Tag Archives: Mann

The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.

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Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Days 8, 9, 10 and 11


I apologise for the failure of the blogging aspect of this challenge over the past few days. But I’ve had an epiphany. My laptop is evil and an agent of procrastination and distraction. Its seemingly harmless, sleek frame conceals the delights and dangers of the world wide web and countless other ways to fritter away time pointlessly. I therefore attempted to simply knuckle down. This post will take the form of a basic list, as I am keen not to waste time or disrupt what rhythm I have. Rest assured I am making better progress behind the scenes.

So a list of what I have been reading/read, predominantly comprised of short stories:

–          Lady Chatterley’s Lover (ongoing) by D.H. Lawrence

–          Love by Grace Paley

–          The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera

–          The Lady with the Little Dog by Anton Chekhov

–          Lovers of their Time by William Trevor

–          Mouche by Guy de Maupassant

–          The Moon in its Flight by Gilbert Sorrentino

–          Spring in Fialta by Vladimir Nabokov

–          Yours by Mary Robison

–          Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

–          Cat in the Rain/One Reader Writers/Homage to Switzerland by Ernest Hemingway

–          There will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury

–          Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (collection) by Haruki Murakami

Some readers might find it amusing to know I made the grave typo of “Bling Widow” in the above last line.

A great number of the above short stories come from the collection My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, compiled and edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. This was recommended to me by Tomcat and as usual I thank him for a trustworthy tip.

The next few days will see discussion of these stories and others, along with some attempts of my own I hope and I’ll plough on with some novels.

Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Days 5, 6 and 7


What’s the old saying; one step forward and two steps back? After finally making progress by finishing The Day of the Triffids (and easily answering a question on its opening line from University Challenge this evening as a result) I then went to see a friend for the weekend and did no reading whatsoever. I took an assortment of books, I intended to read and she intended to revise, but neither of us succeeded. I could hardly be rude could I? This is my excuse I know. But the break, not from this challenge but from life, did me good. So in reality this post could be entitled simply Day 7.

To make matters worse I haven’t devoted today solely to reading. Distracted by writing I haven’t actually read a great deal. However I do feel that I have a plan of action and that I made some considerable strides in terms of understanding today. I finally read Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog in its entirety, along with an introduction to a collection of his stories by Richard Ford. I’ve also read some more of Haruki Murakami’s short stories and I plan to read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice before I sleep tonight. Lady Chatterley is on the back burner for the time being, but next on my list, whilst I get my head around different short story writers and hopefully attempt an article on them this Wednesday.

Reading the introduction to Chekhov’s stories really helped me appreciate the unique value and insight of short stories compared to novels. Much like essays they can single out a particular issue or aspect of existence for closer inspection. Chekhov’s writing was economical and concise in making its points, something I need to begin to hone. His stories also reveal life’s hidden truths that we’re sometime reluctant to acknowledge, often from mundane events and goings on. I shall hold back the rest of my musings for another time.

I also recalled a Ray Bradbury short story from The Martian Chronicles that I’m going to re-read, as it’s another example of a type of short story and something else they can do.

Tomorrow night I’m going to attempt serious physical exercise for the first time in ages. I shall be a shattered and broken man. Hopefully my eyes will still be able to read. Until then I suppose.

Looking for love – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


After an indulgent weekend rest, I’m beginning to make some headway with short stories. It’s starting to seem like there are some broad categories of tale. Many are symbolic and first person. The following tiny attempt at something is based on the style of some of Haruki Murakami’s short stories.

One Wednesday I went looking for love. I’ve no idea why that particular day made a search seem necessary. Usually I’d dismiss such an undertaking as a foolhardy waste of time and effort. But that day it seemed possible I might find something resembling love at least. I didn’t have a rational hope in my mind or blind faith in my heart; just the sense that I might glimpse something if I took time out to look for it. And an overwhelming need to stop for a moment.

Perhaps it was the way the sun fell in dusty rays on my pillow. Or, in fact, not my pillow at all, but the forever vacant one next to it. The way the feathery grains wafted over the empty, unruffled fabric. The way they swirled upwards in a golden bliss. The way they danced with their infinite, weightless friends. The very fact that I could see them, rather than a face cloaked in sleep or a sprawling arm, highlighted my loneliness.

Outside my gloomy bubble, the sun smiled and everything was right in the world. The worker ants dashed about bathed in optimism. Something told me that it was going to be a good day, if only I was sure to stand in the middle of it. I could hardly lie in bed, daydreaming of aimless floating, when the grass was so green and the sky so blue. I had to get up and look.

I threw the window open and rushed about my flat in an inexplicable, excitable daze. Wednesday, some people said, was a hump day, from which the downward slide to the weekend began. It was the beginning of the descent from monotony to freedom and relaxation. My working hours were sporadic, but it just so happened I had to be somewhere for one o’clock. I might have finished looking by then; I might not.

Whole water droplets, untouched by the deadly stab of a towel, quivered in the chill from the window as I pulled on some clothes. I was out the door early, way before the rising sun had climbed above the clustered buildings of my road. I travelled light, reasoning that love could do without any extra baggage. Even my watch, which I regarded practically as a vital organ, lay forgotten about somewhere near the bed. My cavernous empty bed.

At first I simply walked. Up streets, down alleys, across roads. My creased, hastily buttoned shirt billowed around my waist like a skirt in the wind. I drew glances from passersby and tore past determined commuters. Rounding a corner onto a key London artery, I recoiled like a vampire in the harsh, all consuming stare of a fierce mid-morning sun, focused like a laser between two squashed buildings into my eyes. I felt them roll back in their sockets, suddenly burning with the vibrancy of it all. I staggered to a nearby wall, colliding with an irate businesswoman, greedily sucking hasty gulps from a cigarette, discarded yards later. I caught my breath.

Where best to stand for a fleeting glance of love? Where was the pivot, the enlightening epicentre of this shiny, beguiling day? Panting against my grimy patch of wall, I spied a gargantuan bookstore and made my way inside. Calmer now amongst the scent and flicker of turned pages, I allowed the dream of a likeminded, slender hand reaching out for the same book to grow in my mind’s eye. Browsing here today I would find love, I thought.

It didn’t happen. And neither did it happen at the cinema, where I lingered about the foyer, peering round pillars for the elusive moment. Hopes were raised and dashed by beautiful women scanning my favourite poetry or chatting noisily about a film I wanted to see. One o’clock came and went.  It’s funny but I never once seriously considered approaching any of them. I think deep down I disliked the notion wheeled out by some, so called, “romantic” men, that it was possible to fall repeatedly in love with numerous women from the most meagre meetings. Inexperienced I may be but I’d formed my own ideas of love.

I didn’t go in for this chance encounter, novelistic crap. If I’d known anything like real love it was born first out of friendship. It surely couldn’t blossom just like that, in a single moment in all its complexities, between utter strangers; could it? So I gave up hope and set off home; trudging forlornly without any of the energy or automatic spring to my step I had left with that Wednesday morning, cursing such a total waste of such precious time. I began rehearsing the pointless phone call to work, explaining my absence.

But near the station I saw a record store, the type that was the domain of collectors and enthusiasts. I found myself wandering in. Subconsciously at least I clearly wanted one last throw of the dice, even when I knew things didn’t work like that. It didn’t take long for regret to wash over me on stepping inside. I felt almost instantly conspicuous, an agent behind enemy lines with their cover about to be blown. It wasn’t that I disliked music. I simply knew nothing about the dusty vintage jazz or limited edition punk littering this place. And I despised any form of artistic snobbery. Glancing at the other customers I could tell most of them did it for superiority, for bragging rights rather than passion.

Except one couple that is. Only they weren’t a couple, exactly. He was rifling through boxes of records, almost in a frenzy, whilst she leafed through the odd selection, drifting quietly just behind him. I felt myself instinctively drawn to them. They were fascinating. Though standing so close, it was clear they were not together. And yet it seemed as if they would be; they ought to be.

It felt too cliché to be real. Both were absorbed in their browsing, their mutual passion evident despite their completely contrasting methods and expressions. Both backed gradually towards each other, their gazes locked intently on the records. Then as he made an erratic eureka lunge for a treasured collectable, there was the inevitable clash and she dropped her own prize.

After endless seconds of token British apologies and awkward eye contact, they both shared a kind, selfless smile for a snapshot of a moment. It was a smile that said they knew each other, and had done for years. And yet it was also a smile of discovery, of innocence and renewal. I had watched the whole unremarkable incident. They left the shop separately. As far as I know nothing came of it, not that I chased the matter up. But it made me feel as if I’d seen love; if only a rough edge of what its purity could be.   

I don’t know if I was in my right mind that Wednesday. Most would probably say I wasn’t, given the circumstances. Back then the operation seemed a long way off, but it was still an ever present, looming reality. Now I only have hours to wait. I think of that weird Wednesday and my sudden compulsion to search for love. I remember it as I try to bring myself to trust absolute strangers with everything I have. I cling to it in case anything should go wrong and I am left with a brief window of time to properly fall in love, and be loved in return.