From the 15th century to the present day – The Irish Times
If the “only true journey of discovery”, according to Proust, “is not to visit strange lands but to contemplate through the eyes of another… the hundred universes that each of them contemplates…” The masterful Patrick McGuinness’ anthology teems with universes for each of its 84 authors.
Beginning with Philippe de Laon’s 15th Century Physician’s Husband, it ends with Virginie Despentes’ 21st Century savage werewolf Hairs on Me. McGuinness’ introduction avoids “focusing on ‘page count’ and the ‘word limit’ as undifferentiated blocks of matter…” promoting “a genre that puts the reader in a unique relationship with time…the best short stories use their length as a resource, rather than…a limit…another advantage …is the uninterrupted, the way it can be read (or heard) in one sitting.
This is beautifully illustrated in Antonia White’s beautiful translation of Colette’s Green Sealing Wax. After a delightfully detailed description of her father’s “office cabinet” mania, the narrator concludes: “It was ironic that, equipped with every conceivable tool for writing, my father rarely committed to putting pen to paper. , while Sido – sitting at any old table, brushing aside an invading cat, a basket of plums, a pile of laundry, or simply putting a dictionary in his lap as a desk, Sido was really writing. A hundred enchanting letters prove it. To continue or end a letter, she tore out a page from her account book or wrote on the back of an invoice.
McGuinness argues: “The question is not ‘what is news?’ but ‘what news can be?’
McGuinness argues: “The question is not ‘what is news?’ but ‘what news can be?’ French thought has a reputation for classifying and defining, and French literary history is the cradle of “-isms”: naturalism, symbolism, surrealism, existentialism…” There is no shortage of pioneers here, the classics of Georges Perec, Joris Carl-Huysman and Maupassant rub shoulders with lesser known nuggets from Xavier Forneret or Marcel Schwob, who have influenced so many great writers and yet little known outside France.
Stephen Romer’s translation of Schwob’s Sans-Gueules measures its unique and exact blend of comedic horror and piercing pathos. Prefiguring the horrible mutilations of the First World War, it is the story of two soldiers disfigured during the Franco-Prussian war who are brought home by “a little lady” who no longer knows who her husband is. “The two broken pieces… which represented the loved one never came together in her affections… her thoughts went steadily from one to the other, as if her soul were continually leaning like a balance… Smoking their pipes, sitting in the same attitude on their beds, blowing the same plumes of smoke… they were her “two monkeys”, her red mannequins, her two little husbands, her burnt men, her fleshy rascals… She mothered them in turn, putting away their blankets, tucking in their sheets, mixing their wine… she was playing with them.
“The Legacy of Colonialism”
In volume 2, the “legacy of colonialism” diversifies the conversation. The formidable slice of memory of the Guadeloupean Maryse Condé, Family portrait, is undeniable: “If someone had asked my parents what they thought of the Second World War, they would have…answered that it was the darkest period they had ever known. Not because France was cut in two or because of the camps at Drancy or Auschwitz… but because for seven long years they were deprived of… their trips to France. For them, France was in no way the seat of colonial power. It is truly the Motherland and Paris, the City of Light that has illuminated their lives.
McGuinness is “fascinated by the way classic stories share… their narrative DNA with other forms of writing: the prose poem, for example, with Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Charles Cros, who are included here. McGuinness, a poet himself, translated many of these poems into prose as well as Félix Fénéon’s three-line novels (which could also be called poems, proving how slippery these categories can be). Fénéon’s compressed newspaper articles are nuggets of black irony, “La Verbeau hit Marie Champion squarely on the breasts, but burned her eye, because a bowl of acid is not a precision weapon .”
The influence of French short stories has always extended well beyond its borders, and these volumes decisively highlight this never-ending international conversation: “Jorge Luis Borges quotes Schwob’s Imaginary Lives as an influence on his Universal History of Infamy. Could the intense observation and identification with aquatic life in Le Poisson rouge by Christian Garcin be linked to the Axolotl by Argentinian Julio Cortázar?
There’s so much to discover in these stories – both history and food for news lovers everywhere. To complete the quotation from Proust at the beginning of this review: “with men [and women!] like them, we really fly from star to star”.