Monday, November 26, 2018

Excellence in Short Stories Looks Like This

Over the last little while as I've been reading toward finishing my Century of Books project, I had two short story collections in the rotation that I was working away on, story by story. Mavis Gallant recommended reading stories one by one, not all mashed up together like a novel, and since I first heard that, I've been trying to do just that, as much as I can.

In any case, I picked up Mansfield's classic, finally; and also a large collection by one of my favourite authors, Penelope Lively. I'll start with the older book.

The Garden Party & other stories / Katherine Mansfield   
London: Penguin, 1971, c1922.
255 p.

This collection of 15 stories was a delight. I was drawn in by the style and the approach: they focus on the little moments, on domestic settings and on women's thoughts and feelings. The writing is evocative, poetic, and spare at the same time. 

I found it interesting how the stories all end in a very open-ended way. They drift off, or they stop without a complete tying up of loose ends. They leave the characters carrying on in uncertainty or without huge epiphanies; but they leave the reader in the midst of the narrative, without closure, and unable to forget the characters. 

The first two stories are the longest, and the title story is quite dreadfully intense, as a young upper class girl at her family's garden party must face the horror of death, loss and the complete dissociation from these things endemic to the class system. Mansfield's light touch dances over these elements in all the stories, but the underneath peeks through nonetheless. 

The first story is set in Mansfield's native New Zealand, and the setting is rich. You can feel the heat and the sea as you read - I can picture the house and the yard and the quiet clearly. You can feel the stifled energy of the women as well. The writing style reminds me quite a bit of Virginia Woolf; no wonder Woolf both appreciated and envied Mansfield, they are very similar. 

I'm glad I read this - the fine writing and the illumination of women in many situations, either as domestic workers or wives/mothers or indeed daughters, was compelling. The spinsters who show up in stories like Miss Brill or The Daughters of the Late Colonel are always teetering at the edge of pathetic, one feels sympathy for them while realizing their precarious existence. Definitely a collection worth reading, and rereading. I'm sure I'll revisit it often.

Pack of Cards / Penelope Lively 
London: Grove, 1999, c1986.
336 p.

And now to one of my favourite authors, whose stories are always enjoyable (though I think I prefer her novels just that little bit more). It's a larger collection than some, incorporating stories from an earlier collection (Nothing Missing But the Samovar) and ranging over the years 1978 -1986. Because there are so many stories here (35) and Lively's voice is so distinct, I'd recommend not reading it all at once, or it will pall. There are some excellent stories and some that have dated quite a bit, mostly the ones in which she is tackling a current social problem (ie: The Voice of God in Adelaide Terrace). 

A connection that I might not have seen if I hadn't been reading these two books so near to one another is that many of the stories in this collection echo some of those in Mansfield's. 

In Mansfield's Miss Brill, for instance, a happy spinster at a concert in the part is hurt by overhearing what a pair of young people is saying about her. In Lively's Miss Carlton and the Pop Concert , an older woman joins the audience in the park at a music fest of sorts, and happily imagines the inner lives of the romantic looking hippies near her. But she's disillusioned by their talk of work and cars and the music and she leaves feeling not quite so young as she'd started out feeling. There are other similarities of tone between them, of attention to the domestic. I'm surprised I've never seen that before, but then, I haven't read much Mansfield until now. 

This collection is quite British in its restrained emotional understatement. Lively is always intelligent, and wryly witty, and many of her preoccupations show up in these stories. Archaeology, history, time passing, the past, memory, houses, what-might-have-been - all these turn up in some form. I enjoy feeling like I know an author's approach to life and I do feel that I can estimate, at least generally, what a Penelope Lively story or novel will be like, and this book doesn't deviate from that pattern. I enjoyed it, revisiting some old favourites and finding some new gems as well. 


  1. Oh, I love Penelope Lively! :)

    1. Isn't she wonderful? I really love her work.

  2. How fascinating! I love Mansfield, and I've read some Lively, bt never the latter's short stories and I wouldn't have thought to compare them. Perhaps I should check out Lively's shorter works... ;)


    1. I'd never thought of it either until reading these at the same time. I love bookish references showing up unexpectedly.

  3. I'm always on the lookout for good short story collections, so I appreciate both of these recommendations!

    1. Both definitely are worth exploring if you can find them!


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