In the mid 1980’s I went through a reading period where I consumed a lot of short stories. I have a wonderful set of collections on my shelf of Australian examples and the 1986 publication “The Penguin Book of International Short Stories 1945-1985”, which contains wonderful examples of the genre by Beckett, Calvino, Camus, Capote, Doctorow, Marquez, Updike and more. At that time I was enjoyed the short grab that these stories could present. However I must admit that the novel has taken over most of my reading, as you can probably understand by looking at my blog posts.
The introduction, by Daniel Halpern, to the Penguin anthology explains the mystique of the genre quite well:
The story, when it is written well, is like strong emotion: it is alive, convincing and difficult to expel from the body’s metabolism.
I came across Deborah Levy’s collection as part of my “And Other Stories” subscription (see the entry on this blog for “Swimming Home” by the same writer for details and a link if you would like to support independent publishing too), and I am very grateful that I was given the opportunity to revisit her wonderful work, even if in another form, so close to finishing her Booker Prize shortlisted novel.
This collection contains ten stories, including the title story “Black Vodka” which made the 2012 BBC Short Story Award Shortlist. All ten stories are a lament on love, unrequited love, unspoken love, hurtful love, fear of love and more. As in “Swimming Home”, but more to the fore in the shorter genre, Deborah Levy says even more by saying less. Cinema has mise en scene (the visual theme and emotional tone of a film), Levy has a strong observation of human fears, letting ourselves fill in the blanks that are populating her character’s minds.
He looks down at the frayed cuffs of his short sleeves and notices a small rash on the back of both of his hands. Does she know he has brought his agitation and turbulence into the white walls of her apartment? The rash on his hands is the memory of saying goodbye to his small children when he left the family house, knowing he was never going to return. (“Vienna”)
This is the sixth day without Naomi. As Mr Tegala rides his bicycle to the pub, he hums his favourite Leonard Cohen song. A passing truck knocks him into the gutter. Simon Tegala is bleeding and bruised and he can’t stand up. Apparently someone has called an ambulance. He wonders if Naomi would leave him if she knew Leonard Cohen was his hero. And then he remembers Naomi has left him anyway. (“Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts”)
Each one of these stories rang true for me in some way and it is Levy’s ability to say enough, without pointing out the whole, which attracts me to her writing. It allows the reader enough wiggle room to insert their own experiences into the story, to connect with the protagonists, to feel as though the emotion is sinking into the “body’s metabolism”. The age old existentialist question, what does it mean to live, does it include love?
The first time I met Lisa I knew she was going to help me become a very different sort of man. Knowing this felt like a summer holiday. It made me relax – and I am quite a tense person. (“Black Vodka”)
If you loved Levy’s Booker Prize shortlisted “Swimming Home” I suggest you also hunt down a copy of these wonderful stories, and as mentioned above have a look at the And Other Stories website (http://www.andotherstories.org/subscribe/) to understand their publishing philosophy and maybe subscribe to their books.