I think that, like me, when asked to name stories by Margaret Atwood, most readers would name some of the impressive body of novels she’s written. This is strange because her short stories are well represented on my bookshelves where Wilderness Tips sit alongside Bluebeard’s Egg and Dancing Girls, and I’ve fleetingly enjoyed the view of the world, recognisable but slantwise, that Atwood presents in these collections as much as any of her novels.
Her recent collection Stone Mattress (the title taken from a short story she originally published inThe New Yorker) is no exception to this, and if anything, I enjoyed the stories more for having experienced the timeframe in which they are set because the immediacy of the real world events contrasted with the inherent otherness of Atwood’s writing really amplifies the sense that you often get from her short stories that there’s something else lurking in the shade of the text; another six stories waiting to be told or another perspective which dances behind the wry humour and remains just beyond your reach.
There’s something for fans old and new here, and I especially enjoyed the hints that Margaret Atwood is making merry of her literary reputation contrasting the reception of an unsympathetic literati with that of a pulp fiction writing student desperately trying to make rent and a distracted granny whose coping mechanisms have achieved cult status. Anti-feminists who claim that Atwood is a man-hating bitch will probably be outraged to see that she’s given them something to get their teeth into using a cast of well-loved characters from The Robber Bride, but I imagine she had a twinkle in her eye writing that story.
I don’t know about you, but when I come across a new author I like, I do a little google stalk. Just a little one, no harm, no foul. And sometimes, I get this weird bittersweet moment when I realise that the amazing author I’ve just read is not much older than me. Not that you need to be old to be a great writer, but it’s that kind of jealousy that comes from someone being so amazing so young. A bit like when I see these tween celebrities looking chic and sophisticated. How do people do that? And why do I have to judge myself against the successes of others?
We can discuss my possible need for therapy in another post and for now I’ll stick to telling you about the amazing writer who inspired this latest fit of oh-but -you’re-so-young (the worst case since I read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth at university). Miroslav Penkov (born in 1982… 3 years! 3 years!) is Assistant Professor of Creative writing at the University of North Texas. Getting tenure at such an early age, you can imagine the quality of his work.
I was lucky enough to receive his first book, East of the West: A Country in Stories, a collection of short stories which read like a semi-autobiographical examination of his feelings towards his native Bulgaria. Part punchy, part elagaic, his stories are full of heart and colour. I always think that short stories must be harder to write than novels, because they need to do everything the latter does in a fraction of the word count, but Penkov is a master of the form. The wizardry for me lies in me believing that the author is every character narrating the story. He is a 16 year old girl with a penchant for theft; an elderly man struggling with the discovery that his wife had a lover before they met; his is the grandson and the grandfather locked in a war of wills who express their love for one another through a series of arguments and insults as below:
‘When Grandpa learned I was leaving for America to study, he wrote me a good-bye note. “You rotten capitalist pig,” the note read, “have a safe flight. Love, Grandpa.” It was written on a creased red ballot from the 1991 elections, which was a cornerstone in Grandpa’s communist ballot collection, and it bore the signatures of everybody in the village of Leningrad. I was touched to receive such an honor, so I sat down, took out a one dollar bill, and wrote Grandpa the following reply: “You communist dupe, thanks for the letter. I’m leaving tomorrow, and when I get there I’ll try to marry an American woman ASAP. I’ll be sure to have lots of American children. Love, your grandson.”’
Buying Lenin, East of The West, Miroslav Penkov
I think it takes a certain wisdom to be able to understand others that well, to be able to empathise with people who in terms of age, sex or nationality are very different to you, so in my mind Penkov is very wise. The collection of stories is, of course, focussed on the history of Bulgaria, of the East West divide, communism and capitalism, old and young but for me it can be pared down further to say that he captures the human spirit, in many of its beautiful and ugly guises.
A winning blend of folktale and modern patter, this collection is a must read if you’re interested in diversifying beyond the traditional realm of English language fiction. I sincerely hope that it encourages other publishers to develop their short story publishing, as I really feel that it’s an undervalued form and East of The West shows just how well it can be done.