Short Stories, H. C. Schweikert

This was one of a couple short story anthologies that made their way from my Dede’s library to my parents’ house to my own bookshelves, for the simple reason that I’m a sucker for old books. This, especially, is a piece of family history to hold in my hands, with my Dede’s name and old Kensington address in neat, old-fashioned cursive in blue ink right on the flyleaf. I finally sat down to read it after a long stint with Swedish, when I could only muster enough brain for 1) something in English and 2) something short.

In a serendipitous turn of events, while I was reading this collection my sambo had taken to devouring old pulp magazines from the extensive collection at the Internet Archive—publications that were contemporaneous with this collection, and about which the editor (Harry Christian Schweikert, a prodigious anthologizer it seems) had this to say:

The pupils who will use this book are already confirmed short story readers, many of them, unfortunately, addicts of the popular and more sensational magazines. To condemn these magazines is worse than useless, especially if the teacher adopts a “high-brow” attitude. Pupils like nothing better than to shock the teacher. The situation is often complicated by the fact that many of these journals often contain good stories. Perhaps the best way is to ignore the magazines entirely at first. If the teacher is successful in stimulating genuine interest in the discussion of stories, the pupils will themselves dispose of the trashy magazines.

The second entertaining morsel about this collection is seeing how many of its featured authors are referred to in the present tense and whose death dates had not yet come to pass.

A table of contents in a short story anthology. The authors birth and dates are given, but several authors who have been long dead, such as Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle and James M. Barrie, lack death dates.

Since it’s a textbook, each story comes with an author biography, though as whole they’re more editorializing and nakedly subjective than anything I would have read in an English textbook in school. Discussion questions and “subjects for composition” also accompany each story, which make for a fun little peek into the English teaching of yesteryear. The same can be said for the actual selection of stories, a snapshot of prevailing tastes of the time. Several of the authors chosen were already well-established giants in 1925 (O. Henry, Anton Chekhov, Alexandre Dumas); others are familiar household names today that were still in their productive years (the above Sinclair Lewis et al.); still others were popular at the time of publication but later faded into obscurity (Joseph Hergesheimer or Frances Gilchrist Wood).

The vast majority of the stories were new to me, even if I knew around half of the authors. Is this another sign of changing times? Or am I just woefully ill-read when it comes to short stories? Hard to say. But the best part is how many new authors—especially women writing in the first half of the twentieth century—I can look up and enjoy for the first time.

L’Élégance du hérisson

The downside of reading in French is that it takes me so much longer than in either English or Swedish.

(It’s only a downside if a manic obsession with productivity drives you to stick to a particular reading schedule, I suppose, but that’s maybe a topic to take up another time, or in another context.)

An acquaintance recommended this (alongside Pappan och havet, actually) and I opted to read the French original because why not? The library had it, and I was behind on my French reading quota anyway.

(A manic obsession with self-improvement might drive me to set particular language quotas in my reading, I suppose, but that’s maybe a topic to take up another time, or in another context.)

It’s interesting to notice similarities in the books people enjoy and resonate with. Both Pappan och havet and L’Élégance du hérisson focus on how outcasts find genuine emotional and social connection with the people around them—though of course the personalities in Moomin Dalen are very different from those in Rive Gauche Paris. In Pappan och havet, our outsiders are Mårran and the fisherman; in L’Élégance du hérisson, they are Paloma, the precocious 12-year-old daughter of a respectable center-left politician, and Renée, the well-read and cultured concierge of Paloma’s posh apartment building. In Pappan och havet we have the Moomins bringing warmth and connection to both Mårran and the fisherman after they move in to the lighthouse; in L’Élégance du hérisson we have the genteel and kindly Kakuro Ozu who moves into an apartment after the death of its snobbish food critic owner.

With each passing year, it seems that the greatest benefit of my philosophy studies in college is being able to appreciate novels written by authors who also studied philosophy: David Foster Wallace, Lydia Sandgren, and now I suppose Muriel Barbery.

(This glib joke is actually unfair to the many excellent philosophy professors I had in my college career. In all seriousness, philosophy is a worthwhile course of study and it’s only because our minds have been poisoned by an excess of capitalism that the humanities seem like a waste of time.)

Did I only enjoy L’Élégance du hérisson because it made me feel like an elite smartypants? No, I don’t think so—I liked it on its own merits, or additional ones, maybe. There is always room in my heart for snarky, keenly observant children who hold nearly everyone around them in disdain, for example. But my French is still quite rusty, so I don’t know that I can quite comment on much more than that for now. The next thing is to read it again in Swedish (or English), then a third time in French, and see how much more I pick up.

(Does this sound like a laborious and joyless task? Possibly. But here, at least for a moment, I can put aside the capitalist obsession with numbers and figures and progress-at-all costs and take the time to linger over something just for the sake of enjoying it.)