Tuesday, November 29, 2011

L. A. Pittenger (editor), A Collection of Short-Stories (1913)

Pittenger, L. A., A Collection of Short Stories: Macmillan's Pocket American and English Classics, NY: Macmillan, 12 November 1913. xxi+268. $0.25

For Pittenger's introductory material, please look here.

"The Father" by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. (1860, translated by Rasmus B. Anderson) 7/10

Over the course of his life, a local peasant visits the parish priest on behalf of his son, for the boy's birth, confirmation and engagement. The boy brings his father joy and success, yet the priest hopes he will someday bring him "a true blessing." Nobel laureate Bjørnson was a nationalist Norwegian who believed in the notion that the needs of the community must supersede those of the self. This idea is clearly presented in the story, and fulfills editor Pittenger's idea that the nineteenth century modern short story contains some element of morality. "The Father" is steeped with moral code.

The story itself is sketch-like, minimalist in its lack of description and in its use of simple, straightforward language. Unlike the modernist minimalists, Bjørnson is not trying here to impress the reader, but is so conscious of his message that he wishes not to distract from it. The technique makes for an effective and thought-provoking story. At the same time, as opposed to naturalists such as Guy de Maupassant, whose "A Piece of String" is included in the anthology, the lack of a descriptive setting gives the story a surreal quality, as though it were a kind of fable. This can be appropriate, for fables are the epitome of morality tales, only they are far removed from modern notions of realism as they utilize talking animals and inanimate objects.

"The Griffin and the Minor Canon" by Frank Stockton. (St. Nicholas Magazine, October 1885) 8/10

A lonely Griffin, the last of its race, hears that a small town bears a statue of his likeness and decides to leave his home in the distant, wild land to visit the world of humans. The townsfolk are not too keen when they see the creature alight, and hide away in terror. The only man among them brave enough to face such a threat is the humble Minor Canon. The Minor Canon does the town's bidding, setting out to convince the Griffin to leave, yet rather than drive the Griffin away, he leads him to the sculpture. Soon the monster takes a liking to the Minor Canon and follows him about town, much to the dismay of the community, who want only to be rid of the creature for they fear he will eat their children.

A great adult fairy tale and social satire along the lines of Oscar Wilde. The characters are merely archetypes rather than realistic people (yes, even the Griffin) as Stockton is aiming to amuse and criticize rather than to paint a portrait of rural life. Indeed, characterization and town details would merely distract from the point of the narrative, and Stockton does well in focusing on the humour, lumping the townsfolk into almost a single entity, and giving us a sensitive, average and easily likable Minor Canon to sympathize with. Details such as the Minor Canon's trek to the Griffin's home is seemingly shorter than the Griffin's flight to the town do not distract as the story is clearly fantasy, and in a fantastic world the unusual is easily accepted as the norm.

"The Piece of String" by Guy de Maupassant. ("La Ficelle," no translator named. Original publication details unknown, ca. 1884) 8/10

Walking through the village on market day, thrifty peasant Master Hauchecorne picks up a piece of string from the muddy road. When he notices that the harness-maker, Master Malandain, has seen him, he is gripped with a feeling  of shame at having been seen picking up such a trifle. He pretends he has lost something and searches the ground before hurrying off. That evening it is announced that someone lost a wallet containing a considerable sum, and Malandain steps forward to recount Hauchecorne's awkward scene. Despite showing off the string, the entire village believes Hauchecorne is guilty of finding and keeping the wallet, and he does his best to clear his name by telling his tale to anyone who would care to listen.

"The Piece of String" has always been one of my favourite Maupassant stories. Though short and succinct, it is unlike the minimalism of Bjørnson's "The Father." Maupassant takes the time to paint a vivid portrait of the community and its people, a common practice of his. Here the scene is described at the start, allowing him to focus on the events once the setting has been set. His attention to setting and character details, such as Hauchecorne's rheumatism, work well in the story, giving it that flair of naturalism Maupassant was striving to achieve. There are no distractions in "The Piece of String" as there are in some of his other naturalist pieces; the economy here is terrific.

Technical artistry aside, what works well in the simpleness of this story is its focus on community and hypocrisy, bringing to light the story's inherent existential elements. A man's reputation for shrewdness leads to a community's ability to establish his guilt. Of course there is also malicious intentions with Malandain's accusation (in French mal means bad or evil, and his name sounds like mal-en-main, evil-in-hand).

"The Man Who Was" by Rudyard Kipling. (Macmillan’s Magazine, April 1890; Harper’s Weekly, 15 April 1890) 5/10

At the officers' mess hall a cavalry regiment is entertaining a Russian correspondent, Dirkovitch, when a man stumbles in, barely alive. Initially believing that the man is a weapons thief, the officers soon discover that he is English. I've never cared for Kipling's work, aside perhaps from "The Phantom 'Rickshaw"(1885) and "At the End of the Passage" (1890). His obsession with British imperialism bores me, and his plots are too contrived, filled with coincidences and far-fetched occurrences, and his characters are flat. The good guys are just too good, and the bad cannot be more awful. These elements are alive in "The Man Who Was," and though it's not a terrible story, as stories go, it is a solid average.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe. (Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, September 1839) 8/10

It's difficult to make a few brief remarks on Poe, particularly on something like "Usher," one of his most influential stories. Luckily there are many fine essays available, and various interpretations in film and fiction (I highly recommend Robert Bloch's short story "The Man Who Collected Poe," 1951). I have always admired Poe, his unique and ageless style, his original ideas and the incredible amount of influence he has had on both short story writing and on genre writing that became so popular in the twentieth century. If you have not read the story I would urge you to do so, and e-texts can easily be located on various sites. (While you're at it, read "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846) and "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843). Actually, just read 'em all.)

In "The Fall of the House of Usher," the narrator visits his old school friend Roderick Usher who has sent him an urging invitation. The narrator arrives at a gloomy old house in a gloomy region by a sickly tarn, and discovers that his old friend is unwell. It turns out that the man and his sister Madeline are both unwell. They are the last of their generation, and live in a house and an area of long and dark repute, which have seemingly intense effects on their nerves. Unlike Bjørnson and later minimalists, Poe carefully details the stories setting, and though he emphasizes the need for economy in short story writing, his details are quite necessary to generate the story's final impact. The characters here are highly influenced by the house, so much so that the house of Usher is the story's fourth character (excluding the brief appearances of the physician and valet). Poe's purpose here, and in many of his stories, is the effect of the environment on one's nerves. He wasn't interested in fear, and there was very little of the supernatural in his tales, but rather he focused on the nervous potential of body and mind, the incredible delusions that one can suffer when giving in to these nerves, and the inability of the rational mind, often the first-person narrator, to guide the nervous individual towards health and well-being. The nerves are commanding human factors, and the environment, indeed the world, a terrible influence.

"The Gold-Bug" by Edgar Allan Poe. (Dollar Newspaper, 21 & 28 June 1843) 7/10

This is an odd little story by Poe. Not that the story itself is odd, but that for Poe it's unusual. The rational archetypal Poe narrator pays a visit to his friend William Legrand at Sullivan's Island in South Carolina (Poe was stationed nearby, and the community even named one of its streets Gold Bug Drive). Legrand has come across a gold beetle and seems to have grown utterly obsessed with it, forcing his attendant Jupiter to perform some unusual tasks. The narrator humours him, partly for his own curiously, yet as they head off on an expedition Legrand is determined to undertake, there appears to be reason for his odd behaviour, and slowly the reader is, for once, questioning the logical, reasoning narrator.

"The Gold-Bug" is more akin to Poe's mysteries, such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" (1842) and "The Purloined Letter" (1844) , than to his tales of the macabre. The convention is different as well, and it's nice to see that Poe seemed aware of his standard structure, enough to be able to play with it. The rational narrator's suspicions turn out to be mere paranoia, as there is method to Legrand's madness. Throw in some neat (though basic) cryptography and a good puzzle involving a human skull, and we have a good detective and semi-adventure story.

In this day and age there are some unintentionally amusing bits involving Legrand's "negro" attendant Jupiter. It is 1843 USA, so the character, though written sympathetically, maintains the stereotypes prevalent for the era. Poe tries to imbue the character with humour, but unfortunately the humour is a little dated, and we end up chuckling more at the early portrayal rather than at the intended jokes.

"The Birthmark" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (The Pioneer, March 1843) 7/10

Clever scientist Aylmer is growing increasingly repulsed by his beautiful wife Georgiana's birthmark; the shape of a small, angelic hand on her cheek. He grows so obsessed with this mark that he begins to view it as a blemish against nature's perfectionism, and is determined to rid her of this flaw. Under his influence, his faithful and obedient wife grows to detest her own birthmark, and leaves its fate in the hands of her husband. Even when reading his scientific notes, learning that his lofty and idealistic approaches to science often end in failure in the laboratory, she nonetheless trusts his skill.

This tragedy can only end in one way, and despite the story's predictability, its construction, well-focused narrative is mesmerizing. Hawthorne truly practiced what Poe called the singleness of effect, and all the little details are aimed toward his ideas of nature versus science. As Aylmer is showing Georgiana what he has been able to accomplish in his laboratory, he is a magician working tricks, and even then we can see the imperfections of his accomplishments. He refers to his servant as "though made of clay," as if Aylmer himself is Prometheus, a kind of demi-god with the ability to affect the destiny of humankind. He is also likened to Pygmalion, the King of Cyprus who falls in love with an artificial form of beauty, admiring it so much that it comes to life. "The Birthmark" is an entirely rich text, with a healthy dose of the moral that Pittenger requires of the short story.

"Ethan Brand" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Boston Weekly Museum, 5 January 1850) 5/10

Former lime-burmer Ethan Brand returns to his community following a twenty-year search for the Unpardonable Sin. The story of Ethan Brand was originally intended to be the final portion of a novel, which Hawthorne evidently had a difficult time composing. The story as we have it is interesting, but doesn't quite work as a short story. The interesting aspects include the contrast between the great sinner Ethan Brand, and the community members who have essentially withered away over the decades that Brand was on his search. Though Brand is deemed a terrible sinner and devil conjurer, the community members are hypocritical and judgemental imbibers of a black liquid. "Ethan Brand" contains melodrama worthy of a novel, seemingly misplaced here (in fact something of the sort worthy of Thomas Hardy). The exposition and flatness of the characters dull the text, despite the intriguing premise and promising intentions. Not among Hawthorne's best accomplished pieces. Oddly selected by Pittenger, there are plenty well constructed Hawthorne short stories to choose from.

"The Sire de Malétroit's Door" by Robert Louis Stevenson. (Temple Bar, January 1878) 7/10

In September 1429, during the latter chapter of the brutal Hundred Years' War, twenty-two year-old Denis de Beaulieu loses his way back to his inn and inadvertently stumbles through the Sire de Malétroit's door, only to be met expectantly by the mysterious old man. The mystery of the situation soon reveals itself, as the young man is given the choice of either marrying the Sire's niece, or being hanged by the neck. This is an odd tale in that it's not quite adventure and not quite mystery, but hearkening back to the dark period of the fifteenth century, Stevenson has expertly created a short romance that would have worked well as a brief episode in any of the popular medieval texts of the day, epics such as Guillaume de Lorris's The Romance of the Rose (ca. 1275) or Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur (1485). The story and its protagonist rely on the arms of chivalry and honour, and though the heroine is at first repulsed by our hero, it is through his valour and noble conduct that she grows to care for him.

I admire Stevenson's precision in language, his sentences less ornate than those of his contemporaries, and yet because of their absolute precision and simple-seeming sentences, they can be all the more complex. Even young Denis's noble speeches are toned down, so that while maintaining their sense of medieval honour, his words manage to garner greater impact. His characters are always well delineated, and the setting, while as important as it was for Poe, is presented with less words and yet just as vivid.

This story is somewhat playful. Not as serious as "Markheim," there is both an homage and an underlying humour with respect to its origins. Nothing as magical or alarming occurs as it did with both de Lorris and Malory, yet the notions of honour and chivalry are well maintained, while the characters, simply drawn, are direct descendants of the noble protagonists from the earlier epics. It is a medieval epic related with the rationalism of the Victorian era. The story is an absolute pleasure to (re)read, and I enjoy it more and more with each encounter.

"Markheim" by Robert Louis Stevenson. (Pall Mall Gazette, December 1884) 7/10

Thirty-six year-old down-on-his-luck Markheim finds himself on Christmas day at the pawn shop claiming for once he has nothing to sell but is present in order to make a purchase. Suddenly and explosively, Markheim attacks the shop owner and stabs him to death. Overwhelmed by his heightened nerves, Markheim sets out to find the keys to the store's safe, and encounters a strange figure, the devil he assumes, who offers Markheim some help. Herein a discussion on the nature of evil ensues, with the figure arguing that Markheim is destined to fall, while our hero maintains that at heart he is good, and his crimes are a matter of cicumstance.

Another excellent story by the versatile Stevenson, with elements of his masterpiece Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published two years later. The story works well as a fantasy, and yet it is more akin to psychological drama, since I read the piece as the mysterious figure being not the devil, but a figment of Markheim's overwrought imagination. Stevenson spends many words detailing the intense bombardment that the man's nerves receive by the constant din around him, the shop's multitudinous clocks, the footsteps outside and the onslaught of pelting rain. Moreover his vision is tricked by the various shadows he sees and imagines all around him. Suddenly the figure appears, when Markheim's nerves have already suffered incredible onslaught, so that the creature is merely an apparition from his guilt-ridden mind. Like Jekyll, Markheim experiences a separation of his personality, and he is himself trying to determine his eventual fate, weighing the balance between his essentially good nature and his clearly deplorable acts.

Like the previous story, "Markheim" is structured primarily around two sets of dialogue. In "The Sire de Malétroit's Door," we have Denis with the Sire followed by Denis with the Sire's niece, and a brief threesome in between. Here we have Markheim and the dealer and Markeim and his conscience (or the devil, if you prefer). In between we have Markeim trying to control his nerves. The three portions of this story are finely written, the excellent dialogue with the dealer, during which we are given numerous glimpses as to Markheim's emotional turmoil, from his comments on the mirror to the transformations in his expression. The middle section is truly a treat, particularly the wonderful description of the many clocks: "Time had some score of small voices in that shop, some stately and slow as was becoming to their great age, others garrulous and hurried. All these told out the seconds in an intricate chorus of tickings."

A great example of the economical modern short story, its singular effect, and useful in Pittenger's ideas of morality within the framework.

Incidentally, the anthology series Screen Directors' Playhouse adapted "Markheim" with the fine actors Ray Milland and Rod Steiger as Markheim and the visitor respectively, directed by Fred Zienneman. The episode aired on 11 April 1956.

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