Does a fellow good a bit of a holiday. I feel a ton better since I landed again in dear dirty Dublin. —James Joyce
It’s the late 1960s in Ireland. Our English class is deep in Exploring English 1: An Anthology of Short Stories. I’m twelve. I read some of the stories over and over again. I find them puzzling.
If I had read the American short story writer Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Writing Short Stories” way back then, I might have spent less time trying to extract “meaning” from stories:
When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is the way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say it.
I think I liked short stories and poetry at school precisely because you couldn’t easily figure them out, which made English lessons less tedious. Teachers had a habit of getting reluctant readers to read aloud. I was one of those annoying kids who’d already read every novel before the first class, so there was no suspense in listening to some mortified teenager muttering “I am Heathcliff” when I already knew Cathy would marry Edgar for money. Besides, the reader’s passion lay elsewhere: “I am Heather and worried about my spots.” If the teacher wanted deeply felt reading, she should have tried Jackie’s Cathy and Claire page.
But I could escape classroom tedium when we were working on short stories. They weren’t about plot, like grand romances or great tragedies, so I could concentrate on the details. And what’s more, some details were ones I could recognise. Heathcliff the dog-hanger held no attraction for me, but how could he — when I grew up in the middle of fields, fantasising about being Juliet? Romeo was never going to appear, no matter how long I spent staring over hay bales at the moon. It was easier to lose myself in a Mary Lavin short story like “Lilacs”, where the father made his money out of dung, much to his daughters’ disgust, or “The Story of the Widow’s Son”, with its fussy mother and road-running hen. I could work myself into these stories, but I still couldn’t work them out. Everything seemed to mean something else. Short stories were my 1960s equivalent of Magic Eye pictures, and held me staring at pages for hours, willing them to release their hidden images.
I still love that about reading a short story. Often, I get to the end and sit there semi-stunned, and then go back and read it all again. Effort is required of the short story reader. Edgar Allen Poe imagined his ideal peruser as one that reads with a “kindred art”, and Mary Lavin has explained how she leaves space for the reader to fill. She describes a short story as “an arrow in flight”, and her “Story With a Pattern” satirises the man who collars her at a party to tell her that her stories are failures because they don’t have a traditional beginning, middle and end. In the Preface to her Selected Stories, she tells us that the short story is where a writer “distills the essence of [their] thought”. I like to imagine that critic reading the distilled essence of her thoughts about him.
Good short stories, like poetry, take time before they yield their meaning; and when they do, it’s more often a suggestive and impressionistic meaning rather than a definitive one. The Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor (no relation to Flannery), once said, “I write my stories as though they were lyrics. I would call myself a spoiled poet.” He did create poetry in a way, as he translated many old Irish-Gaelic poems into English, but his stories themselves are masterpieces of condensed narrative. He liked to get the first draft down quickly, and then rewrite and revise endlessly. This process of polishing and honing is a skill recommended by the best Irish short story writers, from Mary Lavin to Claire Keegan. These writers place emphasis on the narrative sounding easy and even colloquial, but also stress that it takes graft and craft to achieve such apparent naturalness.
Short stories are popular in Ireland, as they are in Scotland. Frank O’Connor, in his much-quoted The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Irish Short Story, argues that the short story thrives in “submerged population groups”, and tends to tell the story of “the little man” (or woman) rather than a hero. This may be related to the fact that both nations were colonised. Most commentators on the short story see its ancestry in folktale. In many Irish folktales, the leprechaun — who is, after all, a “little man” — outwits the bigger human, and holds on to his pot of gold despite all attempts to deprive him of it. This could be seen as a parable of resistance; in a culture where your resources are constantly under threat of being exploited or purloined, you need guile and cunning to outwit the more physically powerful opponent.
In other Irish folktales, the fairy world exists in parallel to the human world, usually underground. Fairyfolk have dealings with humans only if they need to, and are suspected of cursing cattle, curdling milk, and stealing children. They have their own ancient culture, and you cross them at your peril. Folktales are the means by which we pass on powerful messages about our culture. Such stories have an inscrutability and dissemblance about them, with an enigmatic demeanour in the face of a dominant “overground” culture. Given that it was the native Irish servants that were the ones actually dealing hands on with cows, cream and children in the big houses and estates of the colonisers, we might consider these fairy stories to offer an empowering narrative to the dispossessed. It is certainly a fact that the mischievous Irish fairy bears little resemblance to the English tradition of the cute sprite dancing at the end of the garden. The “good folk” (so called in case they are listening) of Irish fairy stories are closer in behaviour to Greek gods; they are capricious, occasionally helpful, but equally liable to turn gleefully malevolent. They are beyond human comprehension or control.
“Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about on the fringes of society”, explains Frank O’Connor. The short story therefore seems to be a form particularly well suited to a society with a history of rebellion against authority. Tying both lyricism and outlawry together, Seán Ó Faoláin declares that what he likes in a story is “punch and poetry”, and in her introduction to The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, Anne Enright describes John McGahern’s stories as “the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor”.
The precision involved in getting every detail right when writing a short story might seem a modern pursuit by the individual author, working alone in a room of one’s own on one’s personal invention. However, if we consider how stories are transmitted from mouth to mouth, or rather mouth to ear to mouth in oral cultures, then the distillation process that Lavin refers to seems inevitable. As the listener-turned-teller will only transmit what strikes them as significant, the details that survive will be the ones that resonate. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, an Irish writer who has a PhD in folklore, deftly weaves strands of old and new narrative in “Midwife to the Fairies”, so that you can see why people talk about telling a story as spinning a yarn. This particular “yarn” has threads of popular culture, social history, feminist theory and Irish folktale. A good example of the writer honing her art, it actually exists in at least two slightly different versions.
In ancient Irish sagas, such as stories of the Red Branch Knights and Fionn MacCumhaill and the Fianna, there certainly are heroes and heroines as well as “little men”, but some aspects of these legends survive in the modern Irish short story. Many of these sagas, called cycles, can be broken into short, self-contained, stand-alone episodes, such as the story of how Cúchulainn got his name, or how Fionn acquired wisdom from the Salmon of Knowledge. I sometimes tell these stories to children, and it doesn’t matter at all if they know nothing of Fionn, or even of Ireland, beforehand, but listeners who know some of the background will recognise that each mini-story adds to the whole, like a link in a chain — or perhaps more like a piece of a patchwork quilt, as the over-riding narrative is not always linear. James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners, was such a new and groundbreaking production that he had trouble getting it published, but it shows the influence of older formats in that its contents form a cycle. Unlike the sagas of old, the stories in Dubliners don’t have a heroic figure as a recurring motif, and are much closer to the account of the ordinary “little” person common in the works of Chekhov and O’Connor, but they are parts of a unified whole, and are set in a particular order, time and place.
Joyce wasn’t just interested in Irish sagas, of course, and he famously went on to draw on Homer’s Iliad for Ulysses. Homer, like Ovid, created long narratives formed of shorter parts. The English equivalent would be the stories of King Arthur or Robin Hood, and each of their brief episodes could be seen as a forerunner of the modern short story form, as might Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The short narrative also owes something to biblical parables and Aesop’s fables, but nowadays, we are less likely to seek a story that encapsulates a message or moral. Instead we expect to find what Joyce called an “epiphany”: an insight in a fragment of ordinary experience that seems particularly revealing of the human condition.
Colm Tóibín has produced some of the most powerful Irish stories in recent years. He began his published career as a journalist, which he says taught him how to write without wasting words, and his sparse, lucid style makes him a masterful short story writer. Hemingway employed a similar taut, economical style, comparing short story writing to an iceberg, in that we see only the tip. Tóibín, however, creates believable female characters, which is more than can be said for Hemingway. Irish writers, like
Tóibín, often produce both novels and short stories, so that we have wonderful short narratives by Edna O’Brien and William Trevor. Emma Donoghue and Colum McCann are among those who continue this dual practice, and both can be found in Faber’s
New Irish Short Stories, edited by Joseph O’Connor. Younger writers are proving that the Irish short story has retained its power and popularity, with Kevin Barry and Claire Keegan being notable practitioners to look out for.
Stories are how we make sense of the world. Through them we make an effort to compose the shapelessness of life into order and pattern. Short stories are the quintessential form for such an endeavour, as it is easier to impose a structure on a brief moment of experience; few lives would readily conform to a unified continuous narrative. Frank O’Connor sees the short story as an expression of “an intense awareness of human loneliness”, and perhaps it will continue to exercise this power in a globalised world which paradoxically seems increasingly fragmented. In her Collected Stories, Elizabeth Bowen describes how writing a short story is a way of measuring the individual’s “aspirations and dreams”, and placing one “alone on that stage, which, inwardly, every [wo]man is conscious of occupying alone.”