Musing # 7: Wahda, wahda; slowly, slowly–stories for Christmas

Musing # 7: Wahda, wahda; slowly, slowly

Two readers of this blog want me to hurry up and publish the next installment of the Rich blogs. Patience. I am moving forward relatively fast. Dickens, after all, published A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations in weekly serial form, and many of his books, books such as David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Dombey and Son, appeared as monthly serials. The next Rich piece will appear on Boxing Day, and the one after that will likely appear on New Years Eve. I may not write as well as Dickens, but I publish faster. Delivery is virtually instantaneous: no waiting at the dock for the ship carrying the next installment in Bentley’s Miscellany or Household Words.

Today would have seen another installment, except for a topical interruption. Browsing through the Guardian online, I came across their “Twelve Tales for Christmas” podcasts. Marvelous stories, beautifully read. Included are Jeanette Winterson reading Italo Calvino, Philip Pullman reading Chekov, Anne Enright reading Raymond Carver, and Margaret Drabble reading Katherine Mansfield. Rich and satisfying fare. Two of the stories are father stories, and their links are given below, along with brief descriptions. Merry Christmas.

    Guardian podcasts

Ali Smith reads Grace Paley

Grace Paley’s short stories are a kind of life-force in themselves. Often in her writing, the very form of the story will up and challenge you with its wit, its energy and its talkback; for Paley, voice is always about life. In “Conversation with My Father”, she distils into a single story the huge and subtle power in dialogue, the joyful belligerence in ­argument and engagement that’s found right through her work.

An old man and his daughter are having what is obviously a run-of-the-mill, long-running disagreement. This time it’s about the kinds of story the daughter writes. The old man likes a story to take the shape he knows, the classic shape. This is not the way his daughter writes, and it annoys him. His annoyance, in turn, makes her mischievous. He challenges her to tell him a story right now, one shaped like stories should be shaped, with the right kinds of characters, the right kinds of plot. The daughter tries. What happens – funny, sad, infuriating – is that the force of story won’t be corralled any more than life itself will.

Story here is a matter of life and death; the father is old, ill and dying; they both know it, and so does the reader. But this breathtaking, breathgiving short story, which never compromises on this truth or the admittance of inevitable tragedy, is profoundly, comically generous in its open-endedness, and leaves you both shaken and renewed by the heart, the fight and the life in it.

Helen Dunmore on O’Connor

The Irish writer Frank O’Connor was a committed nationalist who joined the Irish Republican Army at the age of 15 and fought in the Irish war of independence. He drew on these experiences in one of his most famous stories, “Guests of the Nation”, which deals with relationships between two captured British soldiers and the IRA soldiers who guard them. The story’s realism, complexity and humanity exemplify the qualities that made O’Connor one of the most celebrated Irish writers of his generation, and also reveal how much he learned from great short-story writers such as Isaak Babel.

O’Connor is now best remembered for his short stories and autobiographical writing. The story I have chosen, “My Oedipus Complex”, draws on O’Connor’s own childhood in Cork with a mother whom he loved deeply, and a father who was mired in alcoholism and debt. It is a fiercely comic, touching story written from the viewpoint of Larry Delaney, a recurring character in O’Connor’s stories of ­childhood. Larry is outraged when he is relegated to second place in his mother’s attentions by his father’s return. He cannot understand why she tolerates “this monster … a total stranger who had cajoled his way back from the war into our big bed”. Larry plots to overthrow his father, but the outcome is not what he expects. I love this story for its narrative voice, its rare combination of warmth and detachment, and its lightness of being.

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