Review: The Empty Family – Colm Tóibín

I am writing this review early in the morning in the strange half-light reflecting into the house from the eight inches of snow which fell overnight down here on the South Coast of England.

I often find short-story collections disappointing, mainly because so many writers try to create impact by giving their work an unwarranted novelty or quirkiness.  In Ireland at least however, there is a long tradition of short story writing which tends towards the calm and reflective, providing illuminating windows on to life with far greater integrity than those writers who wish to surprise their readers with their cleverness.  Ann Enright’s new collection for Granta Books, The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, is full of such, including writers like John McGahern, William Trevor and the author of the subject of this review of The Empty Family, Colm Toíbín.

The stories in The Empty Family are definitely in the Irish tradition of short stories.  Each one can be seen as an episode in someone’s life, and often they seem like extracts from a longer work, although this is not to say that they do are not complete in themselves. Toíbín manages to drop the reader into the narrative of each story with little difficulty and every story certainly seems complete in itself.

The book contains nine stories, so with only 214 pages to the book, none of them is over-long. Its hard to fault any of them and looking at Amazon reviews by other readers I find it hard to understand those who have rated the book as low as two or three stars – having read a few of those reviews, I’ve come to the conclusion that generally its the genre of Irish short stories they don’t like, or even the “gayness” of some of them which has put them off (see my last paragraph).

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Review: Some German-language short stories

I recently read two books of short stories by early 20th century German writers – Selected Stories of Robert Walser (actually a Swiss national, but writing in German), and Boys and Murderers by Hermann Ungar.   These writers are almost equally strange.  Hermann Ungar was a Czech Zionist who died at the age of 38 in 1929 and who, although he never met Kafka, was given posthumous membership of the “Prague Circle” of writers who transformed Czech-German literature of the period.  Robert Walser spent the latter years of his life in a mental hospital and is renowned for his microscripts:  “narrow strips of paper covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high”  which have recently been published in a volume containing both facsimiles and transcriptions.

Robert Walser's Microscipts - (grabbed from book listing)

I won’t go into the life-stories of these two eccentric authors as Hermann Ungar’s life is described well in this biography on the Twisted Spoon website and Robert Walser’s in this excellent article by J M Coetzee on the New York Review of Books website.

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Review – The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

My only knowledge of Lydia Davis, before coming to The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, is that she was the translator of Marcel Proust’s Swanns Way, in the Penguin edition which adorns my shelves – and its one of the six volumes of Remembrance of Things Past which I’ve actually read (only three to go).

However, I have now learned more about her from her Wikipedia entry and also from an interview with her in The Guardian on 4 August.

This is a lovely book, nice and thick (733 pages of text), and with countless short pieces which you can dip and out of.  For while many of the stories are a few pages long, quite a few of them are just a paragraph or two, or even just a few lines, expressing depth with concision as with a Japanese Haiku.

The stories cover a vast range of subjects and it would be impossible to even begin to categorise them.  A few samples might cover short portraits of a relationship,  jury service, motorcycling, journeys, music and just about anything else you’d like to think of – its probably somewhere in there.

This is one of the few reviews when I can actually quote a whole story as an example of the authors work.  This one is called simply “Love” –

A woman fell in love with a man who had been dead a number of years. It was not enough for her to brush his coats, wipe his inkwell, finger his ivory comb:  she had to build her house over his grave and sit with him night after night in the damp cellar

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Review – Are We Related? Granta Books

This is the 200th full-length review I’ve published on A Common Reader.  A sort of milestone. . .

I have been subscribing to Granta magazine for quite a few years now and enjoy its quality writing on a vast range of subjects.  Its a well-produced journal, not the sort of thing you want to throw away, and I find with most editions that there are one or two articles which still in my mind and make me want to come back to them, often years later.  Articles (both fiction and factual) are written by a wide range of writers, including such notables Jonathan Raban, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, Lionel Shriver, Paul Auster, Elaine Showalter and countless others.

Every so often a book comes your way which is satisfying in many different ways.  In Are We Related? The New Granta Book of the Family the writing is excellent and the variety of pieces is sufficiently wide that every one comes as a surprise when you read it.  The physicality of the book is pleasing – it feels big and substantial, the typeface and layout work well.  Its a book you can dip in and out of and as you read it, you know its going to remain on your shelf to be dipped in and out of for years to come.

Liz Jobey (Associated Editor of Granta) has selected 27 pieces about the family, taken from Granta magazines from 1995 to the present day, all of which, whether fiction of non-fiction, explore the complexity of family relationships and the stresses and strains they generate (and occasional joys).

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Review: Best European Fiction 2010 – Editor, Aleksandar Hemon

The Dalkey Archive Press is a unique enterprise, being a publisher of literary fiction that is both independent and non-profit making.  This gives them the freedom to publish a unique range of title which, to quote the website, “in some way or another, upsets the apple cart, that they work against what is expected, that they in some way challenge received notions, whether those are literary, social or political”.

Best European Fiction 2010 is a case in point, being a fascinating collection of short fiction which very much pushed the boundaries of this reader at least, and much to his reading pleasure.

The idea is simple, but executing it must have been a huge exercise:

– take one author from every European nation and publish a short work from them all,

– provide a biography of each author, together with a personal statement,

– provide a comprehensive list of online literary resources for each of the nations represented.

This bookblog, A Common Reader, tends to specialise in European literature in translation, but even I had never read anything before from the lesser known countries like Slovenia, Serbia and Albania.  And the effect of reading these 35 or so stories was to make me want more from quite a number of these previously unknown authors.  The quality of the writing is high throughout the book and the range of topics is vast.  There are very few stories in the book which don’t surprise in one way or another. Continue reading

Review: The Lottery and Other Stories – Shirley Jackson

I am impressed with the new Shirley Jackson collection which has been published by Penguin Modern Classics, especially the book of short stories, The Lottery, but also the novels, We Have Always Lived in The Castle and The Haunting of Hill House.

American writer Shirley Jackson wrote in the middle of the last century and was noted for unsettling story lines, and writers such as Donna Tart and Stephen King are reported to have been influenced by her. King’s book, Salem’s Lot, even opens with a quotation from Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Jackson is not necessarily a “literary” writer as such, but like Stephen King, is an extremely good story teller whose writings always captured the imagination.  Perhaps her best known story is The Lottery, in which the population of a small town are gathered in the main square on a summer’s day in June to witness the drawing of a lottery which will select one of their number for a very special purpose.  It is the sheer banality of the scene which strikes the reader.  People greeting each other as they gather together, children playing, men speaking of “planting, tractors and taxes”.  This is small town America at its most homely. Continue reading

Review: Memoirs of an Anti-Semite – Gregor von Rezzori

I came to read Gregor Von Rezzori through reading an article, Chronicle of Loss, by John de Falbe in Slightly Foxed magazine no. 15.  As a book reviewer, it is easy to concentrate on new books to the exclusion of many excellent novels which are fast-fading from public gaze.  Who for example reads Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene or Daphne du Maurier these days?  Slightly Foxed magazine publishes articles about writers from the last 100 years or so and reminds its readers of so many 20th century gems that the subscription seems well worth-while.

Gregor von Rezzori is a deeply reflective writer.  He writes what might be called memoir-based fiction, but he is not just interested in his stories, but wants to bring out the meaning behind them.  His mind is hugely inventive and the reader gets the impression of someone who can see all points of view and incorporate them into his stories.  He seldom allows his characters to get away with expressing their prejudices and long-held opinions but always sets them in juxtaposition with someone holding an opposing view, or else shows the absurbity of their statements by setting them in a context of personal decline and ultimate failure.

A true European, Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998) was born in Czernowitz (now Chernovtsy, Ukraine) towards the end of the Austro Hungarian Empire.  His home town was absorbed into the Romanian Kingdom and after World War 1, Rezzori studied in Vienna and other European cities, settling eventually in Bucharest until 1938 when as a German speaking Romanian he was compelled to move to Berlin.  After the war he earned his living as an author, a screen-play writer and an actor moving around Italy, France and the USA, eventually settling in Tuscany. Continue reading