Essays / Features / Fiction / Nonfiction

Woolf’s Solid Objects & Busch’s Shimmering Drop of Life: Reflections on the Short Story

by Charlotte Zoë Walker

When I was a child in Hayward California and had a long walk home from school every day, I had the idea of picking up bits of colored broken glass that I found along the road; I collected them in a jar that I kept on my window sill, where, without ever having heard of a stained glass window, I seemed to be attempting one of my own—until the day I cut myself on a gloriously blue, Chartres blue, broken Milk of Magnesia bottle, and had to run home with my hand bleeding bright red.

That experience is somehow tangled in my mind with becoming a writer, and with the kinship I feel for the idea of the short story as a glowing object—as expressed in particular by Virginia Woolf and that great contemporary master of the short story, Frederick Busch.

In a diary entry for November 28, 1928, Woolf wrote about her desire to be able to hold life in her hands:

So the days pass and I ask myself sometimes whether one is not hypnotized, as a child by a silver globe, by life; and whether this is living. It’s very quick, bright, exciting. But superficial perhaps. I should like to take the globe in my hands and feel it quietly, round, smooth, heavy, and so hold it, day after day.

Woolf wrote a story called “Solid Objects,” in which a man gives up his political career because he becomes fascinated with oddly shaped, sometimes luminous, sometimes opaque “solid objects.” The first object is discovered by his hand as it idly digs in sand at the beach and brings up an ocean-polished lump of glass. “The green thinned and thickened slightly as it was held against the sky or against the body. It pleased him; it puzzled him; it was so hard, so concentrated, so definite an object compared with the vague sea and the hazy shore.” Isn’t this one way of describing what a successful work of art or literature does, in relation to life?

Perhaps because of those colored bits of glass from my childhood, this story of Woolf’s has always had a special resonance for me and has helped me to understand what I love about a certain kind of short story that is both well-crafted and reflective of life. In Woolf’s story, the man’s fascination with a strange piece of glass from the sea leads him to a habit of being on the lookout for other objects: “Anything, so long as it was an object of some kind, more or less round, perhaps with a dying flame deep sunk in its mass, anything–china, glass, amber, rock, marble–even the smooth oval egg of a prehistoric bird would do.” At first he tries to give these fascinating things a use by placing them on the mantelpiece as paperweights for his official papers. But eventually there are more objects than papers, and he gives up any pretense of the objects’ functionality outside his fascination with them.

Nabokov seems to have been drawn to similar metaphors. In Speak, Memory
he describes the peculiar quality of translucence that he loved in childhood and recalls licking his bedsheets and pulling the fabric tight about a darkly translucent crystal egg, to see it glow:

The recollection of my crib . . . brings back, too, the pleasure of handling a certain beautiful, delightfully solid, garnet-dark crystal egg left over from some unremembered Easter; I used to chew a corner of the bed-sheet until it was thoroughly soaked and then wrap the egg in it tightly, so as to admire and re-lick the warm, ruddy glitter of the snugly enveloped facets that came seeping through with miraculous completeness of glow and color. But that was not yet the closest I got to feeding upon beauty.

Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” employs similar images in a story that is simultaneously simple and filled with complexity and mystery. An old European immigrant couple encounters difficulties and obstacles on their way to bring a birthday gift to their son, who is in a sanitarium. He suffers from what his doctors call “referential mania,” a condition that causes him to interpret everything as threateningly referring to himself: “Everything is a cipher, and of everything he is the theme.” Finally arrived at the hospital, the parents are told that their son has recently attempted suicide again, and that they cannot see him; they must return home with their birthday gift still in hand. Critics have been variously innovative in their attempts to puzzle out the meaning of the story—what are its signs and its symbols? Did Nabokov mock or invite a reader’s code-breaking inventiveness?

I’ve never had an answer to these questions; but what interests me most are the glowing jars of jelly, the gift that the elderly couple—burdened with memories of the Holocaust and difficulties of life in a strange country with a mentally ill son—had hoped to give their son. That evening, after having impulsively decided to bring him home from the hospital and care for him themselves, they receive two banal, yet disturbing, “wrong number” calls on the phone. The story ends with a mysterious third call.

Still, the little jars of jelly retain their beauty:

While she poured him another glass of tea, he put on his spectacles and re-examined with pleasure the luminous yellow, green, red little jars. His clumsy moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels: apricot, grape, beech plum, quince. He had got to crab apple, when the telephone rang again.

What I’m interested in exploring is not so much what those translucent images might mean within the context of the story, but, rather, how some writers have employed such images to reach toward that sense of wholeness, of heft, of radiance that a story can achieve. When I interviewed Frederick Busch for an essay on his short fiction for the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography – 6 Volume set, I was delighted to hear him, like Woolf and Nabokov, speak of his art in terms of translucence—“the completeness that we like to find in a short story, that sense of a shimmering drop of life.” He also described the completed story as “that gorgeous moment when a solution precipitates into a crystal, and something is changed forever.”

Busch went on to mention Ann Beattie’s story “Janus,” in which a simple bowl takes on a presence not unlike Woolf’s or Nabokov’s solid objects, and, as he put it, “becomes in a sense the hero of the story.” That story of Beattie’s indeed has some of the same obsessive, mythic feel that Woolf’s story has. The protagonist, a real estate agent, has made a practice of placing a particularly beautiful bowl in houses that she is trying to sell, and she thinks of it as bringing her good luck, to the point that it becomes almost obsessively important to her: “Could it be that she had some deeper connection with the bowl—a relationship of some kind? She corrected her thinking: how could she imagine such a thing, when she was a human being and it was a bowl? It was ridiculous.” The bowl itself is described in loving detail, drawing writer, protagonist, and reader all into its spell:

The wonderful thing about the bowl, Andrea thought, was that it was both subtle and noticeable—a paradox of a bowl. Its glaze was the color of cream and seemed to glow no matter what light it was placed in. There were a few bits of color in it—tiny geometric flashes—and some of these were tinged with flecks of silver. They were as mysterious as cells seen under a microscope; it was difficult not to study them, because they shimmered, flashing for a split second, and then resumed their shape.

Despite his admiration for that bowl and the perfection of Beattie’s story, Busch made clear that he was not seeking in his own stories just the beautiful crystalline moment, the work of art as “solid object”—but a work that also contains what he called the “shagginess” of reality:

I always thought I should try to be a little shaggier, a little rougher, a little less polished, lest I be disserving my characters. What I learned from contemplating Ann [Beattie]’s work and the work of my other betters is that you can have both the emotional shagginess and inexactitude that I think realistic fiction is about, and at the same time work toward more precision.

The word “shagginess” is both amusing and apt in a writer whose fiction is often peopled with interesting dogs—dogs of character, one might say; and who also clearly loved what he saw as a mythic element in life itself, which he often expressed in his fiction through the roughness of the upstate New York landscape.

Busch’s “solid objects” are often opaque—but they seem to be leading the reader somewhere. “Bread,” the lead story in Children in the Woods, contains not only an ill-fated bread dough—found in their dead parents’ freezer by a grieving brother and sister—but also reference to the trail of bread crumbs that we all remember from “Hansel and Gretel,” the tale that provides the theme for that entire collection. In another story in Children in the Woods, “My Father, Cont.,” the bread crumbs become books, beloved texts thrown under the wheels of a car stuck in snow, to provide traction. Dickens, Hardy, Emily Bronte—beloved books are sacrificed to spinning wheels. Indeed, in Busch’s stories words and texts often appear in lieu of trails of bread crumbs or solid objects, but nowhere is he more specific about this than in “My Father, Cont.”:

My father had finished wedging the paperbacks beneath the tires—his last hope for traction—and then he got in to put the car in gear and floor it. I stayed where I was, my hands clapped over my ears so that I wouldn’t hear the engine scream this time. Jude and his babies and Ellen and Sydney Carton and Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff flew from beneath our wheels, were torn by the deep treads into tiny fragments and blown behind us and up into the air. They sailed there, half in darkness, then down into the brightness of the glowing snow. And then they were carried by the wind and were ridden away.

And so, writers as different as Woolf and Busch have helped me to an appreciation of the short story as a distillation or condensation of life into a work of art, made so perfectly of words that it is indeed a “solid object”— or a text that meets the rough tread of a snow tire and is blown away in the wind, while simultaneously providing the traction that a family needs.

With such stories as these, you may feel at first that you are entering what is “merely” a story—realistic or fantastic, absurd or loving or comic —and then discover, through the rightness of its words, the craftsmanship of its shaping, the illumination of its being, that it comes round on itself so that you can see its shape, feel its heft. Here it is, this piece of life cradled in your hand, and yet you can plunge into it, lose yourself in its experience, its language, its poetry perhaps—and then emerge again, the object still held in your hand, your eyes still gazing at its unique shape, its translucence or its grainy opacity.

This is why I love to write stories, and why I love to read them. A great story is like one of Virginia Woolf’s or Frederick Busch’s varied “solid objects”—like finding a piece of glass in the sand, or a strange, star-shaped piece of china, a darkly gleaming meteorite, or a path of bread crumbs through the woods. If stories are turned out by formula, as if by a brick factory, they are, paradoxically, not so solid; they are perhaps building blocks of some kind, but what they build is not art, and there is no joy in discovering or making them.

As writers, we are like the man in Virginia Woolf’s story who had to give up his plan of running for parliament because he had become sensitized to those strange and beautiful objects that he found in odd places. As the story ends, the point of view switches to his friend, who sees that the “collector” would be an embarrassment in politics, “that his mere appearance upon the platform was out of the question.” Like Woolf’s character, we writers are changed by the creative process, which is after all a process of discovery as well as craftsmanship. We begin to see the world differently. We see stories everywhere, and each has its own shape, its own presence; but unlike the stories that have already been written, this story is ours to write, this object ours for the shaping.

Bloom Post End

Charlotte Zoe Walker is a fiction writer whose work is strongly influenced by the natural world. Her novel Condor and Hummingbird was published by Alice Walker’s Wild Trees Press and The Women’s Press in England. She has published a dozen short stories, including “The Very Pineapple,” which was published in the 1991 O. Henry Awards collection, and “Goat’s Milk,” an honorable mention in Best American Short Stories 1993, and anthologized Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals (edited by Linda Hogan, Deena Metzger, Brenda Peterson.). She has been a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship and is nearing completion of her third novel, Gray Face and Eve, about a twelfth century stone carver. She is a professor emerita of English and Women’s Studies from SUNY Oneonta, where she taught fiction writing and founded the program in environmental literature.

homepage photo credit: dana_h79 via photopin cc

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