Real Time Short Stories

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Sarah-Lund-and-one-of-her-famous-faroe-jumpersIt’s time for some closure.

We’re in the pickled hush at the end of a year, when the life that drags you from place to place and kicks you from one task to the next (though not, in my case, to the task of writing this blog terribly much of late), finally eases up and lets you look upwards. The fantasy we cultivate is that the weeks and months to come will provide some renewal, repair or escape, when what we really know we’ll get is continuation of the routine, the onward trudge. Putting a year to bed, consigning a period of our life to history – even when we know tomorrow offers no change – well, it’s a nice fiction to add to all the other treats we’ve been giving ourselves.

I’ve been reading a short story collection, Cold Sea Stories, by the Polish writer, Pawel Huelle , one of a barrage of Autumn and Winter releases from Comma Press, also including collections by David Constantine, Jane Rogers, Adam Marek, Guy Ware and The Iraqi Christ, Hassan Blasim‘s feverishly-anticipated follow-up to The Madman Of Freedom Square. I’ll be discussing some of those works at length on here in 2013’s gleaming corridors of newness and spare time, though will add for full disclosure that I’ve recently become a director at Comma but I think we’re a long way from a literary Payola scandal. IMG-20121010-00001 At Huelle’s Liverpool launch for Cold Sea Stories at Toxteth Library in October, he summed up his attitude to the short story by suggesting that, if he was wealthy and had no cause to earn money from his writing, then the novels, journalism and drama would be deposited in the Baltic and he’d spend his time writing two short stories a year. Why? Because longer forms are inevitably messy and never achieve perfection in the way a short story can. When a comment like that makes me think about perfection in a short story, one of the stories I go on to think about is Kate Chopin‘s 1894 subversive take on bereavement in a marriage, The Story Of An Hour (read the story because there are spoilers below).

At just over 1000 words, Chopin’s story is a prototype of flash fiction – perhaps the greatest story of that length in the English language – and enriched by the sensibility that made her life and work a prototype of 20th century feminism.

To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue none the less to exist to him also; mutually recognizing each other as subject, each will yet remain for the other an other.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Chopin anticipates de Beauvoir’s theory of emancipation but gives it a human identity, breathing (just) enough life into Mrs Louise Mallard to make the epiphany we witness at once transgressive and utterly logical. Logic is also a factor in the characterisation of Sarah Lund, pictured at the top of this post, the lynchpin of Søren Sveistrup’s Forbrydelsen (The Killing) trilogy of TV crime thriller series. Lund, described here by Emma Kennedy as the “finest fictional feminist icon ever created”, earns such billing because her “independent existence” as a woman is not relational; it doesn’t require the context of a man who might make her existence other than independent. That says much about the appeal of the character, and her portrayal by Sofie Gråbøl, but to attempt to follow a feminist trail leading back from Sarah Lund, through de Beauvoir and back to Louise Mallard in 1894, would be a procedural exercise too far even for Lund herself. Lund and Mrs Mallard work, first and last, as characters and it is in the context of their separate stories, and the theme of how stories work, that I find room for comparison, and a reason to frame them together.

The clue is in the title as to the timeframe of The Story Of An Hour. Specifically, it is the hour that follows Mrs Louise Mallard being told the reports of her husband’s death in a railway accident. Over the course of that hour, Louise comes to see her widowhood as an emancipation. I’ve read this story with students and several have responded to this process as a commentary on the Mallards’ marriage. It’s worth drawing a line in the sand here: there is no evidence that Brently and Louise were anything other than happily married, whether in terms of what would have been considered a happy marriage in middle class American society at that time or in the sense that any marriage is happy, as Louise muses:

And yet she had loved him–sometimes. Often she had not.

That’s neither unloving nor callous. It’s honest. And it doesn’t equate to an absence of grief. We see her grief almost as soon as she receives the news, weeping “with sudden, wild abandonment” in her sister’s arms before proceeding upstairs to her room. So we’re clear on this: Louise Mallard didn’t want her husband dead and she’s not happy because of what has happened to him; the change in her, the reason she latches onto the mantra proclaiming that she is “free”, comes from within. Or rather, we understand it to have come from within, for her freedom and independence to have been her own discovery when facing a future without the companionship of marriage but logically without its confinement as well. What Chopin does with magnificent economy is signal the change in Louise’s world. After the gentle breaking of the news, after the wild sobbing and the sad ascent, we see “facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair” into which she sinks, which then provides her with a view of more openness:

She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.

There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other in the west facing her window.

These are not the colours a widow would be expected to wear in the spring of her grief. Before it has become a thought in her head, let alone the word itself, Louise has taken in this scene and sensed that she is “free”. Her response thereafter is merely the euphoric embrace of this truth.

Louise Mallard, though, has a fatal flaw. It is flagged up in the opening sentence, which refers to her “heart trouble”, and it provides the second of the not one but two twists with which Chopin rounds off the story. In my opinion, Louise’s heart condition is also the fatal flaw of the story, whose perfection otherwise is enough to break any other writer’s heart. I can live with the first twist – the appearance at the door of a ruffled but demonstrably not dead Brently Mallard – but that this shock causes Louise to drop dead is a metaphorical flourish that denies us an ending as beautifully linked to the duration of the human life as the story so far has been. The thought of how Louise would have to deal with Brently’s return, knowing how that happy event would kill off her emancipation as soon as it awoke; the prospect of those years – it’s not the closure a dead body provides but surely it would have been a better ending?

Of course, my quibble about Chopin’s ending is a measure of how comprehensively she has communicated Louise’s character and situation to me, so that I believe in her emotional life and would like to think it will present her with new struggles following the resumption of her marriage. But this could only ever have been fancy on my part, regardless of whether Chopin killed her off or not. If the writer chose to end her story at a particular point, that’s the end of Louise Mallard and (leaving aside the possibility of a Kate Chopin fan-fic tribute act on the short fiction circuit) there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

sopranosThe ending of Sarah Lund’s story, which unravelled over five years on Danish television but held UK BBC4 viewers transfixed across a more intense two years, raises an interesting counterpoint to the notion of closure we might take from a story such as Chopin’s. The Story Of An Hour double-bluff and dead end can be set against contemporaneous work by Guy de Maupassant, with his own artfully crafted twists, or the 1903 novella by Henry James, The Beast In The Jungle in which the central character, John Marcher, alive almost exclusively in his mind, is followed not quite to death but to utter abasement when he throws himself on the grave of the woman whose love (which would have saved him) he failed to recognise. This dispensation of somewhat rough-hewn irony doesn’t suit our times or tastes. We can cope with ambivalence, even at the end of a narrative which has absorbed our time, energy and emotion. Nevertheless, the decision by Søren Sveistrup to assign a nominal continuation of existence beyond the closure of her story was not universally welcomed by fans. It brought to mind the grumbling that accompanied the end of an earlier, great novelistic TV series. David Chase’s HBO series The Sopranos bowed out in 2007, the same year Lund slipped on her first jumper on Denmark’s DR1 channel. Having spent six seasons building towards getting whacked, James Gandolfini’s crimelord Tony Soprano was last seen sharing a meal in a diner with his wife and son, putting Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing on the jukebox – and the way the cool kids do irony these days, that’s not even social death.

Lund too, having committed an act that could never see her restored to her CID desk, had done enough to round off The Killing 3 with her death – certainly more than poor Louise Mallard – but the objection to Chase and Sveistrup’s respective decisions stemmed perhaps from a difficulty on the part of viewers to accept that these characters never belonged to us in the first place. I wonder about that, though. For a series that occupied 40 hour-long episodes over its three seasons, The Killing moved in fairly tight revolutions around its central idea: a crime whose resolution is ultimately shaped by the repercussions from the loss and grief suffered by the victim’s family. It seems bizarre to talk of a character so exquisitely drawn as Lund simply as a conduit for this process but she is there to drive the more routinely generic aspect of the thriller as an embodiment of the Raymond Chandler line – “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid” – who becomes with each investigation more intricately woven into that tapestry of loss and grief, and the audience wouldn’t want it any other way. Unlike Chopin, whose deadlines wouldn’t have permitted her sticking around 120 years to find out my take on her ending, Sveistrup is balancing his own writerly concerns with the knowledge that his audience really does have a stake in his creation. The closure, then, is his, the opportunity to end something, to regain possession of his art and to find a new way to tell the old story.

Sarah Lund may walk through his door one day, armed with a persuasive commission from a production company, or accompanied by the trumpets of “popular demand”, as he walks from his room, repeating the word, “Free, free, free…” Let’s hope his heart is in decent condition.

chopin_pic

It’s a curious business, when the content of a short story anthology is made up of stories in competition with one another. If you haven’t heard the BBC Radio 4 broadcasts of each of the ten shortlisted stories in the annual, BBC/Booktrust-sponsored, increasingly high profile and, for this Olympic year only, International Short Story Award, or if you’ve not yet caught up with the podcasts or got hold of the anthology, stewarded by Comma Press, featuring all ten finalists, you may now be curious as to why the Bulgarian writer, Miroslav Penkov was declared the winner of the £15000 prize. In one sense, the answer is simple to the point of idiocy: the judges got it right. Penkov’s story, East Of The West was the best of the bunch, and the runner-up, Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Sanctuary, was entirely deserving of that recognition. That’s easily declared, but the reasons why you might reach that conclusion, from reading the anthology, are a whole lot more complicated.

To read an anthology compiled in these circumstances at this precise time is to seek to pick out a winner, but once the fifteen grand’s worth of kerfuffle has passed on by, the book remains a short story anthology. Even though no overlying thematic concern has guided the writing of the ten stories; even though, beyond what the selection says about the judges,

Clive Anderson, chair of the judges

the programming of the stories as they appear in the anthology derived from no stronger editorial line than the alphabetical order of the writers’ surnames: still, the stories speak to each other, as in any other collection. Writerly concerns overlap and individual creative decisions coalesce by the accident of their mutual proximity into something that resembles a trend. Emotions, gathered in one place, spill out in another and it becomes hard to work out if the story in front of you can take sole credit for your response. Leave aside all this, and we still have the essential truth about short stories that the best grow in their absence: it’s not when we scrutinise them but in those sudden, private moments when we find that they are scrutinising us, that the power of an individual piece is felt. In such a context, picking a winner should be like punting on raindrops sliding down a windowpane: this one may win, or that one, but all that tells you is that it’s raining outside. There was little to guide us as to the outcome from the previous year’s winner, D.W. Wilson’s The Dead Roads, nor from 2010’s selection by, David Constantine, so it all comes down to the stories themselves. Read as a form guide, the anthology mocks the very process it belongs to, while, read as an anthology, it exceeds its reach.

That there are stand-out stories shouldn’t deter anyone from investigating what is going on, thematically and within the writing, in the eight also-reads. Escape plays a persistent role in just about all the stories, the tone set by Lucy Caldwell’s opener, Escape Routes and reinforced by Julian Gough’s The iHole. Escape here – and in the closing story, A Lovely and Terrible Thing by Chris Womersley – is the objective itself, with a destination, or life beyond the moment of release, not a consideration. Caldwell’s Belfast story of the friendship between a young girl and her babysitter, whose ability to connect to the narrator through gaming contrasts with his wider sense of alienation. It articulates a world that’s very close to that of adults but utterly cut off from it as well. The references to gaming and youth depression suggest a nowness to Caldwell’s writing, but Gough’s lovely take on a post-CERN near-future, in which recycling is replaced by the mass production of personal, portable black holes, stands out more clearly as the shortlist’s outstanding depiction of the Way We Live Now. I felt Gough’s pursued the grand narrative arc of his satire too far, and the detail and comedy became too broad, in comparison with a recent Will Self story, iAnna, which makes the comment on technology and contemporary culture while remaining with the characters.

The three stories set in Australia each capture painful hours in the breaking up and holding together of families. M.J. Hyland has a tense father-son rapprochement in Even Pretty Eyes Commit Crimes. Carrie Tiffany depicts a child negotiating a path to a future with an absent father in Before He Left The Family. Womersley balances a supernatural tale, that might almost be lifted from an M.R. James treasury (and evokes Paul Auster’s Mr Vertigo), with a portrait of a father cut off from his family due to his daughter’s medical condition. Each manages to present a reality more convincing than is conveyed by Adam Ross, whose In The Basement uses the device of the extended dinner party anecdote rather more theatrically than I was comfortable with, though it’s equally the type of thing Truman Capote or, again, Auster might have done with the same yarn to spin.

Krys Lee’s The Goose Father has wonderful touches in the slow (but, even allowing for the form, perhaps not quite as slow as the situation demands) epiphany of an austere middle-aged man encountering an unstable but sprite-like young man. This South Korean narrative was the story that gathered me in the most, outside of the top two and the opening half of Gough’s The iHole. Deborah Levy, denied a league and cup double but now freed to concentrate on the Man Booker Prize, lets off the most fireworks in her prose for Black Vodka and, in her narrator, has a character who absolutely commands our attention. It’s adventurous, playful writing but ultimately it’s a sketch of a character that Levy might lend to aspects of future novels. It will also, incidentally, give you a raging thirst for flavoured vodkas.

In the alphabetical sequencing of the anthology, Rose-Innes follows Penkov and dramas viewed from across – and swimming in – rivers feature in both. It’s another example of the emotional chords that can be struck accidentally between stories which each have plenty of their own weight to carry. If there is an arc a reader goes through in reading a short story collection, there might be a science to my being especially receptive to these two stories. So, yes, judging is complex but the most instinctive personal responses have authority in this regard. There are stories that grab hold: Rose-Innes did this with Sanctuary, a family tragedy observed from a series of vantage-points, each one projecting a role onto the narrator of innocent bystander, unwitting voyeur, detective and eventually protector. The detail and intimacy with the land, in this case the South African veldt, has the kind of clarity we’d associate with John Steinbeck, and Rose-Innes would have been my winner had the decision been made on immediate completion of the task of reading all the stories.

What also happens with stories, though, is this: they won’t let you go. East Of The West hefts the history of a people, the Kosovan war, and twenty years of a love story into what still manages to be a concentrated, complete short story. I mentioned the breaking up and coming together of families in other stories but, here, those moments of crisis are the natural order for a family divided by the width of a river but, in that division, also split into two nations and between prosperity and struggle. Tragedy hovers, ill-defined at first but, over the years, it acquires names and accompanies the narrator, Nose, in his every footstep through adolescence and the plans he has for his adulthood. Penkov gives us a character whose emotions, in the extraordinary circumstances of his life and the history framing it, are utterly real. It’s a credit to the BBC’s award and the good fortune that the Olympic celebration made it eligible that this funny and moving short story will come to wider attention.

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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