William Trevor on Short Stories

From an interview in The Paris Review:


What is your definition of a short story?


I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.

Truth in a Berlin Salon c. 1910

In a culture dedicated to pleasure, power, and stratagems, truth becomes simply another card in the deck.

No one speaks the truth here, in these circles that set the tone for society at large. —Perhaps a word of truth is out of the question, if only because people here are too clever and are acquainted with thousands of truths and untruths. The knowledge of human nature is too rich, the treasury of experiences in fact already too replete. In a sense, speaking the truth presupposes a certain narrow-mindedness.

So comments Robert Walser in “Frau Bähni,” a short recollection written in 1916 that appears in Berlin Stories (NYRB).

This little book presents Walser’s impressions—sometimes comic, sometimes somber—of Berlin in the first decades of the 20th century. The quality of the pieces is uneven, but the best pieces are superb, and I recommend the collection overall.

Of course, there are other cultures where a preference for truth seems almost quaint. . . .

Tagore: A Life of Giving

Friday’s edition of the New York Times features an article by Eric Weiner about his trip to Shantiniketan, the town where the Bengali poet and activist Rabindarath Tagore (1861-1941) founded a school that still thrives today. The article quotes Tagore’s final poem, which he dictated 9 days before his death.

Today my sack is empty. I have given completely whatever I had to give. In return if I receive anything — some love, some forgiveness — then I will take it with me when I step on the boat that crosses to the festival of the wordless end.

I hope that when my time comes, I too can look back and say “I have given completely whatever I had to give.” I, too, would like to die with my sack of potential gifts utterly spent. Honestly, I do not think I have given enough in my life, which is why my New Year’s resolution is to give more.

The Argumentative Indian by Amartya SenIf you read the Times article and are intrigued by Tagore, I highly recommend Amartya Sen’s collection of essays, The Argumentative Indian. It’s a great survey of Indian culture, and it includes a couple of essays on Tagore, with whom Sen studied in Shantiniketan.

An Afternoon with Harvey Shapiro

I hadn’t heard of the poet Harvey Shapiro until a friend of a friend posted a note on Facebook about his passing on Monday and posted a link to this poem. That was enough: I’m ordering Shapiro’s book, The Sights Along the Harbor: New and Collected Poems, which is published by Wesleyan University Press.

The Uses of Poetry

This was a day when I did nothing,
aside from reading the newspaper,
taking both breakfast and lunch by myself
in the kitchen, dozing after lunch
until the middle of the afternoon. Then
I read one poem by Zbigniew Herbert
in which he thanked God for the many beautiful
things in this world, in a voice so absurdly
truthful, the entire wrecked day was redeemed.

What a marvellous poem.

It’s starts out ambling. The poet tells us he “did nothing,” and very little seems to happen. “Aside from” introduces what should be insignificant achievements, and the activities that follow are described with hum-drum participles: reading, taking, dozing. The day is mostly gone. We’ve reached the middle of the afternoon. Then.

The line breaks are part of this poem’s enchantment. Everything is going along as expected, you’re being lulled, but it turns out you have no idea what’s coming next. The “Then” introduces a twist. He read one poem by Herbert; you can almost hear him saying “just this one little poem.”

The second great line break is “absurdly.” In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser writes about the way a good poet will choose a word you would never have expected to appear, and yet when it appears it seems marvelously descriptive and apt, not bizarre or strained. That’s how the phrase “absurdly Truthful” strikes me. A voice could be “absurdly” many things, but “truthful” lands like a shaft of light blazing through a window we had mistaken for a wall. (Absurdly truthful? Not just “utterly truthful.” The absurdity suggests, in a way that wrenches our thinking, the prevalence of pretense.) The day we had been dozing through has been transformed in the light of this truth. We should praise God for all around us, even the things around us in our day spent dozing, our day spent on nothing.

We now recognize this ordinary day as an “entire wrecked day,” not a “nothing” day at all. These are the harshest words—and the harshest sounds—in the poem. That trochee “entire” followed by a spondee “wrecked day” (or perhaps the antibacchius “wrecked day was”) sounds, after the smooth banalities that opened the poem as jarring as a garbage disposal catching on something.

And then the conclusion: “was redeemed” (a strong iamb after all that catching and stalling). (And the passive voice is perfect here. The emphasis is on the redemption. The concluding word of the poem is unexpected as redemption itself. The word fairly sings.)

The redemption comes from a recognition, which is triggered by reading a poem—Herbert’s poem. But Shapiro’s poem itself is also an act of recognition and thus another act of redemption. Just as Shapiro is awakened by Herbert, so we can be awakened by Shapiro reading Herbert. This is, after all, the use of poetry, as the title tells us.

Look! Give thanks!

The New York Timesobituary for Harvey Shapiro includes some other poems worth your time.

Remembering Charles Rosen

There aren’t many great classical pianists who can also write great essays on topics as various as the form of classical music, the paintings of David Caspar Friedrich, the philosophy of Walter Benjamin, and the cookbooks of Elizabeth David.

Correction: there’s just one, Charles Rosen, and we lost him yesterday. He died of cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He was 85. (New York Times obituary here.)

I still haven’t read his National Book Award-winning book on classical style, but I’ve read his book on Schoenberg, which was insightful about so much more than Schoenberg, and I was awed his book of essays (and here’s a great title) Romantic Poets, Critics, and Other Madmen.

Twice I’ve found myself needing to teach writing to teenagers who had been overexposed to the five-paragraph essay, that odd literary form found only in the laboratory and never in the wild. In both cases, I reached for Rosen’s essay on the cookbooks of Elizabeth David. It’s unlike anything most teenagers have encountered (he quotes her instructions for pulling the skin off an octopus), while demonstrating clearly how to hook the reader, introduce a startling thesis (that her cookbooks are pastorals), and defend that thesis with evidence.

And he was a marvelous pianist, as well. About twenty years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing him perform Beethoven’s Diabelli variations. I’ve cherished his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Elliott Carter’s piano music.

Here he is performing Schumann, whom he also writes about with great insight.