Flicking back through old photographs, I find one taken while returning from an evening out with friends in Istanbul, and passing some wooden-fronted houses in a twisting street, near the shore, that seemed to belong entirely to a world of things forgotten, specifically one of those nostalgic evocations of the old city invoked by Orhan Pamuk in his memoir Istanbul: Memories of City.
It was with real pleasure, then, that I read Maureen Freely’s bewitching essay in the Cahiers series produced by the American University in Paris, called Angry in Piraeus (the title is explained by Freely’s childhood memory of attempting, as a linguistically gifted nine-year-old, to moderate between her father’s splenetic discontent and an implacable Greek taxi driver). She evokes a scenario, familiar to some of us, of being caught between two angry parties and two sets of rules, and having to act as interlocutor between individuals who do not share a common language, and realising, of a sudden, that this is what all human communication is like, but more so. And the antidote? Freely describes what it might be for her:
‘ . . . If asked to describe paradise on earth, I would depict a city I have never seen before, a city I could wander through without anyone quite seeing me. A maze of narrow lanes would send me past gate after locked gate, courtyard after sunlit courtyard. In each there would be another drama, another cast of characters conversing in a language I was hearing for the first time, but that had existed for many millennia, and that I would now attempt to explore, word by word.’
Why do starling swarm in the sky? What are they communicating, if anything? Is it play? There doesn’t seem to be a clear response on any website I have searched.
But I have discovered that it is called a ‘murmuration of starlings’, which I like. It evokes the astonishing burr of all those wings in unison, which can be heard whenever you pass close to a group. The RSPB website says:
We think that starlings do it for many reasons. Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands.
They also gather to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas.
They gather over their roosting site, and perform their wheeling stunts before they roost for the night.
The starlings I photographed through my car windscreen (I stopped the car first) were swarming over the flatlands of Ampurdan, near the fresh and saltwater marshes of the Aiguamolls reserve. But I find it hard to be convinced that they gather in this way to keep warm at night (especially as it was mild, and mid-afternoon), and nor am I convinced by the peregrine falcon theory (there are eagles here in the Ampurdan also) and the hypnosis effect on such birds of prey.
An article in The Guardian informs readers that The Society of Biology is calling on the British public to “help them solve the mystery of why murmurations form, how long they last and why they end.”
Autumn is the mushroom season, and at weekends, if you take a walk outside the village, you will encounter the mushroom hunter, a basket slung underarm, scanning the ground with an expert eye. King of the mushrooms is the rovelló, (Lactarius deliciosus) – pictured above, large and fleshy funghi that appear around the roots of pines, which grow abundantly along the tracks through the Alberas leading north and into France.
The picture includes one of the largest specimens I have ever encountered (or eaten). I’d recommend them cooked in olive oil or butter with some garlic and parsley, and spread over toast, or with spaghetti or linguine, if you have any.
Another – perhaps the other – defining feature of autumn is the Tramuntana – a wind that heads down off the Pyrenees and sweeps all before it. It makes its way to the coast of Menorca (200 miles due south from here), and who knows how far beyond . . . It is a wind invested with powerful psychological or emotional qualities.
This wind, the mountain wind, infiltrates every corner like a spinning incubus, growing inside each perception, every mundane act, taking them over utterly. Eventually you become aware only of the immediate and hallucinatory impact of whatever stands before you: the silent apparition of the dog waiting expectantly in the doorway; a dead sheep lying beside a roadside elm. The wind sucks out everything from you, leaving you exhausted and chastened. People have been known to commit murder on account of the mountain wind, or else go slowly insane over several seasons. (Colour of a Dog Running Away)
The wind needn’t affect everyone in quite this way; but the dogs, they notice, and flocks of starlings appear as you drive along the road to Garriguella and swerve and dive and bank away in a thick black cloud over the recently ploughed fields.
I have noticed, in myself and others, particularly after a full week of the wind – a tendency towards dreaminess or abstraction, a withdrawal into a state in which the structures of the phenomenal world have a tendency to dissolve. When this happens, conversations about the village take a strange turn, and the person with whom one thinks one has been speaking turns out to have been dead for a hundred years (the teenage girl who disappeared into the mountains with her illegitimate and stillborn child in 1912), and the postman mistakes you for Andreu the beetle-crusher, and the Butane delivery driver’s assistant refuses to let you take in the heavy gas cylinder that you use for cooking and hot water, mistaking you for the old man you must appear to him to be, and tells you to take care now, to wrap up warm, it’s cold.
Are there words that you always seem to mis-type? I don’t mean mis-spell when writing longhand, but mis-type, when typing in a hurry, when the words are coming out faster than the fingers can organise them into print on the screen, and the mind, as it were, stumbles. Is there any point in analysing these moments?
The question I am getting to, rather clumsily, is whether or not there is an element of the ‘Freudian slip’ involved in the kinds of words that we habitually mis-type when typing faster than we can comfortably manage.
Let me give two examples. One word which I often type incorrectly is ‘purpose’. It occurs to me that this is because I lack purpose, that I have always lacked purpose. I am quite good on intention, and energetic in pursuing obsessive goals, but purpose can floor me. No doubt I spent too much time immersed in the novels of Samuel Beckett as a teenager, but I can hardly blame him. I over-identified with Beckett’s forlornly comic protagonists, mostly because, like my teenage self, they lacked purpose, and this coincided with a time in life when I and those around me were being encouraged to acquire and develop Purpose above all things.
Puprose or porpuse (which of course gets auto-corrected to ‘porpoise’)is how I spell it, and once or twice pusproe. I find it hard to ‘get’ purpose, and have to slow down, pause, and seek out the keys.
The other word I almost invariably type incorrectly is ‘because’ (becuase, beacuse, beacuase etc) – but most commonly beacuse .
My analyst friend, Alphonse, perched on his Freudian stool, says: purpose, sure, Blanco: you lack purpose. Because, surely, because you lack a sense of causality. You refuse to believe that one thing happens as a direct consequence of another thing, and prefer to follow your misguided and mystical faith in Sympathetic Magic.
And there’s the rub. Causality (or actually, I kid you not, cuaslity, which sounds rather like ‘casualty’ is as much of a stumbling block as ‘purpose’ and ‘because’ – the latter as a subordinating conjunction (I hate you because you are a liar) or compound conjunction (the concert was cancelled because of the rain). Either way ‘because’ is a concept whose very existence depends on an acceptance of causality.
But to reinforce this confusion, I have a final repeat slip-up to confess to: when speaking Spanish I consistently confuse the word casualidad (chance, coincidence) with causalidad (causality)– it is an engrained error, but one which must surely have deep psychological roots, in which I regard all causality as, essentially, a matter of chance or coincidence.
A new poem by Pedro Serrano, translated from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn.
The tiger leaps
from a cloud of smoke into transience.
Falls on the devastating corral with an idleness
corresponding to the haste of his victims,
not to his elasticity.
He brushes past the bars of his cage
swinging his tail, rattling, tac, tac, tac, tac.
Crackling, he licks the circus sands
and raises ripples of dust,
traces of an approaching wake.
The motive for his observation
journeys in the smooth rhythm of his stomach,
velvety, gluttonous, elastic.
He turns circles before the spectators,
ears cocked, instincts fixed
on the excitement in the air.
He walks by the tables, propitious,
exudes substance and style.
The head sinks between the shoulders,
swells in the rail that encircles him.
The claws are extended
in the animal body that awaits him.
In the mirror of midday
the night’s end was taking shape,
El tigre salta
de la humareda a la fugacidad.
Cae en el aplastante corral con una pereza
que alude a la prisa de sus victimas,
no a su elasticidad.
Pasa rozando las rejas de su jaula
meneando la cola, golpeteando, taq’, taq’, taq’, taq’.
Restallante lame las arenas del circo
y levanta espejuelas de polvo,
huellas de una estela aproximándose.
La razón de su observación
viaja en el suave ritmo de su vientre,
afelpado, glotón, elástico.
Da vueltas a los espectadores,
las orejas prestas, su olfato
en la agitación que se respira.
Pasa propicio por las mesas,
se enjundia, se estiliza.
Sume la cabeza entre los hombros,
crece en el riel que lo circunda.
Deja las uñas puestas
en el cuerpo animal que lo acecha.
Desde el espejo del mediodía
se apuntaba el final de la noche,
Today’s post is a translation of the opening fragment of the poem ‘Tree’ by the Bolivian poet Jessica Freudenthal Ovando (born 1978).
my father has a girlfriend of my age
my father says he cheated on my mother with six women
with whom he fell in love
my father always cheated on my mother
“always” could be reduced to fifteen or twenty years
my father and my mother became engaged at fifteen years of age
and were married as soon as they were legal adults
my mother is the daughter of a military man
my mother is the daughter of a military man they say was involved
in the death of che guevara and the nationalization of the gulf oil company
my father is the son of the right hand man of the president who led the revolution of 1952
my father’s father was exiled by the father of my mother
i am the daughter of my mother and of my father
i have a sister and two brothers
my older brother has the same name as my father and the older brother of my mother
the older brother of my mother died in an airplane accident
they say that it wasn’t an accident
they say that the plane was sabotaged to bring about the fall of my military grandfather’s government that nationalized oil and tin
my younger brother has the name of sid campeador and of the younger brother of my mother which is also the name of her father
i have my name and the name of the older sister of my father who died during an epileptic attack in eastern bolivia
my father’s mother says that she was born in a place where the cemetery is bigger than the village, and the word love is not known
my sister has her name and the two names of my mother
my mother’s younger brother has his father’s name
– but never uses it –
my mother’s younger sister is adopted
– but this is an open secret –
i am the spouse of my spouse
i do not use the surname of my spouse
my spouse was the boyfriend of the second daughter of my mother’s younger brother
my mother and my spouse’s father had a fling
my father became somewhat jealous
my mother was sick with jealousy
she used to check my father’s pockets and phone him like a madwoman
i suffer from jealousy
my husband has cheated on me on several occasions
i have never been able to cheat on my husband
i haven’t dared
mother and father
the family tree doesn’t know its roots
it can’t see them
in the darkness and depth of the earth
there hidden underground
far from the crown
from the air
and from the branches
from the branches of this tree
hang the dead
my father’s mother’s brother
shot himself on christmas night
my father’s younger brother snorted cocaine until his heart stopped
my mother’s first cousin threw himself off the niagara falls
my mother’s father died of cancer of the pancreas
my father’s father died of pulmonary emphysema
it costs this tree to breathe
it doesn’t know its roots
surnames run all along its structure
they become transparent
Translation from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn
Fragmento de “ÁRBOL”
mi padre tiene una novia de mi edad
mi padre dice engañó a mi madre con seis mujeres
de las que se enamoró
mi padre siempre engañó a mi madre
–siempre– puede reducirse a quince o veinte años
mi padre y mi madre se hicieron novios a los quince años
y se casaron al borde de la mayoría de edad
mi madre es hija de un militar
mi madre es hija de un militar que dicen estuvo involucrado
en la muerte del che guevara y la nacionalización de la gulf oil company
mi padre es hijo del hombre de confianza del presidente que hizo la revolución de 1952
el padre de mi padre fue exiliado por el padre de mi madre
yo soy hija de mi madre y de mi padre
tengo una hermana y dos hermanos
mi hermano mayor lleva el nombre de mi padre y el nombre del hermano mayor de mi madre
el hermano mayor de mi madre murió en un accidente de aviación
-dicen que no fue un accidente-
dicen que sabotearon el avión para que cayera el gobierno de mi abuelo militar que nacionalizó la gulf y el estaño
mi hermano menor lleva el nombre del sid campeador y el del hermano menor de mi madre que es también el de su padre
yo llevo mi nombre y el nombre de la hermana mayor de mi padre muerta por un ataque de epilepsia en el oriente boliviano
la madre de mi padre dice que nació en un lugar donde el cementerio es más grande que el pueblo, y que no conoció la palabra amor . . .
mi hermana lleva su nombre y los dos nombres de mi madre
el hermano menor de mi madre lleva el nombre de su padre
– pero no lo usa nunca –
la hermana menor de mi madre es adoptada
– pero ese es un secreto a voces –
yo soy esposa de mi esposo
yo no uso el apellido de mi esposo
mi esposo era el novio de la hija segunda del hermano menor de mi madre
mi madre y el padre de mi esposo tuvieron un romance
mi padre se puso algo celoso
mi madre era enferma de los celos
auscultaba los bolsillos de mi padre y lo llamaba como loca por teléfono
yo sufro de celos
mi marido me ha engañado varias veces
yo nunca he podido engañar a mi marido
no me he atrevido
madre y padre
el árbol familiar no conoce sus raíces
no puede verlas
en la oscuridad y profundidad de la tierra
allí debajo escondidas
lejanas a la copa
y a las ramas
en las ramas de este árbol
cuelgan los muertos
el hermano de la madre de mi padre
se pegó un tiro la noche de navidad
el hermano menor de mi padre aspiró cocaína hasta detener su corazón
el primo hermano de mi madre se lanzó por las cataratas del niágara
el padre de mi madre murió de cáncer de páncreas
el padre de mi padre murió de enfisema pulmonar
a este árbol le cuesta respirar
no conoce sus raíces
los apellidos recorren toda la estructura
se hacen transparentes
from Patria bastarda (2014)
Post is delivered erratically in the village, and two issues of the London Review of Books land in my letter box on the same day. I read one of them, and am struck by a sentence in an article by the excellent Jenny Diski, one of a series she has been commissioned to write following her diagnosis of terminal cancer (last year she was given possibly three years to live). The article – like much of her recent work – concerns her relationship with Doris Lessing, who ‘took her in’ as a troubled teenager, after ‘abandoning’ two of her own children in Rhodesia, as it was then known. The article begins with a troublesome quotation from Lessing, which is, in fact, the ‘Author’s Note’ to her book The Sweetest Dream:
“I am not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people. Which does not mean I have novelised autobiography. There are no parallels here to actual people, except for one, a very minor character.”
In her essay, Diski explores and questions this (disingenuous) disclaimer, and edges towards a revelation of who the ‘very minor character’ might be.
‘What is she telling us about?’ asks Diski: ‘Sex, politics, her version of some truth that has been confabulated?’
And there it is. That word. Confabulate has a peculiar history. It comes from the Late Latin, confabulationem – “talking together”, con = with/together; fabula = fable, tale. The making of fables. And yes, you can do it in a group, with other people, or you can do it on your own, in your head. Making shit up, which is what writers do, a lot.
In recent years, ‘confabulate’ has taken on a specific medical meaning. I was very interested to learn that the clinical term for Alzheimer’s patients making shit up is ‘confabulation’. Wikipedia even has this: “Confabulation is a memory disturbance, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive” – which is kind of interesting, considering what it is that writers do. Now, if you look in any dictionary, you will find the word has become medicalised, thereby adapting its meaning to a specific clinical usage, while its original meaning has taken a back seat.
Recent neurological research (see, for example Daniel L. Schacter’s Memory Distortion) has provided overwhelming evidence to suggest that memories are constructed from an uneven mix of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Something similar is true for perception: our perceptions are constructions that supplement data processed by the brain with other data that the brain supplies to fill in the blanks.
So, when Alzheimer’s patients ‘confabulate’, in other words ‘make shit up’, I cannot help but question what it is that writers do: the difference being, I guess, that with Alzheimer’s patients confabulation is involuntary, and with us it is (usually) intentional.
The first Borges story I ever read was ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in the translation by Alastair Reid, while living in a derelict shepherd’s hut on a Cretan hillside. A couple of years later, like so many others readers, I underwent a kind of epiphany while reading One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I was twenty years old, and from that point on, Borges’ fictions, alongside García Márquez’s recreation of the semi-fictional world of Macondo, forced me to re-evaluate almost everything that I had been reared to believe about literary fiction.
Thinking back, I had never had much truck with either realism or naturalism – the antagonists, in their way, of so-called ‘magic realism’ – and since my exposure to Borges and García Márquez, I never quite trusted them again. These two writers, followed by other discoveries, such as Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Augusto Monterroso, opened the doors to different perceptions of reality, in which the frail membrane separating one world, one mode of understanding, from another, was always permeable, subject to movement and interpenetration. Everything was a fiction. This was a model, I believed, that could be applied to almost anything: culture, language, philosophy . . . it was almost, but not quite, a religion.
Last July I was reminded of this lifelong struggle with the false dichotomy between fiction and reality, when I travelled to Dumfries and Galloway to meet Alastair Reid himself. The Scottish poet – friend as well as translator of Borges, Neruda and García Márquez – spent a large part of the day talking with me about Latin America and its literatures, especially Borges. I recorded the conversations, and consider myself incredibly fortunate to do this as, just over a month following my visit, Alastair passed away, at the age of eighty-eight.
One of the things he told me – which also crops up in one of his essays – was the reluctance of Latin Americans in general (not just authors) to discriminate between what ‘actually’ happened, and what might have happened under other circumstances. Thus life (and storytelling) is a continuous weave of memory, confabulation and invention. In one of his essays, Reid cites the American diplomat George F. Kennan, who, after an investigatory trip through several Latin American countries in 1950, wrote, in a tone of exasperation:
Latin American society lives, by and large, by a species of make-believe . . . a highly personalised, anarchical make-believe, in which each individual spins around him, like a cocoon, his own little world of pretense, and demands its recognition by others as the condition of his participation in the social process.
While the sentiments expressed here might be familiar to many as a symptom of European or North American ethnocentrism, the diplomat had a point. Reid himself lived for many years among villagers in the Dominican Republic, and describes a ‘fictive’ cast of mind, in which the vague boundary between history and invention is blurred beyond recognition. This is not simply a case of the ‘objective’ European mind critiquing the supremely subjectivist world-view of those in ‘the third world’: it is a truth (if such a word has any meaning) borne out by Reid’s experience, and one described most succinctly by Borges himself. For Borges, everything put into language is a fiction, whatever ‘literary’ or non-literary’ form that might take. Thus a poem, a newspaper article, or a letter from the bank manager all fit the category of ‘fiction’ as each uses language as their mode of expression. As Reid says:
A fiction is any construct of language – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality.
And it is with this in mind that we must think of Fiction Fiesta; not in the limited sense of a festival that celebrates the genre of literary fiction. FF is a platform for building fictions that give shape to reality. On one level, FF complements work that I am doing, alongside others – with the invaluable support of Wales Literature Exchange and Wales Arts International – in taking Welsh writing out into the wider world; at the same time we are helping Welsh readers discover more about contemporary Latin American writing.
Fiction Fiesta started out in early 2012 as a conversation in a pub between myself and Nick Davidson, landlord of the now defunct Promised Land in Windsor Place, Cardiff. My idea for Fiction Fiesta was simple: to team up writers in both the languages of Wales with writers from Latin America, and initiate a discourse between us and them, with the aim – among other things – of dismantling such notions as ‘us’ and ‘them’
Nick got some money from the San Miguel brewery and I managed to secure some from Cardiff University and the thing was on. We followed up in 2013, with an Arts Council of Wales small festivals grant, inviting Eduardo Halfon from Guatemala, Inés Garland and Andrés Neuman from Argentina, alongside writers from Wales and elsewhere in the UK, and The Independent covered the event, with a feature on one of our guests, Angharad Price, which attracted more attention.
Through Fiction Fiesta, we set out to pay particular attention to literature in translation and, by extension, to explore the larger idea of translation as a concept that, to some degree, governs all our lives. In literature, even without being translated into other languages, we are translating emotions and thoughts into words. ‘Reading poetry is itself a kind of translation,’ commented Andrés Neuman during a discussion at Fiction Fiesta in 2013. And Octavio Paz goes further: ‘in writing a poem we are translating the world, transmuting it. Everything we do is translation, and all translations are in a way creations.’
It was never our intention to put on a big festival. We always wanted Fiction Fiesta to retain a sense of intimacy that came from holding the first edition of the fiesta in the upstairs room of a local pub. And we wanted to keep a sense of celebration, of literature as something to be savoured and enjoyed by readers, like food and drink, which the large-scale corporate festivals cannot provide. In addition, we wanted Fiction Fiesta to help develop contacts and friendships between Welsh writers and writers from Latin America, which, as I explained at the start of this piece, is where a lot of my own literary interests are centred.
This year’s Mexico-themed Fiction Fiesta teamed up with Wales PEN Cymru and the British Council to hold an event at the Wales Millennium Centre on Friday 17th April. Owen Sheers hosted the Mexican writer Juan Villoro, along with Francesca Rhydderch, while I was in conversation with Pedro Serrano and the Scottish poet W.N. Herbert. FF is hoping to maintain the partnership with Wales PEN Cymru, and bring many more writers from Latin America to Wales over the years to come.
This piece first appeared in the New Welsh Review, 1st July 2015
Since I began teaching creative writing, some fifteen years ago, I have become accustomed to the sad refrain from younger writers that although they fervently wish to write – or perhaps ‘become a writer’, which may or may not be the same thing – they don’t have anything to say.
It was with some pleasure, therefore, that I noted, during my leisurely (i.e. very slow) re-reading of Proust, the following passage:
‘. . . since I wanted to be a writer some day, it was time to find out what I meant to write. But as soon as I asked myself this, trying to find a subject in which I could anchor some infinite philosophical meaning, my mind would stop functioning, I could no longer see anything but empty space before my attentive eyes, I felt that I had no talent or perhaps a disease of the brain kept it from being born.’ (The Way by Swann’s, Lydia Davis translation).
But interestingly – at least for my purposes – the suggestion is made that the answer to his lack of inspiration might be found in the things around him, the very things, in other words, that are distracting to him:
‘ . . . suddenly a roof, a glimmer of sun on stone, the smell of the road would stop me because of a particular pleasure they gave me, and also because they seemed to be concealing, beyond what I could see, something which they were inviting me to come and take, and which despite my efforts I could not manage to discover . . . I would concentrate on recalling precisely the line of the roof, the shade of the stone which, without my being able to understand why, had seemed to me so full, so ready to open, to yield the thing for which they themselves were merely a cover. Of course it was not impressions of this kind that could give me back the hope I had lost, of succeeding in becoming a writer and a poet some day, because they were always tied to a particular object with no intellectual value and no reference to any abstract truth. But at least they gave me an unreasoning pleasure, the illusion of a sort of fecundity, and so distracted me from the tedium, from the sense of my own impotence which I had felt each time I looked for a philosophical subject for a great literary work.’
It is noteworthy here how Proust (through his young protagonist, Marcel) disavows any connection between these ‘objects with no intellectual value’, and his frustrated desire to write. For it is that very particularity, that sense of thingness (which always, as Proust suggests, is a cover for something else, something ineffable) that so often provides the starting point for a writer, if only he or she would look.
‘No ideas but in things’: the line by William Carlos Williams has been taken up as a mantra by teachers of poetry to students obsessed, like the young Marcel, with trying to convey deep philosophical concepts, and instead sinking in a morass of tired imagery, expressed through endless clichés of emotion and language.
I think this is the notion I was trying to convey in my post of 29th August. You can simply be drawn in by some aspect of the inanimate world without knowing why. Not that everything is a metaphor, precisely, nor even that every object is a cover for something else (Borges reminds us that a stone might want just to be stone, a tiger a tiger), but that, using Ricardo Piglia’s thesis of the short story as an analogy, every account, every story conceals within it another telling, a secret story, and it is the quest for this other story that leads young Marcel, in his walks with his grandfather near the beginning of A la recherche du temps perdu to understand that this great, almost suffocating desire to be a writer – a desire that one observes (though perhaps in a less astutely articulated form) in many young students of creative writing who likewise find difficulty in finding subject matter to accommodate their ambitions – might encounter a solution by looking at ‘things’ in the world, rather than heading straight for the ‘idea’.
Finally, an insight from Jane Smiley, in her 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which drily sets to rest the maddening condition familiar to all writers of wanting to start a piece of writing, but managing to find any number of things to prevent them from doing so:
‘My definition of “inspiration” is “a condition of being stimulated by contemplation of the material to a degree sufficient to overcome your natural disinclination to create.”’
Or how long should a piece of writing be? Reflecting on this, in relation to a piece I am working on, I haphazardly check into an article in The New Yorker and am reminded by John McPhee that “ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more”. He is talking about non-fiction, but of course the same applies to poetry or to fiction: some might say it is even more crucial that fiction writers learn how to discern what length can be reasonably sustained by the selected material so as to avoid rendering the reader senselessly bored. Why, as Borges asked – and I often ask myself – succumb to the laborious and impoverishing madness . . . “of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes.”?
And while on the subject of contraction, here’s a lesson to learn about how to save time in storytelling by presenting several ideas at once. In Mavis Gallant’s short story ‘Grippes and Poche’, her protagonist, the solitary and sardonic writer, Grippes, witnesses a quartet of plain-clothes police beating up a couple of pickpockets, and escapes into a café. He has been out to collect some offal from the butcher’s to feed his cats. Rather than have Grippes ‘find’ his idea about realism – or ‘writing about real life’ – while seated at the café reading a newspaper; or even allowing the thought to present itself to him through internal monologue, reverie, or conversation with a literary adversary, Gallant allows her character to discover it on the newspaper in which the butcher has wrapped a sheep’s lung.
Returning on a winter’s evening after a long walk, carrying a parcel of sheep’s lung wrapped in a newspaper, he crossed Boulevard de Montparnasse just as the lights went on – the urban moonrise . . . Grippes shuffled into a café. He put his parcel of lights on the zinc-topped bar and started to read an article on the wrapping. Someone unknown to him, a new name, pursued an old grievance: Why don’t they write about real life any more?
Because to depict life is to attract its ill-fortune, Grippes replied.
And that ‘attracting of ill-fortune’, uttered to no one in particular by a man reading from a newspaper in which rests a sheep’s lung, while outside – in the ‘real’ world – the police exercise some casual violence on a couple of petty criminals, achieves a marvellous contraction of idea and imagery, without spoiling the effect by any explanation or commentary.
I have taken my time reading the Paris Stories of Mavis Gallant, which is what she would have liked. But coming to the end of the book (in the elegant NYRB edition with Gallant’s own afterword) I am left with profound and persistent impressions.
The first is of a writer utterly committed to her craft. In her afterword she cites Beckett, who on being asked by an interviewer why he wrote, responded that he was ‘bon qu’a ça’ – no good at anything else. She herself wrote – as cited in Michael Ondaaatje’s excellent introduction: ‘Like every other form of art, literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death.’
Gallant, who was born in Canada but spent most of her life in Paris, dying there last year at the age of 91 – achieves some remarkable things with these short stories, which largely describe the lives of Anglo-Saxon residents in Paris and on the Riviera during the 1940s and 50s. The finest of these, ‘The Moslem Wife’ and (especially) ‘The Remission’ manage to pull off the difficult task of presenting a story from the point of view of different protagonists – major and minor – with a seamless fluency, so that one barely notices the shift in free indirect style. Ondaatje comments neatly on ‘the ability to slip or drop into the thought processes of minor characters, without any evident signalling of literary machinery.’ The stories are populated by defiant, complex characters, who live and breathe within the reader’s imagination rather than sit inside the story as if placed there for the author’s convenience.
In ‘The Moslem Wife’ a young Englishwoman, Netta, is abandoned by her feckless husband, Jack, in their coastal home in the south of France just before the Second World War, forcing her to endure the hardships of the successive Italian and German occupations with her half-demented mother-in-law and a rabble of misfit neighbours. Here Gallant presents a succinct and poignant portrait of the wayward Jack, just before he leaves:
‘The plot of attraction interested him, no matter how it turned out. He was like someone reading several novels at once, or like someone playing simultaneous chess . . . At night he had a dark look that went with a dark mood, sometimes. Netta would tell him that she could see a cruise ship floating on the black horizon like a piece of the Milky Way, and she would get that look for an answer. But it never lasted. His memory was too short to let him sulk, no matter what fragment of night had crossed his mind. She knew, having heard other couples all her life, that at least she and Jack never made the conjugal sounds that passed for conversation and that might as well have been bowwow and quack quack.’
In ‘The Remission’ Alec Webb uproots from his life in England and goes to the south of France to die, but spends an unexpectedly long time doing so. The new Queen Elizabeth II is crowned and the family and neighbours gather to hear the radio transmission of the coronation. Still in his sickbed, Alec had ‘dressed completely, though he had a scarf around his neck instead of a tie. He was the last, the very last of a kind. Not British but English. Not Christian so much as Anglican. Not Anglican but giving the benefit of the doubt. His children would never feel what he had felt, suffer what he had suffered, relinquish what he had done without so that this sacrament could take place. The new Queen’s voice flowed easily over the Alps – thin, bored, ironed flat by the weight of what she had to remember – and came as far as Alec, to whom she owed her crown.’
Barbara takes a lover named Wilkinson, who wears a navy blazer and acts as unofficial chauffeur to the elderly expats on the Riviera. Gallant has the type off pat:
‘If he sounded like a foreigner’s Englishman, like a man in a British joke, it was probably because he had said so many British-sounding lines in films set on the Riviera. Eric Wilkinson was the chap with the strong blue eyes and ginger moustache, never younger than thirty-four, never as much as forty, who flashed on for a second, just long enough to show there was an Englishman in the room. He could handle a uniform, a dinner jacket, tails, a monocle, a cigarette holder, a swagger-stick, a polo mallet, could say, without being an ass about it, “Bless my soul, wasn’t that the little Maharani?” or even, “Come along, old boy – fair play with Monica!” Foreigners meeting him often said, “That is what the British used to be like, when they were still all right, when the Riviera was still fit to live in.” But the British who knew him were apt to glaze over . . .’ and later: ‘Most people looked on Wilkinson as a pre-war survival, what with his “I say’s” and “By Jove’s,” but he was really an English mutation, a new man, wearing the old protective coloring. Alec would have understood his language, probably, but not the person behind it.’
The subtleties of Gallant’s writing are not limited to her descriptive powers, nor to her portraits of men adorned with clipped accents and cravats, however. Not by any means. In both these stories the central characters, and major focuses of narration are the women who strive to make their lives work in spite of the men they are with, and the hardships they face through isolation, snobbery or simple loneliness. Towards the end of ‘The Remission’ the point of view shifts to Molly, Barbara’s daughter, as she attends Alec, her father’s, long-awaited death; and who at fourteen acknowledges, through observing her mother’s life, that ‘There was no freedom except to cease to love.’
Short stories like these – and several of them are not at all short – require time to read and savour. You cannot hurry through them, nor read more than a couple at a time, maximum. As Gallant herself writes in her Afterword: ‘Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.’