The Duel by Anton Chekhov (1891)

duelThis is an interesting one for Chekhov – the character have a nastiness to them that makes Chekhov’s rendering of them seem somewhat unsympathetic. The protagonist doesn’t have a single redeeming quality, though because of this the other characters, all of whom are variously flawed and twisted, come off the better, and for all their many defects, they please us and reach out to us for our approval. It’s great to see such criticism’s as these fall out of the mouth of the protagonist Laevsky: “To constantly go into raptures over nature is to show the paucity of your imagination. All these brooks and cliffs are nothing but trash compared to what my imagination can give me.” Because it is itself almost complete trash. But also has such a crazy glimmer of truth, being a wry and cutting criticism of Chekhov himself, with all his nature and rivers and whatnot. And also of the act of creating itself: “compared to what my imagination can give me”. What, one wonders, does it mean to get sustenance form one’s imagination in isolation? And what, exactly, is Chekhov about at all? But first and foremost this is a story bursting with the beauty of the Russian countryside, as well as a meditation on the limits of the human imagination and understanding, such that when Laevsky concludes “No one knows the real truth” – and then reiterating this nugget of wisdom on the final page, the reader is both reminded of the protagonist’s hopeless flaws, as well as her own: the human condition, etc.

The Duel  by Anton Chekhov (1891)

 

Utility 9/10  
Plausibility 10/10  
Credibility 10/10  
Depth 10/10  
Subtlety 10/10  
Engagement 9/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 9/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 10/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 9/10  
Defamiliarisation 9/10  
Total/100 95/100  

 

Advertisements

The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemmingway (1936)

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Chris Power in The Guardian writes…

 “When he was young,” Frank Kermode notes of Hemingway, “he worked very hard at never saying anything the way anybody else would say it, and his success was remarkable.” His numerous influences include Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce, and his Parisian mentors Pound, Stein, and Ford Madox Ford.

“A New Republic review of 1927 compared Hemingway’s prose to cubism, but the more direct comparison is with the powerful “form as content” approach Joyce developed in Dubliners. Blended with Hemingway’s journalism training and the tenets of Pound’s Imagism, this results in prose that deals with its subject in short, simple sentences mostly comprised of nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs are used sparingly, synonyms are spurned; key words are repeated in patterns to evoke the thing itself,

“Hemingway’s most powerful stories are masterpieces of implication, “conveying,” HE Bates wrote, “emotion and atmosphere without drawing up a tidy balance sheet of descriptions about them”.

“…what Hemingway calls the “iceberg principle”, which many lesser writers have foundered on. “A writer who omits things because he does not know them,” Hemingway writes, “only makes hollow places in his writing”. In his stories these lacunae are pregnant absences where raw emotion lies encoded. They are almost all there is to what many regard the quintessential Hemingway story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, in which an abortion is discussed but never explicitly mentioned. The couple’s desultory conversation swarms with unarticulated meanings.

“Taken as a whole, Hemingway’s fiction portrays a brutal world dominated by conflict and surrounded by nothingness: the “nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada” the waiter recites in 1933’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”. In that story, however, we see an example of the “Hemingway code”, in which the arbitrary violence and meaninglessness of life is met with dignity, which in turn confers meaning. This battle informs “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936). Although for me one of his less successful stories (like Calvino, “I cannot take ‘lyricism’ in Hemingway“), it nevertheless contains individual passages that rank alongside nearly anything else in his oeuvre. Some of the dying writer’s memories are as sharply evocative as the early vignettes, while his description of the “sudden evil-smelling emptiness” of death is as compelling as Tolstoy’s “black sack” in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”.

“It’s fashionable to knock Hemingway, but risible as certain aspects of his life and work may be, the influence of his best writing seems to be underestimated not because of its lack of relevance, but its ubiquity. …Taste is subjective, but the literary impact of Hemingway’s spare, complex stories is measurable and profound.”

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jul/15/brief-survey-short-story-ernest-hemingway

If taste really is subjective, as one suspects it must be, as that is more or less what taste means, then whether Hemingway’s “spare, complex stories” have had both a “measurable and profound” impact, is questionable.

 Why Calvino “couldn’t take lyricism in Hemmingway” is curious: he must have thought him veering towards being sentimental, or otherwise false and hollow. And I can appreciate that point of view; however, for me, this story rings true. But you have to be up for it: a skeptical reading of any story will damn parts of it as false – you ‘just don’t buy it’ if you just don’t want to.

 So does one’s reaction to a story say more about the reader than the story itself? 

Perhaps

Mr A

The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemmingway (1936)

 

Utility 10/10 ‘It’s death – nice to see you. Oh yes – I’m going to die!’ Does the reader really need this thrown at them? Yes, I would say.
Plausibility 9/10  
Credibility 9/10  
Depth 9/10  
Subtlety 9/10  
Engagement 9/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 9/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 9/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 9/10  
Defamiliarisation 9/10  
Total/100 91/100  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘May Day’ by F Scott Fitzgerald (1920) Vs ‘The Wood-Sprite’ by Vladimir Nabokov (1921)

woodspriteAnd another grossly simplistic, reductionist, and crass short story head-to-head.

There’s a lack of an almost distressing lack of subtly in the opening of the Fitzgerald story: he lays it on so thick: he hates the society he is writing about, both those floating idly at the top and those shifting and scraping about at the bottom. The reader is left wondering why the writer is just so mean? And why is the narrative voice so loud and grating, blaring and cutting? Sharp and blunt? Fitzgerald has zero empathy and is utterly unkind towards the little humans he has scuttling about in this fictional world. It’s an unpleasant read. And then Nabokov? So soft, so gentle, so pleasant, so forgiving of every human flaw, so understanding of each weakness. There couldn’t be a better comparison to Fitzgerald’s lack of humanity, in this Nabokov story, the first he had published as a Russian emigre in Berlin. Nabokov deals with the well-worn theme of the retreat of the Russian wilderness in such a pretty and charming, though utterly un-original, way, that the reader is left with a smile on her face, regretting the loss of the woods, but remembering them with a real and deep fondness.

Strange to think these stories are so close – written by the two greatest American authors of the early to mid twentieth century, only a year apart – but also worlds apart.

 

‘May Day’ by F Scott Fitzgerald (1920

 

Utility 3/10  
Plausibility 5/10  
Credibility 4/10  
Depth 5/10  
Subtlety 4/10  
Engagement 5/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 6/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 5/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 6/10  
Defamiliarisation 6/10  
Total/100 47/100  

 

‘The Wood-Sprite’ by Vladimir Nabokov (1921)

 

Utility 8/10  
Plausibility 9/10  
Credibility 9/10  
Depth 9/10  
Subtlety 9/10  
Engagement 9/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 9/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 9/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 8/10  
Defamiliarisation 8/10  
Total/100 87/100  

Nabokov beats Fitzgerald by a country mile!

Though I daren’t compare Nabokov’s best novels ‘Pnin’, ‘Pale Fire’ or ‘Lolita’, to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece ‘The Great Gatsby’.

Mr A

 

 

‘Angel Levine’ by Bernard Malamud (c1950) Vs ‘The Real Right Thing’ by Henry James (1899)

ghost on sairsAnother grossly simplistic, reductionist, and crass short story head-to-head.

Whilst having some awareness of what James is about – in one of the greatest of literary careers ever – from ‘Daisy Miller’ to ‘The Wings of the Dove’ – I would struggle to figure out what Malamud’s “game” is. The TLS’s “an original …a passionately honest writer” raises a few questions, but leaves me none the wiser. In what exactly does “honesty” consist, for a writer. I’ve read four of his stories and I can’t get a handle on either this honesty, nor his reputed originality. What are his stories for? This story is bit sloppy, as are the others I’ve read. But more to the point, one is left wondering: what’s he aiming to do? With James, in this story, he’s reworking already well-worked themes, though the actual appearance of a ghost is a bit clunky, but rendering human experience thus:

“When once this fancy had begun to hang about him he welcomed it, persuaded it, encouraged it, quite cherished it, looking forward all day to feeling it renew itself in the evening, and waiting for the evening very much as one of a pair of lovers might wait for the hour of their appointment. The smallest accidents humoured and confirmed it, and by the end of three or four weeks he had come quite to regard it as the consecration of his enterprise. …He was learning many things that he had not suspected, drawing many curtains, forcing many doors, reading many riddles, going, in general, as they said, behind almost everything. It was at an occasional sharp turn of some of the duskier of these wanderings ‘behind’ that he really, of a sudden, most felt himself, in the intimate, sensible way, face to face with his friend; so that he could scarcely have told, for the instant, if their meeting occurred in the narrow passage and tight squeeze of the past, or at the hour and in the place that actually held him. Was it ’67, or was it but the other side of the table?”

…doesn’t it make the reader more aware of the texture and the actuality of such an experience? What James can do, and in this matter Malamud seems to be all at sea, is to make a character’s experience of an experience compelling.

‘The Real Right Thing’ by Henry James (1899)

 

Utility 8/10  
Plausibility 8/10  
Credibility 8/10  
Depth 9/10  
Subtlety 9/10  
Engagement 8/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 9/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 8/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 7/10  
Defamiliarisation 7/10  
Total/100 81/100  

 

‘Angel Levine’ by Bernard Malamud

 

Utility 5/10  
Plausibility 5/10  
Credibility 5/10  
Depth 6/10  
Subtlety 6/10  
Engagement 7/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 6/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 7/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 5/10  
Defamiliarisation 5/10  
Total/100 57/100  

An easy win for James. Barely broke into a trot.

 

 

A Short Story Head to Head

 Two HussarsWhilst it is grossly simplistic, reductionist, and crass to score short stories out of 100, it is even more so to put them head to head, as though they were marbles rolling down a hill. But here goes:

 Two Hussars by Leo Tolstoy (1856) Vs The Cut-Glass Bowl by F Scott Fitzgerald (1920).

 

I would have to say that by every metric I have come up with, the former wins hands down. This is most marked by how the two stories end, where Fitzgerald feels the need to hit the reader over the head with the meaning of his tale, whilst Tolstoy is happy to put two generations, two eras, two sets of values side by side without instructing the reader how to compare them: does this make Tolstoy a better writer than Fitzgerald? In this instance yes. Though Fitzgerald does excel with ‘The Great Gatsby’ and his story of the Drivers in ‘This Side of Paradise’, in this short story, as well as many of his others, it feels like he’s just treading water, writing words a dollar a pop. Tolstoy wins easily 88 to 63.

The Cut-Glass Bowl

Two Hussars by Leo Tolstoy (1856)

 

Utility 9/10 Yeah – it may be the same theme that Lermontov & Turgenev & Chekov hammered away at – maybe mastered by Lermontov’s ‘A Hero of Our Time’ – but it’s a done so well,so it works so well.
Plausibility 9/10  
Credibility 9/10  
Depth 9/10  
Subtlety 9/10  
Engagement 9/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 9/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 9/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 8/10  
Defamiliarisation 8/10  
Total/100 88/100  

 

 

 

The Cut-Glass Bowl by F Scott Fitzgerald (1920)

 

Utility 6/10  
Plausibility 6/10  
Credibility 7/10  
Depth 6/10  
Subtlety 6/10  
Engagement 7/10  
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 6/10  
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 7/10  
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 6/10  
Defamiliarisation 6/10  
Total/100 63/100  

 

 

 

 

Early Stories of Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O'ConnorTo be fair to Flannery O’Connor, she’s about something different. But I’m not entirely sure if it’s worthwhile, or if it is, whether it at all works. What to do with the short story, is a tough question, when you sit down and attend to it: do the same old thing, but with a twist, or do something entirely different, a la Barthelme. Borges goes his own way. Hemmingway starts all over again and kind of reinvents things. Nabokov is struggling with something his own. Joyce, Mansfield and Cather refine and reduce and perfect. Kafka is Kafka. But what is Flannery O’Connor about?

It could be argued: not much. It could also be argued: being Flannery O’Connor. And that’s enough.

 

‘The Geranium’ (her first published) is a good solid story, showing that she is a good writer and one we should read. ‘The Crop’ (0ne of the six stories included in O’Connor’s 1947 master’s thesis and published posthumously in 1971), is genuinely interesting: something is being done with the form which bodes well. But later? In ‘The Peeler’, ‘The Heart of the Park’ and ‘Enoch and the Gorilla’ O’Connor gives us weird and not much else: overcharged characters, always on the point of exploding without due reason, searching for nothing relentlessly: is this new and exciting, or just a few oddities overacting. The later, I think. Her novel, ‘Wise Blood’ is made up of this stuff. Her mature stories though, collected in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories’ (1955) does better, from what I can recall.

Mr A

‘Coming, Aphrodite’ by Willa Cather (1920)

AphroditeWilla Cather’s second collection of short stories, ‘Youth and the Bright Medusa’, coming fifteen years after ‘The Troll Garden’, doesn’t really feel like much of an advance. The stories are as good, often, as those in her first collection – though there are only four new stories: ‘Coming, Aphrodite’, ‘The Diamond Mine’, ‘A Gold Slipper’ and ‘Scandal’. Of the four I think the first and third are better. Why? Each story features a strong, exciting, interesting female protagonist – in each case a famous singer – and each story is perfectly turned out: none is sentimental, overwritten, loose, or flabby: they are each very well crafted pieces. But in ‘Coming, Aphrodite’ and the ‘A Gold Slipper’ the reader’s imagination is indelibly stained: can’t ask much more than that from a fictional creation: Eden Bower and Kitty Ayrshire are immense.

‘Coming, Aphrodite’ by Willa Cather (1920)

 

Utility 10/10 In a story that states, without the least hint of irony, that “woman’s chief adventure is man” – weirdly this story’s utility comes a lot from upending sexist attitudes: strong women do the all the romantic leg work in romance – or whatever one might call the protagonist-role normally accorded to men in affairs of the heart. In this story the woman’s subjectivity trumps that of the man, though not in any kind of pointed way; however, it is pointed by the fact of how often women are far away, objects of love, on a pedestal, soft, or otherwise the malleable the distant, the mysterious (like the black African of yore – romanticised into a place holder for a white man’s ideas), the other, or the thing. If woman’s chief adventure is man, then the woman in this story, and the other stories of this collection, is the Christopher Columbus, and the man is the West Indies, the island in The Tempest, or Conrad’s deepest darkest Africa.
Plausibility 9/10
Credibility 9/10
Depth 9/10
Subtlety 9/10
Engagement 9/10
Cogency / Structure / Coherence 9/10
Affective / Empathy / Evocative 9/10
Novelty / Surprise / Fun 9/10
Defamiliarisation 9/10
Total/100 91/100 As good as ‘The Garden Lodge’ or ‘A Wagner Matinee’? Probably. As good as Chekov’s best? Not quite. But this is a very strong piece, an important story, and a story that shapes anew how we see the world – even a hundred years after it was published.