A Modern Way to Die

Peter Wortsman

First published in 1991, and now issued in a second edition, comprising short short fictions, most written in the Eighties, A Modern Way to Die, by Peter Wortsman “predates the in-vogue term flash fiction, but it's surely one of the cornerstones of the tradition,” (according to short form pioneer Peter Cherches). As Wortsman notes in the book’s original foreword, these texts appeared “in the absence of big things to say […] guided only by the precarious optimism of the pen.” Conceived as a disjointed compendium of narrative treatments of life’s common denominator, death, the book’s spare hit and run aesthetic gravitates from enhanced neon hyperrealist reportage to nightmare parable to plummet the surreal substrata of the American Dream.
It’s the American Dream zone previously mined by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, and Paul Bowles.

The late prose poet Russell Edson characterized these eccentric narratives: “It’s refreshing to come on Peter Wortsman’s pieces. They read like dreams…with the penetrating logic found in dreams. …Most of us are better storytellers at night than in the light of day. But, somehow, Peter Wortsman, in the light of day, seems able to connect the power of the dream narrative to conscious language to create unique works that walk a curious line between fiction and poetry.”

“The only effective method I have found for temporarily immobilizing (if not obliterating) time is to take pleasure in its passing,” Wortsman writes in a text titled “How to Kill Time.” And he concludes in the afterword: “Death resumes where birth left off, but the living must still plod along, invent a destiny.” As Geoffrey Chaucer, Giovanni Boccaccio and storytellers worth their salt since time immemorial have fathomed, our only option is to make merry and keep ourselves entertained along the way until the sound track goes silent.

Dubbed “a 20th-century Brother Grimm” (Bloomsbury Review) and “a delinquent Hans Christian Andersen” (by playwright Mark O’Donnell), Peter Wortsman is the author of three books of short fiction, including a previous edition of A Modern Way To Die (1991), Footprints in Wet Cement (2017), and Stimme und Atem/ Out of Breath, Out of Mind (2019), a bilingual German-English collection of stories; a travel memoir, Ghost Dance in Berlin, A Rhapsody in Gray (2013); and a novel, Cold Earth Wanderers (2014).
He is also the author of two stage plays, Burning Words and The Tattooed Man Tells All, the former produced in 2006 by the Hampshire Shakespeare Company, at the Northampton Center for the Arts, in Northampton, Mass., and again in 2014, in German translation, at the Kulturhaus Osterfeld, in Pforzheim, Germany; the latter produced in 2018 by the Silverthorne Theater Company, at the Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center, in Greenfield, Mass.
His short work has been widely anthologized. His travel writing has run in such major newspapers as The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and was included five years in a row in The Best Travel Writing, 2008-2012, and again in 2016.
He is also a critically acclaimed translator from German into English, of works by such masters as the Brothers Grimm, Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Heinrich von Kleist, and Robert Musil, as well Tales of the German Imagination, From the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann (2013), an anthology which he also edited and annotated.
Recipient of the 1985 Beard’s Fund Short Story Award, the 2008 Geertje Potash-Suhr SCALG-Prosapreis (a prize for short original fiction in German) awarded by the Society for Contemporary American Literature in German, the 2012 Gold Grand Prize for Best Travel Story of the Year in the Solas Awards Competition, and a 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY), he was a fellow of the Fulbright Foundation (1973), the Thomas J. Watson Foundation (1974), and a Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin (2010).