Tagshort fiction

First impressions of Kafka: The Passenger

‘The Passenger’ stands out in Contemplation as the piece that encapsulates my impressions of Kafka’s work at this point. Like ‘The Men Running Past’, it has three paragraphs, each acting like a movement in a piece of music. The first paragraphs establishes the narrator: waiting for a tram, questioning his very being (“I am not even able to justify my standing there on the platform”). In the second paragraph, he notices a young woman and describes her in precise detail:

She has quantities of chestnut hair, and a few stray wisps of it are blown across her right temple. Her small ear is pressed tight against the side of her head…

Though the protagonist may be uncertain of himself, he seems certain of what he perceives about this woman. Yet what does he really know? He says in the last paragraph:

I asked myself at the time: how is it that she is not astonished at herself; that she keeps her mouth closed, and expresses nothing of any wonderment?

We go from the narrator’s doubts in the first paragraph, to an apparently stable portrait of someone else in the second, before that closing question returns us to uncertainty: there’s no answer, because we cannot know what the woman is thinking – indeed, she might be mulling over her own set of questions, or wondering in just the way that the narrator assumes she is not.

The narrator’s question also sums up what may be my strongest impression of Kafka’s work having read Contemplation: the sense that, beneath the most everyday situations, there may be untold emotional and intellectual depths that we cannot reach.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Contemplation (1913) by Franz Kafka, published in Metamorphosis and Other Stories(2007), tr. Michael Hofmann, Penguin Modern Classics paperback

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First impressions of Kafka: The Men Running Past

One thing that strikes me again and again in the pieces from Kafka’s Contemplation is the dizzying way they open up interior worlds – the way Kafka reveals the uncertainty beneath seemingly ordinary moments. In ‘The Men Running Past’, the narrator is out walking one night and sees a man running in the opposite direction, being chased by another, but chooses not to intervene. The next paragraph – another of Kafka’s swirling, open sentences – goes through the reasons why:

…it is possible that the two men have devised their chase for their own amusement, perhaps they are both in pursuit of a third man…

Some of these possibilities are quite fanciful, others reveal that ‘we’ are just afraid of the consequences of getting involved (“perhaps the first of them is carrying a weapon”). But the effect of this long chain of ‘perhapses’ is to dissolve a concrete opening of action into a swirl of uncertainty. As with ‘The Sudden Walk’, the last paragraph closes this off:

And finally, may we not be tired, and have we not had a lot of wine to drink? We are relieved not to see the second man.

But where ‘The Sudden Walk’ leaves us with a sense of a new beginning, the end of ‘The Men Running Past’ feels more like a truce: there will be no resolution – a story has been averted.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Contemplation (1913) by Franz Kafka, published in Metamorphosis and Other Stories(2007), tr. Michael Hofmann, Penguin Modern Classics paperback

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First impressions of Kafka: The Sudden Walk

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to get around to reading Kafka, except perhaps that it’s only too easy to dwell on the writers you’d like to read one day, to the point that ‘one day’ never comes. Anyway, I’ve bought myself a copy of the 2007 Penguin Modern Classics edition of Metamorphosis and Other Stories, which collects together the stories that Kafka allowed to be published in his lifetime, all translated by Michael Hofmann. I am starting from the beginning, with the short pieces collected in 1913 as Contemplation. What I’m going to do for now is just pick out a few of these pieces and try to capture what struck me, what it was like to read them. No doubt there will be much more to see once I’ve read deeper into Kafka’s bibliography, but this blog is meat to record reading as a work-in-progress – so…

What I’d really like to do with ‘The Sudden Walk’ is reproduce the whole thing and let it speak for itself, because quoting it can’t capture the effect. But I have to try. The piece consists of two single-sentence paragraphs. The first takes up a page, and is an extraordinary cascade of details (or, perhaps, conditions):

When it seems we have finally decided to stay home of the evening, have slipped into our smoking jackets, are sitting at a lit table after supper, and have taken out some piece of work or game at the conclusion of which we customarily go to bed, when the weather outside is inclement, which makes it perfectly understandable that we are staying at home….

This sentence is wonderfully open in terms of where it could go, but there’s also a sense of indecisiveness – and, indeed, halfway through, ‘we’ change our minds and go back out again. The result of this is that the family “drifts into vaporousness, whereas we ourselves, as indisputable and sharp and black as a silhouette, smacking the backs of our thighs, come into our true nature.” The openness of the sentence is closed off with that ‘smacking’ – a sense of finality, even confidence, with coming into one’s ‘true nature’, tempered by the insubstantiality of the silhouette image.

Then comes the second sentence-paragraph: “And all this may even be accentuated if, at this late hour, we go to seek out some friend, to see how he is doing.” The relative brevity of this sentence feels like an even firmer closing-off, a trapdoor over the first paragraph. But it also opens up an entirely new possibility – visiting the friend – which, of course, we’ll never get to see. The world is open, closed, open and closed again, all from a decision to leave the house one evening.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Contemplation (1913) by Franz Kafka, in Metamorphosis and Other Stories (2007), tr. Michael Hofmann, Penguin Modern Classics paperback

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Reading ‘In the Wind’ by Jung Mi-kyung

The first two stories in Jung Mi-kyung’s collection My Son’s Girlfriend were good, but they didn’t prepare me for this…

‘In the Wind’ started innocuously enough, with its narrator looking at the quivering bunch of cells in the Petri dish before her, and wondering if IVF is really what she wants. But then it got under my skin, and I’m still trying to process how and why.

Now, I’ll admit I’m a sucker for symbolism and patterning in a story, and ‘In the Wind’ has plenty of those. The would-be embryo looks to the protagonist like a flower, and there are recurring images of petals, and fragile things blowing on the wind. Jung’s narrator also sees the cells as being somewhere between mere existence and ‘life’ proper; and she has similar uncertainties about other things – her own life, her relationships.

But that alone doesn’t account for my response. This is a story that burrowed down into me and wouldn’t be coaxed back out. There’s nothing obviously flashy about Yu Young-nan’s translation from the Korean; but I think that very ordinariness allows the narrator’s doubts to spread and fester, up to that final line: “I shuddered violently at the thought that nothing had changed.”

When I respond strongly to fiction, it’s a visceral reaction. With ‘In the Wind’, this wasn’t a pleasant feeling by any means, and I’ve had to put the book aside for now to read something else. `But still… it was exhilarating – it was what reading is all about for me. So I will be going back… tentatively.

Book details (Publisher link)

My Son’s Girlfriend by Jung Mi-kyung (2008), tr. Yu Young-nan (2013), Dalkey Archive Press paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

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Re-reading Lucy Wood

My book group chose Lucy Wood’s collection Diving Belles for this month, which gave me a welcome excuse to re-read it. I enjoyed it even more the second time around, and – having read Weathering quite recently – gained a greater appreciation of Wood’s approach in general.

By coincidence, Max Cairnduff reviewed Diving Belles the other week; like me, he loved it (I wasn’t surprised, as we tend to have quite similar taste in books). One of his comments that I found particularly interesting was that, even though the metaphors in Wood’s stories aren’t the subtlest, he was more forgiving of this than he’d usually be.

Thinking about this in the broader context of Wood’s work, I am struck that her fiction inhabits a space where metaphor becomes interchangeable with action and landscape. She can get away with using broad metaphors, because they are the foundation of her work, rather than its end-point. To borrow an expression from Ethan Robinson,  magic is a ‘living presence’ in Wood’s stories; this is a key quality that draws me to her work, and why it continues to haunt me.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

Diving Belles (2012) by Lucy Wood, Bloomsbury paperback

Weathering (2015) by Lucy Wood, Bloomsbury hardback

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Shiny New Books: Janice Galloway and the IFFP

A new issue of Shiny New Books went up earlier this month, so this is a quick post to tell you about two pieces of mine…

JellyfishThe first is a review of Jellyfish, the new short story collection by Janice Galloway:

[Jellyfish] takes as its starting point an observation by David Lodge: “Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way round.” The twelve stories in Jellyfish don’t disprove Lodge exactly, but they do approach the topics of sex and parenthood – or, to take a more general view, heightened moments of feeling and the longer-term experience of living – from a variety of angles, bringing more nuance to the straightforward opposition of Lodge’s statement…

The full review is here.

You can also read my report on the IFFP ceremony, which includes photographs by my fellow shadow judge Julianne Pachico. On that subject, there’s also an article by Tony Malone on the IFFP shadow jury. As it turns out, this year’s IFFP was also the last, as it is now being merged into the reformatted Man Booker International Prize. I’m sure we’ll still be shadowing, though.

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Adam Roberts, Saint Rebor (2014)

SaintStrange Horizons have my review of Saint Rebor, the latest short story collection from Adam Roberts (published as part of Newcon Press’s Imaginings series). I wanted to say a few words on my approach to this review, because it grew out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the other reviews that were out there.

Saint Rebor itself hadn’t garnered much commentary at the time I was putting together my review, but the book’s opening story, ‘What Did Tessimond Tell You?’, had several reviews following its appearance in a year’s-best anthology . The story is about a scientist who discovers why the members of her project team are quitting even though they’re on the verge of winning the Nobel. Generally, the reviews I read revolved around the plausibility of the science, and didn’t go much further than that.

This approach wouldn’t do for me because I had a very different sense of what was interesting about the story. To me, the issue of scientific plausibility was simply not important in terms of what Roberts was actually doing – in my experience of his fiction, it rarely is. I wanted to write a review that offered a different way of looking at the stories in Saint Rebor.

I was a little daunted by the prospect: Roberts’s style can be dense and allusive, and I know that his references are often beyond my own sphere of experience. I may well not have been the best person to engage with what I saw in Roberts’s stories – but it looked as though if I didn’t, no one else would, and I felt strongly that it needed to be done. (This, incidentally, is one of the impulses behind book blogging: that you feel something has to be said about a book, and nobody else is saying it.)

So I have a review which focuses in on a few of Saint Rebor‘s stories  and (taking a cue from Roberts’s introduction) attempts to examine how – on the structural and linguistic levels – they exploit the tensions between ‘science’ and ‘fiction’. I hope you find it interesting.

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Stuart Evers, Your Father Sends His Love (2015)

father

Dean and Rachel had married at twenty; their lack of other sexual experiences a shock to others. As their friends’ relationships became soured and twisted, hoarse from shouting and bitter from drink, Dean and Rachel’s home was a constant: a clam place to hide, a sofa on which to sleep, a place of caring and safety. When later they managed to secure a mortgage on a two-up, two-down, Dean and Rachel’s more infrequent guests swapped the sofa for their own room and bed.

By their early thirties, Dean and Rachel’s relationship had become underscored by a quiet yet growing sense of trauma. The friends who’d crashed their sofa got married and Dean and Rachel went to their weddings. The friends who’d crashed their sofa had children, and Dean and Rachel went to their naming parties and christenings. The friends who’d crashed their sofa asked them to be godparents and Dean and Rachel politely declined. The IVF was an expensive joke.

This is a passage from ‘Frequencies’, a short story in Stuart Evers’ new collection Your Father Sends His Love, which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

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White Hunger and Dorthe Nors

Aki Ollikainen, White Hunger (2012)
Transalted from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (2015)

White Hunger

The theme for Peirene Press’s 2015 books is ‘Chance Encounters’, and chance is particularly brutal their first selection of the year. Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger is set in 1867, when Finland was beset by famine, the last naturally caused famine in Europe. In the prologue, we glimpse farming couple Marja dn Juhani gathering what meagre food they can, and engaging in mutual masturbation rather than risk bringing another child into these dire circumstances. The next time we meet them, Juhani is starving to death, and Marja and her two children leave their home behind in search of… well, whatever they can find. Their survival is dependent on the goodwill of strangers who are themselves in hardship – and goodwill can only go so far.

Alongside Marja’s family, we meet other characters, this time based in the town – an unnamed senator with plans for a railway; and the doctor Teo, who discusses solutions to the famine with his brother over a game of chess, and exchanges his medical expertise for favours from prostitutes. In many ways, these characters are the inverse of Marja: they are largely shielded from the famine while she is caught up in it; their lives may be geographically contained, but they can see a larger picture; Marja and children move through an expansive landscape, but don’t really know where they are.

I was really struck by how much White Hunger encompasses in such a small space; it feels like the story of a nation in microcosm. The journey of Marja’s family could be the story of many other families across Finland at that time; the Senator and his plans may be seen as representing the inevitable march of the future. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah’s translation underlines the starkness of what is a strong start to Peirene’s year. With Ollikainen’s second novel shortly to be published in Finnish, I hope we see an English translation before too long.

Elsewhere:

***

Dorthe Nors, Karate Chop (2008)
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken (2014)

Dorthe Nors, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (2013)
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2015)

Nors

Pushkin Press are introducing the Danish writer Dorthe Nors to UK audiences with two books bound head-to-tail in a single volume. It’s a nice idea: not only is it an attractive format, it also shows us more than one side to Nors’s work. The first side is the short story collection Karate Chop; and these are very short, sharp stories indeed – fifteen over the course of eighty pages. Each is a miniature character study, often (perhaps paradoxically) oblique and precise at the same time – oblique in that Nors’s characters tend to be hiding something from themselves or the outside world; precise in the details that nonetheless come to light.

So, for example, in ‘The Buddhist’, we meet a government official who becomes a Buddhist because everyone knows Buddhists are good people; stretches the truth to become president of an aid charity (all in the name of goodness, you understand); and generally twists his own rhetoric in the manner of Joe from Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. In ‘Do You Know Jussi?’, a girl waiting for a text from her boyfriend while watching a TV show about families being reunited, anything to avoid admitting that she knows the text isn’t coming. The collection’s harrowing title story depicts a woman who refuses to acknowledge where the blame in her abusive relationship lies (“It was quite unacceptable of him, yet at the same time her not listening to what he told her was suspicious”). Martin Aitken captures in his translation a similar sense of the unspoken as he did with Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland, to similar unsettling effect.

Sharing the bill with Karate Chop is a novella, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. Minna is a composer whose partner, Lars, has broken up with her – and, yes, she’s also lost her rehearsal space. Her search for a replacement is not just about finding a physical space for practising music, but also a mental space for sorting through her life.

The form of this novella is very striking: a list of fairly straightforward declarative sentences, such as:

Minna calls Lars.

Minna calls Lars until he picks up the phone.

Minna and Lars have discussed this before.

Lars has a cousin.

The cousin’s name is Tim.

Tim knows of a rehearsal space in Kastrup.

Quoting like this can give you a sense of the repetition and rhythm, but not the cumulative effect: the unstoppable flow of incantatory sentences that drives Minna forward on her personal journey – whilst also suggesting that a quiet space is going to prove elusive. It’s a superb piece of translation by Misha Hoekstra, the sort that makes me wish I could read Danish, just to experience the music that the original must surely possess. Still, I have the music of the English version to enjoy.

The author bio tells me that Nors has written four novels in addition to these books. Once again, I can only look forward eagerly to being able to read them in future.

Elsewhere:

  • Read Nors’s story ‘The Heron‘ from Karate Chop
  • …or an extract from Minna Needs Rehearsal Space.
  • Interview with Nors at Bookanista.
  • John Self reviews the book for the Guardian.
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A weekend of novellas (contents may not be as advertised)

After my run of reading novellas last month, I decided to do the same again. Except some of these definitely aren’t noevllas, and I didn’t read them all at the weekend. Anyway…

KaufmanAndrew Kaufman, All My Friends Are Superheroes (2003)

This was Kaufman’s first book, and the delightful imagination that he put to such great effect in books like Born Weird is on display here, too. It’s the story of Tom, an ordinary guy who married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But trouble soon came calling: on the couple’s wedding day, Hypno, the Perfectionist’s ex, hypnotised her into thinking that Tom was invisible; now she’s flying to Vancouver to begin a new life, and Tom needs to find a way to make her see him. Kaufman’s novella is peppered with vignettes of superheroes whose powers are often based on personality traits (such as the Frog-Kisser, who can ‘transform geeks into winners’ but then loses her attraction to them; or Mr Opportunity, who knocks on doors but is rarely answered). The rest of the book has the same charming mixture of the quirkily fantastical and a heart of everyday (but is it really?) emotion.

George Szirtes, Uncle Zoltán: fragments (2014)

This pamphlet from the Belgium-based publisher MIEL is a collection of bon mots from the titular Uncle Zoltán; these are by turns whimsical, fantastical, and absurd. For example:

We had a tiled stove with wings. Occasionally it would squwak and hover a foot or so off the ground, said Uncle Zoltán.

Always pack three umbrellas, one for heavy rain, one for light rain, and one for no rain, said Uncle Zoltán. A dry umbrella is consoling.

So many of these delightful snippets send the imagination off into a sideways world where all the strangeness makes sense; one also starts to imagine what kind of character Uncle Zoltán might be, built up indirectly from the fragments of reported speech. I’m not sure there’s much more I can say, because Uncle Zoltán is very much a book that lives in the reading.

Levy

Deborah Levy, An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell (1990)

Newly reissued by And Other Stories as an attractive little hardback, this is a poem: a dialogue between an angel and an accountant, which evokes the push and pull of the mundane and the transcendent, the heat of desire and a quieter contentment. Rather like Uncle Zoltán, Levy’s book encourages you to focus in on the language (and even, in this case, the arrangement of words on the page). AS much as I enjoyed it, though, I find it difficult to separate out a quote from An Amorous Discourse. Here’s a video (hosted by the Irish Times) of Levy reading from it instead

WhiteleyAliya Whiteley, The Beauty (2014)

Aliya Whiteley can usually be relied upon for engaging stories with a dark twist, and The Beauty (published by Unsung Stories) is no exception. It focuses on a group of men living in a time when the female population has died out (the cause is unspecified) and the details of geography and history have become hazy; the Group relies on its storyteller Nate to retain the memory of what matters. One day, strange fungus begins to appear on the graves of the Group’s women, growing into silent, faceless female figures dubbed ‘the Beauty.’ What follows is a story that leaves the reader’s thoughts and sympathies in flux – on the one hand, there’s the moral issue of how the men treat the Beauty; on the other is the question of whether the Beauty themselves are benign. The vagueness of time and place, and the starkness of the Group’s world, only add to that sense of uncertainty.

Johnson

Denis Johnson, Train Dreams (2002)

I got a very enthusiastic reaction on Twitter when I mentioned that I had this lined up to read; though I perhaps wouldn’t quite go that far myself, it’s certainly very good. Train Dreams moves back and forth through the life of Robert Grainier, a labourer born in 1889 who would go on to witness enormous change in the twentieth century. Johnson evokes the raw nature of life and landscape in Grainier’s American West; and includes memorable glimpses of others’ personal tragedies, such as that of Kootenai Bob, the old Native American who got drunk for the first (and last) time, then went to lie down on the rail track. The fragmented structure of Train Dreams serves to underline the essential; nature of Grainier’s life: unstable but enduring, haunted by the past but always with a future around the corner, for good or ill.

BarkerA,L. Barker, Lost Journey (1992)

This is one of four ghost stories which have been published in new individual editions by Galley Beggar Press. I have to admit that I’d never heard of A.L. Barker prior to reading Lost Journey, but this story was such fun that I’ll have to seek out more of her work. Barker’s narrator spots two striking figures in the street: an old woman with no legs, who travels around in an orange box on wheels; and her beautiful companion, who pushes her. Led by his libido, the narrator falls in with them; the old woman, Gerda Charles, turns out to be four hundred years old, and searching for a way to die. There’s a wry glee to this story; much of its energy comes from watching the narrator being strung along by forces outside his control, and seeing just where he’ll end up.

 

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