These four collections of short stories or novellas provide an instructively large dose of a kind of literary experience I usually avoid, since I tend to skip such pieces when I come across them in the pages of magazines. The short story is a paradoxical form in that it is both common and neglected: one or two specimens, at least, are to be found in any self-respecting intellectual quarterly or glossy monthly—see the recent exchange in these columns between Nigel Dennis and Anthony West about the propriety of writing for Mademoiselle—yet no one seems very interested in the theoretical justification and possibilities of the short story, a situation that contrasts with recent strenuous attempts to erect a poetics of the novel. It is true that collections of short stories, overlaid with commentary and annotation, are popular as college textbooks: the New Critical assumption that all literature is really poetry, or at least can be read as poetry, is difficult to apply to the novel, but can serve very well with a few pages of self-contained fiction that can be gone over in class and given the theme-symbol-image treatment just as though it were a poem. Yet this approach, illuminating though it may be, and pedagogically useful, is surely remote from the way most readers receive the short story, and, for that matter, how most writers conceive of it.
The short story—as opposed to the traditional tale or anecdote—is, after all, a remarkably young form, which only came into its own with the development of the popular magazine in the final decades of the last century. It was at this period that the acknowledged masters of the form arose: Maupassant, Chekhov, Kipling. About the same time, and early in this century, there was also a brilliant use made of the short story form by men who were essentially novelists: James, Lawrence, Joyce. At this point, one may say, there was a fortunate coincidence of individual genius, intellectual climate, and the state of development of a genre: but since then, few writers have been equally accomplished in both long and short fiction. One of the few useful critical studies of the short story that I have come across is an unpretentious book by Frank O’Connor published a few years ago, in which he remarks that in its essence the short story deals with life’s victims, the insulted and injured, the forlorn and alienated. This seems to me a shrewd remark, and one very much borne out by the present batch of books, which contains uniformly accomplished renderings of the defeat of human aspiration by brutish circumstance, whether the victims are Moroccan peasants, as with Mr. Bowles, or American middle-class housewives, as with Mr. Herlihy. No one would want to deny that such defeats, whether violent or mild, are a perennial part of the human condition, providing the kind of drama that the fiction writer is always looking for.
NEVERTHELESS, there is, I think, a small but highly significant difference between writing about victims and seeing the world as peopled by them. Sooner or later critics of fiction will have to take to heart some of the demonstrations made about the visual arts in Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, and apply its lessons to literature. Although the writer may aim at a direct rendering of reality, and the reader may believe that this is what he is receiving, such directness is likely to be illusory. Distortion will occur, not just from the author’s temperament, which can be recognized and allowed for, but much more insidiously from the inherent presuppositions and limitations of the genre he is employing. It seems to me that the modern short-story writer is bound to see the world in a certain way, not merely because of our customary atmosphere of crisis, but because the form of the short story tends to filter down experience to the prime elements of defeat and alienation.
Again, most stories are written for publication in a limited number of possible places; although their requirements may not be quite consciously in the author’s mind when he is writing they will certainly exert their pressures somewhere along the line: the four writers I am dealing with acknowledge periodical publication in such places as Esquire, Playboy, Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, the Atlantic Monthly, and Commentary. Making a possible tentative exception of the last named, one can say that such publications do not aim at a consciously defeated and alienated audience; the short stories they carry, with their sense of humiliation and despair, exist in a curious tension with the editorial and advertising pages, full of messages of hope, worldly success, and sexual glory. The fiction provides the necessary touch of astringency, which, though likely to be quickly read and quickly forgotten, may touch some raw nerve of uncertainty or guilt.
IN A MORE narrowly literary way, one can say that appearing in these magazines does impose on the writers a very high level of stylistic competence: where space is limited, no words can be wasted. The combination of a sharp economy of narrative means with a profoundly bleak view of the human lot produces a characteristic tone of moral brittleness that I find recurring throughout these books. The basic pattern is predictable. Two or three or four specimens of humanity, neither very elevated nor repellently wretched at the outset, are shown to the reader and characterized with a few deft touches; their strengths and, far more important, their weaknesses are shown with exactly the right blend of compassionate understanding and cleareyed detachment. The narrative moves steadily and economically to a crisp moment of defeat; and then, diminuendo, to a bleeping finish with, again, just the right mixture of pathos and irony. Here, by way of illustration, are the conclusions of four stories by these authors; the tendency toward a uniform tone is very apparent:
Tears came to the eyes of Miss Roth as she turned to her work and I to mine. There were no tears in my eyes, nor in the eyes of any man whose heart is drained by delusions and afraid of love.
When she had walked several yards down the lane, she turned to glance over her shoulder and found Mrs. Kay standing in the middle of her patio still looking at her with the same, naked, depressing stare.
Under her breath, Loretta said, “Die. Disappear. Turn to ashes.”
But when Mrs. Kay waved at her, she waved right back.
“Another year, perhaps,” the captain had said. She saw her own crooked, despairing smile in the dark window-glass beside her face. Maybe Slimane would be among the fortunate ones, an early casualty. “If only death were absolutely certain in wartime,” she thought wryly, “the waiting would not be so painful.” Listing and groaning, the train began its long climb upwards over the plateau.
She turned the three facts over and over, like three pebbles in her hand. They were cool and solid and round, and she did not know what she would do with them. But they were—they existed; and suddenly she felt the weight of her life, of herself, laid upon her bare bones.
The tendency to write about life’s victims also shows itself in a concern with forms of consciousness that are exceedingly limited: children, imbeciles, and persons in a low state of cultural development (to use as untendentious a formula as possible). The writing expressing such states of mind is very adroitly done, but I have considerable doubts about how far it is based on direct observation or intuition, and how far it relies, perhaps unconsciously, on established literary models. There is a relevant instance in the title novella of Miss Bingham’s collection, which is about a difficult transatlantic voyage made by a homely children’s nurse and her two singularly unattractive charges. We are given an insight into the little boy’s mind:
He began to sing, “Planks, planks, planks. Tanks, tanks, tanks. If you want to build a tank, you got to have a plank. Planks…” The word began to loose its shape, sagging and stretching like a wet sweater hung from the neck. If he said it once more, it wouldn’t mean anything at all. Once when his mother was driving him to Sunday school, he had said “Gasoline station” so many times it was practically ruined. “What does that mean I’m saying?” he had asked his mother in a fright, and she had said, “You know perfectly well what it means, after all, you’re almost eight years old.” For months after that, he had avoided saying gasoline station for fear that it would stretch again and lose its shape for good.
This passage demonstrates Miss Bingham’s professionalism, and it shows the rather persistently knowing tone that the actual or implied narrators of short fiction seem constrained to adopt. Whether it represents an accurate rendering of the thought processes of a small child is not something I can give an opinion about, even though I have three children of my own; but it corresponds very faithfully to the way we have learned to imagine those processes, from such sources as the opening pages of A Portrait of the Artist and the early stories in Dubliners.
CHARACTERISTICALLY, both Mr. Herlihy and Mr. Bowles have first-person stories told by mad narrators. The former has a brilliant little piece about a mental patient who thinks the world is being overrun by the sound that cartoonists denote as ZZZZ, although he cherishes certain private antidotes: “I’m absolutely certain the ZZZZ of the razor did not really penetrate. I kept saying K-K-K-K-K-Kill, K-K-K-Kill over and over again the whole time, and I’m sure those good hard sounds counteracted the ZZZZ almost entirely.” I admire much in Mr. Herlihy: he is a superb stylist, as his longer fiction has already made plain; but in his stories everything is liable to be consumed by style. In the parallel story by Paul Bowles a somewhat confused maniac devises a scheme for inserting packets of poisoned gum in the vending machines on subway stations. But he bungles the scheme and is left with all the poisoned gum on his hands; the story concludes:
It is a lovely evening. After dinner I am going to take all forty boxes to the woods behind the school and throw them on the rubbish heap there. It’s too childish a game to go on playing at my age. Let the kids have them.
Critics have already placed Mr. Bowles as a writer of Gothic tendency with a taste for gamey, melodramatic situations and not much liking for humanity. This is a fair enough description of his short stories; still one must insist on his extreme verbal skill, while finding what he does with it very limited and ultimately monotonous. He places his characters before us and then destroys them in an unerring way: it is a remarkable performance, but one expects something more from literature.
I’M AFRAID I may have been unfair to Meyer Liben, who is a highly original and interesting writer, and who seems to me have a good deal more to offer than does Herlihy or Bowles, and certainly than Miss Bingham, who is very competent but who relies heavily on the short story formula to compensate for the thinness of her material. At least, I enjoyed considerably the title story of Justice Hunger, which is in fact a short novel of 140 pages. It tells the story of a love affair that doesn’t come to very much, between two young New York intellectuals in the Thirties, set in a milieu—that is more than a mere background—of eager left-wing activism, and bitter feuding between Trotskyists and Stalinists. Mary McCarthy has described this situation in her early fiction, and Mr. Liben must have been similarly involved, although he seems to have waited longer before writing about it. His manner is very much his own; cool but not to the point of coldness; seemingly hesitant, and yet highly articulate. He writes with serenity, a fairly rare quality nowadays. In the shorter pieces he tends to succumb to the limitations. I have been discussing, though not invariably; in some of them he shows an admirable tendency to write against the grain of the short-story form instead of going smoothly along with it, and his book is given a certain unity by one’s sense of the sympathetic personality and quiet but keen intelligence underlying it.
Many of the characteristics I have ascribed to the short story—in particular, the tendency to what Frank Kermode once called, apropos of Salinger, “a built-in death wish”—could also be found in novels; but the novelist, although subject to all kinds of generic and cultural factors, can more easily transcend them, and see the world in his own way, rather than the way in which literary form or the presuppositions of an audience make him see it. For all its popularity, and apparent necessity to magazine editors, the short story, in its present condition, seems to be unhealthily limited, both in the range of literary experience it offers and its capacity to deepen our understanding of the world, or of one another.
November 9, 1967