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An anniversary that you might have missed – I certainly did – was back in January, when the anniversary of the death of short story writer A.E.Coppard’s  passed without much of a ripple.

Coppard’s published short stories ran to thirteen collections – with several duplications in short run special editions, often illustrated by artists including Robert Gibbings  – usually of about twelve to fifteen stories. There was a ‘Collected’ edition, published in the USA with around fifty, chosen by Coppard himself, and a British ‘Selected’ with less than half that number. A recent collection of seven tales – Coppard’s preferred descriptor – was produced in 2013 by Turnpike Books, and on Goodreads you will find a ‘Coppard page’, listing other available selections and collections. His current popularity in Britain might be judged by the fact that this morning it had 2 followers!

Out of the two hundred or so stories he published, a handful crop up again and again: The Higgler, Dusky Ruth, and The Field of Mustard are three of the most commonly referred to. All three concern the love lives of women, and the men who fall for them. They also hint at another regular Coppard theme: that of poverty, usually but not exclusively rural. My own favourite tale is Weep Not My Wanton, a four page masterpiece in which a family of itinerant farm labourers pass across a beautifully painted English landscape while playing out the brutal game of their family dynamic – and raising a question of why that should be. In a line I’ve quoted often enough, an American commentator wrote of Coppard’s England as one in which ‘accidents of heredity’ outweighed all other factors in determining the course of the lives that Coppard described.

Coppard himself came from grinding poverty –as a child he worked picking oakum (one of the tasks given to felons in the English penal system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) in a Whitechapel sweatshop, having left school at the age of nine. Frank O’Connor accused him of having an ‘issue’ with ‘unearned income’ – surely not an unreasonable one!

I became interested in him a few years ago, while reading about H.E.Bates and V.S.Pritchett, with whom he was often compared, and seemed in some way to hover behind. Writing over the same inter-war decades as them, he was, however, of an earlier generation which was publishing in the 1890s, with writers like Mary Mann, who wrote of poverty in rural Norfolk, and Arthur Morrison, who wrote of poverty in London’s East End. What I discovered was that there is relatively little published about Coppard or his writing, save for the bare bones of biography, and a couple of dozen short-ish press reviews.

English of the English, a collection of 20 essays on Coppard’s tales and their themes, was an attempt to redress the balance. It is available as a paperback, and for Kindle, here.

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The Silent Life Within

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.

 

The printed bibliography is functionally obsolete. Stuck in the knowledge of its period of setting-up and publication, give or take the odd errata slip, it offers a mere snapshot in time of what was known, rather than what is. The digital database on the other hand, offers a continuously developing record of what is known and understood. Book lists can be amended with additions, deletions, and corrections. New knowledge can be incorporated, old knowledge can be refined. Of course, manipulation, falsification and misinterpretation can also take place, but as a means of finding out what was published and by whom and when, the database outstrips the printed bibliography without doubt.

That doesn’t mean there is no value in, or use for those old books of lists though. One such, a left over from my days of selling second-hand books, provides an interesting sidelight, not only on what was published, but on what was thought about it. It provides too, a reminder, that our impressions of the past can be inaccurate and misleading. The book in question is The Best Books of The War, and it covers UK publication across a range of subjects from 1939-45. It was published by W.H,Smith and Sons, in 1947, with an anonymous compiler who provides a Preface, and the initials F.S.S. That, I suspect, stands for F.Seymour Smith, who contributes An English Library (3rd,revised ed.CUP,1943) in the Literary Criticism and Belles Lettres section.

I was interested in the Fiction category, some twenty pages of titles by authors forgotten, remembered, and never known. It’s the surprises, in who was there, and how they were thought of, that are most interesting. Who was commented on, and who not so, in what the Preface tells us is a ‘bookman’s’ personal selection, challenges or reinforces our own perceptions.

The biggest surprise for me was to see Monkey listed. I remember this collection of ancient Chinese tales as a rather odd TV series of the seventies or eighties, but here it is, from Allen and Unwin in 1942, translated by Arthur Waley from the sixteenth century original by Wu Ch’ ‘eng-en.

            There are surprises too in the responses of our guide through the period. ‘Eroticism’ he tells us, ‘must not be encouraged’ but ‘may be enjoyed,’- in relation to The King Was in his Counting House, by James Branch Cabell,  Lane,1939 (let me know if you have, or do!) – neither of which, I suspect, would be said so simply and directly these days. Is this the tip (if that’s not too vulgar a word) of the surfacing permissive society iceberg?

James Joyce gets a gem of a reference, for Finnegan’s Wake: ‘It is not as daft as it seems, especially if read aloud,’ which is worth several hundred thousand words of the lit. Crit. I remember reading on it when I was a student! The short story is well represented, and so are women writers, with more of both than I would expect in a modern ‘100 books to read before you die’ listing. Authors who are still well known, and those who are not, caught my attention. ‘Old hands’ include H.E.Bates, Sir Osbert Sitwwell, and L.A.G.Strong. Bates is excluded (with a disparaging mention) by Hensher (The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, 2015), and Sitwell passed over, but Strong is a bit of a revival figure today, which pleases me. ‘Newcomers’, to F.S.S., include J. Maclaren-Ross, also in Hensher, and, surprising to me in so late a publication, V.S.Pritchett.

Elizabeth Bowen is included, with the comment, ‘a delicate touch for the short story,’ but also that ‘some of them in this volume are too literary.’

Our own assumptions, or mangled, half forgotten knowledge, of the past can be challenged or confirmed by such collections. F.S.S. quotes 61,000 books as being published during the period, of which he estimates some 20,000 will be long-lasting, serious additions to the ‘bookman’s’ trade, and life. That some have been, and others have not, reminds us that our opinions are of only passing worth, yet perhaps sufficient to occupy a minute or two of each other’s time.

A slim volume, of a mere ninety nine pages, this bookman’s selection was passed to me by my late father-in-law, Leslie Walker, a bookman to his fingertips, internationally known as Nelson’s Bookroom. He it was who told me that ‘any fool can sell books,’ thus encouraging me, as well qualified, to enter the trade – it was only half the story, I soon learned.

 

 

Readings For Writers, by Mike Smith. 12 essays on short stories and their writers.

Volume 1: Hemingway,Bierce,Chekhov,Wells,Parker,Joyce,Coover,:Lawrence,Bates,Pritchett,Arthur Morrison, & James Salter.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Readings-Writers-Essays-Short-Stories/dp/151767574XReadings For Writers cover

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of years ago I read all the published short stories of A.E.Coppard, issued in a baker’s dozen of books between 1921 and 1947. More than half of these were issued within the first less than half of that time, and less than half of those I liked best appeared in the second more than half of the run.

I hadn’t set out to read them all, but I was so inspired by some of the first few, that, like a prospector panning for gold, I went on digging for more gems, and struck oil right through to the last volume. Then, being a fully paid up member of the chattering class, I wanted to share what I had read, and what I thought about it. The result, in 19 essays, is the collection ‘English of the English, Responses to the Tales of A.E.Coppard’, published on Kindle, and available for a pittance. Piled high, and sold cheap, not necessarily the cleverest, nor most perceptive, but almost certainly the bulkiest amount of writing about this forgotten English writer, the essays might, I hope, provide encouragement for the would-be reader, and the prompt for a better literary critic.

 

English of the English, response to the tales of A.E.Coppard(1878-1957), essays by Mike Smith Kindle edition at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00UEONRV6 -offering an overview of Coppard’s baker’s dozen of short story collections, brief discussions of some of the major themes and sub-genres to be found within, and a closer look at a handful of individual stories.

 

A rather good collection of V.S.Pritchett (1900-1997) stories arrived here recently: On The Edge of the Cliff, Selected Short Stories is another offering from Indie publisher, Turnpike Books (www.turnpikebooks.co.uk). You might remember that they published an A.E.Coppard collection (Weep Not My Wanton) back in 2013. Pritchett, along with Coppard and H.E.Bates, was writing in the mid years of the twentieth century, all three beginning to publish in the early 1920s, with Pritchett producing his last short story collection as late as 1989, in his 90th year!

On the Edge of the Cliff, has 8 stories including the title story. Pritchett was a journalist and critic by profession, living in and working abroad, initially in France, and later Spain before moving back to London. His writing covers a broad sweep of genres, including novels, travel, essays, journalism, and short stories. Curiously, his short stories are almost all set in England and focus on the ordinary lives of very ordinary people. Martin Amis is quoted as describing Pritchett’s characters as having a ‘peculiar ordinariness.’ My favourite in the new selection, is The Wedding, in which a battle of wits, and emotions, is played out between a local farmer, and an independent girls’ school teacher.

The book is well presented, with a perfect cover illustration. Turnpike Books specialises in publishing short stories from the twentieth century, and offers, in addition to Coppard and Pritchett, a collection by J.B.Priestly, What A Life! Their website is well worth a look, and the well-produced paperback editions are a good buy for those of us who like our books printed on paper!

If you’re of a Kindler disposition, you might like to check BHD’s recent offerings:

Cat Alley Blues is the latest individual story by BHD to be added to NAWE’s CUT site: http://www.cutalongstory.com/stories/cat-alley-blues/10392.html

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend of mine gave me a belated Christmas present (for Christmas past): a copy of Roberto Balaňo’s book of essays (Between Parentheses).

Some of them are long, and some are short. Some are direct, and some – like this blog-post- ramble all over the place.

Taking a half-fun, half-business buying trip, in the days when I was a bookseller, from the home of a friend of mine, the two of us drove into Derbyshire, to do the second-hand bookshops (or should that be the second-hand book shops?), and fetched up in a pub at Ashbourne for a lunch. I have always hankered for a high backed leather armchair. I pictured myself, in a dark robe, and possibly a pillbox hat – with a tassel of course, what sort of guy do you think I am? There was such a chair in that pub, and lunching, rather than reading, upon it re-kindled my desire.

Many years later – that’s how we move a story on – when the book business was over – sighs of relief all around – and The Old Stock Room had become The Old Stock Room, as opposed to being the stock room – I decided to turn that old pipe (or cigar) dream into reality. BHD had got himself a dark robe by then, and a sort of pillbox hat, with a sort of tassel. The chair cropped up, at a reasonable price (well, that’s the length of a piece of string, isn’t it?) in the closing down sale of a local furniture store.

I plumped for the chair and took it home – mais! Quelle horreur! It wouldn’t go through the door. There was no way I was going to take the window out. There was no way I was going to dis-mantle (an interesting word that, presumably derived from dis-assembling some sort of oil lamp: with a mantle? And thus not of ancient origin.) the chair and re-assemble it.

Never mind. It fitted in remarkably well elsewhere, and another chair would suffice, until something that would fit came along. Remember Roberto Bolaňo; we’re getting there….

So, earlier this week, looking for a new shirt, as you do, I came across a chair….much cheaper than my original purchase, even at its sale price, but it was just the chair I needed.

So, when you have the chair, you must sit in, and read, and what better read (answers on a plain white envelope sent elsewhere please) than a collection of essays. My book-giving friend – who happens to be the children’s author, Nick Dowson – look him up on Facebook why doancha (because he ain’t there, that’s why! – has come up with collections of essays in the past. Gore Vidal’s among them – he of the saying, I believe, that it is not sufficient to be successful, but friends must fail! (which I rather like).

So, I sat in the chair, and opened the Roberto. (No robe and hat. Sorry to disappoint -What? Oh, go on then!). The book fell open, like a pair of stockinged legs, at an essay that kicked off with the remark that American authors must follow one of two roads – OK, one less travelled, you guessed it – which were way-marked by the novels Moby Dick, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These two, the essayist suggests, nay, asserts, Kowalski-like, mark the only choices available to them, and also the choice that they must make as writers.

Is there a similar parting of the ways, I wondered, for English writers, and specifically for English short story writers? I cudgelled my brains. There’s a photograph of me doing it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Most of the short stories that I like are not in fact by English short story writers, though some of them are. And I’m not sure I could whittle them down to two that stand in opposition, like the Jaws of Borrowdale – I did think about those gates of Gondor, and of the Mediterranean, but thought I’d stick with something more provincial – the way those two great novels are claimed to do.

Stories that one likes, The Dead, Weep Not My Wanton, Blind Love, The Odour of Chrysanthemums, are not necessarily way markers anyway. And it may be that the divisions the essayist is drawing would not be the divisions that I, or you, would chose to draw either. His distinction is between a novel of the exceptional – none of us (well few enough), he says, are like Ishmael and Ahab – and one of the universal. All of us, to some extent, are Huckleberry Finns. I can see, though I hadn’t a paragraph ago, that of the four stories I have plucked out, two are of the individual and two are of the societal… though as I write I’m shifting them about from category to category in my mind.

The fact is, that for me, the great division between short stories is between those that, on having reached their endings, project us forward into our own imaginings, and those that send us backwards into a reflection of what we have passed through on the way to that ending. Some of course, seem to do both. 

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A blog respondent recently asked which I thought the better writer, V.S.Pritchett, or Graham Greene.

My first inclination was to choose, but on reflection I realised that what I ought to be doing was understanding why I couldn’t. Or perhaps shouldn’t! In fact, I’ve not read that many GG stories, though I do have the 1990 collection The Last Word & other stories. It was one of those ‘other stories’ I was interested in: The Lieutenant Died Last was the basis of the wartime propaganda film by Calvalcanti, Went the Day Well, one of the adaptations I’ve written about in the series ‘Changing Your Story’. I had read the other 11 stories in the collection too, but the question prompted me to read them again.

I still can’t give a straightforward choice answer, but I do now have a clearer idea of how I perceive the two writers in relation to one another. From what I have read, there is a difference, but what is striking about it is not so much the style of the stories, as their content. VSP and GG write from a different perspective, and tell a different type of story.

The stories in The Last Word are mainly about individuals in conflict with a state, or its representatives. In The Lottery Ticket, for example, a tourist wins the lottery in a third world country, and donates the prize money to the government, precipitating a series of unintended, and negative, consequences. In The Last Word itself, and in An Appointment With The General, the protagonists confront the individuals embodying the tyranny under which they live. Even in the stories The Lieutenant Died Last and A Branch of the Service the protagonists are serving the interests of the group, rather than following their purely personal agendas.

If stories like this dominate the GG collection, VSP’s Complete Short Stories, of which I have read about two thirds as I write, is of a quite different stamp. Here it is personal demons that are confronted, and private wars that are waged. Stories like The Fall ,The Camberwell Beauty, Blind Love and The Saint examine individuals in conflict with their emotions and their beliefs, characters struggling to form and maintain their relationships. As yet I have found no story with the David & Goliath asymmetry of the GG ones.

The nearest GG comes to VSP, in the collection I have read, is with The Moment of Truth, in which, under ordinary rather than extra-ordinary circumstances, a waiter misinterprets his relationship with a couple of regular customers. In VSP’s wartime set, The Voice, where one might expect a story of the nation at war, we find instead two individuals playing out their private issues in the devastation of the London Blitz. The story is not even based upon their relative statuses within the church in which they are both priests, though that element is included.

But back to the question, and my answer to it…For me V.S.Pritchett has the edge, because his stories are about the private rather than the public, about the emotional rather than than the institutional. That is not to say that Graham Greene is unaware of the emotional, any more than Pritchett is unaware of the institutional, but the focus of the two is decidedly different. The fact that I feel this way, of course, might be telling you more about me than it is about them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

I recently read The Fall by V.S.Pritchett. This is a story with a plotline to keep the general reader amused, and a developing perspective that will keep the writing reader intrigued.

Told in the third person, but centred on the protagonist, Charles Peacock, we are either looking at him, or seeing the world through his eyes.

The story opens with him getting ready for a formal dinner. He sees himself, almost, as others will see him, in a series of mirrors in which he watches himself dress, and admires himself dressed. He hears himself speak, and hears what others say within his hearing, and we hear it too. He speaks in a series of false voices which he has concocted to protect himself, and which he wears like a ragged suit of armour. By the time we get to the most desperate of these, the ‘music hall Negro’ we are beginning to see him as others are doing, and to notice the disparity between that view, and the one that Charles has of himself

As the evening progresses, that disparity grows steadily deeper. Progressively our understanding of what is going on is filled in. Our view becomes clearer, as his blurs and loses focus.

He has a brother, a minor celebrity, a film actor, and as the evening draws to its finale, Charles begins to demonstrate some of the brother’s acting skills. He draws, holds, and eventually loses his audience, save for one very special, final audience, for whom he takes a final bow.

The story is tragic or comic, depending on the reader’s perspective, I think, and perhaps deciding which, if either, side you would come down on, is one of those self-realisations that makes some stories particularly well worth reading. You’ll find The Fall in The Complete Stories of V.S.Pritchett, published in 1990 by Chatto & Windus.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the mechanisms of story is the link between location – the when and where in which it takes place – situation – locations create situations – and character. The characters have to deal with the situations they find there and then…. These locations are usually given, hinted at or implied, very early in a short story. They are the context in which the events play out. Here, the story begins ‘It was the evening of the Annual Dinner’. This is filled out later with ‘a large, wet Midland City’, and our hero finds his way to ‘the Assembly Rooms.’ The situation is a formal dinner, and we are told that ‘Crowds or occasions frightened Peacock’. If we had only this sentence and that first one we would know enough to understand what was going on.

We are given more though, not about the location, or situation, but about how Peacock may be handling it. All that play with the mirrors while Peacock dresses, and as he travels to the dinner. More, there is something odd about the way he puts his trousers on…’balancing on one leg and gazing with frowns of affection’. Is there something wrong with him? Could it be, perhaps, with reader’s hindsight I’m inventing for myself, but could it be that he has taken a drop to steady his nerves already? (C.S.Lewis, I recall, castigates the non-literary reader for adding his own imagination to what the words have given him).

Certainly, when Peacock gets to the dinner he grabs a drink, the first of nine specific references to him taking one; and when the President calls over to him ‘Peacock’s drink jumped and splashed his hand’. Signs of one too many already? It is Peacock’s reaction to the event, and to other events in his past, that is the meat of this story, leading to its abrupt, and tragi-comic climax.

This story gives a powerful sense of how drunkenness creeps on, as experienced by the drinker. Peacock drifts in and out of conversations, is distracted and loses concentration. His mind wanders to the past, and to his brother in particular. The answer to a question he has posed eludes him. The President, making a speech, appears to have two beards. Time becomes elastic. Finally he enters that phase of seeming clarity, in which he undertakes to demonstrate his brother’s technique of ‘the actor’s fall’. And from here we listen more carefully to what is being said within his earshot…

‘What’s happened to Peacock?’, ‘Good God, has Peacock passed out?’,’He’s done it again’,’It’s Peacock – still at it.’ And all these little snippets, though ostensibly about his pratfalling, have the suggestion that it is his inebriation that is being commented upon.

Eventually Peacock is left alone, the last man standing. So he performs his pratfall for Queen Victoria, whose portrait hangs in the ante-room.

 

‘And delightfully he crumpled, the perfect backwards spin. Leaning

up on his elbow from where he was lying he waited for her to speak.

She did not speak, but two or three other queens joined her,…’The Beast in his Natural Habitat (according to Dr Dave Borthwick)