“Only a moment; a moment of strength, of romance, of glamour — of youth!… A flick of sunshine upon a strange shore, the time to remember, the time for a sigh, and — goodbye!” – Joseph Conrad
This second volume (volume 1 here) in the collection The World’s 100 Best Short Stories takes as its theme “Romance” and, thankfully, treats with that term in its classical sense “the fascination with far off places and times” rather than focusing on its more recent interpretation as “boy meets girl and complications ensue.” That is something of a relief, the latter variation on the term having been pretty completely spoiled by young adult fiction of one kind or another.
As a result, the stories in this second book take the reader from the American Wild West to the France of Louis the 15th to (kinda sorta) ancient Egypt to the slums of London.
There are a couple of interesting issues to discuss concerning this collection of stories, some related to the stories as stories, some related to the stories’ adaptations by other media. That brings up the old issue of the experience of fiction vs. the experience of the re-interpretation of fiction as visual art.
So. To a few of the stories….
The collection opens with a story called “The Star Spangled Manner” by writer Peter B. Kyne. Kyne is of interest because most of his oeuvre was made into films, primarily during the silent era. The most famous of these is “The Three Godfathers” which has been adapted and filmed numerous times from the silent era to the late 20th century, most recently as an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. The most famous adaptation is that of director John Ford and starring John Wayne. “The Star Spangled Manner,” about English aristocracy in western America is, for all its length and interest, slight as literature.
Kyne’s story is followed by the story quoted above, from the canonical stalwart Joseph Conrad, “Youth.” This is by far the finest piece of literature in this collection, and is filled with passages like this one:
Oh the glamour of youth! Oh the fire of it, more dazzling than the flames of the burning ship, throwing a magic light on the wide earth, leaping audaciously to the sky, presently to be quenched by time, more cruel, more pitiless, more bitter than the sea—and like the flames of the burning ship surrounded by an impenetrable night.
As I said in my previous essay on this collection, it’s impossible to cover ten stories in a short essay, so I’ll address one more. It is a story with the unfortunate title, “The Chink and the Child” by author Thomas Burke who is pictured above. Burke’s first collection, Limehouse Nights, was widely acclaimed when it was published in 1916. The stories themselves are somewhat melodramatic, and “The Chink and the Child” is no exception. It concerns a Chinese immigrant named Cheng Huan and his relationship with Lucy, the young daughter of an abusive, alcoholic boxer known as Battling Burrows. They meet by accident of the most sordid kind: a slightly older friend of Lucy (who is 12) has brought her to an opium den hoping to sell her off. Cheng Huan takes care of Lucy, whom he dubs White Blossom, and gives her food, shelter, and clothing during a few days when Battling has locked her out of their room. While Cheng has gone out to get flowers and food, Battling finds his room and takes Lucy home where he proceeds to beat her to death. Cheng, who has gone to Battling’s room for his own reason, discovers her body, takes her back to his room, lays her out on the bed, strews it with flowers, then commits ritual suicide. Battling, who had gone out on another drinking binge after killing his daughter, returns home, calls out for the girl, then flops down on his couch where he meets the reason for Cheng’s visit: he sits down on a viper that bites him three times. Thus the catastrophe is complete: an innocent girl dead, her murderer punished, and her protector, having lost what he believed his last chance to be a good man, dead by his own hand.
It’s an affecting story, to be sure, and no less a talent than D.W. Griffith turned Burke’s tale into one of his silent masterpieces under the title Broken Blossoms. (Use the link to watch the film for free at the Internet Database). In fact, my own interest in “The Chink and the Child” was because I recognized it as the basis for Griffith’s film. It is nice to think that art begets art. In the case of Thomas Burke’s story, at least, that is so.