Best European Fiction 2012 – Part I – the dead white noise of space

I should admit from the outset that I haven’t always liked the short story form. When I first began reading with any dedication I had the impression that novels conjured entire worlds while short stories were content with slices of life. What’s more, the slice-of-life sensibility appeals so directly to verisimilitude that a story about a bored, lonely suburban teenager, for example, is judged successful if it contains the requisite amount of boredom and loneliness to seem true to life. As a bored, lonely suburban teenager at the time, the last thing I wanted was for this literary pizza delivery man to pile on more bitter tasting slices than I already had to contend with.

The aesthetic of true-to-life realism makes me think of an argument I had with a friend over a photo-realist painting we had seen at an outdoor flea market. Without saying whether or not he liked the picture my friend insisted that the technical skill of painting so realistically deserved our unqualified admiration. I, on the other hand, didn’t see the point of putting all that skill and effort into painting a woman sitting on a lawn chair. Was it realistic? Yes, in many ways more realistic and detailed than the women sitting in lawn chairs at the flea market that day. But was it good?

The experimental stories I found my way to then didn’t do much to change my opinion on short stories. One exception I came across was Kafka, but he was presented as someone so unique – more prophet than writer – that I didn’t connect his work with ordinary literary practice.

Eventually I found the short stories that made me appreciate the format, the first being Aleksander Wat’s collection Lucifer Unemployed. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all of these stories were the best short stories I had ever read, but that their ambitions and aesthetics were closer to those of the novelists I liked, presenting life unsliced and opening a door to an imaginary space that seemed much bigger than the text itself.

Grouping short prose works together only because of length obscures the fact that writers use the format in such starkly different ways and for entirely different reasons.

Best European Fiction 2012

This year’s Best European Fiction (BEF) shows a lot of this variety. On the one hand there are stories that are launched by a single idea or situation that is then pursued to its logical or illogical conclusion. Estonia’s Armin Kõomägi has written a funny and interesting story about rationalism gone mad, in which the narrator’s over-the-top adherence to economizing in every aspect of his life is the main thread running from beginning to end of the story.

In “Passiontide” by Finland’s Maritta Lintunen an old woman collapses in her kitchen and the reader accompanies her wandering thoughts as she lays there helpless. Unable to get off the floor to turn off the radio in her kitchen the incapacitated woman lets her thought run to music: “I get sick of Beethoven’s symphonies and the booming timpanies. I wish the radio would get sick of them too, perhaps develop a malfunction. I would have preferred to lie there listening to the quiet hiss of static: the dead white noise of space.”

The strongest of this group of stories is “The Children” by Noëlle Revaz, in which a couple running an orphanage abandon the children in their care in a gradual and haunting matter. In her statement on the Dalkey website the Swiss francophone writer is explicit in explaining how her stories extend from a single starting point:

“The text begins with a collision, I’m struck by an image, a word, an idea, and this sudden apprehension is strong enough to give me the impulse to write … When writing, I cleave to the image, to the initial meaning, and gradually all of it expands, and I come to see things from a far greater altitude.”

Other writers exemplify different approaches to the short story form. “Agnomia” by Slovakia’s Róbert Gál is a frenzied monologue ranging over topics near and far, high and low. Dutch writer Sanneke van Hassel’s “Pearl” begins as a subdued domestic story and ends in a surprising and chilling manner.

There are many other quality stories, and if there is one criticism I would make of the anthology it is that it’s a bit overwhelming and that in trying to fill all the slots (not only different countries, but different language groups in individual countries) there are a few stories that don’t quite match the standard of the majority of the writing presented.

Photos – 1) The Rape of Europa by Willy von Beckerath 2) Photorealist painting

See also: Best European Fiction 2012 – Part II – Europe’s Jekyll and Hyde

and Best European Fiction 2012 – Part III – Death in Sicily

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Categories: Book Reviews

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  1. Best European Fiction 2012 – Part III – Death in Sicily | literalab - 18/06/2012

    […] For Part I of the BEF 2012 review click here […]

  2. PEN is mightier than S.W.O.R.D.* | literalab - 30/06/2012

    […] selection of writing by festival participants available online – including three stories from Best European Fiction 2012 (Róbert Gál’s “Agnomia,” Noëlle Revaz’s “The Children” and Patrick Boltshauser’s […]

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