Breach of all Size: Small stories on Ulysses, love and Venice, edited by Michelle Elvy and Marco Sonzogni (The Cuba Press, 2022), 98pp, $30
Thirty-six writers, thirty-six stories, 421 words each. This anthology attempts to bridge two worlds—that of Joyce and his modernist epic Ulysses, published 100 years ago, and the foundation of ancient Venice in the year 421. It seems a slightly odd premise for a modern collection of flash fiction, but the joining of themes from Joyce’s classic novel and the city of Venice has produced an astounding anthology featuring some of the best flash fiction writers in New Zealand. Between the covers of this slim edition there is an abundance of bridges, a whole cast of characters called Antonio, a healthy dose of Vivaldi and chamber music, numerous battered copies of Joyce’s novels, glimpses of Ireland and a few cameo appearances by Captain James Cook. With central themes of love, loss and time—and the slow sinking of a city beneath the pressure of the ever-encroaching sea—change is at the heart of this collection.
The work’s title, Breach of all Size, is Joyce’s own reference to Venice’s famous Bridge of Sighs, and the bridging of worlds is a central theme. As Catherine Kovesi says in her foreword, ‘A bridge enables connection … But it also enables disruption.’ There is plenty of both in these stories: connections are both made and disrupted in equal measure.
Editor Marco Sonzogni (scholar, poet, editor and translator) describes flash fiction as ‘a fluid form, like water—moving, changing, powerful, inviting’, and this fluid feeling is captured by the diversity of pieces in this collection, including poetic ruminations. Take, for example, Emer Lyons’ poetic ‘Far away in the west’, with imagery that combines Ireland with Venice: ‘the once canals of cork city / like venice / like two cities / sinking / sinking’. This piece sits in that interesting and exploratory place between flash fiction and prose poetry. There are traces of poetry in other pieces too, such as the steady repetition in ‘Moment more. My heart.’ by Renée, with the rhythmic searching for another moment of love’s connection. Then there are the pieces that stand out simply as well-written super-short stories, such as the circular narrative of Paula Morris’s ‘Hardly a stonesthrow away’, a looping experience that ends with: ‘You have the most expensive room in the …’, which takes the reader right back to the start: ‘… hotel.’
Each writer was offered phrases from Ulysses as the title of their work, and each has taken those words to new, interesting and often unexpected places. There were some ground rules—every piece had to be a love story, it had to feature Venice, and it had to draw inspiration from the words, plucked by the editors, from Ulysses. Editor Michelle Elvy (writer, editor and founder of National Flash Fiction Day) reminds us that ‘Each time you step into Venice or Joyce it is a new experience’. Every time you step into this book and read a new piece it is also a new experience, a new take on the same theme, a new way of seeing.
Every single one of these stories surprises the reader. There are no clichéd love stories here; nothing ordinary or expected inside these pages. Many writers note the tourist brochure version of Venice, such as in Ben Brown’s ‘The driver never said a word’, in which the protagonist complains, ‘You want God, a white dress and a honeymoon in Venice’. But none of the authors here linger in predictability for longer than is absolutely necessary. Some of the pieces capture the reader in just a few short words, such as Apirana Taylor’s neat phrasing, ‘Whoever builds a city on the sea spits at the ocean of life and death’ in ‘The overtone flowing through the air’.
Among the often playful language of these pieces is a search for connection with New Zealand. Venetian seaman Antonio Ponto appears repeatedly through the stories on his way to New Zealand with Captain Cook. And modern-day New Zealand is included too. The central character in Ian Wedde’s ‘And gold flushed more’ has been stuck in isolation in a hotel room in Auckland: ‘Fourteen days in iso with James Joyce’. These connections with New Zealand help ground this collection’s place in our own literary landscape; they give it a place among our own stories and histories.
Some personal favourites of mine are Jorden Hamel’s ‘Cuckoo Cuckoo Cuckoo’ for the way it gradually reveals character with its carefully chosen redacted words and phrases. There are the wonderful time travelling partnerships in Gina Cole’s ‘Pprrpffrrppffff’, with Michelangelo and Joyce conversing with Captain Cook on board the Endeavour. Then there’s the rebellious tomboy in Jenna Heller’s ‘The inner organs of beasts and fowls’: ‘[t]he kind of girl who takes her sweaty shirt off after outrunning the polizia through the zig-zag maze of narrow streets and bridges’.
There are a lot of familiar authors in this collection, names that we already associate with astounding flash fiction. But there are some new names too, writers perhaps dipping their toes into the waters of flash fiction and finding they can swim. It’s likely that Elvy and Sonzogni chose thirty-six stories as a reference to the thirty-six love poems published in Joyce’s first book, Chamber Music, though this is never mentioned. It must have been challenging for the editors to select the thirty-six writers to include. There are some well-established New Zealand flash fiction writers here, but there are some surprises too, writers bridging the gap between their own literary tradition and the newer form of flash fiction.
For me, as a writer who has never visited Venice and, I’m ashamed to say, has never read Ulysses, this book opened up new thoughts and ideas. I feel like I know a little of Venice now, but not in the superficiality of tourist brochures; I can smell the sewers and feel the pull of lovers. But I can also sense the expectation that Venice must, in some way, deliver what it promises—the romance, the history, the longing for something more beautiful, more timeless than everyday life. In the end, Rijula Das reminds us that ‘Venice cannot save us’, but perhaps it can keep giving us new perspectives and new ways of finding connections in the world.
I’m drawn back to Sonzogni’s quote in his introduction: ‘chi no risccia no rosega’, perhaps the Venetian dialect for the more commonly used Italian proverb, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. This book and the writing within it certainly take risks, and the payoff is a fascinating collection that does both Venice and Joyce’s Ulysses proud. The only question remaining is what curious combination of dates, times, and coincidences will the editors come up with next? In the meantime, I’m off to find myself a copy of Ulysses. Maybe I’ll find one in a book exchange in town, something left behind by one of Jack Ross’s characters, ‘travellers who’d repented of their self-improving zeal’.
MELANIE DIXON is a writer and creative writing tutor based in Ōtautahi Christchurch. Her short stories and flash fiction have been published and anthologised internationally. She has a master’s in creative writing from the University of Auckland and is currently working on a YA speculative fiction trilogy as well as her own collection of flash fiction.