In the week that Alice Munro won the nobel prize for literature it is very apt to discuss the short story, its subtle art and its recent renaissance. As a literary form it was the last to develop. Of all the literary forms I believe the short story to be one of the jewels in the crown. Storytelling in one form or other is hardwired into our human discourse, a way for us to shape the telling of our personal histories and to imagine possibilities ‘that would enchant, terrify, enthral, admonish, titillate’ and entertain. The informal oral tradition of storytelling only became one of the great 20th century art forms when inexpensive publishing technology coupled with the middle-class literacy in the 19th century gave rise to mass market general interest magazines and periodicals to service the new reading public’s desires and preferences. This new medium provided a forum for a piece of short fiction in the five to fifty page range and writers like Hawthorne, Poe and Turgenev rose to the challenge and began to write classic and timeless short stories virtually from the outset. The novel still held sway in mid 19th century Britain even after the influential story “ The Two Drovers” was published by Walter Scott in Chronicles of the Canongate in 1827; a literary text that inspired George Eliot and Thomas Hardy in Britain, Balzac in France, Pushkin and Turgenev in Russia and Fenimore Cooper and Hawthorne in America. In fact the true beginnings of the short story has been laid at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s door with his publication of Twice- Told Tales in 1837. When Edgar Allen Poe read Hawthorne he made the first real analysis of the form with his simple definition of the short story as a narrative that “can be read in one sitting.”
He also encapsulates the ability of short fiction to become more resonant and memorable than its length might dictate. A short story written
with care and skill” is like “a picture painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.
It is generally agreed by literary critics that Anton Chekov (1860-1904) is the greatest short story writer ever. William Boyd in his essay A Short History Of The Short Story states that the simple reason for this is that Chekhov, in his mature stories of the 1890’s “revolutionised the short story by revolutionising narrative.” This new form of short story introduced a fictional style that corresponded with the random, inexplicable and sometimes agonising lives we all lead- Chekhov abandoned the old authorial manipulation of a story for one not striving for a climax and with characters who speak for themselves without censure or praise. His cool, unflinching, dispassionate attitude to the human condition resounds in writers as diverse as William Trevor and Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Bowen, John Cheever, Muriel Spark and Alice Munro.
Some of my favourite short story writers include F.Scott Fitzgerald especially his collection ” Flappers and Philosophers ” and the works of Flannery O’Connor whose story A Good Man is Hard to Find is one of the finest in literary history. The beauty of Alice Munro’s prose is a joy for any reader and her often melancholy tales of small-town Canadian life demonstrate the gentle power of the short story at its best. . Kevin Barry is a new voice in Irish Fiction who writes dark, blackly hilarious and realistic narratives. His short story “Beer Trip to Llandudno” won the Sunday Time’s award last year and having seen him give a very animated reading at a literary festival I began to read his work most notably the short story collections Dark Lies the Island and There are Little Kingdoms. Barry is able to breathe life into characters and make them engaging to the reader; amateur ale enthusiasts on a beer trip to Wales when portrayed by Barry become “sweet, funny and unexpectedly moving” – his account of a hotel owner’s experience in a remote part of Ireland where ” it rained two hundred and eighty seven days of the year, and the locals were given to magnificent mood swings” is especially entertaining.
Short story collections are ideal to read when the reader wants to commit less time to the experience than that required when reading a large novel. The journey can be all the more entertaining despite its brevity and when vividly told the story allows readers to live momentarily but memorably beyond the confines of their own individual existence.
This blog was supposed to begin life in early January but had stiff competition from other time consuming pursuits namely those related to work and to the annual early January obsession with gyms and aspirational new life styles. There was an added note of urgency to the reigning in of my hedonistic passions this year as I wanted to attempt to look a little younger at my graduation ceremony on the 23rd January in the Rose Theatre, Kingston. It was to be the culmination of two years of part time study and travel between Kerry and Kingston, enduring the claustrophobic confines of Ryan Air and late night angst as the dissertation deadline loomed.
It was also a triumph of folly over reason, of spirit over reality. The first two weeks of the new me were difficult but were showing results. I had waved a fond farewell to the Chablis and Sancerre in the early hours of January 1st aided hugely by aversion therapy after massive overindulgence over the season. I promptly turned up at my local gym BTS fitness and was put through my paces by the very fabulous Silvia, whose toned physique and boundless energy got this devotee of lounging to spend a few hours a week hauling kettle bells and donning boxing gloves. I had also given up the consolations of consulate, the menthol friends that have been a constant in my life.
Naturally, by all the laws of nature , I was a little lighter and a lot fresher as I boarded the flight to London Luton accompanied by my mother an the afternoon before graduation. Despite gloomy predictions of snow blizzards and arctic conditions from weather reports and of course Sky News, we arrived with ease to a bitterly cold but snow-free Ebury Street, Victoria. This is a great location for a sojourn in London and I can’t recommend the Lime Tree Hotel enough, located as it is next to a fabulous bistro, The Ebury Wine Bar and on the doorstep of Elizabeth Street with its designer shops and rarefied village appeal. The Hotel is a little gem with really helpful staff, a taste of Made In Chelsea for those of us without trust-funds, ideal for myself as I do like the champagne lifestyle on a beer budget.
When my sisters flew in from Dublin that evening and arrived at eleven to the hotel, I allowed my hedonistic self to re- emerge and nourish herself after the gulag of the previous few weeks. There was nothing for it but to run around the corner to Boisdales Of Belgravia, one of my finds over the course of my studies. A couple of cocktails later and I was singing along with the jazz band and even worried in the manner of a stray dog’s effect on sheep, a young musician from Queens New York. I kept repeating that I knew the area well, as if I was google earth in human form, albeit that very delectable form that I feel after one too many hendricks. It came to pass that my vision of waking on the graduation day- performing a few sun salutes, then meditating for twenty minutes on the meaning of Art in life, then dressing and resembling Dita Von Teese -didn’t come to pass.
Instead I found myself in Clapham Junction wearing snow boots with my new body-con dress, also accessorised with a camel hair polo neck and a very loud leopard print coat. The rest of my gear was carried in a black holdall, not unlike a kit bag. The dream of floating effortlessly to Kingston in my high heels and a clutch bag was not to be. Instead I shuffled through the cold station with the swagger of a blubbery inuit on the frozen Alaskan plains. After queuing for caps and gowns and other discombobulating stuff in the JG building, I was plucked from the misery of walking to the town for lunch by Dominic Bury, one of the young boys from my class. This dapper poet transported me in his mini-cooper to the restaurant where I was meeting one of my tutors for lunch. Climbing out of the mini and waving goodbye to the bespectacled hipster definitely made me feel a lot younger.
After a glass of bubbly with Rachel Cusk, combined with interesting discussion, I emerged to take my place at graduation. It was a really special day and I really enjoyed the upbeat and positive talk given by Wendy Perriam who received an honorary doctorate that day. Graduation speeches are extremely important and set the right note and are always remembered by the graduates afterwards. My all time favourite commencement address is by the inimitable David Foster Wallace in ‘This is Water’.