In this weird summer that alternates suffocating humidity with cold showers, I have a craving for short stories.
Don’t ask me why.
Maybe it’s because I can start and finish a story in a single sitting, even after a long day spent writing, or translating, or doing stuff; it engages my brain at the right level, without being too demanding on my time, or eyesight.
Or maybe it’s because in the last few years I’ve been writing mostly short stories and I am curious about what the great ones did.
I’m trying to steal their secrets.
So, I went through John D. MacDonald‘s The Good Old Stuff, and right now I’m going through the Everyman edition of Roald Dahl’s Collected Stories.
Afterwards I’ll probably go through Muse and Reverie, by Charles de Lint.
And then some Sam Shepard.
As I said, I’m craving short fiction, and studying with the best.
The first ten stories in Dahl’s Everyman collection* are the ten stories that originally formed his 1946 book, Over to You.
These are war stories, and they are not “typical Dahl” (if something like that exists), both because of their theme, and because of their style.
There’s a tone of oral narrative, of airfield folklore, that makes the stories slow-paced, and intimate.
They are also deceptively simple.
Even in his beginnings, Roald Dahl was clearly a natural storyteller – the air stories in Over to You feel simple, but they are not.
The author uses some very simple techniques – repetition, the use of slang and nicknames, spare dialogues – to convey his contents.
He can place the reader in a Hurricane fighter cockpit with two phrases, and a minimum of technicalities – and no technobabble or excess information.
There’s a lot to learn, here.
Also, there’s a simple humanity, to these war stories, that is pretty far away from the supposed cynicism of later Dahl works.
There’s also a hint of the supernatural, here and there, but not the usual supernatural of ghost stories – more like the everyday supernatural that becomes commonplace for people facing death every day in the battlefield.
Collected Stories is certainly a great collection – but Over to You was a fine collection, too, and I’m happy the former includes the latter.
A few days back I got a brochure for something – I don’t know if it was a book, or a live course, or both – about “reading awareness”.
The guy holding the course – or writing the book, or both – would teach us, for a little fee, to read with our perception geared towards learning the structure, the phrase-building, the grammar and syntax of whatever we read, so that we can learn and become better writers.
Which is good – to learn how to write, we must read, and do it with our brain on.
And yet, this “reading awareness” is, to me, only part of the story – and might even be counter-productive.
There’s too many readers, out there – you might have seen their blogs, or Facebook posts – that are obsessing over technicalities.
They can pull their hair and scream scandal because of an alliteration, they can bore your pants off with long debates on matters which are – to a reader – of no obvious consequence.
And they miss the stories.
Not the structure, not the syntax, but the whole package, the story as it hits us, and does something to us.
Just enjoying the stories seems sometimes to be something that’s not done anymore.
Maybe that’s why so many of these aware readers, are pretty sucky writers, who knows.
* Incidentally, I love Everyman Library books – they have this sense of permanence, each lookslike the kind of book you cold carry with you on the road, and be the only reading matter you’ll ever need. Like holy books of sort.