Franz Kafka said that a book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us. For me this describes the feeling I’ve had reading what would come to be my favourite short stories for the first time. Those stories’ approach to some blocked part of me was indeed as violent as an axe blow. And afterwards, something is released. It’s a good and necessary violence. That’s my new definition of art: a good and necessary violence.
The first story that I can remember being axed by is Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. I think what was frozen inside me was a capacity for grace. I don’t mean ‘grace’ as in ‘elegance of gesture’ but ‘grace’ as in any mysterious unbound giving of love. For Flannery O’Connor the concept is religious, even Catholic; for me, it’s secular. But I think we agree on one thing—now that she’s had her axe in my gut—: when we start thinking about who ‘deserves’ love, we’ve already missed the point.
Another memorable blow came to me via Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss”. Sometimes, these blows are impossible to put into words. As I came to the ending of this story I felt as if a veil I hadn’t noticed before had suddenly been ripped from my face. The shock of how blind we can be, of how absorbed in the things that don’t really matter, and how suddenly everything can change—these are felt-insights that I’ve had since reading that story. What was frozen in me? Perhaps an acceptance of how ephemeral is the world we construct in our perceptions. And now that can sense can flow free.
There are other stories in my pantheon: “Counterparts” by James Joyce, “The Doll’s House” by Katherine Mansfield, “Peaches” by Dylan Thomas, “Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor, “Miserere” by Robert Stone, “Significant Events in the Life of My Mother” by Margaret Atwood, “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel, and recently “Something That Needs Nothing” by Miranda July.
All the stories I hesitate to reread. But I have done it. What surprises me everytime is that the axe still works. I guess because the sea has its seasons and you can’t count on an eternal thaw.
(Ice-Axe lifted from Toronto writer Claire Cameron's blog: Check out her Arthur Ellis award nominated novel, The Line Painter)