“Our apartment always looked like Christmas because the shelves were laden with red and green Loeb books in Greek and Latin,” writes the narrator of “The Mouse Queen,” a surreal story in Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet, her debut collection of short stories.
Who has ever thought of Loebs, those small green and red books with Greek or Latin on one page and translations of English on the facing pager, in terms of Christmas? This striking detail, delivered in the narrator’s matter-of-fact voice, is so unexpected that the whole story becomes an exercise in whimsy and hyperbole. Whimsical detail follows whimsical detail, and we read eagerly for the narrator’s unique insights.
It is difficult to categorize Grudova’s stories. Are they fairy tales? Are they horror stories? The strange twists and turns go places you have never imagined. The stories are slightly reminiscent of the surrealism of Leonora Carrington and the dark baroque fairy tales of Angela Carter.
I like to let the spare poetic prose wash over me, and sometimes I intuit the meaning. The common theme of the stories is metamorphosis.
I really am not as obsessed with classics as I seem, but let me return to “The Mouse Queen,” because it is one of the eeriest and most audacious of the stories. The narrator meets her husband Peter in a Latin class. She explains ,
I was drawn to Latin because it didn’t belong to anybody, there were no native speakers to laugh at me. There were private school kids in my classes who had studied Latin before, but I quickly overtook them. Peter, who was one of them, slicked his hair back like a young Samuel Beckett and had the wet, squinting look of an otter.
And here we get the first hint that something may be awry with Peter, one of the rich kids, the son of two lawyers; he is adamantly contemptuous of classics students who go to law school. The narrator is poor and hard-working, and her mother lives in a dark ground-floor apartment. No thought of law school has entered her head.
The two marry young, against their parents’ wishes. They post ads in bookstores offering Latin tutoring services, but, not surprisingly no one replies. so they won’t be going to Rome any time soon… The narrator finds s a job in a doll’s house shop, and Peter installs tombs at a cemetery. The details about their workplaces are charming, particularly the descriptions of the miniatures at the dolls’ house shop. But Peter becomes increasingly obsessed with the Roman world, and goes mad when he learns she is pregnant with twins. He accuses her of having cheated on him with a god. He leaves her, and she becomes a single mother of twins, and gets a job at a chocolate factory to support them. Then one day she metamorphoses into a werewolf and writes her memoirs. This story is rich with allusions to the Nutcracker, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Romulus and Remus story, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Roald Dahl, Peter and the Wolf. and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses.
Sure, the theme of metamorphosis links many of the stories, but Grudova is also obsessed with sewing machines. In the first story, “Unstitching,” which is only three pages long, women learn to unstitch themselves, and their true selves look like sewing machines. They are happy to have evolved into their true form, and sewing machines are no longer used; they are aesthetic objects displayed at exhibitions. The men are not happy about it; they regret the loss of the women’s forms.
“Notes from a Spider,”a horror story, takes a different turn. A man with eight legs falls in love with a sewing machine, a model called Florence, with “four legs,like iron plants, a wooden body, a swan-like curved metal neck,…and a small mouth with a silver tooth.” He hires seamstresses, disfigured from long hours sewing, to sew on Florence so he can “read”‘ her stitches . Each seamstress eventually drops dead from exhaustion. And then one day he asks one to sew his legs, and the stitches and scars are “love bites” to him. What it means I can’t quite tell you, but it’s horrifying.
“Waxy” takes place in a postapocalyptic future, in which women work to support men who need to pass “exams.” Pauline works in a factory, painting “NIGHTINGALE” on sewing machines, and dislikes the job but realizes she feels great not having a man. Still, she has to find one soon, and finally spicks up a smelly, incontinent young man named Paul, who, it turns out, isn’t registered for exams. He is kind and they fall in love, but they have to live a underground life so no one will know he’s not registered, and they can’t register their tiny baby.
A lovely book: give it to the oddball on your list! In an interview at Publishers Weekly, the Canadian writer Camilla Grudova explains that she was discovered after she posted some stories at Tumblr. Her background is in art history and German.