Neil Rathmell

100+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 23 October 2013

If Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage had not been the book chosen for the July meeting of the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse book group, I would have read nothing by Alice Munro before she became the latest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The quote from the Daily Mail on the cover of the paperback suggests they would have been less surprised by the award than I was. ‘Another breathtaking demonstration of her mastery of the short story… No one could possibly dispute Munro’s greatness; the genius of her seamless, unmatchable prose which nets up the flow of everyday life so miraculously.’ Well, I could. Admittedly, I was the only one in the book group who did, though no one I think was quite as breathless in their praise of her as the Daily Mail. The Nobel Prize citation describes her as ‘a master of the contemporary short story’, which begs an important and, as far as I know, so far unanswered question: what is the contemporary short story? A quote from the New Statesman on the back cover suggests one answer: ‘these melancholy, autumnal tales of small-town Canadian life demonstrate the gentle power of the short story at its best.’ A sort of Canadian Cranford then. I like Mary Gaskell, but I don’t consider Cranford to be her best book and, if mastery of the contemporary short story means nothing more than writing in a Cranford sort of way about small-town Canadian life, is it really worth a Nobel Prize? To compare like with like, do the short stories of Alice Munro really stand up to those of Nadine Gordimer (1991), Gabriel Garcia Márquez (1982), Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978) or Rabindranath Tagore (1913)?

Mid-Wales Opera brought its production of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring to Shrewsbury last week, bringing a tale of small-town Suffolk life, based on a tale by Maupassant of small-town Normandy life, to a small town in Shropshire. The production was excellent in every respect but one. Both Maupassant and Britten (or Eric Crozier, who wrote the libretto) were very specific about time and place. The narrator of Maupassant’s short story, Le rosier de Madame Husson, is a Parisian who meets up with an old school friend, now firmly and unapologetically ensconced in a provincial town. It’s the friend who tells the story (a story told at second-hand, as in all the best short stories) and who, by mixing affection for his neighbours with amusement at their foibles, creates a picture of small-town life which does more than just poke fun. Britten and Crozier do the same. But to work, the place has to be Suffolk and the time has to be between the wars. Setting Albert Herring in the Thatcher era, as this production does, blunts the edge of the satire. Trying to make the opera more relevant to a contemporary audience, it only makes it less so. It is always better to credit your audience with the intelligence to draw their own conclusions about the relevance of a historical period to our own time than to spell it out for them.

albert herring 03  le rosier de mme husson 03  

I have just bought a Kindle and, whatever its other advantages might turn out to be, it has already proved itself the best way to read books in foreign languages. Not having a copy of Le rosier de Madame Husson, I downloaded it to my new Kindle in the original French. Instead of having to put the book down every time I came across a word that I didn’t know, all I had to do was put my finger on the word and up popped the dictionary definition (in dictionary format, with all forms of the word explained). Even better, it keeps a list of the words for me, so that I can test myself on them later. Brilliant! I’m sure that I will continue to enjoy reading English books in their traditional form, but it will be the Kindle from now on for books in French.

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Coming soon – 10 RULES FOR READING POETRY ALOUD. Read it here on 30 October.

The next entry in my Reader’s Diary is due on 6 November.

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