Young and Old

John Sutherland

  • Life Stories by A.L. Barker
    Hogarth, 319 pp, £6.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 7012 0538 5
  • Many Men and Talking Wives by Helen Muir
    Duckworth, 156 pp, £7.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 7156 1613 7
  • Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
    Deutsch, 245 pp, £6.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 233 97332 X
  • A Separate Development by Christopher Hope
    Routledge, 199 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0954 2
  • From Little Acorns by Howard Buten
    Harvester, 156 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 7108 0390 7
  • Fortnight’s Anger by Roger Scruton
    Carcanet, 224 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 85635 376 0

The plural title of Life Stories is paradoxical. The short story – Barker’s preferred literary form – cannot comprehend anything as large as life. In the face of this paradox, she has devised a new kind of cycle. Instead of the traditional bonding of carried-over place or character, Barker has abstracted items from various stages of her writing career, beginning with the opening piece in her first collection, Innocents (1947). These are put together with an equal number of new stories. The sequence thus assembled traces a thematic development from the condition of childhood, through adolescence, to age. The collection is interspersed with brief autobiographical essays, reminiscing, in a very guarded way, about the relevant period of the author’s own life.

Barker evidently began with a strong autobiographical urge. But she baulked at ‘all those pages, x-hundreds, it could be x-thousands, peppered with I’s’. As a compromise, we have this kebab: fatty scraps of self-revelation alternating with more substantial portions of fiction. Personal privacy is clearly a valued property of Barker’s and one which sometimes seems at odds with her mission as creative writer, let alone self-chronicler. She has a constant hankering for ‘undercurrent English’, implying that her sensibility is too private to be violated by the common tongue. Another problem for Barker the would-be autobiographer is that she apparently has no tenderness for herself. When, for instance, she describes her early passions, the objectivity of the recollection verges on the callous:

Teachers, film-stars, tram-drivers, school-fellows, I went through the gamuts for them all. And there was a martyred boy who stood in the bitter wind outside David Greig’s, his blue hands full of cracked eggs. For him I nursed an uplifting passion. I’m not sure that I didn’t rejoice in his suffering as a means to my salvation.

Autobiography is an act of self-love, and Barker seems to have none. No more does she have tenderness for her kin. The powerful story ‘The Father’ is prefaced by a portrait of her own father. He is discerned coldly and distantly as a man who, for obscure reasons, hid the letter announcing his daughter’s high-school scholarship in a drawer and who lived his paltry life ‘under a bell-jar – or a thimble – in a very small dark’. The accompanying story concludes with the ironic exchange (about a very unlovely father, with some ugly secrets): ‘Bring him back! ... Better not.’ The dedicatee of Life Stories is Rebecca West. When one recalls how affectionately she brought her father back in The fountain overflows, one concludes that Barker is her Blakean partner, the tank that contains. She wants to write an autobiography, but is unwilling to give anything away. As she puts it, in one of her favourite paradoxes: ‘I am going to swim, but I am not going into the water.’

It is in keeping with this presented personality that Barker accepts the short story as ‘the modest art’. And her own practice of it is looked back on as the modest but honest utilisation of the single talent: ‘I shan’t live long enough as a fiction-writer to pass the empirical stage and use the results of my experiments. I have acquired a few assumptions and the conclusion that only ignorance is viable. I want to keep piling up evidence.’ As one would expect from such a muted manifesto, there is little technical innovation to be found here. The stories fit neatly into the familiar slots; there are epiphany pieces, conversation pieces, sting-in-the-tail pieces, narratives in which adult reality is refracted through a child’s vivid ignorance, horror stories. The beads of autobiography, strung between the fiction, give snapshots of Barker’s childhood and school life. A more substantial and comic account is given of early work in a children’s comic factory, churning out serials. She is fairly private about marriage, an institution which she appears to see as itself an invasion of privacy. Nonetheless, this phase of the cycle provides two of the finest stories. The collection finishes with a sudden awareness of age. Ironically, she who had been young when youth was ‘practically a felony’ finds herself old when youth has usurped all privilege. The fact is not particularly resented: ‘it would serve only a maudlin purpose to question a way of life which, at the most liberal estimate, is three-quarters over.’

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