I have been listening to some very interesting lectures on great short fiction. Michael Krasny, Ph.D. is Professor of English at San Francisco State University and he hosts a radio show on KQED that focuses on news and public affairs and he is the lecturer. In fact, he created this series of lectures, Masterpieces of Short Fiction, and makes them available as a dvd set on thegreatcourses.com (*see footnote). I have watched the first six lectures, so far.
The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe is the first lecture and I’m sure I’ve read this story some years back, as I have read everything Poe has written. This is a story in which Poe tells of a cold-blooded murder. The victim is sealed up alive in a brick wall. And why? The murderer, who is also the narrator, complains of an unforgivable insult, though he never reveals the nature of the insult, for which he must avenge himself. So, he lures his victim into the catacombs with the promise of a cask of fine Amontillado wine. The victim, chained to the wall and watching the bricks being mortared in place course by course, continues to converse with the murderer about the wine.
Poe skillfully discloses that the narrator is unreliable. There are clues that the real reason for the murder may be covetousness. The victim is wealthier than he is. Poe also lets the reader in on the ruse from the beginning so that we see the illusion of friendship when reality is quite the opposite. So, this is a story where things are not as they appear.
Another lecture is on The Real Thing by Henry James, a story I have also read. This is a story about an artist in his studio. He would like to focus on fine art but must paint illustrations for books. So, here James juxtaposes widely respected fine art against commercial art, which gets no respect from art snobs. The artist is painting paid models for the illustrations that provide his income when an aristocratic couple arrive at the studio. He assumes that they want their portraits painted but they are looking for work as models instead. As wealthy as they appear, they have fallen on hard times and need work. The artist can’t paint them because he doesn’t have any need of aristocratic characters and he can’t imagine them as anything but aristocrats. The regular people can be anything in his imagination but the aristocrats can be only what they actually are.
So, James unfolds a story that challenges the notion that commercial art is not creative and therefore requires no artistic talent. He also draws, in far more detail than I described, that this wealthy couple were more real than the models he usually painted, models who could appear to be many different characters. He juxtaposes what is real with what is not as it appears.
Another story lectured on is The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant. Another where things are not as they appear. So, I will go back to watching Masterpieces of Short Fiction and if I find more of interest, I will share them with you.
* I am not affiliated with Dr. Krasny or The Great Courses. I am not compensated in any way for this post.