Tagshort fiction

‘A Game of Chess’ by Stefan Zweig

zweigchessNovember is German Literature Month and, though I haven’t had time to participate fully this year, I have been able to introduce myself to another classic author. I’ve been reading a new collection of four of Stefan Zweig’s stories and novellas, freshly translated by Peter James Bowman and published by Alma Classics.

The title novella, 1941’s ‘A Game of Chess’ (aka ‘The Royal Game’ or ‘Chess Story’) was, I understand, Zweig’s last fiction published in his lifetime. Its narrator is about to leave New York on a steamship when he learns that one of his fellow passengers is the world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic. Fascinated by theCzentovic’s monomaniacal pursuit of chess, the narrator gathers together a small group of passengers to challenge him to a game – which, unsurprisingly, they lose. But, in a second game, the advice of one Dr B., an Austrian, guides the group to a draw. Next day, Dr B. tells his story and reveals the source of his extraordinary insight into chess.

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The general impression I get of Zweig;s fiction from the stories I’ve read is that his narrator will typically be an impartial observer, in whom another character will confide, breaking open the façade of normality to uncover darkness beneath.  In ‘A Game of Chess’, Dr B. explains that he was a solicitor who had been arrested by the Nazi regime. He was kept in a hotel room in complete isolation; Zweig evokes Dr B.’s mental state at that time vividly:

After each session with the Gestapo my own mind took over the same merciless torment of questioning, probing and harassment – perhaps even more cruelly, for while in the first case the grilling at least ended after an hour, in the second the malicious torture of solitude perpetuated it indefinitely. And all the while there was nothing around me but the table, the wardrobe, the bed, the wallpaper, the window; no distractions, no book, no newspaper, no new face, no pencil for noting things down, no matchstick to play with, just nothing, nothing, nothing.

Eventually Dr B. found a book, though it turned out to be a chess manual. The only way he found to cope with his situation was intense study, rehearsing the games mentally over and over again. So Dr B. becomes a mirror of Mirko Czentovic: where the chess champion is presented as someone whose single-minded focus had led him to fame and fortune,  Dr B.’s chess knowledge has allowed him simply to be there in the present, and represents the lasting scars of the past. A seemingly ordinary game has opened up the hidden worlds within a life.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

A Game of Chess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig, tr. Peter James Bowman (2016), Alma Classics paperback.

breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes

breach blog tour

breach is a new story collection published by Peirene Press on Monday. It’s the first in their Peirene NowI series, original fiction commissions which will engage with current events. For breach, Peirene’s publisher Meike Ziervogel commissioned writers Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to visit the Calais refugee camp known as ‘the Jungle’. There’s been a blog tour all this week, which includes an extract from the book and interviews with the authors; but today there are four reviews across the blogosphere: at Food for Bookworms; The Bookbinder’s Daughter; Bookish Ramblings; and here.

The collection format is a straightforward (though nonetheless effective) way for breach to present the camp as a place of multiple stories running in parallel, of overlapping and intermingling worlds. The stories of individual lives can become derailed: the opening piece, ‘Counting Down’, features a number of refugees on their way to the camp; each adopts their own nickname – who they were no longer matters. One is upset when the others take away the money his brother has sent: “There is a boy like you waiting for me to get him to safety. My son, my real son,” he protests. But only the present matters here; everyone has their own future to aim for, and may not be concerned about someone else’s.

Leaving the camp is also portrayed as a disruption of space and experience. ‘Oranges in the River’ sees a couple of refugees take their chances hiding in refrigerated trucks bound for the UK. As he waits to board a truck, Dlo slips an orange into his pocket, “like a man who isn’t going to climb into a truck full of oranges, like a man who isn’t going to sit surrounded by thousands of oranges for many hours. Like a man who just needs one orange for his thirst.” In other words, there’s no pretending that this is in any way a ‘normal’ experience. When the men are in the truck, there is only the freezer; any imagined destination is no more real than a dream – even if they don’t get caught and have to start again.

We also glimpse outsiders to the camp, though they don’t necessarily understand the world they’re observing. There are volunteers who want to give a hand; but, as the narrator of ‘Extending a Hand’ comments, “you don’t need a hand; you have two of those. What you need is opportunities.” In ‘The Terrier’, Eloise, a French B&B who allows refugees to stay, talks to one of her guests, Omid, about the camp’s nickname:

‘It doesn’t look like a jungle, that camp,’ I said to Omid when he came home, after dark, his coat wet.

‘What does a jungle look like, madame?’

‘Thick with trees and creepers and bushes, with birds and animals.’

‘A jungle,’ he said, ‘is a place for animals only. And that is a jungle, I tell you, madame.’

To Eloise, the Jungle is just a poetic, perhaps even romantic name; to Omid, who knows the lived reality behind the metaphor, it is a different matter. As the story progresses, the gap between Eloise and Omid becomes starker, as she begins to question her latest visitors’ motivations. It’s not until she visits Omid in the camp that she starts to see things differently. But this isn’t a simple story of a Westerner ‘learning better’, more a recognition that all the characters have complex individual lives, whatever their circumstances. This is the kind of perspective that breach is able to open up, and that’s what makes it such a valuable collection.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

breach (2016) by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, Peirene Press paperback

#Woolfalong: Mrs Dalloway’s Party

MrsDallowaysPartyIt’s time for another check-in with the #Woolfalong (see my previous posts on Mrs Dalloway and The Voyage Out). The May/June theme is perhaps a little more off the beaten track: Virginia Woolf’s short stories. I’ve been trying to use my #Woolfalong selections to build a picture of Woolf’s work, piece by piece; so it seemed logical to choose a collection linked to a book I’d already read.

Mrs Dalloway’s Party is a sequence of seven stories put together by Stella McNichol after she became aware of them while working on the manuscripts of Mrs Dalloway. The opening two fall chronologically at or before the start of the novel (the first story, ‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street’, was originally meant to be Chapter One of the novel); the remaining five focus on individual guests at the party that closes Mrs Dalloway.

I’m drawn to a musical comparison here. Reading Mrs Dalloway’s Party was like listening to the offcuts of a familiar album: the stories were of a piece with the main work, but not part of it – sometimes disconcertingly so. There are elements of ‘Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street’ that I recognise from their later context, such as a mention of Mrs Foxcroft – so powerful to me in the novel; but not nearly so much the way it’s treated in the story.

I fared better with the wholly unfamiliar material of the later stories. It’s not quite the intoxicating tide of consciousness that I found in Mrs Dalloway; but there is still a sense of the interior world as a three-dimensional space, and the significance (or otherwise) of the social occasion to the individual. Here, for example, are two characters who have been introduced and begun to converse in the story ‘Together and Apart’:

Their eyes met; collided rather, for each felt that behind the eyes the secluded being, who sits in darkness while his shallow agile companion does all the tumbling and beckoning, and keeps the show going, suddenly stood erect; flung off his cloak; confronted the other. It was alarming; it was terrific. They were elderly and burnished into a glowing smoothness, so that Roderick Serle would go, perhaps to a dozen parties in a season, and feel nothing out of the common, or only sentimental regrets, and the desire for pretty images—like this of the flowering cherry tree—and all the time there stagnated in him unstirred a sort of superiority to his company, a sense of untapped resources, which sent him back home dissatisfied with life, with himself, yawning, empty, capricious. But now, quite suddenly, like a white bolt in a mist (but this image forged itself with the inevitability of lightning and loomed up), there it had happened; the old ecstasy of life; its invincible assault; for it was unpleasant, at the same time that it rejoiced and rejuvenated and filled the veins and nerves with threads of ice and fire; it was terrifying. “Canterbury twenty years ago,” said Miss Anning, as one lays a shade over an intense light, or covers some burning peach with a green leaf, for it is too strong, too ripe, too full.

This is a long quotation, but I think you need the length to appreciate the full effect: the familiar torrent of words, within which apparently mundane small talk has stirred a deep, primal sense of being alive (literature can also do that to a reader; reading Mrs Dalloway did it to me). Miss Anning’s distancing comment at the end tries to push this feeling away, but of course it will remain, latent, ready to emerge again if given the chance. This is how close Woolf brings us to her characters: into the very fabric of perception.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Mrs Dalloway’s Party (1973) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperback

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperback

A Kind of Compass: ‘The Unintended’ by Gina Apostol

This cracker of a story appears in A Kind of Compass, a new anthology of “stories on distance” edited by Belinda McKeon and published by Dublin-based Tramp Press. ‘The Unintended’ begins with Magsalin, a translator and mystery writer from the Philippines, pondering her task:

For the mystery writer, it is not enough to mourn the dead. One must also study the exit wounds, invite the coroner to tea, cloud the mind with ulterior motives, typically in triplicate. In addition, pay credit card bills for the grieving, if such bills are extant.

(I was sold on the story from that opening paragraph, to be honest.)

We then move outwards: in the past, Virginie falls for a filmmaker named Luca Brasi, and they have a dream romance, at least to begin with. In the present, the Brasis’ daughter Chiara has hired Magsalin to be her translator as she, like her father, makes a film about the Philippine-American war (though for Chiara this seems to be as much a quest to find out what made her marriage fall apart). Along the way, Magasalin has cause to observe the many strata of distance between photographs of war and its reality:

there is the eye of the victim, the captured,

who may in turn be belligerent, bystander, blameless, blamed – at the very least here, too, there are subtle shifts in pathetic balance;

there is the eye of the colonised viewing their captured history in the distance created by time;

there is the eye of the captor, the soldier, who has just wounded the captured;

And so it continues, layer on layer.

There are other types of distance in ‘The Unintended’: between Chiara and her parents; between the beginning and end of her parents’ relationship; between Magsalin and Chiara – and between reader and event, because all we have in the end is a broken-up narrative filtered through the viewpoint (perhaps even in part written by) Magsalin. Distance all the way down.

One thing I do know: I need to read more of Gina Apostol’s work.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

A Kind of Compass (2015), ed. Belinda McKeon, Tramp Press paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: the result

The 2015 BBC National Short Story Award has gone to Jonathan Buckley for his story ‘Briar Road’. Mark Haddon was the runner-up, for ‘Bunny’.

Well, what can I say? That result is almost the exact opposite of my own personal preference. It never ceases to amaze me how different opinions on fiction can be.  Still, congratulations to all.

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: my pick of the shortlist

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

Okay, I’ve read through the shortlist, so it’s time to choose my personal winner…

If the BBC National Short Story Award were mine to give, I’d hand it to Jeremy Page. ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’ is the story that I enjoyed the most, but I think it’s also the most successful.

My runner-up would either be Hilary Mantel or Frances Leviston. There are aspects of both their stories that work well for me, but I don’t think they quite have the unity of Page’s.

We’ll find out the winning story on Tuesday night.

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’ by Jeremy Page

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

Thom goes to visit his girlfriend Susan’s parents in rural Wales. On the way there, he remembers Susan’s warnings about them sometimes walking around the house with little (if anything) to cover their modesty, and being free about touching each other. These colour the way Thom approaches the meeting, making an already awkward situation even more so. But Thom finds his feet with time – or at least he thinks he does…

I really enjoyed this story. Page’s humour really hits the mark, and I don’t mind admitting that this went a long way. There’s also a lightness of touch here which I don’t really find in the other stories, and it works well. But the heart of Page’s tale is the sense of Thom entering unfamiliar territory – a household and family whose conventions and codes he does not understand – and trying to find his way. It’s sharp and funny… good stuff.

Listen to a reading of ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ by Hilary Mantel

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

Perhaps the single best-known short story that would have been eligible for this year’s award, purely on account of its being the title story of a collection by such a high-profile author (oh, and perhaps the storm-in-a-teacup that went on in the media over the subject matter, I suppose). Mantel imagines the occasion in August 1983 when Margaret Thatcher went into hospital in Windsor for eye surgery. Her narrator lives within sight of the hospital, and receives a visitor who is at first assumed to be a photographer – though it soon becomes apparent that he’s after a different kind of shot.

It’s been a recurring theme of my engagement with the shortlisted stories that I’ve found the tone of the narration a little jarring (at least to begin with) in the context of what the stories were doing. It’s the same here: Mantel’s protagonist looks back on these events calmly, with a certain sense of being above it all (“Picture first the street where she breathed her last. It is a quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees…”). This seems to work as something of a wink to the reader: you know that Thatcher wasn’t assassinated in real life, but this is fiction, so all bets are off, okay? But I also find that it takes me out of the moment a little. All the same, the interplay between narrator and (would-be?) sniper brings humour, then tension.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: ‘Broderie Anglaise’ by Frances Leviston

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

Invited to her cousin’s wedding – but “not maid of honour, not even a bridesmaid” – a young woman determines to take a private revenge by wearing a dress that will subtly outshine the bride and annoy that side of the family. Unable to find something suitable in the shops, she decides to make her own in secret. The trouble is that, no matter what method she tries, she can’t quite get the hang of it.

There were times when I found Leviston’s first-person narration a little over-egged (that is, more like a writer’s voice than a character’s), especially in comparison to the snappier rhythms of the contemporary dialogue. But I guess you could also take the view that it creates a contrast between the narrator’s interior and exterior life, in a story which is all about breaking down emotional barriers. The protagonist’s relationship with her mother is transformed through the act of making this dress, leading to the kind of symbolic patterning for which I always have a soft spot in fiction.

Listen to a reading of ‘Broderie Anglaise’

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: ‘Bunny’ by Mark Haddon

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

I was not much enamoured of this story at all, I’m sorry to say. Birdy Wallis is a morbidly obese twentysomething who finds the scope of his world contracting, until he’s befriended by Leah, an old acquaintance from school. The tale is one of two characters searching for an emotional connection: Birdy stuck in his house, and Leah who never followed her friends to the big city.

There’s some effective use of rhythm and repetition in Haddon’s prose, and (for example) the opening passage detailing Birdy’s excesses is appropriately enticing and repulsive at the same time. But ‘Birdy’ ends up falling awkwardly between several stools: it’s a character study that doesn’t get under the skin of its characters enough for my liking; its realist approach points towards social commentary, but ultimately it doesn’t seem to say much; it has a touch of the macabre that doesn’t gel with the rest, and leaves the story’s ending unearned. Frustrating.

Listen to a reading of ‘Bunny’

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

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