Jean Stafford – Collected Stories

jean staffordI have finally cracked the last ten Pulitzers left to read. Another interesting stat that I keep is pages read and pages left to read, and as of finishing this book I finally have less than 5000 pages left to read. This will come as a surprise to no one, but with every page I turn, chapter I put behind me, and book that I finish I take a huge sigh of relief because it is one less thing I have left to do.

I look forward to the day when I am not shackled to this project, but I don’t resent it, I am just ready for it to be over. I feel that entirely with the finishing of this book as it encapsulates for me much of this project. Jean Stafford’s writing reminds me of a glass ballerina that sits atop a music box. You crank and crank the little handle and let it spin and play its highly pitched version of a snippet of a classical tune. It is beautiful as it spins, but it doesn’t do anything. So much of this project feels like this endeavor to me. Many of the works that won were probably very good novels in their time, maybe they weren’t. Some of them weren’t, a few them were truly terrible. My reaction to Stafford’s book resembles that of many of my other reactions in that I don’t feel particularly strongly about this book.

Stafford’s first segment of stories dwells with the theme of alienation with Americans abroad struggling to find their places in European circles. I find in these stories a dark thread of nihilism that seems to lurk around every corner of Stafford’s work. Many of the stories do not resolve, and if they resolve they resolve darkly. Their darkness is subtle, but it pervades through all of Stafford’s stories.

Two stories seem to embody this perfectly. Mountain Day and the last story The End of a Career. Mountain Day spins like the glass ballerina in its perfect representation of a perfect afternoon spent in the company of close friends and a budding romance. It swims in its self delight that Stafford can let the clouds break for a moment, and then come hurtling downward in a watery grave as an unimportant set of characters capsize a canoe and drown in a picturesque mountain-side lake and have their faces eaten off by the fish of the lake.

The End of a Career is an fable like tale about a woman who is unnervingly naive character that spends her life in the pursuit of agelessness. As she has her skin stripped away she finds that her soul is stripped away as well. If that sounds contrived, it is as it is experienced. It is trite and unfortunately, woefully, and beautifully well written.

As with this project, I do not regret having to read Jean Stafford. I had to look up many words in this collection which is always enjoyable to learn and pocket new words. I was wrapped up in the story A Summer Day which was wonderful and honest and haunting. There is a paragraph embedded in one of my least favorite stories that is very near a perfect piece of prose. I also do not regret this project, but at times it does feel like a labor to get through this.

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