Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chris Power / 2009 was the year of the short story

Alice Munro
Poster by T. A. 

2009 was the year of the short story

Alice Munro won the Man Booker International, Raymond Carver's widow published a revised edition of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and fine collections appeared from old hands and debutantes. This year proved that reports of the short story's death have been greatly exaggerated
Chris Power
Tuesday 29 December 2009 08.45 GMT

2009 has proved that rumours of the death of the short story – so often forecast that almost every review of almost every collection seems duty-bound to repeat and thus propagate it – are greatly exaggerated. The consensus running through the end-of-year reviews is that it's been a vintage year for short fiction, and I agree. I come here to praise the short story, not to bury it.
Starting at the top, one of the world's greatest living short story specialists, andone of its greatest writers full-stop, took the 2009 Man Booker International prize. Canadian Alice Munro published her 14th collection, Too Much Happiness, earlier this year. A powerful grouping of stories more violent than her normal work, it shows her enormous talent remains undiminished as she nears her ninth decade.
Mavis Gallant is already well into hers, and while no new work is forthcoming an edition of her previously uncollected stories, The Cost of Living, has just been published. As for the brand new, this year saw collections from big names such as Kazuo IshiguroHa JinChimamanda Ngozi AdichieJames Lasdun, and this parish's own AL Kennedy.
Good work from the living, then, but notable new collections issued even from beyond the grave. Raymond Carver's Beginners reinstates the writer's original drafts of the stories that made up his definitive 1981 collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; stories that his editor Gordon Lish famously and controversially reduced in length, in some cases cutting up to 78% of Carver's prose. I had misgivings before reading it, but Beginners is a fascinating document. The decision to publish these versions is controversial, but the logic behind his widow Tess Gallagher's desire to show the "connective tissue" between his pre- and post-Lish work seems sound. Additionally the endnotes, wherein the editors detail what revisions were made where and when, are like morsels of crack for Carver geeks.


This has also been an excellent year for debuts. I read David Vann's Legend of a Suicide and Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned back to back, and while their shared interests – hunting, ichthyology, destructive rages, divorce, abuse and guns – might lie heavily on their readers' psyches, the quality of the writing precludes any chance of leaving them depressed. Both superb, Vann's book in particular suggests the arrival of a significant talent; one who can marry tremendous plot twists to an appealingly downbeat style that fans of Carver and Cormac McCarthy alike will thrill to.
In case you're wondering what Legend of a Suicide, supposedly a novel, is doing in a blog about short stories, it was originally published as a story collection in America. Vann told the Guardian he prefers the way the book is being sold in the UK, but really it sits somewhere between the two forms: the stories are discrete, but at the same time are all reactions to or descriptions of a single central event. Another book that hovers in this enjoyable and I think fertile space between the story collection and the novel is this year's Pulitzer winner, Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, a story cycle set in Crosby, Maine, and presided over by the retired schoolteacher of the title. It's sold upwards of 400,000 copies so far: impressive for a literary novel, extraordinary for short fiction.
Of course, all this jubilation would be Panglossian without some acknowledgement of the short story market's real and present downsides. In the US it's commonplace for short story writers to get a deal for their first collection only on the proviso that a novel follows, a business practice that casts short story-writing as apprentice work. In the UK it's worse still, with story collections treated like dirty secrets to be snuck out in disguise (pace Penguin's strategy with Vann), with only a determined study of the back cover revealing the truth. And I don't know if it's a case of reading practices following publishing's lead or vice versa, but I'm constantly surprised and disheartened by the number of readers who tell me they don't read short stories, as if they were a homogenous type that could be not to your taste like, say, policiers.
I do see more reason to celebrate than to mourn, however. Radio 4 broadcasts nearly 150 stories a year; the Atlantic's recent decision to sell short stories via its Kindle store inspires hope for a vibrant market for individually sold shorter works, while flash fiction and sites dedicated to the short story continue to proliferate online.
This year saw the US publication of the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, a particular favourite of mine, whose sharp, hilarious, often minuscule fictions have long had a small but dedicated following. She's the next subject in the short story series I've been writing for the last couple of years, and in the words of the New Yorker her body of work "will in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions, distinct and crookedly personal." Hamish Hamilton have just picked up the UK rights, so British readers as yet unfamiliar with her will soon have an even better chance to find out how good she is. It looks like 2010's already shaping up to be another good year.





Saturday, December 12, 2009

My hero / Franz Marek by Eric Hobsbawn



My hero Franz Marek


Eric Hobsbawm
Saturday 12 December 2009


A
mong other things, Franz Marek, Austrian communist (1913-79), born Ephraim Feuerlicht to Galician refugees, survived conventional heroism in the French wartime resistance. He headed the resistance organisation for foreigners, doing work among the occupying German forces which a survivor described as "more terrifying than straightforward armed action". He was captured, sentenced to death but saved by the liberation of Paris. His "last words" survive, as recorded on the wall of Fresnes prison on 18 August 1944. But that is not the reason I choose him as my hero.


When I came to know this short, quizzical, laconic, formidably intelligent man who radiated a sort of self-effacing charisma even when hiking in the Vienna woods, he was still a leading member of the party he joined in 1934, though he already belonged to that lost generation of reforming "Eurocommunist" leaders whose last survivors are Gorbachev and the current president of Italy. After the Prague spring of 1968 he was forced out of the party and lost the only paid job he had ever had since the age of 20, that of "professional revolutionary", for which he had given up academic ambition. The Comintern had given him his first new jacket and trousers, for the childhood of education-hungry Galician Jews without money did not run to such luxuries. For the next 12 years he lived on false papers.
He was plainly a natural at this work, rising to running the inland activities of the now illegal Communist party. It gave him joy, filled his life and, he later recognised, blocked out everything else. After Hitler took over Austria in 1938, he was sent to Paris, returning in 1946, full of hope, to a party career in the Vienna of The Third Man. He said "it needed the shock of 1956 to open me up to strong emotions", including, he admitted, love. Still working to change the world, he died of a long-awaited heart attack. All his material possessions could be fitted into two small suitcases. A 20th-century hero? I think so.






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Saturday, December 5, 2009

My hero / Vincent van Gogh by Margaret Drabble


Self-Portrait, 1888
Vincent van Gogh



My hero: Vincent van Gogh



Margaret Drabble
Saturday 5 December 2009



hen I was a child, I knew that Van Gogh was the greatest painter who had ever lived. For years he blinded me to other artists. I have learned to admire Botticelli and Caravaggio and Ivon Hitchens, but in old age I am faithful to my earliest love. What Van Gogh did is, for me, what painting is. The eye sees, the hand obeys, the spirit flows into brush strokes, the world is recreated and revealed. As a child, I knew nothing of his long apprenticeship or his madness or his failures in the market place. Nobody told me. I saw nothing mad or tragic in his vision of the natural world. I saw intensity and a world of glory.


We had prints of his work at home, one of them of the drawbridge at Langlois, which enthralled me. As a schoolgirl I bought postcards and posters, of irises and cypresses and starry nights and a yellow chair. They brought me immeasurable joy. I believed he looked into the heart of creation, with the eye of God, and what the Hubble telescope has seen confirms my belief. The glory exalted and blinded him. That is enough to make him heroic. He knew the mysteries of the cosmos.
But he was, I discovered, more than a visionary. He was a hard-working, good-hearted man, who endured illness and public neglect with stoic patience, and showed a tender gratitude to those who cared for him. I have been reading the handsomely illustrated six-volume edition of his letters, which displays his wide reading, his warm and generous admiration for his fellow artists, his forlorn but unquestioning dedication to his work. The bravery with which he attempted to handle his mania in the asylum of St-Paul-de-Mausole is infinitely touching. He took pleasure in copying the work of Millet, Delacroix, Courbet, Rembrandt, and writes to his brother Theo that copying "teaches, and above all, consoles". This is the humility of greatness. The paintings of this period are astounding in their originality, but the copies are also wonderful. He is, with Shakespeare, beyond praise.
THE GUARDIAN





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Sunday, November 29, 2009

My hero / Ben the labrador by John Banville


My hero: Ben the labrador



John Banville
Saturday 29 November 2009

H
ow is one to write about a family pet without plunging feet-first into a slough of bilge and bathos? There are people who find offensive the very idea of pets, and they have a point – when Byron spoke of animals being "spoiled" by intimate proximity to us he was not thinking of pet manicures and a comfy place on the hearth-rug. The poet knew that our attitude to animals is hopelessly confused: since we are lords of the universe we feel no compunction in eating them, yet certain special ones we take into our homes to share our lives with us. What's a dog to think?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wilkie Collins / The Woman in White's 150 years of sensation


The Woman in White's 150 years of sensation

Wilkie Collins's novel caused unprecedented excitement when it appeared in 1859, and has not lost its capacity to thrill

Jon Michael Varese
Thu 26 Nov 2009

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, Victorian readers opened Dickens's weekly magazine All the Year Round to find the concluding instalment of A Tale of Two Cities, and, immediately following it, the opening instalment of a new novel with no author ascribed. They joined a new protagonist, "Walter Hartright, by name," on a night-time walk over Hampstead Heath, winding on moonlit paths until they reached the intersection of the Hampstead, Finchley, West End, and London roads – somewhere in the area of where the Finchley Road tube station now stands. There they were stopped, every drop of blood in their bodies frozen still by "the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly" upon Walter's shoulder. And there, for the first time, they met the mysterious Anne Catherick –better known as The Woman in White.
Often singled out as the foundation text of "sensation fiction" – a genre distinguished by its electrifying, suspenseful, and sometimes horrific plots, as well as its unsavoury themes of intrigue, jealousy, murder, adultery, and the like – The Woman in White was an immediate sensation in its own right. (In honour of its 150th anniversary, you can currently sign up to read the story as it was originally published, in weekly parts. There are tweets, too.) Margaret Oliphant hailed it as "a new beginning in fiction", while at the same time Edward Bulwer-Lytton dismissed it as "great trash". And while Henry James disliked the "ponderosity" of The Woman in White (calling it "a kind of 19th-century version of Clarissa Harlowe"), he acknowledged that the book had "introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors".



Despite such drastically mixed reviews, The Woman in White was a mad success with the public, and made no less of a sensation out of its 35-year-old author, Wilkie Collins. In middle-class dining rooms everywhere, discussion turned to the intriguing cast of characters Mr Collins had invented – mannish, eloquent Marian Halcombe; faithful and angelic Laura Fairlie; sinister, secretive Percival Glyde; and of course Count Fosco, seductive and cunning, with his cockatoo, his canary-birds, and his white mice running over his immense body. Two months in, Dickens was calling the novel "masterly", and Prince Albert admired it so much that he later sent off copies as gifts.
During its serialisation in All the Year Round (from 26 November 1859 to 25 August 1860), and upon its publication in book form, The Woman in White inspired not only a series of imitators (chief among them Mrs Henry Wood's East Lynne [1861] and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret [1862]), but also what John Sutherland has described as a "sales mania and a franchise boom." Manufacturers produced Woman in White perfume, Woman in White cloaks and bonnets, and music-shops displayed Woman in White waltzes and quadrilles. The poet Edward FitzGerald named his herring-lugger "Marian Halcombe"; cats were named Fosco and thought to look more sinister; and Walter became a fashionable name for babies. As Kenneth Robinson, one of Collins's earliest biographers, pointed out, "even Dickens had not known such incidental publicity".

While Collins was no stranger to the literary scene at the time of The Woman in White's appearance (by 1859 he had published four novels, two collections of short stories, and numerous other books and essays), he had not yet become an author of completely independent means. Unlike Dickens (his friend, boss, and mentor) he had not been catapulted to international fame by his early novels, and thus still retained his day job as a journalist. But The Woman in White changed all that. As a serial, the novel lifted the circulation of All the Year Round to even higher levels than had Dickens, and Sampson Low's first printing of 1,000 copies of the three-volume edition in August of 1860 sold out on publication day. When Smith and Elder made a £5,000 bid for Collins's next novel the following summer, Collins knew that he had made it. "FIVE THOUSAND POUNDS!!!!!!" he wrote to his mother in July of 1861. "Ha! ha! ha! Five thousand pounds, for nine months or, at most a year's work – nobody but Dickens has made as much."
Collins's storytelling talents were utterly mesmerising for Victorian readers – and they are no less captivating for readers today. He was the master of the "cliff-hanger", and given the 40 or so of them that strategically punctuate The Woman in White, it's not difficult to see why this Victorian novel continues to thrill us. Our flesh creeps when Anne Catherick places her hand on Walter's shoulder; our hearts ache when Marian Halcombe falls ill and Count Fosco violates her diary; our blood curdles when Walter Hartright stands next to his beloved's tombstone, only to look up and find her standing there. The apparitions that Collins conjures are the ghosts that ensured not just his success but his longevity. They are what have kept readers going back for more during the last 150 years, and they bear testament to the value of Collins's self-professed, "old-fashioned" opinion that "the primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story ..."



Saturday, November 21, 2009

My hero / Alan Ross by William Boyd



My hero Alan Ross


William Boyd
Sat 21 Nov 2009


I
can visualise Alan Ross's expression – ineffably polite, but just failing to disguise his displeasure at being called anyone's hero. Perhaps "exemplar" would be a better word, given that he was the first writer I properly came to know and also the first editor to publish me, selecting one of my unsolicited short stories for his literary journal London Magazine in 1978. I was 26 – it was to be an association that lasted until his death in 2001.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

My hero / JG Ballard by Will Self


JG Ballard
Illustration by T.A.

My hero: 

JG Ballard 

by Will Self


Saturday 14 November 2009

T
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.