Thursday 8 March 2012

Short Stories

My Short Story Shelves
 Short Stories

I have been thinking quite a bit about short stories recently. In part this may be because of reading Proust, which is pretty certainly not a short story. I thought that rather than reading other novels in parallel it might be interesting to read and post on short stories. I have gone as far as separating my books of short stories onto their own shelves in order to make the selection of short stories easier and to keep them in mind. One difficulty is that it is often very hard to write about a short story without giving away the plot. I've put warnings below where this is about to happen. However, I think that both stories thus compromised would be just as enjoyable after reading this post. The pleasure is in the writing rather than suspense.
One of the gatekeepers
of my reading life.

Short stories have provided some of the most vivid reading experiences of my life and I was introduced to many writers through the pictured book of American short stories which was on the bookshelves of my childhood home. Two stories which still stand out in my mind are Jack London's To Build a Fire and even more so, Joseph Mitchell's The Downfall of Fascism in Black Ankle County. Strangely I have read little more of London (something I must rectify) but have chased down a lot of Mitchell's work, including a nice Penguin edition of McSorley's Wonderful Saloon which includes The Downfall of Fascism....

I have been thinking of all this today because I am going to post on the Irish short story writer Maeve Brennan for Irish Short Story Week. Brennan is a writer who I hadn't read at all and I thought this was a good chance to plug that hole. Reading the notes on her collection The Springs of Affection I realized that she had worked at the New Yorker under William Maxwell, editor and novelist of some note. Mitchell had worked side by side with her.

There are other similarities beyond this. Mitchell famously stopped writing copy but continued to come in to his desk at the New Yorker for many years. Brennan, it appears, lived in the toilets of the New Yorker for many years. Mitchell's last significant publication was Joe Gould's Secret, which tells the story of a vagrant who is writing a great book but doesn't finish it. Mitchell would write very little more. Brennan became a vagrant and stopped writing. Mitchell and Brennan had an affair, Google informs me.

William Maxwell was close to both. His greatest book, So Long See You Tomorrow, examines the aftermath of a destructive threesome. I can feel the bones of a short story beating like a frightened heart under the paper. I wish I had the talent to capture it and quieten it.

Spoiler Alert - Last night I read the first story in the Brennan collection. It is called The Morning After the Big Fire. In it, a young girl witnesses a big fire in a garage at the bottom of her garden. It partly obscures her view of the tennis club beyond. The next morning she is not allowed to go around to see the garage, which is off the main road, but goes back up along the blind avenue she lives on to try and be first to bring the news to some of her neighbours. Her ownership of this news gives her a feeling of self-importance.

Remembering the excitement of the fire, the narrator often wishes for another: "for a long time I used to think that if some child should steal around there with a match one night and set it all blazing again, I would never blame her, as long as she let me be the first with the news."

The link between reporter and reported seems elided here, in a way that was to be mirrored in her life. It is a short, beautifully written story and raises high hopes for the rest of the collection.

Spoiler Alert - Mitchell's story The Downfall of Fascism in Black Ankle County seems eerily like a companion piece to Brennan's story. In it the Kidneys, three* drunken Irish brothers who operate a still, await the expected arrival of the local Klan. They are to be tarred and feathered but have been forewarned. "There were three entrances to the Kidney house - a front door, a back door, and a side door. When they heard the Klan was planning a call on Friday night, the brothers rented three dynamite outfits from a man who made his living blasting out tree-stumps. They swapped him a gallon of charcoal cured corn whiskey for the use of the outfits." And if you have dynamite and drink only one thing is going to happen, and it's a blast, or three.

That night the Klan don't ride as their leader is too drunk. The next day, however they go out to the Kidneys house to see what happened. "During the day all the members of the Invisible Empire took occasion to drive by the Kidney house. They also shuddered when they saw the dynamite pits."

Even just glancing at the story again has had me laughing deep in my belly. Mitchell was one of the greatest of writers, his humour, humanity and beautifully weighted prose making wonders of the slightest material. Track it down and read it.

*Is the fact that there are three Kidneys in this story another reference to the destructive powers of threesomes.


  1. I too love the short story; particularly the no nonsense style of Jack London, where everything counts; particularly that last match...
    There's a wonderful essay by Raymond Carver 'On Writing' (from 'Fires' I believe) where he distills the potency and the possibilities of a focussed short story. I think that he felt himself too lazy (or infrequently sober enough) to complete a novel; poetry and short stories suited him better:
    "Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on." he said, adding "I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: “. . . and suddenly everything became clear to him.” I find these words filled with wonder and possibility I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied. There is mystery, too. What has been unclear before? Why is it just now becoming clear? What’s happened? Most of all - what now? There are consequences as a result of such sudden awakenings... I overheard the writer Geoffrey Wolff say “No cheap tricks” to a group of writing students. That should go on a three-by-five card. I’d amend it a little to “No tricks.” Period. I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing - a sunset or an old shoe- in absolute and simple amazement. VS. Pritchett’s definition of a short story is “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.”
    I love that; it encourages me to stand and stare but also to trust my instincts in how I react to that glimpsed, fleeting moment...

    1. Love the quote Trevor. I've come across it somewhere before. When I was in college they had a copy of the complete stories of Chekhov in the library and I read through the whole of it. Sheer genius. Strangely, I have never returned to reading Chekhov since. Yet another 'must do'.
      Carver too, is due some rereading. There's plenty of material to manage a short story or two every week, just sticking to rereads.

  2. I'm currently stuck betwixt and between Carver's unedited 'Beginners' and the more refined versions; a beautifully bound 'Library of America' edition of his (heavily) Lish edited collected stories. I have one of London's short stories too; they're too beautiful, I'm afraid to turn the page...
    Interesting how Lish eventually convinced a reluctant Carver to walk the talk; it's easy to admire and advocate 'specific' language', not so easy to burn your own pages...
    Wonderful that the rules don't apply (or work) for all; maybe that's why Cormac McCarthy never writes short stories (does he?). So much glorious verbiage to cherish and... protect...