Recent Reading: Short Stories from O. Henry, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, & Tobias Wolff

I. The Last Leaf [1907] by O. Henry – ★★★★★

The lonesomest thing in all the world is a soul when it is making ready to go on its mysterious, far journey“. Two female artists Sue and Johnsy rent a studio in Greenwich, New York when Johnsy gets pneumonia and becomes bed-ridden. As she stays in her bed, she starts obsessing over an ivy growing outside their house and says to Sue that she would be counting its fallen leaves and when the last leaf falls, so would she “fall”, i.e. die. Incidentally, the ivy has always been associated with fidelity, devotion, friendship, affection and everlasting life, and Johnsy’s strange prophecy is somehow becoming convincing as any seriously ill person is always listened to carefully, as though they already possess otherworldly knowledge, being so close to the “other side”. O. Henry uses a number of literary devices to bring this story to a satisfactory climax, and the ending is powerful and tear-jerking.

II. The Tunnel [1952] by Friedrich Dürrenmatt ★★★★★

Each of his activities seemed a pretext designed to achieve order behind the façade of routine pursuits”. A twenty-four year old student makes his usual morning commute on a busy train when he decides to pay attention to “a little tunnel” that the train passes through. It is the first time he does so, but, to his surprise (given the speed of the train he took), the tunnel does not end, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, either. As the student sits and wonders, his thoughts start to linger on his own mental well-being, as well as on the “pointless” preoccupations of the passengers around him.

Swiss author and dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt (The Visit) was a master of a fine satire, conjuring up strangeness out of the most mundane occurrences. The Tunnel does not disappoint in that regard. Thomas Mann-inspired, it produces Kafkaesque dread of perceiving “individual” horror when everyone else (“the public”) is behaving like nothing untoward is happening. It demonstrates the paradoxes of the unquestionable obedience of the masses and the seen human banalities co-existing with the unseen, hidden terrors. Whether read literally or metaphorically, The Tunnel is still that one-of-a-kind narrative jump into the unknown, moving from the ordinary to the extraordinary at the speed of a super-fast train.

III. Hunters in the Snow [1981] by Tobias Wolff – ★★★★

In this story, Tub, Kenny and Frank are three men choosing to go hunting in snowy Washington countryside. However, naturally, there are few things to hunt in this season and soon the men are bored. One joke turns “deadly” and, suddenly, there is a wounded man among the trio. However, it soon transpires that the two remaining “standing” men have more urgent “preoccupations” in their lives than their injured friend and the need to get him to hospital, such as boosting their male egos by telling of their love conquests at a warm steakhouse. From the very first page, Wolff emphasises the men’s recklessness, as well as their disregard for each other’s needs and well-being. Hunters in the Snow is atmospheric, shocking, and – very sadly and unfortunately – not unrealistic.


13 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Short Stories from O. Henry, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, & Tobias Wolff

  1. The plot of The Last Leaf really intrigues me and it really sounds like a great read. As for the Wolff book, it does seem like an interesting depiction of how some people really are, and I can imagine that some parts of it must be a bit sad when you realise some people might actually act like this!

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