Taraghi, Levy, Hébert, Gallant and King

Short Stories in April, May and June

Whether in a dedicated collection or a magazine, these stories capture a variety of reading moods.

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

Mel at The Reading Life wrote about Goli Taraghi’s short fiction years ago; I added it to my TBR in 2017 and finally borrowed a copy of The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons this spring. Translated by Sara Kalili, these stories are selected from her body of work. These are polished and exacting stories, sometimes joyful and often surprising.

In “The Gentleman Thief”, three generations of women inhabit a “world, turned upside down and we couldn’t grasp the meaning and logic of events and incidents”. For grandmother, mother and daughter: “It was strange, but strange things had become normal.” There is so much fear. “Fear of the unknown, fear of an uncertain future.” And a sense of helplessness. “Who were we? Three lone women. We were no match for the Revolutionary Court and the Foundation of Martyrs. We were no match for anyone. We were scared of our own shadow.” But also a relentless degree of agency: this woman inhabit dangerous times and places, but they resist and persist.

In the title story, readers directly participate in the author’s observation. It even infiltrates her characters. In an airport, for instance: “The people seeing off friends and relatives stand waiting behind the glass wall with cheerless patience. Those inside watch the others outside.” (“Cheerless patience”: can’t you just see that?) And contradictions are embraced. “I feel homesick – can you believe it? Already homesick. And yet I want to run, get away, escape. I will leave and never come back, I tell myself, No. I will stay right here, in my beloved Tehran, with all its good and bad, and I will never leave.”

Stylistically and thematically, her work reminds me of Anita Desai, but the emotional heft reminds me of William Trevor: language and subject are simple, but these stories are born of the lives of ordinary people who inhabit extraordinary moments.

Contents: Gentleman Thief, In Another Place, The Great Lady of My Soul, The Flowers of Shiraz, Amina’s Great Journey, The Neighbor, Unfinished Game, The Encounter, The Other One, The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons (Trans. Karim Emami).

Anne Hébert’s The Torrent: Stories and a Novella (1973)

Perfect timing to pull this from the TBR list: “Spring ploughing, spring sowing, air, flowers, familiar birds. We were longing for the usual spring.” (This is from “Springtime for Catherine”.) I’ve already discussed this in my “Québecois Reads: Sealing the Deal” post last month, but the full list of stories appears below.

Keen eyes will observe that there are some other short stories in this photograph: a P.K. Page collection (she’s terrific, with poetry too), a Clark Blaise (I’ve enthused about his work before), and Joyce Marshall’s “The Old Woman” (which I absolutely loved, because I love stories about relationships and workplaces, so this is a perfect blend).

Contents: The Torrent (1945), The Coral Frock (1939), Springtime for Catherine (1946-7), The House on the Esplanade (1942), A Grand Marriage (1962), The Death of Stella (1963)

Thomas King’s A Short History of Indians in Canada (2005)

It makes me giggle to think about how easily someone could mistake this book for a textbook. Thomas King is channeling his inner Milton Friendlybear here, writing a version of history that doesn’t currently appear on any curriculum. (In the country currently called Canada, something like Ms. Dickason’s book is more likely, complete with subjugating possessive forms.)

“By the time Milton Friendlybear finished reading Olive Patricia Dickason’s Canada’s First Nations for a tenth-grade history assignment, he knew, without a doubt, where the Borg had gone after they had been defeated by Jean-Luc Picard and the forces of the Federation. And he included his discovery in an essay on great historical moments in Canadian history.”

And it’s true, too, that this collection does show its age a little, but it’s a fine line there, isn’t it, between acknowledging and recognizing our history and just plain getting stuck in it, because despite some dated cultural references (we’re in U.S.S. Discovery territory now, the Enterprise is a relic, a futuristic one, yes, but a relic nonetheless), Thomas King’s points remain valid. And his position on using ‘Indian’ where another writer might opt for another term, that’s not a matter of publication date: that’s his preferred terminology.

So we have characters collecting Indians like some people collected Beany Babies and coffee spoons. “During the sixties and seventies and for the first half of the eighties, collecting Indians had been the rage with most of the families in the Caledon Hills.” Nobody collects the hostiles anymore. (Phew.) But there’s an enduring market. And Hudson has tried to encourage his collectibles to augment their dietary needs by gathering foodstuffs, but the cost of food remains a real concern. (Although, he’s about to have some real problems.)

Often the stories do take an extreme(ly funny) position like this, but they are shorter and best discovered on their own terms. There’s a story about Coyote (and the Enemy Aliens) and another about an Indian ready to give birth late in December. And there are endless cans of white paint that can’t adequately cover what’s beneath “The Colour of Walls”, no matter how many coats Afua and Harper apply. (Er, actually, it’s not quite that simple.)

The dialogue in “The Baby in the Airmail Box” is sharp and real, but also dark and hilarious. This is the kind of country that leads one to remark: “A snow blower was a fine thing, to be sure, but where was the romance, where was the tradition?” (as in “Not Enough Horses”).

Thomas King is one of my MustReadEverything authors. I’ve read nearly everything now (just one novel remains unread on my list, his first), so now it’s time to reread.

Andrea Levy’s Six Stories & an Essay (2014)

In this slim volume, a photograph introduces each piece. Some of the images appear to be artistic, others from a personal collection. Following, there is a paragraph (or a page) of author’s notes about the work which follows. (I wish more story collections included this.)

The language is matter-of-fact, the stories concise. Occasionally a metaphor slips in (like eyes “dark as lychee stones”). More often, there is a descriptive passage which engages readers’ senses. Like the introduction to Deborah who smelt “of behind my bed where there were speckles of black on the wall. She smelt of milk going off and old shoe-bags in the cloakroom at school and the bottom of the bin after you’d tipped the contents down the chute.”

Here we also meet Hortense for the first time (one of Levy’s best-known characters, who takes centre stage in Small Island) in “That Polite Way that English People Have”, which is a story Levy wrote to be performed at the Southbank Centre in London. (There is an interesting anecdote about her mother and that performance included in the story’s introduction.)

Also, we meet a character who works as a seamstress in a costume department for performers, which is work just “one step away from slavery”, the step being that she could keep her own name. And we read “The Empty Pram”, a 1000-word story originally written for a woman’s magazine but never published: “Too controversial”.

Finally, we have “Uriah’s War”, inspired by the experiences of soldiers of the 1st Batallion of the BWIR (British West Indies Regiment). Here, Levy acknowledges a gap in her own historical experience, and she thanks Richard Smith for his wonderful book Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War: “Without it I would still not believe that my grandfather was at the Somme.”

Like Thomas King, Andrea Levy is one of my MRE Authors.

The latest in my Mavis Gallant reading project is her collection Overhead in a Balloon (1987).

In the March 18, 1987 issue of The New Yorker, writer Phyllis Rose writes of Gallant’s ability to conjure up Paris “more knowingly than any other fiction writer in English”.

She believes her to be “very likely the Colette of our time” and describes the author’s work and conversation as being “full of laughter”,  with these stories possessing a “wicked humor that misses nothing, combined with sophistication so great it amounts to forgiveness”.

It’s all true: this is such a great collection. I’m so glad there’s more than half of it yet to enjoy.

And you? Any short stories lately?