February 11, 2009

Love Stories (Everyman Pocket Classics)

Posted in Lahiri Jhumpa, Nabokov Vladimir, Smith Ali, Wolff Tobias at 8:00 am by John Self

I think there’s something pretty crass about themed collections of stories. Surely the subject matter is the least interesting aspect of a piece of fiction? At the same time, however, it can be interesting to observe how tried (and tired) themes are dealt with by different writers. And there is also the analytical aspect, of seeing one person’s choices on the subject, feeling or feigning outrage at the omissions, and perhaps discovering new voices. Here, the reliable Everyman’s Library follow their recent Christmas Stories and Ghost Stories collections with the widest and riskiest theme of all: Love Stories.

Like Christmas Stories, Love Stories is edited by Diana Secker Tesdell, and it doesn’t hurt that it is a handsome volume, a solid little hardback with fully sewn cloth binding and a ribbon bookmark. The contents, for the most part, are equally impressive, and hardly any are traditional ‘love stories’ in the soppy sense of the term.

Tesdell is unafraid to challenge the reader, so the second story in the collection (after a short overture by Maupassant, ‘Clair de Lune’) is Italo Calvino’s ‘Blood, Sea’ from t-zero, the second of his Cosmicomics collections. Calvino admirers will recognise that book as one of his most rigorous, narrated by the immortal being Qwfwq and containing fictions based on scientific suppositions, and ‘Blood, Sea’ is filled with ideas, long sentences, characters who are not really characters, and intellectual delight. At the other end of the difficulty scale is Roald Dahl’s ‘Mr Botibol’, one of his underrated adult stories (though not one of his best), about a lonely man who “resembled, to an extraordinary degree, an asparagus” and who finds some sort of happiness in imagination and music.

Among recent favourites on this blog, I was delighted to see the inclusion of Tobias Wolff’s ‘Lady’s Dream’ (one of his best very short stories), and Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘A Temporary Matter’, which was praised by readers here last year when I wrote about Lahiri’s new collection, and which I was eager to read as a result. With its unsentimental detail and neatly surprising ending which stops short of tricksiness, it did not disappoint.

This lack of sentimentality is a welcome recurring theme. One of the stories, Dorothy Parker’s ‘Here We Are’, indeed is so non-slushy that it also features in Penguin Classics’ own Valentine money-spinner, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, which is themed around ‘love quarrels’. Parker’s story, of a recently married couple’s conversation as they go on honeymoon, is one of the highlights of the book, with its laconic expressiveness (“there was a silence with things going on in it”), wordplay (“‘Well, I’m not so sure I’m not sorry I didn’t,’ she said”) and blithe cynicism:

‘Everything was so mixed up, I sort of don’t know where I am, or what it’s all about. Getting back from the church, and then all those people, and then changing all my clothes, and then everybody throwing things, and all. Goodness, I don’t see how people do it every day.’

‘Do what?’ he said.

‘Get married,’ she said. ‘When you think of all the people, all over the world, getting married just as if it was nothing. Chinese people and everybody, just as if it wasn’t anything.’

Parker is one of a handful of names in the book whom I’d always meant to read but never had. Another, more prominent, was Lorrie Moore, whose stories are regularly cited (along with the likes of William Trevor, who also features here, and Alice Munro, who doesn’t) as being examples of the best of the art. Her story ‘Terrific Mother’ is the longest here at 44 pages, and makes it obvious why she’s so highly regarded. Her style is for sentence-by-sentence detail, with black wit (“Yes, I can see us growing old together,” she said, squeezing his hand. “In the next few weeks, in fact”), or some surprising expression in almost every paragraph. ‘Terrific Mother’ is about a woman who accidentally killed one of her friend’s children, and now is struggling to re-enter life (“You don’t understand,” she said. “Normal life is no longer possible for me. I’ve stepped off all the normal paths and am living in the bushes. I’m a bushwoman now”). There are times when this relentless artificial brilliance risks the story looking more like a Swarovski crystal than a diamond, but there is no denying Moore’s facility, and for me a purchase of her recently published Collected Stories can’t be far off. (Then again, even after one story I could see why Adam Mars-Jones Observed that Moore’s relentless humour is “closer to a compulsion than a talent.”)

Another revelation was Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Dead Mabelle’, about a man obsessed with a movie star.

She had an unusual way with her, qualities overlapped strangely; in that black-and-white world of abstractions she alone moved in a blur. Each movement, in unexpected relation to the movements preceding it, outraged a preconception. William sat with an angry, disordered feeling as though she were a rising flood and his mind bulrushes. She had a slow, almost diffident precision of movement; she got up, sat down, put out a hand, smiled, with a sparklingly mournful air of finality, as though she were committing herself, and every time William wanted to rise in his seat and say, ‘Don’t, don’t – not before all these people!’

When she dies, he finds he has “no power of being.” The story also has a lovely ending, an essential quality for a short story, you might have thought, but surprisingly rare still. So step further up my to-be-read pile, Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart.

It’s not just about revisiting old friends, or discovering new delights (the book is like a mail order catalogue in that sense). A collection like this is also an opportunity to cement one’s prejudices, as against T.C. Boyle (glib and forced), D.H. Lawrence (super-sincere and utterly humourless) and William Trevor (just… not that great). In addition, the story ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ enabled me to affirm my lifelong indifference to the works of Margaret Atwood.

This volume, clearly intended for the Valentine gift market, is one I shall be keeping for myself. One niggle is the lack of biographical detail of the authors. While it’s true that most don’t require this – Fitzgerald, Marquez, Katherine Mansfield, Ali Smith even – I would have liked to be ‘reminded’ about Colette, and to know more (ie anything) about Yasunari Kawabata, whose story ‘Immortality’ is the shortest and one of the most striking here. Perhaps we’re not supposed to seek such detail, and to take the tales on trust. Love is blind.

About these ads

19 Comments »

  1. Trevor said,

    So glad you got to read “A Temporary Matter,” which to me was the most worthy short story in Interpreter of Maladies. A love story, eh? Well, if that’s the type of story that this book collects, it sounds like a winner, though I have to say, John, when I saw what you were reviewing I had my doubts. This sounds delightful in all the right ways.

  2. I’m one of those people who resist collections like this, thinking it would be better to explore an author’s work in greater detail. Having said that, I like reading reviews of books like this as they point me to authors (Lorrie Moore) that I should pay attention to. Thanks for doing the hard work — I’ll reap the rewards.

  3. John Self said,

    Yes, it does seem a doubtful prospect, doesn’t it, which is why I wanted to cover it and try to counter that impression. The standard of contributors is high – I’ve named all 19 in the body of my review above, and even the ones I don’t get along with like Laurence and Trevor are big names – and the volume sits beautifully on my shelves alongside Christmas Stories, which I already had. The average length of a story is about 20 pages, which makes them easy to read in a spare half hour or so (as I’ve found out over the last week!).

  4. One thing that interests me is that both you and I don’t seem to like Trevor. I liked his novel, but can’t figure out why so many people like his short stories. He doesn’t compare to most in my mind.

  5. Stewart said,

    One thing that interests me is that both you and I don’t seem to like Trevor.

    That’s not very nice. Trevor can see what you’re saying….oh, William Trevor! :-D

  6. Very cute, Stewart. You should be lashed.

  7. Trevor said,

    Hey, I admit, I would be flattered if I wrote something (besides my blog) that John and Kevin read – even if they didn’t like it.

    By the way, I got through my second William Trevor short story the other day, and it was . . . good? Didn’t quite know what to make of it. I have The Story of Lucy Gault on the shelf and it always begs to be read because it’s short, but something tells me not to. Is that you, Kevin or John?

  8. John Self said,

    I started The Story of Lucy Gault when it was Booker shortlisted a few years ago, but never finished it. I think the only novel of Trevor’s that I’ve read is Felicia’s Journey, which I thought was pretty ho-hum and predictable. I think I’ve also read his Booker-shortlisted novella Reading Turgenev, but can’t remember anything about it. I do have a couple of volumes of his selected stories, Ireland and Outside Ireland, so maybe I will give him another go. He seems to me to specialise in low-key stories of lives of quiet desperation, which are beautifully done and no doubt precisely as he intended them to be, but to me just not terribly interesting.

  9. Lee Monks said,

    Yes, and it begs another question: how many writers are there out there that are technically astute or write a beautiful line and yet say nothing of worth? Is glorious prose enough in itself? There are writers out there that I could enjoy a paragraph of but that’s quite enough, thanks. Like someone with a great golf swing but no short game.

  10. I read Felicia’s Journey and Cheating at Canasta and can’t remember much about either. I’ve read the occasional short story but have never tried a whole collection. I tend to agree with Lee’s comment — the writing is good but the work isn’t interesting.

  11. onparkstreet said,

    I actually love collections around themes, like, er, love, because it seems to fit my skipping around, bloggy clicky twittery (okay, I don’t twitter) brain. I so like being led by the hand – seriously.

    *And, I was just asking for selections on my blog of something to read that would delight me. You know?

  12. Jenny said,

    “Surely the subject matter is the least interesting aspect of a piece of fiction” — really? Style and characters, unanchored to plot or theme? I disagree about the lack of interest, I think.

    And I’m interested that you find T.C. Boyle glib and forced. I think he’s a bit like Kurt Vonnegut: wryly cynical about the human race, but loving us nevertheless because we’re all we’ve got. (We also disagree on Margaret Atwood and Lorrie Moore, but pass, France, and all’s well…)

  13. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments, onparkstreet and Jenny. I may have expressed myself badly in my opening line (though if I do clarify it now, you may of course still disagree with me!). I didn’t mean that a story doesn’t need a subject matter, but that the plot or theme are the least important aspects to me when choosing a book. That’s why I disagree with Scott Pack when he criticises books that have quotes of praise on the back but no blurb describing the contents. But then, on some level I think all books should be read with no description or foreknowledge of their contents. Doesn’t the author intend the book itself to do the telling? (Maybe Salinger has the right idea by not allowing any blurbs on his books.) It’s unworkable, but a nice idea.

    I’m a Vonnegut fan but don’t see much similarity with Boyle. Then again, the only Boyle I’ve read are his story in this collection (I think it was the artificial Scots setting that made me huff and puff in derision) and his novel The Tortilla Curtain, which I vaguely recall as laying the sentimental tragedy on the Mexican couple so heavy-handedly that it became unintentionally comic, a little like Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea.

    And when you say, Jenny, that we disagree on Lorrie Moore, could you expand – because I’m not sure what I think of her yet!

    onparkstreet: I do twitter, but I’m trying to give it up.

  14. Tom C said,

    I think I’ve read all William Trevor’s books and while the early books are easy to read, the later ones are more of a challenge (i.e. a little boring).

    This is a fine review for the time of year – its not the sort of book I’d go for but you’ve extracted the juice from it nicely.

  15. Elizabeth Bowen also wrote a wonderful story called The Demon Lover, one of my all-time favourites.

    I sort of share your feelings about Trevor (William). The year I won my O.Henry (I know, I know), a story of his was picked out by two of the three judges as the best of the bunch and I just couldn’t see it. I thought it dull and trite. Other things – although no single story comes to mind – I’ve liked far more.

  16. Fiona said,

    I read the first paragraph of your post a few days ago in a rush and turned my nose up at this same collection as a result when I saw it on a shop shelf. I wish I’d read farther, now, because that Parker story sounds wonderful, and though I’ve read Terrific Mother before, I’d be happy to do so again. That’ll learn me not to finish posts I start reading in the future.

  17. John Self said,

    No offence taken, Fiona. I suspect quite a lot of people read the start and end but not the middle of my posts. They’re quite long after all, often 1,000 words or so, and who has the time for that sort of thing these days? I often wonder if I should institute some kind of rating system so that people can tell at a glance whether I liked a book. If I did, then Love Stories would rate as one thumb up!.

    (Then again, I like most of the books I write about, as if I didn’t like a book, I wouldn’t have finished it – Booker titles notwithstanding.)

  18. Trevor said,

    For any interested, Italo Calvino’s “The Daughters of the Moon,” which is also narrated by Qwfwq, is in this week’s (Feb. 23, 2009) issue of The New Yorker.

    (As is an interesting article on Ian McEwan where I learned that he sheltered Rushdie in after the fatwa was issued. I guess we can forgive Rushdie for being a bit self indulgent when including their Polenta song in The Enchantress of Florence.)

  19. John Self said,

    Thanks Trevor. Penguin will be issuing The Complete Cosmicomics in the UK in May, and taking a bunch of ‘minor’ Calvinos (mainly the posthumous books) into their Modern Classics range at the same time, so that will be a nice taster.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,520 other followers

%d bloggers like this: