Long shots at short stories

I don’t go searching for short story inspiration, because although the imaginary ideal me often writes short stories, the real one only claims to. But occasionally a prompt pops up. Once, around 1982, it was a double bed in a Paris shop window. I was amazed by this cheaply made, ambitiously intended piece of furniture, with curlicues and carvings adorning each cream coloured plastic leg and corner. Shaded lamps were built into the looming headboard and incorporated bShort storiesedside tables featured radio cassette players and circular indents, the kind ships have to stop crockery sliding about in rough seas. The designers presumably anticipated lots of inbed activity.

I was so intrigued I got off my bus and walked back to inspect the bed more closely. Then for years in my head I developed a story of a young, pious couple without wealth, who are engaged to be married. One Sunday afternoon, out for a chaste stroll, they pass the same shop window and get it into their heads they can’t wed until they can buy this bed to bless their union. They save and save, but hopes of enough money become ever more distant…someone else buys the bed…they grow older and her reproductive years pass…they never marry. Like 1980s Chekhov, it would have been, had I written it.

JapanThe idea may have come from a fellow student in a shared house the previous year. This lovely, rather single minded Essex boy had never been out of the UK (not so unusual then). But his dream was to go to Japan, and he practiced for it, cooking tofu and miso in a wok, wearing a yukata, learning kanji, and saving frantically. He worked long hours in possibly the first Japanese restaurant in Brighton and did well: after six months he had over £200, a significant sum in 1980. Then he saw a state of the art sleeping bag in a travel shop, bought it for around £198, continued practising for his travels by sleeping in it every night until it was too worn to take anywhere… and was back at the beginning again, financially. (He did get there later, married a Japanese  woman and has had a good career, but my short story version would have been more poignant.)

In 1994, just after my son was born, a close friend was expecting a boy too. Our toddler Bobdaughters played together and we hoped for a similar friendship between our sons. Then her little boy was stillborn. In his memory I incorporated her descriptions into a story based around this juxtaposition of happiness and loss. I sent it with my friend’s permission to (I think) Good Housekeeping, but it wasn’t accepted.

Fast forward to 2013 and I did complete a second short story, following a mundane visit to a jeweller for a watch strap. clock 2Behind the counter I was surprised to see shelves packed with the type of clocks I didn’t know were still made, travelling alarms with attached coloured cases, Mickey Mouse clocks for children, faces with large numerals, Roman numerals, nothing digital. They were all priced and for sale, apparently without irony. But who would ever buy them? The shop had run out of time. My story, full of portentous time related imagery, about how the shop is not rescued by a Mary Portas type guru who gives it a makeover for reality TV, didn’t win the competition (Good Housekeeping again?) I submitted it to.

Two stories, two failures (in publishing terms). I gave up.

Until this year. Our Vienna trip provided an idea. We’d been to Mozart’s house, all bright display cases, clever montages, headphoned commentaries. We were unmoved. treble clef and mozartYou couldn’t sense the composer here, although the cheerful and informative staff would sell you Mozart chocs, jigsaws of musical scores, playing cards, and even a treble clef washing up scourer (the house warming present your musician friends always wanted). But the flat where Schubert died was another matter. We walked down a long, quiet street opposite the Majolika Haus, thinking we might be in the wrong place. The shops were closed and there was no-one about. We buzzed to enter the solid main doors, and climbed two flights of narrow internal stone steps. Quiet landings overlooked a quieter courtyard, the Schubert flat looking no different to the others. We rang Schubert’s doorbell. His own doorbell! (Well no, obviously.) In the lobby of the silent flat a young man sat behind the counter with a dull choice of postcards. My attempts at conversation met with a wordless response, but he did hand us an explanatory leaflet in English.

 

After the lobby there are two main rooms, not large, landing view and street view. One holds a few display cases with copies of documents written by Schubert and an inventory of his belongings at the time of his death. The other has his piano (see a previous post) and a console permitting visitors to listen to a small choice of badly reproduced recordings. I allowed the Mass in E flat to warble back through some elderly headphones for a while, but couldn’t turn it off and the soundtrack followed us into the third, smaller room, where Schubert died, possibly of typhoid fever, possibly complicated by the effects of syphilis and the mercury treatment he’d taken for it. His brother Ferdinand took him in and he was nursed at times by his thirteen year old niece. Ferdinand, his wife and children had moved into the newly built apartment only very shortly before, and the still wet plaster probably worsened Franz Schubert’s symptoms.

There were no other visitors. The ordinary apartment, the sparse displays, the bursts of beautiful, distorted music, the unfurnished room where the 31 year old composer died, the terrible start to the family’s life in a new home, presented without drama or sentimentality – no wonder the young curator was so reserved. Did he love Schubert’s music, and resent interruptions by the rare visitors? Did he want his museum to have the prestige and razzmatazz of Mozart’s? Was he oppressed or uplifted by the atmosphere, and did he have his own thwarted dreams? There may, one day, be a short story there, and if I could connect the themes of beauty, lyricism and malign fate with even a shadow of the musical interweavings in Schubert’s string quartets, I would have no need of rewards and prizes to feel proud of myself.

 

 

(I’m grateful for additional information to The Life of Schubert, by Christopher Gibbs.)

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

The Three Tenors

So you thought the three tenors were Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Vienna 3Pavarotti? Not so – they’re sausages, a frankfurter, some other darker variety and a veal sausage and they’re available in the Café of the Vienna Staatsoper. In this pretty room you may if such is your pleasure order “Three Tenors” or a “Rigoletto” (which is a sausage salad). My photo of this disconcerting dish is very small, for minimal offence to my vegetarian readers. (I chose the spinach strudel, with lettuce.)

51wntwjpdalSince in Vienna the three tenors can be anything, I’ve chosen a third variation: books, During a recent trip I read or reread three novels set in Vienna (with thanks as ever to the wonderful TripFiction site which you can consult for reading matter to match any destination you can think of). They give five stars to the first I chose, but I’m afraid I’d remove at least two of those. A Woman of Note by Carol M. Cram (2015) starts in 1827 with an excellent idea for a heroine, Isabette, a fictitious young woman pianist and composer whose ability rivals Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann. But it sinks into cliché with too many descriptions of a singer friend’s pretty gloves and blue ribbons. The author neglects what could have been evocative descriptions of this most visual of cities. Instead she gives us endless expository dialogue to help shift the one dimensional characters around in the style of a Woman’s Own short story from the 1970s, and provides a (mercifully) brief sex scene worthy of the Bad Sex awards: “He moved his hand up her thigh, his breath becoming ragged and out of rhythm. Andante to allegretto. …he pushed his body and hers to allegro.” Hmmm. I wonder what variations Mozart’s fingertips might have conjured for that.

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The piano in the apartment where Franz Schubert died in 1828.

Plot digressions into lesbianism and sexual abuse are worthy rather than interesting, although I am sure music teachers and promoters did abuse their protegées and played their parts in keeping women’s career prospects unequal. An erudite bibliography suggests a lot of authorial research (sometimes plonked unharmoniously into the narrative) and genuine pleasure in the music of Schubert, Beethoven and Chopin. This was a missed opportunity to create a convincing story and explore a fascinating period of women’s and musical history in a unique setting. Looking at TripFiction’s list again it seems others have dealt with the same theme, so it does get exposure elsewhere.

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Vienna State Opera House, which opened in 1869. The architect committed suicide after Emperor Franz Josef referred to it in displeasure as “a railway station”. I hope it’s not too heartless to point out what a good plot that would make.

51jrqt32cqlI had better luck with Mortal Mischief (2004) by Frank Tallis. It’s a 19th century detective romp. To judge by the selections listed on TripFiction, Vienna’s baroque and 20th century architecture and dense cultural history encourage writers to indulge in a wild cocktail of music, classical and modern art, sculpture, historical events, psychoanalysis, medicine, education, imperialism, nationalism and the whole gamut of politics, cafes and brothels, coffee and cakes, Vienna 13clairvoyance and fairgrounds, bombastic urban settings and the wonderful Prater park. Tallis just about brings it off – I was a bit bogged down by the heavy velvet brocade of his opening storm scenes: “Liebermann looked up at the livid millstone sky. Ragged tatters of cloud blew above the pediment of The Imperial like the petticoats of a ravished angel. The air smelled strange – an odd, metallic smell.” But as he got into his stride the descriptions became more digestible and it was a pleasure to revisit the Belvedere Palace grounds, the Secession Building, the University and the Prater as his story hurtled through the city like a Viennese tram, picking up colourful characters at every chapter – a surgical instrument maker, Sigmund Freud, a locksmith, prostitutes, actresses and mediums, English governesses, police chiefs, magicians and kitchen maids.  If some of them are more caricature than real, well, that reflects Viennese grandeur, exaggeration and cuisine. The musical accompaniment tinkled comfortably alongside the narrative whenever detective Rheinhardt and his doctor friend Max Liebermann took a breather with a relaxing session of Schubert duets. I was pleased to find these new (to me) discoveries feature in other adventures, particularly as Leibermann and the governess left a romantic thread unfastened at the end.

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Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze at the Secession Building, from their information leaflet.

Mortal Mischief features the Reisenrad Ferris Wheel, and so of course does my third choice, Graham Greene’s The Third Man, the novel treatment of the screenplay Greene wrote for Carol Reed’s famous 1949 film noir. The Vienna of The Third Man is not the confident 1900s cultural capital of Tallis, and lacked the exuberant fairground where we spent our last morning. Instead it’s a bombed out city divided into four zones where petty and serious crime thrive in an atmosphere of curfew and desperation. “The Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, only the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundations of merry-go-rounds like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away.

Actually there’s surprisingly little verbal description of Vienna as a setting in the book of The Third Man, which Greene himself said in his Preface “was never written to be read, but only to be seen. It was dedicated to Reed, “in admiration and affection and in memory of so many early morning Vienna hours at Maxim’s, the Casanova, the Oriental.” My forceful image of ruined buildings and unlit streets through which Harry Lime dodges his pursuers must come from the film. But in both, the labyrinthine sewers, scrubby landscapes, muddled policing and befuddled hero serve as a metaphor for fallen glory, profiteering and corruption. We saw very little of that in the bustling, affluent, well behaved city we visited, so Vienna has created a successful veneer since those days. Or maybe business dealings there now really are cleaner than in London. It wouldn’t be difficult.

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Warning: if you read this edition, the introduction contains spoilers for both plots!

Greene and Reed found more than one kind of suspense in Harry Lime’s confrontation with Rollo Martin (Hollie Martin in the film) in the topmost gondola – an idea to which Tallis pays homage when Liebermann also takes the ride with the man he suspects of murder. In Mortal Mischief the innocent characters also return to its thrills whenever they can – as Freud explains, it replicates the experience of flying. It’s a sad reflection on over stimulated 21st century travellers that we became rather bored when dangling at the top of the Ferris Wheel. Health and safety means there’s no danger of a villainous shove through an open door or of smashing the glazing, and the views are stunning. But the ponderous wheel turns slowly and waits a long time in each position – unlike the pacy plots of all three books above, though not dissimilar to the way my companion reported the Three Tenor Sausages sitting in his stomach. No Sachertorte for him that afternoon!

 

(Information for coffee drinking, cake eating bookworms: The cafes we visited were the Prückel, the Tirolerhof, the Mozart and the Oper, all equally memorable. The Tirolerhof in particular is a quiet reader’s dream, all customers engrossed in books or the newspapers supplied by the establishment, no music, and voices that rarely rise above a whisper. You could write a novel here before the waiter bothered you with the bill.)

 

© Jessica Norrie 2017