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To savour and swirl

50 Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane is a remarkable collection with a huge variety of settings, subjects and styles but consistently high quality of writing.

I am beginning to discern a pattern: when the year is young, it is easy to be adventurous and pick up new writers, large sweeping novels and enigmatic themes but as it draws to an end, one would rather roll up with the familiar stuff and the shorter the better. Perhaps it is the short days and early evenings or perhaps it is the sense of things ending that pushes one towards, for instance, anthologies of short stories. Dip in and out, skip what doesn't hold you after the first paragraph, select and prioritise much like tabulating even sub-consciously the plus and minus of the year that has gone, resting the mind and soul for the foothills of January.

In this mood, 50 Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane and, from its sticker on the back cover, obviously bought by me long ago at some airport in the Far East, seems the ideal choice. Every anthology by a good editor has its internal logic but I instantly liked Crane's definition of the short story: the sudden unforgettable revelation of character; the vision of a world through another's eyes; the glimpse of truth; the capture of a moment in time. And his method: he took a 100 short stories and sent the list to professors of English at colleges and universities throughout the U.S., asking them to check the 50 they preferred or to suggest others. About 500 professors took the time to respond and were often in sharp disagreement. Crane ultimately made the final choices, balancing earlier and more recent writers and avoiding stories that have been over anthologised. The result is a remarkable collection that puts together a huge variety of settings, subjects and styles but is consistent in the high quality of the writing. That is hardly surprising when you have the luxury to pick from the masters of the last 100 years and more — Henry James and Conrad, Chekhov and Pushkin, Maugham and Steinbeck and so on.

It's difficult to rate the stories in this anthologies but I decided to give it a go, marking the best gently in pencil with an A++. Henry James tells in “Brooksmith” of the butler and friend of a retired English “diplomatist”, as those of my profession were referred to in those elegant days. Savour the Jamesian sentence in all its glory: “Mr Offord, the most agreeable, the most attaching of bachelors, was a retired diplomatist, living on his pension and something over of his own over and above; a good deal confined, by his infirmities, to his fireside and delighted to be found there any afternoon in the year, from five o'clock on, by such visitors as Brooksmith allowed to come up.” The story tells of what happens when Offord dies and Brooksmith loses not just a job but what he revelled in; the society provided by the visitors, the conversations and arguments to which he was a silent but avid listener as he went about his duties.

In sharply contrasting style is a frothy story by Anatole France about Putois, a gardener who does not exist. The name is created in a wildly desperate moment and soon develops into a character, acquiring traits and habits, a reputation and even a criminal record, opening up the question as to what is really real. Honour, bravery and romance in the hands of an enigmatic Russian character are laid out in an elaborate story “The Shot” told in 19th century Russian style by Alexander Pushkin, more known for his poetry than his prose.

In “The Upheaval”, the only other Russian story, Chekhov tells of the pain of an honest governess suspected of theft by a rich but uncouth lady of the house who has actually been robbed by none other than her cuckolded husband. The casual attitude of the rich towards the pain of the poor who live at their footsteps is explored also in Katherine Mansfield's “The Garden Party,” a party that is gone through even when there is a death in a poor neighbour's cottage because “people like that don't expect sacrifices from us.” Flannery O'Connor in the taut and tense story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in which everything seems to be happening under the surface tells of a family that is gunned down on the road to Florida by an escaped convict, the grandmother being the last the last to go, even as she tries to make the convict pray.

In typical Maugham style, “A String of Beads” shows how one small incident can change a life forever, taking a mere governess and changing her into a Parisian millionairess. There is the deft, tight Hemingway classic; “The Three Day Blow” in which his young protagonist Nick Adams drinks to get drunk while the foul wind blows, all the time haunted by the fact that he has just ended a relationship: “All he knew was that he had once had Marjorie and that he had lost her. She was gone and he had sent her away. That was all that mattered. He might never see her again. Probably he never would. It was all gone, finished.”

And if the bare, tell-it-like-it-is style gets too much turn to the opening sentence of “The Tale” by Joseph Conrad, a man, if you will believe it, learnt English at age 25: “Outside the large window the crepuscular light was dying out slowly in a great square gleam without colour, framed rigidly in the gathering shades of the room.” But the one that gets more than A++, and I will let the reader look for it and read it rather than give it away, is “A.V. Laider” by Max Beerbohm

So enough to pick and choose from, to savour and swirl, as one more year winds down.


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