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I’ve noticed that with some poets and short story writers that having read one of their pieces I go on to reading another, almost without thinking. In the case of the poets Robert Frost is the one for me. I can’t seem ever to read just a single poem of his, but must skim through the collected works, looking for favourites to re-read, looking for ones I’ve overlooked, or forgotten or previously rejected. With other poets, even ones with stellar reputations, I find myself closing the book after the single poem that someone has told me I really should read.

For me this phenomenon, if that’s what it is, has become the touchstone for answering that rather absurd and misplaced question about who one’s favourite writers are – the answer, of course, should be, I suspect, that I don’t have favourite authors, only favourite writings. The fact remains though, that some authors provide several favourite writings, and others only one or two.

I find the same true with short stories. A few writers draw me one from one story to another. Elsewhere I’ve compared a collection, or an anthology of short stories to being like a box of chocolates…sometimes you savour one, and put the box away for tomorrow night….other times you feast greedily and clear the top layer, maybe the whole damned box!

Alphonse Daudet, the  nineteenth century French writer, is one that hooks me that way, especially with his simple stories of Provencal life from the 1866 Lettres de Mon Moulin. They lead me on too, sometimes, to the much more recent re-tellings of similar stories by the late Michael De Larrabeiti in Provencal Tales, in which the author weaves the story of his 1959 journey accompanying the sheepherders of Provence on an annual journey from lowlands to mountain pastures for the summer grazing. At each stop, like Boccaccio’s Decameroni, the shepherds tell old stories of magic, love, mystery and treachery. If you haven’t encountered either of these writers before, you should look out for them.

At present my head is stuck in Presence, Collected Stories of Arthur Miller (Bloomsbury, 2007). Not for the first time, I sat down to write about the powerful and intense critique of fading cowboy life that is the short story The Misfits – later filmed under the same name with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, but serving a strikingly different agenda even though Miller provided the screenplay. Re-reading that story, closely, and perhaps too closely for ordinary enjoyment, I found myself turning, when the essay was finished, to the equally powerful Fitter’s Night, set in a US World War Two naval dockyard and in which a working class man finds his true nobility and citizenship. So, as we say all too often, back to the pages….

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The Silent Life Within

I took the title for this collection of essays on the short story and its writers from George Moore. The phrase features in the story Home Sickness, one of the stories in The Untilled Field, which is the subject of one of the essays. The full sentence tells us something about why one might write: ‘There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself’.

I often cite Moore for his description of short story endings, quoted in the 1985 Uncollected  Short Stories, edited by Eakin and Gerber. They end, Moore says, in ‘Minor Keys.’ The phrase is evocative, but the qualifier he adds to it is more powerfully so: ‘the mute yearning for what life has not for giving.’

A contemporary of Moore’s, H.G.Wells provides the opening essay of my collection with his story The Magic Shop. A simple story of a father and son going shopping, spins into a magical yarn. Out of the increasingly fantastical events comes a profound insight into the relationship between parent and child, and the way it must change.

Mary Mann’s Little Brother, one of her 1890s rural tales set in the fictional Norfolk village of Dulditch, gives the last word, not to the middle class narrator, but to the poverty stricken Mrs Hodd who rebukes her.

Two European stories are the subject of the next two essays. Justus van Effen ran a magazine modelled on The Spectator and what interested me about his story was the way that a seemingly outdated, politically incorrect even, piece of social observation could turn out to be, in fact, quite contemporary on closer inspection. The French writer, Alphonse Daudet’s story Belisaire’s Prussian, allows a long look at how the order of words can change the weight of a sentence, and, when it is the last sentence in the story, might shift the focus of the story itself.

Three stories, of travellers encountering ‘a woman’ are compared in the essay Fellow Travellers. H.E.Bates, V.S.Pritchett and Katherine Mansfield do something very similar, yet very different!

I take a rare visit to contemporary stories in the next essay, with Matt Plass’s almost ghost story, Next to Godliness, which is built on an elegant premise. Then we look at Elizabeth Taylor’s The Blush, an oblique study of a failed marriage and failed middle class life.

A group of Somerset Maugham tales, turned into mini-films, provide the opportunity to look at adaptation and the impact of changed agendas comes next, followed by a study of Mrs W.K.Clifford’s dark tale of class, snobbery and passionate love, The Heart of the Wood.

The penultimate essay discusses Sir Arthur Quiller Couch’s Captain Knott, in which three seafaring men with a history of piracy and slave-running between them meet in a Bristol pub and discuss the souls of ships, and of men.

Finally, I examine the trickery and sleight of word in Daphne du Maurier’s deceptive tale The Old Man.

The Silent Life Within, short stories examined is available here.

BHD being toast?

BHD being toast?

I keep on coming back to Alphonse Daudet’s deceptively simple short story, Monsieur Seguin’s Goat. Even with my forty year old (oh, go on then, fifty year old) school boy French – which just squeezed an O level out of the system – I can read it in the original as well as in translation.

Stories are like sex. When they do something to you that you like, you want it done again. Favourite stories, as I’ve noted elsewhere, are the ones we don’t forget. We read and re-read with a growing, rather than a diminishing enjoyment (you’ll notice I’m not prolonging – if that’s the right word – my earlier comparison). Those of us who are writing, as well as reading, might take an interest in why that is, and how it works.

In the case of M. Seguin, it is not simply the simplicity. The story outline is simple. The author, posing as himself, tells us of a letter he has written to the young ‘lyric poet,’ Gringoire, in Paris, who has just turned down a respectable journalistic job, in favour of remaining a freelance, lyric poet.

The letter writer tells him the story of M. Seguin and his goats – there is more than one in fact – as a warning against the hardships and dangers of being a freelance, in comparison to being a hack. The last line carries the sharpest warning, a repetition of what we already know happens to the goats, when they choose the freedom of the mountains over the safety of M. Seguin’s tiny, but safe, paddock!

‘E piei lou matin, lou loup la mangé’ ‘Then in the morning, the wolf ate her.’

The strange French is Daudet’s rendering of the Provençal dialect from which he drew the story, and just before he delivers that final sentence, Daudet warns his correspondent to ‘listen well!’

Yet, and here that simplicity which I so enjoy carries a subtle complexity that makes me stop and wonder, to what extent I am finding something that Daudet had put in, and to what extent I am chasing the shadows of my own romanticism, for Daudet seems to have more than a simple sympathy for poor Blanquette, the eponymous goat; also, for Renaude, the much larger goat that preceded her to the same fate.

For as Daudet tells his young poet, Gringoire, so M. Seguin tells his young goat, Blanquette, a story to deter her from folly.  But the story of Renaude is not simply one of escape from the paddock, and being eaten in the mountains. It contains also the fact that Renaude, ‘Elle s’est battu avec le loup toute la nuit’ – ‘she fought the wolf all night long’

And to do this becomes little Blanquette’s ambition when the hour of her destiny falls.

Blanquette, Daudet tells us, does not fight with the wolf because she hopes to live, but because she aspires to equal the example of Renaude. He is not mocking the little goat, I think, when he tells us this, but revealing an admiration for her courage and tenacity. Perhaps too, even unknowingly, for explicitly he intends to mock and disparage Gringoire, Daudet is revealing his admiration for the one who refuses the well paid and secure job of the hack writer, for the worn clothes and the face,’ pale with hunger,’ of the lyric poet.

It is this concealed encouragement, I think, to all writers, and not just Gringoire, that lies at the heart of my enjoyment of the story, and brings me back to reading it with as much enthusiasm, time after time…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPicking through the more than a dozen stories – enough for a small collection – by Alphonse Daudet in The World’s Thousand Best Stories (Hammerton c1933) I began to realise that nearly all of them use the technique of framing the story with a narrator, who introduces it, and relays to us, a story that he says has been told to him.

This is an ancient story-telling technique, and you will find it in the stories of Boccaccio’s Decameron. In fact, those tales are introduced not only by their individual tellers, but by Boccaccio’s proxy narrator too. Those of you who have heard me read will know that I have mixed feelings about the practice of introductions, and that generally speaking, the longer the introduction the less I like it! It’s no use telling people what they’ll get out of your story, or poem, if you’re going to read it to them, because then you’ll find out what they get, and the two might not match up. In fact, your attempts to prejudice their hearing of the piece may well have damaged rather than enhanced their experience of it. There’s something arrogant, I feel, about telling people what they ought to listen for, when really, you should be listening for the evidence of what they have found.

Incorporating a framing introduction within the story, though, is a different matter. On the face of it, a similar attempt to prejudice the reader, to give authenticity to the tale that follows, the ‘a funny thing happened to me on the way to’, verification of what will come next, can add an extra layer, often of irony, to the story itself. Our narrators, by their choice of words, their tone of voice, and their overt opinions about the piece they are ostensibly introducing, can enable the author to set up an alternative interpretation to the story that is about to be told.

The difference from the misplaced introductions we add to our stories is significant. Enabling an audience to see through your narrator is an achievement. Allowing them to see through you, is an embarrassment.  The viewpoint of a narrator is not necessarily that of the author. The viewpoint of an author’s introduction, always is so.

In Daudet’s The Goat of Monsieur Seguin the author purports to be writing a letter to a poet, in Paris. The heading of the letter is a sort of subtitle to the story: ‘To M.Pierre Gringoire, Lyrical Poet at Paris’. So the satire begins. That ‘lyrical’ is to be noted, and so is the ‘at Paris,’ for rural common sense, and cosmopolitan pretension are often to be set to comparison.  With stories, it is not only who is telling them, and how, that is important, but to whom they appear to be addressed. This is a story that we see being addressed to a ‘lyrical poet at Paris,’ a beast, I suspect with which we are not expected to identify. We are reminded, several times, that we are witnessing someone being addressed:

 

‘do you remember, Gringoire?’

‘Do you laugh, Gringoire?’

‘You can imagine, Gringoire.’

 

The tale told is a moral tale, of a little goat that has demanded to be freed from the safe confines of Seguin’s paddock, to the delightful, but deadly freedoms of the mountains.  Gringoire has turned down the safe, and rewarding position of reporter on a Paris journal, but his clothes attest to the financial disaster of being ‘a lyric poet, at Paris.’ We are distanced from the recipient of the letter, and so can view him with an amused detachment, but the moral of the tale, being about a goat, might apply equally to those who are neither goats, nor poets.

Daudet tells his tale, with its predictable ending, and ends with a warning to Gringoire, and perhaps to all of us.

‘You understand, Gringoire:’ and he repeats the last line of the tale, which I shall leave to your imagination, or researches.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA