Posts Tagged ‘short stories’

Translated from Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson came into my life because of my very small book group, it was one I already had had tbr for a long time. Tove Jansson is beloved of many because of both her tales for children and her stories for adults. Somehow, I didn’t hear of the Moomins until I was an adult, they completely passed my childhood by. Yet, I was assured that I would love Tove Jansson, and I did, though of the two Jansson books I have read to date, A Winter Book is definitely my favourite.

Ali Smith writes a wonderful introduction to this edition. Her affection for Jansson’s storytelling is obvious.

“The very thought of it made me feel giddy. Slowly, slowly, the world was turning, heavy with snow. The trees and houses were no longer upright. They were slanting. Soon it would be difficult to walk straight. All the people on earth would have to creep.”

(from Snow)

I love short stories, and these are definitely the type one can read in great greedy gulps – there is a delicious calmness to Jansson’s prose. Heart-warming and vividly described – Tove Jansson brings the landscape and people of her childhood and old age to life, though largely autobiographical these pieces are stories not memoir. There is a lightness of touch here, a quiet wisdom and gentle humour – a real joy of a read.

Parts one and two of A Winter Book; Snow and Flotsam and Jetsam come originally from The Sculptor’s Daughter, stories inspired by Tove Jansson’s childhood in Helsinki. Her family part of the Swedish speaking minority in Helsinki. Beautifully, depicting the mind and imagination of a child, the collection opens with The Stone – in which a young girl finds what she believes to be an enormous rock of precious metal. With extraordinary strength and grim determination, she rolls the rock homeward.

We catch some tantalising glimpses of Tove Jansson’s bohemian household – the parents of her child characters here a sculptor and an illustrator like her own, clearly drawn from life. In Parties – a young girl delights in listening to her father’s parties from her bedroom.

“I love Daddy’s parties. They could go on for many nights of waking up and going to sleep again and being rocked by smoke and the music, and then suddenly a bellow would strike a chill right down to my toes.

It’s not worth looking, because if you do everything you’ve imagined disappears. It’s always the same. You can look down on them and there they are sitting on the sofa or the chairs or walking slowly up and down the room.”

(from Parties)

In other stories we meet Annie – who revers the work of Plato, and who helps the young narrator collect bird-cherry branches, as the gypsy had told her to. Poppolino, a family pet monkey, Albert a childhood friend, and Jeremiah a geologist, and an old fisherman Charlie.

There are stories of the sea, boats and flotsam and jetsam of the shore, and of course the island made famous in The Summer Book. In, The Boat and me, the girl describes the boat she was given when she was twelve, and the first solo trip she took in it.

In part three; Travelling Light, Jansson turns her attention to matters of maturity, ageing in particular. In probably the longest story in the collection; and one of my favourites, The Squirrel, an elderly woman living in isolation on an island, becomes obsessed with a squirrel who has most probably drifted over to the island on a piece of drift wood. The squirrel is not a reliable visitor – but the old woman watches out for him and discovering he has been nesting in the wood pile – divides it up between them.

“The logs must be carried, carefully, to the exact place where they were needed. The person carrying them must herself be like a log: heavy and ungainly but full of strength and potential. ‘Everything must find its place and one must try to understand what it can be used for…I carry more and more steadily now. I breathe in a new way, my sweat is salt.’”

(from The Squirrel)

Correspondence is told in letters, based on the real life correspondence of Tove Jansson with a young Japanese fan.  

These stories are pretty much little pieces of perfection, exquisitely told. I shall not wait too long before reading my other collection of Tove Jansson The Listener. I see from the contents, that the two collections have one story in common – but that doesn’t matter.

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Attia Hosain; writer, journalist and a pioneering woman of letters (so Wikepedia tells us) did not sadly produce many books. Her 1961 novel Sunlight on a Broken Column is a wonderful novel of Muslim life, the review I wrote; one of those mysterious old blog posts that still gets lots of hits years later. I’ll bet it’s on a reading list somewhere in the world. Following the partition of India, Attia Hosain moved to England. Phoenix Fled, a collection of twelve stories came first though another collection of hers; Distant Traveller was published in 2012 – which I have on kindle.

Published in 1953 – a few years after the author came to Britain with her husband, the time period of these stories is around the time of the partition of India in 1947. It therefore fitted the Librarything ‘Reading the 1940s’ event, our rules are gratifyingly loose. There are many kinds of families in these stories – and family is our theme for January. Newlyweds, mothers and daughters-in-law, servants who have been part of a household for a lifetime, mothers and sons all play a part in these stories. In her introduction to my VMC edition Anita Desai says…

“They show her appreciation of the warmth, supportiveness, laughter and emotional richness to be found in the joint family as well as an acknowledgement of how often the joint family could become a prison and a punishment.”
(Anita Desai – Introduction to Pheonix Fled)

Phoenix Fled, the opening title story is a sharp reminder of the violence and fear that came with partition. An elderly woman, who has lived for so long in her village no one can remember when she wasn’t there, is swept up in the terrifying divisions which pitch neighbour against neighbour.

“The soldiers had driven into dust-clouds that billowed thick over the fields, thinning into an emptiness over distances that held a threat.
She did not feel it nor did the children, but the others lived heavily under its weight. The familiar stillness of their surroundings was an accomplice to their solace-seeking minds, as to hers. It could not come to them from out of known distances, to this village, these huts, themselves, the bestiality that was real only to their fear. The village lived uneasily, the breath of its life quickened or caught when some outsider brought chill confirmation.”

Attia Hosain’s writing is very beautiful – I found so many passages to appreciate and read over. There is also quite a lot of sadness – and although I appreciated all these stories – each one is a perfect evocation of time and place – they did affect my mood a little. I was possibly already a little fed up – so don’t let that put you off – these stories are brilliant in their way – and Attia Hosain’s writing is superb.

In, The Street of the Moon – a marriage is arranged between a young servant girl and a middle-aged cook, with an opium habit. Kalloo, who already has an adult son from his first marriage is dismayed. Hasina is a new edition to the household – and is causing problems with her laughter and her cheeky disposition, so Kalloo the cook is told to marry her – Kalloo has been driven to distraction by Hasina’s teasing, the marriage seems doomed before it begins. You can’t help but feel for this girl whose unconventional behaviour means she is palmed off on someone who doesn’t want her around either. Soon after the wedding, Kalloo persuades his work-shy son to come and work with him – the inevitable disaster follows.

One of my favourite stories was Time is Unredeemable – it was also one of the ones I found saddest. Bano; has been living with her in laws for years, waiting patiently for the husband she barely knows to return from England following his studies, he was delayed further by the war. She has almost given up hope that he will ever return, and then one day the cable announcing his return arrives. Bano can think of nothing else, everything she has dreamed of is about to come true. She starts to plan what she will wear and enlists the help of an old family friend in her search for the perfect outfit. There is a terrible inevitability to Bano’s reality – one of those stories I kept hoping would turn out differently to how I knew it was going to. Bano in her red sari and belted coat was the character I kept thinking about after I had finished the book.

“The red net sari with its golden flowers spread stiffly out from below the coat tight-buttoned across her chest and hips, its belt measuring her thickened wait. The powder was too light on her skin, the rouge too pink, and the mouth held tight in shyness smudged red by inexpert hands. She looked up and away, and her eyes were large, soft and timid supplicants.”

In The Loss a much loved family servant who was once the wet nurse for the daughter of the house is robbed of her life savings – money and jewellery she kept in a box under the bed in her tiny room. The daughter of the house is distressed and humbled by the woman’s grief over her loss – and seeks to try and unravel the mystery even getting the local police involved. When the old woman’s son visits, the younger woman’s suspicions are roused.

phoenix fledAn idealistic political worker in Gossamer Thread faces disillusionment – as the wife he looks down upon and married merely to please his mother urges him to help a friend caught up in a political demonstration. The husband is an intellectual – priding himself on his understanding of complex issues, he sees his wife as decoration, he is dismissive of her questions – and yet when the knock comes at the door – he is incapable of stepping up.

In these stories we see characters lives shaped by their fate – kismet. The old traditions come up against the new, modern more westernised world which is threatening to destroy the traditional culture. In these stories Attia Hossain shows a deep, though realistic affection for these old traditions

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This year the Librarything Virago group are reading the 1940s, a project that is right up my reading alley. The majority of us I think will be sticking to our VMC and Persephone editions, with perhaps a few Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press sneaking in. Each month has a different theme – with our January reading focused on family.

Margaret Bonham’s story itself is told in the preface to this edition by her daughter Cary Bazalgette. Margaret Bonham and her husband had lived in Devon before and after the Second World War, and it is this area of the country that Cary Bazalgette says is present throughout these stories. Place is always so important to me, and I know Devon well and so these stories resonated with me from that point of view. The Train and the Gun feature the train line that runs along the coast between Dawlish and Teignmouth – a place I know very well, Sidmouth and Ashburton also feature though aren’t named. A story called The River in which a fond father goes to great lengths to please his little daughter on their afternoon walks by the river – takes place along the banks of the River Yeo.

In 1948 Margaret Bonham left her children when her marriage broke up and didn’t see them again until 1950 when custody arrangements were settled. Bazalgette and her brother didn’t live with their mother – and so for her daughter particularly these stories stood in for her – to be read and re-read over and over.

There are mothers and children throughout this volume of fifteen stories, some fathers too, though few of the children featured have two parents. I thoroughly enjoyed this whole collection, stories of great subtlety, they turned out to be exactly the kind of stories I expect from Persephone, which are the kinds of short stories I like best.

The title story comes first, and it shows to perfection the author’s skill in capturing a brief moment. It concerns a group of English girls on the French coast, who enlist the help of Mademoiselle – their French governess – in pleading their cause in a visit to The Casino. Valentine rather wishes that Giselle didn’t have to come, and Rhys is not sure she wants to go at all – after all anything might happen at a casino. Kitty suggests Giselle will ‘make it look better – in case they are raped.’ Permission granted – though they are only to be allowed to go until eight o’clock – preparations get underway, and all the while Rhys feels uneasy about the adventure. If you’re looking for sudden dramatic endings, Bonham is not that writer – here Bonham’s brilliance is in the disappointment of a longed for treat.

One of my other favourite stories was Vicky – clearly set in Sidmouth – where the Vicky of the title lives with her three aunts, Agnes, Marianne and Violet.

“On a painted iron seat facing the sea the three aunts waited. Behind them the row of flat Georgian houses, their gardens gritty with sand, were closed and withdrawn from the sun, the striped blinds lowered. At either end the cliffs, like slices of pink cake with green icing, shut out the view and enclosed the bay.”


The aunts remember the past, when they were young girls and motor cars were new. It was a time when young men danced with them and took them driving – yet they never married. Their brother George married late in life – and Vicky has never been told much about him. An old family friend Mrs Casey and her daughter Henrietta pay a visit, and the girls are thrown together – taking a walk down to the sea. Here, Vicky’s certainty is shaken when a tragic secret is revealed.

In Annabel’s Mother Bonham has created a child of rather monstrous precocity. Her mother feels unequal to dealing with her – Annabel’s constant prattle about things she has read or learned her incessant questioning has worn her mother down to such an extent that she sees that all Annabel’s school holidays are spent at hotels.

“‘Mummy,’ she said, ‘do you know why there’s an extra high tide today?’
‘No, dear.’
‘Mummy, you are dull; don’t you really know?’
‘No, dear; why?’
‘It’s because of the moon.’
‘I think we better start unpacking.’
‘Mummy don’t you want to learn?’”
(Annabel’s Mother)

Having had her scant knowledge scorned by her twelve-year-old daughter for so long, Annabel’s mother; Mrs Keven has no confidence at all in challenging the confident assertions that Annabel comes up with. As their latest holiday gets under way with Annabel continuing to decry her mother’s past schooling and intelligence Mrs Keven locks eyes with another resident Mr Ferris. In Ferris, Annabel has quite possibly met her match, and Mrs Keven is given reason to be glad of this break after all.

The two Mrs Reeds features Lucy; a woman who almost scandalises the maternity ward completely by sailing through her daughter’s birth with breezy unconcern. When another woman comes into the bed next to her, Lucy discovers she is called Mrs Reed, which initially amuses her because she was once called Mrs Reed, when married to her first husband. She announces to the ward – so there should be no confusion, that she divorced him. Lucy’s husband, a farmer is Louis, a Frenchman – who we see more of in the next story featuring this couple – and Lucy must enlist his help when she discovers that Mrs Reed’s husband is indeed her own first husband.

In The Miss – Lucy and Louis have an evening away from their children at the cinema – date night 1940s style. They meet a woman there – they kind of woman the two of them call ‘a miss.’ Intrigued and amused a little by her – they offer her a lift and end up getting invited in. It gradually becomes clear that their ‘miss’ is rather an odd character.

the casino

Bonham’s storytelling is excellent – it is clear that the short story form suited her perfectly. She did publish one novel in 1951 – but that doesn’t seem to have been successful. I am sorry there isn’t more out there to read by Margaret Bonham. This was an excellent pick for our ‘Reading the 1940s’ – as there are many different kinds of family portrayed here.

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The complete stories murel spark

When I am not reading books for #WITmonth or Virago books for All Virago All August I have carried on reading short stories from The Complete Short stories – and though I am still not finished I hope to be by the end of the month. It is difficult to review a six-hundred-page collection in one, it only ever possible to highlight a few pieces that stand out.

Last month I reviewed the first five stories in the collection – linked as they were with an African setting – they seemed to stand apart. Having read more of Spark’s stories now, those stories still do stand apart. I am still thoroughly enjoying Spark’s shorter fiction though some of the stories fade quite quickly from my mind afterwards.

In these stories we have Spark’s familiar wit, and with her wonderful eye for the absurd, she lifts the veil on the seemingly respectable, exposing what lies beneath.

The Snobs is a story set in Dijon where an ordinary English couple have unexpectedly inherited a château. When former bus driver’s wife Anne meets the Ringer-Smiths outside a gift shop, they are looking lost, struggling with their map – and she invites them to the château for tea. In the Ringer-Smiths, Anne soon detects that dreaded species, the château grabber.

“I could see, already in Anne’s mind, the thought: “I have to get rid of these people or they’ll stay for dinner and then all night. They are château-grabbers.” Anne had often lamented to me about the château-grabbers of her later life. People who didn’t want to know her when she was obscure and a bus driver’s wife now wanted to know her intimately.
(The Snobs)

In her depiction of the dreadful Ringer-Smiths and the poor harried inhabitants of the château trying to get rid of them, Spark is at her humorous best.

In The Dragon – we find ourselves in Italy. A seamstress is hosting a little party – and she is very much afraid The Dragon may spoil it.

“We were in a shady part of the garden. It was six o’clock on a hot evening in the north of Italy. It was my garden, my party. The Dragon came oozing through the foliage. She was holding her drink, a Pimm’s No. 1, and was followed by a tall, strikingly handsome truck-driver whom she had brought along to the party on the spur of the moment. To her dismay, discernible only to myself, he was a genial, easy-mannered young man, rather amused to be taking half-an-hour off the job with his truck parked outside the gate. I knew very well that when she had picked him up at the bar across the street she had hoped he would be an embarrassment, a nuisance.”
(The Dragon)

The Dragon – we discover is an employee – who has not quite turned out to be the paragon of trouble saving efficiency she was employed to be. Here we meet one of those terrible, managing people who take over – making the lives around them quite unendurable.

Themes we see in several of Spark’s novels are present in these stories too. Death, and things unexplained rear their head in stories like the marvellously chilling The Girl I Left Behind Me – which I can’t say too much about – but it has a splendidly Sparkian ending. In Harper and Wilton, two characters from an unfinished story written by the narrator – appear – they are Edwardian suffragettes – they demand that the writer give them substance – or else they will haunt her. Writers appear several times in these stories, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Comforters. In The Pearly Shadow – a doctor is consulted by a shadowy character, who has been tormenting another of the doctor’s patients, it is, quite frankly, bizarre.

Many of Spark’s story openings are great – I glance at the first page, having been about to put the book down, and think oh no I’ll just read this one too. In Daisy Overend – Spark combines this ability to grab her readers instantly -with her ability to portray a character in quite a unique way.

“It is hardly ever that I think of her, but sometimes, if I happen to pass Clarges Street or Albemarle Street on a sunny afternoon, she comes to mind. Or if, in a little crowd waiting to cross the road, I hear behind me two women meet, and the one exclaim: “Darling!” (or “Bobbie!” or “Goo!”) and the other answer: “Goo!” (or “Billie!” or “Bobbie!” or “Darling!”) – if I hear these words, spoken in a certain trill which betokens the period 1920–29, I know that I have by chance entered the world of Daisy Overend, Bruton Street, WI.”
(Daisy Overend)


Another of my favourite stories; Come Along, Marjorie – introduces us to another memorable character; the silent, Marjorie Pettigrew. –Along with the narrator she is one of the ‘pilgrims’ at a Catholic retreat, where most of the inhabitants were ‘nervous cases’. The narrator is the wonderfully cynical Gloria. Blending Spark’s ever-present wit and eye for the peculiar, with those serious themes she seems always to return to – religion and mental health, she explores how people react to those they deem odd or different.

“‘Neurotics never go mad,’ my friends had always told me. Now I realized the distinction between neurosis and madness, and in my agitation I half-envied the woman beyond my bedroom wall, the sheer cool sanity of her behaviour within the limits of her impracticable mania. Only the very mad, I thought, can come out with the information ‘The Lord is Risen’, in the same factual way as one might say, ‘You are wanted on the telephone,’ regardless of the time and place.”
(Come Along, Marjorie)

So, I hope I have managed to give a little flavour of this collection – which I still have to finish! If you have yet to read Muriel Spark’s stories, then I heartily recommend them. Please forgive the number of quotes, I could have easily included far more than I have.

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Translated by Richard and Lucia Cunningham

In my search for more vintage women writers in translation, I was given the name of Maria Luisa Bombal. Her most creative writing period appears to have been the 1930s and 40s, though this collection seems to have first been published in 1982 – for those following my A Century of Books, publication dates are not always easy to sort out.

I don’t always do well with South American literature because of the magical realism aspect so many writers seem to employ, I have never been fond of magical realism. Still, I decided to give Maria Luisa Bombal a try – and despite the fact there is a little magical realism here too, I enjoyed this slight little volume. A little online research – about a writer I knew nothing about, told me that Maria Luisa Bombal was one of the first Spanish American writers to move away from the realist tradition of storytelling. It seems she paved the way for so many other writers who followed her. Bombal’s writing is beautiful, full of glorious images and she uses these repeated images to great effect.

This slim collection contains just five stories – two of them, the first story The Final Mist and the final story; New Islands, are longer and more substantial. The second story The Tree is apparently one of her most famous.

In, The Final Mist a woman creates her own dream life, in a story where the lines between realty and fantasy become a little blurred. Just a few months after his first wife died, a young woman marries her cousin Daniel, returning with him to his hacienda. Her life quickly becomes one of stifling routine, the relationship with her husband distant and unfulfilling.

“Tomorrow we will return to the country. The day after, I will attend mass in the village with my mother-in-law. Then during lunch Daniel will talk to us about the work on the hacienda. Afterwards I will visit the greenhouse, the aviary, the orchard. Before dinner I will doze beside the fireplace or read the local newspapers. Following dinner, I will amuse myself with the fire – producing small conflagrations by carelessly stirring the coals. Very soon, the conversation will dwindle, give way to an oppressive silence, and Daniel will nosily fit the bars against the doors. The we will go to sleep. And the next day will be the same, and so on for a year, for ten; and it will be the same until old age robs me of any right to love and desire, until my body withers and my face wrinkles and I am ashamed to show myself without artifice in the light of the sun.”
(The Final Mist)

Bombal uses the recurring images of rain, mist and wind to help create the dreamworld this unhappy woman weaves around her. On a visit to the city, one night unable to sleep she leaves the house, and takes a walk – she has a wordless, passionate encounter with a stranger. It becomes the most memorable night of her life – the memory of which seems to sustain her for years to come. The possible twist – suggested by Bombal is what makes this story so successful.

In, The Tree we have another unhappily married woman, who through listening to a series of pieces of music reflects upon her life and marriage. The tree outside her window seems to act as a screen to the realities of her situation, so when the tree is finally felled, and the room flooded with unaccustomed light, the woman makes the decision to leave.

“All night long she could hear the rain thrashing, splashing through the leaves of the rubber tree like a thousand tiny rivers sliding down imaginary canals. All night long she heard the ancient trunk creak and moan.”
(The Tree)

Braids is a rather odd little piece – in which the author reflects on the fabled strength and importance of a woman’s hair. It contains the story of two sisters – one of who takes care of the family hacienda, the other goes to the city. Fire comes to the forest surrounding the hacienda – and the fate of the trees and the woman at the hacienda are linked because we are told her hair and the trees share the same roots.

If that was a little strange, The Unknown is stranger still in my opinion. A pirate ship trapped in the vortex of a whirlpool, lies at the bottom of the sea. The captain and his men seem totally unaware of where they are. Chico a young boy voices his concerns:

“‘Captain,’ the boy said quietly, ‘have you notices that our feet leave no tracks in this sand?’
‘Nor do the sails throw any shadow.’ The captain added in a dry, cruel whisper. Then his anger seeming to abate before the boy’s naïve and puzzled gaze, he laid his rough hand on Chico’s shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go, son. The tide will be in soon.’”
(The Unknown)

What meaning lies behind this story – I really couldn’t say.

new islandsNew Islands is a story with some similarity to The Final Mist – there is a long-held obsession and a hacienda. A hunting party gather at the hacienda of Yolanda and her brother Frederico. One member of the party Juan Miguel develops a passionate obsession for Yolanda, following her around, forcing her to kiss him. Meanwhile another member of the party, a man of late middle age – was engaged to Yolanda thirty years earlier – but she broke off the engagement suddenly and with no explanation. Juan Miguel muses on Yolanda’s age – she doesn’t appear to be the age of her former fiancé. Meanwhile – some new islands have emerged mysteriously out of the lake waters nearby which the group go to look at. Yolanda is a mystery – particularly to Juan Miguel – and after the few days at the hacienda are over – he heads back to the city with the mystery unsolved. The new islands sink slowly back into the lake.

I really enjoyed these unusual stories, Maria Luisa Bombal is a fascinating writer. I need to find to find out what else of hers is available in English translation.

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In one way, I probably made a mistake with my purchase for phase 4 of #ReadingMuriel2018, I bought the entire Collected Stories. It runs to almost 600 pages, and with the amount I have scheduled to read during August I doubt I will get the whole volume read. I do really wish I had the time, because judging from the first few stories that I have read, Muriel Spark was a wonderful short story writer. What I should have gone in search of, was an old copy of The Go-Away Bird and other stories (1958) sadly, no longer in print in a separate volume. Never mind, I am overjoyed to discover Muriel Spark was such a good short story writer, if the rest of this large volume continues in the same vein as the first few, I might go as far as to say I prefer her short fiction to her novels.

It is unclear how (if at all) this volume is organised – nothing in the contents suggests the stories are arranged chronologically or thematically. However, the first five stories in the collection – and the ones I’m writing about here, all have an African setting, and were (an internet search revealed) written in the 1950s or 60s. The sixth story in the collection, was clearly set (and so I assume written) in the 1990s.

These first five stories – three of which are from The Go Away Bird and other stories – reflect the years Muriel Spark spent living with her husband and young son in what was then called Southern Rhodesia. These five stories take place in a region, generally referred to as the Colony. A place where Afrikaans is spoken alongside English, a racially divided society, where men out-number women and where violence is common.

The Go-Away Bird – a story a little over 60 pages long (I do like a long short story) – is a splendid opening to this collection.

“All over the Colony it was possible to hear the subtle voice of the grey-crested lourie, commonly known as the go-away bird by its call, ‘go’way, go’way’. It was possible to hear the bird, but very few did for it was part of the background to everything, a choir of birds and beasts, the crackle of vegetation in the great prevalent sunlight, and the soft rhythmic pad of natives, as they went barefoot and in single-file, from kraal to kraal.”
(The Go-Away Bird)


Daphne du Toit grows up on her uncle’s farm – she goes away to school, but the holidays are spent socialising with the neighbours from farms many miles away. Her uncle is called Chakata by the natives he loves, it is a name that has stuck, and he hasn’t been called James for decades. As a child Daphne doesn’t have many play mates but she loves to listen out for the go-away bird – and as she grows up she befriends the often-drunk Donald Cloete. It is Donald who gives Daphne the first clue as to the mystery surrounding Old Tuys, who has worked for Chakata for years, but the relationship between the two is boarding on murderous and Chakata asks Daphne to begin taking a gun out with her once she has reached a certain age. So why, Daphne wonders, does her uncle keep Old Tuys around?

Daphne has intended going to England, and though the war in Europe interrupts her plans she finally does in 1946, staying with her mother’s family, and launching herself on society. But the echo of the go-away bird remains – and she meets a young man who himself will be going out to the Colony soon. In time Daphne returns with stories of London bomb damage, to find her uncle laid up with rheumatism, Old Tuys having completely lost his faculties.

The shock ending of this story is typically Sparkian – and dark though it is – I loved it.

In The Curtain Blown by the Breeze we meet Mrs Van der Merwea, one of the poor whites, who occupies a remote territory. Her husband is in prison, and while he is away Mrs Van der Merwe begins to slowly change her character. The change is facilitated by a group of English nurses, looking to be entertained. Naturally, they get more than they bargained for, though at least life is no longer predictable.

“At that time many of the men looked like Rupert Brooke, whose portrait still hung in everyone’s imagination. It was that clear-cut ‘typically English’ face which is seldom seen on the actual soil of England but proliferates in the African Colonies.”
(Bang-Bang You’re Dead)

The narrator of Bang-Bang You’re Dead is Sybil, a writer, who shows film reels of her life in Africa to acquaintances in Britain. Sybil watches the film nonchalantly, explaining idly how she never kept in touch with the other people in the films. She answers their questions unemotionally, recalling privately the time when the films were taken. Gradually, Spark reveals the truth behind Sybil’s film reels in true Sparkian tradition. It is a brilliant story, subtle and clever, revealing so much of an ex-pat community in less than forty pages.

The Seraph and the Zambesiis the oddest of these five stories. The narrator finds themselves obliged to stay with poet and journalist Samuel Cramer, as there’s no room at the hotel, being just before Christmas. Cramer owned a petrol pump and garage, four miles south of the Zambesi river. He is planning a Nativity Masque at his garage. On Christmas Eve, during the performance, the Seraph appears.

“This was a living body. The most noticeable thing was its constancy; it seemed not to conform to the law of perspective, but remained the same size when I approached as when I withdrew. And altogether unlike other forms of life, it had a completed look.”
(The Seraph and the Zambesi)

The Pawnbroker’s Wife takes place in a very odd little boarding house on the coast of the Cape of Good Hope above a Pawnbroker’s shop. The eponymous wife – is a teller of tall tales, and her boarders are invited from time to time to sit with her and her three daughters and hear her tales. She won’t allow any contradiction.

the-complete-short-stories-paperback-cover-9781786890016These stories were a real joy, in some respects they feel different to Spark’s novels, and yet they nevertheless contain Spark’s tell-tale wit, superb story-telling and wonderful twists. I shall continue to dip in and out of this collection, and hopefully will drop in at least one more review – time etc permitting. With such a large collection, there is bound to be some variance in quality – but what I have read so far gives me very high hopes for the rest.

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I continue to read quite a lot of short stories, and this is another fairly large collection that I dipped in and out of over the course of about three weeks. I recently bought this pretty new VMC anniversary edition of Collected Grace Paley stories, only to get home and realise I already had the book. The other edition was such a physically different book that it hadn’t rung a bell with me at all. It’s not the first time I have bought a book I already have, the perils of a large tbr!

This collection brings together the stories of three previously published collections into one volume: – The Little Disturbances of Man (1959)
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985).

Grace Paley’s stories are of the world she knew well, the noisy vibrant neighbourhoods of New York city. She writes in a style which can take some getting used to, a sort of stream of consciousness style – lots of dialogue and no speech marks. Often in the vernacular of her city, the voices of her characters are loud, insistent, and hard to ignore. Paley has an ear for voices – and she recreates them with great authenticity and affection.

The collection opens with Goodbye and Good Luck and seems to be a letter written from a woman to a much younger female relative. Rose explains her long-term relationship with a Russian actor who she met while working in a New York theatre. She spends her life loving this man she can’t have – turning down other marriage proposals, waiting. One day he does return, years have passed, times have changed. As Rose, who is now firmly in middle age, ends her letter she is about the embark on a new life with the love of her life.

One character we meet in many stories is Faith Darwin – a woman at the heart of the New York Jewish community. She’s a typical Paley heroine. In the earlier stories Faith is a young mother, her husband is absent, and she is rooted in her urban community. In Faith in a Tree we find Faith suspended above the children’s playground in a Sycamore tree contemplating the children of her neighbours as well as her own. In Conversation with my Father – Faith has become a writer, and her father tells her he would like her to write a simple story just once more, the kind of story Maupassant or Checkov might write. In Dreamer in a Dead Language Faith visits her ageing parents in a Jewish retirement home. Here, Faith is drawn into the lives of the other residents, knitting is undertaken, ailments discussed, advice given.

“The boys are down playing Ping-Pong with Mrs Reis. She kindly invited them. Faith, what is it? You look black, her mother said.
Breathless, Mr Darwin gasped, Crazy, crazy like Sylvia, your crazy sister.
Oh her. Mrs Darwin laughed, but took Faith’s hand and pressed it to her cheek. What’s the trouble, Faith? Oh yes, you are something like Sylvie. A temper. Oh, she had life to her. My Poor Syl, she had zest. She died in front of the television set. She didn’t miss a trick.
Oh, Ma, who cares what happened to Sylvie?”
(Dreamer in a Dead Language)

Through these and other stories we see Faith grow, meet her friends and family watch her raise her children. There is often little plot in these stories, but Paley recreates an entire world. There’s a wonderful spirit in Faith, she is ever an optimist, loves her children and her community – and is constantly evolving.

In other stories Paley writes of politics, and we hear voices raised in protest. There are absent fathers, lovers and friends. We meet the mothers of the neighbourhood playgrounds, she introduces them in typical Paley fashion.

“When I went to the Playground in the afternoon I met eleven unwed mothers on relief. Only four of them were whores, the rest of them were unwed on principle or because some creep had ditched them.”
(Northeast Playground)

grace paley storiesIn one story a woman runs into her former husband and they sneak off together to make love. A boy is killed in a sudden senseless accident while messing around on the trains with his friends, in Samuel. In Friends a group of women friends who first knew one another when their children were young visit a dying friend, and travel home together afterwards. An elderly couple raise the child of their mentally ill daughter, while an elderly pharmacist is forced to face up to his own past racism in Zagrowsky Tells – which was one of my favourite stories. The voices are strong, their stories those of any city – and yet also, they seem particularly the stories of New York.

In these stories Grace Paley is funny, wise and frequently angry – she understands life in all its difficulties and her characters are very real. There is a rhythm and inventiveness in Paley’s use of language. There is a sort of aural quality to Paley’s stories, from the lilt of the Yiddish spoken by many characters, to the rattle of subways trains, the voices of children playing in city playgrounds – the laughter and protest of people living in close proximity.



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