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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.

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Children don’t ask for their favourite bedtime story because they’ve forgotten what happened in it, but rather the opposite. The same is true with the films they like to watch over and over again.

But there are those who can’t read a book twice, or watch film a second time. It’s similar with places to visit. Some like always to go somewhere new; others like to go back to where they’ve been.

I’m a re-visiter, a re-reader, and a re-viewer. To not want to take another look at a film, or a book that I’ve enjoyed, or a place that I’ve only scratched the surface of, would be like not wanting to meet someone again whom I’d taken a liking to.

But re-telling stories is not the same as re-reading them. Re-making films is not the same as watching them for a second or subsequent time. Our favourite stories can sometimes be the ones that have been not only read, or watched over and again, but re-told, and re-made, and often, in the case of told stories, adapted for showing.

I’m thinking of stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There’s only one told version so far as I am aware, but there are many shown versions, beginning with Scrooge, from the turn of the century and leading to the Muppets and beyond. Such adaptations are rarely quite the same as the original – and when they are, it can be, perhaps surprisingly, quite a disappointment: a re-telling that seems only to save you the bother of imagining. More usually they are specific interpretations, sometimes so far from the original as to seem like high-jackings!

Told stories, when they are re-told rather than adapted to shown stories, might undergo similar changes, but that becomes less likely as they move from the oral to the written tradition. The printing press seemed to set a story, not only in letters but also, at least metaphorically, in concrete. Digital technologies may be breaking that down to an extent, but we’ll not see many trying to re-write Dickens’ Christmas story in their own words.

What I can imagine, and have done myself, is the taking of a story as a point of inspiration for, not so much an adaptation, as a transposition in time and place, form the world – and world-view – of the original writer to that of the re-writer. As an exercise in examining what has remained constant and what has evolved in the human experience this can offer insights to writer and readers, but even if the original story is not known to the reader the transposed version can still be a good story in its own right.

Well, here it is, officially… the short play, Telling by Me and Marilyn Messenger was one of 3 winning plays and will be performed at the Theatre By The Lake, Keswick, on October 20th.  Did you spot the link? It’s there, and here, if you see what I mean….Perhaps I’ll see you there!

Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

I wrote on this blog a little while ago about a theatrical adaptation of Great Expectations – by Charles Dickens (as if there were….). I thought it would be good to venture at reading the original novel. I can’t remember having read it before, and having by now read it, am sure that I would not have forgotten. I have seen various TV versions over the decades though, and in a sense could say that ‘I know the story’.

Watching the novel played out on stage with ‘real’ actors – being shown, rather than told the story – might be thought to have brought it alive, and indeed that was a sort of unconscious assumption that I made during the watching. Within a couple of chapters of reading though, I became aware, firstly, that Dickens’ own description of the marshes on which the story opens were far more vibrant in my imagination than the equivalent had been on stage – and that is not to criticise the staging.

In fact, as the told story unfolded I began to realise that it was Dickens’ words that were bringing the whole story alive in a way that its being shown could not. Neither lighting nor shadows, props nor set, costumes nor passages of direct speech taken, commendably word for word – if memory allows sufficient evidence of that – from the text, let alone ‘real’ actors, had brought the story to life quite so viscerally as did those words, of narrative, and speech and thought that Dickens gives us, one at a time and in order in the novel.

Words, of course, exist only in our minds, and not exactly, I’m sure, in each of our minds as they do in each other’s. Even within that limitation though, what Dickens meant by, and felt about the words he chose has a resonance with what those words mean and feel to us that trumps that of the observed parodies of reality that we see on stage. That resonance is expressed in and by our imaginations. We are not invited to imagine what we are shown, but only what we are told.  What we are shown can only be observed and analysed, well or badly. Imagination is something uniquely of our own, evoked by words that are themselves the nearest possible translations of the imaginations of their authors.

What Dickens also does , and which the theatre was perhaps less adept at doing, is telling a story about ourselves. In particular he does this at moments when Pip, his narrator, suddenly cuts through what he is telling us about himself, to what he might be saying about us. There is one especially potent example of this in Great Expectations, and I initially intended to quote it – to show how clever I am – but have decided to leave it for you to discover, and thus show how clever Dickens was.

There was a Southlight magazine launch recently at gatehouse of Fleet, and if the car had been running right (no quote intended) I would have attended.

Perhaps because I’ve got an essay on one of Kipling’s short stories in this edition, Viven Jones asked me to talk briefly about the short story form. So, here are 25 short statements about the short story that I would have made:

  1. The short story is nobody’s little brother or sister
  2. It is the child of an oral tradition going back to before the invention of writing
  3. The novel belongs to the age of printing
  4. The short story to the storyteller
  5. The short story in the age of printing became longer, but even the printed short story is still more like a musical score than is the printed long story.
  6. The short story can be read ‘at a sitting’ – Poe suggested we could ‘peruse in an hour or two’.
  7. The short story is a strand
  8. The novel is a rope
  9. The novel is a cruise
  10. The short story is a crossing
  11. Short stories are poetic rather than prosaic ( via Pritchett)
  12. Short stories are similar to films, and different
  13. Short Stories are told in words, one word at a time, in order.
  14. Films shown in images with (or without) sound
  15. We all see the same images, hear the same sound, which we observe and hear
  16. Words have to be imagined, whether read or heard
  17. The told story takes place in your head
  18. The shown story takes place in front of your astonished (or otherwise) gaze.
  19. The short story is about situations and how characters experience them
  20. And about how you imagine them, and imagine dealing with them.
  21. Thus the short story is about you, more than about its characters
  22. The novel creates a world for you to visit
  23. The short story intrudes into your world
  24. From time to time I make a list of my top ten favourite short stories: it varies, but several are usually included: The Little Farm (H.E.Bates), Weep Not My Wanton (A.E.Coppard(, The Fall (V.S.Pritchett), Fitter’s Night (Arthur Miller), Monsieur Seguin’s Goat (Alphonse Daudet), and more recently, La Lupa by Giovannin Verga, and Kipling’s The Eye of Allah. Vivien Jones’ Sorting Office. The Venus of Ile by Prosper Merrimee, Little Brother by Mary Mann.

When I list my favourite collections, the top ten stories aren’t always there! Perfect Ten (Vivien JOnes), Letttres de Mon Moulin (Alphonse Daudet), Tales of Mean Streets (Arthur Morrison), Provencal Tales by Michael de Larrabeiti, Travellers, by L.A.G.Strong. If I do either list twice, it’s unlikely to be exactly the same.

And in Hong Kong, here is Angus Gallagher tackling with brio It’s Only Time That Parts Us, by Brindley Hallam Dennis

Here’s another BHD story in that rather cool digital mag .Cent

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

Re-reading Dune by Frank Herbert reminded me that I also have his 1972 novel, Soul Catcher.

Memory tells me that when this was published it was greeted as if it were the first serious novel that this writer had produced; a reflection not so much on Herbert himself as on the sci-fi genre in general.

At first glance Soul Catcher might seem a world, a universe even, away from the Dune epic. It is set in Herbert’s own time, and on his own continent. It is neither futuristic nor historical, and reading it again, only the mobile technology of the last couple of decades has dated it. What could the story of an American Indian and the son of a State Department official have in common with that of a Messianic leader of the imaginary Fremen?

More than you might expect, would be the answer, for that Indian has been touched by the Gods; has become Soul Catcher. His mission is to kidnap an ‘innocent’ and to ritually slaughter it ‘An innocent for all our innocents.’ Like Paul Muad’Dib, Katsuk will find himself driven by, and caught in an unfolding prophecy from the deep past.

The magic begins early in the story as the thirteen year old white boy, David, wakes and sees the hunting knife that his father has given him to take to the camp from which he will be kidnapped: ‘His father’s words had put magic in the knife’.

Not only magic and prophecy connect the two books, but also the wilderness. Soul Catcher’s is not the arid desert of Arrakis though, but the forests and mountains of the American far north-west. Through these woods Katsuk will lead his victim, so confident in his own myth that at one point he allows them to remain out in the open while a spotter plane flies above.

There’s a curious twist though, in the comparison, for whereas Paul Maud’Dib was not a true Fremen, yet took to their skills and mindset instinctively, Katsuk really is an Indian, but discovers that he has not the physique, nor the true outlook to survive in the wilderness of his tribe’s heritage. As their journey progresses, it is he, and not the boy, who succumbs to the rigours of the outdoors. Katsuk remains Charles Hobuhet, his name as a ‘Good Indian’ and part of the Hoquat (white) world. As the story reaches its climax, David is acting to save his executioner. Also unlike Paul, Katsuk finds that he does not have the support of that tribe, in what they see as a crime that will reflect badly on them all, though their fear of the mythology prevents them from acting to stop him.

These parallels of content, if that’s what they are, can be matched by similarities of form, for Herbert uses the technique of inserting snippets of official documents, eyewitness accounts, reports, and Katsuk’s own ‘kidnap messages’ to authenticate the story. These recall those chapter head-pieces and appendices of Dune, ostensibly from histories and sayings of its Messianic leader. The practice, as in the epic, is continued throughout the story.

There is also an echo of the Bene Gesserit training, in the way that both David, and his captor, begin to develop a sense of the hidden meanings in each other’s words, the hidden truths, the hidden untruths.

Herbert’s interests appear to have remained the same: ecological, political, and religious. In both books it is the tension between the individual and forces greater than himself that is played out – man and environment, man versus organisation, man as the tool of prophecy and belief. The difference is that Soul Catcher is played out in our times, and in our environment. Soul Catcher could be the oddball we meet next time we go for a picnic in the woods:

            I haven’t read these two novels in such close proximity before, which has perhaps thrown the comparison into sharper relief. I found Soul Catcher to be, not Dune ‘lite’, but rather Dune compressed. Perhaps this is because in the sci-fi world Herbert had to provide the words for the backdrop as well as the foreground, whereas in the contemporary tale the backdrop to the story is part of the backdrop to our real lives.

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.