- A Nail on the Head by Clare Boylan
Hamish Hamilton, 135 pp, £7.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 241 11001 7
- New Stories 8: An Arts Council Anthology edited by Karl Miller
Hutchinson, 227 pp, £8.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 09 152380 X
- The Handyman by Penelope Mortimer
Allen Lane, 199 pp, £6.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 7139 1364 9
- Open the Door by Rosemary Manning
Cape, 180 pp, £7.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 224 02112 5
- A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White
Picador, 218 pp, £2.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 330 28151 8
The order in which we read the short stories in a collection makes a difference. Our hopping and skipping out of sequence can often disturb the lines or blunt the point of a special arrangement, lose us the pleasure of seeing large intentions emerge. Jumping to the end of Joyce’s Dubliners to get at ‘The Dead’, for a familiar instance, would considerably obscure the generous force in that story’s sympathetic pressing of its attention beyond and away from the social medium of public occasions on which its first half, like the three preceding stories, works – and into a tenderer, more private world. A successful sequence can build up different sorts of unity and we need to be careful not to run the pieces together into a single work like the chapters of a novel, and at the same time, in the case of a single author, to look out for the coherence of a sensibility, the various achievements of a style. A Nails on the Head, a first collection of stories by the Irish writer, Clare Boylan, whose admirable first novel, Holy Pictures, came out in February, satisfyingly gives us a dramatic logic of sequence without renouncing the particularity of each of its 15 elements: patterns of recurrence and variation set up a creative tension. For example, when it creeps up on the reader that the stories are beginning to have mad central characters, the exciting sense that each tale is a fresh start is enjoyably qualified by an ominous suspense. A great deal of one’s pleasure in such a collection, and such a connection, comes from the way in which its inter-relatedness renders a critical interest over and above that of the sum of parts we are permitted formally to count on.
The Arts Council Anthology is another collection of 15 stories, but by 14 authors (Carol Singh has two). The sort of generalisation to which a sequential reading invites us here is of course much trickier than that suggested by A Nail on the Head. Most of the stories were submitted in an Arts Council competition and some were printed in this magazine; in no case can we assume the author intended his or her story primarily for New Stories 8. The pieces between its covers, that is, have found a home from home; for the time being they benefit, even or especially the weaker ones, from the orderliness of their lodging.
Good anthologies are works of oblique criticism as well as of forceful recommendation: they take the weight of what there is in the field in order to choose its best representatives. The desiderata of representativeness and intrinsic value serve as checks to each other: the duty of allowing for other tastes balances the power of judgment which an editor enjoys. At any rate New Stories 8 accommodates a variety of approaches to a variety of concerns – among others adultery, literary criticism, anthropology, medicine and art, psychoanalysis, the Edinburgh Festival, religion, childhood, Marxism, bicycles, and the Army in the Second World War. The ‘Notes on Authors’ give a range of ages, occupations and habitations.
The stories are so arranged as to bring forward analogies of subject that focus in several instances considerable differences of treatment. Oliver Sacks’s stirring ‘The Leg’, a true story of paralysis which deals in eloquently measured prose with, the author’s loss of the sense of his left leg, and which itself teaches by precise and humane example the ‘conjunction of science and art’ that Dr Sacks’s conclusion hopes for, is immediately followed by Penelope Fitzgerald’s unhurried but rapid and suggestive ‘The Prescription’, an enigmatic fable set in 19th-century Istanbul which confronts traditional medicine and medical ethics with the new and ambitious ‘science’ of psychoanalysis. Both pieces are directed at critical areas of medical disagreement: Oliver Sacks’s surgeon calls himself a ‘carpenter’, treating his highly-qualified patient as a block; the significant case in ‘The Prescription’ has the old doctor ready to operate for appendicitis while his ex-apprentice proposes hypnosis and psychic liberation.