OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMovie buffs will be aware how storytelling in film has evolved over the years. Old movies seem slow and over elaborate in their expositions. The camera cuts to a gun, then to a character’s face pulling a stereotypical expression, and back again. This might be repeated several times, nudging the reader towards understanding. Eventually we shall get the idea that the character is thinking of picking up the gun, or that another character will!

Today, the movie would be much more subtle, giving the most oblique, and briefest of hints. Michael Caine, giving a TV masterclass many years ago, did a close up on his face, and invited us to watch again. I’ll swear he didn’t move the minutest muscle, but I knew he was thinking something different to the time before! We have learned how to ‘read’ movies in the years since D.W.Griffiths found the montage and the jump cut in Dickens.

Has something similar happened to the way we ‘read’ stories? And, consequently, the way we might write them? Quoting Charles Baxter (introducing Short Fiction International), the editors of Flash Fiction Forward (Norton,2006) say that ‘readers process information much more quickly now’. This, rather than dumbing down, they tell us, is what has made flash fiction so popular. We pack so much more in than we used to.

Reading Uncle Sambuq’s Fortune, another of The World’s Thousand Best Stories, (Hammerton,c1933) I was reminded of this, for here is quite a short story, just short of five pages, that if retold today would almost certainly be shorter still. In fact, it struck me that a writerly sort of exercise might be to do just that, and re-write it for the modern reader.

As with much in writing – for the amateur writer – the process is what interests, rather than the product, and my process began with looking for the bones of the story under its layers of Third Republic flesh, and bombazine.

Paul Arène was a disciple of Zola, but the editors here have chosen what they infer is an atypical comic story to represent him. Trophime Cogolin, the protagonist, subsequently referred to as Trefume (what’s in a name?), is the last in a family that has dreamed of inheriting the eponymous fortune of the almost mythical Uncle Sambuq, who has decamped to America, never to be heard of again. The story of this fortune has sustained the family for years, and one day a letter comes from the French Embassy in New York informing Msr. Cogolin of his uncle’s death. Another letter, he is sure, will follow, outlining the fortune. It does not.

So, he plunders his savings (he is only a poor fisherman) and sets off for New York. To avoid his pestering the ship’s steward points out two other travellers on the boat, who might be able to answer his questions about the city. These two, however, studiously avoid his advances. The steward, for amusement’s sake, has told them that Trefume is in fact a famous French detective, on the trail of thieves who have just pulled off a massive robbery in Paris.

A hundred years of popular literature (plus cinema and TV) have indeed improved our processing, for it was at this point that I felt I could predict the rest of the story! Stories aren’t all about finding out what happens next though. They are about enjoying the way we find out. (See C.S.Lewis, In Other Worlds for a discussion of this).

Disembarked at New York, Trefume, unable to speak English is lost. Where can he find that fortune? Then he spots one of the two passengers, and determines to speak with him, whatever it takes. It takes a chase through the streets, until the fugitive, exhausted, seeks refuge in a bar, where Trefume confronts him. In a delightfully non-specific conversation the man confesses to the crime that the steward has told him about, and Trefume accepts a hundred thousand francs, believing it to be his share of Uncle Sambuq’s fortune.

It’s rather a neat little story. I wondered if I could pull out of it specific sentences that would tell it.

1 The Trefumes lived happy and contented, patiently awaiting the time when they would have their share of the millions amassed by Peter Sambuq.

2 One morning, when Trefume was least expecting it, he received a letter from New York.

3 “The Ambassador doesn’t say anything about the fortune,” observed Trefume’s better half, wiping her eyes.

4 At length their anxiety reached such a pitch that Trefume announced his intention of undertaking a journey to New York –

5 He travelled to Havre and embarked on a vessel bound for New York.

6 “Here!” he said, pointing to two of the passengers; “those are the men to help you.”

7 Two or three times, when he thought the moment opportune, he approached them hat in hand and attempted to speak to them in his best French, but he was met with a scowl and a growl which made him retire.

8 “Well, I wouldn’t mind betting that this man is Jean Ernest, the cleverest detective in France, who is on the track of the thieves and has disguised himself as a fisherman from the south.”

9 Poor Trefume looked for them in vain; they got off the steamer unobserved by him, and he was left to find his way about New York as best he could.

10 He had just reached the end of the street when he saw one of the Americans to whom the under-steward had referred him on the steamer.

11 “I know what you have come to New York for,” said the man.

12 “My fair share, of course!” replied the Frenchman.

13 “Now you have this on condition that you go back in the Bretagne”

14 “Done!” exclaimed Trefume.

If these are the bones of the story, what does the fleshing out, and dressing of it give us? The clue even might be in the stripped back extracts.

In number three, for example, Trefume’s wife wipes her eyes. In number seven, Trefume has a ‘hat in hand’ and is met ‘with a scowl and a growl’. These are not vital pieces of information. The first two could be removed and we would understand as much of the story. The third could be replaced with the simpler statement that he was rebuffed.

Why tell us how these things happened, or were done? Because, it’s no surprise, they give us pictures in the mind, images from our stock piles of what we have seen. We have files of hats in hand, and scowls and growls, and tearful faces, and from them we select the ones that we think most appropriate.

The very fact that Trefume is a ‘fisherman from the south’ gives us an image, and not the same one, I venture, that ‘a banker from the north’ would have given us. In an essay on adaptation Joseph Conrad is quoted, talking about the effect his trying to achieve in words: ‘I want you to see.’ Words convert to imagined, or more accurately, recycled images. Even words we do not know, for things we can only imagine, such as we get in sci-fi writing, trigger recollections of experiences we have actually had. There is nothing else in there.

Yet there are also, within these fourteen sentences and fragments that I have pulled out of Arlene’s story, phrases that we would not need, if writing for a modern audience. Take number ten, for example. The phrase ‘one of the Americans’ would not need the rest of the sentence these days. We would never take it to mean one of all possible Americans. That definitive ‘the’ tells us quite clearly who is being referred to. Eisenstein, writing about D.W.Griffiths’ debt to Dickens for the montage and the jump cut, points out that these techniques had been used in told stories for a long time, but also that early cinema producers were not confident that they would be understood when used in shown stories. As we become more familiar with the techniques of storytelling, can those jump be wider, and higher? And does the whole story undergo a similar evolution? When we look at a rainbow, we don’t need it to touch the ground at either end to know that it is a rainbow.

In the case of number fourteen in my selected sentences, it might well be that a modern writer would choose to end the story there, but the original goes on for four paragraphs. Do they add anything to the story? Is there any new revelation, or a re-contextualising of what we have already been told?

The first sees Trefume accept the pocket book full of money, which he checks. He asks himself for an explanation – which is fine, for him, but we’ve already had it! The paragraph ends: ‘Only one thing was clear: he had succeeded in getting a good slice of Uncle Sambuq’s fortune and was now a rich man’.

There is nothing in this that we have not already grasped. But is it possible that the writer did not trust his readers to have grasped it? Did the punch line to the joke need to be repeated, to be restated, just to be on the safe side?

The second paragraph has the American wait with him, buy a ticket, and see him off on the boat. I don’t think my contemporaries would bother with that. Would readers really ask, “and did he go back?” or “and what happened next?” I’m not sure we care what happened next!

The third paragraph simply explains that ‘Master Trefume, having had the good fortune to be taken for a detective, became the heir of Uncle Sambuq, who had died penniless in a hospital a few weeks before’ – just in case you ‘adn’t grasped zat, you stupid woman!

The fourth, and longest of the quartet, tells us that Trefume never really understood what went on, that later in life he would declare that Americans were ‘far ahead’ of others ‘in business matters’, and it ends with: ‘See how quickly they settled that little matter of Uncle Sambuq’s Fortune.’

That final, comic-ironic flourish is a proper ending for the story, but I venture it wouldn’t be the modern writer’s choice.

‘“Done!” exclaimed Trefume’ is the real comic punch. But if you want to go for the later ending, emphasising Trefume’s misunderstanding of what has taken place, you would need to set it up with something, following his acceptance of the deal. Perhaps the fourth of those paragraphs alone would suffice.

I think what is going on here, and what differs from modern practice, is not merely long windedness (which we can still do today, I hear you say), but the need to point up for the reader the ‘signficances’ of the story, to say ‘this bit’s important’, ‘this bit’s funny’, and most of all ‘and this is why it is’. We chuck the reader in at the deep end these days. Here’s what happened. You decide what’s important. We may get ‘here’s what some of the characters thought about it’ too, and we might get what the author thinks, but the long repeated stares of the early films have been replaced by glances, and the theatrical make-up is now a nuance of the lighting.

There are other elements to consider: the context in which the story was written includes perceptions current at the time, of what was normal and what exotic? Perceptions of America underpin this story, specifically the expectation that one would go there to ‘make a fortune’. To what extent would this be true now? To what extent was the writer being ironic then? To be a comedy the idea has to be both widely held, and widely dismissed. It has to be believed to be a common delusion. Would it still be? Could the story be cast into a past of which this would be believed to be the belief? Isn’t that what Arène himself was doing? The story is set in 1848, when he was five years old. In trying to re-write it I set my story vaguely in a past that might have been around when I was five! How old was he when he wrote his I wonder? He died younger than I shall.

And how much of the enjoyment of the story, the experience of reading it, is in the actual way it is written, rather than in what it is ‘about’? To what extent can a story be changed in the former dimension, without changing in the latter?

Re-writing ‘classic’ or at least earlier stories emphasises the art of the telling, and the question of why the story might be told, something that’s worth flexing a muscle on if we’re going to be fit to tell our own stories.