Lahiri Jhumpa

Love Stories (Everyman Pocket Classics)

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.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Unaccustomed Earth

I’ve heard so much about Jhumpa Lahiri in recent years, from praise for her debut (Pulitzer Prize-winning) collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, to the film adaptation of her novel The Namesake, that it was only a matter of time before I took the plunge. The publication of a new collection of stories in a fine edition and praise by trusted commenters on this blog, was the kick in the backside I needed.

The epigraph, and title, of Unaccustomed Earth comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Custom-House’:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

It’s perfect for the book: here are eight stories of people who struck their roots into unaccustomed earth, either themselves or by their parents: typically Indian roots in America, sometimes via England (as in the case of Lahiri’s own parents). Contrary to Hawthorne’s prescription, not all of them are thriving.

All this is beautifully illustrated in the title story, the longest in the book at almost 60 pages. Here Ruma, in her late 30s, struggles to balance independence and family loyalty when her widowed father comes to visit.

“You’re always welcome here, Baba,” she’d told her father on the phone. “You know you don’t have to ask.” Her mother would not have asked. “We’re coming to see you in July,” she would have informed Ruma, the plane tickets already in hand. There had been a time in her life when such presumptuousness would have angered Ruma. She missed it now.

What Lahiri does so well in the story ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is present people who are perfectly individual yet utterly recognisable, particular to their culture but universal in their character. She really does have families down pat. She knows how a father is never quite the same as a mother: “[Ruma] had never been able to confront her father freely, the way she used to fight with her mother. Somehow, she feared that any difference of opinion would chip away at the already frail bond that existed between them.” She understands the greatest unrequited love of all, that of parents for their children, when she expertly slips into the mind of Ruma’s father (who has a few surprises in store for his daughter too in the course of the story), who remembers how “tormented” he had been by his growing children’s appetite for independence:

That loss was in store for Ruma, too; her children would become strangers, avoiding her. And because she was his child he wanted to protect her from that, as he had tried throughout his life to protect her from so many things. He wanted to shield her from the deterioration that inevitably took place in the course of a marriage, and from the conclusion that he sometimes feared was true: that the entire enterprise of having a family, of putting children on this earth, as gratifying as it sometimes felt, was flawed from the start.

(In a later story, another parent is “plagued by his daughters’ vulnerability,” without seeing his own.) Loss and frustration takes a more familiar form in ‘Hell-Heaven’, a contender with ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ for strongest in the book. Here we have not only a tale of unspoken love which keeps its powder dry right up to the last page – and then catches fire – but the recurring question of belonging. Just as Ruma in the opening story cannot understand her father’s handwritten postcards (“her own Bengali was slipping from her”), here the daughter-narrator protests when her parents make her wear a shalwar kameez, making her American friends “assume … that I had more in common with other Bengalis than with them,” whereas she feels herself to be not only her mother’s daughter “but a child of America as well.”

If I had a criticism of these early stories, all of which are superb, it’s that I would have liked some balance of emphasis on the older generation, those who feel less attached to America and more of a pull with their homeland.  We get this only a little, with Ruma’s father in the title story.

The later stories delighted me less. ‘Nobody’s Business’ seems too glib and clever with its tale of housemates, dodgy boyfriends and mysterious callers (though it’s a measure of how well Lahiri executes her effects elsewhere that this story would have pride of place in many other authors’ collections). The three linked stories which close the book, under the umbrella title ‘Hema and Kaushik,’ somehow failed to engage me at all, putting me off partly I suspect with the first story’s curious use of first/second person narrative. This may have been a simple case of story fatigue on my part – 330 pages of stories is somehow more demanding than a novel the same length – and I did wonder if some of the stories should have been shorter. The stories in Unaccustomed Earth average 40 to 50 pages each, which for me makes it a struggle to read each in a sitting (surely the means for getting the best out of any story). I see that Lahiri’s previous collection managed to fit nine stories into 200 pages, so the stories were half the length of these. One commenter did recommend reading the closing trilogy first, and that might have helped. Meanwhile, I’ll be grateful for the considerable – the unaccustomed – pleasure I had from it, and try that reverse order next time around.