Tournament of Short Stories: Randall Jerrell’s Book of Stories vs. The O. Henry Awards 1995.

Sometimes, it’s just not fair.

I picked up a copy of Prize Stories 1995 from The O. Henry Awards somewhere, I don’t recall, probably a library book sale, thinking it would be fun to add a random assortment of good stories to my tournament.  O. Henry Award winners, I thought, they’re probably all good.”

So far they are.  I read two for this round: “The Women Come and Go” by Cornelia Nixon and “Talking to Charlie” by John J. Clayton.  Both were good stories.  Both are about trying to find connections with people–trying and failing, then trying and succeeding a bit.  Both very modern in their “feel”.

But when compared to the two I read from Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories, well….it’s just not fair.

Randall Jarrell–poet, essayist, critic, poet laureate before it was even called poet laureate–assembled his book of stories in 1958 as a way to illustrate his own theories about what makes a story.  I read many of the stories in his book back when I bought it several years ago but have had the last third sitting on my shelves unread for some time now.  I remembered them as being kind of odd overall, good, but odd.

For this round I read “A Tale of the Calvary” by Hugo Hofmannsthal and William Blake’s “The Mental Traveller.”   Both were memorable pieces of writing, something the O. Henry Award stories were not.  But, again, Mr. Jarrell had centuries to pull his selections from, millenia, really, since he includes a few tales from the Old Testament and ancient China.

While I can’t say that I gained much from the story in Mr. Hofmannsthal’s piece, the writing describing the battle scenes and the ruin left behind was very moving stuff.  Hugo Hofmannsthal may be some one I should check out.  He strikes me as perfect reading for Amateur Reader over at Wuthering Expectations.

As for Blake….

“The Mental Traveller” features the mystical Blake, the slightly crazy stuff that many people never get around to reading.  Just what is he talking about here, I’m not sure. I think I’d have to read this narrative poem five or six more times before I get close to what’s really going on.  There appear to be two characters, a man and a woman, tied to each other through the ages.  She raises him when he is born, while she grows younger; then the reverse happens.  But it’s a “mental traveller” so is any of this really happening or just being imagined.  There’s this stanza with its famous second line:

The Guests are scatter’d thro’ the land,

For the Eye altering alters all;

The Senses roll themselves in fear,

And the flat Earth becomes a ball;

Who among us can ever hope to compete with that?

It’s really not fair.

But I have to give this round to Randell Jarrell’s Book of Stories. I’m looking forward to reading more.  D.H. Lawrence and Leo Tolstoy will be the two I read when this book comes up in round two of my Tournament of Short Stories.

Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. Exactly right!

    I know what you mean by “not fair,” since that is practically how I organize most of my reading. When I do read a contemporary novel, I try not to spend too much time wondering why it is not as good as Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Homer.

    1. I knew this was someone you would have read. I think there is a very strong case to be made for only read dead writers. Once in a while I do come upon a new book that I think can stand up to Tolstoy or Homer, but never Shakespeare.

Comments are closed.