Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common of Garden Butcher’s Dog

December 13, 2016


Johann Peter Hebel’s How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog is an unusual addition to my daily advent calendar of stories: all other choices have generally included only a single story; on occasion (when that first story is shorter) adding another one or two. Hebel’s volume, selected from The Treasure Chest translated by John Hibberd and Nicholas Jacobs in 1994, contains twenty-six. These stories are much shorter, some less than a page – in fact, many of them would be more accurately described as anecdotes – written by Hebel for calendars at the rate of thirty a year.

Their intention was to entertain, but also to instruct – a contemporary Aesop’s Fables, though without the anthropomorphised animals – and this is frequently evident in their conclusion. The end of the first story – in which its protagonist spots someone stealing a silver spoon, and decides to pretend it’s all in fun by asking the landlord, “The spoon’s included, I take it?” – ends with:

“Remember: You must not steal silver spoons!
Remember: Someone will always stand up for what is right.”

However, Hebel’s instinct to entertain rather than moralise predominates, one story ending rather lamely, “That was all very artful and cunning, but that doesn’t make it right, especially in a chapel.”

Hebel also wrote poetry in local dialect, and that parochialism (not in then pejorative sense) can be seen in many of the tales which certainly give the impression of being set in places he knows well. ‘Strange Reckoning at the Inn,’ for example, concludes with the declaration that, “This took place in 1805 on the 17th of April in the inn at Segringen.”

Cunning is a key ingredient in many if the stories (as with Aesop) from ‘The Sly Pilgrim’ to the ‘The Cunning Styrian.’ Some characters are no better than con-artists (‘The Fake Gem’; ‘The Weather Man’) though my personal favourite is the man sentenced to death who, as an act of mercy, is allowed to choose how he would like to die and (of course) chooses old age.

I found How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog as entertaining as I’m sure it was two hundred years ago. It is the kind of book destined to be described as one to dip into, but I happily read it through – it’s probably the best hour of 19th century German stand-up you’ll encounter.


The Gentle Spirit

December 11, 2016


Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gentle Spirit (as titled by translator David McDuff, also known as A Gentle Creature) is remarkable, like so much of his work, for the way in which it engages with the psychology of its main character and narrator. The story takes the form of a monologue, as the character attempts to make sense of his wife’s suicide, which has taken place just hours before, a stream of consciousness which Dostoyevsky discusses in a brief introduction:

“If a stenographer had been able to eavesdrop on him and write down all the words, the result might have been a little rougher, somewhat less trimmed than what I have managed to produce; but I do not believe I am wrong in claiming that the psychological sequence would probably have been the same.”

The story is explicitly the narrator’s attempt to understand why his wife has killed herself:

“I spend all the time pacing about, trying to make sense of it all. I’ve been trying to do that for the last six hours, yet I still can’t get my thoughts into focus. The trouble is I keep pacing, pacing, pacing…”

As the narrator re-examines their relationship we learn that she was a frequent customer of his services as a pawnbroker, a young girl selling her meagre belongings in order to pay to advertise her services as a governess. Her desire for escape is all the more understandable when he discovers that she lives with two “disreputable aunts” who intend her to marry a “fat storekeeper” who has already outlasted two previous wives. The narrator offers to marry her instead:

“I knew that the fat storekeeper was more repugnant to her than I, and that as I stood there at her front gate I appeared as her liberator.”

The narrator’s only surprise is that she does not decide immediately. “Oh I understood nothing back then! Nothing, nothing at all did I understand!” (A frequent refrain that seems to cover his own motives and intentions as well as hers). The marriage encounters difficulties when they disagree about the business, the narrator feeling that she has treated a customer too kindly, against his explicit wishes. Following this, she begins to spend her days away from the apartment. Soon the narrator is building a separate bed for her to sleep in. However, in the days before the suicide there seems to be something of a rapprochement in their relationship, making her death even less explicable.

The Gentle Spirit has the intensity of a short story but the complexity of a novel. While other stories this month have made me want to read more by that writer, The Gentle Spirit simply demands to be read again. At its heart is the unknowability of any other person, perhaps one reason why both characters remain nameless. When the narrator speaks of them becoming “terrible strangers to each other during the winter” we cannot help but feel that is all they have ever been.

The Old Man of the Moon

December 10, 2016


Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life was written at the beginning of the 19th century but not published until 1877. It is an autobiographical work which focuses largely on Shen Fu’s devotion to his wife, Yun. The Old Man of the Moon is extracted from this longer work but is not one of the four ‘records’ (two are either missing or unfinished). This presumably means that its shape has been created either by the translators, Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-hui, or, more likely, by an unnamed editor for this volume.

I was unaware of this as I read it, and it no doubt explains my sense that this was very much a story of two parts. The first part tells of the narrator and Yun falling in love and marrying, and the early years of their marriage which seem blissfully happy. When Shen must leave Yun shortly after they are married in order to study, he laments, “Our separation of three months seemed as if it were ten years long.” The moment they are reunited is described as follows:

“She held my hands without saying a word. Our souls became smoke and mist. I thought I heard something, but it was as if my body had ceased to exist.”

Not only do we learn of their early happiness but we are assured that they remain close throughout their marriage:

“We lived together with the greatest mutual respect for three and twenty years, and as the years passed we grew ever closer.”

We also have early warning that Yun will die before Shen at a relatively young age.

The turning point in their life is Yun’s attempt to engage a concubine for Shen. Though Shen chooses the young woman, Han-yuan, it is Yun who is most insistent, even when Shen advises against it:

“But we’re not a rich family…We can’t afford to keep someone like that.”

Yun, rather than Shen, seems to become infatuated by Han-yuan, declaring her to be like a sister (which does not go down well with her in-laws). I was also surprised at the idea that they weren’t wealthy (there are previous references to servants, very few to working) but as the story progresses they are increasingly short of money until, as Yun falls ill and Shen seeks financial help, it becomes as heart-breaking as an 18th century Chinese I, Daniel Blake.

The Old Man of the Moon (the title comes from the idea that the Old Man of the Moon arranges marriages by pulling couples together) was a surprisingly moving tale, though, like some film trailers, it does leave me wondering if I have already experienced the highlights of Six Records of a Floating Life and have little to gain from the full feature.

Half a Life-time Ago

December 10, 2016


Many of the authors I’m reading in my advent calendar of short stories are largely unknown to me, but that cannot be said of Elizabeth Gaskell as I’ve read three of her five her novels, (Mary Barton, North and South and Sylvia’s Lovers). Half a Life-time Ago was published in 1855, around the same time as her most famous novel North and South. The story’s title refers to the gap between its telling and its taking place, but also the period it will cover in its central character, Susan Dixon’s, life:

“Yes; the time had been when that tall, gaunt, hard-featured, angular woman – who never smiled and hardly ever spoke an unnecessary word – had been a fine-looking girl, bright-spirited and rosy.”

How does one become the other, the story asks, as we meet Susan at eighteen at the centre of a happy family: her father, mother and her younger brother, William. The only disharmony is created by the tension between William, who is presented as rather weak and sensitive, and Michael, a young man from a neighbouring family who has been sent to work on the farm for a year and fallen for Susan. When Susan’s mother is dying of a “neglected cold” (it is Victorian literature, after all – we were lucky to make it to page eight without fatality) she makes Susan promise to look after William:

“He vexes Michael at times, and Michael has struck him before now. I did not want to make a stir; but he’s not strong, and a word from thee Susan, will go a long way with Michael.”

Susan is further inconvenienced by illness when, now engaged to Michael, her father is killed, she is put into a coma, and her brother’s weakness is turned to idiocy by fever. When Susan recovers it seems even more urgent she should marry but Michael’s antipathy to William has increased. Will she have to choose between them?

In its central concern – the tension between Susan’s roles as lover and as carer – the story remains relevant. Gaskell convinces us that Susan loves both William and Michael, and though Michael is not perfect, neither is he the cartoon cad that we sometimes see at this time. It is, however, rather weakened (much like William, to idiocy) by its conclusion. The rather melodramatic final scene between Susan and Michael might be forgiven, but the series of implausibilities which follow cannot. (In retrospect the ending of The Sandman seems restrained) This is an enjoyable slice of Victorian social drama – but leave the final two pages alone.

The Last Demon

December 8, 2016


If both Hoffmann and Akutagawa intend to instil horror in their readers, the approach of Isaac Bashevis Singer in The Last Demon is more satirical, as we can tell from the opening lines:

“I, a demon, bear witness that there are no more demons left. Why demons, when man himself is a demon?”

The story concerns a demon who has been sent from Lublin to Tishevitz, in his own words, “a godforsaken village; Adam didn’t even stop to pee there.” He bemoans the fact that, as a demon, he feels increasingly redundant:

“It has reached the point where people want to sin beyond their capacities. They martyr themselves from the most trivial of sins. If that’s the way it is, what are we needed for?”

However, he meets a local imp who tells him of an incorruptible young rabbi – “You might as well try to break through an iron wall.” The demon determines to corrupt the rabbi, having been promised a transfer to Odessa if he succeeds:

“It’s as near paradise as our kind gets. You can sleep twenty-four hours a day. The population sins and you don’t lift a finger.”

The remainder of the story concerns the demon’s attempt to tempt the rabbi, until, that is, its comic tone takes a sudden shift at the end. The demon, stuck for eternity in Tishevitz, laments the destruction of its Jewish population:

“The community was slaughtered, the holy books burned, the cemetery desecrated… There is no further need for demons.”

What seemed like an amusing satire becomes something much fiercer and sadder.

This volume also contains the short story ‘Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,’ a revelation for anyone like me who associates Yentl entirely with Barbara Streisand. This story is, indeed, the original inspiration for the film (though via a play), but I can only hope that some parts (“Anshel [Yentl] had found a way to deflower the bride”) did not make it to the screen. A third story, ‘The Cafeteria.’ convinces that there is a compelling strangeness about Singer’s tales.

Hell Screen

December 7, 2016


“I am certain there has never been anyone like our great Lord of Horikawa, and I doubt there ever will be another.”

So begins the sycophantic narrator of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Hell Screen (here translated by Jay Rubin) whose blindness to his master’s faults will ensure that the telling of the story which follows is not entirely reliable. The Hell Screen of the title is a painting by Yoshihide, an artist as despised by our story-teller as his ‘Young Master’ is admired:

“…he looked like nothing more than a thoroughly unpleasant little old man, all skin and bones… You could see he had a mean streak, and his lips, unnaturally red for such an old man, gave a disturbing, bestial impression.”

Yoshihide is not only given the nickname ‘Monkeyhide’, but His Lordship decides to name a tame monkey he is presented with Yoshihide. It is while chasing the monkey (in order to beat it for stealing a tangerine – an early clue that he may not be the paragon of virtue our fawning author thinks he is) that HL (as he shall be known) first encounters Yoshihide’s beautiful daughter. She defends the monkey using the fact it bears her father’s name as an excuse:

“And so His Lordship’s partiality for the girl was born entirely from his wish to commend her filial devotion to her father and not, as rumour had it, from any physical attraction he might have felt for her.”

(This is not the last time the narrator will have to defend HL against these rumours).

Yoshihide is commissioned to paint “a folding screen portraying scenes from the eight Buddhist hells.” He later says he can “only paint what I have seen” and we see this methodology in action as he torments his apprentices with snakes and owls and wraps them in chains. (This seems to be one of the narrator’s objections to him – “in painting the lovely goddess Kisshoten he used the face if a common harlot”). However, Yoshihide tells HL that that the painting remains unfinished as he cannot execute the final part of his design:

“In the centre of the screen, falling from the sky, I want to paint an aristocrat’s carriage… In the carriage a voluptuous noblewoman, writhes in agony, her long black hair tossing in the flames.”

His Lordship promises to arrange this very sight for him.

Hell Screen is a wonderful story, particularly in its telling: its conclusion remains a mystery to its narrator but is entirely explicable to the reader. Yoshihide attempts to paint hell from reality; in the end his painting brings hell to life.

The Sandman

December 6, 2016


“I tormented myself as to how to begin my account in a significant, original, gripping fashion,” says the narrator of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman, though, as we are at that point almost halfway through the story, what he’s really asking is, what do you do when you begin in epistolary mode and then realise that’s not going to get you to your desired conclusion.

This sudden shift from letter form to chatty raconteur is only one of the many strange occurrences in this famous story. It begins and ends with death, death bringing its two lovers, Nathaniel and Clara, together:

“…shortly after the death of Nathaniel’s father, Clara and Lothar, the children of a distant relatives who likewise died and left them orphaned, were taken in by Nathaniel’s mother. Clara and Nathaniel took a great liking to each other, to which no person on earth objected; they were therefore betrothed when Nathaniel left home to pursue his studies…”

Nathaniel’s father’s death is linked to the visits of Coppelius, “altogether repulsive and disgusting,” whom Nathaniel compounds in his mind with stories of the sandman once used to threaten him to sleep. He spies on Coppelius and his father one night, claiming that he sees “human faces …visible all about but without eyes.” When he is discovered his father begs for him to be allowed to keep his eyes. Later his father dies in an explosion which Nathaniel is certain relates to the activities he has pursued with Coppelius.

This memory resurfaces when he meets an Italian barometer salesman, Coppola, whom he is at first convinced is Coppelius, only to be fortuitously distracted by the daughter of his professor (Spalanzani), Olympia, “whom for some reason he keeps locked up so no-one can come near.” Naturally he falls in love, and naturally these two plotlines – Coppelius and his eyes and Olympia’s isolation – coincide.

The Sandman has an undeniable power – largely created by the hysterical pitch of Nathaniel’s madness – but it struck me that Hoffmann crams in more horror tropes than are necessary creating something of a Gothic hotchpotch. Though he ties these together, the scene in which Spalanzani and Coppola tug-of-war with Olympia echoes the way the plot elements wrestle for supremacy. Either would have made a powerful story on their own and would, perhaps, have made the rather desperate ending less necessary.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

December 5, 2016


Of the many omissions in my reading history, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue is one of the strangest: though it was science fiction which made me a reader, crime fiction is the genre I turn to if I wish to be entertained rather than challenged (I mean challenged as a human being, not as a solver of puzzles). Yet somehow I have managed to avoid the story which has claim to be the earliest example. This is perhaps why I find it difficult to view the story through anything other than the lens (or rather, the magnifying glass) of Sherlock Holmes, despite Doyle’s detective lagging more than forty years behind Poe’s.

Like Holmes, Dupin demonstrates his powers on his friend and narrator before a crime has been committed, seemingly reading is mind as they stroll along together:

“Dupin… this is beyond my comprehension. I do not hesitate to say that I am amazed and can scarcely credit my senses. How was it possible you should know I was thinking of – ?”

Given that Dupin professes to be hard up, one might think he could set himself up as a fortune-teller or magician, but instead he decides to solve insoluble crimes in his spare time, starting with the violent deaths of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter. The daughter’s corpse is found stuffed in the chimney, the mother’s, with its throat cut, in the yard below. Though numerous witnesses hear voices, by the time they enter the apartment it is empty – and so we have our first locked room mystery.

Some have argued that the solution to The Murders in the Rue Morgue is ‘cheating’ as it an unlikely, though not impossible, occurrence. However, if you are simply looking to be entertained, the story works very well indeed. (I was also amused to note that Dupin resorts to placing a story in the newspaper to make a witness come forward, as Maigret does almost a hundred years later in ‘The Man in the Street’).

Also included in this slim volume is ‘The Masque of The Red Death, which is where Poe and I part company: perhaps it is an allegory of the inevitability of death, but then so is Jaws.

Terra Incognita

December 4, 2016


Vladimir Nabokov’s Terra Incognita begins like a Conrad off-cut, its narrator, Valliere, and his partner Gregson waking to find themselves abandoned by their native porters and the mysterious Cook (“a runaway sailor?”) as they make their way through unexplored country. Cook soon reappears claiming to have been forced to leave – do they shoot him now or later? – and the three continue on their way. The narrator, however, is unwell:

“I kept telling myself that my head was heavy from the long march, the heat, the medley of colours, but secretly I knew that I was ill.”

At first I wondered why Nabokov would choose the ailing Valliere to narrate, but this, rather than the spirit of adventure and discovery, is the real focus of the story. As his fever rises he begins to distrust what he sees:

“I was tormented by strange hallucinations. I gazed at the weird tree trunks, around which were coiled thick, flesh-coloured snakes; suddenly I thought I saw, between the trunks, as though through my fingers, the mirror of a half-opened wardrobe with dim reflections, but then took hold of myself, looked more carefully, and found that it was only the deceptive glimmer of an acreana bush.”

Valliere’s fever allows Nabokov to indulge in some wonderful writing. I particularly liked when Cook’s “glassy tattoo slid off his skin to one side, remaining suspended in mid-air; then it floated off, floated off, and I pursued it with my frightened gaze.” As befitting a story seemingly inspired by Conrad, it ends in madness: a violent confrontation between Gregson and Cook as observed by the delirious Valliere. Before, that is, Nabokov delivers his sign-posted, but still arresting, denouement.

The other two stories in Terra Incognita (‘Spring in Fialta’ and ‘The Doorbell’) are more typically (what I expected from) Nabokov, both featuring Russian emigres. That the former also contains a writer allows Nabokov to indulge in the kind of poetically savage criticism which is the equivalent of a shark’s tooth smile in a beautiful face:

“At the beginning of his career, it had been possible perhaps to distinguish some human landscape, some old garden, some dream-familiar disposition of trees through the stained glass of his prodigious prose… but with every new book the tints grew still more dense, the gules and purpure still more ominous; and today one can no longer see anything at all through the blazoned, ghastly rich glass…”

This was my first proper encounter with Nabokov (not counting Lolita which is one of those novels existing apart from its author), and it made me very glad I had taken the chance to buy a copy of Laughter in the Dark in the most recent tranche of Pocket Penguin Classics.

Femme Fatale

December 3, 2016


All four of the stories in Femme Fatale (which come from the collection A Parisian Affair translated by Sian Miles in 2004 and now available as a Pocket Penguin Classic) concern themselves with relationships between a man and a woman, though it would be disingenuous to call them love stories. The title story comes closest to exploring that particular passion, though it would be fair to say the love is rather one-sided.

“Poor young devil, he’s got it bad!” says one onlooker of Paul Baron as he sets off in a skiff called Madeleine with Madeleine, a woman he loves enough to name a skiff after her. That her own love fro him might not reach those giddy heights is evident when they disagree about the arrival of a boat-load of lesbians (yes, I wasn’t expecting that either). Baron’s view of these women is one that would have been regarded as antediluvian ten years ago but is now probably mainstream in Brexit Britain:

“Shouldn’t be allowed! They should be drowned like puppies with stones around their necks!”

When he forbids Madeleine to have anything to do with them, she dismisses his demand out of hand:

“Listen, dear, I shall do exactly as I please. If you don’t like it you know what you can do.”

Paul’s rage only increases when Madeleine speaks to one of the women, Pauline (do you see what de Maupassant did there), when she comes in, and leaves her with a promise to “see you tonight!” Perhaps Paul’s anger is not simply homophobia after all.

The stand-out moment in the story is when Paul sees a representation of his relationship as he looks out over the river:

“All of a sudden the man jerked out of the water a little silver fish which wriggled at the end of his line. Twisting and turning it this way and that, he tried to extract his hook, but in vain. Losing patience he started pulling and, as he did so, pulled out the entire bloody gullet of the fish with parts of its intestines attached.”

Not only is this the symbolic centrepiece of the story but de Maupassant echoes it in his ending. Though a little stranger than I was expecting, ‘Femme Fatale’ is an excellent short story and leaves me wondering why I have not read de Maupassant before.