‘The Kimono’ by H. E. Bates

I have a strange hardback, The Best of H.E. Bates, published for the American market in 1963, with a preface from—of all the unlikely American writers to introduce H.E. Bates—Henry Miller. (It seems clear to me that the sorts of American readers who would’ve liked Bates would’ve turned tail at Henry Miller’s name, and Miller fans would’ve been nonplussed by Bates squarely-made, well-made, often rather straightforwardly English stories.)

I bought it more than twenty years ago on a summer’s day in Provincetown on Cape Cod. My not-yet-wife was then working as an au pair. Provincetown is of course an American vacation spot of long standing, a terminal vacation spot—you must go back the way you came—and the Cape is written about by writers as far from one another as Thoreau, Henry Beston, Cookie Mueller. So maybe the place of purchase is the only real reason why I thought of ‘The Kimono’ for this list. Or maybe I thought of this Bates story—the only one from that thick book to linger in my mind—because it’s a story that hinges on very hot weather. 

Or perhaps I’m sending it because it’s a story about people who are never really on holiday, and so for whom the idea of escape becomes unbearable. Arthur Lawson narrates: a very middle-of-the-road type from Nottingham, in great, big, new, vast 1911 London to interview with a firm of electrical engineers. Arthur becomes lost and goes into a shop for an ice in a drab part of London. In the shop there’s a woman bending over a broken cooler. She’s wearing a poorly fastened kimono. That’s all I can say—I’ve already said too much. But I’ve never forgotten it, and never let the book slip away, entirely on account of that one story. Or maybe when and where I bought it, which, at this remove amount almost to the same thing.

First published in 1936 and collected in Something Short and Sweet, Jonathan Cape, 1937 and widely thereafter. Picked by Drew Johnson. Drew’s fiction has appeared in Harper’sVQRThe Literary ReviewNew England Review and elsewhere. You can read his full Personal Anthology here.

Introduction

So many other wonderful stories crowded round these dozen, trying to get in. A few of those managed a mention when I should’ve been devoting space to the stories actually included. I’ve puzzled over all of these, one way or another—some for a very long time and some much more recently. Probably it’s the duration and/or the magnitude of the puzzling that was the determining factor.

What then is the unifying theme? Maybe that formal error and the way a story can accrete and warp beautifully around it better serves the short story form than the form itself? That perfect short stories are not all that rare: we just think they are because we forget them: because a perfect execution of this form happens to be exceptionally forgettable. Something else is necessary. Or, as the painter James Ensor wrote

Fault is multiple, it is life, it reflects the personality of the artist and his character; it is human, it is everything, it will redeem the work.

Anyway, as a reader? I always hope the writer will follow the thing leading them astray.

‘Cavalry Story’ by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, translated by Joel Rotenberg

To describe this tale as a day-in-the-life of Anton Lerch, a sergeant in a European cavalry unit in 1848 makes it sound like a prosaic, slice-of-life historical fiction in which we’ll happily come away with a little bit of knowledge about how to sit a saddle, polish a cuirsass, or post a picket. But although the story has a certain mundane drudgery pulsing in back of things, it’s much more a dream of living. Our man Anton is full of wanting, but not of ideas about wanting—and his world moves in a series of terrible images that are like nonverbal riddles, but that are also never less than real—despite the way they come in and go out like the weather.

Maybe that’s the best way to talk about this story: after all, weather is pretty surreal, in the original sense of that word as an almost unbearable, heightened reality. If I could erase all your memory and understanding of what the sky does in a given day, then sit you by a window before dawn, you’d be shivering with fear by noon. That’s what this story is like: the world as if we’d never encountered it, told in a road-not-taken-on-the-way-to-Kafka style.

A long while back, a returning traveller brought me a postcard with Hugo von Hofmannsthal on the front, looking from his desk toward the camera, a line of his (still in German) printed below. The gist of that line—as best as my poor German can make out—is that there are some words that hit like hammers, but there are other words, and those words we swallow like fish, and those fish swim on without our realizing. Even if I learn someday that that’s way, way off, I’ve been living with that idea of Hofmannsthal so long I know I’ll never shake it.

‘Cavalry Story’ is made out of both kinds of words.

Written in 1898. Included in The Lord Chandos Letter and other writings, NYRB Classics, 2005

‘An Anonymous Story’ by Anton Chekhov

Most of the stories here stand out as strange or memorable even within a body of work I love, but sometimes they’re the only story by a given writer I really remember or return to.  If it’s the latter, and everyone does it, and every does it to the same story… it’s a pretty tricky dynamic. A short story writer can accidentally becomeone story. With a writer who is many things, like Chekhov, that’s a kind of death. Long ago, after a really grim, famous-writer-craft-talk on ‘Lady with Lapdog’ I promised myself I’d never teach that story and I’ve avoided rereading it: my life in Chekhov has been blissful and varied and surprising ever since.

This story, ‘An Anonymous Story’, is a long, long first-person tale, and a great departure from what we think we know about this Russian. In this, Chekhov is a smirking, slippery writer, who would likely be appalled by the decorum of craft that’s crept up around him.

(Another strange writer, the Russian-born Englishman, William Gerhardie, author of the first study of Chekhov in English, was puzzled that we so often read Chekhov’s humor only as sadness.)

‘An Anonymous Story’—also known as ‘The Story of an Unknown Man’—is a comic set-up played straight: a revolutionary operative, seeking to gain information on a high government official, takes a job as the high official’s son’s valet… and promptly falls in love with the son’s mistress. Everything goes awry, of course, and leads us to a beautiful, terrible ending where the absurdity of all that has gone before is reaffirmed and redeemed in the space of a page and a half, or even just a paragraph.

My chest tightens thinking about that ending, which recently came to mind as I read the close of Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, holding us in a moment that is much in the same register.

First published in Russian as ‘The Story of an Unknown Man’ in Russkaya Mysl, February and March 1893. Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky included in The Complete Short Novels, Everyman’s Library, 2004

‘Reverse Bug’ by Lore Segal

This is a light, even delicate story about a device that unstoppably projects the screams of the 20th Century into the present—and the present is a prim academic research center at a small college, the sort of place where the study of horror neatly fits into two sessions in the morning and two in the afternoon, with an hour or so for lunch.

Lore Segal, her own remarkable life aside, is a kind of anthropologist and even comedian of trauma, though to read her accounts of what people are like in the long wake of history is to be forced to imagine them as figures in Commedia del’Arte prints—enacting recognizable scripts in an almost mechanical way. Ilka Weisz (neé Weissnix), Segal’s heroine and alter ego over several of her works, teaches a class of multi-lingual, multi-trauma students who are themselves a kind of motley of the awful 20th Century (and it’s interesting to think about Segal’s work alongside Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain).

Wondering what makes the lightness is probably the thing that brings me back to this story again and again: Segal is such a superficially nice writer that it’s easy to glide past the things she talks about that almost no other writer bothers with: in another book, Ilka listens “tenderly” to a man urinating in the next room.

In this story, the director of the center, Leslie Shakespeare, has to ask the ushers to remove the son who can’t or won’t shut up about his parent’s political murder outside La Paz:

Ahmed? Is Ahmed in the hall? Ahmed, would you be good enough to remove the unquiet gentleman as gently as necessary force will allow. Take him to my office please, and I will meet with him after the symposium.

First published included in The New Yorker, 1 May 1989. Collected in Shakespeare’s Kitchen, The New Press, 2007. You can listen to Jennifer Egan read it here

‘Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows’ by John Keene

This is the story as chronicle, a nobody-but-John-Keene dive into history, coming back with something that could sit alongside Kleist’s ‘The Earthquake in Chile’ but is many times longer, fuller, more drenched in language, and with all the twists and turns fully delineated and lived in. And Keene takes on events where we, he, and his characters are really in for it. Here we live the Haitian Revolution. And that’s just for starters. How’d you like to follow the line that Keene draws from there to a convent in Kentucky? To read this story is to be so long in coming to the ending that the beginning is like a strange half-memory. How did I get here? Where do we know each other from?

A quick aside to mention a story that lives as fully in its odd history as this one: ‘That Gagarin’ by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Both stories come to me when I read stories wearing their historical trappings too lightly, so that they are really just any short story… in period dress. Keene and Krasznahorkai both bother to live their tales in language and habits of thought that tell us we’re doing things differently now, here in the past.

Included in Counternarratives, New Directions/Fitzcarraldo, 2015

‘A Village in the Big City’ by Can Xue, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

I’ve read that when some critics found out that Can Xue was a woman—Can Xue is pen name: a tricky term that can mean the leftover snow grimy on the roadside as well as the leftover snow that caps a mountain—they stopped trying to understand her fiction and simply pronounced her insane.

Her fiction—long or short—breezes past sense but never stops presenting recognizable scenes and characters. Talking animals may appear, but they never feel twee. This particular story is narrated by a nephew who dreams, fitfully, of larger things and a different life, but instead feels bound by family. That family exists almost entirely in a capricious uncle who lives in a housing compound called Village in the Big City. The whole story is a comedy of family whiplash enacted in tiny episodes whose terms are quickly set and discarded, recalled then violated.

There’s something about Can Xue’s particular brand of non sequitur that reminds me of a movie like Celine and Julie Go Boating… but also of a book like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Her narratives are patient and elliptical, but what she gathers in and drops at the readers’ feet looks like it just woke up and has been caught red-handed.

In Vertical Motion, Open Letter, 2011