Let us say there are two quite contrary positions on the short story. We have Edgar Allan Poe's belief in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales that "in the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design." A short story should be a lean and hungry thing, with no room for waste, and far removed from the "baggy monsters" Henry James believed many nineteenth century novels to be. Yet we also have international fiction's interest in the dissolution of form and the presence of the writer's voice. In Kafka's work, in Robert Walser's short stories, in Borges's essay/fictions, the story is no longer the product that can easily be consumed by a reader in an hour, as Poe hoped, but instead an object of existential enquiry, to use Milan Kundera's phrase in The Art of the Novel. Kundera might be talking generally of the novel form, but what he expects of fiction could equally apply to the shorter works of many writers. Our interest in examining short, post-war fiction from writers in The International Book of Short Stories is to acknowledge the reality that many stories have been written with a clear view of working in the commercial market, and to accept there are certain conventions often expected of the form, but chiefly to see the story as an inquiry into being. As Kundera says of the novelist that he or she "makes no great issue of his ideas. He is an explorer feeling his way in an effort to reveal some unknown aspect of existence" (The Art of the Novel), so we might claim this is true of the short story writer also.
Now a fine example of a pre-WWII writer who was thoroughly aware of the short story market and no less aware of exploring the range of human behaviour, was F. Scott Fitzgerald, and reading through the two volumes of The Price Was High we can see the tension between these positions. As Matthew J. Bruccoli says in his introduction, "The stories in The Price Was High were written for money. They brought F. Scott Fitzgerald $106,585 from the mass-circulation magazines...Fitzgerald lived off his stories. His intention was to write stories only to finance his novels." He was in the position in the 1920s that Poe wished to have been in during the 1840s. However, throughout even these more commercial Fitzgerald pieces while there is the monetary demand there is nevertheless often the aesthetic result. Fitzgerald dismissed 'Two for a Cent' claiming he wasn't very fond of the story, but it is a fine, much anthologized tale of happenstance, with the writer seeing only the O. Henry style twist, but the reader aware of the artistic shaping of mood and atmosphere, as Fitzgerald uses the dusk at the end of the story to visualize the indistinctness between the two men that chance had made very distinct indeed: one man years before lost a penny that half ruined his life; another man found it and it changed his. When John O'Hara claimed to John Steinbeck "Fitzgerald was a better just plain writer than all of us put together. Just words writing" (Selected Letters of John O'Hara), it is a statement of high praise, but it is perhaps a comment one can make of many a significant writer where the work might be obvious but the sensibility isn't. In a story like 'Two for a Cent', Fitzgerald's 'voice' comes through. His nuanced look at the world and his fascination with time and the irretrievability of an event are apparent in this story he may feel he knocked off, but that we believe is another important addition to a masterful oeuvre. Even if a writer works for money, if they possess a certain sensibility, if they happen to be explorers feeling their way in an "effort to reveal some unknown aspect of existence", then the work will align itself with the artistically new rather than the commercially safe.
On occasion we might feel that a writer's shorter works are more intriguing than their longer ones, or that the work, whether story, essay or novel, is all of a piece. Ian McEwan is a good example of a short story writer who explores new areas of subjectivity, but as a novelist often falls into the patterns of narrative convention, while Kundera's novels and short stories, on the other hand, are not always easy to distinguish because his exploratory approach collapses the givens of form. If a book isn't held together by consistency of its narrative, can it claim to pass for a novel at all? In an interview with Kundera in The Art of the Novel, the interviewer says, "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is made up of seven parts. If you had treated them less elliptically you could have written seven separate full-length novels." Yet Kundera echoes none other than Poe in his reply, but draws an analogy with music and the composer Janacek: "harsh juxtapositions instead of transitions, repetition instead of variation, and always head straight for the heart of things: only the note that says something essential has the right to exist." Kundera feels that for him the same idea should apply to the novel. "it is too weighed down by technique", by the conventions that do the author's work for him: "present a character, describe a milieu, bring the action into a historical situation, fill time in the characters' lives with superfluous episodes; each shift of scene calls for new exposition." However, while Poe seeks the essential for narrative ends, Kundera seeks it for the purposes of existential enquiry: what contributes to the exploration of being in fiction form. If one admires McEwan's early work it resides in this sense of reckless brevity, this capacity to capture the essence and leave out much that passes for the technique of the novel. McEwan may once have interviewed Kundera at length about the latter's work, in Granta magazine, but novels like Atonement, Saturday, Enduring Love and Amsterdam read like they're reversing Kundera's dictum: they are anecdotes inflated, held together by the very technical elements Kundera dismisses. Amsterdam plays like a thriller; Saturday an intruder in the house genre work, Enduring Love a stalker drama, while Atonement relies on some plot contrivances and ellipses that puff it up to more than four hundred pages.
However, if we've claimed that Fitzgerald managed to find his voice in work that seemed to him predictable (the O. Henry twist) aren't we contradicting ourselves if we also insist that McEwan loses his voice by adopting these conventions through longer form? Can his sensibility not impose itself on material that possesses contrivances in the extended works? This is not an easy contradiction to unpick, but if Enduring Love had been contracted into a short story, covering the early stages where the man falls from the balloon, this would have been a marvellous exploration of a human's physiological fragility, while if 'First Love, Last Rites' had been expanded to the length of a novel, it could have lost the intensity of impression that McEwan restricts to one hot summer. When Kundera says the novelist "is fascinated not by his voice but by a form he is seeking, and only those forms that meet the demands of his dream become part of his work", we can see this is true perhaps more of smaller talents than larger ones, but more especially that certain types of talent can apply their gifts chiefly in certain forms. Joyce is a masterful novelist and short story writer, but who would put his poetry and his play Exiles alongside 'The Dead' and Portrait of the Artist...? Chekhov excelled in the short story and as a playwright, but would he have been a great novelist? Raymond Carver also wrote poetry, but will surely be remembered for his short stories. As John Updike says In Due Considerations of William Trevor: "his breadth of empathy, his deeply humane ruefulness, and his patient love for the sound of demotic English in all its inflections of class and geography give his short stories the timbre of novels. At novel length, however, his gifts of concision and implication produce a certain feeling of disjointedness and overload." A so-called large talent will often leave a trace of brilliance even in a story that he or she might feel they dashed off, while maybe a smaller one when given the opportunity to work more ambitiously starts to show signs of creative weakness rather than strength. This doesn't necessarily mean that writers who never wrote novels (Carver, Borges, Chekhov) were not major writers, but they are undeniably great writers of the short form, and McEwan, if he had devoted himself to it, might have joined them. He has of course become a very famous and successful novelist, but that is not the same as becoming a fully achieved one.
Obviously we are throwing around a few too many empty superlatives here, talking of genius and talent, fully-achieved, and great, but if we can ground them in analysis perhaps we can justify their usage. When Kundera, following Jean-Paul Sartre, distinguishes between prose writers and novelists, he puts Rousseau, Goethe, Chateaubriand, Gide, Malraux, Camus and Montherlant in the former category, and Fielding, Sterne, Flaubert, Proust, Faulkner, Celine and Calvino in the latter. We might not quite agree with Kundera's categories, but we can usefully work provisionally with the distinction, and in doing so disagree further with Kundera when he talks of Kafka and says he refuses "to put the Letters to Felice on the same level as The Castle". (The Art of the Novel) Yet because of Kafka's sensibility, it seems that the letters as well as The Castle reveal some unknown aspect of existence as Deleuze and Guattari define it in What is Philosophy?, invoking D. H. Lawrence. "In a violently poetic text, Lawrence describes what produces poetry: people are constantly putting up an umbrella that shelters them and on the underside of which they draw a firmament and write their conventions and opinions. But poets, artists, make a slit in the umbrella, they tear open the firmament itself, to let in a bit of free and windy chaos and to frame in a sudden light a vision that appears through the rent - Wordsworth's spring or Cezanne's apple, the silhouettes of Macbeth or Ahab." In this sense, the letters as well as The Castle make a slit. Kafka's letter from 1 November 1912 where he discusses that his "mode of life is devised solely for writing", is a fine example of, as Kafka says in the short story, The Burrow, "a mind revelling in its own keenness".
McEwan's stories also make a slit, but the novels are often closer to the passage that immediately follows in What is Philosophy?: "then come the crowd of imitators who repair the umbrella with something vaguely resembling the vision, and the crowd of commentators who patch over the rent with opinions: communication." McEwan's novels feel like part of that repair rather than renting, with the conventions of the novel form imposing themselves on the savagery of the early passages. This is the case not only in Enduring Love, but also A Child in Time, with McEwan horrifyingly utilizing the most banal of spaces (a supermarket) where a child then goes missing. Yet McEwan takes the horrific and domesticates it, as Adam Mars-Jones notes in relation to sexuality when writing on McEwan's novel. "In his early stories the only rule about sex seemed to be that it should not take place, with marital commitment and reproductive intent...now that desire has been so completely mortgaged to the creation of new life." (Blind Bitter Happiness) The longer form McEwan adopts here doesn't expand the slit, it starts to stitch up the wound it has opened and ends as a narrative of pain and loss regained: the couple have another child, and the book concludes on its birth.
Thus while the form the work takes is of immense importance, this isn't only because of technical issues concerning a writer's ability to handle the novel's demands. It is also what allows for the maximum amount of ontological content, the maximum exploration of being that removes the all too easy modes of communication. If in the short story the writer manages to expand these possibilities but closes them down in the longer form, then it is to the stories that we look for originality and distinction. This is why we see McEwan, for example, as a more interesting short story writer than novelist. The reckless brevity (a term used by Stephen Wall in a review of The Art of the Novel in the London Review of Books) lies in the writer's capacity to use the form as Poe proposes, but for the purposes Kundera suggests. From this perspective, it might be useful to look at a few of the writers in the collection, and see how they generate reckless brevity in the short story form.
Doris Lessing's The Habit of Loving succinctly explores the life of a man who got used to the habit of being loved, but hasn't so successfully managed to get in to the habit of loving back. At the start of the story George writes to his lover Myra in Australia that now the war is over she should return to the UK and marry him. She writes back that she doesn't want to, and this man who has casually and perhaps carelessly ruined the lives of women whom he hasn't been in the habit of loving, now, finally, at sixty, discovers what heartache is. "George came to understand that the word 'heartache' meant that a person could carry a heart that ached around with him day and night for, in his case, months." As Lessing covers this ageing man's crisis through the collapse of his hopes with Myra, and his relative recovery within a still deeper collapse with the young woman Bobby, so he becomes weak and infatuated. "He had been returned to his adolescence. The accidental touch of her hand delighted him; the swing of her skirt could make him shut his eyes with happiness." Lessing ranges over a few years in the space of a twenty page story and offers, as with her equally fine To Room Nineteen, nothing if not an existential enquiry within the short story format. Both stories have not only a reckless brevity but a brutal brevity: they are succinct accounts of a certain type of loneliness in each instance. In The Habit of Loving it is towards being with another because the character cannot cope with his own solitude; in To Room Nineteen, central character Susan retreats ever further into her loneliness as she spends more and more time in the room of the title that she rents, rather than in the family home.
If we've proposed that the novel conventions can intrude on the brutality of the work, that it can lead to the delivering of narrative demands over perceptual distinction, as the mechanics of the form take over, then what we might ask is demanded of the story to give it the combination of Kundera's existential enquiry and Deleuze and Guattari's notion of the slit in the umbrella? Perhaps Borges' semi-facetious remark quoted in the introduction to Labyrinths is useful: "why take five hundred pages to develop an idea whose oral demonstration fits into a few minutes?" The comment is a little like the interviewer in The Art of the Novel's remark about treating The Book of Laughter and Forgetting less elliptically would have led to seven separate full length novels. Kundera's ambitious, even vain-glorious answer is that "If I had written seven separate novels, I'd have no hope of encompassing the complexity of existence in the modern world" in one single book. This is why I see the art of ellipsis as crucial. It insists that we go directly to the heart of things." If ellipsis is so important, we can see why the short story form needn't negate the existential enquiry but can instead even intensify it. Both of Lessing's stories have an abruptness of expression that borders on the impolite: a little like someone who tells you more than you might feel you are entitled to know on a first meeting. If the novel can seem like a long-term friendship where you've earned the right to the intimate details of someone's life, the story as enquiry can seem like psychological bulemia. Yet this is part of its force. Lessing's stories do sometimes say in five pages what another writer might say in five hundred.
Kundera's own short stories are less abrupt but even more ranging on occasion. Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead covers fifteen years in the lives of its two characters as a man in his mid-thirties meets a woman now fifty whom he knew when he was twenty. She returns to the small town in which he lives, and they embark on an assignation where the now slightly balding man "doesn't have the slightest doubt that this would actually end in disgust", and where she knew "when she undressed she would expose the wrinkles in her neck, the long scar from a stomach operation ten years before and her grey hair". It is less a sexual assignation than an assignment with the subtle awareness of death, and Kundera moves between the present and the characters' thoughts on the past to open up the story and make it an enquiry into time passing. If each of the seven sections of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting could have been a novel, then so the story, Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead could have been a novel also. Instead Kundera cuts to the most salient aspects as he moves from character to character, from mini-chapter to mini-chapter. There is mini-chapter one in a third person limited perspective concentrating on the man; mini-chapter two on the woman, three on the man, four on the woman and so on, with each character given seven chapters each from their own, albeit third person, point of view. These could have been expanded into book form chapters, with Kundera exploring in more detail the backgrounds of the characters' lives, but the details are only interesting for Kundera if they can reveal existential content.
As Kundera says in The Art of the Novel, referring to history, "of the historical circumstances, I keep only those that create a revelatory existential situation for my characters." He could have filled in the historical background that the characters pass through during those fifteen years, but if it doesn't contribute specifically to the immediate dilemma, then it is needless filler. When asked in the same interview how he creates a character, he insists it is as much based on finding an existential code as in laying out a character's social situation and biographical past. As he says of Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, "Vertigo is one of the keys to understanding Tereza." "Tereza lives with Tomas, but her love requires a mobilization of all her strength, and suddenly she can't go on....she is overcome by vertigo...Vertigo is the intoxication of the weak. Aware of his weakness, a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it. He is drunk with weakness, wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down." Kundera insists "Vertigo...is not the key to understanding you or me...I had to invent Tereza, an "experimental self", to understand that possibility to understand vertigo." It is an idea that allows for the possibility of reckless fictional brevity, but this isn't the same as creating novels or stories of ideas. "My disgust for those who reduce a work to its ideas", Kundera says elsewhere in The Art of the Novel, while in the interview he says that we do not find Dostoyevsky's best ideas in Diary of a Writer. "He is a great thinker only as a novelist. Which is to say that in his characters he is able to create intellectual universes that are extraordinary rich and original."
We find this often in great writers, where their capacity to generate thought comes chiefly through their fiction. What is Art? is a book of far less subtlety than War and Peace and Anna Karenina. When Tolstoy says in the former that "decadents and aesthetes like Oscar Wilde choose as the theme of their works the denial of morality and the praise of depravity", that doesn't mean Tolstoy's fiction will simply reverse that process. There is much pessimism and even depravity in Tolstoy's novels, and characters denying in some instances, and conforming in others, to a clearly moral universe. What a writer will sometimes accept in essayistic terms they would insist in complicating when it comes to their art.
Yet of course there are many writers whose work in non-fictional form is interesting in the same way as their fiction, and we can recall the Sartrean distinction between writers of prose and novelists, and our own example of Kafka. A very good writer whose fiction and extra-curricular work is closely linked, and where the latter doesn't appear inferior to the former, is Cesare Pavese. A story like Suicides is not too dissimilar to the thoughts and feelings evident in his diaries, This Business of Living. Here is a passage from Suicides: "It must be clear we only made love out of boredom, lust, for any reason except the only one she tried to delude herself existed. It irritated me to recall her serene, blissful look after love-making. It made me furious to see it on her face, while the only woman from whom I wanted it had never given it to me." And here is a passage from his diaries: "After taking accurately into account the various knocks I have had, all my periods of fury and lassitude and lying fallow, it remains clear that I no longer feel life as a discovery (and consequently poetry that much less), but rather as a cold material for speculation and analysis, as a matter of duties." (13 Sept., 1936) The diary entries cover the period from 1935 to 1950 before Pavese took his own life, and the fiction and non-fiction feed into each other, with the diaries augmenting not just personally but also theoretically the fictional work. If Lessing had only written fiction, the work wouldn't at all be diminished; with Pavese the diaries add to the texture and comprehension of a body of work that is introspective and often hovers over the question of breakdown and suicide, emotional weakness and the psychological damage that comes from uneven power relations in love. "How I hurt Cilia!" the narrator says in Wedding Trip. "Even now, when I think of her in bed as dawn is breaking, I am filled with a desolate remorse for the way I treated her. Yet I couldn't help it! I always did everything like a fool, a man in a dream, and I did not realise the sort of man I was until the end, when even remorse was useless."
The capacity for profound brevity in Pavese's short fiction comes from the existential question that is nevertheless often the antithesis of the experimental self in Kundera's work. When the Czech writer says Tereza's code would not be useful for understanding himself or the interviewer, in many of Pavese's stories the experiment with self is closer to a confession of self: a self only moderately removed from Pavese's general preoccupations evident in This Business of Living. This isn't to reduce Pavese to an autobiographical writer, but it does indicate he is a figure preoccupied by a small number of questions concerning self-preservation and self-destruction. While some might see narrowness of approach, others will see the immediacy of expression; that there is no need for wasteful exposition when the writer knows exactly what fascinates them.
With Pavese the preoccupation concerns the self; with Tadeusz Borowski, another suicide, the subject he couldn't leave alone was the Holocaust. A Ukranian born Pole who was imprisoned in Auschwitz and Dachau between 1943 and 1945, the stories in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, have been described by Jan Kott in the introduction as a work that "among the tens and thousands of pages written about the Holocaust and the death camps, Borowski's slender book continues to occupy, for more than a quarter century now, a place apart." Its pertinence rests on its impertinence, on Borowski's insistent need to offer the most brutally effective image to the detriment of protecting sensibilities. One character, an "old, melancholy, silver-haired Jew," says in 'A Day at Harmenz', "Real hunger is when one man regards another man as something to eat." In 'This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen', the narrator says "several other men are carrying a small girl with only one leg. They hold her by the arms and the one leg. Tears are running down her face and she whispers faintly: "Sir, it hurts, it hurts..." They throw her on the truck on top of the corpses. She will burn alive along with them." This is writing not so much pared to the bone, as flesh-flaying, with Borowski utilising language that is capable of touching the rawest of nerves. Borowski finds the language to depict the camps by knowing that there is no subject above metaphor and simile, and he would seem to counter the idea that the camps shouldn't be depicted at all, or only in the plainest of language. As the writer says, quoted in the introduction to This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, the collection is "a voyage to the limit of a particular experience" and believed metaphor and simile needed to be part of that voyage. "Monstrously squeezed together, they have fainted from heat, suffocated, crushed one another. Now they push towards the open doors, breathing like fish cast out on the sand." "The sun hangs directly over our heads, the white hot sky quivers, the air vibrates, an occasional breeze feels like a sizzling blast from a furnace." "His huge hand chokes her, he lifts her in the air and heaves her on the truck like a heavy sack of grain." These are just three similes from 'This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen'. The language is insouciant in the face of catastrophe, but that is because Borowki wants to capture the appalling as the banal. This is an inversion of Hannah Arendt's banality of evil, in Eichmann in Jerusalem where Eichmann is the figure of bureaucratic efficiency from the side of power; Borowski explores it from the side of weakness. It remains banal, but that is because the terrors were so numerous that they no longer possessed a sense of shock.
If Borowski was obsessed with the Holocaust, Heinrich Boll is viewed as the writer of German denial and rehabilitation, a novelist whose work has been compared to Hemingway's, but who strenuously denies any connection with what he sees as the heroism of the American writer's work, and accepts only the similarities in language. When he says in the Paris Review that he often has writer's block he links it to the state of the world. "It has to do with the situation on earth", before adding that he nevertheless possesses the optimism of the survivor: "the feeling of having survived is very often horrible when you realize how many didn't. I'm still whole, still here - that is one of my driving forces, the feeling of having survived." Refusing to join the Hitler Youth in the thirties, he was conscripted and fought in various countries including France and the Soviet Union, and was wounded four times. This is the writer with something to say out of the circumstances of history, and much of Boll's fiction has been interested in the immediate aftermath of WWII and his work (like The Silent Angel) has been called trummerliteratur; rubble literature. But he has also covered the dubious economic miracle that came out of the rubble (Billiards at Half Past Nine), and the terrorist activities of the late sixties and seventies (The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum).
Boll is an engaged writer in another of Sartre's formulations, when the philosopher says in Literature and Existentialism: "it is a matter of knowing what one wants to write about, whether butterflies, or the condition of the Jews. And when one knows, then it remains to decide how one will write about it. Often the two choices are only one, but among good writers the second choice never precedes the first." In this sense, Boll was a good writer. In 'Action Must Be Taken' he acerbically explores the post-war problem where authority doesn't come from above but from within. This is a variation of Michel Foucault's exploration in Discipline and Punish where he talks about the vivid punishments evident in a more primitive culture where people will be executed in horrible, public ways and thus serve as a warning to others, and contrasts it with the sense of order which demands the individual acknowledges his crimes and internalises the criminal system. "From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights." If the image Foucault opens with exemplifies primitive punishment as a man has his flesh torn off and his body drawn and quartered, then Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon is more psychological. What Bentham proposed was a prison system where the tower would allow for all the prisoners to be seen by those in it, but none of the prisoner would be able to see those in the tower. Indeed there needn't even be anybody in the tower at all: what mattered was that the prisoners felt as though they were being watched constantly. As Foucault says: "The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen."
If Nazism for all its interest in modernity, nevertheless practised punishments as primitive as those detailed at the beginning of Foucault's book, then Boll explores in 'Action Must be Taken' a post-war Germany where guilt is internalised and manifests itself as a self-flagellating work ethic. Here everyone feels they are being observed by someone else to see how much they are contributing to post-war German progress. When the narrator is forced to look for a work he applies for a job at a factory. "The exterior of the factory was enough to arouse my suspicions: the factory was built entirely of glass brick, and my aversion to well-lit buildings and well-lit rooms is as strong as my aversion to work." It is a building designed so that everyone feels watched, with the narrator later adding: "The room appeared to be empty, and yet I was so sure of being observed that I behaved as someone pregnant with action behaves when he believed himself unobserved." This isn't the worker or prisoner constantly being told what to do and suffering the wrath of superiors if he doesn't do it, but instead the worker absorbing the expectations of the company as a thought within his own head. In such an environment no one is going to be beaten to death, but they just might work themselves into an early grave instead. This is exactly what happens to factory owner Alfred Wunsiedel, a man for whom "the most trivial activity looked like action: the way he put on his hat the way - quivering with energy - he buttoned up his overcoat, the kiss he gave his wife, everything was action." All Wunsiedel's strenuous activity leads to him collapsing one day at work and falling down dead. This is discipline and punishment as a form of suicide. When the narrator talks of Wunsiedel's right-hand man, Broschek, he notes the latter "made a name for himself by supporting seven children and a paralysed wife by working night-shifts in his student days, and successfully carrying on four business agencies..." Boll's story is recklessly brief at five pages, but densely capable of commenting on post-war German guilt and reparation. In 'Business is Business' the post-war rebuild isn't always about feelings of culpability; it can be about opportunism too. Boll describes a black marketeer as someone who "seemed to be doing all right now." "He looked the picture of health. His cheeks had that firmness that comes only from a regular intake of fats, his expression was self-confident, and I watched him bawl out a grubby little girl and send her packing because she was short of five pfenigs for an all-day sucker. And all the time he kept feeling around in his mouth with his tongue as if he were forever trying to pry shreds of meat from between his teeth." The marketeer got off metaphorically at the right stop, where the war veteran narrator, like many others, "stayed on the streetcar and waited to see if somewhere there would be a stop that seemed familiar enough for us to risk getting off: it never came. Some people went on a bit farther, but they jumped off somewhere too, trying to look as if they reached their destination." Germany might have lost the war, but there were winners and losers even amongst the defeated.
In both Borowski and Boll's stories, the stories feel brief in relation to the weight of their content: they aren't narrative diversions; more existential road blocks demanding the reader pause for a moment to look at the historical scenery and the devastation to self and other. The brevity or relative brevity of some of these stories contribute to their very meaning. They aren't tales quickly told, but instead boldly quickened. Another writer in The International Book of Short Stories, Italo Calvino, has written about this in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. In memo two, 'Quickness', he says of folk tales "everything has a necessary function in the plot. The very first characteristic of a folk tale is economy of expression. The most outlandish adventures are recounted with an eye fixed on the bare essentials." Poe's brilliance rests in respecting the tale while at the same time suggesting modern fears and anxieties. Many a modern writer foregoes the tale focused on the bare essentials of story, for an exploration of thematic point enveloped in questions of history, politics, identity, the problem of meaning, the crisis of consciousness. Part of the recklessness of the modern writer is the decision not only to tell a well-told story, but to contain within it some unknown aspect of existence. Borges was for Calvino a master of this ability to reveal within the briefest of texts. "What I particularly wish to stress is how Borges achieves his approaches to the infinite without the least congestion, in the most crystalline, sober and airy style." More than any modern writer, Calvino believes Borges has conquered the problem of largeness of theme and brevity of composition. Yet in various ways it is what many modern writers have sought out, including Calvino, who has shown interest both in the tale in its many manifestations, but also the story of small incident expanded by the immediacies of consciousness.
Calvino uses the term inessential melancholies in a passage from Invisible Cities, but it captures well the small-scale explorations of feeling evident in the stories in Difficult Loves. In 'The Adventure of a Traveller' there isn't the event but its anticipation as the central character waits to meet his beloved in Rome, travelling by train to the capital from a north Italian city. The story is an exemplification of the homily that it isn't the destination but the journey that counts, but given a modern twist as Federico V. flickers in and out of personal reflection while making his journey as comfortable as possible. Where Odysseus takes ten years to return home to his wife Penelope after the Trojan Wars, Federico's journey is rather less eventful, but it does give Calvino the time and space to individuate Federico's character. Event contracts into sensibility as he finds on the journey "the perfect balance between interior stimulus and the impassive neutrality of material things." If we've proposed many a modern short story expands the theme to take on the Holocaust, the aftermath of WWII, and the suicidal, other writers like Calvino shrink it as if trying to put consciousness under a microscope. This is what often interests Pavese, Lessing and Kundera also. It is the search for the smallest of perceptions in sometimes the most intimate and subjective of experiences. It is the inverse of Boll and Borowski, but no less determined to reveal an unknown aspect, to put a hole in the umbrella, and while we have of course invoked Wall's wonderful term reckless brevity, we can put alongside it Calvino's personal motto from the latin Festina lente, "hurry slowly". The modern short story can be recklessly brief or in a slow hurry, but it is often more concerned with the existential enquiry in its myriad forms than the tale simply and well told.
© Tony McKibbin