The other night I re-read three old friends.
The first was Nagai Kafu’s “The Peony Garden.” I re-read this story every few months. I read it the first time in 1999 or 2000, if memory serves. I think it is probably my favorite short story of all time. If I could write a short story this good, I would be satisfied.
It is pitch-perfect in every respect. Simple and elegant, yet a portentous aesthetic achievement.
I once had a goal of doing a new translation of this story from the Japanese. But then what with all my and then my family’s nomadism these last years, my copy of the Japanese volume got lost somewhere. Also, my Japanese has slowly ossified and I don’t know that I’d be up to the task any longer, not without lots and lots of help from a dictionary, which no doubt would render the translation not an improvement over the one we’ve got.
Anyway, even in current translation, as fine a short story as exists in my known universe. I re-read it every few months just to see where I’m trying to get, one way or another.
Speaking of nomadism, moving into our own house has finally allowed me to free a few shelves of books from dusty boxes in the basement out at the farm in Nebraska. Among them was Best American Short Stories 2001, which I bought somewhere along the line. Read all the stories faithfully that year, I’m sure, then promptly forgot them all. Except for “Labors of the Heart,” by Claire Davis.
The utterly unsentimental tale of a very fat man in love with a very thin and bitter woman stuck with me for years, even after I’d forgotten the title of the story and its author. Last night some googling around revealed that I had the story back in my possession. So I sat down and re-read it, for the first time in, what, 9 years.
I’ll admit, I was inwardly cringing a little, afraid that the story would not measure up to my memories of it. Not to worry. If anything, I appreciated it all the more for the years of writing and living since the last time I read. A story packed to the gills with wisdom, packaged as a wonderfully orchestrated sentences.
I think I’ll be re-reading this one every few months from here on out, too.
Lastly, Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”, which, like Brad Watson’s “Visitation,” managed to get into the New Yorker despite not being composed of sleeping pills masquerading as sentences. It’s the only one of these three available online; read it here. I did, again, last night.
Like “Labors of the Heart,” it’s been some years since I’d read this piece. I must have read it in Best American Short Stories 2004, possibly while I was first in Thailand, or maybe one time when I was back for Xmas or something. I can’t remember. Anyway, it was another of those stories that stuck with me through the years, the image of the homeless Indian heroically wandering the streets of Seattle trying to get back his mother’s pow-wow regalia.
Quirky and fantastic, not a word out of place.