You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘short story’ tag.

Adaptation often, and perhaps usually, involves cutting out elements of the told in text story for conversion to the shown in sound and visuals one. Streamlining is a word that has been used for the process. Yet every now and then a novel or short story is adapted that doesn’t quite fit the minimum time period felt necessary for a movie, or whole pages of such a story are filled with thoughts, speculations and reflections that can, and must be reduced to a few seconds of what Joey, in Friends, famously called ‘sniff the fart’ acting.

That old favourite novel (or novella? One day I’ll get those two successfully differentiated in my mind) The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate is an example of a story where a little bit needed to be, tastefully, added. And I can recall, on the ‘specials’ CD of a collector’s set of Blade Runner, I think, a movie-maker saying how difficult it would be to convey the thoughts of Deckard when they can’t be translated into actions that will show how he feels!

William J. Locke’s story Ladies in Lavender, which I mentioned but didn’t explore in an earlier blog-post, is another that had to be filled out to make the full-cut of a film. The film sticks remarkable closely to the characters, actions, and situation of the short story. Andrea, the Polish virtuoso violinist is washed up on the beach of Ursula and Janet, and is taken to their house where he is looked after. Even small details of the story crop up in the film – their attempts to learn his language, his theirs; the dressing of him, the buying of the suit, the discovery of his musical talent.

Even the storyline follows the same path. The foreign young lady hears his music, and has a brother who is big in the business, and who will offer Andrea a new, and successful career. The comedy, the pathos of the two maiden ladies and their delicate, suppressed lust, the desire for love, the jealousies between them and the jealousy they both have for the young women, which they fight against for his sake: all are in the film as they are in the short story. Yet there is significant difference too, and it’s a difference that highlights the differences of the two media, and brings us back to that issue, mentioned before, of how the internal life of characters can be ‘shown’, when telling is no longer desirable. The voice over is said to kill the ‘movie’ story, and it remains a source of glee to me, I confess, whenever I see it having to be resorted to (in an episode of Bridehead Revisited, and at the end of Strick’s Ulysses, for example, and at the end of John Huston’s earnest adaptation of The Dead).

There’s more though, for there are many scenes in the film of Ladies in Lavender, and especially towards and including the ending, where what the characters, or narrator only refer to (leaving it to our perfectly well developed imaginations to create) is played out before our astonished, and unimaginative gazes.

In particular, there is the ending of the film, and the ending of the short story, which fall quite differently, not only in time and place, but in intent. The film takes us on beyond the written story’s ending, to that successful career, which is only hinted at, and not even promised in the told version, and to a reconciliation between the sisters and the wonderful boy that is entirely absent.

The short story ends with Ursula looking out to sea – where the sea air, no doubt, rather than the fart, would have to be sniffed – and realising that a subtle change has taken place in the relationship between her and her sister; thinking that she, the previously weaker of the two, must now be the one strong enough to help the other come to terms with their mutual loss. The film’s pat reconciliations are cruder, perhaps to the point of triteness, and they are accompanied by another difference, for the sisters in the story nurse not only the boy, but the photograph of the father who has bequeathed them their seaside nunnery and its lonely life. In the film, the photograph is of a younger man, lost the more to one of them, in a war that hadn’t taken place when the original story was written (Wickipedia dates it to 1908), and which is certainly not referred to in it. In fact the film explicitly dates the story to 1936, adding a whole agenda of suspicion and undercurrent to the story, turning it from a study of two specific personalities under stress in an Edwardian ambience, to one with a historical consciousness of a later period, as held in 2004.

The agenda of the film is not that of the short story, and perhaps could not have been.

Advertisements

I recently watched the 1968 film, The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster. It’s based on a John Cheever story of the same name, published only a few years before. I’d read this about a decade ago, and much of the detail in the film was totally absent from my memory, not surprisingly, as it turned out, when I got another squint at the text.. The premise, and plot, is simple. Set in a vaguely dated America – filmed in Westport, Connecticut – the hero, without much introduction, and already dressed for the project, suddenly decides to ‘swim home’, by using all the pools in the gardens of his wealthy neighbours.

In both original and adaptation, that’s what, simply, he does, and as he passes through the lives and parties of those neighbours, little shafts of light, metaphorically, fall on his backstory, so that by the time he arrives home, weakened to the point almost of collapse by his journey, we are not quite surprised to find that the home stands locked and empty, the ironwork of its garage doors (in the told tale) and its gates (in the shown one) rusted.

As always, similarities and differences between the told original and the shown adaptation fascinate me. Why have such changes been made? Why have they not? Sometimes it is to do with the differing agendas of the producers of that adaptation. The First Blood adaptation, and its follow-on franchise is a good example of that. But here, with Cheever’s story, filmed in the same few years as it was written, the differences seem to be more to do with the nature of the medium into which the story was being re-cast.

The movies, as the name might imply, are about moving pictures. The short story, written down (or even remembered) is about words and what they mean to us. Movies favour action, and actions, whereas short stories favour meanings and significances.

In Cheever’s story the descriptions of the actual crossing of the pools is almost perfunctory. In one paragraph near the beginning he crosses five in as many lines. In the film the camera follows him stroke for stroke, in close up, in long shot, medium shot, trick shot, and sometimes, repeated shot! A sequence in a horse ring shows him and another character – not present in the short story – leaping the jumps over and over again. In the written tale, the ring is by passed ‘overgrown’ with the jumps ‘dismantled’.

The film is a wordy showing of the story. The original, an almost wordless telling of it, at least as far as dialogue is concerned. At several pools people do exchange words with him, but the conversations are fragmentary and hardly ever developed, passing into reported or recalled speech, dissipating into further narrative. In the film, conversation dominates, often beginning with the written story’s openings, but taking them further. Much of the narrative is retained, but re-cast in the mouth of the protagonist himself, either addressed to other characters, or as if in monologue.

Several new characters are introduced, and existing ones are examined a little more fully. Notably the twenty year old girl -in bikini, of course- who accompanies him on a section of the journey, until his interest in her becomes frightening, is a pure introduction. And so is the lonely boy with the flute, at the drained swimming pool of the Welchers.

A told story takes as many words to tell as it takes to tell, but a shown one has to run for long enough to justify the ticket price of the bum on the seat. That alone might explain the additions, and perhaps the bikini. And the told story, in this case, seemed almost like a thumbnail sketch, a hurried tale, skipping over the landscape, and barely dipping into the pools, with the conversations as truncated as the descriptions. The film, by comparison seemed slow, with its endless repetitive images of Lancaster swimming, leaping, walking down tunnels of trees. Filled out with montage shots of woodland, water, leaves, flora and fauna, none of which, to echo Hemingway’s concerns, ‘belong to the story’, the film struggles to fill its minute count.

The hurried narrative of Cheever’s tale is packed, not only with barely described actions, but with questions posed to the reader. Why does Ned Merrill do this? Why do that? What does he think? What has he forgotten? And beneath it all hangs the question of just what is his backstory, and his future? The film is a little more forthcoming, providing a hot-dog trolley that he has made, now being used by his neighbour who bought it at a sale. In both versions we get the growing inkling that not all is as it appears, that he is not what he seems to be; that his popularity is based on a past that has gone, and has worn thin to the point of antagonism for some of those he encounters.

There’s an essay on Cheever’s story in The reference Guide to Short Fiction, published by St,James’ Press, in which comparisons are made with the mythic Odyssey and later versions of it. Film struggles to do internal reasoning, the posing of questions, and speculation as to their answers. The short story can excel at it. Here’s the root difference between the two, even when the story they are both trying to convey is essentially the same. The film, being more explicit in this, loses some of the density of the short story, but even the short story, respected as it is, left me wishing there were a more tangible context for the dislocations I sensed.

I watched the Judi Dench/Maggie Smith film, Ladies in Lavender, a few months ago and noticed in the credits that it had been based on a story by William J. Locke.

I’d never heard of William J., but he’s there, in print-on-demand, on the internet, so I bought myself a copy. The story is one among a collection entitled Far-Away Stories, which was published in 1919. They were stories written ‘over a long stretch of years’ and among them is a suit of tales under the heading ‘Studies in Blindness’. There are four such studies, one, seeming to be a piece of WW1 anti-German propaganda passed off as truth, another a comic tale of a man who, blind. Comes to love the voice of his nurse, but, sight recovered, falls for her cousin who has the face he imagined. It’s a cleverly complicated story, and worth the time it takes to read.

It’s the other two that interest me here though, for they resonate with other stories I have read, from both earlier, and later writers. The first tale in the set is ‘An Olde-World Episode, and in it a blind woman falls in love with a badly disfigured man. He has lived since a child as an isolate, respected for his character, but shunned for his visage by society. They marry and live happily ever after…or at least until a London surgeon turns up pioneering the treatment of glaucoma! The man is faced with the possibility that his wife too will shun him if her treatment succeeds. I won’t spoil the tale, but it too is a cleverly complicated story.

It reminded me of two other stories. The first is O Henry’s classic Christmas tale, The Gift of the Magi, where a poor couple sacrifice their most precious possessions in order to buy a Christmas gift, each for the other, to complement the other’s, well, most precious possession. The symmetry is perfect, and gives a startling poignancy to a first reading (after which we moderns might find it a little cheesy). The symmetry in Locke’s tale is no less satisfying, and the theme was replayed, more famously I think, in V.S.Prichett’s Blind Love, title story of a 1969 collection, where it is the woman who is disfigured and the man blind.

Whilst I wouldn’t criticise Pritchett for re-playing an earlier idea – bringing a story into your own place and times is an exercise I’ve tried on several occasions, and with success – but I’d love to know whether he did or not!

The fourth story is The Conqueror, in which a blind man returns from America after having made his fortune, and takes up again with the woman whom he left behind, and who has feared that he will see how old she has grown. The ending of this story, as endings should, and which I will not reveal, adds that ‘inevitable but unexpected’ ingredient that all short stories aim for. This story reminded me of one of the Untilled Fields stories by George Moore, by the way, and of Uncle Sambuq’s Fortune by the late nineteenth century French writer, Paule Arene. The return from America, with or without that fortune has been a theme in European literature for a century and more! Blindness too has recurred as a story theme, with Ernest Bramah, in the nineteen twenties creating the blind detective, Max Carrados.

Threads of thought, imagination, and story weave themselves through the years, binding the storytellers, readers and listeners of many times and cultures into our common humanity.

Sad news last week of the demise of ‘Thresholds’ the longly named International Post Graduate Short Story Forum, where all aspects of the short story genre(s) could be promoted, discussed, dissected and debated. (One could have even written about the difference between discussing and debating if the need had arisen I suspect.)

Lorree Westron, Vicki Heath, David Ashton and others must have put in hours of work to bring this vast ship of knowledge and opinion to our screen, from amateurs like myself and from professionals like others! What a ride over the last eight years: a prompt to thought, revision, reaction, and interaction. (I’ll mix my metaphors, you make your own cocktails)

And, for us all, a place to read and write about the ‘baby sister’ of the novel (irony intended)

What I especially valued was the chance to look back over the genre to forgotten writers and to rub their shoulders with those of today’s practitioners.

But what to do with the essays now? There are lots of outlets for essays, but I can’t think of one that would be so inclusive, catholic (small c), and welcoming: one that would let you come in as yourself, and be yourself, without having to become part of someone’s club, class, team, or political identity. Thresholds seemed to me to be the perfect meeting ground, the open space into which all might venture and be ‘heard’, without being dragooned into anybody’s army, without being tarred by any brush but their own.

I can’t see another niche like that anywhere in our identity-ridden world.

So, for the time being I’ll have to use the blog, but suddenly my world seems a much lonelier, emptier, and more distant place.

BHDandMe was (were?) at Keswick’s TBTL (Theatre By The Lake) a couple of afternoons ago (one of the privileges of being an old tosser) on a trip to see Sense and Sensibility.

I’m a bit of a Jane Austen virgin. I might have read Pride and Prejudice (but I’m not sure I have – if so it was sooo long ago). I have, of course, seen umpteen TV versions of it, which no doubt capture the events, but don’t, I imagine, do anything for the language…and even the facial expressions of people today are mirror images of the faces of their own time, not of the period in which the story was set, and written.

So I came to the adaptation of S&S without a clue what, or who it was about – and yes, TBTL has won me over to reading the book. If the adaptation can be this good, the original must be, well, even better.

And the adaptation was, is good. If you get a chance to go and see it, take it.

The cast was uniformly convincing. I never doubted they were who they pretending to be even for a moment. And what a clever story..though, having encountered several hundred (possibly thousand) stories over the last few years I kinda guessed one of the ‘surprises’ that the plot springs on us. It is a clever plot though, and the play brought that out. I liked the way there was a sort of graded version of ‘love’ on display…the sort that hits you like a hurricane, the sort that grows on you (like roses….?) and the sort that you miss by a long whisker and regret forever. I suspect most of us have tried two out of the three, and possibly the full set (age, now!)

My wife, who has been a professional textile designer, wasn’t too keen on the shiny fabrics – but hey….take a look at the TBTL website here, then go take a look at the play there!

On the subject of plays BHDandMe (well, Me really, with writing buddy Marilyn Messenger) have a small play on in The Studio at TBTL on Saturday, October 20th. It might be worth going along to take a look at that too (but Jane Austen it ain’t). It’s called Telling, and is paired (or rather trio-ed) with two other short dramas. Marilyn and BHD did a collection of short stories together a while back:

 

Here’s a thing…I didn’t realise this was going to pop up…but Reflex Fiction have kindly published BHD’s short story (call it a flash fiction if you will), Caught In Timehere

One of the pleasures of finding a writer of whom you’ve never heard is that you get to read them without prejudice, or at least without the prejudice of other’s opinions on them.

I had such good fortune at the weekend, picking up a copy of a short story collection, Among The Quiet Folks, by John Moore. Moore (1907-1967) was an English writer who achieved widespread publication and, well, fame, in his lifetime, but who has faded into obscurity in the forty years since his death. There are articles about him on the web though, by the Independent, Bloomsbury, and of course Wikipedia among others.

He was known as a writer of rural England, which for me, demands comparison with writers like Bates, Pritchard, and Mann. Among The Quiet Folks was first published in America in the year of his death, and seems to be a ‘catch-all’ collection, drawing on short stories published, and written over several decades of his writing life. It’s not given in the Wicki bibliography, but one of the stories within, is the title story of a 1953 collection. Other stories draw their ideas from WWI, and at least one story is set at a time when ‘even’ factory workers get ‘twelve pounds a week’ and have television… which must put it in the early sixties for a guess!

My uninfluenced first impressions were that the stories were good, but that his attitudes were quite reactionary, especially in respect of war, psychology, and, curiously enough, organics. Consistently though, reading about him, I was told not to think he was ‘nostalgic’, which hadn’t crossed my mind. He does have that survival of the reddest in tooth and claw, which isn’t the sort of ‘fittest’, I think, that Darwin actually meant, but which tars writers of rural England from time to time (and rural Britain, come to that).

Reddest and clawiest is the story Elehog, about an orphaned baby hedgehog that ‘reminded one somewhat of a miniature elephant’.  Brought up by the narrator, this innocent is spoiled, but not taught to look out for itself, with fatal consequences, which the same narrator (ignoring, or overlooking the lack of a hedgehoggy education) then uses as a metaphor for ‘the gentle creatures who practise the philosophy of live and let live’. Set towards the end of the collection, I wonder if this reflects the author’s view of the post-war Britain I grew up in? The very last story, Vive la Difference’ is a faux risqué tale about a prudish woman chopping off the relevant protuberances on two pieces of topiary, representing nudes, male and female, in her neighbour’s garden. Of all the stories, it seemed to me the most dated, a pale reflection of the swinging sixties, in which I presume it was written.

There is one story that I found strikingly good. This was that title story from the 1953 collection: Tiger, Tiger. Echoing Blake’s title, but not his spelling, it’s an epic, archetypal story, set in Andalusia, where a young boy, stolen by a gypsy almost at birth, is sent on a mission by a dying man. As an eight year old child, Emilio must cross the city to Baldomero’s wine-shop and buy the ageing and sick Jose a bottle of ‘his second best rioja’. He has never before left the security of the gypsy woman’s back yard, but feels bound to the old man, who has told him many stories of the Malayan jungle.

Emilio’s adventures – being robbed, beaten, put to work as a pimp by the girls in a brothel – lead to him eventually stealing a bottle, and surviving a political riot. The bottle turns out to be brandy, not Rioja, and revives the old storyteller. What makes this story more than just its events, is the way the boy’s adventures parallel, and are seen by him to parallel, the dangers of the jungle in the old man’s stories. The men, and women, in the story, he sees, are animals in a jungle of their own.

The sentiments expressed is similar to that of other stories, but the handling of them lifts the tale above the mere assertion of the author’s beliefs. Another story makes assertion of the narrator’s beliefs so strongly that I wonder if the author is gently satirizing him – and even on a second reading I’m not convinced he is! This is Non compost mentis, where the narrator rants about his late aunt’s obsession with compost, and ridicules her organic principles. Written at a time when the organic movement was seen as cranky, it’s hard to judge how we are meant to take it, but the story is funny enough either way. As is Mr Catesby Brings it Off, in which a country vet flirts with a client’s much younger partner, who has been passed off as his daughter, but finds himself being manoeuvred by the old man into marrying her (so that he can leave his estate to his actual daughter!). It’s a clever, convoluted little tale.

Stark, sparse and chillingly believable, though, is The Proof, where a woman under interrogation in a witch trial, is watched for the arrival of her ‘familiar’. She is innocent, but her cat has not been fed for hours, and hears her voice….

Many writers fall into obscurity after their deaths. Some are discovered decades later, and win fame (usually again), but I would be surprised if this happened to Moore, and, to be honest, disappointed. His stories are well written and quite readable, but so are many others not worth a third reading. It’s what he has to say, it seemed to me, that leaves this writer in obscurity. The Alan Sutton collection was reprinted in 1984, and 1986. Perhaps that was the attempt at his revival. That was a low point for short stories, I suspect, when even the concept of ‘story’ was being fashionably dismissed and stories were becoming, for the ‘ordinary’ – whatever that means – reader, as boring as poetry had become a little earlier. Now that the short story is booming again, Moore might catch our interest for a while, but the limits of his vision make me wonder if he will, or should, hold it.

Robert Frost famously, well, perhaps not famously but certainly reportedly, in the biography of him that I read a few years ago, advised his students not to write ‘unless you have something to say.’ I’ve cited the quotation before, but I come back to it again and again. It has a rider that changes what you might have thought of as its rather unhelpful finality: if you haven’t got something, he would, apparently, add, ‘go and get it’.

Having something to say seems to me to be an entirely laudable reason for writing, and trying to get it said might well be a long job, involving many attempts that either end up saying not quite what was intended, or failing completely. But there comes a time, I’ve found, when, only occasionally, one finds oneself, or to put it more bluntly, when I’ve found myself feeling that I have said what I had to say, and that consequently the tank is dry, the larder empty, the cupboard bare, and all other similar metaphors.

It’s an unpleasant place to find yourself, especially after that moment of euphoria when you first begin to think that you’ve nailed something (other than your literary thumb). I’ve experienced it in a couple of genres, I think – one can never be sure about these things – and certainly in poetry. It hasn’t stopped me writing poems, but it sure did slow me down. It was nearly ten years ago when the drowning of three boys in Ullswater challenged me to be a poet who wrote about something that mattered, or not. The Ullswater Requiem took several months to evolve, and I’m sure I’ve told the story elsewhere. But after it was finished, far from being the spur to a flurry of other poems, it created a sort of hiatus. I came to a stop. What else was there to say that I could say that would stand up to comparison with it?

To feel like that didn’t require anybody else to endorse my assessment of UR. It was, I knew, whatever reception it got, or whatever anybody else thought about it, simply the best thing I had written; the best thing that I had conceived of writing. I still feel like that about it, whatever level the poem stands at in relation to other people’s best or worst. It took some time to recover any sense that it was worth me trying to write anything else.

A similar thing happened to me on the way to this blog post. Nearly two years ago now, I wrote a couple of flash fictions, and then a short story (short enough to be regarded as flash fiction by some definitions) which had a similar resonance for me. One of the flash fictions (perhaps the starting point, and the least developed) has been published. The other pieces still have not, and, I suspect, might be impossible to place for a variety of reasons. A good friend and valued critic panned absolutely the one that I see as the pinnacle of the trio, yet, yet, for me it remains a high point: the high point when it comes to what I might have to say.

I’ve suggested to students before now that success as a writer is something that has, or has not, already happened when you put down the pen, or close the keyboard. Public, or private approbation, publication, is only the recognition of that already accomplished success. Success in sales, or celebrity is an entirely different matter, as Gerard Manley Hopkins or Nathaniel West might testify.

So.

At the moment I’m wondering what to write that will advance what I perceive as my writing trajectory. I’d be tempted to say that it is ‘no easy place’, but I said that back in 2004, in a poem that provided the title of a now out-of-print 2005 collection (the poem, In My Claude Glass, was included in the Maryport Writers anthology New Stories for Old Stones).

I’ve just finished reading Karen Blixen’s short stories, The Diver, and The Ring, two of the five stories in Babette’s Feast & Other Stories in the Penguin Modern Classics series. The back-cover blurb tells me that they were among her late stories.

They have the assuredness of stories by a writer who knows what is being done. Mythical, magical is a word that both the blurb and foreword use, and complex the stories, like the woodland glade in The Ring seem at the same time specific and diffuse.

A heightened, perhaps archaic voice, though it’s hard to tell with translations, if that’s what they are, emphasises the mythic, medieval quality, creating a sense of timelessness though, rather than of any time in particular.

There was no good reason to read these two side by side. One opens, and the other ends the collection, and I’d read Babette’s Feast much earlier. Perhaps, yes, certainly, it was because of the remaining four these two were the shorter, and more suited to a snatched half hour.

Yet, as stories by the same writer, at the same period of their writing life might be expected to do, they resonated with each other, despite the superficial differences. The Diver purports to be a Persian tale, beginning in Shiraz and reading like a folk tale, until it reaches a line break, just before which a first person narrator is revealed, and in which the statement ‘ “This,” said Mira Jama, “is the first part of my story.”

The sudden presence of the narrator surprises, though the story opened with ‘Mira Jama told this story:’ Which does not make explicit that he is actually telling it in the present moment of the reader reading!

That first part has concerned a young man of religious fervour who has created wings by which men might fly among and meet with angels. This has frightened the old men of the city, who have contrived a trap for him: the beautiful dancer Thusmu, who seduces him, passing herself off as an angel, but who then falls in love with him and confesses her deceit.

The second part of the story is not directly about the young man, but about Mira Jama himself, who finds him in later years, a happy man, who has come to great wealth, though he has lost his faith, at least in angels. He tells Mira the story of his life, and of his wealth, gained as the eponymous diver.

Whereas the first part of the story has concerned birds, and flight, this part concerns fish, and the idea that they are the perfect expression of God’s work, for they are ‘supported’ in all the dimensions of their environment. The story ends on the ‘maxim’ ‘apres nous le deluge’, which some of us will surely recognise from our school-days’ history as the prophecy of a French king. I confess to finding this a weak joke at the end of a strong story.

That strength, in part, lies in the conversation between Mira and the man, which touches on stories, and myths, and in particular on the shock that Mira experiences on discovering who the man, the diver not so much is, as had been. For Mira has sought him out as a source of story, not knowing that he is the same man who made the wings in what Mira thought was a story he had made up. This conundrum, like the impossible tangle in a time-traveller’s tale, where past meets future, is a knot at the heart of The Diver, and just before that final quotation it has been touched upon as the core of the fish’s philosophy, which has been told to the man telling the story to Mira: ‘Man, in the end, is alarmed by the idea of time, and unbalanced by incessant wanderings between past and future. The inhabitants of a liquid world have brought past and future together…’

Had Blixen ended her story there, might it, I wonder, have been the stronger story for it?

In The Ring there is no such false note.

Shorter by a half this is a simpler story, but it still has that segmented structure. A young, newly married couple stroll through their farmland to see the sheep. All seems idyllic, but ‘all the time one knew one was playing’. The husband is a farmer and ‘had studied sheep-breeding’, but his young wife thinks ‘what an absurd person he is, with his sheep!’

The cracks appear swiftly, after the opening page of married bliss! Worse to come, the two hear a story of sheep-stealing by a wolf-like thief, and Blixen makes sure we jump to the right image: ‘She remembered Red Ridinghood’s wolf.’ While the farmer and his shepherd discuss the sheep, and that savage thief, Lise walks slowly home, and looks for a secret place in the woods that she has stumbled on before. More than that, she is conscious of being alone for the first time, and when she thinks of that wolf ‘a pleasant little thrill’ runs ‘down her spine.’

She of course encounters the man: filthy, desperate, armed, injured, and having made himself at home in her special, secret place. His right arm, the hand holding his unsheathed knife ‘hung down straight between his legs’, and when he sees her ‘he bent the wrist and slowly raised the point of the knife till it pointed at her throat.’ The sexual symbolism may be implicit, but it is unmistakeable.

She drops her handkerchief which he wraps around the knife blade before re-sheathing it. Blixen makes a feast of this, ending with ‘it went in’. By this time Lise has taken off and dropped her wedding ring, and he has kicked it away. When she leaves the dell to re-join her husband her marriage is over, at least in her mind.

She tells him, rather than confesses, that she has lost her ring, and he, in a sort of denial, babbles on about replacing it, but it is the ending of the story that strikes the most powerful note. Asked if she has ‘any idea’ where she lost it, she replies ‘I have no idea at all.’

In contrast to The Diver this story takes place over what is in effect only a few minutes, certainly within an hour or two, yet it has the same mythical reach, and her answer implies a length of time that stretches back long before the week of their initially idyllic marriage.

Time is one of the elements, it is said, that short stories writers are, and perhaps have to be, adept at manipulating, and we see Blixen doing that in both these stories. In the first, it is the long time of a man’s life encapsulated in the space of the telling of a story, itself held within a story. In the second it is the decision of a lifetime, or rather a realisation, experienced within the moments of a chance meeting.

And both have that touch of certainty about them, not only in the characters presented, but in the voices of the storyteller. There is an assuredness that comes across in the telling, that asserts the truth of the stories. They are not told as speculations as to what might have happened, but, despite their logical absurdities – in The Diver it is a fish with horn-rimmed spectacles that tells the man who tells the story to Mira about the truth of God and fishes – both have the tone of absolute conviction. They are not doubted by their teller, nor, perhaps, by us.

Writing about stories written by someone else is a curious business. What is worth saying? Writing about our own stories, the answer is obvious. Nothing is worth saying. But with other people’s stories there’s a more complex answer. Should we tell readers what the story ‘is about’? After all, that’s the question we’re likely to be asked when somebody catches us reading a story. Should we try to say how it has been written? That’s what interests other writers, perhaps. And if we do either of those things, aren’t we actually getting in between the story and a potential reader, rather than helping that reader get closer to the story? And is getting someone closer to a story something we should be trying to do anyway?

What we can do is point out what has caught our attention in a story, and by doing so strike a chord of recognition – of similarity or difference, it doesn’t matter – in another reader, in another human being.

What caught my attention in The Ring was Blixen’s portrayal of the fragility, and falseness, and the spontaneous potency of the relationships that can be entered into, managed, mismanaged and lost between individuals.

Preface

Perhaps it’s the heat, or the pressure of work, or that I’m just running out of ideas, but I don’t have a rant or speculation, response or investigation for you this week. So I’m putting up a short story, a votre service, instead:

 

 

 

 

Eau de cologne, nescafé?

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

By the time I realised that John Bee was a thief he had graduated from packets of soup and small items of tinned food. He had gone beyond hand tools and other household goods. Indeed, he could have set up a modest home on the basis of all he had acquired. Don’t let me mislead you though, into believing that it was for money that he embarked upon his shoplifting sprees. He had no intention of profiting financially from them.

It was Yvette who drew me to John Bee. It was because of her I became, before, to and after the fact, an accessory.

The first of these occasions may well have been when John Bee gave me the contents of a bottle of hair shampoo. The curious fact that he did this by decanting the pale and viscous liquid into a half pint beer glass, rather than simply passing over the plastic bottle, should, in hindsight, have alerted me to the possibility that more was going on than might have got into the eyes. However, I was somewhat distracted by his comment as he read from the empty bottle.

There’s good advice to be had these days, he said, from the packaging of consumer goods.

I gazed at him quizzically.

Seek Help, he read aloud, for healthy looking hair.

I took the empty container from him.

Sea Kelp, I read silently, for healthy looking hair.

The best of course, he added, is on shirt packets.

I looked at him quizzically again.

Keep away from babies and small children. He said.

I could see the sense in that.

“Pret a manger.” John Bee said, holding up the film of plastic from a supermarket quiche.

“Pret a manger.” I corrected, in my best Grammar School accent. “Ready to eat.” I told him.

“Ready to be eaten.” He corrected.

Then again perhaps that had been when the seed was sown and the shampoo was purely co-incidental.

Yvette was small, dark-haired and boyish. She was on secondment to the college from a French university as Assistant, that is assistante you understand, to the French department.

John Bee was not a student of that department, but had, for some reason, decided that he would learn her language. This is what had led to the shoplifting.

John Bee, I always thought, was an original man. Whereas you or I would have transferred to a course in the language department, John Bee decided that he would teach himself. To this end he withdrew from all lectures and tutorials to which he was assigned so that he might devote himself totally to his unofficial linguistic development.

Perhaps he intended to forge more intimate links with Yvette. Or maybe he used her in pursuance of his studies. I am still undecided. Whatever the explanation, I am sure that Yvette was a purely innocent party: a victim of circumstance. A petite filou caught in the machinations of a deranged man in a foreign country.

The first time I saw her, she was wearing a little black dress, upon the shoulder of which she had sewn, quite neatly, the famous circular icon of the nineteen sixties peace movement. C’est tres chic, n’est ce pas? She said, sensing my curiosity.

One of the great innovations brought about by the rapid and progressive globalisation of our economies has been the necessity for labelling goods in several languages. It was in this practice that John Bee saw his opportunity.

John Bee had resolved to teach himself French from the multi-lingual labels of everyday consumer products. This began, innocently enough, with items already in his possession. John Bee was mis en bouteille a la propriété. He learned to Tirez ici, pour ouvrir. He cooked with Tomates peléés entieres au jus de tomates

But the consumer products that he regularly purchased could not bear the weight of his researches. He must have realised, almost from the beginning, that he would need to acquire a far greater range of domestic items than any normal household would require: more, certainly, than he could afford to buy. We were all students at the time, even Yvette.

One wonders when that fateful moment came in which he recognised that felony would be his only practical answer to this problem. Was it an instant of inspiration? The allure of some Gallic label overwhelming his Anglo-Saxon sense of propriety? Or was it a long thought out strategy, a grim decision, taken at length, all other alternatives having been weighed and judged impossible?

He began simply enough: slipping the extra can of this, packet of that, into the deep inner pockets of his anorak. He took to shopping at the smaller, street corner grocers, where security was patchy, and was focussed on younger men in hooded tops. He branched out into independent department stores where bored sales girls in heavy make-up discussed arcane sexual acts, and nail varnish shades in preference to paying attention to their customers. He learned the hard way that market traders had eagle eyes, and looked out for each other across the jostling crowds in the alleyways between their stalls.

Then he had the problem of what to do with what were, when all was said and done, unusual items, in both type and quantity, for a man in his position to have in his possession.

His dustbins had all the mad inexplicability of Modern Art. Instead of discarded boxes, cartons and torn wrappers, John Bee’s bins, don’t you love that alliteration, overflowed with the unused goods that he had neither needed nor been able to give away. Whereas other people sneaked their rubbish into neighbourhood skips, filched second hand goods from them, John Bee sneaked torn packaging from them, slipped unobtrusive unused items in.

A shift of emphasis, the need to acquire simple instructions, led him towards clothing that carried the grimly puritanical exhortation to “laver seulement” or needed to be “laver a main”.

He began to take Yvette with him on his expeditions.

Armed with a cavernous holdall each, they would take the bus and do the malls and supermarkets of the nearby towns. They carried a small toolkit, which enabled electronic devices to be removed surreptitiously from within the folds of hanging garments.

How, one wonders, did the counter staff explain the discovery of the various abandoned tags, each still attached to a neat square or circle of cloth? Who would want to steal a garment with such a disfiguring hole within it?  How, one wonders, did the eventual recipients of these garments, explain them away? How did they disguise them? Why did we not suspect their origin?

For a time John Bee considered taking only the labels. They were, after all, the major interest in his eyes, but, having a practical cast of mind, and abhorring waste Yvette persuaded him to go the cochon entiere. She did not fully understand, I’m sure, what she had become involved in, for as you would imagine, his grasp upon her language remained tenuous, to say the least.

I met them once, unsuspectingly, after one of their ventures, in a bookshop coffee bar. John Bee was reading the label on a can of some chemical concoction: if swallowed, seek immediate medical advice, he said. I thought of Jonah.

Yvette showed me a garment in cerise with a lacy hem, and warned me that it might inflame. John Bee glanced across. Catch fire, he said, is what she means. She had meant what she said, I thought.

Hence, innocently, no doubt, Yvette acquired several items of clothing that would have been quite useless to John Bee, and I received a pullover into which he would have fitted three times over. Other garments followed. But there was a limit to washing and ironing instructions. Soon he was on the lookout for more complex processes.

Small electrical items offered a brief introduction to the language of wiring plugs and the excitement of “danger de mort ou de blessure grave”. John Bee’s ambition soon outgrew them.

Something that must be assembled, as well as cared for, John Bee decided, was what he needed. White goods and furniture, he reasoned, must be his next objective: but they do not fit into a holdall. Not even into two.

I had a car.

Take us to Ikea. He begged.

Pour moi, cherie. Yvette said.

Well? Why not, I thought. It would be a day out.

Back at the halls of residence he stacked the flat packs in the corridor and set off eagerly into the assembly instructions. Don’t ask me how he’d got it all out past security. I’d gone across the car park to a Computer World, come back with a laptop. I’d needed a new one, and it was one of those offers you really can’t refuse. When he came in to tell me how well he was getting on I was still struggling with the instruction book, trying to set it up.

His eyes lit up. The book was in about a dozen languages, but even so, the French section must have been a quarter inch thick.

Security’s much better at Computer World. They got him about four paces from the front door. Yvette too. I’d just pulled up, like he’d asked me to, at the kerbside, and swung the passenger door open. When you looked at it on the CCTV footage, you had to admit, it did look just like the classic getaway car.

That was the first time I realised John Bee was a thief. Beware of theft, it had warned me, on the back of the parking ticket I’d taken at the machine.

Ne jamais mettre a l’avant un siege pour enfant oriente vers l’arriere*, as they say.

 

[*never put a rear facing child seat on the front seat.]

 

Postface

This story was published in Second Time Around, a short collection from 2006. Surprisingly, perhaps, it was based on actual events, and actual confessions, and ‘real’ people…. but then they all are….. Apart from Turnip Farm Number Three, which was entirely made up, and can be found in Departures.