I used to think, after participating in dozens of writing workshops that were mostly concerned with short fiction, that the short story was an abbreviated form of the novel. If you learned the elements of plot, character, tone, point of view, etc., and you stuck with them for a bit longer than fifteen or twenty pages—okay, quite a bit longer—you’d have a novel. The difference was more in the sprawl of the thing than how it might be read. But I’ve decided that the short story is its own art form, quite different from a novel, more akin to a poem than one might think.
I use the word “art” intentionally, and by it I mean any work that withstands several readings, deepening with meaning upon each pass. I think of a short story like I do a painting, or a piece of classical music—every time I venture back in, I hear or see something I didn’t notice the first time. There are many stories published today, even lauded, that don’t necessarily stand up to that kind of scrutiny—they are entertainments, or anecdotes, character sketches well told enough to make it into print. But my guess is they won’t last as art, and there’s not much gained by reading them a second or third time.
But that’s exactly what I want to do with the finest short fiction, go back to it again and again, so I understand the thing well made; I never tire of listening to a beautiful piece of Schubert’s, studying a painting by Sisley, or reading a great story.
William Trevor, the consummate story writer from Ireland who recently died, takes the comparison between story and painting one step further:
"If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionistic painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art."
The mystery that the short story, with its early roots in Edgar Allan Poe, fixes on is often that space between everyday reality and alternate reality. I came across a brilliant example of this in a collection by Jane Gardam. I’ve only recently become acquainted with Gardam, though she’s almost ninety years old, with dozens of books behind her, and the only writer to have won the Whitbread Book Award twice (now known as the Costa Book Award).
“Hetty Sleeping” opens her collection, The Stories of Jane Gardam, published by Europa Editions in 2014. In order to get to the heart of the story, we have to dispense with that first question that follows a reading of any story: What happens? Here a British woman encounters a lover from ten years prior on the coast of Ireland. She reconnects with him while on a holiday with her children; her husband has been detained. Her lover visits their rented house, they take an outing with her children, her husband returns. Not much happens, and as Alice Munro says, “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter…When the event becomes the thing that matters, the story isn’t working too well.”
So we keep looking.
I first wanted to read this story as Hetty's dream-fantasy. The title hints at that, and the opening had me wondering right away: the surreal notion of Hetty’s old lover, Heneker, showing up twenty yards away on the shore, then sitting down beside Hetty and at once holding her...feet? And then he "put his forehead to them"? Definitely a dream. The next clue is that Hetty escapes to sit beside her car, in the red ants, while her little children are still in the water. I don't know the Irish coast, but would a mother really do that?
Much of Hetty's and Heneker's interaction seems to hover between the real world and something beyond. During one evening visit, Hetty goes to comfort her son during his bad dream and then "drifted" back to Heneker, who is gone, as if their encounter had been a dream. While there are references to specific times—"next day" or "that evening," as if we are in linear, conscious time—"There was the sense that all about the holiday house lay miles of silence, darkness, the ancient mountains inland making a long barricade against the usual world." The blended meaning of her "parting," in her hair, and her leaving him, is also of a dreamlike quality, much like the tableaux Hetty sees: of her children Sophie and Andy, and Heneker, "reflectively together, illuminated, at peace," and the very image of Heneker himself, like an "icon." The fishermen on the beach are described as "dressed in ageless clothes. They had very ancient faces. But for the plastic bag they might have been ghosts." There is a blurring of then and now throughout; when she wakes the evening that the phone rings, she thinks: “It was ten years ago.” Indeed, Hetty is often folding or piling clothes now, just as she did when she and Heneker were together.
Right before their last encounter, the setting sun "turned the room to glory, lighting up a filmy silvery peaty dust on the old furniture, making a great vase of flowers and leaves she had gathered yesterday glow rose red. 'It's like a dream,' she thought,” and seems to sleepwalk her way outside the house to elements of the landscape heretofore unnoticed: an overgrown fishpond, long-empty stables with trees growing through the roofs, three sheep.
There is, in fact, an awful lot of sleeping for one story—even on the beach while her children are in the water, or in the house, wide-open and vulnerable to the I.R.A., Hetty sleeps through the danger, as she still sleeps, after 10 years, thinking of Heneker every day, through the fact that their love was always, and remains, doomed, and her real life is one with children and Charles. And perhaps it is a gentle, good life with a man “who always saw [her] right home to the door”; Charles pours tea for her at the end, “delicately” placing the drawing on the desk, without jealousy or anger. This is quite a contrast to Heneker’s demand, “Sleep with me” or even the way he “threw” his drawing at her.
But when Charles returns, Hetty is pulled from what her friend Cathie Bartlett calls Hetty’s “trance,” and it becomes clear that we haven’t been in a dream, but have rather been experiencing the dreamlike quality, beautifully illumined by Gardam, of remembered love. Hetty’s neighborhood friends have spotted her and Heneker in the pub. The barmaid, noted earlier, has run off with him. And Hetty is like her child, under the influence of a bad dream, when Charles picks up the drawing of her sleeping; she demands not once, but seven times: “Give me that,” snatching at that elusive dream thread that the mind can't hold. Charles urges, as if she had been dreaming the whole while, “Sweet Hetty, wake up soon.” I can read his refusal to hand over the drawing as a controlling gesture, but I find wisdom in it too. He won't hand her such sadness.
I know I’ll continue to find more worth exploring in subsequent readings. I look forward to that. But this has already been such a satisfying read, in part because our past affairs are never revisited this tidily--oh, but how we dream they might be!
And what, after all, is a short story, or our notion of romantic love, but a dream?