This beautiful picture, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 – 1553) is called ‘Cupid complaining to Venus’. I saw it in the National Gallery on my recent visit. You will notice the divine hat-like thing on the head of Venus – the goddess of love, called Aphrodite by the Greeks. Actually, it doesn't seem to be actually a hat - more of a circle of fur-balls attached to a headdress. In the picture, Cupid, Venus's son, is being stung by bees after dipping his hands in some honeycomb. There is an inscription which reads: 'Life's pleasure us mixed with pain.' Clearly a moral commentary of some kind. Though why Venus should be stark naked except for her hat remains obscure.
The picture also appears on the cover of a book of short stories which I recently acquired. The collection is entitled 'Aphrodite's Hat' by Salley Vickers, a British author. I have only read one or two stories so far, but they seem beautifully crafted - you know how a good short story stays with you? You have just a short glimpse into the fictional world, and often not much happens, but something about the story strikes a chord and sticks. To mix at least a couple of metaphors. But you know what I mean.
I bought the book after reading some encouraging reviews reported in The Observer one Sunday recently:
"One reads the first two stories in Salley Vickers' first collection with a slight uneasiness" admitted William Palmer in the Indepenent. "'Mrs Radinsky' and 'Join me For Christmas' are perfectly tailored, with witty twists at the ends, but are a bit too pat for our present taste for stories which are open-ended, non-judgemental, and still doggedly post-Chekhovian."
Hmm..I wasn't really aware that I required my short stories to be post-Chekhovian, but if he says so...
Yet according to Lucy Scholes in the Sunday Times, "the psychoanalyst-turned-author quickly proves that she is in fine command of the genre as she turns her attention to the complex workings of the human heart...Vickers proves herself a formidable and astute chronicler of the psychology of love."
And from this review:
Vickers is at her best when writing about love’s disappointments, those moments when a first note of discord sounds. A striking example of one such moment lies in the collection’s title story where a woman conducting a long-running love affair admires a painting of the Goddess of Love, posing with an extravagant hat and a coquettish smile, and realises - with a flash of insight - just how clever Aphrodite is; how vital it is that, when it comes to love, we are never left entirely naked and exposed.On the subject of short stories, I was recently asked for some recommendations (hi Shirley & Emma!) for a selection of short stories in a variety of aspects of the genres, as a reading list for an HSC advanced English student - who has to write her own short story for the course. I admit my reply was a quick response off the top of my head - here's what I came up with -- feel free to add your suggestions, if you like, in the comments box.
Re short stories, an absolute must is Alice Munro (who writes nothing else) - a Canadian, the best short story writer alive, and possibly ever. It doesn't matter which one/s - they are all masterpieces. There are also some anthologies around of Australian short story writers. Cate Kennedy is good.
Also look for Ernest Hemmingway - 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro' perhaps? Or 'The Old Man and the Sea'?
For something a bit meatier and different, find something by Jorges Luis Borges (Alex's "beloved Borges") - an Argentinian writer (now dead). He has several collections published in translation. If humour/memoir makes the cut, David Sedaris is a must. Anything by him.
A really good source of newly published short stories is "The New Yorker" magazine - in most good newsagents, and online. They have a piece of new fiction in every issue.That reminds me: I have Alice Munro's latest collection in the 'to read' pile: "Too Much Happinesss". Something for the long haul flight home, perhaps.
And now that I have had more time to think about it, I forgot to mention that excellent collection of short stories chosen by David Sedaris himself, entitled 'Children Playing before a Statue of Hercules', which includes the very excellent Katherine Mansfield.
Co-incidentally, today the Guardian includes an article with writers discussing their own favourite short stories. Here's a sampling of who chose what:
Julian Barnes - 'Homage to Switzerland' by Ernest Hemingway (1899 - 1961)
William Boyd - 'My Dream of Flying to Wake Island' by JG Ballard (1930 - 2009)
Helen Dunmore - 'My Oedipus Complex' by Frank O'Connor (1903 - 66)
Margaret Drabble - 'The Doll's House' by Katherine Mansfield (1888 - 1923)
Anne Enright - 'Fat' by Raymond Carver (1938 - 88)
Tessa Hadley - 'The Jungle' by Elizabeth Bowen (1899 - 1973)
Philip Pullman 'The Beauties' by Anton Chekhov (1860 - 1904)
Helen Simpson - 'The Kitchen Child' by Angela Carter (1940 - 92)
Ali Smith - 'Conversation with My Father' by Grace Paley (1922 - 2007)
Colm Toibin - 'Music at Annahullion' by Eugene McCabe (1930 - )
Rose Tremain - 'Extra' by Yiyun Li (1972 - )
Jeanette Winterson - 'The Night Driver' by Italo Calvino (1923 - 85)
Short stories have to establish their intention very fast, and stay on track, avoiding the kind of digressions and sub-plots that can enrich a novel. (Guardian)There's also an accompanying series of podcasts where these writers read the short stories. Here's the link to the first podcast.
Here's to a little fiction!