The Conductor & Other Tales by Jean Ferry (translated from the French by Edward Gauvin)


Some interests spring fully formed from within, sending us off on a mission to gather information.  I find that my obsessions more often evolve. I find myself returning to the same subject at completely random intervals, unintentionally or even unknowingly, until a gradual immersion occurs over time.  In this way I began reading Sartre in high school because I was (and remain) obsessed with pandemic literature – of which The Plague is a brilliant example. My introduction to Borges came later via a sous chef in North Carolina who, after coming out to ask how I’d like my ostrich prepared, joined a friend and I for drinks. The discussion turned to books and the next morning I found his card on my windshield. “Ficciones” Borges written on the back.  A year or two later Italo Calvino’s The Nonexistant Knight & The Cloven Viscount was passed around my circle of friends – though, thinking back, it seems impossible that I hadn’t already read If On A Winter’s Knight A Traveler.  As for Oulipo, I can’t remember where I first heard that name. Perhaps Electrico W?  Or the Three Percent Podcast?  But Surrealism as a literary movement, separate from a visual one, came to my attention through a very specific (and completely unlikely) source – the Japanese author Kawamata Chiaki.

Only in the last month did I start connecting all those books to the French College of ‘Pataphysics; a shadowy  (and willfully nebulous) institution which came into being at the same time as Surrealism,  and would go on to  spawn Oulipo.

The Conductor and Other Tales is the one and only book of fiction written by Jean Ferry – a French filmmaker, script doctor and surrealist author whose most lasting literary achievement was his critical analysis of the French literary icon and personality Raymond Roussel.*  It is a collection of short stories – some only a few paragraphs in length – dealing with the fears and anxieties that are a basic ingredient in the human psyche. They are the stuff we deal with in nightmares (normal nightmares, not the horror shows of Wes Craven’s and George Romero’s slumber). Ferry was enmeshed with the Surrealists –  exhaustion, sleep and/or dreams are mentioned by almost all his narrators.  And the stories, themselves, resemble dreams  – or rather, the kinds of puzzles and wordplay which surrealists love and have long represented as dreams. Think of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (aka -“This is not a pipe”). Surrealism, as does everything eventually, becomes a “type” – and these stories by Jean Ferry are of a type.  But, in my opinion, they represent the best of that type.

The Conductor, the story for which the collection is named and onto which André Breton lavished praise, deals with a common nightmare scenario.  The narrator is a conductor on a train that never stops.  Everyone – the passengers, engine crew, attendants – are trapped.  There is an unlimited supply of coal and tracks, and enough food so that no one goes hungry.  But no one can disembark.  Ever.  The conductor remembers a time when the train did stops in stations, but that seems to have been a long time ago.  He can’t recall why or when things changed.  He goes on to talk about how he and the passengers have come to accept the situation, the mental adjustments they have made in order to do so.  Always the conductor addresses the reader directly  – making you feel as if you are sitting beside him in the engine car.  As if you, too, are trapped on the train with him.  The Conductor bears all the hallmarks of classic Twilight Zone episodes.  So much so that I actually researched online whether Ferry had ever written one himself (he had not).

My Aquarium is a strange little story.  The aquarium it refers to is filled with little creatures which are the physical embodiment of the narrators’s suicidal thoughts.  He keeps them imprisoned in a box and feeds them like pets, hoping they will never escape.  Like most of the stories in The Conductor and Other Tales, it is short.  At under one page, it’s an unintentional precursor to flash fiction.

The Society Tiger – perhaps Ferry’s most famous short story and one of the earliest to be translated – is  the name of the vaudeville act featured in the story.  A woman appears in the theater between acts, escorted to her seat by a companion: a tiger dressed in evening clothes and standing erect like a man.  The two take their seats in a box visible to the entire audience and the tiger proceeds to perform the affectations of a gentleman.  The narrator hates The Society Tiger – for he alone realizes that the beast is always on the edge of breaking his mental restraints and attacking the audience.  It is a deeply disturbing story (particularly the ending) that seems to sympathize with the tiger.

You probably noticed a pattern emerging.  Many of these stories are structured like jokes:  the obvious set-up, a slight misdirection and then the punchline. Some are very funny.  Some disturbing.  Here, for example, is the entire text of The Chinese Astrologer:

The Chinese Astrologer wears out his years calculating the date of his death.  Until dawn each night he amasses signs, figures. He ages, becomes a stranger to his fellows; but his calculations advance. He reaches his goal. Astrology will reveal the date of his death. Then, one morning, the brush falls from his fingers. From loneliness, from fatigue, perhaps from regret, he dies. He had but one sum left to perform.

Allow me to liken the Chinese astrologer to the intellectual who died of exhaustion at a young age for, on top of a draining, harassing, and poorly paid day job, he put his every spare moment toward preparing a monumental and definitive critical edition of Lefargue’s The Right to Be Lazy.

Edward Gauvin’s translation is wonderful – written in a way which is chatty, informal and friendly.   He’s kept the  prose contemporary in tone, though some of the ideas and stereotypes Ferry puts forward are dated.  The narrators are all storytellers and Gauvin has achieve the effect of making us feel as if we are listening to, instead of reading, the stories.  He seems to be very familiar with Ferry and his fellows – not only contributing a translator’s note to the edition, but publishing numerous online articles here and here.  Oh, and remember this?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the physical book, itself, is charming.  Wakefield Press (based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and not affiliated, to my knowledge, with the Australian publisher of the same name) is a small, independent publishing house that understands the value of a well-made product.  Their books are relatively small (4-1/2″ x 7″) paperback editions with tastefully subdued covers and details such as french flaps, patterned endpapers, black & white illustrations (in the case of The Conductor and Other Tales drawn by Claude Ballaré) and beautiful formatting.  Objects to be coveted by any self-respecting bibliophiles.  And Wakefield seems to specialize in books by members/friends of the College of ‘Pataphysics.  I recently bought both Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting a Place In Paris and A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan.  I’ve been meaning to read something by Perec for ages – he was a character in Chiaki’s novel.  Mac Orlan I’ve never heard of, but I’m almost finished with his book.  Needless to say, it is wonderful.

The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe.) by Rene Magritte

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 939663 01 6

*It speaks volumes that most of my readers are at this point in the post thinking – who is Raymond Roussel?  You will not find that answer here.  I recommend trying here.

This Is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi, translated from Italian by Elizabeth Harris

This Is the Garden opens with an excerpt  from  a poem by Claudio Damiani –

This is the garden; when you look it’s far

too bright and burns your eyes

and so you turn away, although you know

that everything is real, everything you see

is real, and through time life unwinds

and is complete . . .

This is the GardenThose words sum up this collection of short stories by Giulio Mozzi.  Some are very good, some less so.  All involve the reader in situations that are uncomfortable (almost painful):  a letter from a thief to the woman whose purse he’s stolen; an author at a book signing addressing the audience; an apprentice who dreams of being promoted.   Stories that create the kind of emotional response that takes the reader to a place they don’t necessarily want to be are the kinds of stories I’m usually drawn to.  But this collection had me feeling look-warm.  Not excited. Not disappointed.  I kept waiting to be moved and wasn’t.

Yet, there is still a lot left to admire.

The Apprentice puts us in the head of a young apprentice who wants nothing more than to be promoted from running errands to working on the factory floor. He’s incredibly earnest and intelligent, character traits that separate him from the men he aspires to join.  From the very first paragraph we know what the boy doesn’t, for the simple reason that we possess the life experience he doesn’t.  And Mozzi’s ability to impart that time of life when naivety is transitioning into  a faltering understanding of how the world operates is special.  He nails it. Too often young narrators are really only adults looking back on their younger selves.  But Mozzi’s apprentice is grounded firmly in the moment.

F. is firmly grounded in its protagonist’s present, following the final hours of a magistrate in witness protection.  His keeper has arranged a meeting with the beloved magistrate’s wife (also under witness protection, but inexplicably kept in a separate location from her husband). The crime and threats and reasons for the couple’s voluntarily separation only lightly touched on.  Instead F. focuses on the magistrate’s daily reality, detailing his day almost second-by-second, up until the very last second of the magistrate’s life.

Another favorite is Glass.  The story is only a few pages long – the shortest in the collection.  In that short space you get the sense of a troubled man finding his way back from something – again, never specified – which has unbalanced his life.  He meticulously describes his yard to the reader: repairs done to the porch; the wall shared with a neighbor.

I especially like the dividing wall between our yard and the neighbor’s to the right.  It’s just a dividing wall, and that’s probably why it was thrown up without much thought, back when they build the house, after the war. It must have been a brownish-orange once, like the house, but the paint seeped into the mortar, leaving only some dirty-gray stains and a touch of blue. The sun never hits the wall: it’s damp, blotchy, shaded and streaked with dark-green  and silver moss. In some places, you can see swellings, blisters – popped blisters.  In other places, the mortar’s flaking off or crumbling.  The layer beneath is yellowish, dusty. Years ago, the wall was covered in Virginia creeper…

… and so on.  The glass of the title is a metaphor and the overall effect of that, and this compulsive cataloguing by the narrator, is haunting.

A borderline OCD attention to detail, creation of lists and step-by-step reenactments of events appear in all of Mozzi’s stories.  If This Is a Garden were a painting it would fall within the purview of the hyper-realists.

These eight stories are evenly divided between first and third person narrators.  But those told from the third person perspective are more intimate and those were the stories that drew me in. When I stop to think about it, it makes more sense that a third person, omnipotent, narrator would feel more honest and objective.  All first person narrators are unreliable by definition.  They channel the world through a single, biased perspective; describing it as they believe it to be.  A third person narrator presents it as it exists in the author’s/creator’s mind.  And maybe that is another reason I preferred the latter examples.  Because the third person more accurately represents Mozzi’s prose, his writer-ly voice when he’s not attempting to inhabit a character. And it provides the translator, Elizabeth Harris, with greater artistic freedom.  The happy result is passages such as this: ‘The boys spent a long time talking about this silent answer, what it could mean. Some boys started belittling Yanez, almost mocked him. Suddenly his race mattered. Others said, “The Tiger’s Claw has broken,” and they were sad. It took a few years – time for the village boys to become village men – before most of them realized what Yanez’s answer meant.’

Publisher: Open Letter, Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 75 7

The Rise of the Short Story – Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog

TheRISEoftheShortStoryWelcome to The Rise of the Short Story:  a series dedicated to exploring the short story  and its current renaissance.  To that end – all during the month of February some of my favorite bloggers and podcasters will stop by to tell us why they love (or hate) short stories, why they think they’re back into vogue and to (of course!) recommend some of their favorites.

The tagline for Winstonsdad’s Blog is “best in translated lit from all four corners”.  That’s no idle boast:  Stu has reviewed 325 books from approximately 86 countries.  He’s the creator of the popular #TranslationThurs hashtag – and is one of the most passionate bloggers on the topic of translated and international literature on the web.  To be honest, I’m not sure where he finds the time!  When he’s not blogging or tweeting ( @stujallen ), then he’s participating in a lit month dedicated to one country or another, or engaged in a reading challenge or a juror on a shadow jury.
Simply put – If you’re interested in translations then you NEED to be reading Stu’s blog and following him on twitter.  Period.

I like the occasional short story I sit in the fence I regards them never a huge fan or hater of short stories ,because of the nature of what I rad mostly translations as with them in English they tend to be second class so there isn’t as many translated .But in recent years it is slowly change press like Peirene ,archipelago ,granta and new directions have all been publishing wonderful collections in translation . As for the short story on whole I thing as media and ways we read have changed they have come more to the for they suit podcasts ,phones and e readers and average short story can be read in a days commute to work . I feel short story have found there new home in the digital world .

As for a suggestion I ll give one definitive one and a couple other writers my book suggestion is Circus  Bulgaria by Deyan Enev a collection In Translation of rather unusual and odd short stories my favorite being one about a little boy and a hedgehog at night . My other suggestion is to look at the short stories of some great writers Evelyn Waugh and  E M Forster both much better known for the novels but both wrote innovative short stories much different than there novels at times .

Stu’s recommendations:  Circus Bulgaria by Deyan Enev, Evelyn Waugh & E.M. Forster

Thank you Stu for sharing your thoughts and recommendations on the rise of the short story.  And (most sincerely) for creating #TranslationThurs

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The Rise of the Short Story – Jenn the Picky Girl

TheRISEoftheShortStoryWelcome to The Rise of the Short Story:  a series dedicated to exploring the short story  and its current renaissance.  To that end – all during the month of February some of my favorite bloggers and podcasters will stop by to tell us why they love (or hate) short stories, why they think they’re back into vogue and to (of course!) recommend some of their favorites.

Jenn is the quintessential Southern lady.  She’s just so darn nice!  We first met in New York City at the 2012 Book Expo, where I like to think we bonded in the line for Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Prisoner of Heaven.  On her blog – The Picky Girl:  Reads, Creates, Blogs she not only  reviews books both critically and academically;  Jenn gives readers a window into the life of a single girl in the great state of Texas.  And –  I know you’re dying to ask – is she really that picky?  Keep reading and you’ll find out.

Short stories are, by their very nature, finite, and it is those very parameters that make them so artful in my eyes. It’s much like a snapshot in comparison to film. Not that movies are any better or worse than photographs, but the photographer has to craft the moment in a snapshot in a way that filmmakers (often) do not. The best photographs are those that seem to bleed beyond the borders, attempting to elucidate the objects or people contained within. A good short story does exactly that. My friend Jason Rice had his short story “Again, I Do, Redux”  published over at Vol. 1 Brooklyn yesterday. It’s brief but fascinating to read about a guy who realizes on his honeymoon he’s made the wrong choice. There’s nothing simple about it, yet it’s so accessible.

I argue this quite a lot, even though short story collections are least written about on book blogs and other review outlets. I think the dilemma is not so much the reading of the short stories but the writing about them. How do you begin? If the collection doesn’t tie together in terms of interconnected stories or characters, how on earth can you review it as a whole? It can certainly be difficult, and most reviews focus on stronger, more interesting stories, while reviewing the writing overall.

But reading short stories is another matter altogether. Perfectly fitted to waiting rooms, traffic jams, class breaks, or bed, in the last 20 minutes or so before sleep, a short story collection sits waiting. Most collections are loosely connected and can be picked up and put down, unlike a novel where continuity is typically key. I find myself seeking out short stories when I’m particularly busy or no book on my shelves is too inviting. They’ve gotten me out of more than one reading slump, and the confines of the narrative and complexities of the subject matter continually fascinate me.

So today I wanted to highlight my short story writer trifecta, the three short story writers whose writing is simple but far from simplistic, whose work I return to again and again, never tiring of the beauty and humanity encapsulated in such brief spaces:

Part of what I love about short fiction is the payoff. When you read a novel, sometimes the payoff is long in coming. In short stories, you don’t have long to wait, and the first time I read “Cathedral”, I sat, book in hand, tears in my eyes. Because Carver’s characters are nothing special. They’re Joe Blow, shallow, jealous, profane, insensitive. They’re you and I on our worst days. But there is some spark, some moment that lifts them from their ordinary lives, and the result is profound.

Start with: “A Small Good Thing”/”Careful”

Cheever. John Cheever speaks to the lost magic and wonder of adulthood. His stories are often called “stories of suburbia,” but in truth, they’re about the humdrum life of the adult, and those ways in which we either fall prey to it or challenge it.

If you’ve read anything by John Cheever, odds are it’s “The Swimmer”. And, if you haven’t read it, click on that little linkamajink, stat. Cheever’s stories are rife with internal conflict, but there’s also a sense of wonder in his stories that never fails to amaze me because of the sober subject matter. “The Swimmer” is the story of a man who decides one lazy Sunday afternoon to swim across town in swimming pools. And if that sounds odd, just wait until you see where these swimming pools take him. When we discuss this story in my Intro to Lit class, I have students help me create a map of the pools along with complete descriptions before we analyze this epic journey. It never fails to involve just about everyone (and if you teach, you know how difficult engagement can be).

Start with: “The Enormous Radio”/”The Country Husband”

I would say, of the three, Dubus is the most different. Whereas Cheever and Carver’s characters are isolated, whether they know it or not, Dubus’ characters are so humane. His character sketches are so sympathetic and forgiving of human failings. These are people facing loss of different sorts, and they react in the ways we do or the ways we might want to but cannot or do not.

Again, to focus on one particular story, “Killings” is probably his most anthologized story. A mother and father grieve for their son, and justice is far from being done. Watching his wife is almost as painful as Matt’s own grief, and that grief leads him to act in the only way he can conceive. It’s heartbreaking, and his anger, guilt, and sadness are palpable, urging you to understand and forgive, even if Matt himself cannot.

Start with: “A Father’s Story”

Jenn Recommends the masters of the short story:  John Cheever, Raymond Carver & Andre Dubus.

Thanks Jenn, for taking part!

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The Rise of the Short Story – Trevor from Mookse & the Gripes

TheRISEoftheShortStoryWelcome to The Rise of the Short Story:  a series dedicated to exploring the short story  and its current renaissance.  To that end – all during the month of February some of my favorite bloggers and podcasters will stop by to tell us why they love (or hate) short stories, why they think they’re back into vogue and to (of course!) recommend some of their favorites.

Trevor reviews contemporary literary fiction and modern classics (and lots of translations) at his blog The Mookse and the Gripes. He has a monthly podcast.  He hosts a free forum where readers can go to discuss the books, publishers and the literary awards they care about.  You can follow him on Twitter @mookse .  You can also follow The Mookse and the Gripes on Facebook.  Any day now he is going to start his own YouTube channel and officially become The BLOGGER KING of All Digital Media! *raises both fists above head as the word “Media” fades to an echo* 

 I’m guessing he drinks a LOT of coffee.

If all that weren’t enough – Trevor also has an ongoing series at his blog he calls The New Yorker Fiction Forum.  There, each week, he discusses the short story from the current issue.  I am so pleased that he agreed to take part in this series.  Because, really, who better to tell us why the short story should be considered relevant – even essential – in the current literary climate?

I love short stories even more than I love novels. Because they are short and rely on theme and structure, they pack in a great deal of mystery that appeals to me and often work better to explore the enigmatic dynamics between and within people.

I hope that short stories are, finally, getting over a rather long period of public dismissal. It’s been great to see short story collections getting major publicity, with ones by Alice Munro, Junot Diaz, Nathan Englander, and George Saunders, to name only a few, popping up in the most unlikely places. It was pretty amazing to see The New York Times Magazine say that George Saunders’ Tenth of December would be the best book we’d read this year, even though I didn’t particularly care for the collection. And Saunders was on The Colbert Report last week. Hopefully people pick up Saunders’ collection and also realize that George Saunders’ isn’t the only collection of short stories they should pay attention to. I think this is happening, bit by bit. I sense a rising interest in the form itself, and I hope it is because more readers, perhaps initially reading a short story due to our digital culture and shorter attention spans, recognize that a short story can be deep, personal, expansive, profound, memorable, life-changing and life-affirming.

But if we want to see short stories get the respect they deserve, we’ve got a lot more work to do. Many readers still see short stories as trifles, apprentice pieces, something an immature writer does to practice in preparation for their novel. Consequently, many short story collections come off as exactly that, a series of incomplete pieces and fragments of novels churned out in an MFA workshop, only furthering the myth that the short story is “small,” corrupting marketing dynamics which in turn discourages writers from exploring the form. It wasn’t always this way, and thankfully talented short story writers are sticking to their guns, refusing — probably much to the chagrin of their publishers — to follow up a short story collection with a novel because they don’t buy into the idea that a short story is small.

We can also help short stories out by giving them a place in “serious” literary awards. For instance, it’s a shame that, in their quest to promote “the finest in fiction,” The Man Booker Prize excludes short story collections, dismissing the notion that a short story collection could be the “best” in any given year. The short story still suffers in the United Kingdom, and this could well play a part. It would also be wonderful if the Nobel Prize would reward the work of, say, Alice Munro or William Trevor, recognizing that through the short story these two writers increased the potential of world literature. Encouragingly, the Man Booker International Prize did reward Alice Munro in 2009, and this year among its finalists are three authors — Lydia Davis, Peter Stamm, and Josip After RainNovakovich — who are well known, perhaps even primarily known, for their short stories. Discouragingly, the inclusion of short story writers has actually turned out to be one of the reasons this award is criticised as not being “serious.” Am I being pessimistic? Perhaps, but that pessimism is well overshadowed by the thrill I’ve felt ever since I fell in love with the form, and I’m optimistic that every day someone else has the same experience.

If you’re skeptical, please consider one of my favorite short story collections, William Trevor’s After Rain, and enjoy in it one of my all-time favorite short stories, ‘The Piano Tuner’s Wives’.

Trevor’s recommendation:  After Rain by William Trevor.  And you can find links to all Trevor’s reviews on the  fiction published in The New Yorker (going back to 2009!) here.

Thank you Trevor for taking part in The Rise of the Short Story.

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