- 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.
There are three reminiscential character-sketches: ‘The Half Brother’ by Francis Wyndham, an account of a black sheep step-brother; ‘Remembrance’ by Susan Boyd, which touches on the subject of a dead grandmother; and ‘Trotsky’s Other Son’ by Carol Singh, a story describing a Marxist who ran a bookshop in a Nottingham slum in the early Sixties. ‘Women with Bicycle’ by Jane Oxenford and the brief ‘Having taken off my wheels’ by Martin Elliott both associate love and cycling, the first affectedly gloomy and terse, the second too cleverly vivacious. The most valuable juxtaposition pairs two longish stories set in Scotland, David Craig’s ‘Jason and the Green Woman’ and John Murray’s ‘The Señor and the Celtic Cross’, which operate quite different ironies about the limits of civilised society. The latter story, told in a tormented parodic mélange of styles, recounts a tourist’s experience of sex, superstition and the divine on a succession of Scottish islands. Its narrative predicament appears to be that of its allegorically-named protagonist (‘let us call him Mr Stone’): ‘Godless Stone abhorred adjectives like “sacred” and “blessed”, yet even he was obliged to search for a word that speared this core of peacefulness.’ ‘Speared’ here gives a disturbing notion of what one would want to do with words, and with a core of peacefulness: and both in this story and a few others the seeking-out of violence in the language can occasionally strike us as an excessive striving for sensation (as in John Hall’s vivid ‘Dog Days’, where ‘The pup lay pulped ... ’ evokes a double queasiness). But Murray’s story is impressively ambitious and commands respect even if not liking.
‘Jason and the Green Woman’, the story of a married critic’s infatuation with a full-bodied Welsh earth mother called Myfanwy Darling who does a ‘folk agon’ based on Medieval poetry at the Edinburgh Fringe, has a protagonist eager for ‘cores’ where Stone is reluctant. It quotes Jason’s review – which goes on about Myfanwy ‘laying herself bare as she strives to express her vision of the forces which lie at the inmost core of our natures’. David Craig is pleasingly observant about such cant (Myfanwy says things like ‘We are all one’ and ‘Let us create’): but he is not what Jason calls a ‘West-Endy philistine’, because conscious that ‘it was easy to make fun of Jason – he committed himself, while others made ambiguous remarks tainted with cynicism.’ ‘Fun’ is made, but there’s also a graver pity at the paucity of Jason’s inner life. Craig’s canny prose inflects to imitate Jason’s credulous swoonings and leaves us gloomily convinced of the adulterous sentimentalism at Jason’s core: ‘He would keep his green vision intact inside himself.’
The collection as a whole dares one to generalise. There is still what we might call the traditional vivid short-story sentence, informative and imaginative: as in John Hall’s ‘Dog Days’, where an old Frenchwoman stands on a chair. ‘As she did so, the stained hem of her rancid underskirt hove into view, wafting limply like an abandoned curtain at the window of a ruined shanty.’ The adjectives and adverb press home their point all right; and we get an evocative simile. But ‘hove into view’ (what one used to say of ships?) picks itself out as a conscious ironic hollowness, and signals a particular kind of verbal self-attention. Beckett is great in his suspicion of and pleasure in the once eloquent, his sentences so often digging up and putting on display the glint of an excommonplace. But few other writers have found a seriousness to go with the pleasure of this register – and those who indulge in it without just cause prevent themselves from getting anywhere. Jane Oxenford especially goes for the flattened-sententious tone we know from Beckett: ‘How exhausting such speculations become. How wearisome the tic-tac knocking of thought upon thought.’ Her vivid ‘tic-tac’ loses the point of the style, though, and thinking of Beckett’s comparable Company makes her story’s technique feel arch and arbitrary.
‘H tells his own little story’ by F.S., an Army piece free in its associations and bewildering in its surrealist technique, is differently mannered, interesting but overwritten. Its repeated trans-historical and archetypal metaphors (taking in all armies and all wars) produce an eloquence whose cadences arouse our suspicion: the centre of consciousness goes ‘back to the blacked-out tents of the fucking 99th, where the arquebuses and catapults were standing untarpaulined, as they had every night for all those thousands of years, alert for the drone of unfriendly bombers coming in from the sea’. Don Bloch’s ‘The Chinese Wine’, Francis Wyndham’s ‘The Half Brother’, Susan Boyd’s ‘Remembrance’ and Carol Singh’s ‘Brown Eyes’ use an articulate but still conversational first-person – discovering tones we can be grateful for. They unobtrusively establish rhythms that are hard to resist, and skilfully conceal an artfulness which most of the other stories more or less skilfully show.
The wish of John Murray’s hero for ‘a word that speared this core of peacefulness’ reflects a sense, perhaps underdeveloped, of the violent possibilities of verbal accuracy; and we might want such a scruple for a shield against the thrust of Clare Boylan’s wit in describing an adulteress’s unsatisfying marriage: ‘Ned, in bed, had massaged all the wrong places and then speared her with the single-mindedness of a Kamikaze. “Is it good?” he would demand.’ In ‘Bad-Natured Dog’, where a reclusive old novelist is victimised by a pushy young interviewer in hot pants (the story rewrites James’s ‘The Death of the Lion’), Jasper Levingston resents being forced to talk about the ethics of his art: ‘It became, after all, the dry and childish art of the collector, meticulously pinning down human beings, causing them no damage but preserving forever the damage they had done to themselves, so that one’s whole life and all the people in it, was pressed out, bloodless on the page, and all the love was betrayed.’ The quality of this doubt should be respected: but Clare Boylan’s themes, love and its betrayal, are faithfully served by her exactitude. As in her novel (motifs from which recur), her attention to the language of and around her people gives us constant surprises, incitements to an alertness of our own: and this alertness usually stirs in us something akin to sympathy for her desperate characters, who crave company but keep making mistakes. In the first story a city man randomly buys a joint of meat so his country mistress can roast it and feel comfortable when she at last gets some time for an adulterous visit; at a crisis he clumsily burns it; she is seized by an unforeseen emotion.
‘You think that’s good enough for me! House-keeper’s Cut! I wouldn’t have that on my own table at home. I wouldn’t give that to my children if they were hungry.’
The name and quality of the thing he’s bought to make her feel at home take her away from him back to her responsibilities, to the distress of both of them. Jasper Levingston only agrees to see the journalist because he mishears her name on the telephone; and throughout the collection twists of fate complicate, even sometimes end, the lives of the personages – in a way that both entertains and appals.
These are stories about hell, and Ms Boylan finds it everywhere: the torments of cooking, housework, sex, violence and madness take on a fresh interest under her scrutiny. One of the best stories, ‘Some Retired Ladies on a Tour’, which is about death, culminates in the chilling humiliation of a game old woman from the North of England on a seaside holiday who sneaks into an idiot’s bed for a harmless cuddle and is disconcerted when he tells her he’s ‘a bad boy’ and once did a girl in: ‘Even in the dim light she could see that his eyes were cold as lumps of haddock.’ This is a hell of a fright in the middle of the night, but Doris is a tough stick and conceals her shame and fear enough to lead her companions in raucous singing on the coach home the next morning.
The class of Penelope Mortimer’s Phyllis Muspratt in The Handyman, and perhaps one should add the style of the author herself, prevent this heroine, a genteel old widow, from finding any analogous release for the shock she gets when her cosy relation with the handyman of the title turns nastily sexual. It happens during a thunderstorm, melodramatically, and the features of lust get a more dignified showing in Phyllis’s eyes than in Doris’s: ‘But she had never seen that face before. It was cold as stone, the colour of stone. It was sharp, with jagged edges.’ Penelope Mortimer’s imagination works less fiercely than Clare Boylan’s, but such prose is respectably heightened from the everyday; and the novel, which is also about death, deserves to be treated with the respect it accords its proper heroine. It courageously takes on a difficult subject – the trials of an ordinary woman late in life who loses one handyman by death (her husband); is cruelly disappointed in another; and at last falls by dying into the hands of a third: ‘ “We’ll just pop her in the handy,” Mr Bridewell whispered, “and I’ll come back and tidy up.” ’
‘Phyllis wouldn’t have called herself an imaginative woman,’ and the book is in places anchored, in others encumbered, by her solid sensibility. There is an imaginative woman in it, though, a grouchy ex-novelist called Rebecca Broune who lives in the village where Phyllis buys a cottage. Neighbours call her ‘a bit unpredictable’ – which returns one to a gaffe in the blurb: ‘Once again, with predictable insight, irony and humour, the author of The Pumpkin Eater and The Home shows us an “ordinary” woman challenged by what, to her, are extraordinary events.’ The undesigned pratfall of sarcastic weariness which lies beneath ‘predictable’ needs to be noted and resisted: we ought to appreciate Penelope Mortimer’s reliability and care for detail. The novel is not as well written as the best sections of The Pumpkin Eater, perhaps (the beginning of which wonderfully opens a mad domestic hell, run by rhymes and proverbs, where ‘the grass will be mown when it starts to grow’): but its ending, where Rebecca Broune is stimulated by the shock of Phyllis’s death to begin another novel in tribute to her (possibly this one, possibly another), offers an honourable rationale for its engagement with an unglamorous predicament. It is honest – a virtue its author prizes highly – in imagining what life and death mean for someone of a neglected age and class and situation.
The five main characters in Rosemary Manning’s Open the door, archaeologists on a dig in the Welsh mountains, progressively reveal themselves in a fluently organised series of interior monologues – a laying bare of wounds and sorrows which is paralleled by the work they do. The analogy is made explicit but is not laboured. The first chapter takes place after the dig, and the ambitious young swot Alan has learned something basic: ‘People are interesting, too. You can use your trowel on them and come up with some surprising stuff hidden in the deposits.’ No one is going to get excited over this discovery, but the lucid way in which the book turns up the buried lives of its characters has a quiet charm: as the professor in charge declares, ‘this is the poetry of the whole process, the revelation, as one sifts through layers of soil.’ He and his wife have lost a son, and the bereavement has divided, not united them (indeed he has gone mad); the team’s photographer, an alcoholic, has not recovered from the loss of his wife thirty years before; a beautiful, lesbian Welsh expert on Iron Age weapons suffers the loss of her treacherous attachment in Aberystwyth; and Alan falls witlessly in love with the lesbian. Fortunately, Rosemary Manning is adroit at the play of situation against event, so that the potentially disastrous frenzy of soap-opera ramifications threatened at the start by this cast-list is quite submerged beneath a firmly measured narrative.
The novel’s title, mystifying at first, refers to a moment of tragic revelation in the Mabinogion which provides the book’s epigraph: someone breaks the spell of the Blessed Bran by opening the door and looking out. ‘And when he looked, they were as conscious of every loss they had ever sustained, and of every friend and kinsman they had missed, and of every ill that had come upon them, as if it were even then it had befallen them ... And that is what the tale says.’ Rosemary Manning’s achievement is to have made the epigraph speak truly of her tale: when in the penultimate chapter the Welsh woman reads out the whole story from which this passage comes, our memory of the fragment offered nearly two hundred pages before comes back to us from a distance as something now completed.
A Boy’s Own Story comes from America straight into paperback, radiant with its success there; its cover photograph shows a glamorous lad in a sports vest. Edmund White, once of Time magazine, co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex and only author of States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980), has written a first-person narrative of the childhood and adolescence of a male homosexual in Middle America. At the end of States of Desire, which toured American gay communities with remarkable energy, he said of his work that ‘I hope it will enable gays and straights to imagine other lives. That was what writing the book did for me.’ With such a claim in mind, the first question to put concerning this account by a homosexual author/narrator of a time when he was not yet a homosexual is: does he succeed in imagining, as ‘other’, his younger self? In some respects, one must say yes: recalling, for instance, his fond adolescent recollection of himself in infancy, he asks: ‘Or was I simply at 15 learning to love myself at four as now so many years later I like the 15-year-old (even desire him), self-approval never accompanying but always trailing experience, retrospection three parts sentimental and one part erotic?’ The erotic part certainly gets at least a quarter of Edmund White’s attention: not only does his hero retrospectively desire himself, he also takes advantage with hindsight of his own youthful opportunities. It may be true, as he says, that the autobiographic imagination necessarily fills in memory’s gaps, that ‘in writing one draws in the rest, the forgotten parts’: but frank reference to ‘the lies I’ve made up to get from one poor truth to another’ cannot diminish the responsibility of the imagination for its products, and we should have suspicions about the tone of the following account:
When I was 12 ... the boys I knew started playing a violent game called ‘Squirrel’ (‘Grab his nuts and run’). Guys who’d scarcely acknowledged me until now were suddenly thrashing, twisting muscles in my arms, their breath panting peanut butter right up into my face, my hands sliding over their silky skin just above the rough denim ... and now his gleaming crotch buttons were pressing down on me as his knees burned into my biceps and I put off shouting ‘Uncle’ one more second in order to inhale once again the terrible smell of his sweat.
Whatever the memory it began with, this comes out not sounding like the experience of a 12-year-old boy – White seems unable to resist the encroachments of wishfulness.
Edmund White teaches creative writing at Columbia, which suggests the conditions under which the literary imagination might come to be equated with a prose swarming with similes and metaphors. As Susan Sontag says, the book is ‘full of ... wonderful language’. The narrator feels ‘sorry for a man who never wanted to go to bed with his father’; he wanted to, and his father used to put on the Brahms Intermezzi: ‘I never showered with my dad, I never saw him naked, not once, but we did immerse ourselves, side by side, in those passionate streams every night.’ He recalls his sister telling him he smells bad, and wonders which part of his body is responsible: ‘Or is the bad smell inside me, the terrible decaying Camembert of my heart?’ Admiring a friend on a yacht, he looks up ‘at the torso flowering out of the humble calyx of his jeans’. His vocabulary is large and his wit almost agile; his deployment of both has at times the determination to win credit of an ambitious student’s exam answer: ‘I became a sort of vagabond of grief, or, as I’d rather put it, I entered grief’s vagabondage, which better suggests a simultaneous freedom and slavery.’ Faced with this insistent self-approval, how can we refuse full marks – especially when flattered as ‘my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader’?