I’ve posted pictures of this book a couple of times, exemplifying either its attractiveness, or the fact that it contains short stories, but I’ve never really commented on its contents properly. And Kate Chopin’s Portraits was always going to be an inclusion on my 50 Books You Must Read… and here it is, as we reach (just about) a quarter way through the list.
I came across Chopin in 2004, when dovegreybooks started up their Postal Book Group. The idea was – indeed, still is, as it is still going strong – that you select a book, and a nice notebook, and send them on to a given address. Repeat every two months, and eventually your book comes back to you with a notebook of comments, and you’ll have read lots of other, interesting books, across which one might not have come, were it not for the group. Great fun. I sent off AA Milne’s The Holiday Round, whilst dovegreyreader – or just plain Lynne as we knew her then (I mean we knew her as Lynne, not as plain Lynne) – sent Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. I read it in a caravan in Devon, one of the last books I read before heading off to university. And I loved it. I wanted more.
That brings me onto Portraits. You know by now that they’re short stories – but when Chopin does short, she really does short. Some are less than two pages in length, and these, to my mind, are the most successful. They either hinge around a specific denouement or surprise – like ‘Desiree’s Baby’, give or take an accent or two – or are miniature portraits (!) of characters. My favourite of these is ‘Boulot and Boulotte’, a tiny story about twelve-year-old twins, deemed old enough to buy shoes; they go and select them at the market, but are incredulous when asked why they return barefoot: “You ‘spec’ Boulot an’ me we got money fur was’e – us?” she retorted with withering condescension. “You think we go buy shoes fur ruin it in de dus’? Comment!”
As you can see, Chopin often adopts typographical means to portray black or Creole vernacular – I find this quite wearying, quite apart from being a potential p.c. minefield. But the quality of Chopin’s writing more than rises above these issues (Chopin does, I must add, show a great deal more respect to other races than many of her other late-Victorian contemporaries… can one be late-Victorian and not British? Well, you know what I mean.) She uses language in a sparing but powerful way, and is great to flick through and pick stories arbitrarily. That’s how I read it, anyway. And, if nothing else, the cover is great…(!)