Short Fiction Week 1: Lydia Davis

I mentioned last time that I’m teaching a course on short fiction each semester this year. It’s been a while since I’ve taught it and I’m quite looking forward to it. I love novels, but it’s a relief to have a course without any. Short Fiction falls under my department’s Introduction to Literary Studies category, and is intended for Freshmen and Sophomores. These courses satisfy two of the general education requirements all students at my institution need to fulfill: Literary Studies and Writing Level 1 (W1). Thus although I hope to entice some of these students into at least thinking about majoring in English, the reality is that this is the only English course most of them will take.

It’s not easy teaching students how to develop their interpretive skills by reading attentively. But it’s even more challenging when I’ve also got to combine that task with teaching them how to write. Reading and writing go together, of course, but turning students into proficient writers takes a lot of time, both in class and in individual conferences with me. All of the assignments are structured into stages emphasizes revision. The dual aims—complementary but each daunting in its own right—make these classes hard to teach. (Fortunately, we were recently able to limit these classes to 18 students (it used to be 25) which helps quite a bit.) But I usually enjoy my introductory level courses a lot, especially in the fall semester. There’s nothing quite like the excitement—however undisciplined—of a first semester college student.

It doesn’t take long for the semester to get to the point where day-to-day survival is the only thing that matters. One of the first things to go by the wayside, at least for me, is my own writing, including here at the blog. I want to change that, and so this year I’ve decided to write each week about one of the stories we’re studying in class. I hope my dozens of loyal readers will keep me accountable. I welcome all gestures of support!

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Class met for the first time today, and I reserved the tedious business of going over class procedures & the syllabus for the last ten minutes and spent the rest of the time on a short piece by the contemporary American writer Lydia Davis. I’ve often taught her absolutely wonderful story “A Mown Lawn,” but this year I decided to go with something different, the first story in her most recent collection, Can’t and Won’t (2014). Davis is known for writing very short, very smart, often very funny stories, and this one is no exception. It’s called “A Story of Stolen Salamis” and here it is in its entirety:

A Story of Stolen Salamis

My son’s Italian landlord in Brooklyn kept a shed out back in which he cured and smoked salamis. One night, in the midst of a wave of petty vandalism and theft, the shed was broken into and the salamis were taken. My son talked to his landlord about it the next day, commiserating over the vanished sausages. The landlord was resigned and philosophical, but corrected him: “They were not sausages. They were salamis.” Then the incident was written up in one of the city’s more prominent magazines as an amusing and colorful urban incident. In the article, the reporter called the stolen goods “sausages.” My son showed the article to his landlord, who hadn’t known about it. The landlord was interested and pleased that the magazine had seen fit to report the incident, but he added: “They weren’t sausages. They were salamis.”

I started by asking the class what wasn’t in the story. Answers came pretty quickly: defined characters, description of the setting or much of anything else, and most importantly, details about the crime and its upshot. As one student cleverly put it—and this was by far way my favourite observation today—the story “leaves out the meat.” (That kid’s going far.)

Students were readily able to recognize the story’s obliquity, though it was a bit harder for them to see how much of that effect comes from Davis’s decision to tell the story in first person but without telling us very much about that person. We know only that she is the parent of a son who lives in Brooklyn and the possessor of both a good vocabulary and a wry, detached way of looking at the world, in short, that she is someone rather like Davis herself, which is why I use “she” here though there’s no indication of the narrator’s gender in the text itself, and it really doesn’t matter whether she’s like Davis at all. The narrator’s presence in the text is so minimal that it’s as if the story is taking the piss out of the convention that first person narrators are the heroes of their own stories. But that indirect, mediated quality is central to understanding the story.

I asked the class why the story was called “A Story of Stolen Salamis” rather than, say, “Stolen Salamis.” Isn’t the introductory phrase redundant, implied by the very existence of the text? And why “a” and not “the”? One student observed that “the” would mean there was only one story. But in this case there are at least two. There’s the story as a whole, and there’s the story within the story, the one reported in “one of the city’s more prominent magazines.” I reminded students that we use “story” to refer both to fiction and to fact. What links these uses are narrative and rhetorical conventions of the kind we’ll be studying in class. Certainly fiction seems to trump fact here, since the reporter—echoing the son (though it’s unclear how directly—the passive construction “the incident was written up” doesn’t tell us how the reporter found out about it—from the crime blotter, maybe?)—wrongly calls the stolen objects “sausages.” And although we didn’t actually talk about it, the quotation marks matter a lot. “Sausages” isn’t in quotation marks the first time the word appears in the story. Here the narrator is aligning herself—in her words, commiserating—with her son, as if to suggest that she too would have made that mistake. But the later reference to sausages—“In the article, the reporter called the stolen goods ‘sausages’”—is clearly not the narrator’s. Yet the sentence would have worked just fine without the quotation marks. We’d still know it was the reporter who had used the offending word. But in setting “sausages” off like that, the narrator distances herself from the glib and patronizing magazine.

She respects the landlord, who, thanks to his perhaps absurd but ultimately noble insistence on distinguishing salamis from sausages, is definitely the hero of the story. Preparing for class (how did anyone do that before the internet?) I looked up the difference between these terms, and everything I found said a salami is a kind of sausage, just one that is cured longer and is therefore drier. The difference, then, is subtle, but subtle differences matter a lot, especially when we’re reading literary texts. The main reason I wanted to start the course with this text—besides the fact that I like it so damn much—is that it’s such an elegant parable of interpretation, of how words matter, how we must always respect the specificity of whatever it is we’re interpreting. This precision can have other ends than linguistic ones, too, as one student noted by saying, when I asked them why the guy cares so much about the distinction anyway, that he might be asserting his Italian or Italian-American identity.

A fair point, but the identity the story really cares about isn’t ethnic or nationalistic but rather linguistic. Returning to the title, we can see that the most important word in it is not, as we might have expected, “stolen” (in other words, the drama of its narrative events, however absurd—the alliteration of the “stolen salamis” is like something from a Post headline:   “Stolen Salamis!”) but rather “salamis” (in other words, language itself, the importance of naming). In the end, I can’t quite figure what eh story wants to say about linguistic precision—after all, insisting that they were salamis doesn’t keep them from being stolen. Maybe, then, the joke is on the landlord? But I think the story presents him as a man of integrity rather than a pedant. And certainly not clichéd or casual like the reporter, a tone the story itself always seems to be skirting in its use of ready-made phrases like “a wave of petty vandalism and theft” or “an amusing and colorful urban incident.” For these phrases reduce the specificity of what exists in a way that completely opposes the landlord’s insistence on his salamis.

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There’s even more to be said about this story, I’m sure. But we said a lot in a short time—we got to most of these points, and I was pleased about that. I was less happy about how uneven the participation was—some students seemed much more engaged than others. But it’s too early to come to any conclusions as to what this group will be like. I’ll report back next week about how we’re getting on as we tackle stories by Balzac, Kipling, and Chekov. Stick around—that is, if you can stand to see how the sausages are made.

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How Danish is It? Naja Marie Aidt’s Baboon

Baboon–Naja Marie Aidt (2006)

Translated from the Danish by Denise Newman (2014)

Baboon, the debut collection in English by the Danish writer Naja Marie Aidt, has been getting a lot of buzz among bookish types. That was enough to get me to buy it, but not of course to read it. It had to compete for my attention with all the other books on my bedside table: books I had to read for work, books I had to read because they were coming due at the library, books I had to read so as not to face the books I had to read for work, books I had to read to satisfy obscure readerly projects of the sort I’m always setting for myself.

But Baboon spent only a short time in the purgatory of the TBR pile (most books sit there for years). I read it in two or three short sessions last weekend, impelled by the now inescapable fact that school is about to start up again. This year I am teaching a course on short fiction each semester and I always like to include a couple of recently published stories to help me decide what I really think about them. In this way I decided that I didn’t like Haruki Murakami or Etgar Keret as much as I thought I did, but that I liked Rachel Seiffert even more than at first. Although I’ve a few reservations about Aidt’s work, the collection impressed me enough that I’ve assigned the first story in the collection, “Bulbjerg,” for the first week of class.

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“Bulbjerg,” named after a prominent limestone cliff in Jutland, reminded me a bit of a Margaret Atwood story. There’s the same sense that however threatening the natural world might seem it isn’t nearly as hostile as the people lost in it. And a similar tone: Aidt has Atwood’s asperity and intelligence. “Bulbjerg” opens with an expression of wonder—“Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of an astonishing landscape: luminous, white sand dunes on all sides, wind swept, small trees twisting under the vast open sky”—but its dominant emotion is in fact fear. It’s fitting that “suddenly” is the story’s first word. A lot of dramatic things happen in its ten pages, just as they do in the other concise stories in the collection. But as PT Smith points out in an excellent review, eventfulness plus concision doesn’t equal clarity. As the story begins, the narrator, his wife, their six-year-old son, and their dog are lost in a forest. In the opening sentence they come up for air, but only by happenstance—note the passive construction “we found ourselves”—and not for long. They must plunge back into the forest to get where they are going. But where is that? And who are these people?

Aidt is good at menace, as in this scene from early in the story. The boy is tired, the family collapses to the ground. But time is passing. They need to get moving:

“Shouldn’t we get going?” you ask. I get up and suddenly notice how tired I am. My arms are completely limp and there’s an overwhelming feeling of weakness throughout my entire body. The water bottle is empty. The dog pants with its tongue hanging out of its mouth. You lift it into the cardboard box on the bike rack. Sebastian bravely picks up his bike and rides ahead of us. His bell rings with every bump on the road, and the flag he was so proud of when I mounted it on the rear mudguard looks cheap and shabby now. We ride on in silence.

The first time I read this, I was sure something terrible had happened, a catastrophe of some kind. A war, maybe, or a natural disaster. Maybe it was that cardboard box for the dog that got me thinking this way. Who takes their dog on a bicycle trip in a box? It seemed so desperate. Are they escaping something? Or maybe it was that bell, ringing its feeble warning, its futility only exacerbated by the cheap and shabby flag. What could have pushed this family to this point? They’ve run out of water, they’re tired, vacillating between barely restrained anger (“Shouldn’t we get going?) and silence.

But it’s not a catastrophe, at least not in the apocalyptic sense. It turns out that this is just a family outing gone awry, not life threatening, but dangerous nonetheless. Aidt captures perfectly that knife-edge between panic and exhaustion that sets upon you when you’ve lost your way in the woods. But she isn’t just describing that sensation—she’s also inciting it in us. In this story and in the others, readers are as lost as these characters. That’s because Aidt is always dropping us in the middle of things, leaving us to sort out who the characters are, how they’re related to each other, where they are and what they’re doing. And when we do figure these things out, we often have to wrestle with our feelings about them. There are not many likable characters in this collection, some are downright unpleasant, even disgusting. That’s true even in a story like “Interruption,” a kind of absurd experiment in the mode of Kafka or Gogol, when a middle-aged woman—a fugitive, it would seem, though this too is never made clear, from a newly opened “massage parlor” which is really nothing more than a brothel—bursts into the apartment of a graduate student, installs herself there (cooking and cleaning and offering other services besides) and refuses to leave. Our feelings towards the woman—the narrator thinks she is Thai or Filipino but can’t be bothered to find out for sure—remain unclear because we never get any access to her consciousness, and the narrator’s indignant and slightly revolted response to her is hard to get past. We know it tells us more about him than her, but she remains a cipher to us. I admire the way Aidt suggests the precariousness, even the danger of the woman’s life without using it to build sympathy. Similarly, I appreciate the way she makes the student, who in another story might seem sympathetically put upon, as much cold and calculating as bewildered and frustrated.

If I say these are confusing stories, then, I’m referring not to their style—Aidt’s sentences are straightforward, even plain—but to their emotional force. They refuse to offer us the consolations of protagonists that we can identify with and situations that we can embrace. Even when the characters threaten to become caricatures the stories wrong-foot us, as in the case of the self-satisfied hedonist of “Wounds,” whose life falls apart when an innocuous boil on his ass becomes a horrifying, life threatening, baffling disease. We can’t enjoy disparaging him, yet we don’t quite ever come to sympathize with him either.

So when I say these stories left a bad taste in my mouth you shouldn’t take that as criticism, exactly, but rather as recognition that they’ve done the work they set out to do. These stories don’t ask to be loved—they’re the opposite of ingratiating—so what’s left might be admiration. And I do admire them, certainly enough that I want to read Aidt’s first novel, also just out in English translation. And I’m curious how I’ll feel about “Bjulberg,” at least, after I’ve taught it next week.

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Baboon is translated by Denise Newman. As always when I read translations from a language I don’t know, I’m at a loss as to what to say about her efforts, beyond expressing deep gratitude for giving me access to books I’d never otherwise be able to read. I could say the translation seems fluent and skillful, which it does, but in the absence of the original I’ve no idea. I do wonder, however, and this doesn’t have to do with the specifics of this translation but of its very existence in English translation (and thanks are due to Two Lines Press for publishing these stories, and in such a handsome edition). As I read the book, I thought about what Tim Parks has been saying repeatedly over the past few years—that “international” or “world” literature is increasingly governed by the unstated, free-floating, but no less powerful desire to be translated into English, such that a straightforward style (more Raymond Carver than Henry James, say) and a lack of cultural specificity have come, however unconsciously, to govern the production of literature already in their original form, let alone in the decision (always as much economic as aesthetic) to translate that literature into English. If I understand him right, Parks thinks there is a whole canon of world literature that is being written in ways that make it amenable to being translated into English.

Whatever one thinks of Parks’s claims—I like him because he’s kind of cranky and intemperate, our own D. H.Lawrence, even though I think he might be exaggerating the case—I think there’s a useful question to be asked about what we want from literature in translation. Another way to say what I mean is that I found myself wondering as I read this collection whether there was anything particularly Danish about it. Which in turn made me wonder, what the hell would that even mean and why would I want it? Was I expecting a landscape tastefully littered with Arne Jacobsen chairs? It’s condescending to expect the foreign to be exotic, or to correspond to one’s received idea of a place (these things usually mean the same thing). And yet the suggestion, made in a blurb on the back cover, that these stories are “universal” (which I take to mean, “could be American!”) seems similarly condescending and disrespectful. Maybe it’s knowing so little about Denmark other than a few television shows and crime novels (as well as an abiding conviction that it must be the loveliest place on earth) that makes me feel this way.

But I did decide, as I always do, not to include Babel on my short fiction syllabus, even though those stories are wonderful, because they strike me as likely to seem foreign to my students in ways my course doesn’t have the time to explicate. Aidt, on the other hand, will I suspect resonate strongly with students. The comparison could be better, I know: anything written a century ago needs context in a way something written today doesn’t (though I do teach plenty of early twentieth century texts in this course). But I can’t help thinking that the ready amenability of these stories to being translated into English is a kind of fault. And yet as soon as I do I remember the disreputable narrator of “Bulbjerg” and his desperate family, as lost to each other as they are in the woods, and unsettling to us. Perhaps I’ve been fooled in my thinking. Perhaps these are uniquely Danish stories. Perhaps there is no such thing as a Danish story. Perhaps the apparently assimilable style of Baboon is a false friend, only an apparent cognate. Perhaps I’m not giving these surprising and sly stories their full due.

A Summer’s Worth of Crime Fiction

Summer isn’t over yet, of course, especially not in Arkansas. But my summer almost is. Administrative duties begin this week, and the first day of classes is only three weeks away. I’m sure I’ll dispose of a few more crime novels before the semester really starts to pinch, but for now here are a few thoughts about some I’ve read lately:

Gallows View—Peter Robinson (1987)

The first in the long-running Inspector Banks series, and a pretty good debut. For a while there I read the new installments of this series religiously. I’m a few behind now, not sure why, they’re always solid, often much better than that, and Banks is likeable enough, a kinder, less tormented Rebus. I don’t always need to know so much about the music he’s listening to, though. I’d never read the first five or six, though, and it’s interesting to compare the later installments to the first one. Robinson has become a better writer, but already here he shows a light touch in explaining the story of Banks’s move from London to Yorkshire. And his pacing is good, too. At 250 pages this book is the right length. I’ve bemoaned many times the bloat in crime fiction, with novels regularly topping 400 pages. In fact, Robinson himself has since succumbed to this tendency. Still, meeting Inspector Banks has reignited my interest in the series and I plan to read the next few.

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The Strangler Vine—M . J. Carter (2014)

This first time novel by a historian begins what promises to be a very good series. Someone recommended this in the TLS Summer Reading series, and I’m glad I followed up on it. William Avery is a young soldier recently arrived in India in the 1830s. Languishing in Calcutta before joining his regiment, he is charged with accompanying Jeremiah Blake to find a well-known poet, the Walter Scott of Anglo-India, who has gone missing. Blake is a shadowy figure who is employed by the East India Company but lives in disrepute in the “native” part of the city, and in fact seems to have repudiated the Company altogether. Avery is naïve, a bit complacent and blustery, though a good sort. Blake is mercurial, expert in a dozen Eastern languages, an expert at tracking people who don’t want to be found. There’s an extended “meet cute” in which Blake is contemptuous of Avery and Avery horrified by Bake before each comes to appreciate the other, work as a team, etc. Avery is disabused of his faith in the Company; Blake regains some of his faith in the human race. So far, so conventional. Fortunately, Carter doesn’t push the Holmes/Watson comparison too hard. And her knowledge of the period is impressive. She describes the 1830s as a time when an earlier openness on the part of Company officials for India’s cultural traditions was hardening into something more dogmatic and oppressive, an incipient White Man’s Burden. The book drags a little at times, especially in the middle third, usually when Carter tries to burden her story with too much information. But the ending is genuinely moving and I look forward to the next installment, which, it seems, will be set somewhere quite different. (Already out in the UK—Book Depository order necessary? Hmm…)

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Invisible City—Julia Dahl (2014)

I read this because it’s ostensibly about the Hasidic community in New York. But it’s actually about the newspaper business in the era of social media, which interests me a lot less. Dahl’s portrayal of an insular world in which wrongdoings are overlooked in a tacit understanding between community leaders and secular officials is fine as far as it goes. But Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker piece from last year explores the same topic much more probingly. It tells you something that a few later I can’t even remember the protagonist’s name, but she has a complicated back-story that allows her access to this relatively closed world. I didn’t find that story interesting enough to want to read the just-released follow-up.

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Oblivion—Arnaldur Indridason (2014/2015 English translation Victoria Cribb)

Indridason is one of my absolute favourites and I always order his books from the UK since they come out a year earlier there. Some are stronger than others, of course, but this one is particularly good. A couple of years ago, Indridason concluded his series centered on his melancholy detective, Erlendur. But then he had the idea of writing about Erlendur’s early days. Last year’s Reykjavik Nights showed us Erlendur’s life as a traffic cop in the early 70s. In this follow-up, set a few years later, Erlendur has become a detective. He investigates two unrelated crimes, one recent and one from twenty years earlier. The resonances between them—they are linked only thematically, in relation to the American military presence in Iceland after the war—are intriguing but not hammered home. I’ve written before about my love of Iceland, so maybe this stuff interests me more than most people. But everyone ought to appreciate how almost insistently low-key these books are. Indridason is especially good at showing how awkward it can be to investigate crimes in a small country, where everybody almost knows everybody else.

Dissolution—C. J. Sansom (2003)

I’m not much of one for classical/medieval/Renaissance-era historical mysteries, but I quite liked this first installment of a series centered on Matthew Shardlake, a hunchbacked lawyer working for Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s who increasingly finds himself torn over his master’s methods. At least I liked it until I read Jenny’s damning but compelling complaint about the implausibility of importing what are essentially 19th/20th century narrative protocols on to the Early Modern period. After that I liked it less. I might continue with the series anyway, though: the first one was definitely readable, and I enjoyed the counter-perspective on Cromwell, who I only know from Hilary Mantel. This book is fine, but it’s no Wolf Hall! Think Sansom is tired of hearing that yet?

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The Red Moth—Sam Eastlake (2013)

Found this while in Canada and it seemed like the kind of thing that might be hard to get in the US, plus I’m a total sucker for WWII crime/espionage fiction. The inspector is a Finn who once worked for the Tsar and then was recalled from Siberian exile and put to work for Stalin. It’s all most implausible—Stalin is even a character, which doesn’t work out too well: I get that the point is that he’s not a frothing madman, but the picture of him as simply a malign functionary is fairly preposterous. A perfectly adequate vacation read, but I doubt I’ll be getting to the rest of the series anytime soon.

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Ngaio Marsh—A Man Lay Dead (1934)

Marsh is one of the most famous Golden Age British crime writers along with Christie, Allingham, and the utterly glorious Tey. This is the first of her Inspector Alleyn series. It’s not perfect—Marsh can’t quite seem to figure out what she wants Alleyn to be like: is he nice, is he brooding, is he a bit callous?—but it’s thoroughly enjoyable, a classic country house murder with a hint of espionage. Read it—it absolutely stands the test of time. Looking forward to reading more of her work.