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Talking about Short Story Club: April 2014

Zoe hat headshotOur Associate Editor, Zoe Gilbert, gives us insider information on the Word Factory short story club in April where she and Sophie Haydock led the group who had read ‘In the Reign of King Harad IV’ by Steven Millhauser.

This short story, from Steven Millhauser’s collection Dangerous Laughter, has the feel of a simple parable. However, it is one that bears re-reading, and whose message is not necessarily straightforward. It follows a court miniaturist, whose main occupation is replacing the furnishings in the king’s toy palace. In his middle age he has a revelation which leads him to create smaller and smaller objects, all of which are described in beautiful and intricate detail. By the end of the tale he is creating a world so small that not even he can see it, but despite being mocked he knows he must go on, knowing life will be ‘difficult and without forgiveness’.

When the reading group met, members discovered they had all experienced the story quite differently – one saw it as a straight fable, another as a metaphor for art and creation; one reader read it many times and sympathised with the miniaturist, while another reader found the lack of emotion in the story meant she was not drawn in. The variation in reading experience was in itself interesting, for such a seemingly simply tale.

Opinions were also divided over how to interpret an artist making something even he himself cannot see. For some, this indicated mental deterioration – the impossibly small objects simply were not there. For others, they were carried along by the descriptions so that they believed in the miniaturist’s integrity, and this led us to explore what the meaning of this parable-like tale might be. Considering it is such a short and simple story, discussion ranged over a broad field! We wondered whether art is still art if nobody ever perceives it, and what this means for a writer whose work is never read. If the artist is satisfied and believes in what he or she is making, is that enough? Does the opinion of the masses – who in the story prefer creations they can see and understand – matter, or is the artist always right? Are works of art that are difficult more or less worthwhile, and is conceptual art pointless if nobody understands it? Appropriately enough, it seemed that there is more to this story than meets the eye.