You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category.
Penelope Lively, on Radio 4 last week to promote her new collection of short stories, her first for twenty years, remarked that you couldn’t just sit down and write a short story. You had to wait, she said, for them to come to you.
This reminded me of Pooh Bear, talking about poems. But it also reminded me of Stephen King, remarking that he only wrote when he was inspired (adding that he made sure he was inspired at 9.00am on a working day morning!)
Dickens showed a similar sense of focus. He allocated himself several hours of writing time…and took himself off to his workroom (apparently with the kids in tow sometimes) to see it out. If nothing ‘came’ to him, he would doodle, or whistle, or pace, but he wouldn’t give up trying to face down the blank page. Samuel Johnson, an altogether grimmer character I suspect, had already told us that, if a man wants to write he will do it if he sets himself doggedly to it!
It all goes to show that there are many ways to skin that white paper, and that widely divergent writers recognise, not only that, but also what a struggle it can be.
I took the title for this collection of essays on the short story and its writers from George Moore. The phrase features in the story Home Sickness, one of the stories in The Untilled Field, which is the subject of one of the essays. The full sentence tells us something about why one might write: ‘There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself’.
I often cite Moore for his description of short story endings, quoted in the 1985 Uncollected Short Stories, edited by Eakin and Gerber. They end, Moore says, in ‘Minor Keys.’ The phrase is evocative, but the qualifier he adds to it is more powerfully so: ‘the mute yearning for what life has not for giving.’
A contemporary of Moore’s, H.G.Wells provides the opening essay of my collection with his story The Magic Shop. A simple story of a father and son going shopping, spins into a magical yarn. Out of the increasingly fantastical events comes a profound insight into the relationship between parent and child, and the way it must change.
Mary Mann’s Little Brother, one of her 1890s rural tales set in the fictional Norfolk village of Dulditch, gives the last word, not to the middle class narrator, but to the poverty stricken Mrs Hodd who rebukes her.
Two European stories are the subject of the next two essays. Justus van Effen ran a magazine modelled on The Spectator and what interested me about his story was the way that a seemingly outdated, politically incorrect even, piece of social observation could turn out to be, in fact, quite contemporary on closer inspection. The French writer, Alphonse Daudet’s story Belisaire’s Prussian, allows a long look at how the order of words can change the weight of a sentence, and, when it is the last sentence in the story, might shift the focus of the story itself.
Three stories, of travellers encountering ‘a woman’ are compared in the essay Fellow Travellers. H.E.Bates, V.S.Pritchett and Katherine Mansfield do something very similar, yet very different!
I take a rare visit to contemporary stories in the next essay, with Matt Plass’s almost ghost story, Next to Godliness, which is built on an elegant premise. Then we look at Elizabeth Taylor’s The Blush, an oblique study of a failed marriage and failed middle class life.
A group of Somerset Maugham tales, turned into mini-films, provide the opportunity to look at adaptation and the impact of changed agendas comes next, followed by a study of Mrs W.K.Clifford’s dark tale of class, snobbery and passionate love, The Heart of the Wood.
The penultimate essay discusses Sir Arthur Quiller Couch’s Captain Knott, in which three seafaring men with a history of piracy and slave-running between them meet in a Bristol pub and discuss the souls of ships, and of men.
Finally, I examine the trickery and sleight of word in Daphne du Maurier’s deceptive tale The Old Man.
The Silent Life Within, short stories examined is available here.
Power doesn’t confer authority, and sometimes authority can be powerless. On Thursday the UK citizens of the EU will use their votes to empower the UK government to take a course of action that will be accepted as authoritative by all 28 members of the EU.
This is an authority that citizens in many countries never equal.
As far as I know, no other group of countries has ever attempted anything remotely like the European Project….Empires and countries have expanded by conquest, taking in what one group will regard as ‘inferior’ groups, but Europe has attempted something quite different: to take in groups by consent, and to preserve their individuality, their languages, customs and cultures. Alternative projects have involved suppression – in the UK, though English itself evolved from a fistful of quite separate languages as an answer to the Norman French conquest, we have gone through periods when indigenous languages have been physically suppressed (Nach eil? Tha gu dearabh!).
Choosing Brexit, whatever its effect on the economy and immigration, may give hope – however ill founded – to the enemies of democracy, free speech, and rule of law wherever they are; those who favour coercion over compromise, intransigence over co-operation, censorship over free speech, diktat over rule of law. It will neither empower nor authorise them, but it might embolden them.
Apparently, a neighbour of mine, campaigning for the referendum, was beaten into unconsciousness at the weekend by someone who, presumably, thought his own arguments would be unconvincing. The relevant campaign will doubtless repudiate the attacker, but he will continue to believe he is supporting it. Perhaps you will encounter him, if he has been released on bail, at a Polling Station near you. We all have to stand up for democracy, unless we are prepared to suffer the consequences of its loss.
I seem to have bumped into several articles recently about the evils of doping in sport…. which leads me to think. As someone with more than a passing interest in writing, a nodding acquaintance with the odd musician (aren’t they all?) and the occasional glimpse of a painting here and there, I wonder if we aren’t showing our double standards here.
Nobody, I think, was ever stripped of a platinum disc, or music award, or bumped off the top million best sellers list, or chucked out of the National Galley, for having performed, written, conceived, painted (or spilled) their particular masterpieces under the influence of drugs or (perhaps more usually) alcohol.
We might point out that they’ve damaged their health, shortened their lives and made themselves generally obnoxious, but we haven’t accused them of being cheats. Nobody thinks that a singer songwriter, for example, would have cheated his or her way to the top of the top ten for being out of the head on something or other when writing it. Nobody thinks an inspired painting is any less of a painting for having been painted in an alcoholic haze. In fact, sometimes one gets the feeling that we’re applauding them for going that extra mile for our entertainment. As to contemporaries that couldn’t match their originality, brilliance, vision, etc,etc,etc, even they don’t seem to mind being outperformed (in what are, let’s face it, extremely competitive activities populated by monster egos) by those who have injected themselves, or swallowed a toxic little helper. Maybe if we just let sports people get on with taking whatever they wanted to, to increase their this rate or that rate, or the size of whatever whatnot they’re intent on pumping up (or reducing) we’d all develop a much more realistic attitude to just what it is and isn’t worth risking or sacrificing for the sake of their or our Art!
Anyway, I’m going off to have another cup of tea, and perhaps self administer a bacon butty, before trying to write another inspired short story. (I’ve given up temporarily on the poetry-it needs too many fatty acids).
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.
If you live more than driving time away from Keswick, England, this maybe not for you! But following the floods that recently devastated the North of England (and elsewhere), a group of local writers from North Cumbria are getting together to present a literary evening in the Theatre By The Lake’s Studio Theatre, at Keswick, England, (that’s the UK England for those in doubt).
BHDandMe will be there, well, BHD will be, me, I’ll be with him in spirit! Tuesday 8th March, beginning at 6.45pm. Perhaps you’ve seen the massive online and off advertising campaign, but just in case you haven’t, why not check those details again – The Studio, Theatre By The Lake, Keswick, England, UK, Tuesday 8th March, 6.45pm – and don’t be late, we’ve only only the place for an hour, that’s 6 minutes each for those of you interested in statistics – and we need to raise squillions to help put back together the lives and businesses that these floods ripped apart.
It would be nice, if so many of you turned up, that they had cancel the show in the main theatre and move us in there instead…it would be nice, if they had to hire trucks to take away the money we raise….Hey, as Kowalski might say, whaddya got ta lose?Unless it’s all a ghastly dream……
I’ve been reading the Selected Short Stories of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch. (Penguin,1957) Born in the mid nineteenth century he lived into the middle years of the twentieth, was a Cambridge lecturer and prolific writer across several genres. Popularly known as ‘Q’, he was one of the team of editors who put together my favourite short story repository, Hammerton’s Thousand Best Stories (of all countries and all times), into which he got three of his own tales.
This morning’s story was Lieutenant Lapenotiere, a tale of the man who brings to the Admiralty the first news of Nelson’s death at the battle of Trafalgar. He arrives in the small hours, dragging Barham (First Lord? How good is your naval history?) from his bed to read Admiral Collingwood’s despatches. The story is driven by the excitement experienced by the characters, who are coming to terms with the great victory, and the great loss, and I wondered if it was to communicate a sense of what that experience might have felt like that was the purpose of the story. If it was, that’s quite a modern idea of what story is for, compared to idea that a story enables us, not so much to share the experience, as to judge the nature of that vaguely defined human condition, and its moralities, wisdoms and follies.
The story is one of ordinary, and extraordinary men and situations which bring them together, but it doesn’t end there. Q goes on to introduce a ghostly element, for when the eponymous hero leaves the building, on the way to his lodgings he encounters a post-boy who has instructions to take him to Merton. In fact, he has note requesting that, written in the hand of Nelson himself. The lieutenant makes the journey, and we are told that when he retells the story, he recalls walking in silence with his dead hero, before the door is opened by a ‘beautiful woman.’
The story is set about a century before it was written, and another century has passed since then, and a lot of its potency must depend upon what we know, and understand about the significances of the events and people described. Those significance are not set values. They will have changed, from the people involved, to the contemporaries of the writer, to our own times, our relation to the ‘facts’ and our knowledge and understanding of them must have altered progressively, and this is one of those stories, I feel, where those changes impact on our ability to be moved by the story. In my case, it was the ‘Merton’ reference that was not clear. I’ve heard of Lady Hamilton, but I don’t know for sure if she’s the woman in question. I could find out, but there’s something about the short story that demands we’re on the inside of it, and references to what’s on the outside have to be ones that we are familiar with, if they are to work – because the work they have to do is work on our emotions or intellects. in the case of the woman at Merton that necessity is even for greater, for it comes at the end of the story. The lieutenant’a arrival there is what the rest of the story has been contextualising. The very last words of the story have our hero reaching for the ‘private letter’ which he carries, ‘and the shade at his side left him to face her in the daylight.’ The true resonance of the story demands that we have at least an opinion of what that facing might entail.
The ghostly element, and the romantic element – the presence of Nelson’s ghost, and the idea of bringing a last message to a significant other from the recently dead, has, of course, a potency even if know nothing of who the individuals concerned are…but knowledge of the context of those individuals, of, perhaps the disparity between their public and private faces, would, one imagines add more power to the denouement.
To what extent, I wonder, can we make sure, or indeed should we strive to make sure, that the universality, in time and place, outweighs their contextualities?
http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/my-hundredth-tale A.E.Coppard’s ‘Hundredth Tale’ considered by Mike Smith AND
http://www.cutalongstory.com/stories/final-accounts/10643.html Ten New Flash Fictions on last words, last actions and last loves, by BHD
(Academe comes free….Art has to be paid for…a philosophical or economic conundrum?)
Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m a fan of the French short story writers – a friend recently gave me a copy of Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon Moulin so I can have a go in the original! I’ve already found La Chevre de Monsieur Seguin (where’s that blasted accent key?), which, in English, is in Hammerton’s Thousand Best Short Stories along with two volumes of French writers stretching back to the Medieval period!
The French do some pretty mean poetry too, and I’d like to draw your attention to Louis Aragon, and the poem Ballade de celui qui chanta dans les suplices. You can find this, with an English prose translation – the best way with translations of poetry I suspect – in The Penguin Book of French Poetry (1820-1950), which is as good a feast of poetry as you’ll find anywhere. Aragon’s poem, built around a single statement repeated – though not as a chorus – throughout the piece, is resonant and powerful, and based on, as we say, ‘a true story.’ That striking line, by the way, is ‘Et si’il etait a refaire/Je referais ce chemin…’ which sends a frisson down my spine whenever I recall it.
Having read it again, I recalled something from many years ago, about a quarter of a century in fact, and was moved to write a poem of my own (a rare thing these days); Here, for what it is worth, it is:
I remember walking a camp-site lane
in the Belgian Ardennes a long time back,
where under hedgerow trees I found these stones
engraved with names of some who had been shot
in the last few weeks of war.
They were not forgot – fresh flowers lay.
Written there too, this message:
mort pour vous