Tuesday, May 12, 2009

John Burnside's "The Bell Ringer": PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories, 2009

If you want to read a paradigmatic example of the traditional lyrical/realistic short story, innovated by Chekhov (Collected Stories) and Turgenev (Sportsman’s Sketches) and then developed by Joyce (Dubliners) and Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), take a look at John Burnside’s “The Bell Ringer.”

Burnside’s discussion of the creative origins of his story suggests that he is well aware of this tradition. He says he started thinking about the story when he thought of how important bells, usually church bells, were to the community—to announce the outbreak of war, the return of peace, marriages, deaths, and important social occasions. Since the community was often defined by the reach of the bells, with those “beyond the peal” deemed to be outside that parish, he started thinking that maybe an experienced listener could not only determine by the tenor of the bells what they signified socially, but also “the secrets of individual bell ringers—their hidden wishes, their secret desires and fears, their private loneliness.” It’s a nice trope, fanciful, but somehow believable.

The key characteristics of the Chekhov, Turgenev, Joyce, Anderson lyrical/realistic tradition are all here: The “loneliness” that Frank O’Connor discusses in The Lonely Voice, the “secrets desires and fears” of an individual in a small community, a central metaphor that embodies the loneliness and secrets.

I don’t want to give a plot summary here, for another element of this short story tradition is, of course, the emphasis placed on the ending of the story, what Joyce described as an epiphany. Eva, the central character, has lost her father, lives in an old family house in a village in Scotland, is often alone because her husband works in other countries. She doesn’t really mind being alone, for there is little love or intimacy between her and her husband. Her one friend is her sister-in-law, who confides in her that she is having an affair. She joins a bell-ringing club so she can meet people. She does not make friends at the club, but she does become infatuated with a young American.

What I like about the story is the fictional world Burnside creates—a kind of reality/unreality that is both the world of everyday and the world of fantasy and fairytale. The story begins with Eva thinking the landscape around her looks like a children’s-book illustration, the snow steady and insistent in a kingdom that had succumbed to the bad fairy’s spell and slept for a hundred years in a viridian web of gossamer and thorns.” When she goes to the church for the bell-ringing in the tower, she thinks of the location as a “pagan place, a dark garden of yews and straggling roses and, at its center, the stone church, with its altar and its font and, above it all, the bells, suspended in the chill air of the belfry, heavy and still, waiting to be brought to life.” I like that rhythm.

The ending is announced this way: “It was like watching a conjurer perform a magic trick, when you shouldn’t really care, because you know it’s an illusion, but you just have to figure how it’s done.” The ending is absolutely inevitable and even predictable, but still a surprise. I like it when a story does that. I like it when everything comes together in a pleasurable little gasp.

If you like this story and you have not read all your Chekhov, Turgenev, Joyce, Anderson, then you have a lot of wonderful short story reading ahead of you. And while you are at it, read the two very finest contemporary short story writers in this tradition—Alice Munro and William Trevor.

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