Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, by Nadine Gordimer

The sentimental parrot, the gay fling and other stories of human experience
Click to follow

Here's another possible reason for the supposed decline of the short story: writers just don't have long enough to get good at them.

In her 84th year, Nadine Gordimer has produced a remarkable 10th collection. They show none of the "audacity" Richard Ford called for in his recent anthology of American short stories. Instead, what they show is tact: a quality that seems bound up in Gordimer's decades of experience. There are stories here that a 30-year-old could not have thought to write, let alone written.

"History" is a 10-page piece about a tame talking parrot, the much-loved mascot of a restaurant in a small town in southern France. Regulars call out to him, "... and with the assertion of a dignity of a maitre d' sometimes he calls back or murmurs in that mysterious throat of his, Hullo bon jour. Sometimes not." No characters are named, bar the owner, and nothing happens. It is just a description of the interaction between bird and humans. There is a swell of sentiment when, before the restaurant is sold, the parrot starts dredging up unused phrases from 30 years of listening; a desperate, mocking valediction for all their lives. It could be a short chapter from a full-blown novel (Flaubert would have loved it), but as a stand-alone piece it is thoroughly satisfying.

Other stories read like compressed novels. "A Frivolous Woman" is about a German Jew who escaped the Nazis to America and leaves behind, on her death, a "stack of fancy dress costumes in a pirate chest". "Allesverloren" has a widow looking up her dead husband's one gay fling: "She would like to talk; nothing personal, she assured, just some dates, events, places, his architectural activities in a period of her man's career when she had not known him. Nothing personal."

The settings are not audacious. The young woman in "The Beneficiary" contrives a meeting with a famous actor who may be her biological father. The final trio of stories, "Alternative Endings", follow three couples through the trials of infidelity. All commonplace subjects, but unequivocal examples of how life sometimes turns out. There are less good stories here, and the density of the writing can be a brake on enjoyment, but it can't dull Gordimer's compassion for the lovers, the children, the displaced and the bereaved.

Bloomsbury, 14.99. Order for 13.49 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897