#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.

Gone, but not forgotten – reading short stories: a recommendation.

V.S. Pritchett, anyone remember him?  One of the great British short story writers of the twentieth century, but he’s not much read now.  Which is a shame, because there is still plenty to love in his short stories.

RSL_Pritchett-illustration-from-formIt’s not just for his fiction that I value him, though.  He thought and wrote about the processes of writing.  One of my favourite quotes is:

I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive.

That seems as good a reason to be putting words together as any other that I’ve come across, and if you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll have gathered that I am a collector of wise-writing-words.

Pritchett died in 1997, and for the general reader apparently drifted from general consciousness soon after that.  Perhaps that seems natural.  There are an awful lot of new writers appearing all of the time, and we can’t read everyone.

But pick up an anthology of short stories produced in Britain, in the twentieth century, and the chances are it will contain a Pritchett story.  But he had other hats too, writing essays about literature, and teaching in American Universities.  He also edited the 1981 Oxford Book of Short Stories.

His stories are Chekovian.  He specialised in character studies: characters caught in a moment of stress, and explored, usually for comic potential.

The great thing about the short story is the detail, not the plot. The plot is useful, but only for supplying the sort of detail that is not descriptive but which pushes the action forward.

How does that work?  Well it’s not a formula.  Each situation demands it’s own delivery.  Here’s the opening of one his 1977 stories, A Family Man:

Late in the afternoon, when she had given him up and had even changed out of her pink dress into her smock and jeans and was working once more at her bench, the doorbell rang.  William had come, after all.  It was in the nature of their love affair that his visits were fitful: he had a wife and children.  To show that she understood the situation, even found the curious satisfaction of reverie in his absences that lately had lasted several weeks, Berenice dawdled yawning to the door.

Compare it with the opening for On the Edge of the Cliff, the title story of his 1979 collection:

The sea fog began to lift towards noon.  It had been blowing in, thin and loose for two days, smudging the tops of the trees up the ravine where the house stood. “Like the breath of old men,” Rowena wrote in an attempt at a poem, but changed the line, out of kindness, to “the breath of ghosts,” because Harry might take it personally.  The truth was that his breath was not foggy at all, but smelt of the dozens of cigarettes he smoked all day.

Don’t both of these exemplify what is meant by ‘show don’t tell’?  Here are not just scenes set, but also tone, and although you cannot know it on first read, everything you need is there.  To me, Pritchett epitomises the ‘never a word wasted’ premise for short story writers.  He sculpted more meanings from most of his words than I can grasp with a casual read.  Most of his stories deserve a second read, and will repay that attention by revealing missed nuances.

If you haven’t tried him before, he’s one from my recommended reading list, and if you like slapstick, you might go first to The Saint, which I think is one of the funniest stories written.

And then, for the writers amongst you, there’s the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize, which was set up by the The Royal Society of Literature (RSL), and is one of those prestigious awards to aim for.