‘The Coat’ by Carys Davies and ’The Overcoat’ by Nikolai Gogol

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

‘The Quiet’ by Carys Davies

‘The Quiet’ opens Davies’ collection The Redemption of Gallen Pike. It’s one of those historical pieces that feels, in terms of time or place, not-quite defined, and I must say that’s right up my street. We get the point of view of Susan, a young woman recently settled in a pretty empty land with her husband, and hear of her troubles with their rough-looking neighbour, who lives six miles away. The story starts with his visit as Susan’s husband is away. It’s a dark story, full of menace, but also kindness. And wouldn’t you know, I’m also a sucker for kindness.

First published in The Stinging Fly, Spring 2012. Collected in The Redemption of Gallen Pike, Salt 2014. Read online at Lit Hub here

‘The Travellers’ by Carys Davies

Very little in modern fiction lives up to its hype. This of course says more about the hype than about the fiction. One recent collection that did was Eley WilliamsAttrib.; another was Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike, which has very little in common with Attrib. other than an air of complete competence, an improbable sure-footedness on what ought to be uncertain ground. ‘The Travellers’ translates a suburban sitcom motif – a middle-aged couple arguing in a car – into a stark Siberia, all samovars and balalaikas and vodka-bottles and lubki prints. Anger and estrangement, love and loss, are shown stripped to their bare bones. It’s funny and extraordinary and it has a seriousness, too, that catches you off balance.

Collected in The Redemption Of Galen Pike, Salt, 2014