shining the spotlight on short story collections
Maclehose Press, 2011
Language is something you inherit, it’s never just you doing the talking, which helps when you’re pretending.
Reviewing a short story collection is entirely different – for this reviewer, anyway – to reading a single short story. It is a chance to examine what themes and images the author is drawn to in his or her writing, what emerges across this body of work after not just one reading of the stories but several. It is only the most robust collections that not only stand up to this kind of scrutiny but offer more and more with each approach, and Cees Nooteboom’s The Foxes Come At Night is certainly such a collection.
I want to first say how refreshing it is to read a collection both not originally written in English and also not set in an English-speaking country. It feels enormously European: the settings of the stories range across mainland Europe, often encompassing several countries within a single story, and the cast of characters is similarly cosmopolitan, very often expatriates. As someone who reads mostly contemporary English-language short stories, primarily American and British, to me the tone and style feel different too: Nooteboom does not leave it to the reader to divine his metaphors (thunderstorm=rocky marriage; stormy sea=tragedy), he states them immediately in the text, and this gives the effect of clarity of language with no games being played, and also encourages the reader to look deeper, to probe another layer beneath.
A poet, novelist and travel writer, Nooteboom’s overarching theme here is death, present and often very swiftly brought up in each of the eight stories, which range in length from three and a half to 44 pages. The wonderful Scottish short story writer Ali Smith said that she believes that all short stories are always about death, perhaps because of their emphasis on endings and ending-ness. Nooteboom comes at his subject from many different angles, and there is also a progression when one reads the collection from beginning to end (though I can’t help but chafe at blurb saying that “the eight stories read more like a novel”, which to this reader is not a compliment). Not that these stories are macabre or morose – they are entertaining, thought-provoking, often witty, and death is a subject that brings with it so many other topics, the most significant of which, here, is memory: what do we remember, how do we remember it, why do we remember what we do recall and not the rest?
Art is often mentioned, and photographs are frequently used as the objects around which a whole story hinges: in Gondolas a man returns to the scene of a strange sort of affair decades earlier, to the spot where a photograph had been taken of him and the girl by a passing stranger. In Heinz the narrator examines in detail a photograph of a group of friends he had once been part of, in particular the larger-than-life Heinz, the tragi-comic clown, who destroys all the photographs – even other people’s – of his first love. In Paula (1) the narrator addresses a photograph of a long-dead friend.
The story that lingered longest in my mind is Late Afternoon, which is both to do with tortoises and, of course, nothing at all to do with tortoises. A woman is thinking about her late husband: “…did that moment come when you first wondered what you were doing with a man who tossed tortoises over a wall, who was intimidated by light and afraid of the evening?” She manages to pinpoint the exact time he dies for her, though his physical death has come some years before, as she watches the tortoise crossing the garden.
I always like to search for clues across a single-author collection as to how the writer views writing itself. As the narrator in Heinz says: “”Things happen in the real world which you can call dramas, and yet, if you want to turn them into art, you have no choice but to converge and compress… In a good story the temporal aspect is both dispensed with and manifest.” If this is Nooteboom signaling his aspiration, then I would say that for me, he has achieved and exceeded it.
Read a story from this collection here
About the reviewer: Tania Hershman is editor of The Short Review. She is the author of two short story collections, My Mother Was An Upright Piano (Tangent Books, 2012) and The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008).