In an interview last month, the noted Indian artist A Ramachandran said, “Most of my paintings span three or four panels, and the average size of a painting is 15ft (height) by 20ft (wide). I prefer working on large canvases because the space allows me to experiment. To put it in another way, I think of myself as a novelist and not a short story writer.” I must admit, I’m quite the opposite – most of my drawings are 5in by 8in and I prefer finishing them in one sitting. This is also why I love short stories.
I grew up on passive media like two-channel television and rotary phones. I believe my high school crushes would’ve evaporated a lot faster if I had had access to 24-hour texting and social media. There is such a thing as mystery and unrequited love that the internet totally kills off in an instant. In all that spare time I had back then sans SMS, I used a lot of it reading. I still like to read all kinds of things but my one enduring literary love affair has been with short stories. Short stories were and are still considered to be the lesser of the two when compared to a novel.
But, I’m delighted to see that it is experiencing a resurgence in the age of digital publishing where our smaller phone screens lend themselves to shorter narratives. I mean, with our busy tech-consumed lives, what’s not to love about concise stories that can be read, liked and shared in less than a few minutes, right? This is after all the era of nourishing, fuss-free, single-serve, instant, on-the-go, disposable, heat and eat chicken soup for the soul.
Short stories are the best choices for when I just don’t have the time but still like to read and feel accomplished. Most of them are well-written because I realize it takes a tremendous amount of skill to write one. Brevity doesn’t come easily to everyone. I tend to reread a lot of them and appreciate them even more – something I rarely ever do with novels. As an undergrad, I minored in English Literature and in between the prescribed Heart of Darkness and Silas Marner, I somehow managed to squeeze in short stories of Poe, O Henry, Saki, Dickens, Wilde, Doyle, Tolstoy, Camus, Kafka, even Jeffrey Archer.
When my husband and I first started dating, he bought me Samuel Beckett’s ‘First Love.’ Inscribed on the inside were these words –
…and my last.
“If you do not love me I shall not be loved, If I do not love you I shall not love.”
I’d never read First Love before that and nor had he, just 18 pages, it was published in 1973 after Beckett had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but originally a short story he wrote in French in 1945. In it, Beckett is heartless, his characters are aware of worldly ignorance, earthly pains, societal disappointments, and moral dilemmas. But they don’t let these inhibitions imprison them.
Beckett’s own love life was far from perfect and ‘First Love’ is not his best work either, but it’s the kind of story everyone has got to read once. Aside from the fact that much of his writing is a bleak, tragicomic outlook on human existence, often coupled with black comedy and gallows humour – Beckett was a strikingly handsome man even in his 80s.
After reading ‘First Love,’ I couldn’t resist drawing that still-handsome Beckett face – craggy, wrinkled, stark, warm, bemused – It was almost too tough to get all those lines right. And I almost ended up falling in love with a man that I never met.
My favorite last lines from ‘First Love’: “I could have done with other loves perhaps. But there it is, either you love or you don’t.”
Beckett is buried in Paris with a simple granite gravestone that follows his directive that it should be “any color, so long as it’s grey.” One can say the same for much of his writing too.
Every November people all around the UK celebrate National Short Story Week by writing, reading and listening to short stories. A good short story has all the adventure, excitement and magic of a novel, just in far fewer words!
So this is just my way of celebrating the best of short fiction that I have enjoyed.