Saturday, 24 October 2009

Let's Call the Whole Thing Off


Let's Call the Whole Things Off: Love Quarrels from Anton Chekhov to ZZ Packer (notice what the title cleverly does?) selected and compiled by Kasia Boddy, Ali Smith and Sarah Wood brings together some of the best short story writers on the topic of lovers' quarrels. Some of the writers I am very familiar with (Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf and Colette), others I had met but didn't know intimately or had been intending to seek out their work (Jhumpa Lahiri, Dorothy Parker and Natalia Ginzburg) and others I was completely unfamiliar with (ZZ Packer, Arnold Bennett and A.M. Homes). Some of the stories were in translation from Russian, Italian and Welsh, amongst others, and they were cleverly edited into sections -first quarrels, daily arguments, breaking up and the aftermath- and didn't quarrel but compromised and complemented each other.

The stand-out stories for me were "This Blessed House" by Jhumpa Lahiri, "He and I" by Natalia Ginzburg, "Lappin and Lapinova" by Virginia Woolf and "You Go When You Can No Longer Stay" by Jackie Kay; it was difficult to narrow it down in such a strong anthology but these four stories were particular powerful and evocative of the soul-destroying nature of quarrels or a relationship's demise. "This Blessed House" (taken from Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Interpreter of Maladies) is unique in that it takes a newly married couple -Twinkle and Sanjeev- who barely know one another as their marriage was arranged and examines their early days quarrels through which they grow to understand each other. Natalia Ginzburg is an Italian writer whose work I became aware of through the book group that Simon and Kim run; Ginzburg's A Place to Live: And Other Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg is a favourite book of one of our members, Armen, and now that I have had a taste of her writing I shall be seeking out more. Ginzburg has a unique style that I instantly admired from the opening lines:

He always feels hot, I always feel cold. In the summer when it really is hot he does nothing but complain about how hot he feels. He is irritated if he sees me put a jumper on in the evening.
He speaks several languages well; I do not speak any well. He manages - in his own way - to speak even the languages that he doesn't know.
He has an excellent sense of direction, I have none at all. After one day in a foreign city he can move about in it as thoughtlessly as a butterfly. I get lost in my own city; I have to ask directions so that I can get back home again.


One could argue that this is a description of opposites attracting or of couples growing estranged and no longer having anything left in common, they are so different.

Woolf's "Lappin and Lapinova" is brutal in its portrayal of a married couple once the honeymoon period is over. The sweet, affectionate way the newly married couple engage with one another is endearing; they liken one another to rabbits named Lappin and Lappinova, which they use as pet-names, and when this is lost, only a few years later, it was "the end of that marriage", a closing line that seems to be at odds with the nuanced writing of the story and yet I found it to be flippantly fitting.

"You Go When You Can No Longer Stay" very funny also brutally truthful. I know Jackie Kay's work from her beautiful novel, Trumpet, which I highly recommend; of the writer I know that she used to be in a relationship with Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. "You Go When You Can No Longer Stay" is about the demise of a long-term lesbian relationship which opens humorously "It is not so much that we are splitting up that is really worrying me, it is the fact that she keeps quoting Martin Amis"; Amis is used effectively for comic relief throughout.

Other highlights in the anthology were stories all by writers familiar to me; "The Gilded Six-Bits" by Zora Neale Hurston is a story in Ebonics that tells of a married couple's quarreling as foreplay until the wife's infidelity ceases their quarreling; "Pillow Talk" by the fabulous Alasdair Gray is short and bittersweet -a husband awakes to accuse his wife of leaving him and after she confesses that she wishes he could, he realises it was a dream; "Mr and Mrs Dove" and "A Letter" are written by two of my favourite short story writers -Katherine Mansfield and Colette- and, although not my favourites, each are perfected as always and evocative of playful quarreling; "Here We Are", written by the delightful Dorothy Parker, tells of the petty arguments and jealousies played out between a new couple on their wedding day.

I recommend this volume for its versatility in storytelling, its collection of highly-accomplished writers of the short-story form and its compelling subject matter of lovers' tiffs. This was one of the few short story anthologies that I have been able to read cover to cover without becoming frustrated by its contents.

19 comments:

verity said...

I love the sound of this. Might be a good wedding present, or certainly an engagement present. Sounds like an interesting selection of authors - we've come across Arnold Bennett - quite a classic author. I can really identify with the Ginzberg extract you quote.

savidgereads said...

This sounds utterly wonderful and may have to be yet another book that I get for my new 'Simon must read more Short Stories' unofficial challenge. I hadnt heard of this one before so thanks for bringing it to light!

farmlanebooks said...

I hadn't heard of this one, but even as someone who doesn't like short stories this sounds good. I'm not sure I'd buy it, but I may keep an eye out for it in the library.

Zee said...

This sounds like a great collection of short stories.

I loved Interpreter of Maladies so I will definitely check out this collection.

Paperback Reader said...

Hmm, Verity, I don't think it would make a good wedding or engagement present myself (a bit like giving Cheerful Weather for a Wedding, which isn't so cheerful) but certainly good for anybody in a relationship. I enjoyed the Arnold Bennett short story a lot and the Ginzburg quote is highlu evocative.

Simon, it would be a wonderful anthology for your unofficial challenge. It was only published earlier this year and I have only see one other review (Lizzie Siddal).

Jackie, I noticed this in Waterstone's the day of our first book group meeting and it instantly caught my attention. Luckily my library had a copy as it definitely appealed.

Hi Zee, thanks for commenting. It's a very good collection of short stories and writers.

The Lahiri story is from The Interpreter of Maladies (which I am desperate to read) so you will know it. Have you read her new volume, Unaccustomed Earth? I also have a copy of that to read.

Nymeth said...

Oh, this sounds excellent. I've read "This Blessed House", and I completely agree that it's a remarkable story. Also, with Ali Smith as one of the editors, how could this anthology not be great?

Molly said...

Such a clever title -- and a wonderful concept. I am trying to expand my literary horizons by reading a few more short stories, and the fact that you were able to read this one from cover to cover without feeling frustrated is a great recommendation for this collection.

Paperback Reader said...

Ana, I'm looking forward to reading "This Blessed House" again in Interpreter of Maladies. Ali Smith has some wonderful taste (I once saw her in person at an Angela Carter themed event when she discussed Wise Children and read her introduction to the Vintage edition).

Molly, the title and concept were what caught my eye. I read the majority of the short stories one night in bed which goes to show how accessible and readable it was.

Thomas said...

I was worried by your blog title. I thought you were going to tell us that you were going to stop blogging. I thought you were breaking up with me!

JoAnn said...

Sounds like another 'must-have' anthology! Maybe a month of themed Short Story Monday posts in February for Valentine's Day?? The ghost stories have been such fun this month...

Paperback Reader said...

Thomas, never fear! If I was going to break it off then I wouldn't do it so publicly, I'd send an email ;).

JoAnn, that's a great idea! In the review of Lizzy Siddal's that I read of this (after I had borrowed the book and she endorsed and pointed me to her review) she said that it was an alternative to flowers and chocolates for Valentine's Day. I do enjoy holiday-themed reading.

Steph said...

I generally don't have good luck with short story collections, but I wonder if I might do better with anthologies? When I read Lahiri's second collection, Unaccustomed Earth, I got pretty fed up because practically every story was the same there... it really put me off of her. With each story I read, I liked her less! But I'd be interested in checking out some of the other authors who are included in this collection (Virginia Woolf scares me, so maybe a short story is the place to start...)!

Rebecca said...

I don't normally read short stories, but this sounds like it could be the sort of thing to get me into reading them. Thanks for your thoughts on it - I may have to pick up a copy of it.

Paperback Reader said...

Rebecca, this anthology definitely brings together some of the best short story writes together as well as some very good (and mainly amusing) short stories.

Paperback Reader said...

Steph, I think that's a sensible idea. I read a great comment on one of Simon's posts recently on short stories that likened reading a volume of short stories by the one writer as attempting to read another's novels consecutively - you are bound to get some repetition.

I'd also say that starting with Virginia Woolf's short stories would be wise too. She is very witty and not as doom and gloom as people think. She has a few volumes of collected short stories (Hesperus Press published some) and I've been impressed by what I've read so far. "The New Dress" is another short story of hers that comes to mind.

Lizzy Siddal said...

I have to agree that this is a strong anthology. I'm still dipping in and out but it's interested that you've featured two of the stories I mentioned in my own review.

http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2009/02/15/tss-tiff-lit-split-lit-lets-call-the-whole-thing-off/

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks for the link! I was lazy and didn't link to it :s. I am still making up my mind on that last line of Lapin and Lapinova as it is definitely abrupt.

Eva said...

Oh! I've been trying to read more story anthologies this year, but I'm having problems with them. So this one sounds good!

Paperback Reader said...

Eva, it's one of the most successful anthologies that I've read yet (although I've just started The Virago Book of Ghost Stories so we'll see how lucky I am with that).