Tag Archives: short stories

The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense ed. by Otto Penzler

Given my interest in Russian literature, it should come as no surprise that I was delighted to receive a review copy of The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense. The introduction written by Otto Penzler includes some interesting observations about the existence of detective fiction in a society in which individualism does not flourish, and notes that Russian crime and suspense fiction contains a “pervasive darkness” that “rivals the relatively new fiction genre that is often termed noir.”

Most of us will be familiar with some of the Great Names of 19th Century Russian literature, but what is interesting is that we get lesser titles by some of those big names. Here’s a breakdown of the contents:

Boris Akunin Table Talk

A chapter from Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment

Vil Lipatov Genka Paltsev, Son of Dimitri

Nikolai Gogol The Portrait

Anton Chekhov The Swedish Match

Anton Chekhov Sleepy

Anton Chekhov The Head Gardener’s Story

Anton Chekhov The Bet

Alexander Pushkin The Queen of Spades

Lev Sheinin The Hunting Knife

Ivan Bunin The Gentleman from San Francisco

P. Nitikin The Strangler

Vladimir Nabokov Revenge

Nikolai Lyeskov The Sentry

Maxim Gorky A Strange Murderer

Boris Sokoloff The Crime of Doctor Garine

Nikolai Gogol The Overcoat

Leo Tolstoy God Sees the Truth, but Waits

Leo Tolstoy Too Dear

Bunin’s story The Gentleman from San Francisco is considered to be one of the best pieces he wrote, and of course, Pushkin’s Queen of Spades appears in many collections. Gogol’s story The Portrait, a story of an artist who trades in his integrity for fame morphs into the tale of a portrait with special powers. This story contained unexpected shades of German Romanticism, and so it was entirely different from Dead Souls. Some of the stories were humourous: The Swedish Match (very funny) or had a witty ironic edge. While some of the names are familiar, included in the collection are some names that were new to me:Vil Lipatov, Lev Sheinin, Boris Sokoloff, & P. Nitikin.

With the authors and choices in this collection, it wasn’t easy to narrow down some favourites, but since I’d read a couple  of the stories before, I’m selecting stories that are new-to-me. This brings me to Chekhov’s The Bet (1889), a story I didn’t really expect from Chekhov (although I know he’d written masses of short stories) and a story which reminds me of no small degree of Dostoevsky.

During a dinner party, a group of men talk about capital punishment:

The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life.

The host, an extremely wealthy banker argues for the death penalty:

 I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?

A lively, passionate debate ensues with a 25-year-old lawyer stating that if he had to choose, he’d choose imprisonment for life over execution. The banker challenges the lawyer to a wager, and he bets the lawyer that he cannot stay in solitary confinement for five years. In a few seconds, five years becomes 15, and the banker bets two million against the lawyer being able to stay locked up for 15 years.

And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet. At supper he made fun of the young man and said:

“Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two millions are a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won’t stay longer. Don’t forget, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you.”

Of course, in this speech, tinged with a condescending manner, the banker is really egging the young man on, and he takes the bait. The banker realises that this meaningless bet will not “prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life,” and that the bet is “the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money….” 

But does the banker underestimate the lawyer? They are, after all, locked in a contest of will.

The lawyer agrees to confinement in one of the lodges owned by the banker. There “under the strictest supervision” he is to remain for 15 years.

It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers. He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books, and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke. By the terms of the agreement, the only relations he could have with the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that object. He might have anything he wanted–books, music, wine, and so on–in any quantity he desired by writing an order, but could only receive them through the window.

Will the lawyer sweat out his 15 years of solitary? Will he go insane or will he break free one day when he can stand it no longer?

A number of the stories in the collection are concerned with punishment (The Head Gardener’s Story), and that’s no doubt a reflection of the society in which they were written. Tolstoy’s story–a parable of sorts– Too Dear, explores the nature of punishment solely through its cost to the king who demands punishment.

Boris Sokoloff’s The Crime of Doctor Garine (1927) is a strange story and one I enjoyed a great deal-even though the ending didn’t answer all the questions the story raised. Doctor Garine admits murdering his wife in the most brutal manner but refuses to explain himself. There seems little doubt that he committed the crime, and since he freely admits it, motivation is the key element, and the motivation is gradually spun out through the details of the trial. During the trial and the appearance of various witnesses, Garine is calm, controlled and mostly unemotional. As the testimony builds, we see how the importance of why the crime is committed is paramount, and how this sensational trial is fundamentally society’s way of trying to understand what happened. The Crime of Doctor Garine is especially interesting for its emphasis on psychological motives; indeed a psychologist is even called to talk to Garine who mocks his profession.

Otto Penzler notes that the Russian approach to detective fiction is different to the western approach while discussing the shifts in the genre through the 20th century and modern writers of Russian detective fiction such as Victor Dotsenko and Aleksandra Marinina.

Among Russian writers, detective novels have flourished, and readers in the former Soviet U.S.S. R. have made them their preferred choice of reading matter. In a reader survey taken in 1995, more than 32% of men and 24% of women named “detektivy” as their favorite type of book.

Russian Radio Kultura regularly plays readings of British detective novels–including some obscure titles from Georgette Heyer & Agatha Christie.

One criticism of the collection that I’ve read is that it focuses too much on the 19th century, but that, surely, just begs for volume two. My complaint is reserved for the comment about Sophia (Sofya) Tolstoy. The intro to God Sees the Truth, but Waits says that Tolstoy, “tired of his life as a libertine, [he] married in 1862 and in, an effort at candor, showed his wife his diaries, leading to lifelong distrust and jealousy.”  Tolstoy’s diaries contained details of his sexual relationships with women–hardly the romantic, tactful or sensitive reading one would give to a virgin bride on a wedding night. Tolstoy was a genius as a writer, but left a lot of room for improvement in the husband department, and while he may have told himself that giving Sophia his diaries which included his sexual conquests of prostitutes and peasant women was an act of “candor,” that’s open to idle speculation & debate. Who knows what motivates people, but in my book, Sophia had the patience of a saint.


Filed under Bunin Ivan, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Fiction, Gogol, Nikolai, Gorky Maxim, Leskov, Nikolai, Nabokov, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Leo

The Etruscan Vase and Other Stories by Prosper Mérimée

Prosper Mérimée’s (1803-1879) short novel, A Slight Misunderstanding was one of the delights of 2011, and so when I saw that Alma Classics (formerly Oneworld Classics) published a volume of this author’s short stories translated by Douglas Parmée, well, I knew I had to read it. At just over 100 pages, The Etruscan Vase and Other Stories is a slim read and includes:

The Vision of Charles XI, King of Sweden


The Etruscan Vase

A Hanging

The Blue Room


Those who read and loved A Slight Misunderstanding will remember the role the title played in the tragic drama that played out which involves not a slight misunderstanding (that’s a major understatement) but a huge misinterpretation of intent. Another ‘misunderstanding,’ if you will, occurs in The Etruscan Vase–a story which involves a misinterpretation of a lover’s behaviour.

The misinterpretation also occurs in the story The Blue Room. In this story two lovers elope on a train and their romantic isolation on a carriage is interrupted by an English traveller who’s carrying a bag which contains a large amount of money. The young couple, even though deep in the throes of passion, cannot help but notice the wad of cash, and they also notice a tattily-dressed young man who is apparently following the Englishman.

The train had arrived at N–.The Englishman got out first and as Léon was helping his companion to climb down from their coach without showing her legs, a man jumped down onto the platform from the next coach. He had a pale, even sallow face, hollow, bloodshot eyes and was ill shaven–often a strong indication of criminal tendencies. His clothes were clean but worn; his jacket, originally black, had gone grey at the elbows and down the back; it was buttoned right up to the chin, no doubt to hide an even more threadbare waistcoat.

Love the unshaved look observation. The shabbily-dressed man, as it turns out, is a impoverished nephew of the Englishman. The nephew wants money, and an ugly scene takes place. The young eloping couple depart for their hotel, but once again the romance is interrupted. This time it’s officers of the 3rd Chasseurs hosting an all-nighter for the 3rd Hussars right next door to the young couple’s room. Unable to sleep due to the endless noisy drinking and “ribald” stories, Léon leans out of the hotel window and notices the Englishman’s nephew suspiciously loitering in the grounds outside….

Tamango is the story of a slave uprising. Again we see the author’s delight in the ironic touch when he describes the slave quarters on the ship jammed packed with “black ivory“–the cargo the one-handed Captain Ledoux is transporting for sale on his ship named Hope (there’s that irony again). Ledoux has invented a new way of carrying cargo as Mérimée shows us with both irony and sarcasm:

With the blacks sitting with their backs to the hull in two parallel lines, there was room in all the other slave-trading vessels for people to pass through. Ledoux had the brilliant idea of using this space to put other blacks, lying at right angles to those who were sitting. In this way, his ship could hold about ten more slaves than other ships of the same size. At a pinch, he could have squeezed in a few more, but one mustn’t be inhumane. You have to have at least five feet in length and two in breadth for a black to enjoy his trip during the crossing, which might take six weeks or more. “And after all, ” Ledoux said to his shipbuilder to justify his generosity, “blacks are human beings as much as whites are.”

The story The Vision of Charles XI, King of Sweden is one of Mérimée’s earliest stories and reminiscent of Hoffman, it’s the weakest of the bunch. Rather unexpectedly, I found myself enjoying the non-fiction pieces the most. The Hanging, in which the author recalls a very real event is moving but without sentiment in its recollection of the hanging of a murderer in Spain, a majo or buck who killed a man for an insult. Mérimée notes that he “shall never forget that man,”  a fine specimen who is forced by circumstance to participate in a spectacle involving a number of priests, monks, officers, a penitent and a “life-size” crucifix. The condemned man begins walking proudly but begins sinking as he approaches the  gallows. This is a man whose name is lost to time, and yet Mérimée captures the moment and freezes this spectacle of punishment forever.

For this reader, the gem of the collection is H.B. which, as Douglas Parmée explains in the introduction (and thanks Alma Classics for having the translator write the intro and not one of the many celebrity intro authors who seem to not have read the book), is more or less an “obituary” of Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal. The two men met in 1823 and they corresponded and met occasionally over a twenty-year period until Stendhal’s death in 1842. Here is a beautiful passage Mérimée wrote about his friend:

I’ve attended three pagan burials; The first of a man who’d blown out his brains. His teacher, a great philosopher, and his friends were afraid of shocking respectable public opinion and no one dared speak out. The second was of Monsieur Jacquemont, who’d forbidden any speeches or sermons. The last was Beyle’s.

There were three of us present and so unprepared that we didn’t know his last wishes. On each occasion, I felt that we had in some way been found wanting, if not towards the dead man himself, at least towards ourselves. If one of your friends dies on a journey, you feel sorry not to have wished him goodbye before he left. Departure and death require commemoration with some ceremony; there’s something solemn about it. Even if it’s only a meal, a gathering of like-minded people, something needs to be done and that is what Elpenor is asking for, not just a little patch of soil; he wants to be remembered.

In another section of the piece, Mérimée describes Beyle:

 He displayed blatant contempt for the French national character and eloquently proclaimed all the faults of which our great nation, no doubt unfairly, stands accused: flippancy, thoughtlessness, irresponsibility in thought and deed–all of which he basically shared himself, to a high degree. To mention only one example of his thoughtlessness: when French Consul in Civitavecchia, he sent the French Foreign Minister a letter in cypher–enclosing the code in the same envelope.

What a marvellous tidbit about Stendhal, and one that grants us a unique glimpse into this author’s character. Mérimée appears to have loved Stendhal, and the piece is written with a strong sense of poignancy and loss. Mérimée recounts Stendhal’s opinion on Napoleon (“hard to discover,“) and ranging from thinking Napoleon “a social climber, dazzled by the false glamour of fame,” to “expressing for him an admiration verging on idolatry.” Mérimée notes his friend’s flaws and admits Stendhal’s tendency to “inconsistency.” There are some marvellous details of Stendhal’s experiences during the Russian campaigns.

But perhaps of the greatest interest is the section in which Mérimée discusses Stendhal’s views on love & women, for here, almost by default, we can pick up Mérimée’s inadvertently expressed opinions. At one point, Mérimée recalls Stendhal asking for advice regarding a countess who spoke using the familiar “voi.” Stendhal asks his friend whether or not he should rape the countess and Mérimée is all for it. Again this brought back the carriage scene in A Slight Misunderstanding, and perhaps most telling, Stendhal held the view that “any man left alone with a woman should have a go at her.” This was apparently one of his maxims, and while this was a time in which women weren’t supposed to be alone with men other than their husbands, priests and a few select male relatives, Stendhal’s attitude seems … extreme. 

Concluding the volume with its stories not as fine as Mérimée’s novella,  A Slight Misunderstanding, I carried away a desire to read more Stendhal, for Mérimée grants us an intriguing glimpse of a flawed yet interesting man. As Douglas Parmée says, it’s an “endearing” portrait, and I can’t think of a better term.


Filed under Fiction, Mérimée Prosper

Skin by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

“Somebody had a seriously screwed-up upbringing.”

Last year I read and throughly enjoyed the hard-boiled crime novel, Kiss Her Goodbye, from authors Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Mickey Spillane is best remembered for his iconic bad-ass anti-hero, Mike Hammer (I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick), and when Spillane died in 2006, he left several unfinished manuscripts along with the instructions that they should go to his long-time friend, Max Allan Collins (The Road to Perdition). The good news for Hammer fans is that Max Allan Collins, Spillane’s natural successor, has put those manuscripts to good use, and as a result new work is surfacing: Kiss Her Goodbye, The Goliath Bone, Dead Street, The Consummata are all Spillane/Collins collaborations. Skin, a short story is the latest work to appear. Mickey Spillane apparently began the story in 2005, and chronologically it places Hammer in one of his last cases before retirement. It’s a slight work in comparison to the other, weighty novels in which violent action slams down hard on the heels of more violent action. Still for fans, Skin, which runs at round 41 pages, brings back Hammer, and I for one am always glad to see this character. Yes, he’s labeled with a lot of very PC-unfriendly words, but for this reader, he’s also a breath of fresh air.

The story begins with Hammer and Pat Chamber, captain of Homicide staring at a mangled pile of flesh that looks like “roadkill” located just off the side of the road. This is Hammer’s grisly find, and it’s an incident which underscores the idea that Hammer is a trouble-magnet.  Along with the unidentifiable flesh is one intact hand, and that hand belongs to missing Broadway producer, Victor King.

Hammer meets King’s wife who also happens to be the prime suspect in her husband’s disappearance. She’s not exactly ruffled by her husband’s disappearance:

The next morning around ten, I was sitting in the lavish living room of Victor King’s penthouse apartment on upper Fifth Avenue, with a view on Central Park. The furnishings were vintage art deco and what wasn’t white was black, and what wasn’t blond wood was chrome, and everything had curves. Including Mrs. King, who was also blond. As expected, she was a very lovely twenty-five or so; the stark red of her silk pajamas matched her finger-and toenails, jumping out at me  like the devil against the white of the couch, her legs crossed, a hand caressing a knee. Her mouth was similarly red, but her eyes were baby blue with blue eye shadow and a sleepy look, like a cheerleader on her third  beer after the big game.

I couldn’t imagine any man wanting to sleep with her, unless he was heterosexual and had a pulse.

So the grieving widow puts Hammer on retainer and he takes the case….

Since this is a short story, and an action-packed one at that, there isn’t much down time and the scenes seem to spin through at warped speed. Soon Hammer has a good idea of what kind of monster he’s hunting, and he delivers his own special Hammer-style justice which has very little to do with judges and courtrooms.

The gristly, hyper-violent Skin places Hammer close to retirement, and in this story, he clearly knows his physical limitations. He hasn’t changed, but he has aged, and so the story’s title has several meanings. Hammer still feels strong sexual attraction to women, but now he’s at the point that he’s not going to take the bait. Instead it’s all business, and Hammer doesn’t believe in leaving loose strings behind.

Review copy from the publisher.


Filed under Collins, Max Allan, Fiction, Spillane Mickey

Osborne’s Revenge by Henry James

Emma recently read and blogged about one of my favourite Henry James novels, Washington Square, and I was motivated to return to one of my favourite authors. It was a matter of luck that I selected the short story, Osborne’s Revenge (1868), which clocks in at a mere 28 pages on my kindle, for the story is not only a perfect companion piece to Washington Square, but it’s also quintessential James.

The title indicates where the story will take us, but since this is Henry James, nothing is simple, and a great deal is submerged beneath that oh-so-polite behaviour. The story opens with the statement that “Philip Osborne and Robert Graham were intimate friends,” but to outsiders, the relationship is a “puzzle.”

Disinterested parties were at a loss to discover how Osborne had come to set his heart upon an insignificant, lounging invalid, who, in general company, talked in monosyllables, in a weak voice, and gave himself the airs of one whose nature had endowed with the right to be fastidious, without ever having done a stroke of work. Graham’s partisans, on the other hand, who were chiefly women (which, by the way, effectively relieves him from the accusation occasionally brought against him of being “effeminate”) were quite unable to penetrate the motives of his interest in a commonplace, hard-working lawyer, who addressed a charming woman as if he were exhorting a jury of grocers and undertakers, and viewed the universe as one vast “case.”

Following the advice of his physician, Graham is spending the summer at some medicinal springs in New York. Osborne hasn’t heard from his friend in some time when he finally receives a letter in which Graham confesses that he remains at the springs as he is “charmed” by a young woman he met there. From a mutual acquaintance, Osborne learns that Graham has fallen in love with a certain Miss Congreve, and that an announcement of an engagement was expected when a Mr Holland appeared at the resort and that Miss Congreve precipitously “transferred her favours” to the newcomer. According to the mutual acquaintance, the gossipy witness, Mrs Dodd, Graham is dying from a “broken heart.” Indeed, Graham seems to be shaken by the affair and shortly afterwards, he commits suicide.

Osborne doesn’t recover from his friend’s death and with some notion of revenge, he travels to Newport in order to seek out Miss Congreve….

This is a wonderful early Henry James short story, and as we so often see with this author, the main character (Osborne in this case) is actually outside of the main story–the failed love affair between Graham and Miss Congreve. All of the passion–the courtship, jealousy, despair and suicide have occurred off the pages, and instead we have Osborne left with the aftermath. Once again we see the passivity of Jamesian inaction, the complexities of human behaviour, motivation and psychology, and the turmoil of unexpressed emotion just underneath the surface of polite society.

How would Charlotte or Emily Bronte dealt with such a plot as Osborne’s Revenge? A rhetorical question, of course, but their pages would have included more passion, more action, and yet perhaps James’s subtle story is so exquisite because it’s fairly easy to step into the shoes of Osborne and hover around Miss Congreve as he tries to hate her, struggles with indecision and tries to make her pay for the death of his friend.


Filed under Fiction, James, Henry

All These Little Worlds: A Fiction Desk Anthology II ed. Rob Redman

I freely admit that I bought a kindle version of All These Little Worlds–an collection of short stories from The Fiction Desk–primarily for the promised short story from Charles Lambert. I’ve throughly enjoyed two novels from this author: Little Monsters and Any Human Face, and considered it worth the purchase of the collection for his short story alone. But I had a second motive afoot….Something exciting and rather daunting is happening in the world of publishing. It’s a paradigm shift of seismic proportions, and people are taking charge of their own writing careers through blogs and e-publishing. Conan Kennedy’s book: The Colour of Her Eyes–a superior crime novel in my opinion–and one that certainly surpasses many crime novels that went through regular channels of committee selection and publicity campaigns etc–is a prime example of an author acting on his own initiative and getting his book out there.

While publishing giants merge together, we’ve also seen a number of fascinating small presses spring to life: Pushkin Press, Archipelago Books, Dalkey Press, Europa Editions, Melville House, Oneworld Classics, Hesperus Press (I’m sure I forgot some names), and for those of us who don’t care for the bestseller lists, these small presses give an alternative. And that brings me to my second reason for buying All These Little Worlds–because it’s an effort by an independent voice. I’ll also admit to a sense of curiosity; I read a lot of short story collections, and some of the big names always get a showing. What about those who are not so famous?

All These Little Worlds includes nine stories, and as editor Rob Redman states in the introduction, while “it’s sometimes tempting to publish a themed volume,” it’s also a limiting choice. Whatever the selection process was, the result is superior, and if there is a dominant undercurrent in this volume, it’s arguably an underlying subversivenes that challenges our notions of traditional relationships

So here’s the story rundown:

Jaggers and Crown by James Benmore is the story of a comic team who rather like an an old married couple battled themselves and their demons through the course of several decades. It’s 2011 and Kevin Crown recalls his turbulent relationship with Sonny Jaggers. They first teamed together in the early fifties, and enjoyed a successful radio career before making the leap to television. A few years later, with Sonny’s drinking increasingly out-of-control, there’s a lucrative contract from ITV, and while Kevin is ambitious and conscientious, Sonny’s binges are taking a toll on the team. On the Fiction Desk blog , Benmore  explains that the story grew from his interest in British comedy programmes, and that if Jaggers is based on anyone, then that person would be Kenneth Williams. For this reader, the references to the scenes in which Jaggers and Crown share a bed is reminiscent of Morecambe and Wise, a remarkable duo who also shared a bed (you can find the skits on youtube). The story explores the turbulence behind the comedy and also shows how when one member of a comedy duo dies the survivor dies by default too.

Jennifer Moore’s Swimming with the Fishes is an odd but delightful tale of a couple of children whose sibling rivalry fixates on a fish tank. You’re not going to get any more info than that as I don’t want to spoil the story for those who’ve yet to read it. I don’t usually care for stories told by child narrators so I was skeptical at first, but the story is so perfectly written that I was never quite sure exactly what was ‘real’ and what was the child narrator’s imagination.

The third story is Charles Lambert’s Pretty Vacant–a title certainly inspired by one of my favourite bands–the Sex Pistols. It’s set in the 70s and here’s how it begins:

Three days before my fifteen birthday my father kisses me on the lips, pinches my left cheek until it hurts, says he’ll always love me and flies off to Madagascar with his new girlfriend, Mia. I’ve seen her once or twice in the back of his car or waiting outside his secretary’s office with a magazine, Bella or Chi, chewing the inside of her mouth, and I’ve wondered who she is. Someone who needs a job and is scared she might not get it, I thought at first, so I was half right; living with my father is a sort of job. My mother’s pretended not to notice . She’s getting ready to move into our summer house near Alghero.

The narrator, Francesca, is shipped off to a boarding school in England with the weak excuse that she needs to “perfect” her English. She’s angry and out-of-place, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that she hooks up with an admirer of the Red Brigades, Gary, a young man who hangs out in a nearby squat. Just as in Little Monsters, Lambert explores the adolescent world in which adults rarely venture, here we see the fallout of Francesca’s summer in exile.

Room 307 is from novelist Mischa Hiller. It’s the story of Callum, a married traveling salesman who runs into temptation. I loved this story for its moral complexities and the exploration of one event that will have lifetime consequences. Callum finds himself in a situation in which the choice he makes doesn’t bring quite the result he expects. Here’s Callum sitting in the hotel restaurant, lonely and bored as he waits for his unexciting meal to arrive:

He sipped at his half pint of lager and studied the generic artwork on the walls. he had stayed in many of this chain’s hotels and they all looked the same. same faux-traditional pub decor in the restaurant, same anodyne and inoffensive prints on the walls, same bored staff in white and black, same tiny en-suite bathrooms with mouldy grouting round the shower end of the bath. They didn’t even have a newspaper at reception he could hide behind, and he had left his petrol-station thriller in his room.

But Callum’s evening is about to change for the better… or so it seems….

Dress Code by Halimah Marcus, a wonderful story about a teacher who goes off the rails big-time, tied in very well to the recent reading of You Deserve Nothing. As the title suggests, this is a story that involves the element of school uniforms, and the story evolves around Episcopal Academy’s Casual Fridays“–the one day of the week when students are allowed to wear something other than their uniforms.  To English teacher, Linus, he “knew there’d be problems as soon as he read the letter [from admin], which included a list of forbidden garments and areas of flesh.” What happens to poor Linus is funny in a strange sort of way because as readers we can see it coming as we witness Linus stepping right into a PR/PC nightmare. Author Halimah Marcus captures perfectly the sense that teachers sometimes have that the best way to reach students is through honesty and utter equality, but that idea is a philosophical mirage as there are two sets of standards in the power-dynamic for students and teachers and Linus finds that out the hard way.

The Romantic by Colin Corrigan is the rather sad story of an Irish  one-armed poet who meets a lonely American woman in a pub. It’s a painful reality check evening in more ways than one.

In After all the Fun We Had by Ryan Shoemaker, a desperate school administrator, terrified by dwindling attendance figures goes all out to lure pupils back to the classroom. His methods become increasingly outrageous, and all this bribery devolves to its natural and comic conclusion.

In Glenda by Alan Jury, Charlie a young man whose wife has left him finds himself embroiled in a complicated relationship with his mother-in-law. Meanwhile his wife, Kathy is living with an “over-groomed sales director in Bristol.”

Glenda had first come to the house on the Saturday after Kathy had left him, and that same night the two of them had gotten riotously drunk together for the first time.

There’s another child narrator in Get on Green by Jason Atkinson. The child narrator is 4-year-old Tonya, and the story follows Tonya’s day at school as she moves from reality to sleep, role models to rebellion, and all this while school dominates with images of conformity.

Hunting for new authors, I read a lot of short story collections, and this is the best overall collection I’ve read this year. The 3rd issue of anthology is due out in the new year, and you bet I’ll be buying it. The anthology is available via subscription but I bought mine via the kindle. Rock on 21st century….


Filed under Atkinson Jason, Benmore James, Corrigan Colin, Fiction, Hiller Mischa, Jury Alan, Lambert Charles, Marcus Halimah, Moore Jennifer, Shoemaker Ryan

The Best American Mystery Stories of 2011

“They’ve got you so tight inside you need an enema. No cheating on the wife, no cheating on the taxes, no cheating on the church. And somebody bends the rules a little, your panties get all bunched up.”

A short story collection presents me with a dilemma. Which ones should I mention in the review? I inevitably land on those I liked the best or those that stuck out from the pack for one reason or another. This makes short story collections more difficult to review I think, but at the same time, they can also be infinitely rewarding as for this reader they act as a showcase for new authors. I discovered Jonathan Coe thanks to a short story collection, and so I approach a new collection as a way to collect fresh names.

The Best American Mystery Stories is a series that’s run now for 14 years. The 2011 edition brings Harlan Coben as the guest editor with Otto Penzler (and I’m a fan of Penzler’s for all he’s done for the crime/mystery genre) as series editor. Penzler gives what he states is “fair warning” that a mystery is not necessarily a detective story. Penzler argues:

I regard the detective story as one subgenre of a much bigger genre, which I define as any short work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot.

Patricia Highsmith, of course, we think of as a mystery writer, so then the 2011 Best Mystery Collection, is not, and it’s a good thing, all detectives–although some detectives appear as well as a wide range of other characters in these pages. In Audacious by Brock Adams there’s a pickpocket, in Beth Ann Fennelly & Tom Franklin’s What His Hands had Been Waiting For there’s a couple of ranger types in a world I had, at first, some difficulty dating, and there’s a female serial killer in Lawrence Block’s Clean Slate. There are some big names here including a story from Joe Lansdale and a collaboration by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane, a great Mike Hammer short story called A Long Time Dead.

Chewing over the stories, I’ve landed on some favourites which also happen to be by writers I’ve never read before, and Dennis McFadden’s Diamond Alley makes the short list. It’s a story told by a man who reminisces about his past,  and those memories include a young woman named Carol Siebenrock, a beautiful nubile girl who became the sex fantasy of every boy who attended the same high school. The author recalls how groups of boys organised Peeping Tom sessions at her remote country home. While this is all very familiar territory, in McFadden’s hands the story becomes sublime:

The year we were seniors in high school, a girl in our class was murdered, and the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series. Which was the more momentous event? No contest, of course; how could a game,  a boys’ game at that, compete with the death of a classmate, a girl who was our friend? Yet somehow, despite our lip service to the contrary, these two happenings seemed to attain a shameful equality in our minds. And if anything, now that so many years have passed, Mazeroski rounding the bases in jubilation after his homer had vanquished the big,bad Yankees is more vivid in our memories than the image of  Carol Siebenrock, young, beautiful, and naked as seen from the darkness beyond her window.

The narrator describes that senior year in Harts Grove, Pennsylvania–a year of promise & hope , rampant sexual fantasies, and yet also a certain innocence that is smashed by Carol’s disappearance. The story charts the chilling appropriateness of her last comment to her male admirers, loss, collective guilt, and the passage of time. School all too frequently becomes the place where we first experience death of peers, and McFadden’s story captures all the nuances of the narrator’s experience as Carol passes from the real, the desired and the unattainable to the iconic.

Andrew Riconda’s Heart like a Balloon is one of the meanest contract killer short stories I’ve ever read, so it makes the short list for its one track nastiness which still managed to shock and surprise me. The story is told by Brian Rehill, a contractor/fixer of “dirty business” who is meeting with Denny back in New York after an absence of three years:

We’d been friends of sorts until I did a favor for him to keep him out of jail. Subsequently he got leery of our association. Denny could deal with the blood on his hands as long as he didn’t have a daily reminder of it. Shit, it wasn’t all that much blood. And it wasn’t even like someone had been killed. That being said, I certainly didn’t mourn the loss of our friendship. I’d mainlined enough Dr. Phil while unemployed to recognize the toxic people in my life, and when this bastard broke wind, the room smelled of almonds and burned Legos.

After doing a “favour” for Denny, Brian suspects he was subtly blacklisted:

And even though I suspected Denny had quietly put a few bad words in for me here and there, after I did him his little favour, putting the kibosh on jobs I should’ve gotten, including a couple of big sheetrocking contracts that would’ve put me into a whole other tax bracket, I didn’t care now. This pariah’s subsequent relocation westward turned out to be the best move I’d ever made. And L.A., much to the bemusement of my condescending New Yorker mentality, turned out to be paradise–professionally, romantically, and even, god help me, spiritually (I hadn’t done anything I was ashamed of in nearly two years). I was even thinking about buying my first house, although I still needed to somehow come up with a big chunk for a downpayment. Somehow….

Well the “somehow” is handed to Brian when Denny asks him for yet another favour–it’s a long story that begins, classically (and I see Dennis Farina in this role) saying, “there’s this guy…”. This ‘guy’ as it turns out, is Joe, the soon-to-be ex-husband of Denny’s mistress, Sucrete. The schmuck doesn’t get the message that the marriage is over, and loser that he is, he’s bugging Sucrete. Restraining orders haven’t worked, so Denny asks Brian to put a “permanent restraint” on Joe: “whatever you deem … most permanent.”

Anyway, that clip gives a sense of style and voice (both excellent) and the set-up….

Another favourite is a story written by Ed Gorman, Flying Solo, a story about two widowed cancer sufferers in their 60s who meet during chemo sessions. One man is retired cop Ralph and the other is Tom, a retired English teacher. Ralph has terminal prostate cancer and Tom has colon cancer. They begin scheduling chemo on the same days and watch films to pass the time:

The DVD players were small and you could set them up on a wheeled table right in front of your recliner while you were getting the juice . One day I brought season two of the Rockford Files , with James Garner. When I got about two minutes into the episode I heard Ralph sort of snicker.

“What’s so funny?”

“You. I should’ve figured your for a Garner type of guy.”

“What’s wrong with Garner?”

“He’s a wuss. Sort of femmy.”

“James Garner is sort of femmy?”

“Yeah. He’s always whining and bitching. You know, like a woman. I’m more of a Clint Eastwood fan myself.”

Ralph and Tom, in a what-do-we-have-to-lose way, decide to take the law into their own hands and improve the world a little bit with what time they have left. Author Ed Gorman wrote the story as “the result of sitting in chemo rooms for the past nine years dealing with [my] multiple myeloma.” Gorman captures the idea that for those dealing with chronic or terminal illness, sometimes a little empathy, a little recognition of the trials of others, goes a long way.

My copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and read on the kindle.


Filed under Collins, Max Allan, Fiction, Gorman Ed, Lansdale Joe R, McFadden Dennis, Riconda Andrew

L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories (Rockstar Games)

One of the features I really like about the Kindle (apart from the free classics) is the way stories, novellas, and novels not published anywhere else find their way onto this device. Example: I came across L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories for the princely sum of 99 cents. How could I not buy this?

Ok, so what do you get for your 99 cents?

That Girl by Megan Abbott

See the Woman by Lawrence Block

Naked Angel by Joe R. Lansdale

Black Dahlia and White Rose by Joyce Carol Oates

School for Murder by Francine Prose

What’s in a Name by Jonathan Santlofer

Hell of an Affair by Duane Swierczynski

Postwar Room by Andrew Vachss

Charles Ardai, the founder of Hard Case Crime, wrote the introduction which explains that Rockstar Games set out to create a classic noir experience,” and that LA Noire puts the player “into the shoes of Cole Phelps” former Marine now a member of LAPD. In addition to creating the game, Rockstar Games also “invite[d] some of the most acclaimed living practitioners of the noir storytelling art … to each write a new short story inspired by the world of LA Noire.” Some of the stories, apparently, are inspired by cases in the game.

I’m a Megan Abbott fan, so I was happy to see her included, and her story, The Girl is a female-centric tale that focuses on the tawdry side of Hollywood. I’ve read all of Abbott’s novels, btw, and The Song is You is my favourite. The Song is You was inspired by the real-life, unsolved disappearance of actress Jean Spangler. It’s a bitterly haunting novel, and I found myself thinking about it as I read The Girl. The Girl is set in a “famous” LA house, and I know which house inspired Abbott here. It’s a “Mayan fortress made of ferroconcrete blocks stacked like teeth.”

The protagonist of the story is an actress called June. She doesn’t have much of a career, but she’s married to a gangster named Guy, and this career move has removed some of the desperation from June’s life. June’s agent tells her that she’ll meet Huston at the party:

“Key Largo. The part’s perfect for you.”

“Claire Trevor’s got it sewn up between her thighs,” June said softly, looking up at the house from the open door of the agent’s middling car. “Ten years, every bed I land in is still warm from her.”

“She’s not married to Guy,” the agent pointed out.

“You see how far that’s got me,” June said.

Ok, this is a Hollywood party of the movers and shakers, the power people of Tinseltown. June has already admitted that she’s slept around to get parts. What else is she willing to do?

The first few years in Hollywood, times were hard and June shared apartments, rooms, even, with a hundred girls, their shared pillowcases flossy with their peroxided hair.

Working counter girl, working  as an extra, working as a department-store model, a girl to look pretty at parties, she got by, barely. She even filled her teeth with white candle wax when they turned brown and died.

She said she would do things, and she wouldn’t suffer for them. She’s seen where suffering could get you, and it wasn’t her bag.

So she hustled and hustled and finally found the ways to get all those small roles at Republic, B-unit jobs at Fox. She never could be sure, though, is she was making headway or running on her last bit of garter-flashing luck.

I am a fan of Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series, so it wasn’t too surprising that another favourite story came from this author. Lansdale’s story, Naked Angel, is about patrolman Adam Coats who finds a dead body frozen inside a huge block of ice.

Downtown at the morgue the night attendant, Bowen, greeted him with a little wave from behind his desk. Bowen was wearing a white smock covered in red splotches that looked like blood but weren’t. There was a messy meatball sandwich on a brown paper wrapper in front of him, half-eaten. He had a pulp-Western magazine in his hands. He laid it on the desk and showed Coats some teeth.

I wasn’t sure which was worse–thinking that the morgue attendant’s smock was covered in blood or realising that he was eating a messy meatball sandwich a few feet away from the stiffs.

Another favourite I’m going to mention is Hell of an Affair by Duane Swierczynski. This is the story of Bill Shelton, an underpaid Los Angeles surveyor who thinks he gets lucky when he picks up a waitress named Bonnie. Wait. I’ll revise that. She picks him up. Bad sign. A few dates and a little tongue hockey later, Bill’s ready to do whatever it takes to get Bonnie out of trouble.

These are classic noir tales: the easy pick-up femme fatale, affairs torched by lust, greed and ambition, and our characters lured by opportunity only to be tricked by fate. Some of these short stories have the feel that they could be fleshed out into novellas, but hey for 99 cents, I’m not bitching.  And if you want the low-down on the other stories, knock yourself out and spring for a copy.


Filed under Abbott Megan, Block Lawrence, Fiction, Lansdale Joe R, Oates Joyce Carol, Prose Francine, Santlofer Jonathan, Swierczynski Duane, Vachss Andrew

Eleven by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith is one of those novelists I’d meant to read for some years–mostly I’ll admit for film-book connection, so when I picked up my first Highsmith, the logical choice was Strangers on a Train. That’s my all-time favourite Hitchcock film, btw, and I was delighted to discover that the book was even darker than the film. Then earlier this year, I read The Cry of the Owl. It’s the story of a wreck of a man who moves away from New York for a fresh start in a small Pennsylvania town. Lonely and depressed, he becomes obsessed with watching the domestic routine of a young woman, and when she catches him (and thinks he’s a peeping Tom), instead of screaming and calling for the coppers, she invites him in. The Cry of the Owl is an exploration of the horrors of small town life complete with gossip, judgment and condemnation, and for any one interested, like me, in film, Claude Chabrol made a film of The Cry of the Owl.  But now to Eleven, Highsmith’s first short story collection.

After reading Eleven, the main thing that struck me about Highsmith’s work is that she’s firmly rooted in horror. That conclusion surprised me as I considered the two Highsmith books I read primarily as psychological novels. I’m not talking about the slasher type of horror gore, but something that’s harder to peg–something a lot more sophisticated.  The short stories in Eleven give the reader a concentrated dose of Highsmith’s view of life, and Highsmith’s horror is the horror of everyday life, the suffocating routine and the sometimes-sick power dynamic in relationships, a touch of the supernatural and even in the case of two of the stories in this collection–the horror of snails. It takes a special mind to create  two stories in which snails appear as destructive terrifying creatures. These eleven stories cover a range of various subjects. The Barbarians explores bullying and the strain of living under the threat of violence while in  The Birds Poised to Fly, we meet Don, a man whose disappointment in love leads to a cruel deception.

For those interested, here’s a complete list of the contents:

The Snail-Watcher

The Birds Poised to Fly

The Terrapin

When the Fleet was in at Mobile

The Quest for Blank Claveringi

The Cries of Love

Mrs. Afton among thy Green Braes

The Heroine

Another Bridge to Cross

The Barbarians

The Empty Birdhouse

In this collection, some of Highsmith’s protagonists are deranged, others are strange, and still others endure various types of stress until they crack….

 The Terrapin yields a slice of life in a particularly sick household shared by a young boy, Victor and his mother, an over-bearing Hungarian-French woman. Victor’s parents are divorced and his absent father, who’s managed to escape the domestic yoke and now lives in Europe, is  a successful businessman who exports perfumes. Victor’s mother still receives money from her ex-husband, and the money is much-needed. She used to be a children’s book illustrator, but recently there’s little work:

a few illustrations now and then for magazines for children, how to make paper pumpkins and black paper cats for Hallowe’en and things like that, though she took her portfolio around to the publishers all the time.

Although Victor is 11 (same as the title of the book, so Highsmith is consistent here), he’s infantilized by his mother. He’s inappropriately dressed in shorts that are “too small” and tight, and this makes him the object of ridicule from boys his own age. His clothes are just one symptom of his unhealthy relationship with his mother. She constantly reinforces her view of Victor as a baby–at one point, for example, she makes Victor recite the days of the week. She seems oblivious of the constant degradation she subjects him to. This is a woman with problems:

His mother put her jewelled bands on her hips. “do you know, Veec-tor, you are a little bit strange in the head?” She nodded. “You are seeck. Psychologically seeck. And retarded, do you know that? You have the behaviour of a leetle boy five years old,” she said slowly and weightily. “It is just as well you spend your Saturdays indoors. Who knows if you would not walk in front of a car, eh? But that is why I love you, little Veector.” She put her arm around his shoulders, pulled him against her and for an instant Victor’s nose pressed into her large, soft bosom. She was wearing her flesh-colored dress, the one you could see through a little where her breast stretched it out.

The already-poisonous relationship between this troubled pair turns even nastier when Victor’s mother brings home a terrapin. He sees it as a pet, and to his mother, it’s dinner….

Of the entire collection, my favourite story is When the Fleet was in at Mobile. When the story begins, Geraldine chloroforms her husband, Clark who’s sleeping deeply after an all-night booze-up:

She ran in her silk-stockinged feet to the rag drawer below the kitchen cabinets, tore a big rag from a worn-out towel, and then a smaller one. She folded the big rag to a square lump and on second thought wet it at the sink, and after some trouble because her hands had started shaking, tied it to the front of her nose and mouth with the cloth belt of the dress she’d just ironed and laid out to wear. Then she got the claw hammer from the tool drawer in case she would need it, and went out on the back porch. She drew the straight chair close to the bed, sat down, and unstoppered the bottle and soaked the smaller rag. She held the rag over his chest for a few moments, then brought it slowly up toward his nose. Clark didn’t move. But it must be doing something to him, she thought, she could smell it herself, sweet and sick like funeral flowers, like death itself.

Leaving him for dead, she makes a break for freedom and ‘happier days’ spent in Mobile.

She still had that combination everyone said was unique of come-hither plus the bloom of youth, and how many girls had that? How many girls could be proposed to by a minister’s son, which was what had happened to her in Montgomery, and then had a life like she’d had in Mobile, the toast of the fleet? She laughed archly at herself in the mirror, though without making a sound–but who was there to hear her if she did laugh–and jogged her brown-blonde curls superfluously with her palms.

Geraldine, an unreliable narrator, is reminiscent of A Streetcar Named Desire‘s Blanche Dubois for her insane, or is it highly sanitized, version of events regarding the men who’ve helped her in a comfort-0f-strangers-way?

These eleven stories, which offer concentrated doses of Highsmith’s familiar themes also illustrate Highsmith’s range. From the macabre to the mundane, Highsmith’s world reveals that danger, cruelty and injustice are just one step away–lurking in the shadows, and as Graham Greene points out in the excellent introduction, Highsmith’s vision is of a “world without moral endings.”


Filed under Fiction, Highsmith Patricia

The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories by Ivan Bunin

 A collection of Ivan Bunin stories had been sitting on my shelf for over a year when I decided it was about time I got to it. I’m a fan of Russian literature, and this book , The Gentleman From San Francisco and Other Stories had been recommended. Bunin (1870-1953) came from a wealthy serf-owning family, but his grandfather burned through most of the estate, and Bunin’s father compiled the problem with his gambling addiction. Then the so-called Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 brought a change to the family’s already decimated fortunes. Family poverty even led to the end of Bunin’s education at one point, but encouraged by his elder brother, Julius, he studied university courses independently and sat for exams.  Bunin’s literary career was just taking off when the revolution hit and Bunin became one of the millions of Russian emigres wandering the planet. Under the Soviet Union, he was classed as a “traitor” and his work was not published there until after his death. In 1933, he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

buninMy copy, from Penguin books, contains a total of 16 short stories and 1 novella (Mitya’s Love) which are translated by David Richards and Sophie Lund. It’s a wonderful collection–most excellent, some good and a couple forgettable (well they can’t all be marvellous). Out of the collection, my favourites are The Gentleman From San Francisco, The Primer of Love, Long Ago, At Sea At Night, Graffiti, A Cold Autumn and The Riverside Tavern (and this last one is–upon reflection–my absolute favourite).

The themes of the stories include: loss, the erosion of time on memories, love and regret, and since Bunin was a post-revolution emigre, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that most of the stories involve travel on some level. It should also come as no surprise that events include: sudden death, adultery, obsessive love and suicide. In At Sea, At Night, two men–a doctor and a famous writer meet on a ship. Now both elderly, the men reminisce how decades earlier they’d both been in love with the same woman. In The Gentleman From San Francisco, a wealthy middle-aged man travels by ship throughout Europe with his wife and daughter. When the story begins, they’ve been travelling for over two years and as perpetual tourists, they experience only the best–transmuted experiences in which the luxury of their circumstances shields them from discomfort or unpleasant experiences. No matter the destination, the days are shaped by meals, and the highlight of the day comes with the dinner gong. It’s then the upper class passengers, who are familiar with the rituals of being served, don their finest clothes and in their best element, parade in front of one another:

“It was the done thing until eleven to stroll briskly about the deck, inhaling the cold ocean freshness, or to play shuffleboard and other games to stimulate their appetites anew, and at eleven to fortify themselves with broth and sandwiches; once fortified, they would contentedly read the newspaper and placidly await lunch, which was still more nourishing and varied than breakfast; the next two hours were devoted to rest; for this all the decks were covered with long cane chairs  on which the travellers lay, wrapped in rugs, and either gazed at the cloudy sky and the foaming ridges that appeared fleetingly at the side of the ship or lapsed into a sweet somnolence; between four and five, glowing and cheerful, they were regaled with strong perfumed tea and biscuits: at seven bugle calls would herald that which constituted the supreme aim and consummation of their existence…and at this point, the gentleman from San Francisco would hurry to his luxurious cabin to dress for dinner.”

 Bunin, known as the “last of the classics” was also a poet and his ability with language shows throughout the stories–mainly in the beautiful descriptive passages. Now, I am not one generally who enjoys a great deal of descriptive writing, but in Bunin’s stories his writing is so evocative, he has the ability to transfer, through the pages, a sense of sensory immediacy:

 “It was a hot, still day. He walked in the transparent shade of the avenue and looked at the curly, snowy-white branches all around him. The blossom on the pear trees was especially dense and vigorous and the mixture of this whiteness with the bright blue of the sky produced a violet hue. The pear trees and the apple trees were flowering and shedding their blossom at the same time and the earth which had been dug up round them was completely covered with faded petals. Their sweetish, delicate scent hung in the warm air together with the smell of the hot rotting dung in the cattle-yard. Occasionally a little cloud appeared, making the blue sky grow lighter, while the warm air and all the smells of decay became even more delicate and sweet. And the entire fragrant warmth of that vernal paradise was filled with the blissfully somnolent humming of the bees burrowing into that honeyed, curly snow. And all the time, in the blissful boredom of their day, the nightingales trilled, one after another.” (from Mitya’s Love)

Bunin’s skill is evident in this passage as he creates a sense of timelessness entwined with decay, and yet the decay is not negative; it’s an integral part of the process of sweet renewal that takes place endlessly and repetitively. Bunin’s very deliberate use of language further reinforces the languidness of the day–at the same time he makes it clear that everything is in a state of flux. There’s an underlying message here: enjoy the delights of life as they fade quickly. This message is tackled in another way when Bunin explores the erosion of memories through time, and we see that things that once meant so much, were so painful, no longer seem as important. Memories fade with time (At Sea, At Night, A Cold Autumn), but a resurgence of memory will inevitably stir regret and longing to the surface.

In another section of Mitya’s Love, he wanders in the garden at night, and once again Bunin’s language recreates the sensory experiences of his character:

“an evening beetle slowly floated past, humming close to his ear, as if it were spreading silence, peace and twilight, though light from the early-summer sunset still filled half the sky with its even, long-undimming glow;”

In another beautiful passage, Bunin uses alliteration to very effectively accentuate the rythmn of the ocean:

“The mountain black ocean waves ran booming outside while the snowstorm whistled powerfully through the burdened rigging, and the whole liner would shudder as it strove against both storm and waves, like a plough turning over the ocean’s heaving mass which incessantly seethed and soared up  with lappets of foam; the siren, muffled by the mist, groaned in mortal anguish; the men on watch froze in the cold and felt their minds wandering from over-concentrated attention; the underwater depths of the liner, where gigantic furnaces voicelessly cackled and and with their candescent gorges devoured the piles of coal clangorously shovelled into them by half-naked men who were bathed in acrid, dirty sweat and lurid from the flames, were like the torrid dark bowels of the last ninth circle of the inferno.”

Despite the strong competition, from the entire collection The Riverside Tavern remains my favourite. It’s a tale that captures my imagination. In the story, the narrator runs into an old acquaintance, an army doctor at the Prague restaurant. The doctor is a little unsettled from his meeting with the poet, Bryusov, who had an adoring girl in tow. Bryusov has a terrible reputation with women, and the experience sparked a memory for the doctor. He tells the story of how, many years before, predicting heartache and disaster, he’d interfered in the relationship of a young woman and a “debauchee.” He asks himself:

“Why, I must ask, did I interfere? Does it matter how or why someone is happy? After-effects? For you know one way or another there are always after-effects–everything leaves cruel traces in the heart, memories, I mean, which are particularly cruel and agonizing when you remember something happy.”


Filed under Bunin Ivan