After the reading we were in that post-poetic delirium – when you’ve experienced the good, the bad (and the other one) – and were doing our bit as paid up members of the chattering class. You can’t polish a turd, my friend said, and I invited him to take a look inside a bookshop which I shan’t name (as I’m sure you have one, possibly more, within a hundred miles or so). I’d already written the following blog post though:

When I was a second-hand book dealer I had to learn how to describe the goods I was peddling. There was, in those days, a rule-of-thumb system in general use, based on terms like ‘Mint’, ‘Fine’, ‘Very Good’, ‘Good’, and ‘poor’ – which means rubbish, and don’t even think about it unless it’s the only way you can get hold of the text. You can always get hold of the text these digital days, but back then the bread and butter of the business was in customers who wanted to read the text, rather than those who wanted to possess the artefact.

Even so, those descriptive terms were important. In fact, if you misrepresented them, you were breaking the law and defrauding your customers. I think it was Peter Fleming, writer and brother of James Bond’s creator, who had the cynic’s take on the second-hand book trade…Fine means good, Very good means it’s not entirely disintegrated, good means dreadful, etc, and there was some truth in it, in my experience (though I hope not in my practice).

I tell you all this as a preamble to my bouef vraimant.

Earlier this week on a thread I was following (technically), a writer described his newly published novel as ‘great’. That’s an interesting description. He didn’t mean ‘great with child’, I imagine(which could be an objective description), but just what did he mean, and what did expect us to think he meant?

Was it simply that he was mightily pleased with himself for having written it? Hey, I’ve been  mightily pleased with lots of things I’ve written, that turned out to be, on reflection after a few years – even pieces that won prizes or got published – passably good (and worse).

Was he lying? Could be to us, could be to himself, could be to both!

Was he simply using language in that sloppy sort of way that all the really good writers avoid like tax (and if he was, well, was he using it like that in the ‘great’ novel too)?

Had somebody told him it was great? How good was their judgement? Their integrity? Were they after something? Were they simply stupid, or wrong, or mindlessly kind?

Had he told his friends and writing buddies how great it was? And had they done the right thing by him? Or perhaps they didn’t really know? Well, it might be, and what fools they’d look if they started singing ‘the king is in the altogether’. What fools they might look if they didn’t? Maybe they just kept quiet. Maybe they were taking the BBC view, that The Artist never speaks with forked tongue, and is never, even unknowingly, wrong!

I’m not going to suggest that vitriolic criticism is a good thing to bring to a piece of writing, even when it’s awful. There’s always something good to find. But something good doesn’t make it great. In something that is great, there will usually, perhaps always, be a flaw or two, but they won’t make it any the less great.

 

In potty training it’s important that every piece of shit that gets produced is given praise, but when you’ve got the hang of it, it’s just shit, and it’s important we make the effort to distinguish between what is and what isn’t. Otherwise we lose not only the language to indicate the distinction, but also the ability to make it in the first place.

I hope his novel does turn out to be great, and I’m glad he’s got faith in it, but I hope too that he hasn’t just watered down a useful word, and lost the concept of what it might mean. Here’s some ‘great’ writing from me (well, as great as it gets at the moment!).

 

 

Not surprisingly perhaps, my first few blog posts about the epic novel, Stalingrad, by Vasily Grossman, have focussed on ‘what’s it about?’ rather than ‘how it’s done?’.

You’ll have seen previous references to those two questions if you’re a long time reader of the blog. Readers, I think, instinctively tend to ask the first, writers, the second. And a novel like Stalingrad grips you as a reader, well it did me, before it grips you as a writer (which, if you’ve got any sense you won’t be aspiring to be).

I still haven’t worked my way through the long story, though, at circa page 560, I’ve experienced the several chapters of the German bombing offensive against the city, with its head-spinning whirlwind of events in which characters that you’ve got to know over the past 100 short chapters have been swept away, seemingly and actually, randomly.

But right from the beginning, I’ve been aware of one particular element of ‘how it’s done’, a technique that I can’t remember having seen so frequently and extensively used in any other novel. I certainly haven’t noticed it before, and thinking back, can’t come up with another example. In fact it’s a technique I might have considered a fault when I speculate about how I might use, or have used something similar.

It’s a simple idea, so simple that you might not notice it, were it not being deployed so frequently. David Lodge, in a book on novel writing (somewhere) makes the point that style might be described as something you do (something one does), so often that the reader notices it. Grossman’s massive novel is littered with, is created of, a series of lists (well, at least, I can say the first 560 pages are).

Sometimes these lists are of single words, sometimes of phrases, sometimes of longer fragments. The variety of possible uses may be what gives it value, binding the story stylistically, yet not limiting what it can touch upon.

 

‘The military-industrial machine created by Hitler had absorbed vast riches: French steelworks, French engineering and car factories, the iron             mines of Lorraine, Belgian coal mines and steel furnaces, Dutch precision mechanics and radio factories, Austrian metalworking companies, the Skoda            arms manufacturer in Czechoslovakia, the Romanian oil industry, Norwegian iron mines, Spanish tungsten and mercury mines, and the textile factories            of Lodz.’ – Ch.1,p3

 

‘That night, the city was suddenly filled with noise: hooters, loud shouts, the sound of car and truck engines.’  – Ch.19,p91

 

‘These first flickering stars were perhaps giving birth in his mind to thoughts of proton explosions, of developmental phases and cycles, of                   super-dense matter, of cosmic showers and storms of varitrons, of different theories of cosmogony, including his own, of instruments for recording                 invisible streams of stellar energy…’ –Ch.42,p215

 

‘All that remained were tyre tracks; scraps of newspaper; empty tins outside huts; mountains of potato peelings beside the village school,                    which housed the HQ canteen; narrow, carefully dug slit-trenches, their walls lined with withered wormwood; and an aspen pole barrier, now raised                to the vertical: the road was open – anyone could drive wherever they wished.’ – Ch.65,p349.

 

It can be tricky to pick out and assess the contribution individual parts make to the whole, and I’m conscious that, reading in translation (I can’t vouch for the accuracy of word or spirit – but I can for the potency of Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s version), one can’t be sure if the author’s intention has been captured intact, watered down unavoidably, or intensified, but I get the feeling that the lists deepen and intensify the statements that they, almost always, follow on from. Each list is a sort of exemplar of a point Grossman is making, has made. Sometimes descriptive, sometimes speculative; sometimes of actions and events; sometimes of nouns and adjectives. Occasionally of whole sentences with similar structures, often the opening words being repeated.

It was like this, he says, over and over again, and then adds, and like this, and this, and this and this! The lists are emphatic, not merely widening our perspectives, but deepening them too. A sort of verbal equivalent of that shot in the film adaptation of  Gone With the Wind where the casualties are laid out and the camera pans back revealing more and more, wider and wider, until the screen is filled with a landscape of the wounded. Grossman’s lists sometimes work on that scale, sometimes much more closely and in finer detail. Sometimes they deal in physical appearances, sometimes in political ideas, but they are always there, recurrent, resonant, amplifying the point he is making, crowding our consciousnesses.

Notable is the seeming fact – though harder to prove in such a long text, being a negative – that the characters do not themselves appear to speak using this structure, though there is another Grossman technique that might tempt us to search for such usages.

This is his practice of interspersing the many short chapters of narrative thread with ones where a political-philosophical conversation, monologue or train of thought is expounded, where issues about war and peace, and society, and individual character, ethics and morality are discussed, explained, or asserted. Repetition of linguistic structures, with differing ‘branches’ added to the repeated ‘stem’, is a technique of rhetoric, and chapters like this are in effect rhetorical flourishes. They are not merely decorative however, but represent, perhaps, the truths that contemplation of the events in the book might be thought to lead us towards.

Better listen up, hey!

andyhopkins

If you really, really wanted to you could listen to the Carlisle Poetry Symposium being discussed by myself and presenter Caroline Robertson on her Radio Cumbria schow this morning. If you click this link and take the timer forward to what would have been 11:35 in real life, but 02:44:05 on the player. The recording is only there for 29 days so, y’know. hurry.

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When I wrote this blog post I was about half-way through Grossman’s novel, Stalingrad. Thus far it has been a story of people waiting for a battle to begin. They are preparing to face the oncoming of a time during which reason, argument and persuasion will fail them, and upon them will be unleashed brute force, oppression, intimidation, mutilation and death. Against it they will offer endurance, courage and whatever limits they are bound by in the way of physical, moral and spiritual suffering.

Seem familiar?

But that’s not quite a joke, for the polarisation of our politics calls upon us to revisit our faith in the glittering two-faced coin of two-party politics, or to find another currency: to suffer the extremes, perhaps of left or right, or the as yet unknown extremes of whatever direction we launch ourselves in. What’s chilling about Grossman’s novel, written about a battle thousands of miles away and more than half a century ago, is not that it makes me contemplate the there and then of Russia in World War Two, but that it triggers speculation about the here and now of England in WonderBrexit.

Most telling, there is a phrase, given in Ukrainian in the original, and without translation. It is repeated several times in the novel, spoken by non-Russians who sense effects of the German attack on the solidarity of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics:

What’s been, we have seen. What’s to be, we shall see.

I read Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate a few years ago. I was gripped by it. There’s a chapter in there that’s a more powerful telling of the holocaust than anything fictional, or factual that I’ve ever read  before on the subject – possibly because I had read my way to it, and had to read my way from it in the story.

I tried a second reading, but for some reason bogged down early in the story. I’ll try again.

So, when I came to read the recently published  Stalingrad, I was braced for a gruelling ride. I’ve read a few accounts of the battle, and several on the wider ‘Russian Campaign’. Tramstop Moscow, and Enemy at the Gates spring to mind. A section of the latter formed the basis of an equally gripping film I saw most of – but not the beginning, so I have no idea what it’s called (and haven’t got round to finding out)!

There are moments in the battle that have cropped up in many histories, and no doubt in a few fictions too: a flaming oil spillage that flows down to the Volga past the Russian HQ bunker; the defence of a particular house named after a Sergeant; the horrors of the shrinking pocket in which Paulus’ army was finally sealed; Hitler’s announcement, before the surrender, that the 6th Army had fought to the last man. Five thousand or so prisoners, out of about half a million taken, were returned to Germany in 1955. Montgomery had one rule of war: ‘Don’t invade Russia’.

So, it’s hard to shake off prejudices and expectations when facing a novel like Stalingrad. Two hundred pages in, and I’ve been surprised. It’s not just that I’ve hardly seen a shot fired in anger, except far away and by report. The war hovers on the edge of the consciousness of all the characters I’ve met so far, and as is the case with Grossman’s other epic, there are lots of characters to meet.

In amongst so many stories, so many relationships, families, friends, work colleagues, from peasants to scientists and professors, it’s amazing to find moments of fine detail, as good as any you’ll get in a perfectly crafted short story. The first little gem of this type to spring out at me, was near to the end of Chapter 4, barely 20 pages in:

How beautiful children seemed in this hut. Early in the morning when little fair-headed Vanya came running across the floor on his bare feet, he was like a warm, moving flower.’

Perhaps that’s why I find I’m reading 10-20 pages at a sitting, and no more. It is as tightly packed as a short story needs to be, and as a novel of just shy of 900 pages, rarely is.

I went to Keswick’s Theatre By The Lake recently, and saw Dear Uncle, an Alan Aykbourn adaptation (?) of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. I’m not familiar with the Russian play, so had little idea of how much was the samovar and how much the teapot, but there was the occasional whiff of a Slavic Soul, and the brooding, sultry rise of a storm that I could imagine might hover over the Steppes. I flew across Russia (not a bombing run – but a commercial flight) from the UK to Moscow, and then, twenty four hours later, from Moscow to Beijing. The return journey done on a clear, January morning, with the vast expanses of the then Soviet Union, sans roads mostly, but with the occasional factory chimney, and once a bridge throwing long shadows in the direction of the North Pole. It was like flying over an untidily thrown brown quilt, and we flew for hours, until we hit a wall of cloud that crossed our route and stretched as far as I could see towards the Himalayas, and saw no more.

Russia was cold in January; minus around twenty; and the air ripped the back of your throat at each breath. Cars were white humps along the roadsides in the city centre. Ice flowed on the river seen from Lenin Heights. China, at around minus 6 was dry, a pale, watery sun and a dusty air making the silhouettes of false horizons as hazy as the pen and ink wash lines of Chiang Ye’s Silent Traveller landscapes. This was years before the Chinese Government frightened its monkeys, and there were only a few military jeeps, our tourists coaches, and the odd commercial truck nosing through a sea of bicycles – some of them three wheelers, with flat-bed backs to which the white goods and televisions of modernisation had been tied.

Stories come out of place and time. Come here, or go there a few years, or perhaps even minutes earlier, or later, and the stories the place is making will change. Come at that precise moment to here, or there, and the few hundred miles, or mere turning of a corner, will make the story of that minute quite different.

I couldn’t work out where the Chekhov/Aykbourn story came from, nor when it belonged, despite the excellent costumes and cleverly managed stage setting. Theatre by the Lake always impresses me with its stagecraft. Sprinkling the script with Lake District names and generic aye oop lad, sithees, didn’t cut the mustard. The English country house still carried the reek of the dacha, and the ‘estates’ that were managed implied the serf rather than a Cumbrian farming folk. Motors off sounded as rough as the wind up gramophone record near the end of the piece, but I was never convinced where I was, or when, nor that I might be somewhere and when entirely imaginary.

            The cast included many I recognised from The Ladykillers, which I saw a few weeks ago, and they were as good. Valiant would be the word I’d chose. But every line they uttered, and some were sparkling and powerful, seemed to come straight from the mouth of a playwright, not from what the characters they represented might have said at that particular moment, in that particular place. As with the location, what these characters seemed to be talking about was what interested Chekhov, or Aykbourn, but not themselves. I just couldn’t believe in them between their speeches (though as they spoke, each statement was given with brio, and conviction). It was the gaps between that didn’t work, the hidden links that would make this character say that to this other one, and say it in that way, at that moment. My unwilling disbelief was never strung up from the lighting rig, as it (almost) always has been before at TBTL. I found myself weighing it up throughout the performance, rather than being immersed in it, and carried along.

I need to read the Chekhov now, as indeed a man on the row in front of me had done, he said, the night before. It’ll need to be good in the second half, he apparently told a friend of mine at the interval, or it’ll be a miserable failure. What did he say at the end, I asked when I saw her again. ‘Mm’, she told me.

Hey! I still loved it, and writers can only take us part of the way….the rest is up to us.

A couple of posts ago a literary correspondent asked to see my list of top fifty short stories… I’d recently unintentionally skipped a double page spread in a notebook, and filled it with such a list. I went back and took another look; scribbled on it a bit.

Top of the list – first to come to mind – was A.E.Coppard’s Weep Not My Wanton. I’ve written far more about this short tale than there are words in it! And I go back to it again and again, as I might to a favourite pudding. It doesn’t always top the list. Sometimes, H.E.Bates’ The Little Farm, pips it to the post. And when I think of those two, others follow close behind. Another by Bates, The Mill, and Mary Mann’s Little Brother, and Some of the Shipwrecked, and Arthur Morrison’s opening tale from Tales of Mean Streets, The Street, which is not quite a story. If you know these tales, you’ll find an obvious connection, but each has its own special qualities which are quite distinct from the others.

Claire Keegan’s opener to Walk The Blue Fields, The Parting Gift, does a similar job, to my mind, to Morrison’s tale. And though I can’t pull out one particular story, Keegan’s collection always brings to mind George Moore’s The Untilled Field, which is a rural parallel in some ways to James Joyce’s Dubliners, in which you’ll find The Dead, which Bates, I think, called the ‘best story ever to come out of Ireland’. For me, Frank O’Connor gives it a run for its money with Guests of the Nation, and O’Connor makes me think of Rudyard Kipling (to whom he gives a rough ride in The Lonely Voice, one of the ‘great’ books on the short story form). Kipling throws a few in my pot: ‘They’, for its poignancy, The Gardener, for its awful sense of loss and waste, and the odd Preface, which is both a preface, and a story (and a creative writing workshop to boot).

So far so good, and from memory, but now let me glance back at the list:

V.S.Pritchett, with The Fall, was in the first ten on that list (with The Diver as an alternative offering). Elizabeth Taylor was just ahead of him with The Blush. Coppard had Arabesque – The Mouse as a second choice. It horrifies me, even to recall. John Steinbeck is in with The Moon is Down (which might not be a short story), and Arthur Miller with Fitters Night, and The Misfits, which both certainly are. And my friend and over-the-border neighbour, Vivien Jones was there too, with Sorting Office. It was meeting Anne Mcdonnell of Pewter Rose Press at the launch of Vivien’s excellent collection Perfect Ten, that led to the publication of my novella (if the’s what it is), A Penny Spitfire, and later the short stories of Talking To Owls.

Other friends have stories in my private play list. Hugh Thompson has The Italian Fisherman, as yet unpublished – but I hope my daughter is progressing with an animated version! Kurt Tidmore has several…and, I think, will soon be in print with some of them (I’ll let you know, for sure!).

And what about further afield, in place and time? Alphonse Daudet is a favourite – in French when I can get ’em: La Chevre de Monsieur Seguin and Les Etoiles from Lettres de mon Moulin are two that I have tried to re-write for my own time and place. I tried something similar with Monsieur Oufle, from the 17th century L’Abbe Bourdelot (and found to my surprise it being read in Hong Kong by Liars League). The harsh Mateo Falcone, and the scary La Venus D’Ile, both by Prosper Merrimee join the group. Another writer, French influenced, but English by birth, is Michael de Larrabeiti whose collection, Provencal Tales, among some great stories, has the chilling The Curse of Igamor, which is about our responsibilities as writers.

Isaak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, Yuri Nagibin,s The Snowman, Ivan Bunin’s Un Petit Accident, and Tibor Dery’s Philemon and Baucis (the last two recently discovered), from other European writers.

La Lupaby Giovanni Verga, from Vita Dei Campa was the first story I tackled (with the aid of a dictionary and a winter season of classes) in Italian, but that’s not my only reason for liking it. It has that sultry sexuality that you find also in The Station, by H.E.Bates. This links nicely with Many Are Disappointed, another by Pritchett, and The Woman at the Store, by New Zealander, Katherine Mansfield. All three give us ambiguous encounters (which, perhaps not co-incidentally, was the title of a short story collection I put together with writing-buddy Marilyn Messenger a few years ago) in which men encounter a lone woman.

Thirty five, and counting. So a few lesser known, perhaps? Sir Arthur Quiller Couch’s Captain Knott, about the souls of ships, and men. L.A.G.Strong – both from the only collection of his that I have, TravellersThe Rook, and The Seal. Flora Annie Walker Steel, On The Right Track. She was a friend of Kipling’s family, and wrote of her life in India, Try, From the Five Rivers, Stories and Songs of the People. Charles Dickens’ The Signalman now comes to mind, for that’s a railway story too. And what about Stacey Aumonier, with his A Man of Letters, the only epistolatory story in my list? Sir Walter Scott’s The Twa Drovers, which catches the difference between the English and the Scots in a tragic tale of friendship and revenge. D.H.Lawrence: the only decent short story he ever wrote, for my money, but one of the best, for the trajectory of its imagery: The Odour of Chrysanthemums. A little obscure, but from the writer of Ladies in Lavender, is The Scourge. William J. Locke’s tale is decidedly sentimental, and tells of a man whose badly treated wife leaves him the eponymous (finally got it in) scourge to punish himself for his mistreatment of her. He withdraws to Venice (I’m a sucker for anything – except ‘death in’ – that mentions Venice, even the Daphne Du Maurier Don’t Look Now) where he makes atonement for his sin, and is redeemed. It’s a two tissue weepie!

So, the last five: The Gift of the Magi, A Horseman in the Sky, Oh Madam!, The Magic Shop, Rothschild’s Fiddle.O Henry, Ambrose Bierce, Elizabeth Bowen, H.G.Wells, Anton Chekhov (the last for its single, dominating word – which won me an essay prize many years ago!).

And I think that’s my lot…and so many authors left out…Hemingway (what about the opening dialogue in The Killers? And Philip K.Dick? And Yuyin Li, Miranda July, M.R.James, Tobias Wolff,Chandler? Cheever? James Salter? and You?

A friend loaned me a copy of Vasily Grossman’s World War Two novel Stalingrad. A little short of two hundred pages in I found this:

‘The storm was approaching; world events were bursting into people’s everyday lives. Questions of every kind – about going for a summer holiday by the sea, about whether to buy a winter coat or some item of furniture – were being decided according to military news bulletins or newspaper accounts of speeches and treaties. Decisions about marriages, about having a baby, about which institute of higher education a child should apply to – everything was considered in the light of Hitler’s (or the politician of your preference – ed.) successes or failures, speeches by Roosevelt or Churchill (ditto), or the laconic statements or denials of Tass (the press) the main Soviet news agency.

People had quarrelled a great deal, and nearly always hysterically. Long established friendships were abruptly severed. There was no end to arguments….’

Seem familiar?

News just in says BHD has another flash fiction in .Cent magazine.

Two other stories from the Corvina Nothing’s Lost, 25 Hungarian Short Stories anthology caught my attention.

These were, The Nativity of the Virgin, by Istvan Gall, and The Falcons, by Miklos Meszoly (there should be some accents on those vowels, so I hope you’ll forgive the omissions).

What struck me about the first was ‘how it was written’, and about the second, ‘what it was about’ – or might have been about! The first is an answer to the writerly question, the second to a readerly one!

Meszoly’s story is a first person account of a visit to a ‘research station’ where birds of prey are trained to fight, torment, and kill a variety of ‘bait’ species. These are not only birds, but small rodents and other mammals. The training is carried out by the character Lilik and his team of helpers. They are all disciples of a mysterious character called Beranek, whom we don’t get to meet (and neither do they!).

The training is brutal and cruel, and self-consciously so, but its purpose and value is never really explained. Locals beyond the estate boundaries seem either hostile to, or ignorant of that purpose, and as I read on I began to sense that the story might be symbolic of a system of political, or state terror and brainwashing. But that wasn’t the only possibility. Something in Lilik’s presentation to his visitor of what he was doing carried that sort of obsession that writers, or any sort of artist, might be thought to have, especially when they pursue, over decades, some goal that they themselves can only see or define in the vaguest terms.

Ultimately, I began to wonder if it wasn’t one of those stories that really can mean whatever the reader imagines it to! Perhaps that’s why I’ve rather left out the detail in this little review – let the reader go find it, and make up his or her (or its) own mind!

Gall’s tale is no less striking, but for different reasons. Again, it is predominantly a first person narrative, though with a half page of third person introductory framing, and a brief closing paragraph in the same narrative voice.

What lies beneath – and one has to trust the translator here – is an un-punctuated stream of consciousness recollection of her life by a woman sitting in the corner of a cattle truck on a train taking her to an illegal border crossing. A guard, who has featured in the opening narrative, and who briefly reappears, and disappears, at the end, overhears, we imagine, rather than listens to, this testimony.

It’s the way it’s written, as much as what is said, that grips, but the words match the music. Particularly noticeable is a sort of chorus that pops up from time to time, in a single line of several phrases, each with not only no punctuation, but also no spaces between the words. They aren’t simple repetitions, but rather a developing expression of the speaker’s underlying state of mind.

It’s another powerful and moving story from an anthology that gives an insight into a particular world, in which our general humanity is tested in specific ways.

 

‘itsnottrue  notabittrue nothingstrue’

The advantage of a Grammar School education, at least, one like mine, is that whenever you stumble across a name from Greek Mythology you know you’ll have to look it up.

I discovered this fact at an early age, during a trip to Ireland, where a cowman on the beach not far from Tralee invited me to assess his grouping of the Muses (which, he told me, differed from that favoured by most academics). He had sought my opinion as I had told him the previous morning when he brought his cattle down to lick seaweed on the sands of Dingle Bay that I would be beginning life as a student teacher at the end of the month.

The incident, never, fifty years later, all that far from my mind, was recalled recently when I found myself reading a short story called Philemon and Baucis. I supose I should be grateful that they taught me enough to recognise that the names were indeed Greek.

The story is the lead, though not the title, story in a collection of 25 Hungarian short stories (Nothing’s Lost, Corvina, 1988), and alone worth the £3.50 I paid for the second hand paperback copy. I looked the two characters up after I had read it, and not before I had come to the conclusion that this was one of those stories that I would add to my top ten list (now running somewhere around the fifty mark as it happens).

Written by Tibor Dery, and here in translation by J.E.Sollosy, it tells of an elderly couple trying to get on with their lives while the sounds of battle move ever closer. A young man, wounded, appears at their door, but is offloaded on a neighbour, during which the old man suffers a serious nosebleed. His wife, going in search of a doctor for him is caught in the fire-fight and killed. He meanwhile recovers, and watches, alone, as their bitch gives birth to three puppies.

It’s a powerful enough story on its own two feet, told in a stark and understated way. It’s hard to date, machine guns spanning the eighty plus years of the author’s life and a single reference to ‘fascists’ being the only locator, implying World War Two. The gunfire is always distant, vague, and unexplained, and no indication is given of whose side the young man is on, or even if he is in uniform or civilian dress. Back-story is limited to finding out that the couple have already lost three sons to the war, intriguingly ‘two in action’ and ‘the third was killed by the fascists’. ‘This house’ll take only two more corpses’ the woman tells him.

Pinning it to a particular war, its characters to a particular polity, seems quite unnecessary, perhaps even unhelpful, and I wonder to what extent the author was aware of that. The situation of the couple is universal and timeless. At the end of the story the old man’s state of mind is presented to us as he watches the dog give birth: ‘…a strange little joy crept into his heart. He was so preoccupied with his thoughts, he did not realize that his wife had not come back from the shed.’

The final sentence though turns us to witness the dog as ‘she was gripped by another spasm of pain.’

If you know the original myth of Philemon and Baucis you will be ahead of me here, and if not, perhaps now would be the time to break off and access it!

 

Using classical, or any other reference in a story is a bit like a gardener ‘stealing’ a landscape beyond his boundaries, opening up a vista that enhances, enlarges and perhaps informs what has been done within the confines of the garden.

Unlike the gardener though, the writer is dependent upon the reader knowing the reference and its significance in relation to the particular story. We can see a landscape we have never seen before and appreciate it, but we cannot see a reference that we have not previously seen as a story in its own right.

What does the story of Philemon and Baucis add to Dery’s tale? Well, that old story is about an elderly couple and they are visited by the Gods, Zeus and Hermes. The Gods are disguised as poor travellers and have been turned away by richer neighbours, but the old couple, who are poor, make them welcome and provide a simple meal. As the meal progresses magical things happen. The wine, for example, does not run out however much they drink, and tastes divine. The truth comes out, and the old couple are mortified to have offered such poor hospitality. The Gods know a good free lunch when they get one though, and ordain that when the village is destroyed (in revenge) the old couple will be saved. In fact they become priests of the temple and are granted a death that will not part them. They become intertwined trees, he an oak and she a linden.

The contrast between the two tales is thought provoking and contrast, by separation, highlights both the light and the darkness, but to my mind the strength of the tale was there in my ignorance as powerfully as it is in my subsequent enlightenment.