My next two stories are undoubtedly short stories in the classic tradition. They are short, in prose, about a single main character or event. They ‘cristallize’, in another sense: they are heart-rending vignettes, in a small space. One is from James Joyce’s Dubliners, ‘Clay’ (First published 1914; read here in Penguin Popular Classics 1996, pp. 110-18). The other is from Vladimir Nabokov’s A Russian Beauty. They are intimately connected in that, in each case, the protagonist does not understand that a personal disaster hangs over her, while the people around her do. But the way this is conveyed in the two stories is utterly different.
In Joyce’s ‘Clay’, the protagonist Maria, a tiny person with a lowly job in a laundry, is going to visit her brother Joe and his family for the evening of Hallow-e’en. Maria buys treats for Joe’s children on the way to his house: she is a generous soul whom everyone loves – and pities, though this she is unaware of. They all play a Hallow-e’en game which involves being blind-folded, and choosing a saucer, by touch alone. When Maria’s turn comes, she picks a saucer with something soft and wet on it. There is an embarrassed silence, and the bigger girls are ticked off severely, and told to throw it out. The only clue as to what this might have been, and its traditional significance, is in the title of the story. Then the company urge Maria to sing: she sings “I dreamt that I dwelled in marble halls”, repeating one verse by mistake, though no-one points this out. Her brother Joe, to whom she had been a little mother when they were young, is so moved that his eyes fill up with tears, and “he could not find what he was looking for and in the end he had to ask his wife to tell him where the corkscrew was”. The pathos of an impending death is completely down-played.
First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914, now widely republished, including in Penguin Classics.