‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor
The short story that I find both haunting and terrifying and re-read regularly is Flannery O’Connor’s title story to her collection ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’. The frisson generated by a really great story usually comes from the fact that you have no idea how the story is going to end. I hesitated over using this story in a masterclass I was teaching, because O’Connor’s uncompromising literary and political agenda takes no prisoners – prepare to be shocked. An ordinary family, complete with vile children and the selfish grandmother who is the central character, prepare to take a trip to Florida. The road trip results in the usual bitching, arguments, bad manners and power struggles that take place in all families. All the events of the story are foreshadowed in the opening: an accident, the appearance of the murderous gangster, The Misfit, but not the outcome of the encounter between ordinary sinners and an extraordinary sinner. Anyone who loves Cormac McCarthy ‘s No Country for Old Men will recognise the character of The Misfit. He is the Angel of the Apocalypse, who calls you in for an ‘accounting’.
The entire story rests on the significance of the dialogue between the grandmother and the Misfit. And I can’t give the end away. But I can point out the savagery of O’Connor’s observations. She describes ‘the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears’. But as the tale begins to darken ‘ Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth’. I love Flannery O’Connor’s writing because it is pitiless as well as fearless. Read her and prepare to be Very Afraid.
‘Seven Floors’ by Dino Buzzati
In Dino Buzzati’s ‘Seven Floors’ a sick man who is referred to throughout by his full name, Giovanni Corte, is admitted to an unusual hospital. The patients are accommodated according to the seriousness of their conditions, the mildest cases on the top floor, the dying at ground level. Corte, apparently, is hardly sick at all – though the precise nature of his ailment, like nearly all the details of his biography, is never defined – and so is given a bed on the seventh floor. It’s a brilliantly elegant schema, plot and metaphor at the same time, for the stages of his decline. He keeps getting moved to the floor below, for reasons which seem as much to do with Kafkaesque bureaucracy as with illness: there is a clerical error, the staff on this floor are on holiday, there’s a machine here that will treat him more efficiently. The truth, of course, is that Corte really is dying. The story’s dark satire springs from the fact that neither he nor the hospital staff are prepared to admit it, which only makes his eventual end more terrible.
‘Seven Floors’ would make a good ‘how not to do it’ guide for medical staff dealing with the terminally ill but Buzzati’s distanced style keeps it from being depressing: it’s perfectly poised between realism and fable, and even quite funny in its elaborate variations on a simple theme. When I first encountered it in Daniel Halpern’s Penguin Book of International Short Stories 1945-1985, I had to get my hands on everything else I could find by the author. He was a distinguished Italian journalist, novelist and artist, who died in 1972, but English translations of his work are hard to find. His fantasy novel The Tartar Steppe and the graphic novel Poem Strip are other extraordinary treatments of his existential fascination with human mortality, but, for me, ‘Seven Floors’ is his masterpiece.
‘Le Papillon’ (18421) by Emily Brontë
Never intended as a short story, ‘The Butterfly’ was composed in French and remained unpublished in Emily Brontë’s lifetime. Its author was twenty-four and studying French in Brussels under Constantin Heger. She fought her teacher all the way and from that struggle came fragments of the nineteenth century’s most powerful – incendiary – prose. Heger had previously set an essay on cats, doubtless hoping to elicit womanly sentiments. Cats, Emily recalcitrantly asserted, are characterised (very like ourselves) by ‘hypocrisy, cruelty and ingratitude’. On August 11th, 1842, ‘The Butterfly’ informed her teacher that ‘The whole creation is equally meaningless … Nature … exists on a principle of destruction’.
In treating ‘The Butterfly’ as short fiction, I am emphasising continuity between the literary forms of essay, meditation and fable. Fictional devices may cannily lift a subject beyond dispute into the world of the imagination – since, as Sir Philip Sidney put it, ‘the poet … nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.’
Emily’s tale opens with a wayfarer whose thoughts are presented as a distillation of a thoroughly bad mood. At the forest’s edge, the persona hears the nightingale. ‘Poor fool,’ [she says,] ‘is it to guide the shot to your flesh or the child to your little ones that you sing so high and so clear?’ Don’t sing: it makes you a target. This saturnine irony leads to the mortal centre of Wuthering Heights: the lapwing nestlings’ skeletons on the moor; orphans assaulted by human predators.
‘The Butterfly’ proceeds through a sequence of soliloquys. The speaker anatomises a tranquil waterside scene, where swallows and fish devour the flies ‘and man, for his amusement or for his needs will kill their murderers’. The narrative moves on a peripety which triggers not a change of mind but a shift of perspective. This peripety is the minimalist hinge on which short fiction typically turns. The speaker plucks a flower and, finding a caterpillar inside defiling its petals, discards it. Like maggot, like man, she reckons – for man ‘tortures, he kills, he devours; he suffers, he dies, is devoured’. The tone of darkly defiant relish is characteristic of Emily Brontë’s fiction and poetry – as is her rueful, though in fact equally heterodox, volte face.
For of course the caterpillar was always a latent butterfly. It answers the speaker by ascending, ‘with wings of glowing gold and purple’. An ‘internal voice’, adjusts the persona’s perspective. The speaker now has two voices. The author, by sleight of hand, releases the butterfly from the sphere of proto-Darwinian nature, ‘red in tooth and claw’, and instates it in classical traditions of symbolism, as the emblem of the soul’s immortality. The inner voice, reproving the persona’s ‘blind presumption’, opens the way to an alternative heresy: the whole suffering creation, insects and all, may be regenerated at time’s quietus.
Fabulation has permitted and defended the expression of the dualist’s extreme dissidence, using short fiction’s devices to free the mind to explore with impunity the contrary horizons of its world.
1‘Le Papillon’, as translated by myself in Emily Brontë: Heretic (The Women’s Press: London, 1994), pp. 249-51.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir
‘The Pale Gold of Alaska’ by Éilís Ní Dhuibne
Elegant, elusive and elastic, the short story is the trapeze act of the literary genres – it is not for the faint of heart. Writers go everywhere with it and Irish writer Éilís Ní Dhuibne, with her story ‘The Pale Gold of Alaska’, goes across the Atlantic from Ireland to Philadelphia, on to Montana and, imaginatively, onwards to the Yukon gold rush. Ní Dhuibne also goes to emigration and domestic violence to forbidden love.
Beautiful Sophie leaves Donegal with her sister – to join another sister in America – and on the ship she meets Ned, a mercurial Derryman. They marry and money-hungry Ned takes Sophie west to Missoula, away from her sisters. Their marriage is not a good one but Sophie finds sexual tenderness with a Blackfoot man and, ultimately, sorrow and loss.
Ní Dhuibne’s story has atmosphere, brought to us through lyrical language. Sophie finds cow teats ‘tough and testing’; North Wind, the Blackfoot, speaks English but his words are each emphasised ‘like a row of stiff pegs on a clothesline’; Sophie wears a hooded sealskin coat that makes her feel ‘part of the huge animal world’ that surrounds her Montana cabin. ‘The Pale Gold of Alaska’ gives us what we look for in stories: the best and worst of humanity, tragedy, hope and beauty, delivered in cared-for language. And it parts ways with the reader not on a high but openly, leaving us to wonder whether Sophie can ever recover from the tragedy of marrying the wrong man.
‘The Cabin’ by Raymond Carver
So many of us will eventually be like Mr Harrold in Raymond Carver’s story, alone in the world having lost so much and confronting what seems strange and threatening. We never even learn his first name, as though in the journey towards oblivion it has been jettisoned like so much else. In winter, he drives to a familiar log-cabin resort in the mountains out of season and without his wife. He may be widowed or divorced or separated. He intends to fish the nearby river and recalls idyllic times doing so as a young man. He and his wife, sentimentally remembered by her first name, Frances, had often stayed in the cabins, where the fishing was bountiful and the times happy. But now, in a vivid scene, he’s with rod and line riverside when he sees an injured stag being pursued across the water by a menacing gang of kids from a dam-workers’ construction camp. Their rash is everywhere, including vandalism at the log-cabin site. One of them threatens him with a rifle and then they see him off by throwing rocks. He leaves. That’s it. There seems to be nothing to look forward to but depredation. There are references to a tomorrow that will never come. It’s a moving tale. Much has irretrievably changed. The silence after the coda is the silence of the universe beyond us. Mr Harrold returns home, having seen the future.
Raymond Carver’s stories – he wrote no novels – fascinate me beyond the idea that there’s a well-defined and non-extenuating connection between a writer and his work. For a start, there are the intermediaries, who influence the manuscript before it ever gets close to appearing in print. Carver has been admired for his concision and focus, for the stories which waste no words but in which the reverberations set up are often far-flung. By his normal standards, The Cabin is unusually dense. In recent years, the work of Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, has been re-valued to the point of suggesting that Carver’s original typescripts were unlike the almost minimalist storytelling style his readers are used to; there have even been moves to credit Lish himself with its creation in the sense of attempting to redress an imbalance between the writer’s gushing output and the editor’s savage cuts. In other words, though this is to put it in the extreme, the typical Carver story may be a joint effort in which both players need to be formally recognised. As a writer myself, I’m aware of this whenever I now read a Carver story (or whenever I send something off to be published). The direct and uncomplicated style of address seems to suit the unsophisticated settings, which are always lumpen-proletarian or blue-collar. The characters, when they are able to express themselves adequately, articulate blunt uncomplicated sentiments and their surroundings are often basic and sometimes transient: you always imagine that they could move on at any moment (the future of the resort Mr Harrold visits in The Cabin seems precarious). What they always have is feelings. The miracle of Carver’s best stories, or Lish’s best interventions, is the way this unprepossessing background is always about something bigger, a kind of unspoken immensity. It looms over The Cabin like an unnoticed but over-arching sky. Carver was troubled and obsessive. I wonder if Lish was, too. I ought to find out. About him.
‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ opens with an everyday domestic scene in which the children are reading ‘the funny papers’ and the father, the grandmother’s ‘Bailey Boy’, is reading ‘the orange sports section’. The disruptive element of The Misfit, a serial killer, is introduced right at the start, but he is just a story in the newspaper, a convenient excuse for the grandmother to visit her friends, someone whose face the eight-year-old boy could ‘smack’. The family goes on a road trip and there are innocent and jolly references to death as they drive along: ‘Look at the graveyard!’ says the grandmother, pointing it out. To say how their journey unfolds would reveal the ending, which is best left in O’Connor’s astonishingly deft hands. However many times I read this story, it always breaks my heart.
‘Dimensions’ by Alice Munro
Alice Munro’s story Dimensions opens mysteriously, in media res: against the advice of her therapist, Doree is going out to visit her husband Lloyd, who is imprisoned in an institution for the criminally insane. From the start, Munro deliberately withholds vital information, but this never feels contrived. Rather, it draws us in by asking: what has Lloyd done? Munro will let us know eventually, but makes us wait for it. The dramatic tension is compelling, the timing of her story-beats exquisite, precise, inevitable. This is the late work of a great artist, writing with supreme confidence; this is Munro’s equivalent of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, or Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus.
The comparison to Greek drama is apt, since this, too, is a tragedy. Half-way through the story, the information we’ve been waiting for is revealed. Lloyd’s crime? In a fit of jealous rage, he has murdered their three children. Our horror at this is heightened by the growing realization that Doree is being drawn back into Lloyd’s orbit. She is visiting him because he is the only one who truly knows what she has gone through. This could seem unbelievable, but such is Munro’s skill that she makes it happen, very credibly, within the context of her story. Lloyd is not overtly menacing. He is grateful to see Doree, and begins writing her letters explaining that he has seen the children, that ‘they do exist and it must be that there is another Dimension, or maybe innumerable Dimensions.’
The ravings of a madman, surely.
Yet Doree finds herself wanting to believe. She is that vulnerable. As we build towards the climax, Doree plans to go out and see Lloyd again. Everything in this story is pointing towards the bleakest of all possible outcomes: a reunion between the murderer and the mother of his victims. But Munro surprises us. On Doree’s bus ride to the institution, the journey is interrupted when a truck pulls into the path of the bus, and a young man is flung through the truck’s windscreen. This has not been set up at all – it is as unexpected for the reader as it is for Doree. Equally unexpected is her reaction. She gets off the bus and accompanies the driver to check on the boy, and ends up helping to resuscitate him. It’s not until the story’s final lines that the significance of this act becomes apparent. When Doree says she will wait with the boy for the ambulance, the driver asks her if she is still going to London, Ontario, where the institution is. No, she says.
Somehow, the incident has changed her. Doree has given the boy the kiss of life, but she, too, is saved in that moment. On one level Munro could be criticized for deploying a twist ending. She has used an external device to bring about the climax, a cheat that amounts to what the Greeks called deus ex machina. Aristotle considered it a mark of bad drama, so why use it here?For us to understand what Munro is doing, we must firstly consider what deus ex machina actually means: the god from the machine. It referred to the mechane, mechanical devices used on the Greek stage. Euripides, who enjoyed undermining conventions, made dramatic use of deus ex machina in several of his plays, including Medea, in which a chariot of the gods swooped onto the stage to save his villain – Medea – from her fat
Munro is doing the same thing here, for the protagonist of her tragic story. As in the play, the device is quite literally a machine: the truck. Munro seems to be deliberately flaunting literary conventions, and proclaiming, like Euripides: I am the author, I can do whatever I want. Is this too much of a stretch? Did Munro really do this intentionally, with Greek drama in mind? Perhaps. But in considering that, it’s worth noting the nature of Medea’s crime: she murdered her own children.
‘Writ’ by Ali Smith
I remember the first time I read an Ali Smith short story. I had bought her first collection, Free Love, as an undergraduate. I went home after the bookshop, sat down and did not move until I had read the whole book. The same thing still happens to me whenever I start reading one of her stories or novels. I find her voice, her command of time and place, her use of rhythm, her choice of subject matter utterly compelling. Smith pushes us into unexpected situations and strange realisations while also demonstrating, questioning and reinterpreting the act of storytelling itself.
In ‘Writ’ the adult narrator arrives home to find her fourteen year old self sat at the table in her lounge. This surreal encounter is delivered with deadpan realism and the subsequent narrative becomes a meditation on the space between adult and child that all writers need to inhabit.
When the narrator and her former self first reach agreement on a topic it is over the ‘appalling’ and ‘crap’ song ‘Figaro’ by Brotherhood of Man. The two characters move from discussing pop music to discussing Keats. In an argument over the meaning of the word ‘writ’ Smith shows her passion for etymology. While the varied meanings of the word over time demonstrate the fluid nature of language systems Smith uses this to suggest the presence of the past in the way that we describe, understand and envisage our existence.
Now, I’m aware that I’m making this sound like pretty heavy stuff. But the beauty of Smith’s writing is that she doesn’t make it feel like that at all. She commands humour, irony and seemingly effortless dialogue to give her stories a lyrical quality.
Towards the end of the story, as the two characters stare out from the narrator’s lounge window, Smith invites the reader into the scene:
‘Closer to home, out on the unlit common, under a sky that promises frost, someone invisible to us is rattling across one of the nearby paths on a bike, shouting and shouting. I love you…’
The closing image offers the two selves as a unified whole under the same sky as those who have gone before and those who will come in the future. It is Smith’s humanity that really shines through for me here.
I’ve chosen to talk about ‘Writ’ but I could have picked so many others from her numerous collections. ‘May’ is a story about a woman who falls in love with a tree and ‘The Child’ features a foul-mouthed baby with a propensity for swearing in supermarkets. In ‘Blank Card’ Smith makes fascinating use of the non-gendered pronoun and in her novel Hotel World she weaves together the stories of five different women to create a coherent and thoughtful reflection on life, death and capitalism. For readers and writers alike, I consider Smith an essential read.
‘The Assembly Line’ by Ivan Klima
A recent favourite of mine is ‘The Assembly Line’, a short story from the collection Lovers for a Day by Ivan Klima, prominent Czech author whose works were banned in his country until the mid-1990s. As in all of the stories in Lovers for a Day, ‘The Assembly Line’ is a story about love and the yearning for intimate connection. Set in Prague in the 1960s, Klima does not explicitly reference the Communist regime, nevertheless a sense of repression and entrapment permeates this story of a young man who attempts to escape the drudgery of his assembly line job through fantasies of romantic heroism which contrast poignantly with his daily existence of unrequited desire under ‘the time clock, the mechanical watchdog, the unsmiling watchdog of your life’.
The young man’s inner life is rendered beautifully through a stream-of-consciousness narrative which segues in and out of perspective and time, ‘Marie’s screwdriver squeaks, six-sixteen, an odd stain on the white wall, a strange bluish blotch. He chased it down a white road, through an alley of damp-leaved cherry trees, steam rose from the meadows…’ In the factory where he works even the music is strictly controlled, but the sections where ‘he could leap on to his horse and ride off whenever he wanted to’ provide us and this Walter Mitty character some solace.
The story is lightened throughout with Klima’s refreshing humour. Besides fantasy there is sex and fun to make his life at the assembly line more bearable, but when the girl he desires displays indifference he settles for a weary waitress who cares for him though he cares little for her. Klima’s vivid details of the shabby café, stale food, and subsequent disappointing sexual encounter evoke the bleak beauty of black-and-white art film and are infused with the same desperate monotony as the conveyor belt of the factory: ‘He tried to hold onto the moment but didn’t know how, and felt that even now it was beginning to slip away from him and he was beginning to fall into the night…The world was falling into a dark sack, the same old material. He lay there motionless: if only something, something were to come – a white horse at the corner of the street, Morning Star, something…’
But there is hope – a sense of Beckettian ‘waiting’ in this story as in several of the stories of this collection and Klima ends it with another fantasy – this character is not ready to relinquish the dream of finding freedom through love.
‘El Sur’ by Jorge Luis Borges
The short story El Sur (The South), written by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, tells the story of a man trapped between two worlds: a romantic, epic fate and his actual mundane destiny.
The story of Juan Dahlmann also works as a noble excuse to crystallise the themes that Borges’s literature masterly deals with: time, death, parallel universes, the Argentine identity split between criollos (a Spanish American of European, usually Spanish descent) and a distant European legacy, dreamers being dreamt, forgetfulness, philosophy, the blurry boundaries between fiction and reality; and of course, the quintessential Borgesian element: the love of books, and how world literature may trigger simple but extraordinary events which eventually change characters’ (and readers’) lives.
El Sur operates as a paradigmatic short story in Borges’s literature: the South (as opposed to the North) is also a symbolic place that calls for many possible interpretations related to his beloved universal literature, while it depicts a biographical event resulting from both a literary act and a literary fact. Borges himself regarded this short story as his best.
All these words fail to make justice to the work of the most quoted and least read writer in the Spanish-speaking world, who was probably the only Argentine impostor (understood as someone who wished to live other people’s lives) that managed to be canonised as the most solemn of them all.
Last but not least, I invite everybody to read Borges, and encourage you all to learn Cervantes’s mother tongue, which was mastered and re-invented by this genius, in the most profound Argentine meaning of this swear word.
‘Glenn Gould’ by Lydia Davis
Most days something by Kafka would probably get my pick. But, today, I feel like going for something by this year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize, Lydia Davis. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis is an utterly brilliant set of works. These stories are smart, funny and ferociously literate. Davis is a master of the short form, or perhaps of a form all of her own. To pick one piece, I’ll go for ‘Glenn Gould’, which is about a woman who stays at home looking after her baby and who watches the Mary Tyler Moore Show every afternoon. She is happy to know that Gould, a hero of hers when she was growing up, had also liked the programme.
In the story, we read: ‘My husband has come to realize that I will always watch it when I can, and sometimes over dinner when we have nothing else to say to each other, he will ask about it.’ She adds that ‘in the case of other subjects, he is not terribly interested in what I say to him, especially when he sees that I am becoming enthusiastic.’ That sentence is enough of a story in itself.
‘The Drunkard’ by Guy de Maupassant
There are so many outstanding contributions Guy de Maupassant made to the short story form; he is considered by many an originating architect of the modern short story as a discrete discipline. Not content to compromise between the novel and the poem he innovates a structure all its own from which the high-naturalist, laconic vignettes of his early yield can unwind as neatly and beautifully as the fulminating portraits of sublime psychological torment in his later works. “To read…” so wrote John Cowper Powys “…for the first time, one of the short stories of Guy de Maupassant is to receive a staggering enlargement of one’s ideas as to what mere literature can do.”
Amongst the hundreds of stories he produced there are a score or so of such remarkable pieces that have had such impact on me it is difficult to nominate any one favourite with easy certainty. When pressed though I feel a particular outstanding attachment to one of his lesser known stories: “The Drunkard.”
Perhaps the superb narrative concision and fine writerly qualities that burgeoned in his mid-career are more subdued here than elsewhere in his oeuvre but that is largely due to the luminescence of the descriptive writing. His brave, almost brash use of heavy, unwieldy metaphor would show-up any callow amateurishness in him had it have existed but instead the pathetic fallacy which dominates with appropriate tempestuous pluck the opening of “The Drunkard” lends the work a fabulous lowlight. Heroic, Homeric and intoxicatingly confident narrative strides are delivered in beautifully few pen strokes which in concert summon an uncomfortably vivid vision of Jeremie, a swarthy, alcoholic fisherman.
Lured to a drinking den by his colleague, Jeremie imbibes heavily and after staggering home through the still-raging storm exorcises his psychotic insecurities through violence. In drunken paranoia and emotive clarity – yet impaired rationality – he channels his frustrations on his wife who is sleeping in the sheets between which he suspects she has been having an affair. This story is as much rich, potent portraiture as unfurling plot.
Jeremie’s animalistic bout of madness, like many of Maupassant’s tales, pangs of macabre autobiographical significance. Due to the ravages of a seasoned case of syphilis Guy suffered increasingly in the last decade or so of his life from hallucinations, dysthemic bouts of abjection and involuntary eruptions of conflict between his own mind and the savage passions which went unchecked by his diminishing rational faculty.
Maupassant’s “battle of the sky and the sea,” is backdrop of “The Drunkard.” One cannot help but imagine this short, intense work as a howl of pain. A howl, in his own words “addressed to no thing, reaching nowhere, saying nothing,” across a hopelessly “insuperable sea.” (Schopenhauer’s phrase – a great influence on Maupassant and a fellow Syphilitic.)
“The Drunkard” is one of Maupassant’s more lysergic and disturbing fruits. Here we see murder, mutilation, drunkenness and the startling realisation of immanent madness awoken from dormancy. Guy captures the essence of human isolation: that dreadful state of silent solitude set amongst the raging battle between the windswept heights of the mind and the oceanic depths of the stomach.