BEF 2011/31 – Fourteen Small Stories [Denmark]
Borges famously said that it is a “laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and to that end never wrote anything more than a score pages long. Trending thought it did toward the small, yet his work cannot be labelled minimalist. There are pages, rather, that contain entire worlds, paragraphs as vast as the universe, and sentences that hum with the impossible magic of quantum mechanics as their limit approaches zero. Borges’ stories are profound and playful and the delight he took in the paradoxical palpable. He was a puzzler who knew the value of a puzzle is not in its solution; games of ontological chess were played with adversaries such as Nietzsche, Plato, Zeno of Elea, Bergson, Schopenhauer, & co. With formidable erudition and singular vision it was inevitable that Borges should become as influential as he is. But, lest the reader think this the preface of an article on his greatness, allow me to turn to the matter at hand: a few pale and wanting thoughts on the short fiction of Peter Adolphsen which, it will be noted, exhibits Borgesian traits.
The piece titled ‘Fourteen Small Stories’ is just what it claims to be: fourteen short works (none longer than two pages) taken from Danish writer Adolphsen’s Small Stories (1996) and Small Stories 2 (2000). The stories vary widely in subject but rarely stray far from the absurd. Among them is the tale of a language constituted entirely of verbs, a book that fatally ensnares its readers in its perfect pages, the gradual gathering of the collective consciousness of an entire alien race in a “bristly haired dachshund in Lower Saxony.” With their brevity and whimsicality many of the stories resemble parables sans moral message, or jokes assembled by a being armed with a definition of comedy but no natural conception of it. They are quick to read, but their parade as they are presented here works against them. The novelty of each piece is too quickly subsumed beneath the next story that follows hard on its heels. Like literary hors d’oeuvres I consumed them almost absent-mindedly, as an accompaniment to a conversation that was beyond them, rather than as an extract from a speech that is of them, as is a piece of sponge to the whole cake.
These mini fictions are from the debut works of a young writer whose vigour and fecund imagination boils over its container. One imagines Adolphsen like a man inspired, scratching out his words in a frenzy afraid the stream should stop. But there is a searching here, too. He is, one feels, trawling through his ideas in search of one to form the core of a larger work, rich enough to exhaust in deep thought, but never finding it. The energy of a young man, then, but the impatience of one also. This follows naturally from the way the stories are presented – give each one their own page and they have time to graciously bow out before the next asks its due. They jostle each other for space on the page and in the mind of the reader and some of their individual drollness is lost, but taken singly they amuse.
‘Fourteen Small Stories’ is translated from Danish by K. E. Semmel and Peter Adolphsen.
This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press. There will appear on this website just such a review until the entire book is done.