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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)

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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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cof

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)

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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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thecatscradle book

What a fabulous quirky constantly inventive writer Sylvia Townsend Warner was! I am already a massive fan of her writing, and The Cat’s Cradle Book collection is really something quite different.

The premise essentially is to tell us the stories, that have been passed down from cats to their kittens for generations. Fairy-tales from cats, giving us, an unusual cat’s eye view of the world. It isn’t a perspective we are used to – and the cynical reader may need to suspend belief and just enjoy the ride. These stories are joyfully different, tapping into our long-held love of traditional stories.

“For ages the Cat language has been catholic, explicit, unvarying. I understand it, you understand it, every child picks up an inkling of it. When cats creep into children’s cradles and old women say that they are sucking the child’s breath, what do you suppose they are doing? Keeping them quiet with a story – and better than their mothers can!”

It is a shame that this collection remains out of print, although this pretty 1960s edition of a collection first published in 1940 seems widely available from the usual places, a perfect gift for a fairy-tale loving cat person. A little warning though cat lovers, a few of the cats in this book don’t survive – but you would probably expect that.

The collection begins with an introduction from the editor of these special tales. This forty-four page ‘introduction’ was my favourite part of the whole book, in which STW describes perfectly, a house, its feline inhabitants in fine and glorious prose. The ‘editor’ comes upon a house, nestled deep in the countryside, here she meets a particularly handsome man, living alongside many cats and kittens. The young man is astounded to find the author can understand the language of cat – far better than she can speak it. The cats have plenty to tell her, introducing her to their kittens, they rub against her in welcome. Our narrator stays to tea, and the remarkably handsome young man begins to tell his own story. Having finished Oxford, the young man embarked upon a diplomatic career, while in Turkey he fell hopelessly in love; with a Siamese cat called Haru. Look, these things happen! Haru is technically the property of the naval attaché’s wife, though Haru soon makes her feelings perfectly clear. Haru captivates the young man; William with her stories. The young man is destined for heartbreak, and thereafter dedicates himself to re-telling the traditional stories of cats.

“The following stories are chosen from the collection of traditional narratives current among cats, made by the late Mr William Farthing of Spain Hall, Norfolk. The selection is the editor’s.”

The stories which follow tell a variety of tales, and not all of them are about cats. Like Odin’s Birds in which we have a couple of ravens competing over the eyes of a corpse; the body a man they have just witnessed two women fighting over. In another we find ourselves among the marquisate of The Castle of Carabas who for generations have been born with a cat’s paw shaped birthmark and a natural horror for cats. Virtue and the Tiger tells the story of a hermit a man of great learning and holiness, and his strange meeting with a tiger, a meeting that will have a profound effect on them both. The Fox Pope tells the story of a fox unwillingly named as the next pope – who enlists the help of a stable-boy to free him from the papacy. The Phoenix; tells the story of the legendary bird acquired by Lord Strawberry a big collector of birds, after his death The Strawberry Phoenix fund is launched, and the bird acquired to be shown – at a price – to the marvelling public. In Bread for the Castle, the lives of a baker and his daughter are changed when a great family comes to the neighbourhood and takes up residence in the castle. The man and his daughter bake night and day to fulfil the order from the castle.

“ ‘Surely she has grown smaller,’ thought the baker. ‘Or do my eyes deceive me?’
Looking at her more attentively he saw that his daughter had changed into an owl.
‘But this is frightful,’ thought the baker. ‘My poor girl, with such brilliant prospects, and such a good daughter into the bargain, so handy and willing! What shall I do without her?’
He opened the oven-door and turned the bread. The bread was alright: nothing untoward had happened to the bread.”

The final story in this collection is Bluebeard’s Daughter, Djamileh is the daughter in question. Her father had been adoring and kind, none of her step-mothers lived long enough to cause her any problems. She had however, inherited her father’s colouring which causes the girl to not want to look at herself in the mirror. Her father dies, and Djamileh guardianship is undertaken by her father’s solicitor, she will inherit everything, and grows up to be very wealthy young woman. In time she marries Kayel, and the couple return to Shady Transports – where as a child Djamileh had lived with her father. The palace still has secrets to reveal.

The Cat’s Cradle Book is a lovely collection, at turns dark and humorous Sylvia Townsend Warner understands perfectly the tradition of old tales passed on, and these stories are wonderfully inventive.

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men without women

Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

Chosen by my very small book Men without women is a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami. An author I would probably never have read without my book group – and I suspect will never read again. He gave us (my book group) lots to discuss – Overall, I didn’t like this book very much, and that worried me initially, I wondered if I had prejudiced myself against the book before I read it. I don’t read many modern male writers – you may have noticed – and Murakami seemed to sit somewhere outside my comfort zone. Still, it was a book group read, not especially long, I was on holiday from work so able to grimly plough through it a bit more than a day, (an attitude I accept may not have helped). I didn’t find the book unremittingly without merit – there were several things I liked – though out of the seven stories in the collection, probably only two I really engaged with; these were Kino and An Independent Organ.

The premise of the book was the first thing I liked, stories of loneliness, of men struggling in a world, forced to live their lives for whatever reason without women. It was this premise I think which sold it to my small feminist book group – only the second book written by a man we’ve read. It was those questions of how men and women live with or without one another and how men see women that interested us all. Occasionally I came across passages that made me stop and reread – they were so beautifully written – yet most of the time I found Murakmai’s writing to be nothing special. There was a distance in his writing style that I didn’t like – I am usually fine with a writer who stands back from their characters. The sense of loneliness in some of these stories is well done, the men finding it hard to engage with the world or the people around them. The relationships are stunted and awkward even between male friends the relationships are flawed – presumably because they are men without women.

In these stories we have as the title and the premise suggest men living without women. Sometimes it is a strange, slightly unexplained world – where different rules apply. In the opening story ‘Drive My Car’ A man banned from driving hires a woman chauffeur and proceeds to tell her about his odd friendship with the man who was his late wife’s lover. In ‘Yesterday’ we meet a young man who loans his girlfriend to a friend. In ‘An Independent Organ’ A plastic surgeon who finally and fatally falls in love having lived his life enjoying casual and meaningless relationships with women. In this story we learn that women have an independent organ which allows them to lie with ease hmmm!!

“Women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie. This was Dr. Tokai’s personal opinion. It depends on the person, he said about the kind of lies they tell, what situation they tell them in, and how the lies are told. But at a certain point in their lives, all women tell lies, and they lie about important things. They lie about unimportant things, too, but they also don’t hesitate to lie about the most important things. And when they do, most women’s expressions and voices don’t change at all, since it’s not them lying, but this independent organ they’re equipped with that’s acting on its own. That’s why – except for a few special cases – they can still have a clear conscience and never lose sleep over anything they say.”
(An Independent Organ)

A housekeeper/mistress nicknamed ‘Scheherazade’ in the story of the same name tells stories of her teenage house breaking in pursuit of a boy who didn’t notice her. In ‘Kino’, a man gives up his job when his marriage breaks down and buys a bar with its enigmatic resident cat, and meets a woman bearing the scars of terrible abuse. In ‘Samsa in Love’ – Murakami turns Kafka’s Metamorphosis on its head – Samsa  wakes in confusion to find himself a man. The title story ‘Men without Women’ is the final one in the collection. It seems to be less of a story and more of a series of thoughts about the overarching theme of the book.

“A deep gulf separates the second and the first loneliest on earth. Most likely. Deep, and wide, too. The bottom is heaped high with the corpses of birds who have tried, and failed, to traverse it. Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women. That day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats. Turn a corner and you know you’re already there. But by then there’s no going back. Once you round that bend, that is the only world you can possibly inhabit. In that world you are called “Men Without Women.” Always a relentlessly frigid plural.”
(Men without Women)

As a book group we were interested particularly in the representation of women and the way women were portrayed by the author or viewed by his characters. It was here I think that my problems started. Now in all these stories the perspective is that of a man or men, and so only through them do we see women. We have women who cheat on the men in their lives, women judged in terms of their attractiveness – others who seem to hold power over a man. In each case these women seem horribly stereotypical and very two dimensional. Is this because Murakami is trying to show us how it is women are perceived by men? Is he making an important point? – I preferred to think so – or does this come from the author himself?

I was nervous about reviewing this book because Murakami is one of those writers with a legion of fans, he seems to enjoy a cult like status and I wondered – does everyone love him but me? Well no, in my book group one other member hated it so much she could see nothing positive at all, a couple of others while not hating it seemed under whelmed. I have seen the g word applied fairly liberally to his work, and I just wasn’t getting it. True, we can’t all like the same thing – still, as someone who appreciates good literary writing, I felt a bit sad that I didn’t get it.

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dancing girls

My second read for Karen and Simon’s 1977 club was Margaret Atwood’s The Dancing Girls, a collection of short stories. It was only after finishing the collection, and quite by chance that I discovered the list of fourteen stories in the book changes very slightly between two editions. In the original 1977 edition the stories; War in the Bathroom and Rape Fantasies are included – which for the 1982 edition are changed for Betty and The Sin Eater. My Virago edition has this later selection of stories – I can’t help but wonder at the change – although I am pleased at the inclusion of Betty as it was one of my favourite stories in this collection.

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I have thoroughly enjoyed short story collections by Margaret Atwood before – many years ago reading Bluebeard’s Egg – very pre-blog and more recently Stone Mattress and Wilderness Tips. Several of these stories really do stand out and are every bit as excellent as I have come to expect – however some of the others didn’t work quite as well for me. Overall, I liked the collection but didn’t love it.

The men and women in these stories are frequently unable to communicate with one another – they are often separate themselves either physically or mentally. These stories explore the complicated relationships between men and women.

In the opening story; The man from Mars an awkward, slightly overweight student finds herself pursued by a foreign student from an unnamed Eastern country. Christine – living in the shadow of her more glamorous mother and sisters, is unused to such attention. So, when a short, bespectacled oriental looking man begins to follow her around after having once stopped her to ask directions she really doesn’t know what to think. The student is horribly persistent, but also rather pathetic. His attentions are perplexing, and irritating, but he doesn’t seem dangerous. Nevertheless, eventually the police are involved. It is a wonderful story to kick off the collection, there is a deliciously wry humour in the description of Christine’s faithful pursuer – and of a strained little tea party, Christine’s clueless mother insists she has for a man who might turn out to be boyfriend material.

“As the weekdays passed and he showed no signs of letting up, she began to jog-trot between classes, finally to run. He was tireless, and had an amazing wind for one who smoked so heavily: he would speed along behind her, keeping the distance between them the same, as though he were a pull-toy attached to her by a string. She was aware of the ridiculous spectacle they must make, galloping across campus, something out of a cartoon short, a lumbering elephant stampeded by a smiling, emaciated mouse, both of them locked in the classic pattern of comic pursuit and flight.”
(The man from Mars)

Betty – one of those two stories added to this collection in place of others – is the second story in the collection. The story narrator looks back to a time when she was growing up – remembering the neighbours Betty and her husband Fred who she met when her family rented a small cottage for the summer between house moves. Betty hadn’t interested her young neighbour when she was a child – instead it was Fred who absorbed all her interest and fantasies.

“It seemed as if we had lived in the cottage for a long time, though it was only one summer. By August I could hardly remember the apartment in Ottawa and the man who used to beat his wife. That had happened in a remote life, and, despite the sunshine, the water and the open space, a happier one. Before our frequent moves and the insecurities of new schools had forced my sister to value me.”
(Betty)

Now, as an adult looking back on that time, she realises she can no longer remember Fred’s face – though she remembers Betty with great clarity. She remembers how Betty changed after Fred betrayed her – how over the years Betty kept in touch, and the family watched as she re-invented herself yet remained much more of a mystery than Fred ever was.

That foreign ‘otherness’ that is explored in the opening story is present again in the title story Dancing Girls. Set in a boarding house, where Ann and her landlady – wonder about the new man – who has what the landlady calls a native costume in which she politely asks him to appear from time to time. We witness the clash of cultures again, although I felt the story petered out a bit at the end.

Other stories which grabbed me were: When it happens; in which we see a woman who remembers well living through the Second World War is preparing for what she thinks is the end of the world – or some kind of cataclysmic event that will bring almost everything to an end. The Resplendent Quetzal is another superb story – in which the broken relationship of a married couple on a bird watching holiday is beautifully explored. In Hair Jewellery we meet a woman who loves someone who never really returns her feelings. She has romanticised their future break up – which when it comes is nothing like her fantasy – eventually she finds she can never quite leave him behind.

I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing – and there is certainly a lot to enjoy in this collection, those stories which I was less keen on stop short of actually being disappointing – they just didn’t grab me.

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