You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘tales’ tag.

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.

Advertisements

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.

BHD has a couple of Flash Fictions in #5 of the Black Market re-View. You can access it here

Last week there was a comment on my post about short stories. Why was there no Chekhov? He was, after all, ‘the master of the genre’.

I made a reply, but not a full one. He was master of the genre, but not ‘the’ master, only ‘a’ master, one among many.

That’s not the reason he was not in my list. It was, when all is said and done, a list of favourite stories, not of favourite authors. There is a difference. A favourite author might be one who provides several ‘favourite’ stories, none of which might be in my top ten. Because what makes a story your favourite, or mine at least, is not who it was written by, nor even, necessarily, how ‘masterfully’ it was written. Picking a favourite is not like marking an exercise. In fact, I’m not even sure that ‘picking’ is an appropriate verb. A favourite story, for me, is one that has acted upon my emotions and understanding in a striking way. It picks me, not me it. It’s not a logical, detached, judgemental process, but one more like a lightning strike, and has less to do with the mastery of the genre possessed by the writer and more with that much despised quality of story: what it’s about.

What a story is about has to be, for the ‘ordinary’ reader the main point of relation.  I can admire the skill and technical ability of a story without giving a damn about what it’s telling me, and I can also be moved profoundly by one in which the flaws are only too obvious. That’s possibly a disturbing fact for some commentators, but for me it seems a vital one. Stories are not merely exercises in mastery, they are testimonies about what life is, has been, and might well be in the future, and when that successfully challenges, or reveals, or reinforces our own perceptions we experience a moment of meetings of mind..a moment of communication with the not present author, or, if we are that author, with the distant reader. That’s one of things stories are for, and something to be valued.

So, the sad fact is, that however much I might recognise Chekhov’s skill and approach, I have to say that of the (only) fifty or so stories of his that I have read (and enjoyed), not one of them has struck me with the force that any of the ones in my list have done. That fact might imply all sorts of things about me, but it doesn’t imply anything about Chekhov, other than that, as with the rest of us, he can please, perhaps, some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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