On Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories

Though I started on Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, five full books turned out to be too much for NYRB Reading Week. So instead, something a bit different. Thanks to The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons for hosting NYRB Reading Week. It’s been fantastic!

Since the defining quality of Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories, edited and with an introduction by Randall Jarrell, is that it is edited and introduced by Randall Jarrell, it seems appropriate to discuss it’s introduction as well as its content. I admit to a complete unfamiliarity with Jarrell before receiving this volume as a gift, but then I don’t know much of American poets or critics of his era (born in 1914, Jarrell died in 1965). I found his essay by turns interesting and almost infuriating. I think his arguments about the nature of stories are interesting, and possibly even helpful, except they are littered with sentences like “If wishes were stories, beggars would read; if stories were true, our saviors would speak to us in parables,” and “In narrative at its purest or most eventful we do not understand but are the narrative.” It’s not that I disagree with these points, when I can decipher them. But I find Jarrell’s essay style a bit rambling, perhaps a bit too much on the poetic side; I think I’m supposed to feel too much of it. It would also probably be easier if I knew more Freud, but, you know, that’s cool.

His selection of stories is diverse, interesting, and for the most part—at least, as far as I know, because I haven’t read all the stories—very good. He laments the many exclusions he’s had to make in the introduction, and certainly there are many. Such is the nature of an anthology. A few writers are lucky to be represented twice: Kafka, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Ludwig Tieck’s “Fair Eckbert,” probably one of my favorite stories, makes the cut, and any fan of German Romantic fairy tales should read it right now. Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm make an appearance, along with a Chinese fairy tale and the Book of Jonah. Jarrell’s taste is interesting.

There are poems as well, and a dark, brooding story by D.H. Lawrence, “Samson and Delilah,” that I would put among the better of his work. This is also where I read the beautiful “Byezhin Prairie” by Ivan Turgenev.

Sometimes Jarrell’s choices do not work for me, as with “La Lupa” by Giovanni Verga. The story of a supernaturally seductive middle-aged Sicilian woman who drives her son-in-law mad left me cold. It was my first Verga and I wonder whether I wouldn’t like him much more in a longer form. And I admit it’s been a while since I read Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “A Tale of the Cavalry,” but my memory of it doesn’t have me in any rush to give it a second go.

It’s a strange sort of thing, to republish an anthology like this. But as a lover both of short stories and their worship, I can certainly get behind it. Where else was I really going to read Tolstoy’s “The Porcelain Doll,” a fine and tiny thing? And perhaps someday when I re-read the introduction I’ll be feeling more poetic, less structured, and better able to follow Jarrell’s musings on the nature of stories.

4 comments to On Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories

  • I had no idea Jarrell’s anthology was so idiosyncratic. It has personality. Plus, Tieck, who is not so easy to find.

  • This sounds like a wonderful collection. Lately, I’ve developed a new appreciation for short stories. Thanks so much for actively participating in NYRB Reading Week! I’ve enjoyed reading your reviews.

  • I love short stories, and initially, I thought this collection was Jarrell’s. What a joy to find out the stories are from authors I love like Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Lawrence. Thank you so much for blogging about this book, and thank you for your fourth(!) review for NYRB Reading Week.:)

  • AR—Idiosyncratic, yes, that is the word I should have come up with when writing this. And yes, if he’s getting Tieck into people’s hands, awesome.

    Mrs. B—Thanks, and thanks for hosting!

    fantaghiro—Yes, the title is not exactly the most clear thing in the universe. Thanks to you as well for hosting!