Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

A Glove Shop in Vienna and Other Stories by Eva Ibbotson is an interesting (though difficult to obtain) book, a volume of short stories first published in 1984.  They were written early in her career as she was still developing an authorial voice, so while many of the themes and characters are classic Ibbotson, her style and skill can vary widely between stories. While I loved the most Ibbotson-esque stories, I think what I most enjoyed about this volume was reading some of her early experiments, seeing how she played with different stories, different characters, and different perspectives while developing herself as a writer.

Most of the stories are plain, simple Ibbotson romances and family tales and most are carried off with her usual charm, though lack the conviction and joy she was able to infuse into her novels.  But they are entertaining, the perfect light tales to dip into before bed.  There is “This Beetroot is Not Screaming” about how an earnest young agricultural student upsets the faculty with her soft-hearted attitude towards animals, ultimately gaining the affection of the narrator, one of the teachers; “Osmandine” about a free-spirited actress who assumes a position as a pharmacist while the real one is hospital and cures the ailments of his customers  without resorting to silly things like their doctor’s prescriptions; and the excellent “The Little Countess” about an uncompromising young English governess and her struggles to sort out the needlessly but humourously complicated lives of the Russian family she works for.  “The Little Countess” also added something a bit different in how it was told, giving us the limited perspective of an essentially comic character, related by yet another character. This was probably my favourite story, the one that came closest to creating the vivid places and people I’m used to from Ibbotson, as well as including all of her excellent humour:

It was only in the evenings that my grandmother began to feel the strain.  For just when she began to think of a light supper and an early night after the day’s work, everyone at Yaslova woke up.  The Count came in from the stables.  The Countess, a devout and dedicated hypochondriac, left her bed.  Petya abandoned his books, neighbours arrived by troika or on horseback and the samovar was carried out on to the veranda which ran the length of the house.

And there, drinking interminable glasses of tea with raspberry jam and being bitten by mosquitoes, everybody, said my grandmother sadly, just sat and sat and sat.  Sometimes they talked of the hopelessness of Russia’s destiny; sometimes they discussed the total uselessness of their beloved ‘Little Father’, the Tsar.  Occasionally, the old tutor would read aloud from Pushkin and everybody would explain to my grandmother (in the French they all spoke, even to say their prayers) how much more beautiful, inflected and sensitive the Russian language was than any other language in the world.  And no one, said my grandmother sighing, ever went to bed.

The Amazon, Vienna, Russia, Paris, England…Ibbotson’s favourite locations are all present and accounted for but she bounces gleefully between decades.  I’m so used to reading her historical novels that when I came across the first of her stories set post-World War II, I couldn’t quite believe it.  Mentions of mini-skirts, bikinis, etc may have momentarily thrown me for a loop but it was enjoyable to see her handle more modern subject matter (including a hilarious international beauty competition in “This Year’s Winner”).  That said, not all of her modern stories worked: there are two first-person narratives about adultery that are particularly unoriginal and unconvincing.  But I did still enjoy reading them, seeing how she tried to approach a topic, characters, and a style so different to what she was generally drawn towards.

I read this at the end of November and it is the perfect book to read before Christmas, not just for its generally warm, comforting tales but because it contains no less than three Christmas stories.  Persephone Biannually readers may remember “A Question of Riches” from the Autumn/Winter 2010 edition.  There are also “Vicky and the Christmas Angel”, about a young Viennese girl’s discovery of who really brings the children’s presents, and “The Great Carp Ferdinand”:

The role the Great Carp Ferdinand was to play in the life of the Mannhaus family was simple, though crucial.  He was, to put it plainly, the Christmas dinner.  For in Vienna, where they celebrate on Christmas Eve and no one, on Holy Night, would dream of eating meat, they relish nothing so much as a richly-marinated, succulently roasted carp.  And it is true that until you have tasted fresh carp with all the symphonic accompaniments (sour cream, braised celeriac, dark plum jam) you have not, gustatorily speaking, really lived.

…But the accent is on the word fresh.

The story follows the impact Ferdinand the Carp has on the Mannhaus family in the days leading up to Christmas, while he occupies the maids’ bathtub and endures frequent visits from members of the household, who come and pour out their thoughts to him.  Growing up terrorized by stories of bathtub-dwelling carp and the amazing effort that it took to kill them (the first Christmas after she was widowed was the only year my grandmother ever tried to kill the carp on her own.  It, to say the least, did not go well.  Every year after, she compromised on freshness to spare herself the battle) I was highly entertained by all aspects of this story, particularly the arsenal of weapons the men folk armed themselves with when preparing to do battle with Ferdinand.  There is a romance here too and a rather charming family but it is Ferdinand who steals the show.

And, in the last, busy few days before Christmas, I am feeling particularly drawn to this description from “Vicky and the Christmas Angel”:

But the angel in the household of Herr Doktor and Frau Fischer had help.  In the kitchen Katrina, fat and warm and Czech like all the best cooks in Vienna, produced an ever-growing pile of gingerbread hearts and vanilla crescents; of almond rings and chocolate guglhupf.  Vicky’s mother, pretty and frivolous and very loving, helped too, whispering and rustling behind mysteriously closed doors.  As for Vicky’s father, erupting irately from the green baize door of his study shouting, ‘Bills!  Bills!  Nothing but bills!’, he possibly helped most of all.

A Glove Shop in Vienna and Other Stories is far from perfect but I loved it nonetheless.  A number of the stories are truly excellent, balancing humour and drama, creating interesting plots people by intriguing characters.  Other tales only hit one note, but, generally, it is an unobjectionable one that hardly distracts from the reader’s enjoyment of an excellent story.  Indeed, my main problem with this book is how difficult it is to find!

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