Tag Archives: short story collection

The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man: Kafka

Kafka’s The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man includes a stellar introduction from translator Alexander Starritt. I have respect for intros from translators; after all they are the ones who slaved over the words, mulling over one choice over another, so if anyone ‘deserves’ to write an intro, it’s the translator IMO. Starritt’s intro is lively, fluid, and well … interesting:

In English, the word that usually follows ‘Kafkaesque’ is ‘nightmare’. Hardly the thing to make you think, ‘Hurray, a new translation. No Netflix for me tonight.’ And in truth, Kafka’s work is more respected than it is loved.

These first sentences hit a chord with me. I have lost count of the number of times The Metamorphosis popped up again and again in literature class after literature class. Yes the story (while I liked it) became a ‘No-Exit’-Not-Again nightmare in itself.

Unhappiness

Starritt argues that these short stories present an entirely different view of Kafka, and I agree. These stories are mercurial, some are absurdist, and the closest thing I could compare to is absurdist Russian fiction. These stories (and some are extremely short) are not at all what I expected from Kafka. Some stories are flash fiction–if we could imagine such a term applying to Kafka. Other stories are longer, and of course, as is with all collections, some stories are stronger than others.

The title story: The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man is a good idea of what to expect here. I read it on my kindle and it’s just over a page long. This is a single man who rues the things he’s missing:

It seems a terrible thing to stay single for good, to become an old man who, if he wants to spend the evening with other people, has to stand on his dignity and ask someone for an invitation

The last lines were unexpected and made me chuckle. Again–not at all what I expected from Kafka.

In The Married Couple, a sales rep takes his sample case to a man known as N. The sales rep and N used to work together, but now N, a much older man is bed-bound and possibly close to death. Yes, perhaps this sounds like the sort of thing we’d expect from Kafka, but the final delivery is not.

A First Heartache is a short tale of a trapeze artist who in the quest to perfect his art becomes increasingly isolated. The abnormal becomes normal and he clings to his life on the highwire. He:

had arranged his life in such a way that, initially out of a striving for perfection, then out of increasingly tyrannical habit, he stayed on his trapeze day and night for as long as an engagement lasted. His modest needs were catered to by a rota of attendants who were posted below and hauled everything up and down in specially made containers.

The trapeze artist is “in constant training, of keeping his art at its peak.” This becomes a way of life, this increasing isolation, and the only thing that disrupts this routine are the unavoidable transfers from venue to venue, which badly disrupted his peace of mind.”

Another top pick has to be In the Penal Colony, a story of a researcher who travels to a penal colony only to be invited to attend the execution of a soldier “who’d been sentenced to death for disobeying and insulting a superior officer.” The story centres on the machine that will do the deed. It’s a diabolical contraption designed by the former (deceased) commandant. The machine is sadistically designed to inflict maximum pain and suffering over a twelve hour period before the final coup de grâce.

While the officer explains the machine’s processes of torture “with great zeal,” the condemned man, who has no idea of the fate that awaits him is at first disinterested (the officer and the researcher speak in French) but then he becomes increasingly curious as the machine’s mechanisms are explained:

The condemned man looked as submissive as a dog, as if they could have let him wander around the slopes on his own, and would only have needed to whistle for him when they wanted to start the execution. 

The officer’s matter-of-fact approach to explaining the machine is, of course, bizarre and yet entirely believable. This method of execution has become an institution in the penal colony, but now it has fallen out of favour. The condemned soldier has not been given a trial and is unaware that he has even been sentenced to death. According to the officer, “it would be pointless to tell him.” Torture and death as spectacle: what is there about these things that appeal to people? The matter-of-fact bureaucratic manner in which the sadistic death is explained moves the execution away from the idea of suffering and into efficiency. Couldn’t help but think of the Nazis.

This collection rolls in at just under 200 pages. I think the stories are best read one at a time, rather than in chunks.

Review copy

Translated by Alexander Starritt

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Midnight All Day: Hanif Kureishi

When it comes to writing about relationships, author Hanif Kureishi is unsparing.  Some of us might add the description cynical, but others might add pragmatic. Midnight All Day is a collection of short stories in which troubled relationships are at the fore. Some relationships are dying, some are just beginning, but regardless where the relationships place on the longevity scale, nothing is ever simple. Here’s a list of the stories:

Strangers When We Meet

Four Blue Chairs

That Was Then

Girl

Sucking Stones

A Meeting, At Last

Midnight All Day

The Umbrella

Morning in the Bowl of Night

The Penis

In Strangers When We Meet, Rob, an actor, is supposed to go on holiday with his older married mistress, Florence, but when her husband inconveniently (and at the last minute) decides to take the trip with her, all the plans are ruined. Rob finds himself in a small seaside town, booked into the same hotel as Florence and her husband. In fact Florence and Archie are in the room next door, and when the story opens, Rob has his ear to the wall trying to hear what is going on between Florence and her husband. It’s rather funny in a dark, twisted way, as Rob feels that the husband is the usurper, not him. Rob is, at first, really upset that his holiday is ruined, but seeing Florence with her husband somehow places her in a different light.

midnight all day

In Four Blue Chairs, a man and a woman who had an affair and subsequently left their partners decide to host their first dinner guest as a couple. Their decision to buy new chairs throws their relationship into question and also serves to show how the relationship will be conducted moving forward.

In That Was Then, Nick, a former pop journalist, now a married, respectable writer agrees to meet his former lover, Natasha. Nick is a bit worried about the meeting as Natasha is from his wild past:

We are unerring on our choice of lovers, particularly when we require the wrong person. There is an instinct, magnet or aerial which seeks the unsuitable. The wrong person is, of course, right for something–to punish, bully or humiliate us, let us down, leave us for dead, or, worst of all, give us the impressions that they are not inappropriate, but almost right, thus hanging us in love’s limbo.

If you are a writer and yearn to be published, then Sucking Stones may be a difficult story to read. This is the tale of middle-aged, divorced Marcia, a teacher, who fits writing in with everything else–raising a child as a single parent, working, cooking, etc. After getting a short story published, she started a writers’ group, and its members are “all, somehow, thwarted,” in their writing careers. Marcia thinks that the other writers in the group make “crass mistakes” yet are “astonished and sour” when this is brought to their attention. Marcia “didn’t believe she was such a fool.”

One day Marcia meets a popular author at a book signing. The author invites Marcia to her home, so things are looking up for Marcia. Is someone finally taking her seriously?  It’s a painful encounter, but it’s worse when the author pops into Marcia’s home:

Marcia and Alec were having fish fingers and baked beans. Aurelia must have been close; Marcia had hardly cleaned the table, and Alec hadn’t finished throwing his toys behind the sofa, when Aurelia’s car drew up outside. 

At the door she handed Marcia another signed copy of her new novel, came in, and sat down on the edge of the sofa.

What a beautiful boy,’ she said of Alec. ‘Fine hair–almost white.’

‘And how are you?’ asked Marcia

‘Tired. I’ve been doing readings and giving interviews, not only here but in Berlin and Barcelona. The French are making a film about me, and the Americans want me to make a film about my London.’

While Marcia struggles to find time to write, she wants her mother to pitch in caring for Alec. The contentious meetings between Marcia and her mother highlight their opposing needs:

‘What about me?’ said mother. ‘I haven’t even had a cup of tea today. Don’t I need time too?’

Marcia also has a strangely complicated yet no-strings relationship with Sandor, an underemployed Bulgarian who works as a porter. He’s content and happy with his circumstances, happy to read, drink and sleep with women. His contentment is in contrast to Marcia’s rather frazzled desires to write.

While I didn’t care for a couple of the stories: Girl and The Penis, I enjoyed the others immensely, and the collection is a good reminder of how much I like reading this author. In these stories we see how people are part of our lives but then we (or they) move on. Phases might be a better way of putting it–people are in certain phases of our lives but then things change.  Do we change? Do our tastes change? Do our needs change?  In Strangers When We Meet, for example, the story moves forward in time. Rob is now successful  and when he meets Florence again, she’s … a bit desperate. Ex spouses, ex lovers, yes they may hold a place in our past, but life is in a continual state of flux. Nothing is static.

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Blood on the Tracks: Edited by Martin Edwards

I have a suspicion that most crime readers enjoy books that are set in, or revolve around, trains. Blood on the Tracks, from British Library Crime Classics, includes an introduction from Martin Edwards, and he discusses reasons why trains make “such a suitable background for a mystery.” 

Part of the answer surely lies in the enclosed nature of life on board a train–the restrictions of space make for a wonderfully atmospheric environment in which tensions can rise rapidly between a small ‘closed circle’ of murder suspects or characters engaged (as in the enjoyable old film Sleeping Car to Trieste) in a deadly game of cat and mouse. 

Edwards covers many wonderful examples of train mysteries in this introduction, so there’s plenty for the aficionado to investigate, but back to this collection which includes:

The Man with the Watches: Arthur Conan Doyle

The Mystery of Felywn Tunnel: L.T Meade and Robert Eustace

How He Cut His Stick: Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway: Baroness Orczy

The Affair of the Corridor Express: Victor L. Whitechurch

The Case of Oscar Brodski: R. Austin Freeman

The Eighth Lamp: Roy Vickers

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem: Ernest Bramah

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face: Dorothy L. Sayers

The Railway Carriage: F. Tennyson Jesse

Mystery of the Slip-Coach: Sapper

The Level-Crossing: Freeman Wills Crofts

The Adventure of the First Class Carriage: Ronald Knox

Murder on the 7:16: Michael Innes

The Coulman Handicap: Michael Gilbert

I’m not going to discuss all the stories–some I enjoyed more than others (and I learned that gold teeth seemed to be, at least in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, an American thing,) but my three favourites are

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face: Dorothy L.Sayers

The Railway Carriage: F. Tennyson Jesse

The Level-Crossing: Freeman Wills Crofts

In The Unsolved Mystery of the Man With No Face, a train compartment full of passengers returning home after the Bank Holiday discuss a savage murder which occurred on a remote beach at East Felpham. This story shows how a train carriage throws together an assortment of people who would not otherwise be found in the same room. In this case, “an overflow” of third-class passengers crowd into the first class carriage. Various opinions rage forth about the crime, but as fate would have it, one of the passengers is Lord Peter Wimsey. Detective Inspector  Winterbottom, also in the carriage, pays close attention to Wimsey’s theories of the crime.

Blood on the tracks

F. Tennyson Jesse’s The Railway Carriage, is a supernatural tale which finds Solange (a series character) inside a carriage with two other passengers– an elderly Cockney woman and a “small, insignificant-looking man” who carries a large black bag.

The commonplace little man, with his shaven cheeks and his deft, stubby fingers, had seemed unusual in a way that was not altogether good, but no message of evil such as had so often told her of harm, had knocked upon her senses when he entered the carriage. Yet it was only since he and the old woman had been in it together that she had felt this spiritual unease. Something was wrong between these two human beings–and yet they apparently did not know each other.

Solange’s unease grows, and she’s relieved when the train stops and picks up other passengers who then enter the carriage. These passengers leave shortly after another stop, and Solange is left alone again with the two morose strangers in an atmosphere heavily laden with turmoil….

Another favourite is The Level Crossing by Freeman Wills Crofts. The story opens with Dunstan Thwaite planning to kill his blackmailer. Thwaite, an accountant at a large steel business dipped into company funds when he courted the wealthy Hilda Lorraine. He always meant to return the money, but another man is blamed for the theft and Thwaite thinks he’s home free until an unpleasant, obsequious blackmailer comes into his life. By this time, Thwaite is unhappily married to the demanding heiress, who as it turns out, wasn’t as rich as he assumed, plus she demands to be kept in an affluent lifestyle. Pressures mount, and between the demanding wife and the slimy blackmailer, Thwaite decides he can take no more and so turns to murder.

This collection is a lot of fun to read for anyone who enjoys the combination of crime and trains. Some of the stories make use of the closed carriage (there’s no corridor to exit to) and also the class divide melts as passengers surge, often dashing to catch a train, into whichever carriage can hold them.  Murder is discussed and murder takes place. In one story, a train is even the mode of murder. Each story is prefaced with a short bio of the author so eager readers can follow up on favorites.

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Days of Awe: A. M Homes

Over the years, I’ve read a number of short stories, and a few from Laurie Colwin, Margaret Atwood, and A.M. Homes stick in my mind. Homes seems to excel in creating people who behave badly, and that brings me to Days of Awe, a collection of twelve short stories

Days of awe

In the first story, Brother on Sunday, a middle-aged plastic surgeon on holiday with friends from his youth ruminates about his career, his relationships and his own mortality, but the holiday ends with a confrontation with his brother, dentist, Roger. While he wonders if he’d still make friends with his current crowd if given the choice, the bigger question is how much will he take from his brother. This story captures the tone of a successful man who is content with his place in life, comfortable with his choices and yet is disengaged and left an observer. We are inside the mind of a plastic surgeon at the beach as he clinically assesses the bodies of strangers around him:

In front of them, a woman is stepping out of her shorts. One side of her bathing suit is unceremoniously wedged in the crack of her ass; she pulls it out with a loud snap. Her rear end is what Sandy calls “coagulated,” a cottage cheese of cellulite, and, below it spider veins explode down her legs like fireworks. 

“Do you ever look at something like that and think about how you could fix it?” Terri asks.

“The interesting thing is that the woman doesn’t seem bothered by it. The people who come to me are bothered by their bodies. They don’t go to the beach and disrobe in public. They come into my office with a list of what they want fixed–it’s like a scratch-and-dent shop.”

In the second, complex story, Whose Story Is it, and Why Is It Always on Her Mind? a Jewish writer attends a conference on genocide. The “transgressive” fiction writer, Rachel, finds herself on a panel which is like “a quiz show with points awarded for the most authentic answer.” As questions bounce around, the writer’s authenticity, and lack of direct experience, is challenged.

Despite the fact that these panels are supposed to be conversations, they are actually competitions, judged by the audience.

The writer strikes up a relationship with Eric, a war correspondent. While the story pivots on this relationship, undercurrents include the survivor’s need to vocalise witnessed horror, or “relentlessly collect and catalog the personal effects of those who disappeared.” And what of Eric who acknowledges that there’s “something wrong” with him and the compulsion to travel to the world’s nightmare atrocities, “having to go back, again and again,” as though he “needs to be punished.” In spite of the fact that Rachel has a girlfriend, left at home, she embarks on an unpredictable relationship with Eric.

Several of the stories are set in California including Hello Everybody, a story in which Walter returns from university to his friend Cheryl’s posh home in Southern California. This is a glimpse into the world of perpetual California makeovers: Walter wears thick makeup to cover his acne, Cheryl sports a new tattoo and her white, white teeth are the result of a “crushed-pearl polish.”

They are forever marking and unmarking their bodies, as though it were entirely natural to write on them and equally natural to erase any desecration or signs of wear, like scribbling notes to oneself on the palm of the hand. 

They are making their bodies their own–renovating, redecorating, the body not just as corpus but as object of self-expression, a symbiotic relation between imagination and reality.

The story’s blurb describes this as an “anthropological expedition,” and it really is. These are “pool people.” Cheryl’s mother, Sylvia, is dealing with the fallout of having her eye colour changed, and the scenes when the entire family (and Walter) go out to a fancy restaurant for dinner where “they serve tiny, designer-size macrobitoic bites” is hilarious. Sister Abigail is anorexic and demands ten calories per menu item. Cheryl is, of course, in constant therapy and at one point she asks her therapist (in an inversion of the usual question) if it’s her fault that her parents are still together. The same family appears again in She Got Away. I would love an entire novel about these people.

And if we’re talking about California, how could Disneyland be neglected?  The Last Good Time is set in Disneyland, and while the story’s protagonist is unappealing, the plot intrigued me. This is the tale of an adult man who, on the brink of losing his grandmother, decides to take off to Disneyland and capture the last good memory of his childhood. The story resonated as I’ve known many people who make monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, or annual pilgrimages to Disneyland for a range of reasons: sentimental/honouring the dead/treasuring childhood memories etc., and it’s a concept I had to get my mind around.

Not all the stories worked for this reader (The National Bird Cage Show, Your Mother Was a Fish), but that didn’t impact my great enjoyment of the other stories. Reading Homes is like tasting a flavour you’ve never had before. Wonderful.

Review copy

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The Governess and Other Stories: Stefan Zweig

I never thought I’d say this: but I was disappointed by two of Zweig’s tales in The Governess and Other Stories. This edition includes Did He Do It? (just over 50 pages long) The Miracles of Life (over 90 long), Downfall of the Heart (almost 50 pages long), and The Governess (just over 20 pages long). This edition is one of Pushkin Press’s attractive pocket-sized books.

The governess

Did He Do It? started out very promisingly indeed. The story is narrated by the wife is a retired government official. They spent their lives in the colonies, and deciding to retire to a small village outside of Bath, they buy a plot of land near the banks of the Kennet and Avon canal. They have a cottage built there, and since there’s not much canal traffic, they look forward to solitude. But of course, their peace doesn’t remain intact for long, and someone builds a house right next door.

Waterweed grows so densely from the bottom of the sluggish, black water that the surface has a shimmer of dark green, like malachite; pale water lilies sway on the smooth surface of the canal, which reflects the flower-grown banks, the bridges and the clouds with photographic accuracy. There is barely a ripple moving on the drowsy waterway. Now and then, half sunk in the water and already overgrown with plants. a broken old boat by the bank recalls the canal’s busy past, of which even visitors who come to take the waters in Bath hardly know anything

A young married couple move in, and while the wife is quiet, self-contained and private, the husband’s boisterous nature grates all too quickly. There’s something off about the couple. Can that be attributed to the mismatch?

Now while the set up sounds good, the denouement is disappointing (and vaguely silly). I can’t say anything else without spoiling the story.

The second piece, The Miracles of Life is an extremely sentimental novella, with loads of religious overtones, about an artist who seeks a model for his painting of the madonna. He ends up finding a young Jewish orphan and persuades her to pose.

The third story Downfall of the Heart is the best of the lot, and if it had been in another collection, I suspect I would have liked it even more than I did. This is the tale of a hardworking man who takes his wife and daughter to Lake Garda instead of following doctor’s advice to “take the waters” at Karlsbad.  He suffers from a number of ailments including gallstones, and during the holiday, he learns, the hard way, how he has spoiled his wife and daughter with the result that that they are ashamed of him and consider him annoying. In some ways, the story reminded me of Bunin’s The Gentleman from San Francisco. Downfall of the Heart is a disillusionment story: here’s a man at the end of his life who discovers, painfully, that he’s slaved and sacrificed for nothing.

I would have liked to be happy myself, just once, feel how beautiful the world of the carefree is for myself, just once, after fifty years of writing and calculating and bargaining and haggling, I would have liked to enjoy a few bright days before they bury me. 

In the last story, The Governess, two children try to make sense of the abrupt dismissal of their beloved Governess. It’s a slightly sentimental story, but doesn’t drip with this emotion as does The Miracles of Life. Two children run headlong into the complex world of adult behaviour and morality, and we know these children will only be able to make sense of this episode when they are adults themselves.

So one really good story, one good story and two not so-hot  tales.

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Foreign Bodies: Martin Edwards ed.

“We want to murder someone. We haven’t the courage to walk up to him and attack him, or for that matter to strike him from behind. So we go to the corner drug store, buy a penny’s worth of rat poison, and give it to the son-in-law, the man across the street, the husband, the lover.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of The British Crime Classics series, published here in America by Poisoned Pen Press. The short story collection, Foreign Bodies, edited and introduced by Martin Edwards, contains a wide range of short stories from all over the globe. We readers often seek out books from other countries and chew over the customs, traditions and beliefs. Foreign Bodies shows that international flare aside, murder… occurs everywhere and for the same reasons: greed, rage, jealousy are all ingredients that, when explosive enough, can add up to murder.

Here’s the list of contents:

The Swedish Match: Anton Chekhov (Russia) Translated by Peter Sekerin

A Sensible Course of Action: Palle Rosenkrantz (Denmark)

Strange Tracks: Balduin Groller (Hungary: Romania after his death)

The Kennel: Maurice Level (France)

Footprints in the Snow: Maurice Leblanc (France)

The Return of Lord Kingwood: Ivans (Netherlands) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Stage Box Murder: Paul Rosenhayn  (Germany)

The Spider: Koga Saburo (Japan) Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Venom of the Tarantula: Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (India) Translated by Sreejata Guha

Murder à la Carte: Jean-Toussaint Samat (France)

The Cold Night’s Clearing: Keikichi Osaka (Japan) Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Mystery of the Green Room: Pierre Véry (France)

Kippers: John Flanders (Belgium) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Lipstick and the Teacup: Havank (Dutch) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Puzzle of the Broken Watch: Maria Elvira Bermudez (Mexico) Translated by Donald A. Yates

I’m not going to discuss all the stories in this wonderful collection–after all, the themes are murder and detection, but I will discuss some of my favourites. The Chekhov story, The Swedish Match seems to have fun with the detective genre, while The Kennel is short, vicious and horrific. Shades of Joseph Conrad linger in Kippers.

If spiders creep you out, then you will shiver over The Venom of the Tarantula and The Spider. In The Venom of the Tarantula, a man is asked to discover how a bedbound “foul-mouthed; mistrustful, crafty malicious” writer continues to get a supply of his favourite drug: the venom of tarantulas.

The Spider is eerie, unusual and gripping. In this tale, a young man is employed to enter the abandoned laboratory of Tsujikawa, a dead professor, who died of …  yes you guessed it … a bite from a poisonous spider.

At first sight, the laboratory resembled a misshapen lighthouse or a time-worn fire watchtower. I gazed up at the building in awe. 

The narrator is asked by the dead professor’s family to go into the building which is full of jars of “monstrous spiders.” He’s supposed to dispose of them, and after all … the one that killed the professor may still be loose.

I knew where The Return of Lord Kingwood was headed, but I enjoyed the character of Mr Monk (and his bribery of a local lad) so much that I didn’t care that the story’s trajectory was predictable.

Murder à la Carte deals with the subject of poisoning in an intriguing way:

Poisoning? What with? With anything you choose! Or nothing whatever! I mean just that. People don’t realize it, that’s all. They think they know; they really don’t know anything about it. They think that you have to use a poison. Strychnine? Obviously strychnine is a poison. A killer. But the symptoms of strychnine poisoning are too well know. And besides, you have to get strychnine. But why bother with strychnine? You talk about poisons. There are hundreds of effective poisons. Ah, but their symptoms, too, are all known? And even those whose symptoms aren’t known reveal themselves in the autopsy? Well there are things which are poison, and things which are not poison. Poison and nonpoison. There’s no trick about murdering with poison; any fool can do it, provided he has the killer instinct, or the desire, or the need. 

The Stage Box Murder is an epistolary between a young man and the girl he hopes to marry when his fortunes improve. A murder opens up a career opportunity for the young man, but the crime brings a famous American detective to the scene…

A Sensible Course of Action from Danish writer Palle Rosenkrantz is set right after the Russian civil war and concerns a beautiful Russian countess who claims that her vengeful brother-in-law, who is hot on her heels, intends to kill her. Lieutenant Holst is called in to investigate a situation that requires no small amount of diplomacy. Holst tends to dismiss the Countess’s claim (the fact that she’s female works against her), and yet … there’s always the thought of recent Russian political events:

The whole business mighty have come out of a Russian novel, but in Russia, as one knew from the newspapers, anything was possible. 

Included here is yet another new name for me: Maria Elvira Bermudez “One of the most prolific female detective fiction writers in the Spanish-speaking world,” and here I’d (shamefully) never heard of her, and that brings me back to the collection’s merit. I’d never heard of most of these writers, but according to the intro before each story, these authors were prolific, popular and important to the genre in their respective countries.

This is a wonderful collection for crime aficionados and it’s a great way to collect names that we may not have heard of before. Martin Edwards provides a brief, yet informative intro, focusing on literary careers, of each writer.

review copy.

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The Beauties: Essential Stories: Chekhov

“I realized how unnecessary, trivial and false everything had been that prevented us from loving each other. I realized that when you are in love, you must start your reflections about your love with what is highest, what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, or sin or virtue in their accepted senses–or you shouldn’t reflect at all.”

The Beauties, from Pushkin Press, is a splendid collection of Chekhov short stories. These 13 stories examine many facets of Russian life through the themes of love and loss, and that elusive, shimmering moment: when all that is important in life becomes crystal clear.

Here’s the contents:

The Beauties

The Man in a Box

A Day in the Country

A Blunder

About Love

Grief

The Bet

A Misfortune

Sergeant Prishibeyev

The Lady With the Little Dog

The Huntsman

The Privy Councillor

The Kiss

The Beauties is told by a man who recalls seeing two remarkably beautiful girls over the course of his life, and he notes how this beauty struck him on two different occasions: the desire to be near beauty, and also a sadness, a sense of longing.

Whether I envied her beauty, or whether I was sorry that this girl was not mine and never would be mine and that I was a stranger to her, or whether I had a vague feeling that her rare beauty was accidental , and like everything on earth, would not last; or whether my sadness was that special feeling aroused when a person contemplates real beauty-God only knows!

I loved The Man in a Box (a Burkin/Ivan Ivanovich story) for its intense character study of the neurotic teacher Belikov:

That man showed a constant, overpowering urge to surround himself with a sort of wrapping, to create an outer box for himself, which would isolate him and protect him from outside influences. Reality upset him, frightened him, kept him in a constant state of alarm; and perhaps it was to justify this timidity on his part, his aversion towards the present time, that he always praised the past, and things which had never been. 

Although Belikov is in many ways, an introvert, nonetheless he dominates his surroundings and manages, through his warped sense of duty, to make everyone in his circle miserable. Belikov’s downfall, his bête noire, if you like, is love which appears in the form of Varenka, the sister of another teacher.

The Beauties

About Love is another one of Chekhov’s Burkin/Ivan Ivanovich stories. The narrator, Aliokhin relates how he fell in love with a married woman, and how we question love too much, intellectualize it when in fact we should just act:

And we too, when we’re in love, never stop asking ourselves questions–whether this is honorable or dishonourable, sensible or stupid, where this love is leading, and so forth. Whether all that’s good or not, I don’t know, but I do know that it’s unsatisfying and upsetting and gets in the way. 

My favourite story in the entire collection is The Bet. This is a story that covers a fifteen year period and concerns a bet (19th century Russian bets always seem extreme) that takes place over the question of whether or not the death penalty is preferable to a long, solitary prison sentence. I can’t say much about this story without giving away some of its most delightful elements, but I will say that this story shows how well Chekhov understood human nature and why he is a master of the short story.

A couple of the short stories are a touch too sentimental for me, but overall, this is a magnificent collection. Of course, it includes The Lady With the Little Dog, which is arguably Chekhov’s most famous story–at least it seems to be the one that makes the anthologies so often. I’ve read this story many times, and yet I read it again, and this time I found it even more poignant than I remember. This collection is superb: either a great introduction of those new to Chekhov, or a great reminder of this writer’s phenomenal talent.

I wish Gooseberries had been included, but it isn’t, so now off to read it.

Translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater

Review copy

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Bodily Secrets: William Trevor

William Trevor’s Bodily Secrets is a collection of 5 short stories in Penguin’s Great Loves series. As you’d expect, the topic is love, but the selection here offers a wide range of aspects on this complicated topic. We see the end of love, a love that cannot endure poverty, compromises in love, and a love that is destroyed by shame.

Bodily Secrets

In The Day We Got Drunk On Cake, Mike is persuaded to spend a night out on the town with a disreputable acquaintance:

Garbed in a crushed tweed coat, fingering the ragged end of a tie that might have already done a year’s service around his waist, Swann de Lisle uttered a convivial obscenity in the four hundred cubic feet of air they euphemistically called my office. I had not seen him for some years: he is the kind of person who is often, for no reason one can deduce, out of the country. In passing, one may assume that his lengthy absences are due in some way to the element of disaster that features so commandingly in his make-up.  

That’s the opening paragraph of the story. “Swann is a great one for getting the best out of life,” and he persuades Mike to ditch work and join him in a pub for the afternoon. Swann has arranged to meet two women, “Margo and Jo, a smart pair who drew pictures for magazines.” Margo starts complaining about her husband Nigel who keeps bringing home gangs of elderly women, and somehow or another, Mike is strong-armed into becoming involved. During the hours that pass, Mike is supposed to call Nigel and harass him about his old ladies, but instead, at first at least, he calls a woman named Lucy. He’s in love with Lucy and finds any excuse he can to pester her on the phone, but she’s clearly moved on…

This is one of my two favourite stories in the book. It’s a funny story but bitter-sweet. Mike realises that in this precious moment in time, he still loves Lucy, but he knows that time will eventually blur those feelings.

Lovers Of Their Time concerns a married travel agent, Norman Britt who begins an affair with Marie, a girl who works at the chemists. I won’t say anything much more about the story, but I will mention his marriage to Hilda, a woman who works at home making jewelry. Hilda is a bit of a dark horse:

‘All right then?’ she said when he carried his tray of food into the sitting-room and sat down in front of the television set. ‘Want some V.P., eh?’

Her eyes continued to watch the figures on the screen as she spoke. He knew she’d prefer to be in the Fowlers’ house or at the Club, although now that they’d acquired a Tv set the evenings passed easier when they were alone together.

‘No, thanks,’ he said in reply to her offer of wine and he began to eat something that appeared to be a rissole. There were two of them, round and brown in a tin-foil container that also contained gravy. He hoped she wasn’t going to be demanding in their bedroom. He eyed her, for sometimes he could tell.

‘Hi,’ she said, noticing the glance.’Feeling fruity, dear?’ She laughed and winked, her suggestive voice seeming odd as it issued from her thin, rather dried-up face. 

Lovers of Their Time explores the idea that the 60s intoxicated the behaviour of the middle-aged–not just the young. A sort of Pandora’s Box of possibilities, and one that Norman opens. This is an affair, like most affairs, that has a glamour that’s removed from the details of day-to-day life, such as dried out rissoles from the oven. What’s also fun here is Norman’s assumption that he’s the only one with longings.

The next two stories are nicely contrasted. Bodily Secrets is the story of a middle-aged, wealthy widow who flouts convention when she decides to marry one of the family’s employees. Honeymoon in Tramore concerns a young couple who get married–she’s pregnant by someone else, and her new husband is an employee on the family farm.

In Love With Ariadne is the story of a young medical student who falls in love with the daughter of his landlady. This is another bittersweet story of a love that’s nursed for years and that survives in memory.

If you’ve never read Irish author William Trevor before, Bodily Secrets is a wonderful introduction. The gentle humour tinged with bittersweet poignancy, it’s all here.

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German Stories and Tales: Robert Rick ed. (Part III)

Back to German Stories and Tales, and here’s part I and part II for anyone interested in the contents of this modest OOP book. Readers who are seeking German stories really can’t go wrong with this collection, for most of the tales here are excellent.

In Moritz Heimann’s  (1868-1925) story The Message That Failed, a tale of unrequited love, humble revenue clerk/poet Vincentius Hüttenvogel returns from the theatre following a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. In a burst of enthusiasm, he writes a poem to the singer who played the role of Cherubino in a sexually ambiguous fashion:

Vincentius, who had often seen and heard her, but had formerly resented her crude, naturalistic vocal style, was at first vexed and then enkindled by her Cherubino’s ambiguity. Artlessness this time impressed him as superior art; no love song had ever had the elemental quality of this gay, careless outpouring from a creature who did not lure a woman with male wiles or try as a woman to seduce a man. This was no longer yearning or mere concupiscence. This was rapture itself an all its sweetness. 

Vincentius considers sending the singer, Nanette, the poem, but decides against it. His landlady. however, finds the poem, copies it, and sends it to Nanette. Nanette is used to fan mail, but this poem strikes at her heart, and somehow the adulation shown by its author make her impatient with her young, wealthy lover, Xavier. So begins a search for the poet, a search laced with irony and a bittersweet ending. (translated by E.B. Ashton)

Arthur Schnitzler’s The Bachelor’s Death reminded me, slightly,  of the old film, Letter to Three Wives. A doctor, a writer, and a businessman are called to the bedside of their friend, a bachelor, but they all arrive too late; the bachelor is dead. The doctor discovers a letter written by the bachelor and reads it aloud. To state the contents of the letter would be to give away too much, but I’ll say that the letter is a confession which has profound implications for the three men. (translated by Richard and Clara Winston)

Another great favourite is Hermann Broch’s Zerline, the Old Servant Girl. At first it seemed as though the focus would be A., an affluent businessman with the Midas touch. But no, the focus is Zerline, a bitter, nasty old servant who tells a story of her youth and the competition between her and her mistress, the Baroness, for the love of a dissolute man.

Man is cheap, and his memory is full of holes that he can never patch up. How much of what you forget forever you have to do in order for what you have done to be able to carry the little that you keep forever. Everyone forgets his everyday life. With me it was all the furniture that I dusted day after day, all the plates that had to be wiped, and like everyone else. I sat down every day to eat. But as with everyone, it’s only a knowing about it, not a real remembering, as though it had all happened without any weather, good or bad. Even the lust I enjoyed has become a space without weather, and though my gratitude for what was alive has remained, the names and features that once meant lust and even love to me have vanished more and more from my mind, vanished into a glass gratitude that has no content any more.Empty glasses, empty glasses. And yet if it weren’t for the emptiness, if it weren’t for the forgotten, the forgettable wouldn’t have been able to grow. The forgotten carries empty-handed the unforgettable, and we are carried by the unforgettable. 

It’s a long quote, slightly awkward in the beginning, but it captures life and memories so well, and how at the end of our lives, we forget all the meals we’ve eaten, all the boring stuff, and instead our lives are accordioned into some “unforgettable” memories. In the case of Zerline, the unforgettable shrinks down to a few days with Herr von Juna…. (translated by Jane B. Greene)

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Filed under Broch Hermann, Fiction, Heimann Moritz, Schnitzler Arthur

German Stories and Tales: Robert Pick Ed. (part II)

Following on from the first post about German Stories and Tales ed. by Robert Pick, I’m going to cover a few more of my favourite selections from this stellar collection. The three stories described here (I’m not counting Krambambuli by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach) explore various scenarios regarding tragic love.

An Episode in the Life of the Marshall de Bassompierre by Hugo von Hofmannsthal is a story told in retrospect by a man who’s attracted to a beautiful French shopkeeper. She has formed the habit of standing outside of her shop and greeting the narrator as he passes by on his horse. The woman’s interest is so noticeable, that the Marshall de Bassompierre sends a servant to secure an assignation with this beauty.

The assignation is a bit tawdry with the meeting taking place at a procuress’s grubby establishment. Since there’s plague in the city, the Marshall takes along (by his servant’s advice) his own mattress and sheets. Bassompierre’s new mistress, it turns out is married, and the assignation, while enjoyed by Bassompierre, clearly means a great deal more to the woman who has given herself freely but may suffer consequences. The couple make another assignation. …

There’s a gothic feel along with an accompanying sense of dread to An Episode in the Life of the Marshall de Bassompierre. What means so much to the young woman is clearly less meaningful to Bassompierre, yet the incident haunts him for years to come. (Translated by Mary Hottinger)

Lukardis by Jakob Wasserman has a similar theme of a woman who sacrifices a great deal for a man. This story is set in Russia and concerns a young dragoon named Evgen who, when he hears that his sister has been deported to Siberia for subversive activity, revolts when he’s ordered to suppress a protest in the streets. In the skirmish that follows, Evgen joins the protestors and is shot by his fellow dragoons. Subsequently, Evgen is smuggled into a network of sympathetic people, but with the police on the hunt for Evgen, hiding this badly wounded man is a liability that most households won’t risk. Enter Anastasia Karlovna, an influential woman who agrees to hide Evgen, but finds that she soon runs out of options until she comes up with a brilliant plan. But she needs a respectable young woman who is willing to make a sacrifice.  … (Translated by Lewis Galantière)

For animal lovers, I’d recommend passing on Krambambuli by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach. It’s a short story that shows that we humans mostly don’t deserve, or understand, the animals in our lives, and it has scenes of  animal cruelty.

Cardiac Suture from Ernst Weiss is an unusual story for its depiction of an operation. The story begins in an auditorium where students attend lectures, but the auditorium converts into an operating room when, mid-lecture, a young woman who stabbed herself through the heart, is rushed into the room. The lecture turns into demo, and as fate would have it, one of the students is the love interest of the dying girl.  It’s a strange story which leaves the reasons for the suicide attempt vague, but instead focuses on the doctor who lectures and then operates on the girl in front of his students. While the doctor (he’s known as the General) who operates dehumanises his patient, he’s nonetheless efficient–all business while the girl’s lover, who assists, is patently disturbed.

Upon reflection, the story is terrifying as the silent, anguished emotional drama between the student and the girl is subsumed by the efficient process of the operation. We know that the operation, in full view of a class full of students, will conclude, but what will happen afterwards? (Translated by E.B. Ashton)

Operating time: seven minutes and a half. A hundred years ago Napoleon’s personal physician could amputate a leg in that time, including everything, blood-stilling, et cetera. But those were other masters than we are. Well, pick the patient up carefully and lift her into the bed-or rather, let me do it. That’s it-that’s the way. Hot-water bottles ready? Cover her. Cover her! Everything all right. Everything else we’ll leave to luck. Good morning, gentleman, good morning. 

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Filed under Fiction, Hofmannsthal Hugo von, Wasserman Jakob, Weiss Ernst