Tag Archives: Short story

All the Christmases roll down

Every person, every family, will have their rituals today.

From food to gifts to visiting, Christmas routines have a durable, longstanding feeling. Even those who dislike the day have their trusted way of doing so.

My habit is waking early on Christmas morning and taking 15 minutes to read a story written by the poet Dylan Thomas.

A Child’s Christmas In Wales, written in 1950 but composed in stages over the preceding years, was famously recorded for broadcast by a cash-strapped Thomas in New York in 1952. The poet died a year later and the story was published in 1954.

A dream-memory of an early 20th century Christmas in seaside Welsh village, on the face of it the story, its characters and movement, are from a different world.

It’s a place one of snow, cats, sleeping old men, postmen on icy laneways, “always uncles”, an frost-bound hibernating town above a “forlorn sea” at the foot of a white world.

It’s opening lines are, to me, a pure seam of Christmas memory and emotion – a childhood distilled, words worth reading once a year.

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find…”

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Reading, the long and short of it

What would Cervantes, Tolstoy or Wallace think? Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

Unimpressed? Cervantes, Tolstoy, Wallace.
Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

HOW long is too long?

Around 250 pages – if you’re award-winning novelist Ian McEwan.

More than one reader probably slammed down their Hilary Mantel in disgust last week on encountering the writer’s comments on the length of the modern novel.

Using his new release, The Children Act, as a convenient guide, McEwan reckoned 65,000 words is about the right length for a book nowadays.

Such a work can be read in one sitting, he suggests, “like enjoying a three-hour movie or opera”.

Moreover, “very few really long novels earn their length…the Americans especially love a really huge novel…a real brick of an object.”

This shorter-is-better mindset shouldn’t surprise anyone. McEwan is about as far from an American as I can imagine, and most of his novels clock in well under 250 pages.  (The much-lauded On Chesil Beach runs to 166, placing it firmly in novella territory.)

"A real brick of an object."

“A real brick of an object.”

One can only imagine what David Foster Wallace (1079 – Infinite Jest), Cervantes (1072 – Don Quixote) or Leo Tolstoy (1225 – War And Peace) would make of it all.

As a reader (or masochist) who has made it through Moby Dick (625) twice in his 36 years I’m not on McEwan’s page on this.

His comments did get me thinking, though. What was the last 800-page novel I read? And, for that matter, when was the last time I watched a three-hour movie?

It’s been a while, on both counts. But I haven’t avoided longer books because, as McEwan suggests, characters should be established “very quickly” and one or two subplots is enough.

If only it was that simple. Like most people the reason I avoid longer books is time.

Time that’s eaten into by digital grazing, by work, by working out, by (sometimes) just wanting to sit in a room and stare at the ceiling.

Any number of reasons, really. But they combine and conspire to cut into reading time and the concentration required to read.

A slim Steinbeck.

Flat boy – slim.

When my time comes under pressure like this shorter books quickly look more attractive. And so I buy The Children Act and not The Goldfinch, lamely convincing myself that I will, one day, get to Donna Tartt’s 784 pager. (Spoiler: I won’t.)

But once or twice a year, usually on vacation when the time pressure eases, I’ll attempt something longer – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on a two-week trip last May, for example.

The increased time investment usually yields a greater reward – more time spent with characters, deeper immersion in plot – and I tell myself I should really do this more often.

And then my eye is caught by a slim Steinbeck and I’m back in the sub-65,000 aisle again.

With a clear two-week period coming up soon I’m already promising myself great things: maybe even Murakami’s gargantuan 1Q84 (brace yourself …928).

We’ll see. Maybe it’s time for a very short story (4), just while I decide.

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Meeting Hemingway above Howth

'Even the surface had been burned off the ground.'

‘Even the surface had been burned off the ground.’

There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.
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Six years after the First World War Ernest Hemingway wrote his short story Big Two-Hearted River.

In 1918, on his first day posted in the village of Fossalta in northern Italy as an ambulance driver, the 19-year-old Hemingway found himself combing a field for body parts, following a munitions factory explosion.

Days later he was seriously injured when a mortar shell exploded close to him. He was hospitalised for six months in Milan and left Italy on his discharge in early 1919.

Ernest Hemingway fishing at Walloon Lake, Michigan, 1916. Pic: USNARA

Ernest Hemingway fishing at Walloon Lake, Michigan, 1916.
Pic: USNARA

What he witnessed in his brief time in northern Italy provides a context to a number of the writer’s early works.

It’s perhaps most explicit in Big-Two Hearted River, written in 1925. The story documents a hunting trip in Northern Michigan, undertaken by newly-discharged narrator Nick Adams.

It is is read as a parable for the rejuvenating powers of nature, as Nick leaves the burnt-out town of Seney behind to hike and hunt into the uplands, to locate a place where “nothing could touch him”.

It also introduces a trope that would recur in Hemingway’s later writing: the juxtaposition of mountain against the plain, one representing purity, healing and principle, the other baseness, danger or corruption.

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Last Sunday my wife and I left the city and travelled to Howth, a coastal village 15km north of Dublin’s centre. It had been a long time since we’d hiked. Weeks of the day-to-day had led us both to simultaneously suggest the trip.

Leaving behind the crowds of visiting students, strolling families and traffic we hiked out and above the village to a coastal trail which winds along the cliffs overlooking the Irish Sea.

An hour in, walking the cliff path, we turned a corner and hiked into Nick Adams’ Seney.

The hillside all around was scorched and blackened and the sea air smelt liked cinders.

Days or weeks earlier a fire had been set, burning the grass under the gorse off the ground and much of the gorse itself, with the exception of some golden leaves above the fire line.

All that remained below were burned-up beer cans and glass, and an expanse of dusty black earth.

We walked on, up and out through the desolation to where we turned and there, from a height and in the distance and the clearing air, was the sight of Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.

We had reached our destination, a hillside washed green by recent rains. The sun shone on the water, the Dublin mountains framed the bay, nothing could touch us.

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Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned. He knew that…
Two hundred yards down the hillside the fire line stopped. Then it was sweet fern, growing ankle high, to walk through, and clumps of jack pines; a long undulating country with frequent rises and descents, sandy underfoot and the country alive again.

_____

'Nothing could touch us.' Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.

‘Nothing could touch us.’ Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.

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*The excerpts above from ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ are from The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Editon (Scribner, 1987)

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In search of the perfect opening line

He got game. Ernest Hemingway on safari.

He got game.
Ernest Hemingway on safari.

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a lingual man in possession of an empty page must be in want of a good opening line.

This crossed my mind recently while browsing through some short stories and, more pressingly, when I sat to write this post.

As a journalist my default setting is usually to put the most important info in the first line.

Writers of fiction, novels or short stories, require a different approach.

Some of my favourite fictional first lines are a short, shocking stab. Others are longer, introducing an image or setting a mood. Others yet bear comparison to a short poem.

Some are one line, some are more.

The best are always singular, the very best perfect. But no good ones are incidental.

Analysing what makes a perfect opening line is difficult; the best way to do it is to simply read the best examples, cut loose from their source titles.

With this in mind I decided to assemble my top five.

Here they are, with a hint to the work in question afterwards.

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“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

So begins one Welshman’s childhood chronicle.

_____

A whale of a time. Herman Melville.

A whale of a time.
Herman Melville.

“It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

A nothing that comes back to haunt one big-game hunter – and his wife.

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“Call me Ishmael”.

The only time anyone does, it turns out.

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“Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.”

The first of three opening lines, one for each hero.

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His sheet metal memory. John Steinbeck.

His sheet metal memory.
John Steinbeck.

And, finally.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and the scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants, and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.”

So the story of Mack and the boys, and all humanity, begins.

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‘People always clap for the wrong things’

J.D. Salinger. Cover of Time, Sept 15, 1961.

Portrait of J.D. Salinger,Time, Sept 15, 1961.

WHY ALL the fuss about three unpublished J.D. Salinger stories?

Why indeed. News that the three works had leaked online last week made headlines on news sites worldwide.

No doubt part of the furore was fuelled by literary interest but most of it had less to do with the writings and more with the persona of Salinger the Recluse.

“The appearance of the stories would have undoubtedly enraged Salinger” wrote one commentator, a summation of the general consensus on the leak and a hint that more of the interest concerns the stories’ publication rather than their actual content.

Of course the author’s opinion matters little. Salinger died in 2010 and – even if he was alive – his sole public comment on the matter would likely have been by way of legal writ.

Public opinion itself may have just as little impact. After all how many people went beyond the headlines to seek out and read the stories over the past week?

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Who reads Salinger nowadays anyway?

A week or so before news broke of the three unpublished stories I was sitting with a friend in a Dublin bar when the topic of The Catcher In The Rye came up.

D had just completed it for the first time and we agreed that this was unusual, given the book’s popular (if inaccurate) reputation as a touchstone for teenagers.

"I was wondering where the ducks went..."  Pond, Central Park, New York

“I was wondering where the ducks went…”
Pond, Central Park, New York

A conversation followed  on the book’s appeal, the character of Holden Caulfield, the famous metaphor of the ducks on the lagoon near Central Park South, and some of its more famous lines (“People always clap for the wrong things,” being one).

We agreed that the book was re-readable, a classic, a work capable of altering your view of the world.

Then it occurred to me: what other Salinger had I read, or could I recall?

I remember pushing through Franny And Zooey, unable to sleep from jet lag in a hotel room not too far from the Glass family’s fictional Upper East Side apartment. I found the two works tiring at times, occasionally self-indulgent, unimpressive.

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Returning home that evening I dug out my unread copy of Nine Stories, a collection of pieces which mostly appeared in the New Yorker and which established Salinger’s literary reputation before the celebrity of The Catcher In The Rye altered it beyond his, or anyone else’s, control..

Unlike the three leaked stories the author consented to the publication of this 1953 collection; it’s regarded as containing a number of his best short works.

Nine Stories.

Nine Stories.

The Salinger here is far removed from the recluse, the litigant or curmudgeon, of popular culture.

Though familiar themes are present (the sanctity of childhood and innocence, perfectly paced dialogue, a sly, not unkind humour) this is a collection mostly about war.

Salinger served as an infantryman, landed on Utah Beach and witnessed the horrors of a concentration camp near Dachau. He was later hospitalised for combat stress reaction.

The conflict, and its after-effects, linger in the background of some of the stories and are front centre in others (the collection’s centrepiece, For Esmé – with Love And Squalor, addresses post-traumatic stress disorder).

While Holden Caulfield’s catcher tries to save children from loss of innocence the best of Nine Stories celebrates innocence regained – through moments of human connection and self-realisation.

Or as war-weary soldier ‘X’ writes, having finally found peace of mind by way of a kind letter from the orphan Esme and her little brother: “You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”

Three new Salinger stories? Best try these Nine.

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