Exploring the art of prose


Tag: Dialogue

Author’s Note

Was anybody ever so old?

The city and duration in storytelling

Writing workshops and books on craft often teach that storytelling is about change. They recommend an active protagonist, whose transformation is brought about by the consequences of their own actions. My purpose here is not to refute this useful advice, but rather to explore the abiding sense that life after all rarely works out so conveniently.

Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” is justly celebrated as a classic homage to New York, and it can be read as an archetypical narrative in which change occurs without being brought about by any active will of the protagonist. We might wonder if this text is really a narrative at all, as the traditional motivations and obstacles evade us in the act of reading. Not that there are not characters or actions, rather that these storytelling resources are dwarfed by the scale of the city where they take place.

The change undergone here is not active but passive, happening regardless of the protagonist’s desire, and rendering their consequences strangely null. Didion speaks of her marriage, of her work, serious and important things, and yet their effects do not lead anywhere, they have been absorbed into the city’s infinity of details. Nonetheless, inner change has taken place within the chrysalis of duration, a medium in which personal growth occurs. Its arena is the city.

Didion’s New York offers such a reservoir of the unknown that it renders anybody young when they first explore its streets. The experience of being lost in that novelty is baffling. Humility is demanded of us. Our assumptions will prove horribly naïve; our aims will be frustrated; our actions negated. What remains is only the innate and unfulfilled human desire to frame our experiences within a story. But we will have grown.

Short stories are, perhaps surprisingly, truer to human experience of time than novels are. Novels can make use of their bulk to simulate the sensation of life’s passing, as demonstrated wonderfully in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. But a short story is like a map; the reader intuits a shifting scale in use, that one inch can represent ten miles. In a sentence, a year has passed; in a paragraph, half a lifetime. As we might learn from “On Exactitude in Science,” by Jorge Luis Borges, in the end, all that we really know of the Earth are maps.

These at least were my thoughts in trying to approach Prague through the medium of writing. I lived there for three years, and like so many others I was awed by its beauty and mystery, and alienated by its hermetic indifference, its traumatised history. The story of the gang who draw signs on the wall is a true one, I am sad to report. The protagonist’s quest to find out their meaning echoes my own research.

Prague had an enormous influence on me during those years of disillusionment and growth, but this story is the only one I have written about the city. May she find her own way back to those haunted streets.


JAMES DAVIDSON lives in Liverpool, where he is taking an MA in writing. He has previously worked as teacher and editor in Budapest, Prague, and Krakow, and his fascination with these regions is reflected in his writing. His novel The Chain won the First Novel Prize 2019.