Dan Jacobson on the story of stories

  • The Short Story: Henry James to Elizabeth Bowen by John Bayley
    Harvester, 197 pp, £35.00, January 1988, ISBN 0 7108 0662 0

In a recent issue of Index on Censorship, Vaclav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright and essayist who has spent long periods in prison, tells the following tale:

A friend of mine who is heavily asthmatic was sentenced, for political reasons, to several years in prison where he suffered a great deal because his cellmates smoked and he could scarcely breathe. All his requests to be moved to a cell of non-smokers were ignored. His health, and perhaps even his life, were seriously threatened. An American woman who had learned of this and wanted to help telephoned an acquaintance, an editor on an important American daily. Could he write something about it, she asked? ‘Call me when the man dies,’ was the editor’s reply.

   It’s a shocking incident, but in some ways understandable. Newspapers need a story. Asthma is not a story. Death could make it one.

The odd thing about this, as Havel himself of course knows, is that by opening up his anecdote, by turning it into an observation about stories in general, he has in fact disproved the bald utterance at the heart of it: namely, that asthma is not a ‘story’. He has certainly made one out of it here. ‘What speaks to us through a story,’ he goes on to say, ‘is not a particular agent of truth; instead the story manifests the human world as an exhilarating arena where many such agents come into contact with one another.’

These remarks give support of a somewhat unexpected kind to the central argument of the slender but quite ambitious book under review. Everyone who has written of the short story as a genre is agreed that what marks it off from all other prose fictions is its intensity – its ‘poetic’ intensity, as people invariably say. How is this intensity achieved? The answer usually comes readily enough. Short stories, by their very nature, have to concentrate upon single events and characters within single settings; there is simply no room within them for the spaciously unfolding and analytic modes of the novel, its rhythmic transition between the humdrum and the dramatic, and the impression of lifelikeness which such transitions produce. The short-story writer has to risk everything on a single throw. Unity, above all, must therefore be his aim. He cannot allow his gaze or the reader’s to be distracted for a moment from the central event within the tale – regardless of whether this event is a physical action of some sort, a shift of consciousness within the mind of a character, or a mixture of both. Though short stories, like any other form of narrative, cannot do without development and dénouement, the ideal condition for which they strive is that of a kind of magical simultaneity of cause and effect.

Most of this, as I say, will seem familiar enough It turns out that Bayley is satisfied with very little of it. He would agree that the stories he admires do have a power which resembles that to be found in certain kinds of poetry: indeed, he opens his discussion of the problem by analysing several poems which are strikingly different from one another – a passage from Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’, ‘The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna’, Larkin’s ‘Dockery and Son’ – to see whether or not there is anything specific in them which they can be said to have in common with short stories. What this element is shown to be in both poems and stories, in so far as he is able to isolate it, is not unity, however, but self-division; not completeness but a kind of provisionality; not the power of self-explanation but a refusal to make explicit what is at the heart of the work. The finest short stories, he argues, are peculiarly concerned with ‘the presence of a mystery which is beyond art, and which [the writer] can only partially explain’. The story writer uses the intimacy and power of his art precisely to reveal the limitations of that art – and hence to reveal also the unlimitedness and indefinability of life, the multiplicity of the forms that its meanings and its apparent meaninglessness can assume.

The duality of a really good short story constitutes its expression of our human awareness that everything in life is full of significance, and at the same time that nothing in it has any significance at all. Every situation or event may have a story in it, but the short story’s best an will also reveal an absence: the absence of its own meaning. The story’s epiphany must also encounter and accept emptiness. To put it like that may sound a bit glib, but the effect is none the less basic to the developed short story. The tradition of the novel is quite different. It solves and settles its narrative, and belongs to an epoch in which solutions and explanations were taken for granted.

Or as he rather awkwardly puts it much earlier in the book: ‘The short story always tries to avoid an ending, or to suggest there is none, and one way of doing this is to draw attention to the way it has been arranged, a way that does not seem to be of a piece with the story itself.’

Readers of the author’s earlier study, The Uses of Division, will recognise that some of the preoccupations expressed here have been with him for a long time. It may be, though, that what I have so far written about the new book has made it sound a much more abstract affair than it really is. Bayley engages here and there with theoreticians like Todorov, but he develops his argument by discussing with much warmth a variety of individual stories: chiefly those of Kipling and James, as well as (almost inevitably, one feels) Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ and James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. Hardy, Hemingway and Lawrence are given some close attention, too, and so is Elizabeth Bowen’s only famous story, ‘Mysterious Kôr’. At one point Bayley remarks, almost in incidental fashion, that ‘the mysteries and queries of art are in their nature no different from those we encounter in living with and experiencing other persons’: an observation which, in this context, actually has some far-reaching theoretical implications. If theory is to be of any use to us, in other words, it must itself try to take account of the fact that we do not and cannot live with and experience others in terms of theory – though you would hardly believe it from the writings of some theoreticians.

However that may be, Bayley’s appetite for the narrative and descriptive detail of the stories he discusses sometimes leads him to work at a cheerful distance from his own conceptual framework. It would be quite possible, as a result, to write a review of the book which would ignore its central thesis and simply take up the rapid and informal observations he makes about his chosen writers. For instance, he picks out with much enthusiasm ‘the element of comedy, almost of farce’ in some of Lawrence’s most highly charged tales, and uses this as his critical point of departure in discussing them. He notes in passing that as James grew older he ceased to be responsive to the ‘physical presence and charm of women’. His advocacy of Kipling’s stories is so strong he positively challenges one to object that the stories themselves – the ways in which they are manipulated, the extra-territorial claims (so to speak) they cannot resist making on us – nearly always contrive to be unworthy of the breathtaking accuracies of visual and auditory evocation to be found in them. Does Hardy’s ‘silliness’ actually have the power to move the reader; or are his best poems and passages of prose not blessedly free of it?

And so forth. But the argument overall remains to be dealt with. One way of responding to it would be simply to reassert the traditional and commonsensical view of what is distinctive in the short story as a form, and to insist on finding the ultimate source of its power in the singleness of purpose which it necessarily imposes on the writer. Some years ago, in a review in these columns, I quoted a remark from V.S. Pritchett’s introduction to his edition of the Oxford Book of Short Stories: ‘The novel tends to tell us everything, whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that intensely.’ Can so plain and even self-evident a critical tenet, one which has been held for so long and by so many people, be wrong?

Well, yes, it can; and Bayley’s arguments for ‘doubleness’ and ‘mystery’ and ‘self-interrogation’ as being truly characteristic of the form, in its most highly developed instances, do compel one to think in rather different terms of what it has actually felt like to read the stories one has been most moved by. It is worth noticing, too, that even in the little tale by Vaclav Havel reproduced above, the author denies that a story, any story, can speak to us through ‘a particular agent of truth’: rather, he says, it requires ‘many such agents’. And later in the essay he tries to describe how the ‘uniqueness’ of a story is indivisible from its ‘plurality’: which is why totalitarian regimes hate genuine storytellers so much. At this point his language seems to come remarkably close to that used by Bayley. It is likely, the latter writes, ‘that the best short stories always exhibit, in some degree, a sense of the world as made up out of the different versions which individuals require in order to live in it. A communal world exists, but it is overlaid by the worlds as conceived and expressed by the writer’s characters.’ It could obviously be objected here that novels, too, show different versions of reality clashing with one another, and that therefore nothing has been said which is specific to the short story as a literary genre. However, if I understand him rightly, Bayley has pre-empted this objection by arguing that the stories he most admires leave us alone, as it were, to make whatever sense we can of our belated recognitions of how specific and yet how insubstantial these different versions of the world really are. (‘Beyond the setting and the subject, another story begins to take shape as we read, or after we finish reading.’) It is in this respect that they are unlike novels. For all the apparent freedom and largeness with which they are endowed, novels insist on definitions and explanations; more than that, they have an ineluctable drive towards a grand settling of accounts among their characters and a judging of the issues that have been at stake between them. Of these ambitions the best short stories, in the author’s view, are bound to be free.

All this I find simultaneously persuasive and tantalising. But without being doggedly John Bullish about the matter, I do feel that Bayley makes too little of what, for writers and readers alike, remains the most striking formal feature of short stories. I mean, their shortness. It is from this banality – though not for banal reasons – that there spring many of the characteristics which he most admires in the form. Where he speaks appreciatively of its inherent qualities of mystery and irresolution, I would prefer to introduce the idea of irresponsibility – not in opposition to his terms, but as the basis upon which they might ultimately rest. ‘Irresponsibility’ is, I know, a bad word in life and letters; but it can have its advantages and privileges. Historically, the short story developed after the invention of the novel, and the detailed, inward explorations of individual consciousness which the new genre undertook. To that task the novel, in all its variations, remains indissolubly wed. That is its glory; and that is its trouble too. Like any marriage, it demands such a degree of commitment from those involved in it. Whereas the short story reminds us that it is possible to have rewarding relationships outside marriage, too – relationships which are rewarding precisely because the commitment they demand is a relatively modest one, a short-term one, a mutually forgiving one. The story offers both the writer and the reader some of the pleasures of the novel, with all its intimacies and surprises, and then it offers both partners to the transaction the additional pleasure of being fleeting, of not making any pretence of exhaustively exploring the possibilities that lie within itself. That is what I mean by the irresponsibility of the form; and it is amazing to think how much we have benefited from the licence which writers as different as Lawrence and James, or Kafka and Wells, have been able to take within it.

Two final, factual points. Both at the beginning and end of the book Bayley says that the short story is ‘now in special favour’ and that it has ‘reached a peak of popularity’. I wonder what his grounds are for these assertions. Nowadays, fewer and fewer magazines in this country make a practice of publishing short stories; and the number of outlets for them has been shrinking in recent years in the United States too. It is hard to belive that this will do much for the vitality of the form. (Compare the situation that prevailed when the master storytellers whom Bayley discusses were active.) Secondly, Joyce did not speak of the style of his Dubliners as being one of ‘studious meanness’. The adjective he cunningly deployed was ‘scrupulous’.