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Short stories: Lesley Glaister

To name even a fraction of the writers of short stories who deserve mention is impossible within the scope of this short essay and so my choice has had to be ruthless and even arbitrary. I have tried to stick to first thoughts: writers I return to, stories that have lingered in my mind.

Good novels tend to leave one feeling full and satisfied while good short stories whet the appetite for more. But the best way to read short stories is not to be greedy, to read one at a time and leave time for its effect to be absorbed. Because unlike novels, which are feats of extended creativity, short stories are distillations of the same. They differ from novels in more than length, they are a tighter form. Less is stated and sometimes more intuition and attention is required. V. S. Pritchett, himself a revered short-story writer, made a canny distinction between the reader's response to the two forms—one may lose oneself in a novel but turn to a good short story to find oneself. And Elizabeth Bowen, whose own stories provide a serene, delicately ironic take on middle-class life, described short stories as ‘peaks of common experience’ which move ‘past an altitude line into poetry’.

However, Canadian writer Alice Munro's short stories are almost miraculous for the amount they contain. After reading a story of twenty or thirty pages, one emerges with the sensation of having read a novel's worth of insight. The stories in her collections are linked by place and character, which adds to the sense of continuity and layering, but within each separate story an astonishing amount happens. Take ‘A Real Life’ from Open Secrets (1994). It's ostensibly about the marriage of eccentric Dorrie, but evokes the sense of a community through the experiences of delivery man Dorrie's brother. It spans perhaps fifty years and tells almost the entire life histories of its three main female characters. Munro's stories have in common this richness and also a kind of tenderness. The characters live everyday lives yet their actions are crucial to each other and the slightest action seems imbued with grace. These stories don't really conform to the convention William Trevor has described as ‘the art of the glimpse’. They would be a great introduction for a reader reluctant to stray from the novel to the short story form. Anyone who appreciates Alice Munro would certainly also enjoy the stories of Ellen Gilchrist, Carol Shields, and Margaret Atwood.

Raymond Carver's characters are also working people and the stories are undramatic, mysterious in that they work so brilliantly when in many of them almost nothing happens. His style has been called ‘dirty realist’, though it's not particularly dirty and it only seems realistic. There is so much invisible art at work, a hidden rhythm, a sort of secret poetry. Take ‘Whoever was Using This Bed’ from Elephant (1988). The story starts: ‘The call comes in the middle of the night …’, tilting one straight in. (Carver has especially delicious titles and first lines.) A couple are woken by a phone call which turns out to be a wrong number. All that transpires is that they can't get back to sleep and spend the rest of the night smoking and talking, worrying about their health, arguing about whether or not they would unplug each other from life support machines if they were ever in that predicament.

All the writers I've mentioned so far are American or Canadian—and there is something especially successful about the American approach to the form. This has partly to do with a certain laconic, colloquial style which lends a deceptive air of casualness, as if the stories have just happened. The title story of J. D. Salinger's collection, For Esmé, With Love and Squalor (1953)—about an American Serviceman's chance meeting with a 13-year old English girl during the war—has just such an informal feel, the narrator almost drawling through the page at you, that its emotional power is in the end quite devastating. The dialogue, particularly the girl's, at once dignified and quintessentially adolescent, is some of the best I've ever read. See also Lorrie Moore for stories that are immensely engaging and witty, spiked with word-play and peopled with a cast of characters who are idiosyncratic, fallible, and very recognizable.

But not all the best short story writers are American. Katherine Mansfield's short stories are cool, flawless gems. In the title story of The Garden Party (1922) an almost idyllic scene is evoked, filtered through the consciousness of young Laura. A thoughtlessly well-to-do family prepare for a garden party on a perfect summer morning. The greatest problem they have to contend with is where to erect the marquee—when the ugly news of the accidental death of a man from one of the local poor families intrudes. The story concerns the subtle battle of emotions within Laura between wanting the party cancelled out of respect and wanting it to go ahead so that she can look beautiful in her new hat. Mansfield's stories revolve like this about some delicate emotional point as they explore the elusive sources of grief and joy. Mansfield's stories have often been compared with those of Anton Chekhov, and anyone interested in reading some real classics of the genre might enjoy one of his collections, The Kiss and Other Stories (written 1887–1902), for instance.

As a reminder of the enormous scope of writing embraced by the term short story, Ian McEwan's collection, First Love, Last Rites (1975), could hardly provide a greater contrast to Katherine Mansfield's work. McEwan's stories are shocking, cold, and curiously gripping. ‘Homemade’ is about adolescence, the grim, grainy getting of experience told with a dreadfully convincing insouciance. McEwan's stories differ from Mansfield's not only in content but in manner and technique. While Mansfield's tend to balance on a single point, McEwan's—like Munro's—are more likely to evoke a stretch of time, a structural difference which gives a quite different emotional impact.

Most writers steer closer to one of these two tendencies, the single moment or the stretch of time, and in this sense Elizabeth Taylor's stories work in the way McEwan's do; although two writers could hardly be more different in their vision. Taylor's stories are miniature glimpses of provincial England and of the English abroad. She specializes in those who hover on the edges of drollness. ‘Flesh’ from The Devastating Boys (1972) tells the tale of a pub landlady convalescing after a hysterectomy and the gouty widower she meets on her package holiday. The two decide to have a fling which doesn't go quite according to plan. Taylor captures exactly the manner and speech of her characters—the absent-minded ‘Go on!’ of the half attentive Phyl, used to humouring her customers. Yet Taylor never patronizes her characters, absurd as they sometimes are.

It seems curious that James Kelman's tough contemporary Scottish stories are more closely wedded in structure and manner to Mansfield's than to McEwan's. They tend to be structured around a single moment and some are so brief— as short as a paragraph, absolutely the glimpse. In ‘The Small Bird and the Young Person’ from The Burn (1991) a boy and a bird collide—that is the story. Kelman employs an elastic variety of styles in his stories from manic stream of consciousness to lucid omniscience. He is linguistically exciting, exploring and exploiting the space between working-class Scots and literary English. (For other contemporary Scottish stories see Janice Galloway and A. L. Kennedy.)

James Joyce adopted the term ‘epiphany’ to describe the sudden ‘revelation of the whatness of a thing’ by which he meant the moment in which ‘the soul of the commonest object seems to us radiant’. This seems perhaps a stronger manifestation of the moment, the point in time as a changing mechanism, seen to varying extents in some of the writers discussed above. In Dubliners (1914) the stories are linked by style and subject matter, and arranged by theme: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life, all reflecting the moral life of the Dublin of his day. The stories are muted as old sepia photographs yet there is a fascinating seething of life which makes these unforgettable. ‘A Painful Case’ is about Mr Duffy, a bank clerk, living a tidy, uneventful life who meets Mrs Sinico whose ‘companionship was like a warm soil about an exotic’. His failure of nerve brings the relationship to an end with tragic consequences. It's a heart-breaking study in sterility.

Following Joyce are many, many fine Irish short story writers. William Trevor stands out for his prolific output of absorbing stories where widely differing characters come to terms with finding a place between illusion and reality. In ‘The Piano Tuner's Wives’ (from After Rain, 1996) a second wife, in her effort to compete with first, is reduced to destroying the pictures her predecessor had built up in her blind husband's mind, a small plausible cruelty that is resonant of human frailty. And it is this evocation of the larger human condition through a distillation of behaviour and experience that makes the best of short stories so richly rewarding to read, and causes them to linger in the mind.


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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction