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Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
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* One exception: short stories.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Gift from Ontario

Alice Munro of Canada (above) won the 2013 Nobel Lit Prize for her short stories. I'm reading her now and thinking about Joe.

Latterly Joe and I argued - technically - about the nature of short stories. I tried to deconstruct the art, Joe wouldn’t. Both of us trying to write the little buggers. Then, right at the end, Joe took time off from dying to compliment one of my attempts.

I haven’t forgotten that. The dialogue, much diminished, continues in my mind. Reading Alice Munro has led to an interim conclusion about what constitutes a good short story.

It must be rich in ideas. Not necessarily the big sort (morality, intellect, gender) though these are permissible; the quintessence of experience yet, somehow, distant from humdrum. For Munro finds rarity in day-to-day stuff; we recognise it when it's emphasised; but none of us is as good as observing it as she is.

"The word 'Manor' doesn't mean anything at all anymore, does it?" said Meriel. "It doesn't even mean there's an upstairs. It just means that you're supposed to think that a place is something it doesn't even pretend to be."

On human behaviour: (The dinner napkins) were set in overlapping rows so that the corners of each napkin... overlapped the folded corner of its neighbour. Nobody had disturbed them, or if they had... they had picked up napkins from the end of the row in a careful way and this order had been maintained.

On locations: Up Capilano road, into their own part of the city and their own corner of the world, where their lives took on true weight and their actions took on consequences.

Short stories aren’t my favourite medium but with Munro I now make an exception. Joe, well ahead, was a registered Munro fan.

2 comments:

Lucy said...

It's easy to overlook these short forms of writing, isn't it: short stories, essays, sketches, seeing them as sort of divertimenti or pot-boilers. They aren't my favourite either but maybe worth reviewing that, perhaps they're suited to a stage of life where concentration, detail, ideas matter more than narrative. I was looking again at an old favourites, Jan Struther's Mrs Miniver, which while a bit dated and not exactly edgy, is much more than the twee and charming bit of propaganda cinema it was made into. Lots of fine sharp focussing on the detail, as a source of ideas and reflection and placing oneself in the world; there's a good chapter on a visit to the dentist, and another on having to wait ten minutes in a room with an old khelim rug on the floor.

I'll certainly look our for Alice Munro.

Roderick Robinson said...

Lucy: I'd hate anyone to think I was pushing them into Alice Munro. Not that you are, of course, but I felt I had to read an English-language Nobel laureate who had won the prize by eschewing the sensational. It has been an article of faith with me to set my fiction (short stories and novels) in "normal" environments and that seemed to fit what critics said about Munro. To what I've already said let me add: she favours length and uses it accordingly, virtually all her characters are fully worked out, she's not afraid of long time-spans, she uses Canada as a practical element - persuasively and unsentimentally. The first story of hers I read was called Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship which fully deserved its title. It was over 6000 words and I was drawn in by its study of human doggedness.

I haven't read Mrs Miniver but I note it was written in 1939 and, because the war inhibited book publishing. I read a lot of books dating back to then. I wonder if the novel has anything in common with Dodie Smith whose novels (and plays) had a sort of meatiness and easy narrative drive which appealed to me in my mid-teens.

In fact the above named short story is also the title of a collection of seven or eight stories. It proved to be an excellent starting point for me; bought second-hand from ABE Books it might well prove a more or less risk-free entry point.