Humiliations

Michael Irwin

  • Collected Short Stories by Kingsley Amis
    Hutchinson, 303 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 09 143430 0
  • World’s End by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 211 pp, £6.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 241 10447 5
  • Packages by Richard Stern
    Sidgwick, 151 pp, £5.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 283 98689 1
  • Oxbridge Blues by Frederic Raphael
    Cape, 213 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 224 01871 X
  • The Fat Man in History by Peter Carey
    Faber, 186 pp, £4.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 571 11619 1

In the introduction to his Collected Short Stories Kingsley Amis strongly implies that the genre is not at present in a healthy state. He claims that subsidisation by the Arts Council, or other such bodies, of the magazines in which short stories often appear, fosters self-indulgence. Certainly this is a term that came to my mind more than once when reading the works under review. For the novelist, experimentation is both demanding and risky, in that his whole enterprise may go haywire and prove unsaleable. The short-story writer is enabled, whether by subsidisation or merely by the brevity of the form or by both, to experiment without commitment. This would be fair enough if the unsuccessful experiments were scrapped. But several of these collections, including Amis’s own, have been topped up with sketches or squibs that scarcely pay their way. It is plain, too, that certain of these stories are founded upon the doings of minor cultural celebrities of the moment, and that a large part of the pleasure proposed relates to the reader’s desire or ability to identify the real-life writers or actors who are being burlesqued, represented or glanced at. Should not works of this kind merely be circulated in manuscript round the small metropolitan group that might find some fun in them?

In accordance with recent tradition, a great many of these Stories concern the adventures of people living or travelling abroad. One possible explanation for the prevalence of location work is provided, indirectly, by a character in Theroux’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’:

He thought: All travellers are like aging women, now homely beauties; the strange land flirts, then jilts and makes a fool of the stranger. There is less risk, at home, in making a jackass of yourself: you know the rules there.

The observation is interesting and just: it also served to remind me how often the subject of a modern short story is likely to be humiliation, embarrassment, defeat.

Paul Theroux’s latest collection isn’t of that kind, although the gloomy title story that opens it bodes ill. It tells, from the husband’s point of view, the tale of a failing marriage, and concludes: ‘Too late, too far, too dark, he thought; and he knew now they were all lost.’ Terse and perceptive though the narrative is, it amounts to mere dissection. Elsewhere the prevailing mood is sufficiently good-humoured and various to accommodate a pleasingly disgusting horror story, ‘White Lies’, and a disarming comedy, ‘Algebra’, about a gentle homosexual who, to his own surprise, takes literary London by storm simply through flattering famous writers and inviting them round for little social evenings. If Theroux has a weakness, it is one that he shares with a number of distinguished contemporary practitioners of his art: his technical accomplishment can produce the effect of glibness. His characters can be miniaturised by the economy with which he defines them.

Some of Richard Stern’s stories are likewise impaired by fastidiousness. Trimmed, sandpapered, polished, they communicate first and foremost, paradoxically, the unobtrusiveness of the author’s skill. But there is an agreeable magnanimity and humour here. Stern isn’t afraid to tackle humdrum subjects or to skirt sentimentality. ‘Riordan’s Fiftieth’ tells of the birthday of an unhappy, middle-aged bus-driver, whose family spurns him. The simplicity of the moral could have been mawkish, but the sketch is touching through its unembarrassed directness. In the title story the narrator describes the death of his mother from cancer:

The last hours, teeth out, face caved in, the wrestler Death twisting the jaw off her face, she managed a smile (a human movement) when I said we were there, we loved her. She lay, tiny, at the bottom of tremendous loneliness.

In this instance, the powerful image is triumphantly retrieved from self-consciousness – but it’s a close-run thing. I thought the most successful exercise in the book – it’s hardly a ‘story’ – was ‘Mail’, in which a cartographer and minor poet named Marcus Firetuck quotes from, and meditates upon, a variety of eccentrics who maintain a frail acquaintanceship with him solely through letter-writing, fellow ‘citizens of the country of correspondence’.

Seasoned admirers of Kingsley Amis will enjoy re-encountering, some twenty years on, the army stories from My Enemy’s Enemy. They stand up very well, offering plenty of the incidental felicities of observation that one looks for in an Amis novel: ‘Temporarily gagged by a mouthful of stew, that officer was eating as fast as he could and shaking his forefinger to indicate that he would as soon as possible propose some decisive amendment to what he had just been told.’ In particular, the longest of the three, ‘I spy strangers’, captures skilfully, in the microcosm of an army unit, a complex of the political and social attitudes dramatised in the general election of 1945.

A recurrent theme in the early stories is the fallibility of easy moral assumptions. Repeatedly the right-thinking, or rather left-thinking, liberal falters when the moral crisis comes. The vulgarian ‘wearing a suit that looked like woven vegetable soup’ turns out to be both kind and tactful. In ‘I spy strangers’ a self-confessed fascist behaves with unexceptionable decency. He seems to be speaking for Amis when he remarks: ‘Someone who’s a bit like yourself can rub you up the wrong way worse than a chap who’s totally different.’ Surely the wheel has by now so nearly come full circle that we can look forward to an Amis novel in which the Old Etonian company director is morally upstaged by the Trotskyite sociologist from the poetry workshop.

For the rest, ‘Moral Fibre’ rather dates, simply because social workers have changed style. ‘All the Blood Within Me’ has some good things in it, but belongs too squarely to that dubious sub-genre, the funeral story in which the main character realises, all of a sudden, that his whole past life has been based on a lie. ‘Dear Illusion’ is a neatly-fictionalised attack on modern poetry and poetry criticism. A large portion of Amis’s introduction concerns ‘Who or what was it?’ Originally a radio script, delivered by the author himself, it relates how he and his wife got involved with a version of the spook he had described in his ghost story The Green Man. The concluding revelation is that the monster actually had sexual intercourse with the wife, though he failed to make her pregnant. Amis expends several paragraphs in belabouring people in general, and a number of particular individuals, for apparently believing this preposterous story. I can’t feel that the right is all on his side. The two most notable aspects of the broadcast were that it involved an utterly uncharacteristic display of familiarity – ‘Jane’, ‘Bob Conquest... Bob’s an old chum of mine’... and was totally pointless. Well-wishers may have affected to believe the tale through a good-natured desire to humour a good man they feared might be under stress.

I wish I could like Oxbridge Blues more. Frederic Raphael is a skilful mimic of speech styles, both British and American. He can write well and is quite often quite witty. ‘Welcome aboard’, a farcical sketch about flying fears, I found very funny. But many of his stories are clogged by a self-destructive obsession with ‘smartness’. Passionately concerned with status, the characters keep harking back to their university days – who went to which college, who knew whom, who gained which class of degree. In protracted conversations, desperate to outbitch one another, they keep up a dismal ping-pong of brittle repartee. All the ‘intellectuals’ speak in this tinkling esperanto. The striving for lightness is to laborious that even the genuinely clever lines have a smack of Daisy Ashford about them.

The oddest and most striking collection of the five is certainly The Fat Man in History. Here the length, the distinctive styles and the varying forms of the stories seem to be directly required by a powerful and singular imaginative vision. Characteristically, the action takes place in what the publisher’s note aptly calls ‘an ominous near-future that has the distinct feel of contemporary life’. To summarise these surrealistic and near-allegorical tales is necessarily to diminish them beyond recognition, since what counts is the sharp and frightening substantiality that the author spasmodically achieves. In ‘Do you love me?’ the world has become so obsessed with material possessions that a never-ending census aspires to achieve an inventory of the entire contents of a nation. At this juncture various buildings, and later various people, begin to dematerialise. The narrator accepts the explanation advanced by his own father, that it is the things and individuals that are not loved that are doomed to disappear. What persuades is not the idea, but the intensity with which the idea is projected. The hero sees a man in the street who has begun to melt away:

Finally he managed to waylay a taxi at some traffic lights. By this time he was so insubstantial that I could see right through him. He was beginning to shout. A terrible thin noise, but penetrating none the less. He tried to open the cab door, but the driver had already locked it. I could hear the man’s voice, high and piercing: ‘I want to go home.’ He repeated it over and over again. ‘I want to go home to my wife.’

In this Kafkaesque mode of writing everything depends on the realisation. The author treads a tightrope. If his bizarre visions are not in some sense allegorically decodable, are they not pointless? But if they can be decoded, does not the decoding dispose of them, explain them away? It will do so unless the vision is interinfused with common experience. In a sufficient number of these stories Carey achieves this delicate adjustment, notably in ‘Exotic Pleasures’ and ‘The Puzzling Nature of Blue’, but most notably in ‘The Chance’.

The future in which this story is set allows people, for a fee, to enter, and if they so please re-enter, a lottery that will give them ‘a different age, a different body, a different voice’, but will preserve the memory ‘more or less intact’. The narrator has managed to get himself ‘the body of an aging street-fighter’, and is content enough with it. He falls in love, and finds happiness, with an attractive woman named Carla, whom he meets by chance. She proves, however, to be a Hup, one of a small revolutionary group that deliberately strive to achieve an ugly appearance as part of their fight against the status quo. Carla is determined to enter the lottery to disfigure herself. Her lover tries desperately to dissuade her. She urges him to become a Hup himself. Neither can be moved. She takes her Chance and steals to his bedside one night: ‘a fat woman, weeping’. He sees, by the neon glow of the streetlights, ‘the coarse, folded surface of her face, her poor lank greying hair’, and he feigns sleep. By morning she is gone.

The fantasy has two powerful roots in the familiar life of everyday. Carla’s eloquent arguments for her case are a disturbing extension of the ideologies of selflessness:

Now when I walk down the street people smile at me easily. If I want help it comes easily. It is possible for me to do things like borrow money from strangers. I feel loved and protected. This is the privilege of my body which I must renounce.

It’s impossible to read the story without speculating about the dizzying extremity of unselfishness that would dissolve all but an unseen core of personality. And that extremity is given visible form in the image of the fat, ugly women, agonised by vain love, vain sexual desire, as she weeps at the bedside of the man she now repels. The author charges his fable with the reader’s own fears of aging and ugliness, his own guilty recollections of ideals rejected, love unreturned.