Tagshort fiction

Reading Borges: The Garden of Forking Paths

I think that, somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have a list of authors who I feel are almost Too Famous To Read, let alone Too Famous To Write About, for fear of having nothing original to think or say. I know this is absurd, because a) if I want to read a given book, there’s not much to stop me, and b) the point of writing this blog is to talk about my experience of reading books – something personal to me – not to pass an exam.

Anyway: I need to get over having this list of authors Too Famous To Read. Jorge Luis Borges was on it, but now I’ve borrowed a copy of his Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings from the library for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months. I’m going to blog some thoughts on what I read, and see how it goes.

In ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, Dr Yu Tsun – a Chinese scholar of English and agent of the German Empire during the First World War – is pursued by a mercenary in the pay of England. Tsun travels to the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, the only person he knows who can help him get his secret message to the Chief. Albert and Tsun discuss Tsun’s ancestor, Ts’ui Pên, who constructed a model of the universe as a labyrinth of paths, each forking at a point of possibility, creating new paths and futures with each eventuality.

It feels a little odd to read this story now, as a long-time reader of science fiction and fantasy, and therefore used to the idea of parallel worlds and branching realities (I’m assuming, of course, that these ideas would have been reasonably new to Borges’ audience in 1941). Still, there is a strong sense of Yu’s being at the centre of a labyrinth of pasts and possible futures – for example, as a point where the paths of the past collapse into the present (Yu says that he thinks his Chief disdains the Chinese “for the innumerable ancestors who merge within me”). But then there’s the ending, where all potential futures dissipate, and one reality was inevitable after all.

Book details

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941) by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. Donald A. Yeats (1958), in Labyrinths (coll. 1964), Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages, paperback (source: library copy).

Mothers – Chris Power: a Splice review

Today’s review is about an excellent short story collection, but first I want to introduce the venue. Splice is a new review site and small press set up by Daniel Davis Wood. It has been online only a couple of weeks, but I think it’s already establishing a distinctive and interesting approach. Each week, the site focuses on a single title: a review is published on Monday, followed by a feature or extract on Wednesday, and a round-up of related links on Friday.

This week’s book is Mothers, the debut collection from Chris Power, who writes the Guardian’s ‘brief survey of the short story‘ series. I’ve written the Monday review of Mothers, and I found it a fascinating book to read and think about.

Mothers is a collection of ten stories, mostly featuring characters who are lost in some way, often at moments of great change in their lives. Three of the stories concern the same character, Eva, her relationship with her mother, and what happens when she becomes a mother herself. Mothers is also particularly cohesive as a collection – not that the stories are linked as such, but they cast light and shade on each other in a way that’s quite remarkable to experience.

Some links:

Mothers is published in the UK on 1 March by Faber & Faber.

Book details

Mothers (2018) by Chris Power, Faber & Faber, 304 pages, hardback (review copy).

My Personal Anthology 

Every week, the writer Jonathan Gibbs invites someone to ‘dream-edit’ their own Personal Anthology of twelve short stories. Each instalment includes a few words about each story and details of where it’s available to read (including online, where applicable.

This week was my turn in the editor’s chair. I couldn’t bear to commit myself to a definitive list of ‘favourites’ (after all, I might choose a different dozen tomorrow). Instead, I’ve selected stories that left a deep impression on me at the time of reading (various points over the last 15 years). My list includes long-time friends of this blog; beloved authors; and newer discoveries.

A Personal Anthology is sent free to subscribers via TinyLetter.com on Friday afternoon (UK time). However, the entries are archived, and you can read mine here. I hope you don’t you find it interesting and will be intrigued to try some of the stories. You can subscribe to A Personal Anthology here – I warmly recommend it. 

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that, don’t you think’ by Helen Oyeyemi

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

This story was first published in Helen Oyeyemi’s 2016 collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, a book that I found quite difficult to grasp as a whole, even though I’ve enjoyed Oyeyemi’s work in the past. It has been good to come to ‘if a book is locked’ afresh as part of the NSSA shortlist.

Oyeyemi’s protagonist (the “you” of her second-person narration) works analysing anonymised data on other organisations’ employees. A new colleague joins the company: Eva is subtly chic in a way that leads her female co-workers to try to compete. That’s until her lover’s wife visits the office to denounce her. At that point, the protagonist is the closest Eva has to a friend in her workplace. But the protagonist is preoccupied with what might be in Eva’s mysterious locked diary.

Oyeyemi always creates her own distinctive world with her words, even when she’s writing about somewhere ostensibly as mundane as an office. There are some neat parallels between the way Eva is treated by her colleagues; the protagonist’s family background; and the work that the company does. More, the ending blossoms into the beautiful strangeness typical of Helen Oyeyemi.

Listen to a reading of ‘if a book is locked’. 

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Collector’ by Benjamin Markovits

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

Somewhere near the border with Canada, Robin Bright’s wife Amy dies when she is swept off the road in a storm. Robin struggles to accept what has happened, and retreats to his big house and hobby of collecting. The story switches between the past and the present, in which Robin discovers that Amy may not be the person he thought he knew.

‘The Collector’ is written in a more conventional literary style than the previous three stories. This is less to my personal taste (I find Markovits’ technique of anonymising places, such as “H___”, particularly irritating in a contemporary story); nevertheless, there are aspects of this story that work well. There’s some effective use of metaphor, playing all of Robin’s material possessions against what little knowledge he has of Amy. And I found the ending of ‘The Collector’ especially powerful.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Collector’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ by Cynan Jones

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

loved Cynan Jones’s 2014 novel The Dig, found it vivid and unflinching. I was hoping for something similar from ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ (a story drawn from Jones’s most recent novel, Cove). I wasn’t disappointed.

The unnamed protagonist of Jones’s tale is in a kayak off the coast, catching fish and about to scatter his father’s ashes, when something goes terribly wrong. After that, his goal is to reach land. It can be summarised succinctly, but the experience of it is so much richer, thanks to Jones’s pin-sharp description and a prose that breaks apart and re-forms like waves on the sea.

What I’ve written there feels at once inadequate and just enough to capture it. ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ is simply that kind of story. 

Listen to a reading of ‘The Edge of the Shoal’. 

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: Q&A with Will Eaves 

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

Today, I’m delighted to be hosting a Q&A with one of the authors shortlisted for the NSSA, Will Eaves. (Read my review of his story ‘Murmur’ here.) 

How does it feel to have been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017?

It’s an honour, of course. I like in particular the NSSA’s relationship with radio, which is an intimate medium. A radio voice speaks to listeners one by one, in their rooms, in their cars, in the bath. One hears that voice with a dramatic sense of others caught in the act of listening.

Can you give us a bit of background information to your shortlisted story? What inspired you to write it?

It’s a story that comes at the beginning of something longer – a chain of linked stories about a scientist struggling to maintain physical and emotional equilibrium in the wake of his conviction for Gross Indecency. Alan Turing is an obvious inspiration; but equally clearly the story spins away – far away – from his recorded circumstances. “Murmur” and its companion pieces are collectively a fantasia on the life of the mind, logical paradox, loyalty, and love.

The unique element of the BBC NSSA is that your story will be read by an actor and broadcast to Radio 4 listeners. Have you thought about what your characters’ voices might sound like, or do you have a particular voice in your head?

The speaker is a man in his forties. His voice might have an edge; he’s sharp but not severe; careful; quick to notice things, sad; occasionally vexed, not short-tempered.

What do you enjoy most about writing in the short story form, as opposed to longer-form or novels?

I’ve submitted to the NSSA before, always in the knowledge that I don’t write conventional short-form fiction. (I have a high regard for those who do: see reading suggestions below.) The truth is that I’m never sure what form I’m writing in. One has some idea of the material, the scale and shape, but these are rather different things. I’m not the sort of person who decides to write a poem or a novel or a story. The whole process is extremely uncertain. I tend to follow the voice. Form and content must grow together.

Which short story or collection by another author would you recommend to readers and why?

“Regret” by Guy de Maupassant. An old man confronts the woman he has always loved – the wife of a friend. Would she indeed have given herself to him, that sunny day years ago when they walked together by the riverside after lunch? A masterpiece of concision and tension, the whole story is strung upon the agony of a simple, devastating “what if?”

Also: “Millennium Blues” by Helen Simpson, from Hey Yeah Right Get A Life – an unimprovably great title that her US publisher wanted to change to: Getting A Life

Which short story writer would you recommend to readers and why?

Flaubert (Trois Contes, and “Herodias”, in particular), Maupassant, Chekhov. Among contemporaries: Alice Munro, for her handling of time, and brilliant voicing. The thought and the said run together effortlessly. Her best collection is probably Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage (2001), but they are all good.

What are you reading at the moment?

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, by Barbara W. Tuchman. A historian friend introduced me to this. It’s a vivid commentary on the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the Papal Schism, and the economic and tactical disaster of chivalric combat. You can only read a few pages at a time because the violence and suffering are so disgusting.

What was your favourite book as a child? 

I’m not sure. It changed from week to week, I think. My first great emotional experience was reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, late into the night, under my covers, and feeling distraught. I cried myself to sleep – I’ve loved spiders ever since. I liked Conan Doyle and Saki as a young teen (“Tobermory”), and still do. Then Persuasion and Jane Austen. As an uncertain gay adolescent, I found Graham Chapman’s A Liar’s Autobiography uplifting, and very funny.

Was there one writer that inspired you to start writing?

No, because I didn’t think very much about who had written what. I liked reading on my own and the feeling of liberation and retreat that came with scribbling in exercise books. Music was as important to me as literature when I was growing up, and songs and piano and 60s/70s R&B and funk (Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder) still matter. Musical composition makes sense to me. When I started acting, I found myself drawn to Shakespeare’s late plays (The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale) for the transformations and magic. I’ve never set out to write anything in a particular style, although I do absorb the work of other writers and think about it over a long period of time. That’s essential. I try to notice and remember solutions to different technical problems. There’s a chapter in Beryl Bainbridge’s Injury Time (the whole book is lovely) that taught me how to move from one centre of consciousness to another. She makes it look so easy. Dickens helps one to be brave about changes in register and address.  

Will Eaves was born in Bath in 1967 and educated at Beechen Cliff Comprehensive and King’s College, Cambridge. He worked for twenty years as a journalist and was the Arts Editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 1995 to 2011. He teaches in the Writing Programme at the University of Warwick. He is the author of four novels: The Oversight (Picador, 2001; shortlisted for the Whitbread – now Costa – First Novel Award), Nothing To Be Afraid Of (Picador, 2005; shortlisted for the Encore Award), This Is Paradise (Picador, 2012), and The Absent Therapist (CB Editions, 2014; shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize); and two collections of poetry: Sound Houses (Carcanet, 2011) and The Inevitable Gift Shop (CB Editions, 2016; shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry). He lives in Brixton, London.

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Waken’ by Jenni Fagan 

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

It fascinates me how vastly different styles of writing can draw me in equally effectively. Will Eaves’s piece was fragmented and formal; Jenni Fagan’s is rolling, with a gossamer touch. Both embody what they want to tell superbly.

We join Fagan’s protagonist, Jessie, as she makes precautions to ensure that her newly-deceased father’s soul will not return to the house. This is an old tradition carried on into the present day; contemporary details puncture the narrative, destabilising its folktale-like tone.

All the women on Jessie’s Hebridean island, except her, became selkies at the age of twelve; but she is about to undergo a transformation of her own. None of this feels in any way out of place: Fagan maintains that measured tone, and the story unfurls as she goes.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Waken’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘Murmur’ by Will Eaves

It’s BBC National Short Story Award time again. This is an award that I’ve covered quite a lot over the years; and I’m pleased to be able to run a story-by-story review of this year’s shortlist. Thanks to Comma Press and ED Public Relations for providing an advance copy of the anthology. 

I was excited about this year’s shortlist when I first saw it, because it’s a mixture of favourite authors (such as Cynan Jones and Helen Oyeyemi) and writers of whom I’ve heard great things. Today, we start with a former Goldsmiths Prize nominee: Will Eaves, and his story ‘Murmur’… 

***

The narrator of Will Eaves’s story is a mid-20th century gay academic named Alec, who is arrested for gross indecency and made to undergo a course of hormone injections, as well as attending sessions with a psychoanalyst. The scattered notes of Alec’s journal comprise the story that we read. 

Alec contemplates the nature of mind and, as a materialist, is troubled by the possibility that there is a final ‘leap’ he cannot explain, that mind may not be able to encompass itself. At the level of narrative, Alec considers that we can describe our actions and conscious thoughts; but then there is what he calls the “inner murmur” beneath, the deeper thinking which may be hidden from us.

‘Murmur’ is a strong start to this year’s shortlist. I appreciate the way that it works in harmony across multiple levels, from day-to-day living to the fundamentals of the universe; and that it interrogates the limits of its own form. The ending carries a frisson of dread as the standard tools of narrative fiction are turned against themselves.

Listen to a reading of ‘Murmur’. 

Record of a Night Too Brief – Hiromi Kawakami: a snapshot review

This is a collection of three stories by the author of Strange Weather in Tokyo (aka The Briefcase); The Nakano Thrift Shop; and Manazuru. The protagonists of all three stories are disconnected from life in some way; Kawakami explores this through various fantastical encounters.

The title story takes its narrator through a series of strange vignettes (dreams?): transformed into a horse; guest at a bizarre banquet. Alternating chapters chronicle her relationship with a girl, who shrinks, disappears and reappears as circumstances change.

In ‘Missing’, the protagonist’s brother has disappeared – though occasionally he returns, and only she can see him. Now the family is trying to find room for the brother’s wife-to-be (who, unbeknownst to her, is now marrying the narrator’s other brother). There’s a deadpan quality to this story which offsets the strangeness, and which I really like.

The final story is called ‘A Snake Stepped On’. Its protagonist does indeed step on a snake — which then turns into a woman, takes up residence in the narrator’s home, and claims to be her mother. As the story progresses, snakes appear all over, perhaps representing …the tensions squirming beneath the surface of everyday life. With some arresting imagery, this story is a fitting end to an intriguing collection.

A version of this review was originally published as a thread on Twitter. 

Elsewhere 

  • An extract from the story ‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ at Words Without Borders.
  • Reviews of the book by my fellow MBIP-shadowers Tony’s Reading List and 1streading.
  • An interesting interview with translator Lucy North at Bookwitty. 

Book details 

Record of a Night Too Brief (1996) by Hiromi Kawakami, tr. Lucy North (2017), Pushkin Press, 160 pages, paperback (personal copy).

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