In praise of Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Isaac Babel… and the short story

October 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve been reading and rereading Alice Munro since the late 70s and, although I know plenty of fellow-enthusiasts, I still meet well-read people who have never heard of her. So her Nobel Prize is a reason to cheer, or at least raise a glass. More will recognise her name, more will read her.

Her stories are for the most part set in the small towns of rural Canada, undistinguished places where uneventful lives would seem to pass without trace. For over 50 years she has rarely strayed from this unpromising territory, producing expansive, reverberant fictions about life in the singular. There is an undertow of emotion and experience always active beneath the surface of her narratives. She conveys a deep sense of the perversities of human dealings, most notably in the matter of love, its fears, jealousies and cruelties as much as its joys. It gives her a quiet affinity with the Russians (not just Chekhov), who are second to none in the elaboration of such insights.

Writing at Chekhovian length, Munro shows what breadth the short story can contain, how spacious it can be. Her Nobel comes on the heels of another major award to a short-story writer this year, the International Man Booker prize, to Lydia Davis. She too is a North American, though with European influences (she has translated Flaubert, Proust, Michel Leiris). Her stories combine minimal length with unsettling force, some at only a single paragraph, or a mere two lines. These feats of compression can resonate to encompass a life or a world. There are surreal puncturings of everyday scenes; and there’s the inner monologue, a voice struggling to work things out, whether in terms existential or plainly practical, the minutiae of life overloading its perplexities. Davis is wisely sad and often very funny. Her collected stories add up to a modern vade mecum, a triumph for brevity in fiction.

Isaac Babel received no awards or honours in his lifetime. He died facing a firing squad at the age of 45, having displeased Stalin by his silence (doubtless not the only instance where writer’s block has proved fatal). On his arrest he became a non-person in Soviet culture, all references to him erased, all books by him disappeared. After Stalin died, Babel was restored to view along with a death certificate dated March 1941, yet the truth only came to light in the 1990s when his KGB file revealed details of a secret “trial” and execution in January 1940.

Babel was on my to-read list for a while. Last Christmas I was given Elif Batuman’s witty book, The Possessed – Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. Her first chapter is about Babel and I decided it was high time. Batuman read Red Cavalry while baking a failed Black Forest cake (they used to be called gâteaux and were a joke in themselves); I read it on a beach this summer, which means I’ll always recall the dreamy blue air and the lulling sound of the sea mixed in with the rush and violence of the stories, and such is their power that they have an almost physical effect on the reader. Some are curt vignettes, others push the same characters forward in a fast-moving frieze of the danger, hardship and barbarism of war, with everything in close-up, so haphazardly real and laconic, yet precise, that certain horrifying details compel a double take. Its truth was also incautious, even in 1926, and probably became the first step in Babel’s downfall. He drew on his own experience as a war correspondent in the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 and his narrator fills a role as risky as his own would have been, a Jewish intellectual in a Cossack regiment.

My Penguin Classic includes an essay by Lionel Trilling that introduced the first English translation of Babel’s stories in 1955; while being perceptive and intelligent, it has the oddness of a period piece (his view that the age-old cruelties of Eastern Europe have no parallels in Western history, suggests that, until just a few years before the Civil Rights movement, no collective memory existed of slavery and its continuations).

Trilling makes the inevitable comparison with Hemingway and concludes, quite rightly, that Babel’s preoccupation with male courage had a greater complexity. Babel puts Hemingway in the shade, both stylistically and in the depth of his concerns, the extravagant heights of his joy in life. His range extends to the dark lyrical comedy of the Odessa Stories, tales of Jewish gangsters that have a Damon Runyon quality to their threatening edge.

When Stalin’s secret police arrested him they took his unfinished manuscripts. These, like Babel, were never seen again.

Munro, Davis, Babel… See what the short story can do, what potency it can have. What a pity that it isn’t more loved, more welcomed in Britain.

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