Category Archives: Short stories

Christina Stead’s The Salzburg Tales

From time to time I post my thoughts about literary masterworks first encountered a few years back that now seem worth revisiting. This blog has previously carried reflections on Peter Carey’s early fiction and Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection. Now I turn to a book by another celebrated Australian author: Christina Stead’s The Salzburg Tales, published in 1934 and often reprinted with a “classic” label.

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It’s one of the strangest volumes of short fiction produced by any writer from this country. Steeped in the culture of Europe, standing at an oblique angle to the predominant Australian tradition of social realism, The Salzburg Tales is reminiscent of the work of 19th-century romancers and raconteurs like Germany’s Hoffman and Russia’s Gogol, and of much older miscellanies like The Decameron, The Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales. As with those story-clusters, what holds Stead’s collection together is not so much the narrative framework (in this case a group of festival visitors taking turns to spin yarns to one another) as a pervasive fascination with the activity of tale-telling itself, with its various roots and ramifications.

In my little critical study The Short Story I’ve described how Stead uses the prefatory sections of her book – Prologue and Personages – to distinguish between different storytelling forms favoured by different individuals. I’ve also remarked that numerous passages in the collection express curiosity about the myriad sources and shapes of fiction. Many of these tales emanate from particular places, particular personalities. A full range is on display, embracing almost every sub-genre of the short story – simple to sophisticated, laconic to grandiloquent.

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Storytelling about storytelling: I’ll illustrate Stead’s take on this by discussing “The Marionettist,” the first story of the first day’s round of tales. Its position is significant: it foreshadows distinctive qualities of the forty stories that comprise – along with preliminaries, linking sections and an epilogue – the volume as a whole. (In what follows I’m adapting a commentary I wrote years ago for an encyclopedic tome called Reference Guide to Short Fiction, ed. Noelle Watson.)

Salient in the story’s title, the image of the marionettist aptly represents the kind of literary artist who produces the kinds of stories found in this collection. Overt manipulation of character and plot, free adaptation of traditional narrative motifs, scant regard for psychological realism — these puppeteerings are all recurrent features of Stead’s extraordinary tales.

The narrator who unfolds this opening story is the local Town Councillor. Someone in the group has asked whether “Salzburg always lost its sons to Vienna and the great cities”, and the Councillor’s narrative response begins in a way that seems to situate modern Salzburg in a timeless perspective, as a folktale might: “When winter came round, James’s mother would look out at cloaked figures making tracks in the snow along the Nonnthalgasse beneath black Hohensalzburg, and say: ‘I dreamed last night that Peter and Cornelius knocked at the door on a day like this…’” The iterative implication (“came round … would look out”) suggest that seasonal and narrative cycles are moving in step, and it’s almost as if the tale itself belongs to the mother’s dream trance.

Further affinities with folktale conventions soon appear. We seem close to the familiar three-sons formula when we learn that Peter and Cornelius, the two eldest, have run away from home years before and that the parents fret about the likelihood that James, the remaining one, will soon be lost to them now that he wants to train as a sculptor in Vienna. But the ensuing events give an odd twist to any expectations derived from those seemingly formulaic premises. Although James promises he will return once his studies end, he falls in love with a fellow-student, marries her, stays in Vienna, and is faced before long with parental responsibilities. He makes wooden dolls for his young children, using each new puppet “to tell them a new chapter in an endless story that he made up as he went along, one which sprang naturally out of the events of their daily life, with incidents he read in the newspapers, and memories of his childhood pieced in.” This sounds like a partial account of Stead’s own method of composition — and, again like James, who would recount “ancient themes” from European myth and fantasy, the author of The Salzburg Tales is also fond of the often-told, the legendary, the archetypal.

James eventually decides to establish himself commercially as the operator of a marionette show. The whole family willingly shares the business tasks associated with this. As scripts for his marionettes James invents stories that rework aspects of his family history in extravagant analogies. One of these, “The Pot of Gold” (shades of Hoffmann!), tells how two brothers went out after adventure and were variously reported as lost by accident, or as beggars, while a third brother stayed at home and became an honest butcher” – and so on.

Then, with the kind of abruptness that so often enters Stead’s short fiction, the narrator reports simply: “James left home when he was in his thirty-eighth year.” There’s no warning, no explanation, and no attempt to provide the kind of narratorial meditation that takes up much of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Wakefield”, which tells of a man who leaves home and stays away for years without any evident motive. The family in Stead’s story continues to run the marionette theatre. One of James’s brothers, long-lost Peter, appears briefly on the scene and disappears again. After fifteen years of absence, James casually turns up one day and is surprised that his family is not overjoyed at this reappearance. The story proceeds with a couple more twitches of the narrator’s own marionette strings. This is the first one: “They had no room for James in the house so they rented a small room for him not far away, and he stayed there and did some fancy articles in wood ordered by a shop selling cheap objets d’art. When winter came on he went away from Vienna one morning and his family never heard from him again.” And the second twitch of the marionettist’s strings follows at once, partly repeating the story’s opening sentence (“But James’s mother looked out at the cloaked figures making tracks in the snow …”) and its oneiric motif (she dreams of James’s return) as a prelude to the wanderer’s arrival in his parental home, whereupon he becomes a character in his mother’s tale: repeatedly she “told the women about her son the sculptor who had travelled all over the world.” He, in contrast, continues to withhold any mention of his wife and children “or his marionette theatre, for James knew that she would think a marionette show a come-down for a sculptor”.

In this concluding irony of mild misrepresentation a reader might see again an implicit comment on the narrative method. In a sense, this story wanders just as James does; and although some readers may want to see it as “sculpture” – as immobilised high art – its generic alignment is with the more popular cultural form of the marionettist’s show.

Brevity with scope: reading short stories

Over the summer holiday period I’ve been reading a fair number of short stories: some volumes by individual authors along with an assortment of contributions by different hands, and various pieces in newspapers and literary magazines. I’ve also been writing a few,  encouraged by the appearance of one of my stories in the North American journal Antipodes (December 2013 issue).

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So the strengths and weaknesses of the short story form have been on my mind again. I say ‘again’, because many years ago I wrote a little book about this genre and tried to ponder its inherent possibilities and limitations.

To some readers, short stories often seem very slight, sketching a situation cursorily before arriving in haste at an inconsequential or contrived ending. Howard Nemerov expresses that view trenchantly:

Short stories amount for the most part to parlour tricks, party favours with built-in snappers, gadgets for inducing recognitions and reversals: a small pump serves to build up the pressure, a tiny trigger releases it, there follows a puff and a flash as freedom and necessity combine; finally a celluloid doll drops from the muzzle and descends by parachute to the floor. These things happen, but they happen to no-one in particular.

The formulaic artifice of two or three pieces in Best Australian Stories 2002, edited by Peter Craven (on my shelf for years, picked up again last week) may deserve that kind of dismissal. But most of them don’t. Sometimes our hurried habits of reading are at fault; skimming over the surface, we can miss latent implications. The story that moved me most in Craven’s anthology is Joan London’s ‘The New Dark Age’, and only on re-reading it did I see how much of its Chekhovian pathos comes from understated echoes in phrase and image. Its central character, George, is wearily trying to rediscover normality after emerging from the ‘long winter’ of a serious illness. But he is dogged by fatigue, deeper than physical, which prevents him from responding adequately to his unhappy wife Kristina or treating his faithful employee Ulla with the generosity she deserves. There are things he cannot express to them. The kind of music that has been central in his life seems now to take him through ‘a strange harsh landscape.’ Falling asleep as he listens to it, he dreams of snowy Russian streets; and afterwards he feels unable to tell Kristina or Ulla ‘that what he remembered most was the pull he felt, strong as love or nostalgia, to give up, lie down in the snow, and close his eyes.’

Small-scale prose fiction requires us to be carefully attentive to every phrase, every nuance. At its best it can have the subtlety and sustained intensity of a lyrical poem, suggesting much more than it makes explicit.

There are other fine examples of this in three books I’ve read recently:  Dear Life, by the Canadian Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, and two by Western Australian writers, Amanda Curtin’s Inherited (UWAP) and Susan Midalia’s An Unknown Sky (also UWAP). Each collection assembles 15 or more pieces, with some thematic interlinkages but considerable stylistic and structural diversity.

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In Midalia’s wry and sometimes poignant stories, the historical and the geographical often come together uneasily with the personal to disconcert her characters. The first piece in the book, ‘Underground’, typifies this conjunction. Petra, the focal character, is a middle-aged Australian tourist whose experience of visiting Russia disappoints her romantic expectations. She’d wanted to feel ‘the grandeur of history’ but the reality of modern Russia strikes her as tawdry. The story’s title, which initially refers to Moscow’s famous metro railway with its ornate stations, comes instead to signify the subterranean chamber displaying Lenin’s embalmed corpse. Despite finding Red Square distasteful, Petra goes to see this mausoleum because she had promised her teenage nephew that she’d do so. Joining a sluggish queue, descending the black marble steps, she gazes at the waxy face and strange hands of the long-dead leader with a fleeting sense that Lenin himself looks perplexed, as if ‘lost to some dream of history.’ The ensuing conclusion doesn’t overreach. There’s no forcing of an epiphany – just the hint of a faintly modified apprehension of the world as Petra emerges from the tomb into daylight.

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The genre of the short story form can lend itself well to the kind of narration where much of the action takes place inside someone’s head as an interior monologue. One of the most powerful stories in Amanda Curtin’s Inherited is ‘Cradle of Shadows’, in which the narrative foreground seems at first to comprise merely a woman’s reminiscences about her maternal predecessors, especially her great-grandmother. But folded into her rumination is a startling episode from World War 1, a tale of violence, pain, infanticide and guilt. Reflecting on the opacities of this episode and anticipating the consequences of a decision she herself has just made about her own pregnancy, the narrator recognises that in families the ‘burdens laid down by one generation must be shouldered by another.’

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The distinctive qualities of Alice Munro’s short fiction are well described by Susan Sheridan in her review of Dear Life for the Sydney Review of Books. As Susan remarks, the characters seem ‘ordinary’ and ‘the situations they enter into are banal – marriage and adultery, conflicts between parents and children, ageing and its discontents, loneliness in many forms.’ But the artfulness that animates the stories is particularly subtle in Munro’s ‘use of point of view and her manipulation of narrative time.’ Their action often moves ‘backwards and forwards, apparently at random’ in such a way that meanings emerge bit by bit and behaviour is explained ‘only obliquely.’ A striking example is the story ‘In Sight of the Lake’, in which the final paragraph causes a reader to reframe the significance of everything that has gone before: the focal character’s meanderings turn out not to be quite what they seemed.

Oblique revelations, indirect disclosures, ambiguous insights – short fiction frequently has those features. We get only glimpses of what is going on in the minds of many of the characters who pass like shadows through the pages of Munro, Midalia, Curtin and other skilled exponents of this genre. And it’s precisely the lack of full access to whatever depths of emotion they may experience that can grip the reader’s imagination – because it evokes the ‘baffled curiosity’ we frequently feel in our dealings with people around us. The phrase ‘baffled curiosity’ comes from William James, the 19th-century philosopher who also coined the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ and whose brother was the great storyteller Henry James. William remarked that Henry’s stories give to us…

an impression like that we often get of people in life: their orbits come out of space and lay themselves for a short time along ours, and then off  they whirl again into the unknown, leaving us with little more than an impression of their reality and a feeling of baffled curiosity as to the mystery of the beginning and end of our being.