Perhaps it was the injudicious juxtaposition of Arnold Bennet with the tremendous Enoch Soames, by Max Beerbohm that led me to turn aside from The Matador of the Five Towns. Or, it may have been the tedium of having penetrated far enough in to that story to reach the several pages devoted to the description of a football match and its crowd, along with the fear that several more were about to follow. Football is a beautiful game, but as Spike Milligan so rightly reminded us….Beauty is in the eye of the beholder (get it out with ‘Optrex’!)
I’m drilling down through the layers of Philip Hensher’s Penguin Book of the British Short Story, and I’ve hit a flakey patch. I skipped the following fifty pages of D.H.Kawrence’s Daughters of the Vicar, having met those ladies before – besides, fifty pages? That’s pushing it for a short story, isn’t it? Especially in view of them being written by a writer that A.E.Coppard described as ‘boring’ (which is damning with faint praise at the least). That brought me to Kipling, who I was looking forward to – OK, whom I was…… Kipling’s a far better writer than he’s acknowledged to be. Even O’Connor, who calls him one of the two best English storytellers, had to get his discomfort with Kipling’s point of view off his chest.
But in this case too, the Kipling was convoluted and tedious, and Lawrentian in its boringness. Unless, of course, it was the lateness of the hour and the length of the day preceding it. So, I took a supper of cold pickles and hot, crusty bread, and retired to my bed.
The morning brought another grey, wet, and cold day, and a writer I had never heard of before. Stacy Aumonier (1877-1928), whom I thought, from the name, must be a woman – and I read his story in my imaginary woman’s voice (no! Don’t mess about.). He was, according to Hensher, a very popular writer of short stories during his relatively short life. On the basis of The Great Unimpressionable, I can well believe it. Finding a ‘new’ writer like this is what such collections are all about, and Aumonier is on my list to seek out next time I do the hands-and-knees shuffle around the shelves of Gatehouse of Fleet’s Mill on the Fleet bookshop, or wherever….
The story, about a third the length of Lawrence’s, tells the war service of an ‘ordinary’ man. It’s the First World War, and most of the action is in the Middle East. Our man trains in India, where a few of his comrades are lost. Then he goes to Gallipoli, where most of the rest are, and then into Arabia, where he is captured and nearly murdered before escaping, and so on, until peace descends. His girl dumps him half way through; he falls ill, gets shot, and writes laconic letters to his mother, saying little except about the odd football match, playing down his trials and more than tribulations. But when he gets home, he is finally reduced to tears.
For me, it is a classic short story, and I love it, not so much for the events it describes, which I could find you examples of in a hundred and more books, thousands if we included other wars and other theatres of war, but for the way it is structured, and phrased. The story is told with deadpan, unimpressionable, sang-froid by Aumonier’s third person narrator. It reads like a badly written historical account, and by that I mean flatly, without any attempt to spice up (sex-up I suppose I should say, these days) the telling. What dialogue there is, and there is dialogue, fitfully throughout, is cast in a credible, if not quite locally attributable, working class speech. Structurally, everything builds the context, as for me the short story form should always do, for the final statement, in which the eponymous hero is shown in a way we have not seen him before, almost. The character that we have accompanied through mud and blood and heartbreak and illness, is still there. It is a subtle ending, and I won’t give it away.