Short stories come in so many different types you never know what you’re getting until you open the book and plough into the first two or three. Sometimes the main purpose of them is entertainment as with collections of crime or humorous stories. Other times they have a message, perhaps being little vignettes illustrating the difficulties of life. Sometimes they seem like elongated poems, written in precisely worded prose to give an impression of a mood or an atmosphere. Or if you go back to the great short story writers like Thomas Hardy, Anton Chekov or Guy de Maupassant you fine writers who saw their job as writing miniature novels with an opening scene setting, a small cast of characters, a plot and a conclusion.
On the whole, I find that the majority of the more “literary” short stories rather disappointing. I suppose I think that a short story should be above all else, “a story”. It’s not enough just to present a scene with no narrative form and no ending. The words, however nicely put together are not enough, there has be a flow of action: something has to happen.
Swiss-German writer Peter Stamm falls loosely in the middle of the story/literary axis with his new collection of stories, We’re Flying. Something usually happens in his stories, but on the other hand he is mostly concerned with the word picture he creates. And unfortunately (from my perspective) the stories are almost unremittingly down-beat (despite little flashes of light and hope to relieve the bleakness). His Wikipedia entry describes his “cool and sparse” writing style which certainly seems to be an accurate description.
As a reviewer, I shouldn’t divulge the whole content of a story but for the sake of illustration I’ll break the rule and describe the story, Holy Sacrament. A Pastor has moved to Lake Constance because he thought that the people in southern Germany would be more open to a creative ministry. Once he gets to his new parish he finds that the people are as conservative as anywhere. He upsets the lady organist by using his wife’s guitar playing skills in the service. He upsets the congregation by using bread and grape juice for Communion rather than wafers and wine. His sermons on developments in the Middle East and the need for reconciliation are poorly received and the congregation dwindles away. He steps outside the church after a troubled service and notices a seagull hovering above him and in a moment of inspiration casts a piece of bread upwards, immediately finding that a flock of gulls descend on the basket and takes the remaining pieces of bread. He flings the basket up into the air and cries out, “All are welcome!” and as he does so he finds he can’t stop laughing and “at the end of weeks of darkness, he finally saw the light”.
This illustrates Peter Stamm’s approach rather well – starting with a bleak, even hopeless situation, he allows his characters to express their difficulties and sense of hopelessness but in the end there is some trivial event which counterbalances the immovable problems of their lives.
In the story, “The Natural Way of Things”, Alice and Niklaus, a childless couple go on holiday to a beach house, next door to a noisy family. Although they never wanted to have children, the close proximity of the family in the next house highlights the couple’s own solitude and exaggerates teh compromises they have to make to spend their whole lives with just themselves. A tragic accident happens to the little boy in the family and the couple get up one morning to see the family departing in their SUV. Alice turns to her husband and says,
Maybe that’s why I never wanted to have children . . . because I was afraid of losing them.
Niklaus replies, “We’re bound to lose each other sometime anyway“, only to hear Alic answer, That’s not the same thing . . . that’s in the natural way of things.
At that point, Niklaus draws Alice to him and they make love, something they haven’t done for a long time.
It’s up to the reader to make of that what he or she wishes. I think it’s a reflection on the way that other people’s misfortunes can sometimes draw us together in a shared feeling of “aren’t we lucky it’s not us”. But this isn’t necessarily a good feeling and when I picked up on it at the end of this story it didn’t make me feel particularly happy for this lonely couple.
All the stories in We’re Flying are about unhappiness in one form or another. We read of a middle-aged ummarried woman who strikes up a relationship with the young man in the apartment above her (“Expectations”). She rapidly becomes obsessed with him, but as is the nature of such things, she ends up bitterly disappointed and unhappier than when she started her brief fling. Another story concern an elderly waiter in an hotel who is waiting for an autopsy result (“The Result”). Stories of unrequited love, unhappy marriages and mental instability follow and by the end of the book I was hard-pressed to try to think of a story containing any degree of consistent happiness or satisfaction.
Peter Stamm is a good writer – his stories are well-written throughout and cover a wide range of topics and themes. His people are well-drawn and show a wide range of human characteristic. My problem is that they are just so very miserable that if you read a few of them in one session as I did, you get an overwhelming impression of difficult lives, poorly lived with little to lighten the gloom.
We’re Flying is published by Granta who of course excel at this sort of thing. And I mean excel - they do it very well indeed. But you have to like this sort of thing and regrettably I ended up longing for a more optimistic approach to appear from time to time.