Osamu Dezai – Blue Bamboo
… from Fairy Tales (1945)
Having read a story by Yūko Tshusima yesterday, it brought me directly her father, Osamu Dazai, a much-praised writer in Japan. Blue Bamboo tells the story of a young scholar, Yu Jung, who is dissatisfied with his life. He’s been forced to marry a woman who repulses him, receives no respect from his neighbours or his family, and is condemned to the drudgery of manual labour every day when he believes that he has been born for better things. Having failed a government service examination, he’s returning home along the Han River when he finds himself transformed into a crow. Flying through the air, he meets a female crow, the titular Blue Bamboo, with whom he falls deeply in love.
The story sees Yu Jung moving back and forth between human and avian form but at its heart it’s a piece about frustration, about how we strive to have more in our lives than we need and are unwilling to recognise fulfilment. It also speaks of the desperation that some feel for the approval of others, as if we cannot be fully whole unless acquaintances and strangers see us as a success in life.
Based on a Chinese folk tale, Blue Bamboois a fable and, like many fables, transformation between human and animal forms is a common theme. We see it in The Frog Prince, in Beauty and the Beast, in the Irish folk tale The Children of Lir.
Dazai lived a very troubled life that included several suicide attempts, usually in the company of a woman, before he finally succeeded in 1948. His first came after being disowned by his family for eloping with a geisha when he tried to drown in the sea off Kamakura. He survived, but the geisha died. In the years that followed he tried hanging and poisoning but failed every time until, finally, the Tamagawa Canal claimed him.
Yūko Tsushima – Flames
… from Territory of Light (1979)
I discovered this story in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories (2018). I’m a great fan of Japanese literature; there’s an intimacy but also a surrealism to much of it that appeals to me. And because it’s a country that I’ve never visited, its literature forces me to understand it through fiction rather than reality. I hope to travel there one day in the future.
Yūko Tsushima was a very successful and popular author through her lifetime, winning most of Japan’s major literary awards. This story concerns a single mother who feels that death is stalking her, for a large number of people of her acquaintance have recently passed away. She’s going through a turbulent time, her divorce is about to be finalised and her soon-to-be ex-husband is not making her life easy, refusing to pay child support because ‘he didn’t want to let people down by abandoning his dreams of making a movie and creating a small theatre company.’
Still, there’s a sense of peace in the story, particularly in those moments when the mother and daughter are alone. She longs for the child to return to a state of infancy, of breast-feeding, when she was completely needed by someone. And the story ends with some strong imagery of lights in the sky that continues the theme of endings that is present throughout.
While I haven’t read any more of Yūko Tsushima’s work, a little research tells me that she too was a single mother, and the child of a single mother, and that much of her writing focussed on the difficulties and, at times, pleasures of that existence. Her father was the writer Osamu Dazai, one of Japan’s leading fiction writers of the first half of the twentieth century, who committed suicide with his lover by drowning himself in a Tokyo canal.
A joke my younger sister often likes to recount is how, once, when we were meeting for a drink, I saw a person who I thought was her approaching me on the street. After a moment, I realised it wasn’t her at all, but an elderly Japanese lady. I’m not quite why or how I confused the two, but I was convinced at first that it was Sinéad.
Dorthe Nors – The Buddhist
… from Karate Chop (2015)
The second Danish author I’ve included in this project, after Hans Christian Andersen, Dorthe Nors’ work often concerns itself with isolation and hopelessness, while nevertheless managing to be enlivened by great humour. The Buddhisttells the story of a speechwriter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen who, having suffered a divorce, decides to become a Buddhist. ‘Buddhists are good people,’ he reasons. ‘They’re deeper than most. Buddhists can see connections no one else can.’
And yet, despite his shift towards spiritualism, his life takes on a rather negative dimension after this decision, ultimately leading to him locking himself in his office with a jerry can full of gasoline, a dog, and a woman tied to a chair as he prepares to strike a match.
A trope that Dorthe Nors uses throughout her story is repetition. Sentences start short, then are repeated with added phrases as she builds her argument, almost like a piece of music building towards its crescendo.
As different themes emerge from the stories I’m writing about, I notice that religion rarely seems to raise its head. In fact, I think only Mr Andrews by EM Forster, which I wrote about at the start of January, offered faith as its central theme. I wonder why we don’t write about it more? I’ve explored the subject in my own writing only once, in my novel A History of Loneliness, which examined the child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church in Ireland. And yet religion lies at the heart of almost every conflict in the world since the beginning of time. Perhaps there’s a disconnect between it and art, though, for I have yet to encounter a story or a novel by, say, an Islamic fundamentalist, an ISIS fighter, or a Saudi Arabian woman whose face is masked by a niqab or whose body is clothed in a burqa.
Heather O’Neill – The Wolf-Boy of Northern Quebec
… from Daydreams of Angels (2015)
Heather O’Neill is another writer whose work I first encountered while chairing the jury for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize in Canada. Her collection, Daydreams of Angels, impressed us all and it duly ended up on the shortlist, the second year in a row, in fact, that O’Neill made that list, having been on it the year before with her novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.
The Wolf-Boy of Northern Quebec was always my favourite story in the book and it was a joy to read it again today. It’s a Tarzan-like tale of a boy, Pierre-Loup, raised by wolves after getting lost in a campsite as a baby. Eighteen years later, he’s discovered stealing food from a grocery store and his true identity is revealed, leading him to become extremely famous and a star on the lecture circuit, for Pierre-Loup has learned English from studying the labels on packets of beef jerky and is not only proficient at the language, but speaks it in a refined, dismissive way to everyone he encounters.
It’s a frequently hilarious story, particularly when Pierre-Loup is paired with a boy who’s been raised by monkeys but is nowhere near his intellectual equal. But there’s a serious side to it too. When an audience in France refuses to believe he’s a wolf – which he insists he is – simply because he does not have a tail, he asks whether a man who loses a leg in war is any less of a man. ‘You cannot reduce my essence to a body part!’ What makes us who we are, O’Neill asks. Nature, nurture, language, our physical appearance?
Every story in this collectionis original and inventive. O’Neill has an extraordinary imagination and a wonderful ability, like Angela Carter, to turn fairy tales on their heads and rewrite them for her own ends. One of Canada’s finest contemporary writers and this might well be the best story I’ve read so far for this project.
Charlotte Brontë – Napoleon and the Spectre
… from The Green Dwarf Manuscript (1833)
Charlotte Brontë’s teenage writing consisted mostly of supernatural works, as witnessed by Napoleon and the Spectre, one of the stories found within the Green Dwarfmanuscript that she worked on while a student at Roe Head School. While Brontë is forever remembered for the great ‘Reader, I married him’ line in Jane Eyre, I would suggest that this offers one of the most arresting opening lines in fiction: ‘Well, as I was saying, the Emperor got into bed.’
The story displays the young Brontë’s interest in the afterlife, politics and history for in its short breadth, it contains elements of all three. The Emperor Napoleon is going to sleep when he’s disturbed by unexpected sounds from his ‘haunted closet’ and discovers a ‘tall, thin man, dressed in a blue surtout edged with gold lace’ inside. The spectre leads him out into the streets of Paris before entering a house where he witnesses, from behind a screen, a group of girls dancing with death’s-heads masks hiding their faces.
It’s a strange and unsettling story, filled with vivid description, pre-dating Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carolby a decade. It’s an interesting comparison for, in both, a man is forced to see the world from a different perspective in the dead of night. Even the dialogue – ‘Silence,’ said the guide. ‘Silence, if thou wouldst escape instant death’– makes one think of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, although Dickens could not possibly have read the story as it wasn’t published until the 1920s.
I re-read Jane Eyrea couple of years ago, having not read it since I was a teenager, and fell in love with it again. The structure, story, characters and pacing are all perfect, retaining their authenticity more than 170 years later. That, I suppose, is the mark of a masterpiece.
HP Lovecraft – The Music of Erich Zann
… from The National Amateur (1922)
If I was living in Providence, Rhode Island, I’d probably head down to the Ladd Observatory today for, traditionally, this is the day where admirers of the writer HP Lovecraft gather to mark the anniversary of his death. I spent a summer in Rhode Island when I was a student, although I don’t recall anyone making reference to Lovecraft who I had neither heard of nor read until today.
One of his most popular stories, however, is The Music of Erich Zann, a surreal horror story, set on a street called the Rue d’Auseil, where the narrator lived as a young man but, despite repeated attempts on his part, he has never been able to find since.
The story is constructed around music played by an elderly mute in the upstairs apartment that supposedly keeps all the darkness of the world at bay. The sounds are discordant and the player is troubled and prone to fits of violence but the story, like the music, reaches a crescendo of passion that causes destruction to the house itself and to the viol player.
A writer of horror fiction for the most part, Lovecraft was one of those unfortunate writers whose work was barely recognised in his short life but has become part of the canon in his particular genre after death.
Elizabeth Bowen – Her Table Spread
… from The Cat Jumps & Other Stories (1934)
Elizabeth Bowen is another of those authors who I read many years ago when I was studying English Literature in Trinity College, Dublin, but to whom I have not returned since, although I’m tempted to go back and read all her novels now as her reputation seems to grow, year on year. I studied The Death of the Heart and The Heat of the Dayback then and, if memory serves, I wrote a long essay on the use of the ‘Big House’ theme in her novels.
There’s a ‘big house’ in this story too, where a group of friends are gathered and acting very Anglo-Irish, discussing the fact that a Navy destroyer is about to make an appearance in the local estuary by a term of the Treaty, the 1921 agreement between the British and Irish governments that effectively ended the War of Independence and gave birth to what was at first known as the Irish Free State and eventually became the Republic of Ireland.
Of course, Bowen was no stranger to the ‘big house’, having inherited Bowen’s Court, an 18thcentury mansion, her family seat. I wish my family had a seat. That would be very fancy.
There are some wonderful lines in this story that jump off the page. A chap plays Mendelssohn on the piano but the guests find the composer exasperating so they open all four windows ‘to let the music downhill’. And then there’s a terrific conversation that only the gentry could have where a man tells another, the pianist, who is clearly disinterested in women, that ‘it’s a pity you don’t want a wife. You’d be the better for a wife.’
Adam Haslett – The Beginnings of Grief
… from You are Not a Stranger Here (2002)
The young narrator of the story is a year and a half away from graduating high school when, in separate incidents, his mother commits suicide and his father is killed in an automobile accident. Living a solitary life with two elderly neighbours, he has a crush on a schoolfriend but their subsequent relationship is one that is lived out only through violence and sex, and much more of the former than the latter. He seeks ever more painful ways for the boy, Gramm, to hurt him as he desperately tries to feel something after the numbing trauma of what has happened to his family. It’s a stark and powerful story, upsetting in its brutal realism.
I’m an admirer of Adam Haslett’s work although I hadn’t read his stories before, only his two novels, the brilliant Union Atlantic and Imagine Me Gone. As I recall, there are shades of this story in the earlier novel too.
As a reader and a writer, I’ve always been drawn to stories about orphans. They were my favourite books to read as a child, simply because I liked the idea of young people being the heroes of their own stories rather than needing adults to enter the fictional world and sort their problems out for them. It’s something I’ve used a lot in my own Young Adult fiction, where the adults are generally either dead or effectively absent from the action. The Beginnings of Griefis not a story for children but it has that unmistakable scent of youthful trauma that comes from abandonment that one finds in the fiction of Edmund White too.
David Leavitt – Radiation
… from Family Dancing (1984)
David Leavitt is a writer I’ve been reading for many years and whose work is always interesting and surprising. He went through a difficult time early in his career when the poet Stephen Spender sued him over material he used in his novel While England Sleeps,but he’s continued to publish fantastic novels over the decades. One of his great gifts is surprising the reader. In one book, he might write about an Indian mathematician at Cambridge; in another, about couples stuck in Paris at the outbreak of the Second World War.
Radiationis a story about a woman who takes her eldest son and daughter to a hospital where she’s receiving treatment for cancer. In the car on the way there, it emerges that a friend has remarked that she’s planning on marrying the woman’s husband once she has died, a revelation that, not surprisingly, is very upsetting to the children. The story shows its age a little when a patient lights up his pipe in the hospital. Obviously, that would never happen today, but I’m surprised that it was even permitted in the 1980s.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Radiation, however, is the mother’s back-story, for it turns out that she is a welder of battleships! An unusual job for anyone but, one would assume, but even more unusual for a woman. I like little surprises like this in stories. My first thought when I read it was of the women during the Second World War who undertook jobs that had been traditionally reserved for men and were then sent scurrying back to their domestic lives the moment the soldiers returned home. There must be a novel in there somewhere. There’s probably already lots of them, come to think of it, but nothing springs to mind.
Richard Yates – Fun With a Stranger
… from Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962)
Occasionally, I choose an author and, over the course of a year or so, read my way through all their books. Eight or nine years ago, Richard Yates was my author of choice and I dived into his novels with relish. I started with Revolutionary Road, his most famous book, which was made into an equally impressive movie by Sam Mendes. I found it extraordinary, and the rest of his fiction was just as powerful, very much in that John Updike / John Cheever vein of mid 20thCentury disaffected American literature. The only book that I didn’t read by him was his Collected Stories, so it was a treat to dip into that today.
Fun with a Stranger is a quiet and unusual piece, about a third-grade class whose teacher, Miss Snell, is aloof and difficult, but not unfriendly, in contrast to the other third-grade class, whose teacher, Mrs Cleary, is energetic and youthful. The story takes place in the lead up to Christmas when the children fear that Miss Snell will let them down by not throwing a party on the last day of school while their friends across the corridor get to have fun. Their fears are not unfounded.
The strength of the piece lies in Yates’ portrait of the teacher herself. Unmarried, unlike her rival, she does her best with the children and one gets the impression that she’s secretly very fond of them all but unable to figure out how to express her affection in words or actions, despite her years of experience, and that this inability weighs on her. The relationships between the children in the two classes are well drawn too. I had teachers like that in junior school. They were mostly friendly but when I got to senior school, things changed, and they seemed almost universally embittered by life and contemptuous of their students.
Katherine Susannah Prichard – The Cooboo
… from Kiss on the Lips (1932)
I mentioned yesterday that friends and publishers in different countries have started to send me anthologies to help with this project. My friend Chris Bowen, the Member of Parliament for McMahon in New South Wales, and who at the time of writing is Shadow Treasurer of Australia, is a great reader and kindly sent me an anthology of ‘Best Australian Short Stories’, which will be useful over the nine months ahead. There are twenty-nine stories in the book but only four are written by women, so I’ve decided to read some of them first. Although a great Australia-phile, most of my reading from that country has been limited to late 20thand early 21stcentury writers, so it will be interesting to be introduced to work from the past.
‘Cooboo’ is another word for an Aborigine child and this story takes place in the hot and dusty plains of Murndoo, in Queensland. Groups of workers are toiling in the heat, and one, Rose, carries her baby on her back wherever she goes. The story follows her interactions with others struggling under the sun, trying to make a living and receiving little compensation for it. Atmospheric and building to a heart-breaking finale, it references the divide that has historically existed between the Aborigine people and the descendants of those who began arriving in Botany Bay in 1770. From what I understand, those tensions have decreased dramatically in recent years although I daresay there is still a distance to go. (An Aborigine Prime Minister, for example.) Whenever I take part in a literary festival in Australia, however, I’m always moved by the opening address, which gives thanks to the indigenous people for the use of what, traditionally, was their land.
As well as being a writer, Prichard was a founding member of the Australian Communist Party, organising unions and women’s groups. I didn’t even know there were communists in Australia, but there you go.
Heidi Julavits – Judge Gladys Parks-Schultz
… from The Book of Other People (2007)
A second story that I’ve chosen from Zadie Smith’s 2007 anthology, The Book of Other People, where authors were invited to write ‘about character. The instruction was simple: make somebody up.’ Isn’t that what we do in fiction anyway?
I remember my younger sister recommending Heidi Julavits’ memoir The Folded Clock to me some years ago, a diary that the author had written about being a woman, wife, mother and writer, and it’s a book that I’ve long meant to read, so it was nice to find her name in the contents page here and to be able to sample her writing at last.
This story concerns an elderly judge who’s spending Christmas with her son and daughter and their ‘temporary beloveds’. I like that phrase. Sitting in a chair, reading one of her mystery novels, she recalls certain events that took place in her childhood and youth that have affected both her view of the world and the manner in which she undertook her career across the years. It’s a thoughtful piece, introspective and moving, albeit with a slightly melodramatic ending. It put me in mind of Katherine Mansfield’s story An Ideal Family, which I wrote about last month, and which features a similar conclusion.
As that’s two stories from The Book of Other People, I better put it back on my shelf now and leave it alone for a while. Anthologies, however, are proving very helpful in continuing this project as they’re introducing me to writers whose work I haven’t read before as well as offering stories by people who I previously thought only wrote novels. Some international anthologies have just arrived too so I’ll be making use of them. I need 365 writers. Every person counts!
Donald Barthelme – Some of Us Had Been Threatening our Friend Colby
… from Forty Stories (1987)
Some years ago, I committed to writing fifty stories – one a week – for a now defunct Irish Sunday newspaper. Each story was to be five hundred words exactly in length, which is pretty short, and one of the writers I took as my inspiration for the project was Donald Barthelme, whose stories were always short but always packed a punch. It was a challenging thing to do, and some weeks the ideas came easier than others, and by the end I was pretty happy with some and not so happy with others.
Barthelme doesn’t seem to enjoy a great following anymore, which is a shame as his work was original, witty and hugely enjoyable. This particular story concerns a plan that a group of friends have for hanging one of their number, the eponymous Colby, simply because he’d ‘gone too far’. Colby is in on the plan and seems to agree that it’s the only reasonable consequence for his behaviour. But then there are a lot of things for them all to figure out: should there be an orchestra? Food and drink for the voyeurs? Should a trap door be used, or should Colby simply hang from a tree? All good questions if you’re planning a murder.
We’ve probably all fantasised about committing a murder, right? Or is that just me? Bumping off someone who’s really hurt us? If we could be sure we could get away with it, I mean. Perhaps these are not ideas I should voice aloud. The best idea I’ve read in fiction for the perfect murder is in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, where Bruno and Guy each agree to murder someone for the other. As neither of them will have a motive for the murder they committed, it seems to them that they will never be discovered. Clever.
Louisa May Alcott – How They Ran Away
… from Lulu’s Library (1889)
Louisa May Alcott is, of course, best known for her 1868 novel Little Women, a true classic but one that, to my shame, I’ve never read. (I feel like I say that a lot; I used to consider myself a very well-read person but the more I continue with this project, the more gaps I find in my reading.) I worked my way through a lot of classic literature when I was a teenager and a young man, but I was probably less attentive to those books that are traditionally considered ‘girls’ books’. That said, I recently bought a beautiful Folio Society edition of Little Women and am hoping to get to it soon. I remember my English teacher in school refusing to teach Pride and Prejudice because he considered it a ‘girls’ book’ too. An English teacher! The mind boggles.
How They Ran Awayis a fairly humdrum story in its way, about two boys, Tommy and Billy, who go off on an adventure and do some fairly boy-like things, like hunting and fishing and getting stuck in trees. It’s probably more intended for children than adults and, indeed, the collection from which it’s taken, Lulu’s Library, was written for her niece Lulu, who Alcott took in after the death of Lulu’s mother.
Reading a little about Alcott afterwards, I’m struck by a remark she made in an interview: ‘I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.’ I assume that even the idea of being gay would have been so far outside her field of experience that she never considered such a thing was possible, but one can only assume, from those words, that she was.
Rabindranath Tagore – Subha
… from Stories from Tagore (1918)
Rabindranath Tagore was the first Indian – and, indeed, the first non-European – writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, taking the prize in 1913. To my surprise, as I was reading about his life on-line, I discovered that there’s a bust of him in St Stephen’s Green, a park that lies at the heart of Dublin and through which I have walked thousands of times in my life. I must have walked past it on any number of occasions without every taking the time to notice it. Which puts me in mind of the Mollie Panter-Downes story at the start of January, when I discovered that Jonathan Swift was buried in St Patrick’s Cathedral next to a girl who might have been his illicit lover. I guess I don’t know my own city as well as I think I do.
The story that I choose from the collection, Subha, is very powerful. A young girl is born mute and spends her childhood as something of an outcast, finding comfort only in two cows, who seem to understand her loneliness, and in her connection with the earth itself. She makes a friend in a boy, Pratap, whose only ambition is to be a fisherman. As she grows older, she is brought by her parents to Calcutta for an arranged marriage, where her disability is, at first, kept a secret and, upon its discovery, she seems condemned to a lifetime of loneliness.
Tagore writes with great elegance but it’s the connections drawn between the young girl and the natural world that most captures my imagination. He writes of the river in her town of Chandipur, that it ‘kept to its narrow bounds like a daughter of the middle class.’ What a striking piece of writing! And, of Subha’s ultimate fate, that ‘in her silent heart there sounded an endless, voiceless weeping.’
ZZ Packer – Gideon
… from The Book of Other People (2007)
ZZ Packer is a contemporary American writer whose name I’ve heard many times over the years but, until now, have never got around to reading. I found this story in an anthology edited by Zadie Smith, where each of the stories are titled after the central character, although in this case, it’s really the secondary character as the piece relates to an incident during a relationship between the narrator and her Jewish boyfriend Gideon.
It’s diverting enough but there’s not a huge amount going on in it, if I’m honest. Worried about being pregnant, the narrator takes a pregnancy test which comes up negative, but she draws an extra line in to see what her boyfriend might say. He doesn’t say anything much really, so that’s that.
I’m trying to focus on positives in the stories I’m reading but I suppose once in a while, there’ll be something that doesn’t feel quite there, as if it’s been written in a hurry in order to appear in a collection and might have benefitted from a little extra time. If one is asked to contribute to an anthology of short stories, it’s always a nice compliment, but I imagine that, occasionally, an editor receives a submission that doesn’t quite cut the mustard.
Charles Dickens – The Signal-Man
… from All the Year Round (1866)
Throughout my teenage years, I read A Christmas Carolevery December. It never failed to excite me for as well as being a Dickens enthusiast, I’ve always loved ghost stories and am instinctively drawn to any novel with a sense of the supernatural. I love the atmosphere, the sense of dread, the feeling of claustrophobia.
When I came to write my own ghost novel, This House Is Haunted, I deliberately set it in 1867 in order that my opening chapter could feature a scene where the heroine and her father attend a reading of The Signal-Manby Dickens himself. It’s an unsettling piece that starts with a great cry – ‘Halloa! Below there!’ – and recounts a series of encounters between the signal-man of the title and a spectre who informs him of calamities to come. The ghost appears once, and a terrible crash ensues; he appears a second time and a lady dies in a railway carriage as it passes. It appears a third time, gesticulating wildly, but as yet no misfortune has occurred, and the nervous fellow is distressed at the fear of what horror might lie ahead.
Reading Dickens’ ghost stories again as I set out to write the novel taught me that while a writer doesn’t have to explain the existence of ghosts, he or she does have to explain the existence of the ghost they’ve created. Dickens knew this well. In A Trial for Murder, a ghost takes a seat in the jury at the trial of his killer – retribution! In The Ghost Chamber, a killer finds his spirit trapped at the scene of his crimes – justice!And, most famously of all, Marley’s ghost returns to show Scrooge the error of his ways before it is too late – redemption!
Ghosts are littered throughout Dickens’ work; there are five of them in The Pickwick Papers alone.
Petina Gappah – An Elegy for Easterly
… from An Elegy for Easterly (2009)
I’m actively searching for writers from less familiar parts of the world for this project, particularly those from countries whose writers are less well known or celebrated in the west, so was please to come across this story by Petina Gappah, a novelist and story writer from Zimbabwe. Petina and I read together at the Morges Literary Festival in Switzerland in 2016 and I came away with a couple of her books afterwards.
An Elegy for Easterlyexplores the fate of a woman, Martha Mupengo, in Harare who is suffering both mental problems and an unexplained pregnancy. The children of the town laugh at her while the other women remain wary, uncertain who might be the father of her unborn child. If it is one of their men, it is clear that they will extend no sympathy towards her.
When the story begins, the poor, the disadvantaged and the weak have been moved out of the city in anticipation of the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II on a three-day visit. The authorities, of course, do not want the queen to witness the reality behind the façade, the poverty that makes a lie of their attempts to bring their country into the twenty-first century. And so displacement of the natives is necessary. Gappah makes a conscious and incisive commentary on Britain’s colonial past and its history of supplanting indigenous people from their land in order to expand its empire. She writes with a real earthiness, an understanding of the lives of women in this disadvantaged part of the world and the things they need to do to survive.
They do say, of course, that the queen thinks the entire world smells of fresh paint because everywhere she goes, every building that she enters has been redecorated in anticipation of her visit.
William Boyd – Humiliation
… from The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth (2017)
I reviewed this collection of stories for The Irish Times upon publication and particularly liked the title story but, as it was more of a novella than a short story, I re-read Humiliationinstead for today. A novelist whose recent work has been savaged by a critic happens to encounter him in a country pub. ‘I shrugged,’ the injured party remarks, ‘this is what you must do: utter indifference is your best weapon’. Writers will certainly relate to his anger on feeling that he has been treated unfairly while reviewers might flinch at the revenge taken. And if you happen to be both, then the whole thing becomes distinctly unsettling.
I haven’t suffered too badly over the years with bad reviews. Although I remember feeling quite worried in January 2006, a week before The Boy in the Striped Pyjamaswas published, when the very first review called it ‘a novel of blush-making vulgarity.’ I was immediately concerned that it might set the tone for those that followed and that the book would collapse at the first hurdle. Fortunately, things went fine after that, so my concerns were in vain. As it happens, I’m an admirer of the reviewer in question and saw her walking towards me at the Hay-on-Wye Festival last year. I intended on saying hello, but she turned on her heel and walked off in the opposite direction. I don’t know if that had anything to do with me or not.
This is the second story I’ve read that concerns itself with the business of reviews. Rob Doyle’s Paris Storylast month also took on the subject.
People keep telling me to read William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, and that my own novel The Heart’s Invisible Furies has some things in common with it. I probably will at some point, I’ve always been an admirer of Boyd’s writing.
Cristine Peri Rossi – Fetishists Anonymous
… from Words Without Borders (2005)
Who could resist a short story with a title like Fetishists Anonymous? Cristina Peri Rossi is a Uruguayan author of many novels, stories and poetry collections and, in this piece, she invites us into the mind of a teacher, Maria, who has founded a society for fetishists with a group of like-minded individuals, each of whom has some strange but ultimately harmless fixation, such as collecting women’s black patent leather shoes – the left shoe only – or an obsession with ‘strabismic eyes’. I didn’t know what that meant so had to look it up; it means ‘an abnormal alignment of one or both eyes, preventing parallel vision.’ In other words, cross-eyed.
Maria’s unusual fetish is for the necks of boys and men and she collects photographs of them, each of which gives her a peculiar erotic charge. When she’s disturbed by her lover while looking at her collection, he is baffled by what he discovers and proceeds to tell her why she is crazy. Needless to say, she’s not particularly interested in his mansplaining. There’s a lot of gender politics at play in the story but Maria remains unapologetic in her pursuit of the necks of boys and men. And why should she be? Good luck to her, I say.
Of course, many famous writers have had interesting fetishes of their own. René Descartes, in fact, enjoyed girls with strabismic eyes (see above), loving these women more than any other. Alexander Pushkin was a foot fetishist. CS Lewis enjoyed a bit of sadomasochism.
I’ve heard a few strange ones from writer friends over the years too, usually in the bars of hotels late at night after some festival event, but probably best that I draw a veil over this for now. Otherwise, no one would ever tell me their secrets again. I’d offer my own but I’ve run out of space.
Cecelia Ahern – The Woman Who Guarded Gonads
… from Roar (2018)
Easily one of Ireland’s most successful writers of the last twenty years, Cecelia Ahern has also developed into one of our best, although I think it’s fair to say that prejudices towards young women in the publishing industry have often seen her work ghettoised as ‘popular fiction’ – whatever that term means – when, in fact, she stands shoulder to shoulders with her peers on the supposed literary side.
Never has this been more in evidence than in her fantastic collection of stories, Roar, published towards the end of last year, thirty short stories, each of which begins with the phrase ‘The Woman Who…’ and represents many different types of woman in a unique and interesting fashion.
One of the best of these is The Woman Who Guarded Gonads, a gender-reverse story where a man is interviewed before a panel of woman on his decision to get a vasectomy, before being told by them what he is and is not permitted to do with his body, when human life begins and what will happen to him if he attempts to board a plane to have a vasectomy in another country. Their arrogance and absolute certainty that they know what is right for him, while he does not, is both funny and disturbingly real.
Of course, Ireland finally repealed the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution last year, making it finally possible for women to legally obtain abortions, and not before time, considering the amount of pain that women had been forced to go through for so long. Following on from the Equal Rights Marriage Referendum a few years earlier, it seems that our country is growing up at last.
One thing that will stay with me forever about this particular story is a phrase that I’d never heard before and hope never to hear again: boner-milk. Once heard, never forgotten.
Haruki Murakami – On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning
… from The Elephant Vanishes (1993)
Between 1999 and 2000, I worked in the marketing department of Waterstone’s Head Office in London. That year, Harvill published The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the first English language translation in the UK of the Japanese writer. I can still see myself on my lunch-hours in Chiswick, twenty-eight years old, head bent over that novel as my mind was opened to an entirely new type of fiction. I was utterly thrilled and transported by the blend of humour, romanticism and magic realism that lay within its pages. I’ve been a Murakami fan ever since and he’s so prolific that, happily, he’s a gift that keeps on giving.
I couldn’t resist the title of this story and it’s classic Murakami. A man is walking down the street when he sees the 100% perfect girl for him. She’s not especially beautiful, but he just knows. And he does nothing about it. Later, he tells his friend about the encounter and realises that he should have stopped her and told her a story, about a boy and a girl, eighteen and sixteen respectively, who saw each other on the street, recognised their perfect partner in each other, but separated without doing anything about it.
I’ve never been to Japan but it’s number one on my list of places that I’d like to visit. I’m a great fan of its literature, its food and history. I’m fascinated by its Imperial history and it’s a period that I’d like to study more.
I wonder what I would do if I saw the 100% perfect boy for me? I suppose it would depend where we were. If I saw him in a bar, maybe I’d go over. If I saw him on the street, I definitely wouldn’t. If I discovered him on Tinder, I’d super-like him.
GK Chesterton – The Actor and the Alibi
… from The Secret of Father Brown (1927)
Another first for me: A Father Brown story. I seem to recall an edition of Chesterton’s stories sitting on the book shelves in my house when I was growing up – I think my father was a fan – but I’d never read one until today.
As with any recurring detective – Homes, Poirot, Miss Marple – one probably has to read multiple stories to recognise the nuances of the sleuth and the particular way that he or she observes a case before deciphering the identity of the killer, so perhaps reading this out of context from the other works hasn’t given me as much insight into the character of Father Brown as I might otherwise have but it’s a taster at least. And I rather enjoyed it.
In this story, a young Italian actress has locked herself in her dressing room in protest at the part that she has been given in a production of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. As the various people in the theatre – actors, stage-hands and the producer – try to persuade her to come out, they decide to call in her priest, Father Brown, who is equally unsuccessful. However, while a rehearsal is taking place on stage, and the entire cast apparently on view, the impresario, Mundon Mandeville, is murdered.
There are some rather neat twists in the story and the solution, when offered, is an ingenious one. I might try to read some more of the Father Brown stories in the future. There are writers who fall in and out of fashion over time and Chesterton is not, I think, particularly in vogue in the present day.
Apparently, Pope Pius XI invested him as a Knight Commander in a Papal Order and I imagine that he will be the only writer in this project who is currently under consideration for beatification.