Baggy monsters or short stories?

HeavyweightsSo who do you go with, the Booker or the Nobel? One week after short story maestro Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature, to universal acclaim and lots of articles proclaiming that short fiction was having a moment, the Man Booker jury awarded their prize to the longest novel ever to win it, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Instantly, the press rolled out lots of articles about the trend for heavyweight fiction. So, leaving aside the goldfish memories of the  media, which way to jump?

My instinctive preference has always been to go for the deep comfort of a long read, a novel I can escape into during the endless winter nights. An alternate reality, unrolling a whole kingdom to explore, where I have time to get to know the characters, to see them grow and change. I like that feeling of being lost in a good book, giving myself over to the experience in the knowledge that there are days, if not weeks, of reading pleasure ahead. I tend to dismiss short stories as unsatisfying, ditching you just when you’re starting to get interested.

Yet this year I’m hesitating. Perhaps it’s the struggle of trying to finish writing my own novel, but I don’t feel ready to commit myself to an all-encompassing novel right now. I’m taking my fiction in short, sharp shots, jolting as a double espresso, bracing and intoxicating as a martini. Instead of the cosy wallow you get with a long novel, this is a cold shower that can leave you gasping in shock. It feels right, in this unpredictable autumn, where the rain clouds blow in just as you’re remarking on the warm sunshine.

So I’m enjoying the restrained language of Alice Munro’s collection Too Much Happiness, with the tragedies and misery lurking beneath the surface, hinted at by ripples and shadows. You can never argue that her stories are unsatisfying – they linger, resonate long after you finish them. Her characters seem so precarious, their lives liable to be undermined by forces outside of their control in a moment. Eleanor Catton will have to wait until I’m settled in the depths of winter.

Of course, the whole long/short argument is somewhat spurious. The shortest short story drags, if it doesn’t grab your attention. The longest novel zips by if the pace is fast enough. So here are a selection of my favourite long and short reads, for filling long winter nights or short morning commutes, whichever takes your fancy.

Baggy monsters

Possession by AS Byatt, another lengthy Booker winner, is one of those absorbing novels where the rich detail accumulates layer on layer, textured and coloured like a tapestry. It was one of the first ‘literary’ novels I read after university, relieved to be able to pick my own reading list.

Middlemarch by George Eliot was certainly on my university reading list, and one of the few set novels I’ve returned to since for sheer pleasure. The creation of an entire neighbourhood, and its associated social structure, all held together by the golden thread of Dorothea, surely the most infuriating yet loveable literary heroine created.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is probably the longest book I’ve ever read, and undoubtedly one of the strangest. Its blend of alternative history, luminous prose, dark unreality and human tragedy created a world I was unwilling to leave for the prosaic 21st century. One night I tripped over it in the dark, stubbing my toe as badly as if it had been a brick.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is a sprawling family saga that jumps perspective frequently, just as you’re getting cosy with one of the family members. Startling pictures and vignettes jump off the page, bringing unexpected pathos to an unsympathetic character. The portrait of the descent of the patriarch of the family into dementia is poignant and moving.

Short sharp shocks

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin, may be classified as a novel, but in truth it has the visceral, spare quality of the best short stories. It’s strong stuff, but simply told; the uncompromising rage of a woman who has seen the worst that can possibly happen to her child, and now sees his death being appropriated, prettied-up for history. Whatever your religion, this will make you reconsider the story of Jesus that we tell to our children.

The Collected Dorothy Parker, by Dorothy Parker, was my introduction to Parker’s razor-sharp, melancholy stories, often sadder and more reflective than you’d expect from her acidic bon mots or mordant poems. The Lovely Leave is fantastic on the way lovers brew up quarrels that waste precious time, when all they really want is to fall into each other’s arms. Misunderstandings, disappointments and human folly run through her stories, which tend not to leave you thinking kindly of humanity.

The Collected Short Stories of Saki, by Hector Hugh Munro (aka Saki) – I hope this is the right collection; I’ve been searching the house for this witty, wry collection of stories that take you into the blackest heart of Edwardian England, only to remember I leant it to someone who doesn’t seem to have returned it. Never lend a book you’ll want to read again – and I really do want to read this again, for Tobermory the talking cat if no other.

Bonjour Tristesse, by Francois Sagan is a terribly French, terribly precocious, terribly funny story of one girl’s transformation from unsophisticated convent schoolgirl to louche, sophisticated manipulator, over the course of a hot summer with the beautiful people on the French Riviera. Read it and be thankful for the youth of today.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Baggy monsters or short stories?

  1. Oh … and Edgar Allen Poe.

  2. Always enjoyed M.R James myself.
    Any thoughts?

    • I’ve not read MR James, so thanks for the recommendation – one for the reading list. Poe is terrific, though.And I’ve just enjoyed Stefan Zweig’s Twilight and Moonbeam Alley, in a lovely little volume from Pushkin Press.

  3. I find short stories frustrating and disappointing more often than not, but then again, reading a good one is most satisfying of all. I like Ian McEwan’s collection, In Between The Sheets. His short story, The Cat, is written for children (from the The Daydreamer collection), but you don’t switch to your inner child to appreciate it – you can enjoy the magical little journey as your full adult self, and remember it for a long while.

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