Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Memory Wall

This is the title of a collection of stories by Anthony Doerr. Mr. Doerr has received rave reviews from many places, which I shan't summarize here. Suffice to say that Mr. Doerr has rethought what it is to be a short (or rather longish) story. At 86 pages, the title story leaves the reader gasping for air; it has the strength and depth of novels three times its length. The word that comes to mind is Indelible, in the Dostoevsky sense (OK, I confess that Dostoevsky is my favourite novelist. I know, I audited second-hand a course taught by Vladimir Nabokov, then teaching "Russian Literature" at Cornell in Syracuse. Nabokov despised Dostoevsky and unofficially nominated Tolstoy to Sainthood.

His own books reveal his preference: everything is as perfect as Mozart. That, frankly, is why I prefer Dostoevsky: it's messy and hurried (no doubt due to impending gambling debts, augmented by the deadlines of serial-publication in newspapers).

To my taste, it is the hurry to get it down on paper that I love the most. Sentences and paragraphs are not so precisely chiseled as Tolstoy or Fowles or de Lillo would have carved them, and that is precisely why I love Dostoevsky. I get the feeling from his writing that he is rushing to capture Reality, as opposed to pausing and contemplating and shaping his sentences exquisitely. The latter approach shall always be outrun by Reality.

Dostoevsky reminds me most of Courbet, the French Realist painter. His works strike me as equally hurried: so many events and situations to capture, with so little time left.

Anthony Doerr has pretty much redefined our expectations of the short story form. OK, I'm making a judgement here, or at least stating a preference. Much as I admire Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, I can't say that anything I've read by either has left me so shaken as the stories in Memory Wall. This book is going to live with me a long time.


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