I recently read The Fall by V.S.Pritchett. This is a story with a plotline to keep the general reader amused, and a developing perspective that will keep the writing reader intrigued.

Told in the third person, but centred on the protagonist, Charles Peacock, we are either looking at him, or seeing the world through his eyes.

The story opens with him getting ready for a formal dinner. He sees himself, almost, as others will see him, in a series of mirrors in which he watches himself dress, and admires himself dressed. He hears himself speak, and hears what others say within his hearing, and we hear it too. He speaks in a series of false voices which he has concocted to protect himself, and which he wears like a ragged suit of armour. By the time we get to the most desperate of these, the ‘music hall Negro’ we are beginning to see him as others are doing, and to notice the disparity between that view, and the one that Charles has of himself

As the evening progresses, that disparity grows steadily deeper. Progressively our understanding of what is going on is filled in. Our view becomes clearer, as his blurs and loses focus.

He has a brother, a minor celebrity, a film actor, and as the evening draws to its finale, Charles begins to demonstrate some of the brother’s acting skills. He draws, holds, and eventually loses his audience, save for one very special, final audience, for whom he takes a final bow.

The story is tragic or comic, depending on the reader’s perspective, I think, and perhaps deciding which, if either, side you would come down on, is one of those self-realisations that makes some stories particularly well worth reading. You’ll find The Fall in The Complete Stories of V.S.Pritchett, published in 1990 by Chatto & Windus.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the mechanisms of story is the link between location – the when and where in which it takes place – situation – locations create situations – and character. The characters have to deal with the situations they find there and then…. These locations are usually given, hinted at or implied, very early in a short story. They are the context in which the events play out. Here, the story begins ‘It was the evening of the Annual Dinner’. This is filled out later with ‘a large, wet Midland City’, and our hero finds his way to ‘the Assembly Rooms.’ The situation is a formal dinner, and we are told that ‘Crowds or occasions frightened Peacock’. If we had only this sentence and that first one we would know enough to understand what was going on.

We are given more though, not about the location, or situation, but about how Peacock may be handling it. All that play with the mirrors while Peacock dresses, and as he travels to the dinner. More, there is something odd about the way he puts his trousers on…’balancing on one leg and gazing with frowns of affection’. Is there something wrong with him? Could it be, perhaps, with reader’s hindsight I’m inventing for myself, but could it be that he has taken a drop to steady his nerves already? (C.S.Lewis, I recall, castigates the non-literary reader for adding his own imagination to what the words have given him).

Certainly, when Peacock gets to the dinner he grabs a drink, the first of nine specific references to him taking one; and when the President calls over to him ‘Peacock’s drink jumped and splashed his hand’. Signs of one too many already? It is Peacock’s reaction to the event, and to other events in his past, that is the meat of this story, leading to its abrupt, and tragi-comic climax.

This story gives a powerful sense of how drunkenness creeps on, as experienced by the drinker. Peacock drifts in and out of conversations, is distracted and loses concentration. His mind wanders to the past, and to his brother in particular. The answer to a question he has posed eludes him. The President, making a speech, appears to have two beards. Time becomes elastic. Finally he enters that phase of seeming clarity, in which he undertakes to demonstrate his brother’s technique of ‘the actor’s fall’. And from here we listen more carefully to what is being said within his earshot…

‘What’s happened to Peacock?’, ‘Good God, has Peacock passed out?’,’He’s done it again’,’It’s Peacock – still at it.’ And all these little snippets, though ostensibly about his pratfalling, have the suggestion that it is his inebriation that is being commented upon.

Eventually Peacock is left alone, the last man standing. So he performs his pratfall for Queen Victoria, whose portrait hangs in the ante-room.

 

‘And delightfully he crumpled, the perfect backwards spin. Leaning

up on his elbow from where he was lying he waited for her to speak.

She did not speak, but two or three other queens joined her,…’The Beast in his Natural Habitat (according to Dr Dave Borthwick)

 

 

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