When time, distractions, or the simple desire for minimalist storytelling takes over, I recommend two short novels (one new, one older), a great story collection to sate your literary appetite. Unexpectedly, the three I’ve recently read all address the subject of disconnection, both physical and emotional, and the fallout of loss that lingers in memory and in our psychic DNA. No high plots, rather contemplations of relationships that make for elegant fiction in the hands of these writers.
1. Patrick Modiano (pictured, left), a French novelist not often translated into English, won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, which shocked those of us who believe we are well read. Previously unknown to me, I grabbed a short novel entitled “Honeymoon” and will follow shortly with “Missing Persons.” Both deal with the less intended and often overlooked consequences of refugee status during the occupation of Paris by the Nazis during WWII. As good fiction can do, the story rings true today for the hundreds of thousands tossed out of cities and villages by wars waging across the globe. The narrator, who has made a career as a documentarian, ironically focused on lost explorers, finds himself exploring the last years of life of a woman he knew briefly as a young man, when he discovers she has committed suicide. As he retraces his steps, and contemplates connections made and broken, he slips into the rabbit hole of past lives. He discovers he has lost touch with his own. Or was he ever fully in touch with himself? My only critique was that I wanted to more.
She took my arm because of the sloping road. The contact of her arm and shoulder gave me an impression I had never yet had, that of finding myself under someone’s protection. She would be the first person who could help me. I felt light-headed. All those waves of tenderness that she communicated to me through the simple contact of her arm, and the pale blue look she gave me from time to time – I didn’t know that such things could happen, in life.
2. The Canadian award-winner Jane Urquhart (pictured, right) has written many wonderful novels that often center on the search for a sense of place. My favorite is “A Map of Glass” but I came upon her most recent work, “Sanctuary Line,” and happily immersed myself in languorous language and complex characters. This narrator returns to the site of many happy childhood summers, with attendant memories of lost relationships, to study the migratory habits of the Monarch butterfly. There, a chrysalis of secrets helps her understand her past, and make peace with the disappearance of an uncle long ago and, more recently, the death of his daughter in Afghanistan. Both seem to have had forbidden relationships programmed to be on, or off course, like the butterflies.
How frail each life is. We mow a meadow and kill a thousand butterflies. The racket of the mower, the sound of a fist hitting flesh, an American bomb striking a Middle Eastern city – perhaps in the way of these things the only difference among them is that of scale. We keep on walking toward clamor and then cannot accept what that clamor shows us.
All the other images had been put away, including the framed aerial shots of the farm in its heyday when the Mexicans still came each summer. I was not unhappy with this: memory was not my friend, even though I was so young. I now believe that memory is rarely a friend to anyone. Always attended by transience and loss, often by anguish, the very notion that the elderly spend their days wrapped in the comfort of pleasant mental journeys into the past is simply absurd…
3. Ah, the glory of a good short story. And the glory of the great Edith Pearlman. A short story writer regularly published in literary magazines, she finally found a home with a major publisher, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for the collection “Binocular Vision.” I loved those stories and was delighted that a senior citizen might at last achieve literary status. However the latest edition, “Honeydew,” may be even better. These 20 tales cover the gamut of relationships and circumstance, within the context of science, psychology, technology, antiquity, music … not to mention loneliness. This writer has a remarkable range of content and knowledge. And, like the greatest of short stories, premises and settings are confined, intimate, reflecting the simplest longings and shortcomings of humankind. Keep the collection by your bedside or in your purse and enjoy a story when time permits. Still in hardcover, but should be in paperback by year-end, and, of course, available as an e-book. [Note: ironically, both this book and Urquhart’s use the Monarch butterfly as cover images – the go-to metaphor for instinct as well as displacement.]
Happiness lengthens time. Every day seemed as long as a novel. Every night a double feature. Every week a lifetime, a muted lifetime, a lifetime in which sadness, always wedged under her breast like a doorstop, lost some of its bite.
The hospital… like a true medieval fortress, it cast its formidable shadow on the surrounding area. Everyone who worked in it or lived near it or occupied its rooms felt its spirit: benign maybe, malign maybe, maybe neither, at least for now. The place harbored secrets – electronic information, sneaky bacteria – and it was peopled by creatures who had wandered in or maybe had lived there since birth, like the AIDS babies, the short-gut babies, the babies lacking brain stems: all abandoned to the Castle by horrified parents who sometimes even fled the state. There were beautiful ladies-in-waiting – waiting to die; and crones whose futures were no happier; and tremulous knights; and bakers with envelopes of magical spices. There was an ugly guard with a kind heart.