in memoriam: Nadine Gordimer, my 'G' author
All right, y'all, today it's three-in-one. I accidentally took the weekend off from reading and posting about short stories. What can I say? It was a whirlwind World Cup weekend and we had a little moving and shaking going on, in addition to soccer-watching. Also, although I missed posting on Friday the 11th, I am totally counting my Thursday the 10th Kafka double duty as two stories, so that takes care of Friday also. Now, it's Monday, and we'll have to do a three-story burst to make up for Saturday the 12th, Sunday the 13th, and today.
"The Sock" by Lydia Davis
"Eleven" by Sandra Cisneros
"The Gate-Keeper" by François Coppée
In honor of today being Bastille Day, I had to read a French author for my third short story. Turns out, author François Coppée was a totally nationalist anti-Dreyfus born-again Catholic who is sometimes seen as politically controversial, so that seems to be about in the right spirit! (ha) I think his was the best out of these three particular stories, but more on that in a second.
We'll start with the most underwhelming, Lydia Davis. Now, first of all, I know some people find short stories to just not deliver as much as a novel does, and I don't generally agree with them in writing off short stories as a form, but when I read stories like "The Sock" I completely get where they're coming from. To hear the interwebs tell it (not to mention the PEN/Hemingway Award, Whiting Foundation, and Man Booker International Prize), Davis is a genius who writes short and ultra-short stories that are masterful, precise, powerful, urgent, and revolutionary. Well, I certainly hope that "The Sock" is one of her weaker efforts, because it was none of those things. It's getting a C+ (as opposed to a C- or lower) only because it managed to get a couple of visuals going despite being an extremely inside-my-head character meditation kind of story and because it moved along. It was definitely short. I won't argue with all the people lauding her for her brevity. But on that note, do we really need short stories that are only two sentences, which she has apparently written? (Not this one -- this one's a couple pages.) I mean, come on. That's the literary equivalent of the artist whose "painting" is a blank white canvas. Yeah, everyone is just pissed because they didn't think of it first--so it's arty. But it tells you nothing about the painter's painting talent. Ditto for a "writer" whose "story" is two sentences. What do you actually know about their writing? Nothing. As for this, "The Sock," her couple-of-pages story about a woman who finds her now-remarried ex-husband's sock (and some other items) in her house, it is missing a few key things that generally are part of a story, such as plot. And beginning-middle-end. "The Sock" is a fragment, and I look with disdain upon the late twentieth century writers (because I do think that's when it started) who think that every fragment can stand by itself as a short story. Just, no.
On to Sandra Cisneros! I've read her before. In fact, I've read The House on Mango Street a few different times; I'm not sure if you could get out of a mid- to late-1990s English class without being asked to read that book at least once -- in the American West, anyway. I also was assigned her collection of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek, in one of my English classes, and I recently saw that book sitting around in my old bedroom in the house in Phoenix, and I'm terribly afraid I might have blown it off, as I can't remember much -- OK, anything at all -- about its short stories. For example, "Eleven," which I read online today, was apparently in Woman Hollering Creek. Whoops! Not familiar! Well, now I am. It was a nice little tale, and I immediately wanted to send it to my nine-year-old niece, so it's fun for all ages. Or maybe sadness for all ages. It does have a beginning, middle, and end, though barely; one can argue about substance and depth, certainly, but "Eleven" does show how very little can happen and there can still be a story, unlike in "The Sock" where very little happens and you aren't sure what you're reading -- a letter fragment? a diary entry? a blog entry? etc. "Eleven" is just a glimpse at the life of a girl, newly turned eleven, in one brief moment of her school day, and yet you get to know her pretty deeply in that moment, and even her parents, and you get to feel hope (Esperanza!) for her, which is nice. Her life is bittersweet--you know that too, from just this brief glimpse, and she has to face challenges at school, and this day might suck for her right now, but she is learning the most important lesson of all, that she is the sum of all of her years and not just any one day. This is good stuff, if a little light on actual, you know, words and length. I should probably read more Sandra Cisneros than I do. Why have I read The House on Mango Street so many times and so little of her other stuff? (My blowing off of at least some of Woman Hollering Creek notwithstanding.)
And now for a dead white male. (Things were getting just a little too diverse up in here, wouldn't you say?) (Oh my god, that is a joke. Please tell me you get it, on both levels. Please?) François Coppée was a French guy in the late 19th century. I love me some 19th century French lit, in general, but I also always want to learn more about it and be exposed to more authors, and I've often thought about just going for broke and getting a master's in French literature because I have an idea for a thesis and everything. Anyway, I don't think I've ever read Coppée before today. He wrote some plays, some poems, some stories, and also some polarizing stuff like an essay on his (re-)conversion to the Catholic church after a near-death illness and some anti-Albert stuff during the Dreyfus affair. (Another thing I should know more about...hence my reading up on Emile Zola lately, so I'm working on it, thank you very much.) Anyway, this story, "The Gate-Keeper," is about parenting (!) and not just on the part of the mother (!!) and it throws the wit around, like this: "Her Majesty the Queen of Bohemia -- for story-tellers there will always be a kingdom of Bohemia -- is travelling..." This is more of a "traditional" story (at least a few pages long, characters actually go somewhere and do something and have conversations, there's a point, etc.) I liked it because it has a cool-ass gate-keeper out in the middle-of-nowhere railroad countryside who schools our young queen about how to be good (but not in the way you might initially think he would) and because it is well written with fun turns of phrase and because it has that kind of Pretty Woman-esque "She rescues him right back" sentiment, but in reverse, I suppose. Apparently our boy François Coppée was known for writing about the poor and the humble and such, before he joined the Académie Française and came to be known as a racist-nationalist (not that those last two things are connected). He definitely lobs a few accusations at cheating, lecherous royals and other wayward spouses in this tale. Sadly, Rimbaud apparently didn't like Coppée at all, but you know, it was hard to please Rimbaud.
Vive le conte!