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In The Modern Short Story from1809-1953, in his chapter on A.E.Coppard, H.E.Bates complains at Coppard’s use of snippets gathered into notebooks, from observations in the field – literally and metaphorically – and pressed into service as parts of his shorts stories later.
It seems a strange thing to make a point of denigrating. Why shouldn’t a writer record what he has observed and find a use for it later? Part of the answer may lie in Bates’ attitude to his own writing. I recently got hold of a 1938 collection of Bates’ short stories: Country Tales, ironic in its name considering Bates’ comments about Coppard’s use of the term, published by the Readers Union. An unexpected bonus was that in addition to the thirty stories, was an essay by Bates himself, on his own writing processes. Dismissing a description of himself as ‘a writer with a carefully polished style’, Bates insists that he wrote ‘easily. Quickly and light heartedly, often between breakfast and lunch’, and, quoting Edward Garnett, with ‘a facile devil inside’.
But that devil, allowing Bates to write ‘quickly and happily’, might be much nearer to those notebooks than is immediately apparent. Isn’t it the case that Garnett’s devil is really a metaphor for the unconscious memory – the mind’s storehouse notebook, accessed automatically in the moments of creativity? We may not know specifically where our phrases, images and metaphors have come from, but surely, they come from our recollections and interpretations of what we have seen and heard, and read, over the years of our lives? The way we access those memories may be more mysterious than the way we might consult a notebook, but is it essentially different?
I am a notebook user myself – which perhaps explains to some extent my instinct to defend Coppard’s practice – and I know from experience that the mere act of writing down a phrase or a scene may be enough to lodge it in what we might call a ‘ready access’ memory from which it will be retrieved without the need to actually re-read it!
This is more than just a weighing up of two means of producing a story. It has implications for the reader too. For the words evoked by my memories will not necessarily evoke similar memories in those who read them. Indeed it may be that they necessarily will not. Groping to re-live our experiences we write down words that will evoke in the reader memories of theirs.
Striving for precision in our use of language, as writers and readers, we ought not forget that the meanings of words are not as fixed nor as narrow as our dictionaries might suggest. Even where we can pin down to a single moment in time, and place, the origin of a word, we cannot pin down its meaning to the next person who uses it, and look at convolutions lawyers have to go through, to frame laws and documents that are intended to achieve such pinnings.
Meanings and words are quite different things, and we try to couple them as securely as we can, but its worth remembering that the story – or tale – that a reader, or listener is experiencing is never likely to bear more than a passing resemblance to the one that the writer intended to create. This is what gives the telling and receiving of tales its symbiotic quality, linking both writer and reader in a joint act. Neither does it require a death of the author to bring it about. The process of interpreting the words, both in their writing, and in their reading, or hearing, does that.
Watching a film, by comparison, is an act of mere observation and analysis. What you get is what you see. There is little to interpret, and no call upon memory to supply the images that words demand. By comparison, live theatre is something of a halfway house, with its ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.
Here we are, back again, at ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ – and the difference between how we process what we are shown, and what we are told. Language, by its very nature, is an interpretive process.
Coming back to Bates, he goes on to say, in his introduction to Country Tales, that he needed to move on from being a writer who sucked ‘the significance out of trivialities’, to one who wrote stories ‘drawn directly from life and not from imagination’. That would be, I suspect, life as remembered, or jotted down in notebooks.
I had been reading about A.E.Coppard. H.E.Bates had made the point that Coppard had suffered from being influenced by Henry James. I hadn’t read any Henry James. (It’s always a good method of excluding people – by making allusions they might not understand, instead of saying directly what you mean, the wrong sort of people that is!) So, I thought, I’d better read some Henry James. It was that hot weekend a week or so ago. I was in Shropshire, and took a trip to the local second-hand bookshop, and found three slim Henry James novels, and lay in the sun and read ‘em. Somebody’s got to do it! Washington Square, The Europeans, & The Spoils of Poynton, in case you’re interested. A week on and I can’t recall the damnedest thing about the first one, but I can remember thinking, about all of them, that Mr James writes a long sentence, and he spends an awful lot of time telling you, not what his characters are doing, but what they are thinking about as they decide what to do! I enjoyed the novels. When I got home I looked through my collection of short story anthologies, which has got a bit out of hand lately – I had that scheme last year to read one short story a day and so ended up collecting a few – to see if I had any Henry James stories. I found one. The Beast in the Jungle, or something. Friends, I never made it to the end of that short story. I lost the will to live. I lost the plot. I lost all sense of reason. I lost all perspective. I lost my sense of proportion. I lost a copy of The Field of Mustard, A.E.Coppard’s 1926 collection, too, and I still haven’t found it, but that’s another story. But, I think I might have found what it was that Mr Bates was carping about when he criticised Coppard’s later writings: a tendency, perhaps, to stray off the subject a little, and spend too many words on too little happening. I haven’t worked my way through all Coppard’s later stories yet. I’m up to about 1933 (so about fifteen years to go), but that’s what I’ll be keeping an eye open for.
This afternoon I read The Little Farm, by H.E.Bates. I was at Gatehouse of Fleet yesterday, and took a crawl around the lower shelves of the second-hand bookshop in the Mill on the Fleet! I thought there might be some Coppard lurking around the ‘C’s in ‘Fiction A to Z’. I didn’t want to crawl too long. Hey, I was wearing my Ted Baker trousers! What’s a guy to do? But I found a copy of Bates’ ‘Colonel Julian and other stories’ for £1.50! The Little Farm opens the collection. It’s a wonderful story, of trust, and betrayal, and it’s one of the stories in ‘Country Matters’ – a nineteen seventies Granada TV series of adaptations from Coppard and Bates, recently re-issued in America (2008) on dvd. If you can play Region One dvds without compromising your machine, I recommend it. The stories are great, and The Little Farm (in either version) one of the best. For the films, check out those yet to be famous faces, Michael Elphick, for example, in The Little Farm.
(in ‘Selected Stories of A.E.Coppard’, introduced by Doris Lessing, Cape,1972 and in ‘Country Matters’ (2-dvd set, Region 1, Koch, 2008).
A.E.Coppard is a writer I only recently became aware of, but one that has caught my interest. In the nineteen seventies a selection of his stories was published which coincided with the production of a mini series by Granada TV including adaptations of two of them. These programmes were recently re-issued on dvd in America, where Coppard seems better known than in the UK. One of the two was The Black Dog, a story of love across social and class barriers, set in the nineteen thirties.
As with many Coppard tales, the story has what some think of as an ‘open’ ending, in that it leaves the protagonists at a moment of decision, or perhaps indecision, inviting the reader to imagine a projected future in light of the past and present they have read.
Small details in this story are worth looking at. There is a switch, in the last paragraph, from the past to the present tense, a reference to what the protagonist might do, in the future. This places the teller of the story in our present, places us in the protagonist’s present, and the story becomes an explanation of why he is where he is, in that endless, fictional now.
This is one of those places where a film adaptation can do no better than have a voice over narrative – with the curiosity that in the Country Matters adaptation, by Hugh Leonard, that voice is heard over the image of Gerald travelling back by train to London. The film is trapped in the real time of its events. The narrative of the short story is freed from it. Voice over narrative in fact is often essential, where stories must be told, rather than shown!
There are other little changes. The station porter still has the exchange with Gerald, near the beginning of the story (nearer in fact in the written, than in the filmed version), but whereas in the film he refuses a cigarette, smoking only a pipe, in the text we have:
‘Take a pipe of that?’ said Loughlin, offering him the pouch.
‘Thanky, sir, but I can’t smoke a pipe;’
His reasons remain the same in both, though: to keep me from cussing and swearing’. The change is minor, but obviously deliberate, and raises the question of why it was done.
Would it have been awkward to film? There’s a scene in the book, The Lord of The Rings, where Gimli is given strands of hair as a gift from Galadriel. In the film this is cast into reported speech, simply because (according to the actor’s account in the ‘specials’ dvd), it was technically too difficult to enact. What would he do with his thick gloves? Where would he put the strands of hair? The pipe versus cigarette dilemma seems less obvious. Of course, establishing the protagonist as a pipe smoker would involve the character in other complexities, not to mention unsightly bulges in his pockets. For him to get out a cigarette and light it from time to time is nowhere nears as complicated – can be done almost unnoticed.
Could there also have been a change in the way we wanted to see our English gentlemen? Did the pipe, at the time of the making of the film, have a resonance unsuitable for the story the film-maker wanted to tell?
There is a languid quality to the film that softens the hard edges of Coppard’s story. The prettiness, of the characters, the costumes, and the settings of the English countryside, rivers, meadows, branchline steam railways, and higgledy-piggeldy rural buildings, the relentless sunshine, the incidental music, all tend to idealise this story. The common title, that black dog, loses some of its threat.
‘In their favourite glade a rivulet was joined by a number of springs bubbling from a pool of sand and rock. Below it the enlarged stream was dammed into a small lake once used for turning a mill, but now, since the mill was dismantled, covered with arrow heads and lilly leaves, surrounded by inclining trees, bushes of rich green growth, terraces of willow herb, whose fairy-like pink steeples Orianda called ‘codlins and cream,’ and catmint with knobs of agreeable odour.’
If we look at the words Coppard uses, do we find them evoking the same feelings as are evoked by the images of the film-maker? I think not, and here is problem of adaptation, and here the reminder that writers tell, and film-makers show. Coppard’s passage of description is flatter, more dispassionate, than the camera’s sound-tracked and technicolored scene. He could do lush and poetic if he wanted to: look at the descriptions that top and tail his very short story ‘Weep Not My Wanton’. There is also the fact that the rural background must always be there in the film, as his characters talk, but in the short story, it must be intermittent. Stories must be told one word at a time. Films are shown in many images simultaneously. We hear the dialogue over pictures. We read it between them. How does the film maker give us ‘arrow heads’ for lilies, or more correctly, how could he ensure that we think of them? How does he capture Coppard’s ‘vacillating leaves underscored the clamour of the outfall, gave to it the very serenity of desolation’? The ‘serenity of desolation’ is powerful verbal image, but if we each drew it, or photographed it, how many of us would replace the others’ images with that phrase, if we did not know what it was that they had tried to capture?
Yet, the mood, the ambience, of a Coppard piece is often, to my way of thinking, its major element, its point even. The events serve the mood. The mood is not there to support our belief in the events.
Churchill referred to his bi-polar depressions as a ‘black dog’, and there is a black dog dogging this story. It dogs Gerald Loughlin’s love for Orianda, her father’s and Lizzie’s love for each other, and Orianda’s attempt to return home. That black dog is created by Coppard’s choice of words, not by his choice of scenes to describe.
The film is, nevertheless, a powerful evocation of a lost England. Bare walls and the rough clothing of the rural poor, capture something of the bleak existence. Along with others in the series, it has a strong elegiac sense of nostalgia. Coppard though, was not being nostalgic. He was not writing about only the rural poverty either. His stories are of thwarted or failed love, unable to overcome obstacles of class, background and outlook. His characters struggle to cross gulfs of understanding, and to overcome their own natures.
In The Black Dog, Gerald Loughlin is eventually unable to cross the class barrier between himself and Orianda. He says ‘life is enhanced not by amassing conventions, but by destroying them’, but he cannot be the ‘barbarian’ that Orianda says, in the book, that she wants, and in the film, that she needs. Another minor detail change here signals something of the differing contexts of the tellings. The film strongly implies that Orianda seduces Gerald. She presses his hand to her bosom, and does something to him, off camera. We see his his wide-eyed reaction, and hear their breathing, before they sink out of shot. The book ends this scene differently, with Orianda turning ‘away for a moment or two’ before taking his arm and walking on. In both she has said, just before: ‘short of marrying me I could make you do nothing.’ Coppard is not being coy here. He is being explicit, for she has already said ‘you could do anything with me’, repeating the ‘anything’. This is an offer that he cannot accept, and to imply, as the film does, that he can, lances the boil of the scene, and the story, in addition to proving her second statement instantly wrong!
My guess is here that the film-maker didn’t let a good story spoil an audience expectation, and from what I remember of the nineteen seventies, we were egging our TV producers on to show us as much sex as they explicitly could. Coppard’s more thoughtful and poignant revelation of his characters was perhaps sacrificed, rather than overlooked. We like to believe that writers of Coppard’s era were repressed, or suppressing sexuality in their stories, but perhaps they were more interested in the motives, the passions, of their characters, than in their mechanical arrangements.
If you can play Region 1 dvd’s, the set, in which 4 Coppard and 4 H.E.Bates stories are adapted, is well worth the watching. Coppard’s stories are readily available second hand, especially the first half dozen collections (which are usually considered to contain his best work).