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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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Dawn of Evil: Rise of the Reich


Are monsters born or made? Is true evil ingrained within a person from the beginning or does it seep into the pores of the vulnerable and impressionable through bitter experience? These are both big questions that Dawn of Evil: Rise of the Reich asks. However ultimately this is a film asking one incomprehensible and fascinating question; what transformed aspiring artist Adolf Hitler into a hatred fuelled dictator and perhaps the most infamous figure in not just the 20th century, but all of history?

To answer this question the film takes us back to Hitler’s formative years in Vienna, where he travelled as a young artist to seek a place at the city’s respected Academy of Fine Art. Historians largely agree that during the future Fuhrer’s time in the city he developed a fierce resentment for the Jews, which built upon prejudices he already carried from his childhood community and his parents. Needless to say Hitler failed with his application to the Academy, after presenting a weak and mediocre portfolio. He projected his disappointment and anger onto the Jews, blaming those that were wealthy and in positions of influence for holding him back. He scraped a living selling post cards of churches. He stole food and tasted life in the gutter. He absorbed nationalist and anti-Semitic literature. Like many he drifted without a purpose. 

Generally details of his life in Vienna beyond this are vague. The precise intricacies of the monster’s birth cannot truly be known. Studies of Hitler tend to skip rapidly through his grim years in Vienna, to the First World War which invigorated him, and then onto the 1920s and the formation of the fledgling Nazi party. Consequently this film must conjure some fictions and twist what is known to achieve some form of artistic truth relating to such a notorious man.

At first the film succeeds. Hitler is bumbling and naive as he arrives at a home for Homeless Artists, with a degree of innocence. To feel this about a character instantly recognisable as Adolf Hitler is no small feat for the filmmakers and indeed to even attempt this story is bold and admirable for a piece of German cinema. Understandably anything connected to the shame of Nazi Germany is still raw and heavy with guilt for many in Germany, so to see Hitler so sympathetically humanised in the film’s opening stages is remarkably brave.

To see Hitler rendered as such a believable, flawed and scrawny young man actually makes his descent into total delusion and lust for power all the more chilling. He’s almost immediately spouting anti-Semitic vitriol and nationalist jargon to the old Jews already living at the homeless hostel. But he’s reciting it at this stage; it’s just something he’s learnt by rote. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe what he’s saying; he has been taught to mean it and feels he must. It is however, a hatred and anger not yet his own, which will become more venomous as he acquires his personal vendetta through life’s sour events. Disappointment and what he sees as injustice will ignite the prejudices he already holds and bring them to life as his guiding purpose.

Perhaps a partial and inadequate answer the film offers to one of its key questions, whether Hitler’s evil was born or made, is that it was both already present and considerably added to. There’s no doubting he already arrived with a narrow and twisted mindset but it’s also clear his hate deepens as the film progresses. One of the measures of this is the way in which his language grows increasingly elaborate to resemble the theatrical speeches of his later political career. At times the rhetoric is intoxicatingly colourful and persuasive, filled with symbolism and heroic, inspirational imagery. Mostly however the film exploits Hitler’s misplaced sense of grandeur and importance for laughs. Indeed Dawn of Evil: Rise of the Reich, is a disturbingly funny film. From the very first scene and Hitler’s arrival, the elderly Jews tease him to teach him some politeness and manners. There’s something irresistibly hilarious about Hitler being asked to leave and come back again, but this time to knock and wait for an answer. It’s a scene that’s well acted enough to be funny in itself, but knowing that it’s a man as dangerous and feared as Hitler being humiliated adds a level of uneasy, dark humour to things.

In fact the film makes a big deal about the lingering torment of being laughed at. A Jewish roommate of Hitler’s, Schlomo Herzl, is forever teasing the young artist. However he also takes him under his wing and treats him like a son, and it’s clear the humour is affectionate and for Hitler’s own good. Hitler simply cannot take being laughed at or looked down to by a Jew though and he finds Schlomo’s care for him repugnant. Nevertheless he exploits it. He accepts Schlomo’s help to prepare him for his interview and entry exam. He lets Schlomo sell his post cards for him so that he can pay rent. He treats him like a slave and then sets about robbing him of his young love. Evidence of a later political pragmatism perhaps?

There are some good scenes between Schlomo and Hitler, particularly in the first half of the film. There’s an interesting contrast between Hitler’s brainwashed nationalism and the haggard man’s devout faith. In their very first exchange Hitler declares to Schlomo that God is dead, following Nietzsche’s famous idea. Schlomo is constantly the wise counterpoint to Hitler’s wild unfocused enthusiasm. But in the end, especially for those who know their history, the relationship strains the bounds of believability to breaking point.

The interesting points about Hitler’s philosophical and political development, and the alternative path through life he might have taken had he gained entry to the Academy, are lost beneath a sensational conflict and love triangle. Initially Schlomo was a clever lens that helped us learn more about Hitler. His character helped us see both Hitler the human and Hitler the animal as he used him and treated him like dirt. You really come to hate the young artist, and not just for being Hitler, as he cruelly rebuffs every kindness extended to him by the old man. Eventually though the plot surrounding Schlomo’s book, which Hitler helps him title “Mein Kampf”, becomes ridiculous.

Tom Schilling gives a great performance as the young Hitler and it’s one that evolves throughout the narrative. His gestures and mannerisms are perfect and his appearance in general. His delivery of the trademark passionate rallying cries, in stirring German, becomes more assured as the character grows in confidence. For me though it’s a real shame that Dawn of Evil: Rise of the Reich seems to lose its way. It begins as a compelling and absorbing study of a neglected period of history. It asks intriguing questions about how far individuals shape history or the social forces around them. But in its efforts to spin a story within those grander themes it loses sight of its strengths, becoming simply a mediocre tale which concludes with a baffling attempt at a poetic ending.