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Our Big Summer Readathon: Short Stories (1) by Truman Capote *****

Our Big Summer Readathon, co-hosted here at The Literary Sisters and at theselittlewords, kicks off with six of Truman Capote’s stunning short stories: ‘Miriam’, ‘My Side of the Matter’, ‘A Tree of Night’, ‘Jug of Silver’, ‘The Headless Hawk’ and ‘Shut a Final Door’.  I have decided that the best way to approach such a review is to write a little about each tale – the general details, and my thoughts upon each as a whole.

1. ‘Miriam’ (1945)
‘Miriam’ focuses upon Mrs H.T. Miller a widow, who is living alone ‘in a pleasant apartment (two rooms with kitchenette, in a remodeled brownstone near the East River’.  Mrs Miller is sixty one years old, with ‘plain and inconspicuous features’, seemingly invisible to most of those around her.  One snowy evening, which has been beautifully depicted by Capote – ‘In the falling quiet there was no sky or earth, only snow lifting in the wind, frosting the window glass, chilling the rooms, deadening and hushing the city’ – Mrs Miller decides to go along to a movie theatre.  Here, she meets an odd young girl with long ‘silvery-white’ hair.  It turns out that Mrs Miller and the girl share a first name – Miriam.  A strange relationship ensues between the two.

Capote has filled ‘Miriam’ with such unusual and surprising behaviour on the parts of both protagonists, and quite an unsettling story is built in consequence.  ‘Miriam’ has been written in such a way that it is almost impossible to know where its plot is likely to go.

2. ‘My Side of the Matter’ (1945)
‘My Side of the Matter’ is a testimony of sorts, a one-sided argument as to what happened in an altercation between the principal character and two others.  The narrator is adamant that, ‘on Sunday, August 12, this year of our Lord, Eunice tried to kill me with her papa’s Civil War sword and Olivia-Ann cut up all over the place with a fourteen-inch hog knife’.

In ‘My Side of the Matter’, Capote has crafted such an interesting narrative voice, and an incredibly tight story.  The characters and sense of place, as well as the descriptions of Alabama, are so very strong, and the whole is immensely thought-provoking.

3. ‘A Tree of Night’ (1945)
In ‘A Tree of Night’, a young, neat and rather amused young woman named Kay boards a train after attending her uncle’s funeral.  The only unoccupied seat is opposite a couple, and the woman of this couple soon takes a shine to her, much to Kay’s disdain.

Throughout, Capote’s descriptions shine: ‘Now icicles hung along the station-house eaves like some crystal monster’s vicious teeth’.  ‘A Tree of Night’ is fascinating in terms of the relationships which Capote builds, and how quickly they alter.  The tone of the tale makes the whole rather oppressive at times, and the foreboding is built up brilliantly.

4. ‘Jug of Silver’ (1945)
A young boy who works in his uncle’s drugstore sees a fall in business when a brand new drugstore, owned by the ‘villain’ Rufus McPherson, is opened across the street.  His uncle soon comes up with quite a clever plan to lure his business back in – filling a jug with coins and getting each customer – provided they have spent a certain amount beforehand, mind – to guess how much it holds.

The first person perspective in ‘Jug of Silver’ works marvellously alongside the unfolding story, and the protagonist is really quite endearing.  Such interesting and realistic characters people the tale, and it intrigues right until the very last word.

5. ‘The Headless Hawk’ (1946)
Our male protagonist is a man named Vincent, who spots a girl wearing a green raincoat in New York.  Intrigued, and swept away by her, he starts to follow her – an act which frightens her at first, and causes her to bolt into a nearby antique shop.  The interesting twist comes when she tracks Vincent down in the city and wants to get to know him.

Capote is so very perceptive of his creations, and notices such touching and unusual details about them – for example, an elderly lady with ‘gardenia-colored hair’ and a ‘fairy colored’ boy.  Psychologically, this story is fascinating, and Capote’s skill for perfectly capturing scenes and movement is at its best here.  The magical realism in the tale is so very sensory and intentive, and I have never read anything quite like it before.

6. ‘Shut a Final Door’ (1947)
‘Shut a Final Door’ is about one man and an episode in his life which does not quite turn out as he expected it would: ‘But why he [Walter] was here in this stifling hotel in this faraway town he could not say’.

From the building of the scenes to the growth of the protagonist, this is a sublimely crafted tale.  Capote is a master at getting his readers to stand on the side of a particular character, and then ripping everything away so that an opinion one has already formed alters completely.

 

These first six tales are true perfection; each is wonderfully built and so well tied together.  The characters who people each story, whether at the forefront or on the sidelines, are so vivid and memorable, and Capote’s writing is unfailingly beautiful.

Stay tuned for further Capote reviews over the next month!

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One From the Archive: ‘The Wine of Solitude’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

First published in September 2012.

The Wine of Solitude is one of Jewish Ukrainian author Irène Némirovsky’s earliest novels. The author, whose family fled from Russia to France in 1918, was tragically killed in Auschwitz in 1942. She is best known for her book Suite Francaise, a collection of her memoirs compiled by her daughters, which was first published in 2004.

The Wine of Solitude opens with the character of eight-year-old Hélène Karol, an only child who lives with her parents, grandmother and governess in a tiny town in the Ukraine: a ‘sleepy provincial town, lost deep within Russia’. Through Némirovsky’s careful prose, we get to know the characters almost immediately. These range from kind and gentle governess Mademoiselle Rose to Hélène’s grandmother, ‘only fifty but she looked so old, so weary’. Hélène’s own childish thoughts have been woven throughout the story, and as such, the reader feels such sympathy for her. The animosity within her family becomes fiercer as her story progresses. Her mother sees her as ‘a living reproach, an embarrassment’, and she is described as an ‘impatient, ungrateful, deeply irritated child’. Némirovsky portrays the way in which ‘whenever she opened her mouth, everyone eyed her scornfully’ incredibly sensitively, sharing the reader’s anguish for Hélène’s plight.

It is made clear to the reader that her family life is far from ideal. Her mother, Bella, is more preoccupied with reading about the latest fashions than being kind to her daughter, and her father, Boris, perceived by Bella’s family as an ‘insignificant little Jew’, is a quiet presence who often works away from home. The only fondness in Hélène’s heart is for her father: ‘She felt related and close to him alone, part of his flesh and blood, sharing his soul, his strength, his weaknesses’. Her mother, on the other hand, both revered and loathed, is described as ‘a tall, shapely woman of “regal bearing” and with a tendency to plumpness, which she fought by using corsets’. She is given animalistic characteristics throughout, ranging from her ‘claw-like nails’ to her rather savage actions: ‘In the rare moments when she displayed any maternal affection… her nails almost always scratched Hélène’s bare arm or face’. Boris and Bella are forever squabbling with one another: ‘their quarrel was constantly interrupted by sudden moments of calm when they paused to gather their strength in order better to rip each other apart’. Only Rose and Hélène are kindred spirits, finding refuge and solace in one another’s company.

The descriptions from the outset are wonderful. The wind which blows into Hélène’s hometown from Asia ‘filled the air with a howl that faded as it disappeared towards the west’, and ‘the pale sky was like a crystal ball with the glowing traces of a pink fire at its heart’. The entire novel is incredibly well built up, from its descriptions to its characters. The Wine of Solitude is extremely evocative of the places and period in which it is set, from St Petersburg to Paris, and from Finland to rural France. The different sections of the novel all encompass one or two of these settings, the descriptions of which are perfectly balanced and really build up a picture of each city or tiny town in the mind of the reader.

Sandra Smith’s translation of The Wine of Solitude is faultless. She captures the turns of phrase from the original text incredibly well, never losing any of the original details of the story or of the wonderful descriptions. The human psyche has been portrayed incredibly well and so poignantly by both author and translator, and we follow Hélène’s formative years to several different countries as she falls in and out of love and loses her innocence.

First published in 1935, The Wine of Solitude feels wonderfully contemporary. The novel is both intriguing and engrossing, and the characters and varied settings are wonderfully constructed. It is certainly one of Némirovsky’s finest novels, one which has been perfectly realised and is written with such tenderness and compassion for its young protagonist.

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One From the Archive: ‘These Wonderful Rumours!: A Young Schoolteacher’s Wartime Diaries’ by May Smith ****

First published in October 2012.

These Wonderful Rumours! is the wartime diary of May Smith, a young schoolteacher from Swadlincote, Derbyshire. When the Second World War is declared, she is twenty-four years old and living with her parents. The diary has been wonderfully preserved by Smith’s son, Duncan, and has an insightful introduction, written by social historian Juliet Gardiner. Gardiner explains that war, with ‘its rationing, the blackout, shortages, privations, restrictions and regulations – as well as destruction, loss, injury and death – all impacted on the civilian population’. She also outlines the Mass Observation scheme which urged civilians to keep records of their wartime experiences, stating that ‘it is because the Second World War was a “people’s war” in myriad ways that the people’s experience is so valued’. Perhaps the most famous of these Mass Observation diaries is Nella Last’s War, which was serialised as Housewife 49 by the BBC. As a nation, our interest in these diaries has peaked in recent years, and May Smith’s contribution is a welcome addition to the genre.

Smith’s diary begins in 1938, before World War Two begins. Each entry is dated at the start and the first section includes an informative introduction to set the scene. This collection of diary entries is vivid from the outset, and each is filled with such warmth and personality. Humour is injected into almost every page, and the book as a whole is rich in detail. Smith jumps from the pages, coming to life once again before our eyes. The reader is both amused and humbled by the war which she describes – the rationing of food and clothes of which she is so fond, her love of going to the ‘flicks’, her various suitors, and the men she knows who have been sent off to war – and the way in which these events affect her.

More trivial aspects of life for a woman at the time have been included alongside the darker details of World War Two. Smith describes horrendous hairstyles which she is stuck with when her perms go wrong, being ‘bankrupt and in debt. Woe is me’, to ‘that most nauseating of all missions, Buying a Hat’, as well as entries such as one she makes in April 1939, which states: ‘There seems to be only one possible end – war and on a horrible and dreadful scale’. A vast array of subjects have been covered, from Smith’s description of her school duties and pupils to deliberating over ‘Christmas reading’ at her local library, and from various shopping trips to the way in which wearing gas masks make her feel ‘like a boiled lobster’.

The scope of her diary is impressive, and the balance between her own life and the events occurring across Europe has been perfectly achieved. She writes about the events around the globe with compassion: ‘the poor Poles are hopelessly outnumbered’, as well as disgust: ‘Old man Hitler,’ she writes, after an attempt is made to murder him, ‘seems to bear a charmed life! It will take more than a puny bomb to remove him from the face of the earth’.

When war is declared, Smith’s lack of compassion towards her job as a schoolteacher becomes clear: ‘Have 48 [children] in my class this year, but have hopes that they’ll be brighter than the last lot, who were dull and dozy’. She also humorously states in one diary entry that ‘… this week the children have been like demons. I’ve snarled like a hyena, roared like a lion and bellowed like a bull, and still have failed to curb their spirits’.

As the diary progresses, we get to know those dear to Smith – her friends and grandmother, as well as her parents. One particularly funny journal entry describes how ‘Aunty F came in announcing dramatically that Hitler is coming tomorrow, at which my father remarked that He would, now that he’s Just Finished Papering Upstairs’. Amusing anecdotes of other people whom Smith knows well have also been included throughout. One of the most humorous characters is a woman named Mrs Tweed, who arrives at the Smith residence at mealtimes, insisting that she hasn’t come round to be fed but would always ‘eat a hearty meal, nevertheless’.

These Wonderful Rumours! is an incredibly well written and absorbing account, which highlights how the Second World War impacted upon an entire town in South Derbyshire. Smith is a gifted writer, and one who surely deserves to have her utmost thoughts and feelings, wit and sarcasm, and love for life printed on such a large scale. Her diary is a wonderful memoir which brilliantly demonstrates the power of the human spirit over the adversity which prevails in wartime.

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