I don’t read that many works of fiction that are short. This year was the first time I’d ever read any Alice Munro for example and that was only because it was the book club selection for that month.
It isn’t that I have a specific aversion to short stories, or that i think they are the poorer cousin of the novel because I don’t. Having tried a bit of fiction writing myself I can appreciate that it is often harder to create a convincing picture of the world and a convincing set of characters when you have less than 5,000 words in which to do so than in a novel where the word count could reach as much as 100,000.
i think my issue is that if the author is particularly successful at creating this believable fictitious world then I feel cheated when it comes to an end too soon. It’s a bit like when you were young and you were packed off to bed just when the interesting programs came on the TV. It’s simply not fair!
For me the outstanding short story I’ve read in recent years is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Written right at the end of the nineteenth century this was a work that stunned readers because of the way it challenged the idea that marriage and motherhood gave women all the fulfilment they needed in life. It’s a story of Edna Pontellier, a woman in Louisiana who rejects the domestic role and instead embarks on a quest for freedom, with the huge personal sacrifice that entails.
Chopin herself paid a hefty price for having published this story. Faced with criticism that it would encourage young people to have ‘unholy imaginations and unclean desires’ she printed an apology for her heroine’s behaviour. Then the story simply disappeared. It wasn’t rediscovered until the 1960s as a result of the women’s movement which saw it as an example of early feminist writing. Critical opinion now considers Chopin to be a writer whose work can be compared with Gustav Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant.
What I loved about this story was the psychological complexity of Edna’s character and the enigmatic nature of the narrative (Chopin uses many metaphors drawn from nature in this book). It’s so enigmatic that there is a question mark about the nature of the ending. I shall say no more in case I spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it.
Her tales are concise, subtle narratives located firmly in rural Ontario where she has lived most of her life. It’s an area into which the trappings of twenty-first century life seldom seem to intrude —you won’t find any of the characters in Dear Life for example, spending hours texting their friends or surfing the Internet. Yet these stories radiate out from the small town settings of Lake Huron communities to themes and issues that are far broader and universal.
None of the people in her stories are showy individuals or great individuals. They are just ordinary people of the kind you can meet in the coffee shop or the grocery store. When they walk into her narratives however they become transformed into people capable of deep emotion, suffering anguish they might lose their husband’s love, of the trauma of blackmail, of the vacuum created by a sick partner’s slow walk towards death, of the confusion of old age. Munro treats them with warmth and compassion, never judging them but simply showing that she understands.
In Leaving Maverly, one of the most memorable stories in this collection, we meet a community policeman with a sick wife. He devotes himself to her, even moving to the city so she can get better care. As time passes and she slips away from him into a coma, his visits to the hospital become less frequent. It isn’t that he doesn’t care, it’s just that he gives up waiting for the day when she will open her eyes and see him. The emptiness caused by her eventual death hits him unexpectedly:
He’d thought that it had happened long before with Isabel, but it hadn’t. Not until now. She had existed and now she did not… And before long, he found himself outside, pretending that he had as ordinary and good a reason as anybody else to put one foot ahead of the other.
That last image of the policeman walking out into the night is a good illustration of the way Munro leaves you feeling that her characters have a life before we meet them, and a life that will continue long after we have read the final sentence. It’s also an example of the unshowy, understated way she writes. She doesn’t go in for narratives stuffed with grand rhetorical flourishes. You won’t find multi layers of imagery or lengthy descriptive passages as a rule so when her images do materialise they are even more effective because they fit the theme so exactly.
One memorable example comes at the end of Pride. The two characters are both social misfits though in very different ways. He is scarred by a hare lip, she by the shame of her banker father’s mismanagement of funds. They forge a friendship while enjoying cosy meals watching BBC comedy series on tv and eating their supper from trays on their laps. A misunderstanding threatens their relationship but then they notice unusual activity around the birdbath in his garden that re-unites them
… how beautiful. Flashing and dancing and never getting in each other’s way so you could not tell how many there were, where each body started or stopped.
While we watched they lifted themselves up one by one and left the water and proceeded to walk across the yard, swiftly but in a straight diagonal line. As if they were proud of themselves but discreet.
We were as glad as we could be.
These are not stories that I could read in rapid succession. At first I felt they were rather underwhelming and the style too measured. But then after a few days had elapsed I found an idea or an image from the one I’d just finished, would come back into my mind and I would want to read it again.
I’m not sure that I would be in a huge rush to read another collection by her but if I come across one of her stories in the magazines where typically they get their first airings (some of those from Dear Life were originally published in Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker) I know I won’t want to turn the page.
For the Record
Paperback copy. 319 pages
Published in the UK by Vintage Books 2012