Colm on The Short Story


Having again been force indoors by the heat of a blazing Sun, I write from the cool recesses of my chamber kept company by my wilting bookshelves. Heat of this magnitude may be virtually unknown to the rain-sodden inhabitants of this country, but the summer time, never-the-less, does provide the opportunity to bask in the Sun, or indeed wallow in the rain, and catch up on reading through that sprawling mass of books that has been gradually expanding across all available shelving-space. So it was that I took the opportunity of some free time to catch up on one particular medium, the short story.

After wading through countless collections of classics and contemporaries, two writers stood out as being of particular appeal to me, W. Somerset Maugham and Flannery O’Connor. Maugham a highly academically industrious English gentleman of the early 20th Century and O’Connor a lady and inhabitant of the Deep South at the middle of the same century.

Maugham dedicates an entire anthology of stories to one of his creations, the character, Ashenden. One would have to ponder why Maugham resolved to compose a series of stories about this Ashenden when a novel should surely have sufficed. It was on finishing the collection that I began to realise what Maugham’s motives must of been. Had he written a novel, he would of been restrained by the norms of the discipline, having to remain confined to a world whose events necessarily served to advance the plot. The liberty of the story-collection technique – I theorise – is that Maugham can tell the story of Ashenden through a number of completely unrelated episodes. While in a novel, we expect character development, in a short story the character is presented to us, just as he is, and the writer can explore an eclectic assortment of themes and issues through the medium of the familiar, ie Ashenden. Maugham does this to great success, he portrays both elements of WWI society and the human condition while maintaining, in the reader, a keen interest in the events he describes. Furthermore, Maugham’s writing style is endearing in itself, acquainting us with a charming gentlemanly English and a plethora of words, long since dropped out of common usage: guttural, churlish, truculent, obsequious, irascibly.  His stories while archaic, are a delight to indulge in and are thoroughly accessible to any reader.

Equal delight but much greater consternation was found in reading the works of Flannery O’Connor. Her stories are unique and disturbing. She demolishes the convention dating back to Aesop and before that a story should have a core set of morals or values, leaving the reader to grapple with the conclusion, searching in vain for some lesson, or even insight provided by the author. That being said, her stories do very much communicate and do very much resonate with the reader, but whatever soul her stories have, is one that can only be discover through the personal reading of the story. O’Connor once referred to her collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, as nine stories about original sin, I managed to count 10 stories in the collection. Someone’s sub-standard arithmetic to the side, the collection is both a stunning and truthful biography of Deep South America and an incomprehensible guide to human psychology. O’Connor’s language is a great deal more vernacular than Maugham’s yet she achieves stories with an unparalleled depth from varied and curious view-points. In each story, she establishes a vague story-line in the customary way, and then, in just a few statements or deeds on behalf of her characters, transforms it into a wholly absurd world people by quintessentially impressionist creations.

The short story is a curious discipline, one that has bested many of the finest novelists and prose-writers who remained unable to command the discipline. It is also an extremely versatile form, mastered by writers with completely different techniques and viewpoints. Most of all, it is one that allows you to dip in and out of, between dips in and out of the pool, whether you pick up a volume of Joyce, Trevor, Capote or one of our twentieth century friends.



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