Kate Atkinson – Charlotte and Trudi Go Shopping
… from Not the End of the World (2002)
Today’s story is by a writer who, I think, has been continually underrated by the literary establishment. While Kate Atkinson has won the Costa Novel of the Year Award three times, for Behind the Scenes at the Museum, (when it was the Whitbread Award),Life After Life and A God in Ruins, she’s never even been on the longlist for the Booker Prize. Which seems like a terrible oversight to me. Is it because she not only writes great books but sells a lot of copies too? To my mind, Life After Life in particular should have won every award going.
I’m also a great fan of her Jackson Brodie crime novels, of which the fifth, Big Sky, will be published in a few months’ time.
Charlotte and Trudi Go Shoppingis about two women who constantly indulge in retail therapy, even as the world around them appears to be going into something of an apocalyptic meltdown. They’re as unconcerned as the characters in Ray Bradbury’s story earlier in the month were. There’s a lot about consumerism in it, a lot of brand names, a lot of desire, and it’s very funny. It’s a commentary on how increasingly oblivious we are to what is going on in the world as we pamper ourselves and become ever more lost in trivial matters. And if that was true in 2002, when this collection was published, it’s probably even more relevant today when we spend so much of our time buried in our phones, tablets and screens and living at a time when reality television stars clutter up the pages of newspapers.
I came across a very funny line in Atkinson’s story. Charlene is a journalist with a bridal magazine, charged with writing a feature titled ‘Ten Things to Consider Before You Say, “I Do”’.
‘Saying “I Don’t”?’ Trudi suggests.
I hear you, sister.
Bandi – Record of a Defection
… from The Accusation (2017)
This is an unusual one. The story collection, The Accusation, was smuggled out of North Korea a few years ago and has gone on to be published in over twenty languages. The author’s identity, of course, remains a secret but his or her pseudonym, Bandi, means firefly.
I’m fascinated by North Korea and by the totalitarian government that has existed there since the 1950s. It seems to be one of the very few places in the world that remains, for the most part, a complete mystery to outside observers. It’s almost impossible to visit as a Westerner and if you are lucky enough to get in, you cannot leave your hotel without the accompaniment of a guard.
The opening story in the book concerns a couple whose family histories are rather different: hers is flawless but his contains some negativity towards the Party, making him a figure of suspicion within society, a ‘Black Crow’. When he discovers that his wife is hiding contraceptive pills in their apartment, his investigations lead him down a rabbit hole of mystery to the point where they have no choice but to attempt a defection.
To live in such fear is something that, thankfully, most of us will never know. It recalls post-Revolutionary Russia, with neighbours reporting on neighbours, or some of the darker experiences of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. And, as readers, we must spare a thought for all those writers living in North Korea who are desperate to tell their stories, to write their novels and plays, to reach a wide audience with their ideas. How frustrating it must be to be too frightened to put pen to paper in case it leads to your arrest or the arrest of your family. And how exasperating not to be able to fulfil your artistic aspirations.
Christos Tsiolkas – Jessica Lange in Frances
… from Merciless Gods (2014)
My favourite novel of the twenty-first century so far is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. I remember buying it when I landed in Melbourne for the Writers Festival in 2008 and, from the moment I started reading it, I was unable to put it down. The exploration of these eight different characters and the prejudices of and towards the Greek-Australian community made me long to write a book as good as that. It always excites me when I read something that I want to share with everyone I know and that was one of those books.
Looking through the contents of Merciless Gods, I couldn’t resist this title. I love Jessica Lange, even though she always makes me feel nervous, and wanted to know how she would find her way into the story. This is gritty stuff. A young man, ostensibly straight, is picked up by another at a party. They have rough sex and, later, there’s a rape. The narrative voice is despondent, his living conditions grim, the atmosphere one of depressed, muted rage. It put me in mind of Tsiolkas’ debut novel Loaded, which was turned into the film Head On starring the brilliant Alex Dimitriades, who would go on to play Harry in the TV adaptation of The Slap. It’s the kind of story that basically grabs you by the balls and just won’t let go.
I met Christos for a drink during that festival and did the whole fanboy thing and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. Over the last decade, he’s become one of my best writing friends. He’s always full of life, affection and warmth and has an infectious laugh. His most recent novel, Barracuda, is another terrific novel, exploring the nature of failure in a world which only values success.
Angela Carter – The Company of Wolves
… from The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (1979)
I like the idea of taking old fairy tales, recognising the many cruelties that lie at their heart, and then rewriting them in such a way that they feel relevant to the contemporary world. I’ve written about this in regard to some of the earlier stories in this project, notably Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, but there are many more examples of this exquisite subversion. It’s strange how we so often use fairy tales to send children to sleep, when really, we might be despatching them into eight hours of nightmares.
Angela Carter, a great British writer who died far too young, enjoyed great success with this collection of updated fairy tales and this story, which was adapted by Neil Jordan for cinema, is one of the stand-outs. The image of the anthropomorphised wolf disguised as a man leading the little girl to her grandmother’s house is disturbing and the old refrain of ‘What big eyes you have’ takes on a more sinister meaning when addressed to the salivating animal.
As with yesterday’s Wild West story, I have a connection to this in that I used the fairy tale form when writing my second book for younger readers, Noah Barleywater Runs Away. I’m sorry to say that it’s the least favourite of my own books and its genesis was something of a nightmare. There’s an interesting idea in there somewhere – it plays on the story of Pinocchio – but I’m not sure that it entirely succeeds.
Apparently, at the time of her death, Angela Carter was working on a sequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Unfortunately, all she left was a synopsis, which is a great shame. While most sequels to classic novels are usually terrible, there is the odd exception. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, for example. I suspect that Carter’s book would have been in that league.
Emma Donoghue – The Long Way Home
… from Astray (2012)
If I was to make a list of my ten favourite contemporary authors, Emma Donoghue would easily find her way into the upper reaches of it. An extraordinary creative force, Donoghue is a hugely successful novelist, but is also the author of many short stories, plays, screenplays, children’s books and works of non-fiction.
The Long Way Home is, unsurprisingly, a terrific story, and all the better for the fact that it explores terrain that is rarely written about. A female bounty-hunter in the Wild West is given the job of returning a man to his pregnant wife after he’s been drinking and spending their money for four days straight. They bicker and debate as they make their way towards justice, and we discover their characters through their witty interaction, leading to a neat twist in the tale. I wonder was this story a rough sketch for the novel Frog Music, which has a similar theme and is also set in Wild West times?
No one writes about those days anymore, it seems, but I tried it myself in my second novel, The Congress of Rough Riders, which is an ambitious but perhaps not entirely successful book.
Of course, one of the things to admire most about Emma Donoghue is her determination. Despite publishing some fine novels in the early stages of her career, the literary establishment seemed to pigeon-hole her as a lesbian writer, which prevented her books from reaching a wide audience until the world-conquering Roomcame along in 2010, at which point she transformed into a superstar. And she’s turned it into gold ever since, producing brilliant work after brilliant work. I’ve read with her a few times at festivals and she’s always great fun. Smart, witty and generous. My favourite of her books remains The Sealed Letter.
Tom Rachman – Basket of Deplorables
… from Basket of Deplorables (2017)
I was at a publishing lunch during the London Book Fair a couple of years ago and found myself seated next to the Canadian writer Tom Rachman, whose debut novel, The Imperfectionists, I had adored. In many ways, it was a collection of stories combined into a novel form, but each one worked brilliantly and it was one of my favourite books of that year. As we talked, he mentioned a new short story collection that he was working on called Basket of Deplorables and I nearly fell off the seat laughing. What a great title! Hillary really gave something to the language in that one.
The book contains five long stories and this one is the best. A group of liberal friends gather together to watch the 2016 Presidential Election results come in, confident that Hillary Clinton will eviscerate Donald Trump, as they assume that we live in a sane world. As the night unfolds, of course, things do not go quite according to plan, the bad guy wins, and among the devastated friends, various secrets become revealed.
It’s a great idea and it works brilliantly. I imagine that there were any number of such gatherings in November 2016, all the participants gradually wondering whether they were living in some sort of alternate universe where a population would elect an unqualified, unintelligent, mentally unstable misogynist and racist to the highest office in their land. It would have been quite something to have been a fly on the wall at both Clinton headquarters and Trump headquarters that night.
I remember staying up to watch the returns myself, intending only to watch until it became clear that Hillary had won, and finally going to bed when Florida was still in play, feeling a distinct sense of disquiet. Turning on the television the following morning, it was almost impossible to believe what I was seeing.
The Brothers Grimm – The Young Man Who Went Out in Search of Fear
… from The Complete Fairy Tales (1856)
I mentioned Jacob and Wilhem Grimm when I wrote about Hans Christian Andersen at the end of January and, looking through the contents page of their Complete Fairy Tales, I was struck by the title of this particular story.
It’s astonishing how vicious and frightening some of these pieces are. They’re filled with murderous step-parents, cannibalistic witches and anthropomorphised animals that hide their lust for murder beneath a friendly surface. In this story, a young man wants to understand the meaning of fear and, rather than telling him to look it up in a dictionary like a normal person, his father advises him to ‘travel about the world for some time, and you’ll soon get to know what fear is.’ Needless to say, he comes across a lot of unpleasantness on his journey, including a dead man hanging from a noose who engages in conversation with him, a whole series of ghosts and a malevolent castle. Finally, a king shows him exactly what the meaning of fear is.
There are so many strange and disturbing titles in this collection: The Grateful Dead Man and the Princess Rescued from Slavery, How Some Children Played at Slaughtering, The Poor Boy in the Grave, The Devil and his Grandmother. What were these guys on? We think of these stories as being intended for children but actually, they’d give children nightmares.
Of course, after their original publication, many of the Grimm Brothers’ stories were criticised by readers of the time who felt that they did not show sufficient respect to parents of children and, because of this, some were toned down in various reprints. The edition that I own is, I think, quite close to the brothers’ original intentions and shows them at their diabolical best.
Ann Beattie – Janus
… from The New Yorker Stories (2011)
A short story writer must be pretty good indeed to be able to publish an entire collection with that title. Of course, since its inception in 1925, The New Yorker has been a repository of great stories, although it’s hard not to feel that it has rather let itself down in recent times by publishing sub-standard and shallow work by movie stars – James Franco, Jesse Eisenberg, and so on – that would certainly have been rejected had they been submitted under a less famous name. It’s a shame to see a once-venerated magazine bend the knee to Hollywood in so craven a fashion.
Beattie’s story, however, is a very thoughtful one and a reminder of where the magazine does well on its selections. A real-estate agent, Andrea, owns a very beautiful bowl that she brings to all her house showings. She places it somewhere in sight and it always seems to bring her luck, some potential buyers even phoning her afterwards to know where they might get one of those bowls themselves.
Only as the story develops do we learn how she acquired the bowl in the first place and the importance of it in her life. There’s a great sense of loneliness in the story as one feels that the only thing that Andrea has of any value is the bowl itself and she brings it with her everywhere she goes, almost as a comfort blanket. It represents perfection for her in a life where everything else is fundamentally flawed.
Eliza Robertson – L’Étranger
… from Wallflowers (2015)
Eliza Robertson is a very talented new writer from Vancouver. I know her a little from my University of East Anglia days, where she was a student on the creative writing course. Her debut collection, Wallflowers, was highly acclaimed upon publication and her first novel, Demi-Gods, which was set in the 1950s and explored the end of childhood, followed a few years later and was also very well received. She was also awarded the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
This story is a good example of Robertson’s skill with words and character. After earning her Master’s Degree, a young woman moves to Marseille in France ‘to let (her) hair grow’. If I moved to Marseille to do that I’d be living there for the rest of my life. Anyway, she moves in with a Ukrainian woman and the pair don’t get along, leading to act of vengeance on her part that she quickly regrets. The story is completely on target.
I’ve only had two flatmates in my life, and then a housemate in my ex-husband, and I got along with all three exceptionally well, although I think in general, I’m more suited to living alone.
It’s quite brave to use the title of a very famous work – in this case, L’Étrangerby Albert Camus – as the title of your own story. I think you can get away with it in a short story but you couldn’t possibly do it with a novel.
I’ll be back at UEA in mid-March to take part in the UEA Literary Festival. Tickets for that are on sale now. It’ll be interesting to talk about A Ladder to the Sky there as one third of it takes place on campus and involves the creative writing course itself.
Elizabeth Taylor – In and Out of the Houses
… from The Devastating Boys & Other Stories (1972)
Another on my long list of famous writers who I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never got around to, Elizabeth Taylor is someone whose work I have long wanted to read. Today’s story is an absolute joy. A young girl, Kitty, spends her mornings dropping in to various houses in her village, both spreading and collecting various bits of gossip along her way. The villagers pretend to find her both helpful and irritating in varying degrees, while her mother warns her that she will be barred from every kitchen and living-room if she talks too much about private matters. The story ends on a hilarious note when, as Kitty returns to school and can no longer make her visits, ‘no one in the village knew what was happening any more’.
Kitty is also writing a novel and there is a great fear among the residents that she is writing about them, but no. She’s writing about animals and a girl who befriends them.
I suppose this leads to the inevitable question of how friends and family view the writing of people they know. In my case, I tend not to write about acquaintances, or if I do, then I do it unconsciously and it’s certainly possible that they show up in my books without me intending them to. People who know me well often say they can hear my ‘voice’ in the narrators of my books.
The only exception to that has been my recent novel, A Ladder to the Sky, the idea for which was sparked by someone I knew for a couple of years and who had great ambitions to entering the literary world. Like the central character of my book, the chap in question would do anything and use anyone to achieve his goals, and like Kitty in this story, he was an inveterate gossip.
Mary Lamb – The Farm House
… from Mrs Leicester’s School (1809)
When I was in school, we were forced to read Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia, my only memory of which is that they served as a hugely successful narcoleptic. Of course, I was thirteen at the time and I daresay if I was to try them today, I might find them a little more interesting, although I have no immediate plans to find out.
However, I came across this story of Mary Lamb’s – Charles’ sister – today and decided to give it a go. And I’m delighted to report that Miss Lamb turns out to have been just as tiresome as her brother for The Farm House recounts a visit a young girl makes to her grandmother’s house but has little to recommend it other than a series of memories of food that she ate and flowers that she plucked during her stay. Really, I’m not quite sure what the point of it all is.
That said, I did a little research into Mary Lamb’s life and, as it turns out, she was far more interesting than I might have imagined. A certified lunatic – there were a lot of certified lunatics in the nineteenth century – at the age of thirty-two, she was preparing dinner at home one evening, along with one of the servants, and when she pushed the girl out of the way, her mother, Elizabeth Lamb, shouted at her. Incensed, and perhaps overwhelmed by the fact that she had been her mother’s full-time carer for many years, Mary took the knife that she’d been using and stabbed Mrs Lamb through the heart, killing her. Mary was immediately confined to a mental institution, Fisher House. In the end, her devoted brother brought her to live with him in London, at which point they stayed together for the rest of their lives. I hope he kept the knives locked away.
VS Pritchett – A Careless Widow
… from A Careless Widow and Other Stories (1989)
Despite being a compulsive reader who somehow manages to get through more than one hundred books every year, it seems that there are still so many great writers out there whose work I have yet to sample. V.S. Pritchett is one of them. Of course, I’ve been aware of his name throughout my reading life but that’s been the extent of it. Perhaps because he died in 1997 and so much of my reading is based around new novels and story collections. But that’s the joy of reading a different story every day. I can finally get around to writers who I have shamefully neglected over the years.
The volume of Pritchett’s stories that I own is a selection chosen by the great William Trevor, who will certainly appear in this project as the year progresses, and I felt a great sense of anticipation opening it. What if Pritchett turned out to be the greatest writer of all and suddenly my mind was opened to him? It’s always a treat when something like that happens and there’s a vast body of work available for one to explore.
A Careless Widow tells the story of Lionel, an ageing women’s hairdresser, who is on his regular holiday near Land’s End when, to his horror, he encounters the lady who lives in the flat beneath him in London. She’s not staying in the hotel but eats there every night, along with her son, and his idyll of peace and introspection is ruined. However, their several encounters across the days, along with his memories of the death of her husband, reveals more about Lionel than might have been expected. His loneliness, for one. The subtle hints at his homosexuality. His irritation at seeing Mrs Morris but his inability to stop thinking about her. It has a little in common, in fact, with the Saki story from two days ago.
Edmund White – The Creative Writing Murders
… from Chaos (2007)
Well, who could resist a title like that? Having been a student on a Creative Writing Masters programme, and having taught on the same course, I know a little about homicidal impulses, whether they be aimed at the students or the teachers. I’m a great believer in writing courses, despite the negative press they sometimes get. If a student approaches one with the right attitude they can learn a lot and no one comes away from a course a lesser writer than they went in. The problem, of course, is that they’re at their best when successful and talented writers are at the helm and it can be difficult to find people with time enough on their hands to devote to teaching.
I love Edmund White. He’s one of the most brilliant, provocative and fearless writers of the last fifty years and this story is utterly hilarious, narrated by a Mexican-American woman sardonically judging each of her colleagues in the creative writing department even as two of them get murdered in horrible, but gruesomely funny, ways. The fact that she’s deeply homophobic only adds to the humour. It ends a bit abruptly, however, which is a shame. I could have happily sat and read two or three hundred more pages of that voice.
A couple of years ago, I shared a stage with Edmund at a festival in Ireland and it was one of those moments where I felt blessed to be a writer. I hadn’t seen him in some years and as he’d grown a little frail in the intervening time, I took his arm in mine as we walked across to the signing tent together afterwards. It took us the best part of five minutes to get there but I found it a very moving experience, to be physically connected to someone I’ve admired for so long.
Saki – The Peace of Mowsle Barton
… from The Chronicles of Clovis (1911)
I remember reading a Saki short story back in school, I think it was prescribed for our Intermediate Certificate exams, but I can’t remember which one or what it was about. When I chose this story, however, I thought that Mowsle Barton was going to turn out to be a person but in fact it’s a place, rather splendidly named, wherein resides a farmhouse, the preferred holiday venue of the equally splendidly named Crefton Lockyer.
Crefton thinks that this might be somewhere he can retire to, away from the hustle and bustle of city life, but in fact a series of peculiar events take place that make him reconsider. There are a number of malevolent old ladies on hand, for example, not to mention a group of suicidal ducks. It’s amusing in its way but, given Saki’s high reputation, I wonder whether I perhaps unintentionally chose a lesser work. I’d try another but I don’t want to write about an author twice during this project.
After reading the story I did a little investigation about Saki on the Internet. His real name was HH Munro, he was gay, and he was killed during the Great War at the Battle of the Ancre, which was part of the Battle of the Somme. The pen-name Saki refers to the cupbearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Why do some people choose pen names, I wonder? It seems to be something that happened more in the past than today. Flann O’Brien, Ford Madox Ford, George Eliot, George Orwell, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, P.L. Travers, they were all pen-names. More recently, the author Dan Mallory has styled himself as AJ Finn, but the least said about that the better.
Saki’s last words, according to his sister Ethel, who wrote a biography of her brother in The Square Egg, were ‘Put that bloody cigarette out!’
James Joyce – Araby
… from Dubliners (1914)
It’s Valentine’s Day, so it has to be something romantic, right?
Most collections of short stories contain a couple of duds along the way but Dubliners, probably the most famous collection ever published, is one of those rare books where every single one is a classic. The structure of the book is simple but clever, with each tale representing a different stage in life, from birth to death.
Arabyhas always been my favourite story in Dubliners. A young boy wants to go a fair to buy a gift for the girl he likes but is frustrated by having to remain at home longer than he wants. When he finally gets there, he encounters only disappointment. Welcome to the world, kid.
A few years ago, I was invited by the Irish publishing house, Tramp Press, to contribute a story to a new collection, Dubliners 100, in which each story would be ‘re-imagined’ by a contemporary Irish writer. We were given total freedom in how we interpreted the work and I chose this story, writing about a young boy who has a crush on a rugby player from down the street. He’s desperate to be his friend and, when the boy invites him to watch a match that he’s playing in, he’s beside himself with excitement. I counted the words in the original – 2,323 – and replicated the number exactly.
I have to confess that I’ve never read Ulysses. I have a beautiful edition of it and it sits there, on my Irish fiction shelves, glaring at me accusatorily but I simply can’t bring myself to open it. It probably goes without saying that I’ve never read Finnegans Wake either, and I’m pretty certain that I never will. I have, however, read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Irish writers often get asked whether they feel the shadow of Joyce on their shoulders, weighing them down. Not this one.
Madeleine Thien – Hiroshige Takes the Sky Train
… from privately published (2017)
Today’s short story was specially commissioned for the Vancouver Writers Festival a couple of years ago to mark its 30thanniversary and presented to all the authors in attendance in a beautiful, individually produced volume. I love unique items like this. They’re a joy to read and always something wonderful for a bibliophile to have in his or her collection.
A strange story in many ways, though. Set, naturally enough, in Vancouver, it’s narrated by a young woman recalling the mother who drifted in and out of her life at different moments throughout her childhood. During one such meeting, the older woman tells her a story about a thirteen-year-old boy who she once observed stumbling down a street, repeating the phrase ‘I wouldn’t do a thing like that’ over and over. She went to his aide and discovered that he had been stabbed. The boy reappears in the narrator’s life many years later and becomes a catalyst for the outpouring of these memories and also for recollections of various art pieces related to her mother.
I will admit that occasionally one reads a short story and it feels difficult to decipher, as if it doesn’t entirely make sense at first. This is the type of story that needs to be re-read later in the day, knowing the basic plot line, so one can try to understand the author’s intentions on a deeper level.
I’ve been to Vancouver three or four times over the years, usually on book tours or for the festival, but I have a couple of friends who live there too, and my nephew spent a year working in the city a few years ago when I, like Hiroshige, took the sky train. I love Canada. After Australia, it’s probably my favourite country to visit and I’ve had some wonderful times there over the years.
Rob Doyle – Paris Story
… from This is the Ritual (2016)
Rob Doyle’s a very talented writer. His debut novel, Here are the Young Men, is one of the better Irish novels of recent years and this story is an interesting piece about the hurt that can be inflicted by a needlessly cruel review.
Two friends, K and X are both writers, living in Paris. X achieves success before K and, infuriated, K writes a bad review of her book under an assumed name which causes her great pain. Later, they marry and he has to live with both the guilt of his actions and the fear of discovery.
It made me think about my work as a reviewer. I write at least one a month for The Irish Timesand the occasional one for The Guardian. With the former, I look ahead at the publishing schedule and choose books that I hope I will enjoy. Perhaps I’ve read the writer before and liked his or her work, or maybe it’s the subject matter that appeals to me.
I try to remain conscious of the time and effort that has gone into producing a novel and the relatively short amount of time it takes me to read it before writing my review. I’ve been unkind once or twice in the past and have come to regret it. Although having said that, I once changed my mind about reviewing a novel because it was so appallingly bad. Somehow, the author found out and sent me a series of abusive messages before spending a few years waging a one-man war against me on Twitter. I never responded to any of it. It seemed pathetic to me, a crazy man shouting into the wind.
Rob Doyle, a thoroughly good fellow, is currently writing a weekly piece in The Irish Timesabout his favourite books. It’s worth checking out as he’s one of the most passionate bibliophiles I know.
Alexander MacLeod – Good Kids
… from Light Lifting (2012)
While writing about Samuel Archibald’s story, In the Midst of the Spiders, in January, I mentioned that I chaired the jury for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s foremost literary award, in 2015. The other jurors were Cecil Foster, Helen Oyeyemi, Alison Pick and Alexander MacLeod. (The book we chose as our winner was Fifteen Dogsby André Alexis.) It was a fantastic experience and I formed great friendships with the other writers on the panel. Alex and I became particularly good pals and it’s been fun to run into him on a few occasions since then. He’s a very interesting, cheerful and supportive person.
Good Kids is an absolute delight. It reminds me a little of those wonderful Stephen King stories about childhood, like The Body,or some of John Irving’s mid-career novels. It’s narrated by a man looking back at his youth. At twelve, he’s the oldest of four brothers and he recalls the year that a woman and her seven-year-old son Reggie came to live across the street from them. Reggie forms a bond with the four boys but he’s an unusual fellow. He dresses formally and speaks like a grown-up. When there is trouble, he’s quick to defuse it. He has a curious maturity that draws both adults and children alike to him.
There’s a wonderfully nostalgic feeling to the story and, as I know Alex comes from a large family of brothers too, it’s possible that there’s some basis in reality for it. I love stories about childhood, I always have. Particularly when there are no adults present. Perhaps that’s why I’ve written quite a few novels for young readers myself and why I almost always get rid of the parents in the opening chapters.
Alex’s father, of course, was the great Alastair MacLeod, who I will certainly be reading for this project at some point during 2019.
Teffi – Rasputin
… from Subtly Worded (1932)
My original plan was to read a short story every day and, in choosing a Teffi collection, I presumed that I was sticking to that idea but, a few pages in to this piece, I realised that it was actually a memoir. (I’d selected it, as ever, on the title alone.) Anyway, I’m letting it slide as this was the chosen work.
Despite having the book on my shelves – another one that I have no recollection of buying – I knew nothing about Teffi, a Russian writer whose work was published widely in the years leading up to and after the revolution. She escaped to Paris in 1920, where she spent the rest of her life, and this intriguing piece contains an account of her two meetings with the infamous Grigori Rasputin in St Petersburg. I’ve always been fascinated by ‘the mad monk’, his relationship with the Tsaritsa Alexandra and the Tsarevich Alexei, and also by Russian history and the rule of the Tsars in general. In 2009, I published a novel called The House of Special Purpose, much of which takes place in the Winter Palace, and my narrator, a young bodyguard, has several disturbing encounters with Rasputin while moving in Imperial circles. I wrote a lot of that novel in St Petersburg and recall visiting the Moika Palace, where Rasputin was killed.
The account presented in Teffi’s memoir is captivating. She describes how he laid his hands on people in an attempt to mesmerise them and, if his victim fought back, his efforts would recoil on him, making him moan and squirm. She offers an interesting note that many houses had a sign in their living rooms that stated, ‘In this house we do not talk about Rasputin.’ I imagine there are many homes in Britain where a similar sign has been, replacing the monk’s name with that of ‘Brexit’.
Viola Meynell – The Letter
… from Young Mrs Cruse (1924)
I returned to Philip Hensher’s two-volume Penguin Book of the Short Story today in search of a writer whose work would be new to me and decided to take a look at Viola Meynell, who is all but forgotten now.
The Letter is a terrific story. A seventeen-year-old girl, Jessie, discovers that she is pregnant, and her parents, who own a farm and are struggling to make ends meet, insist that she sit down and write to her lover, informing him of her condition and demanding that he do something about it. She prevaricates for days and then, when she finally takes pen in hand after a morning spent in the fields where their love grew, she does exactly as she’s been asked. Only the letter that she writes is not quite the one that they were expecting.
When I wrote of Algernon Blackwood’s story in January, I suggested the parlour game of wondering which, if any, of the current crop of successful writers will still be read in a hundred years’ time. I recently read Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men and his biography states that, at the time of his death, one in every five books bought in England was written by him. That’s an extraordinary statistic. But does anyone remember him now? Or read him still? I don’t think so. And looking at Viola Meynell’s bibliography, it’s clear that she was a prolific writer and publisher too.
Interestingly, she both typed manuscripts for, and provided accommodation to, DH Lawrence, which couldn’t have been a lot of fun. Lawrence always seems to me to have been a rather dour sort. And she was the first publisher of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dickin England, almost thirty years after the author’s death. Melville, of course, being the reverse of the argument in that he wasn’t read while he was alive and is now considered a classic author.
Patricia Highsmith – Sweet Freedom! And a Picnic on the White House Lawn
… from Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (1987)
I first started reading Patricia Highsmith soon after Anthony Minghella’s brilliant film adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley came out in 1999, when I became an instant convert. I love Highsmith’s wicked sense of humour, her dark twists and, as a female writer, and a gay female writer at that, she carved a very isolated furrow in American letters during the twentieth century. The Ripley sequence of novels are among my favourite books of all time.
I think of my most recent novel, A Ladder to the Sky, as a Ripley-esque tale for the literary world, featuring an amoral aspiring writer who will use anyone, do anything and say whatever it takes to get ahead.
As great as Highsmith was, this story is a rather peculiar one and I don’t know if it would be publishable today. It concerns a decision to release many ‘nuts’, as the author calls them, from the lunatic asylums of America in order to free up money for the President to use for other concerns. Wars, and so on. While one half of the story is funny – a Miss Tiller and her friend Bert, believing themselves to be Cleopatra and Charlie Chaplin respectively, find gainful employment as entertainers in a hotel – another is much darker, as a fifty-year-old man roams the countryside raping young girls on bicycles. Certainly, the manner in which these attacks are described is completely out of touch with 21stcentury mores.
Of course, it’s fair to say that the biggest nut job of all currently resides in the White House and even now, a couple of years after his inauguration, it’s shocking to think that Donald Trump ever made it there. The worst and most chaotic tenure in presidential history would lead one to assume that his will be a one-term presidency, but who’s to say?
Ray Bradbury – The Last Night of the World
… from The Illustrated Man (1951)
To be honest, I’m not really much of a science fiction guy and can probably count on one hand the number of SF books I’ve read in my life but I own a beautiful illustrated edition of The Illustrated Man, published by The Folio Society, and chose today’s story from it.
It has an interesting premise: one night, everyone in the world has the same dream, that October 19, 1969 – the night on which the story is set – will be the last night of the world. Gradually, people open up to each other, revealing their shared dreams, and everyone accepts that it’s going to prove accurate but one of the remarkable things in the story is that, while everyone is certain that their lives are about to come to an end, there is total calm. It’s actually a very peaceful story.
I think I’d feel calm too if I knew the world was going to end shortly, assuming it was just going to stop without me being burned alive or tortured to death like a character in a Saw movie. But if everyonewent on the same night, if the whole planet just stopped, well that might be ok. I could live with that. Or die with that.
Ray Bradbury, of course, is one of the most popular authors in the history of science fiction. Novels such as Fahrenheit 451,Something Wicked This Way Comesand the collection from which this story comes have achieved classic status.
I checked on Wikipedia – the fount of all knowledge – and, in the end, nothing particularly dramatic happened on October 19, 1969. During that month, Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired on the BBC for the first time, Willy Brandt became Chancellor of Germany and Pink Floyd released Ummagummma. But I’m not sure any of that counts as particularly ground-breaking. And the world kept on turning.
Peter Carey – Happy Story
… from Collected Stories (1995)
Peter Carey is one of Australia’s most successful authors and someone whose work is never less than thrilling, original and energising. His Collected Storiesis a book that I dip into whenever I need a quick fix of a master at work. Like Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro or William Trevor, he never lets the reader down.
Happy Story– what a great title! – is a very short piece, only a few pages long, about a man who likes the idea of flying. His wife, Marie, is confused about why he wants to do something so seemingly impossible and doesn’t believe that it would bring him happiness anyway. Eventually, when it becomes clear that, should he ever manage to build a flying machine, he will bring both her and the dog with him, she softens and there’s a certain romanticism to how the story ends. A nice image too of her leaving soap suds in his hair when she kisses him while washing the dishes.
That said, it’s not really a very happy story at all. In fact, it has a deep sense of melancholy.
I’ve always admired Peter Carey’s work. I remember reading Oscar and Lucinda shortly after it won the Booker Prize in 1989 and while it baffled me a little at first – I was only eighteen years old at the time and was probably one of the first pieces of contemporary adult literature that I read – I eventually became lost inside this epic that followed a glass church being transported from Sydney to Bellingen on the New South Wales coast. One of the best Booker Prize winners, I think. Although I wasn’t wild about his other winner, The True History of the Kelly Gang, as I always struggle with books written entirely in dialect.
Coincidentally, Ned Kelly shows up, albeit very briefly, in the novel I’m working on right now.
Stefan Zweig – Mendel the Bibliophile
… from Collected Stories (1929)
I’ve been dipping in and out of Zweig’s work for many years and own some beautiful Pushkin Press editions of both the collected stories and novellas. I’d never read this particular story until today, the tale of Jakob Mendel, who spends every day reading in the Café Gluck in Vienna in the years leading up to, and then during, the First World War.
Mendel is basically a human database, aware of every book ever published, its price, its provenance, and is able to recite this information at the drop of a hat. People come to him for advice on their reading or for reference points for their studies. The story has a tragic twist, however, as Mendel, through various acts of naïveté, is accused of collaborating with the enemy and thrown into a concentration camp. Zweig’s experience of the fear that spread through the Viennese people during those years is carefully drawn.
I chose this story for its title as I’ve been a bibliophile all my life. A couple of years ago, I renovated my house, turning it into something of a library-house, the walls the rooms lined with beautiful and colourful bookcases. We each have different ways of storing our books. Mine might seem rather strange but it works and I can find what I want, when I want it.
My collection is divided geographically: British, Irish, American, Canadian and Antipodean writers all have their own areas. There’s a section for translated fiction and English language fiction that doesn’t belong in any of the above categories. And non-fiction, of course, children’s fiction, and my collection of Folio Society classics. After that, it’s alphabetical by author and chronological by title. It might sound like an awful lot of hard work keeping all this in order but actually, it’s a breeze. And I collect beautiful bookends which add a touch of art to every shelf.
… from The Garden Party & Other Stories (1922)
What a year 1922 was for literature! F Scott Fitzgerald published The Beautiful and Damned, Herman Hesse published Siddhartha, Virginia Woolf published Jacob’s Room, Richmal Crompton published the first of the Just Williambooks, TS Eliot published The Waste Land, James Joyce published Ulyssesand New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield published The Garden Party & Other Stories. How nice it must have been to live in a literary world that wasn’t dominated by prizes. Imagine trying to choose a winner from that lot.
An Ideal Family is one of the stories in that classic collection, which I first read when I was a teenager, the tale of an elderly man, Mr Neave, who makes his way home from his office one evening to a noisy collection of daughters while continuing to worry about his son, Harold, a ne’er-do-well who barely shows up for work and, Mr Neave is certain, will eventually run his business into the ground. The sense of exhaustion as he collapses into his living room chair while his wife and daughters chatter around him is palpable. As he contemplates his life and is forced into dressing for dinner, one rather envies him the respite that comes from his apparent death at the end.
The title is clearly ironic, it’s a line that is spoken to Mr Neave during the story, but it’s obvious that he has worked himself into the grave by the incessant demands of his family.
Reading a little about Mansfield, I discovered that she was one of those writers – quite common in the early part of the twentieth century – who died at a young age of tuberculosis but refused treatment in a sanatorium, preferring to rely on more modernist and unproven cures that might have ultimately cost her her life. She died at the age of thirty-four.
Jackie Kay – Physics and Chemistry
… from Why Don’t You Stop Talking (2002)
Jackie Kay is one of the most respected of British writers, but I didn’t realise until today that she is in fact the Scots Makar, or the Scottish poet laureate. I must admit I’m not a great poetry reader and struggled with it at both university level and in my reading life. However, Kay is also well known for her novels and stories, one of which is the piece I read today.
Physics and Chemistry do not refer to the sciences themselves but are the names given to the two characters at the centre of the story, a physics teacher and a chemistry teacher, two lesbians who work at the same school. Their home life is quiet and ordered and, while they do not hide their sexuality at work, they’re not particularly open about it either. When a parent complains, however, they are both summarily dismissed from their positions and, as a result, their life has an unexpectedly energising upswing.
It’s a well-crafted story and the characters are totally credible, but perhaps it’s a work of its time, for it’s impossible to imagine a teacher – or anyone – being dismissed from their job today because of their sexuality. For one thing, it would be completely illegal. And for another, the majority of their colleagues and students would probably walk out in protest.
That said, I read an article online only the other day about a school in Birmingham where Muslim parents were removing their children from a primary school simply because the syllabus was promoting an initiative called ‘No Outsiders’, which teaches children to understand the LGBTQ community better and to educate them on the subject. It’s disappointing that, in 2019, this level of ignorance and hatred is still out there, particularly when bigots use the useful umbrella of religion to mask their prejudices.
Toby Litt – Mr Kipling
… from Adventures in Capitalism (1996)
I was a student on the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia during 1994/95, studying under Malcolm Bradbury. I was quite young at the time, only 23, and it was a year of extraordinary emotional experiences. Falling in love for the first time, coming to terms with being gay, and also fully committing to writing even though I had not yet found my voice nor knew what type of writer I wanted to be.
Of the twelve students on the course, six went on to be published, Toby Litt, Richard Beard, Bo Fowler, Janette Jenkins, Sue Hubbard and finally my good self. As of today, we’ve produced 53 works of fiction or non-fiction between us. My favourite among them are Jenkins’ Firefly, Beard’s The Day That Went Missing and Litt’s Wrestliana.
I remember the short story Mr Kiplingwell for it was one that Toby submitted for workshop and it received a unanimously positive reception. Reading Mr Kipling again after more than twenty years brings me right back to that room in Norwich where we sat in a circle in our Mastermind chairs, ripping shreds off each other. It’s an amusing and introspective piece about a lonely man who believes he has formed a personal relationship with the cake-maker, who brings only good into his life.
Taking my copy of Adventures in Capitalismdown from my shelves, I found a postcard inside, sent from Toby to me, with the words “Vidal WillPerish” inscribed on the back. (The front bears a photograph of Christopher Isherwood.) I seem to recall having an argument with Toby back in the day about the merits of Gore Vidal – I was a fan, he wasn’t – so I assume it stems from that. Strangely enough, Gore Vidal features as a character in my most recent novel, A Ladder to the Sky.
Lydia Davis – Visit to Her Husband
… from Break It Down (1986)
The title of Lydia Davis’ story collection Break It Down is entirely apt as she’s a writer who has spent most of her career doing that very thing with words. Not for her is the ten, twenty- or thirty-page story. Davis prefers brevity and some of her works are only a few sentences long. I chose one of the longer stories in this book though; at two pages it’s almost a novel for her.
The great thing about Lydia Davis is how brilliant she is at capturing ideas, characters and themes in such a short space. It takes real skill to be able to do this. If a great short story is more difficult to write than a great novel – which is a point worthy of a good debate – then a great short short story is arguably more difficult still.
In this piece, for example, a woman pays a visit to her husband to discuss their impending divorce. They’ve both met other people and, while they don’t argue, there’s a palpable sense of tension between them as they talk, leading both of them to make frequent visits to the bathroom. Afterwards, returning home, the wife is barely able to manage the journey without bumping into people and losing track of where she’s going.
As I’m going through a similar experience at the moment, this story really spoke to me; the sensation of being at a complete loss about how to deal with extraordinary pain and agonising emotions. The terrible strain of waiting for such an unhappy time to reach its ultimate conclusion.
Still, for anyone interested in the concept of ‘flash fiction’, a phrase I thoroughly dislike, then Lydia Davis is a writer to take a look at. She won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, an award given for a lifetime’s work, and was a worthy winner.