The Penguin Book of the British Short Story offers a wide range of story types from a diverse cohort of writers from all around the world.

One story that caught my interest was G.F.Green’s A Wedding. It’s one of the shorter stories in the anthology – always a welcome respite – and tells the story of a twelve year old boy on the day of his father’s re-marriage. It’s one of those stories that tells more by what it doesn’t say, than what it does, and tells, by what it does, of something more oblique than what it ostensibly tells.

It’s also interesting for its sentence structures, which you might find either intriguing, or bloody irritating, depending on what sort of reader you are!

The second sentence gives a clue to what will follow: (the ‘it’, by the way, is ‘the light,’ from the opening sentence)

 

‘It fell redolent of fields, woods, by the curtains, broad floor boards, to lose in

faded stripes of white damp blurred walls – as for days past.’

 

There’s a peculiarity of language use here, something like the convolutions that compression might give to the words of a poem, but if this is poetic prose, the meaning remains prosaic.

In sentences made up of comma-separated phrases and clauses, that quality of juxtaposition, which is the connecting rods of the English language engine, is brought into sharp focus. I’ve quoted the ‘fat-policeman’s-wife’ conundrum before. The impossibility of knowing, from that structure, which one of them is fat is the simplest example I know of to explain how juxtaposition of words, and groups of words, controls the meanings in an English sentence. We tend to connect words, and separated out groups of words to their nearest companions, and where those connections are ambiguous, the extent of the ambiguity controls the possibility of deciding which is really meant. Much English humour works on this basis. Where humour and double meaning are not the intent, clarity of what is meant, also depends on it.

Green’s second sentence risks that clarity: If his ‘light’ has fallen ‘redolent of fields, woods’ then what does the very next phrase mean? Are the woods ‘by the curtains’? Probably not, but Green has dislocated the information flow, for of course, ‘by the curtains’ is where ‘it fell,’ whereas the ‘fields, woods’ are what it was ‘redolent of’.

Such convolutions add a certain drama, perhaps even a sort of poetry to the plain language. Perhaps they keep us on our toes, or attract our attention. Looking towards the end of the sentence, we get another: ‘to lose in faded stripes of white damp blurred walls,’ and here a clump of adjectives is presented, three in a row, but in which two distinct and separate meanings are intended. It is the ‘stripes’ that are white. The walls are ‘damp blurred.’

I’m a fan of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, for his topsy-turvey uses of punctuation, and here Green is doing something similar, but I’m not convinced he’s doing it to such good effect. Green’s second sentence ends with a bolt on, signalled by that dash ‘-as for days past.’

There’s a hint of ambiguity here, for the phrase ‘days past’ suggests something a little archetypal, but the intended meaning seems to be less grandiose. He’s simply stating that the ‘light’ has had this quality for a few days.

To make more complex is not necessarily to make more meaningful, though it might give the illusion of profundity. We poor writers, I guess, do it all the time, and often without realising it – believing our own deceptions perhaps, but we don’t get into Penguin Books of Our (sic) National Short Story.

David Lodge, somewhere, has noted that ‘style’ is largely to do with what you do, as a writer, so often that someone notices. Green’s second sentence leads the way for many that follow, and not only sentences. What have been called by some analysts ‘labels,’ verb-less clusters of words, which I think of as a still-photograph-montage in the moving pictures of verb-driven language (or sentences), are also used, and also, sometimes, mangled.

There’s a striking story by Hemingway (A Canary for One) that I often refer to. In it a slow-to-be-revealed first person narrator describes a series of seemingly random scenes linked by the fact that they are experienced during a train journey. It is only in the last ten words that a sort of cohesion is achieved, when the narrator reveals the significance of the journey, and draws attention to his possible state of mind, allowing us to re-calibrate in light of that revelation, what we have been told.

Green is doing something similar, I think, and the child who is experiencing this wedding day is in a particular state of mind, one that is as convoluted and dislocated from the events, as the narrative technique, perhaps, makes us. Coming to recognise this, we might even wish to re-interpret some of that second sentence. Might the walls, for example, be blurred by the tears of the boy – though none are mentioned? Might those ‘past days,’ which seem to demand a more significant interpretation than that of a spell of weather, might they also be days of mood, in relation to the child, rather than of weather?

If you would like to read more about short stories, Mike has just released a second volume of essays on short stories and their writers, which you can find on Amazon: ‘Love and Nothing Else, Volume 2 in his Readings For Writers series, contains 12 more essays, including on Stacy Aumonier, L.A.G.Strong, Elizabeth Bowen, A.E.Coppard, and Arthur Miller.

 

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01DO5JPHQ

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