I often write critically on here of a strand of modern English literature, exemplified by On Chesil Beach or The Sense of an Ending, which is small in scale and pores over the detail and ramifications of what may appear to be minor incidents or episodes. It’s a mostly unfair criticism, I concede: to criticise for being small in scale a novel which deliberately sets out to be small in scale is a fallacious argument. The approach of such novels is clear: the authors aim to examine, in almost forensic detail, small events or individual characters, and from that exploration to extrapolate some wider meaning. It’s a valid approach. It’s not my preference, but that’s beside the point.
I was put in mind of this at the weekend when I visited the superb exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Vermeer’s women: secrets and silence. The storytelling power of the paintings in this exhibition is immense: one looks at these paintings and is filled with wonder, with questions, with a longing to know more, to enter that world and experience what the people in the paintings are experiencing. All of it is done on a small canvas – often literally so, Vermeer’s The Lacemaker, in particular, is little more than a foot square. The paintings depict small moments, with very few characters, offering tantalising glimpses into another world.
There is much that storytellers and, in particular, short story writers, can learn from these paintings. Their intimacy helps to etablish such a bond with the viewer that the characters of the individuals come across clearly. One looks, for example, at the young girl in The Lacemaker, bent over her craft with a look of intense concentration, and sees immediately what is important: her hands, beautifully in focus, working on the intricate detail of her work, and the luminous, almost abstract tangle of threads with which she is working. Nothing else matters in this scene, and Vermeer therefore blurs it, relegates it to the background. His – and therefore our – concentration on the story’s core is total.
And these paintings tell stories. But they don’t do it in a flat, obvious, two-dimensional way. There is nothing predictable in the scenes depicted by these master storytellers of the past. Rather, a ravishing sense of mystery pervades them. Nothing is ever straightforward. What is in the letter the young girl is reading in Gerard ter Borch’s Young Woman with a Glass of Wine, Holding a Letter in her Hand that makes her so despondent?
Exactly who or what is the child outside the window in Jacobus Vrel’s Woman at a Window, Waving at a Girl? Is it a ghost? Or simply a child playing? The alacrity with which the woman has arisen, as suggested by the curious angle of her chair, suggests something more sinister, but we simply don’t know.
It is mysterious, thought provoking. Often, what look like straightforward domestic scenes are not. Further examination suggests a subtext we don’t know and can only guess at.
This is the stuff of short stories, the gradual revelation of some hidden truth, the realisation that what is happening off the page is as important as what is on it. Think of Hills Like White Elephants, for example, with its never explicitly mentioned subtext of the girl’s abortion. Or Flannery O’Connor’s repeated search for redemption in her stories. Or the relationships between fathers and sons in A Silver Dish.
The paintings in this exhibition are the forebears of our modern short stories. They are beautifully enigmatic. The exhibition finishes in mid-January: go along if you can.