How Do You Feel About Errors and Clichés in Short Stories? or Some Thoughts On Ann Patchett’s Switzerland

ceci-nest-pas-la-suisse

I’m baffled to say the least. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a story with more factual errors. Since I haven’t read a lot of Ann Patchett’s work, I was glad to see that the September issue of One Story featured her short story “Switzerland”. To be entirely honest, I found the title a bit odd. Did she really write a story about Switzerland? Or is it only a setting? I’m not sure why, but I immediately found it a bit problematic to give a story the title of a whole country. Just imagine I would set a story in Rome and call it “Italy”. Be it as it may, I was willing to give it a try and expected to enjoy it.

The story can be summarized quickly. Teresa is a seventy-something woman from LA who just retired. One of her children, Holly, has been living in a Zen community in Switzerland for over twenty years. Teresa’s only seen her very rarely. Her decision to travel to Switzerland and not only visit her daughter but be part of the Zen community for a few weeks, eat, live and meditate with them, is major.

The stay at the Zen community is a life changer and will help Teresa come to terms with things that have happened in the past. So far so good, and I’m pretty sure, I would have liked this story if there hadn’t been so many errors and clichés. And not just little things but big things that annoyed me a great deal.

What kind of errors and clichés you may wonder. Here goes

  • Teresa takes a plane from LA to Paris and then to Lucerne. Her daughter waits for her at the airport in Lucerne. The airport and her stay there are described in detail The only problem – there is no airport in Lucerne. It’s impossible to fly there.
  • When Teresa gets off the plane she comments about the cold. It’s icy – because, of course, we’re in Switzerland and it’s September. Let me assure you, unless you’re on the top of the Matterhorn, it will not be cold in Switzerland in September. Not even cool. Right now it’s still 100°F. It might be cooler in Lucerne, but not under 90°F.
  • The Zen community sells walking sticks that have been made from original Swiss stone pine. Hmmm. This tree doesn’t really grow in Switzerland. It’s a Mediterranean tree.
  • She mentions two newspapers Le Matin and Blick and then says Holly didn’t buy them because she can’t read German so well. Well – Le Matin is obviously French. But that’s not the only thing. Someone living in a Zen community would hardly read such trashy newspapers (the equivalent of the UK Sun).
  • Teresa sees goats and, of course, the goats look like they were waiting for Heidi or her grandfather.
  • And then, of course, Swiss chocolate is mentioned. Holly eats Toblerone.

One or two internet searches and these errors could have been omitted. Teresa could have landed in Zürich. The sticks could have been made of some other wood. She could have chosen between the newspapers NZZ and Weltwoche – far more believable in this context. Upon seeing the mountains she could have thought of Meinrad Inglin or Charles Ferdinand Ramuz. Instead of Toblerone, she could have eaten a Kägi fret. Or bought Ricola instead. And what if she’d stepped off the plane saying: “Wow, I never expected Switzerland to be this warm in September.” That would have been a nice foreshadowing of the upcoming changes in her perception. Alas!

I’m not normally hunting for errors  and clichés but these mistakes are huge and annoying. How did they get past the editor? Or are these just liberties she’s taken? If that were the case, I’m not sure why she would do that. Many readers enjoy discovering other countries via literature. As an author you have a duty towards those who are not familiar with a setting—don’t misinform them.

How do you feel about such errors/liberties?

Hermann Hesse: Kinderseele – A Child’s Heart (1919)

Die schönsten Erzählungen

Hermann Hesse was born into a family of priests, missionaries, and theologians. It’s easy to imagine how oppressing this must have been for a free-spirit like Hesse. But not only was his father a very religious man, he was also very strict. He was one of those patriarchs that the children feared more than loved. Whole books have been written about the “fear of the father”, so common in the upbringing of German children at the time, and of what is called black pedagogy. Hesse suffered and rebelled against his father. The tragedy of such an upbringing isn’t only that the children fear the father but that they internalize his judgment. While you can’t compare the writers Hesse and Kafka, there’s a similarity in some of their work and in what they experienced as children. Kafka wrote about his über-father in Letter to my Father. Hesse wrote about it in Kinderseele – A Child’s Heart and other writings. Both Letter to my Father and Hesse’s story came out in 1919.

The name of Hesse’s narrator is Emil Sinclair. Readers might be familiar with that name, as Hesse chose it as his pseudonym later. Sinclair tells a story of his childhood. It’s a story of fear and rebellion. One day, when Emil Sinclair is about eleven years old, he returns home from school. He describes the entrance of the house in minute, evocative details. It’s a grand entrance but chilling and eerie. The child can’t help but feeling anxious and depressed as soon as he enters. It’s as if something was lurking in the shadows. It’s clear for the reader that he means the presence of the father who is perceived as malevolent and controlling. The moment the child enters his realm, he must fear being caught doing something forbidden.

Emil Sinclair finds the house abandoned. He goes upstairs, hoping to find the father in his study but the study and his father’s bedroom are empty. He could just leave again but something pushes him, forces him to snoop and to steal. It’s interesting that he’s scared of being punished but steals nonetheless. At first he only takes two tips of a quill, then he finds sugared figs in a drawer, eats a handful and steals some more. From this moment on, his day is agony. He fears to be found out and hopes to be found out. Being punished would be a purification.

I loved this story. The writing is beautiful and the psychology is pertinent. I’ve rarely seen the fear of the father captured so well and with so much complexity. It’s a very tight, very well-constructed story. Interestingly, while we disapprove of the father, we feel for him. He must have been a tortured soul as well. Why else would he hide a delicacy and probably eat it in secret? We also learn that he suffered terrible headaches.

I’m not going to reveal the ending – just this much – it shows clearly that Hesse, unlike Kafka, was able to free himself from his father.

One word on the translation of the title. Kinderseele means The Soul of a Child. Since this is a very psychological story, I find “soul” makes much more sense than “heart”.

The cover I added is the cover of the German edition of Hesse collected short stories. The cover painting is by Hesse.

This is my last contribution to Hesse Week which ends today. I’ll probably wrap up the event tomorrow. If you’ve contributed to this week and I haven’t seen it, please leave a link to your post in the Mr. Linky in my introductory post.

Today I’m Over at Shotgun Honey

Shotgun Honey

Today, I was going to write a review on Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man but I came down with the flu. Just as well because I have some news to share.

I’m really thrilled to let you know that one of my short crime pieces You Got It All Wrong has been published by Shotgun Honey. I’ve been a fan of the magazine for a while and so I’m really happy about this.

If you’d like to read it – here’s the link.

 

Theodor Storm – Bulemanns Haus -The House of Bulemann

I often return to Storm’s short stories and novellas in autumn and winter. Not many know how to create an atmosphere like he does. His stories are either set in one or the other Northern town with their narrow, winding little alleyways, flanked by high houses with pointy gabled roofs and small, dark gardens or near the marshes and the dykes along the coast. His stories are realistic and eerie at the same time. Stories of unhappy love can be found as well as fairy tales or ghost stories. Many of his characters have become odd, whimsical and embittered through misfortune and loneliness. Two days ago, rummaging in my book shelves, I found a collection of short stories entitled “Katzen – Texte aus der Weltliteratur“, classic stories with a cat theme. When I looked through the contents I discovered a story by Storm called Bulemanns Haus. Should you like to read it in German here is the link Bulemanns Haus. I couldn’t find an English translation but it’s a very typical Storm story and can give you an impression whether you’d like to read him.

Bulemanns Haus is a story that reminded me a lot of A Christmas Carol only it is more sinister. In a German town, somewhere in the North, stands an abandoned old and dilapidated house. People pretend that they often see a face behind the dirty windows and at night they hear a scurrying sound as if huge colonies of mice were running through the house. The house used to belong to Bulemann, a bachelor who inherited the house from his father, a pawnbroker. He inherited the house, including all the objects people had left. Bulemann had been on a ship for many years and was said to have sold his black wife and their children and chosen to come back, accompanied by two cats only.

The first thing he did upon his return was selling all the objects in the house and making a fortune. The money was hidden everywhere. He was rich and avaricious and treated people in a mean and nasty way. Even his cats were frequently abused. When his impoverished sister turned up with his sickly nephew to ask for charity, he turned them down promptly and didn’t even care, some time later, when it looked as if the child was going to die. His sister who asked for help once more, was turned down again.  Before she left the house, she cursed her brother and soon afer her departure something weird was going on with Bulemann’s cats. It looked as if those two animals were growing. They got bigger and bigger daily and were finally capable not only of fighting back their master but of keeping him in check and finally imprison him.

The years went by, the cats were hunting mice at night and Bulemann was shrinking until he wasn’t much more than a helpless gnome, condemned to spend all eternity in an empty house with two giant cats.

Storm wrote a poem with a similar title In Bulemanns Haus which you can read here in German.

I thought this story was quite eerie, reminiscent of some of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales. My favourite Storm story so far was Immensee. But The Dykemaster aka The Rider on the White Horse is equally good. Vishy reviewed them recently here and here and Lizzy has written a review of a lesser known collection Carsten the Trustee.

When it comes to 19th century German writers I would say that from a language point of view Fontane and Storm are two of the most accomplished writers, only surpassed by The Brothers Grimm who have written the most beautiful German you can find. Should you never have read anything by The Brothers Grimm, Mel U found a great online resource for 19th Century German stories which he shares here.

Do you have a favourite story by Storm?

Bulemanns Haus und andere Geschichten   Theodor Storm 32825 Blomberg Bild 1

Ladies in Lavender – The Short Story by William J. Locke (1916) and the Movie (2004)

Ever since I have watched the charming Ladies in Lavender I had felt like reading the short story on which it was based. It took a while to find it as I did not know William J. Locke‘s books. I finally discovered that it was in his short story collection Far-Away Stories. Ladies in Lavender is the only one I have read but since I liked it and I bought the book, I will certainly read others sooner or later.

Two elderly sisters (they are 45 and 48 respectively in the book but in their 70s in the movie), both spinsters, live together in a beautiful house on the seaside in Cornwall. They inherited the house from their late father and since his death, some 27 years ago, they have been living in that house alone, sharing a bedroom like a married couple. Theirs is a quiet life, very similar to the life of the ladies in Cranford. A change of weather, something special for lunch, a visitor, are the only distractions they seem to have. They are content and live a certain routine, with the older of the two being in charge.

All this ends when they find a young man on the beach below their window. The sea has washed him ashore. He is unconscious and his ankle is broken. The two ladies cannot help seeing how delicate and beautiful he looks and decide to have him carried to their house and look after him.

What follows is at times quite comedic in the movie. The young man doesn’t speak English, only a little German, but the ladies hardly speak any German at all. It takes a while and some coincidences until they find out that he is a talented Polish violinist.

It is touching how intensely these two old women fall in love with the young man. None of them has ever fallen in love before. They were not married, never had lovers. The adventure with the young man is the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to them, it feels like a fairy tale and they assume he will stay with them forever.

The story of two elderly women falling in love with a very young man could seem somewhat far-fetched but a few years back my mother told me a similar story. She lived in an area of the city that is very green and where a lot of people walk their dogs. My mother was part of a group of 50 and 60+ women going for walks together when suddenly, one day, an extremely good-looking young man appeared with his dog (I wasn’t introduced so can’t tell you how good-looking he was). In any case my mother was quite bewildered as she observed how one of the older women started to fall for the young man. But not only was she in love, she assumed that he had feelings as well as he was very kind and attentive. When he finally showed up after a few months with a young girlfriend, the woman had a major breakdown.

Judi Dench and Maggie Smith play the elderly sisters in the movie and they play them extremely well. They are touching and funny at the same time. The choice for the young man, German actor Daniel Brühl, was less fortunate. I just don’t think he is all that handsome, at least certainly not at handsome as the man described in the book.

In the novel, the story plays clearly before WWI while the movie takes place just before WWII, apart from this and changing the age of the main characters, the movie stays true to the short story but goes into much more detail in the second half.

As nice as the short story is, I preferred the movie. It’s a lovely movie with great actresses, a beautiful setting and a melancholic undertone that depicts very well a certain type of woman that life has passed by.

As I said in the beginning I did not know William J. Locke. It seems he was born in British Guinea in 1863. His novels were five times on the bestseller lists in the US and there are 24 movies based on his work. Amazing.

Mary Higgins Clark: Voices in the Coalbin (1989) A Ghost Story

This is not on my R.I.P. list but it suits just fine and I am in the mood to stray from the path. I felt like reading some Mary Higgins Clark after having visited The Book Whisperers’ Blog the other day. I remembered that I had a collection of her short stories (in German Träum süss, kleine Schwester). They  don’t exist in this combination in English but that does not matter as I think there are only two very goods ones in it and those are available as Audio Book. However That’s the Ticket does not classify for an entry in R.I.P. as it is neither fish nor fowl. No ghost story, no mystery, but it is OK.

Voices in the Coalbin is also in The Mammoth Book of 20th Century Ghost Stories (Danielle from A Work In Progress has reviewed some of them and will go on reviewing more for R.I.P.) as it is really an eery story, something  I did not expect from Mary Higgins Clark. It has all we like in her writing, great descriptions, detail, atmosphere. And it is spooky. It tells the story of a young couple, Mike and Laurie, who drive to a weekend house in the country that belonged to Mike’s grandmother. The trip is meant to help Laurie to recover from nightmares, depression and phobias. She has been seeing a psychiatrist who warned the husband to be very careful as she is fragile. She seems to be on the brink of remembering things that are linked to her own grandmother who mistreated and abused her emotionally as a child.  When they arrive at the holiday house  nothing is like he remembered it. It’s rather bleak and sad. When something happens that reminds Laurie of her childhood, she panics and then disappears. I am not revealing anything more. I already said it, it is not a mystery, it is really a ghost story and the end was creepy.

I loved to read it, cuddled up in bed, both cats close by and sipping a cup of tea. It is already quite cool over here, crows are sitting in the trees in front of the window and their cries sound already much more eery and lonelier than in summer…

E.T.A. Hoffmann: The Sandman aka Der Sandmann (1816)

The Sandman was the short story I read for this years R.I.P. challenge.

Much has been said about E.T.A.Hofmann’s The Sandman. Interpretations abound. Even Sigmund Freud used this story to illustrate some of his theories. Hoffmann was part of the so-called dark romanticism that explored the uncanny in all its forms. Be it as it may, for me this is and will always be one of the spookiest stories I have ever read. I remember that it haunted me quite  a bit when I read it for the first time years ago but I did not expect it to have the same effect after all these years. But it did.

It is a mysterious story, many interpretations are possible. Nathanael lives away from his beloved and his family in a student town when, one afternoon, he sees a person who reminds him of someone who visited their father when he was a child. These memories are very dark and scary. Whenever the old man, Coppelius, appeared the children had to go to bed as fast as they could. They were told that the Sandman was coming and that he was after their eyes. Nathanael being the most curious of the children sneaked into the study of his father one night and hid behind the curtains. Unfortunately he got caught and what followed shocked him so much that he came down with a fever that lasted for weeks. Shortly after this evening Coppelius came one last time during which they all of a sudden heard a big bang from the father’s study. Upon entering the family finds him dead, with a completely blackened face.

It is this very Coppelius that Nathanael believes to have seen. Once again he feels the same terror as in his childhood. I do not want to further spoil this story. It does get scarier and darker from then on. We never really know if these things happen or if Nathanael has gone mad. Is Coppelius the devil? Did he and Nathanael’s father do some alchemical experiments? There are a lot of mysterious elements the strangest of which is Nathanael’s falling in love with Olympia who doesn’t seem human.

Hoffmann has written quite a lot. Novels and short stories. Many are very famous and were influential. The Sandman is the most famous of his stories. In Jacques Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, one part is dedicated to The Sandman. There is also a movie based on the opera including many ballet scenes. I attached a video for those who like opera or ballet.

Hoffmann who was very talented at drawing illustrated some of his tales, as you can see above.

You can find a link to the story here, if you would like to read it.