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’.

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.

Discovered: Pietro Grossi, writer.

fist-by-pietro-grossiI begin with a big THANK YOU to Fiona, who passed Fists on to me.  Fists being a book of three stories by the Italian writer, Pietro Grossi.  Not, I hasten to add, in the original language, but in a translation by Howard Curtis.

Having just finished the final story, I feel I’ve been to Italy.  Not skimming across the surfaces that tourism offers, you understand, I’ve experienced the world as lived by three Italian men, and it wasn’t what I expected.

Yes it was macho, there was boxing, there were horses and blood-letting, but there was also variety and insights.  I found passages I wished I had written.  Look at this, ‘He was like a Greek statue in motion, with the same rigid still perfection.’

I wasn’t sure which centuries all three stories were describing.  Horses might have been in the last one, or maybe the one before that.  It didn’t matter, I was in that valley accepting that the most technological innovation mentioned was a shotgun.

In these versions of Italy the women were mostly shadowy, even when exerting power.  Seen from a male perspective, maternal influences are questionable, maybe a challenge.  Yet, in the absence of a mother, what happens to two small boys and their father?  What kind of men will the boys turn into?

Reading Boxing, reminded me of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch.  Despite the fact that I know only as much about either football or boxing as any media savvy person absorbs by accident, I read every jargon-laden word of both texts.  Why?  I think it was the enthusiasm of the narrators, who not only hooked me, they swept me along with them.  I’m still not a fan of either sport, but I’d be happy to read both again. Besides, don’t make the mistake of imagining either story is entirely about sport, both are character driven.

Here are the opening lines of Grossi’s short story:

Let’s get this straight: I really liked the whole boxing thing.

I don’t know what it was, whether it was the sense of security or the awareness that I was doing something the way it should be done.  Maybe both, maybe also the terrific feeling that there was a place where I had what it takes, where I could fight on equal terms.

It quickly becomes apparent that our narrator is a nerdy adolescent boy.

One day, I told my mother I hated the piano.  Music was fundamental, she said, it gave you discipline.  Discipline.  Why discipline?  I was the most disciplined child in the world.  I was so disciplined, I’d almost vanished from the face of the earth.

Before you start guessing about the significance of this domineering mother, read this segment:

Six months later, I was dancing in that ring like a ballerina and scattering straight lefts like summer hailstones.  It was undeniable: even though no one had ever seen a boxer with a more unsuitable body, it was as if I was born to be up there.  And since I’d started training, my piano playing had improved, too, and I was even starting to like that bastard Beethoven.

fists-by-pietro-grossiAt this point there are forty-one pages of story still to be told.  They’re full of incident, detail, character development and introspection.   I forgot I was reading until I turned the last page and found myself musing over the last line.  I put the book down, feeling a little lost, now that I had to leave ‘the dancer’ behind.  I needn’t have worried, as you can probably tell, I think he’s staying with me for a while yet.

Before I pass this book on to it’s next reader, I may revisit those three stories.  Meanwhile, I’ve added Pietro Grossi to my list of authors to look out for.  If you haven’t come across him before, maybe he’s someone for you to look out for too.

 

 

You want to write? Dare to dream.

creating-charactersSitting on the decking at our Dartmoor holiday cottage, overlooking a verdant village, on a balmy September afternoon, I chatted across the fence with our temporary neighbour, Janet.  ‘You’ve got to enjoy your work,’ she said.  ‘I loved being a care assistant.  Going home at night knowing that you’d made at least one person smile that day.’

Janet’s a doer.  She’s just finished redecorating her hall, and is about to mow her lawn.  The garden is immaculate, and colourfully planted.  She’s always busy.  Tonight is quiz night, it’s, ‘a bit of a laugh, I go with my sister, she lives in the next village, so I pick her up.  She can’t get about much, with her hips.’

Janet’s a fiction, a character I’m putting together as I write.  She has a story I want to tell, but I don’t know it yet.  The things I do know are accumulating.  Some of them contradict what I thought I knew, and so I’m adapting my ideas.  For instance, her hair has fluffed out from short to long, from neat to artfully dyed and sculpted. Perhaps you think it doesn’t matter about something so superficial, and maybe I won’t be including that information in the final version of the story I write.  But I need to know it.

Janet is not a figment of my imagination, I’m dreaming her into existence.  I care about her, and the things that she cares about, and if I do this well, when I’m finished she may make you smile too.  This evening, when she comes out of the back door, in her black lace blouse, sharp black trousers and her neatly painted face, you will glance up from the Devon Life magazine you’ve been flicking through as you wait for your tea to barbecue, and wave.  ‘Good luck,’ you will call.

Janet will give a cheek-lifting smile, and hurry across the firm dry lawn to ask what’s cooking.  ‘Smell’s good,’ she’ll say, rising on tiptoes to look over the fence. ‘What are you planning for tomorrow?  Weather’s looking kind.’

She’s taking her granddaughter into Exeter in the morning, for a hearing test.  ‘But I expect I’ll see you in the evening.  Don’t get lost on the moor, or go shaking hands with any ghosts.’  Then she’ll adjust her hot pink pashmina around her shoulders and hurry down the garden to her honeysuckle covered car-port.  Her white blonde hair glows in the dusky shadows as she moves round to the drivers door.

From the decking we watch her drive out of the cul-de-sac and onto the narrow lane.

 

 

 

 

Radio Tales.

Some of the writers from my groups have been taking advantage of an invitation from the Writers’ Room for local writers to read their stories on Corinium Radio.

Unless you live in Gloucestershire you’ve probably never dreamed such a broadcast existed.  I do live in the county, and didn’t realize until I was forwarded the email calling for contributors to volunteer for a short story slot in the schedule.  Since this discovery I’ve been tuning in and enjoying an eclectic range of subjects, styles and approaches.

So why don’t you check it out too?  It’s available on-line as well as via the air-waves.

corinium radioI’m looking forward to more stories, over the next week or two.

Perhaps you should also check out your local radio stations and see if they have similar opportunities.  If they haven’t, it still might be worth approaching them with the idea…

It’s all too easy to get locked into thinking the only way to share our words is through the printed media, but the truth is there’s a whole other world of performance opportunities out there for prose people, from slams to story-telling events to internet podcasts.

Reports from the first recordings have been trickling back to me full of positive vibes.  Scary but fantastic, is what they say.  I say, what a buzz.

Heard any good stories lately?

KuchaleeWe’re at a local fete.  Lots of people drifting round stalls, greeting, sipping tea and eating cake in a sunny vicarage garden.  The story teller wanders in.  He wears a big woolly hat and bright, Caribbean style beach clothes.  He carries a drum.  Heads turn, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

He settles on a low stool under a broad leafy tree, crosses his legs around the drum and taps out a soft, regular, rhythm.  Children pause and turn to look.

The Story-teller speaks, just loudly enough to be heard above his drumming.  ‘The Mosquito,’ he says, ‘had a beautiful yam.’  An audience begins to form.  With a gesture, the Story-teller encourages them to settle around his feet.

His drumming builds into a crescendo, then dies away and he says, ‘The Mosquito boasted about his beautiful yam to everyone.  They were so impressed that they all came to his house to taste some.’

His audience has expanded to include adults, standing.  A few are parents, waiting within reach, but they’re listening too, to the story of a boastful mosquito.

The Storyteller slaps at his drum and calls out in the neighbour’s voices, ‘Let us in, Mr Mosquito, and share some of your wonderful yam.’  His drumming softens and, he tells us, ‘Mr Mosquito was terrified.  He stayed behind the door pretending to be out, but the neighbours wouldn’t go away.’

The Storyteller pounds at his drum and raises his voice.  He says, ‘They said, “We know you are in there, Mr Mosquito.  Why do you not answer us?”’

The Storyteller drums soft and fast, and his voice drops.  ‘Mr Mosquito said, “Zzzzzzz.”

“What?”’ The Storyteller calls out above the heavy beating of his drum. “What is that you say?”

The Storyteller pauses, and into our silence he loudly sibilants, “Zzzzz.”

We are all wide-eyed.  I am vaguely aware of the fete, busy behind us, but, what is going to happen now?

Our understanding of the shape of a tale is something we practice from the moment we learn to communicate.  Once we can begin to say, this is what I want to do, or this is what I have done, or even that he or she did to me, we are putting together narratives.  If we’re lucky, someone has already been regularly reading to us, or even telling us stories.

The traditional stories I grew up with, European tales, were sculpted for the page. Stories from other cultures often don’t work in the way we’re used to.

Kulchalee, The Storyteller, drew his story to a close in one line: ‘And that is all Mosquito ever said again.’kulchalee

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.

I’d like to recommend…

…Roald Dahl.  He never seems to have gone out of favour in the children’s market, but when was the last time you tried one of his adult short stories?

Most of them were televised for the long-running Tales of the Unexpected (TOTU)show.  That series made quite an impact when it first aired, in 1979.

It wasn’t just the catchy tune, with its suggestion of sex, violence and the supernatural, the stories were, as the title makes clear, cleverly twisted.  They were a challenge, a tale that seemed to be moving towards an inevitable conclusion only to be turned on its head at the last moment.

It seemed like the whole country must have been tuning in for them.  ‘Did you see..?’ we asked each other in school, at work and on the street. ‘Did you work it out?’

We were fascinated, hooked by the package. What would happen; how could the character possibly overcome their crisis?  It was great entertainment.  For a while it seemed like we couldn’t get enough.  Series two and three followed.  At first they were all Dahl’s stories, but gradually other writers of the same vein were introduced.

In those early weeks some of us were so fascinated that we bought the books and read ahead.  Even when I knew the outcome I watched them.  It didn’t matter that the situations and settings seemed to be looking backwards, so much of what was on our TVs was doing that in less entertaining ways.

What worked for TOTU were the twists.  Even though we knew they were coming, most of the sudden reversals were neatly set up rather than tricks.  The clues were embedded in the early stages of the story as casual asides, snippets of information that seemed no more than added colour, until the conclusion was achieved.

Take Parson’s Pleasure, a story about Mr Boggis, an antique dealer who ‘always bought cheap, very very cheap, and sold very very dear.’  His clients are those who lived in, ‘comparatively isolated places…large farmhouses and …rather dilapidated country mansions’.  Because these sorts of people are a ‘suspicious lot’, Mr Boggis decides to disguise himself as a Parson.  He carries a business card:

                                      THE REVEREND

                            CYRIL WINNINGTON BOGGIS

President of the Society                                In association with

for the Preservation of                                      The Victoria and

Rare Furniture                                                     Albert Museum.

to give his story credibility and is careful never to park his large car where his victims might see it, as it wouldn’t fit the character of an impoverished and respectable Reverend.

The story begins with Mr Boggis driving along enjoying the beauty of the countryside.  His name, you’ll note, is remarkably close to the word ‘Bogus’.  He is full of optimism.  The weather is suggestive of a good summer to come, and the village he’s heading for is easily reconnoitered because it’s in a valley below the road he’s approaching it on.  From his high vantage point he can map out in advance which houses to try, and see the best place to park his car conveniently close but out of sight.  He has, it seems, an almost omniscient vantage point, and starts from a position of power, in that he is keyed up with his past successes.

While he can see only opportunity, we, the reader, are already anticipating a reversal.  It’s a beautifully layered opening.  Dahl has arranged all the information we need before us, neatly interspersing the necessary exposition (explanations) between segments of action so that the narration moves us forward in neat arcs of drama.  I won’t spoil the ending, if you don’t know the story.  Read it, or watch it.  You can do either on the internet.  I can give you the Youtube copy, but you’ll need to use a search engine if you want the text, as I can’t seem to upload it.

I hope you do read it.  Wonderful as the dramatized version is, the benefits for the writer come from looking at it in word form.  Only then can you fully appreciate Roald Dahl’s artistry.

The twist-in-the-tail story has a long and chequered history.  While several writers have excelled at them for a while, many have floundered.  I think this one is a fine example of what it takes to write them successfully, but be warned, write too many of the same strain and you’ll soon wear out the reader or viewer.

The TOTU series may have stretched over nine sets of series, but I suspect I was not the only viewer who was drifting away long before they were halfway through those years of shows.  Even the unpredictable becomes, in a sense, predictably unpredictable if the template isn’t varied occasionally.