Hans Christian Andersen – The Red Shoes
… from New Fairy Tales (1845)
We often have a mistaken idea about fairy tales, thinking that they’re mostly sweet, amusing stories for children with heart-warming morals lying at their core. But actually, when you read any of the classic fairy tales, they often turn out to be brutal and gruesome things, filled with didactic instructions for living thoughtful, pure lives, and more suited for horror stories than anything else. Wicked stepmothers, poisonous apples, animals dressed as humans looking for children to eat. Just wait till I get to the Grimm Brothers stories; they’re off the chart in terms of grisliness.
ConsiderThe Red Shoes, for example, Hans Christian’s Andersen’s oft-adapted tale. A little girl is so vain that she puts on a pair of beautiful red shoes when she is told not to. She’s condemned to a lifetime of eternal dancing and only manages to rid herself of the offending footwear by pleading with an executioner to cut off both her feet, which he does without pity, leaving her with wooden replacements and a pair of crutches. That’s not enough for the powers that be, however, for wherever she goes, the red shoes keep dancing before her, with her amputated and bloody feet stuck inside them, presumably turning the fabric even redder with every step. Eventually, she dies. Charming, right?
Imagine telling a child that story before bedtime! The nightmares they’d have!
I have a beautiful edition of Andersen’s Fairy Tales, published by the Folio Society with early twentieth century illustrations by W Heath Robinson. I’ve never seen the classic Powell and Pressburger film adaptation, although I might watch it now that I’ve returned to this story, but as an obsessive Kate Bush fan, I’m intimately familiar with her 1993 album of the same name. ‘It’s the red shoes, they can’t stop dancing.’
I remember watching a Danny Kaye film when I was a kid where he played Hans Christian Anderson and my memory of it is that it airbrushed over many of the more curious or sinister aspects of the author’s life. Possibly more of a fairy tale than the fairy tales he wrote.
Honoré de Balzac – An Episode of the Reign of Terror
… from Scenes from Political Life (1830)
I’ve always had a peculiar fascination with the more gruesome elements of the French Revolution, notably the Terror and the guillotine, but have only written about it once, in a chapter of my debut novel, The Thief of Time (2000), in which the narrator, Matthieu Zéla, is in Paris during that period and witnesses the heads tumbling into the baskets in the Place de la Concorde.
Balzac’s story takes place on the day after the execution of King Louis XVI, in January 1793, and begins atmospherically as we see an old woman making her way through the dark Parisien streets towards a bakery, convinced that a man is following her. He is, in fact, and he follows her back to the garret where she is in hiding with some nuns and a priest, but the stranger turns out to be less malevolent than expected and in fact only wishes a mass to be said for the repose of the king’s soul. The story builds nicely towards an unexpected conclusion, revealing both the stranger’s identity and the reason why he leaves a blood-stained handkerchief in the safe keeping of the religious, one that he correctly predicts will keep them safe.
I’d like to write a novel set during the French revolution and perhaps I will one day. I’ve always meant to read Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, but it’s around ten thousand pages long so it’s eluded me so far.
Anne Griffin – Change Given
… from The Irish Times (2018)
So no one can accuse me of nationalism, this is only the second Irish short story that I’ve read for this project, the first being Edna O’Brien’s three weeks ago, although I daresay there’ll be a lot more before the end comes on New Year’s Eve. Anne Griffin is an Irish writer whose debut novel, When All Is Said, was published last week but who’s been publishing stories with great success over the last few years.
I chose one of her stories today as I’m launching that same novel tonight, in the Gutter Bookshop, Dublin, so it seemed appropriate. This was originally published as one of The Irish Times’ summer stories last year and displays Griffin’s great talent. A young man makes a mess of his relationship at a young age but continues to pine for his ex while remaining a good father to his son. There’s a nice twist when the menial job that he ends up in allows him an opportunity to score a point over the man who replaced him in his ex’s life and has patronised him ever since.
I’ve actually known Anne for more than twenty years as she hired me for my only real adult job as a bookseller in Waterstone’s, Dawson Street, Dublin, back in 1996, where she was assistant manager, and we’ve remained great friends through the years. That was a brilliant time in my life and more than one writer has emerged from those same doors, including Sarah Webb, a prolific writer of novels for young readers, Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies amongst other books, and many others who work in the publishing industry in the UK and Ireland. I’ve often thought Waterstone’s should do a 3-for-2 promotion on all the other authors who’ve worked in their branches over the years; there are dozens of us, after all.
Téa Obreht – Untitled
… from The Book of Men (2013)
Téa Obreht achieved great success with her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife back in 2011 and, having seen in one of those ‘Books to Look Forward To in 2019’ pieces in the newspapers that her second novel is due to be published in August, I looked around my shelves for something written by her and discovered this is an anthology, The Book of Men, edited by Colum McCann. The book features the work of eighty writers, each of whom contributed stories on the theme of how to be a man.
Obreht’s offering is short and stark, filled with tension and the unmistakable scent of violence. Wanderers on the plains – people? animals? armies? – remain hyper-aware of their vulnerabilities to predators, taking notice of the missing every day, and the ‘broken and surrendered’ in the grass. It’s one of those stories that feels elusive on a first reading but is brief enough to afford the reader the chance to read it several times in order to lose oneself in its mystery.
I remember enjoying Obreht’s debut novel very much when it was first published and am looking forward to reading her follow-up; she has a gift for vivid description and gripping plotlines.
I contributed to this anthology myself and I remember being struck by reviews in two different Canadian newspapers when the book was published. Although there were eighty stories to choose from, the reviewers in both pages mentioned my own piece. One said it was the best story in the collection; the other said it was the worst. I think that’s what’s called polarising opinion.
Robert Walser – A Little Ramble
… from The Walk (1917)
In the spirit of James Kelman’s Acid, which I read on January 15th, Robert Walser’s A Little Ramble is that most joyous of things: a short story that all takes place on a single page. In fairness, I’m reading one every day now so every so often I need the shortest of shorts.
This is a strange story in which very little happens. A man takes a walk through a mountainous area, enjoys the view, encounters a few people and, well, that’s it really. The closing lines, however, offer a key to what he’s getting at: ‘We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.’ I suppose what he means is that a story doesn’t necessarily need to have a big moment at the centre of it, or a surprising twist in the tale. It can just be a piece of writing about everyday life, where the sentences are as crisp as the mountain air that the narrator is breathing.
I’d never heard of Walser before today but when I looked him up online I see that he is described as ‘the missing link between Kleist and Kafka’, which is quite the claim. He spent much of his life in mental institutions and died on Christmas Day 1956 in a field of snow. He also appears to have been quite an influence on more recent Swiss and German writers.
Update: I said that I’d never heard of Walser but, earlier, when I went upstairs in my house and was putting a book away in my Translated Fiction section – I know, I’m a very strange perspon, don’t judge me – I realised that I must have heard of him, for I own one of his books. A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, which I confess I have never read, nor can I remember buying it.
Ursula Dubosarsky – Little Wars
… from Stories Inspired by Objects from the Great War, anthology (2014)
I’ve always had a peculiar fascination with war stories and, indeed, four of my novels are set during these periods; The Absolutist and Stay Where You Are and Then Leave both take place during the First World War, while The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Boy at the Top of the Mountainare set during the Second.
I’m often asked why I’ve written about war so often and the answer, of course, is that it’s very fertile territory for a novelist. Bravery, cowardice, fear, grief, loss, hatred are all themes and emotions that can be explored in such works and I expect I’ll return to them again one day.
Australian writer Ursula Dubosarsky’s story takes place during the Great War and is part of a twelve story anthology where each one is inspired by an object from that period. Toy soldiers are the focus of this one and it features two boys, March and Arly, who engage in battles with their soldiers while Arly’s father is fighting at Gallipoli. While the action is built around their disquieting friendship, it is all seen by Jemima, March’s sister, who observes the boys with shrewd judgment and commits an act that ultimately brings the boys’ games to an end.
It’s a strong piece, particularly in the depiction of Arly, who is clearly traumatised by his fear of what will happen to his father and whether or not he will return.
I contributed a story to this anthology myself, titled The Country You Called Home, which was based around a recruitment poster urging ‘Irishmen to Arms’ as part of the Tyneside Irish Battalion.
Virginia Woolf – Solid Objects
… from A Haunted House & Other Stories (1941)
Every reader has a list of great books that they’ve never got around to reading, and great writers whose work they’ve never been able to get to grips with. At the top of my list would be Virginia Woolf who, despite repeated attempts on my part, has never been a writer with whom I’ve been able to connect.
In fairness, I’ve tried. I really have. Over the years, I’ve started The Waves, Orlando and The Yearsbut never got more than about thirty pages in before realising that I have absolutely no clue whatsoever about what’s going on. I did manage to make it through Mrs Dalloway once, and felt quite smug about finally finishing it. I know that many people adore Woolf – my sister is a huge fan – and I daresay it’s my failing, and my loss, but there we are.
Anyway, I decided to welcome Mrs W back into my reading life today with her short storySolid Objects, which, as it turns out, was worth the wait. A young man is walking on a beach with his friend when he discovers a beautiful piece of glass hidden in the sand. He takes it home to use as a paperweight and is constantly drawn to its beauty. Some time later, en route to a meeting, he discovers a piece of china, broken into the shape of a starfish, and is so entranced that he brings it home to add to his collection. Soon, all his plans for the future, which included becoming a Member of Parliament, have fallen apart as he spends most of his time trawling through the murkier parts of London in search of hidden gems.
I suppose it’s an early example of hording, as his house starts to fill with rubbish with which he refuses to part. The story is very effective in showing how one man’s trash can be another man’s art and also how we can lose ourselves in search of meaning while the world continues without us. The closing line, when his friend abandons him forever, is stark and unforgiving.
Perhaps it’s time for me to give poor old Virginia another go. It’s been years, after all, since I tried to read one of her novels. I’ll take it under advisement for now.
Update: I’ve just been informed on Twitter that today is Virginia Woolf’s birthday! She would have been 137 today. I didn’t know that when I chose her for today’s story!
Selma Lagerlöf – The Eclipse
… from The Stories of Selma Lagerlöf (1922)
A group of women live near each other on a mountain and their days are lacking in any excitement. In turn, each one holds a party, desperately finding something to celebrate, and when it comes to the elderly Beda’s turn, she chooses the eclipse of the sun as the reason for her festivity. The story is built around the connection each of the women has with the earth and how nature saves them from the ennui of their daily lives.
I read a little about Lagerlöf afterwards and it seems there was some controversy when she was awarded her Nobel Prize, mostly because she was a woman. It would be almost twenty years before another woman, the Italian poet and novelist Grazia Deledda, received the award. To date, of the 114 Nobel Literature Laureates, 100 are men and 14 women. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the controvery they’ve been dealing with lately, but let’s leave that for another day.
I particularly wanted to find a Swedish author as it was pointed out to me on Twitter that I had mistakenly identified Tove Jansson as Swedish in the January 19thstory, when in fact she was Finnish. So I’ve corrected that error in the piece below.
I came back from my trip to Germany yesterday, carrying the 12-kilo Buxteher Bulle in my luggage. Fortunately it made it here safely. It’s a very beautiful piece of art but so heavy that it needs to be on a low shelf. I haven’t found the right one yet.
Peter Bichsel – A Table is a Table
… from Stories for Children (1971)
My last day in Germany, I’m flying home this morning with a twelve-kilo steel bull in my carry-on luggage. I’m not sure what the security guards at the airport will make of that when it goes through the scanner.
Peter Bichsel is my first Swiss author for this project, bringing the nationalities now to ten. This story, as the book in which it first appeared would suggest, was originally published for children but it has an appeal that’s much wider than that. A lonely, elderly man lives a fairly boring life and decides to entertain himself by changing the names for common objects. So, a bed becomes a picture. A chair becomes a clock. A cupboard becomes a newspaper. And so on.
Soon, he builds a whole new language around this and forgets how to speak in his original tongue. Bichsel’s paragraphs of absurdity – In the man, the old foot would remain ringing in picture for a long time, at nine o’clock the photo album would step, the foot would freeze up and leaf onto the cupboard so that it wouldn’t look at the morning – add a charming silliness to the story but it also invites us to consider language itself and how we appropriate sounds and syllables in order to communicate with each other. Which is surely one of the most important tasks of a writer in the first place.
The story was adapted into a short film, which is viewable on YouTube.
Günter Grass – 1971
… from My Century (1999)
A second German story to coincide with my visit here. I remember buying my copy of My Centuryin 1999, the year Günter Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, when I was living in London and working for Waterstone’s head office. It was also the year that I sold the manuscript of my debut novel, The Thief of Time, to Orion.
My Centuryis a great book built around a clever idea. One hundred short stories each titled after a year of the twentieth century. (Grass himself was born well into the century, in 1927, and lived until 2015.) The characters and genders of the narrators change but each one is influenced by the times in which he or she is living.
I chose to read 1971 because that’s the year that I was born and it has a lot in common with yesterday’s story, in that it’s built around drugs. The narrator is a young air stewardess recalling her best friend, Uschi, with whom she went to discos in the early seventies and who succumbed to a serious drug habit, ultimately leading to her death. But there’s another issue too – that of abortion – which was only legalised in East Germany in 1972 and in West Germany four years later. Uschi needs one, wants one, and goes to a couple of quacks in the Swäbische Alb mountains, which leads to a further downward spiral in her emotional life.
Afterwards, I read a little about Grass’s confession in 2006 that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS during the war, when he was just a boy, and the manner in which various critics piled on to attack the mistakes of childhood, although he was staunchly defended by our mutual friend, John Irving, who wrote a powerful essay exposing the ‘obnoxious bitching’ and ‘the cowardly dogs… snapping at his heels’.
This is my last night in Buxtehuder and one thing I’ve learned about the town is that this is where the Grimm Brothers’ famous story The Tortoise and the Hare was set. In fact, there are statues of tortoises and hares everywhere. I’ll have to return to the Grimm Brothers at some point.
Andreas Stichmann – Why Are We Going Back to Watan?
… from Jackie in Silver (2008)
I’m in Germany for the next couple of days so I thought I would stick with German short stories between now and Wednesday. Andreas Stichmann is another new name to me, but I came across this story on-line and he seems to be one of the new wave of German writers, highly praised in his home country although, as yet, his collection of stories and two novels have not been published in English.
This is a very funny, very urgent story about a group of young men who visit their local dealer, Watan, to get some weed for a party. All they want is the weed, but Watan insists on telling them for the umpteenth time the travails of his life, the injuries that have been done to him and his family and the various tortures that he and his loved ones have been put through over the years. Justweigh the damn weed! the boys cry over and over, but it’s no good. He has his stories to tell and he’s going to tell them.
I’m not much of a weed guy. I tried it a few times, but it wasn’t for me. But then I’ve never smoked cigarettes, so I probably wasn’t doing it right anyway.
I’d like to read more of Stichmann’s work. It’s a shame that publishers don’t commit as much as they should to translations and it’s something that I’m conscious of as this project continues, trying to get as many nationalities into the 365 stories as I can. So far, after twenty-one days, I’m up to nine: American, Australian, British, Canadian, German, Indian, Irish, Italian and Finnish. But there are 195 countries in the world. I wonder how many I can get before I’m done?
Today, I’m taking part in two schools’ events, a town hall reception, and then having a star unveiled on a street in Buxtehuder to mark my winning the Buxtehuder Bulle prize for my novel, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain. And then, tonight, a reading at the city library.
Samuel Archibald – In the Midst of the Spiders
… from Arvida (2015)
A few years ago, I was invited to chair the jury for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s foremost literary award, and I was delighted to accept. After reading something like 150 books, my fellow jury members and I narrowed our selection down to a longlist of twelve and then a shortlist of six, one of which was this collection, Arvida, by the Quebecois writer Samuel Archibald. The Giller experience itself was great fun. In the end, our winner was Andre Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs
I was unfamiliar with his work before then but the stories in the collection were powerful and gripping and, interestingly for a Canadian writer, they were actually translated from the original French and published by Biblioasis International, a company that specialises in translations.
The story I re-read today was one that had always stayed with me. A man arrives at an airport for a quick meeting before flying home. That meeting, however, is to tell one of his colleagues that he’s being laid off. He’s been doing this for some months, showing up unexpectedly and whenever anyone lays eyes on him, they know they’re for the chop. The victim in this case, Michel, does not take the news well and launches into a fierce tirade against both his employer, metaphorically shooting the messenger.
It reminds me a little of that movie Up in the Air, which came out about ten years ago. The idea of being someone whose entire job is to tell other people that they’re fired is a strange one. The central character seems exhausted by his work, dehumanised, conscious that his victims will try to insult him and tell him that he’ll be next but doesn’t care. There’s a sense of great unhappiness pervading every line.
I’m off to Germany today for a few days, flying to Hamburg and then on to Buxtehuder, where I’m being given a prize!
Tove Jansson – The Birthday Party
… from The Listener (1971)
I read many of the Moomin books as a child and I know my friend, the great children’s writer Philip Ardagh, remains a great fan of them to this day so, in search of a translated story, I chose a piece from the only Tove Jansson book I own. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but this is perhaps the most sinister story I’ve read since beginning this project and it left me feeling quite unsettled.
Two sisters, Vera and Anja, are throwing a birthday party for their niece and invite some children from the neighbourhood to attend. Many show up although the birthday girl doesn’t arrive and nor are they able to contact her. At first, the children are quiet and staring but soon they become vocal and the sounds that emerge from the living room are like those that might be heard in a jungle. The children are animals, baring their teeth, and the sisters, whose lives seem rather empty, reflect on how they are incapable of doing even the simplest thing successfully. It also contained a word I’d never come across before: brachycephalic, a condition affecting short-nosed dogs that can lead to respiratory problems.
I read a little about Jansson afterwards. It seems that she didn’t turn to writing for adults until well into her fifties and, of course, it can be difficult for a children’s writer to attract an adult readership if they are too firmly rooted in the kids’ world. I struggled a little with that myself after The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but I think more recent novels have helped to put those problems behind me. I haven’t published a children’s book in a few years, however, but my sixth, My Brother’s Name is Jessica is coming out in April.
Daniel Defoe – A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal
… published in pamphlet form (1706)
When I think of Daniel Defoe, which isn’t often, I’m immediately drawn back to 1989, when I started studying English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. The first novel I read in the opening week of classes was Moll Flanders, and while I don’t remember too much about it now, I do recall that it felt like a good start to my university reading. I also recall being told that Defoe, along with Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, were the founders of the English novel, which has some basis in truth, although there were others of course.
Philip Hensher uses Defoe’s story as the opening piece in his magisterial The Penguin Book of the British Short Story (2 volumes, 2015) and I suspect I’ll dip back into this a few times as I continue this project throughout 2019. It makes for a good read. One Mrs Bargrave receives a visit from an old friend, Mrs Veal, who she has not seen for a number of years. They sit together, catch up, discuss a book that concerns itself with death and, after an hour or so, Mrs Veal says goodbye and is on her way. The next day, however, Mrs Bargrave learns that Mrs Veal in fact died twenty-four hours before her visit which – not unreasonably – leaves her astonished and her neighbours torn between incredulity and fear.
It’s a fascinating piece, for the narrator makes clear that Mrs Bargrave has absolutely nothing to gain by lying and, in fact, knows things that only Mrs Veal could have told her. If someone told me that this had happened to them, I would absolutely believe it. I always think it’s ridiculousnot to believe in ghosts. After all, we don’t really know how we got here, nor where we’re going afterwards, if anywhere, so believing in ghosts is no less strange than believing in an afterlife in the first place.
I have a good ghost story that happened to me, but I’ll save it for another time.
In other news, according to Wikipedia, Daniel Defoe had 198 pen names.
Joyce Carol Oates – Where Is Here?
… from Where Is Here (1992)
Is there a more prolific literary writer in the world than Joyce Carol Oates? Across almost sixty years of publishing, she’s produced more than forty novels, and alongside them countless short stories, plays, works of non-fiction and poetry. A compulsive writer, one must assume, and while it’s impossible to keep up with her vast output, one need only dip in and out to encounter greatness.
I’m pretty compulsive myself, having produced seventeen books in nineteen years, which suggests that I’ll have at least another thirty in me, all going well. It’s hard to imagine writing all of them. Sort of exciting. Sort of terrifying.
Where Is Here? is a terrific story that feels like something out of The Twilight Zone. A middle-aged couple are at home when a man knocks on the door, saying that he lived in their house as a child, and would they mind if he took a look around? They invite him inside and as he walks from room to room, recalling memories from decades earlier, the couple grow more and more anxious about his presence, while his politeness slowly turns towards possessiveness. There’s a suggestion of violence always lurking beneath the surface that leaves the reader feeling rather unsettled.
My parents still live in the house that I grew up in; they’ve lived there for around fifty years now. I’ve lived in my own home for almost eleven years and doubt that I will ever leave it. I can’t imagine anyone else living in my parents’ home or, indeed, in mine, although I’ve always been fascinated by the massive pile of legal papers that show the movement of the land from person to person over several hundred years. I wonder about who they were, what their stories were and, hundreds of years from now, what will be taking place on the ground where my house now sits and where I write my books every day.
Helen Garner – All Those Bloody Young Catholics
… from Postcards from Surfers (1985)
I’m a committed Australia-phile, having travelled there ten times since my first visit in May 2007. When I’m down under, I like to read Australian writers and I have a good collection at home, although this is the first Antipodean writer that I’ve read for this project. One of the best of those writers is Helen Garner, who’s not very well known on my side of the world but is one of the most respected writers in her home country. She first came to my attention when I read her short novel The Spare Room a few years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since.
All Those Bloody Young Catholics is a very unusual story, told in one long paragraph in the dialect of an Aussie drinking man. He meets an old friend at a bar and begins a tedious, if utterly accurate, monologue on her sexual past, particularly in relation to her seduction of a young seminarian years earlier. He’s one of those bores that one occasionally has to listen to in bars, dribbling barely hidden prejudices and misogyny as he knocks back drink after drink. No one else can get a word in as he talks and talks and talks.
It’s the brutal authenticity of the man’s voice that makes the story so compulsive. He swears, uses foul language, mythologises his own sexual history, mocks those who don’t order alcohol at the bar and Garner captures him in all his hideous glory. A great example of the short story as harangue.
James Kelman – Acid
… from Not Not While The Giro (1983)
As this series is progressing, I’m receiving suggestions from friends and readers about stories that I might look at next. This story, by Scottish Booker-prize winning author James Kelman, was recommended to me by my friend, the Irish writer Paul Howard, author of the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly novels, amongst other books, and, as Paul pointed out to me, it has the virtue that all short stories should have, in that it’s actually short.
In fact, it’s only one paragraph long so to summarise it would be to rewrite it. Suffice to say that it takes place in an acid factory where something goes wrong.
It’s important to have a real visceral reaction to a story, I think, and when I read this for the first time I literally said ‘Jesus!’ out loud at the end, before reading it again.
Some might describe this as ‘flash fiction’ but I hate that phrase. It’s still a short story, every bit as much as Hemingway’s famous ‘For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.’ is.
In other news, my first boxing class went well. I learned to jab, punch and upper cut. I’m hoping someone picks on me soon so I can put these new talents to use.
Elizabeth Berridge – Woman About The House
… from Tell It To A Stranger (1947)
Abandonment lies at the heart of this story, but what makes it intriguing is that it’s not entirely clear who’s abandoning who. After a decade of married life, James Munday gets a job with the local council and decides, on a whim, to take a room in a pub nine miles from home leaving his wife, Lindy, alone at home. It’s a week before he even thinks of her again and, by the time he bothers to jump on his bicycle and go back to see whether she’s still alive or not, she’s already gone, ‘to look after Mother’, the house is empty and there’s not so much as a rice pudding waiting for him in the oven. Poor lamb.
What’s most engaging about this story, however, is how little either of them seems to care. James is sick of his wife, of how she nags him and finds fault with his every movement, while she’s clearly had enough of his selfishness. Rather than being upset that she’s left, James takes it entirely in his stride and, as she’s failed to contact him since his disappearance, one can only assume that she’s just as happy to be shot of him as he is to be shot of her.
Talk about getting over someone quickly! I had a break-up a couple of years ago and it’s taken me two and a half years to move past it. In the story, James thinks about getting a dog for a bit of company in his now empty house; maybe I should do the same thing.
This collection of stories is published by the excellent Persephone Books in London, a press devoted almost entirely to writing by women, republishing books that have been forgotten or left out-of-print over the years. I have a subscription with them, and a new book arrives every month – novels, story collections, works of non-fiction – and it’s always a welcome surprise to see what’s inside the envelope. Also, they look great on a shelf together in their uniform grey covers.
Margaret St Clair – Brenda
… from Weird Tales (1954)
Another author who I’d never heard of until I came across this story in The Folio Book of Horror Stories, Margaret St Clair was best known for her science fiction stories but Brenda, originally published in the rather brilliantly titled Weird Tales, is more of a psychological horror story than anything else. It’s set on a place called Moss Island and concerns the eponymous heroine, a young girl, who is chased by a tramp-like creature who reeks of death until she manages to trick him into falling into a quarry.
When he escapes, he terrorises the six families vacationing on the island until they figure out what to do with him, which is something very disturbing indeed. Although nowhere near as disturbing as the final image of Brenda writhing atop his grave, certain that he will eventually be resurrected, when, she says, ‘you can make me a woman. I’ll be alive for the first time.’
Takes all sorts, I suppose.
I mentioned two days ago, when writing about the Algernon Blackwood story, that I’m not a big horror buff, but I did read Stephen King’s The Shining for the first time last year and enjoyed it. And I love horror movies; the scarier the better. I think it’s easier to frighten someone in images than in words. Scary stories never really have that much of an effect on me. I can’t think of a single novel that has ever managed to make me jump and when I see blurbs on books saying things like ‘don’t read this when you’re alone’, I always roll my eyes. Maybe I’m just made of strong stuff.
Speaking of which, I start boxing classes today. I’ve never done that before so it will be an interesting experience. I guess I’ll have to start looking for some short stories about boxing soon. Hemingway, maybe. Or Mailer. One of those tough guy writers.
Kristen Roupenian – Bad Boy
… from You Know You Want This (2019)
It’s been said that Cat Person, the short story Kristen Roupenian published in The New Yorker last year, was the first story to ‘go viral’, and this may be true although there are certainly hundreds of stories that have been read widely over the years. One thinks of the crowds waiting in America for the ships to arrive with the latest issue of Master Humphrey’s Clock in 1841 to discover the fate of Little Nell in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. In a sense, that was a novel that ‘went viral’. Still, Roupenian’s story certainly captured the spirit of the times, coming as it did at the height of the #MeToo movement and describing the unpleasant and obnoxious behaviour of a man towards a girl he has dated.
Roupenian’s debut collection is due to be published next month but when an advance copy landed on my desk this morning, I knew what I would read for today’s story. I chose the first one, Bad Boy, a strange and unsettling piece about the relationship between a couple and their friend, a guy who has recently broken up with a horrible girlfriend. He comes to stay with them for a few days, but they soon become dependent on him and the relationships between the three twist and turn in the most unexpected ways, leading to a dramatic conclusion. It’s a strong start to a collection that will likely be one of the year’s most read. I’m looking forward to reading some more of these.
I watched Roma yesterday, Alfonso Cuarón’s movie that’s tipped for the Best Picture Oscar. Every shot looked like it could be taken from the screen and framed. A beautiful film. Compared to the execrable A Star is Born, this is cinema at its finest.
Algernon Blackwood – Ancient Lights
… from The Eye Witness (1912)
I was completely unfamiliar with the work of Algernon Blackwood but found this in a collection of horror stories and, after reading it, did a little research on the author. It turns out that he was a prolific writer of ghost stories, novels and plays who published many works throughout the first half of the last century. How does a writer just disappear from the public consciousness in this way? Although, granted, others may have heard of him and I’m just ignorant.
I wonder how many well-known, big-selling authors from today will be completely forgotten a hundred years from now? Even fifty years from now? And which authors who receive no attention at all will go on to be seen as the greatest writers of their generation? Remember, Herman Melville never published a word in his lifetime. Answers on a postcard, please.
Still, this is an intriguing and unsettling story about a land surveyor who enters a wood where he’s been hired to do some work and immediately finds himself lost inside it and being used as a plaything by the trees, animals and ghosts that linger inside. Perhaps he should have been put off by the sign that said ‘Trespassers Will Be Persecuted’. A good line.
It has a definite nightmarish quality to it and, while I’m not a big horror buff, the density of the prose gives the reader a strong sense of being lost in that wood too. It might be worth my while finding some more books by Algernon Blackwood.
Also, Algernon Blackwood would be a great name for a character in a novel. I see him as a studious type who gets seduced by a flighty piece.
Benjamin Hale – Beautiful, Beautiful, Beautiful, Beautiful Boy
… from The Fat Artist (2016)
If there’s one thing, as a gay man, that I’ve never been interested in, it’s drag culture. I’m not sure why a particular theatrical experience is supposed to appeal to one sexuality over the other, but drag shows are something that a lot of gay men love but I never have. Honestly, I can’t imagine a more tedious night out. But that’s just me. Chacun à son goût, as they say.
This story is structured around the drag scene of 1980s New York. A young drag artist, Derek, is invited to have his portrait taken by a photographer who subsequently invites him to a party at her apartment where he encounters a group of men dressed as women – transvestites, I suppose, in the traditional sense – many of whom are accompanied by their wives. There’s an elegiac sense to it, however, for although it’s a third person narrative, there are references to the eventual fate of many of Derek’s friends as the AIDS epidemic begins its insidious invasion of the city.
The title, of course, comes from the chorus of Beautiful Boy, a song on John Lennon’s last album, Double Fantasy, before his murder in December 1980, and in fact the story opens on that night, outside the Dakota building, where we see Mark Chapman, album in hand, gun in pocket, preparing to kill the musician. I’m not quite sure what connection the author is trying to draw between this event and the rest of the story, other than the title being appropriate for the young men at its heart. There’s a movie called Beautiful Boy on release at the moment too, although I’m pretty sure that’s about drug culture rather than drag culture.
Having read it, however, I was moved to download the entire Double Fantasy album and am listening to it now. It contains my all-time favourite John Lennon song, Woman. I’ve always loved the bit where he goes up a note at the start of the final verse.
There’s a great closing line to Hale’s story, however. Forgive the spoiler, but Derek avails of a lift back to his apartment by one of the transvestites who, before leaving the party, has changed back into his civvies. The persona of ‘Cathy’ has been despatched before the man returns to his oblivious wife.
‘Cathy stays in the trunk,’ he says, gesturing towards the back of the car. ‘I think it’s best that way.’
Primo Levi – Lilith
… from Moments of Reprieve (1981)
Strictly speaking, Primo Levi’s Lilith is not a short story although in the magisterial Complete Works (Penguin, 2015), edited by Ann Goldstein, it’s included as part of Lilith and Other Stories. However, it’s more usually found in Moments of Reprieve, a series of sketches of people who Levi met while an inmate at Auschwitz.
This piece concerns a discussion between the author and Tischler, a carpenter, as they take shelter from a rain storm in the camp and notice a woman, something they rarely see anymore, sheltering opposite them. Tischler introduces the subject of the Biblical character Lilith and an intellectual debate ensues.
I’ve told the story many times of reading Primo Levi at the age of fifteen and how his work ignited a fascination in my mind with the Holocaust. For many years afterwards I read widely on the subject, trying to understand it, trying to educate myself, and then, one evening in April 2004, an image came into my head of two boys sitting on either side of a fence talking to each other. I knew immediately where they were, I knew it was a place that no one should be, let alone two little boys, but I was interested in the journey that would bring them there, the conversations they would have, and the necessary end that I felt their story would reach. That idea, of course, became The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a book that completely changed my life.
There’s a moment in that novel where Bruno and Shmuel, the two central characters, realise that they were born on the same day, April 15th1934, which readers may be interested to know is also the day on which my own father was born. ‘We’re like twins,’ says Bruno. ‘A little bit,’ agrees Shmuel.
To my surprise, as I read Lilith, I discovered a strange coincidence for it takes place on Primo Levi’s twenty-fifth birthday and, to his surprise, Tischler is also turning twenty-five that day. ‘We were twins,’ says Levi.
Did I read this story many, many years ago and remember this? I have no idea. It’s certainly possible.
Edna O’Brien – Number Ten
… from Mrs Reinhardt & Other Stories (1978)
I realised today that I hadn’t read an Irish writer yet for this project and who better to start with than Edna O’Brien? I referenced her in my 2017 novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, when one character, an ageing homosexual named Mr Denby-Denby, remarks that whenever he looks at her, he gets the impression ‘that she wants to put every man she meets across her knee and give them a good spanking until they show her the proper respect. Oh, to be the bare bottom beneath that alabaster palm!’
I’ve never spoken to Edna O’Brien, although I’m good friends with her son, the writer Carlo Gébler, but I’ve been in her presence occasionally and she scares the bejayzuz out of me. Still, I could listen to her talk on a stage for as many hours as she would be willing to sit there for I’ve rarely heard any writer speak with such precision, intelligence and wit. She wastes not a single word.
She wastes nothing in her writing either and Number Ten is a delight. It has nothing to do with Downing Street. A woman, Mrs Reinhardt, sleepwalks every night and has a number of fantasies, many of which bring her to an unfamiliar mews house within whose walls she derives great pleasure. The line between the fantastic and the realist is blurred throughout the piece although there’s a moment of extraordinary drama, and indeed compassion, related to the freeing of a cow who’s got herself stuck on some barbed wire. A small moment, a moment that seems effortless in the writing but, of course, is undoubtedly composed of many hours of hard work. The scene filled me with admiration.
I was supposed to play squash this morning but my Vespa won’t start because I haven’t used it since November. Which is annoying. I had great plans for my day and now that’s going to take up hours.
Akhil Sharma – We Didn’t Like Him
… from A Life of Adventure and Delight (2017)
As I sat down to write today’s piece, I noticed that the front cover of the British edition of Akhil Sharma’s story collection includes a quote by the writer of yesterday’s story, Yiyun Li, describing him as the ‘Chekhov of our time’ and I couldn’t help but wonder – as SJP would say – how useful these endorsements are and whether they sometimes do more damage than good. Within the publishing industry, there are those writers who blurb promiscuously, as if they’ve never read a book they didn’t like, and then there are those who rarely blurb at all. An endorsement from the latter, of course, holds much more value.
I used to give quotes myself but I don’t do it very much anymore. Now, if I read something I like, I prefer to write a positive review or put a tweet out saying how much I enjoyed it. I think that can ultimately prove more useful for the book and, of course, the publisher can always pull a line from a newspaper review to use on the jacket of the paperback edition.
Anyway, I read and admired Akhil Sharma’s novel Family Life a couple of years ago and the stories in this collection have also been widely praised. In this one, a man recalls his relationship from childhood with a distant cousin who he doesn’t like and, as the pair grow older, his aversion only increases. When the cousin, Manshu, becomes the pandit – or Brahmin scholar – at the local temple, he turns the position to his financial advantage, which disgusts the narrator and his family. It made me think of those Catholic cathedrals throughout Europe with stalls inside selling useless bits of religious paraphernalia. Whenever I see one, I always think of that moment in the Bible when Jesus enters the temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves.
Yiyun Li – House Fire
… from Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010)
I realised today that all the short stories I’d read so far were by British writers, so it’s time to break that cycle. Yiyun Li is a Chinese-American writer whose novels I’ve enjoyed very much – The Vagrants is exceptional and a few years ago I was part of the jury that shortlisted it for the IMPAC Literary Award – but I hadn’t read any of her short stories yet. House Fire is a witty piece about six elderly women who start a detective agency aimed at catching errant husbands who are cheating on their wives. The women achieve a degree of celebrity after a television documentary is made on them and the story takes a twist when they receive a visit from a young man who wants to know whether his wife is sleeping with his father and whether his son might, in fact, be his half-brother.
Actually, it would make a very amusing television series.
As it turned out, I’m glad I read a story by a female writer today; six days in and I’m three-all on the gender front. I’m trying to keep this project gender-equal but I need to work a bit harder now on getting more nationalities into it.
If you’re wondering how I choose what to read, I have 2,367 books in my house – yes, I’m that crazy that I know exactly how many I have; I keep a catalogue – and I wander around looking for short story collections and pick whatever takes my eye. A few days ago, my home featured on RTE’s Celebrity Home of the Year show in Ireland and I won, mostly because of what I think is an innovative use of space to shelve my books around the house.
Actually, Yiyun Li has a new novel being published next month,Where Reasons End, and I’m very much looking forward to it.
Mollie Panter-Downes – Literary Scandal at the Sewing Party
… from Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1941)
Originally published in The New Yorker, Good Evening, Mrs Craven is one of those books that has been sitting on my shelves for a long time, shamefully unread, before I reached for it today. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good literary scandal – I get in the occasional literary feud and they’re always a delight – so I guessed that I’d enjoy this.
A group of women are sewing pyjamas and bandages for soldiers on the Front Line when one, Mrs Twistle, remarks that she used to be in service at a house where the writer Jonathan Swift murdered a girl named Stella and the street was subsequently named Stella Place in honour of the unfortunate creature. There are varied responses to this piece of intelligence, some of the women are shocked, some disbelieving and one, Mrs Peters, is driven to a defence of her own husband – ‘Daddy’ – who has somehow been dragged into the conversation as a potential murderer himself. ‘Mr Peters is, after all, only flesh and blood, capable of human passions like the rest,’ remarks Mrs Twistle. The hostess, Mrs Ramsey, offers the opinion that she is mixing up the writer with someone else entirely and a debate ensues.
Was there some speculation that Swift was a murderer? This was new to me so I did a little investigation and discovered that, when he was in his early twenties, Swift was tutor to an eight-year-old girl, Esther Johnson, who he nicknamed Stella, and their relationship throughout his life was an ambiguous one. Some believe they eventually married although there’s no proof of this. He certainly didn’t kill her, she died of natural causes, but it does seem there was something suspicious going on and, after his death, his letters to the girl were published as A Journal to Stella. There’s a plaque to her memory, in fact, erected by Swift himself, in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, where he was Dean and where they are buried side by side.
EM Forster – Mr Andrews
… from Selected Stories (1911)
This is the first story I’ve read with a religious bent. A Christian, Mr Andrews, has died and is floating up to heaven, certain in the knowledge that, as he has lived a righteous life, eternal glory will be his. As his rises in the firmament he makes the acquaintance of a Turkish Muslim, who has died fighting the Infidel and, therefore, also anticipates his promised reward. Both fear that the other will be disappointed and so, at the gates of heaven, each makes a plea that their companion be permitted entry. Their wishes are granted but what they discover on the other side of the pearly gates is something quite contrary to their expectations.
I’ve always loved Forster. My first introduction to him, as a teenager, was through the Merchant Ivory film adaptations and what an excellent choice those filmmakers, along with their collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, were to bring the work of this quiet but deeply passionate novelist to the screen. He’s certainly my favourite writer of the early part of the twentieth century and, as a gay man, one can’t help but be fascinated by his closeted existence in King’s College, Cambridge, the manuscript of Maurice burning a hole under his mattress. A writer I admire very much – Damon Galgut – wrote a wonderful novel that featured Forster, Arctic Summer. A couple of years ago, I shared a stage in South Africa with Damon and Sarah Waters and we spoke of gay and lesbian fiction to a packed house, who were thoroughly engaged with our theme. I wonder how possible that would have been there twenty years ago.
Arthur Conan Doyle – The Stockbroker’s Clerk
… from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893)
Having compared the opening of The Kidnapped Prime Ministeryesterday to the Sherlock Holmes stories, it was obvious what to read today and, as it turned out, the beginning of The Stockbroker’s Clerk is a reversal of sorts for it’s Dr Watson who’s working in his new surgery when Holmes arrives to see him, inquiring whether he can take a day off to help with his latest case. He does, of course; the good people of London can wait twenty-four hours for their treatments.
The basis of the story is that a young clerk, Hall Pycroft, has been on his uppers for some time but finally landed a position at Mawson’s, one that he’s walked away from, somewhat impetuously, after being approached by the owner of the Franco-Midland Hardware Company with an offer that seems too good to be true. It is too good to be true, of course, because all sorts of unusual things take place thereafter, leading Pycroft to seek Holmes’ help.
While the story rattles along in sharpish fashion, it’s the detective’s deductions in the opening pages that are the most fun. He quickly recognises, from a pair of slippers, that his old friend has recently suffered a cold and that his surgery is a more successful one than his neighbour’s by the steps, ‘which are worn three inches deeper than his’. These are always the best parts of the Holmes stories; the little things he observes that others miss. Writers work in similar ways, or we try to anyway.
The unfortunate Mr Pycroft has a touch of the Leonard Bast’s about him – or, perhaps I should say that Leonard Bast has a touch of the Pycrofts as Forster’s Howards End clerk appeared almost twenty years later. Both are young men aiming for respectability, both lose their position and both become unfortunate victims. Bast, of course, is killed by a falling bookcase while Pycroft ends the story as unemployed as he started it, poor fellow. Being crushed under a pile of books doesn’t seem the worst way to go, all things considered.
Just got home after 6 weeks in Australia and my home was featured on RTE’s Celebrity Home of the Year last night and, somehow, I won! It’s good to be back.
Agatha Christie – The Kidnapped Prime Minister
… from Poirot Investigates (1924)
It seemed a little unfair to allow a bad movie to poison Agatha Christie for me, so I picked up Poirot Investigates this morning. I’ve been a fan of Christie’s since I was as a teenager and I return to them time and again as comfort reads. (Only last month I re-read A Murder is Announced.) I appreciate the twists and turns, of course, and the Whodunnit element, but more than that I enjoy the language and mores of the time. She was quite an elegant writer focussed mostly on the upper classes, most of whom, it seemed, were intent on poisoning, strangling or shooting each other.
The Kidnapped Prime Minister isn’t a great story but it’s diverting enough. The initial set-up recalls Sherlock Holmes almost entirely: Poirot, instead of Holmes, is in his flat when Colonel Hastings, instead of Doctor Watson, drops in to see him. An unnamed landlady, instead of Mrs Hudson, announces that some anxious visitors have arrived. Enter the Leader of the House of Commons and a Government Minister to inform Poirot that the Prime Minister, who has escaped an assassination attempt only that morning, has gone missing.
One thing that stands out in the story is a peculiar anti-Irish strand. A suspect in the kidnapping is the PM’s Irish chauffeur, O’Murphy, a name that no Irishman has ever had; you’re either an O’Something or a Murphy, but never both. In considering whether he has some complicity in the crime, one thing that Poirot finds against him is that “he is an Irishman from County Clare”. Which, considering Poirot’s own pride at his Belgian heritage, seems a little hypocritical. (In A Murder is Announced, much was made of the fact that a cook, Mitzi, was a Polish refugee so no matter what she said, everyone assumed she was lying.)
I suspect Theresa May would have no objections at all to being kidnapped. At least she’d get a bit of peace for a change.
Rudyard Kipling – How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin
… from Just So Stories (1902)
I’m sure I read the Just So Stories when I was a kid but when I think of Kipling, the first thing that comes to mind is Christopher Plummer playing him in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King.
I picked How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin because I’ve always struggled to spell the word rhinoceros.
This is the third story in the collection, featuring a Parsee named Pestonjee Bomonjee who engages in a war of wits with a rhino named Strorks. I had to look up what a Parsee is in a dictionary. Turns out it’s an adherent of Zoroastrianism. Then I had to look up Zoroastrianism. Turns out it’s an ancient pre-Islamic religion of Iran. It’s a little disconcerting as a writer to be faced with so many words you can’t spell or don’t understand.
One of Kipling’s repetitive descriptions – ‘he had no manners then, and he has no manners now, and he never will have any manners’ – made me think of Donald Trump, but the surrealism of a rhino’s skin being held together underneath by three buttons that allow him to slip it on and off at will is entertaining. When Strorks eats Pestonjee’s cake, an act of revenge is set in place that explains why the contemporary rhino is a much more wrinkled creature than the historic one. So now we know. I wonder what David Attenborough would say about it.
Last year, I published a novel, A Ladder to the Sky, in which a character wrote a collection of short stories featuring animals and was mocked mercilessly for it by the protagonist, who kept insisting that such a book must be intended for children. I’m not sure why we connect children and wild animals particularly but then again, I’m not a father, so what do I know? Still, as I look at the front cover of my edition of Just So Stories, I see that it was originally published under the title Just So Stories for Little Children – is there another sort? – and all but three feature an animal in their title. So there.
I’m in Sydney on holiday and this morning, working off my New Year’s Eve hangover, I watched a film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Crooked House, which was appallingly bad. Which is a shame, because I love Agatha Christie. I’ve recorded the BBC adaptation of The ABC Murders for when I get home to Dublin. At least I think I have. I did it online so it might not have worked. If that’s the case, there’ll be tears and a tantrum.