shining the spotlight on short story collections
Chatto & Windus, 2011
“Inside everyone, I thought, there is the child they once were. In some you can see that it’s still a living child; others carry around a dead child inside them.”
I used to live in Israel and, because I speak Hebrew, had decided not to read any works by Israeli authors in translation. That has meant that I haven’t really read any works by Israeli authors. Or, actually, that I abandoned that decision when I was introduced to Etgar Keret’s short stories. Life is too short. But I have not, to my shame, read anything by Amos Oz (yet), one of Israel’s foremost authors, often mentioned as a Nobel Prize for Literature contender. So, I came to his collection Scenes from Village Life fresh, without thoughts of any previous books.
This book has been talked about – of course, as often happens – as a novel-in-stories. Yes, there are themes, a continuity of style and one setting, until you get to the final story. But any good, great, short story collection, works as a whole as well as in parts, no need to call it a novel.
I often look for hints in an author’s short stories that convey something deeper that they themselves are saying within their writing and I came upon this line in the penultimate story, Singing, which jumped out at me:
Inside everyone, I thought, there is the child they once were. In some you can see that it’s still a living child; others carry around a dead child inside them.
An immensely powerful and disturbing statement. Before we get onto the stories, let me show you the table of contents:
In a faraway place at another time
To me, this is almost a standalone story, a poem, and it conveys the essence of what Oz is attempting to do here, I believe. Oz is not a minimalist writer, minute details are the material of his stories, especially names – each character has a full name he often repeats (“Arieh Zelnik”, “Wolff Maftsir”) as do the streets, who are characters in the stories too. For me, the emphasis on naming has Biblical undertones, strengthened by the constant repetition. So, the spareness of the titles of all but one of these stories could be laziness, yes, but could also be a hint that Oz is aiming, through this singular, particular village, to address universal issues, as if the more specific one gets, the more general a piece of writing might be.
After reading all the stories a second time, what comes through most forcefully is the use of the uncanny – there are mysterious strangers who appear, seem to be trying to say something, then disappear; there is a package left on a bench, a dog who follows for a while, dark cellars, visitors who are expected and do not turn up, family members who vanish without explanation, disembodied voices. Underneath the traditional language and apparently benign plots, these are deeply unsettling stories, with no satisfying conclusions.
I think that each of these stories is, in fact, about every single element presented on the contents page, especially ‘waiting’ – what you wait for doesn’t come, or at least, not in the form you expect – and ‘strangers’: those most familiar to you who behave in utterly mystifying, strange ways, while a person you don’t think you have met before behaves like family.
Oz has a mixture of scorn and sympathy for his characters, all of whom are flawed – of course, because a character with no flaws is both unrealistic and boring. There is the former MK (member of parliament) Pesach Kedem, who makes his dutiful adult daughter’s life a misery; the doctor Gili Steiner who loves her nephew yet was sometimes violent towards him as a small boy; the mayor, Benny Avni, who dismissed his wife’s art is insignificant and always managed to get people to do what he wanted.
The story that spoke to me the most, Singing, is the penultimate story: many of the characters we have already met come together for one of the village’s regular singing evenings (a very popular Israeli activity). This story is one of only two told in the first person – yet with an element of the uncanny here in that our narrator seemed to know things he couldn’t possibly have known, about the evening’s hosts, Dalia and Avraham Levin, whose son had shot himself four years earlier. We learn the gruesome detail that Yaniv had killed himself under his parents’ bed and
they searched for him all over the village for a day and a half, not realising he was lying under his parents’ bed. Dalia and Avraham even slept in the bed without realising that their son’s body was right underneath them.
Singing has echos of James Joyce’s The Dead, which also takes place at a party. This is a story about death, as, perhaps, is every short story, since by its nature a short story is concerned with ending-ness. Our narrator can’t settle into the singing and is called to wander around the house in the dark after hearing, he believes, a voice calling him.
I had the feeling I ought to go get something from the pocket of my overcoat on the heap of coats in the other room, but what it was I could not fathom. On the one hand, I had a sense of panic, as though there were some urgent responsibility I was ignoring, but on the other hand I knew that the panic was false.
This is typical of Oz’s characters, who are always deciding to do one thing and then, in the next moment, doing the opposite.
Coming on to the last story, In a far away place at another time, I have read it several times (it is by far the shortest in the book, at 8 pages) and was hoping it would reveal itself, but as yet it hasn’t! It may be set in this same village, but at another time, whether past or future I can’t say, or perhaps in a parallel universe. Using surreal language, our narrator, a doctor, tells of the villagers’ warped behaviours, sexually and otherwise, and how he, a visitor sent to help them, eventually becomes used to their ways. I really can’t tell you what I think this means – about this book, or about life in general!
I found this collection thought-provoking, definitely. But I must say that the stories, perhaps because of their wealth of small details, did not provide me with the powerful punch in the gut I look for in a truly great short story. This may be purely a matter of personal taste, as is always the case with anything we read. It does make me want to read Oz’s novels, which I have on my shelves. It’s about time.
Read a story from this collection in Scribd
About the author: Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Amos Oz is the internationally acclaimed author of many novels and essay collections, translated into over 40 languages, including his brilliant semi-autobiographical work, A Tale of Love and Darkness. He has received several international awards, including the Prix Femina, the Israel Prize, the Goethe Prize,the Frankfurt Peace Prize and the 2013 Franz Kafka Prize. He lives in Israel.
About the reviewer: Tania Hershman is the founding editor of The Short Review. She is the author of two short story collections, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008), and My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions (Tangent, 2012), and curator of the ShortStops short story hub. Tania is co-writer of Writing Short Stories: A Writers & Artists Companion (Bloomsbury, 2014).