This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website. I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.
The narrator of Braňo Hochel’s My Best Story begins by telling us he has a sad tale to share. His best story is gone, torn to pieces, flushed down the toilet. It was called, You’re Going to Die, Sophia and that, unsurprisingly, was what it was about. It was a cathartic story for our narrator, a healing story, written as Sophia his mistress, lay dying in hospital following a botched abortion. But now the story is gone, and though he keeps writing, it’s not the same.
Since the loss of my best story, I’ve written many others. There was one in particular, published not so long ago in a well-known literary journal which I even liked. But since then, a certain wistfulness comes over me when I write – I still grieve for that torn-to-shreds story, not even five pages long.
The narrator remembers some of his best story. He quotes it from memory, which is fraying. Dead eyes, he writes, are never forgotten, but live ones are forgotten because they will, we know, return. Sophia’s eyes are dead, or soon will be, which means he is doomed to remember them – but what of their life together? That’s already starting to fade, in part because all they had were stolen hours, snatched from their ordinary lives, taken from the people (his wife, her family) they were supposed to avoid betraying.
From the narrator’s brief quote of his own work, the story shifts to a retelling of when he first met Sophia. It’s telling that he uses two of the five pages of the story to describe their (rather one-sided) courtship, a series of interactions which mostly involved the narrator following Sophia around like a heartsick puppy, stopping in at the library where she worked as often as possible, all on the strength of their two accidentally pressed-together bodies on a crowded bus on evening. The getting of Sophia meant as much as the having, about which we learn rather little – months and years of an affair are glossed over, with little mention made of the narrator’s wife, or of Sophia’s life outside of their tryst.
Hochel’s narrator sexualises Sophia, lavishing attention on her breasts, thighs, hips. At a park, he looks up to see her:
You were elegantly dressed, subtly, exceedingly drab in fact, yet as you moved, your rounded features, your breasts, sides and ass tantalised me.
Two paragraphs later:
…it made you, Sophia, look beautiful. It covered all that the crowd had enabled me to feel, that the wind showed me, it accentuated your sides, your breasts, your ass when you reached for the books on the highest shelves.
And then, tellingly, another two paragraphs after that:
The rest you already know, Sophia. Our short meetings and furtive kisses, embraces from which I unfettered myself to hurry home, the first time we made love and … oh, Sophia!
And that’s the relationship. A good deal more words, time and effort has been spent on the chasing than the having. But let’s not blame overmuch – most people, in the initial stages of a relationship, are indeed obsessed with every facet of the other person, and that of course includes their physicality. How can we not stare at their face, their features, their body? We love them! Or at least, we lust for them. The narrator is all lust, and when it comes to a relationship – and again, an affair, a tangled up tryst, a mistake – the feelings part becomes swamped with his regret that she is dying.
Sophia is a stand-in for writing, as much as writing is a stand-in for Sophia. Hochel uses each to comment on the other, layering both strands of the story. Isn’t, to use a clumsy phrase, the writer’s muse, in a way, the “other woman” in their life? One can only be shut away with books and papers for so long before it seems that there are three lovers in the equation and not two. Hochel lavishes attention on the want, the desire, the need, the thrust and shape of his affection – but nothing at all on the relationship itself. Did they go to dinner? Did they walk through a park? Did they kiss romantically, or just sexually? Was there time spent together, or only time stolen from other, more honourable thing? We don’t know. It’s not important. What’s important is the necessity of Sophia, the chasing of her, the alteration of her from a person, now dead, to a story, the best story ever.
It’s no accident that Sophie makes for him the best story ever. He is a writer, it’s the first thing we learn about the narrator, and as Hochel loops the story back, it’s the last thing we remember, too. Writers are necessarily carnivorous creatures, ravenously devouring their friends and family for material, anecdotes, sayings, gestures, plot and character. It’s not pretty and it’s not always honest, but ugly things shouldn’t be denied just because they are ugly. We are left with two distinct impressions from My Best Story – the first, the anguish of the writer that his muse has died; the second that, following her death, he was capable of writing his best story ever. What does that say about him? And this story, titled My Best Story, is in fact a pale shadow of his best story – but it’s been written anyway, hasn’t it? Sophia becomes, again, literature, and time, as the narrator puts it, flows on.
|Title||My Best Story
Original Title: (Najlepšia poviedka)
|Publisher||The Dalkey Archive Press|
Other stories from the The Review of Contemporary Fiction Vol. XXX, #2 Slovak Fiction issue include:
—Johanides, Ján – Berlin in the Afternoon, at a Quarter to Winter
—Juráňová, Jana – Clips
—Karvaš, Peter – Xerox of a Document about One Half of (the Art of) Life
—Kompaníková, Monika – Slávko
—Kovalyk, Uršuľa – Mrs. Agnes’s Bathroom
—Rankov, Pavol – The Period in Which We Live
—Šimko, Dušan – Excursion to Dubrovnik
Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.