Six memorable stories: in five words?

This week I’ve been gently challenged by Ola, who, in tandem with Piotrek, blogs about her reading, on Re-enchantment of the World. They recently described some Favourite Books in Five Words. This idea has, it seems, been circulating for at least a year, so I’m late – again.

I wondered whether the inspiration for this owed something to Hemmingway’s six word story. Once I’d made that connection it was inevitable that my list would be short fiction. I decided to limit myself to six that I’ve found unforgettable.

I begin with Mary Mann.

‘Who?’ you say.

I’m not surprised. She is a writer who has been shamefully neglected, so let me stretch the rules a little, and put her into context.

Mary Mann, born 1846, in Norfolk, was a merchant’s daughter who married a yeoman farmer in 1871. They had four children. Yeoman, by the way, means he farmed his own land. Many farmers were/are tenants. It has been suggested that Mary’s writing helped her transition from town life to an isolated rural community, and was a necessary supplement to the family income during the agricultural depression of the 1880s.

Women O’Dulditch, by Mary Mann (1908)

Dinah and Car’line’s ideal husband?

Bliss, by Katherine Mansfield (1918)

Revelations at Bertha’s dinner party.

Hills Like White Elephants, by Ernest Hemmingway (1927)

Listening for what’s not said.

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1955)

Fate, reverence and a circus.

The Blush, by Elizabeth Taylor (1958)

Mrs Allen listens, watches: sees.

Puss in Boots, by Angela Carter (1979)

Sex, lies, rats and love.

There could, of course, have been more. On a different day of a different month, there would have been other choices.

#6Degrees – Where the Wild Things Are.

This week I can’t resist taking up the 6 degrees of separation challenge, over at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, where Kate has set Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s story as the starting point for creating a chain of 6 books. I’ve deviated somewhat from the brief. As the next thing that came to mind was a short story, I decided to make the whole of my chain from short, or shortish, fiction.

So, to start with Kate’s choice…

Where The Wild Things Are was not in our school library. If it had been, I’m sure I’d have read it. I stumbled across the opera-version one evening as I was browsing our (then) four or five tv channels – yes, that long ago.

Claire Booth as Max. Photo by Mark Berry

I’d been dabbling with opera for a time, and found plenty to interest and intrigue me, but this one stood out, even on a small screen in the family sitting room.

Since I’ve mentioned opera my next link has to be Angela Carter’s, Puss-in-Boots. It’s a monologue, by a cat called Figaro – yes, drawn in-part, from the Mozart opera.

If you’ve never read anything by Carter before this is a good starting place. It’s a comic, bawdy, naughty, quick-read that was turned into a BBC radio drama.

Puss, a posturing ginger tom, boasts of his ‘fine, musical voice‘.

All the windows in the square fly open when I break into impromptu song at the spectacle of the moon above Bergamo.  If the poor players in the square, the sullen rout of ragged trash that haunts the provinces, are rewarded with a hail of pennies when they set up their makeshift stage and start their raucous choruses, then how much more liberally do the citizens deluge me with pails of the freshest water, vegetables hardly spoiled and, occasionally, slippers, shoes and boots.

Well, that explains the boots.

Unappreciated musicality has to take me to Tania Hershman’s flash-fiction, Mother was an Upright Piano.

My Mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro.  My father was not the maestro.  My father was the piano tuner: technically expert, he never made her sing.  It was someone else’s husband who turned her into a baby Grand.

This 400 word flash lead me to William Trevor’s, The Piano Tuner’s Wives. When Owen, the widowed, elderly, blind, piano tuner remarries, he chooses Belle, the woman he rejected as a young man.

Too late Belle realized that Violet had been the blind man’s vision; Violet had left her no room to breathe. One day, when Owen was describing a room as Violet had described it to him, Belle lied and said that it was quite different now. She did the same thing when he mentioned a female acquaintance or a neighborhood animal. Belle became more confident in wiping out Violet’s presence. Owen understood her feelings and allowed her her claims. He had given himself to two women; he hadn’t withdrawn himself from the first, and he didn’t from the second.

Blindness, and its effects, literal and metaphorical, are also explored in V.S. Pritchett’s 1968 story about a barrister, Mr Armitage, and Helen Johnson, his secretary-housekeeper, Blind Love.

 At their first interview ― he met her in the paneled hall: “You do realize, don’t you, that I am totally blind. I have been blind for more than twenty years,” he said. 

“Yes,” she said. “I was told by Dr. James.” She had been working for a doctor in London.

He held out his hand and she did not take it at once. It was not her habit to shake hands with people; now, as always, when she gave in she turned her head away. He held her hand for a long time and she knew he was feeling the bones. She had heard that the blind do this, and she took a breath as if to prevent her bones or her skin passing any knowledge of herself to him. But she could feel her dry hand coming to life and she drew it away. She was surprised that, at the touch, her nervousness had gone.

As the story opens, Helen has been his secretary and housekeeper for some years. But, the cool, professional, relationship they have maintained is about to shift. Suppressed secrets and emotions are stirring.

The Venus of Willendorf

In Hari Kunzru’s 2007 short story, Magda Mandela, Magda wakes her neighbours at 4.30 am, by shouting out the list of her accomplishments. Half naked, and smeared with oil, her emotions are raging and it seems that nothing is secret.

And all along the street we come to our windows to twitch the net curtains and face the awe-inspiring truth that is Magda in her lime-green thong. She’s standing on the top step, the lights of the house blazing behind her, a terrifying mash-up of the Venus of Willendorf and a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, making gestures with a beer can at the little knot of emergency-service personnel gathered on the pavement below.

One of the younger and less experienced constables has obviously asked her to accompany him to a place where, as an agent of the state, he will feel less exposed. A police station, perhaps. Or a hospital. Anywhere that will tip the odds a little in his favor. Magda has met this suggestion with the scorn it deserves. She knows that she outnumbers these fools. YOU KNOW ME, she says. Then, with a sinister leer, AND I KNOW YOU.

Can we ever know ourselves, let alone know someone else? That’s a big question, beautifully dealt with in David Almond’s 2007 story, Slog’s Dad. Slog’s dad is Joe, a binman, ‘a daft and canny soul‘ who develops a black spot on his toe. His leg has to be amputated. He seems to adapt to this, and so does his young son, Slog, but then a spot develops on his other toe.

Just a week later, the garden was empty. We saw Doctor Molly going in, then Father O’Mahoney, and just as dusk was coming on, Mr Blenkinsop, the undertaker.

The week after the funeral, I was heading out of the estate for school with Slog, and he told me, “Dad said he’s coming back.”

“Slogger, man,” I said.

“His last words to me. Watch for me in the spring, he said.”

“Slogger, man. It’s just cos he was…”

“What?”

I gritted my teeth.

“Dying, man!”

I didn’t mean to yell at him, but the traffic was thundering past us on the bypass. I got hold of his arm and we stopped.

“Bliddy dying,” I said more softly.

“Me Mam says that and all,” said Slog. “She says we’ll have to wait. But I cannot wait till I’m in Heaven, Davie. I want to see him here one more time.”

It’s another big, big, story, with a bit of everything that matters. Love and faith are pitted against a rational narrator with an armoury of common-sense. The story is subtle, simple and yet endlessly complicated and beautifully concise. Details that can be said to lead all in the same direction, are, in retrospect, also suggesting other possibilities.

Here’s another reason for writers to like fairy stories.

This week, my friends Ruth and Annie, who run the Logie Steadings bookshop in Forres, Scotland, (please note, everyone, this is not just a shameless promotion for excellent purveyors of reading material, staffed by brilliant and welcoming staff -though if you’re in the area, do call in! – this post is a few thoughts about reading journeys) have been running a promotion for Ladybird books. Their on-line publicity featured one of the first books I was ever allowed to choose for myself, Puss in Boots, and that I read, quite literally to bits.

Ladybird puss in boots

I’ve no idea how it happened that our junior school gave each child a book, but I’m still grateful.  Until then, books materialised magically, opening unlooked for doors of my imagination.

One year though, was I six, seven or eight? I don’t know, what I remember is sunshine, and young leaves on the copper-beach tree, and mum handing back the glossy leaflet I’d brought home. ‘Which book would you like?’ she said, and when I opened that paper out, there were lists, and lists, of titles.  Each was numbered, accompanied by a little picture and a box to tick.

The decision was agony.  Even though I dismissed all the non-fiction titles instantly, that left many favourite stories.

So why Puss rather than one of the many gorgeous princesses?  Maybe because he was like our cat, not just in being tabby, but in having a jaunty stride and a knowing tilt to his head.  Look at him, staring right at us, surely he’s about to wink. Sometimes, when stories are illustrated, or dramatized, they become the definitive version.  Eric Winter’s illustrations caught me.

A couple of decades later, when I discovered Angela Carter’s reworked fairy tales, in The Bloody Chamber, I fell in love with Puss-in-Boots all over again. No matter that her feline, aptly named Figaro, was a marmalade tabby: his clothes, his demeanour, his attitude, were a grown-up version of that Ladybird book.

…oh, my goodness me, this little Figaro… a cat of the world, cosmopolitan, sophisticated… proud of his bird-entrancing eye and more than military whiskers; proud, to a fault, some say, of his fine, musical voice. All the windows in the square fly open when I break into impromptu song at the spectacle of the moon above Bergamo.

Innuendo laden Puss-in-Boots made me think again about that Ladybird book.  Other stories might have action, magic, anthropomorphic animals, but how many were as slyly audacious? He lies, he cheats, he steals and charms, those are the events of the story.

Most fairy-tale heroes are defined by their looks, white-as-snow, red-as-blood, fairest-in-the-land, beautiful and they’re always good.  Evil characters put them in jeopardy, and they must maintain their moral ground, resist temptations. Often, they’re not clever, just brave in the face of adversity, and so worthy of rich rewards.

Ladybird puss in boots.jpg 2Amongst all those passive Ladybird characters, Puss stood out partly, because he puzzled me.  What was the message?  Carter played up the ambiguity that had kept me returning to the story.

Do you see these fine, high, shining leather boots of mine? A young cavalry officer made me the tribute of, first, one; then, after I celebrate his generosity with a fresh obbligato the moon no fuller than my heart–whoops! I nimbly spring aside–down comes the other. Their high heels will click like castanets when Puss takes his promenade upon the tiles, for my song recalls flamenco, all cats have a Spanish tinge although Puss himself elegantly lubricates his virile, muscular, native Bergamasque with French, since that is the only language in which you can purr.

‘Merrrrrrrrrrrci!’

The machinations of Puss are not unique.  Go back to Grimm, Perrault, or some of the other folk & fairy story collectors and you’ll find many of those Ladybird characters showing their feisty side.  What might they say, given an opportunity?  You tell me.