|Readers and Writers at Small Wonder|
Small Wonder festival is both exactly that and also something much bigger – a soul-feeding opportunity for lovers of the short story form, led by a luscious range of readings and the most astute, inspiring commentary I have heard for a long time.
Adam Marek has written a lovely piece here that encapsulates the joy and variety of this festival, and I hope to add to the sense of an intellectual smorgasbord. It is a rare and wonderful thing to watch someone articulate important truths on the spur of the moment, and yet this happened time and time again at Small Wonder. I felt spoiled by the very first session I attended, in which A. S. Byatt and Adam Foulds spoke so precisely about translation and the editing process.
Byatt revealed her reverence for the two Italian translators of her writing, who work on a page at a time and then convene on a mountainside to decide which works better; this is clearly reverence that works both ways. She also confessed to being a stickler for line by line accuracy when it comes to translation, and recalled her disagreements with a French translator – "now dead" (cue dark laughter) - who inserted long, complicated Catholic jokes into her books that she could not ever have invented herself. This was funny, and pointed, but had not turned Byatt against some of the looser translations in Multiples, the polyglot game of story Chinese whispers in which she and Foulds played a part. I admit I had bristled at the idea of reading stories translated to and fro between languages, like a phrase becoming more and more frayed as it was subjected to Google Translate, but I now think the characters and intellects involved in this project make it essential reading, faux pas notwithstanding
Even more fascinating was Deborah Levy’s conversation with Stephen Grosz, where the line between psycho-analyst and writer of psychological tales became increasingly blurred. Levy confided she had spent one year reading nothing but Freud, in no particular order but beginning with The Interpretation of Dreams, which was immediately added to my book wishlist as a result. I had been interested by Levy’s writing but not quite sure how to interact with it; now that I have witnessed her mind – and her irresistible charisma – at work, I will be revisiting it with her voice in mind.
This is a troublesome aspect of all fiction, not only short stories: the interference of the writer’s spoken voice and attitude once encountered. I remember finding that hearing Margaret Atwood live made me enjoy reading her words far more thanks to the evident sardonic sense of humour. I had the same experience with the poet Alice Oswald, but in that case because of her down to earth sincerity. Some writers can be arresting when reading aloud and less gripping on the page; I first encountered David Sedaris on the radio and now I only ever buy an audiobook because his voice makes sense of the prose.
At Small Wonder, both David Vann, cracking up over his own fart jokes, and Brian Kimberling, imitating the crackpots of Indiana, made me warm to their fiction anew. However it can work the other way and we can be put off. Lionel Shriver’s reading at Small Wonder of her story ‘Prepositions’ created a silent concentration in the audience rarely experienced in the modern world, but I felt her rendition took away from ambiguities I would have read into it alone, and I do like ambiguity in a short story.
Many a writer and fan tells tales of disappointment when meeting an author-hero. When I told my PhD supervisor I was utterly in love with Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, she recounted his visit to her university in which he refused even to critique the work of most of her cohort, deeming it unworthy, despite being paid handsomely for the visit. But at Small Wonder, I was constantly delighted by the familiar and new voices I met. So, a great big happy tenth birthday to Small Wonder, and a worshipful thanks to the organiser. I would urge anyone with a passing interest in the short story to attend next year.