I was at a party in Manhattan once, it was 1985. This woman I slightly knew turned to me and said “I have something you’ll be interested in, wait one...moreI was at a party in Manhattan once, it was 1985. This woman I slightly knew turned to me and said “I have something you’ll be interested in, wait one moment.” So I waited, I mean, I wasn’t about to project myself from the nearby window, I wasn’t freaking out. She brought back a thing about the size of a large Toby jug and thrust it into my hands. It was Donald Barthelme. Yes, the Donald Barthelme. Not a Toby jug caricature, the actual original author of all those arch short stories. Tell you the truth, I was nonplussed, like if she had thrust a sizeable cat into my arms. What was Barthelme going to do? Would he wriggle out of my arms and embarrass me? Would he find my clumsy embrace pleasant, like a day trip to York minster or a chicken korma? Would he transfer his affections to me? I have to admit I was madly calculating if he was rich like Updike, but I figured from the state of his suit and shoes that no, the New Yorker liked him but not that much.
Well, I kind of shuffled around talking to people, like you do at these things, and each time I’d say look, this is Donald Barthelme, and my fellow guests would wrinkle their noses and make silly comments like “it’s clear you were meant for each other” etc. Barthelme himself was fairly drunk and was contented with swivelling his intense glare from my face to that of my interlocutor, depending on who was speaking. That is, he glared at whoever wasn’t speaking at any one time. I guess these writers have all these cool ways of observing people.
It turned out that Gina had been trying to get rid of Donald Barthelme for weeks and nobody would take him. I was the only idiot too polite to give him back. So he came home with me. To be honest, by 1985 his great days were over (ha, did you get that?). He coughed out one rather dodgy novel the following year (Paradise) and he was working on another one when I just got sick of looking after him. I’m not proud of what I did. I didn’t know he was terminally ill. It was 1987 so, you know, I’d been funnelling whisky down his gullet and managing his various marriages and divorces for two whole years. I was tired, I wanted my own life back. So one day I just shoved him in the trunk of my car and drove up to Poughkeepsie and left him outside the first library I could find. He didn’t seem that bothered. He was a cool ironist to the last, gotta give him that.
The burly man finishes his can of beer and wonders aloud why there’s a dead girl in the fridge. The wolf tells him what do you expect at this time of...moreThe burly man finishes his can of beer and wonders aloud why there’s a dead girl in the fridge. The wolf tells him what do you expect at this time of the year, sirloin? They continue to leaf through the latest catalogue of lawn furniture which arrived that morning.
No! – let’s for once resist the ventriloquial delights of cheap parody. Instead let’s say this collection has four great stories in it, which is four more than a lot of other books you could mention, and a sprinkling of ones which frankly left me slightly irritated as they appear to have been delivered by those jokers at Dial-a-Weird Express Literary Deliveries. Like – a woman who split up with Jeff, her boyfriend, but kind of misses him, finds that a non-speaking four foot version of him has moved into her apartment. Really. Little Jeff appears to be composed of all the bad habits she got normal-sized Jeff to quit, like smoking and dropping underwear all over the place. But hey, she loves little Jeff and she’s so glad he’s there. He’s great in bed too, except when he keeps on shrinking.
Okay, this must be some kind of extended metaphor all about people persisting in changing their partners’ behaviour to the point where they become so bland and boring they don’t like them any more, but I dunno, it was just silly. And philosophical-feminist rewritings of Little Red Riding Hood just make me pull out tufts of hair and grind my molars. There are about five of that sort but the four great ones are some of the best things I read all year. This has been such a good year for discovering new American short story writers, from the red meat of meth death hick lit to the further edge of goggling trippy fancypants. I can't tell you how throbbingly jealous I am of the bounding vitality of current American writing.
My favourites :
Hold on to your Vacuum Dredge (I guess many writers like to do a necrophilia story, from Poe to H P Lovecraft to Barbara Gowdy to Cormac McCarthy etc, but this one was creepy to the max) The Collectors ( this was about (real life) Homer & Langley Collyer, exactly the same as in Homer and Langley by E L Doctorow; don’t know which came first. A bit like when Antz and A Bug’s Life came out at the same time. Anyway, a really beautifully written story about rotting, decay and putrescence. Mmmmm!) An Index of How Our Family Was Killed (the old index-as-short-story idea already done very well by Borges & Ballard & Perec but yes, done crackingly well here.)
So get this from the library & read the above four. Or maybe e-readers let you download individual stories like on iTunes you can buy specific tracks and not the whole album. I don't know but it seems logical. (less)
21 stories from the late 50s/early 60s, a mixture of five wretchedly unfunny comedies including two patronisingly Oirish ones, six moderately interest...more21 stories from the late 50s/early 60s, a mixture of five wretchedly unfunny comedies including two patronisingly Oirish ones, six moderately interesting fantasies, two weird Mexican outings, three unclassifiable items and five actual real-live science fiction stories. With all of this smorgasbord comes lashings, downpours, cataracts,hosepipes and full-throated uncontrolled vomitings of the purplest prose and the sugariest sentimentalism; never is there an emotional pang or twinge, usually of the wistful variety, which Bradbury doesn’t jam an amplifier in front of with the volume cranked up to 11. You almost have to read this stuff wearing protective clothing to avoid your teeth dissolving, nay, your spine and your very brainpan too. Priests josh each other about papal encyclicals on space exploration; in cinemas Irish guys sprint for the exit before the English anthem comes on; just before the big battle the general gives a beautiful personal pep-talk to the little frightened drummer boy; an old woman confronts Death in the form of a charming young man with a bottle in his hand which contains the day before she turned 18; a guy wishes everyone in the world except his wife and son would just disappear, and they do (cue instant nostalgia for yesterday); a mad old guy remembers the detail of consumerist plenitude (sweet wrappers, bicycle clips, flavours of ice cream) before the big disaster struck and everybody ended up on severe rations; aliens invade earth via mail order; you can see that Ray Bradbury wasn’t short of ideas for stories, and God knows he could whisk up a whole string of beautiful titles, but mostly, in this period of his writing, it was like his DNA had been fused with Bambi – you know in The Fly where Seth Brundle’s DNA gets fused with a fly and he becomes Brundlefly? Well in Machineries of Joy it’s the equally horrifying Raybambi. The best thing here is the must-be-autobiographical “A Flight of Ravens” in which – suddenly, like the clouds parting – there’s a shaft of anger and bitterness, some real bite and malice. Bradbury’s first decade of writing was brilliant. It seems as he motored into his second decade that the magazines were willing to print anything he wrote, and he was willing to write anything they would print.(less)
I believe there’s a central casting bureau for imaginary characters somewhere in another dimension. All these different types hanging around, animals...moreI believe there’s a central casting bureau for imaginary characters somewhere in another dimension. All these different types hanging around, animals too, waiting for a call over the PA system – “Elderly Hungarian professor, dazzling blonde and two crippled children to reception please”. The imaginary characters never go home, they have no homes, they’re imaginary. So they hang around the bureau and gossip. Rumours go round – this or that author is good, take any job they offer, they pay well and you probably get to have sex. Because, you know, the imaginary characters have desires, needs, and rights, and they can turn jobs down if they don’t fancy them. They're not cattle. (Moo!) One pretty fixed rule they have is – don’t get involved with Patricia Highsmith, especially her short stories. It won’t be a good experience for you, trust me darling, just say no.
This collection is a fair indication of why. People wake up in hospitals a lot in this book. In fact it seems that the only ones that don’t are the successful suicides.
Two very brilliant stories and a whole kaboodle of indigestible bollocks. (Yes, I confess to skipping lightly and sprightly over the last three Greek-...moreTwo very brilliant stories and a whole kaboodle of indigestible bollocks. (Yes, I confess to skipping lightly and sprightly over the last three Greek-mythology-based items. What is it with this Greek tripe?) But like many a cd I have purchased, the two good ones were worth the price of entry. This collection is – it says here - a major landmark of experimental fiction. Well, as landmarks go, it was a bit of a Hadrian’s Wall.
Tourist : Where’s Hadrian’s wall? Local inhabitant of the area: It’s right there. Tourist : What, that? That’s Hadrian’s Wall? Local : Yes. That’s it. (Turns away to hide smile.)
GREAT EXPERIMENTAL SHORT STORIES
I love ones that work, and these are my must-read favourites.
The Library of Babylon : Jorge Luis Borges The Aleph : Jorge Luis Borges (He takes absolutely mental ideas and applies a freezing cold, scholarly logic to them.) The Terminal Beach – J G Ballard (A prose poem with most of the repertoire of sinister Ballard symbols included. I think he missed the empty swimming pool this time.) The Babysitter – Robert Coover (Astonishingly creepy and exciting; he takes a stock horror story situation – babysitter menaced by house intruder – and chops it all up into fragments of time; quite a simple method which touches of genius sometimes are. Read it here) Night-Sea Journey – John Barth Lost in the Funhouse – John Barth (the first a theological monologue by a spermatozoa, described by MJ Nicholls as “insufferable” but by P Bryant as “dazzling, witty and daringly post-Bonhoefferian”; the second a wonderful exercise in decay and rot – the jejune story plods along and is attacked from within by its own grammar, assumptions, cliches and syntax.) The Squirrel Cage : Thomas Disch (this is probably poor man’s Beckett but I still love this story of a man in a cage) "Franz Kafka" by Jorge Luis Borges : Alvin Greenberg (this is a riff on Borges, of course, and is the most fun you can have with the Argentinian librarian without going up to him and tickling him) The Great Hug : Donald Barthelme The Balloon : Donald Barthelme (Barthelme - he had this golden period where everything he did was hilarious and mad, so I could have chosen any of about 15. Outside the golden period he’s obscurantist and as much fun as the crap stories in Lost in the Funhouse which is zero fun. If I was of a mind, I would get The Great Hug tattooed on my body, so that you could read the whole story (it’s not that long) from heel to neck and round and down again. Then I could go on tv as Donald Barthelme’s greatest fan, which would be untrue, because I’m not. But his good stuff is from another dimension, you know, the fifth) Sex Story : Robert Gluck (can’t talk about this much, and it’s definitely not safe for work) Ant Colony : Alissa Nutting (see my review) The Entertainment District : Tony Burgess (this is a section from a tiny novel Ravenna Gets but it’s a short piece on its own and – er – wow!) Happy Endings : Margaret Atwood (she’s so cynical and mean and funny in this one) Sea Oak : George Saunders (Who can resist this opening line : “Min and Jade are feeding their babies while watching “How My Child Died Violently” . Amidst the post-everything mulch in The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories this one stood out like a tarantula on a slice of angel cake.) (less)
Occasionally a short story will knock you sideways and you have to ask where did that come from? So it was when I came across "Crack o' Whips" by H A...moreOccasionally a short story will knock you sideways and you have to ask where did that come from? So it was when I came across "Crack o' Whips" by H A Manhood, a strange sort of name, in The Sixth Pan Book of Horror Stories. It was a cruel story written with fast swooping Dickensian zest, not pulp, it was real and hard, so I wanted more. It turned out that Harold Alfred Manhood churned out his stuff from the 30s to the early 50s, was ranked along with Graham Greene and Dylan Thomas for his short stories, was praised by Galsworthy and Henry Williamson, made all the year-end best-of anthologies, then performed the perfect flounce-out at the height of his literary fame, snapped off like a light in 1953, and was forgotten. He was sick of the grim rates of pay for his hard work and of the editors mucking about with his stuff. He took to living in a converted railway carriage and brewing cider. Apparently. He died in 1991, aged 87, completely forgotten.
So all his stuff has been out of print for years. I got this volume from Amazon for £2. I didn't quite get what I was after. It's not the holy grail. Turns out he had a few strings to his bow and A Long View of Nothing is mostly in his humorous Irish mode, which is not so much to my liking. A lot of wry, rum and quizzical. 99% rural. The cruelty only flashes once or twice, like teeth. My favourite was "Bliss at Dusk". In a seaside town a pretty girl waits for a steamer to arrive at the pier with her boyfriend. She's got him a birthday present.
Bertie considered, smoothing well-slicked hair daintily. "Couldn't be cuff-links, or a watch, or a stick-pin?"
Pet (short for Petula) shook her head delightedly. "Not that old stuff. Something very special."
When he sees it he whistles softly – "What a girl!" She says "I had it made special, on the quiet."
Bertie lifted up the elegant blackjack, covered with dark, oiled leather, with a gold engraved band circling the tapered handle and a delicately plaited thong…. Like a golfer with a new club, he wanted to use it immediately. "Must be someone handy who deserves a knock. Nice to christen it right away, I know."
They walk down the pier and outside the amusement arcade Bertie asks Pet to wait, and he slips in through a back door.
Two minutes later he was outside again, blithe and unhurried. He caught up with Pet, linking arms affectionately. "It works like hot soup. He was cashing up. Never even heard me. Saved him the trouble of counting the crinkle. Lovely evening, all expenses paid." They laughed happily together.
Bertie wonders what to do with his old blackjack. Toss it over the pier? No. He spots a policeman nearby.
"Excuse me officer, I found this on the pier. Nasty-looking thing. Better for you to take charge of it. Don't mention it. No bother at all. Makes me quite nervous to think what goes on in these seaside towns." (less)
Brian Aldiss will probably be the next of my literary heroes to snuff it, he's 87 years old. People get old, sure enough. I hate to see that evening s...moreBrian Aldiss will probably be the next of my literary heroes to snuff it, he's 87 years old. People get old, sure enough. I hate to see that evening sun go down. Anyway, I haven't read enough of his stuff. Helliconia is supposed to be the business. Hothouse, though, that was great. Also Greybeard and Earthworks, and a string of knockout short stories. Of which only two great ones are included in this late sixties collection - Heresies of the Huge God, in which a continent-sized thing arrives from space and squats over America for a few decades before shifting around, naturally cities and countries are decimated, new religions spring up, and so on; and The Worm that Flies, which is a really strange far future mournful he-must-have-been-on-drugs story I particularly loved. Otherwise, at this point in his career, he was trying too hard to reupholster the science fiction short story and make it into some kind of crystalline art object which you can see in such titles as "The Day we Embarked for Cythera" and "That Uncomfortable Pause between Life and Art". When they asked Rock Hudson what art meant to him, he said "Art is a boy's name."
Note - science fiction writers are always terrified of the near future but elegantly elegiac about the far future. (less)
As you know Michel Faber is a rocking novelist who wrote the great, the mighty, the stumunguous The Crimson Petal and the White and also wrote the mas...more As you know Michel Faber is a rocking novelist who wrote the great, the mighty, the stumunguous The Crimson Petal and the White and also wrote the masterpiece of creep Under the Skin. So here I am scooping up the back catalogue and this collection appeared between skin and petal and is deeply readable but wouldn’t have had me throwing street parties if it had been the first Faber I read. File next to Graham Swift’s Learning to Swim and Ian McEwan’s First Love, Last Rites.
There are two stories of horrible violence here (Someone to Kiss It Better and The Smallness of the Action) which would have slotted neatly into The Eleventh Pan Book of Horror Stories, praise indeed. There are two stories about happiness which are lovely (Serious Swimmers and Vanilla-Bright like Eminem). The first story induces vertigo with its total weirdness (The Safehouse).
Angelique was a girl with a beautiful right shoulder, too much make-up, and a very expensive handbag. She had an anthropology degree but she was curre...moreAngelique was a girl with a beautiful right shoulder, too much make-up, and a very expensive handbag. She had an anthropology degree but she was currently out of work. The problem was not any of that however. The problem which had been causing her sleepless nights, or nights where you just doze fitfully and never really go properly to sleep, was that there was something in her vagina. Having looked at it from every angle she had concluded that it was a penis. Oh dear oh dear, she said to herself. What’s it doing there? Why doesn’t it go away? It was so irritating. As if my vagina is the only place it could hang around. Days went by and it was still there. She decided to call one of her slightly depressed girlfriends named Ruby. She had five girlfriends called Ruby. It had never struck her before what a gigantic co-incidence that was. But now it did. Ruby was depressed but not so depressed that she’d stick her head in the oven or anything. She’d recently pulled chunks of her own hair out so that she had to wear a wig. The wig was very beautiful. She was thinking of pulling other people’s hair out too, so that they could wear beautiful wigs too, but hadn’t got up the nerve to do that. She was in love with a boy called David but she called him Batbrains. He had a supernumery nipple and played in a grindcore band. “Ruby” said Angelique, “there’s a penis in my vagina.” Ruby said Angelique should take steps to find out whose it was. But Angelique couldn’t be bothered. It seemed like such an effort. She ate a bag of Doritos. Maybe it would get bored and go away. But it didn’t. Eventually she gathered the Rubys together for a penis extraction party. They were giggly and excited. Once the deed was done, the penis made a fzzz sound and whizzed about the room like a balloon. They caught it and put it in a hamster cage where it flopped about a bit and then died. Ruby said that someone should make sure it was all gone. She volunteered to take a look around the vagina. She was gone for the best part of an hour. When she emerged she was clutching about twenty copies of Playgirl magazine. “I found these,” she said. “I didn’t even know I had those” said Angelique. “I’m sure they’re not mine.” The Rubys looked sceptically at one another. By now it was daytime. So they decided to watch daytime tv even though they were all really brainy. So they did.(less)
Style. It’s amazing. I mean to say, we all have the same English language with its million plus words available to us, it’s open 24 hours a day, you h...moreStyle. It’s amazing. I mean to say, we all have the same English language with its million plus words available to us, it’s open 24 hours a day, you have already been given a free lifelong subscription. How is it that some writers can put selections from those million English words which are permanently available to all the rest of us down in sentence after sentence so that it becomes more (much more) than prose, it becomes style. So that you read one page and you can say – oh, that’s James Ellroy. Or Virginia Woolf. Or Philip Roth. Or Raymond Carver. Or Annie Proulx.
The critics, that gaggle of preening police informants, got it so right with this guy. They loved him, I loved him. I’ve been looking for a new short story genius since the sad Missing-In-Action fate of Thom Jones. Wells Tower is it.
This collection reads like it’s pieces of a giant, really giant, novel which in order to twine all the pieces of lives here presented together would be like 900 pages long. So, Wells, if you’re listening, do the right thing, take a few years off and WRITE IT! (Although that would kind of undermine my ongoing campaign to get the short story, the three minute single of modern literature, a little more profile.)
Because all the stories here (except one) are cut from the crazy cultural layercake that is contemporary America, the extraordinarily ordinary scenes of bad romances, sudden fights, pleasure and boredom, difficult brothers, ex-wives, stepfathers, tv, a little too much to drink, a little bit of dope, sexy cousins, places you really wouldn’t want to be, and of course places you really would like to be, for a week or two at least. Wait a moment – hasn’t that stuff been done to death already by all the other short story writers (Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Richard Bausch, Amy Hempel, the list goes on) not to mention all the good and not so good novelists of America of the last 40 years? Well, yes, so Wells Tower shows again that you take some guitars and a bass and drums, the same old instruments that they been using since the sixties, and you can still make magic. The magic doesn’t come from the guitars and the bad romances, it comes from you.
A few quotes may be in order at this point.
I was hoping I could sell the patent for a hundred thousand or so and then hurry to the Gulf Coast to cram a pontoon boat and a big-titted stranger into the hollow places in my heart. ( p70)
Jacey could not find a term appropriate for when a young girl is groaned on by a thirty-five year old lieutenant of the arts. ( p158)
She and Buttons lay there an hour and a half and mashed the lozenge eighteen times. The necking got fairly grave, but nothing irreparable took place. ( p163 )
Well, I had this boss. I’m telling you, if you asked me for an asshole, and I gave you that guy, you’d have owed me back some change. (p176 )
Stuff like that is festooned throughout these nine stories. There was only one I could have done without (the title story, as it happens, which is just a bit silly). Otherwise about half of them are going straight into the PB Hall of Short Story Fame.
Wells Tower. Highly unlikely. But it happened. (less)
No! No no! This book proves that no one will invent time travel otherwise someone would have gone back in time and burned the manuscript of this book...moreNo! No no! This book proves that no one will invent time travel otherwise someone would have gone back in time and burned the manuscript of this book before it was published.(less)
Here's something for all you armchair philologists - it's a new functional shift (I think that's the term). The word "gay" as we know formerly meant h...moreHere's something for all you armchair philologists - it's a new functional shift (I think that's the term). The word "gay" as we know formerly meant happy, pleasing, optimistic, fun-encrusted, joy-bedaubed, that sort of thing, as in the very first line of "Island of Dreams" by The Springfields (1963) :
"I wandered the streets and the gay crowded places"
Then in the early to mid 1960s the new meaning bubbled up from the homosexual demi-monde, maybe as a replacement for "queer" which really did need replacing. By the 70s and 80s the new meaning had replaced the old one.
But now my daughter Georgia (aged 13) tells me that one very common phrase used at school is "that's really gay" or "that's so gay" - and the intended meaning is nothing to do with homosexuality, because it now just means "that's really rubbish" or "that's so feeble". I daresay the latest meaning has grown out of the well-attested strident homophobia of certain types of working-class British boys, but now its use has floated free of its origin, as indeed the second meaning did of its own in turn.
So - the stories in this volume, whilst rarely gay (first meaning) are very definately not gay (third meaning). But they are gay (second meaning).
Even in 1972 Gilbert O'Sullivan in a song about being left at the altar was singing
To think that only yesterday I was cheerful, bright and gay
(Alone Again (Naturally))
but he was a bit of a throwback. Great song, by the way.
If kidnappers had snatched up J D Salinger some time in the early 1970s, driven like madmen through the night and the next day too and imprisoned him...moreIf kidnappers had snatched up J D Salinger some time in the early 1970s, driven like madmen through the night and the next day too and imprisoned him in a small but pleasant room somewhere near Boise, furnished him with with all mod cons, and told him he wasn't going anyplace soon until he'd finished at the very least another nine stories, and at best three or four complete novels; and if the kidnappers - due to an endearing cocktail of naivete and compassion (because you know they were just literature fans like you and me, not blank-eyed killers, and they weren't entirely convinced about this whole caper to begin with let it be said) let JD go for long walks (to get inspiration, but really to beat on a nearby farmhouse door and call the cops); and if they were then rounded up (not too hard, said the cops) and put on trial - not a jury in the land would have convicted them. When the prosecution rested and the defence opened, their lawyer would simply have issued a copy of Nine Stories to all 12 jurors and said "Ladies and gentlemen, I rest my case."
This is not to say that each of the Nine is such a great golden glowing nugget of controlled power, insight and wisdom (some are) but that the whole is such eloquent proof of the perspicacity, intelligence and all-round humanbeingness of JDS that reading this collection is very bittersweet - how lovely it all is, and how very little of it there is, when duller, pudgier-fingered writers type on, and on, and publish, and publish. Anyone who has encountered comments by myself on Ye Olde Catcher in Ye Rye will now accuse me of inconsistency, or at least, be expecting me to accuse JDS of the same. How can I hate the novel for its unbearable whine and Johnny-one-note somebody-shut-him-up-please tiresomeness and yet enjoy all the rest of JDS as I do? They're cut from the same cloth, it's not like Picasso's blue period and Picasso the cubist which could have been different guys, or the Velvet Underground's first and third albums which could have been a different band. But I've come across this in different areas of the universe - can't stand Tom Waits until Swordfishtrombones, think he's a genius for three albums, then can't stand him again. Shakespeare's tragedies - oui! Shakespeare's comedies - er, non! So maybe not that unusual.
JDS famously published all his stuff between 1951 and 1963 and then STOPPED. (Which is why the kidnappers pounced, they gave him a good ten year rest and that was ENOUGH to their way of thinking.) And he stopped just as things were getting really interesting. He writes of the murderous conformities of American educated middle-class life and of the outcasts and especially young kids who either subvert this button-down world or bail out swiftly. Just as he stopped publishing things began to change. the 60s began swinging, and the youthquake (as it has been termed) was upon us. Just the very stuff that you might have thought would have fascinated JD. What do the kids do when they try to make their own rules up? I feel the absence of JDS throughout the 60s and 70s, as i feel the absence of another American writer who STOPPED in 1963, Sylvia Plath. I want to know what these two clever clogs would have made of the tumultuous ten years which followed the self-stilling of their voices.
But back to the Nine Stories - and to steal a fellow reviewer's catch-phrase:
Is it a classic?
Answer : Yes. Goddamn!
PS : I realise I also speculated upon the advisability of kidnapping Thomas Bernhard elsewhere but that was to save the world from any further novels like Extinction, whereas the JD Salinger kidnap is for the opposite reason. But I would like to publicly state that I do not condone the imprisonment of any writers for any reasons, so please don't try this at home.
Holy shit, how could I have forgotten to add this to my list already, this collection of breakneck vileness, this wretchedness you wrench your head aw...moreHoly shit, how could I have forgotten to add this to my list already, this collection of breakneck vileness, this wretchedness you wrench your head away from in shame that it happens to be so gripping and so funny. In the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind they have invented a method for erasing specified memories from your mind - I hope they invent just such a thing in real life so I can get them to erase all memory of my five star books so that I can read them all for the first time again. Irvine Welsh became something of a parody of himself later on, wee Scots druggy mouthy baldie that he is, but let that not take anything away from his magnificent trilogy of Trainspotting, Acid House and Maribou Stork Nightmares. Hey Irvine, if I see you floating down the gutter I'll bring you a bottle of wine.(less)
You are a loathsome reptile - I hope you will die.
(Thank you, Lynne). Ah, the people I have often wished to say the same thing to! (Not you, of course, never you!) But I am not made of such stern stuff as DH. Anyhow, I did not think Miss Mansfield was a loathsome reptile. Quite the reverse – she was a beautiful reptile. She had a cool gaze which swept insight and judgement over this human race of ours, the parts that she knew anyway, and she judged life to be sad. Not tragic, just very sad. Husbands desperate for their wives to love them when they know they never will, for instance. This turns up in a couple of stories – in one, “Marriage a la Mode”, the husband works in London all week earning a pile and comes home to his family at weekends. His wife gets herself a whole new crowd of friends – Bohemian artists, poets, you know – and he’s completely out of his depth. She’s drifting away. They’re always there. After one weekend like this, on the train back to London, he writes his wife a long letter. She reads it in amazement, and starts laughing her head off. Her friends want to know what’s so funny. So she reads it out.
When she reached the end they were hysterical : Bobby rolled on the turf and almost sobbed. … “Oh Isabel,” moaned Moira, “that wonderful bit about holding you in his arms!”
I wasn’t especially brimming over with Mansfield love when I was reading most of this stuff, in the back of my head I was thinking okay, another one to tick off from The List of Unread Literature (o the awful List! – keep it away from me!) – but I found that the stories have an afterglow, they’re like those lovely paintings by Corot, Pissarro and Sisley, just ordinary streets and fields, but so intensely understated, or understatedly intense.
One story, “Her First Ball” reminded me specifically of Renoir’s brilliant “Her First Evening Out”
So I give this a generous 4 stars, really I think it’s 3.5.
My favourite story was “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”. Oh fine women of Goodreads who are on the whole demographically between the ages of 25 and 40
please never turn into the daughters of the late colonel when you grow up! But I can’t imagine that you would for a moment. My God, I remember creatures like this from my tiny youth, ancient relatives like Aunt Alice who was not any kind of real aunt. Ah I recoiled, recoiled from the plunging dramatic unexpected powdery kisses, and oh how I had to sit there, not there, and eat this seed cake and say how lovely it was even though I was about puking, oh the unfathomable rules of social engagement, I practically had to tell them thank you for the air I gratefully breathed whilst in these old houses with their doyleys and antimacassars and rugs for the unwary (was I clumsy? I was). I was bound to knock over some knick knack, usually a glass pony or some animal rendered into a delicate shape designed to shatter if you looked at it wrong. No, old women aren’t like that any more, thank God. They’re so much better. They go shark wrangling and ski backwards up Mount Kilimanjaro these days. The plates of dainties have been abandoned along with the inch thick face powder. I know global warming’s a major downer, but some things are so much better than they used to be.
The development of one's own consciousness is often incremental, but sometimes, on...moreContains one of PB's All Time Greats :
"Weekend" by Fay Weldon (1978)
The development of one's own consciousness is often incremental, but sometimes, on occasion, you get to experience epiphanies, when something that's been hanging around just over your left shoulder mumbling and buzzing faintly suddenly wheels right round and stares at you right in the face and you see things for what they are. And it's a shock. On even fewer occasions these epiphanies come from books. This story was one such for me. It's a kind of horror story with universal application for men and women. It's the single most pungent, most hair-raising encapsulation of What Feminists Are On About I've ever come across. It blew my mind open like Fay Weldon had broke into my skull and planted gelignite. One of the scariest things about it is that there's no violence, no swearing, no overt male brutality at all. It's just an account of middle-class English family life, no big dramas. Nobody dies, no one gets married, no one gets born. So what makes it so explosive? Because it shows the reader, sentence by sentence, the interior violence, the interior horror of the shit that gets piled onto women all the time every day by the situations they get maneouvered into by the expectations of men and the roles they've been educated to accept. The story's situation is so simple : our couple are fairly well-off but not especially rich. They're just wealthy enough to have bought themselves a second home which is, naturally, in the country. So every weekend (hence the title) they pile the kids and a whole lot of food and drink into the Range Rover and swan off down to Swan-Throttling-On-Thames. What could be nicer? What more pleasant? & while they're at it they invite Harry and Susan down for Sunday lunch...he's the life and soul and she's such a pretty little thing. And then - for the wife - the interior horror begins. All she has to do is to reconstruct the country house into the house they live in during the week, clean it, make all the meals, having remembered to bring all the right food, because the nearest supermarket is an hour away, then entertain the kids because daddy's on the phone to his office buddies all the time, then plan the giant haute cuisine meal with the friends for Sunday, then smile excitedly when husband says he's invited yet another random pal for Saturday dinner, so that's something else, and since this pal is important in the company can she make a bit of an effort, and then since it's the weekend he's thinking they really ought to have some sex because they hadn't had time all week.... and on and on and on it goes for about 40 pages, then the weekend's over and they pile everything into the Range Rover and head back to London, with the entrancing prospect of repeating the whole thing the following weekend but next weekend would she mind if he asked her to look a bit more cheerful because after all, what did they buy this cottage in the country for if it just causes long faces and irritableness? Anyway, I hope I've given a hint of the horror. This was really seeing things from a whole new perspective for me. I'd heard a lot of the rhetoric of course, I'd read Kate Millett and Germaine and even Andrea Dworkin, god help me, but that was theory, and this little story by Fay Weldon was a whole other thing. It changed me. In my mind it marked the end of my Stupid Hippy phase and the beginning of my Hard Line Politics phase.