I’ve been reading – mark my words – D.H.Lawrence’s St Mawr, one of the pieces of fiction in The Tales of D.H.Lawrence. Tales is an interesting word. H.E.Bates makes a point of belittling it when he writes about his greater(er?) contemporary, A.E.Coppard, who aligned the short story with ‘the tale’, by which he meant the ‘told’ tale. I’m a teller of tales, and like tales told too!

Mr Poe, himself-faced or otherwise, told us once, by way of a sort of definition, that a short story is one that can be perused ‘an an hour or two’, which I twisted (to my own ends) into ‘at a sitting.’ But St Mawr is not a tale that can be perused at a sitting (nor perhaps even in an hour or two – except by the Harold Blooms of this world [he claimed 400 pages an hour, I think] – to my way of thinking. Certainly I have not perused it so. In fact, St Mawr may not be a short story at all, sitting, as it does, at some 132 pages long. This, by a rule of nail bitten and calloused thumb, equates to several tens of thousands of words, probably in the region of 45-50,000.

I haven’t come across other opinion of St Mawr, so my own has been forming on the back of my reading. Now we get back to that ‘ve been reading’, as opposed to a more definite ‘have read.’ In fact, as I write I’m doubting whether I’ll be able to give you a ‘have read,’ as there are sixty pages still to go. It hasn’t been at a sitting either, but over maybe a dozen sittings…. all leading to a standing, and a walking away and a doing something else.

Ideally I would have left this blog post until a ‘have read’ was available, but tempus fugit and all that; nil illegitimo carborundum too, by the way, and dear D.H., my fellow Midlander, was beginning to do just that. In fact, St Mawr, rather than a set of characters in search of a story, was beginning to look like a large amount of prose fiction, political half-assedness, and personal angst looking for one. It’s one of those stories that goes through a series of phases in each of which it appears to try out some idea, to see if it fits, but which does not fit and is discarded, and the story moves on to the next one. Even assembling the characters took quite a while before it settled down, and there seemed to be several false starts where characters came to it and joined in for a little while, but then passed out again, as if they, or the author, or even the story itself had got bored.

That’s not to say there is no good writing. The story is like a fire made of wet wood, it bursts into life in fits and starts, and burns merrily for a little while, but it does not take hold, and fizzles again into another nascent idea.

I won’t risk spoiling your pleasure in (I’ll leave that to D.H.), but suffice it to say, the story centres on a horse, which may be at the heart of my problem with it. I have never had very many dealings with horses. Family mythology says that at the age of three, on a knoll, somewhere near to Oban, I had a confrontation with one. There are, to borrow a line from a book you are strongly recommended to read, photographs of that time, but not of me and the horse. Nor of the horse on its own. Since then I have avoided them like the sea (or indeed any water that is not soapy and warm, or added carefully to malt whisky). We did experience a period of several years when we kept dogs, the food of which, I am led to believe, was intimately connected with horse, but other than that I have lived a remarkably equine-free life.

Stories, it seems to me, whether tales or not, are intimately connected with sequences. These are often cast in the form of narratives of events, which we might call ‘action’, of demonstrations of personality, which we might call ‘character’, and of expressions of opinion that we might call ‘thought.’ Indeed, I have heard story referred to as a triangle made up of those three elements, in or out of balance.

The theory goes, that the sequences create a context, in the form of what precedes, for the apprehension of what follows; in the form of what follows, for retrospection on what has preceded. St. Mawr precedes and follows, grinding out its slow narrative, larded with authorial intrusions and with flashes of descriptive brilliance, perceptive dialogue, and philosophical speculation. But, seventy pages in, it hasn’t convinced me it’s worth reading, and even if that tells you more about me, than it does about St.Mawr, it might also tell me, it’s time to quit!

This raises the issue of whether or not one should have (one undoubtedly does, mind you) an opinion about something not perused to its bloody end. Whether or not one should feel empowered to abandon a book, or a story or tale within one. That old spectre of finishing your meal – how kin ya have afters if ye haven’t finished yer meat? Wasn’t it? Something like that, in Pink Floyd’s school days reminiscence.

As writers we often withhold the point of a story till quite late on. In the short story, according to my understanding of it, we withhold until the last possible moment. But at the risk of the reader not making it that far. And will I, you may ask? You might ask! For which eventuality I’ll append the finale of ‘watch this space.’


[postscript: In fact I had to read to the end; not from any sense of duty, nor of engagement, but because I needed to find out if I was reading a short story, or a short novel, and my feeling was that the ending would tell me that; that the ending of the tedious journey would bring me to the end of a short story, or of a novel, but that it could not do both.]