22 outubro 2009

A brief survey of the short story

What a strange bird Saki is. His stories, written between 1900 and his death at the Somme in 1916, bear the hallmarks of Oscar Wilde and Henry James, are as funny as Wilde, Wodehouse and Waugh, possess plotting exquisite enough to bear significant elaboration but rarely last longer than three pages, and are brought off with a wonderfully light touch, while presenting a disturbingly chilling portrait of humankind.

Hector Hugh Munro's pen-name refers either to the cupbearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, which is spoken of disparagingly in more than one of his stories, or a type of South American monkey. I prefer to think it was the latter: not only did Saki have an abiding love for animals, but his mischievousness and capability for sudden viciousness are traits that seem, at least to my limited zoological knowledge, eminently monkey-like.

Saki's stories form a connective tissue between Oscar Wilde's 1890s and Evelyn Waugh's 1920s. His settings – garden parties, country house weekends and gentlemen's clubs – are typically Edwardian, but their wit, polished to a stunning brilliance, is underpinned by a satirical urge that is pitiless, and at times seemingly malicious.

Indeed, if Saki's talents for humour and plotting weren't so pronounced his fiction's procession of vapid hostesses, venal politicians, sour endings, macabre incidents and the blithely murderous could potentially make for a dismal repast. Instead, the world he renders is at once horrific, recognisably our own and yet for the most part a thoroughly enjoyable – or at least stimulating – one in which to linger.

What both appeals and repels in Saki's writing is his utter and absolute lack of sentiment, which makes his skewering of society thrillingly acerbic. But the feeling one has when reading the stories is that his characters are as nothing to him. If they do receive some sort of esteem from the author it's primarily because they prove themselves adept at exploiting the weaknesses of others. There are many arch and satirical writers in English letters, but few of them are as relentlessly cold as Saki.

After a short time spent as a policeman in Burma (footsteps in which George Orwell would later follow) and the publication of a history of Russia that no one read, Saki turned to fiction in 1900 with a series lampooning Westminster politicians (a habit he happily never grew out of). While his stories cover a wide range of subjects and styles, the two characters to whom he most often returns are Reginald, a controversy-loving, foppish libertine, and Clovis, a slightly more fleshed out variation on the theme.

These two characters and their companions, particularly Bertie van Tahn, whom you could easily imagine having just come from lunch with Bertie Wooster whenever he crosses the path of Clovis, operate in the Wodehousian mode. Through boredom they generate scrapes, or help others escape scrapes, and in the process some element of polite society or public morality is shown to be ludicrous.

It should be noted that Jeeves and Wooster didn't make their debut until 1917, the year after a sniper's bullet put an end to Munro in a shell crater, but to call Wodehouse's creations "Sakian" would, for reasons of reputation and literary fame, be perverse. There's every reason for Saki devotees to believe this might change, however. Firstly because anyone who loves Wodehouse and hasn't read Saki is missing a trick, and secondly because, as Will Self noted in a 2007 documentary, "Saki's stories are highly relevant to any society in which convention is confused with morality, and all societies confuse convention with morality, so he'll always be relevant."

Another thing that recommends Saki to the modern reader and perhaps explains why he remains somewhat obscure is his ability to shock. Nestling in the gloomier crevices of his work are macabre pieces the horror of which the century since their composition has done nothing to dilute. Some take straightforward domestic shape, such as The Reticence of Lady Anne, in which a put-upon husband tries to patch up an argument with his wife, not realising that she is sitting in stony silence because she is dead. Others, including the pagan-themed The Music on the Hill, appear to take their cues from Munro's near contemporary MR James.

Even when Saki is not writing explicitly "horrific" stories, however, the unease is present. His stories are more subtle variations on what William Burroughs, writing of Naked Lunch, described as the "frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork". Or as VS Pritchett put it, "Saki writes like an enemy. Society has bored him to the point of murder. Our laughter is only a note or two short of a scream of fear."

Julio Cortázar:

Since his death in 1984, Argentine novelist, poet and short story writer Julio Cortázar's reputation in the English-speaking world has fluctuated, the trend heading more towards a waning than a waxing. Known-of rather than widely read, some recognition is still afforded him as the author of the 1963 novel Hopscotch, and also of the excellent short story from which Blowup, Michelangelo Antonioni's iconic depiction of Swinging 60s London, was liberally adapted.

Hopscotch's reputation comes partly from its experimental form: a three-part novel comprising numbered paragraphs, it can be read according to an alternative, non-linear pattern in which the final section becomes a metatextual commentary on the first two. More importantly, Hopscotch was influential in terms of the shifting registers and jazz-influenced riffs of its prose. A key text of the so-called Latin American "boom", Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes have both credited it with modernising Latin-American literary language, while Gabriel García Márquez paid homage by alluding to it in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Yet it is Cortázar's short stories that represent, in the words of Argentine critic Jaime Alazraki, the "vertebral column" running through his work. Those written in the 1950s and 1960s offer the strongest case for their author's greatness. A fecund mixture of surrealism, symbolism, nouveau roman experimentation and Borgesian fantasy, Cortázar enthusiastically seeds his realistic settings – for the most part split between Buenos Aires and Paris – with impossible invasions of the fantastical and supernatural. The effect is often a refined philosophical take on the "uncanny tales" strand of speculative fiction.

Cortázar left Argentina for Paris in 1952, where he remained for the rest of his life, taking work as a Unesco translator. He translated Poe, whose aura pervades House Taken Over (1944), first published in Borges's magazine Los anales de Buenos Aires. It describes a brother and sister living a self-contained life in their large family home in Buenos Aires. When unnamed others infiltrate part of it, the brother and sister seal it off and live in the remainder. The identity of these others remains tantalisingly obscure, brother merely telling sister, "'I had to shut the door to the passage. They've taken over the back part.'" Later, further noises signal that the entire house has been breached, and the owners flee into the night after locking up the house to protect burglars from whatever "it" might be that has taken residence.

Typically of Cortázar, and anticipating the magical realist style that would brand him and his fellow "boom" authors of the 1960s, fantastical happenings are mostly accepted by his characters with the same amount of surprise the opening of a beer might garner in Bukowski. Another defining trait is the prominence of ambiguity. Depending on its readers' theories, House Taken Over might be horror, social satire, political commentary or psychological thriller.

House Taken Over featured in Cortázar's first collection, Bestiary (1951), the title story of which augments ambiguity with surrealism. Isabel spends the summer at her Aunt Rema's house, a normal bourgeois residence but for one fact: a large tiger roams the premises, with servants and family members constantly reporting where it is and which rooms or parts of the garden must currently be avoided. The strange, resentful and implicitly violent atmosphere between Isabel's cousins adds a further layer of unease.

Identity proves to be Cortázar's greatest fascination. His characters frequently lose or swap their identity, or suffer some kind of possession. In Axolotl, a man at an aquarium appears to become one of the amphibians he is viewing. The Distances sees a rich woman hug a beggar on a Budapest bridge, only to watch herself walk away and realise she is now trapped in another body. A Yellow Flower describes a man murdering a teenage boy whom he is convinced is his own precipitate reincarnation. Perhaps most audacious among these is the profoundly chilling Secret Weapons (1959), in which a post-war Parisian man appears to become the executed German who raped the girl he is courting several years ago, during the Occupation. With its building atmosphere of terrible violence and small, significant details obsessively recycling and developing throughout the text, it's extremely close in style to David Peace.

You don't have to endorse the claim Cortázar made shortly before his death that his short stories were the best things ever to have been written in Spanish to appreciate him as a remarkable and versatile talent. His most appealing quality is the apprehensive oddness with which he infuses reality. Even one of his "straighter" stories, the Beat-influenced The Pursuer (1959), is richly strange, its narrative jumps and extended conversations between death-stalked Johnny (based on Charlie Parker) and the jazz critic Bruno adopting the rhythms of the form with which the story is concerned. Here, too, identities shift and break apart ("I am not I," Johnny says feverishly) while through Bruno, Cortázar makes the admission: "I prefer the words to the reality that I'm trying to describe." If you could do what he could with words, why wouldn't you? 

A Guardian series , ongoing ;)

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