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The Classic Short Story, 1870-1925

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Florence Goyet

Part I: Structure

1. Paroxystic Characterisation

Texte intégral

  • 1 See, for example, Giovanni Verga, The She-Wolf and Other Stories, trans. by Giovanni Cecchetti (Be (...)
  • 2 See Émile Zola, The Experimental Novel, and Other Essays, trans. by Belle M. Sherman (New York: Ca (...)
  • 3 Ibid, p. 6.
  • 4 “We are actually rotten with lyricism; we are very much mistaken when we think that the characteri (...)

1At the end of the nineteenth century, through the influence of Naturalism, literature was striving to become the “science of the human heart”, and as a consequence many critics and writers began to condemn rhetoric.1 In The Experimental Novel (1880), using Claude Bernard as a guide, Émile Zola called his fellow writers to become “observers” in the spirit of the physiologist.2 He urged writers to renounce rhetoric, if not style: “The observer relates purely and simply the phenomena which he has under his eyes… He should be the photographer of phenomena, his observation should be an exact representation of nature”.3 As a consequence, the period’s motto was “simplicity”. The ancient school of writing began to be identified with rhetorical pomposity,4 and Zola’s call for the aesthetics of “slice of life” Naturalism is well known:

  • 5 Ibid, p. 124 (emphases mine).

Instead of imagining an adventure, of complicating it, of arranging stage effects, which scene by scene will lead to a final conclusion, you simply take the life study of a person or a group of persons, whose actions you faithfully depict. The work becomes a report, nothing more; it has but the merit of exact observation, of more or less profound penetration and analysis, of the logical connection of facts. Sometimes, even, it is not an entire life, with a commencement and an ending, of which you tell; it is only a scrap of an existence, a few years in the life of a man or a woman, a single page in a human history, which has attracted the novelist in the same way that the special study of a mineral can attract a chemist.5

  • 6 Among the authors of our corpus only Maupassant and Verga can be said to be truly “Naturalists”, a (...)

2The short story writers, even outside the Naturalist school, readily adopted this new stripped-back aesthetic.6

  • 7 Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe, trans. by John Oxenford, ed. by J. K. Moorhead (...)
  • 8 “Having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, [the (...)
  • 9 Chekhov’s saying, that appeared in a book of souvenirs of Chekhov by Alexander Kuprin, is often qu (...)
  • 10 The story is “a human document… [a] naked and unadulterated fact”, of which the writer will give “ (...)
  • 11 Tolstoy wrote this in a letter to the poet Afanasy Fet in October 1859. Lev Nicolayevich Tolstoy, (...)

3This is, of course, very different from the preceding period of the short story genre: Goethe had characterised his Novelle as ‘a peculiar and as yet unheard-of event’,7 while Edgar Allan Poe had defined it through its effect on the reader, stressing the necessity of both the unity and the intensity of this artificial product of human art.8 The end of the nineteenth century, to the contrary, proclaims its essential simplicity. Critics, theoreticians and writers (often one and the same) insist firmly that the short story should renounce all artifice, and that it should tell simple things simply: Anton Chekhov claimed that the short story should tell “how Peter married Mary”,9 and Giovanni Verga argued that the short story should be free from all rhetoric.10 Leo Tolstoy, for his part, considered that the short story was simply the rendition of “how she came to love him”.11

  • 12 Cechetti, pp. 86-94 (Ricciardi, pp. 191-99). This short story is a real landmark in Italian litera (...)
  • 13 In Verga’s words: “I shall repeat it to you just as I picked it up along the paths in the countrys (...)

4The most interesting opinion for us is Verga’s, because it is articulated and developed in a famous short story, constantly quoted in Italian criticism: L’Amante di Gramigna (Gramigna’s Mistress).12 Immediately after developing his theory of the art text as the offspring of Zola’s Le Roman expérimental, Verga introduces Gramigna’s Mistress as an illustrative model of what the modern text should be. The short story, in itself a fragment, is particularly suited to meet Zola’s requirements. It is not expected to cover everything on its subject, nor to elaborate; it will offer the reader a partial but revealing insight into the life of its characters. It can be a “human document”, given to the reader in its rough form: an unadorned account whose value lies in its truth.13

  • 14 Ibid, pp. 86-87 (p. 191).
  • 15 Ibid, pp. 87-88 (pp. 191-92). This idea of truth and spontaneity is still often stressed in the in (...)

5In his theoretical preamble to Gramigna’s Mistress, written as a letter to his fellow writer Salvatore Farina, Verga argues first for simplicity of subjects in the short story: the setting must be from everyday life, its heroes chosen from “ordinary” people. Then he also insists there should be simplicity of treatment: the reader must be put “face to face with the naked and unadulterated fact” and will not have to work through the author’s interpretation. The short story is a linear account, where “the hand of the artist will remain absolutely invisible”.14 As a contribution to the “science of the human heart”, it is the ideal form for presenting a “slice of life”. In other words — and Verga insists on this point — it must renounce grandiloquent “effects” in favour of psychological truth.15

6But this constantly proclaimed simplicity and denial of rhetoric does not withstand a close reading of the short stories written at the end of the nineteenth century. Verga’s theory and Chekhov’s commentaries, like far too many authors’ comments on their texts, are accepted as ready currency, a definitive description of their work. In this chapter we shall see that the classic short story, far from being unadorned, relies heavily on rhetorical techniques and paroxystic effects. The claim of simplicity corresponds to reality as far as themes and scope are concerned; in this regard the short story is truly an “economical” genre and all the commentators rightly stress the small number of characters and events and, during this period, their commonplace character. But these very elements are always characterised in excess, they are what they are prodigiously — every state, every quality, every feeling is carried to the ultimate. This is not simply a feature of Italian Verism but rather the standard way of dealing with narrative material in the short story: Henry James and Chekhov will bear witness to this. The following chapters will show why the short story is in need of this aggrandizement of its objects, and how it uses it to achieve brevity. It will remain to be shown, in the conclusion of this section, how the short story makes its reader forget, in the excitement of the narrative, both its extremism and the extremely rhetorical structure in which it is used.

  • 16 Goethe similarly offered his Novelle as an example of the genre. See Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, G (...)
  • 17 Cechetti, p. 89 (Ricciardi, pp. 193-94).
  • 18 Ibid, p. 88 (p. 192). Verga, in an early version, called his hero “Raja”. The change in name makes (...)

7Since Verga’s theory is quoted constantly by Italian critics from Luigi Capuana and Luigi Russo on, it is worthwhile testing it by beginning with an examination of the short story Gramigna’s Mistress, by which Verga illustrates his manifesto.16 The three characters in the story are Sicilians: two peasants and one brigand. However, they are not merely “ordinary” Sicilians, representatives of the anonymous masses. Peppa is rich and “one of the most beautiful girls of Licodia”; she is supposed to marry the most desired bachelor in the village, nicknamed “Tallow Candle” because of his wealth.17 Instead she abruptly decides to partner with Gramigna, a rebel who is terrorising the region. Gramigna is far from simply being someone who robs people and who just happens to marry someone called Peppa, as Verga suggests in his preamble to the story. Throughout the beginning of the story, he is increasingly portrayed as a prodigy: he becomes the ultimate rebel, of superhuman proportions. He is a thief, but not content just to live off his pillaging: he terrorises an entire province. Not a single peasant “from one end of the province to the other” dares to harvest his crop for fear of Gramigna’s bloody vengeance. Even his name (Italian for “crab grass”) places him automatically in opposition to the peasants: “a name as cursed as the grass that bears it”.18

  • 19 Ibid, pp. 88-89 (p. 193).

8The story soon gives Gramigna the stature of the paladins of former times: “he was alone, but he was worth ten […] he alone, Gramigna, was never tired, never slept”.19 He is immediately shown as far superior to those hunting him. But the text does not stop there, it withdraws him from human references; the hero will finally reach the very level of primordial elements:

  • 20 Ibid, p. 89 (p. 193).

He slunk like a wolf down the beds of dry creeks […] for two hundred miles around ran the legend of his deeds […] he alone against a thousand, tired, hungry, burning with thirst in the immense burnt plain, under the June sun.20

9This enlargement characterises all the signifying elements of the described world. The harvests they are protecting from him are exceptional:

  • 21 Ibid, p. 90 (p. 194).

… the wheat was a joy to look at, if only Gramigna wouldn’t set it on fire, and that the wicker [basket] by the bed wouldn’t be large enough to hold all the grain of the harvest.21

10A mass of troops is assembled against him. Faced with the terror he inspires, the Prefect calls up the officers of all the reserves to hunt him:

  • 22 Ibid, p. 88 (p. 193).

Carabinieri, soldiers and cavalrymen had been after him for two months […] patrols and squads were immediately in motion, sentries were placed along every ditch and behind every wall […] by day, by night, on foot, on horseback, and by telegraph.22

  • 23 Ibid, p. 89 (p. 193).

11The mention of the telegraph contributes to the impression of universality: even the air is involved. The difficulty of the hunt is repeatedly emphasised: “The carabinieri’s horses dropped dead tired [...] the patrols slept on their feet”.23

  • 24 Ibid, p. 90 (p. 194).

12This represents more or less the entire text of the beginning of the story, with all the notations on Gramigna and his enemies gathered in a single page. So it is not just a question of salient features, scattered throughout a portrait to give it more vigour, but of the very spirit of this “portrait”, which is not a representation of a man of the people, nor even the description of a rebel, but the creation of an almost mythic character, beyond any normal bounds: in short, an abstraction. By the end of this page, Gramigna is the Rebel par excellence, the personification of the evil hero. The story treats the character “Tallow Candle” in the same way. At first he is characterised as “the best match in the village”, but he is soon beyond any comparisons with his peers. He too is associated with superhuman imagery: he is “as big and beautiful as the sun”, and his unusual strength enables him to carry “the banner of Saint Margaret without bending his back, as if he were a pillar”.24

  • 25 Ibid, p. 86 (p. 191).
  • 26 Claude Gandelman describes the phenomenon in Kafka: “In Kafka, the metaphors of current language h (...)

13Could this be a series of clichés not to be taken literally? Are they simply the exaggerations of this spicy, popular story that Verga claimed was a peasant tale in which he had changed almost none of the “simple and picturesque” terms?25 If so, there would be no reason to take these paroxysms at face value. But, in fact, the accumulation of prodigious elements is such as to force us to take each of them at face value. At the end of this portrait of Gramigna, we are led to endow an expression such as “he never slept” with its full meaning, because each element reinforces the other: from the enormity of the troops opposing him, we unconsciously come to the conclusion that Gramigna really is more than a man, and we attribute to him a thirst which equals the immense plain and a wakefulness that surpasses the human condition. On the other hand, given his own heroic stature, both the enemy forces and the wealth of the bridegroom become absolutes: every possible police and army unit; the very richest young people.26 We are given only extremes, and the tissue they finally weave bears the mark of this paroxysm in its entirety. If exaggerations were removed, there would be nothing left.

  • 27 Cechetti, p. 89 (Ricciardi, p. 193).
  • 28 As is evident in the above-mentioned Novelle by Goethe, which accumulates extremes, and explicitly (...)

14As a consequence, the narrative itself takes on something of the absolute: it is the manhunt par excellence that we are following. In the same way, we glide from the idea that Gramigna is at the centre of all conversations, to the idea that he is the only subject: “wherever people met, they spoke only of him, of Gramigna”.27 In the rarefied world of the short story, it is not enough that the important elements occupy the forefront: they establish such a strong presence that they conceal all else, and they obliterate everything that is not a paroxysm like themselves. Like the fairytale, the short story accustoms us to working with unequivocal entities: paragons of virtue or vice.28

  • 29 Henry James, The Complete Tales of Henry James, ed. by Leon Edel, 12 vols (London: Rupert Hart Dav (...)

15Even the most subtle authors are no different in their construction of characters in their short stories. In The Figure in the Carpet, a story from the height of his maturity as a writer, James is dealing with the subtleties of a “literary” subject matter, not with Sicilian peasants — and yet he nevertheless constructs his narrative on an uninterrupted series of paroxysms.29 The story’s narrator, a young critic early in his career, is told by the writer Hugh Vereker that throughout his work there is a secret thread, like “a complex figure in a Persian carpet”, which gives it its value. The narrator does his best to discover the secret but fails, although one of his colleagues, the critic Corvick, manages to solve the mystery.

  • 30 In, for example, The Death of the Lion (Edel, IX, pp. 77-118) or The Lesson of the Master (Edel, V (...)
  • 31 Edel, IX, p. 275.

16Even in a short story like this, which at the beginning is relatively subdued, intense instances of hyperbole become “natural”, almost inescapable. Vereker is initially presented simply as a good writer, even though, in general, James usually announces from the outset that his author characters are geniuses.30 Here he merely says: “He was awfully clever […] but he wasn’t a bit the biggest of the lot”.31 However, the entire beginning of the text proceeds steadily to build Vereker into a genius, and the search for his secret is depicted as a feat of total dedication and self-sacrifice on the part of the narrator and Corvick.

  • 32 Ibid, pp. 281-82.
  • 33 Ibid, p. 282.
  • 34 Ibid, p. 285

17James’s plainly prodigious terms are not so different from those in Gramigna’s Mistress. The narrator, who thinks it’s enough to have passed “half the night” in reading Vereker’s book before he writes his review, is called to order by the writer whom he meets at a lady’s house and told that he “didn’t see anything” of the work. This conversation makes it possible gradually to portray the man and his secret, the “figure”, as a wonder of merit: “Triumph of patience and ingenuity […] the finest, fullest intention” of all his works is, in the Master’s eyes, “an exquisite scheme”.32 The apparent — and temporary — modesty of Vereker, who in the beginning called his figure “a little trick”, is merely a means of establishing a crescendo; from the next page on he gives up this pose.33 To the narrator who asks him “You mean it’s a beauty so rare, so great?”, he replies “the loveliest thing in the world”;34 and we know the force of “beauty” and “lovely” in James.

18This conversation arouses extraordinary emotion in the young writer, and is a real turning point in the short story: from then on he will reread the entire work, despair, look again, and then give up, but not without reporting the conversation to Corvick, the critic who gave him the review to write in his place. Nevertheless, this conversation “says” nothing about the nature of the secret, nor about the nature or ambition of the work of art. Its effect is to place the man and his work in the light of the absolute, to make Vereker into “the Author” par excellence, as Gramigna was “the Rebel”.

  • 35 See, for example, Stephen Hutchings, A Semiotic Analysis of the Short Stories of Leonid Andreev: 1 (...)
  • 36 Edel, IX, p. 2.
  • 37 Ibid, p. 297.

19The rest of the short story takes very seriously indeed the statement of the prodigious value of the figure in the work. After the pure and simple affirmation of that paroxystic value, it is the very structure of the text which will take on the role of making it a marvel. For this, it will use what semioticians have called “narrative saturation”: all of the potentialities of a situation are exploited in turn, all the terms set by the narration are linked with each other.35 After the narrator has failed, Corvick passionately takes up the quest to uncover the mystery figure himself. He joins with his fiancée Gwendolen in a search so intense that the narrator’s initial efforts look somewhat weak. Not content with rereading the twenty volumes, they read them “page by page, as they would take one of the classics; inhale him in slow draughts and let him sink all the way in”.36 Gwendolen says of Corvick: “he knows every page, as I do, by heart”.37

  • 38 Vereker had already associated the possibility of discovering the figure with the intensity of Cor (...)

20As with Verga, this is not some spicy exaggeration with no real significance. The short story takes its emphatic assertions literally and ultimately gives the words their fullest, if extreme, meaning. The proof of this is that Corvick discovers the secret when he is on a journey to India, and has not taken the twenty volumes with him. On solving the mystery, he leaves India immediately, giving up the large fee he had been offered to write an article there. Corvick proclaims that he will share the secret with Gwendolen, but only after he is married to her.38 He also agrees to tell the narrator, but then only in person. The narrator has to go abroad to attend a sick brother; and by the time he returns, Corvick is dead.

21Everything then conspires to prevent the narrator (and reader) from discovering the secret: the widow has been told, but she refuses to speak about it to anyone. When all efforts at persuasion have failed, the narrator even considers marrying her. Faced with Gwendolen’s refusal, he thinks of marrying Vereker’s widow, whom he has never seen, and about whom he knows nothing. The two women die one after the other, and he turns to the second husband of Corvick’s widow. This is the “surprise ending” of the story: the husband learns for the first time of the secret’s existence and its extraordinary importance. Both of them are in despair, but the narrator’s is tempered by the pleasure of supposing that the second husband is perhaps even more frustrated than he.

  • 39 Edel, IX, p. 295.

22One characteristic of the classic short story is that the paroxysm permeates the entire narrative, affecting not only the heroes, but also all the elements that play a role in the narration. Here, it affects Corvick’s projected study of Vereker, which will be “the greatest literary portrait ever painted” as well as the role of the secret for Corvick’s widow (a real “counterpoise to her grief”), or the singularity of Corvick himself: “if Corvick had broken down I should never know; no one would be of any use if he wasn’t”.39 James goes so far as to defy logic in order to magnify everything, as in his characterisation of the secret once it has been discovered:

  • 40 Ibid, p. 300.

When once it came out it came out, was there with a splendour that made you ashamed; and there hadn’t been, save in the bottomless vulgarity of the age, with every one tasteless and tainted, every sense stopped, the smallest reason why it should have been overlooked.40

23This is tantamount to denying the gigantic task imposed on Corvick and his fiancée, a task that would only shed light for Corvick much later, and never for the young woman.

  • 41 Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, Lady with Lapdog and Other Stories, trans. by David Magarshack (London: P (...)

24One comes across this phenomenon so often in the classic short story that it is as if authors could not escape it: banality itself is expressed in the most extreme ways. Chekhov’s Skuchnaya istoriya (A Boring Story), for example, seems almost automatically to assume the marks of paroxysm.41 The example is particularly remarkable because the subject is truly simple, similar to Chekhov’s description of the ideal short story as “how Peter married Mary”: it describes the human anguish of a sixty-two-year-old man who knows that he is fatally ill. Chekhov often repeated in his letters that he wished that this anguish were accessible to his reader. Yet, from the very first line, the portrait that the doctor draws of himself bears the stamp of the prodigious:

  • 42 Magarshack, p. 46 (emphases mine) (Nauka, VII, p. 251).

There is in Russia an eminent professor [… a] privy counselor, who has been awarded many decorations in his lifetime; indeed, he possesses so many Russian and foreign orders that whenever he has to put them all on, the students call him the iconostasis. […] [For at least 25-30 years] there has not been a single famous scholar or scientist in Russia with whom he has not been intimately acquainted. […] He is an honorary Fellow of all the Russian […] universities. […] This name of mine is well known […]. It is among those few fortunate names which it is considered bad taste to abuse […] my name is closely associated with the idea of a man who is famous.42

25I have emphasised here the most salient words and phrases, those that obviously hinder us from thinking of the hero as “just Peter”. This process will underlie the presentation of all the textual elements: this again is not a side addition, a pleasant way to highlight a self-portrait; it is a fundamental feature of the narrative fabric. To reflect the commonplace world around us, the author accumulates paroxysms into a compact mass. Each of the text’s elements could be mentioned; all of them are used in their extreme form. From the narrator’s disgust with himself to the extraordinary memory of the beadle he meets every time he goes to the university, to the portrait of the parasite who wants to marry his daughter (he has neither a job, nor any real family, his only quality is complacency) or the extraordinary enthusiasm and pleasure felt by the narrator when he teaches:

  • 43 Ibid, pp. 56-57 (emphases mine) (pp. 262-63).

No debate, no entertainment, no game has ever given me so much pleasure as giving a lecture [...] And I can’t help thinking that Hercules, after the most sensational of his exploits, never had such an exquisite feeling of lassitude as I experienced every time after a lecture”.43

26The effect of these superlatives is sometimes reinforced by other means — for example, the contrast between the damning portrait of his aging wife, and the evocation of her youthful perfection:

  • 44 Ibid, p. 49 (p. 255).

Bewildered, I ask myself: Is it possible that this very fat, clumsy old woman, whose dull expression is so full of petty cares and anxiety about a crust of bread, whose eyes are blurred with perpetual thoughts of debts and poverty, who can only talk of expenses and only smile when things get cheaper — is it possible that this woman was once that very slim Varya, whom I loved so passionately for her fine, clear intellect, her pure soul, her beauty, and — as Othello loved Desdemona — [her “compassion” for the Science I served]?44

27As in Verga, the drive for extremes is indicated by superhuman comparisons. The column, the sun, Hercules or Othello play the role of impossibilia in ancient lyric poetry: guarantees of the extraordinary, they draw the object away from possible comparisons, and make of it an absolute.

Extremes in the fantastic short story

  • 45 Elizabeth Bowen, for example, talks of finding it as easy to introduce the fantastic into a short (...)

28The short story format is particularly suited to the fantastic.45 In the whole course of this book, we shall see that fantastic stories and stories of madness make a peculiar use of the features of the short story, and in many ways deconstruct the very system of the genre. What we have just seen in this chapter is that, in the realist story, every feature is pushed to its extreme to the point where it becomes almost abstract. Characters are prodigiously what they are, to the extent that they are bordering on the prodigy. In the fantastic story, the high-intensity descriptions will cross that border. Here, the subject will be not so much the characters in themselves, but rather the sensations and emotions they feel — and make us feel.

  • 46 Guy de Maupassant, Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, trans. by Artine Artinian (Garden (...)
  • 47 Ibid, p. 169 (p. 54).
  • 48 Ibid.
  • 49 Ibid, pp. 170 and 171 (pp. 56 and 58).
  • 50 Ibid, p. 171 (p. 59).

29Let us take just one quick look at a story to which we will return in Chapter Three, and which gives a good example of this crossing of the border between the abstract and the fantastic: Maupassant’s Sur l’eau (On the River).46 Maupassant tells the story of a passionate fishermen, for whom the extreme beauty of the river is such that it carries with it a real magic — and the word must be understood in its deeper sense. Every element in the description is made through the paroxystic descriptions we are now used to seeing in the classic short story — either realistic or fantastic. First, Maupassant emphasises the character’s deep passion for the river: “his heart was full of an all-absorbing, irresistible, devouring passion — a love for the river”. Then, the alluring quality of the river itself: “To him it means mystery, the unknown, a land of mirage and phantasmagoria”. Finally, there is the river’s danger: “the river is a cemetery without graves”.47 In the same way as the realistic stories accumulate extraordinary references (the sun, Hercules), here Maupassant quotes five lines of Victor Hugo’s poem “Oceano Nox”, only then to assert that the river is even more threatening than the powerful ocean: “It flows stealthily, without a murmur, and the eternal, gentle motion of the water is more awful to me than the big ocean waves”.48 An unusually acute silence (“the extraordinary stillness that enveloped me”) is followed by the most “marvelous, stupendous sight that it is possible to imagine. It was a vision of fairyland, one of those phenomena that travelers in distant countries tell us about but that we are unable to believe”.49 Nature is described in its most overwhelming forms: the fog is “formed on each side an unbroken hill, six or seven yards in height, that shone in the moonlight with the dazzling whiteness of snow”.50

30The descriptions of the supernatural beauty of nature are then followed by moments of anguish, and the fisherman is gradually seized by terror. The very stillness is at this moment transformed into a “tempest”:

  • 51 Ibid, p. 170 (p. 56)

the slight pitching of the boat disturbed me. I felt as if it were swaying to and fro from one side of the river to the other and that an invisible force or being was drawing it slowly to the bottom and then raising it to let it drop again. I was knocked about as if in a storm.51

31The fact that we are in the midst of prodigies allows supernatural events to arise: the “matter of fact” explanations that could account for them (the fisherman has been drinking, for example) will not prevent the reader’s disquiet.

******

32The short story never simply tells how someone named Peter married a woman called Mary. At the end of the nineteenth century the short story author even seems incapable of telling how such-and-such a man of no special qualities is unhappy on the eve of his death. What the short story can tell, to the contrary, and what it repeats from Tolstoy’s Three Deaths: A Tale and The Death of Ivan Ilyich to A Boring Story is how such-and-such a man who had every reason to be happy and knew it, is hurled from this Capitol onto the Tarpeian Rock of anguish and disgust.

  • 52 Bill Mullen shows that Chester Himes’s revolutionary success at getting published in the big magaz (...)
  • 53 Rust Hills, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), (...)

33Paroxystic characterisation is a feature widely recognised in hardboiled “magazine stories”,52 and this might very well be the reason why this technique is frequently not discussed in the works of the “great authors” (even though, as we will see in Part II, these authors often published their work in magazines). In magazine stories, critics recognise the extreme treatment of the narrative material; but they tend to feel that for “respectable” authors it is something to be avoided. Even a magazine editor like Rust Hills explained to would-be writers of short stories that they should not resort to types (“an extension or exaggeration of a commonly-held quality or manner or accent”), at least for their main character.53 We have been trained by two centuries of the western novel to consider that a great work cannot use characters without nuances. But the peculiarity of the short story at the end of nineteenth century is precisely that it does use such paired-down characters and extreme narratives — with great success — even under the pen of the greatest authors like James and Chekhov. We will now look at one of these paroxystic techniques in more detail: the oxymoronic structure of the classic short story that, with remarkable economy of means, is able to drive the story’s action from a summit to the bottom of a precipice.

Notes

1 See, for example, Giovanni Verga, The She-Wolf and Other Stories, trans. by Giovanni Cecchetti (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), p. 87 (hereafter Cecchetti). For the original Italian, see Giovanni Verga, Tutte le Novelle, ed. by Carla Ricciardi, 2 vols (Milan: Mondadori, 1983), I, p. 192 (hereafter Ricciardi). Verga is one of the greatest proponents of this radical Italian Naturalist school of Verism.

2 See Émile Zola, The Experimental Novel, and Other Essays, trans. by Belle M. Sherman (New York: Cassell, 1893); and Claude Bernard, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, trans. by Henry Copley Greene (Birmingham, AL: Classics of Medicine Library, 1980). Zola said, “I only repeat what I have said before, that apart from the matter of form and style, the experimental novelist is only one special kind of savant, who makes use of the tools of all other savants, observation and analysis” (p. 50).

3 Ibid, p. 6.

4 “We are actually rotten with lyricism; we are very much mistaken when we think that the characteristic of a good style is a sublime confusion with just a dash of madness added; in reality, the excellence of a style depends upon its logic and clearness” (ibid, p. 48).

5 Ibid, p. 124 (emphases mine).

6 Among the authors of our corpus only Maupassant and Verga can be said to be truly “Naturalists”, although, as we shall see in Part III, that conscience of contributing to progress was shared by most short story writers of the time.

7 Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe, trans. by John Oxenford, ed. by J. K. Moorhead (London: Dent, 1930), p. 163. The original German reads “ […] denn was ist Novelle anders als eine sich ereignete, unerhörte Begebenheit”. Johann Peter Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens (Frankfurt: Insel, 1981), p. 207.

8 “Having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, [the skilful literary artist] then invents such incidents — he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect.” Edgar Allen Poe, Essays and Reviews, ed. by Gary R. Thompson (New York: The Library of America, 1984).

9 Chekhov’s saying, that appeared in a book of souvenirs of Chekhov by Alexander Kuprin, is often quoted, for example in Sean O’Faolain, The Short Story (Cork: Mercier, 1948), p. 100. “Why write”, Chekhov wondered, “about a man getting into a submarine […] while his beloved at that moment throws herself with a hysterical shriek from the belfry? All this is untrue and does not happen in reality. One must write about simple things: how Peter Semionovitch married Marie Ivanovna. That is all”. Maxim Gorky, Alexander Kuprin and A. I. Bunin, Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov, trans. by S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf (New York: Huebsch, 1921), p. 80. Available at http://archive.org/details/reminiscencesan00bunigoog (accessed 22/10/13).

10 The story is “a human document… [a] naked and unadulterated fact”, of which the writer will give “only the point of departure and that of arrival”. Cechetti, pp. 86-87 (Ricciardi, p. 191). Here and later, page references are given first to the translation, then to the original in brackets.

11 Tolstoy wrote this in a letter to the poet Afanasy Fet in October 1859. Lev Nicolayevich Tolstoy, Sochineniia, 90 vols (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaya literatura, 1935-1964), LX, p. 307 (translation ours).

12 Cechetti, pp. 86-94 (Ricciardi, pp. 191-99). This short story is a real landmark in Italian literature. See, for example, Giuseppe Lo Castro, Giovanni Verga: una lettura critica, Saggi brevi di letteratura antica e moderna, vol. 5 (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2001), pp. 56-59. The 1896 translation by Nathan Haskell Dole is in Under the Shadow of Etna: Sicilian Stories from the Italian of Giovanni Verga (Boston: Joseph Knight, 1896), pp. 1-19 (under the title “How Peppa Loved Gramigna”). It can also be read online at http://archive.org/stream/undershadowofetn00vergrich#page/n23/mode/2up (accessed 29/07/13).

13 In Verga’s words: “I shall repeat it to you just as I picked it up along the paths in the countryside, with nearly the same simple and picturesque words that characterise popular narration, and you will certainly prefer to find yourself face to face with the naked and unadulterated fact, without having to look for it between the lines of the book, through the lens of the writer”. Cechetti, p. 86 (Ricciardi, p. 191).

14 Ibid, pp. 86-87 (p. 191).

15 Ibid, pp. 87-88 (pp. 191-92). This idea of truth and spontaneity is still often stressed in the insistence on the short story’s filiation with oral story-telling, which is considered the model of the “spontaneous” text. The classic reference is to W. Somerset Maugham, Points of View (London: Heinemann, 1938), p. 147. See also Valerie Shaw, The Short Story: A Critical Introduction (London: Longman, 1983). In her chapter entitled “Artless Narration”, Shaw insists on the absence of rhetoric and the proximity of the audience. See also Eduard Anatol’evich Shubin, Sovremennyi russkii rasskaz: voprosy poetiki zhanra (Moscow: Nauka, 1974).

16 Goethe similarly offered his Novelle as an example of the genre. See Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Great Writings of Goethe, ed. by Stephen Spender, trans. by Christopher Middleton (New York: New American Library, 1958), pp. 138-60.

17 Cechetti, p. 89 (Ricciardi, pp. 193-94).

18 Ibid, p. 88 (p. 192). Verga, in an early version, called his hero “Raja”. The change in name makes it more powerful: he is the typical enemy of the peasants.

19 Ibid, pp. 88-89 (p. 193).

20 Ibid, p. 89 (p. 193).

21 Ibid, p. 90 (p. 194).

22 Ibid, p. 88 (p. 193).

23 Ibid, p. 89 (p. 193).

24 Ibid, p. 90 (p. 194).

25 Ibid, p. 86 (p. 191).

26 Claude Gandelman describes the phenomenon in Kafka: “In Kafka, the metaphors of current language help to make an unreal ‘literary situation’ accepted as the most normal thing in the world, since it already exists in the language. […] Only, in Kafka, these linguistic metaphors are taken literally and even become men’s destiny” (concerning “this vermin Gregor Samsa”). Claude Gandelman, Les Techniques de la provocation chez quelques romanciers et nouvellistes de l’entre-deux-guerres (doctoral thesis, Paris III Sorbonne-Nouvelle, 1972), p. 110 (translation ours).

27 Cechetti, p. 89 (Ricciardi, p. 193).

28 As is evident in the above-mentioned Novelle by Goethe, which accumulates extremes, and explicitly says them to be so: “A new extraordinary object again merits our attention”; “miraculously”; “no man ever saw a royal tiger laid out to sleep so splendidly as you lie now”. Goethe (1958), p. 252. For the inheritance of this idea from ancient genres (exemplum, tale and fable), see Hans-Jörg Neuschafer, Boccaccio und der Beginn der Novelle: Strukturen der Kurzerzählung auf der Schwelle zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit (Munich: Fink Verlag, 1983); André Sempoux, La Nouvelle, in Typologie des sources du moyen âge occidental, 9 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), ch. 9; and Salvatore Battaglia, “Dall’esempio alla novella”, in Filologia Romanza, 7 (1960), 45-82; also in La coscienza letteraria del Medioevo (Naples: Liguori, 1965), pp. 487-548.

29 Henry James, The Complete Tales of Henry James, ed. by Leon Edel, 12 vols (London: Rupert Hart Davis, 1960), IX, pp. 273-315 (hereafter Edel).

30 In, for example, The Death of the Lion (Edel, IX, pp. 77-118) or The Lesson of the Master (Edel, VII, pp. 213-84).

31 Edel, IX, p. 275.

32 Ibid, pp. 281-82.

33 Ibid, p. 282.

34 Ibid, p. 285

35 See, for example, Stephen Hutchings, A Semiotic Analysis of the Short Stories of Leonid Andreev: 1900-1909 (London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 1990).

36 Edel, IX, p. 2.

37 Ibid, p. 297.

38 Vereker had already associated the possibility of discovering the figure with the intensity of Corvick and Gwendolen’s love. Convinced that no one, ever, would discover the secret before his death, he does nevertheless consider what he is told about the almost mystic quality of Corvick and his fiancée’s search, and says that if they love each other so much that they will marry then it is possible that they may really bring the figure to light.

39 Edel, IX, p. 295.

40 Ibid, p. 300.

41 Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, Lady with Lapdog and Other Stories, trans. by David Magarshack (London: Penguin, 1964), pp. 46-104 (hereafter Magarshack). For the text in its original Russian, see Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 30 vols (Moscow: Nauka, 1974-1983), VII, pp. 251-310 (hereafter Nauka).

42 Magarshack, p. 46 (emphases mine) (Nauka, VII, p. 251).

43 Ibid, pp. 56-57 (emphases mine) (pp. 262-63).

44 Ibid, p. 49 (p. 255).

45 Elizabeth Bowen, for example, talks of finding it as easy to introduce the fantastic into a short story as it is difficult to do so in a novel. See her preface to A Day in the Dark and Other Stories (London: Cape, 1965), p. 9.

46 Guy de Maupassant, Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, trans. by Artine Artinian (Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1955), pp. 169-72. The French text can be found in Guy de Maupassant, Contes et nouvelles, ed. by Louis Forestier, 2 vols (Paris: Gallimard, collection La Pléiade, 1974), I, pp. 54-59.

47 Ibid, p. 169 (p. 54).

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid, pp. 170 and 171 (pp. 56 and 58).

50 Ibid, p. 171 (p. 59).

51 Ibid, p. 170 (p. 56)

52 Bill Mullen shows that Chester Himes’s revolutionary success at getting published in the big magazines of the 1930s, despite endemic racism, was due to his mastering of the codes of pulp fiction, including the “hardboiled” (paroxystic) style. Bill Mullen, “Marking Race/Marketing Race: African American Short Fiction and the Politics of Genre, 1933-1946”, in Ethnicity and the American Short Story, ed. by Julie Brown (New York: Garland, 1997), pp. 25-46.

53 Rust Hills, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 63. Rust Hills was fiction editor for Esquire from the 1950s to the 1990s. See also the “how-to” guides to writing short stories, such as Maren Elwood, Characters Make Your Story (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942).

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