Monday, June 18, 2007

Short Shorts

Before flash fiction, there were short shorts. Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe published their anthology of "the shortest stories" in 1982, with the title of this post. In his introduction, Howe describes the editors' excitement over reading Mishima's "Swaddling Clothes," and then their observation that his story seemed different from the usual kind of short story.

How so? It is fiercely condensed, almost like a lyric poem; it explodes in a burst of revelation or illumination; it confines itself to a single, overpowering incident; it bears symbolic weight.

The Mishima story is a miniature masterpiece, as Howe points out. The image of the nurse's newborn wrapped in newspaper is as unforgettable to me as it is to Toshiko, the nurse's mistress, to her tragedy. The gem, however, is flawed. How could Toshiko's husband, in deciding to employ the nurse for his own newborn, have been naive enough to accept her explanation of her huge stomach as gastric dilation? Even if the husband is an insensitive, unobservant, egotistical man, as subtly suggested in the story, how could Toshiko, who has just given birth, not have seen the nurse's pregnancy for what it is?

A few of the short shorts pack the same punch as Mishama's. Sherwood Anderson's "The Untold Lie," a Winesburg, Ohio story, is deeply humane. "News from the World," by Paula Fox, frames an intense love affair with a public event, and thus gains psychological weight and universal significance. Joao Guimaraes Rosa, a Brazilian writer, is a discovery for me. "The Third Bank of the River" speaks deeply of a mystery in a father's relationship with his family. Giovanni Verga's "The Wolf" is about obsession and temptation, twin themes that are very close to my heart.

Some stories read before in other collections bear re-reading very well: Joyce's "Eveline," Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," Paz's "The Blue Bouquet." I found myself resisting stories that seem too bent on giving a message: Tolstoy's "The Three Hermits," I. L. Peretz's "If Not Higher," Kafka's "The Hunter Gracchus," Luisa Valenzuela's "The Censors."

The anthology is a good read. I am a little surprised that I was not knocked into a heap more often.

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