Thursday, March 17, 2016

Happy St. Patrick's Day: 2016: Some Modern Irish Short Stories I Admire

Happy St. Patrick's Day!  Here are some comments about a few modern Irish writers I admire.
It is an undisputed fact of literary history that whereas British writers and readers have always favored the novel over the short story (although that may now be changing), just the opposite has been the case for their Irish neighbors. Irish short-story writer Frank O'Connor has attributed this distinction to differences between national attitudes toward society.  Whereas in England, O'Connor says, the intellectual's attitude toward society is, "It must work," in Ireland it is, "It can't work."  The implication of O'Connor's remark, echoed by many critics since the 1963 publication of his well-known book on the short story, The Lonely Voice, is that whereas the novel derives its subject matter from an organized society, the short story springs from an oral, anecdotal tradition.
This view of short prose narrative as a form detached from any cultural background, drawing its interest from the striking nature of the event itself, has always been a central characteristic of short fiction.  One of the most important implications of short fiction's detachment from social context and history, argued early theorists, was that although the anecdote on which the story was based might be trivial and its matter slight, its manner or way of telling had to be appealing, thus giving the narrator a more important role than in other forms of fiction.  The result was a shift in authority for the tale and thus a gradual displacement away from strictly formulaic structures of received story toward techniques of verisimilitude that create credibility.  The displacement is from mythic authority to the authority of a single perspective that creates a unifying atmosphere or tone of the experience.  It is this focus on a single perspective rather than on an organized social context that has made the Irish short story largely dependent on anecdote and the galvanizing voice of the story-teller.
Sean O'Faolain has argued that the short story thrives best within a romantic framework; the more organized and established a country is, O'Faolain claims, the less likely that the short story will flourish there.  Although Ireland, a country that stubbornly sticks to its folk roots, has been a most hospitable place for the short-story form, O'Faolain seems to have constantly fought against the romanticism of the short story, yearning for the realism of the novel.  Thus, his stories reveal a continual battle between his cultural predilection for the short story (with its roots in the folk and its focus on the odd and romantic slant) and his conviction that realism is the most privileged artistic convention.
O'Faolain's stories reside uneasily between the romanticism to which he was born and the realism for which he yearned.  His basic technique might be called "poetic realism," a kind of prose in which objects and events seem to be presented objectively, but yet are transformed by the unity of the form itself into meaningful metaphors.  O'Faolain is a craftsman with an accurate vision of his country and its people; however, he is a self-conscious imitator of more famous precursors, never quite able to find a distinctive voice that manifests his individual talent. 
Although best known for her Country Girls Trilogy and other novels, Edna O'Brien is the author of half a dozen short story collections that have augmented her reputation as an Irish writer who has not been afraid to present Irish women as sexual human beings, who often find themselves caught in romantic fantasies.  An early story by O'Brien, "Irish Revel," from her first collection The Love Object (1968) and a late story, "Lantern Slides," from the book of the same name published in 1990, both of which are anthology favorites, are good examples of her typical themes and her stylistic range. 
O'Brien's "Lantern Slides," the title story of her last collection, is also a tribute to "The Dead," for it recounts a contemporary Dublin party in which a number of characters tell their own stories of love and disappointment.  Just as in Joyce's story, the focus here is on the ghostly nature of the past in which all have experienced the loss of romantic fantasies.  However, the power of desire has such a hold on the characters that chivalric romance seems an attainable, yet not quite reachable, grail-like goal.  When the estranged husband of one of the women arrives, everyone hopes it is the wandering Odysseus returned home in search of his Penelope.  "You could feel the longing in the room, you could touch it--a hundred lantern slides ran through their minds...It was like a spell...It was as if life were just beginning."
There are no sentimental images of the emerald isle in John MaGahern's stories in his best-known collection Nightlines, published in 1970; many are darkly pessimistic.  Moreover, it is  not the speaking "voice" of the Irish storyteller that dominates his stories, but the stylized tone of modern minimalism.  Typical of the Joycean tradition, McGahern's stories are both realistic and lyrical at once.  Also typical of that tradition, McGahern is not interested in confronting his characters with social abstractions but rather the universal challenges of guilt, responsibility, commitment, and death.
McGahern's best-known story, "The Beginning of an Idea,"  opens with the first sentences of Eva Lindberg's notebook, which describe how Anton Chekhov was carried home to Moscow on an ice wagon with the word "Oysters" chalked on the side.  Because the lines haunt her, she gives up her work as a theater director and her affair with a married man to go to Spain to write an imaginary biography of Chekhov.  However, once there, she finds she cannot write.  When a local policeman she befriends entraps her into having sex, she packs up and leaves, feeling rage about her own foolishness.  On the train she has the bitter taste of oysters in her mouth, and when a wagon passes, she has a sudden desire to look and see if the word Oysters is chalked on it.
William Trevor is, without question, the most respected contemporary Irish short-story writer. Trevor has said that having been born Irish, he observes the world through "Irish sensibilities" and takes for granted an Irish way of doing things.  However, as a writer he knows he has to "stand back" so far that he is "beyond the pale, outside the society he comments upon in order to get a better view of it."  The result is that while most of Trevor's stories are not specifically Irish, even those that are centered in Ireland transcend limitations of time and place.  Stories from such collections as The Ballroom of Romance (1972), Angels at the Ritz (1975), and Beyond the Pale (1982) have been republished in The Stories of William Trevor, published in 1983.
One of Trevor's most famous stories, "Beyond the Pale," is a powerful example of his treatment of an Irish theme.  When two British couples make an annual visit to County Antrim on north of Belfast, there seems to be no sign of the so-called Troubles.  However, trouble in this story is submerged beneath the calm surface.  The narrator, Milly, is having an affair with Dekko, whose wife Cynthia devours all the information she can find about Irish history and society.  After a young man commits suicide at the hotel, Cynthia tells the others the story he told her before he died--a romantic fairy tale of two children who fell in love and lived an idyll one summer at the hotel where the two British couples come annually for their own idyll.  However, the young girl, becoming involved with political terrorism, is killed, after which the boy kills himself in despair.  Cynthia uses the story, which everyone thinks she has invented, to represent all those put beyond the pale by violence and deception, ultimately relating it to the deception of her husband.  Thus, although the story is an Irish parable in which romantic children grow into murdering riff-raff, it is also a story of the deceiving British who try to ignore their responsibility for the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Trevor also juxtaposes Irish and British values in "Autumn Sunshine," this time in the person of an elderly Protestant cleric whose daughter has brought back a young man from England who identifies with the Irish and wishes to align himself with Rebels in the South.  However, the cleric recognizes that the young man espouses the Irish cause only because it is one way the status quo in his own country can be damaged.  Such men, the cleric thinks, deal out death and chaos, "announcing that their conscience insisted on it."
"Death in Jerusalem," which Trevor chose for his edition of The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories, focuses on Father Paul, an Irish priest who has gone away to America to become successful in the church and society, and his brother Francis, who has stayed home to care for their aging mother.  When Father Paul finally convinces Francis to accompany him on a tour of Jerusalem, Francis is distressed that the actuality of what he sees does not match the idealized images of holy places he has in his imagination.  The Via Dolorosa, for example, does not compare to his imaginative notion of Christ's final journey; he closes his eyes and tries to visualize it as he has seen it in his mind's eye.  When Father Paul receives a telegram that their mother has died, he holds off telling his brother until he sees more of the Holy Land.  However, Francis says Jerusalem does not feel as Jerusalem should; saying he will always hate the Holy Land, he insists on going home immediately.  The story ends with an image of the priest, who doesn't look and act as observers think he should, smoking and drinking alone.
William Trevor is a master of the Irish short story, not because he writes stories about Ireland and the Irish, but because he has that fine artistic ability, like his most famous predecessor, James Joyce, to write about trivial, everyday experiences in such a way that they become resonant with universal significance.  Trevor's stories seem to have deceptively simple realistic surfaces, until one begins to probe a bit more deeply to discover how tightly built and powerfully realized they are.   In the short fiction of William Trevor, the mere stuff of the world is transformed into artistic significance.  Trevor has said that the artist "attempts to extract an essence from the truth by turning it into what John Updike has called 'fiction's shapely lies'."
Desmond Hogan's "Diamonds at the Bottom of the Sea," from his collection of the same name published in 1979, is a delicate love story about a man who, after living alone for many years, meets an old love who has lived in America.  After the death of her husband, she returns to Ireland, and they both discover how little of their old love has died.  The man seems dazed by this turn of events, as if it were all a dream.  And indeed, the story is like an embodiment of a daydream fantasy of first love regained, aging forestalled, and old hopes rekindled.  "Can't you see," the woman tells him, "it's the intense moments of youth.  They won't leave, try as you will."
The main development of the Irish short, from its roots in the rich folklore of the Irish people to its post-Joycean modernism, has been one in which the old local color conventions and stereotypes of Ireland and its people have been replaced with an image of Ireland as a modern European country.  Although many tourists may bemoan the loss of the old rural images, lamenting that Ireland and its literature is losing its distinctiveness, the fact is, most of those stereotypes were due to the biting poverty of many of the people, the harshness of British rule, and the despair and hopelessness that lead to the stereotypes of Irish immigration and Irish drinking. The short story will probably always be a powerful literary form for Irish writers, but it will probably never again be a form that perpetuates the old local color legends of the Emerald Isle.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The British Tradition of the Fantasy Short Story in Best British Short Stories: 2015

In his  Guardian review of Best British Short Stories 2015 last July, Nicholas Lezard suggested that editor Nicholas Royle must have a soft spot for the "weird or uncanny," since it is behind some of the best stories in the collection, such as Bee Lewis's invention about the origins of Antony Gormley's iron beach statues in "The Iron Men" and Helen Marshall's "Secondhand Magic," which he said gave him the willies. Iain Robinson also noted in his "Unpacking My Library" blog the "magical, the uncanny, and the downright bizarre" evident in many of the stories in the 2015 volume, such as Alison Moore's "Eastmouth," KJ Orr's "The Lakeshore Limited," and Rebecca Swirsky's "The Common People."
Even stories that seem set in the real world of social unrest have a pervasive tone of fairy tale in the 2015 edition of the BBSS. For example, Julianne Pachico's story "Lucky," takes place in a third world country beset by Communist rebels. A young girl's parents and brother go off to spend the holidays in the mountains, but she wants to stay home, cared for by servants. Much of the language suggests an otherworldly/fantasy reality. For example, when the young girl hears the word guerrilla, she pictures men dressed up in gorilla suits roaming the jungle. She reads Arthurian fantasy novels filled with knights and queens. Angelina, the servant whose white apron swirls about her like a cape, mysteriously disappears.
A man comes to the door wearing a shapeless brown robe, saying he is sorry he is late, as if she should be expecting him. He calls her "Princess" and knows that her parents are not there.  He calls her mija, or "my daughter" in Spanish and tells her he is there to help her. She spends the day in her bedroom watching Disney movies on her laptop, such as Beauty and The Beast.  When the power goes out, she checks the generator, recalling how the gardener would go to the back of the house and as if  by "magic," the lights would come on.  The computers in the office at her house seem like "medieval relics," the screens staring at her like grey-faced children asking for coins at traffic lights. When the man comes back, she stumbles to the door holding her fantasy book to her torso like a shield.  Once again, he urges her to open to door, calling her "daughter." His robe swirls around him like a cape.
The girl thinks she needs to figure this out. She doesn't know it yet, "but there's something waiting for her. It could be a future or it could be something else." In a daze, she opens the door and the man lets out a sigh that could also be a groan of pain. She turns her head sharply at what might be the flash of a white apron or the metallic shine of a machete. "It feels like noticing the shadow of her own half-closed eyelid, something had always been there and should have been seen at least a thousand times before."  Joyce Carol Oates uses this narrative convention in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" when a strangely real/yet fable-like, man shows up at her door and carries her away
Bee Lewis's "The Iron Men" also has a realistic, "ripped from the headlines" basis—a teacher who has been accused of sexual misconduct or attack by one of his students.  The man is a science teacher, who thinks in terms of chemistry and physics; for example he and his wife, he says fit together like hydrogen and oxygen. Although he is exonerated of the charge, he says "mud sticks," although he says he will not go into the physics of it. His wife takes their daughter and leaves him. His life, he says changed, "decayed, oxidised," and he slowly turns into iron, with the sea sloughing off layers of rust and metal like skin. He is immobilized on the beach with a hundred men who have lost their place in life. "Time passes whilst ferrous oxide ravages our outer shells, returning us to the universe." The story is based on Anthony Gormley's 2006 exhibition called "Another Place." of 100 iron statues, all anchored in the sand over a stretch of Crosby beach near Liverpool. 
Jim Hinks' "Green Boots' Cave" is about a man named David Sharp who tries to climb Everest, but makes it only as far as 450 metres below the summit at a place called "Green Boots' Cave," so called because the body of an Indian climber lies there, face-down in the snow, in lime-green climbing boots. Sharp freezes to death here. He is passed by forty other climbers ascending to the summit, including a team of filmmakers.  The story ends with this identification with the reader:  "He is you entirely.  Except that, he realizes, something about being you doesn’t feel right.  Something is haunting you.  A sense that there is something else.  Something lurking behind every thought and feeling you have.  Something going on that you will realise if you can only wake up to the fact."
Uschi Gatwarde's "The Clinic" is a short piece about a couple who have a child that is being tested by government agencies; this sci-fi fable takes on a fairy tale aspect when they decide to run away to the forest with her.
Tracy Rosenberg's story "May the Bell Be Rung for Harriet"  is about a young woman sent to a home to care for a female child whose "deceased mother was a butterfly."  The child turns into a butterfly also.
Helen Marshall's "Secondhand Magic," which is about the requirements of real magic, focuses on a boy who wants to be a magician, but is made to disappear in his own top hat by a witch.
Such fantasy/fable stories are part of a long tradition of the British short story.  In the book I am currently working on, which attempts to chart the historical/generic development of the British short story from the eighteenth century to the present, I try to identify the narrative conventions and themes that guide the development of the form. Here are some of the stories that are most important to that tradition:
The earliest short narrative in English literature that still remains a fairly well-known anthology piece is Daniel Defoe's "A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal" (1706). "Mrs. Veal" has been called an example of the gothic mode that began to dominate English short fiction later on. The piece presents the kind of ghostly apparition, which before the eighteenth century might well have been accepted in folklore stories as an article of belief and faith, in an era in which such willing acceptance was no longer common.
The first single work of short fiction in English literature that perhaps set the tone for all nineteenth-century English short fiction, is Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto" (1765).  However, there are two types of gothic short fiction in the late eighteenth century: the gothic tale best represented by "The Castle of Otranto and the gothic fragment, the best known example of which is "Sir Bertrand" by Anne Letitia Aiken, better known as Mrs. Barbauld, prefaced originally by an essay entitled "On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror." 
The best known example of the oral folk tale in the early nineteenth century is Sir Walter Scott's insert tale in  Redgauntlet which is often anthologized as "Wandering Willie's Tale" (1824).  Told by the blind fiddler Willie Steenson, the story has been called "almost a textbook example of the well-told tale as opposed to the short story." "Wandering Willie's Tale" forms an interesting bridge between the traditional folk tale in which confrontations with the devil are the stock in trade and the later British mystery story in which the supposed supernatural is accounted for in a grotesque but naturalistic way.
Wilkie Collins's "The Traveller's Story of a Terribly Strange Bed" (1856) is a particularly clear example of a supposed supernatural mystery being explained naturalistically. This tension between reality and unreality and between the natural and the supernatural is even more obviously foregrounded in the best known story of Edward Bulwer Lytton, "The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain" (1859),
H. P. Lovecraft has called "The Willows" the foremost Algernon Blackwood tale. And indeed it is a story that seems typical of Blackwood's thematic structure of having an average man, through a "flash of terror or beauty," experience something beyond the sensory reality of the everyday.
Arthur Machen's most famous tale, "The Great God Pan," is a story that H. P. Lovecraft praises for the manner of its telling.  And indeed, the manner of the telling is the central concern of this story which, like Blackwood's tale, is based on the assumption that beneath external reality lies another realm  that man intrudes upon at his peril. 
Of the three great latter-day gothic writers of the nineteenth century, Montague Rhodes James is the one most acutely self-conscious of the fictional tradition within which he writes.  An extensively-read student of the ghost story tradition, James knew the convention so well that he could play with it.  "Casting the Runes," James's most anthologized tale, is indeed a typical short story for its time;  its content consists of late nineteenth-century occultism, and its structure is a variant of the typical combination of demonism and detective work that has characterized the genre from Bulwer-Lytton and Collins to Blackwood and Machen. 
W. W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw," (1902) like James's "Casting of the Runes," provides a helpful structural transition between the stories of Blackwood and Machen and those of Dunsany, De Le Mare, and Saki; for although it communicates the sense of horror of the earlier writers, it makes use of the well-made short story structure and the ironic tone of later ones. 
The best-known stories of Lord Dunsany (Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett), "The Ghosts" and "The Two Bottles of Relish," are self-conscious parodies of the two most popular types of late nineteenth-century British short fiction--the ghost story and the detective story respectively.  Both make explicit the conventions and rules of their genres, which in fact constitute the very subject matter of the stories themselves.  As is typical of such parodies, the stories depend on the conventions of their generic models even as they lay them bare.
Walter Allen calls Walter de la Mare the most distinguished of the writers who made the Edwardian age a "haunted period" in English literature.  Part of the reason is the poetic "dignity" of de la Mare as opposed to what is often called the "crude Gothicism" of his contemporaries. Lord David Cecil calls de la Mare a symbolist for whom the outer world is only an "incarnation of an internal drama.  As opposed to other Edwardian short-story writers, de la Mare, says Cecil, uses ghosts not as devices to arouse shudders, but rather as symbols of the eternal world of the spirit. 
To move from the stories of Dunsany and de la Mare to those of Saki (H. H. Munro) is to move from the world of story as a means of parodying story and story as a means of creating a metaphor for the alternate reality of imagination to a world in which story is presented as joke. Because Saki marks a shift in Edwardian short fiction to the trick ending story that dominates popular short stories both in England and America at the turn of the century, his stories often focus on the nature of story itself.

These are only a few of the British writers who  have used the short story form to explore the fine line between fantasy and reality. Both Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling wrote fantasy stories, as did A. E. Coppard and E. M Forster  More recently, the fantasy tradition has been used by Julian Barnes, A.S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Graham Swift, Ian McEwan, and many others. Nicholas Royle's choice of many of the stories in the 2015 edition of Best British Short Stories reflects that the tradition is still alive in the current revival of interest in the short story genre in Great Britain.