So many stories to read this year, so many collections sitting on my reading pile, and every weekend another great story from the Persephone collection that I've decided to ramp things up just a bit and have read two this weekend. Edith Wharton's brilliant "Roman Fever" (my favorite short story by her that I've read so far, though I've so many more to explore), and Irène Némirovsky's "Dimanche" (which is another taste of her work and a slight prod to read more of her, too). If I can manage it I might continue reading two stories every Sunday, but we'll see how it goes.
Waiting in the wings I have a collection by Helen Simpson sitting patiently by my bedside, and that new (new for me that is) Ann Beattie collection just purchased. And then there is Alice Munro's newest collection that I plan on reading along with Buried in Print. Caroline has reminded me what a wonderful short story writer Elizabeth Bowen is (and there is Mel's Irish Short Story Month coming up that I think I need to try and participate in). You see, so many opportunities to read short stories. How strange there was a time I couldn't be bothered with short stories, but now I can't imagine going without a weekly dose of them.
First up, however, Wharton's "Roman Fever", which happens to be a reread for me. The story was published in 1934, apparently after Wharton had suffered from influenza on a visit to Rome. It's been compared to stories written by Saki and O. Henry in that it has a shocking twist at the end that you might not see coming. I love Saki's work, though I have yet to read O. Henry. Saki is very good at throwing the reader for a loop that's for certain. This story puts me in mind of Guy du Maupassant's "The Necklace", which also has an ironic twist at the end. "Roman Fever" is a marvellous story and one I highly recommend. It's been several years since I read it, and I was surprised once again by the ending.
The story begins happily enough in Rome. Two wealthy American widows are vacationing there with their daughters. As Alida Slade and Grace Ansley overlook the Forum and enjoy the languid afternoon they talk about their own pasts nostalgically, which have criss crossed over the years. Their grandmothers were warned to take care of Roman fever, easily caught when out at night. And their own mothers guarded them from "sentimental dangers". Alida and Grace's daughters seem to have far more free reign. They've gone off to lunch with two Italian aviators, one being a highly suitable match. To the chagrin of Alida, Grace's daughter, Babs (who's lovely and vivacious), will likely catch the young man's eye and attention.
As young women Alida and Grace spent time in Rome as well. As the talk turns to their own Roman experiences, the women seem to talk to cross purposes. Suddenly it's not all so sunny and picturesque anymore. Alida was betrothed to a handsome and successful lawyer, Delphin Slade. Despite being betrothed, there was some flirtatiousness between Grace and Delphin. Jealousy and vindictiveness overtook Alida and she wrote a letter to Grace asking her to come to the Colosseum one night after dark, but signing Delphin's name. I'll stop here and not give anymore of the story away, but I will say that Grace caught a fever.
Despite the 'shocking' ending, the story is actually quite subtle and very well crafted. She leads up to the denouement very carefully and with a close reading you are suspicious of the relationships and probably will see it coming. I believe this was a later work and it's obvious she was at the top of her game.
I seem to be collecting Irène Némirovsky's work, but I haven't been very good at reading what I've acquired, save for a library copy of Fire in the Blood. I apparently never got around to writing about it, however. I believe Irène Némirovsky was quite popular in the 1920s and 30s. She published ten novels and more than forty short stories but perished in Auschwitz during WWII. Her books went out of print until her unfinished Suite Française was rediscovered and published posthumously, and now there has been a resurgence of her work.
"Dimanche" was originally published in 1934, and is yet another melancholy story about a mother and daughter, neither particularly happy in their relationships with men. The mother having made her mistakes looks on the youthfulness of her daughter and the potential her life offers with some jealousy, while the daughter sees only a woman who appears placid and gullible and a little naive. Neither sees the other clearly and without misperceptions.
"Where do we find happiness? We pursue it, search for it, kill ourselves trying to find it, and all the time it's just here. It comes just when we've stopped expecting anything, stopped hoping, stopped being afraid."
It's with the experience of time and maturity that the mother reflects back on her life and the mistakes she has made. Of course someone with only youth on their side and a fresh view of the world thinks only they experience real emotions. They look upon their elders as someone who is perhaps feeble and unable to love and live life in the same way as they do.
". . . as she looked at her mother with bright, innocent eyes that made it impossible to read the secret thoughts within them: mother, the eternal enemy, pathetic in her old age, understanding nothing, withdrawing into her shell, her only aim to stop youth from being alive!"
And the daughter is scornful of her mother. She believes she is so trustful and with an "untroubled heart". The mother watches on helplessly as her husband has his affairs, and the daughter is preparing to make the same mistake choosing a man who will and has already cheated, too. The cycle is set to repeat itself once again. Némirovsky offers a perfect glimpse into two women's lives. It's a story steeped in irony.
Next up are stories by Phyllis Bentley and Betty Miller.