"Short stories don't sell," is the current mantra of publishers everywhere, as a way of refusing to look at proffered manuscripts in case they love them and are sorely tempted.
J.M. Coetzee swims strongly against the ebbing tide. Not only has Text Publishing brought out his new collection, it is an expensively produced hardback in pale blue with elegant gilt lettering. That is unusual enough, but more extraordinarily there are only three stories, none of them lengthy - the book totals 71 pages, with a large, generously laid-out typeface. All were written between 2000 and 2003, the most recent being a tale he read aloud at the ceremony when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The lead story, A House In Spain, begins: "As he gets older he finds himself growing more and more crabby about language, about slack usage, falling standards." This curmudgeonly voice is common to all three stories and, depending on the reader's stance, could be irritating or endearing.
The narrator expresses his displeasure with the way people will say they have fallen in love with a house, which is an inanimate object, but by story's end understands that he too has fallen in love with an old house in Spain. He is prepared to treat it "as one treats a woman ... soothing her through her bad times, treating her with kindness". The story is a clever, gentle musing on a reluctant epiphany.
Nietverloren is the story with the most heart, since it draws on the author's love for the land of his birth. A story with grand themes - patriotism, history, the loss of traditional means of farming and changing global economics - an Afrikaans farmer is compelled to turn his holding into a kind of olde worlde agricultural theme park, since nothing is viable but the "tourist crop". The narrator observes his dilemma while remembering his own childhood on a real such family farm at a time when they were common on the veld.
Coetzee's achievement is to widen the narrative out to universal concerns, past his sense of hopelessness at the charade of the "African experience". He doesn't pull his punches. Organised game-shoots, mechanisation and corporatisation amount to "the only future in South Africa, to be waiters and whores to the rest of the world".
The story written for the Nobel ceremony is the least accessible, with a nod to postmodernist examination of the writer's process. He And His Man is the longest and concerns an English writer constructing a character. At different stages the character is close by, at other times elusive. The writer and his man intersect and draw apart, divided by centuries and imposed isolation, one as a shipwrecked seafarer and the other a widower in a Bristol hotel.
As would be expected of Coetzee, all the stories have a sombre tone, although a faint glimmer of humour surfaces now and again and just as quickly vanishes. In language as elegant as the volume's design, Three Stories is wise and memorable, and deserves to be read slowly and savoured.
Three Stories by J.M. Coetzee (Text Publishing $26)