I got to know about Irish short story week hosted by Mel U from The Reading Life, after I read Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) post on it. It looked like a fun event and I love many Irish authors and so I decided to participate in it. I took a short story collection that I have, which has served me well in the past – it has short stories from most of the countries in the world and which I have been resisting reading from cover to cover because I can get the maximum out of it during reading challenges and festivals – and read all the stories in it which were under ‘Ireland’. Then I took a book of Irish Fairy Tales and read eleven stories from it.
These are the short stories I read.
From the short story anthology
(1) Araby by James Joyce
(2) The Boarding House by James Joyce
(3) Desire by James Stephens
(4) The Sniper by Liam O’Flaherty
(5) Sunday Afternoon by Elizabeth Bowen
This was the first time I was reading a James Joyce story (shame on me!) and I found both the stories interesting. I liked ‘Araby’ more than ‘The Boarding House’ because there were beautiful sentences in it. Like this one – ‘a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness’ – and this one – ‘the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side’ – and this one – ‘I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires’. My favourite phrase was ‘shook music from the buckled harness’ – isn’t that so beautiful?
The last line of ‘Araby’ went like this – “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” I read an interpretation of this ending in a book called ‘How to Read Literature Like a Professor’ by Thomas C. Foster, which went like this – “He suddenly sees that his feelings are no loftier than theirs, that he’s been a fool, that he’s been running this errand on behalf of an ordinary girl who’d probably never given him a single thought.” I didn’t see it that way at all. To me the last reaction was that of a shy boy, who had come to buy a present for a girl he liked and who discovers that the girl in the shop and two guys are flirting with each other, and they don’t give him attention and his shyness makes him frustrated and filled with anguish and anger. The word ‘vanity’ there could mean anything, not necessarily what Thomas Foster said. Have you read this story? What do you think about it?
You can read Caroline’s beautiful review of ‘Araby’ here.
James Stephens’ ‘Desire’ asked some interesting questions on what we would desire for, if we had one wish which could be fulfilled. The narrator of the story has an interesting answer to this question. This is what he says :
What is there now belonging to me, absolutely mine, but from which I must part, and which I should like to keep? And I saw that the thing which was leaving me day by day; second by second; irretrievably and inevitably; was my forty-eighth year. I thought I should like to continue at the age of forty-eight until my time was up.
‘I did not ask to live forever, or any of that nonsense, for I saw that to live forever is to be condemned to a misery of boredom more dreadful than anything else the mind can conceive of. But, while I do live, I wish to live competently, and so I asked to be allowed to stay at the age of forty-eight years with all the equipment of my present state unimpaired.’
The story has a surprising and sad ending.
‘The Sniper’ by Liam O’Flaherty was a short story with a surprising ending. Civil war is going on in the streets of Dublin and there is a sniper on one of the rooftops who is shooting people down. But a rival sniper spots him and shoots and injures him. Then our sniper plots to kill the rival sniper and manages to do that. But when he goes and tries to find the identity of the rival sniper, he is in for a shock. A classic old-fashioned short story with a twist in the end. I want to read more of O’Flaherty’s short stories now.
‘The Boarding House’ is a love story between the landlady’s daughter and one of the boarders. The story has an open ending and the reader is expected to imagine what he / she wants. ‘Sunday Afternoon’ narrates the events that happen on a Sunday afternoon when a man from London visits his friends in Dublin. I wasn’t sure about this story. Maybe I should read more of Elizabeth Bowen’s stories to appreciate her style and talent.
These were the fairy tales that I read.
From ‘Irish Fairy Tales’ collected by Joseph Jacobs and selected by Jennifer Chandler
(1) Connla and the Fairy Maiden
(3) The Field of Boliauns
(4) The Horned Women
(5) Hudden and Dudden and Donald O’Neary
(6) The Story of Deirdre
(7) Munachar and Manachar
(8) Fair, Brown and Trembling
(9) The Fate of the Children of Lir
(10) Paddy O’Kelly and the Weasel
(11) How Cormac Mac Art went to Faery
I liked most of the fairy tales. However, my favourites from the above were ‘Guleesh’, ‘The Story of Deirdre’, ‘Fair, Brown and Trembling’ and ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’. One reason I liked all these stories more was that they were long. ‘Guleesh’ is about a young man of that name who wants to have adventures and by a fortunate series of events he gets to go to France with some magical people who take his help in kidnapping the daughter of the king of France on her wedding day. But when Guleesh discovers that the magical people don’t have good designs for her, he escapes with her, but before they escape the magical people make her dumb. Guleesh leaves her at the local priest’s home and visits her everyday and as time passes the young people fall in love with each other. Whether the princess gets back her voice, whether there are surprising twists to the story, whether the young people get together in the end forms the rest of the story. I liked ‘The Story of Deirdre’ just because of the name ‘Deirdre’ – it is such a beautiful name! It is about a young woman who grows up in the forest without having met any man and what happens to her when she meets a man for the first time and falls in love. It made me remember the Indian mythological story ‘Rishyashringh’ (where it is a young man who goes through such an experience – how much in common fairy tales across cultures have!). In the end it all ends tragically though, and I felt quite sad at the end. ‘Fair, Brown and Trembling’ is the Irish version of the Cinderella story. I loved the name ‘Trembling’ – it is the name of the Cinderella character in the story. ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’ is about four children who are ill-treated by their step-mother and what happens to them. It is beautiful and though the ending is what one dreams about, it is sad.
One of the interesting things I noticed in the fairy tales is that sometimes there is no hero/heroine – villain contrast in the story. Normally when I read a fairy tale, I expect to see some good guys and some bad guys and I hope that the good guys will win in the end and live happily ever after. I also expect that mostly humans will triumph over magical beings, who are typically the bad guys. But it doesn’t happen in some of the fairy tales in this collection. For example, in ‘Paddy O’Kelly and the Weasel’ everyone is a good character. So is the case in ‘How Cormac Mac Art went to Faery’. In ‘Hudden and Dudden and Donald O’Neary’ (the picture on the cover is that of Hudden and Dudden), though Hudden and Dudden are the bad guys, Donald O’Neary is not really a likeable guy either. In ‘The Field of the Boliauns’ the human character is the bad guy while the Lepracaun is the good guy and the human character bullies the Lepracaun, but the Lepracaun wins in the end. Reading fairy tales like this, which were against the grain, made me happy. It also made me think. It made me realize that fairy tales are not all black-and-white moral fables, but they probably represent the complexity of the human condition at one point of time and there is more to them than meets the eye. There was also a mention of Galway in the story ‘Paddy and the Weasel’ which made me smile. Have you heard Steve Earle song ‘Galway Girl’ which was also featured in the movie ‘PS. I Love You’? In many of the stories the name of the land is Erin which I found surprising. I always thought that Erin was a Scandinavian name. I didn’t know that it was Irish.
Here are some of my favourite lines from this book :
The cold winter’s wind that was before them, they overtook her, and the cold winter’s wind that was behind them, she did not overtake them.
So they married one another, and that was the fine wedding they had, and if I were to be there then, I would not be here now; but I heard it from a birdeen that there was neither cark nor care, sickness nor sorrow, mishap nor misfortune on them till the hour of their death, and may the same be with me, and with us all!
From ‘Hudden and Dudden and Donald O’Neary’
You would think there was little here to make Hudden and Dudden jealous, but so it was, the more one has the more one wants…
From ‘How Cormac Mac Art went to Faery’
‘Could I learn the meaning of the wonders I saw today?’
‘Thou shalt learn them,’ said Manannan. ‘The horsemen thatching the roof with feathers are a likeness of people who go forth into the world to seek riches and fortune; when they return their houses are bare, and so they go on for ever. The young man dragging up the trees to make a fire is a likeness of those who labour for others : much trouble they have, but they never warm themselves at the fire. The three heads in the wells are three kinds of men. Some there are who give freely when they get freely; some who give freely though they get little; some who get much and give little, and they are the worst of the three, Cormac,’ said Manannan.
A few days back I saw the movie ‘A Million Dollar Baby’ and liked it very much (I am a big Clint Eastwood fan. I love Morgan Freeman too.) There is a scene in the movie, where the characters played by Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank are waiting in the hospital so that Hilary can get treated for a boxing injury. Clint is reading something while they are waiting. When Morgan asks him what he is reading, Clint replies ‘Yeats’. That scene made me smile This is the kind of scene which can come only in a Clint Eastwood movie – a boxing coach reading Yeats while waiting in a hospital. So, I thought that though this is really Irish short story week, I should read an Yeats poem. This is what I read.
When You Are Old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book.
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.
I don’t know which Yeats poem Clint Eastwood was reading in the movie, but I loved both the above poems. I didn’t know that Yeats was so good.
Are you participating in Irish Short Story Week? Have you read any of the above stories and poems?