Archive for November, 2011

Collected Stories

November 27, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Lydia Davis

Until the publication of her Collected Stories last year, Lydia Davis was best known in the UK as a translator of Proust and Flaubert. This was largely a result of the four volumes which make up her Collected Stories (stretching from 1986 to 2007) having (so far as I can see) never acquired a British publisher. Luckily, Penguin have remedied this in exuberant style with over 700 pages of Davis now available for a little over a tenner. (Actually, it struck me while reading that this is the perfect book for the Kindle, and not only in terms of weight – with many of the stories only a page or two long there is one for every conceivable spare moment).

It will obviously be impossible for me deal with Davis’ work in any detail in this short review – there are, after all, 199 stories to contend with, leaving me a little over two words per story. However, if you are at all interested in the form you should certainly get hold of this collection: Davis is a unique voice who has clearly refined her craft over the twenty years of writing it contains. She deals best with relationships, and I found myself frequently acknowledging the truth of her observations, sometimes with a smile, sometimes with something nearer a grimace. What she captures is not the spiritual profundity that we often associate with literature, but the just-beneath-the-surface reality that we recognise as life. This can be done briefly and humorously, as in ‘The Outing’:

“An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.”

This is the entire story, one of many that is less than a page, but it is undeniable that Davis pinpoints the essence of an experience. Her lack of characterisation allows the reader to identify with what is important; her refusal to suggest a deeper meaning validates ordinary life; her brevity suggests focus.

She is equally capable, however, at dissecting a relationship at greater length, as she does in ‘Old Mother and the Grouch’. In a series of short scenes Davis casts a cold eye on a married couple who spend most of their time in anger and resentment. Snatches of dialogue are intercut with passionless précis of their feelings:

“Grouch needs attention, but Old Mother pays attention mainly to herself. She needs attention too, of course, and the Grouch would be happy to pay attention to her if the circumstances were different. He will not pay her much attention if she pays him almost none at all.”

The repetition of ‘attention’ places emphasis on analysis rather than narrative. In fact, the short sections deny us clear narrative, and there is no progress or deterioration in their relationship by the end of the story. Does this make the story more depressing? It might, but we also sense that the relationship is enduring.

Davis deals not only with romantic relationships (though ‘romantic’ is rarely the word that springs to mind), but also with family relationships in such stories as ‘Two Sisters (II)’ and ‘The Furnace’. This focus on relationships might seem to imply that her palette is limited to domestic settings, but Davis seems to delight in undermining the limitations placed on female writers by embracing them and then filtering them through a postmodern lens. Take, for example, ‘Mrs. D and her Maids’, the story of a woman’s life told entirely through the servants she employs, with extracts from their letters and her advertisements. Mrs. D is a writer, but that does not mean she escapes Davis’ satirical eye:

“…the stories often have a vein of wistful sentimentality that works to their detriment.”

Immersed in domestic details as we are, we are also told:

“The cash often makes a difference in the family’s economy.”

The Kafka pastiche, ‘Kafka Cooks Dinner’, also deliberately juxtaposes the literary with the domestic. And then we have the wonderful ‘Idea for a Short Documentary Film’:

“Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging.”

Simply put, this is an entrancing collection that will entertain even the most of jaded of readers. Even its lightest moments (like the one above) let us see the world slightly differently.

Danger rating: Will you manage to limit yourself to one a day, or simply gorge yourself? The shorter the stories, the more difficult it is to stop.

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Maybe This Time

November 20, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Alois Hotschnig

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig is the latest title from Peirene Press, the final title of its second year. It specialises in publishing books less than 200 pages long(so they can be “read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD”) from European writers little known in English (Hotschnig has had one novel translated into English before this). At three books a year – you can in fact subscribe – one would hope for a high level of quality control, and, if Maybe This Time is anything to go by, that is exactly what they have achieved. The book even opens with a brief endorsement from the publisher, though any use of the word ‘Kafkaesque’ near a volume of short stories is a little worrying as it seems to be a rather slapdash shorthand for anything other than gritty realism. However, in this case the cap doff to Kafka is not entirely inappropriate both in terms of style and resonance.

Typically we find ourselves immersed immediately in the mind-set of an anonymous character: Hotschnig isn’t interested in easing us in gently with descriptions of setting, back story, or even the small details s that writers use to humanise their characters. The first story, ‘The Same Silence, the Same Noise’ begins:

“Whenever I left the house, they lay on their jetty and when I came back, hours later, they were still lying there.”

Twelve pages later we know little more about the narrator beyond his obsession with his neighbours; we know little more about his neighbours; and there has been no interaction between the narrator and his neighbours. The narrator barely exists beyond his obsession:

“The more absorbed I became with my neighbours the more my life merged into theirs, the fewer visitors I had.”

The logic of the story soon takes us to the point that the narrator swims across to his neighbours’ jetty, but here Hotschnig surprises us again:

“But I no longer felt any desire to sit on any of the chairs and I made my way home through the gardens.”

Another writer would have left it there, but in the final few paragraphs the previous owner of the narrator’s house (about whom we, again, know nothing) appears and takes on the narrator’s role as voyeur:

“He sat there in my place and I watched him from the house. I didn’t take my eyes off him.”

This sense of losing identity is common to many of the stories. In the second story, ‘Two Ways of Leaving’, Hotschnig moves from one character (‘she’) to another (‘he’) halfway through. As the story progresses we discover that they were once in a relationship which has now ended: the story’s structure mirrors the break-up which seems inexplicable even to the couple:

“One day he left, without planning and for no reason. She didn’t ask why she just let it happen.”

The story is imbued with a sense of their separation: as he waits alone in the flat where he left her he remembers both looking at her from the balcony and looking up at her from the street. Identity and separation are also evident in perhaps the creepiest story, ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’. Here the narrator, Karl, encounters an old woman with a house full of dolls. One particular doll reminds him of himself:

“The doll had my name. And now, as the woman drew my attention to the doll’s face, I noticed how much it resembled me.”

The doll allows him to access his childhood memories, but the more he returns to the doll, the more his relationships outside that room deteriorate, making the story a parable about investing too much in the past.

Perhaps the story that best illustrates this concern with identity is the final one, ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’. In it the main character loses sight of his identity entirely:

“On his front door he read the name they had called him all evening.”

It is not simply that he has forgotten who he is; his identity changes throughout the story:

“The name on his door was not the same one he had signed on letters in the office. He went into the flat. What he discovered was new, different from what he remembered had been there that morning.”

Partly Hotschnig is playing with the use of the pronoun ‘he’ as a ‘character’, but he is also questioning our sense of who we are, just as his often apparently motiveless characters make us consider our motivations. While it is difficult to judge a writer on the strength of a few short stories, this collection at least is certainly worth reading.

Danger rating: just keep checking in with your loved ones that you are still who you were when you began reading…

Friction

November 12, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Eloy Urroz

“Friction” – we are told on the back of Eloy Urroz’s second novel to appear in English – “one letter away from fiction (just in case we hadn’t noticed) – is what’s generated when reality and imagination rub against one another”. Sure enough, we are treated inside to two parallel narratives, one presenting itself as the novel, the other as episodes from the life of the writer. (The alternative chapters are identified by Roman and Arabic numerals). The novel tells the story of an affair between a painter, Arturo, and his friend’s wife, Maty, although much of the time they spend in bed together is taken up with Arturo recounting the story of his father, a famous politician. In the ‘real life’ story, the writer, Eusebio Cardoso, also misbehaves with his friend’s wife, bringing his marriage to an end at the same time he loses his job. Needless to say, the two narratives collide towards the novel’s conclusion, with Urroz’s previous novel also caught up in the impact.

The novel is an exploration of the ideas of the Greek philosopher Empedocles, in particular the suggestion that change is caused by the four main elements (themselves eternal) being united and separated by Love (Eros) and Strife (Eris). Urroz makes no attempt weave this subtly into the narrative beginning the novel with the declaration:

“Love and Strife, Eusebio, what are they? Perhaps the forces that move the earth, as the famous Empedocles asserted some five centuries before Christ?”

It follows, therefore, that we are drawn towards both, hence the novel’s affairs, where characters unite in love, but at the same time create strife in other relationships. The suggestion is we are attracted to the negative side of our actions as well as the positive. (However true this is of life, it certainly reflects the dynamic of fiction).

The second narrative begins dramatically with the instruction:

“Close the book. I’m talking to you, idiot! Yes, you, the one who’s reading, who just now started reading this page…”

Of course, there’s nothing more likely to make you read on than the command to stop (see, we are drawn towards potential strife…). In this case the Reader is a specific character, the husband of Marty who will shortly discover that his wife is having an affair. Unfortunately this bravura use of the second person doesn’t last long, and the character himself is largely forgotten until he unites with Cardoso near the end, known first as Reader before adopting the name Anagnostes.

The problem with dual narrative novels is that usually one story grabs you more than the other and therefore you read half the book in a distracted hurry. However, while Frictions is certainly readable, I didn’t find either narrative particularly engaging. The story of Arturo and Maty is largely a monologue about Arturo’s father (and his obsession with Empedocles), a story that is not helped by being placed in the context of a conversation. The relationship between Arturo and Maty becomes incidental. There is also the suspicion that this section has rather a lot to say about Mexican politics, all of which was missed entirely by this particularly Reader. (Why else would it be set in the future?)

Cardoso’s story is the more intriguing at first – as he is a university lecturer hoping for tenure it reads rather like a campus novel. His affair (where he ‘massages’ his wife’s friend to orgasm without either of them removing any clothing) is both comic and pathetic. However, when we are told a story about colleagues gathering to literally eat shit I rather lost sight of the satire (at least, I hope it was satirical).

The novel’s conclusion involves Cardoso and Reader flying to an imaginary town from Urroz’s previous novel, The Obstacles. Having not read this I’m sure much of the humour passed me by (although I did like the bit where Cardoso finds the phrase “Elias killed me” engraved on the floorboards under a character’s bed, something which presumably contrasts with the implications of the earlier novel). Unfortunately we then move onto another scatological chapter on arse wiping. A few pages later, when Reader exclaims:

“Enough with the never-ending chapters, already! We’ve had it up to here; let’s just put an end to this affair once and for all.”

I did feel he was speaking for me.

Urroz is clearly a novelist of great imagination but, for me, the tricks he employs never live up to their initial impact, and the novel itself outstays its welcome.

Danger rating: you may decide to have an affair rather than persist with reading.

Snow White

November 5, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Donald Barthelme

As we’ve already seen in Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, trangressive subversion of the fairy-tale was all the rage in 1960s America, no doubt in part a reaction to its Disneyfication in the previous two decades. What better target, then, than Snow White, the cartoon that started it all, whose title itself resonates with cosy innocence?

Much of the initial humour in Donald Barthelme’s Snow White comes in the contrast between the Disney version we know so well, and Barthelme’s contemporary interpretation. Rather than mining diamonds, the dwarfs clean the outside of buildings and make Chinese baby food. They queue up to have sex with Snow White in the shower. In the ‘housework’ scene Snow White begins by cleaning the library: spraying the books with DDT, oiling the bindings, ironing the pages. The care and detail suggests the work of a maid rather than the joyful animal-accompanied singing we are used to. (Strangely, I just typed ‘horsework’ rather than housework, clearly more influence by Barthelme than I thought – he uses the term horse wife more than once to describe Snow White’s role).

The novel begins in a spirit of ennui. Bill (one of the ‘dwarf’ characters) has grown tired of Snow White:

“We speculate that he doesn’t want to be involved in human situations anymore.”

She, meanwhile, exclaims:

“Oh I wish there were words in the world that were not the words I always hear!”

and takes up writing poetry and wearing “heavy blue bulky shapeless quilted People’s Volunteers trousers.” Even Paul, the ‘prince’, and therefore the most dynamic of the characters, is largely aimless:

“I have loftier ambitions, only I don’t know what they are, exactly.”

Not knowing, he sets off for a monastery in Nevada.

In desperation, like all good fairy-tale princesses, Snow White decides to hang her hair out of the window. Barthelme uses the introspection and knowingness of his characters for humorous effect throughout (most the novel is written as a series of short monologues):

“This motif, the long hair streaming form the high window, is a very ancient one I believe, found in many cultures in various forms. Now I recapitulate it for the astonishment of the vulgar and the refreshment of my venereal life.”

The sophisticated vocabulary is amusingly at odds with both the character and the genre, but the constant introspection can also be seen to stand in the way of action. Paul spots the hair (we, in fact, are aware of this from his introduction on the eleventh page) but the sight makes him “terribly nervous” and only leads to him arranging to spy on Snow White further. Even when he sees her naked later, he is happy to remain at a distance:

“Paul savoured the sweetness of human communication, through the window.”

Barthelme is able to both highlight the inadequacies of the fairy-tale, particularly its inherent sexism, while at the same time using it to examine the flaws of modern life. With chapters rarely more than two pages long, and flitting from character to character with little in the way of narrative or dialogue, the novel’s style itself suggests the disconnect the story explores. Barthelme also uses pages of what might be described as slogans in block capitals to summarise events, reducing the anxieties of the characters to signposts or adverts. Overall he creates an impression of a society so caught up in its own neuroses that it struggles to act at all.

Snow White is an amusing novel, but one that is difficult to love until the end. Though the characters are deliberately tiresome, this does not make it easier to spend so much time with them. If you have never read Barthelme before, then I would suggest that you begin with his short stories, which are easily available in two volumes from Penguin Modern Classics, the functionally titled Sixty Stories and Forty Stories.

Danger rating: you may never be able to watch Snow White again without thinking about the shower…