March 25, 2009

Bullet in the brain and other perfect short stories

A while back I picked up a ringing phone in our workroom and it was a man asking if we had a copy of Tobias Wolff’s new book of short stories, which he had read about in The Listener, that we could send out to Remuera Community Library for him. Our copies were all out, but here’s the thing, one of them was out to me. “Have you read it yet?” he asked me when I told him. Well, not really, not yet, just what fit in on the bus trip home.

“Did you read the one called “Bullet in the Brain” he went on. Umm, not sure, but it sounds familiar. “About a man getting shot during a bank robbery, he makes the robber angry by talking back and he gets shot.” I cast my mind about energetically but no Tobias Wolff stories about bank robbery appeared on the horizon. “The review says it’s one of the best stories ever written.” I started to feel on the spot. Everything was being crowded out of my mind by images of Bill Murray robbing the bank dressed as a clown in that genius film "Quick Change" and fragments of a Thurberian “battle of the sexes” joke in which a henpecked husband gets his wife shot during a bank robbery, told to me years ago by a retired Royal Navy Commander of that generation which did lots of crossword puzzles and told that kind of joke.


One of the best short stories ever written! I told him I'd bring it back the very next day and check it in and he'd have it by the weekend.. “Oh no, I wouldn’t want to do that, I can wait until you’ve finished it,” he protested. Don’t worry, I have plenty of books on my bedside table, I said. Come to think of it, one of them is another Tobias Wolff book. He acquiesced at that point, but I was pretty sure he didn’t get the full picture. Here it is. I made a record of it when I got home; it was too funny. There it is, fifth from the bottom, the library’s copy of Our story begins.

He told me he wasn’t a computer user, the man from Remuera, so he will never actually see the photo, which is all right, but I wish I could tell him that it turned out I actually had read “Bullet in the brain”, not in the new book, but in the other Tobias Wolff book, a military-coloured Vintage paperback which probably won’t show up in the photo, as my father’s name and the date – 1996 – in his handwriting on the inside flypaper never could.

I only realized it half way through re-reading it, because it is the final three pages of the story, past the robbery part, which knock the breath out of me. I agree wholeheartedly with The Listener reviewer, whoever it was. “Bullet in the brain” is a perfect short story. It is unbelievable how finely crafted it is, the symbiosis between the way the story is being told and what it is telling, the jerky preamble, the explosion, the suspension, accelerating to the sharp, sweet ending which reaches into the deepest part of us.

I asked myself what other perfect short stories I know. “A perfect day for banana fish” by JD Salinger; several of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories -- “The three day blow”, “Indian camp” and also “The Killers”, and “My old man”, which isn’t a Nick Adams story but still by Hemingway; “Goodbye my brother” and a couple of others by John Cheever. Joyce's "The dead" but also another story in Dubliners, the one about the man who desperately wants to leave work to go have a drink, and he can’t because they’d see that his hat isn’t hanging on the hat rack. I’d be really happy to get anyone else’s suggestions. I’m not really as much like Miss Jean Brodie as I sometimes sound (“Who is the greatest Italian painter, Rose?” “Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.” “No, it is Giotto. He is my favourite”).





March 01, 2009

Leonardo Sciascia: Just a stroke of the pen

Before leaving the books of Sicily behind I have to confess to Jo, who sent me an email on the day I posted the question “What is the great Sicilian Novel?” saying “Something to do with a large spotted cat?”, and to everyone else who was following the story, that there was a catch. The leopard is a great Sicilian novel, maybe the greatest, but not the Great Sicilian Novel, to my eyes. The idea of a great national novel – and yes, it is a bit of a game – is that it captures the spirit of a people, being written in their voice. Americans usually put forth Huckleberry Finn for theirs, although I’ve always leaned towards The sound and the fury myself. The leopard, as grand and tragic as you will, remains one man’s story, at the most one class’s story, and the story is one of abdication: “We were the leopard, the lions, and after us will come the jackals, the hyenas.”


Leonardo Sciascia is the writer you want to read if you want sicilianita’, as he called it, Sicilianness, life with the jackals. “All my books, in effect, constitute one book,” he wrote in a preface to one of them. “A book on Sicily that touches the sore spots of the past and the present and that unfolds as the continuous defeat of reason.” Especially for naming the Mafia as Sicily’s sore spot of the present, he was disliked by many Sicilians, who were forever claiming that the Mafia didn't exist or existed but not here.

His tired, bitter and insightful story The wine-dark sea nails this phenomenon in a few lines exchanged between an engineer heading to Sicily for work and a Sicilian sharing his train compartment. The Sicilian is extolling the virtues of his home town and has just lost his temper with his son who says the Sicilian ocean is the colour of wine. What is the matter with you, the father says. You know it’s blue. The son continues obstinately to claim it looks like wine, and then that it is wine. His parents are furious. And then:

 “Is there a local Mafia?” asked Bianchi. “Mafia?” exclaimed Micchiche’ with the same incredulity he would have displayed had he been asked whether the inhabitants of Nisima had webbed feet. “What Mafia? All nonsense!” 

The day of the owl could be my nomination for Great Sicilian Novel. This book, which our cousin visiting from Rome told me today she listened to being read aloud just last week on their equivalent of National Radio, and found it as bellissimo as ever, is a detective story, as many of Sciascia's novels were. He loved the mystery genre, and his novels - and the movies which some of Italy's best film directors made from them - are full of suspense and sharp images.

One of the most striking scenes in The day of the owl is the one when a group of illiterate brothers are called before the enlightened, Voltaire-reading carabiniere officer, Captain Bellodi, to testify about a Mafia murder. For them it means confronting "the terror of a merciless inquisition, of the black seed of the written word. 'White soil, black seed. Beware of the man who sows it. He never forgets' says the proverb."

For Sciascia, this is the key difference: the laws of the State are written, and permanent; by contrast, the mafia is only an oral culture and its "rules" - like vendetta, omerta' (the code of silence) etc - are just behaviours, passed down by word of mouth. "They behave like animals" he said, "erasing their footprints in front of their lairs."

And so they do. I have a terrible memory of a night when the Mafia exploded a car bomb ten blocks from my house, when I was living in Florence. It was meant to blow up the Uffizi Gallery, but they weren't able to park it close enough for some reason which I can't remember now, so that it only managed to damage the Gallery. It did, however, kill a family in a ground floor apartment close by, a husband who was a fireman and a wife who worked as the caretaker for the Georgofili Academy, an institution so old it had performed research for Napoleon's land reforms and which was located upstairs, and their two small children, the younger just two months old. The ground floor apartments are always where caretakers or portieri (the Italian version of the French concierge) live. Although in some more pretentious neighborhoods there are portieri who spend all day polishing their cars and sticking their noses into everyone's business, in the tiny medieval streets of the old centre it's just a regular old workingman -- or woman -- job.

We heard the explosion and went tearing out to see what it was, and if we could help. It was the middle of the night and there was no one about except for one man I caught sight of walking hurriedly in the opposite direction. A second later we hit Via dei Georgofili and saw the glass all over the cobblestones and people carrying bleeding people out the door. We didn't know if it was a gas main or what, we only found out the next morning that it was a bomb. Everyone knew it meant mafia. And that was when I thought of the weaselly little guy I had seen going in the wrong direction. What I kept remembering, and what I still remember, is that he was not quite, but sort of, smiling as he walked.

In the preface to Salt in the wound, his early book written when he was not yet famous about the year he spent as a school teacher in his hometown, Sciascia recalled how the people there used to say to him "It takes just a stroke of the pen" as if they were saying "It takes just a stroke of the sword".  He adds
"I would dearly love to have the strength to mete out some resounding strokes of the pen on behalf of the salt miners of Regalpetra, of the peasants, of the old people without pensions, of the children who are sent out to work. Of course like the poor of Regalpetra, I too have some faith in the power of writing."








 
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