Introduction to the Second Edition, 1999
INTRODUCTION TO THE SECOND EDITION, 1999
The short story—let us first recall—is a truly ancient form of literature. It seriously antedates the coming of its great rival in prose narrative, the almighty novel. We can trace it into legend, myth, fairy tale, folktale, and fable. We can find it far back in the history of written narratives: in the sagas and Eddas, in the tales of marketplace storytellers all over the globe, in folk histories and fairy books, and, again and again, in the Bible. Aesop's fables are short stories and so, transposed as poetry, is Ovid's Metamorphoses. Many of the great early collections of short stories are compilations, gatherings of preexisting oral tales. When in the ninth century an Arab scribe gathered together a thousand Persian, Indian, and Arab legends and called it The Thousand and One Nights, another of the great compilations was set down. Stories were added and subtracted, and in the early eighteenth century they were translated into the European languages. The Thousand and One Nights became a universal book, an international book, a key compilation for what Salman Rushdie has called "the sea of stories" (in his book of tall tales about Haroun and the Shah of Blah). It has given us Aladdin and Sinbad but something else, too: the presence of a famous storyteller, Scheherazade, who is summoned to spend the night with a Persian king. He means to kill her the next morning, but night after night she tells a tale, leaving the story incomplete. So intricately are the stories woven that they save her life. The stories are the product of cunning art and skill, the tales have a purpose and human justification, and the story of their telling—now told to us, of course, by a further storyteller—is as important as the stories told.
When the Black Death struck Florence in 1347-48, perhaps a hundred thousand of its citizens died in the streets or were trapped in their homes, neglected and avoided by others. According to the storyteller Boccaccio, who was a witness, the entire structure of authority and human relations in the great city of Dante collapsed. Yet, according to his Decameron (1350), this vast human tragedy was a dark mountain blocking the way to an enchanted plain: the world of storytelling itself. Seven young women and three young men gathered together and left the city for a gardened villa nearby; they begin telling tales to each other as a diversion from other indulgences, which might, of course, be fatal. According to a carefully agreed formal plan, 10 stories a day were told for 10 days, each storyteller handing on the torch to another. Some of the story days were grouped by theme (man as fate's plaything, love as destruction, tricks played by wives on husbands, and so on); others are diverse. These stories, too, came from the great Mediterranean pond: they gave us sultans and caliphs; friars and merchants; Arabs, Christians, and Jews; and courts and middens. They mocked the church, took pleasure in roguery, enjoyed tricks and deceptions, and delighted in love. They functioned as a sublime tease, deferring sexual consummation, and showed Boccaccio (simply identified as "the author") as a master narrator. These stories, too, became part of the European and world pool. When a few decades later Geoffrey Chaucer had his 29 varied pilgrims (and Chaucer, himself) gathered in London for the great journey to Canterbury, each of them expected to tell two tales on the way, he borrowed some of these same stories. The Canterbury Tales are told in verse and prose, some of the stories high and romantic, some coarse and comic, each told by a distinctive narrator and pulled together by the author himself, who is one of the pilgrim party. The work borrowed its structure, as well as several tales (for example, the story of patient Grizelda), from Boccaccio, and it established the complex story cycle as a prime source of English literature.
So it has gone on. Not just the stories themselves—part of a great and historical human fund that is constantly extended and improved on a world basis—but also the art of storytelling, the linking of narratives into larger narratives through the frame tale, and thus the role and character of the narrator ("the author") became part of a greater narrative still: a continuous story of stories. Writing and authors made stories ever more sophisticated and intricate; the sea of stories has grown ever more full. In the French contes and the fabliaux of La Fontaine and Perrault, the source of many of the most familiar fairy tales, without which Disney could not even exist, they inclined to the fantastic, even the gothic. In the traveling, exploring eighteenth century, they grew ever more exotic: Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Voltaire's Zadig and Candide, all tale-telling works of short fiction, are an exotic means for satire, wit, and philosophical meditation. New sophistications entered. "This Is Not a Story" begins a short and teasing narrative (c. 1771), which is then introduced by the words "The story you are about to read is by M. Diderot." Denis Diderot's famous Magritte-like "This Is Not a Story" permutes the game of narrative and plays with the roles of story, writer, and reader ("in the story you are now about to read [which is not a story, or if it is, then a bad one], I have introduced a personage who plays the role of listener. I will begin") in ways we would now happily call postmodern. At the end of the eighteenth century, in the great age of that new genre suitably called the novel, the modern short story was also emerging, drawing on the one hand on folk simplicities from the great world pool and on the other from the wit, complexity, and individuality of new European narrative. This, roughly, is the point of departure for the present work of reference.
One key source of modern short fiction is the great search for the story that, fed by a sense of the strange and exotic, swept right across Europe in the following years, the era of romanticism. It was fed by a fascination with folk origins, popular narratives, and stored human experience but no less by a refreshed interest in the gothic, the strange, the grotesque, the remarkable, the wonderfully imagined. When the young American Washington Irving was journeying through Britain and Europe after the War of 1812 in search of the picturesque and "poetic" elements that were not yet to be found in his own brand-new country, he called on the great Scots tale-teller Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, near Edinburgh. He was promptly advised to visit the Black Forest, stop the old ladies with their bundles of sticks, and gather up a "budget of folk-tales." In fact, when he went to the German states, he found a remarkable generation of German writers—Tieck, Novalis, Keller, and, above all, Hoffmann—who were writing the new tales and retelling old ones. They provided him with all he needed, not least the plots of his two Hudson River Valley stories, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," which are among the earliest works of American literature. Then off to Spain, where he lived in the Alhambra in Granada ("one of the most remarkable, romantic and delicious spots in the world") and found himself "in the midst of an Arabian tale." He collected up old Moorish and Arab tales and recounted them in The Alhambra. It was a sound education, for, on behalf of American writing, Irving had borrowed from two of the major sources of short fiction—the revived European folktale and the ever rich funds of the "arabesque" Mediterranean tradition.
The refinement of the short tale is itself one of the most striking stories of nineteenth-century literature. In the Russia of the czars, Aleksandr Pushkin's remarkable tales ("The Blackamoor of Peter the Great," "The Queen of Spades," "Egyptian Nights," with its story of improvisation) were to establish a major Russian tradition in short fiction. It was extended by Nikolai Gogol, whose surreal tales of the already near fictional city of Saint Petersburg ("The Nevsky Prospect," "The Overcoat," "The Nose") helped construct that vision of estrangement, grotesquerie, and superfluity that runs like a dark theme through so much Russian and modern literature. Gogol paid the appropriate homage to his form's literary origins, naming one volume of his stories Arabesques (1835). This was a word seized on by Edgar Allan Poe, whose Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque appeared in 1839. We often grant Poe pride of place in the history of modern short fiction, and he indeed exploited the wide range of its forms: the ratiocinative detective story ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue"), the grotesque gothic tale ("The Pit and the Pendulum"), the tale of psychic and social crisis ("The Fall of the House of Usher"), and so on. In his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales, he also obligingly gave us a famous, highly usable definition of the modern short story: a tale that takes no more than an hour or two in the telling and that concentrates on a single situation, a concentrated atmosphere, a unique effect. But the burst of modern short stories that followed during the course of the nineteenth century did not always gratify this fine definition, which remains an elegant and illuminating convenience rather than a total truth.
Indeed, the mappers of the history of short fiction have perhaps concentrated too greatly and too often on the history and the centrality of the "distilled" poetic short story, the story of exact line and total concentration, perfected by writers like Chekhov and seen in the epiphanic tales of James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Mansfield, and Sean O'Faolain, which have become our pride. Yet they have often done so at the expense of many other important traditions: the line of gothic fantasy born of the tales of Hoffmann, the loose philosophical tale out of Gogol (Dostoevskii's Notes from the Underground, Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener"), the playful improvisation (Pushkin's "Egyptian Nights"), the political satire (Voltaire's Candide), the skat tale or humorous sketch (many tales by Dickens, Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"), the ingenious yarn (Conan Doyle's tales of Sherlock Holmes), the "story that is not a story" (the ficcione s of Borges, the stories of Barthelme), the narrative tale (James's Daisy Miller, Faulkner's "The Bear"), the cunning folk legend (Singer's "Gimpel the Fool"), the mockingly revised feminist fairy tale (Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber), the minimalist text (Beckett's "Ping"), the character-based novella (Bellow's The Actual), the cosmic fantasy (Calvino), the story cycle of tales interlinked thematically by place, characters, and theme (and, for all their "distillation," Joyce's The Dubliners and Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio are both examples), or a mixture of varied tales linked by a recurrent narrator (Conrad's Marlow, Maugham's Ashenden).
Poe's vivid definition helped persuade many writers and critics that there was a clear type of "modernist" short story: impressionistic, distilled, and distinguished by its epiphanic nature, its ingrained symbolic code, its single instant of time, and its double revelation, both human and metaphoric. Yet most significant writers of short fiction have never felt themselves completely constrained by these principles, important though they are in giving short fiction a firm aesthetic character. Many of them have rightly seen the short prose fiction as one of the many means of narrative open to them. Hence most of the leading writers of short stories, from the early nineteenth-century revival on, have been great exponents of other forms, from Pushkin's play with the verse novel (Eugene Onegin) or Flaubert's passage from "A Simple Heart" to A Sentimental Education, to Joyce's transit from Dubliners to Ulysses and Faulkner's from his short fiction to the great interlinked epic that forms his history of Yoknapatawpha County. Our great writers of short fiction have often been our great novelists, playwrights, or poets, and so the history of the modern short story leads us on into the history of many other forms and genres. What is true is that in their use of the short prose form many writers have been able to distill a distinctive perfection and concentration in their writing—Stephen Crane in "The Open Boat," for example, was never better—which was not quite available to them in the vaster, more discursive spaces of the novel.
For that reason we often remember the short fictions of our writers as an image of their work at its most distilled, concentrated, perfect. Certainly Dostoevskii was never more memorable than in Notes from the Underground—even though we might fairly see that work of extraordinary and ironic self-revelation as the sketch or starting point for Crime and Punishment. Conrad was never clearer to us than in Heart of Darkness, his voyage up the Congo River into the inferno; Kafka was never more precise than in his strange The Metamorphosis. There have been writers—Isaak Babel, V. S. Pritchett, Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver—who seem to have felt fully at home only in the short story form, with its concentration, its minimalist rendering, its integral clarity, its exactness of narration, its power of revelation. The short story has served some literary traditions more strongly than others. Russian, European Jewish, Irish, and American literature have—for various cultural reasons, sometimes to do with the historic power of folklore—possessed stronger short story traditions than British or German literature, where there is a greater taste for the novel, the narrative tale, or the novella (though there always was a major British tradition that, with writers like Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro, has grown stronger and far more cosmopolitan in recent years). In fact, the short story has played a central role in modern and postmodern writing throughout the West. Many of its finest practitioners, from Babel to Italo Calvino, belong to literary explorations of the past 80 years or so, and the form flourishes vitally still. Yet we should never forget that it truly is both an ancient and a highly international form. In recent years there has been an ever greater global spread of literary creation, influence, and crossover, a refreshed abundance of myth and legend. This is not just in African American, Caribbean, Native American, and South American writing, or in Scots, Irish, and Celtic, but also writing from China, the Pacific, and, as always, the Indian and Arab worlds. This, as Rushdie says, is the great "sea of stories," to which we are all tempted to return. It starts in the great myth kitties of oral narrative, which crossed all national boundaries, and it was changed and refined through the age of writing and the emergence of the author, the multiplied storyteller, the perfected literary narrative, and the arts of experimental consciousness.
At the end of his remarkable Decameron, Boccaccio, defending himself against charges of licentiousness, says of his 100 stories that no one needs to read them; they do not go after people begging to be read. Yet they do; they are an intricate act of narrative seduction. This is part of the essential power of the short story and the novella. We dedicate ourselves carefully to the longer and more labyrinthine journey of the novel, but we experience a short story quickly and respond to its completeness before we go in search of the next one. That is why many writers see short fiction as the most demanding of forms. "I am convinced that writing prose should not be any different from writing poetry," wrote Calvino in this vein. "In the ever more congested times that await us, literature must aim at the maximum concentration of poetry and thought." The story of the short story has always been a tale both of abundance and of concentration: on one hand, of the extraordinary human variety of the tales that can be told and enfolded into each other; on the other, of the demanding presence and distilled requirements of what, once it has been embarked on, is the most concise and poetic prose form.
—by Malcolm Bradbury