Wednesday, September 11, 2013

7 stories from around the world

Story Collection: World Literature: An Anthology of Great Short Stories, Drama, and Poetry
Editor: Donna Rosenberg

Title: The Doctor's Divorce
Author: S.Y. Agnon (Shmuel Yosef or Shai Agnon)
Translator: (Info not provided)

"The Doctor's Divorce" shows a man trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy. A doctor starts up a relationship with a nurse at his hospital and marries her; from early on, there are signs that his ability to love people (instead of just claiming possession of them) is questionable. When she tells him there was another man in her past, he begins to pretend in an exaggerated, unconvincing way that it doesn't bother him, even as he thinks about it obsessively. He just knows that the existence of this other man will drive a wedge between him and his wife. And that's what happens, but only because he can't let the matter drop. He kills any chance of intimacy or happiness with his wife; maybe he's incapable of being in a relationship that has either of those qualities.

Title: Forty-Five a Month
Author: R.K. Narayan

This is a portrait of a man whose life has been taken over by his work. He needs his office job because otherwise his family might not meet a certain standard of living, but at the same time he barely sees them. He worries about depriving them of what they need, but what do they really need? Meantime, in the office, he gets his menial, repetitive tasks reinforced with the tiniest rewards (like a lab rat who gets a pellet or two of food for pressing a lever dozens of times); and he clings to his job through anxiety, and because over the years he may have shrunk himself to fit into the yoke he wears.

Title: The Heavenly Christmas Tree
Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Translator: C. Garnett

In 19th century London, a poor boy wanders out of the cellar where he lives and, in walking the cold streets, gets glimpses of a life that's beyond him: other children in toy stores, clothed nicely, well-fed. Dostoyevsky leads us through the boy's short journey to its conclusion, behind a stack of wood. Towards the end, he builds a vision of another world - an afterlife - where poor children will also receive holiday presents and live in eternal warmth and love. And then, in case a reader might experience any sense of complacency about this vision, he kills it quietly in the final words of the story.

Title: The Outlaws
Author: Selma Lagerlöf
Translator: Pauline Bancroft Flach

Two outlaws find each other in the wilderness, and decide to pool their resources and live together. Berg Rese, a powerful and striking man, has murdered a priest; Tord, a teenaged fisherman, is wanted for theft. There's more to both their stories than first meets the eye, and Lagerlöf sets us alongside them in a landscape full of terrific beauty and mystery, where myths are readily born and one's entire way of looking at the world can be upended.
On one of the broad, wooded mountains lay a dark tarn... On three sides it was surrounded by steep cliffs, on which pines clung with roots as thick as a man's arm. Down by the pool, where the earth had been gradually washed away, their roots stood up out of the water, bare and crooked and wonderfully twisted about one another. It was like an infinite number of serpents which had wanted all at the same time to crawl up out of the pool...
The two outlaws differ in the way they view the world, and the nature of justice. Tord is more of a pagan, believing in the witchcraft of his mother and tending to idolize Berg, who appears to him like a figure stepped out of a legend; he's imaginative and fanciful, influenced more by his own visions and personal relations than by rigid, abstract notions of right and wrong. Unlike Berg, who feels he's exiled, cut off from his old civilized life, Tord seems much more at home in the wilderness, as if it's an Eden to him; he can't have lost touch with a society he was never truly connected with. Berg at one point attempts to civilize him by putting in his mind visions of Christian justice, of eternal damnation. But what is justice? In what ways can the pursuit of justice become a hideous violation? What is the difference between justice and vengeance, in how they play out in the world?

Title: A Sunrise on the Veld
Author: Doris Lessing

A teenaged boy wakes before dawn and goes for a long run on the African veld. He's young and healthy and feels as if he can conquer the world. And just when he feels most invincible, he's hit with a reminder of how quickly death can come to something young and vital. (It's a gruesome scene. Read the story, and it won't soon leave your mind.) Along with contemplating death, the boy also needs to think about his own power, both its limitations and the destruction it may bring to another.

Title: The Tree
Author: María Luisa Bombal
Translator: Rosalie Torres Rioseco

A sensuous and sad story, written exquisitely. I love the author's attention to sensory details, and how the imagination and the senses come together in the mind of the main character. She's a young woman who was dismissed as stupid from a young age, and stayed flighty and childish but possessing a powerful imagination. With her imagination she makes the sensory world around her richer, whether she's dwelling on the way her dressing room mirrors reflect the leaves at her window ("the mirrors that reflected the foliage and receded into an infinite, green forest") or submerging herself in concert music. The only things that sustain her are small pleasures and an enjoyment and enhancement of the senses in ways that would seem inconsequential to other people. The story is awash in water and music, the rustling of leaves, and the main character immerses herself in these things, allows them to flow over her; when her imagination falters, she seems lost. (And when the story ended, I wondered what was next for her.)

Title: A Worn Path
Author: Eudora Welty

I read this story a while ago, liked it, but didn't think about it further. I came across it again here and, by the end, wondered how I'd brushed it aside before. An old woman takes a long walk to town - that's really all that happens for most of this short tale, but what she encounters along the way, all the trials and tests, make it a quest for her. Then when she reaches town, and her purpose becomes clearer, you see that Welty has left room for multiple heartbreaking interpretations as to why she made the effort to take that long walk.