Posts Tagged ‘forbrydelsen’
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. 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.
The 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.
And now we hood our enemies
to blind them. Keep an eye on that irony.
[Michael Symmons Roberts, from ‘Hooded’, in The Half Healed (Cape Poetry, 2008)]
Within the Hermetic Spaces category, I’m developing the ideas around short fiction’s relationship with temporal and spatial confinement that have emerged from my Café Shorts musing and which I began to lay out in considering Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall a few weeks ago. And, although I’m dealing with a short story in this post, Hermetic Spaces will also take in the mechanisms of writing and just being that this blog likes to discuss. The invitation to draw up a seat and join in the conversation should be taken for granted.
Hassan Blasim‘s The Reality And The Record might also have made a lateral contribution to the Reel Time Short Stories series. Blasim has released films in his native Iraq as well as in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan and since taking up residence in Finland. When I was writing that sentence, I thought twice and decided against describing Blasim as, first, a “respected” film-maker, and then a “successful” film-maker. Under dictatorship, to what does “respect” amount? In exile, what counts as “success”? The conditions Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright, writes about in his 2009 Comma Press collection The Madman Of Freedom Square, force us to interrogate platitudes and to re-consider all manner of language:
What I’m saying has nothing to do with my asylum request. What matters to you is the horror. If the Professor was here, he would say that the horror lies in the simplest of puzzles which shine in a cold star in the sky over this city. In the end they came into the cow pen after midnight one night. One of the masked men spread one corner of the pen with fine carpets. Then his companion hung a black banner inscribed: The Islamic Jihad Group, Iraq Branch. Then the cameraman came in with his camera, and it struck me that he was the same cameraman as the one with the first group. His hand gestures were the same as those of the first cameraman. The only difference was that he was now communicating with the others through gestures alone. They asked me to put on a white dishdasha and sit in front of the black banner. They gave me a piece of paper and told me to read out what was written on it: that I belonged to the Mehdi Army and I was a famous killer, I had cut off the heads of hundreds of Sunni men, and I had support from Iran. Before I’d finished reading, one of the cows gave a loud moo so the cameraman asked me to read it again. One of the men took the three cows away so that we could finish off the cow pen scene.
The narrator here was a Baghdad ambulance driver and is now an asylum seeker who has made his way to Sweden from the war in post-Saddam Iraq. In his testimony, he gives a graphic illustration of what might constitute a form of Hermetic Space that extends beyond a moment in time in one specific location. Certainly, the claimant has experienced confinement: he has been kidnapped, bundled into his stolen ambulance, driven over Baghdad’s Martyrs Bridge and held hostage. Prior to the video detailed in the quote above, he has already been recorded for a hostage video on behalf of his original kidnappers, before being dumped, kidnapped again by someone else and then put through the same process. He continues to be passed back and forth across Martyrs Bridge and around the terrorist organisations of Iraq: recording videos spouting a panoply of scripted confessions, each of which are filmed by the same man, whom he suspects to be the “Professor”, the eccentic director of the hospital Emergency Department for which he drove his ambulance. The weary account of this horror story is told in tones of grim farce that bring to mind the character of Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. The ambulance driver’s perpetual entrapment, at the hands and in the viewfinder of these feverish, amateur content providers for Al-Jazeera’s rolling news, articulates a locked-in state and it’s only escape and the chance of asylum that offers a resolution.
However, it’s not simply the condition of kidnap victim that indicates a narrative unfolding within a Hermetic Space. The claim, that the war is being conducted as a Mexican stand-off on YouTube with most hits wins, cannot be taken as the truth, can it? Who is to know what the truth is of the man’s account? A fantasy wrought from the dislocating experience of kidnap? An elaborate cover-up for atrocities of his own? The story he thought he would need to secure asylum? Or even just a truth too unpalatable to be admissable? In zeroing in on the way war renders reality an impossibility to gauge, Blasim’s story is a good accompaniment to Tim O’Brien’s 1990 insertion of a Vietnam War tale into a narrative hall of mirrors, How To Tell A True War Story. It also points to the way in which War itself can be a narrative sealant, within which short stories can show us not so much the fixtures and fittings of a given conflict but a portrait of the human condition caught in a rapture of inhumanity.For further examples, we might look across Comma’s roster to the newly-published The War Tour by Zoe Lambert, which makes explicit the notion that it is War, not this war nor that war, whether here or there, then or now, that fastens us within particular narrative states. I might also point to my own consideration of the psychologies of wartime in my two Flax chapbook stories, The Prisoners and Overnight. Our proximity to conflict, or the blend of denial and unease – like the knowledge of the rat populations sharing our cities – that comes with ordinariness in times when conflict is ongoing but remote, makes a new story out of each of us on any given day, in any situation. But it has to be said: this is especially so when there is a hood covering our face, a gun to our head and a scripted confession on autocue.
We leave the last word to the Professor: ‘The world is just a bloody and hypothetical story. And we are all killers and heroes.’
E is for Emotional Choreography
A line I’ll often throw out to students facing the construction of their first ever short story is to think of as simple a plot as possible, then make it simpler. If someone is telling you the summary of their short story plot, by the third or fourth “and then…” alarm bells are ringing out. Any short story, even the most fleeting vignette, requires a plot, whereby the characters do things, or things happen to them, or things are revealed to the reader, in a particular order – it’s just not always helpful to try to break it down in those terms. The idea of emotional choreography can be more useful when talking about a story in which little takes place in the way of external action or happening but we are witness to a shift in the internal state of the character(s), and the writer’s job is to arrange the steps by which they experience this shift. In Mansfield’s A Dill Pickle, the action can be summed up in terms of Vera unbuttoning and then rebuttoning her coat, with a conversation in between, but the emotional choreography is worthy of Gene Kelly.
F is for Forbrydelsen
In 1995, Steven Bochco’s Murder One unravelled a single murder trial over 26 hour-long episodes. In a TV world in which the biorhythm of any crime was that it should be solved with time for a bit of banter at the end within the space of one hour, where the feature-length deliberations of Morse had seemed an impossible luxury, Murder One‘s progress towards the truth, led by Daniel Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman – the shaven-headed, ursine embodiment of Raymond Chandler’s line “Down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid” – seemed more in keeping with the complexity and level of commitment we’d expect from a novel. When novelistic TV series, like The Sopranos, began to roll out of HBO and the other US networks, Bochco’s innovation receded into fond memory. Once high production values, narrative complexity and mumbled articulacy had become familiar to drama viewers, the crime-solving drama moved towards being the type of quality pulp that enabled you to switch your brain to autopilot without feeling you’d surrendered it to a tribe of reality show producers.
First airing in its native Denmark in 2007, but only reaching the UK when it was shown at the start of 2011 on BBC Four, Søren Sveistrup’s Forbrydelsen (The Killing, but the poncey insistence on the Danish also serves to differentiate it from the patchy US remake) took on the police procedural genre. While crime, in general, and police procedural or criminal psychologist narratives, are staples of the fiction bestseller lists, as well as the TV ratings, and while “fiction bestseller” equates to novels rather than short stories, it’s also possible to argue that the Whodunnit is a pertinent model for short fiction. Getting to the truth, or a good enough truth to enable us to move on, is as much a short story reader and a Chandleresque detective-figure can hope for over the course of a story. Forbrydelsen‘s first series ran for 20 episodes, but each episode represented one day of an investigation into the murder of a teenage girl, and one day at a time in the grieving process of her family. So, while it had a similar novelistic scope to Murder One – and in Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund, a shrewd, sensitive, tunnel-visioned Sam Spade for our times, and for the future series of the drama to come – it often carried itself like a short story. As one example, Lund’s relationship with chewing gum is a crucial aspect of Gråbøl’s performance but it’s one never given overt reference in the script: we just see her chewing her way through the barriers – bureaucratic, emotional, political – that hamper her progress towards the truth. The correlation between her chewing and the stress tells us enough so that when the frustration piles up to the extent that she bums a cigarette from her colleague, Jan Meyer, an arc, reaching back to way before we knew any of the characters, is completed.
G is for Gil Scott-Heron
For all the reasons discussed here, and for the story told in a lyric like that for Pieces Of A Man:
Saw my Daddy meet the mailman
and I heard the mailman say,
“Now, don’t you take this letter too hard now, Jimmy,
‘cos they’ve laid off nine others today.”
But he didn’t know what he was saying.
He could hardly understand
that he was only talking to
pieces of a man.
H is for Hunger
“Bit of a break from smoking the Bible. Eh?”
“Anyone work out which book is the best smoke?”
“We only smoke the Lamentations – right miserable cigarette.”
Hunger is Steve McQueen’s 2008 depiction of the 1981 IRA hunger strikes and dirty protests in the Maze prison, culminating in the death of the IRA prisoners’ Commanding Officer and newly-elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). The film, drawing on McQueen’s background as a Turner Prize-winning video artist, deploys the essential short story technique of observed detail to extraordinary effect, so much so that the genuinely harrowing scenes of filth, brutality, a shocking assassination and Sands’ lingering demise acquire a perverse luxury through the beautifully patient storytelling. The heart of the film, for which co-writer Enda Walsh deserves credit, is a 17-minute dialogue between Fassbender’s Sands and Liam Cunningham’s Father Dominic Moran. With just one change of shot after ten minutes, we are able to focus on the dialogue’s humour, tension, tragedy and politics, not to mention the relief – for us and, we can empathise, for Sands – to have this break from literally wading in shit. This clip is just the first chunk. There are breezeblocks of exposition in fiction – and then there’s this expositional sculpture:
I is for iPadding
Nothing at all wrong with first person narrative. Nothing wrong with streams of consciousness nor with charismatic narrators who are the stars of their own stories. Writing what you know: tip-top advice. We often enter into the process of writing short stories as an act of self-expression or memoir; we come via the poetic statement that’s acquired a narrative; via the anecdote; via life’s epiphanies or forks-in-the-road. And when I say “we”, we write “I”. “I” in fiction can be a Nick Carraway or a Charles Ryder, the unremarkable foil to the Gatsbys and Flytes that absorb the light throughout those novels. But “I” can also be an obstruction to any given scene or story. A writer can wrap themselves around every detail so every piece of information about place, action or other characters comes to the reader already evaluated and filed under a particular conclusive emotion. It can make for a narrative effect similar to having someone sitting next to you, talking all the way through a film you’re trying to follow, not only drowning out the dialogue but explaining the plot as well. Simple(-sounding) solution: get “I” to step back and allow us to see the sunset, the actual sunset and not just what “I” thinks about the sunset – we know “I” can see it, otherwise we wouldn’t have it narrated to us, so we get very little from “I looked across to the West and saw in the sky a beautiful sunset.”
J is for Johnny Cash
When you can sing a song like this, you’ll get a great reaction from any audience, but when you’re stuck in Folsom Prison or, as the crowd is here, in San Quentin, then the visit of a country&western superstar, singing songs about the life you used to lead and the one you’ve got now, will be a story you’ll be telling each other every day until your release, and every day thereafter. Confinement is a key to short fiction. One night in a cell might get you enough material for a short novel, if you’re Roberto Bolaño (By Night In Chile), and a train journey might provide you with a murder mystery novel, but you’d beter hope that train’s the Orient Express: for the 13.34 from Irlam to Widnes, you’re going to need a short story. A restricted temporal or spatial setting alerts the reader to the idea that what happens here and now matters: what’s being described is not leading you to anything or anywhere else more important so stick with it, pay attention to every clue and, eventually, you’re going to find that sonofabitch that named you Sue.
K is for Stanley Kunitz
His last published poem, written and performed here at the age of 100. “What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire.” This is a poem that anyone, but especially each and every writer, needs to “remind me who I am” and this video is a short story in itself:
Writers love words, don’t they? And the short story is a medium for writers: less governed by the market and by readers’ expectations than the novel; a singular creation, as opposed to the collaborations required for drama; with fewer formal impositions and distractions as in poetry. In the short story, we can witness the craft of the writer in its most natural state. We see the rises and falls in the text and know that this is keeping time with the writer’s own breathing.
To which I believe the accepted response is: yeah, whatever!
One truth I’ve encountered when teaching creative writing is that writers like to produce brilliant writing and that to deny a writer the freedom to be brilliant would be as if that nightingale had swooped down, pecked the eyeballs right out of John Keats’ sockets, crapped on his notebook and said, “Now, sunshine – now you can talk about being forlorn!”
Of course, style, individuality and lyricism contribute to the appeal of a piece of short fiction. In many ways, it’s poetry by other means. Of course, we love the sentences that hang in the air just above our heads, even after the story is finished, like fireflies when the porch lights have been turned off. The immortal phrase or metaphor that causes our heads to swivel completely around – like Everest, it’s there. Sometimes, though, you want your characters to have a drink of water. Let them turn the tap, fill the glass and drink the damn water. But no, not the “damn water” – there wasn’t a need for any adjective in there. Even when critiquing over-writing, it’s easy to over-write. It’s not the habit of a bad writer, but a bad habit any writer would do well to keep in check.
Mr Overwright is a popinjay who finds many ways to dress too extravagantly for any given occasion but among his more frequent vices are the Rowling Adverb and the M&S Adjective. To write rowlingly, to use adverbs in the manner of J.K. Rowling, has been picked apart both pickingly and apartfully by critics and bloggers so I’ll just direct you to this M.J. Ryan piece for evidence. As for the M&S Adjective, this refers to the adverts a few years ago for Marksies’ food stores, in which Dervla Kirwan breathed, in premium rate chatline tones, over images of moist, inviting food being penetrated by streams of piping hot gravy or custard as appropriate, “This is not just food. This is M&S food.” Chocolate could never be chocolate. It had to be Belgian milk chocolate, harvested, by hand, by singing nuns and strapped to the backs of gently braying choco-donkeys freed from donkey-torturing farms in the Basque region of Spain. That was a fun sentence to write: if I saw I had room to add another word, I did. It was lovely banter between me and the language. But that conspicuous tango between the writer and the language is highly unlikely to be what your story needs.
A key skill for the short story writer is to try to make the language invisible. By this, I mean that the reader is aware, not of the work that has gone into the words, but of the story; not the description, but the setting; not the characterisation, but the character. It’s not a question of writing without style. Take a look at this paragraph by Jean-Claude Izzo in The End Of The Quays (in Hinks, J. ed, ReBerth – Stories from Cities on the Edge, Comma 2008):
He crossed the road and climbed calmly back to la Joliette station. At the access point he waved a little greeting to the man on duty. And he went into the port. His home. They were getting to know Gérard. He often came wandering along the wharves of an evening or at night. Especially in summer. He didn’t like sleeping with the window shut. And when the windows were open it was as if the cars came in one ear and out the other.
There’s very little to this, and we can be confident that Helen Constantine’s translation hasn’t made a radical alteration to the tone of the original French. Language this simple can be rendered with equal simplicity in other languages. We get this from Chekhov’s Russian, the Latin of Catullus, or the Danish in Søren Sveistrup’s Forbrydelsen. It’s unadorned, low-key, functional. It moves the character along with little fuss. Every single detail adds to our knowledge and understanding of him but he’s never dissected for our inspection. It’s observation leading to a rounded impression, just as we’d make of somebody we’d encounter in our own lives. The language does nothing to draw attention to itself, yet it’s not completely empty. There is rhythm in the shortening of sentences. We have some access to his thoughts and emotions so there’s a palpable lyricism in mentions of “His home” and his preferences around sleep. And there’s the beautiful metaphor about the noise of the cars at the end.
Allowing language to go invisible doesn’t mean you abandon it throughout. It just means you rely on what’s meaningful in your images, what’s real about your characters, and what’s compelling in your story to grab and hold your reader.