I’ve now read 17 / 20 of the individually bound short stories that comprise the Faber Stories collection, and I’m still so pleased overall with the selection and experience! These little books have been a great way for me to incorporate more short stories into my 2019 reading, and to check out authors I might not otherwise have picked up. Today I’ll be sharing thoughts on my three most recent Faber Stories reads.
Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma. 3 stars.
In this 2017 piece, a man is left behind as first his grown daughter moves out of the family home, and then his wife takes a trip to India and decides not to return. After a period of moping and mourning over his solitude, Gopal meets a neighbor who excites him, and decides to try his hand at an affair.
The title drew me to this story, and the synopsis further explains that Gopal uses an article from Cosmopolitan magazine as a set of guidelines for pursuing his female neighbor. The article was actually aimed at women who wanted to attract men. I expected a bit of comedy. Instead, Gopal takes this endeavor very seriously while struggling to determine whether he is in love with Mrs. Shaw or not, and whether she might be in love with him. However, this is not a romance as much as a searching of the soul, which adds depth to this awkward situation.
Even so, upon finishing this volume, I found that it hadn’t made me think or feel in any meaningful way. It’s a perfectly competent story about unattached romance and self-discovery that sadly just didn’t leave any impression whatsoever. I’m afraid this will probably be the most forgettable story of the entire set for me, though I can’t complain that anything actually bothered me about it.
“To fall in love I think you need a certain suspension of disbelief, which I don’t think I am capable of.”
Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett. 3 stars.
Published in 1934, this one is a stand-out from the Faber set because of its unrelenting oddness. I’m not sure if I “got” everything here, but the plot seems to feature a man named Belacqua going about his typical mid-day routine. He does some reading, makes lunch, runs an errand, attends an Italian lesson, and visits his aunt. It sounds straightforward, but nothing goes quite as the reader expects, nor as Belacqua expects.
I was immediately struck by the style of writing in this volume. (The flap states that Beckett’s style in this early work is “indebted to his mentor, James Joyce,” but it’s been years since I’ve read anything from Joyce and only excerpts for college then, so I can’t say for sure if this explains my reaction.) Belacqua, as a character, is very particular and intent about even the most mundane things, and yet his thoughts and actions are strangely absurd. For example, deliberately toasting his bread to a blackened crisp, over a low enough flame to avoid leaving any soft spots in the middle. Despite his laying out the afternoon plan for the reader by page three, one can never be sure what will happen next with Belacqua. It’s entertaining and amusing, though admittedly also confusing at times.
This was a fun read that constantly left me wondering. And yet, at the end, I found that I still didn’t know quite what I had read, or why. I’m good with weird, but I also need a sense of purpose, and I didn’t find that here. Who is Belacqua? Why has his aunt requested a lobster? What does the reader gain from following him through this afternoon? I just don’t know. Proof that an ordinary day can go awry? Do we need proof of such a possibility? It’s entirely possible I’m missing something, but it seems to me that this story relies on a certain level of whimsy and nonsense that is not meant to be organized into neat reasons and meanings. This was both the best and worst feature of the story for me.
The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes. 4 stars.
This volume is actually a set of three stories which first appeared in the years 1922-24. All are written as journal entries penned by the central character (each story has its own unrelated cast), over a period of several months. The three main characters set out with a certain sexual intent (or are set upon by someone else’s) that is overthrown in the course of the story. I’m not sure how to explain what these stories do in any better way without giving away their small plots. The official synopsis shares more specifics, but I felt spoiled by that information while reading and don’t want to cause the same for anyone else. But let me try again.
In the first story, a young woman sees two choices for her future: marry and submit, or live a life of seduction and independence. In a disturbing (to her) turn of events, she must face the possibility that the choice was never hers to make. In the second story, a young man is tricked by someone he innocently believes to be a cousin. In the third story, an older woman reflects on the sense of youth still within her, only to become appalled by the desires her young heart harbors.
It’s a strange set, but thought-provoking and full of commentary about the relationships we’re led to expect and those we’re willing to accept- as well as the possibility that other options exist, for better or for worse. There’s also a subtle disregard for gender that I found appealing; a woman dresses up as a man, which has a powerful effect on her child. A girl longs not to become a woman but rather to run away as a boy. Another woman tells herself to “be a man.” It’s a challenging set, thematically; I think there are many conclusions to be sifted through from these small pieces rather than any obvious Point to these stories, and the more times one reads them the more one might find. I suspect that this is a volume I’ll be revisiting, in any case.
“He is broad-minded. He takes in all human aspects.
I wonder when I’m going to be a human aspect?”
The only author I feel at all inspired to look into further from this batch is Djuna Barnes, as The Lydia Steptoe Stories were by far my favorite between these three. And yet, as the volume is filled with three stories rather than one of greater length, I don’t feel like I have any sort of grasp on Barnes’s style yet. I would have no idea what to expect from her in any further reading. I’ll probably look into her oeuvre out of curiosity, but I can’t say I’m committed at this point; the stories were just so short!
I’m not sure where to go from here with the rest of the Faber Stories collection, either. Just as I’d decided that I might as well read them all, the prices of the last three titles I needed more than doubled. I am usually such a completist, but even so I can’t afford to spend $8+ each on single short stories, no matter how pretty they may be. I was planning to rank all twenty in terms of personal favoritism once I’d completed the set, and I do want to complete my set, so I’ll keep an eye on the prices, but it will have to wait for now, unfortunately.
The Literary Elephant