It’s been a while since I finished The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda, published by Open Letter Books, so details of individual stories are a little hazy, but overall, the collection impressed me. The stories are full of drama and passion, not at all like the quiet stories with small epiphanies that you find so often in American short fiction. I like quiet stories as well, but it was a nice change to have more action, more bright, vibrant characters and overpowering emotions.
Rodoreda is a Catalan writer who died in 1983; these stories come from three collections published in 1958, 1978, and one that (as far as I can tell) was collected after her death. These stories are published in chronological order, and become more experimental toward the end, moving toward a more impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style. I was less taken with these stories than with the more realistic ones, but it was interesting to see her moving in new directions and experimenting with new styles.
Most of the stories are short; there are 30 stories in 255 pages, and some of them are only two or three pages long. Rodoreda captures a wonderful depth of emotion and life in such a short space. For example in the story “Ice Cream,” only a little over two pages long, a man and woman get engaged while eating ice cream but have entirely different responses to their engagement, responses that foreshadow years of unhappiness. The man cannot bear to be parted from his lover:
It was always the same: As the moment of parting approached, it seemed as if a bucket of sadness was being poured over him, and he would hardly utter a word during the time they had left together.
While she, on the other hand, feels trapped:
She spread her fingers to look at [the ring], stretched her arm out, and turned her hand from side to side. With secret regret she thought about her hand only a moment before, without a ring, nimble and free. Her eyes welled up.
There are many similar moments in these stories, moments when people can’t communicate their emotions or feel trapped by them. In one of my favorite stories, “Carnival,” a young man and woman meet unexpectedly on the street when she asks him, previously a stranger, for directions to the taxi stand. When they can’t find a taxi, they decide to walk. They are both in costume for the carnival, and there is a feeling of possibility and excitement in the air. They walk for hours as though they are in another, magical world. But the illusion of other-worldliness is destroyed when it begins to rain, they become exhausted, and are accosted by a man demanding money from them. The young man describes his disappointment with the night:
I wanted to make this evening … I don’t know how to explain … a night like this! I wanted a memory, something I could cling to, keep for the future. Because I will never take any trips, or write poetry. And it’s not true that I study. I used to, now I work. I have a younger brother and I’m head of the household. So, now you know it all. You also know what a bad impression I’ve made. I’ve made a fool of myself.
For her part, she is filled with sadness at his disappointment, but also wishes he would just disappear — his intensity is almost too much for her to take. Both of them are overwhelmed by the journey — a journey through the city but also a journey into their own hearts.
There is a wide range of situations, characters, and perspectives in these stories, but each one has an intensity to it that makes for exciting reading. I enjoyed these stories very much and am curious what her novel-length fiction is like.