In the course of my career as a publisher I have to read thousands of short stories, some of which I then select to publish in my monthly magazine or in Clarendon House anthologies because I have determined that there is something worthy about them, something which has earned them a chance to find more readers.
Occasionally, I come across a story which I consider to be a true work of art, by which I mean a piece of fiction which can be read again and again with pleasure, each time resonating for the reader in a slightly new way. These pieces are quite rare, and are to be treasured. And though it could be folly to attempt to do so, it might be worthwhile to try to ‘deconstruct’ one of them to see if we can learn exactly what it is about such an artefact that works so well. Real art can be examined in this way without fear that unearthing its ‘secrets’ will dispel its magic, because a real artwork has tapped into something larger than itself and echoes with voices and musics perhaps far beyond those intended by the author.
Such a piece is ‘Nun or Not?’ by Gabriella Balcom. It was first submitted to me for inclusion in the Clarendon House anthology Rapture, but I was so impressed by it that I not only included it there but republished it a few months later in Gold: The Best of Clarendon House Anthologies 2017/18. It appears again now in Gabriella’s new collection On the Wings of Ideas.
Why do I think it’s so good? I’ll try to break it down as it happens to a reader picking up the story for the first time. But in so doing, I have to point out that the only real way to appreciate it is to read it and re-read it - inevitably in such a short discourse about it, I’m going to miss many of its delights.
The brief glossary at the beginning of the story sets the scene. We know that we are in a foreign land, Slovenia, but also sense that the author is in command of her material as she introduces us to her chief characters, Marijeta, her son Jakob and later Sister Aloizija. Slovenia is ever-present in the tale: we get brief glimpses of a war-torn history, and a rural geography, populated with ancient churches and rustic villages — but never for a moment do we feel that this landscape has been artificially ‘researched’: it is totally convincing. The reader can almost smell the stony, musty atmosphere of the churches, the faint scent of incense from rituals, the farmyard aromas in the villages. And all this is just a backdrop for the drama.
Characters form the real strength of this tale. In just a few words, a vibrant picture is painted of the dedicated and loving Marijeta and her hard, aloof but deeply loving son Jakob. Tiny observations of human behaviour convict us immediately that this is going to be a tale worth reading:
"My time is limited, so I must speak while I can." Seeing him tighten his lips and shake his head, she knew he rejected the idea of her dying. "From the time I carried you inside me, I knew a great destiny awaited you."
"I know. You've told me before." Dipping a cloth in a basin of cool water, he wrung out the excess and gently wiped her sweaty forehead.
Jakob is one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across in short fiction: he is at once cold and stern, made harsh and strong by a lifetime of hardship and struggle, a man to be feared and respected; he is honourable and dedicated without question; but he is also intensely vulnerable and naive.
Jakob relaxed his rigid stance and knelt at his mother's bedside, taking her trembling hands in his. Wrinkled and spotted with age, her veins stood out from years of labor. She'd deteriorated and regained her strength repeatedly, but not this time. He studied her deeply-lined face. Considered the most beautiful woman in Trnovka once, she'd aged beyond her sixty-four years but remained beautiful to him. She was the only true love he'd ever known. She'd never let him down. Always been proud. He could lose her any moment, so how could he deny her anything?
Though the reader only discovers a little way into the tale that he has had to promise his dying mother that he will find a wife, by that point there is never any doubt that he will hold to that oath. By that point also, though, readers have become sympathetic to this icy soldier with a heart of gold.
It’s hard to break down how his character is developed because almost ever sentence in the story is a little gem: as readers, we are privileged to glimpse Jakob’s sensitive and compassionate inner self by the omniscient author, when all the outer world sees is the almost frighteningly severe outer warrior:
He had no desire to be here, but a promise was a promise, and he'd never break one to Mamica. He felt as hollow now as when he'd watched her casket being lowered into the cold ground. Remembering she'd always felt chilled in winter, he'd refused to let her casket be closed until he'd wrapped her favorite shawl around her shoulders. She'd knitted both it and the handkerchief in his pocket.
We are then told of his efficiency in addressing matters after his mother dies, and get glimpses of his past, sketching his nature to be one of almost superhuman achievements — multi-lingual, a war hero, a qualified doctor of mathematics and business, and acquainted with the Imperial court:
Waiting now for his presence to be acknowledged, Jakob read the Ursuline Creed from a wall plaque. "Every call from God ... an invitation to set foot on a journey ... last a lifetime..." Another script addressed the length of time involved in becoming a nun — two years for the postulancy, two for the novitiate, and five for the temporary vows.
He impatiently tapped his left foot and counted in Slovene, "Ena, dva, tri, stiri..." in French, "Un, deux, trois, quatre-." He switched to German. "Eins, zwei, drei, feer..." then Italian, "Uno, due, tre, quattro —.”
Footsteps sounded. A nun approached in the traditional black habit worn by those who'd taken their final vows, wimple tight around her face, and hooded veil falling down her shoulders. "Mr. Jakob Kovac?"
“Doctor." He'd double-majored in mathematics and business.
"I'm sorry, Dr. Kovac. Mother Superior is ready, if you'll follow me —"
"Of course." He regretted his brittle tone, but wouldn't have come if he could have avoided it.
Mother Superior Mary Magdelena stood for her visitor. A military hero deserved respect. A good man did as well, and he was both. He managed a bank in Maribor and was rumored to be on a firstname basis with Emperor Franz Joseph.
His vulnerability becomes especially pertinent when he fails to notice the presence of someone else in the room during his first interview with the Mother Superior, a someone who turns out to be particularly significant. Sister Aloizija is introduced to us as an equally formidable figure — she can hold her own with him, berate him without discomfort, and her departure from the room peculiarly irks him. Attentive readers, knowing this to be a romance tale, will detect the beginnings of a central relationship here, but nothing is obvious or plainly told: the obstacles to an easy connection are daunting:
Mother Superior volunteered, “Sister Aloizija knew what she wanted to do from a young age and came here after finishing school at fifteen. I urged her to be sure she wanted to devote the rest of her life to God, so she spent three years in college before returning. She excelled at everything."
Though eminently qualified in many areas of life it becomes quickly apparent that Jakob is completely out of his depth in choosing a wife. Part of the charm of the tale is the sequence of interviews he has with various candidates, each delicately painted as unsuitable, each subtly reaffirming Jakob’s prejudices and dislike of having to choose, but each also navigating him towards the unspoken choice, Aloizija, who is keeping (very accurate) notes as the interviews proceed. Aloizija is strong, witty, precise and self-confident, but her traits are hinted at through dialogue and small indications:
Sister Aloizija's face lit up as though with an inward fire. Jakob had thought she was lovely unsmiling, but saw he'd been wrong. She was beautiful. Strangely, the jest had eased his tension and unlocked a tightly-secured area inside him. He said, "I'm a bit thirsty after all."
“Sister Aloizija," Mother Superior directed, "would you get Dr. Kovac a cup?"
"Jakob," he corrected. As the younger woman left, he thought her fluid movements similar to those of someone who'd studied self-defense. No doubt that was from studying dance and deportment. Curious about someone with her looks choosing to become a nun, he asked, “She doesn't seek marriage?"
As things progress, Jakob discovers that Aloizija is also a fighter, scarred from brutal encounters in war — his mounting respect and admiration for her is never directly voiced but hinted at:
Watching her walk away, he still felt the heat of her hand and her heartbeat. She was small, but that slender body held great strength.
Given that much of the story consists of the intense and part comic interviews that Jakob must endure with the presented prospects for his wife, all beautifully understated and delicately managed, the reader’s main attention is understandably focused on one room and the dialogue and nuances that occur within it — but with masterful aplomb, Balcom then introduces action, having Aloizija accompany Jakob on his mission to sort out accounting discrepancies in one of his offices in the country. We get to see the characters in motion, and further depths are revealed:
A shuffling sound came from their right, where a short, beady-eyed man stood in the doorway. Mirko Bonic seethed, despite voicing a polite greeting. That woman received a higher raise in one day than he'd gotten in the past two years combined.
An hour later, while Dr. Kovac was in a meeting, Mirko neared the woman copying entries from one ledger to another.
He tried to spill water on them and fumed when she swiftly whisked the books away. Droplets only hit the desk.
Resenting her more because she'd thwarted him, he tossed ribald comments to another clerk. "I've always wondered what nuns had under their skirts." Ignoring the other man's efforts to shush him, he raised his voice.
Jakob heard as he exited his office. Seeing Aloizija's pale face, he felt steam rising.
"Enough! In my office now!"
Mirko blanched and obeyed.
Towering over the man, Jakob roared. Mirko cringed. When Jakob realized Aloizija had followed them, horror filled him, and he tried to lower his voice. "I apologize, Sister Aloizija." Was she disgusted with him now?
The sign of a master author is when action plays out around theme, not as some unconnected side-piece. Jakob’s dealings with Mirko, including his final physical ejection of him from the office, are not written simply for entertainment purposes, but directly relate to the central thread of the relationship between the two lead characters:
Jakob grabbed Mirko by his back of his jacket and waist band, and threw him out the front door. As Mirko gaped, the other employees applauded. He fled when Jakob started toward him. Still contemplating violence, Jakob spoke to Aloizija grimly. “That I won't apologize for."
He didn't expect her grin.
Having displayed his strength, Jakob is now confronted about his weakness. Aloizija observes Jakob getting dizzy after working too long and too hard without refreshment. The interplay between them shows a growing maturity in their relationship:
Aloizija was at his side immediately. “Sit down."
“You're anything but fine.”
"I have too much to do!" he snapped.
"Growl at me again, and I'll bite you." But she smiled. Snickering despite himself, Jakob sat.
"My head hurts."
"No wonder. You’re living on coffee, not eating.”
"I don't have —"
"Pfft! I’m tired of hearing you say don't have time. Are you in a hurry to join your mother?"
Furious, he stood but swayed and sat again.
When he submits to her guidance and eats, things are taken subtly further:
"My head still aches but it's better."
"Aches? Here?" Touching his temples with her fingertips, Aloizija massaged lightly.
The pain subsided. Warmth spread outward from her fingers. When she removed them, he reached for her hands. She retreated but he stood swiftly, took her arm, and turned her around to face him. Gazing down into her blue-grey eyes — the blue darkening — he felt a new dizziness. He moved closer, careful to allow her space, and saw her cheeks flush. Her eyes widened, lush lips parting. Jakob lowered his mouth to hers and thought he smelled roses.
Action then builds rapidly to a climax: Jakob finds that Aloizija is going ahead with her ceremony to become a full nun and bursts into the church, disrupting everything and effectively kidnapping her in front of her family. But the power and strength of the tale are such that by this time the reader finds this not only appropriate but desperately required if these two characters are to find happiness and if the threads of the tale are to be woven together adequately. Jakob’s solitary defiance melts into a deeply felt passion and the reader is left awash with a mixture of emotions, not only satisfaction that the romance which has been slowly brooding and building through the tale will be validated — that these two characters who have had to deal with so much harshness and brutality in their lives, leaving them aching and hollow, will now find requited love — but also with a sense of justice and rightness: a beautifully crafted masterpiece of a story has come to its proper and measured end.
I cannot recommend this tale more highly: setting, character and structure work like a piece of music to produce a mini-symphony that reverberates with beauty with each reading.