Best European Fiction 2012 edited by Aleksandar Hemon, preface by Nicole Krauss
"Tweet this, motherfuckers!" Aleksandar Hemon shouts on the first page of his introduction to Best European Fiction 2012, a series now in its third year and perhaps feeling the tempest of adolescence. With the same choler as Nicole Krauss's prefatory middle finger to Facebook, Hemon, Best European Fiction's pugnacious editor, is picking a fight on behalf of the "infinite variation of human experience, which can never be spent or diminished to a tweet," though it can, apparently, fit into a short story: the thirty-four blasts of fiction compiled here aren't 140 characters, but they aren't 140 pages, either, and Hemon argues forcefully for these stories as just-right jolts of transcendence. Any longer, they could not be quickly enough consumed on ye olde subway ride to work; any shorter and we'd be "diminishing."
But while tweets and status updates are absent from Best European Fiction, the stories themselves are sped by the very boundary-vaporizing abilities Twitter and Facebook display at their best. Fiercely current, these tales of economic collapse, terrorism, political revolution, sexual exploration, and technology read as if spray painted onto the galley proofs, suggesting a more complicated kinship with our more relentlessly-updated media than Hemon's and Krauss's straw-manning salvos suggests. Twitter may not have the substantive purchase on the world that short fiction does, but neither need its brevity be inimical to the latter's cause. It might be all for the better if Hemon's collection doesn't quite have his back in this tussle.
Hemon, for the record, is a shrewd shepherd of this series. Though each entry in Best European Fiction hails from a different nation, and a few multilingual countries get one piece per tongue, Hemon's corralling of stories around subjects (love, war, home, evil) makes the diverse voices read as if they really are engaged in an impromptu symposium on human nature. Dutch writer Sanneke van Hassel's harrowing story "Pearl," about the emotional ravages of pregnancy, talks to "The Children," by Noelle Revaz, a Swiss writer working in French; despite their gulfs of nationality and language, Revaz's question -- "For what are you using the blood we've kept in your veins for the past thousand years?" -- speaks for both of them. This arrangement works even better when it seems counterintuitive: why, for instance, "I, Loshad'," a Czech story about a super-intelligent horse in the Russian army who debates Kant with a woman raped by the marauding soldiers, is classed in the "Thought" section as opposed to the "War" section could fill a literature seminar.
"I may be a horse," the narrator of "I, Loshad'" informs us, "but I have the memory of an elephant." The story is another of several in the collection narrated by an animal, and indeed much of the collection seems intent on defining "First Person, Mischievous" as a new point of view. We get the perspectives of a soap opera star, a lovelorn dog, a woman trapped on the floor after suffering a stroke, an Antarctic researcher, a man barricaded in a building about be demolished. Their voices pervade the collection. "I have six ties, three suits, and five hundred books," the Castilian narrator of "Today" says. "I don't know what else you could want to know about me." Says a Galacian dog, experiencing as fresh injustice the endemic longing to which we humans have grown inured: "These moments were fleeting, as if happiness in life were always limited to small doses guaranteed never to satisfy our longing." A detective from Montenegro concurs: "Woman cope with adultery much better... cheated men crumple like a used condom." The Icelandic narrator of "The Ice People" notes of a girl she's forced to befriend: "[Her] answers were incredibly short, like each syllable cost as much as individual characters on a telegram." That's a stellar sentence, but my favorite belongs to the Welsh narrator of "Bigamy": "He's a great man with a shovel, but there's something laborious about Tony Pye with a newspaper."
These lines are more than witty (but less, it should be noted, than 140 characters): they suggest just the defamiliarizing power that makes fiction such a sly agent of change. I've seen countless men read the newspaper, but never as Duncan Bush described Mr. Pye's reading of it, and this small re-angling is repeated in a larger sense by his story, as the narrator attempts to get the men around him to regard the case of bigamy in the paper with more than summary judgment. To cause us to look anew upon our world, whether a man reading a newspaper or a man accused a crime, is one of fiction's eternal tasks.
But Best European Stories is depleted as much as energized by its voices. First person point-of-view accounts for all but a drop of stories in the collection, and piece after piece substitutes an overbearing narrative voice for dramatic development. Too many of these stories follow the same pattern, starting with the narrator detailing strange surroundings, often in plain descriptive sentences that become interchangeable with those from other stories, and quickly ending without much of import having happened, as if the sheer fact of witness were enough. This is a constant danger of first person: the establishment of a veracious world through confession's pronoun has such an aura of intimate accomplishment that writers often feel they have completed an emotional arc when in fact it has not even begun.
If that's the danger of one narrative, the danger of thirty or so in a row is to weaken the force of narration itself. "The first thing I saw was round, domed shapes," begins one story, but it could begin any number of them. This arbitrariness infects the narrators, who, in recounting their stories, feel perfectly entitled to elide whatever emotions they don't want to investigate, reader be damned. "Perhaps I don't know exactly how I feel," says the soap opera star, apparently untroubled by the urge to find out. "I walked around slowly," says the young protagonist of the go-nowhere "Magic," "and then headed, for whatever reason, towards the steps." Whatever reason! One hopes he finds it some day. "I can see that she's changed," says a French narrator about her mother, "or maybe just grown older." Aside from the fact that growing older is changing, which is it? If the narrator doesn't know, who does?
More to the point, if the narrator doesn't know, how much of the "infinite variation of human experience, which can never be spent or diminished to a tweet," are we really getting? Just as Duncan Bush's narrator, in rendering his unique snapshot of our prismatic world, enacted the bigger project of narrative fiction, so do the fuzzy details and lazy lines of these lesser narrators prick against fiction's power.
Let's take the French narrator and her mother as a prime example. The daughter is an artist, and apparently not knowing things is a chronic condition: "I'd like to capture the other side of these things," she says of her photography, "I don't know, their fragility." Most of the story is a recounting of her emotional reaction to ho-hum peregrinations, a trip to London, a missing cat, and so on. Smack in the middle of this tale, however, the mother is found in a pet cemetery with her long-dead husband's ashes, attempting to resurrect him by the same magic through which her cat had returned post-funeral (they turned out to have simply buried the wrong feline). But the story is so removed from this startling, potentially revelatory scene: it's told by a taxidermist, over the phone, and the narrator, so used to not knowing, inquires little. Having approached the searing, undiminishable moment Hemon's introduction promised, the story scurries away. "I had to put my mother in a clinic close to London for her to rest," says the narrator, and the reader doesn't doubt it was the right thing to do, but cannot help thinking that the true, pivotal, mysterious, unstable, metamorphic stuff of fiction has been institutionalized out of the story as well. We are left with the voice that feels "something that made me want to scream," whatever that thing may be.
To be sure, entire chunks of Best European Fiction more than satisfy its cover price. But Hemon picked a fight of substantive fiction over frivolous tweets, and the battlefield of European short fiction seems as good a place as any to volley such a warning shot. I just tweeted "He's a great man with a shovel, but there's something laborious about Tony Pye with a newspaper," and had forty-four characters left over. That sentences just as well written, just as observant, just as full of the life-stuff, are being tweeted at this moment does not seem a rebuke to narrative fiction but an encouragement of it. Rather than shoving the cemetery-visiting mothers among us into asylums, doesn't social media draw all the more voices, all the more viewpoints, all the more observations into the conversation, conversations ordered just as Hemon has ordered these stories, around life and family and art and crisis and home and work and love?
The more these voices talk to each other, the less of this "Perhaps I don't know exactly how I feel" nonsense we'll have to put up with. Be it on Twitter or in Granta, each well-crafted sentence is a notch against not-knowing. Or, as a Hungarian character puts it, something as simple as a line on a birth certificate can be like a novel, "one that contained everything, like the great classics, but even better, for who could have put things more concisely than this?" 127 characters: Tweet that, motherfucker.
Best European Fiction 2012 edited by Aleksandar Hemon, preface by Nicole Krauss
Dalkey Archive Press