Afterthought

Issue 2/1999 | Archives online, Essays, Non-fiction

From Novellit (‘The Short stories’, Otava 1985). Interview by Maija Alftan

The short story is a matter of expectancy and reception. So it has to offer surprises. It has to reward the waiting.

The surprises are caused by the known and the familiar. Often some mis­hap is needed; the most crucial can be some social fix. The story’s limited space provides three states, brought about by a change in the environment: the past, the future and the passing moment. They create a special, unique phase of life for one of the characters. A return to the past leads to the new – not to the previous, situation – and this isn’t in anyone’s control. Short stories often contain arbitrariness.

The novel needs at least one swoop of a hawk through a pane of glass: through the author’s and the reader’s mental conditioning and world view. The glass must be shattered, to let the light shine and the crash reverberate through their whole consciousness. The story may also creep up on the reader, or be a tiger trap camouflaged in branches and turf, so that the reader falls in, along with his years and years of settled notions of all that’s profItable and unprofitable. It’s important for a person to be sometimes his own self, sometimes everyone and sometimes no one – and meet, with combined powers of soul and body, the new thought and feeling: his sweet enemy, which will free him from his existing bonds.

Story-writing is an acrobatic performance but mustn’t reveal the profes­sionalism of a circus artist. The amateur’s irresponsibility and freedom must always be preserved, his naturalness and enthusiasm, his excessive daring, and his almost equally great fear.

One great danger is of the story turning into a puzzle-problem, a guessing game, too complicated, clever or remote from life. Then it no longer keeps its feet on the ground. It takes off like a newly fledged hawk. It swooped into life from far away. Now it’s swooping out of life.

For me, the short story has been the basic prose-form, the booster for longer prose: stage one of a multistage rocket. Sometimes a novel has stag­nated for years, perhaps decades, as a failed short story, before beginning to expand, fiIl out and equilibrate as the kind of mirror you can see the world and life in, and not just a pitiful or arrogant replica of one’s own idiotic smirking face. From a failed short story one might derive a novel or a play, but from a successful story one doesn’t and can’t.

I’ve written forty-three short stories over thirty years. In the last ten years I’ve only brought two stories to completion. I’m not sure why. Is it because I no longer believe the hawk of the unknown will crack my aware­ness? Perhaps I no longer expect new knowledge and feeling, or hope for them. Perhaps I no longer have the heart to throw a stone at the calm menis­cus of a lake and change its still picture-postcard image of the world into a target, with concentric ripples spreading all ways, as far as the lake allows. Perhaps I know that a short-story writer ought to be young and beautiful and brave, swift to turn, and sturdy enough to take leaps. Perhaps I’m afraid the short story only likes healthy and sober twenty-five to thirty-five year-olds at the height of their powers.

The short story’s like a young virgin. She acts up in the village and at home and expects to be protected, admired, understood and loved, whatever she may do. She’s pure and innocent and no one must paw her. She snubs you. The novel is a puissant middle-aged woman who is as charming and unoffending in her rage as in her gentleness. Her laughter doesn’t floor a man in a critical situation but lifts him up, and she is as inviting and luring and depraved and devilish and righteous and corruptible as, say, social power-mongers, or the cultural world, with all its organisations and boards.

In places, the novel can be as wet, sweet, delicious and deep as sacher­torte. But the tradition of the genre, and the demand for unrelenting inten­sity, allow no such freedoms to the short story.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

Tags: