosal trapeze acts is the facet of Bolaño that first grabbed me but even the rococo stylings of the above passage give indications of some of the staple concerns in his writing. There, creeping in at the last in the reference to peyote, is the Latin American sensibility, one that is dropped – here via the Englishwoman reading the “German with an Italian name” – into a European setting where such identities drift, maybe disappear, maybe re-settle, often co-ordinate themselves in a foreign place around a sense of artistic belonging, yet are always in the grip of home. Bolaño was 20 when, on September 11th 1973, General Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup deposed the government of Salvador Allende and proceeded to brutalise the Chilean people for the next seventeen years. As one of the exiled, Bolaño carried into his writing the certainty of impermanence – endings rarely provide closure – and the sense that somehow life is a thing that’s already been lost. As liver failure led towards his early death, aged 50, this must have darkened the shadows under each tender observation of the artistic existence.

Nicanor Parra

The disposition towards melancholia related to exile and to illness but it was there in Bolaño’s essential literary condition, that of the lesser known poet. From the passage quoted, you can see that poetry underpins his prose. Fiction was also the strategy he turned to in order to achieve a modicum of financial success – to support a young family – of the kind poetry had never been able to provide him. Key to the first story you are told about Bolaño is his intended structuring of 2666 as a series of separate books to be released as posthumous publications over successive years, ensuring a regular dribble of revenue. When the time came, the decision instead to polish up the working draft of the fifth book and publish them all in a single volume was vindicated by the subsequent Bolaño fever, which in turn made his previous writing viable again. He even started to be recognised as a poet. As a commentary on this writing life, it was a very Bolaño-like plot development. Wry observations on literary fortunes, bordering bitterness, run through much of his writing. How could he have had success as a poet? He was a Chilean poet in exile and the world had already placed Pablo Neruda in the single occupancy vehicle that was Chilean poetry in exile. Bolaño’s own idol was Nicanor Parra, a pricklier presence in Chilean poetry, in whose lines (as below) we can get a sense of Bolaño’s own poetic disposition:

I Take Back Everything I’ve Said

Before I go
I’m supposed to get a last wish:
Generous reader
burn this book
It’s not at all what I wanted to say
Though it was written in blood
It’s not what I wanted to say.
No lot could be sadder than mine
I was defeated by my own shadow:
My words took vengeance on me.
Forgive me, reader, good reader
If I cannot leave you
With a warm embrace, I leave you
With a forced and sad smile.
Maybe that’s all I am
But listen to my last word:
I take back everything I’ve said.
With the greatest bitterness in the world
I take back everything I’ve said.

[Nicanor Parra; translated by Miller Williams]

It’s possible that a story like A Literary Adventure, translated by Chris Andrews, might seem a meandering tale of obsession, a more loosely-structured take on Edgar Allen Poe’s seminal shadow-chaser, The Man Of The Crowd but without the pay-off of Poe’s final, frustrated confrontation. This is more than a case of Bolaño spinning a shaggy dog story: the marginalised writer moves with a shambling gait through most of Bolaño’s stories, whether as stand-ins for the writer himself, or personified by the almost mythic figure of Archimboldo, or emerging from the pages of forgotten literary journals picked up in thrift shops by the characters in the short stories. It’s not difficult, as a writer, to relate to such figures because we all have our sense of marginalisation; of being overlooked in favour of other lesser, or if not lesser then luckier, or if not luckier then simply younger talents; or of – whatever level of satisfaction we may have with our own relative status – griping that there is insufficient regard for what we do because the public is misdirected as to why, how and what to read. For the most part, these miseries can be absorbed, comfortably and productively, into a world-view laced with a generous and genial scepticism but Bolaño provides catharsis because he never absorbed that stuff: it bounced straight onto the page.

Osvaldo Soriano

Benjamin Samuel, blogging about literary feuds, cites Bolaño’s pronouncement on the Argentinian writer, Osvaldo Soriano: “You have to have a brain full of fecal matter to see him as someone around whom a literary movement can be built.”

It’s in this context of affronted ego mixed with wounded self-doubt that A Literary Adventure takes shape. As elsewhere in his short stories, Bolaño’s protagonist is simply identified as B. There is an antagonist, as unwitting a nemesis as the suspicious-looking old man trailed by Poe’s narrator, referred to as A. These may well be substitutes for Bolaño and a specific contemporary, but they are archetypes as well. A is:

a writer of about B’s age, but who, unlike B, is famous, well-off and has a large readership; in other words he has achieved the three highest goals (in that order) to which a man of letters can aspire. B is not famous, he has no money and his poems are published in little magazines.

I know I’m a B; to my friends and acquaintances and Facetwitter whatever whatevers, if I’m more in the A category to you, then I beg your forgiveness but, you know, you should get out more because there are some real As out there and each of them considers his or herself a B in relation to someone else again. The details that inject this story with the pain of a chord played by Victor Jara are phrases like the “in that order” ranking of writerly aspirations, or the heartbreaking diminuitive “little magazines”. So personal disappointment is fused with a righteous sense that success is lavished on the undeserving, or that it corrupts. B notices “a sanctimonious tone” appearing in A’s writing as his recognition grows and it’s this pomposity he attacks when creating Medina Mena, a thinly-veiled representation of A, for one chapter of a novel he is writing (presumably because poetry isn’t paying). The novel is picked up for publication and sent out for reviews. A is a reviewer – an influential one, at that – and he loves B’s book. While singing its praises, he appears not to recognise, or at least publicly to acknowledge, the satirical version of himself B has written.

The story revolves around the moral crisis A’s enthusiastic review triggers in B’s conscience and imagination. The layering of speculation upon assumption here is an utterly believable depiction of B’s mounting paranoia:

He’s praising my book to the skies, thinks B, so he can let it drop back to earth later on. Or he’s praising my book to make sure no one will identify him with Medina Mena. Or he hasn’t even realised, and it was a case of genuine appreciation, a simple meeting of minds. None of these possibilities seems to bode well.

Neurosis makes for great, bleak comedy and there’s a Picaresque feel – B as a hapless Gulliver in the land of Spanish literature – to the way the plot spools through B’s efforts to get to know A and thereby get to the truth of exactly what he felt about the Medina Mena character. There is the publication of B’s second novel and A’s equally warm, though suspiciously swift, review of that. There is a party in which a meeting with A seems about to take place in a dark recess of a garden which Chekhov might have fashioned to represent a soul in torment. And there are phonecalls made at inappropriate times, visits planned, voices overheard, all of which seem to be inching us towards a resolution.

But B’s identity as a writer must leave agonies like this unresolved. This story isn’t what matters anyway: what matters are the stories that happen in the corner of your eye while you’re keeping watch on something you should ignore. When following A but deliberating on whether to try to speak to him, B goes to a restaurant and, for a few minutes as he eats, we sense a respite from the literary frustration that’s eating away at him. Could the story have been here instead?

B sits down next to the window, in a corner away from the fireplace, which is feebly warming the room. A girl asks him what he would like. B says he would like to have dinner. The girl is very pretty. Her hair is long and messy, as if she just got out of bed. B orders soup, and a meat and vegetable dish to follow.

The next sentence – “While he is waiting he reads the review again.” – sucks him back into his grim quest but in that sliver of life in the restaurant, that moment of survival and possible hope for more than mere survival, we glimpse the beauty of Bolaño’s storytelling. We get that his stories and our own swim around one another, with beginnings that are impossible to trace and no resolution in the endings, just these moments that happen on the way to the end.

My good friend O, a songwriter, guitarist and drummer, was another Chilean who left the country after youthful struggles against Pinochet. Before he arrived in Liverpool, he spent some time in Spain, where A Literary Adventure and other Bolaño stories are set. He hasn’t read Bolaño but he has a story he wants to tell about the beautiful Madrileña daughter who recently stepped out of his past. I want him to read Last Evenings On Earth as he sets about writing down his stories. Because he’s in Bolaño’s stories and because Roberto Bolaño is in his. Because that’s the way Bolaño’s writing works: it’s intravenous. I read Bolaño and I glimpse beauty in small moments of survival but I read Bolaño and I feel the volume of self-doubt that’s in all writers’ libraries easing itself off the shelf and dropping onto my lap. And that’s too overwrought a metaphor, isn’t it, making the process sound like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And I’ve made this blog too long so readers will probably cut out after they click on the Sun Ra link I inserted earlier, so then that’ll be yet another thing to add to the list of all the other things.

“Would you please please please please please please please stop
talking?”

I’m going to take heed of what she asks here in the sense that I will attempt to talk about Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 story Hills Like White Elephants without including any spoilers about what the man and the woman are talking about.

I say this in full recognition that taking such precautions for anyone coming to a short story blog to read about a story analysed on probably every Creative Writing university degree course in the English-speaking world, brings to mind the time two women walked into a charity second-hand shop I was in last summer: “Ooh, look, Mum,” said one, pointing over to the music section, “Queen’s Greatest Hits!” I thought, how can that be exciting? There are people who care about music and some of them like Queen; then there are people who don’t care about music, and Queen have them covered too. If you like Queen, then surely to God you’ve had time and opportunity in your life to get hold of their Greatest Hits? Similarly, if you know anything about Hills Like White Elephants, reason would suggest that the undisclosed but “awfully simple”, “perfectly natural”, “perfectly simple” procedure under discussion, omerta may no longer be a requirement.

Nevertheless, I will steer around the matter simply because, having used it in creative writing teaching with undergraduates, I’ve seen that an isolated reading produces a range of interpretations as to the subtext of the central conversation. This, of course, means that two people will have the same words before them yet be reading two completely different stories. We might suppose that the strategy in storytelling is to have the reader understand what that story is. Of course, you may wish to leave certain matters open to conjecture and debate – what explains this behaviour? is the narrator as reliable as s/he would like us to believe? what happens next? – but you don’t expect the plot summary to be a multiple choice.

Actually, I don’t believe there is great room for dispute about Hemingway’s plot here: close attention to the emotional ebb and flow of the conversation shows it not to be a blur of Dadaist abstraction in the least, and further observation of the landscape either side of the railway bar, in which the two travelling Americans drink beer and Anis while waiting for their connecting train to Madrid, should dissolve any mystery. However, the very fact that the sparsity of more definitive signposts leads some readers to very different interpretations tells us a great deal about the remarkable quality of Hemingway’s writing here, working in the 3rd person objective voice he could very well have patented.

We are with these two people for just shy of three quarters of an hour and all we have of them is everything they say. Our reading is therefore a real time activity. We respond as we would if observing and eavesdropping random people in our normal lives. In this way, we can see how the café setting (as, despite the beer and the fire water, we’re entitled to think of it, this being mainland Europe) is fundamental to the authenticity of the couple’s conversational iceberg. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s dabbed handkerchief in the Milford station café in Brief Encounter is a good indicator of the sort of protocol into which we’re entering in this environment: a place of non-belonging, in a pocket of restricted time, anonymous but under scrutiny of all those around who have nothing to do but wait and watch, the limits to which emotions can be expressed and truths can be articulated are all too apparent. In the case of the Madrid-bound Americans, there is the additional context that they are locked, together, within a de facto exile’s experience. The place they are in now is not a home, nor a home from home, nor even a destination. The type of relaxation available in the Central Perk model of Third Space establishments – a social space that can intersect with the work sphere; a public space in which to express a suitably modulated private identity – cannot be attempted here. Instead, we have enforced camaraderie and a mutual illiteracy when it comes to reading one another’s signals:

The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the
felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the
girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun
and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have
doesn’t prove anything.”

The talk replaces thoughts or one’s talk tramples on the other’s thoughts; in this, they occupy a similar space to Zoe Lambert’s squabbling interrailers in two of her stories in The War Tour. They drink together and the setting gives them a place to do this but those of us who can eavesdrop in both English and Spanish (and, by the magic of Hemingway’s decision to use English when Spanish is spoken, this means all of us) recognise that there are barriers and dependency issues there, as he has to do the talking for both of them:

The woman came out through the curtains with two glasses of beer and
put them down on the damp felt pads. “The train comes in five minutes,” she
said.
“What did she say?” asked the girl.
“That the train is coming in five minutes.”
The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.

Earlier, Hemingway jump-cuts through the sequence in which the man orders beer and then Anis del Toro and the woman brings the drinks over. He leaves in everything that’s said. Everything else that happens is silence, just as every conversation on every restaurant first date, or during every long-term couple’s rare bout of face time, is suspended when there is a member of the waiting staff hovering over the table. The couple’s conversation is not guarded because they are busy constructing a rabbit warren of metaphors and codes. They talk like this, in the situation they are in, because so would you. And when she strafes him with pleases to get him to stop talking, a nugget of dialogue that, out of context, seems stylised to the point of absurdity, can actually be appreciated as the one moment of unstoppable emotional honesty in the entire scene.

The conversation will pick up again, though, on the train, and then along the Gran Via or wherever they are headed. There is no obvious epiphany for the couple in Hills Like White Elephants. As we polish off the anis we’ve been sure we’ve been drinking, and set to hauling the luggage we just know has been sitting at our feet, the epiphany – that we’ve been drawn entirely into the scene as fellow customers – belongs to us.

Paris is old enough not to be fooled by the same old lines. For every lovestruck idiot who washes up at a café table and sees a city built for romance – and romantic fiction – there’s a clear-eyed realist on the Metro who recognises the city of La Haine, of the Engrenages (Spiral) series, which are the spiritual descendants of Gerard Depardieu’s hard-boiled Police, of the bourgeois paranoia in Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden). It may not be all about Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron walking in step along the banks of the Seine; Audrey Hepburn rhyming ‘Montmartre’ with ‘Sartre’ courtesy of Ira Gershwin in Funny Face; or about dishevelled intellectuals chatting through the night in films by Erich Rohmer or Richard Linklater; or even Michelin-starred rats…

Nonetheless, the enchanting, captivating, romantic Paris is an eternal verity of fiction, and Woody Allen is a film-maker who is comfortable with eternal verities. He used a Greek chorus in one of his films, Mighty Aphrodite, which is about as eternal you can get in the dramatic arts. Allen’s name comes with its own Greek chorus these days, whether commenting on the publicity that flared around his private life for a period in the 1990s, the truth/fiction blur associated with the younger women he may marry, kiss on screen or simply cast for others to kiss, or adopting a position on his film-making capabilities as he continues to release roughly a film a year, rarely (apart from 2009’s Whatever Works) returning to his comic heartland of New York. Against these debates, we risk losing sight of the work Allen has been building up for about 60 years. Including works in production, he has written 45 films, only ceding the director’s chair to somebody else for two of them. Since talking pictures arrived, has there been another great, or very good, film-maker who has made as many – often very good and sometimes great – films as that?

As unique a cinematic figure as Allen is, though, it’s important to recognise that film is a medium for which he had to adapt an already established voice as a stand-up performer. Unlike his fellow New Yorkers, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, even though his work is self-evidently steeped in a love of cinema, his first instincts are driven by the pen, not the camera. Hence, instead of doing the film-maker thing and construct distinctive projects or franchises to encase his ideas, he’ll do the writer thing and explore, develop and often re-cycle tropes around which the individual films take shape. This is one reason why A Twenties Memory, an enjoyably daft short story idea published in the 1971 collection, Getting Even, gets to feed, forty years later, into Allen’s most successful film from his recent ‘European tour’ period: Midnight In Paris. More fundamentally, I think there is an argument to be made that the writer’s eye Allen brings to his film-making, and indeed his comedy, is specifically that of a short story writer.

Midnight In Paris can barely be called an adaptation of A Twenties Memory; the screenwriting Oscar it was awarded this year was in the Original Screenplay category. What it owes the story – which touches down in Chicago, the South of France, Italy and Kenya before passing through Paris en route to Spain – is the conceit of being a friend and companion to Modernism’s most celebrated artists and writers. The film achieves this through a deft insertion of a what if? sci-fi device into the familiar portrait of the protagonist, at odds with the here and now, and trapped within an unsatisfactory relationship. For Owen Wilson’s anxious screenwriter, whose holiday in Paris is courtesy of the conservative parents of his materialistic, WASP fiancée (Rachel McAdam), and whose hankering after the 1920s jazz age becomes a completely different proposition when he finds himself picked up in a cab by Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill’s Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, we have previously had, in 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia Farrow’s downtrodden movie-loving housewife, ill-treated by her brutal husband Danny Aiello, and shown a magical alternative when Jeff Daniels’ matinee idol character steps out of the cinema screen. It’s Mr Benn for grown-ups, engaged with the human story that emerges under these circumstances, less so with the technicalities that brought them about.

In A Twenties Memory, there is no time-travelling device. The narrative starts with the assumption that this is a memoir of time spent in the company of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Picasso, Manolete, Dali, Matisse and the whole crazy gang. It’s a blancmange of a piece, stringing together one-liners that play on the personality cults and “I was there when…” name-dropping of the literary or showbiz memoir writer seeking immortality by association. The legend of Hemingway’s fondness for brawling forms a slender running joke, with the narrator having his nose broken at regular junctures, and the prose format allows the wordplay and more subtle gags room to stow themselves away in the text the way they couldn’t in performance:

That year I went to Paris a second time to talk with a thin, nervous European composer with aquiline profile and remarkably quick eyes who would someday be Igor Stravinsky and then, later, his best friend. I stayed at the home of Man and Sting Ray and Salvador Dali joined us for dinner several tunes and Dali decided to have a one-man show which he did and it was a huge success, as one man showed up and it was a gay and fine French winter.

The film is at least a zabaglione – as light as the story but with more of an intoxicating effect. Wilson’s Gil finds the romance lacking in his modern life when he meets Picasso and Hemingway’s sometime mistress, the alluring Adriana (Marion Cotillard). This sets up an interesting little essay as Gil’s obsession with the jazz age dislocates him from his own time, whereas Adriana, whom Gil believes to be living through the most monumental period in artistic history, surrounded by the greatest minds, is herself caught in an unrequited nostalgia for the Paris of La Belle Époque when the Post-Impressionists held sway. That the film’s resolution is located in this intellectual hall of mirrors, and doesn’t rely upon Gil performing some Herculanean mission to transcend the boundaries of time in order to be with Adriana forever, tells me that Allen’s storytelling revolves around the beguiling notion – the comic idea that may be laced with tragedy; the dramatic idea that can ultimately be shrugged off as just another of life’s episodes. The latter is definitely the case in Vicky Christina Barcelona, which also offers an over-thinking American tourist (Rebecca Hall) a surprising confrontation with old Europe, though this time with no magic portals. Broadway Danny Rose, Melinda and Melinda and Sweet and Lowdown, meanwhile, showcase the yarn-spinning aspect of Allen’s writing. The joy is in the telling, even if that goes nowhere, as in the short story The Whore of Mensa, in which the brilliant comic idea of a call girl racket whereby men pay for intellectual stimulation from widely-read professionals is played out as standard pulp hardboiled fiction. Reading Woody Allen, in print, stand-up or film, as a composer of short stories gives us a new muscle with which to respond to his work.

Even if none of it is still as funny as the guy slipping on the giant banana skin in Sleeper.

There’s no let-up here from the tinittus jangle of sleighbells and Chris Rea: our series on the short story in cinema continues with a Christmas special. As with Graham Greene in an earlier post, this is a case of the story’s author, Paul Auster, adapting his own work for the screen. Whereas Greene’s screenplay for The Fallen Idol was reasonably faithful to the structure, if not the ending, of his source, The Basement Room, Auster’s little Christmas fable from 1990 snowballed into plots and characters big enough for two movies, both of which were directed by Wayne Wang and released in 1995.

As long as there’s one person to believe it, there’s no story that can’t be true.

Auster wrote Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story as a short story commission for the New York Times. As a novelist who doesn’t particularly deal in the regulation sentiments of Christmas, he was finding the commission something of a poisoned chalice. We know this because, in the course of telling the story, Auster tells us about his difficulties. The story he ended up with, and the means by which he came about it, forms the conclusion of Smoke, which stars William Hurt as “Paul”, a writer living and working in Brooklyn. Knowing his friend and loyal customer is stuck for a good idea for his commission, the proprietor of Paul’s neighbourhood cigar store, Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), offers to tell him “the best Christmas story you ever heard” which concerns an episode from Auggie’s own past. He takes Paul for lunch and tells him the story and then we see Paul’s typewriter set to work.

The layering of stories upon stories, the act of writing commenting on the act of writing, is a common feature in Auster’s work. Influenced as a young writer by hardboiled detective fiction, Samuel Becket and existentialism, and passionate about his home borough of Brooklyn, Auster spins out narratives that revolve around mystery, mortality and the simple, social act of telling a story. This is the meaning of life and death as chewed over with a guy in a bar. Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story is possibly a true story given to Auster by his friend, to whom he’s given the name Auggie to protect his identity; it’s possibly a complete fabrication by Auggie; and it’s possibly Auster’s invention from start to finish. Like the story itself, it’s all about which story you want to believe.

In Smoke, and its companion piece, Blue In The Face – a largely ad hoc sequel made because everyone was having such a great time making the initial feature (or is that another story we’d like to believe?) – Auggie is given that name for keeps, and also given a life, a set of regulars at the cigar store, and a past, all of which meanders into view to be observed by Paul, the writer. Both films, whether through Auster’s facility with character or Wang and his cast’s unapologetically loving treatment of the script, deal with the idea of story as a thing experienced. We learn about the characters by spending time with them, just as Auggie learns about the characters who pass his storefront by taking a photograph of the same view every morning at the same time. This way, the short story’s mannerism of being a narrative stumbled upon or picked up from somewhere or someone is maintained. While some of Auster’s tales – Leviathan, The Brooklyn Follies, Mr Vertigo – are driven by compulsive page-turning narratives, others are more entwined in the storytelling act. It’s this latter Auster that’s in charge here.

Auggie’s story is told twice in Smoke. There’s the straight re-telling in the diner that replicates the exchange in the original story, down to Auggie’s enigmatic smile at the end to sow doubt in Paul’s mind as to the veracity of what he’s just been told. Then, after we see the first moments of the typescript that will end up in the New York Times, we are taken back to a silent, monochrome 1972, where Keitel’s Auggie (wearing a hairpiece that conjures up more 70s memories of Dick Emery’s idiot bovver boy character, Gaylord), is shown in montage chasing a young shoplifter and finding the boy’s wallet containing the address of his blind Granny Ethel. Tom Waits’ Innocent When You Dream rumbles, rasps and soars over the images of Ethel feeling Auggie’s face and choosing to recognise him as her wayward grandson; Auggie playing along with the role and sharing Christmas dinner with the old lady in a soft-hearted deception similar to that of the narrator’s mother in Frode Grytten’s Sing Me To Sleep; and then stealing one of the stolen cameras that the grandson has stashed in Ethel’s apartment.

Although handled with love, Auster’s original short story is not treated with excessive care in its expansion and adaptation for the cinema. It works on the basis that to read is to re-tell and to hear a story is to steal that story and pass it off, in some dimension, as your own – so it’s natural than an adaptation will embellish, and improvise upon, the original material. It also understands that even the truest story is a adaptation of memory and that, in the stories we tell ourselves and each other, ‘true’ is rarely the prime consideration: this Christmas will be different; next year’s going to be our year; this smoke is definitely going to be my last…

‘…Every time she asked me a question about how I was, I would lie to her, I told her I’d found a good job working in a cigar store. I told her I was about to get married. I told her a hundred pretty stories, and she made like she believed every one of them. “That’s fine, Robert,” she would say, nodding her head and smiling, “I always knew things would work out for you.”…’

We associate the loss of memory with old age, illness, trauma, and thereby with disruptions to our lives, the decay of our existence as individuals. Yet, in considering all the details of the lives we have led, we forget with more aptitude than we remember. Indeed, our memories, those possessions we come about by virtue of remembering, are sculpted from forgetfulness (My lasting memory…; the memory I take from those years is of that one day…): it is only through all that voracious forgetting that we can identify, retrieve and encapsulate the moments we call memories that may be taken to amount to the stories of our lives.

The idea of “real time” that lies behind this blog relates to this idea of the single moment, that forms the basis of the short story and manages to present a passage of life that moves along much as our experience of living does. If (unlike Mrs Scum here!) you’re familiar with Henri Bergson‘s theories of Duration, you will have a sense of the discrepancy between real time, which is what we experience internally, and “mathematical time”, which is external, standardised and measurable but which, Bergson suggests, doesn’t provide a framework for understanding life. Instead, we have the accretion of consciousness – the knowledge, I suppose, of first how to live and then, within the ongoing process, of having lived – which itself depends on the accumulation of memory.

It’s appealing, from a short story point of view, to think of life as a collection of encapsulated happenings or intense bursts of consciousness, because that may be seen to equate to the stuff that generates and frames short stories. My preoccupation with the café story is a perfect example: the time spent in a café allows for a self-contained narrative to rise and fall; it is enough time for a memory to take shape, for an epiphany (an idea associated in short fiction with James Joyce) to take place; it is not so long that external mechanisms are needed to move the story along. A similar concentration of real time, physical space and circumstance is provided by a train journey, as depicted in a story appearing in this week’s Guardian by Helen Simpson; in the Ernest Hemingway classic, Hills Like White Elephants, the central characters are both in a bar and waiting for a train, and their euphemistic conversation would lose all its power if we then witnessed them go on to enact the thing they are discussing. These are hermetic spaces – enclosed in time and/or space, beyond the effects of an external world, within which we can witness experiences of life that ring true. So the stories are self-contained and their shortness is a necessity of their entirely natural status as fragments of consciousness.

Anthony Doerr‘s title story from his debut collection, published this year by Fourth Estate in the UK, Memory Wall, provides an immediate challenge to the simple adoption of hermetic narrative space as a short phase of time, or a confined area of physical space. It also challenges the apparently superficial but nonetheless troublesome boundaries between short, not quite as short and long versions of fiction. Memory Wall is a novella, by virtue of the fact that it comfortably exceeds the notional 8,000-word limit for what would be considered a short story, but it is not the length, nor has it the construction, of a novel. Novellas, typically defined as works of fewer than approximately 50,000 words, are troubling to short fiction because – unlike the Legoworld of short short stories or flash fiction, Hemingway’s six-word stories (“For sale: baby’s shoes. Never worn.”) and tweet-length stories – they are not seen as a sub-let within the building of short fiction but in a different block. They are novellas because they are not short stories; they are not short stories because they are not short.

In his essay, Notes On The Novella (in Charles E. May ed. The New Short Story Theories), Graham Good makes the case that the focus on word count makes the definition of the novella arbitrary, that the roots of the word are in European literary traditions which didn’t necessarily determine a division of fiction into three archetypes defined by length, and that by defining a novella in terms of its properties places it at odds with the novel but within the same bracket as the erstwhile short story – which Good argues may as well be called a novella in order to eradicate the irrelevant element of size-ism. Having already called into question the nature of time, I’ll just say that this blog is called Real Time Short Stories and, unless Graham Good wants to pay for me to re-market it, that’s how it’s staying. However, we can be persuaded that our understanding of story length can be flexible where my notion of hermetic space is presented and examined. And it is in the way that Anthony Doerr’s novella deals with the encapsulation of experiences, not to mention the prose that’s so intimate it stings, that makes Memory Wall an essential reference point.

Alma Konachek is old, 74; she is ill with Alzheimer’s; and she has experienced the traumatic death of her paleontologist husband, Harold. Moreover, and not unlike her husband’s fossils, she is a remnant of a South Africa that has gone and is now best treated with selective amnesia. Named with a heavy nod to the post-apartheid Truth and Renconciliation Commission, the pioneering Dr Amnesty is enabling Alma to piece back together her past by accessing her memories via a library of cassettes, whose spools give witness to the moments of Alma’s life lying fossilised in her subconscious. Through the cassettes, Alma is reconnected to her younger self; through them, her Harold is still alive and talking to her:

“We think we’re supposed to be here,” he continued, “but it’s all just dumb luck, isn’t it?” He turned to her, about to explain, and as he did shadows rushed in from the edges like ink, flowering over the entire scene, blotting the vaulted ceiling, and the schoolgirl who’d been spitting into the fountain, and finally young Harold himself in his too small khakis. The remote device whined; the cartridge ejected; the memory crumpled in on itself.

Alma blinked and found herself clutching the footboard of her guest bed, out of breath, three miles and five decades away. She unscrewed the headgear. Out the window a thrush sang chee-chweeeoo. Pain swung through the roots of Alma’s teeth. “My god,” she said.

The cassettes fill a wall – the Memory Wall of the title – of her home in suburban Cape Town and somewhere among their number is the memory that will reveal the location of a gorgon skull and fossilised skeleton discovered by Harold just before his death and Alma’s subsequent regression. Memories – not least the floral, fragrant memories of affluent, elderly white women – have an illicit street value in the new South Africa. There is a parallel with soma, the drug of choice in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” Alma’s memory has added value, though, with a historic find awaiting the owners of the cassette. Roger, a softer version of Bill Sikes, has enlisted fifteen-year-old Luvo to help him steal the cassette. Every night, they break into Alma’s home, disrupt her sleep and add new layers of confusion to her already fluctuating grasp of reality. While Roger detains the old woman, Luvo plugs himself into cassette after cassette, a 15-year-old black boy with the multiplicity of life experiences of a 74-year-old white woman shuddering through his brain each night.

Luvo stands in Alma’s upstairs bedroom in the middle of the night and hears Harold Konachek whispering as if from the grave: We all swirl slowly down into the muck. We all go back to the mud. Until we rise again in ribbons of light.

This wind, Luvo realizes, right now careering around Alma’s garden, has come to Cape Town every November that he can remember, and every November Alma can remember, and it will come next November, too, and the next, and on and on, for centuries to come, until everyone they have ever known and everyone they will ever know is gone.

With its near-future concept of technology to harvest the recesses of the mind, and its criminal story dynamic, Memory Wall had every right to have been a dystopian, sci-fi thriller and be done with that. Depicted by a writer from Idaho, the South African setting could easily have been rendered with the same cosy exotica as Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana. It’s not for reasons of length that the story provides a challenging but rewarding detour in our travels around the hermetic spaces of short fiction (although it’s worth noting that, of the six beautifully-crafted stories in his collection, the two that would qualify as novellas – the other one being the finale, Afterword – are the most mesmeric): what Doerr manages to do is move beyond the clear outlines demarcating confined narrative space and time yet he advances the sense of complete stories fitting within sealed perceptual units.

Alma and Luvo, also Pheko, who came to work as the Konacheks’ houseboy in the apartheid era and who struggles to raise his five-year-old son, Temba, in their township accommodation, and the amoral Roger, not to mention the Harold and the gorgon fossil, all occupy a space in which each possesses an element of one another’s existence. There is to be no movement beyond this encapsulated existence until a resolution has been reached, achieved primarily through Luvo’s weary, bittersweet epiphany and a journey to the coast, where waves will wash away these memories that keep dead loves alive; those that scientists invent machines in order to excavate and that criminals plot to steal; eroded memories that are craved by those with no future and barely even a present.

Morecambe’s restored art deco hotel, The Midland, offers its white screen to capture your projections. You sit in the tea room, below the vast whorls of the spiral staircase, and amidst the livery, potted palms, friezes and curved walls, and the pianist is playing These Foolish Things, you smell the “gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow”, dab the corner of your eye with a lace handkerchief or clench a pipe in your jaw and let the contents of the telegram held in your other hand wash over you…

David Constantine, fresh from a reading the previous night at Lancaster’s Litfest, checked out of his hotel and, before hitting the motorway, took a detour to Lancaster’s coastal neighbour. He ordered a pot of tea and sat by the plate glass windows overlooking the epic wilds of Morecambe Bay, notorious since 2004 and the tragic deaths of eighteen Chinese migrant workers picking cockles in the “furrows and ridges” of the tide. The tea took an age to come and he might have given up in order to get back on the road to his home in Oxford but, from his little corner table, he was able to eavesdrop a couple whose romantic afternoon tea was being soured by their contrasting reactions to the relief in the entrance lounge, “Odysseus welcomed from the sea by Nausicaa” by the artist Eric Gill.Constantine was reminded of the tea room meeting between a man and a woman, no doubt in brand new art deco surroundings, observed by Katherine Mansfield and reproduced as A Dill Pickle, and he carried the incident away with him in his notebook. The result was Tea at the Midland, published by Comma Press, and it made him the predecessor to D.W. Wilson when he won the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award.

Much of this is a lie, a fiction I’ve projected onto Constantine’s and indeed Mansfield’s processes – about either of which I know precisely nothing – based on elements of my own experience of taking tea at the Midland, where the order did indeed take an age to arrive and the water was indeed furrowed and ridged in the bay. There were no surfers, though, such as those watched by the woman in the story, behind the plate glass, projecting her ideals of grace and freedom onto their bobbing shapes:

In the din of waves and wind under that ripped-open sky they were enjoying themselves, they felt the life in them to be entirely theirs, to deploy how they liked best. To the woman watching they looked like grace itself, the
heart and soul of which is freedom. It pleased her particularly that they were attached by invisible strings to colourful curves of rapidly moving air.
How clean and clever that was!

Janet Malcolm, in her sublime study, Reading Chekhov – A Critical Journey [Granta, 2003], puts together a fascinating account of how the author’s death scene, in a German hotel room, has been re-created by a number of his biographers. To elements drawn from the eyewitness accounts, chiefly that of his widow Olga, of Chekhov’s final hours, other ‘facts’ have been added, most notably a sleepy young porter summoned in the middle of the night to bring champagne, a death-bed treat, to the room. The champagne was real, Malcolm tells us, but the porter was an invention by Raymond Carver in a story, Errand, written towards the end of his own life and published in 1988, which spun a fictional web around the events leading to Chekhov’s death. The manner in which the porter has come to be projected onto the ‘real’ story (albeit one easily disproved by less lazy researchers) suggests that Carver’s story has been read less as a fiction than as a preferred truth.

The woman, watching the surfers and constructing a fictional version of what she would like to be true about their moods and motivations, has been dealing in a preferred truth about the man with whom she is having tea, while his wife is at home, but projected, presumably in the act of cooking his dinner, onto the Midland’s curved white walls. She prefers, too, the truth she finds in the beauty of Gill’s frieze, in the gracious, graceful act of welcome he depicts, to the truth about Gill, whose diary accounts of his incest, paedophilia and bestiality were detailed in his biography, half a century after his death. The man can’t see other than with the hindsight these crimes have provided. He prefers his truth to come with moral certainties. When this isn’t the case – as when the woman asks whether “I should even have to learn to hate the sea because just out there, where that beautiful golden light is, those poor cockle-pickers drowned when the tide came in on them faster than they could run” – he wants no truck with it.

Constantine’s portrait of the man’s furious, controlling bluster, ostensibly intended for Gill but very much trained on his lover, skewers the hypocrisy of the hawkers of moral outrage. The undercurrent of menace is allowed to drift into the reader’s line of vision, never waved in front of our faces. We listen more closely to the woman, as she tries to contextualise her feelings about the Gill frieze by talking about the questionable moral character of Odysseus:

Odysseus was a horrible man. He didn’t deserve the courtesy he received from Nausikaa and her mother and father. I don’t forget that when I see
him coming out of hiding with the olive branch. I know what he has done already in the twenty years away. And I know the foul things he will do when he gets home. But at that moment, the one that Gill chose for his frieze, he is naked and helpless and the young woman is courteous to him and she knows for certain that her mother and father will welcome him at their hearth. Aren’t we allowed to contemplate such moments? – I haven’t read it, he said.

Those four words he speaks could be a backhand crashing into the side of her face, so brutal and disdainful is his attempt to sweep aside her point of view. That he doesn’t is a recognition of how the café environment allows a writer to construct surface and submerged narratives. Confined by the fact that “they were sitting at a table over afternoon tea in a place that had pretensions to style and decorum” only their wilting verbal communication is able to reflect the submerged frustration and rage. Outside, on the other side of the plate glass, the wind is ferocious, the waters wild, and there is beauty and uncomplicated joy in the surf. Inside, even the beauty comes with an overbearing moral shadow. The confined space generates the discord in the first place: the moral division over Gill’s artwork, represented in the couple’s views, is likely to be waged within any viewer who knows the back-story; anyone looking out from this swanky outpost cannot avoid projecting the fate of the cockle-pickers – their conditions of labour in the first place – onto the view of the tides. As with A Dill Pickle, the matter of the bill signals the end of the narrative. The restricted narrative space afforded by the Midland’s tea rooms allows the writer to project his fiction onto it, and re-align the truths held therein.


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