Appreciating Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.

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.’

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

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.



What future for the written word?

DSCF6479I’m told that no one writes letters anymore, and so I log into facebook to see where my friends are, and what they’re doing. It’s all on-line, from the mundane to the wonderful, along with appropriate headlines.  Has the internet been beneficial?

Well, we’ve become a race of witticists, it seems. Posts are bounced back, forth and across as we match or transcend quips.  All those, ‘You know you’re….’ starters that we contribute to.

Who needs editors and influence? Anyone with a media link can join – which opens up opportunities that would have been undreamt of for most of us in previous decades.

Thinking along family history lines, I’m wondering what our descendants will feel though, sifting through our digital trails. The stories behind my likes, favourites and shares are complicated by loyalties, genuine feeling, good manners, ignorance and enlightenment.  What I read is only partially covered by the on-line evidence: what I learn is even less so.

Surely, though, growing up with the language of social-media will mean that future generations develop a method of reading between our lines. Someone will adapt and develop a methodology.  I foresee seminars and thesis creating lines of argument, and theory to be applied to the clouds we’re creating.

Because whether we intend to or not, aren’t we creating ourselves as flash-fictions every time we turn the screen on?

Writing or Typing?

I had a letter from a friend on thursday.  She usually emails, but she said that she thought it would be interesting to write without having access to cut, copy and paste or the delete button.

At this end of the process there was a sort of childish excitement about the arrival of a handwritten envelope.  It was not my birthday and too early to be a Christmas card.  Besides, it obviously contained several pages.

It was a lovely letter on several levels.  I knew that my friend had started out with a plan of what she would write.  There was a beginning, a middle and an end.  What made it special was the emotion she expressed.  Her thoughts were not deleted, or edited, they flowed from one subject to the next as a stream-of-consciousness: beautifully, poignantly.

I like sending and receiving emails.  I like to think that I’ve successfully transferred my letter voice through to the electronic medium.  Even when sending business communications, I’m prone to personal observations and pleasantries, despite knowing that I’m supposed to follow the format of a memo, and aim for brevity.  But I am also aware that email is a self-conscious form of writing.  I edit and adapt as I create, just as I would for fiction, looking for repetitions and anomalies, and swapping paragraphs round to create a better flow.

On the page, I write around my mistakes.  I use fiction strategies like flashbacks to shift through events.  Or if my writing gets away from me, I adapt my plot: I might find another way to say what I had planned, or, if something more interesting has come up, I’ll let go of the original plan altogether.  Quite often I write things I did not expect to.

I suppose what my friend’s letter reminded me was that when I want to get to the heart of something I always return to paper.  So I shall not be replying with an email, I’m off now to blow the dust off my writing pad and sort out my favourite pen.