O. Henry, Conscience in art (#Review)

Followers of the short story form will probably know of O. Henry, the pen-name of American author William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). Although he also wrote poetry and non-fiction, Henry was best known for his prodigious short story writing. His legacy, as Wikipedia says, includes the O. Henry Award, which is an annual prize awarded to outstanding short stories. The award was first made in 1919, and since then the winning stories have been published in an annual collection. I was introduced to this via the 2003 collection which includes stories by writers like A.S. Byatt, Anthony Doerr, T. Coraghessan Boyle, William Trevor, and Alice Munro. You can see the quality we are talking about. The 2003 issue also introduced me to another writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose “The American Embassy”, I read from the collection, and whose novel, Half of a yellow sun, I went on to read as a result.

All this is to introduce the fact that Library of America (LOA) recently published an O. Henry short story, and I thought I’d share it here.

“Conscience in art”

LOA, as always, provides some introductory notes to the story, starting a bit mysteriously in this case, by referencing the turn of the century Pittsburgh millionaires, such as electricity magnate George Westinghouse, steel company executives F. T. F. Lovejoy, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Clay Frick, and other wealthy industrialists. Many “were passionate collectors of art”. Then they make their point, because this fact, they say, “supplies the plot of O. Henry’s story”. It’s worth pointing out, too, that an article referenced by LOA, says that Henry disliked Pittsburgh.

LOA goes on then to say that in November 1906, the editors of McClure’s magazine, wrote that

“In five years of magazine writing, O. Henry has reached the top of current fiction. The quantity as well as the quality of his work is remarkable, and he grows with every story. More stories of New York, the field of his great book The Four Million, will appear in McClure’s in the coming year.” 

O. Henry, LOA continues, had signed a contract for a dozen stories at $300 each. This might sound a big ask, but he was famously productive, having published 121 stories in 1904 and 1905. However, as it turned out, not one O. Henry short story appeared in McClure’s that year, largely because his health was declining as his drinking increased. Henry did, however, write some stories that year, with nearly half of them, says LOA, featuring “an affable con man named Jeff Peters” who had debuted in a 1903 story. Some ten or so Jeff Peters stories were distributed nationally by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate in 1907 in a series they called “The Gentle Grafter.” 

Then came the information that surprised me, because I don’t know Henry’s story. LOA says that these Jeff Peters stories came out of Porter’s three years in prison – for embezzlement – at the turn of the century. He worked the night shift as the druggist in the prison’s hospital, and is believed to have first drafted some of these tales during that time. According to LOA, the prison’s head pharmacist Dr. John M. Thomas reported that many of the stories were told to Henry on his rounds. Thomas said that he would frequently “find a story written on scrap paper on my desk in the morning, with a note telling me to read it before he sent it out.” LOA says that “Conscience in Art” is perhaps the best-known story in the collection. In it, they say, “the criminal principles and linguistic malapropisms of the swindler Jeff Peters finally meet their match in the ethically challenged Andy Tucker.”

So, the story concerns two con men, Peters who has some conscience – “I never believed in taking any man’s dollars unless I gave him something for it” – and Tucker who had no such qualms. Tucker comes up with the idea of swindling the Pittsburgh millionaires, who, Tucker tells Peters, will be easy to meet because:

‘They are rough but uncivil in their manners, and though their ways are boisterous and unpolished, under it all they have a great deal of impoliteness and discourtesy. Nearly every one of ’em rose from obscurity, … If we act simple and unaffected and don’t go too far from the saloons and keep making a noise like an import duty on steel rails we won’t have any trouble in meeting some of ’em socially.’ 

Tucker comes up with an art fraud plan, and of course there’s a twist in which Tucker manages to succeed in a scam in a way that doesn’t offend his accomplice’s conscience. I’ve only read one other O. Henry story, “The gift of the magi” – which is often compared with Guy de Maupassant’s “The necklace”. It’s an intense story, and different to “Conscience in art”, which is lighter, more comic, in tone. However, behind the lightness is some insight into those heady turn-of-the-century times in the US when faith in rags-to-riches held rein, and perhaps, Henry’s attitude to the rich.

Have you read any O. Henry? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

O. Henry
“Conscience in art”
First published: by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate (July 1907); then collected in The gentle grafter (1908). 
Available: Online at the Library of America

Ernest Hemingway, Cat in the rain (#Review)

As I often do with Library of America (LOA), I bookmarked their recent Story of the Week featuring Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Cat in the rain” to read later. “Later” came today. I have no Hemingway on my blog, so this seemed a perfect opportunity, and I do like short stories anyhow.

First ed. cover, from Wikipedia article. Public domain.

With many of my LOA posts, I need to start by introducing the writer, but this is not one of those occasions. However, if, perchance, you don’t know who Hemingway is, you can check his Wikipedia article.

Meanwhile, some background to the story. It was originally published in Hemingway’s first short story collection, In our time, in 1925. It is a very short, short story, but it has, according to LOA’s notes, garnered much critical interest. There is also a Wikipedia article on it. I’m not sure how much more I can add to what’s been said, given I am not a Hemingway scholar. However, I enjoyed reading it, partly because it felt more sensitive than macho, so I will say something!

“Cat in the rain”

The storyline is simple. An American couple is on holiday in Italy, and the story is set in and around their hotel. It’s raining, so they are stuck in their hotel room, she staring out the window and he lying on the bed reading. She sees a cat outside, hiding under a table, and she wants to rescue it. On her way outside, she sees the hotel-keeper (“padrone”), whom she likes. When she gets outside, however, the cat has gone, so she returns to her room and her husband. Wikipedia tells you exactly what happens, but generally I try not to spoil stories here, unless I know they are well-known (like, say, Pride and prejudice.)

The thing I like about Hemingway’s writing – though I’ve only read a little, and that was decades ago – is its spareness, and this is on display here. There are short, plain sentences, and simple repetition. These make it not only strangely beautiful to read but convey so much while seeming to say little. They convey a tone of lassitude, and also a sense of tension or lack in the marriage, though not a cross word is spoken.

Here is the wife, passing the hotelkeeper on her way out to find the cat:

He stood behind his desk in the far end of the dim room. The wife liked him. She liked the deadly serious way he received any complaints. She liked his dignity. She liked the way he wanted to serve her. She liked the way he felt about being a hotel-keeper. She liked his old, heavy face and big hands.

There is lovely rhythm to this – but there is also information about her character and about what she likes in people. Later, back in the room, her husband George asks her what happened. She tells him the cat had gone, then:

“I wanted it so much,” she said. “I don’t know why I wanted it so much. I wanted that poor kitty. It isn’t any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain.”

George was reading again.

George, in other words, is not listening to her wants or, indeed, needs, because both are wrapped up in this statement. I love this: the repetition (again), the staccato-like rhythm, and the direct, plain statement about George conveys, almost paradoxically, such intensity.

David Lodge, according to LOA, has written a “thorough and now-classic examination of the story” noting conflicting interpretations. They quote him as saying:

“although it is a well-formed narrative, with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, the primary action is not the primary vehicle of meaning.” That is, the story presents “a plot of revelation (the relationship between husband and wife) disguised as a plot of resolution (the quest for the cat).”

That makes sense to me from my reading of the story; I read it as being about the wife, her needs and her relationship with her husband.

The story also – and Lodge’s comment doesn’t contradict this – exemplifies Hemingway’s theory of omission (or “iceberg theory”), which is the idea that, as with icebergs, there is more below the surface than above. In this case, there is the idea, for example, that there is more to the cat than just being a cat, even though Hemingway doesn’t tell us what. That’s for us to consider – and the critics sure have.

There are other reasons this story interests critics and Hemingway aficionados, a major one concerning whether it is autobiographical. According to LOA, Hemingway, himself, wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald saying that it wasn’t about his wife, Hadley, even though they thought it was. However, continues LOA, there’s evidence that she was at least the inspiration, and that biographers agree. Hemingway biographer, Michael Reynolds “admits … that Hadley must have recognized her own marriage in the portrait of the couple”, and Hadley biographer, Gioia Diliberto agrees that “it’s not hard to see Hadley’s vulnerability and loneliness in ‘Cat in the Rain.’”

I can see why this story has garnered such interest. Despite its seeming simplicity – the story itself isn’t hard to understand – there are multiple ways it can be thought about and interpreted, from the opening sentence to the intriguing last.

If you haven’t read it, do consider giving it a go at the link below – it really is short, and quick to read. If you have read it, what do you think?

Ernest Hemingway
“Cat in the rain”
First published: in In Our Time, 1925
Available: Online at the Library of America

Ryan O’Neill, An Australian short story (#Review)

If you haven’t heard of this story by Ryan O’Neill, you are in for a surprise. It was first published in The Lifted Brow, an online literary magazine, in 2012. Its title tells you nothing, but, before I tell you more, I should introduce Ryan O’Neill for those who haven’t heard of him.

I had heard of O’Neill, but I hadn’t read him, which was one reason I chose this story to read. He came to my notice when his tricksy novel, Their brilliant careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers, appeared on the scene in 2016. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award that same year. As publisher Black Inc writes on its website, it’s “a hilarious novel in the guise of sixteen biographies of (invented) Australian writers”. You can see what I mean about tricksy.

Well, hold that thought, because his earlier-written short story, “An Australian short story” is tricksy in a different way. Instead of inventing sixteen Australian authors, this story is entirely composed of lines from short stories and poems by Australian writers, written between 1850 to 2011. The source works are an eclectic bunch, and include writers as diverse as Henry Lawson and Angelo Loukakis, as Rosa Praed and Thea Astley, and so on. You get the gist.

There are 149 of them, every one footnoted so you know exactly where they have come from. Some are as short as one word, such as “Goodbye” (from JMS Foster’s “I do love to be beside the seaside”), “–What?” (from Kate Grenville’s “Having a wonderful time”) and “Yes”, at least twice (from H. Drake-Brockman’s “The price” and Morris Lurie’s “Running nicely”, for example). You gotta laugh!

Others, though, are longer, like “And she lay beside him, separated by knowledge which he did not share, of something sinister; of wounding, of unhappiness, and of pain” (from “Winter Nelis” by Elizabeth Jolley).

There is a plot, and it concerns a couple, an unnamed husband and wife living in “a plain weatherboard house” (which comes from Peter Carey’s “American dreams”) whose “solidity was late-nineteenth century, as the town’s was” (from Hal Porter’s “Gretel”). So, we are in a country town, not a city. And then, a few sentences on, we discover that our couple are on “a farm, if such it could be called”. He, 42-years-old, is a writer, and is uncertain about whether he is “happy with her”, as in fact is she likewise re him.

The story reads seamlessly, albeit with a strange other-worldly feeling, but this comes not so much from the method of construction as from the fact that the people and places aren’t named. It’s also quite a melancholic piece, which speaks, I think, to the Australian short story tradition that it draws from and pays homage to. It is clearly Australian, O’Neill has called his story “Australian” and makes it very clear with references early on to parrots, gums and she-oaks. But, it is not a traditional farm story, because our husband is a writer, so this Australian story is about a writer, one struggling with his novel and frustrated at a perceived lack of support from “her”, while she feels she’s given him enough. It’s inspired and adds a wonderful layer to what O’Neill is doing here.

Now, I was intrigued about this story, so I went searching, and found a piece by O’Neill on writing this story. He explains how he, a Scottish-born Australian, came to write the story. He discusses his extensive reading of Australian short stories, and his thoughts about the strong realist tradition that runs through them. He sees (saw then) experimentation not being a strong feature of Australian short story writing, but does identify pockets of such occurring. It’s a great article for anyone interested in Australian short stories.

I was particularly interested in his statement at the end of the piece about his intention:

I had originally intended for this piece to be a satire. “An Australian short story” was titled “The Australian short story” for a long time, to suggest the idea that this piece, with its bush setting, and sentimental love story, was somehow representative of a certain uniformity in Australia short fiction. But as I finished the story I was surprised and pleased to see it had developed into more of a celebration than a satire.

I like this because as I was thinking about the story, I wanted to call it a satire or spoof, but it felt too subtle for that. “Celebration”, plus, we could say, commentary on, is a good way to view his story.

Coinciding with the publication of Their brilliant careers, its publisher Black Inc posted on its website, O’Neill’s Five tips for writing a short story. Tip no. 2 is that he believes

it is impossible to write a decent short story unless you have read a lot of great short stories. Try to read as many short stories as you can, and not only from contemporary writers. Read Poe, Maupassant, James, Chekhov, Carver, Mansfield, Borges, Woolf, Kipling, Barth, Salter, O’Connor (Frank and Flannery), Salinger, Yates, Jolley and Greene. These men and women are the greatest teachers a short story writer can have. You’ll learn all you need to know about structure, characterisation, setting, plot and everything else, and you’ll also have a great time. With any luck, something of their stories will stay with you when you write your own.

You certainly couldn’t argue that he doesn’t practise what he preaches, could you!

Ryan O’Neill
“An Australian short story”
in The best of The Lifted Brow. Volume 2 (ed. Alexander Bennetts)
Brow Books, 2017
ISBN: 9780994606877

Bernard Cronin, The last train (#Review, #1954Club )

Bernard Cronin (1884-1968) has featured in this blog a couple of times, but most significantly in a Monday Musings which specifically featured him. He was a British-born Australian writer who, in his heyday in the 1920s to 40s, was among Australia’s top 10 most popular novelists. And yet, along with many others of his ilk, he has slipped from view. However, I did find a short story of his published in 1954 so decided this was my opportunity to check him out.

The reason I wrote my Monday Musings on Cronin was because in 1920 he founded (with Gertrude Hart) the Old Derelicts’ Club, which later became the Society of Australian Authors, but I have mentioned him in other posts too. For example, in one post, I noted that in 1927, Tasmania’s Advocate newspaper had named Cronin as being “amongst the leaders of Australian fiction”. And, in my post on Capel Boake I shared that he had written collaboratively with Doris Boake Kerr (aka Capel Boake) under the pseudonym of Stephen Grey. In fact, he used a few pseudonyms, another being Eric North, which he used for his science fiction. Cronin wrote across multiple forms (publishing over twenty novels as well as short stories, plays, poems and children’s stories) and genres (including historical fiction, adventure stories, metropolitan crime fiction, romances, and science fiction and fantasy).

Wikipedia’s article on him includes a “partial” list of his works, with the earliest being The flame from 1916, and the latest novel being Nobody stops me from 1960. What the list tells us is that his most active period occurred between 1920 and 1950, so the story from 1954 that I read comes late in his career.

I had initially chosen a different story, “Carmody’s lark”, which was published in late 1954 in several newspapers, but belatedly discovered that one paper had printed it in 1951! Wah! Fortunately, I found another, “The last train”, that, as far as I can tell, was first published in newspapers in 1954. They are very different stories, the former being a character piece about a lonely suburban railway worker whose friends notice a change in behaviour and think he’s finally found a woman, while the latter is a more traditional suspense story set, coincidentally, on a surburban train. Both convey subtle wordplays in the their titles.

“The last train” picks up that conversation-with-a-stranger-on-a-train motif, a conversation that will change the life of the protagonist. It’s midnight, and a “nondescript little man in sports coat and baggy slacks” rushes onto the train at Ringwood in the outer suburbs of Melbourne heading for the Dandenongs. There’s a broken light in the carriage so it’s (appropriately) dim. He thinks he’s alone until he notices “a man in a rather comical misfit of hat and light raincoat”. He’s “slumped forward with his elbows on his knees, staring at him”.

Now, our “little man” has had a rather dramatic night. The story continues …

there was nothing in the least sinister in the indolent down-at-heel looks of his solitary companion. He seemed, indeed, exactly the type preyed on by the garrulous; and the newcomer, who was shuddering deliciously with a sense of rare importance, instinctively shifted over to the corner immediately opposite him.

You have probably worked out already that all is not as our “little man”, as he is repeatedly described, thinks. The story builds slowly, starting with a bit of general chat that, if you are looking for it, already contains little hints of menace. But, our “little man” blunders on, ostensibly uncertain at first but in fact keen to tell of his experience that night, while the “other man” listens, gently encouraging him on. Too late does our “little man” realise the truth of the matter, but the story ends there, leaving it to the reader to imagine the rest from the clues given.

Lest you be thinking, it is not the same story as Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel, Strangers on a train (adapted by Hitchcock into a film of the same name). And it is not like Christie’s earlier 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express. However, it is a well-told, if traditional, suspense story, that is typical, I’d say, of 1950s popular crime fiction and perfect for a newspaper readership. (Whatever happened to the inclusion of short stories in newspapers?)

And that, I think, is the best I can do for Karen and Simon’s #1954Club.

Bernard Cronin
“The last train”
in Maryborough Chronicle (Maryborough, Qld)
22 November 1954
Available online

Julie Koh, Portable curiosities: Stories (#BookReview)

I’ve decided to try reading more audiobooks this year, despite not being a big fan of this mode of consuming books. I’m a textual person. I like to see the print on the page, how it is set out. I like to see the words. I like to see how the names are spelt. Given my reservations and the fact that I expect to “read” in short stints, I thought short stories might be the way to go. I think they are, though my overall reservations still stand.

My first book was one that was well-reviewed when it appeared in 2016, Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities. It won the SMH Best Young Novelists Awards in 2017, and was shortlisted for several other awards, including the Steele Rudd Award for Short Story Collections (Queensland Literary Awards) and the Glenda Adams Award for New Writing (NSW Premier’s Literary Awards). I checked to see who won the Steele Rudd Award that year, because Koh’s collection is great. It was clearly a strong year. There were co-winners, Elizabeth Harrower’s wonderful A few days in the country, and other stories (my review) and Fiona McFarlane’s High places, which I’ve also been wanting to read.

So, Portable curiosities. I had no idea what this collection was about, and was delighted to find a lively, engaged and engaging interrogation of contemporary Australia, particularly as it intersects with Chinese-Australian experienceIt is highly satirical, penetrating the myths and assumptions that underpin our shaky existence.

The order of stories in a collection is always worth thinking about, and it is notable that this twelve-story collection opens with a story called “Sight” which satirises immigrant Chinese mothers who are so ambitious for their children to fit in and achieve success that they discourage any sort of individuality or creativity. Many of the stories have a surreal or absurdist element. They start realistically but suddenly we find ourselves in another realm or dimension. “Sight”, starting off the collection, is an example. Here, we suddenly find our young narrator having a “third eye” painted on her navel. This eye represents her imaginative self, so her mother organises for it to be removed in an operation.

From here, having satirised Chinese immigrant culture, Koh moves on to critique, with biting clarity, aspects of Australian culture, from misogyny (in “Fantastic breasts” where our male narrator looks for “the perfect set of breasts to have and to hold” at a conference on “The difficulties of an objective existence in a patriarchal world”) to crushing, soulless workplaces that pay lipservice to their employees’ mental health (in “Civility Place”). “Satirist rising” mourns the end of the civilised world, with a bizarre travelling exhibition that aims to ensure the continuation of the “landscapes of our mind”, while the cleverly titled “Cream reaper” (you have to read it to see what I mean) tackles foodie culture, turning foodie-ism into an extreme sport. Along the way, it also skewers multiple aspects of our capitalist culture, like the housing bubble, the commercialism of art, institutional banking, and the plight of the tortured writer.

As a retired film archivist, I loved “The three-dimensional yellow man” which takes to task the stereotyping of Asians on film. There’s “no need for a back story”, our one-dimensional (yellow man) Asian actor is told, “you’re evil”. He belongs, after all, to the “cruel, meek blank-faced race”. Again, the satirical targets are broad-ranging from film festival panels to Pauline Hanson – and embarrassingly close to the bone.

Many of the stories, like “Two” and “Slow death of Cat Cafe”, explore success, materialism and power, while the 2030-set “The Sister Company” exposes a cynically commercial “mental health industry” through the application of androids to the problem. All these stories, despite, or because of, their laugh-out-loud moments and forays into absurdity, hit their mark. A couple, such as “Two” and “Cream reaper”, felt a bit long, even though I thoroughly enjoyed their imagination, but this might have been a product of listening rather than reading, so I’m reserving judgement on this.

My favourite, however, was probably the last, “The fat girl in history”, which opens on a reference to the popular (in Australia) CSIRO Total Well-being Diet. The narrator is Julie, and, although this story also moves into surreal realms, there is a strong sense of autofiction here. Remember, though, that autofiction is still fiction so … Our narrator is a fiction-writer experiencing a crisis of confidence. She has written about a depressed girl, androids and the future – all of which appear in this collection. She’s been told that she writes like Peter Carey, though she admits she’s never read him. She reads an article telling her that contemporary literature is “in the throes of autofiction”, that the “days of pastiche are over”, and then informs us that she’s going to write autofiction titled “The fat girl in history.” Australians will know that Peter Carey has written a short story, “The fat man in history”, and that his debut collection named for this story started his stellar career. I will leave you to think about the portents and threads of meaning Koh is playing with here, but her outright cheekiness in daring us to go with her made me laugh – particularly when I saw where she went.

Portable curiosities deals with serious, on-song subjects, and I so enjoyed seeing her address them through satire, absurdity and surrealism with a healthy dose of black humour. At times the lateral thinking in these stories, not to mention Koh’s interest in satire, reminded me of Carmel Bird. A most enjoyable collection, that was expressively read by Lauren Hamilton Neill.

Julie Koh
Portable curiosities: Stories
(Read by Lauren Hamilton Neill)
Bolinda Audio, 2018 (Orig. pub. 2016)
5hrs 48mins (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781489440808

Janette Turner Hospital, The inside story (#Review)

Between 1985 and 1990, Janette Turner Hospital wrote four books which had one-word titles – Borderline (1985, novel), Dislocations (1986, short stories), Charades (1988, novel) and Isobars (1990, short stories). I’ve read the novels, and they imprinted on my mind Hospital’s love of metaphor. In these works, her titles clearly herald her concerns, and I love that. All this is to say that I thought I might kick off my contribution to Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week, with a short story, so I checked The Oxford book of Australian short stories. I found a few to choose from, but the writer who grabbed my attention was Janette Turner Hospital. I’ve read four of her novels, and have her latest short story collection, Forecast: Turbulence, on my TBR. I enjoy reading her.

The story is “The inside story” and it comes from the Dislocations collection, which was first published in Australia in 1986. I specify Australia because, at the time, and for many decades, Hospital was living overseas, primarily Canada and the USA, but elsewhere too. I note, however, that her website says that she returned to live permanently in Australia in 2019.

And now, the story. There is, as you’ll have realised, wordplay in the title. It is set “inside”, with the first person narrator being a teacher of a college literature course in a jail – an American one I presume, though it’s not specified. However, it is also about the “inside” of the characters, about their selves, particularly the narrator. The story involves this narrator, speaking from a later time, telling about the period she spent as a teacher in the jail, sharing her experience and some of the interactions she had with the inmates. So, she is also an outsider, coming from outside, and also an outsider in terms of not having shared experience with her students. For the first half of so of the story, her students are simply “they”, suggesting they are alike in their attitudes and reactions to her, but towards the end two, Jed and Joe, are differentiated.

For budgetary reasons, our narrator is limited in what she can teach to what’s available, so she chooses Malamud’s The fixer as a follow-up to Sozhenistsyn’s One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich which had not gone down well. She’s surprised, thinking they’d “enjoy the prisoner as hero”. Not this lot. After all, these are the people who had told her:

We can’t afford your romantic empathy … Please check your angst in at the cloakroom, before you see us.

Still, our narrator tries:

‘Kierkegaard suggested that we are all equally despairing, but unless we can write and become famous for our despair, it is not worth the trouble to despair and show it.

You people with a tragic world view, they sighed, you make like so difficult for the rest of us.

And so the story continues, with the narrator trying to understand their experience, and how they manage the brutality of prison life, while they fend off her desire to understand and “reform them with culture”. When she suggests reading Franz Fanon, they are not interested in “another tragic bloody humanist–because that would be the kind of invasion of our head space we can’t afford in here”. In other words, while she is concerned about their “moral survival”, eschewing the cynicism of her colleagues, their focus is pure survival.

She’s not the only one who started with “idealism and compassion”. Another is a guard, but he learns:

The institution could only operate in black and white, he said. Grey got it from both sides. Get out, he said, while you’re still human.

Inevitably, there is violence, and the job comes to an end.

I enjoyed the story, though my brief search of the internet suggests that it is not mentioned the way some others are from the collection. Anthology editor Michael Wilding, however, must have liked it, though he doesn’t mention it in his preface. There is a lot to think about here in terms of dislocations – the prisoners from their lives, for a start, and our narrator’s confrontation with ideal versus reality. Who is our narrator? Does she stand for liberal do-gooders that I can relate to from the 1970s and 80s. Why did she take this job, and is her closing answer completely honest?

On Hospital’s website is a link to an interview with literary editor, Steven Romei, in which she tells him that

All of my writing career is about how human beings negotiate dark matter. I am extremely interested in how people negotiate catastrophe, not because I’m morbidly interested in it but because I’m interested in the secret of resilience, that’s what I’m always exploring in the stories and the novels.

As for how this story fits into Bill’s conception of Gen 4 (see my first paragraph), I’m not sure. Hospital was an expatriate Australian writer when she wrote this, which places her at a remove from specific Australian movements, but – maybe – you could read it as occupying a transition between 196Os and 70s idealism and the cynical neoliberalism of the late 1980s. Then again, it could just be itself, and reflective of Hospital’s ongoing interest in “moral survival” and outsiderness, not to mention “dark matter”.

Janette Turner Hospital
“The inside story”
in The Oxford book of Australia short stories (ed. Michael Wilding)
Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994
Orig. pub. in Dislocations, 1987
pp. 288-294
ISBN: 9780195536102

Elizabeth Jolley, Hilda’s wedding (#Review, #1976Club )

One of Elizabeth Jolley’s biggest fans is Helen Garner, as I have said before. Garner often mentions Jolley, and my current read, the second volume of her diaries, One day I’ll remember this, is no exception. She writes:

Elizabeth Jolley’s new novel, My father’s moon [my review]. She re-uses and reworks images from her earlier work, brings forth experiences that she’s often hinted at but never fully expressed. I can learn from this. I used to think that if I said something once I could never say it again, but in her book I see how rich a simple thing can be when you turn it this way and that and show it again and again in different contexts.

This is not the only reason Garner admires Jolley, but the reasons are not my topic for today! I will add, though, because it is relevant to my topic, that another thing Garner appreciates about Jolley is that both draw closely from their own lives in their writing.

So now, “Hilda’s wedding”, which I read for the 1976 Club, hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book. It’s not the short story I had planned to read, but I couldn’t find that one – also a Jolley – in my collection or online. Fortunately, during my hunting, I found this one from the same year, and it exemplifies the two points I made at the beginning. Firstly, it features a character, Night Sister Bean, who appears in other Jolley works, including the first of hers I read, the short story “Night runner”. And, being a hospital-set story, it draws on (let’s not say “from”) her own experience of nursing.

“Hilda’s wedding” is a rather bizarre or absurd story – which, again, is not a surprise from Jolley. In it, the narrator, who is a relieving night nurse – so somewhat of an outsider – organises an on-the-spot wedding for the very pregnant, apparently unmarried, kitchen maid Hilda. The various roles – husband, celebrant, parents of the bride, pages – are played by night staff including the cook, cleaners and porters. The bride is dressed, with a veil made of surgical gauze and a draw sheet as her train (which contains a hint of the Gothic that we can also find in Jolley’s writing). Immediately after the ceremony, Hilda goes into labor and gives birth in the elevator.

What does it mean? I’m not sure, but this little story about an impromptu wedding sounds like children’s play-acting. It’s a game which uses imagination and creativity, which provides a sense of fun in a grim place, and which brings a little joy to Hilda, whose “melon-coloured face shone with a big smile”. Melons, as you may know, are often associated with pregnancy and fertility. However, injected into the story at various points is the real world, one characterised by rules and impersonality. There’s also the unresolved mystery about Sister Bean and rumours about her negative impact on transfusions/drips. Is she a witch, they wonder?

Sister Bean opens and closes the story, but otherwise appears only occasionally. There are various ways we could read her. One could be people’s need to find a reason or explanation or scapegoat for the bad things that happen in a world where you have little control. In the third last paragraph, our narrator comments on the early morning, and the city waking up:

A thin trickle of tired sad people left the hospital. They were relatives unknown and unthought about. They had spent an anonymous night in various corners of the hospital waiting to be called to a bedside. They were leaving in search of that life in the shabby world which has to go on in spite of the knowledge that someone who had been there for them was not there any more.

It is against this backdrop of sadness that our nurse narrator was there for Hilda. In the next and penultimate paragraph, the narrator is standing outside, taking “deep breaths of this cool air which seemed just now to contain nothing of the weariness and the contamination and the madness of suffering”.

In this story, as is typical of Jolley, there is humour alongside sadness, comedy next to tragedy, unreality bumping up against reality, and, appropriately, no resolution at the end.

In Central mischief – a collection of Jolley articles, talks and essays compiled by her agent Carolyn Lurie – is a talk Jolley gave to graduating nurses in 1987. Before I get to my concluding point from it, I’ll just share something else she says, which is that “for me fiction is not a form of autobiography”. This is an important distinction, which I think Garner would also make. Writers like Jolley and Garner may draw on their own experiences, but what they write is something else altogether.

But now, I want to conclude on this that she tells them:

There is a connection between nursing and writing. Both require a gaze which is searching and undisturbedly compassionate and yet detached.

What a clear-eyed view – and how hard to achieve. What do you think about this?

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Elizabeth Jolley
“Hilda’s wedding” (first pub. 1976, in Looselicks)
in Woman in a lampshade
Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1983
pp. 139-46
ISBN: 0140084185

Shirley Jackson, The lottery (#Review)

As a lover of short stories, I have wanted to read Shirley Jackson’s “The lottery” for some time. With Kate selecting it as October’s Six Degrees starting work, now seemed the perfect time!

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) pops up on blogosphere with some consistency, and is clearly well-regarded. Her career spanned two decades and, during that time, as the thorough Wikipedia article says, she wrote six novels, two memoirs, and more than 200 short stories. Her debut novel, The road through the wall, and “The lottery”, were both published in 1948, though she had had short stories published over the preceding decade.

It was “The lottery”, however, which established her reputation – particularly as a master of horror stories. Wikipedia says it resulted in over 300 letters from readers, many “outraged at its conjuring of a dark aspect of human nature”. In the San Francisco Chronicle of July 22, 1948, Jackson responded to persistent queries from her readers about her intentions:

“Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Many of you probably know the story, but, just in case, I’m not going to “spoil” it beyond that. I will, however, make a few comments.

I’ll start with Wikipedia’s succinct synopsis: it is about ‘a fictional small town which observes an annual rite known as “the lottery”, in which a member of the community is selected by chance’. It’s a great read, because the build-up is so good and the ending so powerful. If you were not forewarned, you’d have no idea you were reading a “horror” story, because there’s nothing Gothic about the setting, no eeriness, no overt build up of fear even. Instead, there’s the coming together of this village’s 300 people coming for this annual event. It’s summer, “the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green”. Idyllic, in other words, or, so we are set up to see it is (or, could be?)

The children are described, then the men and women. It all seems benign, though there are tiny hints of something else, that you may not notice if you’re not expecting it. The emcee of “the lottery” is the ironically named Mr. Summers, who has the “time and energy to devote to civic [my emph] duties”. Many of the names in the story sound normal, but they also carry symbolic weight – Graves, Adams, Delacroix (pointedly, as it turns out, perverted to Dellacroy by the townspeople).

Anyhow, there is a long discussion of the “black box” that is used for the lottery, but, although it is “black”, it sounds quaint and unimportant. No great care is taken of it between lotteries. There’s a bit of camaraderie and joking between the townspeople; there’s confirmation of the formalities; but, slowly tension builds. Mr Summers and the first man to draw from the black box, grin at each other “humorlessly and nervously”. We are now half way through the story, and there’s nervousness among the attendees.

Then, plopped in here, is a little discussion about some villages – because this is not just this village’s tradition – having given up, or talking of giving up, the lottery. However, Old Man Warner (another interesting name), who has been through 77 lotteries, doesn’t approve of change. He sees “nothing but trouble in that”. When you know the end, you wonder what sort of person he is! Certainly not the archetypal dear old man, grandpa to everyone! Meanwhile, anxiety slowly builds, with another townsperson saying to her son, “I wish they’d hurry”.

The “winner”, when identified, doesn’t behave like a winner, which provides another dark hint, but which causes our aforementioned Old Man Warner to pronounce that “people ain’t the way they used to be”.

The final line of the story is shocking, but by then you have worked out what winning means, so it adds an extra layer to the story’s meaning (as you’d expect in a good short story).

You can find in Wikipedia, and elsewhere on the web, all sorts of critical reactions and theories about what it means, but I’d like to return to Jackson’s comment that she intended a “graphic dramatisation of the pointless violence and general inhumanity“. Why do the townspeople accept “the lottery”? What makes some villages give up the ritual and others not? Why do some in this town act with relish and others not? It recalls, for me, Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap. Yes, it’s a novel and a very different story, but I saw it as being fundamentally about the violence that seems to be be lying too near the surface of our so-called civilised society. I’ll leave it at that, but it makes me think, plus ça change.

Image credit: Shirley Jackson, New York City. 1940s. Contact: photography@magnumphotos.com. Low resolution version from Wikipedia, used under Fair Use.

Shirley Jackson
“The lottery”
First published in The New Yorker, June 26, 1948

Avalailable online at The New Yorker.

Claudine Jacques, The Blue Cross/La Croix bleue (#Review, #WITmonth)

I haven’t taken part in Women in Translation month (#WITmonth) before but decided to dip my toes in this year with a translated short story. I hoped to find one online and I did, “The Blue Cross” (or, in its original French, “La Croix bleue”) by New Caledonian writer Claudine Jacques. Coincidentally, I found it was translated by Patricia Worth who now, apparently, lives in Canberra. She translated it as part of her Master of Translation Studies. It was published in The AALITRA* Review, with the English presented alongside the French.

I didn’t know Claudine Jacques, but Worth provides some information on her website. Jacques was born in Belfort, France, moving to New Caledonia as a sixteen-year-old with her parents. She’s lived there ever since. She ran a vocational training centre, before establishing a publishing company, but she now, says Worth,”devotes herself almost exclusively to writing”. She and other authors founded the Association des Écrivains de la Nouvelle-Calédonie (New Caledonian Society of Authors) in 1997.

Literary Bureau Trames adds that Jacques lives “in the bush”, and has run the local village library for 20 years. She also runs the Boulouparis comic strip festival, is involved in writing workshops for schoolchildren and in an initiative of the Association Écrire en Océanie (Writing in Oceania) which has identified talent in young Caledonians.

Worth says she finds Jacques’ writing “compelling” and is particularly interested in “the social problems laid out in her stories”. She “was surprised to find numerous similarities between the histories of Australia and New Caledonia”. Her favourite Jacques novel is Cœurs barbelés, which is about the “painful experiences of white Caledonians and the indigenous Kanak people trying to live harmoniously on an island”.

Worth has translated several of Jacques’ short stories, with three available online. “The Blue Cross” is the first I found. It comes from a collection, Le cri de l’acacia. Google translate summarised the description I found: “The cry of the acacia or all those cries that you can’t hear! Because they would be too strong, too present, too throbbing … hear the life that endures in banal tragedies or squeaky comedies, universal deep down in the intimate and the tiny, the grandiose and the derisory. All these crumpled fates are those of everyday heroes” who are the “valiant men and intrepid women with extraordinary courage … in the face of violence, alcohol, pornography and the addiction of their own lives”.

“The Blue Cross”** certainly fits this description. Its story is one of those universal, banal, domestic tragedies, one with alcohol at its centre, and a courageous woman who does the right thing. Jéhovana, the woman and wife at the centre of the story, is married to an alcoholic who is no longer fully employed due to his drinking. She has tried to maintain appearances:

She wasn’t used to making certain judgements and, out of decency, put them off. What would the neighbours and the family say, seeing her speaking and acting for him? Yet at the last family meeting it was to her that they spoke; she had given her opinion while stating plainly that it was for both of them and that she was doing it under her husband’s control, but it seemed to her that no one had been fooled.

She’s behaving as a widow would and wonders if she’d be better off if it were true

freed from all these constraints, this waiting, this shouting, these beatings, this fetid washing stinking of vomit and alcohol, and especially from the shame that she and her children bore! 

For his part, he is conflicted. She is no longer interested in him, “had banished him” from her bed.

Now and then he forced himself on her, he had the right, she was his wife, but he had less and less strength and his desire for her had softened with time. And then he didn’t like to see her sad preoccupied look; she was so happy at the beginning of their marriage but now would often cry. How could he continue to desire a woman who cries?

It all comes to a head at their son’s Communion celebration. She begged him to not drink, but, well, of course he’s an alcoholic and is unable to keep his promise. What happens next is not particularly surprising, but the resolution is, perhaps, though, then again, perhaps not. The story certainly conveys, without telling, the complexity of situations like this – particularly for women.

It’s hard to comment on the writing, given I’m reading a translation, but I enjoyed reading the story. It is told well, giving us just enough information for us to get a sense of the two main protagonists, and just enough description to set the scene for us. The most interesting thing about the choices the author has made is to name the woman, Jéhovana, but not the man. Does this suggest that he stands for all such men, while Jéhovana’s situation and decisions are individual? And Jéhovana’s name? I don’t know it, but it does bring to mind the God, Jehovah. Does this give us a hint regarding her character?

In all, an interesting story. I can see why Worth likes Jacques’ work.

Notes on the translation

Worth prefaces her transaction with some comments. She says that she left in the text “culture-specific expressions – from New Caledonian-French, Wallisian and Polynesian languages – whose meanings were clear, feeling this added “richness to the story in the way Jacques allowed them to enrich her French”. That makes sense. She includes a glossary, as Jacques did. In some cases, however, she expanded where a French expression has a specific cultural meaning in New Caledonia.

I can’t really comment on the quality of the translation, as my French isn’t up to that, but I did notice that Worth changed some of Jacques’ punctuation. For example, there’s one long sentence in French, with just commas separating the different parts, that Worth breaks into two sentences, and uses a semi-colon. It looks sensible to me, but I wonder if it says something about French style versus English style. Does anyone have any ideas on that?

* AALITRA: The Australian Association for Literary Translation.

** The Blue Cross: an international organisation “engaged in the prevention, treatment and after care of problems related to alcohol and other drugs”.

Claudine Jacques
“The Blue Cross” (“La Croix blue”) from Le cri de l’acacia (2007)
(trans. Patricia Worth)
in The AALITRA Review Vol. 0 No. 2 (2010)

Avalailable online at LaTrobe University’s Open Journal Systems site.

Emma Ashmere, Dreams they forgot (#BookReview)

Emma Ashmere’s short story collection, Dreams they forgot, is different again from recent short story collections I’ve read. Certainly very different from the most recent, Adam Thompson’s Born into this (my review). One of the things that makes it different is its breadth in terms of time and place. Thompson’s collection, for example, is mostly contemporary, with occasional forays into the past and a little jump into the future. It is also very definitely centred in Tasmania. Ashmere’s collection on the other hand, while having some grounding in South Australia, has stories set elsewhere in Australia as well as overseas, including London, France, Bali and even Borneo. Furthermore, a significant number of the stories are historical fiction, with some set in colonial Australia, or during the Depression, for example, or post war, or in the 1970s. This is quite unusual in my experience of short story collections.

Unusual I say, but not surprising, because Emma Ashmere’s debut book is an historical fiction novel, The floating garden (my review). It is one of those books that has stuck with me because it tells such a strong story of social injustices that occurred during the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I could, then, start my discussion with the story in this collection which concerns the Bridge during its construction (“The sketchers”), but instead I’m going to the final story, because it gave me a laugh. This story, “Fallout”, concerns the (not funny) nuclear testing at Maralinga and concludes with the narrator taking her mother to the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in Canberra to show her some relevant treasures. What a great little promo for the importance of collecting institutions like the NFSA. But, that’s not what made me laugh. As some of you know, I spent most of my career at the NFSA, and this is how our narrator introduces it:

I tell her I live with my girlfriend in Canberra and work at the Film and Sound Archive with a bunch of other failed actors, part-time poets and overlooked opera singers.

I wish I could count myself as one of those, but I’m far too prosaic. However, there is probably an element of truth in what she writes. All I can say is that at least the NFSA offers gainful, and valuable, employment! This story, dealing as it does with the “fallout” from nuclear testing – great wordplay here – makes a fitting and strong end to Ashmere’s collection, which deals with all sorts of fallouts in people’s lives.

Take the first story, for example. Titled “The winter months”, it concerns a young woman who, like many young people, is uncertain about what she wants to do with her life, much to her mother’s frustration. She’s in England, and is doing a TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) which, she believes, “is going to change everything. It will give me purpose. A goal. A life”. She meets and is attracted to a mysterious and seemingly confident young woman, Aveline, but, unbeknownst to our narrator, Aveline has her own challenges, and suddenly disappears.

“The winter months”, however, is more complex than I’ve described here. It introduces us to several types of characters and relationships which thread through the collection – uncertain young women, lepidopterists (would you believe), mothers-and-daughters, neglected wives, fledgling same-sex attractions, to name a few. The result is that, as the book progresses, some stories start to feel linked, even though in most cases the link isn’t actual. The effect though is to ground the collection because this feeling is supported by recurring concerns.

One of these is Ashmere’s concern for social justice, for overlooked people, for women in particular. “Nightfall” tells the story of a young Irishwoman who arrives in Adelaide during goldfields days:

Most of us here Behind the Wall sailed across the sea with our Billies, Jemmies or Toms. No sooner did they set their boots in the dust, they streaked off like a dog chasing a rabbit across a field, all glint and muscle and hunger and bragging about what they will become. I waited for my Billy to bring back rabbits and gold, but he didn’t come.

And so, girls like her were left behind:

It’s the same in every port for girls like us. You stand with the bones of your back pressed against the wall as sailors rope up their harpoons and aim them at your lower parts, or you go into a tavern for a drink.

She ends up working for an abortionist who is, of course, more concerned about not being caught than her health and safety … This story was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Other stories explore the impact on relationships of PTSD in times when there was no support or recognition (“Warhead” and “Seaworthiness”), and another, as already mentioned, looks at the aftermath of nuclear testing at Maralinga. Many of the more contemporary stories feature children and young adults who find themselves caught in worlds they don’t fully understand or don’t yet know how to handle. “The violin” is a carefully told story about a controlling young man and his bride-to-be.

There is a melancholic or, at least resigned, tone to many of the stories, but most are not completely depressing. While happy endings might be rare, little wins or rebellions or, in some cases, lovely acts of grace lighten the endings. As with most collections, there are stories that didn’t quite work for me, but those that did more than made up for the rest. I particularly loved “Seaworthiness” and “The violin”, but most read well.

This brings me to the title, which is not one of the stories in the collection. What does it mean? It’s certainly true that many of the characters had dreams, and it’s also true that in most cases these dreams do not come to fruition. Did they forget them? Not always, but, for better or worse, other dreams – or, at least events – replace them.

If you’d like a taste of Ashmere’s writing, you can read one of the stories, “Standing up lying down”, online at Overland. I’ll finish with a quote from it:

Apparently she’d heard Laurie’s conference paper on the omissions and silences in Australian history, how particular stories are concreted over, while others are constructed and celebrated in their place.

In Dreams they forgot, Ashmere retrieves some of these concreted over stories – those she feels able to, anyhow – and gives them a darned good airing.

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Emma Ashmere
Dreams they forgot
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2020
239pp.
ISBN: 9781743057063

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)