The Birdcage Archives

Thursday 24 November 2011

The Short Story Review No. VIII

“Too Much Happiness,” by Alice Munro – From “Too Much Happiness,” by Alice Munro.

This is the last story by Alice Munro from her collection of stories “Too Much Happiness.” Those of you who have read this particular collection you will notice two stories missing. Those stories are “Face,” and “Wood.” Both of those stories were skipped because they did not have the same zest and energy that all of other Alice Munro stories had. “Too Much Happiness,” the final story of this collection with the same name, is perhaps and arguably the best story of this collection. It deals specifically with the mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky, a major female mathematician in the late nineteenth century.

In the beginning of her career, she was called one of the last great regionalists of her time. The great regionalist that come along with Alice Munro, made me think of William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Anton Chekhov, even James Joyce. Alice Munro was seen as the last of the great tradition. But that tradition whether one wants to admit it or recognize it, does continue, if one does wish to look around and see it.

When talking about writing and literature, with someone before – who had taken a creative writing course, many years ago; he told me that his creative writing professor had told him to write, about what he knew. “It doesn’t matter,” he said “if it’s your mother washing dishes. Write about it.” When I was told of this, this man went on to tell me that at first he was a bit confused why his professor had told him that. There is nothing exciting about writing about someone who has their hands slipped in rubber gloves because the water is so scalding hot; holding a pink sponge running it over the dishes, with a domestic bliss on their face. However after he had let it sink in long enough he realized what his professor was trying to tell him. His professor was trying to tell him, that he should write about what he knew. He understood that he wanted to write about dragons and elves and action, and all that; but he first and foremost needed to understand to write about something that he needed to know. He needed to grasp that feel of authenticity. Writing about his mother doing the dishes, or his father, smoking a pipe as he wood carved, or writing about something he knew, he would be able to experience and grasp that authenticity.

There are moments upon moments of authenticity, in much of Alice Munro’s work. There are those moments of, of an atmosphere and a mood. An emotion that has been grasped, and placed in a cage; it sings like a little song bird. The same tune of that emotion runs throughout Alice Munro’s stories. Though the emotion may be different it certainly something that one can bet on, when reading one of her stories. That there is something profoundly human to her work, and yet profoundly quite off. Something distant – I suppose the metaphor of the emotion in the cage comes to mind. It cannot be stolen, or touched. The bars are its imprisonment and its safety net from our greedy hands.

“Too Much Happiness,” is just a wonderfully interesting story by Alice Munro. Many critics and reviewers have asked themselves, if Alice Munro is just a short story writer, or if she is a writer, whose stories are equally matched to the novel. It is difficult to say. Though “Too Much Happiness,” certainly brings up the question. It is a long short story – even close to being a novella. However it is best to read as if it is a short story.

It is sometimes a dizzying read. The name dropping. The ever feeling of shifting places – and the present mixed with the past memories, always are changing. Alice Munro however had captured, Sophia Kovalevsky, like a wounded bird, and exposes her troublesome and turbulent life. The shifting political atmosphere in Russia – communism is certainly something talked about; there is Jaclard’s imprisonment, and Vladimir saving him, through bribery. Though Jaclard does not even mention thank-you to Vladimir in his retelling of the story, nor does he repay him. He is just an arrogant man, who speaks only of his own bravery. Though that same arrogance has landed him and his son in his current situation. Urey – Jaclard’s son; is the same way. Thin, poor, and arrogant; his living situation has caused him to grow bitter. There is the fall out of Vladimir and herself, and her new love Maxism, who appears to be a bit of a cold fish, but entices love in Sophia somehow. Aniuta, Sophia’s sister is far, far, far more of a tragic figure at times. Her love for her husband Jaclard was miserable failure, as was her hatred of him, because she loved him. She had a love for the medieval period, and was prone to political outburst. Though she was overshadowed by her mathematical genius of her sister. Everything of this long story appears somewhat challenging. Because she was a woman, Sophia needed permission from her parents or husband (that’s when Vladimir comes into play) to study abroad. She became the first woman, to teach at a university.

Moving through different time frames, but always focusing on the sole subject of Sophia Alice Munro had, created an interesting ode to Anton Chekhov at times – of course with her own twists. Sophia – though a real historical figure; almost becomes an Alice Munro character in her own right. She has relationship problems, is willing to stand up to authority when it, itself is being unjust, inner conflicts, and a sense of trying to find something – whatever that might be.

It is a profoundly interesting read. Taken away from that regionalist view and thrown into the European world, of the nineteenth century it is a profoundly interesting piece of work. Surely for my first stint with Alice Munro it is my favourite. She laments, and remember the tragic and yet strong headed mathematician who seemed a bit more human than what I had expected a story about a mathematician, who spends their time with numbers, and calculations and yet still retains a sense of social interest, not to mention she is both an interesting woman and a compelling character. By all means she is not a flat or dull woman at all. But a compelling human being, which Alice Munro had grasped perfectly.

With the end of the Alice Munro it is time to find a new female author. Though there are very little choices, who write in the short story form, and are from a different country then an, English speaking place. Though colonial is alright – just not Canada, at the moment. For now though the only female short story author that one can have for now will be the American Amy Hempel. The Greek writer Ersi Sotiropoulos, is certainly being considered, as is Nobel Laureate in Literature Herta Müller with her debut collection of stories “Nadirs,” if anyone has authors from around the world, whose work has been translated into English and is in short story format, and is female, please your suggestions are more than welcome.

“The Saint and the Goblin,” by Saki (H.H. Munro) – From “The Complete Saki,” by Saki – Section “Reginald in Russia.”

I am currently reading “The Strangers Child,” by Alan Hollinghurst, who this year was on the long list of the Booker Prize. Hollinghurts, is also a previous winner of the Booker prize, back in two thousand and four, for his novel “The Line of Beauty.” Now of course this review is not about Alan Hollinghurst, but the first bit of this novel – at least so far; is certainly dealing with the golden afternoon that Saki goes on and explains. The novel, much like Saki’s stories (so far) have dealt, with the leisure and languor, which the residents of this time period had dealt with. Thinking of it – especially that dinner part in the novel, there was that certain sense of that same dinner party that Virginia Woolf had written about in her novel “To The Lighthouse.” In fact all three of these authors – Saki, Virginia Woolf, as well as Alan Hollinghurst, have captured the languor and leisure of the era quite well. That is the reason why I had decided to mention Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, because he much like Saki captures that dry time. The time of dinner parties, servants, a still intact class system, but also that general apathy or enjoyment of drowning in the peace and quiet of the time, but the unsettling thought of war with the German Kaiser, which would soon be known as The Great War – or World War I.

It has been a while since we last saw Reginald. His attempts at destroying and causing chaos at a garden party, appeared to be his goal. His friend, who had gone to the garden party to find his (now celibate) cat Wumples a partner, had since failed miserably, because of dear old Reginald, and his destructive attempts at making a mockery of the party, as well as teach his friend a valuable lesson, in both making someone do what they do not want to, and also the consequences – or reaction to the action; of being selfish – or at least having an ulterior motive.

Now according to the section of this complete collection of Saki’s work (it is not just limited to his short stories – there are also plays and novels) we find Reginald in Russia. This particular story though does not actually deal with Reginald personally. In fact Reginald himself and his miscreant behaviour does not even make an appearance.

“The Saint and the Goblin,” by Saki (H.H. Munro) is like the following story by Nobel Laureate in Literature of nineteen-sixty eight, it reads more like a fable, then it does a story of memory, or vignette focusing primarily on atmosphere. There is not one emotion, which is being exploited, and taken for granted. There is nothing like that. It reads just like a fable. A short story that has a moral lesson – or tries to teach something. But neither Saki no Yasunari Kawabata are teaching anything. Well maybe Saki is. The reason I say that is at the very last page, on the very last few lines, there is just that moment of understanding. In fact the way this story ended reminded one more of a how Italo Calvino stories – except the humour. Sometimes Saki’s humour is a lot lost on me. His first story that I had ever read, which was expertly called “Reginald,” was well done, and even humours – only because someone named their cat Wumples, made me want to roll around and laugh. Just picturing someone calling their cat Wumples, with a straight face always made me laugh.

But with this story of Saint and a Goblin, ends on a note – a sour moral note, or a note where the moral, and the reality of the situation are forced to be met, head on in a collision. The best intentions sometimes are always going against the larger scale or the design of how things are meant to be. It is almost as if Saki (with the use of the Saint and the Goblin as symbols) is mocking philanthropy and the concept that some people are just born better than others, and that some people’s duty is to be poor and to suffer. It is almost a chilling thought. Saki was born and grew up in a Imperial English Colony – Burma; one would have thought, that the culture shock of Burma and jolly ol’ England, would have been quite the shock to where Saki had come from, and that, it was the inspiration of his acidic tongue, and sour pen – but maybe even though he did grow up on a British Colony he still had some old, feudal society or be it, some old imperial thoughts ingrained in his head. Which lead to the uncertainty in to which way one should take what he is stating with this story.

“The Hat Incident,” by Yasunari Kawabata Nobel Laureate in Literature of nineteen-sixty eight – From “The Palm-of-The-Hand: Stores”

This is not Yasunari Kawabata’s (The Nobel Laureate in Literature of nineteen-sixty eight) best story but it is certainly one of his most interesting stories, and shows his versatility. “The Hat Incident,” reads to a degree somewhat like an adult fairy tale or fable rather than the classic Yasunari Kawabata story.

The classic Yasunari Kawabata story does not focus on plot, story, or even characters at times. Yes there are all three, of those elements in his story but they are not necessarily the main or sole focus of the story. The main focus of the story is the atmosphere and the emotions of the characters. Memory, emotion and atmosphere come and bring the classic story of Yasunari Kawabata’s stories to life.

His gems of his work, with the poetic lines. The use of metaphor, that brings the imagery of the Japan that Yasunari Kawabata laments and the clash of western modernization with the eastern traditions of Japan in conflict, makes his work grand and beautiful. The real genius and literary significance of Yasunari Kawabata’s work, is his ability to probe the psychological mind of his characters. This allows for the real conflict of western modernization and the traditions and way of life of the East, to be all that more significance, by focusing on the individual who experiences these conflicts.

“The Hat Incident,” is a fairy tale folk tale, which Yasunari Kawabata uses to probe the Japanese culture, with the mythical little goblin of the Kappa, and how it is both at trickster. I personally can remember my first stint with finding out what a Kappa was. I can’t remember how old I and the little companion who was with me – most likely a school mate. We were on a farther section of the library, on the other side of the stairs. There were quite a few shelves back there. Some shelves of books that I can’t even remember, and other books. There was some classics for children – “Moby Dick,” by Herman Melville, “Oliver Twist,” by Charles Dickens, and other books in the same vain. I remember this because when I was younger I owned one just like them, from my grandmother only mine was “White Fang.”

This school friend or whoever it was, we went searching back there. There we found a flimsy relatively new paperback book, about all these mythical creatures. We flipped through the illustrated book, of dragons, and goblins and what not. Then we came across a photo of a little webbed foot, hollow headed, monkey faced, turtle shell creature that was called a Kappa.

This same creature is now what has crawled into Yasunari Kawabata’s “Palm-Of-The-Hand stories,” and it is here Yasunari Kawabata gives a somewhat lighter tone to the creature that the frightful creature I remember, as a child, of a little goblin with an unquenchable taste for blood and cucumbers. Even though it was, a mythical and non-existent creature, I could never forget the creature, and wonder if a Kappa was lurking in the river where I was by; or the lake we sometimes camped at in the summer; and sometimes imagined the ugly monkey faced creature with the hollow skulled head coming up from the depths of the water.
With Yasunari Kawabata’s story about the incident of a hat, and a bridge, and the river below, the Kappa is no longer a monkey faced horrifying creature, but a malevolent little trickster who did harm out for its own amusement. Not at all a malicious creature.

It is certainly a folk tale or legend that Yasunari Kawabata has come to change into his own story, about a kappa. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa the grandfather and master of the Japanese short story who died tragically at a young age, because of his fears and the fears of the mental illness, he decided to kill himself, wrote a novel (I think it’s his only novel as well) titled “Kappa,” and he also gives a satirical look at the Kappa.

The Kappa for me now, is a symbol of Japanese society. Not a horrifying monster, but a trickster and satirist, not a mean malicious beast, that had come from my childhood; but now just as a folktale little goblin who plays mean tricks, for its own entertainment.

“Blacamán the Good, Vendor of Miracles,” by Gabriel García Márquez the Nobel Laureate in Literature of nineteen-eighty two – From “Leaf Storm: and Other Stories.”

There is certainly something about this story, which seemed off. A darker sense of irony. A bitter use of sarcasm perhaps. In the end this short story left me disillusioned, in its simple matter of fact way of speaking. The way that the narrator’s cold observations or recollection of memories were simply what they were. The inhumanity of humanity, or the individual human, was just unsettling. It’s disturbing at times. But it becomes disturbing because of how it is told. But it is told, to be very key of how the story must go. How the narrator expressed, the events of the story is key. How it simply was written in a cold dethatched view makes the story understand that the entire writing of writing magical realism; where the fantastic and the reality and normal, simply collide to be banal and seen as a simple occurrence. Which is the tale of ““Blacamán the Good, Vendor of Miracles,” where at one moment just a simple writing of life itself, where a young child, views a vendor in his flamboyant attire, proclaiming he can cure himself of snake poison.

What ensures is a grotesque spectacle indeed. Where a man runs out into the surrounding countryside, and catches a snake in a bottle. Poisonous as it is, the vendor Blacamán, opens up the bottle, and the serpent, sensing its freedom at hand, strikes out of the bottle, and bites the vendor. As it was described, what is next is a spectacle of the mere macabre. He begins to swell, and roll about. Turning about on the ground, he begins to swell. Where his rings are on his fingers, had purple, cutting of circulation. He just kept expanding like a hot air balloon, except he wasn’t rising. But the most disgusting part was the fact that the vendor rolled around on the ground laughing manically. Everyone could only stand around and watch both intrigue and in horror. Some waiting to see him to stop moving and dye; others hoping to see if his antidote for venomous poison would work; making their own trips in the back bush a lot easier, and less dangerous if they got bit by a snake or any venomous reptile or mammal according to the vendor.

Of course just as promised, the vendor survived his snake bite, and sure enough, just as the men and woman who had stood around gawked – and the mariners had taken pictures of the dying man, he came back from his death. People applauded him, and in no time, after his little disgusting demonstration, he had sold out.

This is when Blacamán is first introduced to the main character and narrator. Soon the main character/narrator admits or confesses to his dream of wanting to be a fortune-teller just like the vendor himself. The vendor appears curious and thinks about this long and hard, and interestedly enough, takes the main character/narrator as his apprentice. But this life, and the main characters dream of what he wanted, soon turned out to be nothing more than a miserable nightmare after a while. Though once again things change, for someone – for better or for worst. This is a cruel trick of irony to some, but this is where Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez allows his magical realism show, in all its hallucination and lucid dreams, that can happen – but it’s all spoken of in that banal, and simple way. Where the cold observations, are all spoken of in the same manner; the fantastic, does not become any more special than all the other writing details. It could even be said that the most common details are the most special and are regarded as something special or fantastic rather than the fantastic elements that are portrayed in this novel.

The best part of the lucid hallucination like dreams of the fantastic accepted with the normal can best be seen here:

“...drawing the fever out of malaria victims for two pesos, visioning blind men for four-fifty, draining the water from dropsy victims for eighteen...” and continues “The only thing I don’t do is revive the dead, because as soon as they open their eyes, they are murderous with rage at the one who disturbed their state, and when it’s all done, those who don’t commit suicide die again of disillusionment.”

Which takes us all back to the beginning of this blog, during the discussion of Blacamán the good and Blacamán the bad, and their extreme differences, and the question of a con man, and the questions of a man who truly is the miracle worker, who at one point was regarded as a saint. But the twist of irony, like a cruel crooked arthritic, finger changes everything in an instant – for better or for worst; but usually for worst. Which if one wishes to admit, is usually a poetic sense of justice.

Of course, there are very disturbing scenes in this short story. Which is all written about in the most dead pan expression, and none of it is gory or disgusting or trying to be over the top horror falling down on its face in a comedic way; it’s just written in that matter of fact way of writing. It’s disturbing, but it showcases, that irony and the humanity turning inhumane. All of it allows for pity and sympathy while others allows for a lot of disgust and anger.

In all an interesting story by a master story teller.

“(Winter) The City Lost in the Snow,” by Italo Calvino – From “Marcovaldo or The Seasons in The City.”

Just the other day it had snowed here in the city and all around the place. The entire place was covered in snow. Not a lot but a good few inches of snow. Enough for the snow to be packed down by the car tires, the sanders to take to the road. Of course this also led to some serious issues and problems. Even with the snow visibly on the ground, people still drove around like it was summer. All one needed to do, is turn on the television, find the news, and they could simply hear the raging chaos that was taken over the roads. Everyone discussed minor collisions, and full scale collisions, where people were injured and taken to the hospital. Other such news could certainly have been heard, on the radio, and any other news station on the television. It appears to be the same common case every time the first snow falls. People do not take the proper precautions while driving and easily get themselves into accidents. Hearing that on the news, looking at it outside, and then of course shovelling it; winter for me is certainly here indeed. This has certainly made it fitting, to read a “winter,” seasoned story by Italo Calvino.

“Shovelling the snow off the sidewalk in front of the building is up to us. To you, that is.”

So were the words of poor old Marcovaldo’s boss, a miserable foreman. Those were sounded so familiar. Just the other day when the snow had hit the ground, parents – mothers and fathers; had informed their children that the snow would be more than happy to wait for them to shovel it, after school. All over my travels from the walk, one could hear people being told that the snow needed to be shovelled. Parks and recreations, grunt employees went out to shovel, some of the walking paths. The snow ploughs, busy ploughing the snow, men and women going to work grumbling about the snow on the windshields, and the frost that lay hidden underneath and needed to have been scrapped off.

Yet the site of the snow and the sky overhead, a pale white colour with tid-bits of grey slithering and mixing into the clouds. On the edges of the low large and over hanging cloud, one could make out the pale yellow colour in the distance, some blue but mostly some grey and hush minute pinks. The most predominate colour close to the cloud though was yellow, mixing in at the edges as white.

So Marcovaldo is forced to shovel the sidewalk because his boss demands it of him – even though the responsibility is the companies, but his boss could possibly not be bothered with that detail. It now becomes Marcovaldo’s problem, and therefore he must do it, for threat of the termination of his job, or the wraith of his foreman. But this task does not slow down or disappoint the positive and optimistic Marcovaldo. He works hard to get it all shovelled, and to impress his foreman and other bosses, so they’ll look at him as a hard worker. However in the end he makes the job for a lowly government employee shovelling the street and the two exchange information on how to shovel the snow properly. Marcovaldo learns to pack the snow at the edge of the street, so not to make the snow shovelling for the government employee shovelling the street any harder then it must be.

Then by the government employee shovelling and poor old Marcovaldo, shovelling they both meet the less then happy surprise of snow plough zipping past them, undoing their work, and leaving them with another long large mess of snow. Then poor Marcovaldo meets yet another unfortunate accident. Time after time, he finds himself in such sardonically ironic circumstances. Once can see Italo Calvino smiling at the trials and tribulations of Marcovaldo, who only wishes to do so much for himself and his family. A man who wishes to push past his uneducated low paying job as a unskilled general labour, and moving on to his way up in the world. Unfortunately for him he just can’t seem to get right the first time, or the second, third – or any time for that matter. His schemes, his attempts at doing what he hope sand thinks is right, end miserably for him, time after time, and he then must continue try again and again.

No matter how many times Marcovaldo falls down the social ladder, he is quick to try and scale it again and again, and improve his situation – both work and living, not to mention social standing of course; and once again he falls again. It doesn’t matter if Marcovaldo found some mushrooms growing out of the sidewalk, and then almost ends up getting himself and his family killed – not to mention the finical burden that little area fell down on top of his paycheque. Then there was the case of the pigeon, who had gotten stuck in his traps, and how all his neighbours laundry – including his land ladies laundry, that had hung out to dry had all ripped and fallen bad from the glue that Marcovaldo had hoped to had caught a woodcock.

Yet despise all these attempts. All these failures. There is still something childishly familiar about Marcovaldo. A part we all can recognize and identify with. That same, wondering, and appreciation for the nature. For the wonder, of seeing something beautiful happen for the first time, or something just out routine happen. Like watching snow geese, fly in such a large flock for the south for the winter. Listening to that strange humming sound of their wings flapping in unison on their travelling trip. What about the first snow, and beautiful low clouds. The way the morning frost sticks to the branches of the trees. The first buds of spring. The first blooms of summer. The first colours of the leaves changing for autumn. No matter where we look, we all have that same appreciation for the nature world, just like Marcovaldo. We all have that same sense of wonder, and recognition of its natural beauty.

“Under No Moon,” by Amy Hempel – From “The Collected Stories,” by Amy Hempel – Section: “At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom.”

“Under No Moon,” by Amy Hempel holds that same Amy Hempel literary technique, of her well crafted sentences. The building boxes, of the story itself. The skeletal part of the structure of the story. This is Amy Hempel’s greatest strength – something all reviewers and I, apparently exemplify in any review of her work.

Even though that “Under No Moon,” shows this trait, it also shows Amy Hempel’s strength of the short story, but also shows the short story’s weakness. The story focuses on surface detail, very little characterization, and also starts in the middle of the story working its way back and forth in order to reach the conclusion.

“Under No Moon,” focuses the narrator’s mother, and her odd little predictions she takes. How her mother would know which song would play when her children were born. How she knew when to circle the block one more time, until a free parking space would come open on a street crammed with cars.

It was this same clairvoyance, or ability to predict that made the narrators mother believe that when she saw the comet she will die. Reading that, made me think of Amy Hempel’s own mother, who had committed suicide. For that brief moment I had wondered if perhaps that this story was a lament of Amy Hempel’s mother who had died. A way of working through the grief and the confusion of being left without a mother so unexpectedly and unsure of the current circumstances of the entire situation of her mother’s departure.

In many ways it could be seen as that. But with a certain change. There was a comet heading near earth, and of course the celestial significance and beauty of the entire event. Of course such an event can cause some people to lose their heads. Some people just have it in their brains that it could be the end of times.

Did a comet or asteroid kill the dinosaurs? Will the human race meet the same end as the dinosaurs with this comet or asteroid? For people like myself, it does not really matter. Because such speculation and thoughts are as selfish and as useless as they are to be considered. Such thoughts are not warranted for much thinking or even recognition on my part. In some ways the children/narrator of this fictional mother in “Under No Moon,” feel the same way with their mothers silly prediction that she shall face her own death, when her eyes spot and see the comet or asteroid so close to the earth. As if looking forward to her death – or just seeing the celestial site itself; the narrators mother goes and books a cruise down in South America (from the looks of it by Trinidad) to see the comet more clearly. Upon the cruise the narrator’s mother and the narrators father (the husband of the narrator’s mother) were scheduled to attend lectures on all aspects and interesting parts of astronomy. A saving grace for the narrator’s mother came in an interesting and unexpected – even slightly bizarre and grotesque way. She had forgotten her pills for arthritis. Her husband also takes pills for arthritis but they are different then her own. In some way or another the narrator’s mother had a allergic reaction to the pills, and had saved her life or had stopped her predication from coming true. Perhaps fate itself does not like to be toyed with or, beat to the punch.

What Amy Hempel does talk about though in this story besides fail predictions, allergic reactions of pills, and the saving grace of unfortunate accidents – you know the gifts wrapped in barbed wire; or a blessing in a bullet case; is the beauty of celestial events. Such as November Eleventh, of the Eleventh Minute, of the year Two Thousand and Eleven. Or a comet or asteroid that passes earth, at a closer proximity then the moon itself is. Or the odd moments of lunar eclipse or a solar eclipse, among other strange and wondrous sites. The moments that in profound and unforgettable beauty and emotional let us all remember that we are only human.

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