Fables by Modern Writers

After enjoying Seumas O’Brien’s daft collection of fables, The Whale and the Grasshopper, I realized that I should take a moment to acknowledge the small (naturally) collection of fables by other modern writers that I have been assembling over the last few years.

According to Wikipedia,

A fable is a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse, that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized (given human qualities), and that illustrates a moral lesson (a “moral”), which may at the end be expressed explicitly in a pithy maxim.

A fable differs from a parable in that the latter excludes animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as actors that assume speech and other powers of humankind.

Not every writer who’s called his little pieces fables has observed this distinction. Marvin Cohen’s fables, for example, always take place in the world of men and their imaginations, with rarely if ever a critter to be found in them. The greatest of all modern fabulists, George Ade, never thought to disguise his small tales of man’s pretensions and predicaments by cloaking his characters in animal costumes. And though most do keep their fables within the 3-4 pages or less that’s considered the limits of the form, some stretch out to as many as twenty or more.

The one thing modern fabulists do seem to share is the sense that the didactic purpose of fables should always be taken with a grain of salt. It might be that a life could be bettered by their lessons, but it’s more likely that people will keep on making the same mistakes–for which the fabulist ought to be grateful, as it ensures a steady of new material. And few modern writers imagine that readers will take their words as seriously as did Aesop. Instead, they recognize that pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes doesn’t mean that the rest of the crowd won’t happily go on pretending he does.

Black Sheep and Other Fables, by Augusto Monterroso

Cover of 'The Black Sheep and Other Fables'If a fable is a “succinct fictional story,” then the fables of the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso are easily the most succinct examples to be found. Monterroso is said to have written the world’s shortest short story: “And when he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” In his fables, he stretches out a bit more–but not much. Here, for instance, is the complete text of “The Imperfect Paradise”:

“It’s true,” the man said with a melancholy air, his gaze fixed on the flames dancing in the fireplace that winter night; “in Paradise there are friends, music, some books. The only bad thing about going to Heaven is that from there you can’t look up.”

Monterroso switches back and forth from man to animals in his stories. It’s fitting that he takes as the epigraph to this collection a quote from one K’nyo Mobutu: “So much are animals like man that at times it is impossible to distinguish between them.” And it’s fitting that when you look into the index, the entry for Mobutu contains the parenthetical note, “Anthropophagite.” Cannibal. So the joke is on us–he’s not referring to how we behave: he’s referring to how we taste.

Monterroso’s love of jest seems all the more remarkable when you learn that he was jailed as a member of the opposition and spent most of his adult life in exile. While his tales are often satirical, there is never any bitterness in his tone. Indeed, his response to oppression is to note the same flaws it shares with every other human endeavor. It’s hard for me to believe that the following wasn’t meant as a reflection on the CIA’s interference in Guatemalan politics:

Once upon a time there was a Lightning Bolt which struck twice in the same place; but it discovered that it had done enough damage the first time, and that it was no longer needed, and it became very depressed.

Onion Soup and Other Fables, by R. O. Blechman

Blechman, whose stable of fans is much smaller but no less fervid than that of his fellow New Yorker illustrator, William Steig, published this slim collection of cartoon fables back in 1964, but most of his topics (e.g., “Gluttony”) are timeless.

The Zebra Storyteller: Collected Stories, by Spencer Holst

Although none of Spencer Holst’s various story collections had the word “fable” in their titles, he’s still inarguably the leading American fabulist of the late 20th century. Luckily, his tales have been collected from a half-dozen out of print books and are available in paperback from Barrytown Limited (part of Station Hill Press). And a number can be found online, including “The Language of Cats,” “The Zebra Storyteller,” and “On Demons”. And here you can read his shortest and loveliest fable, “Mona Lisa Meets Buddha”:

Up in heaven the curtains fluttered, the curtains fluttered, and the Mona Lisa entered at one end of a small hall, which was hung with many veils. Up in heaven the curtains fluttered, fluttered, fluttered, and the Buddha entered the hall at the other end. They smiled.

Holst and his wife, Beate Wheeler, were painters and benefited greatly from a rare example of civic generosity towards artists: the Westbeth housing complex for artists in west Greenwich Village in Manhattan. He often appeared in city clubs and galleries to tell his stories, which he also–to our fortune–took the time to write down. There is, at times, a slight flavor of Roald Dahl in Holst’s tales, such as the one about the man who takes a woman in a bat mask home from a costume party … only to discover that, um … it’s not a mask. But Holst has none of Dahl’s cutting cynicism–if his princess refuses to marry the frog because he turns out to be a junkie–well, could anyone who’d lived in the Village for forty-some years have blamed her?

The Last of the Redskins, by Jean Dutourd

Cover of 'The Last of the Redskins'“When I learned to read ‘good books,'” Jean Dutourd writes in the foreword to this collection–also from 1964–“I was constantly and badly deceived. I read charming stories with happy endings.” The problem, of course, is that real life is nothing like these pleasant stories: “Everyone knows that the world of children is a universe of ferocious beasts, where naked force and cowardice flourish.”

So Dutourd’s response was to create a set of fables that reflect “how things really take place in this world where financiers are generally happier than cobblers….” He leads off, appropriately, with “Poverty Does Not Make Happiness,” in which a cobbler gains a little cash windfall that eases the worst of his worries and his wife is wise enough to advise him not to try to repay it. In Dutourd’s version of Cinderella, the prince is not the least bit charming: “fifty-three years old, wore eyeglasses, and had very set habits.” And, as Cinderella learns after the wedding, the whole affair was designed by the husband to get a free governess for his three kids so he would have more time to spend with his mistress of many years.

Some of Dutourd’s fables are so cold-blooded as to verge on the cruel. In “Two Amputated Legs,” Georges, whose legs are blown off by an enemy hand grenade, learns “that the fate of man is to lose, successively, legs, eyes, arms, love, years, memories, and never to find them again.” On the other hand, he has a certain cynical faith in the future. In “Pearls Before Swine,” a man literally tosses handfuls of pearls into a pen full of pigs. “But all that treasure gone to waste!” cries an observer. “Bah,” the man replies. “Nothing is altogether wasted…. The dung heap is full of them…. And when I am dead, there will be a rich harvest.”

Fables at Lifes Expense, by Marvin Cohen

Cohen is easily the most obscure writer in this bunch. Only one of his seven or eight books–The Monday Rhetoric of the Love Club & Other Parables (yes, he does parables, too)–is in print, and that thanks to the astonishing fidelity of New Directions Press to its writers. It hasn’t helped that he’s given his books such titles as, Others, Including Morstive Sternbump: A Novel.

No less a figure than Thomas Merton, however, once said, “Marvin Cohen’s wacky humor, has something of Thurber, something of Steinberg, Buster Keaton, the Surrealists, the French pataphysicians.” Another reviewer has called him a surrealist puppeteer, and it’s an accurate description, as Cohen’s characters are more like puppets he moves through absurd situations than full-fleshed people.

I don’t know if Cohen is still alive, but I recommend checking out any of his books if you enjoy seeing logic and language at play in the hands of a master juggler.

99 Fables, by William March

William March’s work was nothing if not variable. His first novel, Company K, now considered a classic work about World War One, was a collection of sketches of all the men in a single company of Marines. Nearly 20 years later, he published perhaps the greatest novel about l’enfant terrible, The Bad Seed. And in between he wrote over a hundred fables, which he edited down to 99 shortly before his death. Collected and edited by William T. Going, it was first published by the University of Alabama Press in 1960. Although it fell out of print for some years, it was reissued earlier this year by the University press as part of its “Library of Alabama Classics.”

Of all the modern fabulists, March held closest to the model of Aesop. The majority of his tales take place in the animal world–“The Insulted Rabbit,” “The Escaped Elephant,” “The Wild Horses,” and “The Kissless Lovebird,” for example. But he also delves into the human situation directly, even making Aesop a lead character in several fables. And of all the writers discussed here, March is certainly the bitterest in his outlook, as might be expected of a man who spent most of his working life being referred to as a neglected writer.

By the way, if your taste does run to parables rather than fables, I highly recommend locating Howard Schwartz’s anthology, Imperial Messages, first published in 1976 and reissued in 1991, which collects 100 parables from writers ranging from Dostoyevsky and Borges to Kobo Abe and Marvin Cohen.

4 thoughts on “Fables by Modern Writers

  1. Let me just put in a vote for the fables of Ambrose Bierce, which are superb. I’m not sure if he qualifies as a modern fabulist, but he’s worth reading anyway, and often overlooked.

  2. The stories William Maxwell collected in The Old Man At The Railroad Crossing are rather fable-like, rather different from his other fiction.

  3. I probably should have qualified these as post-modern fabulists. Bierce is certainly a remarkable writer, but he’s at least 50 years earlier than the writers featured here.

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