Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Winesburg, Ohio
Sherwood Anderson
Library of America

Sherwood Anderson’s interrelated collection of short stories is a masterpiece of the form. As good as other works such as The Triumph of the Egg are nothing quite matches the magic of Winesburg, Ohio. Published 100 years ago, it is both modern and wistful, describing a time, even when it was first published in1919, that had long passed. It is that mix of wide-eyed realism and a kind of nostalgia for a small town America that never quite was what it seemed, which makes Winesburg such a compelling read.

Winesburg opens with a form of a frame story, or at least the idea of one. An old writer has written a book about the truths of men, the truths that make them grotesques. It is a book that is never published, but are we reading it? Is Winesburg full of grotesques? I won’t answer that, but even this little story has the marks of an Anderson jewel: multiple levels of story telling, that of the writer and the carpenter; a desire to touch something metaphysical: a truth, an emotion, a dream; and a concision of style that is not minimalist, but is never long. His brief paragraph about the carpenter which captures the horrors of the Civil War and what we now call PTSD is fascinating.

There are a couple overriding occupations for Anderson: the rise of the modern industrial world; and the dark, unsaid disappointments of the inhabitants. The former theme weaves its way throughout as a coloration. It creates the idea of an idyllic small town America, one pure, quiet and beautiful. It is a powerful image, one that still animates American thinking. Usually, he is discrete in his descriptions: a beautiful sunset, the laughter of berry pickers on their way home in the dusk. Other times he is direct, discussing the rise of machines, the coming of industrialism (an archaic usage that captures the passion for the machine age).

It is the latter, though, were Anderson spends most of his time. In a town of 1900 during the mid 1890s, few are happy: failed marriages; marriages made in haste when one lover becomes pregnant; dreams of passion foundering on the realities of a marriage. For Anderson it is not just the social constraints that are important, but the internal passions, often unvoiced and vaguely understood. They drive his characters to take a lover or marry, because they see in the other a way out of a small town, a boring life. The big cities of Cleveland and Chicago are always off in the distance, tempting, influencing, putting ideas into the heads of the inhabitants. He captures it well in most stories, but the two stories about Elizabeth Willard, a sick woman who slowly fades away in her forties, are stand outs. Both show a woman fully aware of the disappointments in her life and unable to overcome the depression which it brings on. But she finds a kind of solace in hoping her son, George the one character who moves throughout all the stories in the work, will leave town much like she wanted to before she married her husband. He also creates a kind of tender connection in her relationship with Dr Reefy. Both of them are damaged individuals and they find in her visits a kind of solace, a forbidden love that is never quite spoken, not quite realized, but gives them a fleeting hope. It is in these moments the nostalgia darkens and this ideal place is less than ideal. A passage from the penultimate story captures this sense well.

There is something memorable in the experience to be had by going into a fair ground that stands at the edge of a Middle Western town on a night after the annual fair has been held. The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and the country around. Farmers with their wives and children and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.

Winesburg, Ohio is still a masterwork of the short form that still holds up.The creative vision of his short stories are still magical. And the picture of a world already long past when he wrote the collection, has the right mix of darkness and light, showing that there is no perfect past. Small town America, despite the glowing memories made manifest in places like Disney’s Main Street, was as unfulfilling as any other place; perhaps even more.

 

 

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Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling – a Review / Reflection

9780141442396HPlain Tales from the Hills
Rudyard Kipling
Introduction Edited with an introduction by Kaori Nagai
Penguin Classics, 2011, pg 292

I wanted to know, is Kipling readable? Is there something more to him than jungle stories or a colonial apologies? And what is he like as a craftsman? He was immensely popular once,  but that doesn’t necessarily make him an interesting writer. More than enough junk has climbed the best seller lists and has long been forgotten for good reason.  However, as certain fiction styles have ossified into best practices, it is good to look back and see the approaches writers of other days used. His first collection of short stories Plain Tales from the Hills seemed like a good choice for two reasons: it was published early in his career and would show him possibly less guarded; and two, the stories are less well know and wouldn’t merge with the various film versions of his works I’ve seen over the years. And, of course, I like short stories.

Taking these issues one by one. The issues with colonialism are certainly there and it is worth noting that the stories are rarely about Indians. The world of these stories are of the civil servants who exhibit all the concerns of late Victorians: class, social standing, reputation, and money. When Indians appear it is often in a transgressive story where the British have entered into a world they don’t belong, one that is indecipherable to the westerner. He returns twice to the character of a police officer who has learned the ways of the Indian under class, knows how to disguise himself and speak in their slang. He, though, is looked at as a freak who needs civilizing, in other words, needs to get married to change his ways. What we never see is exactly what he does amongst the people he is so capable of being with. Kipling appears to understand from a distance what life is like for these people, but is in no ways close enough to describe it like he does the British. Of course, there is always a subtlety to this: the best way to know a people is to be among them. Several times Kipling suggests this in his stories, but that knowledge comes at a cost of loosing oneself amongst the other. With Kipling, though, you are never sure if he is conscious of this dichotomy or it slips through.

For the British citizen and Kipling’s readers in Britten, the real danger was not the Indians, it was not being able to withstand the life in the colonies. The idea that the life in the colonies was harder and more difficult than that of Brittan is present throughout the book. It isn’t just the heat and food, it is the chance that one might loose one’s Britishness. Going native, or more to the point, letting one’s side down is the issue. It also points towards and ideal type of Englishman, who is strong enough to keep himself inline. Early on there is a story about a young man, probably a dandy, who kills himself because he can’t take life in India. The narrator and a friend do the only thing they can do and bury him and tell everyone he died of a fever. They send his parents a letter that praises his life. They will know nothing of the truth, one these two men of the Empire have had to do to keep Brittan content. Empire is a messy business and only certain men are called to it. Kipling is often noted for his ability understand the life of the average Brittan in India and render it in fiction, and that is his strongest element in these stories. The colonial enterprise is never questioned, but the hardships on the individual are often right at the surface.

Still, Kipling is writing about a mostly British world and his preoccupation with what seem like drawing room romances played against the Raj can get a little tiresome. Women in his stories are often interested in the petty, gossipy side of life. His portraits are not crude, but the lives of women are limited, not only by the times, but a little more insight into their actual lives. For example, there are a series of stories about two women who hate each other and both kenive to undo the machinations of each other. The narrator even notes how one, who was always self centered, helped a young man and beat the other woman at her own game. It is that sense of constant game that sours on the women, and gives the sense of a narrator winking at the audience, look how petty these women are. There are exceptions, of course, and in Three and – An Extra he describes a woman who on loosing her baby goes into grief and her husband begins to look at another woman. The wife through her maneuvers (feminine wiles might be the narrator’s choice) at a dance one night, wins her man back. The sensitivity to the situation is quite perceptive and shows him at his best. The story does, like many of them, end on a whimsical note: ‘Take my word for it, the silliest woman can manage a clever man; but it needs a very clever woman to manage a fool.’

As a short story writer he proposes some interesting challenges to the modern read used to the well wrought story with an epiphany. Certainly, these are stories, but you might also call them tales, little vignettes. The stories originally appeared in an Indian newspaper and can’t be more than 3000 words. It gives them a brevity and economy that is refreshing. While all the stories are in first person in the sense that the narrator makes himself known to the reader, and occasionally is the primary character of the story, the narrator is describing events at second hand, which means the stories lean more towards summary than detailed action. It may seem limiting to be writing about events from an unprivileged narrative position, but it gives Kipling room to play with the narrator. You are never quite sure what the narrator believes. Are there the occasional criticisms of British life in India? Take a line like this: “She was a Miss Tallaght, and men spelt her name ‘Tart’ on the programmes when they couldn’t catch what the introducer said.” Is this supposed to be taken as evidence of her lowly standing, or an example of how bad the men are, or something else? Another trick he employs is to start on a short tangent and stop midway through and say, but that is a story for another time. Occasionally, he actually returns to tell the story. All these touches make for a richer stories and the shifting of the narrative and the narrator throughout the book makes Kipling’s writing surprisingly interesting.

A note on the edition. In addition to the fine introduction which notes how the book was put together with an eye towards explaining India to Brittan, the notes make quite clear where Kipling, later in life, began to remove elements that suggested his characters had more contact with natives and had taken on more of their ways. In The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows, he takes what are the confessions of a British subject and opium addict and changes it to a non British character; thus, he limits the notion that an Englishman could descend into such a disgraceful life. This is the most egregious example, there are little changes throughout that show the younger Kipling, Kipling the journalist in India, had a wider vision and a freer sense of decorum, before he became the defender of Empire.

In all, Plain Tales from the Hills, despite it’s problems, has a surprising liveliness to it that marks Kipling as an interesting writer. I might not recommend reading all the stories cover to cover, they can get a little claustrophobic and you may need to read a little Orwell to counter balance,  but they are certainly better than one would suppose.

Short Story “Carpe Diem” by Abelardo Castillo Available at Contemporary Argentine Writers

Dario has published an English translation of the short story “Carpe Diem” by Abelardo Castillo at Contemporary Argentine Writers. It is a interesting story and has some nice touches, especially the way the he plays with how narrators describe things.

“She liked the sea and walking barefoot in the street. She wanted to have kids. She talked to stray cats. She wanted to know the names of the constellations. But I’m not sure if that’s truly what she was like. I’m not sure if I’m really describing her for you,” said the man with the tired face. Since sundown we had been sitting together in the fishing club by the windows that looked out onto the river; it was nearly midnight and for the past hour he had been rambling non-stop. The story, if it even was a story, was difficult to follow. He had begun to tell it three or four times, from different starting points, and always interrupted himself to back up to an earlier time, never getting past the moment when she, the girl, stepped off the train one afternoon.

Inteview and Overview of Patricio Pron’s New Book of Short Stories

El Pais has a review/interview with Patricio Pron about his new collection of short stories. It sounds interesting:

Sea como fuere, la escasa creatividad de sus colegas es también el tema central de Un jodido día perfecto sobre la tierra, uno de los cuentos del libro. En ello, Pron relata la insoportable y autobiográfica experiencia de ser jurado de un concurso literario al que llegan solo textos casi idénticos: “Me juré que jamás volvería a hacerlo. En línea general falta originalidad. Es el resultado de un establecimiento de condiciones genéricas, literarias y narrativas que los autores normalmente no cuestionan”.

Portada de ‘La vida interior de las plantas de interior’.

El mercado, según Pron, también juega contra la innovación: “Muchos autores en este momento están escribiendo el mismo libro. Se debe en parte al negocio editorial pero también al deseo de ciertos escritores de producir algo que tenga éxito”. ¿Qué escritores? Todo lo que se obtiene es un “es bastante visible” y el ejemplo de “las novelas de la crisis”.

Con su personalísimo estilo, Pron también está teniendo mucho éxito. A sus 36 años ya cuenta con premios, aplausos de críticos y colegas y un CV literario donde lucen libros como El comienzo de la primavera y El mundo sin las personas que lo afean y lo arruinan. De hecho, a veces hasta se sorprende de sus resultados. “Estuve en México de promoción y tenía ocho entrevistas al día durante cinco días. Jamás pensé que había tantos medios allí y que tuvieran interés en lo que escribo. Creo que la charla número 40 era intercambiable con la 39 y la 38…”, recuerda Pron.

The Complete (More or Less) Stories of Javier Tomeo Reviewed at Cultura/s

I’ve been watching the press about Javier Tomeo’s Cuentos completos, de Javier Tomeo, for a few weeks now. He is a Spanish writer who sounds interesting and definitely different. Sergi Bellver has a good review of the book that gives a good idea of what kind of writer he is. (You can read an excerpt here)

Tres prodigios, Historias mínimas (1988) ―uno de los siete libros recogidos en el volumen de Páginas de Espuma―, y las novelas El castillo de la carta cifrada (1979) y Amado monstruo (1985), descubrieron una mirada al margen de la avalancha literaria de la época, saturada de realismo social, y consagraron el prestigio de Tomeo, avalado por Anagrama ―“inesperada colisión entre Kafka y Buñuel”, le llamaría Jorge Herralde―. Después llegaron adaptaciones teatrales, traducciones, reconocimiento a nivel europeo y hasta una campaña de las fuerzas vivas aragonesas en pro del Nobel para su paisano ―el sabio Tomeo utiliza en “El sueño del Nobel” a Ramón, su recurrente personaje especular, para ironizar sobre su propia obra, algo que repitió en Los amantes de silicona (2008).

Los cuentos de Tomeo filtran la realidad, la alteran y la perfilan en un mundo genuino y personalísimo en el que también viven las luces y las sombras del lector. Ese es el poder atávico de jugar con un imaginario de animales y monstruos, arquetipos que el autor convierte en psicópatas de poética anómala. Tomeo admira al Goya más sombrío, disfruta dibujando ―faltan sus ilustraciones de Zoopatías y zoofilias en estos Cuentos completos― y estudió Criminología para conocer la oscuridad humana, aunque no ha insistido en la novela negra, ni bajo el seudónimo de sus primeros libros alimenticios, “Frantz Keller”. Las iniciales recuerdan al abogado Kafka, como Tomeo, otro hombre de leyes dispuesto a hacer añicos las literarias. El autor estará ya tan harto como feliz de que le menten al checo, al que homenajea en su relato “Gregorio, el insecto”, pero del que le separa su humor, negro, fuerte y lento como un burro, un humor que cocea aún tras la lectura.

A Thousand Morons by Quim Monzó – A Review

Thousand_Morons-frontA Thousand Morons
Quim Monzó
Open Letter, 2012,pg 111

Reading Quim Monzó’s short stories is always refreshing experience, a kind of cleansing of the palate after imbibing too many stories in the American vein. In Monzó there is little interest in the well written story and its obligatory finish with an apropos epiphany. His characters are seldom explored in strong emotional terms, instead they exist within the irrepressible march of time. In other words, events happen, characters perform their roles, but there is no reason why, it just is. The lack of explanation comes because Monzó and his narrators are always distant, keeping what is before them at arms length. It can feel cold, uncaring, but at his best it makes for a literature of perceptive descriptions and, surprisingly, empathetic stories that never loose his sense of humor, akin to that of Thomas Bernhard’s in the Voice Imitator.

While A Thousand Morons still has the touches of the comedic and the satiric, there is something more personal, too. In the first of the two sections, the stories are more personal, less distant from every day experience. There is still humor, but it is a humor that comes from contrasting a typically emotive subject against the absurdities of his telling. It isn’t that the injection of accessible experiences have weekend his work, it has allowed him to contrast play with the genre and retarget his humor at something new.

In the first story, Mr. Beneset, a son visits his father in a nursing home. The description is given in a dead pan third person that after the first paragraph which gives just the most minimal back story, becomes almost a dialog with stage direction. The father is a talker and performs a kind of elderly stream of consciousness, bouncing from one topic to another: the beauty of the Cuban aide, the thought of death, the deaths of his neighbors. These are not new ideas for a story. Monzó turns things around, though, because all the time they are talking the man’s father is dressing as a woman. It is mater of fact, as all things are in his stories. It doesn’t mater why he is doing it to the characters. They already know why. It puts the locus of exploration on the reader and opens up the story, moving it past the visit, to an alternate vision. The humor, which is surprising for Monzó, is moderated, and he uses the contrast of the father’s clothing to reenliven the dilemmas of old age and family.

The Coming of Spring mines similar territory, describing a man–there is no name–as he visits his parents in an old age home. It is a story of repetition: his visits; their problems; and the surprising ability of an old couple to survive so long. They survive as much by habit as by will and, the Monzós repetitive text underscores that. Many of the paragraphs that open the little sections all start with the phrase, A man… The habit of the elderly couple, is mirrored in the prose. The repetition lends a sense of melancholy as the man walks through the old apartment where the couple once lived and now stands vacant. A physical memory that has been left to deteriorate like the couple in the home. And like the couple it also continues on as if by habit. What makes the story so strong is the distance the reader feels between the characters. There is no comforting resolution here and it is in that distance, the separation of the son from the reader that the real emotional power resides.

While those two stories overpower the rest of the collection and give Monzó’s work, for the first time, a heavier, less comedic weight, the humor from his other works is evident throughout the collection. In Saturday, echoing Carver, a woman tries to erase her ex from her life. First its the photos. Next the furniture, until she attempts to destroy everything he has ever touched which is either impossible, or self destructive depending on how far one wants to take it. Of course the story is purely physical. There are no insights, just the illogical end of removing all physical memories of a lover. It is an unsettling idea.

For fans of Monzós more flippant and philosophical sides, there are still plenty of stories where the absurdity of an experience becomes an maddening experience. These are the typical Monzó story where the completely absurd, although often common place occurrence,  becomes an overwhelming experience. In Praise, an author makes a passing comment that he enjoyed an up an coming author’s book. Soon the the young author begins to hound the established author until the tables turn and the nice, off handed comment the established author gave, becomes his down fall. It is a typically Monzonian story in that something small can bring so many problems. It is the kind of story he excels at. It also underlies a kind of cynicism that pervades his work, as if what ever one does you will fail in some way. It is an idea I rarely see in American fiction, but in continental fiction it seems to show up quite often. On one hand, you have American optimism always finding a better tomorrow, even when everything is going to hell. And contrasting is a realism that seems cynical, but is really an outlook guided by precedent that knows how easy it is for the simple to turn into complete horror. Monzó is full of that idea, which is why this collection with its turn towards the personal seemed more startling.

Monzós stories deserve to be better known. His humor, cynicism and insight are a great antidote to short stories that can seem tiresome in their perfected resolution. With this collection, Monzó has show that the distant and skeptical stance can even be used in more personal settings.

You can read the story of A Cut (pdf) form Open Letter

The Best Spanish Language Short Stories of 2012 from Sergi Bellver

The Spanish writer and critic of the short story Sergi Bellver has published his list of the best short stories that appeared in Spanish. It is a long list and will give anyone reading it an insight into the art of the short story. In his list I’ve seen a couple authors that I’ve seen in a couple of other articles. One is Edmundo Paz Soldán a Bolivian writer, and Ignacio Ferrando a Spanish writer. Both had interesting collections come out this year. You can read the full article here.

Llama la atención la irrupción en 2012 de varios narradores latinoamericanos en el panorama editorial español del cuento. Tal vez la más llamativa sea la del excelente escritor mexicano Alberto Chimal, de cuya narrativa breve el crítico Antonio J. Morato seleccionó los relatos del libro Siete (Salto de Página). Otro de los hallazgos trasatlánticos del año ha sido la edición española, a cargo del sello aragonés Tropo, de Vacaciones permanentes, que la boliviana Liliana Colanzi había publicado con la editorial El Cuervo en su país.Precisamente su compatriota Edmundo Paz Soldán, a quien ya conocíamos por estos lares gracias a sus novelas,ha publicado en el último tramo del 2012 uno de los conjuntos de relatos más interesantes de la temporada, Billie Ruth (Páginas de Espuma). América sigue siendo un filón para el mejor relato, y de algunos ilustres cuentistas latinoamericanos que ya no están entre nosotros, como el original y desapercibido Francisco Tario (mexicano) con La noche, o el inigualable y genial Felisberto Hernández (uruguayo) con La casa inundada, la editorial Atalanta ha recuperado en 2012 sus mejores textos para la colección Ars Brevis. Pero no sigamos por esa senda, ni por la de los libros traducidos de lenguas extranjeras (porque entonces no daríamos abasto y tendríamos que empezar mencionando joyas tan singulares como los relatos de Peking by night, de Svetislav Basara, publicados por Minúscula), y regresemos a los autores españoles actuales, aunque me detendré antes en otro libro de cuentos en particular, uno de los mejores en el arranque de 2012: el convincente Un montón de gatos, de Eider Rodríguez (Caballo de Troya), autora vasca que escribe y publica primero en euskera y luego traduce al castellano sus relatos, pero que, hasta donde sé, revisa y edita a fondo sus textos en ese proceso, por lo que su propia traducción se convierte en todo un trabajo de autoría. Capítulo aparte (que dejaré para otro día, por sangrante) merece el cuento en catalán, en un año en el que los lectores en castellano han visto pasar de largo el centenario de un cuentista contemporáneo de talla europea como Pere Calders, ya que ninguna editorial ha considerado acometer la tarea de actualizar y presentar sus cuentos al lector en castellano, es decir, no sólo al español, sino también al hispanoamericano. Respecto al cuento escrito en gallego, en otoño de 2012 llegó la traducción al castellano de la Narrativa breve completa de Carlos Casares, por parte de la editorial barcelonesa Libros del Silencio.