I’ve always been quite fond of the short story form; whether it is because short stories can pack an emotional punch you (as a reader) can enjoy in one sitting without getting distracted by ordinary life getting in the way, the way it does when you’re trying to finish a novel, or because the writerly part of me thinks “Hey, maybe I don’t have a novel ready to be put on paper, but I can sure write something like this”, I don’t know. I do know, however, that years ago I was left dumbstruck by the title story in the collection In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories by Brooklyn poet and writer Delmore Schwartz. This is an angst-ridden and brilliant story that I would not be able to write; more precisely, I could try to write something like it, but it would come out derivative and contrived, just like it would if someone tried to reinvent Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”.
Schwartz’s story, recounts his biographer James Atlas in the foreword to the collection, was published in 1937 in the first issue of the Partisan Review:
Those of us who read it at the time really did experience a shock of recognition. […] Many people I know remembered the story long after forgetting everything else in the issue. We were charmed by the story’s invention, though this could hardly explain the intensity of our response, since you didn’t have to be a New Yorker, you could as well live in London or Singapore, in order to admire Schwartz’s technical bravura. Still, it was the invention — the sheer cleverness of it — that one noticed first. A movie theatre becomes the site of dreams; the screen, a reflector of old events we know will be turning sour. The narrator watches father propose to mother at a Coney Island restaurant. Already, during the delights of courtship, they become entangled in the vanities and deceptions that will embitter their later years. But what can the audience do about it? The past revived must obey to its own unfolding, true to the law of mistakes. The reel must run its course: it cannot be cut; it cannot be edited.
Schwartz died alone in a midtown Manhattan hotel in 1966, an alcoholic writing hallucinatory stories in an “impossibly diffuse” style, and left several incomplete novels behind. Against the danger “that his work will be brushed aside as he himself becomes the subject of a lurid cultural legend” (again, as James Atlas puts it), even after the tributes Lou Reed and Saul Bellow have paid to him in their work, you can only do one thing: read his stories. “The rest is pain, gossip, regret, waste.”