Compared to poets, Glenway Wescott wrote, fiction writers “must cast an easier spell, looser and farther flung, inclusive of some imperfection; so that the reader can…retell some of it to himself in his own words, relive some of it.” He included the long short story in this observation, but here in fact is one of the places the story diverges from the novel and comes closer to poetry. It is hard to think of a story that one would wish, exactly, to relive. We do reread them. But once having seriously encountered them, we go back to the great stories for their beauty or their hold over us, as we do poems, and we approach them warily. A story such as “The Metamorphosis,” or Paul Bowles’s “The Frozen Fields,” or Nadine Gordimer’s quiet story of a terrorist, “Some Are Born to Sweet Delight,” we have to seize like a snake, behind the head, ready to undergo the ordeal a second time. Jean Rhys’s “The Sound of the River,” in which a woman wakes up beside her husband who has died in the night, and Elizabeth Jolley’s “Grasshoppers,” in which a frail and confused grandmother is left in charge of small children, appall us even as something drives us back to them.
However thickly sown with detail it may be, the short story steeps the reader in the feeling that one thing is at work. We come away with this sense even from one very drawn out in time, such as Alice Munro’s “Carried Away.” In this story, beginning in World War I and continuing into the late Fifties, a woman who has recovered from TB waits out the war, works as a traveling saleswoman and a librarian, and loves three times, each seriously–once a married doctor at the TB sanatorium, once and for all time a young soldier she knows only through letters, who marries someone else and dies in a factory accident, and last the owner of the factory where the accident happened, whom she marries. She raises children and lives to be old. As an old woman with heart disease she meets at last the ghost of her mysterious second love, a figure so real as to cause arguments among readers of the story. By the time it happens, his appearance to her in the city to which she has traveled by bus, dizzy and alone, for an appointment with the cardiologist, seems a simple consummation.
This is perhaps the supreme offering of the short story, the reader’s feeling that some proof has been submitted that life, long or short, funny or tragic, is simple. The short story is the loaves and fishes run in reverse: many things have gone into it and mysteriously become few.
Valerie Trueblood will be reading with Yiyun Li on Friday, 16 September at 9pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel