This is, of course, no attempt at some sort of definitive (or particularly valuable) list – even the most proficient, prodigious reader’s knowledge is only a pinprick on the Venn diagram of the loves of anyone and everyone else who has a similar love of books.
It’s simply a list showcasing twelve genuinely brilliant and special works in the short form, created from passion and hopefully forming something that is stimulating and intriguing for browsers of a site such as this. Last year, the list could’ve looked differently, next year the same, but for now, these are the dozen stories I’m feeling most strongly about, having given it some concerted thought and reflection over the past few months.
The strange thing about this being, if you asked me who my favourite short-story writers are, I’m sure the names Flannery O’Connor, Franz Kafka, Sherwood Anderson, Anton Chekhov, Tobias Wolff, John Cheever, Denis Johnson, etc etc, would have come to mind – and none are included. I suppose deeply loving a writer’s body of work is not the same as having a particular story that appeals above all of the others in their respective canons.
And the whittling process was made slightly easier by the fact I’ve already written essays on specific stories elsewhere on the site (Diary of a Madman by Gogol, Mlle. Dias de Corta by Mavis Gallant, The Bath by Raymond Carver), so despite my obvious feeling for those pieces, I considered them ineligible from the outset.
Sufficient prattling completed – I hope you enjoy a brief yet focused consideration of the merits of each story chosen. It is a celebration of the short form, which I suppose has been a lifelong vocation of mine to this point. I have tried to quote extensively from each piece to permit the reader to hear and feel the story as clearly and vividly as this format will allow.
Like various other writers whose work I have come to love and admire, I learned of Tillie Olsen via the essays of James Kelman. I would (and often still do) keep a keen eye for wherever great writers are speaking of their own favourites and/or influences, and, if possible, attempt to track the recommended work down. It is an endless source of fascination, and has led to the discovery (for me) of such a wealth of incredible literary art. Kelman said of Olsen in his Afterword to the 2007 re-issue of his collection ‘An Old Pub Near The Angel’:
She was a friend of Mary Gray Hughes, who in the mid 1970s sent me a rare edition of Olsen’s Tell Me A Riddle. She did not tell me it was a rare edition. This collection of only four stories has had an impact on contemporary English language literature, not only in the U.S.A. Her work offered a different way of seeing for myself, finding ways to hijack third-person narrative from the voice of imperial authority.
Prose fiction was exciting at this level. Somebody was punching fuck out ye but ye went away and attended the cuts, had a shower, and came back with Daddy’s axe. Tillie’s work was a weapon. The true function of grammar. Make yer point. Writers need to learn these lessons. If you do not then you will not tell the story. You might tell other stories but not the one you could be telling.”
Once I’d read this, it was of course a clamour to get to the second-hand bookshops and see if anywhere was stocking this writer I’d never heard of, but whose command of narrative prose had excited and inspired James Kelman! (And, as someone who has always had and always will have to keep a demanding full-time job, I should confess to having a quite irrational but very real affection and respect for writers who had to battle for the time and the energy to fit creative endeavours into their life schedule, as opposed to those artists whose Parisian lifestyles allowed them to sit on their tuffets, spending long afternoons pontificating over whether their characters would feel this or that. I also loved Kelman’s combative description of Olsen, the spirit of the defiance and that conviction to have her voice heard).
Had I then read some tepid, ornate stories, depicting an austere and hopeless world, it would have been an abject disappointment.
Thankfully, and expectedly, the work is anything but. The first story of the book, I Stand Here Ironing, is one of the most emotionally organic, touching, and technically perfect sequences of fiction I have read. A monologue, an imagined response to her daughter’s teacher, continuing deeper and deeper into their shared life, the fluctuations of their relationship, her most sincere feelings, and only occasionally coming back to the surface again in the form of present-tense interjections – a mention of the iron which is moving over the clothes of her children as this tale unfolds in her mind, or the call of her baby Ronnie which forces the temporary cessation of her creative thought.
As Kelman notes, often the prose is exciting. Olsen captures that sense of the narrator trying vainly to hold life together, maintain a job of work while also being present in the child’s life, rushing from one role to the other, battling against the realization that she cannot succeed in this:
Later there is a beautiful moment in the text when the final move into present tense occurs, the recognition that her daughter is almost home by stating simply: ‘She is coming.’ This is indeed grammar being utilised properly, in a sophisticated manner that serves the story of this narrator, that permits the prose to impact upon the reader’s emotion. She is coming, and we feel that jolt of anticipation too, thought being drawn back to reality.
The story closes after a long paragraph of declarative sentences, the mother stating or re-stating the facts of their lives:
Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom – but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by.”
This is delivered in such a fashion to communicate to the spectre of this priggish teacher that a set of statements or facts that can be given about her daughter, about any person, cannot combine to define or judge them. They are merely words in a list; whereas her daughter has actually struggled through all the disadvantages, deficiencies and difficultues, and emerged as a young woman. She deserves to live on – and Tillie Olsen’s exquisite craft in this story has assured it will be so. Most certainly, it is “one of the great pieces of American art.”
‘A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.’ – This is the beginning of Company, a prose novella by Samuel Beckett. It is a distillation of Beckett’s art – there are none who write from a place so darkened, and there is no voice so thoroughly distinctive, so completely unmistakeable. Like most who have read his work, I have a deep and sincere appreciation for the entire gamut: foremost, all of his absurd dramas, especially Waiting for Godot and the radio play From an Abandoned Work, and I consider Molloy to be unquestionably the greatest of his novels; there are passages in that book that are unbearably poignant, powerful, humorous, and (characteristic of all of his major works) that strange marriage of technical mastery to a manner of articulation that’s simply a joy to follow and to listen to. Voices in the dark, indeed.
Yet it is via the medium of shorter prose pieces in which that voice comes most clearly and most forcefully. Some of the Texts for Nothing are monumental, heart-shattering. The very short piece, One Evening, is one of the greatest and most beautiful works of prose you could ever conceive of reading – it is a painting in words, a meditation, and a deception. Without the need to constantly oscillate through different speakers or diversify the text between dialogue and narrative, without the anchor of the obligation to keep trudging forward to satisfy a conventional plot, Beckett was able to very fully realize his monstrous talents for linguistic expression, emotion, movement, and story.
The apex of this work was what came to be known as the Novellas – in my opinion, when collected they are the greatest single work in the short fiction form. My personal favourite of the four is First Love (going by the Penguin Modern Classics edition of 2011 which does include First Love – these were originally published in French as a three; The End, The Calmative, The Expelled), because it contains and exemplifies all of the very best, most bizarre, and most ludicrous, most hilarious aspects of the work of Samuel Beckett, while also being his most sustained examination of our human concept of love – something which appears to have troubled him deeply in his own life and which continues to confuse, or bemuse, many of us still. It is the human condition, evoked in the most absurd and stunning terms.
In one overlong sentence, First Love is the story of a man looking back at a time in his life when his father died, he was made homeless, encountered a woman on a park bench, became fixated on her despite not enjoying her company or appearance, went to live in her home, slept in a separate room, realized she was working as a prostitute, got her pregnant, then absconded while she was giving birth.
What elevates this apparently tawdry tale is the voice of this character, his words, thoughts, thought-processes, confusions, ponderings, seemingly unwitting jokes, and narrative movements, as he reflects and laments on his only ever experience of ‘love’.
I use the word ‘inadvertent’, as the narrator appears unmoved by the obvious humour of many of his statements early in the story, such as:
This is his first encounter with his love. Her abrupt presence bringing him crashing back to the mundane crudities of the earth after he had conjured up one of the most poetic and wondrous descriptive sentencs in literature: “I lay stretched out, the night being warm, gazing up through the bare boughs interlocking high above me, where the trees clung together for support, and through the drifting cloud, at the patch of starry sky as it came and went.” The blunt colloquial “Shove up” is an important and recurrent feature of the story; not fulfilling its usual role in Beckett of reminding us of the necessary vulgarity of this world, but in refusing and resisting an idealized image of love – just when the narrator feels he may be ascending to something idyllic, romantic, celestial, the thudding reality of the human appears to dampen and to complicate.
The story proceeds in the fashion of Beckett at his most exquisite and diverse – the narrator is detailing events as they occur, then slips into a direct address to the reader regarding the nature of this storytelling, on to a philosophical pontification, then we realize this is actually dialogue as Lulu suddenly replies to him, followed by a frantic listing of ailments, and somehow we’re back to the events of the story again. The narrative is fragmentary, erratic, wholly unsure of its own orientation, and yet it flows and reads so wonderfully, so sincerely.
The focus slowly starts to narrow on his inner dilemmas over this thorny, persistent topic of love; this comes to form one of the great meditations on human attraction and relationships. I can’t think of another instance where it is considered with more candour, perplexity, and in some senses, accuracy:
The lack of understanding of this abstract concept of love and how it may manifest itself within him is multiplied in the story when Anna herself can only offer: “She replied she didn’t know”, when begged for an explanation for why she is drawn to him. And yet in spite of the overwhelming strangeness of this whole circumstance, there are moments that are quite un-Beckett-like (anti-Beckettian seems too strong a term), in that they feel like the more conventional (or maybe better called recognizable) memories and worries of a person in love:
This more traditional aspect to the tale of love is accentuated by the waning of the relationship once they start to co-habit (“I don’t need the lid, I said. You don’t need the lid? she said. If I had needed the lid she would have said, You need the lid?”). He begins to wonder whether love is primarily a sensation arising from the physical or the visual:
But this is too abstract and offers nothing approaching explanation or resolution. The sexual act leaves him similarly flummoxed – indeed his lack of understanding is such that he can either not relive it, or not even remember it:
It is the only type of ‘night of love’ that can occur, because our narrator, like Beckett (like many of us), doesn’t really understand the human concept of love. Rather than being enraptured or inspired by it as the heroes of infinite love stories have been, the character departs from the story most dishonourably, just as the fruit of the night of love enters the world. The whole story is a confusion, one which Beckett’s texts often create in their readers, myself included in some cases. His is a talent that is often excruciatingly complex and bewilderingly erudite, but a story like First Love should be read and appreciated by anyone who has ever felt or ever just considered ‘love’.
My feeling on Beckett is best expressed by a statement from Jorge Luis Borges, with reference to Beckett’s great friend and literary antecedent James Joyce:
It was raining when we buried him.
It was raining when I woke up looking for him.”
That epigraph quotation is from the first paragraph of Marechera’s The Slow Sound of his Feet, and I struggle to conceive of how a short story could have a better beginning. The words used are so scant, so few, but the effect so very immense – even if you haven’t read the story, I expect you will not forget the sleeping boy who expresses no grief or shock whatsoever when woken by the news of his father’s death, who tries to close the dead man’s eyes but can’t, and who, despite his apparent emotional inertia, looks for his father in the morning but finds only the continuing rain falling on both the living and the dead of this African nation. The repetition of that phrase, ‘It was raining when..’ has the unmistakeable feel of Beckett’s prose, and that sensation of tentative and innocent ignorance of how things work, that air of impending menace surrounding the narrator’s numbed compliance and internal fantasy, pervades this whole, brief, four-page story.
The stark terror that reigns over this land is expressed again through the death of the narrator’s mother at the hands of the same white soldiers who have just subjected him to an unprovoked and very violent assault:
Mother died in the ambulance.
The sun was screaming soundlessly when I buried her.”
Marechera very clearly was a writer who had things he felt compelled to say, and had a duty to illustrate this to the most vivid and devastating effect possible via the written word. These are the horrors experienced by the African populations of these times, and these were the muted, subjugated reactions they were permitted to exhibit in response. Whereas the environment dictates that our narrator cannot respond with a natural fury, nor any form of retribution, the rebellion is still occurring within his own mind – everyone, everything, screaming its protest while all outward is silence.
All, that is, except the quaint yet callous sound of the military marching-band that closes the story; its pagaentry celebrating the meaningless deaths and mutilations of the indigenous people who continue to have their emotional responses strangled and suppressed by state brutality.
The writing, the story, the language, the depiction of how such feelings can manifest themselves within us, it is truly stunning, as is most of Marechera’s The House of Hunger. A very, very fine writer from Zimbabwe, an artist of sublime talent and an uncompromising integrity (look online for the story of his wildly defiant life!). I very much hope for a re-issue of this great collection in the West in the coming years.
I knew I wanted to include a story by Stephanie Vaughn in this list, but it was difficult to decide which one to select from her incredible collection Sweet Talk, published in 1978. I’ve chosen Dog Heaven, though the title story Sweet Talk and her most-anthologized piece Able Baker Charlie Dog are equally special. Vaughn, it seems to me, is the greatest of the many great north American female short-story writers of that generation (along with Amy Hempel) and an artist who should really be as well-known and regarded as her male contemporaries Carver, Wolff, and Ford. Had she written a second book, I feel sure this would have been the case. Around 12-15 years ago, I was going through a phase of frantically buying and collecting everything that Tobias Wolff had ever had any involvement in (what a special writer he is), which included the purchase of The Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories (1993), selected and edited by Wolff. Part of this compilation was this story, Dog Heaven, by Stephanie Vaughn, a writer I’d never heard of. The story was a revelation. Essentially realist in approach, but with elements of fun, farce, and a peculiarity that succeeds in conveying the odd, rootless life that military children led in that era in the US. I gave a copy of the book to my writing tutor as a gift, and soon we were studying Vaughn in class as a group, which was such a pleasure.
There is such humour and such heart to Dog Heaven. It is a curiously constructed piece, but the structure is so effective in expressing how we, within our own families, create shared storied and mythologies, moving through the different periods and different casts of our lives as we do so, holding ourselves together via the fabric of detailed and emotional memories.
The story opens with the imagination that the focalizing character can only exist now the way she was as a young person (some twenty-five years earlier), by virtue of her long-dead childhood pet, the dog Duke, dreaming her back into reality. Yes. And this is only where the flow of memories and dreams begin – they soon expand and deepen as we go deeper into Gemma’s past and her psyche. The ego, vanity, and mock-seriousness of the narrator and Sparky brings great humour, as they repeat formal terms they’ve heard adults say; an example being when they launch their “career in public office” as elected presidents of the day-room. Vaughn’s verve for descriptive writing is in evidence as she consistently paints the scene so well despite sparing language, particularly when the dogmatic teacher Miss Bintz tries to politicize the children in a classroom lit only by projector-screen images of civilians hurt and maimed by the US use of the A-bomb. It’s a highly intriguing point in the story, where our narrator stages a mild rebellion against the attempted indoctrination, first via joking, latterly by causing himself to fall unconscious. It is unclear whether this was the horseplay of a bored pupil, or a subconscious defence of the military force her father has dedicated his life to. Vaughn provides no indication at all that the narrator herself knows which. The scene when the dog “ran into the history of our family” is beautifully done, so resonant to those who carry a stock of their own family myths and legends.
How the story moves so swiftly and smoothly between time-periods and locations is testament to the technical skill of Vaughn, as these never jar the reader’s focus. Towards the end, Sparky bids farewell to the text with the vow that he’ll be famous someday, after a poignant moment where they sit looking at the river and talking of the future. Sparky dies, then the dog dies, but the memories persist in brilliant light and clarity.
In 2008 Tobias Wolff again selected this story, this time for an appearance on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. I’ll leave the final burnish of approval for this superb writer to him:
‘One shouldn’t kick dead people,’ said Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
‘I would give him a boot in the muzzle,’ I said. ‘I just can’t stand dead people and children.’
‘Yeah, children are disgusting,’ Sakerdon Mikhailovich agreed.”
The Old Woman by Daniil Kharms was written in 1939 and seems to be an unfinished parody of Crime and Punishment; one which involves no crime and no punishment.
It is a a work of Russian Surrealist genius, at the same time sounding like all four of Dostoyevsky, B.S. Johnson, Kafka, and John Fante. The focalizing character wanders around the Nevsky, dazed, confused, and a little drunk, like so many of the heroes of Gogol and Dostoyevsky did before him, but with even more absurdity swirling around, and an even more disaffected, disinterested mental response to it all. If Gogol’s great stories of Petersburg had been written by the Bukowski of Tales of Ordinary Madness, that’s probably the closest and most precise analogue.
It is the perfect way to evoke the bizarre world the narrator inhabits, where there is a constant creeping sense of everything being an elaborate deception perpetrated on him, or else he, like so many of Bukowski’s Ordinary Madness characters, has succumbed to some form of mental disorder and lacks cognition of this fact.
The story is nonsensical, it moves and switches rapidly, it is playful and highly arbitrary, while our focalizer remains fairly ambivalent to it all, gamely accepting the random oddnesses that befall him, panicking only sporadically, and otherwise doggedly trying to battle through to something approaching a normality.
It is difficult to decide what the story is really concerned with (as with all of the greatest Surrealist art). Free will, dreams, the existence of God, the process of artistic creation, these concepts and questions come to the surface of Kharms’ prose, but are soon discarded by the sheer pace of the story, the character hurtling through this inexplicable day from one incident to the next with no opportunity for meaningful growth or reflection.
There is great humour throughout, primarily in the unnamed main character’s absolute contempt for both children and the dead (see the epigraph quote for evidence of this), which culminates in him booting a dead old lady in the face, then stuffing her corpse into a suitcase, repeatedly calling it a “scumbag”.
His emotion at finding the body in his apartment is not shock, not terror, but a “terrible feeling of irritation”. Yes. It is a very strange world with Daniil Kharms.
And it gets progressively stranger. A dialogue given in direct speech between the narrator and a potential love interest switches into the form of a play on the page, then it is over and is never repeated. There is a protracted argument between the narrator and his own thoughts – which are presented as a distinct, speaking character, simply called ‘his own thoughts’:
‘Alright,’ my own thoughts said to me, ‘then go in your room, where there is, as you say, an immobile dead person.’ A surprising stubbornness spoke up inside me.
‘I will!’ I said with confidence to my own thoughts.
‘Try it!’ my own thoughts mocked me.
This mockery infuriated me once and for all. I grabbed the croque mallet and rushed to the door.
‘Wait!’ my own thoughts shouted to me. But I had already turned the key and thrown the door wide open.”
This is followed by the very fleeting appearances of numerous utterly inconsequential secondary characters that he has equally pointless interactions with, before it ends with the sentiment that his account has “drawn on long enough.”
Have I succeeded here in conveying why this story by Kharms is in my list of greatest stories, ahead of the best work by many superior writers? No, I haven’t. Maybe you have to read this story to understand its appeal. It is nonsensical, yet it reads and moves so beautifully, is exhilarating and unforgettable. I’ve never read a better or more humorous or more cohesive work of Surrealism in literature. I’ll end on a short extract which hopefully conveys its weird and alluring form of art. This is the start of the story:
“In the courtyard stands an old woman holding in her hands a clock. I walk past the old woman, stop and ask her: ‘What time is it?’
‘Take a look,’ says the old woman.
I look and see that the clock has no hands.
‘There are no hands there,’ I say.
The old woman looks at the clock face and says to me:
‘It’s quarter to three.’
‘So, that’s how it is? Thanks very much,’ I say and leave.
The old woman yells something at my back, but I walk on without looking around. I go out onto the street and walk on the sunny side. The spring sun is very pleasant. I walk on, squinting and smoking my pipe. On the corner of Sadovaya I happen upon Sakerdon Mikhailovich walking towards me. We greet each other, stop and talk for a long while. I get bored of standing out on the street and invite Sakerdon Mikhailovich into a cellar. We drink vodka, chasing it with hard-boiled eggs and sprats, then say our goodbyes, and I go on alone. Then suddenly I remember that I’ve forgotten to turn off the electric stove at home. I’m very upset. I turn around and walk home. The day began so well, and already the first bad turn. I should not have gone outside.”
It strikes my relatively uninformed mind (poetry not being something I could ever call a specialist area) that William Carlos Williams was an artist who thought about the world very carefully, then constructed his work to align with the principles which grew from his own experiences and understanding; his was not work which prized content or plot over form and language. This assertion has been gleaned mostly from secondary reading, including interviews, the reviews of Williams’ work written by Tom Leonard, but also from my interpretations of his exquisite ‘Doctor Stories’. The most famous of these, The Use of Force, justly remains a classic of the American short-story to this day on account of its very robust honesty as the commentary of a man, a doctor working in the field, attempting to provide care to the downtrodden urban population. They are tales lifted from the experiences and perceptions of Williams himself, from his actual career, and so there’s no concession made for ‘drama’ in its conventional sense; in the case of ‘The Girl With a Pimply Face’ there is no discernible plot, other than a few visits to a flat, the result of which is negligible. To impose writerly flourishes or twists of storyline would have been anathema to Williams. Although he principally speaks of poetry here, this rationale is embedded in his prose fiction also:
…The poem springs from the half-spoken words of such patients as the physician sees from day to day. He observes it in the peculiar, actual conformations in which its life is hid. Humble he presents himself before it and by long practice strives as best he can to interpret the manner of its speech.”
– as quoted on p46 of 'Definite Articles' by Tom Leonard
His wider approach to literature could be distilled down to his dictum “not in ideas but in things”, and we see principle manifested throughout a story like Pimply Face. The story is told in direct fashion by a city doctor, who describes things as they fall to his observant eye, and sees no reason to conceal his affinity with the young girl referred to in the title. This honesty lends his character a wonderful humanity, as his is a sense of awe at the world and its people, even in these fairly dim circumstances.
His descriptions are what facilitate and enliven that curious fascination, but at no point do we feel the hand of Williams imposing upon the narrator; the story conveys perfectly Williams’ statement about trying to “interpret the manner” of speech and people and life as they are:
There is little demarcation, formal or otherwise, in the story, as description, dialogue and commentary intertwine into the same narrative strand – our narrator perceiving and expressing this world humbly as it presents itself to him. The doctor shortly encounters this patient, the sick baby, referred to as “it” by all participants in the story:
The description is sparse yet crushingly powerful, the baby helpless but the centre of everything, its sickly appearance a portent of both the hardship and squalor that continues, and the awful grief that will surely come.
There is a moral and ethical ambiguity surrounding the doctor’s thoughts about the pimply girl: at once both sexualised and desexualised – in one breath, ‘She had breasts you knew would be like small stones to the hand,’ and in the next this has been converted into an almost paternal admiration and affection: ‘A tough little nut finding her way in the world.’
Their interactions are not dramatic at all, but compulsive, you feel his attraction but don’t really understand where it comes from or what it means.
The characterization of both the stubborn daughter and her melodramatic mother is subtle, humorous, and oddly unclear, especially as rumours of their behaviour in everyday life become known to him later in the piece. The mother’s voice is well-rendered, her desperation palpable:
But there is a sense that this may be nothing more than a deceitful performance by a very canny operator, and again, as so often in life, this cannot be proven either way; our narrator has to proceed on the basis of what he sees and hears for himself. In this world of hardship, suspicion, and a pervasive lack of empathy, the narrator decries the state of this nation that has left so many of its people in such grim circumstance. After all, it is he and not his wife or colleagues who experienced and felt the terrified mother’s wailing evocation of the modern condition:
The Girl With a Pimply Face is a story of ambivalence which, like all great art, suggests questions and refrains from postulating answers. The affinity between the doctor and the girl is mysterious. As is the mental state and true motivation of the mother. As is the doctor’s irrational desire to help them for free to the detriment of his practice. As is the reputation and rumour that surrounds the daughter and the family. Little happens here, and little is resolved – but Williams has succeeded in writing fiction to match his ideals. Indeed, he stated his wish was to show the “brokenness, isolation and color” of the plight of his patients, and undoubtedly this very particular effect has been achieved through his artistry. It is experiential, non-judgemental, strange, confusing, compelling, authentic. It is life on the page, as ripe and true as any good pimple.
The Boy by Joyce Carol Oates is barely more than a page long, and around three-quarters of that is the vague, drunken commentary of a troubled teacher, rambling her way through a desperate, illicit night with a student. It may not sound quite like one of the greatest short stories ever written. Yet it is spectacular. It is worthy. It manages to contract and expand in the same moment – a frantic, rushed narration; one sentence, one action sliding rapidly, uncontrollably into the next, but as time slips away and folds in on itself, the possibilities about this voice, our narrator, her life, continue to grow and mystify. And in among this contradiction, this pace and disarray, the descriptive terms, the expressions, are perfection, a pure and precise resonance and sensory effect, while never straying into floral or fanciful prose that would compromise the commitment to that voice. The language is very much her own; that of our narrator, at first hesitant, then being carried along on feelings of carefree defiance, and finally arriving at a blind rage against both nothing and everything.
Consider the “wet brown eyes” within that brilliant opening sentence, and how Oates has condensed the languid pursuit of a whole summer into a single line, giving a strong sense of this half-hearted youth, who doesn’t really understand what or who he is pursuing.
In fact, the quotation of a single sentence from this story will show its beauty far more emphatically than any commentary or description:
As in so many of these greatest stories, the way that the prose structures itself, in line with its narrative voice’s tenor and emotional state, and how it moves between action and thought, control and abandon, the external reality and the inner maelstrom – it is art in its most thrilling form.
The closing phrase of the story leaves us to hang upon its strange, furious power:
The remainder of this very short tale maintains this sense of utter shock, of stunned bemusement in the face of the horror of war, while fulfilling its literary promise completely, becoming one of the most devastating, visceral, magnificent stories ever written.
There is so much to reflect upon from just that first sentence. The bizarre listing of disfigurements, detached yet compulsive – why are these injuries being noted this way, by whom, and to what purpose. There is no orientation other than the gaze of someone who is transfixed by the mutilated corpse; we cannot look away so every detail must be confronted, the syntax mimicking his eyes roaming morbidly over the body prostrate on the ground.
The last phrase, “this wound that had killed him”, a clear sign of something at work in the psyche of the subject, a form of denial, of suppression, as evidently the wound itself is carrying all culpability for the man that has been slain so brutally. The story proceeds with further description of the man, the shattered narrative voice numbly listing his (remaining, discernible) features before starting to speculate, or fantasize even, about aspects of the man’s life, his family history, personality, lifestyle, even his emotions, fears, desires. Only the sickening, heartless, crass voice of a fellow soldier breaks this descent into a slow, psychological self-immolation, and drags him forcibly back to the reality of their situation.
However, our focalizer soon returns to punctuating the text with his fixation on the “star-shaped hole” where the man’s eye had been. It is a haunting, frightening image, both for character and reader. It is a specific image borne of an artist who has known armed conflict and what it can mean.
O’Brien evokes the stagnant movement of time brilliantly through a flat repetition, nothing more elaborate than this, yet the feeling of the devastated man allowing time to slide past is so clear, the indeterminate gaps between utterances stretching into a growing void:
‘Think it over,’ Kiowa said.
Then later he said, ‘Tim, it’s a war. The guy wasn’t Heidi – he had a weapon, right? It’s a tough thing, for sure, but you got to cut out that staring.’
Then he said, ‘Maybe you better lie down a minute.’
Then after a long empty time he said, ‘Take it slow. Just go whenever the spirit takes you.’
The subject is doing, changing, thinking nothing during these intervals. The reader sees that Kiowa is recognizing the grave mental state confronting him, as he changes tone and tactic with each repeated attempt.
The narrator reverts to tormenting himself with imagined facts:
“… the young man had never wanted to be a soldier … smooth skin and love for mathematics.”
The existential horror is playing out in his brain and Kiowa, who becomes earnest in his wish to assuage him, has no idea of the mental torture he is wreaking upon himself as the minutes tick by on this country road.
Kiowa continues the one-sided dialogue, O’Brien giving his utterances separately, as they come, but it is of course to no avail. The Man I Killed is a story dealing in devastation, in the terrible isolation of the human mind.
More narrative is built around the life of the dead man, more details listed of the now-festering corpse, more time drifting, more mentions of the star. Kiowa tries again, first rationally, then forcefully, then in mercy and understanding. But the story ends.
The Brother in Vietnam is a remarkable story as with it, Maxine Hong Kingston has succeeded in devising a perfect narrative method to express the extreme disarray (personal, geographical, moral, international) of wartime – she has rendered the nightmarish in the very form and structure of a nightmare.
This sensation can be grasped, felt, understood from the very first paragraph:
From this point onwards, the story lurches between dispassionate realism, where events are recounted with an almost numb demeanour, and a frantic, surreal, terror-stricken dreamlike state in which control and rationality have ceased to exist.
Kingston’s technical prowess is extraordinary – she switches time-periods in a sentence, flinging her characters back into childhood with a skilful, simple word or two (“There has always been war, whether or not I knew about it. My tall parents even taller standing on ladders and covering the windows with black curtains…”), then drags them forth to the narrative-present once more as the story dictates.
Her use of the collage, or montage, is of critical importance throughout the story, as it (logically) stands as the optimum means of portraying the insanity that grips the world around this beleaguered family. The quotation used as the epigraph here is an example of how a time of national fear and paranoia has affected our young narrator: “A big gray bomb slowly covered the skies between houses, but it was only a Navy blimp.” These images from popular media soon mutate into lurid, awful propaganda cartoons; the character’s vivid and detailed description of these underline how the depiction of senseless evil was to burn into the formative young minds of the times. The ensuing conversation in the quotation above did not extend beyond a banal attrition of information, but in the wake of discussion of the propaganda (showing the Japanese as gleeful, amoral perpetrators of hideous tortures), she examines how a country, and/or a culture, attempts to rationalize the spectre of barbarism by indulging in rumours and stories that soon develop into mythology, a retreat to a different time with a different code and a different humanity.
Somewhat later in the story, a similar irrational demonising of the Communists is communicated, and the narrative perspective of the child’s mentality is particularly effective here as it presents (negatively) an unmoderated sequence of the practices and characteristics of the enemy, as was permeating throughout society at the time.
As mentioned earlier, among the fragmentary sequences of misdirected loathing and fearful uncertainty, there are moments where the narrative comes sharply into focus via a realist representation of a juncture that has stayed in the narrator’s consciousness:
The poignancy here is not simply on account of the sadness she experiences at losing her brother to war, it is that the war campaign has become such an overwhelming, awful, dehumanizing and stultifying force in people’s lives that it has seemingly crushed the hope and emotion from her brother; he can feel nothing except the inevitability of his own fate, the fear of a man condemned.
The story then transitions to staying with the brother, and so we move from terrorizing visions of war to the mundane evils of its reality day to day. As a teacher, the brother is unnerved by the responses of indoctrinated children, although he is briefly moved by the humanity of a boy called Benji who tries to downplay the negative characterization of the Chinese in American cartoons for his benefit. We remain with the brother, as he tries to articulate the many different facets of wartime in a way that only such a meandering, dreamlike narrative could hope to achieve.
The futility and endless savagery of the war is conveyed so well by the description of a photograph sent by one of his former pupils:
The sense of evolving horror, as he continues to exist within the war is heightened by his entry into the Navy (even after his realization that there is no more complicity in this than in the everyday acquiescence, support and contribution to the war state of every civilian). During this period, he becomes aware of women having babies at home so their sons would not be registered by the State (thereby avoiding future conscription), and he starts to suffer horrible nightmares about mass mutilations of animals and humans. The deteriorating condition (of himself and of the surrounding world) arrives at an awful nadir when, after describing the banal evils of the pilots and their voluntary bombing expeditions, he then accedes to participate.
Soon, the war is over. Soon, he returns home, without fanfare, to sit in the kitchen, to eat leftover pork, to ponder the triviality of the world. The brother does not seem able to recover any zeal for life. The closing sentiment is, presumably, Kingston’s concept of the only positive end to a war: that the individual has avoided death, and lives to speak again.
I have written elsewhere that I consider James Kelman to be one of the major writers within the short form in English – that his is work that can sit comfortably alongside that of Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, Gogol, Sherwood Anderson, Chekhov, etc. Old Francis is one of many, many wonderful, meaningful pieces within the Kelman short-story canon, and whereas it may not be quite as well known or regarded as, for example, Greyhound for Breakfast (which was chosen by James Wood as Kelman’s greatest work in an article for The New Yorker in 2014), it is my own personal favourite of his stories, as I feel it’s the archetypal instance of one of the greatest features of his writing – which, for the purpose of this essay, I will call the ‘Kelmanic’ ending.
This is not to say that the endings of his stories and novels are homogeneous, not at all. Indeed, Kelman has great variation in how he concludes pieces of writing, depending on the style or trajectory of the particular story – I think of the dramatic closing moments of ‘Unlucky’ or ‘Mo said she was quirky’, those which end in the escape or disappearance of the central character from his/her setting, as in ‘How Late It Was, How Late’ or ‘A Chancer’, the loss of narrative perspective/control from the focalizing presence (‘The block’, ‘A Hunter’), or the more open, Chekhovian form, like in ‘The Busconductor Hines’ or ‘In with the doctor’, where the character’s life seems destined to rumble on in much the same vein after our brief involvement has ended. Yet there is, it seems to me, a very clear and definite strand within Kelman’s prose work where a more innovatory style of ending has been developed – possibly from within the same tradition as Beckett, as the endings of ‘Malone Dies’ and ‘The Unnamable’ are the precursors that most readily come to mind – where the story doesn’t really “end” as much as it comes to a halt via turning inward, closer to an implosion than a conclusion.
If you examine the endings of the seminal stories, ‘Old Francis’, ‘by the burn’, even ‘Greyhound for Breakfast’ to an extent, the great novel ‘A Disaffection’, the fantastic title story of the recent collection ‘That Was a Shiver’, and even very short pieces like ‘A player’ and ‘It happened to me once’, there is a distinct similarity in how the work goes from its highest point of turmoil, then makes the turn inward, burrowing further into the character’s consciousness, meaning that the external world of the story ceases to hold any importance or relevance, and the only value left is in the state of intensity reached within the focalizer.
As someone who has done a fair amount of secondary reading on Kelman’s fiction, it seems like there hasn’t been much focus on this very distinctive mode of ending (J.D. Macarthur did make some great insights on this broad subject area in his book, ‘Claiming Your Portion of Space’), but I believe it is a key element in why Kelman’s writing has been so evocative, so powerful, and so emotionally significant for so many readers.
It is important to establish that calling this ‘Kelmanic’ ending a ‘turn inward’ and praising its emotional intensity does not correlate to these stories suffering the very common flaw whereby the writer elevates the story to a more poetic or philosophical register in an attempt to dazzle and entrance the reader. With so many short stories, that is what a closing ‘turn inward’ signifies – this was something discussed by Alice Munro in relation to her early work:
This facet of Munro’s stories in that book was interpreted in the following terms in ‘The Cambridge Introduction to the Short Story in English’:
An example of this I’ve found in my own reading is actually from a writer whose work I love dearly, John Cheever:
This is the form of ecstatic or ‘enchanted’ ending that Kelman manages to avoid, anathema as it would be for him, despite moving the stories under discussion to a heightened form of language, of emotional pitch, of syntactic intensity, as they draw to a close. In the 2019 interview that we did for The Common Breath website, Kelman said:
I believe it is this principle that underpins this particular type of ending – in essence, this ending is how the creation of a character equates to the story itself, because the move inward is when we experience the character’s consciousness most acutely, and if the sole aim is to conceptualize a character, then where can be gone after this point? The story must logically be over once we have glimpsed the character’s psyche in its most exposed form – the ‘fictional human being’ has been revealed to us. And unlike with those early Munro stories or with the brilliant Cheever at his over-lyrical worst, Kelman is staying true to the lexicon and the mentality of his central character and not permitting linguistic imposition from writer/narrator. Whereas Munro and Cheever allowed a narrator’s perspective and language to appear in order to craft these endings, Kelman is always stripping away such authority rather than enforcing it. The aforementioned J.D. Macarthur discussed this in relation to Franz Kafka, quoting the great artist from a series of recorded conversations, translated into English in 1985:
Although it is possible that the foundational technical elements and innovations which enable this ‘Kelmanic’ ending can be traced back to Beckett and others, I believe this quotation from Kafka encapsulates the moral or philosophical reasoning behind it; that for many of Kelman’s characters, the retreat inward from the horrors, cruelties and impossibilities of the world is the only resolution that they can bear.
It is interesting to consider how this transition is achieved and how the closing mental state is rendered. Mike Marqusee, in a paper entitled ‘Giro Culture’ (1987) referred to Kelman’s “page-long narrative spasms”, which, although may initially sound pejorative, could also be interpreted as a fairly accurate way of describing the syntactic and emotional state that is achieved.
Old Francis begins in a composed style, the story oscillating between an experiential form close to first-person narration, where the character Frank notes things as they come to mind in the narrative moment, while also retaining control and distance in order to consciously narrate the story, becoming descriptive and almost jocular:
Although the inner commentary facilitates the appearance of a sudden thought (‘And where was the jogger!’), the reflective repetition of the phrase used earlier, revising this for a more descriptive emphasis (‘slimy leaves, decaying leaves’) suggests a degree of artistic licence and intention in how the story is being constructed.
After the three dastardly individuals appear and shatter his reflective tranquility with tense and difficult conversation, Frank’s transition towards the interior begins to take form:
The second bloke was speaking; he was saying, I dont think he even goes on public transport, this yin, I think he’s a car-owner.
A car-owner! Frank grinned. I’m actually a train-owner! A train-owner! That was really funny. One of his better witticisms. A train-owner. Ha ha. Frank smiled. He would have to watch himself though, such comments, so unfunny as to approach the borderline.
What borderline? One of irrationality perhaps. A nonsensicality. A plain whimsy. Whimsy. There was a bird whistling in a tree nearby. D d d dooie. D d d dooie. Wee fucking bird, its own wee fucking heart and soul. D d d dooie. What was it looking for? It was looking for a mate. A wee female. A wee chookie. Aw the sin. My my my. My my my. And yet it was quite upsetting. It brought tears to the eye. If Frank could just heave a brick at the tree so it would get to fuck away out of this, this vale of misery. God. I need a drink, said Frank to the first bloke.”
Initially here, Frank didn’t realize that the second man had started speaking, he only tuned in once he became aware of the sound, an early indication of the retreat away from this reality that occurs shortly after. Frank is with these men, he is surrounded by them, but his subconscious is yearning to escape, to be somewhere, anywhere else, a place where innocence and peace are possible and there is no need to fight for one’s place. “Aw the sin. My my my. My my my.” It is a way of using language that Kelman is surely the master of – maybe not quite a “narrative spasm” as such, but certainly something in that direction, the sensation of the utterance, where words have temporarily ceased to hold a semantic value but manage to communicate an emotional resonance, an aching sorrow and a desire.
Unlike earlier in the story where Frank was able to move calmly between modes of narration, the tension has now succeeded in disconnecting the internal life of the story from the situational reality – thought is his only means of resistance from becoming embroiled in that reality, and he continues to resist.
The story ends on Frank leaving all connection with the men and their “vale of misery” behind; they cease to be represented in the text at all. All we have is Frank’s ‘spasm’ of inner thoughts, of his fear and frenzied questions:
The narrative has reached stasis and cannot recover – Frank is no longer capable of confronting the world. He is trapped considering death, what his life has been, if it can go on.
J.D. Macarthur described this state of being in terms of a temporal perspective:
He is correct in asserting that, in the literal sense of the story-world, characters such as Frank are truly in despair, bereft of hope, but this should not be confused with the view that these are despairing stories. I consider them quite the opposite. In his wondrous essay, ‘The Importance of Glasgow In My Work’, Kelman wrote:
In the war to reclaim the “place where thought and spiritual life exist”, Kelman can offer no more potent weapon than to have the consciousness of a character like Frank completely subsume the narrative, to the point where ‘story’ is no longer present, and all that exists is the mind of a person who would previously have been “confined to the margins”. By innovating a form of narrative ending where the story ceased and the value of the work is in entering onto the level of consciousness, Kelman has not won this war, he has made it unnecessary. Character has become story, story does not present character. He achieves this through technical transition, syntactic skill, rhythmic beauty, which I hope is conveyed by the excerpts I have included here. Old Francis is a triumph in every sense.
Things happen, and are finished with for ever: I did not talk to her, I did not look her way again, or even think of her .”
Sam Selvon’s My Girl and the City is a very special, incredibly sophisticated, beautiful, meaningful work of literary art. Like all of Selvon’s work, it perhaps lacks a certain presence of darkness or menace, qualities that are certainly present in many of my other chosen pieces, but this is compensated for by the sheer beauty and singularity of the prose. It is writing of the very highest calibre, perfectly capturing the experience of a young man in his adopted city, the excitement of carrying out his wooing of an English girl throughout central and suburban London, the breathless movement and description as they travel through the bouts of rain and their fleeting conversations.
The originality of this story comes from the transitions between three distinct narrative strands – the external interactions and ‘real world’ relationship between him and his girl, his inner monologue as he, alone, attempts to decode and define and distill the great metropolis around him (what it is, what it means, how and why it makes him feel as he does) and lastly, his aesthetic sensibility and his conception of how an artist must relate to the people and environment that envelope him.
It is that third dimension to the story that sets it apart from other great pieces of short fiction, as often here the narrator’s frustrated ponderings on this subject-area feel so original, so real, and so profound. They intrude upon his existence as though emanating from the subconscious, appearing unbidden into his stream of thought and complicating what would have been a straightforward sensory appreciation.
He builds memory on top of memory, image on top of image, but always accompanied by the realization that he is unable to adequately or satisfactorily translate these pleasurable emotions or conceptual appreciations into descriptions or accounts using words. Unlike most of the other stories here, I don’t think further commentary would serve the work very effectively. My Girl and the City is not a story to be dissected or explained, it is a story to be read, to be felt, and to be loved. I will end here with an excerpt that expresses its inherent beauty:
‘But, why do you love London?’ she said.
You can’t talk about a thing like that, not really. Maybe I could have told her because one evening in the summer I was waiting for her, only it wasn’t like summer at all. Rain had been falling all day, and a haze hung about the bridges across the river, and the water was muddy and brown, and there was a kind of wistfulness and sadness about the evening. The way St. Paul’s was, half-hidden in the rain, the motionless trees along the Embankment. But you say a thing like that and people don’t understand, at all. How sometimes a surge of greatness could sweep over you when you see something.”
Is Lenz by Georg Büchner even a short story? In some ways it feels uncategorizable; certainly not conforming easily to any standard definition of what the short story is. It is a piece of writing, of course. In comparison with a novel, it is fairly short. It has a story, of a kind. In my estimations, it is one of the most important, innovative, original, beautiful, and terribly, terminally dark passages of text in the history of literature. In a similar manner to the greatest work of his finest literary successors, Beckett, Selby, Kelman, it is not merely ‘what’ – what was the story, what did the character do, think, say, what happened, what did it mean – instead, more pressingly, it is ‘how’. How did this story come to be, how was it done, how does it happen.
So far, this may seem quite imprecise and vague, but it is difficult to know how to best approach a story like Lenz. A work written in 1835, and producing effects with syntax and movement that would still feel radical on the page if it was done this year in glossy £16.99 hardback.
Presented as the true story of the Baltic writer Jakob Michael Lenz (1751 - 1792), who suffered an irreversible nervous breakdown in 1778 and went on to live out his final fourteen years in the resulting, highly compromised mental state, Büchner committed to using the written word to try and render the actual lived experience of this kind of anguish and suffering – I have used the word ‘lived’ there, but should really have said ‘felt’. The tale of Lenz is not a simple first-person account of his disarray and decline. It is this, but it is more. We are with Lenz, then we are not. The text flies away from him, and us, then snaps back into control. The narrator tries to assert, then disappears. And rather than try to exert my own authority over such a tumultuous, daunting work of art, I’ll instead give a brief commentary of my most recent re-read, and in doing so, strongly recommend that you study the story yourself, if indeed you haven’t already.
Erika Swales described the opening and initial flow of Lenz in the following terms:
A representative example of what Swales has identified occurs on the story’s third page:
This short excerpt contains so much worthy of note – primarily the “unpredictable flux”, whereby the initial and concluding sentences are short and fairly clear, and the middle one is something that expands and mutates, in correlation with the fluctuations in Lenz’s mental state. There are obvious parallels here with Kafka as in The Castle and The Trial (Kafka would surely have read Büchner in German) and many of those writers then deeply influenced by Kafka, with regard to narrators lost in the existential moment, conveying the immediacy of shock and fear via the onrunning sentence. However, I believe the subtleties and innovations in Lenz run somewhat deeper than that, and so merit being highlighted and examined closely (at least, to the fullest extent permitted by the low word count I aim to keep with this series of individual story articles), especially in relation to other great writers who possibly (probably) took great inspiration from Büchner’s story. The lack of a definite ‘object’ in that first sentence (“he was led across the road”, repeated uses of “they” without a fixed reference/identity) was a technique used often by Gogol to enhance the sense of chaos and uncertainty faced by his protagonists (Gogol essay), and there are obvious correlations between Lenz’s behaviour as he loses touch with reality and the mental decline in Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, as well as the similarity between Lenz’s self-contained torments and the insular condition suffered by the deranged boy in Signs and Symbols by Nabokov, whereas the concept of self-mutilation as a means of combatting mental turmoil (“he banged his head against the stones, he ripped his flesh with his nails, the pain began to restore his consciousness”) was crucial to Knut Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’. The ‘degeneration’ of language from structured, standardized sentences to experiential fragments emanating from the character’s consciousness only (“he ran through the room, down the stairs, in front of the house; but no use, darkness everywhere, nothing, he himself but a dream, random thoughts came ghosting by”) has the distinct impression of Beckett’s prose (indeed there is a section in the story, p150 of my edition, where there is a narrative evocation of a Biblical painting; it is strongly suggestive of the approach in Beckett’s incredible short piece, ‘One Evening’). Syntax here, as in elsewhere in the story, is used to express the gradual unravelling of a person’s mind, and it is as terrifying as it is thrilling to follow and absorb.
The extreme undulations in the speed and tenor (and perspective) of the story, that quality that Swales spoke of, never manage to settle to a prolonged period of composed happiness or stability, as there still lurks an element of the sinister, even when the text is at its most static and narrator-oriented. Consider the beauty of these descriptions of alpine wonder:
It is stunning detail and writing of course, filtering the natural world through the perceptions of Lenz, and in both cases this sees the individual items that he can see coming to form an indistinct whole, as though just to exist within his mind the realities of the external world have to disintegrate into a fractured impression of what they actually are. Nothing can continue to stand or prosper in its true form in the world of Lenz; everything is subject to being infected and distorted by his own shattered mentality. The presence of the narrator grows and recedes as the story progresses; when Lenz is composed and controlled, the narrative voice guides and describes, and when he slides close to the abyss, the narrative takes on that quality of hurtling forwards in fear, unable to orientate the reader any longer:
As the story swings into its final arc, the narrator loses all control over the rendering of Lenz’s mind, and can only stand numbly and watch his spiral down, a movement expressed as follows by Swales:
True, on the referential level, Lenz is and will remain a powerless object, trapped in the grip of his medical condition … But, in contrast to Oberlin’s account, the very fabric of Büchner’s text absorbs and reworks the pathology of schizophrenia such that key symptoms turn into poetic properties: Lenz’s speech, with its fractured syntax and abrupt changes, turns into the very art of parataxis and ellipsis, the mastery of construction without connective particles; the violent changes of his behaviour … re-appear as musical tempo and rhythm; and his illogical associations are transmuted into passages of lyrical intensity. In short, Lenz as a patient is doomed, but by his very condition he becomes the poetic voice, the subject of the narrative.”
By the concluding section, Lenz is seen only externally, he is supine, muted. We are still given vision into his inner tumult, but it is from the outside:
Lenz’s suffering here has taken on a new form (I wonder if the sleeper lamenting the weight of the air was an influence on Lydia Davis’ memorable fragment ‘Insomnia’ of 2007, in which the sleeper complaining of almost the opposite, but equally bizarre, sensation; the terrible weight of the bed pressing up from underneath him/her), but the Kafka-like alienation from the world and its elements, the horror, is still being felt acutely. And it is in this manner that the story ends – of course mimicking the tragic end of the real Lenz’s life.
I have selected Lenz to be the final entry in this short series because, along with First Love (Beckett), The Boy (Oates), My Girl and the City (Selvon) and Old Francis (Kelman), it is among my serious personal favourites, but also because the story includes the following statement on the theory and practice of fiction, of literary/artistic creation. Written not far off two hundred years ago, it strikes me as the most pure and true evocation of what art can and should be. It is the right note on which to conclude such a study of literary greatness.
Thanks for reading...