I’m five weeks into my #TBR20 project to read 20 books I own before buying more. So far, on my own shelves, I have found a novel trilogy masterpiece, a remarkable feminist novel of late 70s Senegal, and a collection of essential literary short stories.
1/20: The Notebook (tr. Alan Sheridan); The Proof (tr. David Watson); The Third Lie (tr. Marc Romano) by Ágota Kristóf (Grove Editions, 1997)
I bought this volume of three novels on 5th February this year, along with Seven Terrors by Selvedin Avdic. Guardian articles inspired both purchases: the Avdic thanks to Nicholas Lezard’s review, and the Kristóf thanks to a piece by Slavoj Žižek on the wonder of the ‘authentic ethical naivety’ of the twin boys in the novel.
In 1956, Kristóf left her native Hungary because of revolution and settled in Switzerland, where she wrote the three short novels of her trilogy in French in 1986, 1988 and 1991. They tell the story of twin brothers who adapt to survive in an occupied country. The first, The Notebook, was released in the UK this year by CB Editions and is a perfect standalone work of strange, sparse and fable-like beauty. But reading the second and third feels like watching the author coldly dismantle her creation layer by layer, until the lies at the heart of it are laid bare. Together, the three works form a remarkable and bleak enquiry into truth and story. By the end of The Third Lie, Žižek’s ethical naivety has been discarded, but the merciless authenticity remains.
2/20: So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ (tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas) (Heinemann African Writers Series, 1981)
I bought this slim little Sengalese book a few years ago. I have a dim memory of seeing it on a blogger’s list of feminist novels and being attracted to the title. Only 95 pages long, it takes the form of Ramatoulaye’s letters to her closest friend as she deals with the aftermath of her husband’s death. Her husband had taken a second wife shortly before he died, and she must navigate the complexity this has created in her grief. For such a short work it feels densely populated, teeming with the narrator’s family, friends and acquaintances (a particularly vivid character is her friend’s mother-in-law, who schemes for years to demolish her friend’s position in the family). The letters are eloquent and powerful expressions of grief, acceptance and the strong belief that women are owed a better place in society.
3/20: The Heath Introduction to Fiction (5th ed), ed. John J. Clayton, (DC Heath & Company, 1996)
This book is an out-of-print edition of an American college anthology of 62 classic short stories from the 1800s to mid 1990s. Various editions of the anthology seem to sell for about £30 online, but I got my copy for £2.50 in a Glasgow charity shop several years ago.
It’s a great selection, ranging from anthology classics such as Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog and Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, to contemporary writers new to me such as Toni Cade Bambara and Susan Minot. It also contains thoughtful essays on how to read and write about fiction, genuinely useful notes on each story and short biographies of each author from the editor John J. Clayton.
There are too many highlights to mention (it really is a superb selection) but I was particularly pleased to discover Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer. I was also gripped by Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat. Sea stories are my catnip, apparently.
There are also now several collections I want to buy – particularly Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter. Her story The Jilting of Granny Weatherall is just stunning. I’m also interested in reading more by Tillie Olsen, as I have a particular interest in fiction by working class writers, women especially. I’ll also read more Flannery O’Connor as soon as I can (I love her novel Wise Blood and this anthology included A Good Man Is Hard To Find). My only gripe about the anthology was that I could find no mention of the translators of translated pieces. A baffling omission.
Reading Short Stories
The Heath anthology was an ambitious choice for my third book of the project, not least because I would never normally contemplate reading so many short stories close together – particularly stories held up as great examples of the form. A great short story detonates perfectly in the mind, clearing a blast site in which nothing else can grow for a time.
Incidentally, this is also why the notion that short stories are ideally suited to busy modern lives is nonsense. Stories require full concentration for a single sitting, the length of which is determined by the story itself; require the reader to tolerate a heightened level of ambiguity and allusion in a form that is not simply a short piece of prose; and require immersion again and again in singular visions afforded only by a glancing pass.
A great short story is not the convenient tidbit of literature. It shines, hard and glittering, and is left alone in favour of the soft, friendly cloth of a popular novel. I wouldn’t be without those novels (or my favourite TV boxsets), but short stories are a different form entirely.
I realised last weekend, despite the difficulties of reading a large quantity of short stories, that I very much wanted to continue to spend time completely engaged with short fiction. This would have value both as a reader – many of my best reading experiences have been with short stories – and as a writer, since I am working on stories of my own.
I decided to commit to spending the rest of #TBR20 reading short story collections. You can see a photograph of the books I’ve chosen here. I’m a little anxious that a short-fiction fatigue will creep up on me. But mostly I’m excited to be dedicating almost three months to reading and studying the short story.
The only unbendable rule of #TBR20 is that you will read 20 books you own before buying more. The rest is up to you. Check out this great post from @An1081 setting out her rules for the project and showing us the 40 – yes, 40! – books she has picked. She has committed to separate paper and ebook #TBR20 projects. I am in awe.
Take part via the hashtag on Twitter at #TBR20 or in the comments below. Check out my update post from Sunday 7th December for a photograph of my short-story TBR pile and links to other TBR pile pics from the lovely folk taking part on Twitter. Since that post, @maudie43 also tweeted a great pic of her 20 books and @AshleyJStokes posted a pic of the first book he completed.
If you’ve decided to join in, I’d love to hear about it. What have you chosen to read?