From Under the Overcoat, by Sue Orr

by Alison Stedman
Vintage Books, 2011

Sue Orr began writing this collection of short stories with the famous comment of a Russian writer in mind: ‘We have all come out from under Gogol’s Overcoat.’ Nikolay Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’, a short story published in 1842, has revolutionised the way we write stories. It was one of the first, Orr writes, ‘to chronicle the ordinariness of life – the first appearance in short fiction of the Little Man’. Inspired by this, Orr’s purpose has been to write a collection that ‘salutes’ masterpieces of short fiction since ‘The Overcoat’ (or, in two cases, before it). She chose ten stories (listed below) that have made a mark on short fiction and on her, a New Zealander living in the twenty-first century. Using them as inspiration, she has written stories that draw on these classics. ‘Ten old stories eventually found their echoes naturally in the stories I wanted to write.’

Orr writes, ‘The ten original stories touched me deeply and I can recall their substance without hesitation. Their observations were as fresh and honest today as they were the day they were penned. That is my justification for my choices; I happily concede another writer might choose ten different stories, equally excellent.’

I loved the idea. I was intrigued by the idea. But I admit to some concern about the stories that were to follow it. Would they be stories that could be read on their own, for their own sake? Would they simply be contrived exercises in hagiography? Would they be a more intellectual form of fanfiction?

Fortunately, the ten stories of From Under the Overcoat are wonderful to read on their own merit. Except for one story, there is technically no need to read the original stories from which they were inspired. I was amazed at how skilfully and sympathetically Orr takes on new central characters each time, each very different, but all satisfying and complete. To read this collection was to experience the short story in all its strength, where brevity is more potent and open endings more enjoyable. They all offer glimpses into other people’s lives that are profound in their minimalism.

I enjoyed all the stories, but a few stand out in particular. ‘Recreation’, inspired by the Māori Creation legend, was a particularly imaginative story about an old weather presenter and his unorthodox techniques. ‘Scratchy’ was one of those fantastic stories in which something huge is won, only to be lost again by a silly mistake. ‘Spectacles’, inspired from Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’, is a very moving story of a young girl to whom life has not been kind. And ‘Once Upon a Time in the Antipodes’, which draws on ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in a very different kind of way, peels back the surface of appearances to reveal something quite special.

I really enjoyed ‘A Regrettable Slip of the Tongue’, inspired by James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. This was the one example in the collection in which a knowledge of the original story was necessary, as it was written from the point of view of a character in Joyce’s story. Of course, this could be seen by some as ‘fanfiction’, with all the negative connotations of fanfiction. It is, however, beautifully written and imagined. It is a thoughtful and intriguing what-if.

I did not enjoy ‘George Clarke Junior’, which drew on Arthur Schnitzler’s ‘Lieutenant Gustl’, as much as the others. This may simply be personal taste – I did not find the jerky writing style easy to read, although the content was interesting in itself.

Was the inspiration necessary? The stories all stand well on their own. However, I think there is an added depth to them when placed alongside their older counterparts. The classics draw out the themes and ideas of Orr’s more recent stories even more successfully. And so I think that, overall, this collection is a success, in both its intent and in its reality.

Original stories

  1. ‘Boule de Suif’, Guy de Maupassant
  2. ‘The Doll’s House’, Katherine Mansfield
  3. ‘The Turn of the Screw’, Henry James
  4. ‘Death’, Sherwood Anderson
  5. ‘The Dead’, James Joyce
  6. The Creation story, a Māori legend
  7. ‘Lieutenant Gustl’, Arthur Schnitzler
  8. ‘The Party’, Anton Chekhov
  9. ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the Brothers Grimm
  10. ‘The Overcoat’, Nikolay Gogol
Alison Stedman is a senior editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2011, Alison Stedman