Last week end I attended one of the loveliest book festivals in the UK: Small Wonder, THE short story festival which takes place at Charleston, Vanessa Bell’s beautiful house, close to Lewes. So many things make it special: it’s location close to the Sussex coast and in the undecorated barn of the Bloomsbury set’s country home, the beautiful garden where one can wander, read, chat or nap during the leisurely one hour intervals between sessions and it’s very essence: it is THE only short story festival in the UK.
I’ve always loved the form, the tightness of a story that has to evoke a whole world or tell a full life in just a few pages. The French poet Charles Baudelaire said that writers wrote long stories only because they were incapable of writing short ones and Grace Paley said life is too short for writing anything longer than short stories. I’ve heard Etgar Keret tell how everytime he would start a story, he would think that he was embarking on a long work of fiction, something on the scale of Lord of the Rings, to be done after just a few pages. One of my most exciting reads recently has been a small volume by David Eagleman, Sum: 40 Tales from the Afterlife, each one amazing and surprising in its depiction of the many possibilities awaiting us after we die.
I did not attend every event in the festival but the ones I did were thoroughly enjoyable. My first one was a reading from Liver by Will Self on top form. The beauty of a short story festival is that the length of the texts makes them suitable for reading out loud, something extremely pleasurable, especially by someone as gifted as Will, it takes us back to our childhood. It reminded me of Daniel Pennac, the author of the Belleville Quintet, remarking that all too often once children know how to read on their own, they get deprived of that intimate moment with a parent, leading more than one child to reject the exercise altogether. This is why, as he explains in Reads Like a Novel, he used to read aloud to his secondary school pupils to reconnect them with the pleasure of stories and books. The Small Wonder evening ended with a late night event in a gorgeous Arabian tent I would have loved to go to if I did not think I would fall asleep on the scattered mattresses and cushions. Children’s books were to be read aloud, unashamedly taking the audience to its early years.
The next day would have felt like a marathon anywhere else than at Charleston. I was not the only person attending all the sessions. So was the lovely Tania Hershman, whose collection of short stories, The White Road, I so enjoyed, and who came to JBW last year. She likes to start from a true story, often with a scientific slant. She is also the person who best captured the illusion of being fully bilingual and the trials of not living in one’s mother’s tongue.
Erica Wagner read a very funny story by Margaret Atwood and wondered at the reasons why the UK won’t give the same credentials to the short story as other English-speaking countries will. Since her days as Booker judge, she is still campaigning to include short story collections in the selection. Paradoxically Alice Munro who won the Man Booker International Prize cannot be entered for the Booker Prize in the UK! All too often the short story is considered just a stepping stone towards writing a “proper” long novel and many publishers will only publish collections after an author has made his or her mark. It was obvious there were many would be writers in the audience, some of whom had attended of the writing workshop, and this was reflected by the number of questions about the process of writing itself. (Which did not exclude the question to Will Self about his flamboyant shirt and why he had chosen to wear it….).
Esther Freud read a powerful, partly autobiographical, story about a young writer’s visit to PalFest, the festival that takes writers to the West Bank. Earlier that week, I had gone to listen to human rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh at an event in London. His account of the pain of living in Ramallah today was painful to listen to, the thwarted hopes, the huge gap between the two sides, each one dehumanising the other, made for a difficult experience. Still, as I told him, I hope that one day he will come and talk to the JBW audience. If festivals only exist to talk to one’s own, I don’t see the point of going on organising them.
Going back to Small Wonder, AL Kennedy read a story part of Freedom, an anthology commissioned by Amnesty International to commemorate the Declaration of Human Rights. She gave us a lesson in putting oneself into somebody else’s shoes, not necessarily the most sympathetic person. It was the story of a young woman soldier in Iraq, inspired by the Abu Ghraib scandal, who finds herself transformed into a torturer. As always with AL Kennedy, the story was spare, funny and tragic all at once. I got a chance to chat to Alison afterwards and found out that she and our friend Shalom Auslander with whom she did a session two years ago are still in touch and that he’s had a second son, Mazel Tov! Creating connections is another raison d’etre for festivals.
Hephzibah Anderson, Kathy Lette and Christopher Fowler took part in a balloon debate in which each had to defend his own favourite story. I like the balloon debate format and one may appear at the next JBW. Something has to be thrown out of the plummeting balloon to help it regain altitude. The speakers battle it out to convince the audience that it is not their story or idea. HG Wells won over the Kama Sutra and a story about a teenager’s efforts to have his first sexual experience. I’ll let you guess who was supporting which.
Ben Okri introduced us to his new invented form the Shoku, a mix between a short story and a haiku, a very short short story with a strange dream like quality. I told him the very exciting news (for us) that for the first time ever JBW would commission new writing and asked him whether he would agree to come, he was very encouraging and said that, if he could, he would gladly do. Indeed we are planning two events of unread and unheard before stories. The first one will be our opening night, a Purim Spiel with a twist on the 27 Febuary and the following Saturday, an exercise on the flimsy line which separates fiction from non fiction. Watch this space to learn more about future developments and the names of participating writers.
Michel Faber gave us an idea of the unbelievable treat it is to be given a new story. He first talked very movingly about his experience as a writer, his delusion after the huge success of The Crimson Petal and The White and the discovery of the literary circus. This was followed by his powerlessness confronting the war in Iraq and the impotence of the writer at changing the world. As a result, he went through a dark period of reclusion. Having finally gone back to writing and accepted Diana Reich’s invitation (the magical force behind the festival), he felt it his duty to write a story which he introduced by saying that it may never be heard again or read anywhere as he had no intention of publishing a new collection any time soon. It was the moving story of a man whose marriage is falling apart but who is trying to at least salvage his relationship with his young daughter. It was just perfect, a real gift, all the more beautiful as it was totally unexpected. He then read us a hilarious excerpt from The Fire Gospel, a book on the vacuous quest for literary fame and money, a short pastiche of some recent overblown bestsellers and a satire of religious fanatics and gullible believers.
I hope this will make you want to read more short stories and, if need be, reevaluate this underestimated genre. Against my strongest determination, I came back with a pile of new books to read I don’t know when. Small Wonder was also the occasion of the launch of a new website, Spoken Ink, which will enable its subscribers to listen to the best new writing. Hopefully they will have convinced Michel Faber to include his story.