Culture clash

This is my review of Sept histoires qui reviennent de loin (Folio) (French Edition) by Jean-Christophe Rufin.

Rufin's impressive career as a doctor, with involvement in Médecins sans frontières, and as a diplomat have provided ample material for these short stories, often set in former colonies such as Sri Lanka or Mozambique, or involving migrants from France Outre Mer trying to adjust to life in l'Hexagone.

Varied in subject matter, the stories share a clear style, vivid descriptions of places, touches of humour with an underlying serious concern over moral dilemmas and man's inhumanity to man, and a gift for building up a sense of anticipation. The denouement is generally predictable but that does not detract significantly from the enjoyment of the skill of the telling.

One of the best stories for me was "Les Naufragés" narrated by a woman consumed with nostalgia who cannot come to terms with changes to the island of Mauritius where she grew up in a world of white colonial privilege which is now giving way to the claiming of rights by the local people – to the extent of erecting a statue of Shiva on the secluded beach where she likes to swim. She persuades her husband to help remove the offending statue, but we know this is a vain attempt to deny the fact that, like the symbolic Paul and Virginie in the famous tale, the white residents of the island are all "les enfants d'un naufrage", the wreck of their former lives.

Another is "Garde-robe", topical in view of David Cameron's recent highlighting of the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka where the story is set. In a lively dialogue seasoned with ironic humour, a man explains his distress over the discovery that an amiable servant on whom he has come to depend heavily should hold such rigid and bigoted views, and has probably been actively involved in violent acts in support of the rebels. He describes his fruitless attempts to convince the man that in adopting the criminal methods of a corrupt state, the rebels are in danger of becoming worse than those they wish to replace.

There are lighter tales, such as "Le refuge de Del Pietro" about an obsessive mountaineer. Also one very different and apparently autobiographical "Nuit de garde" about a young doctor who bears the heavy responsibility for declaring formally that a patient is dead, even though it is obvious to much more experienced underlings that this is the case. In the hierarchical world of medicine, his role is like that of a priest.

I understand the view that, given a style that is consistently objective and stripped of passion, some readers may feel a sense of disengagement which prevents them from engaging strongly with the characters, but I feel that many, although clearly flawed, also evoke sympathy.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Not much beyond the punchline.

This is my review of Nouvelles a chute by Collectif.

All the short stories in this little book meet the requirement to have an unexpected or surprising ending, as promised by the title. I assume from the annotations to explain less familiar vocabulary and the questions at the end that this is designed for French school students who have to learn how to analyse a text. I feel a bit sorry for them as regards how this could destroy one's simple enjoyment of a story.

I imagine the book could be useful for "A Level" class discussion in England, and the stories went down quite well in my French group for British adults. The tales by various successful modern writers are on diverse themes, but tend to have in common the approach of developing a particular situation in depth, such as a man enjoying the habit of taking a girl out for a meal, or the plight of a small boy bullied by his playmates. They also share the trick of leading the reader into some kind of misconception, which is abruptly shattered at the end.

I cannot say more without introducing spoilers, but it is perhaps a limitation of these tales that, if you remove the "surprise factor" at the end, there is not much left to consider.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

A Modern Rival to Maupassant

This is my review of Concerto a la memoire d’un ange by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt.

His ingenious plots on a wide variety of original themes, each ending with an unpredictable twist combine with his uncluttered prose to make the French-Belgian Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's short stories gripping and memorable. His success as a dramatist assist him in creating tight structures and dramatic scenes with realistic dialogues.

For me, "The Poisoner" (L'Empoisonneuse) is a near perfect short story in its structure and style. Marie Maurestier, acquitted of the murder of three husbands and a young lover, is the object of speculation and some fear in the local community. The local butcher beckons her to the front of the queue to get her out of his shop as fast as possible. She arouses neither sympathy nor affection because of her sharp tongue, but is also valued as a local tourist attraction. Then, Gabriel, a handsome and dedicated young priest comes to take charge of the church, with dramatic results. Schmitt cleverly manipulates our changing attitudes to Marie and Gabriel. Examining motives and moral issues from every angle in his fluid prose, he builds up a sense of tension and compulsion to read quickly to the end to learn the outcome.

In the shortest tale, a tough seaman receives a message to the effect that one of his daughters has died – but which one is it? In a prize-winning novella which gives the book its title, an ambitious young pianist is driven almost mad with jealousy over the superior technique of an impossibly virtuous and unworldly violinist. In some ways this story is too contrived but still absorbing. Finally, we see the effects of a woman's decision to tolerate no longer the philandering of her corrupt husband who just happens to be the President of France. This last story seems most influenced by Schmitt's embracing of Catholicism in later life. Yet, although all the stories perhaps inevitably have a strong moral basis, he never preaches, and is often unflinching in subjecting his characters to fate, yet is essentially positive.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Her gemstone eyes

This is my review of New Selected Stories by Alice Munro.

Why is Alice Munro regarded widely described as one of the greatest female short story writers, yet also perhaps read less than this accolade would suggest?

This selection from five collections covering the decade 1998-2009 displays the key aspects of her writing. On one hand, stories which are often as long as 30-40 pages, loosely plotted to allow digressions into the lives of various characters, generally lacking in suspense or dramatic endings, or pithy punchlines. On the other, very acute observation of human behaviour and empathy with their thoughts and emotions, a strong sense and apparent love of the Canadian landscape and seasons, and a deceptive rambling in stories which maintain a clear underlying purpose and momentum.

I particularly enjoyed "The Bear came over the Mountain", about a sensitive and creative woman whose Alzheimer's has become sufficiently serious for her husband to place her in a home. When she forms an attachment to another resident, is this a kind of revenge for her husband's serial infidelity? What makes this story interesting is that it is written from the husband's perspective. Although sad in places, this is too insightful and at times sharply witty to be depressing.

On a lighter note, I appreciated "Chance" about an academically inclined but uncertain young woman on the brink of her adult life and possible career, who responds to a letter from a married man she has met by chance on a train. To what extent is she choosing her fate?

The three stories selected from "Too much Happiness" were the ones I enjoyed most in that collection: the woman who has suffered terribly from a controlling man, the woman estranged from a son whom she loves who drifts into a lifestyle she finds alien, and, most gripping of all, the widow who has to deal with a sinister guest.

I found it hard to get into the first story "The Love of a Good Woman" which seemed quite disjointed with too diffuse an opening section for me. "My Mother's Dream" written apparently from the viewpoint of a baby is also highly original and imaginative, but not to everyone's taste.

Perhaps one is most drawn to the stories which reflect one's own experience, so that the range of Munro's topics make it likely that there will be something for everyone. Also, each story gives a great deal to discuss, as we are likely to come away with some different perceptions of each tale.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“Ending as often in disappointment as in success”

This is my review of A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

This is likely to divide opinion sharply since it rejects the convention of a clear plot, and flits back and forth in time with a variety of viewpoints and sheer number of characters which may prove confusing.

It is a series of short stories rather than a novel, focusing in turn on different members of an amorphous group who have in common only some kind of link to the music industry – they know, or know someone who knows, either Bennie the driven music manager, or Sasha, his light-fingered assistant whose kleptomania may have some deeper emotional cause.

I enjoyed the quirky incidents and offbeat humour of the first seven chapters, and the game of anticipating which character mentioned in passing would turn up as a key player in the next episode. I liked the way the author always managed to overcome my irritation at being dragged away from one group of characters, by skilfully hooking me in to the next one, only to be disappointed again at having to leave the new story with strands left unresolved, perhaps forever.

Some of the relationships are genuinely moving, such as the hard-bitten, selfish, corrupt Lou's love for his sweet, gentle son, whom he cannot help inadvertently damaging, just through being the bastard that he is. I was impressed by the study of Scotty, mentally ill but managing after a fashion, who convinces himself half the time that being a failure is as good as being a success.

My good opinion suffered a blow in Chapter 8, an over-farcical account of a disgraced PR manager trying to make ends meet by advising a genocidal dictator of some unnamed country, which was an annoyingly unconvincing mixture of Arab desert too close to lush African jungle. The there are two sections I grew too bored to read properly: an intentionally bad , I think, parody of a journalist's interview with a movie star, followed by an attempt to relate to an autistic boy, and to show his thought processes, through a PowerPoint presentation – a novel idea, but it goes on for 74 pages – has the author not heard of death by OHP? After that, the return of the final chapters to some of the original characters lacks the power to engage me, in a work which seems to have lost its way – perhaps because the subjects are essentially rather uninteresting and underdeveloped players in an artificial and shallow world.

On one hand, this book is unusual, often creative and original, with what you might call brave experiments (but shouldn't the author be clear-eyed enough to see where they may have fallen short?), yet there is too much that is contrived, gimmicky or glib for me to rate this as an indisputably worthy Pulitzer winner.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

Dated Wit

This is my review of Saki, The Complete Short Stories (Penguin Modern Classics) by Saki.

It is easy to understand why H.H.Munro, pen name Saki, is still regarded as one of the greatest writers of short stories. His elegant, ironic prose reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse with a sharp sting in the tale.

Although Saki mocked the snobbery and hypocrisy of upper class Edwardian England, he himself seems to have been limited by unexamined prejudice against the lower classes, women in general, and new social movements of his day like female suffrage and socialism.

Organised by date of collection, the tales show a clear progression. The early "Reginald" stories are remarkably short, often barely a page, very dated and a bit too precious in style for my taste. As the years pass, the stories gain in length and depth, culminating in works like "The Square Egg". This captures the muddiness of trench life in World War 1 – the streaming mud walls, the inches of soup-like mud at the entrance to the dug-out, the muddy biscuits eaten with mud-caked fingers. This story also shows Saki's talent for going off at an imaginative tangent, in this case based on a wily Frenchman's novel idea for using the idea of "square eggs" from specially bred hens to try to get some money out of the narrator.

I particularly enjoyed the stories which focus on real emotions and psychology which could be relevant to any age and society: "Peace Toys" in which an uncle tries to give his nephews toys which will discourage them from violent play; "Tobermory" which speculates on the practical disadvantages of having a cat which has learned to speak about all the compromising goings-on it has witnessed as it creeps around unnoticed; "The Lumber Room" in which a small boy takes advantage of a rare chance to have his revenge on a pious, bullying aunt – the many stories about children getting their own back on control-freak adults may stem from painful experiences in Saki's own motherless childhood. Then there is "The Story-teller" where a bachelor distracted by noisy children on a train ride subverts the normal rules about telling children only improving stories.

I have mixed feelings about Clovis, a favourite recurring character of Saki's, who acts as a mocking observer of the class to which he has been born, while sponging off it, and snobbishly maintaining many of its prejudices. Yet "Clovis on Parental Responsibilities" is amusing where, in a Pinterish talking at cross purposes with a Mrs Eggelby, bored by her endless prattle about her children's accomplishments, Clovis undermines all the accepted views on bringing up children.

I would have liked a brief introduction on Saki's life. It seems important to know that, enrolling as an ordinary private soldier when in his forties, he was killed by a sniper's bullet after vainly asking a colleague to put out the cigarette which was emitting a tell-tale trail of smoke.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Dark Wit for Dipping Into

This is my review of The Complete Short Stories of Saki (H. H. Munro) by Saki,H. H. Munro.

It is easy to understand why H.H.Munro, pen name Saki, is still regarded as one of the greatest writers of short stories. His elegant, ironic prose reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse with a sharp sting in the tale.

Although Saki mocked the snobbery and hypocrisy of upper class Edwardian England, he himself seems to have been limited by unexamined prejudice against the lower classes, women in general, and new social movements of his day like female suffrage and socialism.

Organised by date of collection, the tales show a clear progression. The early "Reginald" stories are remarkably short, often barely a page, very dated and a bit too precious in style for my taste. As the years pass, the stories gain in length and depth, culminating in works like "The Square Egg". This captures the muddiness of trench life in World War 1 – the streaming mud walls, the inches of soup-like mud at the entrance to the dug-out, the muddy biscuits eaten with mud-caked fingers. This story also shows Saki's talent for going off at an imaginative tangent, in this case based on a wily Frenchman's novel idea for using the idea of "square eggs" from specially bred hens to try to get some money out of the narrator.

I particularly enjoyed the stories which focus on real emotions and psychology which could be relevant to any age and society: "Peace Toys" in which an uncle tries to give his nephews toys which will discourage them from violent play; "Tobermory" which speculates on the practical disadvantages of having a cat which has learned to speak about all the compromising goings-on it has witnessed as it creeps around unnoticed; "The Lumber Room" in which a small boy takes advantage of a rare chance to have his revenge on a pious, bullying aunt – the many stories about children getting their own back on control-freak adults may stem from painful experiences in Saki's own motherless childhood. Then there is "The Story-teller" where a bachelor distracted by noisy children on a train ride subverts the normal rules about telling children only improving stories.

I have mixed feelings about Clovis, a favourite recurring character of Saki's, who acts as a mocking observer of the class to which he has been born, while sponging off it, and snobbishly maintaining many of its prejudices. Yet "Clovis on Parental Responsibilities" is amusing where, in a Pinterish talking at cross purposes with a Mrs Eggelby, bored by her endless prattle about her children's accomplishments, Clovis undermines all the accepted views on bringing up children.

I would have liked a brief introduction on Saki's life. It seems important to know that, enrolling as an ordinary private soldier when in his forties, he was killed by a sniper's bullet after vainly asking a colleague to put out the cigarette which was emitting a tell-tale trail of smoke.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars