- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

Short Fiction

Books and summer vacations go together, whether you are lounging on a beach, putting up your feet after a day of sightseeing, or simply lazing in the backyard. There is no other time of the year when one feels entitled to do "nothing" but read a good book. With this in mind, two short fiction collections were recently released that are entertaining, witty and fun.
The Red Notebook by Paul Auster (New Directions, $10.95, 112 pages) is a gem. The novelist, essayist, poet, and master storyteller, has collected dozens of strange but true anecdotes from his own life as well as the lives of others. They are heartwarming, sometimes tragic, bizarre accounts of coincidence or fate (depending on one's perspective) that defy the odds. One is left with a sense of lightness and reassurance that there is much to life that is special, mysterious and serendipitous if only we allow ourselves to perceive it this way.
Mr. Auster shares these tales in a simple, direct manner, peppered with witty and evocative prose. The effect is one of drama and intimacy, as if he is sitting with us amiably going on with his yarns. In one story, about a close call with death, he describes a storm with crashing vividness:
"Then the thunder started. And after the thunder, the lightning started. The storm was directly on top of us, and it turned out to be the summer storm to end all summer storms. I have never seen weather like that before or since. The rain poured down on us so hard that it actually hurt; each time the thunder exploded, you could feel the noise vibrating inside your body. Immediately after that, the lightening would come, dancing around us like spears. It was as if the weapons had materialized out of thin air: a sudden flash that turned everything into a bright, ghostly white."
What are we to make of such (true) stories? Mr. Auster suggests he is still trying to figure it out. "What a coincidence, I thought. My life has been filled with dozens of curious events like this one, and no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to shake free of them. What is it about the world that continues to involve me in such nonsense?"
The answer seems to lie in the final three stories. He begins by telling us about F., a French poet and expert on the artist, Henri Matisse, who when visiting New York, would always stay in a particular room at the Carlyle Hotel. He spent years curating a major museum show about a five-year period in the painter's life. Finally, one work remained to be found. After six months of searching, he located it in a private collection. The owner lived in an apartment at the Carlyle Hotel, directly above the room in which F. would always stay.
Mr. Auster then recounts that a few months after he contributes the tale about F. to a fiction anthology, he and his daughter discuss what she will sing at her next musical recital. "Without any warning she sprang from her chair and began belting out the lyrics of 'It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing.'"
The next day Mr. Auster receives a package in the mail, which contains a new volume of F.'s poetry. As he flips through it a tiny wisp of paper floats out. "I picked up the errant rectangle from my desk, turned it over, and saw that there was writing on the other side eleven short words arranged in a single row of type. The poems had been written in French, the book had been printed in France, but the words on the slip of paper that had fallen out of the book were in English. They formed a sentence, and that sentence read: It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

Fear not, diehard cynics, for Alan Bennett's The Laying of Hands (Picador USA, $15, 208 pages) should be to your liking. The renowned British playwright, essayist, and screenplay writer ("The Madness of King George") has crafted three, longish, short stories that are full of satire and wry observations about the contradictions of modern Britain.
The first story, which bears the name of the book, makes fun of just about everybody, from married couples to gay men, clergy, senior citizens, intellectuals and London glitterati. Quite bawdy in places, it is about a memorial service that is slowly revealed to be for a bisexual massage therapist who seems to have had relations with just about everybody gathered at the church, including the Anglican priest. Mr. Bennett starts by poking fun at the service itself, a concoction of hymns and prayers no one seems to know, a saxophone solo, a baritone rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening," and personal tributes to the deceased.
He sets the stage with droll descriptions of the setting and the characters, and then lets them roast themselves. "One couple held each other's hands in mute misery. Which had slept with Clive or both. What did it matter? Never had they been so close."
Britain's prim-and-propers do not escape Mr. Bennett's lampooning, starting with Archdeacon Treacher. We are told, "Less feeling was what Treacher wanted, the services of the church, as he saw it, a refuge from the prevailing sloppiness. As opportunities multiplied for the display of sentiment in public and on televisionconfessing, grieving, and giving away to anger, and always with a ready access to tearsso it seemed to Treacher that there was needed a place for dryness and self-control and this was the church."
In "Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet," an older unmarried woman who works in a department store and looks after an immobilized brother finds adventure through calluses when she engages the services of a widowed chiropodist.
What develops is an amusing combination of decorum and unusual manifestations of, shall we say, ardor. Miss Fozzard confesses, "At one point I said to Mr. Dunderdale, 'People might think this rather peculiar particularly in Lawnswood.' He said, 'Well, people would be wrong. We are just enthusiasts, Miss Fozzard, you and I and there's not enough enthusiasm in the world these days.'"
The final story, with a William Blakean title of "Father! Father! Burning Bright," charts the revelations of a son during a vigil at his father's hospital bedside. Through the parade of relatives who come to say goodbye to the comatose man, Mr. Bennett conveys the lingering racial prejudices, stiff-upper-lip complex, materialistic aspirations, and generation gaps that are part of contemporary Britain.
The departure of a particular Aunty Kitty is telling. "She tiptoed elaborately past the sleeping immigrants, favouring them with a benevolent smile. 'They've got feelings the same as us,' she whispered. 'They're fond of their families. More so, probably.' They came out into the corridor. 'But then they're less advanced than we are.'" Despite the satire, Mr. Bennett maintains a human touch, which not only makes the three stories humorous, but infuses them with a deeper meaning, which is an altogether more satisfying experience.

Shaazka Beyerle is a Washington writer and reviewer who has lived in Europe and the Middle East.

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