Short Stories, STAT!
Being a judge for the Best Translated Book Award is one of the pleasures I have had the opportunity to participate in for the past few years. Not only because I am able to read the incredibly diverse and creative works submitted and the efforts of translators to bring to justice the works of those writers, but also because of the robust, if not often contentious, discussion that they incite. What are the personal aesthetic criteria of each judge? What do we consider “lit-er-ah-ture?” Are we representing too much of one culture? Not considering enough minority viewpoints? These questions, along with the personal literary peccadilloes that each judge wants to champion, are thrown into the pot and stirred until its narrowed down to the top 25 titles.
One of my peccadilloes happens to be short story collections. It’s been said (I should cite a source, but I am protecting the guilty) that short story collections have a difficult time being considered as the top contender for the Best Translated Book Award because the collections are not strong enough overall to go up against the considerable strength of a novel. I have no definitive answer to this besides the fact that I really enjoy short stories and the thought and creativity that goes into a producing a cohesive collection. Collections are not “just a bunch of disparate stories thrown together.” They are often constructed like a puzzle and the reader can’t see the whole picture until the the last story of the collection is read.
Despite the constant incantation that “short story collections don’t sell” humming softly in the background of our literary culture, writers keep writing them, readers keep reading them and publishers keep publishing them. Also, let’s not forget the hundreds of literary journals that are dedicated to showcasing the best short fiction of our time. Even with that, and as I sit bedside in ICU to witness the alleged last gasp of the dying “short story collection,” let me present a few collections from our submissions this year that have managed to thrive despite their mortality rate.
Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Toko Ogawa, Translated by Stephen Snyder, Picador
This collection is a slow burn. After reading the first story, I didn’t think it was that dark. By the end of the collection, I was thoroughly creeped out by the lingering effect of borderline personalities that pop up suddenly to rock the calm boat of Ogawa’s deceptively plain and steady prose. In short, direct sentences, Ogawa describes the setting, perhaps some minor characters, and then delivers a macabre jab to the reader that sets the eerie tale rolling. The connections are bizarre; there is a hospital secretary who kills living in the apartment above a woman who moves into the Museum of Torture, the scamming butler that curates the collection begun by the dead twin sisters he worked for, and I can’t leave out the strawberry shortcake. I will never look at kiwi and strawberry shortcake quite the same again. Yes, this collection, by the time you finish it, will haunt with it’s detached tone and voice telling of a murdering old woman and a man who makes a bag for a heart. It’s as if this collection has Asperger’s Syndrome – no emotion, just the quotidian, lurid facts. Enjoy!
Milk and Other Stories by Simon Fruelund, Translated by K. E. Semmel, Santa Fe Writers Project
Fruelund takes the functionality of an Egg chair and the irony of Kierkegaard to weave a collection of stories that linger and make us question those small moments, seemingly small decisions, that effect us more than we think they will. Fruelund is as dark as Okawa, but in a much more emotional and existential way. His stories are brief, a few pages at most, but taut with the importance of those seminal moments that sneak up on us. Memory, mistakes, and betrayal play integral parts in this collection and it is certain to spur on a bit of self-reflection. A man having a an affair comes to terms when he takes his lover to a farmhouse he visited as a child in “Fling,” a teacher/mentor dismisses and rejects a former student and his poetry in “Unsettled,” and the brutal honesty of a cheating husband in “Hair” all portray the pain of betrayal for the victims as wells as the perpetrator. The story of betrayal I found the most poignant, “Chairs,” tells the story of a widow whose recently lost her husband that she married in 1932 and realizes after going through his book collection that he had affair with her sister.
“On the dust jacket, she read how this was a story about ‘impossible love, burning desire and unavoidable destruction.’ Was there a reason she’d never felt the urge to read it? She’d outlived both of them, but their secret had almost survived her.”
The story also incorporates the difficulty of old age with this powerful line:
“That’s the way it is, growing old, she thought: one moves from chair to chair.”
Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions by Ror Wolf, Translated by Jennifer Marquart, Open Letter Books
This collection is where we get our surrealism on. Wolf is one wacky German with a penchant for the humorous and the grim. This two part collection begins with forty-eight fictions that focus on the comical nature of death (Isn’t death a hoot?!) and the second part is the twelve-part forty-ninth digression about the narrator’s surreal sojourn around the world. I like the word digressions in a titular way because a digression is, well, vague as far as literary definitions are concerned. They have no stereotypical form. This allows Wolf to exercise his right to be abstract, abstruse and ambivalent. He gives the reader no promises nor any solid ground. It’s all in the word, as aptly illustrated in this digression (in its entirety), “Not a Word:”
“Not a word was uttered by an unknown man as he embraced an unknown twenty-year-old from behind on Boppstrasse. She was able to get away and call for help. What the man actually wanted is unknown.”
Yes, these are Wolf’s imponderables that can entertain and exasperate. Details can be rare and makes us yearn for a character, a story, anything to hold onto for more than a few pages. And just when I thought I was out, he pulled me back in.
The forty-ninth digression can be read and reread because there is so much there. At first glance, it may seem like your typical surreal fare, but in it Wolf dares to become the surrealist’s surrealist, with the twist and turns of deep REM sleep that are vivid, real and inexplicable. It felt Jonkean (hello Gert!) at moments which I loved, but then there are passages that feel like Wolf’s signature style, eccentric and commanding:
“In ’54 I worked in several bars as an assistant waiter. Some claimed I sang from time to time. Yes, I sang from time to time, but only brieflly and very quietly, and only in the darkest corners behind the coat check. I slept in a tiny room cluttered with stacks of furniture, on a slit-open mattress reeking of decay. Otherwise, not much happened. Sometimes, I sang a little, it’s true, but all I basically cared about was that I didn’t drop the beer. One day, in March ’55, I received a letter that said I should come to B, to Berlin. Come to Berlin right away, while you’re still in this chapter.”
That is the moment I fell in love with Wolf. It appears in the first part of the forty-ninth digression. The story ascends and descends creating its own fluid yet extreme narrative vicissitudes. There are weighty moments limned with irony and wit so shrewd, like at the end of “The Anaconda’s Smile:”
Though I knew, naturally, that in this world you can’t be calm for a single moment. There is no entitlement to being calm.”
Simultaneously believable and unbelievable, Wolf creates his own structure of a digression with an architecture that has no walls, but many rooms.
Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century Selected and Translated by Muireann Maguire, Overlook Press
This collection of Russian Gothic tales is ineligible because it is an anthology, but must be mentioned because of these wonderfully supernatural, haunting stories from the likes of such Russian greats as Mikhail Bulgakov, Sigizmund Kryzhizhanovksy and A.V. Chayanov. Sure, that’s a mouthful, but well worth learning how to pronounce their names so that you can tell your friends to read this fantastically strange collection. Plus, the cover is one of the best I’ve seen this year. Judge this book by its cover. Please.