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Reading the World: ‘The Accusation’ by Bandi ****

When I began my Reading the World Project, I didn’t suppose for a second that I would be able to include anything from North Korea.  Lo and behold, The Accusation was then published, presenting seven stories set during the dictatorships of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and smuggled out of the country by a very brave individual.  The stories, which were written from 1989 onwards, have been wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith, and published under the pseudonym of ‘Bandi’.  This edition has been published with a rather fascinating afterword, which details how the manuscript left North Korea.

9781781258712The stories within Bandi’s collection ‘give voice to people living under this most bizarre and horrifying of dictatorships’.  From the outset, I found it utterly fascinating.  I have learnt as much about North Korea as I can in the past, but anyone who is the slightest bit familiar with the country will know how difficult this is.  Evidently, too, one must take into account that the portrait presented of North Korea to the West – in an official capacity, at least – is incredibly skewed.  These tales, all of which are based upon real occurrences within North Korea, and encompass people from all walks of life, are therefore all the more important.

The Accusation is filled with curious little details about many aspects of life for ordinary citizens within North Korea.  In ‘Record of a Defection’, for instance, the male narrator utters the following when he finds out that his wife does not want children: ‘The whole incident had forced me to remember the one thing I didn’t want to think about, the one thing I could never get away from – my “standing”.  And the reason mine was so low?  Because my father was a murderer – albeit only an accidental one, and one whose sole victim was a crate of rice seedlings’.  Through details such as this, Bandi effectively, and often shockingly, demonstrates how quick, and not particularly important decisions on the face of it, can haunt a family for generations.

The Accusation provides a powerful insight into modern history.  The themes within are varied, ranging as they do from war, forced migration, hopelessness, and familial tragedies linked to the regime, to the terror of the Party, spying, and clandestine writing.  Many similarities can be drawn between the regime portrayed here and that within Russia, such as the aspects of collectivisation and rationing.  So many elements feel as though they have been taken straight out of Orwell’s 1984, most intensely so with regard to the constant surveillance which every government-owned flat and factory is under.

Here, Bandi has presented an incredibly important book, which speaks out against a hidden and terrifying society.  There is such depth to every single one of these stories; such cruelty, such violence, and such pain.  The use of different viewpoints serves to show just how far-reaching the regime is.  Tense and terrifying, The Accusation should be a must read for everyone.

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And Other Stories: ‘The Persephone Book of Short Stories’ *****

First published in October 2012

‘The Persephone Book of Short Stories’

To celebrate Persephone Books’ one hundredth publication, the publishing house have issued a new volume of short stories, all of which have been written by female authors between 1909 and 1986.

Of the included stories, ten are taken from volumes already published by Persephone, ten have been previously featured in their Biannually Magazine, and ten have been ‘selected especially for this collection’. Each tale is ‘presented in the order they are known, or assumed, to have been written’, and the year has been printed after the title and author of every story, which is a rather useful touch. In fact, the entire volume has been very well laid out, with an accessible author biographies section and a well-spaced contents page.

The collection is a wonderfully varied one and features authors from all walks of life. There are many British and American authors, as well as others from further afield – New Zealand-born Katherine Mansfield, Pauline Smith, who spent her childhood in South Africa, Irene Nemirovsky who grew up in Kiev and spent many years in Paris, and Frances Towers, who was born in Calcutta. The Persephone Book of Short Stories begins with Susan Glaspell’s 1909 story ‘From A to Z’ and finishes with Georgina Hammick’s 1986 offering, entitled ‘A Few Problems in the Day Case Unit’.

The stories woven into the collection are as varied as the authors who wrote them. They encompass every aspect of life in their perfectly crafted portraits. There are first jobs, first loves, marriages, affairs, illnesses and death, and these are merely the more obvious themes which float upon the surface.

The protagonist in the beautifully written vignette ‘From A to Z’ by Susan Glaspell is a young girl named Edna Willard, who spent her senior university year ‘hugging to her mind that idea of getting a position in a publishing house’, and is then discontent when this dream is realised. In Pauline Smith’s tale ‘The Pain’, we meet a South African couple who have been married for fifty years, brave in the face of the wife Deltje’s illness. Smith describes the way in which Deltje has ‘a quiet, never-failing cheerfulness of spirit in spite of her pain’, and the story is beautifully and sensitively realised. In E.M. Delafield’s ‘Holiday Group’, we meet a kindly and rather patient reverend, who struggles to take his young and rather demanding family – his wife Julia ‘had gone on being blissfully irresponsible until she was quite grown up’ and has a particularly selfish streak – to the seaside.

Some of the authors in The Persephone Book of Short Stories are more well-known than others, but all share common ground in the way in which they all deserve to be read on a wider scale than they currently are. The balance of longer and shorter stories works incredibly well, as do the differing narrative styles, which range from the third person omniscient perspective to interesting streams of consciousness. Hopefully, this lovely volume of short stories will inspire readers to seek out other novels and short story collections by the authors which they enjoy in this collection. Each story in The Persephone Book of Short Stories is like a small but perfectly formed work of art, and the book is sure to delight a wealth of readers.

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And Other Stories: ‘Babylon Revisited and Other Stories’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald ****

Fitzgerald is one of my favourite authors, and it will come as no surprise to many, I’m sure, that I will happily seize upon any of his works.  This one was purchased on Books Are My Bag day last year, when I found it in the wonderful Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge, and had a wonderful excuse in which to buy it.  ‘Babylon Revisited’, the title story in this collection, is ‘considered one of Fitzgerald’s finest and most poignant pieces of short fiction’.  The beautiful Alma Classics edition which I read includes ‘a unique selection of other tales from the final period of the author’s career’, and is comprised of fifteen stories in all.

‘Babylon Revisited’ – first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1931 – incorporates many echoes and elements of Fitzgerald’s own life, and is at once fascinating and sad to read.  It is set in 1930, in the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the midst of the Great Depression.  ‘Reformed alcoholic’ Charlie Wells is the protagonist of the piece.  The main thread of the story comes when he returns to Paris ‘to convince his in-laws to give him back the daughter he was forced to abandon’.  His daughter, Honoria, has been living with his sister-in-law and her family in a ‘warm and comfortably American’ apartment for a considerable time, and his wife has ‘escaped to a grave in Vermont’.  Charlie is, in all essence, a changed man; he astounds old friends whom he meets in the city with the very fact that he is sober: ‘They liked him because he was functioning, because he was serious; they wanted to see him because he was stronger than they were now, because they wanted to draw a certain sustenance from his strength’.

We as readers get the same sense of deja vu as Charlie does on revisiting the Parisian hotel in which he spent so much time; careful descriptions abound to create a vivid picture in the mind’s eye: ‘He was not really disappointed to find Paris was so empty.  But the stillness in the Ritz bar was strange and portentous.  It was not an American bar any more – he felt polite in it, and not as if he owned it…  Passing through the corridor, he heard only a single, bored voice in the once clamorous women’s room.  When he turned into the bar he travelled the twenty feet of green carpet with his eyes fixed straight ahead by old habit; and then, with his foot firmly on the rail, he turned and surveyed the room, encountering only a single pair of eyes that fluttered up from a newspaper in the corner’.  Throughout, Fitzgerald’s descriptions are sumptuous, and I was struck by the way in which he uses colour: ‘Outside, the fire-red, gas-blue, ghost-green signs shone smokily through the tranquil rain…  The Place de la Concorde moved by in pink majesty’.

As with Fitzgerald’s other work, Babylon Revisited and Other Stories is filled to the brim with splendid characterisation, gorgeous scenes, well-built emotion, and an ultimate air of believability.  Fitzgerald is so perceptive of his characters, whether young or old.  Honoria in ‘Babylon Revisited’, for example, is captured perfectly with just a few deft turns of phrase: ‘He waited in the dark street until she appeared, all warm and glowing, in the window above and kissed her fingers out into the night’.  Each and every one of the tales in this collection is perfectly plotted, and they are stunning in their own right.

A wealth of differing plots and settings have been used throughout; we have natural disasters, growing up, and poverty and its effects to name but three.  Fitzgerald also demonstrates how heavily engrained into society racism was.  Fitzgerald is a master of the short story form; one of his ultimate strengths lies in the way in which he succinctly weaves both a present and a past for each of his characters.  In this manner, it feels more often than not as though we as readers have been the companion of his protagonists throughout an entire novel, and not just a few pages of a story.

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And Other Stories: ‘Art in Nature and Other Stories’ by Tove Jansson *****

First published in July 2013.

Sort Of Books, who have already published five of Tove Jansson’s adult novels and story collections, as well as several of her Moomin books, have just released this new volume of her short stories, all of which are printed in English for the first time. The entire book has been translated by Thomas Teal, who won the Rochester Best Translated Book Award in 2011. This prize sets him in wonderful stead to translate one of Finland’s finest authors and to introduce more of her stories to a wider readership.

Art in Nature and Other Stories
 comprises eleven short stories, all of which are mesmerising from the outset. The title story, ‘Art in Nature’, tells of a ‘very old’ caretaker who has been put in charge of looking after a large art exhibition when it closes each night. He works alone through ‘the long, lonely evenings’, finding solace in the peace around him. One night he comes across a man and woman who have made their way into the exhibition past closing time. Rather than throw them out as protocol dictates, an impassioned and rather surprising discussion about art ensues.

The stories themselves are all rather varied, but there are many which feature protagonists who are artists or are involved with art in some way – a sculptor, a cartoonist, an actress and a writer of children’s books, amongst others. A story entitled ‘The Doll’s House’ follows an upholsterer with a love of classic novels ‘which enchanted him with their heavy patience’, who constructs an elaborate wooden house, assembling it bit by bit: it ‘would be allowed to grow however it wished, organically, room by room’. The characters in every story are beautifully portrayed. All are well-developed and feel like real, fully fleshed out people, and not a single one feels as though their construction has been rushed. Many touches of autobiography can be found throughout.

Jansson’s prose is absolutely and often startlingly beautiful. She describes everyday scenes with such deftness and skill that it feels as though we are viewing the scenes afresh. The reader is essentially given a new perspective through Jansson’s words, in which the wonders of the world are evident. In ‘Art in Nature’, she describes how the sculptures in the exhibition ‘grew up out of the grass, huge dark monuments in smooth incomprehensible formlessness or in tangled convulsions, challenging and disturbing’. The ideas woven throughout the majority of the stories are just lovely. A group of young people in ‘White Lady’ are described as being ‘like a flock of birds… that settle for a moment, for as long as it suits them’.

Ali Smith, author of novels including The Accidental and There But For The, states ‘that there can still be as-yet untranslated fiction by [Tove] Jansson is simultaneously an aberration and a delight, like finding buried treasure’ – a sentiment which could not be more true. To build up such rich, detailed stories within just a few pages as Jansson does here is masterful, and Teal’s translation of her work is faultless. Art in Nature and Other Stories is a pure delight from beginning to end. It is an absolute joy to read and certainly reaffirms Jansson’s position as a wonderful storyteller and a master of her craft.

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And Other Stories: ‘Something Childish and Other Stories’ by Katherine Mansfield *****

Written in April 2012

Although an incredibly famous figure in her home country of New Zealand, Katherine Mansfield does not seem to achieve the levels of press which she deserves in the United Kingdom. From reading her work, however, it is clear to see why she is declared a master of modernist fiction, and why New Zealand hail her as ‘a qualified national icon’.

Katherine Mansfield

Known almost solely for her wonderfully varied short story collections, Mansfield’s style, storylines and subject matter are always carefully chosen and compulsively readable. Her stories are often sarcastic and satirical, but some are hopeful and bright, thus creating an incredibly well-balanced oeuvre.

Over her writing career, Mansfield published four short story collections, beginning with the publication of In a German Pension in 1911 when she was just twenty-one years old. A further fifteen stories, collected together in The Dove’s Nest and Other Stories, were published after her untimely death from tuberculosis in 1923.

Something Childish and Other Stories encompasses the nine-year period between the publication of her first and second collections, and features several of her earlier efforts. It includes twenty-five separate stories, all of which feature a medley of diverse characters. It seems to be one of the least well-known of her short story collections, despite the fact that the power the stories have is just as strong as in her later writing.

Mansfield successfully evokes a complex tapestry of human emotions throughout Something Childish and Other Stories. This is particularly vivid in the title story, ‘Something Childish’, which follows a young man named Henry as he meets a “simply beautiful” red-haired girl named Edna on an otherwise monotonous train journey out of London. A wealth of emotions are peppered throughout the story – timidity, wonder, comprehension, misunderstandings and utter adoration. Throughout this particular story, the reader simultaneously feels hope and sympathy for Henry, as there is a sense of continuous foreboding that a poignantly depressing ending is just around the corner.

‘The Tiredness of Rosabel’, Mansfield’s first published story, creates an evocative picture of London as viewed by a young girl working in a milliners. Along with a past-tense narrative which conjures up Rosabel’s seemingly mundane job and the echoes of poverty apparent in her lodgings, there is an interwoven sense of perpetual daydream which gives the story an almost magical feel. In ‘A Suburban Fairy Tale’, the reader is presented with the adorable character of an inquisitive child named ‘Little B’, constantly asking questions of his parents who more often than not ignore him. A sense of fantasy and magical realism has been employed in this particular story, as the ending sees Little B turned into a sparrow, joining the birds which he is so enthralled with watching on the lawn.

Even in these earlier stories which Mansfield herself was never content with, the writing style seems incredibly polished and there are elements within each that truly surprise the reader in terms of their clarity. Tiny moments in the day-to-day existence of so many characters are portrayed as being paramount in defining their lives – from a small girl intent on pleasing her Father who is rewarded with a rap across the knuckles when the construction of his birthday gift goes horribly wrong in ‘The Little Girl’, to ‘Pénsion Seguin’ which deals with a woman intent on finding a room to let who is suddenly catapulted into frantic family life.

Many different settings have been used throughout, from the bustling city of London to colonial New Zealand life which is starkly portrayed in ‘Millie’ and ‘The Woman at the Store’. Whilst many other short story writers may have one or two stories within a published collection which do not seem to fit with the themes of those which precede them, the balance of Something Childish and Other Stories is near perfection.

The way in which Mansfield carefully selects the words she uses ensures that her writing is always striking. As well as mastering the elements of the short story and creating a wonderful wealth of work which can be dipped in and out of or read continuously whilst still holding the reader’s full attention, Mansfield is also a master of the narrative voice, using both first and third person perspectives. This collection includes two short plays which show how polished Mansfield is at creating believable dialogue. Slight dialects are suggested throughout – the country boy and girl in ‘See-Saw’, for example – which build up an even more three-dimensional picture of the characters which are infused within the stories themselves. This adds yet another dimension to Mansfield’s prose.

Mansfield’s work is heartrending, poignant and simply beautiful. Some of the exquisiteness of her writing comes from the way in which she presents ordinary beings in everyday situations, thus making her stories incredibly easy to relate to. Her stories can be read multiple times over the span of a lifetime and a wealth of different elements are guaranteed to be picked up by the reader on each separate occasion. The stories grow with us, and encompass the main elements of life – from birth to childhood, from courting to marriage, from naïvety and innocence to a heightened sense of experience.

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And Other Stories: ‘The Complete Short Stories of Elizabeth Taylor’ ****

Elizabeth Taylor is heralded as ‘one of the best novelists born in this [the twentieth] century’ by prolific author Kingsley Amis. Her work is enjoying a sudden surge in popularity, and every short story which the author wrote over her career – 65 in all – has been placed together in this volume, recently published by Virago. The majority of the stories printed here have previously been published in other books of Taylor’s collected work – Hester Lilly (1954), The Blush (1958), The Dedicated Man (1965) and The Devastating Boys (1972). Complete Short Stories also includes several stories which have only been published in magazines to date.

The volume has been introduced by Taylor’s daughter, Joanna Kingham. She states that ‘many of the stories have an autobiographical streak’, and echoes of Taylor can be found throughout.

Complete Short Stories is rather impressive merely in terms of the large number of stories it contains. Some, like ‘Hester Lilly’ are relatively long, and others fill just two or three pages. These shorter stories are certainly the most impressive, merely for the atmosphere which Taylor is able to build up in just a few sentences. Such vignettes really show her skill as an author.

Many of the stories are rich in detail and the majority launch straight into the story from the outset. Taylor’s descriptions work well with the stories she has fashioned. In the garden in ‘Hester Lilly’, ‘the leaves were large enough to look sinister, and all of this landscape with its tortured-looking ash trees, its too-prolific vegetation, had a brooding, an evil aspect’, and in ‘Spry Old Character’, it is explained how the protagonist views his surroundings: ‘country to him was negative: simply, a place where there was not a town’.

A host of different settings and storylines can be found throughout Complete Short Stories. They take place within, for example, a retirement home, a hospital room, a journey in rural France, a relatively neglected garden, and feature such subjects as birth, death, bereavement, couples growing apart, shifting relationships and ageing. This varied subject matter and the ordering of the stories allows them to be read continually, or in short bursts over a longer period of time.

Taylor’s stories are, essentially, glimpses into lives. We as readers meet many different characters in a whole host of varied situations and time periods, and feel that we grow to know them well for the most part. The characters themselves are relatively easy to empathise with. They are built up well and the details which Taylor includes about them make them seem like realistic individuals. In the first story ‘Hester Lilly’, Hester, whose name ‘had suggested to her [cousin Muriel] a goitrous, pre-Raphaelite frailty’ wears clothes which make her look ‘jaunty, defiant and absurd’. In ‘Poor Girl’, the young protagonist is described as an ‘alarmingly precocious’ child, whose teacher ‘thought that he despised his childhood, regarding it as a waiting time which he used only as a rehearsal for adult life’.

The stories do not all follow the same structure. Whilst the majority are told from the omniscient third person perspective, several do use the first person narrative voice of their protagonist or overseer. The prose itself is carefully written and most every word holds importance within the story, and Taylor makes rather original comparisons between objects. A good example of this is when she describes bracelets as ‘warm and heavy, alive like flesh’.

The book’s only downfall is that it does not cite where the stories were originally published, or the years in which they were written. This information would be incredibly useful in such a large collection of stories, as it would allow the reader to see how Taylor grew as a writer over the span of her career. The stories are all engrossing and the majority of them intrigue, making the reader want to read on.

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… And Other Stories Week

This coming week, I am going to be reposting some reviews written for a few of my favourite short story collections.  I adore short stories, and feel that they get overshadowed by novels – even on this blog.  I’d like to champion the art of the short story, those wonderful little slices of life, again, and am aiming to review far more collections in the future.  For now, I hope you enjoy the upcoming reviews, and that they inspire you to pick up a tale or two!