Monday, February 8, 2016

Heinrich von Kleist / A brief survey of the short story

Heinrich von Kleist
Poster by T.A.

A brief survey of the short story part 12

Heinrich von Kleist

He committed suicide at 34, but Heinrich von Kleist was no nihilist. His work, though, is riven with flickering hope and mountainous sorrow

Chris Power
Thursday 28 August 2008 10.15 BST

In one of the last notes he wrote before shooting himself in 1811, Heinrich von Kleist commented that "the world is a strange set-up". This notion, as terrible as it is mundane, is conveyed repeatedly in the eight tales that represent his slim but influential contribution to the development of the short story.
Writing at the time of ETA Hoffmann, Goethe and Schiller, Kleist seems far less distant from modern sensibilities than those other exemplars of German Romanticism. This is partly a matter of style: his prose is remarkably deadpan, at times reading more like a legal brief than a story, while his typical subject matter marries the traditional folktale with a psychologically astute realism (not unlike the approach adopted by Akutagawa in Japan a century later). It comes as no surprise that Franz Kafka eulogised him as one of the four writers he considered his "true blood-relations".

Kleist was a child of the Enlightenment, but his reading of Kant led him to the conclusion, as the German literature scholars David Luke and Nigel Reeves have it, that "human nature, our own selves, were a riddle, everything that has seemed straightforward became ambiguous and baffling." In his early 20s he resigned his commission in the Prussian army and abandoned himself, as Robert Walser puts it in his story Kleist in Thun, "to the entire catastrophe of being a poet". His writings are battlegrounds across which swarm the forces of doubt, paradox and psychological crisis.
For all the sedulous care Kleist takes in presenting his stories as reasoned investigations into unreason (ghosts, possessions and apparent paradoxes recur) he remains constantly aware of the utility of drama, never averse to sudden changes in perspective or a confounding flurry of twists. A narrative such as The Foundling, in which an adopted son's scheming leads to seduction and murder, sparks with energy. Kleist leads the reader with total assurance into a maze of lust, deceit and evil. Crafting a perfect storm of unlikely but plausible coincidences, he manages to pull off the thriller writer's trick of making darkness and physical and psychological violence not only compelling, but exciting. What lifts The Foundling beyond being just a masterclass in suspense, however, is Kleist's determination in pursuing the corrupting effects of such actions to their grotesque ends.

Similarly, The Betrothal in Santo Domingo exerts an extraordinary page-turning force while transcending mere gruesome entertainment, this time playing on racial prejudice. Written shortly after the Haitian Revolution, where the slave population overthrow their French rulers, it uses the love story of a mestiza and a European to subvert the idea of a hierarchy of race-based virtue. It also features another prominently Kleistian trope: that of love being tested by circumstance.
This theme surfaces in several of Kleist's major works, and casts an interesting light on his repeated assertion that reality is ultimately an unfathomable hall of mirrors. "You should not have mistrusted me" are the heartrending dying words of one character in The Betrothal in Santo Domingo, drawing attention to the fact that Kleist, for all his suicidal urges and fascination with evil, was no nihilist. It is perhaps this fact that gives his stories, so dark in their obsessions and often ending in death or despair, their magnificent impact. Nihilism, one comes to realise, is an easy option when compared with the agony of a repeatedly thwarted humanism.
Such agony is plainly displayed in The Earthquake in Chile, which alongside The Foundling stands as perhaps Kleist's most striking story. It opens with a young man about to hang himself in prison, and concludes with a mob believing they are doing God's work by tearing two lovers and a baby to pieces outside the only church in the city left standing by the earthquake. It could not be said to be short on incident, and neither could its brevity be taken as a sign of a lack of ambition, struggling as it does with the most devilish knots in theological, moral and philosophical debate. It also foregrounds the hope Kleist expressed twice in letters in 1806 that, despite the evidence, the world is not in thrall to an evil deity, only a misunderstood one. At its end a survivor looks at the child he will now raise as his own and concludes, "it almost seemed to him that he had reason to feel glad." In that "almost" there exists both the weakly flickering hope and mountainous sorrow that combines so often in Kleist's work, and generates its uncanny power.


A brief survey of the short story

001 Anton Chekhov
002 HP Lovecraft
003 Mavis Gallant
004 Ryunosuke Akutagawa
005 Raymond Carver
006 Julian Maclaren-Ross
007 Etgar Keret
008 Robert Walser
009 VS Pritchett
010 Grace Paley

011 Katherine Mansfield
012 Heinrich von Kleist
022 Julio Cortázar
024 Lydia Davis
027 Jorge Luis Borges
028 Vladimir Nabokov
034 Ernest Hemingway
037 Alice Munro
040 JD Salinger
052 Juan Rulfo

Katherine Mansfield / A brief survey of the short story

Katherine Mansfield
Poster by T.A.

A brief survey of the short story part 11

Katherine Mansfield

Although some of her work is stunningly bad, the best of it ranks alongside the greats

Chris Power
Tuesday 5 August 2008 08.00 BST

Katherine Mansfield's short stories tend to polarise opinion. In the very first blog of this series, one casual below-the-line mention of her was enough to prompt both brickbats and devotionals. For myself, I both love and hate her work.
It's easy enough to enjoy the young, breezily comic but insubstantial Mansfield of In a German Pension (1911), her first collection. Far less winsome is the melodramatic, clumsy, and at times unbearably sentimental creator of later stories such as The Canary, A Suburban Fairy Tale, or The Fly, which ruins some fine writing with a metaphor only marginally less subtle than a klaxon's blast.
Taken as a whole Mansfield's work confounds because, from 1915 onwards (following her debut she suffered several years of writer's block), the very good and the plain bad arrive tripping over one another's heels. All writers fail as well as triumph, but the gulf between the successful and the disastrous is rarely as wide as it is in her work.
To concentrate on the successes, Mansfield's second and third collections, Bliss (1920) and The Garden-Party (1922), contain strikingly impressive pieces such as Prelude, The Little Governess, Je Ne Parle Pas Français, The Voyage and The Daughters of the Late Colonel. This last story, perhaps her greatest achievement, describes two spinsters whose overbearing father has just died. It flickers between comedy, menace, outlandish interludes and engulfing sorrow with consummate skill.
The story's razor-sharp humour is a more refined variant of that displayed in her debut collection. Similarly, the darker currents of Mansfield's fiction - ever present to a degree, as her early story of backwoods murder The Woman at the Store makes plain - had by now grown more powerfully insinuating. In her later works the tone can shift from light-hearted to menacing in an instant; relationships between men and women are oppressive and predatory (The Little Governess), life a sequence of missteps (see Psychology, wherein a couple on the cusp of a kiss falter, and suddenly see themselves as "two grinning puppets jigging away in nothingness"), and happiness fragile and fleeting (as in Bliss, whose subject, Bertha, is a highly-strung cousin to Virginia Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway).

Talk of recurrent themes might, however, give an inaccurate impression of uniformity to Mansfield's work. In fact she was constantly altering her voice, which is another reason for her inconsistency. As Claire Tomalin notes in her excellent biography, "Katherine did not seem to be interested in building on a successful piece of work, but persistently dispersed herself in different styles and tones. In her writing, as in her life, she revelled in change, disguise, mystery and mimicry: the last she saw as the key to creation and understanding of character. It gave her freedom, but it also became a weakness; lacking stamina, she dispersed herself too widely in different effects."
But it would be ludicrous to allow her bad stories to demean the good. She may lack the body of work to qualify as a major writer, but her influence has nevertheless been significant. She is essentially too strange a writer to be copied, but writers as accomplished as VS Pritchett have learned, as he put it in the New Statesman in 1946, from "her economy, the boldness of her comic gift, her speed, her dramatic changes of the point of interest, her power to dissolve and reassemble a character and situation by a few lines"; Philip Larkin and Angela Carter both claimed an affinity with her; Virginia Woolf extolled "the only writing I have ever been jealous of."
If excuses are to be sought for those stories of Mansfield's which would discourage some from ever reading her again, they are manifold and pitiable. She contracted gonorrhoea in 1909, the inexpert treatment of which caused it to spread to her bloodstream. From 1910 onwards she was a chronic invalid. In 1917 she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which she probably contracted from her friend DH Lawrence the year before, during their ill-starred co-habitation in Zennor. She and her partner, JM Murry, were always short of cash, and she wrote many stories purely as a means of getting some. Rather than destroy these rush jobs after her death, as she requested, Murry had them published in two posthumous collections of scant quality (How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped and the unfinished A Married Man's Story being notable exceptions).
She died in 1923. She lived her life pell-mell, only rarely experiencing conditions ideal, or even sufficient, for the pursuit of her craft. But while biographical information goes a long way to explaining her artistic failings, no such knowledge is required to appreciate the brilliance of her best stories. They stand on merit alone.

Grace Paley / A brief survey of the short story

Grace Paley
Poster by T.A.

A brief survey of the short story part 10

Grace Paley

The late Grace Paley's multi-layered evocations of New York seethe with the beautiful, twisting complexities of that never-sleeping city

Grace Paley
Her stories teemed with life: Grace Paley in 2003. Photograph: Toby Talbot/AP
In my teens I had a poster print of Edward Burra's Harlem pinned to my wall. A street scene painted in 1934, its subjects were the bohemians of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in New York's Lower East Side in 1922, the youngest daughter of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Grace Paley was, at the time Burra painted Harlem, living a few blocks north in the Bronx, which was then a middle-class Jewish neighbourhood.
The reason I mention the painting is that Paley's stories, bulging with life, constantly made me think of it - certainly her work has no exact literary equivalent, despite passing similarities to Malamud and her friend and neighbour Donald Barthelme, among others. Burra's painting, like a Pieter Breugel peasant scene, seems to consist of a multiplicity of narratives all taking place at once, and so does Paley's strange, raucous NYC, wherein even those stories that don't feature recurring characters seem to be taking place just around the corner from one another, or on another floor of the same apartment building.
"Art is too long, and life is too short," Paley said when asked why so much time elapsed between her books. "There's a lot more to do in life than just writing." While this attitude resulted in Paley, who died in August 2007, publishing just three dedicated story collections between 1959 and 1985, it also gave her the wherewithal to create a body of work the expansiveness of which is at odds with its parochial setting and recurrent themes.
Nearly all of Paley's stories take place in the Bronx and, latterly, Greenwich Village. Margalit Fox, the New York Times obituarist, wrote that "her work was about what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow and Malamud's men had loved and left behind", but this judgement ignores the fact that Paley wrote of and also from the male perspective with great wit and insight. A feminist who loved men and, in her own words, a "combative pacifist", Paley's stories tend to be political by implication. Indeed, even at her most forthright she seems to take a perverse pleasure in questioning the sometimes smug certainties of those characters who share most in common with her own political positions.
A good example of this trait is provided by the story Zagrowsky Tells, from the 1985 collection Later the Same Day. If Paley's first collection was a celebration of messy, painful, fecund life, her joy toughened by the hard-knock sensibility of a single mother of two, by the mid-80s her pronounced humanism had become beset with a frequently undefined anxiety. Zagrowsky Tells features Paley's most frequently returned-to character, Faith Darwin (her name fittingly dialectical, given her creator's lifelong socialist beliefs, and of whom it is difficult to accept Paley's denial that she was her alter ego), in conversation with the now elderly Zagrowsky, the neighbourhood chemist and resident bigot.
The story is told from the point of view of Zagrowsky, who has a black grandson by way of his institutionalised daughter. This irony sparks Faith to remind him of past racist attitudes. Rather than have the old man repent, he sticks to his guns. He rails against her for having picketed his shop, and justifies his racism to himself. As for his love for his grandson, he says, "A person looks at my Emanuel and says, Hey! He's not altogether from the white race, what's going on? I'll tell you what: life is going on. You have an opinion, I have an opinion. Life don't have no opinion."
This is Paley at her finest: engaging with life's disorderliness in free-flowing, conversational prose ("this is prose meant to be read aloud, as an expression of 'voice', not a resolution of plot", writes Joyce Carol Oates), and never quite leading where one expects. Paley offers her own explanation of this characteristic of her work in A Conversation with My Father:
"'I would like you to write a simple story just once more,' he says, 'the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognisable people and then write down what happened to them next.'
"I say 'Yes, why not? That's possible.' I want to please him, though I don't remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: 'There was a woman...' followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the destiny of open life."
This regard for her creations, for the inviolability of their freedom, is what instills her best stories with their air of potential. "None of it happened, and yet every word of it is true," Paley once said of her fiction, which seems to me as good a manifesto for storytelling as one could hope to hear.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

My hero / Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys
Illustration by Triunfo Arciniegas
My hero: Jean Rhys by Linda Grant

She is one of the 20th-century's greats: a novelist of yearning, rage and desire whose unadorned prose hits the solar plexus

Linda Grant
Friday 22 February 2013 18.59 GMT

When I was in my 20s in the 1970s I read all of Jean Rhys. I have reread very little since because the first impressions were so powerful they have stayed with me.
Rhys is mainly known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of the mad wife in the attic, and I scandalised an audience at the British Library a few years ago by claiming it was a greater novel than Charlotte Brontë's. Rhys in recent years has most often been seen her in the context of post-colonial writing, but it was the novels written and set in Paris in the 1930s that chilled me to the bone.
A woman, somewhat faded, sits in a room waiting for the post, which might contain a cheque from a former lover that will give her the money to buy a new dress so she can sit in a cafe and attract a new lover. There is a fine line between this and prostitution. I used to wonder if her female characters were simply Jane Austen heroines kicked away from Hampshire and left stranded in the early 20th century. Work is always a last option, jobs are for the defeated, there is no sense of a career leading to independence.
When I read Rhys, I lost interest in fireworks in fiction. Sentence after apparently unremarkable sentence would pass until suddenly you would feel yourself hit in the solar plexus by the accumulated tension. I would look back and ask: how did you do that?
She is the novelist of longing and yearning and rage and sexual desire, and the need for nice clothes and the fear of what happens to women when they lose their looks and become the old woman alone upstairs, drinking alone, smoking alone, dying alone. In After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, the character Julia appears to have no instinct for self-preservation. Yet her creator endures, one of the 20th-century greats. I would die to write like her.

My hero / Patricia Highsmith by Peter Swanson

Patricia Highsmith
Poster by T.A.

My hero: 

Patricia Highsmith by Peter Swanson

Highsmith’s thrillers produce an almost queasy feeling – the desire to look away – while being too fascinating and compelling to put down

first read Patricia Highsmith while in college, starting with Strangers on a Train. I’d seen Alfred Hitchcock’s film version, so I knew the plot, but I wasn’t prepared for the novel’s sticky atmosphere of guilt and corruption. Hitchcock managed to capture some of it, but he was only skimming the surface of a very murky pond. Highsmith takes her readers right into the muck. Reading it produced an almost queasy feeling – the desire to look away – yet I was compelled to keep turning the pages. That’s not an easy trick, especially for an author’s first book, and that is why Highsmith is my literary hero.

Her crime of choice was murder, but she wasn’t interested in low-rent criminals and gangsters. The murders in Highsmith country are committed, often almost accidentally, by everyday sociopaths, men with masks who find themselves drowning a wife’s lover in a swimming pool, say, just because the opportunity presents itself. This particular act happens in one of her best books, Deep Water, a chilly portrayal of a dysfunctional marriage. What makes it fascinating is not just the horror of the crimes, but the good-natured normality of their perpetrator.
Brilliant plotting was only one of the things Highsmith did well. She had an economical prose style that was never flashy and never boring. And her characters, especially her male ones, are familiar and alien at the same time. Vic Van Allen, the mild-mannered murderer of Deep Water, keeps snails as pets, as did Highsmith herself. He gets an almost meditative pleasure from watching them mate.
Highsmith, by some accounts, was not a pleasant person. Like the snails she loved, she had a hard exterior, and there is a biography by Joan Schenkar that chronicles the slime Highsmith left in her wake (although her conclusions have been challenged). But she also left behind a treasure trove of great thrillers, most of which do what all great thrillers do: take you on a ride you’re not sure you want to be on, but that you can’t get off.
 Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing is out in paperback from Faber.

My hero / JG Ballard by Will Self

JG Ballard
Illustration by T.A.

My hero: 

JG Ballard 

by Will Self

Saturday 14 November 2009

omorrow, on what would have been his 79th birthday, family and friends of JG Ballard will gather in London to celebrate his extraordinary life and still more extraordinary literary achievement. I don't really do "heroes", and Jim Ballard's whole outlook was antithetical to the notion of the "great man" (though less so, I suspect, to that of the "great woman"), but if I were in search of an antiheroic hero it would have to be him. When I was stranded in the doldrums of my early 20s, desperate to write fiction but uncertain that there was any way to yoke my perverse vision to any recognised form, Ballard's luminous short stories and minatory novels showed me a way forward.

Then there's the man himself. I was just one of the scores of journalists who went out to sleepy Shepperton to beard its seer, and no matter how many times we'd already been told not to expect some drug-crazed weirdo, we were all surprised to find the genial, rather bluff Jim Ballard, happy to discuss anything from the wilder shores of futurity to the pinched parochialism of England's greening.
Over 15 years I got to know this intensely private man – a little. It was difficult for me not to look to him for advice – and he showed me the respect of never providing any, save by omission, the real advice being: think for yourself. Early in life, during the Japanese occupation of his natal city, Shanghai, Ballard had learnt the vital lesson that anyone can descend effortlessly into barbarism, and so he eschewed all state-sanctioned morality and the mock heroics that bolster it up.
Ballard's contribution to literature, to the visual arts, to architectural theory and even philosophy will, I feel certain, be increasingly acknowledged in the decades to come. His writing life straddled the period from when censorship meant that commonplace thoughts could not be set down to the current era when anything can be said – but hardly anyone bothers to listen. He thus stands as the last great English avatar of the avant garde – heroism enough for anyone.