(stories by Rolli) and Q&A
I know Rolli has achieved greatness in “God’s Autobio” because from time to time he conjures up the spirit of La Fontaine’s Fables, and these are classics of French literature. However it probably says something altogether different about the reviewer that one of the stories, “Von Claire and the Tiger”, makes him think of another book – children’s classic “The Tiger Who Came To Tea”, because Rolli’s tiger story seems something like an equivalent tale for adults. It’s this type of subliminal association which makes “God’s Autobio” wonderfully familiar.
The short stories contained in “God’s Autobio” are imaginative, well-written and witty. If you have a short-attention span you could do far worse than buy this book because each story is a condensed burst of literary sagesse; reading them in quiet but quick moments could do you some good – they get the mind thinking and your eyes dreaming. “Chimpanions” works particularly well because of its modern, dark humour. “Anna” rivals Maupassant in its depiction of a community’s displaced morality: “But when he began to put in an exclusive daily appearance at Anna’s every afternoon at a punctual five-thirty, it became clear that she’d either grown unusually fond of sausage, or unusually fond of Robert. Public opinion settled on the latter.”
It’s relatively common for a collection of short stories to be considered as a warm-up or practice for a writer who should then go on to write a novel, as if the short story form itself is somehow inferior because of its length. I’d suggest this is narrow-minded because a shorter medium has its own rigours and stress points, and surely the stories of Saki are justification of the form in its own right. Sometimes it takes great skill and precision to say something in fewer words rather than more, and possibly it shows greater respect to the time-pressured reader. Take Mrs. McMurcharty in “Mr. Penny Meets Fernando”, who “was one of those people who only starts a conversation so she can gag you with words and hold you hostage half the afternoon. The more SHE talks the less YOU feel you can, and the whole thing is like having your tongue seized by a bird and slowly pulled out of your throat. So Mr. Penny held his mouth tightly shut, and said nothing.” Suddenly the short story is a very attractive proposition.
In this context, brevity, Rolli’s success depends on maintaining sympathy with his characters. Good writing depends on turning what is essentially internal out onto the external page and Rolli manages to inhabit his characters so that you understand them from a human perspective. The internal can be inarticulate and incoherent but Rolli kneads it out for us so that we can recognize and associate with what it means to be alive: “She was sure she’d done the right thing, even if the prospect had been, at least initially, unappealing. But ours is a world of exteriors, of judgment by action, only, and not of the moral jigsaw one fits together prior doing a good thing for a bad reason, or a bad thing for a good (thank goodness).” Sentences like these are dazzling, and this book is made up of them; what better way to be entertained, and weren’t you waiting for God’s autobiography anyway?
Three questions for the man himself (Rolli, not God)
Charles Pitter: Do you believe things should be said or written concisely or is there a place for longer exposition?
Rolli: We each have our diseases. Mine is efficiency. It can’t be helped. It grows worse, I think, every day. But as a great lover of the diseases of others, I must say there’s nothing like the sickly prolixity of a Dickens, or a Hugo.
Charles Pitter: Who is your favourite short story writer?
Rolli: I still like Poe best. It would take a time machine, and an assassin, to change that.
Charles Pitter: Does God prefer poetry or prose?
Rolli: All great egotists prefer poetry. It really is superior.