Thursday, 27 July 2017

A few books currently in stock notable for containing stories often considerably less than a page long. 

Fullblood Arabian and The Teeth of the Comb by Osama Alomar
Unless he has been incarcerated or deported by the current US administration, Osama Alomar is working as a taxi driver in New York. Before moving to the US as a refugee, he was an acclaimed author in Syria, especially as a practitioner of al-qisa al-qasira jiddan (very short short stories). The two collections of his that we have in English translation place him somewhere in a rough triangle apexed by the fables of Aesop, the personification tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (albeit an ‘Omar Khayyam’ arising from a world of state-sponsored torture and media-fuelled anti-Arab prejudice). These micro-fables, few longer than a few sentences, rail against injustice, are socially and politically most acute at the point where they are seemingly most ludicrous, and acknowledge despair without being without hope. A man climbs out of a narrow metal tunnel to find himself emerging from the gun barrel now pointed at his chest, a rubbish bag becomes swollen with pride at finding itself at the top of the heap of rubbish bags, a man finds a question mark in his eye when looking in the mirror. The stories often have an aphoristic feel, and are fables in that they do not intimate any further story lying beyond them (compared, for instance, with Sarah Manguso’s 500 Arguments, which are like the nuggets sieved out of novels).
The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard
“The courtroom correspondent is the closest of all to human misery and its absurdity and can endure the experience only for a short time, and certainly not his whole life, without going crazy. The probable, the improbable, even the unbelievable, the most unbelievable are paraded before him every day in the courtroom, and, because he has to earn his bread by reporting on actual or alleged but in any case shameful crimes, he is no longer surprised by anything at all.” Bernhard’s brief spell as a crime reporter before becoming an author was the ideal preparation for the writing of these 104 one-page stories, which, in the perfect deadpan style of journalism or of jokes, record the miseries, cruelties and disasters that fester beneath the surfaces of human lives, surfaces that open from time to time to receive more hurt and then close over again until they can be contained no longer and make the news, so to speak, overwriting the lives with 'stories'. The book contains 26 murders, 18 suicides (Austria’s national pastimes, according to Bernhard, are committing suicide and resisting committing suicide (it could be said that much of Bernhard’s writing arises from a sublimation of his own inclination towards this pastime)) and six other painful deaths, but these only as the mechanisms by which the unresolved and unresolvable tragedies beneath the mundanity of lives manifest themselves and turn those lives inside out so that the tragedy is on the outside and the mundanity is revealed at the core. Accidents lead to tragedies, ill intentions lead to tragedies, good intentions also lead to tragedies. Nothing is made better or repaired or created in accidents. Although this book is structurally unlike any of his others, Bernhard’s perfect sentences, with their nested clauses-within-clauses, with their fugual repetitions, with their self-mocking pedantry, with their sudden shifts of tone as they respond to their terrain, explore in miniature the material more fully developed in his novels. Different facets of authenticity (‘authenticity’) arise from the plots and from the details, set against each other, as are the tragic and the quotidian, to comic effect. It is this ambivalence, this at-once-one-thing-and-its-opposite, this at-once-intimacy-and-distance, this at-once-sympathy-and-hatred that makes all Bernhard’s work so revelatory. Whether telling of the voice imitator incapable of imitating his own voice, ‘newspaper’ accounts of the attribution, misattribution, malattribution and nonattribution of guilt, first person plural anecdotes of persons met when travelling, second-hand reports of the statements of others, such as the dancer who cannot dance if thinking about dancing, the stories are free from narrators able to initiate either action or response. Many of the stories appear to have arisen from actual events (Bernhard was a devoted reader of newspapers in cafes), sometimes distorted or reshaped, reality both observed and denied, such as the account of the burns suffered by Bernhard’s here unnamed friend Ingeborg Bachmann, recognisable despite the ‘incorrect’ facts in the story. Part of the reason for this is the impossible relationship between reality and language, between experience and its representation, between proceedings and reportage. Each makes demands of its other but each moves too differently to conform. What is known and what is said are always in conflict in even the most seemingly straightforward account, even though their trajectories may be twinned. One story here tells of a playwright who, just like Bernhard, had great success “because he was honest enough to pretend [sic] that his comedies were always tragedies and his tragedies comedies,” because, at base, he hated the theatre altogether.
The Collected Stories and Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis
The narrower the aperture, the greater the depth of field. Many of Lydia Davis’s stories are little more than a detail or an image or a wry observation presented without a misplaced word or superfluous comma, precise enough to suggest that great slabs of life hinge about her words, without these slabs being fiction as such. Perhaps the distinction between actuality and fiction is too coarse to be relevant to such literature of the infra-ordinary and should be left to the literatures of the ordinary (for which this distinction is constantly contestable if ultimately unimportant) and of the extra-ordinary (for which it is pre-established in the effective contract between author and reader). Thrifty with her language, characterisation and narrative to the point of asceticism, Davis’s work attains a whittled acuity subtle enough to glance off the surfaces they address without (generally) becoming embedded in them. Davis is a master of the concise, the precise and the incisive: each sentence she writes is a scalpel wielded at the life of the emotions, removing scar tissue and all the while exposing the operations of minds under pressure and the inner gravel of ordinary life. 
Calamities by Rene Gladman
I began the day remembering, or what for me passes for remembering, or at least attempting to perform what passes for me for remembering, the book I had just read, a torrent of short essays written by Renee Gladman, each of which begins with, I began the day. The essays, or what pass for Gladman as essays, start out being about not very much, small ordinary particulars of Gladman’s life, or small observations such as a poet might make about the ordinary particulars of life, but really they are not so much about these things as they are about the writing about these things, that is to say about the relationship of a writer to her experience and to her work and about her trying to decide what sort of relationship there might be, both actually and ideally, between this experience of hers and this work. The essays that start out being about not very much end up being about even less or rather more, depending on your point of view, depending on whether you think the universals that open from particulars lie within them or beyond them. Gladman is concerned not so much with the signified, or even with the signifier, as she is with the act of signification, the act of conduction which causes, or allows, a spark to sometimes leap across. Gladman’s touch is light, and she constructs some beautiful sentences, and the sparks leap often, and she usually avoids being precious. In the final, numbered, section of the book, Gladman ties the compositional knot as tight as it can be tied, removing content almost entirely from her writing other than the act itself of writing. “I was a body and it was a page, and we both had our proverbial blankness.” What is her relationship to the text she produces, irrespective of the content of that text? “ I didn’t know whether at some point in my past, perhaps at the very moment that I set out to write, the page had fallen out of me or I had risen out of it.” She relates her prolonged rigours in attempting to find the essence, so to call it, of writing, to reduce writing to the irreducible, the making of a mark, the drawing of writing. “Language was beautiful exposed; it was like a live wire set loose, a hot wire, burning, leaving a trace. The wire was a line, but because it was electrified it wouldn’t lie still: it thrashed, it burned, it curled and uncurled around itself. … I was amazed that I was talking about wires when really I was talking about prose.” I’m not sure that the making of a mark is the irreducible essence of writing, but it is the irreducible essence of something, something which may perhaps be taken for some aspect of writing, at least in the physical sense. But maybe this is what Gladman is trying to isolate and understand, or to split, the duality between content and form, literature’s version of the mind-body problem (or, rather, the mind-body calamity). Although writing is all her art, Gladman wants to reach the limits of this art, of narrative, of words, of the act of writing, “writing so as not to write, so to find the limit (that last line) beyond which the body is free to roam outside once more.”
Newspaper by Édouard Levé
Édouard Levé and I drew our first breaths almost simultaneously, and we have been similarly concerned with the problematics of authorial presence in (or absence from) texts, although Levé concluded his struggles in this regard by killing himself immediately after delivering the manuscript for his novel Suicide in 2007. In Newspaper (first published in French in 2004), Levé succeeds in removing himself from the text almost entirely. Though presented as a book, the work takes the form of a newspaper, divided into the standard various sections, complete with articles, advertisements and so forth, from which all specificity has been removed (names, places, currencies, dates, identities), leaving only the patterns of information and the linguistic structures which support them. Shorn of referents, a newspaper is shown to be not so much outward-looking as inward-looking, a portrait of the obsessions and underlying anxieties of the society of which it is an organ. Subjects are shown to be incidental to stories, created and consumed by them. I am pretty sure I remember some of the stories here so treated and I suspect Levé has been rigorous throughout in his experiment upon written media (he achieved something similar in his photographic practice (in Actualitésand Quotidien (2001-2003)) by restaging press photographs using anonymised actors and a blank backdrop). It is only in the ‘Arts’ section that some slight residue of the personal can perhaps be detected, some indication that for Levé at that time the arts still slightly resisted the personally obliterative interchangeability that had engulfed the rest of existence.
300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso
“Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages,” states Manguso in one of the 300 aphorisms and ‘arguments’ (as in ‘the argument of the story’ rather than a disputation) that comprise this enjoyable little book. Indeed the whole does feel as if it bears some relation to another considerably longer but nonexistent text, either as a reader’s quotings or marginalia, or as a writer’s folder of sentences-to-use-sometime or jottings towards a novel she has not yet written (“To call a piece of writing a fragment, or to say that it’s composed of fragments, is to say that it or its components were once whole but are no longer”). Many of the aphorisms are pithy and self-contained, often dealing with awkwardness and degrees of experiential dysphoria (so to call it), and other passages, none of which are more than a few sentences long, are distillates or subsubsections of stories that are not further recorded but which can be felt to pivot on these few sentences. Some of the ‘arguments’ reveal unexpected aspects of universal experiences (“When the worst comes to pass, the first feeling is relief” or “Hating is an act of respect” or “Vocation and ambition are different but ambition doesn’t know the difference”) and others are lighter, more particular (and, I'm afraid, a few do belong on calendars on the walls of dentists’ waiting rooms). Some of the arguments are just singular observations: “The boy realises that if he can feed a toy dog a cracker, he can just as easily feed a toy train a cracker” or “Many bird names are onomatopoeic - they name themselves. Fish, on the other hand, have to float there and take what they get.” To read the whole book is to feel the spaces and stories that form the invisible backdrop for these scattered points of light, and the reader is left with a residue similar to that with which you are left having read a whole novel.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
“We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us but because it draws us after it,” wrote Goethe. Maggie Nelson’s book, comprised of 240 short numbered, mostly beautifully written passages, describes her life-long affinity for and attraction to (what she calls ‘love’ for) the colour blue in all its literal and figurative senses, along with describing a period of mourning after the end of an intense relationship (also called ‘love’). She is, she says, not interested in learning “what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet.” To this end, and with the assistance of a range of co-opted “blue correspondents” reporting from art, literature and history, she intimates a field of nuanced responses to the colour blue, even though subjective colour response is almost impossible to communicate. Indeed, blue’s attraction is almost its absence of meaning, or its relief from meaning. “Blue has no mind. It is not wise, nor does it promise wisdom. It is beautiful, and despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth nor reveals it. It leads neither towards justice nor away from it.” More than colour, blue is also merely colour, altering the cast of whatever it is seen upon. Although she attempts to draw correlations between the two (“I have found myself wondering if seeing a particularly astonishing shade of blue, for example, or letting a particularly potent person inside you, could alter you irrevocably, just to have seen or felt it. In which case, how does one know when, or how, to refuse? How to recover?”), there is an apparently unbridgeable gap in Nelson’s life, at least in the period treated in this book, between, on the one side, her intellectual passions and, on the other, her physical passions, between, as she would term it, thinking and fucking. Each side yearns towards the other, but encounters only the seductively nullifying colour of the void between them: blue.
This Is the Place to Be by Lara Pawson
What do you report when you become uncertain of the facts, of the notion of truth and of the purpose of writing? What can you understand of yourself when you are uncertain how or if your memories can be correlated with known 'facts'? Is your idea of yourself anything other than the sum of your memories? Lara Pawson was for some years a journalist for the BBC and other media during the civil wars in Angola, and on the Ivory Coast. In this book, her experiences of societies in trauma, and her idealism for making the 'truth' known, are fragmented (as memory is always fragmented) and mixed with memory fragments of her childhood and of her relationships with the various people she encountered before, during and after the period of heightened awareness provided by war. It is this intermeshing of shared and personal perspectives, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes contradicting each other, always crossing over and back over the rift that separates the individual and her world, that makes this book such a fascinating description of a life. By constantly looking outwards, Pawson has conjured a portrait of the person who looks outwards, and a remarkable depiction of the act of looking outwards. Every word contributes to this pointillist self-portrait, and the reader hangs therefore on every word.
Fine Fine Fine Fine Fine by Dane Williams
If it is necessary to move out to the very edge of ourselves, to the part of ourselves that is least ourselves, to be near another person, another person who has also moved out to the very edge of themselves, to the part of themselves that is least themselves, in order to be near us, what value can there be in any communication that takes place, if any communication can take place, between parties who are therefore almost strangers even to themselves? Diane Williams’ short, energetic, hugely disorienting short stories pass as sal volatile through the fug of relationships, defamiliarising the ordinary elements of everyday lives to expose the sad, ludicrous, hopeless topographies of what passes for existence. This is not a nihilistic enterprise, however, for Williams has immense sympathies and her stories themselves demonstrate the possibility of connection through the very act of delineating its impossibility. With the finest of needles, the most ordinary of details, Williams picks out the unacknowledged, unacknowledgeable but familiar hopeless longing that underlies our unreasoned and unreasonable striving for human relations, a longing that makes us more isolated the harder we strive for connection. So much is left unsaid in these stories that they act as foci for the immense unseen weight of their contexts, precisely activating pressure-points on the reader’s sensibilities. These are some of the finest stories you will read.
99 Stories of God by Joy Williams
Joy Williams is a devastating observer of social vacuities, yet shows great sympathy for the ways in which her characters attempt to shore up their dissolving realities, and a sharp eye for the tiny details which form the pivots upon which great weights of existence turn. A few years ago The Visiting Privilege introduced many of us to four decades’ worth of work from the underknown Williams, one of America’s finest short story writers, and 99 Stories of God shows her now becoming even sharper, stranger, more despairing and compassionate. The stories, few more than a page long, many a single paragraph or even a sentence, are each written such sharpness and lightness of touch that they draw blood unexpectedly and without pain. Sparely, flatly written, using the language of the newspaper report or the encyclopedia entry, trimmed utterly of superfluities, the stories read like jokes that make us cry instead of laugh, or like laments that make us laugh instead of cry. Comparison may be made with Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator, the scalpel-work of Lydia Davis or the Franz Kafka of the Zurau Aphorisms, but Williams’ sensibilities and turns of phrase are very much her own: she comes upon her subjects at unexpected angles, giving insight into the strangeness hung on the most ordinary of details (and, conversely, making the strangest of details seem necessary and familiar). The 99 stories have the texture of Biblical parables or Aesopian fables but they are not parables or fables due to the indeterminacy of their meanings (unless they are parables or fables which eschew lessons and morals and return the reader instead to the actual). The title of each follows the story and often sits at odds with the reader’s experience of the story, forcing a further realignment of sensibilities. Brevity, sparsity, clarity: these are distillates of novels, tragedies told as jokes, aqua vitae for anyone who reads, observes, thinks or writes.


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