Hello Gentle Reader
Short stories are one of the most versatile forms of prose. Short stories can move between condensed novels; probing a characters life by what is stated within the story and hinting at how the character had got there via what is hinted at off screen. Alice Munro (Nobel Laureate and Contemporary Master of the Short Story), had shown how the short story can move back and forth through time. Alice Munro had shown that the short story can move beyond its length limitations, and can rival even the novel. So for those that would often digress, that the short story is not as comprehensive as the novel – as in: the reader enters the characters life for a slice of life moment only to leave after a few pages; Alice Munro had shown the short story can move beyond this stereotypical perspective of its limitations, and can discuss a character in a constrained time frame, without the details of a novel, being explicitly discussed. Though despite this the short story still has its detractors; but it should be noted that the short story has progressed beyond its juvenile prejudices and has become a serious form of writing; whose successful compatriots and champions in the past include: Kafka, Chekhov, and Kawabata to name a new few.
Flash fiction, has begun to gain momentum as its own genre, as a short story format. Its prose is condescend into the essential essences of a short story, all compressed into a neat little package, that glitters like an iridescent insect, in the jungles of the literary world. Yet personally I have found flash fiction, has yet to crawl under my skin and give me the correct sting to force me to take note of it. Perhaps this is because flash fictions main goal is still to tell a story, just in a more economical space. The use of language is not all that extraordinary in moments, when flash fiction has been digested. It was plain and straightforward. The comparison of flash fiction to poetry is clinically overused. If the two forms have anything in common, it is simply the requirement to say the most with the fewest words and space utilized. Other than that the two forms are completely separate from each other. Two entities that exist on two different planes of existence: poetry also air bound its correspondence; and flash fiction buzzing back and forth between the leaves.
Vignettes on the other hand are a little more peculiar. If the short story begins to float towards the realm of poetry, vignettes become the exemplary examples. Vignettes – in the literary format – become windows in which readers pass by briefly and in those moments, are able to catch a glimpse of quiet dramas that unfold behind the window panes, presented by the writer. They are impressionistic, poetic, and sharply focused; but before one knows it the end has come. There is no resolution and no plot or story in the traditional sense to be seen or heard of. With a vignette, the reader casually strolls by, peers into the life of another for a glance; and then it abruptly ends. For those that often see the short story format, as a format that one cannot immerse themselves in, then a collection of vignettes like “Stone Tree,” by the Icelandic poet and prose writer Gyrðir Elíasson, will only solidify this dissociation from the short story, and become further alienated by it. Yet the vignette shows how the short story is able to let go of its earthly attachments, be impressionistic and poetic, and offer thoughts on moments only glanced by.
Gyrðir Elíasson is one of Iceland’s great contemporary writers. He is well known for his poetry, novellas and short stories – which he often refers to as vignettes. In two-thousand and eleven, he won the Nordic Councils Prize for Literature, for his collection of short stories: “Milli trjánna” roughly translated into English as: “Between the Trees,” with the citation: “for stylistically outstanding literary art which depicts inner and outer threats in dialogue with world literature.” Elíasson’s debut was a collection of poetry titled: “Black and White Suspenders.” This debut was noted by some for its lack of following the political tones of the poetry being produced at the time. Rather Elíasson’s poems were compact and disciplined. They were constructed by simple images, or depicted carefully planned word games. The themes of his poetry were often loneliness and isolation – themes which can be seen in his prose. His figurative language as he discusses his isolation and confinement can move between aggression and mischievous misrepresentation. It is this unorthodox and paradoxical nature of misrepresentation of sensibility allows Elíasson’s own brand of humour to show through; though often this is overlooked by the cold prose, which depicts a landscape of isolation. Yet company and contact can always be found in books. Many of Elíasson’s short stories, feature writers (solitary creatures) and book lovers; who are both haunted by the books they plan on writing, and the books they are reading.
“Stone Tree,” is a collection of 25 vignettes (though the book refers to it as a collection of short stories) ending at one-hundred and sixteen pages long. In other words: the works presented within this collection are incredibly short. Yet despite their length, when they are at their best, they showcase a moment of beauty, and communicate that idea exquisitely. When they falter, they appear undeveloped. Yet overall the collection was enjoyed and savoured.
A co-worker spotted “Stone Tree,” sitting on the table, of our shared lunch room, and quickly picked up the book, and flipped to the short story which was book marked. The short story was: “Book After Book.” My co-worker read the following out loud:
“He closed his eyes and tried not to think, but books hovered like sinister birds in his imagination, flapping their black covers, ruffling their white pages like breast-feathers. He managed to ward off this image, but now lines of poetry began to seep into his thoughts, some no better than the others he had read beside the bathroom cabinet.”
My co-worker ended this, by laughing. He asked: “is that an accurate depiction of what it is like to be bibliophile? Books become birds, that flap overhead, and poetry seeps into one’s mind?” – For some reason, this particular co-worker believes that I am a bibliophile, and often sees this enjoyment and love books, as some form of financial affliction, without practical needs. For him reading something that serves no inherent purpose is all but a waste of time and money. When we had first met, we often asked each other questions about each other. When I had informed him, that I read books; he asked what kind. He expected a typical answer: murder mystery, crime, fantasy, science fiction. Yet he was shocked to be informed that I enjoyed reading works that had been translated into fiction. Over the course of our time, when we worked together, he would often attempt to read one of my books. He found “The Hunger Angel,” to be morbid and depressing; and all the others to be wrought with confusion. He has told me, that what he reads (how much I do not know) is often articles or non-fiction and: “serves a purpose.” Yet at the end of the day we agree to disagree on the matter, and do not bring it up. This being said, Bibliophile seems to have spread through my work place like a mould as of late.
“Book After Book,” was one of the stranger works in this collection of short stories. The entire story is a quick scene in a man’s life, which enjoys and loves books. But is haunted by them, rather than finding them comforting. The books that crowd this man’s dwelling divert from angels into distorted harpies, which screech at him. Though what about, is not known; and why these books haunt him is not elucidated upon either.
“The Piano,” is a better example of what Gyrðir Elíasson is more traditional short story, in this collection. In it a piano is delivered to a home, where the father is determined to teach his son the piano; who is disgusted by the thought of learning the piano. Yet rebellion is taken in a violent act of vandalism and left there. Those who do not enjoy the short story format will quickly point to the ending as a reason why they do not like the short story as a literary form. It does not wrap up cleanly, making sure that each thread is tied perfectly in place. It ends just as conflict is about to begin! For those who admire this move; it simply resonates, how the vignette is just a glimpse into the private dramas of the lives of others. It allows us to quickly observe, and move along in order not to bear witness to the events that are bound to unfold, in some manner or another.
My person favourite story from this collection is: “A World Alone.” The back of the book calls this collection is a study of self-exile. “A World Alone,” is a bleak and stark depiction of a world completely abandoned and alone; and brings to mind the often solitary sentence we pass on ourselves referred to as ‘self-exile.’ The short story itself is split into five parts. Throughout the entire story one reads a depiction of a world, completely abandoned:
“He turned up a short side street and from there into the main street, where the old petrol station stood. The tanks were dented and the hoses lay looped and coiled in the slick of oil on the forecourt, like eels in the black mud of a swamp. Something had happened to this town since he was last there in the summer sunshine, the time he threw the ball back to the little girl. There were no cars at the petrol station either. The entrance to the garage shop stood open, the door had gone, and there was no sign of life.”
Immediately the scene is set. The entire has been abandoned and left to rot in its own desolate wasteland. Yet it is juxtaposed with the faintest glimmers of life and a summer long ago, when the town thrived and was once inhabited. Throughout reading the entire short story, I wondered if this was some apocalyptic piece. Yet, that would almost appear to be a over exaggeration of the short story. Everyone has been through such places. Abandoned towns; or backwater rural communities, that look less and less inhabited, and whatever does surely must be deranged, demented, or rabid. Perhaps it was a meditation on the relentless push forward by time; and then upon reaching the end, I am still left uncertain about the story; considering the reference to “Fahrenheit 451,” and the fact that the book itself was placed at the bottom of the pile of books evidence of an attempted book burning. Still it happened to show Elíasson at a fine moment, a moment where he can describe the terrible present – the isolation and loneliness; and juxtapose it with the past, through faint memories and recollections.
This collection of short stories will certainly not be to the taste of the masses – as my co-worker said after reading the short story “Book After Book,”: “I didn’t like it.” . It’s a peculiar book, with a unique writing style utilized by the writer. It is not clean cut or typical writing for the short story format. Yet it often probes with great interest the human condition, via quick glances through the windows of individuals and their private moments of despair, their quiet dramas, and their small actions of rebellion. Gyrðir Elíasson is a breath of fresh air, as a writer in the short story genre. He is not a flash fiction writer; but not a compressed novelist either. Rather he is a wanderer, who catches glimpses of odd little scenes, and constructs stories around them. He is not a neat and tidy writer. His stories appear ambiguous, and do not elucidate any farther then necessary and sometimes not at all. Yet despite his cold and detached feeling of his prose; Elíasson is a remarkable writer. He may appear relentless which some stating he needs more comic relief – or comic relief period – would appear to be out of place for the work that has been chosen for this work. Though his work does have comic relief in them; it was just to seem that this particular collection lacks either those works or perhaps the context in order for the reader to understand it. Nonetheless a wonderful book, that I thoroughly enjoyed, and plan on dipping into time and time again.
Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
And As Always
Stay Well Read