Aleichem, Gallant, Gardam, Keret, and Mutonji

Short Stories in January, February and March

Whether in a borrowed collection or from my own shelves, these stories capture a variety of reading moods.

This quarter, I returned to two favourite writers and also explored three new-to-me story writers.

Sholom Aleichem’s The Tevye Shories (1946; Trans. Julius and Frances Butwin, 1965) landed on my TBR thanks to Mel at The Reading Life.

The collection took me some time to read; the translators observe the author’s playfulness in the Yiddish language (Yiddish, rather than Hebrew, so that the “common people” could read the stories) and I felt like I was missing the best jokes. Usually I will read a story every (other) day; this collection would sit about a week before I’d read on.

Even so, the sense of light-heartedness (even twinned with traditional ideas about women’s utility) comes through:

“The Lord wanted to be good to Tevye, so He blessed him with seven female children, that is, seven daughters, each one of them a beauty, all of them good-looking and charming, clever and healthy and sweet-tempered – like young pine trees! Alas, if only they had been as ill-tempered and ugly as scarecrows, it might have been better for them, and certainly healthier for me.”

Then, serendipitously, I was browsing the films in my local library branch and found “Laughing in the Darkness” a 2011 documentary about the author. Because he married into money, he was able to pursue his writing from a young age; all the photographs of him with his notebooks (apparently he was always scribbling – even while just standing around, he would be writing things down) brought an extra dimension to the stories.

Contents: The Bubble Bursts, Modern Children, Another Page from the Song of Songs, Hodel, A Wedding without Musicians, Chava, Schprintze, Tevye Goes to Palestine, The Purim Feast, The Passover Expropriation, Tevye Wins a Fortune, The Enchanted Tailor, A Yom Kippur Scandal, The Fiddle, The Lottery Ticket, The Miracle of Hashono Rabo

The stories in Jane Gardam’s Showing the Flag (1989) unfold in such ordinary places. Like this: “In comes my gran all pink in the face in what looks very like a new scarf, and carrying parcels and two library books and followed by my mam with the supermarket shopping and a big potted plant.” But the story isn’t about their ordinary shopping trip, it’s about the story that her great-grandad tells a thirteen-year-old girl while they’re out.

Which is what I love about Gardam’s writing, the relationship between the everyday and the extraordinary. (She’s one of my MustReadEverything authors.) The first and titular story in the collection (the passage above is from “Threads”) is about a boy, thirteen years old also, who is travelling independently, but something goes awry: “Thirteen was all right. He’d manage. Look at Kidnapped. Look at Treasure Island. You can get on without your mother.”

Whether or not Philip can get on without his mother, readers will soon learn – Gardam’s stories resolve with a firm hand. Readers might not know exactly what will happen next, but they know the nature of the upcoming turn of events. Whether it’s Livvie, who “devoured books so fast that the down-the-hill library was vital” (“Rode By All with Pride”), Pratt, who feels “lost without a book” in the park but whose exam results are “not marvellous” (“Swan”), or Aggie, for whom it’s “Shakespeare then and Shakespeare now…all the way” (“Groundlings”).

Contents: Showing the Flag; The Dixie Girls; Benevolence; Bang, Bang – Who’s Dead; Threads; Rode by all with Pride; Swan; Groundlings; Damage; After the Strawberry Tea

Etgar Keret’s Fly Already (2019) with translations by Sandra Silverston, Nathan Englander, Jessica Cohen, Miriam Shlesinger and Yardenne Greenspan is the author’s ninth collection in translation.

His stories are short: almost all are under ten pages, only one more than twenty, several just a couple of pages total, and one series of single pages presented as an unfolding email correspondence which peppers the collection.

Even when the stories strike a sombre – even tragic – tone, there’s something almost light-hearted in the way that he reminds readers that people often endure horrific losses. The eponymous story is the perfect example of that, but elaborating on that comment would spoil its reading. (If you’ve read it, you will probably remember the two words that I’m thinking of, which could summarize the story: it’s the kind of story that sticks.)

In one story about a writer, whose friend asks him to write a story about him, there is some discussion about short stories. The kind of discussion you might have over drinks, not in a workshop. The writer’s friend understands that the writer is known for literary stories, but he is asking for something else. “You know, pointless, but not ordinary pointless.” And the writer says: “I can write you one that that, too.” Just what Etgar Keret would say.

The variety of characters in the stories seems deliberate – fathers and virgins, soldiers and children, those who break hearts and those with broken hearts. There’s something for every sort of reader to respond to.

Contents: Twenty-two stories, beginning with “Fly Already” and ending with “Evolution of a Breakup”

Set in the Lawrence and Galloway neighbourhood of Toronto, Téa Mutonji’s Shut Up You’re Pretty (2019) is billed as short stories, but they are rooted in a single coming-of-age story. “You got the best of Scarborough exactly here: the low-income houses attached to the getting-by houses, attached to the getting-there houses” Although there is not a lot of connective tissue to the work, the focus on voice makes me wish that this volume had been edited into a novel.

A different editorial eye, set on securing the reader’s connection to Loli, would have allowed for an intimacy, between her and the reader, to compensate for the distance between Loli and the rest of the world. All while remaining faithful to the character’s relationships in her world – which are always strained and sometimes fractured – faithful to her sense of isolation and dislocation, while more wholly engaging readers’ emotions.

Because Loli’s experiences are raw and powerful. She doesn’t shy from sharing the details, dispensed in plain speech which highlights her intelligence and acuity: “We used words like ‘certain’ and ‘particular’ to make us sound older. Our mouths had gotten used to swallowing bad air – we found it felt good to spit out words that did not fit.”

Even while presented as short stories, however, the author’s strengths remain evident. The language only occasional erupts into metaphor: “Julie took off her shirt as if she was born to be shirtless, the daylight landing on her chest, the wind, the trees, the entire world cheering as she got up and ran in circles, her breasts moving like homemade Jell-O.” And often its simplicity is startlingly emotive: “I was six years old, but I knew. It was like hearing my own heartbeat.”

This spring, I finished reading Mavis Gallant’s In Transit, a relatively new collection of hers, a slim volume with a surprising number of stories inside. (Short short for Gallant, even if not the New-Yorker-back-page sort of short.)

Starting April 7th, I’ll be reading the last of my full-length Gallant collections, Across the Bridge. This is one I’ve read before (but in 2003, so it will feel fresh).

Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.

Here’s a glimpse of what John McGahern had to say in his review on September 12, 1993, in the Sunday, Late Edition of The New York Times:

“The author’s sharp eye misses nothing; each detail is exact and telling: ‘Mourners accustomed to the ceremonial turned to a neighbor to exchange the kiss of peace. Those who were not shrank slightly, as if the touch without warmth were a new form of aggression. Forain found unfocused, symbolized love positively terrifying. He refused the universal coming-together, rammed his hands in his pockets — like a rebellious child — and joined the untidy lines shuffling out into the rain.’

In ‘Forain,’ Mavis Gallant has written an elegy that is also a true celebration: it is a small marvel of wit and feeling and rare tact.”

There’s one other full collection which was published after this one (The Moslem Wife), but I’ve already covered all of its stories. Remaining? Just three stories each in The Paris Stories and The Montreal Stories.

And you? Any short stories lately?