Introducing the books (“Very Good, Jeeves” By P.G. Wodehouse and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver) the proposer said that he had chosen two deliberately contrasting collections of short stories. This might lead on to a general discussion about the nature of the short story as a literary form.
P. G. Wodehouse was a writer he had read for most of his life. His father had a small number of favourite books, which it was his habit to re-read regularly to the exclusion of new material. A Jeeves book was one of the favoured few, and as a result the proposer had first read P.G.Wodehouse at ten or twelve. He had not read Carver until 1989, at a time when he was reading widely amongst American fiction.
Other than that the proposer – himself the author of a volume of short stories, as well as novels – did not wish to add any introduction, saving his comments for the general discussion.
Which started with the ticklish issue of how best to read a collection of short stories. Wasn’t it a contradiction in terms to have a collection of short stories? The whole point of a short story was that it was short, and could be read at one sitting. To read several at one sitting could induce symptoms of over-indulgence just as surely as having too many chocolates from a chocolate box.
One member confessed to leaving the Wodehouse in his pocket and indulging in one story per bus journey. As it later transpired that this member was one of those driven to laugh out loud by Jeeves, this might account for the bemused expression of Edinburgh bus passengers observed in recent times, which until now had been attributed to the blizzard of roadworks for the new trams.
On the other hand, both writers seemed to have thought carefully about the order in which the stories appeared, much as a singer might do for an album, and as far as we knew the stories had not been published separately. For example, opined one, Carver put his second strongest story (“Shall We Dance”) at the beginning, and his strongest (the title story) second last, leaving as a black joke for last the story which ended with the lines “He said ‘I just want to say one more thing’. But then he could not think what it could possibly be”.
“The strongest, you said? I thought it was the weakest!” retorted another, indicating that not all had seen the stories in the same light.
A difference of view that emerged most clearly over “Very Good, Jeeves”. No, Jeeves, not very good. “Stereotyped!” “Did such a world ever really exist?” “Desperately dated –even the humour!”. “Repetitive”. “Formulaic – couldn’t be bothered finishing it!” pronounced these members with all the heartless severity of a panel of Strictly Come Dancing judges.
Yet others had been rolling in the aisles. They loved the vitality and range of the language, the sparkling similes and metaphors – for example the bad –tempered householder “closing the door with the delicate caution of one sweeping flies off a sleeping Venus”. They loved the well-oiled machinery of the plots, which resolved everything on the last page.
“Simply hugely enjoyable”. The plot with the same song being repeated by four singers was hysterically funny. The stories were particularly intriguing when Jeeves disapproved of Bertie’s taste in clothing or art, and contrived to alter it. The food faddist and prototype feminist Pyke who threatened Bingo’s cholesterol-loaded food and connubial bliss was deliciously amusing. And so was the debate between Jeeves and Bertie as to whether Uncle George’s barmaid was proletarian or “of sturdy lower middle-class stock, sir”.
Reflecting further, the audience voting for Jeeves noted that this world had really been created by Wodehouse. It was an entirely safe, comic world, in which the biggest threats were aggressive Aunts. Bertie was a child-like figure, and Jeeves a nanny-like figure who could resolve all problems (perhaps reflecting Wodehouse being put in the charge of a nanny from age two). Bertie was an asexual figure, although golf lovers were promised that Wodehouse’s series of golf stories were less innocent. Perhaps escapist stories of this kind were particularly attractive to a generation decimated by the First World War (this particular collection was published in 1930).
And a lot of skill had gone into creating these apparently effortless stories. “The lightness and fluidity of Wodehouse I think obscures some very careful timing and craft. For all his far and wide use of the Englsih language, there is not a single wasted word, and the comedy is unfolded with rapier precision…”. Wodehouse had given an interview setting out some of his ideas on composition, for example: “Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel that the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start…The thing to do is say to yourself ‘What are my big scenes?’ and then get every drop of juice out of them…”.
What ho! Spiffing! But what about this Carver – a bit of a rum cove?
Well, no – Raymond Carver’s dark world received a generally enthusiastic response. “Powerful!”. “Challenging!”. “Brilliant stuff – a whole desperate society emerged from a few sentences”. “Reminded me of a Country and Western song – a compliment – with a refrain of failed relationships and alcohol amongst blue collar people in the Mid-West.” “I liked the way meanings and new perceptions emerged as you reflected on the story”. “Liked Carver more than when I read him twenty five years ago, perhaps because of more life experience since!”.
“Initially I didn’t like the abrupt conclusions, but then I tuned into the stories and found them refreshing”. “Presents you with a raw slab of life as it is, with only one or two nerve endings going into the future, and a few more into the past”. “You have to read with great care, because if you miss one word the whole meaning changes”. “The stories have the concentration, complexity and chiselling of a poem”. “The opening lines really grab you and pull you in – e.g. ‘I’ll tell you what did my father in. The third thing was…’”. ” “Like an Edward Hopper painting, where the characters tend to be gazing out of a window, in which there is a sinister sense of an untold story”.
So straight tens from all the judges? No, not quite. “Eventually the dark plots about alcohol and failed relationships begin to pall. What about all the joy and excitement also to be found in blue-collar life? He’s a one-trick pony…”. “Stylistically Carver comes from the school of minimalism. This begs the question, when we applaud the writing, are we applauding the fact that so much meaning can be expressed in so few words? Is this the aim of the writing style? I found the style overbearing, however, and it leaves little room for the reader to manoeuvre… I found I had really to slow down the reading and study the words which was in one sense quite rewarding, but also quite restrictive”.
“Some stories too dark for a female reader”. “‘Tell the Women We’re Going’ is similar to Kafka’s ‘A Knock at the Manor Gate’. But by comparison Carver’s story is crude and merely sickening, whereas Kafka’s was well-paced and held a genuine tension throughout”. “I’d rather spend an evening with Wodehouse than Carver!”.
A feature of Carver’s characters was that, although they talked, they did not really communicate by talking. They were too inarticulate to do so. They could only express the underworld of their emotions by taking action – for example by mutely throwing rocks. Indeed that was perhaps a common feature of American culture (and Presidents? ventured your correspondent, swiftly to be silenced). Indeed rocks were a recurrent motif – perhaps a symbol? – in several of the stories, once being explicitly used as a murder weapon.
But while most could agree on their liking for the stories, we could not all agree on what the stories meant. What, for example, did the ending of “Why Don’t You Dance?” mean. For one, it meant that the angst of the older man had been transferred to the younger generation. For another, the young woman had been disturbed both by her sexual attraction to the old man, and by a glimpse of the pain of the failed relationship of an older generation (and the foreboding example for the young of the failures of the older generation was a major feature of the stories). For another reader it was possible that the young couple had murdered the older man.
But did different interpretations matter? There was no “solution” to the story – just a sense of ambivalence and of unease which we shared.
In terms of influences, many (including Carver himself) had identified Chekhov. And it was certainly true that Chekhov had shown how to replace the traditional plot-structured short story and its conventional beginning, middle and end with a story that reflected the messiness of life in a random, godless, meaningless universe (“dirty realism”, in the phrase sometimes applied to Carver’s work).
However, their actual writing styles were very different, and a much closer influence was surely that of the early Hemingway (see our discussion of “Men Without Women” on 27 February 2008). A story such as “Hills without Elephants” seemed to be the template for the minimalist, ambivalent Carver story of human misery. The pared-down prose style, with its simple vocabulary, short sentences and short paragraphs was surely handed down by Hemingway to Carver as to so many other American writers. Hemingway too wrote of the Mid-West, and of fishing. Even setting one of the stories in northern Italy seemed to be a nod, conscious or otherwise, in the direction of Papa Hemingway.
So how to compare Wodehouse and Carver? On the surface they could not be more different. Happiness versus sadness, laughter versus rage. Writing to satisfy, as opposed to writing to disturb. Carver chose to point his lens into dark and sordid places, while Wodehouse studiously did exactly the opposite, and never took anything too seriously. Wodehouse depicts a world of high flying fancy, where emotional angst is present but which is trivialised amidst the comforts of an affluent existence. Wodehouse’s world attracts us because it is both escapist and fun, but we are shoe-horned uncomfortably into Carver’s world and come out gasping for air. Nor does Carver provide something positive that is asserted, as classic tragedy might.
In the terms suggested by E. M. Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel”, Wodehouse is offering “flat” characters, who do not develop, whereas Carver is offering “round” characters. Little as we glimpse of Carver’s characters, they develop in the course of his minimalist stories, and this subtlety is one of the main attractions of Carver’s work. As Forster pointed out, a complex plot – of the Wodehouse, or Dickens, variety – is much simpler with “flat “ characters. However, one should not make a value judgement and impose a hierarchy in identifying such differences between Wodehouse and Carver.
And there were also things in common between Wodehouse and Carver. Both used dialogue very well. The theme of lunacy appeared in both, although in a very amusing and reassuring way in Wodehouse. Both writers displayed considerable interest in alcohol. It is seen as a dangerous and destructive force in Carver (and it had played such a role in his own life) while for Wodehouse it is always comic. Thus the Wodehouse definitive taxonomy of hangovers:
• the Broken Compass,
• the Sewing Machine,
• the Comet,
• the Atomic,
• the Cement Mixer,
• the Gremlin Boogie.
A fine note on which to end, thought your scribe, as I could understand it, but off they went again, this time on to the short story as a literary form:
Surely all short story writers wanted really to become novelists, to display their imagination to the full? Well no, not necessarily. In America – and also in South America, with magic realism – there was a stronger tradition of writers focussing only on the short story. (Reflecting a shorter attention span? I ventured, only to be frostily silenced once more…). Whereas in the UK a book of short stories was nowadays only seen by publishers as a stepping stone to a novel, or as a follow up to a novel, which seemed a pity, as short stories were still very popular. Was the British public being short-changed?…
Interesting that there are many fewer famous collections of short stories than famous novels. And also that so many great films have been made from developing short stories, while many bad films have been made by trying to cram in all the plot of a novel…
The short story suits science fiction, because it is about ideas rather than characters…
But then so often short stories are based on something that has happened to an author, or something they have overheard, or read about, rather than the fully imagined world of a novel…
Somerset Maugham is a very interesting short story writer to revisit. He is also someone who is economical with words, and adept in describing both the physical and psychological worlds of the colonial society he depicts…
You should not place the short story and the novel in a hierarchy of a value, and you should not see a short story as a sort of failed novel. William Boyd – author of both novels and short stories – had recently written a couple of excellent articles on the short story, in which he argued it was a separate art form, and one which – through oral story telling – predated the novel…
Ah well, story telling has been well supported in Scotland recently. Yes indeed, only last week I was in my allotment having a conversation about failed relationships over the compost heap, when I heard a story-teller approaching and telling a story to allotment holders…
!!!Run that one by me again?
Well, I think that’s what he said… but I’m afraid that by now even your devoted correspondent was reaching the end of his attention span.
Pip, pip! Toodle-oo! I’m off to do the Gremlin Boogie….