Ars Brevis, Vita Longa

Dan Jacobson

  • The Oxford Book of Short Stories by V.S. Pritchett
    Oxford, 547 pp, £9.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 19 214116 3
  • The Short Story in English by Walter Allen
    Oxford, 413 pp, £9.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 19 812666 2

Poetic intensity, concentration upon a single incident or event – these seem to be the defining characteristics of the short story for both V.S. Pritchett, in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories, and Walter Allen, in his critical survey, The Short Story in English. ‘The short story,’ writes Allen, is ‘rooted in a single incident or perception’; its effect ‘is nearer to that of lyric poetry than the novel’. And Pritchett: ‘The novel tends to tell us everything whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely … the short story springs from a spontaneously poetic as distinct from a prosaic impulse.’

Inevitably, both writers, the anthologist as well as the critic, hastily qualify these observations. How can they not, when all that one can say with absolute veracity, in attempting to distinguish between the short story, the novella and the novel, is that some works of fiction are shorter (or longer) than others. Admittedly, this is an unexciting proposition, or pair of propositions: but it does seem to me unrewarding to go in pursuit of any other formal distinction between these kinds of fiction – a distinction, that is, which would be an aid to our understanding either of individual works or of narrative in general. It is not merely that the story, the novella and the novel overlap with one another, which they obviously do: the problem lies deeper. Take the two points itemised above, on which Pritchett and Allen agree. Must short stories concentrate on a single incident or perception? If so, how is it that they both cite Chekhov as one of the greatest masters of the form. Does ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, which is probably the most famous of his tales, concentrate on a single event? ‘The Duel’? ‘My Life’? Hardly. As for the poetic quality which is supposed to be peculiar to the short story, is it possible to conceive of prose of a greater poetic intensity than that which we find in sustained passages of Little Dorrit or Great Expectations, Sons and Lovers or The Rainbow?

The development of the short story had to wait on the development of the periodical press: there was no other medium through which stories could be presented to the public one by one, as they were written (by and large this is still true). Before then, there had merely been what Walter Allen calls collections of ‘romances’, like the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment or Boccaccio’s Decameron; and, much later, essays and character sketches like those which appeared in the Spectator and Idler. The short story apparently also had to wait on the establishment of the novel as a recognisable form before it could make its appearance: it was the longer prose narrative, in its modern form, that seems to have spawned the shorter. This suggests strongly that before writers dared to offer to their readership stories which were intended to be wholly self-contained and self-explanatory, they had to have confidence in the ability of these readers to get the hang, rapidly, of a variety of narrative techniques and their effects – something that could only come about as a result of the readers’ general acquaintance with fictional modes. From the earliest days of the English novel (Sterne, Smollett), writers had been in the habit of sticking into their long narratives episodes of a virtually independent or detachable kind: Dickens was to continue the practice, at a relatively late date, in The Pickwick Papers. These stories, however, were always elaborately introduced or framed within the main text. Their effect was thus quite different, or so both editors and writers seem to have felt, from confronting the reader of a periodical with a story that existed wholly on its own terms, as an autonomous item, and that was supposed to be read more or less at a single sitting.

All that said, it remains something of a mystery why English writers, who had at their disposal a periodical press which was at least as well-established as any on the Continent or in the United States, and which, politically speaking, was more free of constraint than some others, should have been so slow to seize upon the possibilities of this mode of expression. Allen and Pritchett seem to agree that Kipling was the first truly English writer to devote a significant proportion of his creative energy to the writing of stories. (They do not remark on the fact that Kipling was a kind of Indian, anyway.) By the time he came to the writing of his stories, Americans like Hawthorne and Poe, Russians like Turgenev, and Frenchmen like Flaubert, had long since shown how much could be done with the form; they had demonstrated again and again that a satisfying imaginative and artistic conclusiveness was hardly any more a function of length in prose fiction than it was in poetry. It could be achieved in no time at all, so to speak, by a writer who was confident both of himself and of the ‘training’ that his readers received.

The relative indifference of English writers of the 19th century to the opportunities presented by the short story, as against the novel, seems to lend some colour to Pritchett’s suggestion that ‘young societies’ have a particular affinity for the story as a mode of expression. However, quite apart from the fact that French and Russian society can hardly be said to be ‘younger’ than English, his own selection of stories hardly seems to bear this out. In his anthology he includes one New Zealander (Katherine Mansfield), one Australian (Patrick White), one Canadian (Morley Callaghan) and one Southern African (Doris Lessing). Of these four writers, three are at least as well-known for their novels as for their stories. Since this review is being written in Australia, I should report that for the occasion I have conscientiously perused The Penguin Book of Australian Short Stories, edited by Harry Heseltine.[*] Having done so, and having enjoyed several of the stories in the collection, I cannot say I have the feeling that between their form and the society they depict there is some special ‘fit’ which is different in kind from that which a novelist or dramatist or poet might be able to create. Vestigial patriotism to the country of my birth compels me to add one other, incidental observation about this anthology: I am convinced that in any test match South Africa could easily field a stronger First XV than the one which Mr Heseltine has got together (plus reserves) between the covers of his book.

In his introduction to the Oxford anthology Pritchett seems to suggest that what he calls ‘our now restless lives’ might be reflected with particular clarity in the brevity and ‘open-endedness’ of the modern story. This, too, is a tempting idea: but once again I am not sure that it will stand up to critical scrutiny. The history of the form appears to indicate that if we cease to be able to recognise ourselves in novels, we will cease to be able to do so in short stories. Indeed, one cannot help wondering whether or not that is the condition which we have already reached. Relative to other kinds of reading-matter, the sales of new novels have been declining overall; concomitantly, the number of magazines which publish short stories has been diminishing. As for those outlets which remain – do readers turn eagerly to the stories which are still occasionally published in serious magazines? Who is more gratified by the appearance of stories by big-name, more or less highbrow authors in Playboy, among the double-page, full-colour pictures of nude girls: the editors of the magazine, or the lookers at it? My suspicion is that stories come rather low in the list of most readers’ and lookers’ priorities – a suspicion which owes something to my experience in the days when I used regularly to publish both stories and journalism in magazines of various kinds. I found then that I was likely to get a much stronger response to the journalism than to the stories from people I encountered – though I myself set much greater store by the stories. On the other hand, it is true that most of those stories have had a far longer ‘life’ – as a result of being gathered into collections, and being reprinted in anthologies, and so forth – than the journalism which initially seemed to attract much more attention. So perhaps the moral that any story-writer should draw from such episodes is ultimately an optimistic one.

In their different ways, both Allen’s book and Pritchett’s anthology are to be recommended: Allen’s as a source-book for students and critics; Pritchett’s simply for those who enjoy reading stories, and who will be pleased to find some unfamiliar items among others that virtually chose themselves for inclusion. The critical point that emerges most strongly from both is a simple one: every story succeeds or fails on its own – that is what makes it a story. That is also what makes it so difficult, if not impossible, to generalise successfully about the form.

[*] Penguin Australia.