Two Superb Short Stories

Recently I’ve been enjoying lots of new series, such as Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series, the Death Note manga and lots and lots of Agatha Christie novels. Before I dive much further into all these new interests, I thought this would be a good time to look back over my bookshelves and discuss a few old favourites! So here are two short stories that I would highly recommend!

  1. Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake

Of course this macabre tale had to feature on this list – it’s so wonderfully strange and surreal! While the hero of this story is clearly Titus Groan of the Gormenghast series, it can be read in isolation from the series and still make perfect sense. It would be an excellent introduction for anyone new to Peake. I have talked about this story in detail before so suffice to say, it’s an atmospheric, nightmarish tale, which breaks down the boundaries between humans and animals. This is a story best read on a dark night, so close the curtains, dim the lights, and let yourself be absorbed into Peake’s disturbing fantasy.

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2. Please Excuse My Husband, He’s a Vegetarian by Michele Roberts

As a vegetarian, it might be surprising that I’m fond of this story, but I challenge anyone to resist this appealing dark comedy. It tells the story of a British husband and wife trying to settle into life in France; the wife manages to adjust with ease, but the husband’s vegetarian habits are rather baffling to this new society. The wife’s growing frustration is aimed not at their new French neighbours, but instead it’s her unfortunate, oblivious husband that has to face her wrath. I won’t spoil the ending, but even though I recognised some of my own awkward restaurant encounters in this story, it’s an entertaining reminder that not everyone is happy to be accommodating!

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The Song of Achilles

I really wish I’d stumbled across Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles before I enrolled in my Classical Literature course last year. We read both Homeric epics, as well as The Aeneid, the plays of Aristophanes, and Apuleis; the intense reading list made for an excruciating semester and while I felt I’d earned my stripes as an English student by reading the classics, I didn’t feel particularly engaged with any of the texts. They all seemed to depict a world completely alien to mine, with its foreign code of honour and hospitality and its petulant gods. The Iliad was by far the most enjoyable of the texts. The principal heroes, Hector and Achilles, are simultaneously both demi-gods and beasts on the battlefield, and the epic’s depiction of war more generally is far from glorious. If I’d read The Song of Achilles before taking the class, I think I’d have enjoyed The Iliad even more. Miller interjects a much-needed sense of humanity into the myth without straying too far from the source material.

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The Greek gods are probably the most problematic aspects of the Homeric epics (and of most classical literature, which follows in the Homeric tradition). The gods can be understood as natural forces; for example, Poseidon could be seen to personify the will of the sea. Or the gods could be seen as late additions to the original historical events, added in to present the outcome of the Trojan War as divinely ordained. If, however, it’s always the gods who inspire their favoured mortals with heroic qualities or lift them out of an arrow’s path, then to what extent are the heroes truly heroic at all? The exact nature of the gods is never clarified and presents a significant stumbling block to modern readers. Miller offers a unique solution to this problem: in her retelling of The Iliad, Thetis exists in the flesh and can walk among the living if she chooses. Patroclus, the narrator, carelessly lists the many heroes who are the offspring or grandsons of gods. While the gods are immortal and elevated above mortals, they are still subject to Fate; even Thetis cannot change her son’s destiny.

By smoothing over the difficulties presented by the interfering Homeric gods, Miller can give greater focus to her true concern: the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. Their story is a moving one, a truly timeless exploration of how powerless we all are in the pitiless face of Fate.

Night

To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.

The question of how feeble language becomes in the face of atrocity is addressed from the outset of Elie Wiesel’s courageous memoir of the Holocaust. I was only able to read certain passages in Elie’s memoir if I first convinced myself that the events depicted were fictional; it’s impossible to accept that acts of such senseless destruction truly did occur – but distancing ourselves from these stories won’t make them any less true. If reading Elie’s memoir was unsettling, I can’t imagine how intensely challenging the effort of sharing these experiences must have been for the author. How can everyday words be applied to an experience born out of the worst excesses of human cruelty?

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In placing his tumultuous experiences onto paper, Elie found language itself to be an inadequate medium. Words that would usually describe normal aspects of the human experience, such as ‘hunger’ or ‘transport’, were, Elie suggests, ‘betrayed and perverted by the enemy’. The experience of atrocity has altered the fabric of language itself. The death-knell shadow of the chimney loomed day and night over the teenage Elie as he suffered in Auschwitz; as death was the only constant feature of Elie’s reality, ‘chimney’ became the only word which described something tangible. I like to think, however, that by presenting his memoir to the world Elie Wiesel has firmly reclaimed the words that were bastardized in the concentration camps of World War Two.

Night is not only a memoir of a monumentally devastating epoch in world history, but an indispensable human document, one that we should never lose sight of. Elie’s memoir evokes a true test of faith, not just of Elie’s own religious faith but the faith of both author and reader in humanity itself.

Wuthering Heights

‘My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind…’

I have absolutely no idea why I waited so long to read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I’ve been an admirer of the Brontes for years (though I do rate Tenant of Wildfell Hall much more favourably than the more renowned Jane Eyre). Wuthering Heights certainly did not disappoint: Bronte’s coupling of Dickensian lyricism with Gothic intrigue makes for an illuminating read. I think its success lies in its combination of the great Victorian preoccupations with inheritance, marriage and property, and the thoroughly unconventional character of Heathcliff. This brutally passionate and unrepentant man remains shocking to modern sensibilities.

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Heathcliff is a fascinating character, no doubt because it’s difficult to fully appreciate all the multi-faceted angles of his character at once. He exerts such a terrific pull over Catherine that their love is figured as an almost elemental force. But is this great capacity to love enough to redeem Heathcliff in the eyes of the reader? Their passion seems of another world; its unearthliness is never more pronounced than when Heathcliff orders the side of Catherine’s coffin broken open so that when he is laid to rest beside her, their bodies will dissolve together. He also has an endless capacity for cruelty; with his ‘sharp cannibal teeth’, he often seems more devil than man. The resonance of the novel rests on the enigma of Heathcliff’s character; his nature is a mystery it’ll take me another read to fully appreciate.

All Quiet on the Western Front

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will simply try to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.

All Quiet on the Western Front presents an engaging account of life under seige in trenches. Next year marks the 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, and All Quiet‘s exploration of the dehumanising impact of war remains powerfully pertinent and affecting. What’s particularly striking is the youth of the soldiers. Paul Baumer and his classmates are all only 19 or 20 when they enter the battlefield for the first time. They represent the sacrifice made by a generation of young men and the devastation this sacrifice entailed; even those who survived the struggle would not leave the trenches unscarred. Erich Maria Remarque’s portrayal voices a growing distrust for the older generation, Paul’s teachers and leaders, who have encouraged and effectively condemned the young to fight and die in their steed. This critique can be extended to all politicians: those who make a country’s decisions are not typically made to directly face the consequences of those decisions. Young, fit men were sent to their deaths in their millions in order to defend an order imposed on them from above. The war casts a long shadow over the lives of its survivors: reclaiming normality after witnessing the horrors of war seems an impossibility.

allquietWar is also depicted as having a corrosive effect on those very things which make us human. The soldiers’ experience of life has been narrowed to base bodily functions and the persistent fear of death. They bear witness to the frequent destruction and disintegration of the human body; the elevated, spiritual aspects of man are rendered obsolete by this new, purely physical understanding of humanity. No human sympathy is afforded to enemy soldiers or prisoners, because such human feeling would render warfare impossible. Ultimately, All Quiet presents a meditation on the loss of humanity incurred through war, and a pertinent warning about the futility of such conflict.

Into the Wild

Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild attempts to solve the riddle of Chris McCandleless’ life and untimely death: why did this privileged, academically talented young man feel such a fatal draw towards the Alaskan wilderness? To answer this question, Krakauer retraces Chris’ steps across his cross-country odyssey, Chris, who shed his birth name along with his savings account and rechristened himself Alexander Supertramp, endeared himself to everyone he encountered on his travels. These friends shared their fond recollections with Krakauer, but along with their memories emerges Chris’ desire to evade prolonged human intimacy and the baggage this intimacy entails. Chris appears a sensitive, intelligent, bright young man. Although his trip was to have tragic consequences, his desire for adventure is a timeless one. Few twenty-year-olds can honestly claim they’ve never experienced a longing to be footloose and shrug off their material trappings to explore a new world. Chris’ desire to travel was also engendered by difficulties in his relationship with his parents; after fulfilling their wishes and graduating, he wanted to take time to discover himself. Krakauer certainly understands this pull to the wild. He made a similar journey in his own youth, only to nearly meet his death and face the uneasy discovery that a mountain could not solve his problems. Had Krakauer died, he would likely have been dismissed, as many have dismissed Chris, as a foolish, romantically inclined youth, but it’s difficult to dismiss as intelligent and enigmatic a figure as Chris so easily.

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Chris was fascinated by the novels of Jack London. He shared many passions with the author, such as his anti-capitalist sentiment, and his glorification of the natural world. Chris failed, however, to separate fact from fiction, a surprising oversight from such an otherwise astute youth. The representation of the wilderness in London’s novel was based on a romanticised perception, rather than first-hand experience, and London’s own life deviated strongly from the ideals celebrated in his writing. When the story of Chris’ untimely death went public, he faced criticism from many on the charge of being a romantic, an ignorant idealist who fatally underestimated the country. While it’s not true that Chris was ignorant, he was perhaps unprepared, and reading Into the Wild it’s difficult not to feel frustrated with this wayward wanderer. While he had good grounds for his anger towards his father, it’s tough to reconcile his disaffection for his privileged upbringing with the maturity he demonstrates elsewhere. Krakauer states that on meeting Chris’ mother and witnessing her grief first hand, ‘even the most eloquent apologia for high risk activities ring fatuous and hollow’. There’s a hint that Chris was prepared to initiate a reconciliation with his family; he was certainly ready to end his odyssey and walk out of the wilderness. But due to a series of unfortunate incidents, Chris was never able to walk out (and recent findings suggest that his death was definitely not the result of ignorance). The riddle of Chris McCandless’ life is destined, however, to remain unsolved.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress explores the power of books to transform the lives of their readers. In 1970s China, two young men are sent to the countryside for re-education and stumble across a suitcase of forbidden novels. The youths are deemed ‘intellectuals’ by the Cultural Revolution simply because they both graduated high school; this title is particularly barbed for the boys, since by the time they were able to attend school both maths and science had been wiped from the curriculum, so they were denied the chance to even aspire to become an intellectual. No books (except those either authored or favoured by Mao) are permitted, a ban which applies to Chinese classics and Western literature alike. As a result, other civilisations and China’s own rich past are shrouded in mystery.

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Discovering the suitcase of forbidden Western novels (Flaubert, Hugo, Dickens, Dumas) has a profound impact on the lives of the boys:

Brushing them with the tips of my fingers made me feel as if my pale hands were in touch with human lives.

They share the stories with a young girl in the next village, who is so entranced by Balzac’s story-telling that she listens literally open-mouthed. The books they uncover allow not only an insight into the lives of other people, but also allow the boys to understand their own world with greater clarity. They are able to fully appreciate what it means to live in a totalitarian society, where they are forbidden to enjoy the experiences detailed in the novels. In oppressive societies the transformative power of books is perceived as a dangerous force: it opens up the minds of its inhabitants to possibilities and opportunities they would never have considered before. Dai Sijie presents a celebration of the power of books: through reading, we can change the way we see the world.