Friday, June 25, 2010

NYRB Challenge #33: Short Stories to Make You Glad You're Single. . .

Having now read a number of NYRB Classics for this challenge, I can attest that while the range of books is quite extensive, the editors do tend to disproportionately favour books that are either set in New York, feature unhappy characters dissatisfied with their lives, or are written by someone once married to the poet Robert Lowell. The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick is a perfect example of all three.

I've read and can recommend Hardwick's two previous books, the novel Sleepness Nights and Seduction and Betrayal, her collection of essays on women's literature. This collection contains thirteen stories written from 1946 to 1993 and they follow the lives of characters who are personally or professionally adrift, but any attempt to make a change, or embrace a new relationship inevitably ends in failure. Two of my favourites are "Evening at Home" which wonderfully details the complicated ambivalence towards place and the past as a woman returns from New York to visit her family in Kentucky, and "The Final Conflict" which charts an uneasy relationship between a bored employee at an antiques shop and one of his customers. And indeed, if there is a common theme running through these tales it's the unfulfilled nature of mediocre relationships. One character in "Yes and No" looks back nostalgically at a previous boyfriedn and muses on "the pleasure we have all received from someone we imagined 'not quite good enough' for us". However the bulk of these stories do not bear this out. Characters flit in and out of affairs with partners that they really don't like or respect, through boredom or apathy and then feel trapped and cheated. Here is how one woman describes her husband of ten years:

Arthur was an awkward piece of furniture, which could be neither overlooked nor easily renovated, although Clara had often tried the latter . . .Sometimes Clara would gaze at her husband with appalling supplication, dreaming that they might collaborate on a brilliant work of some kind or that she might discover an "ideal" by which Arthur would be made fascinating and distinguished. But nothing could be done with him; he went right on whisking out his colored handkerchiefs and telling pointless anecdotes in a voice of hilarity.

The marriage does not last but it is Arthur who - perhaps not unexpectedly - is the one to leave, precipitating Clara into another unsatisfactory affair through jealousy, insecurity and humiliation. Perhaps the most happy relationship occurs in "The Bookseller" and it's the one between the bookseller and his books.

So these stories aren't exactly uplifting, but they have an honesty - both gentle and cutting - that was very appealing. I would recommend this collection for fans of Mavis Gallant or Mary McCarthy.

(As an aside, I was amused that one character reading in bed, is immersed in Victor Serge's The Conquered City. NYRB will be reissuing this novel in November. I'll certainly be reading it because I loved Serge's novel Unforgiving Years about Communist spies during WWII.)

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