OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFriends gave me for Christmas a copy of Arthur Miller’s collected short stories.

I started at the beginning, and read through to the end, skipping the longest story, which sits in the middle. The opening story, ‘I Don’t Need You Any More’ tells of a five year old boy’s alienation from his family. Its a self-consciously Jewish story, and as a non-practising aetheist I found some of the issues hard to assess. Seeing through the child’s eyes I wasn’t sure where I was dealing with comic irony, and where with stone cold logic. The outsider has to second guess what the insider is serious about.

This must be a problem to some extent with all stories. They divide or unite readers into those who share, and those who do not, the basic underlying beliefs of the characters, and of the writers. We’re back to that favourite of mine, that what you see reveals where you stand. Yesterday (as I write) was the centennary of poet Norman Nicholson’s birth, and during the celebrations of that landmark I had cause to play a recording of him touching on this issue.

Wordworth, he said, was the first poet to make consideration of his own life central to his poetry. The argument went on that before Wordsworth writers could assume a high level of common belief, and experience with their readers. This was a consequence of the narrow class that was educated, and the narrowness of that education, and ergo of the narrow class to which writers spoke, and the narrow class that listened. Progressively, Nicholson said, that correlation broke down, leaving the modern writer – he told me this in the late nineteen seventies – to rely on their ‘common humanity’ as being the only predictable link between writer and reader.

We are divided, or united in our responses because of who we are, and what has made us that way. I’m reminded too, of Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Tuft of Flowers’ with its elegant reversal, at the end, of a maxim delivered near to the beginning:

 

 

‘But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,

And I must be, as he had been-alone,

 

“As all must be,” I said within my heart,

“Whether they work together or apart.”

 

 

Which becomes at the closing of the poem;

 

Men work together,” I told him from the heart,

“Whether they work together or apart.”

 

Here the poet achieves a positive note, bridging the gap, and seeing unity in division. Cohen, in one of his songs takes a grimmer view, turning ‘I will kill you if I must/help you if I can’ into its more negative opposite.

 

Back to the Miller, whose work did strike me, and cumulatively so as I read on, as being rather gloomy! Stories had a sort of wistful sadness about them; not the cynical world-weary type of sadness, but more a knowing wisdom, centred on the presentation of human dignity in the face of distress. An old man imprisoned in his senility in ‘A Search for a Future’. Tony Calabrese rising above his own selfishness in ‘Fitters Night’. In another story a famous playwright is mistaken for himself, and in the more famous ‘The Misfits’, Miller ends with a metaphor for the no-hope cowboys who are catching wild horses to sell for meat:

 

‘From time to time the stallion caught the smell of the pasture..[ ]..but the tire

bent his neck around, and after a few steps he would turn to face it…[ ].. and then

he would come down and be still again.’

 

Characters in fiction are not like real people, though we gain that illusion, perhaps, briefly. They have no potentials, no hidden secrets. Not merely what we know, but what they wholly are, is the sum total of the words used to describe them. Miller often restricts the negative, and hints at the positive – Fitters Night is probably my faouvrite example of this – so that our sympathies for them are not lost. There’s a silver lining to these gloom-coud characters.

 

I preferred, marginally, the stories in the earlier segment, published during the nineteen sixties, but reflecting the America of the forties and fifties. Throughout them all though, Miller shows a nuanced grasp of what we like to call the human condition. The situations of his characters, and the mindsets they bring to dealing with them call forth our sympathy, and also perhaps a necessary sense of frustration that they have not behaved differently – the same frustration, perhaps, that we feel for our own inadequacies.

The last story, which names the collection as a whole, ‘Presence’ was apparently the last that Miller wrote before his death, and it seemed to me appropriate, for ending both a collection, and a writing life. I can’t think of a single story of the thousand or so I have read over the past few years with which to compare it in terms of its story content. An old man visits a beach he has known in childhood. He stumbles upon a couple making love – fucking is the word Miller uses. He withdraws (no pun intended), returns later to find them still at it, and skirts around them to the sea’s edge. Later, when they have both gone, he encounters the woman, who has been aware of his presence. They talk, and swim, and she leaves, and I was left – as I think I was supposed to be -with the question of whether it had been his own past that he had recalled. The story is powerful, and unresolved, one of those stories whose job is to raise questions, not to settle them.

 

‘How strange, he thought, that it mattered so little whether or not they were

actually here if what he had seen made him so happy?’

 

There are only sixteen stories in the collection. Some sixteen! Dense, moving, and thought provoking, lifted subtly from the ordinary, but never into realms of the fantastic, this really is a good read.

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