Taking Mr Ravenswood by William Trevor

Anders Zorn (Swedish painter) 1860-1920 Impressions of London, 1890

Taking Mr Ravenswood” is a short story by Irish-English author William Trevor, included in Last Stories (2018) and previously unpublished. The author had already died by the time this story was released to the rest of us. This is an excellent example of the ambiguity lyrical short stories are known for. To get a sense of what happens in the story, it is necessary to read the symbolism. In line with the ambiguous, post-Chekhovian lyrical short story tradition, William Trevor offers aesthetic but not dramatic closure. But mostly, I think, he is leaving us to construct a large part of the plot.

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The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

Jessie MacGregor - In the Reign of Terror 1891 baby cradle

The Shawl (1980) is a short story by American writer Cynthia Ozick, born 1928. In 2014, Joyce Carol Oates joined Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker to read and discuss Ozick’s story.

This horrific short story reminds me most of a narrative from another side of the same war: Grave of the Fireflies. Both are about starving, desperate war victims on a journey to nowhere. Both result in death from starvation. The Road by Cormac McCarthy has its similarities, including another horrific baby scene. (If you’ve watched the film adaptation and not read McCarthy’s novel, you have escaped it. The scene was clearly considered too harrowing for a film-going audience.)

Grave of the Fireflies utilises an empty box of sweets (replaced with stones) in the way Ozick utilises the corner of a shawl — the young starving character sucks on a non-food item as a way to quell their hunger. Both are grim motifs. The shawl in Ozicks’ narrative adds an extra layer, functioning metonymically for comfort spread thin.

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All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury

Harry Wingfield Summer rainstorm (1966) for Ladybird

All Summer in a Day is a short story by American writer Ray Bradbury, first published in 1954. Find it in Ray Bradbury Stories Vol. 1. It’s interesting to see how science fiction evolves alongside our increased understanding of other planets. “All Summer In A Day” is a story of its time, written in an era when people believed Venus probably looked like a jungle.

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U.F.O. In Kushiro by Haruki Murakami

“U.F.O. in Kushiro” is a short story written by popular contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami. English readers first had access to the story in 2001, when it appeared in an issue of the New Yorker magazine. It was republished in 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami devastated northern Japan. Safe to say this is considered a Japan-disaster-story.

Bryan Washington joins Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “U.F.O. in Kushiro,” by Haruki Murakami.

But “U.F.O. in Kushiro” is not really about the Hanshin earthquake, one of Japan’s most devastating and expensive disasters in history. To convey the magnitude of disaster in a short story is difficult because of the phenomenon of ‘psychic numbing‘. I’m sure we’re all feeling that in the year 2020. It’s impossible to extend equivalent empathy to everyone affected by disaster, but when we hear about someone’s personal tragedies, we can be overcome with empathy for them, personally, because we can more easily imagine the trials of one person, or one small community.

To get around the psychic numbing, Murakami has focused on the story of an individual. Unusually for a ‘disaster story’ though, this individual isn’t near the scene of the disaster, but instead lives in Tokyo, three hours away from Kobe (by train). But in a different way this is a story about psychic numbing. The main character is entirely passive right until the end of the story. He does what he is told to do by others. He is numb because his wife has left him and he did not see it coming. ‘The ground shifts beneath him.’ The symbolism of the earthquake is very clear.

What big ideas is Murakami hoping readers will explore in this story? Which storytelling techniques does he utilised to take us there? Let’s take a look.

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Foes by Lorrie Moore

“Foes” is a short story by American writer Lorrie Moore. The Guardian published it on the eve of the election which would see Obama to the presidency, and can be read in full here. It is also in Bark and in Collected Stories.

This is such an American story, so Americans will have a more indepth knowledge of its historical context than I do. My main interest lies in the story structure and writing techniques.

That said, if anyone anywhere has ever been at a social gathering, made smalltalk with a stranger than realised as the conversation wears on that this nice, smiling and friendly person has political views you find repugnant, you will likely identify with the character of Bake McKurtry, even if you’re not American.

A good way to create conflict is to shove the rich and poor together in the same small space, but when we put the “hedgefund” people and the “haiku” people together, that conflict works just as effectively (and is basically the same thing, I guess?)

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The Toys of Peace by Saki

Pruett Carter (1891-1955) tree guns

“The Toys of Peace” (1919) is a short story by H.H. Munro (a.k.a. Saki) and is out of copyright so can easily be found online. This is the opening short story in a collection called The Toys Of Peace And Other Papers by H.H. Munro (and G.K. Chesterton). This volume was published after Saki’s death. Saki died on a battlefield during WW1.

Readers will most definitely arrive at this story with their own ideas about children, toys, gender and violence. This will very much affect your reading.

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Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People by Lorrie Moore

“Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People” is a mother-and-daughter road trip short story by American writer Lorrie Moore. This story was published in The New Yorker in November 1993. Also find it in Birds of America (1999) and The Collected Stories.

The title of this story comes from something the mother of this story is known to say often. This is the sort of thing that can sound affirming, but also passive-aggressive. (“By some people, do you mean me??”)

“Theda’s, of course, sweet as ever,” said her mother, “which is more than I can say about some people.”

Perhaps the daughter, Abby, has heard this her whole life, and this is partly why she is on a self-improvement journey.

The word ‘journey’ to describe a psychological path is much reviled, and I wonder if that’s partly because it’s a word mainly utilised by women. In any case, Abby goes on an actual journey (to Irish) hoping for a psychological journey, or, in the case of a fictional character, a character arc. The raison d’être of all road trip stories. Does she get one, though?

Well, yeah, kinda. But not the kind she was after. This story is about self-help spiritual journeys, subverted. When we embark upon self-improvement, sometimes we’re in for a shock. It’s about the futility of (too-)easily getting there and then going, now what? Is this all it’s cracked up to be? The Blarney Stone pilgrimage is an excellent example of the futility of tourist life, because we can pretend to ourselves that we’re visiting it for a reason. Of course the Blarney Stone does nothing for us. (I’m tempted to say pilgrimages are historically more meaningful because of the religious aspect, but then I learned that even in the middle ages, rich people would pay poor people to do their pilgrimages for them, suggesting they were never all that meaningful for the masses.)

Sometimes in satirical stories, characters themselves almost feel they’re a character in thier own story. This is a version of metafiction. Abby sees ‘storybook symbolism’ in her own experience of being a tourist:

Abby felt sick from the flight, and sitting on what should be the driver’s side but without a steering wheel suddenly seemed emblematic of something.

Later, Abby takes note of the ‘deadly maternal metaphor’ in the Celtic curlicues.

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You’re Ugly, Too by Lorrie Moore

You’re Ugly, Too” is a short story by American writer Lorrie Moore, first published in a 1989 edition of The New Yorker — Moore’s first for the New Yorker. Find it also in her short story collection Like Life (1990).

New Yorker editors pointed out to Moore several “vulgarities” of the writing process she had committed in the story. “All through the editing process, they said, ‘Oooh, we’re breaking so many rules with this.’

Encyclopedia.com

Why did the crew at The New Yorker feel Lorrie Moore’s short story — the first of hers they’d seen/discussed seriously — broke the ‘rules’ of writing? What rules were they talking about.

I wasn’t there and can’t tell you for sure, but I’d like to consider this question.

  • Zoë is a woman, but she’s not “likeable”. She’s not even likeably unlikeable. (At least, she’s not written that way, panding to readers’ desire to like their main characters).
  • Zoë’s actions never fully make sense to the reader, even after re-reading. Her actions at the party, like her sense of humour, are absurd.
  • Zoë is nihilist and therefore passive. A difficult character to write.
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The Split Attraction Model in Stories

Vintage Al Parker ( b.1906) illustration 1950s

What does it mean to string someone along? In conversation with her friend Jill Stark, Australian feminist activist Clementine Ford is pretty clear. Clementine refers to a tentpole article (“an oldie but a goodie”) by Tracie Egan Morrissey at Jezebel: Dudes Today: The Emotional Conquistador Is The New Sexual Conquistador.

Maybe. I’m fortunate not to have met dudes like that. Or maybe not.

Nothing about this take accounts for The Split Attraction Model of human relationships — a concept which wasn’t much talked about ten years ago, and which remains little known outside queer circles and philosophy.

There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing.

Francois La Rochefoucauld

The Split Attraction Model of Philosophy

American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925 – 2015) divided sex into three aspects:

  1. Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
  2. Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture, but
  3. Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.
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The Jockey by Carson McCullers

American writer Carson McCullers published “The Jockey” in 1941, when she was just 24, which seems young, until you realise she’d published “Sucker” at the age of 17 and a novel at age 22.

McCullers belonged to a generation who spent their youth living through world war. Surely that affords a measure of maturity. She had also endured a number of strokes, which were to eventually paralyse one half of her body. She was married by the time she wrote this. Apparently, when her husband forged his signature to get the money she received for this story from the New Yorker, that was the last straw, and she (temporarily) left him. They reunited later, he tried to persuade her to double suicide with him, she refused, and he suicided on his own.

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