Asking too much

Stephen Wall

  • Lust, and Other Stories by Susan Minot
    Heinemann, 147 pp, £12.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 434 46757 X
  • In Transit by Mavis Gallant
    Faber, 229 pp, £12.99, February 1990, ISBN 0 571 14212 5
  • The Perfect Place by Sheila Kohler
    Cape, 148 pp, £11.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 224 02748 4
  • Howling at the moon by Paul Sayer
    Constable, 174 pp, £10.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 09 469590 3
  • Happiland by William Bedford
    Heinemann, 186 pp, £12.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 434 05559 X

Susan Minot’s volume is a slim one, and some of the pieces in it will not placate those who complain that short stories are too often too short, rather as one might hold it against the sonnet that it’s over after only 14 lines. Brevity can be the soul of more qualities than wit, and it would be a dim view of Webern to say that he lacks Schubert’s heavenly length. It’s true that minimalism has its own lacunal rhetoric, and leaving things out for the sake of it can be as tiresome as putting them in for the same reason, but Susan Minot has enough tact to ensure that her ellipticality doesn’t seem evasive. At their best, the attenuation of her stories persuades you that it’s the result of genuine compassion rather than a merely modish parsimony of materials, a sort of nouvelle cuisine of the conte.

‘Lust’, the opening and in some ways the keynote story, offers only 14 pages of discrete large-type paragraphs, but doesn’t feel incomplete. It tells you all you need to know, or all the narrator cares to remember, about boarding-school sex, on and off campus, each relationship distilled into specific perception or gesture, the whole scene reduced at intervals to plangent summary. The girl – and by implication all the girls – has her code: ‘if you flirted, you had to be prepared to go through with it. Sleeping with someone was perfectly normal once you had done it. You didn’t really worry about it.’ The boys make you forget everything else, so that, as she says later, ‘you do everything they want.’ There aren’t any problems about that, but there are other problems that have to do with ‘something else entirely’, with how you feel afterwards, how you look for something you can’t find. It’s clear, both from this story and its successors, that such difficulties are indicated by the line from Ovid used as the book’s epigraph: ‘Ah, I have asked too much already, I plainly see.’

For all the New York chic which surrounds them, the situations and dilemmas of Susan Minot’s women could hardly be more classical. They experience love as a kind of dreamy visitation; they’re ‘up in the clouds, out of it, feeling no pain’, but the pain will come later all right, when the man’s gone, left for someone else, or when he won’t, or can’t, give them what they want. Again, it’s not so much the sex that’s important as what it’s preliminary to, what it promises but doesn’t deliver. The women know they’re going to lose and several of them try to guard themselves against attachment, to stay free, but their hearts are not in it. They know there’s not much they can do about it, once a look, a touch, a night out changes everything. Not that the men are happy either: they’re on the move and the make, preoccupied, hard to read, resentful of claim, and probably disappointed too. It’s a bleak situation, but talking about it doesn’t appear to help, and writing about it doesn’t either, beyond a certain point, soon reached. The terseness of these laconic tales has its own telling decorum.

Lust, and Other Stories is only Susan Minot’s second book; Mavis Gallant’s In Transit is part of a much more substantial oeuvre, and collects 20 stories which originally came out in the New Yorker in the Fifties and Sixties. There are eight other volumes of stories as well as two novels, and the new sample suggests that the work of this distinguished Canadian writer ought to be better-known here. In fact, nearly all the pieces in this book are set in Europe – Spain, Italy, Paris, Geneva, even Finland – a Europe that still has the faded look of the post-war period, not yet touched by the dynamics of the Common Market. For the English, servants are still as cheap on the Continent as they used to be at home. Characters go hunting in the Sologne, look after houses on the Riviera during the winter, visit the opera in Moscow. They aren’t always as happy abroad as they expect to be, and the weather can be disappointing. Mavis Gallant, an expatriate herself, has an unobtrusive command of locale, part of a general air of authority that sometimes seems to push the stories towards a novelistic fullness of specification. Motives, aspirations, reversals are conveyed with a clarity of insight and a crispness of phrase that implies a strong authorial presence.

It’s not an interfering one, however. The various situations – and they are distinctly various – are more explored than exploited. It’s more important to this author to understand how the characters have got to where they now find themselves than to settle their fates for them. Will the notably disparate marriages of several of the stories survive? What will happen to the uncle who has eloped to Paris with his actress niece, now that a French film director is interested in her? One can’t tell because the form won’t allow it: if it did, the imposition of the writer’s will would seem arbitrary. In any case, the self-absorption of the characters provides them with a certain degree of protection. The children trying in their vulnerable egotism to make sense of the same quality in grown-ups, or the irritability of the dying with the living who won’t see or do what they want, aren’t very open to authorial persuasion. Such a sense of isolation is something which the short story has long seemed to drift towards almost of its own accord, and Mavis Gallant provides a characteristic variant in ‘Careless Talk’. A London girl called Iris has married a French farmer, and because she feels ill at ease without her own language she is naturally drawn to her new neighbour Mary, Parisian and fashionable but also Irish. In the end coolness sets in: Iris realises that Mary won’t give anything of herself away but simply plays games with people, patronises them, so she turns away from her and back to her husband in the fields, worrying where her babies have got to. It’s a rewarding example of an art that deserves respect.

Egotism takes on an inter-continental dimension in Sheila Kohler’s chilly and chilling first novel The Perfect Place. The narrator is in the Swiss mountains for her health, but she has a house in the Cotswolds for her things, and expresses herself with the studied enervation of one who has no need to think about money. She is approached and lets herself be made love to by a man who is sure he’s seen her before, with a girl called Daisy Summers, when she was still at school, in Africa. Surely she remembers Daisy? Well, yes, as it turns out, but with great difficulty, or rather, as we increasingly suspect, with extreme reluctance. The woman constantly stresses her indifference to almost everything which comes into her mind or her field of view – even sleeping or not sleeping with her questioner would, she feels, ‘come to exactly the same thing’ – but she protests too much. It’s clearly significant that it’s only when the man says something which triggers off a suddenly bright and clear memory of the Summers girl, as she calls her, that the woman begins to feel aroused. Although she’s anxious to assure us that the girl ‘was nothing to me’, just as the man ‘had not interested me in any way’, the rest of her narrative is taken over by her piece-by-piece recall of her close connection with the dead girl, so shortly before Daisy’s violent end.

The woman is allowed by her doctor to move to an Italian island, but her capacity for inattention remains – or at least, she says it does. But in fact she finds herself compelled to fill in more and more of the past – scenes, episodes and images involving not only Daisy but also her mother, school friends, an amorous teacher, vignettes of colonial life. The vivid process of retrieval even makes her reject the ardour of an affluent German who picks her up on the beach and to whom she might otherwise have succumbed out of apathy. The association of Daisy with the birth of adolescent desire becomes clearer, for all the woman’s resistance and despite her grudging concessions that ‘perhaps it happened this way.’ The clifftop climax – complete with thunderstorm and a surging, shark-infested sea below – finally reveals how Daisy died, but the fact that she did so while the woman herself has survived has made, as she insists, ‘not the least difference’.

The conclusion may be a little too Hitchcockian for comfort, but Sheila Kohler’s book is more than a skilfully assembled amnesiac thriller. The narrator’s distancing tone could easily have been more offputting than it actually is. Although her recourse to negative constructions may sometimes look too carefully planted, it pays off neatly when the final catastrophe happens in what she typically describes as a ‘not imperfect place for something of that kind’ – what anyone else would have called the perfect place of the novel’s title. The persona is consistently maintained and emerges as an increasingly desperate defence against the importunity of memory and the inescapability of guilt.

The hero of Paul Sayer’s second book, Howling at the moon, ends up in the same kind of place as the narrator of his first, the Whitbread Prize-winning The Comforts of Madness. Michael Crumly’s decline from marital content to mental breakdown is charted with much humanity, and the book meets the well-known second novel challenge honourably enough. Its narrative perspectives are more conventional, however, and don’t attempt the striking tension in the earlier title between the catatonic narrator’s apparent dumbness and the intelligence of his interior monologue; nor is there, as before, the fortifying presence of Beckett in the background.

The Crumlys’ marriage seems normal, if restricted. They lead a quiet life, staying in after work; they don’t go in for going out. Initial passion settles to conjugal equilibrium, which is then disturbed by Susan’s unexpected pregnancy and her decision to terminate it. Michael’s anxieties about her increase to an abnormal degree: he panics when he hears about crashes on the news lest she should be involved. He complains to the doctor about pains which are obviously psychosomatic, becomes less and less able to carry on his work as a commercial artist and starts to spy on Susan in her office. He is obsessed by the wife he no longer desires. The marriage naturally deteriorates, but it’s a long time before Susan is forced out of the passivity that her love for him prolongs. The conclusion is desolating, not least because it’s so much more so for him than for her. The onset and progress of Michael’s madness is registered plausibly at the level of behaviour and local event, but the attempt to ground it in childhood resentment of his mother’s treatment of his father seems tamely orthodox, and the failure of his brief first marriage is dealt with perfunctorily. The occasional resort to italics is another sign of strain, and the balance between observation and explanation remains uneasy.

The Happiland of William Bedford’s first novel is a fairground in a fishing port on the North-Eastern coast, and it’s also the lost world of Harry Kelam’s youth, back in the Fifties. The novel is a period piece – one of Harry’s most significant experiences is the first time he hears Elvis – but it’s too hard-edged and hard-facted to court nostalgia. The authenticity seems irreproachable even if it’s left to stand for itself almost too much, and at times verges on the documentary. There’s a good deal of information about digging for worms on the foreshore, and the dangers of gutting fish with frozen hands on North Sea trawlers, which can hardly be quarrelled with.

Harry’s life-choices are narrow. His childhood sweetheart is going off to university elsewhere, increasingly out of reach; his new girl is excitingly available, but not only to him. The town lives off the fish, and Harry will have to do so too, whether at sea or at the packers and processors. Even the fairground job is not only arduous but sometimes leads to violence, when drunk National Servicemen move in. Harry has seen what Catterick has done to some of his mates, and wants no part of that. All the same, and in spite of everything, a kind of exhilaration runs through his life and reaches us, not by means of overt lyricism, but by the author’s concise concentration on the seen and spoken truth.