I heard Phil Jupitus talking about paintings to Susan Calman on Radio 4 this week. Amongst other sensible and intriguing things, he said that there are some paintings he just has to stand and study, because the details ‘have made me laugh out loud with how brilliant they are.’
It struck a chord with me, because I’ve been having a similar experience reading Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories. Have I just been lucky in picking out the best of her writing from amongst the Complete Short Stories volume that we’re using for the reading group class? Because so far, they’re providing masses of material for discussion.
Take The Letter-writers, which we discussed this week. It’s about two people who, after ten years of exchanging letters, are meeting for the first time. Most assessments of the story will include the fact of Taylor’s letters to Robert Liddell, another novelist.
‘The correspondence between Elizabeth and me, begun in the autumn of 1948, was to become increasingly frequent and intimate, and it lasted to within a month of Elizabeth’s death, when she was no longer able to hold a pen.’
He lived in Cairo, Alexandria and then Athens, and it has been suggested that this story is a fictionalized account of their first meeting.
The Letter-writers was first published in 1958, and portrays a rural spinster living a quiet, contained life. You could read it as that and enjoy the details of characterisation:
For years, Emily had looked into mirrors only to see if her hair were tidy or her petticoat showing below her dress. This morning, she tried to take herself by surprise, to see herself as a stranger might, but failed.
and the descriptions,
The heat unsteadied the air, light shimmered and glanced off leaves and telegraph wires and the flag on the church tower spreading out in a small breeze, then dropping, wavered against the sky, as if it were flapping under water.
However, if you work on the assumption that this is a carefully constructed story, and therefore every word has been deliberately chosen, then you have to look again at how the narration is operating.
Is it just the air that is unsteadied? Why does the light ‘glance’ off the leaves and telegraph wires? When I attack the text with my highlighter, tracing patterns, clues within the text, I begin to see an alternative, contrary reading. I’m reading now from a new perspective, asking myself, why would it be a crisis for Emily to meet, ‘the person she knew best in all the world’?
The theory I’m shaping suggests something beautifully, elegantly, clever. Can a writer really create something so subtle that it can have multiple, even contradictory meanings?
Consider how Taylor describes Emily’s approach to writing.
Emily, smiling to herself as she passed by, had thoughts so delightful that she began to tidy them into sentences to put in a letter to Edmund.
If you carry the idea of this apparently simple description on into the story, Edmund will tell us how carefully Emily ‘tidies’ her words:
In Emily’s letters, Mrs Waterlow had been funny; but she was not in real life and he wondered how Emily could suffer so much, before transforming it.
Words then are not simple tools. Writers, like painters, arrange the details of the world they are portraying. They decide which perspective to show us, arrange the light and shade, and order the components to create a specific effect. Nothing in a good painting is chance, it is designed. So I ask myself, was Taylor also transforming some thing, with her story about writing?
At first he thought her a novelist manqué, then he realized that letter-writing is an art by itself, a different kind of skill, though with perhaps a similar motive – and one at which Englishwomen have excelled.