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Archive for March, 2012

Writers on Writing – Part 5

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 17, 2012

Of all the forms of writing, I love short stories the most for the extraordinary innovation, creativity and originality they have produced. I have a special affection for them as they give me enormous joy and relief from bouts of boredom and listlessness that are my lot from time to time. In utilitarian terms too, I like them for the advantage of modularity they carry with them. Here are some deep and brilliant insights on the craft of short story writing from three of the greatest short story writers of our times viz. William Trevor, Frank O Connor and Mavis Gallant.   ( Source: Paris Review Magazine)

INTERVIEWER: Why do you prefer the short story for your medium?

FRANK O’CONNOR: Because it’s the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry—I wrote lyric poetry for a long time, then discovered that God had not intended me to be a lyric poet, and the nearest thing to that is the short story. A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.

INTERVIEWER: Faulkner has said, “Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” What do you think about this?

FRANK O’CONNOR: I’d love to console myself, it’s that neat—it sounds absolutely perfect except that it implies, as from a short-story writer, that the novel is just an easy sort of thing that you slide gently into, whereas, in fact, my own experience with the novel is that it was always too difficult for me to do. At least to do a novel like Pride and Prejudice requires something more than to be a failed B.A. or a failed poet or a failed short-story writer, or a failed anything else. Creating in the novel a sense of continuing life is the thing. We don’t have that problem in the short story, where you merely suggest continuing life. In the novel, you have to create it, and that explains one of my quarrels with modern novels. Even a novel like As I Lay Dying, which I admire enormously, is not a novel at all, it’s a short story. To me a novel is something that’s built around the character of time, the nature of time, and the effects that time has on events and characters. When I see a novel that’s supposed to take place in twenty-four hours, I just wonder why the man padded out the short story.

 INTERVIEWER: Yeats said, “O’Connor is doing for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia.” What do you think of Chekhov?

 FRANK O’CONNOR: Oh, naturally I admire Chekhov extravagantly; I think every short-story writer does. He’s inimitable, a person to read and admire and worship—but never, never, never to imitate. He’s got all the most extraordinary technical devices, and the moment you start imitating him without those technical devices, you fall into a sort of rambling narrative, as I think even a good story writer like Katherine Mansfield did. She sees that Chekhov apparently constructs a story without episodic interest, so she decides that if she constructs a story without episodic interest it will be equally good. It isn’t. What she forgets is that Chekhov had a long career as a journalist, as a writer for comic magazines, writing squibs, writing vaudevilles, and he had learned the art very, very early of maintaining interest, of creating a bony structure. It’s only concealed in the later work. They think they can do without that bony structure, but they’re all wrong

 INTERVIEWER : What is your definition of a short story?

 WILLIAM TREVOR: I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.

 INTERVIEWER: You have never created a hero. Why is that?

WILLIAM TREVOR: Because I find them dull. Heroes don’t really belong in short stories. As Frank O’Connor said, “Short stories are about little people,” and I agree. I find the unheroic side of people much richer and more entertaining than black-and-white success.

 INTERVIEWER: What do you think about the state of the short story?

MAVIS GALLANT: With few exceptions, books of short stories seldom sell well. Short-story readers are a special kind of reader, like readers of poetry. Many novel readers don’t like collections of stories—I think that they dislike the frequent change of time, place and people. Of course, stories should not be read one after the other. A book of stories is not a novel. Someone once said to me, “Katherine Mansfield died before she was ready to write a novel. Perhaps she would never have been ready.” I thought that was just stupid.

INTERVIEWER: In the past you’ve said that Anton Chekhov is the writer who most strongly influenced your writing and Eudora Welty the contemporary writer you most admire. Could you elaborate?

 MAVIS GALLANT: Because one is asked the same question all the time one almost unconsciously develops answers that are passe-partout but undoubtedly incomplete. About Chekhov: I have nearly no idea what influence was brought to bear. I discovered Chekhov young, in the Constance Garnett translation. I still read him—there seems to be always some volume or other lying about with a marker in it. But the same is true of Proust. I wonder if any writer can say where an influence came in. I now think influence is almost anything one admired when young. Perhaps one was influenced without knowing it by writers one later ceased to admire. Not long ago I heard a writer say he disliked Hemingway when, in fact, his work wouldn’t exist in its present form if Hemingway had not come first. About Eudora Welty: I discovered her work in my twenties. I reread her now with the same pleasure and admiration.

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After Rain – William Trevor

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 13, 2012

INTERVIEWER: What is your definition of a short story?

WILLIAM TREVOR: I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.

The above is an extract from an interview given by William Trevor to The Paris Review Magazine in 1989 carrying one of the most comprehensive and finest definitions of the art form of short story. However, what caught my attention is his declaration that life for most part is meaningless. If one were to suspend the commonly accepted religious and philosophical positions that life has certain inscrutable cosmic purpose, then Trevor’s assertion appears to have hit bull’s eye. Yet no other writer, other than Chekov, could use life’s inclusive sense of meaninglessness, dereliction and frequently perplexing feeling of purposelessness as raw material to spin stories of dazzling brilliance and lasting beauty as Trevor can do. Both Trevor and Chekov are like the eponymous dwarf in the story Rumpelstiltskin who could spin gold threads of finest counts out of bundles of worthless hay. The artistic achievement of Trevor lies not in dwelling on the grand truths of life, shattering epiphanies or shocking realizations but in the ability to depict the minor turmoils and tremors of quotidian life with a refined gravity and a frightening clarity which is subtly haunting and definitively disturbing. This is the conclusion that I have come to after reading Trevor’s collection of short stories ‘After Rain

The characters that Trevor so tellingly portrays in this collection are ordinary people living commonplace and routine lives. On the surface, their lives are like placid lakes without ripples but underneath there are strong undercurrents of human jealousies, apprehensions, unintended cruelties, intended kindnesses, habitual indifferences, silent and explicit expectations, lingering memories, staunch and sincere dogmas and beliefs, failed and failing marriages, of being victims at the hands of villains who themselves are equally ordinary, personal hurts and the ensuing pain. It is these undercurrents that Trevor captures and depicts with extraordinary skill and mastery. Trevor makes no attempt to build heroes, heroines or larger than life personalities in his stories. In an admission in the interview to Paris Review, Trevor claimed that “he finds the unheroic side of people much richer and more entertaining than black-and-white success”. This belief is never broken in any of his stories in this collection and the tales he spins out of the common lives and mundane incidents are rich with feelings, sensitive, full of pathos and harrowing gravity that one ends up marveling at Trevor’s grasp of human predicament in diverse situations.   

In the story ”The Piano Tuner’s Wives”, an ageing blind piano tuner gets married second time on account of the death of his first wife and his new wife is dismayed at the strong traces of conditioning left by the former. The ensuing jealousy drives her to erase these traces to create her stamp of authority. What makes the story touching is that a living person is competing with a mild sense of spite and bitterness with a dead person to whom these things do not matter anymore. In the story “A Friendship”, a woman’s infidelity with an acquaintance from her past inadvertently facilitated by her close friend leads the woman’s husband to demand the termination of this friendship as atonement to the indiscretion. In the story “Timothy’s Birthday”, a homosexual son’s indifference to his parent’s efforts to celebrate his birthday leads him to send a substitute to inform of his inability to attend the birthday celebration. The substitute turns out to be a petty crook who steals from the house after having a generous meal and this whole incident further deepens the resentment and sadness of the already distraught couple. In the story “A Bit of Business”, two small time crooks break into the house during a papal visit and mug an old man, steal money and go on a jolly ride in the town with a couple of girls. However, the joy of the jolly trip is spoiled for one of the crooks by the nagging feeling that it would have been better to have killed the old man instead of hurting and binding him to a chair to avoid consequences of identification. In the title story “After Rain” a broken relationship brings a lady to a small town in Italy on a holiday which she had visited as a child along with her parents. Along also come a flood of memories from her past that is mildly unsettling. In the story “Widows” the attempt by a house painter to extract his due for work done from a recently widowed lady brings back the memories to her sister of her position, beauty, authority and her own unhappy marriage. The sister is a widow herself. “Gilbert’s Mother” is a mildly disturbing story of a mother who suspects her son of being a murderer and yet they continue to share an affectionate life under the same roof. In the story “The Potato Dealer” – driven by economic reasons a poor potato dealer marries a pregnant girl half his age. Many years later the mother reveals the truth to the child which had been kept a secret so far much against the wishes of the potato dealer. In the story “Lost Ground” an entire family and community gangs up against a protestant boy for his claims and beliefs in the visitation of a saint from Catholic Church. The boy is sequestered in his own house and eventually killed by his own “hard-man” protestant brother. “Marrying Damian” is the story of a troubled old couple whose daughter ends up in a marital relationship with a shiftless man twice her age – who himself is a close friend of the couple

There are no happy stories in this collection. The conclusions around loss, hurt and unhappiness are mostly allusions lurking in shadows. Trevor leaves the inferences as interpretations that the reader is forced to arrive at. And it is in this lies the grace and beauty of these brilliantly written stories. A wonderful reading experience

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Jack London’s Argonuats – Stories From “Son of the Wolf”

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 4, 2012

Jack London produced some remarkable stories around the people who participated in the Klondike gold rush at the turn of the twentieth century. The northern part of Canada that constitutes the Klondike region is known for its extreme weather and any misadventure or miscalculation can turn into a definitive recipe for death. Yet the availability of gold and lure of lucre led hordes of prospectors from America and Canada to try their fortunes in this indifferent and brutal setting. London traveled to these regions for a brief while and gained firsthand knowledge of these Argonauts who went gold prospecting and celebrated them and their lives through a series of stories. The setting in which men pitted against harsh nature, fellow men and animals brought the best and the worst in them. The greatness of London’s stories lies in spinning interesting tales around his observations and encounters of these men, women and animals leading to a popular body of fiction which is unique, well-admired, memorable and a joy to read. “The Son of the Wolf” is one such collection of London’s Klondike stories.

For the gold prospectors in Klondike death, dying and destruction are part of the deal and therefore death of men, women or animal did not accompany conventional expression of grief. In the story “The White Silence”, Mason – a gold prospector – is crushed under a tree by a freak accident and after meaningful attempts to do his best, Mason’s best friend Malemute Kid despite his great attachment and love for Mason puts a bullet in him and continues on his journey with Mason’s wife Ruth without a word or murmur. The loneliness of two men and a pregnant woman in the vast silence of those frozen wastelands is brought to life by London in a way that is unforgettable

London’s prose has a peculiar masculinity associated with it. Yet his portrayal of female characters in these stories is never any less to the male characters he writes about. In the stories “The Priestly Prerogative” and “The Wife of a King” one gets to see two strong willed women have their way and assert their independence with the help of honourable and just men who populate this male dominated setting

In Klondike region, weak minded and weak bodied men are simply winnowed out by the natural conditions. The story ‘In a Far Country’ is a tale of two such men who cocooned in an isolated shelter work towards mutual destruction for lack of strength, moral tenacity and trust. In an environment where being unjust and unfair could mean a chance of survival and an opportunity to live once again one expects men to develop a code of ethics that are savage and easily comprisable. On the contrary London’s Argonauts are men of a moral fibre that is sturdy, impressive and emulation worthy. In three of the best stories in the collection “An Odyssey of the North”, “To the Man on the Trial” and “The Wisdom of the Trail” one gets to see this chivalrous conduct of men

All migrations of human beings invariably end up in clash between the migrants and natives in some form or the other. The Klondike prospectors too had their share of such encounters. The title story “The Son of the Wolf” is a white man’s attempt to get a native wife of his choice against the opposition of the youth and priest of the Tanana tribe. London’s narration of the atmospherics of this encounter outlines the customs, mores, and apprehensions of two different cultures brilliantly.

For the narrative power, character delineation and absorbing story telling the stories of Jack London are second to none and this collection is a testimony to that

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The Imperfect 10

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 3, 2012

To draw out a list of ten perfect short stories is a futile and a slightly rash endeavour. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, there are thousands of short stories and I have not read them all nor will I ever read them and that reduces the authenticity of the list. Secondly, of all the literary forms of storytelling, short stories are the most protean, flexible and innovative and choosing specific criteria to fit them into a rigid framework of evaluation, goes against good sense of judgment. The only meaningful criteria of weighing the worth of a short story against its peers is the intensity of joy it gives while reading and the number of times one gravitated to rereading it. Even here one ends up (unjustifiably) leaving out many than including them. So here is my imperfect list of 10 best short stories that gave me enormous joy when I encountered them first and continue to provide undiminished happiness even while rereading them  

Enemies – Anton Chekov. My all-time favourite for the indescribable beauty this story carries with it. Two people with deep personal losses end up clashing with one another in a situation for which both of them are not responsible. The hallmark of the story is its subtlety and Chekov sustains it with an unparalleled mastery. I distinctly remember my experience when I first read it. By the time I reached the last sentence of the story my admiration for Chekov’s grasp of human predicament and situation simply grew like the way morning sunlight suffuses every corner of a house and gradually drives away darkness.

To Room 19 – Dorris Lessing: A disturbing story of the plight of a woman who descends into despondency, madness and then suicide. Lessing’s prose is clinical, dispassionate and harrowing. There is an effortless gradualness with which the descent into final destruction is described which is the demonstration of rare artistic talent. I have lost the courage to read this story when I am alone by myself

Rain – Somerset Maugham: A gruesome drama of the frailty of human will leading to disastrous consequences against the backdrop of a rain drenched island is incomparable. I would have read this story a dozen times in the last ten years for the sheer artistry with which Maugham allows the story to evolve. The strange thing is that the picture of the island and the ambience of rain in my imagination continue to remain the same. It has one of the most unforgettable final sentences delivered by a prostitute to whose charms the sanctimonious and moralizing priest succumbs and subsequently driven by guilt commits suicide by slitting his throat with a razor blade

You men! You filthy, dirty pigs! You’re all the same, all of you. Pigs! Pigs!

Jubilation, disgust, triumph, wry mirth and a sense of dismissal are all mixed in this one knock-out of a sentence  

A Piece of Steak – Jack London: After I read this story, I had decided not to grow old the way “Tom King” – the protagonist of this story does. In particular, it is a touching depiction of the plight of an ageing boxer. However, using this as a springboard, London leads the reader into a universal realisation of the relentlessness with which old age, youth and wisdom interoperate. London describes the dynamics of a boxing match so very brilliantly that my revulsion to boxing as a sport loosened a bit. Detail, it is said brings authenticity to narration. There is a paragraph in this story where London describes the face of Tom King the boxer and I think it is an extraordinary feat in detailing:

But it was Tom King’s face that advertised him unmistakably for what he was. It was the face of a typical prize-fighter; of one who had put in long years of service in the squared ring and, by that means developed and emphasized all the marks of the fighting beast. It was distinctly a lowering countenance, and, that no feature of it might escape notice, it was clean-shaven. The lips were shapeless and constituted a mouth harsh to excess, that was like a gash in his face. The jaw was aggressive, brutal, heavy. The eyes, slow of movement and heavy-lidded, were almost expressionless under the shaggy, indrawn brows. Sheer animal that he was, the eyes were the most animal-like feature about him. They were sleepy, lion-like–the eyes of a fighting animal. The forehead slanted quickly back to the hair, which, clipped close, showed every bump of a villainous- looking head. A nose twice broken and moulded variously by countless blows, and a cauliflower ear, permanently swollen and distorted to twice its size, completed his adornment, while the beard, fresh-shaven as it was, sprouted in the skin and gave the face a blue-black stain

Retrieved Reformation – O.Henry: There are many stories of O.Henry that could easily challenge this choice of mine. However, the distinctiveness of this story is that it has a cinematic edge to its climax of an intensity which no other O.Henry story has. The story is about a bank burglar who after falling in love jettisons his profession but it is for the same love he has to display his bank busting skills while being tracked be the long hand of the law. The real twist lies in the behaviour of the representative of the law at the final moment of reckoning. Only O.Henry can take the reader on such a spin.

Monkey’s Paw – W.W.Jacobs. In the past I found it difficult to believe that people could be frightened on account of reading horror stories. Sometimes this opinion bordered on mild condescension. All that changed after I read W.W. Jacobs’s “Monkey’s Paw”. This subtly horror story and the way the climax plays out in the night in an isolated hut is truly chilling

Rip Van Winkle – Washington Irving: Oh! I love the portrayal of the easy-going, genial and kindly character of Rip Winkle juxtaposed with the shrewish personality of Dame Winkle. It is a strange and delectable story with a proper mix of myth and reality. Superbly entertaining and is a masterpiece of American short story

A Cup of Tea – Katherine Mansfield: This clever story depicting the subtle transformation of an insecure woman due to jealousy engendered by a casual and the off the cuff remark of her husband is an absolute treat to read. Mansfield’s prose has a grace and moves like a gentle butterfly with iridescent wings

Interference – Julian Barnes: The final days of a cantankerous and brilliant English music composer – Leonard – who for reasons of perceived hostility of England to foster artists, relocates to a remote French Village with his wife four decades ago. The story is a reminiscence of a life gone by and the small demands of the dying (in the present) set in an environment and circumstances where they are difficult to meet. Towards the end Leonard wants to listen to his own composition “The Four Seasons” — which BBC plays on his 70th birthday as he is breathing his last and interference of electrical signals do not allow him to listen to it. And even the records of his own music that he ordered from the music company located in Britain arrive into the hands of his despondent partner after his death. Moving and brilliant

We’ll Have Fun – John O Hara: To summarize the transition of an age in the span of a few odd pages is not an easy thing to do and O’Hara did it in his inimitable style when he narrates the plight of a happy go lucky out of job alcoholic who is trying to eke out a living by tending to horses at a time when automobiles where making their presence felt and horses were going out of fashion and becoming a rich man’s hobby in America

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