Friday, July 26, 2013

Tim Horvath's "Understories"

A few months ago, Tim Horvarth, who teaches creative writing at Chester College of New England, was kind enough to send me a copy of his first collection of short stories entitled Understories (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012).  I read the stories and enjoyed them, but got caught up in another project I am working on that I have not had the opportunity to share my thoughts about the stories with my readers.  I apologize to Tim for this neglect of his very thoughtful and beautifully written collection. I have gone back and reread several of the stories; I recommend the book to my readers.

What fascinates me about Tim’s stories is how they focus more on ideas than on the everyday life of characters in the real world.  The stories alternate between what-if concept stories, fantasy pieces, parables, and seemingly realistic narratives.  However, even the realistic stories are less centered on the everyday life of folks than they are on the essence of human experience.

My three favorite stories in the collection are: “The Understory,” “Circulation,” and “The Discipline of Shadows.” 

“The Understory” is a fiction based on at least one historical person, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. The central character, Schoner, a Jewish professor of Botanical Science at the university in Freiburg, is, I assume, a fictional figure.  The time of the primary action is in the early 1930s, although this is a flashback from the 1970s in America, after Schoner fled the Nazi persecution. 

Schoner teaches his students out in the forest more than in the classroom.  When he meets his colleague, Professor Heidegger, they go for walks in the woods, and while Schoner talks of cycles of growth, decay and regeneration, Heidegger talks about poetry, art and music.  It is this dichotomy—between what Heidegger calls the essence of science and what Schoner reveres as the living world—that creates the narrative energy of the story.

When Heidegger is appointed rector of Freiburg University, Schoner is confident that he will speak out against Hitler’s rise to power. But he is disappointed to hear him talk of German destiny, historical mission, and the will of the people.

When Schoner flees to New England, he marries, has a child, and learns to love the woods of New Hampshire.  He writes to Heidegger, who has since become disillusioned with the Nazi promise and resigned as rector of Freiburg, and tells him: “Trees have always defined the forest for me.  I climbed the canopy, because I thought that’s where the best, truest view was.  But in the wake of the Storm of 1938, I find that the little plants of the understory have become very dear to me, dearer than I could have ever imagined.”
It’s a relatively simple narrative line told in carefully wrought prose, but it has complex implications about the dichotomy between ideology and actuality.

“Circulation” is told in first person by a man who has grown up with his father’s obsession to assemble a book called The Atlas of the Voyages of Things.—a book that attempts to document the complex chain of events by which things come to be what they are and where they are. After his father is hospitalized, the narrator is charged with cleaning out his apartment and finds only bits and pieces—nothing that “even approximated a coherent text.”

The father has previously written one book, a thin self-published volume entitled Spelos: An Ode to Caves, which recounts his passion for going into caves. Most of “Circulation” recounts the circulation of a single copy of the book from the library for which the narrator is the Director of Circulation.  However, the stories about the book’s circulation that the narrator tells to his hospitalized father are all invented.

One obvious inspiration for the story is perhaps the most famous story about libraries, Borges’ “Library of Babel,” for the narrator sometimes imagines himself the proprietor of Borges library—a library that “essentially comprises the whole of the universe—the universe as library.”

Another inspiration is The Arabian Nights, for in Scheherazade fashion, the son tells his father story after story of his one book’s circulation, which sustains the dying man. But if telling stories evokes literature’s most famous storyteller whose very life depends on her storytelling skill, a book about caves inevitably also evokes that most famous cave of all—Plato’s metaphoric cave in which perceived reality consists of shadows cast on the cave wall. The story ends after the father’s death and the son immortalizes his book in a realm somewhere in between actuality and fictionality—a realm in which what is is that which is invented.

“The Discipline of Shadows” is told from the first person pov of a philosophy professor who chairs a department of umbrology devoted to the study of shadows. His epiphany occurs when he realizes that printed words were the shadows of referents, and thus that all fields of study were umbrology--that all academics spend their lives studying shadows. Once again, it is inevitable that the study of shadows would find its source in Book Seven of Plato’s Republic, which recounts the Myth of the Cave.

If you come to fiction to experience the gritty feel of physical reality, then you may not find these stories engaging.  But if you think about, why on earth would you want to come to fiction, especially short stories, to experience the gritty feel of reality?

The short story has always had an ambiguous relationship to what pragmatists like to call “reality.” Poe was criticized frequently for the lack of humanity in his stories—that is, until Borges redefined what constituted humanity in short fiction. From its origins in myths, folktales, fables, and parables, the short story has always been more interested in what the mind makes than what simply exists in the physical world.  The short story has always been more focused on human desires, wishes, fears, hopes, obsessions, anxieties, and dreams than on human actions in real time. As a result, short fiction is more oriented toward “meaning," more directed toward a significant conclusion, than merely in recounting one thing after another.

I like Tim Horvath’s stories and agree with other readers of his work that he belongs in a tradition that follows the short fiction of  Borges and is continued in the fiction of Barth, Barthelme, Gass, Millhauser, and Saunders. I like the clarity and complexity of his prose, and I like his frequent focus on the relationship between fictionality and actuality, which has been one of the most important themes of short fiction since Poe.


Dorothy Johnston said...

One of the things I enjoy about this website is that I don't feel embarrassed about getting into a philosophical discussion - at least not too embarrassed - or by sharing train of thought that may seem tangential to the story under review. The reference to Poe and realism in this post about Tim Hovarth led me back to an essay I'd been reading by TS Eliot, on 'The Music of Poetry'. Some of things Eliot says, although of course he is talking about poetry, seem germane to the discussion about the dimensions of the short story form, those aspects which escape categorisation by such terms as 'plot' or 'realism'.
Eliot talks about the poet being 'occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist'. Although I will always be a prose writer and never a poet, this seems apt to me.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Dorothy. I plan to post a blog entry on the issue of the short story and poetry next week. Thanks for sending me back to T. S. Eliot's essay, "The Music of Poetry."