#6degrees of separation from Henry James to W. Somerset Maugham

As it’s the beginning of the month it’s time for a new ‘Six Degree’ challenge from Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. I love taking part, but having decided I’ll only join in if I’ve read the set text, I usually find I’m too far behind with my reading. So thank you for going back to the classics, Kate. This month’s starting point is, The Turn of The Screw, by Henry James.

For a long time I avoided reading this one. I hadn’t liked the film or radio versions I’d caught. I assumed it was ‘just’ a pot boiler.

I should have known better. After all, even if this was writing prompted by a desire for the fee, the author was Henry James. Luckily, a couple of years ago I needed to read the novella for a class I was setting up. I soon revised my opinion.

I think of this sort of story as an attractive box that when opened, proves to have another attractive box inside. This one is not just smaller, it is a slightly different shape.

Many stories stop at two layers, but Henry James puts another box inside that. His narrator recounts a story that he heard from a friend, who heard it from the person who experienced it. Where does truth start and end? Can we ever know?

This is a form I love, so I’m going to try and create my links using stories that have other stories embedded in them. And, as we’ve started with a novella, I’m opting to follow a short-form route.

So, my first link is to Joseph Conrad, who was also a master of this kind of misdirection. He used this technique several times. I’m picking his short story, The Tale, for my first link. It begins with two lovers meeting in an unlit room, during war-time. The woman asks the man to tell her a story. He used to have, she tells him, ‘…a sort of art – in the days – the days before the war.’ The story he tells her is a dark exploration of human nature and actions.

Human nature is also at the centre of Charlotte Mew’s story-within-a-story, A White Night. It’s a psychological horror story, written in 1903. Or is this one too all a big lie?

Similar questions arise in Nuns at Luncheon, when Aldous Huxley presents us with a distracting story teller who seems to dominate the tale she tells.

Her long earrings swung and rattled – corpses hanging in chains…

Mr Mulliner, the storyteller P.G. Wodehouse chooses to use in The Reverent Wooing of Archibald, on the other hand, is clearly speaking with authority.

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 realized that his pinheadedness, so far from being ordinary, was exceptional.’

Mr Mulliner, the teller who lifts the lid on that second box, disappears while the outside narrator repeats his story. As does Pugh, the story-teller in John Buchan’s 1928 story, The Loathly Opposite. This fifth link in my chain is a beautifully delivered narrative, about the consequences of war and espionage, that didn’t go where I expected. Reading it gave me a new perspective on an author I’d not been used to thinking of as literary.

Laura, the teller of stories in the sixth link of my chain, remains fully on view. Indeed, we share dinner with her and the external narrator of, A String of Beads. It’s a beautifully brief story, delivered almost entirely through dialogue, and once more, we sit in judgement of the participants. Do we share their positions or condemn them?

I can link this 1943 W. Somerset Maugham story back to The Turn of The Screw. Firstly, because both have a woman sharing or confiding a story with a man, and secondly, because a governess is central to both plots. This means I could describe my chain as a short necklace. Or, since it’s one novella and six short stories, maybe a bracelet.

Though perhaps that would spoil the ‘separation’ aspect of the challenge.

On reading a short story by Anthony Doerr

This reading adventure began in A Corner of Cornwall, with Sandra, who said that although she wasn’t usually a reader of short stories, she’d found Anthony Doerr’s collection, The Shell Collector, ‘exquisite’. That’s the kind of recommendation that makes me seek out the nearest copy. In this case, luckily, at our local library.

I’ve met quite a few people who don’t read short stories.

‘Why not?’ I ask, preparing to pounce, to convert them. I will say, without modesty, that I’m quite good at that.

That claim is, of course, not entirely true. The people who’ve become converts to short forms of fiction because of me, have arrived in my short-story-appreciation-classes, so they must, at some level, have been prepared to be converted. I didn’t go out onto any street and convince anyone.

The truth is that winning people over is a matter of finding the right kind of story, and helping them to find the key, or perhaps I should say, ‘keys’. I do like fiction that can be peeled back in layers. Sometimes they’re simple seeming plots, like the third story in this collection, So Many Chances.

Dorotea San Juan, a fourteen year old in a brown cardigan.The Janitor’s daughter.Walks with her head down, wears cheap sneakers, never lipstick. Picks at salads during lunch. Tacks maps to her bedroom walls. Holds her breath when she gets nervous. Years of being the janitor’s daughter teach her to blend in, look down, be nobody. Who’s that? Nobody.

That’s a nice opening, a quick glance: a neatly summed up characterisation that says to me ‘event on the horizon’.

After all, one of the main rules for a story beginning is that we are at a moment of significant change. A character is about to shift from static to active. All my instincts tell me that Dorotea is about to go from nobody, from blending in, to… well, something. That title, So Many Chances, has to mean something.

It does. Dorotea’s father is about to swop jobs. He’s taking his wife and daughter away from Youngstown, Ohio, to a new opportunity in shipbuilding, in Harpswell, Maine.

That’s exactly what I need, I’m reading on, absorbing the doubts and anxieties of Dorotea and her mother, but all the same, I’m already anticipating a new school. I’m leaping ahead to this opportunity for Dorotea to be noticed. She’ll be able to recreate herself, be somebody.

Doerr’s writing carries me along, he’s so precise that even the most simple moves are elegantly presented.

Dorotea tells nobody and nobody asks. They leave on the last day of school. that afternoon. Like sneaking out of town.

Though there is one that defeats me.

Her mother sits stern and sleepless behind tracking wipers, lips curled above her chin like two rain-drowned earthworms, her small frame tensed as if bound in a hundred iron bands.

I’m still failing to visualise a mouth shaped like two rain-drowned earthworms. But that’s such a minor flaw, when there are so many other beautiful sentences to enjoy. As the journey progresses, and they move closer to the ocean, ‘Dorotea fidgets in her seat. The energy of a cagged fourteen-year-old piling up like marbles on a dinner plate.

I could keep quoting.This story is so beautifully written that there are a lot of moments I’d like you to share. If you’ve wondered how realism can be made to resonate, then this story is worth a look.

Be warned, other stories in The Shell Collector are not so firmly grounded. They have their own, different kind of beauty, that I also loved. To sum them up, I repeat Sandra’s assessment of this collection, and say, ‘exquisite’.

There are two more thing to say about my reading of So Many Chances. I’ve resisted the temptation to place before you stepping stones of incidents that will lead you through the events. I don’t want to risk spoiling what is a beautifully paced read, should you also decide to enter Dorotea’s life.

My final comment is about the finish, which I think is beautiful. Once I got there, the closing scene was obvious, it was the only one that made sense. But until that moment, I wasn’t sure how Doerr would, could or should draw the threads together.

Thoughts on how I connect with Ali Smith’s story about stories.

The Universal Story, by Ali Smith was published in her 1996 collection, The Whole Story, but I didn’t retrieve it from my TBR shelf until a couple of weeks ago. That’s me, late again.

But in a way I might claim to be mirroring the opening of this story. Because, here’s another book that I’ve subjected to a series of false starts. Having bought it, I shelved it; forgot it; passed it by on several previous searches for something to read.

Somewhere, in the past month, some mention of it triggered a memory of owning this collection, so I tracked down my copy. Thank you, whoever reminded me. I’m sorry I can’t recall in what context we discussed this. But again, that chain of events seems appropriate to my reading. Here are the opening lines:

There was a man dwelt by a churchyard.

Well, no, okay, it wasn’t always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard.

Though, to be honest, nobody really uses that word nowadays. Everybody says cemetery. And nobody says dwelt any more. In other words:

There was once a woman who lived by a cemetery. Every morning when she woke up she looked out of her back window and saw –

Actually, no. There was once a woman who lived by – no, in – a second-hand bookshop.

Is this a story for writers, more than readers? I wonder, remembering conversations I’ve had with readers who stress the importance of being drawn into a recognisable world. This opening could seem designed to irritate.

Or, it might suggest such confidence on the part of the writer that she can afford to let us see how her mind worries at the details: how much thought goes into getting them right. Or do I mean correct? Actually, the word I’m looking for is, ‘true’.

As you can probably tell, I’m hooked. But I’m guessing this is one of those marmite stories. The way the narrator keeps pausing to work things out will unsettle readers looking for a fixed character to engage with, or a scene to immerse themselves in.

The woman sat in the empty shop. It was late afternoon. It would be dark soon. She watched a fly in the window. It was early in the year for flies. It flew in veering triangles then settled on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to bask in what late winter sun there was.

Or – no. Wait:

There was once a fly resting briefly on an old paperback book in a second-hand bookshop window.

These changes in tack, shifting of perspectives, seem to me to mirror the way I browse a second-hand bookshop, drifting from one title to another in a random, rather than linear, fashion. Those connections are not predictable, they depend on the shape of words on a spine, or colours, or a promising illustration. Then again, they depend on where the seller has gathered their stock from, and what they’ve chosen, and how they’ve decided to arrange their shelves…

Let’s get back to Ali Smith, I’ve one last thought to add, about character. Wait, though, shouldn’t that have been at the start of my discussion? Don’t I repeatedly claim that character is at the heart of a good story?

How does that work when a story bounces around between several, and not all of them are even human? Brilliantly.

You can either trust me on that (but why would you? We don’t necessarily have the same tastes), or read it for yourself.

Six memorable stories: in five words?

This week I’ve been gently challenged by Ola, who, in tandem with Piotrek, blogs about her reading, on Re-enchantment of the World. They recently described some Favourite Books in Five Words. This idea has, it seems, been circulating for at least a year, so I’m late – again.

I wondered whether the inspiration for this owed something to Hemmingway’s six word story. Once I’d made that connection it was inevitable that my list would be short fiction. I decided to limit myself to six that I’ve found unforgettable.

I begin with Mary Mann.

‘Who?’ you say.

I’m not surprised. She is a writer who has been shamefully neglected, so let me stretch the rules a little, and put her into context.

Mary Mann, born 1846, in Norfolk, was a merchant’s daughter who married a yeoman farmer in 1871. They had four children. Yeoman, by the way, means he farmed his own land. Many farmers were/are tenants. It has been suggested that Mary’s writing helped her transition from town life to an isolated rural community, and was a necessary supplement to the family income during the agricultural depression of the 1880s.

Women O’Dulditch, by Mary Mann (1908)

Dinah and Car’line’s ideal husband?

Bliss, by Katherine Mansfield (1918)

Revelations at Bertha’s dinner party.

Hills Like White Elephants, by Ernest Hemmingway (1927)

Listening for what’s not said.

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1955)

Fate, reverence and a circus.

The Blush, by Elizabeth Taylor (1958)

Mrs Allen listens, watches: sees.

Puss in Boots, by Angela Carter (1979)

Sex, lies, rats and love.

There could, of course, have been more. On a different day of a different month, there would have been other choices.

Reading Welsh short stories for the #dewithon19 – Part 2

You might still be wondering, what is Cath’s favourite story in The Second Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories? Seems like she may have been watching too many Netflix series, the way she slipped that tantalising hint into the end of her Welsh short stories post three weeks ago. Darn it, does this mean there could be more cliff-hangers?

No. Relax. This is a two-parter. Paula Bardell-Hedley’s excellent hash-tag dewithon 19 only lasts to the end of March. It’s been fun reading along, but for me, it ends today with Catherine Merriman’s, Barbecue.

The story was first published in The New Welsh Review, in 1992. If that seems a little dated, I should mention that The 2nd Penguin…Welsh Short Stories was published in 1993, so it was pretty contemporary at that point.

Here’s a gang of bikers, cruising the Welsh mountains in their leathers, all counter-culture and looking-like trouble. They’d certainly raise some wary hackles if they came cruising through most villages or small towns.

Not a soul on the mountain but we can’t open up the bikes for the hordes of sheep dawdling on the tarmac, bleating and giving us the idiot eye. They’ve got half a county of moorland to roam across, up here, but as usual they’re ignoring it. Mitch reckons it’s definite proof of over-civilization, when even the sheep are scared of getting lost.

Do you see that? Mindless thugs, or maybe not quite who we expected?

At the start it’s not clear where the story will go. There’s a barbecue being planned, ‘back at the field‘, by Dai. Earlier though, before the story started, Jaz was beaten up by a couple of lads from Tredegar who are after his Guzzi, as compensation for a bike-sale that went wrong.

Sharp little face, Jaz had, when they last saw him. Looks like a plum pudding now.

Then the other half of our narrator’s gang turn up. They’ve been staying in their bus at a festival, and got into trouble coming back through Bristol. The driver, Wayne, says:

‘This publican, he won’t serve us ‘cos he says we’re a coach party. So I backed over his fence, accidental like, on the way out. The cops had us for criminal damage. Got a conditional discharge.’

Jaz wonders how many hospital visits it takes to cure a conditional discharge and I tell Wayne how Dai….wants the bus back pronto.

The story is packed with information, coming in from all angles, but it’s clearly told. There’s a nice mix of conversation, description and action. So I settle on the back of the narrator’s Z1000 in the Saturday sunshine, taking in the scenery, as…

We set off up the mountain and at the top I’m in front, revelling in the way the Z1000 powers up the gradients, when I see a dead sheep, lying at the side of the road. Fair-sized corpse, but definitely a lamb, not one of the scrawny ewes.

I flag the others down. There’s no one else on the road.

‘This fella weren’t here when we came across,’ I say. ‘Did you see him?’

‘He weren’t here,’ says Mitch. ‘We’d have noticed.’

Jaz props the Guzzi and squats down to take a dekko. Barbecue, I’m beginning to think.

‘How long you reckon he’s been dead?’ I say.

Once the three lads have established how fresh it is (and really, you have to read that bit!), it’s only a question of how to get the body home without anyone noticing.

We can’t cruise into town with a dead tup behind us, even with a jacket on it won’t fool anyone.


Our boys may operate in the shadow of the law, but there are rules.
Wayne and the narrator seem to agree that something needs to be done for Jaz.

…it’s out of order to thump a lad, and want his bike off him as well.

Jaz, it turns out, is feeling rougher than we noticed.

He’s suddenly looking very weary. He’s holding his shoulders funny, and where the side of his helmet’s been pressed against his cheek-bone it’s made a dent in one of the purple bruises.

It’s not accidental that it’s taken until now for that to sink in. Our narrator has been delivering such a lot of other distracting material, all at the same time, that we may have become as complacent as he has been.

I’m not giving the game away if I say the two lads from Tredegar are perfect villains. They are focused on their goal, forcing our protagonists to act. I’m so caught up by the stylish narration, by the swift shifts in tone and the vivid dialogue I accept them.

This is a story where style carries us along. The narrative voice is chatty, and layered with humour.

The question of how to convey class or background through speech is tricky. Make it too colloquial and it creates difficulties for the reader, taking attention away from the story as we struggle to make sense of abbreviations and implied intonations. Merriman uses the arrangement of the sentences and some strongish language, rather than dropped consonants or vowels.

To tell you more would deliver spoilers. This is a tightly woven story, a mere ten pages long. It never falters. The pace slows and speeds, but doesn’t hesitate.

Six degrees of literary separation: from Atonement to Demon Lover.

This week I’m joining in with a reading meme run by Kate, on the booksaremyfavouriteandbest blog. What is a meme? The dictionary says:

an image, video, piece of text, etc, typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.

I’ll let Kate explain:

The meme was inspired by Hungarian writer and poet Frigyes Karinthy. In his 1929 short story, Chains, Karinthy coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’. The phrase was popularised by a 1990 play written by John Guare, which was later made into a film starring Stockard Channing. Since then, the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by just six links has been explored in many ways… And now it’s a meme for readers.

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

Here are the rules:

6degrees-rulesThis month’s starter-title is, Atonement, by Ian McEwan.  I’m adapting the rules, and creating my chain from short stories.

borden-600x445My first link, is ‘Blind‘, by Mary Borden. I came across it in The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, but it was originally published in 1929.  Blind draws from Borden’s behind-the-lines nursing experiences.  In it, the nurse narrator treats a soldier with a serious head wound.  It reminded me of Atonement so strongly, that I had to skim through the novel again.  Sure enough, Briony Tallis experiences a similar situation, though with contrasting outcome and intention.

Bayswater Omnibus, George William Joy 1895Mary Borden had been a suffragette, so too was Evelyn Sharp.  Link two is her story, ‘In Dull Brown’, written in 1896.  It describes a flirtation between a ‘modern’ working girl, and a professional gentleman.  Imagine yourself into the historical context, and it is a subversive and involving argument about the obstacles faced by respectable women who wished to have a career.

On first glance though, ‘In Dull Brown’ is tame stuff (hence the title), just like, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel‘, by Katherine Mansfield.  I remember reading it when I was about fifteen. I’d heard Mansfield was an amazing writer, but I couldn’t understand the story. Why did it end like that?  What was it saying about the death of their father? Years later I tried again, and found an old, and previously undervalued friend, waiting for me to catch up.

Thinking of loss, and friendship, takes me to ‘Friend of My Youth’ by Alice Munro. The anonymous narrator tells the story of her mother’s relationship with Flora, using letters, dreams and memories.  It pushes us to consider how far we can ever know anyone.

As does, the penultimate title in my chain, Elizabeth Taylor’s, ‘The Letter Writers’. Can a man and a woman be friends without becoming lovers?  Read this one too fast and you’re liable to miss the layers.  It’s subtle, and wry.

My final link involves letters and a former lover, or rather fiancé.  Elizabeth Bowen’s, Demon Lover sends a shiver down my spine every time I return to it.  To say more, would give too much away, you need to read it.  Coincidentally, like a large part of Atonement, it’s set in London, during the second World War.

Six degrees from Atonement and I’m close to the place I started from, where, I wonder would you be?

When, and how, do I say goodbye to a book?

My Penguin copy of VS Pritchett Collected Short stories is disintegrating.  It’s well read, and is a 1982 reprint, so some might say it’s had it’s day. Every time I open it pages flutter around my feet, and they’re not designed for independence, so the loose leaves are getting brittle.

disintigrating book.2 jpgI’m not good at throwing books out.  Passing them along is one thing: destroying them quite another.  I’ve listed my reasons in this case, but prioritising has been tricky.

First, Pritchett has not yet been recognised with a ‘retrospective’, even though The Royal Society of Literature have been awarding a £1000 short story prize in his name since ‘the beginning of the new millennium’ (I’m afraid you’ve just missed this year’s deadline, maybe next year?).  Without reprints, even fragments of his writing have especial value.

Point one-A:

“There are worse crimes than burning books.  One of them is not reading them.” – Ray Bradbury.

Second, several stories in this copy are not repeated in the three other Pritchett collections I own, or in any of my twentieth century story anthologies. So, I’d need to trawl the second-hand market for the missing ones, which are in at least three other Pritchett collections.  My short-story shelves are already overflowing, therefore I’d need another shelf…

Point Two-A

” The oldest books are still only just out to those who have not read them.” ~Samuel Butler, 1835 – 1902

Hmm, I’d discover more of his stories, and gain a shelf: that means more book space.

Point Two-B

Pritchett collections are scarce, and I’m afraid to report that – don’t look, Ruth, unless you’ve removed your bookseller hat, this will distress you –  one of the copies bought for the course I’m just completing was sold WITH PAGES MISSING.  I suppose a few gaps are less tricky in collected short stories than in a novel, then maybe pulping, or (gulp) burning can be justified.  But what do we do with still-complete fragmenting books?

Point Two-C:

“It is there, where they burn books, that eventually they burn people.”  ― Heinrich Heine 1797 – 1856

Point Two-D:

“It hardly matters why a library is destroyed: every banning, curtailment, shredding, plunder or loot gives rise (at least as a ghostly presence) to a louder, clearer, more durable library of the banned, looted, plundered, shredded or curtailed.”  ― Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night. 2008

Thought three carries a warning for sensitive, book-purists: my Pritchett contains multi-coloured highlighted sections, plus both pencilled and penned notes in the margins. This is not random vandalism, each mark signals appreciation.  I suppose, in time, I could replicate those responses in other copies, but would they still mean the same things?

Point Three-A

“[I]t is pleasanter to eat one’s own peas out of one’s own garden, than to buy them by the peck at Covent Garden; and a book reads the better, which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots and dog’s-ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins, or over a pipe…  – Charles Lamb, letter to S. T. Coleridge, October 1802

disintigrating bookConclusion:  Do loose pages matter, so long as I keep them together?  I’ve a pot of elastic bands, I could combine them with my distressed books and solve two recycling problems. Perhaps that new shelf I mentioned will be a refuge for delicate books.

“I have friends whose society is delightful to me; they are persons of all countries and of all ages; distinguished in war, in council, and in letters; easy to live with, always at my command.” – Francesco Petrarch, 1304 – 1374

“Far more seemly were it for thee to have thy study full of books, than thy purse full of money.” ~John Lyly, 1553 – 1606

“What wild desires, what restless torments seize
The hapless [wo]man, who feels the book-disease…” ~John Ferriar, “The Bibliomania, An Epistle, To Richard Heber, Esq.”, 1809

disintigrating books

Thoughts on some Agatha Christie short stories.

Ag christie regatta_mysteryMy copy of, The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, claims that Agatha Christie is ‘The Queen of Mystery’, and I’m inclined to believe that might be a fair assessment.  How many other writers have won the esteem of such a vast raft of readers over so many decades?  I can think of only a handful.

Most authors who have had time in the limelight eventually drift out of fashion, even in the second-hand market.  Some will be picked up again by publishers who specialise in reminding us of neglected, but worthwhile reads, many more will fade.  That’s fine, it has to be, or where is the room for new writers?

Agatha Christie, though, seems to have a special place in this system.  I’m not going to claim she’s universally loved or admired.  I’ve met plenty of people, including readers of mystery, who don’t rate her for various reasons. Still, her books continue to be published, and bought.  Last time I saw my friend Ruth, the bookseller, she told me Christie was one of her most asked for authors.

So, what’s the trick?  I think Christie is like a good quality bar of chocolate: comforting.  In her novels we’re in fairly safe hands.  The murdered are usually people we either don’t know, or aren’t sure we like, and the solution is generally tricky to predict.  We might be able to identify romances in the making, but you’ve got to be a careful reader to assemble the crime-clues correctly.

Romance might be the key.  Characters, generally with forgivable flaws, are gradually revealed to be secretly falling for someone who seems to be unsuitable.  Often they mistakenly suspect the object of their attention is the guilty party, and are conflicted about providing vital evidence. In the process of discovering this, they learn something about themselves.

Oh dear, how cynical I sound.  But, break any story down, and doesn’t it become flat? In a Christie novel main characters, even the caricatures, are not flat.  They have quirky dialogue, or entertaining mannerisms. They’re active and interesting, digging up red-herrings to keep me guessing.

In the past, I’ve read a lot of Christie’s short and long fiction.  As I contemplated the Harper/Collins paperback I thought about why I’ve preferred her novels.  Had I given the short-stories a fair read?  I flicked a couple of pages over.  Nothing else had caught my eye, and this paperback was less than a pound. Reader, I bought it.

I’d like to be able to say I had a revelation, but I don’t want to mislead you.  The stories are nicely written.  Setting and situation are delivered economically.  There’s snappy dialogue, tight plotting with twists that I mostly didn’t foresee, and neat solutions.  So, I’ve been asking myself, ‘why don’t I like them?’

In general, these felt dated, and irrelevant in a way that her novels don’t.  The novels draw me in gently, settle me into situations far outside of my experience, whether that means a smart ‘otel on a private island, an archaeological dig in a desert, or dinner at a crumbling stately home.  There are introductions, a chance to find my feet.

The short stories dropped me into an upper-middle-class 1930s world, often with characters I’d never met before.  Four of the stories featured Poirot. ‘Phew,’ I thought, ‘throw me a life-buoy, Hastings, old chap, will you? Please?’  He tried.  Miss Marple tried too.  I couldn’t adjust.  I tried to think myself into the period.  These, after all, were not written with an eye to the future. It felt like hard-work.

Sometimes a lot of characters tried to hold my attention, in others several significant doors were opened or shut in the same paragraph. The focus was on the puzzle, and some puzzles seemed big for the space they occupied.

Was there one story I liked? I’m afraid not: there were fragments.

‘Problem at Pollena Bay’ came closest.  The premise was so simple I actually worked out the solution, but the characterisation was strong.

Am I sorry I read them?  No, I learnt a lot by working out what I didn’t like.   I’m not sure I need to re-read them, though I’ve not given up on Christie’s short stories.  Apparently she wrote over 100.  I’ve a long way to go.

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?

What else is there to know?

‘Are you teaching the first world war now, then?’ said Eric, as he helped me gather up the papers I’d scattered across his kitchen table while I was child-minding.

Book cover‘Well I was,’ I said, ‘earlier in the autumn… in a way.  We were discussing short stories about the first world war. It’s a course I don’t get to do very often, which is a shame.  It’s such a great anthology, and I can’t seem to persuade many groups to do it, even though next year will be the anniversary of the armistice.’

‘I suppose,’ said Eric, ‘there are so many books and diaries from those times that there’s not much need to read more on the subject.’

‘Oh, but stories aren’t exactly about the knowable facts,’ I said.  ‘We don’t talk individual battles, or much about the trenches.  These are imaginative responses to experiences.’

‘Everything’s been said, though, hasn’t it?’ said Eric.

I paused, as always struggling to find a way to explain the joys of cracking open a short story, when not actually discussing a specific example.  ‘Do you think so?’ I said.  ‘There are so many ways it impacted, not just on the people who were at the front, but at home, then and later.’

‘Maybe,’ he said, as he walked me to the door.

I know that ‘maybe’.

Eric reads a lot.  He likes history, biography and novels and I share some of that taste, so sometimes we swop books.  He’s not a great talker though.  If I ask, ‘What did you think?’ he uses one of three basic responses: ‘it was okay’;  ‘that one was a bit of a struggle’ or ‘I got a couple of pages in and couldn’t be bothered’.