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.

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.

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 Pexels.com

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 Pexels.com

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63542539