Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Happy Bloomsday! Joyce's Contribution to the Modern Short Story

Today, June 16, is Bloomsday, which James Joyce made forever famous as the day Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedelus were out and about in "Dirty old Dublin" in the great novel Ulysses.
A few years ago, I took a group of students to Dublin for three weeks to study Ulysses and Dubliners in the city itself.  It was a grand time we had, for we were there for Bloomsday, and many of us had Gorgonzola cheese and red wine at Davy Byrnes pub just off Grafton Street.  And we had Guinness—lots and lots of Guinness. 
Today, I will have to content myself with having a Guinness in California alone—which is not as much fun as having a Guinness with friends in Dublin, but certainly better than not having a Guinness at all.
I have read Ulysses six times and would not mind talking a bit about it here.  But that novel, although it started as a short story, does not quite qualify for discussion on this blog.  Still I could not let Bloomsday pass without making a few comments about Joyce's contribution to the short story form.
Joyce's most famous contribution to the theory and technique of modern short narrative is his notion of the "epiphany," which he defined in his early novel Steven Hero:  "By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself.  He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments."
 In a Joyce story, an epiphany is a formulation through metaphor or symbol of some revelatory aspect of human experience, some highly significant aspect of personal reality, usually communicated by a pattern of what otherwise would be seen as trivial details and events.  Joyce's technique is to transform the casual into the causal by repetition of seemingly trivial details until they are recognized as part of a significant pattern.  Two of Joyce's best-known stories, "Eveline" and "Araby," end with decisions or revelations that seem unprepared for until the reader reflects back on the story and perceives the patterned nature of what at first seem only casual detail.
In "Eveline," the reader must determine how Eveline's thoughts of leaving in Part I inevitably to her decision to stay in Part II.   Most of the story takes place while Eveline is sitting at the window watching the evening "invade" the avenue.  Nothing really "happens" in the present in the first part of the story, for her mind is on the past and the future, occupied with contrasting images of familiar/strange, duty/pleasure, earth/sea, entrapment/escape, death/life.  It is the counterpoint pattern of these images that prepares the reader for the last section of the story when Eveline stands among the crowds and decides not to leave her father and Ireland.
The problem is how to understand how the first part of the story, which focuses primarily on the bleakness of Eveline's past life at home and thus seems to suggest that she will decide to go with Frank, manages at the same time to suggest that she will decide to stay?  The basic tension is between the known and the unknown.  Although Eveline does not have many happy memories of her childhood and family life, at least they are familiar and comfortable.  Because these events have already happened, what "used to be" is still present and a part of her.  However, life with Frank, because it has not yet happened, is tinged with fear of the unknown, in spite of the fact that it holds the promise of romance and respect.  Thus, at the end, when she sets her face to him, passive, like a helpless animal, with no sign of love or farewell or recognition, we realize that her decision to stay is ultimately inexpressible.
What Joyce achieves in one of his most anthologized stories, "Araby," derives from Chekhov's experiments with creating symbols out of objects by their role or context, not by their preexisting symbolic meaning.  The primary counterpoint throughout the story consists of those images that suggest ordinary reality and those that suggest unknown romance.  The result is a kind of realism that is symbolic at the same time for the boy's spiritual romanticism is embodied in the realistic objects of his world. 
This is a story about the ultimate romantic projection, for the boy sees the girl as a religious object, a romantic embodiment of desire.  Her name is like a "summons" to all his "foolish blood," yet it is such a sacred name that he cannot utter it.  Her image accompanies him "even in places the most hostile to romance."  Thus, when he visits Araby, a place he fancies the most sympathetic to romance, what he seeks is a sacred object capable of objectifying all his unutterable desires. 
The conversation he overhears causes his realization precisely because of its trivial flirtatious nature, for what the boy discovers is that there is nothing so sacred that it cannot be made profane.  To see his holy desire for Mangan's sister diminished to mere physical desire is to see a parody of himself.  The result is the realization not only that he is driven and derided by vanity, but that all is vanity; there is no way for the sacred desires human beings store up in their ghostly hearts to be actualized and still retain their spiritual magic.
"The Dead" is the most subtle example of Joyce's innovative technique.  The first two-thirds of the story reads as if it were a section from a novel, as numerous characters are introduced and the details of the party are reproduced in great detail.  It is only in the last third, when Gabriel's life is transformed, first by his romantic and sexual fantasy about his wife and then by his confrontation with her secret life, that the reader reflects back on the first two-thirds of the story and perceives that the earlier concrete details and the trivial remarks are symbolically significant.  Thematically, the conflict that reflects the realistic/lyrical split in the story is the difference revealed to both Gabriel and the reader between public life and private life, between life as it is in actual experience and life perceived as desire.
The party portion of "The Dead" reflects Gabriel's public life; his chief interest is what kind of figure he is going to cut publicly.  However, throughout the party period of the story, there are moments--particularly those moments that focus on the past, on music, and on marital union--when reality is not presented as here and now, but as a mixture of memory and desire.  During their short carriage ride to the hotel, he indulges in his own self-delusion about his relationship with his wife: "moments of their life together that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illuminated his memory."
When Gabriel discovers that Gretta has a secret life that has nothing to do with him, he sees the inadequacy of his public self.  Michael Furey, who has been willing to sacrifice his life for love of another, challenges Gabriel's smug safety.  In the much-discussed lyrical ending of "The Dead," Gabriel confronts the irony that the dead Michael is more alive than he is.  "Generous tears" fill his eyes because he knows that he has never lived the life of desire, only the untransformed life of the everyday. 
At the end, awake and alone while his wife sleeps beside him, he loses his egoistic self and imaginatively merges into a mythic lyrical sense of oneness.  "The Dead" is not a story that can be understood the way most novels are read--one thing after another--but the way the modern short story must be read--aesthetically patterned in such a way that only the end makes the rest of the story meaningful.

Happy Bloomsday to one and all!

Monday, June 15, 2015

"Wow!" vs. "Whoa!" in the Short Story

            In response to my recent piece on V. S. Pritchett, Pearl Street posted a comment on what Louis Menand once called the "whoa" effect of short stories. I referred to Menand's remark about his "not exactly a term of art" a dozen years ago in a paper I read on so-called "linked stories" or "short story sequences" at the Modern Language Association Meeting.  I thought it might be worth posting a few paragraphs from that paper.

                                            Wow Vs. Whoa in the Short Story
I must tell you at the outset--as perhaps the world’s oldest cheerleader for the short story as a genre--that I have some reservations about focusing on short stories as parts of a whole rather than as complete artistic entities in themselves.  Given the current trend in the literary marketplace, I could say that I am interested in protecting the marginalized short story from the hegemonic influence of the globalized strength of novelistic predominance, but an old formalist like me would never use language like that. 
My worry is that, precisely because of the hegemonic notion that bigger is better, focusing on the sequential nature of stories inevitably throws the focus on the novel side of the formula rather than on the short story side.  The question of what makes a short story sequence something other than a group of randomly assembled stories and also something other than a novel is worth examining.  I certainly do not want short stories to be read as if they were sections of a novel.  However, by the same token, I do not want them to be read as “part” of an overarching sequence, a tactic that may result in neglecting the unique characteristics of short stories as individual works of art.
It troubles me that James Nagel in The Contemporary American Short Story Cycle says that some readers have misinterpreted individual stories because they did not take into account that they have a book-length intertextual context.  The very word “misinterpret” suggests that one can not really read a story from, say Winesburg or Dubliners, individually, but only within the overall context of the sequence in which they were ultimately published.
I admit there is a certain pleasure involved when you read a story and run across a character you have met in a previous story.  Such character reappearances create pleasurable little shocks of recognition for the reader, a sort of “wow” factor that these characters actually live outside the fictions in which they exist and have been hanging around just waiting for another story in which to pop up.
For example,  although Stuart Dybek’s collection, I Sailed with Magellan, was promoted by his publisher as a “novel-in-stories,” the only thing novelistic about it is that some of the same characters appear in all the stories.  In an interview, Dybek said that the overall narrative line of such linked story collections as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and James Joyce’s Dubliners doesn’t even begin to suggest what they are about, for such books do not assume that life is a neat pattern of cause and effect.  Thus, to call I Sailed with Magellan an ethnic “coming-of-age novel” about a young Polish-American growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s is to minimize the universal power of the eleven individual stories, for each one is a self-contained, lyrically powerful, literary experience.
In the Dec. 1, 2003 issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand, in a long review essay on John Updike’s The Early Stories, says that if you try to name the sensation that an individual story delivers, you might call it a general sense of  “Whoa,” which, he admits, is not exactly a term of art, but you know it when you feel it--that shiver of recognition of the “whatness of a thing” being revealed when you read “Snow was general all over Ireland.” 
Basically, I guess, I prefer this “whoa” feeling when a single story comes completely yet inexpressibly together over the “wow” feeling of running across the same characters, settings, or themes in several stories sequentially arranged stories. 
The short story's dependence on a tightly controlled structure rather than a linear plot and mimetic methods has been one of its central aesthetic characteristic since Poe adapted from A. W. Schlegel a new meaning of the term plot as being "that from which no part can be displaced without ruin to the whole."  By this one stroke, Poe shifted the reader's narrative focus from mimetic events to aesthetic pattern.  Julio Cortazar has reaffirmed that “intensity in a story consists of the elimination of all the filler and transitional material that the novel permits and even demands.”  This need for the elimination of all transitional material is suggested by C. S. Lewis as the human need to transcend temporality to achieve some atemporal understanding:  "In real life, as in a story, something must happen,” says Lewis.  “That is just the trouble.  We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied.”
Many years ago I argued that the short story “way of seeing” was like that which Ernst Cassirer says characterizes perceiving the world in a mythic way.  When Alice Munro says she is primarily interested in “emotion,” she echoes Cassirer’s argument that within mythical perception “Whatever is seen or felt is surrounded by a special atmosphere.”  In this realm, says Cassirer, we cannot speak of things as dead or indifferent stuff, but all “objects are benign or malignant, friendly or inimical, familiar or uncanny, alluring and fascinating or repellent and threatening.”  
This also reflects Raymond Carver’s conviction that,  "It's possible in … a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense, even startling power."  It’s also what John Dewey means by the difference between an emotionally charged experience phenomenologically encountered and experience discursively understood.  As Dewey makes clear, an experience is recognized as such precisely because it has a unity, "a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of the variation of its constituent parts.” 
Moreover, although the novel may focus on cause and effect in time, the short story accepts the fact that what makes characters do what they do is not so simple.  Flannery O’Connor once said she lent some stories to a country lady who lived down the road from her, and when she returned them the woman said, “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do.” O’Connor agreed that when you write stories you have to show how “some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.”  
               Part of the reason for this sense of an elusive and mysterious “secret” life of the characters of short stories derives from its origins in the folk tale and later the romance form.  Whereas the focus of the novel is often on multiple inner consciousnesses, the focus of the short story is more often on an obsessed inner consciousness.  Characters in short fiction seem somewhat like allegorical figures because of their obsessive focus on some single task: Goodman Brown's journey into the forest, Old Phoenix's trip to get the healing medicine, Bartleby's preference not to, Nick Adam's fishing trip at Big, Two-Hearted River.  Obsessiveness—centering the attention on an activity, a person, and a belief--is a limiting, formal process that can be identified as a pattern or structure.  Although in Joyce’s “The Dead,” Gabriel's mind wanders through a number of memories, thoughts, objects, tasks, etc. there is a discernible pattern to his thoughts and preoccupations or else the story would not end with the revelatory sense of transcendence and meaningful closure that it does.
A number of narratologists have noted the basic tension in story between sequence and  significance.  Frank Kermode  calls it the tension between narrative sequence and “secrets.”  And “Secrets,” says Kermode, are at odds with sequence.”  Paul Ricoer calls it the tension between the episodic dimension, which refers to the story as events, and the configurational dimension, “according to the which the plot construes significant wholes out of scattered events.”  As Ricoeur says, every narrative combines these two dimensions in various proportions.”  Most great short-story writers suggest that the short story is more configurational than sequential. 
 The hidden story, of emotion and secret life, communicated by atmosphere, tone, and mood is always about something more unspeakable, more mysterious, than the story generated by the reader’s focus on characters and on what happens next.  The genius of great short stories is that whereas they could indeed be the seedbed of novels, they do not communicate as novels do.  And if we try to read them as if they were parts of novels, they will never haunt us with their mystery. However, this mystery is not easy to describe.

As Louis Menand said in his 2003 piece in The New Yorker: "The difficulty of putting into words the effect a story produces is part of the point.  The story is words; the effect is wordless, or at best, whoa."

Friday, June 12, 2015

V.S. Pritchett: Neglected British Master of the Short Story

Two observations on which most writers and critics agree about V.S. Pritchett are:  (1) He was one of England's best short-story writers. (2) He has always been unfairly ignored. 
Dean R. Baldwin, in one of the few studies of Pritchett (V.S. Pritchett. Boston: Twayne, 1987), rightly observes that neglect of Pritchett is largely due to the fact that his most lasting contribution are his short stories. The fact that "neglect" and "short stories" somehow often seem to be linked should be no surprise to readers of this blog, who know that short stories have often been ignored because of a critical bias for the big over the small, action over language, and the social over the artistic.
Because I have battled these biases throughout my career, I am always delighted when a publisher has the gumption to go against them and makes forgotten short-story writers newly available.
Turnpike Books (London), who has previously published handy handsome paperback collections of A.E. Coppard (Weep Not My Wanton) and J. B. Priestly (What a Life!), has now published a selection of eight stories by V.S. Priestly entitled On the Edge of the Cliff.  They were kind enough to send me a copy.  I posted an essay on the Coppard collection earlier on this blog.
Not to be confused with a Random House 1979 edition of the same name (the title of one of the stories), Turnpike's edition of On the Edge of the Cliff, contains eight of Pritchett's most memorable stories. In addition to the title story: "Wheelbarrow," "Citizen," "The Wedding," "The Speech," "A Debt of Honor," "The Cage Birds," and "The Skeleton."
If you associate British short stories with genteel drawing room comedies or superficial social satires, then you haven't read V. S. Pritchett. In the opening story, "Wheelbarrow," for example, the central character is a "natural destroyer," who looks like some "hard-living, hard-bitten doll," a taxi-driver, who "captures" a woman and takes over assisting her ready an inherited house for sale. Squatting like an imp or devil, he tells her about a vision he had in a mine that converts him from being a gambler and a fornicator to a pious Christian. The story becomes a back-and-forth battle between the two involving temptation, lust, coveting, avarice. It is a classic example of how the short story creates a "realistic" story that is simultaneously a mythic story that focuses on the "secret life."
Adrian Hunter, in his 2007 book, The Cambridge Introduction to the Short Story in English, suggests that Pritchett regards the short story "fundamentally at odds with the English cultural imaginary," which is ruminative. Hunter explains Pritchett's failure to find respect in the academy by locating him unpalatably between modernist formalism and old fashioned social satire.
In the Introduction to the Oxford Book of Short Stories (1981), Pritchett says the short story springs from a poetic rather than a prosaic impulse, which suggests that things that are left out are there all the time and that it approaches the mythical.  The short story writer, he says is not sustained by the discursive like the novelist but rather the distinctiveness of his voice and the ingenuity of his design. He says a good storyteller knows he is putting on a "personal, individual act."  The short story, says Pritchett, knows that our "restless lives achieve shape at times and our emotions have their architecture."
In one of the most recent pieces on Pritchett, (New Statesman, 6 February 2012), the great short story writer William Trevor agrees with Elizabeth Bowen that the form is "a child of our time," at the very "heart of modernity" in its "matter-of-fact brevity," its "sense of urgency, its glimpsing manner, its stab of truth."  All of this, he says, was waiting for V.S. Pritchett, who "gratefully reached out for it, prized it, and indelibly left his mark on it." And indeed, Pritchett has shown himself more appreciative and proficient in the unique characteristics of the short story than most British writers of the twentieth century.
In a 1953 piece in Harper's Bazaar, Pritchett noted that whereas novels are bemusing, the short story, on the other hand," wakes the reader up.”  Like other short story writers before and after him, Pritchett argues that the form answers the "primitive craving for art, the wit, paradox and beauty of shape, the longing to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience." 
In a 1985 interview (John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview.  NY: Methuen),  he says he likes Chekhov's stories because they are so open-ended and he tries to do that too, to leave things hanging.  "it's terribly difficult for English writers to do, since some sort of practical or responsible sense works against it.  We tend to lack the courage to leave it like that, and we don't know what 'that' is."
In the same interview, Pritchett says, "Writing short stories is like writing sonnets or a lyrical poem: it's strictly disciplined, it has to be highly concentrated, and it has to suggest a world much larger than it appears to be doing in its space.... I have always wanted to pursue intensity, and a long time ago I became infatuated with the Idea of 'essences'--essences of behavior--which I got out of reading Croce in Spanish. Croce made a great impression on me as a young man, and I thought: 'Yes, I don't want the whole cake, I want the essence.'"
Pritchett says one of the delightful things about the short story is it is like looking a picture, for you can see the whole thing at once. He also says its intensity attracts him. In his introduction to a collection of Mary Lavin's stories, he said that the Irish short story writer tends to concentrate on the discrepancy between ordinary, everyday life and the self's hidden life."
In the Preface to his Collected Stories (1982), Pritchett talked about how story-writing was "exacting work," and that so-called "real life" is "useless until art reveals what life merely suggested." He says that although he laboured at novels, he was really attracted to "concision, intensity, reducing possible novels to essentials." He adds that he has always thought the short-story writer is a mixture of reporter, aphoristic wit, moralist and poet—though not "poetical." He says the short-story writer is like a ballad-maker and in the intricacy of his designs like a writer of sonnets, like an architect.  The short story, he argues, is not simply read, but re-read again and again.
If you are familiar with my own discussions of the short story in this blog, and in my essays, reviews, and books, you will also find Pritchett's comments on the form familiar. The characteristics of the form Pritchett identifies, and which I have argued for over the years are as follows:
1.      The short story is poetic rather than prosaic.
2.      Things that seem left out are there all the time in short stories.
3.      The short story approaches the mythical. 
4.      The short story is sustained  by the distinctiveness of the writer's voice.
5.      The short story is sustained by ingenuity of its design.
6.      A good storyteller knows he is putting on a "personal, individual act."  
7.      The short story knows that our lives achieve shape at times and our emotions have       their architecture.
8.      The short story reflects a primitive craving for art and beauty of shape, the longing       to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience. 
9.      Short stories are like lyrical poems--strictly disciplined, concentrated.
10.  The short story must suggest a world larger than it appears to be doing.
11.  The short story is not simply read, but re-read again and again.
12.  The short story deals with "essences" of behavior.
If you appreciate the short story and have not read V. S. Pritchett's short stories, Turnpike Books' Edge of the Cliff is a good place to start. He knew the form well—perhaps too well to be well-received by popular readers who prefer long rambling "real life" or academic critics who prefer social significance.