Brevity, soul and wit

ALBERTO MANGUEL September 21 1987

Brevity, soul and wit

ALBERTO MANGUEL September 21 1987

Brevity, soul and wit


Trying to define the short story is like trying to determine how many grains of sand it takes to make a pile. There are stories shorter than a single page, there are stories longer than a small novel. Some are nothing but description, others nothing but dialogue. Some focus on a single instant, others span centuries in their plot. And some have no plot at all. Any definition topples under the number of exceptions. And yet the short story is one of the oldest forms of literature. In Canada, the first recorded short stories precede the first novel—The History of Emily Montague, published in 1769—by half a century. Until recently, the few Canadians struggling to become published writers found receptive markets for their work not among publishers of novels, but in magazines and radio—particularly on Robert Weaver’s CBC program Anthology, which went on the air in the early 1950s. Those outlets encouraged Canadian writers to hone their skills in a literary form that is now the country’s most commonly practised type of fiction.

Many of Canada’s finest writers, including Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, are artisans of short fiction. Now, several publishers are encouraging the development of a new generation. Three years ago, under the guidance of editor-in-chief Cynthia Good, Penguin

Looking for ways to say who they are and what they see, the new short story writers stretch the form in fresh directions

Books began publishing what may well be the most important series in North America dedicated exclusively to short stories: Penguin Short Fiction. The Canadian-originated series, which includes works by other countries’ writers, is also published in the United States and England. In its brief life, Penguin Short Fiction has published original collections by such formi-

dable talents as Timothy Findley, Marian Engel, Bharati Mukherjee, Robertson Davies and newcomer Eric McCormack.

One of the latest titles in the outstanding series is Rohinton Mistry’s Tales from Firozsha Baag. Born in Bombay in 1952, Mistry immigrated to Canada in 1975, where he worked at a Toronto bank while writing his short stories. The Firozsha Baag of the title is a Bombay apartment building, a small urban version of the Indian universe. The lives of its inhabitants cross and overlap: their passions, private and public, and their obsessions, from the scatological to the otherworldly, affect everyone. Mistry draws pungent portraits of those people—the old servant, the generous neighbor, the ghostseer, the misanthrope.

Every story in the collection is finely crafted. But the concluding piece, which links the lives of characters the reader has come to know throughout the book, is constructed with clockwork precision. It combines descriptions of an elderly Firozsha Baag couple’s everyday life in Bombay with the letters of their son, who has recently immigrated to Canada. Mistry shifts the Canadian reader’s perceptions by carefully presenting the Indian world as immediate and the Canadian world—as seen through the sqn’s

eyes—as foreign. It is hard to believe that Tales is Mistry’s first book: his ability to bring to life a complex world through a wide cast of characters is such that Tales deserves a place of honor next to the village-life stories of India’s master practitioner, R.K. Narayan.

The short story form takes on a distinctly different shape in Jane Urquhart’s Storm Glass (The Porcupine’s Quill, an Erin, Ont.-based press). It would be difficult to find a definition of the short story that would fit both Mistry’s fastidious concern with factual detail and Urquhart’s commitment to ambiguity and understatement. Where Mistry burrows into his characters’ every moment, following their adventures with the curiosity of a fox, Urquhart is more detached, less interested in the account of her characters’ movements than in the complex drift of their unconsciousness.

Her title story is the description of a marriage at its turning point, seen through the eyes of the wife and symbolized in a piece of worn glass found on a beach. But the best story in her collection is “The Death of Robert Browning.” It recreates the poet’s last hours in Venice. Written in 1983, just after Urquhart’s own return from a sojourn in Italy to her home in Wellesley, Ont., Browning is a rich, multicolored miniature, unfaltering and unforgettable. In fact, it served Urquhart as a starting point for her 1986 novel, The Whirlpool.

Urquhart often uses Italy as her setting; Mistry fixes the lives of his bustling tenants in India. But in both books, the characters live with their authors’ consciousness of Canada. So do the Mexican villagers who populate Patrick Roscoe’s new collection of stories, Beneath the Western Slopes (Stoddart). Roscoe, a 25-year-old self-styled gypsy, has cast an aloof eye on Mexican village life. His is not the anguished view of an outsider, nor does he try to be a Latin American, at one with his Mexican characters. Instead, he describes Mexico with the attitude of a benevolent tourist, charmed by one thing, intrigued by another.

The result is a series of highly readable stories. Some are admirable snapshots (“The Scent of Young Girls Dying”), others are intelligent and moving observations (“There Must Be More to Life Than Kissing Boys”). Roscoe’s tales never try to hide the foreigner’s voice, the hint of a Canadian accent. “There Must Be More to Life” is a convincing portrait of Estrella, a 13-year-old village schoolgirl who is determined not to become seduced by a local boy into a prison of domesticity—but its vocabulary is that of a wry North American observer. Es-

trella’s skin, he writes, felt “sticky, like it was coated with spit from a boy’s mouth, or with glue. She’d have to be extra careful not to brush accidentally against some boy or she’d find herself stuck to him for life. Ugghh!”

A fair proportion of Canada’s short story writers have already staked out clearly recognizable territory on the national literary map, from Alice Munro’s rural southwestern Ontario to Margaret Laurence’s fictional Manitoban town of Manawaka. But other

writers have been remarkably slow to become part of the literary geography. With only two books, Night Travellers (Turnstone Press and General Publishing, 1982) and Ladies of the House (Turnstone Press, 1984),

Winnipeg author Sandra Birdsell has proved that she is one the finest short story writers in the country. But Birdsell is far from being a best-seller: her books’ total combined sales are a respectable but not outstanding 15,000 copies, and the most recent edition of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature ignores her completely.

Her forthcoming collected short ficion, Agassiz Stories (Turnstone Press)—which consists of both her previous books—may finally give Birdsell the readership she deserves.

Agassiz, a mythical town in rural Manitoba, is to Birdsell’s characters

what Manawaka is to Laurence’s: a stage on which they perform their daily rituals of learning and unlearning. To allow her characters the full run of their parts, the author steps aside and offers no comment, no excuse and no justification for their behavior. Because of that, her stories are masterpieces of understated drama. In “The Rock Garden,” a mother’s craving to have a rock garden of her own leads to the exposure of a tangle of family jealousies and frustrations, of egotistical

children and of a woman borne down by terrible notions of duty.

Despite their common background, it is impossible to find a tag applicable to Canada’s practitioners of the short story. Their books all carry on the title page the label “short stories,” but each time one of them writes, the definition has to expand to include a new variation, or even a new style. Certain literary forms—the sonnet, the play, the essay—can be clearly defined. But the short story keeps changing, and that is its appeal. Looking for ways to say who they are and what they see, writers such as Mistry, Urquhart, Roscoe and Birdsell keep stretching the form’s limits in fresh, sometimes startling directions.