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Don’t Call It a Novel (It’s Been Here for Years)

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There’s a wonderful short story collection out now called Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. It’s something of a linked collection, in that the longer stories that make up the bulk of the book all seem to be narrated by the same unnamed woman, formerly of England but now living in a cottage in the west of Ireland, doing not much more than letting her mind wander as she probes the confines of her modest home. These stories do not build upon one another in the sense of creating a continuous plot. Rather, they offer separate investigations into the life of this woman, self-contained and comprehensible in any order.  What’s more, between these longer stories sit pieces that might be described as “micro” or “flash” fictions, which are not set in the cottage and are not clearly narrated by the same woman. These shorter pieces are aesthetically linked to the longer stories — the entire book is written in the same distinctive style of prose — but are otherwise unrelated. The reading experience is unusual and illuminating, and upon completion I thought to myself, “Wow, what a lovely little collection of stories.”

I was flummoxed, then, to discover that there is some confusion as to the book’s genre. Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Pond in The New York Times Book Review appears under the headline “A Debut Novel Traces a Woman’s Life in Solitude.” Novels appear to be O’Rourke’s only points of reference for Bennett’s work. She writes that Pond reminds her of “the kind of old-fashioned British children’s books I read growing up,” and “David Markson’s avant-garde novel ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’…” In another review for The Times, Dwight Garner acknowledges the short story-ness of Bennett’s book even as he insists that the work is a novel: “‘Pond’ is a slim novel, told in chapters of varying lengths that resemble short stories. There’s little in the way of conventional plot.” Hmm. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Garner was describing a short story collection.

This phenomenon of misidentifying a story collection as a novel is surprisingly common, both in book reviewing and in polite conversation. A number of people seem to use the term “novel” as a synonym for “book,” and because of this I sometimes see even works of nonfiction referred to as novels. (I won’t call anyone out on this point, since it’s really quite embarrassing.) More often, the word “novel” is applied to collections when all of the stories within feel strongly of a piece (and consequently are favorites of the creative writing workshop). The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is one example. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is another. The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald is a third. To be fair, these works frequently fail to identify themselves with the word “stories” on their book jackets (as does Pond). But a reader with the most basic sense of literary genre should be able to see them for what they are.

A novel and a short story collection are very different forms. A novel tells one long narrative. It cannot be divided without surrendering its functionality. Sometimes it is segmented into chapters or sections, but these cannot (at least not all of them) stand alone as shorter independent works. They rely on each other for coherence of plot and theme. A collection, on the other hand, is composed of several shorter, discrete narratives that can stand independently of each other without forsaking their coherence. The order in which you read them is not essential to understanding them, nor would it matter if you read three at random and never looked at the rest. In the hands of a skilled author, it is sometimes true that a group of these stories may become more than the sum of its parts. The stories may act as vignettes in the life of a person or a community, and in so doing produce a sense of immersion somewhat reminiscent of a novel. We call these “linked collections” or “story cycles.” But they are not novels, nor are they attempting to be novels. (A “novel-in-stories,” as you’ve probably suspected, is purely a marketing trick.)

When reviewing a linked collection, a reviewer will sometimes (bafflingly) simulate confusion as to whether the book is a collection or a novel or something in between. (Ian Maleney, in his review of Pond for The Millions, says that the book, “rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other.” Nice try, Maleney.) These reviewers often like to pretend that the author has somehow invented a third genre. But you and I aren’t so easily fooled, reader. We know that there is nothing new under the sun. As James Nagel points out in his 2001 book The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle, the form has been with us for a century at least. Works like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time presented a cohesion of intent that, at the time of their publication, tempted reviewers to insist that they must be more than simple collections of stories. (In Our Time even contains interstitial shorts between longer stories, just like Pond.) Nagel writes:
[T]he fact of the matter is that the short-story cycle is a rich genre with origins decidedly antecedent to the novel, with roots in the most ancient of narrative traditions. The historical meaning of “cycle” is a collection of verse or narratives centering around some outstanding event or character. The term seems to have been first applied to a series of poems, written by a group of Greek writers known as the Cyclic Poets, that supplement Homer’s account of the Trojan war. In the second century B.C., the Greek writer Aristides wrote a series of tales about his hometown, Miletus, in a collection entitled Milesiaka. Many other early classics also used linked tales, Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Arabian A Thousand and One Nights among them…Throughout these early works two ideas became clear in the concept of a cycle: that each contributing unit of the work be an independent narrative episode, and that there be some principle of unification that gives structure, movement, and thematic development to the whole.
Perhaps because the average reader prefers novels, encountering few story collections (or none at all), a linked collection is enough to give him pause. But a linked collection is still a collection and not a novel, just as a tall man is still a man and not an ogre. Our most prestigious American literary prize, the Pulitzer, recognizes this fact. Known for its first three decades of existence as the Pulitzer Prize for a Novel, it was renamed the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948 so that it could be awarded to a debut author named James A. Michener for his Tales of the South Pacific. That book is a linked story collection, though the Pulitzer jury might have gotten away with pretending it was novel if Michener hadn’t conspicuously placed the word “Tales” right in its title. Since then, short story collections have been eligible for the award, though to date only six others have won it. (For the sake of comparison, there have been seven years since 1948 when no prize for fiction was awarded at all.)

It may seem defensive or pedantic to insist on these designations. Why does it matter? I hear you ask, reader. Books are just books. No one is saying one form is better than another. All things being equal, perhaps that would be that case, and a book’s genre would be so nonessential as to not require specification. But things, of course, are never equal. It is far easier to publish a novel these days than a collection of short stories, so much so that many pragmatic writers have essentially abandoned the form. Fantastic short story writers end up spending their careers producing middling novels, and our literature is poorer for it. So in those rare cases when a short story collection does manage to be published (and reviewed, and sold, and read by a large number of people), to deny that collection its genre — to call it a novel, as though the world really needs another novel — is to rob the medium of short fiction of a hard-earned victory.

Even more nefarious is when publishers themselves mislabel collections as novels. Printing the word “novel” on a book cover makes it very difficult for malcontents like me to argue that the book is anything otherwise. Tom Rachman’s excellent 2010 book The Imperfectionists is a collection of 11 self-contained stories following various employees of an international newspaper based in Rome. Only the thinnest of interstitials about the history of the newspaper (again, like In Our Time) provided cause for Dial Press to term the book “a novel.” Also published in 2010 was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which Knopf called “a novel” but which I like to call “the most recent short story collection to win a Pulitzer Prize.” The book’s shifts in point of view, style, tense, and time period caused reviewers to marvel at what a unique and unusual novel it was, though such shifts are common in the genre of the short story collection. Egan almost certainly benefitted from the book being called a novel, but now that the dust has settled and the prize money has been spent, it’s probably in Egan’s best interest that posterity regard the book for what it actually is. Goon Squad is a bad novel, but it’s a phenomenal short story collection, one that perfectly embodies Nagel’s notion of “independent narrative episode[s]” linked by “some principle of unification.” (Plus, thinking of the book as a collection is the only way to make that 70-page Power Point section look like a fun narrative experiment instead of a saccharine bit of self-indulgence. Take that, Egan!)

Both The Imperfectionists and A Visit from the Goon Squad were bestsellers, and I certainly don’t begrudge Rachman or Egan their success. What is painful is the notion that the audiences of these books did not realize that they were enjoying story collections. The publishing industry is constantly telling short story writers that their work can’t sell, but instances like these seem to suggest that the publishing industry is not particularly interested in fostering an appetite for short story collections among its readership. If you liked Goon Squad, then you like short fiction, but you may be unaware of that fact because you think that you read novel. It’s refreshing, then, when an author resists the urge to have his work mislabelled as a novel, as Junot Díaz did in the case of This Is How You Lose Her. In an interview with Gina Frangello at The Rumpus, he explains:
[T]here’s little question that short stories, like poetry, don’t get the respect they deserve in the culture — but what can you do? Like Canute, one cannot fight the sea, you have to go with your love, and hope one day, things change. And yes, I have no doubt this book could have been easily called a novel — novel status has certainly been granted to less tightly-related collections of stories. By not calling this book a novel or a short story collection, I guess I was trying to keep the door open to readers recognizing and enjoying a third form caught somewhere between the traditional novel and the standard story anthology. A form wherein we can enjoy simultaneously what is best in both the novel and the short story form. My plan was to create a book that affords readers some of the novel’s long-form pleasures but that also contains the short story’s ability to capture what is so difficult about being human — the brevity of our moments, their cruel irrevocability.
I disagree with Díaz’s premise that the book represents a new, third form (This Is How You Lose Her is a simply another linked story collection, in the proud tradition of the many linked story collections that have come before it), but you get the point. A linked collection does things that a novel does not, things that are worthy and vital and capable of standing on their own merit. A collection replicates the chaotic, fragmentary messiness of life in a way that a novel can’t: life, which doesn’t follow one large narrative but seems to be the aggregate of many smaller ones. A day is not a chapter. A day is a story, with its own peculiar conflicts, themes, motifs, and epiphanies.

There has been much in the past few years to inspire confidence in the idea that the short fiction collection might finally attain the readership it deserves as a indispensable American art form. This Is How You Lose Her was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. In 2013, George Saunders’s Tenth of December repeated both feats. The 2014 National Book Award was given to Phil Klay’s collection Redeployment. In 2015, it went to Adam Johnson’s collection Fortune Smiles. Collections by Nathan Englander and Kelly Link have been finalists for Pulitzers in recent years (though both failed to attain the lofty heights of Michener’s and Egan’s). Alice Munro’s 2013 Nobel Prize felt, for many writers of short fiction, like a long overdue nod to a worthy form and its incorrigible practitioners.

And yet short fiction collections remain incredibly difficult to sell. They remain under-published, under-reviewed, and under-read. Aspiring authors are encouraged to set aside their stories and get to work on something longer, lest they be condemned to the periphery of publishing, out in the brambles with the poets and their chapbooks. Even George Saunders, the story writer who famously does not write novels, is writing novels now. Perhaps Claire-Louise Bennett is glad to have Pond called a novel, and I should stop making trouble where trouble needn’t be made. But if the best hope for a short story writer is that reviewers and readers mistake her work for a novel, than fiction has reached a truly dispiriting place. Perhaps novelists will soon be hoping their work is mistaken for memoir, and fiction as a concept will disappear entirely.

I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I encourage you, dear reader, to go to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Pond, or any other short story collection, and free yourself from the tyranny of sustained narrative. You’ll enjoy the experience. Trust me.

And maybe, while you’re in there, you can hide a couple novels behind the cookbooks.

Ernest Hemingway: Middlebrow Revolutionary

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In June 1925, Ernest Hemingway turned to a blank page in his notebook and scrawled these five hopeful words:
Along With Youth

A Novel
Hemingway was 25 years old, living in a cramped Paris apartment with his wife Hadley and their two-year-old son, Jack. He had published two chapbooks with tiny presses in Paris, and sold a collection of stories, In Our Time, to a New York publisher. In Our Time is now a classic, its stories taught in high school and college classrooms around the world, but his advance was just $200 and Hemingway understood that if he didn’t follow the collection up with a novel, it would probably sell a few hundred copies and disappear.

Along With Youth was a sea story, apparently, set on a troop ship in 1918 and featuring Nick Adams, the Hemingway stand-in who stars in many of the stories in In Our Time. In the opening scene, Nick Adams talks with some Polish officers on the deck of the ship while someone strums a mandolin in the background. The book continued in this vein for 27 largely plotless pages until Hemingway gave up and packed his bags for his annual summer pilgrimage to the bullfights in Pamplona, Spain. Just two months later, in September 1925, he had finished a draft of The Sun Also Rises, the novel that would launch his career.

Hemingway’s epic week of partying at Pamplona’s fiesta de San Fermín in July 1925 is the centerpiece of Lesley M. M. Blume’s new book Everybody Behaves Badly, which traces Hemingway’s rise from a promising young proto-hipster sweating out sentences in a Paris garret to one of the 20th century’s most influential prose stylists.

Ninety years on, it can be hard for readers to comprehend the revelatory shock The Sun Also Rises delivered to its original audience. Yes, the sexuality and decadence of Hemingway’s characters raised eyebrows in a country where Prohibition was still in effect and adultery was against the law in most states. But it went deeper than that. The First World War upended a dynastic landed gentry that had patronized the arts for centuries, and new technologies, most notably movies and mass-circulation magazines, were bringing art and literature to a far wider audience than ever before.

Paris was Ground Zero for the artistic response to these social and technological revolutions, and Hemingway’s innovation was to make the formal experiments of the Parisian avant garde accessible to middlebrow readers. “My book will be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows,” he wrote to Horace Liveright, publisher of In Our Time. “There is no writing in it that anybody with a high-school education cannot read.”

Hemingway was ideally suited to this role of middlebrow revolutionary. He was not only an American, but a Midwesterner, raised in the Chicago suburbs far removed from the urban cultural elite. Also, unlike many of his fellow Modernists, who attended the best universities in Europe and the U.S., Hemingway never went to college and served his apprenticeship not at Harvard or University College Dublin, but in the newsrooms of provincial newspapers and in the cafés and salons of Paris.

This, the story of how Hemingway became Hemingway, is the subject of Everybody Behaves Badly. It’s a tale that has been told many times, but it bears repeating, in part because the version that most people know, the one told by Hemingway in his posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast, is so deeply disingenuous, and in part because it demystifies the legend and makes Hemingway’s achievement comprehensible in human terms.

The Hemingway of Blume’s book is not especially likeable. In A Moveable Feast, he paints his Paris years as a time of almost sacred poverty (“Hunger is good discipline and you learn from it,” etc., etc.), neatly eliding the fact that for much of his Paris period, he lived off his wife’s trust fund. Like many men who pride themselves on their toughness and self-reliance, Hemingway was almost comically insecure and prone to betray anyone who had the effrontery to do him a favor. In a typically gratuitous move, he repaid Sherwood Anderson, who had given Hemingway crucial letters of introduction to Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, by writing The Torrents of Spring, a poisonous and unfunny satire of Anderson’s novel Dark Laughter.

But if the young Hemingway was an asshole, and he was, he was a preternaturally talented and savvy one. In Everybody Behaves Badly, he seeks out the high priests of the Parisian avant garde one by one, soaking up what each has to teach him before abruptly casting them aside. Their influence permeates his work, from the stream-of-consciousness riffs in his stories to the famous epigraph to The Sun Also Rises — “You are all a lost generation” — supplied by Stein.

But nothing exerted a more profound influence on Hemingway’s fiction than his work as a reporter. Hemingway wrote for newspapers, principally the Toronto Star, off and on for about four years, filing from war zones and writing travel and feature pieces about expat life in Europe. He never loved the work, and after a disastrous stint at the home office of the Star in Toronto he quit altogether to live off Hadley’s trust fund, but news writing not only gave his prose its signature economy of expression and coolly objective tone, it taught him to see the news value in a story. It’s not for nothing that Hemingway knocked out a draft of The Sun Also Rises in a matter of weeks. He saw in his 1925 trip to Pamplona a perfect vehicle for telling the hot story of the dissipated post-war generation in Europe, and he wanted to get it into print before it went stale.

The first draft of The Sun Also Rises was so close to reportage that Hemingway didn’t even change the characters’ names. The most famous of these are Lady Duff Twysden and Harold Loeb, whom Hemingway immortalized in the published version as Lady Brett Ashley and her moony former lover Robert Cohn. Along for the ride in Pamplona was Twysden’s fiancé, Pat Guthrie, who like his fictional alter ego Mike Campbell was an alcoholic bankrupt who put up with Twysden’s compulsive promiscuity. In life as in fiction, shortly before the Pamplona trip, Twysden had run off with Loeb for a sex-soaked weekend at a seaside resort — and in life as in fiction, the affair was just as much over for Twysden as it was alive for poor, lovestruck Loeb.

Then there’s Hemingway himself, the model for the novel’s narrator, Jake Barnes. Blume says it’s unclear whether Hemingway had an affair with Twysden, but he was clearly fascinated by her and deeply envious of Loeb, whose first novel, Doodab, was set for publication in New York later that year. Then, too, in the summer of 1925, Hemingway was trapped between his unraveling marriage to Hadley and a nascent affair with his soon-to-be second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer.

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway airbrushes Hadley out of the tale and gives his alter ego, Jake Barnes, a war wound that renders him impotent while still allowing him the full range of romantic and sexual desire. As literary strategies go, this is a stroke of genius, transforming his autobiographical narrator from a husband with a wandering eye to poignant, wounded hero. But it’s more than that, too. In the architecture of the novel, Jake’s war injury turns him into that rarest of beasts: a knowing innocent, a man of appetites who is incapable of sin.

This works so well because, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published just the year before, The Sun Also Rises is a novel about the tyranny of unbounded appetite. Hemingway’s characters spend the book consuming things: drink, food, bloody spectacle, each other. “It kept up day and night for seven days,” he writes of the fiesta. “The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequence. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.”

What is true in Pamplona is true in more subtle ways elsewhere in the novel. None of the characters are tied down by marriage or have children to care for. Except for Jake, they have no visible employment, and thus no jobs to lose. They either have enough money not have to worry about it, or are so perpetually broke that it has ceased to worry them. This, more than the war, which has little practical effect on anyone but Jake, is what makes them “lost.” They lead lives in which their actions have ceased to have meaningful consequences. This is why Robert Cohn is so furious at Lady Brett: He wants their affair to have meant something, if not to her, then at least to the other men who are in love with her, Jake and Mike Campbell.

In a traditional novel, the kind that the Parisian avant garde sought to outmode, this heedlessness would spell the characters’ doom. The temptress Lady Brett would have to be destroyed so bourgeois society could carry on, in the way Jay Gatsby must be destroyed at the end of The Great Gatsby. But nothing like that happens in The Sun Also Rises. In Pamplona, Brett seduces a 19-year-old bullfighter, Pedro Romero, the walking epitome of the Hemingway hero: handsome, self-assured, brave without artifice. “Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion,” Hemingway writes, “because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him each time.”

Here at last, after hundreds of pages of drinking and eating and fucking, is the act that tears at the social fabric of the novel. Lady Brett seduces the pure young bullfighter, with Jake himself providing the introductions, yet no one in the novel suffers real consequence. After his first night with Brett, Romero performs so well in the ring that he is allowed to cut off a bull’s ear as a trophy, and after their affair has run its course, Brett sends him on his way, and slithers back to her long-suffering fiancé.

This, finally, is the true modernity of Hemingway’s novel. In the fictive world of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a brilliant 20th-century stylist with a 19th-century sensibility, Gatsby must die for the sin of daring to rise above his station and love whomever he wants. In the fictive world of The Sun Also Rises, Lady Brett Ashley, the witty, decadent castoff of Britain’s dying aristocracy, can live however the hell she pleases without it costing her a thing.

Except that it does cost her one thing: Jake Barnes. A central conceit of the novel is that Jake would marry Brett but doesn’t because he can’t physically consummate the relationship, but after her affair with Romero, Jake finally tires of his high-maintenance girlfriend. When Brett tells him, “You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch…It’s sort of what we have instead of God,” Jake replies wryly: “Some people have God.” And a little later when Brett tries to weasel back into his affections, saying, “Oh Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together,” he responds with perhaps the most famous last line in American literature: “Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

And there it is, the revolution of the middlebrow. With an act of literary sleight of hand only a master could pull off, Hemingway manages to have it both ways: Lady Brett and her ilk live in a modern amoral world without consequences, and yet we his readers, through the eyes of Jake Barnes, the hard-boiled innocent, have judged her and found her wanting.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Is ‘Jesus’ Son’ a ‘Red Cavalry’ Rip-Off?

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On an August 2013 episode of The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, author Donald Antrim read and discussed Denis Johnson’s short story “Work.” Antrim said he remembered the liberation he associated with reading the story when it was published in The New Yorker in 1988: “At the time, I was trying to write stories myself, but they were somewhat dead and I think I felt a little lost…I think reading Denis Johnson had to have something to do with a sense of permission, a sense of freedom to do something that I didn’t understand fully and didn’t know how to imagine or envision.”

Antrim’s revelatory experience of reading the stories in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son – a linked collection that follows the drug-addled wanderings of a narrator known as “Fuckhead” — is far from unique. In 2012, Illustrator Jane Mount compiled My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection in which 100 contemporary cultural figures shared the books that mattered to them most. Jesus’ Son was tied alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses as the third most selected book. They both only trailed behind Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

On The New Yorker podcast, Antrim goes on to describe some of the unusual techniques in Jesus’ Son that have rattled so many readers and writers. Antrim notes the clipped and disoriented structure to many of the stories and scenes. He remarks on the speed of the narrative transitions. He says that there’s “an incoherence in the thought process that actually has a coherence.”

Then, as is the case on each episode of the podcast, Antrim reads the selected story: “I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven.” Antrim proceeds through a story in which the narrator and his friend Wayne go to rip copper wire from an abandoned house. Then Wayne visits his wife while Fuckhead waits in the car. Then they go to the bar where they spend all the money they just made scrapping the copper wire. The story ends with Fuckhead gawking at the angelic bartender. “I’ll never forget you,” he thinks. “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”

New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman tells Donald Antrim about how she recently interviewed Denis Johnson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She says, “I asked him about this book, about Jesus’ Son…he’s quite dismissive of it when he talks about it now, and he said it’s just a rip-off of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry…” Antrim says that he’s never read Red Cavalry, and the discussion of Jesus’ Son, on its own terms, continues on.

But what does Denis Johnson mean by calling his most iconic book a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry — a classic of early 20th-century Russian literature? Johnson’s book features a ragtag cast of addicts in rural America, engaged in efforts of drug procurement and petty crime that almost always go wrong. Red Cavalry, on the other hand, features the title army during the Russian-Polish campaign, the Soviets’ first military effort toward spreading Communism to the rest of Europe. In terms of locations and circumstances, the books are radically different. But, on closer look, they actually do share a lot in common.

“The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head,” Babel writes in the opening story of Red Cavalry (as translated by Peter Constantine). “The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill.”

In an introduction to Red Cavalry, Michael Dirda writes, “Violence and brutality mingle with a surreal, sometimes poetic beauty…This juxtaposition of an elevated literary style with coarse soldier’s talk, of strikingly original analogy with harsh naturalistic observation, lies at the heart of Babel’s achievement. In every way the stories yoke together opposites.”

Jesus’ Son actually works with a similar set of tools. “The sky is blue and the dead are coming back,” Johnson writes. “Later in the afternoon, with sad resignation, the county fair bares its breast.”
Using “elevated literary style” alongside “harsh naturalistic observation,” both writers convey haunting and brutal landscapes. Babel: “Stars slithered out of the cool gut of the sky, and on the horizon abandoned villages flared up. With my saddle on my shoulders, I walked along a torn-up field path…” Johnson: “There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground…”

Both books feature frequent and intense poetic violence. Babel writes of Dolgushov who lies in the mud with his exposed heart beating and his intestines spilling out. “[He] placed his blue palms on the ground and looked at his hands in disbelief.” Johnson writes of McInnes, who’s been shot in the stomach and is dying in the backseat of a car. “[He] was white and sick, holding himself tenderly.”

Both writers seem to be geniuses of metaphors on the sky. Babel: “The moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring.” Johnson: “The sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge.”

What gets quickly lost when I put particular sections side-by-side like this is how radically different each book still really is. In a Red Cavalry story, a young Jewish soldier will accost an old woman and murder her goose to prove he’s not an intellectual sissy. In a Jesus’ Son story, a drugged-out hospital orderly will try to save a litter of “bunnies” in the desert to prove he’s not a fuck-up. “It’s a name that’s going to stick,” his friend Georgie tells him after he sits on and kills the rabbits. “‘Fuckhead’ is gonna ride you to your grave.”

Considerable narrative overlaps between the two books also exist, but they tend to be circumstances that are realized in newly distorted ways.

In one Red Cavalry story, the narrator transcribes another soldier’s letter home about, among other things, his brother Fyodorovna being “hacked” to pieces. “I wrote it down without embellishing it,” the narrator says, “and am recording it here word for word.” In Johnson’s “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” the narrator carefully shaves the face of another man in rehab, while that man tells him the story of each of his scars. “Are you going to change any of this for your poem?” he asks. “No,” the narrator says, “It’s going in word for word.”

Babel’s “Ivan and Ivan” and Johnson’s “Two Men” both feature men hitching rides who are perceived-to-be-faking deafness. Kirill Vasilyevich Lyutov shouts, “Are you deaf, Father Deacon, or not?” Fuckhead says, “Look…I know you can talk. Don’t act like we’re stupid.”

“What sort of person is our Cossack?” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Many-layered: looting, reckless daring, professionalism, revolutionary spirit, bestial cruelty.” He stops, and then writes, “Omit the ‘revolutionary spirit.’” The same things might be said of Fuckhead. In “Out On Bail,” he steals and cashes Social Security checks from a dead tenant’s apartment, but he says he’s always believing he should be finding an honest way to make a few dollars, always believing he’s “an honest person who shouldn’t be doing things like that.” In “Dirty Wedding,” he mourns the death of his ex-girlfriend Michelle, who he once abandoned at the abortion clinic for a hooker at the Savoy Hotel: “[Michelle] was a woman, a traitor, and a killer. Males and females wanted her. But I was the only one who ever could have loved her.”

One of the more pronounced elements of both books is their narrative messiness. In The New York Times book review of Jesus’ Son, James McManus wrote, “The narrator’s inability to construct a ‘well-made’ story, or even to keep the facts of his life straight, expressively parallels the rest of his dysfunctional behavior.” McManus is talking about how Jack Hotel dies of a heroin overdose at the end of “Out on Bail,” and how, in the next story, Hotel returns, smokes hashish, and remarks, “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” as McInnis bleeds out in the back of the car. An early story in the collection is titled “Two Men.” Later in the book, in “The Other Man”, the narrator begins: “But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one…”

In “Emergency” — the prescription-pill-loaded narrator — undermining the entire story he had been telling up until that point — stops and reflects, “Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them.” He decides, “It doesn’t matter. What’s important for me to remember is that early the next morning the snow was melted off the windshield and the daylight woke me up.” In the final pages of the story, the narrative logistics turn impossible. Fuckhead and Georgie return to the hospital, possibly the same day they left. Then the narrator remembers how, just hours earlier, they had picked up their AWOL friend, Hardee, and how Georgie swore he’d get him across the border: “I think I know some people,” Georgie said to him. “Don’t worry. You’re on your way to Canada.”

Red Cavalry — in oftentimes strange and beautiful ways — is also haphazardly constructed. In “The Story Of A Horse,” Khlebnikov, a self-proclaimed white-stallion enthusiast, fails to reclaim his horse from Savitsky. Khlebnikov spends several days crying and writing a petition for his horse on a tree stump. At the end of the story, he’s discharged from the army as an “invalid” for his poor health and battle wounds. Ten stories later, in “The Continuation of the Story of a Horse,” the narrator reminds the reader of the disagreement between Khlebnikov and Savitsky, then transcribes a pair of no-hard-feelings correspondences between them; the horse only receives a brief and fairly inconsequential mention. “Thirty days I have been fighting in the rear guard, covering the retreat of the invincible First Red Cavalry and facing powerful gunfire from airplanes and artillery,” Savitsky writes to Khlebnikov. “Tardy was killed, Likhmanikov was killed, Gulevoy was killed, Trunov was killed, and the white stallion is no longer under me, so with the changes in our fortunes of warm Comrade Khlebnikov, do not expect to see your beloved Division Commander Savitsky ever again.”

In another story, the same vivid and incredibly specific metaphor shows up twice: “Trunov had already been wounded in the head that morning. His head was bandaged with a rag, and blood trickled from it like rain from a haystack,” the narrator reports early in the tale. Later he says, “At that moment I saw Trunov creeping out from behind a mound. Blood was trickling from his head like rain from a haystack and the dirty rag had come undone and was hanging down.”

Babel was an active soldier in the Red Cavalry army while he was writing many of his stories. The dangerous and dismal conditions under which the material was gained likely made smooth story construction quite difficult, even if that ever was an ambition. “Under machine gun fire, bullets shriek, a dreadful sensation, we creep along through the trenches,” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Some Red Army fighter is panicking, and, of course, we are surrounded.” Similar to what McManus describes in his review of Jesus’ Son, in Red Cavalry it’s also fitting that tales are so surreal and fractured. Johnson, meanwhile, was originally writing Jesus’ Son as a piece of memoir. He said, “Originally, in fact, I wasn’t even going to publish it. But then I added a lot of things that never happened to me, though almost everything in there actually happened to someone I know or heard about.”

The conditions under which the books were written share another important similarity: both were written with a sort of wild-eyed desperation. Babel joined the army, on the advice of his mentor, Maxim Gorky, to find material for his writing in the hopes of getting published. “My birthday,” Babel wrote in one of his early journal entries, “Twenty-six years old. I think of home, of my work, my life is flying past. No manuscripts. Dull misery.” In 1990, Johnson after a rough stretch and a rocky conclusion to his second marriage, owed $10,000 in taxes. He called his editor at FSG: “I told him, ‘I’ll make you a book of short stories; all you have to do is pay off the IRS.’”

Jesus’ Son vaulted to a cult popularity among contemporary readers and writers that’s hard for many other individual story collections to measure up against. Maybe Flannery O’Connor achieves a similar level of cultural cachet with A Good Man Is Hard To Find. Maybe Ernest Hemingway does with In Our Time. Jesus’ Son, though, was the collection chosen more frequently than any other in Jane Mount’s My Ideal Bookshelf. Similarly, on The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, Denis Johnson has been the most selected writer — three times with all three stories from Jesus’ Son. On a 2009 episode, before Tobias Wolff read “Emergency,” Deborah Treisman laughed and said, “I’ve had three other writers ask to do this very story while I put it on hold for you.”

Is what Denis Johnson said true, though? Is Jesus’ Son just a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry? “Rip-off” seems to be the wrong word. It borrows heavily, yes, but it seems to me Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than West Side Story is a “rip-off” of Romeo and Juliet. Or, in keeping with the Johnson-Babel theme of stark and brutal poetry, Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than Apocalypse Now is of Heart of Darkness. With any of these works, even adaptation or re-creation seem to not entirely be the right words; in each case, the follow-up deviates wildly from what might be considered its source material. In Jesus’ Son, the stories and execution certainly have a lot in common with Red Cavalry and — in considering them closely — it seems right for Johnson to acknowledge his debt. But do the similarities diminish any of the virtues of either book? Even more than in the case of the most liberal of re-creations, adaptations, or “rip-offs,” it seems to me that each book is still its own radical thing.

After Treisman tells Antrim, on the 2013 podcast, that today Johnson is dismissive of the stories in Jesus’ Son, Antrim says, “Well, he has his own attitude about what he did a long time ago. I have a tendency to write things off after 20 years, too. I’m not a particularly good judge of what I do. Maybe he’s not a particularly good judge, over time, of what he’s done.” Antrim pauses in thought, and then adds, “And that’s probably as it should be.”

Cooking with Hemingway

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1.We crave what we lack, and most professional desk-sitters lack the satisfaction of producing something tangible. We cannot eat or wear or hold the sentences we read or write or analyze. Money—if we’re lucky—is the only thing we make.
People cope in different ways. Sometimes, while reading, I keep a knitting project nearby just to give my hands some work to do. And I like to mark the end of my working days by cooking dinner—a form of labor in its own right, certainly, but also, in my circumstances, a luxurious re-entry from a world of glowing screens and uniform pages into the material world of smells, textures, and colors.
A lot of writers seem to yearn for the sensory immediacy of doing over thinking. You find evidence of this tendency in those many moments in poems and novels that dwell not on the thoughts of characters but on their mundane actions. Read closely enough and you’ll see that the writer might actually be instructing you on how to complete a practical task.
This didactic impulse has a long history. Hesiod, a Greek poet who lived around the time of Homer, included in his poem “Works and Days” such salient advice as “remember always to work” and “You really need two plows, and they can both be homemade,” and “Don’t piss standing up while facing the sun.” His Roman counterpart Virgil responded a few hundred years later with the Georgics, a four-part poem that claims to be a farming guide and contains a memorable lesson on generating bees from a bull carcass (don’t try this at home).
In recent centuries, that explicitly imperative voice has lost popularity among Western writers. This has something to do with the rise of novels, in which narrators spend a lot more time observing characters than admonishing readers. At first, novelists could get around this inconvenience by writing their morals into preachy prefaces, but that custom also faded over time. Romanticism, with its emphasis on lyric self-expression, also helped quash the instructive literary spirit. But it was those grumpy high Modernists who outlawed the practice of literary teaching most fiercely: Literature is Art, and only Art! Art is Form, and only Form! Form sullied by Moral Instruction is…positively Victorian!
 2.Or so the story goes. Yet practical lessons lurk even in the most quintessentially modern texts. Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” the last story in his 1925 collection In Our Time, is essentially an instruction guide for camping and fishing. In it, Hemingway’s stand-in character Nick Adams goes on a solo fishing trip, seeking release from the past. The “hard work” of hiking to his campsite pleases him: “He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs.”
It is a great story, sparse and moving and so eminently close-readable that Hemingway might as well have wrapped it, tied it with a bow, and given it to the world’s English teachers for Christmas. Nick goes to the woods to recover from war trauma by fishing instead of thinking, and it sort of works, except everything in the woods reminds him of war. Even the grasshoppers he uses as trout bait act like angry little warriors.
When recovery succeeds, it comes from Nick’s ability to recreate the conditions he knew before the war by following simple instructions, like setting up a tent. Danger, in the form of thinking, arises when he runs out of things to do with his hands. And on the flipside, Hemingway craved engagement with the material world so keenly that he actually wrote instructions into the abstract world of fiction. The physical immediacy of the prose got me antsy when read the story recently: why was I sitting around reading? Why wasn’t I out doing all the things that Hemingway so clearly shows you how to do?
I became enamored with the idea of literature leaving the page and entering the world of things. Maybe that divide between mind and material didn’t have to be so absolute; maybe Hemingway stories had more in common with my bossy hat patterns and lentil recipes than I had realized. I decided to test the theory by treating “Big Two-Hearted River” like an instruction manual: I would cook every “recipe” it contains.
It is all camp food, easier to prepare than to digest. There would be spaghetti and beans from a can, buckwheat pancakes, and onion sandwiches. Everything might have tasted better if I’d actually been camping. Hemingway surely would only have eaten these foods in the woods; in trendier locales, he was as snooty a gourmand as ever pranced the streets of Greenpoint. See A Moveable Feast for his Parisian memories of slurping top-notch oysters “with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture.”
But oysters à la Hemingway would have been too expensive and too effortless: you go to Paris, you demand douze huitres, you wash them down with exquisite Sancerre.
I wanted to put in some work. In Hemingway’s story, most of the work comes before the first meal – a supper of pork and beans mixed with canned spaghetti, bread, coffee, and canned apricots. Nick huffs and sweats his way to the river, and then he is very strict about setting up camp and cooking carefully before he dives into his bubbling mess of carbohydrates. I mimicked his discipline by eating lightly on the day of the experiment and spending an extra half hour at the gym. My boyfriend came over right after his usual 12-mile run. Yes, you read that right. He has a sedentary, brain-centric job too, and if mine leaves me needing to make, his leaves him needing to move.
He was already very hungry when he arrived, and I still had to take a shower. He wanted a snack but I wanted authenticity. We compromised on water and a mug of tea. I was pretty hungry too. The thought of dinner-from-a-can had turned my stomach when I was buying the ingredients, but now it was starting to sound pretty good.
I cooked out of my kitchen, not the woods, but I did at least empty the cans of spaghetti and beans into the good old pot that saw me through my more adventuresome backpacking days. Its warped base recalls the many meals it held, precariously, over my feisty little propane stove. Even back then I wasn’t as hardcore as Nick, who cooks over a real campfire. And I cheated a little bit, replacing pork and beans with baked beans to avoid meat.
But the neon-bright, all-American glop of sugar, salt, and acid that was soon burbling on my stove must have looked a lot like Nick’s. My boyfriend watched skeptically as I poured the steaming mix into our bowls. I even topped mine with an artistic splurt of ketchup, as prescribed by the story—more sugar, salt, and acid. We rounded out the meal with a side of bread for sopping up the sauce, because Dr. Atkins wasn’t born until 1930 so we could have as many carbohydrates as we wanted. (In a concession to 2014 tastes, the bread was homemade and whole grain.)
It was perfect workout recovery food, and the first few bites didn’t taste so bad. Intensely tomatoey, extremely sweet, salty, and tart. We were really hungry. We could appreciate the meal, even if we couldn’t approach Nick’s level of enthusiasm: “He took a full spoonful from the plate. ‘Chrise…Geezus Chrise,’ he said happily.”
Pretty soon, my lips were puckering with the tartness. I fobbed the rest of my plate off on my boyfriend and urged him to eat what was left in the pot, too. He almost made it. We couldn’t bear to face the super-sweet canned peaches. After dinner, we both buzzed with sugar highs as strong as any third grader’s and couldn’t stay still. That phase lasted about ten minutes. Then we felt quite ill and went to bed.

3.The next morning, it was time for pancakes. Here is Hemingway’s buckwheat pancake recipe from “Big Two-Hearted River”:

Rapidly he mixed some buckwheat flour with water and stirred it smooth, one cup of flour, one cup of water. He put a handful of coffee in the pot and dipped a lump of grease out of a can and slid it sputtering across the hot skillet. On the smoking skillet he poured smoothly the buckwheat batter. It spread like lava, the grease spitting sharply. Around the edges the buckwheat cake began to firm, then brown, then crisp. The surface was bubbling slowly to porousness. Nick pushed under the browned under surface with a fresh pine chip. He shook the skillet sideways and the cake was lose on the surface. I won’t try and flop it, he thought. He slid the chip of clean wood all the way under the cake, and flopped it over onto its face. It sputtered in this pan.

There is so much to love about this paragraph, as a paragraph. This time around, I got most excited about what happens to the word “buckwheat.” It occurs exactly three times and modifies three different nouns – first “flour,” then “batter,” then “cake” – effectively echoing the narrative arc of the paragraph. I couldn’t question Hemingway’s mastery of prose. His pancake recipe inspired less confidence. It went against all of my pancake-making instincts, and I have developed a lot of those. I love making pancakes and eating pancakes and I have experimented with a whole internet-full of recipes over the years. Plain, blueberry, oatmeal, vegan, zucchini, whole wheat, apple, yeasted, carrot, cornmeal, sweet potato. All these pancakes share traits that Nick’s flour-and-water version lack: they include something to provide flavor (salt, sweetener, fruit, vanilla), a binder (usually egg), and most importantly leavening (baking powder, soda plus acid, yeast).
I thought maybe buckwheat flour had some magical property that would create perfect pancakes out of almost nothing. It did not. The flour was a pretty pearly gray, but the batter looked dead and gloppy and the cakes did not “bubble to porousness” in the skillet. They did not bubble at all. They were like thick buckwheat tortillas, but too stiff to fold. I served them, as per the story’s recommendation, with apple butter and “coffee according to Hopkins.” This, according to Hemingway, is coffee grounds boiled in a pot until they make the water bitter and gritty and disgusting. My boyfriend rebelled against this coffee and put up water for a French press. Of the flat pancakes, he said “They taste fine, if you have a taste for fine cardboard.”
I was frustrated. Nick’s pancakes bubbled, and mine – following the same instructions – did not. A pinch of research revealed the reason: Nick was secretly using pancake mix. Which means that Hemingway included an inaccurate recipe in “Big Two-Hearted River,” and that maybe literary didaxis is a practical failure, and maybe literature is doomed to survive on its aesthetic laurels alone.
This is not to say that Hemingway wasn’t a mansplainer par excellence. I discovered the discrepancy in a 1920 Toronto Star column that Hemingway wrote on how to go camping in the woods. Yes, Hemingway wrote a column called “Camping Out,” and it is as cheerful and snarky as “Big Two-Hearted River” is somber and reflective. Here is his remarkably familiar pancake recipe:

The coffee can be boiling at the same time, and in a smaller skillet, pancakes being made that are satisfying the other campers while they are waiting for the trout. With the prepared pancake flours, you take a cupful of pancake flour and add a cup of water. Mix the water and flour, and as soon as the lumps are out, the batter is read for cooking. Have the skillet hot, and keep it well greased. Drop the batter in, and as soon as it is done on one side, loosen it in the skillet and flip it over. Apple butter, syrup, or cinnamon and sugar go well with the cakes.” (Emphasis mine.)

Well. Hemingway certainly has no compunction about using the imperative voice in his journalism, even if the strictures of modern fiction forced him to excise it from his story. Maybe—and this is just a theory—maybe he worried that using preachy language in fiction would make him sound more like an advertisement than like High Art. See, for example, this copy from an Aunt Jemima Buckwheats pancake flour ad, circa 1932:

Just the simple act of mixing up a cup of milk or water with a cup of ready-mixed Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour… Prepare a delicious breakfast of Aunt Jemima’s buckwheats tomorrow. You can whisk them up while the coffee boils.

I decided to make the pancakes again to get closer to that Aunt Jemima taste, or maybe exceed it (side note: if you need new reasons to be horrified by American history, spend time with old Aunt Jemima ads). Craig Boreth provides a pretty compelling pancake mix recipe in his 1998 compendium The Hemingway Cookbook, a collection of recipes inspired by Hemingway’s writing. But his version contains no buckwheat flour and requires funny things like powdered egg and dried milk.  I improvised a buckwheat recipe instead, with the internet’s help, and threw in a little extra baking powder just for spite. This time, the buckwheat batter “poured smoothly” onto the hot skillet. Then, after a minute, the cake bubbled. Oh, did it bubble. I flopped it and made two more and served the new stack of pancakes proudly. The boyfriend’s verdict on this round: “Feel free to make these any time.”
4.One challenge remained, and I feared it the most. For lunch by the stream, Nick packs two sandwiches. The sandwiches contain nothing but raw, sliced onion between bread slices. I hate eating raw onion. The taste is okay but the lingering breath bothers me almost as much as it must disgust others. Still, I had come this far. I sliced my onion thinly and layered it onto the bread. The first thing I noticed when I picked it up is that onion sandwiches aren’t well engineered: there is nothing to keep the slices in place so a lot fall out. The second thing I noticed was – wow, onion. I lasted just a few bites.
Then I remembered something. When I bought my Hemingway ingredients, I whimsically picked up a package of smoked trout, thinking I might eat some to celebrate the completion of the camp food marathon. Nick presumably eats his freshly caught trout for dinner.
I did not catch my trout. I did not smoke the trout. I did not even carry the trout farther than the distance from my driveway to my kitchen. Hemingway would have fainted, but I took the trout out of the fridge. I flaked off a generous hunk of this pale pink trout and placed it on my onion sandwich. Then, by sudden inspiration, I added a thin smear of cream cheese to the top slice of bread before replacing it. I picked up the sandwich and took a bite. Geezus Chrise, it was good.
Image Credit: Pexels/Clem Onojeghuo.

Mythbusting: An Inside Look at the Last Days of the Moveable Feast

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Two authors walk into a room. One – brooding, macho, fixated on war, fighting, hunting, and conflict in general. The second – driven to drink, floating above the revelers, with a crazy wife to deal with. If the mythmakers have done their job over the decades, you know exactly who I’m talking about. Even if the facts deviate from, or even contradict, the myth.

Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald – two pillars of early twentieth century fiction. Two fixtures of 1920s Paris. Two writers whose actual lives weren’t quite what the mythological line would have us believe.

Morley Callaghan’s That Summer In Paris, written in 1962, reveals Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s true nature, and offers an insider’s view of the events in Paris, in the summer of 1929.

Callaghan in the mid 1920s was still years away from being the Canadian literary lion that he would become. A college student in Toronto, Callaghan had written a handful of short stories and was employed as a reporter for the Toronto Star. Returning to the newsroom after several years writing European dispatches for the Star was another writer of fiction, a few years Callaghan’s senior. That correspondent was Ernest Hemingway, and for the next few months in Toronto, Callaghan and Hemingway struck up a friendship. Recognizing a kinship, they became sounding boards for each other’s fiction.

Fast forward to 1929. Hemingway had by then left the Star, had decamped and returned to Paris to focus on his fiction. Already established, with In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises behind him, and A Farewell to Arms well underway, Hemingway was already a legendary figure in Paris, at times helping to cultivate his own public persona.

He’d stayed in touch with the young Canadian and helped him get some attention from publishers when, in 1929, 26-year-old Callaghan and his wife moved to Paris. It was a heady time, but one which seemed to be entering some kind of  transition.  Scott Fitzgerald – wealthy and established – was there, but his legendary friendship with Hemingway was fragile, and when Callaghan arrived, they weren’t speaking. Ford Madox Ford was in town. So was James Joyce. These were the closing months of what Hemingway would dub the “moveable feast.”

Callaghan, becoming a hot young writer, became part of the scene, and his encounters with these legends make for a fascinating memoir. More fascinating still are the close friendships that he developed – separately – with Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In private moments, as they read each others’ manuscripts, we see glimpses of their lives away from the glare. We realize that the myths that surround them – then and now – are only a small part of a bigger picture. Not that they didn’t propagate their own myths, but their quieter selves shine through – sometimes sweet and shy, sometimes arrogant – but often surprisingly insecure.

Fitzgerald, in particular, comes off as a gentle – and gentlemanly – sort. Eager for Hemingway’s friendship which had gone off the rails, Fitzgerald always remained Hemingway’s biggest fan, and took it personally when others slighted his old friend Ernest.

Hemingway was a bit harder to get a read on. He could be thoughtful and sweet, and he was a good companion – and sparring partner in the boxing ring – to Callaghan during his early weeks in Paris. But as his strained relationship with his old friend Scott demonstrates, he could also be remote, withdrawn.

Morley Callaghan’s memoir covers much the same ground as Hemingway’s own masterpiece of memoir A Moveable Feast – a set of perfect vignettes, each reading like a short story.

Callaghan’s memoir is more conventional in style, but its insider’s view makes is essential for anyone interested in Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the closing moments of 1920s Paris.

Classic Shorts


The recent news, here in Canada, of our great lady of letters, Alice Munro, taking the Giller prize for Runaway (excerpt), her latest collection of short fiction, gives us a chance to praise that wonderful literary form – the short story – and the authors who have practiced it with precision, humanity, and wit.Collected volumes of short fiction often provided me with an easy approach to the many writers who would become my favourites. Tight, economical writing, a whole world painted with just a few deft strokes – and I was hooked.And so it was that Welcome to the Monkey House became the book of my formative college years. In short order, I would devour all of Kurt Vonnegut’s marvelous works, but I still hold dear this short story collection. Even now, years later, the thought of “Harrison Bergeron” makes me simultaneously laugh and shudder at the alternate universe he inhabits – a world in which all citizens are subjected to absurd physical and mental “handicapping,” a leveling-out process that results in a form of institutionalized mediocrity. Sameness.For Ernest Hemingway, clarity and precision were his stock in trade, and nowhere is this more resonant than in In Our Time, a collection of early shorts. Hemingway can present Nick Adams to us and reveal more of his world in 5 pages than many writers would dare to in 500. “The Battler” stands out – a tale of young Nick’s encounter with a disfigured and psychologically damaged prizefighter while riding the rails. Equally powerful are the numerous vignettes that Hemingway intersperses between the stories, many of them harrowing slices of war.Hemingway’s contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, gives us Jazz Age Stories. It’s within these pages that you can experience the remarkable “Diamond As Big As The Ritz“, an astonishing tale of money, power, fear (of losing it) and the complete moral bankruptcy that ensues. This is an unparalleled story of illusion and disillusion. It creeps up on you and will echo for years and years.While The Catcher in the Rye has become such an iconic cultural phenomenon, its often forgotten that J.D. Salinger wrote anything else. Unless of course you’ve read Franny and Zooey, or Raise High the Roof Beam. Or my personal choice, the collection Nine Stories. Then you never forget. This is dysfunction grounded in reality, not simply splayed out for shock value or a quick laugh. I recommend you revisit the extended Glass family in the deceptively simmering “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.”In recent years, I’ve come to regard Anton Chekhov as the master of the form. Any collection will do. Try Lady With Lapdog and Other Stories. I challenge you to find an unnecessary or misplaced word. Simple, perfect writing. These selections just scratch the surface, and of course there’s no shortage of good contemporary short fiction. But it serves us well to be reminded from time to time of “the greats” – not as an untouchable force that stomps on any newcomers, but rather as artistic touchstones that let you approach, and that remind you of first principles. These masters have given us a vital part of our literary canon.Also recommended: The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce’s (surprisingly readable) Dubliners, and Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver

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