I read The Short Stories of Conrad Aiken by accident, though I’ve been meaning to read it for years. I’d just finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and was waiting for UPS to deliver The Savage Detectives, and I figured I’d read a couple of the stories. This collection includes my very favorite short story ever, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” so I thought I’d enjoy the rest of them. Once I started reading, I found myself enjoying the stories differently than I’d expected to. I thought they’d all be like “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” but they’re not.
“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” is about a boy, who, one morning in his bedroom, imagines that snow is falling. He hears the postman coming down the street as he always does, but his footsteps from the farthest house are muffled due to the snow. The boy gets up, looks out the window, and sees that there is, in fact, no snow at all. He becomes obsessed with the snow, hearing it in the mornings and imagining it all day, and he loses interest in real life. His parents and teacher are concerned, as his condition progresses very quickly. Every morning, he imagines the snow getting deeper and deeper, and he can only hear the postman when he gets closer and closer. Eventually, the boy recedes completely into his world of snow, oblivious to his parents and the real world around him.
I’ve always liked that story. I think I read it for the first time when I was in high school. I don’t remember whether it was assigned or not or how I found out about it. I still have a copy of it from a library book. The funny thing is that I own the library book, now, and that’s what I read. I don’t remember how I got that, either. It’s from the main branch of the Jefferson Parish Library, and I assume I got it from a book sale. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for years, waiting to be read.
And I like it most of the stories. I only really like two of them, though: “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” and “Mr. Arcularis,” which is about a man taking a boat to Europe after surgery in the US. He meets a woman, and things turn out interestingly. Lots of stories in this collection are about failed love, and some, like “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” are about crazy people.
I did a bit of reading about Conrad Aiken, and it appears that love and insanity were some of his major concerns. Evidently, when he was a kid, his father went crazy and killed his mother. He was always afraid he would go crazy himself. And he was married three times. In an interview with The Paris Review, he said he was primarily a poet, but he started writing short stories for the money and decided he liked them. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of his poems, and I’m not to interested in doing so. He was a friend of T.S. Eliot‘s and surprisingly influential in the literary world in the 1920s and 1930s.
I don’t see myself revisiting Aiken, though I enjoyed the stories. I’ll probably stumble across “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” or “Mr. Arcularis” again, but his other work doesn’t interest me.