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There’s a short essay by me just published on the Thresholds International Short Story Forum

Arthur Miller is best known as a playwright. I know his short stories better than I do the plays, and fine stories they are too. But here I found a short story embedded in his autobiography Timebends. It’s an account of an unexpected meeting with a friend of his mother’s, and like a ‘proper’ short story, it has a beginning, a middle and an end.

I wrote about Miller’ short story The Misfits, in the second of my collections of essays on the genre and its writers, Love and Nothing Else, examining the differences between the short story and the screenplay, also written by Miller, that was based upon it.

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I’ve noticed that with some poets and short story writers that having read one of their pieces I go on to reading another, almost without thinking. In the case of the poets Robert Frost is the one for me. I can’t seem ever to read just a single poem of his, but must skim through the collected works, looking for favourites to re-read, looking for ones I’ve overlooked, or forgotten or previously rejected. With other poets, even ones with stellar reputations, I find myself closing the book after the single poem that someone has told me I really should read.

For me this phenomenon, if that’s what it is, has become the touchstone for answering that rather absurd and misplaced question about who one’s favourite writers are – the answer, of course, should be, I suspect, that I don’t have favourite authors, only favourite writings. The fact remains though, that some authors provide several favourite writings, and others only one or two.

I find the same true with short stories. A few writers draw me one from one story to another. Elsewhere I’ve compared a collection, or an anthology of short stories to being like a box of chocolates…sometimes you savour one, and put the box away for tomorrow night….other times you feast greedily and clear the top layer, maybe the whole damned box!

Alphonse Daudet, the  nineteenth century French writer, is one that hooks me that way, especially with his simple stories of Provencal life from the 1866 Lettres de Mon Moulin. They lead me on too, sometimes, to the much more recent re-tellings of similar stories by the late Michael De Larrabeiti in Provencal Tales, in which the author weaves the story of his 1959 journey accompanying the sheepherders of Provence on an annual journey from lowlands to mountain pastures for the summer grazing. At each stop, like Boccaccio’s Decameroni, the shepherds tell old stories of magic, love, mystery and treachery. If you haven’t encountered either of these writers before, you should look out for them.

At present my head is stuck in Presence, Collected Stories of Arthur Miller (Bloomsbury, 2007). Not for the first time, I sat down to write about the powerful and intense critique of fading cowboy life that is the short story The Misfits – later filmed under the same name with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, but serving a strikingly different agenda even though Miller provided the screenplay. Re-reading that story, closely, and perhaps too closely for ordinary enjoyment, I found myself turning, when the essay was finished, to the equally powerful Fitter’s Night, set in a US World War Two naval dockyard and in which a working class man finds his true nobility and citizenship. So, as we say all too often, back to the pages….

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American writer Arthur Miller is best known for his plays, and in the case of The Misfits, probably for his screenplay. The 1961 John Huston film though, was based on Miller’s short story of the same name, dated to 1957 in the 2009 Presence, Collected Stories (Bloomsbury).

There is lot of documentation and testimony regarding the film adaptation. The story of the filming is as epic as the film itself and carries echoes of the short story’s themes. Huston was said to be addicted to gambling. His male lead, Clark Gable, pushed himself to the limits, and died a fortnight after filming finished. Marilyn Monroe was moving towards divorce from Miller, and she too died less than two years after the film was released. Montgomery Clift was said to be already experiencing problems with addiction.

Perhaps to cope with his unravelling marriage, Miller was re-writing the screenplay as the filming took place, adding more and more to the role that Monroe was cast in. In that sense the original story was progressively being left behind. Yet the short story remains the starting point for the film, and what remains of it, as well as what was removed, and added to it, can still hold the interest of the student of adaptation, and of story.

 

In several respects the short story is a much tighter construction. It takes place almost entirely within sight of the truck that belongs to the main character, Gay Langland, and that truck remains within the few square miles of Nevada desert where the three cowboys are hunting their wild horses. Only in the last page, when the cowboys have driven off towards the nearby town, does the story linger, and close, out in the desert, with the four tethered mustangs, and the colt.

It is not so much the addition of other places however, that marks the biggest change between text and film. That comes in the shape of Marilyn Monroe, for the character she plays in the film, exists in the short story only in the words of the narrator and in the thoughts and words of the two protagonists, Gay, and Perce Howland. Guido, the third cowboy, does not refer to or think about her.

Here is one of the clear cut differences between the shown story of the film, and the told story of the word. In the text version know what the narrator, and the two characters think she is, but the presence of the shown Roslyn, with her own words, her own actions, and her own observable character traits demands that we form our own opinions. It also tips the balance of the story away from the relationship between Gay and Perce and towards the relationships between each of them, and her.

 

In his introduction to the Bloomsbury collection – taken from the much earlier ‘I Don’t Need You Anymore’ (Viking, 1967) in which The Misfits was included – Miller makes several observations about the short story form, and also, at least by implication, about the film. Telling us that a short story tries to ‘catch wonder by surprise’ might give us a clue as to what we should look for, but more useful might be his assertion that the ‘great strength of a good short story’ is ‘to see things isolated in stillness’. He writes at length too about dialogue: ‘..when the author…stopped chattering and got out of the way;’ These three snippets alone would give us a reasonable approach to The Misfits in its text form, and one from which to  view the diverging road to the film version.

Before looking at some examples in detail, one other general point might be useful, which is that there is a difference between the way that metaphors in text, and those in film work. In film we observe, or hear, the actual sight or sound on which the metaphor is built. If the roar of an engine does not sound to us like a growl, then the metaphor isn’t brought into being. In the short story, the wheels of the light aircraft with which Guido chases the wild horses out of the mountains have ‘doughnut tires.’ How many of us, I wonder, would think of that when we see the tyres of the movie’s plane? That this is a story full of metaphor suggests much risks being lost in the adaptation.

The most obviously powerful scene of the short story, for me, is where the stallion is brought to the ground. Unlike the other mustangs this one is not neatly roped and hog-tied and tethered.

 

 

‘The stallion’s forefeet slipped back, and he came down on his knees

and his nose struck the clay ground and he snorted as he struck, but he

would not topple over and stayed there on his knees as though he were

bowing to something, with his nose propping up his head against the ground

and his sharp bursts of breath blowing up dust in little clouds under his nostrils.’

 

He goes down stubbornly, slowly and with a sort of dignity, resisting until the very end, when Gay ‘came up alongside the stallion’s neck and laid his hands on the side of the neck and pushed,…’

In the film, Perce frees the stallion, to please Roslyn who is present in the desert. Gay recaptures it, in the scene that may well have triggered Gable’s fatal heart attack less than two days after filming ended. This is the most action packed scene of the film, in which Gable was dragged, apparently behind the horse, but in fact behind a vehicle, for a distance of several hundred feet. Despite the padding, he was severely cut and bruised, and it’s said that he told his wife that it had been ‘an accident.’ Like the character he was playing though, Gable had made a choice; his being not to use a stand-in. His character then releases the stallion, telling Roslyn that he wanted to make his own decisions. Such a sequences would have no place in the textual story, and would in fact, undermine the essential metaphor of the piece, that the mustangs, whatever they are, cannot escape their fate, and neither can the cowboys. It is ironic that the actor in reality, was playing a role nearer to that of the character in the original story, than is the character he was portraying in the film.

 

There are nuances of dialogue and thought in the told story, especially where Gay recognises the futilities of his life, and the inevitability of his choosing to prolong them. Like the colt, trapped by its dependence, though un-tethered, by the side of its mother, Gay is tied to his own image of what a man should be, and specifically, what a cowboy should be. Perce too is trapped, and even as they recognise their situation, they support each other’s denial of it.

Gay’s sense of freedom is compromised by his dependence on the truck.

 

‘Gay owned the truck and he wanted to preserve the front end.’

 

‘The transmission fork was worn out, he knew, and the front tires were going

too.’

 

‘The time was coming fast when he would need about fifty dollars or have to

sell the truck, because it would be useless without repairs. Without a truck and

without a horse he would be down to what was in his pocket.’

 

At that moment, he has precisely four silver dollars, given to him by Roslyn. He has been taking money from her, for doing odd jobs and driving her around. She is an ‘Eastern’ woman, of means, in the short story. The film avoids the issue, having Gay and Roslyn restoring a house together. The dependence experienced in the short story irks Gay, and when Perce refers to it, Gay’s reaction is instinctive:

 

‘he felt angry blood moving into his neck.’

 

There is a deeper irritation though, which is the knowledge that his way of life is mistaken, and ineffective. He uses the younger man to help maintain the denial of this truth.

 

‘”Well, it’s better than wages.”

“Hell, yes.”’

 

This exchange, and variations on it, is repeated more than once, as both men struggle to avoid acknowledging their situation, which is comparable to that of the horses they are pursuing.  In fact, this is made explicit, for they refer both to themselves, and to the horses as ‘misfits.’ In the end though, it is an inescapable truth. Even the money they will make from the mustangs is poor: ‘there would be no way to explain it so it made sense,’. For the much younger Perce, the truth is held further at bay, which is how he can support Gay in the delusion. Even when he wins big prize money at the rodeo, Perce has no sense of needing to hang on to it: ‘the boy was buying drinks for everybody with his rodeo winnings…’

Perce in fact likes Gay because he ‘never thought to say he ought to be making something of his life.’ There is no suggestion, that I can see, that Perce understands in the slightest that Gay cannot make such a suggestion, because his own life demands that he remains in denial of such ideas.

All three of the short story’s cowboys could have ‘done better’ in that traditional sense, but have turned down the chance, opting instead for a freedom as fragile, and ephemeral as that enjoyed by the mustangs they have captured.

Perce, in fact, already knows his fate: ‘I’m never going to amount to a damned thing.’ As he allows Gay to convince him that this is acceptable, Gay needs Perce to do the same for him. They are at opposite ends of the same journey. When Gay tells Perce that the colt would not be saved, even if left to run free, because ‘He’d just follow the truck right into town’ if the mare were on it, we recognise it as a metaphor for their own compulsions. The Roslyn of this story ‘razzes’ them on their way of life, but cannot save them from it, though the implication is that somewhere soon, she will save herself. Certainly Gay is conscious of holding himself ready for that: ‘you never kept anything…’ ‘She would go back East one day, he knew, maybe this year, maybe next.’

This short story is one of those that sticks in the memory, because the more closely you read it the more you find in it, deepening, and refining the message it carries. Rather than pick out quotations here and there to support a point, one should be taking it line for line and explaining how each adds to the context in which we will understand what follows. The ending that the film works towards is not so much a consummation of that context, as a subversion of it, as Roslyn and Gay recognise the opposite of what the Gay of the short story recognises, and ride off into a Hollywood sunset together. Cowboys can, and will let you down, but film endings can’t!

In the short story, it is Perce, the fellow-loser, whom Gay needs to make his future with.

 

‘”You comin’ up to Thighbone with me, ain’t you?”

“Okay,” Perce said and went back to sleep.

Gay felt more peaceful now that the younger man would not be leaving him. He

drove on in contentment.’

 

This is the happy ending that might have finished the story. Three asterisks separate it from the page that follows, for it is not going to be Miller’s ending. He takes us back to the desert, where the horses have been left. His description of them is our extended metaphor for the situation of his cowboys, and its end is focussed on the plight of that colt, which will make what we know will be a fatal choice. Reading the Wickipedia entry for Miller, there is a reference to him asserting that circumstances drive the choices of his characters. Gay, and Perce, and Guido, act as if they were like the colt, beyond rational choice, but Miller is pointing up the human tragedy, which is that we are not beyond it, but only incapable through our own natures. The film cannot go this far, and one wonders to what extent it was the genre, or the personal circumstances of the writer, or the requirements of the studios, that placed this limitation upon it.

 

The film makes explicit, not only the character of Roslyn, but also the wider context in which the protagonists’ lives are lived. The memories that the short story Gay has, of bars and towns and rodeos, are made flesh, and are fleshed out with extra characters. His relationship with Roslyn is examined by that third person inquisitor, the camera, rather than by his thoughts and statements about her being eavesdropped upon by the reader. The film’s Perce and Guido too are shown in their interactions with her, rather than through the filters of memory, doubt and suspicions. In true Hollywood style, Roslyn is made significantly younger than Gay. In the story, we are told, she is ‘about his age’. Hollywood men, and their audiences, were presumably incapable of dealing with women of their own age, and perhaps still are. In the film, Gay does not have to confront his ageing, though the actor was actually doing that, with lethal results. In the short story, the character contemplates turning ‘forty six soon, and then nearing fifty’ and getting grey hairs. Clark Gable, looking, and behaving, fitter than he was, had already turned fifty nine. In fact the film has increased the gap between Gay and Roslyn to a quarter century, pushing her back about fifteen years, and him forward nearly as many. This alone changes what the story can be about, as well as what it is.

In the short story Gay ‘sensed the bottom of his life falling if it turned out Roslyn had really been loving the boy beside him’. In the film we see exactly what the relationship between Perce and Roslyn is, and her relationship with Guido is developed explicitly, from what, in the short story, is an equally explicit narrative denial: Thinking of the ‘yearning for a woman’, Guido is pleased that ‘he was free of that..’ It’s worth considering that in the short story, Gay’s fear seems not so much of losing Roslyn to Perce, as of losing Perce to Roslyn.

In the film, references made by  short story’s narrator, or in the thoughts of Gay, have to be shown. So we see Gay wanting to introduce his lost family to Roslyn, and becoming distraught when they vanish. But whereas, in the short story, these references are part of the context in which we consider his relationship with Perce, in the film, they relate to his relationship with Roslyn. Perce’s home life is referred to by the narrator in the short story, but again, has to be made explicit in the film, in which we seen him talking to his mother in a phone kiosk. The camera cannot tell an internal story, but only show an external one.

The short story, in contrast, tells us the internal story and evokes in our imaginations the desert in which it takes place, and the images of the events and the players in them:

 

‘A wild river of air swept and swirled across the dark sky and struck down

against the blue desert and hissed back into the hills.’

 

‘The jacket had one sleeve off at the elbow, and the dried leather was split

open down the back, showing the lamb’s-wool lining. He had bombed

Germany in this jacket long ago.’

 

All these changes stem from the introduction of Roslyn as an actual, rather than as a ‘thought about’ character. From that first step the film has to move away progressively from the agendas of the short story. She draws the focus towards her, and changes what the story is revealing.

The final section of the film shoehorns in much of the action of the short story. The cowboys, with Roslyn tagging along, do go into the desert. Guido flies his beat-up old plane, and in his beat-up old flying jacket, to drive the wild mustangs out of the mountains and onto the plains, but the significance of his doing that is quite altered. He is no longer the device by which Perce and Gay get the time and opportunity to talk, and for Gay to think. A different role has to be found for him. He cannot be simply written out, for the plane is the means of getting the horses onto the plain! So he too, in direct opposition to his character in the short story, becomes romantically involved with Roslyn.

The character of Roslyn too, changes the agendas of the story. No longer imagined she has to be ‘realised’ by the author, and Miller, for reasons we can only speculate about, makes her childlike and vulnerable. She is not a character for whom going ‘back East’ would be an act of volition, so much as a running away. In that alone she changes the story’s agenda, for Gay is not challenged, in his way of life, by her superior grip on it, as in the told story, but only in his ability to compromise in order to protect her from her own inadequacies.  Her driving force seems to be an inability to accept the nature of life and death. In particular she has a rising revulsion against the hunt for the mustangs. An already over the top performance – her face barely stays still for a moment, but is constantly twitching and grimacing – leads to a wonderful temper tantrum in the desert, as spectacular as a four year old’s in a mall! This precipitates the release of the captured horses, taking the shown story that final step away from the told one. Gay recaptures the stallion, exhausting both the fictional character, and the actor who portrays him, but then releases it, in a gesture of futile control, after which he and Roslyn ride off in to a Hollywood ending. The great differences are two-fold. The text has he and Perce make that exit. More importantly, the horses are free, and there is no equivalent to that final page of Miller’s original text, highlighting the metaphorical comparison with the misfit cowboys. In fact, at the end of the film it is hard to see either horses or men in that role. In the film, Clark Gable’s character has retained his freedom, and so have the horses. Miller’s short story was about him, and them, failing to do so.

 

John Huston was used to adaptation. His final film was a ‘faithful’ adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead, and is especially interesting for its closing sequence. There, Huston understood that he could do no better than have the final paragraphs of the short story read in voice over, while a shot lingers on a landscape similar to the one being described. This level of sensitivity to what is important to the story seems at odds with the changes wrought in The Misfits. Was that because, in this case, the adaptation was being driven by the changed agendas of the writer? Or was it something to do with Hollywood’s need to present the stereotypical roles of man and woman? A character not even hinted at in the told story, is that of Roslyn’s female sidekick, an older woman with a veneer of cynicism over a seam of old fashioned romance, and played with show-stealing enthusiasm by Thelma Ritter. Her function in the story is to tell us, repeatedly and explicitly, throughout the first half of the film, that ‘cowboys’ are real men, and thus OK, even if they have a propensity for vanishing. Once she has got this message clearly across, and, presumably, fixed in our heads, she is dropped from the story: job done!

The New York Times gave the film, on its release, a damning review. Its characters were shallow, it said, and its ending was sentimental. There is no hint that the reviewer knew of the short story that preceded it. My interest isn’t to set one form above the other, nor to rate the success of an adaptation in relation to its ‘fidelity’ to the original, but to ask if the differences tell us anything about story and how it is used by storytellers.

The Misfits gives us a clear distinction, between a textual story, that examines the lives of, predominantly, two men, who are at different stages on the same road, and who use each other to avoid facing up to their failures, and an audio-visual one that strips the sense of failure from its male lead, and in fact validates that and other stereotypes by having him ‘get’ the girl in the end. In the former, the location, in time and place, and the events are used as a metaphor for the situations of the men. In the latter they become merely a visual accompaniment to the words and actions of the protagonists.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m beginning to notice more and more, as if it were widening, the gap between the narrative telling of stories, and the presentation of direct speech. Sometimes, and perhaps more often than used to be the case, I find that my own stories are falling almost exclusively into one or other pattern: narratives have no, or almost no direct speech; dialogues have almost no accompanying narrative. Were it not for the fact that most of my short stories are around, or under the one thousand word mark, I would turn many of them into short plays (which need c5,000 words of direct speech), turning the small amounts of narrative into stage directions, or removing them entirely.

When I am consciously writing plays I do try to limit, and if possible eradicate stage directions – believing that Directors should have the freedom to decide how the words should be uttered.

Moving in the opposite direction, towards a ‘no direct speech’ narrative throws more emphasis on the narrative voice – more awareness in the listener or reader, that here is a he or she telling us a story from a particular viewpoint. Such a narrator reports the events, and the words of the actors, as they appeared to them. During the twentieth century many writers and critics began to move away from this idea, looking for a ‘un-authored’ narrative, with multiple voices, or, as James Joyce suggested, one that had been ‘refined out of existence.’ There was an attempt to spread the narrative across the voices of equally important characters, rather than – as A.E.Coppard suggested, telling the story through the ‘eyes’ of one character only. To me, it has always seemed that so long as one person is providing the words, that person is, mixing the metaphor, calling the tune. The agendas, insights and limitations of the author will inform those of the narrator, however many of them there are, and it maybe that that is what makes any author worth reading.

With an entirely narrated piece, where everything, including the reported words of the characters, is presented through the narrator’s voice, we have come, in a sense, full circle, back to the wholly spoken state: the monologue. The narrator, however, is giving us a monologue that is not, ostensibly, about him or her.

In a curious co-incidence, the same day as I jotted these thoughts down in my notebook, we had a first person monologue that evening at the Facets of Fiction workshop, in which there was no direct speech. Such a piece is likely to look different on the page, and it did. Blocks of text, unbroken by the more fragmented layout in which direct speech is conventionally cast, seem heavier, and the white space on the printed page is far less. But it’s not only the visual that is affected. Reading aloud too, I feel, is a different business when the single voice carries the whole thing.

If this effect is something we don’t welcome in a specific piece, we can get around the problem perhaps, by re-paragraphing, and breaking up the monolithic chunks of text in that way, but paragraphing too affects not only the look of the writing. By throwing emphasis on the sentences that open, and close the paragraphs, it can skew the meaning of a piece. (I looked at this issue briefly earlier in the blog, in reference to a Russian text, the translation of which had been paragraphed entirely differently to the original, and with noticeable effects on the focus of the story.) Arthur Miller, in a preface to an earlier collection, replicated as the introduction to his collected stories, Presence (Bloomsbury, 2009), makes some interesting observations. He is writing from the perspective of a playwright introducing a collection of his own short stories, and has a strong sense of the differences between the two.

‘This was when the author stopped chattering and got out of the way;’

This is the play, by the way. But he says this too…’the novelist’s dialogue is pitched towards the eye…and falls flat when heard.’ And, ‘the dialogue in a story needs to sacrifice its sound.’ Here are two statements which, for me, at least need not be true, and better not be, for he is making an assumption about the printed word which I reject. He does say, of his stories, that ‘some of these stories could never be plays, but some perhaps could have been.’ The distinction he makes centres on sound, but it seems to me, that what the play adds to story, is observation (as does the film), whereas what the story (as text), adds to play or film, is imagination.

Neither pattern, direct speech or narrator, is right or wrong, and neither is a balanced blend of the two a desirable end in its own right, but the differences are worth being aware of, and matching to the stories we want to tell, and the way we want them to be received.

Words on stages, by the way, are part of the thing, where Borderlines, Carlisle Book Festival, 4-6th September, is concerned. You can check out the details here:

www.borderlinescarlisle.co.uk

In the meantime, if you Kindle, why not grab an e-book copy of Mike’s collected essays on short story master, A.E.Coppard : (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00UEONRV6)

English of the English

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Homely Girl, A Life

 

This was the title story of a 1995 collection (along with Fame and Fitter’s Night) by Arthur Miller. To begin with it’s an example of those two nations divided by a single language, for the American usage of ‘homely’ has no real equivalent in english English. Ugly is a tad too strong, and unprepossessing too Latinate for everyday use. Our sense of ‘home loving’ is not part of the American package.

It’s also a story that raises the question of what is a short story. It can be ‘perused in an hour or two’, so fits in with that old Poe definition, and it’s nowhere near as long as some of D.H.Lawrence’s shorts, but at 40 pages in the 2007 ‘collected’ edition it is a longer than the average short.

It’s also a story that does what it says on the label. It tells the story of Janice, though we don’t get to know her name until the bottom of the fourth page, and I wonder what that does to a story – what it does to a reader’s perception of it?

Janice’s story begins late in her life, and flashes back to her teenage years. She has an unfulfilling relationship with her ‘first husband’, the glue that holds them together being an idealistic socialism that gets its soft edges knocked off as the thirties turn into the forties and the Second World War intervenes. Janice struggles to become herself, which in turn means separating from her husband. It’s a whole life story in one sense, in that we see her starting out on this quest, and we see her arriving at what she recognises as her destination. Gloomy as it is, and I found it gloomy, it is an uplifting story; a story of victory over life. Gloom and achievement seems to sit well together in Miller’s short stories.

A question it raised for me, was that old one about the balance between form and content, and which of those two are most important. Traditional lit-crit tells me they must be a perfect balance, but that if push comes to shove, form is what makes good writing. As a reader, I know that when push comes to shove, content is what makes good story. Yet, when content is thought to be good, the academics must tell us, it is only because the writing has presented it well. Many books are said to be flawed, and especially among ones that are thought to be successful. But are the flaws we perceive failures of form, or of content? Are they disjunctions between the two?

It was the movement from external to internal that caught my interest. Not only the reader, but Janice too makes this journey as one by one the political enthusiasms that have driven her life are found to be wanting. Ultimately it is her view of herself, Miller seems to be telling us, that offers here hope of salvation. Stories like this are not assessed by the clarity of their prose, or the forcefulness of their arguments, but by the extent to which they chime in tune with our perceptions of our own lives. This must especially be the case where we have lived through, or close after the times depicted. Have we learned the same lessons, and suffered similar disillusions?

Not only the times, but the time scale of the story might resonate with us. Here with have a woman over half a century – itself a rarity in the short story form – and if we have lived for as long a period can we help but make comparisons? Have we made similar journeys from the external to the internal? Have our relationships developed, and foundered, and been replaced, as hers have? Questions like this draw our attention to content rather than to form, but that in itself might not mean that the content has outperformed the form. It might mean the exact opposite. We don’t see the structure of the wood, for the trees.

I confess I didn’t find myself appreciating the purple passage here. There were no paragrpahs that I had to read again because they were so beautiful, no sentences that leapt off the page. I think Miller’s story is perhaps knitted together too tightly for that to happen, or perhaps I am simply a poor reader. Cast into 6 chapter-like segments, themselves internally divided in places by single line white spaces as well as paragraphs, the story remains undoubtedly a single whole. The phases of Janice’s life hang together, rather than form separate stories, and the last sentence, a mere two-liner, seems to me to carry the entire weight of an ending, and most of that, concentrated – for me the true hallmark of the short story form – into its final word.

 

 

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.