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SHORT STORY HEROESDEBORAH LEVYMargaret Wilkinsonanalyses the work of noted short story authors – and suggests thingsto try in your own writingNot only does Deborah Levy have an extraordinary way with words and images, she has an extraordinary sense of what constitutes a short short story. The ten stories in Black Vodka (the longest an airy 15 pages and less than 3,000 words by my reckoning) are enormously satisfying, demonstrating how little you might need to createa world that intrigues. These stories often begin and end in medias res, which means rightin the middle of the narrative, and I am reminded of a quoteby Anton Chekhov that I willtry to paraphrase. He says the best stories begin in a way that makes the reader feel as if she’s arrived late for the theatre and has to play catch up in order to understand what’s going on. They end in a way that makes the reader feel as if the charactersare continuing to live behindthe curtain; that their lives, problems, mistakes and triumphs are far from over. Levy is a master of this technique.Given their tidy length, almost everything in Levy’s short short stories, however inconsequential, may become consequential. In ‘Shining a light,’ a young woman (Alice) loses her luggage on a short trip to Prague. The advice given by the airport officialin charge of missing luggage delightfully mixes the significant with the seemingly insignificant. The official: ‘has a system in place to process loss – and she has other information too. She warns Alice about dishonest cab drivers; the minibus shuttle will drive her to her destination for a cheaper price than a private cab. Also,given that Alice has lost her bag with her mobile phone charger in it, she should use a public telephone box and buy a phone card. The emergency number is 112. And then she tells her there will be a screening of a film in the park on Tuesday night. It’s free but everyone dresses up.’This last mad extraneous item actually drives the story as it isat this screening Alice meets three Serbians who shape her experiences in Prague and give the story heft. The loss of Alice’s mobile phone charger and the dread she feels at the baggage reclaim is brilliantly juxtaposed with the loss of family and homeland experienced by the Serbians.To the traveller adrift in a foreign country (or anyone for that matter) the loss of a mobile phone charger is not totally inconsequential either. What is lost is always fertile territory for the writer.The meeting of opposites seem to drive Levy’s stories: contrasting ethnicities, personalities, backgrounds.The title story is about an advertising exec with a slight hunchback who meets an anthropologist who is sketching his physique. Often a meeting, and its consequence, actually constitute the plot of a story. These fleeting encounters reflect the fragmented nature of our modern lives, yet are also oddly like fairy tales, with a focus on archetypes like strange gifts and forests. A Serbian character in ‘Shining a light’ is feared lost in the woods. He tells Alice: ‘“I really like so much your blue dressand red tights. If I stop working in my stupid job, one day I will buy you a pair of shoes.” And then he walks into the woods.’ Impressive how such a wayward bit of dialogue and a simple direct action can be so allusive, dreamlike and elliptical.There is also a distinctive unity of imagery here. Various icons and objects progress through the story and are evoked to mean different thingsDEBORAH LEVY is a British novelist, short story writer and playwright who was born in South Africa. Her six novels includethe Man Booker shortlisted Hot Milk (2016) and Booker shortlisted Swimming Home (2011). Black Vodka (2012) was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award and the BBC International Short Story Award. Her non-fiction essay 'Things I Don’t Want to Know' (2014), a response to George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay 'Why I write', is a must-read for different times. At the film screening, Alice and her new Serbian friends ‘watch swans sleeping on the black water of the Vltava’. The image is charming, yet trite as a travel poster. Later the new friends go swimming. The Serbian women ‘have pinned up their brown hair and swim calmly and slowly together like the swans on the Vltava’. Here the image is more disturbingas the lake is actually a disused mine shaft and swimming is dangerous and forbidden.Travel and the collision of different cultures is a recurring theme for Levy, but you don’t have to be a traveller to write about the strange and exotic. Sometimes opposites collide in these stories and sometimes they merge. In ‘Roma,’ a married couple’s disappointing trip to Portugal and a recurrent dream of marital infidelity are hard to tell apart. In Portugal, thecontinued p70the title story is about an advertising exec with aslight hunchback who meets an anthropologist who is sketching his physiqueTRY THIS► Lop off the first and last paragraph of a short story you’ve written. Too drastic? Then cut the first and last sentence.► Create a short story by juxtaposing something large (significant) and something small (insignificant) you once lost.► Describe an ordinary journey, a bus or cycle ride, even awalk to the shops as if it were foreign and strange. See if you can transform the familiar with new eyes; write from the point of view of a tourist in your own town.► Without being too explicit, describe a meal, the weather,a place in a way that gives the reader a feeling of warmth and impending passion, or a feeling of coldness and impending estrangement.mslexia Dec/Jan/Feb 2016/17 69PHOTO: JANE THORBURN

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