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And there it was: Vita dei campi, which even the slightest whiff of Italian or even Latin – (15% at O level, don’t get me started!) might allow you to guess means Life in the fields, the Italian version of Giovanni Verga’s break through collection of short stories, reprinted from the 1880 edition. The wonders of the internet, and shopping on it! (I’m now getting pop-ups for all sorts of products in Italian, btw).

The She-Wolf becomes La Lupa, and I can follow up  my curiosity about those three versions of translation I blogged about a little while ago.

Why on earth would I do that? you might ask. I’m no Italian scholar, but short stories interest me, and one thing I’m sure about, where they are concerned, is that James Joyce’s ‘right words in the right order’ applies even more to short stories than it does to anything else – even legal documents! (OK, maybe jokes too.) And I wanted to see for myself which order, and which words Verga had used, and finds out whether those translators had messed about that, and if they had, what difference it might make to how I reacted to the story.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. Words have a feel about them, and quite a personal feel too. I get into heavy metaphors to elaborate this point, but I’ll leave you to your own. The fact is though, and I think it is a fact, that the emotional power of individual words will vary from reader to reader, writer to writer, and speaker to speaker, and it will do that because most, if not all of the words we encounter in life, will will encounter, and will have encountered for the first time, in situations that are to greater or lesser extents emotionally charged. When we get the meaning of a word for the first time, even if we’ve looked it up in a dictionary, we will be getting it in a context, and that context will carry, or won’t carry, an emotional charge for us. My guess is that whatever the charge or lack of it, in that first meeting, will influence, not necessarily forever, our emotional understanding of, and reaction to the word.

When dealing with words in our own language(s) that will vary for each of us, but we will to some extent, perhaps, have an idea of what those variants might be; of what the words will mean to our fellow users of the language. When dealing with foreign words, I suspect, the variations will be there, but will largely be beyond our focus.

So my little test might be of use, but it might also mislead.

Well, you might ask, are the words the same? Is the word order the same? Watch this space (or rather, watch out for another one in a few days, and I’ll let you know!).

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I’ve been struggling for the last couple of days with a story. It’s not the first time I’ve struggled with it. It’s one I know well. I have the characters, and their situation. I have the train of events and the outcome. But I don’t have the story.

I’ve written it down before, all eleven hundred and seventy four words of it. I even sent it off to an e-zine (in the hope that they might convince me that I’d told the story), but they knew as well as I did that all I’d done was write it down. And that isn’t enough. That was almost a year ago, and for the last couple of days I’ve been trying again. I changed the names. Being a ‘putter-in’ I’ve put in another five hundred or so words. I introduced a running metaphor that goes right through from the title to the last paragraph. But I still haven’t convinced myself that I’ve told the story.

It reads like cold porridge. It’s all there. Character, location, plot, even ambience (if cold porridge can be said to have an ambience). The beginning is fine. The ending is appropriate. The middle does what middles are supposed to do. Have you seen Aristotle’s definition of that little triumvirate?

‘A beginning is that which does not itself necessarily follow any other event, but to which some other events may naturally succeed. An end is just the contrary, for it is that, which, either of necessity, or according to the general course of things, must follow some other events but requires nothing after it. A middle requires other circumstances both to precede and follow it.’ – Well, that’s all right then. The quotation is taken from a 2009 printing of John Stockdale’s 1788 English edition, by the way.

But when you’ve got your beginnings, and middles, and ends, you’ve still got to tell the story, and the story isn’t just the sequence of preceding and following things, its the view you get of them from a particular perspective, and told in such a way that you get that view because of, or despite the fact that the teller has, or hasn’t got it.

Cameras don’t tell stories. They don’t even show them. Cinematographers and editors,  photographers and photo-shoppers do. Writers have to get the right words, in the right order. Boy, can that take some doing!

Back to the keyboard then.

 

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.’

What are you doing here, today of all days? And a very happy Christmas, by the way, from BHDandMe. Wanna read a story? Here’s  Liars League’s Top Ten Stories of their First Ten Years, and BHD’s Hecho A Mano, the filthiest story he ever wrote (up to now), in among ’em! 

The delights of a well told story mean that we can come back to it again and again with equal, and perhaps growing pleasure. Even, and perhaps especially, the short story works in this way, and remarkably, even the very short story can.

A.E.Coppard’s Weep Not My Wanton (most recently published as the title story of a Turnpike Books selection) is a case in point.  Only four pages long, it’s a story I’ve come back to again and again, finding something new in it each time – perhaps I’m an inattentive reader – or refining my thoughts from a previous reading.  Weep Not My Wanton featured in Coppard’s very first collection, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, alongside Dusky Ruth – often quoted as being representative of his work, and Arabesque – The Mouse, one of his most sinister and searching sidelights on the human psyche, and another favourite of mine. Unaccountably, Coppard left Weep Not My Wanton out of his self-selected American collection, and I wish I’d discovered him in time to have asked why!

I’ve written about the story before on more than one occasion, but I haven’t stopped exploring it. The mystery, if that’s the right word, for me, has always been to explain why Coppard tagged on the last paragraph. It could, of course, be an error of judgement, but I doubt that. The paragraph provides a closing frame, returning the reader to the landscape that opened the story, in a lush description of Sack Down, where ‘air and light […] at summer sunset were soft as ointment and sweet as milk’. The closing sentence is as gentle: ‘From the quiet hill, as the last skein of cocks was carted to the stack, you could hear dimly men’s voice’s and the rattle of their gear.’

What has passed between what I think of as the two water-coloured frames of English landscape, is a simple, but brutal story. Into that landscape walks an itinerant labouring family. The father is ‘slightly drunk’ and as they walk he unmercifully berates, and beats, the ‘tiny figure’ of his son. The cause of this prolonged assault is a lost sixpence, but, just before that closing paragraph of landscape, a startling truth is revealed. The sixpence is not lost, but withheld by the boy, to be given to the mother while the father is distracted.

That father is a complex figure, far more complex than four pages of story might be thought to require. Drunk, but wearing ‘two bright medals’, which, the author tells us, in a phrase that seems to push through the detached narrative of the third person and speak intimately to us, were ‘presumably for valour’. This is an important phrase. That ‘presumably’ raises the question of what the medals were for, and prepares us for another phrase, later, in which we are told that he has fallen ‘from the heroic standard’. Readers in 1921, and perhaps since, would know that ‘for valour’ is what it says on the Victoria Cross, the highest award, for valour, that can be made to a serving soldier of the British Army. This bullying father is not quite what he seems.

That ‘tiny figure’ of the son is not what he seems either. He is described at length early in the story and the description is shot through with elements that show he is in disguise: ‘a man’s cap’, a ‘sailor’s jacket’, ‘a pair of women’s button boots.’ Appearances are deceptive throughout this story. The mother, who watches the abuse of her son without seeming to do anything about it, is equally misleading: ‘she seemed to have no desire to shield the boy’. ‘She did not seem to notice them.’ But, at what might seem  to be the climax of the father’s assault, she seems to need to go behind a bush and hands over to him the babe, whom she has been carrying.

Now we see another side of him, as he cooes to and carries the child. The boy falls back, and slips the sixpence to his mother when she reappears. The jolt of this action, on first reading, is immense, and the scales fall from our eyes. The heroism and endurance of the boy, and the cleverness of the mother, and the tragedy of the whole situation are all, instantly revealed. And perhaps, all that seeming, and being dressed in somebody else’s clothes is eclipsed.

There is something else going on in this story. ‘At the crown of the hill’ at a ‘roadside barn’ young boars are being gelded. Their ‘sounds of anguish’ are not illusory. Neither is the singing of the lark, ‘rioting above’. A gypsy man among the workers comments on the father’s beating of the boy – ‘ ‘Selp me, father, that’s a good ‘un, wallop his trousers!’ But it isn’t the trousers, and besides, the father ignores all this. But the pigs, at the end of the story are really ‘bloody and subdued’.

I think a point is being made here, about what is seen and not seen, and what is paid attention to and what is ignored, and how what is real can be misrepresented. And at the very beginning of the story, Coppard has alerted us to the possibility of something very like that, for that luscious opening description, of the peaceful English countryside, with its ‘ointment’ and ‘milk’ is, he quite explicitly tells us, ‘a notion the down might give..[  to  ]…some happy victim of romance’. This brings the story down to being, not about the father and his situation, nor even about the England across which he tramps, but about us, the readers, and what we are capable of seeing, through, and in the stories we are told.

If you’d like to read more about Coppard, about the tales, and the themes that run through them, my collection of essays is available online for Kindle, or as a softback, by clicking on the image, or here.

BHD’s short, short story Echoes is among the sixty stories by sixty authors in the newly published Flash Volume 10 (April’17), the Flash Fiction magazine of the IFFA. Stories included are all of 360 words or fewer (less, if you prefer).


It doesn’t matter how many times you kiss the frog. It won’t turn into a Prince.

Did you know that BHD’s story, The Turkey Cock, is this month’s ‘featured story’ on the CUTalongstory site? You can download it, for Kindle and other formats, for 99p – here – or watch BHD reading it (for free) on Vimeo at BHDandMe. I made the error of reading this story at a Christmas party a few years ago, on the shaky basis that it had ‘Turkey’ in the title….and it has caused contention and disagreement throughout it lifetime to date (as good stories perhaps should)! It was included in the 2014 HISSAC Winners anthology, celebrating 10 years of the Highlands and Islands Short Story Association.

You can also find it in Ten Murderous Tales, available on Amazon for Kindle, or in print. Click on the cover image to go there.


Carnivale was written after my first encounter with Venice in October of 2016. I found the city amazing, I might even say awesome, if I knew the word. Right down to the window catches and the door latches, it caught and held my attention. What helped, perhaps, was that I was staying – for two nights only – in the north west, not far from the old Jewish quarter. It is an area of workshops and old houses, of decaying brickwork and all the narrative killing description that had to go into the story of Carnivale. The places in the story you could find, with a little luck (and that canal-side bar comes highly recommended), including the costumier’s shop. It was not open on the day I walked past, but the window, both literally and metaphorically, was a window onto another, imagined world: a world for which the word ‘imagined’ seems a pale representation. It was a fantastical world, and the perception that were you to dress in those clothes you would be changed utterly, and the world changed with you, was immediate and overwhelming.

It was that epiphany that I wanted the story to evoke, but also the realisation, that for each of us, as individuals we have to have the wit to see the gulf, and the courage to o’er leap it. (That’s the first time, I think, in sixty and more years that I’ve used the word ‘o’er’).

The Carnivale that you see in the Black Market Re-view, and, potentially in a ‘2017’ collection, intended to be published in 2018, is the 6th draft. It was a problem story right from the beginning – having to decide whether it was about Venice, or about its protagonist for example. And all that detail. It had to be overpowering within the story, but not get between the story and the reader. It had to be readable, yet the images had to be crowded in on each other. I wanted those narrow twisting streets with their four and five storey buildings, and their insistent detail, to crowd in on you – but not to the extent that you gave up on the reading.

Then there was the ending. A much earlier edition was sent out and got a useful rejection slip, with the sort of commentary that tells you it’s worth working on. That editor didn’t like the ending, wanting a more definitive one. I’m all for sharp endings, that stick it to you so you know where and how deep! But here I found myself wanting to leave it unsaid – to let the reader’s disposition tip the balance. Short stories, after all, are about the reader to some extent. How would they feel, think, and act in the situation? What would they expect their partner to do?

Later versions got into Longlists. Longlists can mean everything that was submitted – but in these two cases I think did not, and, like that helpful rejection, they can be an encouragement. Particularly pleasing about the BMR acceptance, was that it was made with so little tinkering required. A missing word here, a changed word there, a couple of re-ordered, rather than re-written sentences. In a 2000 word story (long for me) that was pretty minor – though it shows I could have paid more attention! In fact, reading through the story again did make me pay more attention, which is a curious thing. Knowing that someone is about to publish a story, sharpens the senses more than hoping they might, it seems.

Writing Carnivale came at an important time for me. I’ve been writing short stories for nearly twenty years, and two decades seems to me to be long enough to convince yourself you can’t do it. The last eighteen months or so have been a conscious last push before giving up. In fact, I’ve wrestled with the problem of just how to do that.

There has been a series of stories over that period that have been consciously different, at least in my mind, from those that went before. A series of so called ‘flash fictions’ also began to come to fruition during this time. Getting a higher than average proportion of them into print, with magazines, e-zines and journals, and perhaps into competition shortlist and prizes, might be a last gasp validation, perhaps, of that twenty year undertaking. Yet, the true, and proportionate success must always be that you’ve said what you felt needed saying, whatever anybody else might feel. You can find Carnivale in The Black Market re-View #4, here.

 

I have to confess that it was Kipling’s short story, The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat, that I didn’t get through in Hensher’s recent compilation of British short stories for Penguin. I’ve found some of Kipling’s shorts impenetrable, or at least too hard a work to do for fun. Yet I can remember absolutely loving The Jungle Book(s) when I was a child, and could recite several of the poems of the ‘camp’ (old meaning assumed, back then) animals. The White Seal was one of the stories included, and I remember that with affection – if not in detail.

Reading H.E.Bates and Frank O’Connor on Kipling though, in their respective histories of the short story form, I can’t help feeling that there is an agenda being brought to (at least) his short stories that goes beyond what one might actually find in them. Kipling is rightly criticised for his support of the Imperialist ethic, and its indivisible racism, but I’m not convinced that the stories, at least, many of the ones that I’ve read, do, in fact, promote that ethic.

Two features of the stories in Plain Tales from the Hills stand out for me. One is that they seem to be very journalistic, by which I mean that they have the quality of seeming to be written by a close observer, which Kipling obviously was. The other is that Kipling quite often seems to be satirizing, not only the characters and manners about which he writes, but the narrators in whose mouths he places the telling.

In these stories at least, and often right at the end, where the ‘meaning’ of the short story is frequently – perhaps always – signposted, Kipling’s narrator makes comments that seem to undermine, rather than underline his ostensible ‘agenda’.

In the story Cupid’s Arrows the dead-shot toxophilist, Kitty, deliberately loses an archery competition, in order not to be given the prize bracelet by her unwanted suitor, Barr-Saggott. At the end of the story, facing the opprobrium of the crowd, and of her ambitious mother, she is whisked away by her young, and favoured lover, Cubbin. The narrator’s comment closes the tale ‘-the rest isn’t worth printing.’ This more than hints at a story that most of us would find more interesting, unless we are of the same cast of mind as the narrator. More starkly, in Yoked with an Unbeliever, where an Englishman is made ‘a decent man’ by his ‘Hill woman’ wife (and saved from his mem-sahib ex-fiance), the closing comment is ‘Which is manifestly unfair.’, which we know it, manifestly, isn’t.

Compare those with the ending of Consequences where Kipling’s formidable Mrs Hauksbee has the last word: ‘What fools men are.’, which it seems to me, we are meant to take absolutely seriously. IThere are a lot of women in Kipling, and rarely, if ever shown in a patronising light. They always have admirable qualities, though they may be abused for it by the men in the story, and by those undermined narrators.

In the first story of the collection Lispeth, another Hill-woman, falls for an Englishman whom she believes she will marry. He, and the people at the Christian Mission where she is nursing him, play along with the idea, until he has recovered sufficiently to abandon her. When the truth is finally revealed Lispeth returns to her original culture, for which the Mission people accept no responsibility, seeing it, not as a reflection of their dishonesty, but of her origins. The story hardly reflects a racist contempt, or even an imperialist one, for the abused heroine.

An odd story in the group is A Bank Fraud, in which a manager, from his own salary, perpetuates the belief that his dying assistant – who has been sacked – is still employed, and will recover. The skin colour of the two men is quite irrelevant to this tale, as is their class. It is their personal qualities that matter. The dying man, it must be said, is no friend to the man who is paying him, and keeping his hopes alive. At the end of the story, again, in the character’s rather than the narrator’s voice, we get the statement: ‘I might have heartened him to pull through another day.’ The protagonist in this story is so explicitly altruistic that we cannot doubt him, even though we might marvel at him.

Over and over again, Kipling points up the human qualities behind the choices people make, and the actions they take, whoever they are, and wherever they come from. At the end of The Bronkhurst Divorce-Case the narrator remarks ‘And my conundrum is the most unanswerable of the three.’ That conundrum is ‘How do women like Mrs Bronkhorst come to marry men like Bronkhorst?’ When we’ve read the tale, we’ll tend to agree with him, I suspect.

Then there is the almost flash fiction, at least by length, of The Story of Muhammad Din. The eponymous hero is an Indian child who strays into the sahib’s house, but whose intrusion, though scandalous to his father, is not resented by the sahib. Kipling always puts the ‘S’ word in italics, along with its memsahib version. The eponymous boy never repeats his mistake, but is met in the garden from time to time. The first person narrator greets him ‘with much state’, but then inadvertently destroys ‘some of his handiwork’, a concoction of ‘six shrivelled marigold flowers in a circle’. The destruction is assumed to be deliberate. Then the child falls ill, and despite the grudging treatment of the sahib’s doctor – grudged by the doctor, it is made clear – he dies. The story ends with the first person narrator encountering the father carrying his son to the ‘Muslim burying-ground’. If there’s condescension here, I don’t recognise it, and I think that if you tried to re-write this story and set it in an English country garden, you would struggle to tell it with more, or even the same degree of objectivity. In fact, I might just have a go at that! Frank O’Connor, in his chapter on Kipling  (in The Lonely Voice), writes of doing something similar with Kipling’s The Gardener, and quotes his own alternative first sentences. But they form an example that illustrates the dangers of such an experiment, rather than the value.

I have read only a small portion as yet of Kipling’s short story output, so might well find all that Bates and O’Connor alerted me to. It seems important to me that I have found other than that in what I have read. Reading someone’s short stories might be a route to knowing them, but before and more importantly than that, it is a route to knowing the stories, and, perhaps oneself.

One of my favourite authors is, or put more correctly, several of my favourite stories were written by, James Joyce, but I have a more than sneaking suspicion I wouldn’t have liked him, nor he me. The ‘singer not the song’ is a symptom of commercialism and its attendant need for celebrity. Not merely ‘the stories’ of a writer, but each story stands alone, to be understood, assessed, and enjoyed on its own merits, within the limits of our capacities as readers.