Thursday, January 28, 2010

Small Island Republics – Max Apple

Max Apple - October 22, 1941

In a 1979 interview with Patrick D. Hundley he (Apple) said, "I labor very much at having a style that is accessible."

So, from a story that challenged my mind and opened new regions of awareness to a story that was, yes, quite accessible.

Side note follows –

Along with reading short stories, I have fallen into the habit of reading interviews with authors concerning their craft. The Believer published a wonder set of collected interviews, Glimmer Train press published two volumes on writing, and the Paris Review website has allowed me to burn through reams of paper after downloading PDFs of their interviews. Being a fan of JCO, I read plenty of her interviews, and her published Journal is wonderful – unlocking her genius mind. DFW and his passing caused his fans to place everything they have about him online which in turn opens doors to his thoughts and processes. Youtube clips, MP3s of interviews...all illuminate the author and makes what they write even more special to me.

As mentioned before, part of what I do when I read these stories is is a small bit of research into the author – for the above reasons.

Gass was the last author in the BASS that I really flipped over.

Back to Apple. I think what I enjoy about him – at least in this stage of his writing (late 70s-early 80s) is his general honesty to himself and his writing. There isn’t a lot of showmanship.

In a 1981 essay in the New York Times Book Review, Apple wrote, "I was in my late 20's before I got all the sentences right in a single story. I would still prefer to be the ventriloquist -- to let the words come from a smiling dummy -- but I'm not good enough at buttoning my lip. An awkward, hesitant, clumsy sentence emerges.... I write a second sentence, and then I cross that first one out as if it never existed. This infidelity is rhythm, voice, finally style itself. It is a truth more profound to me than meaning, which is always elusive and perhaps belongs more to the reader."

And then:

Apple told the interviewer for the Michigan Quarterly Review, "In the act of writing a novel or story, I'm dreaming. I'm daydreaming."

Calisher identifies Apple as a Satirist, and “one that should be watched”. Satire was defiantly evident in this story but I considered the satire secondary to the message that I preferred to get from it. And once again, that’s what makes these stories so special. The chance for the reader to interpret them the way they wish. Yes, I think the author sets out with a mission and a story to convey, but it is the reader that brings their own experiences and patterns of electrical mental firings into the meaning of the story (This is one of the many reasons why DFW was so great).

I took Small Island Republics as a story of hope and ambition.

To lock into a goal or an idea and make it yours no matter how lofty or silly others may view it.

It’s necessary in life, and for our mental health, as individuals and as a society to engage in this “crazy” behavior sometimes. We can’t lock ourselves into matter how comfortable it is.

Pushing boundaries – mental and physical – setting the bar high for ourselves and striving to achieve a set goal – silly, stupid, crazy or insane – making a name for ourselves-just for the benefit of our own stability or instability.

And that is how this story brought me around to my father and his socks. Black, blue or white – nope, not for him. He saw the importance of wearing, as he put it, “funky” socks. It was his way of showing the world that he wasn’t just a professor...there was an individual under that title willing to push the boundaries, take risks and wear red socks.

The Idea of Switzerland - Walter Abish

Walter Abish 24 December 1931 –

Well, can’t say that Calisher picked, in my opinion, the best story to lead this volume.

This was a tough read. You know, I had the expectation of settling down into a nice little read...but noooo - I am immediately faced with a challenging piece.

To put it mildly, Abish has been labeled “as a master of the nonconventional form”. (Nonconvention – is that even a real word?)

Look, I’m all for nonconvention.

No problem at all.

But maybe my literary mind isn’t developed or diversified enough to accept this level of literature.

I think that I have over the years exposed myself to enough of the experimental and unconventional forms of literature and more recently – with the prevalence of experimental Lit showing up on websites my recognition and comprehension of it has grown.

Calisher states in the introduction that she chose the story because it reminded her of the European short story (makes sense given Abish’s background).

I am assuming that she means non English European short stories???


Perhaps then, we get back into my literary mind not being “developed” and “diversified” enough. Yes, I think this is where perhaps I am lacking a little. You see, I’m American. And I think now is a good time to admit that I have a pretty limited exposure to foreign short stories. Of the periodicals that I read the short story in, such as Glimmer Train, The New Yorker, VQR and the Atlantic – not to forget “Best New American Voices” series, I would say that I have limited myself to North American short fiction.

Now, I have read countless shots by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and other notable Russian and Soviet authors. I even own a collection of Romanian short stories. But I have only read them in translation.

Lost in translation applies here.

So, we I am to suppose that I read an American Short Story written in the European short English.

This being the case, I believe that I am in a position where I owe Calisher a bit of thanks for exposing me to this story.

I’m genuinely happy I read it.

But I didn’t like it.

The mental stimulation it provided was appreciated, and the lesson I learned was valuable.

I don’t need to point out that it has taken me several days to post an entry after I announced the beginning of my reading. It is impossible to like every story in these books but I do feel that each one has a lesson to offer.

Sometimes it just takes a bit longer for that lesson to appear.

I had to let this one stew a bit.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Introduction - Hortense Calisher

Hortense Calisher 20 December 1911 - January 13, 2009

Hortense Calisher...just look at that name. Say it aloud.

I like the way it sounds. I like the ending of her last name “sher”.

Look at that first name. Hortense. I’ve never run across that name before.

I didn’t know much about Hortense. I of course read the introduction she provided to the BASS 1981, but I really needed to know a bit more about her if I was going to get a better sense of what sort of stories I might possibly be reading over the next several weeks.

Quick visits to familiar sites to get an overview of her life proved that nailing her down was going to be a bit of a challenge.

First, I’d like to say that I was pleased that Ravenel picked a women as the editor for this volume. I had enough of males in the 1980 edition. I have faith that Calisher would give me a bit more variety – just because she is a woman, and from her introduction, she clearly states that she will. (unlike Elkin – see final post on BASS 1980)

From the introduction –

“Of the stories that qualified, the 120 that I was sent were garnered from 151 periodicls, of which the selected stories represent 11, the magazine represented by most stories being The New Yorker with 9. Shannon Ravenel further reports: “The American short story abounds. Most of those I read are literate and technically adequate. But filling the 120 slots with outstanding stories is not an easy job as the large numbers above might have us guess. Nevertheless, the overall quality is, I think, high, and I find the state of the American short story in 1980 to be good.”

Calisher goes on later to say – “There are I see ten men and ten women; this was not intentional. About half are from The New Yorker, which publishes fifty-two issues per year and and a major portion of the country’s best short fiction, and will naturally get first look at much of the best of it.”

I would also like to reproduce a page from the introduction where she discusses the “typical” New Yorker story.

Here is the top of the obit that ran after Calisher’s death.

NYT Ran Obit January 15, 2009

Hortense Calisher, the novelist and short-story writer whose unpredictable turns of phrase, intellectually challenging fictional situations and complex plots captivated and puzzled readers for a half-century, died on Tuesday in Manhattan.

Now, a bit about her in relation to literature.

“Among contemporary writers of distinction Hortense Calisher has always been a strangely elusive presence.

Miss Calisher has said of the short story that it is an "apocalypse served in a very small cup."

Joyce Carol Oates

in New York Times Book Review
November 6, 1982

“Miss Calisher has not a logical or intellectual imagination at all, as many critics believe. She is a primitive, a believer in magical powers, fantastic feats of consciousness, the uncanny confusion between inner will and outer history.

Joyce Carol Oates

Hudson Review
Autumn 1969


Interview –

“I'm a morning writer. I get up very early, and I don't want to talk to God or man, or husband, and he feels the same. I work until I have to stop--no definite time. You learn your own habits. Having written as long as I have, I know that toward the end of a book I can write longer into the day. Everything begins to fuse and come to its natural resolution; once you have laid down the paths, what was tentative at the beginning has direction. As I finish, I can write eight hours a day. I can work long days revising first drafts of my fiction, but those are exhausting days. I hate them!”

Calisher, Hortense, Peter Marchant, and Gregory Fitz Gerald. "A Conversation with Hortense Calisher." Southwest Review. Ed. Earl Ingersoll and Peter Marchant 1986. 186-193. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 134. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. 186-193. Literature Resource Center.

“Many readers first encounter Hortense Calisher through her widely anthologized short stories, then anticipate her novels. After reading them, however, they may come away vaguely unsatisfied though seldom quite dissatisfied. She is too gifted a writer for that.”

“Calisher's short stories and novellas may initially appear to be peopled by fully-rounded characters, but an overview of the stories reveals a high proportion of well-done types: the educated misfit, the eccentric family member, the young innocent, the at-odds mother-daughter (or husband-wife), the displaced southerner, the would-be radical. And type is all they need to be since hers are not primarily stories of character, but of complex situation, the result of long processes of cause and effect told in hints and subtleties. Where the Calisher protagonists have been, are now, and where they are probably going—or not going, depending on their revelations—is their story. Exactly who they are is incidental. Their external descriptions are often vivid, even witty, but their tastes and temperaments are revealed only to the degree that they serve the tale. If we flesh them out ourselves, it is a tribute to their creator's ability to write so that we read creatively.”

“Calisher's long interest in psychology and the supernatural is evident. Her life spans Freudianism and beyond, but psychology—eclectic and non-systematic—as it appears in her work at times is close to fantasy, at other times follows accepted dogma.”

Pehowski, Marian. "Hortense Calisher: Overview." Contemporary Novelists. Susan Windisch Brown. 6th ed. New York: St. James Press, 1996. Literature Resource Center.

“But for reasons inexplicable, Calisher is seldom read or taught or explicated by academics. Her stories appear infrequently in college literature anthologies; she has rated only two entries in the PMLA Bibliography since 1951, one a doctoral dissertation, one a very brief appreciation. Perhaps her stories are somehow too simple; they offer the elusive pleasure of fine writing, perfect evocations of human conflict, rather than the allusive problems of interpretation so beloved by academics.”

Matalene, Carolyn. "Hortense Calisher." American Novelists Since World War II: First Series. Ed. Jeffrey Helterman and Richard Layman. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research, 1978. Literature Resource Center. Gale.

“Hortense Calisher's fiction may be too demanding to find a wide audience, despite her remarkable perceptions and formidable talent. She marks a dense, elliptical narrative with subtle, verbal humor and penetrating examinations of the heart. The patient reader is always richly rewarded by her wit and her lush writing style. Calisher has been compared to both Edith Wharton and Henry James for her novelistic focus upon upper-class bourgeois experience and the artifice and manners that typify that lifestyle. Like Wharton and James, Calisher uncovers meaning beneath the layers of social decorum, unveiling the complexities of the mind and heart through her evocative writing style. Calisher describes her own prose style as poetic. As she explains in a 1987 interview in the Paris Review, "Prose can have its own strong, profound rhythms. And its own lyric. Both as powerful as poetry."

Kellner, Bruce and Allison Hersh. "Hortense Calisher: Overview." Reference Guide to American Literature. Ed. Jim Kamp. 3rd ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Literature Resource Center. Gale.

And so with that – let’s get to the reading.

Contents -The Best American Short Stories 1981

The Best American Short Stories 1981

ix · Introduction · Hortense Calisher

1- The Idea of Switzerland - Walter Abish - The Partisan Review, 1980

29 - Small Island Republics - Max Apple - The Kenyon Review, 1980

44 -Winter: 1978 - Ann Beattie - Carolina Quarterly, 1980

77 - A Working Day - Robert Coover - The Iowa Review, 1980

110 - The Moth and the Primrose - Vincent G. Dethier - Massachusetts Review, 1980

129- The Winter Father - Andre Dubus - The Sewanee Review, 1980

150 - The Assembly - Mavis Gallant - Harper’s May ’80

158 - The Bookseller - Elizabeth Hardwick - New Yorker Dec 15 ’80

171 - Shiloh - Bobbie Ann Mason - New Yorker Oct 20 ’80

185 - The Future - Joseph McElroy · New Yorker Dec 22 ’80

203 -Fogbound in Avalon -Elizabeth McGrath - New Yorker, 1980

220 - The Mountains Where Cithaeron Is · Amelia Moseley - Massachusetts Review, 1980

241 - Wood - Alice Munro - New Yorker Nov 24 ’80

255 - Presque Isle - Joyce Carol Oates - AGNI Review, 1980

271 - The Shawl - Cynthia Ozick - New Yorker May 26 ’80

276 - The St. Anthony Chorale - Louis D. Rubin, Jr.- The Southern Review, 1980

293 - Wissler Remembers - Richard Stern - Atlantic Monthly Sep ’80

303 - Ice - Elizabeth Tallent - New Yorker Sep 15 ’80

312 - Still of Some Use - John Updike - New Yorker Oct 6 ’80

317 - Change - Larry Woiwode - New Yorker Dec 1 ’80