OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is a longish story in The Grim Smile of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett. Usually I am not a friend of longish stories. I rarely read them. I hardly ever write them. Perhaps that is a consequence of my encounters with D.H.Lawrence.

The longish story in The Grim Smile is the one called The Death of Simon Fuge. Unexpectedly, I rather liked it. One reason for this liking was undoubtedly Bennett’s enthusiasm for his home town – or towns. Not only that, but the way he distanced himself, as author and ex-Potterian, from that enthusiasm by putting it into the mouth of his first-person narrator, Loring. The irony of a first-person narrator distancing a story from the author is delicious.

A word or two here about narrators; about the very word narrator, which, it seems to me, distances us from an important element of the short story, an element that would be encapsulated, and brought up close by use of the term ‘storyteller’. Storytelling, as a label seems to be detaching itself from the short story, at least from the printed short story. I see it nowadays used to describe someone who delivers an oral story, usually in what might be described as, and often is, ‘traditional’ form. A nostalgic, kitsch medievalism often accompanies this sort of storytelling, distancing it from the ‘printed’ short story. The novel is a creature of writing, and particularly of printed writing, but the short story has its roots in oral telling. The storage of short stories in writing has enabled them to develop beyond the sound bite repetitions of the oral technique, but it is important to remember that they remain stories, and that they have to be told, even if usually only to one, silent reader at a time.

The narrators, or storytellers, that authors create – even when they are, as for example in Somerset Maugham’s short stories, fictional versions of those authors – set the ambience of the stories. By that I mean the mood in which they are told, and in which they are to be heard either in reality or in imagination.

Bennett’s storyteller, Loring, allows the author to report what Bennett knows, or believes, about The Potteries as if it were a new and unexpected experience, and without Bennett’s partisanship being quite so apparent. We’re not fooled of course, but it sugars the medicine. In praising the characters he meets in the story Loring strikes a blow not merely for The Potteries, but for the Provinces in general. Bennett must have been well aware of the distinctions drawn, on both sides, between the Metropolitan, and the Provincial. Indeed, in a recent BBC Radio 4 discussion of this author the sneering of the Bloomsbury group – Bennett described as stinking ‘of brass’ for example – was made much of. There was another side, and a purely personal one to my enjoyment of Bennett’s retrospection. I left the Midlands on the day before my twenty-first birthday, and have lived ever since out of my place, in a county where I have been and shall always be an incomer. Unlike Bennett’s, my feelings about my home town have been ambiguous, though there is no doubt that in A Penny Spitfire (Pewter Rose,2011, my short novel (or perhaps novella) set in a fictionalised Burton Upon Trent, I was nostalgically romantic (or romantically nostalgic).

My enjoyment of The Death of Simon Fuge was not all about its location. That eponymous hero interested me too, as a fictional device. Almost like a ghost, in the background of the story, Simon Fuge is referred to by everyone, and becomes the single thread that connects up all Loring’s dealings with the other characters. In a curious way what he, and they, think, or don’t think about Fuge, his life, and death is what this story is really about. Embedded in that is the case of Annie Brett, a barmaid at The Tiger, who along with another girl is reputed to have spent a night in a boat on a lake with Fuge at some past date. This incident intrigues Loring, who has heard the story from Fuge himself, and he looks forward to finding out more about it. He discovers the identities of the girls, meets them, and hears their versions of the story, and their opinions of the teller. Annie Brett and her sister become almost archetypes of ‘woman’ for Loring, and, I suspect, for Bennett himself.

I began by calling it a longish story, and at 50+ pages might be considered a novella by some. Set into chapters, each as long as a short story, it covers a lot of issues, about identity, place, class, gender, Art, and how we relate to one another. All seen and told through Loring’s experience of what is in effect a drawn out night on the town. All too, revelations to his ‘southern’ mindset. Fuge is reminiscent of fugue. Only the You is missing. Throughout my reading of it I felt that these questions were being raised, not only about Loring’s perceptions, nor only Bennett’s, but also about my own, as a Midlander, as a writer, as a man, and as a human being. Of all the stories in the collection this is the one, for me at least, where that smile is at its grimmest, but it is also at its broadest.