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One of the things that irritates me is when I read, or hear, a short story and have no idea why the writer thought it was worth telling. It can happen with the best of writers, which gives a clue to one possible explanation; but it also happens to the worst, which points to another.

In the case of The Mont Bazillac, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, or ‘Q’ to his students (I’m told), the explanation may be neither of the above. The two I mean are that the reader/listener hasn’t got a clue because, well, he or she hasn’t a clue, or that the writer hasn’t got a clue because…you’ve got it!

Q can tell a good short story though. I’m sure of that.  Captain Knott is a thought provoking tale of old ship-mates who meet at a West Country pub in the time of John Wesley, and fall to discussing the ‘souls’ of ships. The eponymous captain though has been a slaver, and it is his soul he, and we might be thinking about. In The Lairds Luck he tells a tale of foretold death on the field of Waterloo. In another he tells of the news of Nelson’s death being carried to his mistress. Other tales in Selected Short Stories (Penguin, 26, 1957) are of more domestic matters.

Yet The Mont Bazillac seems a tale without the need to be told. Briefly, a vicar’s wife puts the family on the wagon. The son, a student at Oxford, tells a neighbour – who narrates it all to us – of a wine he drank in France, the eponymous Bazillac, and of the hallucinatory consequences. The boy has secreted two bottles of it, which he offers to share with the narrator, who has drunk the same wine, and, implicitly, with similar effects. But, as a villager tells the narrator, the vicar, and two churchwardens have been given the two bottles by the self-same vicar’s wife,  at a meal for which a Bishop, for mundane reasons, has not arrived. The wife has found the bottles and thinks to get rid of the wine, and save her son! But the vicar and his churchwardens suffer the same effects as the son and the narrator: the churchwardens end up fighting in the street, and blowing kisses to the Bishop as he finally arrives. The vicar’s antics are only hinted at – but he ‘wanted to be a statoo’.

The story ends with the narrator reminding us that the wine no longer exists, the vine destroyed by phylloxera.  All bottles are now gone, and he speculates if the last two bottles, kept by the French innkeeper who supplied it for his daughter’s wedding, created a ‘comparable apotheosis’.

It’s a well written story. It’s readable, and amusing, but so diminished by the hundred years of social change that have passed since its first publication in 1913, that it seems, well, hardly worth telling. Those final words were, I suspect, expected to release the power of the story, but in 2018 they go off like the proverbial damp squib.

Here’s a case, I suspect, where it is not my failure to find what is hidden in the tale, nor Q’s to have had something to hide, but the simple fact that would have shocked and amused a readership before the First World War, now seems tame, ordinary even, and not worthy of comment. The fact that the story was included in the Penguin paperback, fifty years after its first publication hints that the changes had not by then taken place. I recall the actor Dudley Moore making a feature film about a drunken Lord. It was a hit movie, and considered wildly funny. Only a few years later a sequel flopped at the box office: the drunkard had become in the intervening years a spectacle that was regarded as tragic and embarrassing, rather than comic and funny. It’s not quite the same  for Q’s vicar, but what would have, presumably, shocked and outraged but amused when the story was written, now calls forth a sort of bemused ‘so what?’

Stories, like many other things, have their flowerings, quite apart from the way they are written. Perhaps what should surprise us more though, is the stories that go on flowering, sometimes for centuries!

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I wrote some months ago about Alphonse Daudet’s short story Les Etoiles (see Starlight and Stories). Having had a stab at translating the story, I tried my hand at re-writing it for my own time, and set in my own place. Like Daudet, I pushed that time back forty years into the memory of the first person narrator, and let the story take place in somewhere I know, but don’t belong to.

His pack-mule becomes a three-wheeled quad-bike (technically a motorised trike) and his shepherd’s bothy becomes a film set, and the story hinges on a remembered actual place, though one not as elaborate as the one in the story. The date is a little off the reality too, but in the mid-seventies I spent some time ‘working’ as an unpaid extra on a movie made in the English Lake District. Among several locations  around the Langdale valley we constructed a rudimentary Dark Ages village (the film was of Beowulf) and a group of us slept in it overnight to protect it – presumably from marauding Grendels! Providing the hint of a story this was the starting point for my transposition from Daudet’s original into Shooting Stars.

Shooting Stars, by Brindley Hallam Dennis, is now available as a download from CUTalongstory, and can be purchased here.

 

I finally got around to reading Isak Dinesen’s short story, Babette’s Feast, the filmed adaptation of which I wrote about on this blog a couple of months ago.

It is one of those adaptations that saves you the trouble of imagining the story, rather than being one that brings a new agenda to it. There are changes. The short story is set in a Norwegian fjord, which evokes an enclosed place for me, whereas the film is set in Jutland, where the village houses are plonked down on a flat coastal plain like children’s toy houses on a grey-green cloth. Curiously this echoes Dinesen’s words: ‘the small town of Berlevaag looks like a child’s toy town of little wooden pieces’.

Dinesen’s toys are ‘painted gray, yellow, pink and many other colours’, but the film, it seemed to me, veered away from such brightness, sticking to its greys and dull greens and heavy browns, with the houses a dirty, light absorbing, rather than light reflecting, white. The film is heavy with shadow too, from which the sparkling highlights of candle flame on cutlery and reflections in cut glass shine brightly.

The echoes of the film’s dialogue were strong, making me wonder just how precisely the actual direct speech of the story had been lifted, and seamlessly added to! What struck me most forcibly though, was the distance of the narrative voice, seemingly greater than that of the camera lens in this instance.

Rather than eavesdropping and witnessing a series of events, as to a large extent we must do with a ‘shown’ film, Dinesen’s narrator simply tells us a story, and even when its characters speak out loud, we are unlikely to forget that it is the narrator who is passing those words on.

An exercise I’ve done with a Hemingway story sprang to mind – where I separated out the direct speech from the rest, producing two not quite parallel stories, each of which told not quite the whole story! In that story the word count of direct speech was about a third of the whole. Here, in Babette’s Feast, I would guess it at significantly less than a tenth. What direct speech there is falls isolated among the narrative, often qualified, before or after, by the narrator’s commentary upon it. Full dialogue, where characters speak to each other – rather than having individual statements from them relayed to us – are few and rarely protracted. Two or three exchanges, between two or three characters is the most we might expect.

Yet at the end of the story, which is split into 12 ‘chapter headed’ sections, the pattern is broken.

Babette’s Feast is a rich tale, of time, and reflection, regret, and transcendence, in which three main characters, the two maiden sisters, Martine and Phillipa, and General Loewenhielm see, reassess, and see beyond the failures and disappointments in their lives.

A fourth character, appearing for one of those sections, and later writing a letter that triggers the arrival of the eponymous heroine, is really no more than an elaborate plot device, and Babette herself is not so much a character study in her own right, as a catalyst for our understanding of the significance of what has happened to those other characters.

It’s an age thing I think, to some extent, but the film brought forth tears, and the book brought forth more of them! In both cases, it was the words spoken by the characters, rather than the authorial nudges, that caused the reactions.

In that final section Babette and the two sisters have the longest exchange of spoken words in the whole story, a dialogue that spreads over nearly five pages of a forty plus page story in my paperback edition. Here the proportions of speech to narrative are virtually reversed, and it is what these three characters say, finally, and to each other, that carries the burden of what Isak Dinesen is saying to us.

 

The relatively short story Les Étoiles, by Alphonse Daudet is from Lettres de mon Moulin first published in 1866 and telling of Daudet’s life in Provence. Often described as ‘charming’, these stories have that simplicity which tempts even the possessor of only school-boy French to think that he might be able to offer them in translation.

I tried with Les Étoiles, and soon found that simplicity is not the only attribute. As with other Daudet ‘lettres’, there is a musicality to the telling, and a large part of its success lies in the convincing evocation of the magic of a starlit summer night in the Luberon.

The plot is simple: a mountain shepherd tells of a night, years before, when his supplies were delivered, not by the usual farm boy or old woman, but by the beautiful daughter of his employer, with whom, of course, he was madly but secretly in love. Arriving late, by virtue of having lost the path, she is forced to abort her return journey to the valley and to seek shelter in what we might call his bothy. Conscious of the need to behave well, the narrator recalls how, when she could not sleep for fear of the night-sounds of the mountain, they sat together by a camp-fire until the dawn, and he told her the stories of the stars that shone above them.

It is a romantic, even sentimental tale, but the sentiment is true, and it ends with his observation ‘et par moments je me figurais qu’une de ces étoiles, la plus fine, la plus brilliante, ayant perdu sa route, etait venue se poser sur mon épaule pour dormir…’

 

‘And from time to time, I thought that one of those stars, the finest, the most brilliant, having lost its way, had come to rest itself upon my shoulder and sleep….’

 

There are plenty of essays by those fluent in more than one language, those who are truly bi- or multi-lingual, where the problems of translation are rehearsed. If language splits reality into segments, then different languages split it into differing segments: words do not match each other exactly – no more, perhaps than they do from individual to individual within a single language. We can only approximate our experience and feeling in words. Yet I recall a visiting lecturer more than forty years ago asserting that language is ‘the nearest you can get to the centre of your own consciousness’.

It’s the musical differences that strike me most however: the metre, the syllabic arrangements of the phrasing: ‘par moments’ might have the sense of ‘from time to time’, but ‘from time to time’ does not dance to the same tune as ‘par moments’. And where has that repetition gone from ‘la plus fine, la plus brilliante’?

To get similar sound qualities, and similar meanings is difficult enough: to get the same blend of meaning and sound, impossible. To translate one language’s idiom into another language’s equivalent, might founder on the fact that the two might use a totally different metaphor to get across a similar mood, or conversely that a very similar metaphor might hold different semantics in each case.

Something else that the act of translating brought home to me, was that the social mores of our times has changed in the century and a half since Daudet was writing. Stories in other languages than your own will also date! The sense of shock, and possible outrage at the thought of an unmarried couple spending the night alone upon the mountain is not so great, nor so insistent as it was. That is not to say propriety does not exist, nor that in our own times eyebrows would not be raised, jokes would not be made. Reputations, though, might not be under such threat nowadays, or rather, not under the same threat.

That put me on to the idea of adaptation, or re-writing in addition to ‘simple’ translation. Could this story be taken and re-told for our own time. And could it be re-told for my own place? Living on the foothills of the Lake District mountains, and within sight of the Scottish Border hills, and the north end of the Pennine chain, I have experienced evenings and nights not unlike the one that Daudet described. Home time after a day spent in the Lake District, we have often commented, is precisely the time to stay put in the middle of it! Could I imagine a circumstance, though, in which a similar train of events, with characters in a similar situation might take place.

Curiously, when I started to re-write it, I found that I automatically set my story forty years into my own past, and drew upon memories over more than ten years, not quite evenly spaced either side of the specified date. Other elements of the story, equally unplanned, were distorted, by the change of location in time and place, and of culture, more than by the change in language. It perhaps goes without saying, and I’m not sure of its significance, that writing the story turned out to be easier than completing the translation!

A fistful of BHD stories can be found in Other Stories & Rosie Wreay

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

Among the Christmas goodies that turned up in my kilt hose were several collections of short stories: by the Italian Giovanni Verga, by the Swede, Isaak Denisen, and, perhaps most noticeably, by the American film star, Tom Hanks. Hanks is one of those rare ‘A-listers’ who gets, and has got for decades now, not only good reviews of his film roles, but also and consistently good reports of his ‘real’ persona.

Of course, real personas, even for those of us who are not listed at all, not even under ‘Z’ are not all there is to our stories, and nor should they be. All of which is easing round to a confession that it’s difficult to make a judgment about the first collection of short stories to be published under the name of a famous and well liked actor. If we damn them, we’re at risk of being thought of as pressing sour grapes; if we praise them we court the label of sycophant.

I wondered too, as to whether or not this was, as well as being a first collection, a collection also of first stories. Has Tom Hanks, I wondered, been learning this new trade in secret, in nom de plume and alias, in the pages of and on the websites of the unpaying magazines and e-zines that most of us inhabit? Or was it a matter of jumping in with both metaphoricals, and enjoying the revenue from sales that would undoubtedly follow the publication of stories by the hero of Saving Private Ryan, and Sleepless in Seattle, and Sully (et al)? Has the man done his apprenticeship?

 

Uncommon Type, subtitled, rather originally, I thought, some stories, is a collection of tales that all involve, include or at least refer to a (usually) named make and model of typewriter. Typewriters, it appears, are a passion of Mr Hanks, and why wouldn’t they be? I have fond memories of typing stories and poems on my Olivetti Dora, a neat, manual portable typewriter that carried me through the first phase of my writing life – when I was a poor poet. That machine has long gone, but I’m still a poet of that ilk.

I’m coming round to the belief that there is no ‘good’ writing, but only degrees of liking, or disliking any specific example of the form, sometimes with what might be called objective, but often with what must be recognised as subjective reasons.

I liked Tom Hanks’s short stories. Especially, I liked the one called Christmas Eve 1953. Reviewers in the press have drawn attention to the battle scenes in this, referring back to those in Saving Private Ryan, and it should be recalled that Hanks was also involved, though not as an actor, in the more ambitious Band of Brothers. He also, in interviews, has referred to reading William Manchester, who wrote Goodbye Darkness, a very original personal history of the Pacific War. The battle scenes, though, are not what the story is about.

This is a Christmas story, and very much a character study, which shows us two ex-World War Two soldiers, dealing with their post-war issues. One has physical injuries, the other mental ones. It throws a powerful sidelight on how we cope, rise above, or fail, to deal with the cards we have been dealt, while the main protagonist struggles to get his wartime buddy to agree to visit over the festive season.

In Christmas Eve 1953, I like the way he leaves it till half way through before dropping into the story the nature of the particular injury that his main protagonist suffers from. I can remember telling students, repeatingly, that if ever you need to give a character a wooden leg, or a glass eye, you’d better get it in early on, so that readers aren’t fooled into imagining the wrong sort of person as they progress into the story. Of course, the advice doesn’t work if, like Hanks, you need to be making the point that the injury has not crippled, though it may have challenged, the character in question.

At just short of 25 pages in the Heinemann hardback edition (no doubt there will be paperbacks to follow), it seems about average for the collection (which has some that are longer, and some that are shorter). The longer ones make me think Mr Hanks might try his hand successfully at a novel one day (tho’ that would be a shame, if it drew him away from the senior genre). The writing style is clean, by which I mean that I can understand it, sentence after sentence, all the way through, even though it’s written in that foreign language named after my mother tongue. One or two words, I admit, in the collection generally, were totally meaningless to me, though I got the sense of them from their contexts. Stephen Fry, on the dust jacket, says that author is ‘smart, engaging and humane’, which seems true. Steve Martin calls him ‘wise and hilarious’. I’d go for ‘insightful’ too, and a ‘neat technician’, who can pull some clever tricks with language, and with stories told in it.

The press reviews are more universally negative about the collection. Several mention the length of the book – even the Irish Times, which took a generally positive view (‘But Hanks is a good writer and, even without his fame, I suspect that many of these stories would have found their way into print.’ -John Boyne in the Irish Times). Mostly though, they don’t like the writing, the tone of voice, or the admittedly cosiness of most of the stories – ‘Hanks’s stories – Alan Bean Plus Four aside – are forgettable, middle-of-the-road and touched by the special banality of mere competence.’ The Guardian (no byline). ‘It’s rare that a book is actually painful to read, but getting through Tom Hanks’s short-story collection, Uncommon Type, was like pulling teeth.’ – The Independent. I can sympathise with that last comment, having experienced it with an A.S.Byatt collection, but doesn’t the reviewer mean having teeth pulled? Pulling them, surely, would be more enjoyable? Amazon, in its sales pitch, says that Hanks is ‘as good a writer as he is an actor’, which strongly suggests that they know very little about either art form, other than with regard to how well individual examples of them might sell.

The Guardian review hits a nail though with its ‘mere competence’. The stories are competently written, but competence alone is not enough. A similar criticism was made about contemporary poetry by the editor of Acumen recently. She put it down to the widespread teaching of ‘Creative Writing’, which can teach the competence, but not the reason for telling any particular story. I found Hanks’s stories likeable, but they didn’t shake my beliefs to the core, nor open my eyes to that which I hadn’t seen before, neither did they remind me, either forcefully or subtly, of deep truths that I had forgotten. They are the sort of stories I would be happy to listen to at forty thousand feet, in a metal cylinder that I feel has no business staying in the air, and which delusion I’d prefer to be distracted from.

Tom Hanks’ stories are the stories of an amiable and garrulous companion, but are they entirely what stories have to be, if we are to think of them as good, or even as short stories? In my part of the world we have something called the Cumberland Sausage. Unlike other sausages it is constructed as a single, long tube, not split, like ordinary sausages, into links, each of which can be described as ‘a sausage’. When the Cumberland Sausage is cut into sections, each section remains simply that, a section of, rather than a Cumberland Sausage in its own right. There’s something similar about writing, a similarity that makes us think that some poems are merely ‘chopped prose’, and, perhaps, that some ‘short stories’ are merely descriptions or accounts of people, places, and events.

Do Tom Hanks’ stories pass the test that all stories to some extent are at risk of failing, which is that of whether or not they need to be told? The answer to that lies almost always with the ending of the short story, rather than (as in the case of novels) with its crisis. Tom Hanks, I found, reminded me a little of Chekhov in this regard, for I had to turn the tales over in my mind for a time, considerably so in some cases, trying to get an idea of why he had brought me to those specific words that were his endings, and of what he expected me to, or hoped, I would see when I got there.

 

 

 

I’ve written about Daudet before, exploring the connection between the title, and the ending of his story Belisaire’s Prussian.

The Two Inns is a very different sort of story, but well worth looking at for the intricacies behind its seemingly simple structure. Briefly, the first person narrator chooses to enter the inferior looking of the eponymous inns, which flank the carriage road from Nimes.

The inn he rejects is busy, noisy and joyous, but the one he enters is gloomy, dilapidated and deserted, save for a sorrowful woman, made ugly by grief. It is, the narrator says, ‘an act of charity to stop there and drink a glass.

Despite her surprise at his choice, she serves him poor food and wine, and tells him her story. The inn across the road has become what her inn used to be, by stealing her trade. It is run by ‘a woman from Arles,’ who has enticed away the customers, and who employs ‘husseys’ as chambermaids and serving girls.

There are other tragedies too, in the life of the woman at the poor inn. Her two daughters have died. There is no explanation for this, merely the fact of it having happened. To cap it all though, the woman’s own husband has been seduced away by the woman from Arles, and it is his voice that can be heard singing loudly from across the road.

In what seems to be the typical Daudet style, there is no redress for these evils, but only the narrator’s bleak presentation of them. The poor woman’s predicament is summed up by the last lines of the story:

And she stood there, as if in a trance, trembling, with her hands outstretched, and tears rolling down her cheeks, which made her look uglier than ever, to hear her Jose singing for the woman from Arles.’

The appended two lines of his song, a country love-song, seem almost superfluous. But behind Daudet’s bleak, uncompromising account, there lurks, I think, a more positive message, though it is an uncompromising one. It is the burden of a later song….. ‘laugh and the world laughs with you/cry and you cry alone.’ This revelation though, is not made by the narrator, but by the woman herself, who speaks ‘with a heart-broken air, but with utmost gentleness’. ‘What can you expect?’ she asks. ‘Men are made that way; they don’t like to see people cry;’

 

The Two Inns can be found, in translation, in Volume 4 of the Hammerton 1920s’ twenty volume collection, The World’s Thousand Best Stories, along with another 15 of Daudet’s tales – few writers get that many!  If you fancy the original French, you will find it in the excellent 1997 paperback pocket edition by Arcadia of L’Arlesienne, which includes d’autres Lettres de mon moulin.

This is another of those stories from long ago and far away – if you live when and where I do – that can form the basis of a useful exercise. We still have inns, and hamlets, and High roads, and travellers who must call in, and might even hear stories if they do. Our choices might be between different brand names, but they are essentially the same as those that Daudet’s narrator would have been faced with.

To re-imagine, and to write such stories, is not merely a matter of transposition from one time or place to another, but a chance to explore what it is in the human experience that crosses the gulf between times and places, and to create the voices in which such stories would now be told, and by implication, what ears we might wish them to be heard by.

Downloadable from CUTalongstory, a collection of 25 Flash Fictions from BHD: Twenty Five Tenpenny Tales.

 

I’d spotted Giovanni Verga a few months before Christmas: he has three stories in Volume II of Hammerton’s The World’s Thousand Best Stories (and also the useful fact that they give only his date of birth, setting the timing of the publication before his death in 1922, a decade earlier than I’d previously guessed). I made sure his name went up the chimney, and in due course (i.e. Christmas morning) a sooty copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Cavalleria Rusticana and other stories came down among the ashes of the Christmas Eve fire.

Both the title story and two others are in Hammerton (The She Wolf and War of the Saints), which enables a comparison of the translations. Somewhere down the line I’ll try to get the originans and give them a whirl too – I’m three sessions into learning Italian, but even a comparison of different English versions can teach us something. The Penguin translator, G.H.McWilliams, makes a point, in his introduction, about the poor quality of earlier translations, citing schoolboy mistakes in D.H.Lawrence’s attempts. Lawrence had more than three sessions under his belt, and may have been better than Hemingway when it comes to Italian, but he wasn’t fluent, and certainly not in colloquial Sicilian! I have no idea who did the Hammerton translating. It’s something they rarely give, unless it gets a mention in the brief introductory paragraphs to each volume. It could, I suppose, be Lawrence!

McWilliams’ translation is dated to 1999, which means that a lifetime of language has passed between it and the Hammerton versions. Within a single language, and especially one like English, that moves on, Hoovering up the bits and pieces of other language which it thinks might be useful, a lifetime of evolution moves a long way. Quoted in a paperback from thirty years ago, is the nun who wrote Over the Wall, the story of her escape from being a bride of Christ. Of all the changes in the world, she said, including cars and planes and radio, it was the changes to language that she found most striking. And was it not said, after the Berlin Wall came down, that the new generation of Poles coming to the UK, spoke a language quite different to those – around a million of them, I believe – who had stayed on, and preserved their language (and their liberty) at the end of World War Two.

Where I find the interest in this rests on the speculation that a translator of 1922, in trying to cast Verga’s direct and vernacular Italian, as spoken by his Sicilian peasants, into an English that would both be intelligent and seem colloquial to his readers would need to be quite different from one attempted nearly eighty years later for the readership of its own time.

That there are differences becomes immediately apparent. What they signify, of course, might take some unravelling. The first sentence of The She-Wolf  is rendered, respectively, thus:

 

‘She was tall and lean: her breast alone revealed the firmness and vigour of the brunette type; and yet she was no longer a young woman.’ (1922)

 

‘She was dark haired, tall and lean, with firm, well-rounded breasts though she was no longer young, and she had a pale complexion, like someone forever in the grip of malaria.’ (1999)

 

You can safely bet that I am eager to get my hands on the original. In a form that depends so much on building with what has preceded, the context for what will follow, I want to know in what order Verga presented his images; and whether he used semi-colons or commas; and if that malaria reference was in his first, or second sentence. And what about the paragraphing, which I haven’t even looked at yet? And while we have the breasts, let’s consider whether that firmness belongs to them, as in the 1999 version, or to the ‘type’, as in the 1922, which to my mind, is a significant divergence.

There is one name missing from Death of a Superhero. That’s Sara-Mae Tucson, Inktears’ ‘person Friday’ in the UK.

It was she who organised and hosted the excellent launch party in London’s Theatreland pub, The Sun, on Drury Lane, on Saturday 16th December. Being launched were two Inktears’ anthologies of short stories: Death of a Superhero & How to Begin a Wonderful Life. Each beautifully produced hardback volume – they are so smart they have ribbons so you can mark your place! – showcases the work of four writers.

BHD has nine stories included in Death of a Superhero, drawn from writing that stretches back over almost a decade, and their final published form, in several cases, is thanks to the sensitive editorial input of Sara-Mae. Two of them have even been given new (and considerably more fitting) titles! So thanks, Sara-Mae, from BHDandMe, for your editing skills, your general support, and your enthusiastic encouragement at all stages of the process. Thanks too, of course, to Anthony Howcroft, founder and CEO of Inktears, without whom none of it would have been possible! Click on the image, or here, to go to where you can buy copies.

 

A.M.Howcroft on BHD: ‘…a writer with a very distinctive voice and a rich vein of humour….. a certain wry, engaging tone…. a high concept for a theme….I always imagine his stories filmed in grainy black and white, peopled with fascinating, flawed characters.’

Liars League Hong Kong have just posted In The Morning, a story by BHD….You can watch it being read here.