Last week, it looked like I might get into a reading slump. The initial symptoms were all coming out and so I decided to resist and fight by trying to read some short stories. I picked up an anthology that I have been having for years called ‘The Norton Introduction to Literature’. I remember buying it because it had lots of short stories, poems and plays and commentaries on plot, character, narration, point of view, tone, use of language etc. on these literary works. The anthology could be read in any way – from the first page to the last page or by dipping into works of one’s interest. I decided to go the traditional way and start from the first page. The first section had short stories. I read eleven of them. Here is what I think.
What I think
The anthology started with an introduction to what is literature. The first story after that was ‘The Zebra Storyteller’ by Spencer Holst. It was a simple story about a cat which acted like a lion and spoke in zebra language and ate zebras and how this cat is unmasked. There was a discussion on the elements of a plot after this story. The second story was ‘No One’s a Mystery’ by Elizabeth Tallent. It was about a married man who is having an affair with another woman and the conversation they are having in the man’s car, about how their affair will turn out in the end – the man is pessimistic about it while the woman is optimistic that they will end up happy. It makes the reader imagine his / her own conclusion to the story. The third story I read was Guy de Maupassant’s ‘The Jewelry’. It was about a very dutiful wife who like going to the opera and collecting imitation jewellery. When she falls ill and dies, her husband discovers that the jewellery is not imitation but the real thing. It makes him realize that his wife was probably unfaithful to him while managing to keep him happy at the same time. What happens after that and how this man reconciles his wife’s unfaithfulness with the fortune that she has left for him in jewellery, forms the rest of the story. For some reason, I liked the character of the wife in the story.
The fourth story in the collection was ‘Happy Endings’ by Margaret Atwood. It is difficult to call this a story. It is probably a story-ish essay. Atwood talks about happy endings and then gives a story which has only happy events and a happy ending. As expected, the story is boring. Then she plays with the plot (the leading woman character loves the man but the man doesn’t love back) and introduces new characters, some complexity, some not-so-happy events and the story assumes a life of its own and is more rich and makes us identify with one or more of the characters. Then she creates a third version of the story by playing with the plot more and introduces more complexity (the leading male character is much older than the woman character, he is married already and is only having an affair, while the woman has a romantic attachment to another young man of her own age) which makes the story more interesting. Atwood continues playing more with the basic plot structure and form of the story and each of the results is quite interesting. It is an education in creative writing and storytelling and this story made me very happy. It was like watching a master teacher at work. Towards the end of the story, Atwood says that there is only one authentic ending for all stories – that everyone dies – and then adds – “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.” I will highly recommend this story. Atwood rocks J
The fifth story in the collection was ‘The Country Husband’ by John Cheever. I have read one John Cheever short story before called ‘Marito in Città’ and I found it okay but it was not really my favourite. However, I liked ‘The Country Husband’ very much. Frank, the country husband of the title, is travelling by plane when his plane crashlands onto a field, putting the passengers into a panic. He survives and gets back home. He tries talking about his scary experience with his wife and children but no one at home is interested in listening. During the evening he meets a new babysitter at home and is attracted towards her. He even buys a gift for her later. The story goes on like this showing different scenes and images from the suburbs. I read somewhere that the difference between classical poetry (pre-20th century poetry) and modern poetry is that while classical poetry has a narrative arc, modern poetry has a series of images, coming one after the other. The images are absolutely precise and endlessly suggestive. I loved that phrase. When I think of Cheever’s story, I feel that is how it is – a series of images which are absolutely precise and endlessly suggestive, like modern poetry. It was interesting to read and open to many different interpretations by the reader in the end.
The sixth story I read was James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’. A nameless narrator reads the newspaper while he is travelling by the subway and discovers that his brother Sonny has been arrested by the police. The narrator describes his feelings at this time in this beautiful and powerful passage :
A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream.
His mind goes back while he thinks about Sonny and how he was very different from the rest of the family and was unconventional and ended up as a drug addict. Towards the end of the story the narrator discovers an unknown, beautiful side of Sonny. This was one of my favourite stories in the collection, out of the ones that I have read till now. There is a beautiful conversation that the narrator has with Sonny about what Sonny wants to do in his life and Sonny replies that he wants to become a musician. I could relate very much to that conversation. Towards the end of the story, the prose got transformed into poetry and every word was a pleasure to read. For example this passage :
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.
If you haven’t read James Baldwin’s stories before, I would highly recommend this one – ‘Sonny’s Blues’.
The seventh story in the collection was ‘The Cask of Amontillado’. This was a revenge story and it wasn’t much to write about it other than the fact that it was under the section ‘Narration and Point of View’ and featured storytelling from a first person point-of-view. The eighth story was ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ by Ernest Hemingway. The whole story was a conversation between an American guy and a girl (probably Spanish) in a bar while they were waiting for their train to arrive. It was also not much to write about other than the fact that the relationship between the guy and girl was going south. Hemingway is one of my favourite writers, but I realize that I can’t recommend his stories unreservedly. I need to read all his works sometime and decide which ones I like and which ones I don’t.
The ninth story I read was ‘How’ by Lorrie Moore. It was a story about a woman and a man who fall in love and they move in together. Unfortunately, after a while the woman falls out of love and decides to move out. But more unfortunately, the man has a serious health issue and his condition is undiagnosed. So the woman postpones her move out. Things linger on like this for a while, but finally the woman decides to move out, eventhough the man seems to be sick. The interesting thing about the story was that it was told from a second person point of view and even more interestingly and rarely, in the future tense. I haven’t read a story told from a second person point of view – or rather I have read parts of one story told from a second person point of view called ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino. So, it was quite interesting to read Moore’s story. I didn’t know for a long time what a second person point of view in a story meant – I only realized later that in this model, the reader was co-opted into the story as a character. I don’t think I have read a story which exclusively employed the future tense. I have to say that I loved Lorrie Moore’s story, especially for the innovative storytelling style. I want to read more of her stories.
The tenth story I read was ‘Dreams’ by Timothy Findley. It is about a husband-and-wife couple who are both psychiatrists and who have one tough patient each at work. Unfortunately, the husband’s patient doesn’t respond to him and as a result the husband gets insomnia and is not able to sleep. The wife tries to help him but she is not able too. What happens to them and their patients form the rest of the story. I don’t know how to describe this story other than fantastic – in the sense dreams and reality merge at some point in the story and it is difficult to tell which is dream and which is real. A very interesting story open to multiple interpretations.
The eleventh story I read was Eudora Welty’s ‘Why I Live at the P.O’. The main character in the story talks about why she left her home and went to live in the post office in which she works. I have heard a lot about Eudora Welty and love some of her quotes, especially this one – “It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming of themselves like grass.” I was hoping to read some of her stories one day and love them, but unfortunately, this one was not for me. But I hope to try other stories by Welty in the future.
My favourites stories out of the above are ‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin, ‘Happy Endings’ by Margaret Atwood, ‘How’ by Lorrie Moore, ‘Dreams’ by Timothy Findley and ‘The Country Husband’ by John Cheever. That is five out of eleven – not bad J
Well, these are my eleven stories. The next story in the collection is ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ by Herman Melville. There is also a whole section on Flannery O’Connor. I can’t wait to get to that. But right now, I am going to take a break from this book – it is nearly 1800 pages and so it is going to take some time for me to get to the last page – and I am going to read something else.
A word on the book. This is one of the best anthologies I have. The short story selection is quite excellent. The poetry selection is better and the selection of plays is awesome. The highlights of the book are the commentaries on different aspects of stories and poems and plays and essays by writers on their craft and by reviewers and critics and students on the pieces they have read. It is really a bibliophile’s delight. If you love anthologies, you might want to look at this. I don’t know why I waited for so long to start reading it.
What are you reading now?