OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend of mine gave me a belated Christmas present (for Christmas past): a copy of Roberto Balaňo’s book of essays (Between Parentheses).

Some of them are long, and some are short. Some are direct, and some – like this blog-post- ramble all over the place.

Taking a half-fun, half-business buying trip, in the days when I was a bookseller, from the home of a friend of mine, the two of us drove into Derbyshire, to do the second-hand bookshops (or should that be the second-hand book shops?), and fetched up in a pub at Ashbourne for a lunch. I have always hankered for a high backed leather armchair. I pictured myself, in a dark robe, and possibly a pillbox hat – with a tassel of course, what sort of guy do you think I am? There was such a chair in that pub, and lunching, rather than reading, upon it re-kindled my desire.

Many years later – that’s how we move a story on – when the book business was over – sighs of relief all around – and The Old Stock Room had become The Old Stock Room, as opposed to being the stock room – I decided to turn that old pipe (or cigar) dream into reality. BHD had got himself a dark robe by then, and a sort of pillbox hat, with a sort of tassel. The chair cropped up, at a reasonable price (well, that’s the length of a piece of string, isn’t it?) in the closing down sale of a local furniture store.

I plumped for the chair and took it home – mais! Quelle horreur! It wouldn’t go through the door. There was no way I was going to take the window out. There was no way I was going to dis-mantle (an interesting word that, presumably derived from dis-assembling some sort of oil lamp: with a mantle? And thus not of ancient origin.) the chair and re-assemble it.

Never mind. It fitted in remarkably well elsewhere, and another chair would suffice, until something that would fit came along. Remember Roberto Bolaňo; we’re getting there….

So, earlier this week, looking for a new shirt, as you do, I came across a chair….much cheaper than my original purchase, even at its sale price, but it was just the chair I needed.

So, when you have the chair, you must sit in, and read, and what better read (answers on a plain white envelope sent elsewhere please) than a collection of essays. My book-giving friend – who happens to be the children’s author, Nick Dowson – look him up on Facebook why doancha (because he ain’t there, that’s why! – has come up with collections of essays in the past. Gore Vidal’s among them – he of the saying, I believe, that it is not sufficient to be successful, but friends must fail! (which I rather like).

So, I sat in the chair, and opened the Roberto. (No robe and hat. Sorry to disappoint -What? Oh, go on then!). The book fell open, like a pair of stockinged legs, at an essay that kicked off with the remark that American authors must follow one of two roads – OK, one less travelled, you guessed it – which were way-marked by the novels Moby Dick, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These two, the essayist suggests, nay, asserts, Kowalski-like, mark the only choices available to them, and also the choice that they must make as writers.

Is there a similar parting of the ways, I wondered, for English writers, and specifically for English short story writers? I cudgelled my brains. There’s a photograph of me doing it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Most of the short stories that I like are not in fact by English short story writers, though some of them are. And I’m not sure I could whittle them down to two that stand in opposition, like the Jaws of Borrowdale – I did think about those gates of Gondor, and of the Mediterranean, but thought I’d stick with something more provincial – the way those two great novels are claimed to do.

Stories that one likes, The Dead, Weep Not My Wanton, Blind Love, The Odour of Chrysanthemums, are not necessarily way markers anyway. And it may be that the divisions the essayist is drawing would not be the divisions that I, or you, would chose to draw either. His distinction is between a novel of the exceptional – none of us (well few enough), he says, are like Ishmael and Ahab – and one of the universal. All of us, to some extent, are Huckleberry Finns. I can see, though I hadn’t a paragraph ago, that of the four stories I have plucked out, two are of the individual and two are of the societal… though as I write I’m shifting them about from category to category in my mind.

The fact is, that for me, the great division between short stories is between those that, on having reached their endings, project us forward into our own imaginings, and those that send us backwards into a reflection of what we have passed through on the way to that ending. Some of course, seem to do both. 

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