This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

November 25, 2001 — Jonathan Franzen's comment that he was uncomfortable appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show because he's a "high art" novelist brings to mind William Faulkner's comments regarding the novel: "You can put a lot of trash in a novel and be excused for it," he said. "But in a short story almost every word has got to be exactly right."

By Faulkner's definition, then, this is a remarkable moment.

This fall marks one of the literary events of the year, in fact, and it's the publication of a story collection — the just–released first single–volume collection of the stories of Isaac Babel, the great Russian modernist whose work ranged from zesty stories about life is his native Odessa to searing tales of life as a Jew in the Red Cavalry. Babel's tales of atrocities by the Cossacks, in fact, led Stalin to have him executed in 1940. "The Complete Works of Isaac Babel" (Norton, $39.95), translated by Peter Constantine, is edited by the author's daughter, Nathalie Babel, and includes an incisive introduction by Cynthia Ozick.

Fans of the form interested in its more ancient origins should investigate "The Mabinogion" (Everyman's Library, $18), a grouping of 14 tales from fourteenth century Wales. Related to the Arthurian legend, they are reissued here in an update of the popular translation of Gwyn and Mair Jones. And John Updike's preface concisely sends the reader off : "Imagine a reader confronted seven or eight hundred years from now with a collection of modern short stories," it begins.

Two of the season's other most exciting publications are by contemporary masters likely to be on that futuristic reading list. Alice Munro's "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Marriage" (Knopf, $24) is another example of her smoothly rendered, quietly absorbing talent to mine common domestic situations for their powerful, life–long impact on her characters' lives. And while Saul Bellow's "Collected Stories" (Viking, $30) should more properly have been called his "Selected Stories" — it's not every story he's published — it is nonetheless a landmark publication: the first overview of his short fiction, which share with Bellow's monumental novels a free–ranging discursive style, yet gather in a resonance that bespeaks the tight chiseling unique to the form of the story alone.

From seasoned veterans to newcomers: on the other end of the spectrum are some notable debuts. "Esther Stories" by Peter Orner (Mariner, $12), is an impressively wide–ranging gathering that includes fine examples of the "short–short" form, as well as two superb clutches of linked stories, all rendered in a spare, poetic prose. In "Given Ground" (University Press of New England, $24.95), Ann Pancake takes a more traditional approach and focuses on the people of Appalachia in a contemplative, textured prose that's haunting, and earned the book the Bakeless Literary Prize.

Told with a surreal calm, the wildly imaginative "Dogwalker" (Knopf, $20) by Arthur Bradford views a cast of misfits and mutants with compassion and humor. And Carolyn Cooke, in "The Bostons" (Mariner, $12), takes an edgy and often hysterically scathing look at class restrictions — and rebellions — in contemporary New England.

Celebrating twenty years of debuts, "20: The Best of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize" (University of Pittsburgh, $25), edited by John Edgar Wideman, is worth celebrating itself. The Heinz — a first–book award — has discovered many notable writers, including Stewart O'Nan, Rick DeMaranis, Elizabeth Graver, Robley Wilson, Jane McCafferty and more, and a story from each is featured.

Two other interesting debuts experiment with form. In "Any Small Thing Can Save You" (Blue Hen, $18.95), Christina Adam takes the form of the beastiary (instructional fables about animals) and the abecedarium (wherein subjects are arranged alphabetically) to string together a series of vignettes giving sharp–edged perspective to our place in the natural world. And Greg Bottoms "Sentimental Heartbroken Rednecks" (Context, $21.95) offers material somewhere between fiction and memoir, delivered in a quirky voice that imparts a riveting, vibrant quality to his stories about life in the modern South.

Two collections from outside the U.S., meanwhile, offer a fresh perspective. With a beautifully concise style, Bernhard Schlink ("The Reader"), in his first story collection, "Flights of Love" (Pantheon, $23), explores our myriad ideas of love without a trace of sentimentality. And bestselling Israeli author Etgar Keret's stories in "The Bus Driver Who Thought He Was God" (St. Martin's, $18.95) are intense, funny, and shockingly original snapshots of everyday life in the Middle East.

Finally, story fans may be interested in knowing that William Faulkner clarified the quote I cited above to say he was talking about "stories like Chekhov wrote." That may lead readers to the wonderful study of Anton Chekhov just out from Janet Malcolm, "Reading Chekhov" (Random House, $23.95). Part literary appreciation, part biography, part travel log — she visits Chekhov's various Russian haunts — it's a lush, thoughtful, and beautifully written consideration of the premier practitioner of the form, and the many rewards it offers anyone.

Last Week’s Column: LOADED HISTORY Critics have raised some troubling questions about the research in historian Michael Bellesiles "Arming America." But amidst threats and name–calling, will he get a chance to defend himself?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.