Telling tales & fables

I’ve dipped into my 1937 copy of Great Short Stories of The World again, for my monthly post, and like Little Jack Horner, may have pulled out a plum. Allow me to share my visit to seventeenth century France, via Jean de La Fontaine’s fable, The Four Friends.

A little research on La Fontaine suggests he’s not been widely translated.

The references I found to his writing all describe it as poetic. The version provided for Great Short Stories of The World is by one of the editors: Barrett H Clark. He seems to have opted for economy, rather than poetry. I’ve had a quick search for other translations on the web, and only found simple retellings, often with sections blanked out so that it can be used for teaching grammar.

Which leads me to wonder if I’ve misunderstood Clark’s decision to use archaic words, and turns of phrase. I’d assumed that he was attempting to create a sense of antiquity, by including ‘disport‘, ‘whereupon‘, and ‘bewailing‘. Perhaps after all, he was trying to charm his readers.

The trouble was, I didn’t like his style. When the rat, ‘addressed‘ his friends, and in reply, ‘Up spoke the tortoise‘, it felt like an assumed voice, created purely for the sake of telling a story.

Tricks like these remind me that one of the first difficulties, when writing about the distant past, is choosing the voice of the narration. If the story is to retain it’s relevance to seventeenth century France, then maybe it does need to create a sense of period. But I’ve just flicked back one hundred and seventy one pages to find a contemporary of La Fontaine’s. Daniel Defoe’s 1706 story, True Revelation of the Apparition of One Mrs Veal was published in Britain, so has no need of translation.

There are a lot of words in Defoe’s story that could be considered difficult for the modern reader, mostly because our use of them has shifted. He uses ‘rare‘ where we might say unusual/unexpected/strange, or extra-ordinary; ‘relation’, here, means telling, or revelation. They work, and are understandable, because on the whole, Defoe’s narrator has a straightforward manner of telling. His story opens:

This thing is so rare in all its circumstances, and on so good authority, that my reading and conversation have not given me anything like it. It is fit to gratify the most ingenious and serious inquirer. Mrs Bargrave is the person to whom Mrs Veal appeared after her death…

Clark’s first sentence is:

A rat, a raven, a tortoise, and a gazelle were once upon a time the greatest friends imaginable.

He has slotted what might be considered (by some) a traditional opening for this story into the middle of his first sentence. I’ve had a quick scan of the internet, and can’t find ‘once upon a time‘ in the original. So, call me pedantic, but I’m viewing this as a retelling, rather than a translation.

Having got my quibbles out of the way, let me say that I like this fable. It’s a short, and simple tale of friendship.

“Pierre Chenu after Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Le corbeau, la gazelle, la tortue et le rat (The Crow, the Gazelle, the Tortoise, andthe Rat), published 1759, hand-colored etching, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George W. Ware, 1975.81.8”

According to the Great Short Stories of The World, La Fontaine’s telling presents “a picture of human life and French society.” I now know that he, Racine, Boileau and Molière, formed an important quartet, meeting regularly at the Rue du Vieux Colombier. So this may be a symbolic representation of their connection. But, like any great story, it tells us other, more universal things.

This happy friendship first began in a home which was unknown to any human being. However, there is no place safe from humankind, be it in the densest wood, under the deepest river, or on the highest peaks where eagles perch.

In few hundred words, this fable presents a test, examines characters, explores consequences and forces me to think about my place in the world. I may be adding nuances and ideas to it that La Fontaine never imagined, but I’m reading and thinking about it two hundred and sixty-one years after it was first published, and not as a historical oddity, but something relevant to my experiences.

On joining #readingirelandmonth21

Yesterday morning, when I settled down to write this post, I was still juggling ideas about content. As always, when faced with an opportunity to prevaricate, I opted to read. Checking other people’s posts, I decided, would help me decide.

I abandoned all as soon as I saw that Cathy, at 746 Books, had nominated March as Reading Ireland Month. This was it.

The challenge was announced in January. In joining at the last minute, I’m clinging to the coat-tails of those bloggers who have already signed up to this party – like an annoying little sister, perhaps.

To make that situation worse, I’m not planning to stick to the rules (do little sisters ever understand rules in the same way as their siblings?). Like any experienced gatecrasher, I’m cherry-picking the segments that suit me. Cathy’s nicely arranged schedule provides inspiration. .

1st – 7th March – Contemporary Irish Novels. If contemporary means read within a year or two of publication, then I’ll certainly need to side step this one. I can’t remember the last novel of any nationality that I read close to its date of publishing.

On the other hand, if I take ‘Contemporary‘ from the challenge for this week, and ‘Short Story‘ from the third week (15th – 21st March – Irish Short Story Collections), I can talk about Jan Carson’s, ‘In The Car With The Rain Coming Down’. It was a memorable high-point in my short-story-reading last year that I’m glad of an excuse to revisit.

Carson is from Northern Ireland. She’s written a novel, flash fiction and short stories. This one was broadcast as part of the shortlist for the BBC National Short Story Award last year, and I was hooked, from the first sentence.

There’s a stand-off in the front yard.

That is a line to envy. At first glance, its effortless.

If, however, we’re thinking about that standard writing advice of ‘setting your reader a question that must be answered’, it provides multiples: Who? Why? Where? What next? Somehow, it also sets a ‘wild-west’ flavour to the scene.

Carson doesn’t exactly explain in the next few sentences, she expands the questions:

No significant progress can be made until the men decide who’s driving. It’s the same every time we go anywhere together.

There are six cars in the yard. To say they’ve been parked would be giving the drivers too much credit. They look as if they’ve been dropped from a great height and have come to rest at outlandish angles, sniffing each other’s bumpers like a pack of frisky dogs. The men are debating which cars will be required today. 

Part of what I like is our narrator’s vocabulary. Look at that second sentence. The word that jumps out to me is ‘significant‘. It’s as if the narrator is embedding doubts into the situation: here, perhaps, progress is always in question.

Then there are the distinctive similes. I’d never have thought of cars being ‘dropped’, or of relating them to frisky dogs. I feel a little smile beginning to form. I’m still not sure whether I’m entering a comedy, but the narrator is clearly able to see humour, so I’m ready, if that’s where we’re going.

Speaking of journeys, sometimes stories take place in a kind of geographical ‘anywhere’. They describe events that are universal, and could apply to any of us.

These cars are in Northern Ireland. Their goal is a local landmark, and the dynamics of the characters belong in their geographical location.

This does not mean that all of the situation is unique to the geography. But perhaps it says that these particular characters have formed and are reflecting the experience of growing up and living in their setting. The voice of the narrator, Victoria, is deliberately, though not heavily, accented. ‘They’ve ruled out Matty’s wee Nova.’ It’s in occasional turns of phrase.

Even before she says, ‘Sure‘, voice is part of the context of this story:

The Escort’s out too. It’s filthy with dog hair. William, my father-in-law, keeps it for his collies. He’s never once thought of cleaning it out. Sure, what would be the point? 

‘What would be the point?’ is a telling question. It is, perhaps, at the heart of this story, where the tensions and loyalties of family life are explored.

In these travel-less days, perhaps one way to experience other cultures is to embed ourselves in their literature.

“Is it a Protestant thing? Clodagh asks, having your picnic in the car, because it’s not something my folks do.”

The things families do are explored with a surprising amount of depth in this journey that does not cover many road miles.

Reasons to be cheerful…

Those of you who are old enough might recognise my title as belonging to a song from late in the 1970s. It was catchy, and therefore popular for a while, but not something that struck me, at the time, as important. After the few weeks when it seemed to be on the radio every day, it was overtaken by some new tune. That’s the way popular works.

Except for me, the phrase, ‘reasons to be cheerful,’ had not gone. Those four words were swirling around my head when I woke on Sunday morning.

I spent my half-hour walk with Rusty struggling to match them to a tune that I later discovered belonged to a song by another group. Thank goodness for search-engines.

As soon as I’d read that Reasons to be Cheerful, Pt 3 belonged to Ian Dury and The Blockheads, I remembered the correct tune, though the rest of the lyrics defeated me, until I looked them up. It was a list song, and I’d been developing a writing exercise based on lists only four days earlier.

My idea had been triggered by a review of a book called, 14,000 Things To Be Happy About, by Barbara Ann Kipfer. It was first published in 1990, then was revised and republished again, twice: first in 2007, then in 2014. In her forward, Kipfer says the book is a record of 50 years worth of moments. It takes the form of a stream of consciousness list that can be dipped into.

About a thousand years ago (and how magical does that sound?) a Japanese woman called Sei Shōnagon wrote a series of intriguing lists in her Pillow Book. They are a poetic observations that are beautiful in their own right, but also provide a fascinating glimpse into her life at a Japanese court. The titles alone are worth savouring: Things that should be short; Elegant things; Rare things

All of these things (and more) were in my head as the sun set. A couple of blackbirds began arguing in the shrubs beyond my office window. Outside was icy: inside was warm. If I hadn’t been thinking of anything wider than that, creating a list of my own good thoughts would still have seemed an appropriate activity.

I opened a small pristine notebook that has been waiting for a special project. I wrote the date on the first page, and without too much thought, began…

Snowdrops budding through weeds, bluetits, finches, robins and sparrows flock around feeders, and across the field four Roe deer pause to watch before flashing white rumps as they turn, their parallel route rousting a pheasant into squawking flight, unsettling the roosting buzzard and the mass of fieldfares chattering in the ash and the oak; mud builds on my boot soles, soft, smooth and heavy; the pull of earth, and branches slick with drizzle.

The drift of wet washing in the winter breeze, to be gathered at dusk…

New Year: new me?

It doesn’t feel like three weeks since my last post, though I’m glad to report that Ray is making great progress with his recuperation, (the human body is an amazingly forgiving organism) and we had a lovely Christmas and New Year. But can that really all have taken up the last twenty-one days?

Is it only me who finds taking a break is often not so much about having a rest, as providing an opportunity to reflect?

If we’d used the time to go away on holiday somewhere – ah, remember those days? – we’d have been kept busy adjusting to the accommodation and exploring our surroundings. Holidays, in my experience are adventures.

This time, spent at home pottering, hasn’t been consciously given to contemplation. Although I’ve put some time into lesson preparations as well as my domestic duties, we’ve both just taken time off, and not thought or talked about work for days at a time.

It was only when I began to transfer class dates from the notes in the back of my old diary to my term-planner, last week, that I drew in a sharp breath. Could I have been sane when I committed to so many teaching hours?

I was. I swear I was.

But, there is going to be a lot of reading. It’s going to be fun, too, meeting so many people from all over the country, sharing our ideas about reading and writing – without any need to spend time driving!

I’m loving on-line teaching. It’s very different to classroom based groups, which I look forward to returning to, it has a slightly different dynamic and I hope I’ll be doing both in the not too distant future. However, this term something is going to have to give, at least for the next three months.

I’m tempted to let the housework slide, so, so tempted… But the truth is I do prefer not to live in squalor.

My reading has already been slimmed down to the eight novels and nine short stories that are on my class reading lists, and the background research that goes with them. There is, I realise, as I settle at my desk on Sunday the third of January, one other way to make some space in my diary… I can, temporarily, cut back my blogging to a monthly, instead of a weekly schedule.

So, lovely readers, I’d like to send you all my very best New Year Wishes. I hope we’re all heading into much better times than the last few months have offered, and I hope you’ll continue to drop in and see what I’m rabbiting on about, on the first Monday of each month… at least until April.

On reading Aesop, then taking a little break.

The connections made in my title are purely coincidental. Reading Aesop has not sent me scuttling to shelter. Although, the story from the 1937 collection, Great Short Stories of The World, I’ve been reading this week is, The Country Mouse and the Town Mouse, and now I think about it, on one level it is a story about taking holidays.

Reading it took me back to childhood, but not in either a positive or a negative way. It was just a story that I remember regularly sighing about because it had popped up in yet another comic or collection.

I’ve been trying to decide whether it really was one of the most repeated stories, or if I just noticed it because it wasn’t a story that I liked. After all, I was happy with the variations on fairytales.

I can imagine that some adults would think these anthropomorphic mice make a child-friendly tale. They must be lovely to illustrate. The plot is time and region-less, and so can be made specific in ways that some of the other fables by Aesop can’t.

I can still remember a very English Tudor-period version that I liked to look at but, even then, the story failed to grab me. I didn’t know why. The story has as much going on as The Hare and The Tortoise, which I did enjoy, so I assumed it was a matter of taste.

Now, returning to it as a translation made by Thomas James, and first published in 1848, I wonder if it was that the set-up seems flawed. I’m wary of blaming Aesop, who was the aural storyteller of these fables. The versions we read weren’t written down until long after his death.

James says the town mouse was condescending. ‘How is it, my good friend, that you can endure the dullness of this unpolished life?’ But, his story begins by stating that these two mice are friends, old acquaintances. So, my question is, how is it that they know so little of each other?

Story worlds, the theory goes, must be consistent, should have a logic that keeps the reader absorbed in them. In the best case, we readers are so involved we suspend our disbelief and are surprised when we remember our world works differently.

The greatest fantasies achieve that, even at their most fantastic. When I read either, Alice in Wonderland, or Through the Looking Glass, no matter how much Alice shrinks, stretches or distorts, or how far she falls, I’m convinced, because each event is shown to fit logically with the next. Even at the end of Wonderland, when Carroll uses the cliche of ‘it was all a dream‘, he does it in such a way that Wonderland and the real world intersect plausibly.

This may well be ‘a particular type of story… known as the Beast Fable, a brief incident related in order to point a simple moral…’ but I’m sorry it was chosen as an example for inclusion in an anthology called Great Short Stories of The World. I would have preferred The Lion and The Mouse, or one of the ones that feature a wolf or a fox.

These are, of course, only my opinions. I’m prepared to be corrected.

I am, however, also allowed to dislike something… even if it is a classic.

In the meantime, please accept my excuses, dear readers and fellow bloggers, I need to drop out of sight for three weeks. My partner, Ray, who is usually standing, unsung, in the background of my writings, has just returned home after a quadruple heart-bypass operation.

While he would happily continue in the role of ideal reader, checking for sense, non-sense and typos before I post, I’m of the opinion that he should follow the recuperation guidance and take things easy. So, I’m putting a few things on hold to supervise his recovery.

Photo by Elly Fairytale on

I’ll be back here on January 4th. Hope to see you then. In the meantime, I wish you all the very best festive wishes. I hope you all find lovely ways to celebrate.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on

The bargain.

The thing about my muse is he’s always been a little elusive. I know the kinds of places where he hangs out, he’s a story-muse, lurking between the lines of other people’s writings. But I’ve never been able to predict which pages will reveal him.

Typically, he leapt out from the challenge set by Diana Wallace Peach, for bloggers to share dialogues with their muses, after her deadline. Luckily, Diana is a forgiving, generous soul who gave us an extension.

Give my muse an inch and immediately he takes advantage. So, instead of the conversation Diana had suggested, my muse led me back to that afternoon, around a year ago, when he finally fixed on a form.

Up to that point he’d had two modes of presence. Mostly, he preferred to be almost invisible, hovering just beyond my eyeline. No matter how quickly I turned, or craftily I looked into mirrored surfaces, I’d not see his shape.

This, no doubt, was influenced by his preference for omniscient narrators. Although, now I think about it, perhaps his disembodiment had been inspired by the number of omniscient narrators in my early reading. It all depends on whether he’s been directing my reading, or my reading has directed him. I’d ask, but he’s not the kind of muse who provides anything I request.

At other times he’d shift from one form to another without worrying whether I was midway through a project, or not. I’ve known him to grin suddenly from a corner of a complicated abstract painting; stare out from a crowd scene in a film; uncurl from misshapen lumps on trees, fissures in rock-faces and shadowed lamp-posts on deserted streets. He’s got that kind of sense of humour. He loves jumping from one novel to another, to a poem, to a flash fiction and back to a novel again, crossing continents and centuries, clothes and shape. Often I didn’t realise until hours later that he’d been there.

So it was a shock to find that not only had he settled into a perfectly formed and detailed miniature, but that he had seated himself on the edge of the top shelf in the bric-a-brac section of our local charity shop. He was leaning forward. One leg dangled, the other was crossed across his knee and he was resting his elbow on it, watching as I entered the shop.

Jasper, I thought, as naturally as if I’d always known his name.

Despite his plain brown habit, he stood out. Perhaps it was the large nosed face, or the wrinkles of concentration on his forehead. Maybe he winked. He certainly smirked as he saw me turn away from the bookshelves.

One hand cupped his cheek, half hiding the twist of his lips, but I could see by his eyes that he smiled, and I smiled back, then moved hurriedly forward, in the opposite direction to the bookshelves, past the other browsing customers, to claim him.

He was heavy, reassuringly so, and had gravitas. I’d not expected that, especially since I could see that he was slyly picking his nose. Well, I thought, it probably could be worse. At least I’d got him now. From this point on, I would always know where to look.

Jasper quirked an eyebrow.

I settled him on my palm as I scanned the bookshelves. Was I really going to buy my muse? Was that even possible?

Jasper gave me a straight look. He jiggled his dangling foot, and waited for me to find my money.

What price? Well, the charity shop charged me £3.50.

Thoughts on reading two Ancient Egyptian short stories.

The first stories in the Great Short Stories of The World anthology are THE TWO BROTHERS (ANPU AND BATA), and, SETNA AND THE MAGIC BOOK. According to the editors, both of these date from ‘about 1400 B.C.’, and are by that most prolific of all authors, Anonymous.

They go on to say that these tales ‘have an extraordinary interest in that they are the very earliest examples that we possess.’ Thinking that such a statement may have been challenged by now, I had a quick look through some more recent sources on my bookshelves, and then did an internet search.

The first thing I was reminded of was how slippery the term ‘short story’ is. If we demand that it is something told strictly in prose form, then yes, these two stories from Ancient Egypt are some of the earliest written examples. It would get a lot more complicated, though, if we included stories that employ rhyme, rhythm and repetition, hallmarks of the oral storytelling tradition. Then, questions about when, where and how the dividing line between story and poetry come into play, and I’d need to open up a longer reaching discussion than one small blog-post usually manages.

I’m going to side-step that can of worms, and hand responsibility for starting in Egypt back to the esteemed editors, Messrs Clark and Lieber. However, while I’m happy to concentrate on the content they’ve provided, I am not going to rely on them for historical accuracy.

In presenting SETNA AND THE MAGIC BOOK, they claim that the original manuscript, ‘came from the workshop of the scribe Anena, who flourished in the reigns of Ramses II, Menephtah, and Seti II.

I don’t know how changes in the archeological science may have affected this theory, in the decades since 1937, but I am convinced by the textual argument David K. Jordan Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of California, makes against it. On an internet page published in 2011, and updated in 2020, he suggests that we should be careful of taking too much notice of what may seem authentic detail. Our narrator, says Professor Jordan, makes some significant errors about Egypt in the time of Ramessses II.

…that setting was either mere romanticism or an inaccurately understood historical tradition, for the writer of the existing copy of the story seems to have imagined the capital to have been at Memphis (one of the Ptolemaic capitals) rather than at Thebes, where Ramesses really had his capital, and the author gives far more attention to the god Ptah than would have been appropriate for a story from the time of Ramesses. Some Greek names also point to the Ptolemaic copyist’s (or author’s) lack of attention to historical accuracy in the setting of the tale.

Professor Jordan says that this story was ‘probably copied… somewhere after 305 BC‘.

What’s a century or two, between readers?

Well, it can be the difference between sense and confusion. There was such a moment for me in this translation of THE TWO BROTHERS (ANPU AND BATA). It was made by William Flinders Petrie in 1895.

Anpu’s wife has falsely accused Bata of trying to seduce her. Anpu takes up a knife and tries to kill Bata, and is only prevented when the God, Ra, helps Bata by causing a vast stretch of croccodile infested water to form between the brothers. In order to convince Anpu of his innocence, Bata ‘took a knife, and cut off of his flesh, and cast it into the water, and the fish swallowed it.’

Wow, I thought, that’s extreme, and rather random, but I didn’t take time to think it through. The story was moving fast, and I was still acclimatizing to a culture in which it seemed to be acceptable for Anpu to return home and not only kill his wife, but feed her body to his dogs.

Meanwhile, Bata was busy making a home in the desert, building a tower and meeting nine Gods, who made a wife especially for him. All, I thought would be fine, now.

I should have remembered my Mabinogian*, in which two magicians made a woman from flowers, to give to the hero Lleu.

Funny thing, but this woman didn’t seem grateful about her given position either. Soon I was so intent on her devious machinations I read right over an important piece of contextual information. Well, that and the slightly arcane narration William Flinders Petrie had decided would give the correct atmosphere for the period.

And Bata loved her very exceedingly, and she dwelt in his house; he passed his time in hunting the beasts of the desert, and brought and laid them before her.

[This reminded me of a cat I used to have, called Jester.]

He said: “Go not outside, lest the sea seize thee; for I cannot rescue thee from it, for I am a woman like thee; my soul is placed on the head of the flower of the acacia; and if another find it, I must fight with him.” And he opened unto her his heart in all its nature.

Oh boy, some men just don’t know how to keep their mouths shut. Still, the stage was now set for all kinds of developments. While I was still pondering the significance of the acacia flower, the nameless girl had enticed a Pharaoh into her orbit, established herself as his princess, and was scheming to make sure Bata couldn’t steal her back again.

And when I think about it, why should she want to live in a tower in the desert? Is it me, or does this bit remind you a little of Rapunzel?

Anyway, before I give you any more spoilers, let me say that I loved this, as I did SETNA AND THE MAGIC BOOK. The editors offer a description that might be applied, these days, to magical realism.

Whether or not the Egyptions actually beleived all they were told in a fairy tale is an idle conjecture, but it seems probable that the strange happenings described in this story were accepted by many. Even the present age of science has not entirely banished a belief in magic…’

After finishing both stories, I looked them up. One of the summaries named the portion of sliced off flesh that William Flinders Petrie was too modest to identify, and suddenly Bata’s action made a lot more sense.

I read both stories again, and again, tantalized by glimpses of fairytales and myths I knew from other cultural backgrounds; reminded of Aristotle’s claim that we retell the same seven stories over and over again, and of Carl Jung’s theories of archetypes. How far back does the short story go? What does it include? I’m still working on these questions.

*Footnote on The Mabinogian: these are the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain. The stories were compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions. (Wikipedia)

Great Short Stories of the World

This anthology is one of my dusty bargains from a second hand shop. Its old, and looks it. The hardboard covers are bound in a pale cloth, and stained. Perhaps that’s why, having re-homed it several years ago on a high TBR shelf, its been neglected. If I hadn’t decided to do a little rearranging this week who knows how long it would have remained there.

Once opened, it was too tempting to put back. After all, don’t I frequently claim that one of the advantages of short fiction is that it can be dipped into? Admittedly, this volume is hefty. There are, the cover boasts, one thousand and eight pages, containing one hundred and seventy eight stories ‘drawn from all literatures, ancient and modern’ . I don’t have pockets big enough, and if I had, I suspect that after carting this around I’d develop a limp. So this book is now lodged conveniently on the corner of my desk.

The tattered dust jacket is tucked between the pages, too fragile to be other than a bookmark. It’s thick with promises.

‘This miracle, this triumph of bookmaking… has run to no less than ten editions at the original price of eight shillings and sixpence.

I put the figures into a currency convertor. Eight shillings and sixpence would have been the equivalent of a days wages for a skilled tradesman working in Britain in 1926. I’m trying to decide whether I might pay a sixth of my wages for a book, if I was a skilled tradesman. What kind of reader would that make me, what might my aspirations be?

The opening lines of the preface say:

This collection marks the first attempt to bring together in a single volume a characteristic group of the outstanding examples of the Short Story as it has been practiced by writers of almost every race, from the earliest days of civilization down to the present century. Its purpose is not to shew, by a series of texts chosen on academic grounds, how the form developed, but to bring together the best examples of every form by which men have endeavoured [sic] to entertain and instruct their fellows.

How popular has this collection been? My copy, a 1937 reprint, says that, ‘in response to overwhelming public demand it is reissued, complete and unabridged, at 3s 6d.‘ The currency converter tells me that in today’s terms that would be a drop from the 1926 equivalent price of £60 to £24 in 1937. Sounds like a bargain. But, the 1930s were times of turmoil, and although wages had not gone up, and most foodstuffs had dropped in price, there were high levels of unemployment. I’d love to know who did buy this, and why.

After thinking about the history of The Short Story, the preface becomes more practical.

Of recent years there has been a good deal of theorizing about the Short Story as an art form. A whole literature of theory has come into being in order to explain the work of Maupassant and Poe and O. Henry, as well as to guide the would be writer.

Possibly, then, this is useful research for those trying to break into print.

The preface lays much stress on the theory, history and the processes of critical reading. The editors have aspired to gather together ‘little-known or quite forgotten tales.’

There is an academic approach to the division of the book into sections.

The volume… besides being the first to include examples of stories of practically the entire world, introduces several new writers to English and American readers.

At one time non-fiction books were such a popular household item that salesmen hawked encyclopedias and educational literature from door to door. The New Statesman says, ‘This is a most astonishing venture – a library in itself.

I hope Barret H. Clark and Maxim Lieber would be gratified to know that it’s still succeeding on all fronts, so far as I’m concerned. I’ve just finished The Two Brothers, a tale from Egypt, dated by their estimation, at 1400 BC which was entertaining and intriguing.

Do you read Short Stories?

This last week I started another set of short story appreciation classes. Again, one of the first questions that arises is, why don’t more of us read short stories?

Looking at how my reading habit developed provides me with the basis for a theory about that why question. Thinking about this takes me back to one of the first blog posts I wrote, back in 2012. Can I really have been posting for so long?  Where does the time go?

Those thoughts seem relevant enough that I’ve decided to repost most of the original: 

EH Shepard illustration for Winnie The Pooh, by AA Milne

As I grew up the print I read got smaller, the illustrations disappeared and the books got thicker.  I read one or two collections of ghost or horror stories as well, but mostly my friends and I bought, borrowed and swapped longer and longer narratives.  We were aiming for novels.  School too was pushing us that way.  They asked us to write short stories so that we could demonstrate our understanding of punctuation and grammar, but for literature, we would study, The Novel.

Photo by Pixabay on

Our first grown-up novels were like contraband, passed around secretly.  Before long we were reading them openly.  I might occasionally go back to a childhood favourite, but in secret.  In public, I did not go near the children’s shelves again, and neither did my friends.  By the time we left school I had a strong novel-reading habit.

I did read a few short stories as I came across them, mostly in magazines.  I also remember some Katherine Mansfield stories, and another collection by a modern writer.  I remember because of my disappointment.  I could see that the sentences were well written, and I knew that these were important writers, but surely these were not stories.  Where were the plots?

No wonder I didn’t get them.  I had approached those two collections exactly as I did a novel.  I turned from one story to the next, often without pause, simply because the pages were numbered consecutively.  It was a long time before I went back to them.  It took a night class and a new approach to writing before I read them as I should have.

I wish I had learned earlier that I did not need a degree course to appreciate the beauty of a well-crafted story.  We learned the skills in English Lit at school.  I just hadn’t understood how to adapt them.

Now, when I teach creative reading or writing groups I say, approach short stories as you would a poem.  The great British short story writers of the 1920s and 30s knew this.  H.E.Bates, in his book, The Modern Short Story, (second edition 1972) wrote that, after the first world war the new generation of writers, ‘needed and sought as a form something between lyric poetry and fictional prose.’  He credited Katherine Mansfield and A. E. Coppard in, ‘assisting the English short story to a state of adult emancipation.’

His study may be forty years old, but I cannot disagree with his analysis.  I only wish that more people would seek it out.


Analysis by other authors also available, but I’d still recommend this one as a good starting place.

6 degrees of separation: from W Somerset Maugham to Rana Dasgupta

This month, the six degrees challenge set by Kate W, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, is to begin with a title that has concluded a previous chain. Last month I finished with Maugham’s short story, A String of Beads.

This is such a very short story that it might seem slight. Should I simply follow the governess? The snag is, that would almost inevitably lead back to the starting point for the chain it came from, The Turn of The Screw, by Henry James.

Photo by Elina Sazonova on

As with so many Maugham stories, all this one needs is a second read. There are several lines I could pick up, all tempting. But then, this is a story about story-telling. I’ve chosen the moment when Laura pauses her story so that she can explain it.

“We all laughed. It was of course absurd. We’ve all heard of wives palming off on their husbands as false a string of pearls that was real and expensive. The story is as old as the hills.”

“Thank you,” I said, thinking of a little narrative of my own.

Could the narrator, perhaps, be remembering Maupassant’s short story, The Necklace? At any rate, I was.

My link is in the introduction to the pretty and charming girl who has had no chance of marrying ‘a man of wealth and distinction‘, and so has ‘let herself be married off to a little clerk in the Ministry of Education.’

She suffered endlessly, feeling herself born for every delicacy and luxury. She suffered from the poorness of her house, from its mean walls, worn chairs, and ugly curtains.  All these things, of which other women of her class would not even have been aware, tormented and insulted her.

When her husband gets tickets for an influential party, she sees the possibility of a triumph. All she needs to complete the new outfit she buys is to borrow a diamond necklace from her rich friend.

This reminds me of an Elizabeth Taylor story, I Live in a World of Make-believe. Mrs Miller is ‘absorbed and entranced‘ by the ‘grandeur‘ of the big house across the road from her. ‘Symbols of all that seemed worth while in life passed and crossed on that gravelled courtyard...’

It is Mrs Miller’s small son who creates the connection, in innocence. After that you’d think she’d be contented, wouldn’t you?

‘I wish we had more books…’

‘Books?’ [Mr Miller] echoed, looking worried at once. ‘What for?’

‘For all those built-in shelves. I’d like to call that room the library.’

Photo by Negative Space on

Discontent is beautiful story material. In Jumping into Bed with Luis Fortuna, the fourth story in my chain, Dilys Rose also explores it.

She’d got herself anchored: house, job, man, kids. The backpack was long gone, she was well and truly stuck.

Like the Maupassant story, our protagonist remains a ‘she’ throughout. This ‘she’ has become focused on a novelist called Luis Fortuna.

She didn’t believe in heroes but still, in spare moments down town, she’d nip into bookshops in search of his latest novel.

The story charts her attempt to compose a letter to Luis, in between her family commitments.

Her husband was put off Luis Fortuna by the trashy titles and lurid covers and she was glad. She had him to herself.

Deborah Moggach’s story, A Real Countrywoman, opens with letters and Christmas cards. The one in the brown envelope comes from the County Council.

‘A two-lane dual carriageway!’ said Edwin. ‘Right past our front door. Thundering pantechnicons!’ This exploded from him like an oath.

While Edwin is horrified, his wife, our nameless narrator, doesn’t quite seem to be on the same page.

When you live in the country you spend your whole time in the car. This was our first Christmas in the country, the first of our new pure life, and I was trying to work up a festive spirit unaided by the crass high-street commercialism that Edwin was so relieved to escape. Me too, of course.

One of the solutions Edwin offers is an underpass. Elsewhere, the local council are putting them in to save colonies of great crested newts, that’s just the kind of ammunition an anti-road campaign needs. Or is it?

That road takes me to my sixth story, Rana Dasgupta’s, The Flyover. Marlboro, a young man who lives, with his mother, ‘on Lagos Island near to the hustle and bustle of Balogun Market‘, has grown next to the arches of a flyover. His oldest brother is in university in India, the second oldest has gone into business with a friend.

Marlboro has no job, and no idea about what he might do, and seems to have no interest in that.

‘Why don’t you tell me who my father was? Marlboro would ask late at night as his mother put up her cerise-toenailed feet that perfectly matched her cerise lipstick and flicked between soap operas, turned up to full volume to cover the scream of the flyover outside.

Instead, she leaves, and he is enticed into working for a protection racket. It’s a very long way away from Somerset Maugham’s dinner party… or is it?

Balogun Market, by Yellowcrunchy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,