Jorge Luis Borges says that short stories can be the perfect form for novelists too lazy to write anything longer than fifteen pages.
It is rare for a Davies story to last that long: ‘The Coat” clocks in at eight and-a-half. Her recent novel, West,musters only 149. Mistress of the art of concision, her stories are also, like Wodehouse’s, precisely engineered, their final lines slotting into place in ways that both surprise and satisfy.
Evangelina Hine keeps her handsome blacksmith husband Joseph’s coat hanging by the door he walked out of a year ago because she can’t – or won’t – see him as “a man who was doing his best to disappear”. The narrator, Margaret, sent to comfort her, and perhaps make her see sense, finds herself feeling more than pity. When Joseph unexpectedly returns, it is not as a ghost, but as a woman; a story about pity for an abandoned wife suddenly becomes one about the self-pity of the still-married Margaret.
A lazy writer could get away with giving us far less plot: it takes real effort to craft so much in so small a space. But not everything is about concision. Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ runs to twice Borges’ outer limit. It plunges us straight into a rambling, chatty voice:
And so, in a certain department there served a certain clerk; a not very remarkable clerk, one might say – short, somewhat pockmarked, somewhat red-haired, even with a somewhat nearsighted look, slightly bald in front, with wrinkles on both cheeks and a complexion that is known as haemorrhoidal … No help for it! the Petersburg climate is to blame.”
In short, it looks like we’re in a tale (notably, the Granta edition is The Collected Tales– not stories), an anecdote that will follow the rambling byways of the teller’s mind; in reality, this first paragraph is as self-aware as Ali Smith’s, its descriptions as pitch-perfect as Wodehouse’s.
Half a dozen pages in, our not very remarkable clerk, Akaky Akakievich, visits the tailor Petrovich to get his old coat repaired. (“Of this tailor, of course, not much should be said, but since there exists a rule that the character of every person in a story be well delineated, let us have Petrovich here as well.”) Repair is impossible: Akaky Akakievich must buy a new coat he cannot afford; after months of scrimping – and dreaming of his new coat – he finally manages to buy it, only to be robbed at once. By now we’re twenty pages in, and we know the only question is just how much worse things will get for poor Akaky Akakievich.
And on we go, through a rollicking, devastating, genuinely affecting satire that makes one wonder whether Borges might not have got things back-to-front. Perhaps the novel is the perfect form for writers too lazy for short stories.
‘The Coat’, in The Redemption of Galen Pike, Salt, 2014. ‘The Overcoat’, in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, trans. By Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Granta Books, 2003, and available online, including here