I’d like to recommend V.S. Pritchett

book cover pritchettVictor Sawden Pritchett (or VSP, as he preferred to be known) was a prolific British writer,born in 1900, he died in 1997.  For fifty years of the twentieth century he produced stories, and he was popular.

Yes but, you might say, he’s writing about life an awfully long while ago. Why bother? There are lots of modern stories to choose from.

Well, it’s useful to see how things have changed, or not changed, in lived lives, and the way words are used.  VSP once said:

“I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive.  I shall be sorry to die, but the notion of seeing life celebrated from day to day is so wonderful that I can’t see the point of believing anything else.”

Of all the advice given out by writers, one of the few things they agree on is that writers should read.  Many list VSP amongst their favourite authors.  To find out why, you could look at critical discussions explaining what he did, and even how, but before you do that, track down one of his stories and see if the magic touches you.

You might start with, ‘The Voice’. It’s set during the London blitz, and begins:

A message came from the rescue party, who straightened up and leant on their spades in the rubble. The policeman said to the crowd: ‘Everyone keep quiet for five minutes. No talking, please.  They’re trying to hear where he is.’

The silent crowd raised their faces and looked across the ropes to the church which, now it was destroyed, broke the line of the street like a decayed tooth.

Soon singing is heard, from below the rubble.

‘That’s Mr Morgan all right,’ the warden said. ‘He could sing.  He got silver medals for it.’

The Reverend Frank Lewis frowned.

‘Gold, I shouldn’t wonder,’ said Mr Lewis dryly.  Now he knew Morgan was alive, he said: ‘What the devil’s he doing in there? How did he get in? I locked up at eight o’clock last night myself.’

Lewis was a wiry, middle-aged man, but the white dust on his hair and his eyelashes, and the way he kept licking the dust off his dry lips, moving his jaws all the time, gave him the monkeyish, testy and suspicious air of an old man.  He had been up all night on rescue work in the raid and he was tired out.  The last straw was to find the church had gone and that Morgan, the so-called Reverend Morgan, was buried under it.

It’s not the last straw though, this is only the beginning.  Eudora Welty said:

‘Any Pritchett story is all of it alight and busy at once, like a well-going fire. Wasteless and at the same time well-fed, it shoots up in flame from its own spark like a poem or a magic trick, self-consuming, with nothing left over. He is one of the great pleasure-givers in our language’

It’s as good a definition as any I’ve seen.

The scandal of it, Lewis was thinking.  Must he sing so loud, must he advertise himself?  I locked up myself last night.  How the devil did he get in? And he really meant: How did the devil get in?

More to the point, will he get out, and what will happen along the way?

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Economy in the short story.

pg wodehouseWhat ho, folks.  This week I’ve been reacquainting myself with that great wag, PG Woodhouse.  As usual, it’s only on reading him that I remember how much I like the old fellow.

Yes, he may be a little dated, on first glance.  Mostly he’s skipping through the 1920s and 30s with a series of bright young things.  Is he aware of the general state of the nation? It’s not easy to argue in the positive on a broad scale, though it’s possible to look between the lines and find some social commentary.  Picking it out is one thing, deciding on whether that’s a key part of the writing is altogether another game.

If he’s not, does that matter?  Aren’t the bookshops and library shelves crammed with historical fiction intended only to entertain us?  So really, he’s just one more, with the added bonus that his stories aim to raise a smile.

I admit, it’s an old-fashioned style of smile.  Think early rom-com films with wisecracking pairings like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, or Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Realism is not the intention, this is about sitting back and enjoying the ride.

Try this excerpt from a classy piece of Wodehouse, The Reverent Wooing of Archibald.

People who enjoyed a merely superficial acquaintance with my nephew Archibald (said Mr Mulliner) were accustomed to set him down as just an ordinary pinheaded young man.  It was only when they came to know him better that they discovered their mistake. Then they realised that his pinheadedness, so far from being ordinary, was exceptional.  Even at the Drones Club, where the average of intellect is not high, it was often said of Archibald that, had his brain been constructed of silk, he would have been hard put to it to find sufficient material to make a canary pair of cami-knickers.

pg wodehouse 2All would be well, if the purpose of Archie’s life continued to be seeking out new designs of sock for his collection.  But one day, as he’s sitting at a window of the Drone Club, sipping a cocktail and looking out on Dover street, ‘there swam into his line of vision something that looked like a Greek goddess.’

Are you hooked, yet?  What I love about this story is that it has style, and elegance.

There are two narrators.  The outer, omniscient one, is economical.  Just look at the neatness of his opening sentence:

The conversation in the bar-parlour of the Angler’s Rest, which always tends to get deepish towards closing-time, had turned to the subject of the Modern Girl; and a Gin-and-Ginger-Ale sitting in the corner by the window remarked that it was strange how types die out.

It’s long, but there’s an awful lot packed into it, and really, no more is needed to set the scene, is there?  After this, we’re moving forwards into the story.

Soon Mr Mulliner takes over the narration, and adds his distinctive turn of phrase to that economy, as in the description of his nephew Archibald, quoted above.

As for that tricky business of introducing a clutch of secondary characters into your story without confusing the dear reader, has anyone ever bettered Wodehouse’s decision to define them by their drinks?  It allows him to add in a ‘Draught Stout’, a ‘Small Bass’, and ‘A Double-Whisky-and Splash’, and even though in a page or so they’ll disappear from the rest of the narrative we’ve not expended enough energy on them to regret their absence. That’s what I call a witty solution.

So, dated or not, I think this old boy still has a few tricks we can learn from. And if you’ve not read him before, The Reverent Wooing of Archibald is a good place to start.

Gone, but not forgotten – reading short stories: a recommendation.

V.S. Pritchett, anyone remember him?  One of the great British short story writers of the twentieth century, but he’s not much read now.  Which is a shame, because there is still plenty to love in his short stories.

RSL_Pritchett-illustration-from-formIt’s not just for his fiction that I value him, though.  He thought and wrote about the processes of writing.  One of my favourite quotes is:

I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive.

That seems as good a reason to be putting words together as any other that I’ve come across, and if you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll have gathered that I am a collector of wise-writing-words.

Pritchett died in 1997, and for the general reader apparently drifted from general consciousness soon after that.  Perhaps that seems natural.  There are an awful lot of new writers appearing all of the time, and we can’t read everyone.

But pick up an anthology of short stories produced in Britain, in the twentieth century, and the chances are it will contain a Pritchett story.  But he had other hats too, writing essays about literature, and teaching in American Universities.  He also edited the 1981 Oxford Book of Short Stories.

His stories are Chekovian.  He specialised in character studies: characters caught in a moment of stress, and explored, usually for comic potential.

The great thing about the short story is the detail, not the plot. The plot is useful, but only for supplying the sort of detail that is not descriptive but which pushes the action forward.

How does that work?  Well it’s not a formula.  Each situation demands it’s own delivery.  Here’s the opening of one his 1977 stories, A Family Man:

Late in the afternoon, when she had given him up and had even changed out of her pink dress into her smock and jeans and was working once more at her bench, the doorbell rang.  William had come, after all.  It was in the nature of their love affair that his visits were fitful: he had a wife and children.  To show that she understood the situation, even found the curious satisfaction of reverie in his absences that lately had lasted several weeks, Berenice dawdled yawning to the door.

Compare it with the opening for On the Edge of the Cliff, the title story of his 1979 collection:

The sea fog began to lift towards noon.  It had been blowing in, thin and loose for two days, smudging the tops of the trees up the ravine where the house stood. “Like the breath of old men,” Rowena wrote in an attempt at a poem, but changed the line, out of kindness, to “the breath of ghosts,” because Harry might take it personally.  The truth was that his breath was not foggy at all, but smelt of the dozens of cigarettes he smoked all day.

Don’t both of these exemplify what is meant by ‘show don’t tell’?  Here are not just scenes set, but also tone, and although you cannot know it on first read, everything you need is there.  To me, Pritchett epitomises the ‘never a word wasted’ premise for short story writers.  He sculpted more meanings from most of his words than I can grasp with a casual read.  Most of his stories deserve a second read, and will repay that attention by revealing missed nuances.

If you haven’t tried him before, he’s one from my recommended reading list, and if you like slapstick, you might go first to The Saint, which I think is one of the funniest stories written.

And then, for the writers amongst you, there’s the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize, which was set up by the The Royal Society of Literature (RSL), and is one of those prestigious awards to aim for.

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework.  Sounds like school, but this is adult education.  We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.

DSCF8020My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together.  It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its.  The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages.  You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.

As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy.  The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.

Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion.  ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean.  Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.

You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?

Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.

The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation.  Readers have to be active.  I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.

We’re never sure where any story will take us.   There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for.  We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other.  What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.

The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them.  Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.

Where do these understandings come from?  Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.

Isn’t that magical?  Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection.    It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.

 

A couple of useful Short Story Quotes

Book coverFor those of us trying to understand how short stories work, Barbara Korte’s introduction to The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, seems pretty useful to me.

She theorizes that it was through the writers who were experimenting with short stories during this period, and Katherine Mansfield in particular, that…

…the short story acquired the reputation of a form congenial to the modern condition.  Its emphasis on isolated moments and mere fragments of experience, its art of condensation and ambiguous expression seemed ideal for capturing modern life with its hastiness, inconclusiveness, uncertainties and distrust of traditional beliefs.  For the same reasons, the short story was deemed to have an affinity to the first fully technological and industrialized war, which exploded extant norms of perception, interpretation and representation.  Its aesthetic seemed highly suitable for articulating the experiences of the front with its moments of violence, shock, disorientation and strangeness.

She quotes Edmund Blunden, who wrote in 1930:

The mind of the soldier on active service was continually beginning a new short story, which had almost always to be broken off without conclusion.

It’s an anthology well worth a look through, if you’re looking for a reading recommendation.

Beyond Words.

My reading group and I have just been discussing  ‘An Indiscreet Journey’ by Katherine Mansfield.  It’s a bright, breezily narrated tale describing the journey a young woman makes across France to visit her lover, just behind the front-line.

WWI postcardLike so much of Mansfield’s fiction, the story is a pen-portrait of an actual event, and in this case, written soon after the visit took place, in 1915.  But why should we need to know that?  A story, surely, stands alone.  That the word world created should convince, as well as engage us, whether it is contemporarily familiar, or set in an environment distanced by space or time, isn’t that the real test?

This one passed.  We agreed unanimously.  We don’t always agree, of course.  I wouldn’t expect us too.  In this case though, there seemed to be something in the writing for every taste.  Comic character studies, poetic descriptions and a clever digression from the apparent plot all combined to provide a comprehensive entertainment and some enjoyable discussion.

Several of the group had not come across Mansfield before, and so we discussed a little of her background – mostly the more sensational aspects, of course.  Pooling our knowledge on the author and the era, brought me back to the text.

In it, there is a description of an old woman reading a letter from her soldier son, the first one she’d received in months.  When I was putting my ideas together at home, I had spent some time wondering about it.  The only detail Mansfield gives us out of the letter is a request for string and handkerchiefs.  What could it mean?  I came up with two possibilities, neither strong, but there seemed nothing more to go on.  There was so much more to investigate in the text that I moved on.

It was at the class, while we were discussing the soldier with weeping eyes, from later in the story, that the solution came.  Mansfield never directly states it, but we concluded that this soldier has been caught in a gas attack. When she was writing this story, Mansfield was staying at a flat in Paris, near to a hospital treating injured soldiers, many of whom had been caught in gas attacks.

When chemical weapons were first deployed, the armies were not prepared, and soldiers improvised gas masks with pads of urine soaked linen. ‘Yes,’ said one of the group, ‘they tied string to each corner of the material and looped it around their ears.’

For me, it was a eureka moment.  I saw beyond the words, to the implications of the way the mother reads her letter:

‘Slowly, slowly she sipped a sentence, and then looked up and out of the window, her lips trembling a little, and then another sentence, and again the old face turned to the light, tasting it…’

The story opened out again, as if Mansfield’s words were only a window onto a much bigger and more complex view of the war.  How terrible a letter it must have been for a mother to receive, and how discreetly Mansfield has conveyed this contrast between our narrator and the landscape she travels through.

I think I’ve mentioned before, that I don’t think of Mansfield as an easy read.  In some ways, this is one of her more accessible pieces.  The narrator’s journey provides structure.  The cameo portraits flesh it out and provide colour, and we could skip past the references that don’t have apparent meaning.  This was, after all, written ninety-eight years ago. On some level, isn’t story always a piece of social history, directly or indirectly, that we can choose to explore or ignore?

I think yes, and certainly not every story is worth digging into.  But to spend a little time on this one is to see what was happening in the wider world at that moment.  Once I started to find the patterns, even the title, An Indiscreet Journey began to acquire additional implications.

WWI postcardSo if you’re looking for a story to re-read, pick this one.  If you’re looking for a story to read with a reading group, ditto.  If any story can demonstrate the merits of what a reading group achieves, this is it.  As we head for the hundred year anniversary of the start of The Great War, there is certain to be a lot of re-discovery going on with literature.  Here’s a suggestion for an early start you might make.

Trade Report Only.

Trade Report Only, that’s the title of a cracking little story that I’m looking forward to sharing with the reading group later on today.  I’d never come across C.E. Montague until I opened up the Penguin Book of First World War Stories.  That’s not so surprising, since it seems that he’s primarily remembered for his autobiography, Disenchantment.  I won’t need to repeat the reviews on that, since apparently the title sums it up neatly, and you can easily find summaries of it on the internet.

However, on the grounds of the short story I’ve just read, I may have to add Montague to my list of authors to look out for.  I’m not going to sum up the story plot here.  That would definately be a spoiler, and I’m hoping you might decide to get hold of a copy of this to read for yourself.

Trees in the Fog,by Yann Richard, on wikimedia.org

Trees in the Fog,
by Yann Richard, on wikimedia.org

Why?  Well first, because as we head for the centenary of the outbreak of the war, why not try a prose account of it as well as, or even instead of, the more usual poetry.  But secondly, there are lots of literary reasons to look at this particular one, too.

It’s a first person narrative that was originally published in 1923.  Our narrator, the sergeant of a mining unit who have been posted to an orchard at the edges of the battle (no, this is not a story of the trenches) is an educated man, he is both sympathetic and poetic. Atmosphere, imagery, symbolism and classical and biblical allusions all come into play.

It begins:

No one has said what was wrong with The Garden, not even why it was called that name: whether because it had apples in it, and also a devil, like Eden…

Is it dated? Well, in the sense that the characters speak differently to the way we would today, yes.  Call me a purist if you like, but I prefer that.  I can never quite settle into historical fiction or faction where the characters have twenty-first century voices.  And in case you are wary of coloquial writing, don’t let that put you off, the dialogue, like the prose, is concise and  to the point, and is used sparingly.

‘Gawd a’mighty!’ Looker shrilled at the entry of Toomey, ‘if Fritz ain’t sold ‘im a pup!’

You can read this story for the plot, or like one of the war poems, you can reread and follow the treasure hunt. I promise you that’s well worth the effort.  I’m looking forward to discovering if the reading group share my enthusiasm.

If you never were in the line there before the smash came and made it like everywhere else, you could not know how it would work on the nerves…